Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger
Far from the comfort and the well light avenues of life.
Pit your very soul against the unknown,
And seek stimulation in the company of the brave.
Experience cold and hunger, heat and thirst,
And survive to see another challenge and another dawn.
Only then will you be at peace with yourself
And be able to know and to say:
“I looked down on the farthest side of the mountain
And fulfilled and understanding all and truly content
That I lived a life that was one of my own choice.”
We are the pilgrim’s master,
We shall go always a little farther.
It may be beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.
White on a throne, or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men are born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand
-James Elroy Flecker, “The Golden Road to Samarkand”
This is a story about men at war. It is a story about two wars that concluded 20 years ago: one hot and one cold; one lasting 45 years and the other 45 days. In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, opening a Pandora’s Box that led to the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. The autumn of ’89 and the winter of ‘90 was a golden time, a dizzying dance of freedom experienced by millions who had lived in darkness for half a century.
But, perhaps more than anything, this is a tale of men who strive to maintain their sanity as they are ground up by the mindless bureaucracy of the military. As the Cold War wound down, men who had spent their whole lives studying the Soviet Threat were in a matter of months, studying the want ads in their local papers. In those same months, the gargantuan U.S. military presence in Western Europe seemed to collapse like a house of cards and evaporate like morning dew. In those last days of the Cold War, as the Berlin Wall fell brick by brick, along with the crumbling infrastructure of the Warsaw Pact nations, a new peace hovered over the world, as fresh and opulent as a bouquet of newly cut flowers.
Unfortunately, the military-industrial complex had other plans. It soon found a way to squash all those hopes and dreams and smiles. On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a new war was ignited in the blast furnace of the Middle East. The soldiers, who had thought that peace was forever, were to learn a harsh lesson: peace is as fleeting as youth. Their placid, day-dreaming, wonderful days seemed to end forever. Or, perhaps, that was the end of their innocence. The Gulf War ended in triumph, but it was a hollow victory, like a mirage in the desert sands it was fought on.
Nevertheless, the American soldier was on top of the world. He had vanquished the ghosts of Vietnam. He was a celebrity, a giant, the man on the Wheaties box; Jack Armstrong, the superhero who always smiled. But, beneath those smiles was anxiety for the future.
I knew the men in this story, those carefree fractured souls in woodland and desert camouflage. I knew what they had achieved and what they had failed to accomplish. I knew about their dreams and their fears. I laughed with them and scratched my head at their antics, which in many ways, were only a reaction to their surroundings. Looking back on it all, I can only smile.
Sheldon Steinwald, M.D.
Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired)
Scarsdale, New York
The town of Bullingen, West Germany, exists only in the minds of those who dare to dream of such a place. Like the characters in this book, it is entirely fictitious.
Bennett turned left sharply off of the winding federal route and swung the now classic, 1982, night-blue, BMW 323i into the entrance to the kaserne. The old, narrow, two-lane road was blocked by a six foot high chain link fence that barred entrance to the former US Army installation. He pulled the car over on the sidewalk, in the traditional half-on, half-off European style and shut the engine down. He glanced through the windshield and looked up at the towering three-story; castle-like building that once housed the headquarters to the 74th Cavalry Squadron. The sunlight lanced across windows and danced lightly on the roof of the structure.
Bennett looked around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. A cold wind rifled through the barren trees and a cat meowed somewhere in the distance. He jumped out of the car, placed his car keys in his pocket and proceeded to ascend the metal fence. What would the German police do if they saw him? Probably nothing; he was just another Ami paying his respects to a long lost sentimental time. They would shoo him away with a smile, or maybe even buy him a beer down the street.
Within a minute he was over the fence and landing with a small thud on the other side. Bennett didn’t even glance back this time. Instead, he marched straight ahead toward the entrance to a building that held his old office and so many memories; good, bad, funny and sad. He tried the front door. It was locked. He peered through the window. The front entranceway was dark and still and strange in some weird way. He thought of Oscar Wilde and that quote of all quotes that one simply cannot go back and if one does, things are never quite the same as before and they shall never be again.
Bennett looked to his right and strolled toward the old parking lot. He smiled at some long lost private joke. There seemed to be a lot of them these days. He shook his head and had an idea. He remembered the basement door. Surely it would have to be sealed tight as well. The Germans were just too damned thorough. He would give it a shot then retreat back to his car and the Hotel Adler’s dining room for a large lunch of Jaegerschnitzel with an even larger Binding Pils to wash away more memories.
Bennett tried the door. It didn’t move. He tried it again and it began to give way, albeit slowly, but then a little more until he was able to use his large shoulders to hockey check the door and open it. He hit it so hard that it bounced against the wall and back to him. He caught it with his hand, gently shut it and gazed down the basement hallway. It was even darker down there than in the entranceway. Bennett hated basements. He always had. He moved through the hallway, listening to the absolute silence, which was only broken by the sound of a dripping water pipe somewhere. A mouse appeared from a corner, sniffed a little, gazed at Bennett and realizing he wasn’t a threat, continued on his merry way in search of food. Bennett bounded up the staircase and reached the first floor, continuing until he landed on the second floor where he stopped.
It was more illuminated as daylight filtered in through the sundry offices. He turned to his right and pushed open a door that led to a series of offices where he had once worked. He turned left and walked inside an even larger office. Steel bars still covered the windows. The room was also slightly lit and it was barren. Bennett realized that he had expected a return to the world he once knew there complete with map cases, Warsaw Pact posters, desks, maps of East Germany, swivel chairs, rotary dial phones, typewriters and all the life-sized characters that came with it. It was all gone. They were all gone, having vanished to every nook and cranny of the earth and the afterlife itself. He walked over to the window that over-looked the parking lot and looked out. Like the office he was standing in, the parking lot and the other buildings and the motor pool and the small PX and housing units were all empty. It was almost if they had been empty for a thousand years. Bennett had a strange feeling that time itself had stopped and never re-started there. A cold chill ran through his body. He shook his head and decided to sit down, against the wall and on the floor. He ran a hand nervously through his hair. He stared off into space and was soon lost in thought as the crimson sun set gently in the West behind him.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Chapter One – The Last Alert
Bullingen, West Germany
Within the third story A-frame apartment, First Lieutenant Bennett was deeply inside Miss Cindy Carrington of Hamilton, Alabama. Bennett had been inside Cindy for exactly fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds. It was their second time that crisp evening in Central Germany and as Bennett continued to make love to her, he felt happier and more satisfied than he had been in a long time.
Bennett didn’t know why, but lately everything had seemed… gloomy: the army, which was consistently gloomy, the weather which hovered at foggy, cold and gloomy and his general state of happiness which never measured higher than gloomy to generally lousy. Bennett often wondered if people in the real world were happy. He thought they were. They looked happy. Even the Germans were smiling. People in the real world could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. He, on the other hand had been in some type of indentured servitude since raising his hand and swearing to defend the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. Then he had signed on the dotted line and had promised to give his heart and soul and probably his mind to the army for eight years. He could have robbed a bank and been out sooner, he often mused. Strangely, he had volunteered for all of it. He had no scholarship, no money to pay back. Of course he was being paid, in Uncle Sam greenbacks twice a month and in daily aggravation. He was there because after everything else, he knew that whatever he was doing, it might just be more interesting than what his former college classmates were doing. Oh, it was interesting all right, he thought. Like a cave full of bats is interesting or a dark pond with an alligator looming below…
At least Cindy was happy. She was like a little burst of sunshine, or that flavored gum that had a juicy filling. He wondered if he could bottle up her personality and sell it door to door. He looked into her doe-like brown eyes and wondered if he was falling for her. Or, was it only momentary exultation at scoring yet again with the pretty and oh-so-easy Officers Club waitress?
Cindy Carrington was a 26-year-old widow. Two years before, her husband, a young sergeant with a bright future had been the victim of a horrible accident. Sergeant Carrington had unfortunately been run over by a M-60 main battle tank driven by a young specialist named Ferguson. With only the strange logic the military can produce, Ferguson was kept within the ranks and promoted. Sergeant Carrington’s remains were scooped up and placed into a 30-gallon trash bag for burial at Arlington. Mrs. Sergeant Carrington was taken care of by the army. Bennett wondered if it was because the army took care of its own, or because Cindy Carrington had a 36-24-36 body built by Pina Farina. Needless to say, Cindy Carrington was given a plum position as a GS-7 clerk in the Deputy Sub-Community Commander’s office and also a part-time job as the waitress at the Officers Club.
One night, after a particularly raucous party the local cavalry squadron officers dubbed SECRET/NO SPOUSE, Cindy got drunk, and more intoxicated than she ever had been. She soon found herself in the clutches of two horny, but very polite young second lieutenants. From that night on, she was an official nymphomaniac, screwing anyone over the rank of Warrant Officer, except for Lieutenant Burger. Bennett was just another notch on her panties.
But, deep down Bennett knew that, perhaps knew it too well. Bennett was many things, but he wasn’t a fool. He had learned before that women had a strange innate ability to destroy a man’s soul. Still, she had an unusual effect on him; or was it an addiction? Was Bennett addicted to Cindy Carrington? Or was Bennett just addicted to sex? Was that really so bad? Maybe he enjoyed it so much because it was the only time he could really escape from the army. But, give them time, Bennett pondered again. The army would find a way to impede his sex life. They were masters at taking away any sense of normalcy from your life.
Bennett thought he heard something in the apartment below him. The old man must be up again he mused; too many bad dreams of freezing winter landscapes from Russia to the Ardennes and marauding, maniacal Siberians with Zhukov. After surviving that winter of ’41, how could anyone ever sleep again? Bennett hoped that Otto was just going for a midnight schnapps run and not experiencing one of his sleep-walking bouts. Only last week, Otto had burst into Bennett’s apartment, brandishing a broom like a rifle, awakening Bennett, forcing him out of bed and shouting to him that they were being overrun by a battalion of Soviet tanks who had hit their flank. It took Bennett thirty minutes to convince Otto that they had no flank and that the war was indeed over. They spent the rest of the night together, drinking beer and watching reruns of the German crime drama, Tatort.
Bennett was about to climax when the phone rang. He could barely hear it as Cindy was hitting a few high notes that could’ve shattered bulletproof glass. Her eyes were closed in ecstasy. The phone kept ringing in that annoying staccato that all European phones possess. Bennett knew he had to answer it. He pulled out and stood up, feeling the blood rush in the opposite direction from a moment before. Cindy was still moaning with her eyes closed.
He grabbed the phone and pulled it behind him, closing the bedroom door.
“What?” Bennett wasn’t much of an early riser. He hated mornings and their cold, dark dawns.
“Sir, we’re on alert. You’re needed back at the squadron. We’re rolling out to the border…” The monotone voice rattled off. Bennett just shook his head. Was there no end with these people? He wondered how they had gotten his home number and put it on the unit alert roster. Only recently, during an insanely boring 24 hour tenure as staff duty officer, Bennett had decided to change all the numbers on the unit alert roster. He had changed the commander’s number to a local whorehouse, his boss’ to a phone number belonging to Hermann Goering’s niece and his own to a small hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. But, somehow, the army had found him.
Bennett didn’t even respond to the soldier on the line. He placed the phone back and walked inside his bedroom. Cindy was sitting up in bed now, lighting some type of filtered cancer stick. She looked at Bennett dreamily.
“That was really good.”
“Well, I aim to please. Look, I’ve got to go, but you can stay, just be out before Otto’s wife gets up here at nine to clean. She’s a bit of a prude.”
“What’s wrong? We just got here.” Cindy exhaled a balloon-sized puff of toxic smoke that drifted slowly towards Bennett. He dodged it and began to dress in his fatigues.
“I have to get back to the base.” He always surprised himself how quickly he could dress when he needed to. He laced a pair of spit-shined, black combat boots he had worn since basic training.
“Well, that sucks.” She pouted and revealed her 36 double Charlie tits to him. Then she did a Farah Fawcett flip with her honey blonde hair. He knew she had done that for a reason. The combination of the Farah Fawcett flip and the 36 double Charlies drove Bennett crazy. Bennett knew that just the flip alone could cause him to commit treason, arson or an array of other felonies and misdemeanors. He pondered writing the army a note, saying although his first two years of active duty had been fascinating, he had other plans, which involved 24/7 copulating with the sexy and vivacious Cindy Carrington. He frowned. Reality finally hit home. The army would find him hiding out on the French Riviera, just like they had found his real phone number; the bastards.
It was time to go. He reached for his diving watch that was capable of functioning at the depth of the Marianas Trench, even though Bennett knew nothing about Scuba. What was the army expression? After twenty years of service you would have a collection of diving watches, ex-wives and sports cars. Yes, that was it. Was he on his way already? He wrenched it on his wrist while grabbing his camouflaged fatigue cap. He walked over to the bedroom door and opened it.
“We’re on alert, rolling out to the border tonight.” Bennett said.
“The border, that’s ridiculous.” Her spectacular breasts bounced and gave him a mischievous look. “Haven’t you heard?” Bennett turned again to look at her while fumbling for his car keys. It was rare for her to show interest in anything except sex, clothes and jewelry.
“Have I heard what?”
“The Cold War’s over with darlin’; AFN said so.”
“Thanks for the intell. I’ll see you later. Ciao.” Ciao? Bennett had been watching too many Felini movies lately. He exited the bedroom and opened his front door. He tried to run down the three flights of stairs as quickly and quietly as he could manage. He ran through the basement room that functioned as a local bar for the village. A series of deer heads peered at him from their last refuges, mounted places on the wood paneling walls. The Germans had a thing for deer antlers and deer heads in bars and restaurants and houses. As soon as he stepped out of the door, his peripheral vision caught a glimpse of Otto, who was sitting on a wooden bench drinking peppermint schnapps. Even though the temperature was near freezing, Otto only donned a short sleeve shirt. On his head was a grey, Wehrmacht M-43 cap that he had worn in World War II.
“Evening, Bennett, another alert?” Otto looked at Bennett who could see some distant battle playing in the old man’s blue eyes like a Leni Riefenstahl film.
“Right again, Otto.” Bennett was fluent in German.
“Get a Russian for me, will you.” Otto made the universal symbol of a pistol with his fingers.
“I’ll remember that. Why don’t you put on a jacket for God’s sake?”
“Jacket? What are you talking about? It’s warm out. This is nothing compared to the Winterschlacht. I remember one time…” Bennett shook his head and jumped inside his car before Otto began another story. Although, Bennett had to confess, he liked Otto’s stories. Otto was his friend. Even though Otto would have been trying to kill him 44 years before, he was one heck of a good guy. Come to think of it, Bennett thought, he knew a lot of great guys who would have been trying to kill him in World War II. Bennett wondered about the twisted logic that could turn men into friends and enemies at the mere stroke of a pen, or the declaration of a vote, or from the haranguing of a speech.
Inside his dark blue, BMW 323i, Bennett wasn’t in that much of a hurry to get to the base. He drove the car in a languid manner, switching gears as the Bimmer maneuvered through a labyrinth of hills and dark forest. The German forest always had an effect on him. It seemed to have its own mind. Bennett couldn’t decide if it was benevolent or malevolent.
Ten minutes later he turned into the squadron headquarters parking lot. He stopped the car, kicked open the door and practically fell out, with the energy of a geriatric. The cold, damp air enveloped him. He felt like a piece of lint being sucked into a vacuum, albeit slowly. He glanced up at the bastion-style building that housed the commander and staff of the 74th Cavalry Squadron. The headquarters building, like the rest of the structures on the kaserne or post, originally belonged to the German Army in World War II. The Americans had taken over the kaserne and a thousand others in West Germany at the end of the war. Bennett had learned that wherever the U.S. Army went, it stayed, just like the Romans had on the hilltop fortress behind the kaserne and all across Europe. But, eventually, they had departed, leaving the world crumbling pieces of lead cups and coins that could be auctioned off on late night cable. Bennett wondered who would move in when the Americans left one day. Would it be another conquering army, or would it be the Germans again? Maybe there was even a slight chance the buildings would be put to some good use, for things other than mechanized warfare. But, he doubted that. It would go on forever. It has always had and it always would. War was a good investment.