September 11 happened as soon as I’d gotten to my first regiment.
It was just after lunch and our full bellies were satisfied as they worked away on fish and chips, pudding and tea. The Army fed you well when at camp; in the field it was all baked beans heated in silver bags. The storeroom was a cold former garage with no heaters.
We were cataloguing all the unit’s radios. Green radios sat on grey shelves under artificial light. Bored soldiers called out the long numbers stamped on metal plates screwed onto the radios as the corporal wrote them down in a book made specially for that purpose.
This was what soldiers did when they weren’t fighting, training, or on leave—they maintained the kit. The Army liked numbers. Every soldier had one, every antenna had a range, and every mortar had a diameter. Radios were one of the most important things a soldier could know how to use. A small sign read “No Comms, No Bombs,” warning soldiers that not knowing how to use these heavy green boxes could mean no cavalry coming over the hill when they needed it.
The staff sergeant said that while I was checking the numbers I might as well clean the radios, and while I’m cleaning them, I might as well clean the shelves and the floor and the ceiling and the leaves and branches that the wind pushed against the garage door—there was always work for a soldier to do. So I took the radio from the shelf, cleaned it, and then moved onto the next one.
“The fucking bastards,” Staff shouted. I looked up even though there was a wall of cinder blocks between us. I kept to my work, cleaning and taking down numbers, but one of the lads burst through the door and shouted for us all to come into the office right now.
Staff was angling a transistor radio at the window and asking if we’d heard the news. We all shrugged that we hadn’t and he told us it was important. He was an old soldier with more hair over his lip than on his head, a wiry body with no muscle on the bone but serious eyes, and a manner that meant you never questioned him. In between the static we made out that something had happened in New York before he got it clear.
Terrorists had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center. I didn’t know which side of the United States New York was on. Was it the East or the West? I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was and I didn’t know what to think. Staff was shaking his head calling the terrorists bastards and everybody stood quietly. I was trying to tell myself that this was important because Staff kept saying it was.
Staff listened and we stood. We knew not to move or he’d chew us up so we stood looking at him listening and then at each other waiting for permission to leave or do anything else but watch this old man muttering about those bastards. There was me, Biscuits, and Evans. Nobody knew what to do, so we strained to listen to the reporter who also didn’t know what was happening. “That’s it,” Staff said, “it’s fucking war, I guarantee it. The Yanks aren’t gonna take this shit.” He told us to get ready for war because it was coming. Staff got back to his work, sipped his tea, and we knew we could leave.
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