Beyond the ground floor window of my new digs nestled somewhere between a hundred rectangular buildings all the same character and size, I count forty horizontal white planks all similar width and distance. At least that’s how they appear through the modest size window angled a few feet above my bunk bed. When possible I prefer sleeping with my head near an open window. The view harbors escape and breeze tempers my sometimes feverish body. In fact, I’d rather Arctic wind strike my face than dry suffocating heat.
Here I toil, day three, week one of basic training seven hundred miles from home and another thousand from where I should be and destined to be molded a ground soldier. At least that’s what they keep preaching to me.
I’ve never really felt any conflict with military in fact every eligible male clinging to the family tree served honorably. My problem with this scenario is Vietnam. (Neither I nor the Pentagon see matters in the same light.) I certainly celebrate those who fought the Nazi occupation of Europe and understand sacrifice made in the name of freedom, but Vietnam?
From the Claymount Public library I borrow what seems a seventy-pound world atlas. As I skim pages of fading maps detailing the Persian Empire, Belgian Congo, Ceylon - remote areas of the world that conjure images beyond imagination. I thumb across China, Mongolia and Indonesia with little fuss. Damn! These are much more visible countries to call a war with than Vietnam?
Eventually my fingers locate a small country bordered by two other equally obscure nations; Cambodia and Laos near that earnest bastion of communism, China. First thought? What a great place to take a camera and several rolls of film. The area looks like uncharted territory probably one of those wild adventures where Marlin Perkin’s wrestles a lethal boa or someplace where a goat trades for a two-bedroom bungalow.
Vietnam, Vietnam, I wondered who the hell lives there? I’d seen Dan Rather’s news reports from the trenches - hip waders up around the neck stuck in five feet of freshly planted rice stalks and deep mud - army grunts slithering on bellies nearby.
No one seems capable of delivering a clear message, nothing clarifying the purpose of such a costly campaign, other than the politics of slogans; “ I’m proud to be an American.” I guess that’s got to count for something. I was proud to be an American or an Armenian if that’s what it takes to solve this crisis, but in reality, a simplistic catch phrase could never address the complexity of a situation with such fatal consequence.
Fort Knox, deep in the heartland of Kentucky looks like any other bleak winter retreat except for the massive sea of green uniforms and endless flow of tanks. I thought I’d get a few laughs when I ask the bus driver to drop me off at the mint which by all accounts is just as fortified as the army base. Momentary silence lapses before busman turns and says, “ Get a hair cut asshole.” Get a haircut? Come on,I thought. Hit me with your best material not one of those weak Lucy Arnez one-liners absent profanity.
As I’m deposited in my assigned company area this runt of corporal begins screaming in my face. Now, to a well-adjusted civilian such nonsense comes unexpected. With mouth sealed I listen while he tries to pound fear in me but daily life on the streets of Los Angeles and Manhattan’s lower east side were much more intimidating than some country punk in a rumpled uniform poking the face. I let it slide.
We’ll call him the man ‘Biscuit’ for now. Why? Well, he had this strange habit of calling all of young recruits –“ Sour dough.’. Don’t even ask why!
It was his lessons in time that most fascinated me. Corporal Biscuit divided all newcomers into two rows then began tossing a few digits around. “You will be up at zero four-hundred, eat at zero four-fifteen and on the training field by zero four-thirty.” At first, I thought he meant I could sleep all day and play soldier late afternoon. Not a chance. I’m used to crashing at five in the morning after a robust night of carousing. I soon realize how different night felt when rising instead of flat lining at such an ungrateful hour.
“You won’t need a watch or anything clinging to your body ‘cause I have perfect time,” Biscuit says with tiny lips curled upward nearly sticking to his nose. “Military time is perfect time,” he would go on to state.
Perfect time? Who determines perfect time and what is it based on, I wondered.
“You got to keep perfect time in order for everything flow right. Understand,?” he says while marching a circle around us recruits. I understood that much but still wondered about such a thing as perfect time. Did Vietnam run on perfect time?
I didn’t take long for life to blossom along this time line. My favorite was twenty-three hundred. Amazing, twenty-three hundred hours in a day I thought. At least that’s how it felt three days into my incarceration.
I was caged in a barracks with an odd assortment of displaced individuals. There was “Clay County’; sporting a mouthful of decaying teeth, “Private Daly”; two hundred pounds of dangling flesh, head as big as a prized melon. “Penn State”; a college draftee with no life to give. “ Montgomery Alabama”, the singing brother who believed the Four Tops would sound a lot better if they added a fifth on Top and “Trouble from Motown” - Detroit; other than being the largest fellow in the community and a glare as intense as Gamma ray burst, seemed peaceful enough.
At first I kept my distance rarely speaking. There were to many clean-shaven heads honking vowels near my ears that might be charter members of the KKK. A young man must watch what he says in these circumstances.
Upstairs and downstairs and throughout the old wood frame barracks grunts were staking territory. I was fortunate to arrive later than the rest. My bunk was waiting. I understood this was to be short-lived at least until basic training officially began - I remained aloof. When someone would ask where I was from I’d just nod and half smile. I figured if trouble where to erupt I’d be between guys who had chose to know each other to soon. Man, would I be wrong.
It took about thirty minutes before the first altercation flared. It started when ‘Trouble in Motown’ decides he needs a change of scenery and moves his duffel bag loaded with personal effects to a bed presently occupied by some poor clucking farm boy. I hear, “ What chu doin’ nigger”, a pause then “Whack!” Body meets floor. I’m serious; “ Farm boy” ate wood so fast I thought he did a half gainer off an imaginary diving board.
Most recruits responded by quietly circling the victim and staring. The incident came so fast no words were spoken. ‘Trouble’ flings himself on the bunk then confidently clasps hands back of head while evil - eyeing the rest of us. A couple guys slowly lift farm boy upright then escort to his new digs.
A surreal hush temporarily penetrates the room until another farm boy plugs in a radio. We were forbidden any convenience, certainly no entertainment during the upcoming weeks of training. I wondered what the hell the guy was thinking. You could hear the frantic sound of someone intent on locating the familiar. Suddenly, up comes the sound of fiddle, steel guitar and the melancholy voice of Eddie Arnold singing, “ Make The World Go Away.” I wasn’t ready for this. Maybe Bob Wills and a little Texas swing but not one of those sobbing middle of the road hillbilly ballads. The thought no more than crossed the brain when I spot ‘Trouble’ rise the size of a tall redwood walk over and rip the cord from the wall. He then absconds with the radio, drags along floor to bedside and plugs in. I assumed ‘Trouble’ was inviting punishment for this.
‘Trouble’ fumbles the dial long enough to find this rhythm and blues station out of Louisville. Farm boy two makes a play at retrieving the stolen item when ‘Trouble’ explodes from crouched position and smacks him dead center the face causing farm boy to topple and kiss a half dozen dirt-soiled planks.
While the situation spins out of hand, a crowd gathers and passively watches, mostly whispers until one brave soul declares, “ I’ll get the MPs.”
“ Fuck you whore bring me your sorry ass over here.,” bellows ‘Trouble’
I couldn’t believe I heard the remark, not that I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of trash talk on most basketball courts. “Trouble’ simply didn’t care. I couldn’t figure for the life of me why anyone would put himself in such a tenuous position with what I perceive a genuinely punitive military system. We were just numbers to be memorized no more, no less. Why serve anymore time than necessary was my mantra.
“No motherfucker ever sending me to Vietnam so fuck all of you,” a voice comes booming off the walls. The ominous declaration freezes activity silencing all conversation. Moments pass before two MPs and a drill Sergeant arrive then work their way into “Trouble’s’ company.
“Get up soldier and come with us,” the Sergeant commands.
“Fuck you motherfuckers! They should send every one of you cracker-ass hillbillies to Vietnam where you belong.” About a thirty - second interval passes when I hear “ Get up soldier!” By this time we’d all left the security of our bunks to witness the stand off.
“I told you corn-husking goat fuckers there ain’t any way you send me to Vietnam. It’s a white boy fight nothing to do with us black folk. I told them when they picked me up and forced me here you weren’t sending me that shit hole.”
‘Trouble’ reclines and stares back at them when suddenly all three lunge forward overpower and cuff him. He offered little resistance.
I watch as they drag him away trying to make sense of the ordeal. You’d never mistake the guy for an anti-war protester or Martin Luther King disciple. The guy reeked of street.
With only two blacks out of two hundred men in our company a few southern recruits start spouting racial remarks. Guys can really tough talk miles from a private street corner, pool hall or girl friend, absent any threat to themselves. That’s sort of the way the barracks transformed itself in ‘Troubles’ absence.
Just as calm was about to set in a mouth spoke from behind a bunk.“You should have taken that guy, farm boy. You some kind of coward?” Here it comes friends of John Wayne riding tall in the saddle. I’d heard that line a thousand times before and need not be reminded of my own bringing. I knew it’d be only moments before the taunting would escalate and felt sorry for any man who actually convinced himself he could last a round with Trouble. There wasn’t such a thing.
“I didn’t see you big pecker head stand up for either one of us so-called farm boys,” says the second victim whose nose by now had swollen the size of a pig’s snout.
“So what it’s your radio, your fight. Punks like that back down when you show some spine,” spouts another.
Right! I thought about those rather naive remarks and the kind of men they facedin rough urban neighborhoods. I know for a fact nine out of ten times none ever back down in fact they’ll crackyou up side the head with any available implement or cut your ass for casting an uninvited glance.
Three days pass and we’re just getting back from a second day of physicals when I see ‘Trouble’ stretched horizontal on his bunk. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“What the fuck you looking at fish-eyed fool?, he says with a menacing tone.”
I quickly drop my head and tend to personal matters before the room fills with trainees each pausing in view of the company bully.
“I told you motherfuckers, I ain’t going to no Vietnam. That’s a tourist destination for dumb ass white boys. Where’s that boy that sent the police on me? I’ve got to fuck him up good.” Everybody froze in position.
“Where’s the little shit who called the cops?’ No one muttered a sound until one large white boy says, ‘Nobody holding you here, why don’t you just take off?’
“Trouble” pauses then replies, “ If I leave here they come for me. If I stay I get to fuck you up. Which do you prefer?” (I’ve been around situations where terribly frightening individuals inflict serious physical damage and recognize the negative energy.) ‘Trouble’ was wired to the same current, the one that conducts undue pain.
“I’ll tell you what - you bring five of your baddest white boys and I’ll fight you here and now. I swear I‘ll stuff your lungs up in your brains before you land a punch. Any of you pussies ever see Sonny Liston fight before?” The room falls silent. “No, I guess not. You white boys been waiting to see Roy Roger’s slug it out with Tonto haven’t you? I trained with Sonny’s cousins Bryce and Mackie in Detroit. I bet you white boys train with fucking goats and chickens. Don’t you. The hell with all of you pussies.”
Just as I thought, there were no takers. The room froze. ‘Trouble’ then drifts to sleep.
It was now nineteen hundred and lights out. I’ve never in my life climbed in bed at seven in the evening. Even the thought seemed preposterous. The same could be said for the rest of the room. Lights were dimmed but sexual fantasies spread mostly about fondling a pair of large orgasmic female breasts and the ever-popular elusive snapping pussy, described in gruesome detail. The description evoked this visual image of a large turtle’s head covered in a thin membrane lurking about in search of piping hot male genitalia.
Twenty minutes pass when in I hear, “ Fuck this shit I’m getting a beer and something to eat. Which one of you fools going with me to the PX?” At this stage we weren’t allowed to even possess a candy bar let alone leave the barracks in pursuit of sustenance.
“Anyone with me? Come on white boys, I’ll buy a couple of you chicken-humpers a beer. “
I look up and see ‘Troubles’ immense black silhouette blocking the fire light.
“Yeah, I’ll go”, shouts a voice end of the hall. “Hey, me too just as long as you buy me a cold Budweiser and not any of that ‘Near beer piss’ they try to pass off as German lager.” I liked the cockiness in the room, the disregard for authority.
As the party leaves the room starts buzzing. “Who’s got the balls to do the same? I’ve got five dollars for anyone who’ll buy me a chocolate bar and a beer. I’ll match that,” yells this grunt they call “Mishap’.” Don’t ask me why.
A bidding war ensues. I thought about it and made a play. “Over here. I’ll do it.”
Suddenly, I was swamped with orders. “Two Baby Ruths, a bag of salted pretzels. Over here. I’ll have five Clark Bars and some licorice twists.” On and on and on. By the time I was prepared to leave I’d collected over fifty dollars and half was profit. Since we only made fifty-two dollars a month I had myself two weeks pay.
While everyone kept lookout I slip out the back door then stumble past a few barracks making sure I remember where my tracks lay. Unfortunately, the PX was located in an area a great distance from our quarters out of our designated zone.
Trembling all over I rehearse a safety line - ready to bluff my way past security.. “Yes sir, I’m just out of basic training and have been awaiting my assignment to my next company. Just dropped in for a night cap and a couple apples.” Fortunately, I never had to deliver the speech.
Once I cracked open the PX doors I couldn’t help notice ‘Trouble’ and the two farm recruits inhaling beers and downing hot dogs.
“Fuck, look who’s here? It’s motherfucking ‘Fish-eyes. Let me buy you a beer before I toss you smelly ass back in the pond.”
Knowing full well something unexpected could erupt in ‘Trouble’s’presence I pass on the offer and go about the business of collecting samples. While cashing out I notice this MP face up to “Trouble’, then words fly. I quickly secure the goods and slip past conversation. A moment passes when I see the both shoving each other and the MP come falling towards me. I speed through the exit ahead of both.
Only a small glowing bulb above the doorway cast much light on the darkness outside. The two antagonists resume calling each names when out of nowhere a thunderous blow arrives flattening the MP. Down he falls a flight of uneven stairs onto the wet grass hitting his head on the corner of a patio stone. ‘Trouble’ steps aside and eases his massive frame into darkness. A second MP follows in pursuit. A scuffle soon arises and then Bam! Another body hits the ground. (The scene was almost comical.) I kept thinking about Sonny Liston’s cousins and how many of them ever administered this much any pain on ‘Trouble’.
Avoiding all conflict with 'Trouble' I decide to take an alternate route back to the barracks. Two blocks out I hear this voice yell from behind, “Trainee, what the hell you doing in my neighborhood?”
I slow down and face this broad rim hat.
“I asked you, what are you doing in my neighborhood?”
I hesitate then reply. “Sir, I think I’m lost.” Proper decorum was expected of all soldiers addressing anyone in a creased uniform or superior position.
“I’ll ask you again soldier. What are you doing on my property?” I quickly straighten then reply.
“Sir! Just waiting for my new assignment.” With a keen eye the man inspects then squeezes his chin. “It looks to me like you haven’t learned much in basic training. I can’t for the life of me see how they’d pass such a pathetic looking goof as you.’ He pauses, looks downward then tilts the brim of his hat. “You know, they’ll take anyone in army. Fucking Westmoreland!”
With heart beating I prayed the sergeant wouldn’t insist on peeking into my laundry bag. The guy stood there massaging a of patch of morning growth before looking up. “I ought to stick a boot right up your ass...now get the hell out of here.” I turn towards the path and hear, “ Hold it!”
“ Tell them when they measure you for your next uniform to fit you with a extra large body bag, he laughs”
I sigh and then quickly sprint past row after row of undistinguished buildings bathed in exactly the same quality of light until I see a familiar face hanging out a side window. “Over here Daniels. You’ve got to climb through the window the sergeant’s awake. You know the MP’s are out looking for that back dude from Detroit.”
I climb through with all the goods and am greeted like a butcher in a lion’s den.
While savoring the catch the barracks door flies open and two MP’s bust through. “Have any of you seen Robert James?” No one recognized the name Robert James until one of the farm boys stands forward and asks, “ You mean that black troublemaker from Detroit?”
“That’s right. Where is he? “
“Sorry sir none of us seen him all night we’ve been sleeping.”
The reply was unacceptable. “My ass you haven’t been sleeping. Look at all those candy wrappers around
your bed and chocolate smeared about your nose?” The time of reckoning had arrived.
“You know I could pop your ass for all that contraband. I could search everyone of you piss ants and lock your queer ass behind bars.” That's when insanity begins.
“Every one of you could do five years in Leavenworth for disobeying a company
ordinance. Do I smell beer farts?”
Five years in Leavenworth, I thought. You’ve got to kill another soldier, steal a tank or drown someone in the kitchen grease pit to earn that severe amount of time. As things were about to get more heated two additional MP’s bust in the room and order the other two upstairs. The next moment I see 'Trouble' being drug away in cuffs. It was spooky, totally disturbing. I was anticipating another tirade about black men in Vietnam but not a sound. ‘Trouble’ went gently like someone who’d been injected with morphine or clubbed over the head.
The next two weeks were spent sloshing about in snow with rifle and pack. My hands were numb from mud and sleet. My brain, numb with instruction and ridicule.
“Trainee, if your girlfriend saw you now she’d think you was a circus clown.” At first the words were a bit demoralizing but once you got a feel for the game you put your life on remote and count the days and forget the nonsense.
Rumors flourished about 'Trouble'. He was accused of beating a half dozen MP’s, a couple drill sergeants, and a full bird colonel. I suspected they had packed him a way in a solitary dingy cell hoping he pleads for mercy.
It was the third week of February and we were returning from a day on scouting patrol I marched my squad into an area where two tree lines converged forming this V like shape. All hell broke loose. Machine gun fire and tanks blasted rounds of tracer shells over our heads. It sounded like the end of civilization. There were seven of us on patrol. All we could do was lay horizontal until the crisis subsided. Eventually, this second lieutenant comes stomping forward screaming obscenities. All I could hear was a muffled voice and roar of a nearby tank splitting a small hill. My clothing, from heavy overcoat to wool pants was soaked in ground water. I envisioned a hot shower and warm barracks waiting in the not to distant future.
During the march back seven of us were heckled about the embarrassing incident. We’d been instructed to avoid such geometrical patterns but who sees that well in the woods I wondered. I’ve always lived in large cities. I know the layout and what to expect. Hell, I’ve never even seen a fucking ground hog. This might has well been Vietnam as far as I was concerned.
It’s ‘sixteen hundred’ when we safely arrive back in the barracks. I notice a tight group of about fifteen soldiers huddled in conversation. One soldier spots me then gestures me over.
“Did you hear? Detroit’s coming back to our unit tomorrow.” I thought to myself someone’s got to be bullshitting.
“They want him to finish up so they can dump his black ass in Vietnam,” one of the farm boys proudly states. “Aw…the shits gonna get wild.”
Farm boy was on the money. ‘O Eight hundred Robert James strolls in a free man.
“Fuck all of you white motherfuckers. Nobody can keep me down a hole for long.” That moment I sensed things were going to get even more unpredictable. I could read fearsome anger in his eyes leading all the way to his heart. 'Trouble', I surmised, had no recourse but commit a major act of defiance or worse to save his ass from Vietnam.
This tall jerk from Arkansas makes some remark about cowardly blacks hiding in caves during combat earning him a surprise night visit from News.
It was nearing ‘O Three hundred’ when I hear this loud smack, blood curdling scream then crashing sound. I spring to the edge of the bed and spy someone fleeing the room. I could hear the shrill voice pleas for help - cries of agonizing pain the length of the building. Someone then switches the overhead light on and I recognize Arkansas spurting blood through cupped fingers while trying to protect eyes and nose. At first I thought he’d been cut but on close inspection I could see it was mostly flowing from the nose. It became obvious Arkansas had fallen from top bunk to ground floor. Boot to the face is a popular army scheme for settling scores. Catch a guy napping and whack dead center the nose with the heel then it’s a quick trip to the post emergency room. Vision doesn’t return twenty minutes or more and the nose swells the size of a ripe pear. Scores get settled this way. No charges were ever laid.
'Trouble' hung around the barracks like a foul odor refusing to participate in any formal instruction. Orders were leave him alone and let war comfort him. Every time we return from training grounds he’d be yelling,
“Look at the white boys, gonna kill some yellow boys while I’ll be here fucking their white girlfriends. Now ain’t that a bitch.” Those weren’t exactly the most encouraging words but we’d gotten used to his profanity and daily pronouncements.
Week five began with me submerged in a foxhole firing my M1 locked on a target a hundred or so yards away. They could have pasted a fifty-foot bull’s-eye on a nearby building and I’d still have planted more slugs in a nearby tree. I have no talent for marksmanship. Every time I’d hoist the clumsy firearm near my head condensation would swiftly cloud my glasses. I try clearing with the cloth part of a glove but it only made matters worse. I can’t seem to get my concentration focused so I fire at a couple targets three rows over for the hell of it.
By now, I still hadn’t made up my mind about Vietnam or the army other than cracking up at these buffed drill sergeants swaggering around like five star generals. The army was the army, war was a different matter.
I thought a lot about what 'Trouble' was testifying about and watched a lot of nightly news reporting all those casualties we’d been suffering and those fucked up hippies out there acting like we could win the war with a pot of daffodils and two hits of acid. I couldn’t make up my mind. Some days I think I might have a career here, others I think my brain may be too large.
We were just returning to the barracks when I spot an ambulance and several military policemen rushing about. The area had to be cordoned off leaving us spectators. A few minutes pass when I see the big frame of 'Trouble' being pulled through the doorway. He was screaming fuck you this, fuck you that at everyone. One MP shouted loud enough for all of us to hear “ Where you’re going nobody will ever care to see you again so go ahead and curse the world. You think Vietnam will kill you? You’re going to die in Leavenworth without a fight.”
They wouldn’t let us near the barracks even with 'Trouble' caged. Some fifteen minutes pass before I see this stretcher come out with six men in white holding bottles and tubing all around. I see what looks like a tourniquet around this soldier’s neck, all passed out. There was blood spilt all over. Everyone was frantically trying to maneuver the wounded soldier back of the ambulance. I had this morbid sense that death had already spoken.
I guess he realized it would take nothing short of murder to save him from Vietnam. I couldn’t for the life of me get a handle on his reasoning. Why he cut this young man’s throat, no one knew for sure. The two were alone together while the rest of us were on the firing range. One sick with flu the other nearly insane. For that matter he could have just slipped off the post and disappear for a couple years. The memory will always haunt me.
Graduation day the army awarded one of the farm boys a medal for assisting the wounded soldier and we paused a moment in silence. Later, we heard that 'Trouble' was being shipped out of Leavenworth into a facility for dangerous offenders. He received a life sentence with no chance of parole for twenty-five years.
I just got my new assignment to Fort Benning, Georgia. I get two weeks leave before I have to report. I’m thinking about visiting a cousin of mine who says he’s got a way to get me a good job with this division in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s o eight hundred and the bus is on time. Vietnam? Haven’t made up my mind. From what I hear we’re making a piecemeal commitment guided by a bankrupt strategy. There’s the good soldier in me - the other - hopefully - a smart soldier. I sure hope I don’t have to choose. Perhaps the good lord will end this thing before they dial my name up.