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One, two, three at the most weeks and they would give M company its orders--they being those dim Olympian entities who reputedly threw cards into an IBM machine or into a hat to determine where each soldier in M would go next, which ones to stay there in the United States, which to live softly in Europe, and which to fight and to die in Vietnam.

No matter. What agonized M this evening wasn't what was in its cards but what was in the more immediate offing--an inspection! indeed, its very first inspection by its jazzy young Negro captain. So this evening M was in its white Army underwear waxing the floor of its barracks, shining its black combat boots, turning the barrels of its rifles inside-out and picking the dust flecks off with tweezers, unscrewing its eardrums--the usual. The air was thick with the smell of floor wax and rifle oil, a moist aroma that now seemed to M to be woven into the very fabric of Army green. Minutes before, the company had heard a do-or-die exhortation from its bantamweight Sergeant Milett. Get yourself clean for my sake, Milett had told M. "I've got a wife, three kids at home. I leave in the dark, I come home in the dark. I haven't talked to them thirty-six hours. I don't know, maybe they're dead," using psychology, leaning against a two-decker bed, reaching an arm through the iron bedstead, beseechingly. "Well. . ." making a joke of  it, "I left them enough food, I shouldn't have to worry," and getting to the point, "I got a boss downstairs, he got a couple bars on his collar, he is the boss I work for. Tomorrow afternoon he will inspect us: don't make a jackass out of me!"  

And all you must do is follow the chart! That's all! and M company, now in its fourth quick month of Army life and last of infantry training at a large and bleak Eastern camp, had known what Milett had meant. The strict rectilinear lines of the chart were as clear as those of a chess problem, white to play and to mate in three moves. The chart appeared on the seventy-first page of the Soldier's Handbook, the Handbook bore the enacting signature of the Army's adjutant general, the general wanted the insides of a guy's green footlocker to be like . . . so, and what a proud inspection they'd have if M would just faithfully comply! The scrupulous general had ordered that Pepsodent or any brand of tooth powder that a boy enjoyed must go to the rear of the footlocker, left, it mustn't be dirty or dusty, and it must be bottom backwards so the words TOOTH POWDER appeared upside-down--surprise. The finicky general had charged that a fellow's SHAVING CREAM go to the right while his razor, his blade, his toothbrush, and his comb all covered down on his soap dish; and everything must lie on his whitest towel, the general had commanded. To this Army-wide order of battle a mere master sergeant in M's training camp had dared add an innovation: he allowed that a Bible might lie in between the handkerchiefs and the shoe polish, rightside-up. This would be optional, a matter of conscience; but all other deviations from the archetypical footlocker, the wall locker, the steel combat stuff to be laid on a soldier's bunk, or the soldier himself--would be gigged, Milett had reminded everyone, and gigged would mean no going home Saturday night; no passes.  

"So try. Follow the chart," he had pleaded and hurried to where his wife and his children, whew, still lived, and M, a body of two hundred and fifty American teenagers of all shapes and sizes and wild idiosyncrasies, most of them draftees, some of them volunteers--M company now was getting its house in order conscientiously, in some cases even willingly. But not in Private Demirgian's. Demirgian thought it was idiotic, all this footlocker, wall locker, fleck-of-fluff-on-your-shoelace stuff--senseless, most of M would agree, but Demirgian alone conspired with himself to get discharged: out, a consummation he tried to effect by exercising his will-o'-the-wisp power. Demirgian built castles in Spain, in Armenia, in any area M wasn't--he dared to have madly escapist flights of imagination because his intuition assured him they'd come to naught. He had said to himself once, I could walk in front of somebody's rifle. He had thought he could fall downstairs and tell the doctors, "My brain--it's loose, it's rattling around inside my head," he had come a cropper playing football once and that is how Demirgian's brain had felt, he knew the symptoms. As yet, none of his schemes was a clear and present danger to M's staying at full strength--but Demirgian had a new thought tonight. His fancy had seized on something that a hard-eyed private had said in the course of a 10 o'clock whiskey break, a private who'd been an assistant policeman, a meter maid or something, in his civilian life, who had said to Demirgian that a blow in precisely--precisely--the right part of a jaw would break it. Demirgian, his intellect stimulated and his inhibition paralyzed by two J&B's, now replied' "Yaa!" or words to that effect.  

"Twenty dollars!" the former policeman cried, whipping a wallet out of his vast Army fatigue pocket, slapping a bill of that denomination on the windowsill, clenching his other fist. "Twenty dollars says I can do it!"  

"Yaa! There was a guy twice as big as you, he hit me right here and he couldn't break it!"

  "Thatís not where Iím going to hit you, Demirgian! Where is your twenty?"  

"Iíll owe it," already conceding.  

"Twenty dollars, Demirgian!" said Americaís finest, slapping his green gauntlet down for the second time. He had picked up the bill while none of M watched, apparently--he liked its brave sound on the concrete windowsill, smack! the sound of Demirgianís jaw cracking like a chickenís wishbone. He didnít like Demirgian anyhow--Demirgian didnít stand tall, as soldiers should. Little small Demirgian slouched, he carried his head tilted like a damn violinist, and when he talked it rolled like a basketball on a rim, nature imitating Brandoís art. 

"Iíll give you an IOU!"  

"Shake! Raise up your chin," and Demirgian did. 

"A little toward the window," and Demirgian did--Demirgian in some dentist chair, his head tilted, jaw slack, his eyes resting precisely on the orange NO SMOKING that was stenciled on Mís concrete wall. All of Mís sleeping quarters were interior decorated like a city apartment house in its cellar, where the washing machines are. The lengthy low building looked from the outside as though people inside might be working at lathes, and over the black door it announced to all humanity, "M," in black paint.  

"Dammit--more to the right."  

"Iím waiting. Iím waiting," Demirgian said as in some buried subconscious area he may have thought, my friends better rescue me--which seconds later they did.  

"EasyÖeasy! Yesterday at the forty-five range he said shoot him in the toes," his tall buddy Sullivan said, stepping between them. "All he wants is get discharged."  

"Sure," Demirgian agreed. He had been telling himself, well...either that or Iíll make twenty dollars, the Army hadn't paid him in months, something was wrong at the finance office.  

"You won't get out of the Army with a broken jaw," Sullivan talking.  

"Sure--I won't be able to eat.  I'll waste away."  

"Crazy. They'll have you wired up in one day. You want to get out of the Army, get him to break your foot."  

"Can you break my foot?" Demirgian asked, but there is a tide in men's affairs. Already the former policeman was telling guys yes! he had been drinking whiskey but he wasn't drunk, he would straight-line any of them--twenty bucks! but M was back getting ready for that inspection. All of this happened--do understand. Demirgian is real, so is everyone in this account, even the Chillicothe milkman: all about him shortly. Names and home towns are in back, middle initials too, apologies to Ernie Pyle.  

Anyhow. By 2 in the morning, all of M's fingernails clean, its blankets as tight as a back plaster, its boots luminous, its Brillo-bright combat equipment displayed on its bunks in harmony with the general's chart, at 2 o'clock M company fell asleep in its sleeping bags on the only place left to it--the floor, as infinitesimal iotas of dust silently came to rest on its handiwork, one by one.   

 

M was awakened at 4 o'clock. Today it devolved on the Chaplain to keep it from falling asleep again just after breakfast, for he would be giving M the day's first class. Though his subject, Courage, wasn't one notably rich in benzedrine content, the Chaplain, a Protestant major, intended to say things like, "I suggest to you that it takes a man with courage of conviction to--" and here he would strike the flat of his palm against his wooden podium (his pulpit, he called it), jerking M out of its stupor in time to hear him finish his sentence, the text to this surprising gesture--"to put your foot down." He had many tricks, this Chaplain; sometimes he made noises but he had silences, too. He intended to say today, "Do you know what takes courage in a foxhole? It is this," and then he would say, ". . . ," he would say nothing, eons of empty time would go by while everyone's eyes popped open to see if the bottom had dropped out of the universe; and then the Chaplain would say, "It isn't the noises that get you, it's the silence." Also the Chaplain would have some movies. 

M got to its vast concrete classroom at 8 o'clock on this piercingly cold winter morning. In the reaches above it, sparrows sat on the heating pipes and made their little squeaking sounds. A sergeant shouted "Seats!" and as M sat down on its cold metal chairs it shouted back in unison, "Blue balls!" or so one might believe until one learned that M had shouted, "Blue bolts!" the nickname of its brigade. M was a shouting company. It built up morale, its high-stepping Negro captain believed; also it kept M awake. Breakfast, lunch, and supper at M were a real bedlam because as each hungry soldier entered the busy messhall he had to left face, stand at attention, and bellow at a sergeant the initials signifying whether he had been drafted or had joined the Army voluntarily, "US, Sergeant!" "RA, Sergeant!'' After meals, the sergeants totaled up each category before reporting it to the mess sergeant, who filed it one whole month before throwing it away.  

"Good morning, men," said the Chaplain. He wore his wool winter field clothes with his black scarf, the symbol of the chaplains corps.  

"Good morning, sir! Blue bolts! On guard! Mighty mighty Mike! Aargh!" M shouted back. The expression Blue bolts--we've been through that. The brigade's motto was On guard, and Mike is phonetic alphabet for M; and Mighty it perfunctorily called itself. Aargh was needed for reasons of rhythm, like coming back to the tonic at the close of a song.  

His hands on his pulpit, the Chaplain now pushed it a few inches forward across the black linoleum. Scree-e-ch! and everyone in M sat blue-bolt upright as the Chaplain began speaking to it. He said, "Courage..."

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Read about M
in It Wasn't Pretty, Folks,
But Didn't We Have Fun?
Esquire in the Sixties

by Carol Polsgrove


Read about M
in Vietnam, We've All Been There
Interviews with American Writers

by Eric James Schroeder

 

 

Read a scene from Lieutenant Calley
The story of America's most infamous soldier
"A haunting revelation," Time

 

Read about M        
in Dictionary of Literary Biography         

Other books by John Sack