by Thomas Healy
On a dark, cold Monday morning I began my first real work day in the military. Quite appropriately, as it turned out, I spent it waiting in lines-all sorts of lines, of all sizes and shapes and purposes. And each one, so it seemed, was just as long, just as empty, and just as frustrating. Yet there was nothing I could do but stand in them and wait.
Out on a flat, vacant parking lot behind one of the office buildings, I and several hundred others waited first for our military Class A haircuts. The early morning air was cool and slightly humid. In place of my jacket and longsleeve shirt, I wore an old navy blue sweatshirt that was cut off at the elbows, and, after a few minutes of standing perfectly still, my arms started to become cold, as if my veins had suddenly been opened, and so for the rest of the wait, at changing intervals, I spent my time rubbing them to keep warm. I worked diligently, Since our main preoccupation was to destroy time, this seemed to be as good a way as any to achieve that goal. Others talked. Some talked about home, some about the military, and several made clear their feelings about having to wait in the cold and dark like small children.
The person ahead of me, a tall young man with a long, ruddy, horselike face, pale bulging eyes, and a large toothy mouth, spoke openly to me and several others of his anxiety the first two days at Fort Polk. He spoke quickly and excitedly, with abrupt shifts in thought. “God, I’ve never been so scared in my life as I was that first day,” he gasped, tearing his fingers across his forehead. “I didn’t know a soul, and I always seemed to be running into someone who was screaming at me to get moving or to get working on something. And it was so goddamn hot. Hell, I sat in the movie house all day Sunday and watched the same damn film four times in a row. But I didn’t care. It was air-conditioned inside and no one was there yelling at me.” He gripped me hard on my right shoulder and rattled me, smiling wildly. “All I wanted to do was talk to my wife. I got up before five o’clock yesterday so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. When I heard her voice, I forgot all about this place and thought I was home again, right next to her, and for the next fifteen minutes I never thought of being in the Army. I was home!”
“Knock off the talking!” hissed a small, portly man with a dark armband wrapped around his left forearm, which identified him as a platoon leader, not of the platoon I was in, but of one of the others. It was his job to patrol the line and keep it reasonably quiet and reasonably straight. He walked right past us, without even pausing in his crisp, clean stride. As soon as he left, the tall young man in front of me immediately began to go on about his wife and his fears. But I paid less attention to him this time, only catching a few words now and then. He did not seem to notice, though, because he continued to speak at the same rapid, excited pace. Like Nim, he was a person who preferred talking to listening, and the sort who always assumed he had an audience for his words and emotions, so I ignored him without feeling in the slightest way discourteous. Minutes later, the short, heavyset Italian sauntered toward where I was standing in line, found Nim, who was a couple of steps in front of me, and stretched out his hand. Quickly his eyes dropped, and so did mine. The pocket of his large, pink hand was filled with a small gray egg-shaped rock. “Look at this!” he said, in a slow, important-sounding voice. “A sex stone!”
Everyone had quizzical expressions on their faces and seemed to be more than slightly dumbfounded by his statement. A few smiled politely, most just stared.”What’s that?” muttered Nim, after a second or two of pure silence. The Italian grinned. “A fuckin’ rock. I just dug it up.”A sudden burst of laughter broke through the line, jarring its stillness for a minute. Several people laughed very hard and very loud, clapping their hands together and holding their sides. Smiling, the Italian tossed the rock up into the air, caught it in one hand, and walked on, apparently to try his trick on someone else. Nim went in the opposite direction, eager to tell others of the joke. Shortly, another platoon leader came by and told us to quit talking. We did, till he left, then we quickly started up again, killing time like trained professionals. After a little while, I began to hear strange voices. Several, I thought. Like those of small children shouting on a playground. I held my breath and listened closely. A slow, whispery sound cut through the dark blue air, like a sudden gust of wind. It came, I though, from in back of us, from somewhere in the area of the woods located behind the parking lot. Gradually, it increased in volume till it pierced through the trees cleanly, shockingly, striking deep into my ears.
“Oh, here we go,
We’re at it agin.
We’re movin’ out,
We’re movin’ in.
We’re on our way,
We’re gonna kill,
Old Charlie Cong.”
And so it went, on and on-loud, clear, and invisible like the long, slow cry of a train passing through the night. “Jesus!” Nim cried, “listen to that.”
“It must be troops heading for Vietnam.”
“It kinda chills the blood.”
I shook my head in agreement. “It does. And it also gives one a clearer sense of why we’re here than any speech could.” Saying this, I began to think more carefully about the unusual meaning and tone and emotion and lyrics of the song; how it was designed to excite one’s passions and stir in one a furious desire for sudden action. Also it made it clear that, in the military, the demonic quality of man was to be encouraged, sanctioned, cultivated, and employed. Rational argument and persuasion were declared unnecessary in attaining military goals, the song suggested, because it was recognized that, in general, men bleed for passion not for reason. And, I was afraid, such an analysis of human behavior was probably very, very accurate.
Slowly the sound of the marching soldiers faded to faint echoes then to nothing. And, once again, the air became silent and still. Once the light broke through, with the sun looking like a great orange-white stone against the pale, milky sky, the line began to move. And, within a few minutes, I found myself on the steps of the building I had been standing in front of, right next to a spinning red-and-white barber pole and then, a minute or so later, inside the shop. I paid no money but was handed a tiny brown slip of paper that notified me that I owed the shop the cost of one haircut. I stood against the wall with Nim and the others and waited for a vacancy. The floor was sprinkled with small piles of bushy brown, black, and blond hairs. I kicked at one of the piles with my toe, shaking the hairs loose from their unity and scattering them all over.
“Next!” one of the barbers shouted, and before I realized it I was in his chair, with an oily, pinstriped sheet wrapped around me like a jacket. The man said nothing to me, just pulled the sheet tight around my neck and switched on his powerful-looking electric razor. Instantly I felt the instrument’s warm metal blades pressed against the back of my neck then shoved straight up in a hard, rough motion toward my crown. Waiting, I began to count to myself-1000 … 1001 … 1002 …1003 … 1004 … 1005 …1006 … 1007. Abruptly, then, the ragged razor was yanked from my skull and the sheet ripped off.
“Next!” the barber said in a low, expressionless voice. I got up quickly and walked away. As I did, I came to a mirror and stopped in horror. I knew my eyes were pointed directly at the center portion of the long, wall-length mirror in front of me, but what I saw was not me, but a round, ugly, bony head, bleached white and very large like the end piece of some enormous prehistoric fossil. My scalp was sheared to the bone, not a speck of hair existed anywhere. My eyebrows were dark and bushy and now appeared to be like two thick walrus mustaches pasted side by side across the middle of my forehead. Shocked, I rushed out the door, delicately and disbelievingly touching my fingertips across my raw skull.
Outside, everyone was laughing in nervous, uneasy tones. Those waiting to go into the barber shop laughed at those coming out, and those coming out laughed just as hard at those waiting to go in. I hurried down the steps, stopped, and brushed the loose hairs off my back and neck. Nim came out behind me and, as I stared at him, I had the strange feeling I had to shake his hand, reintroduce myself, and get to know him all over again, because with his gleaming, pure white head he looked like an entirely different person. He approached me hesitantly.
“Christ, look what they’ve done!” he stammered bitterly, standing in front of me like a prisoner, with his hands clasped around the back of his great shaven crown. “We look like two huge ostrich eggs.”
For several seconds, our eyes focused searchingly on the new white skin of our heads. Then the Italians came out screaming, the short, heavyset one held a handful of his curly, black hair in his fist and waved it madly above his head, which, in the half light of the morning sun, shone like a white ball of liquidy glass. “He let me keep it!” he shouted crazily. “He said I could have all I wanted.” He raised his fist directly above the center of his head, opened it, and smeared the loose, dark hairs all across it, laughing frantically.
“You people,” snapped one of the platoon leaders, waving a long, straight arm, “get on over here.” Quickly we walked toward him, crossing the gravel and grass to the next building. Curiously I turned around and glanced at the other scalped people coming out of the shop. They all looked exactly alike, I thought, as if they were no more than identical parts to some machine, their only difference being the color and style of their clothing.