This is written directly out of experience on the Sentinel Picket lines in the York University Faculty Association Strike of 1997. The voice is that of Liam Ashley, a fifteen-year old boy who rides with JEB Stuart in the American Civil War:
It was one of the longest nights of my young life thus far, although we
stood only four hours. We patrolled some twenty feet apart, our sabers and
pistols ready at our sides. I stood as I used to stand so long ago, my arms
crossed behind me. I held my reins in my hand as Stuart asked. Although many
units employed the cavalry picket pin to secure their horses, Stuart
insisted that a sentry in full readiness held his reins.
The freezing rain dripped off the brim of my hat and down onto the toes of
my boots, soaking them from the outside. Where my gum slicker stopped below
the knee, the rain ran down and soaked the cloth of my trousers and as they
became saturated, they dripped down into my boots, soaking them from the
inside. Soon, my three pairs of socks were thoroughly wet, and my toes had
started to freeze.
I did not carry a timepiece and so asked what I thought was an easy question
for the man nearest me in line, who did.
“Egad, son! Don’t let anyone catch you asking the time!”
“Why not?” I asked. “It’s a simple question is it not?”
“Listen. What time would you guess it is?”
“We’ve been out here a long time; I guess I’d say it is close to midnight,
when we get relieved.”
He took an exaggeratedly lengthy look for his watch and then a quick glance
at it. “It’s ten past nine, son.”
“That early?” I was aghast. “You mean we’ve got another three hours?”
“Now you know why we don’t ask the time.” He chuckled to himself. But at
least he smiled. “I frequently serve duty with an older man,” he continued.
“He had been a professor of logic and philosophy and had raised children. He
had a natural sense of time. There’s an exception to the rule about not
asking the time and that is in the last fifteen minutes, when we’re close to
being relieved. He believed that if we could stand fifteen minutes, we could
stand another ten, especially if the ten were announced in order to inform
us of the imminent arrival of the final part of our watch, and so he would
check his timepiece, and he was never wrong, and the best moment of the cold
and bitter night was his call, “Only ten minutes until the last fifteen!”
He stepped back to his place in line, the smile still happily on his face.
Realizing I would have to find a way to endure this, I learned the trick of
marching in place, of shifting my weight from one foot to the other with a
consistency of rhythm, the left foot flat on the ground with the right toe
raised, then the right foot flat on the ground with the left heel raised.
Back and forth, back and forth, you rocked and you rocked until you
established a cadence that served three separate aims. It kept your feet
from freezing with the wetness of your boots. It kept your hips from hurting
with the bearing of your weight. And it kept your soul from sinking with the
closing of your eyes, because the army shot sentries who fell asleep on
watch. In theory, that threat was a powerful motivation, but in the reality
of four hours on a bitter rainy night, the pain of resisted drowsing became
exquisite, and more than one soldier weighed seriously the option of the
final rest as an escape from the unrequited desire for sleep.
I tried to forget about the time and remember that I was becoming a soldier.
In a while some men came out from camp, bringing hot biscuits and drink, and
staying to chat a bit. In the daylight hours sometimes people from the area,
if we were still in Virginia, would also bring us good things to eat. Not
too much, of course, for a soldier has a duty to perform, but enough that we
felt we were not forgotten, out on the edge of camp.
Those who served on the Sentinel picket line may well recognize
Professor Claudio Duran in the comment, "Only ten minutes till the last