Part 2 of Tales of the Peacetime Army

[Note: this is part 2 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!]

THE U.S. ARMY ART SCHOOL

My orders had me going to Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, for my advanced individual training (AIT).

Colorado. Purple mountains.

The pass-in-review ceremony involved standing in formation in my class A uniform while a couple of dignitaries spoke. Maybe one of them was the base commandant. I think the dude was a general. He hopped into a jeep and drove around us, for inspection purposes. Then we passed in review, marching past the reviewing stand. Eyes right!

That night we sat around in the barracks, all of our shit packed away in our duffel bags, waiting for buses to come take us away, our orders and airplane tickets in our filthy paws.

I’d enjoyed basic training. It felt kind of shitty to leave already.

The zero-three-thirty-hours bus came. I shook Tony’s hand. “See you, man.”

I toted my shit downstairs and tossed it in the compartment on the underside of the bus. The same bus driver who brought me to Fort McClellan was going to take me away. “How you doing?” I went to him, standing there in my blank class A’s, nothing but a marksman ship badge on my pocket. “You got any of those Salems? It’s been eight weeks since my last smoke.”

“I told you,” he said. He shook out a cigarette.

Drill Sergeant Slaughter took the first one. He was standing right behind me, the stealthy fucker.

I took the next one. The bus driver treated himself. We all lit up with the bus driver’s Bic Clic.

“So where you off to, soldier?” Drill Sergeant Slaughter asked. I’d graduated basic training, so my name was no longer private.

“Lowry Air Force Base, drill sergeant,” I said.

“Nice,” Drill Sergeant Slaughter said. “The Air Force has good chow. Outstanding quarters. Beds with box springs. Real wood furniture.”

We all smoked for a while. I’d never tasted a better cigarette.

“The Army’s this big,” Drill Sergeant Slaughter said. He looked through a pinched gap between his index finger and thumb, approximately one-and-a-half inches. “I’ll see you again.”

We had a new drill sergeant when we reported to the Army barracks at Lowry. He took the five of us into a briefing room after we’d arrived and signed into the unit, bravo company of the five-sixtieth signal battalion, or Co. B 560th Sig. Bn. The drill sergeant was an illustrator and had lost his military bearing long ago, if he had ever possessed one to begin with. Let’s call him Drill Sergeant Dudeman. He said, “Dudes, one thing: Don’t go around beating up the zoomies like the jarheads do. Not cool.”

The zoomies were Air Force personnel. The Marines did not like them.

“They stand outside the enlisted club and pick them off five at a time.”

“Heh, heh,” went this guy whose name tag read MURPHY.

“You dudes have any questions?”

“Are we allowed to smoke here, drill sergeant?”

“Not indoors,” the drill sergeant said. “When you’re outside, smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

“Sweet,” I said. “Mind if I go outside?” I’d bought a pack at the airport just in case.

We had to go get our quarters assignments, sign for our keys and put our shit away first. Drill Sergeant Slaughter hadn’t lied about the Air Force. We had real beds and real wood furniture in our quarters and only two up in each room. My new roommate was a leering, smirking New Yorker named Dave. We shook hands. “You need a new field jacket?” he asked me.

“No thanks,” I said. “Mine’s new.”

“It’s just that it looks like you’d fit into this one better,” he said, shaking it at me by its collar.

The last name on his name tag didn’t match that of the jacket, I noticed. “You steal that?”

“What do people expect if they leave a jacket hanging on a door knob?” Dave asked me. “I mean, they’re practically begging.” He tossed the jacket on his bed. He shrugged. “My girlfriend’s birthday is coming up anyway. When she gets here, I’m going to fuck her until my back gives out.”

“Before or after you give her the jacket?”

“Before,” he said, smirking.

Dave had been in the same company with me in basic training, but in a different platoon. “We had a guy in our platoon who was going to be an illustrator. The fucker was albino-white and batshit crazy.”

“Is that the guy from pugil stick competition?” That was where we fought wearing an amalgam of gear from hockey, baseball and football, using padded sticks to beat each other senseless. We performed a little dinner theater beforehand:

Drill Sergeant: What is the spirit of the bayonet?

Privates: To kill, drill sergeant! To kill!

Drill Sergeant: What makes the grass grow green?

Privates: Blood!

Drill Sergeant: What kind of blood?

Privates: Commie blood!

Drill Sergeant: What color is it?

Privates: Yellow!

“That’s him,” Dave said.

He was a pasty, stocky private whose arm became dislocated after taking what appeared to be a fairly soft blow. And he screamed. “He sounded just like an air raid siren,” I said. He’d started off slowly, and then built up to an ear-piercing shriek. “What happened to him?”

“The docs popped his arm back in,” Dave said. “But after that, he got paranoid. Like we were all trying to fuck with him all the time.”

“Were you?”

“Fuck yeah,” Dave said, smirking. “He woke up one night, sure someone spat on him. He was probably drooling in his sleep. He scraped it off on a piece of paper and took it around, making everyone spit on other parts of the paper to compare.”

“Like a crime lab,” I said.

“So everyone was spitting at him. Just to help out. Spit was flying across the room like a rainstorm.” Dave laughed. “He told us later that he was a kung-fu master and showed us his flying kicks, where he spun around with one foot in the air.”

“So what happened to him?”

“What the fuck do you think happened to him? They processed him out on a psycho discharge. Like I said, he was batshit crazy.”

“I need a smoke,” I said.

Lowry was like a wonderland after Fort McClellan. It had wide streets, well-manicured lawns, none of the sidewalks were crumbling, and all the buildings were composed of cream-colored bricks. Off in the distance, mountains. In front of our barracks, we had the shell of a Nike missile with U.S. ARMY printed on the side, presumably so people on the receiving end would know which branch of the service had vaporized them.

After smoking, Dave and I walked across the street to the Air Force dining facility. The cooks were student cooks, according to their name tags, and the food looked like it arose living and breathing out of a women’s magazine. I had the broiled cod. Dave had the beef brisket.

After we sat down, civilian contractors came by to refresh our drinks.

What do you have there, soldier?
Tea, ma’am.
Sweetened or unsweetened?
Un, ma’am.

“I joined the wrong service,” Dave said.

“You and me, both,” I said.

“Mind if I sit here?” asked a soldier with a pencil-thin mustache. His name tape said LUSH.

“Cop a squat,” Dave said.

“Lush! Roy Lush!” Roy said, sitting down next to Dave, sliding his tray. “How are you? And how are you?” He shook our hands.

“Swell,” I said.

“I’m going to run for office after I leave the service,” Roy said. “Congress!”

“Good for you,” Dave said. “Have you tried the peach cobbler?”

“It’s incandescent,” Roy said. “Fantabulous. See the mural on the wall over there?” It featured a soldier shaking hands with an airman. Tiny fighter jets streaked across the sky above the two serviceman, while tiny soldiers advanced below. UNITED IN VICTORY was written in a scroll beneath the entire mess.

“Yours?” I asked.

“Mine,” Roy said. “Building bridges.”

“I feel sick,” Dave said.

“You shouldn’t!” Roy said. “Best chow in the entire military, right here! Gotta get going, moving on.” But he didn’t get going. Not yet. He leaned over to us, confidentially. We leaned in. “You guys ever eat out a woman on the rag?”

“No,” Dave said.

“No,” I said.

“Tastes like cocktail sauce,” he said. He picked up his tray and moved on to another table.

We five newbies were assigned to C shift, which was night shift. We started school at five o’clock, 1700 hrs., and got off at midnight, 0000 hrs.

We marched over with senior classmates, soldiers who had been at the school for weeks instead of days. Ron, the senior class leader, marched us over. He sang a cadence that he’d made up all by himself:

You go down to the supermarket
Where all the commies shop
You take out your machete
And then begin to chop
Left right, left right, left right, kill

We halted in front of an ordinary building with an extraordinary sign. In raised lettering, US ARMY ART SCHOOL. The crossed flags and burning torch of the signal corps was etched into the sign’s skin. The five of us fell out and wandered through the double front doors and on upstairs.

The walls were covered over in artwork, most of it ordinary–pictures of girlfriends and babies, fellow soldiers drawn in profile, and dozens of drawings of a cone and a block and a rubber ball.

We were directed by a sergeant wearing a painter’s smock to the corner classroom. Five other students were in there, including a sailor, three airmen and a nervous Marine lance corporal. The lance corporal had already been made class leader.

A bodybuilder with silly round glasses named Biff brought us to order. He’d had his fatigue uniform tailored to his ridiculous build. If I’d known anything about steroids at the time, I would have said he was a user.

Biff was an Air Force sergeant.

Our first assignment was to draw a straight line. This turned out to be harder than we thought. We had to tape down the paper, draw two X’s using a kiddie compass and using a metal straight edge, draw a straight line with Rotring art pen. For most of us, this took all night. The ink kept blobbing out, or not enough ink would come. The line had to be perfect.

Murphy drew a perfect straight line right away and left the room.

It took me two hours to get a satisfactory line, and then I kept drawing the straight line until I get better at it.

The Marine lance corporal’s hand kept shaking and shaking. “Fuck, man! Fuck! They’re going to make me infantry! Fuck!” At the end of the night, he stood next to his desk nearly crying.

Biff took me aside. “Hey, PFC,” he said.

“Hey, Air Force sergeant,” I said.

“Call me, Biff.”

“What can I do for you, Biff?”

“You can be junior class leader,” Biff said.

“No problem,” I said. “What does that entail?”

“You tell people to clean up at the end of the night and put their pens away,” Biff said.

“No problem,” I said. I turned around and shouted, “Listen up! I need everyone to put their pens away and clean up.”

“Who put you in charge?” Murphy asked me.

“Biff here,” I said.

“Good enough for me,” Murphy said.

The lance corporal barely noticed. Was he sobbing, lightly? I couldn’t tell. He was shaking still, but less so. He came over and pretended he was hurt to be replaced by a soldier, an Army guy. But he was pretty happy about it, I think.

I pulled Murphy aside. “We need to get lance corporal to draw a straight line.”

“Why?”

“Because his crying annoys me,” I said. “I think he annoys everyone. You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“I was an artist back in the world,” Murphy said.

“You’re an artist here,” I said. “And now you’re a teacher, which is somewhat the same thing, I suspect.” I slapped him on the shoulder. I leaned in close and whispered confidentially, “The nature of artwork is not its representational character, but rather its capacity to make new or secret information known. Same thing as teaching.” I fanned out my fingers, flowerlike, when I said this. I may have even winked. As Steve Martin once said, I took just enough philosophy in college to fuck me up the rest of my life.

Murphy shot me a strange look, and then smiled. “You’re shit full of theory,” he said. “Or full of shit.” He thought a moment, and settled on the latter.

Eventually, the lance corporal accepted Murphy’s help, even though Murphy was a mere soldier like me.

We marched with our senior Army classmates back toward the barracks. It wasn’t much of a hike, only a mile. We marched along, singing in cadence:

If I were king of the forest
Not queen, not duke, not prince
My royal robes of the forest
Would be satin, not cotton, not chintz
I’d command each thing, whether fish or fowl
With a ruff and a ruff, and a royal growl
As I click my heels
All the trees would kneel
And the mountains bow
And the bulls kowtow
And the sparrows would take wing
If I–if I were king!

We came to a halt in front of the mess hall. We could smell bacon and eggs and hash browns and muffins. It was wonderful.

Ron, the senior soldier, brought us to a halt. “I’ll get you my pretty!” he shouted, standing at the position of attention.

My fellow classmates shouted in return, “And your little dog, too!”

We fell out and went inside and had a wonderful midnight breakfast.

In the mid-morning, Drill Sergeant Dudeman told us that we still had to PT. Push-ups, sit-ups, two-mile run. After that, we could do whatever we wanted until it was time to march to class.

The two-mile run was murder way up in that Denver mile-high air. What little air we could suck into our lungs had a good bit of smog in it. I’d never pass the PT test if I kept on smoking, so I hid my cigarettes from myself, deep in my real wood wall locker. I figured I might allow myself one or two. Or three. For medicinal purposes.

Dave said, “That run was a son-of-a-bitch.” It wasn’t an overly warm day, but the two of us had soaked through our gray Army PT uniforms. “It was like sucking air out of a straw.” We’d all lost two or three minutes off our run. Not good.

We took our shaving kits to the latrine, shaved and showered. Dave announced to everyone that he had to take a big American shit, one that would put a Soviet shit to shame.

I dried as quickly as I could with my Army-issue brown towel. Like many Army-issue items, it did not perform as expected. It was not absorbent. It was like rubbing yourself with sandpaper.

I had some time to kill, so I put on my uniform and walked down to the BX to buy myself a proper towel. I’d seen the BX on the way in from the airport. On the way there, I wanted to smoke, and slapped myself all over trying to ferret out my cigarettes, but remembered that I’d hidden my smokes from myself. “Fuck!” I went, and then saluted a passing Air Force officer in his Ralph Kramden suit. “Good morning, sir.”

“Better watch that language,” the officer said, returning my salute.

“Yes, sir,” I replied to the zoomie cocksucker.

The BX was huge, and the quality of the stuff was better than that of the Fort McClellan PX even though zoomies made the same amount of money that we did. Thanks to Reagan, that was almost a living wage. I bought a big, plush towel and a pack of Camels and a Bic Clic. I bought a sandwich at the Robin Hood sandwich shoppe, the Ye Olde Friar Tuck, and ate it while watching all the happy zoomies walk around saying hi to each other and enjoying their lives. Zoomies had every right to be cheerful.

On the way out, I saw a flier advertising a sock hop at the enlisted club.

I lit up, sucked in that good cigarette smoke, felt lightheaded and nearly passed out in the parking lot.

I walked back to the barracks, smoking as I walked along.

Back up in my quarters, Dave asked me what was in the bag.

“Towel,” I said.

“You didn’t buy me one?”

“Figured you’d steal one from the latrine,” I said.

“All right, you got me,” he said. He opened up his wall locker and, sure enough, three non-issue towels were hanging there.

“You better watch that stealing shit,” I said.

“Just because you’re the class leader doesn’t mean–”

“I’m just saying,” I said.

Dave and I went downstairs to the dayroom to watch some TV. Murphy was there.

“Show’s about to start,” Murphy said.

“What show?” I asked. “Bonanza?”

“The Marines are picking up a newbie at the airport,” Murphy said. “Some scary female staff sergeant told me to stay out of the way when they bring him in. He’s fresh out of boot camp and ready to kill.”

We shared our barracks with the Marines and the Navy. They were on the north side of the barracks and we were on the south. We shared a dayroom with them on the bottom floor.

“Anyone want to pitch in on a pizza?” Murphy asked.

“Sure,” Dave went.

“Why not?” I went.

Murphy went over to the payphone and ordered a pizza.

A new Marine Corps private was hauled through the dayroom, a Marine sergeant on each arm. “Move, Marine!”

Sir, yes, sir!

Bonanza came on the big, console TV in the corner. We watched. Hoss got into a gunfight. Our pizza arrived.

Murphy!

We each gave Murphy a couple of bucks. He came back with the pizza.

“No anchovies, right?” Dave asked him.

“Right,” Murphy said.

A bulldog came wandering over, sniffed at the pizza box. “What the fuck?” Dave asked.

“Marine Corps mascot,” Murphy said.

The bulldog got too close, so Dave kind of waved at him with the toe of his boot.

The scary female Marine staff sergeant came over and barked at Dave, “Why you kicking at my dog, Army private?”

Dave snapped to parade rest. Murphy and I looked at each other, tossed our pieces of pizza back in the box and snapped to parade rest. “Sergeant, I wasn’t–”

“You did. My eyes don’t lie and neither do I,” the scary female Marine staff sergeant said. “You’re banned from my dayroom.”

“Banned?” Dave went.

“Banned,” she went. “You two.”

“Yes, sergeant,” Murphy said.

“Yes, sergeant,” I said.

“As you were,” the scary female Marine staff sergeant said.

We sat down and continued eating. Hoss was in big trouble in his shootout. His brother, Trapper John, MD, came to his rescue. Dave tore off another piece of pizza and stomped out of the dayroom.

A few minutes later, Drill Sergeant Dudeman walked over to us. We snapped to parade rest. “Sit down. Chill,” he said.

We sat down. He sat down next to us on the couch. “What happened?”

We told him.

“Scary-ass bitch,” Drill Sergeant Dudeman said. “I’ll iron it out. Don’t sweat it.” He ate our last piece of pizza.

Do you really want to hurt me
Do you really want to make me cry
Precious kisses words that burn me
Lovers never ask you why

We sang in cadence on the way to school. The pizza on top of the sandwich on top of the lungs filled with cigarette smoke made me ill. I fell out of formation and vomited into the gutter. I spat long and ropy. I ran and caught up with the formation.

It wasn’t just illustrators at Lowry. We had still photographers and videographers and, strangely, calibrators. Calibrator school was a year long and they received an associate’s degree when they finished. After their training, they owed Uncle Sugar five more years. Most of the future calibrators talked about working in Saudi Arabia for Aramco after they finished their Army time, because the Saudis paid obscenely well, so they heard.

But it was just illustrators in our formation and at our school.

One of the Air Force females became my girlfriend for a week, which was the week after the first week, the draw-a-straight-line week. She and I would give each other shoulder rubs in class and then we’d make out in a storage closet next to a taboret stocked with Sanford art gum erasers and blending stumps. After class, I’d sneak away from my formation and she’d sneak out of her Air Force dormitory and we’d pay five dollars and rent a room at the BEQ, which was called the Mile High Lodge, and have mile-high sex. That was the week we learned calligraphy, first with magic markers that smelled like candy products, and then with pens with nibs that we had to dip in inkwells. India ink was not my friend, but I was getting the hang of it.

On the Friday of that week, post-sex, I observed her nude bottom after she got out of bed and walked across the room. I said, “Hey, did you have a kid or something?” The words spilled out of my mouth too quickly. I probably could have stopped them, or at least slowed them down. But we were getting entirely too close.

She spun round angry. “No!” she lied, hotly. She had a face like a cupie doll. It was kind of sickening to look at after a while, like chugging several vanilla milkshakes in a row.

I could tell that she was lying. The fuck of it is, I couldn’t let it go. “Because your ass is kind of shovel-shaped. Like a waitress I worked with who pumped out a kid,” I said.

“I’m eighteen!” she shrieked.

“What’s the kid’s name? The kid have a name?”

She gathered together her little blue bus driver’s outfit, sulking, grumbling. “I thought you were nice,” she said. “But you’re weird and mean.”

“Crystal? Blake? J.R.? Sue Ellen?” I wiped myself with the bed sheet and put on my Army boxer shorts, snap.

“It’s Marky, all right? Are you satisfied?” She stumbled out into the corridor half dressed and slammed the door behind herself.

“Marky?” I went. “Hmm.” I took a shower and got dressed. I turned in the room key downstairs.

“She looked pretty pissed,” the night clerk said. “She was missing one of her low quarters. She had to hop out of here.”

“She named her kid ‘Marky,'” I said. I shook out a cigarette and offered it to him. He took it.

“Hmm,” he went. “I had her pegged for a fancier name. Maybe something off a nighttime TV soap.” He lit the smoke with a Mile High Lodge match. The matchbook had a B-52 on it.

“Me, too,” I said, lighting off the same match.

The next week was the week we started drawing the cone, the rubber ball and the wooden cube. Uncle Jerry was the teacher for that part of our training. Uncle Jerry invited us to call him Uncle Jerry, so we did. He was an old Army Spec-6, which was a soldier who made as much money as a staff sergeant, but had all the authority of a PFC, which was what I was.  He put his feet up on his drafting table and bitched about the raw deal the Army had given him. “No one told me I was never going to get promoted,” he said. “So now I’m telling you: You’ll never get promoted.”

“Thanks, Uncle Jerry,” I said in my capacity as class leader.

“You’re welcome,” Uncle Jerry said. I think he was in his mid-forties, which seemed impossibly old to most of us. He claimed to have been drafted during Vietnam.

Dave said on our smoke break, “I can’t wait to get old and bitter like Uncle Jerry. It’s pretty cool.”

“Why not be young and bitter?” I asked him.

“What? And live a cliché?” Dave went.

My week-long fling decided to give me some attitude during class, so I took her aside and worked on my leadership skills, which I wouldn’t need, according to Uncle Jerry, because I’d never be promoted. It had something to do with having too many 81E’s in the Army and too few leadership slots for them.

I took her into the utility closet where we used to make out. She said, “You’re not fucking me anymore. Okay?”

“You need to quit giving me all this ‘tude. You don’t have to respect me, but you do have to respect my position,” I said.

“What position is that? Being a dick?”

“No,” I said. I pointed out the armband with the corporal’s stripes that I had to wear in class.

“Oh, that,” she went. “Big whoop.”

“Do you want me to report you to Biff? Does it have to come to that?” Biff was the senior airman at the school.

“No,” she said. She shrugged, cut her eyes away. “Screw it. I wasn’t that into you anyway.”

“Nor I, you,” I said.

I had to give up smoking. There were no two ways about it. I lay on my back on the side of the wide road, wide because it was once a runway, Murphy had told me.

“You okay?” Dave asked.

“I think I coughed up a tar ball,” I said. “And swallowed it.”

“Fuck yeah,” Dave said. He sat down on the curb next to me. I sat up. “You made it one-and-a-half miles,” he said. “Another half-mile and you got it licked.”

“I have to give up smoking,” I said.

“You got one on you?”

I pulled the pack out of the pocket of my gray Army sweatshirt. Shook one out for Dave and another for myself. Lit mine and handed the matchbook to Dave.

“Mile High Lodge,” Dave went.

“Yeah.”

“Is that where you were fucking that zoomie female?”

“Yeah.”

We sat there for another minute, enjoying our smokes.

Drill Sergeant Dudeman came trotting up. “C’mon,” he went, jogging in place like a yuppie. “Let’s go. Put those coffin nails out.”

We tossed our smokes to the curb and stepped on them.

We graduated from drawing the cone, the rubber ball and the cube to drawing each other. One of us would sit on a chair in the middle of the room while the rest of us would draw him or her. That was the fun part. It lasted a few weeks.

Eventually, we were doing watercolors. Uncle Jerry regaled us with stories of creating multiple paintings of a brigadier general’s dog, spending a month creating a mural in a mess hall in Vietnam only to have it explode a week after he was finished and getting caught with a hooker in his quarters at Fort Belvoir.

Then we got to the unfun parts, like learning how to use the Diazo process machine, making map overlays, creating 35 mm slides for briefings, and other Army bullshit.

Ron, the senior illustrator student, suggested a night of debauchery while eating a splendid souffle at the Air Force mess hall on a Friday that became, moments later, a Saturday. “The sailors are always doing it,” he said. “Why not us?”

Ron had been a mechanized infantryman up until recently. He was an Army Spec-4, which was a soldier who made as much money as a corporal, but had all the authority of a PFC, which was what I was. Ron was one of those guys who never stopped drawing. You know: An actual artist. Unlike me.

He had a character named, “Rollo the Pig,” which was a half-man, half-pig, who showed up in all his paintings.

Murphy was an actual artist, too. He signed on for the night of debauchery. Dave was in. Dave had been in a band called, The Unflushed Toilets. Their big hit, he had told me, was “Brady Bunch Massacre.”

We took off for the barracks. We all changed into civvies.

Ron had already rented a car for $10 from the base rent-a-car. He showed up in front of the barracks. It was kind of chilly.  “A brother needs wheels,” Ron said from the driver’s seat. We all piled in, me and Murphy in the back.

“If you can call a ‘Chevette’ wheels,” Dave said. He didn’t call shotgun, but there he was.

“Don’t bust on my ride,” Ron said.

We all had a celebratory smoke.

“I gotta give these things up,” Ron said. “Or I’ll never pass the PT test.”

“That’s what he’s been saying,” Dave said, yanking a thumb at me.

We all coughed involuntarily.

“Hey, there’s a sailor,” Ron said. We pulled up alongside him as he trudged down the sidewalk.

He was in my class, so I called out to him. “Hey, man!”

“Hey,” he went.

“Where do you Navy guys go at night anyway?”

“The Palomino,” he said, leaning into the car. “You know where that is?” Then he told us. “There’s a chick there that blows out candles with her snatch. It’s killer, dude.”

“Thanks, man,” Ron said.

The sailor stood up straight and fucking winked at us. We drove away from him.

We drove off-base to LoDo and found the Palomino. It didn’t look like much from the outside, more or less like a family fine dining establishment, except for the LIVE NUDE GIRLS sign on the outside. Inside, we saw all the Navy guys from our barracks that we rarely saw. We paid ten bucks apiece to get in. There were five stages spread throughout the facility, each surrounded by barstools. All the Navy guys were in civvies, but you could tell we were all military.

We sat down in the barstools around one of the stages. A nude girl danced above us to Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days.” Ron had a wad of dollar bills. So did Dave. Murphy and I had failed to prepare adequately for the mission. Murphy bought five ones off Ron. I had to buy some ones from a topless girl who came by and took our drink order. They weren’t allowed to sell alcohol, so we all ordered the six-dollar hot chocolates. There was a counter just below stage level all the way around the stage, just enough to rest your drink on. The little counter was lit by recessed lighting built into the stage, which made all the patrons’ faces glow. Otherwise, it wasn’t well lit in there. Even with the girl’s knees at eye level, no more than a few feet away at any given time, we all kind of had to squint. She had a white blanket with her, which she spread out on her tiny dance floor. Across from us, I could see all the Navy guys squinting and and furiously drinking it all in, like they’d never see this kind of shit again. Their Navy drill sergeants probably told them that they’d better get to a stripclub and memorize what a woman looks like for all the jerking off they’d have to do onboard a ship.

The nude girl got on her hands and knees and leaned down until she was nose-to-nose with Dave. She stroked his face with the tip of her nose. Across the stage, I could see the Navy guys going nuts studying the opposite end of her. Her hair hung black and curly around her face. Her lips were full and wet. Her eyes were vacant–she’d checked out for the evening.

There was a commotion behind us. I turned around. Bouncers converged with flashlights around another stage. In the flashlights’ beams I made out Roy Lush’s face.

“Hey, Dave,” I said, tapping his shoulder. “It’s Lush.”

“Busy,” Dave said.

I turned back around. The nude girl had her legs on either side of Dave. He furiously stuffed dollar bills into her garter.

“It’s not my fault!” Lush shouted. “I paid to get in here!”

Cocktail sauce, I thought. I turned back around. The nude girl had moved on to me. She rolled onto her belly. She was very white, almost glowing. She leaned in close, her eyes reflecting yellow from the recessed lighting. I saw myself in them. She leaned very close in, took my head in her hands, her thumbs rubbing my ears. “You’re the one,” she said. “You.”

“What?” I said. “What does that mean?”

She threw up a little, winced and swallowed. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m high. Forget I said anything.”

The nude girl stood up and sauntered over to the Navy guys to our right, dragging her blanket behind her.

“Nice scars,” Murphy snarked, referring to her breast augmentations, or to her appendectomy scar.

My hot chocolate hadn’t been mixed properly. The powder from the mix stuck to my lips.

In another half hour, we became bored and left.

We found a 24-hour convenience store and bought the only alcohol we were allowed to drink in Colorado: 3.2 beer. It was Coors. It was warm. We drank it anyway. I was still a month away from my 21st birthday.

“So where were you stationed before you came here, Ron?” Dave asked.

“Third brigade, second AD,” Ron said. “Graf, West Germany. I was in the second battalion of the fiftieth infantry regiment. I’ll tell you what, nothing’s more fun than doing doughnuts on an icy road in an em-one-one-three. Nothing.” He smiled and sipped his beer, remembering.

“Why didn’t you stay with the infantry?” Murphy asked.

“Fuck the infantry,” Ron said.

We drove past a Greek restaurant. The lights were on, so we stopped and went in. A lady danced. This guy who was dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy played a bouzouki. Dollar bills were thrown. Hands clapped rhythmically. It was zero-three-hundred on a fucking Saturday.

Ron said, “She’s not going to take her clothes off.”

We got up and left.

We sat outside a 7-11 drinking weak beer under a buzzing mercury vapor lamp.

“What did that chick mean, back in the strip club?” Murphy asked me.

“You heard her, too?”

“‘You’re the one?’ What the fuck is that?” Murphy went.

“Claims of truth,” I said, taking a careful sip of my beer, pinky upraised, and spilling it on myself anyway. “We choose to believe what is easy for us to believe.” I burped.

“Boy, you’re drunk,” Dave said.

“Bet she says it to ten guys a night,” Ron said. “Fills that garter right up with dollar bills.”

We’d all managed to drink enough beer to be stinking drunk by the time the Denver cops pulled us over. The fuck of it was, they had their guns drawn and there were about a dozen of them. Or so.

“Hands up! Hands up!” they shouted. We complied. The head cop asked for our military IDs. We complied. “Stand down, ” he told his men. They holstered their weapons. “Sorry about that. A lot of the rental cars from the base have been getting stolen.” He gave us back our IDs.

“No problem, officer,” Ron said. “You have a pleasant evening, sir.”

“You, too, Specialist,” the head cop said. The cops all got back into their vehicles and departed.

We took a minute to gather ourselves.

“I thought I was getting pulled over for driving while black,” Ron said.

“I thought it was the drunkenness,” I said.

“I thought it was because Ron’s black,” Dave said.

“I’m glad it’s all over,” Murphy said.

“Unless anyone objects, I’m driving this motherfucker back to the barracks,” Ron said.

“You’re the senior enlisted man here,” I said.

“Drive on,” Murphy said.

“Denver sucks,” Dave said.

Back on base, Ron spotted a jackrabbit who was about four-feet-tall. “Look at that cocksucker,” Ron said. “He’s flipping me off!”

“Who’s flipping you off?” Dave asked.

“I’m going to run his ass down,” Ron said.

He drove all over the place, trying to run down the rabbit. He had no luck. We returned to the barracks and slept off our drunks.

The next afternoon, I woke up, showered and put on my civvies and walked over to the Air Force mess hall. On the way, I saw the impressive amount of damage Ron had done to the zoomies’ well-kept sidewalks and lawns. I saw him over at the mess hall, sitting by himself, all hung over. After loading up on beef wellington and garlic mashed potatoes, I parked myself at his table.

“Fuck me,” Ron said.

“Anyone find out it was us?”

“Not yet,” he said.

“So take the car to a car wash and then turn it in,” I said. “Anyone asks, I’ll tell ’em we never had a car. Who saw us? That Navy guy?”

“I guess you’re right,” Ron said.

“Damned right I’m right. Have you tried the wellington here? It’s transcendent,” I said, taking a bite.


[Note: this is part 2 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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