Metal for Wood
Prospero E. Pulma Jr.
"Nature colors the earth while time polishes nature's works. Together, they are the world's unsurpassable artists."
"Sir?" Angelo Perez, the hulking driver, fleetingly swung his eyes to Armand Sarol. For him, death hijacking their journey was the lesser danger than superiors who blather.
"Years ago, this place was becoming barren. Look at it now. It's like a huge green painting." Armand continued, oblivious to his driver's heightened wariness. "Those AeroGreen bastards did not lie when they said that they can green this land again from the air." From dull brown tainted with verdant patches of mostly grassland, the land partly regained its health in two years of AeroGreen's aerial reforestation project of the Sierra San Ignacio that rimmed the small valley covered by grass and scarce trees that they were traversing. The novel program enticed Armand to adopt a hectare of defiled forest, projected to host at least a hundred mature trees in a decade, threatening to raze the firm's office if it duped him. He dismantled his firebomb when the satellite photos that he downloaded from the internet showed saplings thriving on once denuded ground.
"Yeah, I remember that time when this place was cleared of cover," Angelo replied, catching only bastards and reforestation in the officer's speech and letting the rest flow through his ears. "I felt a lot safer crossing it than today." Angelo refocused on the Humvee, mounted with a heavy machinegun, bobbing a hundred meters to their front, and steering the truck over the cratered road. A second lorry, loaded with more supplies and men, formed the convoy's last element. Passing through the sierra was comparable to driving on the moon, with pits gouged by rains on the 40-kilometer highway lengthening travel time to two hours in summer and hours longer in wet season and riding through the valley of death for Angelo, Armand, and their comrades.
"Joyce Kilmer was right. Trees are lovelier than poems," said Armand, admiring the foliage with moist eyes.
Angelo restrained his laugh muscles. Lord, he's cracking up, must be the price to pay for getting the Medal of Valor. Why did the Colonel dump this bemedaled nutcase in my truck? So glad the cab is too tight for another soldier.
"Do you know Joyce Kilmer?"
"Only Joyce Jimenez, Captain, who's much sexier than trees."
"You are correct about the carnal aspect, Sergeant, but trees are shapelier than any silicone enhanced starlet." Armand's emphasis on Angelo's rank was not lost on the Sergeant who wanted to flog himself for the slip"a punishment heavier than what Armand usually levied on his erring subordinates"if what he had heard about the officer approximated the truth. He talks too much, reads too much, mingles with the men, shoots like a sniper but merciful like a nun. His cousin, Chris, a Sergeant in the First Infantry Battalion, described Captain Sarol with these attributes, embellishing his description uttered in a highly inebriated state with a pledge to follow the officer to hell and back. If he saved me and my buddies and me by guarding our retreat, like what he did for you, I'll gladly live with the captain in hell, he countered.
Armand removed a Saint Ignatius rosary from his neck and presented it to Angelo. "Do you know what this is?" The Sergeant had to bite his lips to keep a smile from breaking. "It's a rosary, sir, but I'm not familiar with the image." From lovely trees to rosaries, the Captain sure knows how to pick topics, he thought. I hope he won't talk like this to the troops.
"If you're a Catholic, you should have Saint Ignatius looking after you because you won't need Kevlar when you have a backer in heaven. He's kept me alive after all those battles." And soft and weird, Angelo wanted to add, if what Chris said of the Captain sparing their unarmed or wounded enemies, keeping a stack of books beside his bunk, and planting seeds in the forest during patrols were true.
Angelo mentally made the sign of the cross before uttering, "Sir, please don't shoot me if I ask why you're...like this?" He looked heavenward when no shower of copper and lead ensued from his passenger's M4 Carbine and 9mm sidearm.
"Chris told you?"
"You know my cousin, sir?"
"My company's headquarters' platoon Sergeant and the best in the Battalion, that's what he is."
"Last week, I visited him on my way back from leave. We got together, drank gin, and he started talking about you and your transfer, but nothing negative, Captain." Except for the part where he saw you enter Oriental Beauties Spa twice.
"Don't worry because he also ratted on you, Sarge, like how he learned to impersonate bumbling officers from his crazy cousin in Third Battalion. When he learned that I'll be transferred to Third, he said, 'Captain, act dumbly in front of my cousin and you'll be a good source of jokes for him.'"
"It entertains the men, sir. Please don't take it wrongly."
"So long as you don't faint in a firefight or dessert, I won't cite you for violating Article 64. War wrecks lives and minds. If we dwell in battle all the time, we'll be wearing straitjackets soon. Humor pulls you of the battlefield while books and nature draw me away from guns." For someone accustomed to the clipped speech of superiors, the profoundly verbose Armand was an aberration to the Sergeant. The convoy's primary task for that day was a logistics run, with ferrying the captain to his new unit added as its secondary mission. Providing recipient ears to his passenger's exposition became Angelo's unwanted and added duty as Armand's driver. From monosyllable replies, which he frequently utilized in conversations with other officers, his intellect, untrained in profound discourses, was gasping for sensible answers.
Angelo hoped the safety catches of the Captain's firearms were still on. "Captain, Chris saw you burying seeds many times. He never told anybody about it but me."
"What's wrong with planting trees?"
"They provide cover for the enemy, sir." His farming village viewed trees as generous providers of shade, fruits, medicines, and wood, and not revered for their beauty.
"Cover for both sides, Sergeant. But we should look beyond our need for camouflage to appreciate trees, like their serving as a part of ourselves that will live on after we get KIA." The convoy neared the end of the valley where the road gradually crawled up through the sierra. Angelo, anticipating the Humvee's adjustment to the more rugged terrain, shifted gears to maintain the prescribed distance between them.
A promotion or a bullet in the head? Angelo pondered on the possible repercussions of him proving that the Captain had loose screws in his head, abused drugs, or both. Better shut my mouth before we shift from trees to flower gardening. Both men saw the Humvee began to labor over the heavily pockmarked and inclining path. Angelo's peripheral vision picked the Captain readying his rifle. He diverted one hand from the steering wheel to his weapon. "Be ready, Sarge. If I were a rebel, I'll hit this convoy at this..."
A hand, invisible to the convoy's observers, casually pressed a button to unleash the power of a land mine packed under the Humvee's path. The detonation first heaved the layer of dirt over the device before shredding the vehicle and its occupants and raining their remains on the surrounding field. The explosion dampened the initial fusillade of the gunmen entrenched on the scout vehicle's right flank. Only the impact of slugs on the trailing vehicles heralded the second stage of the ambush. In the truck, Angelo and Armand heard the characteristic clank of metal striking metal as the projectiles hit the grille, the hood, and the windshield; the staccato was noticeably heavier on the Captain's side. Both threw the doors open a second after a lethal barrage of splintered glass and missiles commenced. Searing pain shot through Armand's chest as he egressed. "Cap..." Angelo screamed then pressed his free hand on his neck where slugs tunneled through vessels; the plot of land where the Sergeant landed would be the last that he would occupy in his life.
Racked by intense pain, bleeding, and laboring to breathe, Armand crawled to an embankment occupied by some of the truck's passengers, a few of whom saw the spreading blotch on his chest. Raising his head slightly, he picked the escort platoon's lieutenant lying beside the limp radioman and screaming on the radio. A soldier crashed by his side. It was the medic. The Captain promptly redirected him to the two walking wounded casualties in the group. He spotted more soldiers huddling on the opposite roadside but Angelo was not one of them. You should have taken the rosary, Sarge.
The initially heavy volley that the rebels poured on the trucks slackened. Spread on a frontline inadequate to cover the length of the convoy, the guerillas began shifting from the Humvee to the trucks. Armand saw this in their pattern of gunfire that was initially concentrated on the front before spreading to their right flank as their enemies adjusted their position. The maneuver could potentially isolate them from the bulk of the platoon. Cutting the advancing element and regrouping at the second truck was the first tactic that popped in his mind. He grabbed the nearest man, a corporal, and whispered, "Shoot where my point my gun. One magazine only, then fall back to the LT's truck. The walking wounded will go first. Do you understand?" The soldier nodded apprehensively. Having said this, the Captain kneeled on one knee, picked a spot where the undergrowth undulated from passing men, and raked the field. A thunderous chorus of rifles ruptured behind him, followed by the rising of a haze of cordite. To their front, the vegetation ceased swaying and no gunfire countered their barrage. As ordered, the men began retreating as they emptied one ammunition clip.
Armand's front position and the troops' response to his firing betrayed his role as the conductor of the lethal orchestra that crosshairs was centered on his torso. Metal again punctured his chest, keeling over a body weakened by the rapid depletion of blood. "Sir, stay down!" The corporal began tugging at his uniform. "Go..." His subordinate wavered. Armand expectorated blood before he spoke, "Run!" The soldier replied by reloading and firing at the foliage. "Yes, sir." He shook the officer's hand before rallying to the second truck.
Blood and air continued to fill Armand's chest cavity, compressing his lungs further and hindering their expansion. Releasing his grip on life became a better alternative than respiring for a few more minutes. He shut off the carnage from his mind and inundated it with time spent with kith and kin and the fate of Sierra San Ignacio. Retribution would dye the sierra a fiery red from the falling bombs and howitzer shells, flying bullets and rockets, and the agony of the wounded and dying. He embraced this truth with the last shutting of his eyes, content to let his trees live in his stead.