On my second day after returning from the first Gulf War, I was walking across across the common grounds of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment when an authoritative voice presumably shouted to me.
“Hey there, soldier! What the fuck you wearin’?”
I looked around and saw The Sergeant Major and snapped to attention and waited for him to walk close enough to talk without shouting. He stopped and put a half smoked and unlit cigar into his mouth and looked me up and down for a brief moment. He removed his cigar and said, “I asked what the fuck you wearin’, Private.”
I was wearing my old green jungle fatigues because the post commander had ordered everyone to stop wearing tan desert fatigues and switch to standard uniforms as soon as we returned. My green fatigues were from basic training, and didn’t have the 82nd Airborne patch yet, or airborne wings or anything other than my name and rank, Partin, Private E2. The pants were too short for my legs and the ends ended above my boots and couldn’t be tucked in like regulations required. I had tightened the draw strings, but my legs would have flashed while I was walking, especially because I was lost in thought and my strides were long and exposed my socks and boots with every step. And the pants were comically tight on me, more like spandex or yoga pants or panty hose than the pants that had given our unit our nickname, The Devils in Baggy Pants, a name given to us by a German officer when the 504th Parachute Infantry Battallion first began dropping in by parachute in WWII, when our pants were baggy to hold extra ammunition and water. I doubt that seeing devils in yoga pants would have had the same impact.
The overshirt was so tight on me that I couldn’t button the top few buttons, and my skin tight undershirt was pressed against my chest. My dog tag chain and tags could be seen pressing through the brown understhirt, and the unauthorized but tolerated cross I wore was seen pressed against the shirt under my dog tags. It was a warm spring day in North Carolina, and the post commander had ordered sleeves rolled up, but I could only make one fold in my sleeves before reaching my elbow instead of the required two, and the edges of my sleeve flapped near my elbow when I walked.
I was unsure how to answer his rhetorical question, and I said, “I grew in Iraq, Sergeant Major.”
He paused and chewed cigar and said, with clarity that implied he frequently spoke with a cigar between his lips, “At ease, private.”
I moved my legs to shoulder width and folded my right arm behind my back and held my boxes in my left arm, and he looked me up and down again. He radiated a sense of presence, and I realized he wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else.
His uniform was within regulations without being ostentatious; it was ironed, but not starched. His boots were shined, but not with the glassy polish of people who spent hours spit shining their boots, or paid to have one of the civilian shops that surrounded Fort Bragg do it for them. Those shops also pressed and starched uniforms, and most high ranking soldiers who lived off post kept the civilian shops busy, but something about The Sergeant Major’s uniform seemed like it had been done by a hand iron and was just fine, which seemed to me more respectable than people who tried too hard. His maroon beret was tilted slightly off kilter on his head, and though most of us intentionally wore ours slightly cocked, because it looked better, but The Sergeant Major’s beret seemed hap hazard, as looking better were the least of his concerns. He was of average height and average build and had a slightly pudgy belly and the confidence to not suck it in. Everything about him radiated sufficiency and being unrushed. I felt that he was unconcerned about impressing anyone.
His chest was a mass of badges that would impress anyone I knew. He had the long rifle with wings of the Combat Infantry Badge that I knew I’d soon be awarded, and of course he was airborne. But, his parachute wings had the elaborate wreath on top that signified a Master Blaster, a high ranking jump master able to inspect other jumpers, and he had three mustard seeds, tiny bronze oak leaves on his parachute that said he had parachuted into combat at least three times that we knew of. He had air assault wings, the helicopter synonymous with the 101st Airborne and their motto, “This We’ll Defend,” and a pathfinder badge, the elite teams that parachuted into trees and blew up enough trees to create a drop zone for a mass tach parachute assault; their logo was “First In, Last Out.” There was no more space for badges to be sewn on his chest, but I sensed he had more to choose from and could select them like Uncle Bob used to select which cuff links to wear each day.
His left shoulder had the 82nd Airborne patch with its arching “Airborne” tab, and above that was a Ranger tab and a Special Forces Tab. On his right shoulder was the legendary Sky Soldiers combat patch. I had heard that he had four combat patches, including one of the special forces groups and from undisclosed missions; a rumor was that he was rescued from solitary confinement by a SF group and immediately joined them and continued fighting with them and was awarded the special forces combat patch before he had ever attended SF school. And, we had heard that in Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia – the rumors varied – he was the first American to successfully complete a skyhook extraction from deep within enemy territory with General Stormin’ Norman Swartchcoff himself, the four star general who had just led all Allied forces to victory in only nine months.
By every definition I knew, The Sergeant Major was a stark raving badass.
In Airborne school, I had heard about him and had read Vietnam conflict memoirs that mentioned what most of us assumed was him, but with the nickname “Hobo,” a cheerful private who cursed and smoked cigars and came out of a year of being tortured in a Vietcong prison camp smiling and asking for a cigar. He was Sgt. Major Hogard, the highest ranking non commissioned officer in the 1st of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He looked over the well being of 900 paratroopers, most of whom would be considered badasses by the general public, and he was revered by most of us.
A cherry lieutenant approached nearby and The Sergeant Major and me came to attention and he removed his cigar and we both saluted.
“Strike Hold, sir!” The Sergeat Major. In airborne school, we said, “All the way,” but in the 82nd we said our unit’s motto. The 504th Parachute Infantry regiment’s was “Strike Hold,” a reference to our WWII days of parachuting deep into combat and holding an area until slower units with heavier equipment could catch up.
The LT saluted back and we lowered our salutes and he slowed his walk and looked me up and down and smirked and nodded to The Sergeant Major as if glad he was taking care of such a young and undisciplined private. The cherry’s uniform was starched and his boots were so shiny that they reflected sunlight. He had the obligatory basic airborne wings and a Ranger tab, but no combat patch. He had probably just returned from officer training school and had obtained a slot in Ranger school and the 82nd was his first duty assignment. He stopped, perhaps imagining he was taking control of the situation with his facial expression, which, to me, seemed like an actor trying to appear like a commander in control. He looked me up and down again and seemed like he’d say something, but before he could speak The Sergeant Major began patting his pockets and he interrupted and asked the LT if he wanted a cigar. The LT looked at him and his eyes briefly locked on to The Sergeant Major’s chest badges and he said no thank you and told us to carry on, confident that everything was in control. The Sergeant Major nodded and said, “Huah! Sir!” and the LT walked away and we returned to being at ease and doing what we were doing.
He replaced his cigar but and moved it like a part of his body, swinging it to the corner of his lips. He said, “You grew? Well, shit, Private. Ain’t they got another uniform for you?”
“No, Sergeant Major. Supply is out of jungle fatigues.”
“Well, shit, Huah. Ain’t you got money saved after wankin’ your meat in Iraq all this time? Or did you already spend it in the War Zone?”
The War Zone was a civilian strip of bars, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, disguised but unambiguous brothels, used car lots, pawn shops, and drug dealers who knew what was and what was not detectable in the 82nd’s random drug tests. The War Zone also had at least a dozen army surplus stores, and most soldiers bought new uniforms there rather than waiting for the two free ones issued once a year.
“No, Sergeant Major. HQ can’t find my paychecks.” In 1991, pachchecks were pieces of paper you would have to take to a bank and request cash. Most soldiers were strongly encouraged to use direct deposit into a bank account to avoid loosing paychecks, but I had transitioned through Fort Bragg on my way to Desert Shield too quickly to establish a bank account. Not only could they not find my paychecks, they were unsure if there was evidence that I had existed outside of our shared memories from the previous few months in combat. My situation had become something of a joke around HQ, an example of how military bureaucracy created improbably situations. No one knew what do do about me, so they had told me to hurry up and wait and they’d get me squared away. I was sent away with a few chuckles about what would happen when an officer stopped me.
He asked my first sergeant’s name and I told him, and then he was silent for a few moments and rolled his cigar with his lips and alternated tucking it into either side of his mouth a few times while staring into my eyes. I couldn’t help it: I smiled slightly. I believe he relaxed and saw me differently.
“You that motha’ fucka’ who speaks sand nigga’ and does magic tricks and shit, ain’t ya?”
Just like with his first rhetorical question, I didn’t know what to say. I remained silent, and he chewed on the cigar poking from the corner of his lips and stared at me a moment more, then he smiled broadly and shoved his right hand into his baggy pants pocket and fumbled around, obviously searching for something.
“Hey there, Huah! You want a cigar?” He didn’t wait for me to answer, but exaggerated his fumbling and smiled broadly and said, “I got one right here!” He yanked a few times but couldn’t get it out of his pocket, and suddenly he said loudly and with a playful tone, “Oh shit, Huah! That ain’t a cigar! It’s my dick! My big fat black dick!” He removed his hand and burst into laughter and slapped me on the arm with the hand that had just said was clutching his big fat black dick, and I tried not to react. Fortunately, I kept smiling and he kept laughing.
“All right, Huah. If Top don’t get you squared away with a paycheck and uniform this week, you come see me, okay?” I said ok, and he replaced his cigar and moved it to the corner of his mouth and we chatted about the war a bit and how I ended up there so small and so young, and what I wanted to do next. He dismissed me, and I continued across the common grounds and upstairs to the barracks for D-Co.
“What up, JP?” Foster waddled over in civilian clothes. Mine were from before basic training, and I couldn’t squeeze into them so I was wearing my fatigues until supply squared me away.
I didn’t answer; I hated that question. I looked at him and, impatiently, asked about my paycheck. I didn’t want to get stopped again. Foster assured me Sgt Weber was on it, and that Top would help. Everyone was a bit chaotic, justifiably. People hadn’t seen their loved ones in nine months and had priorities, and the entire United States military was in the middle of brining 560,000 soldiers home quickly, like Stormin’ Normon had promised. And all of those soldiers had needs, wants, and priorities, too. I told him The Sergeant Major had told me to wait a week, and Foster repeated the most persistent and apt guidance I had ever heard in the army: hurry up and wait. Then he offered to lend me money and find a ride to take us to the War Zone to get at least one uniform.
“Bring your comic book,” he said. When I had retrieved my uniform, I also retrieved my personal belongings. Foster had been there and was a huge comic book fan.
He held up a comic collector’s magazine from that month, and pointed to Spiderman vs. Wolverine. “It’s $42! Yeah, buddy! The secret to life, the universe and everything!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said that I could sell Todd’s comic for $42 in the war zone. He lent me a set of civilian clothes that were baggy on me, and an hour later we were in a open wharehouse with dozens of small business stands selling everything from uniforms to knives to tattoos to coffee, and he navigated us through the stalls to The Dragons Lair Comic Books and Magician Supplies.
Foster introduced me to Frank, the owner, an old retired first sergeant who had the same size and shape as Coach, including the same flat head, but was by no means like any human I had ever seen. He smiled broadly and the filterless cigarette in his lips moved like an appendage and stuck out at a right angle from the corner of his mouth at about the same level as his nose. He reached up and pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and whipped it out and ostensibly flipped it around and tucked it into the other side, lit side in his mouth; a tricky optical illusion to pull off well, but he did it perfectly and I was shocked for a moment until my mind saw the red embers and realized my mistake.
He was seated, and his flabby muscle tone implied he sat much more frequently than he stood or walked. Behind him were two walls of comic books, and in front of him was a glass displace case full of beginner to intermediate level magic tricks.
Frank took the cigarette out with his right hand and made a fist with his left and shoved the cigarette into his fist. He tamped it deep into his fist using his right thumb, then dropped his right hand to his lap and opened his left hand and made the funniest face I had ever seen. Later, I knew I’d suggest that he open his left hand first, and to pause longer so people forgot about his right thumb. And, of course, I’d show him how to keep a new cigarette handy so he could thumb palm it quickly.
He was a retired supply sergeant who had remained in Fort Bragg because his daughter had had a baby to a soldier and he was able to play with his grandson at home and play with everyone else all day in the War Zone. He had opened The Dragons Lair a few years earlier, a comic shop still known as the oldest shop in North Carolina and one that to this day saves monthly editions of comics for deployed soldiers. He also hosted the Ring #341 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, The All American Magicians.
Foster picked up his boxes of comics and he and Frank began dealing back and forth. Some of Foster’s had already skyrocketed in price, but Frank had put them in his box on the days they were issued and that’s the only amount of money he’d accept. Foster gave him some of the more valuable ones for Frank’s used rack, and Frank gave him store credit and he added some things to his boxes. Frank offered me half of the price for Spiderman vs Wolverine – he would have to wait and sell it at a convention, and his fee was half – and though I wanted clothes I couldn’t help myself and I picked up a few thumb tips and decks of cards instead.
“Ooh! You’re a magician!” Frank said, hopefully.
“Frank, Dolly here is the finest magician in all of Iraq! He captured 14 prisoners with nothing but a half dollar.”
Frank didn’t question that, and he probably assumed Dolly wasn’t my first name and he extended his hand and said, “I’m Frank. But shouldn’t we all be?”
I liked him a lot, and paused and pondered how to introduce myself. Magik didn’t seem appropriate, and neither did Partin. And Dolly was getting old and stale. I still resisted Jason or Justin for no other reason that I was getting over adolescence’s striving for personal identity.
“Ian,” I said, shaking his hand. “My middle name’s Ian, and a long time ago my stage name was Magic Ian, like magician. I was in the Baton Rouge IBM Ring” That was true; Wendy had even printed me business cards on Exxon’s fancy printing machine, and had let me put our home phone number on it, and I had walked around the neighborhood handing it out and eventually performing for birthday parties now and then. And I had won my first junior category magic contest as Magic Ian, and that had been a long time ago.
“Nice to meet you, Ian. What you workin’ on?” I whipped out my two half dollars, bright and shiny after having been polished at Kobar Towers along with every square milimeter of our equipment, vehicles, and weapons. They weren’t silver, but they were so bright they reflected the inside light perfectly, and I was able to reflect the light into Frank’s eyes just as I pretended to take the half in my left hand; that extra detail creates such a strong mental image of the coin moving that, if done well, fools even experienced magicians who think they know the French Drop.
Frank was flabergasted! He laughed and patted his thighs in delight, and said I should get my hands insured, and that the local magic club met there and he hoped I came. I said that sounded wonderful, and I told him a bit about the Baton Rouge Ring and showed him how I had set up Sarge with the thumb tip vanish and the cigarette production, and how to steal the thumb tip from the side, not by poking your thumb in an unnatural position. I told him Michael Ammar had taught me that at Dr. Z’s house, and Frank was amazed that I mentioned those names so nonchalantly; Michael Ammar was considered the most prodigious magic lecturer, and performed in the real world at events as big as presidential inaugurations and television shows, and even today he’s behind the scenes on most famous magic productions. At the time, I didn’t realize I was name dropping; those were just the people who influenced my life through Ring #178, and I hadn’t realized how famous they were.
Frank leaned forward on the glass case and looked as serious as he could, which was still cheerful, and he shared a secret in a quiet voice.
“Did you know that General Swartzcoff is a magician?” He looked around to ensure Foster was still engrossed in reading his comics. “Between you and me, he could learn a few things about coins from you.” I dismissed Frank as continuously joking, but would later learn that he was right. Stormin’ Normon was a member of the IBM and was known to perform for at kids birthday parties in Fayetteville, and though I’d never meet him, I heard more than once that he could have learned a few things from me. Of course, what they meant is he could learn a few things from Michael Ammar and Kris Kenner and David Copperfield and Mr. Samuels, but after a while it’s difficult to keep track of where you learn everything.
I started a comic book account and Frank made a folder for mine. Not a box like Foster’s, because I couldn’t imagine reading that many comic books. But, one series fascinated me, The Infinity War. I had always like the infinity symbol and concept, and I had just returned from war, and The Infinity War had some of my favorite characters. Captain America, Steve Rogers, was a favorite, especially because he always did the opposite of what we’d expect from a man named Captain America, and he held true to the oath that he swore to defend the constitution, including free press and bearing arms and epitomizing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it had Iron Man, Tony Stark, an alcoholic inventor who wore a suit that let him fly and blow things up. And of course The Hulk, a nickname I had hoped for because I had grown so much and was squeezed into my clothes like The Hulk after he grew from Bruce Banner. Thirty years later, The Infinity War would be a ten year mega billion dollar movie franchise staring, appropriately, Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark; but even in 1991 the comic books became best sellers, and Frank would never charge more than cover price for all the comics he diligently placed in our folders or boxes. But, I could have told you that then, especially as the day unfolded and soldiers returning from Desert Storm began showing up and communing with each other and swapping comic books and I just laughed and laughed at the site of a room full of kids not unlike my friends in high school who read comics and played Dungeons and Dragons and attended Rennessaise Fairs, except these guys were in decent physical shape from doing the bare minimum exercises, and all were combat veterans. I saw stereotypes I didn’t realize I had dissolve, and I saw the army as just a job or an extension of school or boy scouts or a theater club.
We left Frank and the growing crowd of comic fans and bought a couple of uniforms and had them sewn with patches I was authorized to wear, and Foster replaced his Expert Infantry Badge, an EIB and just a rifle, with Combat Infantry Badges, a CIB and a rifle with wings. I asked him what an EIB was, and he said I’d soon find out, and he was right.
183 paratroopers in the 504th that didn’t have an EIB yet were asked to get one in the weeks that followed. It was a semi annual test of sorts, a combination of being able to operate every weapon that could be used by any infantryman, ranging from pistols to machine guns to bazookas to Claymore mines; and basic first aide, land navigation with map and compass, radio and secure frequencies proficiency, radio commands to communicate with artillery and air support, etc. The two days of testing began with a physical fitness test set above army standards; I can’t recall the numbers we used then, but it was approximately 60 pushups in two minutes, 50 sit ups in two minutes, and a two mile run in under 14 minutes. The test concluded with a 12 mile ruck sack march in full combat gear and with 45 pounds inside your ruck.
I was one of three soldiers in the 504th to earn the EIB in the weeks after Desert Storm. People were surprise we had so many failures, and higher command was furious. They attributed it to apathy, because even expert infantrymen would have to review regulations and know all the nuances of weapon performance, like distances possible vs ethical under the geneva convention, which placed restrictions on where we could or couldn’t use things like shotguns to maim or .50 caliber machine guns to plow down people not in vehicles. War has ethics, after all. I felt less impressed that I was one out of 183 and more disappointed that America’s Guard of Honor seemed no different than any other group of randomly selected kids, just with buzzed hair cuts and more access to alcohol. Many had embraced Sarge’s summary of the AA patch and had binge drank upon arriving back, and there were arrests for bar fights in the War Zone and more than one rape; not including all the Wilmington college girls who couldn’t keep pace with the men drinking and were, by today’s accepted social norms, date raped. I felt similar to how I had in the Iraqi parade, watching people laugh while I cried inside, and I felt less attachment to my CIB and a growing sense of pride in my EIB, and on a whim I returned to the War Zone and swapped my CIB for my EIB; though I kept the 82nd combat patch.
Supply had gotten me squared away, so I had several months of paychecks by then. We had been given an extra $110/month of hazardous duty pay while the war zone, and $110/month hazardous duty pay given to paratroopers. That was a pleasant surprise, and I wondered why no one had mentioned that to me before, and whether or not pay means more to people volunteering for airborne to be the best they can be. After Uncle Sam withdrew my $100/month college fund investment and $100/month series EE savings bonds and federal and state taxes, I had earned $550 per month, only slightly more than Wendy had earned in Kelly Girls. But, my paychecks came with a printout showing all of the things civilians paid for but we didn’t, like room and board and health care, what I had heard joked as ‘three hots and a cot,” and Uncle Sam said I was earning the equivalent of around $1,500 per month and was doing better than most civilians. I didn’t feel rich, but then again I didn’t know what that should feel like, and I was happy. I put a deposit on an overpriced pickup truck from a car lot in the War Zone catering to soldiers with their first paychecks and no credit, a Japanese model that was becoming known as much more reliable than Ford or Chevy after several years of complacency, and I added an 82nd patch sticker and a rebel flag sticker to balance the preconception of only buying American. If anyone was an All American it was me, I figured, and it felt good to buy a Japanese truck without caring about hyped stereotypes of what is and what isn’t patriotic.
I drove back to post and Sgt Weber greated me in typical fashion.
“Dolly, what the fuck did you do now?”
He was half joking. The Sergeant Major had asked for me.
[insert that part]
With a truck, I began visiting Frank’s shop more often and attending a few magic meetings, and I realized that Frank never drank and neither did the soldiers who met there. That was important, because the 82nd had returned to our status of America’s Quick Reaction Force, and even though everyone had been gone for so long someone still had to be on guard duty, and there’s no rest for the weary. Several thousand soldiers were always on Defense Ready Force One, DRF1, and they were on two hour recall status to deploy anywhere in the world within 17 hours. Their equipment was pristine and their shots were updated and their bags were packed with clothes for every temperature imaginable, and anyone caught even sipping alcohol was, as The Sergeant Major would say, fucked. Most young men struggled with temperance, and boredom leads to apathy, and Frank provided a service by offering his shop to anyone wanting to have fun and commune without alcohol and not get fucked.
The 82nd had nine battalions, each with its own nicknames and lore, and each on DRF1 through DRF9. As the readiness level decreased, training increased and equipment would get damaged and repaired on DRF 8 or 9. Straggled here and there were blocks of vacation, assigned to each battallion in two week segments, hopefully twice a year.
The Devils in B were approaching our first vacation after Desert Storm,
[to be continued]
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