Tranquility at Dawn

Beep, Beep, Beep.

David shot up, as his bunk creaked. He glared at his alarm. It screamed like a banshee. 3:45am. It was his shift for guard duty.

“Ughh…” he grunted. Quickly he shut off the alarm so his bunk mates didn’t wake up and start yelling at him for disturbing their precious sleep.  He jumped off his bunk landing with a thud. Several of his bunk mates rolled over with annoyed groans. Fumbling, he grabbed for his bullet proof vest, slung it over his head and strapped on the Velcro. Turning back, he pulled his rifle out from under his pillow and clipped it to his vest.

With a flash of light he opened the door; it caused David’s pupils to shrink rapidly. The fresh crisp mountain air woke him up quicker than any coffee ever could. The ground was slick as David began to walk. It caused him to walk more slowly than he had wanted to. David did not want to be a jerk and show up even a second late to replace the soldier waiting for him.

Four hour shifts are not fun when you are left to your own thoughts and the silence of the night. From the beginning of any midnight shift every soldier starts a countdown to the millisecond until they back in their bunk. Twenty minutes near the end of any shift change the radio is a buzz with soldiers checking in to the war room.

“Breaker, this is blue station. Over!”

“Blue station this is breaker, what do you want? Over”

“Has my replacement left yet? Over.” At this point there would usually be several minutes of silence while the radio operator checked (Or pretended to) the status of the shift change.

“Blue station, this is Breaker. Over.”

“Continue Breaker.”

“Your replacement is awake. Over.”

This was the standard response. However, it was not reassuring to any soldier near the end of their shift. Awake, did not always mean on time. While David took pride in being on time to replace others, there were those who did not see any priority in moving quickly for a waiting “friend”. There were some in fact, who routinely were thirty to forty minutes late. “Coincidentally,” it happened most often when they were scheduled for a middle of the night or early morning shift change. David despised these “so called” soldiers. Despite what he thought prior to the army about the brotherhood of the solider, David had quickly learned that not all soldiers were friends. The fallacies portrayed in modern Hollywood movies as David often thought “spat in the face of today’s soldiers.”

David approached the front gate. The guard was staring off into space. He was huddled next to the small space heater on the floor. David nodded at him. When he finally made eye contact the guard just stared at him Blankley. David opened the gate to leave the perceived safety of the outpost. The guard in the booth yelled at David breaking the silence of the darkness.

“Just close the gate behind you,” as he returned to his blank stare. The outpost was on top of a mountain on the outskirts of a friendly settlement. The mountain itself was nestled in a small range with valleys on all sides. Each valley had its own and independent unfriendly Arab village. Generally speaking, each village would only attempt to cause problems individually. On the odd occasion however, they put together coordinated efforts to harass the outpost and friendly settlement.

 David had a long quiet walk to his assigned post as he left the safety of the bright lights of the outpost. His assigned post was the farthest but it was the one with the nicest view. It lay approximately one kilometer away on a smaller mountain that was the vanguard for the outpost. Though vehicle patrols regularly ran on the roads the guard post was a lonely one. Yet it was all that stood between the unfriendly valleys and the top of the mountain.

Walking his lonely walk, David gazed up at the stars. It was a clear, crisp predawn morning. As invading lights of the outpost faded, the stars became brighter letting their dazzling personalities shine. David very much enjoyed the sight of the night sky away from the city. It was something he felt was missing from the souls of the modern city dwellers.

David felt that seeing the clear night sky in all its glory could have a profound effect on an individual who had grown up in the blinding lights of the city. A positive one he hoped. Those living out here in the darkness did not seem to know what they had and this sight did not seem to soften them like it had him.

As David reached the low point in the road in between the two peaks he heard a sound off in the distance.

“Who’s out there?” he called out. He raised his weapon in the direction of the noise and allowed his eyes to focus in the dark. Only silence echoed back from the direction of the disturbance.

“It must have been the wind,” he muttered to himself. He lowered his weapon and continued in the direction of the post. He had gone not more that 10 meters when he heard the noise again. This time he could feel the rhythm in his chest. There had recently been an attack on a soldier at the next outpost over. He feared it was his time. As he scanned the blackness he saw a small figure coming towards him.

“Stop or I’ll shoot,” he shouted. Nothing except the sound of heavy breathing called back. The figured continued towards him without any sign of slowing down. The rhythm became more rapid as his blood coursed through his body. His finger was on the trigger ready to commit the ultimate act of self preservation.  Just as he was about to shoot the figure’s silhouette became clear.

“God dammit, Alex” he screeched with relief. Alex walked over to David as he began to pat Alex on the head.  Alex wagged his tail. Alex was a stray dog that hung around the outpost looking for food and company. The soldiers had named him Alex (Short for Alexander) after one of their first battles in the area. Alex ran at the front of the squad as they charged to scare off the dissidents.

“Are you going to walk me to my post Alex?” David said with a smile as he continued his walk. Looking at his watch, he realized it was almost 4am. The little scare with Alex had cost him some time. David had it perfectly timed so that he could reach the post in 15 minutes from the time he woke up. He picked up his pace as the post started to come into view. He saw the small red dot of a burning cigarette. David did not smoke but many of the soldiers did. It was their way to ease their frayed nerves and pass the time on duty. For David, no cigarette could replace the deep contemplative state he reached while alone on duty.

“It’s about damn time.” The soldier on duty shouted. “I am freezing my ass off here, don’t you know how to tell time?” Peering ahead David saw that it was Johnny. David hated the fact it was Johnny berating him for being a little late. Johnny was one of the soldiers that was notoriously late. The two of them did not get a long at all.

“Whatever.” David scoffed as he climbed into the protective shelter avoiding eye contact with Johnny. Alex, who remained silent, stood alongside the guard post on the dirt mound that it had been placed.

As Johnny walked off, David checked the radio to make sure its battery was still good. Too often, the batteries were dead on the decades old radios. The soldiers leaving the posts were usually in too much of a hurry to get back to bed to report the dead batteries to the war room.

“Breaker, this is blue station, how do I read?” David said into the microphone as he released the talk button.

“Blue station, this is breaker, read you loud and clear. Over.”

Satisfied with this, David began to scan the dark horizon and the hillsides across the valleys. At this point David’s eyes had adjusted to the dark. All he saw were rocks and all he heard was the wind as it calmly moved by. He began to lose himself in his thoughts. Occasionally he would look over to see if Alex was still there. Like the environment, Alex was totally calm sitting statuesque looking left and right occasionally.

He must have been a soldier in his past life” David thought. “Alex really does suit you doesn’t it?” Alex looked up with that silly dog grin they so often have, tongue hanging out the side. David smiled back. He returned his gaze to the horizon and he realized it was almost sun rise. He looked at his watch 05:25.

“Geez, time really flies when you’re having fun eh Alex.” He said jokingly. The one thing he liked about this post, despite its distance, was the view. On a clear day you could see over the mountains from the northern most port cities, to the central sprawling metropolis all the way to the southern desert plains. Tranquility in the center of chaos, it really was something to behold and to baffle the mind with a storm of obvious irony.

As the sun began to rise, it cast its smile across the lands. It warmed David and Alex as they stood guard. From the clear night sky with the brilliant swath of stars to the warm golden glow of dawn, this was going to be a quiet morning.

David looked at Alex.

“Well Alex this is going to be a long shift. But at least it’s going to be beautiful.”  He only had 2 and a half more hours to go. David turned to scan the horizon as he again became lost in his thoughts.

By: Jonathan Fader