The toadlike sergeant behind the desk at the Chicago induction center - where I stood naked in a line of naked men that must have stretched for two miles - hunched over my Yellow Form.
"OK. Yer Protestant." He stamped - with a heavy hand on my form.
Weakly, I protested, "Nope."
"Whaddaya mean, nope? Y' ain't no Catholic or Jew." His BB-shot eyes tried to focus on me. It wasn't easy. He had the look of a man who had been sitting at a desk with naked bodies moving past him for maybe a hundred years. It's almost impossible to see one body after that.
"Y' gotta be Protestant."
Actually, if I was anything in those days, I was closer to a druid.
"Move on, Mack."
I became a Protestant by default. Several months and countless indignities later. I sat on my footlocker, sucking on one of the two aluminum clog tags that hung from my neck. They were stamped P (for Protestant) and blood type O. Life in Company K was moving at its usual oozing pace.
Stretched out full length on the next bunk. Gasser - wearing only rumpled o. d. socks - lay as though dead, his mouth open, his eyes staring glassily at the rough hoard ceiling of our leaky barracks. The bunk above me sagged beneath the weight of Pfc. Zinsmeister, Our ranking noncom, who laboriously pared his toenails with a trench knife. Roswell T. Edwards, across the aisle, bent over a pair of GI shoes and rubbed with manic intensity, a job--.although we didn't know it at the time - he was to work at unremittingly for four long years. Big fat Goldberg, squatting heavily on his footlocker, just stared up into space, the rich folds of his belly exuding sweat and profound boredom.
This was a representative cross section of Company K, a hapless band of Signal Corps technicians that formed the very bottom of the immense heap of the Armed Forces. Armed with oscilloscope, logarithm tables and soldering iron, we poised upon the barricades of democra-cy, nervous, hungry and nearsighted-nervous because we knew that the Signal Corps had a fantastically high casualty rate, hungry because of the mess hall and nearsighted because we were born that way. Company K, recently formed, had been shipped by sealed troop train to one of the most infamous hellholes ever created by man and nature. The camp, a vast, sprawling plain of red mud and rocks, lay in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, in country that even the local skunks and rattlesnakes considered God forsaken.
Gasser heaved himself upright and brushed frantically at his chest, dog tags clanking.
"Your goddamn toenails are flyin' all over me?"
"Gasser," said Zinsmeister with patient condescension, "those will one day be priceless relics and the devout will pilgrimage many miles to observe them when they are enshrined."
"Oh Christ?" Gasser snorted, flicking a toenail paring toward Goldberg.
"Yes, that is true. They may even say that." Zinsmeister returned to his surgery.
For 13 weeks-13 endless, backbreaking, rain-drenched weeks - we had been confined to die company area, awaiting orders. From time to time, we heard rumors that an outside world existed beyond the borders of the camp. But no one ever actually talked to a GI who had gotten out. One hundred thirty-five thousand enlisted men snatched, squatted, crawled, wallowed, cursed, plotted and mildewed in the constant, drizzling Missouri rain.
It was Thursday night; not that it made much difference, except that Thursday was the day before Friday and Friday was the clay of the dreaded "GI party," an insane orgy of crawling around on the barracks floor with brushes, soap, sand and hot water that lasted far into the night, getting ready for the Saturday in-spection. Men at other camps, we heard, got weekend passes; we got V. D. lectures - a great way to spend a Sunday, especially if the subject is purely academic. There wasn't a man in the entire company who wouldn't have given his eyeteeth For a good case of V. D. Or at least the opportunity to get one.
I lay on my hunk, kicking upward at the bulge that Zinsmeister made in the one above me.
"Give the bastard one for me," muttered Gasser.
It was a half hour or so before lights out, that magic moment in barracks life when all E. M. instinctively contemplate their navels. The rain roared clown on the roof. The yellow light from the naked bulbs was just bright enough to keep you awake but not bright enough to read by. At the far end of the barracks, a much older, grayish sort of GI hunched over the endless letter he was always writing. He never spoke to any of us. He just wrote on and on. One day, Esc disappeared from the barracks and we never saw him again. We never even knew his names.
I reached behind my bunk, took down my M-1 and squeezed off a few dry rounds, carefully sighting at the light bulbs. Goldberg opened Isis heavy-lidded eyes sleepily.
"Chicken-shit bastard. You buckin' for infantry or som'pin'?"
The barracks door swung open. A gust of rain drenched Roswell T. Edwards.
"Close the goddamn door!" he yelled.
Elkins, our company driver, his poncho dripping, slammed the door shut, tin hat pulled low over his red-rimmed eyes. He yanked off one soggy leather driving glove, wadded it up and threw it at Ed wards.
"Ah, Elkins. Our winged courier, our intrepid jeep pilot, you are in a foul mood."
Zinsmeister spoke the truth. Elkins, like the rest of us, really didn't know why he was there. A year before, seduced by a Preston Foster Air Cadet movie, he had rushed down to the recruiting station with visions of silver wings, a 50-mission crush cap and 40 confirmed bogeys. Shortly after the papers were signed and the die was cast. It was discovered that Elkins' depth perception made him about as safe in the air as a half-track with wings. At times, he would sit on his bunk, brooding, trying to touch his extended index fingers together and cursing softly as, time after time, they passed each other three inches apart. He drove as he imagined a fighter pilot would dive into combat.
Tonight, his usual rotten humor was touched with just the suggestion of sadistic gaiety. He clumped over to his bunk and stripped off his poncho, spraying the surrounding sacks with icy Missouri rain water. A few huddled figures stirred and muttered coarse words. Then, with great deliberation, he began unlacing his muddy leggings.
I don't know whether I ought to tell you guys or not.. . ."
He continued tugging at the laces with exaggerated concentration. After three months of total isolation from the outside world, Company K gobbled up any scrap of rumor or even innuendo like a pack of maddened piranhas. Gasser hit the bait.
"Tell us what?"
Our end of the barracks was suddenly alert. Even Zinsmeister stopped paring. Elkins had something to say.
"The way you guys pile the crap on me, I don't know whether you deserve it." His voice was muffled as he pulled the top half of his long johns over his head, "C mon, Elkins. Don't put us through that routine again." Edwards spoke in a low, anxious voice. Our official company worrier, Edwards supplied us with a minimum of two dozen dire prophecies a clay. Every company has a soothsayer, one who performs the function of the Greek chorus, always predicting ultimate disaster.
Edwards turned to the rest of us, his eyes blank and fearful. "I told you they were gonna send us to Burma! That guy I know in Headquarters Company was right. They got malaria there that "
"You know what just come in to the PX?" interrupted Elkins. -In the ass end of one a' them weapons carriers from the motor pool?"
We leaned forward expectantly. Elkins lowered his voice to a hoarse, conspira- torial whisper:
"They just got a shipment of four cases of Milky-Ways."
The effect was electric. Instantly, the barracks was in an uproar - guys leaping out of bed, others struggling into fatigues, while those still dressed thundered through the barracks toward the door. The sight of Elkins locking a sack of stolen Milky-Ways into his footlocker proved that this was no idle rumor. Our PX, a dreary barnlike building, rarely had anything in it worth buying; a collection of shiny gold-fringed heart-shaped pillows with blinding purple lettering: TO MY DARLING SWEETHEART or TO MY DEAR HEART MOTHER - and the hated crossed-flag insignia of the Signal Corps - was about all they regularly sold at the PX. They also had a display case full of noncom stripes all the way up to battalion sergeant major. which, of course, meant nothing to any of us. Sitting in the PX, drinking weak GI beer - when they had it - looking at other GIs and at the two acne-encrusted hillbilly girls who worked the cash register, represented the total social life open to Company K.
Already, a line that ran halfway around the building had formed. We stood in the drenching downpour, inching forward in fits and starts. like some arthritic caterpillar. We were used to lines. We were used to rain. We were used to waiting. Minutes before the big gray bullhorns blew taps for lights out, we began the half-mile walk back to the company area, each of us carrying the legal maximum - two precious Milky-Way bars - deep under his poncho, away from the rain. Later, 1 lay under my GI blanket, listening to the rain and gnawing frugally on a Milky-Way. I had stashed the other in a safe place in one of my barracks bags for emergency use. Above me, Zinsmeister shifted position, causing the bunk to creak and groan. I heard him peeling his Milky-Way in the dark. Silently. Company K chewed and pondered the rain on the roof. Life was complete.
At chow just before dawn, the unbelievable bomb hit. We filed in just after five A.m., when the rain was at its coldest. Sullenly, we lugged our trays through the murky gloom of the chow line. Two 40-watt yellow bulbs lit the entire dim bat cave of the mess hall.
"No wonder they don't put no lights in this joint. If you really could see this manure they feed us, you'd heave for a week." Elkins had given the same speech every morning since he had come into the company months before. He banged his tray with his spoon, to give it a little musical accompaniment. The K. P. be-hind the counter, ladling out burned oatmeal, laid a large wet splat of it expertly on Elkins' fatigue jacket.
"Hold yer tray still, you horse's ass. Yer lucky I didn't hit you in the yap." Elkins said nothing, moving on to the next K. P., who was flinging out watery prunes with abandon.
"I take it, Elkins, that you do not appreciate this splendid porridge, prepared from the succulent seed of the noble and ancient oat plant." Zinsmeister was always at his best in the mess hall.
Banjewski, the mess sergeant, was always on the alert for signs of discontent among his clientele. He dealt with their complaints individually when the indiscreet customer, as he invariably did, eventually drew K. P. The louder the bitch, the crappier the job. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." The mess sergeant was a religious man and believed in justice. Fortunately for Elkins, he was absent this morning.
I carried my tray toward the rough wooden tables, unaware that this was to be anything but another routine day in the salt mines. We sat huddled together - Gasser, Edwards, Zinsmeister, Goldberg, Elkins and I - shoveling in the oatmeal.
"I must compliment Banjo Butt on his Lucullan bill of fare this morning," said Zinsmeister to nobody in particular.
None of us answered. It was too early in the morning. I gulped some of the strong black coffee that was the best thing our mess hall ever served - and washed down a prune pit by mistake. I heard it rattling down through my rib cage.
"Yes, indeed, Banjo Butt has the state of our lower colon always in mind." Zinsmeister was in high gear now. "You will note. men, that oatmeal is a specific curative for loose bowels, while the humble prune is highly effective in dealing with constipation. Thus, Banjo Butt has this morning created the perfect panacea for those suffering from stomach distress."
"Road apples!" muttered Gasser as he stirred a handful of prunes into his singed oatmeal, making a murky stew, as he did every morning.
"AT EASE, YOU GUYS." Kowalski, our first sergeant, stood near the door of the mess hail. He was rarely seen this early in the morning and never in the mess hall. "I SAID AT EASE GOD-DAMN I T, AND WHEN I SAY AT EASE, I MEAN IT!"
The hubbub died down to a tomblike silence. Kowalski haranging us at breakfast was a new twist and we were instinctively on guard. His green Air Corps sunglasses glinted as the massive display of stripes on his sleeve flashed authoritatively.
"Lieutenant Cherry has instructed me to tell you guys that the first platoon an' the third platoon, as of twelve-hunnert tomorra afternoon, right after inspection, will be issued a weekend pass good to eighteen-hunnert Sunday night, for a fifty-mile radius of the catnip. Any guys what gets gigged between now an' then, just forget it. The rest of the company will be confined to the area as usual, an' will be given passes next week."
He turned and was gone. For a few seconds. we sat stunned at this totally unexpected turn of events. There had been not the slightest hint of a rumor about passes. A giant wave of sound roared through the mess ball. A K. P., his mouth hanging slack in disbelief, absentmindedly poured a stream of scalding coffee on Gasser's tray.
Edwards, sitting opposite me, had gone ashen. "I told you. It's Burma! They always give you a pass before you get shipped out. Oh, my God!" His palsied hand shook badly as he clutched at his coffee cup.
"Well, be a son of a bitch." It was the first time anyone had heard Zinsmeister use the coarse language that passed for wit among the rest of us.
Goldberg was transformed. All vestiges of his perpetual lethargy had miraculously disappeared. He sprang upward, knocking over a pitcher of slightly sour skim milk, his eyes glowing. Even his Zeppelin-like waistline seemed flatter. He struggled to get over the bench seat and fell heavily to the floor. He leaped up and headed toward the door.
"Where the hell you going, Goldberg?" Gasser called after him.
"To the barracks. I want to start pressing my uniform and everything." Goldberg's famous sloth was matched only by his monumental sloppiness. His very being reeked of ketchup stains, pipe ashes, sweat and general crud. Goldberg had never once passed an inspection without at least five gigs. His pipe alone was a tiny, constantly fermenting, overheated little sewer, spewing out volcanic ash and noxious fumes day and night.
After breakfast, our barracks hummed with tense activity. Beds were made and remade, we swept and dusted, straightened up lockers, did all the things we were supposed to do but usually ignored. We were taking no chances.
The morning was spent, since it was raining again. listening to lectures and assembling and reassembling the At noon. we were back in the mess hall. Elkins, a practiced chow hound, who was always at the head of every Tine, called out: "Oh, boy? Salmon loaf and pickled beets! My favorite!"
It was the first time any of us had heard Elkins say a good word about GI food, even in sarcasm, though he invariably shoveled in giant quantities of everything Banjo Butt. set before us. He ate like a human vacuum cleaner, inhaling his food between bursts of profanity. Around the table, a happy little clan from the first platoon laid their plans.
"I'm gonna grab the first broad I see, Even if we're in the middle of the street. I'll ...
"Here, here, Gasser," Zinsmeister cut in. ''One would think you were not the clean-cut American lad that we all know you to be. You must remember that you are speaking in front of Private Edwards, wino is still growing and unaware of the grosser timings."
"Oh, excuse me, Edwards. I forgot you were listenin'." Gasser's voice dripped with sarcasm. "By the way, Edwards," he continued, "what're you gonna do this weekend?"
Edwards, who had been silent all morning, looked around the table solemnly anti finally spoke: "I'm not gonna take my pass. A guy from Headquarters Company told me you gotta have a pass before you get shipped overseas, and if you don't take your pass, they can't ship you."
"Where the hell did you hear that?" Elkins asked.
"From a guy at battalion headquarters. A T-five."
"Really?" Elkins looked thoughtful.
"As for me" - Zinsmeister began to speak slowly, after portentously clearing his throat several times to gain our attention - "I intend to get as far away from the military as possible. Let us say a splendid, airy, private room in an elegant hotel and an unassuming dinner, Perhaps a very rare filet with a garden salad and Roquefort dressing on the side, a modest yet endearing white wine, topped off with a cup or two of coffee and a snifter of brandy. I will then stroll
about the town and absorb the rich atmosphere of the area. And then I will enjoy the companionship - platonic, of course - of a young lady."
We sat hacking away at the salmon loaf and drinking in Zinsmeister's beautiful words.
"I will then repair, at a reasonable hour, to my delightfully air-conditioned room. I shall adjust the temperature to exactly my choice and no one else's. I will play soft music, of my own choosing, on the radio. After a long, soaking bath - during which time I will read a few chapters of a good novel - I will crawl between the snowy sheets. There will be two of them, one below me and one above, in sharp contrast to our surroundings here in Company K. And then I will drift off into dreamland, the only place where we are all equal: generals, Pfc.s, Presidents and kings."
He paused. his eyes half closed, and sipped from his gross GI cup before continuing. Gasser listened with a strange smile; Goldberg solemnly chewed his beets, with the look of a man listening to a major religious statement; and Edwards looked even more worried than usual.
"Yes, men, while others pursue the more obvious pleasures of the flesh over the weekend, I shall at long last enjoy the luxurious rest, the untroubled sleep of a civilian. And gradually, I will awaken!, as the Sunday-morning light filters through the drawn blinds. I will then stretch, turn over and go back to sleep for another hour or maybe three. And then, for the first time in many, many months, I shall arise at a civilized hour, let us say one P.M. I will pick up the phone and call room service. I will instruct them to bring me a plate of lightly basted fried eggs. The yolk will be exactly right, not too soft and yet pleasantly liquid. It will not be broken. A half-dozen strips of crisp bacon, some toast and marmalade, a beaker of coffee and I shall be ready for the day. I intend to spend the day, in case you're interested, enjoying the sights of the town and engaging in pleasant conversation and, for once, doing whatever comes into my head, with no plan or direction. And certainly no orders."
He settled hack contentedly, his face in repose. It was the longest discourse that anyone in Company K had ever heard or delivered - certainly the longest without a single four-letter word.
"You know, Zinsmeister, that was beautiful. just beautiful." Gasser wiped away an imaginary tear and sniffed loudly with emotion. Zinsmeister, our resident intellectual, wino had attended college and was known to read full-length books that contained no pictures, had said it for all of us.
"Don't stop," I urged. Zinsmeister had got me where I lived, and I wanted more of it. He smiled benignly, as he chewed on a stalk of limp celery.
"Very well. Perhaps I may also attend a concert. They're always nice on a Sunday afternoon. Or I may enjoy a film. But there is one thing I know I am going to do." He paused, inviting questions.
Gasser obliged him. "Well? Fer Chris-sake, what:"
"I'm glad you asked that, Gasser. I intend, above all else, to avoid the sight of GI uniforms. Naturally, I shall be wearing
my own, but that cannot be helped. For what seems like ten years now, we have been surrounded by a minimum of a hundred thousand GIs, marching in platoons, in company formations, in battalions, even in divisions. I have seen enough soldiers for a while - present company excepted, of course."
"Zinsmeister, are you looking for a buddy on your weekend?" I asked.
"I would be honored if you would care to join me at the revels."
That night, we slept the sleep that only men who are getting out of camp the next day for the first time since they were drafted can sleep.
Before dawn, like a swarm of demented ants, we crawled for the third dine over every inch of the barracks on hands and knees, rubbing and polishing things that were never meant to be rubbed and polished. Even Goldberg toiled over his bunk and footlocker with the care and concentration of a man who is going for the one big chance. His wife, Marsha, was meeting him in town. He was the only one in the company known to be married, which kind of set him apart from the rest of us.
"Goldberg," said Gasser, "if you get this barracks gigged, I personally will make tole slaw out of you!"
Thanks to his natural shiftiness, Gasser never got gigged. Goldberg didn't answer but continued to arrange his rolled-up sacks and underwear in the top tray of his footlocker with manic intensity. Goldberg didn't use the system of footlocker flimflam that most of us did. Like everything else in the Army, there was a precise way to arrange every item of equipment in the footlocker. The field manual had diagrams that showed to the fraction of an inch how the tray should be laid out.
Company K still bore the scars of one totally idiotic inspection, where the executive officer, one Lieutenant Wheeler B, Snively, a hatchet-faced zealot with bad skin, who had gone on to get his own company as a result of his skill at harassment, had measured the distance between every rolled sock, toothbrush and comb in every footlocker one black saturday morning. While the company stood at stiff attention, the gigs piled up to astronomical totals. sergeant Kowalski followed behind him, keeping score on his clipboard, gopher eyes gleaming in pleasure from behind his green sunglasses.
After completing his meticulous labors, Snively walked to the door of the barracks, turned and, in a soft voice, said simply, "Of course, you realize that takes care of any leaves or passes for the next month at least."
We never forgot it. Since that time, most of us had bought a second set of underwear, socks and so forth, and glued them carefully in position on the top tray of our footlockers, never to be used except for display purposes. The other set was kept in our barracks bags and used the way God intended.
Goldberg was now measuring his tightly rolled underwear with micrometer precision. Propped up beside him was a field manual. Zinsmeister carefully brushed an
d. blouse. For the third time, I made my bed, stretching the blanket as taut as a trampoline.
By noon. Company K was ready - as ready as it would ever be. We milled stiffly around in the barracks, afraid to sit because of the creases, which were razor sharp, afraid to smoke because of the stray ash and rapidly going into a state known 'to medical circles as pre-inspection shock. This is characterized by an ashen color, marked melancholia and extreme paranoia, in which the victim is convinced that unseen forces are about to attack him. The sequence of events that followed is recorded forever on the clipboard of my memory:
12:05: Door at far end of barracks slams open against foot of bunk. Kowalski, wearing dress uniform, shouts: "ATTEN-HUT!" Instantly, barracks galvanized. Lieutenant Cherry follows Kowalski inside. Carries pair of white gloves in left hand. Ominous sign. I stand at attention, eyes front, gut pushing against backbone.
12:08: Insane itch beginning between shoulder blades. Haven't itched for a month. Why now? Kowalski and Lieutenant Cherry at far end of barracks.
12:09: Barracks so quiet can hear my own heart beating. Am 1 having heart attack? They are getting closer. Lieutenant Cherry says nothing. Looks mean.
12:13: Kowalski, pencil ready, holds clipboard high, eager to gig. Goldberg stands rigid directly opposite me. Notice sweat dripping off his nose. Seems to have stopped breathing. Possibly dead?
12:15: Gasser to left of Goldberg. Keeps swallowing, causing tie to move up and down. Terrible itch starting on my left kneecap. Feels like something crawling up my leg inside pants.
12:18: Desire to scratch irresistible. What is crawling up leg? Do I have crabs?
12:19: C. 0. stops before Goldberg. Kowalski licks pencil. Lieutenant silent. Stares at Goldberg's shoes. Works up to Goldberg's belt buckle. First time ever shined. Lieutenant examines each button on Goldberg's shirt. Goldberg turning green.
12:23: Lieutenant carefully examines Goldberg's chins. Goldberg shaved three times this A.M. Still bleeding.
12:28: Kowalski disappointed. Also astounded. Goldberg not gigged. My turn. Lieutenant smiles slightly. Very dangerous sign. Can he see crabs? Entire body itching. Bottoms of feet burning. Am feeling faint.
12:32: Lieutenant and Kowalski move on. I have escaped!
12:36: Lieutenant standing on footlocker, checking top of window frame with white gloves. Nothing.
12:37: Kowalski looks in butt can. Frowns. Nothing.
12:41: Lieutenant abruptly opens door, stalks out. Kowalski stands in doorway, pauses, says tonelessly, "At case. Pick up yer passes at the orderly room after chow." Leaves.
12:42: Goldberg falls sideways onto floor. Barracks in uproar. We've made it! "Quick, get some water!"
Gasser bent over the crumpled form lying on the floor next to Goldberg's bed. Goldberg's mouth was working like a bullhead out of water, in short gurgling gasps.
"1 ... made it! . . . No gigs . . . even my belt. . . . Oh, God!"
Gasser, with large dramatic sweeping motions, fanned him with a GI towel. Edwards and Elkins led the rest of the barracks in a brief cheer for Goldberg's miraculous deliverance. Our company slob had come through.
Half an hour after chow, Zinsmeister and I, passes tucked carefully in our wallets, Dopp-Kits clutched in hand, spirits soaring beyond all known heights, headed for the number-two PX, where the bus left for town. It was a good long walk, since the number-two PX was in a foreign part of the camp, far removed from Company K's ghetto. We passed row on row of white barracks with strange battalion ensigns. Mile after mile we trudged, amid a growing throng of migrating, snappily uniformed GIs. We passed an elegant row of officers' barracks, resembling closely a middle-class retirement community somewhere down in Florida. Compared with our barracks - stark, grim and functional - these buildings glowed with a dignified, opulent splendor.
"I hear they have individual stalls in the latrine," I said confidentially.
"Really?" Zinsmeister looked toward the B. 0. Q. with respect.
"With doors that close."
"Where'd you hear that?"
"I dunno. I just heard it around."
We continued past an enormous post theater, rounded a corner and got our first setback of the day.
"Holy Christ!" I gasped. Zinsmeister said nothing, just took a deep breath and straightened his tie.
A closely packed line three abreast wound itself several times around the number-two PX and continued down the gravel road, disappearing behind a chapel. It did not appear to he moving. Even as we watched, a couple hundred more GIs converged on the line. A sign in the orange-and-white colors of the signal Corps read:
BUS TO TOWN DEPARTS EVERY 30 MINUTES
FROM THIS POINT, FORM ORDERLY LINE.
We fell in with the rest of the waiting horde, so far back in the line that the PX had disappeared from view.
The camp had one bus stop and this was it. There was one town that the bus went to. There were other towns within the 50-mile radius, of course, but to get to them, you had to go to this one first.
It was now 11:45. By four P.M., we had progressed to within M-1 range of the chapel. By six, we had sighted the PX itself. Night had almost fallen and the barracks around us were beginning to show squares of yellow light. Zinsmeister, who had been uncharacteristically silent for the last couple of hours, shifted from foot to foot as we waited. Fifty feet ahead in the line, Goldberg looked as drawn and anxious as a fat man can. Gasser, Elkins and Dye, some 15 yards behind us, were a tiny knot of sardonic gaiety. It was close to 8:30 when Zinsmeister and I finally climbed stiffly up the steps of the rusty rattletrap and began the dark journey through the Ozarkian wilderness toward the promised land.
Once inside the bus, our spirits zoomed. .After all, an eight-hour wait is a small enough price to pay for consummate bliss and escape from everything the Army stood for. In the darkened bus, the weekend had already well begun. The heavy pungence of contraband whiskey scented the close air.
Zinsmeister muttered quietly to me, "When we get to town, well get as far away from all this stuff as we can."
When we had arrived at the camp three months before, late one grim winter night, we had seen a few street lights in town from the muddy troop-train window and that was all. Now, outside the bus window, a few gas stations showed up, a few dark houses and a street light or two. The bus rattled on and then, suddenly, we were there.
"AWRIGHT, YOU GUYS, LET'S MOVE OUT. I AIN'T GOT NO TIME TO WASTE." The bus driver slammed open the door and the unruly mob charged out into the street. We were free! We were back in real life.
For a few moments, the bright lights, the noise, the movement stunned us. Like pale fish from an underground river, we blinked confusedly in the unaccustomed brightness. For months, our ears had heard only the sound of distant bugles and rumbling half-tracks. We were thrown off balance by the roar of Saturday night in town. We stood before the bus station, looking up the main drag. Neon signs - red, yellow, blue and green - crawled like some mad electronic fungus up and down the walls of the low, sullen buildings that hemmed in the main stem. The sidewalks were jammed from curb to doorway with a moiling, wild-eyed throng of GIs on pass. They eddied to and fro like a pack of anxious mongrels sniffing for scraps. A pair of MPs, their white helmets glowing scarlet from reflected neon, strode along in front of the dilapidated bus station.
"C'mon, move on, you guys. Keep movin'."
The shorter of the two, a buck sergeant, flicked his billy at Zinsmeister's ribs. His partner, glancing at the patch on my arm, said, "Lemme see yer pass, soh' jer."
We weren't in town five minutes and already we were on the ropes. We dug out our passes and waited obsequiously while the sergeant pored over them in the glare of the neon sign behind us that read EAT, I noticed that his lips moved as he read.
"Look, Al," he said scornfully to his partner. "These guys are from one a' them fuckin' radar companies."
Al snorted loudly. "Goddamn fairies."
Zinsmeister shifted slightly. He had been a Big Ten swimming champion before Company K glommed onto him. The sergeant tapped me on the chest with his billy.
"Look, buster, when yer in this town, yer gonna act like real sol'jers. We don't want no trouble from you." He tapped harder, rattling my clog tags against my chest. "You play ball with us an' we'll play ball with you. Y' unnerstand?"
"Yes, sergeant." I understood all too well.
"Now, get movin.."
We turned to leave.
"I said, MOVE!"
He swatted Zinsmeister on the rump with his club. Zinsmeister grunted in surprise.
"What was that, sol'jer?"
It was Al this time, his MP arm band bright and sharp under the lights from the street.
"Nothing, sir. I mean corporal," said Zinsmeister flatly. For a long instant, Al looked into Zinsmeister's eyes, waiting for a false move.
"You heard what the sergeant said. MOVE!"
We did, as though on eggs. The weekend was truly under way.
Ahead of us, three soldiers linked arm in arm wove from side to side, yelling discordantly a song about the sexual prowess and total availability of somebody named Gertie. It had a rather catchy tune and it was a new one to me. I always liked good music. Flexing their billy chubs, the MPs moved in for the kill.
In the gloom above the storefronts, pale faces looked out on the stream of revelers. We had proceeded several yards into the throng when Zinsmeister pulled me into a doorway.
"Let's look for a place to stay before it gets too late."
A tech sergeant, wearing the patches of the Army Ground Forces and an infamous armored division on his torn shirt, crawled past our doorway, whistling softly to himself. We watched him struggle by, shoelaces trailing in the dust.
"We gotta ask somebody," I said, for want of anything better to say. Zinsmeister thought that over. "1 guess you're right. There must be a couple of good hotels in town."
We plunged back into the uproar, edging a mob of enlisted men who were cheering on a fistiight between two hulking WACs, who swore steadily as they flailed away at each other.
As far as the eye could see on either side of the street, there were nothing but bars and Army supply stores selling Purple Hearts, good-conduct ribbons and flyspecked suntan uniforms. We paused under a gigantic green-and-orange flickering pineapple wreathed with the words
HOWIE'S HAWAIIAN BAMBOO JUNGLE INN.
The sound of twanging guitars and raucous merriment rolled out of the portals, which were encrusted with plastic bamboo leaves and orchids.
"Hey, Zings, this looks like a great place! Let's go!"
Zinsmeister hesitated for a moment, as he peered upward at the buzzing pineapple. The guitars rose in volume; a high-pitched feminine laugh rode the crest of the wave. Without another word, the two of us headed into the most notorious clip joint this side of the Place Pigalle.
"Well, you just conic right in, boys, and join die fun. I'm Howie."
A short, beetle-browed citizen dressed in a threadbare tuxedo herded us into the heady darkness of the Jungle Inn. At the time, we didn't realize it but we were on historic ground. Thousands of GIs before us and countless who came after were to be plucked as clean as Christmas turkeys, with an astounding adroitness that was later to become legend. Wherever Signal Corps men were to meet in the years after, the Hawaiian Jungle Inn provided the subject for countless stories of vice and chicanery. Each booth bore the carved mementos of nameless multitudes of victims who had fluttered like doomed moths into the bright flame of Howie's bamboo trap.
The beams from orange, yellow and amber spotlights revolved constantly on the walls and ceiling, creating a peculiar hypnotic effect as the smoke and the din rose in waves to the fake-thatched ceiling. The booths, encased with thick bamboo arid rustling vines, partially concealed die debauchees from public view. Waitresses dripping sweat hurled themselves through the rosy darkness carrying trays high above their heads. They wore Hawaiian grass skirts below rubbery waists; on the tip of each pendulous breast, over a strip of jungle-colored taffeta, was a gaudy paper poinsettia; and in their piled hair was the crowning touch - a teetering still life of artificial bananas and grapes. At the far end of the cave, four musicians squatted on bamboo stools, playing Hawaiian guitars, their flowered shirts soaking with sweat as they struggled in vain to be heard above the tumult. They looked Italian to me, but I suppose on a Saturday night in rural Missouri, it's any Hawaiian in a storm.
We were shoved into a booth that was already occupied by three other GIs.
"You fellas won't mind movin' over and makin' room for a couple of thirsty doughboys, will ya?"
Howie really believed he spoke the language of the GI. For a moment, I couldn't see a thing, the booth was so dark. But I began to pick out details after my eyes had got used to the gloom. A corporal, his head lying peacefully on the table, slept soundly in a puddle of beer. His two friends, a Pfc. and another corporal, argued over the check.
"Hiya, boys. What'll it be?"
We looked up into the moon face of our waitress, her brass-colored hair thick with lacquer and gleaming like wire, her lips a gaudy moist scarlet, her drooping eyes rimmed with streaky eye shadow. For a fleeting instant, I thought I'd remind Zinsmeister of his modest yet endearing white wine, but I figured it was still a little early in the evening for bitterness.
"How's about a specialty dee la may-, zon?"
The corporal, asleep in the beer, had begun to snore insistently, blowing up a light froth of foam. His friends continued to check and double-check the figures on the bill, using a stubby pencil.
"Is that a French drink?" I asked the waitress. I heard Zinsmeister snort in the darkness.
"Honey, we call it Howie's Aloha HokiLoki Jungle Juice Blaster."
"What's in it?"
"Don't ask questions. Take it from me, it works. We only allow two to a customer." she leered at us meaningfully.
"Let us throw caution to the winds," said Zinsmeister nonchalantly. "Bring us two, my good woman."
"Y' won't regret it, boys."
The waitress scurried off, her grass skirt rustling loudly. For a moment, we sat together, saying nothing, watching the corporal slowly drowning in his beer. Finally, Zinsmeister spoke to the Pfc., who seemed to be almost sober.
"Excuse me, but are there any good hotels in town?"
The Pfc. looked blankly at Zinsmeister for a moment, his cap on the back of his head. Then, belligerently:
"What'd you say, Jack?"
"I said, are there any good hotels in town?"
Zinsmeister spoke slowly, in a loud voice, as though to a deaf person, The Pfc.'s eyes narrowed as he half rose from his seat and leaned toward Zinsmeister, breathing heavily in his face.
"You puttin' me on, fuckhead?"
Zinsmeister said nothing. He just sat and peered at the Pfc.'s nose, which was inches away from his. As the Hawaiian guitars swung into Sweet Leilani, Zinsmeister and the Pfc. remained nose to nose for what seemed minutes.
Zinsmeister said in a low, even voice, "Mack, are you looking to get your ass busted?"
There was something in Zinsmeister's voice that told the Pfc. he had pushed it far enough. He sat down heavily, kicking the corporal, who drowsily began to sing. The other corporal heaved himself to his feet.
"Let's clear out of this joint."
They both grabbed their beer-soaked buddy by the arms and dragged him from the booth.
"Here they are, boys. Two ice-cold Aloha Blasters."
The waitress, with a practiced hand, lowered a tray to our table. Two colossal creations lit up the surrounding darkness. The drinks, which came in punted wooden pineapples, were fully a foot tall. Sliced oranges, lemons and grapefruit protruded from the top, amid a mound of crushed ice. A huge purple swizzle stick with a plastic bird of paradise stuck out at a jaunty angle, and two three-inch Japanese paper umbrellas topped it all off.
"Drink 'em slow, boys, They're mean," the waitress advised, and left us alone with our joy.
One of the Italian Hawaiians was moaning into a microphone festooned with artificial orchids. The ringing feedback blended discordantly with the twanging guitars. I sipped my Aloha Blaster through its red, white and blue straw. For a split second, I was conscious only of an icy fluid in my mouth. I sloshed it around over and under my tongue, savoring its coolness. It had been a long, hard night, and I was dry. I sipped another mouthful and then became conscious of a spreading furriness. My tongue and gums seemed to have become incased in some kind of fuzzy felt. Tentatively, I sipped another drag through the straw. Again, the liquid was tasteless, cold and paralyzing.
"Zinsmeister ..." I said with difficulty, since my tongue seemed to have swollen to the size of a small salami.
He sat hunched over his drink. I noticed that his eyes were watering.
"Yeah?" he answered finally.
I continued: "Do you have any idea what Novocain tastes like?"
He laughed a weak, hollow laugh. "Not until now."
We sucked at our straws. I looked down into the icy concoction, my eves focusing on a bobbing lemon rind. The Japanese umbrellas scratched my forehead as I doggedly drank on, feeling the numbness move down to my larynx and then slowly into the thorax.
"Well, boys, ready for another?" The waitress was back, peering sardonically down at her two victims.
Since my ears were ringing slightly, I let Zinsmeister answer for both of us.
"Ah ... no, I believe that'll be all."
"OK. You're the doctor." She smiled broadly and slapped down a piece of paper. "here's the check, boys."
I leaned forward. So did Zinsmeister. Magically, in a single stroke, we were both stone-cold sober, Eighteen dollars!
"Excuse me, but there must be some mistake. You gave us somebody else's check." Zinsmeister smiled politely.
"Oh? I'm sorry, boys," said the waitress cheerfully, scooping up the check and peering at it under a revolving Oriental lantern.
"Sure enough. You're right."
She erased and rewrote the check. Zinsmeister smiled with satisfaction, nudging me in the ribs and whispering into my left ear:
"You've really got to watch them in places like this."
"Here you are, boys." Again she slapped down the check.
"I forgot to add the service charge. Thanks for tellin' me about it."
Together, we peered bleakly at the bill. Now it was 21 smackers.
"Uh . . how do you figure that?" I asked weakly.
"Well, let's see," she said briskly. "Two Aloha Blasters - eight dollars. Five-dollar cover each and, of course, the service charge. Which, naturally, includes the gratuity."
We were dead and we knew it.
Company K had been paid the week before. After laundry, the company fund, the cleaners, GI insurance, a War Bond payment, a statement of charges for two platters and a cup I had broken on K. P., my total pay for three months of slavery had come to $51.73. Zinsmeister, because lie was a Pfc., got four dollars more. In one chomping bite, Howie and his Aloha Blasters had grabbed about. three weeks' pay. Silently, we extracted ten dollars apiece from our wallets. We counted out our change to make up the extra buck.
"Thanks, boys. It's been a pleasure to have ya. We make a special thing of GIs here at the Bamboo Inn. You just come around any time."
As we struggled out of the booth, three new fresh-faced privates were being escorted to our place by Howie. No wonder he became known to generations of Signal Corps men as The Grim Reaper.
Back on the street, our education now well under way, two older and warier GIs fell in with the by-now-roaring mob. During the half hour we had spent in Howie's Hawaiian Bamboo Inn, more busloads had arrived, not only from our camp but from others for miles around. Medics, infantrymen and engineers mingled in one vast river of uniforms.
"Hey, Zinsmeister, look! A girl!" I grabbed his elbow excitedly.
Ahead, a girl, wasp waisted and broad beamed, wearing high spiked shoes, her hair sending off rays of platinum light from the reflected neon, sashayed down the sidewalk. Hundreds of GIs followed her every movement with their eyes, as she undulated along the concrete. It was the first actual girl we had seen in over three months - barring, of course, the fruit-topped waitresses at Howie's, the bull-dyke WAGS we'd seen slugging it out down the block and the two sexless cretins who worked in the PX.
''Wouldn't you know it?" said Zinsmeister with resignation.
Then I saw what he meant. Beside her, casually holding her arm, was a razor-creased lieutenant, his golden bars gleaming arrogantly. The only known girl in town had been grabbed off by an officer. Naturally. His elegant tailored uniform contrasted sharply with our sacklike Government Issue shirts and blouses, our clumpy GI shoes, our rope-like ties, our tinny brass.
Ahead, next to the Victory Bar, a sign swung in the shadow of a neon American flag emblazoned with a huge red V and the word Booze. The Victory Bar was at least honest about what it sold.
"There's the U. S. 0. Let's ask 'em where we can stay." Zinsmeister drove hard through the crowd.
The U. S. 0., an ex-poolroom, was packed from wall to wall with sullen yardbirds. The faint aroma of pool chalk and old spittoons still lingered on. Behind a counter, two elderly ladies served coffee from an urn and handed out leaden doughnuts. A bulletin board on the wall was plastered with announcements of the gala events available to GIs:
YOUNG PEOPLE'S PRAYER MEETING. FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH. ALL INVITED.
COMMUNITY SING. THE LADIES' VOLUNTEER AID SOCIETY SPONSORING. GUEST SPEAKER: REVEREND W. D. BEAN-BLOSSOM.
"Excuse me, lady, but what's the best hotel in town?" Zinsmeister spoke up respectfully over the din.
"Tuna salad's all we've got, sonny." A short lady with blue hair, she flashed her store teeth brightly, eyes twinkling behind her bifocals. She shoved a plate of sandwiches toward us as the mob surged around the coffee urn.
"No, thank you, ma'am. I'd like to know where we can rent a bed."
The sound level went up ten decibels as a redheaded staff sergeant gave a hotfoot to a fat Pfc. who was trying to write a letter.
"What's that, sonny? You say you want to go to bed? Emily, call Joe from the hack. Here's another one of them bad ones."
The second lady, her teeth clattering rhythmically, piped up.
"Flora's old enough to be your mother! Aren't you ashamed?" Zinsmeister faded into the crowd. I followed. Now what the hell would we do?
"We gotta get a place to stay," I said with a note of desperation.
"OK, you try it. But watch out for Flora."
I struggled back to the counter.
"Is there a hotel in town?" I shouted at Emily.
"Sure, sonny. Try the Chateau Elegance Arms." From beneath the counter, she whipped out a purple-and-red postcard picturing the hotel lobby.
"Sure looks like a nice place. Thanks very much."
"Don't mention it," she said with what can only be described as a sinister smile.
Five minutes later, after we had battled our way several blocks along Main Street past two shooting galleries, a tattoo parlor, three bowling alleys, 37 bars and a used-car lot, we stood in the lobby of the Chateau Elegante Arms. Right away, it was obvious that the picture on the postcard had been taken on the occasion of Diamond Jim Brady's visit when he and Lillian Russell stopped off on their way to the opening of the West. A half-dozen potted palms, strategically placed to conceal the holes in the carpet, cast a somber gloom over the cracked tile floor. The ghosts of countless traveling drummers drifted through the murky haze beneath the tarnished brass Gothic chandelier that bung from the fly-spotted ceiling. It was crowded with soldiers coming and going, and men in shiny black suits carrying cardboard suitcases. Zinsmeister whispered to me as we waited in line at the registration desk behind a pale Episcopal minister and two red-faced Gis.
"It looks like we'll be lucky to get a place here. I'd better handle it."
"An' naow, whut kin ah do fer yew boys?" The clerk, a jug-eared specimen in a stained vest and wearing a huge yellow elk's tooth, shuffled papers and talked without looking at us.
"My good man, we would like an airy room with a western exposure. Double beds and a bath with shower."
The old Zinsmeister was back in the saddle, his fastidious delivery commanding instant respect. The clerk hesitated, one eye quickly taking in the two of us.
"Well, naow, it sure is a pleasure to talk to men who know whut they want in a good hotel."
He cleared his throat juicily, hawked twice and shoved a registration card toward us. His voice lowered to a conspiratorial tone.
"Ah kin tell yew boys ain't the ordinary run a' GI. Ah got a son in the Army mahself. Yer in luck. It so happens ah do have a double left. Been savin' it fer a colonel who just called in cancan' his reservation."
Zinsmeister nudged me while the clerk hunted for a pen. 'We'd hit the jack pot.
"That'll be seven bucks apiece. In advance. Ah'm yew the Armed Forces discount." We both coughed up seven dollars. ||
|Not Determined yet|
|Engineer and others in Booth