When I was in the army, I had a friend named Rizzo who would periodically bellow out elephant calls. They were loud. More significant was their timing.
We met at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on the first day of Basic Training. We did not become friends until after Basic. On that first day, after gut-driven reactions starting with, “This is definitely a big nothing,” to “How could you stupidly and worse, voluntarily, throw away all your rights as a human being,” to the compulsion to see if others were experiencing these same emotions, I set upon formulating a survival plan. I tried to identify those in our company I could trust, those I could work with, those who should be avoided, and those who should be avoided at all costs. Rizzo was at the top of the last list.
I reported for active duty in October of 1956, in the aftermath of the anti-Communist witch hunts becoming a televised spectator sport. My objective was to remain anonymous, be a good soldier, and get a good assignment. Somewhat to my surprise, I got a very good assignment. Also, to my surprise, Rizzo got the same assignment.
At that time, you did not question the necessity for the draft. It was only eleven years after the end of World War II. The country had to remain strong. That stint in the army was more like a rite of passage. You wanted to do your duty, yet avoid being physically and/or mentally scarred, like I had seen happen to many World War II veterans. You wanted to serve. Being 4-F subjected you to being stigmatized, sometimes ridiculed. Being a conscientious objector then was out of the question. My uncle Dave, a promising teacher prior to World War I, was a conscientious objector. He paid dearly for that belief. The New York City school board kicked him out of his teaching job, and pretty much ruined his life.
The situation required some planning. Plan A was formulated sometime after my last five job interviews terminated with, “We’ll keep your résumé on file.” Prior to that, the interviews had terminated with, “Come back and see us after you fulfill your military obligation.” I didn’t like this trend. At some point in my senior year in college, I realized there was no way that the City University of New York could deny me my bachelor’s degree. I also realized I had no job skills whatsoever. Either as a result of complete boredom during my first two years, or a surrender to academic hedonism during the last two, as a junior and senior I took only those courses that interested me. These were mostly in the English and Design departments.
I’m next in the queue. I approach the desk and salute smartly. The sergeant behind the desk does not look up. He’s in his late thirties, early forties. He has that morose, downcast, robotic look. I’ve seen that look before. These are guys who enlisted in the early 1940s, survived the war, and elected to stay in. Now that they’ve been in for fifteen or sixteen years and have a shot at a twenty-year retirement, the army is giving them hell. Busted from first lieutenant down to sergeant, or from sergeant to corporal.
“What’s your occupation, soldier?”
“I have no occupation, Sergeant. I’m an English major.”
Now he looks up at me and glares. Not even a hint of a smile.
“You’re a high school English teacher, soldier.”
Now he stands up, leans over, and is right in my face. “Therefore,” he says fiercely, “we’re sending you to data processing school.”
Originally, Plan A seemed quite sound to me. Join the army through a three-year enlistment. Under this plan, you get your choice of assignment and location. Join now—there’s no war going on. Even better, after the McCarthy Senate hearings, the army is on the defensive. The military motto is “Let’s stay off television.” I’d taken some advertising courses through the Design Department, and the army had its public relations headquarters at Fort Slocum in Westchester County. Right near home. You want to go for win-win situations. I get some job training, and the army gets some help in improving its image.
Of course, “now” had some wiggle room—maybe four or five months. I could still continue my job search—after the summer. I could take some courses in grad school to see how I liked it. But the procrastination had to stop in the fall. Sometime before your twenty-sixth birthday, Uncle Sam is going to get you. At twenty-one, I felt I was physically in pretty good shape. In four or five years, it might be a completely different story. So the decision would be made after the summer. Basic Training includes bivouac, and from what I heard, bivouac in the winter was not much fun.
I nonchalantly outlined my plan to my parents in our living room one evening. They said nothing. I took this for tacit approval. I’ve since learned that no reaction from your parents is not a good sign.
There’s a knock at our back door. That door leads right into the kitchen. It’s Martin, the butcher’s son, delivering our package of kosher meat. My father describes Martin as a “good kid.” Before he went in the army, Martin always helped out his father in the store. Now that Martin’s gotten out, he’s picked up where he left off.
We greet each other with the usual, deeply intoned, “Hey, how are you doing?” and “Fine, how about you?” He hands me the package.
“You got a minute?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, surprised by this change in our greeting ritual. I ask him inside and place the package of meat in the center of the otherwise empty table.
Martin is five foot ten, about my height, but very muscular. Before going into the army, he also went to City University and played on the football team—until he broke his leg. I never considered going out for football. I like those sports in which the recuperation time from injuries is a week or less.
My first assumption is that Greta arranged this meeting. Greta is my sister, two years older than I am. It’s not unusual for guys she knows befriending me in order to score points with Greta.
“I hear you’re thinking about joining the army,” Martin says.
So much for the Greta theory. She’s off at grad school, anyway. Now I’m puzzled. Who called this meeting? Mom is the prime suspect. She’s the liaison to Martin’s family. There are three kids. Lily, who’s four years older than I; Martin, who is Greta’s age; and the little one, six years younger than Martin. We have difficulty remembering the little one’s name.
Periodically, my mother gives us the news of the Kaplan family. Lily has a new boyfriend. Martin made the college football team. That little one is so smart.
My mother was the prime suspect, but as it turns out, I’m way off base on this one. My father arranged this meeting.
Martin and I both sit at the kitchen table. We both stare at the white wrapping paper of the unopened package of lamb chops.
“Which plan are you considering?” Martin asks.
“Three-year active duty enlistment, two years active reserve, and one year inactive. For active duty, choice of location and assignment.”
Martin frowns and shakes his head. “You don’t want to go in for three years,” he says flatly.
Plan A is suddenly under attack. “Well, I don’t have any job skills. I thought I could grab an assignment in which I could learn something.”
“Two years,” Martin says. “In and out.”
“After Basic, you go to clerk/typist school. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a company clerk. Of course, if you really want, you can go for advanced infantry training. Slosh around in the mud for two years.”
“I guess you feel there’s no redeeming value in this experience,” I say weakly.
Martin looks me in the eye. “I didn’t say that. You’ll do physical feats you never thought you were capable of.”
Plan A was quickly scrapped in favor of Plan B: the enlisted reserve. Two years active duty, two years active reserve, two years inactive reserve. No choice of assignment, but you can go in whenever you want. No waiting around for the draft notice. I told my parents about the change in plans. “That sounds better,” they both said.
At eight o’clock our platoon sergeant says that maybe he’s been working us too hard. Take an hour off. Go down and explore the Post Exchange. Be back here for formation at 2100 hours.
I didn’t think we’d been worked that hard. Of course it’s double-time everywhere you go, then wait for half an hour. From the point of efficiency, it’s ridiculous. But that constant running builds you up. Gets you ready to do those feats you never thought you were capable of.
Patriotism is inextricably intertwined with naiveté and circumspection. When I was eighteen, I was friends with a fellow camp counselor. He was a mild-mannered guy—a dentist who planned to open his own dental office in the fall. When he was seventeen, during the last year of World War II, he forged his parents’ approval signature and joined the Marines. “Wasn’t that a little out of character?” I asked. “I was crazy,” he said. “I had to get in on the action.” Eight years later, he still had nightmares.
My father said he didn’t like it when people said he’d been “spared” from serving in two world wars. That’s a pretty dumb thing to say. He’d been too young for World War I. He could have been drafted in World War II, but he got a deferment by working full time in a defense plant. He worked two full-time jobs—and was the chief air-raid warden for our neighborhood. I always thought of him as doing more than his duty. I didn’t see him much during those years. When I was a teenager, we had the normal father-son tensions, but not as bad as most of my friends. When I was twenty, our relationship improved considerably. When I decided to enlist, maybe I ceased to be a little kid.
I never regarded Uncle Dave as unpatriotic. He did what he believed in. But he did pay a price.
The summer came and went. In the fall I resumed my job search. The rejections resumed. Grad school was boring. By October it started to get cold. I recalled the admonition against taking bivouac in the cold weather, so I went ahead with Plan B. The first day of Basic went smoothly until 8:00 P.M. Even then, nothing overtly happened—unless you want to put the blame on a new song by Johnny Cash.
It’s getting dark. I’m walking alone on this flat, treeless plain toward the PX. I see the shadows of other guys in our company trudging along in the same direction. Dante’s Inferno, I say with a smile. Where’s the river? Confidentially, it’s Styx.
In the distance is not the River Styx, but the bright neon lights of the PX. From that direction a new song echoes through the night. It’s a country song, with a basic, pulsating beat. The singer has a deep, resonant, baritone voice. It makes the whole scene seem even more stark. I’ll walk the line. Sure. For two years, I can walk the line.
Then it hits me. I stumble forward. Two years? I can’t walk any line for two years. I can’t walk at all right now. What is this Plan A/Plan B bullshit? What kind of idiotic pseudo-rational decision did you make? You’ve made a colossal blunder. You have managed, in a single action, to completely surrender all your rights as a human being. If you had a brain in your head, you would have realized that your primary strategy should be to take evasive action.
I try to repel the wave of panic by thinking about my family—how lucky I was to have two parents who loved me. To have a father who taught me the philosophy of the law. And a mother who encouraged me intellectually, artistically, athletically.
It didn’t work. If you’d been receptive to their guidance, you wouldn’t have made such an idiotic mistake.
I take a deep breath and try to regroup. This is not being soldierly, not being manly. Then I do something I rarely do. I accost people. I stop them as they walk across that field. I ask them how they feel about this first day. To a man, they feel the same way I do. One guy says he started throwing up when he realized what was happening to him.
Our impromptu discussion group quickly grows to about twenty people. A beefy, swarthy, curly-headed guy named Rizzo says he was really stressed out. He adds that when this type of pressure occurs, the only way he can get relief is to give out elephant calls. A couple of guys laugh, but Rizzo is serious. He’s only nineteen but looks older. After our talk ends, and we head back toward the barracks for formation and evening exercises, an older guy warns me to stay away from Rizzo. Rizzo, he says, is either a nut case, or is bucking for a discharge under Section 8, which is the portion of the army code that deals with discharge of nut cases.
At midnight we’re inside the barracks, finally getting ready for bed. Our platoon sergeant tells us to get right to sleep. Tomorrow, he says, will be a challenging day. Reveille will be at four A.M. You can’t tell whether platoon sergeants in Basic are on your side or not. At this moment he seems to be on our side. We do not need much encouragement to get to sleep.
I’m asleep in about fifteen seconds. I can’t be out for more than half an hour when I hear it. It’s primitive. It’s piercing. Fortunately, it comes from the other end—the Rizzo end—of the barracks.
Thirty seconds later the fluorescents flick on. Our khaki-clad, black platoon sergeant stands in the center of the barracks, surrounded by the brown metal, double-decker beds. Some guys duck their heads under the covers. Others sit upright, squinting into the light. I sit on the side of my upper berth, looking and feeling dazed.
“Who made that noise?” the platoon sergeant demands. He is definitely no longer on our side.
It seems unrealistic to classify what we heard as just a noise. Moreover, although my experience in positions of authority has been limited to my annual stint as a summer-camp counselor, I always felt that questions like that had a low probability of getting a meaningful response. The chances had to be even lower in the army, where ratting on someone on the first night of Basic could be damaging to your health.
Some guy near Rizzo has his face screwed up and tries to pop his left ear with his index finger. “What noise was that, Sergeant?” he asks.
The sergeant paces down the center aisle toward my bunk. “I heard it too, Sergeant,” someone in an upper bunk volunteers. “It sounded like something from a Tarzan movie.”
I’m sure this sergeant has witnessed all sorts of weird behavior on the first night of Basic. He’s not about to let a bunch of new recruits make a fool of him.
“Let me tell you something,” he warns. “If I hear that noise again, whatever it was, you guys are going to be GIing these barracks tonight.”
I have no idea what GIing the barracks means, but it doesn’t sound good. The lights go out. It can’t be more than fifteen minutes before the next elephant call erupts.
“I don’t believe this,” I mutter.
“My brother was in Korea,” comes a whisper from the bunk below. “It all changes when there’s someone out there in the brush trying to blow your head off.”
This time the platoon sergeant returns with reinforcements: the white first sergeant, and a little Eurasian corporal who had already impressed us with his own ability to shriek out commands. Four recruits leave and return with mops, buckets, scrub brushes, and soap. At two in the morning, I’m on my knees scrubbing the already spotless shiny brown floor.
I’m really pissed at Rizzo. When the sergeant said the next day would be challenging, I had the feeling it was an understatement. I do not respond well to challenges on two hours’ sleep. I look around to see the reactions of the other guys.
Most of the guys in our company are white. There are some blacks, some Hispanics, and a few Asians. There are a bunch of guys like me who have recently graduated from college. There are guys like Rizzo just out of high school. There’s a group who had been in reform school. There are a few like Leonard Larson, my future roommate in my first assignment, who got drafted when they were twenty-five.
Rizzo is on the floor, scrubbing like everyone else. No one shows any sign of being mad at him. It’s the “punish-the-group-for-the individual-infraction” ploy. Get them mad at the offender. But it appears that I’m the only one on whom it’s working. How can that be? No one likes scrubbing floors at two in the morning. Certainly in this group there’s more than a few guys with hair-trigger tempers. I guess there are several possibilities: 1. they’ve become robots already; 2. they’re still asleep; or 3. something else. While I’m scrubbing away, I start thinking about the nature of art. Rizzo put on a one-man show. The audience didn’t like it. The unwitting producers hated it. But if the audience got mad at him, no one’s showing it. No one’s throwing rotten fruit. Maybe he’s managed, effectively and succinctly, to express exactly what the rest of us felt.
Bill Carr's short story "Exquisite Hoax" was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His short story "Execute Eric Smith" was published in the East Bay Review. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He has taken various courses with internationally known Shakespeare scholar Professor Bernard Grebanier, as well as Professors Marion Starling and Seymour Reiter.
Many of his stories, including "Transcendental Tours", published in Menda City Review, and "Exquisite Hoax," are satiric; others contain athletic themes. He has been ranked statewide (North Carolina) and sectionally (Southern) in senior divisions of the United States Tennis Association. He played industrial-league basketball for thirty years, including three overseas.
He received his master's degree in English from Brooklyn College, and he currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B'nai B'rith Institute of Judaism.
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