“No, no, pin it! Just fucking pin it!”
The struggling engine of the aged Italian M40 coughed and choked to an asthmatic halt.
“Shit! Well, we’re done. We ain’t movin’.” The instructors gruff tone orated in defeat. I felt a sudden sting of shame as I was the one sitting behind the wheel of this sturdy antediluvian steed. Though our progress upward on this mud-laden incline was not my fault, I couldn’t help but feel somehow responsible for our cessation of movement. Liam, the instructor, a man in his sixties, began to dismount from the passenger side of the soft-skinned military ambulance. I heard a quick metallic scream lament from the rusted hinges before feeling the full brunt of a slamming door push through to my side of the truck. Still seated behind the wheel of the M40, I now heard muffled provincialisms hurriedly spill from Liam’s mouth.
“God damnit, fucking piece of fuckin dog shit cunt! Feck! Heneghan, get out here!”
Before Liam was finished ordering for me, I had already withdrawn myself from the ambulance and was making my way around the back to meet up with the petulant ex-sailor.
“See what I see?” Liam asks.
“Yeah, looks like—”
“Looks like we’re stuck deeper than a pecker on prom night, doesn’t it?!” Liam chimed in.
“Oh, cut with the sir shit! You know what this means, Heneghan?”
I assumed it meant that as a private, I was about to get to do some digging.
“Ah, I get to dig us out?”
“Thanks for volunteering. I’ll be in the truck eating whatever hell is inside our box lunches this time”.
“Yes, sir… sorry. Sounds good, I’ll get digging”.
It was early spring, so the hill that we were stuck on was a sloppy combination of mud, snow and frozen earth, basically it was wet shit with heft. I began digging around the back of the ambulance, then the sides, then back around to the rear again. Occasionally I would jump back into the driver’s seat to see if my labor had been fruitful—it wasn’t. Not for a good long while anyway.
I, along with some other platoonmates were on our driver’s course, so when these things happened, it was left up to us to figure out—seemingly to the delight of our veteran instructors—all former servicemen themselves.
“Hey, Heneghan, how’s things going back there?” Liam called out from the passenger side of the rig.
“Ah, yeah… good. It’s ah… well, we’re still not moving anywhere anytime soon, so…”
“That’s what I figured, may as well come eat your feckin’ box lunch. Let’s see what fresh hell they’ve offered to you, shall we?”
I had been digging for so long that it was already lunch time. I had seen some of my other mates drive freely on by, they all chose to greet me with gleeful smiles from their driver’s side windows. I had returned in kind with a very special hand gesture of my own as a form of return greeting. Caked in mud, I sloshed my way back around to the driver’s side and hopped in.
“Here.” Liam handed me my boxed lunch. A culinary offering from the army cooks back on base that we got to take with us. I opened the cardboard folds of the box and revealed a stale, cheese sandwich, a bruised apple, a badly beaten granola bar and some nuts… some expired nuts…”
“Ha! Looks like you had the same asshole pack your lunch as I did, Henny”.
“Looks that way…”
Now, I won’t sit here and lie to you by saying that I did not eat it, I did. I ate all of it. I was fucking starving. Starving and covered in a thick goo of mud-soup. As I was eating, albeit with a heavy acquiescence, I heard and felt the low-rumble of an approaching diesel engine. It was Wilmot and his instructor steaming up the hill. Wilmot parked alongside of me and the instructor, Adamson, rolled down the window and peered over at me. I began rolling my window down so as to allow for colloquial exchange.
“Henny, you got stuck?” Wilmot queried.
“Nah, I just parked here and decided to roll around in the mud like an asshole—yeah, we got stuck!”
“Haha, you good? Need a hand??”
“Nah, bro. I’m gonna finish this five-star sandwich and then I should be able to get us outta here, thanks though”.
Ignoring my statement, Wilmot put his rattling rig into park and hopped out with shovel-in-hand. Upon taking notice of what he was about to do, I put my sandwich back in the box and readied myself to go out and assist my brother-in-arms.
“Heneghan,” Liam said, “Sit, eat, I’ll go help the fucker.” Liam hopped out; his mouth curled into a mischievous grin as he did. When he said he was going to go and help out Wilmot, what he had meant was that he was going to sip on his cold coffee and chat with the other instructor as they let Wilmot grunt and groan his way through the dirt.
Not more than fifteen-minutes later though, we were free and once again able to ascend the craggy hill. I drove behind Wilmot a ways, grateful for his insistence to help. We drove until we had hit the main roads. We pulled off on a truck-stop and sat out by the water for a while. Those of whom were brave enough to continue consuming what was left in their boxed lunches did so. Liam couldn’t help but vituperate;
“Wonger, whad’ya got over there?” Referring to what Private Wong was eating.
“Uh, looks like… roast beef… I think”.
“You think?! See, that’s a fucking issue, not even knowing what the fuck we are eating! Tell ya right now, I’d like to meet the cock-washer that made these lunches, and you know what I’d do? I’d shake their hand and congratulate them. I’d praise them on their advanced level of asshole-ness! Feck!!”
I should mention that Liam was a crazy Newfoundlander, so, whenever he swore, it was always to the benefit of our listening enjoyment. When we had finished our break, we remounted our cantankerous vehicles and pressed onward.
This continued over the span of several weeks until we had attained enough hours to procure our military driving licenses for all soft-skinned vehicles. In that time, we had gotten to know our instructors on a personal level and grown to enjoy their company and idiosyncrasies, and they ours. On our final day together, we all met at a local restaurant in town and dined in each others company while partaking in the time-tested military tradition of alcohol consumption. Ironic, considering this was a driver’s course. No one was driving that night, I assure you.
As stated, all of our instructors were ex-military, so, they knew the life all too well. They shared stories of their time spent in service and beguiled us with tales of misbehavior, busted ranks and mess brawls, all spoken through hearty guffaws of remembrance and jolly. Until all of a sudden, a boisterous callout of a singular word;
It was loud enough to silence all other verbal pleasantries. It was Liam. He stood with wobbled gate and intoxicated gaze that held stern expression.
“Sss-shut up and listen! Listen nnn to me!” He slurred loudly.
“You’re all getting ready to go on mission, aren’t ya?” He was referring to the fact that we were all on pre-deployment training and destined to be sent overseas to Afghanistan. We nodded somberly.
“Look, sss-shut up a second and listen. I’ve been to bad places. I’ve done shit things and I’ve married more times than I should’a.” You could see a life of lived experience play out from behind his gaze while he spoke. Before continuing on, he scanned each of us in the eye.
“Sss-Shania! Don’t be stupid! Get me? Don’t be stupid—Shania!” He was referring to the song by Shania Twain, Don’t Be Stupid. But he was also speaking of our safety. He knew the places we were to go, and it had been bad as of late, we were losing Canadian soldiers at an increasing pace.
“You don’t be stupid! Keep your eyes open, your mouths shut and you don’t volunteer for nothin’! DON’T BE STUPID!! SHANIA!!!”
A sullen silence of agreement filled the room. One of the old boys put their hand on Liam’s shoulder but he quickly bucked it off like an angry bull and cried out once more;
“SHANIA! You hear me? SHANIA!!”
The hand returned to his shoulder and helped him into his chair. He used poor coordination to reach for his brandy, poor but successful. When he began to drink, the remainder of us took our seats. Williamson ‘Willy,’ began to speak softly, also through drunken tongue. A reiteration on the importance of Shania—don’t be stupid.
It was the old guard caring for the new. Dropping the stoicism of instructor to student and instead speaking earnestly about what was to come. All of us around that table were eager to serve, but we were also humbled in the presence of those who already had. The night continued and the drink flowed forth. After that night, I never spoke nor heard from Liam nor any of the instructors again.
And on that fateful July day of 08, I couldn’t help but think that they too had heard the horrible news bleed from their TV sets—Wilmot was dead. Killed in action, far from home. There was nothing “Shania” about Colin, though. He was as astute as they come. Thing is, bombs and bullets don’t give a shit how smart or prepared you are, they hunt with impunity and an unimaginable savagery.
Though I did not deploy with Colin, “Wilmot,” I always remembered those utterances spoken around that table on a night where he was still alive. Alive and next to me—Shania—don’t be stupid. I have tried to live by that creed. Shamefully, I have made some poor decisions that could constitute as stupid along the way. But the advice is sound, and I remember it clearly.
Thanks, Liam. Wherever you are, hopefully you’ve found a better sandwich and you’re driving freely somewhere beautiful. Oh, and if you do happen to read this, remember… Shania!