I opened my eyes. Everything looked bleary on the inside of that personal carrier. The radios stared down at me. The interior light partially lit the area on the other side. Someone or something had tossed gear around as if who did it really didn’t care. I sat up and the warm air from the heater hit my face. I bent over to keep from hitting my head on the rack above me. I could feel the cold aluminum floorboards and I put my boots on.
He turned around on his commander’s seat. His Combat Vehicle Helmet was slightly twisted on his head. His mic covered his lips.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
Earlier I had what felt like a migrant headache. I had put the gunner in the tank commander’s hatch and I waded the 200 meters in the snow to the medic track to get some relief. After a quick diagnosis, he gave me a couple of pills and I was out for two hours.
When I awoke, I felt the movement of the vehicle.
“The tanks moved out an hour ago. You’ll have to go with us. ”
“OK,” I responded.
Sergeant Smith was my favorite medic. He had helped me with a muscle spasm at the base camp when we were working the Czechoslovakian border. He used a unique procedure on my back.
“Here, let me try this,” he had said.
He massaged the area with an icepack and the pain was gone.
Now I was in his track and we were about to move out.
I slipped both arms into my hooded parka and zipped it up. I stood up on the aluminum deck and held on to the side of the open hatch.
I was riding in a converted mortar track. The top hatches swung up and out, exposing everything inside to the cold and blowing snow.
I heard a ratchet sound as the spring-loaded commander’s seat thrust him up into the hatch.
“Move out,” he barked to the driver.
The bitter wind ruffled the fir on my parka and stung my face. I glanced around. Frosty snow laden trees cast long shadows on the surface of the snow. It must be getting late, I thought.
I braced myself in the open hatch, my body half out, my arms resting on the top. I could see the backs of the helmets of the driver and commander.
We started up Suicide Hill. The three-hundred meter incline was famous for a fifty-foot drop off to the left. Just yesterday, one our tanks had three feet of track on the left rear hanging off the edge.
The icy-packed ground barely provided a gripping surface for the tracks of the twenty-ton vehicle. It would grab here and there, and then slip, the diesel engine racing, tracks spinning, until it caught hold and moved again.
As we worked our way up that hill, I could sense us sliding to the left. We were playing with the edge. I could see ahead, the young private frantically working the steering levers, but the carrier was still sliding.
He jerked his head around and yelled something to the doc. He had a look of horror on his face.
For a moment, time stopped. That tight, clutching feeling in the pit of my stomach told me we were going to slip over the side, and I could do nothing. My breath froze in my chest. I was pinned to the edge of the hatch, immovable.
Somewhere in that horrible instant in time, the vehicle stopped. I held my breath. I slowly looked around and waited to see what came next. Very carefully, I peeked over the left side of the vehicle. We were inches from the edge. I could see the trees and bushes fifty feet below. I waited for a moment, still holding my breath. My heart raced wildly. Some survival force deep within me grabbed me and moved me to the right side of the open hatch. I gripped the edge with my gloved hands and swung one leg over the side followed by the other. I half slid, half jumped the six feet to the frozen ground, my parka scraping the side of the track. I leaned over, hands on knees.
Very carefully, I sidestepped to the other side of the icy road, my legs wobbling. I knelt down and placed both gloved hands on the ground. My arms were shaking.
I heard the vehicle engine rev up again. I glanced back to the left. Sergeant Smith had replaced the young driver and had nursed the vehicle back to the middle of the road. The track was slipping and lurching as it moved up the icy hill.
I found the shallow ditch on my side of the road and stayed in it. I walked slowly up the hill, carefully placing each step. When I reached the top, I found the vehicle idling and opened the back door. A blast of warm air hit me. I climbed in, and closed the rear hatch and swung open the top hatch.
“You alright?” the sergeant yelled over the sound of the engine. “I don’t know.” I responded.
He smiled and grabbed the steering levers and gunned the motor.
I glanced down at the private. His head was bobbing back and forth from long lost sleep. I zipped my parka all the way up, and placed the fir-trimmed hood over my head. I held the edge of the hatch and braced myself with my legs. I was numb – from the cold and from what had just happened.
The sun was setting. Light snowflakes melted as they hit my face.
I heard the roar of the diesel engines as I stared ahead, the two blackout lights of each vehicle bobbing up and down they hurried toward the assembly area.
I don’t remember much of that part of the ride until we reached my tank. It was kind of a daze. I do remember it was Hohenfels Germany and it was the bitter winter of 1983