Shadow of a Soldier

IT HADN’T RAINED in weeks. The humidity was awful. We needed one of those apocalyptic Georgia thunderstorms from my childhood rolling down the Savannah River, thunder shaking the low red hills and terrifying bolts of lightning stabbing the earth. I was back in the red clay hills of home. But I had never felt so far from home in my life.

Across the highway, like a midday mirage from a parallel universe, a barbecue shack lay in deep shadow beneath dense oak trees. Bright neon beer signs twinkled in the shade. A thread of country music drifted on the hot breeze. Life looked normal over there.

There was no shade where I was. The sun beat down mercilessly. Red dust from the tank trail grimed my sweaty face, irritated the edges of my eyes and plastered to my sweat-soaked cotton shirt. Any sensible native of this land, like those across the road in the bar, was taking cover and waiting for evening to go outside. But I had no choice. Neither did the files of sweating silent men trudging with me. All of us were dressed alike in sodden olive drab aptly named fatigues.

My shadow on the burning ground was the shadow of a soldier.

The shadow rifle on my shoulder was canted to clear the helmet shadow. Our shadows moved unevenly over rutted and gouged ridges, the spoor of tracked metal dinosaurs laid down in wet weather and hardened into red cement by the unforgiving sun. It made for difficult walking.

We trudged down a hill where a thin black sparkle of creek water crossed the track. Somebody in the other column broke ranks and scampered down. Then a second. I waited for a sergeant’s bellow that did not come. Then I saw why: it was two Colombians destined for command back home, who had been attached to us for Basic Training. The sergeants weren’t sure how to treat them so they left them alone.

They moved light and fast in the enervating heat, squatted to fill their inverted helmets with creek water and slapped them back on their heads. Water cascaded down them, an instant shower. They jogged back to position with the smiles of happy children. The rest of us didn’t break stride or speak. There clearly wasn’t much about survival the Army could teach them when they knew tricks like that. I bet their army had better sense than to march in midday heat this bad.

My own steel pot was like a broiler for my head, parboiling my brain in my own sweat. My eyes stung. My vision blurred. I had been scheduled for KP today. That appealed a lot more than an eight-mile round trip through hell. But the Army assigned too many to the kitchen. We drew straws before the company moved out. I lost. I had not dosed on required salt tablets, because I was going on KP. I was paying for it now.

Somebody barged into me. It was our very own Gomer Pyle from West Virginia, nicknamed the first week of Basic. I shoved angrily. Walk on your side of the road I snarled. He looked hurt. I am on my side, he said. And he was. How had I wandered across the whole damn trail? My side seemed far away. The tank trail was suddenly much wider than when we started. I listed heavily to port, as if the M-14 on my shoulder was dragging me over.

Abruptly my rifle was gone. I yelled Hey! A big arm went around my shoulders: Pete the Greek from Brooklyn. S’okay, I got it, he said. The middle of the trail was crowded all of a sudden: Pete, Gomer and the platoon sergeant. Everybody still trudged forward. But they were having a conference about me I was not invited to join. Platoon integrity, remember, the sergeant said. Everybody makes it or no weekend passes for anybody.

Gomer stripped off my web harness. Pete shouldered my rifle with his. Each took an arm. We marched right down the middle of the trail. Up ahead I saw a smudge of distant trees. Surely an illusion. But the illusion came closer. Almost there, Pete said.

The first shade we walked into hit me almost like a punch. The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees. I heard the platoon sergeant yell fall out, smoke ’em if you got ’em. I was flat on my back without knowing how. My wiry little captain looked down at me from a great height; he wasn’t more than five foot eight. Tough little guy who adorned his fatigues with airborne and ranger patches, and a combat infantryman’s badge. On his right shoulder a Special Forces patch to inform you where he was assigned when he earned the CIB.

“Didn’t take your salt tablets did you?” he said with some amusement from way up there in the blessed shade.

“I was on KP,” I croaked.

“Take ’em now. Where’s his canteen?” Gomer handed him my canteen. Somebody else handed him a handful of salt pills. They tasted awful. I choked them down in a couple gulps of water and then held a third swallow in my mouth the way I was taught before the Army. “Drink more,” the captain said. I did. It seemed wasteful but I was past arguing. “Okay, enough,” he said. “Brace yourself.”

He dumped my whole damned canteen over my chest. Water that was lukewarm before we started hit me like ice water in November. I gasped in shock. “Heat stroke,” he said. “Got to get your temperature down. You’ll be okay when the salt kicks in.”

Amazingly enough I was. When we moved out on the second half of our little jaunt I was already clear-headed and steady on my feet. The sun didn’t even seem as hot.

The captain jauntily showed his still perfectly starched fatigues to the platoon sergeant. “Haven’t even broken a sweat,” he said. Smart-alecky little bastard. But probably a good choice for turning civilians into punji-stick fodder.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.