On good days when I was 22 it seemed as if I had come a very long way from early times when I was at the bottom of the heap, and a few more recent times in circles run by bullies and potential bullies – as in a boisterous rich guy in our summer exchange group in Holland when I was 17 – and later some encounters with Republican jocks at Princeton – but for the most part I thought I was as far as you could be from the horror of my early days – the sadistic camp counselors, the militaristic society kids in that year we spent in the city – those times, like at the start in boarding school, where it was as if I were so far beneath contempt that anyone could do anything they wanted to me – as it seemed sometimes too in the bosom of the family in Connecticut. But it also seemed I had come so very far from those times as to be forever safe.
I had had my summers in Europe. I had had this amazing girlfriend I met in the White Mountains. I had spent a large part of my college days away in various part of New York not inhabited by dumb, Republican Princeton people, and certainly not by people from the family. And in the months since then I had been so very far out in the world – I was in Indianapolis covering right wing politics for United Press, dealing with the one-time Klan people who ran the state including a dapper senator named Jenner, who had been passed the mantle of the recently disgraced Joe McCarthy. And I was having the time of my life, getting into every corner, things licit and illicit, of that city that was so far out of my experience – me on my own now, all preordained family and school things behind me.
Four separate railroad companies ran tracks from Indianapolis to Chicago – it was that easy to get out if leaving Hoosiers behind was your goal. On weekends up there I was in the beat world I had read about, and I had Second City, the College of Complexes, jazz and strippers and South Side blues, and Hopper at the Art Institute – and girls sometimes, and also a society of people from the old left United Electrical Workers. On my own, paying my own way and exhilarated by it. Some mornings I would wake up in my brick rooming house, where I wrote an unpublishable novel, and find myself wildly angry at the far away family that no longer paid for me. Then I would step out onto North Pennsylvania Avenue and head down past the old Claypool Hotel, which smelled of cigar smokes even from the outside, and then gypsy storefronts to the Indianapolis Times building in the midst of one of the city's skid rows, and the world would seem light and bright.
But the darkness was not always at bay, and finally came in almost to consume me. I would wander the streets all night – past the Neuremburg-like back marble eagles and pillars of the two-block-long American Legion headquarters, and the old raidroad station, and the stockyards, and the little hotels that filled up with wonderful young whores when the legislature was in session – wandering through the night feeling harsh and hopeless. And there was a night when – my draft notice having arrived in Connecticut (as I was informed in oddly prissy tones on the phone with my father) – I got on a plane to Miami at 2 in the morning, and from there switched to an empty Air Cubana flight to Havana, where tanks were in the street and everyone knew now that Castro was alive down in the Sierra Maestre. But I got caught on the edge of the mountains by sweaty fat government men with tommy guns, and so did not get to Castro, but made my way back to Havana for three weeks drinking and much more, in dance places and brothels, with especially fine girls in rooms above the waterfront bars – and dangerous nights with fisherman from Cojimar in small boats out of sight of land, once landing a shark who seemed to have the advantage, but not failing to stop at a little harbor island girl place on the way out into the Gulf of Mexico. This was living.
The moment I got back to Connecticut I was in a depression so deep I did not have a word for it – a black time of hopelessness way beyond anything I could imagine. Indianapolis had never existed, Cuba was a dream, so were the girls, and so was my wire service e career, and so too my projected life as a novelist. So since nothing mattered I did go into the army, lined up in Bridgeport for to Ft. Dix, and from there a train to Ft. Benning.
Before then, as the induction day drew closer, some fear did penetrate the blackness. All the descriptions I had read of basic training and the rest of that military idiocy – as in James Jones – seemed just like descriptions of my worst times in summer camp and school.
But to my surprise, almost to my horror that the army might be responsible, the moment I was on the army bus the blackness lifted. I was top of the world here in basic training, as if, though I would not admit this, nothing could be better.
I almost wished it would be the expected James Jones world, but it was actually a good time, a lively group of draftees, officers who feared us more than we feared them since it was between wars and many were being asked to leave the army and might well have to go to people like us while looking for civilian work. Everything was still there to make it just like school or summer camp, but the army never had the power of those deep past places. Much of the time we sat around smoking so as to be kept out of sight, we uncaring and slovenly reluctant draftees, from touring delegations of foreign offiers in fancy uniforms broughg to Amrica because of the grim Eisenhower/Dulles allilances – SEATO, CENTO, a pumped up NATO – for American hegemony.
Ocasionally we put out our cigarettes and would be brought back form hiding. Every once in a while we would actully line up to do calisthenics. I would not rise off the ground in the pushups part. The harried officer leading us yelled “What are ya doing Poole, social exorcises?” And the laughing crowed was on my side, not his.
Others were, however, on the bottom of the heap here as I had once been elsewhere. And we had in our company a bully who reminded my of the raw sadistic hockey players at boarding school who would spit insults at me as one of them twisted my arm till I thought it would break. And this army bully was like the camp counselors when I was 8. And yet this wasn’t terrifying for me, though it was for some. They were picking on a fat momma's boy sort of guy who really could not keep up, and I stepped in and told them to stop, and the did! It seemed the most natural thing it he world – not scary the way facing the enemy down had been when I was younger and not on my own. The army in the deep South, my version, was very tame compared to an Episcopalian boarding school in New England.