With a budget running into the tens of billions, at least, you would think the army would spring for comfortable travel buses to move soldiers from one fort to another. But no, there were about sixty of us crammed into a glorified school bus traveling from Fort Irwin, California to Fort Carson, Colorado. The best that can be said was that my tired comrades and I were on the very last leg of what had been a month and a half long field training exercise (FTX) at Fort Irwin involving the OPFOR (Opposing Forces) unit stationed at that god forsaking desert outpost.
See, this was the late 1980's when the United States and NATO still worried the Soviet Union and the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pack would invade Western Europe in an effort to bring down the free world. So several years before the big shiny star wearing boys inhabiting the Five Sided Funny Farm (Pentagon) decided to make the 177th Armored Brigade stand in for the commie bastards by having them go against other army units using Soviet tactics and vehicles modified to look like the enemy. And the best place to pursue these war games was a dusty, semi-forgotten post out in the Mojave Desert, Fort Irwin. The best way to describe the Fort Irwin National Training Center (generally called NTC) is that its isolation and open spaces would allow a degree of realism that would difficult to get anywhere else.
So for years poor suckers like me would be loaded on buses and planes, if they were far enough away, and sent to NTC to have their asses thoroughly waxed by the OPFOR in the hopes that if the balloon ever went up we make the Soviets regret being born. Truth be told, while I shudder at the idea of having to go through that bullshit again, for the twenty-something version of myself back then playing combat soldier was fun. Another part of these deployments I did enjoy was being able to see the brilliance of the Milky Way at night since we were so far away from any major city lights.
So after what felt like an eternity living in sand, eating MRE's, and trying to avoid the irate wildlife like coyotes and snakes my unit was on the road again heading home. One particular trip had us leaving NTC late in the evening taking a route that would have us drive partially through Nevada. As the hours passed, we left all signs of civilization behind us and hit a stretch of road that would have been perfect for an X-Files episode or any other show involving UFO's and those little gray aliens.
Being glorified school buses there were no reading lights nor televisions so once the sun went down we all pretty much passed out. Except me, I was dealing with a minor knee injury that made sleeping difficult so I just zoned in and out enjoying the quiet. I don't remember the scenery outside the bus but given that we were in southern California the one thing I can say for certain was that desolate and dark would be the best description.
It was after midnight when we moved into an area with hills and we began shifting in our seats as the bus driver made his adjustments to stay on the road. While the swaying was minor it was really bothering my knee, so I was fully awake when we suddenly came upon something we didn't expect to see. One minute we're on an empty road in near pitch-black darkness and the next there is a blinding light ahead of us. This of course woke everyone up and after our eyes adjusted we were able to see what was a casino resort just across the Nevada state line.
After weeks living in the desert like monks this outpost of obvious gambling decadence and carnal sin about drove my fellow twenty-somethings and myself crazy. The parking lot was full of high class sports cars and as we passed the main building there were dozens of hot women outside dressed in tight, skimpy attire. Thinking about it now, it's a testament to our discipline and dedication as soldiers that we didn't mutiny, take control of the bus, and head straight to the casino's front door. Frankly, I'm surprised no one simply opened the two emergency doors on the bus and jumped out.
As the casino receded behind us we all calmed down and dozed back off to sleep. The lights of the casino stayed visible for far longer than seemed reasonable but steadily dwindled as our distance increased. Still nursing my knee, I watched it until it was no more than a bright star on the horizon.
The next morning my fellow soldiers and I all talked as if the casino was a mutual dream. As if our pent up desires all mashed together and created a place where our fantasies became real. That was decades ago with me now a totally different person. I have absolutely no desire to visit any casino, and being married and in my fifties makes any fantasies of young gorgeous women in tight, skimpy attire utterly ridiculous. But I've got to admit every time I hear the song Hotel California by the Eagles I feel a little of that ancient energy of a younger man.