In the mid-90s the Commanding General of Ft. Bragg, NC was married to a conservationist of flora and fauna. Oh, keeper of the golden heart, she; the harbinger of salvation for all that which burgeons forth from dirt, and for that which forages in the dirt for food and shelter. Be it a wisp on the wing or a burrowing brother there would be solace for all living and growing things, or there would be no late-night… “comfort”.

A frame grab of the General’s wife as she appeared in the 1994 afees catalogue

The keeper of the golden heart was also the keeper of the General’s intestinal fortitudinous gumption. Some say he lacked balls. Ok, whatever. Misses General came to pining away the fate of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, or as we took to affectionally referring to it as the “Red Cock-headed Woodpecker”, or simply “the Dick-Head.” It seems the bird pissed hot on the ornithological list of species facing extinction.

Lady General saw to it that the general would embrace and comply with environmental measures and procedures to salvage the existence of the Dick-Head. Were ever the Dick-Head spotted burrowing into a tree, a generous radius of a tree stand around that Dick-Head’s home was put off-limits to the tread of man and all association therewith.

The venerable "Dick-Head" Red-Caucaded woodpecker in all it's orinthological wonder.

And then it happened.

Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Fish and Wildlife (NCDFW) inspected inside the Unit compound; found Dick-Head habitats; and subsequently closed off a large stand of pine woods on our demolitions training range — WHAT?

A troop of pipe-fitters from the North Carolina Department of Fish and Wildlife pose for a photo prior to setting off on a long-range intelligence-gathering patrol.

“Who let these fuckers come onto our turf and inspect anything in the first place??” a brother bitterly lamented — touché!

The loss of that chunk of range really stung the pipe-hitters. It’s not like it wasn’t getting maximum use. Breaching charges could be heard and felt within the main cantonment building daily, with the mandatory sporadic mother-of-a-charge that rattled windows and clearly exceeded the maximum Net Explosive Weight (NEW) allowed on our range by Ft. Bragg Range Control. We broke the NEW so often that Range Control threatened to install a seismic sensor outside our fence to monitor our NEWs.

A group of us had been in the Unit Commanders’ office with him when such a MOAB (Mother Of All Bombs) detonated shaking the room. The boss frowned like a Chinese pug and roared:

“Goddamnit, you guys need to cut that shit out!” My brother Sam Foster, as only Sam Foster would dare to do, remarked with his eyelids half-closed in boredom:

“Well, I mean it wasn’t us, Sir — right?” glancing around the room at each man and shrugging.

The boss frowning

The Dick-Head became a wanted bird in the Unit compound. A mandatory SOS (Shoot on Sight) order was disseminated among the pipe-hitters, and the Dick-Head became Dead Bird Flying over the Green Mile. It was believed that the Dick-Head even understood its fate, as more and more of them came to pass the days perched on a section of roof eve just outside the Unit Commander’s window. Suppressed long guns were considered, but not implemented.

I remember witnessing my first Dick-Head kill: I swung in just short of my destination pistol range to chew some fat with my brother Pat “P-Mac” McNamara, who was with his team on an adjacent range. Engaged in chat, Mac suddenly froze in wonder at a bird that had just come to light on a target plank downrange.

Mac has always been an avid Bird Watcher, a thing he was bullied for as a youth, but that had ceased to exist as an issue in adult life — “Bring it!” He said to anyone who offered sarcasm over his passion — “Bring it!”

“My God!” he exclaimed jubilantly, “a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker!”

“Holy crap!” one of his team bros peeled, “Are… are you sure??”

“Damn sure; not a question about it!” Mac mentioned rather matter-of-Mackly.

With that, the brother raised his assault rifle and dropped the Dick-Head cleanly in the dirt. Mac instantly became unhappy Mac. And as I learned over 20 years ago, when Mac turned into Mad-Mac, it was time to venture out and explore distant lands. Were it not bad enough that the bird had been executed before Mac’s eyes, one of his team bros even snuck the bird carcass back and put it in Mac’s wall locker in their team room — such a relationship, theirs!

Short of being hunted by an intentionally organized posse or lynch mob, the Dick-Head population plummeted much to the chagrin of the Fish and Wildlife pukes. We detonated several NEW-exceeding cratering charges right on the very edge of the perimeter of the demolition range where the cordon of the Dick-Head habitat had been erected:

= KA-RUMPHHH = !!!

When the debris settled several of the men had nosebleeds and most of us couldn’t hear above the B-Flat humming in our ears.

“CHRIST, THE BOSS IS GOING TO SEND THE RSO (Range Safety Officer) OUT HERE TO INVESTIGATE — LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

“HUH?”

There was a gesture to scatter. Cuz jumped on the dirt bike he had ridden to the range and buzzed off jumping over the range safety berm and landing as smooth as you please just as the RSO raced up. The two passed each other in transit. Cuz put the hammer down and tore through the woods headed for the cantonment area.

As neutral luck would have it, the RSO decided he had a hard-on for Cuz and wanted blood. He raced his pickup truck through the wooded terrain road in pursuit, the rear wheels of his truck bouncing up off of the ground vigorously with each bump. The rest of us just drove the paved road back to the cantonment like civilized men, listening to the buzz of the dirt bike and the violent banging of the RSO’s pickup truck in the pinewood through our open window.

Back at our building, we heard the whine of Cuz’s engine drawing near. He kicked down his stand and ran into the building:

“Hide me, hide me — Don Soeble is after me. A brother standing in his open team room doorway motioned for him to come in and the door was closed behind him. From inside I saw the grumpy face of the RSO as he put his hand near the engine and exhaust of Cuz’s bike to feel the heat.

He stepped into the back of our squadron bay and stood with his hands on his hips and the meanest expression he could possibly muster on his face to demonstrate that he was infuriated and that we should be pissing ourselves in fear:

“I want the name of the man who just pulled up on this motorcycle — NOW! barked Don Soeble the RSO.

“Gosh Don, we weren’t aware that anyone pulled up on a motorcycle just now.”

“Well somebody was just on it — the engine is still warm!”

“Gosh Don, it’s an engine; it’s supposed to be warm, you know?”

“You squadron brigands think you can do whatever you want… well, I can assure you you haven’t heard the last of Don Soeble!”

“Gosh Don, “brigand”? I mean did you really have to go from zero to brigand in the same sentence — that really hurts, man.”

Don Soeble, the really (REALLY) mad RSO fumed his way out the door; paused momentarily at the smoking dirt bike with his hands on his hips and his meanest face mustered for effect… and then left.

We threw open the team room door and:

“Cuz, chow time; let’s get it on!!”

The pitched struggle for the demo range crept on for several more gruelling weeks between the pipe-hitters and the Dick-Head. Each side took turns sharing an ephemeral victory followed by the agony of defeat. The demo blast field cruelly exchanged hands, in some cases several times during a single day’s fight.

Delta pipe-hitters locked in ferocious combat with Department of Fish and Wildlife pipe-fitters and flocks of the Dick-Head on the Unit demolition range.

Letter to home (SFC Johnathan Cleavin-Treats McPhee):

“Dearest Martha,

The field is ours this day as the sun finally sets behind the Wyatt Lake Foothills. I can’t help but find it odd how flat and unremarkable the foothills look through the day, only to be awash in such a veritable crimson tide of sunset by day’s end.

The fighting was unusually heavy today. Our boys fought magnificently, rejoicing in a mere fleeting command of the demolition field, only to then bear the bilious sting of losing it yet again to our foe. Lying flat as a Johnnycake in the field, at times I felt quite certain that I should no sooner raise a single finger in the air than have it immediately severed by a minié ball.

Please forgive my many transgressions over the years, and give a warm hug and kiss to our children, Sarah Judith, and young Cleavin Jeremiah.

I remain yours truly,

Johnathan Cleavin-Treats McPhee”

At the end of all accounts, the pipe-hitters accepted a pyrrhic victory over the Dick-Head, reclaiming the full pine stand of their previous demolition range parcel. The NC Department of Wildlife, by way of fauna survey, declared it cleared part and parcel of any trace of the much-maligned Dick-Head.

“Let’s celebrate with a MOAB shot” rang out a suggestion, and we packed and packed explosives into a massive crater on the range.

“Man, this is going to be the biggest blast. Even Krakatoa is going to stick its fingers in its ears and say: ‘What the fuck was that?’”

There was a bright blinding flash at the end of the administered ten-second countdown. Trees were uprooted and tossed around like so many matchsticks. Water sprayed from several ruptured pipes sticking out of the ground. Bird carcasses littered the ground where a passing flock had been caught by the blast and instantly perished.

Among us pipe-hitters most had a nose bleed, bleeding from ruptured eardrums, and even several separated pericardial sacks from the genetically inferior of us. There were some feeble coughs and light squirming among the survivors, with one poor soul finally croaking out:

“Oh, man… the boss is gonna be PISSED!!”

“WHAT??”

“HUH??”

And there at the edge of the cavernous crater where we all lay, was the towering RSO, the mighty Don Soeble in all his glory — hands on his hips, meanest scowl he could muster… and we were all sore (SORE) afraid.

By Almighty God and with honor, I swear to you that all these accounts are true!
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