Sorry, Folks. I’m not talking about a reminder of some of the trips some of us may have taken back in the ’60s, but what a character in a book does whenever they’re thinking about something in the past.
One thing a flashback does well is it helps to set a backstory. It’s also a great way to get to know characters as they were years before.
In On a Pale Horse, I’ve a great little flashback going on. What I have is a character called Tomas Diaz. He’s Sheriff Will Diaz’s cousin. Or at least it might appear that way. What we have are two people related in name only, both just as smart and just as tough as the other. They’re also passionate about justice.
But that’s where the similarity ends. Will pursues justice while wearing a badge. Tomas is working outside the law.
In some flashbacks, you can easily just have the character move from the present into the past with a just few words.
Sometimes it’s a little more jarring. In theater terms we’d call this a scene change. You might actually want to toss an extra space between paragraphs. This signals to the reader that here we go. We’re doing something different here.
I’ve used both, and they work well. But here’s one that I use in On a Pale Horse. It introduces a new character and establishes who and what he is pretty well.
I’m using it to introduce Tomas. After some narrative, I added an extra space between the paragraphs where Will starts telling the story of how he met Tomas, and going forward. Enjoy.
“Checkpoint up ahead,” the LT called over the radio.
I’d hung my head a little out the window to look up the road. We’d driven down from Iraq to preform the route recon before moving 1st Armored from Iraq back to Saudi Arabia. During the drive, we saw firsthand what the Iraqis had done to this small country.
To say that Kuwait looked like a junkyard would have been generous in the extreme.
The country had been devastated.
We’d driven down Highway 80, past the refugee camps in Safwan, and across the border into Kuwait. On both sides of the border was ample evidence of what war had done.
Bomb craters dotted the roads and landscapes. The holes in the roadways had been filled in with sand. But in one case, we had to detour around a large crater. It reminded me more of Meteor Crater in Arizona than any bomb crater I’d ever seen (not that I’d seen a lot). I wondered what had been there to warrant a weapon that would leave a hole like that.
Every few miles, there’d be a clump of burnt and blasted tanks and trucks. Parts littered the sides of the roadways. Broken glass was scattered about like diamonds in a jewelry shop. The Iraqis seemed to have tossed everything they owned everywhere. Uniforms, blankets, shoes. The desert had become a vacant lot strewn with trash.
But the most sobering piece of it all was driving through the oil fields. Saddam had ordered his forces to blow the heads off the wells and set fire to them.
They did that job very well.
Columns of fire towered up into the sky.
Some of the wells thundered like rockets in a static firing test. Others whined in a painful chorus, and if you let your imagination run wild, you could hear the damned in hell, crying out in pain and fear.
The fires made a thick cloud of smoke and dimmed the light of the sun.
When we drove through, I’d leaned forward in my seat and looked up at the sun through the smoke. It was like peering through thick welding glass. I could see a couple of sunspots on our star’s surface, and it didn’t hurt my eyes at all to look.
Had a medieval man been dropped into this devastated landscape, I’m sure he’d have thought he had died and gone straight to Hell.
Not many miles from that was what the news called the Highway of Death.
In years to come, people would criticize the decision to hit that mass of Iraqi armor. Some would say the Iraqis were just complying with the UN dictate to get the hell out of Kuwait.
They seem to have forgotten we were in the process of cleaning the Republican Guard’s clock.
There was every chance that this mass of tanks, APCs, and people would have driven north, turned west, and came right towards us.
Could we have handled them?
Would more of our people been killed in the resulting battles?
In a situation like that, you have to admit that George Patton was right when he said, “You don’t win a war by dying for your county. You win a war by making the other poor bastard die for his.”
The few pictures I’d seen just didn’t do it justice. Everywhere I looked, there were tanks, trucks, even civilian cars the Iraqis had stolen from their wealthy neighbor to the South.
All of them had been devastated by the airstrikes and left as so much junk.
A single lane road had been cleared by shoving the wrecks aside. The effect was like driving through an arroyo of mangled and shot up metal.
We hadn’t entered it properly yet when the LT made his call.
“Probably Marines,” I told Max as we stopped.
I looked up at my gunner, sitting on the sling in the turret. The sling our gunner sat in was the single worst design of the Humvee. While the seats were uncomfortable, sitting on a strap that was just a few inches wide just didn’t work. We’d found a two by eight and made a sort of swing seat for it, so at least it was a little more tolerable.
“Looks like a couple of APCs,” Max reported. “Never seen any like these. They’ve got tires. Almost look like tanks without threads.”
I could see one if I hung my head out the window a bit further. “LAV 25’s,” I said. “They’re pretty badass vehicles.”
“Really, I’ve never seen one.”
“Supposed to be pretty fast. From what I’ve heard, they handle like a sports car. And they’re badass with a 25 mm chain gun and a couple of machine guns.
“They can raise hell with ground troops and fortifications, and I suppose they could gang up pretty well on a tank. But mostly they’re designed to get troops from point A to point B rapidly. Kind of like our Bradley.”
Max had stuck his head out the window so he could see them. “Christ, they do look like sports cars.”
The radio crackled to life. “Red 5, Red 1,” called the LT over the radio.
“Go 1.” I said picking up the handset.
“Five. Got a Marine up here looking for you. Want to come on up?”
“On my way.” I hung up the microphone. “I wonder what that’s all about.”
“Know any Marines?” Max asked.
“I know all kinds of Marines, but why one would want to see me, I wouldn’t know.”
I got out of the Humvee and slung my M-203 over my shoulder. Walking up, I could see a small cluster of Marines talking to the LT.
I approached the knot of men. “I’m Sgt. Diaz. What can I do for you?”
One of the Marines smiled, and stuck out his hand. “Hey, Primo.”
I took his hand, but the look on my face must have said it all.
“I’m Tomas,” he said. “Ernest and Carla’s boy.”
“Jesus Christ!” I remembered him as a clumsy five-year-old kid playing with a toy car. “You grew up!”
“People do that when you haven’t seen them in fifteen years.”
As I would say a couple of years later, he didn’t look like blood. Few Diaz’s stood over six feet, and yet Tomas was as tall as me. At six-six, we were the giants of the family. He was also just as slim and muscled as I was. I’d forgotten he had gray eyes and blonde hair.
What impressed me was how he moved. He moved like a jungle cat. Each step was sure and powerful and with purpose.
“Mom told me you were down here, so I’ve been keeping an eye on every MP vehicle that came through.”
“Come all this way, and you still can’t get away from your relatives.”
“Ain’t it true.”
I turned to the LT. He was watching all this with a grin.
“My cousin,” I said, gesturing to Tomas.
The LT nodded and then looked at his watch. “Want to do some catching up?” he asked. “I mean, it’s almost time to break for lunch, and this is as good a place as any.”
“Thank you. I’d like that, Sir.”
The LT got on the radio and told everyone to park where the Marines told them to park. We were breaking for lunch.
“Would you guys be good enough to show off your APCs to us?” the LT asked.
“That we can do,” his Marine counterpart answered.
In less than a minute, we were parked. Tomas said, “Come on. Let’s sit down.”
I followed him over. A tarp had been strung up between the LAVs so that it gave some overhead protection against the Sun. There were a couple of folding chairs in the shade.
I sat and watched as our guys talked with the Marines. I was also interested to note that despite the informality of all this, the Marines stayed business-like. Some still sat in the turrets of the LAVs, watching things, and others kept an eye on the road.
There was a small table between us, and a chessboard sat on it, ready to go.
“You play?” he asked.
“Care for a game?”
“Sure, why not.” I knew very little about my cousin, and a good game of chess was a good place to learn.
“Who taught you to play?” I asked.
“I picked it up in the Corps.”
He picked up a white pawn and a black pawn, shuffled them around in his hand, and then held both closed fists out to me.
I tapped one hand, and he opened it.
“White has first move,” he said.
I took the pawn and placed it on the board.
“And who taught you to play?” he asked.
“Uncle Gilbert did,” I said.
“He’s married to your dad’s sister.”
“Was. He’s dead now.”
I considered my first move.
“I didn’t know that.”
“What are you guys doing watching this junkyard?”
“Trying to keep pilfering down,” Tomas answered, nodding out across the junkyard I was referring to. “There’s several hundred AK-47s, RPGs, and boatloads of ammo out there. We’re trying to round it all up, but it takes time.”
I made my first move.
“Trying to set me up for Queens Gambit, Will?”
“I guess you do play this game.”
“A lot. In answer to your question,” he played the traditional Queens Gambit Declined move. “Some. There’s all kinds of people down here, and not all of them like us. If I read things right, in a dozen years, Sadly Insane (President Bush’s nickname for Saddam) will be the least of our concerns.”
“I’m not into tarot cards or anything like that. Good move with your knight,” he said, as I started bringing the knights out to battle. Tomas seemed to be a good enough player that I’d better strike him hard.
“But I read a lot of history. We don’t need all that stuff falling into the wrong hands.”
Almost ten years later, I’d admit that my young cousin read the shape of things to come very well.
He moved one of his bishops out. I expected he’d next try to get his rooks deployed.
“And we also have to keep an eye on traffic control. One lane. Doesn’t work all that well.”
I could see that.
“Hungry?” Tomas asked.
Tomas reached into an open box and rummaged through the brown heavy duty plastic bags within. “I’ve got Chicken A La’ King, Ham, Tuna and Noddles, and Beef Stew. What would you like?”
“I’ll take the Tuna.”
He pulled the package out and handed it to me. “Good choice.” He pulled out a meal for himself.
I opened the bag. There were two small boxes and several sealed packages inside. This particular meal had Tuna and Noddles as the main course, a Chocolate Nut Cake, crackers and cheese spread, and the usual bag of coffee, gum, and sugar.
Tomas opened his stew packet just a little, then took the box it had been in and pocked a couple of holes in it. He then put the stew back in and sat the box upright. Taking a book of matches from his pocket, he tore a match stick off. He struck it and set the box on fire. Within a minute, the paper had been consumed by the fire, but the contents of his meal were hot.
“You like yours cold?”
“This one, I do,” I answered.
“Never been able to stand cold food.”
I’d received a baggie full of packets of chili flakes from Pizza Hut delivery in a care package. They added spice to the meal like Tabasco sauce did. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple.
“Here.” I handed him one.
“Gracias.” Tomas stuffed it into his pocket.
I sprinkled the flakes into my tuna and stirred it up.
“You’ve studied Bobby Fisher’s tactics, “ I said.
“Yep. distract and play with the other guy’s mind.”
“Guilty as charged.”
I’d studied Fisher, too. I had to. Max was the real chess player in our platoon, and he was some kind of evil genius at the game. If you managed to beat him, there was every chance he’d just let you win.
You were supposed to pretend you didn’t know that.
“I didn’t know you’d gone into the Marines.”
“Been in a little over four years now. The minute I turned eighteen, I was at the recruiter’s office.”
“Couldn’t wait to see the world, huh?”
He moved the rook’s pawn. Yep, he was going to try to run the board. This would be a bloodbath soon.
“I like it. Beats being back home.” He took a bite of food. “Basic was a breeze, at least no one was beating the shit out of me every other minute.”
I always thought Ernest would never be nominated Father of the Year. His statement confirmed it.
“You’ve no idea.”
I guess I didn’t.
“You know as well as I do that there’s evil in the world,” Tomas said. “Not all of it can all be fixed by talking to someone, or passing a law.”
He pointed to a hard case. It looked like the kind that contained a weapon of sorts. “There are some things in this world that can only be fixed with the proper application of firepower.”
I took another bite of the MRE and considered my next move. For some reason, the food tasted better than usual. Maybe it was the company.
But I’d missed completely what he was implying.
“M-40?” I asked.
“I’ll crack the case before you guys get going. It’s a really sweet rifle. You can reach out and touch someone with it.”
“Well, it’s assigned to me. I’m the sniper for this team.”
“He’s also our Company Ninja,” his Gunny said, coming up. He bent and fished a Pepsi out of the cooler.
“I’ve got a couple of black belts,” Tomas said. “Your move, Will.”
“I’m thinking about it.”
His Gunnery Sgt laughed. “Giving you the treatment is he.”
“So, it would seem.”
“Saying he’s got a couple of Black Belts is your cousin being modest.”
“He’s got boxes of trophies back home. And you should see this boy with a sword.”
“Too bad I don’t have a watermelon,” Tomas said. “I could show you what I can do with it.”
“You brought a sword with you?”
“Snuck it in, more like,” Gunny said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Tomas shrugged. “Hey Gunny, what kind of Ninja would I be if I didn’t have a sword handy.”
“You Marines!” I said with a chuckle.
Tomas pulled the cooler the First Sgt had gotten the Pepsi from closer and opened it. I was surprised to see ice in it.
He handed me a cold can. Only the logo made the drink identifiable as a Pepsi since the name was written in Arabic.
“Sorry, that’s all we’ve got.”
I popped the top and took a drink. It burnt in my throat, and I felt the burn run down and into my stomach.
“Man. Thanks. That’s good.”
“We just came up this AM from our camp. We got a truckload of soda in, and the chow hall makes sure we’ve got ice.”
He took a bite of food and washed it down with some Pepsi. “Just because Marines are tough doesn’t mean we don’t like the finer things in life.”
“Well, I appreciate it,” I said, meaning it. “This is the first cold soda I’ve had since leaving Germany.”
“So, what led you into the Army? I mean last I heard, you were a cop.”
“I was. I was Chief of Police in a small town.”
“Town went broke. Couldn’t afford anyone anymore. We were all laid off.”
“Not writing enough tickets?”
“I guess so. Anyway, the bank started taking away everything I owned, so one day, I’m walking in Alamosa, putting in resumes when I passed the recruiters’ office. I stopped, looked at the sign that said something about ‘Army Opportunites,’ walked in, and said, ‘Take me. I’m yours.’
“A month later, I’m the oldest PFC in the US Army that has never been busted.”
I moved one of my bishops out. With the knights out, it was time to get the power players engaged.
“Heard from your folks?”
“Mom, I do,” he said. “Things have never been that well between dad and me.”
Somehow, that didn’t surprise me. I knew Ernest had it in him to be a complete and total jerk, but I never thought he’d be that way towards his boy.
If he was his boy, I remember thinking.
He munched thoughtfully on a cracker. “The only thing that man ever taught me was how to take a beating.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
He ate another spoonful of stew, swallowed it, and then said. “Not very many people do, Will.” He was looking out across the war blasted wrecks. It was clear he forgot the game. He was talking to me like a brother, something I knew he didn’t have.
“There are things that go on in the family that would scare you.”
He looked at me, and I saw the hard steel in them that so many Marines have in their eyes. But there was something else there. A resolve that warned me he could be a serious customer if he took a mind to be one.
“Things that would give you nightmares,” he said. “Things that someone is going to pay for one day.”
“I’d say if you ever need help, let me know.”
I’d regret saying that.
I noted a steady stream of MPs in and out of the LAVs. The Marines were good to their word and were giving them the nickel tour.
“Got a girl in your outfit?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s Terri.”
I supposed she is, but then Tomas had been in the desert for a long time.
“Like you, she has black belts in more Japanese, Korean, and Chinese words than you can shake a stick at.”
“Really. She’s someone you don’t want to piss off.”
“I’ll try not to annoy her then,” he said with a laugh.
The LT was yelling that we move out in five minutes.
“I guess it’s time to hit the dusty trail. Finish this game another time?”
“I’d like that,” I said.
There was a trash bag hooked up to the LAV, and I put the remains of my meal into it. Quickly I finished the soda and added the can to it.
“Anything you need?” I asked.
“Got anything to read?”
I thought a little and then said, “Come on.”
We went over to my Humvee, and I rifled through my pack and pulled out a paperback novel. I kept my books inside plastic ziplock bags so they’d stay dry.
“Like Science Fiction?”
“Love it, especially Star Trek.”
“Then, you’ll love this book.” I handed him a copy of the Star Trek novel, The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar.
“I haven’t read this. You sure you want to give this away? I might never see you to give it back.”
“Don’t sweat it. I got this one in a goodie box from the states. I’ve got a copy back in Germany. You can keep it.”
“Thanks, Will. When we both get home, we need to get together.”
“We should. My folks still live in the same place.” I wrote the number to the ranch in the cover.
I got in my Humvee and shook my cousin’s hand one last time. “You take care of yourself.”
“Vaya con Dios, Primo.”