Friday, November 3, 2006

Boot Camp (Chapter 22)

The worst thing about some men is that when they are not drunk they are sober.
     — William Butler Yeats

Keep your libraries, your penal institutions, your insane asylums…give me beer. You think man needs rule, he needs beer. The world does not need morals, it needs beer… The souls of men have been fed with indigestibles, but the soul could make use of beer.
     — Henry Miller


The week before I had to show up for the army, I rented a grove and threw a party for everyone I knew. I even made up flyers and handed them out. I billed it as my “last ever” party. Eddie even sprang for a couple of kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The grove was just this big field out in the middle of nowhere. There were cement bathrooms like the ones at a state park along with a large covered area that consisted of a roof and support beams. There were picnic tables and, the specific reason I chose that particular grove, a ping-pong table.
I don’t know exactly how many people came, but there were a lot. In addition to my friends, a number of my relatives were there, including my grandmother. My mom made a thermos of pink squirrels for her. Seeing my grandmother drunk off her ass for the first and only time was one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever seen, topped only by the indelible image of her puking pink in the bushes later that evening. Even my mother was pretty tight on whisky sours, though she at least showed the good taste not to throw up.

I played a lot of table tennis, drank a lot of beer and saw a lot of old friends for the very last time. Less than a week later I was in Fort Dix, New Jersey having my head shaved. I didn’t have a drop of beer for eight weeks. There simply wasn’t any available during basic training. We marched and ran and shot things. I was in shape for perhaps the only time in my life. When you joined the army band, because you brought a skill with you (the ability to play a musical instrument), you came in to the service at a higher pay grade. So while everyone else in my platoon was an E-1, the modern equivalent of private, I was an E-3. Because of that, I was made platoon leader, which seems strange even now. The added responsibility pushed me to try harder than I might have otherwise, and I scored the highest rating — Expert — on both the rifle and throwing grenades. And then during the obstacle course final I broke my thumb, but still finished the course. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me. The only other option if I hadn’t finished would have been to repeat the last four weeks of basic training. I would have done anything to get the hell out of there. Instead I was named “Trainee Leader” for the cycle, meaning out of everybody in boot camp at the same time. All this really meant was that I got to an extra day’s leave before I had to report to my next duty station, the military’s school of music in Norfolk, Virginia.

The only other benefit was that I sat at the head table at the graduation ceremonies for boot camp and was allowed to have one family member sit with me. For the first time I could remember I’d managed to do something Eddie thought was a good job and he seemed proud of me. Having been in the Marines, he was oddly in awe of the drill sergeants and the officers there and was doubly thrilled when I invited him to sit with me at the table along with them. It was perhaps the only time I managed to please him and after so many years of trying it felt satisfying to have finally managed to succeed, however briefly.

The following week I was in Virginia where I would be stationed for six months, which was how long the military’s school of music program lasted. It was on a Naval base and Army, Navy and Marine musicians shared the school. Like New Jersey, the drinking age in Virginia was eighteen. There was a bar on the base, the El Crocodrillo, where we could get a glass of beer for next to nothing. Sometimes we’d venture off the base just for the adventure of it, but the locals openly hated us and were sometimes downright rude to anyone with a buzz haircut, whether they were in uniform or not. It was strange to be so reviled and I imagine it was just a taste of what Vietnam era vets must have felt like after returning stateside. Of course, the area’s economy was closely tied to the military’s presence there so their willingness to take our money but treat us with such disdain was very hypocritical and the source of much tension in the community. We’d hear rumors from time to time of sailors getting beat up my local thugs so we rarely left the base. If we did, we didn’t ever wear our uniform. It definitely soured me on my military service being for some higher purpose. If the very people we supposedly were defending didn’t want us in their backyard, I had a hard time feeling very patriotic about the whole thing. Luckily, my mission didn’t extend much beyond Sousa marches.

For the first month in Virginia, I did my best to make up for not drinking for two months in New Jersey. There wasn’t much more to do there, so I drank with renewed vigor. I wrote long, embarrassing letters to Kelly because I was bored and lonely. After a time, I met a bored, lonely female Army clarinet player and we drank together — and screwed — for a time before realizing we had nothing in common apart from our mutual desire to not be alone. After that, I showed even poorer judgment, if that’s possible. I met Claire, an attractive redhead Marine who played the flute and we started a quite passionate affair. I say affair because the only problem was that she had a husband who was stationed in Korea. To be fair, she didn’t tell me that fact until we’d been fooling around for a few weeks. But she liked to drink and screw almost as much as Kelly had, so I didn’t stop once I found out, either. But I also knew it was doomed and unhealthy. I just decided that I was okay with that fact because I knew in just a few months I’d be in my permanent duty station in New York City. That meant I could just enjoy the ride since it already had a definite ending built into it.

I arrived at Fort Wadsworth in May of 1978. Fort Wadsworth sat on Staten Island in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which linked the island with Brooklyn. My barracks, which housed both the living quarters and rehearsal space for the 26th U.S. Army Band, was located in a former Civil War-era hospital on the base’s main road. It was an expansive three-story brick building with a massive catacombed basement that housed the supply room, post office, storage rooms, individual practice rooms, and a recreation room with pool tables and — joy of joys — a ping-pong table. On the ground floor was the day room, administrative offices, the main rehearsal hall (which had formerly been an operating room), a kitchen, TV room and a few living quarters. The top two floors were comprised entirely of living quarters.

Off to the side of the main floor, was a large room not unlike the rooms in basic training that housed as many as a dozen soldiers. This was where all new band members lived until a room opened up or they persuaded someone with a room already to let them room with them. You had a small open space to yourself with a bed and two metal wardrobes, one for your uniforms and official equipment and one for your personal clothes and belongings. The wardrobes created walls in between each space and provided a modicum of privacy. I was there for a few months before a large room opened up on the ground floor, which I shared with Gene, a sax player from West Virginia.

We spent a lot of our time in the day room where the television was. There was also a vending machine in there that dispensed cans of beer for fifty cents. We’d get drunk and watch Uncle Floyd, M*A*S*H, Mister Rogers and the Muppets most afternoons. Most of the band gigs were around the New York area and consisted of military functions like change of command ceremonies, PR jobs like parades in local communities and occasional full band concerts. One outdoor concert we did every year for the Fourth of July was very well-attended by the public because we always played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and they fired the actual ceremonial cannons from the old fort during the final bars of the climactic ending of the music. The score was actually written for cannons but hardly anyone still used real ones when they played the piece. For some reason, that was a big draw. And we played John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” at almost every single gig we ever played, so much so that I cringe every time I hear even a snippet of that march.

But as much as I complained at the time, it wasn’t horrible. We weren’t at war, at least, and I was getting paid to play music. We had a fair amount of free time. If there was nothing scheduled over a weekend, I could go home for a couple of days. Now that I wasn’t living there, I didn’t mind being in town for the weekend now and then. Many times, I wouldn’t even tell my family I was in town, preferring to crash with a friend. That way I had no obligations, no issues with Eddie, and no guilt. I could still attend parties, get drunk and fool around with whoever I wanted to, or at least whoever would have me.

And I started exploring New York. I went into Manhattan and saw the sights. I got my bearings by taking the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center, which had opened only a few years earlier. I went to the art museums, the natural history museum and many others. There was a USO office in Times Square that had free tickets to movies, attractions and Broadway shows. I even saw Deep Throat in a double bill with Behind the Green Door at a theater in Times Square.

After every paycheck, I bought lots of books, albums and at least one new video game for my Atari 2600. Then we’d spend the next two weeks trying to master it. Naturally, some were easier than others. But some kept us up for hours drinking and playing the new game. The game Adventure seems laughingly simple compared to video games today, but we stayed up the entire night until one of us beat it and won the game. We could play a game Space Invaders for literally hours, and sometimes did.

But once in New York, I quickly fell into a new routine. I took classes in music theory at Mannes College when I still wanted to write classical music as a living. I actively sought to expand my musical horizons are started to listen to a far wider variety of different styles. I started to read more philosophy and especially about alternative religions, since I was still searching for spiritual truths. There was a lot to see and do in New York and even though it was only a two and a half hour drive from Shillington, it was like another world. I soaked in as much of it as I could. My first months there were an amazing time.

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