Specialist Canon gave the clutch a push and rolled the 5 ton over a dusty road. It was 0700 and already hot as hell. SPC Canon had his BDU jacket off and stuffed behind the seat. He was wearing an issue brown tee shirt, his BDU pants, and construction hard hat.
"Sir, it’s just around the corner. We’ll drop the stuff and come back around 0900 after formation."
"Fine, that’s good." I looked at the small houses as we rumbled past. To call them houses was generous, though. They we little more than pieces of driftwood banded together into makeshift platforms under tin roofs. Their long legs looked like crooked old men, windows little more than gap tooth grins.
I glanced at the two soldiers in the back sucking in the heat, stoic enough though, basking in the dust cloud that settled over them as the truck came to stops. They were perched atop piles of lumber, plywood, tools, and a box of nails.
"You know it’s my ass, if anybody catches us, " I turned and leaned my arm out the side of the truck.
"Pffphht, sir, you know everybody always blames the SPC. Yer ass… my ass!"
I laughed, "Well, that’s because the specialist knows everything. How do you expect a Lieutenient to have organized all this by himself."
"That’s what I’m saying, nobody would believe it… an then it’s PFC Canon. Shit, then I got to go get new rank sewed on, that’s a shitload of money for 16 uniforms."
He was grinning now, and I winked back at him. I would be the fall guy for sure, an officer with a bunch of lower enlisteds, stealing project supplies and running off to God knows where. I understood him though. I got yer back, sir. We’ll all play dumb, just relax, an’ we’ll get you through this.
I think he understood me too. You guys were just following orders. You were with an officer, so you were just doing what he told you to. Nobody got killed, or hurt, so after a reprimand…
My career would be over, though. Beats having to sew new rank on 16 uniforms. I laughed to myself. Funny how people communicate in the Army. Last night, while in the showers, I listened to a couple of enlisteds talk shit to each other, a past time that military men seem to have mastered.
"How much you pay for your apartment?"
"Shit, I pay $700."
"Fuck, that’s nothing, I pay $800."
"Yeah, well with utilities and condo fees, mine actually works out to $900."
"Shit, man, what’s your old lady do?"
"Spends my money."
Snicker. "Man, how much does she spend a week?"
"Fuck, all I get is a six pack, and a TV guide…"
"Sucks to be you."
It’s kind of nice taking a shower, not to wear rank. People don’t act as themselves when you’ve got officer’s rank on. If they don’t know you, they look figety, uncomfortable. It made me uneasy watching them sometimes. And then there were the older guys, Master Sergeants and First Sergeants (1SG). They don’t fear, which is good, but then they feel the need to bluster. "Damn kid, ain’t been around for but a couple of years. Put that damn rank on him. He’s my kid’s age, for God’s sake."
Either way, they act differently when you are in uniform. It’s nice to take a shower. You wash off more than just the dirt and sweat.
I smiled, "Sucks to be you."
"Yeah, shit." He went back to washing his face.
I lifted the brim of my cap and mopped the sweat from my brow. The jungle was starting to steam now as mists lifted from the valleys and crags. They looked like full bowls of cream, or maybe big steaming mugs of coffee, with the rich savory aroma of wet, oxygen laden air. I started to feel sweat soak into my back where it was pressed against the canvas seat cover.
This part of Panama was rugged and breathtaking. Craggy, and mountainous, it didn’t look like I had always pictured jungles. The peaks were like shards of bright green glass pushed up from the earth. Looked so sharp, you might get cut.
We were climbing now, up and out of the valley of coffee cups. The mist lay shimmering behind us as we trudged along. I could see the whole coast now, as irregular as the rest of the landscape. There were a million little inlets and harbors each with a mad bull kicking to get at the rolling undulating ocean, straining at the gates, like with one little kick, and they would come charging out of their pens.
"Sir, we gonna kick yer ass in cards tonight?" SPC Canon taunted.
"Quit talkin’ yer smack, Canon. We’ve already kicked yer ass 3 times."
"Outa how many, sir? Ten maybe? And fer the last three I didn’t have my partner. Tonight, it’s gonna be different." He mimicked throwing down a card, "Smack. Take that."
I shook my head. "Canon, Canon, Canon… when you gonna learn. All right, we’re gonna see." He was better at Hearts than me, we had been playing all week. Some would call it fraternizing. While the other officers were off in their own little stress world, I was hanging out with my troops. I figured it was a good way to keep an eye on them. Yeah, familiarity was maybe a little too easy for them now, but I have their respect.
"Uh, oh." SPC Canon said. "Sir we’re busted."
I looked ahead. There was a check point. It’s Sunday, and our day off. Why were they having a check point? "Relax, I’ll take this one." I jumped down from the truck and trotted over to the MP, a burly Specialist, with a chip on his shoulder. It goes with the territory of MP’s. Most of them are bored to tears, so a little action really gets them going.
"Sir, where are you headed with those soldiers?"
"We’re taking wood to the abuttment work site in Adelante. It’s our day off, " I volunteered, "but we’ve got a lot of work to do Monday, so we wanted to get a head start."
"Okay, that’s fine, sir. But you can’t go this way. They’re setting up to repave over here. Tell your work crew to reroute around Adelante for tomorrow."
"Thank you, Specialist, I’ll pass it along to my commander." I trotted back to the 5 ton, and pulled myself up into the cab.
"Way to go, sir." SPC Canon grinned.
"See, this bar comes in handy once in a while. Any other requests?"
He smiled a crooked smile, "You can get yer ass whooped tonight in Hearts."
We drove on.
"There it is, sir." Canon said pointed to a brightly colored stick shack. Looks like some the boards had come from an old bilboard,
I wondered who told them they were poor.
Cut from the land in their irregular shapes too, were the small houses of the Panamanians with brown-faced children standing on front porches shouting and waving. I waved back.