Salute to John Wayne

A FEW YEARS AGO, before nakedness became old hat, I was standing near Times Square looking at an opaque storefront behind which, according to a boldly lettered sign, you could talk to a nude woman. It wasn’t the kind of thing I would do, but I stood there wandering what it would be like, what I would say to her, whether she would feel obliged to respond.

As I began to move on, I found myself surrounded by green arms: an Army colonel and a staff sergeant materialized, passed each other and me at the same time, and exchanged crisp salutes.

Although these two may have been the only servicemen in the entire midtown area, their eyes did not meet. You can tell by looking at a person’s eyes whether they are meeting someone else’s. Both men were in fact angling their attention toward the TALK TO A NUDE WOMAN sign, but at any rate each of them addressed himself, quite properly, to the uniform, not the man.

I sensed an epiphany, or at least a déjà vu. Except that there seemed to be an element missing. I turned back to the storefront. What if the woman were actually quite good company: hearty, secure, at peace, her skin tautly billowy like a flag?

Still, you might be at some pains to give her the impression that so far as you were concerned, she was not the only fish in the sea. And she might want to convey that although you might be with a large accounting firm, and her own occupation was being talked to nude, she was not your bit of fluff.

It hit me. What was missing.

Then she came out, slightly but not unfetchingly cross-eyed, and wearing— something loose. I can never, except where they are revealing, describe women’s clothes. But hers reminded me of the time in seventh grade when I showed up at my girlfriend Amy’s house unexpectedly the afternoon before a Methodist hayride I was taking her to and she seemed more domestic than she did at school. She smelled of hand lotion, something I did not understand the appeal of. Her hair was wet, and she was wearing the kind of flapabout clothes one’s mother wore while giving herself a home permanent. Then, through fabric, I descried the unsegmented line of Amy’s whole flank. I didn’t recall having seen that line, moving and unbroken by band or ruffle, before.

Amy, flustered, offered me a Coke. While she was getting it, I sat down. Her orange-and-white cat jumped into my lap and started kneading my crotch in an embarrassing way. I half-stood, but the cat clung. I pulled at the cat, the cat sank its claws into me, and I was hopping, hunched, trying to wrangle the cat loose when Amy came in with my Coke.

“Mister Fluff!” she cried, and her eyes filled with tears.

Well, that was the element. When this nude woman in mufti came out of the storefront, she was carrying a plush but alert-looking gray cat. You know how hard it is to pin down a cat’s focus, but this one gave me a look, I thought, as his mistress went pitter-pat on high heels right by me, sprang into a taxi, and was gone.

Did she hold the cat, stroking it, in her lap or at her bosom, as she was being talked to? Did she let visitors touch it? Certain visitors? When I am trying to concentrate on something, cats drive me crazy, and yet I am drawn to them. To pet the cat of a not unfetching woman who is tangibly unavailable, as she watches, I imagine would be exciting but not salutary.

Associations were gathering quickly now. The salutes by which I had just been bracketed were the first I had seen in some time. They took me back to the mid-sixties, when nudity and anti-militarism were growing rampant among the young, and I was a callow, married Army lieutenant. Other twenty-three-year-old Americans were daubing “Peace” and “Love” on their foreheads and filling the picture magazines with Human BeIns. I had grown up imprinted with sentiments like “Do your bit” and “If you must talk to a nude woman, start a family.”

What adults did, I had gathered, was marry, for life; Paul had told the Corinthians that it was better to marry than to burn. I had been burning since the seventh grade. So I married. And suddenly the conscience of America was single, anti-grownup, and running around naked at Make Love Not War rallies.

THESE YOU THIS MUST have come along a few years too late to be affected, as I had been in 1949 at the age of eight, by The Sands of I wo Jima, in which John Wayne plays a sergeant who turns raw recruits into fighting men. Since I was palpably raw, and I loved playing gun b a trie, and John Wayne was John Wayne, that movie struck me with the force of an imperative.

Looking at it today, you might think that The Sands of Iwo Jima would put a decent-minded boy off warfare, since it features the broiling of what John Wayne calls “little lemon-colored characters” in pillboxes. But you don’t have the feeling that John Wayne enjoys that kind of thing. The movie’s great theme is the difficulty of getting through to people.

Wayne keeps trying to strike a rapport with John Agar, who plays a raw recruit whose father, a legendary colonel, was killed in action. Wayne’s own son (from whom he is now estranged) is named after Agar’s father, under whom Wayne once served. Agar, for his part, is bitter toward his father, who regarded Agar as “too soft.” At mail call Agar learns of the birth of his son. When Wayne tries to congratulate him, Agar tells Wayne, coldly, pointedly, “I won’t insist that he read the Marine Corps manual. Instead I’ll get him a set of Shakespeare.”

Wayne’s eyes narrow, but with feeling. “I’ve tried every approach to you that I know, and got nowhere,” he tells Agar. Eventually the two of them become close, after Agar saves Wayne’s life by dispatching an impending Asian with an entrenching tool. Agar says, “There’s something I’ve been trying to say, but I just can’t seem to find the words.”

Wayne says, “You mean you been to two universities and still can’t find the words to say you been out of line?”

Then we see Wayne get killed by a sniper, and the famous flag-raising scene. Inside Wayne’s shirt Agar finds a letter to Wayne’s son that says, “Always do what your heart tells you is right.”

I don’t say, even in retrospect, that this is bad advice. But it doesn’t clear up the obliqueness in The Sands of Iwo Jima, which I never quite got out of my system. Furthermore, the notion that becoming a fighting man was profoundly connected with adulthood stuck with me, through two universities, all the way up until I entered the Army. It was ROTC camp that took the pleasure out of weapons for me. To get our attention, one Korea-vet instructor went fwooof with a flamethrower and said, “Presto! Chinese hamburger!” By then I was already sworn in.

I embarked upon two years of bureaucratic lieutenancy. The Vietnam buildup began. I was unable to see the point of burning villages in order to save them. I could see a certain appeal, for a guy my age, in friendly nude anarchy. I was living in married-junior-officer quarters and exchanging salutes.

When saluted by young men who had the good taste to be not only disaffected soldiers, like me, but also uncommissioned, I felt what is known as role strain. And they knew it. Once I fell from a bicycle in front of a leaf-raking detail—three stockade prisoners whose sudden salute I tried to return while pedaling, balancing, and holding on to some papers. I and the papers fell into the leaves. The prisoners remained at attention. “Let’s all desert!” I felt like saying, but I was in no position to.

What you were supposed to say when you ran into a knot of enlisted men who were engaged in the accomplishment of their mission was “Carry on.” I didn’t like the sound of it. Even when not climbing out of a pile of leaves, I tried to give “Carry on” a tongue-in-cheek twist, but then it seemed to imply too racy an authorization. What if some specialist 4, caught body-painting a general’s daughter, were to exclaim, “But this lieutenant said I was to carry on”?

What really bothered me, though, was being saluted by a topkick or a sergeant major who looked as if he might have served with John Wayne at Iwo Jima. Clear as it was to me that the Army at the upper levels did not know what it was doing, it was just as clear that this sergeant was my superior in years, training, job responsibility, and devotion to duty. He would signal himself officially beneath me with a salute snappy enough to cut ice, a salute that, however, leaned over backward not to contain any hint of “You mooncalf, sir.” I tried to develop a wry return-of-salute, but that is difficult.

I was myself required, of course, to salute superior officers—not as an oppressed person, which would have fit my mood, but as an accomplice. Here I showed some sixties spirit. Once, I saluted a major who was using one hand to take a last drag on a cigarette and the other to hold his hat on against the wind. A colonel would just have nodded, but this major, a young one, lost his hat and bit through his cigarette. Even a full bird colonel could be made to feel overacknowledged, I found, if saluted from fifty yards away, or while he was playing golf, or while the saluter was having a tooth filled.

A general, on the other hand, could not be made to feel that he was being shown undue respect. A general could seldom be made to feel that he was being shown anything. On Governors Island, New York, where I was stationed for a year, it was my good fortune never to serve as officer of the day, in charge of emergencies. A friend of mine named Swardlow drew that duty on the day of the big blackout of 1965, when electrical power went out all over New York City and its environs. Governors Island lies just below the downtown tip of Manhattan. Swardlow looked out his window, saw the Wall Street skyline go dark, and immediately heard the phone ring. “Brief me,” said the voice of a general.

Swardlow was at a loss. “We still have phone communications, sir,” was all he could think to say. The general was outraged.

In saluting a general the trick was to wait, perhaps humming tunelessly as he bore down, until the last split second before he could legitimately bring you up on charges of ignoring him. Since a general didn’t want to admit the possibility that it would enter into anyone’s mind to ignore him, you had a certain amount of slack to work with. It was bracing to feel that you had frustrated a general for even a moment.

You could also say to a general, “Good morning, sir,” quite confidently, at, say, 1900 hours. I found that a general so addressed would never exclaim, “Good God, Lieutenant, it’s getting dark!” If some general had, I could have looked at him blankly and said, “Yes, sir,” and I doubt he could have made a case stand up against me in any proper court-martial.

THAT’S THE WAV I handled generals at Governors Island, where in those days (the Coast Guard has it now) First Army Headquarters was based. Because so many generals came and went there, and because I never had to brief any of them, their effect was like that of Norse gods on someone raised a Methodist: entertaining. For the second half of my tour, however, I was transferred to Fort Totten, New York, in Queens, where there was only one general. He was often alluded to as The General. He gave the impression from a distance of being that uncommon sort of officer who could have made it as a sergeant if he’d wanted to. I developed a fear that he would enter into my life.

It was at Fort Totten that Emmy, a white cat, came through our kitchen window one day fully grown: a sizable, fleecy, impure but robust Persian, fluffy even to the bottoms of her feet. No one could say where she had come from. She took up with us, and soon became widely known on the post for all the things she was seen chasing. “If it moves, run it up the flagpole” was her attitude.

There was a pheasant whose periodic appearances from out of the woods bordering Fort Totten made him something of a post institution; Emmy chased him through a softball game. The paper girl, collecting at our door one evening, looked over at Emmy admiringly and said, “She chases all the doougs.” A captain’s wife reported having seen Emmy scooping something up out of Little Neck Bay “and struggling with it.”

Emmy would also chase, or at least run out at, officers emerging from the Regional Air Defense Command building at close of day. She would lie in wait under the Command building until they came down the front steps. Like a big, somehow sinewy powder puff she would pounce and light right in front of them and then scurry back to her hiding place, having shaken their composure. But The General did not rattle easily. He took a shine to her.

I didn’t work in the Command building, but we were quartered right across from it. Through our kitchen window I would see The General poking playfully at Emmy with his swagger stick and hear him calling her “WP,” which stands for white phosphorus, a particularly loathsome kind of explosive. She would loll when he came at her, and then she would slap at his stick. Once, she and I were out walking. Emmy was the only cat I ever had who would go on long walks with me, and keep up; but she always acted as though she only happened to be heading in the same direction I was. We passed the garden-plot area. There was The General, digging. I veered toward a grove of trees, but Emmy ran over to him. As I looked on, frozen, she wet his mustard greens. It didn’t faze him. Word did get around that he disapproved of her chasing the pheasant, whose appearance in some way pleased him, but months passed and he never took that matter, or any other, up with me.

Then one afternoon I was outside in full uniform hanging diapers. Regulations prohibited doing such a thing without changing into fatigues or civilian clothes, but I was in a hurry because the diapers had to be dry before the hour at which, pursuant to post regulations, you couldn’t have any laundry in view.

So I was contending with a Happing damp diaper and a high-tension clothespin when I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a specialist 6 approaching with a gleam in his.

When a superior fails to notice that you are saluting him, you are supposed to say, “By your leave, sir,” and he is supposed to look up and return your salute. I had the clothespin and the diaper in my hands, and my hat was resting unevenly on my head, and I was pivoting slowly so as to keep my back always to the advancing spec 6, when I heard him say, “By your lea—YO!”

Emmy had made her only recorded spring at an enlisted man, and had timed it perfectly. I said, “Garry on, soldier,” with relish, over my shoulder, and made to get on with my work.

Then I saw The General coming up the hill from the other direction. It was the closest I had seen him. He was one of those people who are overweight but stay in pretty good shape by dint of the vigor it takes to carry themselves as if in excellent shape. He appeared to be bursting out of his uniform. Wind caught the diaper and wrapped it around my head.

Well, maybe I should have peeled that diaper off forthrightly, faced up to The General, and cried:

“Sir! I shouldn’t be here. I got married too young and I don’t believe in the war. I want to be skinny-dipping and taking consciousness-exfoliating mushrooms with someone who looks like Grace Slick.”

I just stood there. Obliquity saved me. Just as I did not want to admit to myself that I was in the Army, The General may not have wanted to admit to himself that I was either. Or maybe Emmy struck a pose so beguiling to The General’s eye that he was loath to spoil the moment by taking into account a diapered lieutenant. (She may have represented to him a freedom beyond even a general’s: she could be soft, she could be fierce, she could simply choose.) Either way, he must have angled his eyes so as to make it credible, even to himself, that I was not in his field of vision.

“Quite some cat!” I heard The General say to the spec 6. “Got a bit of the devil in her.”

“Yes, sir!” I heard the spec 6 say.

When I unwrapped my head, they were all three gone.

The next time I saw Emmy, I told her with, I am afraid, some reediness of tone, “Quite some cat is right.” She was intent on something under an armored personnel carrier and didn’t return my salute.

What if I had buttonholed The General, and a dialectic had been wrought: I accepting that America was not cut out for a state of nature, he that napalming Asian peasants was not going to liberate them. The spec 6 might have joined in and reminded us that at heart this was a nation of shifting and mingling middle, not rapidly diverging upper and lower, classes. Together we might have charted a wholesome course toward the seventies, and the eighties might have had some soul.

But how often do people really face up to each other, flush? And how well does it turn out when they do? We are all slanty-eyed.

EVEN JOHN WAVNE in The Sands of Iwo Jima. On liberty, and planning to get polluted and fight some MPs because he is divorced and his son never writes him, he meets a quite attractive and decent-seeming woman named Mary in a bar. She gets him to lighten up a bit, and takes him to her apartment.

The two of them see something in each other—in the sixties it would have been no cheap encounter. But at her place, from a back room, a cry is heard. It’s a baby. Nice-looking kid, well taken care of. Mary is picking up soldiers, inferably talking to them nude, and getting money from them so she can feed the baby—whose father, she tells Wayne when he asks, is “gone.” She adds, “There are a lot tougher ways of making a living than going to war.”

Oof. Wayne gets that grim-wry look in the corners of his eyes, softens and toughens all at once, tosses all his cash to the baby in the crib, and moves his essentially compassionate gruffness to the doorway, which he fills.

“You’re a very good man,” Mary tells him.

Looking off, Wayne vouchsafes a quick, grave near-grin. “You can get odds on that in the Marine Corps,” he rumbles, and then he moves on toward Iwo Jima.

Women have told me that I am too oblique. “Tell it to John Wayne,” I should have replied. All these years, and it has only just lately begun to occur to me: if he is so good, how come he can’t keep any loved ones? Here he is, putting distance between himself and the very things—women and children—whose absence is driving him to drink.

What if Mary’s cat had done a quick figure-eight around John Wayne’s ankles, causing him to stand there in the doorway for a while and then to come back and sit on the couch; and the cat had jumped up next to him and stared at the side of his head intently, the way cats will do, and caused him to reflect.

We may think of cats as oblique, because by our standards there is an odd cast in their eyes. But insofar as a cat is interested at all, a cat is at least as unhung-up and upfront as the sixties. If a cat spoke, a cat would say things like, “Hey. I don’t see the problem here.”

What if this cat had moved John Wayne to reflect, “Yuh know . . . the truth of the matter is, gettin’ shot by people, and burnin’ ‘em alive . . . It’s a tougher dollar than bringin’ ‘em home with you for. . . intimacies and . . .considerations. And—dag burn it, it’s less savory. Now, I’m not savin’ what you do is right, but. . . ”

And Mary had seen his point, and then . . . 1 believe The Sands of I wo Jima would have had a healthier formative effect on me if John Wayne had petted the cat, and exchanged looks with it, and done the same with Mary, and she had undressed. I like it when women undress in movies—okay, it has been run into the ground, but I’m glad it got started.

And John Wayne had said, “I’ve got something else to get off my chest. You know how, a lot of times, I am aware of something that other people aren’t, something that can’t be told, so that I have to appear less caring than I am? And a lot of times . . . like in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I let it be believed that Jimmy Stewart shot Liberty Valance, when actually I did, but that’s all right; but I also let Jimmy have the woman I love, because . . . well, because even though he can’t handle a gun, he’s better for her than I am.”

“Oh, who says?”

“Well, the thing of it is . . . Here’s the thing: I can’t get over the notion that honchos and women aren’t right for each other.”

“That’s not true.”

“Oh, no? Why do you think I gravitate toward raw recruits? You can get on a raw recruit, that’s why. The way you can’t with a nude woman. You can bark at a raw recruit—in such a way that it’s tougher’n hell but six months later the raw recruit, well, he realizes it was for his own good. To a raw recruit you can say—excuse me—you can say, ‘You better shape your ass up, mister!’ That doesn’t work with a nude woman.”

“Well ...”

“Yeah, and nude women always want you to say such obvious things! Things that kinda go without saying: ‘You have beautiful breasts and I love to touch them!’ Well, I’m touching them, aren’t I?”

“Mm ...”

“Nude women think it’s easy to talk to a nude woman. It’s not! It’s so personal! And there’s a woman present!”

“Yes, but ...”

“It’s hard.”

“I know. Shhh. I know.”

And after a while Mary had added, “Isn’t this better than bashing and being bashed by MPs?”

“Well . . . yeah. Sure it is.”

And still later Mary had made the observation that people should not enter upon a family (“or a war,” John Wayne had put in) until they have talked nude with enough members of the opposite sex (“or nationality”) to dispel some of that virulent defensiveness that cats don’t have.

I know what would have happened the next morning, though. Because it happened to me in civilian life, with a brand-new leather jacket, not long after I got divorced. John Wayne and Mary would have waked, stretched, smiled a little abashedly at each other, reached for their clothes, and found that Mary’s cat had sprayed foully—and that stuff will not come out—on John Wayne’s Marine Corps tunic.

Frankly, having been in the situation myself and having given some thought to what he would do in it, I don’t think John Wayne could have come up with an expression in the corners of his eyes potent enough to return that salute. I think he would have tried to murder the cat, and Mary would have screamed and the baby would have waked up and screamed and John Wayne would have screamed and the cat would have screamed, lap dissolve to beachhead, projectiles shrieking.

What is the problem?