A Ruined Life
To say the Ring of Fire ruined Charles “Chip” Jenkins’ life would be like saying it gets chilly in the Arctic in January. Tall, blonde and good-looking, an excellent student, popular with his teachers and most of the student body, he was the school’s golden boy. Calvert High had won its AAA Division championship with him as its quarterback during his junior year and they’d lost a heartbreaker for the championship this past season. He’d already accepted an athletic scholarship to Ohio University where at worst he’d be the third string quarterback. As captain of the football team with the head cheerleader, Julie Sims, as his girlfriend, Chip had been on the top of the high school world. Life couldn’t get much better.
Then with a flash, the whole world changed. Wham! Chip heard a roll of thunder but didn’t notice anything else because his eyes were almost closed, concentrating on Julie’s responses that afternoon in his basement bedroom. All Chip noticed a moment later was that the small lamp in the corner went out.
“What was that?” Julie asked, her eyes suddenly wide open.
“Nothing. The light blew out. Come on, forget it.”
“Something’s happening,” Julie said, rolling away, sitting up in his bed and refastening the front of her bra. “I want to find out. Listen… Everything’s too quiet.” She pulled down her stretch blouse and stood. “Let’s go.”
“Aw, come on, Julie!” Chip pleaded but she was already headed for the door. “Shit, shit, shit!” he grumbled, grabbing and pulling his t-shirt down his well-muscled chest and headed upstairs following her. The whole house was dark, so the electric must have gone off, Chip noticed. Well, in Grantville it wasn’t unknown, although it normally happened during bad weather.
Taking her hand as they left his house, Chip looked around. “Must have happened over there,” he said, pointing towards a thin tower of smoke rising in the far distance. It was too late in the season for someone to be heating with a big coal fire and too early to be burning brush, so something must be wrong, he surmised. He couldn’t have been more right.
A little over a month later, now in the American Army, Chip and most of the other guys from his drafted graduation class along with a bunch of older guys from town, Army veterans mostly, were on the far right side of the line, behind a fortified log barrier. Marching towards them in organized blocks were thousands of Catholic mercenaries on their way to take Badenburg, the town closest to Grantville.
He and the rest of the senior class guys had been drafted into the new army, led by Coach Priest, Coach Benton and Mr. Califano. The new troops had a few weekends and after-school hours basic training, mostly to get into defined units, learn to march, know who their superiors were and to practice coordinating their movements. A lot of the veterans just stood around and shook their heads, laughing, watching them stumble into each other until they finally got it right. PT was where the kids got to laugh at the veterans, most of whom hadn’t run or exercised since their discharge.
Chip hadn’t had a problem with his marksmanship. Grantville School District, like many other Appalachian school systems, didn’t have class the first week of deer season, ostensibly because it was Thanksgiving week. Chip completed the gun training class his father insisted on and had gone hunting that week ever since he turned twelve. For the past three years he’d brought back a deer and last year it had been an eight-point buck. So when Frank Jackson had doled out five rounds to each rifleman yesterday, “just to get you sighted in”, Chip hit the bulls-eye with every shot.
When the M-60 lit off, in a combination of buck fever, surprise and general distraction Chip completely missed his intended target. “Damn,” he muttered as he targeted his next round. Not that it mattered to his initial target. He’d received six pieces of copper-jacketed lead from other marksmen and was dead before he hit the ground.
Everyone was firing at will and Chip took his time aiming. This one was going to count. Squeeeeze… blam! And the man carrying a pike he’d been aiming at went down. Next target… Chip didn’t think of them as men, just targets. Targets a hell of a lot easier to hit that any deer he’d ever hunted. This was even easier than an arcade game, he half-thought to mention to Kenny Washaw, his best receiver this past year, just to his right. They didn’t even try to dodge, just kept coming. Squeeeeze… blam! Another target down…
Before he knew it, Frank was calling, “Cease fire!” Like any good hunter, Chip stayed in his position. Wounded deer were known to jump up and run a mile after being mortally wounded if a hunter approached too soon. Easier to let these guys bleed out on the ground especially since deer didn’t carry knives, swords or those big hog-sized pistols and rifles.
“Spread out and advance on the enemy!” someone yelled as Chip heard the “armored cavalry”, the recently armored big coal trucks, start their engines and head around the enemy formations, moving towards its rear. To his far left in the distance, Chip could see Hoffman’s mercenaries, their “allies”, whom Mike Stearns had gotten from Badenburg, already riding to the same area. It looked like they’d get there first.
In a half crouch, dressed in gray woods hunting camouflage, Chip advanced towards the front of the enemy line, only eighty yards away. As the wind shifted into his face… Shit! He’d hunted for six years already, killing, field dressing and butchering his game but he’d never seen or smelled anything like this. Okay, maybe turkey guts. But this smelled worse than Grandpa’s old outhouse in the middle of summer. More like a huge pile of fresh turds and there was another heavy musk mixing with it in the air, that of blood and unwashed bodies.
When he got to the line… Chip had gone out this morning knowing he could be shot, even killed. Quarterbacking a West Virginia high school football team, he’d been hit or sacked more times than he could count by linesmen and backs who really tried to hurt him. Following the first game of each season, his torso had black and blue blotches until well after the last game. He’d been prepared to get hurt if that’s what happened, but… As he looked down to watch his step, only a foot away from his boot, was a mercenary soldier’s body, his head shattered, great holes torn through his body, bloody perforated intestines spilling from his belly. Chip couldn’t stop himself, he began vomiting, falling to his knees, puking up his lunch. Between retches, out of the corner of his eye, Chip could see the shattered bones of the mercenary’s skull, the tongue still inside his mouth, his teeth blown away from his jaw, mixed with his brains. And blood, vivid, bright red blood splattered everywhere.
“On your feet, Jenkins!” he heard Coach, no, Captain Benton call. “New mission. We’re taking prisoners and finding survivors now. No shooting unless they try to kill you first.” Chip, dazed, reached down, pulled the plastic bottle of water from his leg pocket and rinsed his mouth, spitting out the vomit-flavored water. Wiping his face on his sleeve, he stood, picked up his rifle and began checking for survivors and taking prisoners.
Jena was where it all ended between Julie and him. Sure she was good enough to try out for the Olympic biathalon but it didn’t mean she should be in the Army, for God’s sake! But then trying to dissuade Julie once she’d made up her mind was an “exercise in futility”, a phrase Mrs. McDougal once wrote on one of his English essays. For once, her Uncle Frank agreed with him but even Uncle Frank finally gave up.
At least she was up on the very top of the ridge, above his position. She couldn’t be directly attacked, unlike Tom Simpson’s German former mercenaries visible on the other side of the Saale River protecting the bridge into Jena well to his left. Or his own battalion, sheltered behind the ridge on the right side where “General” Jackson had placed them for a flank attack.
The enemy, a ragtag mob of maybe a thousand of Tilly’s former mercenaries and their camp followers, had split from Tilly’s main army following its loss at Breitenfeld to Gustaf Adolf’s army. Virtually leaderless, it was moving down the road towards the superficially defensible university city of Jena. Jena actually did have a wall, but it would be easy pickings for any significant number of experienced soldiers. The enemy was still too far to shoot without a scope when he heard above him a Crack! Julie. He’d heard that sound often enough, going out and timing her for biathalon training when Uncle Frank wasn’t available. Crack! Crack! Then there were a few moments of silence.
“Jeez, will ya look over there?” Steve Early, one of the his team’s defensive players, exclaimed, pointing forward as they lay, just the top of their heads peeking over the edge of the ridge. All Chip could see were a couple horses with empty saddles mixed in with the other riders.
“What?” he asked when he heard another Crack! Chip saw a rider topple from his horse. Crack! Another rider. Crack!
That sound and killing only stopped after the Scottish cavalry rode out from their side of the ridge and began taking the surrender of the surrounded and confused bunched soldiers and their camp followers. A few minutes later, the shout began with Tom Simpson’s Germans. “JOO-LIE! JOO-LIE! JOO-LIE!” and then his own guys took up the call as they walked up to their edge of the ridge to look across the entire “battlefield”. “Julie! Julie! Julie!…”
Chip didn’t have anything against Julie helping out but damn it, battles were supposed to be decided by the guys on the front lines, not a damn sniper! It was like the Indiana Jones film where he just hauls out his pistol and blows away the guy with the huge sword rather than fighting him. Chip turned away from the line sourly, kicking a small stone after briefly watching Lennox’s Scots round up Tilly’s former mercenaries and their camp followers. It was the proverbial kissing your own sister. Nice enough but… damn!
The parade into Jena was okay and all the guys in his troop had trouble suppressing grins and laughs as Mike Stearns dazzled and bullshitted the city notables. Gretchen Higgins, now there was a woman to reckon with, had been “accosted” by one of the local goons who had permanently paid the price. Chip had considered himself lucky to be hooked up with a nice American girl like Julie when he heard the grisly rumor of how Gretchen had stirred an ex-lover’s brains with a skinning knife and this only enforced the thought.
He’d never been in love with Julie and vice versa. Neither had any illusions about a long-term future together before the Ring of Fire. They enjoyed each other’s company but both had very different plans for after high school. Chip was going on to college and even as a junior Julie had started working towards the Olympics. To have a good-looking, great friend who wasn’t looking to get serious, to go with to all the dances and major parties was an advantage to both of them. It wasn’t an exclusive relationship but it was close.
Half an hour later, he helped destroy the goon’s favorite bar with American weapons. Now that was fun! Afterwards, it was amazing how friendly not only the local men were but also how the women seemed to be. General Jackson put out firm orders when they turned in their weapons. Have some good German beer, have some fun but get out of line, force your attentions on a woman or bust up a bar and I’ll use your balls for batting practice. Clear enough.
“Hey, uh, Julie, great shooting,” Chip grinned when he saw her in the company of Alexander MacKay, the Scottish cavalry captain and her Uncle Frank. Julie dropped her eyes and said to her companions, “I’ll meet up with you guys later.”
“You’re moving in some high company,” Chip smiled anxiously. “How about joining me and the guys over at the bar? Man, you were great! Come on, Steve, Kenny, Eric, all the guys want to congratulate you!”
“Uh, Chip, uh, I think…” Julie began hesitantly.
“Aw, come on! We’ll have some fun,” Chip said, taking her hand. “Hey, if you don’t wanta be in a crowd, I’m certain we can find someplace quiet. Maybe go for a walk along the river.”
“Uh, yeah,” Julie agreed, her left hand in his right. “Let’s not go across the bridge towards the battlefield, though.”
“Sure,” Chip agreed. She’d seemed to be drifting away from him, ever since that Scot had come to town but he was a mercenary, so he’d be moving on soon enough. Alexander MacKay was all right, Chip guessed but he had been going out with Julie ever since the beginning of their junior year and didn’t want to lose a good thing.
It was his fault they’d kind of separated. He hadn’t paid much attention to her and had only taken her out on a few dates since he’d graduated and joined the Army. She had only gotten into the Army in the past month and was usually too busy with other duties to even see much of him.
When late August rolled around and it finally sunk in he wouldn’t be leaving Grantville and going on to college, Chip had really gotten depressed. He’d had plans for his future and for damn sure they didn’t include staying in Grantville. Yeah, he knew once he got to OU, he wouldn’t be the king of the hill but he’d be out there, on his own. He’d been looking forward to spring break at Daytona and then going to see a show on Broadway, surfing in Hawaii or whatever he wanted to do after college. Even if football didn’t work out as a career, he was going to get a degree in Business Admin, with an Accounting or Finance major, a degree he could use to get a job anywhere in the world. Now, he’d been cheated out of his life.
Sure, Mike Stearns, Frank Jackson, Mr. Piazza and lots of other folks didn’t mind the change. They’d gone from being the local big frogs in a small pond to being the top cheeses of a whole new country, a country with a guaranteed technological edge over any other in the world. The only person who hadn’t benefited that Chip could think of was John Simpson. He’d gone from being a CEO of a major corporation to a non-entity but at least he’d had a rich life before the Ring of Fire and now he was active in politics against the Stearns administration. Even Dad had started getting rich because of his earlier investments in land.
Coach Benton initially made Chip the recruit PT instructor because he’d been the top jock and most of the draftees liked him. He sublimated his angry frustration by throwing himself into physical conditioning. If the requirement was fifty sit-ups in two minutes, he did a hundred. Forty pushups, he did eighty. Twenty chin-ups, he did forty. At a minimum. He’d never been on the track and field team but now he was always in the lead in his company’s morning run. As far as unarmed combat went, only the training sergeant could handle his furious disciplined attacks.
Of course, General Jackson never had been too fond of him, to put it mildly. A fair amount of it had been because of Chip’s inflated golden-boy ego and because he’d always seen himself as college material, definitely not blue-collar. Frank, on the other hand, had never had gotten any closer to higher education than watching the WVU football games when his boys were in school there. Now Chip was stuck in Grantville under Frank Jackson for the foreseeable future.
Dates with Julie hadn’t gone too well recently either. He just couldn’t shake his deep-seated depression, even with her. There wasn’t even a football team this year and ten, even five years from now, who would care about a sport that no longer existed? There’d only be soccer, maybe baseball and basketball, according to Coach Benton. Football equipment cost too much and who were they going to play, anyway? He’d been, okay, an asshole about it all and… ah, forget it. He’d make it up to her, starting now. After all, his folks had always said that he could do a lot worse than marrying Julie.
Smiles greeted both of them looking distinctly different from the locals in their hunting outfits. They walked south along the Saale River on a walking path just above the wide but shallow river, much closer than the road where most people traveled. The sun was low in the sky, still a little bit above the mountains. A romantic view, Chip thought and took Julie into his arms, just like always.
Only this time, she was passive as he kissed her. That had never happened! “Wha…what’s the matter?” Chip asked, breaking off the embrace but holding her hands.
Julie looked down at the scrub grass along the path. “Uh, I, uh, well, it’s like… I want to break up. That’s it,” she said flatly but ending in a firm voice, pulling her hands away.
“Bu… why?” Chip asked, his mouth hanging open in surprise.
Julie’s blue eyes narrowed and her mouth set in determination. “Because I do, that’s all. We can, you know, still be friends.”
“Ah, shit, Julie!” Chip responded furiously, his face reddening and his hands clenching into fists. “That’s a fucking lousy… Goddammit!”
“What the hell do you expect me to say?” Chip shouted back. “Some wimpy, ‘Oh, I hope you’ll be happy with someone else’? Well, excuuuse me! I still have balls hanging between my legs! Fuck you!” and he stormed away, leaving her next to the river with a perfect romantic view of the setting sun as it streaked the western sky and clouds in shades of red, orange and purple.
Lousy fucking bitch! Chip hadn’t been so angry since taking a late hit in the championship game that the ref refused to call. No way did he want to see any of his buddies or even any of Tom Simpson’s Germans right now. Fifteen minutes later, his rage was not only gone, he knew it had been stupid. Her announcement had taken him totally by surprise when his mind was going in the opposite direction. Now, having walked through the entire city and back out the old city gates, he found himself in a better mood and in the disreputable part of town, the island. He smirked, thinking this was the same island where Gretchen had shot that bum. With that humorous thought in mind, he entered the nearest tavern. Only three Americans were inside, older guys from another company, none of whom he knew personally.
“Bier, bitte!” he called. The barmaid who looked about fifty, was probably in her thirties, put the brimming cheap pottery tankard on the thick plank table in front of him. “Umsonst fuer Amerikaners,” she said smiling, missing two of her front teeth, the rest dark with rot, and as she bent towards him, the front of her dress showed a lot of aged cleavage. Chip had heard of being drunk enough but he hoped he’d never get that drunk. Since she didn’t linger waiting for money, Chip figured the first word meant that at least his drink was on the house.
“Trudy! Ein klein Stein fur mich, bitte,” he heard another female voice coming up behind him and saw an attractive girl sit seat herself on the bench across the table from him. Perhaps his age, maybe a little older. Small and slim, she had smooth olive skin, a hooked nose, dark eyes and a firm assurance in her manner. Somehow, she reminded him of a smaller, dark-haired version of Gretchen but not as fierce. A… hooker? She certainly wasn’t hiding her wares if she was.
The barmaid sullenly put the smaller beer stein down in front of her and muttered something angrily. Yeah, competition of the younger variety. Chip hid his grin behind a large swallow of the strong beer. Man, that had flavor even if it didn’t have the tiny bubbles or a head! A whole lot stronger and darker than the beer Grandpa used to keep on hand. Chip wasn’t certain he liked the taste but, yeah he did.
“Ich heisse Mathilde,” the brunette offered, pressing the exposed soft flesh of her chest with the flat of her hand. “Und Sie?” she asked, motioning towards him.
“Chip Jenkins. Ich bin Amerikaner. Soldat. Uh, sein Bier, uh, der price?” he asked pulling from his pocket the two freshly minted silver coins all the troops had been given.
“Preis? Ein Pfennig,” she smiled, taking a big silver coin and pushing it to the side where the barmaid could pick it up. He didn’t realize it but he’d get plenty of change, more than enough for her services, even for multiple rounds. “Sie sind reich.” Rich.
Chip shook his head, smiling. Even after months, he still hadn’t gained much fluency in German and half an hour poring over a shared single sheet of German-English phrases this afternoon before marching into town hadn’t helped him that much. On the other hand, a large swig or two of good German beer in a matter of minutes probably hadn’t hurt.
By the time he finished his second beer an hour later, he’d absorbed had more alcohol in a shorter period than he’d ever had except when Steve Early, Kenny Washaw and he had gotten puking drunk on a quart jar of some moonshine Steve’s dad had brought back from somewhere. Mathilde was looking even prettier and he would swear he understood her every word. She wanted to take him to a back room and Chip wobbled as he stood up. “Wieviel fur Sie und mich?” asking how much, his hand waving wildly.
She was nothing like Gretchen’s size, Chip thought drunkenly as one arm around her, he stumbled towards the room at the rear of the tavern. Even shorter, more delicate than Julie. Forget Julie, he thought, lil’ ol’ Mathilde’ll do jus’ fine.
He wanted to help her take off her clothes but she shook her head and winked at him after she placed the small, lit candle she’d brought to light their room on a shelf. “Seine Bekleidung,” and tapped his outfit.
“Oh. Ja,” Chip said, sitting heavily on the dirty and worn straw mattress. It’d be a bitch for her to take all this off, he chuckled. Buttons, zippers and bootlaces, all had to be loosened or opened. He almost fell off the bed, leaning forward, trying to pull off his hiking boots.
Mathilde chuckled, now naked. “Hier!” she offered, taking his boot in both hands, pulling it towards her as he pulled his foot back. No good. He loosened his bootlaces a bit more and let her pull again. Success! Next boot.
Shirt, pants, socks, underwear. Mathilde never stopped smiling as more and more of the well-fitting clothing came off Chip until he was finally as bare as she was. “Nun!” announcing it was time, she pushed him back on the bed, her small dark-tipped breasts swinging before his face. Ten seconds later he was asleep and snoring.
Mathilde shook her head wryly. American soldiers! With customers like this, how was she ever going to make any money? There were still the three older American soldiers downstairs, each good for at least a minimum of one groschen, twelve pfennigs, her usual fee. She might even get as much as four groschen tonight if they didn’t know the value of their coins. But first… Should she take um, one groschen, and leave, just leave, take all his remaining money and leave, or just lie down next to him. She was certain in the morning, like a good many men, he’d be in the mood. Yes, he’d be more generous then, especially if she woke him up in just the right way. The woman she had met today, Gretchen, had married an American soldier, happily it seemed. What a camp follower could do, so could a refugee from a small town in the Palatinate who’d become a prostitute.
As she came to her conclusion, still straddling his naked, sleeping body, she noticed he smelled like a perfume. He was clean. A lot cleaner than she was, in fact. Even the public baths weren’t free, she reflected sourly. A nice boy. She didn’t see many of those, even among the university students.
Mathilde sighed. Still, business was business. First, she’d slip back into her clothes and see if the three Americans in the bar might be interested in a snack fresher than what Trudy was serving. Perhaps Gretchen was right and her whole world would change for the better but in the meantime her family had to eat. Only getting one groschen from this one customer wouldn’t be enough, not with two babies and their mothers in their small shack to help support, not to mention her two younger brothers and crippled uncle. She couldn’t make her cousin Inga earn all the money. This American would be sleeping for hours. He’d never know if she entertained a few customers in the other back room before she woke up with him in the morning.