One More Day, 2020 Second Place Adult Division
By Rebecca Crouse
“Four more months and a wake-up call. ”
“Three more weeks and a wake-up call. ”
“One more day and a wake-up call. ”
The daily litany, begun as a parched whisper each morning had bloomed into a dazzling exclamation of joy. The words unfurled from my lips as my eyes tracked across the calendar tacked next to my bunk. So many little squares traversed in bold, black “Xs.” I had marched through the months and had finally arrived at the last two empty squares. I’d be going home tomorrow.
Clad only in gym shorts and a sports bra, I threw off my sheet and danced over to the hanging rod where my flight suits lingered. The floor was rough, but I could almost feel the springy, green grass of southern Idaho. Palatial compared to the living situation of many of our deployed forces, my room was not much longer than my bunk and no wider than half a cartwheel. The true hero of the barracks, the AC unit, chugged away with a dogged determination in the corner. Nothing on this base worked harder than the beleaguered air conditioners. The heat of the desert blanketed the baked earth and not with the fluffy down-filled kind of comforter. It was more akin to a demon-possessed wool blanket bent on smothering all life.
I’d grown accustomed to the high-desert heat back home in Elmore County, but this country took it to a whole new level of climate torture. And if the oppressive heat wasn’t enough to curb the flow of tourists, the sprawling desert vistas were comprised exclusively of packed sand devoid of any green life or even hills to break up the monotony.
The cool blast from the AC pebbled my skin with goosebumps and I hurried to change into fresh underthings, all brown. Desert tan to be exact. T-shirt, socks, combat boots, flight suit, all boring desert tan. I snugged my flight cap over my chin-length brown bob. The absence of my long locks no longer caught me by surprise; I’d had months to become accustomed to the drastic haircut I’d opted for after three days of trying to shampoo, condition and bathe in the allotted three minutes of shower time. Three days of my hair crammed into a bun that became autumn dry on the outside and remained as damp as the forest floor underneath.
I eased my door closed—much of the female barracks was empty, but several of the building’s inhabitants worked the night shift—and followed the dim florescent light to the front door. Few of the buildings had windows. I took a bracing breath in anticipation of the mounting heat outside. The metal doorknob was a lukewarm lump; it’s mate on the other side would be hotter than an August Tuesday. Normally, I’d sigh and stalk out the door. Today, nothing could hold back my grin; I was unsmotherable.
A Senior Airmen snapped a salute and almost dipped an aileron under the weight of the canvas duffel slung over his opposite shoulder. New meat on base. I returned his salute and smiled. The glisten of sweat on his brow would become a deluge before day’s end, but he’d acclimate. Eventually. Everyone did.
“Hey, Lt. This the way to the closest bus stop?” His voice held the weary tremor of an airman who’d been on one military transport plane after another for days.
“Yup.” I led the way. “You headed to the CAOC or…?” A large number of Air Force personnel were assigned to the Combined Air & Space Operations Center, though I was not.
“No, Ma’am. I’m attached to the KC-135 unit.” The tanker support building was not far from my office. The Airman squinted over at me. “I hear we get three beer chits a day?”
I bit my lip and slowly shook my head. “Nope. Sorry. We ran out yesterday. Big group of Marines came through on R & R.”
He froze, his eyes filled with the horror a camel feels when faced with one more piece of straw. “But. ..”
I stopped a few paces ahead and laughed. “I’m just screwing with you. There’s beer.
Hell, there’s a pool, a movie theater and a KFC. It’s a damn oasis.”
My words seemed to give him lift and we continued to the bus stop. During our air- conditioned ride, I leaned my forehead against the glass and watched as the sand flew by. Sand on sand. Fifty shades of sand. I knew my deployment had been a cake walk compared to those on forward operating bases. We weren’t even in Iraq or Afghanistan, more war-adjacent than anything.
Still, it was the desert, there were no days off. and I was half a world away from my husband of two-and-a-half years. We were practically newlyweds, especially given that we’d spent our first year of marriage on different training bases. It was cheesy—I was far from a soldier in a foxhole—but I kept a small photo of him in my pocket. I rarely looked at it; knowing it was there was enough. I patted my pocket and hopped off the bus.
After escorting the Airman to his office, I strutted into mine. My Staff Sergeant, Aimes, let out a whistle.
“Hell’s bells, you ready to get outta this shitbox? Mountain Home is calling.” His worn boots were propped up on the desk like size twelve bookends.
I picked up one of the empty Gatorade bottles littering the desk and threw it at his broad chest. “Get your damned feet off the desk, numb nuts.” I couldn’t hold back my grin though, and I laughed when he threw the bottle back. “How’s it feel to have pulled your last shift here?”
SSgt. Aimes stood and stretched, his neck popping like chestnuts at Christmas. “Feels damn good, Lt. Of course,” he paused, “no way it’s our last shift. We’ll be back.”
“Way to ruin the mood, jerk face.” I reached for another bottle, but he swept them into the bin. “Yeah, we’ll be back, or somewhere worse, but not for another year. At least one sweet calendar full of days back home.”
He ran me through the events from the night before and, when I was caught up to speed, lumbered off to the chow hall. He’d bring me back some breakfast and I’d get a few bites before a crew would arrive.
Despite my flight suit, I was not a pilot, a navigator or even part of the flight crew. But I took care of them. I briefed four crews that shift, running through info they needed to stay safe on various missions. In between briefings, I did research, read reports, and looked up dirty jokes. Pilots appreciated dirty jokes. If a colorful punch line would help them remember the potentially life-saving info I presented, I was all for it.
My replacement, a lieutenant from McGuire AFB, sauntered in at noon. His unit had arrived two days ago and changeover had been smooth. My last shift was finished and I’d have time to get to my room, pack my duffels and probably fit in a round of bingo. But first, lunch.
“Hey, Sanchez, can I get you anything from the chow hall?”
“Nah, just came from there. The chicken dish is a disaster. Get in the burger line.” Sanchez frowned. “I’ve already figured out one of the cooks must be working for the other side.”
I laughed. “Just wait until jambalaya day.” With a mock-shudder, I added, “Painful during and after.”
The rest of the day ambled by like a narcoleptic mule. I popped into several other squadron offices to say good bye. I had some paperbacks to leave at the informal book exchange and a hug for the chaplain. Bingo wouldn’t start until sundown, when the temperature plummeted down to 110 degrees from the afternoon’s high of 1,000.
SSgt. Aimes and I met to rouse the third member of our unit, Airman 1st Class Banner. A1C Banner had worked the swing eight-hour shift during our deployment. He often skipped sleep to play some first-person shooter game on the laptop he’d brought from home. He claimed it was the only excitement available to someone too young to drink. Typically, he tried to avoid the chow hall, but Aimes and I dragged his pale, white ass out of the barracks.
It was taco night and the chow hall was crowded. I soaked in the hum of conversation, the laughter and sense of comradery. As ready as I was to be a dot in the sky, headed towards home, I would miss this place. We were lucky to have been assigned to this little desert country where mortar fire and IEDs were something we only briefed others on. Here we had our creature comforts, perhaps pale in comparison to the real thing, but solid. Here we had our eight hour shifts and then freedom; no additional duties, no PT runs, no houses to clean, groceries to buy or children to clean up after.
I took a swig of iced tea in between bites of burrito and patted my pocket. A handsome face with blue eyes and black hair appeared in my mind and I swallowed hard and forced a smile on my face.
“Who’s ready for bingo?”
I sprawled on my bunk, staring up at the ceiling stain that looked like Abraham Lincoln.
It was midnight, but my mind wouldn’t unclench. I studied Abe’s hat and ran through the checklist. Out-processing was finished. My duffels were loaded. My room was tidied, which entailed no more than emptying the garbage and moving the dresser contents to my bags. I’d strip the bed in the morning and take the sheets to central laundry.
Earlier, when I’d finished my preparations, my fingers had hesitated on the zipper of my flight suit. The urge to stay in uniform, to remain wholly ready for departure had warred with the knowledge that my anxiety was unfounded. I would be leaving tomorrow, no matter if I stayed in uniform, put on my pajamas or danced around the room naked. My mind knew this, but my heart . . . my heart couldn’t hold back the tide of worry. What if I went to sleep and things changed? What if I woke up and it was two months ago? On any other morning, I’d hardly notice the difference. But tomorrow . . . I’d been waiting for tomorrow for too many yesterdays.
In the privacy of my solitude, I allowed two fat tears to roll. In the office, the gym, the bingo room, the bus, I was not allowed this weakness. I did not allow it. I was both a woman and an officer. I owed it to my gender to be strong; too often women in the military were treated with prejudice and condescension. My rank meant I was supposed to be a rock for my troops. My concerns and frustrations were not something I could, or should, put on their shoulders. This resulted in a great deal of silent swearing and a pressure cooker of raw emotion. I’d finally reached my boiling point and the two tears quickly turned to twenty.
I cried. I cried for long, monotonous days of sand, briefings and bingo. I sobbed because I’d missed my little sister’s graduation and my best friend’s wedding. Tears continued to stream as I castigated myself for bemoaning such a cushy assignment when others were bleeding and dying. But most of all, I cried because I missed home. The haven my husband and I had created in our bright, new world of married life a stone’s throw from the Snake River and surrounded by sagebrush.
With limbs of lead, I eased out of bed and crept over to my hanging uniform. The photo was still safely ensconced in a zippered pocket. Chilled air gusted from the AC and dried the wetness on my cheeks. I slipped back over the rough floor and into my cotton cocoon. I slid the photo under my pillow and sank back down. My legs stretched to the comers of the twin mattress and I slipped a hand under my pillow, just enough so that I could feel the comer of the picture with a trembling finger. I didn’t need to look at it. It was enough to have it there, next to my nearly completed calendar and in my almost empty room.
In the dark, my weary eyes closed and I smiled. No more days, just a wake-up call.