How [Not] to Tell a True War Story
Smelling that hot carbon on your fingertips from your expended rounds. Everybody just waiting, listening, wondering if the shit’s about to start up again.
A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
I’m not making any promises. You asked, alright? Fair warning. Oh, here’s the server. Hi, I’ll take a coffee. Black. You want a coffee? Two coffees, please. Bring all the cream and sugar in the house for this guy. He’s got a sweet tooth. Thanks. I love this joint. They got great service here. Alright, this actually happened. No lie. You ready? Okay.
So, there I was, just flipping my wok in the back of PF Chang’s, when here comes Dan the Man moseying down the line in his clogs. Dan’s alright, y’know? I got no problems with any of the sous chefs. I just clock in, flip my wok, clean up, clock out. Right? But here comes Dan the Man and he nudges me, pats me on the shoulder, real friendly sorta guy, the kinda guy who, at the end of a busy night, will grab your shoulders and give ‘em a squeeze and be like, “Good job, guys! Ya knocked ‘em dead!” Same kinda guy you’d expect to go around the locker room smacking asses. “Good game, guys! Good game!” You and me both run into that type before, right? Any case, here comes Dan, squeezing my shoulders. I’m flipping some Chang’s Chicken, calling order up! when Dan says, real close to my ear—“Hey, I hear you were in the service.”
It’s a Thursday night; it’s kinda slow. The prep plates keep coming down the line but it’s not, like, crazy busy, y’know? There’s room for conversation.
So, I’m like, “Yeah, I was in the service. Just got out of the army coupla years ago. How about you—you serve?”
“Nah,” says Dan. “Thought about it, never got around to it. My dad served, though. Nam.”
I’m nodding along like I give a shit. Thinking in my head, this motherfucker’s a dime a dozen, man. How many guys thought of joining but never got around to it? Had other shit going on? This and that excuse, y’know? But then they wanna talk to you all day and night about war and military shit and I’m like, what is it with so many fucking guys and military shit, huh? Fucking movies and video games, man. I tell ya.
Hey, here’s the coffee. Thank you, ma’am. Where was I? Right.
Dan the Man asks me, he’s like, “So, d’you go overseas?” and I say, “Yeah, I went overseas.”
He nods. “Oh, that’s cool, man. That’s cool.” Then he asks, “So what’d they have ya doin’ over there?”
For a second I think of lying. Just a little lie, y’know? So I don’t have to talk to this motherfucker about shit I don’t wanna talk about. But I don’t. I tell him the truth. I tell him I was in the infantry.
Right there, the motherfucker’s eyes light up. He leans in a little closer. “Infantry?” he says, breathing on me. “Oh man, you musta seen some hairy shit.”
And I’m like, hairy? Who the fuck says hairy anymore? The fuck kinda movies this guy watching?
But I don’t say that. I just kinda shrug it off. Go back to flipping my wok, shaking some orange chicken outta the fryer. But Dan the Man—he won’t leave it alone.
“Hey, you see any action?”
I swear to God it takes everything in me to not roll my eyes right there and tell this motherfucker to go take a hike. But he’s the sous chef, y’know? He’s the one who tells me when I get to go home at the end of the night.
So, I take a breath and I say, “Yeah, I saw some action. More than some; less than others.”
I go about flipping my orange chicken like it’s no big deal, right? Squirting peanut oil on some chow mein.
I tell ya, they had that production line figured out. All my prep plates were color-coded. Red plate: allergies. Blue plate: lunch. Black plate: to-go. Tan plate: dinner. That way, you can be fast and not make too many mistakes, especially once shit starts getting heavy right around dinner time. It’s like flipping through USAToday. Green for money, blue for news, red for sports. You wanna know about what war we’re fighting wherever these days—flip here. Simple ideas, simple stories, simple plates. Easy-peasy. That’s the way you crank ‘em out, you hear me? That’s how you make some money. People buying stuff they don’t even have to think about it.
So, there I am passing a coupla red plates down to Leron cuz he’s working the allergy woks, right? I got Andres on the other side of me fixing up the prep plates. I can tell both of ‘em are kinda eavesdropping, y’know? Dan the Man, that motherfucker, he won’t let it go.
He puts his hands on my shoulders, gives ‘em a squeeze, and says, “I bet you got some war stories to tell.”
Oh man, I’m about livid with this guy, but I keep it cool.
I shrug and say, “Yeah, I got some war stories.” All the while in my head I’m like: Alright, motherfucker. You want a war story? I’ll give ya a fucking war story.
So, I say to him, I say, “Hey, you ever hear of a British Gas Pedal?”
Dan kinda looks at me funny. “A British Gas Pedal?”
“Yeah, a British Gas Pedal. You never heard of this?”
I can tell he’s thinking it over. Gas Pedal? Must be some kinda high-octane, high-speed shit, right? He says no, but he says it like he’s all butt-hurt cuz he thinks he’s supposed to know what I’m talking about, but he doesn’t.
“Oh, man,” I say. “You are in for a treat, my friend.” Motherfucker’s practically drooling on his clogs, but before I go into the story, I gotta say I did end up having one problem with Dan. A big problem. Dan got canned. Yep, kicked to the fucking curb. One of the servers at PF Chang’s turned in a sexual harassment complaint on his ass. If I’d known about it at the time, I would’ve told Dan the Man to go fuck himself, y’know? But I wasn’t there when it happened. I didn’t find out till later. That reminds me of another thing. I tell ya, even after all my years in the service, I never saw nowhere near as much sexist shit in the military as in the restaurant business. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the military’s got some serious problems with sexual assault and whatnot, right? But you and me being in the infantry during the War on Terror, y’know—it was the end of an era. There were no women allowed in combat arms, and there were few, if any, up on those lonely-ass outposts in the mountains. But if there were… shit. I don’t know how things would’ve gone. I mean, guys say all kinds of dumb shit around other guys. But with no women around, all the grab-assing and tea-bagging is guy-on-guy, y’know? I can only imagine the kinda shit a woman—or women—would’ve had to put up with being surrounded by a bunch of dickheads like us. But they got women in the infantry now. People are different now. And I’m like go for it, girl. For real. Women in the infantry should’ve been the way it was even when you and I were in. But with us, we just never ran into that sorta trouble. Not back in the day when we were a bunch of swinging dicks running around in our short shorts. We were cocooned from that shit, right? In our own little combat-is-for-boys-only club. Except, now that I think about it, there was this one time…
I’m back stateside standing in line at the chow hall. Man, I miss army breakfast. About the only thing I miss about the army. Scrambled eggs. Omelets. Fresh fruit. Biscuits and gravy. Oh, man! I’d tell the cooks to pour gravy all over my plate! Lay on the gravy train, my man! I’m getting off topic. So, I’m standing in line for chow, right? Line’s all the way out the door. When down the road comes this platoon running in formation. You can tell they’re non-infantry cuz there’s a few women in the ranks. So, behind the formation comes this one female running backwards. You can tell she’s a sergeant cuz she’s hollering at this fallout. Just tearing into this one skinny guy who’s way, way back down the road. “Hurry up! Let’s go, fallout! Move those legs! Suck it up!”
Being a sergeant myself, I’m like, that’s some squared away shit. But then I hear this big, tall guy in line behind me. You know what he says?
He says, “No way would I ever let a woman talk to me like that. Rank or no rank. No fucking way.”
I turn around and look up at the guy. I don’t know him from squat, but I can tell he’s infantry cuz he’s got his little combat badge pinned to his chest. I see his rank—he’s a sergeant, like me. And he’s a dude, like me. Which is why I guess he felt he could share his misogynistic bullshit with me.
What’d I say?
I don’t know, I was just drawing a blank, y’know? I mean, I didn’t approve of what he said. No fucking way. But nowadays, I think about it and I’m like, that’s why I say something now, y’know? Cuz I failed to say something before. If you don’t say something you’re a fucking accomplice, right? I don’t wanna be no accomplice. Hated that feeling. That silence. Like your tongue falls off or something. Nah, I never said nothing. He just turned back around and we were mum all the rest of the way into the chow hall. It still bothers me. It should bother me.
But never, ever, ever, ever have I seen sexist shit in the military like I’ve seen in the restaurant business. Every restaurant I’ve ever worked for—and I’ve flipped burgers, woks, and even some fine-dining sauté shit, you know what I mean? Every joint I’ve ever worked for—it goes like this: you got the cooks sweating over their ovens and flat-tops and whatnot. They’re mostly guys. Then you got the servers waiting for the cooks to hurry it up already, and they’re mostly girls. It’s like a recipe for miscommuni-fucking-cation, right? Every place I’ve worked for, I’ve had to put up with some dipshit line cook saying, doing, or whistling something that ain’t right, y’know?
This one guy I worked next to, Jimmy the Alcoholic, he’d cat-call this one server every time she come into the kitchen. They were friends, I guess, both of ‘em on the older side of life, and she’d just laugh it off every time. Smile and keep working. But I’m like, man—she’s probably like, fuck that asshole, y’know? Every fucking time. Till one night Jimmy whistles at her and it just flies outta my mouth. Not even thinking. I’m like, “Oh—hey, man!” loud enough so everybody can hear.
“You whistling at me? You like my ass? I gotta nice ass, is that it?”
Shut that motherfucker up right there! Jimmy sorta laughed it off to Frankie Beans over on broiler. “You hear that? I guess Ol’ Mac over there don’t like me cat-calling!” but he sure as shit didn’t do it anymore after that. Not around me he didn’t.
Another time there was this guy, Kilroy, at PF Chang’s, and he’s the kinda guy who sings and shouts the whole shift long. I mean, it’s loud back there in the kitchen so it’s no big deal. But he’s shouting and singing in the freezer with me while we’re moving stuff around, the door’s open, and I hear him behind me.
“Oh, she gotta tiny tight ass, that one!”
I whirl around and the server he’s referring to, Sheila, is literally not two meters outside the door. I know she heard him.
Now, I don’t wanna get confrontational at work or nothing, though I’m red in the fucking face, so I just say, “Dude! You. Cannot. Say. That.” Kilroy just sorta stares at me, and I’m like, “Seriously. I seen guys get kicked to the curb for less—for less.” It put a damper on his bullshit. At least.
But, Dan the Man—he was grabby even with the guys, y’know? I can’t even remember what that motherfucker did. Whether he pinched some server’s ass, made a joke, or whatever, but he got fucking canned for sexual harassment. After nearly ten years in the restaurant business, you’d think he’d fucking know better. Serves the fucker right, though.
In any case, where was I? British Gas Pedal—right. So, no shit, I’m telling Dan the Man, Leron, and Andres, “Oh, you guys are in for a treat. Though it’s not exactly a G-rated story, okay? Fair warning.”
“Oh no, it wouldn’t be,” says Dan, “not if it’s a true war story.”
“You’re smack on the button on that one, my friend!” and I do this little knock-knock with my wok spoon. “Okay! So! British Gas Pedal story! Here goes!”
We’re out there in the mountains, right? Out in the middle of nowhere Afghanistan, nut-to-butt against the Pak border, just the platoon of us, our trucks circled like it’s Cowboys and Indians. We’d been out there for, like, days. Summer sun beating down on us. Bored out of our gourds. So goddamned bored some of us are playing games, y’know? Anything to just occupy our minds.
One guy, Twizzler—his real name’s Twiltz or some shit—he draws these little faces on his hands with a marker and he starts putting on a puppet show. His right hand’s grandma, his left hand’s grandpa, and they’re arguing over some soup. It was fucking hilarious. Goofy, but hilarious. I mean, you need to laugh at something when you’re out there for days, weeks, in one single spot like that. Otherwise, you go crazy.
Another guy, Boomie Boomhauer, decides he’s gonna play a trick on the LT. One morning—a few stars still twinkling in the sky, still wearing our night vision, y’know?—he creeps over to the LT’s truck, pulls down his bottoms, and squats. The LT’s in his truck snoring like a train with his woobie over his head. Boomie Boomhauser’s squatting right outside the man’s door laughing his ass off, saying, “I can’t do it, man! I can’t do it!” but he manages to finally pinch one off and it’s a steamer, you know what I mean? He pulls his bottoms up and runs off. Everybody’s waiting. Watching, y’know? Finally, Sergeant Baker calls the LT on the squawk box and LT wakes up, opens his door, steps his right boot out and—
“What the fuck! Who took a shit outside my door?”
Another guy, a Kiwi from Down Under, starts his own little puppet show in competition with Twizzler’s. Instead of using his hands, Kiwi’s using these dead pigeon heads he found. I don’t know where he found ‘em; don’t ask me. He pulls the heads off all these pigeons, puts ‘em on little sticks, and starts having these little theater routines in his turret. Fucking Shakespeare but with pigeon heads. He’s going purdle, purdle—”Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of purdle, purdle!” Crazy, right? But it was entertaining. Better than real Shakespeare.
A coupla of other guys, Heinz and Mumu, the two of ‘em decide they’re gonna try a British Gas Pedal. Mumu’s real name was Marakami, but how he got his nickname’s another story. Anyways, Heinz and Mumu, they bug the shit out of Doc until Doc’s all in on it, too. And, no lie, right there in the middle of nowhere Afghanistan where a Taliban ambush could happen at any moment, Heinz drops his bottoms, flops on his back, and sticks his legs up in the air so Mumu can start feeding the IV-tube up his ass.
Doc says, “Lube that fucker up!”
Heinz’s like—”Lube it up, Mumu!”
Doc’s giving instructions. “You gotta put it in at least a few inches or it’ll pop out!”
Mumu can barely keep it together, man. He’s already crying, he’s laughing so hard.
He’s like, “That’s—that’s what she said!”
I’m fucking filming the whole thing on my digital camera cuz this is dumb shit, right? This is history right here. Doc hooks up the IV to the saline bag, gives a thumbs-up to Heinz, who’s spread eagle on his back, and he’s like, “Do it, man! Do it now!” and Mumu—bam! Stomps on that saline bag and shoots all that water straight up Heinz’s ass! That’s how you emergency hydrate someone when they’re a heat-cat. They teach ya the darndest things in the army, don’t they?
In any case, Heinz squeals like a little girl, hops up, and is dancing around squawking, “Oh, I gotta go!”
He bends over and that water squirts outta his ass like a super soaker, man. Oh my God, it was the funniest fucking thing in my whole life. Ever. I don’t think I stopped laughing till we redeployed back stateside…
Leron and Andres, man—those guys are cracking up on either side of me. Just rolling. Other people in the kitchen are looking around like, what’s so funny?
Leron, man—that guy had a fucking story to tell. Leron, no shit, would get off his shift next door at the Cheesecake Factory, come over to Chang’s, and start a whole ‘nother shift. Man worked sixty hours a fucking week. Standing. Sweating. In a kitchen. Still barely banked enough to make his rent. At Chang’s, they’d let you leave with a plate to take home. Leron, he’d take two plates home. Beef and broccoli—every night. One for himself and one for his kid. He was his kid’s only means of support, I guess. Never heard him talk about a mom, wife, or girlfriend. Only about his kid.
“My boy got a A+ on his spelling test,” he’d say.
He loved that kid, I tell ya. He told me how, before his kid was born, he once tried to join the military. Get up out of the neighborhood. Make a better life for himself, y’know? But the army, the navy, even the marines—nobody wanted him. Why?
“On account of my record,” he said.
Back when he was a kid, the cops had this stop-and-frisk policy. They nabbed Leron and his friends on the street one day, frisked ‘em, and found a bag of weed in his pocket. Cops said only a dealer’d be walking around with that much weed in their pocket. Leron got three years. They cut it down to one on account of him being a minor. But no branch of the armed services wants a felon, no less a felon with a drug conviction. So, what’re you gonna do? Work sixty hours a fucking week, I guess. Barely make rent. The fuck kinda sense does that make?
Oh, I was on the GI bill. Working my way up in the world. Get that degree, get that pay. I only worked twenty, maybe thirty hours on nights and weekends to supplement what the VA was already giving me. But sixty hours? Fuck man, I couldn’t do no sixty hours in a kitchen. I’d fucking kill myself. But Leron—I mean, what choice did he have? He had a kid to feed.
Andres, too. He was a cool guy. I really liked Andres. Had this sweet tat of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder.
He told me once, “Hey Mac, y’know why I come from Puerto Rico?”
I’m like, “Why?”
He says, “Cuz in America—” he means on the mainland, cuz Puerto Rico’s part of America, right? They’re citizens. But anyway, he says, “I came to the mainland cuz there’s always a job here, y’know? Anywhere. You go anywhere in America, doesn’t matter where, you can find a job. It’ll be bussing tables or flipping burgers, but it’s a job, right? Back in Puerto Rico, there’s no jobs. None. Nothing. Maybe you can get one in the tourism business, but that’s it. But in America, so long as you don’t mind getting your hands dirty or standing on your feet for hours on end, you got a job.”
Man, I liked Andres. Guy was always telling stories about Puerto Rico. You could tell he missed the place. But there’s no work there, so what’re you gonna do? Wish I still worked with him. He had a brother, told me at one point, who joined the marines cuz there were no jobs. Died in Fallujah. Again, what’re you gonna do?
In any case, Andres and Leron are just laughing their asses off, when I look over at Dan the Man. Dan ain’t laughing. No, no, he didn’t do nothing. Didn’t say nothing. Didn’t squeeze my shoulders and tell me, good one, buddy! Nah, he just kinda looked away and walked on down the line. He went and did some sous chef shit in the freezer. Didn’t even crack a smile. Just moseyed away in his clogs. Straight silence. For real. Like that silence you get right after a firefight—you know what I’m talking about. The guns’ve stopped. Nobody’s yelling or nothing. Smelling that hot carbon on your fingertips from your expended rounds. Everybody just waiting, listening, wondering if the shit’s about to start up again. Most beautiful silence in the world. That’s what it was like. Watching Dan the Man walk away. Not a fucking word. I’m like, That’s right, motherfucker. You want a war story? Why don’t you go and serve yourself? Then you’ll get all the fucking war stories you want. Stories to keep ya awake at night. Stories to soak your bedsheets with sweat. Stories to leave ya fucking paralyzed with burn scars down your face so you can’t even flip burgers if you wanted to nonetheless rejoin society.
Oh—hey, yeah, I’ll take a refill. Yeah. Thank you, ma’am. Man, I love this joint. They got great service here.
✽ ✽ ✽
J.G.P. MacAdam is a disabled combat vet and the first in his family to earn a college degree. He placed 2nd in the 2021 Wright Award and was recently nominated for a Pushcart. His work can be found in The Point, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and upcoming in The Colorado Review, among others. You can find him at jgpmacadam.com