An Uncapped Pen

January 7, 2008

CASUAL DUTY – Chapter Six – The Line

Filed under: Dickens Challenge — cindylv @ 12:57 am

May 1981
Fort Huachuca, Arizona
Old Hospital Grounds

“No, no! Not like that! You gonna cut off you damn foot, you keep on like that.” He backed away, holding up his hands up. “That there’s a scythe, not a sickle.”

Bridie stopped mid-swing and squinted up at the next soldier in line. The glare of the sun burning through the thin atmosphere stung her eyes. She dropped her arm, holding the tool at her side, out of range. “What?”

He tossed his sickle on the ground and stepped closer, taking the implement. He turned the blade down and wrapped his hands around the grips. “Lay it down. The blade, see? Like this, and pull. Just give it a little tug is all. Cuts real good.” He handed it back with a shy smile and turned back to retrieve his own blade.

Bridie thanked him. She tried to copy his graceful movements, but her blade kept getting tangled in the tall grasses. She stood up and stretched, rotating her shoulder to work out the kinks. The sun burned across her shoulders and the back of her neck. She wiped her face with her sleeve, surprised to see it was dry. She felt like she was sweating, but there was nothing there. Most of the others had their uniform blouses off, working in their T-shirts. Some of the men had even taken them off and draped them over their heads like the pictures she’d seen of people who live in the desert. She noticed that the girls who were working mostly kept their shirts on, but a couple of them who were sitting in the shade of the old hospital, sat with their sleeves rolled up, sunbathing like they were at the beach.

She continued to hack away. A flock of grasshoppers, disturbed by Bridie’s blade, launched a hasty counterattack, flying in every direction. She batted them away from her face with a shudder. What else was hiding in this sea of grass? Snakes? Locusts? Another yank and the tool slipped out of her hands. She sighed and surrendered, throwing her hands in the air. “This is hopeless!”

“Slow down, girl. You got too much fight in you,” he said. “Just keep it moving, slow and easy like, in a straight line. Ain’t in no hurry. We gonna be out here til lunchtime anyways. No sense in working yourself up like that.”

“Well, how are we going to finish, if we don’t hurry? There must be miles of this grass.” She pointed out toward the road where the detail bus had delivered them this morning. “How are nine people supposed to get all this grass cut? And what about rakes? We’re gonna have to . . .’ She stopped when she heard his laugh.

“What?” she demanded. “What’s so funny?”

“Done? Girl, ain’t no such thing as “done.” He shook his head. “You on the line.”

“The line?”

He nodded. “That’s what we call it, out here. Cuttin’ grass or bush. Haulin’ rock. Weeds. Paint. Whatever. If you don’t have permanent detail, and Top don’t have nothin’ specific for you, it’s the line.”

“But I’m supposed to start class, 96B School. I’m going to be an Intelligence Analyst. My orders—“

“You and everybody else. They only got so many slots, and there’s, well you saw how many there was at formation this morning.” He took off his utility cap and wiped his brow. “Look girl, what we doin’ here, it don’t matter none to no one. We just here on the line. The bus come back at lunchtime, take us to chow. Then we come back out, maybe here. Maybe somewheres else, ‘til the bus come. Then we go back and it’s PT. Then chow. Next day starts again.” He shook out his cap before putting in back on. “It ain’t that bad. Nobody around to bother you. If it look like we’re busy when the sergeant drive by, he leave us alone.”

“But . . “ she started to renew her complaint. What was the use complaining to him? He was stuck right here with her.

“You keep on complaining, keep fighting, it only feel worse, you know. You in the Army now. Get used to it. It’s too hot. All the time. Or too cold. You’re gonna be tired. Hungry. Feet hurt. Suck it up and soldier on is all’s you can do.”

“I guess. Be all you can be, right?” she added with a laugh. “Join the Army. Travel to exotic lands. Meet new people.”

“ . . . and cut the grass,” he finished with a smile.

Bridie reached over and offered her hand. “I’m Bridie Traynor.”

“Charlie Wilkins. From Waycross, Georgia.” He shook her hand.

“I’m from Wisconsin. A small town just over the border from Illinois.” She added, “ Twin Lakes.”

His gaze shifted to just over her shoulder. “Here come Top now.” He stepped away and went back to work swinging the blade.

Bridie turned and saw a cloud of dust spreading just beyond the edge of bushes at the road. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the soldiers who had been sunbathing jump up and start cutting grass with gusto. She bent back over her scythe and dragged the blade as she watched the truck drive slowly past the detail and continue down the round around the bend without stopping. If it was the Sergeant Simpson, he wasn’t after anyone out at this site.

The sun continued to blaze without mercy. Bridie’s stomach rumbled. The can of Coke and the package of cookies from the vending machine she’d eaten for breakfast on her way to formation were a distant memory. She wondered how much longer until the bus returned to take them to the mess hall. She had another reason to want to get back to the barracks. There didn’t seem to be a latrine anywhere in sight. Throughout the morning she’d seen some of the men disappear around the back side of the hospital building, and then return a few minutes later. Maybe there was a latrine in there? She yawned and continued to hack, working into an awkward rhythm, her attention drifting. Last night after she’d finished in-processing, found her duffle bag and moved into her temporary room in the barracks, it was almost 0400 in the morning. First formation was at 0500 for PT. Not enough time to shower and sleep, so she’d opted for the shower. No one else was up at that hour, so she enjoyed a few minutes of privacy and all the hot water she wanted. Maybe she should have skimped a little in favor of a quick nap.
“Nobody move.” The barrel of the gun loomed in her face. Bridie flinched and swung her scythe up in defense. She froze. The glare of the sun blinded her. The sounds of other soldiers’ voices drifted past. A dream, she thought and shook off the memory. Had anyone seen her? The memory seemed so real. She wondered about Mrs. Bolling, if she was still in the hospital. What had happened to the gunmen? Another head shake. She needed to pee, but she had no idea where the latrines were.

She looked around for Charlie, but he had worked his way over toward the treeline in the other direction. She decided she couldn’t wait any longer. She’d go check for herself. Taking her scythe with her, she made her way around the side of the building. Nothing but the back of the hospital with the remains of some old concrete steps. She picked her way through bits of broken glass, beer cans, fast food wrappers. She smelled urine and other more pungent odors and guessed that everyone else just did their business wherever they wanted to. Ugh! She hated peeing while standing up. If she hurried, maybe no one would come around the corner and see her.

She found a spot in the corner behind the old steps and decided that was her best chance for privacy. As she zipped up her pants and fastened her belt, she heard a rustle from somewhere under the building.


Without turning to look, she stood up to run but lost her balance and fell back against the side of the building. She threw her hands behind her to push herself off the wall and stuck her hand into a sticky spider web. Her feet skidded in the loose gravel and slid out from under her. She landed in a heap banging her head against the unforgiving steps. Where was the snake? She scrambled to her feet, crouched down keeping away from the spider shaken from its web. She turned to retrieve her hat from where it had fallen under the building and looked directly into a pair of eyes not two feet from her face.

Bridie froze. Her heart hammered in her chest. She held her breath, unable to move or even blink. Across from her, the eyes blinked slowly. It was a turtle, a giant turtle under the building. The turtle blinked again and retracted its head slightly and backed away into the darkness.

Bridie’s heart rate slowed. She gasped. Just a turtle. No, wait. It couldn’t be a turtle. They lived in water. This must be one of those desert tortoises Sergeant Simpson mentioned last night. Don’t touch ‘em, he said. Well, she hadn’t touched it. She shook her head, then remembered the snake. She glanced under the building and didn’t see anything else except an old blanket, an empty water jug and more trash. The rustling sound she’d heard must have been the tortoise. See? No snake. She tried to convince herself as she wiped the sticky web from her fingers.

She pushed up, brushed most of dirt off her uniform and attempted to reassemble her dignity. She looked around to see if anyone had seen her fall, and was relieved to see that no one was in sight. Bridie picked up her scythe and picked her way through the grass back to the work area as though nothing had happened. A few dirty smears on the knees of her trousers were the only signs of her fall.

Back at work with shaking hands, she continued to hack, tangling grass with her blade, clearing it, and then tangling it again. The running dialogue in her head continued. No snake. There was no snake. It was just a tortoise. Tortoises don’t bite. You’re fine. Just hang on until the bus comes.

The soldiers near her renewed their efforts at their tasks. She looked up to find the cause and saw the dust cloud signaling the arrival of another vehicle. Maybe it’s the bus, she thought.

“Ain’t lunch time yet,” she heard someone declare. “Can’t be the bus.”

She saw the jeep swing around the bend and slow down near the edge of the field where the detail worked. Everyone stopped and watched as the jeep skidded to a halt and the driver’s door open. A pair of spit-shined jump boots emerged, followed by bloused fatigue trousers, and the webbed utility belt signifying a member of the training cadre. Murmurs broke out amongst the soldiers. Bridie squinted in the sun to see the cause of the disruption.
“Private Traynor!”

Bridie recoiled and considered dropping into the grass to hide. Sergeant Simpson. She looked for somewhere to run, but it was futile. Nowhere to hide, either.

“Traynor,” he repeated. “Get your ass over here!”

She turned and made her way down the hill toward him with her scythe.

“Leave it,” he barked. “Get in.” He swung himself into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

Bridie dropped the tool at the base of a tree and climbed into the passenger seat, fumbling her seat belt. He gunned the engine, spitting gravel in all directions and spun back toward the road. He worked his way through the gears and drove back toward the main post area.

“Colonel wants to see you, most ricky tick,” he said. “Like I got nothing better to do than chauffeur you around.”

Bridie stiffened, but said nothing. The Colonel? Which Colonel? She didn’t know anything about officers, except that they were to be avoided at all costs. Sergeant Simpson didn’t elaborate, so she just sat quietly. At least she was off the line. For a while anyway.



  1. It’s eerie the flashbacks I got from this! I was just thinking about how in the early 80s there were so many details and then sometime in the late 80s all of the mowing, weeding and floor buffing got outsourced. This really rings true, all the way down to the snake paranoia. I was on a detail to pick up trash at the golf course in Biloxi while waiting for my own technical training to start in 1981 and was half paralyzed with fear of the copperheads that I knew were all around! Charlie is very vivid, the heat and the attitude about the details is absolutely real. Great way to end the chapter — I’m really into this and looking forward to the next chapter. Great job!

    Comment by Lisa — January 7, 2008 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  2. Wow, great work, Cindy!

    Comment by angel — January 11, 2008 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

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