“America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956.” – Allen Ginsberg ‘America’.
You get no love, you should know that much.
In my first barracks room, at the end of a 2nd-floor hallway: outside the window, a pine tree, swept by the wind in spring, suffered the heat of summer, caught rain in autumn, trapped snowflakes in winter.
On my first or second night there, a week before Christmas, folding sweaters, arranging my underwear in an old wooden dresser; pressing my uniforms alone.
That time seems very tender and naïve now.
The barracks itself must have dated back to the 1940s. I can only provide features of it. Hard rubberized stair treads; a roommate you never really got to know and a latrine down the hall shared by everyone on the floor (three shower stalls; three of everything you’d find in a bathroom); “EXIT” signs in red neon near the stairs; a fire extinguisher hung in the hallway; no one would have called it ‘home’ but that’s what we returned to every night after the duty day was done.
I lived here for three complete (and one partial), season(s) of the dryest year of my life; the room had a duct over the door which struggled to bring in heat. No AC in the summer. There was a metal locker in one corner and someone long ago had scribbled graffiti on the inside of it: FIGMO 68′ (FIGMO = F**K IT, GOT MY ORDERS).
It conjured up images of that year (Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy).
It made me think, amongst other things, of the 4th grade; because that’s where I was, in 1968.
There was loneliness, there was mourning; there was homesickness and $183.70 paid every two weeks. There was a laundry room. First come, first served, free of charge; if the washers worked, the dryers didn’t; or vice-versa (frequently, nothing worked). The linen closet, where you could exchange used sheets and pillowcases for fresh ones; plus itchy wool blankets which seemed better suited for horses. They came in one color (drab green) emblazoned with a circled “U.S.” in faded black ink.
Walking became a daily pastime; which yielded its own unique pleasures, for example, a long sidewalk that stretched over towards the base Hospital. In a slight drizzle, I had it all to myself one gray December day, carrying my records over for the medical staff to file. A bare circle of Earth, supporting an acorn tree which grew amongst the thinnest of grass, somehow free of dandelions or other weeds to disturb its perfectness. Here and there, mud puddles; I once thought, if I were to sit in a mud puddle in the rain, in full uniform, making mudpies, if someone wouldn’t come by and take me away.
We were taught also; not to be drunk too often, that black people should not be treated differently than whites, that the Army did not tolerate drug abuse, and that we could save about $30 if we bought the cheaper stereo systems without Dolby processing.
I took a pledge: to live on one dollar a day. It was possible; it was very possible.
Evenings at the chow hall (“Dining Facility” or “DFAC” in today’s parlance) I carried off a styrofoam tray laden with two cheeseburgers, fries, a mountain of chili and a pint of Hi-C. Plus a plastic fork, all for the princely sum of twenty cents. No Internet or cell phones in those days; a pack of cigarettes, at the military rate, was 50 cents. For breakfast, I kept a box of Cheerios in the room along with a carton of usually souring milk. No utility bills, no rent, no car payment. It was more than survival; more than solitude. In the meantime I crossed out the days on a paper government calendar (a quality blind-made product), marking red X’s thru the long days of each and every month.
This also made me sad, and lonely.
Yet I could lay in bed on weekends as late as I wanted; I could read Democratic Vistas or Letter to the Ephesians. I could stock our aging fridge with cans of Coke and frozen dinners from the Commissary.
I could walk over to the library.
I could look out at the forlorn pine and weep with it.