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We gazed out into the open, looking at nothing in particular. Though the snow had melted, the cold air was still icy. I was wearing about five layers of clothing and I was still freezing.
Johnny crushed his smoke out and put his gloves back on, over the liners.
"Let's get going," he said.
We'd mounted the tanks on the train earlier. It took careful maneuvering. There were barely two feet of steel on either side of the narrow bed to play with. One false move and you'd have sixty tons of armor falling over the side of the train.
"Alright," I said, bouncing on my toes for feeling. "Be glad to get this shit over with."
We climbed up on the flat bed and started dragging the chain hoists and heavy duty chains off the rear hull of the tank. My fingers felt like brittle, cold and raw from the cold and the friction with steel, heavily clothed though they were.
"Let's latch it up, Mick," Johnny was saying. "Pull out the slack and bring the chain in close, as far as you can. I'll get the hoist."
I dragged the heavy half-inch chain and pulled as hard as I could, holding out a link for Johnny to latch onto. He shook his head, no. Try for one more. I leaned in with my entire body weight, standing like a slalom skier, at a 45 degree angle. After three or four attempts, we got it. The chain fell to the ground with a loud clang. Hard to believe how much slack remained. We ran the ratchet and brought it in tight, but still loose enough to work the other three corners into place.
Once we got the tank tied down, we locked the turret in place and strapped down the barrel. Another quick look inside to make sure everything was secure: the swing arm, the armor piercing rounds, the small arms ammo. We grabbed the night bags out of our duffles and threw them with the rest of our stuff inside; locked the hatch and did one more walkaround. Everything was in place. It was just after midnight.
Johnny and I ran to the sleeping coach, racing the other crews who were finishing up. We found a separate compartment with six bunks and claimed them all. Our buddies would be joining us soon. We always made plans to eat something and play a game of spades, to pass the time. After a couple of hours though, most of us would lay down and try to catch some sleep.
The train ride always lasted between five and six hours. It only covered fifty miles, but our trains had the lowest priority clearance on the West German railroad. The entire trip you could feel the train pulling up and backing out; latching on and off. It made for a very bumpy ride.
We did this every three months, when our troop had border duty on the Czeck front. The tour lasted 30 days, then we did the whole train thing in reverse. Nobody looked forward to it.
"How many cards you got?" Dwayne asked. "Bitch, get off me!" he yelled, at someone bumping into him from behind.
"Pork rinds? Anybody?" Ed offered.
We sat there, warming our sore bones up, and making the most of our company. We played cards, joked around, drank Cherry Coke...the camaraderie was genuine. We all knew these were the men we would die next to if we ever went into battle. Even when you hated each other, you felt akin to your platoon mates during maneuvers. They were your brothers.
When the train reached the border camp it was just before sunrise. The cold air slapped me in the face as I rushed out to unchain our tank. This was probably the last place on earth I'd choose to be at the moment. Motivation ran shallow at the end of those trips.
I'm not sure why the Army made us go through this exercise, when we could drive the tanks in an orderly convoy and reach the camp in an hour and a half. It must have been an agreement with the West German government, or something along those lines. I assume they didn't want our tanks destroying their roads.
Years after I left, the Soviet Union fell, the Iron Curtain was drawn, and the Berlin wall came down. All those old border camps were rendered useless. I received Border Certificates for guarding the East German and Czech borders. You don't see too many of those around anymore. I wonder if today's teenagers are even aware that those borders existed or why they needed to be guarded.
I'll write about the border camp experience sometime.