The Boiler Room
A desolate army base in upstate New York is the setting for this extraordinary story of a troubled young soldier who presides, helplessly, over his own disintegration. The author, who makes his fiction debut with this Atlantic “First,” is Rudolph Wurlitzer, a twenty-nine-year-old New Yorker, veteran, and one-time student at Columbia University. A free-lance writer for films and television, Wurlitzer is at work on a novel.
A STORY BY RUDOLPH WURLITZER
I’M LOCKED up in the Castle. The Castle is the army stockade on Governors Island. The Staten Island ferry passes by Governors Island, and you can see the Castle and the golf course and the red brick buildings. It looks like a country club. I suppose the Castle is the oldest building on the island. There’s a plaque on the wall, but I make a point not to look at it. Outside, the Castle might look like a Civil War fort, but inside it’s just another jail. They say that when Rocky Graziano was locked up here he tried to swim to Brooklyn, and there are stories of other guys trying to make it. But I won’t try. I’ve declared bankruptcy. I never think about wanting anything. I do what they tell me, and I keep my mouth shut so they don’t give me too much harassment. I pull details during the day: cleaning latrines, mowing the lawn, clipping the hedges, KP in the officer and NCO clubs. The days go by. I’m not sure what month it is. Until my trial comes up I won’t connect with anything too strongly. Any way they go I’m going to lose. If they decide I’m just another nut, I’ll probably believe them. And if they say I’m just another criminal, I’ll probably accept that too. The only time for me to look at anything straight is when it doesn’t matter. And so on Sunday afternoons, when nothing matters at all, I use my footlockcr for a desk and put it all down on paper.
I made it through basic all right. I was in good shape because I had just come from a summer of minor league baseball. When they learned I was a ballplayer they made me a squad leader. Jocks, policemen, longshoremen — they have it made in basic. I don’t look like a leader or, at first, even much of a ballplayer because I’m short and wear glasses. But all anyone has to do is see me in action to know what I can do. I’m fast — I’m known as “Roadrunner” Schuller — and I hustle. I can’t hit too good, but I get on base. And I can catch anything.
But lying on my bunk after chow or sometimes late at night when I couldn’t sleep, I would get very low. More than half the men my age don’t get called up. Most of my friends beat it when they pretended they were queer or they took coffee beans or some kind of dope before they went up for their physical. I come from that kind of a neighborhood. I not only was slow enough to get caught, but I didn’t even sneak in on the six months deal. For a ballplayer, two years in the army just about finishes you. The front office forgets your name. If you miss a season, they don’t know you, unless, of course, you’re a bonus baby or a star. Every spring they have to see your sweaty and eager face or you don’t exist. My only hope was to play ball for an army team, stay in shape, play winter ball in Latin America when I got out, and report to spring training for one last shot.
But I goofed. One week before the end of basic, I came back after an overnight pass, and passed out on my bunk, a flask half-full of Old Grow on my stomach. The first sergeant picked that night to come into the barracks. He saw the flask, I called him some kind of a name, and the next morning I was standing tall before Captain Gonzales, the company commander. Captain Gonzales asked me if I was some kind of a playboy. I said yes, I thought I was a playboy, definitely, and then something slipped further inside me, and I started lying all over the place.
I heard myself asking if it was in my rights to make a phone call. I said I wanted to ask for advice from someone who knew the score. Captain Gonzales asked me very politely just who I was going to call. I said I thought I would call Washington. I’ve never been to Washington except on my high school senior class trip, and I don’t even know the Secretary of State’s name. (I had it in my mind that I was going to ring up the Secretary of State.) There was this silence, and then Captain Gonzales — he was only half believing me — said I could go ahead and use the phone if I called collect but that I shouldn’t take this thing too seriously, as all I would get would be, at the maximum, a summary court-martial.
I picked up the phone. I sort of stroked the phone, and for a few seconds I really believed that I knew the Secretary of State and that I was going to bang a few heads around the company. But then I put the phone back and just stood tall. Captain Gonzales didn’t waste any time giving me a summary court, confining me to the company area, and docking me two thirds of my next month’s pay. He promised to ship me off the entire post. And he lived up to his word. After basic I was shipped to Camp Drum,
IN THE winter, Camp Drum might just as well be in Iceland as in New York State. It’s near the St. Lawrence River about thirty miles from Canada and ten miles from Watertown. As you get farther north, the train gets slower and colder. I changed trains at Syracuse at 3 A.M., and from then on I saw only one other passenger, and he was asleep with a newspaper over his head. I sang songs to myself and drank almost a pint of bourbon. I was feeling plenty sorry for myself. When I got to Watertown I sat in the station for five hours. I just sat there and stared at my duffel bag and waited until I sobered up. Finally I called the post, and they sent a jeep for me.
When I reported to the orderly room the first sergeant said to sit down until he thought of something. Then he went on reading a paperbacked book. I must have sat there for half an hour before he looked up from his book. There was something weird about the way he looked at me. He didn’t quite focus. It was like he had forgotten that he was a sergeant. Later on I got used to that look because everyone at Camp Drum had it.
“There’s no need for anyone to sweat anything around here,” he said. “In the summer the National Guard and the ready reserve use the camp for two-week training periods, and then we work our tails off, but in the winter there’s only a skeleton crew to guard the place and do paper work for the summer. It’s a boneyard. I suppose we could put you on permanent KP or use you to shovel snow. I don’t know, son. We already got too many personnel; about seventy-five enlisted men and ten officers. What did you do in civilian life?”
“I was a ballplayer.”
He went on to tell me about his career, from American Legion to semipro ball to when he played for the Sixth Army team in the South Pacific. He couldn’t stop talking baseball. He was a goodfield-no-hit second baseman who had never banged more than a double in his entire life. Finally he said that seeing as how I was a ballplayer, he could find work for me in the message center.
The detachment — it wasn’t even a company — was grouped together right at the edge of the post. In back of us there stretched one hundred and eight thousand acres of flat fields, empty barracks, and various training areas. The trees were bent from the north wind. That wind would scream around the barracks, picking up snow and whipping it at us like frozen hairs as we stood in morning formation or waited in the chow line. You became used to living with two colors: brown and white. The barracks and other buildings were brown and your clothes were brown and even the food looked brown. Everything else was white, and around the company area the snow didn’t stay white very long until it turned brown. The barracks were old and creaky. We didn’t have a dayroom or a place to write letters or play pool or ping-pong. There was no beer hall, and the PX was a little shelf of toilet articles that they opened up twice a week in the administration building. The only place to go was the NCO club, which was open to everyone. The NCO club had red and green lights over the entrance, a jukebox, and a white zinc-covered bar.
Every three weeks the NCO club was shipped a pornographic movie from the air force base fifty miles away. The movies were traded among the four or five military camps around northern New York State. I only took in one show because it would get a little too weird sitting there in the dark and listening to the groans and whistles and strange shifting movements. It made things worse. You could never make it with a girl in Watertown unless you were willing to put in a lot of time. You also had to be lucky and something of a con man. They had all been warned about soldiers and weren’t about to get knocked up by some PFC out for a good time. It was a lot easier not to tease myself. I was hung up enough as it was. Watertown was a nice enough town — I don’t mean to put it down — but I never spent too much time there. Once in a while on a weekend I would hitchhike in for a movie or to shoot a little pool, but that was about it.
As soon as I was assigned my bunk and had put up my calendar, I started checking off the days. I had six hundred and filty-five days to go. At Camp Drum everyone was hung up about time. For two weeks I didn’t say anything to anybody. I didn’t know the name of the guy in the next bunk. I just sat around and thought about how it would be when I got out. I kept seeing myself working as a clerk in my brother’s toy store. My hands started to shake, and I had trouble putting the mail in the right slots. I couldn’t concentrate on the sports page. I even threw up in the mornings when I got out of bed.
Then I goofed again. I almost killed a guy. There was this fat cook, Geruzzi, who must have weighed two hundred and seventy-five pounds, easy. He was everybody’s buddy. He was like a guy who will talk big in practice and say all the words and make all the tricky moves, but when it comes to game time he’ll freeze. (Maybe that’s why he got to me so much. I was frozen solid myself.) Geruzzi had black curly hair that ran wild all over his head and tiny eyes that never stopped moving around. He was scared of everyone. There was this one thing he would do that did me in. Every morning when the lights went on he would be the first one up. His bunk was at the far end of the barracks, away from mine. He would stand there for a moment, patting his belly, which hung out over his underpants. Then he would give an insane yell, stick his finger into his belly button like he was gripping a bowling ball, and start running down the hall. At the end of the hall he would release this imaginary bowling ball like he was trying to roll a strike toward the orderly room. I had the cot at the end of the hall, near the door, and Geruzzi would come to a halt six inches away from my face, his belly shaking like a mound of jello. Then he would step outside, in the cold, and yell in a high squeaky voice: “I want to thank you world! Hey, baby! Hello Camp Drum! Hello First Sergeant!” Then he would slam the door and salute and march into the latrine. It cracked everybody up.
I didn’t say anything, but it kept building up inside me. I tried to shut him out. I kept my head under the covers until he finished his act. But the more I tried to shut him out the more I thought about him. One morning I leaped out of bed and pushed him up against the wall. I said that if he ever waved his belly in my face again I would punch him. And then I couldn’t control myself and I belted him one anyway. He sat down on my bunk and looked at the floor, saying over and over again that I had broken his nose. I started throwing everything I could lay my hands on at him: boots, pillows, helmets, duffel bags. A part of me kept hoping that someone would stop me, but everyone just stood around laughing. Finally I was tackled and sat upon while someone went for the first sergeant.
They confined me to company quarters for a month and put me on two hours extra duty shoveling snow every evening. It didn’t matter. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was even glad to move around. But the whole thing scared me, and I kept even more to myself.
It was then, sometime in the middle of January, that I met Pannel.
I WOULD go to the mess hall when everyone else was finished so that I could sit by myself. This one evening I must have come in early because the mess hall was still crowded. I picked out a table where only one other person was sitting. I had seen Pannel before, but I had never spoken to him. I knew he was the mimeograph operator and that he had a little room in back of the personnel section. He delivered mimeographed forms to the message center. There weren’t many forms in the winter, so he didn’t come in often.
Pannel was a spade, very tall and thin, with an emaciated, sunk-in face. I was never able to look at any one point in his face, the way you do with most guys. The other thing about him was that he was extremely neat. He always wore pressed fatigues, highly starched, although no one else in Camp Drum bothered to. He would pull his pants very high up on his waist. I’ve seen ballplayers do that; I guess being a highpockets makes them feel tighter and more compact.
“How’s the mimeograph machine?” I asked. For some reason I felt I could talk to Pannel.
“Man, I don’t work that machine,” he said. “I seduce it. I’m the best mimeograph operator you’ll ever see. I want to tell you.”
Between bites I watched Pannel. You couldn’t help but watch him. I’ve seen spades eat before, the way they use sauces and spices, but I never saw anyone do to his food what Pannel did. There was liver, and Pannel cut up the liver into small pieces and mixed it in with his rice and peas. He covered the whole mess with salt and pepper. Then he put ketchup and mustard on top of the salt and pepper and finished the whole thing off with big dabs of Louisiana Hot Sauce. Then he mixed it all up again.
He started to watch me watch him.
“Did you run track?” I asked. He looked like a track man. You could tell he had real thin ankles without even looking at them. He looked brittle. There was something startled about him, like he was just about to take off.
“Too much work,” he said slowly. “I used to run the four-forty, and it did me in. I had to quit. Work don’t exactly agree with me.”
“I ran in high school. I did the hundred in ninenine.” I only felt comfortable when I was talking sports. “I ran the half-mile too, but then it got in the way of baseball. I don’t like to let anything get in the way of playing ball.”
Pannel didn’t answer. He ate very fast, and when he finished, he left.
I saw Pannel three nights later when I pulled fire guard. The fire guard’s job was to keep the furnaces going in the three barracks and in the orderly room and in the officers’ quarters down the road. There was a big furnace in each boiler room for the heat, and then there was a smaller one for the hot water. I never minded pulling fire guard. I would bank the coal up real high so that there was an edge of blue flame in the back. I liked to keep the fires in extra fine shape. Some nights I would get to really piling it on. “Burn the bastards up,” I’d say to the flames. I would wander from boiler room to boiler room all night with coal dust all over me. I could taste it, and it would get matted in my hair. They gave the fire guard the morning off to sleep. That was the best time, taking a hot shower and going to bed when everyone else was getting up.
I met Pannel in one of the boiler rooms. He was sitting up against the wall. There was a small portable phonograph next to him, but there wasn’t any record on it. He had his eyes closed. When he opened them he didn’t seem glad to see me.
“This is my spot,” he said. “I’ll keep your fires going.”
He shut his eyes.
I made my rounds, and then I came back to Pannel’s boiler room. I knew I was pressing him, but I needed to talk. Maybe I wanted to talk to him because he seemed so far away, as if it was safe to talk to him. I don’t know. He had some kind of record on.
I sat down.
When the record stopped I started right in bitching about the army. I didn’t even look at Pannel. I was gone. I went on about how I was through as far as playing ball went and how the army had screwed me up and about how my hands shook in the mornings. I told him about how I almost killed Geruzzi. I even said I wouldn’t be too sad if they sent me out to fight somewhere, just for a while. Maybe three months. I could sort of live off the experience until I got straight. All the time I was bitching I got the feeling Pannel wasn’t listening, that he didn’t give a damn what I said. Which is not to say he wasn’t polite. That strange smile never left his face. After a while I ran out of words.
Pannel had a weird way of sitting. He kneeled on both knees even though the floor was cement. He always took off his boots in the boiler room. He would sit very straight, giving you this impression of being very quiet. Sometimes he would breathe deeply and slowly, not so you could really notice, but more like he was using his whole body, starting the breath from his heels.
We sat there a long time. The silence began to make me uncomfortable. I began to think that I had better leave and that I had no real business being out there. I began to think that Pannel might even be some kind of a maniac.
“Why don’t you say something?” I said.
He just looked at me.
“Don’t pull that crap on me,” I said. I was damn near crying. But as I stood up to go, Pannel started to speak. He didn’t look at me. He looked at the floor.
“I’m having a good time,” he said. “The army is a good time. It’s very worthwhile. Out here I don’t want to hear that the army isn’t a good time.”
I stayed where I was. It was better than walking out there in the cold between boiler rooms.
“I don’t come to conclusions,” he said. “You know what I mean? I don’t ask nothing of nobody. I’m just here. You count the days, right?”
“Five hundred and ninety-two to go.”
“I gave the whole thing up. I don’t ever think about the time. When they came to get me, I canceled myself out. I don’t bother to figure anything. They take care of that. There are lots of cats far out and lost, doing all kinds of misdemeanors, but not me. I gave up.”
“That’s right,” I said. I wasn’t really listening to him. I was looking at the open mouth of the furnace and the blue flames dancing over the coal.
“I come out here and drop my net way down and pull it up,” Pannel went on. “I just let anything flop out that wants to.”
I got it into my head that Pannel was putting me down in some way. I stood up and picked up my shovel. I didn’t need anybody to tell me where I was at.
I walked out and checked my other fires. It was very cold, and my boots crunched on the dry snow. I was standing in front of the orderly room, and the stars were jumping and flashing around like silver bursts of rifle fire. I went back to Pannel’s boiler room, but he was gone.
AFTER that I went out every night to the boiler room. For over a week Pannel didn’t talk to me. But it was warm in the boiler room, and it was better than sitting in the barracks. I sat there and listened to his records. The only time he would talk would be to say the titles very softly as he put a record on. Titles like Moose the Mooche, Frantic Fancies, and Scrapple From the Apple.
When we did start to talk to each other we talked sports. Pannel didn’t like baseball too much, but he was good on the lights and on basketball and football. We went through a lot of lights we had seen. We talked about Marciano and Louis and Johannson and Patterson. We both had been fans of Jersey Joe Walcott’s, even though he dumped that fight with Marciano. We preferred middle weights and lightweights, guys like Willie Pep and Jake La Motta, Sugar Ray Robinson and Kid Gavilan. We were terrific on football, especially pro football, and we would give out with our all-star lineups. I would say something like: “You got to have Y. A. Tittle as your quarterback. I’ll back him with Bobby Layne.”
And Pannel would say, “No, man. Tittle, now he’s mean, but he don’t hold nothing when it comes to Otto Graham. You ever see Otto Graham on a good day when Mac Speedie was his end? I mean, you got to take him. And Lujack, what about Lujack? And then Van Brocklin could throw. And we haven’t even talked about Unitas yet.”
“Who you got for halfbacks?” I’d say.
“You got to give me Doak Walker. Grange and them old guys I didn’t see, but I remember Buddy Young when he was with the Yanks, and jack, he was fast, and I know it sounds insane, but I’ll take Lenny Moore because for a halfback he can do anything, and then he just moves beautiful.”
It got to be very important to go out to the boiler room every night. Pannel and I didn’t see each other during the day. On the weekends Pannel wouldn’t see me or anyone else because he said that he had to have at least two days alone. But during the week I went out to the boiler room like I imagine some people go to church or to a cathouse.
It calmed me down. It kept me together. We got so that we never talked about ourselves, only sports; and sometimes we didn’t say anything at all; we would just sit and listen to the same records over and over. In Watertown I bought an old green felt covering that had been on a pool table. We put the phonograph and the records on it. We got into our own way of talking so much that eventually we just settled on basketball. We could talk basketball better than any two people I’ve ever heard. After we spent a few nights on our all-star teams, we started to play out some games, Pannel’s favorite team was the Boston Celtics. I would have liked to go with the New York Knickerbockers, New York being my hometown, but they never could hold the Celts, so I had to go with the Los Angeles Lakers. After a while, though, we kind of mixed in our favorite players from the other teams, so it was more like two all-star lineups.
“Robertson puts the ball into play,” I’d say, bringing my club downcourt. “He passes over to Guy Rodgers. Rodgers starts a weave, fakes a jump shot — he’s fast, that Rodgers — passes it in to the big boy, Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain is tied up by Bellamy. Out to Arizin. Arizin jumps, shoots — Good.”
“Here comes Cousy,” Pannel would say. “Look at how he works the ball. Either hand. He doesn’t look. Over to Baylor. Baylor brings it hippity-hop over mid-court. In to Reed. Reed tries to drive down the middle but can’t get his shot. Out to Barnett. Barnett dribbles in to the key, fakes once, twice with his head, falls back, delays, and there’s a long, soft jumper. Off the rim and out. But Nate Thurmond is up there for the tap. Two points. One! Two!”
Sometimes Pannel would get cute and pull off a steal. I’d be putting the ball into play, and he would break in:
“K.C. Jones comes out of nowhere and scoops the ball away from Gola, and now it’s the fast break and down the floor they come. It’s two on one. Jones over to Cousy, Cousy back to Jones, and now it’s the Couse with a behind-the-back dribble. He fakes right, goes left, and the ball is up and in! Beautiful!”
Most of our games would go into overtime. Once in a while there’d be trades and talk of fixes, and some of the players would get in fights, like the night Pannel was tired and wanted to go to bed, so he had Jungle Jim Loscutoff slug Robertson. We had to call the game off because the fans got out of control.
We got so good at talking basketball that we even started to invent players and different shots. We’d invent their whole history, where they played high school ball, how they did in college, and what happened to them in the pros. We had this one player, Alston MacKintosh, from Oleander College in Nebraska, who could hit nine out of ten from the foul line with his back to the basket. He was a real hot dog, but when we had him move up to the pros he couldn’t take the pressure. He eventually blew up in a game with the Detroit Pistons when he threw the ball into the stands every time he got the ball. He had to be sent down to the Eastern League.
AFTER a few hours in the boiler room, we would sometimes walk up to the NCO club and have a beer. It was a night in late February, after we had played a few games, when something happened that changed everything between us. We were standing in front of the NCO club. I was demonstrating how Warren Spahn pitched with the big windup, bringing my right leg around and following through the way Spahn does. I was using chunks of ice to throw at a mound across the road.
We were a little drunk. I asked Pannel why it was that spades never hit much from the outside. I was just talking, not really thinking about what I was saying, when Pannel suddenly became very serious. He said be never knew that spades could never hit from the outside. We discussed Guy Rodgers and Hal Greer and a few other backcourt men and how they hardly ever seemed to hit from the outside. I remembered old Sweetwater Clifton and how he used to try a two-hand set all the time when he was with the Knicks and how he never scored with it. Pannel said no one used long set shots anymore and that it didn’t matter. He said that it wasn’t true anyway. Then he sighed and said how nice it was that he was no longer a spade. I didn’t know what to say so I imitated Warren Spahn again.
“You take any side of the question,” Pannel said, although I didn’t know what the question was, “and I’ll agree with you.”
He went on to talk about politics and urban problems and minority groups and other things that I didn’t know about and that made no sense to me. He talked about slaves and about how some of them had been more free than he was ever going to be. They had boiler rooms, he said, that they could go to without thinking about it. He went on like that, and I couldn’t listen to him. I had hardly ever heard Pannel talk that way. It depressed me.
I thought we had decided not to bullshit. I wanted to go inside and have a beer, but I thought I should hear him out.
“You got to be a strange eat to do your own stuff these days,” he said, “and Roadrunner, I’m not strange enough. If I was really doing my own thing I wouldn’t be coming on with you like this. No, man, listen, when I get out I’ll be hustling and talking my ass off and trying to be equal and different at the same time, which is about the stupidest thing a man can do. I know I will. But don’t call me a spade. Right now I’m not a spade. And you’re not a ballplayer.”
Pannel turned and walked down the road. After that night it was never the same with him.
When Pannel was quiet now, he would make me nervous. I began to talk when I didn’t really want to. I kept talking to him because I had gotten dependent on doing that, and besides, there wasn’t anything else to do. He didn’t seem to make a connection with me anymore. We stopped talking sports. Sometimes he would laugh, and the laugh would seem to come from nowhere, and I would never know what he was laughing at. Those laughs would last a long time, and they always made me feel self-conscious. I would try and laugh back, but because I didn’t know what was happening, my throat would get stuck. We drank more. We’d get a carton of beer from the NCO club and take it back to the boiler room. Or we wouldn’t bother and just get loaded up there.
Pannel didn’t want to be alone anymore on the weekends, so he would come into the barracks and drag me away from a card game. We would go into the boiler room and drink and listen to music. I started to hate that music. But there was still something in the place, because I couldn’t stop from going out there. But one night I couldn’t take it anymore. I blew up. I stood up and yelled at him:
“Goddamnit, be a nigger, be a soldier, be a maniac, but be something.”
I started to shake. I wanted to kill him, to snuff him out. I swear to God.
Pannel looked at me. He was cold. It was like when I first met him.
“The thing that’s important,” he said, “is to get to that point where it doesn’t matter whether someone understands you. Where you never have to call on anyone. When you can wait and not expect anything one way or the other. . . But it’s very icy there.”
He got up and left.
I put on a record. When the record was over, I took the phonograph and the records back to the barracks and went to sleep. I didn’t know how to think about anything.
The next morning Pannel missed roll call. He was reported AWOL. It didn’t cause much of a stir. Going AWOL was no unusual act in Camp Drum, and no one had ever really noticed Pannel. He just wasn’t there. The next day everyone forgot about it.
Everyone, that is, but me. At first I told myself that it was his problem. He would have said that himself. But I couldn’t help wondering where he had gone. He only had five weeks to go before he would have processed out. Now if they caught him he would be in for a long time. But I don’t think they’ll catch him, because I don’t think he’s the type to go home. Pannel won’t leave any tracks. It’s strange, but I don’t even know where his home is. He never talked about it. I assumed he was from New York because he talked about jazz so much and he seemed to know some musicians. But for all I know he might have been from North Dakota. If he had only said something to me about going. Even if he had just joked about it and told me a lie. If he had only said: “Roadrunner, I got me a beautiful cabin up in the Canadian woods. You ought to see it. I thought about it, and it’s all set up. I have two thousand records and a lovely chick who just happens to have lots of money.” That would have been enough for me. But the bastard, I thought. He didn’t leave me with anything, except, maybe, his phonograph and records, which I kept. But I never used that phonograph once.
It was like I had been caught in a room without knowing how to get out. I tried the window, but it was too high. I tried the chimney, but it was too narrow. I got the feeling all I had to do was turn around and I would see the door had been open all the time — but I couldn’t turn around. I was stuck.
It wasn’t that I hated the army. I didn’t hate anything, and I didn’t like anything. If I could have spent some time in a gym I would have been all right. I would have been around some action, something I didn’t have to think about. Something was wrong. My mind was going too fast, as if it was out of control. I didn’t know how to put on the brakes. Before, I always had some little guy inside me, like a coach, telling me what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. It was like he had disappeared or just quit. The more I shouted around trying to find him the worse it got. I would go out behind the barracks and walk across a field lined with pine trees. I would throw chunks of snow at the trees. Once I shouted. It didn’t help. I went out to the boiler room. I tried to breathe deeply and feel completely still. I sat there for a long time. But nothing happened.
I DRANK my way into April. After a while just getting through the winter seemed enough and coming into April was like taking a hook slide from way out and just managing to touch the base with your finger. The weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. Two companies arrived from Fort Devens. We had inspections again and G.I. parties. I was busted to private for not having my name tags sewed on. I complained and started counting the days left, now five hundred and eighteen. The camp filled up. I played a little softball on the weekends. I even started to talk to the men in my barracks. Everyone has a bad winter now and then. And me, who wasn’t smart enough to go to college or be an officer or just duck the whole thing, why should I have to figure out why one winter is good and another one bad? They do all that for you. So I sat back and tried to ride it out, and I was doing fine until Sergeant Harrison Mountain showed up in the beginning of May.
Sergeant Mountain was sent up from army headquarters to start the post newspaper. If you saw him from across the company area, you might think he was a general, or if you were closer and saw his stripes, you would figure him for one of the last of the old-time sergeants. He was very classy. People pointed out his resemblance to MacArthur, but I preferred to see him as an old Western scout, the kind you see in the comics and movies, paleblue eyes, very straight and cool, ready to ride into hostile Indian territory without looking back. He had hair the color of steel wool and a white mustache that bent slightly at the corners. That mustache was better than Errol Flynn’s. (I learned later that he wore a toupee; you could see it shift a little when the weather was warm and the top of his head sweated.) All of Mountain’s uniforms were tailor-made, and he wore the combat infantry badge and three lines of ribbons. Pannel would have checked him out because Mountain’s face was very hard to read. Pannel was always checking out faces. He said you could tell what most guys were doing just by looking at their faces. He was looking for the face where nothing showed. A lot seemed to show in Mountain’s face, but there was finally some tight thing he did with all the lines around his mouth that kept it from you.
Mountain liked the message center. He would sniff and poke around the mailboxes and read all the return addresses on the officers’ mail. He kept careful note of all leaves and three-day passes. There wasn’t much else for him to do. He was supposed to set up a place for the new Public Information Office and recruit a newspaper staff, but he had done that kind of thing so often he could do it in half a day, and he had conned four weeks for himself.
Mountain was old, he had killed men, he might have raped women. And he treated me like a private, which I liked. I didn’t have to think about Mountain. Everything was laid out by regulations. I made myself fit into his style. I became a kind of aide to him, although that was mostly in my mind because Mountain rarely talked to me. But I soldiered. I shined my brass and shoes, and I stood tall. I was putting him on, I guess. But I didn’t want to think anymore. I wanted to rest. . . I guess what I’m trying to say is that I told him a lie. I waited about a week, just to feel him out, and then I told him I used to be a sports reporter on the New York Post. I wanted to work on the newspaper. Mountain was my way out of the message center. He had authority. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. I made him my man. I got the job.
We set up the PIO office together.
But I don’t want to talk about the newspaper, or about the PIO section, or about the summer, or about Camp Drum. All that doesn’t matter. I want to talk about the way it ended. I want to put it down because I don’t understand it.
When the camp filled with reserves and National Guard troops, we worked. Even Mountain went out to the field to cover stories. On weekends we often had three or four governors inspecting their troops, and we had to cover them.
One afternoon in the beginning of July, I took a jeep and went out to the field to get a story on an artillery company. It was a forty-minute drive to the range. The road was rutted by tanks. It was hot. Tired and out-of-shape platoons marched slowly along the side of the road. When I heard the howitzers, I pulled the jeep off the road. I had plenty of time.
I lay down. The ground was sandy, with a few scattered pine trees and tufts of grass. The only sound was howitzers going off at three-minute intervals. They were 105’s. It was always unreal for me to drive out to the range and listen to big weapons going off. I never believed them. I never felt part of the game. That wasn’t so unusual, there weren’t many guys who felt part of the game, but I felt frozen, a little scared. The howitzers made me think about how much I hated noise. Any noise. I needed to play ball. If I could have just gotten to a ball park, anywhere, to work it out. I began to talk basketball to myself: “Robertson dribbles over the center court. He passes it in to Embry. Embry is tied up by Bellamy. Out to Twyman. He throws up a left-handed hook. . . Good. The Royals lead thirty-two to twenty-eight.”
I spoke louder, trying to drown out the 105’s. “Here comes Jerry West over to Komives. Komives loses the ball! Richie Guerin and Kevin Loughery on the fast break. It’s in to Loughery, and he makes a beautiful driving lay-up and gets fouled in the process. A possible three-point play.”
It didn’t help to talk basketball. It never helped anymore. I got up and drove out to where they were firing. I interviewed a few privates, getting their hometown addresses, what they did in civilian life, that kind of thing, when I saw near the last howitzer in line, Mountain. It was really Mountain. I could spot him anywhere. There were three or four men around him, and they were coming up the line of howitzers. The men on the howitzers saluted as they walked past. Mountain would answer their salutes. When they got closer I saw the stars on Mountain’s shirt. I walked away, behind a tree, and stood with a group of men drinking coffee.
“Who’s that?” I asked, motioning toward Mountain.
“Some inspecting general. I never seen him before.”
I walked forward. I went right up to the group. I didn’t feel anxious. I don’t know why. I didn’t feel much of anything. Mountain looked at me distractedly, as if he had never seen me before. I saluted.
“Are you from PIO, soldier?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“I want you to drive me back to camp. Something happened to my driver. Go back to your jeep and wait for me.”
I went back to the jeep. Mountain was doing the whole shot. A brigadier general. I didn’t laugh. It was real enough. But it wasn’t fair, I thought. It wasn’t fair to me that Mountain was a maniac. I didn’t know how long he had been doing this. I didn’t know why. But I couldn’t handle it. To do something about it I would have had to be clear on a whole lot of things. And everything was muddy, very muddy. I couldn’t report him. I wasn’t afraid of him. It was something in myself that held me there, some kind of exuberance that I kept pushing down. Like on opening day of the season when you’re so turned on you feel like throwing the ball into the stands.
Mountain came up to the jeep with the company commander, a brisk New York businessman, delighted to be in the army for two weeks.
“A fine company,” Mountain said. “I am impressed, Captain. They have good spirit. They have a sense of order.”
“Thank you, sir,” the captain said. “I’m proud of them . . . yes, they’re a great bunch of men. Are you sure you won’t let us drive you in, sir?”
“It’s perfectly all right this way,” Mountain said. They saluted, and Mountain got in next to me. He was wearing a pistol. I drove off very fast.
“What’s your name, soldier?” Mountain asked.
“Come off it, Sarge,” I said. “You can play your game. I don’t care. I’ll just drive you back to the post, and you can do what you want. I won’t squeal.”
“We’re not going back to the post. We’re going to the nearest PX, and then we’re coming back to the training areas. There are more troops to inspect.”
“Not me,” I said.
Mountain pulled out his pistol from the holster and shot it into the air.
“You have to understand, Schuller,” he said, “there is something to do.” He looked very tired and old. His voice suddenly wavered. “Look, Schuller, it isn’t going to work. We’re not going to take over the post. We’re going to go out and look at the troops.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I drove to the nearest PX. Mountain was smart in choosing a brigadier general. There were lots of them wandering around. Anything with more than one star would be conspicuous. No one would notice him if he stayed out in training areas with the reserves. At the PX I stopped, and he got out and went in. I thought of driving off. I should have driven off. I know that. He came out a few seconds later. Without saying anything, he pinned two gold bars on my collar. I was Second Lieutenant Schuller. We drove off to inspect the troops.
When we got to the training areas he directed me up another road like the one I had come out on. After twenty minutes we passed a company bivouacked among some pine trees.
“Pull up,” Mountain said.
We walked slowly up to the tents. It was about four in the afternoon. The company must have still been out in the field. No one was around. A mess truck was parked off to one side, and some KP’s were setting up trays and food containers for the evening meal.
A lieutenant ran up and saluted.
“Lieutenant Maugham reporting, sir. Company K.”
Mountain looked past the lieutenant’s left ear.
“We’ve come to see if your company is up to par, Lieutenant. It’s important that each and every one of your men is up to par. Tell me the name of your platoon sergeants.”
The lieutenant stiffened. He was very young, probably just out of college. He pressed a swagger stick nervously against his side.
“There’s Spalding in the third platoon, sir,” he said finally. “Then there’s my platoon, the fourth platoon, that would be Sergeant Randall. Tony Randall. Then there’s Orback in the third. The first has, let’s see, the first platoon has, it must have —
He stood staring at us.
“This is not good, Lieutenant,” Mountain said gravely, a little sadly. “This is not good at all.”
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said.
“No,” Mountain repeated, “this is not good at all. We’ll have to wait for your company commander. Bring us some chairs, and we’ll sit under these trees.” He waved toward a group of scrub oak trees at the end of the row of tents. The lieutenant hurried off. He came back carrying two canvas chairs.
“We won’t need you, Lieutenant,” Mountain said, waving him away.
We sat without speaking. One of the KP’s dropped a stack of metal trays. A jeep went by on the road. I clung to each sound. Mountain stared off beyond the tents. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, even if he was thinking at all. I just sat there.
The sun began to move down through the trees in back of us. The light grew softer. The end of the day is always bad for me. I felt it in my throat, like something was stuck that I couldn’t swallow. Mountain didn’t move or shift in his chair when the troops were heard down the road. They were counting cadence, shouting it out the way troops do in their first few weeks of basic. They weren’t army voices. The voices weren’t weary or disgusted enough. They didn’t tell you they had been through a boring, stupid day. They told you they were happy to be outdoors, happy to be doing a man’s work, happy to be away from home. The platoons marched in and formed into company formation. Lieutenant Maugham saluted the company commander. The company commander looked over at us. Then he walked briskly over.
He saluted. “Major Tucker reporting, sir.”
Mountain stared at him. The major was young and efficient. He didn’t mind being looked over. He had an educated voice with a slight English accent.
“We’ve been inspecting troops all day,” Mountain said after a long pause. His voice had become slower and more deliberate. “I won’t inspect your company. What I’ve seen so far has looked good enough. A certain lack of military bearing in one of the younger officers but otherwise perfectly sufficient. I am even rather impressed by the way you set yourself up here, putting yourself under camouflage from air attack.”
“Thank you, sir,” Major Tucker said. “We have reason to be proud of K Company.”
“We’re tired,” Mountain said stiffly, “extremely tired. I wonder if it would be too much to ask if we could share your evening meal tonight?”
“Delighted, General,” Major Tucker said. He wasn’t at all disturbed by having a general around. He never looked at me. “Dinner will be ready in half an hour. We expect pork and green vegetables. Our cook is a chef at one of Philadelphia’s better restaurants.”
We followed the major over to his tent. Three wooden tables with white tablecloths had been set up outside.
“This is comfortable,” Mountain said, sitting down. “It’s always encouraging to run across people who know how to live well in the field.”
“To tell you the truth, General, I’ve picked up a few tricks on safari. When you’ve been hunting big game all day the evening is a precious time, a time to relax, have a drink, and enjoy good conversation. My officers and I have a little ritual we go through after a day’s training. Two drinks before eating. These two weeks of training are precious to us. We try and get the most out of them. I don’t suppose you’ve been on safari, General?”
“I spent three years in the Pacific hunting human beings.”
“I see. Did you by chance know my father? The late Colonel Tucker? He served with General Wingate.”
“I don’t recall the name,” Mountain said. “Wingate was never a great favorite of mine. Where did you say you served?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?” Major Tucker said politely.
“In the war, for god’s sake, Major. In the war.”
“I’m afraid I was a bit too young for the Second World War, but I was fortunate enough to get in on Korea.”
“That kind of luck is uninteresting,” Mountain said. “Damned uninteresting.”
“Indeed,” the major said. He stood up. “What would you care to drink, sir?”
“Bourbon on the rocks.”
“And you, Lieutenant?”
“The same, thank you, sir.” Those were the first words I had spoken. They were hollow and forced. As the major mixed drinks from a small portable bar, the rest of the company officers, two second lieutenants, came up and stood stiffly at attention.
“At ease, gentlemen,” Mountain said. “For Christ’s sake, sit down.”
The company was lining up behind the chow trucks. They were quiet and orderly, the word having spread that the CO was eating with a general. I was afraid now but in a strange way. I was full of violence. I needed a woman badly. I tried staring at a point somewhat to the left of the major’s head. Mountain had shoved off; he was on his own trip. All I could do was sit back and ride it out. I felt light-headed, my mouth dry, almost parched. If anyone had said anything to me out of the ordinary I would have been unable to reply. I concentrated on trying to hold on. Mountain was talking about the South Pacific.
“I had the great honor to be on Corregidor before it fell,” he was saying. “Damned lucky I was friends with the engineers. They thought I was some kind of a fighting fool, they did. A regular god. Decent bunch, those engineers. Always ate well with the engineers. They would work like niggers when they had to, but when they were off they knew how to enjoy themselves. The Japs would be bombing hell out of us, and we would be sitting in a tunnel as comfortable as a bunch of retired sergeants, eating salmon and drinking white wine. They had stolen delicacies from a submerged Filipino yacht. MacArthur was there. We were always worried about MacArthur because he never paid the slightest attention to the bombings.”
“I’ve often thought about Corregidor,” Major Tucker said. “It was an interesting operation, tactics-wise.”
“Don’t you believe it,” Mountain said sharply. “Don’t you believe it when some old fogy stands up and says, ‘War is a detestable thing.’ The bastard is always a rear-line general embarrassed because he’s not in it. You can bet on that. Of course, there were those who had bad wars. Terrible wars. But I had a good war; not a great one, you understand, but a damned satisfying one.”
“I think I can see your point,” Major Tucker said.
Dinner was served.
“I studied the morale of the British troops in Malaya in forty-one,” Major Tucker said, trying to fill in the silence. “What was interesting was why the British didn’t hold out longer.”
“I don’t want to hear about morale,” Mountain said. “British troops are not the point about morale.”
“Well, sir,” the major continued calmly, “consider the problem. Malaya was a country that had been asleep for over two hundred years. But that wasn’t the real reason the country collapsed. Nor was it that the climate was impossible. The troops simply hadn’t been trained. Their equipment was too heavy and awkward for jungle fighting. But most of all, they had no hardness, no fighting spirit. They were too civilized. They weren’t fanatic enough.”
“Rubbish,” Mountain said. “You either had a good war or you didn’t.”
“I don’t understand, sir,” said a lieutenant.
“I’m not interested in what lieutenants have to say or what they understand,” Mountain said. “Or majors for that matter. None of you knows what it’s like to stick a bayonet into someone’s belly.”
“I beg your pardon, sir,” the lieutenant said. “I spent two years in Korea.”
“Korea was a monstrosity,” Mountain said. “No one was ever there. I won’t hear any more about Korea.”
I forced myself to take a bite of food.
“Consider the complete destruction of the Japanese Twenty-eighth Army,” Major Tucker said hopefully. “They were caught and surrounded in Burma. It was a fantastic engagement. They were completely destroyed by the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Indian Divisions!”
“Captain, I am not interested in what happened to the Twenty-eighth Japanese Army,” Mountain said. “I don’t want to consider anything. I am only interested in what happens to one man. I want to know what one man feels like when, halfalive, he has a ring chopped off his finger by an enemy soldier. I am interested in the mind of the battle-fatigued soldier bending over a native woman. I am interested in what it feels like to see a man burn alive from a flamethrower. You are in the ice age of military thought, Captain. There is no more power of maneuver.”
Mountain choked a little on his food. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and unloosened his shirt from his belt.
“I want to know what one man does when faced with fear,” he continued, rising from his chair. “Does he relieve himself in his pants or does he fight?”
“Are you all right, sir?” Major Tucker asked.
Mountain took out his pistol and pointed it at the major’s forehead.
“I want to know what one man thinks before the trigger is pulled, Captain.”
One of the lieutenants started to stand up.
“Don’t do that,” I heard myself say.
The lieutenant sank back in his chair.
“Mountain,” I said, “you’d better put it away. There’s not much point in killing these guys.”
“Not much point, you say,” Mountain said quietly, sitting down. “There is no point at all.”
He stared at the ground, the pistol hanging loosely from his fingertips. A lieutenant stood up and slipped quietly away.
“I would tell you a story, but I don’t feel like it,” Mountain said, placing the pistol on the table. “I just don’t feel like it. You can all go to hell.”
There was nothing to do. The major talked about something. A kind of delaying action. I don’t remember. We sat quietly, waiting. Mountain looked at his plate. He took a small bite out of his pork chop, lifted it up to his mouth, hesitated, and then dropped the fork down on the plate. Then he stood up and pointed the pistol at the side of his head and pulled the trigger. A good deal of his head got on the table and a little of it on my pants. There wasn’t any more to it. than that. Everyone was stunned, of course, but it wasn’t long before they swung into action. Someone pointed an M-1 at me. In a little while the MP’s came and took me away.
The next day they sent me down to Governors Island. They didn’t really believe what I told them. It doesn’t matter. All I can do now is wait for them to decide something, which for them, I guess, isn’t such a hard thing to do.