This is the Eleventh round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 11 Title — Ode to… — was chosen by Gary. Perry will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
Here’s the blurb for Gary’s story:
A football icon joins the army after 911. He comes home in a casket. His fellow soldier and friend escorts the fallen hero back home on a slow-moving train. Here, he has time to re-think the details of the battle.
Ode To A Soldier
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(3,600 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Knock, knock…” the soldier wrapped his knuckles on the pine box. He waited for a response.
“Knock, knock!” he said again, banging harder on the wood.
“You always were hard-headed,” he whispered, exasperated. “Okay, when I say knock, knock, you are supposed to reply ‘who’s there?’ dummy.”
He thought for a moment. “No, don’t even think about it. Don’t say ‘Who’s there, dummy?’ I know you too well.”
“One more time. Knock, knock!” the soldier tapped the hard wood with the butt of his M9 Berretta. There was an eerie empty echo—no reply.
Goddamnit, Tillman, you are supposed to say ‘who’s there?’ and I’ll come back with something like Orange, and you’ll say, ‘Orange who?’ And I’ll say, orange you fucking glad I didn’t say banana?”
“Oh, Jesus, I fucked that up. It’s a good thing you’re dead. Otherwise, you’d never stop giving me shit over that shitty joke.” The young man tried to laugh, but only tears would come.
“Oh, and now you think I’m a pussy for bawling. Well, you’re right. There’s no crying in the Rangers.” He sniffled. “Like Chuck Norris, right?” He waited a respectable amount of time for a reply. “Remember all those Chuck Norris jokes we made up while pulling guard duty on the OP? You killed me with ‘Chuck Norris’ tears cure cancer, too bad he never cried.’”
“Too bad Ranger tears can’t cure for lead poisoning.” The young man stood up quickly and paced around the moving rail car. He stopped and stared out a slatted window at the desolate landscape.
“Jesus, man. This place looks like Talibanistan. Is this where you call home? Is this really Arizona? Only you would put some bat-shit crazy clause in your contract like this. I mean, who demands a slow-ass cross-country train ride instead of a C-5 Galaxy to transport their dead-ass home?” He turned back to the coffin; it rocked gently like a crib, but was secured safely in the center of the rail car.
“Home—I feel like I know this place. You talked about it all the time. Literally, ALL-THE-TIME. You never shut up.” Now the young man was finally able to chuckle at the memories. “I feel like I know your mom and dad, like I’m your red-head stepbrother or something. You told me everything about your wife, I…” The soldier stopped.
“How about those Cardinals this year?” He changed the subject. “They went what, six and ten? That sucks. They needed a strong safety that could get in there and disrupt the plan. Oh, wait, they had one. Some dumbass grunt that had to disrupt a real good thing. Honestly, dude, what the hell were you thinking? You had it all: football; fame; family; future. You had all the F’s and you royally fucked it up for what? Patriotism? You could have been a Patriot; you could have signed up with Brady and Belichick for millions of dollars. But you chose what, the army, the Rangers, us, me?” The soldier lowered his head and shook it again.
“What, you think I didn’t know? We all knew who you are—who you were. Besides, I’ve got this.” The young man reached into an interior pocket of his rucksack and slid out a tattered, black notebook. “Come on; don’t give me shit about this. You’ve got me on a twenty-hour train trip; even illiterates like me learn to read when we need to.”
“But seriously, man, I saved this.” He held the notebook like a bible. “C.O. told me to burn everything. They handed me a black trash bag and ordered me to take it to the shit barrel and torch it. I peeked and realized it was your uniform, vest-plate, and LBE, all covered in…you know.”
“Maybe I look it,” the soldier stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes, “but I’m not that stupid; I’ve watched CSI. I balled up to the captain and said, ‘Sir, shouldn’t this be tagged as evidence and sent back to CONUS?’ C.O. just said, ‘Follow your fucking orders, Ranger.’ Well, I did and I didn’t. Before I dumped JP-4 on your gear, I dug this out of your cargo pocket. I know you wrote in it every day. It was your way of dealing with this shit. My way was to shoot first and talk shit later. Yours was to stop and think, and then write about it.”
The soldier slammed a fist onto the casket. “Damnit, Pat, Rangers ain’t got time to stop and the army will do your thinking for you! That’s what they preach. It’s our way, our doctrine. Why did you have to come along and be so goddamn…different?”
The soldier thought for a moment, for that was all there was to do. “Pat, I don’t think you got it. Some of us really needed the army to tell us what to do. You waltzed in like you could tell the army what to do. You aired like you had it all figured out—you weren’t nothin’ like us grunts. You were better in every way. You had all the things that we dreamed of, and then you…gave it up to embrace the suck with the likes of us.”
“I get it; I guess—911. GW Bush tugged at my ball-strings too when he hollered back at those firemen and reporters with a ragged flag waving in the background and said, ‘I can hear you. The rest of the fuck’n world hears you. And those Hadji camel-fuckers that knocked down these buildings will hear us all soon.’ I called my recruiter the next goddamn day and here I am—here we are.”
“I’m hungry—you?” The soldier reached back and dragged his dusty rucksack up close. He plucked a beige plastic bag from one of many pockets and used his k-bar to slice it open. “Your flavorite; Spaghetti and Meat Sauce. Remember how you used to heat these up? I never saw anything like it. You dropped the spaghetti and a cheese packet into the exhaust stack of a Humvee and let it cook with the engine running. Then, after 5-mikes or so, you gunned the gas and the goddamn things shot up into the air; hot and ready. You would catch both one-handed like you did those interceptions back in the Cardinal days. That was just fucking amazing, man.”
Upending the MRE bag onto the lid of the coffin, the soldier spread and sorted its contents like a soldier’s buffet. “Ah, here it is; your sweet-tooth fave.” He selected a green shrink-wrapped package from the assortment and put it to his lips like a delicacy. “Who would have guessed that a muscle machine like you would trade a day’s rations for one of Uncle Boyardee’s chocolate treats—here’s your brownie and here’s a packet of peanut butter to make a Ranger cake.” The soldier flapped the items over the coffin for a moment, and then realized that the gesture was insufficient.
The K-bar flashed again as the soldier sawed through the tough nylon webbing of the CGU-1 Bravo cargo straps holding the casket in place. “I’ll probably get court martialed for this but, dammit, nothing should come between a soldier and his pogey bait.”
Just before the soldier cut the final strap, the train whistle blasted—three long, shrill sirens that sounded oddly like whales gossiping across the Atlantic. The train jolted twice, then lost all energy and came to a slow stop. It felt to the soldier like the last 30 seconds of a rollercoaster ride.
The coffin shifted slightly with the sudden stop but remained in place with the last strap still intact. The monotonous rumble of the wheels ceased and everything became weirdly silent and still. The soldier stood and held the K-bar low, ready. He felt for his .9mm and realized it was not in his shoulder holster. He had set it aside, neglectfully, as he prepared the Ranger picnic. Well-versed in hand-to-hand combat, he set his jaw for a knife fight, feeling more alive than he had since the day his friend had been killed.
The rail car door swooshed to the left. Lights flashed, people talked loudly, some laughed indignantly; a jumble of intruders invaded the solemn rail car. As suddenly as the train had, the mob stopped and became silent. “At ease, soldier,” a young officer held out his hands and whispered to the tattered Ranger guarding the box. “We come in peace.” The lieutenant smiled and took a few steps forward. The motley entourage behind him froze at the sight of the armed escort.
The soldier suddenly realized the absurdity of the situation, poised and ready to kill in a train car in Arizona—he tried to laugh but it came out like a cough, a cough of dust and dread. He lowered the blade.
Then he saw stars. “I’m Lt Williams and this,” the young officer pointed to the large man behind the posse of press, “is Major General Carson. The general had two tandem silver stars gleaming on the brow of his beret. “I’m the Public Affairs Officer for Centcom. I’m nobody. But this guy, he’s a fucking general.” The lieutenant waited for a beat, then followed, “They like to get saluted.”
“Yes sir!” The soldier dropped his knife; he snapped to the position of attention and saluted.
The general smiled and walked toward the casket and the soldier; the press parted. “Specialist, I’m told you knew the…” he motioned to the casket, “KIA?”
“Yes, sir. He was my…my brother.”
“I understand,” the general soothed. He glanced back to the lieutenant who stepped forward and held out a small velvet box to the senior officer.
The soldier watched as the scene played out. For a moment, he almost broke ranks with laughter. The young lieutenant solemnly handing the small gray box to the general looked way too much like a scrawny man proposing to a large, ugly woman. A bended knee would have made the moment farcical. The soldier maintained his bearing, just barely.
The general opened the hinged box and the soldier knew right away what it was and what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a diamond ring; it was a Silver Star—the third highest war-time medal a soldier could earn. The paparazzi oohed, ahhed, and flashed their cameras. The general held up the shiny star and then placed it reverently onto the coffin.
The lieutenant stepped up again and placed a green plastic folder into the general’s hands. He flipped it open and read aloud as the press jockeyed and focused for the best audio and pix. When the general was finished extolling the virtues and valor of the deceased, he placed a splayed hand on the coffin, closed his eyes, waited 10-heart beats for the clicks of the cameras, then stood straight, saluted the coffin, smiled and departed the rail car.
In their wake, the young lieutenant turned back on his heels and shook the young soldier’s hand. While doing so, he surreptitiously pressed something hard and square into the soldier’s palm. “He would want you to have this.” Then he ran after the general and his entourage.
Within moments, the train jumped again, jolted, and then quickly increased to cruising speed as if nothing had ever happened. The soldier looked out the slatted windows of the rail car and watched a small convoy of vehicles recede into the distance.
“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit. Did you see that? That goddamned general stopped this train in its tracks, literally. And he did it for you.” The soldier thought about what he had just said. “No, you’re right.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t for you was it? It was for him, for them, for Uncle.”
The soldier picked up the Silver Star the general had left on the casket. “Very nice,” he nodded. He flipped through the orders and citations in the green folder. “Here’s a witness statement by Sgt D’angleo. I didn’t know that jabroni could write.” He smiled as he scanned the document. His smile faded. “I don’t remember it going down like that. Here we go; here’s one by L.T. Reins.” He read it carefully. “I know it didn’t go down like that.” The soldier pulled out the last statement. He dropped the Silver Star.
“Pat,” he stared blankly at the coffin and then wadded up the paper. “This statement is signed by me. I didn’t write a goddamned statement and this isn’t my goddamned signature. This is FUBAR.”
The soldier sat on the floor of the rail car and watched the grid of window slat shadows slowly climb the walls. He finally broke the silence. “If anybody deserves a medal, it’s you, bro. I mean, we gave some, but you gave all. I guess it doesn’t matter what a piece of paper says, or who wrote what.”
He then remembered the thing the young lieutenant had handed him on his way out. He pulled it from his pocket. “Looky here, Pat. Screw your bogus Silver Star, I got a CIB badge. Combat Infantry badge, baaabee! Who’s the shit now?” He clutched the miniature musket and fist pumped.
“Remember when we did that mission in Iraq, near Nasiriyah? We were backing up the SEALS when they raided the hospital looking for that Lynch chick. We were so sure we would be earning a CIB while rescuing the first-ever female POW from the Tally-whackers. I practiced with my M249 three days straight in the ramp-up, shot up 20 cans of ammo, till I finally got my SAW zeroed in juuuust right. I was tagging 3-round burst into a dime, baby—a dime.” The soldier made a small circle with his finger and thumb and peered through it.
“Then, of course, they postponed the mission; they pushed us back to QRF, hurry-up-and-wait status, while they inserted a Special Ops video squad to record ‘historical integrity.’” The soldier held up his hands and made air quotes.
“That was a bust. SEAL Six just waltzed into Naz and they handed Lynch right over—not a single shot fired.”
“Do you remember how jazzed up we were, how pissed we got ‘cause we couldn’t get into the action? S-2 Intel had us fired up, said the ragheads had shot, stabbed, raped, and tortured that poor girl. They reported that she had held off insurgents for hours, blasting away with her M16 till she ran dry. Said she even sent a few to meet Allah.”
“I think we wanted to believe all that crap, especially when you said how much that blonde-hair, blue-eyed babe looked like your wife. We wanted to go medieval on those goat fuckers. But deep down, I think we knew the truth. Little Jessica was no Audie Murphy. Hell, I don’t know who to believe anymore. Audie Murphy was probably no Audie Murphy.”
“It was confirmed when we met up with that SEAL medic a couple days later in the mess tent. You pushed him, made him talk, used your charm, your chiseled chin, and your big fucking muscles. He spilled it. Said Lynch’s injuries were consistent with her own story not the S-2 narrative. She confided in him that she got busted up after her convoy got lost and came under fire. They panicked and her Humvee ran into the back of a trailer. She didn’t remember much after that. She had no stab wounds, gunshots, or any signs of rape or torture. Oh, and she never fired a fucking shot from her jammed-up weapon. Allah didn’t have to dole out any virgins on her case. You said it then and there; they were out to sexploit her. I remember that word. Nice!”
“That SEAL’s story never came out in the Army Times. Cheney and Rumsfeld just kept tossing out trays of red meat and the press gobbled it up, and so did we. But even when the real deal finally leaked out, the press and the brass never bothered to clear the smoke they’d blown up our asses.” The soldier stopped there and looked down at the casket.
“Pat, do you think they’ll try that playbook on you? Make up an epic story; sell it to all the flag-wavers and Bud-swillers; use it to gin up some new recruits for this quagmire? I can see the headlines now: NFL Star Receives Silver Star in Final Game. Too schmaltzy? What about From NFL to KIA? Is that short and sweet enough for you?”
“Too much to worry about right now, brother; especially on an empty stomach.” The soldier sliced open the spaghetti packet and squirted a yellow curl of cheese into the tomato sauce. “Oh, I almost forgot your Ranger cake. You can’t march off to Valhalla without a tasty treat.”
Instead of un-ratcheting the remaining CGU-1B cargo strap, the soldier simply cut it. He ran his fingers along the seam of the casket lid and pried it open. There was suction and then a release. He slid the top away revealing a huge green bag, like a giant pea pod. The soldier hesitated, suddenly unsure how to proceed. He found the brass slider and instinctively pulled it upward along the track. A toe popped out.
“Damn, Pat! I thought this was your head. I’ve been talking to your feet all this time.” The soldier laughed nervously. He regained his composure. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stop now. Rangers lead the way!” He continued to slowly unzip the body bag. Pat Tillman was revealed. First the feet, rough and blistered. Then the legs, muscular and athletic. Only a pair of white skivvies covered the dead Ranger’s loins; the bag split open like a green bean shell.
The body was marvelous, so white and so smooth, like marble. The soldier recalled Greek statues he had studied in school. The torso was a ripple of abs and a flare of lats. Pat had worked out every day in the desert, lifting five-gallon water cans taped to rebar rods scrounged from construction sites. His chest was massive, his shoulders wide, his neck thick, his head…the soldier stopped at the chin cleft. He knew from the tent-talk that it had been a head-shot that had killed Pat. The soldier froze at the bridge of the dead man’s nose.
“Pat, here’s a good place for me to toss in your Ranger cake and your Silver Star. I could zip you back up, slam the lid and throw a flag over your coffin. That’s what they want me to do. But, is it the right thing to do?”
Help me, Pat.” The soldier held the CIB badge and looked at it. “I don’t fucking know what to do. Pat, my brother, what would you do? What would you do if it was me lying there?” The soldier listened to the silence. Then, with all his might, the soldier took the enamel CIB badge and slammed it into the corpse’s chest, just above his heart. The prongs sunk in an eighth of an inch; there was no blood.
“I read all those citations and witness statements, Pat.” The soldier shook his head. “I’m sorry, brother; but you don’t deserve that stupid Silver Star. At least, not the way it’s written up. But you did face down the enemy in battle. You earned this, the CIB. You held your ground and kept your wits against overwhelming enemy fire. But the enemy…the real enemy…was us, wasn’t it?”
“I won’t lie anymore. I can’t. You know; we know; I know: the fucking ragheads were shooting just enough to get us to shoot back. They were baiting us. After that shit storm started, we blasted anything and everything that moved in that valley.”
“HQ gave orders, stupid orders. So our platoon was split up. When your squad heard the shots on our side of the mountain, you came charging to the rescue—ever the fucking hero. The more you guys fired to defend us, the more we shot back because we thought we were being ambushed. It got whack—crazy, chaotic. We all just fired wherever the PL fired. I shot at rocks, shadows and…”
“You must have seen it coming, Pat. They say all soldiers see the bullet with their name on it. Tell me, where did yours come from? The citations say that you were popped by Afghani insurgents; the fucking Taliban, Bin Laden and his army of Jihadists.”
“Tell me true, Pat. Was it Lt Reins? We were shooting behind him. He selected the targets. He was firing an M-4. But we both know he wasn’t much of a shot.
What about Sgt D’angelo? He had quite a creative statement for a man that can barely speak English. I know he rocked a 203 grenade launcher; was that it? Did you get caught up in a blast? Or was it Baker; he was swinging the Ma Deuce, the .50 cal. No, if that was the case, you would be in much smaller pieces.”
“Pat, if it wasn’t the Taliban, Reins, D’angelo, or Baker…who the hell was it?”
The soldier peeled back the stiff green plastic to reveal the face of Specialist Pat Tillman. His nose was strong and Roman, a warrior’s nose. His eyes were wide open, glazed—dead. “What was the last thing you saw, Pat?” The soldier looked deeper into the fixed eyes, needing something—blame or blameless.
The soldier closed his eyes and unzipped the rest of the bag. Just above Tillman’s right brow were three neat holes, a perfect shot group—small enough to fit in a dime.
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