By GUSTAV HASFORD
"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.
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 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.
up! I asked you a question!"
"You mean the button,
"What the hell is that
"It's a peace symbol,
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
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!"
"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,
"Oh, yeah?" He
breathed some more--up close--as though he could smell lies.
"Yes, SIR, it's..."
"WIPE THAT SMILE OFF
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,
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...
"WIPE THAT SMILE OFF
"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
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.