When I awoke my head thudded like it was being beaten against an anvil. It was the morning after, and I was lying in the dirt beside the river. I opened my eyes but only could see out one—the right was swollen shut. Shank was sitting nearby chewing a blade of grass and minding his fishing line in the water. Upon seeing that I had awakened, he looked at me sympathetically and said: “You look like you’re probably not feeling too well.”
“Go deduce how to catch fish, Sherlock,” I muttered in response. I tried to sit up, but blacked out again. For the next several hours I laid there drifting in and out of painful consciousness. Finally the agony subsided enough that I was able to sit up and remain awake. Hours had passed. Shank hadn’t moved.
“Here,” he said, offering me a canteen.
“What is it?” I asked warily. The thought of more liquor set my guts heaving.
“Water. You need it, and you might want to splash some on that eye, or wash it off in the river,” he suggested.
I took a swig, spit a little in my palm and gently wiped my bruised eye. I shook out the cobwebs, shook his hand, then rose unsteadily and said: “Thanks for watching out for me, amigo. It’s been real and all, but it’s time for me to go.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To enlist in the army. I’ve got to sober up. If the drinking itself doesn’t kill me, the trouble it gets me into will.”
“Cool, count me in,” he said.
I stopped in my tracks and incredulously replied, “What?”
“I’m going to enlist with you,” Shank announced. “I’ve been considering it for some time now. I’ve been bumming around for years, and I need some discipline; the only thing that was keeping me around here was my obsession with the channel cat. She’s eaten and gone, so it’s time to move along.”
He stood up and started leading the way. “Uh, okay,” I replied, following. It was an odd and sudden situation, but as we walked toward the recruiting center, and as I gave it more thought, the more I liked the idea of having someone to go in with. It wasn’t that I was getting cold in the feet, but that the idea of having a companion or sidekick seemed as it proved to be—a good one—at first.
When we actually reached the recruiting office, and were faced with the large poster of Uncle Sam informing that HE WANTED US, I shuddered with slight trepidation. But Shank, ever cool as the proverbial cucumber—whatever that means—kept his composure and forged the way in.
The office was one small room. There were a couple of racks of literature, and a virtual wallpaper of posters, some with the smiling cartoon mug of our beckoning uncle, and other propaganda glamorizing the military life. The uniformed man behind the desk stood up came around and greeted us with warm handshakes. “I am Recruiting Station Commander Everett. What can I do for you boys?” he asked.
“We’re here to enlist,” Shank said. “We are ready, and want to be soldiers.”
“Wonderful. We’re on the constant lookout for talent. What kind of soldiers do you envision yourselves? Do you have wanderlust and dreams of world travel? Do you want to become trained killing machines?”
“Uh, what do you mean?” I asked in reply.
“Do you want to be infantrymen? Do you want to drive tanks? Do you aspire to be officers, or even higher ranks? Do you want be clerical? Do you want to be on the front lines killing, or do you want to work in the kitchens?”
“I love food,” Shank responded. “And I’ve always felt particularly comfortable, and safe, in kitchens.”
I considered the options he’d offered, and said, “I do too.”
The lieutenant was clearly pleased with our responses. “Let me give you the ASVAB test, and we’ll take it from there.”
“What’s that?” Shank asked.
“The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. It’s a career exploration exam that determines which vocation you’re best suited for in the army.”
He pulled two copies of the test out of the file drawer, picked up two pencils, and led us to a small table in the back of the room and sat us down with the ASVAB. The test consisted of a wide variety of questions, all multiple choice. We looked them over, and I said to Shank, “Do you want to kill people?”
“Not really,” he replied.
“Let’s go for KP,” he suggested.
The first question was: water is an example of A: crystal, B: solid, C: gas, and D: liquid. In the margin beside I wrote, refreshment in the desert. In his margin Shank wrote, seventy five percent of the earth.
The next question was: Twenty-five percent of all household burglaries can be attributed to unlocked windows or doors. Crime is the result of opportunity plus desire. To prevent crime, it is each individual’s responsibility to: A. provide the desire; B. provide the opportunity; C. prevent the desire; and D. prevent the opportunity. In the margin I wrote, ‘to make a thin crust spinach, feta and black olive pizza.’ In his margin, Shank wrote, ‘calamari and northern white bean stew.’
And so we went on. The questions ranged from making a home livable to the definition of ‘rudimentary.’ And our answers ranged from stuffed lobster to creamed corn to chateaubriand. An hour later we turned our exams in to Lieutenant Everett.
He looked them over, and said, “This is ridiculous, a mockery. Neither of you have filled in a single blank. For example, in answer to this question about what effects a solar eclipse you wrote ‘marinated tuna steak in fresh garlic and virgin olive oil, lightly roasted over hickory.’”
“Well, couldn’t you go for a plate right now?” Shank asked.
“It does sound scrumptious, and it is nearing dinnertime, but that’s not the point,” Recruiting Station Commander Everett answered.
“Is that so?” Shank said. He dropped to the floor and did twenty one-handed pushups on his right knuckles, then twenty on the left. He hopped right up and challenged the Recruiting Station Commander. “If you want to put on the gloves and step outside I can knock you out in eleven seconds--including the ten count.”
The Recruiting Station Commander was clearly impressed by Shank’s display, looked us up and down, and said, “If you want kitchen, you’re in.”
He laid out all the paperwork, and we signed.
“Be at the MEPS on Tuesday—that’s the Military Entrance Processing Station—at oh-four hundred hours for your physical and in-processing. If you check out there, you’ll ship on Wednesday with the next cycle.
We arrived on time, nervous to say the least--but the sight of dozens of other fresh recruits did somewhat to put us at ease. We passed the battery of tests, physical and written, and by the end of the long day were approved privates. We were dismissed with orders to return at oh eight hundred in the morning to ship out. We arrived on time, and found several hundred men milling around and waiting to be herded into the transport trucks. That was done in conjunction with roll call, after which we were driven two hundred miles to the training base.
There were four barracks that housed about one hundred soldiers each, and Shank and I were fortunately assigned to the same one. As everyone was getting acquainted and unpacking their bags a superior officer came and quietly took me aside saying: “The Battalion Commander would like a word with you.”
I was surprised, and followed the officer to an office behind the barrack. He escorted me in and an older gentlemen wearing a much decorated uniform removed his hat and shook my hand warmly. “My name is Bernard Benyers. I’m the Battalion Commander. The pleasure is mine.”
“I assure you, it’s mine,” I replied, “unless I’ve already done something wrong.”
“Not at all,” he hastened to reply. “I understand you’re a bit of a celebrity, so I wanted to take a moment to get to know you, and to get a feel for how best to handle you around here.”
“If I may be perfectly honest, I want to be treated no differently than any other man. Here I’m Private Downes, and nothing more,” I answered.
“And that you shall be, I assure you,” he replied. “But I’ve got to be honest with you, my granddaughter is a big fan of yours, and asked me to try and get you to autograph this album for her.”
He produced one of my albums from the top drawer of his desk, and a marker. I thought nothing and autographed the album to his granddaughter, whose name was Alyssa. He smiled, then said: “And please let this be between us, as some could construe it as potential preferential treatment; but if you do have any problems or concerns while you’re here, feel free to bring them straight to me.”
It had just occurred to me, so I uttered it. “I enlisted with a friend named Private Shank. We both volunteered to work kitchen, and it would be greatly appreciated if we could be kept together.”
“Not only can that be arranged,” he answered, “consider it done. You and Private Shank are now known as ‘battle buddies,’ the army equivalent of blood brothers. On behalf of my granddaughter I thank you kindly for the autograph, and for myself, it was a pleasure.”
That night Shank and I were quietly assigned adjacent bunks. In the morning after mess Shank and I were brought to be introduced to Drill Sergeant Duval. He was an impeccably neat, flat-top, square-jawed, furrowed brow, gnarly, sneering, downright mean-looking mother.
“What have we here?” he growled. “A couple green apples who reckon themselves cut from kakhi bolt?”
For whatever reason (and for one of the only times in my life) I was terrified in someone’s presence, and rendered speechless with fear. But Shank calmly answered: “I would suppose that’s why we’re here.”
“You suppose?” Duval repeated in a menacing, guttural whisper. He stood up, snapped his heels together (they clicked like a gunshot), brought his hand to his forehead in salute and bellowed, “ATEN-HUT!” We were so shocked and dumbfounded by such an unforeseen response, that we neither knew how to react. “A soldier always salutes his superior officer, do you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME?”
Shank and I glanced at each other, and mindful that it might be a trick, with measured hesitance feebly raised our hands to our foreheads.
We were right that it was a trick, for he snapped his off and shouted: “I said ‘soldiers,’ not snotrags barely enlisted.”
I made bold to speak up. “Look, man, what’s all this hassle? We’re here to sign up, we’re on your side.”
“’Look, man?’” he repeated. “That’s ‘Sir’ to you, punk.”
I turned to Shank and said: “Maybe we should go to a different recruiting center.”
“I knew it!” he proudly crowed. “I knew you were a couple of chickencrap cowards. I was testing your mettle, and you failed. Good soldiers are cut from tough stuff—you two look like you were snipped from your mamas’ hankies.”
Emboldened by the taunt, I raised my voice to a shout. “That’s it! Where do I sign?”
He glared at me, sneered at Shank, and growled, “I don’t think you have the balls between you. He pushed an enlistment form and pen at me, and one at Shank. “Sign on the line, and provided you pass physical, you’re mine.”
I hesitated for the briefest instant, then answered his challenge. He read my signature, pondered a moment, then slowly gazed up at me with recognition. “That’s why you look so familiar. Well, Deak, I’m definitely going to have some fun with you!”
“Why do you say that?” I cautiously asked.
“Because I don’t like you,” he answered. “I didn’t like you when you walked in here and I didn’t know who you were, and I didn’t like you before that when I did know who you are, mister famous rock and roll star.”
“But why? What did I ever do to you?”
“I just don’t like liberal, left wing, long-haired, hippy dippy pretty boys. But mostly it’s because I think you’re music is rubbish. Men like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, they made music. That noise you pump into the air should be outlawed.” He was clearly satisfied with his position and how well he’d articulated it. He turned to Shank. “What about you, punk? You got the gonads to sign on too?”
Shank casually rolled his thumb over the balls of his fingers, and replied, “I already did, while you were pontificating.”
Sergeant Duval glanced down at Shank’s signature and grumbled, “So you did. Very well; finish filling out the forms, produce valid identifications, then report here Monday at seven, and pending physicals you’ll ship out with the new recruiting class to bootcamp.”
He then turned his attention from us to the telephone, which I could discern he was pretending to dial and talk into while keeping us under his watchful eye. His spirit made mine feel very uneasy—he impressed me as malicious and almost diabolical—and my intuition indeed proved to be true, as that was not the end of our acquaintance with Sergeant Duval, but only the very beginning.
We settled into the regiment of army life. Shank and I agreed that KP was far preferable to training to kill. Our days were very routine, from wake up, breakfast, training, lunch, more training, dinner then bed. Shank and I worked together in the kitchen, and established a routine. Shank smoked cigarettes, and every evening he contrived to hide a couple bags of trash behind the mess hall, we could use hauling them to the dumpster as an excuse to kill a few more minutes while he smoked before retiring to the boredom of the barracks for the night. One night, about a week after our arrival, we approached the massive dumpsters on one of Shank’s smoke breaks and heard two men whispering in a foreign language.
We stepped back into a shadow, and Shank softly told me: “They’re speaking Russian.”
“Russian?” I incredulously replied. “How do you know Russian?”
“Shh, I’m fluent,” he replied. “Let me hear what they say then I’ll tell you everything.”
As he keenly listened to every word, I quietly set my bag of trash on the ground and stealthily crept behind the dumpster and recognized one of the two men: it was Drill Seargent Duval. He and the other man, who I did not recognize, were speaking in perfect Russian. I did not comprehend a single word. I was terrified of being discovered and held perfectly still. Duval and the other man spoke for five minutes or so, then parted ways. Shank and I put the trash into the dumpster then he explained all. “You’re not going to believe what I just heard.”
“First of all, how do you know fluent Russian?” I asked with undisguised surprise.
“I was born here, but then my father, who is Russian, took us to Moscow for business when I was three, and we lived there till I was fifteen. That’s how I know it. But wait till you hear what I just heard!”
“Consider me shut up,” I answered.
“From what I can gather, they’re concocting a very bizarre plot. The man talking with Sergeant Duval was a colonel. They’ve made up some phony documents they plan to claim are military secrets being given to the Russians by one of Duval’s immediate higher ups. They’ve got copies in English and Russian. Their idea is to blame the lieutenant next in line to Duval, to get him demoted or discharged, so that the slot will be open for Duval to be promoted into.”
“All that for a possible promotion?” I remarked. “There must be something more. That’s just strange, unless the secrets are actually real and they are pretending that they’re fake.”
“There is more,” Shank explained. “Duval is throwing a two thousand dollar cash bribe into the bargain. Come on, let’s get back to the barracks before anyone gets suspicious.”
We hurried back, and as we jogged I caught sight of Duval watching us from a shadow at the edge of the courtyard.
Two mornings later, our platoon was divided in half—one group to go on a long hike to the east, and the other to go on a long hike to the west. Duval took great pleasure in taking Shank and I aside and informing us that despite being battle buddies we were going to be in separate groups. “It’s no big deal,” Duval explained. “The hikes are mostly single file, so you wouldn’t be able to hold hands even if you were together.”
So we went off on our separate hikes, six hours through the woods in full gear. I was exhausted. Upon return, when the rest of the guys were dropping their packs and sacking out in their bunks, I was summoned to the Battalion Commander’s office. I entered, and immediately discerned the heavy air, and the severity of his face.
“Deak,” he said slowly “please have a seat.” I did so warily. He continued: “I hate to do this more than anything, but it is my duty to inform you of the death of your friend and battle buddy Private Shank.”
I was utterly shocked, like only the night Isaac died, and was speechless. I finally said: “What happened? How?”
“Are you familiar with the military term ‘friendly fire’?” he asked.
“Of course I know what friendly fire is. That’s when an army accidentally offs one of its own. Are you saying that’s how he was killed?” I demanded. I was verging on outrage.
“There was a small brigade engaged in firing exercises two miles from where Private Shank’s group was hiking. A bullet went astray from that exercise and entered his back. The speculation is that it ricocheted off a rock or some piece of metal on the shooting range. It was a freak accident.”
“My friend is dead and you call it a freak accident?” was my aghast reply.
“These things happen; it’s an unavoidable consequence of having a military,” Battalion Commander Benyers explained.
I was still in shock, and shaking my head in my palms.
“So what would you like to do?” he asked at length.
“Am I being given a choice?” I asked. “Because if you’re asking me to choose between waiting around every day to possibly be sent into the line of fire while all the time paranoid that a stray bullet from one of my own comrades is going to take me out of this world or leaving, then I’d like to go home.”
“That will be arranged,” he replied, picking up the phone. He turned away from me, had a brief conversation, then turned back, hung up the phone and said: “Someone is gathering your things right now, and there will be a car here to return you to New Orleans in fifteen minutes.”
“That’s perfectly fine with me,” I said.
“I know this may not be the most appropriate time to ask you this,” he slowly said, “but I’ve been wanting to ask you and may never see you again. Is there any way I could get you to write a military march song? Something to uplift and energize the troops?”
“You tell me you accidentally killed my friend, then three minutes later ask me to write you a song? How about a story song? GI Joe accidentally kills Army Pete,” I sarcastically suggested.
“No, of course not right now,” He apologetically replied. “I was thinking if you ever did someday get so inspired, you could send me a recording or the sheet music,” he answered.
I noticed headlights through the window and asked: “Is that my car?”
He looked out the window to confirm, and said that it was. I quickly got up and went to the door, shook his hand only because he offered it, then entered the back of the car through the door that was held for me by the driver, who informed me that my things were in the trunk. There was a thick pane of black glass between the front and back, so the long ride was in silence. It was about four AM when we pulled into the French Quarter, and the driver unceremoniously deposited me and my bag there on a street corner and drove away.
To this day I have wondered if Shank and I didn’t accidentally stumble onto a real plot and that he was taken out for what he overheard, and to this day his ultimate fate remains one of the great mysteries of my life.Chapter 1 -- Bootleg
Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp
Chapter 3 -- Sands
Chapter 4 -- Forgiven Not Forgotten
Chapter 5 -- Revenge
Chapter 6 -- The Flying Lightning Shows
Chapter 2 -- Bootcamp
Chapter 3 -- Sands
Chapter 4 -- Forgiven Not Forgotten
Chapter 5 -- Revenge
Chapter 6 -- The Flying Lightning Shows