Army regulations prohibited the use of hotplates, hair dryers, and curling irons inside of radio-teletype trucks, or what were called “RATT Rigs”—the precursor to modern day text-messaging. These vehicles were defined on Defense Department budget lines as “31 Charlie, Single-Channel Radio/ Teletype Operator Stations”.
As a 31 Charlie, I trained 13 weeks at Fort Gordon, GA immediately after basic training and learned that these mobile, highly complex vehicles with tons of communications equipment inside were worth more than a million dollars. It took many kilowatts of power to keep the trucks operational; loud diesel generators provided the charge. It was difficult to resist the temptation of plugging in modern electrical devices when in the field for more than a month at a time.
The generators would have easily supported the pull of sixteen hairdryers—we all knew that, yet due to Army regulations, we were forced to suffer in the dark Black Forrest with little comforts found in the modern world..
My unit, 141 Signal Battalion, as part of the massive and historically honored 1st Armored Division, conducted training exercises that lasted for weeks during the cold Bavarian winters of the 1980’s.
Soldiers were fed just one hot meal a day, usually breakfast, but were given an unlimited quantity of Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s). These bundles of nourishment had a century-long shelf life and would have withstood a nuclear winter; although tasty, they offered little warmth to bodies that trained all day and night, outside in snow that often reached our tits. Going so long without cooked food was barbaric.
There was not enough Army work to do while waiting in the woods. Never once were we asked to transmit real text messages across FM radio waves. It was apparent to all 31 Charlie’s that our military occupational specialty was outdated, or more reasonably put, of little use for commanders who had access to what was the equivalent of cell phones that were secure. These cell phone centers were called PCS vans. My Black Army girlfriend and mother of my son, Christopher operated such a van. She was constantly under pressure while in the woods and got little sleep; Lisa was outside in the elements for hours on end, readjusting an antenna that reached nearly fifty feet, re-directing a satellite dish towards where she thought was the source of a signal. She had such difficulty with her compass.
We ate our dehydrated pork patties like they were slabs of jerky. Our stomachs took weeks to digest what was served to us inside of heavy, brown, plastic, air-tight sacks. There were portable latrines brought by German contractors to our location in the woods. Rarely, that is if the dehydrated food managed to make it through my digestive system in less than 30 days, did my white ass sit on one of those cold, plastic out-houses. The blue water seemed chemically designed not to freeze, yet the liquid turned a pinkish-blue Jello, just north of Nuremberg.
Despite the risk of discharge, I kept an electrical contraband inside my metal texting truck—a yellow percolator coffee pot that survived the 70’s in my mother’s kitchen back home. She never used it, but my mother rarely throws things away. It’s funny how I remembered that thing only when outside with no hot water. I wrote to her during one of my training exercises and asked that she mail the pot to me at my APO address. In Germany, electrical outlets are 220, not 110. Inside the RATT rigs, the outlets were 110.
The electrical urn served as the official hot water heater for all of Division Rear Platoon. D-Rear was a platoon made up of almost all females. Being the eyes and ears of headquarters of the 1st Armored Division or “Old Ironsides”, meant that if war broke out with Russia, our platoon would not have to fight on the front lines. Women were not permitted in combat at the time, so my platoon always stayed “in the rear”. Why we had to go out to the woods was anyone’s guess. On these month long trainings, the women clung to me. They ran to me and my yellow pot when their vaginas were in need of a good scrubbing, often asking me to turn my head as they undressed before me inside that tiny little truck. I spun around in my chair and faced a steel keyboard and pretended to be typing a message meant for the President while they did their thing.
The coffee pot was excellent for heating the brown plastic bags that MRE chicken a la king came in. We boiled it hot like Minute Rice. My truck was more of a soup kitchen than a place from which scrambled secret messages were sent right under spying Russian ears.
Every twenty-four hours I had to confirm with other Division RATT rigs that our equipment was functioning. Exactly at mid-night we sent a text message and hoped words typed on huge reams of yellow paper came out legibly, not garbled. I chased all the women out of my rig just before midnight, shut the heavy steel door of my “camper”, and re-wired a 42 piece gadget, following top secret codes published in a waterproof manual. For each tiny, pronged wire there was a corresponding letter on the gadget, and like an old telephone operator, we wove the matrix of wires and hoped that all were in order for the day.
31 Charlie’s had to fine tune modems; slowly adjusting frequency modulators, causing a green strobe of overlapping ovals to appear inside a tiny round widow on these expensive military modems. By turning the dial, a soldier manipulated these visual laser ovals until the image formed a perfect replica of two crossed footballs.
My eyes were always too tired for reading. Instead, after all the girls had gone and the slight scent of vinegar had left the air of my rig; just after the final knock at my metal door had come—a beggar for a pack of cigarettes—I shut off the fluorescent lights of my little beauty shop, closed my eyes and typed in the pitch black truck like Stevie Wonder at a keyboard.
I was writing stolen words of a confused yet genius mind and had no one to send them to.