Part 8 of Tales of the Peacetime Army

[Note: this is part 8 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

LIFE DURING WARTIME

I was never promoted to sergeant. I was, instead, a spec-four-promotable, a.k.a SP-4-Ever.

Each MOS had a magic number for promotion out of a possible 1,000. You could make 300 points for your PT test. I barely passed mine. You could make 100 points for college. I was maxed out there. The board gave you a certain number of points, too.

Ordnance specialists, at the time, had to have 450 points for promotion to sergeant. So most of them got promoted. Illustrators were stuck at 998.

I spent my final two years in the Army as a mail clerk in the Pentagon. When my NCOIC there found out that I could barely draw, he assigned me to push a mail cart around the C-ring. I did this for approximately six hours a day, and then was kicked loose. I lived in the barracks at Fort Myer, Virginia, a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon. I could walk home from the Pentagon, cutting through Arlington National Cemetery to get there.

I bought a used IBM Selectric.

I had time. Time to drink beer from 1400 to 0000 hours. Time to rent a car and drive around Washington, D.C. Time to bowl at the Fort Myer bowling alley. Time to watch the dollar movie at the Fort Myer Theater. Time to jog around Arlington National Cemetery and say hello to my dead fellow soldiers. Time to become familiar with all the Smithsonian museums that surrounded the National Mall, which is a big green patch of land, not a shopping mall. Some tourists were a little disappointed when I told them that. They’d pull to the side of the road and ask me, “Where’s this National Mall?”

I had time to go back to college and finish up what I had started. Georgetown was just across the Potomac, a short walk from my barracks at Fort Myer. The Army paid three-quarters of my tuition.

My Ph.D. dissertation became a widely reviled book. You haven’t gotten hate mail until you’ve received multiple dressings-down from public intellectuals. I framed a couple of them and have them hanging in my little home, including one particularly vicious letter from a British ex-pat drunkard who repeatedly misspelled my name throughout and underlined some of his most salient points with a red, ballpoint pen, almost tearing a hole in the onion-skin parchment he’d decided to type his rant out on.

I also have a signed document that is close to being a love letter from a future Speaker of the House, who fancied himself an intellectual and science-fiction novelist. He is neither, though his books have sold approximately two-hundred times more than mine.

After I left the active Army, I bounced around for two years at various adjunct positions around Cleveland, while living in my room at my mother’s house. Eventually, I was hired by New College in Sarasota, Florida.

I settled into my office, which looked out on the bay. Seagulls cawed and fishing boats puttered past. Inland, across the street at the airport, DC-9’s screeched as they ferried hot-weather tourists into the 90-degree-plus humidity. I wasn’t expecting Florida to be as hot as it was, but there you go.

I brought in a 12-inch television set to keep me company. On it, the press was following around the president, who on most occasions seemed to be a befuddled and persnickety prep-school boy trapped in a gangling body that could not help but spasm and flail. Today was different. He stopped and glared at a reporter who’d challenged him about what he’d do about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. “Watch and learn,” the president said. He was all cowboyed up.

“Hmm,” I went.

One of the associate professors in my department leaned against the doorjamb, watching me. “You’re watching, but are you learning anything?” I asked her. She taught medieval English.

Yes, I was hired by the English department, as an assistant professor of comparative literature. Even down in the boonies, I was persona non grata with the philosophers.

“Bush,” she said, like she was preparing the name for expectoration. She was a new hire like me. She was too young to have reading glasses hanging around her neck, or to be wearing the frumpy clothes she had on, but there you go.

“Good morning to you, Doctor Cuomo,” I said.

“Good morning, Doctor Ziska,” she replied.

“Lovely day,” I said.

“Indeed it is,” she said.

A couple of years later, we’d marry. A few years after that, divorce.

I was living, temporarily, in the Normandy Hotel, which was a haunt for prostitutes. My room featured a mirrored ceiling. The clerk, a teenager wearing a pith helmet, flip-flops and ragged cutoffs, smirked when I rented the room for three days. “I admire your stamina, sir,” he said.

“Don’t call me ‘sir,'” I said. “I work for a living.”

“Cool,” he said. He shoved my room key at me and went back to reading The Weekly World News.

I made quick work of finding an apartment. All that I needed to do was sign the lease. I dropped by my office and found a letter on my desk. I’d had my mail temporarily forwarded to the college. Contained within the envelope were ten copies of my orders, recalling me to active duty. I was to report to the nearest MEPS for in-processing immediately. I was to be part of the watch-and-learn process.

I ran into Doctor Cuomo, Mary, my future bride, in the hallway.

“Do you have your syllabus finished up yet?” she asked me.

“No need,” I said. “Your pal Bush has put the kibosh on my teaching career. For the moment anyway.” I showed her the orders. She smelled like orange blossoms.

“He can’t do this, can he?” she asked.

“He can,” I said. “And he did.”

A week later, I was sitting in the half-empty Fort Dix reception station, waiting. Eventually, a sergeant would come out and tell us what to do. Two rows ahead of me, I saw Socrates. I asked another Army returnee to thump him on the back. Socrates turned around, saw me, and took the empty seat next to mine.

“What are you doing these days?” Socrates asked, more than a little disingenuously.

“I teach,” I told him. Actually, I hadn’t taught yet, not even in graduate school, thanks to being in the Army, the Army College Fund and the G.I. Bill.

“You teach, huh?” he said, with a knowing smile. “I read your fucking book.”

“So? Out with it.”

“I liked the parts I understood,” he said. “I had to keep looking up ‘heuristic.’ Am I pronouncing that right?”

“I like me my nickel words,” I said. “What are you up to these days?”

“I went back to college, just graduated. I was looking for a job,” he said. “I guess a job found me.”

A sergeant in the front of the room said, “Listen up! Welcome back to the Army.”

Everyone laughed.

“At ease,” he said. “We’re going to get you all lined up for shots. Remember that? Of course you do.”

“Give me your address,” I whispered.

“You have a pen?”

“No,” I whispered.

“Me neither,” Socrates whispered. We were bad soldiers. Good soldiers always have a pen on them. “We’ll meet up later.”

We lined up for shots. I watched the needle go into his arm and caught him as he passed out. He didn’t really pass out. As I helped carry him out of the room and place him on a waiting gurney, he opened up his eyes for a moment and fucking winked at me.

That was the last time I saw him.

I was assigned to the public affairs office at the U.S. Army CID Command in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia.

The PAO, a lieutenant colonel of infantry, stared at me when I reported to his third floor office overlooking the parking lot. “I’ve seen you before,” he said after we exchanged salutes and he put me at ease.

“I used to work in the Pentagon, sir,” I said.

“That’s not it,” he said.

“I was stationed in Germany for two years, sir,” I said. “Maybe you saw me on Reforger?”

“That’s not it,” he said. He snapped his fingers, disingenuously. “I know! You’re the guy who wrote that book that everyone hates!” We both laughed. He rolled his desk chair over to a considerable bookshelf that took up the entire eastern wall of his office. He leaned down to the bottom shelf. His books were alphabetized. He pulled out a trade paperback copy of my book. The spine was unbroken. “You wouldn’t mind signing this for me, would you?”

“Did you hate it?” I asked him.

“No, no,” he said. He stared at me for a moment. “Well, yes. But it’s a thrill to meet you anyway.”

“Thanks, sir,” I said. I slipped the black, government-issue Skilcraft pen out of my pocket and signed the book for him. “To a PAO I don’t hate,” I wrote. “Very respectfully, Specialist Carl Ziska.”

He took the book back from me and read the inscription and laughed again. “So doctor,” he said, slipping the book back into its notch on the bottom shelf, “what would you like to do during your stay with us?”

What I ended up doing during my stay was editing their technical journal, The Detective, and watching the war unfold on the office’s 27-inch television set via CNN and their seizure-inducing graphics.

The colonel, a Cincinnati Reds fan by birth, would occasionally switch over to baseball games in which the Reds triumphed again and again. It was their wire-to-wire season.

The illustrator that I was temporarily replacing, I found out, had been sent on temporary duty to Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t really replacing him, though. A book of Army-issue clip art was performing his job function.

If anyone found my lack of permanence unsettling, they didn’t let it show. There were just four of us in the office.

I worked with a civilian assistant public affairs officer, who was a former academic. She was the one, as it turned out, who had alerted the public affairs officer about me. She was the one who’d actually read the book and hated it, but she tolerated me.

I also worked with a rubber-faced sergeant first class, who edited the monthly CID newspaper, The Badge. She mugged endlessly and thought everything I said was odd and said so loudly, while mugging.

On the TV, on CNN, a baby boomer was lamenting that he didn’t bother to join up and go to Vietnam when he had the chance. “It seems like such a wonderful bonding experience,” he said of the military.

I was staying in the same old barracks I’d been in the last time I was stationed in the Military District of Washington, at good old Fort Myer.

After breakfast in the Tri-Services Dining Facility, I stood out front waiting for my bus. It was maybe my third week there. An officer walked past, and I saluted him. “Good morning, sir!” I went. Then I took a closer look at him. “Murphy?”

“That’s Lieutenant Murphy to you, soldier,” Murphy said, snickering.

“You went over to the dark side, did you?” I said.

“Something like that,” Murphy said. “Holy shit, look at you. You’re still an E-4!”

“I was almost a college professor,” I said. “Except the Army decided it hadn’t had enough of me.”

“Oh, shit,” he went. “You were recalled.”

“You’re quick on the uptake, sir,” I said.

“Fuck you, specialist,” he said, laughing.

“There’s my bus,” I said. I pulled out a pen and a piece of paper. “Write down your number for me. We’ll get together tonight.”

He wrote down his number.

In the mornings, we would have an informal meeting during which the lieutenant colonel of infantry would brief us on public affairs issues, just in case a public affairs issue came up. The press wasn’t interested in our little operation. They weren’t interested in Army crimes.

We had a few.

The daily briefing brought up a staff sergeant who was running a prostitution ring of female E-4’s and below out in the desert. “Enterprising, but stupid,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry interjected.

The daily briefing brought up the accidental killing of a camel herder who’d wandered past an encampment of paratroopers near the border the Saudis shared with Kuwait. “Blew the shit out of him, literally,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry noted. “Sad thing for the poor camel fucker’s family, I imagine.”

The daily briefing brought up a female West Point grad who, despite her possession of the magic USMA ring, had made the decision to pump a round into her noggin with her service pistol. “This is an ongoing investigation, however,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry said. “No one is to comment on this in any way to the press or even to the family. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” the rubber-faced sergeant first class said.

After the briefing, I went back to editing a piece about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy which had been written by a forensic psychologist, a chief warrant officer stationed at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. It was throat-cuttingly depressing to read.

I shared my quarters at Fort Myer with a squinty-eyed soldier who had a severe case of post-nasal drip. Let’s call him “Weasel Boy.” Like me, he was a Spec-4-Ever. He was an intelligence analyst at the Pentagon with little to no curiosity about the outside world, including the war that was ramping up in the Middle East. “I’m a Western hemisphere guy,” he told me by way of explanation.

“So no inside information about the war,” I said. “No idea when it will start.”

“Nope,” Weasel Boy said.

“Not that you’d tell me if you did have any inside information,” I said.

“What?” He was reading a paperback of The Martian Chronicles.

“Never mind,” I said.

Dr. Cuomo, Mary, had mailed me my 12-inch television. I screwed around with the rabbit ears and produced a wobbly image of Special Agent Dale Cooper. “Oh, shit!” I shouted. I ran out of our quarters down the hall to the bank of payphones and called the number Murphy had given me. He was staying at the BOQ.

“Howdy,” Murphy said. “Can you call back later? I’m watching Twin Peaks.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

After Twin Peaks, I walked back out to the payphones and called him up. He figured we could meet at the bowling alley the following day after close of business and put away a few beers before deciding what to do next.

I was alone in the office. The rest of the people were at a retreat for all the permanent party assigned to CID headquarters. Since I was a temp, I was left behind to answer the phones. The first few calls I fielded were for the rubber-faced sergeant first class. Who knew she was so popular?

Another call was from the dean of New College who asked me how much longer I’d be stuck in Washington. Did I think I would be teaching in the spring semester? Why not? How about the following fall. “Definitely,” I said. “I’m sorry about this.”

“I wish we’d known about your status,” the dean said.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I had no idea the Army could call me up out of the blue like that. I suppose I should have read my contract before signing it back in 1984.” It seemed like a long time ago at that point. Now, here in the bright, shining future, it seems like I signed up the day before yesterday and got out yesterday morning and was called back up yesterday afternoon.

“It’s a lesson to us all,” the dean said. “We’ll plan on having you back in August 1991.”

The next phone call was from the bereaved parents of the dead West-Pointer, the suicide soldier. I said what I was supposed to say. I said: “We are not allowed to comment on an ongoing investigation.” But the father wouldn’t let me off the phone. He cajoled me. He begged. He wept. He put his wife on and she wept.

I told them to hang on.

I went into the lieutenant colonel of infantry’s office and dug through the neatly stacked piles of papers on his desk. I found the papers. I took them back to my desk and read the report on their daughter’s suicide first to the mother, and then to the father.

“You did not hear this from me,” I said in closing.

She brought her dress blue uniform to the desert, put it on and ritually shot herself. She left a suicide note behind. She was not happy, nor had she ever been happy, she claimed in the note. The note had a voice to it that was distinctive. The mother recognized her voice. “That’s so her,” her mother said. She handed the phone to the father.

“Our daughter did not commit suicide!” the father shouted through the receiver at me. “You’ll be hearing from our lawyer!” And he slammed the receiver down hard enough to give me a temporary case of tinnitus.

I replaced the papers back on the lieutenant colonel of infantry’s desk.

Murphy and I got drunk at the bowling alley. “I heard you had a book out,” Murphy said.

“You heard right,” I said.

“You making any money off it?” he asked.

“Not so far,” I lied.

As we drank our beers and gradually got snockered, we gossiped about our classmates from art school. I had heard things from the rubber-faced sergeant first class. Murphy worked for the assistant vice chief of staff, so he had heard things.

“I heard about Dave,” I said.

“What did you hear?”

“I heard once he got to SHAPE, he developed a heroin habit,” I said.

“That’s not the half of it,” Murphy said. “Guess where he is right now.”

“Fort Leavenworth?”

“Saudi Arabia. They gave him a choice of going to war or going to jail. He chose war,” Murphy said. “Did you hear about Ron?”

“What about him?”

“He took a swing at his sergeant major down at Fort Polk.”

“Is he in Saudi, too?”

“No. Fort Riley, Kansas. Busting rocks.”

We nursed our beers for a while, watching soldiers bowl badly.

“Give me some good news,” I said.

“You want good news?”

“Give it to me.”

“Remember Roy Lush?”

“Who could forget Roy Lush?”

“He’s a state assemblyman in New York,” Murphy said.

“Of course he is.”

“I’m not kidding,” Murphy said. “Look it up if you don’t believe me.”

“I believe you,” I said.

When we were both sufficiently shit-faced, one of us decided that it would be a good idea to put out the eternal flame on JFK’s grave. As a joke, mind you. Part of the joke would be leaving behind a sign that read, “Due to budgetary restrictions, the eternal flame will extinguished until further notice. Thank you for your understanding! George Herbert Walker Bush, President.”

Luckily, we were both so drunk that we ended up passing out on Abner Doubleday’s grave without having snuffed the flame. We woke up the next morning as the sun tipped up over the horizon. We were able to sneak back into Fort Myer and get to work on time.

Even though it was improper for an enlisted man and an officer to be buddies, Murphy and I continued hanging out.

Our next drunken scheme, coming a month after the first one, was to put on Dorothy Gale masks and white t-shirts upon which we would write “I am Dorothy” and trick-or-treat in the barracks.

Even this simple plan went awry. When I’m drunk enough to want to do these things, I’m too drunk to actually carry them out. We sat in my quarters attempting to write “I am Dorothy” on white t-shirts. It was hard enough to write on the t-shirt, the pen was just tacky enough to pull the fabric along with it, which required one of us to stretch the t-shirt, but I always forget how to spell when I’m drunk. “How do you spell, ‘am’?” I asked Murphy, and then Weasel Boy. Murphy and I giggled like idiots.

Weasel Boy did not appreciate it. He went down to the CQ desk and reported our frivolity.

A sergeant came up to the room and asked us to explain ourselves. We were too drunk to do so. Eventually, it came out that Murphy was a lieutenant.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Sir. Sir?” the sergeant went, holding the door for him.

“This sucks,” Murphy said, stumbling out the door. The sergeant helped him to his feet. “I want to go to war!” I heard him shout, halfway down the hall. “Why can’t I go to war?”

“Idiot,” Weasel Boy said.

“Me or him?” I asked him.

“Both of you,” Weasel Boy said.

“How dare you, specialist,” I said, having to say “specialist” three or four times in order to pronounce it correctly. “I am a public intellectual, a writer of incomprehensible books.” Or at least that’s what I meant to say. What came out of my mouth was not verbal, but rather the contents of my stomach. I passed out.

When I woke up the following morning, Weasel Boy had decamped. That is to say, he had emptied out the contents of his wall locker and had stripped down his bed to the bare mattress. He’d had himself reassigned to an adjacent room. I cleaned up my quarters and went to work.

“You’re still in the Army!” the lieutenant colonel of infantry informed me in his command voice.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“And now I find out that while we were gone on our retreat, you went and told the parents of the suicide what happened to their charming girl,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“And I hear from the HQUSA staff back at the barracks that you’re hanging around with some drunk lieutenant, planning to trick-or-treat in the barracks!” the lieutenant colonel of infantry thundered.

“Sir,” I said, holding my noodle, trying to keep my greasy brains inside. “My head.”

“Fuck your head,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry said. “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re famous for your smarts. Am I right?”

“I’m not famous, sir,” I said.

“Fuck your modesty,” the lieutenant colonel of infantry said, spittle flying, finger popping me in the chest. “As soon as I can, I’m sending you back to the world. And if you don’t behave yourself, I’ll send you back with a BCD. You got that?” For those of you who were not taking notes, that’s a Bad Conduct Discharge.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Go back to your quarters. Go back there and clean it up and lock the door and don’t let anyone in. I don’t want to see you for a week.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

If I’d had any hopes of staying in the Army, they were gone. I was gone. As a soldier, I had few saving graces left.

A month after the one-hundred-hour war of January 1991–which was, as Gertrude Stein might have put it, the nice war where everyone in the Army was nice–I was outprocessed for the second time.

I sat in the airport wearing my class A uniform for the last time, staring out the window at the passing airplanes. A middle-aged woman holding the hand of her damaged child approached me. “Sir,” she said. “I want to thank you. For keeping us free.”

I looked up at her. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “I was right here in Washington the whole time. I didn’t fight in the war.”

“You joined up,” the woman said. Her child was drooling. One of its eyes pointed in the wrong direction. “That’s more than most people do.”

“You make me sad,” I said. I tilted my head back down and continued watching the panorama of airplanes though the wall of glass.

She snorted and walked away, dragging her child behind her. I wasn’t sufficiently grateful for her gratitude.

I remembered Socrates’ question: “You know why no one likes you?”

I laughed.

THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK

JOHN SHEPPARD is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. He was raised in Florida. He is the author of the novel SMALL TOWN PUNK. He lives in Illinois with his wife, Helen, and their two dogs.


[Note: this is part 8 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

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