A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 11: Warm-ups
16 July 2003 – 3d Ranger Battalion, Fort Benning, Georgia
The Army deuce and a halves carrying Bravo Company bounced down the track laughingly called a road to their training site for the day; they trained at the same site yesterday, brushing up on house-clearing techniques. Tomorrow they would assault this site in a night raid after the Air Force dropped them on a DZ two miles away.
“I don’t see how that’s comfortable for you, Doc,” Specialist Ruben Montes of 2d Platoon’s 2d Squad commented while pointing to Jeff’s rifle.
Jeff glanced down at his M-4. “The angled grip on my rifle’s forearm instead of a vertical one?” He shrugged. “The vertical grip doesn’t feel right to me. Just preference I guess, especially since we didn’t have them the first time I was in. I guess it’s because this grip feels more natural to me when I hold it a few different ways? I can pull the rifle back into my shoulder like this, help point it like this, lock my c-clamp grip like this...”
“Like you keep telling us: ‘If it’s stupid but it works,’ right?”
After ten minutes of jokes about being truck-borne Rangers during the ride and five minutes of bitching about the ride after climbing off the trucks, the company formed up for their briefing. The assault wasn’t anything new; even Jeff settled into the routine of the evolution. Which is why the OPFOR – the Opposing Force – likes their job so much; they like to catch people napping when they settle into a routine.
A hidden door sprang open next to Jeff while his platoon stalked down a hall trying to clear the second floor. Jeff reacted on pure instinct; the butt of his rifle shot out, striking the hiding enemy fighter on the padded chin of his safety helmet. The man dropped to the floor. Sal glanced at the fighter, then back up at Jeff; Jeff shrugged. Sal nodded to two of his Rangers and they secured the man. Within three minutes the Rangers cleared the floor and signaled the all-clear along with the rest of the company. Jeff went back to check the man he struck. Cutting the zip-ties around his wrists and ankles Jeff helped the man to his feet. The red-suited man blinked and swayed.
“You okay?” Jeff asked.
The man’s eyes focused on Jeff after a moment. “I wasn’t expecting that, that’s for sure!”
“Sorry, gut instinct.”
“I’m glad I was wearing the padded suit!” he said while removing the suit’s helmet. He ran a hand through a graying buzz cut. “I didn’t think they taught that anymore!”
“I don’t know if they’re teaching that now with the collapsible stocks on the carbines, but when I went through Basic I was taught the ol’ thrust, slash, butt-stroke routine using a nice, solid M-16A1 rubber duck.”
“Lucky me,” the man muttered before moving his jaw from side-to-side. “How long ago was that?”
The man gave him a look as they reached the top of the stairs. “Well, help me down the stairs then, Methuselah.”
“If I’m Methuselah, what does that make you?”
“Me? It makes me think I’m way too old for this shit.”
Jeff pumped his fist at the end of the Red Sox game. The 2003 team was truly a sight to behold; they were putting a serious hurt on the rest of the American League even if they didn’t have the best record in their division. They owned the best team batting average and the best team slugging percentage in the American League; they were on-pace to score the most runs in all of Major League Baseball. This new combination of Ortiz and Ramirez was the deadliest hitting duo he’d ever seen.
Dare he dream this was the year? He remembered his father waking him up to watch a replay of Carleton Fisk’s Game Six home run in 1975, only to learn two days later the Sox lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. He remembered the one-game playoff against the Yankees in 1978 where Carl Yastrzemski kicked forlornly at the warning track while Bucky Dent circled the bases. The train wreck at the end of World Series Game Six in 1986; many people forget there was still another game following that one’s upsetting end. Heck, the Sox were the butt of a joke on Law & Order last season! Rooting for the Red Sox seemed to be a cycle of painful events at times.
This new guy Millar, though, was the personality the Sox needed this year in Jeff’s opinion. Brash, loud, opinionated – he seemed like a guy who could wake up the clubhouse and light the fire the team needed to get them over the hump. Along with Walker, Mueller, Nixon and a few others, Millar was part of Boston’s ‘Dirt Dogs’ – players not afraid to throw their bodies around and get the uniform dirty if that’s what it took to win games. There was a feeling about this year’s hometown team Jeff didn’t remember from growing up. A Red Sox team flag hung proudly from the wall in his room. If you didn’t like it, the door was right there and you could close it behind you as you left.
“Dare I say they look pretty good this year?” Rick Mendoza asked, echoing Jeff’s earlier thought while the post-game highlight show started. With training early in the morning Rick would stay in his barracks room tonight.
“They look damn good,” Jeff replied while handing Rick another beer. “They’re not in first place, but they’re right there in the Wild Card race. I like these guys this year.”
“Don’t folks from up your way say that every year?”
“Only the last eighty-five.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“Hey, Cubs fans have it worse; it’s ninety-five years for them. Statistically, it’s gotta be our year eventually.”
“Yeah, but are you gonna be around when that year comes?”
“Happy birthday, husband.”
“Thanks, Keiko. I wish I could be there with you guys tonight. Rick and Tasha had me over for dinner, but I’ll miss cuddling up with you tonight. Like every night.”
“I know, Jeffrey. I miss you lying next to me as well. However, you made a commitment when you reenlisted two years ago, and you must honor that.”
“And the commitment I made to you seven years ago, Keiko? The one that really started in ‘89 when I met you?”
“Jeffrey, we have been over this many times, beginning on the night in 2001 when you first broached the idea of reenlisting with me. In committing to protect the nation you are protecting us by extension. To me your service there is no different than your service as a paramedic here; you have not stopped serving since you enlisted in 1987. All that has changed is the size of the community you are serving.”
Jeff sighed; Keiko was right. They talked about his service almost every time they spoke – he’d bring it up and apologize for being gone, she’d remind him they agreed about the threat and what he was doing. “How is your classroom coming together this year?” he asked, changing the subject. “You only have about two weeks before your school year starts.”
“It is almost ready; I should only need one or two more days to have it completed.”
Keiko chuckled. “Your mother came out to watch the children last week and wound up coming by ‘to see the room.’ The children played with their toys while your mother helped me set up. I believe she misses certain aspects of teaching already.”
“Well, she has been retired for a whole school year.”
“Which has been good for her. She looks more relaxed than I remember her while she was teaching.”
“I’m surprised she was able to sit still over the last year.”
Keiko chuckled again. “Do you not know, Jeffrey? Your mother walks every day; some days she walks to your father’s garage, eats lunch with him, and then walks home. Your mother has also become quite the amateur photographer. She keeps herself busy.”
“She walks to Dad’s shop? That’s like a seven-mile round trip!”
“It is shorter than that, Jeffrey. She takes the shorter route over Great Quabbin Hill.”
“Okay, note to self: Don’t ask Mom if she wants to go for a walk when I get out of the Army; a forced road march might be more fun.”
“So what’s this? Is the Army giving us the option to carry different weapons?” Jeff asked. He stood around a table with the company’s NCOs and medics. On the table were pistols other than the military’s 9mm Beretta M-9: Sig Sauer pistols similar to his .40-caliber pistol at home in Lancaster. Jeff bent closer to read the engraving on the slide of one.
“Only for certain SOCOM units at first,” the armorer explained. “The military’s trying them out; they’re calling the Sig the M-11.”
“May I?” Jeff asked; he picked up the Sig 9mm when the armorer nodded. First making sure the pistol was empty and safe Jeff tested the weight of it in his hand. There didn’t seem to be any difference in the width compared to his Sig at home, despite the difference in caliber. “Will there be any chance to fire these?”
“Yes. After lunch we’ll head to the range.”
At the range Jeff fought to keep himself calm while he waited for his turn; he hadn’t fired a pistol much since reenlisting and was like a little kid at Christmas. He walked the instructor through the function check on the weapon. He’d selected a number of holsters to compare carrying options; he wore one on his plate carrier, one on his hip, and one on his right thigh.
Jeff loaded the pistol with practiced ease when his turn on the firing line came. The muzzle flipped less than his .40-caliber pistol at home; he took his time with the first fifteen-round magazine. When the instructor nodded he loaded a second and ripped through it in under five seconds. He dropped that mag, made sure the weapon was clear and safe, and placed it back in the thigh holster; that option already felt the most natural to him.
The instructor whistled when they walked up to Jeff’s target. All thirty rounds went through the center of the target inside the ten ring, shredding the thin paper. “Remind me never to piss you off, Doc.”
“I used to practice a lot more; that’s why this group’s so loose. I used to shoot every week at home, sometimes more than that – mainly with my pistols; the rifle range wasn’t always open.”
The instructor looked at Jeff out of the corner of his eye. “So is it safe to say I should put you down for one of these?”
“Well, I wish it was available in .40 S&W or .45 ACP, but beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.”
“That’s a yes, right?”
A second person sat in the company field medical officer’s office when Jeff arrived for his bi-weekly meeting in mid-September.
“Morning, sir,” Jeff said while saluting CPT Blackburn.
“Morning, Sergeant. Come on in. Jeff, I’d like to introduce you to Lieutenant Steve Perry; he’s going to be Bravo Company’s new PA and medic liaison officer. Steve, this is Sergeant Jeff Knox, 2d Platoon’s medic.”
“Good to meet you, sir.”
“Sergeant.” 1LT Perry didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about liaising with medics.
“Captain, before I forget to ask, is it okay to grab some of the stuff that’s expiring soon in the stock room to practice with?”
“Sure, Jeff. What’s catching your eye this month?” the captain asked.
“Well, sir, Reilly says there’s two cases of three-oh sutures about to expire in there. We’ve got that load of open-cell foam blocks we use to simulate human tissue. It’s not perfect, but it’ll work.”
“Sounds like good training. If Sergeant Reilly has any concerns have him give me a call.”
Jeff opened his mouth to answer CPT Blackburn but the newcomer interrupted him.
“Forgive me, sir, but are you sure that’s appropriate?” the lieutenant asked.
CPT Blackburn and Jeff shared a look. “Carry on, Sergeant.”
Well, no meeting this week. “Roger, sir. Rangers lead the way!” Jeff saluted the captain, nodded to the lieutenant, and scorched the carpet leaving the office.
“Close the door, Lieutenant,” the captain said. 1LT Perry did so and turned around; CPT Blackburn was right behind him, already in his face. “You got a problem with how I run my command, Lieutenant?”
“Then don’t ever question my orders like that again. How old are you?”
“Sir? Twenty-five, sir.”
“And how long have you been a PA in the Army?”
“I’ve been a PA for two years, sir. I’ve been in the Army for under a year; Fort Sam for Medical Corps OBC and then Ranger School after I received my direct commission, sir.”
“Lieutenant, that sergeant who just left has been practicing his branch of medicine for close to half of your life. He spent almost two years in training just to get here. He’s still recovering from Ranger School but he’ll test himself again by trying to earn his Expert Field Medical Badge next week; he’ll give it everything he has, like he always does. I have no doubts he’ll pass. If you know anything about the EFMB, you’ll know that’s not a given.
“Here at cozy Fort Benning he’s not going to be doing much suturing, but once we deploy he’ll likely do more than you will; he’s getting ready now for a deployment months in the future. Over there he’ll be practicing what they call ‘austere medicine.’ He’ll be the one trying to keep his platoon – almost forty of his friends – alive, often while far out of contact, carrying a pharmacy’s worth of meds he’ll know backward and forward in addition to ten pounds of other medical supplies. While he’s at it he’ll hump a combat load weighing well in excess of fifty pounds, if not more. Unless I miss my guess, Sergeant Knox will carry close to half his body weight while climbing up and down the sides the mountains of Afghanistan; while he’s doing that, you’ll likely be sitting at the support hospital sipping coffee. They call men like him ‘Doc’ for a damn good reason.
“So, Lieutenant, if you’d like to set the record for the shortest assignment in Army history keep questioning me and the men under my command.”
Jeff made sure the wires for his headphones ran under his t-shirt and down his back; this would keep them out of the way during his workout. He selected a type of song from his iPod he wouldn’t normally listen to, set the song to repeat, and pressed play; the style and tempo of the music fit his intended workout. Before the music began Jeff picked up one of the simplest and most effective pieces of workout equipment ever devised: the jump rope. Soon the techno beat began pounding in his ears; with his eyes closed and head down he allowed the music to take him to the place he needed to be. He bounced in time with the beat for three or four seconds to get his rhythm. He looked up and started his workout. He increased the speed of the rope’s orbit around his body once warmed up.
Rather than the playground hops of children, Jeff’s jump-roping resembled that of a boxer; he bounced twice on one foot before switching to the opposite foot and then back in time with the music’s beat. He liked this warm-up because he could think about other things once at a constant speed. His mind ran through protocols, treatments, and medications while his muscles took care of the workout.
Sweat began to soak through his t-shirt. The one he wore today was a dark maroon which turned almost black when it absorbed his perspiration. Its back sported a giant, distressed, golden caduceus with the word ‘DOC’ stenciled boldly across it; he’d long ago embraced the title. The front simply read ‘91B’ on the left chest in the same golden color.
There was a good reason Jeff selected the jump rope as his warm-up: his primary workout would be on the heavy bag today. The bouncing during his jump-roping foreshadowed the footwork he would use when working the bag; he bobbed his head in time with the beat of the song while walking over to it. He wrapped his hands before slipping on the boxing gloves.
The heavy bag in front of him hung down from its bracket on chains and was chained to the floor to keep it from swaying too much. Like his workouts at home his first strikes on the bag weren’t very hard, though that changed in a hurry. Allowing the rhythmic beat to keep driving him his blows soon took on an arrhythmic character; if the bag were a live opponent it wouldn’t have been able to pin down the timing of his next punch or kick.
Jeff prowled around the bag, reversed course at irregular intervals, and struck from unexpected directions; he launched brief flurries before starting to circle again. Kicks aimed low on the bag rattled the chain holding it down, and the noise echoed across the gym. Those not familiar with Jeff’s workouts tried to keep their minds on their own and not be distracted by the power he unleashed; those who’d seen him over the previous months glanced over and went back to their workouts.
There wasn’t a dry spot on his shirt after twenty minutes. With blood pounding in his ears Jeff walked over to the empty tumbling mat where he’d done his warm-up, turned off the iPod and put it in his bag before kneeling. He closed his eyes, centered himself, and brought his heart rate down below sixty within minutes. The energy from his workout burned deep in his core, waiting.
Jeff rose and began his kata. There was nothing in his mind but the forms he practiced; the stored energy bled off while he did them. The sweat rolling down his face and neck which cooled him as it evaporated off his shirt, the crash of the weights in the gym, the hum of conversations – he ignored all of it. Jeff used his time in the gym as a workout inside a workout. The frenzy at the start simulated combat or other stressful environment and got his adrenaline flowing; the meditation and kata were ways to practice purging that adrenaline and calming himself so he could treat his Rangers. He’d try meditation alone at some point to see if that worked for him as well.
“That was impressive, Sergeant,” Jeff heard while toweling off his face. He moved the towel and saw 1LT Perry standing in front of him.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied in a neutral tone. Jeff’s face gave nothing away.
“Sergeant, I want to apologize to you for my tone yesterday. I’d been here for all of half a second and I was way out of line to question your dedication to your platoon. I’m the PA assigned to work with the medics of Bravo Company and I’d very much like to have a good working relationship before and during our deployment. I’d like to start over, with you in particular, if we could?”
“Of course, sir,” Jeff said with a more genuine voice. At least he admitted he was wrong, he thought. Not everyone can do that.
“May I ask what song you were working out to?” the lieutenant asked after they shook hands to restart their acquaintance.
“‘Confusion’ by New Order, sir.”
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of them.”
“They’re a British post-punk and dance-rock band; they formed in 1980, broke up in ‘93, then got back together in ‘98. Have you ever seen the movie Blade, sir?”
“Sure, I was halfway through college when it came out.”
Damn kids. “Do you remember the scene at the start of the movie? The one in the nightclub?”
“That song? That’ll get you moving, that’s for sure.”
“That it will. The one from the movie’s a remix; the original doesn’t sound like that.” Jeff caught a whiff of himself. “With your permission, sir, I’d like to head back to the barracks and get cleaned up before dinner.”
“Of course, Sergeant. I’d like to sit down with you after you test for your EFMB and discuss what you need for training and support from me.”
“Absolutely, sir. It’ll be about mid-week before I get back to you; I’m testing on Monday and Tuesday.”
“One more win and your Red Sox are headed to the World Series.”
“Nine innings is a long time, Rick, especially for a Sox fan when they’re in the playoffs. They gotta get all twenty-seven of those outs before I’ll be happy.” They sat in the Bravo Company day room with other baseball fans before Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS.
“You’re quite the pessimist, you know?”
“The glass isn’t half-empty, it’s half-empty with a hole at the bottom.”
“Okay...” Rick replied, pretending to write a reminder in a notebook, “don’t make Bones the Morale Officer...”
“Don’t be so negative, Rick. I would be an excellent Low Morale Officer.” His platoon sergeant glared at him. “Okay, I know you don’t quite get it, but when it comes to the Sox we expect the worst while we hope for the best.”
“You could root for a different team.”
“‘A different team?’ Dream on.”
Game Seven started off well for the Red Sox as they jumped out to a four-to-nothing lead by the middle of the fourth inning. Yankees slugger Jason Giambi touched the Sox’s ace Pedro Martinez for a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth, then again in the seventh, however.
“Well, at least Pedro got out of the seventh still leading by two,” Jeff said while nursing his third beer of the night. David Ortiz brought Boston’s lead back up to three runs with a solo home run of his own in the top of the eighth. That would be the only run of the inning for the visiting Red Sox.
“Okay, six outs to go now. Williamson comes in for the bottom of the eighth, Timlin for the ninth, and we’re in like Flynn.” Jeff stood and put his now-empty beer bottle on the table to his right.
“Uh, Doc?” Steve Cunha, a private first class from 2d Platoon’s 2d Squad, asked.
Jeff didn’t like the sound of that; he straightened and turned. There was Pedro Martinez jogging back out to the mound. “What the hell is Grady doing?” he muttered in horror. “Pedro looked tired last inning! He’s got Williamson and Timlin warming in the pen! They’ve been lights-out all series! Let them pitch!”
Jeff watched in continued horror while Martinez gave up a double to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, followed by a single to centerfielder Bernie Williams. Manager Grady Little emerged from the dugout after the Williams single.
“Thank God. Grady’ll pull Petey, put a fresh arm in there, and they’ll end this.” Jeff saw Little pat his ace on the arm and walk away after a brief conference on the mound; Martinez remained in the game. “No ... You can’t be serious!”
But the baseball gods were serious. Martinez gave up two more runs, allowing the Yankees to tie the game at five before the inning finally ended.
“Jesus Christ, guys...” Jeff muttered, taking off his Red Sox hat and running a hand through his buzz cut. On the screen the crowd at Yankee Stadium cheered wildly.
The Sox and Yankees both failed to score in the ninth, sending the game to extra innings. Mariano Rivera, the brilliant Yankees closer, stayed in the game during the tenth inning and held the Sox scoreless again. Tim Wakefield, the winning pitcher for Boston in Games One and Four, came into the game to pitch the bottom of the tenth.
“Why’s Wakefield pitching?” asked Frank Paulos from 3d Platoon.
“It’s Game Seven of the ALCS,” replied Cunha, a Minnesota Twins fan. “There’s no point in saving him for the World Series if they can’t reach the World Series. Plus he’s a gamer; the team is what’s important, so he’ll do whatever he needs to do to help them win.”
Tim Wakefield helped the team by pitching an inning of scoreless relief; unfortunately, Rivera’s third scoreless inning matched his effort. Aaron Boone, the Yankees’ third baseman, stepped to the plate as their first batter of the bottom of the eleventh. He immediately tore the hearts out of Red Sox Nation by crushing Wakefield’s first pitch of the inning into the left field seats for a game-ending home run. Jeff stared at the television; he sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands covering his mouth while his eyes watered.
Again? Dammit, NO!