Love in a Far Away Place

 

John R. Guthrie

 

 

Madam President said in her first State of the Union Speech early that year that it was seriously against the dignity of women that a female could be Commander in Chief but not be an infantry fire team leader. She issued an executive order, and six or eight weeks after that, PFC Stella Wright came in on the transport chopper along with a dozen pallets of assorted MREs and crates of ammo. The Marines were bivouacked outside Baku, Azerbaijan. Sgt. Nathan Striver, the lean as-a-bayonet Platoon Sergeant for 3rd Platoon, Lima Company took it all in. Pvt. Wright had hair that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be red or blond, nearly as short as a man’s, feathered back under her helmet. Hints of a nice figure under those baggy camos. And the other thing the sergeant saw? Trouble! One chick in his squared-away-platoon-of-which-he-was-justifiably-proud with forty horny guys? What’s she doing out here, husband shopping? He put her in first squad, the junior rifleman in the first fire team, where he could keep an eye on her. 

After Azerbaijan, the Marines moved east into Uzbekistan. Sgt. Striver sat on a canvas seat with PFC Wright sitting across from him. That old Sea Hawk chopper whump-whump-whumped across the valleys and low hills. He checked Wright out to see if she was squared away. She was. Holding her rifle between her knees. Pretty eyes, he noticed; amber. He looked quickly away as she looked back.

As the chopper headed toward its landing zone, Sgt. Striver twisted around and looked down through the porthole behind him. He saw a pack of wild dogs hunting. There were four of them. He’d seen them in Iran and Azerbaijan too. They live on the outskirts of cities as well as in the boonies. They interbreed with local dogs, and can eat scraps from garbage just as well as they can hunt the plains and valleys. Striver thought to himself, there’s a lesson in that for every Marine; adaptability. Then the dogs were gone and he thought of the opportunities that would come with the liberation of the oil and gas fields of Uzbekistan. Probably a fourth stripe, a rocker for those three stripes; him, not too long ago a snot-nosed kid, a staff sergeant!

Lima Company was soon sent on a search and destroy mission up into the mountains. It’s high desert there, with boulders all over and a few scraggly pines hardly tall as a man. The troops were spread out, advancing up a slope when Sgt. Striver heard the splat of an RPG going off, shrapnel rattling like a hailstorm on a Quonset hut against the field of boulders to the front. Nobody was hurt. But the second one took out Stella Wright's fire team leader as well as the rifleman in front of her. Before the smoke and dust had cleared, the two terrs that had fired the RPGs stood up and started boogying down a draw that led down into the valley.

It was Stella who got up, cool as if she were on the firing range, firing from the shoulder. Cr-r-r-ack! She missed. She fired a second time; a third. She sent both of them to paradise with those last two shots. Good shots, too, from nearly a hundred meters. 

This sort of outstanding conduct and proficiency on Stella Wright’s part continued, and with Brown and Rivera dead and the replacements coming in way junior to her, she became Lance Corporal Wright, a fire team leader. Then, after the final shoot-out during the liberation of the Takriti oil field, a roadside bomb took out her squad leader, and at that point the captain gave her a meritorious promotion. She was Corporal Wright, squad leader, 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon.

She came over later and said to Sgt. Striver, “Thanks. I wouldn’t have made corporal without you.” Then she gave him a copy of her official promotion photo. Striver looked at it. She was smiling and happy. And Pretty. He found himself taking it out of his pack and taking another look every time he got a break. And for some reason, he still has it.

By then, Sgt. Striver’s attitude about her had done a 180. Sure, she was short, but Chesty Puller with his five Navy Crosses was also. The Commandant of the Marine Corps himself would look like an extra from the Wizard of Oz if it weren’t for that Marine Corps uniform with a Congressional Medal of Honor on it. He finally said to himself, “It’s not the height of the package, it’s the firepower inside,” which he thought sounded pretty good, like something an officer might say, or something you might read in a training manual.

  The platoon sat eating Meals-Ready-to-Eat during a patrol that took them through the Zeravshan River Valley. Sgt. Striver arose and walked over to where Cpl. Wright sat. She looked up.

"Mind some company?"

"It's a free country,” she said, looking up at Striver, which sounded strange because Uzbekistan hadn't been a free country for at least 6000 years. He looked at her to see if she was joking. She was. They laughed. She had a good laugh, he noticed; it came from somewhere down in her belly. It made him feel better.  

Stella and the Sgt. were both from down south. She was from Sharpsville, a little burg in upper South Carolina where they used to grow peaches but mostly grow trailer parks now. Finally he worked his way around to it, the question that bothered him for a good while. "What,” he said, “is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

She looked dead at him for what seemed like a long time with that level gaze. It made him feel funny inside; those eyes of hers, big as a full moon over the Persian Gulf, hazel, amber, depending on the light.  Striver was unsure if she though it was funny or maybe she was pissed that he asked. She took another bite or two from the Ravioli, Dehydrated, With Sauce, it crunching as she chewed because she hadn’t bothered to re-hydrate it.

She finally said, "Lots of people from where I am go in the service. My Daddy was in the Corps; second Iraqi war. Got a Purple Heart in the liberation of Baghdad. He got a disability check, too, ‘cause of the metal plate they had to put in his head. He talked about the Corps like it was the best thing he ever did. Considering that he didn’t do much else for the rest of his life except fool around on my mama and hang around the VFW club and get loaded, it probably was. Mama finally had all she could take. She ran off with the water meter reader when I was seventeen. I hit eighteen a month later and enlisted. It was either that or find my own meter reader, I guess.”

Striver laughed. She continued, “Also, I figured I could get some money for college this way. University of South Carolina. I’m a major big Game Cock fan."

Striver said, “I lived with my mama in a trailer on the outskirts of Birmingham. Mama wasn’t generally much on being a mom. She’d never married my dad. He wasn’t around to marry anyway. Mama, she drank a lot.”

He stopped here, looking close at Stella to see how she’ reacting. She just nodded a little, “Yeah, sounds familiar.” 

Striver continued, “She did what she had to do. Which bummed me out when I was 11 or 12. But I realized eventually that the rent had to be paid. And that she was all the mama I had, and better than no mama at all.”

 It was time to move out. As she got up and walked away, Striver watched. She looked good from that angle too, definitely more hydraulic than your standard issue Marine. He had a real woody, a definite indication that his feelings for Corporal Wright were more than ordinary camaraderie he felt for all fellow Marines.

 

In a firefight near the outskirts of Wakir al Abhim, Cpl. Wright stopped a piece of shrapnel from a grenade. It raked across her temple, cutting to the bone, knocking her off her feet and stunning her. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. It was bleeding like, way bad, and she couldn’t even wipe the blood out of her eye. For her, it was dreamlike, like something was after her, and whatever it was was one bad mother. You know you’re in deep shit, but still you can’t move. A round kicked up the dust near her. She started thinking about how, on the rifle range at Parris Island, if you get behind the shooter and watch as he shoots, you can see the bullets fly, just little specks that move down range so fast it’s like magic. She wondered if there was anybody back behind the Kalishnikov shooter that could see the bullets flying toward her. 

Sgt. Striver came after her. He grabbed her by her web belt and dragged her, grunting and giving out little high-pitched “ummm” when bullets popped into the ground around them. She watched his combat boots as he shoved against a boulder for traction. She noticed that the boulder was gray, streaked with rust color. He dragged her until they were behind the foundation of a house that had been taken out in the B-2 strikes. He broke out his first aid packet, wiping off the blood to see how badly she was hurt, whispering, “Stella, can you hear me?”

She was choppered out to the field hospital where a Doc checked her over, then a Navy Corpsman sewed her up. She spent two nights there. Mild concussion, they said. When she came back, Sgt. Striver said, “Stella, that’s good. An over-night after getting hurt automatically qualifies you for a Purple Heart. Another tic on your certified proficient hero list.”  At the time, it seemed that Sgt. Striver would at least get a Bronze Star with a combat “V” out of his heroic actions in rescuing Stella under fire, too.  

Sgt. Striver found it difficult to get Stella off his mind after that. When they were back in garrison where there were showers, he starting taking his showers a 2 A.M. He’d soap up and jerk off, and it was Cpl. Stella Wright who was the unchallenged lady of his dreams.

After they liberated the town of Ajbar and secured the nearby gas fields, things started calming down, at least in that area. In Ajbar, there were a bunch of teahouses, an open-air market, and a few mud and brick houses still standing. The colonel, knowing they’d had no liberty since Christ was a corporal, worked out a deal with the mayor of Ajbar. The troops would come into town and spend green backs. Though the population was pretty well pacified, armored personnel carriers were placed strategically around the town, and there were snipers on the rooftops and heavy patrols in the streets, so there was a reasonable chance the Marines could go into town for a little R & R without being killed by those they’d recently liberated.  .

 On 3rd platoon’s first liberty, Sgt. Striver swung into a local establishment called Kasment. The establishment had, as  well as Russian beer, the usual prayer rugs, little teacups with complicated blue swirls on them, pistachio candy and such.

Striver was the only customer that evening. He’d picked an out-of-the-way place on purpose, wanting to get away from the troops, nurse a few beers and just think things over. But halfway through the evening Striver had half a buzz on. He was working his way through his fourth beer when Corporal Wright walked through the door. He wasn’t sorry. She wasn’t either. And he didn’t really think that after a few more beers, they’d end up smoking hash in an upstairs room.

There was nothing in that room but a bed, a cot really, with a scrap of a rug besides it and a hookah that looked like it came straight out of the Arabian nights. The pipe bubbled like a teakettle when they took a hit. OK, they were violating a whole bunch of regs, but they’d been in the boonies a long time, and figured they were both along way toward becoming certified heroes anyway. The Corps owed them a few.

Wright took a deep breath, then said, “I appreciate it.” 

She tilted her head back as she spoke. Striver totally realized what a fox she was, her face toasty brown from the Uzbek sun, lips deep colored even without any lipstick “Appreciate it?” he said.

 “When I caught that fragment,” she said, “you got me out of the open, took care of me.”

She leaned closer, shaking her head. Now listen! Striver had come to understand that Stella was a looker, but that smile; jeez! Like when you’re huddled in your fighting hole in the high desert, dark and shivering with the cold, then the next minute the sun climbs up and all of a sudden it’s warm and bright.

She didn’t say anything, just took another drag off the hash pipe, held it in and finally blew it out. She was looking right at Striver. He checked out her eyes. He’d never noticed before, but her eyes were not one color, really. They were brown with flecks of gold. She said, “You know, I understand it now.”

“Cool,” Striver said, not knowing what she understood, but pretty much willing to agree to anything she said at that point. “What?”

“Oh, wow, how you had to drag me to cover when I got hit, how I’d have done the same for you. I see how it all fits together, like the universe, like Uzbekistan and Sharpsville and Birmingham and all, and Einstein’s theory, and Christ’s love, and, you know, like you and me. It’s like we’re a good fit ‘cause we’re so much alike.”

“Cool,” Striver said again, trying to take it all in but not being too conversational any more.

She leaned over toward him then, and laid on one him, him leaning back, her tongue limber as an eel, and soon their camos were in a heap on the floor. And more than he’d ever known or hoped, he realized that Stella was a babe. An original issue, hard body, US Marine Corps issue babe. Boobs a firm handful and shaped like the hills beyond the plain. Her perfect muffin of an ass was hard, a Marine’s ass. Not that Striver had ever felt any Marine’s ass but his own, but you know; hard and warm and soft at the same time. They didn’t make it to the bed the first time. Just to the rug there beside it. 

That bed was a cot really, peeled alder wood that stood maybe a foot off the floor with canvas slung between the rails and a lumpy pad for a mattress. It had an olive drab Marine Corps blanket on it. How it got there, who knows?

Once they got into the sack, Stella started shaking, shaking like she was freezing, though it was warm in that room. Striver pulled the blanket up over her.

“It’s not that,” she said, “I’m not cold. I’m not one fucking bit cold. Not once fucking bit.”

He pulled her closer, squeezing her as if he’d never let go, stroking the back of her head.

“It’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK. It doesn’t matter.”

Then it was like they didn’t have to say anything, like they were soaking the whole scene in through their skins. They fell asleep that way, waking up from time-to-time to get it on.

 

After that night, they found their private moments here and there. And when they didn’t find them, just their fingers might touch when Striver was handing out ammo or rations, or maybe she’d brush up against him when they were humping ammo off the supply chopper. For Striver, touching Stella, or her touching him, was like touching a bare electric line. Once she mouthed. “Love you,” when they were on a break and nobody was looking. Striver though he’d do a Chernoble when she did that. He mouthed the same back.

 

That was all before that last patrol. The platoon, reinforced with elements from Weapons Company, marched eastward into the mountains north of Tashkent. They didn’t see anything but boonies for three days. They were making their way above a little valley, no more than three hundred meters across. Then something flashed across the valley. Rifle fire! The troops scrambled for cover. Striver pulled out binoculars and took a closer look. There in a grove of trees, there were maybe a hundred people milling around outside of some kind of house. Some were armed. He could see the radioman already calling for air support from the air wing in Tashkent. The planes, three of them in a “V” formation, came whistling across the hills minutes later. Antipersonnel bombs rained down across the valley, the smoke and fire blossoming up before the explosions could be heard. A few of the terrs, stick figures, came running out of the smoke and fire. The .50 caliber machine guns from the weapons platoon started chugging. 

The three planes, cruciform because the wings were fully extended from the low-speed bombing run, were curling straight back over the hill where the house had stood. The afterburners cut in, flame streaming from the exhausts. They climbed nearly straight up, wings configuring back as they went. Striver spoke to Cpl. Wright, “Until you’ve seen a bombing run that beautiful, you don’t know what awesome really means!”   

The Marines advanced into the area there the bombs had hit. It was a total buzzard fuck. Guts, arms, legs, pieces of people of varying sizes and shapes all over the place. The smell; Christ! Striver remembered when his grandpa killed chickens, he’d gut them and put the innards and feathers in one smelly pile. Then he’d roll up a sheet of newspaper and singe the pinfeathers off, which smelled like burning hair. The stink as they moved in was like chicken killing time; gut piles and burning feathers.

Stella was right beside Striver beside when he saw this lady. Well, half a lady, the top half, with white clothes painted red now. She was like, maybe Stella’s age. Gold bracelets on her wrists, fine stuff.

“Hey,” Wright said, smiling at Striver, “she must have been like an Uzbek babe.” Still trying to keep it light, Stella added, “At least till very recently.”

Striver was shaking his head, saying, “Doesn’t compute.”

Not ten yards away from the half babe there was a guy, young guy. He had a suit on. A three-piece suit. His glasses, gold wire frames, round lenses, were still in place. Not a mark on him, but very, very dead. “Sweet Jesus,” Striver takes it all in, then said, “It’s a wedding. A fucking wedding party, and we’ve blown them all away.”

They kept looking. Inside the ruins of what had been the farmhouse, there were more pieces of people. Striver was leaning on the side of a masonry wall, chest heaving, taking big breaths, trying to keep from blowing lunch.

“You can’t make an omelet without¼,” Stella started to say, by way of comfort and reassurance. Then they heard something, a high-pitched wailing.

Striver lets out an, “Oh, shit”, and he rushed over to look inside what was left of the house, Arms, legs, and other body parts, but nearly all like, kid-sized.

Just above a whisper, Striver said, “A nursery?”

Something was moving in the mess, in the gore. Striver stepped in, bent over, reached down, picked something up. The kid, a little kid, walking sized maybe, was crying, but not loud. It was gray instead of normal brown. Both arms just bloody stumps. The cries were getting lower and lower.

Striver was sitting on the ground, and he’s crying too, still saying “Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit. We didn’t do this. Oh God, we didn’t do this. It’s a room full of kids waiting for the wedding cake or whatever the fuck they get here at a wedding¼

Stella said to him, kindly and patiently, “Look, Sergeant, sometimes when you set out to bring freedom and democracy to people, it doesn’t turn out like you thought it would.” The rest of the platoon was moving up. It was time to advance and Striver wasn’t saying anything so Stella started yelling, “Move out, move out.” They were in a combat situation, and Striver wouldn’t get up and move out. And he was still shaking and carrying on, like, really wierding Corporal Wright out. She totally lost a lot of respect for him right then. Stella said to herself, he’s sentimental? Sure, we’re all sentimental. My eyes mist up when I hear the Marines Corps Hymn, or the Star Spangled Banner, or maybe when I see one of those old dude Marines come back to get a medal pinned on or something. But this was like, his thought processes, had become totally unwired. Totally unprofessional and highly unsat, especially with the platoon, now leaderless, moving out.

 

Sergeant Striver, Private Striver, once they returned to base, was on the next transport plane for duty in the Arctic Oil Reserve Security Detachment. A day or two later, the old man saw Corporal Wright as she walked across the compound. The Captain is one serious ass-kicking Old Corps sort, the stuff of legends. He’s a mustang, which is to say he came up through the ranks, starting from private in the Iranian Conflict. Silver Star at the battle of Persepolis. Face as black and creased as old boot leather. But to Stella’s surprise, he stopped her and said, “Corporal, you and Striver were tight?”

“Sort of, up to a certain point, Sir.”

“You OK, with him gone and all?”

Yessir, Captain, I’m copasetic.”

And all the time Stella was thinking, Striver? Striver was OK. But I’m a Marine. And a Marine loves the Corps.

 

 

 

 

Harvard Square Commentary

 

July 7, 2008