A few months ago on the History Channel I saw that during World War II motor scooters were dropped from airplanes. That's all the information the program gave, but one can assume the motor scooters weren't dropped as bombs, but rather parachuted, and one can further assume they were recovered once they had landed, and were then driven to some final destination.
As a recovering history major, this story made me want to know where and when and how they were used, but putting those concerns aside, I began to focus on the logistics. First, the scooters—and one must also assume the future operators of the scooters—must have been loaded onto a plane and then flown to, say, England, and from there to somewhere in France or Belgium, where they were dropped, with their operators, from the belly of a C-47 or similar aircraft.
Here I want to imagine motor scooters falling gently from the sky, and some farmer in a field of bright tulips looking up to see them. I imagine the operators recovering the scooters in mid-fall, starting the engine a thousand feet above the ground before landing softly, the tires making purchase, the parachute being cut away, and then they are off to—where? The Battle of the Bulge? The Black Forest? Driving through destroyed Dresden or perhaps ripping through the ruins of other burning cities? I don't know.
I just see the drivers, hunched over the handlebars. I think they must have worn scarves, and leather bomber jackets against the cold (I always imagine World War II, the European Theater anyway, as being cold). They wore goggles, and leather helmets, and a plume of blue exhaust smoke went out behind them as they raced for the front or carried special documents in their sidecars (they have sidecars in my imagination). In the distance artillery erupted from the earth, airplanes droned overhead, and in bunkers and basements men and women craned their eyes skyward, as if to see what moved above them.
I don't know what happened when they got where they were going, but thinking of the scooters reminds me of my grandfather, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and spent the first few months after the war ended driving majors and colonels and brigadier generals around the ruins of European cities. He wasn't on a scooter, but in a Jeep, no roof, only a windshield, and it must have been cold so I imagine the scarves and goggles and heavy coats again. There was a determined order for who sat where—highest ranking officer in the passenger seat, lower ranks in the back, my grandfather driving, 26 six years old, a newly-minted lieutenant who would later command a MASH unit in Korea, a hospital that could be packed up and moved in a matter of minutes, but that hadn't happened yet, and there was only the aftermath of war, jeeps and tanks and motor scooters everywhere, airplanes overhead, the constant rumbling of engines reverberating off what walls still stood. The entire world seemed shell-shocked, he told me. In the countryside the roads were filled with refugees, men and women with no homes left, wandering from place to place, trying to find some quiet spot to lie down, moving to the side of the road to let the constant convoys pass. No one knew where they were going. The cities had crumbled around them and people wandered the streets in a daze. When I asked my grandfather where he went and what they did when they got there, he told me of meetings in Bastogne and Berlin, but what he remembered most was the movement, their shadows running along beside them through the ruins.
I spent a considerable amount of time during the first Gulf War thinking of movement. This occurred for several reasons, the first being that I was fascinated with the war, and the build-up to it: the movement of Navy battle groups through the Suez Canal, the mobilization of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the Marine Expeditionary Force. I was in Basic Training when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and each morning, as we came down to the drill pad, the news of the mounting forces were listed on a chalk board. When I graduated Basic a few weeks later, much of the United States Army had been sent to the Gulf, as well as forces from over a hundred other countries.
The second reason was that my step-father's National Guard unit was activated in September, and by mid-October he was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a five hour drive from our house, preparing to be shipped overseas. Every weekend throughout that fall, before my step-father shipped out, I came home from college and my mother and I made the drive, and it seems now it rained each time, all through the drive, grey skies looming before us, the windshield wipers beating out the same song. (Fort Sill was, incidentally, where I had just completed Basic Training, and it felt strange to drive through the base seeing soldiers moving in troop formation, to hear the call and response of drill sergeants, only the sounds seemed to take on new urgency, with a war looming on the horizon).
He left in early December. All through Christmas the movement of troops went on, and then, in January, the air war began. For over a month bombs fell from the skies, ripping apart the infrastructure of Iraq, tearing up roads and bridges and knocking out radio towers, limiting movement, silencing communications. At home, we watched the explosions on CNN. We saw footage of Apache helicopters rising from the sand, orange tracer fire streaking across the desert, Tomahawk missiles lifting from the decks of battle ships. Some nights I fell asleep in my dorm room and woke in the blue glow of the silenced TV where bombs were still falling. For a moment, still groggy from dreams of war, it was hard to know where I was, what I was doing, what had happened that I ended up here.
The ground war lasted a hundred hours. My step-father was attached to the 7th Calvary, and his memory of the war is mostly racing across the empty desert, where oil-fires bloomed from the lit wells. To either side the tanks and artillery spread out, plumes of dust rising behind them, treads tearing up the earth. The sand stirred by their passage rattled like bullets against the windshields of the Humvees and the sides of the armored personnel carriers. In places they had to fall single-file into line and follow roads laid out by army engineers through fields of landmines. Some nights the world began to detonate around them as fire fell from the sky and they took up positions and launched fire of their own in the form of missiles and artillery, and when the enemy went silent they spread out again and continued racing across the vast and tractless waste. They wore goggles to keep the sand out, and kerchiefs over their mouths, and they could not hear over the roar of the engines and the explosions of the bombs, so that any words spoken—in agreement or denial or simply to wonder what lay before them—were lost in the movement.
They were sixty miles from Baghdad when the order came to stop, and here is the third reason I thought a lot about movement, for it seemed they were racing toward something and then were held back, as if someone, somewhere, had decided perhaps going on was not the best course. For 100 hours they had sped across the desert, and when they stopped, I suspect, my step-father, and all those around him, stood in the great silence and drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly.
And not long after the Gulf War ended I found myself hurtling through the darkness in the back of a Humvee while explosions echoed in the night. This was winter, and cold, and my National Guard unit was performing maneuvers on Fort Chaffee, navigating with night-vision lenses, tracking the Air Guard as they dropped bombs, the earth rumbling, the night lit in brief flashes bright as day.
Mickey drove, but Chief Parker, sitting in the passenger seat, wore the night vision lenses. No one could see except Chief, a point Mickey repeated every few seconds.
"I can't see a goddamn thing, Chief."
With no headlights there was only darkness flowing before us, occasionally lit by artillery in the distance, the brief flashes carving the landscape out before us, the road wound like a river. Mickey's hands were white on the wheel.
Chief Parker was in his fifties. He'd been in the National Guard for thirty years. He had a slim mustache like Errol Flynn in a Sabatini film, and hair just turning silver. Fog formed on the windshield and occasionally Chief wiped at it with his sleeve. The night vision lenses made his silhouette alien in the dark.
He said, "A little to the right."
He said, "Curve coming up. To the left. Twenty degrees."
He said, "Careful now."
Mickey steered according to directions from Chief. At first he'd crept along, his instincts telling him he didn't know what lay ahead. But after a while he pushed the gas and we flew down the road, all but Chief blind.
I sat in the back with Skeeter, a skinny kid still with pimples. When Mickey slammed on the brakes, or cursed and swung the wheel, Skeeter let out a little yelp only I could hear over the sound of the engine.
Clouds slid across the face of the moon, darkening and brightening the night. Earlier, I had lain at the side of the road and felt the rattle and tread of a passing convoy in the earth beneath me, and when they had gone I radioed size and movement and waited in the night with my hands frozen into claws and my breath in the air before me. Now the Humvee had come for me and we flew down the dark road.
"Are we having fun yet?" Chief said.
In the back, me and Skeeter gripped our rifles. We had blacked out the dash because any lights in the night vision lenses blinded the wearer for a short time. The only light came from the moon. Skeeter's eyes were as big and round as the lenses Chief wore. The road rattled beneath us, rocks striking the undercarriage. The dark shapes of trees flipped past the window. We slipped off the side of the road and Chief cursed until Mickey eased us back to safety.
The radio squawked, reporting enemy movement, though the enemy was only the other half of our platoon and their movement was already known. Since the Gulf War we had been fighting mock battles on weekend field exercises, whispering code words about attacking forces, stringing camouflage netting over our Hummers and armored personnel carriers. Now the war was over, but the threat was always there, and though we'd narrowly missed the Gulf, no one thought we'd miss whatever came next. No one doubted there would be something that came next, because there was always something that came next, something that formed as silently as snow clouds, or rattled toward you like a convoy on a dirt road. Something was always careening out of the darkness.
This was ten years before two airplanes struck the Twin Towers, and another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Before the Pentagon was attacked, before the towers dissolved as most of the world watched. Before the first troops were sent to Afghanistan, before another Iraq war began, where, this time, the speeding armies would not stop sixty miles from Baghdad. It was before Osama bin Laden was shot and killed by SEAL Team Six, before the wars dragged on and on, before the drones multiplied, before cities fell into ruins from the force of bombs and the shadows of soldiers riding through ran long beside them. Before Syria came apart and Benghazi was attacked and Iran was sanctioned and North Korea fired missiles into the sea.
In the distance artillery rounds fell and fighters flew in low toward their targets, the bombs shaking the earth as we sped on. We hit a curve and the back end fish-tailed. Mickey said, "I can't see a goddamn thing," but he didn't slow down. I closed my eyes, laid my forehead against the cold window glass. Chief gave directions, the only one able to see in the darkness, the only one who knew what orders we had, what plans had been prepared for us. The rest of us didn't know where we were going nor what would happen when we got there, but, like fools, we rushed on anyway.
As often happens, this essay started with failure. I wrote the last third of the essay first, both as nonfiction and fiction, before deciding the nonfiction was missing something and the fiction was just terrible. Every few months I would look at it, then hide it again, until one night I saw the bit on TV about parachuting motorcycles (because who could resist that?). After that the essay fell into place. Softly. As if it were wearing a parachute.