Snow sifted down from the treetops as the darkness fell over the valley below, behind me, the ticking of cooling metal, and rattles of various equipment and weapons. Quiet conversations, each detailing some task to be preformed, something to be checked again before the night came. We sat across a small paved road, halfway up the mountain, backed into the woods, combat parked, as it was called, halted in our mission by rules which said no matter the battle, movement ceased at night. Looking out over the town below us, scurrying figures moved about busy with evening chores. Cold wind blew from the north into our faces, as if seeking to rob all heat from our bodies, chafing and bitter. "What's she doing now", I wondered, "Can she sense me? thinking of her, missing her?", an ache that encompasses the entire body, gnaws at the insides of a man, love, lust, uncertainty, jealousy, all the emotions that a solider can muster at the same time, yet must crush away so as to endure the separation and still function. Best not to dwell on that now, too many days till we get back, not even sure when we'll get back, Damn.
Abruptly the snow started again, large damp flakes, clinging to everything, cloaking the sounds of a Mechanized Scout platoon settling in for the evening. Slowly hiding our tracks up the mountain, erasing the mechanical scar we'd inflected upon the earth. Darkness swept faster over the land now, blanketing the scenery with a gray black mask, broken only by the yellow glow of a phone booth. A phone! Contact so close, yet denied even without asking, as if the Army gave a damn whether you had a family or not, "did they issue you one? Hell no, so don't ask."
I climbed back into the vehicle, a large cold chunk of aluminum, personnel beaters we called them. Inside it was a jumble of military gear, scattered hither and there, dirt, snow, mud covering the floor, the air reeked of diesel fuel, oil, cordite and unwashed bodies, stale, stagnant yet somehow alive. You could feel it creep under your clothes and coat you like a second skin, nasty, evil, yet so familiar that you accepted it unthinkingly. Even after you had scrubbed yourself down in a cold helmet bath, and put on that last clean uniform, it was still there.
The interior lights cast their red glow, illuminating and at the same time masking the inside of the vehicle, making everything a shade of black or brown. Chosen by some genius at Dept. of Defense because you can't see blood under red light, now can you? Only thing it really did was make it impossible to read a map because contour lines are drawn in red. I once tried to follow a "road" on a map for an hour before I realized it was a river instead, I couldn't tell it was a blue line.
Reaching past the bulk of Sergeant Neals, I grabbed my rucksack. Ah, time for dinner, or supper, or what ever you wished to call it. It really didn't make a difference anyway; you ate the same thing for every meal. In theory, with combat rations, you got twelve choices, but in reality, you got a choice only when you were first at the trough, or had a fair minded sergeant issuing them. And let's face it, like weekend passes; there are only a few of them, not near enough, to go around. Closing my eyes, I reached into my ruck and pulled out one of the packages among the three there, the moment of truth. I read the label..."joy joy, beef with spice sauces." A year or so before, when combat rations came in cans, I had opened my very first can of "Beef with Spice sauces", and thought it resembled the dog food in the "Mighty Dog" commercials. All that was missing was the Chihuahua and the branding iron, "MIGHTY DOG". In my years in the Army, I yet had found anything that would both cover the taste of it and still be edible. Still, you had to eat, so I ripped into it, indigestion, here I come.
"Gawd amighty Private", this from Sergeant Neals, "you gonna eat that crap cold?"
It was a question that no answer was expected or needed; we had had this conversation a hundred times on as many field problems before. You spend enough time living and working side by side with someone and you came to know them better even than you knew your own family. I thought to myself, "you gonna open up two or three meals and leave them scattered around for me to clean up? Hell yes, so why ask a dumbass question?" But aloud I merely nodded. Privates, at least ones who dislike extra duty and other nasty forms of non judicial punishment don't give smartass answers to Non Commissioned Officers. A fact I learned the hard way due to an overactive jackass gland.
Finishing my meal, I rounded up the trash readily at hand, shoved it into an empty ammo can, and stuck it back under the radio. Looking over at Sgt. Neals, I asked," what time I got radio watch?"
"Yer on at 24 hundred, wake up Fiest"."Make sure you start it up for 30 minutes or better and charge the batteries too." Another way to break up your sleep, stare at a radio for an hour in the middle of the night, just in case the Colonel decided to call.
I climbed back out the hatch into the cold, and found that in the few minutes I'd been inside it had went from dusk to night. Straining my eyes, I could make out the form of the other vehicles along the road way. I dropped down to the ground, sinking nearly a foot into the snow beside the tracks; it would be deep come the morning. I spotted the Platoon leaders vehicle, and started towards it, the first order of business was to find Specialist Fiest, and make arrangements about radio watch, then plan the assault on the phone. Reaching the vehicle, I rapped on the back hatch door, and then opened it. A wave of warm air rushed out at me, followed by a terse command from the Lieutenant, "Either get your ass in, or close the damn door, yer letting my heat out."
Mumbling Yessir, I clambered into the hatch, and shut the door behind me with a clang. "Sorry sir, looking for Specialist Fiest". "Mind if I wait here for him?" "You can wait until the NCOs get here for the Operations Order, then you gotta get out" he scratched his head, and then asked, "Your heater broke again?" I nodded; it was a problem from long back, one hard to understand too, how could a sorry ass mechanic fix anything from thermal sights to a jet turbine tank engine, yet couldn't make a simple fuel oil heater stay running? Unless of course, it was the ones they had jury rigged in their tool trucks. We had to wait for months when one of ours went out, yet they had sometimes as many as two or three mounted illegally in their vehicles.
Mulling over this, I nodded off into a slumber, only to be awaken too soon by Spc. Fiest opening the hatch door. He looked in, and motioned for me to come outside. "Back in a min. LT" he said.
I climbed reluctantly out of the warmth and into the biting cold, buttoning my field jacket up to the neck as I turned to him. He lit a cigarette and passed it to me, knowing I wanted one, but wouldn't ask. You don't bum in the field, you take what you figure you'll need, and if that isn't enough, you do with out, unless a friend offers. Fiest was a friend, best I had. Reaching in my ammo pouch, I pulled out a small bottle I'd been saving, and passed it to him. "Enjoy". Comfort is where you make it, and a little schnapps always helps. He turned it up, and drained it.
In a fluid motion he brought the bottle down and without slowing, flung it across the road and into the valley below. Smiling he turned to me and asked "Got plans for the evening? " "Do what??" "Like a nice warm bath dumbass, a bath? You know... , water... , soap... , clean... , remember clean?" "What the hell you planning on?" I asked, "We gonna slip off to a guesthaus or something?"
In the back of my mind, I was counting my meager stock of German marks, not near enough to get us into a guesthaus for a bath, but man, would one feel good. A bath was something you didn't think about either, along with wife, kids, decent food, warm, etc., you could tolerate the dirt and funk better if you ignored it, stuck it in the back of your consciousness until you rolled thru the gates of the kaserne. And even then, you'd wait till every weapon and item of equipment was accounted for, washed, inspected and reinspected. Then, maybe then, could you think of one. A bath... , now... , why hell yes, But... as likely as a snowman making a road march thru hell with a 50 lb rucksack.
To Fiest I said,"Ok, I'll play your silly ass game, sure, lets take a bath." "What time I got radio watch tonight?" he asked. "Right after me, one to two." "Perfect, roll up your soap and a towel, be ready after my watch." He started towards his vehicle, then stopped, "and for God's sake, keep this quiet man". Nodding I turned and headed back to my vehicle, I didn't know the what or the where, but six months of association with Fiest had taught me that if he had a plan, I wanted in. You never knew exactly what you were getting into, but it was never a dull moment. With some luck, I might even get to use that phone.
Still wondering, I climbed in the hatch, rolled up in my sleeping bag and dropped off to sleep.
A hand shaking my shoulder woke me a few hours later, "Get yer ass up, radio watch in 5 minutes." The voice belonging to the hand reminded me not to go back to sleep. He turned back to his novel, as I climbed out of my bag and moved over to the radio bench. Once on another field problem, I had grabbed the microphone and stayed in my sleeping bag only to wake up at daylight in a world of crap, never again. "You can go, I got it" I told him.
"Suit yourself, I'm outta here" came over his shoulder as he climbed out the back hatch into the night. Through the open hatch I could see that it had quit snowing and the moon was out. The snow had a bluish glow to it from the moon light, and the air seemed almost to crack. A cloudless night meant a cold night, don't ask me why, but it was a fact. I reached over and took the microphone, keying it, I waited until the fan on the radio reached full whine, then spoke into it, calling the battalion radio operator. "Whiskey 44 this is Papa 25 over."
Silence, and then a metallic, sleep laden voice, "Last station calling, this is Whiskey 44 over."
Gotcha! Last station! Why don't you just say, "Uh I was asleep with the mike in my ear that's why I don't know your call sign." Battalion radio operators were notoriously sorry anyway. But, never fail, when you needed something in a hurry, you'd get the one who insisted on exact letter perfect radio procedure, and would not budge from it on threat of death. Many a time I'd seen a Platoon leader, eyes red with fury, try to crush a microphone while dealing with an idiot over the radio.
I keyed up again, "This is Papa 25, I will be off the network for 5 mikes (minutes)."
As I switched the radio off in preparation for starting the engine, I could hear the voice of the battalion operator telling me not to leave the net.
I switched on the master power switch, pushed in the fuel cutoff and pressed the starter button, and listened anxiously as the six cylinder Detroit diesel slowly turned over. The oil was undoubtedly thick from the cold and it was reluctant to start, then, with a clanging and rattle it caught, sputtered and then roared to life, the supercharger whining in protest as I revved it. Sgt Neals and the rest of my crew stirred a bit, then as if recognizing the noise thru their slumber, settled back down to what ever dreams took them from here. Sleep is the greatest escape in the field... in the field... hell, in the whole damn Army.
I grabbed my rucksack and started preparing my toiletries for this "bath" Fiest was promising, though, I couldn't for the life of me, figure out what he had schemed up. I had one clean dry uniform left, one pair of briefs that weren't able to stand unassisted, and it was their time of glory. One of the standing arguments was whether or not to wear underwear in the field or not, the Vietnam vets still among us swore that you'd rot something off if you did, but I was willing to take my chances and avoid possible embarrassment.
Finished with my sorting, I remembered that I'd forgotten the radio, "Oh Hell, better turn it back on." As the set came back to life, the annoyed voice of PFC Whatshisdamnname rattled from the speaker, "Papa 25 this is Whiskey 44 OVER!!!!" "He sounds pissed" I thought, "Papa 25 go ahead." I answered
As expected, there followed a lecture about not following the Battalion network procedures, I sat nodding until he finished his diatribe, then acknowledged my submission and humility, and with his ego salved, he signed off I presumed to go back to sleep. I let the engine run long enough to charge the batteries to a level sufficient to last the rest of the night, then shut them down. The engine died with a growl and clatter, and the ensuing silence seemed deafening, my sleeping crew stirred again, but didn't awake, all the better.
I clambered out of the hatch, and made my way to Fiest's vehicle, climbed up on the front slope and rapped on the hatch with my helmet. Being as he slept in the drivers compartment, which I could never do, (too damn big), he woke up immediately and answered, "I'm up, I'm up, be there in a min."
A few minutes later, he climbed into the back of my vehicle, kicked the snow off his feet coming thru the door. "Cold as a well diggers butt Duke, sure you still want to go?" "Why Hell yes" I said, "I'm interested in seeing if I can get water to actually land on me, most likely it'll run off like a stray dog been kicked too many times." He laughed, "I know what you mean dude, I'm so damn funky flies won't land on me." We sat and smoked a few of his Camels, and then as his hour watch neared the end, he left to get his relief. It was the way it worked, you knew who you woke up, and where they slept or you pulled the entire watch, once I forgot where my relief was sleeping and ended up doing a four hour watch before the time came to wake the platoon. Another lesson learned the hard way, just like Pops used to tell me, you do it the hard way, you remember.
Fiest returned to the vehicle, I looked up as he opened the door, "Duck out your hatch man, so's he won't see you up and wonder." He said. "It's Freakin Rawley, and you know he can't keep nothing a secret." I popped the hatch and climbed out on top of the track, then jumped down into the snow, my towel roll clasped against my chest. I heard Rawley opening the back door, so I stood quietly while Fiest briefed him. He stepped out of the vehicle. "Ready man?" I nodded. "Then, let's go."
We stepped to the edge of the roadway and he turned and started marching downhill. I fell in behind him, then caught up and walked along side. "So talk to me, what's up?" I asked. "Surprise" was the answer I got in return. Seeing it wouldn't do any good to question him further, I shut up and followed along. The near full moon cast a bright glow off the snow in the road; it was almost like walking under blue streetlights. The only sounds were the crunch of snow under our boots and the wheeze of our breath in the cold crisp night air. We walked for about 300 yards, I never could really think in meters, before I saw a building off to the right of the road. I vaguely remembered seeing it as we moved into the area earlier, but hadn't paid it much attention, this was our destination.
As we neared details began to emerge, and I could make out a tri level series of pools at the far end of the building, one flowing into the other, they were about 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, and perhaps a few feet deep, you couldn't really tell. But what caught my eye was the fact that steam was rising from them into the air, creating a fog which quickly dissipated in the cold wind blowing in from across the valley. Behind the pools, a trail lead off up the mountain, obviously this was the jumping off point for a Volksmarch club's trail. A small ornate carved plaque stood to one side, detailing I presumed the highlights of the route, and its charm. While it was nice to look at, it held no fascination for me, the water on the other hand...
I reached over the edge and felt the water, it was warm, not hot, but warm. Or at least it felt warm to my hands, but that could be misleading as they had been exposed to the cold for quite some time.
In his best English butler's voice, Fiest said, "Your bath sir." Drawing out the "bath" as long as he could. Then, reverting to himself, he said, "Best get your ass in gear before someone discovers we're gone." Grinning like two idiots, we both stripped quickly, grabbed our soap and shampoo and stepped into the lower pool, both agreeing that the way to do this would be to bath in one until the water was polluted, then move up to the next. To my surprise, the water felt at first like ice, but quickly, I adjusted to it and felt warm. I ducked my head under the water and surfaced, my hair, unwashed these two weeks beaded the water off without seeming to get wet at all. I poured a handful of shampoo in my hands and began to lather it up, the scent made me immediately homesick. I always carried Johnson's Baby bath with me to the field because it came in such a handy bottle, but every damn time I used it I could almost see my wife bathing our son, splashing and laughing, his small body covered in lather. I could hear their laughter, and... "Hey" This from Fiest, "the water is turning black, we'd better move up."
Startled, I nodded, ducked under the water again and rinsed out my hair. Grabbing my stuff, I moved up into the next pool, noticing as I did that it was definitely warmer than the first. I glanced over at Fiest, he was scrubbing his hair furiously, black water streamed down his back, like India ink, I turned and looked at the pool we'd just left, the water was black, oily and absolutely filthy.
Oh well, I thought, we'll be long gone before someone notices it. We lathered and scrubbed in our pool, rinsing and scratching, enjoying the feeling of being clean, it was like coming back to life after dying. The water around us, clean and sparkling moments before looked like what you'd expect to see flowing down a ditch.
"Let's move up" I said to Fiest, "waters nastier than we are now." We climbed into the last pool, which was deeper that the first two, and almost hot. It was a strange feeling, being clean, warm, except our heads, as our wet hair was in danger of freezing in the cold air. We both dreaded what was to come next, but we could only delay the inevitable for so long before we had to get out. It was then that our lack of planning came to haunt us. Our towels and our clothes, were at the far end of the pools. The only way to get to them was to climb out or wade back down the pools. Looking at the dirty water below us, it narrowed to one option.
Thankfully no one was around to see the sight, two pale naked men, shivering ferociously climbing over the side of the pool and running to our clothes. The cold wind was like a blowtorch on our exposed skins, it's a most unusual feeling, like being on fire in a block of ice. You can't really explain it; one simply must experience it for themselves. From somewhere in the deep reaches of my memory, came the thought of the Polar Bear club in Alaska, where fat middle aged and foolish men gather in the middle of winter to skinny dip.
We toweled briskly and quickly donned our clothes, marveling in the feel of clean clothing, free of the scent of diesel, free of extra inhabitants, soft and giving. I pressed my nose against the fabric and vaguely smelt, or perhaps imagined, the scent of my wife's laundry soap and fabric softener. Immediately I missed her so strong it felt like a punch in the gut, stunning me with its intensity. "Gotta get to that phone. Simply got to."
We rolled our filthy uniforms into our towels, and started back towards the rest of the platoon, clean and refreshed for the moment. Both of us knew that it wouldn't last the night out, but enjoying it while we could. Fiest lit us both a smoke, and as he handed my mine, he started to chuckle, "What you reckon them Germans gonna think when they see that ring we left around their pools?"
The thought made us both laugh, the Germans were fastidous about things like that, and it was a sure bet they wouldn't be pleased. But if they knew the joy it had given two soldiers, they might understand. Still, I didn't plan on being there when they did. "Fiest?" I asked," think there's a chance I can get to that phone down there and call my wife?" "Too damn far man, at least a klick (kilometer)." You'd never make it back in time, and Sgt. Neals would have your ass for breakfast." I sighed. "Yeah, you're right, but man oh man; I'd love to talk to her." He punched me in the arm. "Aww hell Duke, you'd just wake her up, its 3 am. Probably scare her to death, thinking you got hurt or something." He pulled at his smoke and then with a grin said, "But I tell you what, we gotta go thru that town tomorrow, arrange a break down thereabouts." "How?" I asked. "Simple, close the valve on the fuel line going into the blower on the engine, not all the way but close, that ought to do it."
He continued to give me instructions as we walked back up to the vehicles. If he was to be believed, he'd done so many times before, and covered his deeds with tales of dirty fuel filters, and sorry mechanics. We separated at the vehicles, each going to our own; I opened the back door of my track, startling the radio operator on duty. I didn't bother to explain my absence or reappearance to him, hell, I outranked him anyway. I stowed my bundle, and climbed into my sack, clean if only for the moment. As I fell asleep, my mind was tracing a fuel line to its valve..."Talk to you in the morning Baby" I thought to my wife. I hoped she heard me.