By Rick Kelso
Ft. Dix, New Jersey, 1964
I was a private in the US Army, 20 years old, fresh out of boot camp and medic training in Texas, having just arrived at a steamy double-bunked wooden transit barracks in Ft. Dix, New Jersey. I was lowest of the low, headed for Italy as soon as my orders came in, was told I’d be here between 10 days and 2 weeks. It was July—muggy, blazing misery. All around me in the barracks were fellow flunky privates and a scattering of NCOs in their perfectly starched uniforms who quickly made their bunks and locked up their trunks and headed to the PX snack bar to idle away their time playing cards or bullshitting.
Except for Lavery, a corporal in army-issue boxer shorts and wife-beater T-shirt who was probably around 35 but looked 50 with a scarred, seamed face and two inflamed eyes glinting with a depravity and danger I had not yet witnessed in my limited years but recognized instantly by instinct. He sipped from a pint of cheap bourbon. Lavery was my bunkmate. When I showed up with my duffel bag he sat on the bottom bunk and sized me up with those eyes and in a thick southern drawl told me, “Y’all got the top bunk. Toss yer shit up there.”
I did as told. Lavery was no more than 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds, stringy, concave, with a 5 o’clock shadow. He watched me assemble some of my gear on the top bunk and offered me a no-filter Camel. I shook my head, told him I didn’t smoke.
He looked me over—a fresh-faced ex jock Southern Californian without an ounce of fat, who scored the maximum on the physical fitness tests at my last two posts. “You will,” he said.
The barracks was nonstop noisy, with about 80 troops squashed together. Some privates, with no rank on their sleeves, knew each other from their last posts and gabbed or played cards. I sprawled on my bunk and read Steinbeck. Lavery sat on his bunk and studied nudie magazines and finally asked if I was reading a “crotch novel.” When I told him Steinbeck, he snorted derisively.
I swung over and sat on my bunk, legs dangling down. Lavery peered up. He had opened a large wooden box with about a dozen knives, one of which he began sharpening with a stone. Bowie blades, switch-blades, bayonets, a damn machete, etc.
“Come on down here,” Lavery said.
I jumped down.
“Sit down, troop. Lavery ain’t gonna bite yer ass or rape it.”
I sat down beside him, but not too close. He handed me a bayonet. “Got that from a dead Chinese in Korea. Seventeen years old and I’m on Pork Chop Hill. That’s no shit. Been busted eight times. Ain’t gonna get no rank til Veet Namb gets goin’. And it will—count on it. Y’all lucky you goin’ to Europe. I’m goin’ to Wurzburg, Germany. Ah prefer the Philippines. Almost married me a whore over thar. Got some fine whores in Copenhagen, too.” He finished off his bottle, dug into his duffel, withdrew another, opened it, handed it to me, issued me a look indicating I’d be on his bad side if I refused, so I took a welcome slug and thanked him and handed it over and he told me they would have kicked his ass out of the army a long time ago for brawling and drinking and punching out a lieutenant if he wasn’t a decorated combat vet who’d already done a tour in Viet Nam in 1962—a volunteer. “That motherfucker’s gonna bust wide open and be a damn sight worse’n Korea, trust me, boy.”
We shared another slug. He showed me each knife. Then he said, “Tomorra mornin’ they’ll wake yore ass for KP at three. Y’all be on KP til eve-nin’. Then y’all go on 24-hour guard duty, 4 on, 4 off, then back on KP, ’til you get yore orders. Y’all suppose t’ put yore fatigue jacket on the back of yore bunk so’s they kin see y’all a private and wake yore ass up. What I’d do, if I was y’all, is borra one of my jackets and put it on the back of yore bunk so’s they don’t wake yore ass. Nothin’ worse’n KP and guard in fuckin’ July.”
He handed me one of his faded fatigue jackets, the area where his staff sergeant stripes once were darkened. I placed it over the back of my bunk.
It was evening by the time we’d consumed over half the bottle, when suddenly a black buck sergeant with the wasp-waist of a welterweight and the shoulders and arms of a battleship jumped up on his foot locker and, shirt off, began ranting about black power and wanting to challenge any white motherfucker in the barracks to combat. He was in his boots and fatigue pants and as scary as Sonny Liston. While a handful of blacks chuckled, all white men paused from their card games, reading, and bullshitting, to stare silently at the black man until Lavery suddenly snatched his Bowie knife and sprung across the barracks quick as a cat and had this knife at the man’s throat, a wild gloating grin on Lavery’s face.
“You want it now, nigger boy.” he said evenly, calmly “I’ll slit yer fuckin’ throat ear to ear and sleep like a baby, motherfucker. Come on, say the word.”
The powerful and enraged black sergeant went limp as he towered over Laver. He swallowed. He blinked. He slowly shook his head. Lavery quickly withdrew his knife, stared at him. The sergeant sat down on his foot locker. And hung his head. Lavery turned around and walked back to sit beside me.
“Got nothin’ against niggers,” he told me. He was neither shaking or breathing hard. “Served with some good ones in Korea and Namb. One man’s good as another. Don’t know what got into that nigger, but I reckon he’s calmed on down.”
After finishing the bottle, Lavery took me to late chow and I passed out on my bunk. Around 3 in the morning I heard the barracks sergeant rousting privates for KP. They didn’t roust me. I went back to sleep and when I awakened around six, Lavery was up and freshly shaved and alert in his tailored fatigues. He grinned at me, held up his fatigue jacket with corporal stripes. I dressed, cleaned up, ate chow with Lavery and fell out at 7 with 15 or so NCOs to be accounted for. Right off, the barracks sergeant recognized me in my baggy, funky fatigues.
“Why the fuck ain’t you on KP, troop?” he yelled at me.
“Nobody woke me up, sergeant,” I retorted, while Lavery kept a straight face.
“So you’re a fuckin’ wise-ass, think you can out-smart the US Army, huh?”
“Well, we will fix your ass good, Kelso. We will find you a shit detail that’ll make KP and guard duty seem like child’s play.”
While NCOs scattered, Lavery winked at me and joined them. Half an hour later an MP jeep pulled up and a spec.4 walked in. The barracks sergeant pointed to me. “Take that cake-eating motherfucking goldbricking wise ass and work him ’til his cheesy faggot dick falls off.”
I followed the spec. 4 to his jeep. He took off and surveyed me as we sped along through the vast post. He was around 25, squeaky clean in tailored fatigues. His name tag read KEARNS.
“I’m company clerk,” he said. “We need somebody to clean the day room and mow our lawn. I belong to a special unit of MPs who do honor guard duties. Strictly crack troops. We got our own chef, so the chow’s first class. You won’t have to do much.” He glanced at me. “Anything’s better than KP and guard, especially in this heat.”
He pulled up to a barracks beside a wooden dayroom with orderly room attached. In the day room, he handed me a broom, mop and bucket. I swept and mopped the day room and was done in about an hour, pausing several times to toss darts and shoot pool balls. Kearns came back out and told me to mow the lawn, which was very small. Crack troops, immaculate in tailored fatigues, trickled in for chow. They ignored me as I ate with them and talked about softball. The chow was the best I’d eaten since joining the army back in January.
When chow was done, I wandered into the orderly room to ask Kearns if there was anything else he wanted me to do. He and the burly old first sergeant, with 6 stripes and diamond in the middle, drank coffee. The top smoked a cigar. He asked if I wanted coffee. I had some coffee. The first surveyed me as I stood studying several softball trophies in a case behind glass.
He said, “We got a tough softball league on post. Very competitive.” He continued to appraise me—a kid who had his own share of baseball trophies in my old bedroom in Southern California. “You a ball player?” He puffed his cigar, lifted his feet onto his desk. He had hash marks from two wars and the combat infantry badge at the pocket of his khakis. When I nodded, he said, “You look like a ball player. You any good?”
“Played college, sir. I was a prospect. Had offers to sign a pro contract.”
“So what happened to put you in this piss hole like this when you could be playin’ ball?”
“I’d rather not talk about it, sir.”
He took two puffs. “Where’d you play?”
“Southern California, sir.”
“Short, second, centerfield in college.
“What about softball?
“It’s all the same. Gotta hit it and catch and run the bases.”
He glanced at his clerk, who’d been following our conversation with sly amusement. “We’re in the tournament right now, for post championship. We won it two years back. Right now our centerfielder’s on emergency leave for two weeks. You got your gear?”
“Spikes and glove are in my duffel, sir.”
He slipped his feet off the desk and turned to Kearns. “Write him up a ‘permanent day room orderly’ slip, Kearns. I think we got a ringer.” He turned back to me. “You a ringer, Kelso?”
That afternoon, Kearns drove me back to the barracks where I handed the ‘permanent dayroom orderly’ slip to the barracks sergeant. He read it, shook his head slowly, then nodded, peered up at me with a single probing eye. “Looks like you’re learning,” he said.
Kearns waited in the jeep while I rushed in to grab my spikes, socks and glove. Lavery was on his bunk, gazing at a nudie magazine, nipping. I informed him of my good fortune. He was not in a good mood. “Told yah so, kid.” He was nipping from a bottle of terpin hydrate—military cough medicine. He held it up. “When y’all run out-a cash, y’all can always get this cough medicine from the dispensary—it’s got ten per cent alcohol.”
That night, my first time up, I decided to hit left-handed. I’d never played fast pitch softball. A natural right-handed hitter, I always hit batting practice left-handed and was a better low-ball hitter with much more power. On the third pitch, batting seventh, with a man on and no score, I connected and drove a boomer that took off to dead right field like a golf tee shot, kept soaring. The right fielder never turned around as it landed 20 feet over the fence. As I rounded the bases, my new and temporary teammates went wild, greeting me at the plate like a hero. We won the game. I hit a line-drive-double, right-handed, later on and scored. I glided around easily in the outfield. I realized right off I was the best player on the field. We played four games and won the championship and I ripped shots all over the field from both sides of the plate and stayed on as permanent dayroom orderly until I got my orders, eating chow and hanging out with the top and Kearns. I was an equal, one of the boys.
I had joined the army because of complicated circumstances of disillusion and self-imposed defeat as a major league ballplayer’s son, developing, when I quit, a phobia of being on a ball field ever again, my heart broken by baseball, my once great dreams replaced by the infantile impulse of becoming a writer.
During this time Lavery continued to suck down cough medicine and grew morose and ragged. When I tried to thank him and inform him of my good fortune, he snorted and muttered as he lay sideways on his bunk, “Baseball, softball…none of it means shit to me, even if it means shit to y’all and everybody else.”
I shipped out a day before he did and he was passed out when I came to say good bye. §
Rick Kelso is a former boxer and drinking companion with Dell Franklin. He doesn’t get out much, so you’re not likely to see him anywhere, and if you did, you wouldn’t want to meet him. He’s a washed up, suicidal liberal who sits at home all day, writing and dreaming of better times.