For All Nails #274: A Call to Barms
by Noel Maurer
When I first showed up at boot camp, back in '72, I wanted to be the picture-perfect recruit.
It didn't last. The drill sargent took three weeks to stop yelling at me to "Kick it like a fucking football, not a duck, brokepenny!" to finally say, "Look, Nabo, put your goddamned patas at a 45 degree angle, you pinche pájaro."
It led to a rather distant attitude. Basic didn't bother me. Both it and the "technical school" that followed were just rites of passage. No, that's not correct. They just were. After all, I was a Mexican male, and this was what you did at 18. You got yelled at for nine weeks, and then bored for an additional four to twenty-two, depending on what specialty you'd managed to weasel yourself into. Then you came home and went to college or got a real job or something. For me it was college. Followed with something.
I graduated in June of 1976, and "Something" mostly involved sitting around in cafés faking German philosophy and bemoaning the meaninglessness of life, when I wasn't washing dishes or putting my technical school training to use as a part-time loke mechanic. It also meant missing weekend drills, until I got a rather carefully-worded letter from my CO saying that I could pay back the oh-so-generous federation of the United States of Mexico for the cost of my training, and maybe possibly if-necessary serve the country in "other manners." Or I could make up the missed time with a Group 2 unit in Durango that needed someone to fix vehicles.
The phrasing was ominous enough to get me to spend a month fixing transmissions on a bunch of quinteros in the Durango desert. FN1 Yeah, my girlfriend dumped my ass while I was away, but what did I care? Her "get a job" nagging was too much. The economy was great, I could always get a real job later. Right now I had Decisions to Make.
The very month I returned to San Antón, El Popo declared that we were going to take over New Granada. Apparently the British and the Taiwanese had decided that they had wrecked the place sufficiently to get the Christmas Bombing out of their system, and now they were going to turn the mess over to us. That meant that the United States was going to send 250,000 soldiers to New Granada for 24 months. Yes, 24 months sounded so much better than "two years," didn't it? Strange how the human mind works. Thus, two weeks after returning to San Antón, I got the letter informing me that my unit had been activated for the "mission" -- such a wonderfully ambiguous word, that -- and we were going to New Granada.
I was a philosopher now, or so I liked to think. I wanted to discuss unpronounceable Germans whose names sounded like sneezes, not be a soldier. So the letter back at my apartment -- formerly someone's garage, the main house being occupied by a group of students even sloppier and noisier than me -- informing me that I was to report to my unit no later than 16 o'clock on May 15th was most unwelcome. I stood at the window of the apartment, staring out at the dead lawn and the lokes passing by and the tree with the desultory unused swing left behind by the owner's family and thought about how many ways one might be able to conjugate the word "fuck."
I also decided right then that I was voting for Costigan. Peace was a great thing, yes, but not at my expense. Let the limones and takis and dagos keep trying to kill each other. I had coffee to take and co-eds to coger and long pompous essays to write.
I called my mother. She wasn't home. I thought about calling my father, but fuck him. He'd left us years ago, and he wasn't even my real father anyway.
May 15th rolled around, and I had nobody to give me a ride to the reserve unit. I couldn't bring my own loke, because I didn't have stationing privileges, and they weren't about to let me store it there for two years. So I wound up at a used book store, selling a bunch of old fantascience novels for taxi fare. If there was something a little odd about a soldier walking into the store wearing three-shade beige and carrying a bag full of paperbacks, the proprietor didn't show it. I wound up straggling into the unit around 23 o'clock.
"Fuck, Nabo, why didn't you stay AWOP?" FN2
"I've never been an Italian, Calantoni," I replied. I didn't like Calantoni, and he didn't like me. It worked alright.
"Nabo," said our sargent, an ancient warhorse named Max Prior. We all called him "Antes." His uniform hung on him almost as wrinkled as his skin. "Cállate y get in formation." I wasn't the only one to get in late, thankfully. In fact, a big chunk of our unit didn't show up until the following afternoon.
"Alright," said Antes. "Touse know what the mission is. Arms room." And so, we went to the arms room, to try on our gas masks. Why this was important was not entirely clear to me. After all, the Granadino guerrillas had failed to use chemical weapons against the British. Why they might then use them against us was not explained. But hey. So we wound up milling around the arms room, enjoying the smell of fresh rubber. I felt like I was in a fetish club.
"Hwoooosh, hwoooooosh," went Rentería, apparently enjoying the sound of his breathing in the mask. He reminded me of the character in that German novel, the one who wakes up as a giant cucaracha.
Suddenly, I really wanted the thing off my face. I got my wish quickly enough. Antes stood in front of us and checked the seals, and then we were done. Our faces were still red and lined from the mask when we picked up our other equipment: elbejes, rucks, empty magazines, canteens, first-aid kits, and the like. All colored three-shade beige. We looked like lumps of wet sand. The elbejes we put on, the rest we stuffed into our rucksacks, strapped sleeping bags to the top, and then stood around.
"Yo, hey, ain't we listo for combat now?" said PVT Ceballos.
"You're forgetting something," I said.
"Yeah, what?" he said back, slightly belligerently.
"Like maybe balas y a fucking rifle?"
- Fort Galston, Arizona
- 15 June 1977
It was a total chingazo. Worse, maybe. Our bus from San Antonio was one of the first to arrive at Fort Galston. After that came buses carrying soldiers from Henrytown and Tampico and Monterrey and Laredo and Ciudad Jackson. The lucky ones were on buses from the C.J. airpark. The unlucky ones, like us, had been on the goddamned vehicle for two days. Endless streams of guys in civvies staring at their surroundings and thinking, "What the fuck am I doing here? Didn't they just declare peace?"
I had an "El Enano Grande" button pinned on my leather chamarra. FN3 I seemed to be the only one, but it got plenty of supportive smiles. Hard to find anyone willing to admit that they intended to vote for "the Bitch."
We all formed up into squads by reserve unit, dragging our duffels along. The NCOs seemed as clueless as we were. It was an absolutely AUSM fuck-up. And, as usual, it amused me to no end to see a few Regular sargents barking orders at Reserve "technical" officers, which basically meant fellows who had bothered to take a few extra classes in college. Herramientos, all of 'em. We stood around until some of the Regulars got word out that the barracks weren't open, and we had no place to go. "Standin' around with nothin' to do," said Antes, "but I'll be damned if I'm gonna hafta look any more at you." We scattered.
I poosed myself down under a tree, fiddling with the rocks on the ground, and hating the humidity. I puffed on a puro, and eventually started scribbling. I saw one guy with a navaja -- wasn't it illegal to bring weapons on post? -- carving something into the wall of a nearby barracks. I wandered over after he was done. The carving read: "When I said I wanted to see your mountains, I didn't mean the goddamn Andes."
Nope, nobody here was gonna vote for Del Rey. I smiled until they finally formed us up again and herded us into the barracks. Then I stopped smiling, and you can probably guess why.
- Cartagena, New Granada
- 3 August 1977
Goddamn, but Cartagena was a mess. The British had bombed much of it flat during 1975, before they finally invaded. Then they bombed it again during the Easter Rising. The hotels along the beach were reduced to steel skeletons reaching to the sky, and the rest of the city didn't look much better. About the only thing that looked relatively undamaged was the port. I guess the limones thought they might need it. The airport was a wreck, but our aero out of Belice City managed to land anyway.
The British hadn't yet pulled out when we came in. "Orderly transfer," that was the name of the game, and that meant that they'd be leaving over the next few months. The last Limón wouldn't be off Granadino soil until December.
My job was ... well, I was a motor-jockey. My job was to help unload all the camionetas and teebies we were bringing over. The weird thing, really, was how many of the vehicles had been manufactured in Torilandia, despite the AUSM markings we were hastily painting on. I suppose it made sense. The Tories were putatively paying most of the cost of this operation. I kinda wondered how that worked. Was Congress going to send the Grand Council a bill at the end of the year? Or did the CNA just write a big check and have the boys at Coyoacán match our budget to that? And most importantly, was the War Department gonna make a profit on this operation?
We had a bunch of Tory soldiers working down at the motor pool, leftovers from the war who had volunteered to help us get installed. It didn't surprise me that they were there. We'd been briefed that there would be Norteamericanos running around. We'd also been informed that they weren't in our chain-of-command, and that we shouldn't mention their presence in letters home for "diplomatic reasons."
¿Mi respuesta? The infamous doble positivo that only exists in Mexican English: "Yeah, right." FN4 If we knew they were there, then the Brits knew they were there, and this whole thing was more fucking diplomatic kabuki.
Anyway, our first day off the boat, and I meet some of the Tory soldiers manning the motor pool. It was sort of weird. CSM Prior brought us in, introduced us to the Norteamericanos, and said we'd be working together. We were wearing the same three-shade beige we brought with us to Fort Galston. The uniforms would be mildly useful if we were occupying the scrubbier parts of México del Norte, and were ridiculous here. Well, not in the city of Cartagena itself: three-shade-beige really does match the color of rubble.
The Tories, on the other hand, wore sensible green camouflage, but I was a little surprised to see that the camo pattern was fucking identical to the one the Army was supposed to have issued us. In fact, the uniforms were AUSM tropical camouflage fatigues. The Tories wore nametapes, but where we had a second tape reading "ARMY OF USM" they had nothing, and while our rank insignia was sown onto the sleeves they had little brown weird shit pinned onto their collars. Additionally, rather than blue-and-gold flashes with a green coiled snake in the lower right corner, they had red-white-and-blue flags on their right shoulders.
They weren't officially there, which is why, of course, their national flag WAS SOWN ONTO THEIR GODDAMNED SHOULDERS! What genius thought this up?
One of the Norteamericanos was a right damned vato, very chido. Name of Arthur Steele. I liked him. All three of the Tories were officers, so I figured (wrongly) that their Army was as officer-heavy as our own. We spent that first day working over all of the equipment that they'd off-loaded. It was a pain-in-the-ass, but it's the sort of necessary work that makes you almost think the Army makes sense.
We talked about all sorts of shit. "Goddamn, Nabo," said Steele, "Do you mean to tell me that you just hung out doing nothing after college?"
"Hey, not nothing, güey. I worked odd jobs and the like. Dishwashing, fixing lokes, y todo, sabes? But with the impuesto negativo, it paid enough."
"Hold on," said one of the Tories, I forget his name. "Negative tax? What are you talking about?"
"Uhhh ..." I had to remind myself that they were foreigners. "Well, you get a guaranteed minimum income of six thousand dólares a year, see. So if you earn less than that, the government makes it up."
Another one of the Tories, Conason, he asked, "You're telling me they'll give you six thousand dólars a year just for breathing?" He was prone under a quintero. "What is that, six hundred pounds?"
"More like three, four hundred. And no, they don't just give it to you. What they do is figure your hourly salary. If it comes to less than three dólares an hour, the government makes up the difference. The minimum wage is two dólares, so it ain't all that much. They phase out the payments as your salary goes up. I don't remember the formula."
"Wow. We should have that at home," said Conason. I tried to contain my surprise. My impression was that the Tories liked their food bland and their capitalism savage.
Antes dismissed us at 18:30 o'clock. "Report at 0530 mañana. You're free."
"Oiyay, Artoo, kay yaddoo roundere afta oras?" Sorry about the spelling, but I'm trying to capture the sense of incomprehension that speaking Mexican -- or, worse, Jeffersonian -- produces in the typical Tory. I thought I was speaking English. How easily we forget. FN5
"Excuse me?" said Steele.
"Sorry. Arthur, you know any place to go once we're off duty? Drinks on me."
He stared at me for a second. "Ah ... yeah. Why not? Follow me." He called out to the other Tories. "Hey. Nabo here is going to come with us tonight."
They looked at me for a second too long, then nodded.
The motor pool was in a large metal warehouse erected by the British, down near the port. The rebels had captured the port facilities during the Easter Rising, but unlike elsewhere in the city, here the British had gone in the ugly way to clean them out. They couldn't risk damaging the docks. So there were plenty of structures around, and many of them housed bars.
We walked out of the warehouse. The sun was still out, and would be for many hours still. Life near the equator. The street running by the port was six lanes across. It was actually hard for me to accept the lack of traffic. Six lanes, port, middle of rush hour ... where were the lokes? The Tories laughed at me when I glanced both ways before crossing.
- Cartagena, New Granada
- 4 August 1977
After the fight, Antes called me into his tent at 0230. That didn't make me happy, but I deserved it. "Goddamn, Nabo, you're a mess."
"Yes, sargent." I wasn't that much of a mess. One good punch, and I'd been out of the fight. It was really between the Tories and the Limones anyway. I was just there.
"Damn straight, private. Alright. I've seen you scribbling in that little librito of yours, y I've seen your file. You're overeducated for this job. I've got another assignment for you. Report to the relojito. Vete."
"Uh, yes, sargent." I walked out into the field. We'd set up around the container port, with tents going up like there was no tomorrow. Yesterday there had been nothing; today it was beginning to look like an actual Army post. "Camp Popocatépetl," they were calling it. The relojito was in one of the old port buildings, which we'd commandeered the day before.
An MP looked at my nametape, and directed me into a side room. There were about maybe ten other soldiers there, a mix of enlisted guys and tech officers. Some were in green camo, others three-shade beige. Ah, the Army.
Nobody was wearing elbejes or cascos, just Army cricket caps stuffed into their bolsillos.
"Alright, escucha," said a captain in three-shade beige. He was one of those guys who could be Hispano or could be Mexicano, depending on your mood. "My name is Sebastián Quezadas. Touse been volunteered for the newly-formed 11th Military History Detachment. Our job over the next however many months is gonna be to record Operation Cold Phoenix for posterity. We're gonna travel all around this Godbedamned país. We're gonna take notes, make vitas, write articles, and compile the grand and wonderful story of the AUSM's beautiful new tropical adventure."
I looked around. The men with me, they didn't look unhappy. I had to admit, it sounded more interesting than fixing trucks for two years.
CPT Quezadas -- I noticed that he didn't have a "T" under his insignia -- took a drag off a cigarette. "Alright. Our first mission is tonight." He pointed at an Anglo warrant officer standing next to me. "Tú. Mister Carpy. You know how to work a camera, right?"
"Good. Mosta touse got vita experience, right? Those that don't, you'll learn. Any of touse got amigos o relativos in the fucking Marines?" A few hands went up. "Muy bien. Touse gonna disfrutar this assignment. Equipo's in the next room, lights, cameras, the works. Carpy, I don't know shit about vita, so you're in charge of outfitting a crew. Meet me at the vehicles outside when you're done. You got ten minutes. Go." We went.
Ten minutes later, hauling a chingo of vita equipment, we formed up in front of the teebies. CPT Quezadas was there, puffing on another cigarette. "Alright. Bien. Load the shit on that doblete. Carpy, Nestel, touse drive the camioneta. Nabo, Daw, Saldaña, Puon, touse in this teeby with me. Vamos."
He still hadn't told us where we were going. It was, in fact, barely 0400. We had loaded up two vehicles full of camera equipment, had drawn no weapons, and were headed out of town. "Where we goin', cap'n?" asked Daw.
"The beach," answered Quezadas. "Something for the folks back home." He couldn't contain his grin. We grinned back, but it still didn't make much sense. "Say," continued the Captain, "any of you fellows into history?"
I poked my hand up from the back seat. So did Saldaña, and Daw nodded. "Alright," said the captain, "You ever watch any documentaries from the Hundred Day War?" We all shrugged. "Ah, that's too bad." We all made small talk for the rest of the trip. If we were heading to the beach, it was someplace pretty far out of town. We drove for a solid half-hour, and the Captain didn't drive slow.
We got to an empty stretch of beach around maybe 0430. Captain Quezadas killed the engine. It was pitch black, except for our headlights, and what looked like some ship pretty far offshore. "Carpy, you got 15 minutes to get set up." The captain was speaking in a very low voice. "I want two camera crews, there and there, and I want those floodlights ready to go on my mark. And work quietly. Explico?"
"Muévense." We muevaed. It was ready in eight. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see some faint red lights offshore. Tropical phosphorescence? I didn't really think about it.
"Ready, sir," said Carpy.
"Good. Real good." The captain was grinning like a madman. He had an amplificator in one hand. "Quiet, now." He looked at his watch. "Ah, loquesea. Doesn't matter if we're early. Carpy, hit the lights y roll the cameras at my mark. Five, four, three, two, one, mark!"
And wham! We caught an entire Marine Expeditionary Force wading ashore in our floodlights. Well, not exactly. At the moment we turned on the lights, we caught tens -- hundreds? -- no, tens (but high tens) of amphibious vehicles bearing down on the beach. I hadn't noticed the noise. Our teebies had been pretty loud, so even when we shut 'em off we hadn't noticed the faint sound of the landing boats approaching the shore.
Now the captain was on the micrófono, having a ball.
"Greetings, Marines, from the 11th Military History Detachment of the Army of the United States of Mexico! We're here to record this brave, uh, action for posterity. Don't smile at the cameras now! Don't mind the lights, this is still a combat situation in potentially hostile territory, but if all goes well touse'll all be on the vita mañana. How about that?"
The Marines came up out of the surf, what little there was, their boats behind them. One Marine captain started coming towards us, his face a pretty twisted mask of anger. "What the fuck is this?" he shouted. I noticed the Marines were all in green.
Quezadas, standing atop the teeby, just smiled down. "C'mon, captain, this is a historic moment! Haven't you ever seen the vita of the French wading ashore on the beaches of Arizona? Well, this is the same thing." He was still talking into the amplificator.
"Shut the fuckin' lights off!" growled the Marine.
"No can do, captain," replied Quezadas. "We got orders straight from General Leto to record all aspects of Operation Cold Phoenix, and you gotta admit that the largest amphibious Marine deployment since St. Maarten certainly does qualify as a major aspect. Don't mind us, anyway. Pretend the lights are enemy flares, alright?" Quezadas was obviously having the time of his life.
"Djzaaugh," growled the Marine, and moved on, waving for his men to follow.
"Watch now as the patrols secure the beach against counterattack," said Quezadas, continuing his amplified commentary. "Nabo! Take notes. You're not writing this down." I noticed that as pissed off as the Marine captain was, the regular ... uh ... regular Marines? ... seemed to be enjoying the attention. Their scowls at the camera were obviously faked. Many were smiling, and not a few waved.
So there we were, watching the Marines turn an empty beach into a staging area for 20,000 men and their equipment. I'd had no sleep, had a swollen face from where a Limón had sucker-punched me, and was under the command of a captain who was either completely barmy or just didn't care.
Yeah, the next two years were beginning to look up a little.
Forward to FAN #275: Mansion (Part 1).)
Forward to 16 June 1977: An Independent Quebec Within a United CNA.
Forward to Operation Cold Phoenix: Military History.
Return to For All Nails.