Roving thoughts and provocations

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My Fourth of July

© Bettmann/Corbis
National Guard members returning from active duty, New York, 1962

Summer is the time when memories of other summers flood back. You lie on the beach, take a swim in the sea, or toss and turn at night unable to sleep because of the heat, and recall yourself doing the same in years past, or surprise yourself by remembering a half-forgotten, entirely different summer experience. The year is 1963. I’m on an army ship playing poker for high stakes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. None of us has any money, but once we arrive in Brooklyn, get discharged and receive our pay, we’ll settle what we owe and collect what we have coming to us. I don’t believe this will happen, but I pretend I do and win and lose fortunes with the composure of a dissolute prince in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

The trip from Bremerhaven was supposed to take seven days, and for the first four days our progress was diligently marked on the large map outside the mess hall. Then on the fifth morning the map disappeared. We asked our sergeants, the sergeants asked the officers, and they in turn asked the captain, but no explanation was forthcoming. “Our progress will be posted tomorrow again,” some major or colonel announced confidently. Besides fighting wars, the main business of the US Army is lying to its own soldiers when it is not lying to their fellow Americans. The only people who find that hard to believe are those who have never served in the military.

Since the weather was balmy, most of the soldiers spent their time sunbathing on the deck. One afternoon after the map disappeared, someone noticed that the ship’s engines were idling and that we appeared to be aimlessly drifting. Immediately, the questions started: How far are we from land? The day was clear, but there was no sign of it anywhere on the horizon. The sergeants came back with the answer that we had just passed the halfway point of our journey. It made no sense, but we consoled ourselves that the old tub we were sailing on probably couldn’t go any faster.

We were settling back to resume our sunbathing, when some fellow turned on his transistor radio. Instead of the static, which is all we heard while crossing the Atlantic, a station came in loud and clear. Not just one, but dozens. “The temperature at Times Square is 96 degrees,” I remember a DJ announcing. Even sergeants and officers, who as a rule never had a single independent thought in their heads, grew agitated realizing at last that we were close to shore and for reasons unknown in no hurry to get there.

The next day it was the same thing. Everyone who owned a radio had it turned on to full volume. We heard about the heavy traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the George Washington Bridge, but we could see no land. The buzz that went around, and which pissed everybody off, was that the Navy was waiting for the Fourth of July weekend to be over so they didn’t have to pay longshoremen overtime to unload the ship. Whatever the reason was, as we drifted offshore for one more day, anarchy broke out on the ship. It began with a bunch of soldiers cutting the pants of their uniforms above the knees, turning them into shorts and parading like that naked to the waist.

Others who were about to be discharged took up the challenge. They started throwing their army clothes overboard. Less shit to carry was the explanation. A colonel came around threatening mass court martials upon debarkation, but nobody paid attention to him, except for me. I threw my stuff into the sea at night. In the bright moonlight I caught a glimpse of my long johns riding the waves and my boots bobbing and sinking. The day we docked, there was a rumor that they’d inventory the contents of our duffel bags, but they did not. For once, the Army could not wait to get rid of us.

Still, with hundreds of soldiers being discharged and my last name being down in the alphabetical order, it was hours before I was finally done with all the paper work and permitted to leave. I recall sprinting through the gate of Fort Hamilton into the busy street and hailing a taxi that had just turned the corner. I may have shoved a soldier and his parents out of my way to get in, but I didn’t care. They could not have stopped me with a bullet. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the traffic was already crawling on the East River bridges, but I was in heaven. I leaned back in the seat and took in the skyline and the busy harbor as if I was seeing them for the first time.

No city displays its mixture of beauty and ugliness as brazenly as New York does. It’s one thing to see a city with cathedrals and other church towers from an approaching train as one does in Europe and another to see Manhattan with buildings of every size thrown together more or less haphazardly and its streets packed with humanity all coming into view simultaneously. I still can’t believe my eyes every time I see it. That day, too, I found myself catching my breath.

I did not have a bad time in the Army; nevertheless, being in a military is like being a citizen of a totalitarian state. Nobody gives a damn who you are and what you think. That was the problem with civilians, a major once explained to me. They have a perverse attachment to their own opinions. The true sense of the self can only come from obedience, from submitting to an organization like the army, which works for greater good, he told me. Since I was just a private first class he deigned to share this piece of wisdom with because I was his driver for the day, I nodded my head in agreement. I wish that fascist prick could see all these free people now, I thought as the taxi took me through the crowded, muggy, rubbish-strewn, smelly, and absolutely fabulous streets of Manhattan.

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