Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From the Cutting Room Floor: Captain Hornsacker's Helmet

Here's another section of Fobbit which fell victim to the editing knife in this latest round of revisions.  Brief exposition:  Captain Abe Hornsacker, one of the central characters in my novel about the Iraq War, is the kind of jelly-spined leader you come across every so often in the Army.  By the time the company reaches Kuwait, even Hornsacker's NCOs have lost all respect for the man:
       The company commander had reached a new level of useless on this last Quick Reaction Force mission to rescue the 442nd fuel truck in Adhamiya. Sergeant Lumley was finding it harder and harder each day to mask his contempt for Hornsacker. He tried to put on a loyal face in front of his men--good order and discipline and all that crap—but Hornsacker made it too easy to sneer and jeer. Practically gave it a red-carpet invitation.
       The way he stuttered when he stood in front of the company formation, his hands clasped behind his back where, Lumley suspected, he was wringing his fingers like they were little damp sponges. The way he started most of his sentences with “So, uh…” The way he kept all those care packages to himself and never shared with the rest of the company—pretended, in fact, that he wasn’t even receiving any care packages at all. The way he never let anyone, not even the First Sergeant, inside his trailer. The way he stared you up and down if the two of you bumped into each other in the shower trailer. The way he’d so typically cowered at the Quillpen standoff with the half-dead terrorist, not even bothering to hide his fear from the battalion commander. The way he walked with little mincing steps as if he was following a dotted line on the ground. The way he kept nervously sucking in his breath on the humvee ride to Adhamiya eight hours ago.

I cut the following section from the latest draft of Fobbit primarily because the novel shifted back and forth too many times between the action in Baghdad and memories of earlier times in Kuwait just before the soldiers deployed north into Iraq.  For those unfamiliar with the Middle East and the programmatic stages of the Iraq War, there are few differences between Kuwait and Iraq and so the flashbacks tend to blur and confuse readers.  I'm still fond of this particular incident and wish I could have kept it.

*     *     *

They tested Abe’s mettle when they were in Kuwait by shitting in his helmet.  At least someone did.  Maybe it wasn’t an entire company of “theys,” maybe it was just one rogue hater who had it out for him.  No one ever fessed up and the CID investigation, launched by an irritated Lieutenant Colonel Strong, never found the Culprit of Shit.

The entire incident altered the character of Bravo Company.

Sure, Abe was rattled.  Who wouldn’t be, coming back to the tent from the shower trailer to find your helmet upside-down, front-and-center on your cot with a fresh coil of human waste on the webbing inside and a crudely-written note (“Have a Nice Day, Shithead”)?  Abe stood there, towel around his neck, staring with slowly-seeping comprehension at the gauze of steam rising from his Kevlar.

Sunlight from the early dawn was filtering into the sleeping quarters, burning off the night chill.  Behind him, the tent—large as a circus Big Top and filled with more than a hundred cots, footlockers, duffel bags, and groaning, farting soldiers—was quiet, too quiet.  It was their fourth day in Kuwait, their sixth day out of the States, ten days until they ventured north into Iraq, and Abe knew his men were homesick and afraid of what waited for them across the border.  The soldiers were loud with braggadocio, quick to punch and wrestle each other to the ground, and stony with their silences when they stopped to think they were now “men at war.”  Abe cut them some slack because they were all feeling the threat of snipers and mortars which came to them in invisible, pulsing waves from the restless land to their immediate north.  They read the headlines in Stars and Stripes; they knew it was all one big dice-roll. This is what they had trained for, but few were really ready for it.

So yeah, for the time being Abe would grant them their little moments of indiscipline—the day-growth of beard stubble, the smuggled-in issue of Playboy, the unauthorized stash of pogey bait (the Cheet-os, the Oreos, the Slim Jims) which would only attract Kuwaiti rodents, the sloppy way they stood in his formations.  Yes, he’d give them an inch for the next ten days they were here in the waiting-room of Kuwait because he wanted to be a kind and generous commander, a leader who looked out for his men.

But this, the steaming stink of shit in his helmet, this was something else entirely.  It was a personal, “fuck-you” message direct from the heart of those he’d trusted and loved (and who he thought felt the same about him).  What was he to do with this?

He stood there paralyzed as the shower water evaporated from his skin, leaving it cold and clammy in the chill of the Kuwait morning.  Without turning around, he strained to hear the muffled snicker, the unsuppressed chuckle, but heard nothing except the even more meaningful silence filling the tent around him.

Not once did he turn and look at his men who pretended to sleep in their cots.  Not once did he try to ferret out the conspiratorial glance, the wink, the suddenly-averted eyes, the blanket pulled back over the head.  No, Abe simply picked up the helmet with both hands and carried it to the nearest latrine where he dumped the turds into the gaping hole.  Then he scrubbed the inside of his Kevlar with hot water and went about his business, never once saying anything which would give the shitter the pleasure of seeing his commander rattled.

But when, three days later, someone from another company reported the graffiti in the porta-potty—“I can hardly wait until I get to Iraq and get me some live ammo so I can kill Capt. H.”—well then, there was no getting around it.  Abe Hornsacker was frightened of his own men.

Lieutenant Colonel Strong took the only reasonable course of action available to him: he forbade Abe to go on the convoy to Baghdad for fear his stalker would take him out during the trip north.  Instead, Abe was forced to catch a ride with a later convoy.

So, because some crazy sonofabitch (or sonsofbitches) scrawled death threats, the entire company moved through enemy territory without a commander.

Worst of all, his men seemed to be okay with that.

1 comment:

  1. What a douched up unit, ad what a douche of aCO.