FIVE SECONDS by Matthew Burrell

Matthew Burrell
FIVE SECONDS

J.D. stood up without his grenade pin. We were heading toward the Guadalupe range after a live fire exercise in White Sands Training Grounds, otherwise known as the ‘Sand Box’, during a hot afternoon in July 1998 when the last guardpost of safety that kept us living, breathing connected tissue instead of imploded molecules of gelatinous red goop, the grenade clip, caught on J.D.’s entrenching tool, discharging into the air, and afterward, Ramirez swore he could hear the material ignition over the clanging of everything else—all the battle rattle, entrenching tools, canteens, compasses, magazines, warm brass shell casings—like the telltale vibration of a rattlesnake’s tail.

The exterior walls of the Bradley, thirty millimeters of spaced laminate armor, were impenetrable to small caliber ammunition. But inside, all that armor had the inverse effect, creating an enclosure that would multiply the devastation of an explosion by tenfold to its passengers, the hundred and eighteenth infantry detachment, out of Forest Park, Illinois, third squad, which consisted of myself, Squad Leader Sergeant Mack, Spec Ramirez, Private John David Steward, whom everyone called J.D., and the gunner in the turret, Corporal Carlson.

Sergeant Mack was the first to notice the orphaned clip and yelled, “That ain’t no dummy grenade,” while simultaneously grabbing J.D. and wrestling him down into the front compartment. Ramirez hurled himself to the floor with his hands over his Kevlar, like they trained us to do back in basic. I turtled up where I sat on cargo netting near the rear.

It all happened because J.D. had Rambo’d his grenades earlier in the day by removing the safety clips to make quicker throws—a great concept in the movies but a pretty shitty one in real life. Because J.D. wasn’t Sylvester Stallone, we had roughly five seconds before detonation.

Five seconds, in the Army, could feel like an eternity.

Before all of this, before you could become a passenger of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, before you were field certified to carry live grenades, fire live ammunition, or even touch an M-16 rifle, you must sign your life away to a recruiter in an ironclad contract that says you belong to the Army and are thereby and henceforth (and forevermore) property of the United States of America. When the recruiter soothes your mother with talk of government benefits, new skills, access to the G.I. Bill, affordable education, they never mention the fact you’re more likely to die in a helicopter crash during a training exercise than actual combat. Or that when you do finally get sent overseas, percentages say you will get KIA’d in a vehicular rollover rather than a roadside bomb. The recruiter fails to state the number one killer of veterans in America isn’t physical injury but mental health, and the rate of suicide among veterans is more than twice the rate of Joe Q Public.

I can’t speak to what J.D.’s recruiter told his mother, but I will say J.D. loved the Army more than any of us. Sergeant Mack liked to say he was blessed (or cursed) with the right combination of small-town Hoosier (having never left the midwest except once to go to South Carolina for basic training) and a woodsman-hunter ingenuity that was requisite of good soldiering. And unlike the rest of us, who were disinclined to speak fondly of the military (we tried not to speak of the Army at all except in laconic terminology and outright cursing its very existence), J.D. was a proud lifer from day one: first to the rifle range and last to chow, loved to spend hours breaking down the M-16, part by part, scrubbing the inner workings with cotton swabs before applying copious amounts of lubricating oil to the bolt and reassembling the weapon; highest scores in marksmanship; the physical fitness test; the urban warfare course, mountaineering, navigation, airborne…the rest of us bullshitted about going to Ranger School in order to appear squared away, but J.D. was already waitlisted in the fall class at Benning and serious about doing it.

The other thing you should probably know about J.D. is that up until we arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, he was a virgin—in fact, both of us were. That was probably why we became such close buddies in a compressed military timeframe and stuck together during the reservist annual training. In the evenings, after a day in the field of playing soldier, the rest of the unit would go out to the enlisted club to drink Miller Lite, smoke cigarettes, and shoot pool, and J.D. and I would go to the barracks and continue to play soldier on Call of Duty. We didn’t smoke, but J.D. showed me how to chew on sunflower seeds—a handful at a time, sucking the salt out of the shells, getting the bits caught in your teeth, and spitting the rest into an empty water bottle. The grappling we learned in hand-to-hand combat, we’d practice there on the dust-swept floor among the discarded sunflower shells, twisting each other into figure fours, hyperextending joints, and constricting chokes in a game we called ‘blackout or tap out’. And when the rest of the soldiers came back drunk, we had all of our equipment out and prepped for training the next day. J.D., who otherwise was thin as a popsicle stick, cut a mighty stoic figure in pressed BDUs, spit-shined combat boots, and all the knee pads and camo vests an Army surplus store could stock. But up close, the most defining features were an unblemished face, rosy cheeks, and peach fuzz-like gravelly dirt across the upper lip. He was nineteen years old, and so was I.

Before the grenade detonates in four seconds, J.D. and I must first lose our virginity. Which is an impossible task in a place like El Paso. Back in those days Fort Bliss wasn’t a big military base like it is today, but a barren dusty stretch of warehouses and missile batteries and rows of barracks and churches and more churches and more barracks. It was the antithesis of the dictionary meaning of bliss because the military is full of irony. Flat as a saucer and every building the same and not a single female at the enlisted club, not just one of the worst military bases in CONUS, it ranked up there with the worst places in the world, period.

The night before the live fire exercise our liaison, Major Bentley, took us up to watch the sunset from one of El Paso’s rocky overlooks. After the sun fell there was a flickering in the distance like a prairie of Wisconsin fireflies as darkness came on. The orange glow of twilight sparkled like an electrical current ran through the sky, and all of us were curious to what it might be until Major Bentley broke the spell, “That right there is Ciudad Juarez, troops. And you’ll have to trust me when I say you don’t want to go there.”

As we walked back to the vehicles, Sergeant Mack elbowed me sharp in the ribcage and whispered, “Ciudad Juarez is exactly where we’re going.”

The days prior to the live fire exercise were spent in a stretch of lonely New Mexico desert backdropped by the magnificent Guadalupe range. In 1945, it was the site of the world’s first atom bomb, also known as Jornada Del Muerto, or ‘the Route of the Dead Man’, where at precisely five thirty in the morning Oppenheimer’s ‘Trinity’ test instantly disintegrated the one hundred foot tower carrying the device and turned everything else—all the sand and grass and rock—into emerald hued glass. All of that was accomplished before anyone could say ‘Jack Robinson’. But seconds later they heard the explosion and felt an eighteen-kiloton blast that seared the earth and sent shockwaves with enough force to knock down observers from miles away.

A few seconds was also the time it took Ramirez to urinate on the black lava rock obelisk commemorating ground zero, where we’d pulled the Humvees over to take a group photo.

“I’m, like, pissing on history,” Ramirez said as he shook the last drops out.

“Some fucking history,” Sergeant Mack said. “A scientific experiment in mass destruction to kill brown folks. That’s what this was. Ever consider why they never used the bomb on Hitler?”

“Huh,” Ramirez said, buttoning up his trousers.

“Didn’t think so,” Mack said. “You, of all people, should understand the cultural significance of mass genocide.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, sergeant?”

Sometimes it was hard to tell if Sergeant Mack was fucking with you or giving you truth like a water cooler salesman in the desert.

J.D. came from around the obelisk and took a photo of the blackened glass. He unslung his rifle and peered through the scope.

“Nothing for miles in every direction.”

“That’s right,” Mack said. “They blew half this desert to test a fucking bomb. Then they dropped it on not one, but two cities. You’d think they’d notice a couple soldiers missing if we never came back?”

“Don’t say that, sergeant,” J.D. said.

“What do you want me to say,” Mack said. “That you’ll make a fifty grand signing bonus and drive a Corvette and fuck every stripper on Victory Drive?”

“Careful, Sergeant Mack,” Carlson said. “You keep talking like that and they’ll make you a recruiter.”

“Sheet,” Sergeant Mack said. “Who says I wasn’t one already?”

Later, in the barracks, while drinking warm Jose Cuervo straight from the bottle and playing spades, bright fluorescent lights fizzled every couple seconds and indiscriminately went dark, flies crowded the windows, and cockroaches the size of quarters skittered on the white linoleum floors unafraid of the light, unafraid of us, even. We lived in a shithole, frankly, of painted concrete walls, rusted steel bunks, sordid mattresses, and air that was grainy with dust and who knows what else. Three of the four latrine toilets were clogged since the day we arrived. We’d put in a work order, but that only seemed to aggravate the situation. The next day there was a half-moon-shaped piece of shit on one of the toilet rims. “Maybe they missed,” someone said, but the rest of us all agreed it defied physics. Somebody was intentionally fucking with us. It was the same story everywhere.

Three seconds before implosion I could still see Sergeant Mack throwing down his cards and saying, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit here drinking warm tequila all night and eye fucking the rest of yous.”

“What can we do,” I said. “It’s not like J.D. and I can stroll into the enlisted club.”

“I know something we can do,” Rameriez said, a wry half-drunk smile spread across his face.

“Are you certified insane?” J.D. said.

“Ain’t no laws about IDs down there; you got hair on your balls, they’ll serve you.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” I admitted, “sending us to war without letting us buy a beer.”

“Life ain’t fair, you dumbass,” Sergeant Mack retorted. “Think you’re special ’cause you signed the dotted line?”

“No,” I said sheepishly. Sergeant Mack had a way of tearing you down before he built you back up.

“But you are right. Makes no damn sense taking a bullet without a shot of tequila to numb the pain.”

He stood up from his chair and untucked his brown tee and showed the rest of us, something he’d done many times before, an old gunshot wound. A spidery crisscrossing of dark scar tissue across the abdomen. “Got this before I joined up. Reason I did,” we’d all heard the story before, but it was a good one, “figured if I’m gonna get shot, I may as well get paid for it.”

So when Sergeant Mack told us we had nothing to worry about in Juarez, nothing a couple of well-trained, no-shit hi-speed soldiers couldn’t handle, we agreed to go—after all, urban warfare was what the annual training was about, so, in theory, some sporadic automatic fire would do us some good.

And that settled it. We were going to Ole Mexico.

We departed for the Land Port of Entry at twenty-one hundred hours and parked our rented Suburban on the El Paso side and got out with just enough cash to last a couple of hours and left all other valuables, besides our common access cards (CAC) cards and IDs, in the vehicle. J.D. took a fold-out knife “just in case” and slipped it into his cowboy boot before we lined up with the rest of the civilians at the pedestrian bridge.

A few minutes later, we were in Mexico.

“So this is Mexico, huh?” Carlson said.

“Yeah,” Ramirez said.

“Looks a lot like Texas.”

“Yeah.”

Migrant workers with tired faces piled into the beds of pickup trucks, families milled about waiting for buses to come, others began to walk down the street to who knows where—the road faded into darkness because, after the land-port-of-entry, which was lit like a Macy’s, there were no street lights. Eerie darkness opened like a wound in the night and bade one to wonder if it had simply been there all along, dormant, waiting to be discovered like some piece of unexploded ordnance in an otherwise bucolic field.

We looked around the border station, but there were no signs saying “G.I.’s this way” and Sergeant Mack had disappeared suddenly. The border station quickly emptied and filled again as more people made the trip over. We were beginning to talk about what a mistake this was when Sergeant Mack came around the corner in the bed of a pickup truck like he’d planned the whole thing.

“Don’t just stand there looking like a bunch of gringo assholes.”

“I ain’t no fucking gringo,” Ramirez said.

Two seconds until a grenade blows all of us to Kingdom Come, and we’re rolling through downtown Jaurez in the back of a pickup truck and I’m still thinking about the smell. Not of the backed-up latrine but of the brothel we found on one of the darkest streets I’ve ever seen. The lights looked the same on all the roads of Juarez. Then, as we made a turn, a pink neon ambiance glowed and rats skittered like rose-colored figments through the streets into gutters. A howl rang out in the near distance, either coyote or dog, I couldn’t tell which. My only thought was, this must be the place.

When we entered, there was a group of older Mexicans wearing jeans and flannels shooting pool in one of the corners and an older barmaid behind a rickety bar top. J.D. grabbed a pool cue off the wall.

“We’re not here to play pool, dickhead,” Sergeant Mack said.

J.D. put the cue back on the wall.

“We’re here to get fucked up,” Carlson said.

“Ding ding,” Mack said. “Folks, we have a winner.”

“It smells like pussy,” Ramirez said, “but I don’t see any girls.”

“I guess your mother doesn’t start her shift until eleven,” Mack said.

“Fuck you.”

“Ahem.”

Sergeant Mack gave Ramirez a dour look.

“Respectfully, fuck you, sergeant.”

The atmosphere in the pool hall seemed to portend something. The sight of the place made my stomach churn, for along the wall were unlabeled tequila bottles with worms sitting at the bottom of each. They were kept in uneven rows, half full or a quarter full, never fully full. I looked to J.D. and he was looking at the bottles, too, stacked high like a rampart on a tower wall. I’d never seen so much alcohol in my entire life. The soldierly thing to do, we innately understood, was to commence a siege at once.

“What do you think, J.D.?”

“Fifty bucks to the Joe who gets the worm,” Mack said, sidling up to the bar.

“Fifty bucks is a good price for a worm,” J.D. said, looking at me, “is what I think.”

Sergeant Mack took out a fifty and laid it on the table and next thing I knew the bottle was turned up in my mouth. Soon after the smooth brick walls were oscillating and lights strobed the bar top. The bartender, a striking woman of fifty years old, was giving us winks from bespeckled purple lashes. In no time we’d each finished a bottle and swallowed a worm and claimed the fifty dollars from Sergeant Mack. Then, at around midnight, we found out what the fifty dollars was intended for.

I have no idea where they’d come from, but suddenly the pool hall was a real live wire, belting out mariachi songs and filled to the brim with hustlers, pool players, Mexican cowboys, and some of the most beautiful prostitutes I’d ever laid eyes on. They were, in fact, the first prostitutes I’d ever laid eyes on. In no time at all they formed a half circle around me and J.D. and were pushing us into the far corner of the pool hall.

Sergeant Mack was doubled over, laughing. He thought it was a pretty funny scene, I guess, us skinny, needle-dicked teenagers being corralled like some wild mustangs into the corner by a group of take-no-prisoner, mercenary hookers.

Anyway, that was it for me and J.D. That was all the cajoling we’d need. We’d already made up our minds. We were done being virgins.

One second to go and I am staring at a pink-hued ceiling mirror, wondering why I always imagined it would happen differently. The room was dingy, even by brothel standards, and I somehow knew this even though I’d never been to a brothel. The plaster on the walls was peeled, with either mold or fungus, it was impossible to tell in the sallow light. The only other furniture in the room was a decrepit armchair, which was home to at least one mouse I’d seen escape into his ripped legs when we first entered. It had been several minutes since the girl had left, and I couldn’t help but wonder if J.D. had the same experience as me, with the same feelings of loss and confusion afterward, yet somehow satisfying in a way that made you want to do it again as soon as possible.

When I found J.D. in the pool hall he was leaning over the countertop, him and his denim jeans and flannel shirt, cowboy boots, and high and tight haircut, sipping on a glass of mezcal. The expression on his face, when he wheeled around, was the same as when the grenade went off. Not fear, necessarily, but a look of bewilderment—like he was saying with his eyes, “What the fuck did I just do?

In a brilliant flash of light and sound the grenade detonated. The reason I’m here to tell you about it is because the grenade was not the standard fragmentation kind, but a signal grenade. There was a fizzing and almost immediately the personnel cabin of the Bradley where we happened to be, a claustrophobic steel armored box no bigger than a small closet, began to fill with noxious colored smoke, and I lost all vision but could hear J.D. hollering like he was dying.

By feeling alone I found the drop switch and was able to open the back ramp, and when the smoke cleared out into the desert air, I could see Sergeant Mack and J.D. rolling on the bed of the rear compartment, smoke from J.D.’s chest as though he bled a red colored toxin. Carlson was up the turret screaming for a medevac. Pretty soon Sergeant Mack was also screaming, but J.D. had gone quiet.

Sergeant Mack had managed to peel away the grenade and toss it, but the sky was still red with smoke when the Blackhawk choppered in from Bliss. There were two gurneys—one for Sergeant Mack and one for J.D. We watched the bird lift off and dust plume up, and for a while we watched it grow small and blur into the horizon. Then we all got back into the Bradley. There wasn’t much else to do, and no one said anything the whole way back to the rear.

For two days we waited outside the Fort Bliss hospital where we could visit J.D. and Sergeant Mack. It was always during the morning that we would sit in the waiting room, bright white, always the same. Then we’d take turns going into the rooms, but there was nothing to see. They were both unconscious, covered in blankets, and the only sound was medical machines doing their work. But something with Sergeant Mack changed after two days. He woke up, but J.D. lapsed into a coma.

We waited, hoping, until they told us we had to go back to Chicago. By the time the plane landed at O’Hare, J.D. had died. From what had he died? The First Sergeant called each of us into his office to tell us personally what happened. That signal grenades can reach temperatures of eight hundred, a thousand degrees or more. They won’t kill you from a distance, but pressed up against human flesh for a significant duration? It could be lethal.

Before I got out of the Army for good, I met up with Sergeant Mack in a bar on the south side near the stadium. We were planning to watch the White Sox play the Red Sox, but the game got rained out, so we sat in a dark bar and drank Old Style.

“I was watching a documentary the other night,” Mack said. “About Alaska or some shit. This crazy motherfucker moved there and decided to live with grizzly bears. Imagine that? And I thought soldiers were dumb.”

I nodded, wondering whether we were going to talk about what happened all those years ago. A few seconds into the conversation I already knew we weren’t. It was unseen wounds that took the longest to heal. Some never did.

“How’d it end?”

“You’re a funny motherfucker,” Mack said. “How you think it ended?”

“Man and bear live happily ever after?”

“If nuptials mean devouring your lifemate, then yeah, you could say that.”

He shook his head, laughed, and took a sip of Old Style. There was that easy demeanor, a wit so sharp it left marks. Sergeant Mack was still our talisman, always would be.

“It’s a fucked up thing,” he said. “About bears.”

“What’s that?”

“Tell me,” Mack said. “A bear is on your ass. There’s a downsloping hill on one side and a tall tree on the other. Which one you taking?”

“Hell, can’t bears climb trees? I’m taking the hill route.”

“Nah,” he said. “That ain’t right, either. It’s a trick question.”

“Then what are you supposed to do?”

“You make yourself big,” Mack said. “You make yourself bigger than you’ve ever been, and you bow up to that bear and you scream your heart out. You scream until your lungs bleed.”


Matthew Burrell is a reformed expatriate who’s spent much of his life in strange places. He lived in Tokyo for three years and in southern Thailand (all over, really) for another four years. Before that, he served in the US military and completed tours of Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A sometimes dissident who’s been through his fair share of immigration SNAFUs, Matthew is empathic to the plights of the marginalized and disenfranchised everywhere. A graduate of Converse College MFA program, he is most interested in the fiction whose subject matter makes readers uncomfortable yet enlightened. He is currently looking for a publisher for his completed novel, Legends of the East.

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