Becoming Soldiers

Brian Scullion

My friends and I broke off from the main pack of merit badge mongers and strayed into the woods. We pretended we were on forced marches through enemy territory or Indians tracking bears. We paused along the way, sharpened sticks, found pieces of slate, and tied feathers around our necks.

We followed a creek, passed fallen trees with roots that had ripped the ground from the Earth and created muddy walls. We passed through fields of skunk cabbage that Gregg kept stomping on, causing Blain and I to cringe from the smell. We crossed the swamp, along the way knocking over ancient trees like we were giants. On the other side of the swamp was a grassy hill where large rocks jutted like stone teeth.

We charged the rock bastion, pumping our arms like savages. We came to the first rock outcrop, sweaty, breathing hard, and leaned against cold, mossy cover. Our enemies played cards, the bears napped. Gregg broke left and hid behind some bushes. Blain and I broke right and jumped behind an uprooted tree. I could see Gregg, mud on his face, war paint, eyes twitching. Blain’s nasal inhales were a tornado’s wail. All eyes locked. We screamed, loud and young, and charged up the steepest part of the hill.

A cement bunker waited at the top, and we became soldiers complete with helmets and thrust bayonets through narrow slats. Blain tossed an M80 through a hole, crack, flash and the thin smell of cordite escaped from the slats. We jumped and whooped in victory. We had taken the bunker and killed the enemy.

Gregg screamed from halfway down our hill, blood smeared down his leg like paint spread on a fence post. We stopped jumping and made our descent. We stood over him, watched him cry like a lamb with a broken leg. Our eyes darted to the woods, looking for help, but returned to our wounded friend. Blain grabbed his shoulders, I took his legs, and together we hauled him up our hill.

The bunker still smelled like cordite, but wet. We laid Gregg down on the cement floor. Blain tore up a T-shirt that he’d brought along and rinsed Gregg’s leg with canteen water. I had candles and busied myself lighting the room.

In the flickering light, the bunker looked old, gritty bits of plaster hung to the walls from spidery vines. Empty beer cans and cigarette packs cluttered the corners, and our shadows wavered on the walls, black spirits danced over Gregg’s body. He stopped screaming and lay still. We squatted with our backs against the dirty walls. Rain started to fall making the woods outside sound like static and water dripped from the ceiling and formed pools at our feet. The bunker had the sick sweet smell of dead leaves.

I stared at the others in the orange light with sand in my eyes and a rifle in my hands. I watched our faces getting older.


Brian is enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and currently serving in the U.S. Army Reserve. He has been mobilized and deployed to both Kosovo and Iraq. His work has appeared online at Word Riot and was listed as a Notable Story of 2005 in storySouth‘s Million Writer’s Award. E-mail: brian.scullion[at]