Duncan Larkin’s Ranger School Stories
by Duncan Larkin
Those black, rubbery, mean-as-hell snakes are nearby; keep going, move on, move on, lift the legs, lift the legs, got to set up a patrol base…..it’s getting dark….HALT! Take a knee! YOU Ranger…take a frigging knee. (whisper chain reaction started) Whispers catch up to me as Ranger buddy whispers in my ear, “SEND UP RANGER LARKIN.” I turn to tell the next guy to send up Ranger Larkin and then realize that I’m fucked. It’s my turn…. I churn up turbid water; I don’t care about water moccasins anymore. In fact, water moccasins, please swarm on me now? I’m more scared about what’s coming to me.
I walk through the water and pass all the tired men taking a knee in the middle of the pond. A Ranger Instructor (RI) sits under a tree Indian-style; it’s his Bodhi tree in the middle of Florida. He spits a torrent of brown tobacco liquid out of the side of his mouth. It’s the South, it’s the Army and so he squawks in a Georgia accent at me: “Rangea Larkin…the patrol leader has been relieved. You are in chaaarge now. You got one zero minutes to get your shit togetha. Undastand?” Spit.
He pulls out a map. He spits again and licks the bits of tobacco up that didn’t make it to the ground–the bits that stick to the edge of his mouth–with his tongue. He’s got a small pine needle in his hand and thrusts it at me, “Where we at, Rangea Larkin? What is yo position?”
I look around. I see tired men–hulking shadows–with green rucksacks and M-16s still taking a knee in the pools of water. It’s getting dark. I don’t know where the heck we are. When I’m under that kind of pressure, my mind races. The contour lines all come together: the draws become spurs: the valleys are the peaks; east becomes west, north down, south up. I wave the pine needle in a circle, almost trying to make magic and divine our location. I settle on a swamp near the RI’s thumb.
The RI spits fast this time; no pieces of tobacco stick to his mouth, “Wrong! Holy SHIT! Congratulations Rangea Larkin, you were about five clicks off our actual location! Maybe someone else knows where we are?” The instructor pushes the map into my chest and stands up, wiping up the bits of the forest off of his camouflage pants. His Army issue soft cap is tight down on his head; the brim is folded neatly into a perfect U around his chiseled face; the Ranger tab on his hat and on his shoulder stand out in the setting sun. He looks disinterested off into the woods and sends me on my way without any eye contact, “I can tell this is going to be a very long friggin’ patrol. You already on the verge of failing this here patrol, Rangea Larkin. You now got exactly five minutes to get yo crap together, else I’m going to call in an enemy artillery barrage and relieve yo ass!” It’s my turn to spit a little amount of tobacco now. It’s my only hope to salvage this abortion. I don’t chew tobacco, but I have to look the part; I have to be a Southern man in the Army to check this mysterious block in my life. It’s my response to his manliness; it’s my refusal to admit my own complete incompetence and to persevere and win, to suck it up and be an actor.
So I look at the RI and tell him, “Roger, Sergeant.” I grab my rifle–chunks of Florida mud protrude out of its muzzle which is usually how I cared for all my equipment in the Army–and slog my way back through the murky water, kicking up swarms of mosquitoes and causing the strange things under the water to send up brown bubbles. I reach the point man and start the whispering chain reaction, “Send up the Platoon Sergeant. Pass the word that I’m in charge now.” The whispering starts, as the men start to move again: the metal clanking of the M-60 crew machine gun’s 50-pound cast iron tripods against their 10-pound traversing mechanisms resonate through the woods.
More noises can be heard: the creaking of arthritic knees trying to stand up, the coughs of tired men–swigging water here, spitting tobacco there. Mosquitoes buzz up close; frogs croak all around us, and whippoorwills call out far away in the darkening forest signaling the coming night. Nature’s curtain hangs down over us, now. With darkness in this school comes uncertainty and ambivalence. Tired men want to lay their heads down on soft, dry sand and sleep. They don’t give a crap about what you did for them a week ago or that you gave them a piece of your oatmeal cookie bar because they were getting delirious. The moment is now, and the moment is man at his most exposed, raw, selfish state.
Darkness in this school brings out red lens flashlights and ponchos. Leaders hover, like red phantoms under ponchos, and shoot desperate azimuths into the caverns of forest, making educated guesses at the easiest route to the objective. Light discipline is required. No one should see your red light. The enemy is out there, watching. If you flash light, the RIs go nuts and throw artillery simulators into the woods causing the entire platoon to get up and run with all their equipment for 500 meters. If you keep messing up, you keep getting ’shelled’ which means your people hate you even more and grow tired of your incompetence pretty damn fast.
And so the men wait for the leaders to take them to war. The ammo bearers–human mules in this dark comedy– slug OD green metal cartons of blank M-60 rounds for the machine gunners who balance 70 pounds of cold death slung around their necks like a mutant baby. The weight of these weapons and their accoutrement leave red marks around their necks which increase in size after 20 miles of walking under the hot sun. Their exposed skin cracks and blood begins to run. It mixes with sweat and forms upside down matchsticks which drip downward onto their dark, salt-caked uniforms. This confluence calls the mosquitoes that hover in squadrons above it all and descend, in turn, onto the men like JU-87s in 1939 Poland. The men are nothing but tired animals now. They rest their eyes and begin to snore. They nod off while on one knee, falling forward, face first; they are the apostles in the Garden of Gesthemene waiting for direction and hope–for an end to this insanity.
They wait for their leader to lead. They are frail humans gripped by the unrelenting pressures of stronger forces and so they give in to everything. They are hopeless creatures–nothing but needy babies at their very worst. But you depend on them. It happens to be daylight savings time tonight. Of all the nights to have daylight savings time, it happens to fall on the night that I have to take these 30 sleep-deprived, starving, cantankerous, self-absorbed Ranger students miles across the swamps and go raid some enemy headquarters where Ranger Instructors in doo rags and inside-out uniforms pose as General Noriegas and Che Gueveras for our five minutes of O.K. Corral action.
The sun’s now just about down to the branches closest to the ground. It draws my shadow long, sending me all the way across the water–wrapping me around my new patrol. I’m on a knee and putting in a handful of Red Man Golden Blend into my mouth. My M-16 is cradled under my arms. It’s those long minutes between being a nobody and being in charge; it’s the middle ground; it’s purgatory. I can’t fail this patrol. I already recycled this final phase and so if I fail this patrol, I fail the whole school–all four months of it. I go to Fort Bragg ‘tabless;’ I get ostracized by my new unit. I become a pariah in front of those with the tab. I become the Army equivalent of a leper. I postpone my wedding, I call home and tell my parents to cancel their trip.
I stare once more into the turbid water and at the strange bubbles……
By Duncan Larkin