25 September 2004

An odd week, indeed. The week following my trip to Switzerland and France was short. Part of this was because that was a 4-day weekend, so I started into work on Tuesday. Catch was, I also had Staff Duty on Tuesday, so I got Wednesday off. Thursdays are Training Days (and therefore short days) and that Friday we had "Payday Activities" (we got all dressed up in our Class B uniforms, had an inspection in the morning, followed by essentially a day off). So, having spent a sum total of about 6 hours actually IN my office in the week following my return from France, this week was HORRIBLY long in comparison - even with getting Friday as a Comp Day (to make up for not being able to take a 5th day off of the 4-day for my Birthday). So, with this confusion out of the way... forward!

This week, for Training, we did the NBC range. For those who don't know, NBC stands for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical. Most know of it as "the Gas Chamber." Bright and early this morning, we all met in the parking lot outside the BN Headquarters, and loaded ourselves and our gear into 5-ton trucks, then headed out to the Local Training Area NBC Range. It would be _so_ very easy to simply say that, without getting into detail. Anyone who has ever ridden in the back of a 5-ton truck needs only know that we were crammed in there for about an hour and a quarter over dirt roads to know in exquisite detail exactly what we went through this morning. Everybody else will need a much more in-depth explanation to even begin to understand this sort of ordeal.

An Army 5-ton truck is not just simply another large green truck... it is, but there's so much more to know. In a very real sense, the Army is a no-frills organization. Especially when it comes to basic equipment such as trucks. When you look at a modern Army Truck, you'd almost swear it was one of the very same trucks landed at Normandy 60 years ago. The design has changed relatively little since then. It made perfect sense for the design requirements committee to include no requirements for shock-absorbers in a Cargo Truck - something that would only be carrying rugged items such as Ammunition, Explosives, Medical Supplies, and Soldiers. The complete lack of any real suspension means that EVERY LAST PEBBLE the truck hits gets transmitted into the bed of the truck. Oh yeah, the bed of the truck is where I was sitting today... with a flimsy wood-plank bench backed by the canvas cover... a floor that had at one time been olive-drab (a shade of dark green) but is now mostly rust colored, and about 10 people who I could quite honestly go the rest of my life without ever seeing again (although I'll see them almost every day). Every pot-hole or rough ground on the gravel road we traveled on sent us all flying about like so many dice in a cup (Did I mention there was nothing even remotely resembling seat-belts? Or that we had to wear our helmets and flack-vests just to ride in the back of the truck?). After an hour and a quarter, we arrived at the NBC range... and we kinda poured ourselves out the back of the truck (all of us knowing we'd have to get back in for just as long on the return trip). By comparison, the Gas Chamber was tame to us.

On to the Gas Chamber. Unlike in Basic, where it was a swealtering 100F or higher, and we were all soaking our uniforms with sweat (There's just something about wearing a dark green/black/brown long-sleeve jacket and pants in July in South Carolina....) and we didn't put on any of our Chemical Protective Gear except the gas-mask itself, this time we put on everything. The Gas Chamber was filled with CS Gas (or Tear Gas to the rest of the world). For me, the CS Gas doesn't cause me difficulty breathing... it burns wherever there is moisture. Last summer, with sweat literally dripping off me I was in pain even before I had to take my mask off and say my required lines on my way out. This time, it was almost uneventful. It was below 70F, and fully suited up in all the chemical gear, there was no problem - not even when I had to break the seal on my mask and then re-clear and re-seal it.

After doing our required thing, we lined up to exit. One at a time, each of us in turn would remove our protective mask, say our last name and our service number, then leave. When it got to my turn, the Cadre decided he was going to have a discussion with me before he let me leave. The gas interacted with the water around my eyes - painfully. As is the natural physiological response to irritation in that area, the tear ducts brought more moisture out. More moisture interacting with the gas, more pain and irritation. Seeing that word on my screen however, I have to say that "irritation" while medically correct, does not capture the proper essence of the moment. My eyes had been transformed into burning cauldrons of searing pain, with the tear ducts simply pouring lava onto the fire. I was functionally blind, staggering down the gravel road from the chamber for almost a quarter mile before the wind had blown enough of the gas and chemical tinged moisture away from my eyes that I could see enough to know I was no longer following anyone (Upon leaving the chamber, we were to proceed down the road, and then back - giving us a chance to clear the gas from ourselves). Keeping my eyes open simply brought more pain. Closing them didn't do much to alleviate the pain, but was the instinctual reaction. After a few minutes of seeing double, I finally got both of my eyes to work together to get myself turned around and headed back to the training area. It took me almost 20 minutes to get my eyes back to full function.

That done, we cleaned up, packed up, and loaded back into the 5-tons to head back. I did manage to earn myself an interesting reputation on the return trip - I slept most of the way. To quote one of my neighbors here "If you could sleep through that, you can sleep through anything!"  Of course, I paid for it later in the day with excruciating pain in my back.

Friday, was errands and paperwork. I supposedly had the day off.... yeah, right. All that meant for the day was that I got to wear civvies and not be at the o-dark-thirty PT formation. I got a call (and answered my phone! I'll not do that again) to go to the clinic and get my final Hep-B immunization shot. I went in for one shot, and left with 4. The rest of the day was paying bills, and other random paperwork errands.

Saturday I met a couple friends in Heidelberg, and we went to the Schwetzingen Schloss Gardens. My unit had a Regimental Ball that evening, so we only had a couple hours to explore before I had to go get ready. The Schetzingen Schloss is modeled after Versailles in Paris, including the expansive gardens. It has been MANY years since I was in Versailles, so I can't adequately compare. This Late Summer/Early Fall still had most of the good color, but there was some browning and drying.

We wandered our way along the southern edge of the gardens, finding hedges that are in the process of being sculpted into a high arch-way (the arches haven't grown together yet) colonnade. Numerous fountains and sculptures (both modern and reproductions of famous classic ones) were scattered throughout. In one corner we found a neat little Greek shrine to some goddess whose name I can't recall. Beyond that, we meandered through a maze of bushes and sculptures until we found ourselves at the Mosque. It's a little odd to encounter a Mosque in Germany... especially one a few centuries old. The main building was being renovated, so was inaccessible.

I got home from my day's explorations about 4pm. I found people getting ready for the formal - running around in half a set of Dress Blues or Dress Greens. The formal was supposed to start at 7pm (receiving line), but some people were saying it was supposed to start at 6pm. Deciding to err on the side of caution, I got myself dressed and drove off to Heidelberg, arriving in the parking garage below the castle at about 6. There was supposed to be a shuttle-bus from the garage to the castle. I never did find out where the pick-up point was, nor what it's schedule was. I took the stairs.

Four words, sound very simple: "I took the stairs." It's nowhere near that simple. The Heidelberg Castle is situated on small plateau on the mountain on the south side of the Neckar River. As with virtually all fortified castles in Europe, it was not located in an easily assailable spot. To get to the castle, one has few options. Most people take the old cart-way that climbs (I wouldn't call it a gentle slope) from the edge of the Alt-Stadt (Old Town) along the long face of the castle. There is also the option of taking the stairs... 312 of them. They're numbered, and they are steep, winding their way almost straight up the mountain. If it had been working, I might have taken the Berg Bahn (Mountain Train) that starts at the parking garage, and ends way up on top of the mountain at Knigstuhl, with a stop at the castle along the way - however it has been getting completely overhauled, and there hasn't been a working section of cogwheel rail there since I've been in country. VIP's got to drive right up to the castle, and park next to it. You had to be a Lieutenant Colonel or above to qualify. I was in a hurry, so I took the stairs, in my Dress Green uniform.

When I arrived, I found that indeed the correct start time was 7pm... actually the receiving line was to start at 7:45. The handful of us there twiddled our thumbs in the Fasskeller (Vat Celler) where the receiving line was to start. The Fasskeller is in the basement of the Knigsahl (the main hall of the Castle where the actual dinner was to be held). After being bored by small talk and watching most of the members of my unit begin the process of drinking too much, I passed my way through the receiving line and up the three flights of stairs to the hall.

We all had assigned seats, grouping us by rank and section. I had been up earlier and scouted my seat. I was late in the prgression on my way up, and found that a few individuals had decided they didn't like their seating assignments and shuffled some of us around. I found myself completely separated from my section, and next to a very drunk, and very upset soldier from another section in my company (who had also been bumped away from his section). Some of the senior leadership in my company did a few things to try to clean up the mess, but it was too late to do much.

The toasts were everything one would expect from a Regimental Ball: A toast to the President, a toast to the U.S. Army, and a "Toast to the best Air Force in the world: To Army Aviation". Followed by toasts to the Regiment, to our Fallen Comrades, to the Ladies, and to a partridge in a pear tree - er, uh, actually not that last one. We had the POW/MIA memorial ceremony - a touching solemn pause in the evening, followed by the Punch Bowl Ceremony.

In this particular portion of the evening, selected members of the unit would come forward with ingredients for the punch (stirred together by a large wrench taken from the Aircraft Maintenance shop). The base was a blue punch. The first supplemental ingredient was a bourbon. The officer who brought it forward stopped half-way and took a swig, then went the rest of the way to the front and poured the whole bottle in. The next ingredient was Rum, and the bearer took a couple big swigs en route to the front. All together, a dozen or so drinks were brought forward - champaign was splashed down the front of a Captain's Dress Blues en route, the Operations Officer held a bottle of vodka to his mouth for the entire walk up to the front. The Doctor (of whose love of Guiness is known far and wide) came forward with a single (large) can of Guiness. He stopped at the first set of tables, turned towards 1/4 of the room "To the Regiment!" and he took a long hard drink. He did an about face, and repeated "To the Regiment!" and took another long hard drink. Then, moving up to the other set of tables, he turned again to 1/4 of the room and repeated the process, finishing the can on his 4th toast to the regiment. The good Doctor then produced another can from inside his coat, faced the head table and proclaimed "To the Regiement!" and downed almost the whole can. About 3 drops of Guiness eventually made their way into the punchbowl. A few more random antics followed, and the punch was made available to the assembled guests.

Dinner was slow in being served, and I was at the last table. I didn't get served my dinner until about 11pm (the schedule said we were to be all done with the formal portion by 10pm). I ate my dinner while Major General Williams delivered his keynote address and salute to the "First of the Two-Fifteenth Aviation Regiment" (We're the 1st of the 214th). My roommate who had shown up for the festivities already drunk, had gotten himself so waisted he got taken out (and home) by his section leader during the address. I decided to bail out as soon as the formal portion was over (and before desert was served) so I could attempt to mitigate the damage my stone-drunk roommate would do to my room on his return.

And that's the weekend that was. Next time, I'll tell you about the real life Forrest Gump we have in our company, getting sent to the field with about 30 minutes notice (and without my weapon), and other surreal moments.