An Uncapped Pen

March 3, 2008

Chapter 13 – Lights Out In The Zoo

Filed under: Writing — cindylv @ 7:47 am
Tags: , ,

May, 1981
Rielly Barracks

“Whole motherfuckin’ world gonna kiss my ass!” Malcolm Fairmont slammed his fist into the side of a metal locker with a monstrous crash. He stepped back, weaving slightly and attempted to line up for a side kick. “Hoo-yah!” The locker surrendered to his boot, and tipped over in defeat. Before he could launch another angry barrage, he collapsed in a heap. Two of his friends dragged him into a room and slammed the door.

Bridie stood next to her own door watching the opening act of the evening show of drunken stupidity as she stuck her hand inside the neck of her tee shirt, fished out a tangle of dog tags, keys and a P-38 can opener. It had been weeks since she’d needed to open a can of C-Rations, but she couldn’t think of anywhere else to keep it and she didn’t want to lose it. She bent over and inserted one of the keys into her lock, twisted it and pushed the door open. “Ugh!” Even though she’d left both windows wide open, her room still smelled like moldy mop, bleach and an overdose of pine-scented cleaning solution.

A glance at the alarm clock on the floor told her she had at least another hour until the other inmates called it quits and crawled back to their cells to sleep. Another hour she could use to re-shine her boots, re-straighten every uniform on every hanger, and re-fold every pair of underwear and tee shirt, and sock in her drawer. She opened her locker and examined the inspection checklist Frank sneaked out of Sergeant Simpson’s office. Bra straps ironed and tucked—check. Fresh bar of soap in her soap dish (unused) — check. Washcloth and towel (for display purposes) folded and aligned with her shaving cream and razor (why females were required to maintain a can of shaving cream on display was not open for discussion). Toothbrush and toothpaste–check. Her “real” toiletries, including the soap and shampoo she used daily, and anything not identified on the checklist, feminine supplies, lotion, and make-up, were secreted away in her duffle bag folded into thirds atop her wall locker. “Don’t give him anything to look at that ain’t on his list,” Frank cautioned.

He even showed her the secret of keeping her hangers evenly spaced. He removed the wooden rod from the locker and had her count the number of uniforms she owned (four sets of fatigues, two Class A Jackets – one with a skirt, one with slacks, and two Class B dresses – hideous mint green dresses. He measured the rod and marked of seven equally-spaced tick marks. When she argued that she had eight uniforms, he asked her if she planned on standing inspection while naked. Never leave an empty hanger on the rod, he explained. Then, using a small saw he borrowed from the Armory, he cut seven notches in the bar and reinstalled it. “Always be sure the notches face the rear of the locker where Top can’t see ‘em,” he said.

She sat on the cool vinyl tile floor with her back against the wall staring at everything in the world she owned. Her father hadn’t gotten around to shipping her civilian clothes. She figured he’d probably thrown them in the dumpster behind the kitchen the day after she left. On second thought, he probably hadn’t opened the door to her room. Or even noticed she was gone. “Enough of that nonsense!” she commanded herself. “Just shake it off.” She had boots to shine. She decided to wear the pair with the white dots. In Basic, Sergeant Barrick passed out a bottle of white correction fluid and ordered everyone to paint a white dot the size of a dime on the back of one pair of their boots, up near the pull-on tab. One day you wore the plain boots, the next day you wore white dot. That way, the drill instructors ensured everyone broke in both pair of boots, instead of wearing one and keeping the other pair polished for display.

She sat on the wide windowsill with a boot in her lap and a tin of Kiwi polish next to her, the top filled with water from the drinking fountain. She dipped the corner of a cotton tee shirt into the water, touched it to the black polish, and sketched tiny circles with the her index finger on the heel of her boot. Since she’d enlisted, she’d heard more opinions on the best ways to spit shine boots, cold water, hot water, water with alcohol, spit, paste wax. Apply polish using cotton balls, cotton diaper, cotton tee shirt, newspaper, gauze. The combinations were endless. Soldiers spent hours in the TV room with their paraphernalia, polishing with unnatural intensity. Bridie accepted that her boots would never win any prizes, but she knew she still had to pass inspection in the morning.

A loud banging on her door startled her. “CQ. You got the buffer!”

She pushed off the sill, careful not to spill the tin of water, and ran to the door. She didn’t want to lose her turn. The only way to ensure everyone got the chance to use it was for the CQ, or charge of quarters, to allot 30 minutes per room.

Frank loaned her a can of Johnson’s paste wax and a lighter. She was still a little nervous about burning the wax, but he said that was how you got the best shine. She knelt on the floor and pried the lid off. Holding the can tilted in her left hand, she flicked the stem of the lighter and touched it to the surface of the wax. She set it on the floor and watched it burn for a few seconds, then eased the lid back on to extinguish the flame. Quickly, before the wax solidified again, she pried off the lid, and poured the burned wax across a section of her floor.

She stood up straight and eyed the buffer. “Okay, this is the deal. I need to get this floor polished without destroying the walls or the furniture, okay? Are you going to behave or am I gonna have to unplug you?” With a deep breath, she closed her eyes, grasped the handles and squeezed the lever. The buffer bucked and launched itself into the side of her bunk, slamming it into the wall. “Shit!”

“Maybe if I start in the middle of the room and work out the kinks a little,” she said trying to convince herself she could control the beast. She dragged it over a few feet and squeezed again. It lunged to the right, but she immediately backed off the control a little and it slowed down. Eventually, she and the buffer settled on a truce that allowed the buffer to set the speed while she controlled the direction. A half hour later, she’d buffed her way out the door and into the hallway where the CQ runner waited to take possession.

Dripping with sweat after her battle, she gathered her real toiletries (not the locker display items), and headed off to the shower. Since it was almost midnight, she had the latrine to herself. She stood in the shower with her eyes closed as the clouds of lemon scented soap washed over her and played her favorite game. She imagined she lived in a home. Mom and Dad. A family room. Conversations about the events of the day. Dinner simmering on the stove. Brothers and sisters. A fluffy white dog. A big happy family in a two-story house with curtains on the windows, and a green lawn surrounded by a picket fence. It didn’t work. When she opened her eyes, all she saw was the black and white industrial shower tiles and a row of stainless-steel wall-mounted urinals.

The tears surprised her. She hadn’t cried in days. She knew better than to try and stop them, so she turned her face up to let the water rinse them away. After a few minutes, she shut off the water, dried off with her not-for-display towel and got dressed.

Back at her room, she unlocked the door, snagged the laundry bag hanging from the hook on the back of her door and dropped it to the floor. Not wanting to mar the shining surface, she stepped onto the laundry bag and shimmied her way along the edge of her room to her bed to hide her toiletries inside her duffle bag. She lay down on the bare mattress and stared at the green cinder block wall. In the morning, she’d make her bed with the clean linens she’d received at the laundry earlier in the day. No gigs for sleep wrinkles on these sheets, she thought. Bridie sat up and looked around the room again. Everything was ready, her locker, her uniform, the floor. No gigs. Nothing to do, but wait.

* * *
A half hour later, she sat up again, put on a pair of socks and walked over to the window. She stared at the night sky hoping to spot a shooting star. She had a whole list of wishes. The stars looked different from those at home. Bigger and brighter, too. Sometimes, after her Dad had gone to bed, she’d get up and walk down to the lake to look at the sky. Sometimes, she’d go into the restaurant and sit at one of the tables, pretending. Sometimes, she’d take a glass, put a few ice cubes in it and pour a little whiskey or some wine in it. She’d twirl it and hold it up to the light. Look through it. Then she’d sniff. Take a sip and let it roll around in her mouth. Sometimes she’d swallow it, sometimes she’d spit it out. She always washed her glass and put it away. Then she’d creep upstairs, crawl back into bed and wait for the sun to come up.

She shook off the memory and crawled back into bed wrapping one of her olive-drab wool blankets around her. The moonlight illuminated a distorted shape on the wall. A parallelogram? No, what was that called? A trapezoid. One, two, three, four sides, with one, two, three . . . Stop it! Enough counting! Think about something, anything else. She thought about the next morning. Breakfast. Formation. Uniform inspection. Selection. Barracks inspection. Starting her new detail. She imagined herself working in the Tech library. All those books to read. All those tapes to listen to. She’d be comfortable, working inside—no sweating, and best of all, no spiders or snakes. Oh yeah, and a Class A phone, not that she had anyone to call. Bridie rolled onto her side away the window, and rocked herself to sleep.

* * *

“At close interval, dress right, dress.” Bridie shuffled to her right along with the rest of fourth squad. “Ready, front!” She snapped back to the position of attention. Her uniform immaculate, her boots gleamed. She blew out a stale breath and fingered the shape of the key in her pocket. Frank dropped it off this morning on the way to the chow hall. It was official. She had the detail at the Tech Library. No more cutting grass. No more snake bait. She had an inside job. Sergeant Simpson worked his way through the formation with only a few comments. He stopped in front of Bridie. She held her breath. He glanced at her and moved on without a word. She closed her eyes. Yes! She’d passed!

Simpson read through a list of announcements that included the rifle range reopening, and a change to the laundry exchange schedule. Bridie let the words wash over her. She had the key in her pocket and she passed inspection. “ . . . permanent rooms. The following changes go into effect immediately after formation. Andrews, Goff, Wilkins – 220. Rapinski, Cartier, Switzer – 245. Traynor, Bialek, Keating – 317.” He continued reading room assignments.

Bialek and Keating? Julie and Tracy? After what they did in the hotel? Bridie felt her stomach lurch. How could he put her in a room with two . . . She couldn’t even think the word aloud in her own head.

“When I give the command to fall out, those personnel who’s names I just called will report to my office to sign for their keys. One new class is starting today. The following personnel . . .” Bridie didn’t hear any of it. The film in her head replayed the scene from her first night in Arizona.

Sergeant Simpson dismissed the students starting class and then announced, “Sick, Lame and Lazy! Fall out!” Bridie risked a quick glance to see if Val joined the group of soldiers headed for Sick Call. She hadn’t seen him all morning. As gaps appeared in formation, the soldiers shuffled to close ranks. Nancy Wainwright, moved up without a glance in Bridie’s direction. The girl from the Canteen, Bridie thought. Sergeant Simpson assigned individuals to new details. Bridie rubbed the key in her pocket again. Eventually, she heard her name. “Tech Library. Traynor. Hmmph.” He looked up, found her in the platoon and gave her a look that seemed to say, “How’d you swing that one?” He finished assigning details, called the platoon to attention, and said, “The barracks inspection has been rescheduled for 0730 on Monday. Fall out!”

No inspection? She cleaned for hours to get that room ready. With a stroke of his pen, all that work is erased and she gets to start cleaning and polishing all over again. A new room. And roommates. Not just any roommates, those roommates! She checked her pocket again. At least she still had the key.



  1. I was practically laughing out loud at your description of battling the floor buffer. Boy, does that bring back funny memories! Same for the inspection-only toiletry items — God, they made us do some dumb things! I’d been wondering about those girls at the hotel since the first chapter — sounds like we’ll get to find out what they did soon…I have my suspicions :)

    Comment by lisakenney — March 3, 2008 @ 8:32 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I still have dreams about Buffer-the-Beast (I even named my dog, Bailey-the-Beast in honor of that darned buffer!). Once I learned to tame it, I was Queen of the Barracks!

    Comment by cindylv — March 3, 2008 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

  3. One of those old WWII moveis has the drill sergeant saying that there are three ways to do things–the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. You capture that feeling with the added insult to Bridie that doing all that cleaning the Army way was all for naught.

    For those of us without a military background, it’s informative. For someone like Lisa, who’s gone through it, it’s LOL time. And you’re getting us all interested in this mysterious hotel incident. Looking forward to the next installment.

    Comment by Steve Wylder — March 5, 2008 @ 5:47 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks, Steve. I only did four years, then supported defense contractors for another bunch of years. My husband is a retired First Sergeant with 22 years in the Army. Sometimes I have to remind him that we don’t have to do things “the Army way.”

    Comment by cindylv — March 6, 2008 @ 5:05 am | Reply

  5. Military Life: Captured perfectly.
    Burning the boot polish, oh yeah!!!!!
    I have the stains on my carpet to prove it.

    You named you precious dog, Bailey the Beast after a buffer? Cindy, I am so ashamed… :-)

    Comment by angel — March 10, 2008 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks, Angel. And The Beast received her name two years ago when she acted like the darn buffer — wild, unpredictable, balky and cantankerous. Oh sure, now she’s an “Angel”, but you didn’t know her back then! :^D

    Comment by cindylv — March 10, 2008 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

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