Saving Private Simon
↑ that's a permalink! visit the full archive
We hit the airfield around 0300. I roll out of the chute and look up to see a black sky covered in parachutes like a school of jelly fish floating down. The wind blows my hair in my eyes. The asphalt is warm under my hands.
Down the runway I make out the leaning hulk of a dead MiG. They've been dumped all down the length of the field to keep it from being utilized outright. Other jumpers hit the ground to my right and left like lawndarts.
I kick free of my gear and drop my rucksack. I check the action on my rifle and pat down my flak vest pockets for ammo and chemlights. I find them through the nylon and nod to myself. I check the dim lights in the distance: the village indicated on the maps. The airfield buildings are all dark. From a hundred meters away I discern the black domino squares of windows and doorways.
I start running. I gather with the other members of my squad and we flow into the drills like NBA all-stars.
Paratroopers are already in the process of clearing the nearest buildings as we reach the outlying structures. I hear counting followed by doors cracking. Shouts of "Down!" and "Clear!" Everything moves just like training. No sounds in the air but equipment clinking dully and heavy breathing as jumpers clear their chutes. I flip down my night vision monocle and the airfield becames a gridwork of infared -- glowsticks marking the drop zone, rally points, equipment caches and the hasty medical station.
We seize the airfield with little resistance. As the sun rises over the east, outlining the massive forehead of the mountain range, I make shape of the rolling grassland and sparse outcroppings of shrub-like trees. The airfield is nearly covered by the tall grass. It's obvious it hasn't been used in some time.
Around 1000 hours, as I came off my first guard shift, I get a call from my squad leader that the commander wants to see me. I quickly check to make sure I haven't lost anything, then follow him to the platoon sergeant, who walks me up to one of the empty buildings that is now the command post.
Inside I see the officers already have a 5KW generator running their laptops, projecting Powerpoint slides on a cracked wall. Most of them have already rubbed the camouflage off their faces. I look at my own camouflage-covered hands, reminding myself to touch it up when I left.
I drop the ammo magazine and clear my rifle, shoving the rounds in a pouch. I wait as my platoon sergeant finds the captain, then report by saluting with my rifle. He nods, telling me "At ease," and I relax. He continues talking to a lieutenant, then turns back to me.
"You got all your shit packed up?" he says.
I blink, nodding. My rucksack is in a pile in a ditch beside the airfield, with the rest of my squad's equipment. The captain looks at my platoon sergeant, who verifies.
"He's a good kid," my platoon sergeant says.
The captain studies me. "Well, that's too bad," he says finally, "because we're pulling you out. You're catching the first turn-and-burn back into Ramstein."
I feel hit in the throat.
I manage to say, "Why, sir?" In a heartbeat, I feel like I'm going to cry. My eyes are getting hot. "What did I do, sir?" I ask.
"American Idol," the captain says. "They're putting you on TV."
My platoon sergeant looks at me like I'm suddenly wearing a dress. My flak vest feels like a hundred pount weight.
"I don't understand, sir."
"The Army's pissed-off the Marines got some asshole on the show. So you're going to be on the next season. Pre-production starts in a week. They'll teach you to sing, all that shit." He jabs me in the chest. "I better not see you dying your hair or any shit like that, I don't care how much money Herbal Essences wants to pay your ass."
He shakes his head. "You think about us here when you're getting your shit all shampooed like a poodle."
"Why me?" I stutter.
"Your mom wrote a letter to MSNBC, got your picture on their wall of assholes or whatever. Said you love to sing." He stares at me. "Do you love to sing?"
"I was in the jazz choir," I admit.
"Yeah," he says, sizing me up. "So MSNBC gloms onto you and your story, and your mom gets on the air. You didn't hear your mom calling MSNBC?" he demands.
"Well, she was. She made you sound like damn Celine Dion. So while this is going on, while your mom is on the air, no less, CENTCOM gets a call from Fox News."
"Fair and balanced," my platoon sergeant says.
"Yeah," the captain agrees dryly. "Fox News calls General Franks and says they want to put you on American Idol. Where are you at." He nods loosely, eyes boring into me. "Yeah. But CENTCOM doesn't know where you're at, because you're on a one-way trip in a C-130. I hit the ground last night, and there's a damn CIA asshole sitting in a lawn chair on the runway with orders in hand. For you. Yeah."
My throat feels ziplocked.
I manage to squeak: "I don't want to go, sir."
His eyes are icy coins. "Oh, you're going. No doubt about it. You're going. You're going to win the damn contest and put a bayonet right between that asshole Simon's eyes. You got it? You're gonna plant the company guidon right between that fruitloop Ryan's shoulderblades. And you're gonna lay a big wet one on Paula Abdul's fine-ass lips -- in our names. You got it?"
"Yes, sir," I say.
"What?" he demands, voice rising. "I didn't hear you, Airborne. You got it?"
"Yes, sir!" I scream, stiffening to attention.
"Good," the captain says. He motions toward my platoon sergeant. "Get him ready," he says. Then: "And fix that damn camouflage," he tells me. "You look like a piece of asparagus."
My platoon sergeant grabs me by the shoulder and shoves me outside.
James Stegall watches American Idol.