Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lighting the Torch for a Friend: Preston Remembered

I was saddened to find that a friend had passed away Monday in his sleep, he was only 43. Preston McConkie was outspoken, grumpy and honest. I can think of several times I tried to keep the peace on some facebook posts where he would enjoy commenting something rather inflammatory, in any case I consider him a great friend who helped me quite a lot with my writing even if I didn't know it was him for years.

Randomly chatting on facebook, I found out he was one of the original two slush editors for Zarahemla Books - and he was the unnamed editor one who first gave me some good encouragement despite a rejection. I treasured his comments that Heroes of the Fallen was the best Book of Mormon fiction he had ever read and quite Arthurian.

More recently he helped edit the forthcoming The Mad Song and helped give me some other editing tips on other projects. 

I have read several of his short stories and realizing that this short piece was on his blog earlier this year, I decided to share it here.

It was published in the May 2012 issue of eFiction, and getting to know Preston better I found that while it was labeled fiction for the magazine, it was indeed a true experience of his regarding the first Gulf War.

Thank you Preston for your friendship, til we meet again...
 
 
Dream Cred
By Preston McConkie
2153 words


           I used to think it was a big deal to wake up screaming or swinging. That’s what the Vietnam vets did. It was a new version of the red badge of courage. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen to me, and when it did start it was two years after those 38 days from the Jan. 14 outbreak to the Feb. 25 invasion, then the six days of combat and the other two days falling back out of Iraq through Kuwait and at last to King Fahd Air Base and Al-Khobar.
          Two years went by and then, one day, a roommate touched me when I was asleep and I came awake gasping and panicked and hit my head on the wall.
          It pleased me a little at the time because you can’t choose how to wake up, and this gave me street cred as a real combat vet, and not like what I thought of myself as: someone who’d been there but hadn’t really seen it, hadn’t really done it.
          I didn’t regret never having to use my rifle to kill someone I could see fall and bleed. And helping hand up an 8-inch projo while someone else rammed it and another guy pulled the lanyard and sent it 20 miles downrange -- well, that was just like practice.
          The disappointment was not seeing the bodies. I never saw a wounded guy, never saw a corpse. Never even saw a blood stain. At first that just frustrated me. Later I decided God must have shielded my eyes, because everydamnbody around me saw the guts and the gore as we drove past. We’d driven down a highway of death, trucks still on fire with fresh bullet holes, only minutes after the M-1s and Bradleys had swept through and machine gunned and cannoned everything to junk. We’d bivouacked in the middle of bunkers and foxholes and I’d fallen asleep in my ammo truck while three terrified Iraqis huddled in a foxhole just 20 feet away, but I didn’t see them cuz I wasn’t on guard duty and too tired and dumb to be afraid, so I slept while the guys on duty cleared the holes and took the prisoners.
          And then on our last position forward we were in a wasteland of overturned cargo trucks and abandoned earth movers and spent a couple of days burning stacks of Romanian AK-47s still in their oiled-paper wrappings and burying mortar shells and even burning a stack full of rifle ammo and RPG rockets that went off with great hisses and left arcing smoke trails but didn’t arm themselves and never exploded.
Only one night, the last night before we reached Kuwait, our convoy stopped in darkness while the officers plotted the route with those ancient, massive, $35,000-apiece GPS readers, and the light wind carried the smell of rotting flesh. Shapes in the dark, if I remember, looked like berms pushed up by bulldozers, and somewhere out there were earthworks full of dead men. But I never got closer than smelling them.
So all in all, that wasn’t much to get worked up about. I saw smoke, I heard explosions, I saw a few prisoners get taken and turned loose after we fed them and realized we couldn’t keep them. I saw bedouins come bobbing their heads up to the battery perimeter, empty water cans in hand, motioning at the water trailer behind the old Korean War-leftover deuce-and-a-half truck, and the first time I held my rifle at port arms because I was on guard duty and I shook my head, but the battery commander came over and said, “C’mon, McConkie, let ‘im in.” And I returned the bow with heel-of-hand-on-forehead and the benediction of “Salaam!” while the smiling Arab scuttled to the trailer and filled his can.
          I remember the engineers from the 82nd Airborne driving around in armored vehicles and setting charges in bunkers I didn’t know were there and setting off ground-shaking blasts that sent gray mushroom clouds swirling up, and not knowing til later they’d been blowing caches of cycloserin nerve agent while we stood or laid around breathing the air, our protective masks tucked in their hip pouches.
So in the years afterward I sometimes thought the mystery cocktail of C4 smoke and nerve agent might be responsible for the shakes and the muscle-grinding and the feeling of doom that squeezed me til I’d bite my knuckles or burn myself or cut myself for relief/ But that wouldn’t give me nightmares full of dying men.
Even so, two years later the nightmares started. And I started waking up gasping or shouting. On my wedding night ten years later, I kicked my wife when she snuggled against me.
          I felt like a fraud. I’d done nothing to earn this kind of dysfunction. I hadn’t seen anything. I hadn’t killed anyone. The only blood I’d spilt on a foreign shore was from a slip while illegally sharpening an M1 bayonet.
I’d stood in one artillery firefight when the Republican Guards’ 2nd Division tubes almost got our range, and for about a minute their South African 155s started raining shells nearby. But their observers were dead and our choppers were out and maybe our radar trackers got their range too, and the guys on the bitch boxes called new coordinates and our 8-inchers shifted tubes so many mils quadrant and deflection and our next rounds pounded them to silent junk that we went out the next day and gathered up as trophies, so that we came back to Saudi Arabia dragging two Gerald Bull 155mm’s and a Russian 122mm
But there was no glory because the only Purple Heart handed out in the 2nd Battalion 18th Field Artillery Regiment went to a cannoneer who fell off a howitzer and broke his collarbone, which made the award a fraud. And the bronze stars were handed out “for meritorious service” but not for valor, to every officer in a Humvee and above lieutenant and every first sergeant and the sergeant major and the battalion commander and the XO and each of their drivers. But there was never a single damned brave thing done except that the battalion blundered across the line of infantry and armor on Feb. 28, 1991, because we’d suddenly and unexpectedly come across an enemy that hadn’t run away yet.
And because we were there, we got the call of “Fire mission!” and the farthest right howitzer fired a blind shot and the flying forward observers saw where it landed and shot a laser range-finder at the impact and calculated an azimuth and called it back to the boys in the old M113 command track, and they ran their slide rulers because computers back then were too slow for combat.
And while every gunner lined his sites up against the gun on his right, the privates with the commo wire were running lines to the fire direction track and hooking them up to the bitch boxes, and FDC called over “Fire mission, shell HE, fuse quick,” then read off the six-number deflection and then the quadrant. And the ammo carrier had broke down a day or two earlier and been left behind with its crew still on it and my HEMMT truck was backed up to the gun and I stood on a 12-ton stack of projos and powders and hooked the spider cables to the nose plugs in the projos so the crane could lift them down six at a time. And Charlie Battery on our left got off the first shot and then we were just a few seconds behind, and then FDC called an adjustment and the next rounds went out and the bitch box called, “Fire for effect.”
And while the red-bag powders were shooting fire out the muzzles and making the dust jump off the ground, and the sun was dipping down and the dark falling fast, the Abrams tanks behind us started shooting at nobody-knew-what except that tanks only fired line of site, so it was it had to be close, or closer than us gun bunnies in the King of Battle were supposed to be. And while the glass was crazing in our windshields and the door windows were blowing clear out of their frames because we were shooting bigger powder than we’d ever fired in practice, BANG! … BANG! … BANG! … there came that sound we’d never heard except far away, but that sounds nothing like a round going out the tube. Incoming fire.
There was no scream of a shell rolling in, and maybe that’s only what you hear when it’s about to land on top of you. But CRUMP. CRUMP. CRUMPCRUMP. And louder than it sounds in a word like CRUMP, but that’s the sound it makes.
And then I knew I was in a real fight and, standing on top of the ammo, I was on top of the world too, certain I couldn’t be touched, and I wasn’t a bit afraid because it was impossible to die just then.
And when it was over I set up my cot and went to sleep, and when the howizter went off a few times in the night I woke up for a second or two and went back to sleep because it was my first time on a cot in four days.
But that’s not trauma. That’s adventure.
So when I gasped and shot up in bed that first time when a roommate nudged me, I felt like a fraud. Like I’d wanted to be a real veteran and I’d envied the real men who’d fought in a real war. And when I kicked backward at my wife when she snuggled up to spoon I was ashamed because I wasn’t only a fraud, I was a bad fraud, cuz who ever heard of a wussy move like that? And when I got on my knees out of her sight below the bed and prayed silently that I would never do it again oh pleaseplaseplease don’t let me ever do that again, I felt lower than a snail belly cuz as a fake veteran I hadn’t even done a good job of faking my terror cuz I hadn’t shouted properly or done anything to dignify a wussy move like jerking my ankle backward. And I was only glad that I’d botched the act and hadn’t really hurt her.
The ringing tinnitus and low fidelity in my ears were the only genuine, but invisible, marks I could confidently blame on battle. Big deal.

Later I read a book, “On Combat,” and learned that “selective exclusion” is common in deadly fights. People would block the sounds of gunshots but hear the sound of empty brass hitting the ground. They’d edit out images that other people saw. It was a natural defense, the author said.
And finally it made sense, because it just wasn’t possible I’d been the only guy in Alpha Battery not to see a corpse or a torn-off limb in the road.
Accepting that these were the images in my dreams didn’t bring back any memories. But tI felt better, because if this kind of thing happened to cops and soldiers, maybe it’d happened to me, and maybe I wasn’t a wannabe.
At the same time I was learning to meditate my way out of a lifetime load of depressions and compulsions and resentments. As I learned to feel an emotion and stay with it and let it have its way and pass on, the dreams got more frequent and vivid. Later as I took morphine for an injury, they grew more colorful and intense and lasted longer.
And I stopped minding.
I don’t know why, but even now, most nights I go to sleep and dream of being with my high school friends, and we’re in a cafeteria and we’re all in uniform. And then we’re gathering weapons and defending ourselves and gradually every weapon malfunctions, and while I reload and replace and shoot the enemy keeps coming and it’s clear there’s no way through. And sometimes I’m shot and I feel real pain.
But even while it’s all happening, nowadays I don’t get too worked up. I’ve gotten so used to the dreams that even when they’re playing out, some part of my awareness knows they aren’t real. And when I’m awake I know the dreams are hints of real things I may never remember.
My dreams are my eccentric, erratic tutors and reminders. They’re always there and they have their odd ways, but I don’t mind them. Because now I know they’re supposed to be there, somehow.
And these days I don’t shout or gasp or strike out when someone wakes me up.
Of course, that doesn’t matter so much as I wish it did. I sleep alone these days. 

5 comments:

Th. said...

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Thanks for sharing that, David. I think it's the best piece of Preston's writing I've read. I'm working on my own post about him, but it keeps coming out selfish. The timing of his death just as my project that he believed in and championed is coming out just seems so unfair.

David J. West said...

I hear you , its hard not to associate writers/editors with things they did with/for us.

I wanted to share a story of his but didn't think I could until I saw that it was already on his blog.

Th. said...

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I had the same thought about sharing something of his, but I'm glad you shared this as I'd missed it and it captures him so well.

abel keogh said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

David J. West said...

You bet Abel - it's interesting to see how many people know each other.