When I was in the army, every Saturday afternoon we had 1 or 2 hours in the schedule marked as “time at the soldier’s disposition” (in Romanian “timp la dispozi?ia militarului”). It was the only slot in the week when there was a hint of freedom, as all the other hours were not belonging to us. Not even when we’re sleeping. As soldiers, we had to be available every single second.
I remember that, in the first weeks, we had regular night inspections, usually around 2-3 AM, during which the officer in charge was searching our bedroom, to find out if we’re doing something wrong. Most of the time it was something in the way we were folding our uniforms. We had, at the top of the bed, a small bench on which we had to fold and put our uniform during the night. That folding had to follow a very strict protocol, clothes not only had to be stacked in a specific order, but the military insignia had to point to a certain location, relative to the military unit geography (more precisely, to the unit flag, which was at the headquarters). Of course, in the beginning, we didn’t know any of these, so we had our uniforms thrown on the floors many times until we learned.
These night visits were the good ones, though, as we were soon to find out. They might have been loud and scary, and we were violently awaken, not knowing if we did something wrong, or how, but at least we knew about them. Because there were also other types of visits, sneakier, silent and more damaging. For instance, the officer in charge would patrol during the night to see if our soldier on guard was awake and on duty. We had to maintain permanent guarding of our dorm by doing 3 hours shifts, and the most challenging one was between midnight and 3 AM, because it basically meant you’re not sleeping at all (we had to be on our feet at 5 AM). So, during this shift, the officer in charge would sneak in without any noise and see if the soldier was there. If he wasn’t there, or if he was sleeping, the officer would usually pour water in our boots and take them out in the cold. We woke up quite a few times with a 2-3 cm layer of ice inside our boots, and that was the only proof that someone was in our dorm during the night. That and, obviously, the punishment for the unfortunate solider who was caught off guard.
For reasons initially unclear, as I was sipping my double espresso this morning, this “time at the soldier’s disposal” memory came into my mind again. There was a certain vibe on the streets of Valencia, a Saturday morning kind of chill and flat energy, almost like I was walking inside water. There was barely any sound, just a couple of people buying their morning croissants and, every two streets, some silent runners. I was almost ready to reach out to my uniform and start cleaning it up – one of the things that we were actually during our “time at the soldier’s disposition”.
Because, even if it said it was “at our disposition”, it really wasn’t. We were squeezing in those two hours all the chores that we were supposed to do during the week, like washing our clothes, or ourselves, or just cleaning up our riffles, because, during the week, we were so thirsty for those 5 or 10 minutes of extra sleep, or those 5 or 10 minutes stolen while smoking a cigarette. But after all the chores were done, and if we still had a few minutes, or half an hour, in this “time at the soldier disposition” we were normal again. Sometimes we were reading the letters we received (yeah, we were actually receiving letters) or we were writing our own letters to our closest ones. We were talking to each other and laughed. Sometimes we were just sitting on our beds, looking at the ceiling, enjoying a small space-time bubble untainted by orders, fear and aggression. We were reconnecting, at least mentally, with a part of our recent past that was still familiar, a past in which we were free.
I finished my morning espresso, and, as I was heading back home on the streets still empty, I realized it was “time at the solider’s disposition” all over again, although I was 30 years later, in a different country.
And the unclear reasons for which this deeply hidden felling emerged finally started to clear, just like the thin fog was finally leaving the streets of Valencia.
For the last year, I’ve been living another kind of military experience, only this time the war was with an invisible enemy. The pandemic threw us all in a state of permanent alert, it cut our relationships to a barely minimum and made us wear a new type o uniform – even if it only covers just our mouth and nostrils. There was a constant threat and state of panic, just like I had in my first months in the army.
And, just like the “time at the soldier’s disposition” was an island of normality in a whirlwind of stress and aggression, reminding me of a past in which I used to be free, and pointing to a future in which I would again be free, this morning made me understand that this pandemic shit will end too.
Maybe rather sooner than later.