Specialist Ski Goes to the Board
This is a true story about something that happened in Germany shortly after my unit got back from Iraq. We deployed for roughly one year, with most of that time spent in Iraq, and a considerably shorter duration spent in Qatar and Kuwait. I remember it being surreal when we finally did return to Germany. I was so used to the overpowering, dry heat of Iraq, that when we deplaned at Rammstein and I stepped onto the tarmac, every breath I took felt like it was being drawn from a vaporizer. I felt like I was swimming in wet air and I could smell the German pines with the heightened olfactory intensity of a dog.
I was used to drinking at least a gallon of water every day, and I was so acclimated to the desert heat that, when I woke up in the morning and it was seventy-degrees, I would shiver and reach for my black fleece.
From Rammstein we took a chartered bus back toward Kelly Barracks. I stared out the window, at the little German cars breezing past us on the Autobahn, the Citroens and Peugeots, VWs and Benzes. The drivers looked over at the bus filled with soldiers, broadcasting a mixture of contempt and fear with their eyes. There was some love for the American military stationed in Germany back in the days of the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan, but since the Cold War wound down and the malapropism-prone Dubya was waging the War on Terror, we were now perceived as ugly Americans. In fairness to the Germans, the reputation was many times warranted.
We all stared, as the windmill-bedecked countryside gave way to the Bauhaus-looking high rises and Hundertwasser’s colorful buildings. Attractive women were everywhere, and since it was spring, most of their bodies were visible to us, tanned arms and high breasts, indifferent expressions hidden behind designer sunglasses. There were some female soldiers in our unit, but they were either unattractive or quickly paired off with higher ranking men who could provide them with all kinds of perks and advantages that the lower-enlisted soldiers couldn’t offer.
I frankly felt bad for female soldiers, and never hit on them, out of respect and also fearing a charge of sexual harassment. Sergeant Peterman (my team chief) once told me about a full bird colonel at the War College who was relieved of his command after approaching a female officer and saying, “There are two kinds of female soldiers in the Army, bitches and sluts. Which one do you want to be?”
“Sounds like he deserved firing,” I said, but Sergeant Peterman shook his head.
“No, you don’t understand. What he meant was that a female in the military has two options. She can either be professional, tell the male soldiers around her that she has no interest in a sexual relationship, in which case she’ll get the reputation as a stuck-up bitch, or she can try to be nice, accommodate all the guys around her, and she’ll get the jacket of a slut.”
This time I shook my head. “Doesn’t leave a girl many options.” There was one female soldier, Sergeant Bonder, who went on a convoy with us to Nasiriya once, and, either she forgot to pack sanitary napkins or didn’t have the opportunity to apply one, but in either case, the pants of her ACUs were covered in a light smattering of blood when we rallied after arriving at our destination. Thenceforth, the meaner soldiers referred to her as “Hot Sauce.”
We arrived back at the Kaserne to family members and well-wishers holding banners welcoming us home. Some of them held signs welcoming home specific soldiers, which depressed me, since I had no spouse, or even a girlfriend, and all of my family was back home in the States.
Maybe, I thought, I’ll hit the Hauptbahnhof and go to Frankfurt, wander the Red Light and find a thickset frauline to ride me for an hour and wash away the pain of this last year. After that I’d slam a couple of Dunkelweizen at the Brauhaus and contemplate throwing myself in front of the Strassenbahn, committing suicide by train.
Alcohol was life for many Germans, and for many American soldiers, so being stationed in Hesse, the central province of Deutschland, was a blessing for many a GI. There was even a small café near the Luisenplatz downtown whose outer frame was composed entirely of empty green Jägermeister bottles. Getting someone to accompany me to the Red Light wouldn’t be a problem, either. Berryman was always game for that, and was infamous for actually preferring to perform cunnilingus on the German whores, something I imagine not even a dissolute reprobate like Baudelaire or De Sade would have been game for. I mean, I’m pretty sure that, even though clients were required by German Gesetz to wear condoms, each woman was stormed by something like a minimum of twenty clients per day.
“I’m going to eat these now.” I looked over to my left, at Ski, who was sitting on the bus seat next to me. Ski was the mechanic for Convoy Security when we were in Iraq. He was also heavy drug user, and, since he was part of the urinalysis detail for our unit, there was little chance that he would ever get caught pissing hot.
I looked at the little bag Ski had in his hand. The bus was now inside of the Kaserne, doing a loop on the cobblestone, past the shoppette and the motor pool, in the direction of the Patton tank moored next to the gym.
“What is that?” I asked. He held up a freeze-dried plastic package, filled with little fungi with long tails that looked like brown straws.
“Psilocybe cubensis, my friend.”
That didn’t ring any bells. I shrugged. “Shrooms,” he said. “I made sure to vacuum-seal them before we deployed, so they wouldn’t lose their freshness.” He grinned and split the bag open. “I told myself that if I didn’t die in Iraq this year, I’d reward myself with a little treat.” He grinned, and started eating, spoke through a mouthful. “So I’m rewarding myself.”
“Dude,” I sat up, worried for him. “You don’t think that maybe you should wait until after release from formation to ingest psychedelic mushrooms?”
“Fuck all that noise.” He chomped the dry Shrooms and said, “You’ve never been deployed before, so you don’t know what it’s like. I have.” He foraged around in the bag, scooped up more of his precious cubensis and chewed. “Everyone’s going to be so excited to see their family, for the reunion. It’ll be so loud in the gym that no one will be paying attention to me while I’m peaking.”
I pointed at the plastic bag, which was now empty, save for some crumbs. “How much of that stuff did you just ingest?”
“What do you care?” He burped. “You can’t overdose on Shrooms. But, if you must know, I just downed about seven grams. That’s a quarter-ounce if you do the math.”
“How much does it take to get high?”
We were parked in front of the gymnasium and people started filtering off the bus. “After about five grams, you’ll see God.” He glanced over, saw the fear in my eyes, ignored it. “It’s okay, though. Honestly, a lot of stuff happened in Iraq that I want to think about now.”
I knew he was a seasoned user, that he could manage his high, but I was still nauseous from thinking about what he just did. Then again, maybe he knew what he was talking about. Maybe the scene in the gym would be too chaotic, the emotional nature of the reunion too intense for anyone to notice Ski standing in a corner and seeing God.
Dondalinger told me he and Ski once went to Amsterdam, ate a bunch of Shrooms, and that Ski had then channel-surfed on the TV until he found Natural Born Killers dubbed in Dutch. He left it on the tube until Dondalinger flipped out, threw a chair off the tenth story balcony of the hotel where they were staying, and management asked them to leave.
“It helps,” Ski said quietly. “With PTSD. You should try it.”
“No thank you,” I said. My own personal cure of whores and beer would have to suffice, and, if that didn’t work, I would try throwing myself in front of the train.
“You ready?” We both looked up to see Sergeant Eagan standing there. Eagan was Ski’s team chief. He had icy blue eyes and tiny teeth, which, along with his razor-shaved head, always made him look like a neo-Nazi when he was in civilian clothes.
“For what?” Ski said.
“Board,” Sergeant Eagan said. “Sergeant Major Pinkney is upstairs, along with Captain Edan. The Fury’s going to be there, too.”
Both Sergeant Major Pinkney and Captain Edan had remained in garrison while the rest of the unit deployed, which was a matter of much acrimony with a lot of people. Apparently, that gave them plenty of time to prepare questions for soldiers going to the promotion board. “The whole brigade’s top-heavy with privates and spec fours right now,” Sergeant Eagan said. “And they’re trying to promote as many guys as they can, as fast as they can. They need new noncoms by close of business tomorrow.”
Ski looked over at me, and now he was scared, even more worried than I was until this moment on his behalf.
Let me explain: Once a soldier goes from Private First Class to Specialist, and then passes through various obstacles (including weapons qualification and correspondence courses), they then become “promotable,” by which I mean they can become a non-commissioned officer, with command over several soldiers, as well as a pay increase.
Ski was a druggie, to be sure, but if one stayed in the Army long enough, certain promotions were basically foregone conclusions, based on criteria like “time in grade.” Ski had already been to Iraq twice, and had been a Specialist now for longer than I had been in the Army. All he had to do at this point was stand before a panel of his military superiors, answer several questions, and he would be passed along to the next pay grade, E-5, buck sergeant.
The problem with this, though, was that he just ate seven grams of magical mushrooms. He looked at me, swallowed. “Shit.” His tongue lapped around the insides of his dry mouth. He looked up at Eagan, a queasy look on his face. “I don’t have my Class A uniform,” he tried.
Eagan shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Frago from higher says command wants to foster the idea that this is a wartime army, so they’ll let you go to the board in your ACUs.”
Sergeant Juarez leaned forward, placed his giant head into our midst. “Pretty soon they’ll let you go to the board in your PT uniform.” Earlier, while we were still staging in Kuwait, Juarez had been telling me that Operation Iraqi Freedom was initially going to be called “Operation Iraqi Liberation,” the problem with that being that the acronym would spell out “OIL.”
Juarez had been the one to give me my baptism by fire, in terms of acquainting me with Germany and its sundry options for sexual perversity. He had taken me to the Luisenplatz Kino, walked with me to one of the peepshow booths sequestered behind a burgundy curtain, and had deposited a one-Euro coin into the machine’s slot.
“You know what caviar is?” I shook my head, Sergeant Juarez took a German chocolate bar from his pocket, and said, “You’re about to find out.”
On-screen, a sexy German girl with dyed black hair, pencil-drawn eyebrows, and a sneering face hovered above the camera, and our heads. She wore argyle-patterned stockings and held a swatch of fishnet material over the puckering, starfish-shaped muscle of her sphincter.
“Caviar,” Sergeant Juarez said, “is when a girl takes a shit through some material, like pantyhose or sheer stockings, and it spreads out in these little soft bubbles.” He grinned at me and took a bite of his candy bar, winked and said, “If you’re ever at Camp Casey, ask some of the guys about a Korean mudslide.”
“Come on,” Sergeant Eagan said, now bodily lifting Ski, who stood awkwardly, trembling. Ski looked back at me once, and then walked forward, toward the front of the bus. That look on his face ruined our redeployment for me. It was as if he was in Fort Leavenworth, now marching toward his summary execution, after which he would be buried in a potter’s field.
I watched him and Sergeant Eagan walk across the grass quad, toward headquarters, a Rococo building that looked like a miniature version of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace. Sergeant Juarez started massaging my shoulders. “You want to go out with me tonight?”
“I can’t,” I lied. Sergeant Omero, head of the Convoy Security platoon, had once explained hanging out with Sergeant Juarez to me in this way. “If you go out with him in a group, you’re okay. If you go out with him alone…you’re going to jail.”
I thought about Ski during the course of the whole redeployment ceremony. I never had much brief for chaplains, but it was especially easy to tune out the nondenominational milquetoast’s blessings and invocation while I was tortured by ideas of what might be happening to Ski right then at his promotional board.
He’d had bad trips before, which I knew about from all the secondhand barracks gossip. Supposedly he had been down in the Luisenplatz with two other soldiers, Dondy and De La Rouche, tripping balls and having a good time, until something in the eaves of a French Baroque museum caught his eye.
“We have to get out of the country!” He shouted, and ran through the Luisenplatz, scaring a nest of pigeons into flight and confirming the low opinion of Americans already held by the locals who sat at the outdoor cafes with gelato and espresso. He fell down weeping at the base of the Löwentor, balling his eyes out and pounding the cobblestone with his closed fists until his palms bruised. “They were right. We deserved extermination.”
Ski was Jewish, and while Denazification had commenced in Darmstadt just as it had throughout the rest of Germany after the Allied powers achieved victory, there were still vestiges of the Third Reich here and there. A Swastika had been blown from the top of the baroque building, detonated by some soldier who apparently eschewed the subtle route of smashing the Hakenkreuz with a mallet. After the stone swastika was blown into fragmentary bits of rubble, a stain in the shape of the ancient Aryan symbol remained, burned into the stone like a memory that refused to be effaced.
When the reunion in the gym was over, I walked down to the armory with the other soldiers, turned in my Squad Automatic Weapon, my night vision goggles, and my spare barrel. My shoulders and lower back thanked me, relief coursing through my body in waves. I didn’t realize at the time that I had picked up lifelong problems that would necessitate multiple surgeries, hospital stays, and a Percocet or two popped even as I type this.
Sergeant Holman confirmed that the serials on my gear matched those written in his green memorandum logbook. Once that was completed, I walked to my barracks room, where a care package of toiletries and Top Ramen were waiting for me, along with a Hallmark “Welcome Home” card. The Army really spares no expense.
I found out what happened to Ski at the board a couple of days later. I was heading to the dining facility to partake of steamship round and congealed macaroni and cheese, when Dondy almost hit me with his car as he was driving it around the quad.
He honked once, and leaned his head out of the driver’s side window. The fur-lined hood of his snorkel parka masked most of his face. “Watch where you’re going, there, airborne!”
I flipped him the bird. He puffed a Gauloises blond. He asked, “You want to roll to Landstuhl Medical Facility?”
Dondalinger smoked more of his cigarette and said, “I got to get Ski. He’s done with his psychiatric evaluation.”
I ran toward the car and got in on the passenger’s side. It was an SL-5 Mercedes, with heated leather seats. “Where’d you get this?” I knew some of us managed to save quite a bit of money while downrange in Iraq (I myself had $20,000 or so in my account), but there was no way he could have afforded this luxury auto on a Spec-4s salary. He pulled around the quad, smoked, and said, “The legend of Dondy’s ten inches of Wunderbar bratwurst is true, my friend.” He grinned at me and then waved to the gate guard as we pulled out.
“My girlfriend doesn’t let anyone drive her car, and she doesn’t let anyone smoke in the aforementioned vehicle.” He played with the XM radio, lucked into the Vorspiel to Wagner’s Rheingeld. “But, that was before she met me.”
“Better not be playing this stuff when Ski gets in the car.” I pointed at the sapphire LCD readout on the face of the radio, from which the Wagner poured. The great composer’s anti-Semitism was common knowledge, and might set Ski off.
“He’s calmed down now,” Dondy said.
Downtown Darmstadt blurred past us, its sights and smells competing with the smoke from the Gauloises in Dondy’s hand. The smell of curry from the local McDonald’s came to me, and I felt hunger rising, bubbling up in my stomach. I loved the German variations on American fast food, and knew that my chances of getting curry fries in an American McDonald’s when I redeployed were next to none. A lot of people didn’t like the Turks in Germany, the sons of the Gastarbeiter immigrants who had come here to work during the Wirkschaftswünder years under Chancellor Willy Brandt, but a few things had to be acknowledged about them: their food, especially the Doner kebabs, were delicious; their hashish could quickly make one, in the words of an Iraqi I had shared a joint with “into some kind of fucking space cadet or something”; and their women were gorgeous, goddesses with powerful, imposing features. I loved dark women, Mediteranean, Italian, Greek, but the Turkish women were something else, their allure perhaps intensified by their status as off-limits, since each of them usually had a brother willing to murder an American infidel who assaulted their honor.
Dondy ditched his cigarette and sped up as we reached the Autobahn. “Ski’s okay now,” I said. “But what happened to him at the board?”
“You really want to hear this?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Eagan told me this, that blue falcon.” He shook his head. “Blue Falcon” was military parlance for “Buddy Fucker.” Dondy was laidback, very hard to rile, what with his aura of security stemming from his sexual endowment, but Eagan had done more than enough to earn his enmity and that of the other soldiers in the company, on account of what happened to Specialist Furman.
And what happened to Specialist Furman was something I didn’t want to think about, and honestly it bothers me a little to think about it now, because it highlights the random, senseless nature of life and death better than anything else I’ve ever encountered, before or since my time in Germany.
Furman, much like both Dondy and Ski, had already been deployed to Iraq once before I got to the unit. As Charlie Co., 22nd Signal Battalion, 32nd Signal Brigade began preparing for its second deployment, Furman started scheming on ways to get out of it, primarily because his wife was pregnant with their first child and he was not eager to return to the sandbox and risk his life for a second time.
Sergeant Eagan, his team chief at the time, had urged him to get good and drunk and then to show up on duty, staggering and reeking of alcohol and generally being as obvious about his inebriation as he could be. Eagan thought that if he made a big enough ass of himself in garrison, he would miss movement to Iraq. The plan had worked, and he was confined to the Kaserne, and left back while the rest of us deployed. In garrison he was given a field grade article fifteen, given forty-five days of extra duty, and was forcibly enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program that met nightly.
The day that his extra duty ended, and restrictions on his liberty were lifted, he went to the Krone, a little bar in downtown Darmstadt, to celebrate with a few drinks. After leaving the bar, he was hit by a Strassenbahn and killed on impact. Think about this: Our unit deployed to Iraq for a year, and suffered zero casualties. Furman, fearing that he wouldn’t be alive to see his firstborn child, did everything he could to remain in garrison, and ended up getting killed by a streetcar.
Eagan hadn’t made Furman drink, either on duty or at the bar that night, and he certainly hadn’t made his troop walk in front of that train, but he was nevertheless blamed for Furman’s death. The consensus was that it was his fault Furman was dead, and Dondy seemed to share that opinion.
“Anyway, Ski’s shrooming his ass off. I don’t know how much he’d had before he went before the board.”
“Seven grams,” I said.
“How’d you know?” Dondy lit another blonde a moment after ditching the butt of his last one, and turned the radio down. Sibelius’s Finlandia was playing. For some reason I didn’t want to say I had watched Ski eat those Shrooms, and Dondy didn’t press me. “Anyway,” Dondy said, “apparently he wasn’t peaking yet, because he reports to the Sergeant Major and salutes, and takes his seat. First impressions are everything with these boards.”
We were crossing from Hesse toward the Rhineland-Palatinate, and the hills were a sea of green, chains of low mountains linking together around ancient, small towns built entirely of half-timbered fachwerk, except for the odd church here or castle there.
“He gets to his summary of accomplishments, and he breezes through that, talks about his Army Commendation Medal, citations, his pulse and respiration ribbon.”
Everyone called the Global War on Terror award the “pulse and respiration ribbon,” because all one had to do to earn it was enlist during wartime.
Dondy sped up, switched lanes to get around a slow smart car, and said, “He’s killing the questions, so far. Pinkney goes, ‘What’s the highest peacetime award for valor?’ and Ski goes, ‘Sergeant Major, the highest peacetime award for valor is the Soldier’s Medal.’”
Dondy sniffled, turned the heat up a little more. The leather beneath my rear already felt quite toasty. “The Fury goes, ‘Specialist Promotable Lazowski, what is a DA form thirty-nine thirty one’?”
Dondy shook his head at the preposterous question. “I mean, shit man, I know lots of staff sergeants wouldn’t know the answer to that one. And there’s no shame in not knowing every answer. All you have to do if they stump you is say ‘Sergeant Major’ or whoever’s asking the question, ‘I do not know the answer at this time, but I believe the answer can be found in Field Manual dash whatever, whatever.’”
I looked over at Dondy. I was fiending for one of his smokes, but I had given up the habit in Iraq. It was just too hot to smoke there, and it was an effort to draw smoke into my lungs when I was weighed down with sappy plates and full body armor.
It wasn’t too hot, now, though, and I wouldn’t be wearing armor for some time, so I snatched the smoke from Dondy’s hand, rolled my window down and took a puff. “Hey man!” He was about to protest further, when he remembered he still had most of a pack left. He took another smoke out, and lit it.
I asked, “So did Ski know the answer?”
He nodded and smoked. “He rattled that shit off like it was nothing. ‘First Sergeant, the DA Form thirty-nine thirty-one is the certificate of appreciation.’”
“Yeah, Ski’s a burnout, but he’s been in this man’s army too long not to comprehend at least some of his training.” The phrase “comprehend training” brought me back to my time at Fort Benning, when I was a holdover at Airborne School, waiting for orders to my next duty station. The buck sergeant driving me around was talking about the time a female soldier jumped out of a C-130 and forgot to do something with her rigging, and plummeted several hundred feet to the ground with her unopened parachute draped over her shattered bones and bloody body. “That soldier did not comprehend her training.”
“Everything’s going good,” Dondy said, “and then Pinkney asks him, ‘Specialist Promotable Lazowski, what decoration features George Washington’s picture on it’?”
Dondy laughed, placed his hands on the sides of his fur-lined hood as he contemplated the sheer madness of it. The hospital appeared in the hills before us, still in the tree-shrouded the moonlight, enchanted enough for me to feel like we were much farther south than we actually were, in perhaps Mad Ludwig’s Bavaria.
“They say ‘George Washington’ and Ski goes into like this Manchurian Candidate mode, like it’s a trigger. And apparently the Shrooms are kicking at this point, ‘cause he reaches for the American flag in its stand, and starts brandishing it at the board, like he’s gonna stab Pinckney or maybe impale the Fury himself.”
“Was he talking when he did it or?”
“Eagan said he wouldn’t shut up.” Dondy laughed. “‘George Washington killed the Indians! We enslaved the black man! We’re the war machine!’ He lets go of the flag and falls down on the floor, crying his eyes out and shit, just like that time in the Luisenplatz.” Dondy waved his hands around the confines of the car, the cherry of his cigarette lightly gracing the upholstery. His girlfriend was likely to notice any damage he did to the Benz, I thought, and withdraw his driving privileges if he didn’t get this car to a detailer in the meantime, ten inches or no.
“‘You raped Mother Earth! You defiled her’!” The Benz snaked up the hill, toward the emergency entrance of the hospital, which was glowing red. “Then he gets on his Smedley Butler trip. You know about that dude?”
I nodded. I was always surprised by the books one could find in a library on a military base, things like Naked Lunch and Chomsky’s Chronicles of Dissent. The Army was filled not just with barracks lawyers, but also top flight conspiracy theorists, who were convinced that 9-11 was an inside job and that Bin Laden was hanging out with Bush, sequestered at Crawford, Texas and helping the forty-third president clear scrub from his ranch. My best friend in the Army, Dunfy, once explained to me that America’s political elite were half-human, half-lizard entities called the Anunaki, intent on harvesting our souls and devouring our flesh. He’d showed me a YouTube video, wherein one could supposedly look closely at Hillary Clinton’s eyes and see her status as a lizard confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“He’s pointing at the Sergeant Major, who’s just sitting there, dumbstruck, and he says, ‘Smedley Butler was a two-time congressional Medal of Honor recipient who knew that war was a racket! From Carnegie to Cheney, it’s all the same!’” Dondy pointed through his windshield, at the phantom Sergeant Major seated in the darkness before him. “‘You’re all pawns! Pawns of the industrialist fat cats! Pawns who live off the blood of newborn babes!’ He keeps up with that ‘pawns!’ stuff until the MPs come.” Dondy shrugged. “I guess somebody called them.”
We pulled around the paved horseshoe ringing the emergency entrance. Through the glass automatic doors that led to the carpeted lobby I could see Ski, sitting in a wheelchair, wearing loose, polka-dotted hospital scrubs and booties, holding his civvies in a plastic bag.
He was looking off in the distance, catatonic. Dondy pulled up at the entrance and we both looked at Ski. I turned to Dondy. “You think he’s okay now? Sobered up?”
“Yeah, he’s good to go.”
I wasn’t so sure. He looked like he didn’t know where he was, still blinking as afterimages flickered, and synesthesia played havoc with its array of noises and colors. I could have been wrong, though, and guessed that I was, because when Ski next looked up and saw us, he smiled and gave me a thumb’s up with the hand not holding the bag of clothes.