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Two Noble Truths and a Coke

by Jason McDowell

In U.S. Army Basic Training, Sundays are generally the best days of the week. There’s usually minimal training. There’s actually some downtime, which can be used for writing letters or napping. Assuming nobody had screwed up in the last day or two, recruits are allowed to use the pay phones in the afternoon. But on Sunday mornings, the enlistees are faced with a choice. They can go to church, or they can stay at the barracks and clean.

This presented an interesting dilemma for those of us who weren’t religious. Fort Leonard Wood, MO had three churches that we, as enlistees, could attend. One was Catholic, one was Protestant, and the last one was Buddhist. There are some sects of Buddhism that are secular in nature, so myself and the other two members of third platoon who didn’t particularly want to attend mass or any other type of Christian service decided to check it out. It had to be better than pushing dust bunnies around the barracks all morning.

Our drill sergeants weren’t thrilled with the idea. “Let me see your ID tags,” Staff Sergeant Rodriguez said to me.

Without hesitation, I pulled my dog tags over my head and handed them over.

“These say No Religious Preference, Private Johnson.” Rodriguez narrowed his eyes at me. “You two. Tags. Now.” Martinez and Finnegan handed over their tags. They listed the same preference as my own. “Admit it. You heard that the Buddhist church has vending machines and you want to go stuff your faces with Coke and fatty cakes, right?”

The three of us exchanged quick glances. We had not, in fact, heard that, but it seemed like a fantastic reason to be a Buddhist for a day. “No, drill sergeant,” I said. “We’re just not religious and Buddhism is the only secular service offered on base.”

“Were any of you Buddhists before you enlisted?” the drill sergeant asked.

Again, we exchanged glances. Somehow, I’d become the spokesman for the group. “No, Drill Sergeant. But we’re all very interested in checking it out, Drill Sergeant.”

Rodriguez glanced over to where the troop truck was loading up to go to the chapel for the Catholic and Protestant services. Then he looked back at us. He shook his head and handed back our tags. “You damn privates are lucky that the First Amendment says I can’t say no. But it don’t say I have to give you a ride. It’s a couple miles. You can take the boot leather express. Still wanna go, privates?”

It wasn’t often that a drill sergeant backed down, and I had the feeling that if we changed our minds now we’d be doing a lot worse than scrubbing toilets all morning. “Yes, Drill Sergeant,” I said.

He gave us directions to the temple. “Fall out, Privates. Get the fuck outta here before I change my mind. And stay away from those vending machines. If you use them, I’ll know.”

We made our way to the temple only to find out it wasn’t a temple at all. It was an out of the way tiny one-story building. Because of the unexpected walk, we were late. We walked in as quietly as we could. There were half a dozen people seated on the floor around a fat happy statue of Buddha. These people were chanting quietly together. Behind them a few more people were scattered among the few rows of chairs. A blonde woman in civilian clothes approached us with some pamphlets. “First time here?” she asked.

We all nodded.

“Welcome!” she said in a hushed voice. She gave us a big smile. “Here’s some pamphlets explaining a little about Buddhism. Feel free to join in the chanting or just have a seat and listen.”

We all sat uncomfortably for about twenty minutes and then the service was over.

We resisted the urge to use the vending machines, mostly out of fear of being caught, and started the trek back to our barracks.

“The Four Noble Truths,” Finnegan was reading from the brochure. “Number one. Suffering exists.”

“I guess Buddha must’ve met our drill sergeants,” Martinez said. We all laughed.

“Number two,” Finnegan continued. “Suffering arises from attachment to desires. I know I was desiring a Snickers bar like mad in there, and now I’m suffering.”

“That makes two of us,” Martinez said.

“Three,” I added. “What’s next?”

“Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases,” Finnegan told us. “And fourth, there is an eightfold path to the cessation of suffering.”

“They can say what they want, but I’m not giving up my desire to graduate and get the hell out of here,” Martinez said.

“Hooah, brother,” I agreed.

We continued to attend the Buddhist service every Sunday. Staff Sergeant Rodriguez always made us walk there and back. It wasn’t so much that any of us were even considering becoming Buddhists, it was just something to do that didn’t involve pushing your own body weight or carrying a pack that weighed sixty pounds up and down miles worth of hills.

We went four weeks without going near those vending machines. I gave into temptation at the end of the service on that fourth week. Someone opened a door and there it was, lighting up the concrete hallway that ran behind the room where they held the service. A Coca-Cola machine. If I was going to have a true religious experience, I thought, it was going to be inside a can of Coke.

“He won’t know,” I said. “No way.” I got up and moved for the door.

“Dude, where you goin’?” Finnegan asked.

I pulled a dollar out of my wallet. “Where ya think?”

Finnegan and Martinez looked at each other for a moment, then bolted from their chairs to follow me.

I bought a Coke, popped the tab and slammed down half of it in one gulp. It was the first soda I’d had in five weeks, and it was the most amazing drink I’d ever had in my life. Two minutes later Finnegan was on his second Snickers from the machine next to the soda machine, and I was on my second Coke and halfway through a bag of chips. Martinez was peeling the wrapper from the last Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in his package.

The door to the meditation room opened and Staff Sergeant Rodriguez walked through. We all froze in mid-bite. Rodriguez was holding a pamphlet in his hand. “What’s the first of the Four Noble Truths, Johnson?” he asked.

“Suffering exists, Drill Sergeant!” I yelled, dumping the rest of my soda and food into the trash can next to the vending machine and snapping into an At Ease position. Martinez and Finnegan did the same.

Rodriguez grinned from ear to ear. “Might be somethin’ to this Buddhism thing after all. Front-Leaning Rest Position. All of you. And Puuuush.”

We hit the floor and started doing push-ups.

I never did learn much about that eightfold path to enlightenment, but we sure learned about those first two truths. Suffering exists, and suffering arises from detachment to desires. We desired that junk food, and we suffered for the next three hours because of it.

In the end, though, I’m not sure the Buddhists have it right. When that smoke session was over, every muscle in my body had failed and I was in a great deal of pain. So, yes, I suffered. But it was still the best damn Coke I ever tasted.

Jason McDowell grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, and served in the Wisconsin Army National Guard from 2000-2005, including a 12-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While his writing encompasses several genres (science fiction, horror, literary), much of it has roots in his military service. He currently works as an editor in New York, New York, where he lives with his fianceé Larissa and their two dogs.

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