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In the Middle of Midnight – A Cold War Story

In the Middle of Midnight – A Cold War Story
    At 2:27 pm Eastern Time,  March 30th, 1981, President Reagan strolled through the "President's Walk" of the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech to The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The President of the United States Secret Service staff did not realize that a deranged John Hinckley Jr. was lying in wait to prove his delusional obsessive love to actress Jodie Foster by assassinating President Regan that day. Hinckley was lucky and had slipped in along with Reagan fans unnoticed, so he actually managed to get within fifteen feet of the president when he pulled out a 22 caliber revolver, and then proceeded to unload his weapon at Reagan six times as the president went to enter his presidential limousine.
  The first bullet hit Press Secretary James Brady in the head; the second shot hit a police Officer named, Thomas Delahanty, in the back of his neck as he tried to shield the president. The third bullet overshot Regan and the fourth hit Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen as he protected the president by shielding him with his body. The fifth and sixth bullets hit the armored limousine, but the sixth ricocheted off and struck the president under his left arm, lodging the bullet into Reagan's lung. Luckily the bullet stopped within an inch of the president's heart.
   Neither the President of the United States nor his security team were wearing bulletproof vests, due to the walk only being 30 feet or so from the hotel to the president's limo. An Ohio labor official who was standing by the assassin hit Hinkley in the head and took down the maniac while agents, police, and citizen bystanders all pounced on him - violently subduing Hinckley. The President was rushed to George Washington Memorial Hospital and arrived there within four minutes; the arrival time was so short that there was no time to arrange a hospital emergency team. The president then insisted on walking into the hospital on his own power, and then immediately collapsed at the reception desk.
   After only 69 days in office, the president of the most powerful nation on earth had been shot and was is surgery. The Vice President of the United States, George H. W. Bush was away from Washington and returning as fast as he could, while fourth in line to the succession of the presidency in case of the president's death, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, controversially stated he was in charge of the country until the vice president returned. He also stated that there would be no elevation of the nation's threat level. In another controversial move, though, behind Haig's back, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger raised the threat level aimed at Russia, thus setting into motion one of the many, little-known, "Cold War" worldwide brushes with global nuclear destruction.
Back at the Barracks
   I dragged my ass up the front stairs of the old 1940's style German Nazi barracks by the hand railing, moaning and groaning to myself as I somehow made it to the second floor. I then found my way to my room and more importantly my bunk. These Mondays were tough and getting tougher every time I ended up partying too late on Sunday nights in Bad Kreuznach's illicit brothel nightclubs downtown. The booze and the hash, along with the young pretty cheap women that went along with the party, made that five-mile run in the morning cruel punishment for last night’s crazy off-base partying.
   The rest of the day after the morning’s run went just as bad, and a hangover from hell followed me around all day. It was also being complicated by Sergeant Gator's constant critiques of my abilities, not to mention derogatory personal remarks that were obviously not meant to be constructive on his part; all I wanted to do now was to get into my bunk and desperately try not to think about tomorrow as I tried to get some much-needed sleep.
   I started to unlace my boots when the outside alert siren went off. The other soldiers who shared the room with me started waking up and asking me what was happening. I shrugged and couldn't think of anything to say but "beats me!" The inside barracks shrill, ear piercing alarm, also went off as I jumped a bit out of my bunk in surprise. "What-the-fuck!" I exclaimed. I looked around at everyone else with a puzzled expression on my face. Some of the guys were half out of bed by now, also in their underwear, scratching their heads, looking around irritated and blurry eyed.
   Staff Sergeant Leroy Gator burst into the room and started shouting at everyone to" git yer gear on," threatening to dump anyone he saw still in their bunks on their ears. The sergeant's specialist grade four followed him around like he was on a leash and was handing out live M-16 magazines. I took the ammo in somewhat disbelief, they never trusted us "shitbirds," as they liked to call us, with actual live ammunition; they must be really serious about something, I thought to myself. I then called out to the staff sergeant, "hey sarge, what the hell is going on." Sergeant Gator flew across the distance between us and knuckle-punched me in my chest, knocking me back, almost making me drop my magazines of live ammo. "That's what's going on, and yer gunna get more like it if you don't shut da fuck up an git your damn combat gear on Private Armstrong!!!" I managed to catch my breath and squeeze out a "Yes Sergeant!" without wheezing too much, showing too much fear, or turning too blue in front of him. I knew he already didn’t like me and thought I was a pansy. The sergeant took another irritated look at me, then shrugged his head and walked off muttering, "Fucking Armstrong."
   My curiosity was put aside after that encounter with the staff sergeant and I frantically put the rest of my combat gear on while hearing more shouting, whistles, and sirens blowing around us, as upper ranking sergeants and officers started to pile through the echoing halls, all of them shouting orders at the same time and telling us to line up immediately, in-formation, outside of the barracks.
   The night air was a normal cold, crisp German winter's breath that hit me in the face as I stepped out of the barracks I had just dragged myself into. I assembled with the rest of the platoon, waiting for the other sergeants to arrive that were off duty or off base. My chest was still stinging from Gator’s knuckleball to my chest, and I started thinking back to my first miserable encounter with the staff sergeant when I arrived at the base six months earlier.
Meeting Sergeant Gator
   It was just after the last formation of the day and I was getting a little apprehensive because of the way everyone was asking me if I'd met Staff Sergeant Gator yet; then they would smile in a sinister way when I said that I hadn't. I was in my newly assigned barracks room, getting my footlocker in order after being warned by my compatriots of incessant and meaningless surprise inspections and how they got your locker dumped and ransacked if it wasn't up to perfect, predefined military specifications. Suddenly a tall, thin, weather faced and wiry old goat of a staff sergeant staggers through the door of my room with a case of German beer. He proceeded to plop himself down on my newly perfectly made bed, simultaneously pulling out and opening a bottle of beer, then shouted drunkenly to no one in particular, "who the fuck iz zis kid." -          I told him my name was Armstrong.
   The sergeant shrugged off my polite introduction and said in a slurred southern drawl, "youz better not be another fuck up kid, in "Nam" we learned us how to take care of fuck upz real quick; you fucks up wiz me son and I'll killz ya." He then relentlessly tried to make me bet him twenty bucks that he couldn't drink the whole case of beer in one hour. Not wanting to see what he was like in an hour, after drinking a case of beer by himself in my room, let alone be near him while he was doing it - I feigned poverty. I had already dealt with a lot of nutball Drill Sergeants in basic, with Vietnam combat still fresh in their minds. But the thought of this guy being in charge of me, along with the not even veiled first time greeting, death threats - Made me think to myself, man, is this going to suck.
   There was no doubt by the look in this man’s eyes, the dead look that  people have who have seen way too much horrible shit go on in front of them in this life, to ever really take back or get over, especially, and most likely, when it was in some snake infested nightmare of a jungle. I re-assured him that I did not have any money, and also that I did not plan on screwing up. He shrugged his shoulders and gave a sigh like he was bored of me now. He then tried to get up out of my now crumpled, messed up bed, but his legs buckled. He had to grab the bunk sidebars and pull himself up. He then turned as if to say something, then stopped, shrugged his shoulders again, grabbed his beer, and then left stumbling back down the hall in search of another room of underlings to harass.
Standing in the Cold
   Armstrong! Yo Armstrong. My mind came back to the formation, and Sergeant Donny Loven was standing in front of me asking me – “Where were you, boy?” - What, I asked him? – “Where were you boy, cause you sure ain't here at the moment!” Oh, yeah, I’m just tired, I said. Donny and I had gotten to be fairly close friends in the past few months after he got to know me and vice-versa. He was a carefree buck sergeant who brought his wife over to Germany and lived off base.
   I was one of the lucky few soldiers in our platoon who got to go to his house and meet / party with his family; no military bullshit at his house, that all went back to normal on base, though, where he was my platoon sergeant and superior. But not when we were at his personal home. Donny quietly started confiding with me at that moment: “You got yourself in the shit now Armstrong, heck were all in the shit. You got your gear right; keep those live rounds secure, you know how they are about that shit.” What are we doing, I asked Donny? “Some big shit cause they ain't even telling me,” he said, “I tried to ask top the same question and all I got was an irritated look and a, “when you need to know shit you'll know the shit,” speech." - Just then they called all the platoon sergeants to the front and Donny had to run over and face the big wigs.
    After a brief period, Sergeant Loven came running back to us all red faced, and then he took his place alongside the platoon and shouted, “Attention!” – We all instantly snapped together like rigid boards – “Right Face!” – “Forward March!” They marched the whole company to the motor pool and then marched us all to our assigned vehicle sections. Sergeant Loven shouted "Fallout and fire-em-up, and then wait for the order to move out." We pulled in our commo-truck and attached the generator trailer to the back. Everything was already in place, and the trucks were kept full of gas for entirely this reason.
   Donny ran up and tapped on our truck as we were pulling up into position to move out. He jumped inside and said, "Move out, they gave us the order." Where are we going serge? Said our teammate and driver, Specialist Rodriguez. She was the coolest one of the bunch in smarts and proficiency, she was a woman, but she let everybody know that she was off limits and all business. If you wanted to talk with the boys and not want the Army brass to hear what you were saying, you shut your mouth around her and did what she told you. Other than that she was alright.
   Donny told her to steer towards Baumholder. "Baumholder! That's where they keep the nukes," I and Rodriguez both said at once. Sergeant Donny Loven looked at both of us with a serious expression, which we seldom shared together, he then simply said, "that's where we're going," and didn't say another word. We all stared straight ahead at the endless line of military vehicles, all assorted according to their specialized operators and all converging on the exit of the military compound at once.
The Holders of Doomsday
   When we arrived at Baumholder we didn't go into the base which confused me, “I guess we aren't staying,” I said perplexed. That's when the long semi-trucks with huge missiles on the back of them pulled out of the front gate of the base. Sergeant Loven said, "That’s our escort!" "Now where," Rodriguez said. "Just follow them, Rodriguez, and don't fall behind," Donny told her. Specialist Rodriguez complied with a grave look on her face, and there was a serious, uncomfortable silence between the three of us once again. Suspicion and fear started to form in my stomach first, rose to my heart, and then it began to explode in my confused panicked mind - What the Hell are We doing Escorting Nukes?
A ride to Oblivion
   The ride to the as yet a still secret location was a strange and surreal one. It consisted of following an endless convoy of trucks into the German dark night - The destination an unsettling mystery. The situation upgraded itself to extremely scary and not just weird when the Autobahn signs on the freeway started saying that we were headed towards the East / West German border, otherwise known as the "Iron Curtain." Crazy stuff was going through my mind - Like the only reason to Take Nukes that close to the “Wall” is to Use Them! A desperate fantasy of hijacking a freighter and surviving nuclear destruction out in the middle of the ocean, also ran rampant through my mind, and was sounding better and better every time I looked at the machine gun and the stacks of loaded clips that they gave me.
   Coming to my senses I looked behind, and in front of us, at the endless trail of trucks headed towards the communists, and rationality soberly returned to some sort of clarity / reality. The almost comic idea of our captain letting us just turn around and go our own way in the middle of a mission, made me start to chuckle uncontrollably - I've heard that they shoot people for that sort of thing in wartime, I thought to myself, as Loven looked at me weird after my bout of the giggles - Is this War? - I stopped smiling after that thought.
  In my M.O.S. (Military Occupation Specialty), the estimated time of survival in a war with Russia was five minutes on the battlefield, before their equipment, fixated itself in onto my equipment, and then targeted rockets over to my exact address,  destroying the surrounding area, equipment, and unfortunately myself, right where I just set up camp five minutes ago. That was a depressing military statistic; it always made me wonder why the Army felt the need to be so mentally cruel as to give a poor schmuck like me, those kinds of frightening numbers just for my FYI. Obviously, all they cared about was motivation and obedience to bullshit in their soldiers. The mental and emotional, moral of their troops seemed to barely ever cross their minds, at least not until it was too late and the damage was already done.
   I felt alone in the cab of the truck. Both Donny and Specialist Rodriguez had stopped communicating also as a dark realization overwhelmed all three of us. It was like we were separated in our own minds, but still stranded together in the gravity and hopelessness of our situation. Helpless to help each other cope, coping individually the best way we could. The glowing lights of the Iron Curtain were starting to become visible ahead in the darkness. A massive, terrible vision of lights snaking across the German landscape. A dark and light nightmare that festered somewhere in the middle of the midnight darkness of our present minds. Preventing us from doing anything to turn away from it; hypnotized by its horrible beauty.
   The radio crackled our code-sign and Sergeant Loven listened intently to the encoded message, writing it down on his small notepad, he quickly had me give him the code book, decoded the message, and then he sharply said into the microphone "Yes Sir" followed by a confirmation sign and an over and out. Donny looked over to Rodriguez and said, "Turn it around specialist; we've been called back to the base." Rodriguez coolly said a "Yes, Sergeant," back at Donny, trying not to break into too much of a smile, keeping her usual stiff composure. "What the fuck are you serious!" I shouted - Then I proceeded to grab Donny and shook him around a little bit until I realized what I was doing.
   That was too much for the specialist and she broke out in laughter and lost control a little on the road, as the sergeant grabbed the dashboard for support and ordered me to let go of him. He laughed and said, "I know who I can trust now to keep their head." He then nudged me and whispered to me so Rodriguez couldn't hear," One way or another were slipping away and getting a beer when we get back to base."
   The trip back was a lively one that passed by like time was in hyper-drive. Our minds also reverted back to all of the happy hopes and dreams that make and define us, purposely dismissing the fact that we almost helped wipe out those same essential positive human attributes from the face of the Earth - By enforcing our government's insanity. We dropped our nuclear friends off, back at the base entrance to Baumholder where we had picked them up at. When we reached our own base in Bad Kreuznach, we were absolutely starving and exhausted after our mutual adrenaline rushes had long since worn off.
   We endured the long line back into the base and finally parked our rig in the motor pool after unhooking our generators; then we were off towards the barracks and hopefully food. I shouted at a soldier, “What the fuck was all that about!” - He shouted back "President was shot" - "What, you're joking," I said. Donny after hearing that, said, Oh Shit! He then patted me on the back and told me, "Sorry Armstrong, I think I better get back to my wife!" “Later serge,” I said. Rodriguez lived off base as well and said her quick and formal goodbyes to me and left for home also, I assumed to meet her boy / girlfriend, I could never tell.
The “Victory” Party
   As I entered the barracks I followed the hooting and hollering into the game room and found a melee of happy soldiers. The room was full of tables, piles of steaks in warmers with all the fixings, and several kegs of beer, iced up in trash cans. I also found out after guzzling more than a few beers in a row that we were pulled back a little after President Reagan came out of surgery. Talk about a close call, given how close we were to the "Iron Curtain," I could only imagine what could have happened if he had died instead, right as we arrived with all our weapons of mass destruction to the doors of World War III.
  Looking at my plate of steak, and at my full glass of beer, and then looking up at the taped Super Bowl playing on the television screen - I thought deeply to myself -This is our reward for giving into the darkest part of human nature, and almost destroying it all. I then felt an uncomfortable tingle up the back of my neck and turned around in my seat to find Sergeant Leroy Gator standing behind me. His arm swung at me and I braced myself for the impending blow - The staff sergeant proceeded to pat me on the back, and then he said, "Good Work Soldier”- The sergeant then bee-lined away from me towards the kegs of beer. The ironic nature of the whole night’s experience made one thing crystal clear in my mind, a sort of new life goal that I was intent on fulfilling as soon as I could - Get the Hell Out of the Army!
Published by Brian Thomas Armstrong
Mr. Armstrong was born in San Francisco and moved to Washington State as a small child. He grew up a hippie kid in the 60 s and 70 s with very liberal parents. He joined the Army at the age of 17 and was stationed at Bad Kreuznach Germany in 1980.