Second Lieutenant Robert Johnson eyed me over a mountain of paperwork on his desk, a pained look on his face, as though he was having an attack of hemorrhoids. With his crooked nose, close-set eyes, and slouching posture, he looked like a vulture dressed in a green Army uniform.
“PFC Kevin Flynn,” he said, spitting out my name, and flipping through the contents of a folder. “That’s quite a record you’ve got. One would almost think you were a normal GI. Better than normal. Exemplary.”
“Exemplary,” he repeated. “That’s a big word, meaning good, really good.”
His eyes returned to the folder. “Highest physical training score. Superb marksmanship. You even went to college for a year.” He pointed at the folder. “Though it says here you don’t know when to keep your mouth shut. We’ll let that pass. There’s really only one major fly in your ointment. Conscientious objection.”
He tossed the folder on his desk. “Listen, Private, I’m going to talk frankly. I don’t give a rat’s ass about your application for conscientious objection. Make love, not war, I understand that. Girls say yes to boys who say no, right?” He grinned lasciviously. “You want out of the Army, that’s your business. It’s 1974. The Army doesn’t want anybody who doesn’t want us. You know what I do care about?”
“No, Sir,” I replied, honestly.
“My reputation,” he replied. “And right now, it sucks.” Johnson stared. “You know what I’m talking about?”
I shook my head in the negative.
“Are you aware that the payroll for Beta Company was robbed last Friday?”
“No kidding?” I replied.
“I don’t kid, Private. Some ding-dong dressed in civilian clothes with a black mask over his head walked out of the clear blue and pointed a pistol at me as I was getting ready to dole out the week’s pay. Right outside the barracks, on the sidewalk, 60 guys lined up to get their bread. He stuffed the whole payroll – $20,000 cash – in a bag and ran off, just like that. MP’s couldn’t find a trace of him. You know how that makes me look?”
“Not good,” I guessed.
“I’m just a lowly second Lieutenant. My daddy didn’t have the money to put me in West Point. I’ve had to earn my way. Reputation matters. Parker’s got my ass in a sling.”
I nodded in agreement, especially about the lowly part. Parker was Captain Parker, the bullet-headed, commanding officer of the company.
Johnson reached inside the drawer and brought out a .45 caliber pistol, the Army’s standard issue sidearm. It had a black metal slide and a tan grip. He plunked it on the desk.
We both stared at the weapon. I was about to ask him if he wanted me to shoot him. On some level, I wouldn’t have minded. But that wouldn’t have helped my CO application, among other things.
“You know how to fire one of these?”
I didn’t, though I’d fired everything else in this man’s Army – the M16 rifle, machine guns, grenades, shotguns.
He picked the weapon up. “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded. It’s really a thing of beauty. You insert the magazine under the grip” – he mimicked with his hands – “and push the thumb safety off. You have to cock the hammer but after the first shot it fires automatically. Point and shoot.” He pointed the pistol at the window, and pulled the trigger to the sound of a dull click.
I noticed his pistol was aimed at the Fort Sill Guardhouse, a one-story stone building across the road where Geronimo was held captive during the Indian Wars in Oklahoma in the 1870s.
“I need you to guard the payroll for AB number 2,” he said.
Administrative Barracks #2 was my home – the place where Fort Sill put the misfits it was thinking about throwing out. They were guys who’d either committed crimes since they joined – thieves, drug dealers – or had neglected to mention the crimes they’d committed before they joined. Murders, robberies, that kind of stuff. The Army didn’t know what to do with conscientious objectors, so it threw us into the mix as well, just to lighten things up.
I shook my head, shuffled my weight. “Lieutenant, under this CO thing, if I’m seen using a gun …“
“I know, I know,” he said, cutting me off with a wave of the hand. “COs don’t handle weapons blah, blah, blah. Listen Flynn, let me tell you something. Nobody is going to know or care who guards the payroll, so long as it doesn’t get robbed. And let me remind me you about one other thing. Which officer has to sign off on your CO application?”
“That would be you, Sir?“ I said.
“I think you know where this is going,” Johnson said.
“I believe I do,” I said. “I guess that year in college paid off. Why have me guard the payroll, though, out of everybody in the barracks?”
Johnson leaned back in the chair. “I need somebody I can trust around money. You may be screwed up in the head with all that hippie propaganda but at least you’re honest. You’re going to be my bodyguard. It sure as hell can’t be anyone else in that rats-nest of a barracks.”
I reflected that there was no shortage of candidates in Administrative Barracks # 2 who might’ve done the robbery.
“I don’t think one of your compatriots did the deed,” Johnson said, reading my mind. “I’d have recognized him. Even with the mask on.”
“You’ll help me, then?” he asked, tapping a finger on the desk.
I’d had done a lot of dumb things in my life, and I was only 25 years old. What was one more? “Yes, Sir,” I replied.
“Smart move. I thought you’d see the light. I’ll give you the pistol Monday, 3:00PM sharp, when we line up for payroll. And one more thing.”
I raised one eyebrow.
“Keep your eye peeled in the barracks. Just in case I’m missing something. Let me know if you hear something I might want to know.”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied. “Just wondering, though, aren’t the MPs investigating this?”
Johnson flipped one hand. “Sure they are. But if I find out something before they do, so much the better for me. We good to go?”
“I stopped thinking about ‘good’ ever since I joined the Army,” I replied, saluting.
Over the Geronimo House, the setting sun pasted an orange, red, and yellow tableau across the Oklahoma sky. The summer’s heat and humidity had mercifully passed, and I sucked in the freshest air I’d sampled in months. Either that or the hot air out of Johnson’s mouth had taken its toll on me.
I shook my head in wonderment that I’d gone along with Johnson’s request. I was sincere in my opposition to the Vietnam War. As to whether I was opposed to all wars, and all violence, which was a criteria for being a CO … I tried hard not to think about that part.
But there was also no doubt that I had a soft spot in my heart for authority. Ask me to fill in the 25 questions on the CO application, I’d answer to the last letter. Ask me to act as an armed guard for the barracks payroll, hell; I’d do that as well.
As I strolled past the Geronimo House, I was startled to see my roommate, Corporal Robert Stratton, emerge through the front door. He didn’t seem overjoyed to see me. He stared at his feet like he’d forgotten to flush the toilet.
“Hey,” I greeted. Stratton was a short, slender guy with lank black hair and pale skin. He looked like me except I was taller.
“What, are you on cleaning duty?” I asked.
He nodded affirmatively.
I’d done cleaning duty myself – one of the Army’s varied punishments for bad behavior – at the Geronimo House a couple times. The building made me feel sorry for the legendary Indian leader of yore. Upstairs, the place looked like the Little House on the Prairie with its wooden plank floor and white-washed walls. Downstairs, the basement made Dracula’s crypt look like a luxury suite, with its dank, moldy, four-foot thick concrete walls, broken flagstone floor, and the rusty, scarred old cell door with the narrow peephole. I figured Geronimo must’ve been one tough son-of-a bitch to have cooled his moccasins in that place. I’d have wanted to scalp a few soldiers myself after I got out.
“Captain Morgan got me in trouble, again,” Stratton said, as we stepped in tandem towards AB2.
Captain Morgan – the pirate on the label of Morgan’s Rum – was Stratton’s best buddy and inseparable companion.
Stratton was old, as far as the denizens of AB2 were concerned. He had to be pushing 30. He was the only resident who’d seen combat in Vietnam. When I heard he was going to be my roommate, I was happy. I often felt like a third grader surrounded by kindergartners. Stratton was closer to my age, a kindred soul, someone who could point the way forward for me. I soon found out the truth that older ain’t necessarily wiser.
“Where you coming from?” he asked.
“The Second Lieutenant’s office,” I replied.
“What were you doing there?”
I hadn’t told anyone in the barracks about my CO application, not being sure what they’d make of it. “He wants me to guard our payroll on Monday. You know there was a robbery, right? Beta Company’s payroll?”
“No shit,” he said.
“No shit,” I replied. “Seriously, you didn’t know that?”
“Seriously, I didn’t,” Stratton said.
“It’s a problem for me,” I said.
We clambered up the concrete stoop of the barracks.
AB2 was nothing more than a bunch of sturdy planks and walls painted gun-metal gray, laid on concrete blocks, and topped by an A-frame roof. Inside, 12 double-bunk beds on one side faced 12 beds on the other side. At one end of the hall, a latrine and showers; at the other, a private room, where Stratton and I each had a single bunk by virtue of our higher rank. Basically, the place looked like a bowling alley with bunk beds.
“What kind of problem?” he asked.
We sat on our respective cots. Stratton slipped out a flask of Captain Morgan’s rum. “Sip?” he asked.
I grabbed the flask and took a belt, ignoring the various social diseases I’d be acquiring. “You know what a conscientious objector is?” I asked, figuring my information was bound to come out sooner or later.
“A what?” he asked.
“Conscientious objector,” I repeated. “It’s someone who’s opposed to war. Usually for religious reasons.”
Stratton took a long swig of the flask. He frowned. “Why did you join the Army if you don’t like war?”
I laughed. “Damned if I know myself. Some kind of family compulsion. Granddaddy served in World War One, daddy in World War Two. I got bored with college and low-end jobs, so I figured, it’s time for me, and for Vietnam. Except now … I’ve got my doubts.”
Stratton took another swig, like he was on a mission to eliminate the presence of rum in the world. “College,” he said. “I couldn’t deal with all that book learning, though I wouldn’t have minded chasing those pretty girls. They don’t want to date us Army guys. We’re beneath them.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “What about ‘Nam? What did you do there?”
“I was in Intelligence,” he replied, to my surprise. I didn’t think of Stratton and intelligence in the same breath.
He drained the remainder of the Captain Morgan. “Wasn’t hard to get information out of the gooks, once you put them in the proper frame of mind.”
“You interrogated Viet Cong?”
“Hard to say who was Cong, and who wasn’t. Could get you killed trying to find out.”
“We’d take a group of ‘em up in the helicopter once we identified an actual VC. We’d go up about 5,000 feet, open the hatch door, and ask the ringleader a couple of questions. He didn’t answer to our satisfaction? We threw his ass out the ‘copter. After that, the others would sing like a bird.”
He shook his head, I couldn’t figure out if he was regretful or happily reminiscing.
“You threw people out of helicopters?”
“Sometimes we’d throw ‘em out, even when they did answer.”
“Shit happens, man, in war,” he said. He sucked on the empty bottle.
I made a spitting noise.
“Don’t go getting so high and mighty, just cuz you are a concy ob … whatever the hell you are.”
GIs told lots of tall tales, especially with the help of friends like Captain Morgan. Somehow I had the feeling that Stratton was not the tall-tale-telling kind of a guy.
I lay down on the bunk with my back turned so I wouldn’t have to look at my roommate.
In my sleep, I dreamed I was tumbling down a black hole, reaching out for something to grasp, when I felt a weight press onto my chest. Something sharp, something that was not-a-dream. I opened my eyes. The muzzle of a German shepherd poked into my face. I blinked, in disbelief, my heart dropping into my stomach. The shepherd’s front paws had me pinned to the bed. Its tongue lolled obscenely, showering me with flecks of spittle.
“Enough!” a voice called from somewhere. The beast was yanked off the bed by an MP, all spit and polish, who stood, leash in hand, by my wall locker.
Stratton perched on the edge of his bed, looking like the hung-over drunk he was. I sat up, summoning my racing heart to return to my chest.
The MP officer wore plastic gloves. Between his fingers he held a book – Gandhi’s Truth, a biography by Eric Erickson– that he’d pinched from underneath some of my clothes. He held it out like it was yesterday’s doggie bag. “This belong to you, Private?” he asked.
The Army prohibited personal reading material in the barracks. I guessed they thought our heads were so jammed up with regulations that no more knowledge would fit. Gandhi, on the other hand, had lots of knowledge. He was the Indian independence leader who advocated non-violence, a kind of poster guy for conscientious objectors.
“I can’t see that well,” I said. “From the dog drool in my eyes.”
The officer pitched the book into a nearby trash can.
From Stratton’s wall locker, he pulled out a dog-eared copy of Playboy magazine that had made its way around the barracks. He rolled it up and stuffed it in his back pocket.
“They were looking for drugs,” Stratton said, when the MP and his pet werewolf had departed.
I said nothing. I brushed off my t-shirt and wandered out into the main part of the barracks. Groups of GI’s lounged around, talking, except for California Mike, who stood to one side by himself. I figured the MP must’ve overlooked his copy of Playboy.
California Mike was a blond-haired surfer type from the Golden State who always had a grin on his face. I reckoned that he’d been swept up by a Pacific Ocean wave and deposited in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, only he was too stoned to have figured it out.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
He jerked his head in a skyward direction. I looked up at the rafters of the barracks, a questioning look on my face.
“Drugs,” Mike said. “That’s where we keep our stash. That’s what they were looking for.”
I understood the grin. I could’ve turned him in to the authorities, ratted him out, but what the hell.
“Maybe they were looking for the payroll money that’s missing,” I said.
“What payroll money?” he asked.
And so it went with my casual questioning of the other upstanding citizens of AB2 that morning. Nobody knew nothin’. And maybe they didn’t, I figured. Beta Company was a different company, after all, and it wasn’t like the Army to advertise its failures.
Sometimes to get at the truth, you have to take a round-about direction. I knew where my next destination would be.
Saturday was a day you did whatever you pleased. I made tracks for the city of Lawton, on the outskirts of Fort Sill. As there were no other transportation options, I set out on foot. I dressed for my trip in my best civilian gear: a long-sleeve, acrylic shirt with a stripe down the side – it looked like a disco shirt – and black pants.
I wasn’t sure what most of my fellow GIs did on Saturdays. The only thing I knew for certain was that they weren’t searching the trash can for Gandhi’s Truth.
As I strode down the sidewalk, an officer in uniform came towards me, head down and a scowl on his face, none other than Captain “Bud” Parker, commanding officer of the company.
I’d heard Parker had been a school teacher before joining the Army. I guessed he preferred yelling at grown men over kids. I’d never had contact with him though I knew about his reputation as a hard-ass.
“Flynn!” he barked. With no one else in sight, I could hardly deny my identity. I came to attention.
He put his hands on his hips and glared at me. I doubted he was admiring my disco clothes. With his square body, round head, and penetrating gaze, he was built like a linebacker, and looked like he was ready to tackle. There was nary a crease in his uniform and his Captain’s double bar gleamed in the afternoon’s sun.
“You’re 25 years old. You go to college for a year, you quit. You work dead-end jobs, you quit.” he said. “Then you join the Army, and now you want out again. Do you ever finish anything?” He spoke loud enough to wake Geronimo from his eternal slumber.
“Do you like your country?” he said, not giving me a chance to answer, a step closer, his voice a notch lower. His breath was at least as sweet as the German shepherd I’d encountered earlier. “Do you like the US of A?”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied.
“I don’t think you do, Private,” he said. “Your CO application is dripping with admiration for India and Gandhi.”
He came as close as close can be. “Did you know that Gandhi used to walk around in his underwear? You admire a guy like that?”
“Not so much the underwear part,” I replied. “But I do admire him.”
Parker’s eyes grew wide and his muscles twitched. I braced myself for a game-ending tackle.
Instead, he stepped back. “Something’s missing in your life, son,” he said. “Maybe it’s something you never had in the first place.” He shook his head, like he was looking for the something on the ground. He turned on his heels and walked away.
I brushed the residue of Parker’s grubby mitts off my shirt. I realized that he did know who I was, after all. As for the identity of the missing something … he had me on that one. Maybe he’d figure it out and let me know.
Lawton, Oklahoma, will not find itself on the “10 Best Places To Live” list anytime soon, not if the rest of the city looked like Fort Sill Boulevard, the main drag leading from the base into town. With its pawn shops, strip clubs, bars, and massage parlors, Lawton made Vegas look like a Mennonite retreat center.
At the epi-center of this GI libidinal paradise lay my destination: the Green Goose Bar. The Bar was owned by a retired drill instructor named Sergeant Poore, who should have been called Sgt. Pear, for his bottom-heavy body shape. Poore was a good-old boy from Georgia who had a knack for attracting vice. I figured if any place had word about the payroll robbery, it would be here.
No matter how bright the day outside, the Green Goose remained cloaked in shadows, which was all for the best. I didn’t necessarily want to know everything that went on inside.
I sauntered over to the bar, my feet making a sucking sound as I stepped through a spill of some sort, and a cloud of cigarette smoke. Selecting from a vast array of beer choices – Budweiser versus Miller – I was pleasantly surprised to see Susan, the Dark-Haired Beauty (I didn’t know her last name), at a corner table. Her two lady companions were so heavily bejeweled I thought they might be trying out as gypsy cheerleaders.
Not Susan the DHB, though. She didn’t need decoration, with her even, porcelain-like features, dark hair and eyelashes, and a body to give Captain Morgan a heart attack. Guys tripped over their own feet a lot at the Green Goose, usually from having too much to drink. Around Susan, they tripped naturally. I’d said hello to her in passing a few times previously.
I couldn’t figure out why she hung around the Green Goose, though. She was too clean-cut, too young and innocent.
I made my way to her table with a fistful of Budweisers. Her bejeweled buddies took the beer without a word of thanks, but Susan blessed me with a smile.
“Kevin Flynn?” I reminded her. “From the base?”
She looked doubtful.
“The guy with the nutty roommate?”
“Now I remember,” she said. “Have a seat.”
I pulled up a chair, feeling awkward. My artillery-shell arming skills were way more advanced than my social skills but as there were no shells about, I gave a stupid grin instead. “You remind me of someone,” I said.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “I get that a lot.”
“Really. My sister. You remind me of her. The dark hair and the blue eyes. Are you Irish by chance?”
“I really don’t know,” she said, sipping the beer. “Maybe. You must be Irish yourself, then, with your dark hair and light eyes.”
“I am,” I replied. “I’m from Boston.”
“Your sister,” Susan said. “Is she pretty?”
I felt the heat rush to my face. “She is,” I replied, “but not as pretty as you.” Fortunately, my pale skin was incapable of blushing.
Susan smiled. “Your roommate was here last night. Robert is his name, right?”
“He wanted to buy us a round of Captain Morgans. We said no, so he bought himself a round. We couldn’t get rid of him.”
“That was definitely my roommate.”
“He told us all about the payroll robbery on the base. Said it was the most exciting thing that had happened in months.”
I shrugged. “He only knows about it because I told him.”
“It’s hard to believe,” Susan said, “that the Army got robbed. Aren’t you guys supposed to be protecting the rest of us?”
“You’d be surprised what goes on in the Army,” I said, taking a swig of the Budweiser. “But, yeah, it’s embarrassing.”
“Your roommate said that Geronimo has the money,” Susan said.
“He says a lot of things, and most of them don’t make sense. The ones that do, you don’t want to know about. Speaking of knowing, have you heard anyone else talking about the robbery?”
“No,” she replied.
I wondered if she was telling me the truth though, upon reflection, I couldn’t think of any reason she would lie. I excused myself to use the bathroom, which turned out to be a big mistake. When I returned, Susan and her buddies were surrounded by a bunch of my short-haired colleagues.
Susan seemed to have forgotten all about me. I tried to catch her eye through the sea of GI Joes. I waved, I grinned – let’s you and I get away from all this mess and get to know each other better – to no avail.
It seemed my romantic aspirations were heading for shipwreck. So I cruised back to the bar to drown my sorrows and re-set my course. I spent the next hour in vain, asking around about the payroll robbery, before I finally set sail for home.
I spent Monday the same way I passed every week day: teaching trainees how to arm artillery projectiles so they could be loaded into the muzzles of SP-109 artillery tracks, and fired into the dirt 20 miles away. If you were looking for instruction in useful, post-military-career skills, I was the wrong guy to talk to.
At 2:30PM, I sauntered up – I figured walking slowly would dampen my nervousness – to the card table that Lt. Johnson had set up on the sidewalk outside of AB2. A metal strong box lay on the table along with a pile of papers. I assumed the box held the weekly pay for AB2. Johnson turned his crooked beak in my direction.
“Well, what did you find out?” he asked.
Overhead, a pale blue sky stretched across the Oklahoma landscape. The clouds were so high, it looked as though they’d decided to leave the Fort Sill area altogether. Or maybe they knew something was about to happen.
“Nothing,” I said. “Nobody knows nothing.”
“What good are you?” he mumbled. He plunked the .45 pistol on the card table. “Here. Take the pistol and do something useful. Stand behind me about 20 feet and get ready.”
Already the guys from AB2 were lining the sidewalk for their cash. I guessed the Green Goose was having an early Happy Hour. I stood halfway between the barracks and the card table, feet wide. I pushed off the safety button, held my arm in the goal-post position, pistol pointing skyward. My pulse started to pump, too, like maybe it was anticipating a date with Susan, the Dark-Haired Beauty.
I settled into my stance, glanced skyward, and wondered whether I really could shoot someone. A few minutes into that thought, a blur of movement and color attracted my attention from the corner of my eye. The Army may have to start manufacturing diapers for payroll guards, for what happened next. I almost peed my pants when a guy dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, a black mask around his face, stepped around the corner of the barracks and pointed a pistol at me.
“Drop the pistol!” he yelled, as he staggered toward me.
He didn’t have to tell me twice. I fell to one knee, let the weapon fall, and raised both hands in the air. At the same time, Lt. Johnson swiveled in his chair towards the approaching assailant, raising his hands as well.
“The money, the money!” the masked man said, waving the weapon in Johnson’s face, and pointing at the strong box. The robber had turned his back to me while I was still on one knee, my pistol within easy reach.
Call me brave, call me stupid, maybe a combination. Point and shoot. I picked up the pistol, aimed it at the robber, and putting aside my rational brain, squeezed the trigger.
A tremendous boom echoed off the barracks. The assailant leaped into the air, his pistol flying. He pirouetted, like he was trying out for the Fort Sill Ballet team. He fell to the ground, writhing and moaning.
For an instant, I stood frozen. There was no need to calm my racing heart as it had already left my chest. I ran up to the robber. I’d aimed for his legs, but he was gripping his stomach. Blood had pooled across his Hawaiian shirt and onto his fingers. The smell of rum was all over the place. His mask had pushed up his face. I stared into the contorted features of my roommate, Cpl. Robert Stratton.
“He told me you wouldn’t shoot,” he mumbled between gasps.
An instant later, Lt. Johnson rushed to my side and grabbed my pistol. “Get back!” he yelled, “Get everyone back inside the barracks!”
It was a good thing that Johnson gave me an order, because I needed direction at that moment.
For the next few hours, I was more popular than a bottle of Budweiser at a Green Goose Happy Hour. Rows of MP’s and other officers – including bullet-headed Captain Parker – lined up to ask me the same questions over and over again.
I said nothing about what Stratton had said to me. I needed something to chew on. Or maybe I was just slipping away into my own little world. The words and music to the maudlin Marty Robbins country & western song, El Paso – about a jealous cowboy who shoots a stranger in cold blood – kept reverberating though my head … in less than a heartbeat, the handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor. Just for a moment I stood there in silence, shocked by the foul, evil deed I had done…
Stratton wasn’t dead, I was told, but unconscious and in critical condition, and he was no handsome stranger. Still, I felt soiled.
It was probably a good thing nobody was around when I returned to the barracks. There was something I felt compelled to do, and it had to be done under cover of darkness.
After shooting Stratton earlier in the day, I figured that breaking into the Geronimo House would be no big deal. Still, I was surprised how wobbly my legs felt as I skulked around the rear of the building, which unlike the front entrance, was shrouded in darkness. It took me twenty minutes of jimmying the back window before I could pull myself up and inside.
I wished I hadn’t thought of the Geronimo House basement as Dracula’s crypt because the place really did look like the setting of a horror movie. It was pitch black and stank of mold and uninvited things. I couldn’t risk putting the lights on.
“Hello?” I whispered, which was a damned stupid thing to say. Still, I felt re-assured when nobody with a Transylvanian accent answered. I crept down the stairs and along the corridor, using my hands as a guide, until I reached the rough wooden door to Geronimo’s cell. I squeezed inside.
A weak light came in through the tiny, barred window mounted high on the wall. Not much, but I was happy for it. I dropped to my knees, and began prying up the looser of the flagstones, and feeling underneath. After thirty minutes I came up with nothing but dirty fingernails and a couple of worms. I might’ve heard the faint echo of Geronimo’s laughter somewhere in my head.
I sat against the wall to take a breather. It had, as they say, been a long day.
It was then that I felt that the wall at my back was uneven. Further investigation revealed a loose block, which I proceeded to shimmy out of the wall. I stuck my hand in the cavity and – what do you know – pulled out a heavy plastic bag. Even in the half-light I could see that the bag was crammed with cash.
I didn’t have much time to revel in my sleuthing success, however, because in the next moment the door to the cell flew open and the room flooded with harsh light. Two MP’s burst into the room, their pistols leveled at me. In addition to needing a fresh diaper, I quickly raised my hands for the second time that day.
A moment later, Captain Bud Parker stepped into the room, his bald head gleaming under the bare bulb. Lt. Johnson peered over the Captain’s shoulder. Parker looked at me, and looked at the stash of money in my lap. He grinned.
“Gotcha,” he said.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is the Army’s maximum-security prison. That’s where the baddest of the bad, the meanest of the mofos, go after being convicted of crimes while in the service.
I hadn’t gone there. At least not yet. But according to my military correctional officer – a charming and sophisticated gentleman I nicknamed ‘Brutus’ – it would be my next destination.
Brutus stood well over six feet and 250 pounds. One side of his lip curled in a sneer that seemed to be permanently etched upon his face. I figured that in civilian life he’d had a job as Frankenstein’s valet, only he’d been fired for misbehavior. My backside still ached from where he’d kicked me upon my entrance to my new home-away-from home, the holding cells at Fort Sill.
After being arrested at the Geronimo House, I’d been stripped, disinfected, thoroughly investigated, and thereafter kept in isolation. Apparently the Army was concerned I might be a bad influence on the other prisoners. Brutus let me know I was entitled to one book so I asked if he could get me a copy of Gandhi’s Truth, to no avail.
I spent a good deal of time swabbing the cells and toilets in the jail facility, which was the highlight of my day. It beat counting the flowers on the wall in my 8’ by 10’ cell, especially since the walls were painted white.
My trial was set in two weeks. I faced charges of attempted murder, and that was just the beginning. It was also alleged that I’d conspired with my roommate to rob the Beta Company payroll, putting the cash in Geronimo’s keeping until things cooled down. My roommate and I had plotted to nab the AB2 payroll as well, only I’d got cold feet. I’d volunteered to be a payroll guard so I could silence him forever and keep all the cash for myself.
In short, I made Brutus look like a nunnery’s star recruit.
The Army’s information had come from Lt. Johnson. He had been very helpful, pointing the authorities in my direction, convincing them to tail me to the Geronimo House.
Naturally, I pointed the finger back at Lt. Johnson. I explained how Stratton’s remarks to Susan the DHB (“Geronimo’s got the money”) led me to the House. When Stratton blurted out that “he told me you wouldn’t shoot back,” he could only have been referring to Lt. Johnson who, after all, was the only person other than Stratton who knew about my upcoming role as payroll guard. In short, Lt. Johnson was using my idiot roommate to commit robberies. Johnson recruited me as a payroll guard because he figured that as a CO, I’d never shoot Cpl. Stratton. When I did, he put the blame on me.
“You got a great imagination,” Brutus laughed, when, desperate for conversation, I explained my theory. My military-appointed attorney hailed from the Brutus School of Thought as well, sharing the thought that like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I would soon be skipping my way down the back roads of Kansas to hang out with the over-sized munchkins at Fort Leavenworth.
The problem was that I had no evidence to support my contentions. Stratton was in critical condition and too ill to talk and Susan was nowhere to be found. It was my word – an AB2 denizen and a conscientious objector who shot people on the side – against that of a career officer. Game. Set. Match.
I didn’t give up easily. I contacted the Center for Conscientious Objectors, a national non-profit that provided legal assistance to CO’s in hot water. In my telephone interview, when I got to the part where I’d plugged my roommate with a .45 caliber pistol, the conversation got chilly.
The Center promised to give my case some thought, and get back to me.
Things turned even colder after that.
Captain Bud Parker showed up in my cell a few days before my trial. I figured he planned to wish me well on my next career or perhaps reminisce about Gandhi’s underpants. It turned out he came for neither.
“You’re free to go,” he told me.
For once, I was at a loss for words, though my thoughts immediately went to the Bonnie & Clyde movie, where the cops were constantly itching for a way to drill the gangster duo like a piece of Swiss cheese.
“Free to go,” I mumbled, imagining Brutus outside with a machine gun, thinking about that same Hollywood movie.
“Sit down,” Parker said, motioning to the bunk bed. He leaned against the wall.
“I think better when I’m on my toes. Sir,” I replied.
“Suit yourself. Cpl. Stratton came out of his coma five days ago. The threat of a long Leavenworth life made him nervous. He started singing like a jaybird. He says Lt. Johnson talked him into robbing the Beta payroll, and hiding the money until things cooled down. Same plan with the AB2 payroll, except you got in the way. So we secretly monitored Johnson while he paid a social visit to his buddy, the Corporal, in the hospital. Johnson was not a fan of the corporal’s music. In fact, he tried to cut it off forever. We had to stop him from suffocating his former partner with a pillow.”
“What do you know,” I said.
“We didn’t know much,” Parker replied. “And for that, the Army owes you an apology. A big one. We goofed. Naturally, your arrest will be expunged and you’ll be paid for lost time. You’ll also receive a letter of commendation for your bravery in stopping the robbery.” Parker shrugged. “You got a lot of balls, Flynn. I misjudged you.”
“But the CO thing,” he continued. “No way the Army brass is going to sign off on that after you shot a guy, even a guy who deserved it.”
I was silent. I’d already figured that part out.
“You could get 1A status, though. You know what that means, right? You finish your commitment to serve, but you’re excused from bearing arms. No Vietnam.”
I knew about 1A status, but hadn’t paid it much attention. “So … you’re saying I’d stay in the Army?”
“What if I get a lawyer to sue you and the military, instead?” I said, clenching my fists. “False arrest, abuse. That kind of thing.”
Captain Parker sighed. “I know you’re angry, I don’t blame you and, yeah, you could do that, or something like it. Is that where you want to put your energies in life? That’s a negative thing. What about a positive direction?” Parker began to pace about the narrow cell. “Look, Flynn, what I’m saying is that the Army could use a guy like you. We’ve been through hell with the Vietnam War, and all the problems it brought with it.”
“Somehow I don’t think you’ll have trouble finding another pretty face to arm artillery shells,” I said.
Parker shook his head. “Not what I had in mind. You’ve shown initiative and a nose for detail. You could do any number of jobs in the Army, including being an investigator yourself. Working for the MP’s. There might be an opening in that department, if you’re interested.”
“I’m serious,” Parker said.
I laughed again, only a little less.
“Think it over, Private. Take a week’s leave. When you come back, report to me personally. We’ll talk more.”
Humph, I mumbled, which was my way of saying I’ll give it some thought.
I turned to gather up my things, only I realized I didn’t have anything except myself.
Brutus seemed sad to see me leaving. I understood. Captain Parker was the only one left in the cell block, and he was no fun to play with.
“What about Johnson and Stratton?” I asked Parker on the way out. “What happens with them?”
“Same thing that was about to happen to you,” Parker replied. “Except I’d like you to be the star prosecution witness at their trial. Can I count on your cooperation?”
I nodded in the affirmative, a slow, measured movement of the head, an okay, I’m on your team but let’s not get too chummy too fast kind of nod.
Parker smiled. “That’s a start, isn’t it?”
Humph, I replied again, after a moment’s reflection.
Dennis Desmond is an attorney living in the Washington, DC area with his wife and daughter. He received his BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his JD from Antioch School of Law. He is a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and was a contributing author to Pipe Dream Blues by Clarence Lusane (South End Press, 1991). In addition to writing, his other interests include foreign languages and playing basketball.