By November of 1999 I had been on the planet for fifty-three years.
As it happened, I was taking my wife and two children by car from New Jersey to Savannah, Georgia to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. After driving several hundred miles, we stopped for the night at a motel in North Carolina.
Our oldest child had just tuned six and our youngest was three. In those days they both still did what I told them.
The next morning, the very first thing I told them to do was to get up out of bed at four o’clock, (well before the sun came up) and come get in the car with me so I could drive them down the road to a deserted spot I had picked out fifteen minutes earlier, by a farmer’s field while they still lay sleeping. Then I gently coaxed my wife and those two little sleepy-heads out of the car and told them to look up at the sky. I told them I wanted them to see something wondrous and magnificent. It was something that I had seen thirty-three years earlier when I was in the army. And I will never forget what I saw. And I trust they won’t either.
Thirty-three years earlier, I had been on guard duty at The United States Army Field Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when I had first seen it. I don’t think I was ever on guard duty more than two or three times during the whole time I was in the army. But late in the afternoon of November 16, 1966 it was my turn to be on guard duty whether I liked it or not and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
So I reluctantly left the confines of Golf Battery and the comfort and camaraderie and the familiar faces of my contemporaries and reported to the Charge of Quarters to draw my weapon and take my turn at guard duty. Guard duty was two hours on and four hours off and I was told by the CQ that my first shift would be from eight to ten. “Two…four… eight… ten…on…off”, I was never any good at math and the whole thing sounded confusing and a little contradictory to me. But I nodded as if I understood, and repaired to a lower bunk in the Guardhouse to relax on an olive drab blanket and shine my boots and study the little white card with the General Orders on it and otherwise prepare for my shift a couple of hours later.
Shortly before 8 that evening, along with four or five other officer candidates from batteries other than my own, and none of whom I recognized, we stood at attention to be inspected by the Sergeant of The Guard–a middle classman, our M-14 rifles by our sides.
And suddenly, there he was, standing eye-to-eye with the contemporary to my left after glancing briefly at my contemporary’s name tag. My contemporary had automatically raised his rifle to “Inspection Arms” when the S.O.G. did a right face in front of him. Grabbing my contemporary’s rifle out of his hands with his right hand and inserting his thumb into the receiver, he went through the motions of looking down the muzzle of the rifle in order to ascertain the state of dust on the lands and grooves although it was a moonless night and far too dark to see any moonlight, even if there had been any, reflecting off his or anyone else’s thumbnail– much less any dust in the barrel. While thus engaged, he simultaneously shouted into my contemporary’s face.
“Candidate Zilch–What’s your first general order?”, he demanded to know, although he already knew the answer to his own question.
“Sir, Candidate Zilch. My first general order is: I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved, Sir!”
The Sergeant of the Guard then handed Candidate Zilch back his rifle and did a left face and took one step and then executed a right face, which brought him directly in front of me.
Being brought up to be the polite sort and instructed never to stare and not wanting to look him or anyone else directly in the eyes, I focused my gaze upon a tiny spot slightly to the right of where his right eyebrow began as it arched upward and then aggressively to the right.
Just as I was trying to decide what the peculiar smell on his breath was corn on the cob or a Hostess Twinkie, he suddenly grabbed the rifle out of my hands and holding it in his and glancing at it, he directed his speech through my head and seemingly back toward someone with my name who must have been standing a considerable distance behind me. For a moment I wondered who he was talking to.
“Candidate Parker, what is your eleventh General Order?”
There was no answer.
Then, a few seconds later, and now, with no doubt in my military mind that it was my turn to speak (I have never had a problem speaking– even out of turn)–I shot back, “Sir–Candidate Parker! My eleventh General Order is “To be especially watchful at night and during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority…..” After two or three seconds had passed, I added, “SIR!”
I wasn’t exactly sure what constituted “proper authority” but I figured I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
But I didn’t dare tell him that.
In due course, I was marched a few hundred yards into an area containing a network of abandoned two-story wooden buildings where I was soon abandoned to spend the next two hours of my life, such as it was, deliberately marching up and down with my rifle at right shoulder arms and my neck stretched, my head held high and my eyes fixed straight in front of me. I was convinced that the SOG was watching every move I made. As I marched up to the steps and to the door of every empty building, my shoulders were thrown back and my backbone was straight and if a crowd of my relatives or a small contingent of my grandmother’s friends from The Daughters of the American Revolution had been watching me, they would have been so proud that one or two might have had reason to take out their white lace handkerchiefs and daub at a tear or two.
Two hours later I was relieved and marched back to the guardhouse and allowed to sleep until my next shift began at 2 a.m. I decided to take off my boots, but keep my uniform on. I lay fitfully atop the itchy woolen blanket without disturbing the covers at all, (so that I wouldn’t have to make the bed) and tried to sleep without much success.
A few hours later, I was rudely awakened by the CQ and told to get up and pull guard duty. I had my boots on and laced before I was fully conscious. But once outside, the cold crisp November air of the Oklahoma prairie finished the job.
In total darkness I was marched back to the abandoned buildings. There were two or three others in my group. I was just following the soldier in front of me, staring at the back of his helmet and trying to stay in step when something overhead moved and caught my eye. Suddenly we were ordered to halt for some reason. Then we were given the command, “At ease.”
I looked up. We all looked up. Then to a man, all our jaws dropped. And we stood there for a few minutes dumbfounded with our mouths open, shivering and inhaling cold air. It was a perfectly clear November night. There was no moon. No ambient light spoiled the rich dark blue-black velvet blanket studded with diamonds and sprinkled with stardust that spread out above the dark and empty firmament. The starlight gleamed down on us like a million girl scouts with flashlights all looking for one lost kitten.
In the middle of all this twinkling stillness I looked straight up to see silver rockets whizzing in all directions from a central point directly overhead. There was no sound. Just hundreds of zig-zagging random streaks of silvery-white light zipping off in all directions–too many to count and they overlapped one another, like little silver sparkling fish frantically scrambling as if trying escape an invisible black barracuda which was trying to eat them. Now and then a glowing yellow-orange streak would appear in the sky and stretch from a point high up in the sky and then, in a split-second, would disappear over the horizon, crossing the whole of the Heavens in the blink of an eye and fade out leaving only the burned impression of itself in the mind.
The silent silver streaks grew in intensity and desperation until it seemed quite possible that all this frenetic activity might actually tear a hole in the Heavens and all the earth and everyone on it and their dogs and cats and Aunt Tillie and all the birds and even the crocodiles might be drawn up and vanish through it never to be seen again.
An then the sergeant said,
And we came back down to earth. And I set my eyes on the back of the helmet of my contemporary in front of me. And they marched me off for the second and last time in my life to guard the abandoned buildings. But this time, I walked around my post with a little less attention than I had before. I kept looking up. I kept thinking to myself how lucky I was to have pulled guard duty that particular night. How easily I could have missed all of it.
And from that night onward my focus hasn’t been quite so straight ahead. I look around more. I’ve relaxed my grasp on what passes for reality since those early days. Nothing in the world would ever be the same for me after what I had seen that night.
I was now sure it was all true, what someone had once told me–I’m not sure who.
The Universe truly is a “grand and magnificent place”–one “gigantic infinite mystery”– …and you and me and all our wives and all our children and all the children in the world–every one of them– even old people (I am one now) and the mountains and the lakes and the trees and the birds and yes, your dog Spot, him, too– we are all part of it.
As such it seemed to me then, and so it seems to me now.
And thus shall it ever be.
Photo Credit: Will Pochepan