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The Nine Steps, Part I
Sean Connolly, Baltimore, MD
PC in the army--now who would've imagined that? Take another toke on the hash pipe and PC can imagine almost anything, but not me, myself, not good ole PC in the army, no sir! Ask any woman who knows PC and she'll say, PC's a lover boy, not a fighting man. Go ahead and ask; ask and you shall receive. They're out there, the women are, waiting to be asked, pining and full of juices and desire and thinking their insideout thoughts full of such cute nonesuch no man can say or do anything about except to make them happy. And I've made them happy, thanked them, yes sir, thanked three of them in just one afternoon: two at once in absolute heaven and then one on one going on through the night long, thank you, Sweet Jesus! The tender tasty darlings need to be thanked, told that what they possess is the well of all happiness and beauty, yes sir, thank you ma'am, got your picture, too! Of course, the only problem gets to be that pretty soon they'll be thanking you by asking, pleading, demanding that you thank them more often, as if thanking them in the first place weren't enough.
Now it's all right to be polite, but like my mama said, a man has to find his happiness in ways only a woman can contribute to, not push and demand. A woman, like my mama said, will do something, give something to her man so he can thank her. And a man blind to the contribution of a woman is a fool. A man can't be worrying about what she thinks of him, he has to be telling her what she thinks about him by accepting her contribution without any questions asked. Now, say this woman makes more money and knows all there is to know about a splendid European city, he doesn't go around like Wesley McManus does moaning about love sickness or doting on whatever bookwormish ideas pop into his head, no sir, he thanks her and accepts her contribution without doubts, takes the joy into his heart, and thanks her again.
That's right, I'm sorry, but I have to criticize Wesley McManus on this one. Here he is a DJ on the army radio network living in Munich, the beer capital of the world, with a woman in hand, even if she is a little on the rotund side, Fräulein Frieda, who just happens to be the concierge at a small, very elegant hotel, and who has opened his eyes to all kinds of things, from the opera to the sniffy little restaurants tucked away in the back streets where the aristocrats dine. He could be on top of things and having the happiest time of his life, but instead, he's missing out on the opportunities she's offering him by contemplating the ifs, ands, buts, and ors of yesteryears. I'll tell you, he's the goofiest Yankee in the United States Army that I've ever met. He wants to give all this up to come fifty miles south to the Special Forces in Bad Tölz (where I have to be) and jump out of airplanes. What I wouldn't give to be in his shoes. Not that I'd be chasing Fräulein Frieda, no sir; but I would let her know that I'd surely thank her for her contribution, yes sir!
"Let me be the first to welcome you to Bad Tölz, my friend," I say strutting into Wesley McManus' office full of army forms, shaking his hand as warmly, as gladly, as gracefully as any Kentucky Colonel. "Yes sir, it's just about the stupidest, the most absurd thing you could have done," and he laughs at himself and blushes. I make a paper airplane from one of the forms and sail it through the small open window out into the Bavarian Alps. "Just so you can be an airborne trooper and wear the green beret, now isn't that just about the silliest... Now listen to me, my friend, you don't really want to be here, you want to go back to Munich where PC can make you into a very rich man. Yes sir, allow me to tell you exactly how--right after I take the morning dump. Now you wait..."
"But I'm not interested in becoming a very rich man, PC."
"You're too smart not to be rich," and I leave him sitting there behind his desk wearing one of his wiseguy smiles. Too smart and no worldly smarts turns a fine fellow into a smart ass. With nothing to do but carp at other people's lives. The man has got to get out and do things. Just think, with Frieda and him in Munich, PC could stash the hash at her little hotel and McManus could announce a code word over the army radio network and every GI in Germany would come to PC to get high. Not every GI! No Afros with their knives; no rednecks smashing down the doors at four in the morning, must be discreet. Only civilized people who enjoy life, who love life. Who love what a little bit of money can do for you! Get out and see the world! See Australia. China. Thailand. Europe. O Sweet Jesus, here I am in the middle of Europe and I'm imprisoned in a goddamned army uniform: Specialist Fourth Class PC at your service, sir. Damn, I smash my fist against the metal stalls in the latrine. Look at yourself in the mirror, boy! Your youth is slipping away. Twenty-five and what have you seen of Europe but the graffiti scratched across the inside of this door to a shitter in Flint Kaserne. Some huge poker spurting into a furry vagina; yeah, hate to admit it, but PC's had to pull the old poker a couple of times in the army. But not this weekend, no sir, the American College Girl is on her way. The European summer tours are just beginning. Girls from Iowa and Michigan and Georgia and Connecticut, I love Connecticut women. Love them, love them, love them all. Take Heather: used to sneak her into my private room at the Kappa Alpha house at the University of Georgia, my very own privacy, thanked her every other day, have a picture of her contribution right here in my little black book. Who could've been happier? Now, who would know if PC added some shavings of hashish to his morning cigarette, just a pinch as PC settles down on the throne. Wait, who's that? One, then another coming into the latrine.
"Hello, Troy, how have you been?" That's Bobby T's voice. Troy, who's Troy? Must be some sergeant.
"I wouldn't be looking like you're looking, Tumulty."
"I was concerned about you, that's all."
"The only concern you're going to get, faggot, is a fist in your mouth." That's Sergeant West, that sadistic bastard back from Vietnam. Said his calling card was to cut off the penises of the dead Viet Cong and stuff them into their mouths.
"I didn't think you'd react this way, Troy. I'm no more a faggot than you are."
"Yeah, just forget what you think."
"I know that loneliness can be a terrible thing. I thought it was a humane gesture, that's all. You can feel awfully alienated in a place away from home..."
"Look, Tumulty, don't tell me about my life."
"I'm sorry. It's just that you don't have to feel ashamed about one night out of our lives. It's important to understand..." Some scuffling around! Something banging against the stalls!
"I'll rip your face off, Tumulty."
"Please," a muffled cry. Then a smack: a wet, dull slap!
"Son of a bitch. Keep it shut." Then some boots scraping across the floor, the door opening, water running in the sink. And look at this: there's no toilet paper in the dispenser. Now what am I going to do? I can't ask Bobby T for some toilet paper. He'd know I had heard it all. Damn! The army's got you screwed even when you're taking a dump!
"PC's not going to Vietnam, no way. No way! Let all the sadistic bastards go to Vietnam. Let them kill and maim! Put them on the levy to the 101st Airborne Division and let them all fly over to Vietnam by Christmas. Have a Happy New Year in Saigon, hot damn, think of all those Eurasian and Oriental women: feline beauties, petit little sphinxes, Sweet Jesus, you could probably carry them around impaled on the old poker, wear them tucked into your fatigues while you type up your forms, shoot your guns, talk on the phone, 'Excuse me, sir, excuse me, sergeant, I'm just thanking this Oriental beauty here, be with you in just a minute, hot damn,' damnation, what am I doing talking to this tree? Too stoned to see straight, too stoned to remember what I'm supposed to be doing, wait, that's right, got this bottle of bourbon in my hand to take over to Sergeant Major Jenkins' bungalow, make friends with the man. Got to test out what I'm going to say first, practice makes perfect. "Now look here, Mister Tree, you be Ser
geant Major Jenkins and I'll be PC the lover boy, never a fighting man. I'm happy being a clerk with the Special Forces. Happy to learn how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes here in Bad Tölz, happiest man ever to sit behind a typewriter in the personnel office. Love to fill out forms, love to fill up all those little spaces with every letter in the alphabet. Why, I'm just a little tadpole wriggling around and zipping in and out and between all those tight spaces, yes sir, a tadpole is a frisky lad, happy as can be."
Damn, somebody might see me talking to this tree. Besides, it's getting dark. PC does not like the dark. Get going, boy. Over to those limestone bungalows where the army lifers live. Lifers in gray, squat limestone bungalows, what ugliness. Who would want to live in such ugliness but mean, sadistic, unhappy men who are in the army for life, who hate life. Not PC, PC loves life. PC has always been a happy man. Why, some of my happiest days were at the University of Georgia. Not an unhappy moment, not even when Professor Dickinson tried to keep me from graduating by giving me a D. Now imagine that: what nerve! He actually tried to keep PC from graduating, from going on with life. The old booze did the trick, though. Made friends with the man. Had to. Not a close friend, but a friend nevertheless. We sat down and I said, Now, what is the difference between a C and a D? Let me ask you? Is there anything? Is there a C-and-a-half? Is there a C-and-three-quarters? A C-and-seven-eighths? No sir, there's no difference between a C and a D? Yes sir, even wrote him a thank you note.
Whoa, boy! Here I am in front of Sergeant Major Jenkins' bungalow, number seventeen. What did I have to do at seventeen? At seventeen I was nothing but a god in my mama's eye, the most handsome boy in all of Atlanta, Georgia, yes sir. Well, ring the bell, boy, what are you doing standing here holding a bottle of bourbon in your hand, wait, here he comes.
"Good evening, Sergeant Major. It's a fine, fine evening here in Bavaria, reminded me of some of the colder nights in Atlanta, and I got to thinking, yes, Sergeant Major, I got to thinking that you might like to share some of this good sipping bourbon from back home."
"Well, well, if it isn't the ghost from the personnel section."
"Now you see him, now you don't," I say hiding behind the bottle of bourbon, "har, har, you got me on that one, sergeant major."
"Well, come on in, I think you showed up at just the right time, for once."
"We were talking about needing someone like you," and he wraps his arm around my shoulder and shows me into the living room. "You've met Sergeant West. And this is Sergeant First Class Curry from Munich Finance. He'll be joining you in airborne training tomorrow. He's the man who'll be administering the levy to the 101st, and, we were just wondering who would be the best specialist to assist him when you rang the bell."
"You don't say. Now, if I'm the one who's helping to administer the levy, then I can actually make sure I'm not one of the ones who's going to be on it," and I slap my thigh and give it a laugh and shake their hands all around. Had to, the sadistic West, the sly sergeant major, and the slimeball Curry. Never saw such a slimeball. Like Dennis Massey was always shouting in his long drunken nights, The slime, the slime, the incredible slime. One hundred percent incredible slime, this Curry, his handshake made of glue.
"That sounds logical to me," says the sergeant major.
"Sounds like I'll be as happy as a tadpole in a summer pond," and they're sure happy to hear that.
Mama, O Mama, why you? Why so early in your beautiful life? A life! A precious life, a life blessed by the Lord! So beautiful, so full of life! Life! You were life itself, Mama. The very breath, the joy, the happiness of a full life...
Damn him. Damn his simpering salesman's life. Damn his suitcase of toiletries and thick clammy handshake, his smothering plodding life. You were a rose, Mama. A rose smothered by his doting shadow. Damn him. Damn stupid George and the cursed name he inflicted upon me, this lisping prissy pissy name, Perth.
Slipping, stumbling down the cushy leaves on the bank of the ravine and skidding into a fallen tree. Damn, spilling the bourbon all over myself. Get up, the bottle's in the creek. Slobbering and crying all over myself, can barely see. But I remember you, Mama. O Mama, remember PC sobbing, running up the hill into your arms when the tramps chased me? The filthy bums weren't going to suck PC's penis for two quarters, no sir, they had to pay PC three quarters. Remember the train, Mama, remember me lying in the tracks as it roared over me? I didn't mean to scare you, Mama. Yes, you did weep for me, Mama.
Damn him, not even his, Mama. But another's who was slain in Berlin after the war by some drunken idiot soldier who had forgotten the password. Slain by a word, Mama! O Mama, slain father, both mocked by a tourist in your bed, a seedless tourist who took you and me away from a great and happy life. I was never unhappy with you, Mama. Never! We led a happy life. I've never been unhappy, Mama, never!
O Mama, didn't you think of me? Did you only think of him leaving me nothing, not even a parting prayer? Shit, now it's back to the damn army. If only it had of been him, Mama. I would have received a hardship discharge and I could have taken care of you, Mama. Now I have to go to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Mama. They won't fly me back, Mama, they won't fly me back. Forgive me, Mama, it's not because of you, they shipped us all out, every sadistic slimeball drunken bastard smart ass and me.
O Mama, I kiss this earth that harbors... this earth where you... I can't say it, Mama. I can't say it. I pray for your beautiful soul, Mama. I have a cloth of your dress, Mama. I will cherish it, Mama. O Mama...
I see your face rising in the early fog across the pond, Mama. A face as pure as the face of a god, Mama. That's where I'll be, Mama. A tadpole darting about in the pond, happy and frisky as can be. A tadpole for life, Mama. I promise, I promise, I'll always be happy. Always!
"Damn! You mean you actually chose to come and live in Clarksville, Tennessee?"
"It's disgusting, I know," she sighs. She speaks a million miles a minute and fidgets like a little girl. "But it was the only place Alan could find a teaching job. Otherwise he might be in the army, too, PC."
"Alex," whines Alan in a baby's voice, "you know we tried everywhere."
"His brother, Marty, works here in the Forestry Service in Hopkinsville, Kentucky," she snickers. "The main street has a public outhouse."
"Come on, dear," talking his baby talk. "It wasn't an outhouse. You know you like living in the country, too. Kiss, kiss."
"I guess so," but she pouts. Maybe they're married, maybe not, but married men are exempt from the draft. It'll be our little secret. Just the three of us on a Sunday afternoon cuddled up in a cab we decided to share at the Clarksville bus station where we introduced ourselves; now it's Fort Campbell first, then on to Hopkinsville for this happy couple, frisky as a couple of tadpoles. "But, listen, PC, I just loved Marty's old wrecks. They're all around the farm house, old rusty cars and tractors, big hulks of gnarled steel, black pipes as long as cannons--I'll bet they were abandoned rocket ships from an earlier civilization," and she grabs my thigh. Not for the first time, either! Then she pouts again. "But all Alan wanted to do was look at the stars through his telescope. He didn't want to reassemble the rocket ships and fly away to the battle stations behind the black holes," and her eyes light up. She makes believe her hands are the sites on a gun and she maneuvers them around aiming, firing.
"You don't say. Tell me, though, what are these black holes?"
"Oh, don't you know about black holes?" asks Alan. He's all excited. "Sheckley and other writers contend they're remnants from highly advanced civilizations that once ruled the stars. Unfortunately, the only astronomic evidence we have..." and his hands are talking, his legs are talking, his whole body squirming and shaking out every little word. I just have to laugh.
"Excuse me, Alan," I say, "are you a science teacher?"
"Oh, no, English and the classics."
"The classics, now that's something, isn't it? Back then they were highly advanced, maybe not technologically, but they knew their stars, the constellations, why, it's fantastic. It's absolutely fantastic. There were no ifs, ands, or buts, they had their people, their gods, everything drawn out on the map of the stars. They actually saw their gods in the heavens. Now imagine that! I was reading this magazine back in Atlanta, I was in the attorney's office for the reading of my mama's will, and I saw how they had the gods in the stars, just..."
"Ahh, I'm sorry to hear about your mother," says Alex.
"I really mean it," and she takes my hand and squeezes it and I squeeze back and she gives my thigh a warm pat, yes sir, we definitely have something going here.
"A little toke?" I whisper in her ear. She whispers to Alan.
"Not in the cab," he whispers.
"Please, please. We can sneak it. Shshshs," and she gives him wet loud smooches.
"All right, but we better be careful." We open the windows a crack and light up one of the filter cigarettes I stuffed with a mix of tobacco and some of the finest marijuana grown in the rich, red soil of south Georgia, couldn't pass it up. Their lungs are heaving ho.
"Now, I just have to ask you this. Don't get offended. It's nothing personal, but I just have to ask because you two would be absolutely perfect Tadpoles. There I've said it without even asking. Have you ever heard of The Tadpoles?"
"The Tadpoles?" he asks.
"O, I want to be one. I want to be one. They sound so cute. I'll bet you're a Tadpole, aren't you, PC?"
"One of the first, the very first. A charter member," and we're laughing and giggling and tickling each other like three tots in a tub. Damn, before you know it the cab pulls up in front of a concrete billet in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
"O, I know you'll come visit us, won't you, PC? You're so sweet. He can come visit us can't he, Alan?"
"Sure, sure, anytime. And bring some more of those tadpoles along when you do come by, PC."
"This way, my friend," and we step out into the cold night for a little booster, Wes and PC, the two of us leaving the warm and dreary bar and its weeping and wailing juke box behind, "and you are my friend." I sling my arm around his shoulder and we shamble down the dingy little alley into my secret hideaway: a deserted tractor shack behind a redneck farm equipment store. "This should put us in orbit," and presto, I pluck a paper string bean out of the air and touch it to a dancing flame on the end of a wooden match. His eyes light up with a dreamy hunger following the bright orange ember as it consumes about a third of the joint. Sergeant Wesley McManus, now imagine that, how did he talk the United States Army into promoting him? I hand the sarge the joint, three deep tokes, back and forth, who knew how many tokes Alex took into her healthy lungs the other night, always moaning, crying, Ayee, ayee, eyee, eeeee, all night slathering around in our juices, a sticky tart glaze all over my face in the morning, yes sir, lathering it right up again until our wells ran dry, "Hot damn!" I have to laugh, "I'm so happy, my friend. Are you happy? Have you been happy all your life?" and he scowls at my happiness.
"You're being ridiculous. You can't be happy all your life, PC," and he's jealous of my happiness.
"But when PC lends you his little palace above the bar, the little love palace for Sergeant Wesley McManus and his Fräulein Frieda coming here to Clarksville, Tennessee, to offer her contribution, well, you'll be a happy man then, won't you, won't you?" and he blushes and laughs.
"Can we go see it?"
"Right this way, my friend," and we step out of the tin shack and head for the bare light bulb hanging from a rusty bent pipe above the door behind the bar. "This is the key," and I show him how to use it and we go up the stairs and into the love palace, a bedroom and makeshift bath as cozy and old as the floral wallpaper peeling off the walls.
"It's like a set to a Tennessee Williams play."
"Now don't you be shouting and stabbing each other and wrecking up the place."
"Yeah, desire gone sour. I don't know, PC. It's been so long. I wonder if our lives haven't..." and, sure enough, he's finding a way to be as unhappy as he can be. I'll just have to show him, have to point it out in the stars.
"Come here, my friend, I want to show you something. Turn off the light, that's right, now come and look at the stars. What do you see out there, my friend? Do you see any unhappiness? No sir, you can see these great constellations. You see the faces of the gods. You can even see the Tadpoles if you look a little hard," and he's grinning now.
"The Tadpoles?" and he's chuckling, laughing.
"That's right, my friend, The Tadpoles. They're an organization of people, a confederation, a charity, that's right, they're everybody's favorite charity. And do you know why? Because The Tadpoles are always singing and dancing in the streets. They are people like you and me who love life. Who do whatever we feel like doing every minute of our lives with nobody ever to bother us because we will bring joy and happiness into everybody's life. That's right, my friend. Don't laugh. Do you know why The Tadpoles will bring joy and happiness into people's lives? Because people are afraid to be happy. They are afraid to put their trust in their own lives. Can you imagine that! People actually get up in the morning and they don't even trust their own lives. Sure, they trust their clocks. They trust their radios. They trust their automobiles. They trust their schedules. They trust their jobs. They trust their cocktail hours. They trust their banks and their television sets and trust they can get a piece of ass every now and then. They even trust their pastor won't come preaching and moaning about giving up their creature comforts. The coach they trust will come through but that's it, my friend, they don't trust that their lives will give them any happiness. But The Tadpoles will. Yes sir, The Tadpoles will bring happiness into the lives..."
"The Tadpoles to the rescue," and he falls down in laughter across the bed.
"That's right, my friend, The Tadpoles will be a nonprofit charitable institution devoted to bringing happiness into everyone's lives. The Tadpoles are dancing in the streets, leaving flowers on people's doorstep, singing songs in the alleyways, leaving little poems in the mail boxes, thanking each other... Look at that ! Someone's out there in the dark!"
"It's a Tadpole fallen from the stars," and he rolls off the bed onto the floor laughing so hard he's holding his sides.
"You crazy bastard, there's someone out there. If they catch us off base, sergeant or no sergeant, they'll put us into a rifle company and we'll be dead the moment we step into Vietnam."
"There's nobody out there, PC, nobody but good ole PC with an unhappy moment from his past."
"Damn you, Wesley McManus, all you do is mock, mock, mock," and I throw up the windows so hard the sash weights rattle like ghosts in an empty house. "Go look and listen for yourself," but all he does is sit there with his wiseguy grin on his face. He starts laughing and I start laughing and we're listening to the wind picking up and blowing in the window until a hush settles, then a snow starting to fall like a prayer in the darkness. "My friend, it's time for another booster."