(Disclaimer: The following account is loosely based on a true story.)
It was roughly three fortnights ago when the local mail courier rapped upon my door and handed me a sealed envelope. It was stamped "Confidential" in bright red letters on the back. I thanked the courier, locked the door, closed the window blinds, turned off the lights, and opened up the envelope under a flickering candlelight. It was a telegram from my old friend Snake-eyes, the contents of which were the following:
"Red Rooster". It was an alias I hadn't heard in years, maybe decades. It was a codename from my days back in the Tennessee Militia, and only a handful of living souls had knowledge of it. One of these souls was the legendary Snake-eyes, my squad leader and old pal from the covert operations team. Back in our prime, we were considered the best of the best, the crème de la crème. Now, we were both normal civilians leading mundane civilian lives. He went into the skunk pellet trading business and was doing quite well, and I? I became a student at UT by day, and a moonshiner by night. I hadn't heard from him, or the other squad members, in ages.
I read through the message, which was written in a modified Morse code to ensure its confidentiality. After some brief cordial remarks, Snake-eyes briefly explains how he had heard a rumor down at the Rocky Top Cafe about an inexplicable sudden surge in the skunk population out in Salt Lake City, and how he thought it were a heaven-sent opportunity to expand his skunk pellet business, or in his exact words, "put some spunk in the skunk [pellet trading business]". The rumor sounded odd to me, as do most rumors down at the Rocky Top Cafe, but Snake-eyes argued that it was worth investigating. The mission, he went on, would be dubbed "Operation Tango", and would consist of deploying to Salt Lake City on January 6th, conducting a thorough reconnaissance of the area for four days, and returning on January 11th. Simple enough. But, as I decoded the last line of the message, I cringed. It said, "The rumor is that the skunks have taken refuge in the ski slopes, particularly the double black diamonds. This means that the reconnaissance must be conducted on skis."
There are certain words that, when read or heard, strike terror deep into even the bravest of hearts and serve to keep one mindful of one's mortality. For me, that word is comprised of three letters - an "s", a "k", and an "i". At this one word, I shuddered violently and bit my mustache. Memories from the night of December 23rd, 2009 - my humiliating first attempt at skiing - suddenly flashed through my mind. I had foolishly been lured into going to Yong-Pyong, Korea, one of Korea's premiere skiing resorts, by friends Luke Elie and Maude Yang. At one moment, I had boldly stood atop the beginner slopes, only to be cast down headlong the next. With every tumultuous tumble, I paid dearly. Mother nature had exacted payment of her hefty tuition fees, and appeared to prefer them be paid in full, upfront. My terror grew even greater when I imagined the double black diamonds in the Rocky Mountains, which made the beginner slopes in Korea appear as mere molehills in comparison. Dreadful visions flashed across my mind and fears tugged at my heart strings as I paced to-and-fro, telegram in hand, as the wooden floor creaked under my nervous steps and the candlelight cast its menacing shadows upon the wall. I could feel my heartbeat hasten as I began to comprehend the full magnitude of this mission. Mortified, my knees became weak, and lo! did my feeble frame swoon!
I awoke the next morning on the cold kitchen floor, but the crumpled telegram had somehow remained in hand. It was dark, for the window remained closed and the candle had all but melted. It took me a moment to gather myself. I opened the windows, took some fresh air and a light repast to regain my strength and, as I did, pondered the eternal question, "What shall I do?". The noble reader may agree that the things which in the evening look dark and obscure appear but too clearly in the light of the morning. Perhaps, I thought, I had lived in the shadows of my past failures long enough? Perhaps, this was Providence granting me a chance at redemption? I knew what must be done. With steadfast resolution, I took up pen in trembling hand and wrote - first a confirmation telegram to Snake-eyes, second my will and last testament.
The Old Squad Reunites
January 6th, 2011. Alas, the predestined day arrived! I was rudely awoken by my alarm clock, hastily ate the remains of a bag of Captain Crunch, tidied up my house with blinding speed, packed all the items that were deemed necessary, and rushed off to the McGhee-Tyson Airport with luggage in hand to catch the 2:17 pm flight. Lo and behold, the whole squad was there! Reunited just like old times! (Of course, with the exception of "Gunner" and "Rabbit", who had both been arrested after dueling in the Cracker Barrel parking lot after one accused the other of making an illegal move in a checkers match) Hooray!
There was Snake-eyes, in the flesh!
Civilian name: Josiah Glaufenhien
Skiing style: Dexterous and dangerous
Description: Heavy munitions expert. Capable of mass destruction. World renowned in hand-to-hand combat. Exfoliates regularly.
There was the rest of the old squad!
Civilian name: Caleb Glaufenhein
Codename: "King Cobra"
Skiing style: Smooth as silk
Description: Demolition expert. World renowned axe thrower. Able to uproot small trees with bare hands. Able to smash things.
Civilian name: Bryan Horlings
Skiing style: Suave and savvy
Description: Logistical mastermind. Trained to open canned goods with teeth (if required). Has a knack for interior decorating and color coordinating.
Civilian name: Jason Kisner
Skiing style: Seasoned and skillful
Description: Radio Communications Expert. Also pretty good at playing horseshoes and other fun games.
Civilian name: Rick Moore
Skiing style: Moose in roller skates
Description: Master of creating diversions and acting as decoys to enemy fire. Possesses the strength of a thousand thighs.
And, of course, me! The sixth man!
Civilian name: Erik Johnson
Codename: "Red Rooster"
Skiing style: N/A
Description: Expert in gathering and foraging. Trained to consume an unbelievable quantity of food at an an unbelievably slow pace. Also, able to de-ice ski-lift chairs after meals.
Yes, sir. The legendary Tennessee Militia's finest covert operations team, reunited once again! And, it felt so good. We boarded the plane and reached Salt Lake City in the evening. We checked in at base camp, which was codenamed "Super 8 Motel", set up perimeter defenses, and got some shut eye.
Salt Lake City
January 7th, 2011. We awoke bright and early, just like the old days. Snake-eyes rallied the troops for breakfast, which was provided by base camp in the form of a buffet. Over the meal, we reminisced about old times in the militia. Story after story was told and told again and commented on. Spirits were buoyant and laughter abounded. Once chow time was over, the ever vigilant Snake-eyes gave the order to head out. So, we did.
As we convoyed to our first mysterious destination, one could see the daylight breaking over the horizon. It had illuminated everything that the previous night had so well concealed. Beautiful snow-covered evergreens lined the road and towered over us.
Rugged mountains loomed in the distance, serving to remind me of the perils inherent in our imminently impending mission. Who could fathom what hazards lie ahead? (gulp)
The Old Squad had been through thick and thin together, but who knows? Many a good men have traveled from afar to ski these Rocky Mountains, never to return. Perhaps.... The Old Squad's greatest trial was yet to come?
(To be continued....)