“Hey. Lieutenant. You awake?”
There were five of them sitting there. Uniform collars and hair flapping in the wind in the bed of a pickup truck cruised along the long empty stretch of road, trailing an ever expanding cloud of orange dust. The man in question, the Lieutenant, tore his gaze from the sky and its cotton white clouds stretched thin across its vast expanse and rolled his head towards the speaker where he was confronted with a bottle of what appeared to be red wine. He blinked lazily as he regarded the man holding the bottle for a moment before shifting his weight so that he could use his hands and take the bottle from the soldier.
“Where’d this come from, Sergeant?” the Lieutenant asked, squinting his hazel eyes against the noonday sun so that he could examine the bottle more carefully.
Anders, now his sergeant, shrugged. “Miller had them.” He pointed across the truck bed at the opposite back corner where a diminutive dark skinned man was carefully removing a second bottle from his haversack. A smile broke out across Anders’ face as he ran a hand through his downy blond hair. “Just a souvenir from our tour de France.” The boy soldier, a boy no longer.
The Lieutenant turned his gaze towards Miller, catching the smaller man’s eye. Shaking the bottle of red wine slightly, the Lieutenant questioned him with a single arched eyebrow. Miller glanced into his haversack, shoved one hand into its contents and rustled about before pointing at the Lieutenant, tapping the bottle sitting next to him and raising three stubby fingers. Three total, Miller was telling him. There were at least four bottles including the one the Lieutenant was holding. Miller always held back a little bit just for the rest of the men. The Lieutenant had long ago stopped questioning where the man got ahold of his stock.
With a smile, the Lieutenant saluted the man with the wine bottle in his hand and returned to studying it. The label was inscrutable to his eye. All that he recognized was the year, 1906. A Merlot, he guessed. He had no idea if it had been a good year. Things he had been told were important to consider about wine.
Craning his neck over his shoulder, he rapped the clear glass window separating the cab of the truck from the back. Immediately the thrum of the engines changed their pitch and the truck swerved to the side of the road, slowed and stopped. The dust haze that had been chasing the truck for so many miles finally caught up, enveloping the soldiers causing them the choke and cough in bewilderment as they were cast into an artificial shadow.
The window slapped open. “What?” A gruff voice echoed from the darkened interior of the truck cab.
Waving his hand across his face to dispel the dust as best he could, the Lieutenant twisted his body so that it was facing forward and carefully presented the bottle of wine to the driver through the tiny window. “Just wanted to say thanks for the ride, sir.”
There was a chortle from the driver’s seat as the bottle was taken. “Anything for you boys in uniform. Reminds me of my own…” The rest was lost under the crunch of gravel as the truck pulled back out onto the road.
Settling back into his corner, the Lieutenant gazed back at the other soldiers who were staring at him with a mixture of sadness, confusion and mild annoyance. Fixing a wry smirk to his face, the Lieutenant brushed his black hair back along his forehead before staring each one down in turn, waiting for a sheepish smile or ducked head in response. Anders was the only one not paying attention; nudging the soldier next to him and saying something about greasing the wheels with a chuckle. Already smoothing over the decision that had been made with the rest of the men.
Reaching out, Anders snatched the newest bottle that had come out of Miller’s pack and again, handed it to the Lieutenant. “Do the honors, sir.”
Taking the bottle gingerly, the Lieutenant regarded it for a moment before speaking. “I need a book, or somebody’s boot.”
“Book? Boot?” The words were murmured amongst the other men in the truck. After a brief hesitation, a left boot was passed forward to the Lieutenant.
“Thank you, Jacobson.” Slipping the wine bottle into the boot, so that the base was planted firmly against the heel, the Lieutenant gripped the neck of the bottle in one hand and the shoe in the other. Clearing a space beside him, he shifted his position and proceeded to bang the bottom of the shoe against the bed of the truck. There was a muffled question from the cab of the truck which Anders promptly soothed.
Once. Twice. Three times, the Lieutenant slammed both shoe and bottle down against the truck bed. As the men watched, he paused, examining the cork before continuing as before. Amazement rippled through the men as they realized that the ever so slowly, the cork was coming free of the bottle with each strike. Finally, the Lieutenant gripped the cork between his teeth and pulled the stopper free with a wet pop. There was silence for a moment and then a collective cheer from the men as he spit the offending cork over the side of the truck and took a whiff of the bottle.
“Real classy, Lieutenant.”
“Always, Sergeant.” the Lieutenant said, taking a swig from the bottle, letting the brackish liquid coat his mouth before swallowing. Twisting his mouth in distaste, he passed the bottle back to the men before tossing the boot at Jacobson. One of the other soldiers intercepted the footwear and slipped another corked bottle into it, eager to replicate the Lieutenant’s trick. There was a brief scuffle as each of the other men also sought a go.
“Where’d you learn something like that Lieutenant?” Anders asked.
The Lieutenant leaned back, opening his mouth to respond when he was interrupted by one of the other soldier’s shout. “Town!”
Everyone in the truck halted whatever they were doing and turned to face forward, peering off to the side in order to catch a glimpse of their destination. The Lieutenant carefully got to his feet, bracing himself against the roof of the truck. The rush of the wind caused him to squint, and raise his hand to partially shield his eyes. Coming in over the horizon were the shining white reflections of buildings, clustered together in the middle of nowhere. To the east, a great pine forest dotted the horizon, beyond the town rose mountains, a majestic purple blue, capped with snow. Beside him, Anders also stood, his downy blond hair snapping in the wind in the same way that the Lieutenant’s was.
“Where’s that Lieutenant?” He asked, motioning towards the fast approaching town.
The Lieutenant sighed in contentment as the wind brought tears to his eyes. “Home, Anders. Home."