August, 1972

                Matty was already sweat- soaked as he scrambled up the steep hill and reached the plateau. It was nearly 96 degrees.

              He carried his M1 carbine in front of him as did the other cadets and with the fixed bayonet in place, he felt … dangerous. Directly in front of him now was the first of  three ‘dummies’, set in fixed positions on the assault course he was navigating. He squared off with the burlap covered ‘soldier’ and with a loud growl, thrust the steel blade into the midsection as he had been trained, and then twisted and lifted the tip of his rifle, efficiently ‘gutting’ the docile enemy.

                 “Move, soldier!! Move! Hit the trench!” came the command from the black bereted upperclassman to his right.

                  He obliged, and dove into the fresh dirt that marked the beginning of a horseshoe- shaped gully that started uphill and emptied on a downhill slope some 35 yards ahead. He was in the lead, having been appointed the new squadron commander … Behind him  were no less than 50 other cadets, all struggling with the same task- to complete the course under the time limit and to do it to the approval of the dozens of trainers that dotted the course at strategic intervals. But, Matty was the tip of the spear and everyone behind him was relying on him to set the pace, and to deal with the unknown contingencies that might arise during the training.

                         This morning would prove particularly unnerving, for  the slender, tanned cadet. As he  reached the turn in the 3- foot deep trench, and was preparing to roll onto his back to breach the looming  concertina wire, he caught a motion to his right, on a rocky outcropping some 4 feet away. Ahead was the beginning of the  barricade that he was supposed to crawl under. As he prepared to roll onto  his back to crawl under the razor wire, a distinct rattling sound made his blood run cold. Now, he saw it… The raised tail and head of a very large, coiled, Prairie rattlesnake, and it seemed keenly interested in him!

                         There was no way to turn his unwieldy rifle with the attached bayonet towards the new threat, at least, not in time to circumvent the impending attack, so he froze and slowly started to crawl backwards, to give himself enough room to avoid the strike. But life had always had a strange sense of humor at times like this, and the 18- year- old cadet could almost feel the shoe drop… Just as he started his retreat, the next cadet behind him on the course arrived. He was completely oblivious to the squirmy dilemma.

                          “Move!! Come on! Move! Why did you stop? Get under the wire!!” the anxious cadet chided.

                          “Shut the fuck up, Porter! ” Matty whispered horsely. “Don’t move a muscle… Rattler, dead ahead…”

                           “What?” the Texan queried, apparently choosing that moment to stop taking orders… “Gotta get under the wire or we’ll blow our times…Gotta..”

                            “Gotta move your ass back off of mine, you cretin! There’s a freakin’ rattler the size of a house right in front of us! And, he ain’t freakin’ dead like the other ones they coiled up to scare us!”

                                THAT finally got the young soldier’s attention, but at the same time, another cadet arrived and was crawling up the back of Cadet Porter, frantically trying to break the logjam! It is funny to think about this in retrospect, but at the time, there was little to be amused about. A strike from a rattler that size on the face or neck, where the bite would have likely occurred, would have been life threatening, and Matty knew it, being a student of the outdoors, unlike many in his squadron. He was armed with a useless rifle… There were no rounds loaded because this was a training environment, and the bayonet, in reality, was about as sharp as one of his little brother’s toy swords!

                                Fortunately, life and Matty’s guardian angels, had other things in store for him, and as the chaotic din increased, the entire squadron bottlenecked because of the strange obstacle, and an upperclass cadet arrived, armed with a .22 caliber pistol… It had been his duty to ‘clear’ the course that morning, of the sometimes numerous snakes that moved in to sun themselves in their favorite spots.  He had missed one that morning. He fired twice as the snake writhed,  and then it was over. One dead rattler and one irate colonel who arrived to see the last of the drama unfold.

                                   Life in ‘Jacks Valley’ was anything but boring… The squadron would have to start the course anew… In fact, that day , because of some weird scheduling problems, they would run the course THREE times in a brutal and unheard of breach of rules, that left three cadets fighting for their lives…

  June 30, 1972

                   “He seemed nice,” Bobby mused as he playfully pushed Matty from behind, and then gently placed his right hand on the small hollow of the blond boy’s back, just above the waistband of his shorts. He let it rest there as Matty stopped near the Honda and shivered, the goosebumps rising on his smooth, tanned arms.

                      He glanced over his shoulder at his friend and saw the pensive smile and the sparkling eyes. This was vintage Bobby, the boy thought. Tender, caring, exciting… erotic. He knew that the tall blond boy would melt from that singular touch… It was a kind of message. A tingling reminder of every sensual moment that the boys had shared since they became aware.

                     “Bad boy…” he moaned, closing his eyes briefly, as the shorter boy edged closer and slipped his fingers into the loose waistband. They were alone, in the shadows of the empty parking lot, but as much as Matty yearned for this moment… this contact, he wanted it to happen where they would not be interrupted.

                         “Bobby… Bobby… “

                          “Yeah, Bubba?” the panting boy offered.

                           “Let’s hit the beach… Maybe past the jetty, in those dunes where we went last time…”

                           Bobby didn’t answer, and only edged closer, and reached around the tall boy and found the brass button on the front of the shorts. He fumbled for the zipper, and pressed against Matty, his swelling member twitching through the flimsy shorts and threatening to breach the barrier, zipper or no zipper…

                              Matty exhorted him  now… “Bobby… BOBBY!! Stop, man!  We can’t do this  HERE, as much as I want to! Someone will see! Maybe even Joe…” He reached his hand behind him, trying to push the boy back and felt the sticky dampness near the belt of Bobby’s shorts. “STOP, you maniac,” he laughed. “You’re gonna end up creaming your shorts right here!”

                                    Bobby sighed and released him finally. “Damn man, I want you bad… Get your butt on my bike ! We’re gonna find the first place out of sight, and I’m gonna take your cherry!”

                                   Matty almost choked on his response… “My cherry? I didn’t know I had one, anymore! What’s got into you, man? You didn’t even drink the YooHoo yet! Besides, you’ll have to prove you’re a man, if you think you’re gonna ravage me like that!”

                                    “No problem! Get on the bike, Bubba, and grab hold! I’m gonna use a few wrestling moves I never showed you, and you’re gonna remember this night all through boot camp!!”

                                         Matty rolled his eyes, but smiled to himself. He had seen this before, and there was no denying that Bobby was at his best when he got so excited! He waited for his buddy to get on the 450 and rock it off the kick stand, and then he climbed aboard behind him and wrapped his arms around his waist, grabbing the thick belt with one hand and the bag with the snacks in the other. His right wrist rubbed up against the still throbbing member and he felt the wetness that had soaked thru the cotton shorts.

                                        “Cripes man, don’t cum all over the food! I wanted Coke, not cream soda!”

                                         “You’ll get what you get, and LIKE it”, growled Bobby, in the  toughest voice he could conjure. “Make sure we don’t lose the ‘vittles’! I’m gonna need something to replace my minerals before the night is over!” He shifted the bag between his legs and kicked the starter. The bike roared to life, and the two teenagers were soon on their way out of the dimly lit parking lot and onto the sand- covered road that led to the beach areas. Matty glanced to his right and noticed the smiling face in the window of the 7-11. Joey had been watching, all along. He grimaced, and kissed Bobby on the neck, and grabbed just a little tighter. He looked again, and the boy was gone, and the store as well, as the Honda accelerated and roared into the growing darkness of the empty beach road. A nagging thought came and left, just as quickly, and he rested his head on Bobby’s sturdy back and closed his eyes.

                                          This was THEIR night.

                                        And so the two boys wove their way down the darkened beach road until Matty could taste the salt mist… Somewhere, beyond the grass speckled dunes was the Atlantic Ocean, but try as he might, the blond teenager could not see the shoreline until the 450 rounded the last corner, and magically the trees thinned and the sand turned to moon- washed water. The roar of  crashing waves on the pebbled sands of  the Ninigret  Sanctuary could now be heard as Bobby idled down and the two lovers let the sparkling beauty of the barren scape wash over them.

                                         Matty had never been to this area at night. It’s raw beauty overwhelmed him momentarily, and he hugged Bobby even tighter as the tears welled in his eyes. He knew that it might be a very long time until he felt this closeness again and there was no way to stop the gears from turning. It was almost as tho he was heading towards the edge of a cliff. One of his own choosing, he reminded himself, but the fear was palpable. Strange but fleeting thoughts careened through his mind… Not reporting for duty. Running, and not looking back, with Bobby at his side. His slender hands trembled and he buried his face in the muscular boy’s back, and tried to push away the demons.

                                         Things were lurching out of control as the bike slowed and Bobby cut the engine. His mind raced in ever widening circles. The treehouse… the sweltering cornfields… the silent marsh… the warm water of the lake as he gasped for air. He was shaking. Uncontrollably. The darkness descended…

                                      “Bubba. Bubba… BUBBA!!  What’s wrong??”

                                       He choked on his words and gasped for air as he felt the boy’s tender touch on his leg, softly squeezing the smooth, tanned skin, until he returned to his senses and frantically inhaled, coughing on his first breath.

                                        “Matty!  Talk to me, man… Say something… You’re freakin’ me out!”

                                   “I… I’m all right, BBobby…. Just… I’m all right. I just felt sick for a second… Kind of worried. You know what I mean?”

                                  “No!  I thought you were going to break my ribs! What happened?”

                                  “I don’t know, man… I haven’t felt that way since I was a little kid. I can’t explain it. I was thinking about how beautiful it is here. How we might not see each other for a long time. And then, I had all kinds of crazy ideas about the two of us just leaving and never coming back. You know, just forgetting about all the war stuff and the stupid people in our town… Maybe just taking the bike and driving as far as it will go. Just disappearing… God, Bobby. What am I going to do? I haven’t gone yet, and I miss you so bad, already! Dammit! “

                                  Bobby listened and didn’t say anything. He sighed and looked out, across the sparkling water, as the wind tousled his blond hair. “Cripes, Bubba… You know how much I wish you weren’t going. If I could, I’d make the war go away… I’d tie you to a freakin’ tree and make you miss that plane. I’d do ANYTHING to change what happened to you, that makes you feel that you HAVE to go. All the work, the grades, the extra courses… The whole academy thing. Matty… I don’t know how I’m gonna make it without you either, but I’m gonna have to figure it out. You’re goin’. There ain’t no turning back. I don’t want you to do the very thing you have always told me not to do- to live your life full of regret! That ain’t living, Koles! You taught me that! That’s one of the things I love about you the most… Ain’t nobody else in my life like you, and there never will be, either! So, you gotta get it together and move on, like you’ve always said. I’m not going anywhere…. I’ll wait for you, no matter how long it takes.”

                                 The tall blond boy wiped the tears from his eyes and softly kissed his buddy on the back of his neck and slowly got off the motorcycle. He put his left hand on Bobby’s shoulder and softly caressed it.

                                   “I’ll be back. I promise.”

                                  The boy never made promises he didn’t keep. No matter what it took, he would return. There was no sword sharp enough to sever the bond that made two hearts like one. It was not finished. It never would be…

                                 The two lovers watched  the crashing waves tear at the high water mark, tumbling little shells and pebbles as they receded on the shimmering sand that stretched unbroken, as far as the boys could see. They stood, side by side, holding hands… Unjudged …. in full view, His gentle breath caressing them as it crossed the great divide. It came  from faraway lands where other boys just like them hoped and prayed for the same blessings… That someday, the love they shared would silence the Others. It was a simple prayer. In time, it would be answered.

August, 1972

              ” I heard it was your birthday, SQUAT! “

              “Yes, sir!” the blonde cadet answered tentatively, standing at attention. He knew better than to believe that this gesture was anything more than a probe for weakness.

                 “Sooo… I had an idea. A way for you to celebrate this momentous day… After all, you have been named squadron commander. THAT alone should be enough, but I think we can find a special way to acknowledge your milestone! Eighteen years old! Damn! How did they let you in, Cadet Reed?”

                      Matty hesitated. This was not good… A trap, like usual. Today had been full of them, from the missed rattlesnake on the assault course, to his confrontation with the upperclassman, as his BCT roommate lay convulsing on the sandy soil at the finish line of the Assault Course. Matty had kneeled beside the 18- year- old Pennsylvanian and tried to help him breathe, only to be pushed by the towering 2nd class cadet trainer… He refused to move at first, yelling for medical help, as the boy’s eyes rolled back in his head and he foamed at the mouth. The confrontation had escalated as two other upperclassman intervened, misinterpreting the urgency of Matty’s demands. It was only as the AOC arrived, followed at long last by the paramedics, that the hush fell over the gathering cadets.

                      And then, in a bizarre concurrence, a second competitor on the course stumbled across the finish line and collapsed almost on top of the first.

                     It had all been a terrible miscalculation. 96° temperatures… A forced march, followed by three grueling runs through the torturous course, in direct violation of the medical orders of the command. The pale- faced trainers were now watching everything unravel, as cadets collapsed in front of them and the entire command was ordered at rest. It would all be too late for three cadets, as they suffered the effects of heat exhaustion, their kidneys shutting down and their blood becoming poisonous. Within a few days, all of their comrades would be praying for their survival… Matty would never see Cadet Goodwin again.

                   But now, only an hour later, one of the worst offenders stood before him, probing for a crack in the facade that the young cadet had developed. ‘This really was beyond the pale’, thought the teenager. The orders were clear. It was time for the dinner formation. All basic cadets were to be carefully watched for signs of heart stroke. Hydration and salt tablets were now of the highest urgency. Now this…

                      ” So, here’s my idea. Why don’t you form up in the quad with the other guys who don’t like the way we do things. Maybe a little run to the ‘hill’ will clear your mind, doolie!”

                           ” Yes sir.” Matty replied, trying to mask his utter exhaustion. He turned on his heel and marched to the assembly area where  six other cadets waited. Two basic cadets and four upperclassmen. The ‘trainers’ were circling the ‘braced’ younger cadets, shouting at them, inches from their terrified faces. They looked shocked at the potential of this event playing out. Matty steeled himself. They would get NO satisfaction from him. He formed up to the right of the two basic cadets.

                              The sun was low in the Colorado sky as the group marched towards the cactus- covered hill that lie about a mile to the north. Within 50 yards, the command was barked- “At the double time!”  Now, the exhausted cadets were running again, down the dusty dirt road, their combat boots pounding the dirt in unison. The black- bereted upperclassman ran, surrounding them, taunting them, trying to ‘break’ them, using age- old methods that were no longer new to Matty or his classmates. Threats of running until they all fell. Taunts about their weakness as examples for their squadrons. Now Matty understood. Each cadet had been selected as a squadron commander! It was a way to kowtow those under their commands! Break the strongest and the others would be forced to adapt… They were guinea pigs in this ill- advised experiment!

                             At that moment, he felt fear. He remembered his roommate’s writhing body and the rolled back eyes… Now, he felt the doubt creep into his mind- What would happen if he collapsed? Was this to be the last day of his life? Running down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere?

                                And then, he felt the anger. His thoughts went back to that last night on the beach, with the boy that he left behind, so that he could come here, to make things right. They would NOT break him, even if he ran all night. He would fall dead, but they would not take this from him!

                                     The Others had tried. He had survived things that NONE of them could ever understand. He ran and ran, as the world around him spun into chaos… It took an hour of low crawls up and down that hill, with the black boots stomping between his shoulder blades and the taunts and shouts coming from all directions, but far away….

                                       He was 10 years old again, lying naked on the golden colored grass. His breath formed little ripples in the rancid pool of swamp water near his muddy face. The only sounds he could hear were his own breath, and the distant song of the cicadas. He pushed himself up and looked around. The monster was gone.

                                                                            He would survive.

Continued in Part 6…

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