Crystal examined the bottom of my boot. “Oh my god!” she whispered in disbelief, with her Alabama drawl.
Only moments before, a scorpion had scurried near the entrance of our tent, and I acted upon my first instinct – to crush him with my heavy black combat boot. I had never seen one in real life. It was a much smaller creature than I had imagined – no bigger than a mouse – yet its sharp curved tail and claws sparked a feeling of immediate threat in the eerie hush of the hot desert night.
“Well that was as welcome as an outhouse breeze. I hope one of those never comes around again.”
Crystal had volunteered to pull a one-hour shift of night guard with me outside our tent. We all had to volunteer for a shift at least once “Warrior Week.” Our fifth week of Air Force basic training, we were bussed here for a taste of what deployment to a war zone might be like. We left the concrete, gray world of our squadron buildings for this dusty wildness of Texas, with its clay and sand soil speckled by small scattered shrubs.
I almost didn’t make it here. I thought about finding a way out in my earliest days of training. Other girls had done it – had started crying through the night, maybe out of exhaustion, perhaps fear, but in the mornings when Staff Sergeant King walked up the stairs and began shouting, they cracked. One said she was suicidal. Sergeant King laughed at her.
“Yeah fucking right, Trainee. I don’t believe you, but now you get to spend some time in the psych ward. Get the hell out of my flight.” After ten minutes of packing her meager belongings, she was gone. One said she loved women, that she was a lesbian. She took twenty minutes to pack. We all knew saying this was a guaranteed ticket home. I don’t know if she lied or if she really was a lesbian, but the only reason to openly admit it in those days was to get out of the military. “Pulling the rainbow card,” they called it.
I thought about following those girls, imagined stuffing my t-shirts into my suitcase and walking down the stairs to the 319th – the mysterious squadron where trainees awaited a ticket home. I thought about letting my tears out in front of Sergeant King, hoping my anguish became palpable and that he understood, as I already did, I was not strong enough for this life. I wouldn’t have needed to fake tears, either. King had a way of making us dizzy with fear. He roared in our faces, droplets of spit flying and landing on our cheeks, eyelids, lips. He dropped us to the floor for pushups until we collapsed one by one. He bullied our looks (my special moniker was “Crackhead” because my pupils sat defiantly large in my gray-green eyes). He even grabbed me by the collar once and ripped me out of a chair for an infraction, my small body ambushed by the sudden impact of solid ground. I wanted to cry in his presence. But when these urges came, I remembered one of the last things my grandfather said to me. “I’ll see you in a couple weeks.” Basic training was six weeks long. His words were meant to dig, to taunt me. To let me know that he didn’t believe in me.
I hated the situation I was in. The exhaustion felt like it was embedding itself into my marrow. The southern Texas heat of late summer seared into each pore. The yelling, the constant moving, the hunger pangs – I hated it all. But I hated what would be waiting for me back home even more: the only man who’d known me my entire life would – with a mere look, a disgusted squint – tell me, “I knew how weak you are. I’ve known it since you were a little girl.” I didn’t want to let him have that. I wouldn’t give him a chance to look at me with smug disgust. I decided not to cry. Not to quit. I was going to push. I was going to move faster than I’d ever moved, making my bed like I was racing, lacing up my boots like it was as easy as breathing.
When momentum wasn’t needed, I was going to stand stiller than I’d ever stood, hands at my side. Attention. Ready. Yes, Sir. And that’s exactly what I did. Stood, legs together, arms to my sides, chin up. A seventeen-year-old statue. Even the flies that sauntered across my cheeks did not break me. The sweat dripping slowly down the indentation of my back, tickling tiny hairs until it felt like my skin was burning with the urge to scratch – it did not break me. When it was time to run, I ran until I felt my lungs would collapse. I did sit-ups on hot asphalt until my tailbone broke through skin. I held the push-up position through the tremors of my undeveloped biceps, until those muscles became strong enough to hold me up. Strong enough to keep going.
I had been here for five weeks now, with only a week to go until graduation. And this night, in the humid calm of the darkness, I experienced the deepest peace that I’d had since arriving. Crystal had grown to be one of my favorite girls in the flight. Initially, her Alabama twang assaulted my Northern ears, but now I enjoyed her sweet, slow talk. It suited her. In the chaos of military training, when all others were scrambling to avoid being yelled at or dropped for push-ups, Crystal took the time to help. She’d rush, folding military corners on her sheets as quickly as possible so she could hurry over to her bunkmate. She’d sneak her extra bread roll to the girl next to her in the dining facility, despite only having a couple minutes to eat, herself. When the training instructor left for the night and we could whisper in the darkness of “lights out,” she would quietly listen when one of us lamented missing our mother or boyfriend. She never revealed much about her own life. Only in the moments when it was just the two of us shining the floor of the bay or polishing the door handles as the other trainees slept did I hear about her toddler son back in Alabama or the ex-boyfriend who had left her behind as a pregnant high school senior in her small town.
Sitting in the 2 a.m. heat of the Southern Texas field, we had a chance to talk, but after I killed the scorpion, we sat in silence. We were tired. Our days of running and marching mile after mile in the relentless heat, days of 4:45 a.m. trumpeted alarms, were getting the best of our young bodies.
“Why did we sign up for this?” Crystal chuckled.
“Ha! I ask myself that every time I hear reveille.”
“I’ll tell you why I signed up. I’m gonna give my baby a better life. We’re gettin’ out of Alabama and I’m gonna have some money to take care of him. I just can’t wait until I see him. I am countin’ the days, girl.”
I understood what she meant. Despite my reasons for leaving home, I had created a secret calendar with a countdown until the day I would see my mother’s face. I would have gotten in trouble if a training instructor saw it. I suppose calendars were banned so our lives would feel disordered, so we couldn’t tell our days apart.
“So, what about you? Why did you join?” Crystal asked.
I didn’t need a second to think about this. I knew the answer: I wanted adventure. I’d wanted it since the first time I’d laid eyes on a city when I was twelve years old. And not just any city – New York City. The amount of movement all around me quickened my breath, made my eyes wide as I took in the sights – cars honking and speeding past one other, people rushing across crosswalks and sidewalks while others sat on benches, some feeding pigeons. The buildings blocked out the blues and peaches and violets of the sunset, but I didn’t even miss the color of the sky – I was too busy wondering what worlds played out inside the walls of glass and concrete. I wished I had grown up in such a place. A world in love with humanity.
The countryside was apathetic to mankind. Its forests and weeds would grow just the same without humans. Fields might even rejoice to escape the deep plow and toil of growing corn or wheat, and instead burst open with the freedom of wildflowers. But the city was a tribute to the best of human progress. It had gravity-defying buildings, expert musicians, mind-opening artwork, complicated networks of human transportation, complex social hierarchies, and futuristic amenities. It was a playground for the human ego. Compared to my rural upbringing, New York City was intoxicating, yet intimidating. If I had been braver, I might have moved there instead of raising my right hand and swearing to defend the Constitution.
Perhaps as intimidating as the streets of Manhattan was the tactical ground combat training we faced a few days later. This was an attempt to show us what we might face if the U.S. was ever to engage in conflict during our time in service. Gear on our backs, we marched miles up a long road before we found our place of “battle.” Already sweaty and tired, we began our mission, working our way through foggy smoke, through the sound of gunfire and explosions, hiding behind sandbags to descend upon our target: the enemy’s guard tower, called The Scorpion’s Nest. I watched the differing strategies of my fellow trainees, some moving as quickly as they could only to be forced to lay behind sandbags struggling to catch their breath. Others paced themselves, moving little by little. In the sticky summer heat of the South, this course would have been tough even in shorts and a t-shirt. I knew a sweat-soaked Battle Dress Uniform added weight and friction and made the course even more difficult, so I opted for a slower pace. I glanced back at Crystal, hoping she was nearby. She had tripped in the middle of an opening, just behind the sandbags I hid behind. A training instructor immediately descended upon her, yelling. I crouched, waiting for her on the other side of the wall, but when I heard her get sent to the beginning of the course, I knew I had to continue alone.
She caught up with me just in time for the low crawl pit, with other members of our flight letting her sneak forward to stand behind me. Because of the rain the previous day, the usual dirt path of the low crawl was more like a swamp. I sprawled out, feeling the cold, muddy water seep into my uniform. My forearms pulled my body forward, legs writhing behind in a jagged slither. If I moved my head too high, my helmet would get caught on the barbed wire strewn above the pit, scarcely a foot above the ground. In many spots, the wire hung lower, and I had to hold my breath and close my eyes as I immersed my face in the sludge, wriggling along the pit’s bottom until I had to come up and gasp for air. Lifting my head for the sweet feel of air entering my lungs, I felt my helmet snag, sticking into the sharp thorns of barbed wire. I paused, choking on the mud and not wanting to dip my head back into the puddle. I felt stuck in the mud. I didn’t want to move my body any farther. My forearms had sunk several inches down into the sopping clay, and at that moment, I felt like the pit could swallow me. The shrill alarm of a whistle sounded dully in my clogged ears. From the side came the squall of a raging TI.
“MOOOVE, Trainee, move! You can’t be this goddamn slow when hostile gunfire is coming at you!”
I pulled as hard as I could, groveling through thick muck. My elbows were being rubbed raw. I wanted to quit. The filth of the puddles coated my face, blinding my eyes, making its way into my lips. I felt I might drown. I’d made it this far, but I didn’t think I was strong enough to keep going. Tears were flowing shamelessly now, yet the wetness surrounding me concealed them. Just as I felt I was finally broken, a beat pulsed into me. My muscles tensed, ready to escape the pit. Numbness where once I felt my heartbeat. Feeling emptied from my core. Dragging my weight inch by inch, ten, then twenty more feet, I cleared the nest of the wire. I pushed my hands into the earth, the earth which seconds prior seemed would swallow me whole, and I peeled my battered body off the ground. I was free. Free to stand on my own feet, rise from dirty baptism – a disbeliever no longer. Wiping the filth from my eyes, I could see big sky above me. Crystal stood up after me, and we ran the last tenth of a mile to The Scorpion’s Nest. Breathless and triumphant, we high-fived. Muddy palm against muddy palm, a small gesture after some of the most grueling minutes of our young lives. Something like a smile found my lips. A woman perfected.
The days following were filled with ceremony and new privileges. Having completed Warrior Week, we were bestowed with our first Air Force “coin,” a small token of military tradition. This ritual was a signifier that we were no longer trainees. We would spend the last week before our official graduation with the title “Airman.” We said goodbye to the scorpions and tents as the bus carried us back to the familiarity of our squadron buildings on base, where we’d started our basic training journey. Back on the main base life was different for us, as Sergeant King was on leave for the birth of his child and in his place was a gentler TI, Sergeant Carver. Also different was the way we looked marching along the sidewalks of Lackland. We were now wearing our Blues uniform. After the frump of black and green for weeks, I was in love with the delicate buttons climbing up my cerulean blouse, the starched material sitting on my thinned-out frame, epaulets on my squared shoulders, shining heels clicking under my feet. I held my head up like my flight cap was a bejeweled crown. I earned it. Earned it all – the title, the uniform, even the right to sit on the utilitarian couch along the wall in our day room, a privilege that had been denied us as trainees.
I often sat on this couch in the morning lull after our physical training session and breakfast. The military is known for its “hurry up and wait” mentality, and this is where the waiting happened. Waiting for Sergeant Carver to arrive for inspection, or usher us off to our last Air Force history classes, marching practice, or out-processing appointments. Since only religious books were allowed, the Bible was my only form of entertainment during our scarce free time, though instead of reading, I sat on the couch daydreaming about seeing my family at the end of the week. My mother’s face was all I could think of those days. The thought of seeing her stirred something in me. It was too much. I tried to concentrate on the Psalms in my lap.
4 I looked on my right hand, and beheld,
Footsteps clambered up the steps of our bay. Sergeant Carver was on schedule. The pounding on the door was always thunderous. I was no longer alarmed by the intensity. I sat, determined to enjoy the cushioned couch and book as long as possible, so rare was the feeling of softness against my body, and poetic words filling my mind.
but there was no man that would know me:
refuge failed me;
no man cared for my soul.
The dorm guard went through the motions required for entry. Done, we were told, for security reasons. “Sir, may I see your authority to enter?”
“Let me in!”
“Sir, may I see your authority to enter?”
“Open the goddamn door!”
Keys jingled as Sergeant Carver unlocked the door. Now this was anything but usual. We were taught to never open the door without the entrant presenting their military ID. Dorm guards who failed to see identification before entry were threatened with automatic recycling – going back to Day 1 of training. The TIs always put their ID on the glass and waited for the door to open, unless they were testing us.
“What do you think is going on?” I whispered to the Airman next to me.
Was it a test? A trick? Would people get recycled for not stopping entry without ID?
Sergeant Carver rushed into the dayroom with another TI. They seemed intense. More worked up than usual. They were both out of breath.
Carver screamed, “Get in here! Everyone in the dayroom!”
We glanced around nervously as flight members who’d been ironing or using the restroom herded into the dayroom.
“I told you we weren’t playing games here. Our nation is under attack. This is what you signed up for. Get your asses ready. We are at war.”
Sixty new Airmen glanced around at one another, nervously, unsure if we were having a drill. One last test before the real graduation. Hushed, we remained motionless, waiting to hear our orders. It had to be training.
The TI’s turned on the small boxy television hanging in the corner. Only the second time we had seen a TV on since we’d been in training. I was becoming more certain that this was an exercise. Why did they pick now? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have done it when we were still in battle dress, not neatly pressed and wearing heels?
I was staring at the wall – bricks painted a stark white – when Carver told us. Said what the world already knew.
“Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”
As the channel came into focus, the television reporter’s distraught voice relayed the details of the events happening in the world outside. A world I hadn’t heard from in weeks. This was real. How could this be real? I had had trouble believing the rumor weeks earlier that one of my favorite singers, Aaliyah, had died. But this? This was unbelievable. Before it could begin to sink in, the TV was turned off.
“If you have any family members in New York City, come forward and–”
A sobbing Airman Martinez stood up, looking like someone lost – searching for an exit, mumbling, “My aunt! Oh my god, my aunt…”
I couldn’t help but stare, stone faced, as she stood crying. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Crystal start to rise, arms out to embrace, comfort Martinez, but she pressed her lips together, looked out the window, sat back down, apathetic. Martinez was led away by the assisting TI.
“Here’s what we’ve got to do. We have reason to believe terrorists are targeting more sites. We have to patrol the perimeters of our squadron. Everyone change into your BDUs. Get ready to take shifts patrolling. Oh yeah… you’ll each get a turn on the phone to call your families. Tell them they won’t be allowed on base for graduation. Tell them to not even come.”
* * *
I learned that patrol would consist of an orange vest, a whistle, and a script to shout at any suspected terrorist: STOP. IDENTIFY YOURSELF. We were to blow the whistle if the individual seemed suspicious or did not follow instructions. I stood silently, listening to how to proceed, wondering why we couldn’t carry the M16s we’d trained on the week prior, and thinking about how my BDUs felt comforting, like an old friend. There was nothing else to do in that moment. Tomorrow held so much uncertainty.
The old me would have wished to fly back to Ohio; to walk through my grandfather’s door. He would have chuckled that I was too weak for the military. He would have been pleased to see his skepticism justified. But I wouldn’t have cared. I would have just wanted to hug him. Hug him and tell him there are other ways to be strong. Sometimes just staying is strong. You don’t have to fight. But now – I was different. And I did have to fight. I would. We all would.
That night, Crystal and I volunteered for patrol together, another twilight shift. The world seemed as though it would crumble around us. We were going to war and they gave us a whistle. I held my tiny weapon in my palm as we took our place along the perimeter of our squadron building. Crystal’s jaw was clenched tightly, her face looked gray in the artificial light.
“Everything ok?” I whispered.
“I’m upset because I don’t know when I’ll get to see my baby again. But I guess it ain’t nothin’ compared to… I shouldn’t be so selfish.”
It felt as though my toes had dissolved. I’d laced my boots up too tightly. Still, I stepped in time next to Crystal. Left, right, left, right. We patrolled mechanically, one foot in front of the other, and looked out into a land that felt removed from any of our yesterdays. Yet, it was all the same. We had finally learned how to march forward without hesitation, how to turn on numbness, steel the face.
“At least we ain’t fightin’ any scorpions out here.”
A. Rabaduex is a poet and writer who currently calls the mountains of Pennsylvania home. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English, and she works as a college writing instructor as well as a member of the editorial board for The Penmen Review. She has work published or forthcoming in O-Dark-Thirty, The Stardust Review, and Iris Literary Journal.