Almost Free by Ronald K. Myers

Almost Free

(Ronald K. Myers)

Almost Free



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 jail.”

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 hate-filled dynamite.

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 tormentor.

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 going?”

Crane did not give his planned crispest salute.  He only dropped his hand.

The captain’s 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 discharged today?”

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 seriously misinformed.”

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 telling him.

“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 bad time.

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 do.

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 will change.”

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 re-enlist.”

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 help.”

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 shoulder.

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 Mullin.”

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 do that.”

“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 anything new.”

“What are you talking about?”

“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.”