Saturday, February 03, 2007


Austin landed the only 76 Victor slot at WRAIR. Most supply jobs there were of course, medical supply. She wouldn’t be driving forklifts, no; her job in Overseas Support Branch was to build crates used for packing and shipping. A bit startled for a moment when she learned of the work, she quickly recovered and remembered they’d briefly built a small crate at Ft. Lee. Oh well, she’d learn to use a hammer.

Nothing deterred her. Not when she missed her stop the first time on the military shuttle taking her to buy an alarm clock at the PX (What? No hall guards or fire guards to shout the time?) And neither the second ride, when she forgot her purse at the bus stop. Nothing to blame it on but habit and fascination. She hadn’t carried a handbag in months and the purple and orange leaves wouldn’t let her eyes rest as she rode on the bus.

She wanted to see everything, she told her roommate three weeks later. “I want to see everything in this city. Even the crack houses.”

How worldly and confident she felt. She’d already visited the Smithsonian and the Vietnam Memorial, The Wall. She buzzed with enthusiasm in the hallways and in the office. She didn’t build crates at first since the retired Lieutenant Colonel trusted her with little more than pulling staples from the mess of shipping documents he handed her that first day. Once she neatly pulled the staples from the papers, she was then entrusted with the stapler to re-staple the documents. Not before.

Lt. Col. Evans (R), now what a man he was. OSB had been his baby for years. He wasn’t about to give it up or entrust much of it to anyone, even though he was finally forced to in the end.

Austin was promoted to Private First Class within a short time. More and more she was allowed to step into Mr. Evans' world. She checked the status of shipments with Transportation, became friends with the NCO from Andrews Air Force Base via the many phone conversations. She earned the responsibility of shipping and receiving wet and dry ice shipments: they were alive with precious germs and required “top priority” protection. The germs flew in from Bangkok and Malaysia. Medical supplies and equipment flew to Korea; books on the psyche of the soldier were shipped to Germany. She found the best deals for the Army's money or time, whichever was the most precious for a particular shipment at the time, then sent the procurement paperwork to Ft. Detrick, received pipettes and centrifuges when they arrived, then packed it up to go out again in the crate she’d helped Mr. Evans to build.

Duty consisted of flag detail twice a year and Assistant Charge of Quarters maybe four times a year. PT was “on your own” which she faithfully did daily, running through shopping centers, over the hilly grounds of WRAIR, WRAMC, and Rock Creek Park. Shortly after arriving, she’d learned that unless it was considered mission essential to qualify with the weapon, there’d be no such thing, and fortunately for her, a crate builder was not considered that essential. The world of weapons and drill was long gone for her, or just nearly, for she still had eight months of training she wouldn’t soon forget. It was hard for her to quit with the facing movements when she turned down a hallway, column left or right, and she always stood and went to a sharp 'Parade-Rest' when her NCO walked into her office, until finally, the spent sergeant said, “Chill, Austin, you’re out of training. You make me nervous with all that!”

Chow was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They had banned saluting around the hospital area. It was hard to get anywhere or much done otherwise because of all the officers. And at WRAIR, half the work force was civilian, so formations were out, lab experiments, white coats and badges, in.

Austin’s quarters were much to her liking as well. Her roommate, a twenty-one year old male soldier, worked at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, right across the street from WRAIR. How handy! His roommate was moving out, and the roommate had had the master bedroom, complete with its own full bath. Since she was also buying the small Sears-water-in-some-tubes-type-mattress left behind in the bedroom, they’d just make this room hers.


Specialist Ricardo Alessio from Akron, Ohio gave her the master bedroom as well as a ride to work. He was young and fresh, a little lazy as work goes, but in his own apartment for the first time. Rick shopped and controlled his kitchen. Half-Spanish, he loved to cook and serve with elaboration.

In the evenings, Austin would sit up at the kitchen table while smoke billowed from one of her endless cigarettes; a cold glass of Lipton iced tea, strong and with the ice added first not last rested near her right hand. As she raised the wet glass from the table and to her mouth, she noticed a small ring of sweat on the table top, a cheap wood replica, an apartment-pretty-dinette. Laying her cigarette down in the stoneware ashtray, her favorite ashtray now that she could claim them as her own once again, she took her left hand and wiped the table dry and stared into her glass. She liked her tea really strong. If she could see through the tea, it was too weak, and perhaps she mentally graded its color when her thoughts were interrupted. Rick had arranged the cans of tomatoes or corn thus such and so in his cabinets. He looked as if he reflected heavily on the perfect rows and he asked her, “Do you want eggs and sauce tonight?”

Groovy, she thought as she dragged deeply on a fresh cigarette. She looked toward him only a second. “I’m sure that’d be just grand,” was all she said, her eyes preoccupied once again with the wet glass, her thoughts captured and floated upon foam some people said was the color of snuff.

No comments: