It’s not that I stopped believing God was out there, or that heaven and hell were real, I was just really mad at Him. Plus I figured if I was going to hell, I might as well go to the deepest part there was. It’s stupid, I know. But that’s the way it was. In my mad sprint from God I did a lot of things that even a “bad Christian” wouldn’t do, and most of it was during my time in the military.
My first time in a plane would have been enough to make any person of reasonable intelligence swear off planes for good, but I never claimed to be too smart and I’m not sure how many people would call me reasonable. I was one of ninety-two men and women cramped into a rusted prop plane that if the truth were known had been made to seat only about seventy. On our first attempt to get airborne we never left the runway. After a lot of shaking and rumbling we were forced to slow down, turn around, and try again. More than half the folks on that plane were green in the gills by the time we saw the skies above Charlotte, NC. I didn’t get sick, but I had my own ways of getting through take off. I kept my eyes closed, my fingers tight on the armrest, and even though I wanted to—and knew I probably should—I fought off the urge to pray.
Somehow that plane managed to land in New Jersey and after a short bus ride, a bunch of us would-be G.I.’s arrived at Fort Dix. Nothing worth mentioning really happened in my short stint at Fort Dix, but it’s where I got my detail, and it’s where I met Mcclain.
Mcclain was a skinny seventeen year-old kid who had lied about his age just to get in the Army. That’s how easy it was back in the fifties. The recruiter would ask your age, you’d say eighteen, and after he eyeballed you for a second or two, if you passed the physical exam you were in. Now in my opinion, Mcclain didn’t look a hair more than sixteen, but he had the mouth of a sailor. I guess it was all that big talk that got him in.
Mcclain and I were assigned to Fort Kobbe, a military base on the pacific entrance of the Caribbean Command in Panama. It was smack dab in the middle of winter when we flew out of New Jersey headed for Panama; two degrees above zero. This meant that we were all in full military issue, winter OD’s. We looked like a bunch of camouflage snowmen, or the little brother in that movie “A Christmas Story” where the mom keeps telling Ralphie that he’ll shoot his eye out. Let’s just say none of us were struggling to stay warm. This was good and bad at the same time. It was good because nobody wanted get sick on their way over seas, and bad because at that same time the temperature in Panama was ninety-eight.
When we touched down we were all drenched with sweat before we even exited the plane. In true military fashion, the officers didn’t care how hot it was, we were forced to stand at attention on that pavement—which felt like lava under our boots—in our full winter uniforms, until every last stick of gear had been cleared from the cargo bay of the plane. It was about forty minutes before they let us remove our overcoats, but not before thirteen of our guys had passed out and were carried off to the med bay on stretchers. I always have and always will respect the military, but there are some things about it that I just simply will never understand. Why those officers forced good men to stand on that runway in full winter gear till they passed out is beyond me.
They were in need of artillery teams at Fort Kobbe, so me and Mcclain were paired up with a couple of other guys and given charge over a few M106 mortar cannons. Now I didn’t know much about mortar cannons, but I’ve always been the type of guy who never believed in doing anything halfway. If you told me to dig a hole to China, I didn’t want to stop till I saw rice paddies. I wanted to be the best at whatever I went after and the military was no exception. Being a Lance Corporal, I was in command of our team and I made sure we were fast and accurate. We could fire one shell high up in the air, quickly lower the cannon, and fire another straight out and the two shells would hit at the same time just a few yards of each other. The shells we used were about the size of a loaf of bread and the charges you placed on the back reminded me of little squares of cheese. Those cannons were amazing. They could fire a shell for five or six miles with a kill radius bigger than twenty-five yards. Of course, being from the wrong side of the tracks in the smallest town in Florida, it probably didn’t take much to impress me.
We were good with those cannons, but we were not perfect. Our regular gun tests were the way we made sure the aiming systems were calibrated correctly. A couple degrees off could mean missing your entire target area when you’re sending a shell five miles out. One time in particular we were putting the guns through their paces with a forward observer calling our coordinates over the radio just a few miles down range and things didn’t go exactly like we wanted. “Willie,” Mcclain said as we prepped gun three. That was what all the guys had taken to calling me. I guess ‘Williamson’ was too long, and nobody ever called you by your first name anyhow. “Jefferson said one of the guns was about three degrees off last time they tested.”
“Which one, Mcclain?” I asked, blowing the sweat off my lip.
“Three or four.”
“Was it three or four, Mcclain?” It was way too big a difference not to worry about, especially with a forward observer down field.
Mcclain stroked his dog tags before tucking them down the neck of his shirt. “Aw hell, Willie I don’t know. Four. It was four.”
“Four,” I said mocking his lack of confidence.
“Four, Willie. Now back off.”
I knew he wasn’t certain, and the look I gave him said as much. But I never was one for arguing. Especially with Mcclain. In a way, he was the closest thing I ever had to a little brother. “Alright, finish gun prep and gimme two charges on the back of that shell. I wanna be ready when we get the call in.” Mcclain moved like molasses over biscuits. I don’t blame him. Gun testing the cannons wasn’t typically all that exciting.
The coordinates came in over the radio and we started cranking. “Ready three,” I said as Mcclain rested the back of the shell on the cannon barrel. “Fire three.” The sound of metal sliding on metal lasted until the charges met the back of the cannon. A thump you could feel in your chest and a puff of smoke later and the shell was sent. There are some sounds you never forget. Somehow they get etched on a list in your mind and no matter how much time passes or in how bad of shape your memory gets, you can always remember those sounds. For me, the sound of an M106 mortar launching three feet from my face is on that list. Mcclain started to light a cigarette as we stood there waiting to hear from the forward observer. We heard from him alright.
“What the hell was that?!?” The FO’s voice came over the radio static and Mcclain went white. “You idiots just blew up my jeep!” Now, it was typical for the FO to sit in his jeep and call out coordinates, but for some reason, today he had decided to stretch his legs. He had parked the jeep a ways off from where he wanted to be, walked about a hundred paces up on a hill side, and had started calling in the coordinates. Imagine his surprise when a M106 mortar shell landed behind him and consumed his jeep in a ball of fire, smoke, and smoldering metal. Apparently he was only a few yards away from the kill zone. I don’t know why he got out of that jeep that day. Maybe it was the Lord, or maybe it was just dumb luck if there is such a thing. I’m just glad he did.
“FO, we got a calibration issue with one of the guns,” I said, holding the radio and staring down Mcclain.
“You’re damn right you do. You almost sent me home in a box.” The FO was hot as a screw in a tin roof in the Florida summer sun. And he had every right to be. “Send someone to come get me outta here.”
“Yessir.” I said setting the radio down.
Mcclain scratched his neck and gave his cigarette another puff. “Like I said, Willie, three’s a little off.” His smile was stupid, but contagious.
“Three, huh,” I said trying not to grin.