For various reasons the state of my mental health has been called into question over the years by family, friends, acquaintances, and the assorted human detritus that floats in and out of one's life. These questions usually come with me taking a unique position in relation to the current majority view, which really seems to bug the living shit out of some people. Being someone always open to a little subversive fun, I have often used such inquirers to create odd and elaborate scenarios that might explain why I take such pleasure in confounding the mainstream with my skewed view of the world.
In the past, I have used the simple but straightforward story of my father dropping me on my head as a baby while hosting a reunion of army buddies as they broken down in laughter recounting their semi-secret exploits in Bangkok and the rest of Southeast Asia. Truth be told it was me dropping my baby brother on the head after seeing Bug Bunny convince Elmer Fudd to blast Daffy since it was duck season instead of rabbit. On a side note, the aftereffects of my baby brother hitting the floor were minor and had disappeared before he entered elementary school but I really do need to call him up and apologize. Another time I had a collection of less than intelligent and more than slightly drunk acquaintances enthralled with the story of my encounter with a strange looking fellow dressed in a black suit walking a deserted stretch of Colorado interstate. I really wish I could explain the story in detail but I was more than slightly drunk at the time and don't remember a thing. However, I caused one guy, who made regular trips along that same area, to go out and buy a gun, several rolls of aluminum foil, and a Barry Manilow tape for protection, which he stored in his car.
Given the times and current political climate we live in I recently found myself again on the lonely end of some position. "Beach, why do you have to be so contrary? Everyone here understands how things should be, why do you have to be so different?" Was the paraphrased refrain I heard the other day after I refused to take part in the open admiration for the strange and confused man who had spoken in the nation's capital the weekend before. I took a deep breath and began my story. The neat thing about this one is that a good part of it was true.
My air defense battalion in the spring of 1987 had begun a weeklong Field Training Exercise (or called FTX) deep into the woods of down range Fort Carson, Colorado. As far as FTX’s went, no soldier worth a damn would complain about one only seven days long but the mood among the lower enlisted was peeved since the whole thing could have been avoided had the battalion scored better on the common soldier skills testing a couple of weeks before. Our battalion sergeant major, a hulking African-American with three combat tours of Vietnam liked to grumble the jungle was nothing compared to growing up on the streets of Detroit, arranged the impromptu excursion as a combination chain gang-like punishment and remedial training session.
Command Sergeant Major Benjamin Wilson, by all accounts, believed he was the man who ran the battalion and was in fact known to eat any officer alive lower than the rank of army captain if they happened cross him before he had his morning coffee. After his morning coffee, he would just torture them mercilessly until they ran off screaming for their mommies or the battalion commader. So when the disgruntled CSM Wilson walked into the battalion commander’s office upset over the common skills testing the lieutenant colonel immediately approved his request for an enlisted and NCO only field exercise figuring it would be nice that the lower ranking officers could walk into headquarters once without fear of wetting their pants.
Once we were in the woods and had setup our pup tents into long and straight columns and rows the battalion went straight into classes and practice sessions on things like the proper way to throw a grenade, which end of a claymore mine faces the enemy, and how to read a map among many other tasks. To the uninitiated basic soldier skills are very simple but, like everything else, the devil is in the details. The baseball looking piece of the grenade is the part you throw; “front toward enemy” is printed clearly on the front of every claymore, and for map reading knowing the general direction of north, south, east, and west on the map and land goes a long way of telling where you are on the planet.
We were all soon having a grand old time being all we could be except for one small problem. That spring had been especially wet and warm allowing an early population explosion of billions of gnats, whole squadrons of mosquitoes, commando uber-ticks, and other bugs dedicated into making human life miserable for anyone outside. Now the wise and powerful army had long since come up with nifty and officially approved bug repellent but insects that spring were licking the oily repellent we were liberally applying to ourselves like honey. Cries then erupted among the troops asking for a chance to run down to the Post Exchange and buy the civilian commercial brand but CSM Wilson had a hard on to not only keep us in the field but to “toughen us up.”
After a couple of days passed with everyone slowly being eaten alive even the senior noncommissioned officers finally admitted we were having an unusual occurrence of bugs, which forced the sergeant major to relent slightly. Of course, the other story why he caved in had to do with the rumor that he discovered a huge, blood-engorged tick on the end of his “manhood” which sent the three combat tour veteran running to the medics.
The sergeant major still refused to allow a PX run but saving the day was one of the supply sergeants who knew about old boxes of experimental insect repellent tucked away in his supply room. A couple of hours later the enlisted and NCO’s of the battalion were almost bathing in the stuff and seeing immediate results, which should have been a warning.
The entire time we were out in that area enormous clouds of gnats drifted about and if someone was unfortunate to walk through it they were soon doing a jumping and scratching dance trying to get the bugs off their bodies. After the new and much more powerful insect repellent was applied the nasty little buggers literally dropped from the air in mass. Ticks were reported to come loose and die and the mosquitoes that were the worst of all completely disappeared. That night the moral of everyone soared, the next morning though everyone went through the chow line feeling bad with some extremely nauseous.
This really pissed off the senior mess sergeant thinking everyone was suffering early onset food poisoning with him and his crew doing nothing more than boiling water for huge prepackaged meals akin to old fashioned TV dinners. What can I say? His reputation had long since been set with our battalion mess hall being consistently deserted like an abandoned roadside diner and several pizza delivery places making unsolicited, regular, and profitable visits to our barracks.
Others reported strange symptoms since the new repellent was issued. One kid named Kolodziej from Wisconsin skipped KP and wandered off deeper into the woods sniffing his small bottle of repellent and looking for mushrooms. The little shit was an obnoxious pain and the consensus among everyone was that while his disappearance solved certain issues and made things quieter the paperwork that would have to be filled out was not worth the hassle. So at some point a bunch of us made a half-hearted attempt to look for him and unfortunately found him, alive.
Gnats have always been an issue for me since they often left large red and itchy welts on my skin, which I have to scratch making things worse. The new super duper repellent let me watch them land on my skin them, grab their tiny throats, then fall off my skin dead leaving me unharmed. Of course I started having long conversation with various buddies only to later find out they were nowhere near my area with no memory of what we talked about. I really understood something was wrong when I started to see an old and clingy girlfriend lurking just outside the perimeter. Good damn thing we didn’t have any live ammunition or I would have manned a .50 caliber machine gun and blasted the area I thought I saw her, which also happen to be where we established the field latrines. No one likes to be disturbed when they are taking a shit and that .50 caliber would have really gotten everyone’s attention.
It all came to head the morning the battalion Nuclear Biological and Chemical sergeant came off leave and was hustled out with the rest of us and soon learned about our issue with the bugs and what we used to solve the problem. It was reported that after looking at one of the bottles he went into a panic and forced someone to take him back to battalion headquarters. This guy was far spookier than the battalion military intelligence officer who was just a computer geek a couple of decades ahead of his time. The NBC sergeant had a bit of a drinking problem and when applied with enough high grade liquor would entertain everyone nearby with his knowledge of the nasty biological weapons the Soviets had cooked up in their super secret laboratory on an island in the middle of the Aral Sea. A sea that even in the 1980’s was rapidly drying up making that island an isolated and arid plateau in the middle of a desert. On a side note it’s funny to think some people literally lose sleep at night worrying about terrorists using the tired shtick of crashing planes into buildings.
By this time our little weeklong field exercise was on the main event of a fifteen-mile march with everyone stopping at stations along the way where we were tested on our common soldier skills. I was once again carrying on conversations with buddies who had long since outpaced me and were in reality far ahead. I didn’t mind, they at least kept the clingy girlfriend away from me who now had the ability to fly on her broom. Truthfully, I have no idea if my delusions were from the bug repellent or the mess sergeant’s attempt at a real breakfast that morning. However, he was overall a sensitive and caring soul and everyone was trying to build up his self-esteem. There ain’t nothing sadder in the world than a crying mess sergeant.
After I crossed the finish line I was directed to a newly erected mobile shower facility, neither my phantom buddies nor broom flying ex-girl friend saw fit to join me. After I joined the rest of the guys who had also finished we were given a cursory examination by someone claiming to be a doctor whose most detailed exam was asking how many fingers he was holding up. I said five when it was my turn and he replied “close enough” sending me out the door to sign complicated papers with tiny print.
After I finished the story my chickenhawk co-workers were astonished and completely speechless for several minutes. I looked back at them with deadly earnest waiting for someone to speak.
“Beach, you don’t still talk to people who are not there or see girlfriends on flying brooms?” One chickenhawk finally asked whose greatest desire is to see honor restored to the nation in his lifetime.
“Well,” I answered back smiling wickedly, “ there are degrees to every recovery and I guess I’m okay.” I successfully fought off a desire to make a comment about Dragonwife and flying house-cleaning implements despite a strong urge to do just that. The big boss chose that moment to enter the break room forcing an untimely end to further discussion but I did have one old co-worker come up and give me a hug thanking me for my service to the country.
Funny thing everyone has been giving me a wide breath lately, go figure.