January 1965, and at Fort Polk, Louisiana it isn't all that cold. No snow, hardly any wind, just some chilly nights and early mornings, and a feeling of being in another world, a world so far away from what we knew, from what we miss, from what we didn't appreciate when we were still there...
Mister Lonely, by Bobby Vinton, comes on, and I'm a brand-new private in the Army, sitting at the picnic table out in back of the small satellite PX across from the Basic Training company area, my hands wrapped around a cold 3.2 JAX beer, listening to the words as they pour from the juke box, feeling the words, knowing the emotions of the song and what they are saying to me, personally... and I toss back the rest of the beer, and get up and go back inside and put my quarter down and get another and take it back out to the table.
All around me are maybe half a hundred other guys, all in nearly new fatigues, some still starched, all of us sitting at the tables on the concrete deck, all of us with at least one beer in front of us, and the song starts over again....
Someone punched in a few dollars worth of quarters and hit that button as many times as there was money in there.... everyone, it seems, likes the song, relates to it, and we are one sad and sorry
bunch, sitting there, almost singing out loud with the song, and you can see some of us, myself included, mouthing the words, because the song reaches down, deep down, into our very souls, and wraps itself around our minds and our memories and our present situation... and we all want to weep.
We don't, of course, but it would be so good, so very good, to just be able to curl up in some dim, hidden corner, away from reality, and cry ourselves to sleep... because we have all come to this place, and we have been through so much that is so foreign to anything we have ever known, to anything we could have imagined, and we can't see into the future far enough to know what is waiting there for us... and we fear that.
So we sit there, at the tables behind the PX, and we drink our ration of three beers, and we find, to our surprise, that in the short time we have not had any beers, that the three seem to be hitting us just a bit, and we are glad for that... we want to dim the edges, make them not so sharp, because we fear the edges, as well.
It is late afternoon on a Sunday, and we all have to be back in our company areas at least a half hour before evening chow, and we know that once we have finished our third beer, because that is all we may have today, (they have given us a ration card that we must present to buy a beer, and they control us that way, as well)... once we have finished that last beer, we will have no reason to stay here, away from the company area, away, for the moment, from the Army and from all that we are slowly learning to hate and respect and fear and be in awe of.
We will walk slowly back to our company area, lost in our thoughts, or trying not to think too much, because in thoughts we find fears and memories and we are having enough trouble handling the everyday reality of our present circumstances, so we really don't want to think today.
I have one beer left on my card, and I bring it back to the table, as have others, just as the first drops of rain start to fall from the low clouds above us, and those of us who have not finished our allotment remain seated as the rain starts to pour down harder, while those who either don't care about their beer, or have finished, or are concerned about getting wet – they leave in a hurry, seeking the shelter of the inside of the PX, or running back to their company areas.
I remain seated, determined to enjoy my time off from the Army, as limited as it is, and to enjoy my beer, because I know it will be the last one I will be allowed until we finish our sixth training week.
When I have finished my beer, I rise and walk slowly back to my company area, and just as I pass by the Orderly Room, the rain falters, then stops, and the sun comes back out again, as if to say it isn't really all that bad.
Maybe it isn't — maybe it's all good, and I just don't see it yet.
Tomorrow we go to the rifle range to zero in our weapons and learn the various ways to fire our rifles in order to extinguish the lives of those who would try to take ours first.
I am learning that I am changing, and I am not sure that I like the way that is happening.