They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.

TNB TV
Please enjoy the trailer for Cherry, the upcoming film from Stephen Elliott, author of The Adderall Diaries and founder of The Rumpus. The film tells the story of Angelina, an 18-year-old girl from a troubled home who winds up becoming a sex worker in San Francisco. It challenges assumptions about porn, sexuality, and success, and confronts the difficult question of where you need to be in order to find yourself. Starring James Franco, Ashley Hinshaw, Heather Graham, and Lili Taylor. Screenplay by Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee, a porn performer who is also a writer and lecturer at New York University.

Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?

Muumuu House (est. 2008) is a publisher of poetry, fiction, Twitter selections, Gmail chats online and in print.

On December 13, 2011, I received an email from Daniel Cooper that began:

Would you be interested in doing a piece for HTMLGiant on helping ‘Daniel Cooper’ become a Muumuu minimalist?  I’m new to the ‘scene’ but have years of experience in ‘being depressed’ and writing. I also have a new sense of being ‘ironically detached’ from my ’emotional vulnerability’ and a ‘real’ desire to make friends with people with ‘similar interests.’

He went on to explain why he chose to email me as opposed to other Muumuu House affiliates, a general idea for how he would begin to create his internet presence, and other things.

I responded:

Daniel,

I don’t feel interested in doing this, sorry.

My advice in terms of writing or [anything] is to ‘simply’ do you.

I don’t think there’s a ‘formula’ to becoming friends with [any Muumuu house affiliated author you mentioned].

I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading my things and things by other Muumuu House bros.

Good luck,

– Jordan

 

He sent another email, then I sent another email, then he sent an email asking me if I’d consider writing the piece for $25.

I said yes.

This is what I wrote to him:

Dear Daniel,

Life is different than a math equation because in life there isn’t a specific, consistent method of achieving an answer or desired outcome to a perceived problem. One wakes up, does whatever s/he does, then sleeps, usually convincing him/herself that there’s an inherent reason for it all.

There isn’t.

Life is similar to a math equation – can literally be viewed as a math equation from a certain perspective – because a math equation is ‘simply’ a math equation. A math equation isn’t sad, happy, boring, fun, or [anything except a math equation]. Some people enjoy trying to answer a math equation. Some people don’t. Some people don’t care. But no matter how one may or may not view math equations, a math equation is still ‘simply’ a math equation. Life is ‘simply’ life.

That’s it.

People say things like ‘Life is what you make it’ but that’s not what I mean either. Life isn’t what you make it because you don’t ‘make’ anything. Even the contexts of your ever-changing, inconsistent perceptions and actions have been created by everything that’s happened before that moment.

Anything anyone ever does is a result of everything everyone’s done beforehand.

Forever.

The moment a child is born s/he is filled with ‘input’ and his/her ‘output’ for the rest of his/her life can only consist of variations of what has already been or is being ‘input’ into him/her. The important thing to recognize is that the ‘input’ isn’t up to you so your thoughts/emotions/actions can never technically be ‘up to you’ (though understanding certain ‘input’ in the context of other ‘input’ can and will create different thought processes, etc).

But no matter what, the input still can’t care about you. It created you; is constantly creating you.

With this understanding – that your existence has very little to do with anything in general and that Oh Well you can’t control it anyway – the next step could be to accept your existence as a human being, then do what you want to do while you’re alive, if you want to be alive. Everything except for you and what you choose to care about doesn’t really matter that much because, as we’ve already established, your life is only a small piece of something gigantic and unforgiving that literally can’t know how to care about anything. Life and Input can’t think.

The universe doesn’t care about you or me or anyone because the universe can’t care.

In emails we exchanged, I recommended that you ‘do you,’ to which you said:

Re: ‘doing me’ I usually can only write — or want to write — out of a place that is very upset and angry and I usually use that negativity to justify writing mean, or upsetting, or manipulative, or jerkish stuff.  I’m actually ‘also’ working on writing ‘not me.’  Actually the advice you gave, and I guess I’m doing it.

If you only want to write ‘out of a place that is very upset and angry,’ I would recommend ‘simply’ writing ‘from that place’ or realizing that you don’t actually want to write out of that place, but from another place, then do what [you] need to do to get to/write from that place.

‘Doing you’ (being a person, enduring life) means thinking about what you want or don’t want then getting it or ridding yourself of it.

To me, that is the common thread among writers like Tao Lin, Noah Cicero, Sam Pink, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Megan Boyle, Mallory Whitten, etc. We’re not all the same and we don’t all write in the same ‘minimalist’ style all the time. I think we all ‘do [us]’ or are striving to ‘do [us],’ even if we don’t understand what ‘[us]’ is.

That might be the reason why I started writing in the first place – to explore Input and Output and to fill life with something that feels like something other than that.

I don’t know.

– Jordan

My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.

 

“Family Feelings” is a collaborative blend of poetry and play reading that combines the work of this week’s TNB-featured poet John Foy (and others) and playwright A. R. Gurney. “Family Feelings” pays tribute to those relationships we know best, or least! Using scenes from Gurney’s Cocktail Hour – an appeal to gain Father’s approval for the staging of his son’s play – and selected poems by John Foy and others, the performance weaves together poems and script in counterpoint so that, through echoes and associative logic, they get to the psychic truth of unspoken family feelings.

Indian Café, 108th St. and Broadway (NYC), Sunday, January 22, 2012, at 4:00 p.m.

Her disappointment about Nishta not coming was still too raw to discuss with Diane. “No,” she said shortly.

“Why not? What’s the problem?”

Armaiti couldn’t keep the frustration out of her voice. “The problem is her husband. He won’t let her come, it seems.”

“Why not?”

The Path to Manhood

“Good. Now do it blindfolded.”

I looked down at the gleaming M16 assault rifle I was holding and then up at the three Black Panther officers standing over me. I was fifteen years old, sitting in the middle of the floor in a Panther safe house. A .45-caliber pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun and an M1 carbine were laid out in front of me. My mouth was dry, and nervous sweat ran down my back. The Panthers had told me that my life and the life of my fellow Panthers were on the line. Error equals death. I looked up at Yedwa, my weapons instructor, and I spaced out. He had a shoulder holster with a .357 Magnum, a black beret, goatee, muscular physique, and a mad gleam in his eye that denoted he was a crazy brother, more commonly known as a crazy nigger (a wild-assed black man who would say anything, do anything, and who courted death with a smile).

The ghetto had a ranking system when it came to manhood. You could be a punk, hard, bad, or crazy. Being a soft dude meant that you were a goody-goody who was scared to fight. Punk dudes got no respect and often got their “ass shook and their lunch money took.” Hard dudes were fighters, but not like bad niggers, who would be swinging, cutting, and shooting while the hard dudes would be in heightened stages of argument. The bad niggers got all the respect. But to truly be a legend, you had to be a crazy nigger, meaning you had to give up on the possibility of a normal future and accept that any moment, any place, was a good time to die.

This manhood ranking system was connected to the idea of protecting your property, which was referred to as “mine” or “yours” as in, “I’ve got to protect mine” or “You gotta get yours.” This was part of the code of honor we learned from the older guys. Since we were all poor, “mine” or “yours” didn’t mean real estate, bank accounts, or stocks. It was more like a bike, sneakers, a girl, your mother’s honor, or a couple of square feet on a street corner. What you claimed and how far you would go to protect “mine” or “yours” determined your manhood ranking.

In 1968 nobody was badder than the Panthers. They took the manhood rating to another level. Not only were they willing to fight and die for “theirs,” they were also willing to lay down their lives for every man, woman, and child in the black community whether they knew them personally or not. Plus there were no boundaries to their craziness. They were willing to take on the police, the army, the government, every-damn-body.

And here I was, an orphan, a church boy, and an honor student with an M16 on my lap, pursuing the path to manhood.

“Brother, did you hear me?” Yedwa barked. “I said do it blindfolded.”

I snapped out of my daze, pulled a bandanna out of my jean pocket, and tied it around my eyes. Katara, an eighteen-year-old Panther, helped me adjust the blindfold so I couldn’t see. Then I began to disassemble the M16 by touch, laying the pieces in a line so I could grope for them when it was time to put the rifle back together.

I could hear Yedwa’s voice through my personal darkness. “If the pigs attack at night, they ain’t waitin’ for you to turn on a light to get your shit together. In fact, if you turn on a light, they’re going to use it to lock and unload on your ass.”

“Right on, brother,” said another Panther voice. I dropped the gun bolt on the floor. It clattered loudly.

“Concentrate, young brother,” Yedwa ordered. “Concentrate.”

Five minutes later I had put the M16 back together. I pulled the bandanna from my eyes. It was soaked with sweat. Yedwa took the rifle from me and with the precision of a combat veteran ejected the clip, cleared the chamber, and checked the weapon. Then he passed it around to the other Panthers. Finally he motioned for me to stand. “You took four minutes and thirty seconds. That means your ass would have been dead three and a half minutes ago. Practice so you can get your speed up.” With that he turned and put the rifle and the other weapons in a duffel bag. Then he put the duffel bag in a closet.

Katara put a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a bottle of wine on the coffee table. Yedwa put a John Coltrane album on the stereo. Sadik, the other Panther, grabbed one of the large pillows near the window and pulled it over to the table. I sat on the couch next to Yedwa. We all grabbed some chicken and started greasin’ and sippin’ wine from paper cups. The brothers talked about jazz, revolutionary lovemaking (that’s where the man and woman scream, “Power to the people” instead of “Give it to me”), and bourgeois Negroes who have to be “offed” before the revolution comes.

Mainly, I listened. I had only been a Panther for about three months and I hadn’t really found my place or my groove yet. Besides, I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or make the wrong joke and be thought of as a counterrevolutionary. That was far worse than being called a punk, and I heard that the consequences were much more severe. It was safer to eat my chicken and nod my head profoundly, as if I were “a deep brother.”

Sadik asked if we were off duty. Yedwa answered, “Yeah,” and headed into the bedroom.

Sadik smiled and said, “Well, it’s time to talk to Brother Roogie.” That was his code name for reefer. He produced a joint and lit it, then passed it to me. I took a hit and started coughing my lungs out.

Yedwa came back in the room and took the joint away. “Watch it, brother,” he said. “In fact, you shouldn’t even be doing that shit. What are you, fifteen?”

“Sixteen and a half,” I lied, trying to keep a straight face. By then I was floating, buzzed from the weed.

Yedwa turned on the black-and-white TV and adjusted the rabbit ears. The wine and the weed had my head feeling light, and my attention drifted from the conversation to the TV and to the posters of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver that were taped to the wall. Che’s eyes seemed to be looking right at me, following me as I reached for another piece of chicken. Was he trying to send me a secret revolutionary message from the beyond? I tried to play it cool as I shifted positions to see if Che was still checking me out. He was.

Suddenly Yedwa began cursing out the television. Richard Nixon was on the screen talking about the war in Vietnam.

“Quit oinking,” Yedwa shouted. “You’re a lying fucking pig.”

The rest of us started laughing, but Yedwa was incensed. He reached under the cushion of the couch, pulled out a .38, aimed at the television, and pulled the trigger. The shot sounded like a large gun cap, not like the boom you hear in the movies. My ears started ringing as I stared at the gaping hole in the Zenith picture tube.

“Damn, Yedwa. You blasted the tube,” Sadik observed as he jumped to his feet.

“Motherfucking propaganda box,” Yedwa replied with a snarl that turned into a laugh. We all started to laugh until Sadik saw a flashing light pass by the window of the third-floor apartment.

“The pigs!” he yelled as he double-checked by peeking through the curtain.

“Must have heard the shot,” Katara said.

Yedwa retrieved the duffel bag and passed out the weapons.

I wound up with the same M16 I had been trained with. We tipped over the couch. Yedwa motioned for Katara and me to duck behind it and to take aim at the front door. Yedwa and Sadik took up posts by the front window. No one talked. The only sounds were John Coltrane’s sax and our hearts pounding at the anticipation of the police raid. Stress flared in my body. I wondered what it would be like to take a life, how it would feel to have bullets rip through my body. My stomach pitched like it was being brushed from the inside with the hot, molten wings of butterflies flapping. My bowels churned like I was going to shit in my pants. But I couldn’t go out like that, not in front of these brothers. I took a deep breath to calm myself and looked over at Che. He was looking at the door too.

All right then, this was it. I would go out like a revolutionary, surrounded by chicken bones, a wounded TV, and a possessed poster of Che. I gripped the M16 tighter and waited for a battering ram or a tank to blow the door off the hinges. Then there were footsteps, a pause, and the jingling of keys as someone entered the next apartment. Time passed. Three minutes. Ten? Finally Yedwa turned from the window. “They split,” he said, “Guess they were messing with someone in another building.” We tried to act cocky as we put the apartment back together, but I wondered if everyone was secretly as glad as I was that we didn’t have to shoot it out.

Yedwa came over and patted me on the back. “You moved like you were ready, young brother,” he said, smiling. “You got a lotta heart.”

I beamed for a moment, then pulled my revolutionary composure together. “Thank you, brother,” I replied, trying to drop my adolescent voice an octave. But I did feel good inside. I had been near battle and I had made a good impression on a Panther officer, the crazy nigger Yedwa. His hand on my shoulder felt like the wing of an eagle about to guide his favorite offspring into flight. Yedwa invited me to sit for some more wine and a store-bought apple pie. I nodded my thanks but instead reached for my coat, saying I had to check on Noonie, my adoptive grandmother. The truth was I was dangerously close to pushing my eight o’clock curfew. It was, after all, a school night.

 

*Listen to Jamal Joseph in conversation with TNB founding editor Brad Listi on the Other People with Brad Listi podcast.

 

Condolences

By John Foy

Poem

How can I help you with your grief,
though maybe I shouldn’t even try
if truth be told.  There’s no relief
really.  Your mother had to die
someday, and how unfit
a man you’d be if you couldn’t make
believe you were tough enough to take it
and move on, how fake
the higher calculus, being
at peace and all that.  You’ve lost
her now, few care, and nothing
can help, and no one knows the cost
you’ve paid—but everyone knows
we die like dogs in the deep snow.

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

 

Gunfight

King is dead in the back of the truck. He’s strapped to the litter with a foil blanket draped over top and tucked underneath his legs. It’s just me and him. The wounded are piled into the back of the other CasEvac humvee so that they don’t have to ride in the same vehicle as the KIAs. This is standard operating procedure. I’ve got the engine running so the heater will blow air into the back. King won’t shut up.

“What’s taking so long?” he says.

“We’re waiting on our security element.”

“Will you get me some Apple Jacks?”

“No.”

“Please.”

“You can have Apple Jacks in hell.”

“I’m hungry, man.”

“You are the whiniest dead guy I’ve ever met.”

He makes a noise somewhere between a groan and a whimper and finally stops talking.

This is how it goes—a mad scramble to get ready, and then sit and wait forever. We’re waiting for Green Platoon to return from patrol to provide security for our convoy as we evacuate casualties to the rear. It has to have been over an hour, but I’m not sure, not wearing my watch. There was still light out when we spun up, and now it is full dark. My legs are starting to get stiff. I strip off my gloves and set them on the dash to warm up, un-strap my k-pot and place it next to the seat. The gravel sends a tingle up my shin as I step out of the truck and wobble my legs to get the feeling back.

Combat Outpost Wilderness is a square box, maybe one hundred meters per side, a small guard tower in each corner. The outer walls are made of wood, ten feet high, topped with concertina wire. Four pre-fab aluminum hooches and a series of ply-board shacks are spaced along the inside of the wall, leaving an open area in the center to stage vehicles. In terms of withstanding an attack, it’s about as safe as an eight-year-old’s tree house.

A few people are dashing from one building to another. I can’t tell who they are in the dark. I light a cigarette and lean against the hood of the humvee. The staccato whisper of small-arms fire carries down the road, from Jabr Nahr, or further. Red Platoon is out there, and Green. And Geronimo is out there somewhere, wreaking havoc and attrition on our patrols as they attempt to clear the village and surrounding area. Every patrol has returned with casualties. We’re on our way to becoming combat ineffective.

Green finally arrives, their string of gun trucks thundering through the gate and skidding to a stop in the gravel outside the TOC. Soldiers are climbing out, shouting a flurry of instructions back and forth, dumping brass out of the turrets, grabbing more ammo. Two more wounded are hoisted out of the trucks and carried to the casualty collection point. There are no KIAs.

I flick my butt on the ground and climb behind the wheel, strapping on my helmet.

“What’s going on?” croaks King.

“Shut up.”

There’s more shouting and scuffling outside. Green Platoon mounts up again. The passenger door opens and First Sergeant slides in.

“Let’s go,” he says.

“Roger.”

“We’re going to be second, right behind the first gun truck.”

The lead truck makes a wrong turn out the gate, and we have to swing the humvees around on the narrow dirt road, trying not to get stuck in the low ditch on the shoulder. It’s a twenty-minute trip to FOB Anvil on roads rutted out by rain and mud. We make it to the ECP without incident and wind our way past the DFAC and housing area to the combat support hospital. Medics swarm the trucks as we pull up, assisting the wounded inside. I climb in the back and help lift King’s litter out of the truck and over to the emergency entrance, where a medic grabs my end.

“See you later,” King says.

“Dead guys don’t talk.”

We move the vehicles out of the loading area and stage off to the side as the First Sergeant heads to the battalion TOC to get a sitrep.

I light a cigarette and wait.

First Sergeant emerges from the TOC after fifteen minutes, and we’re underway again.

West of Jabr Nahr, the road runs through a low gully before curving around to the south of the village. The shoulder slopes away on both sides to join a thick tree line. Our lead humvee is two hundred meters from the turn when the bomb goes off. A white flash and an ear-splitting pop erupt from the left-hand side of the road, and the truck is stopped dead. The crippled vehicle is blocking our movement. The entire convoy is at a standstill. I scan the tree line on my side of the road but can’t make out anything in the shadows.

We are trapped in the killzone.

“Get ready,” First Sergeant says, opening his door. “They’re coming.”

He dismounts and grabs his rifle, jogging ahead towards the disabled truck. I swing my rifle up and check the magazine. My NVGs are in the outer pocket of my vest, but they are out of batteries, and I gave my rhino mount to another soldier. In any case, the left iris is broken, allowing me only partial night vision at best. I open the door and angle my weapon at the woods, waiting for the ambush, scanning for moving shadows or flickers in the light breaks between trees.

Waiting.

A quick splutter and a burst of light from the woodline to our nine o’clock, not twenty-five meters away. The machinegun makes a noise like an angry woodpecker digging in your ear. Behind me, the gun truck answers with a long belch from the fifty cal. And suddenly the trees explode with rifle and machinegun fire. I jump out of the truck, firing a short burst toward the shadows, and scurry around the hood to the other side of the truck.

Our guns are thumping away now, but there doesn’t seem to be any decrease to the enemy’s rate of fire. I squat behind the right front tire and brace my rifle on the hood. I still can’t see any bodies, so I’m just firing at muzzle flashes, trying to talk my weapon with the bursts from the fifty.

When I crouch down to change magazines, it occurs to me how pointless this is. And I laugh. My MILES gear is malfunctioning. It has been screwy all day. And after the third time I had to have it reset, I decided to just switch it off. I can’t be “killed”, but neither can I hit anything, as the laser on my weapon isn’t sending out any signals. All I’m doing is making noise.

But who cares. This is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. I slap the magazine home and keep shooting.

After a few minutes, Geronimo breaks contact and retreats through the woods. They’ve scored several casualties on us. Who knows if we hit any of them. First Sergeant is conferring with the TM. They are performing a battle damage assessment and debrief on our reaction to contact. The stink of it is that many of our tactics and procedures are neutralized by the training environment. Our first response to a real IED attack, for example, would have been to immediately push out of the killzone. I would have gunned our vehicle and rammed the humvee in front of us to get it out of the area. But here, we have to stop so that the referee can assess the casualties to the downed truck, allowing Geronimo the perfect ambush opportunity. They know this, and they turn it to their advantage.

Back at COP Wilderness, we park the humvee in front of the CCP, and I head back to the hooch. Sergeant Harris, Specialist Rosas, and I are sharing a plywood shack no bigger than a walk-in closet. It has one electrical outlet, a single bare light bulb suspended from the low ceiling, and no heat. I strip off my vest and tuck it underneath my cot, and I lie down and close my eyes.

“What’s up?” Rosas says.

“Not much. Me and First Sergeant got into a gun fight.”

Winter at Fort Polk is wet and cold, at least by Central Texas standards. It doesn’t look the way I pictured Louisiana—no swamps or alligators—just acres and acres of dusty, low-rolling hills covered in swatches of some sort of pine tree with needles that turn bright orange. I think they’re pines. I don’t know much about trees.

Fort Polk is the location of the Joint Readiness Training Center, a massive range designed to simulate a realistic combat deployment scenario for brigade-sized units. Every combat brigade is required to complete a training rotation here, or at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, prior to going overseas. The Second Brigade Combat Team of First Cavalry Division has been at Polk for three weeks now, since early January 2011.

The majority of my time here has been spent doing inventory and signing out MILES and other training equipment to the line platoons. Now that the company has moved from the rear to COP Wilderness, my primary occupation is ladle jockey, as Supply does not have much to do other than serve chow. I try to play it off, joking with the guys that I’ve started a new MOS—Eleven Lima Lima, Infantry Lunch Lady. But I’m miserable. The other infantrymen get to play in the woods and kick down doors, while I’m stuck scooping mushy eggs out of mermites. I jump at every chance to drive for the First Sergeant, as menial a task as it might be.

After six days at the COP, the main exercise concludes, and we relocate to FOB Anvil to begin preparations for leaving JRTC. All the vehicles, radios, MILES gear, and other assorted equipment on loan from Fort Polk have to be collected and turned in. We’ve got three days to do this, whereas it took three weeks to issue out. Luckily, apart from a few damaged items that require some additional paperwork, we manage to get everything sorted out with minimal trouble. We board up on coach buses and make the trip back to Hood.

 

The Martians came to me in bed,
“The earth is decomposed,” they said,
“Come to the moon, it’s made of cheese.”
I went with them. We sailed the seas
Of Nectar and Serenity
Where I met God and God met me.
We walked through stilton hand in hand,
“I think,” I said, “I understand.”
My head was like an open spout
My cerebellum dribbled out
And God replaced my brain with brie,
“I’m free at last,” I cried. “I’m free.”