“Bah!” said Scrooge, “humbug!”
THE SUN beat down on Jason’s bald spot, and what had been a pleasant basking in an unseasonable, late-November sun was becoming irritatingly uncomfortable. He was afraid to leave the vicinity of the car because he expected his wife to return momentarily from the distant line of stores in the shopping center, and they would surely miss one another, and he well knew that her impatience with waiting exceeded his by many degrees.
From where he stood, half-sitting on the front fender of his car, in very nearly the middle of the enormous parking lot, he could see the tops of acres of cars. In the distance, the colors were muted by the brownish haze and the images wavered and shimmied through the hot atmosphere. “A modern version of the painted desert,” he thought. In the distance, a car was jockeying back and forth in its parking space, but its driver was not visible.
Hundreds of light poles dotted the parkingscape. From each pole hung, twisting and bumping in the breeze, a grotesque, six-foot, styrofoam Santa’s elf. The location sign on each pole was draped with bright green, red-berried, plastic holly. Loudspeakers were visible on some poles, and between many poles were stretched streamers proclaiming such sentiments as “Peace on Earth” and “Merry, Merry Christmas.”
“Very suitable for the Thanksgiving holiday,” thought Jason. “Where in hell can that woman be?”
“I’ll just be a minute,” she had said and had apparently disappeared forever.
From behind him, Jason heard a loud rumble that changed first to popping noises and then into a loud frying hiss. Just as he located the speaker on a pole a few feet above a recreational vehicle across the access lane behind him, he was overwhelmed with the cloying tones of Bing Crosby wailing for a “white Christmas.” “Oh –,” said Jason and then repeated the obscenity over and over as if it were an incantation in which he had little hope of efficacy.
He felt a soundless snap in his head as if a camera shutter had suddenly opened and thirty-four intervening years dropped away, and he was in an army barracks in the southwest corner of Missouri.
He was lying on a canvas army cot that was squeezed in between two double-decker bunks. On a post near the foot of his cot was an intercom loudspeaker from which emanated a tinny, overloaded, and grindingly distorted moaning about a white Christmas. “Jesus,” thought Jason, “I’m sick of ‘White Christmas.’ I’m sick of Crosby. I’m sick of the army. I’m sick of this place. I’m sick, sick, sick.”
And he was, too. He was heartsick, mentally sick, and physically sick. His physical sickness by making him so miserable that it crowded out his mental sickness was almost a welcome blessing. With any luck at all he thought he might wind up in the hospital as had about one-third of the 600 men in his barracks. All of them had what the medics called naso-pharyngitis and everyone else called the Crowder Croup.
The Crowder Croup was a germ or virus disease whose prominence may have been due to the fact that every soldier’s body was made into a culture for the growth of the germ. The method was to scrunch around on your stomach with a rifle in your arms until you were nearly frozen, then you would crowd into a hot room for an hour’s lecture, and then back out into the snow in sweat-soaked clothes. A poor man’s sauna whose result was mass hospitalization.
It was Christmas day and had Jason not been feeling so bad he would not have been lolling in the barracks on a holiday afternoon. He had long since learned not to loaf around the barracks because of the ever-present danger that a sergeant or a corporal would come sweeping through impressing any visible soldiers into a work party for some nonsensical but arduous job. In the extremely cold weather that seemed to be permanent, many soldiers spent their off hours riding the camp buses to avoid the press gangs.
Jason had already worked half the day in the mess hall cleaning up the debris of the beer party they had had the night before, and he hoped he could talk his way out of another task, if necessary, this afternoon. He just didn’t feel up to riding buses today; he’d have to take his chances.
Jason lay on his bunk reflecting on his, so far, bitter life in the army. “I’ve got to do something,” he thought. “I’m in a trap and I don’t know what to do about it.” For the first time in his life, Jason had fallen into the role of victim or scapegoat. He had played, or had been forced to play, this role for the two weeks he had been in basic training. Jason was big and strong, had been on his high school football and basketball teams, and had never before had an inkling of this ego-shattering experience.
Every group has its victims – the clowns, the stumble-bums, the butts, the scapegoats. Especially in juvenile situations such as in an athletic team or in military training this tendency is ruthlessly exacerbated. In fact, it is probably beneficial to the group – keeps their individual spirits up, acts as a safety valve, and provides a unifying focus for the group. It is, however, pure hell for the victims. Jason was never to forget the lessons learned during his victim period that did not end until he had completed basic training and had been shipped across the country to join a group of strangers who did not know he was supposed to be a victim.
Jason lay there and thought how it had happened. He had been an occasional insomniac ever since he could remember. At home it was an annoyance but he could, when necessary, read all night. Even when he was exhausted, he required very quiet surroundings in order to fall asleep.
Although he had dreaded going into the army, he had never once thought of the feature of the army that would cause him the most difficulty. He found out, however, on the first night after induction and had found no solution to this day. At his very best Jason required 30 to 45 minutes to fall asleep. Within minutes after “lights out” in the army barracks, the ambient noise, in both level and quality, was unimaginable to one who has not experienced it. There were groans, as if the sleepers were on the rack; frightened shrieks, as some encountered instant nightmares; soft buzzing noises; wild stallion snorts; and most unnerving of all, the grinding and gnashing of teeth, as if the inferno were close at hand. In this cacophony any person with a tendency to insomnia was in dire trouble. Jason could not go to sleep, he could not put the light on to read, he could do nothing but lie nerve racked hour after interminable hour. The only light was in the latrine, and it was far too cold to stay in there.
When Jason arrived at Camp Crowder, he had been in the army four days and had, or felt as if he had, slept about four hours. Instead of any relief at Crowder, the barracks, overcrowded by twice its normal capacity, provided volume, intensity, and variety of nocturnal sounds such as he had never dreamed of. At three or four o’clock in the morning he would slip off into sleep only to be awakened immediately by the corporal’s whistle for six o’clock reveille.
On the second day of basic training, Jason found himself in the quietist environment of many hours – a lecture, on gas warfare, in a superheated room. The speaker, with an audience even more captive and helpless than a high school class, droned on and on in a quiet, uncaring miasm of mutual boredom. Jason became conscious that someone was shaking him. “Wake up, Private. Wake up, Recruit,” a loud, harsh voice demanded, and he finally opened his eyes to see the sergeant smirking maliciously at him.
“That’s how it started,” he thought. “I’ve got to get it stopped. From that time on he found himself sinking deeper and deeper into the victim role. Extra work details, Sunday KP, butt of a thousand blusterings from company corporals, arbitrary denials of passes to town, subject of scorn and mockery of the other recruits who were unconsciously celebrating their relief that they were not the victims. It was the most horrible experience he had ever lived through. As the weeks ground slowly by, his insomnia yielded sufficiently for him to keep alive but the physical exertion of basic training and the lack of sleep turned him into a near zombie, and he could never muster sufficient force to overcome his victim role. The part that really frightened him was that he became aware that some corner of his mind welcomed the role and found it attractive. Self pity, he found, is one of the most destructive and seductive of all human emotions.
Weekends might have provided sufficient relief for him had they not taken on an evil character of their own. The soldiers were generally quite free after inspection of their barracks and of their persons on Saturdays. This was normally finished by about two in the afternoon. As luck would have it, Jason was in a company comprised of college students who had been in a reserve status in order to finish out a final quarter of school. The company commander considered them to be draft dodgers, which they were in a fashion having gained some months of civilian life by volunteering into the reserves. He was further incensed by the knowledge that they were college students and considered it his duty to demonstrate to them that they were, as he often told them, “in the army now.” That Jason was neither a volunteer nor a college man was of no help to him in his relationships with the officers or with the men.
Thus the Saturday afternoons that most soldiers had free and that could have been a life saver for Jason were usually spent on hands and knees scrubbing the barracks with pails of hot water, brown soap, and the ubiquitous GI brush.
It was not unusual for Jason, after participating in the “barracks party,” to have to spend a couple of hours in full pack, and with rifle, marching around the company area because of some trifling failure at personal inspection. As the victim, he was, of course, more carefully inspected than most, and it is an inept officer who cannot find some idiotic thing to gig a man on, if he wishes, during inspection.
On Saturday nights, if he was not on guard duty, Jason would go to a movie and the instant the lights went off fall sound asleep to awaken only when the lights came on for the audience to file out. Why Jason could fall asleep in such surroundings and remain oblivious to the thunderous victories of John Wayne and not to be able to do so in his barracks was one of the familiar mysteries that bedevil all insomnia victims. All that Jason asked of a movie was that it be as long as possible, but unfortunately for him, this was the era of the 90-minute movie. Such four-hour horrors as Gone With the Wind were far in the future.
Sunday KP was traditionally the assignment of the company’s victims. Each platoon and, indeed, most squads had at least one. Sunday KP was also used as an informal punishment, mostly for real or imagined slights to the dignity of a barracks corporal or to punish an affront to the duty sergeant who was very, very easily affronted. The power to inflict unappealable punishment on grown men (or even on children) is a drug that few people are capable of handling with any grace.
Sunday KP began well before dawn and ended with the scrubbing of the dinner pots and pans well into the night, so that the whole interminable day was endured in a kind of nightmare of grease, potato peelings, and the shoutings of manic cooks.
If he was not on the Sunday KP list as posted on Saturday afternoon, Jason had learned to leave the company area as soon as possible on Sunday morning and to spend the morning roaming the camp on buses to keep warm. He would eat lunch, a candy bar usually, at the PX, and then, when it was finally time for it to be open, go to the base library where he would take a book to a chair in a corner and sleep blissfully until the library closed at five. He believed that these occasional four consecutive hours of sleep were the best he ever had during the ten weeks of basic training and that they had saved his sanity if not his life. To this day Jason found libraries to be excellent antidotes to insomnia and could often be found nodding peacefully in a study cubicle in the local library.
Running as if in a continuous refrain through this long miserable period was Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” It became the theme song of his misery.
With a loud pop, the music stopped. Jason stared unseeingly across the tops of the cars. “Maybe that was the year the song came out,” he thought, “or maybe whoever was in charge of the PA system was nuts about it. I have never heard it played so frequently as it was that Christmas. When old Crosby goes to his reward, I hope they make him listen to it a hundred times a day.”
“Hey, Pop, hand it over.”
Jason turned to see, across the hood of his car, two boys. The larger looked to be thirteen or fourteen years old, the other looked to be no more than ten. They looked like typical, freckled, well-scrubbed, suburban, Norman Rockwell kids who might be on their way to a Boy Scout meeting. The only jarring note was the fist-sized, rusty-looking revolver in the older boy’s hand.
“What?” asked Jason.
“Your wallet, man,” said the boy. As Jason turned toward him, he brought the gun to bear more directly. Jason could see the gun barrel twitching and shaking from the boy’s nervousness. His own nerves jumped in concert with the movement of the barrel.
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” said Jason. “You don’t mean to tell me that children are now robbing people in shopping center parking lots. I must be crackin’ up.”
“Cut the gab, Pop. Hand it over,” said the older boy in a voice gone tenor. “I’ll blow your head off if you don’t.”
Jason took out his billfold and tossed it across the hood of the car. The smaller boy caught it, took out a few bills, tossed it to the ground, and counted the money. “He don’t have but seven bucks,” he complained.
“Is this your car?” asked the older boy.
“Make him take us to…,” began the younger one.
“No,” said Jason. “Enough’s enough. I’m not taking you anywhere. Let me tell you something. You’re in trouble now. If you shoot me, you’re in a real jam. And that little .22 pistol is not likely to kill me even if you can hit me with it. And that ain’t nearly as easy as you think it is. If you don’t get out of here right now, I’m going to knock your stupid heads together and make you eat your stupid pistol.” He was getting madder as he talked.
The boy with the pistol took an involuntary step backward but then lowered the pistol and bending over as if delivering a coup de grace, fired a bullet into the tire a foot away. Both boys broke and ran away through the cars in the parking lot.
Jason, so angry that he seemed to be looking through a red haze, saw the boys disappear among the cars. Everything was still; the streamers hung limply, and the elves were no longer bumping against their poles. The only sounds were the distant rumble of trucks on the freeway and the hiss of air escaping from his wounded tire. “– –,” he said, repeating his earlier obscenity.
Suddenly the frying noise began again and the ear-splitting whine of “White Christmas” poured over, around, and through him.
Jason turned and ran across the access lane to the recreation vehicle. He climbed its ladder to the sun deck on top. Standing there he could just reach the loudspeaker. The horn of the speaker was about four feet long and it flared open to a diameter of about three feet. By grasping the end of the horn he found he had enough leverage to move it with respect to its brackets on the light pole. He pulled it first back and forth and then up and down with all his strength. The sound, right in his face, was painfully deafening. Finally with a snap, the bracket gave way, freeing the speaker from its support. He was rewarded by immediate auditory relief as its wires were torn loose. He could still hear the song from speakers in the distance, but it was, in comparison, quite bearable.
“Hey, there,” he heard some yell. He looked down to see a county police cruiser. The brown uniformed policeman was standing outside the car by the driver’s open door. “Hey!” he yelled again, “what in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You – –,” yelled Jason. “Where were you when I needed you?” He raised the speaker over his head as if to throw it at the policeman.
The policeman quickly ducked down behind the cruiser and reappeared behind the car with his revolver in his hand. “Put that down and come down from there,” he said. “Come down slow and easy. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Jason lowered the speaker to the sun deck and stood with his hands on his hips looking down at the policeman. He looked much too young to be a policeman, in fact, not a hell of a lot older than the boy bandit. It was quite clear from his worried expression and his wary stance that he was uncertain what danger he was facing. His finger was firmly on the trigger of the revolver that was not quite pointed at Jason. The policeman was obviously nervous, and Jason recognized that he was in real danger of being shot. In spite of himself, he began laughing in a semi-hysterical way that could not fail to increase the policeman’s apprehension.
Jason saw a flash of red in the distance and knew it was his wife’s red jacket. Her “minute” was up, and she was returning. For some reason his rising hysteria suddenly snapped, and his continuing laughter no longer sounded wild and dangerous. The extreme ludicrousness of the situation had struck him full force.
“Relax,” he called to the policeman. “Just take it easy. I surrender. I surrender.”
Hand set in Deepdene and Goudy Text. Inks are Van Son Ivy-Mint, Red Pepper, and 40904 Black. Published and edited by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.
… and a merry Christmas to you.