death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades

Johnny was a mess—snide, sneering, insubordinate, a liar—and impossibly old, maybe even 24 or 25. None of us really believed him when he said his previous job was carrying nuclear bombs around on his back. We should have.

After Vietnam, the US Army was a mess in general. Johnny was just another of us—the disheartened lifers, stragglers serving out their time, and recently-enlisted poor, like me—who were pretending to Be All We Could Be. The collapse in Vietnam had come so definitively that even a “combat arms” MOS (military occupational specialty) seemed to have little to do with actual warfare. Morale and pay were low, equipment old. Marijuana seedlings grew in the drip lines of the barracks roof, because when MPs brought the drug dogs around, guys threw their stashes out the windows.

Every time we saluted officers we were to say the battalion motto, Condite et Pugnate (“Build and Fight”). Some began to mispronounce it as grotesquely as possible, shouting, “Cone-ditty eht pug-nayt!” in made-up, threatening-sounding accents. The requirement stopped.

The week before Grenada, we were ordered to put concertina wire around our own area, to prevent desertions. It was rumored if the Soviets decided to roll over Europe we would be thrown in their way, to die in the first hour.

And that, it turns out, is what best validates Johnny’s claim. He said he had been reclassified in the early ‘80s to MOS 12B (Combat Engineer, like the rest of us) from 12E (Army Atomic Demolition Munitions Specialist).

It was a thing. (Here is a black-and-white film, declassified in 1997, of an early UDT/SEAL with his barrel bomb.)

The idea was that when the T-80s came roaring up the Fulda Gap, Johnny and his comrades would hand-carry their 100-pound nuclear weapon to the front, set a timer, and run like hell for Frankfurt, in hopes of escaping the blast radius before the device went off. The resultant crater would, the generals hoped, block or at least delay the Soviet advance.

Though it would have meant the start of the end of the world, there was something hilariously ridiculous about it, as there was about Johnny: a short, mean mid-southerner, his hair parted in the middle, downy blond moustache under a big nose and bulging eyes, the kind of guy who would bite your ear off in the clinch.

We laughed at the thought of him running, in a froth, an atomic Wile E. Coyote, but he made what we now call a duckface, squinched his eyes shut, and snapped his fingers in our faces.

“Bet,” he said, vaingloriously.

It must have taken a special breed to carry a nuclear weapon in their backpacks. ArmyTimes quotes another former 12E: “You set your timer, and it would click when it went off, or it went ding or I forget what, but you knew you were toast. Ding! Your toast is ready, and it’s you. […] You didn’t go out with the thought that it was anything other than a one-way mission. If you’re Bruce Willis, you get away, but I ain’t Bruce Willis.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially after 9-11, politicians and the media have worried about terrorists bringing “suitcase bombs” into the US to decimate a city. These worries rise, are forgotten, and rise again according to the times and latest rumors. ABC News has said the devices “are closer to fiction than reality.”

Johnny would say: Bet.


My title is from Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.