A STORM IN CULLMAN COUNTY
by Al Pike




A storm came through Cullman County early this morning. It only lasted about forty-five minutes but left in its' wake more than wind or rain damage.

No, it wasn't a tornado or straight line wind damage; it wasn't even the fact that it knocked the power off line for a while.

It came out of the southwest, as storms do here in the spring, it crossed over the Lewis Smith dam on its way out of Walker County and wound up going about six miles south of here over Miller's Bottoms.

I'd been lying in bed listening to the low rumble of thunder moving closer for some time before Nancy awoke; she pulled the curtain back and watched as the lightning and thunder reached its crescendo, looked at the clock and laid back down. In the last twenty some odd years she's grown accustomed to it.

Another thing we'd become accustomed to is the fact that the power usually goes off when it comes a good hard rain. I've often jokingly said that if a dog hikes his leg on a power pole, the power goes off.

As soon as Nancy got back to sleep, I went out on the porch picking up my pipe and a fresh pouch of Captain Black Gold tobacco as I went, (I never smoke in the house). I loaded my bent briar pipe, tamped the loose strands into the bowl, and lit up causing a ghostly wraith to drift into oblivion in the early morning calm after the storm.

Since the power was off, there wasn't a sound to be heard except for the low drone of Emmett Porter's sixty kilowatt generator. He has three big chicken houses about a mile south of here across a wide hollow which seems to somehow amplify the sound of the generator. The only time it's ever on is when the power goes out and it starts automatically.

As I sat there thinking to myself how that generator reminds me of the one that used to run in our little compound in Khanh Doung, Vietnam, my mind drifted away to a scene from so long ago.

I could smell the coffee being brewed in the mess tent. M/SGT Johnson brewed five gallons at a time. He'd get the water boiling on the field stove and pour just the right amount of coffee into the pot. He'd let it come to a rolling boil for a couple of minutes before turning the heat down. Before it cooled, he'd pour a few cups of cold water in to settle the grounds to the bottom. Now that was coffee.

Every other morning I'd get up at 0400 and go to the mess tent where I'd enjoy an early breakfast with the M/SGT. He was a cheerful fellow in his late fifties who reminded me a lot of my Dad. He'd sing sometimes as he prepared for the rest of the troops to attack the chow line.

After that I'd take a walk over to the War Wagon, a plain Jane gun truck made from a five ton dump truck with PSP landing strip mat welded to the sides. This extended the height of the bed even with the top of the headache board. For those who aren't familiar with dumps, the headache board is the part of the bed that goes over the cab.

After waking the crew I'd finish my preventative maintenance on the truck and install blasting caps in the Claymore mines mounted three to each side and two on the back of the bed. These were double fused with a set of wires going into the firebox, (bed), and a set to the inside of the cab for me. Fortunately we never had to use them.

First to merge from the bunker was "Crazy Joe", George Hazen looking very unkempt with a two-day stubble on his face. He was followed closely by Paul Plennert, mumbling something about planting his boot firmly in my posterior for getting him up so early and Alan Hollis engaged in his habit of scratching his head and butt at the same time followed by a stretching yawn. Plennert was the "Ma Deuce", (M-2 Browning .50 Cal. Machine gun), gunner. Hazen and Hollis manned the two M-60 machine guns mounted in the firebox.

"Who's on sweep today", I asked. "That'd be Gallagher and Durbin", replied Plennert, "They're s'posed to meet us at the mess tent in a few minutes".

Company A had responsibility for mine sweeping about five miles of road to the east of our compound. There we'd meet up with the sweep from the activated Indiana National Guard engineer unit a few miles back toward Nha Trang.

Sweeping is a slow process because the sweeps had to walk the whole way swinging their mine detectors back and forth. I'd sit and wait a few minutes at a time, never losing sight of them before moving closer then wait again. I guess you could compare it to the movements of an inch worm.

After picking the sweeps up I turned the War Wagon around and headed back to the company area where we'd be greeted by a big sign over the gate proclaiming that we were "Entering Camp Riel-Davis, Home of Ramblin' A Company 70th Engineer Battalion (Cbt) (A)". Under that were the words, "We're proud to be called Bastards".

As we traveled back, my mind was occupied with the trip on which we were about to embark. We'd meet up with the convoy from Ban Me Thout, thirty miles west of us then the War Wagon would run lead convoy escort to Nha Trang. We'd stay overnight in the 5th Special Forces compound compliments of Danny England who was a high school friend of mine.

Tomorrow we'd wait 'till the supply guys rounded up truckloads of rations, ammo, building materials, repair parts, soap, toilet paper, and everything else necessary for the daily life of a combat engineer. After the trucks were accounted for we'd return to Ban Me Thout where the next day it would start over again.

As we rolled into the compound to drop the sweeps off, my AN/PRC-77 radio crackled to life. "If the line's clear, we're goanna' throw the jacks in on 832". "What's this all about?" I thought. I'm familiar with this terminology but why here and why now?

I reached for the handset to ask for clarification but it wasn't there. Something fell and hit the floor. Looking down I began to return to reality. That wasn't the gearshift I'd been resting my hand on, it was my walking cane.

The radio crackled again, "OK, the jacks are holding." it said, "We're going over to Jones Chapel on 1145".

Following the sound, I saw a TVA power company bucket truck leaving for Jones Chapel. They'd had their outside speaker turned up on their two-way radio.

I sat there a few minutes, knocked the ashes out of my pipe, and re-lit it, relieved that I didn't have to make that trip to Nha Trang after all.

The damage from the storm? It was a temporary rip in the time/space continuum allowing a fragment of my past to spill into the present. It's happened before and judging from past experience it will happen again. At least this time no one was injured, no one died.


ęCopyright March 3, 2007 by Al Pike
Reprinted with his permission



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