Under the Hood
Johnathan Hood sat in a wooden rocking chair on the front porch of his rambling log home watching the hive of activity below. It was nearly 8:00 p.m. The sky was growing dark, but the burgeoning camp was still bustling with activity.
Hood took a test draw on his recently-filled pipe and then charred the surface of the tobacco. As he gently re-tamped the tobacco and re-lit the pipe, Hood took a few puffs and then set his lighter on a small pine table next to his chair. Hood had taken up pipe smoking after retiring from the Marines. His father had smoked a pipe and his father before him. In Hood’s family, a man was expected to enjoy a good pipe in the evening once he reached a certain age. Those who took up the pipe at too early an age were frowned upon. The pipe was a sign of maturity and enjoyment relegated only to those who had earned the right.
Hood recalled that as a young lad he and his friends had made corncob pipes and stolen a little of their fathers’ tobacco to give them a try. They had been ignorant of the ways of the pipe at the time, struggling to get them alight and keep them lit. They had hidden behind the barn on Hood’s farm, but Hood’s father had found them. The smell of burning tobacco quickly gave them away.
Rather than light into them with a switch, as the elder Hood had done on many an occasion, Hood’s father had showed them how to tamp the tobacco and keep it lit. He then forced each of the boys to smoke three pipes in a row. By the end of the exercise all of the boys were green around the gills and two of them had vomited.
Hood chuckled to himself as he recalled the incident. His father had been a hard man but a good man and a wise one too. Now, as the elder statesman of this fast-growing camp, Hood only hoped he was half as wise and half as good. He was certainly at least as disciplined and tough as his old man had been.
The thought was sobering. As the camp grew, problems grew. It became more difficult to maintain order. There were many women alone or with children. There were a number of teenage girls quickly turning into women. Hood had noted the looks of many of the single men. It was natural but it was dangerous. Among other things, they were all sitting on a hormonal powder keg, its fuse lit by a collapse of society and its rules and norms. There were still remnants of the social mores of civilization, but many of them, like the economies of now-bankrupt nations, were teetering on the brink. One small nudge in the wrong direction … one minor crack in the code of discipline and the Freeman Militia Center could quickly turn into something ugly.
Gunny, as his former Marines called him, reflected on the situation as one of those former Marines approached, climbing the hill on which Hood’s home stood. Brett Tanner. The man was a mountain. Easily 6′ 5” and probably close to 300 pounds, Hood suspected that there might be less than ten pounds of fat on the man’s entire body. The man’s height and size had been a disadvantage on occasion. Getting in and out of even a large vehicle like a HMMWV was not easy for Tanner. Given the current circumstances, however, Tanner’s size was a definite advantage. For one thing, it allowed him to keep the peace primarily through intimidation. Rarely did anyone challenge Tanner. Even the most hardened of men would look up at Tanner’s hulk and give serious consideration to the error of their ways.
Tanner broke through Hood’s reverie, “Gunny, we got problems.”
“That ain’t no news flash, Tanner,” Hood grunted in reply.
“New problems,” Tanner gave Hood a no-nonsense look. “Different problems. We got people starting to wander in our direction.”
Hood took a puff on his pipe and blew smoke rings into the evening breeze. “Where they at?”
“About two miles out,” Tanner replied. “Coming from the direction of Omaha.”
“How many?” Hood knew Tanner would have anticipated the question.
“Looks like about twenty,” Tanner began, “but it might just be the first wave.”
Hood remained quiet as he looked up at the rafters of the roof over his porch.
“I was up near Offutt a week ago with Morrison and a couple of the others,” Tanner continued. “Up by that FEMA camp where we came across the slave auction. You remember?”
“Yeah, Tanner, I remember,” Hood had met the man and his three daughters that had been rescued that day. Their story seemed all too typical of the harrowing lives those who had survived the first few months were living.
Hood inhaled deeply on his pipe and wondered how much longer his tobacco stash could be preserved.
“What do you want us to do, Gunny?” Tanner rarely took long to get to the point of a matter.
“I need to give that some thought, sergeant,” Hood replied. “We’ve already taken in so many. Probably too many. I’m more than a little concerned that things could quickly get out of hand here in camp.”
“Yeah, I’ve sensed it,” Tanner agreed. “It’s like there’s an under-current.”
Tanner had grown up in northern California where the insidious undertow could easily pull even a strong swimmer to their death if they didn’t know how to deal with it.
“You’re right, Tanner,” Hood concurred. “We already have all the elements of something really nasty to take place. Adding fuel to that fire, if you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors, can only make the situation worse.”
“How about a patrol to send people packing in another direction?” Tanner was brainstorming.
Hood puffed on his pipe for a moment, staring in Tanner’s direction but through him to a point somewhere off in the distance. Tanner knew the look. He also knew not to interrupt Gunny when he had that look. The wheels were turning in Gunny’s brain. Rarely did those wheels turn without grinding out the grist of a plan of action that would almost assuredly save the day and, often as not, a few people’s lives as well.
“Let me sleep on it,” Hood said finally.
“Aye, aye,” Tanner replied and turned on his heel to return down the hill to the camp below.
Hood finished his pipe and knocked the ashes out in the big granite ashtray on the table next to his chair. As he stood, the grizzled veteran turned to look at the western sky. Tall, gray clouds had piled up while he and Tanner had talked.
“Thunderheads,” Hood murmured. “Storm’s a-coming.”
As he said it, Hood could feel the temperature change. Lightning crackled high up in the anvil of the cloud system.