attract attention. Leon Garber, who at that point was once again my commanding officer, summoned me to his office, and because his message read in part without, repeat, without attending to any matters of personal grooming I figured he wanted to strike while the iron was hot and dress me down right then, while the evidence was still in existence, right there on my head. And that was exactly how the meeting started out. He asked me, “Which army regulation covers a soldier’s personal appearance?”

Which I thought was a pretty rich question, coming from him. Garber was without a doubt the scruffiest officer I had ever seen. He could take a brand new Class A coat from the quartermaster’s stores and an hour later it would look like he had fought two wars in it, then slept in it, then survived three bar fights in it.

I said, “I can’t remember which regulation covers a soldier’s personal appearance.”

He said, “Neither can I. But I seem to recall that whichever, the hair and the fingernail standards and the grooming policies are in chapter one, section eight. I can picture it all quite clearly, right there on the page. Can you remember what it says?”

I said, “No.”

“It tells us that hair grooming standards are necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population.”


“It mandates those standards. Do you know what they are?”

“I’ve been very busy,” I said. “I just got back from Korea.”

“I heard Japan.”

“That was a stopover on the way.”

“How long?”

“Twelve hours.”

“Do they have barbers in Japan?”

“I’m sure they do.”

“Do Japanese barbers take more than twelve hours to cut a man’s hair?”

“I’m sure they don’t.”

“Chapter one, section eight, paragraph two, says the hair on the top of the head must be neatly groomed, and that the length and the bulk of the hair may not be excessive or present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. It says that instead, the hair must present a tapered appearance.”

I said, “I’m not sure what that means.”

“It says a tapered appearance is one where the outline of the soldier’s hair conforms to the shape of his head, curving inward to a natural termination point at the base of his neck.”

I said, “I’ll get it taken care of.”

“These are mandates, you understand. Not suggestions.”

“OK,” I said.

“Section two says that when the hair is combed, it will not fall over the ears or the eyebrows, and it will not touch the collar.”

“OK,” I said again.

“Would you not describe your current hairstyle as ragged, unkempt, or extreme?”

“Compared to what?”

“And how are you doing in relation to the thing with the comb and the ears and the eyebrows and the collar?”

“I’ll get it taken care of,” I said again.

Then Garber smiled, and the tone of the meeting changed completely.

He asked, “How fast does your hair grow, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “A normal kind of speed, I suppose. Same as anyone else, probably. Why?”

“We have a problem,” he said. “Down in Mississippi.”

Chapter 4

Garber said the problem down in Mississippi concerned a twenty-seven-year-old woman named Janice May Chapman. She was a problem because she was dead. She had been unlawfully killed a block behind the main street of a town called Carter Crossing.

“Was she one of ours?” I asked.

“No,” Garber said. “She was a civilian.”

“So how is she a problem?”

“I’ll get to that,” Garber said. “But first you need the story. It’s the back of beyond down there. Northeastern corner of the state, over near the Alabama line, and Tennessee. There’s a north-south railroad track, and a little backwoods dirt road that crosses it east-west near a place that has a spring. The locomotives would stop there to take on water, and the passengers would get out to eat, so the town grew up. But since the end of World War Two there’s only been about two trains a day, both freight, no passengers, so the town was on its way back down again.”


“Federal spending. You know how it was. Washington couldn’t let large parts of the South turn into the Third World, so we threw some money down there. A lot of money, actually. You ever notice how the folks who talk loudest about small government always seem to live in the states with the biggest subsidies? Small government would kill them dead.”

I asked, “What did Carter Crossing get?”

Garber said, “Carter Crossing got an army base called Fort Kelham.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ve heard of Kelham. Never knew where it was, exactly.”

“It used to be huge,” Garber said. “Ground was broken in about 1950, I think. It could have ended up as big as Fort Hood, but ultimately it was too far east of I-55 and too far west of I-65 to be useful. You have to drive a long way on small roads just to get there. Or maybe Texas politicians have louder voices than Mississippi politicians. Either way, Hood got the attention and Kelham withered on the vine. It struggled on until the end of Vietnam, and then they turned it into a Ranger school. Which it still is.”

“I thought Ranger training was at Benning.”

“The 75th sends their best guys to Kelham for a time. It’s not far. Something to do with the terrain.”

“The 75th is a special ops regiment.”

“So they tell me.”

“Are there enough special ops Rangers in training to keep a whole town going?”

“Almost,” Garber said. “It’s not a very big town.”

“So what are we saying? An Army Ranger killed Janice May Chapman?”

“I doubt it,” Garber said. “It was probably some local hillbilly thing.”

“Do they have hillbillies in Mississippi? Do they even have hills?”

“Backwoodsmen, then. They have a lot of trees.”

“Whichever, why are we even talking about it?”

At that point Garber got up and came out from behind his desk and crossed the room and closed the door. He was older than me, naturally, and much shorter, but about as wide. And he was worried. It was rare for him to close his door, and rarer still for him to go more than five minutes without a tortured little homily or aphorism or slogan, designed to sum up a point he was trying to make in an easily remembered form. He stepped back and sat down again with a hiss of air from his cushion, and he asked, “Have you ever heard of a place called Kosovo?”

“Balkans,” I said. “Like Serbia and Croatia.”

“There’s going to be a war there. Apparently we’re going to try to stop it. Apparently we’ll probably fail, and we’ll end up just bombing the shit out of one side or the other instead.”

“OK,” I said. “Always good to have a plan B.”

“The Serbo-Croat thing was a disaster. Like Rwanda. A total embarrassment. This is the twentieth century, for God’s sake.”

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