“The Proles: Chapter 4”: Interlude (from unpublished novel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.)
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the cordial bus driver an irritating and frightening twenty minutes or so to
find the place called the Reception Station.
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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
ambled back to the long, wide building alone. He noticed the aroma of coal for
the first time – coal dust in the cool air.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
long could this go on? I just want to go
indoors and get warm.
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.”
hands wet up summarily, others more reluctantly.
damn it. I NEED SOME VOLUNTEERS!”
hands went up immediately. Etc.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
then,” John retorted, “Let me show you that I can march correctly if I think
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..
were trying to help him. They were kind about it. And “Slim” wasn’t such a bad
nickname (or username).
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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”.
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.
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
doctor’s questions were simple and the examination was simple. “You mean it’s just mild shock, from the
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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,
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?”
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.”
suppose he’ll get one.” The Lieutenant scowled to the Corporal standing
aside. The Corporal stated at John and
let out a gay chuckle.
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.
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.
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
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.
you missed a college grad,” the sergeant bellowed after glancing at John’s
personal history form.
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.”
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.
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).
hundred percent, Sir.” Wait a minute, that sounds like a Putnam problem.
Maurcek. Now, come one, what probability?”
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?”
wouldn’t want to give a hasty answer, sir?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
on the right track. Stay at rigid attention!
Don’t move a muscle, not even in the face!
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
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.)
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.)
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,
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
sir. (The Field First had advised them
that they would address everyone as “Sir”.)
your name, again.”
“John Maurcek, Sir.”
John Maurcek, they’re…” (Don’t worry, just play the game.)
“Oh, lemme think. Private John Maurcek,
Virginia, Sir.” (An answer to be proud
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.”
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.
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
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
showed how wax was to be applied to the “center aisle” between the bunks, and
how to use the crappy, clumsy old buffer.
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.”
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!
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
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”
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.
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?”
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?”
yes Sir, my beard is hard to shave really close.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
sir!” John was still self-conscious of
the “Sir”. James was just a sergeant, and sergeants worked for a living.
finished college, Maurcek.”
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.”
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.”
Sir.” John was glad that Sgt. James didn’t refer explicitly to the possibility
of not making it in eight weeks.
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
said foot and wall lockers,” said Davis, a Negro a few bunks down the aisle.
inspect my feet, then.” But john could
really doubt his own perceptions of reality
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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!”
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
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”.
would you like to have happen to you?” asked Lieutenant Granby one time when
John let up his guard (on coming to attention).
“Maurcek, you’d like to become a civilian again, wouldn’t
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?”
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!”
are the hope of the world.” Naturally Granby had majored in history.
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?’
you ask an officer so many questions,” snapped Granby. Social graces! Yes, Maurcek, one semester before I was called up. I almost had
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
”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
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
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.
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?”
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
“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
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.
how many jobs is you had?”
“Oh, five or six, Sir.”
“How many jobs you’ve been fired
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
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.
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
“Where are you? The matronly
“Fort Wilson, South Carolina.”
“What kind of building are you
“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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.