The Rabbi Wore Bell-bottoms

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Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: March 14, 2019

Reads: 91

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Submitted: March 14, 2019

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CHAPTER 1

 

The Five-Month Bus Ride

 

Maybe people just get what they deserve. I mean, at Northwestern I was a cloistered know-nothing. When students protested Dow Chemical for manufacturing napalm, I wasn’t among the protesters. You might think I’m being a little hard on myself. After all, aren’t lots of intelligent people apathetic about getting involved in causes? The problem is, I wasn’t apathetic, just pathetic. I went and wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern — a letter protesting the protesters. To my eternal shame, they printed it.

By grad school I had turned a corner, turned left. But it wasn’t a sharp left. I was now antiwar but still unaware. Blissfully ignorant of the latest goings-on in Nam and untouched by the passions of the Youth Movement, a movement that should have filled me with pride. Just last year, when a friend asked me if I was thinking of going to Woodstock, I asked him what he meant by “wood stock.”

All this self-deprecation isn’t as hypercritical as it is hypocritical — totally at odds with knowing I’m special. I have it on the highest authority. C’mon, would my own mother lie to me? Since I was in the cradle, she’s been telling me God has some kind of grand plan where I’m concerned. And yet …

Today life is telling me I am a loser. Wondering how I wound up on this army bus with these other losers. Questioning my faith in the natural logic of my existence. Is Mom a liar? Is God dead? When Time ran that cover story a few years back, I didn’t think much about it. Guess I kind of figured, yeah, what has He done lately? The idea of God, though — some force that keeps us moving forward, believing there’s meaning and rightness to the universe — in that sense, God lives on. But in my heart or head or soul, wherever He might reside, His condition is critical. And on this foggy February night in 1970, I can’t count on life support. Not from my life.

A couple dozen recruits ride this bus with me. But my only traveling companions are my thoughts. Recollections of the personal tragicomedy unfolding the past few months, with no end in sight. I don’t think I’m earmarked for a Vietnamese rice paddy or anything, but at the moment that’s small comfort.

OK, I know, I’m coming off as this overly sensitive, self-absorbed punk. There are good reasons for this. First of all, I am overly sensitive. And I am kind of self-absorbed. But rather than assume I’m a punk, let’s just blame my attitude on only-child syndrome, especially noticeable now that I’m no longer a child.

The bus rambles along toward my on-the-job training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I’ve got all kinds of time to sit and think. About the Basic Combat Training I’ve just left behind at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. About the fateful events that led up to it.

Reverie makes me oblivious to bumps in the road. But they wake the pfc. behind me. “Is this Missouri?” he asks. What state are we in?”

“Indiana,” I tell him. A state of suspended disbelief, I tell myself.

Living in disbelief, I survived the fall from M.A. grad to flunky private. From independence to servitude. From polishing résumés to polishing army boots. Grad school is a time warp away.

College friends, unable to face the specter of Vietnam and smarter than I, somehow avoided the draft. Joined up as ERs (Enlisted Reserves) or NGs (National Guard). Or obtained a strongly worded letter from their allergist. Or secured a teaching deferment.

I tried. Became a full-time sub at Delano Elementary in Chicago’s inner city. Each day they’d assign me a different class. The first week, it was mostly 7th and 8th-graders. Controlling these balls of fire was as futile as controlling literal balls of fire. All it took was for one kid to ignite the class and any semblance of order went up in flames. I had no hose. Intimidation could not inhibit them nor persuasion silence them. One day, when I tried to win them over by acting cool, three sassy women-girls sashayed up to my desk with a heartfelt request: “Mr. Berman, wanna boogaloo?”

That day I promised the kids, if they’d shut up and let me teach, I’d take them outside last hour for a second recess. They didn’t shut up, of course, but when last hour rolled around, I took them outside anyway, more as a favor to myself than to them. No sooner had we gotten outside than they start waving goodbye to me and shouting, “See ya tomorrow, teach.” One by one, they scamper off, dissolving in thin air like the Cave People on planet Mongo in Flash Gordon dissolved into the cave walls. I could only hope that — like the Cave People — these kids were headed home.

The following day, to my relief, I found myself in a class of quiet, obedient 3rd-graders. But I was primed for battle. When one little girl turned around to whisper something to a friend, I was determined to nip in the bud any repeat of yesterday. “Mandy,” I commanded, “you come with me.” She followed me out into the hallway. I wanted to make an example of her, instill fear in these kids, maintain control. Summoning up my sternest tone, I barked, “Mandy, you do not talk in class without permission. Understand?” My hope was that she would simply say, “Yes, Mr. Berman,” and that would be the end of it. To my horror, the poor little tyke starts crying. And I suddenly realize the gap between 3rd-graders and 8th-graders is a lot wider than even the considerable gap between the baby teeth remaining in Mandy’s mouth — I’d been terrorizing a child not yet in possession of her permanent molars. My first impulse was to hug her and apologize. This response could be problematic, I decided. So I just said, “It’s OK, honey. Let's get back to class. But first let’s dry our tears.” She dried hers. I barely managed to stop mine.

All was well, or so I thought. Next morning, I’m walking down the hallway to class when a kid taller than I am grabs me by the collar, raises a fist, and starts to unload a punch. Just before it comes in for a nasal landing, a couple of his friends grab him around the shoulders and manage to pull him away, kicking and screaming. Never did find out for sure, but I suspect this kid was Mandy’s big brother.

That was the closest I came to physical injury at Delano. But after a few more weeks on the front line facing the verbal artillery of 13 and 14-year-olds, I’d sometimes get the feeling I’d be safer in Vietnam. When I got the official notice from my draft board, it was almost a relief.

But not quite. In a last-ditch attempt to remain a civilian, I tracked down an allergist, highly recommended as simpatico with draft dodgers. He droppered 32 allergens on my back.

Remember how the sight of Old Glory waving through the mist over the battlefield inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star Spangled Banner”? That’s the thrill I felt (minus the patriotism) watching in a mirror as those 32 drops promptly turned my entire back beet red.

Suddenly it seemed I wouldn’t be going to war, and I was at peace. It was short-lived. At my induction physical, when I confidently pulled out my allergist’s deferral request — the same sort of request that had saved countless others — the arbiter of my future gave it a cursory glance and pronounced it insufficient. Guess the army was behind on meeting its quota that month.

I have one consolation. My uncle knows a retired colonel who has promised to get me into the Information Service. Now that I’ve finished basic training, it’s going to happen. Maybe I’m not so stupid after all. Writing for army newspapers for two years is a perfectly reasonable alternative to serving seven summer stints as a reservist. Please, let it be reasonable.

Past heartland farms, the bus’s bounces over rutted asphalt continue to jog my memory. I relive a close call at the induction station. Turns out the marines also were having trouble filling their quota that month. The sergeant in charge needed a few good men and announced he was handpicking ten percent of us army draftees for reassignment to the elite corps. Instinctively, I dropped my gaze floorward, thinking he’d randomly finger his victims. But he started reading names. Inevitably, I heard the words “Dan Berman.” My life passed before my eyes. Hijacked by the marines — Kryptonite to the Superman powers of that retired army colonel who’d promised me the Information Service. Visions of lounging behind a typewriter in an army newsroom gave way to specters of bruised and beaten bodies, all dead ringers for me, subjected to the tortures of combat training at Parris Island’s notoriously brutal marine camp. 

My adrenaline rose up. My cojones kicked in. Necessity gave birth to invention. The moment the sergeant’s spiel ended, I dashed over, summoning my most fervent demeanor. “Sergeant, I pleaded, “the army is a tradition with my family. We saw combat in World War II.” (My Dad had actually used a bogus note from a psychiatrist friend to dodge the draft, but I did have an uncle who’d served in Europe.) “I was named after a cousin shot down over Germany.” (OK, it was the son of my parents’ friend, and it was merely my middle name.) “So it would mean a great deal to me, sir, if I could serve in the U.S. Army instead of the marines.” (No embellishment necessary here.)

He stared right through me, gauging my sincerity for the longest two seconds of my 23 years. “OK,” he said, “sit back down there, son. You’re army.” I felt like a Holocaust victim given a reprieve from the shower line at Auschwitz. The analogy is tasteless but true. Parris Island would have sucked the life from me.

At some point the bus crosses into Missouri, but I am oblivious, focused exclusively on my flashback tour. Next stop: five days at Fort Campbell’s Reception Station for Basic Combat Training. Five simultaneously mystifying and illuminating days. First up was an informal welcome session from a sergeant recently back from seeing platoon–mates maimed or murdered in Vietnam. His experiences had turned him into one raging sonuvabitch. Scaring the bejesus out of us green recruits, he figured he was preparing us, doing us a favor. I suspect he was doing himself the favor — all that rage needed someplace to go. 

In Reception Station barracks, entertainment came courtesy of Darrell Henry, a black recruit from Harlem. None of us really wanted to talk to Darrell, but when Darrell talked, people listened — or at least heard. His voice resonated. Talking for Darrell came as naturally as swimming does for fish, and stopped just about as often. 

One night he goes around to every one of us, taking a survey for his personal edification. He was like one of those toys that say the same line every time you pull the cord. His query, “You eat pussy?” never changed. But the responses were all over the map, the most common one some variant of “Fuck off.” From Darrell’s personal point of view though, the survey was a success. The results seemed to support his hypothesis: black guys don’t eat pussy as much as white guys.

Then there was the poor schlub lockered next to me, Calvin Alvin Goodfellow. I did a double take watching him slowly, but diligently, print that name on his Reception Station registration form. Didn’t take long for the other draftees to pronounce judgment on Calvin. Borderline retarded, maybe a little over the border.

Apparently, those in command didn’t share this view. From day one, Calvin insisted he shouldn’t have been drafted, that he had, in fact, been drafted once before and discharged.  Somehow I knew he was telling the truth, just as I knew his name truly was Calvin Alvin Goodfellow. Over the next two days, we receptees had a series of orientation meetings — about getting shots, getting uniforms, getting ready to be a soldier. Invariably, Calvin would raise his hand, invariably at inappropriate times, and announce to the presiding officer that the army had redrafted him by mistake. Invariably, the officer would dismiss his claims with a smug smile that said, “Uncle Sam doesn’t make mistakes like that.”

Calvin wasn’t in my basic training unit. I assumed he’d finally received the discharge he deserved. But during week five of training, while marching back from the rifle range, another unit comes marching alongside in the opposite direction. Suddenly, maniacal screaming pierces the air. If we’d heard it in the jungles of Vietnam, we’d assume it issued from some deranged sergeant screaming at his platoon to torch a village. But this was basic training — it was simply a drill instructor conducting business as usual. “Goodfellow,” he shrieks, “get your lardass in gear or I swear we’ll be using it for target practice on the range today.”

I glance over and there’s Calvin, straggling behind — struggling to keep up with — his unit. One strap of his backpack is sliding precariously down his arm. His helmet’s tipped over his right ear, dangling at a 45° angle from where it’s supposed to be. The rifle that should be resting on his shoulder is dragging along the ground. Then, to my horror, he raises the barrel and points it at his head. Oh, but Calvin wasn’t using it to end his life, simply to nudge his helmet back into place!

So my college friends with those allergies to dog hair or dust that made them unfit to serve — they didn’t have to worry. Discombobulated Calvin was filling in for them, protecting their privileged American asses with his unwarranted second call-up from Uncle Sam.

Since that day, I’ve had a recurring anxiety dream. Like Calvin, I’ve been illegally re-drafted, and there is no way out. Bet I’ll have that dream the rest of my life. Thanks, Calvin.

Of course, sitting on this bus, I can’t flash-forward with any degree of confidence. So I continue flashing back. As the bus turns from the interstate to a secondary road, my mind resumes its meander through Basic Combat Training.

Didn’t fare much better there than Calvin. Very first day, the brass gathers our entire battalion together — at least five hundred of us — in a mammoth assembly hall. At the podium, the commanding officer starts asking questions. “How many of you finished high school?” Almost all raise their hands.

“How many are currently in college?” Many raise their hands.

“Who has their Bachelor’s degree?” Some raise their hands.

“A Master’s degree?” I raise my hand.

All eyes on me. I wasn’t feeling pride at that moment, more like shame. How could I have let this happen? Why wasn’t I as smart as all the other M.A.s? Why wasn’t I living in my own apartment back home? Earning real money at a real job?  Enjoying the company of real women instead of the paper ones in Playboy?

As the only one in the battalion with two college degrees, I was now qualified to get the third degree, from my drill sergeant. Not sure which was more unnerving, his remarkable resemblance to Hitler or his superhuman side-vision. I swear, I could be standing at the far right end of our platoon formation, and he could be at the opposite end, glaring at the trainee on the far left. And just then I’d hear, “Berman! Straighten the hell up or I’ll come over there and straighten you out personally!” I don’t know, maybe he didn’t need to look at me. Maybe he was smart enough to just assume I’d be in my usual unmilitary slouch … Nah, he wasn’t that smart — must’ve been the superhuman side-vision.

He really started to have it in for me when we had to disassemble and reassemble our rifles. I couldn’t do it. Technically, my IQ is genius. Mechanically, it’s moron. My D.I., bless him, couldn’t comprehend such ironies. I had a Master’s degree, therefore I had to be smart. And since I was pretending I wasn’t smart, I was obviously a smart-ass. A smart smart-ass, the worst kind. Fucking with him, fucking with his army, trying to make some kind of statement.

Pretty preposterous, considering my overriding goal was to keep a low profile. Factors beyond my control kept getting in the way. One of those factors was Leon Dunbar. Leon, a 6’4” (conservative estimate) black trainee in my company, hailed from Chicago’s infamous South Side, a drug dealer’s drive from where my teaching gig had been west of downtown. Around the second week of basic training, I’d occasionally notice him cruising down our wall of lockers, tugging at the locks. In my naiveté, I assumed our D.I. had put Leon in charge of making sure the lockers were locked. But when someone had ten bucks missing, I suspected Leon had put himself in charge of finding lockers left unlocked.

I was grateful he hadn’t infiltrated my locker. Until the following week, when he did. A couple of twenty-dollar bills mysteriously disappeared from my wallet. At Reception Station a few weeks earlier, I’m sure I rolled my eyes when they asked us to write down the serial numbers of all our bills. How childish, I thought at the time. Now I realized I was the one being childish.

Serial numbers in hand, I reported the theft to the MPs. Next thing I know, they’re interrogating me under bright lights. I felt more like suspect than victim. But the tenor of the interrogation suddenly shifted when they hauled the handcuffed Dunbar before me. “Is this the man you suspected?” they asked. When I confirmed it, they told me they had found the bills on him. OhmyGod, I thought, I’d rather be out the forty bucks than have Dunbar gunning for me in the barracks for the next five weeks. To make matters worse, they made him personally hand me the two twenty-dollar bills and apologize.

Never found out what Dunbar’s punishment was, but they let him finish basic. I tried to keep my distance. During week six, we were out on maneuvers, trotting double time along the side of a road while carrying our packs and rifles. I did a Calvin Alvin Goodfellow, losing my cool when the flap of my pack pops up and the contents pour all over the road. Desperate not to let my platoon get too far ahead of me, I try to pick up the items without removing the rifle slung over my shoulder. But the rifle keeps banging on the asphalt, blocking my progress. Suddenly, I see another hand picking up the items, the same hand that gave me back those twenty-dollar bills at the MP station.  Without a word, Leon places everything in my pack, straps it up, helps me to my feet. All I can manage in return is a, “Thanks, man.”

I had to reevaluate. Maybe nothing is black or white. Maybe this man I’d written off as a mindless, menacing monster had a heart and a conscience. Maybe, instead of carrying a grudge against me, he carried only guilt. In the ghetto where Leon Dunbar grew up, petty larceny probably became acceptable as a way to cope with the frustration of not being able to put bread on the table or shoes on the baby. Now, in the army, Leon was getting a different perspective on right and wrong. And so was I. Which means the army’s already given me a positive learning experience. And when there are so many negatives, you’ve got to make the most of the positives.

Another positive in basic training was mail call. The anticipation of hearing from a friend on “the outside” was even better than the reality. Thank God for that anticipation, because most days there was no letter. Especially galling on days when other members of my platoon would get two or three letters. I’d fall into a funk thinking those guys must have girlfriends who love them better, or guy friends who like them better. They must be better people than me. My mom’s claim of my specialness would seem especially hollow then.

Of course, most weeks I could depend on a letter from Mom. But correspondence from old friends became rare. And why should I expect anything else? If it were me out there — working nine-to-five at some challenging job on the ninetieth floor of the Hancock Center, pub-crawling my way through happy hour on Rush Street, bringing women back to my very own studio apartment near Lincoln Park — would taking time out to write some poor slob incapable of avoiding the draft be at the top of my to-do list?

With old friends in short supply, I made a new one. Lenny Farrell was a poor slob like me, wondering how he could have let this “thing” happen to him. When our platoon stood in formation each morning, he was in line directly in front of me. So in the intervals between falling in and coming to attention, we'd complain about the ungodly hour. In the mess hall, we’d complain about the tumor-like lumps in our mashed potatoes or the cigarette butt-like cigarette butt I fished out of my vegetable soup.

We reserved our lengthiest and most spirited complaints for the “warm-up” tent, located in a frozen field where we’d congregate during some interminably long waits. We might be awaiting our turn on the rifle range, or waiting for some “unavoidably” detained lieutenant to deliver a lecture on the paramount importance of punctuality in the military. What made these waits so complaint-worthy was the fact that January of 1970 had to be the coldest, snowiest January in Kentucky history. Our warm-up tent was so named only because it was marginally warmer than the frigid air outside. It’s not like we had a space heater in there. Our toes turned to numb blocks of ice in our boots and seemed to expand in the rigid toecaps of those boots until there was literally no wiggle room. In our attempt to stave off frostbite, all we could do was continuously shift our weight from one foot to the other. An observer would have developed motion sickness watching a couple dozen of us rocking to and fro like tugboats at high tide.

To distract ourselves from our immovable toes, we relied on what was moveable: our jaws. The tent was where Lenny and I did most of our talking, where we became best friends, where he started calling me Danny Boy. Lenny hailed from a small town in downstate Illinois, but his big-city savoir-faire told me he’d never make his adult home there.

One day in the tent he confessed, “I was the only guy my age in Pinckneyville with hippie-length hair. But I played basketball in high school — that kept me from being an outcast. Then when I commuted to Southern Illinois — still the only hippie on campus. The army couldn’t wait for me to graduate and get me to their barber.” 

“At least they let you keep your hippie glasses.” I said. “When we get out of here, come to Chicago with me. We’ll make up for the lost two years.”

“Yeah, well I’m not sure you can get to Chicago from Kentucky by way of Vietnam.”

“You’re not going to Nam,” I told him, as dismissively as a mother tells her frightened child he’s not going to die from a dental checkup.  “For one thing, I don't think they can send you there without functioning toes.”

“Give me a break, Danny Boy. Some of us don’t have retired colonels going to bat for us.”

“C’mon, you’ve been following the news. They’re pulling troops out of Nam. You’ve heard what the President’s said about Vietnamizing the war and all that.”

“Lucky me. Shit, I get to pin my future on the promises of Richard Nixon.”

Notwithstanding his jealousy over my retired-colonel connection, Lenny doesn’t judge me on my “privileged” status. The reassuring thing about our friendship is that it happened while we were both down and out. We appreciated each other for who we were, not what we were. And I know there is at least one person besides my mother who will send me letters now.

Somehow I made it through Basic Combat Training. Got my PMOS (Primary Military Occupational Specialty) assignment as Information Specialist. Even got an unexpected promotion to private first class. Lenny’s on his way to Fort Sheridan for clerk-typist training. Sure, it’s still possible we could both end up in Nam, but, worst-case scenario, we’ll be behind the front lines.

Yeah, it’s all good. My mom’s judgment — and the logic of the universe — are still intact. The optimist in me believes the craziness of the past few months will help me deal with all the craziness that awaits in the months ahead.

As my mind’s eye makes it through my departure from Fort Campbell, my actual eye registers the image of a large sign imprinted with the oxymoron, “Welcome to Fort Leonard Wood.” Good timing. The past was past, the future present.

My duffel bag and I land on Missouri mud. The pfc. next to me says, “Thank God. That was one long, boring-ass trip.”

I nod. It was long. About five months of my life just passed me by. But it wasn’t so boring.


© Copyright 2019 Art Novak. All rights reserved.

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