They sent us to the field just as the weather turned. There was seemingly no fall in South Carolina. It went from merciless summer to unforgiving winter overnight. It rained most of the time, a cold rain that would have been more comfortable if it would just turn to snow.
Having no choice, we grew accustomed to our situation. We changed tires in the cold mud, learned how to recover a stuck Humvee, performed an oil change in the driving rain. The only part we really dreaded was pulling guard duty in the middle of the night.
On our second to last day there, the temperature really dropped. I was dead asleep on my cot, nestled deep in my down bag.
A harsh whisper in the darkness: You’re up.
Then a hand shaking my shoulder. Lonigan. Your turn. It’s almost 0200.
I knew it wasn’t a dream, and I knew I couldn’t keep him waiting. He wanted to climb into his own bag just as much as I wanted to stay in mine.
I’m up, I said. I could hear his partner rousing another guy who’s name I forget after all these years. He was less agreeable, and I could hear his vain complaints.
In a few minutes we were outside the tent, fully dressed in our fatigues, unloaded rifles and all. We walked wordlessly through the darkness down the muddy lane toward the little trailer where we knew we had to check in with whomever was on duty. We could see the tiny square of light from the trailer’s one window in the distance as we trudged ahead. My feet were numb in my boots, and I couldn’t remember ever having been warm.
At the trailer I knocked on the little aluminum door. I could see the soldier next to me in the scant light from the window. He was fairly tall with a square jaw and military issue prescription glasses, the kind with the big, black frames. His mouth was set hard, and steam blew from his nostrils. We still hadn’t spoken a word.
A man soon opened the door, a short, portly sergeant, hatless in a faded and wrinkled uniform. He had somewhat porcine features, but a pleasant demeanor. We could feel the warmth from the room as it escaped out and around us.
The sergeant smiled. Come in, he said. We stepped just inside the door, shifting on our feet, blowing into our hands.
The sergeant closed the door behind us. Names right there on the register, he said, tapping his finger on a clip-boarded form hanging on the wall. We waited for instructions, figuring we would have to walk the perimeter for the next four hours, so we instinctively tried to soak in the warmth.
Instead, he told us, Have a seat, and indicated a small, filthy couch by the window. We sat reluctantly as he took his own seat in a shabby recliner in front of which sat a small black-and-white TV on a makeshift table. You guys want a drink? he asked us.
Aren’t we supposed to be on guard duty? asked my partner.
The sergeant looked genuinely confused. Well, yes, of course. We are all on guard duty. Now, the question is: Would you rather be on guard duty in here or out there? He gestured toward the door.
My partner seemed not to comprehend, so I broke in. We’re fine in here, I said.
The sergeant relaxed a little. He leaned forward and fumbled with the rabbit ears on the TV. You guys like Get Smart? he asked. I loved Get Smart.
Once we were certain we weren’t a part of some cruel test, we began to relax. The sergeant told us about his life, and we spoke some about ours. I remember few details of the conversation.
The things I remember are these: hot chocolate from a packet with little marshmallows, the exact pattern on that dirty yellow couch, the globe of the light above us with a dozen or so little dead insects resting at the bottom, the faces, and the heat coming from a little grated vent in the floor, wonderful heat, so warm that we eventually had to remove our jackets.
And I remember the snow. Look, the sergeant said, and he pointed toward the window. We all three gathered around the little window and looked out. And there it drifted lightly, reticent, benevolent. A kind of blessing. A snow globe in reverse. I didn’t know it snowed here, I said.
0600 hours approached and we didn’t want to leave. We never wanted to leave. At least we wouldn’t have to wake anybody up. Reveille would be playing soon, and they would all be awake.
Ken Elliot is an Army veteran, high school English teacher and author of a children’s book entitled The Wish, published by Adamo Press. His stories have appeared in several literary journals including Gemini, Chaleur, and Montana Mouthful.