Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Save as draft

I got out of prison.

The gate opened and right away I started running. I made it just in time for the bus that corresponded with the ferry to Lüleå. When I made it to the apartment I only had time to say hello, empty out my bag and pack another one, pick up my ticket, say goodbye. On the way to the airport it started snowing.

I got on the plane too jittery to read my book. It was the same one I’d taken with me to prison as a joke, Crime and Punishment. Bad choice of book, I can see that now.

In Copenhagen the snow was gray. I found my way to the Central Station and took the southbound train. It was full of boys like myself, all jittery, each with our little bag. We all got off at the same station. I didn’t have to ask for directions, I could just follow the torrent. When I reached the gate I showed them the letter and they waved me through. One more step - I was in the army.

Ah, the miracle of immaculate conscription.

I was in the infantry, which meant I was running all the time. Even eating felt like running. Running, eating, running, shooting, running, being yelled at, running, sleeping. Sleeping slowed the pace, but in my dreams I was still moving forward, soundlessly, through the underbrush.

I quickly found that I didn’t mind. In fact I was just getting used to it when the captain decided that I wanted to be a sergeant. He sent me away to become a forward mortar observer, which involved a lot of running, but also a fair amount of blowing things up from a distance.

A senior artillery sergeant was in charge of our education. To him it wasn’t just the ballistics and the train of fire, he had a whole philosophy to go with it. This he would instill in us mostly by hovering over us everywhere we went, subjecting us to random quizzing. He only had one question, and it was always the same: Where are you? If we didn’t know the answer he would hit us over the head with a pinewood plank that he kept with him for that purpose alone.

More than once I was torn from my soundless dreams of the underbrush by him standing over me, shaking me awake, demanding that I give him an eight-ciphered coordinate to my position - or as I liked to think of it, my bed.

This is the deal: A mortar is a smooth-bore, a tube mounted on a baseplate, supported by a bipod and pointed upwards at an angle. When a grenade is dropped into the muzzle, a firing pin at the bottom of the tube ignites its prime charge and sends it arching into the air to detonate on top of things you don’t like. Sound phallic? Maybe a tad.

Because of the high-arched trajectory, mortar fire is indirect fire, which means that the monkeys who operate the actual weapon mostly can’t see what they’re shooting at. So to be able to shoot you need to know two things: The position of your mortar and the position of the target. Then it's just a question of pointing the tube in the right direction and calculating the angle that will give you the proper range.

You already know the position of your mortar. And the easiest way to find the position of the target is for someone to run out and have a look at it. That's what you need the forward observer for. If he knows his own position - and trust me, he does - it's just a matter of him calling in the direction and range. The rest is triangulation and high explosives.

When I got back to my company I knew all there is to know about the mortar, just as you now do. They gave me my three 81mm lovelies, some vehicles to transport them and a bunch of monkeys to operate them. Those goddamn mon- keys. I had to teach them, but they didn't want to learn.

I quickly understood that the only way to get anything done was to keep them running at all times. I also got me a pinewood plank to hit them over the head. That definitely helped.

Slowly they got the hang of it. I started them out with duds on the regimental testing range. From time to time they actually hit what I aimed at. I chose the cleverest of the monkeys to do the triangulation and the loudest of the monkeys to yell at the others when I was away on important forward observing business. When the big day came and it was time to start shooting live rounds I was pretty sure they wouldn't get me killed.

On the first day of the exercise we dug our position. It started raining and everything turned to mud. While I had to go see the captain to get my orders I told the loudest of the monkeys to keep the other monkeys digging. When I got back the position wasn't half finished and they had all fallen asleep. I naturally went high-arched trajectory ballistic. I had them assemble and started marching back and forth screaming at them. I was doing fine until I stepped into a foxhole half full of mud. All the monkeys laughed.

On the second day of the exercise I started shooting brisance grenades. The monkeys were slow, but they put the grenades more or less where I wanted them. I had called a round and was watching the target through my binoculars, waiting for the ROAR that made it all worth it, when I saw a deer wander into the target area, grazing. The poor thing didn't know what hit it. I stopped the shooting and took the monkeys out to look at it. This is what we're doing, I told them. None of the monkeys laughed.

On the third day of the exercise I shot smoke grenades. Those are nasty little fuckers. In addition to the shrapnel they're full of phosphorus. They won't stop burning, they'll burn under water if they have to. They basically set fire to everything in a radius of 1oo meters, creating a smoke screen that we can hide behind. The Geneva Convention says you can't use them on personnel, but the Americans don't seem to mind.

I had called a round and was watching the target through my binoculars, waiting for the ROAR that made it all worth it, when the cleverest of the monkeys got on the radio in a panic: I don't know how it happened, he screeched, I got the positions mixed up, we're shooting at your position.

I threw myself into the bottom of my foxhole and crossed my fingers.

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Anonymous maître said...

I really enjoyed reading that

8:47 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

Thanks! Those goddamn monkeys, though. Luckily all they did was set fire to my jacket.

Oh, and I just realized that one of the illustrations might be construed as having racist connotations.

That was completely unintended. Those colored gentlemen are from the renowned King's African Rifles, a British colonial regiment of great distinction.

1:18 am  
Anonymous anne said...

i agree with maitre - the piece was well-written and engrossing

7:10 am  
Blogger Mikkel said...

Ooh. This can't be good for my ego.

10:51 am  

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