Creative Nonfiction

In the Middle of Nowhere

by Dave Boe

“I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere, take care
I’m stranded in a struggle of my dreams, it seems”

It was late May, 1991. I had packed my bags, left Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, and got on a flight back to Germany with my Army unit. Twenty-four hours-plus later, we landed at Rhein-Main Air Force Base, in Frankfurt, then transferred to busses. Compared to the flight, the bus ride was short, but seemed to take forever. It was around 4:30 a.m. 0430. O-dark-thirty. Depended on one’s point of view. My point of view was that of a soldier in the U.S. Army, recently returned from the shit show in Southwest Asia called Desert Storm.

On that calm, cool, dark morning, our bus had arrived back at our duty station, Fliegerhorst Kaserne, the final leg of our journey. As the bus pulled in next to a hanger by the airfield, I saw a large group of people holding signs and balloons.

Loved ones. Spouses. Children. Significant others. Maybe a lawyer or bill collector.

We piled out of the bus and went through the process of dragging our duffel bags from the lower storage compartments and claiming our own. Once sorted out and collected, we were allowed to go and meet with our loved ones who were impatient to hug and kiss us and welcome us back from our heroic adventure.

Except me.

My German wife was probably still sleeping, with her lover, while my two sons snoozed away in their own beds, in a village a couple hundred kilometers south of me. I had expected this, so took a matter-of-fact attitude about it. I didn’t want to see her, and the boys were too young to be blamed for not making it up to the base.

I hefted my two weighty duffel bags full of the smelly dregs of war and took one last look at the welcome home party going on, with all the happy, awake faces. I was tired. No one paid me any attention, so I began walking back to my barracks, which was several blocks away. About halfway, I stopped to rest. I plunked down my bags and sat on one.

I listened.

Gone was the cacophony of happy, relieved voices of the returning soldiers and welcoming loved ones. All I heard now were the distinctive early morning songs of birds. It was a peaceful, comfortable sound that reminded me of those same early mornings when I hefted another weighty bag of newspapers to deliver in my neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota only a decade earlier. The same silence, accompanied by the chirping of the birds. A reminder of an earlier, more innocent time. A reminder I was no longer in a war zone, with all of its distinctive, annoying, nasty sounds – and smells, sights and emotions.

After a few minutes, I picked up my duffels and continued on back to the barracks, and my room. I unlocked the door and looked around. My plants were dead, and there was a light layer of dust everywhere. Electricity worked. I dropped my load on the floor, opened the windows, unlaced and slid off my worn combat boots and sweaty socks, and plopped down on my bed and fell asleep.

I was home. In the Army, where you are stationed is “home”. As a home, Fliegerhorst Kaserne wasn’t bad. It was in Germany, which was a plus. It was my second duty station in the country; my first was at Ramstein Air Base from 1983 to 1987. I loved Germany, so was glad to be back. Of course, as soon as I arrived, in October, 1990, I was told our unit, part of the 3rd Armored Division, was going to the Middle East in a couple of months. Thus, I had little or no time to enjoy the country. My wife and sons had arrived with me, but were staying with relatives near the Rhineland-Pfalz city of Kaiserslautern (close to the French border) while I would look for housing. That was put on hold for the time being, and then permanently, after I got my “Dear John” letter in the desert. Once the war was over, I was anxious to get back to Germany and enjoy it, because, as I said, I loved Germany.

I no longer loved my German wife. She had taken up with some German dude while I was off fighting Iraqis. Hence, the “Dear John” letter. But during my first tour of duty in Germany, I fell in love with her, married, did a stint at a U.S. base and had two boys, who were now five and three. I saw them a few days before I flew out to the Middle East. I gave my wife, Conny, credit for at least bringing the kids up to say goodbye. My youngest son took it kind of hard, and I remember him crying after me as Conny drove off after the visit. I didn’t tell the boys where I was going, but that I was going away for a while. I wasn’t dramatic for their sake. I didn’t feel dramatic. I was so caught up in the busy – and late-night – preparation of loading all sorts of equipment that would meet us in Saudi Arabia, I had no time to reflect on the histrionics. Just doing my job.

I did my job. Desert Shield and Storm. Re-fueled helicopters, did patrols, odd jobs, avoided enemy fire. I Survived. I came home. I fell asleep. Tomorrow was another day.

What would that bring?

We were told we had 30 days off to do whatever we wanted, as long as we stayed close by. I think it was within 50 miles of the base, so I couldn’t go see my sons. I talked to them on the phone, but my wife said she just couldn’t bring them up at that time. Bitch. I had 30 days to myself, but with limitations. What to do?

Drink. Party. Sex. Rinse and repeat.

I have to admit, no one in the unit was in any condition to be creative in spending time wisely after the half year of crap we had just endured. Those of us living in the barracks kept it simple, doing the things we couldn’t do in Southwest Asia, but with a vengeance. Still being married, but separated, didn’t keep me from scouting the opposite sex, but I kept running into lesbians, or uptight heterosexual women who were too hung up on my hunk of a platoon leader that they just considered me a friend. I was also afraid of a romantic relationship, which lead to some indecisive, awkward moments on one’s bed.

So, I spent time with the lesbians.

It was great. These two African-American girls shared a room together, and we’d spend nights watching movies, drinking and bullshitting. It became comfortable enough that they would snuggle and play around while I continued to watch TV. I was initially entertained by their love making, but ended up ignoring them. Yet another African-American lesbian became a good friend. She was a tough soldier, good record, but was tormented by keeping her sexuality a secret. She felt trapped, which I thought unfair. One night she attempted suicide. I was called. I chased her, tackled her, comforted her, and got her to the hospital after berating the officer on call who was being a complete asshole. Months later, her and I had some surprising (to me, at least) intimacy together. Maybe it was that traumatic moment we shared or the lockdown environment of the barracks at the time. Or the booze.

The booze. There was never enough. When not engaged in liaisons with lesbians, I’d frequent the fourth floor of our barracks, where the base’s few Air Force folks were billeted. As typical Air Force “Wingnuts,” they were laid back and didn’t have to follow the rest of the barrack’s anal Army rules. It was basically a frat house with an open door and open bottle policy. Booze was part of every social event. But when these folks drank, they kept it indoors, and didn’t go getting sloshed off base and driving back and crashing into the base’s welcome sign (another story, but true). I delightfully found that the wingnuts shared my passion for gaming. We’d spend hours playing the usual social games of the time that involved die rolling, card shuffling, stripping, etc. I introduced my hobby of wargaming to a few of the guys, specifically a fantasy, multi-player game that we played through the night, while listening to the latest Euro tunes and downing enough alcohol at levels far beyond embalming fluid standards. Yet, we would manage to maneuver through the complexities of the game and finish it, most of the time technically, but sometimes when there was only one person still awake.

At some point, my Reliant K-car arrived from the States. My wife wanted it. I told her to verpiss dich. I paid for it; I was keeping it. Why not go exploring with it?

Thus, a few of us, either from the unit, or the wingnuts, would go out on weekends and do “castle hopping.” We didn’t venture too far, but found some nice castles of various ages, structure and accessibility. I was the unofficial tour guide. I counseled my comrades to not be boorish Americans, and I used my limited German to get us into places normally verboten. On occasion, either alone, or with a date, I’d attend symphony concerts in the nearby city of Hanau or string quartet concerts held in quaint locations in the countryside. Sometimes I’d go for walks through the neighboring town and interact with the populace. I was a Germanophile, man of leisure and an elitist, all in one.

I also started to see my sons more often, and collect my personal property Conny was keeping in the attic of her new home. During these strained visits I would meet with relatives and friends of Conny who still liked me. For the most part, they were on my side, which pissed Conny off. At the time I gloried in her slutty femme fatale status. One day, left alone in Conny’s house with the boys, playing with them and gathering some stuff to take back, I let my anger get the better of me, upsetting them. After seeing them cry as I raged about their mother, I vowed I would stop being petty and be more civil toward Conny as we went through the divorce. It wasn’t about being better than Conny, but rather being a better father.

I didn’t work too hard to be a better soldier. Oh, I did ok in my soldierly duties, but I didn’t make any effort to go the extra yard, as I wasn’t sure what my future held. I wasn’t sure if I would make the next promotion, and the Army was downsizing. I was stuck. I either risk waiting for promotion that may or may not happen in time, or take the bonus money being offered to leave early. I kept kicking that professional can down the road.

In the meantime, my duties became varied. I reached out to the military community’s newspaper, the Hanau Herald, and offered my services as a journalist, something I had done in my previous duty assignment.  The editor saw my portfolio and was thrilled to hire me for freelance work. Since the newspaper was under the auspices of the military community’s commander general, I was given a lot of leeway in how I spent my hours pursuing and writing articles. It was great to be writing again, even if I had to develop my own film in a dark room.

I also started, what they call in the military, dog robbing. Doing out-of-the-norm things for my officers. I didn’t care what it was, just as long as it kept me from the motor pool and doing dirty, physical labor. One of the main activities I participated in was producing a going away video for the battalion commander. I spent my days setting up, scripting and filming funny scenes that made the commander look like an idiot. The video was then shown at the commander’s going away party. It got a lot of laughs, but I was never very happy with this freshman effort. It was a learning experience for me that stood me well in later endeavors.

While I was having fun, carousing, touring and freelancing, I still felt in a rut. Everything I was doing was leading nowhere. I was treading water. Stranded, professionally and personally. It seemed no matter what I chose to do I was screwed. Leave the Army after nine years and go home to Minnesota, and maybe go to college? That meant leaving my children. Get out and maybe find a job in Germany? Possible, but not guaranteed, and doing what? Risk trying to stay in, in the hopes my promotion would come through? If it did, great, but did I really want to keep doing official quartermaster shit, with little chance of changing my job, which I didn’t like? If it didn’t, I’d be kicked out without the downsizing bonus being offered and sent home with nothing. I was locked in indecision.

It was at this point I got a case of “The fuck its.” I didn’t care anymore.  I started going out by myself and doing things I’m not proud of. Nothing illegal, just stupid, and not for publication. I always managed to make it back to the barracks, and the next morning think to myself, “What the fuck was I thinking?” I’d still meet with my lesbian friends, gaming friends, drinking friends, cultured friends. A lot of friends, yes, but I was too self-absorbed to appreciate them. At the same time, I was afraid of leaving them behind, because we loved each other, in the way that soldiers do. Made no difference that at some point we would all be separated anyway, thanks to the needs of the government. That was nothing new to me. If that sounds like mixed up shit, it was.

So, there I was, November, 1991. Wondering what to do. Where to go. Who to be?

One day, during that month, my hunk of a platoon leader approached me. I guessed he sensed my ennui. Or rather, my “Fuck its.”

“Want to go to Bavaria for Christmas?” he asked me.

“Where in Bavaria?”

“Berchtesgaden,”

“Why me?”  He said some stuff about all the good work I’d done, wasn’t a fuck up like others, and I could use a break, etc. I knew Bavaria well, having travelled there before, personally and professionally.  After months being stuck in a rut, stranded, lost, maybe a week-long, Christmas sabbatical was what I needed.

I packed my bags.