Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Roack's unique position as public information clerk made all soldiers expect him to know the future. But he got no information beyond what Walter Cronkite passed out to the world. Still, he knew they were going to Chicago as surely as he knew in 1968 that no one would ever stride the moon. It gave him perverse joy, though, to look like a withering calf, hang his head and say, "Ah, lads, we're going up in the air, and when we come down, we'll not be in the good old U.S. A." A man's expression altered, Roack noted, when he learned from a reliable source that he might have to brave the entire Russian army.
On the night of departure about 5,000 troops gathered at midnight to hear an officer tell them that their mission was vital. Roack sincerely hoped not, but he did worry. He would carry a weapon into the streets of Chicago. The man who even tried to be fair to flies, who warned them three times before squashing them, might have to shoot a human being on State Street. His sole salvation was that he hadn't the foggiest notion how to load his rifle. Although a friend in personnel had obligingly cut orders citing him as an "expert" with the M-14, the only military weapon he had ever used was the M-1, which died about the same time as his long-sleeved khaki shirt.
He saw how bad the trip would be the moment they prepared to start the convoy to Shephard Air Force Base in Texas, where they would board the planes. Although he had never driven a military vehicle, his designation was assistant driver. He falsely assumed an assistant would never drive. At worst, he might have to change tires, or lift the hood and report that he found the motor unfathomable. But when the order came to start the engines and turn on the lights, SGT Sayers, the driver, was gone.
Frantic search in darkness yielded neither ignition nor light switch. Men screamed, horns cursed. Anxious to disassociate himself from the lifeless vehicle, Roack leaped from the jeep, pretended to be a road guard at the side of the convoy. SGT Sayers returned, solved crisis number one.
They drove through darkness, boarded planes in gray, landed sleepless at a strange place on a blurry morning. It wasn't Midway, not O'Hare, but a barren cow pasture he knew not where. Czechoslovakia! His face contorted. He thought of the Russian army, but most of all, he prayed that his colleagues were better soldiers than he was.
Word spread quickly that they were just outside Chicago at Glenview Naval Air Base, a place desolate enough to sour the sun. Relieved, but weary and sick from lack of sleep, Roack began to help set up camp.
The pup-tent city was large and, depending on turn of mind, impressive or depressing. Roack found it nearly stimulus for tears, vowing that if he survived he would never again camp out.
"Strike the tents!" some dolt shouted. The lines, foul in uniformity, were not straight at all.
Roack had half expected it. Depressed nearly to anger, the men struck the tents. In middling bad humor, they set the tents up again, and alas, the next order was not to be believed. They struck the tents, set them up again. They did that five times, every flapping tent, and might have done it a sixth had darkness not mercifully intervened.
That set the tenor for a long week. Next day permanent work details were passed out to those without specific jobs. Some had that bane of civilized soldiers, permanent KP. Roack's function was less than essential, so he volunteered to be permanent night CQ (charge of quarters). That meant he did nothing during the day, little at night. He answered the phone, performed janitorial necessities, pretended awe for those who outranked him. And because he was public information clerk, and because he could count, he piled the Chicago newspapers that arrived each morning into seven stacks to be delivered to the battalions. That, next to his perpetual war against dirt and other unauthorized matter, was his martial reason for being.
Fortunately Roack's unit didn't invade Chicago. The men had only to keep from looking sufficiently bored to compel the officers to invent absurd jobs for the good of the collective morale. But night duty enabled Roack to sleep during the day, and when he was not asleep, he had the good sense to carry a clipboard and look pensive. A clipboard, a frown, a musing motion in stroking his chin saved him hours of grief.
Only once did he have to do anything difficult, so he considered himself a moderately good soldier. Once, though, a midnight emergency call came for a member of the MP company camping with the artillery group from Ft. Sill. As CQ, Roack had to deliver the message. He knew roughly where the MP tents were, but the night was black, and there were nearly 3,000 two-man tents in that broad city of strangers. No house numbers, no street signs.
Stumbling over ropes, cowering from cursing sleepers, waking the wrong people, he finally found the right tent. He awakened the man gently, anticipating his shock, feeling sorry for him because he was about to be rousted from sleep and told of an emergency by a green-suited stranger. When Roack told him that a woman had called proclaiming herself in dire straits, however, the MP rolled over and said, "Tell her to go fuck herself."
Having confirmed and reconfirmed that answer, Roack returned to headquarters, wondering how he would translate that vile message to the lady on the line. LT COL Joe Florian, who had been sitting with Roack when the phone rang, solved the problem. When Roack repeated the MP's words to him, COL Florian said, "Owen, you drag that women-leaving son of a bitch back up here. By the balls if you have to."
The black road through ropes was no less hazardous this trip. Those he mistakenly roused a second time, in fact, were measurably less friendly. When one man threatened him with death and started our of the tent, Roack roared, "I'm Major General Roack J. Owen. Zip your foul lip before I string your ass up from the yardarms!" The man retreated.
When he found the right tent, the MP growled, "Tell COL Florian to go fuck himself."
That, too, would have given Roack great joy, but he chose not to do it, and his military career prospered. Loyally and patriotically, he dragged the recalcitrant MP to the telephone. The MP learned without surprise that a lady totally unrelated to him was about to bring forth his child. Choosing not to believe it, the MP told the lady to go fuck herself.
The dull week seeped back into the universe. News of departure from Glenview elated every troop, and they packed, high spirited. All except Roack, who failed to get all his gear back into the duffel bag his wife packed before he left. He sacrificed several pieces of equipment--lost in the heat of battle, he later claimed. But still the bag gaped open. When he moved the bag, objects fell out, wounding his mirth all the way home.
Back at Ft. Sill, soldiers returned to wine, women, and song while Roack, military journalist, wrote the story of how they had protected Chicago. Because the 214th Artillery Group hadn't done anything, the story was difficult to write, yet it must be an important story because the government had spent so much money getting 90 troop carriers from Sill to Chicago and back to Sill. He learned differently, though, when he took his story to the post paper. The civilian editor merely grinned.
"Owen, you've got a remarkable imagination," he said.
Roack waxed militarily profane in complaint. "If I had imagination," he explained when he calmed down, "half the troops would be food for worms and the ones still alive would owe every breath to the noble Roack Owen."
The editor sighed, licked his teeth. "You tell a strange tale, Owen. Seems like you think approximately 5,000 Sill men went to Chicago."
"We went," Roack protested.
The editor smiled, shook his head. "No," he said.
Roack nodded. "Then I guess I can't use the story in my paper, either?"
"I wouldn't. Not till we get a change of policy."
Roack shrugged. "Look, man, we can't deny we went to Chicago. Local TV cameras watched us go, saw us come back."
"Who's denying it? We're just not admitting it."
And there was a difference and Roack was humble and proud in the face of sophistry once more. He considered rebellion, but only for a moment. "To hell with it," he thought, recalling the furor when he wrote that the government lied concerning the conduct of the Viet Nam War.
He was not being bold, not even rebellious, when he wrote that; he was merely acting as a journalist. He had heard the lies, seen the truth. Also, he felt certain that no one read his paper. At least one person, however, must read every page mimeographed on a military machine, because Roack soon found himself confronting the post information officer. Forth Army had discovered his indiscretion.
Roack prepared to shout censorship, but the officer held up in imperious hand to stop the words. "You know, Owen, the army called you back so you could string wire. It's windy up there on poles. Lonely. And Owen, one phone call from me and you're a lineman again."
A lineman. Dastardly, dangerous work! Unless they agreed to string all wire along the ground. So a fight not fought. Another fight not fought.
His training had worked. As propagandists had hoped, he saw the army as a vast, inimical universe, himself as a gnat trying not to be seen, dashing between winds and swats of whimsy. Because he never saw himself as an adult in the army, he could not act like one. Just as he had solemnly promised earlier never more to think that the government was less than perfect, he now promised to kill his story and remain forever silent about the meritorious acts of Ft. Sill men in Chicago. And yes, he thought, a thought so heavy it forced him to his knees even as he descended the headquarters stairs. Yes, he might carry out any order. Any order.
Then he had to race a deadline. His Chicago story covered most of his Artillery Observer. Since the last edition, the 214th Artillery Group had been in Chicago to shoot whatever dangerous hippies interrupted business as usual. Chicago, a city banned in his paper. Because no one remained behind to be meritorious at Sill, he couldn't fill the hole.
As he wondered what to do next, the deadline passed. No one cared, and he considered missing the next deadline, too. He felt tics and pangs and agues over capitulating, killing his Chicago story. He couldn't even fool himself, convince himself that he had suppressed the story because running it would be self-destructive, a futile gesture at best. He loved the grand, empty gesture, and he had just passed up the opportunity to make a good one. He could never like himself as well again.
Maybe he would write the story some day. Probably not, though. There was no way he could make himself a heroic figure. Or even a tolerable one. Besides, he'd be free from the army in a few months. He'd continue to cross off days, and four days before he was supposed to be released, he would go to the post headquarters to see if perhaps his papers arrived early. He would go the next day and the next and finally, just in time, his discharge would come in.
Driving through the gate, a civilian once more, he would give the guard the finger. Probably all civilians did that. Then he would dump his uniform into the Salvation Army box, and he and his wife would head for California.
But he thought he had learned something. As a soldier he had drained months from his allotted vat of time because circumstances had paralyzed him. Because he had not been able to decide on anything, he had lain limp without will. Because he had felt sorry for himself for having to waste his life in the army, he had wasted every hour. Seldom did he start anything of his own because he knew that any moment, the army would want him. He had not even planned so much as a picnic. He had surrendered every minute to the army, a glutton that would eat a life with no regrets.
A civilian now, he saw clearly how inane he had been. It was scarcely the army's fault he had allowed it to halt his life, to rob him of his very existence. It was his grave error, not the army's that he had allowed days to slip away without touching so much as a moment. He had been so dazed, so cowardly, so confused, that he might have obeyed the ultimate absurd order.
"No more, "he resolved, slamming his beer on the table at the restaurant where he and his wife had stopped to decide whether to take the northern or southern route to California. "No more indecision," they pledged together, trying to decide.
They saw the irony and the laughter started. Together they laughed, and Roack sensed a mighty burden slip from his chest. Intellectually he had known all afternoon that he no longer had to wear the green suit, but now he knew it, felt the fatigue shirt melt from his back. The army would not get him back, and even if it did, his head had cleared. Roack Owen would not torch the village.
With the green weight gone, his shoulders expanded and his chest puffed up to the size it had been the split second before he read his draft notice. He breathed freely, easily, laughed again as he took his wife's hand in both of his. His grip was strong, but caused no pain as he asked, "Do you care which way we go?"
"No," she said. "It makes no difference."
He nodded. "This tavern's pleasant enough," he said. "It's across the state line from Ft. Sill. There's really no reason to make a decision. We're out of the army and we can stay anywhere."
"So?" she asked, looking fierce.
"Well, why not spend the rest of our lives right here? Or at least till we consider all the angles, till we decide with a certainty that would satisfy even the contemplative Hamlet that we want to go one way or the other. After all, one way's bound to be more fun than the other."
She stood, shoved her fist into his face. "Roack, that's paralysis again. That's green-suit thinking."
Then she saw that he was grinning, that he could actually joke again. "Let's go south," he said.
And they started, each leaving half a beer.