Jogging across the parched
grass of the parade field, Freddy Crane watched intellectually incapable army
personnel stare at him with weird looks on their faces. But their stares didn’t bother him. Before the glorious blue sky day was over, he
was going to be free from the insanity.
Even though a broken nose
from his boxing days made it difficult for him to breathe, he was in the best
shape of his life. He never wanted to
fight, but when something made him angry, he became insanely unstoppable. Although his muscular body was rock-solid, it
was agile and easily responded to his every command, and his reflexes were
faster than anyone he had ever fought.
But it no longer mattered how physically fit or how quick he could fight
off an enemy, he wouldn’t be needing those
skills. After customary pronouncements,
his new home would be in a place where the setting sun crowned trees with
gold. Except for fond memories of Piper,
the girl with the marvelously deep blue almond eyes, gnawing at his heart
strings, he would be free to view the world with complete detachment.
Even without Piper, his
life would be far better than it had been before he enlisted in the Army
Security Agency. Then he had been raised
in the squalor of an oven-like shack that was so dilapidated it could have
fallen over in the next wind. Many
times, after being chased by cops down dirty alleys and feeling the street
press through the thin soles of his shoes, he had gone to bed hungry. And when he did eat, he ate as if he were
facing starvation, and many times he was.
His neighborhood had become
so rundown it couldn’t qualify to be a ghetto.
Like other malnourished kids from dilapidated places, he never wanted to
be like the barely surviving rabble shuffling around on the streets. To him they were empty people, contributing
nothing, building nothing, but striving to live off the work of better
men. Going from hand-out to hand-out,
preferring the illusionary comfort of the familiar, they believed they were the
wise ones. But when they were suddenly
old and worn out with no placed to go, they wondered what had happened.
During Crane’s gawky years
of adolescence, he has always wanted to be like the strong men wearing
custom-tailored suits who had gotten what they wanted. Now it was his turn to grab the world by the
throat and shake it until it gave him what he had been too poor to have. He was always amazed at the way prosperity
made people critical of all who were less prosperous. After the people had gotten a few dollars more
than they needed, their ugly eyes stared at him with hatred. In a little while, not only would he be relaxing in his
wooden chair, people would be giving him money, and he wouldn’t be staring at
anybody with hatred.
Overseas, the tension and
secrecy of special operational units and their casual
disregard for authority had been like running away and
joining the circus, but that was before he had been ordered to an isolated
island where wild winds gnarled shorelines and annihilated just about every
living thing. A haven of horror with
grotesque, nightmarish fog, knee-deep tundra, and whirling snow storms, Shemya,
Alaska, AKA, the Rock, was a little two by four-mile afterthought of land that
no man wanted to visit. For the entire
year, Crane was there, it had been like being incarcerated on Alcatraz.
When Crane left the Rock,
he thought the bad times were over, and he was going to return to a normal
life, but when he got off the plane at Oakland, California, a raggedy horde of
protestors were yammering away in preparation to harangue returning
soldiers. He tried to slip past them,
but they greeted him with a hail of spit, boos, hisses, and catcalls. Living in comfortable homes and miles from
Vietnam, protesters, preaching peace who didn’t have
the guts to bravely face the cruel new life of the military, never experienced
what they were protesting. Naturally it
was easy for them to tell veterans how they should live. Crane didn’t care what they did until a
chunky protestor with a perfect Beetle haircut walked up to him, spit directly
into his face, and laughed. As a natural
defensive reaction, Crane lifted his hand to start cultivating hematomas on the
protestor’s face. But not wanting to
start trouble and miss his flight home, Crane lowered his hand.
But it did no good.
The protestor defiantly
stood in front of Crane and said, “You touch me, baby killer, you’ll go to
Crane tried to slough it
off, but the protestor’s certainty that his exalted station in life relieved
him of any obligation to treat others decently, caused an uneasiness to build
in Crane’s clinched fists. “I wouldn’t
want to touch anything like you.”
For a moment
the protestor glowered at Crane, then his face beamed a mocking, full-toothed
smile. “Oh, really?”
The way he had said, “Oh,
really,” sounded worse than any of the classic vulgarities.
To Crane, oh really, caused a horrid flashback of
being humiliated by the self-righteous people standing in front of their gray,
decrepit little shops in his decaying hometown and becoming infuriated just
because, he, with a lowly status, had walked past. Mocking him and his shabby clothes, they had
repeated, “Oh! Really!” over and
over. And it was happening again,
causing a sad wave of sentiment to roll over him. After risking his life for his country, this
is what he had come back to. Wanting to
just get away from it all, he waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal and
turned to walk away.
But the protestor taunted
again, “Oh, really!”
The abuse, the pointless
hostility, and the resentment was like lighting a fuse on a stick of
Thinking about the brave
men who had been shot, killed, tortured, and imprisoned more times that most
Americans realized or cared to hear about, Crane turned back and faced the
The contemptuous smile of
the tormentor loomed large. “You touch
me, you’ll go to jail.”
With unbelievable speed,
Crane whipped his own belt from around his waist, wrapped it around the
protestor’s neck, lifted him into the air, and held him there. Shaking him so violently that the protestor’s
Beetle haircut was flapping up and down, Crane screamed into his face, “For
every day I spend in jail, you’ll spend three days in a hospital.”
The protestor gaged and
struggled for air. As he kicked and
grabbed at the belt around his neck, the shiny brass buckle of Crane’s belt
flashed a brilliant gold into the faces of the other protestors.
The spitting, boos, hisses,
and catcalls stopped.
Shocked, the protestors
stared in awe.
Crane released his belt
from the protestor’s neck.
He slumped to the floor.
Crane walked away.
He caught his flight and made
it home okay, but many times after his Vietnam involvement and the appalling
airport incident, he had gotten out of bed in terror with a cold sweat on his
forehead. Some men who had managed to
return, used liquor or drugs to forget what they had gone through. It was a kind of deliberate bandaging of the
mind, so they could ignore the hell they had suffered. If Crane wanted to get four or five hours of
sleep without unwanted nightmares jarring him awake, he threw down three fingers
of scotch. It would enable him to stop
wondering how he came back and was trying to make believe it all didn’t
happen. If he drank in the bars, he
would have to listen to drunken mill workers crying in their beer about how
they lost their jobs, or their seniority, or how they got a strange piece of
ass. If Crane re-enlisted, because of
his restricted Military Occupational Specialty he would be sent back to the
Rock, and it would start all over again.
But today, that wasn’t
going to happen. Referred to as a “Short
Timer” Crane only had a short time left to serve. During the past few weeks when asked how many
days he had left, he had replied that he was so short he had to sit on the edge
of a razor blade to tie his shoes.
At the end of the parade
field, Crane looked up. As if it were a
great gateway to a heaven in the Virginia sky, the sun threw cathedral-like beams of light down through the clouds
and caused him to feel as if God were welcoming him to a better life.
Off to his right, speaking
harshly, the portly company commander hunched his shoulders, placed his hands
on his wide hips, and with a tube of fat hanging heavily over his belt buckle,
he roared, “Specialist Crane!”
The bawling voice was so
loud that it hurt Crane’s ears, but he was glad that intelligence counted for
something in the ASA. Specialist ranks
were not only created to reward personnel with higher degrees of experience and
technical knowledge, they kept people with regular army ranks out of areas
where they had no expertise and no top-secret crypto clearances, and this
always angered the company commander.
Crane’s feelings of a
better life vanished. He came to an
abrupt halt and unwillingly stood at attention.
Since it would be his final salute, he threw back his shoulders, lifted
his hand to his forehead, and prepared to give the captain the crispest salute
that he’d ever offered anyone. As he
held the salute, he stared his contempt directly at the flamboyant company
commander walking toward him.
Unlike the regular army
personnel, where most decisions were made for those who followed the way of
least resistance and had become part of a rigidly bureaucratized and
conventional force, special operations soldiers of the ASA were carefully
selected and specially trained and possessed unique skills for missions the
conventional armies could not conduct, and most officers didn’t trust special
operations soldiers. Understandably,
they didn’t appreciate people they couldn’t control. The company commander wasn’t special forces
qualified, wasn’t airborne qualified, had no combat time, and his face had
tapering features of a rat. If weren’t
for high-level bureaucratic inanities, he would never have been promoted to
captain. Being one of those officers who
must feel themselves superior, and their ranks gives them that opportunity, he
haphazardly returned Crane’s salute.
“Crane! Where do you think you’re
Crane did not give his
planned crispest salute. He only dropped
disparagements were frequently venomous.
Earlier this morning, after he had amused himself with verbal cuts at
Crane, he had freely flaunted his authority and ordered Crane to get a
haircut. Not wanting anything to
interfere with his discharge, Crane had gotten the haircut and figured it would
be the last army haircut he would ever be ordered to get. “No disrespect, sir. But may I remind you that I’m getting
The captain’s face screwed up with excruciating irritability and
through the folds of fat around his eyes, he cast an ugly stare in Crane’s direction. “I’ve seen
your kind before,” he said and grunted.
“You may get out, but you’ll be back.”
For a moment, Crane felt sorry for the captain. Just because he was stuck in a rut of army
life and had no other place to go, he believed Crane was, too. The captain was like most men who ended up on
the bad end of a deal. The way Crane saw
it, if the captain stayed in a rut, it was his own fault. Every time a man got up in the morning, he
started his life over. Everybody didn’t
have to stay in a pattern. They could
always follow another path. And that was
just what Crane was going to do. Today,
he wasn’t going to let anything bother him.
He smiled at the captain. “If I
were intellectually incapable, I might
consider coming back but I won’t.”
Hatred blazed in the captain’s eyes.
“You not smart enough to be out there on your own. If you think the world is fair, you have been
Evidently the captain didn’t know what Crane had done before he joined
the army or what he had done in the army, and he wasn’t going to waste time
“Life might not be fair,” Crane shot back. “But it’s all we got.”
As if the captain were
making sure he was going to force Crane to do one of the most important things
in the world before he was discharged, he puffed up with importance. But his fat belly swelled into his
shirt. The strain placed on the buttons
caused his shirt to wrinkle at each button, and the sight caused Crane to
recall rule one for every OCS
candidate: Make sure the people you are
commanding respect you. If they like
you, that’s okay. But if they don’t,
fear will do. Crane had no respect for
this officer, and the officer knew it.
So…like a typical officer who had
their show of superiority ruined, the captain tried to use fear by yelling at
the top of his voice, “Didn’t I tell you to get a haircut this morning?”
Crane relaxed his stance
and ran his hand through his black hair.
“I did, sir.”
As if he had just run a
marathon and was trying to catch his breath, the two hundred fifty-pound
coronary waiting to happen, huffed in three great drafts of air. Then he assumed an aggressive stance and
continued to shout, “It’s not good enough.
Get another haircut!” He pulled a
dirty white handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped his head. “Get another haircut,” he repeated. “And report back to me.”
When Crane had been with special
operations group, SOG, its top-secret world had its own unspoken code brought
on by danger, duty, and loyalty. Even if
the team leader was outranked, he was God.
He was the first man off the helicopter, and unlike the captain, he had
never led by force of rank or intimidation, but by example. Crane could argue with the captain and show
him he couldn’t push him around, but he figured the captain was a born
subordinate. Not too smart and
unimaginative. Crane didn’t want to
lower himself to the captain’s level.
And he had no intention of getting another haircut or reporting back to anyone
who had not seen or done what he had done.
Once again, the captain had affirmed many of the ASA men’s definition of
the regular army: Leading the unwilling to do the unnecessary.
Figuring it would be his
final fawning response, Crane snapped to rigid attention. “Yes, sir!”
In his most fake and enthusiastic manner, he issued a brisk salute. Then in exemplary fashion, he performed a
perfect about face and energetically walked away.
Walking toward the
windowless operations building, he cursed under his breath. In the regular army, if soldiers in combat
couldn’t follow a simple order, others would be killed. So, there was a need and proper place for
foolish orders to be strictly obeyed.
But the Army Security Agency, ASA, needed the services of nonconformists
for sensitive work. At times, the work
was so secret that few officers knew the men or what they did. The ASA needed men that the regular military
regime annoyed. The ASA needed men who
thought for themselves and didn’t go by the book. Crane was not only a free thinker, he was
what the ASA wanted. He had never
adapted to the spit and polish of the regular army.
In the ASA, he had served
with innovators and imaginative people who wanted to try something new and
challenging. In the field, it didn’t
matter what rank a person was, they were treated according to their
abilities. Because most ASA men had
chafed at the rigidity of the regular army, it had always given ASA people a
After passing though
security at the entrance to the steel-reinforced, four-foot-thick-cement-walled
operations building, Crane walked through a windowless, narrow hall of locked
doors that concealed soundproof, windowless rooms. In this super secure area, special people
worked on projects they could not discuss.
Crane didn’t know if it were a curse or a gift, but he had a pretty good
idea what every person behind those doors had done, was doing, or was going to
At the end of the hall, he
unlocked the green combination lock on a gray steel door and entered his former
room of operations. Inside, he stood in
front of Sergeant Joe Gillette’s desk and told him of his plan.
Gillette was a slender man
with a friendly mouth and eyes that smiled easily, but a look of discomfort had
formed on his brow. “Do you believe your
cockamamie plan will work?”
In the past, this negative
talk may have bothered Crane, but he was getting out. Nothing could bother him now. “Sure, it will,” he said with more confidence
than he had had during his past four years.
“All I need to do is earn enough money to buy a piece of land.”
Gillette smiled his all-knowing
smile. “The people you have associated
with have died at an unusually high rate.
What makes you believe you ‘ll live long enough to do it?”
Recalling what had happened
in Shemya, Vietnam, and Japan, Crane shrugged.
“Things that happened were not my fault.”
Gillette held up a
reassuring hand. “I know, I know. Actually, what you’ve done makes the rest of
the agency look incompetent, almost irrelevant.”
Crane didn’t feel he had
done anything great. “Anybody could’ve
done it, “he said. “The only thing I did
was been in the wrong place at the right time and do the right thing.”
Shaking his head, Gillette’s
face flushed with discomfort. “I
wouldn’t say that. But I’m sure you
realize that most of the stinking lousy sons of bitches don’t give a rat’s ass
about your special warfare training and devotion to your country that you were
physically and mentally tough enough to endure.”
“I know that,” Crane
answered with a sigh. “But what about
all the radios and other advanced equipment I’ve used or worked on? Shouldn’t that count for something?
“Don’t kid yourself,”
Gillette said with distress. “All the
equipment you worked on, or operated, is so far advanced or classified, your
expertise is useless in a civilian society.
You may have done better if you had run away and joined the circus.”
“With all the clowns around
here, it feels like I did join the circus.”
Gillette’s eyes lifted in a
curious, speculative glance. “I know
what you mean, Crane. Good luck on
getting a decent job.”
“Thanks for the advice. But I’ve turned the unexpected into a victory
many times. I can make my own luck.”
Gillette gave Crane a
reassuring nod. “I hope you can.”
“And besides, as a civilian”
— Crane smiled big — “if I don’t like a job, I can quit. I can even have a Border collie.”
Even though the practice of
using a subject’s first name as much as possible unnerved a person being
questioned and caused him to relax and make mistakes, Crane never did like the
military practice of people being called by their last names. He lifted his finger to make a point. “And people will call me by my first name.”
Gillette lifted an
eyebrow. “It doesn’t really matter what
people call you. You have an uncanny knack of barging into things that
could get you killed. If you’re going to
make it in the civilian world, you’ll need an assembly line,
manufacturing luck twenty-four hours a day.”
“After I get out, all that
Staying seated, Gillette
used his feet to push his wheeled office chair and rolled to the next
desk. “I wouldn’t bet on it.” He leafed through a stack of papers, pulled a
page from the center, glanced at it, and held it toward Crane. “Here’s a request from a new special
operations unit.” He ran his finger
across the page. “Your expertise is just
what they need.” A big smile spread
under his mustache. “They claim it’s not
safe when you’re loose.” He pointed to a
line on the paper. “Look here. There is an opening for a mission code named
Tinkerville. They want you to
Well, that would not be new,
Crane was going to say, but before the words were out of his mouth, a dull pain
thudded in his chest. “Tell them to get
some other sucker.”
Gillette’s eyes sparkled
with mischief. “What’s the problem? Don’t you like all the hot babes, the cool
gunplay, driving fast cars, and opening fat envelops full of money?”
Although some people would
like to believe the ASA was like that, Crane’s four years of service had proven
it was not. But it didn’t
matter what Sergeant Gillette or anyone said or promised, Crane had made up his
mind to be an observer. If his signature
ended up on any re-enlistment document, he would not be able to view life with
complete detachment. He laughed, reached
out, grasp Gillette’s hand in a secure, caring grip, and shook it. In the ASA there was not as much bull about
rank than there was in the regular army.
Officers and Sergeants were often called by their first names. There was a spirt of community as well as a
sense of individual worth. Crane
addressed Sergeant Gillette by his diminutive.
“Sorry, Joe, I’m going to go back to a bourgeois lifestyle. I’ll leave all the hot babes for you.”
“Gee thanks,” Joe said and
winked at Crane. “I already have to
fight them off with a stick, and you want to send more my way.”
Crane shook his head and
smiled. “It was nice working together,
but I gotta cut and run.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,”
Gillette said, and Crane detected disappointment.
Gillette leaned his head
crookedly against the back of his chair.
“Crane, you know there could be a mistake?” As if in jest, he grinned. “Maybe they’ve made a clerical error, and you
won’t be discharged.” He straightened
his head and shrugged. “Of course, in a
few years, when brought to the attention of the proper authorities, it will
eventually be rectified. You’ll get to
go home, but you’ll have to take a dangerous detour.”
“That’s impossible,” Crane
said with a tinge of disappointment in his voice. “The ASA is more highly evolved than that.”
Gillette chuckled. “I almost had you going.” He stood up and extended his hand. “It was a pleasure working with someone who
knows what the hell they’re doing.”
“It was easy,” Crane said,
shaking Gillette’s hand. “I had your
Smiling, Gillette nodded,
but he seemed to be holding back a tear.
Crane unclasped Gillette’s
hand and turned to go, but Gillette held his hand fast.
“Old soldiers tell you to put the entire experience behind you,” he
said. “Consider it gone. Always remember the chasm between people who
have gone through what you have and those who haven’t, is wider than the
Pacific Ocean, and it is not to be crossed.”
He released Crane’s hand.
With a tear in his eye, Crane nodded
and turned to go.
Gillette touched him on the
Crane turned back.
There was anguish in
Gillette’s face, but he talked sternly.
“Crane, if you get rich, there
will be a lot of people out there trying to take it from you. Don’t fall into their rivers of
nonsense. It isn’t always their fault,
but it’s the way they live. If you know
that, you ‘ll always give yourself an edge.
You may never need that edge, but if you do, it will make your life a
lot easier. Learn to depend on nobody
but yourself. He who can stand alone is
the strongest. If you expect nothing
from people, you will never be disappointed.”
To keep from choking with emotion, Crane held his breath, tightened his
face, and said, “Thanks, Joe.”
Gillette gestured to the
door. “Be careful out there. Sometimes they can be worse than Sergeant
With his non-helpful,
down-right rude, and rotten attitude, Sergeant Mullin seemed to be highly
motivated and specially trained to irritate, aggravate, and infuriate
people. Out of jealousy, he had manipulated the paperwork of a special operations
soldier he didn’t like, so his award of The Medal of Honor was downgraded to a
Silver Star. Crane tried
to replace the choking feeling of emotion with humor. “If
Mullin entered an asshole contest, he’s be the winner.”
“He’s not the brightest bulb in the basket, but people like him can make a hard road for you.”
“Why is he always giving me
a hard time?”
“There could be a lot of
reasons. One reason could be that he
doesn’t have the top-secret clearance, the people supposedly working under him
have, and when a lower ranking ASA man tells him he doesn’t have the need to
know, it irritates him.”
Crane nodded in
agreement. “I’ve watched a lot of NCOs
“Get used to it. The better you do in the world the more bad
things people will say about you. Or
people could be like Mullin who hates something he doesn’t understand or
anything different. But he’s not doing
“What are you talking
“In World War II, the predecessor
of ASA was known as the Overseas Strategic Service, and it had to continuously
fight for its existence. If it weren’t for
President Roosevelt, it is unlikely that the OSS would have been created.”
Crane gave Joe an encouraging nod. “If the idiotic half-wittedness would have
succeeded, the United States would have been in for a bitter awakenment.”
“They were awakened all right,” Gillette said. “After Roosevelt died, MacArthur saw an OSS
briefer wearing argyle socks with his uniform.
The socks got MacArthur so riled up that he didn’t allow the OSS to
operate in his theater.” He lifted one
finger and smiled. “Naturally, he lost
his final battle.”
Crane let out a deep pained
exhale. “What happened in the past
doesn’t really matter. I won’t be
fighting any more battles. In fact, I won’t
be fighting at all. I’m going home.”