Crimson. That’s the color I think of when I remember that night. It’s what I see every night when I close my eyes. It’s not just the color of it either. It’s also the cold, harsh sound of the word, with the hard “C” followed by the “r” that rolls off it as if to pry open the rest of the word. I can mostly think of bad things that start with that letter combination – crime, cruel, crude – very few good things. So it’s a color and a word that fits that night – that night that will dominate the rest of my life – like no other.
I guess it started for me when I left college. I never considered it dropping out, though that’s what it wound up to be with me in here. I just got what I like to call “the walks.” That’s when it just comes over me that I can’t continue doing what I’m doing. It happened with football, when I just got sick of working so hard to just get knocked around. I was an offensive end on a team that never passed (in western Pennsylvania, the land of quarterbacks, where they pretty much invented the pass). I could catch a ball anywhere near me. I just never needed to. All I ever did was block and eat Coach Bartlett’s shit for it. So I got “the walks” in high school football, and it probably cost me getting into a better college. Don’t believe it when they tell you good colleges don’t care about sports. They like jocks just about as much as anyone, maybe more. They just want to pretend they’re not paying for it – that the “grant” they give to some jock is because they just happen to like the cut of his jib.
So I wound up at the state school about an hour from my home. It was fine for a while. I got all my gen ed classes out of the way and was doing pretty well. Then I got to the point where I needed to decide on a major. My parents were urging me to have a trade, to go into health sciences. They’re decent people, but they’re ferociously practical – having weathered the Great Depression. If they disagreed with something I was doing they had a way of never letting me hear the end of it. They kept reminding me about how I gave up a potential scholarship when I dropped football. So I thought about majoring in physical therapy, but the thought of rubbing Bengay on old people’s asses for the rest of my life gave me the creeps. I wanted to study astronomy, to gaze at the stars, but I didn’t want the inevitable fight with my parents. So I got “the walks” again and withdrew from – not dropped out of – college.
When I decided to join the Army, my dad, who had been in Korea, was fine with it. (“It’s a noble thing to do son,” he said. “It’ll just be better if you can find a way to get your commission.”) My mom freaked out a little bit at first, but she came around. By joining the Army, I thought I was going on a great adventure. It was certainly not something many kids from affluent suburbs like ours ever did. I would serve my country and myself at the same time. I would get to see how the other half lived, and help pay for the rest of my college when I returned from my three year hitch. Who knows, I thought, maybe I’ll even like it and become an officer. At any rate, I had enough education already to come in as a private first class, with a promotion to specialist four – or “spec four” – soon after the initial training.
I think the next factor that led to me being in here was what happened to me in basic training and AIT (or advanced individual training, where a soldier learns his or her military occupational specialty, or MOS … I know, it’s alphabet soup). Well, during basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, the restrictions are pretty harsh – not like in here, of course, but way harsher than anything most young people have experienced. You go under what’s called “total control” for six of the eight weeks, and you become accustomed to deprivation. The drill sergeants can drop you for pushups for the slightest infraction, like forgetting to take your hat off immediately when you get inside or going being the last one out to formation after chow. Every morning at 4:30 we’d assemble outside the barracks, and they would march us past several grassy fields to a gravel lot where they would make us do situps and pushups. You get good at pushups.
In basic training you can’t drink or smoke unless the drill sergeant says you can. You can’t even have soda in the mess hall. I remember I was only a casual smoker prior to basic training. Through the course of the eight weeks, my three favorite words came to be “Light ‘em up!” I would have a cigarette out of my pocket and lit in my mouth in one swift motion. And when we got out of total control, they gave us about two hours of freedom, when we could go to Enlisted Man’s Club. I pounded Schlitz Malt Liquor tallboys faster than I ever had before. My point is, by withholding something – the freedom to smoke or drink – the Army had the effect on me of wanting that thing all the more. I was certainly a drinker and occasional smoker prior to that experience, but when I got through basic training I was a chain smoker and heavier drinker than ever.
At Fort Jackson for AIT, I learned the skills of a 71 Lima, or clerk typist, with the Army teaching me to type on a manual typewriter. The semi-deprivation continued. We were still under control of the drill sergeants most of the time and the controls could be oppressive. We would get up at 5 am for PT, and I would be exhausted all day. During typing class I would doze off only to wake and notice I had typed gibberish on my paper. We would be in the hands of civilian instructors during the day, but the drill sergeants were never far. On breaks we would assemble and be marched to an outdoor patio, which reminds me of the exercise yard here. You needed to ask permission to go to the bathroom, and if you wanted to sneak a little snooze on the toilet you couldn’t because the stalls had no doors and the drill sergeants would inspect the bathrooms regularly. After the deprivation and hardship of basic training and AIT, it’s not unusual for soldiers to go a little bit wild for a while. It was worse with me. Add to that the fact that my first permanent party posting was in Germany, and it was a recipe for something terrible to happen.
The enlisted housing at Kaiserslautern was damned comfortable compared to the big bays I had gotten used to in basic and AIT. In a big bay, with ten or twelve guys, one bad snorer could ruin it for everyone – not a problem during training since we were always pretty exhausted, but with the regular work schedule of permanent party it could pose a problem. My roommate in K-Town was Spec Four Johnny Solano from El Paso. We shared a ‘Jack and Jill’ – or in our case ‘Jack and Jack’ (or ‘Jack, Jack, Jack and Jack,’ I guess) – latrine with Sergeant Rufus Settles from the Bronx (“You can never trust a motherfucker from Brooklyn,” he’d say about First Sergeant Young, who was from Brooklyn) and Spec Four Latrelle Terry from East St. Louis.
We would still need to pass inspections from time to time, but like me, Solano was over 21, so we had a refrigerator that was well-stocked with beer and pizza at all times. We worked hard all day – me typing memos and forms and Solano changing spark plugs in the motor pool – but pretty much every night we would relax and drink a few brews. On weekends it would get to be a wild time as we would change out of our fatigues and get some harder liquor at the Class Six store and have Settles, Terry and a few other friends over before we would all go out into the city.
“Noch ein bier, bitte,” we’d say over and over as we’d get drunker and drunker. They say German beer is much stronger than ours. Solano liked Pilsner beer. I became partial to Weissbier, which is a thick wheat beer popular from Bavaria. We would be feeling no pain by the time we caught a taxi back to post. Sometimes Settles and Terry would bring a couple of drunk frauleins back. Solano and I didn’t have the luck that they did. When we got back on post we’d head back to our suite, where we’d toss back a few more and swap stories. During the summer months, we’d keep the windows open. If a guy did something stupid, like spill on one of our chairs or just say something stupid, out the window he would go. We were on the second floor, but right below our window the S-4 supply guys kept about a dozen or so large duffle bags, which I assumed were GP Medium tents for when our company went to the field. So we’d throw the guy out the window as a joke, but he’d roll off the stack of duffle bags. He’d come back up a little banged up and sore but not too bad, so we’d all have a good laugh. Sometimes the guy would know he deserved it, other times he wouldn’t take it so well and be pissed, but he’d eventually get over it.
Then Private First Class Vercheraux (with the “aux” pronounced with a long O sound) showed up in the unit. He was a white guy from Louisiana somewhere. The kid had a hard core, nasally southern accent that grated every time he opened his mouth, which he did constantly, and he had a huge knobby head with an acne-scarred face. Settles and Terry took an instant disliking to him, probably because they were suspicious of the accent. I started disliking him when he arrived and declared himself to be a 46 Romeo, or public affairs specialist. I hadn’t known that was an option. If I had, maybe I would have done that instead of being a 71 Lima. Then this guy shows up and starts shooting his mouth off about how he’s going to be writing for Stars and Bars. Shit. I could have done that. I had completed way more college than this numbnut.
Vercheraux also bragged constantly about what a great soldier he was (“I can shoot a speck off a gnat’s eyelash at 200 yards”). And he bragged about the beautiful girlfriend he had back home, and he insisted on showing everyone pictures of her in a sweet sun dress – or maybe a confirmation dress – smiling sweetly. And she did look nice, which pissed me off even more since I didn’t have any girlfriend then. Plus that face and grating voice made him one of those guys you just want to hurt – but not kill, I promise.
And Vercheraux was always coming around, wondering what we were doing. He lived in the next suite down the hall, so he was too close already. We didn’t get weed often, but when we did we certainly didn’t want this creep narcing us to First Sergeant Young, who was about as hard-core anti-weed as a Vietnam veteran could be. We also just didn’t want him around in general. Settles and Terry didn’t want him turning off their girls. Solano and I didn’t want him disturbing our enjoyment of various Pilsners and Weissbiers. We all gave him the cold shoulder, but still he kept coming around.
“What ya’ll doin’? Playin’ cards? Ah’m pert’ good at card playin’,” he’d say. “Bet I can lick ya’ll in straight hands.”
Perhaps, in retrospect, I was seeing him wrong. Maybe he just wanted to be included. Maybe his needless bragging about Army stuff was a misguided effort to get us to like him. Maybe the girl in the picture wasn’t his girlfriend but his sister. Maybe he was just insecure and trying to impress us. Maybe he wasn’t even a racist. Maybe it was guilt by association. The black guys we knew who were from down south – Darlington and Smetters – were more patient with him. I guess they figured if he wasn’t actively calling them racial epithets or discriminating against them, which as a mere PFC he wasn’t in a position to do, they couldn’t be concerned about him. But none of us had any use for the guy. Solano used to say he “fit out,” which was the opposite of fitting in. We all tried to give him hints by acting rude and closing our doors in his face, but he just never got it. He didn’t pick up on those obvious cues.
So we finally decided to teach him a lesson. We said, fine, the next time you want to come over when we’re drinking, you’ll be welcome, but you’ve got to bring some rubbers and duct tape. He was a little curious what that might lead to, but he complied, bringing a box of Trojan lubricated condoms with him. “What in the world ya gonna do with these, make me stick ‘em up ma butt?”
“No, be patient young man,” Solano said. He was often the ringmaster for the events of Suite 21 Alpha. “You said you were really good at cards, so let’s play cards.” Solano filled several of the condoms up with water and left them on the table without saying anything more about them.
We played a few hands of a game I’d taught about him from a movie called “Bang the Drum Slowly.” The game was called Tegwar. Basically, you make the rules up as you go along, and they are always to the detriment of the rube you’re trying to take advantage of. We’d done some test runs on some guys and Solano had become a master of it. The trick is to lead the mark to believe that everyone plays the game, and if the new guy doesn’t know it he just doesn’t fit in. Then you proceed to teach him the game, constantly changing the rules to your advantage. Meanwhile, you’re getting the mark to drink heavily. It operates on the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ principle, where the mark is afraid of admitting something is wrong and calling it out for fear of looking like he is not one of the boys. It’s one of the tricks boys use to get other boys to join college fraternities.
Solano ran a great game that night , even letting Vercheraux win a couple hands as we played for pennies. He pretended to be surprised that Vercheraux was catching on so fast. “All right,” Solano said, “Vercheraux is catching on so fast, let’s raise the stakes in this match here. Next guy to come in last on a hand has to shove one of these condoms in his mouth, no questions asked.”
Vercheraux, perceiving he was catching on and doing as well as any of the others, laughed figuring he’d win and keep the condom out of his mouth – that certainly he wouldn’t be the last. “It ain’t going to be me,” he said. “All ya’ll yankees bitter git ta stretchin’ yer mouths out.” The plan was going perfectly. Convincing Vercheraux to do something stupid was like tricking Lenny from Of Mice and Men to off himself.
But alas, as Solano had planned, Vercheraux came in last on that next hand, inserted a water-filled, lubricated condom in his mouth, and then lost the next, and inserted another one, and the next as well. After Vercheraux had three condoms crammed (see, another “cr” word) into his mouth, Solano announced that the rules dictated that the loser’s mouth be duct taped shut. Vercheraux looked from one of us to the other. We could see he was starting to get agitated, but with three full condoms in his mouth we couldn’t tell at all what he was saying. Then with the duct tape he was even more inaudible.
We played another hand, which Vercheraux lost, and Solano announced the punishment for losing that hand would be defenestration. Vercheraux gave a blank look and shook his head. It occurred to me this was the clearest English I had ever heard him use. “Defenestration,” I explained, “was the practice of throwing someone or something out a window. In this case it will be someone.”
Vercheraux’s eyes got wide, his face got red and he shook his head violently. Then he started to try to run but hit his head on the lamp that was leaning over his chair. “Relax,” I said. “You’ll be fine.” He didn’t believe me and he shook his head incessantly. Settles, Terry, Solano and I were howling with laughter as we grabbed him and positioned him in front of the window, where we rocked him “One! … Two! … Three!” and out he went.
We were laughing hysterically as we sat back down, Solano and I on our beds and Settles and Terry in the chairs. “Did you see the look in that boy’s eyes,” Settles said, relieving our prank, expecting Vercheraux would be rejoining us in the room shortly, hopefully a little humbler and worse for the wear.
But he never came back up. Finally, wondering what happened, we stuck our heads out the window. The duffle bags with the GP Medium tents were no longer there. The supply guys had moved them somewhere. Maybe Vercheraux knew they had been moved. Maybe he had seen the S-4 section soldiers moving the equipment or even helped move the duffles himself. Maybe that’s why he was shaking his head and his eyes were so wild. Manslaughter is what the JAGs called it. We meant it as a joke. Believe me, we had wanted to hurt him, but nobody meant to kill him. He had crashed down on the pavement, with his head striking the jagged, cracked edge of the curb, piercing his skull and emptying its contents out into the road.
William Wilcox is an author and former newspaper writer who lives in the mountains surrounding Front Royal, Virginia.