Ranger School is one of the tougher military schools. Some say the toughest, although combat diver might argue and certainly SEALs would disagree. I found the Robin Sage phase of the Special Forces Qualification Course to a be a total mind fuck. Lots of lose-lose scenarios as in Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru mode.
This scene is the second one in New York Minute. It is a flashback, which many warn against; it’s one of four in the book. But they are key to understanding my protagonist, Will Kane, and how a warrior is made. It also foreshadows, as all good scenes do. And, after all, the title of the book is New York Minute. You’ll see as you read. Here’s the really, really interesting thing: I had the title before I came up with this scene or how the minute is used later in the book. Writers– trust your subconscious.
It also introduces a real life, perhaps bigger than life, person, Chargin’ Charlie Beckwith who would go on from this assignment to form Delta Force, a development which will come up in a future book in the Will Kane series. Will Kane, my protagonist, has just graduated West Point, class of 1966. He is in the last phase of Ranger School. His wife gave birth on the first day of Ranger School and he hasn’t seen his son yet.
Always remember: the n in Ranger stand for knowledge!
Monday, 24 October 1966
AUXILIARY FIELD SEVEN, EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE RESERVATION, FLORIDA
“Previous class said he’s crazy,” Ted Marcelle whispers to Kane as they ride in the open back of a deuce and a half truck through the flat Florida panhandle wasteland. Endless scrub, palmettos, stinking water, gators, mud and, of course, snakes, await.
According to the scuttlebutt from the last Ranger class to pass through, there is worse in human form.
Ted looks like hell. The left side of his face is blistered and swollen from poison ivy brushed against in the mountains of Georgia. It’s covered in white Calamine lotion, but the medicine hasn’t been helping.
“Doolittle trained his crews for the Tokyo mission here.” Kane points at the cracking and weed infested long stretch of concrete: Auxiliary Field Seven.
Ted doesn’t care about history. He’s looking ahead. Literally. “You don’t think he killed them?” Ted asks, indicating the bodies.
Fires flicker in barrels. An old truck burns. Soldiers wearing American uniforms are strewn about. The trucks carrying Ted, Kane and the rest of their Ranger Class roll through the ambush. A man wearing black pajamas stands in the far treeline, an AK-47 in his hands. As quickly as he’s seen, he disappears into the scrub.
The Ranger students have all lost weight over the past six weeks of training at Fort Benning and in the mountains around Dahlonega, Georgia. They’re battered, bruised, exhausted and despite a brief 24 hours respite before this phase, starving. Six weeks of one c-ration a day takes everyone down a step on the evolutionary scale. Many are regretting the steaks they’d gorged on during that short break, as it reignited the hunger. They’d reached the point by the end of the mountain phase where hunger is such a constant it’s the norm. A partly deranged Ranger student trying to put imaginary coins into a tree believing it’s a vending machine is viewed with little notice.
The same with exhaustion. They’re surviving at the first, base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: lacking food, water, warmth, rest, and shelter. Ranger School is breaking them down to see how they act and react under stress. War is chaos, war is confusion, war is exhaustion, war is man at his most primitive. Ranger School is the Army’s attempt to get as close to that as possible without killing them, although students occasionally do die in the swamps, usually from hypothermia.
Kane had not been able to see his newly born son during the abbreviated break before this phase, because Taryn had gone to her parents in New York, rather than sit alone with Joseph in a squalid apartment in Columbus, Georgia for two months amongst all the rednecks. He’d talked briefly with her on the phone. Listened to Lil’ Joe cry in the background. Felt the distance. The absence.
With a squeal of brakes, the truck abruptly stops. The Ranger students tumble in the cargo bay. It’s deliberate, as the other trucks halt the same way.
“Get out!” A Ranger Instructor, RI, screams. “Get out!”
The students don’t wait for the cargo strap in the back to be unhooked or the gate dropped. They’ve been in this situation before. They pour over the sides of the trucks, falling to the ground with their gear.
Kane hits hard, his rucksack twisting his back, his rifle almost impaling him. He scrambles to his feet. Ted is upright, weapon at the ready.
“Fall in!” the RI orders.
The Ranger Students assemble. Their numbers are less than the 212 who started six weeks ago. Injury has taken the unlucky, although most will be recycled, once they heal, and go through it again. Some have quit, an unthinkable and career-ending decision for an Infantry officer. Kane and Ted had watched a couple of classmates they’d thought competent simply give up.
This isn’t West Point. This is finishing school for Infantry officers and the training for enlisted who are members of elite Ranger units. The newly installed commander of this phase, Charlie Beckwith has taken it to another level: this is preparation for the real war raging on the other side of the globe; no longer just a career ticket punch.
“Ground your rucks.”
They shrug off their rucksacks and deposit them at their feet.
“In the bleachers!”
The students rush the bleachers. Nothing is done at a walk.
One small blessing is the decent weather. Not the brutal heat of the Florida summer. Not the chilling, wet cold of the winter to come where graduates sewed their tab on with white thread ever after. They are in the sweet spot for Florida Ranger.
The hard, wooden bleachers are uncomfortable. Kane barely notices. He’s in a timeless zone inside his head.
There’s a faux tombstone propped against a tree:
Here lies the bones
Of Ranger Jones
A graduate of this institution.
He died last night
In his first fire fight
Using the school solution
It’s counter to the West Point culture of tradition. Indeed, contrary to the US Army’s attitude toward warfare. A fact that is causing turmoil as a regular army fights an irregular enemy on the other side of the world in a place few have ever heard of. The Army is trying to unlearn the lessons of World War II and Korea and relearn what their own predecessors had successfully implemented against the British two hundred years ago. It isn’t going well.
“I think the n in Ranger stands for knowledge,” Ted whispers to Kane.
Unlike many around him, the burst of automatic weapon firing from the swamp doesn’t startle Kane.
“Listen carefully!” An RI dramatically holds a hand to his ear.
“That,” the RI intones, “is the weapon of choice of your enemy. The AK-47. It sounds different than an M-14 or M-16. Get to know the sound. You WILL hear it again. We’re going to make sure it isn’t the last sound you ever hear.”
The man in black pajamas appears out of the swamp. He’s covered in mud. As is the AK in his hands. He fires a burst, a testament to the Russian weapon’s functionality. The students duck. The crack of the rounds going overhead is the first time most have experienced bullets coming their way.
“Listen up, you fucking pussies!” Major ‘Charging’ Charlie Beckwith strides forward, owning the ground and their minds and bodies for the next three weeks. Commander of this, the final phase of Ranger School. They’d lucked out with the weather, but that luck hadn’t held with running into Beckwith’s taking over here a few months ago. He’d transformed this phase from tough, but regular army under the previous commander, into his version of hell on Earth and the reality of unconventional warfare.
“Your enemy wants you dead.” Beckwith’s voice is a southern growl. Born in Atlanta he’d played for the Georgia Bulldogs and been drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He’d turned down the pro contract in favor of the Army and the Korean War.
“They tried killing me,” Beckwith informs them. He rips the mud encrusted black shirt open, revealing a nasty scar running diagonally across his torso from pelvis to clavicle. This is the result of a large .51 caliber bullet hitting Beckwith while he was riding in a helicopter over Vietnam. He should have died and before the next weeks will be over, everyone in the bleachers will wish he had.
The scar gets everyone’s attention.
“They will kill you!” Beckwith is at the bleachers, stalking back and forth, staring students in the eye. “Each one of you. Every one of you. Unless you kill him first. We’re going to teach you how to do that. If you listen to us, if you learn, if you get the shit out of your ears, and all the useless bullshit you’ve brought with you, your mother won’t get a telegram saying your son died because he was fucking stupid! It will just say your son died.”
Three weeks later, on 12 November, it’s over. A surprise cold snap added unexpected misery to the ordeal, producing hypothermia casualties and wiping away the ‘fortune’ of arriving between summer and winter Ranger. But Kane and Ted and most of the others endure.
The last mission, a seaborne assault in small rubber boats across a stretch of the Gulf of Mexico to the objective on Santa Rosa Island is a success, culminating after midnight. The head RI for the exercise actually congratulates the students, ordering them onto deuce-and-a-halves to ride back to Field Seven for graduation at 10 am later that day. He promises a warm, full breakfast, as appealing as the black and gold Ranger tab to the starved students.
“We did it,” Ted whispers to Kane, as if afraid being overheard will puncture this bubble of success. “We did it.”
“We did,” Kane agrees, also not quite believing it. He extends his hand to his friend. “Ranger Marcelle.”
“Ranger Kane.” Ted pulls Kane to him and they exchange a rancid, exhausted, proud hug.
Ted’s face is a disaster, the poison ivy much worse. His left eye is swollen shut. He’s fought the RI’s who want to medically recycle him, insisting he can do the mission.
And he has.
It’s as satisfying a moment as tossing their hats into the air a few months earlier at West Point. But Ted isn’t the same and it isn’t just the Ranger School regime. A shadow hangs over him. Eight days earlier during a mission he cracked one smart-ass comment too many. The leader of the ambushers, a staff sergeant RI, had not been impressed, and ordered his men to take Ted prisoner.
Ted was gone for 24 hours before returning to the patrol. He refused to tell Kane what had happened. But he was different, withdrawn, his sense of humor gone. He just muttered something about ‘these motherfuckers’.
But that was all in the past now.
Kane and Ted, along with the other students, collapse in the beds of the trucks, bodies piling on top of each other. Fall into what an observer might consider sleep, but is the unconsciousness of utter exhaustion. A tangle of sweaty, dirty, muddy bodies, rucksacks and weapons. The trucks roll through the darkness toward food and graduation.
Not long after, the slamming of brakes shifts the bodies, but most do not rise to consciousness.
RIs go down the line of trucks, banging on the metal sides with pipes. “Everyone out! Get your asses out of the trucks. ASAP! Move it! Move it!”
“You gotta be shitting me,” Ted mutters. “These motherfuckers.”
Kane sits up.
A flashlight is dancing about as an RI drops the gate and shines it into the cargo bay. He grabs the closest student’s LBE and pulls him out. “Form up!”
Ted sits. “This isn’t Field Seven.”
“Maybe they brought chow to us?” one student wonders.
“Ha!” Ted snaps.
Kane pushes along the metal floor toward the edge. Slides to the ground before he can be pulled out. Ted tumbles next to him. Grumbling, cursing, the survivors of the Ranger Class form ranks in a gravel parking lit by a single, sputtering light high on a telephone pole. Crickets chirp. No one has a clue where they are, except it’s not where they were told they were going. There’s no smell of cooking food or hot coffee. Just the chill dampness of a dark Panhandle night.
A jeep skids to a halt in front of the scraggly formation. Beckwith jumps on the hood as several RIs direct their flashlights at him. He hovers otherworldly in the halo of light.
“Men! Listen up! Field Seven might be attacked unless we get there first. We’ve got one more march to make. I give you my word. Just one more.” He points to his left, along the dark stretch of road. “We only have to get there. That’s all. We don’t have to be tactical. We’ll take the road. That’s easy enough.”
“Why not take the fucking trucks then?” Ted mutters, but no one laughs. Curses of despair and rage ripple through the ranks, but Beckwith seems not to hear.
“I’m going with you men,” Beckwith says.
“Lucky us,” Ted says to Kane.
“Gut it out minute,” Kane replies to his Beast roommate.
“I don’t think Field Seven is a minute away,” Ted notes.
The class begins to move. Two columns, one on either side of the road. No one knows how far they have to go except Beckwith and the RIs.
As he staggers along Kane hears someone crying in the darkness. Others are cursing repeatedly, a mantra of hate toward Beckwith.
There’s a clatter as a student throws away his rifle and falls to his knees. “I can’t. I just can’t.” He curls into a ball, sobbing.
The columns leave him behind. Occasionally a civilian car rolls past, wide eyes staring at the line of dirty zombies staggering on either side of the road. Beckwith is everywhere, exhorting, cajoling, threatening, praising, cursing them to keep moving.
Eventually, after seven miles, they cross the bridge from Santa Rosa to the mainland and that gives them a rough idea how far they are from Field Seven.
Ten more miles.
Another man collapses at this realization. Beckwith pulls him to his feet and pushes him stumbling in the right direction.
They lose track of time except when BMNT tinges the eastern horizon.
“Will?” Ted says.
Kane hears his friend with some distant part of his mind. He focuses on the minute. That’s all he has to do. He passes it and focuses on the next minute.
“I can’t go any farther.”
Kane glances at Ted. He looks like a ghoul. Face drawn, good eye bulging, the other swollen shut, drool on the sides of his mouth. Dried snot under his nose. Caked sweat. The left side of his face a mass of blisters and sores.
“Bullshit,” Kane says. “You can do it.”
“I can’t. These people are crazy. You got no idea.”
“Gut it out for a minute, Ted,” Kane says. He holds up his wrist, peels back the Velcro covering on the Army-issue watch, the same camouflage band as the one on Ted’s wrist, which they’d bought at Ranger Joe’s on Victory Drive outside Fort Benning just before signing in to Ranger School. “I’ll time it. You can quit after a minute. Okay? Just a minute.”
“Just a minute? You promise?”
“Just a minute. I promise.”
They stagger along.
“That’s gotta have been a minute,” Ted finally says.
“You’re right. How about just one more? Then I’ll quit with you.”
They continue on. Each ‘gut it out minute’ gets longer and longer, until it’s almost ten minutes before Ted asks. And each time Kane promises he’ll give up with his friend after just another minute.
Finally, Ted says: “Fucking New York minutes, Will. You’re using New York minutes.”
“Yeah, Ted. Another New York minute.”
“You’re an asshole,” Ted says, but he gives a small laugh and Kane knows his friend will make it.
Beckwith suddenly appears in front of Ted. “You going to make it, Ranger?” His eyes widen as he sees Ted’s face. “You’re the one! I heard about you. You’re one tough son-of-a-bitch, Ranger. I’d serve with you anywhere.”
“Fuck you, Beckwith,” Ted mutters.
Beckwith moves to Kane. “Going to make it, Ranger?” He goes to the center of the road. “Oh yeah, boys. You want to run? Why don’t we run this last part?”
And Kane realizes Beckwith is telling the truth, it is the last part. Because there are the bleachers and there’s Field Seven and here’s the smell of hot chow in the air.
“Come on, Ted.” Kane breaks into an accelerated stagger, a mockery of a run. Ted automatically follows.
Beckwith howls something almost inarticulate at the students as they cross the final line.
Kane finally understands as Beckwith howls it again.
“You’re Rangers now!”
NEW YORK MINUTE available on all eBook platforms
Originally published at bobmayer.com on April 7, 2019.