Shaking Hands with the General

original fiction by

Willard Douglas

This work is copyrighted by Willard Douglas.

Our protagonist is an anonymous private in the US Army. He sat in the class listening to the instructor drone on about a little missile that was supposed to be able to shoot down airplanes. He wondered what this three weeks of training would actually get him. He had completed Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana and was now at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas for the Redeye Gunner’s training.

This, the first day of class, he knew only one thing about the Redeye Missile. It was not used in Vietnam. Throughout basic and AIT he and all of his fellow so-called enlisted men – so-called because many if not most of them had been drafted so had not enlisted at all – had assumed they would be sent directly to Viet Nam. When orders were delivered to everyone at the end of AIT, he was surprised to find that he was ordered to go directly to Fort Bliss for Redeye Gunner’s training. He had no idea what that was but it meant he wouldn’t be going to Viet Nam with the remainder of his unit. At least not for another three weeks.

The instructor caught his attention when he hoisted a large, shiny metal box up onto a table at the front of the class. The box resembled an overlong, overthick suitcase, sort of a cross between a suitcase and a coffin. Then he opened the box and removed a missile launcher, small by missile standards but looking huge to the recruits sitting there. It looked much like an old bazooka that may have been used in WWII except this one was shiny and new. The private listened now as the instructor explained that the missile had an infra-red detector that caused it to lock onto the hot exhaust coming from the ass-end of a jet airplane. He said it had a two stage rocket motor, necessary to keep from toasting the G.I. firing it. The initial stage burned only for a fraction of a second as the missile leapt out of it’s tube. Then, after a few seconds delay, the second stage kicked in as the built-in guidance system locked onto that hot exhaust and guided itself right up that airplanes asshole, exploding just as it rushed up inside like a huge suppository. He accompanied his lecture with a film showing an actual firing. We all watched the film as a gunner pulled the trigger and a flame shot out the back-end of the tube on the gunner’s shoulder. But when the end of the missile came out of the front end of the tube just a second later it had no flame shooting from it. Instead it shot out and drifted down a foot or two before the second stage kicked in. By this time the missile was some twenty feet from the gunner. Then it took off after the airplane.

The instructor told the assembled soldiers that their training would consist of two parts. For the next week they would be intensively learning to identify various aircraft used by the world’s air forces. They, the GIs, would learn to tell the difference in enemy aircraft, primarily Russian, from U.S. and other Allied aircraft. For eight hours a day for the next eight days the class watched film footage of airplanes and other types of flying craft first appearing as a small dot and then steadily increasing in size until they were coming right out of the screen at them. As soon as they could place the aircraft into one of the above categories they, each of them, would jot down what country it was from and what type of aircraft it was. At the end of the training the recruits had to score 100% on a test of one hundred planes, correctly identifying each as friend or foe. They could retake the test up to three times but after that they were finished. The Army didn’t want to see U.S. or Allied aircraft destroyed by friendly fire.

Beginning about midway through the second week, the private and others in the class began their actual training for firing the missile, using simulators. But the simulated fire was at real aircraft that were flown somewhere on a range in New Mexico near Holloman Air Force Base.

Every morning buses pulled up in front of the barracks before daylight and the sleepy troops trooped aboard and slept as the bus lumbered northward into the desert. Our private along with everyone else in the class neither knew nor cared where they were. They just knew it was at least an hour’s bus-ride from the post out in the middle of nowhere where the sun baked them all day.

They were divided into ten small groups. Each group had a simulator that they took turns using. The first to spot an aircraft coming in – and it could be coming from any direction – notified the rest of his group and they watched until the growing spec could be identified. The first to identify the plane as the enemy picked up the simulator and waited for the aircraft to come into range.

Peering through a small, rectangular viewfinder on the side of the launcher, the recruit would point his launcher at the airplane until it completely filled the viewfinder, indicating that it was time to pull the trigger. When the trigger was pulled on the simulator, it activated the guidance system of the fake missile. If it was properly locked on to the exhaust from the plane, it gave a signal and the simulation ended until the next plane appeared which could be a few seconds to a few minutes. The GIs were expected to make a simulated ‘kill’ on every plane that came within range and was properly identified as the enemy.

An evaluator, usually a second lieutenant, had a roster with each recruit’s name on it. Each recruit was graded as to how many successful missiles he fired during the course of the day and, god forbid, whether he had fired at any friendly aircraft.

The simulator training as well as continuing aircraft recognition continued until Wednesday of the third week when the ‘lucky’ privates, the top 10% of the class, were selected to fire a real missile on Friday morning in front of a real general along with a group of real dignitaries. Our protagonist private, being among the top 10% of the class, was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. He would be one of eight men to fire a live missile which cost the army about $100,000 and no part of it was reusable. Our protagonist private could have cared less about the cost of the missile, the general, or the visiting dignitaries. He cared only slightly more about being chosen as one of those who would do the actual firing.

Thursday was spent packing gear, getting permanent orders, and getting paid, including travel pay. Everyone in the class would go on a 30 day leave before shipping out overseas. Our protagonist private would be permanently stationed at a small barracks outside of Mannheim, West Germany.

Late in the afternoon of that Thursday our private and several of his acquaintances from the class went to the airport to book flights to their respective hometowns or to the nearest airport to their respective hometown. Our private bought a ticket to Columbia, South Carolina by way of Houston from where he would have to take a bus on down to Beaufort.

Once each of the fellows had their travel plans finalized, they regathered in the bar for a few beers. One of the dozen was a tee-totaling Methodist. He drank iced tea. The rest of the group of twelve had two or three beers apiece except for a couple of fellows who had a few more than two or three. Our protagonist private had a few more than that. He had told everyone he was a tee-totaling Baptist. When they left to walk out to the bus boarding area our private was a bit unstable on his feet but was still plenty coherent as he tried his best to talk the group into going into downtown El Paso for more drinking. And, he said, who knew, one or all of them might get lucky. He failed completely into talking even one member of the group into going with him. Not even the tee-totaling Methodist would agree to come along and keep him company. So he went by himself.

Ten minutes later he was on a bus headed downtown. This bus departed central Fort Bliss every half hour on the half hour. It arrived downtown on the square and then departed for the return trip to the fort on the hour. Our private and a couple of others had taken the bus in on the previous Saturday so he knew there were several saloons around the square.

Our protagonist private made a beeline towards the nearest saloon, sat down on the first barstool he saw and ordered a margarita. The bartender lay a small card in front of him and turned to go make his drink. He picked up the card and discovered that he, the holder of the card, was now a member of the private club that went by the same name as that on the marquee out in front of the saloon. The card was plenty dog-eared. It had undoubtedly lay on the bar in front of many a drinking patron and been fingered by them just as it was being fingered by our protagonist.

Presently the bartender brought his drink and he lay a twenty dollar bill on the bar and told her two things. The first was that every time his glass was empty she was to bring him another margarita until his money ran out. (Margaritas were two dollars each.) The second was to be sure and let him know when it was about five minutes to midnight because the last bus to Fort Bliss left at midnight and if he weren’t on it he had no idea how he would get back to the post as he could not afford a taxi.

Sometime later, measured in hours, he awakened in a shallow ditch where he had fallen and passed out. Nothing around him was in focus. He sat up and tried to stand. After several attempts he managed to do so and leaned against a light pole while he shook his head to clear the cobwebs and get his bearings. Despite having made the walk from the company area to the bus-stop several times, he had trouble figuring out which way it was to his company area. Finally he started walking, very unsteadily, and ten minutes later he stepped into the orderly room and faced a very mad CQ.

“Where the hell have you been, private? And what the hell have you been doing? You smell like a cesspool.”

Our private managed somehow to tell the CQ he had been downtown and had gotten mugged by some Mexicans. He didn’t know how many but they’d left knocked him out and left him laying in a ditch.

“Did you report it to the police or the MPs?”

No, didn’t think about it.

The CQ stood up from behind his desk. He stood about a head taller than the private but his face was about two inches from our private’s face when he yelled, “Of course you didn’t, you fucking moron. You’re full of bullshit and you smell like it too. You were drunk. You’re still drunk. I should throw your skinny ass in the stockade but if I do I’ll have seven kinds of hell to pay – not to mention all the paperwork I’ll have to do before I leave here in the morning – explaining why one of the top recruits in the Redeye Gunner’s class isn’t at the live firing in front of General Jones and all of those kiss-ass visiting dignitaries being brought in from all over the place. Now get your ass back to your barracks and clean yourself up. Reveille is at oh-five-hundred and I better see your ass first in line to board the bus. Understood, private?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t sir me you fuckhead, I’m just a Sergeant.”

Our protagonist managed to find his own barracks and even his bunk. He lay down and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

At oh-five-hundred a bugle began blaring through the PA system throughout the company area, inside and outside the barracks. The private, remembering the tongue lashing from the CQ sat straight up so fast he hit his head on the top bunk. He stripped down to his skivvies, grabbed another pair from his footlocker, and ran for the shower room. Ten minutes later he was dressed in clean fatigues and on his way to the mess hall.

At the range the class of eighty odd newly minted Redeye Gunners were herded towards a small section of grandstand almost big enough to accommodate all of them. And once the sergeant packed them in like sardines it did accommodate all of them. The eight lucky fellows who were to fire live missiles were singled out to sit on one end of the front row. Our private was so lucky he got to sit on the end closest to the second section of grandstand where General Jones and the dignitaries would be sitting but it would be an hour or more before they arrived. Meanwhile, the class was told to sit at attention. They could drink water from their canteens but not smoke. A sergeant who stood next to our private stood looking at the group to make sure no one broke the rules. He nudged our private every time his head began to droop. He would have killed for a smoke.

Finally, General Jones and the post commander, along with the other dignitaries, began to arrive. As soon as they were all seated comfortably – there was plenty of room in their section of grandstand without anyone being packed in – the introductions began. The post commander welcomed all in attendance especially General Jones and the other dignitaries, each of whom he introduced by name and told something about who they were. The third person to stand up was a very handsome middle aged woman. Our private heard nothing of her introduction, her name nor why she was there because he was figuratively drooling over her. He fantasized about what he would like to do to her, with her. What he wanted her to do to him. He had not been with a woman in over three months and he was horny as hell. He would kill for a cigarette.

Presently he noted that everyone in the dignitary stands, his fellow GIs, even the sergeant who had been standing next to him, were intent on listening to the post commander as he explained how the firing would work. Our private ducked his head as low as he could and lit the cigarette he had surreptitiously raised to his lips. He quickly inhaled the first glorious draft into his lungs and exhaled it into his shirt which he held away from his body, giving the smoke a place to collect and then slowly diffuse through the fabric unnoticed. He held the shirt out with his left hand and carefully shielded the smoldering cigarette in his right. He waited to see if he had attracted any attention before taking another puff. He continued to smoke in this manner as the commander explained that a plane would fly over pulling a fire-pod on a tether some hundred feet behind him. The fire-pod put out more heat than the plane itself. At the precise instant when the plane was in range a missile would be launched by one of the lucky recruits. He would aim directly at the plane but because the fire-pod was a more intense heat source, the missile would home-in on the fire-pod. If any one of the new gunners scored a direct hit on the fire-pod he would be given an extra week’s leave. The more likely scenario, he explained, was that the missile would pass within a few feet of the fire-pod – assuming the recruit had correctly followed all of the steps for launch – and continue on a trajectory out into the desert where it would self-destruct after only ten seconds. A spotter with a pair of binoculars would announce whether the missile passed close enough to the fire-pod to be declared a hit.

Just as our private was about to take his last puff on the cigarette – he had already started to raise it to his lips – the commander announced that General Jones would accompany him in reviewing the recruits that had received the honor of firing a missile and before he could react, our private realized that the commander and the general were headed directly towards him and were only a few feet away.

He barely had time to react. Dropping his right hand to his side he squeezed the cigarette as tightly as he could, burning his hand but effectively smothering the smoke. The general stepped up in front of him as he managed to drop the butt behind himself, snap to attention, and execute a sloppy salute. The general returned the salute – his was, of course, perfect – and extended his hand to the private for a handshake. Our private extended his own smut caked palm to the general and shook his hand. This was followed by a repeat performance with the post commander who, unlike the general, looked at his own now smut smeared palm and back at our private before following the general down the line.

Miraculously our protagonist private managed to complete his firing, survive the remaining missiles that were fired, and be on his way to South Carolina that evening. All the other passengers had deplaned in Houston before the flight attendant had the nerve to awaken the young GI who had been sleeping with his head leaning against a window since minutes after boarding. As he passed by her she had to turn her head to the side to staunch the wave of nausea brought on by the reek of cigarette smoke and stale tequila emanating from every pore in his body.

%d bloggers like this: