The Barracks by Richard Seltzer

Richard Seltzer channels Catch-22 in this story of a group of bitter reservists on basic training in an army barracks that's seen it all before.

Building 3926, Fort Polk, Louisiana, was a "temporary" structure - a white clapboard oblong rectangle, hurriedly thrown together, like hundreds of other army barracks. Its first tenants were recruits and draftees bound for the Pacific in World War II. Cycle after cycle were trained and shipped. Then the war ended, and the barracks fell silent, except for the bats that nested under the eaves, like ghosts returning to curse drill sergeants who had not pushed them hard enough, and not taught them what could have kept them alive.

Later, when a "temporary" war broke out in Viet Nam, the "temporary" barracks was reopened. Exterminators were called in to eliminate the bats, but while individuals could be killed, their kind was indestructible. At dawn and at sunset, their eerie forms hovered high above the eaves, and vanished one by one into the depths of the building.

Aside from the bats, the barracks was now in better shape than when it was first built. Cycle after cycle of trainees had kept it in shape for inspections. Some had even made improvements to get bonus points. For instance, there was a red rack for the red helmet liner that the fire guard wore each night. Two magazine racks hung on the latrine wall beside the toilets. And on the wall above the water fountain, hung a home-made plaque that one group of trainees had presented to the drill sergeant they reviled and respected.

Downstairs, between two long rows of parallel bunks, was the masterpiece of the barracks - the red linoleum center aisle. Thanks to the special efforts of cycle after cycle of trainees, it shone mirror-bright. No other barracks in Echo Company could hope to match it. As long as they continued to take care of it and didn't get gigs for foolish oversights, the third platoon would always win inspections. That was a source of pride and confidence - feelings that were hard to come by in basic training.

Everyone in the platoon took their boots off at the door, but even in stocking feet no one in the platoon crossed the yellow lines that defined the center aisle - nobody but the chosen few entrusted with taking care of it.

In this cycle of trainees, Evans did the buffing upstairs. The all-important downstairs floor was in the keeping of Powell. Tagliatti helped him with the buffer cord. Schneider tended the plug.

At first it had been a continual annoyance having to walk all the way around to get to a bunk that was just three feet away across the aisle. But by now it was second nature. If anyone forgot, there was always somebody else around to shout a reminder and preserve the sanctity of the center aisle.

The screen door slammed, and Beaulieu, a tall, tired National Guard trainee from the University of Maryland, shuffled in. The latrine lay to his right, the staircase straight ahead, and the downstairs bunkroom stretched out far to his left.

"Where's Roberts?" he shouted across the bunks, shuffling his stocking feet lazily as he walked in.

"How should I know?" shouted Hathaway from the far end. A football-playing college boy from Alabama, he was stretched out on his belly on a top bunk, writing letters.

"You're his squad leader, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but not his nursemaid."

"He's got CQ from four to six."

"Big deal."

"Somebody's got to take it. Shit'll hit the fan if only one guy's on CQ."

"If you're so goddamned uptight about it, do it yourself. You can't go anywhere anyway."

Hathaway kept writing.

Beaulieu turned, stepped toward the door.

"Keep your goddamned feet off that center aisle," shouted Hathaway, without looking up from his letter.

Beaulieu stopped short of the yellow line, kicked a footlocker, turned and plodded and shuffled behind the bunks.

"Pick up your feet," shouted Hathaway.

He stopped, then continued to shuffle. The screen door slammed again.

"Goddamned trouble-maker," mumbled Hathaway.

"He's only trying to do right," offered Schneider, a fat farm boy from Iowa, in the next bunk.

"No, I mean Roberts. Why the hell'd they ever put draftees in this company?

And why did they have to stick us with them?"

"You know damned well - they were recycled."

"Yeah, four fucking fuck-offs, and we got all of them."

Hathaway kept writing.

Schneider lifted his huge bulk, carefully lowered it to the floor, then waddled quietly behind the bunks, past the stairs and into the latrine. Straight ahead were the platoon's two washing machines, with dozens of bags of laundry lined up waiting their turn. Beside them stretched a row of sinks, leading to the showers. Along the other walls were urinals and a line of toilets, about two feet apart, without partitions. All but one toilet was occupied, like seats in the reading room at a college library just before exam time. Although everybody had his pants down to justify his presence in these plush accommodations, most were reading books, newspapers, or magazines, or writing letters home.

Roberts, a tall thin black boy from Mississippi, was standing by a sink, staring at himself in the mirror as he carefully shaved the top of his head.

"Hey, Roberts, aren't you supposed to be on CQ?"

"Maybe."

"Well, what are you doing then?"

"Giving myself a haircut. Got to look pretty for the sergeant."

Roberts kept shaving his head.

"Well, they're looking for you, Roberts. Don't say I didn't tell you."

"Yeah, everybody's looking for the old Bob tonight. I got me a date. Got me a couple of them. I'm going to have me a big night."

"You're going to have big trouble is all, if you don't hightail it over to CQ."

Schneider lowered himself on the only empty john, between Tagliatti and Waslewski. "Hey, Tag," he asked, "are you through with the sports?"

"Yeah, but it's four days old."

"Well, that's two days better than anything I've seen."

Alec, a short, tough ex-cop from Chicago, entered the latrine. "Ah, shit."

"Yeah, Alec," said Cohen, a college kid from Berkeley "It's a full house. Maybe you can catch the next show."

"Bunch of damned exhibitionists. Got to spend the whole day with your pants down, in full view of the world."

"A good crap's one of the few pleasures allowed us," replied Cohen.

"Then shit and get done with it. This place looks like a fucking library."

"I say, sir, are the libraries like this in Chicago?"

"Get off it, Cohen."

"When I'm done, I will, indeed, get off it. But right now that's a bit premature. I might risk staining this immaculate concrete, the pride of the third platoon latrine crew."

"Cut the bull."

"Me Big Chief Shitting Bull."

"Tag," said Schneider, "can you toss me the toilet paper, please? Thanks."

He caught it, circus-style, on his big toe. He used some, then tossed the roll to Alec and stood up. "Here you go, Alec; it's all yours."

"Just shit right down and write yourself a letter," mocked Cohen.

"Formation!" the shout from outside echoed and reechoed throughout the barracks.

"Ah, shit," groaned Alec.

"No, my boy, self-control, self-control," Cohen kept ribbing him. "That's the first lesson of the Army. Self-control. Potty-training 101. It's all part of basic training. We must learn to adapt to the shituation."

"Well, you don't seem to have learned it - with that goddamned diarrhea of the mouth."

All five platoons of Echo Company lined up quickly on the exercise field. There were forty-seven men in the third platoon. Forty-three were National Guard and Reservists - all white. Four were draftees - all black - Roberts, Armstrong, and two new guys, recently recycled, that nobody knew by name.

In the summer of 1970, the Viet Nam War was being scaled down. Fort Polk, which had been, as the big welcoming sign still announced, "Birthplace of combat infantrymen for Viet Nam," was starting to train National Guardsmen instead. This was the summer after the Cambodian Invasion and Kent State.

These trainees came from all over the country, from all walks of life. They were given uniform clothes and uniform poverty. Their uniform haircuts even seemed to wipe out age differences. It was like an experiment in elemental democracy.

They were a surprisingly well-educated group. Several had been to grad school. Most had some college. Most of the rest intended to go to college as soon as this was over.

There were no real troublemakers in the group. No National Guardsman or Reservist would want to get into trouble. They just wanted to get out of the Army as quickly as possible; and, if nothing out of the ordinary happened, they'd all be out, after basic and AIT or MOS training, in two to four months.

An artificial hierarchy had been imposed on this realm of social equality. The drill sergeant picked a platoon leader, an assistant platoon leader, and four squad leaders. It seemed he deliberately chose a pompous, overweight coward as platoon leader, to teach the trainees to obey someone just because of rank, not because of personal respect. This way they'd be learning to follow the system, to obey any stranger with rank, rather than a specific individual.

But the group was so small that they knew each other too well for artificial distinctions to matter. When the drill sergeant was around and when they were with the rest of the company, they observed the forms. But in the barracks, the platoon leader, Rawlings, was a joke, an outcast, the victim of repeated practical jokes, a convenient symbol of hated authority that could be mocked and mildly abused with impunity.

MacFarland, the assistant platoon leader, was exempted from fire guard, KP, etc. He had no responsibilities and did nothing.

Hathaway, the leader of the first squad, was the real leader of the platoon. Vassavion, Sullivan, and Powell were bigger than he was, but ordering people came naturally to Hathaway. When something needed to be done, he took it upon himself to make the decisions that had to be made. Without debate or hesitation, he simply gave orders, and he was obeyed or evaded, but never overtly disobeyed.

Sanderson and little Evans always backed Hathaway, without his ever having to ask for help.

Powell was an exception to every rule. Nobody in the platoon ever told him what to do. And he never ordered anyone else about, unless they asked his advice, as they sometimes did, even Hathaway, when the barracks was a mess and they had little time to get it in shape for inspection.

At formation, the Captain of Echo Company presided as the drill sergeants read their rosters and checked off the names quickly and mechanically. At the name "Roberts," several voices sounded off "CQ," and one voice said "KP."

The sergeant moved on to the next name without a pause. The roll completed, most raced to the mess hall to line up and wait for dinner.

A few went back to the barracks.

Frank Arnold and Alec headed straight to the latrine. Tagliatti, Waslewski, MacFarland, and Delaney stretched out on their bunks.

Halfway down the aisle, Powell sat on his bed, his powerful frame bowed, a Bible on his lap.

Waslewski spat out, "Goddamn piss-assed shit-hole. They treat prisoners of war better than this. I'd like to shove that Bill-of-Rights crap right up that mother-fucking drill sergeant's ass."

"That's the system for you," explained Delaney. "Here we are, supposedly free citizens, and they've revoked our civil rights and subjected us to this torture without there ever having been a declaration of war, without the express consent of Congress."

"All I want's a goddamn beer. It's piss-assed hot, and there's a PX a block away."

"Have a drink of water," suggested MacFarland.

"Water?" asked Waslewski. "You call that piss 'water?' All I want's a goddamned beer. Is that too much to ask?"

"Okay, Waz, okay. We're all in the same boat. You don't have to remind us."

"I don't see how that Sanderson does it," said Tag, "running laps in this heat."

"He's nuts," concluded Waslewski.

"He thrives on this shit."

"That's what I said: he's nuts."

"Good thing that Dietz can't count," noted MacFarland. "Sounded awful funny three guys on CQ."

"And somebody claimed he was on KP, too."

"Where the hell is Roberts?" asked Delaney.

Waslewski licked his lips, "Maybe he just slipped over to the PX for a beer."

"Yeah," said Tag, "if nobody sees him, it'll be all right."

"Don't anybody tell Rawlings," added MacFarland. "That bastard would turn him in."

"Here comes Rawlings."

Everybody left in a hurry - everybody but Powell.

Rawlings laughed, weakly. "They sure got hungry fast."

Powell smiled. Rawlings looked like he wanted to say more, but he turned to the water fountain instead, took a swallow, and spit it out.

"It ought to get cool while everybody's at supper," he said. "It needs a rest. We all need a rest."

Rawlings skipped supper. For him, the rare quiet was well worth the price of hunger.

Powell stayed too, reading the Bible - at peace in his own world.

Twenty minutes later, Vassavion came staggering into the latrine, leaning on Waslewski. He had the flabbiness of a natural athlete who had given up exercise in favor of beer and repose. "At great personal risk," he announced to himself in the mirror, "and exercising considerable self-restraint, I have brought you a six-pack - six bright, sparkling, lukewarm, unopened, certified virgin cans of Schlitz."

Waslewski grabbed a can. "Drink up, my boy, drink up,"

Vassavion continued. "I feel the thirst coming on me. Man lives not by bread alone. Give me one of those cans. Booze and broads - it takes taste, refinement, and years of education to properly wallow in such shit. You must be a connoisseur, a kind of sewer. They have fine sewers in this city, full of certified grade A, government-inspected shit. The whole world is shit. But few are those with taste refined enough to enjoy it, to savor the taste, the odor, the warm moist feel of it. Shit."

He threw down his half-empty can. "It tastes like shit. Lukewarm diarrhetic shit."

He stumbled to one of the empty johns and vomited. "I do believe my constipation is over. Now I can even shit through my mouth."

Waslewski opened the last can. "You lucky bastard. I'd give my right ball to get out of this place."

Tag entered with his four-day-old newspaper. "Where's Evans?"

"Evans?" asked Vassavion. "He was with me a minute ago. While I was painting the town, he was looking for paint. The man has the soul of an artist."

Rawlings joined them in the latrine and nearly tripped over a beer can.

Vassavion greeted him magnificently, "Welcome, Prince Hal."

"You're drunk."

"Then be ye crowned king already? A hollow crown and an empty noodle. 'tis true 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis you."

"You're drunk," stated Rawlings.

"Amen. And hallowed be thy name. And hollowed be thy head. Howl, howl, howl, the beer is foul. A foul ball. We had a ball, and the beer was foul. Out of line, your highness, most definitely out of line. But I'll go straight from honest to goodness. Just don't 'arry me, me boy; I'll do it at me own speed."

"Please stay out of sight," Rawlings requested patiently while pissing at the urinal. Then he quickly buttoned up his fatigues and left.

Vassavion shook his head. "I do believe the old boy's pissed off. He has no sense of humor, no sense at all."

As Rawlings quietly climbed the stairs, Delaney, Armstrong, Alec, and Cohen stormed in and gathered by the water fountain.

"Okay, Armstrong, where's Roberts?" asked Delaney. "You're his bunkmate. You should know."

"Said he was going home."

"Home? Is something wrong at home? Somebody sick or something? He should have told somebody. They'd call the Red Cross and have them check it out. If it was really bad, they'd give him a pass."

"Nobody's sick. He said nothing about being sick. Just said he was going home."

"Freedom," said Alec. "You talk about freedom, Delaney. There's your fucking freedom. He wants to go, so he goes. And what can they do to him? Send him to Nam? He's fucking eleven bang-bang. Fucking mortars. He's going to Nam all right. No place but Nam. There's your fucking freedom - being so low you've got nothing to lose."

"That's fucking profound, Alec." Cohen started to sing softly,

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

"Is he coming back?" asked Delaney. "Did he say he was coming back?"

"He'll be back," said Armstrong. "When he's good and ready, he'll be back."

"He's got thirty days," offered Alec. "I heard a hold-over talking about it. One of the ones waiting for court-martial. Thirty days and you're still AWOL. But one minute more, and you're a deserter, and they'll have the FBI after you."

"Fuck the FBI," said Delaney. "These days there are so many deserters the FBI can't hope to touch them. But when the drill sergeant finds out that Roberts is gone, he'll have the whole lot of us low-crawling from one end of the company area to the other. And we can forget about ever getting PX privileges or passes. Shit. I can't take five more weeks of this fucking hell-hole."

"You're not going to rat on him, are you, Delaney?"

"Hell, no. What's to gain by ratting on him? As soon as they know he's AWOL, we've had it. But if we can cover it up till he gets back, we'll be all right."

"That little bastard."

"How long do you figure he'll be, Armstrong?"

"Don't know. But I do know that Jackson, Mississippi's a long ways from here. And he don't have no money."

"Shit almighty."

Frank walked past, pulled his notebook out from under his pillow, and went to the latrine to write.

"Delaney is a self-centered ass. He talks about principles, but he has none himself. What he says is unrelated to what he does. If he thought he could get anything out of it, he wouldn't hesitate to turn Roberts in. But what bugs me most is that he wouldn't bother to rationalize it. He'd just do it and keep making the same speeches about freedom and human rights.

"When I first got here, I thought I'd found moral simplicity. The world was reduced to just this barracks and the barren sandy ground around it. We were all confronted with direct and simple rules and orders: you obey or disobey; you cross the line or you don't; you are forced to act - to submit or rebel - in full knowledge of the immediate consequences. The setup was artificial, but it resembled a scientific experiment - take away all class distinctions; and, in a limited, controlled environment, examine human nature. But there's nothing natural about Delaney - his words and his acts simply don't match."

Frank heard the door slam and stocking feet slowly shuffle toward the bunkroom. He didn't look up. He knew it was his bunkmate Beaulieu. He half expected to hear Hathaway hollering at him for dragging his feet. But Hathaway was still at supper.

Beaulieu got pen and paper from his locker and shuffled off to the latrine where he sat on a john across from Frank and continued a multi-page letter to his wife Debbie:

"I just got off CQ. It's a bit early, but Sullivan can cover for me, say I'm at supper. Damn that Roberts. He'd never cover for me, you can be damn sure. But I had to cover for him or we'd all have been screwed. That's the way they work things here: everybody gets punished for what one guy does.

"But Roberts doesn't give a damn. With no sweat at all, he got perfect scores in all the PT events but the mile. The mile he did in ten minutes, jogging and walking beside Schneider. Poor Schneider was huffing and struggling every inch of the way, his heavy lard bouncing up and down and nearly throwing him off balance. And there was Roberts taking his jolly good time, laughing and joking. The drill sergeant blew his top; put Roberts on night KP for a week. I'm sure he didn't go. He just doesn't give a damn, the bastard.

"I'm still sore all over. Never thought I'd live through it. We had those damned plague shots the day before, and I could have sworn I couldn't move my arm or swallow any food. But the bastards had us out there doing another PT test and laughed at our moans and groans; wouldn't let anybody go on sick call, the bastards. Needless to say, I didn't do well. And they'll probably have me doing extra PT all week because of it.

"Damn those bars. I can do the bars. Enough of them, at least. If you give me half a chance. But that first time, they took us to a field where the rusty bars spun free so you couldn't get a grip on them, and they ripped your hands apart. Mine had just healed by yesterday, and then they got ripped open again on another stinking set of bars. Nobody could do them right, not even the guys who show off back at the company area. Nobody, that is, but that bastard Roberts and that runt Evans.

"Everything's topsy-turvy here. It's the big guys that are hurting, guys like Hathaway, Sullivan, and Vassavion - the football player types. Waslewski, too. They're strong all right, but they've got a lot of weight to lift, and they have to struggle to pass that damned test. And, of course, the fat ones, like Schneider, take a beating.

"It's the little guys that have it easy. That runt Evans got a 490 on the PT test. Just missed a little on the grenade throw and the rifle, or his score would have been perfect. It doesn't take any muscle to squeeze a trigger.

"So Evans came out tops. He and Vassavion. Evans with ease and Vassavion in agony. They got the first two passes. They just got back. Late. Little Evans was leading the lumbering Vassavion. We covered for them, all right. It's hard to get mad at them. Vassavion's so magnificent in his drunkenness. I've never seen him in better spirits. And Evans was lucky to have gotten him back so close to on time.

"That Evans is quite a guy. Like a monkey the way he swings through those bars. Delaney nearly exploded when he heard the runt was getting a pass. I forget what he said exactly, but somehow it was an example of the absolute injustice of the system, the topsy-turnviness of rewarding the weak and tearing down the strong. However he put it, it hit home - how they're breaking us in mind and body, reducing us all to a general anonymous mass of weaklings. And something about runts being in collusion with them, being taken in and used. He says that's how the system perpetuates itself - putting runts and cowards in positions of authority, people who know damned well that their authority comes to them not for any merit of their own, but just because of the system.

"Listening to Delaney, I found myself hating little Evans and Rawlings, too. Rawlings isn't a runt. On the contrary, he's just as big and has just as much trouble at PT as Waslewski and Sullivan. I guess I lump him together with Evans because he's so self-effacing, so meek and retiring that you never notice his size. You naturally think of him as a weakling or a coward.

"I've got nothing personal against Evans or Rawlings, but the frustration and anger and hurt and sleeplessness all build up. And all the groveling in the dirt. You've got to let it out sometimes. It's easy for you to focus all that hate on somebody, almost at random, to take it out on him. And Delaney has such a way with words.

"I'm glad Hathaway was around then. Hathaway treats Evans like a kid brother, joshes him, knocks him around a bit, and looks out for him. I'm glad Hathaway was there then, or I might have taken a not-so-friendly poke at the kid.

"Here comes Sanderson. He takes it all in stride, as if this were pre-season football training, or as if all his life he'd wanted to break the five-minute mile in combat boots. When they pack a hundred or a hundred and twenty of us in a school bus or cattle truck and the rest of us are groaning, Sanderson coaxes Cohen to start up a song, and he sings with all his heart and lungs. And, God, he has quite a set of heart and lungs from all that running.

"It's a crazy world, Deb, that makes such crazy places as this, reducing men to chunks of sweating, aching flesh. Even trying to shit hurts. If you were here, or, rather, if you were near and I could see you, sleep with you, it would be tolerable. With you, I could tolerate most anything. We could just lie there and laugh about it. This shit should never be taken seriously. It's just one huge practical joke. I'm sure that's the way the drill sergeants take it - like a fraternity initiation. Cohen manages to see it that way too, manages to bring out the humor in things.

"But it's degrading. The only way to release all this pressure, aside from taking a poke at somebody (which would land you with an Article Fifteen or a court martial and get you recycled and stuck in this damned army another month or two) is to masturbate. There's just no other way, and it's so damned degrading. In a barracks full of guys, the bunks no more than three feet apart, the firelight on all the time, the fireguard pacing back and forth, and somebody else in the upper bunk getting shaken by your every move. And you try to do it quietly, as unobtrusively as possible - one hell of a way to get a release, lying there stock-still, squeezing yourself with a sheet; but it works, after a fashion.

"The imagination takes charge, and I'm far, far from here, this place never existed, and I'm holding you so warm and close. Damn it, I'm horny as hell, and it'll be at least three months before I see you again. You can't imagine what this place does to a guy. I think of you constantly, whenever we get a five-minute break, and I can lean against a tree and shut my eyes (they won't let us stretch out, ever), or even running laps around the block at 5am, before breakfast, and the thought of you gets me away from this place, and it's something to look forward to - the next moment when I'll be able to let my mind drift to you.

"Or maybe it's the body that does the remembering. Our minds have been reduced to pulp by no sleep, maybe four hours at most. (As Delaney points out, a soldier is entitled to eight hours of sleep. But the drill sergeants always cover for themselves. Officially it's always eight hours from lights-out to lights-on. Officially, it's our own doing if we don't get enough sleep. But there's always a half dozen chores that still need to be done after lights-out. And then they wake you up for fire guard or CQ, and you have to break the rules again, getting up an hour before lights-on to clean the barracks or we'd never make it through inspection).

Without sleep, the mind loses the power to control what it's thinking, to tie thoughts together by anything more than simple association. It becomes a passive inert mass.

"It's the body that does the remembering. My muscles stop aching as they remember your shape, the pressure of you close to me, the texture of your skin, the delightful, unexpected ways you move. My eye muscles relive with my hands the fullness of your breasts. I remember directly, completely, not like before, the electric touch of your fingers, the playful flip of your tongue, the way you toss back your head to toss back your hair, your buttocks as you climb the stairs ahead of me (that's why it's always ladies first - so men can watch them as they move), your long legs rubbing softly against mine.

"Damn it. I want you. I ache for you. These aches have nothing to do with ten-mile hikes and PT and lying prone in the dust and the 90º sun for endless hours. No, it's my every muscle longing to be with you, straining to break away from these stupid bones and rush home to you. These bones are so stupid. This mind is so stupid. This nation is so stupid for having invented such a thing as basic training. How could anybody or anything ever sanction anything that might keep me away from you? My body can't understand. But here I sit and shit and write you endless letters.

"My bunkmate, Frank, is on the john here across from me. There are no partitions. He's writing too. Maybe it's a letter. He doesn't talk much to me. Hangs around with that Delaney character. But I know he probably feels the same as I do. I can feel the bed shake at night. That's not nightmares. We're all reduced to a common denominator.

"It may well be that in the real world this Frank is an intelligent guy, but here he spends his every free moment sitting on the john, shitting and writing. I guess it's diarrhea of the mind. Everything here seems to get diarrhea on Sunday. That's the only time we can afford the luxury.

"I slept till noon, shat till two, had CQ till four, filled in for that damned Roberts till 5:40, and now I'm shitting again. It's been a luxurious day of self-indulgence. But in about two and a half hours the lights will go out, even though it's still light outside. And we'll all toddle obediently to bed. And it'll all begin again.

"Damn it. I need you. My body needs you. The pulp that was my mind needs you. Hell.

"You know how I always bitch to you and get it out of my system, then I forget it as we laugh together. It's great the way you make me realize what a fool I am for bitching all the time. You'd hate me the way I am now. I hate myself the way I am now. I can't even write you a decent letter. All I do is write about the shit around me. But damn it, darling, I'm caught up in this shit. All those stupid rules they threw at us five weeks ago are now a part of me. I take this nonsense seriously. My joys, fears, hopes, and miseries all stem from this world they've thrown me in. Somehow Sanderson and maybe Powell (I don't know much about Powell) have managed to keep living in their own worlds. But my world has been torn down.

"My body remembers your every move vividly. but it's hard for me to imagine the world we used to live in. It's all unreal and far away. The only world I've got is this shit. And I hate this shit. And I hate myself for letting myself be reduced to this.

"Damn it. I love you and miss you, and I'm sorry this is the way I write and the way I think, but they've done it to me, damn it. They've reduced me to this. When I get back it'll be different, and I'll be different. And I'll be able to forget all this and go back to being me - whoever that was. But wherever I am and whoever I am, I love you."

Waslewski tumbled into the latrine, picked up the empty beer cans, poured the few remaining drops down his throat, then absent-mindedly crushed the cans in his hand, as if they were paper cups.

"Evans, would you believe that Evans?" he bellowed for the benefit of Beaulieu, Sanderson, and Frank Arnold. "Never so much as tasted a beer. A weekend pass. Thirty-two hours of freedom. That runt had thirty-two hours in the land of bars and brothels, and he spent it chasing after paint so he can pretty up the barracks. What a waste." Beaulieu looked up from his letter. "Paint?"

"Yeah. And that ain't the half of it. You know what color he got?"

"What?"

"Yellow."

"What the hell can he paint yellow?"

"The lines. The fucking lines for the center aisle. Those fucking lines we're not supposed to step over. He wants to repaint them so they'll be nice and neat and pretty. He thinks it'll be worth bonus points for inspection. Bonus points. God, that runt's out of his ever-fucking mind."

Waslewski tripped on a laundry bag, then sat down on it and stretched out on the long line of laundry bags, swallowing the last drop of the last can with a cherubic grin on his face.

The screen door slammed and Alec walked into the bunkroom.

"Take your damned boots off," hollered Hathaway.

"Don't be a pain in the ass," whined Alec. "It's Sunday. Cool it."

"I don't give a damn if it's Doomsday. Take off those fucking boots."

"Go ahead, Alec," Schneider added gently. "We all do it."

"And get your damned foot off that center aisle," snarled Hathaway.

"What do you think you are? Special or something? If everybody else can walk around, you can too."



The door slammed and slammed again. Rawlings walked in the latrine.

"Where's Roberts? Has anybody seen Roberts? He isn't on CQ."

"KP," answered Delaney. "Remember. He got night KP for a week."

As Rawlings left and headed upstairs, Alvardo came in, kicked aside a crushed beer can, took a look at the washing machine and shouted, "Sullivan!

Sullivan!"

Beaulieu answered, "He's still on CQ."

"Then fuck him. I've got to get this wash done tonight."

"Cool it, buster," said Delaney. "My bag's ahead of yours."

"Fuck. All my fatigues stink. The sweat's been fermenting on them for weeks. Sometimes I think they're more alive than I am."

"Well, don't blame it on me," said Delaney. "Mine stink just as much as yours do. It's the fucking system's fault, giving us one washer for forty-seven stinking guys."

"When I get out of here," said Beaulieu, "I'm going to write a book about this shit-hole."

Frank looked up from his notebook. "Just remember not to make a big deal about all this. It isn't like we've got a bad deal. Afterall, we're Reservists and National Guard. It isn't like we're going to be shipped to Nam. We aren't that low in hell. We all have homes and jobs or school we expect to get back to in a few months. We've got to be careful because we've got something to lose. This isn't your usual basic training."

"Yeah," Delaney added, "we've got it easy. The system has given us a few advantages, and we've taken them, so we've got a stake in the system. We don't have as much of a stake as the runts and cowards, but we can be counted on not to shout too loud, not to be too violent. That's how the system perpetuates itself - by giving us things we'd be afraid to part with. We have to be willing to lose everything, to destroy everything, if we ever hope to attain freedom.

"That's what's holding us here, you know - our little compromises with the system. There aren't any walls or armed guards - just imaginary lines. One step beyond the line from this tree to this building and you're AWOL. One step over that yellow line into the center aisle and...

"We don't worry about the drill sergeant anymore. It isn't a question of what he'd do to us. We've internalized it all. We react automatically. It's like they took out our minds and replaced them with machines. Or rather, we did it to ourselves so we could be good little boys without having to think about it. We form 'good habits,' like good little boys."

Waslewski casually crushed the last beer can, raised himself from the laundry bags, and stumbled out of the latrine toward his bunk. He nearly bumped into Alec and Evans by the water fountain.

"What the hell's this paint crap?" Alec asked Evans.

"If you've got to play the game, why not play to win?"

"God, I don't see how you can take this crap seriously."

"But I don't. So they say, don't cross that line. What the hell should I care? Do I really need to cross that line? Hell no. If it were something important, that would be different. But this is all nonsense. So why not play along and beat them at their own game?"

"Don't you have any guts?" asked Alec. "You just buckle under and do everything they tell you. Don't you have any self-respect? Damn it, why don't you stand up for yourself sometime. Rebel."

"Rebel? What the hell for, Alec? Why the hell should you want to walk there? Why make a big deal of it? It only takes a minute to walk around. If they're dumb enough to want to make a rule about it, okay - humor them a bit. If you see it as a game and get into the swing of it, you can have some fun, instead of just griping all the time. You sound like you want to break rules just because they are rules. Whatever anybody said not to do, you'd want to do it. There's nothing more childish."

"Whatever anybody said to do, you'd do it. There's nothing more childish," Alec mocked.

"Hell, Alec, get the old team spirit. With freshly painted lines, we'll be sure to win the Monday inspection by a wide enough margin to win for the week. That'll give us three weeks we've won and two ties. One more win after that, and we'll have clinched the barracks competition. The second platoon will probably take the PT competition. But we have a good shot at the rifle and the G3, and a damn good chance to come out best overall platoon."

"Maybe you've got a stronger stomach than me," said Alec. "Maybe you can eat more shit than I can without getting sick. Maybe you can even learn to love eating shit. But I've reached my limit. Just one bit more and I'll... I'll..."

"Gripe some more?" offered Evans.

Alec clinched his fist, glanced toward Hathaway's bunk, leaned over the water fountain, took a swallow, spit it out with a grimace, and stomped to the latrine, sliding a bit in his stocking feet. Rawlings sat up in his bunk, and stretched his arms. There was too much noise in the barracks to sleep, even with the door to his and MacFarland's room shut. It almost seemed like they yelled and stomped about on purpose to annoy him. He wrote a letter to Madeline:

"I know it must seem funny getting these letters from me. Sure, we parted as 'friends.' I haven't forgotten. There's no way I could forget it. But you have no idea what it's like here, what hell it is. I need someone to write to, someone to dream of. Just to keep my sanity, I need it. Please let me delude myself a bit. Please don't keep hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer. After all, how can either of us know what things will be like in three months? People change. Just let me believe there might be a chance.

"Sometimes I regret ever having gotten myself into this mess. I should have paid some dentist to put braces on my teeth and avoided the military altogether. But I've always planned to go into politics after law school. I hate the Army. I know there's no moral justification for Nam. But to get elected to a position of authority so I can do something to prevent future Nams, I have to have served in the military. It's one of the unfortunate facts of politics, one of the compromises that have to be made.

"There's nobody here I can talk to, except maybe Powell. And there are very few occasions I feel free to talk to Powell.

"The rest of the platoon hates me for not standing up to the drill sergeant, for not voicing their wants and opinions. They have little direct contact with him or with the senior drill except for receiving commands. They have little notion of what those sergeants are like, how they think and react, how you have to deal with them.

"Friday night while I was sleeping, someone sprayed shaving cream in my open mouth. They've played pranks before, but that one shook me up. I might have smothered to death or gone into shock. I think it was MacFarland, the assistant platoon leader who shares this small room with me. It took so long to wake him that he must have been faking that he was asleep. It gives me a creepy feeling knowing that the guy I've been living so close to could do such a thing.

"I've been on my guard since then. So many of them have it in for me. Delaney, especially, hates me; and he makes no attempt to disguise it. I wouldn't trust Alec or Waslewski either.

"There's no way for me to find out who got me with the shaving cream. I'm sure all the others know who did it, but none of them would tell me. I knew they wouldn't and that it would be best not to say anything. If they thought they'd gotten my goat, it would encourage them to do more of the same. So I pulled myself together, told MacFarland - 'It was nothing, go back to sleep, just some practical joke.'

"Then at Saturday morning's inspection I got a gig for shaving cream on my bedpost. I hadn't noticed it. If I'd told the drill sergeant how it got there, he'd have made trouble for everybody. He's had it in for me lately. I've gotten several gigs - just little things I'd absent-mindedly overlooked, like forgetting to hang a towel at the base of the bed or not displaying a laundry bag. It's bad enough when we don't win an inspection, (he'd put anybody with a gig on night KP for a week), but when the platoon leader gets gigged, he blows his top.

"He's been riding me for not being more strict, for not asserting my authority, for not giving him the names of slackers so he can punish them. He claims there's no excuse for me getting a gig, that I should have two or three of the others make my bed, straighten my area, check and recheck. But I can't see burdening the others with my problems. They've got little enough time to do their own work.

"Anyway, the sergeant has clearly reached his limit. If anything more goes wrong, no matter how minor, there's no telling what torture he might put us all through."

The screen door slammed. Sullivan shouted, "Has anybody seen Roberts?"

"Keep it down," whispered Delaney. "He's AWOL, but he might come back. If Rawlings hears about it, he'll rat on him and we'll all get screwed."

"But what if he doesn't come back? We can't cover for him forever, and it's a serious offense if they find out we've been covering for him."

"Cool it. Just cool it," whispered Delaney. Then out loud he said,

"What were you saying Beaulieu?"

"Just that somewhere there's got to be a good place to live, where you can really be yourself."

"No, don't kid yourself," explained Delaney. "It's Catch-22. The world of business and the world of the army. Milo Minderbinder runs the whole show. The army's just a big business, an equal opportunity employer - with all the bureaucracy and waste and impersonal cruelty of a big business.

"Read the papers, man. They want junior officers for management positions. The foremen are no different from old sergeants. They are sucked in by the gradual increments in pay, the pension plans, and all that crap.

"From the outside the Army looks like a bunch of guys who shoot and get shot at. But from the inside it's padded with bureaucrats trapped in a web of slowly accruing benefits. All you've got to do to be able to cash in your chips at age 65 is cover your ass. You never have to do anything that might tax your mind or your energy. Just never make a blunder without covering up for it.

"The whole setup breeds paranoids, security-hungry paranoids spending all their time trying to divest themselves of responsibility, following the letter of the regulations and passing the papers to the next desk. It's dangerous to make a decision. Any change is dangerous, shifting the rhythm of covering up activities. You might miss something.

"The Army's probably the most conservative institution in the world. It has carried the inherent tendencies of big business to their natural extreme. It's the epitome of business.

"If you feel crushed and oppressed here, if you feel they've torn down your world and thrown you naked and helpless into a world of their making, well, it's just a model of what goes on out there - what you're going to go back to."

As Rawlings was licking the envelope, he glanced down at the floor beside his bed. His boots were missing - his second pair of boots, the ones that he never wore, the ones with the special glossy shine for inspections, the ones that every morning he had to remember to dust off or he'd get a gig.

He stood up suddenly, dropped the letter on his bunk, got down on his belly and crawled under the bed. He could see nothing. He reached and reached again through empty space.

He checked MacFarland's boots. They had MacFarland's name tag.

He checked under MacFarland's bed.

He checked his own wall locker.

MacFarland's wall locker was locked.

With his strength, he'd have had no trouble breaking it open. But a bent locker, too, would be a gig.

He checked his footlocker. He knew the boots couldn't be there, but he checked under the underwear he'd never worn, so carefully rolled for inspection. He checked under the handkerchiefs he'd never used, behind the shaving cream, under the razor he'd never used, under the shaving brush that he wouldn't even know how to use.

There were no boots. MacFarland's footlocker was locked.

"Where the hell are my boots?" Rawlings bellowed. The whole barracks fell silent.

He stood at the top of the stairs as half a dozen puzzled trainees gathered below. "This has gone far enough," he announced. "I want my boots back."

Another dozen gathered to watch and listen.

"Where are they?" he repeated. His voice was getting shrill.

"Where are what?" asked Tag.

"My boots, you fool."

"On your fucking feet," said Tag. "Why didn't you leave them at the door like the rest of us?"

Everybody but Rawlings broke out laughing. Attracted by the laughter, the crowd grew larger.

Rawlings slowly and deliberately came down the stairs. "Where the hell is MacFarland?" he insisted.

"Right here, Fats," MacFarland answered, winning a few laughs.

"Well, give them to me."

"What?"

Rawlings now stood face to face with him. The rest of the platoon crowded close around.

"The boots. Give me the fucking boots!"

MacFarland stared him hard in the eye. Rawlings started shifting his weight from foot to foot and clenching and unclenching his fists.

"Give him the boots!" shouted a voice from the front steps. "The boss wants boots."

Suddenly, a hail of boots came flying through the door at Rawlings.

One hit him hard on the side of the head. He lost his balance and fell backward. Rather than catch him or cushion his fall, the crowd moved back. His back hit the floor; his head the bottom step.

He grabbed the bannister and pulled himself to a sitting position on the stairs. "Where are my boots?" he insisted.

"I bet Roberts has them," came a shout from the crowd.

"Or maybe the boots have Roberts," suggested someone else.

"Yeah," shouted the first, "I hear the boots went AWOL and took Roberts with them."

"Just where is Roberts, anyway?" Rawlings asked. He pulled himself to his feet and tried to reassert his authority. "Where is he?"

Cohen started humming the tune "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

"Yeah, man," somebody whispered. "He's free, free as a bird."

"Down with the king!" shouted drunken Vassavion. "Give me liberty or give me Macbeth!"

"Shut up!" shouted Rawlings.

"Now is the summer of our discontent," Vassavion continued.

"I said - shut up!" Rawlings shoved him. Vassavion shoved back. Rawlings shoved Hathaway by mistake. Hathaway swung wildly. Rawlings ducked and rammed his shoulder into Hathaway's belly. Waslewski punched Rawlings in the back. Rawlings fell, swinging boots and feet wildly, tripping Vassavion, Hathaway and Waslewski. They rolled and slid down the sacred center aisle.

The whole platoon gathered round, standing and leaning on the bunks, watching the fight. They were a mob ready to erupt, to release its pent-up hate and fear and frustration on this petty platoon leader.

Delaney jumped up on a footlocker, raised high a fist, like a lightning rod and shouted:

"Power to the people!"

"Power!" repeated a dozen others.

"Power!" chanted dozens more.

"Down with all pigs!" shouted Delaney.

"Right on!" chanted the chorus.

"Kill the fucking bastard," someone mumbled.

The chorus laughed nervously.

Rawlings tried to stand up, was tripped by Waslewski. Hathaway dove on top of him, pinned arms with knees, and started slapping his face back and forth, harder and harder.

"Give him one for me!" shouted someone.

"And for me."

"And me," echoed up and down the room.

"Give him one for the Gipper!" shouted Cohen. Everyone laughed, so Cohen continued, clapping his hands, "Go team, go!"

The crowd responded, "Push him back, push him back, way back."

Cohen grabbed two of the many boots lying on the floor, pulled them on untied, and started jumping and dancing like a cheerleader.

"Power!" repeated Delaney.

"Power!" repeated the chorus.

Vassavion stumbled to his feet, waving his arms drunkenly. "For mine is the power and the glory!" he yelled.

"Go get him, Vass!" shouted the crowd.

"Give him that boot he wanted," someone offered.

"Give him this one!" shouted someone else throwing a boot to him. Vassavion pulled it on his right foot, and stood, unsteadily between Rawling's spread-eagled legs, his toe near Rawling's crotch.

"Give him a Vass-ectomy," someone muttered.

Then the room was quiet, except the slap of palm against cheek, as Hathaway kept hitting mechanically and rhythmically. Everyone watched, both hoping and fearing the drunken giant with the boot would kick.

The quiet was becoming oppressive. "Hold that line! Hold that line!" Cohen chanted loudly, wanting to be the center of attention again. No one responded.

Then Cohen took three running steps and slid heels-first down the center aisle, tumbling into Waslewski, who knocked over Vassavion. He left a long ugly gash down the middle of the floor.

"The time has come!" shouted Delaney, raising his hand high. And once again attention focused on Delaney. It was like he was taking them up the steepest incline of a giant rollercoaster, and they both feared and wanted to reach the peak and race to the finish. "The time has come!" he repeated for emphasis. "Now we must..."

Suddenly he was lifted high in the air. Powell had grabbed him by the seat of the pants, and dangled him, like a rag doll, over the center aisle.

"Help!" gasped Delaney, when he finally realized what had happened.

"Enough," announced Powell, softly and firmly. Then he tossed Delaney on the floor, like throwing a bag of garbage in a dumpster.

Hathaway stood up. Schneider helped Rawlings get back on his feet.

Delaney, crouched by a footlocker, murmured, "I told you so. I told you about the system..." but quietly and cautiously.

The screen door slammed. "Half an hour till lights out!" shouted the CQ, a squad leader from second platoon. "God. What the hell happened?"

"Nothing, buddy," growled Hathaway. "Nothing at all. Just turn yourself around and get the hell out of here."

"God, looks like you had an explosion or an orgy. Somebody sabotage the place or something?"

"Get your goddamned boots off that center aisle," roared Hathaway.

"You've got to be kidding. There's nothing I could do to it that hasn't been done already. Whoever did that sure did a hell of a job. Was it the first platoon?"

Hathaway picked the stranger up by the shoulder of his fatigues.

"Okay, okay, I'm going. It wasn't me that did it. You don't have to take it out on me."

The screen door slammed behind him.

Quiet, subdued, without anyone having to give the orders, they pushed the bunks back to the walls and got on with their chores. Powell, Schneider, Tag, and three others were soon on their hands and knees rubbing a new coat of wax on the floor, while Evans carefully repainted the yellow lines.

Alec, Alvardo, and even Delaney went to work on the stairs with toothbrushes, scrubbing away at the corners and crevices. Frank and the latrine crew started to work on the johns and urinals. Alec whined, "Those damned shitheads have closed off the latrine again. One damned urinal and one damned john is all they ever leave us. Shit. When I have to shit, I have to shit."

"That's the system for you," muttered Delaney. "They have barracks inspections theoretically for the sake of hygiene. But in the Army, what matters is the looks, not the facts - just what can be neatly filled in on an official form. That latrine will be clean. It'll be spotless. But to keep it as spotless as we have to, we can only use it half the time. The rest of the time we've got to go piss under the trees.

"There's no place on the official form to indicate whether the latrine is used or not or to indicate the level of the stench out there under the trees. So we pollute the one bit of shade where we can rest for a break, and we end up sitting on our own piss.

"They told us to keep the latrine spotless. That's how the system works. We wind up seeming to do this to ourselves. And we are, after all, guilty - guilty of going along with the game, playing by their rules. And every time we do, we wind up sitting in our own piss."

"That's sounds fine, Delaney," admitted Alec. "But let's face it - we all can't be Roberts. We were born comfortable, and we're going to want to stay comfortable. We sold our souls long ago. And cheap, too, goddamn it. Of the whole bunch of us, only Roberts is free." Delaney just kept scrubbing. He looked weary. There was a bad bruise under his left eye. It was swelling. MacFarland was one of the few who were just trying to look busy. He kept washing and rewashing the same clean, easily reachable windowpane. But even that was an improvement - he had never before felt obliged to act like he was working. As assistant platoon leader, he was officially exempted from such tasks. But now he kept glancing about guiltily; and when he thought someone was looking, he made a show of putting tremendous effort into the cleaning of that one clean windowpane.

Everybody but Rawlings was working. Rawlings had shut himself in his room to tend to his wound, to try to make the scratches and bruises as inconspicuous as possible. His display boots had miraculously reappeared, with a few minor scuffs, on top of his bed.

While buffing those boots, he tried to reconstruct a poem - something he had written that May in the midst of the frustration of Cambodia and Kent State. He wished he could have remembered it, could have recited it before, to have let the other guys know that he felt the same anxieties and frustrations they did, that he was with them, not with the system, that he was and wanted to be one of them.

The effort of trying to remember helped him to calm down and pull himself together, helped him to feel again that he was a college student among college students. Once again, the complex and baffling world was painted in bright colors - right and wrong, good and evil. Once again, he knew what to hate and hated in unison with thousands of others.

He grabbed paper and pen and wrote from memory:

In May the bombs blossom.
The sweet aroma of gas fills the air.
The sing-song
Mekong
May song me
doe
ray
me lie me down to sleep, and pray the Lord (what else can one two three four,
right face
the press
of the crowd,
shouting,
mad men giving orders
on the borders of insanity,
a neutral nation,
at least officially,
but everyone knows thyself
is an archaic term in jail, waiting for trial,
by hook or by crook, we'll pull this impotent giant to a hard line on and on and on and onward,
Christian humility in defense of freedom is no situation comedy, featuring
Nixon, Mitchell, Agnew, and a fourth horseman of the Apocalypse to be announced,
so stay tuned to looney tunes, on most of our network stations,
brought to you by,
bye
happiness is a warm gun,
in the age of hilarious,
who cannot wash away our sins with a flood of tear
gas,
for there was a limited supply of war,
one day
in May the bombs blossom.

It was clever. Ever since he first wrote it, he was proud of how clever it was. But now it sounded false and hollow. Now that he had been at Polk, had slept in the same barracks, shat in the same johns, low-crawled over the same gravelly field as men who had died in that war he wrote so cleverly about...

He felt ashamed and embarrassed. It was like he'd been behaving like a five-year-old brat, whining in a candy store because he couldn't have exactly what he wanted.

What right did he have to feel sorry for himself? Just a few more weeks of hell and he and the rest of the platoon - all but Roberts and Armstrong and those two new guys - would be going home. Who could blame Roberts for running? Chances were that in a few months he'd be in the jungle waiting for the booby trap or bullet that would turn him into rotting meat. And, by then, Rawlings would be starting law school.

He crossed himself, then went over to the window and stared out at the row of barracks and the scrub pine forest beyond. Polishing the water fountain, Sullivan wondered what the folks back home were doing to his car. He'd bought it new, and from the very beginning there had been some crazy link between his life and its.

It was a bright red convertible. He'd bought it the summer he thought he was going to marry Diane. Whatever it was in him that urged him to buy that car knew damn well that he wasn't ready to get married. And when Diane saw it, she knew too, and it wasn't long before they went their separate ways. That car - a '53 Chevy with an exterior in mint condition - always broke down when he was supposed to go some place but really didn't want to go. At those moments, from a sense of responsibility, he would go to great lengths to try to get it running, but much to his relief, it was mechanically impossible.

There was something wrong with the electrical system. He'd gotten a new battery, a new generator, a new voltage regulator, a new solenoid - but still it would happen. He'd turn the ignition and get a feeble click.

But he really wanted to go somewhere, without fail, the car would turn right over.

This had happened so many times that when the car failed to start, Sullivan no longer got mad. He just sat and thought about it for a while and tried to figure out why he really didn't want to go where he was going since the car was clearly telling him he didn't.

So when he had to go to basic training, he had grave misgivings leaving that car behind. He'd grown to depend on it for his social life, as a relief from recurring restlessness, as a source of freedom, and as the physical manifestation of his inmost desires.

He couldn't help but wonder what his parents were doing with his car. It seemed almost obscene giving them control over that secret part of him. But he had had no choice but to leave it. That was one of things about basic - as Delaney said, they made you surrender body and soul, every parcel of your dignity and freedom.

Cohen started singing again, softly, till others joined in. Even Sanderson joined in.

"I got to get out of this place..."

"Oh Lord, how I want to go home..."

"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

"On the first day of Christmas my drill sarge gave to me..."

"Fuck the army, fuck the army, fuck the army..."

"For he's a jolly good fuck-off..."

"Power to the people..."

Alvardo did some drill sergeant imitations on the staircase.

"He sounds more like a drill sergeant than the drill sergeant does," commented Beaulieu.

It was then that Sullivan took down the plaque to polish it. Looking it over, he exclaimed, "Shit! It's all here. The same damned wisecracks. They scribbled them here on the back with all their signatures. This thing must be twenty, twenty-five years old, and they were making the same dumb wisecracks we are."

Everybody knew what they had to do, and they'd all done it, quickly and efficiently, like a well-drilled team. The floor still had to be buffed, but first the wax would have to sit for a while, and the paint would have to dry.

While waiting, Tag read his four-day-old newspaper. It appealed to his imagination that it was old. Everything could have changed in the meantime, like they were in a time warp: living in the same world as everybody else, but four days behind. The rest of the world might already be a better place.

Beaulieu lay on his bunk and wrote to Marge:

"I want to put it all down while it's still fresh in my mind, even though I don't know what it means. I just want to get it down on paper before I forget it.

"I forget so fast here. Usually, that's a God-send, but this time I want to remember, so maybe later when I look at it, when my head's rested and clear, when I'm me again, I'll be able to make sense of it, rework it into a story, maybe learn something so all this hell won't have been for nothing.

"God, we get used to it quick. Just five fucking weeks I've been here, and half the time I forget I've got a fucking uniform on. Five fucking weeks and I have a hard time imagining myself back home in civvies, going to work in the morning, sleeping with you at night. Seems like some fucking dream, doesn't it. Something far, far away. Just five fucking weeks, and it's like I've never been anything but a fucking solider.

"Delaney was right about the system and what it does to people. But there's something else going on here, too.

"Through all this muck and shit, it was damned good hearing Cohen cut up the drill sergeants and hearing Alvardo imitate them to a tee. We had them pegged. We knew who they were, knew how petty and mechanical and predictable their minds were. No matter what they might do to us, we had that knowledge, that feeling of superiority.

But now we see the same damn crap on a World War II plaque. Some originality. Wind up the toy soldier and listen to the noises they make. Hell.

"Schneider (he's been hanging around with Powell a lot) said something about there's nothing new under the sun.

"Vassavion sobered up a bit in the shower. He said something pompous about history. And he was right. All along we've been acting like this was something new, like nobody'd ever been through basic before. This was our drill sergeant, our barracks, our army, our country. But we're just here for a little while. We're just transients. There have been millions before us, and there will be millions after us, and there's nothing particularly noteworthy about us and what we've said and done. It's all been said and done before.

"Our 'revolution' was no big deal. We scuffed up the floor a bit. By the time Powell gets done with it, it'll all be good as new, almost - all but that jagged mark down the middle. He can't get rid of that. The linoleum was scratched.

"And we should be proud of that? That's what we'll leave for posterity: a jagged scratch on a piece of linoleum.

"Silly though this competition business is, it is a shame to leave a blemish like that for the next cycle of trainees. The guys that came before us did such a good job on it that we hardly had to touch that center aisle for it come out shining unbeatable. I wonder how much work went into that, how many years of work by generations of trainees that never met each other, that knew that they would never meet each other, but who left this as a legacy to whoever might come after them - this so fragile shine that was, ridiculously, such a source of comfort and security and pride.

"Even though we had done nothing for it, or practically nothing, except refraining from messing it up, it was 'our' floor; it was 'our' barracks. We did take pride in it.

"I hope that Powell can do something. He has such a way with that buffer. If anyone can do it, he can. And I certainly do hope he can erase or at least hide it.

"We've got four weeks left. Maybe by then it'll be all right, and the next cycle will get it good as new, as good as we got it, as good as if we'd never been here and messed things up. Maybe a little better, with those yellow lines repainted.

"Yes, it looks really sharp with those bright yellow lines."

The screen door slammed, "Five minutes to lights out!" shouted the CQ. "God, it looks good now. When the buffing's done, you guys could be in good shape."

"Maybe there won't be an inspection," offered Schneider, as the CQ went away.

"Yeah," whined Alec, "you can count on it: if we get the place in shape, they won't inspect it."

"And if we didn't, they would. We'll be ready," affirmed Evans. "I just hope those damned bat exterminators don't come again." Hathaway laughed, "Have you grown to like the bats?"

"We can live with bats. I just don't want the exterminators messing the place up. We can still win tomorrow."

Long after "lights out," the barracks still hummed with the sound of the buffer and clanked with the sound of opening and closing lockers. Everybody had something that still had to be done.

The screen door closed softly, almost imperceptibly. A whispered, "The drill sergeant's coming," echoed and reechoed through the muffled scrambling of feet and creaking of bedsprings. Whispers followed, racing up and down both sides.

"He's going upstairs."

"It's Rawlings he's after, Rawlings. He's bawling out Rawlings."

"Now the shit's going to hit the fan."

"He probably heard..."

"No, it's Roberts."

"Roberts?"

"Shit."

"You say Rawlings is ratting on Roberts?"

"That goddamned Roberts."

"Goddamned my foot. He's the only one of us with an ounce of guts." Footsteps echoed on the stairs again. The screen door closed again, softly.

Silence. A full minute of absolute silence.

"Roberts!" came a loud whisper from the bunk nearest the door.

"God! It's Roberts," was repeated up and down.

In the conflicting shadows of the fire light and the stair light, Roberts slowly rubbed his freshly shaved head with his towel.

"Quick, Roberts, catch the drill sergeant. Rawlings just ratted on you. You're in a heap of trouble. Catch him and let him know you're here."

"He knows I'm here all right. What's this bit about ratting, man? What've I done that somebody's ratting on me?"

"This is the Army. You don't just go home when you feel like it."

"Home? Who the hell went home?"

"Well, where've you been?"

"Taking a shower."

"Yeah, but where've you been all night?"

"Look, man, cool it. I just got off KP."

"Well, then what was the sergeant pissed off at?"

"Me. He saw me in the shower. You know, man - no showers after lights out. But I'll be damned if I'm going to bed stinking of garbage and shit. Hell no, man."

"There's your freedom, Alec. There's your dignity."

"Yeah, damn it, I didn't have guts enough to take a shower."

3 comments:

  1. Indeed, influenced by 'Catch 22' The dialogue and setting are strong and the characters well delineated especially Rawlings, I liked his reaction to his college poem. The closed in feeling, of being trapped, uniform,is very strong. Lots of references to freedom..the sixties ethos, the barracks dwellers living a contradiction.

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  2. A deep dive into the psyche and conditions of basic training. Excellent job flushing out all of the different ways individuals might internalize and rationalize their situation. The setting was quite vivid and alive...I could almost smell that dirty laundry while I read.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. The events are fictitious but the setting is based on my experience at Fort Polk in the summer of 1970. You can see more of my work at my website seltzerbooks.com My email is seltzer@seltzerbooks.com
    Richard

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