First Sergeant Dee Crane, a Vietnam Eleven Bravo, recounts his experiences alongside his men, his duties at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert, and his most recent encounters in the Persian Gulf.
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FORT RILEY, KANSAS, AUGUST 1990
Crane lived alone.
Every night he did sets of military fifties with his feet propped up on the ladder-back chair beside his bed, his hands braced on the hardwood floor, cranking them out in fast sets of five, puffing and huffing through the count. He could feel the bones in his body like bamboo machinery within a casing of blood and flesh, feel his muscles tug and stretch, eyes fixed on the worn wooden planks, on one peg in one single board, his mind empty, watching but not seeing the wooden slats of the floor come at him and pull back and then come up again, as if someone was opening and closing a coffin lid to make sure the guy was still dead.
When Crane could do more of these, say two hundred or some nights it was three–some nights it was only fifty–then he'd let go and he'd slam, shaking and boneless, onto the wooden floor and then he'd roll over and stare up at the ceiling of his apartment.
He'd stare at the fan going around, an old wooden-blade fan like the one that lifer assassin in Apocalypse Now had been staring at–an inside joke for Crane–and he'd lie there for a moment, trying to keep his mind blank, which was sort of like trying to drive with your eyes closed, but sooner or later he'd realize he was starting to think about the unit and then he'd realize he was already thinking about the unit so it was time for crunches.
Crunches were hard the way Crane did them–hands behind the neck and lifting the shoulders with the belly muscles–chin jerking down toward his flexed knees, not a big move, but hard still, especially if you're forty-nine.
Crane did these in bursts of five, until the pain in the belly was serious pain, like a muscle was about to rip, or when the light in the room got slightly pink in color from the blood that was pounding through his head.
Crunches done, Crane would lie back again, chest heaving and his breath raw in the back of his throat, watching that fan go around, hearing the muted beating of the blades, and the sound of the wind in the trees like a river running past.
After a while his lungs would stop burning and he'd crawl up on the side of the bed, sit there for a minute, head pounding, and then he'd reach under the bed and push the .45 out of the way and tug out the easy-curl bar.
He'd rest his elbows on the tops of his knees and curl the bar with sixty pounds on it, roll it out and wind it back in, again and again, watching the machinery work–all upper-body stuff because that was where the mind was and you had to tire the mind out somehow, otherwise it would give you trouble.
Behind him the empty bed was like a huge snow-covered field and he tried not to think about it. Carla used to ask him, Dee, why the hell don't you come to bed? And Crane would try that, stop working out, come in and lie down with her, cuddle up, try to get to sleep.
That part was very sweet, nothing about sex or trying to make something happen, but just being there in the bed with someone he loved and who was a good person too.
It was sweet, very sweet, so of course it didn't last. What would happen, not every night, but most, was Crane would have one of those–not a dream, really, because it wasn't anything in his dreams that bothered him. Crane didn't have dreams. Not ones that he could remember. But most nights, something would snap him up and, well, Carla found it hard to deal with, and she was a girl who needed her sleep.
It seemed to Crane that it wasn't ever the big things that killed his friendships with women, it was the small stuff, the day-to-day. No matter how hard he tried, there was just something about him, something rocky inside that made him hard to take. So Crane understood that Carla needed her sleep and that what was happening to him was tough on her.
Hell, Crane needed his sleep too, but he understood.
He understood completely.
But the thing was there, and after a while Carla went back to staying at her place. They still saw each other–Carla was a receptionist in a doctor's office, and she worked part-time at Harry's Uptown on Poyntz–but Carla was really too young to understand how some things had no solution, some things just had to be handled any way you could handle them, and working out late like Crane did, well, that was the way he handled it.
Crane knew a lot of guys who had handled it very, very differently, put it out of the way big-time, so this looked pretty reasonable to him.
But Carla, working for a doctor, thought that there weren't too many things that couldn't be fixed by medicine or doctors or having a positive attitude. Carla had read a couple of magazine articles about Crane's problem–his "dysfunction" was what she called it–and she had a theory that Crane was in something called deep denial and was suffering from hypervigilance and was not confronting effectively, and more along those lines. Carla had her doctor all primed up and was talking about something called Prozac or Pronzac or something like that. Whatever it was, there was no way Crane was going to take any of it, and no way he was going to sit around, chat with the docs about why he was having trouble or even if he was having trouble. Frankly, it was none of their business and it was only Carla's business in a sideways sort of way because they had been living together and had what Carla called a relationship.
The thing was, what was bugging Crane was no different than what was bugging a lot of other vets and for that matter just a lot of other people who happened to be in their forties. One way or another, every guy–every woman too–who makes it to his forties is a kind of vet, he's been through some shit or other, and life being what it is, a guy gets worn down and develops some weirdness, some hitches in his getalong. Better to leave it be, and stay away from the doctors. Especially that. His life in the machine was a day-by-day thing now–his eyes were going and he needed glasses to read so he didn't read much around the troops and it seemed that nobody was speaking very clearly anymore, he had to keep asking people to say that again, and they'd say it but afterward they'd give him a look, that sideways look–well, let it come out that Crane was seeing some civilian shrink and the battalion Personnel guys would be leaning on him to take his Early Out and disappear. Which was exactly what it would feel like. Crane had seen it happen to other lifers and it always started with some goddam doctor.
Stroud portrays the heart and mind of one Dee Crane, an army NCO so completely defined by his career that he is a kind of "military monk." Crane went to Vietnam with an MOS of 11 bravo--combat infantry--and, even though he had the talent for other, more technical specialties that would have translated into civilian jobs, stayed with it through the Persian Gulf War and to the brink, at age 51, of his retirement. He is glad to leave the army, finally, because he doesn't want to have to deal with women in combat units and because he knows that younger sergeants, however much they admire him, see him as a kind of fossil. He is the universal soldier and his unit, the Big Red One from Fort Riley, Kansas, is the heart of the infantry. Stroud feels that Crane carries on the tradition of Indian fighters--most of whom were based either in Fort Riley or Fort Leavenworth--and the noble, brutally slaughtered foot soldiers of the Battle of the Somme. Himself a Vietnam veteran, Stroud gives us the first truly impressive worm's-eye view of the Gulf War, from its awesome logistics to combat. He graphically portrays the contempt the Saudis had for American troops and the troops' disdain for the "ragheads." His soldiers' dialogue is a treat--for instance, a drill instructor screaming at a recruit that his rank in importance is "below soap scum but above Jane Fonda." The portrait of Crane, eternal sergeant and a complex, gentle man, is the best thing of all, however, in this solid, fresh look at war. John Mort
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