This is the prologue to my upcoming book: Thump & Riposte which covers the period following the Tech Wreck in 2000 and September 11, 2001. We may too soon forget how everything changed.
US Army, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) Second Lieutenant Daniel Bennet stood in waist deep snow on Saturday November 8, 2003 in the Nuristan province located in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. He felt his damp skivvies and wondered if, in the forty pound pack on his back, he had dry underwear. It was the little things you thought about when all comfort was gone and the excitement of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter air insertion wore off. The 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, of the famed 10th Mountain Division was deployed on Operation Mountain Resolve to push Taliban HVTs—High Value Targets into a waiting net set by the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. Pushing assumed maneuver and, Second Lieutenant Bennet thought, the brilliant mind that thought maneuver was possible in waist deep snow could get his ass up here and see the folly of that order firsthand.
The lieutenant tramped on the packed snow trail and checked his scouts. He moved alongside Sergeant Diaz. “How’s it look?” Bennet asked.
“How the fuck do you think it looks, sir?” The sergeant pointed to the dense woods and thick snow. “Do we really think Taliban is going to move through that shit?”
“Keep watch. They know this country a hell of a lot better than we do.” The lieutenant pointed left. “Who’s covering our flank?”
“Private First Class Moore, he’s a horse with heart, I’ll give him that.”
The lieutenant laughed. “I’m going to see how he’s doing.” Lieutenant Bennet left the sergeant and moved through the snow trench toward Private First Class Moore. My stepdad is wrong, he thought for the hundredth time since joining the Army. Every soldier, even one who says he comes from a white trash trailer park, can teach you something. Every damn one is an American with courage who shoulders tough burdens. These aren’t hapless sheep in need of direction. He stopped and crouched when he heard a squawk in his headset.
“Linebacker Six, this is Stone Tree, over.”
“This is Linebacker, go ahead Stone,” the lieutenant answered.
“Be advised that a Specter gunship is going to fire on heat signatures to your front. Stay alert for Hotel Victor Tangos coming your way.”
The lieutenant thought their division base camp should know better than to think Taliban High Value Targets could rush his line though waist deep snow but this was a strange country and Afghan tribesmen had been fighting in these mountains since the skirmishes with Alexander the Great’s troops. “This is Linebacker. We’re ready.”
The lieutenant came alongside Private First Class Moore. The private was used to hard knocks and often stated that he could field anything the Army or the Taliban threw his way. He couched with his 5.56 caliber M-4 rifle slung over his shoulder. He bitched along with everyone else but the lieutenant knew, if ever it came down to it, you could trust your life to this man’s mettle. “Your night scope have a fresh battery?” The lieutenant asked.
“Damn right, sir. Do we expect any shit?”
“A Specter is going to fire on heat signatures to our front. Keep your eyes peeled for retreating Taliban.”
The private snorted. “Yes, sir.”
The lieutenant positioned himself in a snow trench between his scouts and eschewed his own night vision scope in hopes of seeing the Specter C-130 fire its chain guns. He felt, in the middle of a war zone, bracketed by those who were being painted in the media as naïve for joining the military to fight the War on Terror, absolutely safe. You can face damn near any danger when surrounded by armed steely-eyed pissed off Americans who came from trailer parks, hick towns, and inner cities. My stepdad Tom should be out here to see this. Of course, that was impossible. His stepdad was over ten thousand miles away scheming how to gain advantage as California endured its own drama of the unprecedented recall election against Governor Gray Davis. He sighed. Like that has any importance in the world.
The sound of an overhead hum caught his attention. He glanced left and right, saw his scouts pop their night scopes over one eye, and looked skyward. Far forward he saw a two bright orange sparkling lines of M61 Vulcan fired 20mm rounds streak toward the ground. The lieutenant counted. One thousand, two thousand . . . after he got to a count of twenty-two the sound of the firing reverberated in his ears. That’s four miles away. It took us a full day to move two clicks through this snow and we’re the best there is. He shook his head. No way are the Taliban going to run into to us tonight.
Counting was a trick he’d learned watching the Space Shuttle Discovery launch on a family vacation that seemed a lifetime ago. We saw a lot of the launch before the sound got to us. Then I realized that it takes time for sound to travel. He looked skyward again as another bright orange pulse of bullets illuminated the night sky. During that Space Shuttle launch I was drinking coffee with Mom and wondering what to do with my life. He waited for the sound from the second burst and thought of his mother’s goodbye when he left for Afghanistan. She was tore up over me joining the Army and coming out here. I hope she’s doing okay. The sound of the chain gun thundered again. Mom and Sis were headed off to New York the last I knew. I wonder if they’re there now. He shivered and mused as the Specter gunship fired a third time.
* * *
Rachel Bennet liked New York. She liked the bustling crowds, the soaring skyscrapers, and the nonstop motion. I had my doubts about interning with Mom at Embark Electronics but it’s working well, she thought. Rachel was in her second year at UC Berkeley as a liberal arts undecided major. There was a time she thought the stage called her but, after seeing the social demands of the theater communications arts students her first semester, decided to take business classes. She then deigned to get an internship at her mother’s company which enabled this November New York business trip.
Her mother, Ruth Staid—formerly Ruth Bennet—was wound tight. Stress from all angles took its toll. Everything in Ruth’s life seemed a source of stress: her marriage, her career, her seven year old son, her indecisive twenty-one year old daughter and last but not least, her twenty-three year old son who was deployed to Afghanistan. Mom needed this trip, Rachel thought. The mother-daughter pair left California on a Friday and spent the weekend touring the sights. They managed to walk the glittering iridescent light festooned Times Square, go to the top of the Empire State Building, be enthralled by the new Broadway show Wicked, and skate on the Rockefeller Center rink that was guarded by the golden statue of Prometheus. Rachel thought of her mother ice skating on the iconic rink with a wide smile and it warmed her heart. It had been a long time since she saw that smile.
Monday was a work day and her mother’s task was to convince Embark Electronics biggest shareholder, Gladstone & Smith, that Embark’s stock value would increase. The capitalistic need for a trip like this piqued Rachel’s interest as much as it irritated her stepfather, Tom. The two were checked by security in a marble floored lobby, got black and white picture badges, and were shown the elevator. Ruth, laden with purse and computer bag, stood next to Rachel in the elevator with a steady gaze and calm demeanor. Mom’s got her game face on, Rachel thought. She working the details of the presentation in her head. The pair exited at the twelfth floor, were greeted by a receptionist who took them through two sets of double glass doors, and entered a vast conference room lined with books on two inner walls. The two outer walls were formed by floor to ceiling windows that gave a view of the city.
“You can get set up,” the receptionist said. “Mister Bowling will be in shortly.”
Ruth went to work. She extracted her computer, turned it on, and got her PowerPoint presentation on the screen. Ruth huddled over her computer screen and stepped through the slides of her investor presentation.
Rachel walked to the window to check out the view. She looked down from her twelfth story perch and gasped. “Oh God! That’s ground zero!”
Ruth looked up from her computer. “What?”
Rachel clapped her hand to her mouth. Ruth came alongside. The two looked down and saw two gaping rectangular holes where the Twin Towers once stood. “This is where it happened,” Rachel whispered.
“Our enemies hate us so much,” Ruth answered her daughter, “that they did this.” She pointed to the scars on the city. “This is where the planes struck the towers, where people from high floors jumped to their death, where three thousand innocent Americans lost their lives.”
Rachel nodded. “That’s why Daniel went to Afghanistan. To hunt those bastards down.”
Ruth snorted. “We ask so much from the men of courage in our lives . . . and they answer the call regardless of the cost.”
Rachel resisted doing the UC Berkeley politically correct chiding of the gender specific “men of courage” statement. After all, her mother was right. Such courage, whatever it may have gained, ripped the heart out of their family in the 1980s and she could see palpable fear on her mother’s face in the early 2000s. She watched Ruth wipe a tear off her cheek. “It wasn’t Hank,” Rachel offered. “Daniel would’ve gone anyway.”
“Hank showed him a trick to get into ROTC as a junior.”
“Mom, Daniel would have gone anyway. It’s better he go as an officer than as a private.” Rachel stared out the window and, for the moment, wished she were a man in Daniel’s army unit. “You know Daniel’s a natural leader. He’ll keep his men safe and they’ll watch out for him.”
Ruth swallowed. “Maybe you’re right. I shouldn’t blame Hank and Amy.”
Rachel looked at ground zero and noticed two workers with yellow construction helmets. She wondered if they could see through the window in the overcast day. Her wonder was answered when they turned and looked up. They both raised a hand and waved. Even from that distance the gesture was an intimate acknowledgement of the shared loss. Rachel and Ruth waved back as the two workers grabbed the brim of their hat in an old fashioned sign of respect before going back to work. “Those are good men,” Rachel whispered.
“They are,” Ruth answered, “as is Daniel.”
“Daniel would have gone anyway.” Rachel hugged her mom. “You should make up with your best friend.”
“I will. Amy sent me an email inviting all of us to Tahoe for Thanksgiving Dinner and skiing. Are you up for it?”
“Can I bring my boyfriend?”
Rachel loved that her mom had both traditional backbone and an open mind. “Great.” She heard footsteps outside the conference room. “They’re coming. I can’t wait to see your investor pitch.”
“I’m glad you’re here for it.”
* * *
Amy Rudzinski walked out on the snow covered deck of their South Lake Tahoe vacation house where her husband, Hank was working the snow shovel. “How much longer?”
“Twenty minutes,” he replied. “I’ll clear off the deck, brush the snow off the spa, and we’ll be good.”
“It’s supposed to snow eighteen inches tonight.”
“That’s good for the ski slopes. I’ll clear the deck again tomorrow.”
"I’ll hold dinner.”
“Did you see the coyote?”
“No, why didn’t you call me?”
“He slunk away the moment I noticed him.”
“Michael would love to see a coyote.”
“I think if we keep an eye on the woods behind our house, we will.”
Dinner was pork chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Amy was always pleased to pause in their fast paced life for a sit down dinner with her husband, Hank and son Michael. She was also interested in making sure everything worked in their Tahoe vacation house since they were going to host four friends for a Tahoe Thanksgiving dinner. Amy’s best friend Ruth agreed to come and bring her daughter with boyfriend in tow, Rachel and Scott, as well as Ruth’s young son Alan.
“I’m glad you and Ruth patched things up,” Hank said between bites.
“She went to New York on a business trip, saw ground zero, and understood why Daniel went to Afghanistan.”
“No kidding,” Hank replied. “Hell, I was looking at Army Reserve units so I could get back in. If I thought they’d have me doing something other than stacking boxes in Barstow, I would’ve.”
“You’ve paid your dues,” Amy responded.
Hank sighed. “It’s not a paying of dues; it’s a chance to defend what’s important and precious.”
“What’s that, Dad?” Michael asked.
“Our rights and freedoms,” Hank replied. He pointed around their Tahoe vacation home. “Everything good we have and aspire to starts with our rights and freedoms. That’s why there’s only one United States of America and why I’d be honored to go back in the Army.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re too old to go back to Iraq,” Amy said.
“I’m not too old, I’ve just been out too long. I never thought this would happen after Desert Storm.”
“Dad,” Michael chimed in, “we’re you like the best soldier the US Army ever had?”
Hank laughed. “I did my job Michael.”
“That’s why you have that goofy black hat from the prisoner? The one from that funny named division.”
Hank sighed. “The insignia on the beret from the prisoner I helped capture is from the Republican Guard Hammurabi Division.” He nodded. “And yes, that’s why.”
“Why do you keep the beret in a plastic bag?”
“It still has sand and sweat on it from 1991. I never took it out of the bag since Iraq.” Hank shook his head. “But I’ll tell you, there are soldiers out there today like Daniel that are every bit as brave . . . likely more so.”
“I’m glad brave people fight for our rights and freedoms,” the thirteen year old stated. “Maybe I’ll get a chance to be brave.”
Amy gasped. “This will be over by then.”
“Michael,” Hank responded, “be smart first, brave second. That’s important.”
“Okay, we need to make a ground rule,” Amy said. “No such talk when Ruth and her family are here in a couple of weeks. We should have a fun time and take her mind off of things.”
A knock interrupted their meal. Hank and Amy both went to the door and opened it. Two young men, snow shovels in hand, stood on their front porch. “Can we help you?” Hank asked.
“My brother and I were wondering if you’d like us to keep your driveway cleared this winter. The Farmer’s Almanac says it’s going to be a long one.”
“How would that work?” Amy asked.
“We’ve got a plow on our truck. After every big snow we’ll plow out your driveway and shovel your walk.” The brother pointed to the shovel in his hand in case there was any misunderstanding of the personal attention they were prepared to provide.
“$75 for a depth of 18 inches. $100 if it’s over two feet of snow.”
Hank laughed. “Tiered pricing, good move. Are you two in business for yourselves?”
“Yes sir, we’re trying to make a go of it.”
“Sign us up.”
The two left and the couple returned to their meal. “Those seemed like good guys,” Amy said.
“They were.” Hank masticated a piece of pork. “Hell, they remind me of myself at eighteen. We’ve all got to start somewhere.” He looked at his wife. “What?”
“Let’s make sure we have fun when Ruth and her family visit here.”
“That’s what I’m looking forward to,” Hank replied. “What about John? Since Tom and John—the Marx and Ford twins—seem to be on good terms; would he and Kim join as well?”
“No,” Amy replied. “Ruth is coming without Tom who is stuck in Sacramento reeling from the recall election and John is still shook up about his friend.”
“I understand about John,” Hank replied. “That would’ve shook me up.”
* * *
John Staid stood in the cemetery and stared at the tombstone. The weather was appropriately gloomy with overcast sky, forty degree temperature, and drizzling rain. The white marble tombstone with deep recessed letters stood out in stark relief to the dark surrounding. A flower adorned one side and John saw misty evaporation rise from the new grave, a result of warm ground and cold rain. He watched the wisps of mist rise and wondered what spiritual consciousness survived in the afterlife.
“You son of a bitch!” he scolded. “Nothing is ever so bad to make you do this!” John frowned. He stood for a long time coming up with nothing more to say, his mind a blank.
John turned away from the grave and started at seeing two workmen leaning on shovels and dressed in hooded raincoats. One nodded at him. “We’ll give you more time if you need.”
“I appreciate that,” John answered. He looked from one to the other. “How long were you standing there?”
“About ten or fifteen minutes,” the other workman answered. He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb at covered backhoes. “We didn’t want to disturb you.”
John nodded in appreciation. “Thank you.”
“I have to ask,” the older of the two workmen said. “Was it that whole bubble bursting thing that got your friend under that stone?”
“I told you Rick. Didn’t I tell you? Those who played in that dot-com shit risked everything.” He pointed to the tombstone. “And a lot never made it.”
John was dry eyed till that moment. Tears welled as he walked up to the workmen and extended a hand. “You got that right, buddy. Those who try to create, risk everything.” He shook the hand of each workman and walked to his car. I wonder if Tom understands that.
* * *
Tom Staid stood at the window of his Sacramento hotel room suite, looked out at the overcast sky, and sighed. “I can’t believe people are so stupid as to vote for the meathead Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
. . .
Tom’s mind wandered. What happened to everything? This millennium started so well. John got married on Valentine’s Day 2000, Governor Davis was increasing state payrolls across the board, and we liberals took charge. He shook his head. The state is screwed up, the country is screwed up, and the world is screwed up. What the hell happened?