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         Dallow did manage to get to the line on time the next morning, although he was out of breath. Chess silently congratulated himself and resolved to keep working with the guy… even though he kind of reminded him of the annoying kid, Pete, from the game.
         With that thought, a wave of homesickness crashed over Chess and unexpectedly brought tears to his eyes. Surprisingly, the intense emotion centered less on his family than on the memory of having his own room, his own space and time. He also missed the feeling of freedom when he was roaming through the city. He wondered if he would ever again have anything close to that.
         He needed to wipe his eyes now, but the group was standing at attention and he did not dare.

         Later, they were back in the barracks, just before lights out. They had practiced Dallow’s morning routine again to Chess’s satisfaction, and now they were just sitting on their cots.
         “I am so sick of people bumping into me,” Dallow complained as he bent to get out his shoe polish kit. Even in the coolness of the barracks, his earth-colored t-shirt was soaked with sweat.
         “Well, I don’t know how many times you stepped on my feet while we were marching,” Chess shot back. “Everybody’s having the same problem. We’ll get better.”
         “How do you know?” Dallow asked in surprise.
         “Well…” Chess hesitated, re-considering the wisdom of telling anything personal about himself. He decided to be vague. “You know, people just learn to work together, over time. For instance, back in the city, I was part of this game --”
         “You mean, like a video game?” Dallow asked. He pulled off one of his boots and held it up, peering at it suspiciously.
         “Um, yeah,” Chess answered. “Part of it was online, but we mostly talked it out, at a table…”
         “That’s weird.” Frowning, Dallow scratched at the heel of his boot and then looked up at Chess. “I’ve never heard of a game like that --”
         “Hey!” Unexpectedly, a figure plopped down next to Chess and perched on the edge of his cot.
         Chess looked up, his eyes widening as he focused on one of the only two female recruits in the company. She grinned at him as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “Hey, did you guys hear we might be going to the rifle range tomorrow? There’s a rumor going around.”
         Chess swallowed hard. The girl was about his age, with red-blonde hair and a few freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled at him.
         “No.” Chess ducked his head. “I haven’t heard anything. You?” he asked Dallow.
         “No.” Dallow stopped inspecting his boot and looked up, still frowning. “But if we are, I bet I’ll be the target,” he growled.
         “Oh, come on,” the girl said, still smiling. She bounced her heel against the metal leg of Chess’s cot and looked from one sheepish face to the other as they tried to avoid her gaze. Finally, she gave up and got off the cot. Chess felt the weight lift both physically and emotionally as she stood.
         “Well, maybe I’ll see ya out there, guys,” she called back over her shoulder as she turned to go.
         Watching her walk away, Chess noted how gracefully she moved in the heavy army boots.

         The next morning was cold and overcast, the gray sky threatening snow that never fell. After receiving lengthy instructions on working with the rifles, the company did indeed troop out to the rifle range for the remainder of the morning.
         Chess managed to stay focused, even though this loud weapon was one that a master thief would probably never use. He noticed that Dallow, who was positioned next to him, seemed considerably more interested. Finally, they fired an inexpert burst at the targets, kicking up clouds of dirt that were still settling as the instructors came around. Chess soon found himself staring at Dallow in amazement.
         “Wow. I guess you’re a natural marksman,” he concluded.

Next page on Friday...

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

         It’s probably obvious in my story that I have a generally positive view of people who are in the military (or any kind of similar job, like firefighting, for instance, that requires the courage and ability to act in a dangerous situation, adherence to a strict code of honor, and enormous amounts of both confidence and self-discipline.) My experience with the military and with military training is second-hand: someone I was close to went through it all, and I got to hear the stories, both good and bad. Mostly, the tales of basic training camp were good stories about successful teamwork; but, obviously, many times there are frustrations -- even frustrations that are caused on purpose by the instructors because they are trying to develop the trainees’ capability to deal with daunting real-life situations.
         Frankly, it’s a job that I would not want to do, so I’m very glad that there are so many who do – and do it well. I am old enough to recall the Gulf War in 1990 very well, and I remember that the phrase “support the troops” was suddenly on everyone’s lips then. Back then, we all knew what the words meant: they were a backlash against the terrible way that many returning Vietnam veterans had been treated more than a decade before. It was a way of saying, “I might or might not support this war, but I will certainly not take out any opposition to the war on the American citizens who are fighting it.
         Knowledge of that origin is beginning to fade a little now, I think, as my generation ages, so I thought it was worth a mention. The idea is also described pretty well here, under “a reader writes.”



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