October 13th 1990, holds a special place in my heart as one of the worst, and as I came to discover later, one of the best days of my life. This story is about a young man who just returns home from basic training with the Army, who happens upon the girl he has had a crush on since junior high school. He makes what he thinks is a last play at winning her heart before heading off to his permanent duty station in North Carolina, on August 2nd, 1990. For those of you who know me personally, this is by far, my most favorite story to tell. Most of the story is based on things that really happened while I served in Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Desert Saber in Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. I chose to use the character Bobby, to portray the lead male character, also known as, me. I did this so that I could use a different perspective as the “eye in the sky”, as opposed to the “head on historical perspective.” I felt as though I could add more to the story this way, even though I know I could still add even more. So, until I have more time to dedicate to the project, I will apply rule #3 from the story tellers manual, which states – It’s my story, I’ll tell it how I want.
You may have seen Bobby in some of my other stories, and hopefully he can make the story believable enough for you. I tried other character names for Anna, but hers is the most beautiful name I can think of, and it broke my heart to use another.
Anyway, here we go!
Times were tough in Michigan in the late eighties and jobs were hard to come by without an education, AND a connection. So Bobby made the only decision that would enable him a chance at a career with a decent life. He joined the Army.
At that time, things seemed relatively stable, as far as conflict went, until the Panama invasion; and that seemed an unexpected fluke. So he joined up, said goodbye, and went on to get his life. A few months later, after all his training was completed, Bobby came home. He had a ten day pass to meet up with family, and friends before he had to report to his permanent duty station at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina- Home of the 82nd Airborne Division.
While he was home, Bobby ran into a girl he had a crush on since he was in junior high school. Upon seeing her, his heart melted all over again. And before long, she was the only thing that occupied his thoughts. Anna was her name, and she was a beautiful woman a year shy of twenty. She was a little wisp of a thing with blond hair, who was smart, funny, and had the most amazing blue eyes he had ever seen; and he was just smitten with her. Having last seen her at his going away party, he assumed he wouldn’t see her again until their twenty-year high school reunion. Such was life.
He tried to impress her with his fancy new hairstyle which was military short, and his new southern drawl. He used the drawl every opportunity he could to say things like, y’all, and… well that’s all he learned. Bobby wasn’t to good at foreign languages, but he tried to say y’all as often as he could to try to make an impact on her with his worldly ways.
Anna, for her part, was going to college to be what their high school graduating class voted her as… successful. And she took it very seriously. About halfway through the ten days off, Bobby finally got the courage to ask Anna on a date. He was going to take her to the local Tuscola County Fair, buy her cotton candy, win her a giant stuffed gorilla, and say y’all a bazillion times. But what really happened was that he took her to the local mini-mart to by her a pop, and while in the store she told him she had to get home and study for a math test she had coming up on Monday morning.
Bobby stood there shocked, because he had seen all two of the educational films that portrayed college life. Those being “Animal House”, and “Revenge of the Nerds”, and from those two films Bobby understood that college took place from September to April. Heartbroken at the lost opportunity, but still a gentleman, he took her home and waved good-bye while the sun was still high in the sky. He was just about to back out of her driveway when she turned to speak. Giving her all of his attention, as she smiled her beautiful smile, and with her blue eyes looking said,
“Thanks for the pop!”
Feeling his face turning red, he then winked at her and said.
“Bye Y’all!” Before trying to peel out in his mothers old Chevy Malibu.
Bobby moped around the fairgrounds that night by himself, his appetite so dismal, he could barely finish the three foot-long hotdogs he purchased. With his leave winding down, he began to consider his move to Ft. Bragg, and the lifestyle he would pursue. He wandered around the carnivals midway, with engines of the demolition derby cars and the rowdy crowd competing to see who could be the loudest roared in on the other side of the picket fence that excited children, and cheap old men fought to peak through. His obsession for his sweet Anna would have to go back up on the mental shelf labeled, “Things That Could Have Been”, and enjoyed the rest of his leave.
The rest of his pass sailed by, and before he knew it, Bobby landed at Fayetteville, North Carolina Airport the evening of August 2, 1990. Walking by the newsstand he saw the headlines stamped with, “Saudi Arabia”. But with the isolation that comes with basic training left him detached from any happenings in the world, he paid little attention to what it might mean.
The taxi ride to the replacement/in-processing station was over a half hour long, Bobby’s eyes strained to see what his new surroundings contained. Since it was a weeknight, and the weekend was a couple days off, he assumed that the post would be laid back when he was dropped off after 9:00 in the evening. That, however, was the furthest thing from the truth. Pulling up to the building he saw men and women in uniform, with full packs and weapons marching to cattle truck’s with loud men with authoritative voices commanding them to march left, march right, and get on the truck. Large green camouflaged 2 ½ ton trucks, lovingly called, “deuce and halves”, full of soldiers and their gear moved slowly down the road under the light of street lamps to the sound of other soldiers dressed in civilian clothes, called civies, cheering for them.
Seeing a friend he had spent the last several months in training with standing by a picnic table of smokers, Bobby wandered over to say hello. He had just barely set his A-bag down when Johnny saw him.
After a hand shake that slipped comfortably into an “Airborne Dap”, they created in jump school. They asked, and answered, the usual questions you would expect after coming off the first leave.
Yes, they each had a good time.
Yes, all the girls loved them.
Yes, they used all the funny military jargon to confuse everyone around them, and ended nearly every sentence the catch-phrase; “AIRBORNE!”
Then they settled into the more mundane questions, that may seem obvious, but needed to be asked, because they didn’t know what else to say. Bobby found that he couldn’t say, “Y’all” because John; who was from the south, could do it with more meaning, and he probably wouldn’t be impressed with it anyway.
“Been here long? Bobby asked.
“A few hours.” Croaked Johnny. Johnny was from Georgia, and had an incredibly deep voice that startled most folks upon introduction. It was quite a shock to hear that voice not come from a lumberjack beast of a man, but from a guy who might tip the scales at 115 pounds if he was soaking wet.
“Crazy, huh?” Johnny asked Bobby indicating all of the activity. He didn’t realize it until Johnny pointed it out, but C-130’s, and C-141’s were taking off from the neighboring Pope Air Force Base, and flying low overhead at the rate of one every couple of minutes.
“Yeah.” Bobby answered. “I didn’t think army life would be so busy! The recruiter said it would be different,” Bobby paused, and then added shaking his head in a ‘shame on him manner’. “ I guess he lied about that, too.”
Bobby was referring to the stories told by soldiers during basic training that most recruiters either exaggerated a little, or outright lied about what basic training had in store for them.
“What!” Johnny roared not believing Bobby hadn’t heard the news. Johnny’s deep voice scaring half of the smokers into a push-up position, thinking a drill sergeant snuck into the area to reprimand them for rule breaking.
Bobby got up from the ground and dusted off his hands as Johnny’s face turned as red as his hair.
“Sorry guys.” His voice boomed.
Then turning to Bobby, he said in almost a whisper.
“You haven’t heard?” He asked.
“Heard what?” Bobby replied.
“We’re moving out. Going to get our war patch!” He said with excited glee. Referring to the patch worn on the shoulder of all soldiers. You wore the patch on the right shoulder when you got assigned to the division, unless you change divisions, then you change patches, but if you go to war with that division, you get the patch put on your left shoulder as well, forever “branding” you as a war veteran from that division. Johnny’s excited tone was similar to the one the guys used when the high school football team bus slowed down to turn in to a fast food joint.
Bobby eyes pinched tight in confusion. His voice showed irritation when he asked his next question.
“What are you talking about?”
“Iraq invaded Kuwait, dude. We’re going to war! Maybe we’ll even get the mustard stain on our wings.” The “mustard stain” indicated a gold star on the jump wings meaning that the soldier who wears them made a parachute jump during combat.
More cheers went up as a couple more deuce and halves growled down the street, their diesel engines sometime drowning the roaring crowds roar.
Johnny could sense Bobby’s confusion and added.
“Be glad I’m telling you this, because the old timers are giving the cherry’s a tough time.”
Bobby shook his head smiling.
“What are talking about? Cherry’s?” He laughed awkwardly.
“You know?” Johnny urged. “Newbie’s?”
“Oh… Cherry’s. Yeah.” Bobby nodded as if he knew the whole time.
“What are the old timers doing to them?” Bobby asked.
“Well, the new line is that when the cherry’s ask the old timers what’s going on and where is everyone going. The old timers tell them that we are going on vacation, and then ask them if they like the beach. Right?” He asked to make sure he was following along. He then continued. “Then the old timers rag on them pretty hard because they say we’re headed for Saudi Arabia, and its nothing BUT beach, but they can’t find any water. Its brutal.” Johnny finished laughingly as another deuce and half drove by to raucous cheers, as the line of aircraft droned overhead.
Bobby, and Johnny met up with a few more guys from their recent training days and relived the good times, and talked of times to come. Johnny left for Saudi within a couple of days after his arrival to Ft. Bragg, but within a couple of months they would all be at the beach.
Bobby left during a hurricane down pour on October 13th, commonly referred to as, “Sweetest day”. Sweet was not the word he would have chosen. For up to that point, that evening proved to be the worst day he ever had. He sat in the back of a deuce and half getting poured on, as he had to endure young families being ripped apart in front of his very eyes. Husbands consoling their wives, knowing they would have to drive home alone during the down pour, the wives refusing to stay home as their men left to whatever danger awaited them. Children clinging to their father’s neck, squeezing every drop out of the time they had left together.
Bobby averted his eyes out of respect as the brave men squeezed in next to him filling the floor of the truck bed. He couldn’t help but feel a little guilt for missing his sweet Anna, when these fella’s just left a major part of their lives behind them in the parking lot. It seemed a messy way to do a thing.
When everyone was accounted for, the truck huck-a-bucked along to the end of the driveway to head out on the road to Pope AFB, to load up on the war-bird. Even the rain couldn’t keep the soldiers from other units whose time to head to the desert hadn’t come, from braving the rain to cheer them on. Cheers and applause mixed with bursts of rain served to lift their heavy spirits, even if only a little bit.
Bobby made it to Saudi Arabia, to be part of Desert Shield, which protected America’s interests in Saudi Arabia. It didn’t matter to Bobby what the interests were. Once the decision was made to go, Bobby would serve to the best of his ability. In some ways he felt that this was the best-case scenario. Reports said that if this thing came to shooting, there was the possibility that 80% of those there wouldn’t come home alive. Bobby wasn’t any good at math, but he understood the pie chart that came along with the article showing 8 out of 10 slices of pie shaded darker than the rest.
In time, it began to make sense to him that if he was killed in a war, his mother would get the flag, and he would be buried with honors. Then hopefully one of those fathers he had seen when they left Fort Bragg would be able to go home to their family. Growing up without a father in his life, Bobby understood the pain involved. Eventually it got to a point that he didn’t just think he would be killed, he knew he would. All that was missing was the time and the date. This is not to say that Bobby was a huge fan of this concept… not in the least. One could chalk this idea up to, “Too much time performing deep thinking exercises.”
Once in country, Bobby was sent to Camp White in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia to be part of the “speed bump”, should Saddam decide to send his forces further south. The early months were ticklish, because most of the people and equipment were in the States, and if the Iraqi forces decided to go south, there was little to stop them, hence the term, “speed bump”. Eventually the newness of being in a hostile environment wore off. It wore off pretty fast, actually; mostly because there was nothing to do, nowhere to go, and there wasn’t even any food anywhere to distract them with, except for what the chow hall cooked. Which was great! Bobby was ready to re-enlist for another plate of biscuits and gravy, but the availability of junk food was non-existent. None! One of the few things that came near any kind of snack food was the cheese packet that came with some of the Meal’s Ready to Eat (M.R.E.); and with nothing and nowhere to spend his money on, cheese packets became the hundred-dollar bills of the soldiers new currency system. Cocoa packet, hot sauce, and brownies were the fives, tens, and twenties; while the right mixture of cocoa, saltine crackers, and water; called “Ranger Pudding” were the fifties.
Bobby had the wherewithal before their departure date to buy a Game-Boy system with a game or two to occupy his time in country. In the entire warehouse of people that he shared lodging with, which was 2000-5000 guys and 1 or two ladies, his was the only Game-Boy around for the first two months in country. He loaned it out freely, only asking for the batteries to be replaced upon return. Sometimes people would give him some cheese packets, to show their gratitude, but other times they only replaced the batteries, he didn’t care either way. He was the newbie, and while he understood that people were historically wary of the new guy, he still wanted to be part of the group, and knew the labor needed to make friends was up to him.
“Boy wait until we get back to post.” Some of the guys would taunt him, “we’re gonna have us a cherry party!” Indicating a hazing ritual meant to intimidate the new guys who hadn’t a friend in the world, and who had already experienced similar head games in basic training. But to a group who had to constantly prove their manhood to a society that continually added new barriers to what it meant to be a man, they somewhat eagerly submitted themselves to the ritual. It was either that, or ostracism, which was a lonely road. Still, Bobby couldn’t resist the opportunity to torment his tormentors, and would add.
“Did you enjoy playing my Game-Boy the other day?”
It took mail about a month to get from home to the soldiers, and the same the other way. So about the time the middle of November rolled around, Bobby became a bit antsy when the mail Sergeant rolled by throwing letters around, like millionaires with thousand dollar bills. No doubt the reaction was the same. The mail carriers were like rock stars.
One-day Bobby’s name was called, and he got a letter. His knees got weak, and he swore he could smell perfume on the envelope, and he had to look at the return address a dozen times to see if he was imagining things. IT WAS FROM ANNA! For whatever reason, an orchestra played a beautiful arrangement in his head every time he sang out those words. Returning to his cot, he opened the envelope, to find a card. It was a Sweetest Day card with the most colorful picture of a rose on the front of it. Even after only a couple of weeks in the desert, the drabness, or better yet the tan-ness of the desert left his eyes feeling dreary and blah. The card was like a festival of color. The red of the rose positively blazed a path across his retinas. While the “Smitten band” played love songs on his heartstrings. It touched his heart to know that on his worst day ever, October 13th, Anna was thinking of him enough to send this card. That card was the salve that took most of the pain from the sting of that day. There were words in the card, and he was sure that he read them… a thousand times at least. But they were all translated to, “Now was the time!” He didn’t know how, or what, but he knew the time to act was now. It was a shame that he had little means to act upon, being in the desert and all.
Within a few weeks opportunity knocked on the door, when it was announced that the USO was using new technology, a camcorder, to give the troops a chance to send a videotape of themselves home to the folks. The soldiers would get 15 minutes of time in front of the camera to give their message, and it would be sent home so the folks could watch it on TV. AWESOME!
A rumor was floating around that some of the guys either couldn’t or wouldn’t make a video to send home, and that the videocassette could be purchased, for a price. One day Bobby found one of those fella’s, a soldier named Charles, and asked what it would take to buy his videocassette tape.
“It’s gonna take a lot of cheese.” Charles said.
Thinking he could low-ball his way to the tape, Bobby tested the water.
“I got five cheeses, if you are interested.”
“Don’t give me that five cheeses line, Bobby. I see you with that fancy game of yours, I want ALL your cheeses!” Chas exclaimed loudly.
“What are you talking about?” Bobby tried to lie, hoping to smooth the situation over by playing dumb.
“What are you talking about,” Bobby tried again. “I only have a few…” Bobby couldn’t even finish the sentence before Charles cut him off yelling at the top of his lungs.
“DON’T GIVE ME THAT LINE!” Then turning to the warehouse of soldiers. I GOT A VIDEOTAPE FOR SALE! WHO WANTS IT?”
“Hey! Hey! Bobby yelled through a whisper, trying to calm the situation. I got your cheeses; just keep your pants on. I’ll be right back.” Bobby said as he walked off to his bunk area where all of his worldly possession lay under his cot. Which blended in with all of the other cots spread out a foot apart from one another.
“Bring me ALL of those cheeses you got there, Bobby!” Charles yelled, while Bobby waved for him to quiet down.
The exchange made, Bobby began mentally writing a script while Charles set up a poker game with his buddies to see if he could expand on his new gotten loot.
With the holiday mail drop deadline looming, Bobby became inspired to put the finishing touches on his script and get the job done. After waiting in the camera line for a few hours, it was show time!
To this very day, Bobby finds leaving messages on voice mail to be quite difficult, but it was nowhere near the feeling he had making the video for someone he was crazy over. The video made, addressed and ready to go, Bobby only had to drop it in the mailbag to be sent off with the other holiday mail items. Bobby just stood in front of the mailbag motionless, until the mail Sergeant had to slap it out of his hand in to the bag so he could be on his way.
To think it was possible for time to go slower than it already was, was unthinkable. But knowing that Anna was going to be watching this video of him baring his soul, asking for only one opportunity at a relationship if this whole war thing worked out, was having an effect. Days that had become weeks in length, now became months, and the rock solid boredom, mixed with pure fear of what could happen, not only to Bobby, but, what Bobby might have to do with the skills learned in training left his mind a confusing waste land of hope and worry. Death on the battlefield seemed the easiest path to take. Because if he had read Anna’s feelings wrong, then how could he face going home again.
“She was the prettiest girl in school,” he argued to himself. “Why would she say yes to you?”
It seemed a relief when those in charge said that the war was scheduled, a deadline set, the use of force lecture was given, and movement began. For a brief amount of time, Bobby’s thoughts were focused on what was in front of him, until they were embedded into their start points around the border separating Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Then they had to wait until the Air Force bombing campaign was complete before the ground war was to begin.
So, what had taken a month to move a letter one way, stretched to six weeks, unbeknownst to Bobby. Because not only was the Christmas rush slowing things down, but the deadline rush added more mail, as well as the confusion of troops not being where they were for the last few months slowed things down even more.
Days were now becoming whole decades as Bobby found himself alone monitoring a radio for the day while his platoon leader was off to meetings a couple of dunes over. Depression wasn’t a word low enough to express the hollowness he felt. Lying in his cot late one night about a week from D-day, Bobby heard gunfire a few dunes away.
“You hear that, Sir?” Bobby asked his platoon leader.
“Yup.” The platoon leader said lying up in the back of the truck.
“Should we do anything?” Bobby asked, concern beginning to creep into his voice.
“Nope, our guys set up an ambush on the enemy, go back to sleep.”
“!” Bobby thought to himself.
The next morning, Bobby thought he had reached his lowest point. It was all very real, now; at least in a surreal way. Somehow it made sense. What started out as;
“I am going to die here.”
Became. “I AM dying here.”
The mail Sergeant pulled up in his hummer. Handed over a few letters. And said.
“Cheer up! Were almost home!”
Bobby nodded his recognition of the mail sergeants attempt to lift his spirits, but with this being the last mail stop until well after D-day, it became clear to Bobby that Anna was not interested.
He watched the hummer move through the sand for a few yards when it suddenly stopped. Adjusting his eye against the blowing sand Bobby could not believe what he was seeing. The Mail Sergeant’s arm was extended out the windscreen holding a letter! Bobby knew he was going to live. The feeling was like nothing he had ever felt before, but would experience again, whenever he looked into his sweet Anna’s eyes.
What was soon becoming just another story in Bobby’s book of tales, became his favorite of his list. Some guys came home with stories of boldness, and others of buddy’s lost in battle. Bobby had those, but winning the love of his life; clearing the shelf of, “Things That Could Have Been,” and filling it with “Things that ARE”, made him feel bulletproof through the war to come.
And they lived…