I remember clearly when the bus I was on pulled through the gates of the Ozark Mountain resort near Rollo, Missouri, I had been invited to spend some time at by my avuncular pals in the U.S. Army. I was 20 years old and had just graduated college. The letter I got inviting me to this resort said I had no choice, so I might as well come and enjoy life there or else get my ass immediately over the border and into Canada and be branded a chickenshit coward and a draft-dodging felon by the "big brass" in Washington, District of Corruption. The letter was signed by the head of Selective Service, arch-asshole General Lewis Blaine Hershey, yep, same as the chocolate company, except this Hershey's kisses were kisses of death, maybe sugar coated, but death just the same.
This U.S. Army resort was called Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Now I knew forts already. I had enjoyed the hell out of the sinful depths of Fort Worth, Texas, when I was a college superidiot. Hell, good ole Fort Worth was full of bars, blues, beer, whores, cowboys, oil folks, airmen from Carswell AFB, stock yard workers, railroad workers, coat-hanger abortion doctors, dope peddlers, ex-cons and connies, flim-flammers, Mexicans, Blacks, Crackers, White Trash, Cedarchoppers, clodhoppers, hotels like the Jackson Hotel (I wrote a song about the Jackson Hotel called "Texas Reality"--don't ask; nobody ever recorded it), pool shooters, Willie Nelson's family, great golf courses, and women hot enough to melt male hearts of cold steel.
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, looked nothing at all like Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth was a fort in the sense of a place name; Leonard Wood was a fort in the sense of being a "fortified place occupied only by troops." And as that bus entered that fort's gate, I suddenly became not who I thought I was, a human being who wanted to write and dance and drink and sing my way through life, but rather a numbered "trooper," or in other words, I became a soldier.
That bus whipped in through the big gate out at the Rollo entrance. The country was woodsy as hell, hilly as hell, and hot as hell, and it was already late September when I got there. After the gate guards cleared us, the bus turned into a sideroad that wound down off the main road and ended up entering a big driveway that wound up a hill, passed a very military-looking building, painted white-flesh white with olive drab trimmings all topped with a steeple with a cross on top; Jesus, a church right here in the middle of this army base. Was Jesus in the army? Didn't he promote peace? Didn't Jesus protect whores and stuff from brutality? What does Jesus do in the army? A million questions had been running through my knockin' noggin for every day and every night after I had signed up out of desperation at the end of that fiery hot summer I graduated college; I had signed up when I was 18 and then got a college deferment; that's the way you did it in those days if you were middle-class enough to be able to go to college. I had no idea at that time who was getting killed in 'Nam. Nobody from my hometown I knew of was overthere. Two of my high school friends also just graduated from college, one an architect, the other a geologist, both just married, got on the bus in Dallas and that was cool that I had good friends going into the same shit as I was, but they were just as dumb about what we were in far; in fact, they didn't even really believe there was a war in Viet Nam yet. Like, Lyndon Bullshit Johnson hadn't declared it a war yet--he hadn't invented the Gulf of Tonkin incident yet (another lyin' son of a bitch president--think of that).
I knew I was coming to this place for what they called "basic training," but I wasn't sure what it was nor was I worried about what it was. I felt invincible, I suppose, based on the fact that I was still full of myself after making love especially animalistically in the backseat of my dad's big caddy the very night before I got on that bus. I still had no connection yet to what I was fixing to experience, something I had heard about all my life from my uncles from World War I, the war to end all wars, my brother and his friends from World War II on through the Korean War--I was a baseball fan in those days and believe it or not a semi-Red Sox fan--I really was a St Louie Cardinal fan--but I knew Ted Williams was a jet fighter pilot in the Korean Police Action-- on into the war that Eisenhower had instigated and that JFK had continued prepping for and then suddenly there it was, yet another war, this one they were calling the Indo-China War, which started actually as a threat against Laos and only finally against VietNam (all due to the colonizing-selfish French assholes who got their butts kicked by Uncle Ho (a great man who idolized Abe Lincoln) at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). I had had a much older brother who had been in World War II with the Marines in the Pacific, but those guys never talked about that war and neither did my brother unless you got him drunk and then he'd tell you about his running a whorehouse in Tsingtao, China, and that's about it. He never really was in any heavy action, but he was a Marine medic at Guadalcanal and saw the blown-to-bits bodies being brought into the Marine hospital there from the fierce fighting on that had just happened on Guadalcanal and the awful bloody action going on at the same time on Iwo Jima. So I know he'd seen blood and guts and gore and detached arms and legs and maybe sacks full of a mixture of soldiers--you know, they were blown up together and entangled--or maybe even heads in sacks, the only parts left of blown-up young men--but he never talked about it. And I had been a mere baby of a kid during WWII, though I do remember my brother going off to Great Lakes Naval Training Center and I remember him being in the Mariana Islands, at Truk and at Guam, and then over to Guadalcanal, then onto China before coming home to Dallas when I was just beginning to stand up straight and walk. The reality of war, however, I couldn't grasp, nor was I, like I said, worried about it. I had no idea I was headed in the direction of one of worst losses in this nation's long War History.
The bus pulled into a large parking lot surrounded by a complex of one-story buildings. We all, from all over Texas, piled out of that stale Army Greyhound as a collection of gullible-looking human oddities and onto this large parking lot area. A friendly corporal in fatigues that were starched to immaculate stiffness and combat boots that were flashing diamond-like facets of reflection they were so highly polished, met us as we came off the bus. When I say the corporal was polite I mean he seemed to be treating us decently, you know, telling us what to expect, how we were to get in line, by first letters of our last names, what documents we were to have with us (papers), blah, blah, blah. Then he shuffled us on the trot over to this big army-looking building, like the church but with no steeple and cross on top. This building was off-yellow with olive-drab trimmings. It was two-story and it was sitting up off the ground on large concrete block foundation posts set every five feet or so under the "billets," as the first sergeant we were introduced to said after we were in our billets--and I was told I was in Battery B of C Company, which had four batteries assigned to it. C Company was part of a training battalion that had four companies in it.
The corporal told us to put our footlockers (we were instructed to buy our own footlockers before we came to camp and I bought mine from a preacher-boy high school friend of mine who on the side sold army surplus goods, so what Jesus didn't bring in, the spoils of war did) in front of our bunks. I bunked with one of my friends from high school; I got the top bunk, which I didn't mind since I loved upper berths or sleeping up in the air. After we positioned our footlockers, the corporal had us stand by our bunks. Then he marched us out of the billets and then double-timed us over to a big warehouse-looking building where we were given our military uniforms, tee shirts, belts, gun belts, canteen, field kits, trench tool, air mattress--a whole bunch of junk, including two pair of fatigues and two fatigue jackets, a full dress uniform and two pair of combat boots and one pair of regular black dress shoes. Then we trotted back to the billets and the corporal showed us how to put our uniforms in our stand-up lockers and the rest of the stuff in our footlockers. Then we were rounded up again and trotted over to the base barbershop. I didn't have long hair then but I didn't have a crew cut either; the me a crew cut was a sign of a hillbilly, roughneck, or right-winger; soon, I had an G.I. cut, something half-ass between white sidewalls and a bald head. I looked like shit, but I didn't give a shit since I was enjoying the experience. It was keeping my mind off realizing what kind of crap I was being basically trained for. I wasn't thinking of blood and guts; I was thinking of when do we get a break so we can play poker or shoot some craps. No such thing. The rest of the day and into the evening, we were trotted all over the camp lastly going through the medical center and being hit with our innoculations, hit with five shots at once by the cruel and vicious medics out of this huge vacuum-powered needle gun. A lot of the weaker specimens fell to the ground as they left the medical center and hit the roaring heat of the early eve; it was stiffling day and night in among those Ozark woods.
Back at the billets, it was 9 pm and we were called to attention by the corporal. From a door to a room at the far end of the billet came a short, leather-tough-skinned, blocky, 70-year-old-looking face on a teenage-looking body. His face was as though it was hacked from granite. It was set in a stony hawkish look. It never changed. It was always hawk serious; like a hawk's eyes are constantly darting looking for prey or danger. The corporal introduced him as our first sergeant, Sergeant Val Kilmer. The first sergeant walked out in the middle of the floor in the middle of the room in between the rows of bunk beds. He didn't say a word. He then revealed that he was carrying a riding crop, like they used to carry in the horse troops, the cavalry, and he took that crop and whapped it over his palm. I cracked just like a bull whip. "That, troops, could be the sound of an enemy rifle being fired directly at you!" He then went over to a rather fat kid--I had no idea who anyone was except my bunkmate--the rest of them were strangers; I didn't even remember seeing any of them on our "from Texas" bus. In front of the fat kid, the sergeant whapped in on a post right by the fat kids ear. The fat kid jumped like a scared motherf-er and put his hands automatically over his ears. "You crazy bastard, that could have been an enemy weapon going off right by your f-ing ear. You coward. Don't worry, son," it was a though Sergeant Kilmer had a touch of fatherly compassion for this fat kid, "I'll make an f-ing man out of your jelly ass...look at you; I'll have that blubber off'a you in two weeks are I didn't kill more gooks in Laos than any other god-damn combat trooper over there." He moved back into the center of the room. "It's called Laos, men. That's where all of you are headed. You're headed to war, men, and, men, war ain't sweet like that little filly you left back at home with her legs spread and your best 4-F friend doing here right now as I speak. No, men, war is not sweet. War is bitter." He said that with triumphant ice in his voice. I marked him off as a nutjob and still didn't catch on. Then, he was standing in front of me. "You wanna kill, son?" He was right in my face. His breath tasted like old people smell right before they die natural deaths. "No, sir," I said, "I don't wanna kill nobody." "You what? Speak louder." "I don't wanna kill, sir." "Well, aren't you a silly stupid son of a bitch? Then are you ready to die?" "No, sir." "So you're not ready to kill and now you're not ready to die. Well let me set you straight, you silly bastard, in this man's army, it's either you learn to kill or you get killed. You got that? You either decide you're gonna learn to kill or you're gonna get killed. Because in this man's army, it's kill or be killed and you are gonna be trained by me and none of my men wanna be killed and by the time I get through with you bastards, you're gonna be KILLERS! You got that?" Nobody said anything. "You say, 'YES SIR!' Say it!" "Yes sir." We chirped. He was furious. "God-dammit," he walked back over to me, "Yell it out, YES, SIR. I'M GONNA BE A KILLER." I did. I yelled it right square-dab in his fucking granite-frozen face. "By God, I like you, son. You're gonna be my best killer if you keep that attitude." He turned around and walked to the end of the billet. "Lights out in 30 minutes. We'll be getting up at Oh-4:30, men, so you'd better get to sleep; you're gonna need your strength tomorrow. Killing isn't as easy as you think."
Kill or be killed. No mention of peace anywhere around me now. The only piece we all were thinking about were the whores we would soon be looking for in Saint Louis after we got our first liberty, which didn't happen for 6 more long difficult weeks. At the end of that 6-week period, I felt so pent up, penned up, and fucked up, I felt like killing Sergeant Kilmer, that's for sure, that asshole.
for The Daily Growler