Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
Robert Lawrence Schichler
Gazing through the bus window through his sweat-stained spectacles through his shingles-scarred cornea, BS observed sets of identical twins strolling down two-layered sidewalks alongside stores with double-lettered neon signs. He was on his way home from work. He had a porter's job at a place called Projection Optics. He had spent the day sweeping, mopping, and emptying vats of a tar-like substance behind the building, back by the railroad tracts. Always the same routine: In the morning he swept lens-grinding powder and chips of glass from the floor, taking a coffee break at 10:15, and then resuming his sweeping until noon. After lunch, he mopped where he had previously swept. At 2:45, he took another break. After that, it was time to empty the vats. So, with the assistance of one of the lens-men, BS toted the sticky black vats out the rear door, across the parking lot, and over to the railroad tracks. He emptied each vat with a splash. Spattering specks of the sticky liquid struck BS's clothing and face, while the rest streamed down the tiny embankment and trickled over the railroad ties. When all the vats were emptied, BS washed up and prepared to go home. At 4:00, he punched out. At 4:07, he boarded a bus. At 4:15 he observed identical twins strolling down two-layered sidewalks alongside stores with double-lettered neon signs.
The bus halted, and BS exited from the rear door. He lit a cigarette. A Marlboro. He didn't need a Salem to experience the taste of Spring. He merely funnelled the springtime air through his Marlboro, his Spring Candle wick. The bus had let him off at the corner to his street. It was a pleasant street, named after a pleasant World War I general. General Pershing. Trudging down the street in his tacky clothes, BS contemplated the prospect of the Old General coming out of retirement and returning to his long-neglected occupation. BS anticipated seeing cylindrical bombs rolling off the roofs of the street's pleasant houses and blasting the pleasant street into pleasant street smithereens.
A strong spring wind caressed BS's face, giving him a terrific rush. He put his Spring Candle wick to his lips and inhaled a deep breath of springtime freshness. But storm clouds lingered in the west. Quite soon the azure sky would die. Birds were beating through the air for higher skies, a sure sign that the torrents were almost certain not to just pass by.
BS ascended his porch steps. He checked his mail box. Just one envelope. From the Selective Service. He went inside, turned on a lamp in the parlor and sat down on the sofa. He opened the envelope. There was a folded sheet of Selective Service stationery in side. He unfolded the paper and read the typed message. He was "hereby ordered" to report for an armed forces physical examination on the seventeenth of May. BS shuddered. He got up and paced nervously about the room. Then he went upstairs to take a hot shower. He ripped off his muddy boots and stinking socks, tore off his sticky shirt and pants, pulled off his damp underwear, and threw his filthy body into the shower compartment. The impact of the tingling spray on BS's skin served to steady his nerves somewhat. BS sang ten verses of "Home on the Range." He wished for a home where the Buffalo roamed. Where the sky was not cloudy all day. A mist of steam filled the room. Outside, the azure sky died.
The rains came. April showers brought May flowers. The red robin came bob-bobbing along, pulling brown worms from the moist lawn. The azure sky came back to life. May sixteenth gave birth to the seventeenth.
BS stood in line in his underpants. He wore dark glasses. Prescription ones. He was waiting for his urine test. The line moved rapidly. A doctor gave BS a cup to pee in. BS had a full bladder. He filled his cup to the brim. BS was bringing his cup of urine over to get tested, when he felt a tug on his shoulder. A guy with an empty cup stood behind him. BS asked him what he wanted.
"I can't get anything out," the other answered. "I see you've got a full cup. Can you spare some?"
BS poured half his urine into the other guy's cup.
"Thanks a lot, man," the guy said. "I'll do the same for you some time."
After completing the urine test, BS moved along to the other testing stations. He got his chest x-rayed and blood pressure checked with no complications. Then he went to have his hearing tested.
"Press the button when you hear the sound; release it when you can no longer hear the sound," the doctor instructed BS and four others. There were five guys being tested at once. They sat in a big booth, each with his own button and set of earphones.
Upon completion of the test, however, the doctor came into the booth to tell them that they had to do it again.
"Someone screwed up the test by not pushing his button when he should have," the doctor explained. "Now, are you all clear on what we're going to be doing this time? Press the button when you hear it. Release it when you don't. Got it?"
They did the test again. The doctor came in again. He told them that someone had screwed up again.
"Everyone's going to pass this test," he said. "If someone screws up again, we'll just have to take it again. We'll keep right on retesting until everyone gets it right. Understand? Okay, now push when you hear it; release when you don't. We'll try it again."
They tried five more times before they all got it right. Even the deaf guy. Then BS got his vision checked.
The vision testing was done in a dark room. BS entered the dark room wearing his dark glasses.
"Remove your glasses and read what you can through here," the doctor in the dark room said to BS.
BS removed his glasses, looked through the scope and told the doctor what he could read.
"I can't see anything," BS said.
"Put on your glasses and tell me what you can read."
BS put on his glasses and tried to read one of the lines: "L, P, A... I can't make out the next one... A, O... and I can't read the last one either," BS said.
"What's the number of that line?" the doctor growled.
"Number? What do you mean?"
"The number! Every line has a number. What's the number of that line?"
"I can't see any numbers. But I'll read the line again for you. It's the seventh line down on the right, L, P, A "
"You can't read the numbers, but you can read the letters, is that right?"
"Yes, the numbers are too small for me to read. But I can tell you where the line is on the chart; on the right side, seven lines down. I'll read the letters again, if that will help."
"Never mind." He scribbled something down on one of BS's many examination forms. "Next man," he said. BS shuffled out of the room.
The next station was for the blood test. BS went up to the doctor's desk. The doctor spoke:
"With your right hand, get a tight grip right here on your left arm." He showed BS where he wanted BS to grip himself. "That's right," he said. "Now don't let go."
BS's armpits were drooling onto the doctor's desk. The doctor injected the needle. BS looked away, pretending it was a big mosquito. Then the doctor removed the needle and held tightly a wad of cotton against the leak in BS's arm.
"Okay, now hold your forearm up tightly against your upper arm, the doctor said. BS complied. The doctor released his pressure on the cotton wad as BS made a tight "V" of his arm. "Keep the cotton wad wedged in there tightly for a few more minutes," the doctor said. "You can sit over there and wait until you are ready to leave this station." He motioned to a row of chairs where others were holding their left arms in tight V's. "Next man," the doctor said.
BS sat down with his arm in a V and waited for about a minute. Then he straightened out the arm and removed the wad of cotton. He got up and moved on to the next station. The last one. He was to have his long-awaited interview. He waited in another one of the many lines. Then he felt something crawling down his left forearm. He thought it was a fly. He slapped it. Blood spattered into the air. He looked to see how big this fly was that had possessed all this blood. His needle puncture was leaking. Blood was dripping down his arm. BS had removed the cotton wad too soon. He had nothing to wipe the blood up with. He was naked except for his underpants. So he bent down and wiped his arm on his underpants. The doctor called, "Next man."
BS sat down at the doctor's desk in his red-and-white-striped shorts. The doctor looked over BS's sweat -soaked papers.
"Have you anything to add to this report regarding your medical status?" he asked.
"Yes," BS replied. "About eight months ago, I had an attack of shingles in the upper left portion of my face, on and around my left eye. Now I see double images of thingslights particularlythrough that eye. I also get a terrible glare in that eye. These tinted glasses I'm wearing cut down on the glare, but they don't eliminate the double vision."
"I see. You'll have to see one of our ophthalmologists." He pulled out a form from his desk drawer, wrote something on it, and handed it to BS. "Keep this with your other papers. They'll tell you what to do."
It was lunch time. BS went to Room 201 to eat. He was supplied with a box lunch containing a ham sandwich, a turkey sandwich, a package of Hostess cupcakes, an orange, an apple, a small carton of milk, and several napkins. BS ate everything except the napkins, cellophane, cardboard, orange peels, and apple core. When he was finished eating, he smoked a Marlboro. As he smoked, he found himself suddenly transformed into a cowboy standing at the edge of a canyon in Marlboro Country. In his newfound elation, he jumped impulsively into the canyon, where he fell for miles, lost his cowboy clothes, and landed finally at a desk back in room 201. A soldier was speaking to the group:
"We're going to take the written test now. It's multiple choice. Choose the answers that best complete the questions. Good luck, men."
The soldier passed out examination forms and pencils and then added, "No one fails this test."
BS did his test. It wasn't too hard. He knew most of the answers. He knew that it was a cow who jumped over the moon, not a zebra. He knew that two and two were four. He knew that a hammer was used for driving nails into boards. He was a veritable fountain of knowledge.
After the test, everyone remained in the room until the test scores were processed. When the results arrived, the soldier called all of the class hopefuls individually to the front of the room to tell them whether they had passed or failed the physical. He called BS's name last.
"you'll have to come back to see an ophthalmologist," the soldier told him.
"When?" BS asked.
"We'll let you know."
"Through the mail."
BS left the room. He left the building. The buss wasn't there to pick his group up yet, so he went across the street to a Buffalo bar. He sat down on a bar stool and asked for a beer.
"Give me an Iroquois," he told the bartender.
"We hava no Iroquois beer, mister, but we do hava Genesee," replied the bartender.
"All right, give me a Genesee then."
The bartender brought BS a glass of Genesee.
"Give me a submarine sandwich to go with the beer," BS then said.
"We all out of sub-a-marine sandwich, mister, but we do hava tuna fish sandwich."
"Okay, give me a tuna fish."
Then, in a much-distressed tone of voice, the bartender spoke:
"First you wanna Iroquois beer, then you wanna Genesee, then you wanna sub-a-marine, then you wanna tuna fish. Pleeza, mister, make uppa your mind!"
"And for dessert, I'll have orangutan pie," BS further ordered. He drank his Genesee, ate his tuna fish, and waited patiently for his orangutan.
"To Tell the Truth" was on television. Three well-informed French guys were claiming to be the champagne taster for the Gold Seal Wine Company, and all the talk about champagne was having an effect on the watching BS. He just had to have some of that delicious sparkling drink. He used to be quite a juice freak. So BS went to the corner liquor store for a bottle of Great Western. Five dollars and seven cents with tax. Made with good New York State grapes. Extra dry. So was BS (extra dry). Upon returning from the store, PS asked his parents (who happened to be there watching the program with him) who turned out finally to be the real French wine taster, but neither of them could remember. After all, ten minutes had passed, and two more liars and one more truth-teller were subjecting themselves to an intensive grilling by Tom Poston, Orson Bean, Bill Cullen, and Kitty Carlisle. Everyone drankBS, his mother, and his father. BS got those shingles tingles. (Sensations in the nerve where BS had had shingles still occurred: burning, crawling, and itching sensations. The champagne gave BS a tingling sensation.)
BS opened up a pack of Marlboros. His mother told him not to give any cigarettes to his father, who did not want one.
"Don't give your father any cigarettes," she said.
"I don't want a cigarette," BS's father said.
"Don't giver your father any cigarettes," she said again.
"I said I didn't want any cigarettes, damn it!" BS's father reiterated.
"Don't give your father any cigarettes. He'll get cancer and die."
"God damn it!" BS's father angrily shouted. "Now you've got me so perturbed that I need a cigarette." So he went to the store for a pack of Larks. He didn't smoke Marlboros.
"See what I have to do to put up with that man?" BS's mother said to BS. "He just won't listen."
BS sat back in his armchair, coughing his lungs out. He wasn't paying much attention to his mother. He was watching Lassie on TV. Lassie was busy saving a skunk who was trapped in a cage. She needed help. So she went into the forest and barked at an owl, a deer, and a fox; they all followed Lassie over to where the trapped skunk was. When they saw who it was in the trap, they all vanished back into the woods. All except Lassie. So, Lassie was faced with the problem of freeing the skunk unaided. Not without a certain degree of difficulty, she managed to knock the cage onto its side, after which she was able to slide the door open with her teeth. The skunk crawled out and scampered into the forest. Then, out of nowhere, a wolf came into the open and pounced on Lassie. Lassie was down. The wolf was fixing to sink his fangs into Lassie's neck. Then the skunk came to the rescue. He went over to the wolf, lifted his tail, and gave the wolf a nasal treat. The wolf went yelping off into the woods. The the own, the deer, and the fox came onto the scene. They congratulated the skunk on his victory. Lassie got up and licked the skunk's fur. The skunk crawled onto Lassie's back, and they all marched off into the forest in a parade of glory.
Spring blossomed into summer. June bugs replaced dying May bugs. The red robin went bob-bobbing along, pulling no worms from the dry lawn. Bees buzzed through the lazy summer breeze.
The bus ride had been pacifying. Its steady hum, the early morning light glinting through the tinted windows, several Marlboro cigarettesall had served to produce a tranquil mood for BS. Sweat no longer dripped down his arms.
Now the bus was coming to a halt. BS waited in his seat until all the others had exited. Then he got up, stumbled down the steps to the sidewalk, and followed the crowd into the induction center.
"Print your name where it says "name," last name first; then fill in your Social Security number in the appropriate boxes..." barked the soldier in charge of BS's group. BS completed the forms as directed. After everything had been filled out, the soldier asked, "Is there anyone here who has taken the pre-induction physical examination within the last nine months?" BS raised his hand. The man in uniform came over to inspect BS's papers. "You won't
be needing these then," he said, tearing up BS's freshly penned forms. "Go down to room 207. They'll take care of you."
So BS took what remaining papers he had and walked down the winding passageway to room 207. There he was instructed to strip down to his shorts and shoes, and to wait in a chilly room on an icy metal chair until the doctor called "next man." BS was bleeding sweat, now, as if he had just received gunshot wounds in both armpits.
"What's your problem?" the irate doctor demanded.
"They sent me down here because I had the armed forces physical examination within the last nine months," BS replied.
"Let me see those papers of yours." He snatched them from BS's sweaty hands. "It says here: claims double vision... possible cataract?"
"Well, you see, I had shingles on the cornea of my left eye about a year ago, and I wound up seeing double images of lights and light objects and things, through that eye."
"Shingles? What's this cataract business?"
"I don't know. Maybe they thought"
"Never mind the explanation," the doctor interrupted. "You need an ophthalmological examination. You shouldn't be here. Go to room 211."
Officials in room 211 referred BS to the receptionist's desk, where he patiently waited for the receptionist to get back from her coffee break. When she got back, BS told her about his need for an ophthalmological examination. She took his papers and studied them. Then she typed out a form on which the name and address of an ophthalmologist appeared, and drew a little map in the upper right corner, indicating how to get to the eye doctor's office from the induction center.
It was bright outside. BS put on his prescription sunglasses and strutted through the streets of downtown Buffalo, following the route indicated on the map. The doctor lived in a highly residential area. Oak trees shaded the lane. Birds sang. BS contemplated the prospect of cylindrical bombs rolling off the roofs of the street's pleasant houses, blasting the pleasant street into pleasant street smithereens.
The waiting room was crowded with elderly people. It smelled like a library. It was 11:00. BS waited in the waiting room. Soon it was 1:00, and BS, still waiting patiently, was beginning to look like a new addition to the furniture of the room. Finally, it was his turn to see the doctor. BS went into the examining room, where the doctor scrutinized him. High-intensity flashlights were aimed into BS's eyes. He was perspiring again. Then the doctor spoke:
"You've got quite a shingles-scarred eye, young fellow. It must have really smarted when you had the attack, didn't it?"
"Yeah, it stung terribly. The shooting pains would make my whole body wince."
"I'll bet they did. Come on, let's sit down over there at my desk and I'll take a look at those papers of yours."
They walked over to the desk and took seats.
"What do you do for a living, young man," the doctor asked.
"I work at a place in Rochester called Projection Optics."
"Projection Optics! I do a lot of business with that company. See that projector there? Projection Optics made that for me. I've been doing business with them for years. What exactly do you do there?"
"You might say I'm in charge of the appearance of the floor."
"A public relations man, eh? You keep the place in good shape so as to impress visitors to the factory, right?"
"You might say that."
"But you should keep up your own personal appearance as well. You don't want to look like those long-haired hoopies, woopieswhatever you call them. You're not like them. So, to avoid being associated with those freaks, why don't you get yourself a haircut? It would greatly enrich the already fine reputation of Projection Optics if people could see just what fine, clean-cut personnel they have working there. Personal appearance plays a big part in public relations. If that's your field, you should consider it your duty to keep yourself well groomed. Get a haircut like mine."
BS glanced at the doctor's butchered scalp.
"No. I don't think so," BS said.
"Get a haircut like mine," the doctor repeated.
They debated about haircuts for a while longer. Then the doctor changed the subject.
"Are you here trying to get into the service or trying to keep out of it?"
"I'm trying to keep out of it," BS answered honestly.
"I see. The reason that I ask you this is that they send both kinds over here from the recruiting station. I do this work for the armed services because I was asked to do it. You see, I am a Commander in the Naval Reserve, so I couldn't very well refuse their request. I'm a veteran of both World Wars and do my duty yet, making decisions as I deem bestbest for the country and best for each and every individual that they refer to me. I'm a military man, yes, but that doesn't mean that I believe everyone to be suited for the military life. This country needs good civilian workers as much as it needs soldiers. I think it is wrong to herd all men into one group without regard for their individual potentials to serve their country in different ways. If all men were soldiers, where would this country be? I doubt that they would have asked me to do this job for them if they had known down at the recruiting station that I had this attitude. In most cases, I discourage, rather than recommend, acceptance of young men with eye problems into the service. Earlier today, I had a young man here who was trying to enlist in the Navy. I had to discourage acceptance of him, although my decision was very disappointing to him. He had an eye condition that, in my opinion, made him an unfit prospect for the military life. Certain people are cut out for the military life, and some people are not. He was not. You are not. If you were to lose your glasses in the midst of battle, how well off would you be? What would you be able to see? Where would you go? You'd be lost. What great advantage would the army have gained by having you on their team? None. This is my reasoning. You'd do a much better job for our country on the domestic front. Be somebody useful."
Then the doctor wrote his report. The last line of the report read: "In my opinion, this man is not fit for military service." He sealed it in an envelope and gave it to a grateful BS.
"If they give you any trouble down there," the doctor told BS, "let me know. I probably outrank anyone there. Let me know how everything turns out. I'd like to know just how much they value my judgment in these affairs."
He gave BS a piece of paper with his name and address scrawled upon it. BS said thanks, goodbye, and left the office.
"Get a haircut like mine," the doctor hollered after him.
The grapes had reached their ripening. The leaves, their time to fall. Tall grass was wilting, turning brown. No buffalo were to be found. And the gray and sullen clouds were overcast throughout the sky, that not a hint of the sun's existence could be presumed.
A flock of geese flew overhead, letting out chaotic squawks to scare others out of their way. Those in the rear moved up in line, and others floundered to the straggling shorter side of the "V" that hardly wavered in the process.
A dried-up, leafbrown, crinkled, and brittlescraped barely the surface of the pavement, blown to voice a sound in harmony with the howling wind.
From a town tower came the mellow chiming of the hour.
BS stumbled down a lonely street, the ground not as near as it might appear, in a body no longer like his own. A sluggish wind forewarned of rain; and, with the hooting owls and screeching birds, it sounded like a jungle. But these sounds were hardly heard. BS's perception had been blurred, and now the words came out slurred of some voices paying visit to his brain. BS turned to see who was speaking to him. It was a friend of his. Bert the bartender. BS was in front of Bert's bar, and Bert was inviting BS in for a drink. Upon realizing this, BS entered the bar with his friend. He staggered over to a bar stool and sat down. He looked at the bar. The liquor bottles melted in his eyes. He looked at the TV behind the bar. Two Mets teams were winning the World Series. He ordered an orangutan pie and a shot of Ron Rico 151 rum. The bartender brought him his rum.
"The Mets are winning the series," he told BS, who nodded. "And, BS, did you hear the latest development with the draft?"
BS shook his head no.
"They're only drafting up to 125. What's your number, BS?"
"A bigger-number-than-that," BS slurred.
"Well, let's drink to that, then," Bert said, smiling.
"Let's do," replied BS.
"BS, you make the toast."
"Aw-right." He thought a minute. Then he spoke:
"God is good, God is great. He gives me a tummy ache."
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