I Was Thinking About Guilford Today ...
Bert Puckett, 2nd South Carolina Regiment
I was thinking about Guilford today. It really got me down, thinking about it. The interesting thing is what got me out of it.
We walked back into Camp Eggers after being at the ANA Air corps Airfield, trying to come up with a technique to rappel out of a Soviet Mi-17 without killing someone. The day was a drizzly mess. Rain, in this country, turns an already colorless landscape into a deeper shade of khaki. The mud permeates everything; you can't seem to escape getting it on you wherever you go. The cold only makes the day that much drearier. I was thinking about my family in Greensboro this weekend at the reenactment of Guilford Courthouse, and it only made my mood a little darker for the fact that I couldn't be there.
I walked past my AF Senior Master Chief's desk and he said that the camp band, in which he played lead guitar, would be playing tonight at the clam shell by the AAFEE's Coffee house. He asked me if I would come out and support them. "Sure," I said. "Music might be just the thing I need tonight."
He laughed and said, "Kabul starting to get you huh?"
"No," I lied. "Just a crappy day."
I called my wife at about 1830 local, which is about 0900 EST. When she answered I could hear the fire popping in the background and could picture her alternately bending over the fire to turn bacon or stirring a big pan of scrambled eggs, all the while wiping the tears from the smoke out of her eyes, along with a loose strand of hair straying from under her cap. She passed the phone around the camp so I could talk to a few of the people that make up my very strange extended family. I savored hearing them talk about what was happening at the event, and how many vehicles got stuck in the mud while they set up camp. In the middle of talking to them, two had to run off to the Commanders' Meeting. So I talked to my wife a bit longer, and finally got off the phone and reflected on how much I missed all of them.
After a fairly short time of feeling sorry for myself, I went to the chow hall to get whatever slop was being served. The fact that they were serving corned beef and cabbage reminded me that it was St. Patrick's Day. St Patrick's Day and Guilford Courthouse in one weekend, and me in Kabul. Great. Nothing like slapping myself back down the rabbit hole of "poor little me" and making myself hate the day even worse.
Music is what I needed. So, down to the other side of camp I walked. The drizzle lightened up to nothing and I actually could see a star or two. I could already hear the band warming up when I rounded the corner toward the "Clamshell."
The "clamshell" is a large frame tent that can be used as a small hanger or a motor pool garage. In this case, it is used as a meeting place, a conference room and a chapel on Sunday. Tonight it is a concert hall for "Commander Solo and the FUBAR fighters."
The band was playing its first song as I walked around the corner. The version of the Rolling Stones "Satisfaction" was recognizable, at least. I walked into the coffee shop across the street and bought a medium coffee. I then went in to the open end of the clam shell to lift my spirits with a little music. Since the lead Guitar works for me I pulled out my camera and took a few shoots for him and even tried out the video feature.
Then I walked out side to throw my coffee cup away.
There was a fire.
I guess one of the contractors in camp had made it. It was built in a large, square, iron brazier that could fit an entire wood packing pallet at once. Around the fire was a ring of people in various uniforms. Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force mingled in with civilian contractors in civilian cloths. Everyone was drinking free non-alcoholic "Beck's" beer. Now, I really am no fan of "Beck's," and I am really not a fan of non-alcoholic beer. But it was BEER. And there was a fire. The two just seemed to go together, at least in my mind. So I grabbed one and sat down in one of the old rusty patio chairs that probably was shipped here by the Russians, and stared into the roaring fire.
I sat listening to the music. The band was playing Clapton, "I feel wonderful tonight."
I sat thinking about all the fires I had known, and why I was drawn to this one. The feeling of staring into the fire suddenly made me feel safe and comfortable. The first fire I remember being like this was when I was very small. An ice storm hit Columbia and the power shut down. The inside of the house was like an ice box. I remember standing at the sliding glass door in our living room wondering why Momma wouldn't let me play in the snow. Well, I know now it was because it was sleet. I remember watching her split a few pieces of wood in the ice while I entertained my brother and sister. Then the fire, the glorious fire that warmed the whole room. The three of us slept in the den that night on the floor next to it. I remember it as great adventure: Camping In The Den.
The band played "867-5309."
Then there was the fire that I wasn't supposed to have. I was in Ranger School in Florida Phase. We had been walking all night, which was pretty normal for Ranger school. The Ranger Instructors were as tired as we were, and maybe almost as frustrated. My Ranger Buddy and I were soaked to the bone and it was a nice, balmy 45 degrees. I suggested that we start a fire and maybe we could at least have a dry pair of socks and maybe a t-shirt. He was shocked at the suggestion and told me that if I got caught, "You are on your own." I thought about it long and hard - for about 30 seconds. Then I pulled out my Army Issue E-tool and started digging. The hole was as wide as the blade and as deep as the e-tool. I made two chimneys for air, then piled as much dry wood as I could break off in the bottom and lit it with torn-up MRE boxes. I took pine straw and covered the chimneys up to try to disperse the smoke. Once I got it started, I sat with my legs crossed Indian style and wrapped my poncho around me to cover it up and not let any of the heat or light out. In 30 minutes I was dry and warm. The only problem I had was trying to stay awake. I can still hear the RI talking to his partner. "Do you smell smoke?" and walking around the patrol base trying to find the source.
As I looked around the fire, what struck me the most was the faces. Everyone was smiling and laughing, and in the dark you couldn't tell that the beer was non-alcoholic. That took me to the thousands of reenactments, in a thousand different camps. The images that rolled through my head were overwhelming.
The smell of wool impregnated with smoke.
The sound of bacon frying and popping.
The loud, stern voices of any number of women, running me away from the "kitchen."
"It'll be ready when it's ready!"
Faces long past, and present, laughing and telling jokes.
Filling a beer mug and drinking deeply. Then doing it again and again.
Lessons taught and learned that a classroom couldn't hold.
Your body warm on one side freezing on another.
Cider and spiced rum heated with a red hot poker.
Pat's really silly, white, Rabbit fur hat. "The white side is so people don't trip over me when I pass out in the company street."
The band started in on "Sweet home Alabama" and I thought to myself, "Now, that's just not fair." But the images kept flooding over me.
Walking from fire to fire, camp to camp on a Friday and being welcomed as a long absent family member.
The sound of fifes and drums in the distance, the low thrumming of a guitar.
A burst of involuntary laughter in the fire light, sincere in its origin.
The taste of hard liquor for the first time, stolen while I thought no one was looking.
The vision of bodies wrapped in blankets, rolled up as close to the fire as possible on a blistering cold night.
The band was playing "Pretty Woman." More Van Halen than Roy Orbison, but not bad. The rain started again. A slow drizzle, but I didn't really care. It made more memories flow over me.
The smoke from many fires, on a damp cool morning, hanging close to the ground.
Gathering the courage to jump out of my blankets and run to fire. But looking out of tent to make sure it was roaring first.
The picture of my little sister trying to thaw out her frozen hair while standing in the freezing rain and sleet in Annapolis.
Either of my sons on my lap, passed out from exhaustion after a day of assaulting the hay bale fort with the other children of our strange hobby, 500 times that day.
Tears of joy.
Tears of grief.
Soul-cleansing stories of pain and suffering, in war time. Side-splitting stories of military life that only the ones that have done it really "get."
Drunks falling into the fire.
"SHUT UP AND GO TO BED!!!!"
I looked and smiled as Sgt Stokes walked up to me. He is a good kid, a paratrooper from the 82nd that was in my BN. Last time we were here.
"What's up, SGM?"
I smile up at him. "Not much, bud. How're you doin' tonight?"
"You know SGM, living the dream."
"Yep," I said, "it is hard to believe we get paid for this shit sometimes, huh?"
He looked at me funny. "SGM, you got something in your eye?"
"No man it's just the smoke. It makes my eyes water like that all the time. I am just enjoying the music and staring at the fire. You want one of these make-believe beers?"
"No," he said, "I am gonna get out of the rain."
I looked around and realized I was the only one left sitting there. The fire was being slowly smothered by the soft drizzle of rain. I was wet, again. I stood up and drained the dregs of the really nasty, wanna-be beer and said, "Well bud, you have a good night. I will see ya tomorrow." Then gave him my best, happy, shit-eating grin. He gave me the cursory, "Roger SGM, take it easy." I looked back at him and said, "Shit bud, it don't get no easier than this."
But as I left the fire, I couldn't help but think what an awesome bed of coals that would be in the morning to cook on. I resisted the urge to bank them so they would last through the night.
I walked back to my room with the stark reality of being back in Afghanistan smacking me full in the face, shaking me out of the dreams I had been living while awake. But I was smiling.
A good fire will do that, it will make you smile.
Copyright © 2007 Bert Puckett. All rights reserved.