Friday, May 7, 2010

Lt. Col. Harkleroad (an excerpt)

Readers, meet Eustace Harkleroad.  Eustace, these are the readers.

[Handshakes, mumbles of "How are ya?"]

This is Harkleroad's first appearance in Fobbit--a scene which still needs a little fine-tuning.  We come into it just as Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding is finishing a news release about the war's latest casualty...

[Gooding's] fingers flew across the keyboard like he was playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 and only had two minutes to finish the damned thing. In fact, he only had one minute. The division’s public affairs officer, Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, hovered at Gooding’s elbow, watching every keystroke of every word of the press release unrolling across the computer screen.

Harkleroad was a thick man. Thick in the way a bowl of risen dough is thick. He filled his uniform amply, and even had some left over. When he leaned back in his chair, other soldiers flinched, afraid a button would pop off, come flying across the room and put out an eye.

And there were other ways in which he posed an imminent threat.

Eustace Harkleroad—forever shortened by his mother to “Stacie” which had caused him no end of agony over the past forty-odd years—was a spontaneous nosebleeder. Gooding knew if he didn’t get this killed-in-action press release done quickly and to the exacting standards of the commanding general, the PAO’s nose would start dripping red like a spigot.

Gooding didn’t tell his boss he was writing this release based on the barest, unsubstantiated nod from G-1 Casualty. What Harkleroad didn’t know wouldn’t hurt either him or the rest of the world. Besides, this press release had already been ping-ponging around division headquarters for the past fifty minutes—at least four hours and ten minutes after the charred body had cooled somewhere out there in al-Karkh—and the Multi-National Division Public Affairs Office merely needed to tell the media what they thought they already knew. It was just another useless, redundant scrap of information in the reporters’ e-mail inboxes and eight times out of ten would be deleted without being read, but to the majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and generals running around division headquarters in a constant state of ass-pucker, the press release was momentarily as important as an edict from the Pope.

In its life cycle, the press release went through several layers of approval and concurrent, sometimes contradictory, editing by the various staff officers along the way. From Staff Sergeant Gooding it went to Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad, who would red-pen the sentences, give it back to Gooding for corrections, then distribute it to several other staff officers—Intelligence & Security, Plans & Operations, Staff Judge Advocate, Provost Marshal, sometimes even the Chaplain got a say-so—before hand-carrying it upstairs to the Command Group, where Harkleroad would give it to the Chief of Staff’s secretary—fingers trembling, nose already starting to tingle with the threat of blood—and wait outside the Chief’s office door while the secretary ventured inside to place the press release on the colonel’s desk and would either be blasted with a bark of “What the fuck is it now?!” or a battle-weary, “All right, let me have it. And for God’s sake, tell Harkleroad to stop sniffing out there.”

Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad did his best to suck the beginning drips of blood back into his nostrils and prayed the Chief read the press release before he couldn’t snuffle it up anymore and he had to walk in there to retrieve the paper with a tissue wad sticking out of his nose.

While he waited, Harkleroad kept the left side of his body angled toward the Chief’s office door. Stacie’s right eardrum had been punctured when he’d stepped too close to a howitzer during artillery training eleven years ago. Then-Captain Harkleroad had been thinking about his mother’s church group in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and how at their Wednesday Bible Study meetings Eulalie Constance Harkleroad (“Connie” at her insistence) would announce to the other ladies fanning themselves with Our Daily Bread the latest accomplishments of her son Stacie as he made a name for himself in the U.S. Army.  Most of what his mother relayed to the First Church of Redemption ladies were half-truths Stacie Harkleroad kneaded and pulled like Silly Putty for her benefit.

“Well, Mother, today I led my men on a twelve-mile road march in the pouring rain.” (He’d stopped to tie his bootlaces at the seven-mile mark, telling his first sergeant to continue on with the rest of the company and he’d catch up, then surreptitiously slipped back to headquarters.)

“Next month, I’m taking my company on a joint training exercise to Italy.” (The three-day command post exercise had taken place right there at Fort Knox, Kentucky; the staff officers sat at a bank of computers and moved icons around a map of the Italian Alps, while a group of Air Force officers at Warren AFB in Wyoming and Marines at Twenty-Nine Palms in California did the same thing—each of them trying to outmaneuver the other until the exercise observer-controllers called “game over.”)

“Yes, mother, yes, the brigade commander is absolutely certain I’ll be promoted this year, it’s just a matter of checking the right blocks on my annual evaluation form.” (The colonel barely knew Stacie existed—called him “Harrison” every time he saw him, despite the fact that “Harkleroad” was embroidered above the breast pocket of his uniform.)

Eustace had gotten so deep into the habit of lying to his mother to fuel her Wednesday evening Bible Studies that he wasn’t sure how to pull himself out of that death spiral, except to one day actually do something which, if not exactly brave or significant, would at least have the truth as its foundation.

This is what he was thinking as the gun crew prepared the artillery round for deployment on that day eleven years ago. The idea entered Harkleroad’s head that if he was the one to pull the lanyard and fire the howitzer, he could actually give his mother something to bust her buttons over.

He started walking toward the gun crew with his great idea, but he was half-an-idea too late. He was three paces away and in the midst of saying, “Here, Sergeant, let me—” when the squad leader gave a huge tug on the lanyard, the rest of the crew having already bent over, cupping their ears. There was a belch of smoke, the howitzer recoiled and Harkleroad’s right ear burst like a hot tomato. He was thrown to the ground in inky silence.

No comments:

Post a Comment