I look down from the Chapel Wall onto the cadet area- the aluminum and glass symmetry of Vandenberg, Fairchild, and Sijan, framing-in the flat-pebbled terrazzo; the Stars and Stripes against the Colorado sky. It is all rectangles and blocks and crisp pyramids and my, how the memories come back…
Those white marble strips, filled with fresh-uniformed boys, blue, stiff, epaulet-less shirts with only a name tag and darker, still blue trousers and white gloves to set things off. Marching back, still hungry from dinner, clicking in our new shoes, “Good evening, sir” to upperclassmen, and, if in a crowd, feeling daring, “Good eat me, sir”- our puny rebellion.
Into the cool expanse of Arnold Hall we filed to fill the front of the auditorium, row-by-row hoping to sit by a buddy, stowing the goofy wheel cap in the rack beneath the seat and settling in amongst the soft murmur of 1400 class-mates’ voices. Barnum nudging me, then reaching down to peel back his sock, exposing ankle and apple pie, mangled but delicious. He bends and it is gone and so, two years later was Barnum, back to Moses Lake. But for now we take in the upperclassmen dressed in period costumes- Mitchell, Douhet, Doolittle appearing from the mist. We sit mesmerized at this theater.
I recall the cool air over my shaved head, thinking of 12 pairs of Hanes’ briefs, ripped out of the plastic, made into ruler-measured square folds, the upper most two, wrapped around cut cardboard to cap the twin columns. Early morning-the letters home, written while propped in bed, watching the dispassionate Colorado sun, peaceful before the whistles and kicked-in doors and the scrambled frenzy to put on boots and fatigues. “You’re slow, smack, move it. Your class mates are dying out there.” Slap, slam- the underwear upset, down the hall, hugging the wall with our rifles, chin in, blue ball cap pulled low to hide the eyes, melting into the flight of boys, double-timing, then down the road, singing, saving breath, careful steps (don’t step on your classmate) falling behind, then accordioning as lead slows, one hand against your buddy’s back, and off again, through green, sweet, manure-scented fields. How far, we need to know, how far? And like clockwork, K__, mouth working like a fish, face pale- first we carry his rifle, then him, until he cries in agony, running twenty more feet to collapse on soft grass. We leave his rifle and him behind.
Back again from the four miles down dusty roads, the smell of gypsum and taste of pain in our throats and there’s K__, back on his feet. He sees us, and his legs start moving in place, he growls and raises his rifle over his head. We hoist our rifles, stiff armed, until the group is all crooked, trembling elbows and cock-eyed M-1s.
At nights we polish shoes, and write more letters (seems like hundreds of them) and by my foot, hidden, is the coke left by my empathetic element Sergeant. Ten hundred and again the door flies open, “Skivvies and shower clogs, now!” the upperclassman screams. Down the hall, our towel-draped forearms parallel to the ground, hands gripping the soap dish, chins tucked in, joining the others running in place, the slap-slap of our shower shoes against tile, the white-shirted cadre urging you higher with silent hands. Finally, the whistle; we stop, chests heaving. We listen to the flight commander tell us Hellbenders that we’ve had another bad day. “Tomorrow will be better.” I fight the laughter and I see Balale’s shoulders start in contagion.
I shower and exit. The upperclassman with the clipboard asks, in all seriousness, for the date of our last bowel movement. B__, tall, thin and goofy, tells them it’s been two weeks. I laugh again and B__ is sent back in to take care of business. He is gone, seven years later, a smoking hole in the Nevada desert.
C2C Evans, Washington, D.C., (beverage preference: juice at lunch, tea at dinner) sits on a stool and in curious tenderness, bandages our blistered feet. At the first strains of tattoo, the halls empty, we dust and straighten the room before taps when we are in bed, alone with our thoughts.
…I make my way from the Chapel Wall to stand at the base of the “Bring Me Men” ramp where 44 years before my brother, Paul, dropped me off that 1st day. A newly-minted yearling at West Point, he took pictures, fussing, delaying because he didn’t want to let me go, didn’t know what to say, and me sick and miserable and finally- the handshake and hug. I gave the upperclassman my bags and got to it, grateful to have it all begin. Paul watched me from the library window, suffering, I’m sure, more than I. I stand here now, tears in my eyes, remembering him- now gone, and the others- but a memory.