Of A Seedless Generation
An excerpt from the latest novel by Dalton C. Brink.
Major editing by Walter Kirn.
To approach the stranger is to invite the unexpected, release a new force, let the genie out of the bottle. It is to start a new train of events that is beyond your control. – T.S. Eliot
A nuclear reactor is nothing more than a glorified water heater. We bombard Uranium atoms with neutrons until the binding energy of the atom is no longer able to hold itself together. When it finally rips at the seams, it throws up energy in the form of heat and more neutrons that then go on to strike more Uranium atoms allowing the reaction to sustain. Inside a reactor’s core, we’ve planted the stuff in such a way that we can control the reaction, but new elements are created in the process, monstrously venomous elements that will outlive us for thousands upon thousands of generations. When time has wrought language obsolete, when it’s split the cities from their foundations, the Frankensteinian elements will still vengefully be throwing off little packets of energy into the dark in an attempt to be at rest once again. We bury them away someplace where no one can get to them, where time may work its healing, far from the eyes of man. There are people whose job it is to brainstorm ways to warn future humans of the danger of them. They design monoliths with skulls and lightning bolts in an effort to keep people away. And all this just to heat water. We’re kids with matches and a never-ending supply of gasoline.
An hour ago, Oscar, a short stocky Mexican from a Texas border town, puked red wine all over our buddy’s new wife’s new wedding present white toilet mat. He didn’t apologize, he couldn’t, and she flipped her shit. So I drove the thirty miles back to base, back to the South Carolina bottomlands, underage and drunk on cheap red wine, our invitation to stay the night revoked. I’m able to get past the guards by pointing to Oscar splayed out in the passenger seat, “My buddy called me to come pick him up. He didn’t want to risk driving.” They feel pity on him and compassion towards me for doing the right thing. It’s half past three in the morning and Oscar is leaning against me with all his weight as we walk the one hundred yards of wooden boardwalk, a maze of pine decking suspended above a swamp, to our barracks.
We step from the boardwalk onto the lawn between the blacktop track that runs the diameter of the base and a gazebo acting as a smoking area where a few roving watches stand in Navy issue, black all-weather trench coats, talking among themselves, smoking. If we’re caught, we’ll be ousted from the program, out of nuclear power, we’ll be sent to the fleet as traditional mechanics, which means spending the next five years getting intimate with the shitters and the trash, a fear the training pipeline instills in us very early. “You’ve got the world by the balls. Don’t fuck it up,” we’re told. Underage drinking is not allowed, and the consequence means standing in front of the Captain at Mast as he knocks you down in rank, takes your money, and kicks you out of nuclear power, a prospect that seems devastating.
Oscar turns to them, stumbling, obviously drunk, half snarling, and half muttering, “You’re a bunch of fuck offs!”
“Shut up!” I tell him, trying to keep my voice down.
“Is there a problem?” one of them comes back.
“No,” I fumble, “No problem. He just found out his girl back home cheated on him,” I lie.
Oscar again begins to spout something more, and I ram my elbow hard into his ribs. He moans.
“You better tell your friend to watch himself,” is the watch’s reply. Relief.
We reach our building, and I take Oscar to his door. “All right man, we’re here,” I say. And he takes a wild swing at me.
“Fuck you,” he says. “You’re not my friend.“
“Hey, Oscar,” I say, just wanting to get to bed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I turn to walk away, and I hear his heavy steps advancing towards me. I turn just in time for him to tackle me through some bushes and onto the lawn, fifteen yards from the guys on watch still smoking.
“What are you doing, you fucking idiot?! Get off me,” I try not to shout. I’m trying to roll him off me, but I can’t. He’s on top of me, staring violently into my eyes, grasping onto my collar, his face inches from mine.
“You guys think you’re so fucking smart, you think you’ve got it all figured out,” he says, sounding as lucid now as ever. “You’re all grabbing at something that shouldn’t be grabbed. This is all bullshit. This is evil.” He suddenly releases his grip, and his face drops as he staggers to his feet. He turns to walk away telling me softly, his words entwined with a chorus of restless insects hunkered down in the hardwoods, “Goodnight, Byrd,” and, “thanks.”
Monday morning my alarm is screaming half past five in the morning. I pull on the same set of clothes I’ve worn the past week. Every once in a while I iron them just to keep the creases prominent. I found long ago that it keeps the Chiefs from glancing me over twice. Breakfast is served in the galley every day, but I rarely ever eat there. They love to tell us how much better we’re fed than all the other rates, and I’m sure it’s true, but the novelty of it falls away after eating from the same Sysco based menu months on end. There’s a wide concrete walkway running the center of our small base, connecting the barracks to the school, the galley, the gym, and the medical building. They affectionately refer to it as the “spine.” This morning, deer are walking the lawns leaving paths in the dew, crisscrossing the spine all about me, without fear of my presence, more domesticated than wild. We live in a wildlife preserve in the lowcountry of South Carolina. No one enters without proper clearance. No planes fly over. We share a wooded island with alligators and opossums and biting black gnats.
At the school building, I’m scanned by a guy I went to mechanic school (A School, they call it. The first six months of school here are rate specific, so since I’m a nuclear mechanic, I had to go to mechanic school, the nuclear electricians have to go to electrician school, or A School, and graduate, before moving on to Power School.) with. He shifts from cleaning the toilets to roving watch to doing this while waiting for his clearance to be approved before moving on to Power School, the portion of our training focused on the specifics of nuclear power, what the military prefers to keep confidential. Fredricks’ father is a professor of Arabic, and Fredricks was born in Egypt, so the military has to go over his whole family’s ties to the Middle East, which means, simply, Fredricks is fucked.
“How’s it going, Fredricks?” I say as he slides the metal detector between my thighs.
“I’ve been better,” he says dryly.
I try to make Fredricks feel better. “I’m sure they’ll approve your clearance soon,” I tell him, smiling to reaffirm, silently betting against it.
We have a test today, or rather two tests today, and a crowd I recognize as members of my graduating class are streaming in early to study. These people are supposedly the top, the smartest, the best the Navy has to offer. To be here is to be one of very few to have qualified to be here. This is supposed to be a source of pride for us. We are the special ones, the Navy’s golden children, or so they say. They pour money into us, what we’re told amounts to roughly $150,000 each. A common joke is that it’s, “A $150,000 education fed rectally, one nickel at a time.” And that’s the way it feels. To make it through here one must be able to digest large amounts of material in short amounts of time. Rogue memorization or “verbatim understanding” is a must. Word for word regurgitation is required for full credit. It places pressure on even the most adept. The first thing this program teaches, and perhaps the most useful, is the ability to learn. Most of us floated listlessly through high school and much of college. We didn’t have to study. We didn’t have to pay attention in class. Things seemed to come to us without much effort. That doesn’t work here. Studying is an absolute.
I gather my things from the classroom and find a seat in the “Quiet Study”, a bland room with individual cubicled desks arranged in parallel lines. I find it best to study alone in silence. I have learned that writing the information down, for me, is the only way to digest the material at the necessary pace. I use a small whiteboard to write and erase, write and erase, until I’m able to reproduce, letter by letter, the material from heart. Today’s tests are on fluid flow and thermodynamics. I understand the theories behind both well enough, but get bogged down in the seemingly endless formulas and equations, so for the next hour and a half I cram the ones that seem most important somewhere into my memory.
During the next five hours I somehow string back to the page the information I’ve buried away. I answer everything, leaving nothing blank. Leaving a question blank shows that, as the instructors put it, “You don’t care.” Every question is either an essay or math problem. True and false and multiple choice don’t exist here. I can’t remember the proper equation more than once and try to compensate by going into more detail than asked on the properties of cooling recirculation water through a shrinking pipe. Gillard sits next to me, a squirrelly kayaker from Idaho, trying to bring to my attention that I should move my arm so that he can see the answer to the question regarding R-values on insulating material. I check again the solution to the math problem on the preceding question as he copies it down. Most of the class’s heads are down. I hear the shuffling of feet against the linoleum floor I polished over the weekend mixed with chairs creaking under my classmates shifting weights above the hushed scraping of pencils searching for credit until time is called.
All our material is classified “Confidential”, meaning none of the material may leave the school, which means all studying must be done within the confines of the school, which means that most of our waking hours are spent in a seat, behind a book, focused on nuclear power, in this building. Lectures and tests take up forty-five hours of my week and studying claims another twenty to thirty. Then, once a week for a few hours, we’re ordered to participate in what our instructors refer to as “mandatory fun”, which turns out to be the exact opposite of fun, the Navy’s idea of irony, jokesters. We’re all to get together as a class and play Frisbee football or run a 10k together through the fern covered pinelands surrounding the base, a newly enforced rule, a clever idea to try to relieve the stress the program places on us. Though you won’t find a statistic to back it up, while this program is said to have the lowest percentage of people to qualify for it, it also boasts the highest percentage of suicides and suicide attempts of the entire Navy. It breaks people. Each night I trudge the half mile from the school to my barracks feeling alone and beaten as though someone has taken a baseball bat to my body. Nothing wears more than intense mental exertion, and here where there are no sick days, where there are no vacations, we are pushed beyond our limits, and some just don’t return. Incidents are hushed quickly, not addressed by the instructors publicly, yet whispers find their way to our ears nonetheless.
“Did you hear what happened to Oscar?” Lytle asks, taking a seat beside me in the galley as we sit to eat lunch.
“No, what?” I say, suddenly realizing I haven’t seen or heard from him in several days.
“Apparently he began waking up in the morning with serious migraines and a sore asshole. He became suspicious that his roommate was somehow involved, so he set up a video camera while he slept, and come to find out, his fucking roommate was putting him under with something like chloroform while he slept and was raping him. How fucked is that?” Lytle says with a grimace.
“What? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. You’re joking.”
“I’m not. It’s all over base. Everyone knows.”
I can’t believe it. I search his eyes for some hint of bullshit but find none. I think back to the quiet, skinny, pale-faced guy who was his roommate. He never left his room, seemed to always be playing computer games online. Never said a word to me.
“What…what happened to them?” I ask.
“The rapist got sent to the brig. He’ll be going to Leavenworth for sure. Oscar is getting out of the Navy, with benefits. Hell, he may be the lucky one,” Lytle says only half-joking. “He’s already gone.”
My mind falters. Oscar. Wow. I try calling him shortly after, but his phone goes straight to voicemail, and I never hear from him again. Maybe he is the lucky one, I can’t help but to think.
This is not an isolated event. These kinds of things happen. These are extremely intelligent people stretched thin with incalculable stress and no options pointing the way out. The military is not a job you quit. It is your overlord. It is the proprietor of your existence, a fact you are never allowed to forget. It is a prison cell lacking physical walls. And a significant percentage of us find it too much to bear. People break. Seems it is easier to control atomic reactions than it is to control the human condition.
It’s Saturday. I decide to blow off studying to spend the day roaming Charleston. My car isn’t here, so I’m forced to take a cab for the eighteen-mile drive into the heart of downtown. The same half dozen cabbies scavenge, like middleaged, overweight vultures, the sailors leaving base. They overcharge and their cabs are disgusting. Today my choices are few, and I have to decide between two of the worst. Today I choose wrong. We drive out, along the decaying storefronts and cheap motels of North Charleston. Unfortunately my cabbie is talkative today. He talks of the weather, he talks sports, and then out of nowhere he says, “I had to beat the shit out of my nephew this morning. They found him molesting his little sister, so I had to go over there and beat the shit out of him.” He talks as if he’s still talking about football, a voice relaxed and matter-of-fact. “He’s twelve, and she’s five. I told him before to leave her alone.” I am dumb-stricken, silent, and heartbroken. He keeps on talking, but the words blur to my ears and fall dead before reaching me. At Market Street, the cabbie lets me out, and I pay him the bill, but don’t tip. He realizes it, and I hear him yell something as I shut the van door, but I don’t care.
Market Street is in full bloom on Saturday. A crowd flows in and around the worn buildings set in the middle of the street. Most of the market is occupied by shams selling plastic trinkets from China, tawdry perfumes off the internet, or fake designer sunglasses. There are few local artists and only a few of them are doing anything original. A sixty-year-old woman in a sun hat peddles mediocre watercolors of tourist scenes: a weathered shrimp boat in sunset on the bay, the Pineapple Fountain in Waterfront Park, the Battery and its huge live oaks where 1800s pirates hung to their last breaths--stuff people with second and third homes would buy to pin to the wall of their basement bathroom. The Gullahs are the redeeming souls, selling their hand-woven grass baskets, using the same techniques their ancestors developed over a century ago, carried through generation after generation. A small, dark, black boy sits barefoot on the ground beside an old woman, both wearing clothes of bleached cotton, she in a dress. The boy weaves small flowers from long blades of sweet grass, and though they lack the skill and formality of his grandmother’s baskets, they’re heavy with their own charm.
I leave the crowd and make my way to the waterfront along the Battery, walking the ancient streets of cobblestone in the shadow of historic architecture. Charleston is referred to as “The Holy City” because of how many churches it boasts. Some of the oldest congregations in the country hold their Sabbaths here. Cemeteries, decayed and crumbling, lay hidden behind great, black wrought iron gates between homes and businesses. Overgrown flowers and tree roots choke the paths leading among the graves. Gray moss hangs in clumps from tree limbs like an old man’s beard. Strolling through, I read the epitaphs and dates. The lives the eroded granite markers represent seem infinitely far from me, but I feel the spirit of the place, a false nostalgia, something, like being touched by conscious electricity. When I am here, so far from home, so far from everyone and everything I’ve ever known, Charleston lifts me while simultaneously drawing sadness.
The weather is nice, the wind is blowing slightly, and the bay is fairly still, by all accounts, a beautiful day. Few people walk the promenade, and I enjoy the time alone. I sit for a while on a bench in the park, watching the squirrels scurry the same pirate hanging trees from the old woman’s watercolors, watching boats slide pass in the dark water of the bay. I can see the little island that is Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out, their echoes still rippling through the South even today. And a deep sorrow falls along with the shifting shadows of the branches above me. Even as I’m surrounded by beauty, a feeling of being somewhere I don’t belong never ceases its nag. I joined the Navy feeling it was my only way out of the small Mississippi town where I grew up. It took only hours to realize my mistake, but by that time, it was far too late.
Boomer’s Books sits on a corner a couple blocks from Marion Square, a large greenspace where the old state arsenal building stands, where the ivory college girls lay out in groups, sunbathing in small bikinis, where neighbors bring their dogs to catch ball in order to gaze upon the college girls. I spend hours lost within the aisles of the used bookstore. I have a penchant for the old books, the ones with yellowed pages and hard covers, the ones that smell like dust and melancholy. The owners know me by now and give me discounts and recommendations because I buy so many books at a time. They have a big, daring black cat that follows me around. “Hello, Dante,” I greet him as he rubs against my legs, meowing softly.
I walk the College of Charleston campus, wandering aimlessly about the grounds trying to blend in, playacting I’m a student, attempting to evade the reality of my situation. I joined the Navy shortly after dropping out of my local community college back home. I came to believe that college was a subscription to an unsatisfactory magazine. I couldn’t see going into debt for something I could learn on my own at the library or with the internet. I came to think of it as a racket. I wanted the mad life, the midnight city, drug-fueled, bass-drum-driven, sex-crazed wild life. I wanted to roam the streets shoulder to shoulder with my best friends, making the world bend to our will, but my friends had their own dreams, and I was left alone with my anxiety. At the time, I had no real options for getting out of the Memphis suburb that was my small Mississippi town, and I had a very dreamful view of becoming intimate with the water, to be a sailor, to familiarize myself with the sea and for it to know me. I envisioned spending nights on the deck of a ship out beyond the haze of the cities, out past the falsities of us, out alone under an untold number of stars, out with myself--all very romantic, very naïve dreams. My grandfather ever only had fond things to say of his time as a sailor, and I had read someplace that both Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac were in the Merchant Marines, so I figured, despite my aversion to authority, that I was in good company. I yearned to know the greater world with its foreign women and unknown cultures, unusual ports and exotic foods. But after taking the ASVAB, the military’s job placement exam, the job of running the Navy’s reactors was thrust upon me. I was naïve and ignorant, allowing my recruiters to press me into the nuclear program, their charm targeting me as soon as the results of my test came back. “Well, Byrd, with these scores, you can choose from any job in the Navy,” they said. They talked up the nuclear program as though if I chose not to do it, I would be showing how irrational I was throwing away the best opportunity my life’s ever offered. What they didn’t tell me was that I’d be thrown into what the nuclear program claims is the “third toughest college in America,” and while I’ve never seen anything in writing to substantiate the claim, I wouldn’t doubt if it were found to be true. But it’s not the daunting task of learning the material that stifles my soul, I perform well enough, it’s the military itself that does the job.
Students file through the corridors wrapped inside whatever their studies are, whatever their social lives are, completely unaware of the freedom they possess. You can never know what freedom is until it is taken from you. I envy them. I wish that I was living the normal life once more, a life allowing experimentation and improv, spur of the moment decisions, and multiday gambles. Excitement has been drained from my life, replaced in its stead by rigid structure and strict consequence. These people represent what I could have done. I blend among them, but I am not of them.
James calls as I walk. “Fuck that shit man, I’ll come right now and pick you up. We’ll be in Mexico by the time those bastards even realize you’re gone,” he says without the slightest jest.
I laugh at his pragmatism. “As much as I like the idea, I don’t think that’d be in my best interest. I’d never be able to come back to the States without doing time in Leavenworth or something. That helps no one.”
“Then just smoke some weed and they’ll have to throw you out. I’ll come down and smoke you out tonight, just say the word.”
“James, I appreciate your concern, but I don’t think a dishonorable discharge is quite the way to go, though it’s sure tempting.”
“Well, you just think about it and let me know,” he tells me.
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
James has always been a tempter, a siren. Growing up together in the suburbs, he was always able to talk me into doing things I would have never done on my own. I remember once he convinced a few of us to pull a bunch of tree limbs someone had hacked off from their lawn into the street to block it, forcing motorists to slam on their brakes and get out to move them before they could continue. A few times this happened and we would hide and laugh. But then this one car comes flying around the corner and without slowing, plows right into our roadblock with his new sports car. I can still hear the skidding of the tires against the pavement and the smack of the wood against the front of the car. The driver gets out of the car and hears James laughing so he gives chase to us as we scatter, without sense, up a hill. The guy grabbed me by my jacket, but I was able to slip it off my shoulders, leaving it in his hands. There’s no telling how many times James has gotten me into things like this, though, somehow, we were always able to just make it out in one piece. It’s a wonder he hasn’t got me killed or locked up.
As night falls I make my way back towards the center of downtown. I buy a couple slices of pizza from a shabby little place on King St. and sit at a table against the wall. An old black man, homeless and mentally ill, sits at the table behind me, staring down at a worn sheet of paper marked with hundreds of seemingly random numbers, talking to himself, arguing over the columns of numbers he writes, erases, and rewrites. The homeless tend to descend onto the city in the fall, fleeing the cold of the north. I’ve met many of them, sharing with them my lunch on the streets downtown, hearing their stories, having them listen as I tell mine. I finish eating and can’t find it in me to call yet for the cab home.
At the corner of King and Calhoun, I stop at the record store and buy a coffee. I take a seat in the café, and as I begin to read from a new book, a young woman walks in, sits at the piano in the corner, and begins singing through a beautifully forlorn voice. It feels as though it is the first time anything has wholly pierced my heart since I left home over a year ago. I am immediately infatuated. I sit in front of her, pretending to read, drinking coffee after coffee to have an excuse to be there, soaking in every note she bangs out, trying not to seem too obvious. She is gorgeous. Dark, wavy brown hair hangs a little past her shoulders, swinging with the rhythm she carries through her body. She wears a v-neck clinging tightly to her small frame, framing her breasts nicely, and she rarely opens her eyes while singing. It’s her passion that is the snare, but her looks don’t defy her. She finishes, packs her things, and I watch as she loads them into a beat Volvo station wagon out front. She closes the car, and I watch as she walks away, down King. I decide to write her a letter. I put in how I’ve been lifted by her voice, by her courage. I tell her I was the one in front in the café, the only one to really listen. I tell her that I’d like to see her. I place the folded letter beneath one of the windshield wipers on her car, and before I can walk away, she steps from behind a wall.
“Can I help you?” she says, confused. “You’re the guy from the coffee shop.”
“Uh, yeah,” I stammer, grossly embarrassed, turning a deep red.
“I was leaving you a letter,” I tell her. “You were really great in there. I haven’t heard anything as good since I left Memphis.”
“Oh, thanks,” she says.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just thought you should know,” I say, trying to be reassuring.
“Wait a minute,” she laughs. “Don’t you want me to read it?”
I don’t know what to say. Now I’m really embarrassed. I’m a schoolboy sending notes to a crush. This isn’t the way things are done in the real world.
“Sure,” I hesitate, “read it.”
She walks past and grabs the note from the car, unfolding it carefully. I follow her eyes as they scan the page. When she finishes, she looks up at me, “You don’t seem like you’d be in the Navy,” she says, somewhat unsure.
“Well, I never thought I’d be,” I tell her.
“What are you doing tonight?” she says.
“Nothing really, I was trying to avoid calling a cab back to base,” I say.
“You want to come with me to watch a friend play a house party?”
“I don’t have a car,” I say.
“It’s close. We can walk,” she says.
As we walk side-by-side down King, I lift glances at her without her notice, the sharp light of the streetlamps washing her skin in pale yellows. Her feet float in the sultry air above the cobblestones. After a few blocks we break off to the right, along an alley time forgot, somewhere among the many shotgun houses of the northwest side. She tells me her name is Sara. We arrive at an unassuming house littered with people and dogs. Music is heard coming from somewhere in the back, and Sara takes my hand, guiding me along, through strange faces and heated bodies, through a gate, into the backyard. A tailored garden stretches from one house to another, making it nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins. A three piece is set up in a corner, the singer, a tall lanky kid, drawls into the microphone words I don’t catch. The drummer looks as though he belongs in a church band with his conservative haircut and pastel button up, but he plays his instrument well enough. Sara leaves me to talk with a group of people around the improvised bar and returns after a moment. “The band I wanted to see canceled I guess.” We take pulls of cheap whiskey from a bottle held by a stranger while we stand around without much to say, watching the band play on. She looks at me suddenly, then glances around, and says, “Should we leave? I don’t really care for these scenes.”
“Sure. Where should we go?”
“Let’s just walk.”
We talk while walking. She tells me about how she came to live in Charleston, how she dropped out of college after only a few days, how she’s now working as a waitress at one of the many fancy restaurants about town, how her mother has been slowly dying for the past seven years, and how’s she’s taking care of her. We like the same films and music. We like the same authors. She’s got big plans and a bright spirit. She tells me more than once that I don’t seem like I’d be in the military. I tell her that she doesn’t seem like she’d be a good waitress. “You don’t seem like you could put on those airs everyday,” I tell her. She laughs.
“I’m a better actor than you think.”
She takes my hand as we walk beneath the outstretched arms of the ancient oaks along the bay. It feels nice: the warmth, the resonance of another, a feeling I’ve been lacking over the last year. I feel like I know this girl, like we’ve met someplace before. I recognize her eyes and her smell. Her heart is familiar. As we stand along the pier, out over the dark still of the bay, she kisses me midsentence as I’m speaking. She smiles and searches my face. I reach up, placing my hands on her cheeks, and pull her mouth into my mine. She tastes like home. A tingling runs through my body, the sense of being exactly where I should be.
We sit on a wooden swing on the pier and rock back and forth, kissing in between laughs. She takes a flask from her purse, and we take turns pulling from it, passing it back and forth. Time rolls away unnoticed and it’s early in the morning before we realize it. “I’ve got to catch a cab back at some point,” I tell her.
“I could give you a ride back. Or you could stay with me,” she offers.
“What about your mom?” I say.
“It’s all right. I have my own apartment in the back of the house,” she tells me. “I usually don’t bring random boys home, just so you know. I could,” she says with playful eyes, “but I don’t.”
I laugh. “I didn’t get the impression.”
She wakes me with a kiss on my neck. The morning sun pours elongated through the blinds and strikes glowing bands across the sheets and her uncovered breasts, giving her skin the appearance of gold. She’s an idol, a lowcountry goddess.
“You have to get back to the base soon don’t you?” she says, turning to glance the time on her phone. “I could never do it. I can’t seem to ever be on time.”
“You seem the type,” I say, rolling to face her, wrapping my legs around her thighs. “We could just lie here forever,” I say. She purrs into my chest, gently running her nails across my shoulders, down along my spine.
“I like you,” she says, the softness of her breath gliding against my skin.
“I like you,” I tell her.
As Sara drives, I stare out the car onto the vast swathes of marshland. I catch her glancing over at me every so often, though I pretend not to notice. Saltwater rivulets twist their way through much of this area, giving home to an astonishing number of birds and other animals. Endless seas of thick cord grasses sway beneath the influence of the winds that are picking up with the coming of fall, and the leaves on the trees are taking their cue in turn, changing the green into crisp oranges and reds. It’s a show to be witnessed. The car lists as we cross the railroad tracks, driving onto base, the robotic voice of a woman reporter pours from the radio emotionlessly talking about the latest car bombing in Baghdad. We pass the consolidated brig, where the former Guantanamo Bay detainees are being held without charge, before continuing on to the shopping area outside the power school that’s used as a rendezvous for many sailors coming and going from base. We say our goodbyes without dramatics, a simple kiss and a smile. As I walk the winding concrete, past the guards, it suddenly hits me how much work I have to catch up on, and I jog the rest of the way to my room.
It’s Tuesday. Petty Officer 1st Class Martinez is here, in class, placing our regular study on hold in order to speak with us. He sets up his laptop, places it on a table in front of the room, and shows us various clips from famous movies. We watch as Forrest Gump carries/drags what must be half his platoon from a firefight, gets shot, to then have his best friend, Bubba, die in his arms along a sweltering riverbank in Vietnam. We watch the part in Stand By Me where River Phoenix and Gordie bond while walking down the tracks. I want to see the leech scene but he doesn’t show it. Afterwards, we are supposed to discuss our feelings regarding the human dynamics, the positive group interactions, represented by the scenes, but no one really gives a shit to participate, so the whole thing turns into Petty Officer Martinez feeding us some watered-down version of moral ethics and duty, a derelict Sunday School sermon. The Marines and the Army, the Navy Seals, they bond over extreme physical conditions, running with loaded packs and rifles through the desert all day or the deadly risks in actual combat. I guess this is the nuclear Navy version of that: watching worn out films and listening to nervous rambling from an overweight man in ill-fitting clothes. It’s the best and worst kind of propaganda, the obvious. They really try to win our hearts; it’s just that they’re not so great at it. But they get fine results from the alternative, if you can’t win their hearts, control their minds, and controlling our minds they do well, and they do it by the hour.
Shultz, my old roommate, a stout, model-Aryan blonde with a squared jaw and a tight haircut, has been struggling since school began. I’m not real sure how he qualified to get here to begin with. He’s failed more than a few tests. To stimulate him, our Chief, the administrator for our section, decides that it’d be helpful to place him on more mandatory study hours, 35 – 5s, which means the amount of time he spends sitting here, in the same chair, trying to learn this material, after the regular nine hour school day, just went up to 35 hours per week with a minimum of five hours per weekday. The amount of time you get to yourself is directly proportional to your GPA, translating into Shultz not having spent any significant amount of time with his new wife in weeks. He is here when the doors open at six a.m. and stays here until midnight, when the school shuts down. Doing the math, that’s roughly eighteen hours a day. Eighteen hours a day struggling to win his freedom, staring at pages and pages of material that he can’t make sense of. He leaves only for lunch, dinner, and sleep. I can tell he hasn’t left the school when I come in to study at night because he hasn’t changed out from his uniform like the rest of us. I never see him out of uniform except for the weekends. I’ve witnessed his regression. I’ve seen the process of his beatdown. His head swings lower. His voice runs softer. Poor, sweet bastard. I couldn’t help him, even if I wanted to.
It’s Monday. We have a big test today so no outside activity was afforded over the weekend. It’s winter now and it shows. Fog pours from my lungs with each breath taken on the walk to school. We get the freezing weather without the romance of snow. I’m awake early to cram in a few more equations, a few more graphs, before class begins. Reactor Physics. It’s a bitch. I must regurgitate equations describing “exponential growth and decay” of the neutron count inside the core at various stages of criticality. I’ve got to explain the neutron life cycle, including factors whose names involve long-strung words like: “thermal fast non-leakage factor”, “resonance escape probability”, “thermal fuel utilization factor”, and “reproduction factor”. I must describe “reactivity” and all the parts that fit into the godplay that is the chain reaction. Making space inside my head for the information is having to shove an elephant into a golf ball. After forty-five minutes in the Quiet Study, I secede from my notes, deciding that another twenty minutes won’t be able to help me very much at this point. I step outside and bum a smoke from my New Jersey buddy, Nicks, who’s already at the smoke pad. I light up the first cigarette I’ve had since going into boot camp, some ten months ago. Sara hasn’t called. She won’t return my calls. Her mother took a turn for the worse over a week ago, and I haven’t heard anything since. I wonder how she’s doing, where she is.
Two more weeks roll past before I hear anything from Sara. She calls me on Wednesday night. Her mom passed.
“I’m so sorry Sara. I wish I could do something. Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would have gone to the funeral if you’d have wanted me too.”
“It’s better this way. She was a shell of herself for so long. She didn’t deserve that. I didn’t want to bother you with it. Besides, I had to go to Virginia to bury her. My uncles live there, so I stayed with the family for a few days, which is a whole other deal. Where were they when she was alive, when we actually needed them?--the sons of bitches. Sorry, you don’t want to hear that. Anyway, we’ve been going through everything, clearing the house. Most of it will have to be sold to pay off the medical bills,” Sara says.
I don’t know what to say, how to react. I ask her if I can see her.
“Maybe,” she says. “It looks like I’ll be going back and forth between here and Virginia for a while.” She sounds exhausted, but her strength shines through the receiver.
“Take care,” I tell her, weakly and out of step.
“I will,” she says.
The next morning we have to run our physical training (PT) test, which involves waking at five o’clock, pounding out at least fifty pushups and sit-ups in two minutes, and then running a mile and a half in less than eleven minutes, which doesn’t seem bad in theory, but after nearly a year sitting at a desk, stagnant and stale, it hurts. Luckily I ease through my pushups and sit-ups, then we all stretch together, looking the part of an ungraceful, arthritic Tai Chi class, then the time begins, and we’re off at a run. I’m good through half of it, keeping pace with the others, landing my feet where I should, but then the air seems to grow thin, and I can’t get enough of it. You’re pathetic, I tell myself. Every muscle in my body is screaming out to me, ordering me to lie down, to stop pushing, but the alternative is too terrible. Those of us that don’t make it in under the assigned time will be placed on a remedial program, meaning waking early to run three days a week, a prospect that does not appeal to me. I force myself to keep moving, but feel an intense burning beginning in my stomach, snaking up into my throat. The sensation reaches its peak, and I have to stretch my head over my shoulder to allow the flow of puke to avoid hitting my shoes. It’s disgusting, but no one even seems bothered by it. They understand, because the majority of them feel the same way. Some even cheer me on. I cross the finishing marker with less than twenty seconds to spare. My head is light, and I stumble about, my arms raised above my head, as I suck air into my singed lungs. Clear for another month—Relief.
Winter gives way to spring. Tests become more frequent. Shultz is no longer with us. He along with a couple others didn’t make it this far. They seemed to really try, but I guess the pace betrayed their will. For some, this style of learning simply does not work. They’ll be sent to the fleet as traditional mechanics, and they’ll probably find it more appealing in the end because they’re likely to outshine their counterparts, gaining rank quickly. Before going to sea, Shultz invites a few of us to his house on base for a little going away party. The base houses all look the same, government project houses, squatty with no flare, like everything else in the military: strictly utilitarian. He’s going to the fleet as a traditional mechanic, and when I arrive, I see him smiling, even joyful, in complete contrast to the downtrodden, broken frame I’ve gotten used to encountering. I tell him he looks good.
“Byrd, man, I couldn’t be happier. They’re sendin’ my ass to Hawaii, looks like I’ll be on a submarine tender. No more fuckin’ tests, no more fuckin’ studyin’. I’ll be layin’ on the beach with the old lady. (His new wife, who we’ve never met, because she only comes once every couple months to stay a night or two. The whole situation seems off but no one says anything. We’ve got enough to worry about.) They say I’ll be like a king on the tender, say I could make Chief in eight years if you can believe that.”
“I’m really happy for you Shultz, hell, I envy you a little bit not having to worry about another year of this shit,” I tell him, not having to exaggerate much.
“Yeah, I’m glad to be outta this hell hole,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m more of a hands-on guy, you know. Hey, I wanted to show you a few new toys I picked up.”
He leads me into a rear bedroom of the house where he begins to pull out gun after gun. When he’s finished, there’s a whole sampler spread out over his unmade bed: pistols, fully automatic assault rifles, a sniper rifle, and different makes of each. He picks up an AK-47. “My brother sent this to me, it’s a Russian one, not one of those piece of shit Chinese ones, pretty awesome huh?”
“Uh, yeah,” I say, holding my reserve. “Aren’t you supposed to turn all those in to the armory? I didn’t think you were allowed to have these on base.”
“Yeah, but I’m leavin’ in just a couple weeks, so I don’t feel like going through all that bullshit, and besides, I don’t want to give these to those bastards anyway. If somethin’ were to happen, what good would they do me locked up? No thanks, I’ll keep ‘em here.”
We were roommates my first six months here, and he was known then for being a black market knife dealer. He’d have duped guys coming and going from our dorm a few times a week, buying shitty knockoffs of KA-BARs and Gerbers and stuff. Seems his adoration of weapons didn’t end at knives. I get the feeling that he aspires to personify the second tier heroes in the films he endlessly watches. Terrible Steven Seagal and Van Damme movies. He wants to be the one who saves the day.
We eat steaks cooked on the grill in the back yard and drink beers bought for us by friends of age. I feel sorry for Shultz, but I also think that leaving the program is probably the best thing for him, he’ll be able to get to the ship and really do something for himself.
By the end of the night, I’m feeling good, warm from the alcohol and flush with drunken sentimentality for him. “If you ever need anything just let me know Shultz, I’d happy to help out anyway I can,” I tell him.
“Thanks Byrd,” he says, “I’m going to remember that.”
“No, seriously, anything at all, you just let me know. You’re a good guy Shultz…” I say, “…the best.” All those around echo my sentiments.
Sara and I see one another rarely, but when we do it feels real. She’s been busy playing caretaker to her mother’s estate, itself a full-time job, and with our workload being nearly doubled for the last month before graduation, I have little time to myself. Most of my waking hours are spent lodging theory after theory, equation after equation, into the few blank spaces still somehow left inside my head. It’s a headlong rush towards the summit. Things are speeding up and becoming more technical. We are expected to be able to recall, in full detail, everything we’ve ever learned here. The material builds on itself, creating a wobbly castle of half-learned knowledge seeming as though the whole thing could come crashing down with the next test question. It’s unnerving, but I manage to keep my mandatory study hours to a minimum, logging massive hours anyway. We all do.
Word gets around that a couple days before Shultz is to ship out, he is taken into custody. Apparently he was pulled over for driving erratically on base. The MPs search his truck and find over twenty knives making them suspicious enough to decide to search his house too. Since the military owns the house, there is no need for a search warrant; they can pretty much do whatever they choose. They end up finding and seizing all of his guns. Turns out it’s a pretty big deal. To them, it probably looked like Shultz was preparing for an assault on the school in reaction to his being kicked out of the program. They end up sending him to the brig. It’s the last anyone hears of him. Poor bastard.
The tests come and go: materials, electrical theory, instrumentation, applied calculus, chemistry, health physics, thermodynamics, and on, and on. I somehow am able to keep my grade point average hovering around 3.6 and find myself near the top of the class coming into final exams. It’s April and upon passing the finals, if we pass our finals, we graduate from the classroom portion of the training pipeline and move on to the hands-on, the portion known as “Prototype”. We are given the choice between staying in South Carolina for Prototype or to go to Ballston Spa, a small town in upstate New York about thirty miles north of Albany. I choose New York. I need a change of scenery. I need a renewal. I ask Sara if she’ll go with me. She can’t. She’s needed here, there’s no way around it. We make plans. We will stay in touch. She says she’ll come visit as she can.
The finals are comprehensive, comprising everything I’ve supposedly learned during the past year and a half, and the questions asked need to be worked at from several angles, using knowledge gleaned from every lecture ever given. They are unforgiving, virtually impossible to ace, a grueling seven-hour process no one wants to repeat. By the end of it, everyone is wiped. There are no celebratory drinks, no congratulations, no adulations. Everyone is completely spent and left on edge afterwards, too tired for anything but the hope of sleep though the anxiousness of having to wait until the next day for our results will be keeping us unwelcomed company through most of the night. I lay my head on my pillow unable to get comfortable for what seems like hours. The thought of failing, having to go through the mandatory remedial two weeks and another final exam, causes my soul to quake.
The results from our finals come back the next afternoon. We all pass, what’s left of us anyway. What started as a class twenty-eight strong has by the end dwindled to only nineteen. Graduation is tomorrow and the whole base is more chaotic than usual. The commanders have the poor schmucks on clearance-hold running around polishing brass fixtures and cleaning the huge anchors dotting the landscape about the parading area where the ceremony is to take place. We spend the day packing our things, cleaning our rooms, and clearing our lockers. Everything has to be inspected and scrutinized before I’m allowed to turn them back over. All my study materials, all my notes are to be destroyed, to keep them safe from the hands of “terrorists” and their sympathizers. All my personal affects fit easily into a single box and my sea-bag. My room passes inspection. I’m staying here tonight, because we’ll be having a uniform inspection early in the morning before graduation, and I don’t want Sara to have to make the trip so early. The walls are blank and my desk is clear as I sleep here, alone, for the last time, on top a bare mattress beneath a government-issue wool blanket, my dreams void of numbers and definitions for the first time in several months.
Sara wears a flowing yellow dress. She’s got a white flower tucked into her hair above her left ear. She’s beautiful, skin as flawless as the bay on still nights. I had to offer up her name weeks before so that she could be cleared onto base. When I hug her, she smells of whiskey. She laughs when I mention it. I sit and stand in formation with the class, taking our cues from songs and speeches. The Navy holds onto and cherishes its traditions more than any other branch of the military, so the graduation is long and drawn out. Our XO, our Executive Officer overseeing the whole program, is an older man of average build and size. I’ve seen him only a handful of times. He keeps his head down while he walks and seems bothered when having to return our salutes, but he comprises an air of brilliance about him like he’s constantly working on some mathematical formula in his mind that keeps him wholly occupied someplace other than here.
I walk across the stage when they read my name and grasp a diploma from my section leader’s hand along with a handshake. It’s like high school graduation over again, but ten times the relief is felt. When it’s over, Sara and I decide to walk the nearby park running along the Ashley River. She spreads a blanket from her car onto the ground beneath a large oak, and we have heart-aching sex out of sight beside the river within the warm arms of the Southern spring. Afterwards we lay hungrily clutching one another’s eyes, attempting to hold them, to keep them with us while we’re apart. An hour later she drops me off at the airport, and again we say our goodbyes without oversentimentals. I wave as her station wagon weaves around traffic and out of sight.
A few hours later, my plane lands in Memphis. My mother greets me at baggage claim with a stretched smile and a tight hug. We’ve only seen one another once over the past year, and it’s nice to see her face joyous to see me. Home hasn’t changed since I left. It’s strange, feeling as though so much has changed for me, so many trials I’ve faced, so many experiences, but seeing that no one and nothing I left behind even seems to have moved from the position I left them long ago. I spend the next week bouncing between friends and family. Everyone seems to want to see me, to ask me about what I’ve been doing. My father likes to show me off. We ride motorcycles down to the local bar, and he begins introducing to me everyone, “This is my son, he’s in the Navy running reactors on submarines.” There’s a real pride in his voice, and the ultraconservative town I grew up in mirrors his patriotism.
“Thanks for your service,” a large, jail-tattooed biker says to me. “I served two tours over in Vietnam when I was your age. What you’re doing over there in Iraq is damn well overdue.”
I feel a sham. Back when I first arrived in Charleston, before I earned basic privileges like wearing my own clothes, I used to have to wear my uniform out in public, and I’d have people yell slurs at me, but this feels worse, the compliments, the false comradery between real vets and me. I mean, these guys actually did something, fought in jungles to save their buddy’s life, like Forrest Gump, but me? I’ve been sitting at a desk for the past year, gaining weight and gumption for a cause I don’t believe in. I’m a fraud.
My friends try to understand why I chose this, but they can’t. “You’re not supposed to be there,” James tells me. “You’re not made for that shit, man,” he says. He speaks for all my friends. The night I left, the last time I saw James, he was drunk and sentimental, crying and hugging me, begging me not to go, not for his own benefit, but for mine. He was frightened of what would happen to me. James has been traveling India and Nepal over the last four months with his current girlfriend. We’re both adventurers in our own right, but I envy his freedom and his ability to float on luck.
Over the weekend, my father throws a barbeque, inviting most of his enormous Catholic family, as a sort of going away party for me, as I’m supposed to be in New York to move in, beginning classes within just a few days. My uncles are there, a few of my aunts, and a dozen or so cousins, including Trey, a close friend as well as cousin, born on the same day as I, making us the exact same age. He recently was honorably discharged from the 101st Airborne. He was with the first surge of guys into Afghanistan and then later into Iraq for the ousting of Saddam. I haven’t seen him for a couple years now and only hear faint hearsay of what he’s doing now. We sit together on the porch swing at the back of the house, overlooking the forest running for several acres into the opposite direction. He isn’t looking good. His normally healthy face is drawn taunt with heavy rings of dark about his eyes. He’s lost weight too since I’ve last seen him. He seems a caricature of his former self.
“How’s things, Trey?”
“Ah man, you know, never been better,” he says, smiling sarcastically, exhaling blue cigarette smoke between gritted teeth. He tells me of his new place out in the country in Holly Springs, MS, a small town not far southeast of here. He has a decent trailer on a few acres of land all to himself and his wife. Horses and chickens run the place along with Pit Bulls. He raises fighting cocks, roosters, for money and for his own entertainment. He raises Pit Bulls as well. “I had to shot one of my studs the other day. He was growling and acting crazy with a neighbor boy. I cut his head off and hung it in a tree on the property as a warning to the others.” He doesn’t tolerate over-aggressiveness in his dogs, and this to him is simply a culling of the herd. He fights the cocks on an Indian reservation near his home where the laws of Mississippi don’t apply as conservatively. Most of his sales of the cocks go to illegal Mexicans who carry over the ancient tradition from their home country. “They love it, man. Can’t get enough,” he tells me. His wife seems happy enough, stable enough, working her own career and apparently making a good living from it. “They’ve got me on all kinds of pills, you know. I haven’t been exactly stone sober since before I got out.”
“Is that all you’re on?” I ask him. “The pharmaceuticals, I mean?”
He grins. “I’ve been taking just about anything I can get my hands on, street pharmaceuticals, whatever,” he says.
“It really is tough over there isn’t it?” I say, stupidly.
He laughs. “Shit man, that part was easy. Over there, I knew my job, and I was good at it. I didn’t have to worry about bills or what I was going to make for dinner that night. I had my orders. I knew what I had to do, what was expected of me. I knew why I was fighting when I was there. The enemy was clear. He was the guy shooting at me and my brothers. I only had to focus on staying alive. Over there, all the bullshit is cut out. Things are seen from a different perspective. The stupid little shit doesn’t matter like it does here. It’s coming back here that’s the hard part. Over here, I have to worry about being evicted from my home if I don’t pay the bills. Over here, I have to fit into this consuming, selfish, ignorant society. No one knows what I did over there,” he says, looking out over the forest, “and hey don’t care to. No one can know how it feels except those guys who were there with me. I haven’t even been able to speak to them about it. I did and saw things no one should see and do. And now that I’m back, it’s hard to tell who the fucking enemies are. The bad guys here aren’t shooting at me, they blend in with everyone else. And the enemies over there are harder to recognize too, now that I’m removed from it. I have to keep telling myself what we did over there−what I did over there−what we are still doing over there−is right. I can’t live thinking what I did over there was a waste. I have to tell myself it was worth it all. I don’t have a choice.” Trey’s hand begins to tremble slightly, but he notices and tucks it into his jacket pocket before I can ask about it.
Something inside of me shatters that was already cracked. I see that I never should have been a part of this. It kills me to see someone I love in the shape that he’s in. Trey was a gung-hoe type of person his whole life. He was always wound tight. The reason he was in the military to begin with was because he was caught selling weed in high school, and given the ultimatum between jail time and the Army, and he chose the Army, but he doesn’t deserve this, no one deserves this, to be used up and left out, alone, utterly reeling from the fall. I can’t do this to anyone. I can’t be a part of something that does. The war suddenly becomes concrete, the abstractions solidified.
The rest of the day is dampened. I try to speak to everyone individually, to thank them for caring enough to come, but I don’t get very far before I begin to feel dizzy. I have to go sit by myself in my father’s study to regain my composure. My mind has been made up of it’s own accord, without much input from me. People don’t just drop out of the military. It’s not a job you can quit. There is no way out that won’t adversely affect the rest of my life. A dishonorable discharge would wipe away any chance I have to work any government or state job ever. It would wipe away government educational benefits and other possible loans. It would forever be a stain on my world and perhaps the worlds of any future family I may have as well. I am stuck. A heaviness falls on me, and I fake my way through the rest of the party.
I’m able to find a small efficiency apartment above an old print shop in Ballston Spa at the last minute. It’s old, but it’s clean, and it’s all mine. Saratoga Springs is just up the road offering overpriced boutiques and gourmet food, but it has its charm. Locally owned bookstores and large greenspaces are my sanctuaries while in town, but I barely get to acquaint myself with my new surroundings before school begins again. Knoll’s Atomic Power Laboratory, or KAPL, an experimental nuclear power facility, famous for its development of the extensively relied upon Chart of the Nuclides, is on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs in the little town of West Milton. This is where I’ll be working on actual reactors for the remainder of my training. The Navy pairs with the civilian institution to develop advances in nuclear propulsion. The short trip to base involves driving along rural backroads with small farms and barns pinned in by fences made from stones stacked one upon another. The rolling hills and light air are in sharp contrast to the flat, damp marshes of Charleston, and the change is good for me. Sara tells me over the phone that she thinks she’ll be able to visit in June or so. It gives me something to look forward to.
The first thing anyone notices when entering the base is the huge white sphere I later learn is the containment vessel for the now defunct D1G, or the “dig ball” as everyone here calls it. It rises something alien out of the surrounding forest, to tower over everything else. Enormous black crows perch on top of it, juxtaposed against the white like a painting on gessoed canvas. The story goes that they are not native to this area, but were brought in to chase off the owls that were brought in to kill the mice that were getting into the radioactive waste. The owls were apparently dropping radioactive mice remains everywhere, so the ravens were brought in to dispatch them. One problem’s answer is another answer’s problem. I park in the lot and walk through the guardhouse where it’s obvious that security measures are more extreme here than in Charleston. Massive guys dressed in black, arms the size of my thighs, lurk around corners with assault rifles and flash grenades. They don’t speak to us unless they’re giving us a warning or a suggestion, which isn’t really a suggestion at all.
We work twelve hour rotating shifts, which means for the next seven days I’ll be going to work at 3 p.m. and be getting off at 3 a.m., then after a couple days off, I’ll be going in at 3 a.m. and getting off at 3 p.m., and after seven more days, I’ll be going in at 9 a.m. and getting off at 9 p.m. It’s hell on the body. I cannot adjust to this. As soon as I get used to working a particular shift, it changes.
No more lectures. No more weekly tests. When I arrive I’m given a book two inches thick with twenty or so specific topics listed down each page. After each topic there is a blank space for an instructor’s signature and an electronic scan code. I study on my own and when I feel confident enough in my ability for that particular topic, I either find the instructors inside the power plant or in small offices, where they sit waiting for me to come in so that they can put me through the wringer to determine if I’ve studied and understand the topic well enough for them to vouch for me with their signature. These sessions can be brutal. If the instructor feels I haven’t put enough time in on the topic, he’ll intentionally go out of his way to make me feel like an ass before telling me to go study more. They don’t like their time wasted, and they make it very evident. Each room has a large whiteboard, and I often have the entire thing covered from top to bottom with equations and schematics of systems looking like bird’s eye view maps with intricate squiggly lines and symbols denoting locations of specific valves and other equipment, their purposes written in whole paragraphs to the side, and maybe an emergency procedure or two for good measure before the almighty signature is given. These are fucking grueling, but there is an advantage to getting credit in this way, the human dynamics of it. This isn’t as fixed as writing an answer on a test. The instructors can be manipulated with charm and wit, and I use this to my advantage as often as possible. I bullshit with them while smoking, asking about their Navy experiences, which they all love to talk about. I convince them to borrow the bicycles that are scattered over the base for civilian employee use and to take them on 2 a.m. races, snaking through the support beams of the dig ball, yelling out into the night as fast as our wheels will allow. They like me. I make them like me. It’s a game, the winner the one with the most signatures.
My brother calls me. He knows I’ve been worried about Trey and when I ask after him, he hesitates. “Well,” he says heavily, “I’ve been hearing some crazy shit lately I’m not sure you want to hear.”
“What is it?”
“Well, Jeremy, you know his hunting buddy that used to go to school with me?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Well, he said he went over to Trey’s the other day and Trey made him leave in a hurry to go hunting, said when they got in the car and asked what the rush was all about that Trey came right out and told him that he had a guy tied up. Said the guy kept coming around his place acting like he was gonna steal something so he grabbed him and tied him up, tied his hands behind his back, attached a rope to them, and then slung the rope up through the rafters of his chicken barn. Trey told Jeremy he’d had him in there for four days. Said he was making him use the bathroom in a fucking pail man. Told Jeremy that he made him call him Sir. It’s nuts man. Totally fucking nuts.”
“Is the guy still in there?”
“No, Trey let him go a couple days later. And it’s crazy man, now I guess the guy is working with him, helping with his chickens and dogs and stuff around his place. I guess the guy was homeless so now Trey pays him to help out,” he breaks off laughing in disbelief.
“Holy shit,” I say.
I’m taking a smoke break and Petty Officer Duncan is telling a sea story to a group of us sitting around a picnic table. “So we’re in Thailand,” he goes, “and we’re at some shitty little strip club, in some godforsaken fuckhole city, and one of the coners (a slur against the guys who work in the front half of the submarine, which looks like a cone, as opposed to the back half which is the engine room and run by the nukes) is getting the most friendly lap dance I’ve ever seen, I mean this little brown girl is rubbing her tiny pussy all in his face and mouth, all over his neck and shit, and he’s just sitting there with the biggest fucking grin on his face, just loving life. I mean, the stupid son-of-a-bitch, he tips her like a year’s worth of her salary and everything. So, after shore leave is over, we get back to the boat, and we go underway, and after a few days this guy notices that he’s a got this nasty ass boil thing growing on his lip. At first he doesn’t think too much about it, just puts some Neosporin or some shit on it and tries to forget about it, but after a week or so, this fucking thing just keeps growing, getting real fat and ugly, I mean this fucker’s growing something fierce. So finally the son-of-a-bitch goes in to see the corpsman (Navy medic), and the corpsman can’t figure out what the hell it is. He gives the guy some salve to put on it, but that shit doesn’t work, so after a few more days the guy goes back to the corpsman, and this time, the corpsman decides to cut it open, to drain it right? So the fucking guy’s sitting there and the corpsman takes his scalpel and slices into the damn thing, and man, no shit, hundreds of tiny crabs come spilling out the fucking thing, down this guys chin, and he’s fucking screaming and freaking the fuck out, carrying on and shit. And the so for the rest of the tour everyone called him Petty Officer Pussy Crab.”
These stories come often. The truth of them can be called into question, but they rarely are. They want us to like them, and I take full advantage of it. I laugh aloud at his story and later go to him for an easy signature curtailing the need to study the specifics of the actuator switch on one of the valves in the makeup feed system. This is how it’s done.
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