Friday, March 26, 2021

Options

OPTIONS is a rejected story:

Darryl slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. Ten minutes earlier he had been rousted from a restless sleep on a hard bench by a graveyard security person at the Greyhound bus station. “Day shift will be here soon Doc. Sorry, but my butt is still in a sling from last week when I didn’t get another guy out.”

“Thanks … ah … Guard.”

Darryl had a five-year history of overthinking, indecision, and not remembering names. Neither could he fathom why everyone who seemed to know him called him Doc. He fingered the other three quarters in his pocket and mumbled the coffee vending machine choices. “Black, black with sugar, sugar and cream, hot chocolate – too many.” Buck and a half for a breakfast burger. And I can get a free water. He tapped the coin return pad and took the quarters from the return cup.

He limped out of the station into a mix of rain, sleet, and snow driven by swirling blasts of late November wind. His exposed face and hand smarted. I hate Minneapolis! He covered his right ear with his right hand and leaned into the wind. His left ear went unprotected. The empty left sleeve of his too large jacket twirled and smacked him on the chest, head and back as he shuffled toward the illuminated White Castle sign a long block away.

He uncovered his ear and the elastic string of his mask slipped off. The wind took it. He struggled to catch his flopping, unfilled left sleeve and tuck it into the same side jacket pocket.

The wind switched directions at the intersection; he eyed a shallow alcove, hesitated, then stepped behind the post supporting the cover. Should get farther in. Traffic eased and he went to the curb to wait for the white hand crossing signal or traffic to end, whichever came first. A passing Twin Cities Metro Transit bus splashed slush and street debris infused water from a clogged drain. The mini-flood blasted onto the age pitted sidewalk and washed over the tops of Darryl’s scuffed ankle-boots. His Salvation Army gifted argyles and feet were saturated.

The light changed to all-way pedestrian and he slogged through the traffic rutted seasonal muck. A red-light running high lift pickup passing behind him splattered his back with water and slush. Only his arm and chest were dry under his well-worn, faux-leather, faux-sheepskin lined, aviator jacket.

A blast of hot air from the overhead heater just inside the White Castle melted slush in Darryl’s greying hair while he waited his turn. Rivulets guided by his unkempt over-the-ears hair ran inside his jacket collar. His shiver was spontaneous. He took a one-to-a-customer ear loop mask from the box by the door and slipped the bands behind his wet ears before shuffling to the ordering end of the counter.

“Morning Doc,” came from the man behind the pass-through window to the kitchen. Same?”

“Well, Cook, … ah … well sure.”

Darryl slid six quarters under the Plexiglas next to Girl at the till and followed the floor arrows to the exit end of the counter. Girl picked the bagged sandwich from the pass-through and put it with a steaming 20 oz. cup of sugared and creamed coffee on the serving end.

“Can’t buy coffee this morning Girl. Water will do.”

“Not too many customers in this morning Doc. Coffee’s not gross yet but could go that way. Cook said, ‘on the house’ so it is.”

“Thanks Girl.”

She reached under the counter and put a small, pressed paper clamshell next to the sandwich bag. “Cook had a leftover bear claw. You should have it. Want your sandwich in with it?”

“Well … ah … sure.”

“And Doc,” Girl said, “your change is in the clamshell.”

Darryl slid the clamshell into his jacket pocket, picked up the coffee, and backed out the door into the alley side alcove. The rain, sleet, and snow mix had turned to dry snow but was still whipped by gusts of wind. He saw the next customer at the pickup end of the counter through the partly frosted door window. Gotta move. He sat the coffee on the step, removed his mask and took a long drink. The hot liquid burned his mouth and throat, but he felt the instant warmness in his empty stomach. A little rum would be a nice add, but this will do.

***

A navy medic in US Marine Corps combat uniform slid into the chow line behind a Gunnery Sergeant and a PFC. The young one striper turned saying to Gunny, “Twenty minutes or ten?”

“Split the difference. You hear that Doc?”

The medic nodded and took a sausage-egg breakfast burger and coffee from the serving line.

***

The lee side of a Dumpster in the alley gave Darryl some shelter. He pulled a broken milk crate from behind the trash bin for his breakfast table. He ate the still warm breakfast sandwich first, gulped some coffee, then nibbled the bear claw with intermittent sips of coffee. He took the six quarters from the container and dropped them into his pocket. With his stomach full and warm, he fell asleep sitting on the milk crate. Dry snow drifted and covered his already ice incrusted boots.

***

Gunny shouted, “Doc, Doc, wake up!”

Darryl struggled to roll over. A burning Humvee held him face down and windblown sand peppered his face as he writhed in pain. Gunny and PFC struggled to tip the vehicle from Doc’s left arm.

“No use,” Gunny said. “He might live if I take off his arm. If it blows, we’ll all go.”

Gunny’s prediction wasn’t totally right. The explosion finished the amputation and seared Doc’s open veins, arteries, and flesh where Gunny’s cut had been made through the shoulder joint. Doc and Gunny were found semiconscious in a ditch. PFC was dead.

***

Girl shouted, “Doc, Doc, wake up!”

Darryl struggled to roll over. The wind tipped dumpster held him down by the left sleeve of his jacket and windblown snow peppered his face as he twisted and wrenched with memory pain. Cook and a just arrived patrol officer struggled to tip the overloaded snow laden dumpster from his empty sleeve. Girl tried to help, but it was too heavy for Cook, Girl, Officer, and their adrenaline.

“Give me your knife officer,” Cook said, “I’m going to cut it off.”

“Paramedics are less than a minute out, they’ll help lift.”

“It’s an empty sleeve. His arm is somewhere near Baghuz Fawqani!”

Officer questioned, “What?”

“In Iraq!”

EMTs wrapped Doc in a warming blanket and started taking vitals. As they started to close the door, Officer asked Cook, “How’d you know about the sleeve?”

“I cut off his arm!”

A small voice came from inside, “It’s OK Gunny. I know there was no option, you had to do it.”

Friday, January 22, 2021

SIT

I read about the death of George Blake, a Cold War double agent in December of 2020 and my mind went directly to January 1962. I knew about Operation Gold mentioned in the article, but not its name at the time. That operation betrayed by Blake was a joint mission of the British and U.S. intelligence agencies to dig a tunnel underneath East Berlin to tap Soviet phone lines in the early 1950s. The article didn’t tell of other operations with the same goal. I also remembered a 1990s Public Broadcasting special on a CIA cave in Berlin where England’s Office of Strategic Services had also operated.

One of the missions of the intelligence services at the time I was stationed in Frankfurt was special interests targeting (SIT). The PBS special showed the NSA’s Teufelsberg listening post but did not mention that the ASA operated it. I hadn’t known about it until my 1962 visit.

Berlin courier was one of our duties and my second trip to Berlin was initially in the guise of courier. We were normally scheduled in advance, but I got a night call to report. I thought I was a last-minute replacement. My armed escort I and got to Berlin, and a Second Lieutenant met us with a change of orders. I’d say someone knew all along what was happening but just kept me out of the loop for security reasons. The LT had authorized keys for the handcuffs, so I figured everything was OK. He and the escort went on their way and the sergeant that was with him took me to Teufelsberg.

A sergeant had me put tape on my dog tags and exchange my dress uniform for civilian clothing. He instructed me to not discuss anything, including not introducing myself, and took me to a room where several others were seated. There were five of them, six if the man in charge is included. I recognized him from an assignment in Frankfurt. I thought he was from NSA that oversaw the ASA’s activities. I had contact with him later and found out he was with the CIA.

Except for him, I didn’t know any of the men before that day and never contact with any of them again. I believe to this day that the former was by design and the latter is just coincidence. In fact, all including me were in casual civilian clothing for the briefing, so I don’t know if I was the only one in the Army.

The mission was not given to us until we were transported to an entrance to a subway tunnel that opened in West Berlin, ran under East Berlin, and opened at the other end in West Berlin. Four of us were given tools, and small battery powered microwave transmitter-receivers with mounted parabolic dish antennae.

If one looks at the internet, the tunnels that we went into, but were blocked at the surface are clearly identified, but I had no idea then and don’t know today which one we entered. We were instructed to just follow the guy in charge in single file.

One man was dropped at the tunnel entrance with a set of equipment. The rest of us stopped at a slightly wider place in the tunnel about fifty meters from the entrance (obviously pre-determined) and set up a line of sight mini-parabolic antenna. Slightly wider was a true description – the place was just one-half meter deep. And the train car edges ran just outside rocking distance (about ¼ meter from the tunnel walls). We were cautioned that trains were scheduled every fifteen minutes and inattention to that schedule would be disastrous to the mission and even more to one who would have less than ten inches between the train and the wall.

The next ‘wide place’ was about 300 meters from the second and the third was about 300 meters more. The first train thundered past with three of us squeezed into the third indentation. One man and a setup were left there then the last two of us and the supervisor went to the fourth place and took the hinges off a metal cabinet hanging on the wall.

We used a special signal identifying device to determine which lines were live then connected them to a device that would transmit each live line at a different frequency. Each of our pickup devices was also equipped with a miniature a remote-control thermite grenade. Thermites were not explosives but produced enough heat to destroy the entire pickup device. Thermites were also mounted on the microwave antennas. We got a pulse letting us know the monitoring system was working, then started the 1200-meter (3/4th mile) run to the tunnel entrance.

Each of us was picked up individually. I don’t know where any of the others went, but the taxi I’d been escorted to dropped me off at one of our Berlin compounds as if I’d been on an overnight pass. My return trip to Frankfurt was as if I was returning from courier duty.

I never knew if the operation was fruitful or not, but we did get our part done. When being interviewed for a CIA job, neither the man I knew, nor I brought opened a dialog about it.

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Uncle I Never knew

Arne Gerhard Benson, the uncle I never knew died when I was seven, and I didn’t know he existed until I was a teenager. His military service was revealed to me when I was given a stack of letters in 2008. I believe it is best to tell what I can of his story with excerpts from those letters.

____

Cordova Alaska, July 2, 1942,
Dear Mother
… As you know I cannot say much about what I am doing except that it’s in the line of defense. … I may be deferred if my work is important enough, … I will try and get home after this business is over. …
Your Son, Arne

***

Ft. Lewis, Wash, Dec 2, 1942,
Dear Mother,
… I’m in the Army now. Just four weeks tomorrow. … I was rather sorry to leave Alaska, … It was pretty lonesome up there. …
Your Son, Arne

***

Ft. Lewis, Wash, Jan. 16, 1943,
Dearest Mother,
This is the first time I’ve had off for some time so will write a few lines. … I’ve still got Pay Checks coming from the Army Engineers. … We had some pretty tough going up North, and also in the Orient … I can’t tell you much about it now but hope to be able to soon. …
Your loving Son, Arne,

***

Ft. Lewis Wash, Jan. 16, 1943,
Dear Dot (Arne’s sister),
… I’m in intensive training once more so guess my back will be all right. I didn’t tell Mother as she would have worried. I transferred my service when I got out of the hospital. I was with the Army Engineers in Alaska waters and the Far East. I got broken up … in the Bering Sea. My collar bone, three ribs, two vertebrae in my back and my left leg below the knee. It sounds like a lot but wasn’t so bad….
Your Bro, Arne

***

Apr. 24, 1943,
Dear Mother,
Just a line to let you know that everything is O.K. with me. … I’m getting rather skinny from too long hrs. and too much work, but as soon as I get the stripes I want, I’ll take it easy again (maybe).
As always, your son, Arne

***

Office of the Chaplain, May 7, 1943,
Mrs. Josina Benson, Sanish, North Dakota,
My dear Mrs. Benson Last Wednesday morning at 10:00 o’clock I conducted the funeral service for your son Arne G. Benson SN 39194057, who passed away Sunday morning May 2. … interment was made in Fort Lewis Cemetery. …
___

Uncle Arnie’s military record shows that he died of Scarlet Fever with a secondary cause of Bronchopneumonia. With no living relatives to answer questions, knowing that the Japanese invaded parts of the Aleutian Islands, the Corps of Engineering built landing strips there, and Japanese radio was monitored from fishing boats, one can only wonder what experience was behind some of his statements.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

No Reason

No Reason is a rejected flash fiction 

Sixteen-year-old Paul Logos, normally calmed by running, was angry – spitting angry – almost cursing angry. His only competition on the weed lined muddy trail between yet unplowed fields was himself. He increased his tempo to a lung burning and leg rubbering pace. Escalating his exertion gave him no decrease in mood. Approaching a rickety 100-year-old wooden footbridge leading to the graveled county road, his thoughts between breaths raced as fast as he ran.

There was no reason for them to move here from the City.

He day-trades from home; she can paint anywhere.

No reason!

Paul’s jaw tightened and his chest and diaphragm labored to keep needed oxygen flowing into his lungs. His feet slipped on the rain dampened path. His drying throat ached. All that cooled his body and mood was the light drizzle in the air.

No college with my grades.

Would’ve gotten a scholarship when the scouts saw me run in the City.

No one’s going to see me run here in the middle of nowhere.

No reason!

He dodged puddles, mud slowed his pace, and his feet slipped often making breathing more difficult. His eyes watered from within as he approached the bridge leading to the gravel road. Scouts probably never heard of the Podunk high school out here.

No reason!

Paul, inattentive to his surroundings from his anger and physical stress, contemplated if or not he should cross over the flood-stage creek to get a better running surface. He gripped the rain-soaked moss on the bridge railing as he labored for air and cried – silently at first – then with a roar of anguish.

A scream piercing through the sound of rushing water got his attention. He saw an ATV stopped about mid-span with one wheel trapped by a break in the bridge surface; part of the rail next to it was broken away. He jogged to the idling vehicle where a girl, about ten, held the clutch lever tightly against the handlebar with both hands. Even through his watering eyes Paul could see the panic on her face.

The girl bellowed, “My brother! He’s in the water!”

Paul responded, “How long?”

She yelled out, “He held on to the rail as long as he could. He just went under the bridge.” Turning her head downstream, she shouted, “He can’t swim! But he’s still floating!” Releasing her grip on the clutch lever with one hand, she pointed and puffed out, “See!”

The ATV wheels spun between the broken deck boards of the bridge. Paul gripped the clutch, turned off the ignition, and lifted her to the bridge deck. He panted, “You have a phone?”

“He had it!”

“Take mine. Go to the road. Call someone.”

Paul went into sprint mode as if leaving the starting blocks in an adrenalin fueled competition. His lungs ached, and his legs were rubbering again before he passed the boy flailing in the stream. He dove in downstream from the struggling boy. The cold water restored his leg strength, and he pulled the boy into an eddy under an overhanging tree. He grabbed a low branch with one hand then got a scissor grip under the boy’s arms with his legs. The boy struggled as Paul went arm over arm on the branch bounced by the turbulence on their bodies. His arms started to feel like his legs did earlier, but his grip was determined.

Paul’s lungs still heaved, his body ached, but his thoughts about himself disappeared as volunteer fire fighters pulled them up from the water’s edge.

He refocused, I feel selfish! There is a reason for them moving me here.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Fourteen Cents

"Fourteen Cents" is a rejected flash fiction
 

Most of the world was still at war in the spring of 1943. The 35-year-old soldier Gerhardt was neither in combat when he died nor was he in the Army when he was wounded by the enemy in the Pacific Theater just a year before.

<>

America was full into the Great Depression by 1930 and jobs were scarce at best, but the newly married Gerhardt had cooking skills. His new wife hungered for city life and adventure that rich men could provide, so she left a saddened young husband for the streets of Chicago. The divorce gave her everything except his clothing and a week’s rent. 

Pearl Harbor happened, Gerhardt tried to enlist, but one bad eye, even corrected with glasses, would only allow him to be classified for non-combat duty. He did get a civilian job cooking for a US Corps of Engineers unit at Cordoba, Alaska. As much as he tried to convince the military that his having grown up with hunting rifles and being able to shoot a pistol quite well should be a waiver. He felt that combat would ease his gnawing anger towards the woman he thought had loved him. His wish would come true but not in a way he expected. 

In March of 1942, there was a call for volunteers to cook on fishing boats. Gerhardt was disgusted with partial pay and the long hours cooking for three shifts of difficult to please military officers. He volunteered and was accepted for cooking on the Random. But the Random only looked like a fishing trawler. The rigging masked antennae tuned to pick up Japanese navy and onshore communications. 

All but the radio operators’ supervisor, the commanding lieutenant and the first mate were on shore when the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor started on June 3rd. The Random and the three men still on board went down in the attack. 

Early in the morning of the 4th, the surviving crew of the Random was flown to Adak Island to supplement the crew of a larger radio intercept ship already diverted to Adak Harbor. Japanese marines were already landing on the island before the ship arrived, so it was diverted. Concerned with the intelligence gathering knowledge of the surviving Random crew, command initiated a plan to have them escorted by American marines to a departing cargo aircraft. 

A squad of Japanese marines ambushed them and during the fire fight Gerhardt became separated from his group. He faced a single enemy with a bayonet mounted rifle with only his empty Pistol. Gerhardt realized that if the enemy he faced had bullets he would have been shot. The Japanese Imperial Marine lunged. Gerhardt side stepped and parried the rifle with his arm. He heard the ulna in his left arm snap but his in-fight adrenalin dulled the pain. The marine continued his parried thrust with a rifle butt-stroke to Gerhardt’s head. He avoided the second thrust with a quick turn, but the tip of the bayonet nicked his already broken arm. The marine slipped on a loose rock and Gerhardt took momentary advantage by striking a blow to the enemy’s jaw with his pistol. The Japanese recovered and charged again but was taken down by a round from an American marine. 

Gerhardt had not received compensation for his cooking duties on the fishing boat but did receive all of his Cordova back pay in one check during his fourth week of rehabilitation. With new clothing and more cash than he had ever known in his pockets, he met a fifteen years younger woman at a dance, and they were married in early October. 

Gerhardt still wanted to serve, and his status was no longer a mental roadblock to him. He was reexamined and declared fit for duty in a non-combat role. He was required to take a shortened version of basic training and would be restricted to base for four weeks. 

The day before he reported for training, his new wife convinced him to put their accounts in her name so she could set up an apartment for them to share when his training was over. He did that and filed official papers naming her as his allotment recipient and heir to his military insurance policy. The day after he entered basic training she filed for legal separation. 

Gerhardt was forced to live on base and his part of his base pay would be only enough to pay for his necessities. He was resolved that he had been taken but had been assured by an Army attorney that his retirement would be safe if he served twenty years. 

The soldier cook was hospitalized with scarlet fever in late April of 1943. Pneumonia took over his lungs and his doctors anticipated lengthy hospitalization and possible separation from service after recovery. His estranged wife was contacted, and without visiting, she picked up his belongings. 

Pfc. Gerhardt did not recover, and military mortuary personnel found two nickels, four pennies, and a tax token on his hospital nightstand.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Rat

 "Rat" is a rejected flash fiction story

Forty-year-old US Army Vietnam veteran Carl ‘Rat’ Moreau left a federal prison gate with Salvation Army release-clothing and $100 in gate-money on the twentieth anniversary of the TET Offensive. A guard stopped him as he started to board the shuttle bus to the nearby city, saying, “Boss wants you to have this.”

A note and 100-dollar bill were attached to a bus ticket to Seattle. “Rat – I hope this helps. It’s all I can do. What you did for me in Nam needs some reward. - Carter”

Moreau had been wounded twice, decorated for saving his squad by his tunnel-rat action, and honorably discharged. College on the GI Bill, MBA, and a $150,000 a year job came next. He served five years for felony real-estate fraud after being scapegoated by lawyered-up executives in the corporation.  Warden Parker Carter remembered Moreau’s saving him and several others from a Vietcong tunnel boobytrap

The convicted felon had excellent academic qualifications and in the late 80s the movement to hire Vietnam vets had started. But he had to declare his felony conviction to be truthful on any job application. Discovering he could work for cash, without a written application in nearly any agribusiness along the I-5 corridor from Canada to Mexico, he took that route to just support a new habit.

Seventy-year-old Moreau was anticipating his tenth anniversary of being clean and sober on the 50th anniversary of the TET Offensive. He’d worked those ten years cleaning toilets, showers, and the processing floor at a slaughterhouse in Oregon. His pay was less than minimum wage in cash, but he was allowed to eat ‘clean-up’ from the plant cafeteria. Free eats and sleeping under the modified canopy of his 1985 pickup parked on the back lot of the plant enabled him to grow his cash equal a year of his former gross annual salary.

Rat was cleaning the office restroom when he heard a man ask the manager, “Is Carl Moreau employed here?”

He looked around the door, saw two suited men in the office, and heard the manager ask, “Are you police or ICE?”

Before Moreau heard an answer from the men in the office, he went out a side door. By sunset, Rat was underground in California and would never know the answer given to the manager.

“Neither,” one man said. “We have good news for him from the Innocence Project.”

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Gift of the Rose and Rufus

"Gift of the Rose and Rufus" is a rejected flash fiction story

Mallory gimp-walked the perimeter of the repossessed property with Rufus, his 12-year-old arthritic English Sheepdog following at a slower pace. He paused and studied the Tibet roses his mother had planted 50 years before as a memorial to the KIA Vietnam veteran father he’d never known.

Waiting for the old dog to catch up, Mallory turned toward the clapboard, two-bedroom house built for workers at the long-closed WWII shipyard. Always needed paint, but at least the inside looks better than the outside.

The rose was in August heat-stress and Mallory turned to get the hose. Crap! They cut off the water yesterday. A tear ran down his cheek as he looked at Rufus sniffing the dry soil around the plant. He’s never known another place – he’ll stay here when this is all over.

The next afternoon he penciled a letter to his estranged older sister. It said in part, “After Mother died, it took nearly a month to clear enough space to start some very necessary improvements before I moved in from my rental. I’d always assumed she used Father’s $20,000 military insurance to pay off the mortgage. The VA has records of the cashier’s check being endorsed by Mother, but I never found a bank deposit. I drained my savings to cover back payments and taxes. Mother left it in my name, but I felt you were equal in the estate. They’ve taken the property, so there’s no estate to share, but no debt either. My dog Rufus with severe arthritis; was put down this morning. I’ll bury his ashes next to the rose Mother planted for Father.”

None of Mallory’s neighbors were interested in the withering rose. He put the plant in yard debris recycling and got $10 from a scrap metal merchant for the brass plaque.

He felt emotional and physical pain as he pushed a spade deep into the soil where he’d taken out the rose. He pried up. A corner of a rusted metal box appeared with his effort. A block of paraffin wax dropped from the nearly disintegrated box when he removed it from the soil. He replaced the space taken by the box with the cardboard container of Rufus’ ashes.

Mallory found a sealed canning jar inside the paraffin block with 200, still crisp, $100 bills. If not for Rufus, I’d not have a gift from the rose left by Mother.

Options

OPTIONS is a rejected story: Darryl slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. Ten minutes earlier he had been ro...