Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Overeducated, overweight, unable to button the top button of his trousers, PFC Roack J. Owen stood among strangers. Before this dark morning he had been a civilian to the core of his toenails, a man placidly seeking a Ph. D. in American literature. Then came shock, an ink-visaged condor to pluck the cherry from his heart. Roack, who suffered nausea when he neared an armory, who long ago had splotched with hives at the sight of his scout uniform, received notice that Uncle Sam desired him, body and soul, head and heart. He had drunk and chewed himself to fat, but was not fat enough to fail the physical. For the first time failure had been his goal, and he failed to fail.
The notice came at 10:00 one vile morning. By noon he was drunk. Not roaring drunk. Sagging, hissing curses. His wife settled his affairs, packed his belongings while he waited, cloaked in dread. He did nothing but get in the way, fearing that any overt act amounted to admission that his future was indeed military.
Roack had suffered shocks before, but nothing this violent. For him time slumbered like a winter bear, then pounced like a leaping wolf. He would bump along at the same age, same place for a seeming millennium; suddenly he would find himself, five years later, a thousand miles down the road in a different bar. Like the time he got fat. All his life he had been thin. One night, though, his fingernails turned purple, his arms and legs prickled from lack of blood, and his chest tightened. A coffin seemed his next bed. So he stopped smoking, started breathing, lived. Fat overtook him within a fortnight.
"Temporary," he thought until several years later his mirror mouthed back at him, "Ah, Roack, you've run to fat." And he was fat, big bellied, short legged.
This admission caused pain, yet it was balm in Gilead compared to the notice that he would be transformed utterly into a trained killer. A terrible beauty is born. That notice and five weeks of booze later, he started toward Oklahoma. Through the Ozark Mountains he watched tensely, hoping to see a naked woman in the woods, or a diving hawk in the sky. Either would have been a sign of good luck, an omen that 1968--the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and Roack Owen was ordered back to active military duty--was about to change for the better.
A small sparrow hawk, even a skirt blowing high in the breeze, might mean he wouldn't have to go to Viet Nam, or if he did go, he wouldn't get shot, or if he were shot, he wouldn't lose anything important, or if he lost something important, he would die and not live maimed. But he saw no sign.
Minutes from being AWOL Roack surrendered the vain hope that he might be bold enough to take charge of his life and flee to Canada. That hope dead and all courage sapped, he signed in at Ft. Sill. There he learned that he could accompany his wife back to the hotel for the rest of the night, but that he must return, killing skills honed, no English teacher but a fighter. A fighter. He saw the irony. No bullet had been fired, no saber drawn. Yet he was slaughtered, defunct in spirit. But the news that he would not have to spend the night in the barracks enabled Roack to eat for the first time all day. He and his wife ate burritos from Sydney's and went back to the hotel to prepare his khaki uniform for Saturday morning inspection.
Reporting for duty the next morning, Roack thought he had dropped into an alien galaxy. With over 20 years of education, he had spent more time in school than his colleagues had spent on earth. Also, nearly five and a half years ago, fear of the draft had moved him--as it would later move Dan Quayle--to join the reserves. Before his unit dismantled, he had earned the rank of specialist fourth class, but unbeknownst to him, he had been busted and was now a PFC. That meant he had to rip off the old stripes and sew on his demotion. Or his wife did.
At that very time the PFC stripe had changed, had added a rocker to the single set of mosquito wings that once proclaimed a man a first-class private. The new stripes, upside down, precisely filled the outlines left by his old stripes. When his wife stitched them on upside down, they looked fine to Roack.
During his years of freedom from the military, the army had also discontinued the long-sleeved khaki shirt he wore. And so Roack, fat to the peril of every button on his uniform, hoping only to go unnoticed, stood his first inspection wearing a shirt that militarily did not exist. And on the sleeves of that obsolete shirt, his stripes were upside down. As he stood, rigid, hearing the captain's appraisal of his performance so far that first morning, he knew why he had seen no naked woman leaping gracefully through the trees.
Roack had been summoned to resume his stance as trained killer because of the Pueblo crisis in which Lloyd Buecher had lost a ship to someone we considered an enemy. That crisis ended long before he sobered up, almost before he got drunk, but the wheels had begun to grind. The nation needed men who could climb poles in her defense, string wire for her freedom. Roack's records proved him just such a man, though he had climbed no poles, had no idea how to attach the climbers. He doubted not that he would learn, and that one day, on his first of fifty poles, 190 pounds of ruined muscle would plop to the ground.
Oddly, he never found out. Early in his career, the army's newest poler was painting a porch. Roack knew the old adage that what is not worth doing twice had best be done well the first time. He did a good job, worked quickly because the odor of paint made him sick. His work contrasted strikingly with that of a colleague on the other end of the porch, a lad later discharged for insufficient funds upstairs. Roack painted so well, in fact, that powerful people wondered if he were a painter in real life.
"No," he said, "an English teacher."
"In grade school? High school?"
"No, college," Roack mumbled.
Astoundingly, his lot improved. A teacher in college. This made him strange, a man deserving richest scorn, deepest awe. He was doubtless queer, probably performed unpronounceable sex acts, maybe was crazy, but surely he must know nearly everything in the world. And he was friendly.
Roack found, in fact, that his work toward a Ph. D. in American literature made him a logical target of those who sought marriage counseling, wondered what color blood was before it escaped from the skin, agonized over the difference between a flea and a gnat. A soldier who came early to him was gnawed by curiosity as to what an atom was and exactly how he might go about smashing one. Roack answered these questions with eloquence, free from the facts that sometimes caused long pauses between words when he knew what he was talking about.
Roack rose rapidly--from pole climber to porch painter to pubic information clerk. As editor of the Artillery Observer, his main job was to make nose pickers look interesting. He might have excelled at this had trivia not tangled his talent. Chief among his tasks was to wield a mighty mop and pail. And a buffer, of course. The colonel's ash tray, too, was his domain. And the colonel's rug.
All of this was possible because he did it. But nearly everyone demanded that his desk should be a paradigm of order. What to Roack seemed a quintessential slab of heaven seemed chaotic to career soldiers. They failed to appreciate a filing system comprised of piles of paper.
Normally carefree, Roack shriveled in his green suit. Always he had grinned at the wee nervous who seek disaster in each corner, who make projects of crossing streets, who clutch detail to fluttering breasts. But trivia now cast his days in dread. No matter how often he checked, he always forgot his hat, his belt. Somewhere between home and the base, demons smudged his buckle, unbuttoned his shirt pockets. Constantly he worried about puny, stupid things, fretted even more because they bothered him. He saw himself clearly, sneered, thought it sad that no one sewed his cock in his mitten before he went out to play soldier.
But joy surfaces, perhaps even in hell. Army life is a melodrama, and when the crew-cut, fat-faced punk gets his, there's glee in the balcony. So it was when LT Shike, Custer T., received his army commendation medal. Little Custer Shike. A child with power bulging from bars on his shoulders and a rump big enough to blot the moon. Even more terrified of going to Viet Nam than Roack and his fellow Fort Sillians, Custer reenlisted for two years in Germany. And his terror was justified; if ever officer were slain by his own troops, LT Shike would be the first to suck mud.
The pending departure of Custer for Germany sent joy through the ranks. Men drank and shouted and danced in the aisles, then relaxed, breathed the way they do when a whining brat goes to bed, when a bully moves out of town. Shike was all of these, whining-brat bully with snot in his voice. He talked as if someone had tweaked his nose.
A man of strong conviction, LT Custer Shike had once ordered Roack to replace the recruiting sergeant's red curtains with something suitably drab. Rather than tell the good lieutenant what he thought of this order, Roack complied. No son of a draper, he spent the afternoon complying. And when he finished, the office indeed looked depressingly military. Shike found that a comfort.
And Roack, once more, had bowed, had carried out an absurd order. "Order" was one word, "Absurd" the other. Would he obey an absurd order in Viet Nam? Would he burn a village of women and children simply because some moron ordered him to do it? Some did. The military had trained him to obey. He hoped he would not, that for the first time in his green suit he would have the balls to be human. Yet as he hung the drapes he could not be sure.
Shike, though, was ecstatic. Roack, an enlisted man, a peasant in whom he could sense a smoldering hatred, had obeyed his order. But suddenly fearing a sergeants' rebellion, or perhaps the tail of a comet, or maybe the spontaneous combustion of his inner organs--Roack never knew what Custer feared--First LT Shike ordered him to take down the brown curtains and drape the red ones again, and that before he went home for the evening.
Second thoughts pricked Custer to cowardice because he had neglected to consult the recruiting sergeant, a big, big man. Distraught to distraction, Roack smiled and complied, convinced that refusal meant military prison. He could see LT Shike as he squirmed in sexual rapture before a military court: "Sir, I accuse PFC Owen of disobeying a direct order. Such callous disregard of duly constituted authority poses a direct threat to the security of the nation. This man's conduct cannot be ignored, must be punished to the exquisite limits provided by military law."
Intellectually, Roack knew he could not be taken out and summarily shot for a breach so small, but emotionally, he did not know it. The military universe was more whimsical that the civilian. Given two choices--one mad, one sane--Roack knew which would be the military way.
As his departure approached, Custer pleaded, coaxed until COL John W. Brown, whom Roack called Urinal Colonel Jack Drab, promised him an army commendation, or ARCOM, as the clever abbreviation went. Some received the ARCOM for heroic action in Nam, some for murderous action, some for action that saved lives, and most for nothing at all. Custer got his for keeping the floor clean, morale low, and his nose dirty. When he wrote the story of Custer's ARCOM, Roack surrendered--again--everything that enabled him to call himself a man. He wrote in the Artillery Observer that "LT Shike received his ARCOM for meritorious service."
What he did not write, but what he wanted more than anything to immortalize, was the incident just before the awards ceremony. Roack was in the latrine when the lieutenant came in, puppy-dog excited, to relieve himself.
"Good afternoon, PVT Owen," Shike said, trying to sound calm, needing to seem to understand the ARCOM for the piece of tin it is, wanting to mask the fact that he had probably been masturbating in glee over the prospect of getting this most common of awards. Bliss, however, cracked his voice. He cackled as he headed for the urinal.
Suddenly, a plaintive moan floated from the urinal. Excited LT Shike, joyful, about to receive an award for soldierhood, had just urinated on himself. His once-khaki fly was now deep brown and obviously damp.
"Oh, no," screamed the Shike. "Oh my God! I had a hair on the head of my peter. Caused a divided stream!!!"
Leader of men First LT Shike grabbed his head with both hands, gawked at his fly, stricken. "Ho, God, ho God, oooooh Gawd!" He wailed again. "Nooooooo!"
He jumped, hopped as if bees nipped his brain.
"Oh my God! Please, God! No! No! Oh my God!"
He clutched his head as if that were the offending organ.
Minutes later Custer stood at woeful attention while COL Brown pinned the medal on his chest. Smiling a wolf-grin leer that cracked his lips, Roack photographed the ceremony, shot from all angles that would match fly with mournful face. These pictures would go in the group record, in the Artillery Observer, and Roack would try to place them in the post paper.
In a moment of rare decency, Roack considered not telling every enlisted man, every officer in the 214th Artillery Group what had happened in the latrine. But that moment passed and joy won. As a nod to decency, however, he did not tell Group Chaplain Paul Unger.
No one in the army was exactly like Custer the demon-clown, but no one was totally different, either. Roack was an alien, and because he was stuffed with an unhealthy mixture of terror of and scorn for all things military, the most paranoid soldier in the army invariably dropped his guard at least once a day. He would say something he really thought, or smile at something sacred. Laughter nearly choked him, for example, when the big kids inspected him on Saturday mornings. One man stooping to pass judgment on another's shave-haircut-shoeshine filled him with incredulous glee. Yet his very joy was his enemy. He dreaded the day when he would collapse, flaccid in mirth, before the inspecting officer.
Saturday mornings, monstered by inspection, caused strain. Roack never passed an inspection, though he sincerely wanted to and worked harder on it than most soldiers. Then his wife started shining his boots, polishing his brass. He passed. Passed an inspection. The first time CPT Phillips walked by without ranting, Roack wanted to call him back to do his job.
When he got used to passing inspections, though, his mind and eye conspired to send him to the stockade forever. As he stood rigid at attention, his mind flipped him a picture of CPT Phillips, no warrior barred and ribboned and suited as soldier, but a youngish lout sucking mop hair, a great fool clad in scullery maid's dull panties and training bra. Roack held his breath until his lungs screamed. He did not laugh. Reading his distress as awe for an officer, CPT Phillips told him to relax. And Roack relaxed, having learned in invaluable military secret: hold your breath and you won't laugh and you'll look as if you respect the chickendinker in charge.
Finally, though, it was COL Brown who forced Roack to pray nightly that they would never have anything important to do. Tall, thin to gaunt, COL Brown was a military cliché, a mental, moral, physical cripple. Soldiers walk ramrod stiff, some sage once told him. He believed. Stomach sucked in, buttocks nonexistent, backbone starched, COL Brown walked with the silence, but none of the grace, of a candle flame. His temples were catfish-belly white where the barber had scraped away the hair. But his most distinguishing characteristic was a love for swagger sticks.
COL Brown felt so strongly about swagger sticks that he nearly did the unthinkable, practically defied GEN Hunt, his mothersuperior officer. When the selfish Hunt banned swagger sticks, he ripped from Brown one of the chief joys of command. Indignant, Brown decided that officers in his command should always carry tire gauges. This gratified his stick fetish. If questioned, the officer was instructed to reply that he merely anticipated a shortage of air.
And so it went. Dull, sometimes amusing. Roack accepted the army as one learns to live with foul air. Each day, no matter what happened, he got to cross 86,400 seconds off his calendar. Day by day, as freedom neared, the rut grew smoother--until the 1968 Democratic convention.
Riot training smashed the routine, called for extra hours from everyone; the result assured no one. Roack had coveted but failed to land the role of rioter during the training. Rioters still wore green suits, but they got to wear black armbands, throw cardboard rocks at the troops, and call the soldiers every vile name they could conjure. When the disciplined federal troops beat the rioters into strands of barbed wire, pounded them into the ground with rifle butts, Roack rejoiced that his request had been denied.
Although the troops knew they were headed somewhere, no one knew where, not even when they boarded the planes. Chicago seemed obvious. Everyone knew the 1968 Democratic convention would cause riots. But just that week Russia brazenly raped Czechoslovakia. During three days of that mad week, Roack had been ordered to watch TV newscasts. If anything untoward and dramatic happened in Czechoslovakia, he was supposed to inform COL Brown. He sent in capsules of Cronkite's CBS news updates every hour or so.