The Checkpoint

Two cars behind Jacobson's red Mustang, 83 year old Luke Tanner's hands were locked in a death grip on the steering wheel of his cream-colored 1986 Cadillac Eldorado. His teeth were grinding, his breath was short and labored, his heart was racing, and his skin was so flushed that the liver spots on his bare arms were nearly invisible.

The last time that Luke Tanner had seen that black uniform and peculiar black coal-scuttle helmet in person had been six decades earlier. It had been in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, trying to hold out against the 6th SS Panzer Army, during the defining days of his life in The Battle of the Bulge. Tanner had fought regular German Wehrmacht across France, and he'd fought the Waffen SS in Belgium, and he still held a burning hatred for them even six decades later.

But he had never imagined that he'd see the God damned black uniform of the SS here in America! Then he watched as a young man was pulled from his car by the storm trooper, and he saw his head bounce off the pavement, he heard a lady and children screaming, and his hand fell to the seat beside him.

He'd lost his wife Edna in 1997 after almost fifty years together. She had been dragged to her death alongside her own Buick, the victim of a botched carjacking in Richmond. After that, Luke Tanner always kept his old Government Model .45 caliber pistol under a folded newspaper on the seat beside him, with a round in the chamber. He didn't know what the particular legality of that was, and he didn't care: a man had a right to defend himself, law or no law. It was the very same .45 automatic he'd brought back on the hospital ship in 1945. Every year since then he had fired one box of ammunition through it at the National Guard Armory range where he knew people, then he cleaned it and reloaded it with fresh bullets. He'd never fired it in anger in over sixty years.

The last time Luke Tanner had fired a weapon at anything except paper targets had been around frozen Ettebruck, Belgium in 1944, and it had been at a God damned Nazi storm trooper in a black SS uniform!

Who could ever have dreamed that sixty years later, Nazi SS storm troopers dressed in black would be running loose right here in Virginia! Certainly not Luke Tanner. All those good men of the 28th Infantry Division had died in the Ardennes fighting the Nazis, and now here they were again, in the flesh!

Then a brave young fellow got out of a red Mustang in front of Luke and proceeded to give the SS Nazi hell for what he was doing to that man on the ground. Good for him! But an instant later a dog, a big German shepherd no less, had that fellow on the ground thrashing like a whirlwind and biting him to pieces, then more soldiers and police were hollering and screaming and running from all over!

Another of those black-uniformed Nazi SS storm troopers ran past Luke Tanner's Cadillac and began kicking the man on the ground with his black boots, and that's when Luke Tanner had seen enough. Too much! The 28th Infantry "Bloody Bucket" Division had not killed all those God damned Nazis in France and Belgium just so they could regroup here in America! He'd long ago seen far too many fine young Americans killed and crippled at the hands of the Nazis, way more than enough to last many lifetimes.

Luke Tanner had always considered every day since December 23rd of 1944 to be a gift from God, a bonus day, springing from the pure dumb luck which had for unknowable reasons deserted so many better and more deserving young men than him. December 23rd of 1944 was the day that he earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a trip home all during one fire fight in Belgium.

He'd lost his left eye and part of his stomach over there, and more recently he'd lost his wife, and that was enough. To Luke Tanner, it was not going to be worth living in America another year, if the last vestige of freedom was going to be lost too. What had all those guys died for in France and Germany and all across the Pacific? What for? What for?

Somebody had to teach the youngsters how to fight Nazis, and Luke Tanner figured he knew about as well as anybody. There just weren't many of his generation left, who'd had the good fortune to still be alive so many years after those bitter-cold never-forgotten days at the end of 1944. He wrapped his leathery old hand around his heavy slab-sided Colt .45, thumbed back the hammer, opened the door all the way, and stepped out into the sun.

The police and soldiers and Nazi SS storm troopers were all busy, focused on the tangle of confusion beside the white Ford when Luke Tanner walked up along the red Mustang, his .45 held down beside his right leg, hammer back, safety off, finger on the trigger. When he'd picked up that .45 and thumbed back the hammer, the last six decades cleanly disappeared. But no one paid any attention to the frail-looking old bald man with the thick black-framed glasses, in the yellow short sleeve shirt. Not until he unexpectedly grabbed one of the Nazi SS storm troopers by his black shoulder strap.

ATF Special Agent Alvin Bogart spun part way around, saw yet another civilian interloper and yelled "Now what the hell do YOU want, grandpa?"

Luke Tanner, chronological age 83, and the survivor of more than that number of deadly skirmishes and battles with Nazis as a much younger man, smiled unexpectedly and said, "I want to see you dead, Fritz." He held Bogart off with his once-again strong left arm still gripping the black shoulder strap, quickly raised the .45 from behind his leg, and fired once.

The .45's report was like a cannon, sending off shockwaves through the huddle of police and soldiers. Bogart was hit upward between the eyes. His Kevlar helmet contained his brains, but did not prevent a shower of blood and tissue from flying back out all over Tanner, making it appear that he had been shot himself. Then Bogart was down, dropped like a pole-axed steer, police were screaming "GUN!" and drawing their pistols, soldiers were trying to unsling their M-16s from their shoulders, and Tanner, still smiling, aimed again at the other Nazi SS storm trooper who now stood in wide-eyed mute amazement seven feet away. Tanner fired one-handed, aimed and fired again, as the ATF agent tried to turn away and raise his submachine gun (which was snagged on his chest sling) at the same time, then suddenly the second ATF agent went down, his wound unseen, acrid gun smoke bitter in everyone's noses, all ears ringing from the .45's steady barking in their midst.

The second BATF agent was still rolling away slowly as Tanner continued to fire at him on the ground, until his eight rounds were expended and the .45's slide stayed locked to the rear. He was surrounded by police and soldiers who were all falling back away from him, some running, some seeking cover behind cars, but for the moment it was a "circular firing squad" with police and soldiers and civilians in their cars all around him, causing them all to hesitate, until finally a state trooper took careful aim with his service pistol and fired.

Tanner was hit several times and sat down hard, then fell onto his back staring up past the clouds, blinking at the sun, his empty .45 fallen from his hand at last. A soldier leaning over him heard the old man whisper: "I got 'em Sarge, did you see me kill those Nazi bastards?" The young soldier could not see who the blood-covered old man was talking to, he could not see in himself Luke Tanner's last platoon leader, Sergeant Alonso Delvecchio, who was killed in action on Christmas Day of 1944 by a Nazi sniper's bullet. This was two days after Tanner got his "million dollar wounds" and was evacuated from the battlefield at last; to go home, to live, and to remember.

By this point the soccer mom in the forest-green Ford Excursion SUV two cars behind the Cadillac had seen and heard too much, and finally her stunned brain somehow reconnected to her frozen limbs. She switched the ignition back on and in one fluid motion turned the wheel sharply to the left, threw the shifter into drive, and stomped hard on the gas pedal. Her giant SUV clipped the Toyota in front of her, spinning it sideways, ran straight over two National Guardsmen, crossed the exit ramp and headed down the brushy slope towards Hoffler Boulevard bouncing and picking up speed with every yard. The soccer mom's mind was operating in an unfamiliar emergency crisis mode; she was on automatic heading for the safety of her three car garage like a crazed doe fleeing before a forest fire.

Down at the bottom of the ramp Private Hector Ramirez was still standing on the middle bolster seat of the Humvee, leaning back against the ring cut through the roof when everything went crazy up at the line of cars. When the shooting broke out, he had reflexively leaned forward and shouldered into his M-60 machine gun, sighting up the road, but could make no sense out of the lucha libre, or free-for-all fight.

Hours before, Private Ramirez had been content to accept the duty in the Humvee with the machine gun. For one thing, he remembered how to load and fire the M-60 from his active duty Army time, unlike most of his squad. But mainly he knew he had been given the machine gun duty because his English was very bad, muy malo. Terrible in fact, lo peor, the worst. Sgt. DuBois didn't want him searching the cars with the policias and dealing with the public because he could not understand rapid southern dialect English; and he could not communicate well in English in any case.

Private Ramirez' lack of English skill was understandable. After all, he had walked across the frontera Mexicana in central Arizona for the third and final time only a few years before. Then by the grace of all the saints, he had been granted amnistia along with millions of his countrymen living in El Norte. A little later a cousin warned him that the amnistia might be taken away, but that there was a program where if he joined the gringo army, he would be guaranteed full gringo citizenship in only two years, and then he could bring up his mother and the rest of his family. And in fact, that is exactly what happened.

Gracias a Dios he had been given the answers to the tests before the Army boot camp, or he would have been rejected. But Ramirez more than made up for his lack of Ingles with an abundance of enthusiasm, always shouting "Sir Yes Sir!" in boot camp the loudest, whether he understood the question or not. His uniform was always perfect, he always had the fastest times on the runs, and his Sargentos had put him in front of the Compania to carry the flag. Army boot camp had been a high point of Hector Ramirez' short life!

So he'd spent the day leaning against the hole in the roof of the humvee, sitting, standing and trying to stay awake, until all hell had suddenly and without warning broken loose, with people screaming, dogs barking, and now guns firing!

Hector yanked back on the cocking handle of his machine gun and got ready to fire, but was unable to find a target: all he saw were policias y soldados. Anyway, his orders were to just make a show, a demonstration he thought they had said, to be the "blocking force." Ramirez understood "fuerza bloquear." It meant that he must keep anyone from escaping from the checkpoint. He understood that mission well enough! This was something he had grown up seeing routinely as a small boy on the roads back in Chiapas. But today, although he had 200 cartuchos of ammunition in the green steel box next to his M-60, he had never expected to fire even one bullet of it!

Suddenly an enormous dark green truck roared out from the line of cars behind all the fighting and shooting, and drove straight over two of the members of Ramirez' esquadra, smashing them! Then it drove faster and faster down the hill directly towards him! And he was the blocking force, to prevent the escape of the terroristas!

He sighted directly at the onrushing windshield and fired a prolonged burst, causing the truck's windows to explode. The truck veered back toward the highway ramp, and it was still trying to escape as far as Ramirez could tell, so he followed it with his machine gun's front sight, firing continuously until it crashed into a police car at the bottom of the line! But when Hector took his finger away from the trigger, the maldita machine gun continued to fire without a pause, as if it had a mind of its own, so he raised the barrel to fire safely up over the hill.

A hundred yards away, halfway up the exit ramp, Sergeant Ashante DuBois of the Virginia National Guard was crouching behind the trunk of the cream colored Cadillac, while down the hill Ramirez raked the line of cars with 7.62 caliber machine gun fire. The rounds snapped as they passed; with every fourth shot a red tracer flashed by. Then the windows in the Cadillac blew out, showering her with a thousand tiny glass fragments. The Mexican had obviously gone totally insane with panic!

Sergeant DuBois knew that it was up to her to protect the civilians still hiding in their cars the only way she knew how. She laid her M-16 rifle along the left rear trunk of the Caddy, pulled back the charging handle to chamber a round, aimed carefully at Ramirez and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Sergeant DuBois turned the rifle on its side and looked at the selector switch, turned it to "semi," and began to pepper Ramirez with fire as more 7.62mm tracer rounds cracked past her up the hillside and over the highway behind them.

Back up at the top of the ramp Brad and Ranya had watched events spiral out of control in disbelief, but when the M-60 on the humvee opened up on the big green SUV, and the tracer rounds started flying past, the policeman in front of them finally ran for cover behind his cruiser. Brad noticed he was a Suffolk cop, and not a state trooper like the rest of them doing the searches down the ramp. He threw his pickup into reverse and burned rubber fishtailing backwards up the ramp, then threw it into forward and took off down I-664.

In another sixty seconds they were a mile and a half away, and Brad took his foot off the gas pedal. There was no remaining sign of the inexplicable mayhem they had witnessed during those two mad minutes on the Hoffler Boulevard exit ramp, except for the adrenalin still coursing through their veins, and their intensely focused memories.