Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Jefferson Davis, A Silent Reprise
Mark B. Adin, University of Kansas at Lawrence
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I will follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your death bed
And I'll stand over your grave
'Till I'm sure that you're dead.
--Bob Dylan, "Masters of War"
It was a heavy wet hot August day and I was seven years old. I was relieved that my white t-shirt was clean enough for my mother's dirt-searching eyes as we drove up and up the winding road and made a left where the white and black sign pointed to Sundown. As we made our way through the Catskill mountains the air became less hazy and the sun became sharper and brighter.
We stopped along the narrow road and pulled off onto the shoulder. My father and mother and their friends climbed down the path to the sound of the rushing stream below. We were going swimming in one of my father's secret spots which he said his father had brought him to when he was a little boy. The rocks were big and flat and the water deep and clear, so clear that I thought I could reach out and grab the shimmering round stones on the bottom. My parents and their friends spread their blankets and food on a flat rock and I jumped in. The shock of the cold water pulled my chest tight and almost forced me to gasp for air. I made it across the deep pool and leaned against a rock, catching my breath and being just a little proud that I had made it to the other side. My father yelled above the sound of the rushing stream for me to come back. I pushed off the rock to start back, but slipped off to the side and hit another large rock just beneath the surface, squarely on top of my head. The pain was sharp and jarred my neck. I gasped in a mouthful of water, floundered into the deeper part of the pool and panicked. I could see my father sitting on the flat rock, I yelled at him, but he didn't look at me. I was drowning and he wasn't looking. I was so full of panic, all I could do was flail furiously in the deep cold pool and scream, "Dad!" and gag on more mouthfuls of water. But he never came to save me. I was drowning.
"What the fuck is this maggot doing in my barracks! Get the fuck up you dumb assed fuck!" The screams knocked me upright and on my feet: weaving, sticky and dry-mouthed. It was a Master Sergeant, his yelling, stinking mouth inches away from my face. I kept blinking and swallowing as I awakened. My hands fumbled with the zipper on my jeans and the buckle on my belt.
"Sergeant, I'm getting out of the Army. They sent me over here from the hospital." A coherent thought. Maybe this would back the rabid mongrel off. He had gotten the jump on me.
"We'll see about that. Where's your uniform? Get it on if you wanna sleep in my barracks."
"I just got back from Vietnam and I'm not wearing my uniform anymore." I reached for my jean jacket and finished putting on my new uniform. A few soldiers heard the commotion and gathered around, slobbering like young boys at the prospect of a catfight on the school playground.
"So you're one of those faggots. I've always wanted to break your necks. You get the fuck to the CO's office before I do somethin that may cost me a stripe. But shit, it might just be worth it. Rogers, get this piece of shit out of here." He turned and twitched out of the barracks. One more lifer in and out of my life.
I followed Rogers to the Company Commander's office. In my briefcase were my medals, my orders and my medical letters. My whole world was in that briefcase. The Master Sergeant came steaming out of the CO's office, his heavily starched fatigues whistling as he passed by me, looking straight ahead.
"Let's go, Rogers. Let's go!" He never broke stride as he barked at Rogers. Rogers followed him out without a peep.
I walked into the CO's office. He didn't look up, just kept writing on the papers before him on the old dark oak desk.
"Your orders, soldier."
"Here they are." I put the orders on his desk, inches from his pile of paperwork.
"Here they are, what?" The army liturgy of the faithful had brought me to my knees for the last time.
"Here they are, period." As the word "period" registered, he looked up, his face beginning to flush.
"Just what is your story? You want to end up in the stockade? Your orders say you're a Sergeant, just back from the Fourth Division in Vietnam, Adin, Marc B., RA11539357. Am I speaking with the same person or an impostor?"
"That's me, Captain. But I'm getting out of the Army. Capt. Parsons from over at the hospital sent me over to the casual barracks to sleep for the night, he's running medical tests on me today and is going to send me over to Norfolk to see a psychiatrist and then after he...."
"That's enough, Sergeant. I get the picture." He picked up the phone and called Parsons. My legs were hurting from standing so long and I was woozy.
"Listen Doc, I've got Sgt. Adin here. He gave me some story. What's going on?" The CO kept working on his papers, hmmmming as he listened to whatever Parsons was saying. "Well, listen, Doc, it'll work out a lot better for me and you if you keep him restricted to the hospital. He's nothing but trouble over here." He hung up, threw my orders back at me and told me to get myself back to the hospital directly. I hurriedly walked back to its safety. As I double-timed it into the small brick building an orderly told me to report to Capt. Parsons.
"Boy, am I glad to see you, Doc." Parsons was a kind man, caught in the doctor's draft and uncomfortable with the Army.
"Adin, you're going to be staying in the hospital from here on out. I'll get you a room. I should have known better than to have sent you to casual with all those characters over there. We're going to run some blood work, urinalysis, take some x-rays and then get you over to Norfolk Naval Station for examination by a psychiatrist. Your appointment with him is at three, so let's get started with the medical tests now. Oh, and give me your letter from your medical doctor and take your two psychiatric evaluations with you over to Norfolk. Okay? Ready?"
I went through the medical tests within an hour and was in the Army sedan driven by a Spec 4 on my way over the body of water known as Hampton Roads by 2:30. The Spec 4 escorted me into the large hospital, brought me up four floors in an elevator and told me to sit down in a small waiting area. Fifteen minutes slowly passed.
"Sgt. Adin?" He was a short, squat, balding middle-aged major. The psychiatrist.
"That's me, Major." I stood up, he turned, waved his hand to follow him, and I did. We went into a small office halfway down the long hall.
"Sit down. Let me see your psychiatric reports." I handed them to him and he read through both without any reaction or expression.
"Well. Both of these civilian psychiatrists think you're unfit for military service, but since they're not in the military, that doesn't carry much weight with me. Tell me about what happened to you over there. Start at the beginning."
"At the beginning?" I couldn't imagine trying to start with landing at Cam Ranh and giving him a day-by-day account. A withering blast of fear bent me at the waist and I grabbed the arms of the chair.
"You don't mean starting with day one at Cam Ranh all the way to landing at Seattle, do you? I don't think I can do that." I was feeling flushed and hot and embarrassed.
"No. No. Just tell me about the things that bothered you about Vietnam. That bother you now. But try to start with your earliest recollections."
"Oh." I told him about Glassman and Grub and Smitty and Snead and Conners and Bell and the guy who got his face blown off but lived and the little boy with the sneakers and the beheadings.
"Tell me about the beheadings." He listened to it all without registering any change of expression on his listless, chubby face until I told him about the beheadings. After that his brow furrowed deeply and he started rubbing his forehead with his index and middle fingers. He was leaning forward and looking at me with an intensity I hadn't noticed earlier. I finished telling him how the beheadings had happened. He exhaled deeply and cleared his throat.
"How do you feel about the beheadings now?"
"Angry. Freaked out. Like it happened this morning. Like it never happened and is just a nightmare I happen to remember."
"Do you have nightmares about it now?"
"Describe them to me."
I felt as if the psychiatrist was suddenly moving away from me. That we were on opposite sides of the room and a tape recorder inside me started to play. I heard my voice. It was emotionless, monotonic; it sounded as if I were reading from a prepared statement. As I listened to my voice, everything was dark. It was just my words in an empty black space.
"I am walking through the jungle and two very strong people grab me on either side. They take away my helmet and M-16. They pull me along a trail and into a clearing. In the clearing there is a large vat with a fire underneath it. I can see the steam rising from the top of the vat. They pull me towards it. There is a Vietnamese woman alongside the vat. She is stirring it with a large wooden ladle. They bring me right up to the vat. The smell is sharp and sour. I don't want to look in and turn my head away. They grab my head and turn it towards the vat. Inside is a boiling liquid, a dark boiling stew with heads rolling up to the surface and then disappearing. I begin to feel sick and try to turn away. I struggle and struggle but they are much stronger than me and I cannot escape their grip. As I watch, some of the heads split open and brains spill out into the stew. The woman keeps stirring the vat as the brains become part of the dark brown stew. Someone grabs my hair and squeezes my jaw on both sides until my mouth opens. The woman dips the ladle into the vat and pours some of the stew into my mouth. They shut my jaw and pinch my lips and I swallow. At that point I always wake up and have a horrible taste in my mouth. I go into the bathroom and throw up in the sink, the cold tap water washes the vomit down the drain and I keep splashing my face with the cold water until long after I finish vomiting. I am soaked with sweat. I clean up, brush my teeth and stay up the rest of the night, sitting in a chair." My voice stopped talking. I heard a click and the sound of a tape recorder on rewind. The space became lighter and I realized I was back in the room with the shrink.
"Can you hear me?" It was the psychiatrist. He was sitting across from me again.
"Uh, yeah. Sure I hear you."
"Well, let me ask you again. How often do you have this nightmare?"
On the drive back to Fort Monroe the handcuffs began to hurt my wrists. There was an MP in the front seat, passenger side.
"Hey, can you loosen these cuffs a little? They're killing my wrists."
"Sorry, man. Doc said I can't unlock em until I get you into the hospital at Monroe. Sorry. I don't know why they got you in the damn things anyway." The MP turned around and enjoyed the rest of the ride.
As we pulled through the gates of Monroe, I noticed for the first time how beautiful the little Fort was. All red brick buildings with a bright white wood trim, each building surrounded by a manicured emerald green lawn with a straight bluestone sidewalk leading up to the portico entrance. It was a quiet place, a place where time moved slowly but deliberately.
Parsons had the MP remove the cuffs and dismissed him.
"I've spoken to the psychiatrist over at Norfolk. He is recommending a medical discharge. But your refusal to wear a uniform is not exactly helping you."
"Sorry, Doc. But that's the way it is."
"Yeah. I know. Anyway, you're going on Valium, four times a day. You must have given that major an earful." Parsons seemed worried about me. I felt sort of sorry for him, stuck treating sore throats and dying generals, but I was lucky to have run into him instead of some lifer doctor.
"I'm admitting you to the hospital until this thing is worked out. Your blood tests show residuals of hepatitis, mononucleosis and malaria, and those sores on your hands need further attention. You're also malnourished and look jaundiced. I want you to eat well and get a lot of rest. Tomorrow I'll give you a day pass and you can wander around the Fort and get some air and exercise. You should go down by the old part of the Fort, down by the water; you might find it interesting."
The Valium helped me and I slept well. I woke up, had breakfast and got my day pass, "Restricted to Grounds" stamped on it. I had a little map of the Fort and headed toward the old part and the sea.
I find the old part of the Fort built along the sea during the 1830s. It faces out toward Hampton Roads, the body of water where the Monitor and Merrimack pounded away at each other just over one hundred years ago. It is peaceful now, far away from the blood-filled years of the Civil War. But the distance is illusion, the butcher hawk of war will swoop out of the sky in an instant and drench the thirsty earth with rivers and torrents of blood, fire red. It is the great schism of all time: peace and war. The exhilaration and excitement of war, the humdrum of peace; the horror of war, the simple harmony of peace. I stand astride the galloping momentum of the two enigmatic forces which always whisper to the children: remember. The memories are forgotten as surely as each birth carries with it the seed of death. In the distance I see the ironclads spitting fiery metal at each other, repeating tomorrow's death throes and yesterday's agony. I look across Hampton Roads. I see the water and sky: they are two shades of blue and I feel the steady wind carrying the smell of ocean salt. The sharp cry of seagulls fills the air.
I walk further down the ramparts of the old Fort. At one overgrown, dark area are small rooms. The doors have long since rotted off their rusted hinges. At one entranceway there is an old plaque, turned black-green with time: "In this cell Jefferson Davis was imprisoned, 1865-1867." I walk into the dank cell, moldy and dark with but one small rectangular opening, about a foot wide and five inches high. The small cut has thick vertical bars. I walk in and peer through the opening; I can see only sea and sky, no beach, no land. I look around the cell: it is about eight feet wide and fifteen feet long. I sit down on the moist, cold floor and listen to the sea. Two years, two years. This is where you thought of your lost war, your lost country, your lost boys. Antietem, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh, the Wilderness, Atlanta, Stuart, Jackson, Longstreet and all the boys. Were your nightmares haunted by their faces? Justification for the end of your world, did it come from the contradictory notion of state's rights and confederacy which doomed your hollow dream from the start? Or perhaps slavery had so poisoned your heart and blinded your spirit that the rising tide of history did drown your soul. Perhaps that was what lost wars were all about: small ideas, wrought by small men, driven by the fuel of blood and power, toward goals whose attainment are devoid of any transcendent meaning. The great armies, each composed boy by boy, note by note, like a great symphony, would leave a lasting refrain in the vacant hall long after all have vanished from the earth. Each note had a history, a spirit and lesson for those who took the time to listen. Jefferson Davis listened to the clash of his symphony for two years and his sad melodic finale still lingers in our ears. And when the last note fades and fades until the silence overtakes it and the silence leaves only ringing, we will still be left with the young boys and their laughter and their wives and their children and their grandchildren who never were and never shall be. Jefferson Davis, what could have been we can only imagine; now we are left with the shards of your shattered illusion.
Day was giving way to dusk. I took one last long unfocused gaze at the shades of blue hung like a painting on the black wall, gathered myself together and walked out of the cell and into the darkening world.
The next day at eleven o'clock in the morning I report to the Office of the Commandant of Fort Monroe. I sit in the reception area for several minutes. A captain walks out of the Commandant's office and hands me my discharge papers: General, Under Honorable Conditions. Today is my twenty-third birthday. I return to the hospital, thank Doctor Parsons and say good-bye. An orderly calls a cab for me. I walk through the gates of the Fort. A dumpster catches my eye. I open my duffel bag, take out my dress green uniform and throw it in.
It is a singing spring day in Virginia. The cab pulls up. I open the door and hop in. The driver is a wizened black man. I greet him warmly. "The bus station." He hears the exhilaration in my voice. "You get some good news, son?" he asks. "You bet. I just got out of the Army. Five minutes ago. I'm free." His eyes meet mine in the mirror and he lets out a high-pitched screech, "Whoooeeee! It is a happy day!" We both laugh.
The wind blows through the window, the skin on my face is tingling and I must be glowing.
The savage frenzy of events are finished for me. I am out of the Army. It is a long ride home.