Duff Brenna

In jump school the instructors insist that you adopt a proper pose as you exit the aircraft. In one continuous motion you leap out, stiffen your legs, keeping them tightly together, while tucking your chin into your chest and gripping a reserve chute strapped to your waist. Picture a tire iron. There are mockup doorways set on twenty-foot towers to help a recruit practice his form. He climbs a tower, straps on a harness and hooks it to a pulley overhead that zips down a cable to a landing zone some forty yards away. When he lands, he will unhook himself and do the whole thing over until he gets it right--according to an instructor standing below judging him.
        The first time I make one of these jumps the instructor, a lanky Black sergeant named Charlie Hill, wags his finger in my face and says, If I see you wishbone again, I'll put my boot up your ass, young soldier! Now get up there and do it right!"
        I run back up the tower. Hook onto the cable. Fling myself into the air. And my legs wishbone a second time. Sergeant Hill jogs to the landing zone screaming at me, telling me that I am the most asinine, dim-witted recruit he has ever seen.
        What I don't tell him is that I have a slight groin pull. It only hurts badly when I jump. No matter how hard I try to keep my legs together, the pain of the straps digging into my crotch is so acute it forces my legs apart. Time after time I climb the stairs and leap into the air resolved to keep my legs together. But can't. By my seventh jump, Sergeant Hill is foaming. Nose to nose he goes at me as I stand at attention shouting, "Yes, Sergeant!" to every insult he spews in my face. I am the most sorry-ass soldier he has ever tried to instruct in this man's army! I wouldn't pass muster in the Boy Scouts! Not even the Girl Scouts would have such a candy-assed-little-motherfucker like me! And so on and so forth. The insults don't faze me. I have been through Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training and have had my share of the shouting and posturing expected of every drill sergeant worthy of his rank.
        Almost everyone else in my platoon has averaged five or six jumps before they have the form down pat. I jump at least a dozen times until finally, in complete disgust, my torturer gives up. He leaves me with the order to knock out fifty pushups and then jog to the barracks backward quacking like a duck. His parting shot is to tell me that I will end up fouled in my risers the first time I exit a real aircraft at 2,000 feet.
        So after failing proper form, numbskull that I am, I also fail to know my right side from my left. Well, actually I do know the difference, but I simply refuse to land on my right side after leaping off a ramp into a pit of sawdust. Again, it is an injury. I had been roughhousing with friends, playing knights on horseback, and another knight threw me off. My horse was a farm boy named Glenn Chandler. He fell on top of me and I felt something go in my rib cage. I'm guessing that it was either a cracked rib or torn cartilage. I will never know because I refuse to go on sick call to find out. If X-rays reveal my injury, I will be held back for however long it takes to get fit for duty. I already hate jump school and want out. I definitely do not want to cool my heels pulling K-P, or guarding some empty building, or anything else the Army can devise to make me earn my pay while I am healing. So, as with the groin pull, I run up the ramp and leap into the air many times and land well enough, but always on my left side. The exasperated Sergeant Hill has never known anyone dumber than Private Brenna and he predicts that I will never make it through jump school. I will be one of those pussies who will wash out. He guarantees it.
        Three weeks into our training, we board C-130s and take off for one of the sandy drop zones that dot Fort Benning. Like everyone else I have no trouble following the Jump Master's instructions. I stand up, hook up, check my equipment and the equipment of the man in front of me. I sound off--"OKAY!" as loud as I can. And slap the man I've checked on the shoulder. When the light turns green, the Jump Master yells, "Go!" and we are rushed out of the aircraft so fast I am sure we will end in a mess of fused parachutes. The prop blast flips me upside down. My helmet falls over my face. My legs hit my deploying chute. My feet flirt with the risers. The heel of one foot is caught in some lines. Everything happens at a ferocious pace and I'm thinking, Sergeant Hill was right! I am getting tangled in my lines! As the chute balloons above me, and the risers stiffen, my heel is ejected and I straighten out. I lift my helmet off my eyes and see the sandy DZ below. I look up and see the T-10 fully open.
        "You beautiful green bitch!" I shout.
        I relax, swaying like a slow pendulum as I watch the ground rising to meet me. Then, as instructed, I look away towards tree top level and take my five-point stance, prepared to hit toes, calves, thighs, buttocks and onto my left side. And then roll over and end up ready to return fire or leap up and run. In eighteen jumps in the Airborne I will never make one of these cagey five-point landings. What I discover on my first jump is that I am a heel-and-head man. My heels hit as I drift sideways with the wind and then my head is bouncing off the ground. I scramble up and catch my chute, roll it into a ball and hustle to the waiting trucks.

        Ultimately, I refute Sergeant Hill's prognostications. A day arrives when I am given a certificate announcing that Private Brenna has successfully completed the Airborne Course given at Fort Benning, Georgia. And then I, and a number of other newbies, are flown to Fort Bragg, North Carolina and assigned to the 82nd Airborne.          I am sent to Company B, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry. The First Sergeant is a Korean War Veteran named Harold A. Smeltzer. As I stand at attention in front of his desk, he chews an unlit cigar and reads my file. He looks at me with hostile eyes when he says, "This true? You can type?" He raps my file.
         “Type, sir?”
         “Goddammit, don't call me sir!”
         “Can you type or not, Brenna?”
         “I took a course it in the ninth grade, Sergeant.”
         “Can you spell?”
         “Yes, Sergeant!”

Duff gets his wings
         “Goddammit, we don't have nobody can spell around here! Go put your gear in your locker and report to the Company Clerk!”
         The Company Clerk gives me a pile of forms and some handwritten letters to type. I sit at a desk banging on an old Underwood. Sergeant Smeltzer occasionally comes into the office and looks at my work and grunts approval and stares at the Company Clerk with disdain. Which doesn't seem to bother him at all. He is an impudent, handsome Spec 4 with a sarcastic grin. I learn later that his favorite way of picking up girls in bars is to go up to them and say, “I'd like to turn you upside down and lick you like an ice cream cone.” Legend has it that he gets a lot of pussy that way.
         I also learn that he is a “short-timer.” In two weeks he will muster out, and he's lost all interest in clerking for the company. For the next two weeks he kicks back and tells me what to do. I go to the office early and type and file and make out the Morning Report. Afterwards I catch up with my platoon and join them in whatever training is scheduled for the day.
         When the Company Clerk becomes a civilian again, I am given his title. A month later we have a “surprise” General Inspection. I have everything in order. My office is given 98 out of 100 points, which pleases the First Sergeant. He tells me I no longer have to join my platoon for training. I am to be his Company Clerk full-time. Cushy job, but I don't like it. The long, boring days pushing paper, answering phones, filing and re-filing forms and typing what must be a perfect Morning Report. No mistakes allowed. I spend my evenings in the Enlisted Men's Club drinking beer and grumbling with other beer drinking grumblers.
         At this point in my non-career I am painfully aware that I've made a mistake. I hate taking orders. I hate authority of any kind. I am hoping to just do the work and get discharged on time. Go find a better way of making a living. Since quitting school after finishing the ninth grade and leaving home, I have worked as a dishwasher, a busboy, a rug cleaner, a fruit picker, a hay bucker, a cascara bark peeler, a hod-carrier for block layers, a ditch-digging-pipe-laying laborer, a potato burlap sack sewer, a pin setter, a dock loader loading trucks with crates of frozen chickens. And I have made money by committing various forms of larceny. Graduating from stealing car batteries and selling them to battery rebuilders in Denver for four bucks each, to hot-wiring cars and cannibalizing parts to sell to junkyards. I have no doubt that I'll do all right if I can just survive the Army.
         As the months go by, the Vietnam War heats up. Some men in my company volunteer to go overseas and fight. I stay behind my desk and mark the days off on a calendar. Until one day everything changes and I am ambushed.
         The lockdown comes in April 1965. Sergeant Smeltzer tells me to go to the payphone in the hall and remove the mouthpiece. No more calls to the outside world. Immediately, the rumors are flying. Most of us think we are going to Vietnam. Others say the Dominican Republic. Communist rebels have taken over the capital. There are those who say the lockdown is just another drill, the sort of thing we have gone through periodically--everyone made to wait until it is time to mount the "cattle" trucks for the ride to Pope Airforce Base. Time and again we have marched into C-130s and found ourselves over a Fort Bragg drop zone. Red light, green light. Back to barracks by sundown.
         On the second day of the lockdown, we are driven to the base and put onto waiting planes. It all looks familiar except for the pallet of boxes piled beside the bay doors. We sit in the nets staring at the boxes. Next to me, Specialist Zane Smith nudges my elbow and says, “Live ammunition, man.” I hear someone else saying, “This ain't no exercise.”
         Hours later, when we are in the air, the company commander tells us we are going to the Dominican Republic to put down a commie coup. I know nothing about the Dominican Republic except approximately where it is in the Caribbean and that it shares half of some island with Haiti, a place where everyone believes in voodoo.
         And I tell myself, “If you had washed out like Sergeant Hill said you would, you wouldn't be here, you dumb son of a--” And then I have a premonition that I'll end up a casualty of war. I've been set up by the system that's for sure. Clerking has made me soft. I haven't been to the firing range in over a year. I have almost forgotten how to disassemble, clean and reassemble my rifle. I am not ready for this. I want to go home.
         The order comes to load our magazines with live ammo. We are told not to inject any bullets in the chamber until we are given the order. They know we are all very nervous and they don't trust us not to accidentally shoot one another somehow. Loading up with live rounds makes everything realer than real. I feel queasy. Some of the boys around me are deathly pale. Some are grinning like road-kill. I am not going to wake up and go to my office and pound away at the old Underwood. My country has “enemies” it wants me to destroy.
         After I load four magazines, I sit back and make a plan. Sergeant Smeltzer doesn't look at all scared. He looks pissed off about having to put his life on the line again. I decide that I am going to stick close to him. He has survived one war. He will know how to survive another. I will learn on the job by doing whatever he does.
         The best laid schemes . . . gang oft a gley. We land at 2:00 A.M. on a runway shaped like a U. The planes taxi around. They swiftly unload us and our equipment and take off again. The noise is deafening. Orders are being shouted, but I can't hear them. I chase after Smeltzer and then lose him in the dark. I can't find anyone I know. I wander into a grassy field. The grass is as tall as my chest. A few seconds later I hear the chatter of an M-16 on automatic. On the other side of the runway someone answers. Then, like dogs barking at each other, rifle after rifle joins in. The enemy is everywhere! For two seconds I contemplate moving toward one of the firing zones. Then I tell myself not to be a fool. It is too dark. I don't know who is firing at whom. For all I know they are firing at each other! I have no idea where my company is. I don't know where I am. And where the hell is Smeltzer? I decide to just lie down and let the grass hide me.
         The next morning, I see a few heads popping up here and there in the grass. Before long there are hundreds of heads. Minutes later we are all moving towards each other. We join in a general flow of soldiers marching southwest. I keep hearing others asking, “Where we goin, man?” Nobody knows. Some order has come from somewhere and we are on the move. Eventually I hear that we are to take the Duarte Bridge and hook up with the Marines in Santo Domingo.
         I finally spot other men from my company. I find Sergeant Smeltzer. He beckons me to his jeep and pulls out a wooden box. Inside is my old Underwood. Smeltzer gives me a list of personnel actions that make up the Morning Report. I carefully type the report and give it to him. Then rejoin the flow of soldiers heading for battle.
         Taking the bridge proves to be anti-climatic. The Marines have already been there. The smell of gasoline and roasting flesh is everywhere. We march past a pair of smoking bodies and enter the city. As we creep around corners, I hold my rifle strategically over my chest to deflect any bullets that might be aimed at my heart. All we find are some frightened people huddling in a house. When we flush them out some of them say, “Love America! Love America!” After a few hours of searching for rebels, every soldier I talk to is frustrated. Those damn Marines taking our bridge! We are anxious to shoot our rifles, use our grenades. "Where are the bad guys?" we keep asking each other.
         Over the course of several days I learn that my fellow soldiers (including myself) are every bit as dangerous to each other as they are to the enemy. We are green. We are nervous, frightened, angry, overly aggressive and confused. We shoot at anything that moves in places where we have decided nothing should move. If someone sees what he thinks is a sniper on a rooftop, our response is to lay down a withering fire, while at the same time bringing up our M-67 recoilless rifles and M-79 grenade launchers to blow the building apart. We know it is overkill, but we do it anyway. We never bag any snipers. I never personally see any.
         Every morning I check in with the First Sergeant and make out the dreaded Morning Report. When the Underwood breaks down and no one can fix it, I'm allowed to fill out the report by hand. Which is actually much easier on me. My hand is steady; I don't make any mistakes; in a few minutes I'm back on patrol and hoping Smeltzer will quit being lazy and fill the damn report out himself. But he never does.
         One day we get in a firefight on some suburban street. There are low walls and houses on both sides. A broad-shouldered Georgian named Melvin Payne grabs me and says, “Motherfucker, watch my back! I watch your back!” We press our backs together and lean against a wall. We set our rifles on automatic and spray bullets heedlessly. Again, I never see the enemy. A few seconds later, I feel Melvin go down. When I turn I see he is clasping his neck. Blood trickles through his fingers.
         He starts making a bizarre gagging noise, a sort of “Gaagh, gaagh!” His eyes are huge and rolling. His skin is gray, like boiling beef. His whole body trembles. I squat beside him and search for the wound, but can't find it. All the while he is making that "Gaagh, gaagh!" sound and I find it both annoying and funny. Without wanting to, I start giggling. Or maybe I'm hysterical, I don't know. But he looks at me and says, “Man, what's wrong wit you?”
         “Sorry, Mel,” I say. “But that noise is so funny.”
         “Don't you know who's dyin round here, man?”
         Stifling my giggles, I take out my First Aid Kit and tear a piece of cotton from the roll inside the kit. I wipe away the blood and find what amounts to little more than some nasty gashes beneath his right ear. Lying next to him are sharp fragments of concrete clipped from the wall.
         “Gaagh!” he gags as I press hard to make the blood stop.
         “Mel,” I say, “stop making that stupid noise. It's a scratch, man. Hardly anything. You caught a ricochet.” I pick up one of the fragments to show him.
         “Why am I bleeding so bad?” he asks.
         “Hell, I don't know. It's fuckin nothin.”
         He calms down. Sheepishly he smiles at me while I clean his wounds and put Band-Aids on them. “I thought I was dead for sure, man,” he says. And then he tells me he had a premonition on the airplane that he was going to die.
         "Don't be stupid," I say.
         "You think I'll get a Purple Heart?" he asks.
         "Hell yes," I tell him.
         On another day a soldier I know named Danny is searching through an upstairs apartment when someone spots his shadow and yells, “Rifle!” Everyone starts firing. In seconds we empty at least 500 rounds into the place. Finally we stop and we wait. We listen for movement.
         “Did we get him?” someone asks.
         “You motherfuckers!” is what we hear coming from the blown out window. “You dumb motherfuckers!”
         Danny stands at the window screaming obscenities as we turn away in shame.
         Later on, when he finally comes down and we go back on patrol, I ask him how the hell he survived such an onslaught. He says he stayed on the floor and rolled from one side of the room to the other, back and forth, back and forth. It seems impossible that he not only lived but he isn't even wounded. I tell him that somebody up there likes him. Gravely he shows me a Holy Medal hanging from his neck. On it are three tiny figures representing Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, and Saint Christopher. “This was blessed by our priest,” he tells me. “My mother give it to me. She said it would keep me safe. Wait'll I tell her what happened! All Asheville will know.” He is chuckling as he kisses his medal.
         “Wonder where I can get one of those?” I say.
         “Too late!” he says. “You better watch your step with these guys, Duff. Everybody in war is crazy, you know!”
         As the weeks pass, there are a few casualties in our company, most of them self-inflicted. One soldier can't get his M-79 to fire, so he hits its butt with his palm. It fires and the backblast blows his hand off. Another young fellow is playing with a pistol. It goes off and splits the skin up the front of his entire forearm. Both those men get Purple Hearts and are sent back to the States.
         Within three weeks the rebels are defeated, though American troops continue to occupy Santo Domingo until September 1966. The Navy holds the sea. The Marines and the Army link up and hold the land. At the height of this unremarkable, unremembered little war 20,000 Americans are involved. Ultimately there are one hundred sixty two casualties. As far as I know enemy figures are never released. Or perhaps never counted.
         Weeks later, while flying back to the States, the plane I'm in has generator problems. The pilot cuts two engines. The plane can fly on the other two, but the first thing I think of is that here I am having survived the Dominican, but now I'll die in a plane crash. So all along my premonition was right, I tell myself. I watch the shadow of a frozen propeller on the wall inside the plane. The other engines are roaring desperately. What if another engine should go? The pilot is a major with a sense of humor. Over the intercom he tells us that we are close to Cuba, but not to worry because, if we go down, Castro's boys will be right out to pick us up. We all laugh wildly and the tension is broken. Hours later the plane lands safely. My experience with war is over.
         When my Army service ends in mid-June of 1965, I fly out of Fayetteville, North Carolina on Piedmont Airways. I have little idea of what lies ahead. Northwest of me are Wisconsin and the rim of Lake Superior, where I will one day bet everything I have on a dairy farm that will go bankrupt. The cows and machinery will be auctioned off May 4, 1984. But immediately in my future is a shipyard in San Diego and seven years of rigging steel and operating gantries and going to night school to get my degree from San Diego State. In 1977 I will end up with a master's in English and a part time position teaching composition. I'll buy the dairy farm in 1982 and after losing it I'll go to Prescott, Arizona to drive a ten-wheel dump truck. I will lose that job too and turn west again and get hired to teach Medieval Literature at the brand new Cal-State San Marcos. That same year, 1989, my much traveled, much rejected novel, The Book of Mamie, will win the Associated Writers Program Award and The University of Iowa Press will publish it and I will be given a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. And over the course of the next fifteen years, six more novels will follow.
         But nothing of such a future seems even possible as I leave North Carolina that June day. I have hated the Army with all my heart, but I have to give it credit for giving me a self-discipline that I didn't have before, and a GED, and the GI Bill that will one day help fund my college education. I have also had some worthwhile experiences that I'll use in a book called The Law of Falling Bodies. I will never go back in, but I won't be sorry anymore that I joined. I will still mistrust authority. I will still hate war. Everything will change as the years pass by. And yet essentially nothing will really change. Though I might in retrospect plot out how I got to where I am today, it will always, in the end, remain a mystery.

Duff — post-Army — in the Yukon

                                [copyright 2005, Duff Brenna]