by Robert J. Mendenhall
The air raid siren jolted Billy Lake from the vague beginnings of a dream. The siren was loud and shrill. And everywhere. He scanned the dark tent, trying to get his bearings and remember where the hell he was. Sweat made his face sheen and the bristles of his cropped hair moist. The damp under-shirt stuck to his body, rode up into his armpits. The dry, desert air reeked of hot canvas and body odor. Pungent. Oppressive.
“Move move move,” a soldier shouted.
Billy shot out of his cot, dazed.
Others jumped from their own cots, tossing sheets aside and running for the opening at the long side of the tent, not even bothering to get into their boots. Billy felt his chest ache and his heart race. He struggled for breath.
He didn’t know what was happening. Where were they all running to? And why? And what was that siren for?
“Lake, get your ass in gear.” The voice was gruff and Billy recognized it from the long bus ride to camp that morning. He caught his breath.
“Corporal, what’s going on?”
The corporal grabbed Billy’s arm and yanked him into motion.
“Don’t you hear the siren? Incoming. We have to get to the bunker.”
Billy didn’t know anything about a bunker. It was his first day in country, but he followed the corporal out of the tent and into the blistering night. Clusters of soldiers in their underwear ran from other tents toward a long concrete and steel-rebar enclosure a football field away.
The bunker was open at both ends. They pushed inside and made their way to the mass of soldiers already gathered in the middle.
“Stay here,” the corporal told him and moved off.
Billy nodded and slid his lanky body to the ground, his back scraping against the stone wall. Around him, others did the same. The air was as stale as the tent’s, and stank even more. He hugged his knees to his chest, struggled to get his breath under control. A soft murmur of voices filtered through the bunker.
“Day one, kid?” a soldier to his right asked. He was older than Billy. Not as lean, but well-muscled. He wore his hair high and tight and had a confident demeanor that suggested experience.
Billy nodded. “Yeah. What’s…what’s going on?”
“No sweat. Whenever an enemy aircraft is sighted within fifty miles of the camp, we take shelter.”
“Fifty miles? That’s a long way away.”
“Not for an F-18 knock-off doing twelve hundred miles-an-hour. Do the math, kid. That gives us two-and-a-half minutes to get to shelter. Take away reaction time for the radar techs to recognize the threat and sound the alarm, and we’re down to less than two minutes.”
Billy’s head reeled at the thought. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah. By the way,” the soldier grinned. “You’ll probably get all that info in your orientation briefing tomorrow.”
Billy rested his head against the coarse wall and closed his eyes. His chest still ached and his pulse still raced, but his breathing stabilized. He thought about home, about his family and friends. About the job at Safeway he left behind. This place was nothing like West Frankfort, Illinois.
He opened his eyes and glanced up at the exposed rebar and sharp corners of the bunker. “Is this thing strong enough?”
“Depends on what they throw at us. Bullets, for sure. Missiles? Who knows? We’re safer here than in the tents, anyway.”
Billy nodded and closed his eyes again.
“We should be getting the all clear soon. Relax, kid. This happens all the time.”
Not to me it doesn’t, he said to himself.
He thought about home again and wondered what the hell he’d been thinking when he decided to join the Army instead of going to community college.
And this was only day one.
It was going to be a long-ass deployment.