Big Boy’s War (1/3)

Confini_Trieste-Istria2Lieutenant Robert Heller of the 88th Infantry Division stood outside the barracks and watched the sun’s glow on the crest of the neighboring mountains. He couldn’t help but feel irony that a hillbilly from West Virginia was, after over five years in the military, in the mountains of Europe. An orderly ran up to him, with a message from headquarter which he quickly read. “You will deliver to Outpost Charlie, two radios, two telephones, and four days’ rations. No reports received from Charlie for two days.”

Charlie sat right on the forward edge of the Morgan line which politicians had drawn on the map to keep the “Jugs” (Yugoslavians) out of the Italian city of Trieste. For the Jugs, Trieste was a spoil of war, justifiable retribution for the Italian’s mistake of aligning with Hitler’s Germany. But the Allies weren’t going to hand over the city to Communist partisans, so after the war ended, they moved quickly to occupy the area.

For some of the unfortunate citizens, they hadn’t arrived in time. Heller couldn’t scrub away the memory of finding sinkholes filled with corpses, bound and killed execution style. He swallowed hard. The two sides weren’t supposed to be shooting at each other, but someone forgot to tell the Jugs. Just my luck, after surviving three years of war, I’ll still manage to get killed by these vicious bastards.

The last time he ventured to Charlie, it involved a ten-mile jaunt up a steep, narrow trail in daylight and on foot. Jeeps were out of the question, they either got stuck or, God forbid, rolled off the poorly defined edges of the path. So, he had to do it with horses, in darkness and bad weather. Oh well, that’s what junior officers do.

He made his way to the quartermaster, collected his rifle and sidearm, ammunition, steel helmet, raincoat, then headed toward the barn where supplies for Charlie were being loaded.

Inside he found Sergeant Frank, pasty-faced and stooped over next to one of the pack horses.

“Hey, Sarge. You don’t look so good. Are you okay?”

Sarge looked up, his eyes red and face lined. “Oh, I’m fine, just suffering from a cold.”

A step closer, Heller caught a whiff of alcohol. “Seems you took quite a bit of medicine.”

“Um, yes sir.” Sarge cleared his throat. “Not to worry, I’ll have your horses ready.”

Scanning over the animals, he spied a monstrously large, reddish brown Belgian draft horse pawing at the straw. Oh, you have to be kidding me. “So, I get Big Boy?”

“Sorry sir, he’s next in the rotation.”

Heller let out a sigh. Meanest damned horse in the US Army. “Okay, just make sure– “

Sarge raised his hand. “Got it covered, sir.”

“You’d better. I don’t want him dumping me out of the saddle.”

“Oh, I know his tricks. A tap on his belly gets him to relax, then I can cinch the girth strap tight.”

Big Boy threw his head up and snorted. Heller pursed his lips.  “You think he knows the war is over?”

Sarge shrugged. “Nah, he just hates soldiers, doesn’t matter who. Probably started when he was hauling artillery for the Krauts.”

“Maybe he’s pissed his side lost.”

“I think he’s on his own side,” Sarge answered. “How long you going to be at Charlie?”

“Just up and back.”

“Heard the weather is going to be bad. You might have to stay overnight.”

“That’s not my orders, but I guess I’d better be prepared.” Which might mean a lot of downtime, better get something to keep me occupied. “I need to get something from the barracks. Can you keep an eye on my equipment ‘til I get back?”

“Sure thing, Lieutenant.”

Heller jogged out of the barn.

 

Sarge lifted and tossed the saddle on Big Boy’s back. The massive horse sidestepped away, so he hastily grabbed the gear before it slipped off and pushed it back into place. Big Boy lurched toward him, and the beast’s bulk slammed into his face, knocking him flat on his back in the straw. He gritted his teeth and shook a fist. “Kraut bastard, you stop that.”

A massive hoof swiped at him. He dodged it and grabbed the girth straps hanging off Big Boy’s belly.

Using the straps for leverage, Sarge struggled to his feet. In seconds he began to cinch the straps, but the horse drew in a huge breath. “Oh, you’re not getting away with that this time.” He kneed Big Boy’s belly. As air rushed out of the animal, he yanked on the strap, tightening it.

But just then, bile-filled Sarge’s mouth as a wave of nausea passed through him. Last night’s party got its revenge. His guts clenched, and he spewed most of the morning’s breakfast on the side of the stall. A moment later, Sarge recovered enough to check his work, but his stomach continued to squirm. “Oh hell, that’s good enough.”

 

Heller trotted in with a paperback and held it up in front of Sarge. “A little light reading. Billy Shakespeare’s Richard the Third.” The noticeably paler Sarge nodded absently.

Heller grabbed his equipment and stepped toward Big Boy. A sour smell wafted up at him. “Holy Jesus, what’s that smell?”

“Dunno,” Sarge offered, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He quickly sketched a salute. “You’re good to go, sir.”

Heller tried not to gag and returned the salute. “Thanks, Sarge. See you this evening.”

Snatching the reins, he walked Big Boy and the pack horses out of the barn into the fresh open air. As he climbed onto his mount, the Colonel’s aide, Captain Walker, materialized carrying a 3-foot square piece of wood wrapped in weatherproof canvas.

“Take this map table with you, per the Colonel’s orders.” He handed it to Heller.

The contraption was too big for the small pack horses, so he’d have to carry it. How in the hell am I to transport this, my weapons, hold the reins, and keep control of the other horses? He examined the board hoping a solution would magically appear.

“Oh for God’s sake,” the Captain said with annoyance. “There’s a strap on it, just loop it over your head and carry it on your back.”

“Yes, sir.” Within seconds, the board hung off him. He could only imagine what he must look like, a human bulls-eye, sitting atop a veritable mountain of a horse, and carrying more than half his weight in bulky gear. Yup, as inconspicuous as tits on a steer.

Big Boy’s War (2/3)

Principles

Paul Boniface studied the computer screen. The statewide statistics were sobering to say the least. While Jamesville High did not rank as the worst school in the district, the district as a whole didn’t have much standing statewide. Rather sad, but indicative of problems beyond his pay grade.

After two quick knocks, the door opened. Kenneth Franklin Herold, director of Human Resources, stepped through the doorway. He smoothed his Brooks Brothers suit while scanning the walls of the office. “Hello, Paul.”

Paul tried not to shiver. “Mephistopheles” Herold never showed up for any good reason. “Mr. Herold, to what do I owe this visit?” he asked.

Herold walked over and stood in front of the wall where Boniface’s college degrees hung. “Krepner sent me,” he said without looking his direction.

Paul bristled at the name of the District Superintendent. It was one thing to have Herold show up, quite another for Krepner to have instigated it. On his own, Herold was a feckless gadfly who took up more space on a golf course than a chair in an office. In tandem with Krepner, however, he played his role as professional bootlicker and minion with finesse. The two were connected, if not by anus, certainly by having graduated from Harvard Business School together. That said, their combined impact on the school system had little to show for it, other than accelerating Jamesville’s declining academic standards, as well as chasing away the kind of teachers needed to reverse that trend. Still, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t stop trying to blame everyone else for their shortcomings.

Paul swallowed hard. “What does that have to do with me?”

“How many years have you worked for the district?” Herold straightened his tie in the reflection cast by Paul’s framed doctorate degree.

Bastard. Herold knew the number but was clearly trying to goad him. “This year will be my twenty-ninth in the system.”

“Too bad.”

A chill ran down his spine. “How so?”

“Dr. Krepner and I have looked over the performance of Jamesville High and found it wanting. It was his recommendation that we terminate your contract.”

Paul’s face grew hot, and his hands started to shake. “What?”

Herold smiled, though it was crooked and thin. “Relax, I recommended an alternative.”

His heart thumping wildly, Paul swallowed again. “Which is . . .”

“I convinced Dr. Krepner to keep you on, but to reassign your vice-principal. In Dr. Clark’s place, we’ll bring in some new leadership to see if we can turn this school around.”

A dull burn seethed through him. Dr. Duncan Clark was a supremely gifted administrator, and a close friend. It made no sense to remove the man. “Who is replacing Dr. Clark?”

“The assistant principal at Harrison Middle.”

Boniface felt sick. The assistant at Harrison Middle was Gregory Herold, Mephistopheles son. “How is that going to help me?”

“You? Well, I don’t know about that, but if the school doesn’t make its AYP goals this year, then we have to go with a management style capable of providing the needed leadership.”

Paul knew that code and the result. Making AYP under the current constraints on resources was not possible in the next couple years, let alone by the end of the current one. So, his contract would be terminated short of full retirement, and Greg Herold would become principal. It took all his strength to not leap out of his desk and strangle the man.

Herold tapped Paul’s desk. “Well, I’ve got an appointment to keep. Clark has already been informed.” He turned and started to leave the office but stopped in front of Boniface’s degrees again. With a thumb and forefinger, he adjusted the frame slightly off-center. After casting a smile over his shoulder, he vanished out the door.

Boniface felt the walls closing in and rubbed his temples. They set him up for failure. How was he going to get out of this? Then the answer erupted in his mind. What’s he got to lose?

Escaping the Strip (Part 4/The End)

Escaping the Strip (Part 3)

“You ever wonder where you’ll be in five years?”

“With my study habits, probably still in college.”

“Studying what? What do you want to be doing for a living?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. ‘Going to college’ had always been my stock answer, but why I was going to college wasn’t very well formed. “Let’s see. Can’t really write or pass a calculus class to save my soul. No skill in working with my hands. Pretty much useless for anything that requires talent. Wait. I know–I’ll be a politician.”

“Har, har,” Nate chimed back to me.

“How about you?”

He was dead silent until we crossed the railroad tracks.

“I’ve got no job, no experience, no college, no car, and no girlfriend. I might as well be dead.”

“Hey, stop that talk.” An epiphany slithered through my mind. “Say, after I leave for college my dad will need someone to help him maintain his rentals and to keep from killing himself with electricity. If you can tolerate working with someone deaf and clumsy, you’ll fit right in. Plus, he pays decently.”

“Sounds good, but should I get my hopes up?”

“I’d say your chances are pretty even. Because your dad was a veteran, he’ll probably like you.” More than he ever did me, anyway. “I promise to talk you up to him. What do you think?”

“Would I need a car?”

“Nah, he likes to drive, though, with his bad hearing, it sometimes gets more exciting than it should.” I turned onto Henderson.

“All right, I like that idea. Can we listen to some more music?”

“Sure.”

Nate grabbed the radio tuner and twisted it. Tom Petty’s ‘Refugee’ came on. We sang the chorus together. But by the time the song ended, Nate had slumped down in the seat and was staring out the window.

The Henderson MickeyD’s came into sight, Nate asked, “Can you drop me off at home? I’m kind of tired.”

“Okay.” I sailed passed the restaurant and made a turn onto Fremont. About a mile down the road, I turned left into his driveway. Gravel crunched under the tires as we moved closer to his small home. All the windows were dark, but the porch light flickered giving just enough light for him to get to his front door. We sat there staring at his house.

In low voice, Nate asked,”Ever feel like you keep going around in circles, never getting anywhere but spending all your time doing it?”

“Yeah, sometimes, but time moves on.”

“Time makes no difference when you’re in jail. I wish I could escape this town.”

How do I answer that? I was going somewhere, and he wasn’t. Hardly seemed fair, but there it was.

“When you are leaving for Colorado?” Nate asked in a low tone.

“Two days.”

“Man, that sucks. We just graduated. Don’t you get to enjoy the summer?”

“No, of course not, they want me gone.”

“Really?”

“They’d sell me to the circus if they could.”

Nate chuckled, but then his face fell. “When are you coming back?”

Should I be honest or feed him some bullshit? Better keep it real. “If I can help it, never.”

Nate sighed, but then opened the car door and stepped out. “Never is a long time.”

“I know, but if I don’t leave, I might not ever get away.”

Nate and I locked eyes on each other. Left unsaid was the thought, Like me, you mean.

“Good luck Pete. Don’t forget to mention me to your dad.”

“I’ll talk to him. Take care of yourself.”

He turned and walked toward the house. The car coughed and sputtered but eventually started, and I backed out the driveway into the road. In the rearview mirror, Nate, with one foot on the porch step, stood staring up into the night sky. I shifted into drive and pulled away.

Goodbye, Nate.