“Shooting Azimuths” by Tracy Crow

 

1. Geographic North

After chow, I climbed to the windy top of the metal bleachers with the others from my platoon. We wiggled along the cold seats until everyone was shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, allowing room for the four platoons now marching from the chow hall with a thumping boot cadence that made the metal beneath me hum. This was April, 1985, in Quantico. The time of the night compass march. The true test, some had said, of courage and leadership.

I was twenty-six, a Marine, a new officer, a wife, a mother, and one of nine women squeezed in among the tall bodies of men who in their bulky field jackets and cammies made staying warm that chilly evening in northern Virginia nearly possible.

When all five platoons had scooted into tight sitting formations, our lieutenant training officer hopped onto the bottom bleacher. “Look up,” he said, pointing into the lilac phase of sunset. “You’ll notice there’s no moon tonight, unlike last week’s practice session.” I was envisioning the ancient mariners on a night such as this; salty sea captains at the helms of long wooden boats, helplessly adrift on swells during nights when the moon and the constellations were as out of sight as land in the middle of the sea. What would they have given for our compasses, our knowledge about navigation?

The lieutenant was saying that at nightfall we would travel about a mile, one that is, if we stayed on course, two or more, if we got lost. The goal, he added, was to navigate unfamiliar terrain to a row of metal ammo boxes we would find spaced fifty feet apart. To pass, we would have to land precisely at the correct ammo box for our coordinates. He warned about the river, how it was overflowing because of the beaver dams, and Don’t fall into a beaver dam! I pinpointed the river on my map. Drew a black circle around the exact crossing.

Lessons learned in training save lives during combat! Last to know, first to go! Want to win a war? Tell it to the Marines…. A Marine officer has to know how to read a map, how to plot coordinates for artillery fire that won’t wipe out friendlies. A Marine officer has to know how to lead Marines into and out of combat zones, because as everyone knows, one wrong turn could get everyone killed.

Admittedly, our combat training in Quantico was during the middle of a relatively quiet era in military history if you discounted the invasion into Grenada, Cold War threats, a bombing raid on Tripoli, and the peacekeeping mission in Beirut that had turned anything but peaceful. The Soviets were the Evil Empire. War felt imminent, and our fear of war, along with a healthy fear of failure, compelled us to take seriously each training exercise, even if conditions at Quantico were artificially manufactured.

In the practice for the night compass march a week earlier, and in the same bleachers, each of us had drawn coordinates and then shot azimuths, plotting them on our maps with protractors and compasses–a task easier in the classroom on the evenness of tabletop than on your lap, I can assure you–and then we were marched under a full moon to a wooded area. The signal, a pistol crack, had set us off on foot through a hundred yards of forest that seemingly conspired against us by pulling a shade to the moonlight.

I tripped over roots, lost count of my steps, and had to backtrack. I offered my hand in an outstretched sacrifice to the wicked vines and low hanging limbs that otherwise slashed at my face and neck. I feared for my eyes mostly, fighting the imaginary sharp sticks as they darted toward me. And then there had been the crackle of limbs and leaves, a holler from someone who tripped, a nervous giggle, and the OORAH! from the first Marine who had made it through to smooth asphalt. When I stumbled from the darkness to an umbrella of light beneath a streetlamp, I found myself at the feet of a smiling lance corporal who verified my success by writing on my card a fat, black checkmark.

The lieutenant was now pacing the metal bleacher, waiting for the lists of coordinates to make their way among two hundred and thirty. When I had mine, I quickly plotted my coordinates, balancing compass and pen and map and protractor on my lap. I should admit to feeling overly confident. Not only had I passed the practice march, but I had remained behind at Quantico the weekend before, Easter weekend, with Himes, Johnson, and a handful of others for additional training.

At home, however, my husband, a Marine captain, was finding his role as a single parent to our daughter a challenging one. Eight weeks earlier, I had been a sergeant, a reporter for the base newspaper, ending each workday at four-thirty, picking up our daughter at daycare, and setting dinner on the table as my husband walked through the door. Now, I was an officer, too, chosen to lead just as he had been chosen seven years earlier.

There had been other separations during our marriage: my photojournalism classes in Indianapolis when our daughter was six months old; my coverage of desert combat training in Twentynine Palms, California, when she was eighteen months and of mountain warfare training in Bridgeport, California, a year after that. My husband’s ability to cope as a single parent had reduced with each separation, and after eight weeks in Quantico, I was fully questioning my decision to follow his career path.

“Not coming home for Easter?” he said the night I called. I leaned against the wall in the barrack’s lounge, winding and rewinding the telephone cord around my index finger. “But that’s two weekends in a row.”

“Monday is the night compass march. I need to practice this weekend.”

“But what am I supposed to tell our daughter?”

I gave the phone cord one long tug, a long sigh. “I know, I know, but she’s only four and a half.”

Geographically, I was two hours north from our home in Hampton, and felt fortunate to have made it home several weekends. Three women who were also mothers didn’t live close enough to commute; they spent their weekends in uninterrupted blocks of study time for tests on Soviet weapon systems and on nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. And then there had been the outburst of chicken pox–my husband hadn’t known you shouldn’t place a child with chicken pox in a tub of water. After six years of marriage, I was learning he didn’t know a great deal about anything outside his military self, which these days, close to retirement, included golf handicaps more than General Orders.

But at night in my room at the barracks, I lay in a single bunk with my M-16 rifle locked to the bed frame, and pictured my husband a hundred miles away in our bed, our daughter in hers, tucked beneath a Sleeping Beauty bedspread. One day I would have to answer for all this, for leaving them months at a time. Too, I wondered what our daughter would think about having been raised by two parents who had been trained to kill.

I’d had a revelation about my husband a few weeks earlier during another night training exercise. It was the night all five platoons were driven to a live-firing range at dusk where we were divided into groups of two and instructed to dig fighting holes.

The winter ground had been cold and unyielding. I had struggled to match my partner, a man, shovel for shovel, and despite the cold air that felt closer to winter than spring, I was perspiring. My feet, however, felt numb and my fingers, like brittle sticks, ready to snap.

After digging to four feet, we propped our machine guns on the upper edge of the bunker, positioning the weapons into what would be intersecting fields of fire. When the shrill whistle commenced firing, I lunged for the machine gun and squeezed off rounds, hot cartridge shells grazing my hands and cheeks. My jolting body became one with machine; my mind, however, floated with the red sea of tracer bullets crisscrossing with such precision, such danger, such beauty I hated to see it all diminished so by the white flares shot into the black holes of space to illuminate a make-believe enemy.

This, I thought, is what combat looks like. Beautiful, just before the ugly. And, if we were lucky, this would be the closest to combat we would ever get. This, I remember thinking, too, was what my husband must have seen in Vietnam, and now I was seeing him not as the combat officer he had become, but as the frightened private he must have been in ‘68, in Da Nang and Hue. How had he, how had anyone faced this red scissoring–of friendly fire intersected with enemy? And I suddenly understood why, in the commissary on Okinawa several years earlier, as I had been pushing our infant daughter in the stroller behind him down the aisle of canned meats and vegetables and past an old woman with bright eyes and bowed legs who was speaking Vietnamese to her daughter, he had dropped the can of tuna and flattened himself against the shelves.

Back in the barrack’s lounge among the rows of black and silver telephones, I heard my husband say he wanted me home for Easter. Another woman Marine from my platoon was shuffling into the lounge. She smiled, headed for a telephone across the room, and inserted a fistful of quarters that were clinking as if falling from a slot machine.

I turned my back on her and wound the telephone cord around my finger. “Three weeks,” I whispered into the phone. “You can hang on that long, can‘t you?” In three weeks, I would pack the new uniforms–the dress blues and the dress whites– the pearl-handled officer’s sword, the weapons guidebooks on machine guns, howitzers, and Soviet tanks, and put Quantico in the rear view mirror. And once home? Then what? All that awkwardness of trying to become again the wife and mother I had been forced to let go of for so many weeks. What if I couldn’t become all that again?

Three weeks: twenty-one days. Hadn’t I read somewhere it took just twenty-one days to establish a habit. Or, had that been to break one? “I really need to stay for this extra navigation training.”

“You’re becoming impossible!”

I gave the phone cord a final tug. “Didn’t you fail the night compass march?”

At two a.m. Easter Sunday, the day before the night compass march, I heard a knock. From my bunk to the door, I dragged the dream of the day’s two-hour practice march over brown hills–the smell of cold, lifeless trees still in my hair–and the memory of counting and recounting my steps, of refiguring grid north from geographic north from magnetic north in an effort to find true north. I opened the door and he was there: in his arms our sleeping toddler with a blush of the pox on her chin, shoeless, lost in her own dreams, wearing the new Easter dress. Rumpled.

2. True North

For the night compass march, you set off on foot at nightfall, and at first everything seems almost pleasant. You’re bundled in a heavy field jacket over your cammies, you’re wearing boots, and around your waist, a belt with a canteen of water. You have a flashlight and a compass with a red needle that points toward magnetic north regardless of the direction you turn your body. The trick is in remembering to turn your body and compass as one.

Forty, forty-one, forty-two…sixty-five steps per hundred meters, and you’re mentally tracking the meters and the steps across dark dry acres and up and over small hills. You could get used to this, this thrill of independence that is feeding your spirit, of self-reliance; for the first time you know where you are and where you need to go.

After a while, you start wondering how everyone else is getting along. You shine the flashlight on your wristwatch; nearly an hour has passed since you last heard another Marine…and now you are beginning to slow down. You fix in your mind the step count, so you can stop, have a look around without losing your place. You check left and listen. Nothing. No crickets, no frogs, no birds. You check right. Nothing but the noise in your head and the roar of silence in your ears.

You think, What are the odds I’m the only one in more than two hundred to have drawn these coordinates?And then it happens. That sliding silver pinball that rolls and rolls around in your brain until it drops like cold metal into your heart: you’re lost. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re the only one on the true trail. That’s it, you say. You’re right, for after all, hadn’t you made it through the dark forest last week? In the classroom, hadn’t you correctly plotted every coordinate? You refer to your map for the elevation, searching on paper for the depression you’re standing in. You walk on. Up and over another hill toward the sound of rapids. The river. And so you must be right.

The icy water swirls around your ankles and you trudge on to the knees, to the hips, to the waist, holding your ground, stopping to check your compass, remembering when you learned to cross a river two years earlier at mountain warfare training in northern California how easy it is to be swept away or pulled off course, and so you adjust, lift a foot, place it down, slide another along the unsettled bottom until the river around you sinks from your waist to hips, to knees, to ankles. Downstream, the crash of limbs: Goddam beavers! You shout into the cavern of darkness toward the voice, Everything okay? A reluctant, Yeah! sends you back on course.

A half hour later, your toes are stumping against asphalt. Something’s wrong here, you think, and you pull out the map, click on the flashlight. Look up. You’ve learned true north can be found by locating the moon and its angle to the North Star. But there’s no moon, remember? But neither is there supposed to be a road here under your feet. What you want to think is, Who put this Goddam road here? What you’re really thinking is, Who forgot to put this road on the Goddam map? Because what you don’t want to think is, How the hell did I wander so far off course I found a road not on the Goddam map? And you’re wondering if you’re even on the fucking base anymore. And where the hell is everybody? And how long will they wait before sending out a search party. And how if you’d been able to eat more for dinner than a package of peanut butter crackers–only a sadistic idiot orders a weigh-in after chow– you would be thinking more clearly. And you’ve decided that when you get back to the barracks, if you get back, you’re going to order a large pepperoni pizza with double cheese from that place that delivers on base until midnight.

Then you stomp the road and curse at the sky because there’s no one here to act shocked and because yelling is the one thing you can control right now and because the sound of your voice feels a little less lonely. And you cry, because no one’s here to see. You read somewhere that scientists believe the magnetic poles reverse themselves every five hundred thousand years or so– meaning what is north today flips south tomorrow–and since Earth is apparently long overdue for a reversal of magnetic poles…suppose your compass needle has been pointing south all along?

You picture your husband, smug when you tell him you failed the night compass march after ruining the family’s Easter weekend, and this makes you wish the poles had reversed themselves, that if you have to fail the night compass march, then let your failure come as a result of a cataclysmic event. And then you stuff the map and compass into your field jacket pocket, make a half turn toward the direction from where you came, and walk on, just walking, no longer thinking or caring about step counts and meters, for what does all that matter if your whole world has turned upside down. The next time your feet touch asphalt they’re near an ammo box. Squint hard and you can just make out the line of the other ammo boxes along the shoulder of the road. Marines are emerging ghostlike, one and two at a time from the trees, halting by their boxes, silently handing over their cards to enlisted Marines. You’re waiting for the lance corporal at yours as he compares your coordinates with the number on the ammo box.

He looks into your face. “Ma’am,” he says, “you landed at the very opposite end of the course.”

You extend a shaky hand for the card. “Damn beavers,” you say, but you’re thinking, So, this is failure…This is what my husband felt that night seven years ago when he failed the night compass march, and you’re wishing for a way to make it up to him.

The lance corporal leans over you, whispers, “Get back into the woods, Ma’am…walk all the way down to the last box.” And then he’ s shoving you out of sight. At first, your feet refuse to budge, but that’s okay, because your mind has raced on without them: a hundred flashes of the past, present, and future hanging on your next decision. A true test of courage and leadership.

Then you’re zigzagging through the forest, welcoming the thorny vines that slash your face and neck. You’re falling over stumps and limbs, and picking yourself up, and ignoring the pain in your knee and the swelling of your ankle. Your left cheek stings and you wonder if the scar will be permanent.

You come out the other end of the dark forest, changed. You won’t go to the last box; you take the one second from the end. A perfect score you can’t stomach. You’ll give your husband that satisfaction.

Another lance corporal takes your card, jots down the number, and says, “Congratulations, Ma’am, you have successfully navigated the night compass march.”

You mutter a thanks and secretly vow to practice every weekend until you can plot true north with your eyes closed. As you shuffle toward the cattle car up ahead that’s idling on the shoulder of the road, you’re thinking, Sure, this may be peacetime, but how long could anyone expect it to last? You’re mentally hanging up on your husband’s telephone protests, when you spot Himes, who is now boarding the cattle car. You grab the bottom edge of his field jacket. Yank him from the steps. He smells of woods and dirt and sweat. On his neck, a nasty scratch resembles a thread of beaded garnets.

“I went to the wrong box…”

“Shhh!” he says, grabbing a fistful of your jacket to pull you closer. “Everybody did…”

 

 

Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award- winning military journalist whose news and feature articles about Marine life and training during the 1980s were published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Diego Tribune, among others. “Shooting Azimuths” is an excerpt, originally published in Puerto del Sol and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, from her military memoir, “Eyes Right.” Ms. Crow’s literary nonfiction has also appeared in The Missouri Review and Mississippi Review. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Ms. Crow has a B.A. in creative writing from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. She teaches creative writing at Eckerd College.

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