by David Ackley
Like convicts, draftees were prone to claim it was all a big mistake, which didn’t mean we were wrong; for the half-million of us called-up that year the case was clear. We’d expected to be ground to slime under the tank treads of the Soviet divisions massed in Eastern Europe, but although the shooting war was cancelled and instantly redundant, we were sentenced regardless to spend the next two years eating mess hall slop, sleeping arm’s length apart in clamorous and foot-fetid squad bays; acquiring firsthand the jittery lassitude of an army in peacetime.
Which explains—if you want to call it that — how, as a consequence of suspended hostilities in Berlin, Germany, I ended up a buck private at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu, HI, following in the footsteps of Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, or if you prefer the fictional originals, First Sergeant Warden, Privates Sal Maggio and Robert E. Lee Pruitt.
Two-storied, arranged in quads like the dorms of the northeastern university I’d flunked out of, the barracks were high-ceilinged, stuccoed monoliths, open to the winds off the Mauka side of the island. Ours held the four hundred enlisted men of the 9th Battallion, Ist Artillery, armed as follows: Battery A, six 105mm howitzers; Battery B, six 155’s; the phantom C battery, consisting of no troopers, and several sleek, shiny rockets, eighteen or twenty feet long, under canvas covers that looked like giant, zippered condoms — purpose unspecified, existence unacknowledged.
On second thought, forget I mentioned them.
Oh, and my battery, Headquarters, a collection of support squads which provided services to the gun batteries like telling them where to point their cannons.
From the open-sided lanai along the second floor of the barracks we could actually see, scooped in the ridgeline between us and the Pacific, Kolekole Pass, where the Japanese dive bombers came out of the glare of the rising sun to bomb and strafe Schofield on that infamous December day twenty years before. The nicks still to be seen in the 27th Infantry Barracks were supposed to have been made by their rounds.
Now and then, drenched in sweat and boredom, someone would yell from a bunk, “Come on back, Japs! Blow this mu’fucka UP!”
That was one option. Another was to assemble all the resident grunts, jarheads and swabbies on one side of the island, jump up and down, flip it over and see if life on the bottom was any better.
Duty day at an end, I was walking back from the motor pool with Sergeant Baker, our section leader, whippet lean in starched and tailored fatigues faded to the color of lichen, against which my baggy uniform, both too new and too wrinkled, suggested we belonged to different armies. As in a sense we did, since he was R.A. — Regular Army — and I was U.S. — a draftee. He was a laconic Okie, who didn’t seem to care what his section of mostly draftees did when we were out of his sight. I’d been at Schofield and in his section for the past 5 months.
He stared for a long moment at my stripeless sleeve as if trying to recall something. “Didn’t I put you in for Pfc?”
“ You did, Sarge. It came through…about three weeks ago.”
“You unhappy with it? Cause if you’d rather not be sewin’ them stripes on, you and me could stroll on over to the orderly room, see’f the First Sarn’t can’t take the problem off your shoulders.”
His drawl was so mild and easy it took me several seconds to realize he’d just threatened to bust me back to private. I did prefer my rumpled, rankless uniform: it had the purity of the lowest of the low and I fancied it made me invisible. Nor did I care much about the few dollars a month that came with the promotion. But I didn’t want to stay on Sergeant Baker’s bad side, now that I’d discovered he had one. So I sighed and complied, hand sewing stripes on the one uniform that night, while the others went to have the job done professionally by the Filipino ladies at the post laundry, and for good measure laundered, starched, and pressed, another reluctant step on my way to enrollment in “this man’s Army.”
It threatened to be a long war between the RA’s and the US’s, but though they weren’t always obvious we’d have our victories. Better to trust the collective wisdom of the unwilling — axioms like “never volunteer” must have descended from conscripts in Pharoah’s army — than their opposite numbers, or worst of all, at all costs to be avoided, the enthusiasts.
Like our battalion XO, Major Burndy, who, at the outset of war games, when we’d opted for a separate peace by quickly shooting off all the blank ammo we had, prowled before us, .45 in hand, exhorting us to carry on the battle by other means. “Don’t just lay there, men. Keep firing. Make some noise.” He waved his pistol in the direction of the enemy force, who looked a lot like us except for their blue armbands. Ours were red. “Bang, bang,” he said, by way of example. “Bang, Bang. Bang,” he said, sighting in on an exposed helmet, his voice louder, more expressive as he got the hang of it. “Bang, Bang, Bang. Bang-Bang.”
“Man, this sorry motherfucker is embarrassing ,” Rios muttered for my hearing only.
His troops discreetly eyed each other. Even from him, this was rare, nearly sublime. Flaunting his exposure to the fire of the enemy, he strutted in front of our position, back and forth, waving his impotent .45; but the troops on the other side had exhausted their ammo as well, and could be glimpsed reclining on their packs, smoking, gazing idly up through the jungle foliage.
“Bang this,” Rios said.
“Sir, I b’lieve you run out,” someone called to the major. “You might want to put in another clip.”
Rios was amused by Major Burndy, but also despised him for a weak, sadistic prick and whenever Burndy came into the Fire Direction tent when we were out in the field, Rios would sing out in his cheerful and penetrating tenor, “It’s the Mongoose Killer!”
Burndy never acknowledged the label, but it invariably shortened his visit, so we assumed Rios had scored. Mongoose — or mongeese, whichever — were everywhere on the island. They’d been brought in to keep down the snakes which had yet to arrive in Hawaii, friendly humorous little critters, that reminded me of a downscaled otter, easily tamed with a few scraps of food, as Rios had with the one that had been hanging around our tent during a shoot on the big island.
One day, Major Burndy showed up just in time to catch the mongoose’s act — Rios having taught it to stand up on its hind legs and beg. Burndy left and presently returned carrying a pot of boiling water he’d requisitioned from the field kitchen. He was a man plagued by uncertainty in a profession that was always pressing for decisive action and as he dashed the boiling water over the poor thing he might have had his doubts; but then as usual it would have been too late. As sole witness, Rios seemed the only one privileged to call him out to his face, although in time it became everyone’s name for him. A small moral victory call it, emphasis on the small, not as satisfying or effective as tying Burndy naked to a stake and dousing him with boiling water, but about all we’d ever get away with under the circumstances. Holding the big armament of immunity and rank, the RA’s were still ahead and always would be we came eventually to realize.
Away from our desultory duties, the only way to keep the clock running toward discharge was relentless pursuit of liquor, women and hand-to-hand combat. For the last, despite the clerkish nature of our duties, Headquarters had the advantage of a disproportionate number of certified badasses. Nagajima from survey section was a member of the national judo team. There was a former college wrestler, a middleweight; a Korean with a green belt in karate; an innocuous little finance clerk, not much more than five and a half feet tall, who once called out all the five guys who were his chief harassers, mistaking his amiable grin for pliancy, and had all five on their backs in under a minute each. In my section, Fire Direction, David Foss, to his friends, Brute, a nineteen year old, six-foot-three street fighter from Milwaukee with a pigeon chest and hands that brushed his knees, a guy even the certified passed on fucking with.
How misplaced I was among the real warriors came clear when he woke me one night by pouring beer on my face through the mosquito netting over my bunk.
He was wearing a loose, Hawaiian shirt which had a shredded look as if he’d tried to aerate it with a pair of scissors, one of the several slits showing an ochre stain. He’d woken me to share the fun he’d had that night in an alley off Hotel Street in Honolulu where he’d got it on with a local packing a switch-blade.
I imagined Brute smirking when he saw the knife; he was big and tough, but more dangerous because he was smart and enjoyed the work, especially when it presented an interesting tactical problem. So they’d gone at it, Brute shuffling his big splayed feet in a half circle, his right tucked under his chin, his left down low, a little back of his left knee. He’d drop his right shoulder like he was going to throw a right hand and lean in with his torso, and the local, who was pretty fast he said, would slash the flimsy shirt, which the Brute offered as a torero offers the cape and the illusion of solid flesh behind it.
For a while they go at it this way, Brute feinting, leaning in, the local cutting nothing but shirt and air, but staying out of reach of those gorilla arms. Then he sucks air, his chest heaving and Brute thinks, next time, and when he reaches in deeper and catches a little skin, Brute collects and leaves the blade broken off at the hasp in a crack and the local face down, whistling when he tries to breathe with his busted sternum and his face all snot and gore, the Brute passing happily back into the lights of the whorehouses and bars on Hotel Street, ready to call it a good night even at the cost of his best Hawaiian shirt.
In time the inclination proved contagious and even being educated, older, a draftee wasn’t enough to hold back a spurt of aggression that had me rolling around in the dirt of the motor pool with the arrogant Spec. 4 who drove the colonel’s jeep. I got a split eyebrow and Baker sent me to the dispensary for stitches. I’d fallen, I insisted according to accepted form. Since the other guy was unmarked and had drawn blood, I was elected loser. And, in fact, I was.
In the latrine mirror, I examined the scar, turning from side to side to see it from the best angle.
After you’d been on the islands for a while, the standard images of palm trees, white sands and breaking surf stale from endless repetition, you began to see the light that was always there, but never quite the same, washed and refracted, bleached and colored by the surrounding sea. Light trickled in ribbons through the jungle foliage or braided together with the rain after a sudden torrent in sparkling, dripping twists. Or rampaging in pink and vermilion across the black peaks of the Kolekole Range at sunset. Or filtered in pale green through the curl of the wave about to break over you. Or even blackly absent on thick tropical nights so palpable you wanted to rub them between your hands, so intense with tropical scents your barracked celibacy was taunted with dreams of coupling among the orchids.
On the morning of my first Chinese New Year, I strolled alone at first light along the canal in Waikiki. On the far side of the canal began the hillsides which had been continuously lit into the early morning hours with fireworks, a constant upwelling cascade of detonations, white starbursts, arcs, twists and showers blizzarding up from the dense neighborhoods, extension of the havoc we brought with our howitzers to other parts, percussions interlaced and constant with a rising and receding pom, pom, boom of cannon crackers, and cherry bombs, roman candles and rockets the night through. But by then everything was quiet except my footsteps, the air familiarly laced with the acrid smell of burnt cordite, the light overhead like a tender bruise, a color without a name—deeper than violet, paler than mauve—and I was stirred by it and grateful as we are when the world offers a privileged glimpse of some ephemeral splendour, the more fleeting and poignant for the way it stood apart from the life I was living and secretly despised.
We fought, fucked — the few who got lucky — and drank our way through nights of brief autonomy, ticked off, one by one the lethargic, hungover and constricted duty days, and played weekend locals to the tourists on the sands of North Beach, Waimea Bay, and Waikiki until an evening almost a year to the day from when I’d received my notice to report to the induction center in Manchester, New Hampshire in July of 1961. Rios had gone home to El Paso the week before; not taking any chances, he’d slept away most of his last month in the barracks so he’d survive until his discharge and avoid dying in the Army. I missed him, but his departure meant I was halfway home.
We stood on the lanai a little after sunset, eight of us talking and smoking, leaning on the railing that prevented – for the most part — drunks from falling to the concrete below. Beyond the mountains and Kolekole Pass the overcast sky had begun to lose the last of its light and shade deeper toward the black faces of the peaks. I couldn’t tell you now which of us was RA and which US, a war more imagined than real, dissolved in the common fate. Like that other phony war which had catapulted us here and consigned us to the two years of bored waiting that would later seem like a piece surgically sectioned from our real lives.
Brute was there, and Junior, a Tennessee farmboy. And Jim White, an ex-seminarian in survey section who’d dropped out of Chico State. Ralph Nagajima, the sleepy judo expert. McHenry, perennial winner of the division talent show with his pleasant baritone voice. Others…all smoking, shooting the shit, looking toward the pass and waiting. It was pleasant to stand there waiting by choice, not at somebody’s order.
“What time’d they say?”
“If it’s the Army running it, you know that ain’t happenin’.”
“Maybe it’s the Navy.”
“Fuckin’ worse. You know the ship we come over on, s’pose to take three weeks from Oakland to Pearl? Took a month. A whole fuckin’ month. We was a week late. Seven goddamn days. Tell me about the fuckin’ Navy. If it’s the fuckin’ Navy we’ll be standin’ here Saturday week.”
“I don’t think it’s the Navy,” I said. The others fell silent, waiting for more. They didn’t defer exactly, but on certain unpredictable matters, my education was mistaken for authority. I tried to remember but I had no more idea than the rest of them who was in charge. “It’s just the government, I guess. You know, civilians, like scientists and, um -” (I tried to remember the civilian word for officer) “- administrators.”
“We won’t see anything anyway. Look at the clouds.” This was Desmond, a born rationalist, from Blue Hill in Dorchester.
“Who knows? It’s about nine hundred miles.”
“Kiss my ass,” Junior said.” Why didn’t you tell me? You can’t see shit from no nine hundred miles. Lets us go over the PX and get a beer.”
But nobody moved, including Junior. I don’t know why. There wasn’t a lot of curiosity left in us. I hadn’t read a book in months. Maybe in spite of ourselves we had a professional interest. In FDC we worked in a dark truck by small lamps, plotting artillery fire on waste land and targets of junk and salvage; but when we had the chance, we’d step outside to watch the smoke and firebursts in the distance, the havoc our pencil lines and maps directed. You learn in the artillery that there’s a universal satisfaction in blowing things up. Once when we’d gone on maneuvers with the armored cav, Battery B’s 155’s blew the tread off one of their tanks with an air burst. The crew of the tank gave the mangled wheel to the gunbunnies for a trophy. Maybe behind the camouflage of PhD’s and scientific specialties was a bunch of guys eager to blow up something big, just to see what would happen. I thought if you scraped off the surface bullshit, you’d be left with something like that, even if nobody would admit it. It’s like war, in a way, ten years after the last one and everybody’s started to wonder what the next one will be like. A couple years down the road, a lot like Vietnam, it would turn out.
The sky had grown black behind the thickened overcast. I imagined, at best, a flicker through some crack in the cloud cover like distant heat lightning, there and as quickly gone.
“What time you got?”
I could see the green glow of the hands on the watch that McHenry had given me when he’d won a new one in the division talent show. It was straight up nineteen hundred hours and I was about to say so when the peaks of the Kolekole range jumped out of the darkness, black and serrated against the dingy white sheet which had risen behind them and curled over us like a wave, exposing the quad and all the barracks in the shadowless light of a premature dawn. It coated our faces a powdery white, shocked faces with black sockets for eye holes. I could see my hands, our uniforms and brass in the ashy light that was like no light I’d ever seen. In time the sheet rolled back down the sky like a windowshade but it left swirls of red, a dead green sun scalloped along its edge in yellow, undulant waves of a whitened blue with a crackling fearful symmetry like the auroras of brilliant winter nights at home burning brightly on and on in the airless night.
What fed this durable fire? The flying fish, skittering into the light. The albatross, consumed in flight. The reefs of coral, barracking millions. The frangipani and hibiscus. The mango, palm, palmetto. The white sand. Paper houses, no sweat. The salt sea. The balmy air. A jade cup. Hiroki.
Anything it wanted.
And us, lapped by light, the consuming light.
David Ackley was from 1961-1963 in the 9th Bn,, 1st Arty, 25th Div., Schofield Barracks Hawaii. He is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His fiction, poetry and drama have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Prick of the Spindle, Camroc Press Review and other online and print journals. His work has been recognized on the Distinctive Story list of BEST AMERICAN STORIES and nominated for “Best of the Net” and “Million Writers” awards.