That pantless wonder Chuck Wendig has done it again. Given me a prompt that let the words just spill out — 999 of them. A little about this piece: It draws on my real-life experiences, but poetic license has been applied to said Christmas day. I do have photos of me shoveling snow in Macedonia on a NATO base and there was truly a sergeant who smelled of cigars and gun oil and who affected my life greatly while deployed. There also was an epic snowball fight, which some of us eventually got into minor trouble for from a humorless battalion commander. I know there’s at least one of my writing mentors who will groan when he reads the word ‘azure,’ but it truly fit. Also, if it was good enough for Vonnegut, Hemingway and Dick, it’s good enough for me. Happy Yule all. Hope you enjoy the story. Leave me some comments below. Blessed be.
We had snow for Christmas. I had to shovel it away from the guard shack and tower. Somewhere there are pictures of me doing so – rocking the hardcore camouflage and United Nations blue beret, a baby blue powder keg that would ignite the passions of those who felt a scary new world order was represented by an American military wearing olive branches against a peaceful azure sky.
I watched the squads come in and out of the make-shift NATO base, although this particular location housed nothing but Americans and if the American battalion commander had anything to do with it, it would remain that way. Across the Yugo-width road, Macedonian army recruits trained. They were dressed up for some kind of holiday observance and were practicing some drill-and-ceremony marching. Their dress uniforms had this Rembrandt-looking hats and capes. Tomorrow I would snap pictures with them. But at that moment there was a foot of snow to make a path through.
I had asked my sergeant if we couldn’t just get the combat engineers to fire up the heavy earth mover, but he said that was a waste of tax payer’s money, which at the end of the day is what pissed off right-wing opponents to any American forces wearing U.N. blue berets. Instead they paid me $800 to have me shovel snow, do patrols and tell the stories of the operation through photographs and words.
That was the day I met Sgt. Nicholas, what he was doing as an infantry non-commissioned officers confused me. He was too smart for that. Hell, we were all too smart for most of this all-volunteer army. I think back to those Rembrandt-hat wearing Macedonian army conscripts. They somehow had it better. They had no choice; their service was never questioned with suspicion. They were doing their patriotic duty.
Nicholas smelled of cigar smoke, gun oil and evergreens. He was wearing a handcrafted lei-like thing made of pine bough around his neck.
“Merry Christmas, specialist,” he said to me.
“Happy Solstice to you,” I responded without stopping shoveling.
“Oh, no, a witchy woman; I know your type,” he said. I glanced at him momentarily and went back to shoveling. He stood chewing on his cigar, resting one arm on his weapon, and just watched me work, which I couldn’t abide. I seethed inside and tried to keep my cool and put my irritation into the shovel and concentrating on my task at hand. But I could hear him just watching me – his breath, the cigar in his mouth, his watch against the steel of his rifle.
I stopped and faced him, “Watching me won’t clear the path faster,” I said, not blocking the annoyance in my voice.
“Didn’t you forget something?”
“Sergeant,” I emphasized what he meant I had forgotten, “you can grab a shovel,” I stuck my jaw out towards a spare shovel leaned against the observation tower, “and help or you can leave.”
He stared at me, and then walked away, saying nothing.
I shrugged and went back to work. My hands were beginning to ache with the effort and the 25 degrees Fahrenheit temperature. I stopped and sat down on a snow mount I’d created with the shoveled snow. I lit a smoke. I looked north towards the helipad and the battalion quad, its buildings sporting old communist architecture that made East Berlin look decorative. Just as I nearing the end of my smoke break, I saw about a platoon’s worth of soldiers, carrying e-tools, snow shovels and the like heading my way. I just stood there, trying to concentrate on their approach. It was as if I was just simply watching television, not like I was living this moment.
Nicolas approached and the rest stayed a few steps behind him. “We thought we would help you so you didn’t miss the slop the chow hall has cooking up for Christmas. They say we’ll have real ham and turkey – not that minced and form stuff either. The Norwegian commander at the downtown base sent dozens over for us for the holiday. But this is your mission; you don’t have to accept the assistance.”
I waved my hands towards the sea of snow all around us, “Feel free, sergeant.”
Thinking back I swear we moved a football-field of snow in about forty minutes. I would have been there well past lights-out. As it was when we finished, the sun was setting and a waning Gibbous moon made our piles sparkle. There were smiles all around. The short winter days a bane on a soldier’s task list, so I was very grateful. As I approached Sgt. Nicholas to tell him I appreciated his Yuletide gift, someone threw a snowball and it pelted me square in the back. I turned around and it was a doughy-faced young kid, a private first class. “Ah, man, you got in the way, specialist!” he threw up his hands and then pushed them towards the ground like grade-school kids do when they are exasperated. I stepped aside and fanned my hands ala Vanna White towards Sgt. Nicholas, and the private, along with two of his comrades fired off a new snowball attack at their leader.
Next thing I knew there was a massive snowball fight in every direction. I took refuge near the snow mound I earlier had rested on to smoke. I sat there protected from the onslaught and just looked up at the stars. Its beauty took me back to Christmas nights in snowy Michigan. The commotion behind me much like the pick-up hockey games and other snowball fights of my youth. Suddenly a mass of green, brown and black hurled itself over the mound. Once it unrolled, I realized it was Sgt. Nicholas.
“I hope you’re happy, specialist,” he said, grinning with one side of his mouth, as the other contained a cigar stub.
“Actually, Sgt. Nicholas, I am.”
We both took up position and started firing back snowballs at the rest of the platoon.