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The Shagris

The repetitious thumps pounded his temples like a nasty hangover.  A week earlier, he’d have assumed the throbbing was just that.  The resilience of one’s college days quickly disappears when real responsibilities roll over one’s life like the never-ending crashing of the salty, Caribbean surf.  Not so much as a sip of alcohol in a week.  Not bad, he thought and his lips twitched in more of a grimace than a smile.  Nor would there be an adult beverage anytime in the near future.  Nope. Now he was all business.

The helicopter blades rhythmically beat a war dance against the sticky humidity of the jungle air, and he cringed.  Then again, his cranium always throbbed when forced into consciousness before the first rays of light peeked over the hidden eastern horizon.  The only light this morning emanated from the two red bulbs within the vibrating aircraft, one positioned midway along the chopper’s olive green metallic inner derma and the other on the front wall, beyond which the pilot silently urged the two-bladed, lumbering beast toward its objective.  Obscured by a thick, black Velcro strap to mask any unnatural luminescence or inadvertent reflections, his wristwatch, had he cared to check it, would have read 0330 hours.  He kept it on twenty-four hour time, which actually made more sense from a timekeeping standpoint than the civilian 12-hour mode.  The time was irrelevant, though.  Only the darkness mattered.

The airframe of the old bird creaked audiblely over the thwop, thwop, thwop of the dual rotors.  Looking at the Spartan overhead, crisscrossed with yellow and red wires, cables and hydraulic lines, Sergeant Tucker’s thoughts remained darker than the pitch black sky beyond the few portal windows.  He’d never liked choppers, and the cylindrical body of the Chinook was even worse than most.  The pilot’s sarcastic, pre-flight reminder of a helicopter’s refusal to follow the laws of physics hadn’t helped any.  Who really wanted to hear that just before boarding a whirlybird?  Certainly not him.

Asshole, he thought as the aircraft banked slowly to the west.  The jungle coastline lay somewhere down and to their left, and somewhere amidst the tangled web of mangroves flowed the warm waters of the Shagris River – Shagris was Spanish for shark, he’d been told.  It fit, for where the wide river emptied into the southern Caribbean, its muddy fresh water swirled with the salty brine of the oceanic currents with just enough motion to attract tremendous numbers of hammerhead sharks.  None of that mattered, though.  If the soldiers ended up that far down river, the sharks would be the least of their problems.

All was silent, aside from the non-stop pounding of the aircraft’s engines.  With their bulky night vision goggles, Sergeant Tucker hoped the pilots would quickly spot the river ahead.  If not, it just prolonged the flight.  They would find it.  That wasn’t the issue.  And the quicker the better, as far as he was concerned.

“One minute!” the muted voice of the helmeted crew chief barely carried over the engine noise.  In fact, had Tucker not been jostled by the camouflaged figured next to him, he might not have heard the warning.  The pilots had spotted the river and, nosing the bulky chopper into a forty-degree dive, sped toward the slick blackness of the Shagris.  Tucker glanced at other warriors seated in pairs along the bulkhead, facing toward each other but separated from him by a stack of rucksacks.  He nodded, and in silent unison, the group rose from the cargo net seats and stretched their legs.  Usually only four of them operated together, but as of yesterday, the group had grown by one.

Shortly after noon the previous day, Corporal Jimenez, USMC, had sauntered onto the second floor of the barracks.  He was short, but made up for any lack of physical stature with an ego the size of Manhattan.  Without even asking, he had flung his duffel bag onto nearest top bunk at the end of the open squad bay, nonchalantly leaned his rifle against the iron frame of the bed and plopped down onto the musty mattress.  He said not a word to anyone, but the arrogance oozed through his attitude.  No words were needed.

Damn Jarhead, Tucker had thought even before seeing the reaction of his men to this intrusion.  He had intended to break the news to them earlier, and he wished he had.  Their faces said what went unspoken; their thoughts mirrored his as they glanced at each other.

Tucker had known better than to inquire about language barriers during the operations order that morning.  A legitimate concern, he felt, given that they were operating in the Panamanian jungle with little more Spanish ability between them than was necessary to order una mas cervezas. But to assign a jarhead?  Had he known that would be the solution, he would have kept his mouth shut.  Too late now.  He shook his head slowly before slumping against the barrack’s concrete support column and sighing.

For Tucker, when he allowed himself beneath the superficial interservice rivalry that existed between Marines and the Army, it all came down to tactics.  Both services were competent killers.  He knew that.  He’d even admit it after a couple cold ones.  But each branch accomplished their objectives in their own ways, following their own Standard Operating Procedures.  And that was the crux of the problem.

He had served with Marines before, but never without several weeks of alignment exercises.  Tactics needed to be discussed and reconciled.  Otherwise, you ran the risk of disaster.  If ambushed, the Marines would hunker down on the spot and open fire toward the enemy, while the soldiers would scream and go charging directly through the line of ambushing forces.  Without coordination, the reacting Marines would accomplish little more than wiping out the entire scout squad.  Yes, they needed time to ensure everyone was on the page, definitely longer than just a few hours, anyway.

Tucker watched as the Chinook’s rear ramp begin to lower and the spray of the unseen river misted the air inside the chopper’s belly.  It was, of course, a moot point now, as he shook his head slightly.  Adapt, improvise and overcome, he thought, stepping toward the gaping darkness and peering into the blackness below.  He saw nothing.  Not the canopy of the dense jungle.  Not the flowing water of the Shagris.  Just a noticeably oily wetness that prickled his skin and clung to the greasy paint on his face.  He shielded his eyes, and squinted into the darkness.  Still nothing.

By the time he turned around and stepped back from the edge of the wobbling aircraft, he saw the others had congregated behind him.  Their arms holding tight to their olive green rucksacks, rifles strapped tightly to the bulging packs.  One by one, he quickly inspected their gear, his trained eyes searching for loose items, anything that could either fall out as they exited the helo or that might rattle and announce their presence once in the jungle below.

Step. Check. Step. Check.  He made his way past each of the soldiers, until only Corporal Jimenez was left.  Even in the reddish glow, his face had turned a sickly green color, and he hesitantly stood several feet behind the others.  Tuck felt his jaw tighten, and he motioned the Marine forward.

“Let’s go, Corporal!” His yell was barely audible, but his meaning unquestionable.  Jimenez inched forward, prompting another angry gesture from the sergeant.

The light at the edge of the ramp began blinking. Thirty seconds until the chopper reached the insertion point, which was likely already in view for the pilots up front.  Four tiny chemlights, tightly secured twenty minutes earlier to the outstretched Mangrove tentacles along the riverside by Navy Seals, marked the drop zone.  At least that was the plan, Tuck knew, but he was nervous.  The Seals had never let him down before.  He hoped this wouldn’t be their first time.

Taking his place at the rear of the group, Tucker’s eyes fixed on the flashing red lamp, until it froze, casting a solid greenish hue.  It was time.  One by one, the camouflaged soldiers stepped to the edge of the Chinook’s back ramp, tossed their rucksack into the darkness, paused momentarily and then stepped.  Five warriors in all.  In eight seconds, only the Sergeant remained on the chopper.  Tuck followed suit.  First, the rucksack disappeared into the black night.  Wait, one thousand, his trained mind recited.  A momentary dread coursed through his body, and then he too stepped into the nothingness….


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