Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New Story: “Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your War”

Today marks the debut of a new online literary magazine, Litbreak, and I’m honored to have one of my short stories in the opening line-up. “Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your Life” tells what happens when a soldier’s first days in basic training coincide with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Here's how the story begins:
      When the drill sergeants brought us into the chow hall, sat us down, rolled out the TV and made us watch what the rest of the world had been seeing on an endless news loop for the past week, my stomach clenched at the thought of all those vaporized deaths—gone in an instant! I regretted my disbelief and was sorry for being a complete and utter jackass for the past six days.
      We’d just started our second week of basic training at Fort Benning when they flicked on the TV and we watched the plane go into the skyscraper. It was silky-smooth, the way the building swallowed the jetliner, and I remember thinking it was pretty good for a movie special effect. Yeah, I thought I was pretty smart, the real badass of the platoon, but as it turned out, I didn’t know jack shit.
      Six days earlier, I’d tumbled off the bus at Reception along with everyone else, masking fear with bravado, looking at everything through narrow-slit eyes, desperately sucking down two last cigarettes and saying, “I don’t think it’s gonna be as bad as they say it’ll be.”
      Another guy—whose name turned out to be Hewitt—looked at me and said, “You’re kidding, right?”

Click here to read the rest of the story

By coincidence, today also marks the anniversary of one of the most significant events of my own basic training experience: the birth of my daughter Kylie. Though it was a much happier event than the hard-to-believe horror of the 9/11 attacks I describe in the story, Dec. 1, 1988 was nonetheless an unforgettable one for me.

My indelible day actually came three days later, on a Sunday, which was the only day we basic trainees were allowed to call home. I entered the Army in October 1988 knowing full well the birth of my third child would come while I was away at Fort Knox being pummeled physically and mentally by drill sergeants. I had to get in the Army as soon as I could because my family really needed the money. My wife, two boys, and I were barely scraping by on my income as a newspaper reporter in a small Montana town. The military provided a steady paycheck, job security, yadda yadda, and this was the path we decided to take (little knowing it would lead to a full 20-year career). I wasn’t happy with the way the calendar had conspired against me—in fact, I was downright angry—but I felt powerless to change the military’s predetermined schedule. I needed to be in the Army to help pay for the baby, but I couldn’t watch that baby come into the world because of the Army. It was the first time (but certainly not the last) the Army would crush my soul like an aluminum can under its boot heel.

And so, I left my wife, my sons and our not-quite-yet child (we refused to get an ultrasound so we didn’t know the sex) at my in-laws in Albuquerque and headed for Fort Knox, Kentucky. Like the narrator of my story, I entered a “bubble,” a new world designed to separate me from the one I knew and loved: “No contact with the outside world. No calls to our families, no incoming mail, no TV, no computers, no newspapers or magazines. It was all Army all the time. We were the new residents of Mind-Control City and the drills were the mayors.”

I learned how to march, how to break down and re-assemble a rifle, and how to run at a straw-filled dummy and jab it with a bayonet while screaming “Kill a Commie for Mommy!” I learned how to distance myself from everything I used to love.

But not really. Try as it might, the Army could never make me stop thinking about my wife 1,300 miles west of me, virtually alone with her pregnancy. I wanted to be with her there at the hour of birth, but I couldn’t. When the drill sergeants pushed us hard on three-mile runs, and then harder and harder still, until we were drained of all breath and muscle strength and felt ready to puke, when I was stumbling and feeling dizzy on that last home stretch for the barracks, the only thing that kept me going was picturing my wife standing at the finish line, cheering me on, “You can do this! Breathe, breathe, breathe!” As if I were the one in labor.

The weeks passed. I got a little stronger, developed some self-confidence, felt myself hardening into someone far different than the jelly-legged guy who stepped off the bus at the reception station. But I never stopped worrying about my wife and the due date which felt like it should have already come and gone. By this point, I’d lost all sense of a calendar. Was it November? Had December arrived yet?

Then, one Sunday morning when we were given a half-day off to attend church, make phone calls home, and be relieved from the drill sergeants’ constant badgering for just five blessed hours, I went to the courtyard outside and the row of phone booths which gave us our only link to the Outside World.

It was cold. Like burn-your-earlobes and shrink-your-cuticles cold. I stood in line for a good thirty minutes, stamping my feet and furnacing some breath into my cupped hands. My fellow basic trainees took their own sweet goddamn time in those phone booths. Behind the scratched Plexiglass windows, I could see them laughing and yakking it up, turning their backs to the lines that were growing longer and longer across the courtyard. I hated them but I couldn’t blame them. We all needed to connect with our loved ones, soft as pillows, who lived far away from this rough new world of ours.

When it was my turn, I stepped inside the small booth and slid the accordion door shut. The air carried traces of its previous tenant’s sweat and a dissipating fart. The black phone receiver was sticky and still warm from the other guy’s hand. I noticed none of this. The only thing that mattered to me was what waited for me on the other end of that phone connection. I’d narrowed my focus to Albuquerque.

My mother-in-law answered. “Hello?”

“It’s me. Has she had it yet? Am I a father?”

My mother-in-law hesitated for two agonizing beats of silence.

“Hello?” I said. “Hello?

“Umm...Let me put her on and she can tell you herself.”

As the phone changed hands, I measured the seconds in heartbeats.

My wife’s voice—softer and higher than usual—came on the line: “Would you like to say hello to your daughter?”

In that moment, everything melted away, all of it: the stretched-to-snapping muscles, the broken spirit, the ridicule and name-calling, the stress that left us gagging, the running, running, running everywhere. The whole lot of it just evaporated. Only two words remained in my head, clear as a bell toll: My Daughter. Those words were the reward and sweet payback for the past seven weeks of hell.

There was another rustle of long-distance air as my wife put the phone close to my daughter’s face. I don’t know what I said—probably something in a ridiculous, high-pitched cooing voice like “Hello, little one! How are you?” It was the kind of stupid thing you’d baby-talk to your pet dog or cat on the other end of the line, knowing you’d never get an answer, so why even try?

Then I shut up and held my breath, listening.

It came soft and whispery through the static, but if I really strained, if I pressed the phone hard against the side of my head and shoved a finger in my other ear to block out my fellow soldiers’ impatient tapping on the phone booth window, I could hear it: the new breath of my baby daughter moving gently back and forth across her rosebud lips. And, while I didn’t say it back then, I could have easily whispered back into that hand-grimed receiver: “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, baby girl.”

December 28, 1988

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