Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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What must it feel like to drown?
I was waiting in the First Shirt's office at the Monterey, California Presidio, bracing myself for the CO. Sergeant Kelly sat glowering behind his desk like he was working himself up to a stroke. When Captain Toddhunter finally burst out of his office, I flinched. "You stay put, soldier," he snarled, aiming a finger between my eyes. "I'll nail your ass when I get back."
"Yes, Sir," I croaked and saluted from my chair. The CO tossed back his head like I was hopeless and stalked off. Too late I realized I should have stood up when he entered the room, but by then I guess it was too late for everything. If I was lucky, I faced an Article Fifteen, but a court martial was likelier. Either I'd be booted out of MI and trucked across the Bay to Fort Ord for infantry training and eventual orders to Nam, or I'd end up in the stockade. Me, Tom Bakken, my whole life the goody-goody and teachers' pet, never once reprimanded for as little as whispering in study hall. How'd I get myself in this fix? By making the best friend of my life.
Tet proved the U.S. wasn't winning the war, and for revenge in March Lieutenant Calley and his men cleared the VC out of My Lai but good. By Easter James Earl Ray made sure Martin Luther King wouldn't be leading anybody to the Promised Land. In June Robert Kennedy won the California primary but didn't survive the celebration. In August Soviet tanks brought winter down on the Prague Spring overnight, and we besieged Chicago and pushed Clean Gene but couldn't Dump the Hump. Our tide was already cresting then but it still felt so strong we didn't suspect the coming ebb.
That May I got my BA after successfully postponing the inevitable for a whole year. I moved back home to Madison and, diploma in hand, got my old summer job packing batteries for Rayovac.
Within a week the dreaded draft notice landed in our mailbox like a bomb. Like other guys, I automatically appealed, using the reprieve to consult both military recruiters and underground advisors on emigration to Canada. "The decision's all yours, son," Dad said, and teary-eyed Mom did her best to agree. But it was clear once I settled in Toronto there was no coming back. So I compromised by enlisting for four years into Army Intelligence as a Russian translator, a speciality the recruiter promised would keep me far from Vietnam.
I was only twenty-three then, still young enough to make friends with everyone I met, but with Peter the friendship was special from the start. After Basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I flew to Monterey to attend the Defense Language Institute, the old Army Language School. A taxi dropped me off at Company E, a new four-story cinder-block barracks painted an industrial pastel green. At first glance, it looked like a college dormitory. Until I noticed how high the first-story windows were from the ground--it was built to withstand an infantry assault.
A passing zoomie in dress blues (all the service branches attended the school) directed me to the Orderly Room, where I reported to the company clerk, Spec Four Remington, and handed him a copy of my orders. He smiled at me just like I was a fellow human being, a first from a military superior. I lugged my bulging duffel bag after him to the laundry room where a long-faced buck private issued me army blankets, sheets, and a pillow case. Then Remington led me up the staircase to the second floor and into a tiny room crowded with double sets of cots, utility tables, lamps, and tin wall lockers. It reeked of brass polish and floor wax. "The empty bed's yours," he said and vanished.
A pale-faced sailor was lying on the other cot, staring at the ceiling, a thick letter resting on his chest. "My name's Tom Bakken," I said.
One look at my dress greens and my new roommate moaned, "Army." He turned out to be Jimmy Wells, from Gainesville, Florida, and was halfway through a course in Mandarin Chinese. He preferred writing and reading letters to talking, and I quickly learned not to mind. So early in my own enlistment, his virulent hatred of the military was more than I could bear.
My yearlong Russian course wouldn't start for a week, so the First Sergeant had me report to the Orderly Room for work details daily at oh-eight-hundred hours. At first I watered the classroom grounds alone. But the fourth morning when I came downstairs, a buck private just like me was sitting outside the First Shirt's office on the gray tile floor. Wearing wrinkled fatigues and scuffed combat boots, he had a paperback copy of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf propped against his thighs, and was using a ballpoint to circle passages. ZIELSDORF his name tag read in bold, black letters. It looked as German as his ash-blond hair.
We were both gaunt, our cheeks sunken and angular, and pale scalps showed through our temples' bristles in the traditional whitewalls style. His appearance told me he had just been through the same hell I had--eight weeks of Physical Training, Dismounted Drill, and intentionally short nights of sleep made shorter by Fire Watch and Guard Duty, before getting up by oh-five-hundred for long days of forced marching and bivouacking and learning to shoot down pop-up silhouettes of men with hot lead. We hadn't neglected the other venerable martial arts either, such as heel-stomping a man's brains out or disemboweling him with bayonet thrusts. It's called Basic Training.
His gaze was hidden behind a reflection of me off his plastic military-issue glasses, but his grin was kind. "I suppose you got rooked into the laundry detail too?" he teased, turning his head, and my mirror image disappeared to reveal deep blue eyes.
I forced a thin smile, and then his own broadened good naturedly to reveal slightly crooked upper teeth that had obviously never held braces. No sooner had I sat down across from him against the wall than a paunchy, round-shouldered soldier emerged from the stairwell down the hall. We scrambled to our feet and snapped to attention, Steppenwolf flopping onto the floor. The subtitle was in the original German. The NCO kicked the novel down the buffed tiles past the duty roster and thrust himself between us, only reaching to Zielsdorf's strong nose. I wasn't short at five eleven, but my partner was a good two inches taller. "O.K., Alphabet," the Staff Sergeant growled, "I give up. How do you say your name?"
"Just as it's spelled," Zielsdorf replied flatly and then carefully mouthed: "Zealz. Dorf." How else? It wasn't strange to me because Wisconsin is packed with Germans, though we Norwegians don't lag far behind.
"Call me Sergeant when you talk to me, Troop. Sergeant Hopkins." He spoke with the drawl of almost every Army NCO, like it was part of their training. "Today you men are going with me to Fort Ord on laundry detail. You college boys think you can handle loadin' and unloadin' a truck?"
"Yes, Sergeant!" Zielsdorf bellowed in a voice the DI's must have loved.
"Yes, Sergeant," I echoed hoarsely and cleared my throat.
Then Hopkins faced me with the hard, cruel glare of a country sheriff confronting a stranger, and I blinked. His weathered face could have been either side of forty.
"Back-in," he called me reading my name tag's "BAKKEN." Actually my family always pronounced it "Bahk-in," but I didn't correct him. "Back-in, keep your shit together and you and me will get along just fine. But cross me once and you'll be one sorry son of a bitch."
"Yes, Sir. I mean, yes, Sergeant," I said, this time a bit louder.
Hopkins bared his brown teeth in what I hoped was a friendly smile and said, "Now your buddy, Alphabet, has already fucked up in my book. He's on my shit list 'cause he don't know how to talk to an NCO."
An hour later we were riding with him in the cab of a deuce-and-a-half truck full of dirty bed linen along Highway One toward Fort Ord. I was watching the waves caress the long, sandy beach after Seaside and wishing I was back in Northfield, when Hopkins snapped, "What I want to know, why ain't you privileged college boys humpin' it in Nam like everybody else? So what if you're educated?"
All I could do was shrug. Zielsdorf didn't budge.
"You four eyes deaf too?" Hopkins growled.
Zielsdorf said, "We may end up in Nam yet, Sergeant. You know the Army and its promises."
Hopkins cackled bitterly and said, "You bet I do. But fair's fair."
At Fort Ord, instead of heading straight for the base laundry, Hopkins turned right and drove east into the treeless California hills. "I have to see my buddy Johnston," he explained and sang, "I'm Just A Honky-Tonk Man" with a down-home twang. "Him and me are gonna get shit-faced tonight. And maybe hustle us up some gash. In Seaside for sure, maybe even in Monterey." He chuckled hard at that idea. "Hey, men, just do what I say and we'll get along fine. I'm working my way up from a court martial in Nam, where they busted me to private E-1 on a bullshit charge. Hell, everything over there is bullshit. My CO tore my chevrons off in front of the whole fuckin' company, not that I gave a shit. That fuckin' Jody was lucky his tour was up then or I'd a fragged him. Say, you fellas want to see my gook ears?"
Zielsdorf shook his head and I gasped. Hopkins cackled at me and said, "You don't really believe Americans would cut off ears, do you?"
Why hadn't I emigrated to Canada when I had the chance?
"That's too fuckin' good for 'em," Hopkins snarled, "after what they done to us! I'll never forget one night at a fire base near Pleiku. About oh-three-hundred hours my whole damned platoon was dreaming away about American gash when VC sappers cut a guard's throat and snuck through our perimeter quiet as snakes. Somebody fired a flare and I woke up. I grabbed for my M-16 shot the shit out of everything that moved. You ever seen hamburger in black pajamas? Well, it looks better than the shit those dinks eat, let me tell ya." His snaggle-toothed smile was scary.
After an unbearably tense silence, Hopkins asked, "You know how to make VC talk?"
Neither of us replied.
"It ain't hard. Just take three gooks up in a Cobra and throw the first two out." He giggled this time, a strange glee raising his voice an octave, and he terrified me. I began to fear the Army really might waste our linguistic talents and throw us into the hell of Nam, no matter what the recruiters had promised. God, would I have to desert?
Hopkins drove past a half dozen armored personnel carriers alongside a gravel road and pulled up behind a bleacher full of shaven-headed troops listening to a training lecture from a Staff Sergeant. "Take ten," Hopkins ordered with a crooked grin, and we got out. While he chatted with his NCO buddy, Zielsdorf and I stared silently at the hundred or so trainees sitting in grim obedience.
Johnston barked a command, and the troops clambered into the APC's, showing us nothing but the requested assholes and elbows. The engines kicked on and roared, and at a radio signal, the metallic behemoths skittered like cockroaches up and over a knoll, and below the ridge jerked to a halt. Their rears opened up and spewed out GI's who hit the sand blasting their M-16s.
"May God preserve us from this place," Zielsdorf muttered. "DLI students have been yanked right out of language class and transferred here the same day. The Army can turn a Linguist into an Eleven Bravo as fast as it can cut an order. And it cares no more about what happens to us than we care about ants underfoot."
"I never consciously step on ants," I said. "Live and let live."
Zielsdorf snorted, "How noble. You care about nature, but of course you realize it doesn't worry about you. If a mine rips your body apart, nature will just use your molecules over again without shedding a tear. No problem."
We drove on in dead silence to the Fort Ord laundry, where Hopkins barked, "You got exactly thirty minutes to unload my truck." And he left us there while he went to the PX for a cup of coffee. Zielsdorf and I worked quickly without a word until he finally said, "You're from Wisconsin or Minnesota. I hear it in your deep 'o's and clipped syllables." His own slow, deliberate English, without any regional accent, was fluent and definitely American, but didn't sound quite native.
"I'm from Madison," I said. "And I went to St. Olaf's in Northfield. I've lived my whole life in Wisconsin and Minnesota until Basic Training in Missouri." The "o" in my "Olaf" was pure "'Sconsin" and Zielsdorf smiled as I said it. "Where are you from?"
"So I fooled you." And then, his vowels suddenly becoming as nasal and Germanic as mine, he said, "I'm from 'Sconsin, too." "Peter" he insisted on being called, never "Pete" or "Petie." And his major at UW-Madison had been German, his minor French, and after graduation he had studied a year at Marburg University in West Germany before returning to his alma mater and getting a Master's in German the previous May. He had grown up near the Mississippi in "Shootin' Wire"--actually Chute Noire--and his Upper-Midwest accent grew even thicker when he talked about it. It was a tiny place I remembered having seen on maps south of Eau Claire.
His great-grandparents had immigrated from Pomerania, the northeastern arm of the old Reich that stretched along the Baltic Sea toward East Prussia. It was territory the Soviets wrested from Germany in 1945 and gave to Poland. He didn't say what his relatives had done once they reached America, and I didn't ask, but his articulate manner suggested they had done well.
"My ancestors never really looked back," he went on. "If they had stayed in Pomerania then, the Poles would have kicked them out fifty years later anyway and forced them to resettle. Free will's a funny thing. You choose a fork early and that's the road you follow. We're free to keep going straight or turn again, but we can never backtrack."
I nodded. And I said a little about my own high school, Madison East, and the street I grew up on--a late Forties tract of ticky-tacky Cape Cods. And I added that my father taught junior high school general science and my mother sold women's wear at a mall. Peter listened with an opaque expression, his deep blue eyes betraying a weird curiosity, as if hearing about Borneo headhunters. And I told him about my double major in German and Norwegian.
"Kan du snakker norsk?" he asked with a passable Oslo accent. Can you speak Norwegian? It didn't match his German or even his French but it was still impressive.
In English I replied I could. My mediocre Norwegian had always embarrassed me because I should have been fluent. Though my parents were born in Wisconsin--my dad near Mt. Horeb and my mom near Stoughton--they were both at heart more Norwegian émigrés living here in exile than true Americans. And so my cousins and I were the first of our relatives since time immemorial not to have grown up on a farm.
"What language did you get?" he asked, his gaze hardening.
"Russian," I said. "I start next Monday."
"We're in the same class." He looked pained.
I almost mentioned my four semesters of Russian at St. Olaf's, getting all A's, but didn't. If the treads found out this course was superfluous for me, who knew what they'd do?
The whole ride back to the Presidio, Hopkins chattered like a robin at dusk, an angry edge to the good cheer. In my room Wells was writing another endless letter. That night I slept fitfully between dreams about cockroach armies chasing me into rearing cobras, every snake grinning just like Peter.
Captain Toddhunter's sharp salutes to the candy-striped student platoon leaders rattling off attendance set my teeth on edge. Our gung-ho CO fresh from a tour of duty in Nam was an OCS grad a couple years our junior. Unlike most of us, he hadn't gone to college, and he resented our advantages.
The last platoon finished reporting and Toddhunter glared at us like a flinty-eyed street-fighter sizing up intruders. He wasn't going to bother earning our respect. He would just demand it.
The CO screamed, "Everybody-but-the-new-students, FALL OUT!" Four-fifths of the formation departed, leaving a few dozen GI's scattered on the grass between the horseshoe wings of the Company E barracks. Toddhunter sneered at us another minute and then drawled, "Men, we're at war. Hundreds of Americans are dying every month, sometimes every week. Now this building might look like a dormitory to some of you but it's a barracks. And you're no longer Joe College, you're GI Joe. Which means you count for jack shit. You have no rank, you have no authority. You will obey your superiors' orders without question. And who are your superiors? Me, the XO, the First Sergeant, all the other NCO's, your platoon leaders, and their deputies. Anybody with more stripes than you, and right now that's just about everybody in sight.
"Now here are the company regulations. You will be in proper dress uniform according to your branch of service at all times between eight hundred and sixteen hundred hours Monday through Friday except as otherwise ordered. Your uniform will be clean and pressed. Your shoes, brass and belt buckle will be polished. You will wear your regulation head cover at all times outdoors and at no times indoors. Your haircuts will be regulation military, which means no longer than three inches on top and tapered shorter on the sides. The sideburns will be no longer than mid-ear and always well-trimmed. The only facial hair allowed is a neat moustache that will not extend beyond the corners of the mouth. The penalty for a single gig is Saturday duty. Two gigs, two Saturdays. Three gigs and it's an Article Fifteen." The Captain paused and then screamed, "Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir!" half of us shouted. There was one sarcastic "Yes-Drill-Sergeant" behind me but Toddhunter didn't let on he had heard.
"Now some of you bolos might need your buddies' help to get squared away, but that's what buddies are for. Sometimes without buddies to keep your head above water, you sink like a rock. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Sir!" we bellowed, again with the one falsetto "Yes, Drill Sergeant."
"But then what would you lily-livered college boys know about esprit de corps?"
But I had an idea of what the CO meant. Without buddies, I would have never made it out of Basic. By himself, unmechanical Tom Bakken was helpless assembling a rifle.
"Did you men hear about Class oh-eight-sixty-seven? That was a Russian class. They all got orders for Ord. Infantry AIT. All except one. That lucky bastard will man the White House Hot Line to Moscow. Now everybody trained at Fort Ord goes to Nam, so listen up, men. There are too many lingies around now, especially in languages like Russian. Because we're not at war with Russia. But we are at war. So guess where Uncle Sam wants you to go? That's right, Viet-fucking-nam. And when you end up in that frickin' half-assed country, you'd better be ready to cover your butt. Let your guard down once over there and sure as shit you'll fly home in a plastic bag."
He gnashed his teeth and went on, "So why am I being tough? When you end up in Nam, I guarantee you'll curse my ass for not being tougher. So don't bitch like a bunch of women. You ain't got it tough here, and don't pretend you do. Tough is carrying eighty pounds through a three-canopied jungle with Charlie nippin' at your nuts. Tough is being trained as a cook and then having to man the perimeter anyway like any other grunt and fighting NVA regulars overrunning the camp hand-to-hand. There ain't no fixed MOS's in Nam, men. My Mess Sergeant forgot how to use his bayonet one night so we had to zip him up in a body bag and mail him home."
"That'd even be worse than getting an F," somebody croaked in a raspy falsetto behind me.
"F, my ass, you mean a B," a deeper falsetto replied and I suppressed a laugh.
"So if you college boys think it's tough here, just wait till it gets tougher."
Then the same person behind me caterwauled, "Don't be embarrassed, Sir. Go ahead and wipe the foam off your mouth." On both sides of me I heard muffled giggles.
"Do I make myself clear?" Toddhunter bellowed.
"Yes, Sir," we screamed along with one "Yes, Drill Sergeant."
Toddhunter continued, "So study your butt off and keep squared away and we'll take care of everything else. Flunk one six-weeks period, and you'll be halfway to Fort Ord. Do it twice and you'll befriend an M-16 sure as shit. That means Eleven Bravo, men. That means infantry for you ignorant college boys. And again, that's not a threat, men, that's a promise. And from Ord you'll go to Nam as sure as I piss in the morning. All I can say is if you start flunking now you had better get in shape. The NCO's at Ord will expect you to be right where you left off after Basic Training because that's where all the other trainees are. And if you're smart, by graduation next year you had better all be ready for Nam. Except maybe for the very best student. If you lingies think you pulled a fast one by getting assigned to the DLI, you'd better think twice. The real American men are over in Nam, but stationed here, you're still in the US-fucking-Military."
Like all the other treads, Toddhunter knew we weren't real volunteers. We had only enlisted to avoid being drafted into combat arms, not because we had any interest whatsoever in military service. We had only agreed to serve up to two years longer than a draftee for a promise of keeping far from any action. It was a given that the war in Vietnam was as senseless as Russian roulette, so why risk our lives for nothing?
The CO went on, "I have a couple more things to tell you, and they're as important as anything I've said yet. The Warsaw Pact intelligence services already have a dossier on each and every one of you." Somebody behind me stifled a snicker. "They already know your name, where you're from, how you like to spend your free time, even your bad habits. Maybe they even have a photo. So be on your toes and keep your mouth shut. Nobody needs to know one fucking thing about what you're up to, not your family, not your girlfriend, not anybody. Be security-conscious, men, and you'll get along fine.
"One last thing. The sorry sack of shit who gets busted for dope will wish he had never been born. And we had better not even suspect it. Because then you'll wish you was an Eleven Bravo at Ord. Now the slow-learners among you should know the Universal Code of Military Justice is a stacked deck, and trainees always get dealt the shit cards. A court martial isn't a real trial, so you won't stand a chance."
Then he marched quickly between the ranks with his jaw set--it was a little weak in profile--and halted behind my exposed back. "Soldier," he snarled at someone, "you have one gig for a non-regulation haircut. You will get that neck trimmed. And you will report to the Orderly Room for a detail this Saturday at oh-nine-hundred hours."
Whoever the soldier was didn't respond, and I didn't dare turn around. Toddhunter moved back in front of us, glared another minute, and screamed, "COMPA-NEEEEE, DIS--MISSED!" The others fell out around me but I was too dazed to budge. What kind of hell was Vietnam to turn Americans into Hopkins and Toddhunters? Enlisting for anything, even to become a Russian linguist, had to be the biggest mistake of my life. If I hadn't been tough enough for high school football and even sprained my ankle bad enough for crutches marching in band, what was I doing here? That Toddhunter and Hopkins openly hated us, that they actually wished Nam on us, made my knees shake. After no one ever wishing me evil before in my entire life. Like my mother, I'd always tried to be nice to everybody, and it had mostly worked. But not in the Army.
I finally turned around, and there stood Zielsdorf talking to a swarthy GI with a bushy moustache. He must have gotten the gig. Peter motioned me over, and in an oddly pinched voice introduced Rich Hoffmann, who spoke with a relaxed tenor in an East Coast accent I correctly guessed as Bostonian.
"So you got the gig?" I asked Rich. Though he didn't look the least bit troubled.
"No, I did," Peter said with that same strange voice and turned his head to show me his shaggy neck. He almost sounded drunk.
"These fucking treads are worse than Daley's pigs," Rich said, the anger of his words undercut by a lighthearted tone. The Chicago police had tear-gassed him in Grant Park only a couple weeks before during his leave after Basic. "Robert Kennedy, our best bet, was blasted out of the race. Then both McCarthy and McGovern blew it at the convention. So now we're stuck with Humphrey, Nixon or Wallace."
"Humphrey's not so bad," I piped up. "He can work with Congress."
Hoffmann made a face like I was nuts and led us across the street to the classrooms, chattering about the previous year's "Summer of Love." "I'll be damned if I ever see one day of Eleven Bravo," he said. "A friend in a Czech class ahead of ours told me how to apply for asylum in Stockholm, and that's where I'm going if I have to. You're welcome to come along."
It sounded like going to heaven. But if I hadn't had the guts to emigrate to Canada earlier, I doubted I could summon up the courage now to desert. Not even if the alternative was taking the cowardly way out and dying in Nam for nothing.
A bald, smiling man of about fifty emerged from a classroom building and said in Russian, "Gospoda, poidite so mnoi." And he motioned for us to follow. I understood what he had said--"Gentlemen, come with me"--but I didn't let on I had.
I wondered who had mocked the CO in falsetto, the voice that spoke with Rich's wit and Peter's balls. I would have bet on Rich, but I wouldn't have wagered much.
That evening Peter popped into my room and asked, "You got a black Magic Marker? Rich doesn't." Wells glanced up at the visitor and quickly returned to his stack of love letters.
"What for?" I said, handing Peter mine.
"You'll find out."
The next morning at breakfast the entire Company E mess hall was abuzz over the CO's parking sign. During the night someone had written on it in black letters, "The CO sucks and blows." The thought of such an insult to our nemesis first exhilarated me, and then my stomach turned. Because Peter had done it, hadn't he, and I had been an accomplice. Unwittingly, of course, but would the treads care about such a legalistic nicety? Half-nauseated, I gave up on my French toast and raced back to my room and checked my desk drawer. There the Magic Marker lay, my initials "TB" scratched on it as on all my property to make sure borrowers got things back. I had to get rid of it fast, but where? Not in the trash, not out the window, so where else? But if Wells had seen me give it to Peter, what good would hiding it do?