“Plav”, he said.
“What?”, I said back.
“Plav. That’s where you’re going to”
“No, no. There’s been some kind of mistake. I’m supposed to join the Sports Brigade in Pula”
“Plav”, he said tiredly, “It’s Plav, son. You are to report to the barracks on Saturday, September 1st. Here’s your travel money”
I got 420 Yugoslav Dinars. The kid in front of me got 35. The one behind me got 50. I had no idea where or what Plav was, but I was pretty sure I was fucked.
* * *
I liked dogs as a kid, but these were no dogs. They were bred from equal parts German Shepherd, Rotweiler, and centuries of uncontrolled anger. I was afraid of even the slobber coming out of their ever-foaming mouths, convinced it was so full of evil it would turn me to stone if it ended up touching me.
As it turned out, Plav was a village in the Accursed Mountains, the place where I was to spend the next 12 months protecting the Brotherhood and Unity of Yugoslav People against Albanian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. I was given a gun to deal with them once I find them. And I was to be given one of these dogs to find them in the first place.
* * *
It started snowing in October. We had to do our morning gymnastics shirtless for as long the temperature was above freezing. Once below, we were allowed to keep the sleeveless undershirt on.
“I’m feeling warm. I’m feeling the warmth spread through my body”, the Serbian kid next to me kept repeating out loud during the before-the-sunrise squats. His mother taught Yoga.
“You are stupid”, the Macedonian kid replied. He wasn’t recruited for this unit because he was a good athlete, but because he bribed recruitment officials in his village. It cost him one goat and in his mind increased his chances of getting married one day, preferably to Samantha Fox.
* * *
About three months in, it was decided that The Dog Beast would no longer eat me if given the opportunity, so I was cleared to go on the patrols with it.
Nowadays, I see the mountain chain where I lived then referred to as “Albanian Alps”. Nobody called it like that back then. It was always The Accursed Mountains, with the “accursed” part accentuated, almost to the point of spitting on the floor right after saying it. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be there. It was really, really cold, it was dark most of the time, the terrain was rocky and slippery and full of precipices, and unlike the very rare mountaineers who ventured that far, I couldn’t just turn around and go back when I felt like it.
Among other reasons, because I had The Dog Beast tied to my belt, thus somewhat increasing my chances of not falling off the cliff, while simultaneously significantly decreasing my chances of not being pulled forward all the time.
* * *
My sister must have been concerned that the military diet was not sufficient for her athlete baby brother, so she decided to fix it and send me 30 pounds of pork rinds. Actually, she decided to send me 50 pounds of pork rinds, but was then informed at the post office that no packages of over 30 pounds can be sent to Albanian border. That led to some awkward repackaging and a pretty long queue that was formed behind her, but I did get my rinds.
Stashed behind my machine gun, they quickly became the preferred currency of the outpost, kind of like Bitcoin, only more valuable, because there was a limited and a decreasing number of them.
* * *
The Dog Beast stopped first. I could barely see it, because it was dark and we were in the forested part of the route, but I felt the line tied to my belt go limp. I had no idea why it was stopping and to be honest, I was still scared to insist too much, so I stopped, too. As I was contemplating if I had enough time to pee before it decided to pull me again, I saw it curl down and cover its muzzle with the paws. It was the first time it looked like a normal dog and I was almost tempted to bend down and cuddle it.
Then it started yowling in terror.
The Dog Beast was yowling in terror. This had about the same effect on me as being woken up by my father as a 3-years-old, telling me that he had heard something and that he is afraid it is still out there in the closet. Between The Dog Beast and me there was exactly one brave soldier and it wasn’t me. I was not bred to fight and kill and if the one that was felt it needed to be scared shitless, what about me? I had no idea what it was, but it was more than I could handle.
And then I heard them.
First one, then two, then more sounds than I could tell apart, the wolves announced their presence to make it clear that in the hierarchy of badasses, they were quite a few notches higher than my Dog Beast.
* * *
What happened next is still kind of a blur to me. I’d like to think it didn’t involve crying. I’m sure it didn’t involve any rational thinking, or, God forbid, bravery. I’m pretty sure it involved a lot of screaming and firing my M-72 into the general direction of nothingness. It also involved a lot of luck, because none of the 30 shots I fired hit me or The Traitor Dog. I would have surely fired some more, but it is one thing to squeeze your shaking fingers around the trigger and quite another one to manage to change a magazine.
Be as it may, I was now alive and 30 bullets short. Unlike normal military who are given real ammunition only for shooting exercises, we, the elite and brave protectors of our borders, had ours on us all the time. The enemy never sleeps, so neither should we. Or at least not too far from the loaded gun. The problem was, you were not exactly supposed to lose your bullets, which was in the end effect what I did. I could either invent an Albanian intrusion and start a war, go chasing the wolves and actually shoot one to bring it as evidence, or tell the truth.
I was about as inclined to try to get any closer to the wolves as I was to explain what happened to the panel of officers trying to determine if I was more of an idiot or a coward.
Luckily, there was also a fourth way.
* * *
For all the complaining I did while I was there, I never failed to acknowledge that I lived in a Ritz-Carlton compared to my counterparts on the other side, protecting their Motherland against Yugoslavian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Other Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. To start, they had to serve a two-year term. Then, if anyone in their family had bone spurs or such and got off, they had to serve their two years, too. This led to quite a few families lining up their sons and going, “One, two, one, two, fuck you”, and thanking the sacrificed one for his service of six or eight years.
Then there was the question of equipment. They wore rubber boots in temperatures that were often twenty or thirty degrees below zero. They had similar spin-offs of Russian Kalashnikov as we did, only theirs were far too rusty to actually work. Which was my salvation. Because if you have guns that don’t work, what you have plenty of and no use for are – the bullets.
While they had the surplus of ammunition, what they lacked for was porn. It turns out, in the battle of The Greatest Socialist Countries That Ever Existed, ours was greater because we not only sold porn magazines over the counter, but we even published our own.
* * *
When you needed something, you went to Uroš, the Slovenian. He could get you a pair of new socks from the storage for two packs of cigarettes, or he could get you a pack of cigarettes for two pairs of new socks. Anything but the bullets, apparently.
It took me three kilos of pork rinds, but I got out of the library with two mostly non-sticky Erotikas, a counseling magazine for all questions of socialist love for your neighbor. Uroš quickly expanded the target audience for his new item on stock by relabeling them to Chicken Rinds. He was good, I’ll give him that. He also told me he could give me a very good price if I could bring him some Skenderbeg, Albanian Cognac, which was the second most exported item by the Albanian Defense Forces.
* * *
I tied The Traitor Dog to a rock, and proceeded to a nearby valley with only Mirela, a teacher who almost drowned, but was saved by two lifeguards, and a few naughty nurses under my shirt. I had the feeling that the dog was even more ashamed by his poor combat performance than I was. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t giving me any shit anymore.
I had negotiated over the radio and made a deal for one Erotika in exchange for 30 bullets and one bottle of Skenderbeg, but their English was so bad that I preferred to have a little extra, just in case things went south.
There were two of them.
“You got fuck?”
“Yeah, I got fuck. You have the bullets?”
“See fuck first”
Mirela crossed the border.
“Yeah, I know. Bullets, now?”
He gave them to me in a plastic bag, as if they were cherries. I counted. Thirty-four.
Three heavily armed soldiers involved in an international smuggling stand-off. And a voice that was not demanding, but pleading.
“One more fuck, yes”, and the nurses went east, too.
He didn’t bother to check this one. He reached in the canvas bag and got out two bottles. He held them up.
“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, he exclaimed proudly. It was evening.
“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, said I.
I took the bottles and went back to The Traitor Dog. It looked up to me, as if saying, “We good now?”
“Yeah, we’re good now, Traitor Dog”, I said loudly, and started back for the barracks.