Independence Day, almost

This one day during basic training when we did a night live fire exercise crawling under exploding things made me kind of done with fireworks. I was low-crawling through the sand with tracer bullets flying overhead (“Don’t stand up, or you might get

killed,” they told us, though I figured the bullets were probably higher overhead than they looked). People were screaming and freaking out all around me. I was dragging a 160-lb dummy through what had to be hundreds of yards of sand, and there were unseen charges exploding here and there, throwing sand and light on us at unpredictable intervals.

Having had longstanding intimacies with guns and people who like to blow things up, I didn’t feel afraid, unlike most of the city kids around me. But I did feel totally exhausted because my dummy-dragging partner flipped out and, like, sprinted ahead for the end of the range on his hands and knees (if one can sprint on their hands and knees) leaving me with the dummy which pretty much fuckin blew. It was like 3 am and we had been out for two days on our final field exercise and then on a (25K? maybe?) night road march. You get so tired you just fall alseep in the ditch with your face against the stock of your M-16 rifle the second the line stops for a headcount (whenever you stop, you have to spread out and hunker down on your belly and take aim outside the line in case anyone attacks—sort of like circling the wagons). But you keep hucking all your gear from place to place and completing little trials—that’s what Basic Training is, pretty much. And you often don’t realize what the trial is going to be til you get there, so you might be marching along pleasantly in the dark and then someone’s like, “Stop, wait, turn left, go crawl through that sand under those bullets” etc., etc. And you just kind of do it and then go onto the next thing. But, like I said, I was exhausted because, while I didn’t find any one task assigned in Basic Training particularly difficult, I did find myself wanting for sleep. And I realized while I was on my belly in the middle of the sandpit with the heavy mannequin that because I wasn’t flipping out and screaming and throwing my weapon and crawling in the wrong direction like so many of my buddies (In Basic Training, everyone’s your “buddy.” You’re told at many points to “grab a buddy.” And if you’re caught alone, you might have to get down and do slow push ups yelling “Here buddy buddy buddy, Here buddy buddy,” until some other private comes over and does push ups with you, sometimes in an awkward simulated dry-hump position, but maybe they stopped that by now.) I could capitalize on the chaos and just sort of chill for a while. So I stopped there and turned over on my back and outstretched the mannequin’s arm so I could lie there and use his shoulder as a pillow, and I was completely overcome by the beauty overhead.

Maybe it was just the precious rest, or maybe the soft sand under my dully aching body or the simulated intimacy with a simulated (and realistically-weighted and -clothed, and somewhat supple) person. Anyhow, it was effing gorgeous. And I was like, “Wow, this is the coolest fireworks show I’ve EVER seen. I wish my friends could be here.” And then about five seconds later I realized that because this was a live fire exercise and these were supposedly real bullets and bombs, this cool beautiful fireworks show was actually very very much like what people see when their homes and cities and villages are being bombed and destroyed. And it’s the last thing a lot of people see, ever. And it’s the last time a lot of people see their homes, or their children, or their parents. And once that occurred to me, the scene wasn’t at all beautiful but horrifying. I had somehow shut out all the screaming and chaos around me in that moment of peace, but once I thought of the villages being bombed, my hearing came back and I realized the screaming of my buddies on this range might not sound all that different from the screaming of those villagers.

I was ready to cry, but couldn’t quite do it because I was never able to cry when I was young—didn’t cry through any of the training. Didn’t cry through any of it until like 2 hours later, that is. I had dragged the dummy to the end and marched another five or ten kilometers and we were all finally back in the garrison area and our drill sergeants lined us up in formation in the still darkness, many of us not even realizing where we were. Suddenly this HUGE spotlight shined on Old Glory going up a pole right in front of us and these super loud speakers I didn’t even know were there started BLASTING Eye of the Tiger. After we dropped salutes, Drill Sergeant Anderson shook my hand and pinned something on my collar and said, “Welcome to the United States Army, soldier” but I had already lost it. I was bawling within the first ten bars of Eye of the Tiger.

KtB editor Quince Mountain lives in the Great Northwoods and is currently at work on a chronicle of belated manhood and unlikely self-help. You can hear about his sexploits as a teenage cowboy for Christ here.