Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
Recorded bugles signaled roll call and I hurried down the fire escape with a lump in my back pocket. God, if Peter had a death wish, why couldn't he leave me out of it?
Toddhunter glared at us a full minute before finally speaking. "Men," he said, his jaw trembling, "the sorry-assed coward who defaced my sign deserves a court martial and a sentence to hard labor. But if he owns up right now I'll be lenient and give him an Article Fifteen and immediate reassignment to Fort Ord in Eleven Bravo. You'd better fess up, you fucking coward. I will find you out. You have one minute to come forward." He studied his wristwatch as we all stood as still as gravestones.
In the bracing morning air, sweat trickled down my ribs and my heart pounded. If Peter stepped forward, would I be implicated too? Or what if Wells turned us both in? I didn't know him well enough to have any idea what he'd do.
The sixty seconds passed without a murmur.
"You goddamned coward," the CO snarled and then screamed, "Fall out!" My hands shook the rest of the day. Between classes I hunted for a spot to get rid of the evidence, but because of my initials I ended up carrying the Magic Marker back to my room and hiding it inside a combat boot.
For the next two weeks Toddhunter held us after every roll call and threatened weekend details if we didn't turn the perpetrator in. Zielsdorf never brought up the sign himself, and his only reaction when someone else did was a sly grin. I wanted to enjoy my classmates and make the best of my enlistment, but Peter's act of revenge made me feel like I was tiptoeing across an endless mine field. Overnight, dread had become a sour, metallic taste that I woke up with and took to bed and couldn't get out of my mouth no matter how many times I brushed my teeth.
The first language lessons should have been relaxed for me since all we did was make the sounds of Russian and form simple sentences, but the CO's threats kept me unnerved. We mimicked our émigré teachers in moving our mouths and tongues in ways strange for Americans. After five days we all knew several simple dialogues po-russki well enough to play either role, and then in the succeeding weeks the sentences grew more complex. At St. Olaf's I had learned far more complicated vocabulary and grammar, but of course didn't let that on, since what the others didn't know couldn't hurt me. Evenings I skimmed the assigned lessons and then slipped the tattered grammar from Northfield inside the introductory DLI workbook and crammed that. I'd be damned if I'd relinquish my head start.
Gospodin Markov and Gospozha Danilova quickly proved themselves the best teachers. He was the stickler for perfect grammar and pronunciation while her irrepressible enthusiasm and minimal correcting first kindled a love for the supple language and then fanned it into a passion.
One foggy morning on break between classes, Peter, Rich, and I were standing outside getting some fresh air. Rich launched into a parody of Danilova in simple Russian that hit her high pitch and merry tone and stiff posture perfectly. Peter managed a laugh, but I couldn't.
Just then a thin, lanky GI in dress greens came around the corner and ran up to us. MACINTOSH his name tag read, followed by a little "CZ," for Czech, corresponding to our "RU's" for Russian. Rich introduced Dave MacIntosh, a friend from Boston protests, and the person who had first told him about the DLI. Dave's piercing hazel eyes scrutinized Peter and me.
"Mack, they're o.k.," Rich said.
"It looks like I'm fucked, Hoffer," Dave said. "The treads are threatening not to give me a security clearance. They found out about that antiwar demonstration I organized last year. A couple plainclothes agents just grilled me about it, and I have to talk to them again tomorrow. What about all that other crap I got into? If they uncover that, I'll end up at Fort Ord for sure."
"Shit," Rich hissed.
"If it gets bad enough, I'm bugging on out of here," MacIntosh said. "I swear I will."
I put a finger across my lips, softly shushing, and pointed at two of our classmates, Will Burke and Scott Dickinson chatting not thirty feet away. "No shit, I'll go to Sweden if I have to!" MacIntosh snarled. "Just watch me. If you guys were smart, you'd go too."
Scott and Will turned in unison at that outburst, and Rich grabbed MacIntosh's shoulders and spun him around and pushed him away, whispering, "Get out of here. I'll stop by your room tonight."
Burke and Dickinson both moseyed over, and Will asked, "Pray tell, who was that gentleman?"
"Dave Johnston," Peter blurted.
"He's studying Chinese," Rich quickly added.
Scott whispered, "Did that guy really say he was going to Sweden?"
"No, Salinas," Rich corrected. "The town up the road. There's totally nude dancing in some bar there."
Will rolled his eyes and sighed, "Honestly, my good man."
I wasn't sure whether Burke doubted our story, but Dickinson's mischievous grin implied he had. I looked at Rich and then at Peter, waiting for one of them to ask our classmates to keep quiet about MacIntosh, but neither did. But from that moment on, all five of us acted as if the overheard conversation had never happened and nobody brought up Dave's name. And Will and Scott began joining the three of us on breaks and at meals, as we five gradually became a clique.
I had first met Private Burke the Saturday before classes began, when eating alone in an almost empty mess hall, I was startled by an articulate voice: "Would you be so kind as to permit me to sit with you?" A strikingly boyish man introduced himself as William Burke, or as he preferred, Will. He offered me the thick, soft hand of a catcher, his darting dark-brown eyes avoiding my gaze. He had a flawless ivory skin that had suffered little shaving, and large, even, white teeth often bared in false grins whenever he bested you in debate.
Scott Dickinson was an wiry, energetic little blond with a smile even the treads had trouble suppressing. A self-styled gourmet from Columbus, Ohio, he loathed the mess hall chow, which I didn't mind myself while Peter actually relished it. Several times Rich tried to feel out the Stanford history major's politics, but Scott just shrugged and switched the conversation to his greatest love, the English Renaissance, or his favorite novelist, Tolkien.
During the brief breaks between periods I gradually got to know my other classmates, too. Eighteen of us were randomly divided into three sections of six--fourteen Army privates, a Navy Lieutenant JG, two Marine lance corporals, and a Marine Captain, for a rainbow of dress greens, browns and blues. Most of us were twenty two or twenty three, the Lieutenant JG a couple years older and the Captain the oldest at thirty three. With two exceptions, we all had graduated from good colleges with liberal arts majors and Peter had even been Phi Beta Kappa. I had only made Phi Kappa Phi, the honor fraternity for those achieving decent grades along with public service. I had tutored minority scholarship students admitted to St. Olaf's from weak high schools.
The first month and a half, Peter, Will, and I sat together in Section B along with the two officers and a lance corporal. I did my best not to think about the threats hanging over our heads, but the first day I started stammering and it only got worse. The A's and B's I earned in college seemed like gold and silver stars glued after my name on a third-grade bulletin board compared to the stakes we were facing now. Peter openly conceded my superiority in class like he was helping me relax, but I soon suspected he was lulling me into complacency while studying fanatically out of sight.
Already the first week Will showed an utter lack of aptitude for foreign languages. His English accent remained thick no matter how many times Markov corrected him because he simply couldn't imitate or even imagine a pronunciation and syntax different from his own. Instead of cramming Russian like the rest of us, he spent his evenings replaying famous chess matches or reading about Soviet history, his major interest at the University of Washington in Seattle. One supper he averred, "Learning a foreign language is a feat of memory, not of intellect." Anger flashed in Peter's eyes but he didn't rebut. Memory had always been my longest suit in school, too.
Meanwhile, to my dismay, Peter's progress was astounding. While Will couldn't learn a single dialogue all the way to the end, Peter never once recited a line wrong and his pronunciation was perfect. In fact, the third day Gospodin Markov handed Zielsdorf a copy of the novel he himself was reading in Russian, Dostoevsky's
Possessed, and asked him to read it aloud.
"I have no idea how to pronounce these words," Peter replied blushing. "I don't even know the whole alphabet yet."
Unfortunately, the better he performed, the grimmer his mood, and it rubbed off on everyone else. To lighten the atmosphere, Markov tried telling us Russian jokes in English but following Peter's lead, none of us laughed. "Shto s vami, Zielsdorf?' Markov finally asked. "What's wrong with you?"
"Let's learn Russian," Peter said. "That's what'll save us from Vietnam."
"What do you mean 'us'?" Will quipped and Peter's grin briefly reappeared.
To my chagrin, Markov soon pronounced Peter "student number one" of Section B, and also started calling him "Nash gordyj prusskij," our proud Prussian. That made Zielsdorf sit taller, but he still wouldn't relax, and the awful taste in my mouth got worse and the chow began to taste like sand. I never forgot for a waking minute what he had done to the CO's sign.
The next Monday morning just before roll call, I was half-asleep at my desk reviewing the day's dialogue, when the PA system shocked me wide awake: "Private Thomas Bakken, please report to the Orderly Room ASAP. Private Thomas Bakken, please report to the Orderly Room ASAP."
I jerked to my feet and my eyes met Wells' and he screwed up his eyes. I straightened my half-windsor knot, tucked in my poplin shirt, buttoned my dress green jacket, put on my garrison hat and headed downstairs.
Sergeant Kelly, his face more lurid than its usual ruddy, was standing at the door. "Bakken," he barked, "the CO wants to see you. Wait in my room."
I spent a long, long hour staring at my spit-polished low quarters while the First Shirt snorted his way through a report. And I was doubled up with stomach cramps by the time the CO charged out of his office and bellowed at me, "You stay put, soldier. I'll nail your ass when I get back."
Suddenly even Vietnam seemed better than this place.
Toddhunter stormed back in, and I just sat there, hunched over waiting for further orders.
"Go on in!" Kelly screamed at me. "Are you blind?"
I nodded, swallowing hard, walked up to the closed door and gently knocked. I heard nothing.
I knocked louder.
"Come in," a gruff voice snarled.
"Private Bakken reporting as ordered, Sir," I rasped and saluted, my heart pounding in my throat.
"At ease," Toddhunter barked without glancing up from what looked like a personnel file. Probably mine. The parking sign with the obscene message was propped up in the corner.
"Bakken," he said, "I understand you have a black Magic Marker." He reached into his drawer, pulled one out, and began rapping it hard against his desk.
"They're common," I said. Had Wells turned Peter and me in?
"I didn't say they weren't. Do you have one, Private?"
"You bet you have one. This one was in your combat boot. With the initials TB on it."
My thoughts scattered like startled sparrows which I grabbed for, missing every one.
"Well, say something, Private."
"So that's where it went," I muttered. "I must have dropped it in there."
"Speak up, troop!"
"I said I wondered where it had disappeared to. I didn't know where it had gone."
"Soldier, did you write on my sign?"
"Do you know who did?"
"Are you lying?"
He glared at me with flinty eyes and growled, "If I find out you're lying, I'll begin with a court martial and then I'll really nail your ass."
"Do you have anything else to say, shit-for-brains?"
"No, Sir." I locked my knees to stop their trembling.
I moped back to my room and took off my uniform and crawled into bed and lay there wondering what to do next. What had I gotten myself into? The goody-goody who never once whispered in study hall and never once incurred the wrath of any teacher was facing a court martial. I was just edging off into anxious slumber when it struck me that I was skipping Russian class!?
By that evening I was so emotionally drained that I went to bed right after supper and was dozing when Kelly's tinny voice scared me awake: "Seaman James Wells, please report to the Orderly Room ASAP. Seaman James Wells, please report to the Orderly Room ASAP."
I bolted upright and watched my roommate whip on his dress whites and race off without a word. I was sitting at my desk in my civvies trying to study my St. Olaf's Russian grammar when Wells finally returned. Keeping his back to me, he opened his wall locker and removed his uniform and carefully hung it up and then put on jeans and a blue workshirt and seated himself at his desk and got out stationery.
I was dying to hear what had happened but I was afraid I might implicate myself deeper by asking about it. The rest of the evening I sat braced for an artillery barrage that never landed, the Russian conjugations I kept staring at blurry from my shaking grip.
I lay awake most of that night weighing my options, and by dawn I either felt reconciled to whatever fate had in store for me or I was too exhausted to care anymore. The next day Wells didn't say a word about what had happened either, and I kept mum myself as if our mutual silence had become a spell neither of us would break.
By the third day, it was clear Wells had stood by us and not betrayed either Peter or me. The CO had gotten lucky combing through my room, but without corroborating testimony that evidence wasn't enough. A buddy was your buddy even if he and you weren't friends, and buddies never ratted on buddies no matter what. So it was true that sometimes without buddies to keep your head above water, you sink like a rock. Just ask Zielsdorf or MacIntosh or me. And maybe we did know a thing or two about esprit de corps.
DL Olson writes: I came of age during the tumultuous Sixties and that idealistic era shaped my values for life. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I earned a bachelor's degree and then later, following a stint in the U.S. Army, two master's degrees. While working as a librarian at Ohio University, I honed my fiction skills by completing two novels that are as yet unpublished. This story, "Esprit de Corps," is the opening chapter of the first of these, Double Euchre. More recently I have been concentrating on short fiction and two other stories of mine are forthcoming in Amelia and The Cream City Review.