See the man with the lonely eyes
Oh, take his hand, you’ll be surprised
“So, Todd, what’s your first choice of branch again?” my friend Sam asked before sipping her beer.
We were two serious party animals: a pair of ROTC nerds trying to have a quiet chat at a fraternity party on a Saturday night.
“Corps of Engineers,” I answered without hesitation. With an excellent rating after Advanced Camp this past summer, I should get my first choice. “You?”
“Aviation, even though it’s a long shot.” She shrugged; Sam hadn’t done as well, but she still rated above average. “I’ll likely get my second choice, which is Ordnance; it’d be a good fit for a mechanical engineer, too. Of course, we’ll be managers more than anything.”
I nodded while sipping my own beer.
Sam and I met at our ROTC battalion’s welcome events during Freshman Orientation. I was a four-year scholarship cadet, and they expected me to be there; she was walking by outside and thought rappelling off the building looked like fun. Events during Orientation were suitable for drawing in some who hadn’t considered ROTC; some stayed on to receive commissions four years later. Sam was one such student.
Once classes started, we ran into each other again in Engineering 101. She stood out as a female engineering student and as a beautiful six-foot-tall female. We clicked as friends right away and decided to join a freshman study group together.
She asked me plenty of questions about the military and ROTC after our classes and early study sessions. I suggested she talk to my battalion’s MS1 instructor – the officer who taught the first-year ROTC class – if she was serious. She could take the first two years of ROTC without obligation.
The others in our study group shook their heads when Sam decided to join ROTC two months into our freshman year. While her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with her choice, Sam earned a two-year ROTC scholarship in December of our sophomore year. That paid for her junior and senior years and made her decision more palatable to them – slightly.
“Your parents stop freaking out yet?” I asked.
She shook her head. “They’d just about accepted that I’ll spend four years in the Army after graduation before September 11th happened. They started freaking out all over again after the attacks, and now they won’t relax until I get out.”
September 11th. That day two months ago changed more than the course of our Army careers. At the start of our senior years, our futures became much more specific in a very unpleasant way.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Mom’s not too happy, either. I’m not sure if Dad being a veteran helped her deal with the reality or made it worse.”
“And your dad?”
“More philosophical about it than she is, even if as a parent it has him nervous.”
“You once told me he’s the reason you want to join the Army, right?”
“Yeah, he commanded an Engineer company during the Gulf War. So my time with the Engineers will give me some practical knowledge before I hit the civilian job market, too.”
Someone stepped between us and the room’s track lights, blotting them out like an eclipsing moon.
That’s no moon, I thought to myself.
When my eyes adjusted, I made out the unhappy face of Dan Lonergan, Sam’s current boyfriend. Unfortunately, his countenance didn’t improve even when Sam jumped up to hug him.
“When did you get back?” she asked.
“Just now,” he growled while scowling at me.
Dan played linebacker on our school’s football team; at six-four, two hundred sixty-five pounds, he was a highly mobile destructive force on the field. Sam slapped his chest.
“Danny, don’t be like that! We’ve been over this! Todd is just a friend, and we’re in ROTC together! Knock it off!”
“Yeah, fine,” he grumbled. “I’m going to get a beer.” He stalked away.
“And, that’s my cue...” I muttered as I put my beer down. “I’ll see you Monday, Sam. Have a good rest of your weekend.”
“Todd, don’t go...”
“Sam, he doesn’t like me. Never has. The team lost today, and the last thing I want to do is hang around an unhappy, drunk, inside linebacker who can’t stand me.”
“He’s not drunk, Todd.” Left unsaid was her usual protest over my ‘he doesn’t like me, Sam’ comment.
“Not yet, he’s not. I’ll see you next week.”
I caught a glimpse of her hurt look as I turned away and stepped onto the patio outside. The crisp November night felt good after the heat indoors.
“Hey, shithead!” I heard when I reached the lower patio. My stomach dropped.
I turned to face a still-unhappy Dan Lonergan, who now had four or five of his fraternity brothers backing him up. I stood an inch taller than him, but he outweighed me by at least thirty or forty pounds, maybe more.
“You stay the hell away from my girlfriend!” he said as he stepped up to me and poked a finger into my chest.
“She’s just a friend from class, Dan, nothing more.”
“I don’t want you around here!” he growled, stepping closer.
“Gonna be kinda hard for me to stay away, seeing as how we plan shit together on the battalion staff.”
Sam was the battalion’s cadet supply officer, and I was one of the company commanders this semester.
My head snapped back, and I landed on my ass; I never even saw his head-butt coming. Pain from my crushed nose blossomed under my eyes. Dan loomed over me and grabbed my shirt, pulling me up toward him.
“You ain’t gonna be doin’ shit together, asshole!”
His fist struck again and again. I lost count of the blows before I passed out.
Soft beeping is what I remember hearing next. I tried opening my eyes, but I was only fifty percent successful: my left eye was offline.
Okay, systems check: left eye out of service, jaw wired shut, ears ringing, a nose which didn’t feel right, wrapped left arm, sore ribs, and an elevated left leg which was also covered. The beeping behind me was likely the vital sign monitor; the blood pressure cuff on my right arm inflated on some pre-set schedule. I reached for the call button near my right hand when the cuff deflated.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty!” a nurse chirped as she stepped into my room.
The nurse looked maybe five years older than my twenty-one years, five-six, short blonde hair, a smile, and a twinkle in her blue eyes.
“Hey,” I mumbled through the hardware holding my jaws immobile. Damn, even talking hurt.
“I’m Kelly, your nurse. How ya feeling?”
“Like I got curb-stomped.”
“Yeah,” she said, her smile slipping.
“How long have I been here?”
“EMS brought you into the ER early Sunday morning. That was three days ago.”
I closed my eyes. Eye. Shiiiiit ... Three DAYS? I opened my right eye again. “So, what’s the story?”
“I’m really not allowed to...”
“LOOK,” I spat, which didn’t help the headache I also had. “Can we cut the bullshit? I seem to have gotten the shit kicked outta me and lost three days. I don’t need you to call some guy still paying off medical school to read my chart when I know you can do it just as easily. My mom’s a nurse, so I know you folks really run the place anyway.”
Kelly gave me a sad smile before telling me how bad things actually were: broken left cheek, possible detached left retina, broken lower jaw, broken nose, a concussion, hairline fractures of the two bones in my left forearm, broken ribs, bruised kidney. But, she saved the best for last.
“The orthopedic folks are waiting for the swelling in your left knee to go down before they try to repair the damage.”
My stomach dropped. “Damage?”
“Your left anterior cruciate ligament is trashed, along with the medial and possibly the lateral.” Kelly shrank back when she saw my reaction.
All I heard after that was the sound of a toilet flushing, the giant sucking sound of my dreams disappearing. I’d be lucky to walk unaided before next spring, let alone receive my commission. The posting to an airborne combat engineer unit I once hoped for would never happen now.
“Do you need something for the pain?” she asked hopefully.
“Go away.” The hell with everyone and everything.
The twinkle faded from her blue eyes; I never saw her in my room again. The nurses who did come in were nowhere near as friendly. Apparently, I didn’t deserve friendly treatment after the way I treated Kelly. I couldn’t argue their point.
Later that day, others came by – the guy bringing my lunch, my parents, and the orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t give a shit about any of it, and it showed. My surgeon explained what he hoped to do during the repair; “whatever” was my grunted response.
Colonel Ruotsalainen, commander of my ROTC battalion and my MS4 instructor, came by with more stellar news the next day. Given the damage to my knee, they would convene a medical review board. After that, I would be released from ROTC and my contract.
To this day, I don’t know where my next question came from.
“Sir, would the civilian side of the Corps of Engineers take me as an engineer, even with a torn-up knee?”
“I don’t see why they wouldn’t. Why?”
“Rather than the government writing off whatever they paid for me to get my degree, wouldn’t it make more sense to still pay it back? Even if it’s not with the Army as I intended? I’ll offer to stay with them a minimum of five years, sir.”
The Colonel’s eyebrows rose. “It won’t cost anything for me to ask, Todd.”
“I’d appreciate it, sir. Thanks.”
When he left, I held a glimmer of hope that my idea might pan out; my soul felt a little lighter. However, when my next visitor knocked and stepped into my room, the weight returned.
Shit – Sam. I really didn’t want to talk to her right now. Or ever again.
“Whaddya want, Porter?” I spat.
“I came by to see how you’re doing, Todd,” she answered in a quiet voice. “I came by yesterday, but you were still asleep.”
“Oh, I’m just peachy! If they unwrapped my left knee, my lower leg would probably fall off, I’m going to be disenrolled from ROTC, and I’ll be lucky to graduate on time! All thanks to your boyfriend!”
“He’s not my boyfriend, not anymore. Not after what he did. It took everything I had to pull him off you.”
“A fat lot of good that does me now.” My head dropped back onto the pillow. “Get the f•©k away from me, Samantha. Go ruin someone else’s life.”
Sam’s eyes filled with tears; I had cut her off at the knees without as much as a chance to talk. She bolted from my room.
It would be nearly two decades before we saw each other again.
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The annoying klaxon of my alarm clock jerked me from sleep. I grabbed the clock and threw it to the floor, silencing it for nine more minutes.
< ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!... >
God, I hate Mondays. So now I had to get out of bed and find that damn clock – which is what a throwable alarm clock is designed to make you do.
I didn’t sleep well last night, but that didn’t change the fact it was time for work. Of course, all those beers while watching football yesterday didn’t help, either. I shut off my alarm, sat back on the bed, and scrubbed at the heavy stubble on my face. No getting away without shaving today.
Putting weight on my left leg was a joy. But, unfortunately, that knee wasn’t any happier than the rest of me – in fact, it hurt worse than usual. I knew that misstep at the job site Friday was going to come back to haunt me. Blowing off my strengthening exercises didn’t help, either.
The forty-year-old face staring back at me from the bathroom mirror looked as tired as I felt. I ran my hand through my thick but prematurely gray hair; I needed a haircut. I patted my stomach and grimaced at how it jiggled. I promised once again to get back into shape. Just like I had every day for the past five or so years.
After a hot, leisurely shower, I strapped my heavy-duty knee brace on and got ready for the day. I gave thanks once again for the baggy canvas work pants I favored. Unlike most pants, I didn’t have to spend fifteen minutes trying to stretch them over my brace or fighting in vain all day to get comfortable. Instead, I simply pulled these up, and away I went – albeit slowly.
Grabbing my work bag, I limped out to my truck. Cliché, I know: a guy who works at construction sites drives a truck. Half the time, I parked in a paved parking lot and worked in an office. It was the other half of the time when I needed it.
What I really needed today were my ultra-polarized prescription shades and maybe the sunscreen in my bag, depending on how long I was on site. My backpack held those items along with my Corps of Engineers hardhat and my nifty inflatable PFD – an inflatable personal flotation device or ‘life jacket’ for the uninformed in the audience. Working on the water, you’d better slather that sunscreen on every place you have exposed places, and the higher the SPF, the better. Reflected sunlight can cause sunburn inside your nostrils, even on a cold fall day. Ask me how I know.
As a senior district engineer, I didn’t really need to be out here checking on a project for the third day in a row. I was senior enough to have minions now. My minions all know their jobs, and I hate micro-management as much as they do. However, one of my minions was out here cutting her teeth as a sub-project lead, so I felt I needed to swing by.
Beth was good, just green. She worked her way up through the ranks in the district as a heavy equipment operator. Beth had the knowledge to manage this job and the people skills, but this was also her first project, and it was entirely on the river. Unfortunately, the Mighty Mississippi isn’t very forgiving. I knew the rest of the guys would watch out for her, but you can never underestimate Old Man River.
Standing five-foot-four in her steel-toed work boots, I dwarfed Beth at six-six in mine. The thirty-four-year-old blonde cutie made jeans, a twill work shirt, and her float-coat look damned good; if my heart wasn’t a cold, dead cinder – and if I wasn’t her boss – she’d have more than my professional attention. But, of course, her husband might take issue with that, too. Still, it was hard not to smile around her.
A face that used to get me to smile – one I hadn’t seen since college – surfaced unbidden from my memories. I shook off the unwelcome ghost.
“Hey, boss,” Beth chirped as I stepped onto the barge that would take us to the site.
“Hi, Beth. How are we looking?”
“Good. The other groups finished up with the new lock gates last week. They will have them operational late today or early tomorrow. That’s freed up the equipment we need to place the rebar and forms inside the cofferdam today. We should be able to pour the foundations for the powerhouse mid-week. Give the hydraulic cement a week to cure after that, and the crew will start placing the generators inside and putting up steel.”
“Sounds good. That’ll put the project a week ahead of schedule. Nicely done.”
She shrugged as the barge left the shore. “The crews know what they’re doing and haven’t given the other supervisors or me any grief about getting stuff done. Especially not since I took care of Dolan that first day.”
Ah, yes, Tom Dolan. Asshole Extraordinaire. He’d been a thorn in my side since I reported to the Rock Island district office six years ago. A gifted heavy equipment operator like Beth, Tom wasted that well-earned reputation by being the most disagreeable person possible. He never started a job without bitching about it for ten minutes, bitching about it the whole time doing it, or bitching about it to his buddies at the bar later. Usually, it was a combination of all three.
Tom grabbed Beth’s ass the first day of the powerhouse job. Beth raked her boot down his shin without blinking and smashed her forearm into his face when he bent over in pain. Beth hadn’t made it to the position of site supervisor by being timid. Dolan flopped to the ground with blood streaming from his nose. She woke him up by dumping a five-gallon water cooler on him.
“Get this piece of shit off my job,” she growled before walking away.
Four guys grabbed Tom’s arms and legs and tossed him in the back of his truck. I know Tom had been crowing long and loud about how he had seniority over Beth; he felt he should be a supervisor instead of her. But, now, he faced a constructive dismissal hearing instead.
Beth got a not-so-stern talking to from our boss and a bouquet of flowers from the rest of the people on her crew. Anyone in our district would have done anything Beth asked even before that – because she earned her position by working hard, and she asks. Beth also takes every opportunity to praise people’s work, though she doesn’t shy away from telling them when they messed up. Beth does it in a friendly way, like a coach trying to teach and not as someone trying to embarrass them. People eat it up and treat her like their favorite kid sister. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for her.
“So, what’s your plan for this week?” I asked her.
Beth walked me through the week’s work schedule and what she needed to watch for on-site. Her plan included laying the heavy cabling for a bank of Neptune’s Forge generators. The ten massive new, municipal-grade HM-105s would provide seventy-five percent of the power for the Quad City area; two already powered the arsenal’s shops. In addition, the Corps of Engineers planned to add a powerhouse to every lock and dam complex on the Mississippi.
“Well, you sure don’t need me here watching over your shoulder. That plan sounds good.”
I turned to survey the site again. A beam of sunlight reflected off the river, catching me right in the eyes; even through my ultra-dark sunglasses, the light caused pain to lance through my left eye and deep into my brain. I flinched and turned away.
“You okay, boss?”
“Yeah, old football injury...” I blinked a few times and brushed tears from my left eye. I shook my head to clear it, but the pain remained. “I’ll see you later this week, Beth. I’ll be at the office if there’s a problem.”
I rode another construction barge back to the staging area on the Iowa shore and my truck. I dry-swallowed some ibuprofen to kill my headache as I drove. The Government Bridge to Rock Island Arsenal lay less than a hundred yards upriver from where I’d been and was my usual route to work. It’s a good thing you don’t need paperwork to drive from state to state in this country; I’ve driven from Iowa to Illinois and back more times than I can count. I’m an engineer, so I can count pretty high.
I pulled into district HQ’s parking lot after showing my ID badge to a heavily-armed nineteen-year-old at the arsenal’s gate. I thanked the spirit of whoever decided to include an elevator in the redesign plans for this building. But, my desk was on the third floor and walking made my knee unhappy, regardless.
My boss Sanjay Patel may look like he just got here from the subcontinent. Still, the accent told everyone he was from Georgia. My attitude had improved since I got here from Vicksburg, and Sanjay was the main reason.
“‘S’up?’ What are you, sixteen?”
“You’re only as old as you feel, boss,” I quipped as I sat at my desk.
“And today, you feel...?”
“At least sixty.”
I felt like I needed to ice my knee. Too much time on the water puts a lot of stress on it – especially since I haven’t been doing the exercises I learned at physical therapy years ago.
“How do things look on the lock and powerhouse project?”
“Like I said two weeks ago, they’ve got it nailed. The locks will be in service within a day or two, and they’ll finish up in about a month, barring any issues. My team is a good one this time around – they’re under budget and ahead of schedule.”
“Good to hear. Anyway, Colonel Torkelson’s change of command ceremony is next week, and he’s bringing his replacement by for a tour later today.”
“Great. Shoot me now. Why does the Army care about what we do here again?”
“Because we’re the ones who will build or repair any civil works they need to be built or repaired on-post. The fact that we’re called the United States Army Corps of Engineers might have something to do with it, too.”
“Yeah, well, the new guy better not expect us to fix the toilet in his office like the guy before Torkelson. What a tool he was.”
“Smile and wave, Todd. Smile and wave.”
“Right. I’ll try not to drool on the floor either, Sanjay.”
“Don’t get my hopes up.”
I attacked the pile of paperwork sitting on my desk while awaiting the Army’s pleasure. I found my desktop again just afternoon. Some days I wished I was back on the job sites full-time.
“ ... and up here is where our senior engineers hide,” I heard Sanjay say as he walked back into my area. Geez, how many times have I heard him tell that joke? I rose from my desk and turned to greet the Army officers.
I don’t play poker because I can’t hide my emotions very well. Jack Torkelson and I always got along well, but his replacement would pose a challenge. I thought I’d left this person twenty years in my past, and I wasn’t happy to see her again. From the look on her face, the feeling was mutual.
“Colonel, I’d like to introduce you to one of my able assistants, Todd Rook,” Sanjay said to Colonel Torkelson’s incoming replacement.
“No need to, Mister Patel. Mister Rook and I have met.” Well, she certainly had the ‘unhappy CO’ voice down pat.
“Colonel Torkelson,” I said, extending my hand, “best of luck to you, sir.” I spared a brief glance at the other officer. “Colonel.”
I turned my back and sat down at my desk. Sanjay made apologetic noises and led the officers away. I’m not sure how long I glared at my computer before someone slapped the back of my head.
“What the f•©k was that?” Yeah, Sanjay wasn’t happy. I noticed my fellow engineers had left the area, too – good call on their part.
“A bad bit of history resurfacing.”
“Well, you better get that shit out of your system because Colonel Porter’s here for four years! We have to work with her office, and I’m not gonna cover your ass if you piss her off!”
“So, just assign someone else to her projects.”
“BULLSHIT! If it’s your turn to lead a project, it’s your turn! You know how I operate! Now, what is your problem with the lady?”
I turned away as more storm clouds gathered over my head. Sanjay wouldn’t let it drop, though. Instead, he walked around my desk to keep glaring at me.
“FINE!” I spat. “Have you heard why I wear this damn brace? Or wear sunglasses that could qualify as welding goggles?”
“Yeah, some fraternity asshole beat you up in college.”
“Some football-playing fraternity asshole beat the shit outta me, Sanjay!”
Sanjay had played Division III college football, so, of course, I had to throw that dig at him.
“The asshole broke my cheek, my jaw, my nose, my arm, my ribs, damaged my eye, and stomped the hell out of my knee. I had a four-year Army ROTC scholarship, Sanjay; they paid for my civil engineering degree. You wanna guess how the Army usually expects ROTC scholarship students to repay their largess? Huh?
“Your new friend, Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Porter, was that asshole’s girlfriend at the time. He beat the f•©k out of me for talking to his girlfriend. Sam and I had been best friends since freshman year, Sanjay, and nothing more! I told her he hated my guts; she kept blowing off my concerns, and it cost me. Since I was twelve, I wanted to be an Army officer, Sanjay, an officer in the Corps of Engineers like my dad. But, her boyfriend took that all away from me.
“F•©k!” I yelled, lurching out of my chair and throwing my stapler to the floor. “Goddamn it, I was happy here! Good crews, good coworkers, good boss! Now I have to transfer to another district to make my retirement date! F•©k this, I’m outta here!”
Lucky for me, my condo in Davenport is down the street from my favorite bar. No, I’m not talking about the flashy place on the first floor of my building overlooking the river. I’m talking about the dive two blocks away; it’s an easy walk even when I’m not thinking straight – like now. Six years of coming into this place made me a regular. That and trading punches with the guy who tried to throw me out the first time I walked in. I won, so I still come here.
“Little early in the day for you, Todd,” Bill commented from behind the bar. It was only one in the afternoon.
“Bad day,” I replied as I slid onto a stool.
“You want your usual?”
“Shot of Black Jack to start, Billy. Then I’ll have my usual.”
Bill’s brows rose. “Oh, that kinda day...”
The whiskey burned on the way down, then lit a fire in my belly.
“Oh, yeah,” I croaked, “that’s what I needed...” I nodded at Bill, and he plunked my beer down in front of me.
Paul, my favorite regular at Billy’s and the asshole who got in my face during my first visit, chose that moment to make an appearance.
“Collishboy!” he slurred as he put his arm around me; I think he meant ‘college boy.’ “Howyadoin? Buy me a drink.” His breath stunk, and his BO almost knocked me off my stool.
“Get your arm off me, Paul,” I snarled. I was in no mood for his shit today.
“Ah, c’mon!” He hadn’t caught the tone of my voice and leaned closer. “Juss one little drinky-drink.”
I turned toward him, causing his arm to slip off my shoulder.
“Get lost, you disgusting piece of shit.”
He must not have liked me calling him that because he tried to hit me; a seven-year-old would have seen his punch coming. Glasses rattled when Paul wound up face-down on the bar with his arm twisted behind him. The room went silent.
“I’m not in the mood for your shit today, asshole!”
Paul whimpered in pain.
“Todd, ease up, man,” Bill pleaded. “You’re hurting him.”
I flung Paul’s arm away in disgust. I think I threw a ten at Bill to cover my drinks before storming out.
Anger fueled my walk home. I used the door from my building’s back parking lot to get inside. I hate trying to dodge twenty-somethings leaving the overpriced place out front before I can make it to the main door; having one of them piss me off tonight would be a bad thing.
I didn’t bother with the elevator and stomped up the back stairwell. I flung the door to the fourth floor open, pounded down the hall, and then slammed the door of my condo shut behind me. I paced back and forth, trying to calm down, which didn’t work. My scream of rage echoed through my place.
Have I mentioned that I hate Mondays?
< ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!... >
< ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!... >
Someone stabbed an ice pick into my forehead in time with the harsh tone of my alarm. It seems Tuesdays aren’t any better than Mondays when you have a hangover. Last night I stood at the kitchen counter and tried to find solace in the two six-packs from my fridge. I don’t recommend drinking when you’re angry.
I shut off the alarm and rolled out of bed. Staggering across the hall to the bathroom, I glanced in the mirror. Status confirmed: I looked like shit.
After making it to the kitchen, I managed to choke down four ibuprofen and chased them with diluted orange juice. My stomach flip-flopped when I looked at the food in the fridge. I dry-swallowed another eight hundred of the pain reliever after I rinsed my vomit into the garbage disposal. I’d better wait on breakfast.
At the office, I dropped my stuff at my desk. I tried to ignore the looks of my coworkers, but I could feel their eyes on me. Finally, I sighed and turned for the stairs. On the fourth floor, I knocked on the door to Sanjay’s office. He looked up from his laptop and folded his arms across his chest.
“You look like proof that zombies exist,” he offered.
“I feel like it.” Were the lights always so bright in here?
“Did you come by to eat a little crow today?”
I held up a hand. “Can we not mention food right now?”
“What, like chicken and waffles? Bacon sandwiches? Sliders?”
“Nice to see you’re still the same asshole you’ve always been.” He laughed at me and waved me to a chair. The room took a second to stop spinning.
“You gonna tell me what that was all about yesterday?” he asked.
“I pretty much told you the whole story yesterday. Not much else to it.”
“You gonna make it through the day?”
“No promises. In case you’re wondering, I’m all set for lunch.”
He laughed at me as I walked out.
I cleared my paperwork backlog but didn’t accomplish much else. I drove to Jack Torkelson’s office mid-afternoon to apologize.