Under the stingy glow of moonlight, my buddy and I pulled on our socks, wore our boots, hooked our garters, and tucked in our pants. We moved sluggishly. Against the not-quite silent hum of the forest – the chorus of chirps from unknown insects – the scream of velcro as we pulled open our integrated load bearing vests (iLBVs) made us cringe. The dampness of our iLBVs pressed against us like the sweaty embrace of a cloying friend.
We stumbled towards the command post to report for guard duty. A lamp shone brilliantly, blissfully unaware that everyone was asleep and of how out of place it was, against the specks of stars and the lazy moon. My hand flew up to shield my eyes from the harsh brightness, as if saluting, albeit sloppily, the sergeant who lay uncomfortably on the bench in front of us, sleeping. I glanced at my buddy uneasily. He glanced back nervously.
The tension was broken as another pair of recruits trudged past the command post noisily. The sergeant got up slowly, sniffled, then thumbed his nose. Eyelids still fused, he pointed to an empty space on the sign-in book, and told us gruffly to sign there. As we reached for the pens, he added, “Don’t touch the line”. Awake now, he sat heavily on the bench, keeping vigil over 4 rows of darkened bodies on groundsheets, the sign-in book, and a lamp that shone too brightly. We left hurriedly.
The ground underfoot cackled to life as we trudged along the perimeter of the campsite: the muted groan of the leafy mush, the staccato of snapped twigs, the thud of rocks being kicked loose, the rustle of our boots against groundsheets carelessly strewn in uneasy and contrived rows, the flurry of dust and sound in the distance, which we instinctively and excitedly attributed to wild boars. I sprinted towards the shadowy figure, panting, my buddy a few paces behind. I weaved past trees that, earlier in the day, had protected us from corrugated metal sheets painted with menacing targets of bayonet-wielding soldiers as we ran, crawled, and shouted, ran, crawled, and shouted, ran, crawled, and shouted; I leapt from shallow troughs left behind by famished and fatigued recruits who were too enthusiastic when digging their shell scrapes, and too tired when it came to filling up their cavernous holes with the hardened mounds of soil that were everywhere yet nowhere to be found when more soil was needed.
Our frightened friend scampered for a few ecstatic seconds, then all was still. Disappointed, my buddy and I returned to the patrol route. At a small clearing in the canopy, we paused, bent over to catch our breath, then stretched upwards to gaze at the gleaming moon. Staring more intently, I discovered faint glimmers in the greyish night sky; they seemed to pepper the sky ever more eagerly every time I blinked. Remembering that a friend had once told me that stars would fade away if you stare at them directly, I focused my gaze on each star in turn, watching them splutter into oblivion, like a game of whack-the-mole. We moved on, satisfied that those dots of light in the sky were burning, resplendent celestial objects light-years away, not cold hunks of metal hawking over us, hurtling around Earth needily and helplessly.
We tried to walk as slowly as we could, arranging left foot over right foot, then right over left. We were on duty for an hour, and it was a matter of personal conviction to make as few rounds around the campsite as possible. However, as we waddled comfortably through the night air, and swung ourselves forward freely, our pace quickened inadvertently. My mind was clear and blank, and despite the dull throb of sleepiness, I felt a quiet buzz of calm and contentment.
“This isn’t too bad,” I finally said.