All Up Round
by Jeff Shearer
Thirty-six of us stood at attention under a July sun that felt like the heat lamp at the Stop&Go. Some of us already were starting to look like the shriveled Polish sausages that you find there on a midnight munchie run. Private Boyle was one of us. He’s from Palmer, like me. In fact, exactly a dozen of us were from Palmer. We’d had the same recruiter. We even all had the same “Today’s Army Wants to Join You” poster stuck up on our bedroom walls back home. The one with the picture of a bunch of guys playing scratch football on the beach. At the bottom it read “Talk it over with the guys. The gang that enlists together, stays together.” So that’s just what we did–right after graduation. There was only a handful of kids from Palmer headed to college, and most of them were girls. And none of us were ready to go work next to our dads and uncles at the Kaiser mill. We were hungry for some worldly education. So one Monday morning we all showed up at the recruiting station, signed the forms, and then went and got drunk down by the river. Except for Jimmy Boyle. He sat and watched.
Boyle was different. But not one of us wanted to join the Army more than Boyle. On Saturdays, when we were in the fourth grade, Boyle would call up all the boys in our class. “We’re playing army. Meet at the rock quarry.” Boyle assumed that any kid our age held the same passion he had to shoot and get shot at in the fields and backyards of Palmer. If it wasn’t the rock quarry it was VanHeese’s orchard. “The ladder shack makes a great command post,” Boyle would say. “Be there at ten hundred hours.”
Boyle was so obsessed by anything army, he could tell you why the M3 was a better gun than the Thompson. The M3 was his weapon of choice, and the sound it made could be heard in some corner of Palmer on any given Saturday. It was after listening to Boyle demonstrate the difference in the sound the M3 made to the sound the Tommy Gun made, when one of the guys said, “Ok, Rat-a-Tat, we get it.” The name stuck, and from then on he was no longer Boyle. He was Rat-a-Tat. The other kids at school soon picked up on the name, and before long, even our teachers were calling him that. “Rat-a-Tat, would you diagram the next sentence for us, please.”
We had a hunch that Rat-a-Tat spent his days after school searching out new places where we could simulate bunkers and hootches. He was a climber of trees. Once, when his mother told us to go find him and bring him home for supper, we found his Converse tennis shoes at the bottom of the tallest white pine in the county. “Hey,” he shouted down at us. “Perfect sniper nest for next Saturday.” Barefoot, Rat-a-Tat could go one on one with any squirrel in the county.
Boyle struggled in school, though. He daydreamed more than listened to any lecture, but he knew his war history. We learned more about World War II on Saturday mornings than we did from a whole year of history from Mrs. Wilkins.
When we all got off the bus together at Fort Jackson, we quickly figured out that this was not where they’d taken the picture of the poster guys on the beach playing scratch football. Fort Jackson had built a reputation for trial by fire. The South Carolina sun was doing its best to remind us of that reputation daily.
Basic training turned out to be worse than any of the stories we’d heard. This was Today’s Army, we told each other. Today’s Army Wants to Join You. Apparently Sergeant Dean, our DI, hadn’t gotten the message. From day one, he was all over Rat-a-Tat. Sergeant Dean was normally not a shouter. He didn’t need to be. His voice was like gravel rolled in a barrel. Our first day there, he was giving us the day’s schedule. He stopped right in front of Rat-a-Tat. Rat-a-Tat looked just above his eyes.
“Private, do you know where you are?” he growled.
“Sir, yes, sir! In the Army, sir,” Rat-a-Tat blurted out. He was smiling.
Dean got right up in his face.
“No, private. You’re not in the Army until I say you’re in the Army. You are in my shit bucket, private. And you are going to work your ass off to get out of my shit bucket. And then and only then will you be able to say you are in the Army. Do you understand?”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“Then I’ll ask you one more time. Do you know where you are?”
“Sir, yes, sir! I am in your shit bucket, sir!”
“And what does that make you, private?”
“Sir, that makes me a soldier in a shit bucket, sir!”
“No, Private. You are a turd. You are a turd in a shit bucket, and I am the only human being on this planet who can get your sorry ass out of that shit bucket.”
Dean looked him up and down. “What’s your name, private?”
Rat-a-Tat stood there, shaking. We could tell he didn’t know how to respond. He’d been Rat-a-Tat for so long, it was the only name anyone recognized him by.
“You have a name?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
Those of us from Palmer cringed at what he might say. We mouthed his last name, as if the silent word could somehow flutter through the stifling South Carolina air and find its way to his tongue.
“Private, do I have to check the label on your underwear to see what your Godforsaken mother wrote to keep these other sons of bitches from getting their sorry ass underwear mixed up with your sorry ass underwear?”
“Sir, do I give you my shit bucket name, sir?”
“I want your name, private!”
Dean stared at him. He then slowly raised his head and looked at the rest of us.
Then he turned back to Rat-a-Tat. “Boyle, you and me are going to have a hard time getting you out of this hell hole. That does not make me happy, Private Boyle.”
“Sir, me neither, sir!”
Over the next nine weeks, we heard Sergeant Dean’s voice day and night. On the field, in our barracks, and at chow time he was always there. If you left your locker unlatched, he made you polish everyone’s locker latches with Bronzo. If you went for a second glass of milk, he would be there asking if you were going to trade your canteen for a baby bottle. You couldn’t even sleep at night without hearing his voice in every dream. One recruit woke us up night after night, banging his head on the upper bunk as he sat up in his sleep yelling “Sir, no, Sir!”
In the morning, Dean had us up and ready thirty minutes before every other platoon. He had us run in formation past all the other barracks. As we passed the open windows of each barracks, he would yell, “Are you tired yet?” We’d shout back, “Sir, no, Sir. More PT. We like it! We love it! We want more of it!”
At the end of every week, we ran across the white sandy fields and stuck green mannequins with bayonets, yelling “Kill!” After that, we’d pair up, be handed pugil sticks, and practice hand to hand combat. In the afternoons, with the sound of machine guns coming through speakers strung from trees, we ran over logs, jumped dry creek beds, and crawled on our backs with our rifles over our heads.
At each exercise Sergeant Dean was right on top of any straggler, pushing them along with a voice that cracked behind them like a whip. “When I get done with you, you are going to be all up round, and you are going to say to yourself, I was one lucky son of a bitch to get Sergeant Dean, because Sergeant Dean made sure I was all up round.” Dean’s favorite phrase meant nerve-steady and battle-ready.
By Dean’s side, at every drill and exercise was Pritchett, a clipboard-carrying corporal who held a stopwatch like a gun, letting Sergeant know when someone had taken more than the allotted time, or had missed a barrier. Someone muttered “Prickhead” after being called out for taking a second too long in clearing a hundred yards of barbed wire hurdles. From that point on, when out of earshot, Pritchett’s name was Prickhead. Whenever he walked up to Dean following a drill, we knew someone had failed, and the next words we’d hear were going to be, “Hell, Pritchett. You’re breaking my heart.” Then Pritchett would read out the names of those who had to line back up and try it again. The first set of drills we ever ran, Rat-a-Tat’s name was on every list.
It was on a warm, muggy night in the second week at Fort Jackson that we were all jolted from our sleep by Sergeant Dean’s voice. All the lights were off, but we could tell he was at the far end of the barracks. “What in the hell was that noise?” No one answered. We all hustled into attention for inspection. “Are you deaf?” He marched from one bunk to the next, stopping each time to wait for an answer. “Do we need a midnight mile to get the goddamn gum out of your ears?” Dean asked.
We heard his hard step as he passed each recruit. The only other noise you could hear was your own breathing, each of us trying hard not to make any noise that might signal we’d been the one. Sergeant walked the full line down one side and back up the other. He then walked into the middle of the room, and just as he took a deep breath, we heard Rat-a-Tat’s voice.
“I think you heard this, Sergeant.” Rat-a-Tat marched across the floor and held out something in two cupped hands like he was offering him a small pet.
“What the hell is this?”
“It’s a harmonica, sir.”
“Harmonica?” Dean said, taking it from Rat-a-Tat.
“Sir, yes Sir.”
“What do you think you’re in, Boyle? A goddamn marching band?”
“Sir, no Sir.”
“You think when Charlie’s running across a rice paddy and he’s raising the barrel of his goddamn SKS to your pimply face that you’re going to pull out this Mattel mouth organ and send him running away?”
“Sir, no Sir.”
“Unbelievable,” Dean muttered. “They send me boys with toys and I’m supposed to turn them into soldiers.” He walked back to his room at the other end of the barrack, and with each step the pine floor planks seemed to squeak in pain. He paused in front of his door. “Turn in!” he commanded.
Of all the drills, the one that looked like it was going to be the hardest was the Wall. No one could clear it the first time we had to go at it. It required running full speed at a wall of creosote-soaked wood 4×4’s, stacked one on top of the other eight feet high. Grabbing the top edge, you then had to pull yourself over. It took upper body strength to get over the top beam. If you could do that, you then could swing side to side until you got a boot to catch. From there on, gravity was your best friend. Sergeant Dean always positioned himself to the left of the structure, yelling “Use the Wall, y’all. You’ve got to learn to use the Wall.”
Rat-a-Tat, skinny as he was, had no upper body strength. Our first time out, it took him three runs just to get his hands high enough to grab the top beam. After that he just hung there like a lead window ballast until Dean yelled, “Drop, Boyle. Give me fifty.”
Once a week we fell out of bed, rushed through breakfast, and were hustled into formation for a nine-mile hike up to Razor Ridge. We wore full gear and had to carry an extra five pounds of sand in our backpack. At the top of the ridge, once the last one stumbled in, we got to pour the sand out into a mound that stuck out against the dark granite and chips of rotting oak bark. Sergeant Dean watched as each bag of sand was added to the pile. “Y’all are building my beach,” he’d yell. “This will give me something to remember your sorry asses by.”
The first time we had to make the hike, Rat-a-Tat was the last one in. Pritchett was there with his clipboard. “Everyone carries an extra five pounds next time, courtesy of Boyle,” Dean shouted. And the next time we did. The last mile was a killer. From the top, we watched Sergeant Dean pushing Rat-a-Tat the last and steepest hundred yards, matching him in step the whole way. “Use the pain, Boyle. Make it work for you. Own it!” When Rat-a-Tat stepped over the fallen tree that served as the finish line, Pritchett was right there, handing Dean the clipboard. Dean took a look and growled. “Five less pounds next time. Hell, I’ll never get to enjoy this goddamn beach.” Those of us from Palmer slapped Rat-a-Tat on the back. Dean’s voice followed us all the way down the hill. “Let me hear it!”
We knew our line. “We like it here, we love it here, we finally found a home.”
“A home away from home.”
In the last week of BT, I got up one night to pee and heard the hinges of the screen door to our barracks. It was zero-dark-thirty. I looked out the window and saw someone running in the direction of the drill field. Fucking A, I said, somebody’s booking it out of here. I did a survey of the bunks. It was Boyle. Damn, I thought. Boyle? This had been his dream. He must have been afraid to fail. I couldn’t sleep, thinking about what would happen to Boyle when they caught up with him. Article 15 for sure. But in the morning, when Sergeant Dean flipped on the light and yelled, “Everybody up!” there was Boyle, standing at attention. I stared at him and he saw me. He knew I knew. His t-shirt was soaked with sweat. Sergeant Dean stopped in front of him. “Boyle, that must’ve been one hell of a wet dream. Change that goddamn shirt—now!”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
Two nights later, I heard Boyle slipping out again some time after midnight, and saw his silhouette disappear in the direction of the drill field. It was a couple of hours later when the screen door squeaked again. In chow line that morning I leaned forward as we moved down the row of eggs and mush. “Where you been goin’ at night, Rat-a-Tat?” I asked.
“Nowhere,” he whispered.
“I’ve seen you,” I said.
He turned and looked at me. “I’m not going to let them send me to no pussy camp,” he said.
On the final day of drills, there were three recruits who had conquered every obstacle but the Wall. It was about ten in the morning when we were marched over to that part of the field for these three to get one last try. It wasn’t even noon and already it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air.
Pritchett called out the three names. Sergeant Dean stood to the right of the Wall, his arms crossed and feet apart. “This is it. The other side of this barricade is where you can call yourself a soldier. Let’s go.”
“Connors,” Pritchett yelled. Connors cleared it on his first try. Pritchett made a mark on this clipboard.
“Bristol!” The second guy came forward. He took a run at it and hoisted himself level with the top beam. With a grunt that sounded like he was passing a kidney stone, he managed to throw his chest across the beam and rolled the rest of his body over to the other side.
Pritchett made another mark on his clipboard, looked up, and yelled, “Boyle!”
Rat-a-Tat marched to position as if he’d done this a hundred times. Then he stared at the Wall like there was nothing else in the world but him and those creosote beams. Like none of us was there, not even Sergeant Dean. We expected Sergeant to say something, but he didn’t.
Finally, Rat-a-Tat said, “Sir! Permission to take my boots off, Sir!”
Sergeant Dead didn’t respond. Pritchett did though. “No exceptions. Get going, Boyle.”
Rat-a-Tat ignored him. He said again, “Permission to take my boots off, Sir.”
Sergeant looked at Rat-a-Tat, then at us. He slowly walked up to Rat-a-Tat and we all thought this might be it. And it was going to kill Rat-a-Tat if this became his ticket to pussy camp. Sergeant looked at him like he did that first day of camp. Like he’d never seen anything like this. Then he turned his head and spat on the ground.
“Pritchett,” he said. “I forgot my goddamn whistle.” He paused. “Go to the barracks and get my whistle.” Sergeant had never used his whistle the whole time we’d been there.
Pritchett’s face turned red. He looked at Rat-a-Tat and then back to Sergeant. “Yes, Sir.” He turned and hustled off in the direction of the barracks.
“OK, Boyle.” Sergeant said. “Take off your goddamn boots and get your butt over this wall.”
Rat-a-Tat dropped to the ground and quickly threw off both boots, and then his socks. He got up, then walked up to the Wall and stood there, like he was studying a map.
We could feel Sergeant’s stare. “Boyle, are you going to let me down?”
“Sir, no Sir.”
And with that, Rat-a-Tat flattened himself against the Wall and started the craziest thing we had ever seen. He started to move up that thing like a rock climber, finding one splintered crevice after another, digging his fingertips into the rough cracks in the grain, and then doing the same with his toes. It defied gravity. We stood there, mouths open. We could have been watching a huge spider, crawling up a web, carefully placing one leg after another, in a memorized pattern of ascent.
It seemed like it took forever, but Rat-a-Tat reached the top of the Wall, looked back at us with a look of excitement—and then pulled himself over in one final heave.
There was a moment of stunned silence. We heard no movement. Then, there was a yell and Rat-a-Tat came running around the corner, jumping up and down, yelling “I did it! Straight up! I did it!”
We broke out in a cheer. His excitement was contagious. We charged him, slapping him on the back and rubbing the stubble of hair on the top of his head. “Way to go, Rat-a-Tat!”
Sergeant finally broke the celebration. “Ten-hup!” he yelled.
We fell into formation. Rat-a-Tat was in the front row, barefoot and smiling.
“Men. I have never had to send anyone to Pussy Camp.”
It was dead silent.
He walked up to Boyle. “And I am goddamn glad you weren’t the first bunch to go and ruin that for me.”
Rat-a-Tat had a goofy smile he couldn’t keep off his face.
Sergeant took a step back. “Put your goddamn boots on, soldier.”
On the day we left Fort Jackson, Sergeant climbed onto the bus just before we left. The clamor and noise came to a sudden halt. He walked the aisle to the end of the bus, turned, and walked back. He stopped in front of Rat-a-Tat. “Gentlemen. You will not fail me. You made it out of here all up round. I want each one of you sorry sons of bitches to make it back all up round. That’s all.” He looked down at Rat-a-Tat. Then Sergeant was gone.
It was a year and a half before I made it back to Palmer. Even though our twelve-month tour was just about up at the beginning of ’68, our squad had been called back when Charlie hit deep into friendly territory with the Tet offensive. We were stuck without transport and then pulled in to defend Khe San, caught up in the most miserable free-for-all firefight of the whole war. The VC leaders had told their troops to “Crack the sky, shake the earth.” Even the Marines called it a goddamn clusterfuck. When they finally pulled us out of there, we crawled into the choppers, grabbed whatever we could hold onto, and prayed for a fast flight to Base Going-Home.
I found Rat-a-Tat’s house unchanged from what I’d remembered from our days back in grade school. The houses were all small in that part of town. Some fly-by-night paint crew had come in, painted the houses bright greens and yellows and blues, and then skipped town before the first rain. Curled bands of paint rose from the unprimed siding.
I turned off the ignition and just sat there for awhile. I still hadn’t gotten comfortable to being back home. After eighteen months of tour, being butt to butt with guys who were going dinky-doo from seeing Charlie in every moving shadow, my nerves were shot. The sound of a dog barking or a screen door slamming still felt like it came from some other world.My body had gotten used to the numbing smell of cordite and the constant whistle of incoming from the VC gunbunnies.
Rat-a-Tat’s mother answered the door. “Oh, look at you. You look so all grown up. Come in, come in.”
I wiped my feet on the coarse coco door mat and entered the pine-paneled living room.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said, picking up a cat from the easy chair. “Sit down.”
“Mrs. Boyle,” I said. “I want to say how sorry I am. I was going to write you. I started to.” I stared at the floor. “I’m just not good at that sort of thing.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” she said.
We sat there, with her petting the cat, and me looking around the room, trying to remember what I’d practiced to say on the way over. Instead of feeling awkward, there was a comfort to being there.
“I have something for you,” she said. She left and returned with a small box. “These are the things of Jimmy’s they brought me.”
I took the box she offered to me. In it was an assortment of everyday items. A comb. A pen. Shades. Some of the things were pure Rat-a-Tat. A picture of the cast from “Bonanza.” A rabbit’s foot dyed red and blue. And a plastic Popeye Pez dispenser.
“This is what I thought you might want to have,” she said. She reached in and handed me a picture of those of us who joined up together. It was taken the day we had headed off for Fort Jackson. In the middle of a bunch of guys trying to look cool and aloof, Rat-a-Tat looked like he was standing at attention.
“I’d like this very much,” I said.
What I didn’t tell her was what it really brought to mind. The last image I had of Rat-a-Tat. We’d fallen back to an irrigation ditch as a retreat line, trying to get cover from the circle of VC closing in on us. Rat-a-Tat wasn’t with us. He was still at the perimeter, firing blindly into the night, when a frag grenade landed right next to him. We watched as he picked it up and looked at it, like it was a missed catch of a baseball. He turned to throw it back when it went off in his hand.
Mrs. Boyle lifted a photo album from the coffee table. I listened as she commented on each phase of Rat-a-Tat’s life depicted in the photos. Where it was taken, who else was in the picture.
When she finished, she didn’t close the cover, but kept the page open to where Rat-a-Tat was standing in uniform in front of our barracks at Fort Jackson, with a goofy smile on his face. “You know,” she said, “I always knew Jimmy was different.” She paused. “My sister—Jimmy’s aunt—used to call him easy. Not in a bad way. She meant it in the old fashioned way. You know—simple.” She looked up at me. “She was probably right. He was easy.”
She looked back at the open photo album. “You know, there might have been some way to keep him out. I could have tried.”
I stared at the picture, searching for something to say. The goofy smile reminded me of Rat-a-Tat running around the Wall, yelling “I did it!” I wondered if up in his room, the poster that read “Today’s Army Wants to Join You” was still there.
“Did I do the right thing?” she asked, staring at his picture.
“Well,” I said to her. “I don’t know if anyone has the answer to that.” I paused. “But here’s what I think. I think that in Jimmy’s mind, there was one thing he wanted to do more than anything else. And he got to do that. Even if it didn’t end up the way he saw it in his head.”
She was looking at me. I was here. Jimmy wasn’t. It was that simple.
I looked down at the album. “You know,” I said, “if Jimmy hadn’t gotten to do—what he did, you’d have ended up with more pages in this album. All the pictures that never got took. That’s a sure thing.” I turned back a page, and then another. “But, that would mean you’d have to swap out some of these—the ones where he’s all sure and secure.” I turned another page. “I don’t how you decide if that’s a fair trade. I don’t know if anyone can call that one.”
We sat there in silence. Then she reached over and touched my hand.
“I guess I need to be on my way,” I told her.
We stood up.
“You don’t know how much it means to me to have another one of Jimmy’s Army friends pay their respects.”
I stopped and turned to her.
“Friends? Someone else came by?” I’d thought the only ones to come had been the two comfort officers the Army would have sent.
“Yes. He was graveside with us when we buried Jimmy. I don’t remember his name though.”
I knew the guys who’d been with us at Khe San hadn’t been back yet. The only ones it could have been were the handful of lucky drones who were pulled out to defend Danang. If they had gotten back before me, it was with nothing more than a sunburn from hanging out on the white beaches between patsy patrols.
“He had a funny phrase for Jimmy. You’d probably know. I’m so forgetful these days. Darn my time, what was that?” She tapped her forehead.
The only things I could think of weren’t anything I’d be comfortable suggesting.
She wrinkled her brow. “Oh, I’ll think of it as soon as you leave. It’s that way with me these days.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you. But whatever it was, I’m sure it was one Jimmy would be proud of.”
I said goodbye and headed for the car.
The cemetery in Palmer is on the south side of town, still maintained by the local Women’s Auxiliary. It didn’t take me long to find Rat-a-Tat’s plot. There was a bouquet of plastic flowers in front of a small tombstone that read “James Lee Boyle. Loving Son and Friend to All. 1949-1968.” I looked around. Up the hill you could see the Van Heese orchards. Ten years earlier we’d used this place as one of the Saturday backdrops for Rat-a-Tat’s arranged battles.
The wind blew cold and I turned to leave. But as I did, something shiny caught my eye. I reached down and lifted it from behind the pot of plastic flowers. It was a harmonica. The harmonica. I held it for a long time, turning it over in my hand. No sound but the wind could be heard. The small flag someone had planted at the head of Rat-a-Tat’s grave floated up and down in little breath-like motions. After a minute, I stepped back, put the harmonica in my pocket and walked to the car.
Driving away, I thought of our days at Fort Jackson. BT. How could anything train you for this? I felt for the harmonica in my shirt pocket. Maybe I’d learn to play this thing, I thought. Maybe I’d learn Taps. Or something lighter. Something with a bounce to it. Yeah. Like Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. Yeah.
I looked in the rear view mirror, and slowed the car, coming to a stop just at the crest of the hill. There was a breeze that feathered through the leaves of the oaks and maples and tulip trees that bordered the cemetery. I pulled the harmonica out of my pocket, and with it the picture of all of us boarding the bus to Fort Jackson, with Rat-a-Tat at attention. I took a deep breath, raised the harmonica to my lips, and blew long and hard. The sound was half wail, half salute as it rolled out across the grass and fallen leaves, advancing up the hill, then into and around the surrounding orchards.
Jeff Shearer is the son of a veteran who fought in the Pacific during WWII. Shearer was born in Portland, Oregon, and spent his early years in the Pacific Northwest. After attending Whitman College, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he taught high school and later moved into the world of financial services. While making a living in finance and technology, he kept his dream of writing alive by working on short stories and poetry and by bonding with other writers, eventually joining the newly formed Nashville Writers Group. His poems and fiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including Blue Moon (Whitman College), Now and Then (Eastern Tennessee State University Press), and The Nashville Scene.