[Fort Benning, Georgia]
I completed out-processing with a severe hangover two days after my birthday. Once outside the main gate, I pulled over and got out. It was my intention for my first official act as a civilian to give the base the finger, but I waited as some buses filled with recruits heading for basic training on Sand Hill turned into the gate. The convoy stopped for some reason. The faces inside the bus closest to me stared out at their coming reality with wide-eyed expressions. A kid with greasy long hair looked directly at me. We made eye contact.
I stare out the window of the bus as it passes through the gates of Fort Benning. I swivel and crane my neck for a glimpse at the real honest-to-God soldiers walking around. It’s almost too much to process. The bus comes to a stop. A drill sergeant in a crisp uniform and Smoky-the-Bear hat climbs aboard. “Eyes down, maggots! Eyes down, God damn it! You haven’t earned the right to look at me!”
The long-haired kid unlatched the window. “What was that, man?”
I wasn’t sure what I’d yelled if anything. Without responding to him I closed my eyes. When I opened them again the buses of recruits were gone. I climbed into my truck, put it into gear and drove off without looking back.
I headed out of Columbus via Victory Drive and crossed the Chattahoochee River into Alabama. Victory Drive turned into highway 280 as I made my way to the westbound I85. I settled into highway cruising speed. My plan was to take my time driving the two thousand miles across the country to California. I’d visit friends, maybe stop at some tourist sites. I’d seen more of Panama and the Middle East than I had my own damned country.
My application the previous fall to UC Santa Barbara had been nothing more than a joke. I was drunk when I wrote the Statement of Purpose. I only mailed the package on the morning we shipped out to Saudi Arabia.
An acceptance letter found me in the middle of the Iraqi desert the following March. I was going to ignore it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘why the hell not?’ The ‘Girls of UCSB’ calendar that arrived a few weeks after that — some three months after I’d last seen a female of any kind — helped sway my decision as well. That calendar hung from a hook on the passenger door. I saw a sign for Auburn University. It was a Friday afternoon. It was hot. I was tired. My head pounded. I considered my options. Why shouldn’t I get some sleep, hit a couple of college clubs and try to get lucky? After all, for the first time in years, I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I pulled off the highway and found a motel near campus. I gulped down a quart of water and flopped onto the bed.
I woke up in time for happy hour.
My headache was finally gone. I took a long piss, longer shower and got dressed. There was a little hole-in-the-wall bar across from the motel.
It was dark inside, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. A long narrow bar leading to a pool room in the back made up the bulk of the interior. A sweaty and overweight bartender poured drafts for a group of probably underage college kids. There were three guys and a girl. The girl wasn’t exactly pretty but she clearly enjoyed being the center of attention. They took their pitcher into the pool room.
There was another guy, in his forties, crew cut, wearing mirrored sunglasses, sitting alone at the bar. He watched the grainy television and ate peanuts while working on what looked like a quadruple vodka tonic. I took a seat a couple of stools down from him. He glanced at me without much interest as I ordered a beer. I had a feeling I knew him from somewhere.
“Why do you keep staring at me like I got tits?” he finally asked, irritated at the way I kept looking over at him. “Do I turn you on?”
“I know you.”
“You were my drill sergeant back in the day.”
“You and ten thousand other little shits.”
Sergeant First Class Roberto White. Senior drill instructor for my basic training platoon back in 1988, and the absolute master of the military aphorism.
SFC White sits on a folding chair in front of our platoon as we collectively do sit-ups. He bites into an apple. “It’s mind over matter, gentlemen… I don’t mind and you don’t matter.”
The weight of my ruck increases exponentially as we hit the eighteen-mile mark. A five-ton passes us. SFC White sits on the rear bumper. “That which does not kill you,” he calls out cheerfully, “WILL make you stronger… But it’s still going to hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.”
It’s two Sundays before graduation. No training is scheduled and we are relaxing. SFC White strolls through the barracks, hands in pocket and asks, “All right, who’s got the porn? Someone’s always got porn at this stage. I don’t want to get you in no trouble, I just want something to read. I’m bored.”
I flip a coin with my battle buddy and lose.
“You owe me a Playboy.” “Yeah? Which issue?”
“August 1987. Gwendolyn Hajek.”
SFC White turns the magazine centerfold sideways and squints closely at Gwendolyn Hajek’s breasts in the blinding sunlight. “Front-leaning rest position, move!”
Completely drenched with sweat, I drop yet again to the push-up position. SFC White slowly flips the page as I do another fifty push-ups.
“Serious cutie, that one. Great knockers.”
“I really wouldn’t know.”
SFC White turned and took off his sunglasses to squint at me. “Ackers, Akers…”
“Some shit like that. Yeah, I remember you.” SFC White put his sunglasses back on as he returned to his vodka tonic. After a moment he added, “It might please you to know you were about the first recruit dumb enough to fall for that trick.”
The bartender came over with my beer.
As we drank SFC White told me he was retired. He asked and I gave him a synopsis of my military career since basic training. I half-expected him to do what other Vietnam veterans had done and dismiss my combat experience as not being “real” like theirs had been for them, but he didn’t. He just listened quietly, sipping now and then as I described Panama, Kuwait, and Iraq. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt reluctant to go into too much detail.
“I don’t know if I’m making a mistake by going to college. Maybe it’d be better to stay in for the full twenty.”
“Fuck no!” SFC White replied emphatically, slamming his hand down on the bar. “I did twenty-two years and what do I have to show for it? I got three bullet holes and shrapnel in my ass. When I get up in the morning I get to look forward to scratching my balls and staring at coeds even though I can’t get my pecker up… that’s it. That’s all I got. That’s not much of a fucking life. You’re doing the right thing by trying to do something better for yourself.”
I bought another round, then another. He told some hilarious stories about clueless recruits from his time as a drill sergeant, and other anecdotes from other duty assignments. It was like he hadn’t had someone to talk to in a while. I also noticed that just as I hadn’t wanted to say much about Panama and Iraq, he didn’t say much about Vietnam.
There was a story about him that had circulated during Basic: that in Vietnam he was one of six to make it back from a thirty-man patrol. I waited until we both had a good buzz going to work up the courage to ask.
“It was a hell of a way to get promoted.” SFC White looked down into his vodka tonic. He didn’t say anything else for several moments. “It was a damn cluster-fuck…”
We were interrupted by the girl.
“Got a light?” she asked me. She stood in front of me with a look I wasn’t unfamiliar with.
SFC White slid his lighter over to me.
I lit her cigarette. She took a deep drag on her cigarette and waited. “What’s your name?” I finally asked.
I gestured for her to lean in close. “Look, Michelle,” I stage-whispered. “I don’t want to talk to you right now. But later on, if you want to fuck, I’m in room one ten across the way.”
It took a moment for what I said to sink in. She stared at me open-mouthed. For a moment looked like she was going to respond, but she just turned and rejoined her friends. They huddled around her and from the way the guys kept glancing over at me and sizing me up, she clearly was describing and they were debating what to do about what I had said to her. In the end, they decided to simply leave.
Michelle looked straight ahead as she passed by me. The guy in a ball cap stared daggers. The other two kept their eyes on the ground as they all shuffled out the door.
Once they were gone SFC White said, “You owe Charlie here fifty bucks.”
“Thirty for running them off… they were good for at least another thirty dollars worth of beer. Ain’t that right, Charlie?”
Charlie the bartender nodded his agreement. “And the other twenty?”
“That’s for being a dumb-ass. You don’t ever be rude to a woman.”
I pulled out my wallet and tossed Charlie my credit card.
SFC White and I kept drinking, but his confessional mood had passed. We continued talking, but about things like the upcoming college football season. I was thinking about getting ready to leave to go look for a nightclub when the door opened and the three guys from earlier came back into the bar. Michelle wasn’t with them. Instead, they were accompanied by a fourth guy: a big corn-fed motherfucker with a striking resemblance to her.
SFC White just shook his head.
They headed for the pool room. The guy in the ball cap smirked as he passed by, his two friends looked at me this time, and Corn Fed intentionally bumped into my stool, causing me to spill my beer. While the other two went to the pool table and pretended to rack up a game, Ball Cap and Corn Fed stayed at the bar.
“A pitcher of whatever’s on tap,” Corn Fed said to Charlie.
Charlie looked from them to me and back to them. “I don’t want no trouble in here,” he warned all three of us.
“No trouble, man,” said Corn Fed. “We’re just here to drink beer and play some
Charlie gave the three of us the eye one more time. He took out an empty pitcher and shifted over to the tap on the other side of the bar.
“But I gotta tell you, dude… your bar smells like shit.” Corn Fed looked directly at me. “Something stinks.”
Ball Cap snickered.
SFC White, who was sitting between me and Corn Fed, kept quiet. He paid careful attention, however.
Charlie looked over sharply.
I decided to cut to the chase. “I don’t want to fight you,” I said to Corn Fed.
“Really? What are you, some kind of pussy?”
I smiled. “I am what I eat.”
SFC White guffawed.
He’s a fucking comedian!” exclaimed Ball Cap.
Corn Fed came around the corner of the bar. I pushed back my stool and stood up to meet him. He fronted me and we stood nose-to-nose taking each other’s measure. Corn Fed had me by several inches and at least thirty pounds. A fire began to burn in the pit of my stomach.
“Take it outside, or I’m calling the fucking cops!” yelled Charlie.
Without taking his eyes off me, Corn Fed reached over, picked up my beer, chugged it in one gulp, and then slowly set the empty mug down on the bar. I noticed SFC White slide the mug out of reach. The two guys in the pool room gripped their pool cues.
Corn Fed said, “This bar is off-limits to you, boy. This is my bar now. You need to step on out of here… permanently.”
“I’m not going to do that,” I replied as I rolled up my sleeves and cracked my neck.
“Kick his ass, Troy!” yelled Ball Cap.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Charlie take a bat from behind the bar. Troy stared at my right bicep. “What’s that?” he demanded suspiciously. I pushed up the sleeve to show my Ranger scroll tattoo in its entirety.
Troy said, “Third battalion, huh? Hey, I’m also a Ranger.”
I smirked. “If I had a penny for every asshole in a bar who claimed to be tabbed…”
Troy grunted his agreement at my observation. He opened his wallet, took out the 75th Regimental coin and slammed it down on the bar. “Third platoon, alpha company, second battalion, eighty-four to ninety,” he said.
I reached into my pocket and held up my coin. “First platoon, delta company, third battalion, eighty-seven to about seven hours ago.”
Troy grunted again. He turned to Ball Cap. “Sorry, dawg, I’m not going to fight another Ranger. You’re going to have to try to kick his ass yourself.”
Ball Cap’s eyes went wide.
“What I said to your sister was stupid,” I told Troy as I glanced at SFC White.
“Apparently I’m a dumb-ass.”
SFC White snorted his agreement.
“Fuck it, she’ll get over it.” Troy shrugged.
“Now that’s settled,” SFC White interjected. “Can we drink?” He held up his empty glass. “The next round’s on dumb-ass.”
I nodded to Charlie the bartender. He put away the baseball bat as he went back to the tap. Troy sat at the bar next to me while Ball Cap and the other two guys came over. Introductions were made: Ball Cap was Jim, the others were Ted and Andy. Jim had had the hots for Michelle for a while but hadn’t made his move.
Charlie brought over two full pitchers, some mugs, and another monster vodka tonic. Troy raised his glass in a toast. The others joined in.
As the night went on, more people came into the bar. For a while, it got crowded. I didn’t see her, but SFC White told me that at one point Michelle had come back in, seen us all drinking together, turned and walked right back out. We continued drinking until last call.
The bar tab came to three hundred and fifty dollars. “Good luck in California. Safe travels, dude,” said Troy.
Jim, Ted and Andy wished me the best, but none of them made any effort to offer to help settle the tab. SFC White tried to give me some money but I waved him off.
“You still owe me that Playboy, though.”
SFC White wrote his address and phone number on a napkin. “Keep in touch. Let me know how you’re doing in life,” he said as he handed the napkin to me.
Michelle was sitting on the curb outside my motel room when I stumbled back to it. I told her to go home. She stood and gestured for me to lean in so she could whisper to me.
“Look, asshole, I’m not here to talk. So, shut the fuck up.” Michelle stepped back, crossed her arms and waited for my response.
Although I thought briefly of Jim, I was too drunk to be magnanimous. I unlocked the door and moved out of the way.
Arms still folded, Michelle slowly went inside.
The next morning, I didn’t exactly apologize for my behavior the night before. In the attached diner I attacked my eggs while she forked hers. I didn’t feel the need to say anything, and she didn’t push the issue.
After I threw my duffel into the back of the cab of my truck, I turned to her. “Jim has been madly in love with you for years. You really should do something about it.”
She blushed as I climbed into the driver’s seat. “You’re still an asshole,” she said. “Drive safely.”