combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2003

The Watcher

One of the little perversities of human nature is our preference for the admiration of our enemies ... instead of the approbation of our friends. We would rather taunt and gloat, or sneer and preen, than regard a wife in her own home, or recognize a prophet in his own house.

The fact that all Chinese proverbs are ancient, including the one in last night's fortune cookie, shouldn't detract from their wisdom. There's a venerable Chinese proverb which reminds us that: "no matter how large the candle, its light will not illuminate the future"; and that's even more true for we moderns using searchlights and telescopes! But since I already know that tomorrow will be like today until there are no more tomorrows, whatever transpires in the future is of little interest to me.

Since the future is the result of today, and yesterday is all of our todays, then the place I need to look is in the past. If I am going to shine the light of understanding on all my yesterdays, then I need to heed the sage advice of the Christopher Society: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

We should all know better, but, like every other young person, I thought I would always have enough time for everything, and that I would always remember each detail of every important thing that ever happened to me. Some of it was impossible to comprehend at the time, and much of it is now getting difficult to clearly remember. I don't know if everyone else has an interior watcher, but I have always felt like another part of myself was living within me, and looking around inside me, or peering out of me at the rest of the world. It isn't at all like another person being there, or being able to interact with it as a separate entity ... just that some part of me would watch the rest of me, and occasionally communicate terse messages. It would be nice if I could tap the watcher's memory or ask it questions, or even dispatch it on assignments, but it's just there.

Perhaps I've never been particularly well integrated, or perhaps I was exposed to religion too early ... or maybe I was toilet-trained too abruptly or harshly! I don't know, and I'm not going to talk to a shrink about it! From earliest times, my watcher has seen me climb trees and skinny-dip, torment reptiles and collect stones, pet animals and tease girls, and my hidden watcher would sometimes caution or berate me about my activities. The watcher couldn't stop me, and it wasn't always right when predicting disastrous results, but it was always there. Sometimes I noticed it, and sometimes I pretended to ignore it. In some ways it was like a superego making judgements and meting out promised consequences. But other times, it simply watched me do every normal and ordinary thing, each cruel and deceptive act, each kind and loving gesture.

As I matured, work and study replaced play, relationships became more intricate and complex, pranks and dares became more serious, and the watcher continued to observe every instance of standing tall, acting-out, and showing-off. As an adult, there were episodes, especially sexual interludes, when I felt that part of me was detached or disengaged, and was evaluating my conduct or performance. In some instances, it was like halving the experience; and in others, it was like doubling it. This form of vicarious interaction between the act and the actors would later recur in my military service. Given my plight, that kind of abstraction from real life almost seems to be portentous and premonitory.

When my friends and neighbors decided to draft me into the Armed Forces, I volunteered to avoid becoming cannon fodder, and selected food service training as a way to learn a practical skill. Since the military was going to force me to learn some job, it ought to be something that I could rely upon for an income if everything else failed. I figured that people always need to eat, and even if I never work in a restaurant, I could always cook my wife a good dinner ... all I needed was a little training and a wife with an uncultivated palate! Given the late popularity of fashionable cooking schools, I marvel at the way anything can be marketed to a gullible public. If I'd known beforehand that cooking was very hard work, that cleaning a dirty kitchen was nasty, and that the preparation schedule was inhumane, then I'd have chosen supply or finance for a really comfortable assignment without any appreciable challenges! After graduating from the cook's school, I swore that my hypothetical wife would serve me delicious meals in bed everyday! Maybe things would've been different if my resident watcher had warned me with that other ancient proverb: "Be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it!" ... and I most certainly did.

Military cooks are not highly regarded, but we also serve who only stand and serve! We have most often been disparaged for our institutional cuisine, which does not compare favorably to home cooking, even when the ingredients and recipes are essentially the same. This flavor factor has more to do with quantity than quality, which is obvious to anyone dining-out in the franchise cafeterias and fast food joints that have displaced old-fashioned eateries across America. Despite our low status, food preparation and distribution critically affects unit morale ... even an ordinary hot meal served in the field will lift the spirits of exhausted troops. Any change of routine is a positive motivator to soldiers bored by guard duty, so we'd occasionally prepare picnic-style food with a cold drink (usually the notorious bug juice, but sometimes soft-drinks) or ice-cream for field delivery. Any alternative to canned C-rations was a treat, and it gave us cooks a chance to get out of the kitchen. Leaving basecamp was as much of a pleasure for us as returning from the field was for the grunts. Going on these little excursions made us feel more connected to our unit's combat operations. And, like people around the world, a full stomach often relaxes everyone enough so they talk about their adventures. I was always more than willing to serve seconds or improvise a snack for the men who were telling war stories around the ever ready coffee pot. A vicarious thrill isn't much, but it's better than no excitement at all!

Some of the grunts envied our comfortable and protected lifestyle, so we would make an effort to exaggerate our good fortune at every opportunity. As everyone in the military knows, sympathy is only found between shit and syphilis in the dictionary, so there was no point telling these tough veterans that we had to stand perimeter guard or march in parade review after spending a long hard day sweating over a hot stove. Instead, we would tell them about the elaborate invitation only exotic meals we'd prepared for influential dignitaries, or the classy celebrities who graced our late night kitchen for that special refreshment following a stunning performance ... as if our modest messhall transmuted itself after midnight into an extravagantly sumptuous salon reserved exclusively for socialites! Like itinerant preachers and troubadours, we would circulate news of the happenings back in The World, and would report on the latest movies and music in the Land of the Big PX. Persecuting these pathetic wretches was alot of fun! ... not unlike the sadistic pestering of fiendish children! And my everpresent watcher would take it all in.

By its nature, a kitchen is an unhealthy place with lots of opportunities for injuries. As the saying goes: "never trust a skinny cook" ... and most of the old mess sergeant relics were pathetic specimens of the effects of chronic exposure to carbohydrates and preservatives, to contaminants and solvents. It is also in the nature of the commissary system that cooks have easy access to trading stock for unit barter or personal profiteering. Of all the rear-echelon duties, cooks and quartermasters are most likely to scavenge their way into an undemanding or lucrative homestead. Because civilians suffer the most from the effects of combat, they are the most receptive to the various prospects for survival ... prospects which might not otherwise be considered at all enticing. In a sense, the housekeeping arrangements setup by homesteaders is more beneficial than native welfare or foreign aid. That doesn't justify the bastardization of cultural norms in war-torn countries, but it's better than liquidating the innocents trapped in the crossfire.

It wasn't long after I arrived in-country that I promoted a shack job to augment my duty assignment. When I replaced a rotating cook, I also assumed his off-base hooch, his former girlfriend, his housemaid, his houseboy, his profitable scam, and his seat in the regular carpool shuttling to work. It was a fantastic windfall for a measly enlisted man without prospects! As a semi-permanent part of a mobile unit, I quickly decided that war is not hell ... but is one hell of a deal! My duties were actually decreased by the excess number of indigenous workers employed as part of the local assistance policy, so I supervised more, and labored less. This practice left me with more time to indulge in personal pleasures, and to cultivate my inherited scam. In a Black Market exchange scheme, crossing all normal military separators, I would trade rice for souvenirs, souvenirs for whiskey, whiskey for money or weapons, and weapons for money. I would ply my trade on the commissary runs or field visits, with the stock stowed among insulated Mermite containers in a trailer hauled by a Jeep. I found that if I always carried something extra, such as souvenirs with the whiskey or weapons, I would invariably find someone interested in acquiring that item as well. Business was good ... if the war would only keep going, and supplies would keep increasing, I would be setting myself up well for the future ... buying a car, owning a home, starting a business after the war was finally over. Just as there were plenty of guys getting medals they didn't earn, I was selling souvenirs and weapons to men who never heard a shot fired in anger. With everyone being satisfied, it wasn't a bad arrangement.

One hot day in the war, after a long food delivering trek to outposts, swapping some lies and trading some stock along the way, my vehicle went out of control, plunging us over a bank into the river. We weren't found until the following day, by which time both of my companions were dead and our trailer had been rifled. We'd all been sampling our own product, but we probably weren't any more impaired than normal ... not enough to mistake an accident for an ambush. I don't know if someone was covering his ass, or covering our's, or if it really happened. In fact, I don't know why it's so important that we show-off and strut our stuff, but it seems to be an essential part of manliness. I wasn't driving any worse than normal, but normal driving in a combat zone is fairly hectic and reckless. I don't think I was trying to impress anybody, or to prove anything to myself. I remember watching myself drive, seeing the others, looking at the countryside, and then not viewing anything at all. The Military Police investigation reported bullet holes in the Jeep and trailer, mine damage to a rear tire, explosive evidence on the road, and crash damage to the vehicle. The report said my companions drown after sustaining severe crash injuries. They weren't bad men who deserved such a fate; but that's little comfort to their families. The report said nothing about character or contraband. I wish I could recall exactly what happened. I wish my watcher could tell me.

Why do we care so much about what other people think? Why does their opinion of us matter at all? Why do we try to make a rep to impress other nobodies and phonies? ... or to impress people who don't care? ... or to counter real men with real reputations? There's no more of that for me since the accident. I regained consciousness in a stateside hospital, having been entirely unaware of my rescue and transfer halfway across the world. Almost my first contact back in the realm of the living was an invitation to lie about my prowess, to make myself into another unrequited hero; and I resolved not to embark upon my new life in the same manner as I had disembarked from my old life. I didn't know, and would never learn, what happened to my abandoned entanglements; but at least I had not been court martialed. In years to come, with the inevitable failure of the war, I had passing hopes that my trove of ill-gotten gains might have financed someone's escape to a better life. My watcher just smiled at my naiveté.

I awoke into the brave new world of quadriplegia, being paralyzed from the shoulders. I was medically discharged directly into the veterans' system, which was churning at its best speed with wartime remnants. I was folded, spindled, and mutilated with the rest, but there isn't much that the consulting pollyannas can do when the unemployment ranks are already packed with bright and capable warm bodies ... so I worked on entertaining my watcher with the myriad ways of ignoring the ferocious flies that found my unprotected orifices so irresistible. During the war, visitors were still plentiful, so none of us lacked for conversation. Being paralyzed hadn't made us any smarter or patient, so there was always radio and television. There was passive exercise, which is actually a form of range-of-motion massage that gives the therapist a real good workout (I used to love smelling those ladies getting all sweaty!); and swimming on our gurneys in the pool, which was actually an exercise in baptismal levitation, since none of us could move any of our parts. We'd always leave these sessions grateful to still be alive!

With economic adjustments to social programs, I was moved from the hospital to a nursing home; so when a new domiciliary program was initiated, I opted for it. I joined a foursome of disabled vets in a two bedroom apartment which would receive daily attendance from a visiting nurse. I shared a room with a blinded vet with a below-the-knee amputation of one leg, while the other bedroom contained two paraplegic vets. We were to clean our own home, prepare our own meals, and assist each other in every way. I had hopes for this experiment, but it died aborning. As my watcher could've told everyone, this was a fantasy based on the odd couple, and required too much work from the less disabled roommates in order to attend to the more disabled ones ... namely me. I asked for help and gave instructions a few times, but after the nurse discovered several decubitus ulcers, I was removed from the program. Instead of returning to another facility, I consented to return to my family home, where my mother would attend to me. In return for performing all care, she receives a nominal aid stipend, which now supplements her retirement income. I've watched her getting old, and know that I will probably go shortly after she passes on to her reward.

I feel like I've been sentenced to lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of pardon or parole, but I don't think that my crime was heinous enough to sanction the punishment. Although I enjoy a number of conveniences which ameliorate my sentence, there is only so much that can be accomplished in one's enclosure. Despite not being particularly introspective, my life is more input than output, simply because of the limitations of a mouth-stick. Reading is interspersed with web surfing and selected mass media broadcasts. I cooperate in the recommended health regimen ... only substituting beer for cranberry juice in protecting my kidneys. I am bound to this inevitable course, and my watcher is watching me slowly disappear.

I've given a great deal of consideration to the definition of human and the distinction between living and existing. There is no simple answer, no quick formula; nor would there be if I were not impaled upon this present point of impairment. I sometimes wonder if the world is detached because I cannot effect any changes, or if I am unable to make any connections because I am detached from the world. My watcher still peers out at the world delimited by its entombment ... gazing at the flickering candlelight, until someday it finally blows itself out.

by Bill Cummings
... who is a disabled veteran and freelance writer.