Chapter 1 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS

I was sick. Really really fucked up and feverish. I had been afraid to go on sick call my last week of Basic Training because of what might happen: The Army could refuse to process my orders to Fort Huachuca--a nice safe place in the American desert--re-cycle me, which would mean going through Basic again, and then do what they probably always wanted to do in the first place--send my raggedy ass to Vietnam, a very dangerous place in the Indochinese jungle. This was in 1969 and it was the very definition of Bad Karma.

So, temperature soaring, alternating shivers and sweats, I found myself on a little Apache Airlines commuter plane, bouncing and jouncing through the Arizona skies on the final leg of my trip from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Looking down, I could see a landscape unlike anything I'd ever imagined, but, really, I was too sick to care.

The in-processing and attendant ceremony once I got to the post was an hallucinogenic blur. I was out of my head with fever, and when I finally saw a doctor, maybe three days after I got there, he prescribed antibiotics and put me on light duty--which is where my real problems began.

In the days before computers, the military used a torturous system of supply-and-demand-based manpower management. The TOA (Table of Allotment) dictated how many soldiers and how much equipment any given duty section could obtain. The section chief would put in for X men and Y equipment and eventually, maybe months later, his wish would be fulfilled, to the best of the Army's ability.

My Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was 03B20, Entertainment Specialist, based on my Civilian Acquired Skill-- A B.A. in acting and directing and a bunch of summer stock and regional theater. I had been assigned to the Entertainment Section at Fort Huachuca, which was a ragtag bunch of actors, directors, and misfits headed up by a hot-tempered bi-polar civilian named Mickey D'Angelo. D'Angelo, or D as he was called, hated my East Coast guts from the minute we met. I wasn't the kind of 03B20 he was looking for, you see, though I never really found out why.

The Entertainment Section, in the parlance of the day, had the military dicked. We wore our hair long, slept in cause we worked at night, and generally made life miserable for the real soldiers, and even for our brethren in leisure, the 03C20's--the guys who handed out towels and volleyballs at the gym. The 03B's and C's were billeted with a bunch of Adjutant General's Office-types, some clerks and librarians and Military Policemen--the people who make the Army run but don't do any shooting. They called us Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers, or REMFS. We were more likely to die in a car crash on the way to Tucson, drunk as skunks in a basket, than in combat.

I think D loathed REMFs, basically. He'd put in twenty years as a soldier in the old brown boot army, had failed to be promoted at some point, had left the military and now, as a civilian, was doing a job he hated, surrounded by people he hated more. It was not a recipe for peace, love, and understanding.

In the greater scheme of things the Entertainment Section existed to piss D off. Artists and musicians, potheads and drunks, these were not the sort of people the military gives too much latitude. But the Table of Allotment said the garrison at Fort Huachuca must have Entertainment, and there we were--at the height of the Vietnam War--producing and directing plays, requisitioning lightboards and sound equipment, all according to the TOA.

D tried to run his section like a real military operation, but it was hopeless and he knew it. He chain-smoked and drank coffee all day, anxiously trying to keep things under control in his Type-A personality sort of way. It was a fool's errand. He was a prisoner to the regulations. And so were we all.

The other guys in the billet liked to party. Army life was like one continuous New Year's Eve for them, and after about a week they got pissed at me cause I never went out. The fact of course was that I was still sick, but these fun-loving bastards, these master cooze-hounds bloody well kidnapped me one night, just before Christmas. I was trying to get a little rest, cause D was having a Christmas party later that night and attendance was mandatory for all the 03B's. These guys came up to my bunk, ignored my sickly protests, threw a blanket over my head and gleefully carried me bodily down the stairs to their car.

At which point I had to endure a long ride Somewhere. They made me smoke smoke and drink drinks and, what with the drugs that were already in my beleaguered system, I was in pretty sad shape by the time we crossed the border. Into Mexico. It was Anything Can Happen Day and I didn't even have a map.

Through sleep-encrusted eyelids I could see a narrow sliver of green neon pulsating on the horizon. The car bumped sickeningly on the dirt road. Janis Joplin was still wailing on the eight-track stereo when the driver switched the engine off. We were parked in front of an adobe roadhouse in Agua Prieta (Dirty Water), Mexico, with no other buildings in sight. My drunken G.I. buddies sloshed out of the car. Somebody pulled me along for the ride of my life.

Inside was depressing. It was too bright and hot, and there were four or five Mexican cowboys drinking cervezas along with maybe half a dozen of the skankiest women I'd ever seen. Hard old Mexican whores with way too much makeup, skinny legs, and skirts and blouses stretched beyond the laws of physics. In self-defense I ordered a beer. Dos Equis. One X for my ears, the other for my eyes. I felt miserable.

My compadres wasted no time. Like niños in a candy store they peeled off, one after the other, with these damas de la noche. Geezus, I thought to myself. I've gotta remember this. Maybe write it down someday.

More cars pulled up. More G.I.'s from the post. I was a virtual prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse a couple days before Christmas. What next?

As if by cue from the Almighty Above, Lola walked in. Through the same door all my buddies had gone out. She was five-two or three, hair black as night, eyes like diamonds that looked into mine and burned their way through the back of my skull. She had great legs and a beautiful body and her high heels clitty-clattered all the way over to me. She put her hand on my thigh and ordered a drink, never looking away from me. The barkeep took a bill from my pile, but before I could enjoy a simple conversation with this mexicana whose drink I'd just bought, another guy from the post came up and off she went with him, the little whore.

My enfeebled brain tried to wrap itself around the circumstances: Though I was supposed to be at D's Christmas party in a couple hours, I had instead found myself somewhere south of the border, totally crocked, egotistically assuming moral superiority over everybody else in the room, and this puta had just walked up to me and rocked my world. I am a pig. I am lower than low. Damn she was cute. Gimme another X, barkeep.

And so it went, all night long. Whore after whore after whore. Soldier after soldier after soldier. Patterns developed: there was a kind of hierarchy here. The oldest whores turned their tricks the quickest, which, one supposes, means they made the most money. None of the Mexican men were doing anything but drinking. Lola turned every head in the room every time she came back. Some of my buddies went back for seconds. All of them, eventually, went with Lola.

So much for true love. The combination of penicillin, cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, and Pine Bros. Coughdrops had spiraled into something approaching insanity. I was feeling like Vincent Van Gogh and I wanted to cut something off just to ease the pain when she came over to me again.

"Why don't you come with me?" she taunted in good English. "I will make you so happy."

Why? Gee, I can give you a dozen reasons. You just fucked everybody in the room except those guys who must be your brothers and uncles.

I was feeling less than Seasonal Good Will when she started to run those slender fingers up and down my leg again. Her nail polish was quite lovely. Her breath smelled so good.

"Come on, G.I. You're so handsome and strong."

She punctuated that one with a squeeze. I was disgusted with her and with myself for wanting her, but I bought us both another drink. With any luck I'd pass out and be out of this misery.

Before the drinks came, Lola played her hole card: As she was whispering in my ear, she playfully removed my glasses and shoved them between her breasts. Tongue tipping between her lips, she wriggled away from me, fingers fingering the air.

"Come on, G.I. I'll be so good for you."

It pissed me off. I think I must've yelled hey!, but the next thing I knew, all the Mexican men were on their feet in an extremely not-good way. I heard a ker-click behind me, turned around, and found myself staring down the black-eyed barrel of a Very Bad Trip. The gunman waved towards Lola who was waving my glasses at me.

To think: I could've been safe in Vietnam, and now, because of some lousy cold medication and bad timing, I'm gonna end up on the floor of a whorehouse in Dirty Water, Mexico, courtesy of Samuel Colt. There was some tension in the room you could say. It was all up to me.

They say a man's got to do what a man's got to do, and it appeared to me and everybody else that I was going to have to do Lola. If I wanted to get my glasses back. Which I did, cause I was gonna have to drive to D's party later. If I was alive to drive.

I followed that beautiful young girl through the door, drafting along in the wave of her perfume. The doorway opened onto a courtyard. There were maybe twelve rooms, each with a blue light over the door, flanking a garden with a fountain. What a pretty place I thought. This doesn't look like a Mexican whorehouse.

Lola clattered happily down the left side of the courtyard, twittering along in Spanish as though this were something she did every day. Come to think of it, it was something she did every day. Death comes from the left! Death comes from the left! my feeble brain warned. I guess I was remembering something from school. Something academic. Aesthetic. Philosophical. A Theory.

That's the trouble with schools. They don't get you ready for the Big Transition. The Real World is a theory in school. For me and Lola, right about then, the Real World was a small room at the end of a not unpleasant walk in the garden.

Lola's room was crowded with stuff. Toy animals and perfume and makeup and photos on the wall. Whatever persona she had cultivated out in the bar melted away in her room. She was just a girl. Doing a woman's business. I paid her fifteen dollars.

"Wash!" she commanded.

I looked around. There was a sink in the corner. No running water. A five gallon jug stood there. Some soap. A wash cloth.

"Wash heem up!" she ordered, shaking my glasses and pointing at my unit.

I have to tell you, I'd never been in any situation even remotely like this before. The only thing going through my mind was that if I played my cards right I could still get to D's Christmas party alive.

We begin the dance that men and women dance. She was so young and beautiful. I was so drunk and confused. I remembered I had protection in my wallet. The same one that had been in there since college probably, but this is where things got really weird. She wouldn't let me use it. She was hushing me and kissing me and nibbling me and soothing me and she wouldn't even think of letting me do the Safe Thing. It was weird.

She moved languorously under me, and she seemed to be enjoying herself, and I realized I was committing a crime for which someday I would have to pay, and in a very short amount of time it was over, and Lola smiled a girlish, guileless smile, and I got my glasses back, and as soon as I got back in the car I knew I had the clap.

Those assholes who'd got me into this thought it was really hilarious. All those watered-down drinks I'd bought. For what, three minutes with Lolita? They referred to her as Lolita. I hadn't thought about that so much. It bothered me all the way back home, everything. What was the Point of all this? God and I have had lots of dialogs over the years. This was one he didn't want to talk about. Janice Joplin scored my private little psycho-movie: "So Come on, Come on, Break it....

I got to D's party after midnight. Here are some things that I'll never forget:

D was sweating profusely as I came through the door. His white shirt was soaked through and he didn't smell good. His tie was loose and he had a big wad of bills in his hands he was counting. He licked his lips, he smiled, and he said:

"Hey! You made it! Come on in! This is a night you'll never forget."

The party felt good. Young Americans, far from all the Bad Stuff, in a church basement in Southeastern Arizona on a chilly December night. I took a deep breath, and was about to go get some food when I was enveloped in the most beautiful scent. From out of the blur of the crowd and the music came a young woman. A woman who took your breath away when she smiled. I held out my hand. Who was she? Where had she come from? What was she doing for the rest of her life?

These were some of the questions that I wanted to ask, but somehow I couldn't because we danced and we danced and we danced. She felt so good next to me. Her body fit mine so well. She was so pliant when she needed to be, so forceful when that was the thing required. We talked easily together and she made me forget everything and everybody. There was no question in our minds that we would marry and grow old together.

Once our souls had gotten that squared away, and after we'd kissed our first kiss at the end of A Whiter Shade of Pale, we agreed that it might be good to eat, for the night was young. We turned toward the food, fingers entwined, and had not taken but a step or two into our future when a kind of shock, a palpable slap came out of the crowd to my left. I saw D, forty feet away, clutching his chest and falling heavily to the floor. There was an enormous thud when his head hit and all hell broke loose. People crowded around. There was confusion and then crying. D's face was grey, grey as an old cold sidewalk. There was no question he was dead. One of the G.I.'s had been a paramedic. He worked on him till the ambulance got there. The two of them were covered in D's vomit and beer by then, but it was hopeless.

We buried D three days later. I never got her name. The Entertainment Program at Fort Huachuca fell apart and the Army treated me free-of-charge for V.D. It wasn't long before I got my orders for Vietnam.

And for this happily-very-long-time after, when the night is cold and Christmas is in the air, whenever I hear that song, I think of the girl I left and the woman I lost the night D'Angelo died.

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale.



Next



On Vietnam:

REMFS

  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten

grunts
Phantom
The Hooch

a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Draft
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

AK-47
Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
MOS
Project 100,000
REMF
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

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