Lieutenant Jackson's a pretty nice guy once you get to know him. He doesn't like to yell to intimidate but to encourage us, and he's only really an asshole if you make him act like one i.e. show up late to PT. But don't worry, I helped Garnett get into the habit of eating a fast breakfast.
September turned into October, and the days became chillier. 3rd platoon fell into formation at 0600 on the airfield where Jackson pointed out any mistakes in our clothing or weapons, and reprimanded anyone with latrine duty. We continued with stretching and cardio, and me up front beside him. He'd told me, 'You're the medic, you know how to do this best' but I always thought of it as a punishment for the platoon. My breasts may not be the best size but they still do the same distracting as any others, and when men have gone so long without seeing their girlfriends, they tend to take any chance they have to gawk at them.
"McCreary! Eyes up, not on Durand!" Jackson shouted when he caught the youngest in our platoon staring at me. Jumping jacks or running in place showed me no mercy, though it was fun to see everyone get yelled at for staring. The older men, particularly Red, were hardly ever scolded because they thought of me as a daughter and that would be plenty awkward.
"Hey, Lieu…ten…ant!" Garnett panted between jumping. When we finished the exercise, he continued. "May I…comment on something?" Jackson nodded. "May I say" – he formed a toothy grin – "… that Ellie is putting on a very nice show for us?"
I felt myself blush as Garnett received slaps on the head and arms from the boys next to him. "All right everyone, running formation!" Jackson yelled, interrupting the commotion. The three squads rushed into rows of four as our lieutenant took his spot up front. I ran in between Allen and Garnett at the far back of 3rd squad along with Desola. The 45 minute morning run around Smith Lake was always refreshing despite being able to see our breaths. The rising sun provided warmth on our bodies as well as a beautiful view of Fort Bragg on the other side. We trailed into the backwoods where the smooth path became sprinkled with rocks of various sizes. Some were barely felt; others managed to piss the hell out of everyone, even through our solid boots.
The run ended back at the airfield where we hydrated. I always found it funny that Jackson never called it drinking; it was always hydrate. At his command we unscrewed our canteens and poured all of its content into our mouths, then held it upside down to show that it was empty. He scanned each row and dismissed us after he was satisfied. Garnett, Allen, Desola, and I followed everyone to the mess hall where the cooks were back to cooking powdered eggs.
Allen was given two donuts today, and accepted them with much giddiness. He attempted to eat both at the same time, resulting in me having to give him the Heimlich maneuver and waste 10 minutes of my breakfast time while Desola and Garnett enjoyed the little display. With my 20 minutes all used up, I was the only one whose plate wasn't clean as the three paratroopers dragged me back over to the airfield. Parachute packs littered the runway, left there after the morning run to practice packing and checking. Jackson had each squad line up next to each other. He spoke as he walked around, inspecting each of us.
"Every platoon's squads are going to be separated by plane, 13-15 men in a stick. There will be a man – or woman – in front of and behind you, checking your chute to make sure it'll deploy. The last guy will be checked before boarding" – he passed my squad, and patted the last man in our 'stick' – "because we just all love Private Muzza. 3rd platoon, where you are standing now is where you'll be sounding off…"
I tapped Garnett on the arm when I was done checking his pack, and grinned to reveal that I was in between him and Allen. "Come February or March," continued Jackson, "the jumps you participated in at Fort Benning better pay off when you actually jump out of the real thing."
Fort Benning was where most of us had basic training; I learned first aid and beyond, how to put on a chute, and jump and land properly. What I will always remember were the airborne towers. They were basically the parachute rides from the World's Fair in New York but without the seats. It was just as relaxing, though, floating 250 feet down to the ground.
Lunchtime came around for the platoon with Army sandwiches galore. Afterwards we went over to the backwoods of Smith Lake, where a dummy fuselage was set up. We were expected to jump out of the doors, land by collapsing our legs, and fall to the side. If it wasn't done correctly, Jackson would yell, "Private so-and-so, you've broken both your legs and a Kraut has shot you dead."
He gave us the rest of the afternoon free, an advantage to being under Lieutenant Jackson. I was walking around when I noticed Johnny Rivas sitting by his lonesome behind a couple of Army crates. He was scribbling in a little notepad as I neared him. "Rivas, right?" I asked. It occurred to me that in my entire time being in 3rd squad, I never really talked to him. He jerked, not expecting anyone to find him, and dropped his book. I picked it up and handed it over to him. "Thanks, Doc," Rivas said with a heavy Mexican accent as I took a seat on top of a crate across from him. Hesitating, he continued with what he was doing.
"What'cha got there in that book, Rivas?" I asked.
Without looking up, he replied, "I'm keeping a journal."
"Yeah? Oh, well, um, what'd you think of today?"
He smiled and showed me two pages, one with a damn good sketch of McCreary getting yelled at and the other with a recount of today, October 27.I handed it back to him, complimenting the drawing. At that moment Allen came into view behind Rivas, and stood between him and me. He seemed a little nervous when I asked what was up.
"Ellie, d'you like anyone in 3rd?" he asked. "Because, I sort of know…" He trailed off, shaking his head. Under the his breath, he said, "This is fucking stupid."
Raising an eyebrow, I leaned a little to the right to look past him and Rivas. I could see Garnett and Desola talking a few yards away, constantly smiling and looking over. "Allen, did those two send you over here?" I asked, and he nodded. I waved at them and abruptly gave them the middle finger. Allen smirked and followed me as I walked towards them and yelled a goodbye to Rivas over my shoulder. The two Michaels noticed me coming their way and darted off in the opposite direction, laughing.
The four of us raced past officers and enlisted men. Garnett and Desola split up, as did Allen and I. Allen chased Garnett around the mess tent while Desola led me to a bunch of other tents near the airfield. Panting, I slowed down to a walking pace, hollering for him; I'd lost him when he zigzagged through the damn place. When he didn't answer at all, I decided to head back and check if Allen found Garnett.
Out of nowhere someone grabbed me from behind, twirled me around, and pressed their lips against mine. I would've kicked him where the sun doesn't shine if it wasn't for the fact that it was somewhat…pleasant. With my eyes closed, I couldn't make out who it was until a good minute passed by and he let go. It was Desola who stood in front of me, a devilish grin on his face.
"Desola…" was all I could say out of annoyance, confusion, and embarrassment.
"That thing with Allen… Garnett gave him 5 bucks to ask you if you liked any of us, as more than friends," he finally admitted. "You've really got us going, Doc. So far it's only the two of us."
It was already dusk after all our antics. I shook my head at him and began to walk to the mess for dinner. He appeared by my side shortly, only making the walk more silent and awkward. I won't lie, he was handsome. Why else didn't I mind him kissing me? But there was just something about Garnett that made me like him more.
The line was surprisingly short when we entered. Allen and Garnett were already seated at our table with Red and seats for me and Desola. They were in the middle of one of Red's bar fight stories and had barely touched their food when we came over with ours. Soldiers weren't particularly religious but these two didn't mind saying grace before dinner, and neither did Red or Desola. In a way, it made us feel at home.
After dinner we showered, and just stupidly enough the showers were not separated. There were a few stalls that had curtains for the girls but nonetheless we all walked in with our skivvies, showered with our skivvies on, and dried off with our skivvies on. The boys had no problem showering with us, though some like McCreary were always trying to take a peek at us.
'Lights out' was at 2100, giving us an hour of free time. Zanovich joked with Obi about the war, Red wrote to his family, and Allen and Garnett argued with Leggett over superheroes. When 2100 rolled around, Jackson stopped by each squad's tents to say some sort of good night. Right on the dot, the bugler began to play taps to signal lights out. By then everyone was in their cots, falling asleep to the somber tune.
I was in between Allen and Garnett every day of the week except Thursdays and Fridays, but this night I had trouble sleeping. An hour or two must've passed by with my eyes shut but my mind wandering, when I heard someone shuffling through the tent. Usually everybody's too tired to even get up to go to the bathroom. Though it was strange, I decided that this person couldn't sleep either and got up from my cot to follow him outside.
The best thing about North Carolina was the night sky. The stars twinkled alongside the moon, shining in all its glory. New York could never compare, not even upstate. It all just felt magical.
The person I went after sat right outside of the entrance. In the moonlight I recognized him as Garnett. I furrowed my eyebrows as I placed myself beside him. There was nothing but silence, shivering, and the cold hard ground. It was one of those moments where you knew what the other was thinking about but you didn't want to confront it or anything, just left it alone.
He placed an arm around me. Without breaking his stare at nothing, he said to me, "Ellie, you know you're my best friend. Whatever you do, I'll be happy as long as you're happy doing it."
With that, Garnett patted me on the shoulder and went back inside. I stayed awake for a few more minutes, just thinking and freezing. Michael Jeff Garnett…