Memorial Day is a mixed bag of emotions for me. On the one hand, I want to enjoy the time off with my family and spend a few hours playing with my kids and making delicious food. On the other hand, I’ve lost some friends that I was pretty close with over the years, and in the end, that’s what this day is for; remembrance of those lost. So when I hear my daughter speaking matter of factly about how Memorial Day is when we remember the people who fought and died in the wars, I get a lot of cognitive dissonance. I’m proud of her for knowing that it’s important to remember the sacrifices people have made, and I’m also torn apart that she’s growing up so quickly and is already dealing with these huge, fraught concepts.
Can’t she stay a kid a little longer?
What do I do about it? I’ll tell you a story. There will be no editing, and this will be a short one, and the point isn’t really a robust plot. People and places made up, but based on true events. This is me remembering those lost.
The Best Worst Time
By N.T. Narbutovskih
A Very Normal Day
Stepping off the shuttle, the wind and heat hit you in the face like a solid wall of dirt. The light was an assault, each photon a needle jamming through your eyelids to sear your retinas. You rush to drop your glasses down, the lenses ramping up the opacity to filter the ravenous light. Finally, the sun recedes from your vision enough for you to take it in.
Tarmac, and lots of it. Hulking attack craft with drooping wingtips seem to melt in the violence of the heat, and the waves coming off the surface make the ground crews dance with mirage. A man in an army uniform, his eyes hidden by his own visor, motions you off the transport. The first step on the concrete is surprising. A slick layer of oil and dust makes you nearly lose your balance. The woman next to you catches your shoulder as you trip.
“First time?” she asks, a whisp of her blonde hair flying free.
You nod and open your mouth to reply, but the thundering roar of engines slams by overhead, drowning out even your thoughts. The attack craft swoops low, bleeding speed as its wings cup air. You watch as it begins to settle to its landing area, then the woman taps your shoulder. You turn back and the man in uniform is waving everyone towards a building that squats at the edge of the flight line. You nod and walk, resettling your small rucksack on your shoulder. The building was white once, probably during the first fifteen minutes of life. Now it’s stained with brown, darker on the lower walls. The other buildings, lower, stretch out around it, a series of beige and mouse-brown blocks with tiny mirrored windows that flash as you walk. Sweat springs up instantly, your back damp and you can feel your armpits and legs begin to chafe. Ahead of your, the beginning of the line approaches two mirrored doors that slide away into the building’s walls. It seems like you’ll drown in sweat before you get there, but you do, finally.
The doors snap shut behind you and suddenly you’re covered in goosebumps. The air-conditioned interior, floor tiles worn smooth with countless feet, is no more inviting than the outside. At first your happy for the respite from the heat, enjoying the cool, but it quickly becomes frigid as you wait in line. It’s been days crammed into various transports, waiting at the hubs and embarkation points. Slipspace transit may be fast, but the military always finds ways to make it slower. You’ve spent the last few sleeps (not nights) hunkered down in various terminals or propped up between crew mates. The group is used to the waiting, and immediately bags hit the floor as people claim corners and the scattered benches in the holding room.
Finally, the man in uniform barks an order and waves you through. Finally, you’re here. The bags leave the floor and everyone starts chattering now, some nervous energy sweeping through the group. This is it. This is the war. Those who have been here before are mostly quiet, a few making comments about the chow hall, wondering if the same line chef is there that made the best omelets. The new folks, you among them, seem either overwhelmed or simply unaware. There’s nothing like this you’ve ever experienced. Is it normal to take this long? Is the escort supposed to be in uniform? You look to the senior members of the group, and do what they do. Follow the escort to the ground vehicle, hop up on the rattling jingling transport. Bags in laps. Nod to the driver. Get out your ID. Put it on the window. Don’t make eye contact with the natives. Or do, you’re not quite sure on that one.
It’s a whirlwind of activity once you step off the ground transport. The compound you’re working on is small, the high wires and rolls of e-wire casting foreboding silhouettes as the sun begins to set. Your hopes for a quick drop in temperature are rewarded; it drops to 40 degrees C. You and the other hop from air conditioned tent to building. Your rack is small, barely a few feet extra on one side of the double bunkbed. An experienced hand shows you the best bet; sleep up top, gear on the bottom. Travel bags underneath. You check what gear you brought, optics and audio mostly, then pack it into your kit bag. Check your watch. About an hour until the welcome brief, so you tag along with a few others to the morale tent. There’s a holo-pit on constantly, American football. You played the game but don’t recognize the teams past reading their names. Jaguars and Eagles. A wall of privacy screens holds a few screens, their video pickups disabled. There’s a Marine yelling at one, his voice muted through the privacy screen but his arms exaggerated. His UNMC shirt is a few sizes too small, but that’s apparently the standard issue.
The enemy were down there. Somewhere. That’s what intel said when you left, so, you believe them. Picking out the good from that bad though, that’s the art of it. But whereas your weapons officer might be a Picasso or a Rembrandt, you were pretty much still eating crayons. You managed to get to the assigned area just fine, but the ground looked different. Training had been hard, but you’d figured it out. Familiar areas, straight roads. Heck, street signs and traffic lights made things so much easier to identify. But not here. Here there was a vast expanse of nothing, open flat desert for a hundred miles. The single road swelled every few miles with bulbs of humanity, little civilizations that bled out a few meters or a few clicks into the desert before giving up and huddling back towards the lifeblood of traffic. Your WO was calm, gentle almost, when he pointed out how fucked up you were. You weren’t even looking in the right grid square. You tended your drones a little more, finally managed to get a few of them in the right area. His tone was nearly apologetic as he berated you, but you weren’t angry. It was a right of passage, the first things learned. After that first hiccup, the rest of the mission went smoothly, and his tone changed to simple information, the various crew members falling into that rhythm of ebb and flow, critical paths, wisecracks and checklists. Then it was over, the first ten hours of your combat life in the books and somehow you were back on the ground, walking across the now-familiar expanse of burning tarmac.
And They Will Build a Pyre
Four funerals, two days. The worst of choices. The first time it had happened, you’d only made it to one. You remembered the smell of pine as it mixed with burning jet fuel as the engines of the transport spun down. The look on the preacher’s face as he told the story of his life. The weapons officer’s brother, telling the story of running through the woods scattering wildflower seeds along the trails. A senior commander, levels above you, trying his best to connect and support without any common ground. And now, it was happening all over again.
You got the call late. You showed up, counting faces, counting names. Who was there, who should have been there. When the announcement officially came, you already knew. But the same choice, honoring families and those who died, who were your own family. Three funerals, two days, this time. That made seven, seven friends you’d seen disappear. They were alive as you wanted them to be, as alive as the family of crews and fellows wanted them to be. Their names decorated walls, bottles of old alcohol and plaques adorned the bar. Their names were spoken at roll call, and none answered. And now you had to bury three in two days.
The first funeral was large. The whole town had turned out, it seemed. You’d burned a piano on the grave lot, skimmers parked away around the edges. No one knew where the instrument had come from, the magic of supply officers working one last time, as always. The thing may have been an antique, but it was there to say goodbye now. You’d never seen the range of emotions on that night, from singing to weeping and everything in between. The force of the humanity from the night before was dulled now but no less powerful. Songs and stories, there in the black.
The second and third funeral happened the same day. You couldn’t make them both. But the reception was strange. Everyone was there, for everyone else it seemed. No one admitted to needing this closure, needing to say goodbye, at least at first. But then you filtered to the front of the room and there he was. Open casket, like he was in life. Your hands shook and your breath caught. Emotion, loss, grief, rage, it was too much, shorting you out in an instant. He looked like he could get up at any moment, shake your hand, and you could tell him about the promises you’d all made. To look after his family, take care of his wife. Tell his son stories about him when the boy was old enough to speak and listen. But you couldn’t tell him any of those things, and he stayed there, peaceful and asleep.
When they put him in the mausoleum the next morning, you passed a bottle of bourbon around. Four Roses, his favorite. Some toasted silent, some said his name. But there wasn’t a dry eye.
You hope this is the last friend you’ll have to bury. It might be. But you’ll remember these friends, these family, until you join them on the pyre.