Saturday, July 7, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part Two)

Well, Part One was certainly exhausting, wasn't it?  And I think it covered maybe one whole actual day.  Let's speed things up, as I didn't mean to provide an exhaustive, memory-laden recount of those early days of my military experience -- filled as they were with all sorts of details.  Maybe another time.

* I mainly want to contrast what I lived through, while the Vietnam War was slogging its pointless way through the jungles of Southeast Asia, with what both my contemporaries, and those whose military experiences came much later than mine, experienced.  Here, it occurs to me, I could just make a handy list, just for starters:

* I knew, and for the most part, understood the rules.  They didn't change from day to day, or week to week.

* I had been trained, more or less, to do a job.  When I needed to know something else, in order to do my job, that training was provided, without accompanying complaints of how stupid I was, not to know this already, didn't I have any common sense?

* Once my job schedule had been established, my main concerns were getting to work, staying for my shift, and then... getting to work the next day.  Maintaining my uniforms, and my living space.  Standing for periodic inspections.  Signing my name on a roster every time I had a meal.  That sort of thing. 

And, for good measure, once my technical school training had been completed (I still don't know how I passed -- the only thing I was interested in, in setting up a control board for some weird machine I was expected to operate, were the cool, metal-tipped wires we used, various colors for various lengths.  Even then, I think I recognized those wires as potential materials for weird works of art...), I was sent to Olmsted Air Force Base, in Middletown PA, not two hundred miles from Pittsburgh and its malevolent memories.  So I was still in familiar terrain, instead of having to learn a new language, or adapt to different weather. 

Likewise, let me enumerate some of the good things that began to make themselves apparent to me, even as I began to orient myself to Harrisburg, Highspire and Steelton, the neighboring towns along the bus line:

* I met young men who had been to college, or who were otherwise clearly as intelligent as I was.  They didn't think I was a freak because I knew precisely what word was correct, if I was talking about something.

* I met guys who had, and pursued, different interests than my own.  I think I learned, from watching them work at something, such as learning to play pool, or mastering the guitar, that this was a normal process, and that people didn't generally have magical abilities that enabled them -- presto! -- to walk into a stadium, pick up a trumpet for the first time, and then play a stunning rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before a crowd of fifty thousand baseball fans.

* The money I earned was actually my own, and no one checked to see how much I spent, or on what.  For example, sometimes, on my way back to the barracks from work, I would pass a modest men's shop in a little strip mall (the base was arranged in two parts, with a highway and small business district between Sector A and Sector B, or whatever they called them.  There was a big tunnel under the highway, so we didn't have to cross the road against traffic), and as I passed that modest men's shop, I would realize that, hey, my dry cleaning wasn't going to be ready for another two days, and I didn't have a clean shirt.  So I could just walk into the men's store and buy a new shirt for $5.  No one asked me where I got the money.  No one asked me where I got the shirt.

* With this money that was mine, I was able to buy, finally, books and art supplies, and no one could threaten to take them away, or throw them into the garbage, or otherwise remove them from my life.  I found, to some amazement, that if I wanted to, and my schedule allowed, I could actually spend an entire afternoon in my barracks room, reading.  Not hiding the book so no one would see.  Just sitting at the desk, or lying on my bunk, reading.

And I read Dostoeyvsky, and Tolstoy, and Guy de Maupassant, and Steinbeck and Flaubert, and kept them on a bookshelf in my room.

And I made charcoal drawings, and oil paintings, and sketches and scribblings with India ink and my favorite crow quill pen.

So, this period of my life, from about 17, until I was just turning twenty, was quite idyllic for me, by these measures.  There were, of course, other, less happy events, which I'll get around to, but the main point is that, by comparison with what had been my reality for the past nine and a half years -- or, more than half my life -- the military experience was like having three five-hundred-pound lead plates unstrapped from my back, so I could slowly begin to stretch out and stand up, and see what it was like, to walk and act unencumbered.

Now, for one of the less happy events I mentioned -- and even this, by comparison, is fairly negligible.

One of the airmen I'd first met, when I arrived in Middletown, was a member of the base Honor Guard.  He was an attractive, persuasive kind of guy, and he asked me if I'd like to join.  I said I'd think about it.  He said there was extra pay involved, and travel, and best of all, I would get out of KP duty -- no more cleaning the barracks halls, or scrubbing toilets for me, he said.  I was still uncertain, and said I'd like to see what it was that they did, before I could make up my mind.  He said I could go along, the next time they had an assignment, but that once I'd become a member, I couldn't change my mind.  This part I didn't like.  But I would only be going along to watch, right?

Before very long, there was a notice on the bulletin board, calling all the Honor Guard members to be ready for duty the next morning at some ungodly hour, like 5 am or something.  Thinking about not having to clean toilets, I got myself ready, and climbed on the bus with everyone else.  My recruiter was one of the last on the bus, after everyone else, and he gave me the thumbs-up sign and smiled.  I smiled back, but I was still a little nervous.  I mean, the other guys all had rifles and stuff.

We drove a while.  There wasn't much talking.  Some of the guys fell asleep again.  I think it was early fall.  Leaves had begun falling, and there was a cool dampness in the air.  We arrived at our destination, which, I noticed, was a cemetery.

As we got off the bus, the other guys began putting on their belts and harnesses, and adjusting their rifles.  I was given a special ascot-kind of thing, which fit into the open neck of my tan uniform shirt. I was told just to march along behind everyone else, and obey orders when they pertained to me.

We marched to an open grave.  There was a small crowd of mourners, and a flag-draped casket on a stand.  We were brought to a halt off to one side, slightly behind the group, stood to attention, and then given the order for parade rest.  Because I had to look straight ahead, I couldn't see who it was who was talking -- probably a minister of some kind, to judge by the rise and fall of the voice, and the general tone of the blurry words. 

There must have been a signal, because the sergeant in charge called us to attention again.   The guys with the rifles had them by their sides, and on an order, they raised them all at once and fired.  I'm pretty sure I flinched.  I hadn't expected it to be so loud.  I think they fired again, and then they were done.  There was a mingling of low voices from the gravesite, and we were marched back to the bus.

But we didn't go back to the base.  We went to someone's rural home.  There was barely parking room for the rest of the cars, let alone a big yellow bus.  We picked our way across the damp soil and went up the front steps and inside.

There were family and friends of the deceased, and there was food arranged on a big table in the dining room, and my fellow service members were already helping themselves.  One woman in particular came around to thank each one of us for being there that day.  While she was making her circuit, I noticed a framed photograph on the piano -- a young man of no more than 25.  There was a folded flag on the piano, behind the frame.  When the woman came up to me, I didn't know what to do with my plate of food I didn't really want to eat, but she took my hand anyway, and her eyes were kind of sharp and wet, and I think she said something like, 'He was just about your age...', and then moved on.

At some point, our military crew got back on the bus, and we got back to the base, and everyone pretty much dispersed as they hit the ground -- off to their cars, or their regular assignments.  I forget where I went, or what I was supposed to do, but I did want to let my recruiter know that I just didn't think this was something I wanted to do, ever again.

I'm sure I said something.  I mean, at that point we were working together five days a week, eight hours a day.  (I remember hearing the Rolling Stones singing 'Satisfaction' for the first time, while he was driving me back to the barracks in his Chevy convertible)  I'm sure I told him I didn't want to be part of the Honor Guard.

But somehow, the message never got through.  There were more postings, for more assemblies at equally God-awful hours of the morning, but I just didn't show up.  I figured that should be fairly plain.  I mean, I wasn't there, was I?

But months went by, me sleeping past these duty calls, while at the same time my name was missing from the KP roster, unlike the names of my closest friends and co-workers.  They thought I was paying someone off.  But how could I?  I was spending all my money on books and new shirts.

Then I was called to the First Sergeant's Office, which is like being called to the principal's office in school, only much much worse.  He asked me why I hadn't been at any of the honor guard details recently.  I told him that I thought my first trip with them was just an experiment, and that I was allowed to decline the offer.   Which I thought I'd done.  (I doubt I was this succinct, but the general point was made)

He thought about the situation for a few minutes, and then said, "Well, you've missed quite a bit of clean-up duty, while we assumed you were out on honor guard, so you're going to have to make that up."

I agreed that that was fair, and the meeting was over.

And for a few months after that, I was assigned to barracks duty at least once a week, maybe more.  The thing is, it didn't really bother me.  I mean, after all those miserable Sundays, cleaning my horrid grandmother's restaurant, only to have her come around and disapprove of everything I'd done -- I was probably the best KP guy on the base.  I could handle a squeeze bucket like a pro.  And buffing the waxed hall floors was a sort of meditation, with the whirring hum of the pad, and the back and forth motion, side to side.  Back and forth.  Side to side.  (I think I'm hypnotizing myself...)

Let's let this be today's portion of the slated exploration.  Tomorrow, we may learn something about the importance of the past perfect tense, in an American military career.

©   2012       Walter Zimmerman

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