The following fictional story and fictional preface and afterward are for the very real Marine Jason J. Rother and his not-forgotten family.
Not Forgotten Man
Preface to the Persian Gulf War, 1989
by James A. Freeman*
No one seemed to notice that Lance Cpl. Jeff J. Ready had been left behind after the exercise was over and the platoons had marched back to waiting trucks. On the night of August 30th, 1989, several thousand Marine troops participated in a night training exercise on the huge and desolate Twenty-nine Palms base in the California Mojave Desert. Marine Lance Cpl. Jeff Ready, at age 19, had followed the family tradition of several uncles who served before him as Marines, and was posted alone that night along the dusty main trail, helping to direct convoys during the large-scale exercise to prepare for the first Iraq invasion. Somehow, Ready’s superiors allowed Jeff J. Ready to be posted alone, a violation of Marine regulations. Inexplicably, Ready was forgotten in the dessert by colleagues who were supposed to pick him up from the desolate trail where he, and others in his infantry unit from Camp Le Jeune, N.C., were directing the war game movements. After the thousands of young men were back safely in their bunks, no one seemed to notice. When Jeff Ready did not report for roll call, his commanders reportedly thought that he had been reassigned to another detail. When another whole day had passed and Ready failed to report at a second roll call, they reported him missing. When a widespread, three-day search of the desert training area failed to turn up the Infantryman, many Marine officials suspected Jeff J. Ready had gone AWOL. A Marine Corps spokesman and Lt. Col. said, “There was an obvious breakdown in the personnel reporting procedure.”
Maybe this time I’ve strayed too far, Mama. You always warned me: “It’s O.K. to wander, Jeffery, just don’t wander so far away that you can’t find your way back home.” It’s got to be 120 degrees, Mom. Humidity way less than 10 percent. I’m in the Mojave, miles and miles from my bunk at Twenty-nine Palms.
I’ve been teaching my men for a year now. “Know your terrain.” I keep saying to all my Infantry guys from Camp Le Jeune. You know, guys I met after basic in North Carolina. But this California desert is different, Mama. Different and mean. And there’s nobody from Cleveland or Minneapolis or anywhere to say, “Yes, sir, Lance Cpl. Ready.” Yes, Mom. I’m all alone, and maybe it’s too far.
The sons of bitches left me, Ma. Goddamn Marine Corp Murphy’s Law. I’m walking on this goddamn dusty puissant trail, thinking about you and Dad and Cheryl and our little Danielle, and praying for Twenty-nine Palms’ goddamn finest to miss me at roll call and get a truck the hell out here to this particular hell before I parboil. Marine Corps efficiency, Dad, just like you said. Semper Fi. Snafu. They must have shit for brains. Know your terrain.
The sun is intense here. The sand, even on this harder packed trail, almost pulls down on your boots it seems, wants to take you down. All around me are simmering miles of heaves of sand, boundless, bare, blurred lines and lines of sand ridges almost breaking, mirage like, waves of khaki sea. Boundless and bare. Know your terrain. It’s a cross between the moon and a freakin’ Frankie Avalon beach movie, but Frankie and Annette are nowhere around. Maybe they’re making out in your Ford, Dad, just like Cheryl and me before Danielle was born. What did you call it, Dad? The horizontal rumba? Hooh ra! Got to think about other things, other places, other times. It’s all I’ve got, Dad.
I’m on the goddamn moon. There’s big mountains west of here, but they’re too far. Last night the sun bled down crimson behind them, left this moonscape purple changing imperceptibly into black, and then more stars than I’ve ever seen came out to show me that you were looking at them too, but I couldn’t get comfortable without you next to me, Cheryl. I haven’t been comfortable since I left. Last night, I lay down right on the trail we hiked in on, watched star ad to star to star in the black above, but there were too many lumps under me, and the sand got into everything. Fell asleep right before dawn, shivering, honey, my mouth already feeling like it was full of black save poultice.
The sun woke me up, baby. I’d been shivering in my uniform last I remember, Cheryl honey, lying on the ground next to my gun, wishing it were you, and then the damn sun punched up, put its fist in my face, blistering every crater and depression here on this moon, and I sweated, sweated it all. You know what it is like when you or the baby has a fever and you wake up drenched. I felt stiff, sore as hell, but I got up, pissed, not believing that I’d been shivering just twenty minutes before, and I looked around at the hot, bright side of the moon. I said, “the Jeff Ready has landed,” just like Neil Armstrong. Figured you’d like that one, were you here to hear it, Cheryl. Already my mouth and throat were on fire and I almost cursed myself for not trying to capture my urine somehow to evaporate it, like my Captain taught us here at Twenty-nine Palms. There ain’t a palm within miles of here, honey. This is where snakes come to die. The cactus than looks a hundred yards away is more like a mile. Hooh ra.
Know your terrain, Lance Cpl. Ready. The center of the base is south and west. Has to be fifteen or twenty miles, maybe more. You’d better hope for your little daughter Danielle’s sake that you haven’t wandered too far. Goddamn Sgt. Goddamn Marine Corp. You guys have shit for brains. Mohave Desert training in the summer! Shit for brains!
Little face, your Daddy misses you. Ohio. Minnesota. North Carolina. Southern California Desert. It’s been too far. Daddy left his helmet and flak jacket after hiking for a few hours, sweetie. Threw down his backpack a little later too. They were too much weight, the things we have to carry, buy Daddy would carry you anywhere and never set you down. I’d change ten thousand dirty diapers just to be holding you. I’m carrying you with me in my mind as I walk, little face, and as the sun beats down on my ridiculous camouflage, a red flamethrower on a khaki hide drum of cloth and skin.
I left an arrow of stones for them, little face, to show them the way you and I are walking. Show them which way to go. Did Daddy go the right way for help, Danielle? Did he let them make him wander too far from home?
Jesus, Sgt. Lee. Twenty-nine Palms is more than nine hundred square miles and out of our whole damn platoon you want to post me alone. War games in the Mojave, and it’s 120 degrees. Semper damn Fi, Sgt. Lee. Keep humping this sand, Lance Cpl. Ready. Mouth is on fire, teeth gritty. You’re going to dry out soon. Daddy’s got some water little face, but he’s going to run out damn soon. Nine hundred thirty two square miles of desert base, and it’s south, southwest to Highway 10. Left, right, left. Keep humping this sand trail. Watch the alligator lizards scatter before my shadow hits them. Watch the wall of blue mountains, big Nevada’s distant, elusive, shimmering through heat waves, on my right. Hump this sand.
I’m coming home to you, Danielle. Just a sip from Daddy’s canteen. Hot water tastes first like heaven, then sucks like a poultice at my throat. Left, right, left. I’m marching home to you. Nine hundred square miles, but whose counting now? Don’t go too far little Jack, not too far away from home.
Lance Cpl. Ready, did you read the Balzac story? Did you find the theme? Why was I instructed in these lessons? War games in the dessert before the next real thing? Another carnival of loss about to open? Yes, I remember, Miss Malvern. Enterprise High School in Cleveland. Where Mom and Dad went too when you were still in grade school Miss Malvern. Where I met Cheryl too. It’s “A Passion in the Desert,” right? The one by Balzac where the captured French soldier escapes and then his stolen horse dies and leaves him walking in the sand? I remember. I remember it all. That’s right, Jeff, you said Miss Malvern. Tell us what happened; more importantly what you learned from it. What you took away from the story that makes it real. I remember. The Frenchman meets a panther, and she befriends him, kills him food, leads him to water. They fall in cross-species love, real love, but become possessive. I remember that the lady panther gets enraged when the French soldier looks at a passing bird. That’s the beginning of the end. Balzac says that all things are possible in the desert. The desert is God without man.
And what happened, Jeff? How did their love resolve?
Cheryl in the row behind. Sophomore year English, Fall of ’81. Eyes deeper than those distant blue mountains off in the heat and simmering haze. Keep them on your right, Lance Cpl. Ready. Know your terrain.
Look at the landscape within, Miss Malvern said. Resolution of conflict leads to theme. Cheryl a row behind me the year before we began to date. Rising action. Hussein killing his ancestral neighbors. Climax not yet happening. Little face Danielle about to be. Fall of ’81. Goddamn Lt. Lafer. Goddamn Sgt. Lee posting me without a partner. Without a mate. Stupid. Directing convoys I n the Mojave through the searing peak heat of day. Just damn dumb. Shiites, Baths, Sunnis, I have no stake in them. Just an oath, a promise I will not break.
I think that they might have been having sex, Miss Malvern, I said, and the snickering behind me began. That always complicated things, I thought but didn’t say. Maybe they were in love, she answered. I think the panther and the soldier didn’t trust each other fully, and when she snapped at him playfully, he mistook it for rage and stabbed her, almost instinctually, but really from lack of trust. It’s something deep in us, jealousy, envy, possessiveness, hubris, I said. Something about holding the core of us back, never sharing all of who we are, ever.
Then it was love, our teacher agreed. That’s very good, Miss Malvern said. Don’t you ever be afraid to search too deeply, too far, and I, red faced, sophomoric, slid back into my seat. Fall of ’81.
I’m not a sophomore anymore, Miss Malvern. I’m 23. I’m humping this sand to get ready for what’s to come: Iraq; Iran, maybe Afghanistan, tribal blood feuds, thousands of miles away from the Mojave but just the same. I know that some people, when thrown into a room for strangers, will look for common ground. I know that just as many others will seek differences, to other, to divide. I have been trained to keep the enemy back, away and apart, to never let him in. My enemy and the enemies of my country are who Uncle Sam tells me they are. He tells me they want to kill my wife, my daughter, freedom itself, take it all away. And we are all going somewhere to divide, sometime very soon.
But that’s not what’s going on here, Lance Cpl. Ready. This desert is just the first Shakespearian act. It’s all about training, breaking us down and rebuilding us into a focused killing machine. Know your ass from a hole in the ground. Know your terrain better than the enemy, even if it’s his home. Especially then. Blow the stranger’s ass away. Your M-16 is capable, if you clean and inspect it regularly, of blowing all of their asses away. Keep that gun on your shoulder, no matter how much it burns. Parade rest. Keep putting one booted footed foot in front of the other. Hump that sand. Cheryl and I making love or something near in the Ford. The soldier and the panther. The woods back of Enterprise High School, Summer ’82. Trust me, trust me. We have more in common than differences. Love or something near.
Snafu. I’m marching home to you, Danielle. Little face, your Daddy just hopes it’s not too far. A dark, milling vulture circles overhead. Heat waves everywhere.
This is about jealousy and mistrust, Lance Cpl. Ready. Jealousy between religions, nations. Hegemony. Lack of trust, emphasis of differences. Gorbachev and the Russians may be for real in allying with us, in stabilizing Afghanistan, but it’s still too soon to tell, Berlin Walls fallen or not. The Middle East still has walls, is a goddamn powder keg. Damn 10/30 weight oil baron fanatics killing their neighbors and each other. What else is human history but a history of war, Miss Malvern? Know your damn terrain, and be ready to defend it from the mongrel hordes. Deadbolt the door.
But here there are no doors: just a bake oven of interior monologue, the essential Id, with vultures milling shadowed circles surreally above. A lady panther and a French soldier fell in love in the desert. It all comes down to me. Romeo, Oh Romeo… Oh, Ashley! I can think it all. In the desert, all things are possible. The desert is God without man…
Not Forgotten Man, Part Two
Will you marry me, Cheryl? We’ll take the Ford up to Niagara Falls, check into a hotel and screw like bunnies, maybe even come out at night to see the Falls pouring massively under primary-colored lights. Love and so much more. What we’re fighting for? Yes, you say Romeo, Romeo. Who needs Ashley when you’ve got Rhett? We’ll all trust each other implicitly, Cheryl, never hold back at all. In the desert, all things are possible.
Honey, it all started when we mustered on the morning of Aug. 30. All of Sgt. Lee’s platoon, mostly Infantry guys shipped here with me from Camp Le Jeune, got orders for war training out on the edge of base for the afternoon. My squad leader, Sgt. Turk, put us in one truck after lunch, told me I’d be posted alone along the dirt track to help direct troop movement after the other platoons and squads got out of the trucks and marched into the site. He said I got off easy. Piece of cake.
Cheryl, honey, that damn chipped beef on bread was the last thing I’ve had. Got to hump these waves of sand the hell out of here. Snafu. Shoot the hell out of anything that moves. Panther or no panther, Balzac. All’s fair in love and whatever the hell this is…
So Ben Mather and me, my black buddy I wrote you about, were just riding along with the others in the back of our squad’s truck, dust swirling all around us and Ben’s walkman blaring out his ears yesterday afternoon. Ben’s from Alabama, honey, and he’s funnier than hell. Always coming out with one liners. So our squad’s bouncing along in a dusty column of green trucks, close to a thousand of us in our platoon, rocking to Ben’s music, and he’s pretending to be a black swami, coming out with fortune cookie wisdom and all. I tell him about us again, Cheryl, about Dad’s car and Niagara Falls, then baby Danielle, and joining up for God and country and all. Out of the blue, in the heat and the dust and the two green roiling rows of our squad, this big damn swami says, “Marriage is where you go from swearing to love someone to loving to swear at them!”
I tell Ben, honey, I mean desert swami Mather, about Sgt. Turk chewing my ass the day before and how I want to nail gun his butt to the floor and Ben says in swami Alabama: “The hardest part of a threat is having to carry it out.” Then he put a big hand to his forehead, pushes back his cap like he’s coming on with another one. “The bitch about being humble is that you can’t brag about it.”
You had to be there, honey, had to see that big baby face strain to look both menacing and wise. Ben goes about 250, Cheryl, and here he is sitting with his open palms pressed together like Buddha, a great big smile busting out across his face. It looked so weird to see him act like that, what with all that desert camouflage on and all the others smirking, talking trash at him. You had to be there, Cheryl.
I asked Ben if he ever gets tired of all that prejudice shit in the south; you know, sometimes they still find a black man washed up dead on a river bank, shit like that. Swami Ben tells me that there’s still hate in the deep south, just like everywhere, just like maybe in Iraq, then he falls silent for a while, as the truck bounces along, swallowing dust from trucks a mile ahead, thinking. He looks right at me. Brown pools of eyes surrounded by the whitest white pupil. He says, all kung-fu style now, “Grasshopper, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” You had to be there, honey. I’m telling you this guy may be a private, but he knows some shit. He’s probably the nicest, most unusual dude here at Twenty-nine Palms. And like Ben always says, where the hell, exactly, are those palms?
So a different song comes on his radio now, an old one from way before we met in school. The old band called “America.” Some of the squad guys had been singing, you know, guys like Vinnie Hubert, Tom Dicker, guys I told you about in letters home. So this song comes on, and Ben quits being a Marine swami guru and cranks it up, and we all look at each other like holy-shit, is this appropriate or what? It’s “Horse with No Name,” Cheryl honey, and we all start singing to beat the band and the noise of tires and trucks.
Been through the desert on a horse with no name…
Felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert, you can remember your name.
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain…
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.
In the desert, you can remember your name.
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain…
You know the one, honey. And we’re all singing our lungs out in the dust and the heat, and then I’m laughing so hard that I’m crying, tears trickling down my hot, dust-covered cheeks, and it was only yesterday. Jesus, damn.
Those sons-of-bitches Lee, Lafer and Turk should have missed me goddamn hours and hours ago at dawn roll-call. Semper damn Fi. What the hell is wrong with those shit heads? Where the hell were the Captains? Know your terrain, gentlemen. Personnel reports. Checks and goddamn double checks. The system, gentleman. It’s bigger than all of us, remember? They should have known regulations don’t allow posting a Marine alone.
After nine days in the desert sun, my skin began to turn red…
The heat was hot and the nights were cold and the desert was
My only bed…
La, la, la, la, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la.
Hoo, raah, I’m a man with no name. Those horses’ asses probably don’t know that they left me out here. Posted me alone. Direct Marine marching convoys from beside the trail all afternoon into evening. Separate me from my men. Shit, the privates need me. Ben Mather can’t hump in a straight line without direction. Leave me beside the goddamn trail all night after the platoons march out, ride back in trucks to Twenty-nine Palms. Goddamn war games. Checks and double checks. Where the hell was Turk to pick me up? Why didn’t Lafer remember? What my name, Skip? Watch shows nineteen hours out here alone. This shit isn’t supposed to happen! A day past roll call. Goddamn this heat. Hump this freakin’ sand. There’s heat waves everywhere, Cheryl. Sand wants to pull me down; vultures want to pick my bones clean. My throat is on fire. Sweat even on my crotch. Got to hump this sand.
I’m in the middle of the damn Mojave, Mama. It’s got to be 125 degrees. Humidity that’s an absent joke. They’ve forgotten me, Mom, and maybe this time it’s too far from home. South by southwest. Where the hell is Highway 10? A sip from my canteen to slow the fire, the metal grommet tie-down on its khaki lid cover too hot to touch. I’ve still got my M-16 off my shoulder, Mom. No, don’t worry it’s not come to that yet, for I am young and strong and determined. Big, blue distant Nevada’s on my right. Lance Cpl. Ready, if you clean and inspect your weapon every day, it will never let you down. I’m firing in the air, Mom. Six or seven rounds, automatic rifle butt recoiling on the top of my shoulder, pushing me down. Blowing all of their asses away. Buzzards. Tribal fueders. Trying to get heard. Maybe shooting at my own superiors. But there’s no one to hear. I am emptying half of my clip into the yellow orange scorch above: punching holes in the sun. Boom, boom, boom, boom, I feel the kick again on the top of my shoulder, shell after shell up toward God, but there is no echo. Now sound after the loud sound. My cap fall off backward, Momma, and, when I stop firing to pick it up, it’s so green against the super-heated yellow-tan of the sand. I can almost see individual grains, Mom, sense them rub against each other in this furnace wind. My head swims sickly as I straighten up. Taste of old chipped beef almost climbs up my parched throat. SOS. I have to have my cap. Parade rest. Right black, laced tight boot in front of left. Hoo, rah, hump this sand.
We learned about poetry, Mom. Miss Malvern taught us well.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of Pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
“Dover Beach,” Mama. Matthew Arnold. Hump this sand. Grains rubbing together but each one all alone. Man with no name. I’m all alone out here, Mom. All alone, save rattlesnakes and dark circling birds.
The ocean is a desert with its life underground, and the sea is
` made of sand…
America, Mom, America. They have left me here alone. Miss Malvern taught us well: we are all out here alone. Left, right, left. South by southwest. Where the hell is Highway 10? Should be a ribbon of asphalt somewhere. Another sip from my canteen to slow the fire inside. I’ve got my M-16 off my shoulder, Mom. No, don’t worry: it’s not that. It’s nine hundred and thirty-two miles of base. A place where even war games kill. Maybe Balzac had it wrong. Maybe the desert is man without God.
It’s time for another arrow, Mom. Time to leave another trail marker. That’s what you call farts, right Dad? Remember all the trail markers we left hiking along the St. Croix when you came to visit me in Minneapolis? Remember how we laughed when you saw that piece in the Twin City Register about a mysterious St. Croix River fish kill? Come to the window, Dad, I’ll meet you there. Sweet is the night air. Let the eternal note of sadness in… The ocean is a desert with it life underground. It’s time for another marker.
There’s another one over there. These rocks are so hot, little face. They almost sear my hands. Another and another. There’s one over there, oblong, like a baked potato. Almost as hot as abandoned chrome crescent wrenches left in the August sun all day, my stones are taking shape. Another arrow, little face. Your Daddy is coming home to you for Christmas. Pointing where he went for the search party. There has to be a search party. Daddy is marking his terrain. The sun merciless, too close overhead, over the wall of shadow too far to the west.
Another rock over there. Grains and grains and mile upon mile of sand. Something moving in the periphery. Lance Cpl. Ready, know your terrain. Sting and fire in my right leg, Sir! Spreading up my whole right side. Rattlesnake, sir, rattlesnake, my brain screams snake! Jesus, damn! Get him off, Cpl. Get him the hell off! His off, Sir, off. My M-16 Sir, which I have inspected and cleaned, is blazing, blowing his rattled ass away. I see its muzzle flash, smell the acrid burn of powder, Sir, feel the jolting in my shoulder, but I do not hear the boom, boom, boom, Sir, and no one hears what I don’t hear. I’m all alone in the Mojave, Sir. I’m the man with no name and now with little chance.
Heart pounding inside my sopping shirt, I see him there before me cut to twisting nerve fragments of tan and brown. Crotalus atrox, my enemy, all the forces conspiring to kill me, without even intending to… Nerves. It takes a long time before the pieces die. His flat, triangular head tries to propel several other inches of body forward, and I wonder where’s the blood? Whether I should drink it? Rattles and several more inches of caboose- car body length also try to squirm forward in the hot sand, but fail at traction. Old, four foot buzz tail already dead, but still writhing in multiple shredded bicycle- inner- tube- tire segments on intuitional memory of Creation. Bring the eternal note of sadness in. It hurts, Dad. Hurts.
Sitting down for the first time all day, my whole body hums with adrenaline rush, and my camouflage ass sinks deep into the sand. Behind me for support, my open hands are hot stars in the sand. I feel as if a thousand pounds. My M-16 lies in the sand, uninspected, unclean. Lance Cpl. Ready, dirt is the enemy of precision. The sun is going down lower, a fierce and orange disc, too large to believe, over the line of mountains shimmering through heat waves to the west. Evening muster will be called. Roll call, roll call, please! Rattlesnake tire pieces still vibrating slowly now in the ubiquitous sand. Take inventory of my parts. Nerves tell me, too, that I am alive. But it hurts, Dad, damn it hurts.
Crouched forward now, sweat runs down my forehead into my eyes and stings them. Crouched forward, my camouflage pant-leg up, the skin of my leg looks so white, so white. Here is the nasty bite mark: two neat red puncture wounds on my right calf, just above the top of my black leather combat boot, tiny red dots an inch apart like bleeding eyes on the pale wan of my skin. So white, so white, the sun hasn’t invaded here. Black hairs stand out around and in the wound. If you look closely around, you will see grains touching grains of sand. Bring the eternal note of sadness in. No longer twisting segments of rattlesnake in the sand. The boot might have saved me, Dad. Its top covers high over my ankle. Standard Marine issue. Good grade of leather dyed blacker than the blackness between the stars. If he’d hit me just three inches lower. Nine hundred thirty two square miles of Twenty-nine Palms. If Sgt. Turk just took roll better than my ass chews gum. If and If and If. If I’d stayed at Skeen’s Chevrolet in Cleveland, stayed home with Cheryl and Danielle instead of signing up. If only I’d stayed in Minneapolis, finished out the degree. Goddamn Marine Corps should know the value of each soldier. Parts are the whole. You don’t ever waste even one soldier. Semper goddamn Fi. If…
Not Forgotten Man, Part Three
The venom tastes vaguely like anise, mixed with blood and spit and sweat and sand. I try to project this spittle out, spit this toxic mixed drink as far as I can, but it lands on my combat boot. A sad conglomerate glob pools there, then slides slowly down black leather to the sand, leaving poison licorice, blood, salt and grit in my mouth like a poultice. Not John Wayne. No comic book superhero. No video game. Just the man with no name. I know that I haven’t gotten it all, Nowhere near.
On my left side, waist- level, I feel for my green webbed belt, find it, look down to see my camouflage-covered canteen, then unhook its two hooks from two of the many metal-riveted holes that puncture my belt. Dad has a belt like this he wears hiking. We leave trail markers behind. Army surplus. On the water, birds’ wakes are ours. Behind us, Dad, the way grows wider. The bread chunks we feed the ducks fall apart like reasons, and, water- saturated, sink to the bottom, become mulm and decay. The ocean is a desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above. I take a big dollop of my hot water, too much, and spit it far out, satisfyingly, on the sand. In an instant, dryness pulls again at my mouth, a poultice. The late sun dropping orange and crimson still blasts down in my matted hair. Canteen lovingly capped and re hung on my belt, I suck at my calf again. And again. I cannot get it all. We have to believe in something: it can’t all be accident, chance. Faith is a leap away from reason to a place higher, you said, Dad. Memorized taste of chipped beef again forces up my gut when I bite into the dead twister’s mid-section chunk and try to chew, crunching soft, reticulating bones, retching my own emptiness. The desert is man without God. Twenty three hours gone. Desert snake is still warm, bitter like acorns and under -cooked chicken and I cannot choke it down.
I cover up my swollen calf with desert fatigue pant-leg, cinch up my bootlaces tighter, pulling the bootlace tails so hard after retying the bows that the lace strings leave red lines underneath my fingers. A redder red fading to light pink… Even here, my skin is burning, even here. Still sitting ass inches deep in fine grain sand, I stretch my left leg way out, hook a snake fragment with my boot and drag it across the uneven, rocky sand. It is the head and some trailing entrails, still warm to the touch, but where is the blood? Up close in the implacable red and orange light, its head is tear-drop shape, bigger than a tan fifty-cent piece, powder-coated with lighter-colored sand. Its milk-white fangs, like sperm, Cheryl, that’s it, exactly the color of sperm, lie back parallel with its upper jaw—unable to strike in death. I study his eyes: the covering membranes are drawn back in death, no more to pray. Lidless, lidless yellow eyes reflect back fierce little sapphires of crimson sun when I rotate its head. More fire in death than any gemstone. Still sitting, I force the head and piece of guts into my right fatigue pocket, souvenir future breakfast, thinking optimistically, postcard from home. Little face, little face, I’m coming home to you. Got to hump this sand.
Movement and hot breeze have powdered my cap with sand, but I pick it up as is and pull it tight down on my head. I feel the grit fall in my scalp. Have to protect my head. I gather up my M-16, make a half-hearted attempt to knock some of the worst grit of the stock and magazine and the end of the barrel near the upright sight and then, using the military’s finest’ s dangerous end up as a crutch, I am up, on my feet again, head swimming, lurching forward on stiff legs. Left, left, left, right, left. My lower right leg sears. I’m coming home to you, Danielle, my little face. Got to hump this sand south by southwest to Highway 10. I’m coming home to you and your Mom and Pop-pop and Grand mom. I leave my crude directional arrow, an unfinished vector of small stones. Pointing out the way. Birds’ wakes are ours. Behind us, the way grows wider. Little face.
I’m dehydrated, I know. Maybe this time it is too far. Haven’t had to piss all day. Bad sign, Lance Cpl. Ready. Hot side of the moon. The wicked orb of sun is dropping behind the blue line of Nevada’s in the west, at least, casting horizon-long shadows in wide bands and patches over lines and miles of sand ridges freckled here and there in my close vision with Yucca brush, like seaweed flotsam and jetsam thrown up on tops of breaking sand waves, it seems to me. Small heaves of sand, painted on by broad strokes of shadow and light. It is the biggest, most terrible and beautiful land I have ever seen. I am so very, very small. A speck of camouflage barely marching to a soundless internal tune. So easy to miss in the vastness, really just a colored grain of sand. Those fiery backlit mountains, turning black now topped by blood red, are so close I can feel their coolness, yet so far I can’t guess the miles. My favorite poet Bill Hotchkiss said these mountains do not cry for tragedy or smile for peace. They do not need us, do not want us, will applaud with claps of thunder when the human race is gone. God without man. I have a wallet in the right rear pocket of my fatigues. In it is a driver’s license, a military I.D. card and maybe twenty bucks, but out here, in the sunset-painted desert, I am a little movement, a humbled soldier alone, a part without a whole, a man without a name. Hoo, raah. Bring the eternal note of sadness in…
Not Forgotten Man, Part Four
I’m cold, Dad, cold. Lying here like a sand-borne fetus, I’m covered up by my loose camouflage outer shirt, curled up in a little depression I dug out in the sand between a couple of sandstone outcroppings, but I am cold. The wind comes in from Los Angeles off the distant Pacific and over and down those invisible blue midnight peaks. Twenty six hours, Sgt. Turk. Two nights, Lee, two nights Lafer. When a swirling, cold night sirocco knocks the cap off my eyes, I see that the night above is a starry, pin-pricked dome, and I shiver. There are stars and stars beyond counting, shimmering in the vast black with indeterminable depth, like silver spray paint blasted through a sifting colander of galaxy deep underwater and sinking down in different shapes at different falling rates, ages, near and far, and then beyond sight to the bottom of the night sky. The black in the water in the vast sky above is the blackest black, broken by a million million tiny, cold silver lights. God without man. I’m tired in my bones, Dad.
Father, if you’re up there behind the light, let me see little Danielle again, see my wife Cheryl. You remember me. I called on you when my baby sister Lennie had lymphoma and again a year later when Cheryl’s Mom had her stroke. My old boss from the Chevy dealer died last year, God, and I didn’t bother you then. You’re probably up there smiling at the limit of our understanding, saying that there are no atheists in foxholes over and over to yourself. Show me the way in the morning. The way out of here. PLEASE. I don’t have much time left. I’m already almost gone up to you. I’m tired to my bones. This bed is bumpy, Dad, I can’t rest. Can’t let go. You can take me after one more visit, Father. Just let me see them one more time, tell them how much I love them. Please. It’s a cold wind that knocked my cap off. The sand is getting colder. So damn cold. Please show me the way.
I awake deep in the astral night, shivering uncontrollably, cradling and rocking my gun, so far from the Persian Gulf, but deep in it in my waking dream. There’s a bitter, abrasive grit in my chattering teeth, an awful death dryness in my mouth and seared throat, laryngeal pharoses. I am sore everywhere there are nerves, tendons, muscles, sinew, bones. The vault of countless silver stars is still above me, shimmering downward cold cold cold in black liquid sky. Implacable and cold. Still the sirocco wind and sand and moon shadow, a seventy degree temperature drop, and an awful emptiness. No reply from God. I pull my cap down tighter, roll up my camouflage cover, then drift off again. Drift so far. So far away from home. It’s too far, Mother. Too damn far.
There’s my Dad. There’s my answer! And what the hell is Ben Mather doing there in my folk’s home sitting on the leather sofa next to Dad’s easy chair? They’ve never met. A dream, Lance Cpl. Ready, a dream mare. Keep your post. Inspect and clean. But they are talking. It’s like some damn scene out of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” only 250 pound black private Ben there on the couch is the angel Clarence, and Dad is Jimmy Stewart dressed in his robe and slippers, relaxing by the Christmas tree. I can almost smell it. Yes, Fraser Fir. Dad says you know you’re getting older when it takes longer to rest than it did to get tired. Ben agrees. Dad shifts in his easy chair. You know you’re aging well if the number of things you can no longer do equals the number of things you no longer want to do. Higher math, Ben agrees, still dressed in camouflage fatigues. Dad goes on, Jimmy Stewart in disguise. Being human means that you are not only entitled to make mistakes but you are also entitled to regret them. Dad goes on. Any friend of Jack’s is a friend of mine. What the hell is Ben Mather doing here?
He’s talking, Mama. Sitting in our living room. The sand is cold grit under me, the wind is swirling cold, but Private Mather, alumni of Camp Le Jeune, is talking in our Cleveland living room. He tells Dad that The Bible says to love both our neighbors and our enemies, Iraqis and all. That should be easy enough, Dad answers at Christmastime, because they tend to be the same people. Ben stomps his Marine booted foot, laughs his big-hearted laugh from way down inside, flashing white teeth and pink gums, sending our Christmas tree jingling into a blur of tiny red and white lights that become stars in desert sky.
Dawn’s up hard east, and I’m awake, still here, Cheryl honey. My tee-shirt soaked in a night sweat under my camouflage shirt. Already shifting waves of building heat jiggle the yellow mountains to the west, dance and rock the eastern panorama of sand waves and sand rolls that disappear into the jiggling limits of sight, into a blood- red ball of furnace crawling up and over yellow sand, distorted oval, stellar firestorm of light, the limit of what I can see and know. God? My cap falls off again. Marine watch says it’s a September morn., and I’m dying of dehydration, exposure, neglect. There’s grit in my teeth, honey. I taste sand in my mouth. Feel it in the matted hair on the nape of my neck. The sun in the Mojave paints harshly, honey: unforgiving palates. The sun pushes its fists into my eyes. Abraham’s Old Testament God. The morning is a hundred thousand Christmas flashbulbs in a department store Santa’s face after an all-night bender, Cheryl. A brown alligator lizard runs over my sore lower leg: I barely feel his splayed feet scurrying over my pant-leg over the chronic, throbbing ache. There are animals out here, honey. Last night I saw a vulture circling the moon and starlit sky. There are animals that would love to chew me down to a litter of bleached white bones. I don’t think I can make it, honey. Jesus, God, don’t let me die. If Abraham is myth, let me have a better, New Testament myth. Let me live, please, please.
I’m too young for this shit, God of Abraham, God of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Almost twenty-four. So much more. Whole life ahead. Only memories behind. Drink some fluids, Lance Cpl. Ready. Keep your strength. I’m up again, Cheryl honey, fighting to gather my cap, my M-16, my wallet where it must have fallen out, so brown and out of place against the illuminated yellow sand. Driver’s license photo. So damn zit-faced young. Military I.D. Check cashing card for Safeway. Twenty dollar bill. I scatter them all to the sand. No time for Ozymandias statues. Have to hurry. My back hurts. Right leg is numb. Have to hurry. Late for work at Skeens’ Chevrolet, honey. Can’t come back to bed to snuggle now. Have to hump this tenacious sand. I’m coming home to you, Cheryl, one way or another. Old Testament or New. Coming home on one leg to little face and you. I take a pull on my canteen. The water tastes like metal. As soon as it’s down, want races back into my parched mouth and throat. I try another sip, find my canteen empty and throw it as far ahead as I can into the light-painted blur of sand. I am marching on one leg. I’m hungry, little face. Daddy’s hungry in the yellow-orange dawn. I find the snake head cool to the touch in my right pant pocket, pull it out, trailing dried guts, with my right hand. The eyes are dull this morning, Mr. Skeens. Milky way white covers both irises. Sorry I’m so late. Rough night with the baby. Cried until dawn crept in. The eyes are so dull. Won’t even fracture and reflect this intense Old Testament light when I hold the snake head up, rotate it like the Hope diamond in unforgiving jewelers’ light. I take a bite of the entrails, neck if snakes had necks. I have to struggle a long time chewing through the cool skin and chords of muscle to separate body from head. Stumbling forward, ever forward, I pass my upended canteen. Random camouflage marker in yellow sand. The lump lies in my mouth, a poultice, raw jerky, sashimi rattlesnake, my demise; without him, I might have lived. I let the unholy morsel lay there, my spit coming back again drawn out by black salve, until the retching begins. I spit the whole mess out into the sand. Fling the remaining head toward the jiggling yellow Nevada’s somewhere in the west. Daddy’s hungry, little face, but he can’t eat. I remember that Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, wanting to get the British the hell out of his Ireland, said this as his last words before dying: “The best revenge is the laughter of your grandchildren.” You’ll have to have your own children, Danielle. Your own little faces, my grandchildren, the family name living on.
Watch says 11 a.m. now. Eleven hundred hours, Sir. 110 degrees. Humidity way the hell down. Hours past yet another roll call. Lower right leg swollen and numb. I’ve come to a big sand ridge, little face. A ridge that looks capped with searing rocks. Contour relief. Maybe your Daddy is finally walking off the moon. Right leg dragging in this tenacious uphill sand. Three hard-fought steps forward in combat boots. Two steps sliding back. There’s sweat stinging my own dull eyes, darkening my shirt. Salt on the backs of my sun burnt hands. The ocean is a desert with its life underground, and there’s a small sea of large, scavenger birds overhead.
La, la, la, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la.
Little girl, little precious blonde girl, Daddy’s girl. I’m at the top of the ridge, kicking a little rock here with the boot toe of my good leg. It falls and falls down the far side of the ridge, gathering momentum, a miniature avalanche of sand spreading an ever wider and wider wake. I face south. South by southwest. On my left, the pulsing orb of sun is high up and dominating the world, nearly straight overhead. Below it, the scene opens up as always on its marks, on shimmering miles of heaves and retches of sand, bare line after line after line receding. Boundless and bare. On my right, the orange mountains are dancing further away to wafting haze. My head swims sickeningly. The pulse hammers in my neck. In a black cave in a canyon near Tassahara, Miss Malvern, the Indians left only white tracings of hands. Robinson Jeffers saw them there, knew that they had hands, not paws. What do you suppose it all means? Let it in. Let it in, Miss Malvern. They were here before us: before us, before us. We killed them. Let it all in: the enormity of it all.
I have a name, damnit! I have a name! Lance Cpl. Jeff J. Ready. J for Uncle Jonathan, proud Marine before me. Family tradition. Shared values. Tribal totem. Semper damn Fi. I have a name, Sgt. Turk, Sgt. Lee. I have a name. Say my damn name. I can’t hear you! Say it aloud, like you mean it. Say it aloud! Say it! Now you owe me. We owe each other everything, Danielle, remember that. Remember me, please.
Miss Malvern, Mrs. Malvern, what is a human when the human part is gone? Just clouds of hands on a wall in a canyon in a cave? Just rock tracings saying we had hands, not paws, and we were here before you, we were humans, and now we are all gone? Haven’t we learned at all? That hatred kills and love enriches, the only universal truths? I’ll just lay down here for a while, little one. Lie down on top of this sand ridge for a while, rest my eyes and head. Then maybe I’ll get up and march on toward you. You know, Danielle, Daddy’s always done his best for you and Mommy, our little tribe.
Shadows of birds circle overhead. Sorry I’m late, Mr. Skeens’ Chevrolet. Laid down on the job. So tired, so tired, little face. Daddy’s tired. The whole wide world has worn him down before it was his time. The ocean is a desert with its life inside and a sea of stars above.
Danielle, little one, Daddy’s right leg hurts. So tired, tired of all the world’s hurt. My whole body is covered up with a glowing hot blanket of tiny fallen stars. So tired. So tired. She has blue eyes, blue and deep and round and clear. There are falling stars all around you, little face, a circle of light, cool white smudges and streaks of tiny, falling stars. The cool stars are falling down around us, Danielle and Cheryl and me, a sparkling silver shower of cool desert rain.
Lance Cpl. Ready’s family has charged that the commanders’ failure to report Ready missing for almost 48 hours dramatically reduced his chances for survival in terrain where daytime temperatures averaged 120 degrees and humidity levels were less than 5 percent. The initial three-day manhunt did turn up Jack Ready’s helmet, flak jacket, backpack and a stone arrow he fashioned to point rescuers in the direction he had walked for help, but the Marine Corps suspended the hunt when dog teams lost Ready’s trail and the many searchers found no further sign of Cpl. Ready.
In early November, over two months after Jeff J. Ready had been left behind, the Marine Corp searched again, finding two more crude directional arrows and a set of footprints about four miles from Ready’s final resting place. The second search was likewise abandoned. A month later, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department conducted a practice search exercise, using the Ready case as a basis for the practice scenario. Covering a wider area than the previous searches, sheriff’s deputies stumbled upon Jeff Ready’s M-16 rifle, camouflage clothes, wallet and military identification card. Several dozen yards away they found a sun-bleached jawbone. Scattered across the sand and rocks were numerous other skeletal parts, all picked clean. In the days that followed the grisly discovery, Ready’s company commander and also his platoon leader were relieved of their commands. In 1990, First Lt. Lafer, Sgt. Turk, Ready’s squad leader, and Sgt. Lee, his platoon sergeant, faced courts-martial on charges of dereliction of duty. The charnel pile of Jeff J. Ready’s remains was discovered just off the border of the huge Twenty-nine Palms desert base, 17 Mojave Desert miles from where Lance Cpl. Ready had been fatally left behind. He had stumbled bravely to within one mile of a major highway. Contacted at the Ready home in Cleveland, Jeff’s father had these comments: “It was a combination of goof-ups… Local park rangers said Superman himself could not have walked off the base in those extreme conditions. My son damn near made it.”
“It was an obvious breakdown in the personnel reporting procedure,” a Marine Lt. Col. Spokesman reiterated.
A Los Angeles Times editor wrote: “We printed Jeff J. Ready’s true story because his situation touched us and, we hoped, would touch others. It’s not that we must now give him a ‘death with dignity.’ That’s not ours to give. It’s just that Jeff Ready’s plight seemed so much like our own: lost, forgotten or never known by the world at large and so often all alone, with only whatever we have within that makes us unique, that makes us human, to keep going, to keep from giving up. We know that Lance Cpl. Jeff J. Ready must have been a special human being, endowed with and touched by love.
In the end, all of us will be for the most part forgotten. Few of us, though, will have the courage to walk so far. Jeff, we salute you.”
* Reprinted with the gracious permission of James A. Freeman. It will appear in Spring, 2011 in IRISH WAKE: IN LOVING MEMORY OF US ALL, a story collection available from:www.publishamerica.com, http://www.bn.com or http://www.amazon.com.
A graduate of Shasta College, Reed College and Humboldt State University, James A. Freeman is a transplanted Shasta County, Californian, who, for twenty-nine years, has taught Language & Literature at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, PA. The author of eighteen books, Mr. Freeman’s own favorite fiction titles are Ishi’s Journey From the Center to the Edge of the World (Naturegraph), Never the Same River Twice (with Phyllis Agins- Charles B. McFadden Co.), and Liars’ Tales of True Love (PublishAmerica.com, bn.com, amazon.com). Proud of his daughter Kellie, an avid horsewoman currently studying at Penn State University, Jim lives in Langhorne, PA with his wonderful new family, travelling as often as he can to see his great parents, Jim and Lee, and his terrific siblings, in their beloved northern California mountain and river-scape. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.