The one thing you have to deal with on a deployment, no matter what branch of service you are in, is boredom. For soldiers, it’s the time in-between missions outside the wire. For HVAC technicians, it’s the time in between service calls.
When you are good at your job, do all your routine maintenance, and only have a total of 106 air conditioners on base, you don’t get many service calls. And when you do, with four very qualified technicians ready to pounce on it like over compensating bouncers in a bar fight, no air conditioner stays broken very long.
The members of the 447th Civil Engineering Squadron HVAC shop spent most of their day playing dominoes. The thing is they couldn’t do it in the shop unless they were on an official break, like lunch. For them to be able to play all day, they had to get creative.
The center of the front seat of their six pack pick up folded down when there was no need for the middle seat. After a trading frozen bottles of water (Ice was a hot commodity in the desert) for some wood and time in the Carpentry Shop, Tim and his Airmen fabricated a table top to fit perfectly over the folded down seat. A little bit of trim around the perimeter of the table top made it possible to mix the dominoes up and not lose any between and under the seats of the truck. After the completion of their table top, when it came for the crew to go “get lost,” they could park anywhere, set up their table, and bust out the “bones.”
The four of them spent many an hour out behind the fuel bladders of the Power Plant. The power plant was noisy and smelled of diesel fuel, so people tended to avoid it. Except for the Power Production Engineers, of course. There was always at least one person there to monitor everything.
On the day of the incident, there was no work to be done. But the boys needed to get out of the shop. Being seen in the shop meant you weren’t out working in the field. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t any actual work to do in the field. It just mattered that you weren’t in the shop.
The morning of the attack, Tim was about to head out to the power plant with his troops when he got a phone call from his boss, Master Sergeant Mattingly. The Master Sergeant wanted to go over the evaluations Tim wrote on Jones and Ski. The Master Sergeant was a stickler for well-written paperwork.
“Do you want us to wait for you, Sergeant?” Ricketts asked.
“Nah. You guys go ahead and play cutthroat,” Tim said. “The Master Sergeant is pretty anal when it comes to these things. This will take all morning. Just come get me for chow.”
“Roger that, Sergeant,” Ricketts said as he and the rest of the troops headed out to the power plant.
Dominoes just works better with four people. There are two teams of two and everyone gets seven dominoes. This leaves no dominoes left over, and with that, it’s easier to count the dominoes, a strategy used by advanced players. Cutthroat is an everyman for himself version and not as fun. That’s why when Airmen Jones, Ricketts, and Ski got to the power plant, Ricketts went looking for a fourth.
The 12-foot tall jersey barriers that protected the fuel bladders were also what concealed the crew when they were out playing dominoes. The 8-foot long concrete monstrosities surrounded the bladders, but they did not butt up against each other. There had to be enough room for an Airman to be able to connected hoses to the bladders from the refueling trucks.
After parking in their regular spot, Senior Airman Ricketts went out to see who was manning the controls in the power plant, their possible fourth. Taking a short cut, he slid sideways between two jersey barriers. Then, even though it was forbidden, he walked over the fuel bladders, like a little kid in a rented bouncy castle. Once he got across, he squeezed in between two more of the portable concrete walls and walked over to the power plant. He knocked on the door but walked in without waiting for a response.
Inside the plant Ricketts found Martinez sitting in a chair with his head nodding, fighting to stay awake. Martinez was a grey-haired, overweight Technical Sergeant from the Arizona Air National Guard. He was way older than most Tech Sergeants, something common among the Guard guys. He was in the army when he was younger and missed being in uniform. He joined the Air Guard after a couple of co-workers convinced him.
“We don’t do shit but play cards and drink coffee,” they said. That sounded good to Martinez. He enlisted at the age of 38 he and was probably one of the oldest Senior Airmen in the country. For the next several years he drank coffee and played cards one weekend a month, two weeks a year, then 9-11 happened. He was now on his second deployment. He would have gotten out after his first, spending time away from his beloved wife and three daughters was hard on him, but two words caused him to reenlist once again, “Retirement Check.”
“Hey, Sergeant! Just checking on you AC,” Ricketts lied. “How is it working?”
Ricketts knew as soon as he saw Martinez that they were going to have to play cutthroat. The crew had nothing in common with a middle-aged Guard guy from Tucson, AZ. Inviting him in the confines of their six pack to play dominoes was like inviting a priest to a party. Yeah, he’ll go and even drink, but you’d have to be on your best behavior while he’s there.
Mattingly ended up postponing the meeting with Tim by notifying him that he had, “more pressing shit to handle.” Having sent the boys off to get lost, Tim had some free time and decided to head to the morale tent. It was early back home, but there was still a chance Maria would be up. She had been waking up at odd times since she got pregnant.
During the day the morale tent was nearly empty. He didn’t even have to wait for a computer. He logged in right away and checked if she was online. She wasn’t on Facebook as far as he could tell, so he sent her a message.
“Babe, I got some free time. Are you up? I would love to see your face.”
Tim clicked away at random shit while he waited for a response.
“I’m up. Let me pee and then I’ll Skype you.”
“Yesss,” Tim said as he gave a fist pump. He clicked over to and updated his status to “about to get online with my baby!”
While Tim was Skyping with Maria and Ricketts was feeding a line of bullshit to Martinez, a piece of ice at the bottom of a mortar tube reached its breaking point. It had melted from a small block to a thin sheet, and the weight of the mortar round caused it to crack allowing the mortar to drop onto the firing pin, sending it off towards the direction of the base.
Mortars fired towards the base rarely did severe damage. Iraqi civilians, who were paid by insurgents, randomly set the stovepipes in place. They were aimed with no accuracy or care and set with the makeshift time day, ice. They sometimes flew over the base and sometimes hit just short of it. When they did make it into the base, they usually hit something noncritical like and empty hanger or a dirt field. One time some shrapnel ripped through a Cadillac shitter severing a water line, rendering the bathroom unusable for a few hours. That was the worst of it, though.
So when this mortar hit dead center of the jersey barriers that surrounded the fuel bladders, it was a one in a million shot. It was also a one in a million shot that Ricketts was on his way back to tell the boys that they had to play cutthroat. And, even though it was forbidden, Ricketts was happily bouncing on the fuel bladders like a little kid in a rented bouncy castle when the mortar hit.
We are now to the stuff I started working on when I decided to create this website. This material is now a couple months old instead of six months or more. I had a hell of a time getting this one ready. Let me know what you think or if my dimensions of those jersey barriers are off.