Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Night at the Crossroads

There have been moments in every war since the beginning of time in which soldiers, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from home, asked the same question, in every language living or dead, that unites them all in spirit: "What the hell am I doing here?"

In my case it happened when I was in the Army stationed in South Korea. It was January in 1998, and a cold wave had struck the peninsula with freezing rain. My unit, 1/15th Field Artillery, was in the field when the cold weather arrived. We had been there, somewhere near the DMZ (we were never told exactly where), for a week with all of our combat track vehicles, three huge 155mm self-propelled howitzers, known as "Paladins," ammunition vehicles, and two old 577s - Vietnam-era personnel carriers converted to fire-direction centers.

At our designated firing point, we were all preparing for our return to garrison at Camp Casey farther to the south, but the ice on the roads delayed us for two crucial days. Finally, after two days or waiting, we were told that we could move, but we had to wait until after midnight. This was because there were no tank trails anywhere for our track vehicles to travel on, so we had to drive on the available public roads whenthere was a minimum of traffic. 

Five of us were "volunteered" to act as road guards at different intersections through which our convoy would be passing, on the outside chance that anyone would be driving the roads at that hour. So just after midnight, I donned my gortex jacket and gloves, got into "full battle rattle" - kevlar helmet & LBE (load-bearing equipment) - grabbed my M16, and climbed into the back of a waiting humvee. As we drove through the night, at intervals one of us would be deposited on the pavement at an intersection. 

I was the first to climb out of the humvee, and after collecting my gear, I watched the humvee drive out of sight. What struck me immediately was the stillness of the place where I was left standing. The chill in the air meant that I would not even hear the sound of an insect. I turned around and looked at the crossroads I was put there to guard. On one corner stood a two-storey house with a streetlight beside it. Across the road was another light pole and a traffic light was suspended by a cable above the road. There were people living in there, somewhere, but they were evidently fast asleep. They were unaware that an American soldier was standing on their street with an M16. My rifle wasn't loaded, and they hadn't given me any live ammo, so if someone threatened me with a loaded .22 pistol - or even a sharp stick - I would've surrender my M16, or anything else they wanted from me.

On the other corners of the crossroads stood what looked like shops with their metal shutters pulled down. Not wearing a watch, which would only have made the long wait seem that much more interminable, I tried to dole out the time in small measures by counting the number of my steps on the road, with each step equal to one second, from the end of the two-storey house down to the corner opposite the streetlight. The distance was almost exactly sixty steps, so rather than counting steps, all I had to do was count the minutes every time I had to turn around. This exercise of mine grew tedious after ten minutes, so I let my thoughts drift for the rest of the time I waited for the convoy to arrive.

I thought about the moment, the cold January night (I didn't know the exact date), and what I would do when we got back to our motor pool in Camp Casey and I was released in the morning. I stopped when I reached the corner and instead of turning around I walked to the middle of the road and looked into the air above me. So there I was, in the middle of Nowhere, South Korea, wondering with whom - if anyone - I could ever share such an odd moment. The few stars I could see beyond the streetlights would've seemed unfamiliar even I had recognized them - a star that led three wise men least of all. I was 39 years old, not knowing what I would make of the Army, or what it would make of me. Of course, there were plenty of places I'd rather have been, especially on that night. 

My wife, my mother, brother and sister were in Colorado, probably making the most of their freedom to go and do as they pleased. Was I, a soldier armed with an unloaded rifle, standing alone in the middle of a road I couldn't find on a map - even if I had one - really making that freedom possible? Of course, the task I was performing had to be done by someone, so what did it matter if it was performed by me, just another soldier in uniform, rather than someone else? 

After what seemed an eternity, an eternity in which I reminded myself several times that it was taking forever for my unit's convoy to show up, it arrived at the crossroads where I stood, fending off nonexistent traffic, and I quit my post and climbed into the back of a humvee for the long ride back to the motoropool, our barracks, civilian clothes, hot food and cold beer. These 17 years and an overabundance of living later, I think of that cold night and write down these words as if I were telling of an encounter with extraterrestrials. Who would believe me if I told them?      

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