“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.
* * *