Part 04, Chapters 11-20
Part 4, Chapter 11
“Kill ! . . . Kill ! . . . Kill ! . . . Kill !”
–Words U.S. Army basic trainees were required to scream, at the top of their voices, during bayonet practice at the time of the Vietnam War
It was the middle of August. The trip across Texas was again long and hot and tiring, but he was able to stand it because he believed he was at last actually going somewhere.
Surely, he thought, there had to be some deeper meaning to what he was doing. The apparent pointlessness of it all was only an illusion. He told himself, with a kind of desperation that many will consider childish, that the time would come when he’d be able to use all of the “experience” he was gaining.
At the same time, he argued with himself. On the one hand, of course it was painful not to be using his mind, not to be studying literature, but what he was doing at that moment must ultimately have some deeper importance even than literature. If someone had asked him, though, what that importance might be, he would have been at a loss to explain. The only thing he might have responded was that this was life as people really lived it, and he was certain that this was much more valuable than anything he could learn from books.
Years later he would think that in a way it was true that what he was doing had some deeper significance, but not quite the way he thought it did at the time. He never really thought then about a fact that he would try to grasp much later. In a way that many would call delusional, he would in the future believe that everything we suffer has the potential of bringing us closer to the one David believed had made us and sustains our existence. In the army, though, he never thought about such things, even though he had once wanted — or thought he wanted — to spend his life searching for them.
Perhaps one difficulty was that he had never understood something that he would believe only when he was older: that if there really is some divine element in the universe, that element — or that person — is to be found in the humility of the very pain he was experiencing at that time in his life. He had always expected to find it — that divine element or that divinity — elsewhere, for example in the ecstasy — real or imagined — of some mystical experience. Of course all that sounds ridiculous to many people, but in order to understand young men like David, this apparently ridiculous element in their thinking has to be examined and taken into account.
The period of basic training in the Army, needless to say, was not exactly a time of mystical experiences for David. Joining the Army meant finding himself in the kind of situation where he would have to be with people he’d always thought of as boring. At first, the whole atmosphere of the military pressed down on him like some oppressive, deadening weight. That at least was something he could deal with, though, he told himself. He hadn’t been able to deal with the strange ideas that were tormenting him at Harvard — and which now were mercifully gone — but he knew he could deal with what felt like the tremendous weight of the Army, already pressing down on his spirit.
In the future, in the Army, there’d be no intellectual excitement, no intoxicating discussions, like the ones that had gone on for hours at Harvard. So, he put aside his beliefs and ideals and decided that the only way he could survive in the Army was to continue doing what he’d already started to do: to try to believe there was the possibility of some kind of an adventure, and the possibility that he would learn to be a man. Thoughts of sacrifice or ultimate meaning or experiences of something transcendent now disappeared completely. They seemed to be erased from his mind, at least for the time being.
There’d be precious little time to think about anything except the Army. All his conscious hopes became more and more focused on the Army. He knew he would probably think about other things only when he went to Mass. For the most part, the Army would become the limits of his world. He was resigned to that.
When the bus arrived at Fort Polk and he looked at the people around him, they at first seemed so oppressively dull that he felt as though he had to make everything he said to them sound as simple as possible, just to make himself understood. No time there for the endlessly complex thoughts and sentences of a Harvard undergraduate. But that too, he told himself, was part of the adventure.
There was another compensation, too, for all he’d lost. The rough world of an Army barracks, so unlike the world of isolation he’d found or made at Harvard, seemed to promise to fulfill the hunger for companionship he now realized he felt. Here in the Army he was just like everyone else, and no one was sending him unspoken messages about greatness or evil or about anything else whenever he heard them talk.
So the world of the Army, he said to himself, is part of the adventure. The young man in him that needed physical action and testing felt drawn to that world by instinct. His poor mother had tried so hard to monopolize his life and to extinguish that part of him, and for a time she had succeeded. He still was not very interested in sports, but he knew there would be sheer enjoyment in all of the sport-like activities in the Army. In spite of the repugnance the thought of the Army had always filled him with, he discovered that perhaps it really was something like the Army that he’d been wanting and needing. It was a kind of complement to his longing for the intellectual life.
As for most of the other young men he was with, if he’d met them at any other time in his life, he would have described them as crude and uneducated adolescents from the southwestern and Gulf states. As soon as he started living with them, though, he realized that a description like that didn’t quite fit.
At some other time in his life he might have found them intolerably boring, perhaps even repulsive, but he’d been so alone for so long, and they were so different from anyone he had known at Harvard, that he was curious about them and felt drawn to something wild and uncivilized that he saw in them.
He knew that in a way he was invisible to them, because there was nothing about his background or his experience or his education that they could understand. Perhaps he liked them all the more for that. Whoever he might be, they accepted him and seemed to like him.
They could have no understanding at all of the intellectual and spiritual world that had shaped so much of his thinking. To them he was someone just like themselves, and they treated him no differently from the way they treated one another, so that he felt, in a way, as if he were one of them.
This too was a new experience for him, because at Harvard, where he should have felt most at home, he had always felt — paradoxically — that people were treating him as some kind of oddity, almost as a freak, someone who was very different indeed from themselves, far more different, in fact, than these young Army roughnecks were from Harvard students.
He couldn’t understand that paradox, but he couldn’t spend much time trying to understand it. He had other things he had to deal with, even though he found that the Army was much less painful than he’d expected. It was, in fact, hardly painful at all. The shock of it acted like an anesthetic, an anesthetic that dulled not only the pain of the Army itself, but the pain of Harvard as well, and the pain that all his strange ideas had caused him there.
The Army, unfortunately, also began the long process of dulling his mind, for without the stimulus of intellectual pursuits and of people who had educated, lively minds, he felt the activity of his own mind being gradually slowed and pulled down to a lower level. If years of such an experience do represent a kind of tragedy in the lives of some young men, this intellectual deterioration is probably the worst part of it.
That seemed to David a reasonable price to pay, though, at least at first, in order to get what he wanted. He was determined to be sane, to be a man, to kill in himself once and for all the temptation to think the kind of strange thoughts that had preoccupied him at Harvard.
In the end, he probably succeeded in doing that.
Part 4, Chapter 12
“…(A)nd, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Romeo and Juliet
During the first few days in the reception center at Fort Polk, before he was assigned to a basic training company, he took a kind of self-destructive delight in this new — at least for him — Army life. It seemed almost to be taking place in another universe from the one Harvard existed in. He even seemed to find a certain enjoyment in the physical discomforts he was confronted with, like having to sleep in hot, humid, crowded barracks, and losing himself in the mediocre mass dressed in ill-fitting Army fatigue uniforms.
They were sent to take some aptitude tests, to determine what kind of group they’d be assigned to, what exactly their duties in the Army would be. David decided beforehand that he would answer every question in a way that would show that he was, more than anything else, tough and aggressive. Although people had told him that that kind of thing was impossible to do, because responses to such tests can supposedly never be faked, he seems to have succeeded. Or perhaps certain amount of toughness and aggressiveness really were elements in his personality — and would always remain so. As things turned out, after the tests he was assigned to a platoon of forty-three trainees, forty-one of whom had enlisted in the regular Army for four years and volunteered for brutally difficult airborne training — they would become paratroopers.
At an earlier time in his life, David would have felt threatened by this rough, wild group of young men. They were, however, so concerned with having to cope with the confusing newness of Army life themselves that just like the recruits he’d encountered earlier, they didn’t notice any difference at all between themselves and him. They were certainly in no position to make him feel threatened in any way. The fact that he’d gone to Harvard — things like that become known among a group of young men living under those conditions — was of no importance to any of them, certainly not in comparison with all the facts of life they had to master in order to survive as basic trainees in the Army. It was even a relief to him to discover that most of them had never even heard of Harvard, or knew what Harvard meant.
One of the greatest surprises he had, though, was that he had no trouble meeting the physical demands the Army made of him, no difficulty at all doing what he was expected to do. In some weird way he actually seemed to fit in. Perhaps the reason was that a young man had to be a little strange and wild to volunteer for airborne training, and since practically every one of them had volunteered for that training, each of them was, in his own peculiar way, a misfit. David was just one more misfit among many.
Whatever the reason, he felt again and again that in some uncanny way he really did fit into this bizarre world in a way he’d never felt he fitted in at Harvard — where paradoxically he’d seemed to be some kind of intellectual alien who couldn’t help drawing attention to himself.
In the Army, on the other hand, fitting in was surprisingly easy for him.
He really was — he thought — just one more oddball, eccentric rebel among a whole group of rebels. It was not at all difficult to be part of a group of young men whose individual past histories had in a sense all been erased.
David was in excellent physical condition and in excellent health. He’d never been very athletic, or at least he never considered himself an athlete. He’d played football in high school, but for him that had really been a kind of penance rather than a form of athletics. It had been something he forced himself to do because it was expected of him, by his parents and by everyone else, it seemed.
Ever since Africa, he’d exercised regularly — it had become a habit he’d picked up from one of his friends in the Peace Corps — so all of the training exercises they had to do, calculated to turn them into paratrooper candidates, if not yet real paratroopers, were no more difficult for him than they were for anyone else. In fact, he was surprised to discover they were easier for him than they were for many of the other recruits in the platoon.
For the first time in his life David felt as though he were a real member of an athletic team, a winning team. When he’d played football in high school, he’d hated it, because his poor mother had taught him in her own subliminal way, that sports were a waste of time. The Army was different, the Army was more than a game, the Army had a purpose, he thought, and that was one more factor that made all the effort, all the physical and mental pain, challenging for him, and in a way almost enjoyable. Or perhaps it was that when the past had been in a sense erased by the army, many of his former ideas and attitudes had been erased as well. He could only think over and over again, with a kind of amazement, that for the first time since he’d been in Africa, he didn’t feel like some kind of awkward outsider. He’d found a place again. He felt like a young man among other young men, and that was important for him.
Of course there were times, even during basic training, when for an instant there would bubble to the surface of his mind the dark suspicion that perhaps nothing in the Army really had any purpose. However, he was usually able to believe it did, and that helped him to survive. He looked up to the squad leader, the platoon sergeant, and the company commander. Military obedience tended to suppress any doubts he had about the meaning of what he was doing. Besides, every minute of the day during basic training was efficiently accounted for and seemed part of some larger plan. This too made the hours filled with physical difficulties tolerable — those ultimately indescribable times, when, for example, they stood like gladiators in a sandy arena in the heat of a Louisiana August, with sweat pouring from their bodies and their rifles at the ready, charging then at anonymous straw dummies, running their bayonets through them and screaming the word “Kill!” over and over again at the top of their lungs.
Once at such a time the past did come back for an instant, and he felt the keenness of its force. One broiling summer day, standing in front of the straw bayonet dummies in the blazing sun, he heard again in his mind the words of Robert Kennedy, spoken about his murdered brother: “…And he will make the face of heaven so fine….” The phrase appeared in his consciousness like some fleeting virtual particle in the vastness of space.
Such moments were rare, though, for it was the routine of Army life that occupied them. The routine of Army life was made exhausting for them all, deliberately of course, so that they had little time and energy left for reflecting on what was happening to them, or on what had happened. Sometimes it seemed they knew only that Army life appeared to alternate between periods of exhilaration and pain.
They felt exhilaration when they achieved what they had all been taught to achieve — and what they felt in their blood that men are supposed to achieve: excelling at arduous physical activity, enduring difficulties.
On the other hand, the pain for recruits like David arose out of the inherent, intellectually numbing dullness of Army life, which was always there, despite the frenetic activity, despite even the sense of adventure, like some low, threatening background noise.
It was a dullness that seemed to be consuming larger and larger areas of consciousness, of David’s consciousness anyway.
But he wasn’t always completely aware of that at the time.
Part 4, Chapter 13
–Motto of Harvard University
Many would probably say that there’s an inexcusable amount of self-pity in the way David felt about his situation then, and perhaps that’s true. Even he might have been willing to concede that he was only feeling sorry for himself, all those years ago. He had only himself to blame for the way his life had developed, and even he understood — most of the time, anyway — that it certainly would have been wrong to blame others for not preventing him from bringing about his own intellectual destruction. That would have been just as wrong as blaming other people if he’d committed suicide.
No one could be blamed except himself — not his mother, not his stepfather, and certainly not Harvard. It was certainly not the fault of anyone at Harvard if he couldn’t fit in there. It wasn’t their fault if he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities Harvard offered him.
However, he cannot go as far as to believe one person who once told him:
“Harvard is, in one fundamental aspect, like every other human institution. Whatever the world may or may not have been like in the past, in today’s world it is not the institution or the group that must adapt itself to the individual, it is the individual who must conform to the group. Institutions like Harvard, or any group today, do not recruit individuals for the sake of those individuals, but for the sake of the group, so that the group can survive. The group in today’s world does not exist for the sake of the individual, the individual exists for the sake of the group.
“That is simply the brutal reality, I have learned, of the human condition. You weren’t able to accept that when you were at Harvard. You couldn’t pretend to believe — as others do — that at Harvard the individual is free to think and behave as he pleases, while at the same time everyone knows — but politely ignores the fact — that at Harvard the individual is expected to conform to a large number of unstated beliefs. The fact that these beliefs might themselves represent conformity to the broad lines of intellectual life at this period in human history is irrelevant.
“The most important of those beliefs, and one that nobody is allowed to deny, is the belief that there is an objective absence of any moral values except for what the individual chooses for himself. Even then, the individual’s choice is restricted: he cannot choose any moral values that are too difficult to uphold, or beliefs that might interfere with other people’s pursuit of pleasure, or beliefs that might make them feel they too ought to try to lead better lives.
“From Harvard’s point of view, of course you were insane. And you proved your insanity by leaving Harvard and joining the Army. You proved it again by occasionally being happy in the Army, and therefore happy in your insanity, in your foolishness. You certainly proved it by sometimes finding satisfaction in the most punishing aspects of Army life, and by being convinced that those aspects were somehow making you a man.”
To a great extent, it may be true that undergoing difficulties can make someone like David a more complete human being, a man. As with so many things in life, though, that idea may not be quite true in the way many people think it is. It certainly is not true in the way David thought it was. In fact, for some people, it might never be true at all, because they may never learn to accept all the difficulties of life. They may simply go on trying to run away from them.
In the coming years, David would have many absurd ideals, absurd because it was so unlikely that someone like him could ever realize them. Of all these ideas — ideas that most people would ridicule — one of the most important for him would be the idea that the most complete human being, the only real man, in every sense of the word, is embodied in the image that has been one of the traditional ideals of Western civilization for at least three or four thousand years or so: the Judeo-Christian ideal of one who saves others, saves the world, by sacrificing himself. David would perhaps never discover what that ideal really means, because of his faults, his weaknesses, his sheer badness sometimes, but he would go on trying to understand it — or he’d at least go on wanting to understand it. Eventually he’d realize that he’d never understand that ideal unless he did everything he could to know its depths and meaning — to know the depth and meaning of the person behind the ideal. He’d come to know that he could become a man only to the degree that he discover for himself what sort of man the ideal really represented. He’d have to look into his own mind and try to understand the mind of those who are — and those who were — greater and braver than he was.
When he was in the Army, though, he really had only the vaguest idea — if he had any idea at all — of what it meant to be a complete human being, or, as he usually thought of it, a real man. In his simplicity — or simple-mindedness — he actually thought the other adolescents around him in the Army were men, and that he could learn about being a man from them.
He hadn’t yet even begun to understand that what he should really want to be was a man like Benedict, Bruno, Francis, Paul Miki, Maximilian Kolbe — all those friends who were, in a sense, surrounding him too, though in a quite different way. It would not only be a very long time before he understood that, it would be even longer before he learned that becoming a man like that — becoming a real human being — can take a lifetime.
He knew of course that he should be ashamed not only of having that ideal, because many people at Harvard would have considered it quaint and even ridiculous. He also knew he should be ashamed of how far he was from living up to it. He would have admitted to the truth of both statements, however, because he believed in one other ideal.
It too was an ideal he could not always have lived up to in the way he would have liked. And it was also an ideal that others would consider quaint and ridiculous, even at Harvard.
But it was the ideal of Harvard’s founders, expressed in Harvard’s motto.
Part 4, Chapter 14
“In a new army, like ours, if discipline were lacking, the factor most essential to its efficiency would be missing.”
–General John Pershing
My Experience in the World War
The platoon had returned from its first weekend pass the evening before.
He woke up, startled, in the middle of the night. The overhead electric lights were glaring in his face, and the platoon sergeant was screaming, yelling out orders for all of them to get out of bed and stand in formation on the road in front of the barracks.
They were all in a daze, scrambling out of their bunks and tearing out through the doors, responding like stumbling automatons to the sergeant’s commands. His roar seemed to fill the air. “Fall in! Fall in, you bastards! Don’t get dressed! Fall in!“
They fell all over themselves and over each other as they ran outside and stood at attention in four rows, in nothing but their underwear, some wearing boots or shower slippers. Others were barefoot. David glanced at his watch. It was just after two o’clock in the morning.
They stood facing the barracks, staring straight ahead as the sergeant started pacing up and down in front of them, silhouetted by the lights coming through the windows. His profile, familiar to them all, jutted out from beneath his helmet. Anger had transformed his lean, spare body into the frame of a larger and much more powerful man. Overhead, at least for David, the conversation of the stars themselves seemed to have been silenced in the hot, still, and humid night.
“I don’t know who,” the sergeant bellowed at them, “but somebody brought alcohol into these barracks tonight, and we’re going to stay out here until I know who it WAS!“
Everyone was standing motionless at attention, perhaps rigid more from fear than anything else, not knowing how far the punishment would go. David could not believe what was happening. He had no idea such things could happen. It all seemed weird, unreal. What did he have to do with anyone bringing alcohol into the barracks? Why should he be punished?
They stood in silence in the humid night.
“RAAAHT F-HACE!” roared the sergeant. Forty bodies snapped to the right. “FO-HWAHD, MHAAHCH!” he bellowed. They all proceeded down the smooth asphalt surface of the road. “DOUBLE time, MHAHCH!” he thundered, and they started running. Once, twice, three times they circled the area in front of the barracks. Finally they heard, “Platoon, HALT! Left FACE!” They stood staring forward again.
“I want to know WHO BROUGHT THAT WHISKEY INTO THE BARRACKS!” They stood at attention, all of them still looking straight ahead in terrified silence. There was not a single response. The night was hot and humid. David felt the sweat pouring down his face, down his chest and back, down his legs.
“All right, when I say, ‘Fall out!’ I want you back in those barracks, in bed with the lights OUT and ALL the blankets pulled up over you.” He looked at them with his ferocious stare. “And when you hear, ‘Fall in!’ then you get your asses back out here on this road as fast as you can.”
“IS that CLEAR?”
Forty young men shouted back, “YES, SERGEANT!”
The glare continued for an instant from beneath the rim of the helmet. “I can’t HEAR you, ladies!”
Even louder this time, if possible, forty voices bawled in unison, “YES, SERGEANT!“
Then they heard, mercifully, “Fall out!”
They ran stumbling back into the barracks, jumped into their beds again, and covered themselves with the hot sticky sheets and blankets. David lay there in the dark with the woolen blankets scratching his skin and soaking up the sweat from his pores. They didn’t have to wait for very long. Only a few moments later, long enough for them to feel extremely uncomfortable, but certainly not long enough for them to rest at all, they heard the command, “Fa-a-ll IN!” Over and over again the words roared through the long wooden building, as they tore outside and stood to attention once more on the road.
They were ordered to throw themselves on the ground and do thirty push-ups and then, at the sergeant’s command, they leaped to attention again. After that it was back into the barracks, running as fast as they could; the bare feet of some of the recruits were bleeding. They slammed themselves flat out onto their bunks, covered up with blankets and sheets, and then, after what seemed like only a moment, they had to tear outside once more, where the sergeant would repeat his question about who brought the liquor into the barracks. Each time this happened, there was no answer. Again and again the pattern was repeated until, exhausted and bewildered, they almost started to think that it would never end.
Part 4, Chapter 15
“An army without discipline is a mob, worthless in battle.”
–U.S. Secretary of War Robert Patterson
Military Justice, Tennessee Law Review, 1945
Still no one came forward and admitted bringing the liquor into the barracks. The sergeant was now practically shaking with rage. “PLATOON!” he screamed, “Right FACE! Fohwahd, MHAAHCH!” They all started off down the road again, but in a moment he brought them to a halt and ordered them to squat down into the duckwalk position. With their hands up behind their heads, they waddled a few painful paces.
For some, the pain had only begun. “Guide RIGHT!” the sergeant roared, commanding them to duckwalk off onto the gravel shoulder of the road. David was wearing only shower slippers, and even though he was uncomfortable, his bare feet were at least not pressing down into the sharp stones. Some recruits had not bothered to put on boots or anything else on their feet, and after one long circuit on the gravel strips in front of the barracks, some of them were weeping in pain. The sergeant jeered at them: “What’s the matter? You ladies can’t take it? You’re tough enough to bring whiskey into the barracks, though, aren’t you? Well, how come you can’t take the consequences?”
They duckwalked painfully around the entire building to the door of the barracks again, where the sergeant halted them and made them stand at attention one more time. They were all panting heavily, sweating, and some were quietly crying again, but no one uttered a word. “Now THIS time,” the sergeant roared, “you will go back into the barracks and turn off the lights, but you will NOT get into bed.”
The tough, arrogant-looking silhouette seemed almost to be barking at them. “You WILL have a little G.I. party, and make those barracks ready for INSPECTION! IN THE DARK! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”
As they had been drilled to do, forty voices roared back, “YES, SERGEANT!”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” he bellowed again. “IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”
“YES, SERGEANT!” came the thundering reply.
A preparation for a full inspection, a G.I. party under these circumstances, in the dark, when they were hot, sweaty, angry, confused, and frustrated, was an invitation either to assault whoever had brought the liquor into the barracks, or at least to find a scapegoat that would appease the sergeant’s wrath.
There were two floors in the building, with bunks for about twenty recruits on each floor. David’s bunk was on the ground floor, and everyone in that group worked as hard as he could to make the beds, mop the floors, and clean the bathrooms, just as if they really were getting ready for an inspection. On the upper floor, something else was happening.
After about fifteen minutes of general confusion in the darkness, they were all ordered outside again. This time, though, one of the soldiers in the first platoon, a meek, very effeminate, little Mexican-American, had been beaten so badly that his bloody, swollen face was practically unrecognizable, and he could barely stand up.
The sergeant seemed satisfied. He’d gotten somebody, anyway, even if it might not have been the right one. It didn’t matter that little Pablo wouldn’t have dared sneak a glass of orange juice into the barracks, let alone a bottle of scotch. The sergeant probably knew that, though, and just to make sure he did get the right one, he continued to punish them all for over an hour. They went on with the routine they’d started: racing in and out of the barracks, running, duck-walking, and doing push-ups and jumping-jacks over and over and over again on the sharp gravel. David thought most of them were probably so numb they didn’t feel the pain anymore.
Finally, after a total of more than two hours of this, with less than an hour left before they were supposed to get up and start the day, the sergeant called them to attention one last time. “I’m going to let you go back to bed now,“ he snarled, “because I have to. Your commanding officer has ordered me to. If it was up to me, you people would be out here for the rest of the night, and tomorrow night too, for what you did.”
Little Pablo sniffled and coughed. “Quit slobbering, Gonzalez!” the sergeant yelled. “And if anything like this happens again, if any of you people bring liquor into this area again, tonight’s party out here will look like nursery school compared to what I’ll have you doing.” He looked around at all of them. “And I don’t care if I lose my sergeant’s stripes over this. I’m not going to have you people making a fool out of ME!”
That sergeant might possibly have gone to Vietnam when the war there intensified. If he did go, David used to think, he must have had difficulty coping with the widespread use of drugs of almost every kind there. David wondered sometimes if he fought against drugs as much as he fought against alcohol in the barracks during basic training. If so, it must have been a losing battle. People of David’s generation sometimes had the impression that practically the whole American Army spent much of the war stoned.
After that night in basic training, though, in spite of the punishment they received, or perhaps because of it, a strange thing seemed to happen to the platoon. It was as if an unspoken agreement had been reached among them all. They would work together, like a single individual. They would excel; they would be better than any of the other three platoons in the company. They would have better scores than any of the others in all the areas of basic training — shooting, running, and physical fitness.
That is in fact what happened. They were the number one platoon, in every respect.
Of course it was an absurd idea, but David sometimes used to wonder if perhaps the sergeant hadn’t planned it that way. The whole incident with the liquor in the barracks later seemed so weird to him that he asked himself if it couldn’t have been concocted in order to bring about a desired result: to force them to be the best platoon in the company. David could never understand how the sergeant could have found out, suddenly, at two o’clock in the morning after a weekend leave that somebody’d brought liquor into the barracks. He never told them of course, but it was always possible he might have been informally inspecting the barracks in the night and found an empty bottle in the waste basket of one of the bathrooms. That may be a likely explanation.
Part 4, Chapter 16
„Mein Ich war intakt geblieben und suchte mit allen Fasern nach einer Möglichkeit, aus dieser Unterdruckung herauszukommen, die ihm der Körper hatte antun müssen.“
“My deepest self had remained intact, and with all the strength it possessed, it strove to escape this repression that the body had had to impose on it.”
At the beginning of the eight weeks of basic training, David had experienced long periods of depression and dread at the thought of what he would have to go through. By the end of those eight weeks, however, his thinking seems to have altered to the point where he was enjoying the experience so much that he was sorry it wasn’t going to continue. Then he thought to himself, “As long as I’m in the Army, the experience will continue, this simple sense of achievement will continue.” He could not of course have been more wrong.
At the end of basic training at Fort Polk, he was assigned to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where he was to complete the last four months of active duty with other reservists. They traveled north from Louisiana in the middle of October, and the seasons changed from summer to late autumn. By the time they reached Kentucky, there was only that bleakness of landscape that always precedes the onset of winter in that part of the country.
On the bus he found an old copy of a news magazine and read again part of the eulogy Bobby Kennedy had delivered for his brother. When he read the familiar words, he felt the knife turn in the wound. He thought not only about Kennedy, but also, perhaps, about what the words seemed to express about his own murdered self, that dead self that had existed at Harvard, the self that he thought of as being cut down just as it had begun to really awaken to poetry and literature and had started to think there was nothing in the world more important than that.
He looked at the gray, barren hills of Kentucky passing outside the bus, and he wondered just how much more he’d have to endure. He thought in terms of a few months at most, or perhaps a year. What would he have thought if he’d known it would all go on for decades?
He might have despaired. He might not have been able to maintain any belief in his ideals at all, and it was that belief that sustained him through all the unforeseeable, long years to come. At the age he was then, in the Army, he might have found that his beliefs were not strong enough to bear the knowledge that from then on he would go on living through a seemingly endless wasteland of time, just like what he had already lived through since Harvard.
Again, many people would always say that it was precisely those beliefs that had brought on David’s suffering in the first place, and even he would have agreed they might have been right. He was always ready to admit that others might be right, and in addition, in this case, David thought that a man’s beliefs were something that almost inevitably brought him into conflict with the world around him, conflict that almost always resulted in suffering in his life.
Like most people, however, David was full of contradictions and paradoxes. He clung to his beliefs, but in they were — and had always been — quite weak in a sense. They’d been strong enough to force him to leave Harvard, but not strong enough to allow him always to find much meaning in his suffering. He couldn’t find as much consolation as he wanted in those beliefs either. Still, whatever strength his beliefs did have were of value, for with those beliefs, the awful spiritual and intellectual pain was not as bad as it might otherwise have been for him.
David was able dimly to be aware — or at least to remain convinced — that no matter how senseless the pattern of his life seemed, there had to be a deeper meaning beneath the surface of events. However dim his awareness — or his conviction — was, however, it was his beliefs that made that awareness or conviction possible at all. He believed that in spite of everything, he was somehow moving closer to an ultimate source of happiness, a kind of happiness that would be beyond poetry and literature and everything else he’d lost by the act of leaving Harvard, happiness that would be beyond the excitement of intellectual discussions, beyond even the beauty of everything he’d seen in Africa.
His awareness — or whatever it may have been — was enough to help him to survive, by the skin of his teeth, so to speak, and to endure the bleakest moments in the Army, and later in all the many places he’d have to run to.
Part 4, Chapter 17
“Scapegoat 1. In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed. 2. One who is blamed or punished for the sins of others.”
–Oxford English Dictionary
If David survived those months in the Army, he survived with most of his faults intact, of course. Despite all his glowing ideals and firm beliefs, he had, for example, a great capacity for anger and even something approaching hate. In Kentucky he learned to hate the Army as much as he’d loved it in Louisiana. Everything had made sense in Louisiana, but in Kentucky he came to feel that the Army made no sense at all.
In Kentucky he was no longer with soldiers who were going into the regular Army and who took everything very seriously. He was no longer with men who knew that their very survival might depend on what they’d learned and how they’d been trained. In Kentucky he was with reservists who knew they’d be leaving the Army in four months, and they considered everything they did a waste of time.
Still influenced by the training in Louisiana, though — and by everything else in his life — David thought and behaved just the opposite. He wanted nothing in his life to be a waste of time, and after all he’d experienced in Louisiana — and elsewhere — he had an exaggerated confidence in his own abilities.
He’d tried, of course, to remain with the platoon he’d trained with in Louisiana. He’d tried to volunteer for regular Army status, just as others in the basic training company were given the option to do. Unlike them, however, he was told that he should wait until he’d completed his six months’ training as a reservist. He was never told why he had to wait and others didn’t, and so he tried to formulate his own explanations. Had his mother again urged his stepfather to interfere? Had the Army been given access to Dr. Bradley’s opinion that he was hopelessly crazy? Had he perhaps done something in the Army that was crazy, and he didn’t realize it, or had forgotten about it?
Perhaps it was all of those things, perhaps it was none of them. He was never told, and he will never know. “The world most people live in is Kafkaesque,” said a friend of his once, “and there’s little they can do about it. At least not at the moment. It’ll take a long time to change things like that. Anonymous bureaucracies govern most people’s lives, in the government, in school, and in the workplace, and there is no appeal against their decisions, because most people usually don’t even know that there has even been a decision.”
At any rate, he couldn’t join the regular army then, when he wanted to, and so once again, in Kentucky, he was a misfit. He volunteered to act as the trainee platoon sergeant, and he was arrogantly determined to turn the reservists into the kind of enthusiastic soldiers he’d been with in basic training.
One problem, however, was that the other reservists hadn’t had the kind of experience he’d had in Louisiana. They weren’t motivated, and neither was the regular Army platoon sergeant. So David really did appear to be simply arrogant, which he of course was, in a way.
To make matters worse, beneath his arrogance he never really was any kind of a leader. He was only a sort of martinet, and not even a very good one at that.
As a result, David’s time as a platoon sergeant was a disaster. He’d had no experience in dealing with Americans his own age in such a capacity — and very little experience, of course, in any other way. He had the rather odd idea that everything he’d done as a district officer in Tanganyika had somehow taught him enough to lead forty tough, cynical American reservists who were utterly disillusioned with the Army and could not wait to be released from active duty.
He was disliked by almost everyone. He was inflexible and rigid. He was not able to communicate with the soldiers in the platoon in a way that would allow them to know him at the level of an ordinary human being. He was unable to enlist their enthusiasm.
And David didn’t find life any easier when he discovered that their regular Army platoon sergeant, far from objecting to the soldiers bringing liquor into the barracks, was himself often drunk. Even the sergeant began to hate David’s earnestness, his desire to follow regulations to the letter, and his naive expectation that all the members of the platoon should simply obey orders and do what they were told.
By the time Christmas came, the situation had become intolerable — or at least his situation had become intolerable. He’d spent too many weeks struggling with the hostility — perhaps even the hatred — the sergeant and the other soldiers had for him. Added to that, they’d been spending one day after another in the cold, wet barrenness of Fort Knox, riding around the wilderness areas of the base in jeeps, playing war games, sleeping out in tents, going through map-reading exercises, throwing grenades and practicing the use of other weapons. For him, it was a freezing, bewildering hell.
After Christmas leave, they were all supposed to be assigned to different units, and most of them would not see one another again, so just before the leave began, the whole platoon had a farewell party. David didn’t go, partly because he never went to parties anywhere, even when he’d been at Harvard, and partly because he was afraid. There was so much tension between him and the other soldiers by this time that he was actually afraid of what they might do to him. He stayed in his room all evening.
Most of the other soldiers went home for Christmas, but David didn’t. The idea of spending any time with his mother and stepfather was unendurable. And what would have made that even worse was that he would have had to ask them for the plane fare to Michigan. He’d done that often enough at Harvard to know what it would lead to. It would mean having to put up with the kind of emotional exploitation that had always been part of every interaction with them, especially when some financial transaction was involved.
If he asked them for money to fly home from Louisville, what would happen would be what had always happened at Harvard: they would wait until the last minute before sending the money, as they had so often done before, leaving him feeling lost and uncertain and insecure in the meantime. Or else they would tell him to use his own money, hinting they would pay him back, and then just forgetting about it. He would then be stuck with the bill, having to pay it on the very limited budget he’d worked out for himself.
Or perhaps, he thought bitterly there in Kentucky, perhaps they would find some new way of twisting the emotional knife.
Even if he did go home for Christmas, he knew he would be confronted with exactly the same things that had been painful for him before. His mother and stepfather would ignore him, in order to make sure he knew his place. Those periods when they ignored him, however, would alternate with sudden and unnecessary meddling in his life, unnecessary because he’d managed to conduct his own affairs quite successfully during all the years he was growing up and his parents were moving toward divorce. After all, he’d gotten into Harvard when his parents ridiculed him for even trying. Perhaps, he thought to himself rather sadly, they just needed to gratify their own obsessive need to feel important.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded that interference so much if he’d been able to feel they were trying to help him. That was impossible, though, because all they’d ever seemed to do — and it was his poor mother who appeared to instigate this — was barge into his life from time to time, creating havoc with their unthinking, insensitive behavior, and then just as suddenly barge out again, leaving him to deal with the consequences.
Their sudden announcement, just before he’d left Harvard the previous spring, that they’d no longer pay for his education was one example of that kind of behavior.
The only thing he wanted was to run from all that. He was certainly not going to go home from Kentucky and go through any of it again.
Perhaps it was during that Christmas vacation in the Army that he became convinced, deep within himself, and with all the power that an adolescent has to see through adult pretenses, that his parents really didn’t want to help him at all. He began to have the impression that they wanted only to amuse themselves, the way they would with a pet, the way children do with an insect whose wings and legs they enjoy tearing off. His mother and stepfather showed no interest in the person he really was, no interest in his intellectual desires or what he might have called his spiritual needs. They had no concern at all for his future, except as it impinged on theirs.
They never once tried to discuss any of these things with him. If they ever did discuss them — or discuss him — or anything related to him, they discussed him only with other people, like Bradley, whom they visited at Harvard after he’d dropped out. Bradley of course told them he was hopelessly crazy, the way Bradley told that to everyone. So his mother and stepfather had apparently written him off as a bad job. He was of no use to them, except as some kind of object to be toyed with, and tormented.
David was a scapegoat they could punish for making them feel guilty, an object of revenge for what they’d suffered in life. And they had suffered a great deal. He had to remind himself at that time — and he would always have to remind himself — that they lived during a period when divorce in a small American town was still relatively rare, something most people considered shameful. His mother and stepfather must have felt guilty about their divorce and remarriage, and all that guilt was projected onto him. He could almost think that they believed that by destroying him they would destroy their own guilt. At times — such as when he was in the Army in Kentucky, far away from any possibility of making something of himself at Harvard — they might have believed they’d succeeded. He’d left Harvard, and as far as they were concerned, he had no more future. They’d finished him off, and they may have hoped they’d finished off their guilt as well.
Of course David felt a lot of the fault for the whole situation lay with him. Certainly he made it very easy for his mother and stepfather to behave the way they did toward him.
He never showed that he thought their marriage was a good thing. He was too wrapped up in himself to do that, so they assumed he disapproved. He told himself over and over again in Kentucky, as he’d told himself before, that he’d become for them the incarnation of their guilt, and so it had become that much easier for them to turn him into a scapegoat.
He saw himself not just as a scapegoat, though, but one they could slaughter slowly, in a way that would provide an interesting diversion for them in their closed, meaningless, and neurotic little world. They had used much of their wealth to carefully construct that world, and they’d become obsessed with protecting it, together with all the rest of their wealth. Two poor, sad, destructive human beings.
Part 4, Chapter 18
„Und wir können nicht redlich sein, ohne zu erkennen, dass wir in der Welt leben müssen“.
Widerstand und Ergebung
“We are not being honest with ourselves if we do not recognize that we have to live in the world.”
Widerstand und Ergebung
Since David could not go home to his mother and stepfather, he decided to spend Christmas with members of another kind of family he felt close to. This was the family that had always, at least in his thoughts, provided him with a refuge and a sense of stability.
Not far from Fort Knox is the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. He had been there before, in high school, long before Harvard, and Gethsemani had then been the only place in the world he wanted to be. The silence and the sense of spaciousness seemed to open out onto heaven itself — at least in the mind of the boy David was at the time. Everything there had filled his perhaps childish — or at least idealist — spirit with the idea, “This is what you were made for, this is where you belong.” And with that boundless enthusiasm that can sometimes possess a boy, David had wanted with every fiber of his being to spend the rest of his life there.
The Abbey of Gethsemani had seemed to him filled with the presence of what he thought of as the divine. For what seemed a very long time to him, simply knowing that the Abbey existed had been a — perhaps all too romantic — refuge from the evil and sadness he saw in the world around him. The lonely, bleak, rolling hills of Kentucky that guarded the monastery were the desert where — David was sure of this — “I am who am” was to be found. In his mind, the white bell tower that at that time soared up over the abbey and dominated the landscape seemed to beckon him to a still place, where silent men had dedicated all their lives to the God of heaven and earth. He had very often wanted — or thought he wanted — to do the same.
He didn’t know anything about the terrible suffering men sometimes have to endure in such a place. He was completely oblivious to that aspect of life in the monastery. On his visits to Gethsemani during those high school years, he saw something quite different. He used to sit in the tribune high up in the back of the church and watch the monks come floating — so it seemed to him — into the choir stalls in their long, white robes. He saw them go to their places and kneel down to pray silently for a moment. He watched them rise, a tide of white swinging round toward the altar, as all at once the ancient, slow, haunting cry of one single monk would echo down the nave of the great church: “Deus, in adjutorium meum intende.” Then the whole choir of more than a hundred monks would respond, “Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina.” The white sea would turn again and seem to flow toward the center of the church, as the monks bowed low and sang, their voices now slightly muffled, “Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.”
This unrealistic, emotional view of the monastic life was the only thing David knew about Gethsemani — or at least the only thing he wanted to know. So, when he was at Fort Knox, it is perhaps not very surprising that his mind should turn toward the monastery again. He felt at times that he was in a kind of hell at the Army base, not only because of his new-found misery in the military, but because of everything that had happened to him since he’d left Harvard. During his Christmas leave from the Army, all he wanted to do was leave that hell and return, if only for a while, to what he thought of — in his adolescent way — as a place close to heaven.
His enthusiasm, though, didn’t lead him to think that heaven might be closer even than Gethsemani. Later in life David would remember what an old Franciscan priest once said to a woman who had asked him, in a voice full of scorn, where heaven was. “Heaven is where God is,” the old man had replied, “and God is in you.” Years afterward, when David had become rather cynical himself, he would often remember those words, and he would wonder if perhaps it might not be true that God is in the hearts and minds of everyone, and in their very souls, even though they may not always recognize him there. He would also remember that the priest had added — though David could hardly believe it sometimes — that God is there especially at those moments when the miseries of human beings are so great that heaven seems impossibly far.
So David went to Gethsemani at Christmas with the somewhat unrealistic and escapist desire to live there after he was released from the Army in a few weeks’ time. He didn’t think the monks would really let him join them — he thought of his life as far too wrecked for that — but if he could just live there, as an ordinary layman, and do some simple tasks around the monastery — surely the monks would let him do that. Surely if he spoke to one of them who had some kind of authority, he would be able to see how unhappy he was, how lost, how much in need of a place of refuge — David had seen a lot of movies.
Surely they would let him stay there and work as a laborer, shoveling snow, washing dishes, doing anything that needed to be done, and then afterwards sitting in some quiet corner of the church while they chanted the Office — David’s own mental movie can only be described as kitschy. He was, as has been said often enough perhaps, still very much of a boy, in some ways probably even very much of a child.
Part 4, Chapter 19
“Noviter veniens quis ad conversationem, non ei facilis tribuatur ingressus…. “
–Regula Sancti Benedicti
“Let easy admission not be given to one who newly cometh to change his life….”
When David arrived at Gethsemani that Christmas, he found the monastery colder and bleaker than he remembered it. There were very few other retreatants, so that the retreat house struck him as somehow empty and barren. The talks given by one of the monks seemed dull and uninspired.
After he’d been there for a day, he went to see the retreat master. “Father,” he said, “I’d like to talk with someone about the possibility of becoming a lay worker here for a while, if that’s possible, if that sort of thing is allowed.”
He was apprehensive, afraid. If they wouldn’t let him do that, what would he do after the Army? Where would he go? How would he ever bring any coherent pattern to his life? That’s all he wanted. He felt almost irredeemably lost, and he was convinced that life even at the margins of a Trappist monastery would be more meaningful than anything else he could do. He actually told himself that if nothing else, if he couldn’t do anything with the rest of his life — and he really believed this, or he thought he believed it — at least he’d be preparing for eternity.
The retreat master looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “I see,” he said, “It’s Father Paul who usually talks to people about that sort of thing. He was a psychiatrist when he was in the world.”
David lowered his eyes.
“I’ll try to arrange an appointment for you this afternoon.”
Father Paul turned out to be a thoughtful man in early middle age. He looked at David with a serious expression, his face thin and ascetic-looking. “We’ve had a few lay workers around here in the past,” he told him, “but we’ve tried not to hire any for the past few years. We live a very special type of community life, and unfortunately we’ve found that lay people too often bring the world with them when they come here.”
David looked down. He always tended to take a statement like that as a final refusal. He had never learned that it’s possible to try to change the other man’s mind in such a situation. And so he felt — or wanted to feel — as if some final burden of disappointment and sadness had settled into place. Still, if he didn’t know how to try to convince Father Paul to let him stay, he had an urge to cry out and to beg the priest to let him stay there — those seemed to him to be the only alternatives. However, no matter how blind, naive, or stupid David was, he at least knew that kind of behavior would do no good. It might or might not have worked in some earlier century, but now David would only be showing Father Paul that he was unstable, and he’d be reinforcing the monk’s apparent decision not to let him stay there.
And of course, at one level of his mind, with all of his conflicting desires, conscious and unconscious, that’s perhaps what David really wanted to do.
At a somewhat more conscious level, he believed that if he could put into words everything he’d gone through at Harvard, and make Father Paul see his experiences there as he himself saw them, then the priest would surely let him stay. David simply did not know how to put all of that into words, though. He knew that it would all sound idiotic or crazy to this priest. How could David make him — or anyone, for that matter — see the truth of it all, or at least the truth as he perceived it? How could he make Father Paul understand the way the relationship with his mother and stepfather — certainly while he was at Harvard — had, for all intents and purposes, destroyed his life? How could he make the monk see that if there was anything at all left of his life, the relationship with his parents would surely destroy that too? How could he talk about all of the strange ideas he’d had at Harvard without sounding absolutely crazy? How could he make Father Paul understand what he’d gone through not only while he’d been at Harvard, but during the long months that had passed since he’d left?
How could he explain that at Harvard he’d had to make a constant effort to resist the idea that his professors were directing their lectures at him, and at him alone, telling him he had the ability to achieve great things? That would sound ridiculous, or worse. Even more important, though, was this: how could he say to this poor monk that all he really longed for was to be able somehow to lead a good life, to live in a place where he could be far away from the distractions of the world, a place where he could try to think only of God? How could David tell him he was convinced that since God is the source of happiness, he wanted somehow to achieve whatever closeness to God is possible in this life? If he’d been honest with himself, he would have wondered if such a thing was even true. He would have wondered if it wasn’t just another kind of craziness on his part.
Could he explain to Father Paul that he believed the best way to know God would be to become a monk, but that he also thought his temperament made him an unlikely candidate for the religious life? Could he make him understand that he wanted the next best thing–simply living as a lay person in a monastery?
David thought that would all sound absurd. Perhaps it would have, because he didn’t really grasp it himself. Or perhaps he didn’t really want to try to realize them in his own life. Maybe he was simply lazy or afraid. Or again, perhaps all he was trying to do was to escape from difficulties inside and outside himself that he found he couldn’t solve or endure.
On the other hand, it does often happen, especially with the young, that the things they want most, the things they most desperately desire, are the very things that are sometimes impossible for them to put into words. Aren’t there perhaps times when they are all a little like Cordelia, reacting to Lear’s question about how much she loves him: “Can I heave my heart into my mouth?” Can the unutterable be uttered? Or must these young people, like Cordelia, remain silent under such circumstances, while Goneril and Regan chatter away?
At Gethsemani, facing the solemn Father Paul, David thought his sincerity and good will should be obvious. He thought he wanted to do what monks did: to love God “according to his bond, no more, no less,” and he thought he should be at least given the opportunity to show that, and to show that all he wanted was what he thought could most easily be found in a monastery — God. Of course, to those who know better, such a think seems absurd, even unhealthy, but David was completely serious.
After waiting a moment for a response, the priest said, “If you stayed here, you’d want to get away sometimes, but you’d have to abide by our rules. You couldn’t, for example, just go off to Louisville to watch a basketball game.”
Instead of seeing that the monk was giving him an opening to try to convince him to change his mind, David thought the remark indicated an enormous gulf between his real self and the kind of person Father Paul thought he was. It was at that point that he despaired of making the priest understand what kind of person he really was. How could he explain anything to a man who thought in terms of a basketball game, when all David wanted was to experience the presence of God?
He still thought that the presence of God could be “experienced.”
And of course there was the old recurring problem: the stupidity and pride that he’d always had in abundance. And he was also still very young — or at least very immature —in many ways. He was also experiencing a very deep sense of pain and bewilderment, so perhaps his stupidity and pride may have prevented him and his situation from being quite as ridiculous as would otherwise have been the case.
In response to what the priest had said, David told him he really didn’t care very much about missing a basketball game.
“I see,” he said looking at him thoughtfully, “and what is your — your background?”
“I went to Harvard for almost three years,” he said. “I worked in East Africa for a year after my freshman year. I dropped out of Harvard last spring, and traveled around for a while. I lived in Wisconsin and New Mexico before I joined the Army Reserve.”
Father Paul looked at him again. “You have to be very careful,” he said, “that you don’t wind up as a kind of vagrant.”
David looked away, feeling almost as if the monk had hit him. Of course he didn’t want to wind up as a vagrant; of course he didn’t want to waste his life. He’d come to the monastery to avoid that. Why couldn’t the priest see that? Why couldn’t he understand? Why did he make that remark? What was the point? What did he expect him to do anyway? David had tried to explain everything to him as best he could in his inarticulate way, but still Father Paul didn’t seemed to understand. What more could David say or do?
In the end, he just gave up. He thanked the priest for his advice and left the room. In a few days, he left Gethsemani.
Of course he gave up too easily. Of course there was more he could have said or done, but he didn’t know how, or perhaps he didn’t really want to have anything to do with the monastery after all.
Or perhaps, he thought, the whole thing was one of those inscrutable things that are simply allowed to happen, one of those things that seem so inexplicable, but which may be part of a larger whole that he wasn’t capable of perceiving. Even David knew that many people would laugh at such a truism, and that at best it would sound like a rationalization to many others, but he believed it was true.
He had to believe it was true.
Part 4, Chapter 20
“You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful….
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on….”
In his final month on active duty in the army, the nightmare deepened, but David was able to stand it. He kept reminding himself it was only for a month.
He’d done such a poor job as a trainee platoon sergeant that when Christmas leave was over and new training companies and platoons were formed, he became an ordinary trainee again. That might not have been so bad, except that he found himself among some of those same soldiers who had hated him before. And probably with good reason, he thought to himself.
Now they were able to get their revenge, and he was sure he deserved it. His life was made miserable with laughter and ridicule. At the same time, the ideals he had were not very strong — or his ability to realize those ideals was not very strong. So there was no way he could look at the situation from that “viewpoint of eternity” he was so fond of. He could find no joy of any sort in his situation. He was most definitely not able to believe that what he was undergoing were hardships and sufferings that might transcend the present and have at least some infinitesimal impact for good, somewhere, somehow.
And because he had very little insight into it, his situation simply depressed him. Most people would probably need some kind of faith in something beyond themselves in order not to be despressed in such circumstances, in order to survive, and though he imagined he had that kind of faith, in reality he did not. What faith he had was extremely weak.
Almost anything could make him depressed, and depression breeds depression. He was caught in a continuous downward spiral, until everything became utterly pointless, and there was nowhere to turn, even if he could have communicated with any of the significant people in his life. He knew his parents couldn’t understand; people at Harvard couldn’t understand; there was no one, he thought. He could do nothing but wonder how he would ever escape from a situation that was causing him more pain than anything he had ever known, pain of the mind and intellect, perhaps even pain of the spirit, if such a thing exists.
But even that one-month period in Kentucky wouldn’t be the end of his dealings with the Army. Once he was released from active duty, he would have a five-year obligation to attend Army Reserve drills every week, and a two-week training camp every summer. The thought of that made him feel as if he were being crushed by the full force of some impossible weight.
Where could he go, or how could he escape? There in the middle of the Kentucky winter, in the cold, unspeakably dreary ugliness of Fort Knox, his thoughts went back to everything he’d known in Africa: the work, the happiness, the sense of adventure, the feeling that he was doing something important, in a land that was sometimes as beautiful to him as he thought Eden must have been. He longed for Africa, and for the coherent life he’d led there — had it really been only two and a half years since he’d left?
In conditions like the those in the Army, Africa became for him even more of a paradise than it had ever been before. It became an unreal paradise, though in his blindness, he didn’t know that. In his mind it was one beautiful, enchanted land, a land of vast, rolling plains and gentle mountains and hills, a land of endless, light-filled skies in the daytime, and at night a land with an infinite heaven that almost overflowed with stars. It was a land — as he remembered it now in these waking dreams — of good, happy people, a land where life in the midst of those beautiful landscapes offered experiences that were unequivocally good.
The more he thought about what he had once known of Africa — and he could hardly stop thinking about it, so that thought soon became obsession — the more he knew he had to escape from the suffocating sense of oppression he felt all around him in the Army and, for all he knew, everywhere else. He didn’t know, of course, whether or not he would ever really be able to get back to Africa, but he knew there must be somewhere he could escape to, for what he really wanted was an escape.
In the meantime, he could escape into his dreams, waking and sleeping. He could cross that threshold in his mind, the point where some barrier seemed to give way, where his consciousness was suddenly flooded by the color and the feeling of happiness that blotted out whatever pain he was feeling.
He reached that threshhold once during the last few weeks he was on active duty in the army. He went to sleep one night, miserable from a day of seemingly purposeless difficulties and pain, and in the night he had a dream.
He dreamed that night of a country where the atmosphere seemed drenched with joy. It was a country where everything was more lovely than it had been even in Africa. It was a place where everything possessed the kind of beauty that seems more than real, that seems more to belong to another dimension. A warm light permeated and surrounded every object. There was a feeling of permanence, as though the world there shared in something beyond the temporal. There was also a feeling of freedom, a lightness of being, as if he could go anywhere and do anything. He’d seen that landscape before in dreams he’d had when he was very young, long before he ever went to Harvard.
In the barracks in Kentucky, the next morning and over the next few days, he began for some reason to associate this landscape with Canada, perhaps because it was the nearest foreign country. The more he thought about it, the more Canada in his mind became a place that seemed to offer something unknown, something unexplored, some possibility of escape and happiness, for he still had an idea that he would not be able to get rid of for years to come, even though it contradicted so many of his ideals and beliefs. It was the idea that happiness could be found in a certain place, in some specific geographical location.
He had not yet learned that happiness can be found everywhere within and around himself, so he decided that when he finally got out of the Army, he would go to Canada.
Surely if he did that, he thought to himself, there would be no way he could be forced to return to the United States and forced into the Army Reserves. On the other hand, there might in fact be some way he could be forced to return, but if that happened, at least he could say to himself that he tried to obtain some degree of freedom. At least for a time he would have been free, as free as he’d felt in his dreams.