“The Proles: Chapter 4”: Interlude (from unpublished novel manuscript, "The Proles", 1969)
(Note: This is a draft of a chapter in a forthcoming book; posted for
convenience. "Warning": there is some
occasional use of rough language offensive to some
people by today's standards. The point of the language is to show how
men really thought and talked in Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson,
SC, in early 1968, during the height of the VietNam war, at about the time
of the Tet Offensive. No question, the draft, with the system of
student deferents, tended to put African-Amercans disproporitonately in
harms way in combat.)
(Note: This is a draft of a chapter in a forthcoming book; posted for convenience. "Warning": there is some occasional use of rough language offensive to some people by today's standards. The point of the language is to show how men really thought and talked in Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC, in early 1968, during the height of the VietNam war, at about the time of the Tet Offensive. No question, the draft, with the system of student deferents, tended to put African-Amercans disproporitonately in harms way in combat.)
Still 63 miles to Columbia, SC, according to the sign the bus had just passed. Well, good, that meant over a hundred miles to Fort Wilson, an infinite time to enjoy the drowse of the night jaunt, to enjoy the motion of the bus through the tunnels of pines over the drive-friendly two-lane South Carolina roads.
John had “enlisted” for two years that day. Hs draft notice did not require the report for two weeks yet; but, it was better to get the worst of it, Basic Training, over with. Those fat processing clerks left behind in the processing cage that morning – would he be as lucky (rather fortunate) as they? Or, take that healthy Italian semi-specimen who gave the mental – books smarts – test; he had said, “It pays to do your best; for there are some good jobs in the Army I was drafted, and I will have duty station here for two years.” Somehow, John thought he had heard that canned speech from the mentation-test guy before. Well, I’d better; I hope I get something like that or else my high frequency hearing acuity for television scanning tones will go to pot – how will I listen to classical music? But why did my records show that mediocre “63” (Mental Class III) of four years ago; I surely did better than that today. That section on tools couldn’t drop me that much. Zugfel had once asked, last July, “If I get called, do you think there’s any chance for me to fail?” (If I thought it was best for my body and soul to avoid the draft, then I would dodge the draft.) But Zugfel, you know about cars and woodworking and mechanics and just plain toos, don’t you, Hans? Of course you do; you pass everything, automatically.
That pimply boy draped throughout his seat across the aisle; he expected wire maintenance – eighth grade, seventeen, had meal-ticket-Richmond-supper across the table from him, tried to pretend I was having supper with him – he, let’s pretend, had the makings of “SUPERMAN”.
The two colored boys behind him – they had asked for transportation. And that one chump in front, at the Richmond station yesterday, “yeah, I wanna join de Army – Sico? Dunno?...” Then the sergeant said, “Sign him up for supply.” Heaven, there’s their chance to throw another zero into the infantry. But even know, John knew, the infantry was no place for dumb bunnies.
The swearing-in ceremony, it was supposed to be such a great turning point, a wedge chopping off the first period of one’s life – it had merely come and gone, like Christmas Day, like everything else in life. A young officer had warned them about AWOL, had read a oath, phrase by phrase as John and the others repeated it; the lieutenant had then them wished them all a profitable stay “in the service”. Oh yes, one soul-in-body in that carpeted cubicle was trying out his fourth service, to complete the circuit – this was pointed out to all by the happy young officer. “You thought you would try the Army this time.”
Too bad, the Marines weren’t drafting that month. Might have been a spectacle, some ancient Marine sergeant (they’re all sergeants) would come in and ask, “How many of you really don’t want to go into the Army.” A few volunteers might be stupid enough to levitate their hands. “Congratulations, you’ve just joined the United States Marine Corps.” And if not enough people were stupid enough to volunteer, the sergeant would just mark them off by the numbers; he wouldn’t go to the trouble to select by body analysis. Of course, these thoughts were al based on rumor.
The bus was bypassing Columbia now – Fort Jackson was probably to John’s left several miles; Fort Wilson might be fifty miles ahead. If you liked, fifty miles could be an infinity – except that an Ary post compactifies an X-axis. To compactify an interval is to close it off, literally.
It was hard to get cozy on the bus. If you put your feet up on the seat, to relieve the strain on your lower spine, your skull must rest on the hard plastic armrest. Otherwise, your butt wants to fall clear to the floor, without biffy.
Last night’s experiences had provided an encore of civilian life. He had arrived at the AFEES in Richmond the afternoon (Wednesday) before. It was too late for the AFEES (Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Station) to do any processing, so it put John up in a dignified hotel on the west side of town.
The hotel assigned to Bill as a one-night roommate a gregarious fellow from Alexandria. Now this guy had stumbled his way through UVa. To a B.S. in physics. Through his good clothes, he looked compact, hard, solid.
“Yes, I have to agree, guys in college are usually in better physical shape than other guys. I noticed them too, all those flabby guts at the Reception Station after the guys stripped off their shirts… I was in better shape after two years on the gymnastics team than I will be after O.CS.”
They had supper in a downtown café, with another enlistee who would join the Navy the next day and be on a train to Chicago (Great Lakes Naval Station) this time next evening (never to see John again, probably). John enjoyed the mundane bull session about girls, enlistment plans, bygone beer parties; he soaked it up as an experience of his own in this quasi-crummy Richmond restaurant – a last encore experience, one last day of companionship with his own sort of people. Then the UVa graduate had to spoil it all by talking about a prank in a high school chemistry class – how the explosion of hot, concentrated H2SO4 had given him a huge keloid scar on his chest, from Adams apple to belly button, forfeiting any chance for manly hair. Mercifully, John didn’t have to see it that night until they went to bed. Later, John would harbor the impression that he had somehow brought the subject up; he had even seen the beginnings of the scar above the necktie, and he would wonder how he would have to pose the question. Surprisingly the guy was married. Women didn’t care as much about how men look as men cared about how girls look.
John went to the movies alone that evening, and he was rather glad to be alone, to see “Valley of the Dolls”. He was just climbing into bed, hoping for privacy for a while, when the UVa roomy returned, turned on the lights to disrobe and shave, and bared his sorrow (now John’s sorrow) The guy was married.
That infinite interval of South Carolina concrete was becoming compressed against its boundary – like an infinite series, or a white dwarf. The bus seemed to be turning left. John sat up, the back of his neck sore from the hard plastic armrest. There was still that dark road ahead, always moving and spreading. Then a white sign announced, “Fort Wilson 1”. The “thrill” of speed as the bus speeds down that not-so-endless belt, the pine trees forming a narrow corridor – this is one last moment of pleasure! – now, a right turn, and here we are – MY GOD – mile after mile of – jeeps, canvassed trucks, coal bins, why—there’s a soldier, with all that heavy complocated olive greenish gear on his back and a rifle at his shoulder. Goddamn – I don’t want to have to tangle with all that complicated mechanical stuff that I’ll have to handle, and wear, and go to the bathroom from. Maybe it’s not too cold tonight.
It took the cordial bus driver an irritating and frightening twenty minutes or so to find the place called the Reception Station.
Now, John would not wholeheartedly regret being in the Army until about sixteen hours later. Those first sixteen hours on base, however, were not the most pleasant
A nice 20-year-old (a clerk, probably) sternly ordered the calm bunch to line up and file into the long wide wooden buildings before them. “I guess a lot of you guys is from Nu Yawk. We don’t want any troubles with you. Do exactly as you’re told or you’ll be in de clink as quick as you got here.” At least, he was nice about it; his intonation, that is. John had expected courteous treatment.
Seated in a dingy auditorium, the inductees vocally counted off, starting with C-267. John Maurcek’s “Company Processing Number” turned up as C-307. The first thing they did was give you a number. (Actually, they had already given him a service number at the AFEES, RA 19733276.)
The next step was to fill out some cards – company processing number, social security number, service number, birth date. Fill out every form completely, John said to himself. May help get that good brainwork-type MOS.
They walked around the anteroom where another nice (but bald) young man stuck him in the crook of the elbow for a half cc of blood It did hurt.
John didn’t understand what he was supposed to pick up as he came back into the room. He was chewed out lightly (“Damn you fool”—something like that) when he had to break the file to retrieve it – a green-gray, old field jacket.
He didn’t want to eat – it was now 2 AM; but they were escorted to a large, metallic mess hall. Those boys behind the food counter – KP at this hour?? – giggled as they soloed soupy scramble eggs onto metal trays the newcomers had been told to pick up. They giggled at John in a kindly manner, not to make fun of him because he looked odd, but to empathize with his predicament. The soupy eggs ad dry toast weren’t so bad, but John thought he might feel nauseated. He still had Rolaid chips in his pocket to put under his tongue.
He ambled back to the long, wide building alone. He noticed the aroma of coal for the first time – coal dust in the cool air.
“Now, how many of you guys have some college?” inquied a mestizo in fatigues to a group of recruits that just happened to include John, fortunately. (Note: the wetback didn’t ay, “You ans.”) He sounded on the level. John spoke up.
Fifteen minutes later, he was “supervising” the punching of pasteboard nametags in a noisy shop behind the clapboard auditorium. The others did the work – rotated the disk to the next letter and slammed the press – John oversaw them and delicately carried the finished tags over to another desk and collated them by number. There was a certain spirit to it – pretending to be a nice officer, with the drab green field jacket flopping around. If he got discharged from the Army tomorrow, he could still say he had served. He was good to the others – he had to be – but tonight he could pretend he was not lasting in the pecking order, which causes men to like (not well-ordered) ordinal numbers. Unfortunately, his satisfaction at all this was undermined by occasional worry about when they would go to bed.
He could have regretted being here when he stood outside the supply room an hour later, heavy bedding in the crook of one arm, luggage in the left hand. Sand, cold air, the stench of coal. 4:30 AM. The private issuing the bedding had been a nasty mother fucker; at least, he had called the recruits and bedding motherfuckers with every utterance. He had ordered one recruit to drop for pushups in the coal-heated, mothball-smelling, blanket supply room (no bedbugs); he had made another stand with his nose against the outside wall of boards.
When he finally arrived at the barracks, he should really have regretted his having drafted himself. Cold, dry, one-floor bay, warped wooden floors, cracked green lead paint; and, as he soon found, a latrine with no shower, no hot water. His bunkmate was that 17-year-old he had eaten dinner by in Richmond (the one who wanted wire maintenance – maybe to make RF weapons?) The boy insisted on leaving the nearest window all the way up, and the cold draft repeatedly smacked John’s face. There were signs of dawn as soon as they got to bed; and perhaps an hour later (hard to tell with pressure on your bladder when you’re too snug under the blanket to get up); a stern microphone voice was admonishing the recruits outside. “You’re going to Fort Gordon. Not one man is to move out of formation.” Very calmly.
The guys all got up around 9 AM when somebody yelled “Formation”, and just followed a marching train. Of course, John didn’t resent the haircuts next morning. They lined the guys up and filed through the shearing plant. Of course, he could have resented it if they had been ordered to roll up their sleeves and pantlegs and go shirtless, so he remarked to a Jewish-looking guy behind. They didn’t completely shave the guys’ heads, although the barber was rough with the clippers and it hurt.
John was not sorry about being in the Army until later that Friday afternoon. “I see some nobility peeping through,” Dick Smith had written once a year ago. “A few weeks in the Army will wipe that away.”
It had been cloudy and cool all day; now, as he stood in a mob in front of the orderly room, a brisk crosswind numbed the outer shanks of his gams and made his upper trunk shiver. Oh, I should have worn those wool pants and sweater under this ragged field jacket And I thought it would be too much trouble.
“Yes, sir!” the chorus of males chanted to some unremembered demand.
“I ain’t no damned officer. I work for a living. I’m a mother fuckin’ sergeant.”
Oh, how long could this go on? I just want to go indoors and get warm.
What, no volunteers? Now, this is my Army, the United States Army, the greatest Army in the world, and in my Army, when I ask for volunteers, everyone volunteers. All right, I need some volunteers.”
Some hands wet up summarily, others more reluctantly.
“God damn it. I NEED SOME VOLUNTEERS!”
More hands went up immediately. Etc.
John was in the safer middle. He had been told repeatedly to stay always in the middle, and he was heeding that advice. He raised his hand with the crowd, because it was in his own selfish best interest to do so. And he didn’t get yanked for detail (fire watch around the company in two-hour blocks, clean-up of the orderly room, police call to pick up stray scuttles of coal). He could go back to the nasty shack and enjoy being warm again.
John never did pull detail in the Reception Station, as a matter of fact. His platoo was in the crumbiest barracks, but it was last on the list and the KP roster never reached the platoon after the men got their uniforms.
Saturday morning, the Army really didn’t make them do anything. The company stood around in a cold, empty supply room as one of the cadre told dirty jokes. “Now how long do ye think I been in the Army? … Six years .. Yes, RA all the way .. I’m in this man’s branch, the Infantry, the only way to go. Infantry is the queen of battle. Gets screwed every time. There was a long series of metaphors of weapons and female genital organs There really was nothing for them to do on Saturday.
Most of the weekend, in fact, John stayed around the bunk. He tried to read a spy novel he had picked up in Richmond, but to no avail. (Zugfel: The trouble with people today is that they don’t go back to the classics.) The narrative before his eyes was complicated, clumsy; and there were those pulsating distractions from the male humanity around him. “Muvvafucker” seemed to roll out as very other word.
John asked the 17-year-old next to him in the upper bunk why he had joined the Army.
“Dunno. I joined the Army to git some pussy.”
These rough lower-class types hadn’t paid so much attention to his awkwardness as he expected. But Sunday afternoon, while they were trading ruors about what Basic Training would be like, one of them said “Slim, dere, he walk funny. A girl would snuggle at em.”
“Well, then,” John retorted, “Let me show you that I can march correctly if I think about it.”
Yet, with every fourth or fifth step, there was a slight scuffle, and his trunk and neck gradually toppled. The Army doesn’t march in Tchaikovsky’s 5/4 time.
“Hee hee hee. Slim, you like the leaning tower of Penis. Let Roscoe help you.. Slim!”
They were trying to help him. They were kind about it. And “Slim” wasn’t such a bad nickname (or username).
“Well, you guys, I got to get this straightened out before Basic Training starts.” Got to be prepared for every possibility. He paced deliberately, resolutely Black Roscoe led him around the out-of-it Bay by the arm and crook and poked lightly at his shoulders. Then he looked at John and said, his voice bright, “Slim, is you a rooster?” For a second, John thought Roscoe serious, but then Roscoe looked at his buddies and went hee-hee-hee.
The gross vulgarity of the speech, the constant references to animal sex as if it were the only earthly pleasure – that made John feel he was being coated with proletarian oil and would someay really let himself go. However, three of the men in the anteroom (attached to the main bay) did have some college background, and acted it; so John had something to hang onto for the time being. These me talked much about what they had done in the past; so John had something to hang on to for the time being. One had quit school after 3-1/2 year because he was “fed up with it”; another had worked part-time for some chemical firm and then enlisted for lack of funds (and did seem to know some chemistry). They talked about what might happen to them, about test scores, OCS, infantry. “You should look into direct commission, John. That recruiter could have been wrong. Or deceitful. A physicist friend of mine recently got one.” Another guy was saying, “I was over to Military Personnel Division today and saw some of the teletyped orders guys got after the second eight weeks. There were guys going to Nam, all right, but they also have orders for Turkey, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Alaska, all kinds of places.” Good news. A gospel. With a stagecraft of matresses, steel bunkframes, peeling green and gry behid the balding guy in underclothes.
John found a pamphlet floating around which welcomed them to the Reception Station and said they could go anywhere on post hey chose while off duty, provided they had permission, So John checked Sunday night at the orderly to ask whether they could go a few blocks away to a movie. No, of course not! A little freedom to do something, to experience something; John already realized that he missed it. And it was always cold outside when they messed in front of the orderly room for detail call. It was cold ad smelly with the stench of coal.
It was particularly cold Monday morning when the company file by for chow and the Seventh Platoon adjoined itself as the company passed. Dry sand, and coal – you could play city with the dust you kicked up. That middle of voices in the barracks as they straggled out to meet the people-train – “are doo sposed to have dat poncho? … PONcho” had gotten to him – the word “poncho” had pricked at him all over until he found out what it was. Why couldn’t the supply room be simple and give them raincoats? Roscoe had tried to show him how to wrap if around his waist so it was still rolled up at the back, but John could not understand it. Perhaps, the ability to perceive mechanical or spatial relationships is genetically determines?
It was damned cold, and John had forgotten the black gloves the supply room had given him. “Charley Company’s passin’ by. Sound off! One two three four… three four!” Those fingers burned.
It was freezin’ fuckin’ cold ouside – maybe they wanted you to get used to the cold – and then “this is what it is like to be warm” once he got inside the mess hall. After he got his tray, covered with iquidy eggs , dry toast, globuled bacon, John had to go to the milk dispenser. That damned poncho was dragging on the floor, too much trouble to find a seat and put the metal tray down; so hard to hod it and fill the soil-brown plastic cup, that sloppy poncho I rolling over the floor and my pharangeal muscles are contracting, the throat feels funny and peeled in – “I don’t want to do nuttin”.
A sergeant came by and helped John to his feet. Here, this coffee will settle your stomach. John sipped at the black aspiri, looked at the paperwork on the sergeant’s desk, and wondered if he had actually vomited a little bit. He thought of Zugfel seven months before, wanted to ponder a while; but the ambulance arrived.
Maybe this accident will get him out. Maybe he really has low blood pressure and is just too frail for the Army. That’s all right, really. What has some psychiatrist said, “You’re not qualified”.
The doctor’s questions were simple and the examination was simple. “You mean it’s just mild shock, from the cold?”
“Yes. It was down to 12 degrees this morning. That’s pretty cold for South Carolina. You can lose enough heat just through your hands. I’m sending you back. Try to take it easy, if they’ll let you.”
When he got back, they were taking ID pictures. The sergeant, the big Negro who told all those dirty jokes Saturday morning, didn’t look very nice. But the incident would be quickly forgotten.
Monday afternoon was passed in fitting of Army clothes at the S4, rather like in “Never Wave at a WAC”. John did not care for the unison dehabitation in the seat tows, but so what if he didn’t. Those fresh fatigues and khakis smelled like moth balls. More than once he had to repack his dufflebag to accommodate more and more long johns, T-shit (why the U-neck, allowing chest hair to appear?) and large gear. He was bawled out for tearing his clothing form while dragging the dufflebag around. He wasn’t male-strong enough to one-arm it over his shoulder from the strap; so one of the corporals yelled to him that he wouldn’t make it through Basic. Final check point was a table where, in unison, twenty recruits (at a time) emptied the bag into a compartment, and then, item by item, “put that in your dufflebag”. The guy giving the orders as the same pimp who had handed out the bedding Friday morning. Miraculously, he didn’t say “mother fucker” once Monday afternoon. As they rode back to the barracks, John eyed the young lieutenant (“place holder”) in charge, and wondered if this could get him into trouble, Somehow, he was able to ask the lieutenant what his branch was (Transportation Corps) and how he had gotten his commission (OCS). The lieutenant, who had been snappy all day, didn’t bite in close quarters.
John, in fact, quickly developed the off-line reputation of being exceptional (“exceptional” has more than one meaning, like “special”) among Reception Station cadre. He fucked up – standing when he was supposed to sit, dropping his dufflebag, tearing forms He drooped his shoulders a little too much, shuffled slightly, spoke with a ping. As always in his lifetime, he was singled out. “What’s your name.” “Marucek, sergeant.” “Where you from.” “Arlington, Virginia, sergeant.” “How much school?” “Sergeant, I have a Master’s in mathematics. Corporal, I have a Master’s in mathematics.” Let them know, you never know when it might help. Anything that might help is worth it.
The Corporal was a particularly pleasant fellow. Short, chubby. Smooth, high pitched voice. Only by imitating John’s own tenorish, slightly nasal speech, it seemed, could he assure himself of any virility. “Are eemy gle-asses heer?” he mimicked, and then followed with a pert u-huh, u-huh.” John hadn’t picked them up thirty minutes ago, as he was supposed to do, because he hadn’t been listening. But he did have a Master’s degree in Mathematics.
Oh, the Corporal had one other ploy to prove his masculinity. After all, he had gone infantry, RA infantry, infantry all the way. Ad he had order to go Over Thee (Nam). And he like to bull with the men.
John Maurcek further developed a reputation as an attention-getter among his peers. When the Company Commander (Charley-Company, Reception Station) gave the official orientation talk onday evening, (“you’ll get to sit in a nice hot room for a couple hours tonight”), John spoke up about that no hot water, and the no heat (sometimes). He thought that the CO was on the level. The CO publicly ordered the cadre to make sure that this man took his shower tonight (which, of course, it didn’t).
Tuesday morning featured a cursory medical examination (to see if you’re going to be allowed to stay in the Army or be sent home). John conscientiously mentioned his fainting the previous morning. “Shut up!” Now again, have any of you had any of the following?
Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, John was at home, doing his own thing, taking written tests. They filed into the test room in that long low wooden building; they had, in unison, removed the chairs in each compartment from the table. John had been chewed up for failing to button up his fatigue pants – but he could forgive himself for that; this was his event. He methodically worked all the algebra problems on the OCS aptitude – he was acquainted with all the tricks on standardized math tests. As far as the personality test goes – better to be truthful – no, I don’t like to fix cars, no I wouldn’t like to be a leader of men in combat. And the foreign language aptitude test – it yielded to methodical analysis, just not quickly enough. Good thing, he could feet tenses, cases, object relationships. Most people can’t At least, most boys can’t, anyhow.
After the test, that Lieutenant Richard Parker (the officer who had stood on the truck yesterday and let John make eye contact) harassed him again. Oh, he was only trying to help. “Arlignton, Virginia, Sir.” Bill didn’t mind being asked where he was from; he was proud of where he was from (but not of the Washington Senators). And, “Sir, I have a Master’s degree in Mathematics.”
“Maurcek, do you think you can get a commission?”
“Sir, well, the recruiter said there was no direct commission in mathematics right now (he had even gotten a message to that effect in his dorm mailbox), and I;ve heard about OCS.” But…
“I suppose he’ll get one.” The Lieutenant scowled to the Corporal standing aside. The Corporal stated at John and let out a gay chuckle.
Nights were cold, and John would curl up in one position and wish he could stay therein. He hated to break to cocoon to urinate at 1 AM an again at approximately 4:15 A, when reveille was nigh. He tried to be cheerful about getting up, when he shivered in tight, pissy long johns, dug fatigues out of his messy footlocker (after a desperate, but unsuccessful search for his key), dressed, and stepped outside into the sand, coal dust, cold nitrogen and oxygen.
He was even more cheerful about getting up for his fire watch. The recruits were his charges, his fledglings for an hour. He would pretend he was giving a math exam back at KPI (Oh, to be back in that world of a month ago – funny thing, the Quonset grad student offices there were barracks-style – oh, to be standing by the campenile, that night that he went to Abelsson’s office and read about Zugfel. He would look at the trouble light, hanging from the supply building next door, and pretend it was the light on the Tower. The trouble light splashed sloppily in the dust on the windowpanes. It made the sand look like coarse cement, and the stubby grass look like rejected artificial turf. No show, just dry cold. Winter without winter’s symbol. Many of the charges were men by definition (or forthcoming dedication) only.
How bright and cheerful was the room in which the troops had their MOS interviews Wednesday afternoon. Some giant slides, framed in an easl display, howed an infrantryman crouching-tiger I the grass (“Most of you know what infantry is, I’m sure”), a boy in fatigues leaning over a truck engine (“auto mechanics have to work in the cold a lot”), dark-haired, slight young men piling up crates of weapons (“ordnance specialists get themselves blown up, accidental-wise”), a “soldier” out-of-place at a key-punch machine (“everybody wants computer programming, so fat chance you have of getting that”). The sergeant describing Army jobs did look at things negatively, didn’t he! No mention of Science and Engineering specialties he had seen in the “Choice, not Chance” booklet at the Post Office just before he signed up. Nevertheless, put that down as first choice. Despite the fact that “the computer school is filled up for four months (the Kansas recruiter), put that down second. Since there is a year’s experience in a government chemistry laboratory, put chemical warfare specialist third. (Put Zugfelling fourth.)
No point in applying for Chaplain’s Assistant, though it’s a nice job. He had never been “sincere” about the Church, about his Faith. A noncommittal faith had always been enough; there is no inconsistency between Divine Existence and Universal well-ordering.
“Bobby, you missed a college grad,” the sergeant bellowed after glancing at John’s personal history form.
Over at Specialist Bobby’s desk, John eagerly filled out another form regarding his college background and previous employment. It was a joy to write about it for official military purposes; eery little point counts. “You will surely be working in your field,” the Specialist said when it was all over. John was glad that “the sergeants are the ones who run the Army.” He was so happy that he didn’t kind shoveling out a gutter for some fattish PFC in dress greens late that afternoon; he “volunteered.”
Thursday, they finally were shipped to Basic Training. The last two platoons (including John’s) were to stay at Fort Wilson; the others would ship out to Fort Gordon. They filed into the PX to pay for the preceding Friday’s haircuts (bodies unscathed), $0.85 of the morning’s $25 partial salary payment spent by force. Then, they lined up with their duffelbags in an empty shack net to the Reception Station and waited for the trucks.
Lt. Parker came by to train John one more time. He demonstrated to John how to blouse his boots so “they would stay” – John knew he would always be too rushed or too lazy to do it right. (He liked to grasp the excess sateen, slap the two folds behind his ankle together and jam them into the back of the book.) The Lt. Parker asked, “What is the probability that, if you cut a yardstick into three parts, they would make a triangle? (Hint: triangle inequality).
“A hundred percent, Sir.” Wait a minute, that sounds like a Putnam problem.
“Wrong, Maurcek. Now, come one, what probability?”
“Let me think.”
“’Let me think my eye. Maurcek, you have a Master’s degree in Mathematics. Maurcek, what is the probability that you’ll make it through Basic in the normal eight weeks?”
“I wouldn’t want to give a hasty answer, sir?”
Later, a short, babyfaced drill sergeant (they all had learned the meaning of ‘This we defend’ sewn on their fatigue shirts) walked by ad glared especially at Maurcek, then straddling the duffelbag. “What’s your name, troop” The voice was penetrating, but not too nasty. Funny, a lot of these drill sergeants were baby faced. “Where you from…?” Etc. Then the drill sergeant, so clean shaven as to look beardless, smirked and walked away. John felt reassured.
They say that al hell breaks loose when you jump off the truck at your Basic Combat Training company; and after the first five minutes with the company, John was inclined to think that “they” were right. When the day was over, it seemed as if it had been a big act, a free afternoon matinee.
In total confusion, they yanked theor duffelbags toward the edge of the truck and plummeted to the blacktop three feet below. All of this after the same babyfaced NCO erupted with tinny screams after remaining mute during the whole fifteen-minute roundabout ride inside the canvassed truck.
John’s left knee gave way and scraped the hardtop when he landed; the bulky bag had kept him from landing perpendicularly. He quickly forgot the pain.
Moments later he stood in formation, in the first row, at rigid attention. “This ain’t no God-damned Reception Station; this is Basic Training. Now, you will stand up perfectly straight, hands to your sides, palms inward, feet at right angle. You will assume a perfect position of attention and stay at attention until I command you otherwise. COMPANY! TENS-HUT! Th fortyish man stood in front of them and bellowed forth his implorations. This is it! Oh boy!
Get off on the right track. Stay at rigid attention! Don’t move a muscle, not even in the face!
The building directly in front of John (and directly behind the Field First Sergeant) was a neatly painted, wooden, one-story house, simple utilitarian. This simple object was theirs, not his, yet
John was only too glad to fill out more forms, even if he had to stand in formation while filling in the blanks. He gleefully put down “18” for number of year of school. For personal problems, “unusual lack of development of muscle tissue in arms, shoulders, torso.” (Not enough lesbian upper-body strength.)
That fortyish Field First defined the boundaries of the Company Area – from the mess hall fifty feet to the right to the last eyebrow barracks a hundred feet to the left. The barracks were arranged width-wise along the “company street”; directly in front of them (as they stood now) was the “day room” (which looked so much like a tidy Midwestern farm house); behind them were the orderly ad supply room. “You will not leave the confines of the Company Area until further notice. (About three weeks, John thought. As you knock off the days of Basic Training, they’re supposed to become easier and easier on you, let you be more of a person again.)
John was not too happy about having to double-time to the last barracks down the company street, with a 75-lb duffelbag dangling from his left shoulder. He panted, screamed, and dropped it several times. Eventually, he made it upstairs and claimed a bunk for his very own.
The babyfaced Sergeant (Metzel) ordered them to dump out their duffelbag and surrender immediately any knives, drugs, candy. John cooperatively singled out his Rolaids and neo-synephrine. That was it, cold turkey; he would have to do without that stuff from now on. The Sergeant saw some chewing gum beneath the rubble and screamed, “I said everything, knucklehead!”
John fucked up two more times that afternoon. He filed past the supply room with the other trainees but failed to comprehend that he was to pick up an empty laundry bag. Moments later, he realized the blunder, and had to asked Sgt. Metzel for permission to go back. “You want to git in real trouble, kid?”
“No, sir. (The Field First had advised them that they would address everyone as “Sir”.)
“What’s your name, again.”
“John Maurcek, Sir.”
“What, John Maurcek, they’re…” (Don’t worry, just play the game.)
“Oh, lemme think. Private John Maurcek, sir.”
“Where you from.”
“Arlington, Virginia, Sir.” (An answer to be proud of.)
“Sir, I have a Master’s Degree in Mathematics.” (Every little bit helps.)
“You git this through your big head, you educated homoignoramus idiot. You pay attention to exactly what we tell you to do, or your ass is grass.”
The second time he fucked up was in chow line. The recruits were to stand at parade rest, except when the door opened with a “Gimme Five”, when everyone came to attention and marches forward five steps, while five soldiers entered the mess hall. Now, John didn’t come to attention one time. “Now I’m telling you for the last time, get your head out of your ass.” John trembled a little, and wondered if this really was a game.
At least, he could enjoy the dinner. Roast beef, peas (not chickpeas), boiled potatoes, gravy, jello, ice cream. Sgt. Metzel’s demands did not apply to him. “If you’re fat, don’t eat no starches By starches I mean potatoes, rolls, cake, ice cream, gravy, milk. If you’re fat, don’t eat all that good shit. We’ve got a PT test coming up in two weeks.”
Immediately after supper Sgt Metzel showed the new men around his barracks. “I want to teach you how to make yawlr bunk, with hospital corners.” The mattress was to be smoothed wrinkleess, four flap-corners were to hold the first sheet down, two the second, and two the first blanket. At each step, get rid of all the wrinkles. The second blanket was to be doubled upon itself to make a dust cover with thick hospital corners at the forward end “This will pass, just barely.”
He showed how wax was to be applied to the “center aisle” between the bunks, and how to use the crappy, clumsy old buffer.
“It’s 1815 hours now. When I come back at 1830, I want to see those bunks made. Ordinarily, five minutes should be ample time. Then, tonight, you will shine your boots, you will shine your brass, you will shine your low quarters, and you will clean my barracks.”
This was it! Holy shit! The dreaded bedmaking, it didn’t sound too hard. But how could he be expected to get something so perfect in five or ten minutes? (Just as in college, they tell you they’ll expect a lot, and then they don’t expect it. It follows that too many people graduate and get out of things.) John Maurcek had to work with his hands, he had to judge distances in space, he had to hold on to things, apply force with his fingers, forearms, shoulders, parts of the anatomy that shouldn’t matter. He had to do something right the first time!
But why does the hospital corer always fall out the bottom? It looked simple enough. “Oh, Lee, give me a hand. Well, this is exasperating! Oh, Lee, you’re half doe and I don’t have the first sheet down. Help me, Lee! Damn it, why don’t those corners hold? Oh, please help me! Please!” Fortunately, Sgt. Metzel didn’t come back, just as John had predicted, objectively. Eventually, Lee helped John make his bed, to keep John “out of the stockade.” John had gotten by this time. “What is done is done. I choose to keep my self-respect.”
He went to the silvery water fountain every twenty minutes until 2130, lights out Clear, silvery, cold water. That was all that was left for his to enjoy – H2O for coca cola. And he had to enjoy something every day, or face the “Thief of Always”
No, he stayed in step all the way to the dental clinic Friday morning; Metzel broke into formation and almost pulled out the guy behind him, but today was his day.
The specialist (or something) at the front of the room promised that this could be one of their easiest, or one of their worst mornings in the Army. They saw films about dental plaque and gum disease; then they waited for a while for a routine check of their teeth. John looked at his blank dental record, which he thought ought to include his entire health record and, particularly, an account of the fainting incident. It was not there. “You trying to git wise ass or something?”
John looked at the outer brown cover again, “DENTAL”, it said, under “HEALTH RECORD”. “Oh, I see.”
“Maurcek, you see all right. Maurcek, did you shave this morning?”
“Why, yes Sir, my beard is hard to shave really close.”
“Aw, you ain’t no girl after all. All those cuts and still your chin looks like hell. I’m gonna teach you a lesson. Yes, I’m really going to teach you a lesson. When you get back to the barracks, you dry shave. Y’understand. Do you know what it means to dry shave? That’s right…”
“He ordered me to dry shave, so I guess I’d better do it,” John said, to the nondescript trainee beside him in the latrine. They had cleaned the barracks early that afternoon; most of them were outside, just standing around, watching guys in the adjacent company dodging hurdles and kicking up sawdust. This second day on BCT company hadn’t been too bad.
John scraped his manly beard at random for perhaps three more minutes. This moment of semi-solitude in the bright spic-and-span latrine of tile floors and yellow-painted walls was his first since coming to BCT. Good thing he had been told to dry shave.
Moments later, John again stood outside, this time with the other boys and watched the next company do more obstacle courses, like in a grade-school relay. Waiting in line to run would be pleasurable and stress-free enough.
In fact, there was a similar obstacle course directly in front of them, John suddenly noticed. The two sets of wickets (croquet-like) were separated by six-foot ditch, lined with sandbags to make the ditch suggest some kind of crude shelter. Soon a sergeant came by and explained the course to them: you ran two figure-eights and jumped the ditch four times. Naturally, they were going to have to do it.
They had lined up to run, when another formation was called. An hour later, they had been separated alphabetically into four platoons and were in their “permanent” barracks. John was, therefore,
in the first platoon (from A-E). Often in the days to follow, he would have to play “server” in chow line; he would read the nametags and tell when he was finished serving a particular platoon.
John’s platoon sergeant was a stout, solid, blond youth named James. “Maurcek!” he called to John, after they had move their gear. “I see you got a lot of school, a lot more than I have,” Sgt. James snapped, the words spurting out with a rural drawl.
“Yes, sir!” John was still self-conscious of the “Sir”. James was just a sergeant, and sergeants worked for a living.
“You finished college, Maurcek.”
“Sir, I have a Master’s degree in Mathematics.”
“Well, Maurcek, you’ve sat at a desk for 18 years accumulatin’ all those book smarts of yours, and not gettin’ much exercise. Perhaps not learnin’ any social graces, either.”
“This is true, Sir. I admit it.”
“This ain’t gonna be easy at all, Maurcek. I’m sure you realize this. You may have trouble keeping up. You may get awfully tired at times, but you gotta keep up. Understand.”
“Yes, Sir.” John was glad that Sgt. James didn’t refer explicitly to the possibility of not making it in eight weeks.
Friday evening, Sgt. James showed them (again) how to make their bunks. Once again, hospital corners and dust cover. Oh, the dust cover fold had to join the “V-springs” ¼ the way down each side of the bed; and the third blanket had to be folded exactly into thirds; if you failed the first time, you made the first fold a “cunt hair” further down for a second try.
“Now, your bunks will be made just like I have shown you before reveille. I’ll come through and look durin’ chow mornin’s, and if your bunk is not satisfactory, it’ll be on the floor. If it’s on the floor twice, you’ll go and see the company commander so he can take $21 of your money. That’s called Article 15 and you’ll be hearing about it shortly.”
Saturday was orientation day. In Theater #2, orientation from company, battalion, and brigade commanders. “The easiest thing is for you to do the very best that you can these eight weeks, and trust your cadre and your officers, that we know what we are doing.” Yes, Basic Combat Training would require John Maurcek to do the best that he could, much more so than in graduate school, “I will, of course, be ready to help every one of you in any legitimate way. I will be available to discuss complaints from any of you from 1800 to 1900 hours Fridays.” John had to sit through this twice. Exactly the same speeches both times. He had accidentally been picked that morning for a detail that moved chairs, podia, etc. and policed the theater before and after the presentation.
In the late morning the First Sergeant gave his spiel, in a beaten up classroom near the theater. The audience sat in an area elevated above the central aisle; instead of desks, there were mny long tables, partitioned into cubicles, much like the testing area at the Reception Station. The surroundings were brown, wooden-planked floors, yellow-painted walls, with a pot-bellied coal stove in the center of the room. “I had four men in my office this morning with what they thought was a fair and square request. Tell yourself you’re not one of these cowards, the other 196 of you!” The voice was deep and gruff, suggestive of a smoker’s incipient lung cancer. “’First Sergeant’, the man said, ‘I want a discharge from the United States Army.’ Men, you don’t anyone here to give you a discharge, do you?” Everyone cooperated and shot up their hands. John half-believed it as he muttered, No!” “Men”, the smooth, hardened, burly, cigarette-weathered man continued, “The only way you’ll earn a discharge is to serve and complete satisfactorily two years if you were drafted – if your serial prefix is US, or three years if you enlisted, if your prefix is RA.” But you could enlist for two years.
That afternoon and evening, Sgt. James gave his own little orientation. Funny, a healthy 21-year-old would give up his Saturday night to show trainees how to set up their foot and wall locker displays. (Oh, well, he was married anyway.) The fatigues, khakis, greens, raincoat, were all arranged in a certain precise way, with trouser zippers facing toward the left and all buttons buttoned (except for the top one on the fatigue and field jackets – you don’t have to button those when you wear them with a V-neck – interesting). “You probably think that his is bulllshit and serves no rightful purpose, but most of you will be going to Vietnam and will have to do things in an exact and precise manner. So you might as well learn to do things right here.” Very reasonable philosophy. And that wall locker display didn’t seem too much to work to put up with.
But the foot locker display, explained Sunday afternoon, looked impossible, A towel had to be folded creaseless to fit the inner tray just right The underwear had to be rolled eight inches wide, without visible imperfections. There was one specific way to manipulate each item before folding it – John could barely remember the methods after they had been demonstrated. Even more complicated was the poncho, which had rolled off his back that frigid morning in the Reception Station chow line. John feared he would never remember how it was to be buttoned up – there were several possibilities, like chess continuations.
“Oh, I swear that I can’t get the first pair of long underwear pants to fold right.” Alfonzi had finished all his rolls. “I’ll help you in a minute.” Alfonzi had folded the tray lining for him and leant his iron, Alfonzi could do all these manual-type things; he had picked up these things well. He had one year of college. Really, Alfonzi seemed like a petty good person.
Later, John had two whole rolls doe with inspection in half an hour. Aw, shoot, I’ll check my wall locker again. He didn’t say to have the foot locker ready for the 3:30 inspection, did he? We were just shown how to do them an hour ago.
“He said foot and wall lockers,” said Davis, a Negro a few bunks down the aisle.
“He can inspect my feet, then.” But john could really doubt his own perceptions of reality
Sgt. James didn’t come until 4:30. He just walked around and let them go on working.
Now, a few words about the suddenly perpetual surroundings into which John had placed himself.
The “company street”, on which formations were held, was one long blacktop, striped with four parallel yellow lines. White-painted, wood eyebrow barracks lined the street, ends facing. The first two on the left and first three on the right belonged to John’s company, E Company, 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade.
In front of the two barracks on the left sat the orderly room-supply room hut, across the street, the homey day room. Then, across the “KP Alley”, which ran perpendicularly across the street, lay the company mess hall. Many more company streets ran parallel to this one, all crossing the same “KP alley”. A major divided highway ran on the other side of the mess hall, and the road seemed to divide civilization from imprisonment.
Perhaps the best time to start the description of a typical day of John during the early weeks of BCT, is early evening, right after supper.
The task of the evening was to clean the barracks, and prepare one’ uniform, foot locker, and wall locker. Depending on whether John’s squad had the latrine or the bay for duty, John’s job would be to brasso the drain sieves or the fire extinguishers. He had to use a moldy brown rag from the supply footlocker up front; once in a while, he sacrificed one of his own undershirts, as he could always buy another one. The squad leader gave him this job because it was the easiest one manually.
Oh, sometimes he helped with a few other things, like sweeping the water around the latrine (they flooded it by filling the urinals), dusting around the rotted rubber coasters supporting the wall lockers, or holding the cord while one of the “experienced” men ran it (one who could do it “fast” and “good”). The “experienced” men chewed him out whenever he let the cord hit the floor. One time, at Sgt. James’s suggestion, the squad let compact little Bill ride the buffer, but it didn’t work.
“Now, you wipe that sweat shit along the steel overhead!” 17-year-old, rapidly maturing Basteau was always ordering Basteau around, particularly the night he helped clean the shower stalls, “Don’t pick on Maurcek, he’s doing good,” Nichton, the squad leader (who was broad and smooth) ordered.
John could never quite finish doing all his paraphernalia (any more than he was finished studying for a math test). The belt buckle still had some lacquer at the corners, the boots (made for walkin’) weren’t as glossy as the next guy’s; perhaps not all those buttons on those fatigues hanging in the wall locker were closed; and Sgt. James had never been happy with his poncho; it was so ruffled on the edges, and it looked no better now. Oh, where was that fuckin’ first aid pack – it’s under the sheet I started to pull up (but Lee, that guy who would help me do my sheets – hospital corners, wrinkles and shit -- was busy washing mirrors now).
John was always glad when 9:30 (lights out) came around, for he couldn’t legally work on his shoot. Everything went back to its approximate place; John hoped that would be good enough. The next eight hours would provide sporadic pleasure – the coze of curling up, fatigues and all, under the first two blankets (the third one was laid on the foot locker, too complicated to make) and on top of all the sheets (so as not to have to remake them in the morning) and insulating him against the subfreezing draft from the open windows (meningitis regulations – all windows in the bay open three inches on both top and bottom). Pleasure, just warmth, no rubbing.
It was not fun to go urinate at 1 AM, 3:14, 4:10. The cold makes you urinate more often. It took John fifteen minutes to gather the guts to brave the cold of the bay (the latrine was always warmer). Have to make sure to use the urinal that was flushing.
Of course, it was fun to wake up frequently and know there would still e 5, 3, 1-1/2 hours to go, to enjoy he coze. When you sleep, you enjoy the warm relaxation less, and time disappears. Of course, waking up at 4:30 was no fun for John; he would debate with himself whether he could delay getting up until 4:55 instead of the previously planned 4:45 – he had to do all that little shit, and make his bed a few times, lace and blouse his boots, shave. He had to allow himself enough time to do everything, just as he had always given himself plenty of time in school. How often he had gotten up early to study for a test, even in high school!
About two nights out of every five, John pulled an hour’s fire watch, here he sat huddled by the rag locker and fire extinguisher. During the second week, somebody downstairs lost $20, so Sgt. James insisted that the fire watch stand in full fatigue uniform and entrenching tool at right shoulder arms. So John rose whenever he heard anyone enter downstairs.
Well, John would always force himself to get up early, and would be halfway through making his bunk when the CQ runner came in and got everybody else up. It was a mad scramble to finish assembling the field gear, to blouse and then lace those boots on the steps (you couldn’t use the floor waxed the night before) as the others stumbled past him.
He always did make it outside by 0555 hrs, and soon shivered through a-tens-SHUT, PreSENT Arms! (Salute – you couldn’t see the flag in the dark, only the red light top the Tank Hill water tower 2000 feet away.) The formalities of REPORT (“All present! All Present! One AWOL! All Present!) “Now, platoon leaders, if you don’t have this report exactly right, I’ll court martial your ass!”
Since Jphn’s platoon was the first, an order of chow of 1-2-3-4 or 4-1-2-3 was always a relief; wouldn’t have to go through the horizontal ladder – he needed to, but just not now, before enjoying the net meal! It would always be so frustrating! His palms would smart intolerably as he hung from the first rung; and he could hardly reach the next one with his right hand and hold it as he lurched for it with his left. After four or five rungs his hands just could not keep holding (or could they), or he just couldn’t reach -- he’d fall off as he reached for the next one. Sometimes Sg.t James would have him push with all his might against the ladder support posts. (Sgt. James knew his isometrics – well, he was supposed to be one of the best training sergeants around.)
Eventually, they would wind up in the chow line, where they studied their TM-6’s (Oh, what does that mean?) – questions they would have to answer on their “G-3 testing”, whatever that was. Of course, come to attention at the command “Gimme Five”.
“What would you like to have happen to you?” asked Lieutenant Granby one time when John let up his guard (on coming to attention).
“Well, Sir, I…”
“Maurcek, you’d like to become a civilian again, wouldn’t you!”
“Well, Sir, to be truthful .. Sir, if I hadn’t volunteered for the draft, had gotten a job programming, do you think I would have been deferred, would have escape?”
“Yes, Maurcek, I suppose so; you scientists and techies are taking over, can do anything you please. The world worships the theoretical scientist and the machines, forgetting about people. Humanities, Maurcek, teach you about people. Scientists just want to blow them up!”
“Humanities are the hope of the world.” Naturally Granby had majored in history.
The wind tried to whip away Lt. Granby’s dark red Armor Branch scart, but it was too perfectly secured. “Well, Maurcek, come on. I that not so?’
“Don’t you ask an officer so many questions,” snapped Granby. Social graces! Yes, Maurcek, one semester before I was called up. I almost had a Master’s.
Suddenly, the line moved deeper into the mess hall at the command “Gimme Five!” Some fat cook with a pipsqueaky voice called it out, and underscored the “five”. As you entered, you took off your cap and said “RA One”, “US Two”, etc., according to what you were. John could pretend to be proud that he was an RA. It’s easier to take if you brought it on yourself.
John always wanted to pick the three pancakes (not buckwheat, just creamy, yellowy, sweetie rich) instead of the egg and one cake, but he knew that the latter would be better for him. It waa great those mornings they had creamed chipped beef over biscuits. It was great when stout Lt. Jackson told the cooks and servers to give John all he wanted. He was mad when they had run out of cereal. (Sugar frosted flakes got to be his favorite.)
It made him mad that some sergeant was going around with “hurry up and git outa here.” (They would not throw you out.) For breakfast was his only pleasure of the morning. Physical, sensuous (not necessarily sensual) pleasure was so much more important than he had ever imagined it could become. (Lyle had predicted as much – the enjoyment of one’s own earthly existence?) Surely, the Army was knocking that silliness, that spiritual aloofness out of him. Make him an average Joe who could enjoy his baseball, booze and broads. It was better that most men in the pecking order knew no more.
After breakfast, some of the trainees policed the outside area (swept out the large cement rain gutter along the barracks – to quote the Field First, “I want a good police call.” Others put the finishing touches on the bay and latrine. John wanted to be given something to do in the bay: (1) Stay out of the freezin’ fuckin’ cold (2) put the finishing touches on the bunk, the laundry bag; they were never quite done. But the squad leader wanted John Outiside, even though he was a good guy on John’s side. (Only once did Sgt. James overturn his bunk. He escaped the Article 15.)
Oh, he could try to sneak in and go upstairs just to wee-wee (and escaped momentarily from the freezin’ fuckin’ cold); he would see the men lining up the foot lockers with a string; and, yes, his laundry bag would have been fixed.
The posted training schedule always showed eight periods (0800-1650), although several successive periods might be devoted to one subject. First Aid, Individual Tactical Training, Military Justice, Geneva Convention, and (later) Rifle Marksmanship, were presented by Post “committee groups”. Of course, John always looked forward to these classes taught in the theater or bleachers – he could sit down and look forward to an hour or two of physical relaxation, without exertion, frustration, or motor confusion. Unfortunately, classes in the theater were preceded by the earsplitting whistle and company chant, “E-4-1! Better than the best! To hell with the rest! Now, can every company be better than all the rest? As a partial ordering, the pecking order is asymmetric. Even worse, the limericks of a few of the other companies that share the theater with them were prefixed with man-made whistle between four hundred lips four thousand fingers, and that really hurt!
First Aid (two four-hour blocks) was interesting enough. They split the company into groups and rotated through artificial respiration, splints and bandages, and man carries. John had difficulty assimilating the carries from the demonstrations. Fortunately, John’s partner grasped the space better, an undue embarrassment was avoided. John also depended on his partners when it came to foldig an securing that poncho for the sucking chest wound, the belly wound, etc. A fourth grade teacher had once written, “John depends a great deal on others and demands much attention” on the report card. So John was used to being the besieged bad little boy.
Apparently, the Committee Group wanted to make First Aid a little scary. At the bandaging station, SSG Brooks warned, “We mean business here today, men, some small point you take away from here, some little thing you will do right after listening to every thing I say, will make the difference between your buddy’s life and his getting full well.” And he talked about pushing a guy’ guts back in the hole because they might strangulate. They wanted to scare you. About buddies. It’s legitimate to want a buddy. Well, John had to scramble for that smooth little redhead’s advice so he wouldn’t feel too bad about not paying 100% full attention. John paid attention in probabilistic way. Of course, he could always review the details of the first aid procedures in the barraks that night, or days later, before “G-3 testing”. The little “soldier’s notebook” pad was getting soiled, as John crammed it full of attempts to describe mechanical processes.
”A sprain is an injury where ligaments are torn; in a strain, they are merely stretched. A fracture is … a compound fracture is ….A dislocation is …” Well, at least John could impress the NCO at the fractures-and-splints station; the NCO had to translate John’s definitions before agreeing and complementing.
One four-hour session early in Basic was devoted to “individual Tactical Training.” There was a 60-minute lecture on field sanitation and a demonstration of combat movements. The lecture was spiced with many prepared dirty jokes. The funny sergeant talked about the clap (and the doctor’s sticking an iron sewage pipe – otherwise known as a catheter – up Joe’s dick), and elephantiasis, where Joe’s dick grows into a balloon, making it impossible to fuck again. All of this goes on while your Sarge fixes Joe up with a few days in Saigon or Da Nang with a few days to relieve his needs that mamma nature had bestowed upon him; after all, a lot of goo accumulates in 90 days of bushwacking. Funny, everybody is either Joe or Charley No matter, I probably won’t get infantry anyway, John reassured himself. The lecture and demo were followed by practical work in barbed wire, observation positions, night movements (where you feel the air in some queer way with the hairless palms of your hands) and (worst) high crawl and ready rush. The forty minutes of “ready rush” were as bad as any during the first four weeks of Basic. You’d go through six stations (logs in various positions) and high crawl or rush from one station to the next, as directed by the voice on the loudspeaker. Wet, gritty sand through your fatigues – got to fall correctly, and rifle butt down, elbows locked, land on side (skinning elbows and knees), fall down, and then lift yourself up, all your mass, in some precise, complicated way again to “rush”. And yell and scream “Charley!” When you got to the end of the line, you would enjoyably wait – but not for long – for four would be going through the course at once.
PT (physical training), bayonet, and D&C (Drill and Ceremonies) were handled by company cadre, near the company area. (Sometimes this was desirable, sometimes not. A long march would be relaxing, pleasure-giving, if the drill sergeants weren’t too hepped on ordering “Butt, left!” (referring to the position of the rifle on the shoulder arms), every five seconds.
John had a hard time understanding how he was supposed to remove the bayonet from the rifle, the first time the subject was introduced. Where was the little lever you press to relieve the stud? Sgt. James came by to chew him out and help him. “Lemme think!” John begged with a trembling voice. “Think? What is there to think about? That’s all you want to do, Maurcek, think.”
Later, on the drill field, Sgt. James had to correct John a couple times on holding the bayonet at throat level (in the “on guard” position). Then Sgt. James whispered to another drill sergeant, “He’ll probably be recycled.” Gee, they meant business. The Army wasn’t going to fool around with him.
“Maurcek’s got all the book learning, the mathematical computer, but Maurcek’s in’t got no common sense,” said Munroe, short wiry Negro on the first Saturday afternoon after training had started. That statement summed up the general feeling about Maurcek among all the recruits, although some pretended to take more kindly toward John than others. Munroe was determined to help John. He physically tugged John on a third lap around the company area that sunny, sandy Saturday afternoon (John had been willing to run just two). He also force John to try those fuckin’ bars five times (once a day – by himself – would have satisfied John’s procedural satisfaction). If you don’t stop sitting around with a muvva-fickin pencil, you don’t get outside and strain yourself, you aint’ gonna live very long.” But, maybe, one day, no one would want to. We had escaped the Cuban Missile Crisis just once.
Oh, maybe John was doin’ OK with most of the guys. Some of them talked about taking him along on their first pass, whenever it would come, and taking a bus to Charleston and staying in some hotel. John thought he could get a hot tub bath. Then, he thought, he would take them up on their offer of some woman. Maybe now was the time; maybe he would really enjoy it, because this man’s Army fucks a man in the mind and makes him ready to enjoy anything.
But John really did have a problem sensing the feelings of others, and he knew it; he had always had it. He tended to blurt out things. Indeed, his poor reading of others (this is what Munroe meant by “no common sense”) surfaced often enough in Basic. There was a time when the Field First was talking to him informally on a leisurely afternoon road march (something to enjoy, counting as a hike) “So you see, Maurcek, this training isn’t too tough is it?”
“No, Sir, Oh, sir, what did you do in Vietnam?”
“Oh, Maurcek, I was an advisor in training their soldiers and their marines.”
“What phases of their training.”
“All phases, Maurcek.”
“Marines. Yes, I imagine that this training is easy compared to what the Marines get. (It is!) “The Marines are tougher than the Army.”
Whereupon John heard a long recitation of Army accomplishments that the Marines could not have approached. And John heard about this later from Lt. Granby.
Another incident took place in Pugil Stick training, when the company commander came up to him as he was about to put on his protective padding. “Maurcek, you’re one soldier I’ve been wanting to talk to.”
An encouraging sign, such personal attention from the CO,
“What do you think about this, this Basic Combat Training…” “Good, it’s a little rough now, but you’ll do your best.”
“Yes, Sir, I might as well learn something while I’m here.” Perhaps it would help to show the right attitude. Every brownie point counts.
“Or course, Maurcek, you are going to a commission, with your background being put to work doing, um, systems analysis. (What is systems analysis?) The pugil stick arena was a funny place to wonder this.
“Sir, I am going to fill out an application for direct commission this week. A retired General will write a letter of recommendation for me. But, Sir, how did you become an officer?”
“I was drafted during Korea, and after my first hitch, I reenlisted to go to OCS. The Captain did look kind of old to be a captain.
“The tough route,” John said. Suddenly, the Field First was at John’s ear. He was talking to short man with some silver colored thing on his fatigue label. John turned to him, without stopping to think that he must be a field grade officer. “Say, well, you’re a Brigadier General”. (The man was just a Lieutenant Colonel, wearing a silver oak leaf. But he could have John’s ass for this!) The Field First chided John a bit with his high, protective, mother-hen voice. Then, John took his turns in the Pugil pits and got clobbered. He just couldn’t do the “long thrust series” and “vertical butt stroke” hard, faast, right. And it stung to get banged in the head, even with protective mask. John wasn’t used to tackle football.
He heard about this little incident from the lieutenants. He also heard about his friendly waving to the Captain while on KP one day that third week – after forwardly asking him how his commission application was coming, (He did have his parent check with the neighbor general and then sent him the recommendation form. He asked his squad leader, who was on his side, to give him an extra fire watch so that he could have time to fill out the application immediately he had taken it to the First Sergeant (chain of command), and of course the Frst Sergeant had probably done nothing about it, since only complete (every Cauchy subsequence converging) men were supposed to hold commissions in this man’s Army.
So, John was staggering around with his training. How could he ever make enough points to pass the PCPT test? Heha made 190 on the first try (the second Tuesday of Basic), and you needed 300 to pass; but he would never get more than 30 points – 6 bars – or so on that firggin’ jungle jim, so he needed to put out on everything else. (The other events were low-crawl, run-dodge-jump, mile run, and man carry.) Oh the Field First made him feel good by asking him to average the grades platoon by platoon the night after the test, when he also had guard duty and had to spit-shine his boots; but he didn’t mind; he could pretend he was an assistant instructor again. Maybe, there was credible danger that he could flunk the G-3, too. He could so easily make twenty point of minute, discrete mistakes on right shoulder arm (you have to grip the M-14 at just the right place), vertical butt strokes, day prone positions (“Maurcek, you can make 21 points on the test with just brains.”) And being kept back in Basic might jeopardize his assignment of MOS; for, come summer, there would be more drafted college students to compete with for the good jobs in the Army, where you didn’t have to fight or get dirty. Fucking up might cost him his high-frequency hearing, his meager trappings of masculinity, or his life.
With all these becoming-personal problems, John could hardly enthusiastic about identifying with his platoon, and his company, like he was supposed to. (They call that “unit cohesion”.) The “esprit de corps” idea showed up in the loud cadence shouting and marching, often to the familiar “1, 2, 3, 4, Sound off!” nursery tune. (John often thought that the opening march theme of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony would be appropriate for a Basic Combat Training setting, like an army mowing down a country, a people, a goosesteeping invasion knocking over everything, every little pebble in its path and just marching on and on. ) The forced “esprit de corps” showed up in that ear-splitting chant the company would recite before “taking seats” in the theater (not everybody can be best, not every element of a well-ordered set can be maximal, etc.) Failure of the Third Platoon to win the plaque in the third week brought a faked-angry harangue fro, Sgt. James, including “Pushup position, starting position, Move!” and “Big G, starting position, Move!” G means gorrill, hairy-chested and all, or maybe guerilla, oriental-smooth. Rap that gut!
Sgt. James established a vague connection between those plaques and possible weekend post privileges. (“There is a chance for Post Privileges Sunday.”) John was amazed how he could hunger for just little freedom. Oh, please, no guard duty next weekend! Meanwhile, three meals and evening beddy-bye, that was all he could look forward to. When his platoon was last in order of chow, he would fret that the chocolate cake or apple pie or vanilla ice cream might be all gone – a fat man’s worry for a skinny man. Plain satisfaction of basic drives – these assumed great importance. If he could get pass after the fourth wekk, he would surely go out with the other proletarian guys who would invite him, to shack up one evening in a Columbia or Charleston hotel. A nice warm bath to leech the dirt out of his skin – his wrists were becoming chaffed sieves of grime; much of the down had fallen out, but that did not matter now; Zugfel did not matter now, his ubiquity specifically excluded Army Basic Combat Training sites. Really, all that did matter now, was to get out of this mess and get comfortable. That’s all. Very selfish! Not noble. Ah, women, it might be fun to have a broad, all right. Maybe women were human beings, and maybe it doesn’t matter whether they are or not; and maybe superficial trappings on the body don’t matter.
Post Privilege, in fact, did come – late Saturday afternoon the third week. It started out so nicely with a coke ad a gritty ice cream sandwich. Then to the movies, for a 35-cent reissue war film. Oh, John didn’t really enjoy it that much, as preoccupied as he was about supper. (The film wouldn’t end until 8:30; the PX cafeteria closed at 8, so the vending machines would have to do.)
Sunday was a different matter. The Platoon Sergeant had picked him for special mess hall detail that afternoon (steel wooling baking pans), and in the morning, the CQ picked him for roadside police detail. (He was in his greens, about to leave for the EM Service Club – “Well, Maurcek, you’ve got detail now” – and twenty minutes later, he was hunched over, underneath a black poncho, picking up Milky Way and Juicy Fruit wrappers, and beer cans, from a wet ditch, after a typical early spring thunderstorm.
Details – the big dreaded one was KP. You go right after chow the night before and work until the mess hall closed; and you have to be there at 0400 the next morning. First time he pulled it, John was assigned as side sink man. During the first ninety minutes after each meal, John felt like a perpetual motion machine, a he removed “babyfood” metal trays from the wooden-sill widow, knocked off ecess scraps into the garbage pail, and scrubbed the trays curiously, one at a time. If more than five trays had visible residue on them, they would have to do the whole lot over again, or so they threatened. After a while, the wash water would look like diluted vomit, and once the mess sergeant came by and made him empty the side sink and refill, (“This ain’t no damned good…”) When this task was finally over, the cooks told John to mop the floors, and keep mopping “till the tile comes up.” That is, until the next meal. Oh, the cooks were nice about it, and allowed a ten-minute break, and John called home. He missed home, and parents. The men in the past, thy didn’t matter. And the men around him, they were good enough, but they didn’t matte.
For second KP (during the third week), John drew DRO, dining room orderly. When the EM being relieved showed him the job “the night before”, he explained, “You really have to sweep it good nd get it all,: (John could never get things completely clean) “John, you’re going to have to do the very best you can tomorrow.” That hurt; he really did have a reputation as a kind of dud or deadwire. And his reputation decreased when the mess sergeant showed him how to really scrub hard with that little hand brush; it always took a little elbow grease, which John was unwilling to provide. Later, the sergeant humored him, by pretending he couldn’t do the “math part” of his food form order.
“Pvt. Maurcek, how many jobs is you had?”
“Oh, five or six, Sir.”
“How many jobs you’ve been fired from.
John told him about how he worked as an assistant instructor while a graduate student (the job he had been sort of fired from – remember!)
“Well, tell me, Pvt. Maurcekm what is this here algebra anyway?”
Good question – just saying it’s like arithmetic (you don’t do it in ink in grade school) with letters instead of number, isn’t a correct answer, but it pleased the sergeant.
Guard duty, by the way, was easier. They got you up and you walked around a building two hours at port arms. You could talk to yourself. Recruits on incoming busses might see you.
The beginning of the end was that horrible first day on the rifle range. Sgt. James humored him selecting him as guinea pig to demonstrate to the bleacher class that an M14 rifle’s recoil won’t damage a man’s nuts. John thought he was still in the good with Sgt. James.
But unfortunately he had to coach and fire on the 25-meter range: three rounds in the morning, nine in the afternoon. Each time he coached first. He has put in his earplugs, but the blast would tear away from the right and then the left, from all over the place, but especially from the right – each blast, a ring, each ring lower in pitch than before until a dissonant triad played from within. Oh, what was that guy in the tower telling him to do now?
“Firers, lock ad load one three-round magazine…” Oh, how do you get that motherfucker inserted in there, which end goes with which? “Ready on the right, The right is ready!” Ad off the rounds would go, it would be 35 seconds or so before an AI would yell at him to load , then Sgt. James: “Maurcek, you’re too damn weak to hold the weapon steady!” No, I can’t be that weak, I can’t afford to bolo, and get recycled… Oh, I don’t understand, I was supposed to carry that silhouette back with me, have to run back and get it, keep that motherfuckin’ gun pointed down rage, stuff the target cards in my pocket. Don’t care about my ears; just want the nightmare to end, nothing else matters.
Back in the company, outside the barracks, he had to clean his weapon; but he found that he had lost his bore-cleaning rod, and both wire brushes; and no one would lend any, not even his friends; they said that Maurcek was a fake, a malingerer, a mooch. He went back to the barracks (He did get somebody to “watch” his broken down weapon). He looked frantically, his ears still full, engorged, ringing. Where were those frigin’ damnit’ motherfuckin’ things?
“Mother fuck! Why can’t I organize myself to do anything manual? I can shoot that rifle. I know I can.” His own voice sounded as if a 1000 cps filter had been instlled (by the Army) into hi cochlea. “Why can’t I, oh, I just can’t get things done. And I know that Lt. Granby doesn’t mean it personally. I know he’s just trying to help me, all these boys are just trying to help me (In combat, any one of them might have exterminated Maurcek for the safety of the group – fragged. ) “Oh, Mother fuck! John was a little baby again.
How good that eggy vanilla ice cream tasted at dinner! How much more blunt the voices around him sounded. Gotta go on sick call!
They didn’t argue about letting him go away. “Have them give you something for your nerves while you see them.” Shell shock? “I know, I’ve seen it happen before. They thin they’re going deaf, but it always comes back,” continued the corporal (CQ tonight). The corporal was a good guy, “Why, I’ve been deaf for two weeks after maneuvers, but I’m OK now, I guess.”
As he sat there, waiting for the ambulance, he felt that pulled-in feeling beneath his tongue, a gulpy feeling in his throat Oh, no, he must not vomit!
A nice, quick ride in the ambulance. The nausea lifted, and he had a dream, about the Chaiman. Mishi Ho. Maybe Zugfel was ubiquitous after all.
“Fever, 104.8. Don’t worry, you don’t have to fake it,” the medic said. “You’re goin’ to the hospital.”
Once in the hospital, the dream really was over; he was so nauseated he could barely take his clothes off and get that sloppy blue hospital robe on. Oh, don’t bother to get the belt through the loops, the mouth is just too urpy. He sat over a toilet for minutes. He gave his name, rank and serial number to some Red Cross people on the phone; perhaps he could die.
“Where are you? The matronly nurse asked.
“Fort Wilson, South Carolina.”
“What kind of building are you in?”
“Well, you aren’t delirious. Is the back of your neck stiff?”
The nurse satisfied herself that John probably didn’t have meningitis, so he could make it through the middle of the night without brain damage or amputations.
“Can you give me something to take away this terrible nausea?”
“Sure. It’s just the fever.”
Then John asked, “Do you like being a nurse for the Army?”
“Um hmm.” She really wasn’t that conversational. She was matronly. But she got the pills, and John make it through the night without puking.
Maurcek heard about it – the assassination of two Marines in a bar downtown – perhaps half an hour after the nurses woke the patients up. They wee discussing it; the patients questioned them They guys talked about it with only a little vulgarity throughout the day. John wasn’t too upset; he never had felt too involved with national affairs – except in fantasy. “A few weeks in the Army will scrap away that streak of nobility I see peering through,” a fellow chess player, now in intelligence, had written. And it had taken only a few hours for him to become 100% self-centered.
The rest of the hospital stay was enjoyable—but the chronic worries. His right ear still felt numb. How would he make it through Basic? Could he bolo? He’d judge people outside to be 200, 300 meters away, and convince himself they didn’t look too hard to shoot down. Those two Marines – pending notification of next of kin.
X-rays, warm showers, good meals, lines to the masked doctor. Tetracycine pills, crackly cough, TV set, fever in the evenings, all this was part of hospital life. Sunday, the staff made them wash down the railings of their own beds. And a nurse tried to make him take a cold shower.
The doctor wasn’t too reassuring. “Your ears: the solution is to stay away from firearms.” Yes, a catch 22. He had to pass rifle range.
They let him go Monday, after four nights.
Monday afternoon, John leisurely restored his foot and wall locker displays. (When you get sick, they pack all your gear in your duffelbag and send it to the hospital after you, because you might not be coming back.) Monday evening, he heard his name called out as one of six men who were supposed to see the Company Commander after chow. Well, maybe, in his case, it was his direct commission. But what about the others? They didn’t matter.
While waiting outside the orderly room, in the early evening bluelight, John heard one of the other of Les Six say, “They’re going to send us to Special Training.”
“When did you take the second PT test?” the other asked.
“They came after chow and got me Thursday night and made me retake it. I got a 245. I puked after the mile run.”
Well, maybe they were here to be shipped to Special Training.
The CQ let them into the dayroom, across the street: cheerio, yellowish, not quite homey, sparse, and military. John had not long for butterflies. The Captain walked in and said, “Remain seated, Men; I want to drop some of the formalities tonight. Now we have here at Fort Wilson what we call Special Training Company.” Oh, no, he wouldn’t. He had sounded so nice, so optimistic. What a double cross. Then came the third hammerstroke. But he’s only trying to help me. “Most of you are going for remedial physical training. I recommended attitude and motivation for only two of you.”
John was the first soldier that the Captain talked to privately; maybe he did merit more attention than the other men. They sat on a leathery couch, casually. The Captain, in greens, loosed his tie, crossed his legs, and let them show They weren’t balding Very informal. “You’ve spent all your time in school you have a tremendous wealth of education, and I wish I had the time for you to sit down and teach me some mathematics. But, somehow, you seem to have missed out on some things, shall we call them social graces, and, of course, physical strength, robustness. Sometimes, I think we went overboard on Sputnik, pushed young people into books who didn’t belong, gave some of them like you a false sense of security. You know, John, wars are won by men as much as computers.” John wanted to pretend he was observing this experience, affecting it through relativity. It was calm all around.
“But you all promised that I would be working in my field when I got out of here, that I would be in systems analysis.”
“Oh, you will.” Now, the Captain looked Bill in the eye. “But you’re going to have to learn to be a guerilla fighter first. I really mean that.”
The Captain looked away, and then right at John again. He grabbed the back of a sofa. “Look, John, you’ll like it there. They have a gymnasium where you can really build yourself up. You know, weights, dumbbell kind, or barbells, exercise pulleys, parallel bars, the whole works.”
“You really think all that will make me pass the PT test in a few weeks.”
“I expect you to be there two or three weeks. I’ve already discussed you with the Company Commander. He is an individual right up your alley. He has an education to match yours, a Master’s Degree.”
John didn’t want to leave the understanding Captain and face the real military world outside, so they talked a while longer. Of course, the Captain brought up that little incident about John’s asking the Lieutenant Colonel if he were (subjunctive) a Brigadier General; but the Captain was nice about this, too. “But, believe me, I caught hell for that, John. You know how the Army chain of command works; it’s more than bureaucracy; when you command people, you catch hell for anything any of your poor troops does wrong.” John remembered the Captain’s mention of a platoon for “attitude and motivation” cases; he had to make sure he wasn’t “one of them.” “No, John, you don’t have a discipline problem, you don’t have an academic problem. It’s just that you really haven’t learned how to cope with, well, people. I have recommended that you be placed in PT Platoon.”
There was only one night’s sleep to enjoy, with its habitual wakeups and reassurances from the Timex watch. Special Training Company looked as an ideal.”
They lined up the deficient trainees in two ranks, with full duffelbags between the men like steel pots. John, since stepping off the truck, had taken in just a glance of his new home – olive green tents, clay, long wooden shacks, coal, smoke, dirt, and sand. Like an outpost in the desert. “Where you from, soldier? Had any school?” “Sergeant, I have a Master’s Degree in Mathematics.”
“Soldier, you know your trouble? Well, I’ll tell you your trouble, Too much education. Just plain too much books.”
“Sergeant, it’s not because of my education.” But the Sergeant had moved to the next man, to torment him. He turned around and retorted, “Wait till you meet that Smiley kid. He got some danged degree in three years, but he can’t learn nuttin’ here. He can’t even fix a bayonet. He’s just plain dumb. A burden on his buddies who have to take hits for him. What do you call kids like that, soldier? Idiot savings, o something or other?”
“Idiot savant, Sergeant,” the other guy said.
“That’s right. Well, just don’t be one of those dang idiot savages, and you’ll be OK with me.” And John, it turned out, got along really well with Sgt. Mahoney.
The 15-minute Company Commander’s orientation was a welcome event -- John could sit down and “enjoy” being seated, although the STC classroom, one of these long, leveled wooden shacks, was cold and over-refreshing. He didn’t fall asleep as some other protean trainee did – this might be a first brownie point in his favor, if you really have to pass the PT test. “Men, it’s up to you, that’s what I’m here to tell you today. Your stay here could last one day to twelve weeks, depending on you. Your cadre will give you all the tests, academic and physical training; and if you pass them, I will certify you to go back to your company. But, maybe in the end, you really don’t have to pass the frigin’ PT test; maybe he’d make an exception for John Maurcek. (“No bunts except for Maurcek.”) Twelve weeks, maybe that was the limit. But that might make him lose a shot at a good MOS. But then again, they can’t infrantry to a PT bolo, can they? Well, better try to get exceptions from the Captain. For a young man, an educated man with a Master’ Degree, he talked stern. Thank got this wasn’t the Marines. They’d have a swimming pool. He could fake a dogpaddle here if he had to do it.
Then, John was outside, impatiently waiting his turn to take the performance tests. He thought he had been sent here just for PT. Well, that stout balding guy next to him was a college graudate (Business, from Hofstra). He had made 225 on the PCPT (compared to John’s 190), and, yes, he was upset about what was happening to him. Across a little trech of sand and grass was the STC gym, which was supposed to house all those weights John would probably have to work out with, to get strong. Some unsuperman-looking trainees were hosing out the gym, in a leisurely, goofy manner. So mybe maybe living at STC wouldn’t be so bad.
He missed little things here and there and got zeroes on most of the bayonet and hand-to-hand practical demos – he got just 10 out of 24 on the test, when 17 was passing (70% of 24 is 6.8). So this meant a week in the third platoon, for general remedial training. Good, because it put off PT platoon for a week, with all those exhausting calesthenics and weight lifting, to get strong. Bad, because it put another question mark on John’s basic intelligence. (Once, on a Weekly Reader reading test, “Poor od John” had scored only 16 out of 64, and some big girl named Beverly had made a 44.)
When all the testing was over, they were taken to their tents, where they deposited their gear; then they were allowed to go to the “shit house” for relief. The latrine (where you never call attention) was something else, a whole rectangular solid by itself, with long rows of wash basins, urinals, commodes, and shower stalls. Of course, the concrete floor wasn’t quite clean. It had a coal stove near the water basins; the whole latrine stunk with hydrogen sulphide. John was in such emotional (if optional) shock over his new predicament that he mistook the long wash basins for community urinals, and so did most of the other boys.
They had to take the PT test after dejeuner, and of course John failed with a 212. They spent the rest of the day getting settled in their tents, so nothing painful happened Tuesday, or even the next day. Little training, no PT. Early Wednesday afternoon, John heard his name called on the company loudspeaker, ordering him to report to the dayroom.
There was a good-looking white PFC in dress greens. “Mr. Maureck, do you have any idea why I’m here?” Hairy wrists, all right. Authority. “Yes, I’m from the mental hygiene clinic, and we interview selected enlisted personnel in Special Training Company, to see if we can help them adjust to the demands of military life.”
The interview produced nothing, really. John spilled out his worry that he might be detained indefinitely in Basic because of his inability to pass that PCPT test, that he might lose his favorable position MOS-wise, that he might wind up sacrificed in Vietnam. Oh, John really did believe in the survival of the fittest; what was happening was fair. The PFC could offer little reassurance. “I have known of trainees who stayed here six months. I was one of the fortunate majority who make it in eight weeks.” They chatted a little while because John wanted to. John somehow brought up the topic of the two Marines, although he didn’t dare mention he dreamed about their murder the night it happened, because the dress-greens PFC, and therefore the entire Army, might figure he was crazy, and give him some kind of General Discharge, keeping him from getting a respectable job after he got out, which is, after all, the reason you do your two years honorably.This PFC in dress greens was really a pretty nice guy. It would be good to go drinking with him some time.
John Maurcek surprised himself – he made it our of STC in 3-1/2 weeks Every Tuesday, including the day John got there, the company had a PCPT test. The first three times, John scored in the low 200’s; the fourth time, a full 325. Many of his problems were just a matter of proper technique. In the mancarry, you have to support the guy just at the right party of your back, to avoid spills. In the low-crawl, you had to push off the mat with your leg crocked at just the right angle, and the mat had to be tight --- the trainees would spend an hour before the PCPT test just getting the mats tight; they cooperated with unit cohesion; they wanted out of STC, out of Basic. You had to take the right number of steps in the run-dodge-jump so as to hit the sandbags with your left foot and spring over the valley with the stronger right leg. So, after all, John could learn how to take the PT test, just as he had learned to take college tests, just as he could learn chess openings and traps (like how White loses a piece in the Archangel Ruy Lopez), and eventually endgames. Native ability wasn’t needed, or perhaps it just wasn’t.
He had made it out of Mahoney’s “academic” platoon in one week, of course. Life in PT Platoon wasn’t too strenuous. Besides company-wide PT at 0800, the PT platoon had perhaps another hour of PT a day, either more of the daily dozen, or “power circuit training.” The gym had perhaps twenty stations with various exercise apparatus: inclined-plane situps, tug-of-war chains, shoulder pulleys, parallel bars, a long horizontal ladder, a medicine ball (with which you beat up your partner in the stomach), back pullup rungs and, of course, free weights, in several stations, with large barbells and hand-sized bars. The weights had the blunt purpose of making your skeletal muscles strong; none of this endurance and coordinate or definition nonsense. The white platoon sergeant (PT platoon had two) once came up to John as he hesitated about throwing the barbell over his head (John didn’t know that a clean-and-jerk is a three-step procedure) and said, “Maurcek, I once was on a weight-lifting team in college – yes, Maurcek , I tried college too and couldn’t hack the studying – Maurcek, there are three reasons men lift weights: body building, weight training, and the sport itself.” Apparently the white platoon sergeant wanted recognition, from Maurcek. Maybe he really felt inferior (intellectually) to Maurcek. In fact, one day the sergeant started the PT period by asking John to describe his educational experiences to the group, and applauded John’s performance with “There is a smart man.” A wonderful hour that was. The other sergeant, a massive Negro regarded as the Good Guy, would waste unwanted minutes by describing his combat experiences. In Vietnam, he had taken his squad out every third night on patrol for a whole year, and never had a man killed. John liked to see those PT minutes pass by; once they started working on the power-circuit stations, John would compute how many more stations he would pass through, at 40 seconds a station, before 0:00, 10:15, 10:30, etc. The 40-second increments at the weight-lifting stations seemed especially long and futile, as if expanded by some integrating function. John would half-heartedly fake a few half-presses, and amuse himself by remembering that article in that muscle magazine he had seen in the dorm rooms at KU, that article about getting ready for a pose, about shaving your chest evenly and covering yourself with the right kind of oil, as if you were practicing Satanism or something. (Khaki’s had to be open, without undershirts, remember, or else it was unmilitary.) These silly thoughts, pass the interminable time, and don’t get anything out of this workout; there is always the next time. Well, it didn’t matter in the end, when John made it out. Just as he had made A’s on his math tests, even though he had let his mind wander as he studied for them.
John got along real well with the PT Platoon cadre, with the entire STC cadre, actually. Of course, John didn’t get along nearly so well with all his peers. Lee, the Negro guy to whom he had pleaded for help the Night of the Hospital Corners, was Maurcek’s platoon guide the first week, and he liked to cut Maurcek down to insect size. “I know I’ll get infantry. Maurcek, so will you get infrantry. Don’t kid yourself. But they’ll throw you in the Stockade, Maurcek, because you don’t want to do nuttin. Maurcek don’t want to di nuttin’>”
Once, they had to demo the power circuit training for some visiting generals (or some sub somebody). They were lined up along a mat in the middle of the gym. Three times, in unison, the men took deep breaths and, at the command “hip!”, took deep knee bends while slowly exhaling. This was to demonstrate some sort of setting up exercise. The whistle blew, and the men scrambled to their assigned stations, yelling and screaming (what on earth was there to cheer about? – you could stay in STC for twelve weeks, or was it six months, General?), until the command “Work!”, where they performed at each station for forty seconds until the next station (whereupon more yelling and screaming until reaching the next station). John hoped the General would come by and ask hum a few questions. He could tell the General, “I have a Master’s Degree in Mathematics” and maybe the General would get him out of this mess. Oh, it would be his luck for the General to come over to him while he was working (half-heartedly) with those damn weights. But he never saw the General.
He decided to check on the progress on the progress of the direct commission application (pinning on gold bars would be one way out), so the company commander sent him to MPD (Military Personnel Division) one afternoon after passing the test. Apparently, the first company had done nothing to process his application (that fundamentalist First Sergeant) , so MPD gave him new forms and showed him how to prepare them properly. You had to include a resume, for one thing. They also showed him his tentative enlisted assignment, the Pentagon. The afternoon at MPD was a most enjoyable one – he would drink his bubbly Royal Crown grape soda without risk, could lazily meander back to the STC company area and soliloquize, contemplate.
He typed up the forms and personal resume that night in the STC orderly room, carried them in his pocket on a bayonet training course, where they got a little dirty, and turned them in anyway.
STC, then, was a half-vacation. There was nagging worry about when he would get out, but staying there wasn’t so bad. There were those desperate calls to his parents, but there was little happening in the company to generate desperation. (Well, maybe his parents could come Easter weekend; maybe he could spend one wombal night in a nice hotel and take a nice warm bath to soak the filth out of his sieved skin – and then see Charleston – they will give you a pass if your parents come, won’t they?? – but this all fell through when he passed the PT test the week before Easter.) Time seemed to have stopped, or, after a week, it seemed to John he had been in STC for years. Time seem to have stopped, as during those leisurely, relaxing bull sessions in the gym, or even during the refresher courses on the simple things of military life (on-guards, forward thrusts, finger jabs, side-kicks, fix-bayonet.) Once, Sgt. Mahoney took the trouble to explain to them that “they should never call attention in the latrine.”
But there were no passes in Special Training Company, and post privileges on an occasional Sunday (the one Sunday the mythical company commander chose to grant it, John was stuck with KP, and almost cried when the cook made him clean the grease pit with a toothpick. The Saturday night before his last week, they were restricted to their tents during a “red alert” over the possibility of riots in Columbia or Charleston, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. They even had a bed check that night (“Haws, you still got your clothes on, ain’t you”) in the tents. And had formation every hour Sunday, to make sure no one had escaped AWOL. (They could watch TV, play scrabble in the day room between formations.)
After passing the test, he even “counseled” another private who was doing much worse, and whose wrists were even more debraded. “What you doin’, Ross?” He wasn’t Alfie.
Having “graduated” -- that is, “escaped”, from STC, John was shipped back to a regular company starting its third week of training on Tank Hill, B-2-1. From here on, it was mostly like it used to be, mostly worry, with none of the imagined failures coming to pass. Would they dare send him back to STC if he failed the Seventh Week PT test? Well, I don’t feel like trying four rows of bars tonight, just satisfy myself with one. Become less of a biped, more like a chimp, without the requisite body hair. It turned out OK; when the time came, he passed everything.
There were some real good things. A few Sundays, he got to play organ at the chapel. Once he improvised the theme from the majestic slow movement Finale from Mahler’s Third.
As usual, his general awkwardness, both with people and with physical objects, still worked against him many times.
For example, there was the occasion when they had company detail, the first Friday after he had returned to civilization (that is, normal Basic Combat Training). He had gotten off east on unit detail in his first company, but today, on special service detail no less, he was supposed to chop up moist clay with a hoe or log, so that the clay could be used to fill horseshoe pits. They ought to bring prisoners from the stockade to do this, one of the other men grumbled. “Now, mathematician you say you are, you’re supposed to work hard like the other men. Figure out how many chops it would take to cut up all those pieces of clay, then divide by five, and that’s your share. We don’t like to be men and hard ass, but if the old man gits on me, then I have no choice but to call your First Sergeant and get you an Article 15 nd rui your life,” the smooth little civilian runt vocalized on and on. John asked, “Are you civilian or military?” and “What’s your job?” (Recreation Specialist, GS-5). John worried about the threatened Article 15 all weekend, except while on guard duty (at the lonely hospital PX) where he talked to himself about coming vacations. They were three hours late Saturday morning picking him up from the AM guard duty shift (2 hours). Oh, by then, they had forgotten, he was the worst detail man Special Services had ever seen. They had said so.
As usual, he had a little trouble giving his boots a real shine (so they glowed in the dark, good!), cleaning his rifle, putting on his gear. He was still awkward at bayonet, hand-to-hand. (Maurcek, you talk like you know this shit, you can name all the steps and all, but why can’t you do it good?) (Because I had the measles when I was six, and I probably had mild encephalitis, stupid) The men like to pester John with math problems, since math was his forte, his can-do-good. Hey, algebra, how much is 77 times 99? Hey professor?” “I don’t do stupid mental arithmetic like that. That’s not mathematics. I’m no idiot savant.” (But I bet the other men don’t see that 77 x 99 is 7 x 11 x 9 x 11, or 63 x 121!) “Maurcek, stupid, it’s 63 times 121, or 7623! Can’t you even do that in your head!” Practice everyday problems, none of this modern, abstract tuff.
In this company, the squad leader was not a good guy, and was not on his side at all. He would tell John to sweep one side of the bay; John would fail to remove the fine, embedded dust. The squad leader made it an occasional practice to half-watch John take a shower, to make sure that he soaped good his entire body, including genitals and pubes. Supposedly, if you don’t keep 100% clean, you can get crabs, even though you have never had sexual intercourse at all, so the old wives’ tale – or urban legend – goes. When the company was on bivouac, the squad leader had John assigned to a massive digging (strip-mining) detail, “to catch a colonel”.
John tried to “justify” his apparent asexuality by explaining “sublimation” to some of the men. One could somehow semi-fulfill his sex-drive by listening to and composing classical music. (Sublimation?? Semenation??) The logic, the rightness by which a theme is developed in a Mahler symphony is supposed to make you feel pleasure, feel good inside, enhance your self-concept somehow. Some people say the same thing about math theorems. The sudden realization that there can be theorems that are true but logically unprovable has undermined many an ego. Oh, you can sublimate by playing chess, obviously. To eat your opponent (especially with Black) is to conquer him in a socially acceptable way, with no physical contact, except indirectly, through the chess pieces. We trainees are like pawns, deployed in front of the pieces, to stabilize deterrence in the Cold War (like in Queen Pawn openings) John imagined how Zugfel would defend him by relating how Nietzsche had founded the modern theory of sublimation – but Zugfel would never find it necessary to make such a fool of himself. Anyway, one big brawny guy who was married (why is that anything to brag about?) would drape his arm around John’s shoulders and ask, “You mean you beat your meat by listening to long hair, Maurcek? Is that how you beat your meat? And you get a hard-o by playin’ checkers, Maurcek, and jumping people? By making kings and tacking those plastic chips on top of each other? Maurcek, you an’t like the rest of us, that’s all!” And one night, a virile Negro who, y rumor, had scored 500 on the second-week PT test, came up to John’s bunk and propositioned or “solissed” him: “Maurcek, you have such a nice soft face and such a nice chest (hand on the undershirt) – Maurcek – do you want to suck my dick? Come on…” John snipped back, “Phillips, you quit before I have you court-maritaled”. John yelled loud enough so everyone else would hear, so everyone else would know Yes, Maurcek wanted everyone to know, there were no victims – if he succumbed to physical force, he would be blamed, kicked out with a dishonorable discharge, branded for life. Phillips backed away. Maurcek would not say to himself that the “offer” was one of unmitigated concern, proof of Maurcek’s helplessness in handling any insult.
That was not the only gross incident. Before crawling night infiltration (at “Corrigedor Range”), a few of the men sculptured a “woman in the dunes” for Maurcek to fuck, complete with all the accoutrements. (Apparently, reproductive urges must be postulated as inborn; trying to analyze them only gets you in trouble.) Night infiltration, incidentally, was a truly weird experience, a trip. They filed, processed, into the well behind this Gothic stone wall, and watched the red tracer streaks come and go over them The tracers looked like laser beams, and the whole silent process was like some religious rite. Then his time came, each man went “over the wall” and sailed, manually, across an ocean of sand, twenty minutes wide. You stayed flat on your tummy and enjoyed the gritty feel of the cool, dry sand, while you floated on silicon dioxide. When there was a “flare” you froze, and soaked in the white floodlights and the red of the laser beams. Finally, it was over, and you had made it over to the other side of the Earth. A heavy thunderstorm held off until after the course, but blew down John’s bivouac tent.
It’s worthy of note that the rifle range qualification had gone without a hitch. Record range occurred on a Tuesday, the fourth day on the range, and on the first day of peace talks in Hanoi, which John heard about as he did ammo detail. The qualification test itself took about ninety minutes, and about 75 rounds, with the first 50 from the foxhole position and the remaining from any other position of choice (like sitting). The most distant pop-up target was 350 meters away (they had trained up to 300), about two baseball fields away. John hit 47 targets and earned Sharpshooter. If you relaxed, used the sights, and just squeeze the rounds, many of the targets would fall. Everyone qualified (the min score was 30).
Now, there was one guy who liked to brag to John about his three years of “engineering psychology” and his employment with a hotel chain, where he gave executive applicants a thematic apperception test. That means, the guy was a brain-watcher. “Well, that blue sky with high fleecy clouds means your future is basically clear, but you don’t have any primary ambitions.” Garbage, word salad. “The fact that you came to a pond, well, John, I wouldn’t want to say it to anybody, or about anybody, but we couldn’t have hired you, you know what I mean.”
John wished he could get away with “you know what I mean” answers in front of that board of officers that finally interviewed him for a direct commission. “Why do you want to be an officer? What leadership experience do you have? Student council? Athletics? Are you a platoon guide or a squad leader in your Basic Combat Training company?” Of course, there were no technical questions, but John had gone to the trouble of having his Master’s Thesis mailed so they could review it. And they didn’t ask him (as that PFC in MPD has suggested), “what would you do if you had an NCO in your office who cam to work drunk every day, but who was a god man?” (That is a contraction, isn’t it?—A is A). But they did ask how he would run things if he were a training officer for a BCT company. Now, what was this, John thought he was up for a technical commission; he wasn’t going to be a leader of men in combat, not with a direct commission. “But look at me,” one of the said, “I’m a lawyer, but you can see from my branch insignia, I’m an infantry officer.” So you have to become guerilla, even if you go direct? Well, John made the mistake of bringing up the experience in STC (which maybe they hand’t noticed on the forms), in order to show that he had straightened out that poor guy Ross with three years of college and afflicted with some kind of manic-depressive apathy. (That guy Mahoney had mistakenly thought had graduated from college in three years. This guy made utter zeroes on his PCPT tests, one week after another, because he had refused to do anything. So John talked to him after passing the test, and gave the same speech he had given his math classes at KU. That was the example of John’s leadership ability. That’s how he would act if he were training officer in a BCT company.)
There were still the nights of waking up and wishing time to become imaginary. There were three weekend passes. Most of the time, John played chess in the service club, went to post movies (“Plnet of the Apes”) and looked forward to the next meal. He did go into Columbia once, saw “In Cold Blood”, and got stopped a couple of times on the street by “Uniform Police” (UP), cadre from the post. He ra into guys from his first company, now in AIT (Advanced Individual Training), who had all gotten “infantry.” There was that hot, grubby Armed Forced Day Parade, and finally, those PCPT and G3 tests which this time he passed quite easily – a 357 on the PT. (He had practiced D&C by himself, with his unloaded weapon, while his enemy squad leader would berate him about his tendency to throw his feet around and shuffle. Finally, they had the platoon beer party and company beer party. The guys formed a human train, cozed around the Bay, and chanted “She wore a yellow ribbon” – and circled around a center aisle of tracked sand, footprints, ice cubes, cigarette ashes, and loose wax. (Trainees had been taught to field-strip cigarettes.) At the company beer party at the “lake”, John wanted to “pitch” in their improvised softball game, but Phillips wouldn’t let him. In fact, Phillips took him out of the game after he grounded out twice.
Finally, that last Friday evening, after the public graduation ceremony, John wandered happily around the water tank, down the “drag ass” path they had used to the rifle ranges, and finally explored a narrow offshoot into the woods that they had never taken. (As a little boy, John had always liked to explore paths where he couldn’t see around the first curve.) He soliloquized about his upcoming return to chess. The satisfaction of participating in some sort of big-league competition, of substituting his own defeat for the Senators’, was momentarily of great importance; the pursuit of Zugfel and predecssors had been washed out of or shaved off him. It was rather like a life-cycle in biology. But here , among the ruins of the old G-3 testing issue, was a replication of a Zugfel-ike structure. It was just a grader’s ox, but it had been neatly and deliberately split at the top, so an indentation was there. It was the Trade Building in KCMO, or indeed the monolith in Holdine’s painting of Zugfel’s dream. One night in May, a little over a year ago, he had stood before a tower, war memorial, in Kansas, and then marched to those barracks to search out Francis Abelsson. But there was no one of Them in the barracks tonight; but I’m going home tomorrow, returning back to the World. I like the Queen-file pressure White gets in open Sicilians – gonna go back to King Pawn. Pawns don’t need to precede pieces.