When he was a nugget, his first squadron tagged him with the call sign “Magua.” He earned this name not through prowess or by any resemblance to a warrior from The Last of the Mohicans, but rather to the tale of his being cornered drunk by MPs outside a strip club in San Diego and his inability to pronounce his own name: Mark White.
Thirty years later, combat ribbons and the silver star of a Marine brigadier general sit framed in a small shadow box on his desk in the Oval Office. A different tag now, his detail calls him “Tecumseh.” Shawnee for “panther crossing the sky,” the code name suits a former Hornet driver and sitting war-time president.
His morning includes an intelligence brief, breakfast with Eileen, a photo op with a dozen Eagle Scouts, and then Air Force One for a short hop to Fort Campbell where units of the 101st Airborne are rotating back into the fray. In a hangar off Runway 23, the 1st Brigade Combat Team awaits his arrival. There is no podium or backdrop, no fanfare. Mark enters the hangar through a side door. Without introduction, he bounds lightly onto a platform.
At the sight of him, the brigade erupts. They course to their feet and the roar swells and rolls through the hangar bay. Bellows and whistles. Calloused hands beating in applause. Boots stomping the hangar deck. If Alexander himself had emerged from his tent to stand before the Macedonian phalanx, the tumult would have been no less joyous, no less raucous.
After a moment, Mark gives a subtle hand signal for “cease fire.” As one, they fall quiet. He speaks without need of a microphone.
“Bastogne Brigade. Where you’re headed, many of you have been before. For the rest of you, this will be your first taste of combat. I don’t have a flowery speech, no words of honor or glory. You’ve heard those before. All I have to say is this: your brother depends on you. In the fog and friction of the fight, be decisive. Be lethal. Destroy your enemy and bring each other home.”
“That’s it. God bless you.” Mark steps off the platform and the din resumes as he makes his way to a door marked “Duty Officer.”
“Fifteen minutes to wheels up, sir,” his agent says. Mark enters the duty hut. Inside, a soldier in battle dress springs to his feet, the Screaming Eagle patch on his right shoulder denoting a combat vet.
“At ease, staff sergeant,” Mark says. He smiles and reaches for the sergeant’s hand. “Good to see you, Leo.”
“G’morning, Dad. Welcome back to Campbell.”
”Five minutes, son. I’m sorry I don’t have more. You know, Mom wishes you’d enlisted in the Guard.”
“You didn’t join to clean up after tornadoes. Neither did I.”
Mark returns a thin smile. “Your people?”
“They’re well-trained, sir. Hard knots, all of them.”
Mark approves. “Mom would be here if she could. The first two deployments, seeing you go… it’s hard for her.”
“I know, Dad. She called this morning.”
A respectful tap at the door and an agent pokes his head in. “Time, sir.”
Mark nods. “Remember, Leo… your job is to take uncertainty and turn it into fact, as quickly as possible. And then act – hard and fast. Lead from the front, son. And call your mother.”
“Yes, sir. Like you taught me. And like you taught me.”
“Make it home. Mom couldn’t bear to lose another son.”
“All I can promise, Dad,” Leo says, “is that I’ll come home with my shield, or on it.”
Story submitted to NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest, Round 9, October 2012
600-word limit, story to revolve around a president, past or present, real or fictional