Wednesday, January 02, 2013



    "Yes, SIR!"  I snapped to attention and saluted a granite-jawed Marine major whose immaculately green razor-creased jungle utilities must have looked splendid in snapshots taken in the tall grass behind the CP and sent home to his wife.
    The major executed a flawless Short-Pause--a favorite device of Leaders-of-Men, designed to give its victim a case of terminal insecurity.  Not wishing to shatter his blatant self-confidence, I gave him my Parris Island rendition of I Am But a Humble Enlisted Person.
    "Marine..."  The major was ramrod straight--Fists-on-Hips.  This stance, coupled with a deep, masculine Leader-of-Men voice, gave him that certain air of command, despite that fact that I was a good foot taller and he was looking at the bottom of my chin.  "Marine..." he repeated.  He seemed to like the word.  "What is that you're wearing?"
    For a brief, horrible moment I thought he meant the Be My Valentine's Day underwear my girl had sent me from San Francisco.  But he was looking at my chest.  The button!
    The major stood on tiptoes as though he wanted to kiss me, but he only wanted to breathe in my face.  I'd just returned from two weeks in the field and hadn't been breathed on by a CP officer in all that time.
    "Marine!  Speak up!  I asked you a question!"
    "You mean the button, SIR?"
    "What the hell is that thing, Marine?"
    "It's a peace symbol, SIR!"
    He paused and pondered.  I waited patiently, knowing that the major was obviously trying to remember his O.C.S. classes in "Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships With Subordinate Personnel."  The other possibility was that he was going to hit me and couldn't decide between kicking my shins or slapping my face.
    His breath smelled of mint.  Marine officers never had bad breath, B.O., acne, or dirty underwear.  Marine officers didn't have anything until it was issued to them.
    The major jabbed the button with a green forefinger, and cut loose with a really admirable Polished Glare.  Green eyes sparkled as he opened his red, white and blue teeth and growled, "That's right, corporal.  Act innocent.  But I know what that is, and I also know what it means!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "It's one of those damned Ban-the-Bomb things--Admit it!"
    "No, SIR!"  I was getting stiff from being at attention so long.  Shifting weight--right leg, left leg, right leg...
    "Then what is it?"
    "It's a peace symbol, SIR!"
    "Oh, yeah?"  He breathed some more--up close--as though he could smell lies.
    "Yes, SIR, it's..."
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    The major moved around me, stalking me, craning his neck to toss little "kill!" glances.  He smirked and bared green fangs, "Do you call yourself a Marine?"
    I crossed my fingers.  Kings-X.  "Yes, SIR!"
    "Now look, corporal," he began to magnificent Fatherly Approach.  "Just tell me why you're wearing that Ban-the-Bomb thing.  You can level with me.  I want to help you."
    His plastic smile told me that in exchange for finking on my fellow conspirators I'd receive a cookie and would not be shot by the CIA for my un-American Activities.
    "Where'd you get it.  Marine?  Don't you know that Charlie Cong, the Dreaded Laundryman, has been distributing those things all over the base?  Why, they're made in Hanoi!"
    "My girl sent it to me, SIR!  On a postcard, SIR!"
    "From the states?"
    "From California, SIR!"  Pause.  "San Francisco, SIR!"
    The major's eyes grew big at my confessing of consorting with demons, communists, intellectuals, or worse.
    "California.  I see.  A hippie?"
    "Yes, SIR!"  I smiled proudly.  "An art student, SIR!"
    He sneered.  "Do you think we should ban the bomb, Marine?"
    I was solemn as hell.  My back was screaming.  "No, SIR!  We should bomb them back to the Stone Age, SIR!  But this is a peace button, SIR!"
    "HA!  So you admit it!  You advocate peace!"
    "Yes, SIR!"  Pause.  "Doesn't the major believe in peace, SIR!"
    Long, long pause.  "You can't wear that button, Marine.  If you don't remove it you'll be standing tall before the Man."
    We stood nose-to-chin on the side of the road near the entrance to Phu Bai Combat Base.  Ghostly scenes from The Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne flickered around us.  Somewhere in Never-Never Land Jim Nabors was singing:  "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli..."
    A huge white question mark hovered over a green world...
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "Yes, SIR!"
    "This is a combat zone, Marine.  Remember that.  And you are a junior non-commissioned officer in the finest military machine in the world--our beloved Corps.  We're here to defend Freedom and Justice so that all men may have the right to express themselves without fear of reprisal.  That's why I'm telling you--you can't wear that button!"
    "Yes, SIR!" I screamed.  "Kill the dirty rotten gooks, SIR!  We can lick 'um all, SIR!  A good gook is a dead gook and three cheers for the VFW, SIR!"
    "That's more like it, leatherneck.  You're going to be okay."
    "But can't I kill for peace and still believe in peace, SIR!"
    The major suddenly became fascinated by his wristwatch.  "I...uh...I've no time for this nonsense."  He had Big Problems to solve--Big Decisions--papers to initial, a big desk to sit behind and drink coffee, Real Guts magazines to read, a chest toupee to comb.  Besides, I knew there was no answer to my question, at least not for the major.  It was like asking a hangman how he felt about capital punishment.
    I saluted.  The major saluted.  We both held the salute awkwardly while he added:  "Someday, when you've grown up a little, Marine, you'll see how childish you are."
    His voice--that beautiful strong deep voice--had broken into a squeak on the word "childish."
    I grinned.  His eyes fell.  Both salutes cut away nicely.
    "Good day, Marine," he said, and hurried away without looking back.
    "Yes, SIR!" I called out after him, "A beautiful day SIR!"  And it really was.

Published in MIRROR NORTHWEST, vol. 3, 1972.

"Mirror Northwest is a magazine of literature and art by students and instructors of Washington State's community colleges."

Gustav Hasford is a free lance writer presently a student at Lower Columbia College.

1 comment:

David Chenot said...