had a few moments to reflect. He wondered if he had been saved
for greater things or for worse. The only thing that had saved
him this time was the fact he had been sent to the point and his
unit had stayed in the Hum-Vs waiting for his signal. Mark had
headed for the shot up store next door and had met a hornet's
the hell was he doing here? Just how many Canadians were dumb
enough to be in Samarra? Steve's mind was whipping him good about
his life choices.
ago, both Hummers had been launched twenty feet in the air by
explosions that had knocked him against the wall and no one had
moved when they came down. The doors had been blown off and he
couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like Paul, Don and Gene
that spilled out the driver's side doors. If he had still been
in the first machine, he would be laying beside Paul.
figured he was the only one left and they had to know he was in
this mud-brick shell that was once a house. He thought this might
very well be where he finished off his thirty-fourth year of this
life. Adrenaline had him locked in fight or flight mode, and as
of yet, the scene on the street hadn't become reality to his shaking
like hell's closin' in, don't it, Sarg?"
spun with his M-249 SAW and came a blonde pubic hair from wiping
out a young PFC in retro, mud colored fatigues.
Sarg, I'm on your side."
did you come from? How did you get in here?"
here a while, Boss. My unit was cleaned out and I'm trying to
get back across the line in one piece."
are you, Private?"
First Class Les Mueller, 385922, sweep unit, Battalion 18, Canadian
Armed Forces, Sarg."
are no Canadian forces in Iraq. How did you get here?"
story, Sarg, but I know how to get out of here. Folla me."
Mueller turned and scrambled at knee level into a windowless room
at the center of the house. Steve followed amidst a cloud of crazy
questions washing through his mind. The private pulled a pantry
cupboard away from a wounded brick wall to reveal a two-foot by
four-foot stain rectangle from the old cupboard. He hooked the
corner of this stain and a plywood door lifted from the floor.
A quick flip dropped the door into the black hole and he slipped
took a last desperate look around and followed, unceremoniously
landing on his face after a four-foot drop in the dark. Cellar.
reached through the hole, drew the cupboard back against the wall
with a couple of drawer handles screwed to the frame and tucked
the plywood back in the hole, effectively removing all light.
pulled his flashlight from his belt and lit up the stale space
enough to see they were in an eight by eight hole with no apparent
what? We call room service?"
chuckled and pointed to the far left corner. "Check this
he led the way to the corner and quickly found a one-inch black
hole in the floor. His finger slipped through it, hooked and he
pulled up. A trap door lifted and the sand didn't slide off.
the dirt is glued on to keep the door hidden. Nice."
dropped through and with more care this time Steve followed, finding
steps to ease his descent. His light lit up a tunnel they could
stand up in with only one direction to take.
does this lead, Private?"
on where ya wanna go, Sarg. I've seen some sights down here."
it come up in another building, or does it go farther? Can it
take us out of Samarra?"
if this bombed out place above us is Samarra, you bet. What direction
do ya want?"
sir, we have to go north a bit, but we can hit the highway back
traveled for about a half hour when they came to a door framed
into the narrow walls. An easy push opened their path into a huge
cavern. Steve's light couldn't even make out the far wall. Around
them were hoards of rusty rockets, boxes piled high stamped in
Arabic labels and far more ordnance than he had ever seen in one
saw a collection of large boxes with the nuclear flag. Row on
row of black forty-five gallon drums with scull and crossbones
faded off to the right.
started to the left and he followed, scanning labels along the
shit! These are American."
six and seven deep were box after box of American plastics and
dynamite. The stacks were four and five high and he counted sixteen
rows as he followed the Canadian private. It didn't take long
and Les pushed open another door.
looked at his watch and noted it was just after one in the afternoon.
one goes south, Sarg."
else do these tunnels go?"
you want, Sarg."
do you mean?"
I first found this set of tunnels in Italy."
This Canuck is on crack. Steve
left it there, but he took mental note. The Major would need to
moved silently for several hundred yards before he spoke again.
far does this tunnel go, Private?"
comes up in Baghdad, Sarg."
all the way?"
a hundred and twenty-five kilometers, about eighty miles. Is there
anything else on the way or is this the express?"
chuckled. "Direct route, sir."
don't know if my light is going to take us all the way. Do you
but don't worry, Boss, we won't get lost. There ain't but two
ways to go, and we'll bounce off a wall before we turn around
and go back. Floor's pretty smooth, too."
let's pick it up, soldier. I want to get as far as I can before
the light is gone."
* * *
They had long since run out of flashlight.
Steve pressed the light button on his watch and noted it was now
just after midnight. They had been in this tunnel for almost twelve
hours including a couple of bio breaks along the way. Steve noted
that the air was surprisingly good for a long tunnel, he consciously
felt a fresh draft every half hour or so. The tunnel was not a
whim. Someone had put a lot of thought and energy into this. Why
was it, no one knew about it? Where were all the people who had
remembered all the people that had been killed by the Saddam Hussein
government. Dead men tell no tales.
let's break for a while. I have an MRE in my leg pocket. We can
share it and take a breather to charge up."
problem, Boss. I'm not hungry, but dig in. We can take off again
as soon as you're ready."
sat propped against the tunnel wall in the dark. The private spoke
you got a lilt to your voice that tells me you're a Canuck, too.
What brings you to this man's war?"
now, Mueller, I'm wondering that myself. My father moved back
to the States after I was grown. He suggested there was a lot
of work down there. Since he was American, I applied for immigration
and I thought it would go faster if I signed up for the Army.
I was right. They fast tracked my papers and I was in Iraq before
I got a residence in Washington."
some railroad, Boss. Weird how your life turns out sometimes.
Ya never know what kind of turn it'll take."
even weirder, Les, is we have the same last name."
answer came back slow and quiet. "Ya, I know, Boss."
snapped around to the sound of his voice. "You know? How
did you know my last name?"
on yer pocket, sir."
his blush, Steve laughed for the first time since he could remember.
This mission seemed to be his lifetime.
I got a few minutes now. Tell me how you got to this hell hole."
you aint gonna believe me, but I got here from Italy, just like
You can't tell me this tunnel goes all the way to Italy."
ya, you wouldn't believe it."
why did you come here?"
save yer sorry ass
you're my grandson
Well, at least step-grandson. That's
how you got my name."
now you've really gone off the deep end. You can't be more than
twenty fucking years old."
age well. So do my clothes. Don't you recognize a World War Two
uniform? Don't worry about it now, Sarg, let's just get your ass
back to base before they charge you with AWAL."
nodded to himself in the dark. There was little to gain in dragging
out this nut's story now. He weighed the facts. The only thing
real was the fact he was in a long friggin tunnel and was out
of a battle that took his entire unit but he still had his hide.
He had no way of telling if this was a trap, a wild goose chase
or a benign adventure, but one thing was sure, he needed to get
the CO down here to see this ordnance dump.
was up and moving, so he did too. By now, adjusting his progress
to the sound of the old mud boots ahead was second nature.
walked again, until his legs were burning and his mind was wandering
too much to keep a clear thought.
do you have any idea how far we have to go yet?"
Sarg, we got about three more hours until we duck under the river,
then an hour or so to the exit under your base."
do you know where we are and when we will be going under the river?"
Boss. I count the air ducts. Six more and we come to the stairs."
does this come up in my base?"
the loading dock behind the cook shack, Boss. We might have to
move a dumpster."
continued without words for some time and Steve started counting
airshafts. Sure enough, he could feel the breeze from each as
they passed so he knew they were getting close when Les stopped
Sarg, this short stretch is a bit uncomfortable, but don't worry
too much about it. It doesn't fill up except in the monsoons."
felt for the top step and started down a set of stone steps. Twenty-three
steps down they met water. Stagnant water.
deep does this get, soldier?"
worry, Boss; it won't be over yer armpits."
was right. They walked under the Tigris in chest-deep water.
we are under the river, and it seeps into this tunnel, why doesn't
it fill up?"
a thirsty desert, Boss. The land uses it. Up above the river is
kinda straight forward, but most of this area used to be marshland.
That's why this tunnel gets wet and that's why it drains. Don't
worry, Boss; this water aint directly from the river, there is
concrete above us. The water is seepage from the surrounding marshland
felt a massive relief when they started up the steps on the other
side. Life was a lot more promising when you were not under a
last hour went quickly and the private pushed another trap door
upward six inches, turned it forty-five degrees and pulled it
down through the hole. The door was aluminum this time, but still
had a cover of glued sand and dirt. Bright light streamed in,
but once his eyes adjusted, he could see a khaki dumpster parked
over the hole. A little work with a stored pike pole leaning against
the tunnel wall, and the portal was clear. Carefully Steve peered
out over the lip, and even though he had never been behind the
KP shack, he recognized the machinery. He was indeed back at his
soldier, let's go tell your story to the major. It's going to
take some explaining, but you can fill in the gaps. I'm sure you
can even expect a decoration when the dust clears. That cache
is what this whole thing started over"
a minute, Boss. I need to close a door. Be right back."
PFC Mueller disappeared down the hole before he could stop him.
He gave him ten minutes before calling down and hearing only his
own echo. He knew the boy was gone. He couldn't explain it, but
knew. He stepped down the ladder to pick up the lid, tossed it
out, and climbed after it.
set the lid neatly back in place, noted a small half moon cutaway
no bigger than a toenail clipping, and scuffed sand around it
again. The doorway disappeared and he pushed the dumpster back
* * *
General watched the expressions on the sergeant's face, but saw
no evidence of nerves. The man was all business and no matter
what kind of pressure the colonel laid on him, his story never
wavered and he looked his inquisitor directly in the eye.
Colonel was beet-faced with frustration at the story of the wayward
World War Two Canadian. If he didn't take over soon, the sergeant
would be behind bars before his story could be checked out.
than answer, he turned his attention to the soldier. He stood
as he addressed him. "Sergeant, show us your rabbit hole."
group adjourned to the back of the kitchen. A couple of MPs helped
Steve push the dumpster aside and watched as he examined the ground.
I borrow your staff, sir?" Steve nodded at the General's
amused and a little off guard, to the disapproving look of the
colonel, he passed his staff to the sergeant.
you, sir." Steve tapped the ground until the hollow echo
came back. A few more taps and the edges were outlined. He stooped
to the half-moon hole and lifted the lid. He looked around at
the widened eyes and stepped back so they could inspect the portal
behind the KP shack.
* * *
days had passed, and this time Steve was the guide. A full unit
was primed at the entrance with waterproof packs, extra flashlights,
and a week's gear. Captain Raphael was assigned command and they
were off to find the ordnance dump. Although the unit was strung
out some, the trip in was uneventful. Two days were needed to
inventory the stockpile and wire communications were set up by
a guard unit that followed them down the hole a day later.
permanent subterranean post was built around the dump while the
weapons were studied and categorized. Once Steve was relieved
of his guard detail, he asked his new captain if he might scout
and map the tunnels feeding off the cavern. The captain agreed
and he was assigned a team with a logistics specialist.
with the tunnel coming in from Samarra, Steve's team worked around
the wall. Weeks of reports were stacked up on the Major's desk
now that his company had been reassigned to subterranean duties.
Sarg, you gotta see this." The call came in from one of the
men on the point.
hurried to the source of the exclamation to find two privates
shining light on a note tacked to a door.
"Well, Boss, looks like you
came back looking for me. This way to Italy."
Steve chuckled and pulled a pen. He
wrote under the signature, "Explore this tunnel with a
lot of resources and a long term mission. Be prepared for a pasta
dinner on completion."
* * *
tour was over a few months later and he was shipped back stateside.
He recounted this tale to me over dinner.
you were very young when your grandfather died. I'm pretty sure
you don't remember what he looks like. Would you like to go on
a road trip?"
booked a week off work when we found he could take a week's vacation
and we went up to British Columbia. It took us over six hours
to drive to Kamloops, but we drove straight to the Legion Hall.
identified ourselves to the doorkeeper and were welcomed in. We
ordered beers and began a tour of the company pictures on the
walls. Halfway through our drinks, we came to the 18th Halifax
battalion. We stepped up to the picture and scrutinized the faces.
you recognize your grandfather, Steve?"
shit! There he is."
from the right on the top row was a cocky twenty-year-old kid
winking back at the camera.
sat down near the picture and ordered another.
died in '89, son. He was a very private man about World War Two,
but let me tell you a story he told me once when we were having
a beer right here. He was about three quarters lit and we had
just come to an understanding of sorts after being at odds most
of our lives."
looked into my beer for a long moment and started.
was a veteran of France and Holland battles when he was sent to
Italy during clean up operations during Germany's surrender. He
lied to get in early, so he had just turned twenty when he got
there. Dad, his sergeant, and their captain were tight. They had
been together since boot camp. He called the captain 'Cap'n' and
the sergeant 'Boss'. The captain was hardly older than he, and
the sergeant was a bear of a man who had about five years on them.
They drank together and the sergeant saved their ass in more than
a few bar fights. They had just finished the Battle of Arnhem
and essentially the war was over."
took a pull from my bottle.
Captain was assigned more crew and they headed out to clear hotspots
in the northern Italian countryside. The unit was ambushed and
Dad saw the captain literally cut in half by machine gun fire.
The sergeant was killed instantly with a shot to the head and
the rest of the unit was wiped out.
saved himself by diving into what he thought was a foxhole. It
turned out he found a series of tunnels that took him right back
to his base.
looked at the memory of that day through the prism of a whisky
bottle. Son, you pack the same baggage. Stay out of the whiskey."