by Chris de Serres
It was the coldest I had ever been in my life. Standing on some nondescript summit in the ranges of northeast South Korea. Nothing was moving out here. Here I was, poor solitary soul shaking vigorously. Shivering wasn’t enough. My body periodically went into full involuntary spasm. I was taken aback at the violent physical protest.
I was in the U.S. Army. A reconnaissance scout with the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. We were the last American unit to be deployed along the Demilitarized Zone shared with North Korea. My job was to deploy to the highest vantage points and report on enemy activity. In a typical Korean winter, this is the last place any living creature wants to be.
Everything around me is frozen solid. This is cold, compressed reality. My boots feel like cold bricks as I lace them to my feet. I do some jumping jacks. Anything to keep blood flowing into my limbs. To keep frost bite at bay. Just a day ago one of my mates had to be flown out by helicopter. The toes on his right foot were a dark purple. He stepped onto a frozen creek and broke through. One of his toes had to be removed.
They always told us if it got too cold we would be able to build a fire. This is a lie. There would need to be a flood of frostbite victims before they would even entertain the thought.
So here I am. This must be how it’s like to be homeless in Barrow, Alaska. I imagine all those people who had shelter. I close my eyes and visualize a small pulse of warmth moving like a cursor throughout my body.
I feel two sharp needles slowly sink into each earlobe. So I discard my military issue cap for my beanie. Fuck military regulation.
It was then that I saw something move down ridge. What large animal could be out here in this unearthly cold? I ready the frozen piece of metal that is my M-16.
“Who goes there?!”
“Your momma’s new boyfriend!”
It approaches. Sgt. Smith. The only person crazy enough to be checking on sentries at 3am in the morning.
In his typical condescending manner, he asks,” you realize I could see your silhouette from 300 yard back? Standing out here like this could get you killed.” Frozen spittle runs down to his chin. Chewing tobacco.
He leaves and I get down into the prone position. I look down at my watch. Still an hour to go. I want to cry, but the tears would freeze my face. I cry anyways, and they freeze my eyelashes together. Then I laugh and question my sanity.
My need to survive soon trumps all fears of Sgt. Smith. I stand back up and do more jumping jacks. It’s enough to be alive in a cold dead winter.