Reawaiting Orders

by Catfish Russ


Bobble woke and saw clouds, high and white and wispy. A bright sun burned down on him and sand ground between his teeth. He grabbed his M249 and made it to his feet. He picked up his helmet, upended it so the sand poured out, and looked around. Four months of Iraq was tattooed in dark reddish burns on the back of his neck and over his forearms.

Three pounds of sand like confectioner’s sugar padded the inside of his clothes, inside everything from his flak vest to his underwear. Bobble’s ears rang. That’s not a new thing or a surprising thing when weapons fire explodes around you. Scary silences punctuated by loud explosions inured everyone to the noise of warfare. God, how his ears were ringing.

He pulled the cover off his weapon and poured sand out of it too. He sat and worked on it with a toothbrush for fifteen minutes to make sure it would fire at least the first few rounds if he needed. You never knew with this piece of crap largely hated by Marines who much preferred the simple WWII .50 cal.

Now. Where is 49th Armored Cav? Bobble needed to find his unit: Iron Horse Regiment, 3rd Marines. They were moving west in a long column. They were going to hook up with the 54th Armor and then... then they were going to go somewhere. Syria? No, not Syria. Were they surrounding a town? No. They were on the way to a checkpoint in Jallufah. From there, who knows?

He looked for his jacket but couldn’t find it. His orders would be in one of its pockets. His ears rang, and the headachy smell of cordite hung in the air. A Hummer burned long ago sat on the other side of the berm, as if something even more flammable inside the wreck had finally caught or blown.

Bobble walked around the other side and saw Callahan lying on the ground next to it. Bobble rushed over but Callahan looked like he had been dead for a while. He was mostly covered in sand. Face down, butt up, his weapon still in his hands, he must have taken a round and fallen out of the jeep.

That’s weird, Bobble thought. Callahan’s body was fairly decomposed, and the burnt Hummer was also filled with sand. Bobble looked around and tried to figure out where he was when the grenade hit. Maybe it was a mine. No. He remembered the smoke trail.

What time is it? Bobble looked at his watch but it was stopped on July 30th. He reached into the Hummer and found a radio. He picked up the handset, blew sand off, pushed the button, and found static.

“This is Task Force Four-Nine Iron Horse to Hedgerow. Task Four-Nine Iron Horse to Hedgerow.”

He keyed the mike a few times and waited. He could hear what was called ‘good static’, as in ‘this radio is working’. “Task Force Four-Nine Iron Horse to Hedgerow.”

After a few minutes, he looked up and guessed it was 1000 hours. He circled the berm and the Humvee and looked for tire tracks. But those, too, were gone. Covered over with sand and more sand. How long had he been out?

His canteen was half full, so he took Callahan’s. He looked around the jeep to see if there was a handheld with an extra battery. No such luck. No GPS devices. Nothing. He picked up the mike one more time and pushed the TALK key.

“This is Master Sergeant Robert Woble, seven nine seven one two zero zero one, with Task Force Four-Nine Iron Horse. I am on foot, headed west to checkpoint at Jallufah.” He let go the key and thought a minute. Then, “Hope you find me.”

Bobble sipped from his canteen and headed west, the sun at his back along a long road that was not much more than the desert itself except that countless wheels, camels, trucks, and tanks had forced it down until it was a road. Guessing from the briefing before the raid, he could make the checkpoint along this road by sundown.

By day, Robert Woble was an actuary in Galveston, Texas. He calculated risk tables for workers on the oil docks in Houston. He specialized in workers’ chances of getting hurt in lining up a drill bit with a three and half foot long wrench. He calculated how much a company should pay for premiums based on a guy’s proclivity for falling or coming to work hung over. It was reasonable, rational work. He liked to tell his clients that he didn’t do ‘ballpark’ guesswork. He worked from facts and figures.

Trudging on the way to Jallufah, he started calculating his odds of making it. He knew he would do this sooner or later. It was just a busy exercise, just something to tie his anxiety down while he tried to find his unit.

The M249 was heavy. So was a flak jacket in 112-degree heat. Then again, an M249 plus one Marine equals about twelve fedayeen. That, the actuary was certain of. Plus, no matter how hot you were, you wanted to stay alive.

Robert Woble joined the Marines about 1989 and deployed to Iraq in the first war, but he spent most of that time in a boat. His unit was held off the coast only to tie up Iraqi reserves stationed in Kuwait. In the boat, he would do multiplication tables to stop worrying. He calculated the square root of Euler’s number in his head. He tried to find prime numbers in between 500 and 1000. Here, in the desert, somewhere between Tikrit and the Syrian border, he was doing the one thing he always did for focus: math. It was precise and exact and right or wrong, not a mess like the rest of the world.

His head was clearing; walking often did that for him. But calculating his own odds began to trouble him. He first had to guess what could kill him: mines, enemy patrols, heat stroke, snakes, scorpions. As rational as he could be, it seemed like the calculations would only give him a bad rate. He’d have to charge himself a fairly high premium, because it looked like there were a lot of things that could keep him from making this trip to Checkpoint Jallufah.

He almost didn’t see the truck, men and weapons pouring out of the windows, and they apparently did not see him. He stooped down behind the twisted wreckage of an armored vehicle and motionlessly watched as a white Toyota pick-up filled with Iraqis toting AK-47s drove by, radio blaring. After it passed over the horizon to the east, Bobble got up and resumed his trek westward.

After about three hours, Bobble could see a stretch of hills just peeking up over the horizon. That was Jallufah. He should be hearing helicopters any time now. He knew there was a big staging area around the Checkpoint, and he knew equipment was headed there. Trucks, helicopters, all of it should be coming down this road. Maybe he could hook up with a military transport with a radio and a full canteen or two.

He opened his last MRE: Jumbalaya, dug out his fork and wolfed it down. He didn’t realize how hungry he was. He must have been out for days. He drank most of his canteen water and thought about whether he should finish the hump tonight or stay and try again in the morning. He weighed the odds of finding new water between now and morning and figured he would only be thirstier in the morning. He would try and make the checkpoint today.

About three and a half hours later, Bobble estimated, he could see the shack at the checkpoint, and a Humvee parked around the back of it by a sandberm. The sun was in his eyes right now and he guessed he had about forty-five minutes to make it. He stopped for a minute, emptied sand out of his boots, relaced them, and headed out.

He walked in the middle of road now and even ventured a yell. “Helllooo.” he yelled in his cupped hands. He slung the weapon across the back of his shoulder and waved both arms frantically over his head. He saw no movement. Just the Humvee and a another truck in the back.

“Hellooo. Any Marines around? Army? Hello?” He set the SAW down and opened the tripod. He took a pull from his canteen, and wiped the dust off of his neck. Bobble sat cross-legged at the side of the road and composed himself.

Where is everyone?

He decided to fire a few rounds. That’d get their attention. He released the safety and decided to check the chamber first to see that a round was fed into it.

He settled down in a prone position and aimed over the guard tower. They’d see the tracers. He squeezed the trigger and an explosively loud burst shattered the silence. He sat for a moment. Heard nothing.

Seeing no further activity, he moved to within a hundred feet of the tower.

This is so strange, he muttered. Not that he couldn’t get the guards to respond. It was the sensation that he knew the guards were dead. And that this post had been abandoned while he was lying unconscious. And the feeling that he had passed here before, not long ago, at this particular checkpoint. He couldn’t tell for sure.

Ten feet away from the door he decided not to go in that way but to go around and find a window. He knew this was a bad move. He didn’t know why. It was one of those things, like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.

He took the first step in that direction and then it was too late. No sooner did he find a window than he saw the streaking trail of an RPG headed his way in that slow motion that events take when you know you have to move but you also know it’s too late. At the last second there was just a boom, a big boom, and blinding light.

Bobble woke and saw clouds, high and white and wispy. A bright sun burned down on him and sand ground between his teeth. He grabbed his M249 and made it to his feet. He picked up his helmet, upended it so the sand poured out, and looked around. Four months of Iraq was tattooed in dark reddish burns on the back of his neck and over his forearms.

Three pounds of sand like confectioner’s sugar padded the inside of his clothes, inside everything from his flak vest to his underwear. Bobble’s ears rang. That’s not a new thing or a surprising thing when weapons fire explodes around you. Scary silences punctuated by loud explosions inured everyone to the noise of warfare. God, how his ears were ringing.


Copyright © 2006 by Catfish Russ

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