Back in those golden days when there were communists behind every bush and people knew what was what, my University made membership in the ROTC mandatory for the first two years of any male undergraduate’s academic career. The logic of training boys to die young when the ostensible purpose of paying all that tuition argued that they were preparing for a long and richly-lived career escapes me, but being a Catholic institution, NPU drew on 2000 years of practice at illogical actions and at extermination of any sign of independent thought. Someone somewhere decided that training the undergraduates to march around in lockstep was an excellent idea, and it must have been someone to whom no one dared say nay. Actually, I think, although I am far from sure of this, that the US government sweetened the cavernous pot of the University’s treasury for taking this decision, and while Holy Mother Church might pause in matters of morals or dogma, there is no such hesitation when the seductive charms of gold lurk in the offing.
The rule was that the first two years of ROTC were mandatory and universal (universal, since one can hardly count the female students, a contingent that had not even existed for most of the University’s history; the University itself rarely counted females, in keeping with its thoroughly Catholic traditions), and if marching about in neat rows and barking orders were found to be appealing options, male students could take a third and fourth year of ROTC at the end of which they would emerge, with the cost of their education underwritten, as lieutenants in the Air Force. Viet Nam was, at this time, just a small cloud on the horizon, home of a guerrilla action against which the US was supplying a handful of advisors to ensure that a brazenly corrupt government remained in power. Fans of the Afghanistan War will instantly recognize the strategy. The rules for such hapless freshmen as me were that all was fun and games six days of the week, but that on every Thursday we lads were to emerge from our dorms uniformed and spit-polished and ready, if not eager, to salute any upperclassman officer we might encounter. At a certain hour, all of us would gather on what had in glory days been a football field, in ranks and rows to be inspected, to say, “Yes, sir!” and to be marched to and fro, up and down, left and right, until we understood where we ranked in the order of things, which was dead last. (Again, I omit to include the standing of the ladies, who in the eyes of Holy Mother Church and the Air Force of those days, was pretty much where that gender today ranks in Pakistan.)
From the get-go, ROTC was the bane of my existence. Indeed, had I bothered to read the parts of the welcoming pamphlets which NPU had sent me, which dealt with topics other than location and fraternities and sororities and leafy green campus areas, I might have chosen another school based solely on this military requirement. I do not thrive in organized activities, be they army, sports, IT departments, churches or gay organizations. I don’t intend to ask, “why?” but somehow the word always intrudes and the type of person who rises to captain or clergyman or vice president in charge seems to be able to read in my mind the one question that ought never arise. I don’t even believe in my own ideas, let alone anyone else’s. Well, that is not quite true; I may believe in them, but never enough to rouse myself from my habitual sloth, and certainly not enough to march about, or hang posters or spend hours on my knees.
First and foremost, there was that creased trousers and spit-polish thing. Some of the guys in my dorm actually seemed to enjoy sitting there by the hour, buffing and wetting and polishing their shoes until they reached unearthly levels of gloss. I was not one of them. In fact, once I discovered that common Shinola liquid polish (the very brand from which my father often mused that I could not distinguish shit) could create a shine which passed cursory inspection three times out of four, the amount of time spent on my shoes was reduced to seconds per week. Besides, those damn shoes were made from some kind of cardboard, and early in my inglorious career, before I discovered the beneficent effects of liquid Shinola, I had over-wet one spot on one shoe and it had caused me to rub up a roughened spot on that shoe that nothing ever quite repaired. So each inspection put me at risk of having that spot discovered, and could a perfect shine do other than highlight this early error? It is amazing what liquid Shinola could cover up. If Shinola still exists, and if it still makes the liquid polish, and if it is ever looking for a heartfelt customer endorsement, let it come to me. I haven’t polished a shoe in years and years, but I can heartily aver that their product is the cat’s meow.
There was also the question of “brass”. Brass referred to some metal insigniae that must be pinned to the uniform in exactly the right place at exactly the right angle. There are two kinds of boy in this world: those whose shirttails remain tucked neatly into their pants all day long and those whose shirttails will not remain so anchored for love or money for longer than the half minute after they are first so tucked. I can tell you for a fact, that young men of the latter type are incapable of placing, or at least of keeping said brass at said location and angle. And, need you ask?, I am one of the latter group. Moreover, nothing so delighted the spit-polish guys as surreptitiously re-pinning their room mates’ brass upside-down the night before Thursday’s torment. Need I mention that my roommate Bigman, who was class president, who was on basketball scholarship (this was a time when these were given to white guys), who would later become captain of the team and fraternity president, bore the most spit-polished pair of shoes e’er seen at NPU? The twinkling of his shoe tips in the Washington sunlight when forth he strode from the freshman dorm blinded anyone so unwary as to look directly at them. In short, he loved to mess with my brass. And I rarely retained the memory of the last week long enough to be sure to check the next week.
Hair was another issue. I could not afford haircuts, to begin with. When I was in college, I genuinely functioned without a penny in my pocket or wallet or anywhere else most of the time. Merely keeping in beer took a superhuman effort and there was simply nothing left over for anything else. Moreover, I hated short hair. I recall the awe with which I saw the rise of the Beatles a few short years later; my first thought was how much I would love to let my hair grow so long, my second was that no one would ever dare do so in public. How little could I foresee. Boy’s – and men’s – hair, pre-Beatles, mattered very much and it must be very short. The only longish hair at all was that favored by the “hoods”: those slightly long, highly greased jelly-rolls that fell over the forehead and met in a 'duck’s ass' in back, but even this hair was meticulously trimmed at the base of the neck, and around the ears. The length was all in the upswept sides and in the front, and unending care was required (remember Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb?) Every boy wearing this style carried a comb in his back pocket always. Part of the ritual of coolness was the constant pulling out of that comb and re-combing of the hair. The coolest guys had unbelievably cool methods of hair-combing. I shudder to think of the fate of any boy daring enough to leave his hair ungreased and allowed to fall down over his ears or onto his collar. My military days were a constant struggle between hair the way I wanted it, and hair the way my flight commander wanted it.
I have a couple of qualities, other than the aforementioned, that render me a poor fit for the military life. One is that I am never sure I am doing things correctly, no matter what evidence exists that I am perfectly correct. Another is that I hate, with a passion that surely has roots in some psychological defect that is better left unplumbed, to accord deference to people who do not seem to have earned it – or even to those who have. I hate acts of self-abnegation, and to me saluting someone who is just another underclassman like myself, is deeply humiliating. So I hated saluting our ROTC officers, and simultaneously I always felt like I was making some gross blunder when doing so which was imperceptible to me, but blatantly obvious to everyone else. Wrong hand formation, wrong arm angle, wrong something. This generalized feeling, that there is some secret known to everyone except myself, has lasted my lifetime. It was why I never could, during school days, boast of female conquests; I was sure there was something about sex (and the female anatomy) that everybody knew but me, by which my ignorance would betray me as a liar. The real reason why I almost never lie about important things, and never cheat at games or steal, is that I can think of nothing more awful than getting caught out. I dread it with a physical feeling of dread. I bragged about something that wasn’t true in first grade once, because I couldn’t stand being the only one who hadn’t had an interesting adventure, and even now, when I recall it, I feel unreasonably ashamed and embarrassed, because although none of the kids knew I was lying, the teacher did and actually offered me several suggestions for alternative versions that would allow me to backtrack and I did not. It doesn’t matter now, I know, but it matters to me.
So the upshot of the above is that I would plan my routes from class to class on Thursdays with meticulous care to ensure that I would not pass any kid who was an officer requiring a salute. I’d go through buildings' basements and up back stairs. It was an obsession to me whose depth I can recall but which I cannot quite believe now or understand. Saluting was like a small death. The only thing as bad as saluting – or nearly as bad – was the marching. At a certain hour, the entire male population of the freshman and sophomore classes would gather en masse in the athletic field, divided into the various ‘flights’ (which were a group similar to the groupings like ‘platoon’ or ‘squad’ or whatever group other military services have). We’d be all uniformed and hatted and gloved and one-arm’s length apart and so forth. And we’d be inspected (usually cursorily enough to miss my Shinola heresy), issued demerits as required, lectured on whatever needed saying that day, and then each flight was marched by his flight leader all about the field. I was pretty good at staying in step, although that quick half-step, sort of a semi-skip, to get back into step when I had somehow strayed from perfection because I became engrossed in thoughts of things non-military, was not unknown to me. Since I can remember, I have endured boredom by just vanishing into my thoughts, a habit that allowed me to endure a 40-year career in Information Technology, among other things. Oddly, I can often absorb information in this state, but one thing I cannot do is snap to it and stay in step with perfect ease.
There was one boy in my flight, however, who was utterly incapable of remaining in step. This boy, Berny Duck, was unusually tall – one of the very tallest boys in my class - and he possessed red hair of such brilliance – flaming, glowing, incandescent – that his head drew every eye. Like most tall boys in that era, he was gangly in build and appearance, and his walk was such a loose-limbed lope that he just bobbed up and down like a cork on choppy water. It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep up a rhythm when he marched, it was just that he was always, always bobbing in opposition to everyone else’s rhythm. Where we marched to ‘One two three four’, he marched invariably to ‘one Two three four’. He couldn’t help it. He’d get in step only to fall out of step again within three paces. And with that great red head, there was no missing the error. My recollection of marching is inextricably interwoven with the recollection of the chant, “One two three four, Mister Duck, get in step, One two three four.” I know it doesn’t appear to scan when you read it, but it did when the sergeant yelled it, which he did incessantly.
I, like Private Duck, had an insuperable problem when it came to marching. I could not, and cannot to this day, tell my left from my right. I can, actually, but I have to think about it. And the time it takes to do that thinking is the time during which every other airman left-faced or right-faced as I walked straight forward into the nearest one of them. For a time, my fate was to draw the ire of whoever was calling the cadence, but fairly early on in my career there came a day when we were to be reviewed by someone from the Pentagon. Since NPU was in Washington, there was always some dignitary or other available to come and do this sort of thing, and such occasions caused those upperclassmen officers, so different from me, to swell with pride and to vow to themselves (and for all I know, to each other) that never in the history of marching would any flights of men march so sharply, so perfectly aligned, so filled with martial ardor as would ours when reviewed by the lesser gods of the Pentagon. In pursuit of this lofty goal, there was only one solution to the Shaughnessy problem. Oddly, I am totally blank when I try to recall whether or not the Duck problem was similarly handled. I was reassigned to a desk job.
The ROTC at NPU published a newspaper for some reason or other. I don’t recall the name of this journalistic endeavor – probably the Rifle or the F-15 or something suitably fierce and as unlike the actual content offered as possible. Most of the content was as drab s one may imagine, but since the staff or the powers in control actually yearned for people to read the damn thing, I somehow persuaded the editor to allow me to create and write an advice column. This was most unoriginally entitled Dear Sophie and it soon became quite a must-read on the NPU campus. Although I endeavored to be humorous, and to actually have the nouns agree with the verbs in person and number and so forth, the real reason people flocked to read Dear Sophie was that the requests for advice which I made up referred to real relationships of real people on campus. It is hard to remember in these jaded days, but colleges – especially smallish religious ones – were, in those halcyon days, far more like today’s high schools or even junior high schools. Susie cutting in on Mary and Johnnie’s romance was the stuff of our conversation. We did not gossip about who was sleeping with whom – probably very few were sleeping with anyone there and then - or who had got the clap or whatever is the currency of today’s campuses. People talked about who was going with whom. Or whether a girl would or wouldn’t get pinned by her fraternity boyfriend – ‘pinned’ having no sexual connotation (and, usually, no privileges) whatever - it merely meant he gave her his frat pin as a pledge to eventually give her a diamond. A lot of these girls were saving themselves for marriage, goddamit, and in those pre-pill days, a pregnancy meant shame and expulsion, no less in college than in high school - so most of the pinning was done at shoulder level.
I seem to have some quality which results in people telling me things. I also enjoy knowing everyone in any environment in which I function. A lot of people like to know the president or vice president of their group, but I find everybody else just as interesting. I want to know the janitor and the nurse and the guy who only comes in on Wednesday. People are surprisingly interesting if you let them be. I remember once walking through the downtown area of al-Jubail with my supervisor when I was working in Saudi and all the coin sellers and restaurant guys and street sellers and passing people from all different nationalities were calling out to say hello, and my boss said, “You know everybody here!” It was always that way for me. I don’t talk to people to be nice or to feel good about myself or because I felt some moral obligation; I do it because they are almost always interesting (OK, maybe feeling good about myself enters in). At one of our class reunions, a girl like said to me, “You were friends with everyone, even the most outcast.” But I didn’t always realize that someone was an outcast. And I couldn’t stand to see people sad or picked on. I always felt as if, somehow just by witnessing cruelty, I was both complicit in the cruelty of the aggressor and shared in the shame of the victim. This is not a virtue, or a considered plan of action, it is how I cannot help feeling. I feel ashamed – a genuine slightly nauseated feeling – when I see someone being picked on. It is why I do not enjoy the early audition rounds of American Idol; I can’t stand seeing vulnerable people hurt. It is not funny to me that people are odd-looking or delusional. I think it is more a weakness in me than anything else; I always feel like I have some quality worse than that other guy’s which will become apparent if I speak out. I think I dread humiliation beyond all other things, and seeing someone else suffer it is as painful to me as if it were me. I have actually flicked to other channels when some of the more egregious contestants have embarrassed themselves. I feel sorry for them. Whatever is the cause of this sort of pathological empathy, the result seems to be that people tend to tell me things.
Using the information I was getting from everybody, I was able to construct fake letters for my column that hinted at real situations. I never exposed anyone, but I always conveyed I knew things, and people used to read half afraid they’d show up in Dear Sophie. I am not sure this column made any significant military contribution, but it sure contributed to my quality of life.
There was one boy who, from another context which I explained long ago, was called First-of-all. This lad was one of those folks whom life itself wanted to pick on. He was an odd mix of goody-goody and ineptitude. First-of-all loved ROTC. No one polished his shoes or aligned his brass more assiduously than he. And of course he drew the attention of all those like my roommate who delighted in jokes, often rather cruel ones. One day, after we knew he’d spent his usual solid hour of pre-Thursday shoe polishing, Bigman and another guy on the basketball team hoisted me through the transom of First-of-all’s room with a jar of Vaseline in my hand from which I gouged two huge gobs of salve and placed one inside the toe of each shoe. We all went snickering back to our own rooms. But, of course, I began thinking about First-of-all’s approaching humiliation, and I began to feel sorry for him and ashamed of myself. Had our target been someone like Bigman himself, or the other basketball player, I would have continued to enjoy the joke, but there was something peculiarly vulnerable about First-of-all. For him, ROTC seemed to be bringing some weird validation that he was unable to find elsewhere. I just knew that it would be more painful than funny when he put on his military shoes Thursday morning.
Finally I slunk down the corridor and found a couple of fairly husky friends whom I persuaded to hoist me back through First-of-all’s transom. I brought some tissues and cleaned out the inside of the shoes and never let anyone know.
A number of the boys who marched on that field with me in those days later died in Viet Nam. As I have recounted earlier, I inadvertently dodged the draft and never found myself in that awful place, for which I am profoundly grateful. I would have been a complete casualty, one way or another, whether I lived or died. I know there would have come a time when I came face-to-face with an enemy. There I would have been, armed to the teeth with inadequately polished shoes, brass awry and hair longer than his. I would have been terrified. And when I looked at him, I bet I would see, or imagine, that he was terrified, too.
And I would have felt sorry for him.