From Hunter Killer: The War with China – The Battle for the Central Pacific by David Poyer. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina
The Booger squad had been marching all night. Up and down the rolling hills, through dead, crackling marshgrass. Under icy clouds, buffeted by gusts of bitter rain. Breaking into a staggering, lurching double-time onto the beach, to the crash of Atlantic waves.
The shortest man staggered, then caught himself before he fell. Another dropped back, shouting into his ear, “Keep going, Ramos! You gotta keep up, man. Let us drag you.”
Hector Ramos shook himself back into consciousness. Tried to remember where he was. What he was. But he kept sliding off into sleep.
Back to the Line.
The building’s set back from the highway behind chain link topped by concertina. Bay-mist softens the angles of blue and white-painted concrete block, cooling towers, the boiler smokestacks in the byproducts plant. Morning light plays in gold, rose, and lavender through plumes of smoke and steam, rising toward a blue sky where seagulls wheel.
A stench of burnt feathers, manure, and ammonia breathes through the old Kia’s heater as seventeen-year-old Hector nears the plant. A whine begins under the hood. When he turns the wheel to swing into the lot, a vicious knocking throbs. The guard peers in, then waves him on. A sparkly rosary and a laminated picture of a dark-haired girl sway from Hector’s rear view. He doesn’t have money to fix the car, or credit to buy another, so he just parks and hoists the rusty door back into place so it can latch.
He follows the other shift employees through the guard shack. He stalks tensely up the ramp into the rear loading area, past the idling line of trucks, nodding to Sazi and Fernando. Checking out of the corners of his eyes for Mahmou’, but the Arab isn’t in yet. Hector sighs and punches in. The Line starts here, though this early it isn’t moving yet. Dozens of trucks wait grille to tailgate, engines rumbling, diesel-smoke drifting up. Drivers slouch by the ramp, jeans sagging, smoking and talking. They’re Peruvian, Salvadorean, Mexican. There were Haitians when Hector hired on, but they made trouble over wages and one day were all gone. Desparecido, though probably not in the way the Salvadoreans mean. Yellow plastic modules flocked with down are stacked on the trailers, twenty to twenty-five birds to a cell. A forklift will slide them off onto the conveyor. Hector walks past the door to his own cage, past José. His foreman’s studying a seagull with a broken wing which is watching him hopefully from the loading dock.
But Hector doesn’t go in yet. Instead he heads to the break room and puts the bag lunch his mother packed in the fridge. He fidgets at the drink machine, studying the buttons. He can add, but it takes time. If someone interrupts, he has to start over. The tv’s on. A fat white man with a comb-over is talking about Mexicans. They sneak over the border and anchor themselves with babies. They draw relief and don’t work. They sell drugs, rape, and kill. The camera pans to his audience. They’re chanting and shaking placards, faces twisted with hate. The screen shows a wall in a desert. Hector recalls that desert, but doesn’t remember a wall.
The news changes to the war, explosions, aircraft. He pushes sleeves up on thin arms. Dark, raised scars, like poison ivy vines on a tree, run from his hands to above the elbows.
He’s pushing coins into the machine, counting aloud, when another teen bounces in. Bony, wiry, with high cheekbones and a tattoo on the side of his neck. “Ay, Hector!” Mahmou’ calls. “How’s that hot little Mirielle? Get in her sweet pants yet?”
Hector flinches. The machine whirs, thunks, disgorges a can. Almost too fast to see, Mahmou’ snatches it. Hector lunges, but the other holds it away teasingly, then upends it over a trash bin. Flips him the empty, and slaps his back. ”Got to be faster next time, ‘migo. That is what I am training you for, the speed. You are not fast, you will not last. Not in the Cage.”
Outside a bell clangs long and loud, echoing off concrete and machines. Motors power up. A metallic crashing begins, and an electric hum. When Hector steps out of the break room he has to jump back to avoid the polished prongs of a forklift. He hurries across gray-painted concrete, following Mahmou’, who pulls a pair of nylons from his pocket and draws them up over his hands.
In the Hanging Cage a long chain of stainless hooks sways from an I-beam, tinkling faintly. From them hang dozens of upside-down Us of polished stainless metal, each just long enough to trap a man’s hand. The chain passes through a vertical slot in the concrete wall to their right. Slot, wall, and floor are spattered with a brownish-black crust inches thick. The kill lines run faster than the eviscerating lines, two lines into four, with the kill lines at 180 units a minute and the eviscerating lines at 90 or so. Hector stamps steeltoes, testing his footing. The men fit goggles over their eyes. They pull on thin gloves, or, like Mahmou’, women’s nylons, over their lower arms. “Ready?” José growls, single hand on the light switch. He lost the other in an ice-grinding machine. Without waiting for an answer from the men ranged tensely along the line of glittering hooks, like sprinters poised for the gun, he yanks the switch. The lights douse, then reignite a deep carmine.
Hector draws a deep breath, clenching his fists.
With a prolonged, grinding rattle, a metallic clanging, the Line surges into motion. The links sway back as they accelerate, precessing along without end, one every second.
An aluminum door folds open with a rattle, revealing a yellow module. Shoulder to shoulder, the men reach deep into it as birds mill around, squawking and flapping clipped wings. Hector flips one upside down, facing him, so it can’t shit on him. Inverted, it suddenly goes quiet. As one of the U’s approaches, he spins and hooks its claws dexterously into the wire loops. Hanging upside down, the bird is carried out of sight through the slot in the wall. Another follows, hooked in by Mahmou’, then another by Joju.
Next comes a shackled seagull, struggling wildly upside down, its broken wing dragging on the dirty floor. José barks a mad laugh and holds up his right arm, wagging his stump at the boys. Then come two more chickens, hooked in by Fernando and Sazi.
An unfaltering stream of upside-down birds leaves the Hanging Room as the team settles into a rhythm. Bending, grabbing, straightening in a flurry of feathers, cursing, cackling, scratching, the hum and clash of steel in the deep red light. Hector gets a deep scratch from an unclipped beak. Blood streams down his arm, mixing with the shit. He keeps his fingers clear of the shackle as he hooks each chicken. The Line does not stop. Get caught, and he’ll go through the wall too. Into the Kill Room, where the pre-stunner stiffens them with direct current so they don’t move as the kill machine whicks a hydraulic blade through their throats. Then the post stunner, where a different current keeps their hearts beating, the blood pumping out, as they circle over vats. Then on to the scalding area, the picker, eviscerating line, unloader.
After chilling for seventy-five minutes they slide down stainless chutes polished to a mirror finish by the carcasses. Only a few drops of pinkish fluid now ooze from their pimpled skin. Most of the workers here are women. They pull the units off the ramp and impale them on tapered stainless stakes. Holding her knife tightly, so it doesn’t slip, each woman slices off the ribbon of fat circling the back of the unit. Seizes it with her left hand, tears it free, and without looking drops it on the conveyor. So many processes: deboning, whole bird, grading, cut up. All the lines run at different speeds, but no one can stop. Five minutes’ break every hour. Half an hour for lunch.
Around them, the droning snarl of machinery, shouts, the pulse of exhaust fans, the mutter of propane-driven forklifts bustling cartons of flensed flesh to freezers. Brown faces, black, now and then the wrinkled visage of an older white. Above, looking down from their offices, the Bosses. Walking between the machines, the Supers and Line Foremen. The clattering endless whine of the Line echoes from the high ceiling, stainless, rubberized, reinforced with steel mesh, greased with fat and blood. But the chicken is cheap in bright red packages, with cheerful friendly Farmer Seth, lanky and white-bearded, smiling from the wrapping.
Hector always thought he looked not all that different, really, from Uncle Sam.