|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004|
Philip Hyde stretched out another burst from his M-16, ripping out a long strip of roof tiles across the street. He didn't hit whomever — or whatever it was he was aiming at, but what the hell. He didn't even know what he was aiming at. It's just another firefight, he thought. Just another firefight. I'll shoot as many of them as I can, and they'll kill me if they can. Whoever walks out of here alive is the winner. Hell, it was just another deadly game.
Like baseball. Philip fought wars the same way he played baseball. Hard and mean. He learned the rules and experimented to find out how far they'd bend before they broke. Foreign correspondents could watch him fight, but they'd never see through the gauze of reality to the truth. The bravado and grim determination he showed in battle very effectively concealed a fundamental fact. That fact was that all the medals and decorations Philip sported on his dress greens were lies.
For you see, Philip was a coward. The second action broke out; he'd beat a retreat. This wasn't any kind of flight you could see, for he stood his ground and returned fire, round for round. But it was only his body, on automatic pilot, that was standing off the enemy. All the while he stood his ground he was mentally backpedaling into his cerebral stadiums.
Even now, as he crouched, rooted to the floor, peering through a decimated window, he was running away. He mentally took leave of the noise and stench of battle, while the organism tried to locate the source of enemy fire cutting his men to shreds. A burst of gunfire spattered down from above, forcing him to make a momentary excursion out of his fantasy world.
He was a military advisor in some pissant little country nobody ever heard of. And at the moment, some of his advice was being returned. Physical survival required action. He fought methodically and automatically, for there were — two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and his team is down by two. The bases are loaded as he steps up to the plate. The pitcher checks the runners at first and third. The windup — the pitch. Philip judges its speed and trajectory. It's a slow curve, just drifting in over the plate. He takes a sharp cut at the ball, and misses. The roar of the crowd is punctuated by — the death cry of one of his men, who had just taken a Russian-made steel-jacketed slug just below the heart. Philip desperately scanned the opposing rooftops, hoping to spot the sniper. Just across the street a gunman was ducking into the safety of a doorway. May not be the sniper, he thought. It is, however, the fucking enemy.
His reflexes act on the instant and his M-16 gave out a three-second dissertation on American military philosophy. The bullets shattered the upper vertebrae of the soldier's neck, the force of impact throwing him the rest of the way through the doorway.
A second guerrilla tossed a barrage of gunfire Philip's way, and he barely ducked back under cover in time. He checked his clip and saw that there was sufficient ammunition to do the job, if he did it right the first time.
He braced himself, and as the staccato sound of automatic gunfire punctuated the dying scream of another of his men, he acted. Jumping from his supine position, he took a fraction of a second to locate the target. The enemy — a stranger to Philip — drew a perfect stitch of bullets from his groin to his forehead. Bright red blossoms traced the path of lead as the man bounced back under the impact of Philip's salvo. For the briefest moment, the mental fog that separated Philip from reality parted to reveal an image of a young woman somewhere learning of this man's death. He wondered how his own family would react to news of his death. Or how long it would be before they even found out. The window facing above his head disintegrated, dragging him back to the reality of battle, and the — pitcher checks the runners once again. The first base runner is taking an overly generous lead, in anticipation of another Hyde clutch hit. The pickoff throw is not in time, and the pitcher returns his concentration to Philip.
He takes too much time in his stretch, and Philip steps out of the batters box, stooping for a handful of dust. The pitcher breaks out of his stretch and paces around the mound impatiently. Philip returns to the batter's box and the pitcher starts his delivery. The fastball comes in high and inside. The dust off pitch — shattered the ledge beside Philip's head, and a fragment of cement ripped a furrow across his brow. The blood in his eyes was not enough, however to blind him to the figure framed by what was once a shop window. The enemy soldier was still sighting in on Philip, and he jumped back just in time to avoid the next spray of lead. Steeling himself for what had to be done, he rolled across the floor to the next window and peered over.
He saw the soldier, not quite concealed behind a wall. Philip emptied his clip on the rebel, not quite cutting him in half. He pulled a fresh clip from his ammo belt, and let his mind wander away from the stench of cordite and fresh blood.
For Philip would be the first to admit. He'd never been cut out to be a soldier. He was — and always would be a baseball player. In 1991, he'd been busy pulling the Vermont Expos up into third place with a .409 batting average, when he learned that serving in the National Guard sometimes amounted to more than just an extra paycheck. His unit was activated for Desert Storm.
His hopes for an early call to the majors crashed when he had to spend the next six months on active duty. The only bright spot was that he could retire from professional baseball with a .409 career average. The degree he'd earned at Arizona State between innings and practice sessions had gotten him a berth in Officer's Training School. He arrived in Iraq with his shiny new gold bars and no clue as to what he should do; your typical ninety day wonder.
The Army dumped him into the middle of an embittered, battle-scarred platoon of calloused men who'd come to the Middle East by way of Laos. They'd been part of a covert mission that, of course, had never happened. In the jungles of Laos, they'd learned the hard way to shoot anything that moved. An age-old motto that dated back to Viet Nam became their maxim: Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out. Age and sex mattered not, unless she was young enough and a little sex was available first. Nothing deterred the deadly reflexes of these men. Their trigger fingers were well oiled with fear and a grim determination to survive.
Philip Hyde had barely begun to shave. He had gotten married, though. His wife, Helen, cared little or nothing about what he was going through in the deserts. She knew nothing of the sweat, the insects, the burning oil and the fear. All she would ever know of battle came from the slanted pages of the Arizona Republican. According to them, the good old US of A was romping all over Saddam's pathetic defenses and US troops didn't have a thing to worry about.
What she did know about was cold nights and empty beds, and Philip had been gone but a short time before she'd solved both problems. So it was on the same night that Philip was rearranging the opinions of his men, that Helen was rearranging the contents of her bedroom. While Philip was crawling toward a machine gun nest nestled under a moonlit rock outcropping — on his belly, with a knife clenched between his teeth and a grenade clutched in his right hand — Helen was learning a new technique from a local tennis pro.
But that was then and this was now. A decade of special ops had blunted the edge. Personal history was trivial when the fate of the entire free world depended on who ruled the poppy fields of Panama. Not when his team was down by two, the bases were loaded and there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. He had to turn his complete attention to the pitcher. Almost as an afterthought he took out the sniper who'd been cutting his men apart, wondering vaguely why he hadn't seen him sooner.
A fifth of Cutty Sark blew through the window, trailing a strip of flaming shirttail from the mouth. It no longer contained Cutty Sark. Hyde and his second lieutenant dove through the window, their asses kissed by the flames billowing through the window. Both men rolled across the pavement to the meager shelter of an overturned cab, chased by a salvo of slugs ripping up the pavement behind them.
Philip knew how important it was to break the enemy's concentration, so — he steps out of the batter's box once again for another handful of dust. He sprinkles some over the handle of his bat. Glancing over to third base, he catches the base runner's eye. He winks broadly and steps back to the plate. Nine times out of ten, this pitcher follows up his fastball with a slow curve. Philip wonders if the man does this intentionally — or if he is even aware of the tendency.
In any case, Philip is ready for the pitch as it curls lazily in toward the plate. He connects — but not as solidly as he'd like. It is a long deep hit, hovering over the foul line, well beyond the left field fence.
The crowd is in an uproar. This could be the game, folks. It could be — it might be — fourteen thousand ah's sound at once as the ball drops foul.
Foul balls, foul plays, and foul marriages. Philip had come home from Iraq with his medals and his infections. He picked up one discharge, left off samples of another, and went home to his wife.
Or so he thought. The apartment had been sublet to a rotund middle-aged fellow who wrote third-rate verses for a greeting card company. The only useful information the funny little man had been able to provide was Philip's wife's forwarding address. Philip made his way to the home of the Tennis Pro, where he found the two of them practicing an overhead slam. Six weeks later, he tucked divorce papers into a folder marked Important Papers. The only thing in the folder to keep it company was a contract with the Expos the Army had so graciously canceled.
Another two weeks found him in the Expos' training camp, practicing swings. "A little rusty," he said. "But a couple of days of practice will loosen me up." After three days of limbering, the manager told him their roster was filled, and sent him packing. San Diego, St. Louis, and Chicago all told him the same thing.
Naturally, the Army was only happy to take him back. He was even restored to his Captain's rating, although he was regretfully informed that he would have to start collecting time in grade from day one. On day three thousand, seven hundred and sixty two, Butfuque, or Snezenmissit, or whatever this place was called, needed military advisors. Since Desert Storm II, as the grizzled old veterans liked to call it, there had been a paucity of real action for grunts like him. He'd been passed over for that party.
There had been plenty of fun. Just none the government could admit to, and therefore could never reward. Thinking that a field promotion was going to be a lot quicker than waiting for the Army to realize his true potential, still-Captain Hyde volunteered to share his expertise.
Which is how he found himself lying in a stinking gutter underneath an overturned taxi, waiting for — the windup — the pitch. The ball is low and inside, and the count now stands at two and two. An excited murmur ripples through the crowd and — his second lieutenant said they couldn't stay out there much longer. They're sitting ducks. This was something that a captain with too Goddamn many years of combat experience couldn't figure out for himself.
Philip's main interest was in getting his men back together with whatever remained of his platoon, but the lieutenant was getting fidgety. Much too fidgety for a man under fire.
Hyde was just about to tell him to calm down, when the kid bolted. He made about three steps before his legs were cut out from under him. Philip swore aloud. Not so much for the boy's fate. In battle, shit happened, but now he had to drag the stupid SOB back to safety. And he was getting way too old for this shit. He emptied a fresh clip in the general direction of incoming fire, with no clear idea of a target. In the momentary lull that followed, he darted out, grabbed the wounded man's collar and pulled him back. The lieutenant's rifle lay on the pavement where he fell, and Philip's M-16 was now the only weapon they had between them.
He fed in his last clip and began returning fire. It was now coming in from two directions. He scanned the rooftops for the source of additional fire and — steps back into the batter's box, oblivious to the roar of the crowds. The two and two pitch just misses the outside corner, according to the ump. The pitcher flings his hat into the dust and storms toward the plate, a furious disgusted expression on his face. It would appear that he disagrees with the call.
The catcher meets him halfway and steers him back toward the mound. Philip doffs his cap with a smile. The noise is like — a bullet embedding itself into the fender near his head. The enemy has now boxed him in on all sides. One soldier made the mistake of showing his head, and Philip splattered a good part of it against the wall behind him.
A sun blackened soldier stepped out from a doorway, a grenade in his hand. For a brief moment the two men locked gazes. Philip swung his M-16 around and sighted in. The guerrilla hurled the grenade just as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. But Philip didn't panic. He flipped the gun around, gripping the barrel like the handle of a bat, almost automatically dropping into his accustomed stance, and — it's a slider, low and away. Philip judges its speed and trajectory more carefully than any other pitch in his life. It's three and two with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Philip's team is down by two and the bases are loaded. (This one's for you, Helen.) Philip Hyde swung on.
And he missed.