From Basra to Bethlehem: a short story for the season | Seven Days Vermont

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From Basra to Bethlehem: a short story for the season 

Published December 20, 1995 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated December 21, 2021 at 8:12 p.m.

It was up there on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border back on Christmas Eve, 1990. Right on the goddamn border. Saudis had a big sand berm 20 feet high that ran the whole border, and every thousand feet or so in the sand berm was a big concrete fortress we called the Alamo. Saudi border guards were in the Alamo in normal times to keep out the infidels. No sign of those Saudis fuckers now. Just a dozen Third Force reconnaissance marines, spitting chew on the sand rats' oriental rugs in the downstairs tea room of the Alamo, maybe thinking about you all back home holding hands around the Christmas tree singing hallelujah.

I was a clean-cut Burlington boy who joined the Marines to get money for college. I could run faster with a pack on my back than anyone else at boot camp that month, so they sent me off for recon training to be the best of the best and all I could be as the son of a tax-killed dairy farmer, whose land is now suburban homes you could park a B-52 in, and for which he got shit. Recon is an elite group of soldiers. We are the guys who get sent behind enemy lines to take a look-see around before the real action starts up. We have a 90 percent casualty rate during wartime, of which we are supposed to be proud.

My platoon was up there at the Kuwaiti-Saudi border on Christmas Eve, 1990. We called it being at the head of the spear, as there was nothing between us and the baddies. This was just before Desert Storm, the 100-hour war, during what was called Desert Shield. Most people have forgotten the difference, just like they forget the details of the 1990 Super Bowl. We got better ratings, but still, nobody gives a shit, except it was a good show. Not like that Nam thing. Bad show. Bad feelings there. We were going to redeem ourselves on this one. Feel good again. Expose our superpower dick to the world.

Sergeant John Packer is one who doesn't remember what I remember — and what I don't want to remember as I sit here trying to hold a pen in my hand. He's more than dead, he's ashes and scorched bits of bone. Boom. Overkill for one single guy, but I guess they wanted to make sure. Merry Christmas, Sergeant Packer. Sorry about it, pal. Sergeant Packer got kaboomed by friendly fire from a Cobra helicopter. Whoops. Friendly fire. Sorry.

We were sitting around the old Saudi tea room that night, Christmas Eve, and most of the guys were cleaning their M-I6s. Sergeant Packer was sitting next to me in one of the windows of the Alamo, the windows all blown out and stuffed with sandbags. He turned to me and gave me a bite of a chocolate bar. Somebody told me, I think it was Corporal Harvey, he didn't have any family. Packer hadn't ever talked to me, but he shared that candy bar, and then he started to sing "Silent Night." Every soldier looked up at him in that tea room. He had a beautiful voice. His regular voice was like he got a tonsillectomy with a buzz saw, but when he sang it was this almost female thing, all high and sweet. Our captain, Captain Tolby, he looked up from where he was watching the RPV monitor, and said-, "Shut the fuck up, Packer."

So that was where it started. Sergeant Packer, he didn t shut up. He just sang on and on and Captain Tolby, he watched him with the RPV monitor on his lap, and I thought he was going to stand up and ask him one more time, but instead he just smiled like a cat playing with a mouse. He laid this smile on Sergeant Packer, and you might have thought he had a change of heart, being that it was Christmas Eve, but the smile was more like yea, asshole, you sing now, sing now while you can still sing.

You say Captain Tolby couldn't know what was coming down, but I guess it depends what you believe is possible, what the whole thing was really about. Captain Tolby, no one knew much about him. He had just been assigned to us a day before Saddam went into Kuwait, and there was no explanation from Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters why they replaced Captain Ord with him. Not like it was their place to explain shit to us, but Captain Ord was like family, and no one understood making a switch like that before a big action like Desert Storm.

But I will never forget that Cheshire cat smile that Captain Tolby laid on Sergeant Packer all through his angelic singing of "Silent Night" in the tea room of the Alamo on Christmas Eve, 1990. I wish I could hear his voice now in this shit-ass North End apartment, but I can't. Just the sound of the jerk downstairs banging his kid's head against the wall. I've got a tape of Bing Crosby doing Christmas songs, but nothing can beat the voice of Sergeant Packer, sounds I can't hear anymore but remember as beyond beautiful. I understand now. I met the man.

You might be wondering if Sergeant Packer said anything to me as we sat there eating his candy bar on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. He didn't say much, but I remember he got all philosophical when he was done singing and the Captain had stopped staring at him and smiling that I know what you're up to smile. Sergeant Packer was an ugly guy, nose all pocked and square like the handle of a .45. He was so ugly, when he first showed up in our recon platoon, which is a story in itself, we started calling something ugly packer. Yeah, he was that ugly. But he turned to me with a mouth full of chocolate after singing "Silent Night" and said, "Is it still a war if nobody dies on one side?"

I said, "What?" or "Huh?" I don't remember which, although I wish I remembered exactly, so I could get it down right. He asked the same question again, not getting pissed at all, and I expect I shook my head, as in those days thinking about things made me feel like a faggot.

Packer said, "I mean if thousands die on one side, and nobody at all dies on the other, is that still a war?" Maybe we should have a new word for it? "

He was ugly, so I shook my head and ignored him. Remember, this is before Desert Storm, and we still thought maybe tens of thousands of us were going to die. I think he kept looking at me, so I said like I was pissed, "Nobody is fucking dead yet."

Sergeant Packer smiled, and he said almost in a whisper, "The dead are as good as dead." And then he flicked his chin at Captain Tolby as Tolby stared at the RPV. The RPV is this Remotely Piloted Vehicle — a mechanical bird with a camera in its guts. Captain Tolby was looking through the bird's eye at the Iraqi positions just over the line in Kuwait, behind the mined barrier plain. As I looked at the monitor I saw the mechanical bird was flying low over an Iraqi digging frantically into a sand dune, his tail up in the air. Captain Tolby mimed the Iraqi's frantic burrowing, laughed and laughed. Tolby was always laughing, always chilled out like he owned the world.

There's more you need to know about Sergeant Packer. The man wasn't one of us. This is some weird shit. We jumped on the C-131 in San Francisco to come to the Saudi, and there was this one sergeant in face paint. Everyone assumed someone else knew why he was jumping a ride to the Saudi with us, and Captain Tolby, he was looking at weapon manuals the whole way and laughing. No one noticed when he answered to the name of Sergeant Packer, but the thing is, he wasn't our Sergeant Packer. We figured it out in mid-flight, and he told Captain Tolby he was in fact Sergeant Packer, and then showed this stamped official T.A.D. order. That's temporary additional duty order. So there was some kind of computer screw-up, and we got this old Sergeant Packer, and our Sergeant Packer was who the hell knows where. You would think Captain Tolby would set it right when we landed, but when he found out he looked confused for only a moment, and then he had this look like he understood everything, like had been waiting for this Sergeant Packer all his life, and he started laughing like a crazy fuck. He never reported the Sergeant Packer-Sergeant Packer screw-up. We kept the guy, even though he was from transportation — a rear job filled with dumbshits driving buses, so he wasn't exactly prepared for our sort of work.

So this brings us to the rest of the story. After Captain Tolby finished scaring the shit out of the Iraqis on the ground a couple of klicks north of us with his mechanical bird, he stood up and said, "Let's fucking celebrate Christmas." We all followed him up on the roof of the Alamo. It was pretty dark by then. We had a bunch of super-snooper night-vision scopes up there all in a row, and could look right over and see Iraqis beyond the mines and concertina wire of the barrier plain. When you looked through the scopes and looked at the minefield, the first thing you noticed were all the camel parts strewn all over. The Bedouins left them and the mines blew them up. So we were up on the roof, and Captain Tolby went chuckling over to the fun little Christmas toy known as the MULE. It stands for Multi Utility Laser Engager. It's a plastic box with a laser beam inside.

One other thing I didn't tell you is that during the same day a team of four, including Sergeant Packer, had returned from an infiltration of Kuwait. They snuck across the mined barrier plain at night, and spent 48 hours a couple of miles in the Saddam-occupied badlands scoping things out. They came back with the coordinates for a lot of Iraqi installations and bunkers. I never thought we'd use the coordinates on Christmas Eve, but Captain Tolby had Corporal Fitch get on the communicator and order up an A-10 jet. Captain Tolby read in the coordinates of the Iraqi bunker for the pilot, and pointed the MULE laser beam from the top of our Alamo, got it all set to go, and then turned to Sergeant Packer.

The A-10 jet with its missiles was inbound toward the target, but somebody had to push the little red button, turn on the laser. The laser beam would guide the bombs from the jet to the target. Captain Tolby turned to Sergeant Packer, laughing, and asked him to do the honors. Told him it was like a video game. Sergeant Packer refused a direct order once, and refused again the next time the A-10 came around. Captain Tolby laughed like he expected this the whole time. He kept laughing and laughing. I can still hear him laughing.

It was then Corporal Branch saw the woman out there in the barrier plain through one of the night-vision scopes. We all went to a scope to look. She was coming through the fucking mine field. There had been a lot of Iraqi soldiers coming over to surrender before this, so it wasn't a big surprise in general, but this was a female. She was picking her way through the mine field step by step. Captain Tolby just grinned at her, like she was part of the great sweep of events. I turned around and Sergeant Packer was gone from the roof of the Alamo, and then we saw him making his way toward the woman through the minefield. And then the bad shit happened.

A Cobra helicopter came whacking in from the Persian Gulf, and Captain Tolby pointed to it and nodded like now watch this shit. The thing about the Cobra helicopter, it reads human heat on its thermal sights and destroys. The only way to avoid it is to lie down on the ground and pretzel into a non-human shape, so maybe you get read on the thermal scope as a plant or something non-human. So through the scopes we saw Sergeant Packer yelling to the woman and waving his arms like he was telling her to lie down, but of course she was freaked and just stood there.

So Packer started waving his arms at the incoming helo, which is sniffing towards the woman. Sergeant Packer takes out his .45 and starts waving that at the helo, then he starts firing, and the big whacking insect forgot the woman, who started running across the barrier plain. The helo greased Sergeant Packer with a TOW missile. Which as I said earlier was overkill. The woman came to the gate of the Alamo, and then we saw she's got her arms around this baby in a little blanket. She's jabbering in Arabic. It isn't a dead baby, but just the head and shoulders of her dead baby. She walked from Basra in Iraq to show it to us. A note she carried said we killed thousands of her people with our bombing, our softening the bastards up for Desert Storm. We couldn't get the remains of her baby out of her arms that Christmas Eve, couldn't get a transport, so she stayed with us in the tea room all night jabbering and crying at us.

Captain Tolby never reported Sergeant Packer's getting greased. Said it never happened. Maybe this never happened either: Our third night in-country after the mobilization in the States but before we went up to the border, we were at Khafji, the first town just south of the Kuwaiti border in Saudi Arabia. There was a biological warning while we were eating chow. We pulled on our gas masks, and some of us, including myself, freaked and plunged the amalchloride antidote syringe into our thighs, thinking this was the end. It was then that Corporal Branch, in his gas mask, beckoned us outside. Coming down the street was this soldier on a camel like a fucking Bedouin. This soldier without a gas mask on a camel walked right past us and out into the desert. We all looked at each other, and one by one we took off our masks as the siren wailed on.

That soldier was Sergeant Packer, and now he's fucking gone. He came and now he's gone, and he couldn't do shit for nobody.

I got home and watched all the ticker-tape parades and instant replays of the great victory on the tube. My hands curl up with arthritis and they tell me it's my imagination. I had a kid with this great woman, and the kid was born with veins on the outside of his face, and they say it's unrelated to Desert Storm.

The man came and now he's gone. Merry Christmas to all.

Tom Paine is a Charlotte-based freelance writer whose works have appeared in the New Yorker, Story and the Boston Review. He recently won an O. Henry Award for short fiction and a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

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