The Running Man (creative nonfiction) by Jenn Whittaker

soldiers-1002_1920With two wars on, he sat with his head bowed into his new green army issued duffle bag containing his used army camo gear. The travel suitcase his recruiter recommended he bring sat between his legs. He was hot inside the beat up cattle car that carried Drill Sergeants daring the new recruits to lift their heads. The ride took nearly an hour. Finally, the recruits were released from their mobile holding cell outside of a plain, flat, brick building with no discerning qualities. It looked like every other building surrounding it. Platoons sounded off in the distance, marching and barking in perfect cadence. He didn’t know the man next to him, nor did I.

Upon exiting the cattle car, he held his newly acquired gear over his head and ran around the three-thousand square foot, two-story barracks building five times just like all the rest. As his arms and knees began to give way under the pressure of the weight, he was ordered inside. The air-conditioning refreshed his resolve and he stood next to a random bunk, the closest unoccupied one he could find. He bear-hugged his gear, feeling it slip ever so slightly as every muscle in his body strained to keep him upright.

“Drop them on the bunk,” he and his new battle buddies were ordered. Then it was back outside for his first C.A.P.E. – Corrective Action through Physical Exercise. Apparently, he had already messed up. But it wasn’t today. It was when he signed the recruiting papers and took the Oath of Office before being shipped out to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It didn’t take long for him to reveal that he was planning his escape.

That night, after lights out, he snuck down to the female first floor window, which we told him was unlocked, and crept his way out. His suitcase had been placed in a storage locker. All he had on was the light gray matching sweats that everyone referred to as “marshmallows”, unlike the black and grey “high-speeds” that came with making it out of red phase. He moved fast trying to remember the driving pattern he’d memorized in the cattle car. He found a sidewalk and followed it along in the bush until a spotlight temporarily blinded him. An MP swaggered up while another stood behind his half-opened door with a grin on his face as he chewed his gum excessively.

“Where you off to, recruit?” asked the gum chewer with a chuckle.

“I’m running an errand for my Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Sure you are,” the other MP plainly stated. “Now, get in the back of the car. What unit are you with?”

“Unit?” Damn.

“Look. We can either make this easy or we can wake people up. Which would you prefer?” the chewer snapped without missing a beat on his gum.

“I don’t know.”

“New, huh? When did you get in?” the politer MP asked.

“Today.” There was no use lying this time around. He’d been nabbed.

The MP grabbed his CB. “Dispatch. We’ve got a woodpecker that just fell out of the nest. Shipment came in today. Direct.”

A female laugh came through the radio. “Already? Let’s see. Got it. 82nd Bravo Chemical Company.”

“Thanks, out,” he said to the dispatcher. “Now you. Lay down in the back seat and don’t sit up. We’re taking baby bird home. I don’t want to see you pass lights out again, got it? This time, I won’t wake up your First Sergeant. I’ll let him read it on the blotter report in the morning.”

With that, the boy laid down in the backseat looking up at the blue plastic roof trying to concentrate on right, right, left, right.

With each failed attempt at escape he updated his map and told 4th platoon all the details of his run-ins with the MPs.

“Aren’t you just making things worse for yourself?” I asked at the back of formation.

“It’s worth it,” he said.

With each new attempt, he was sure to say good-bye to the females before hopping out of the window. With each dawn, he was back in formation. I never knew his real name even though it was sewn to his right breast pocket. None of us did, except maybe the Drill Sergeants. But even they picked up on our nickname for him as “The Running Man”. I never knew why the night watch never reported the window unlocked until the company made it into white phase and got our first weekend pass. What I know now is that we follow the sidewalk straight from our barracks, pass the dining facility, turn left and walk straight out the main gate.

The Running Man is long gone, recycled over and over again to a new company in their first week of red phase. Phases don’t mix. Companies don’t mix. I wondered if he ever made it out – out of the gate, out of basic training or out of the Army. The last I heard, he never stopped running.

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