Volume 27, Number 3

The Alarm Goes Off

West Gipson

I cannot rightly tell you if I ever got used to the alarm. A blaring noise, not unlike a bird screeching, loud enough to hurt your eardrums, accompanied by blind flashing red and white lights. The alarm rings everywhere in the Tower—the bunks, the mess hall, the top floor, even the bathrooms.

It rings less frequently now.

The alarm goes off. Flashing red, flashing white, screeching bird. Wake up time.

The alarm was not always just an alarm. To me, at least. When I first started working in the Towers, the alarm's sounding was followed immediately by an intense rush of fear, filling my whole body, causing shaky legs, fuzzy mind, violent heart. The fear would continue as we marched to the top floor and did not end even once the job was done. I don't remember clearly when it would leave me. A good estimate might be when the adrenaline wore off and I was in the mess hall eating minestrone. Everyone is like that at first, they said. At first? I did not believe them at the time. But of course they were right. Eventually, you run out of the energy to live in constant terror. You run out of the energy it takes to be scared. Being a coward is exhausting.

We were not told about the alarm beforehand. This is most of the reason why we hated it. It seemed an unfair, almost rude gesture. When we decided to work at the towers, we were not told about the screeching white red flashing. We were not told much beforehand in general.

Working at the towers was not my first choice. After training, I was hoping for something a bit more exciting; glamorous, even. A base in Germany, maybe, where I could pretend to be a gap-year kid and sneak off to Oktoberfest. That was the dream. But I just wasn't good enough. My options were scant, so I chose the towers. I have a feeling this was how most of us ended up here.


These words were on posters for the towers. The posters never had any pictures, and if you asked someone where the towers were, they would grunt and say, "confidential." Coincidentally, that would become the same response we used in response to questions from curious friends and family.

Secrecy adds intrigue to the bleakest of situations. The towers seemed romantic, in a dark sort of way. I was always a romantic.

When I arrived, the towers were brand new. They tell us the towers produced over 10,000 jobs. But we would not know that from experience. Those in the towers are not permitted to interact with the fellow soldiers however many miles off, manning other towers along the wall. We are isolated. Sometimes we might receive mail, but it is so heavily censored that it is basically unreadable.

You grow, however, not to miss family and friends.

Even the people who drop off food and water and cigarettes aren't allowed inside. Mailmen can only reach the towers through an underground tunnel, the only way any of us can. They deliver soup, our primary food, every Sunday through a sort of cat-door hidden below ground level. Soup is not too bad, but once in blue moon you have bread and remember once more how damn boring soup is.

I think we receive more cigarettes than food. Everyone smokes. It might be from the stress; it might just be tradition. I couldn't tell you either way. The smell never leaves the tower. There are more ashtrays than soldiers. The only exception is the top floor, where we are not allowed to smoke. As we smoke in the break room, we read biographies about Reagan and study Operation Iraqi Freedom and watch old war films. American Sniper is a crowd favorite.

As for the social situation, either you talk all the time or you never say a word. The loud ones joke, I think, to forget. The rest of us simply don't know what to say.

When the alarm goes off we—quickly now—wake, change, and head upstairs. The alarm may ring every thirty minutes. It may ring once a day. Although some soldiers may claim some kind of psychic talent, no one truly knows when it will go off. So we sleep when we can, knowing full well we may be awakened soon. Sometimes we are so sleep-deprived that once we get into bed we fall asleep at once.

There are those who derive a sick pleasure in what we do. I am not among them. I often wonder if I still would have chosen the towers if I knew the truth of our mission. Usually I decide that I would not.

The alarm goes off.

Flashing red white in the bunkroom.

Shuffling feet.

Pull on slacks.

Get up. Get up. Get up.

Stairs now. All the way up.

Past the door.

Take a seat.

Grab the gun.

Aim the gun.

Find the man in the desert.

Time to get tough.

Find the man in the desert.


Bang bang.

Got 'em.


Tomato soup today.

Tomato soup and American Sniper.

Back to bed.

Back to bed again.

Lights off.

I fall asleep.

And then I dream, and I kiss Maria goodbye and promise her to bring her over when I can, and I'm walking in the desert, and I am the brown man, I am the man that is a black speck, I am the target, and I see the tower and squint at it in the sun, and before I can reach it—

—the alarm goes off.


originally published on Potluck Mag