It’s 1963 and the word is out: there’s a war on.
It’s in a small country I’ve never heard of—Vietnam. A former French colony in a part of Southeast Asia, formerly known as Indochina. Previously portrayed in Hollywood Geography 101 as a place where slit-skirt Eurasian beauties seduce world-weary Soldiers of Fortune at the behest of devious Oriental spies.
The French are gone now, worn down by a ten year insurgency , which ended in a humiliating defeat at a place called Dien Bien Phu by a Communist revolutionary named Ho Chi Minh. Ho rules North Vietnam and has launched a guerilla force called the Viet Cong to conquer the south. All this is news to me. And to the orators in Union Square Park. They’ve been so busy channeling Mao, Trotsky and Che they didn’t even notice this slight man with his wispy beard and black pajamas creeping out of the jungle.
South Vietnam is ruled by a family of decadents, druggies, orgiasts and dragon ladies. Christians oppressing Buddhists. Despised by everyone, including its C IA handlers. But they are fighting Communists and JFK launches an uncertain military adventure to prop up their regime. His strategists are anonymous for the moment—the Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge; Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, William Colby. Soon their names will become anathema. They’ve been sneaking troops and dirty tricksters into Vietnam for over a year. Now the force has reached critical mass and gotten the world’s attention. Peter Arnett, an AP reporter, is on the scene when American “advisors” suffer their first defeat at Ap Bac. When the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem invades a Buddhist pagoda, slaughtering a thousand monks and nuns. When a monk sets himself on fire to protest Diem’s persecution of Buddhists and sets off an epidemic of immolations across the country.
I’ve been a radical by style, not conviction. I’m good at alienation. I find the role of the disaffected rebel a successful romantic strategy; you can’t get laid waving a flag in Greenwich Village. But secretly I believe Americans are the Good Guys. We provided sanctuary for my grandparents. Beat Hitler and freed Europe. We gallop to the aid of the oppressed. Overthrow dictators. Restore democracy and freedom of worship. I get chIlls at ball games. when I hear the Star Spangled Banner.
Now I’m confused. Are we supporting dictators who kill monks? Who torture dissidents and fix elections? Union Square is a circus, but suddenly, the clowns have become prophets. Morris Krieger, the ancient anarchist in the Florida shirt with alligators chasing bathing beauties, gumming his wife’s cheese sandwiches while he predicts that “Camelot will have its war.” Lonnie, the one-eyed wino in the fatigue jacket, guzzling Gallo sherry and talking about the “secret assassination missions” he undertook in Guatemala and Lebanon for the “Special Forces.” The Nation of Islam preacher who says the war is a plot “to keep restless black men under military control.” The twin brothers with deranged grins who walk through the park talking in tongues and brandishing signs reading USEFUL IDIOTS FOR THE CIA.
The pimply kids at the Communist Party bridge table, who everybody says are really FBI agents, have a new speaker—a crew cut Southern boy with a US ARMY tattoo, coiling snakes, screaming eagles…
“Who is the most expendable person in the world?” he demands in a strident twang. “The common soldier. They give you forty days of trainin’, but most of that is learnin’ how to make your bed and about face and obey orders no matter how dumb. What good is marchin’ in step and havin’ a neat foot locker when you’re in combat against troops who have spent years under arms on their own terrain? The Army’ll drop you in the jungle and hope you outnumber the enemy ’cause you sure ain’t gonna outfight him. Oh you’ll get good at it if you live long enough. But you can’t win. You ain’t fightin’ human beings, you’re fightin’ history…”
I’m working as a copyboy at the New York Post. I come in at 8am, just as the trucks are pulling out with the Late City, the first edition. The lobster shift editors and rewrite men shuffle blearily past me The city room is the size of a factory floor. It fills quickly as the day shift begins. The clatter of a hundred typewriters, the voices calling, the rumble of the presses bringing the news—and I’m part of it.
Every morning I sharpen a few hundred thick, black One H pencils. Make hundreds of “books”–three sheets of copy paper, two of carbon paper for the reporters. Run down to the luncheonette on the first floor for breakfast orders. Saul, the owner, knows everybody’s breakfast; all I have to do is say a name. Run stories from the city desk to the copy desk. Run page dummies to the printers in the composing room. Pick up the galleys from the proof readers. Run up to the mail room to get a stack of the next edition– fifty papers which I deliver to all the offices all over the building, ending up at the 15th floor aerie of the publisher, Dorothy Schiff. The paper changes eight times a day, stories added or rewritten, front page recast, until it is “put to bed” with the “Final Market” edition, which gives the closing prices on the Stock Exchange. On my first day I was told: “everybody in this room is your boss.” I go on personal errands. Get clippings from the library or the “morgue.” Run last minute headlines or rewrites out to the composing room as a new edition is going to press. I change typewriter ribbons for lady reporters who don’t want top get smudgy. Make liquor runs; get soda and ice for the editors’ cocktails. Get lunch orders: it’s amazing how these people eat the same lunch every day as well and Saul knows them all. I bolt a turkey sandwich with Russian dressing while I’m waiting.
At 4:30 I leave work with a copy of the last edition still warm from the press. I’ve got carbon paper and graphite smears on my face, blisters on my fingers from the pencils. If it’s hot I sweated through my shirt and smell myself on the subway. I go to the Cube Steak House on Sixth Avenue for meat loaf with mashed potatoes and baked beans. Spread the paper on the counter and read every word. Then after rice pudding and light coffee with four spoons of sugar I hit the street. Within a half hour I run into someone I know—sometimes it’s even a female. We go to one of the four art houses in the Village to see an old movie.
It’s not the war. It’s not the capitalist oligarchy. I just don’t want this life to end.
Curt, the chief copy boy, got himself declared 4F, “permanently unfit for service,” which means they’ll never bother him again.
“Tell ‘em you’re queer,” he says. “My girlfriend gave me a good idea. Polish your nails and then scrape most of it off so it looks like you were trying to hide it.”
I get the polish, but chicken out at the last minute. Ditto the eye shadow and the cheap perfume.
Selective Service Headquarters on Whitehall Street has a fortress vibe. Broken pickets are scattered on the sidewalk, along with scraps of signs and a torn flag, the remnants of an anti-draft demonstration the day before. Two Shore Patrol guys (Navy MP’s) stand guard at the door checking draft cards. There are more non-coms inside, walking up and down the line.
The first time there was silence. Now there is nervous talk in the ranks. One kid who enlisted says the recruiter told him to volunteer for the paratroops. “You get special treatment,” he says. “Plus 16 dollars jump pay the Sergeant told me.”
An older guy in gray-green Army underwear shakes his head. “You won’t make it, you’re too short.”
Another kid says he and his friend are going in on the “buddy plan” where they’ll get to serve together.
“That’s just a come on,” the older guy says. “They’ll put you were they need you…”
“But they signed a contract,” the kid says.
“You have no rights in the Military,” the older guy says. “You’re under the Military Code of Justice. Bend over, spread your cheeks and kiss your ass good bye…”
He is approached by two MP’s. “You back again?” He turns away. “This is a public building,”he says. They tell him to step out. He refuses. “I wanna see the OD,” he says. “I wanna speak to an officer. I have a right to express my views.” They grab him by the arms. He breaks away. “Don’t fall for their lies,” he shouts. Two more MP”s run down the corridor. They carry him, flailing and yelling: “Don’t give them your lives…Resist…Resist!” Then he’s gone behind a slamming door and we move on in uneasy silence.
I had stared at “homosexual experiences” on the form for minutes until a Sergeant prodded me, “let’s go” and then hurriedly checked it off. Every medic along the line sees it and gives me a quizzical look.
They send me to cubicle at the end of the corridor. A kid brushes by me with his head down. An old man in a white coat, looks over my form, hands trembling.
“You live in Greenwich Village?” he says with a slight German accent.
“This is the homosexual quarter, no?”
“They have special bars with code names, right? A color and an animal means it is a gathering place for homosexuals. Like Pink Pussycat. Or Green Parrot. Right?” He looks up at me with beagle-brown eyes.” Do you frequent these places?”
He’s trying to trap me. “I can’t afford to go to bars,” I say.
He nods, appreciating my answer.
“So…Do you do fellation?” he asks.
“Do you take a big penis in your mouth?”
Say yes, what difference does it make?
I shake my head.
“Do you like a cock rammed up your anus?” he asks.
Say yes, for God’s sake, you have to say yes to something.
“ I don’t…”
“Maybe a fist?” he says. “This was a popular practice in the Turkish forces…”
Can’t do it.
“Foreign objects? In the military hospital we found the most amazing things in rectums…”
“No,” I say.
“So,” he says, tapping his pen on the table. “Sado-masochistic? Devices of restraint and punishment. Whips…Cock rings? Very popular with the SS… Do you know what a cock ring is, Mr. Gould?”
“I uh, am not, uh…”
He looks past me, irritably. A small line has formed outside his door.
“What is the dream of many homosexuals, Mr. Gould…?”
“I really don’t…”
“To be surrounded by young men, correct? To train with them, eat with them, sleep with them, take showers with them. To be at sea with a thousand handsome young men in sailor suits. In other words, to be in the military…Wouldn’t it make sense that some homosexuals would pretend to be heterosexual so they could get into this wonderful paradise?”
“I don’t know…”
He cuts me off, impatiently. “Have you ever considered a career in the theatre? Don’t.”
I rise, sensing the interview is over. The old man writes on my form, saying:
“The American military has a theory that any young man who is so anxious to avoid military service that he will pretend to be homosexual, should not be given the privilege of serving. So, anyone who walks through my door is automatically exempted. But soon there will be a need for manpower and so the theory will be modified to fit the necessity. In other words—” he waves his pen and says loud enough for the kids outside to hear:
“Next year this little trick won’t work.”
NEXT: A PERFECT JOB FOR A LIAR