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  • September 24th, 2013


By Joel M. Vance

When I was 10 years old I saw Gary Cooper at the Rialto in downtown Birch Lake playing Alvin York, the soldier-hero of World War One.  In the middle of the last reel the film broke and we all hooted at the projectionist and went away disappointed.

But then when I was 15 I saw Audie Murphy in John Huston’s movie The Red Badge of Courage where he redeemed himself from cowardice without getting what he’d hoped for—a red badge of courage, a bloody wound, that would take him out of the fighting.  He and I both looked like we were 15 years old, only I really was.

Boyish or not, Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War Two.  The red badge, a blood-soaked wound gained in fierce fighting with the enemy–gosh, I could almost feel it—not fatal, you understand or even really painful, but something to show the guys at home (and the girls, too, since I was fumbling through puberty)..

My cousin Mike had been a Marine somewhere in the Pacific. It seemed a glamorous way to grow up, over there fighting the Japs, the Yellow Horde, the Nips.  I had sighed because the Army wouldn’t take ten-year-old kids and hoped the war would last long enough for me to get in and kill a few slanteyes.  It didn’t and Mike came home from the Pacific where he had enjoyed tropical breezes and suicide attacks on garden spots like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  He tended to dive to the ground, shaking and moaning, when the Fourth of July lit up with fireworks.

His battle fatigue and the fact that he declared squatters rights on a stool at the Bluegill Bar and began to expand his waist like a barrage balloon somewhat tempered my ambition to walk in his boots, a mile or any other distance.  He didn’t seem like someone who had come to the end of the battle with the sound-over music of the Marine hymn playing and the flag waving in the background as John Wayne led his battle-weary survivors homeward.

Just a freaked out kid with acne, a blossoming beer belly and a thousand-yard stare that only abated after six or seven Bruenig’s lagers.

But the military has a strong sales program and if there are no foreign troops using you for target practice, the military is a doable way stop on life’s rocky road.  The country had been banging around in a place called Korea and I could seek my red badge.  But Mr. Eisenhower, everybody’s grandpa, was negotiating a truce and the shooting would stop, eliminating my chance to get sent to Korea and get my stupid ass frozen off and if I was lucky come home to indifference.  Of course we didn’t know about the ass-freezing or the distinct possibility of getting it, frozen or not, shot off.  The military doesn’t emphasize the downside.

There was a brief, shining moment when the Army came to Birch Lake and I was tempted to learn the mechanics of war, how to shoot an M1 rifle, how to march in step and how to clean latrines—all skills that would benefit me as a civilian, especially if I yearned to become a janitor.

Or, had I chosen to make the military a career, maybeI could be a colonel by now or even a general.  But I got cured of that idea the day the Army recruiter came to Birch Lake High School with the nurse, recruiting our blood.  It was a cooperative venture between the military and industrial complexes—before Mr. Eisenhower warned us of their dangers.  The civilians needed blood and the military was in business to create the need.  Talk about symbiosis!

We were poised at graduation, diplomas shimmering in the near future and a void after that.  Football season was long over; basketball had come and gone and the last Bobcat baseball game was two weeks finished.  Ennui was the name of the game now and even the Army looked pretty good.  It was 1953 and everyone figured that Korea was about to run out its string.

In the Army you could get job training, assuming there was a civilian call for trained assassins, earn very little money and see the world, especially some parts of it that, if you had money and time, you never would visit.

The principal gathered the senior boys together in a classroom and introduced Sgt. Hawkins, a recruiter, and Nurse Belvoir, a public health representative.  She would, he told us, take donated blood while Sgt. Hawkins sold us on the virtues of Army life.  Sgt. Hawkins was about six foot, four inches and built like the head of a splitting maul.  He had a buzz cut, a face cut out of granite, and the voice of a lion roaring on the veldt.  I suspect he had been chosen for recruiting duty on appearance alone—he looked like John Wayne on a good day.  Nurse Belvoir was petite, pretty and, I noticed, occasionally looked at the sergeant like a fastidious matron looks at a smelly stray dog.

It wouldn’t have occurred to us naïfs that the Army would not send its finest representatives to a backwater town like Birch Lake.  The enlistment pool was so scanty in the little resort town that there wasn’t much point in delegating a real recruiter.  “You ever kill anyone?” Scuz Olson bellowed from the back of the room. There was no question too embarrassing for Scuz who had been known to ask girls whether they were on the rag or not.

“I could lie to you an’ say I did,” Sgt. Hawkins said.  “But I ain’t been in combat yet.  In case you don’t know it we whupped up on them Korean gooks.  One uh these days, though….”

“What if we wanted to join and learn how to do something other than shoot someone?” my cousin Hal asked.

“I guess you could be a company clerk or some puss thing like that,” the sergeant said.  “Or you could learn explosives an’ be a demolition expert in civilian life.  There’s a lot of money in blowin’ up old buildings and stuff.”  For the first time the sergeant was on our wavelength.  There was great appeal in the idea of destroying large structures for money.  “You ever blow anything up?” Scuz asked.

The Seargeant, sensingthat he had touched a pleasure point, said,“You got yer hand grenades an’ you got yer rocket launchers an’ them artillery guys they got yer 105s and 155s can shoot five miles.  One uh them eight inch guns can shoot 20 miles and drop a round in a friggin’ rain barrel, excuse my French.”

Nurse Belvoir looked as if she’d heard his French before and didn’t care for his pronunciation.  She busied herself with a bottle of alcohol and cotton swabs.  We looked at her legs, losing the thread of Sgt. Hawkin’s description of flying debris and ear-deafening noise.  Apparently he was from Brooklyn or one of those New York-type places, as foreign to Birch Lake as the dark side of the moon.  He used words like “youse” and “Awright.”

“Youse guys are gonna graduate and Uncle Sam wants youse,” he said. “An’ right now he needs your blood.  “Awright, we’re gonna show you some Army stuff.  Nurse Belvoir here, she’s gonna bleed youse guys for a blood drive an’ it’s all for a good cause.  Might save some dogface’s life.”  It sounded like a noble cause and I fought down a tide of squeamishness, prepared to drain for Uncle Sam.  So…who’s gonna volunteer?”  We all looked at each other and then simultaneously tried to disappear like the Invisible Man.

Nurse Belvoir, meanwhile, extracted a wicked-looking syringe from her kit bag and the needle tip glinted in the classroom light.  We watched with open-mouthed fascination.  “Cummon, youse guys!” thundered Sgt. Hawkins.  “Whatta we got here—a bunch of pusses?”  I saw a couple of my classmates, more honest than the rest of us, nod agreement.

Here was my chance to earn a civilian red badge of courage.  Did I have what it took to charge the metaphorical machinegun nest and volunteer to have my blood sucked from me.  My conscious mind urged me to do it, but my craven subconscious paralyzed every motor response and instead of leaping to my feet, shouting, “I’ll do it!” I shrank even further into my chair, becoming almost the size of the 10-year-old of World War Two.

Nurse Belvoir looked at her massive traveling companion and into the echoing silence of our collective cowardice, said, “Looks like you’ll have to be the guinea pig, sergeant.”  Sgt Hawkins jerked as if he’d absorbed a bullet from one uh them gooks.  He swallowed noisily and his eyes darted much like those of a cornered animal.  Duty and something else struggled behind that manly visage and we frowned in puzzlement.  Was this John Wayne or…us?

“Sergeant?” the nurse said.  Did I detect a gleam of suppressed triumph in the nurse’s face?  She and the sergeant had been beating the bushes for cannon fodder together for a long time and she knew him far better than we did.  Surely she had blooded him numerous times….or was BirchLake the only small town populated entirely by teenage cowards?  She approached the huge sergeant, like a Chihuahua sidling up to a Great Pyrenees, and unbuttoned his shirtsleeve and rolled the sleeve over a massive bicep.   “It ain’t gonna hurt as much as gettin’ shot,” he said, a tight grin on his face.

She swabbed his arm with alcohol and, without ceremony, jabbed him with the needle.  Nothing happened.  Frowning, she worked the needle like a woodcock probing for earthworms.  Sgt. Hawkins’s ferocious grin tightened and he paled.  Then there was a gout of blood, as if an oil driller had struck a gusher.

Sgt. Hawkins looked at his spurting arm and he let out a tiny moan and crashed to the floor like a giant redwood.  The entire BirchLakeHigh School building shook as if in a minor earthquake.  Nurse Belvoir stood over the poleaxed warrior, her mouth open (like those of the rest of us).  If Sgt. Hawkins had wanted to make a statement, he had—just, I suspect, not the one he intended.  From a class of potential bloodletters in the name of freedom, the American way and any other good cause you could name, we became a class of pacifists, conscientious objectors and outright draft dodgers.

Recalling her training, Nurse Belvoir dug in her bag and found a compress and stanched the flow of blood.  Those of us in the front seats witnessed the carnage of warfare without enduring gunfire or cannonade.  It was enough to cure any desire I might have had for a career on the battlefield.  “If anyone would like to sign up,” Nurse Belvoir began, “the sergeant will be in the library…..”  The bell rang and the rest of what she said was drowned out by the thunder of our hoofbeats as we fled the classroom.

That was the end of my exposure to the military on the grunt level.  I went to college, deferred from the draft, got a second lieutenant’s commission through ROTC and spent six months on active duty at Ft. Bliss, Texas, after the Korean cease fire.

On the first day of what amounted to basic training for second lieutenants, the lowest form of animal life, a grizzled master sergeant strode into our classroom like a thundercloud and looked at us as if he were looking at vomit.

“Okay, pussies, sirs,” he rumbled.  “You’re in the Army now and our job is to cause bloodshed.  Anybody here afraid of blood?”

I started to raise my hand, but thought better of it.


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