"Privates, if an attractive woman is interested in you down Waikiki-- she is a spy."--Army Espionage Briefing.
Today, I am up early and ready for 'reveille' to blare over the entire base. I watch the cheap beige -colored shade start to emit light, as if it was an eyelid of a late night reveler waking up on the unrivalled Hawaiin north shore; I can start to see dark figures through the cheap barracks shade: two tall structures for rope climbing--in the faint form of gallows, and soldiers scrambling by on the balcony--in the silhouette of black lightning bolts. They are grunts, who are up early like me....might they sense what I feel, that the shade of light of the Hawaiin sun is in the form of present memories and that things were to change; and not till an old tradition is paraded back for one more drill and ceremony on that parade field down below.
A soldier, up all night on duty at a desk overlooking the parade field, looks down at a piece of paper,rubs his eyes and sees a memo entitled "From higher, possible' Zonk' for mourning pt." His only reply: "Well"I'll be danged," and shoves some beef jerky in his mouth.
The Last Zonk
If you look into my barracks room, you would see tall lightly stained pine wall lockers separating two "kinds of stupid," as my squad leader would say. The first kind of stupid, is my roommate Sleepy Turtle. An odd nickname I know, mine is Freshwater and no, our nicknames are not related.
Sleepy Turtle, is a neat, hip Californian, with no bends in the brim of his hats; who hangs every piece of clothing out of the dryer up in his wall-locker. I on the other hand, load my green army laundry bag full with hot cloths, and leave them in there untill the designated day of dressing. Sleepy turtle calls me a Bostonian slob, but this Californian hipster is really mad that I use it as his alarm clock in the morning. For Sleepy cannot wake up in the morning, or stay awake when still for more than 15 minutes, so you can put that quality with the fact Sleepy is in the infantry, and surmise your own summation. So, my laundry bag moonlights as a chain mace, in which its target is Sleepy's face, at the nautical twilight hours of early morn. You might think that is downright mean, however, if a green bag with numbers in poor black marker penmanship, which is my social security number were not launched at his unaware face, well, it would be our squad leader's fist.
Sleepy and I are buds, battle buddies, but we just have a lineage stemming from basic training following us to Hawaii (when he fell asleep on guard, and it was me that was punished).
I remember it was like yesterday. Georgia, the state we should have let succeed (as Greece let Atlantis). In the field after a firing range Sleepy and I had first guard, six o'clock, the sun don't set in Georgia till nine, and this kid.....well, he fell asleep under the rockets red glare and the firing range still bursting in air and missed a radio report.
Well by the time I woke him up the drill sergeant was on me and only wanted me. He didn't like my Boston accent too much to begin with. Punishments in the army, are either a "smoking,"(physical exercise) or the option they offer: in which case the drill sergeants would physically exercise their minds to think of a humiliating punishment.
Well, my punishment was self-replenishing like that Greek myth when the guy rolls the boulder up to the top of the hill, only to have an eagle come to eat his liver.
If the chow hall sent their cooks out to feed us in the field(that is we weren't eating our mur's(meals ready to eat)) then they would set up a chow line with servers. My beloved drill sergeant, selflessly took over the role of server (at the end of the line)...."would you like some beats Private Freshwater?" he asked. I kindly declined his solicit...."oh a growing dickhead like you must have his protein, "and he would proceed to soak all my precious sustenance with bright red, beat juice, the color of an octogenarian's veins. I watched my bread dissipate, and my chicken would part from its previous structure (the parting of the red sea came to my mind those two months). Now I cringe when I see blood, it reminds me of beet juice.
It is already 0515, thirty minutes before first formation, and the halls are filling up with sergeants, along with the pale light of the Hawaiian rising sun. In garrison (when we are not in the field) we 'pt.'(physical training, i.e. running and death marches) every morning, and the soldiers who live off base(mostly sergeants) come upstairs in the barracks, barking and singing, and barking. Even with all my defects in uniform and room hygiene, I am an early bird, and this morning I decide to let Sargent Leghorn(our squad leader) into our room to strangle Sleepy awake.
But I am taken aback when he declines a sleepy turtle thrashing to speak to me.
"Freshwater, Poncho (our platoon sergeant) wants me to help you make a decision about re-enlisting."
I've been getting a lot of flak for sitting on the fence about re-enlisting, but honestly I want to get out. I haven't told them that.
"Look," in his big southern drawl, "you know your too dumb to live out there, the army wipes your ass, you two idiots would be drinking your piss within the first day out in the world. Look, speak to the retention officer and then make the decision...."
He kept talking, but I heard the sound. Our barracks forms a quad, three floor buildings forming a rectangle. Down below are all headquarters, and the inside is a parade field; well, in front of our headquarters is a mango tree; on that mango tree ,eternally perched is a Hawaiian Military Macaw, we call the "fuck you bird." Every time our lieutenant shows up, he is proceeded by the loud chuckle of the "fuck you bird," whereas the sounds are thus , "Platoon attenhuuut,"then the mad bird laughter of "fuck you fuck you fu..." The bird is the harbinger of annoyance, and that annoyance is our L tee(lieutenant),and his name is Lt.Wheat Thin, and he hates me(understatement of the year).
Now doors with card readers are opening to reveal drowsy, skinny privates, who in the morning, before PT are like baby gazelles ,birthed in the African Serengeti --they are vulnerable for predators, and those predators are sergeants who smell the birth slime on them.
The favorite past-time of (any rank above a private) is to enter into a privates rooms and "fuck with him." They will look at your pictures, call your girlfriend ugly, gig you on your uncleanliness, even look around for contraband.
Well, while the Lt Wheat Thin is making his way through the halls yelling "twenty miler today,hahah......hey Specialist Nifkin where is your reflective belt?" The sergeants are more relaxed, it is a Friday, and they are still in ecstatic shock from the "toad, "contest on Monday. Now since I mentioned the "toad," I have to elaborate, even though I have to get to formation.
Every Monday, our First Sergent (company sergeant) has a contest after mourning pt. The rules are such: the contestants are the ones who did the stupidest thing over the weekend, and only they would compete for the toad( a small porcelain toad).
When we are all standing in formation, our pt uniforms turning into tiger fatigues from our sweat, the First Sargent, in his raspy voice (he was shot through his voice box in Somalia) would call the contestants in front of the company. He would yell(or rasp) "get down", then the contestant, instead of doing pushups (which is usually linked to "get down," or it is if your me) would have to dance with no music,untill you are the last private standing thus not being eliminated by boos caused by lousy dancing.
With that said, four days prior ,the winner of the "toad "was from our platoon , and we even boasted of two runner ups. I remember watching Private Catfish, Private Beachstick, and specialist Hamburger going at it. For if you won the 'toad' statue, you got out of pt for two days, but you more than likely danced the calories away of those two days while you had all those dip spitting southerners yelling "dance catfish dance."
Pvt. Catfish was nominated for getting caught with a penis pump in the ceiling tiles during a room inspection and Beachstick was nominated due to the fact he caught stealing a cell phone down Waikiki. Poor old Beachstick, once he was turned over to army chain of command by the police, they conducted their sadistic physical exercise in their head to determine his punishment. He was to carry a cinder block around painted like a cell phone. He actually danced with the block might I add.
The third contestant from our platoon wasn't a new guy, he was of specialist rank like me--Hamburger--he got so drunk he walked home in his bright orange, white, and red bowling shoes.
The bowling alley actually called the General of the entire Hawaiin base. So it was like a dixie cup communication line of "what? bowling shoes....Hamburger?" That finally tickled its way down to the ear of Poncho the platoon sergent with the concise army telephone call "Hamburger in bowling shoes, nominated Toad, out copy over?"
Well Sergent Poncho got the key to Hamburger's room that next day, and found Hamburger passed out in his roommate Hotdog's bed; with all his clothes off, but the bowling shoes sticking out on his feet still. Hot dog was passed out too, and woke up in state of exasperation for Hamburger had urinated all over him. Hamburger and Hotdog were inseparable, it almost seemed like that big Kentuckian Hamburger even carried around that skinny Hotdog,(who was also from Boston, but I didn't sound like him, he just sounds ridiculous).
So Pvt Catfish won the "toad," and he is in the hallway. All the sergeants are making a bee line for his room to admire the "toad," amulet. Sleepy Turtle is getting up faster than usual, and the air feels a little different this morning. The rumor in the air, is that there will be "zonk," and there hasn't been a "zonk" for years. But Lt.Wheat thin is going around dispelling that rumor at its inception...."no zonk you bunch of pansies, twenty mile run, on sand, up hill..."
Yeah I'm not going to lie, I like to put one of those Hawaiian ear wigs in his ear so it would eat his brain then go up to him,"hey lieutenant , how bout ultimate frisbee for pt today," in which I could see it clear as day, him drooling ,"sure Freshwatah, frisbeeee."
I'm on the' lanaii' now, which is a balcony in Hawaiian. Three tiers of lanaii encompass a parade field, filled and overhanging with soldiers getting ready for pt similar to a roman coliseum readying for a gladiator fight . It is Friday and we usually do company pt on fridays(bigger formations),but looking across the parade field, the sister battalions are overflowing as much as us.
The light reflected off the sand in the volley ball court, which we were not allowed to use(why make it then), was glowing yellow, soon to be white in the hot sun. We are shooting the shit, dipping, smoking and just straight lollygaggin like we always do in garrison before pt.
I see my friend Rich, and we start talking. He's a cool dude, a Californian like Sleepy, but Rich got his shit wired tight,we arrived here at the same time from the same basic training platoon.
"Freshwater man, you gunna re-enlist or what?'
"You're crazy Rich for re-enlisting, this shit sucks."
"Mang, Fresh, remember when Poncho made all the cherries(new privates) get in short shorts and get on the back of his motorcycle for a drive to Waikiki?"
"Yeah, he's nuts, he's a big reason for getting out."
"Why is that,"--
"Shit changes so quick in the army, one day you're playing volleyball for pt,,the next it's a death march, one day Poncho is your friend, the next he's handing out all your sandwich meat to Sargent Leghorn or Catfish. Too friggin erratic, and when it rains it pours, and there is nowhere to find shelter--"
"Man Fresh, they want you to move up ,be a leader, go to sergeant school, just do it bra...."
" I'm all set with that Rich, I don't have your discipline, you keep clean in the field bro, and cross yourself before every meal, me , I don't have that discipline, I don't like strictures, and I don't think I can be myself here."
"What I have, you don't have, but you have what I don't have Fresh."
"Ya, I got everybody breathing down my neck."
"No Fresh, you're a tough dude, Poncho told me he don't try to flick your eyes while your copping Z's in the field anymore like the other 'joes' (enlisted soldiers, not sergeants). Said you almost kicked him unconscious while you were still sleeping and Wheat Thin hates you from when you were his radio man, he got jealous of you because you could handle the mission stuff...you read well....."
My attention was arrested by Beachstick, he was staring at the training schedule, man, everyday he would study this calendar with all our planned pt on it. Like he could visually alter it with is mind, to change "15 mile road march," to "space invaders" or something. Then his face changed from melancholy to total disbelief when he saw todays planned PT--"friday,aug 12 2001, 20 mile brigade run." It was like he was reading a Steven King novel or something, that was the only thing that didn't change, Beachstick always thinking he would get out of that pt, and he would probably steal another phone, carry another cinder block. I could never relate, because I never forget, when it rains it pours in the army.
I remember we were on this mountain, in this valley up north shore, we could see the ocean; it looked so beautiful, inviting, yet we were on a mountain with 80 lbs. on our back, sleeping in dirt with poisonous centipedes. The sun was relentless when you were in uniform, but a goddess near the beach, or when just stripped down to shorts. It must have been even rougher on Hamburger, he hated the army more than me, and he got a fungus, jungle rot from that field problem. The medic said it was a fungus that only grew on cows and trees in Hawaii, and to cure it you have to jump in the ocean. Man, I hope he didn't see the same ocean I saw. The infantry is sweat and soreness, that's all. They tell you to keep putting camo on your face, just to have it come off in a deluge of sweat, shit, army infantry is for the birds, the 'fuck you' bird.
We're heading downstairs, to be ready for when one asshole yells "formation, "then it reverberates like a game of annoying telephone. The first person who yelled "formation, "is contrasted by the last person who yodels it, or hollers it like a wild Indian. It is a true transformation of sound.
At the base of the building, under the first floor balcony, is a cq desk(charge of quarter) where a fellow grunt has been up all night logging vistors,answering phone calls from higher up. He is in uniform unlike us in pt attire. He was spied eating beef jerky,and a gang of grunts are surrounding him,"hey let me get some jerky Fancy Pants...." is there zombie moan as they converge on him. With a mop handle, he is pushing them away- like a lucky survivor of the titanic in his life boat, pushing away swimming clingers on, that might swamp his boat, or in this case eat all his beef jerky.
As I walk out from the ground level landing I hear Sleepy Turtle on the top lanaii: "Freshwater you dumb Boston Kennedy sounding dirt merchant....."
"What Sleepy, what do you want?" I yelled up back at him.
"What is this?, "he asked. He was holding a sardine can Rich gave me. I ate one and almost puked. I don't know how Rich could eat those things, maybe because he was Fillipino, but I thought if they are that gross looking and smelly, they must imbue you with strength,(I had a 20 miler that day). I was wrong. I threw it out in his trashcan, and he was now pouring the can onto my face and shirt from the top lanaii. " You can't throw away fish heads in the trash Freshwater you moron," he scoffed. The beet juice incident all over again.
"Turtle Im gunna f......" I was interrupted by a yodel: "formation."
We all assembled into our formation rows, Sleepy and I still arguing until Lt. Wheat thin told me to shut up.
"Freshwater, you gunna re-enlist?" demanded Sargent Poncho.
"I duh ....."
"You stuttering imbecile,what are you gunna do out there?"
Man, when Poncho, that mean Texican gets on me, I feel like I'm trapped, nowhere to go, no way to vent, I really hate the army when he suffocates me. Why are they worried about me anyways,I don't matter,Hamburger don't matter.
Now it's Lt Wheat Thin's turn," Freshwater......"
I don't even feel like quoting him, just input the bird.
He always says the same dumb thing, "you ain't getting out Freshwater, I'm keeping you in forever, you'll be peeling potatoes on Maui forever." He is a jackass, and I hate him.
"Hey dawg,"I hear Hamburger's southern drawl, "there might be a Zonk." I didn't have time to respond before Beachstick butted in,"really a zonk,no 15 miler Hamburger?"
That's when Hotdog told him to turn around,"Beachstick, turn around we're at attention you idiot."
Hamburger was still talking to me, like a big hairy ventriloquist mumbling out the corner of his mouth,and every now and then his stray puppet Beachstick, would turn disobediently and both Hamburger and Hotdog would scold him.
"Yeah dawg, if you hear the brigade commander yell zonk instead of march ,dawg you just toss the first person next to you down, and pop smoke(pop smoke means get the fuck out of dodge in the infantry)."
I didn't know why Hamburger was being so nice to me, I knew his girth made him disinclined to "death runs," but the first time we met was not a good experience. My first night in the barracks, I saw him walking around shirtless and barefoot playing his acoustic guitar,swigging vodka with a beer chaser. Hot dog was behind him playing the tambourine (belonged to Hamburger).But I provoked a fight with him, and even nicknamed him Sunflower. He was bigger than me too and could whip me if he wanted, but he just turned around and said " dawg,thought you be cool to chill with, just once, just chill, no fighting, just chill."
From then on ,Hamburger and I got along and drank together . I was mad at myself for that;I used to get into fights, Hamburger really assuaged my belligerence. I use to feel bad when we were running in formation, and he would be falling back, and Lt Wheat thin would run around him poking his belly yelling stupid banalities like "you gunna give up on your platoon......what if we were in combat." Well, we weren't in combat, and Hamburger was a good guy, he could pick up Lt Wheat Thin and throw him, and if there was a breeze he would float out to Samoa.
"Dawg just remember--
"Who smells like fish?"
"Shut up Beachstick.....dawg just run," drawled Hamburger.
We were marching off in long columns now to the parade field, I never seen a formation this size yet, we were fitting all the companies on here, wow. It took some time to march left,right,about face and all that, but we were finally faced.
A platform to our front, with the division and company flags all bedecked behind it, the pale mourning light of Hawaii seemed different, it is usually pristine at night, and especially mourning, before it gets hot, but it seemed like there was no warming, like it was still night; the light seemed like it was from a memory, like the first day I got to the island and the base, the light you recall from memories--saffron and painless.
The hair on everyone's necks to my front were standing on edge, then I heard Catfish: "dang,it's a zonk, gunna be a zonk, im gunna go see my girlfriend......"
"Catfish you aint got no girlfriend, that Russian braud married another soldier for her visa."
I looked to my right, the whole formation was enclosed by military police, with batons, I could only think, "what the--"
"BRIGADE, 'bellowed the full bird colonel on the platform,"ATTEN--SHUN.".............. an army of sneakers snapped together with precision we never had before......."PREPARE....." we were locked into our destiny....."ZOOOOOOOONK.'
There was eternity in those neck bristles in the row to my front, I could see them squirm, readying for the brawl before the host body they were attached too.
Reality set in when I was tackled from behind, then the voice of Hamburger,"dawg, get up run, hit somebody."
It was a mosh pit: it was a wave of indians smashing into a wave of berserkers: it was a samurai back to back with a spartan trying to punch eachother in the nose; it was a swarm of krill slapping against each other's scales.
"Dawg, run if they get ya, they put ya to work....." That was all I could discern from Hamburger. The line of Mp's and batons was closing in, they closed line people with their batons that tried to sneak by. Some crazy grunts tackled the MP's, and in turn got throttled.
Here we are, it is I Freshwater, in echelon with Hamburger, Hotdog, Beachstick, Catfish, and on the flank is Sleepy turtle. Hamburger is pumping his heavy tree trunks in front of me, Hot dog is tackled, and he is saved by the heavy hands of Hamburger. An MP throw's his baton and hit's catfish in the neck, he is down, and trampled over. I think I am making progress when someone takes out my knees. It is Lt Wheat Thin, he threw a private at me. "Peeling potatoes on Maui," he says while still pumping his legs like the girly jogger he is, and then he takes off. The MP's are getting close. Someone runs up my chest and my face like a hurdle sending me back into the ground, Im not going to last long, more waves are coming.
Hamburger shoulder blitzes an oncoming wave from me, deflecting soldiers into the grasp of the MP's…"lets go dawg.".. He helps me up, we are moving. He looks impressive in the melee, he is a bulwark every time some screaming soldier tries to shove him.
Hot dog gets bulldozed, Hamburger cannot save him, I hear the L tee, he is coming back, he is sadistic, he just wants to ensnare me forever. I look ahead and Plt Sargent Poncho is chugging along, no one was messing with him; Sgt Leghorn is doing the windmill, clobbering dilly dalliers if their dalliance brought them in the danger close proximity of his drooling drawl.
"Peeling potatoes....."Lt Wheat thin laughs, as he kicks out my ankle, I fall flat on my face, but I get back up quickly, in one motion. He kicks my ankles out again, he is too fast.
" There coming for ya Freshwater...." He has me, he always did, dam army, dam rank. It was a pre-packaged fate, it was worse than the gallows; it was a rope strung to to the gallows that you had to climb for eternity, while muscle heads yelled "give 110% , no pain no gain" and more empty platitudes. Like an army ration, but without the hot sauce to spice it up. Or rather Lt Wheatthin snatched it up and threw it to the MP's and they crushed it under foot.
I resigned myself to hated fate, this guy would bring me down with him--friggin psycho. I could see the firmament of the Hawaiin sky, and felt in that split second that I had not appreciated it before. There was a rainbow, no lie, it was so beautfiul, it was most likely there the whole time I was in Hawaii; but I was too ill content, self-pitying, and thinking of things to come, not what is . Never realizing the "what is," will be "what was." Perhaps I should have stepped up, and shown confidence in myself, but this platoon was my first family and even though Lt.Wheat Thin acted like Nurse Ratchet towards me, he still wanted me to stay in.....
My pensive daze was broken,when the eclipse of Hamburger came into view blocking out the heavens, like Atlas stepped down from his 24hr duty of holding that globe. He squinted down at me reaching his hand to me and helping me up while shielding me from the crowd perfervid. Lt.Wheat thin came for me, Hamburger bear hugged him into the mud that was once grass, sandwiching him in his concave abdominal jelly--pinning the lieutenant in the mud. He writhed instantaneously in desperation.
"Run dawg, RUN.".
Wheat thin was already writhing loose, I had no time to thank Hamburger--I fled.
I was getting closer, back to the barracks. I was alone now, except for Sleepy Turtle, I couldn't fight the urge to look back. I saw Hamburger getting carried off by seven Mp's, he was pulling hotdog off with him. But Wheat thin had redoubled his resolve and I was his focus.
"Bro, don't go up to the barracks, they'll cut you off, just run out to the parking lot...jump in someone's car, and pop smoke,"said Sleepy. Wheat thin was closing ,"PEEEEELING POTAT ON ...." when Sleepy Turtle turned round from my side,saying," THIS IS FOR THE BEAT JUICE FRESHWATER," .....his voice trailed off as he started back into the fray.
The last thing I heard out of Sleepy's trailing voice was "don't eat my hot pockets you bas....." and then in heroic self-sacrifice, tackled Wheat Thin. They squirmed in toil like two spiders fighting over a remote. The Mp's closed on them, and walloped both. I could hear Lt.Wheatthin, "Im a god dam leutenant in the U.S infantry ....ahhhhh."
Alas, my battle buddy, he is gone. I continued on, so his sacrifice would not be in vain.
I was clear--the sound of hickory on on flesh was growing fainter. I made it to company HQ at the barracks base level--but needed to get to my room up top, to get my flip flops for the beach. I could rappel off the back if they blocked it off.
I ran up, meeting up with some fellow escapees on the stairwell. I got to my room, and looked at Sleepy's nice and neat bed, then mine-a mess. I felt bad, in that moment, I don't know what it was, but I stood there, wasting time. Perhaps I could have been a better room-mate. I grabbed my flip flips and turned ,but I hear "fuck you fuck you fuck you"--the mad babble of the bird.
" Peeling potatoes in Maui freshwater...," Lt.Wheat thin is standing with a baton wielding MP, there is a mud footprint on the lieutenant's face.
"I paid him to take you, mooahahahaah," he laughed despitefully.
Another sound comes from the hallway, it is an MP Sergent from headquarters. " Excuse me gentlemen, Spec Freshwater is wanted for a detail by battalion,"
" Sorry sir, it's a detail for short timers, command wants only short timers, so the rest can focus on mission orientated training."
"Whats the detail sergent?" I asked, still in disbelief....."the locals of Waipahu are complaining of the toads in the wood line making too much nose, you are to seek and destroy the toads and bash them with batons that are to be supplied from the MP support company. We would just remove the brush, but they couldn't find the paperwork to sign for the axes at headquarters.....get in uniform Freshwater, this detail is three weeks, after that your done in the army."
Lt.Wheat thin stormed out, I walked to the back lanaii, overlooking the parking lot. Palm trees in the medians; the Hawaiian sun still in its mourning caress, so bright and white. I would never see the brightness of a Hawaiian mourning again on that back lanaii with my platoon. I looked down, seeing my compatriots taking off for North Shore with cars screeching and surfboards overhead. I see Rich, driving off in his car, he looked up, smiled his smile of his, and drove off under that bright white nascent sun. I could feel the sun warming, and time passing again.-Keith Collard
*dedicated to SSgt Richmond Doria.