Having completed the first leg of the 40-mile forced march in twice the amount of time allowed to pass the selection phase, I was sure I was behind the power curve, but felt strong and fast and in good spirits. I felt confident that I could make up the lost time by skipping any breaks for rest, food, or to urinate.
Daylight was dominating, and a light rain had ceased falling. The air was cool and sweet, and I had actually taken in some of the beauty of the forest and vegetation that sailed by me as I half force marched and half ran up a very winding path that was available to comfortably ascend the steep slope.
At times I would sacrifice the comfort of the path for the speed of scrambling painfully straight up a steep slope. I would resort to the path as a means to recover from the direct ascent. Once rested, I would make another excursion straight up the slope. I felt there was a combination of the two climbing techniques that would lead to the fastest speed for me.
Ultimately, I convinced myself that the constant sprint/cruise combination was harder on the body than just maintaining a constant cruise, like an airplane, or a car, or pretty much any powered vehicle. I resumed cruise control and abandoned my dash speed intervals. The air grew warmer, and as for the beauty…well, that pretty much lost its luster quickly and entirely as the march went on.
Why was I only just now learning this? What the hell was I doing showing up to selection without knowing how best my body should negotiate this rough and varied terrain? Well, mes amis, I came from an assignment in Key West, Florida. The mean altitude above sea level there is about three feet. No elevation, no hills, nothing but flat expanses to train on.
It’s said that if the surface area of West Virginia could be flattened out, it would exceed that of the state of Texas. I supported that statement with every atom of my being as I scratched and crawled hand-over-hand up slopes that pointed to the the sky and had no end. My rucksack performed its job magnificently, shoving my body flat against the slope at every opportunity.
In the weeks prior to the long, 40-mile forced march, we practiced the long walk with…long walks. We walked slow, with cadre who bestowed on us navigation teaching points in terrain association. The cadre-led walks were didactic in nature, yet still long and arduous, and lasted about a week. At regular intervals, the cadre would remind us that the speed we were traveling at was administrative, and shouldn’t be confused with the much higher rate of speed that was necessary to successfully complete the course.
At the end of each day, we retreated to the barracks to shower and sleep, and enjoy superb meals at the Camp Dawson chow hall. The cooks in the dining facility were no ordinary cooks, they were Delta cooks. Like the operators in The Unit, all direct support and general support personnel are specially selected for their prowess in their craft. On any day, any one of these cooks could get out of the service and start up their own successfull restaurant.
Every meal was a feast, thanks largely in part to unit master chef Mike W. The selections were remarkable, and food was always made from scratch. These men were serious culinary professionals of the highest order; any of them could give a Le Cordon Bleu chef a run for his money. I would have loved to see one of our guys on the reality show “Hell’s Kitchen” kick every other contestant’s ass. I recall a meal where the cook brought out a tray of mashed potatoes to the serving line, and held us up while he rendered swirling wave patterns all across the top of the potatoes with a spoon, then sprinkled paprika on top. We were mesmerized.
The following week, we were sent out on our own to practice our navigation skills at full speed. The days were long and the navigation legs grew longer. Most of us flailed about the countryside, lost, stupid, pissed-off. The class shrank as the boulders, deadfalls, steep slopes, heat, and monotony all began to take their toll.
There was a strict protocol for crossing the thousands of barbed-wire fences that delineated boundaries of the local private land to prevent damage to them. On a particular day, I felt quite clueless of my position on Earth. I crossed a fence and wandered out in a nice grassy field. I moved some 50 meters into the field and took a knee for another fruitless gander at my map. I thought I felt vibration in the ground below me. I was certain I felt vibrations under me. I looked up to see a bull, in full gallop, bearing down on me. I was in his field, and I had a bright orange panel (VF-17) spread out on the back of my rucksack.
I thought my ass was dragging in the dirt, and that I couldn’t go any farther, but I was wrong! I stood and turned, sprinting back toward the wire. When I thought I was close enough to the fence, I launched my rifle over it and dove over the top strand of wire. I came down hard on my side and just laid there. I looked up at the bull snorting at the fence, mucus oozing from his nostrils. I looked over at my rifle and decided it was much too far away for me to get up and go get it. I did so nonetheless, eventually.
I found myself at the edge of a vast open expanse of cleared land. There were many large spots of just dirt. It reminded me of a parachute drop zone. To my front, at 250 meters as the crow flies, was the hulk of a Volkswagen bus. I studied my map. Nothing! I deduced that I had to have walked myself off of my map sheet; it happened often to candidates in this course.
It was time to seek assistance, so I flipped a mental coin and it said to go that-a-way. On I marched at an easy speed until I came to a house, a house with a local gentleman sitting in a rocking chair, whittling a morsel of hard oak, hound dog sprawled lazily at his feet. Several long guns leaned against the walls: a shotgun, a lever-action, and a bolt-gun. There was a table littered with empty longneck Rolling Rock beer bottles.
I paused momentarily, straining to hear over the breeze. My ears strained hard against the faint white noise of the day, filtering out the sound of scurrying squirrels, swaying branches, the rattle and buzzing of insects. My ears drew in all available audio wavelengths like finely tuned instruments, searching, searching for the flat, tinny sound of plucking banjos. None detected, I continued my approach as if walking through the film “Deliverance.”
As I closed with Jethro, he made no attempt to meet me halfway. Social skill was not the big thing up there on that porch. With a bite of humble pie, I uttered in my finest Appalachian accent, “Howdy!” No response whatsoever. I continued on with the story of my plight. Spying the map in my hand, he asked to have a look. We both looked at the map and he nodded and “uh-huh-ed” several times in a seeming knowing manner. “Well, I can run you in ma truck where ya need ta go.” He offered. I eagerly accepted and threw myself and my ruck into the back of his truck.
Off we roared in a flurry of dust clouds. We bounced around on rough country roads for about 15 minutes. Every second of the ride was bliss for me because I knew this day was over. Sure, I had not successfully completed the day’s exercise, but Delta could kiss my ass! Today’s exercise didn’t matter; it was just practice! The truck came to a halt with another dust plume. The wind was at our back, so all that dust we had stirred up on the drive would be catching up to us for the next minute or so. I thanked my driver profusely and he sped off. I waited for the dust to settle so I could grab my bearing. When it finally did, there to my front, at 250 meters as the crow flies, was the hulk of a Volkswagen bus.
I staggered down the country road like a drunk. Andy and Opie Taylor passed me carrying fishing rods and whistling. Walking on roads was forbidden, but let’s face it, I was done and just wanted to go home. Eventually I spied one of our unmistakable hearse-like vehicles on the side of the road. The driver got out and opened the tarp on the back of the truck. He stood by it with an irritated look on his face that said to me, “It’s late, get the fuck in the truck and let’s go.”
I limped into the chow hall where all my mates were already eating. I ladled from the banquet that the chefs blessed us with for dinner. I sat next to my great bud P-Mac and Mike P. who asked me how my day went. “Swimmingly,” I responded, and we quickly talked about something else. P-Mac confessed that he felt like having another dessert, but his tone was one of guilt. “Mac,” I said in earnest, “think about what you did today and go get yourself another piece of pie. And after that, go get yourself another piece of pie.” P-Mac flashed a eureka glance and headed for the pie carousel.
Another evening in the chow hall, we were taking mental inventory of who was there and who was not. Danny K. was a very well-liked Green Beret in our class. Prior to the Green Berets, he had, among other things, been an amateur comedian performing in several competitions. Everyone appreciated the positive impact on morale that his sense of humor brought. He was not, however, a strong candidate. The class pulled for him nonetheless.
On this eve, in his absence, he was the topic of conversation at the dinner table. From within the chow hall, the distinct thumping of Blackhawk rotor blades grew louder. In close proximity to the chow hall was the helicopter landing pad. Selection and assessment used a Blackhawk helo for medical evacuation and search and recovery. The sound indicated the Blackhawk had landed and shut down. Within the next three minutes, the door to the chow hall was flung open, and in walked Danny K., his black hair standing straight up. His face was pallid and sunken. He walked straight to the serving line to the applause and cheers of all of us at dinner.
Graded and recorded phase
All the practice days were over. At this point, we would move into a final week of harder movements, with heavier loads and additional stress added. What’s more, we would not retire to the comfort of barracks and master chef Mike W.’s cuisine. At the end of the day, if you were not pulled from the course for being too slow, quitting, or losing your map or rifle, you found yourself trucked to a gouge in the mountain, free to make a shelter, a fire, eat, and sleep.
During the practice weeks, it was with great hope and expectation that you would manage to pull all of the mistakes from your arsenal of idiocy and shake them out once and for all. At the end of the final practice week, you dragged all your injuries—to both your body and psyche—along to meet the fearful specter of the selection and assessment course. In this phase of the course, where once I felt a harmony of equal participation between my mind and body, my body began to slip away from its contribution to equality. My mind would have to step up and shoulder the extra burden.
Priorities of work once a shelter was set up were:
- Take care of your transport mode (your feet)
- Eat preferably hot food
There would be a great deal of sleeping like logs and babies in the mountains on these nights. The difficulty came in getting oneself up at zero dark thirty, packing up, and making sure you were standing out on the mountain road when the truck drove by to get you. Miss the first truck? The second truck would be by later to bring you back to the barracks, then to the airport.
My first night on the mountain, it had poured rain, but my extra attention to my shelter the previous evening had paid off. My cover had remained strong and I had remained dry for the most part. In fact, through the night I slept somewhat oblivious to the torrent raging “outside.” When I awoke, my head felt like it weighed 20 pounds. I had to manually bend my lower joints, working them back into motion.
I got up early to have a hot cup of coffee. This was my plan the previous night. The cup of hot coffee would serve as a psychological maneuver to get myself out in front of my mental demons. I packed up quickly first, then slowly burned a cup of cold brown water into steaming java. I was supposed to only suffer this morning, but my coffee was beating down the system, cheating it out of delivering at least one more punch in the gut first thing in the morning. I threw a glace skyward to sift through stars for a wink to a friendly constellation. The firmament revealed nothing.
At our starting point, my truckload of candidates sat silently in the back of the truck shivering and silent, all heads bowed. Each ran through his own rendition of mental preparation. Some call it “soul-searching.” I have always hated that phrase. Soul-searching is something hippies did at Woodstock. The men in this truck were proven, experienced, hard pipe-hittin’ sons of bitches. They meant to be here and weren’t ashamed to admit it.
As the numbers were called and the truck began to empty, it began to rain again—not a downpour, but a dribbling rain. Oddly, a bird in a tree just next to our truck began to whistle and chirp and sing in the most spirited fashion, totally out of keeping with the weather and setting. Rob L.’s number was called. He exited the truck, profiting by the height of the bed of the truck to slip on his ponderous rucksack. Just as he left for the front of the truck, he paused, looked back at us with an expression that would christen the day, and said, “That bird…that bird can go fuck itself!” And he was gone.
Once I had my route plotted and I was cleared to go, I fired myself out of a cannon. I plowed through vegetation and hurdled deadfalls and boulders. I was Superman—no question about that. I imagined I heard my cape snapping in the wind behind me as I leaped tall buildings in a single bound.
Slowly, I began to resort back to the mild-mannered Clark Kent…and eventually I became Lois Lane, as I dragged my rifle and my ass behind me. I felt like I had walked long enough. I mean, usually by this time I was at my first RV (rendezvous with a cadre member). I glared at my map and pulverized the terrain around me with my stare. Try as I may, I could not make the terrain at my location fit the map where I wanted it to. One second it fit, the next it didn’t. My frustration mounted high, and there, it met my level of stress.
I began to almost wander, and wandering at high speed gets you more lost, faster. I began to swear out loud and trip and fall more frequently. Each fall just took so much more out of me. Finally I dropped my rubber duck and jettisoned my ruck. I walked about 50 meters away and just breathed, bent over with my hands on my knees. I caught my breath, which was playing hard to catch.
I held out my map with Silva compass held to it hard with my thumb. I found north and turned slowly in a full circle, pausing every few degrees to search for an Earth/paper match, or any recognizable clue. I rendered a decision on my path forward, and fixed my stare on a cope of trees at the bottom of the grassy slope I was on. That should be right, shouldn’t it? Come on, I need just one more clue to put me at ease with my path forward. The wind whipped through the copes and the trees swayed. They seemed to be waving me forward, as if to say, “This way. Come this way.” That way I went.
I arrived at my first RV probably in twice the amount of time I should have. I reported sheepishly to the cadre in the PU truck. Once released, I picked out a more careful departure route and slowly jogged away from the truck. The rest of the day was a blur of terrain and torment, climbing over countless fences, crossing scores of creeks under the futile pretense of keeping my feet dry. It took more energy to cross a creek trying to keep my feet dry, so screw it—I eventually just sloshed right through them and got it over with.
My boots were nothing fancy: combat-style, black leather, two pairs. I treated them with nothing but Shinola boot polish. I made sure I rotated them each day. I ate no snacks, no power bars, powders, or gels. I thrived on only air, water, and leg boots.
None of us knew when the day would be over. We didn’t know how many days we would be humping the hills until the long walk was upon us. When I finally was told to to get in the back of a truck, there were quite a lot of other men already in there. I must have been one of the last ones.
The truck was zipped shut and it was near-total darkness. We knew not whether we were going to another gouge somewhere in the mountains to bed down, or back to the barracks to pack for the airport. Eventually, a couple of feeble speculations were voiced, countered by other speculations. One man tried peering through a tiny hole in the corner of the cover. He quickly regained his dignity and sat back down with the rest of us.
Finally, the truck stopped and the zipper was ripped open. Here we go, urban or rural, and the snare drum peeled. Crash! The cymbal rang and it was rural out there. Another day completed and still in the course. Enough rejoicing. Tomorrow was still a-comin’. Build shelter, show feet some love, eat hot food, sleep, repair body.
As my days under these condition played out, monotony descended upon me. My body was being consistently and decisively torn down. Each morning I found myself lost for approximately three hours between my start point and my first RV. The rest of the legs of my journey went relatively uneventfully.
My walking stick—I mean rifle—was to be carried by hand, as we had no slings. Though it was merely a rubber duck (mock rifle), it was to be respected and treated like a firearm at all times. I had eventually taken to using it sparingly as a walking stick, sporting it with required respect only as I spiritedly jogged the last 100 meters to my RVs. “Color and number,” requested the Delta cadre in the military M-880 pickup truck.
As the misery grew, I used my rifle as a cane to the extent that I even wrapped a drive-on rag (multi-purpose medical cloth) around it to pad it from my hand, which was rapidly becoming blistered.
At the end of a particularly gruesome move, I was so thoroughly whipped that I blatantly drug my toy rifle behind me in the mud, still tied to my bleeding hand by the drive-on rag. “Just give me the coordinates to my next RV, please,” I demanded. “Color and number,” requested the cadre with a granite face that was equally indifferent to my sense of humor as it was to my request.
Though my luck was holding out, I constantly contemplated getting soundly lost—so lost that I would have to engage in my recovery solution, which entailed setting up shelter, starting a fire, laying out my VF-17 panel, and calling for rescue with my emergency radio. I ventured they would find me easily enough, as I had left a “bread-crumb trail.” They need only follow the trench I had been cutting with my dick dragging in the dirt.
Day five. Same story. Lost first thing in the morning. Later on that day, I would for the first time pass by another candidate that I saw in the distance. He was coming right at me, and we would pass close enough for mutual recognition. We were both running. I had no intention of breaking the rules by stopping and talking. As we got within a couple of hundred meters, I could tell without a doubt that it was my long-time best bud on the planet, P-Mac. I altered my trot to pass even closer to him. As we got to within 50 meters, I could see that he was grinning from ear to ear. At 10 feet, I lifted my rifle-clutching hand up and beat my chest with it hard, letting out a battle cry.
We roared passed each other. I felt energized and began scything through grass and vaulting logs and rocks. I continued blazing an azimuth across the WV mountains until I heard the petite voice of Lois Lane whisper in my head, “Oh, Clark…stop showing off before you pull something.”
“Get into the back of the truck,” the cadre finally told me at my “last” RV. He threw open the back panel and I gazed in horror into the chasm of the empty truck. Had everyone else gotten lost too? Did I run through a star gate somewhere during one of my many less-than-conscious stupors? I climbed in and the cadre zipped shut the back panel. Oh God, this can’t be good. I felt like Al Pacino in “Carlito’s Way,” being wheeled away on the gurney after being stitched by Vinney from the Bronx. “Sorry, boys…all the stitches in the world can’t sew me together again.”
The zipper shrieked, the back flap opened, and light flooded the truck bed. I squinted hard against the light and…rural! OK, I’m stunned, but…shelter, feet, food, sleep, repair. In the morning, when my alarm clock screeched, I rolled over in my bed and reached toward my night stand to slap the snooze button for another five minutes of sleep. No bed, no night stand, just my G-Shock spouting off for coffee call. That G-Shock…it can go fuck itself, but I got up and did my routine. I had to stay out in front of the system. I had to have this small coffee victory to demonstrate to myself and to my torment that I was still in charge.
I waited next to the mountain road for the truck to arrive and perhaps scare away a few crows with my appearance in the meantime. With hope, this was the first truck of the morning. As I waited, I looked skyward at the stars, hoping once again to wink at some friendly constellations, but there were none. I noticed then that a fine icy sleet was hitting me in the face, and I began to shiver. I heard a ruckus emanating from down the pitch-dark mountain road. Driven by a team of eight black stallions came a dark hearse with large yellow wagon wheels grinding and cracking in the gravel. The cadre threw open the back panel and in I went.
As I departed my start point, the sleet had turned into a full-caliber snow. During a brief pause for a map check, I cleared my brain for a moment and I watched the woods fill up with snow and pondered the miles I had to go before I slept…the miles to go before I slept. Yeah, Robert Frost…he can go fuck himself, too. I plodded along in a now more intense snow, pinging from RV to RV, my mind’s eye fixed on a warm fire.
The snow was getting ridiculous. It was coupled with a veering wind that brought it in at an ever steeper angle, such that I thought it would be horizontal before long. I cupped my hand in front of my compass to keep the snow from covering it. The conditions were appalling, but I was warm from my labor, and confident in my movement.
I finally happened upon a graveyard to my front. Was this my final RV? I looked on my map and in fact I did see an RV approximately 600 meters from this graveyard. I would cut through the graveyard, as going around it would be much too taxing. The tombstones had great piles of snow on their windward sides. The snow trapped in the graveyard was deep, such that I had to post-hole my way through it. I found my RV and once again boarded a deserted truck for a long and bumpy ride to—surprise—a rural camp site.
Fort, feet, fire, food, fast asleep. The morning found me sitting on my rucksack, nursing a cup of tepid coffee. It was no longer snowing, but the temperature had plummeted. When the hearse arrived, my coffee was almost gone, not so much from having drank it, rather from having spilled it due to shivering so hard. I approached the rear of the hearse, the stallions snorting and stamping. I cast not a glance skyward to the constellations.
When I departed my starting point, to omit all conjecture, I deliberately set an azimuth straight to the twilight zone, where I would spend the next three hours clicking my heels and chanting, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” The route beyond the twilight zone was typically fraught with the usual mind games of doubt, second-guessing, and resignation, spiced occasionally with the warm feeling of actually knowing where I was—both on the face of the Earth, as well as on the map.
“Get in the truck,” the cadre beckoned. He threw open the back panel, and there sat Bill Murray. “Welcome to Groundhog Day, George. Get in!” Bill bade me. I humbly accepted. Bill slowly faded out and in faded one, and then several of my fellow candidates, gaunt and sunken-cheeked, looking like plates of cold leftovers. I read the words forged in wrought iron at the top of the truck bed, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” as I passed under them to enter the bed of the truck. I took my seat on the wooden bench as the zipper zipped shut. In near total darkness, we were tucked snug in the bed, visions of rural or urban danced in my head.
When the back panel next opened, the scene from the back of the truck was rustic and wooded, scenic and comfortable. There were some 15 of my peers all gathered together in an amorphous tent city of sorts. They were all close to each other, chatting, working, and there was a central fire pit that they all chipped in to tend. Cooking and bare feet prevailed. Guys wore sandals or stepped gingerly in bare feet around the fire. There were canteen cups held up in toast to us as we hopped off the truck.
We intermingled with them and erected our “hooches.” There was no HOA here; do what you want, build how you want, any shape, size, color. Fuck me running, I had died and gone to Woodstock! We settled in, performed work priorities, and sat one final time with no intention of standing again until morning. My greatest thrill of the day? My buds P-Mac and Mike P. had made it all this way and we sat up together talking, or not talking, far past the rest of the guys who had since turned in to sleep.
Tomorrow clearly would begin the long walk. We had already been issued our report times. We exchanged times and vowed that we would back each other up to make sure we all got up on time. My report time would be 0130 hours. I would back that off with enough time to have my last cup of coffee. My canteen cup already had water in it, and was covered by a piece of cardboard with a rock on it to keep dirt and insects out of it. My heat tabs, matches, coffee, and cream packets were all laid out in a neat array that I could find and prepare in the dark.
It was getting dark and we three were still awake talking. Finally a sensible man, Chris K. sat up and invited us to kindly shut the fuck up. We turned in immediately for a restless sleep. The motif of my dreams that “night” was the Wizard of Oz. They were all there: the Scarecrow, Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The quartet engaged in all measure of stupidity and senseless dream conduct, but always culminating in the scene with them all abreast of each other, arms interlocked and chanting as they walked. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” I opened my eyes and looked at the stars to spot some of the friendly constellations that I knew and to wink at them. Still, there were none.
The long walk
I awoke thankfully before my alarm ever went off. I don’t think I was even really asleep at any point, rather just hallucinating all the while. I prepared my coffee in the rain; it refused to really get hot with the constant heavenly dilution. I drank it grudgingly. I reported for my marching orders and, in my own fine tradition, proceeded to get lost on my first leg. Why should today be any different than the rest? In the valley I had descended into, I had selected a fork in a creek as my reference point to set my short final approach to my first RV. Rain had rendered the valley floor a myriad of creeks, streams, and rivulets.
Still dark, the valley was alive with running water. I felt like I was wandering through a house of mirrors. I came face-to-face with my bro Mark “Cuz” C., a badass Ranger suffering my same fate. We exchanged words, none of which contained the slightest vestige of meaning, only serving to verify we were both equally lost.
A faint light blinked for several seconds at a distance of several hundred meters. With no real explanation, it is possible that it was what we called a “white light AD,” or an accidental discharge of a flashlight that was not protected with an infrared cover. Whatever the reason, Cuz and I both saw it and headed toward it. Score! It was a military pickup truck, our first RV.
I had several RVs behind me now with no more lost time. At one particular RV, having just been cleared to depart, I topped off my canteens from a five-gallon water can near the truck. Then I drank from a cup tied to the water can with a lanyard. As I drank, I noticed there was a rubber duck rifle laying propped on a large piece of deadfall. “Uh oh…that doesn’t look good at all,” I thought. Is is possible that someone ahead of me actually left his rifle behind? How could that even be possible? I clutched my rifle tightly.
Ranger Farussi was part of our selection class. I would describe him as a nice enough jolly ol’ fellow, quick with the witty comments, animated as hell, and maybe even a bit of a yuk-yuk—you know, to the extent that it could get a bit annoying. P-Mac got downright irritated with him. As he put it, “You know, Farussi shows up every time wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, shuffling off to Buffalo; he’s here to freakin’ entertain us all! I’m sick of it!”
Ranger Farussi was in front of me now on the march. He was coming at me, going the opposite way that he should be going. As he drew near, I could see that he was crying in frustration. He was red-faced…and weaponless! As he came within spitting distance, he blubbered, “Have you seen my rifle?”
“Yeah it’s…” I started, but he dashed past me in a fit. I regarded him momentarily. My God, he had gotten all the way to his next RV and the cadre in the truck had queried, “Where is your rifle, candidate?” It would not be possible for him to recover his rifle and continue on to pass the course time standard.
There was a shameful rumor that drifted among the class earlier in the barracks days. Everyone knew that if you made it to the top of Mozark Mountain, that was the end of the walk. That was the final RV and you were finished! I foolishly subscribed to the notion that it all ended there on the summit of that hateful rock. It would be sweet!
Until then, the movement to Mozark Mountain would be a murderous trek along the Otter Creek trail that refused to end. I mused to myself that Cabanatuan must certainly exist at the end of the Otter Creek trail. To interrupt the monotony, I deemed it necessary to relieve myself of number two. I pushed into the vegetation several meters off the trail, dropped trow, and took a squat.
It occurred to me that I should exploit my “break” even further by multi-tasking, so I pulled some components of an MRE (a food package) from my cargo pocket and ate. I recall how I tried to eat an energy bar while on our 18-mile speed march weeks earlier. I was already breathing hard, and trying to chew up the energy bar made me nearly go hypoxic. There would be no more attempts to eat on the move.
As I performed my feat of simultaneous intake and purge, I heard the distinct sound of another man on the move approaching. Rod “The Bod” G. moved across my front, cradling his weapon clumsily, a copious amount of blood running down his smashed face. “Hang in there, dammit, Rod!” I encouraged.
“I will if I can just keep from falling down again,” he replied with a minute quiver in his voice. He was staying in this fight!
I was up and on the move again. The trail was on a distinct decline by now, so I knew I was headed down into the valley where the Cheat River would be. In the past, candidates were on their own to forge across the river the best they could. There was a problem: The river was subject to weather variables, and would fluctuate in terms of water depth and speed of current. Ranger Scott Stay drowned attempting to cross the river. The Unit resorted to ferrying candidates across the river in rubber raiding craft, and eventually a full steel bridge was erected over the river.
After a long, painful descent into the valley, I finally came into view of the Cheat River, and then the bridge. I saw from my distance that there was a candidate on the bridge, crossing. It wasn’t Rod “The Bod,” it was a tall, lean brother with a mop of blond hair. I suspected it was Derek “Fat Man” G. I briskly jogged across the bridge. I faced Mozark Mountain to my front. One last kick (a really hard one) in the nuts, and this veil of tears would finally be parted.
I think my pause at the base of Mozark was the longest halt I made on the long walk. I was contemplating the best way to ascend that monster. It was extremely steep and covered with the damnedest thick vegetation I had ever seen. I saw a trail on the map that seemed to start (or end) near the base of the mountain, but not at the base—WTF was that all about? And, it was some distance from where I stood with my thumb up my fourth point of contact. A tempting plan B would be to duck my head down and ram my way straight up the bastard.
I convinced myself to be civilized about my approach, and set off jogging for the north side of the mountain where the trail was supposed to be. I ran into Fat Man G., standing with his map in hand, gawking at the steep expanse. I approached him and we illicitly had a full conversation on the best approach to ascend. Finally, the Man of Fat set off on his azimuth up the slope. I drew my own route and turned skyward to began my punishment.
Fat Man came from 10 SFG(A) in Germany. He was one of my students when I was an instructor at SCUBA school. He was attending the diver supervisor course to qualify him to organize and execute successful diver operations at his home unit. Fat Man embraced the course and asked many questions—too many questions for some of my instructor peers. They began to finger him as a sharpshooter and smart-ass. I heard the gab in the instructor’s lounge and took it at face value, as I would be on the platform soon enough.
Once on the platform, I waited for the onslaught from Fat Man. Yes, he asked many questions, all of which I appreciated as valid attempts to better understand his subject. I quickly developed a great respect and admiration for the Fat Man, and looked forward to my next chance behind the podium. Post-class, I returned to the lounge. “Well, how was he? Did we tell you what an ass he was?” I was asked.
“Negative,” was my response. “All I saw was a professional soldier and adult, trying to get as much out of this course as he can.” ‘Nuff said.
The vegetation we faced was mountain laurel. It is some of the most robust and indestructible flora I have ever encountered. I tried breaking my way through it, crawling under it, swimming over the top of it, screaming at it. If I had a machete, the machete would have said, “Really? No, really…fuck you!” If I had my way, I would have dowsed the whole mountain with Agent Orange and just came back in a week, but even then I would still have that steep slope to negotiate.
“Just do it, George. Paradise rests at the top of this mountain. It will all be over soon. Just a few more hours,” I coaxed myself. I twisted and threaded my way through the laurel. At times I threw my rubber rifle as far up the slope as I could, then clawed my way to it. Sometimes I took off my rucksack and dragged it behind me. At any point when I encountered a Dr. Seuss-looking growth that was taller than the laurel, I climbed it in an attempt to see ahead. Nothing but the Great Laurel Sea—ahoy!
I paused more and more frequently to mumble a mixture of epithets and prayers. My compass hadn’t been out of my breast pocket in over two hours. Altitude was my compass. Up, keep going up. Up was the only direction that mattered now. I didn’t even have to lift my head anymore because up was easy to find, even with the eyes closed. And up was where I wormed my way for an eternity, until there was no more up.
Somewhere on this same hater of a mountain, my good bud P-Mac toiled through the laurel in his own slice of personal hell. Finding an impostor of a tree, he pulled himself up to get a look around in hopes of spotting a vestige of a terrain feature to orient him. He suddenly lost his footing and fell from the tree, landing on his back. Below him, he felt a struggling movement. He sat up immediately. He had landed on a black bear cub. Rather than marvel at nature and the beauty of flowers, he was keenly aware that where bear cubs were found, bear moms lingered. A quick scan of the laurel tops revealed the tremendous head of a mother bear, her eyes driving daggers into Mac’s heart. For lack of anything better to say, Mac waved and called out a nervous, “Hi….” Rifle and ruck, Mac was the fuck out of there.
The ground beneath me inched toward horizontal once again. The laurel thinned and even gave way to patches devoid of the pernicious plant. There appeared paths and corridors through the laurel, and even something other than laurel, thank God. My compass squirmed in my breast pocket, entreating exit so it could be put to use. I could certainly see on my map where my next RV was, but where was I? That was the million-dollar question.
I zigged and zagged toward the summit of Mozark, looking for footprints or tire tracks, any sign of something other than myself and laurel. Then I saw them—his footprints. He was hands-down the fastest and best cross-country navigator in the class. We had all seen his footprints throughout the course, because he was always out in front of us. He never saw our footprints and didn’t care, because he was the fastest and best navigator in the class.
He came from Camp Ethan Allan in Vermont. He was from the elite 10th Mountain Division. He had a special customized sole on his high-speed mountain boots that were far superior than any of our boots. They left a unique print in the soft soil as he blazed from RV to RV. The “Mountain Man” had, in fact, blazed the fastest 40-mile path that day, and was first at the coveted end-of-march traditional fire pit.
The Mountain Man, though composed of superior physical genetics, was afflicted with a minuscule personality flaw. The specific pathology was assigned the clinical term Flamingassholeitis. He was a profound asshole. The commander’s board was lightning fast at detecting his disease, even without a blood test. I envisioned the Mountain Man in an old western movie, sauntering before the commander’s board through the double swinging saloon doors, spurs ringing as he slowly swaggered in…only to moments later come flying fully airborne through the swinging doors as the bosses tossed him out on his ass.
Now I was faced with a dilemma: continue to zig and zag, or follow the prints. I had about one pound of energy left in my gizzard before I would collapse and turn on my emergency radio. I gambled that one pound on the footprints. I paused for my eyes to obtain my target lock, turned on my afterburner, and introduced myself to the sound barrier as I fixed my gaze on the prints in the dirt. The prints passed by faster and faster, until I almost rammed headfirst into a military pickup truck with a stone-faced Delta operator in the driver’s seat.
Colored balloons by the hundreds slowly fell from the sky. Confetti by the bushel scattered in the mountain air. Triumphant music blared from horns and trumpets of every sort. Gorgeous models in skimpy bikinis sauntered out of the laurel, placed leis around my neck and kissed me on the forehead or cheek. The Delta Force commander himself came marching out smartly carrying a giant, oversized golden key to the Unit, which I graciously accepted. “I just want to thank God, my parents, and the academy!”
“Here are the coordinates to your next RV,” the cadre stated unemotionally as he handed me a card scribbled with bullshit. No…no there must be some sort of misunderstanding, I insisted. You see, I’m finished…I’m at the top of Mozark Mountain and finished with the long walk. You, sir, are surely mistaken. Let me see your map and your location on it. I got a letter from Delta saying they wanted me. I made it to the top of Mozark. I am finished with this walk, and I don’t have an atom of energy left to entertain your bullshit!
OK, OK…I’ll play your silly game. Go ahead now and hand me the “coordinates” to my next “RV,” ha ha ha. This is going to be a riot. I plotted the coordinates, and then I plotted them again…and then I plotted them one more time and, nine miles to my next RV? “You are free to depart this RV,” the cadre deadpanned. “There is water in the container behind you,” he continued. “Candidate, do you hear me? What are your questions, candidate?”
Slowly, I turned and faced the entrance to the nine-mile stretch of Plantation Trail. I walked out onto the trail. It was steep and I would be traversing the entire way, which meant I would be walking on the sides of my feet. I turned and looked behind me. There, at some 75 meters to my rear, was my rear, my ass, dragging along obediently, leaving a noticeable linear impression as it progressed. I knew I wouldn’t be needing my ass to complete this last trek, only my legs, so I left it up to my ass to catch up on its own. Historically, it was somewhere around this point that candidates were known to wander off course at high speed, and literally walk out of West Virginia into neighboring Philadelphia and Maryland.
I stepped out, splashing along Plantation Trail, as there were hundreds of rivulets flowing downslope and creating giant pools of water on the trail every 100 meters or so. I don’t know why I even took a step at all, because I was finished—incapable of walking another step forward. Stick a fork in me because I am done. I tiptoed around the giant puddles because I was finished, and was no longer required to suffer in soaked boots. Somewhere on the road I had designated dry feet as the measure of my success as a man. I would preserve the integrity of my dry feet as a symbol of my victory, and I would continue to walk.
I strolled along now, not as a man driven to succeed, but more as a guy just curious to see what would happen next. I saw an illusion to my front. A ration cracker, whole and intact, laying just above the muddy water on new grass sprouts, perfectly captured above the contamination of the mud. I gently lifted it and gobbled the crispy goodness. I would later learn how Mark “Cuz” C. had ventured to eat a ration cracker while on the move on Plantation Trail only to lose control of it and drop it. That would not be worth the effort to retrieve.
When I had taken my last step of the day, I pushed up the slope of the trail a few meters to reach a dry spot and flopped my rucksack onto the ground. I stretched my legs out straight in front of me. This is the first time of the day that my feet had not been on the ground and rested. I regarded the sun getting low on the horizon. I acknowledged the distant sound of freeway traffic far off to my rear. I looked at my map for signs of a freeway. Nothing. By this time, off-course candidates were already crossing state lines into Maryland and Philadelphia.
I heard a string of epithets to my right. I shifted my blank gaze to the swearing sound and saw the Fat Man sloshing his way down Plantation Trail to my front, right smack through the middle of the wide puddles that plagued the trail. “Goddamn,” he shouted, “How much fucking farther do we have to go?” I listened with apathy. I stared at nothing for the longest period of time. I regarded my feet, which I had ignored for countless hours since I left the departure point in the rain, and the dark, facing the anguish of the unknown.
I watched Fat Man disappear into the dark of the vegetation, realizing finally that the day was becoming long of tooth. I thought of my lost candidate instructions. My fragile train of thought was easily shattered by the image of Bruce G. traversing my front. He was shocked to see me just sitting there and locked eyes with me momentarily. I stated, “It’s over, Bruce. We are done with this course. We need to build a shelter and make radio contact and, bleah…bleah…bleah.” Bruce mumbled many things, as he was inclined to do, and travelled on.
“Goddammit it, Bruce. Did you hear what I said?” I shouted. I rose to my feet, shouldered my ruck, and chased Bruce down Plantation Trail to save him from his misguided plight. How hard could it be to catch up to this guy? How far ahead of me could he be? I finally spied Bruce at a military M-880 pickup truck. I paused and waited for him to leave. I approached the truck and engaged in the usual pre-staged banter.
“Here are the coordinates to your next RV,” the cadre in the truck said as he offered a card. “Oh, no…here is the next card you can shove up your ass,” I mentally rejected. “There, behind you, is a five-gallon water can,” he paused and winked at me, “If you think you are going to need it!” Ok, I was intrigued, what’s with the wink? I plotted the coordinates to the RV and then plotted them again. Seven hundred meters? That couldn’t be right. Only 700 meters?
The 700 meters was up a cleared area that ran under a stretch of high-tension power lines. I moved up the steep slope along the power lines only to find the area a soupy and muddy swamp. I moved into the wood line where I made good forward progress in spite of the deadfall. I could see Bruce G. in the muck of the swamp in the clearing, stuck and swearing. My climb through the deadfall terminated in a dry mountain road. My azimuth told me to turn to my left and proceed down that road.
It was pitch black, so I saw nothing but the faint glow of my compass, but at once I heard the voice of a man in front of me who spoke, “Congratulations, Sergeant Hand. You have passed the first phase of the selection and assessment course. Continue for another 200 meters down this road. You will see a fire pit on your left; take your instructions from the cadre at the fire pit.”
No balloons, no confetti, no trumpets, no scantily clad vixens…but a camp fire would do nicely! At the fire, there were some eight of my peers wagon-wheeled around the fire, all barefoot and aiming their Cheshire grins my way. They choked in on their wagon wheel and offered me a spoke of space. I dropped my ruck and dug out a pair of socks from a side pouch.
Sitting by the fire, I momentarily contemplated my boots—musing that they should perhaps just be left on forever to hold the mess inside in the shape of a foot. I agonized over the elaborate knot configuration I had invented to ensure they did not come loose or slip. I drew my knife and severed my laces. I bared my feet to the fire as a cadre member handed me sandwiches. He ladled a hot beverage from a pot on the fire into a canteen cup and passed it to me. It was a concoction they had invented for just this occasion. Its essential ingredients were spiced apple cider and Johnny Walker whiskey. They appropriately dubbed the aperitif, “Long Walker.”
I put on the dry socks, sipped Long Walker, and swallowed bologna and cheese sandwiches a half sandwich at a time. By design, there wasn’t enough whiskey in the drink to inebriate a man, but I felt a distinct buzz after imbibing two cups. That may just as well have been from the apple cider as the Johnny Walker.
Since I had left my initial departure point, nearly 18 and a half hours had passed on my trek to the fire pit. I zoned out on the snap of the flames in our pit, and recalled my attitude coming into the selection and assessment course: It would just be good to get away from my home unit for a one-month break. Certainly I would give it my best, but if I failed, I would still be returning to one of the greatest organizations in the U.S. military, and that would be OK. I did not absolutely have to have a locker in the Delta Force. I looked up to the stars to perhaps recognize and wink at some familiar constellations, and there were many.
“The probability of achieving the outcome you desire will increase once you let go of the need to have it.”—Patrick Arthur McNamara