Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 83 – A CLASS MATTER

Among the rare times I wore my private’s uniform in public was when I was traveling by train, for the uniform meant you paid half price. On one trip up from Atlanta, where I was stationed, there was a loud drunk with a week’s stubble and foul breath who was bothering the passengers, changing seats, talking and talking, sometimes making what seemed to be threats. After he got off the train, an old lady said to me, “I wasn’t worried. I knew we had a soldier with us.”

The uniform gave me some perspective. People who went to boarding schools and the right sorts of colleges dressed differently from everyone else. Most of the time when I was in public I wore a necktie, and virtually all the time I would be in a tweed sport jacket when I was not in a suit. But when I got on a train in uniform some people smiled at me as if I were one of their own, and train conductors called me “chief,” not “sir.” Usually this felt like an attack on who I really was, but sometimes, curiously, it made me curious proud.

Less than a year after Princeton, still a civilian, I was on a Greyhound bus coming up from Miami to New York. It was the last leg of what I considered my first of many big foreign adventures, this first one my failed attempt to get to Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestre. On the bus I sat beside a retired machinist from Queens. Behind me there was a pale but vigorous young couple drinking beer. A couple of prissy passengers told them to stop opening beer cans, but they paid no attention and the driver did not involved. I was thinking how great to be an ordinary person drinking beer on a bus with your girlfriend. I had just had a lonely night in raw Miami B-girl bars, wishing I were back in Cuba.

The retired machinist talked about this great thing he had done. He had gone to Sea World. I did not tell him that I myself always avoided the tourist gags.

Out of the blue he started talking about the army. Everyone was still getting drafted even now that the Korean war was well over and there did not seem to be any more wars in sight. He was talking about how the sergeants were harsh and unfair but their attitude was part of a plan, for it was important to give the troops a really rough time in order to toughen them up,

I had said nothing about myself up till now – certainly not that I had been trying to join a rebel leader but had been caught by Batista soldiers and had had to settle for Hemingwayesque adventures in small fishing boats, and for nights with cheap rum and ripe girls. But I did tell him how while still away (implying I had been in Florida, not Cuba) my father in Connecticut had sent along my draft notice.

He spoke now in an usually kindly way – this working class man – about how I could make my army time into a great opportunity, how I could let the army teach me a trade and thus be set for life when I came out.

I did not tell him that I had already started a career as a journalist, and was busy writing novels, and had recently graduated from Princeton, and planned all sorts of adventurous travel. And I did not tell him I planned to hold on to my summer base in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I was proud that I was able to fool him.

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