By Robert A. Heinlein, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1963 Robert A. Heinlein
All rights reserved.
I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion ... no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials ... no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes — no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither has), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please —
I could go back. I could —
It was an election year with the customary theme of anything you can do I can do better, to a background of beeping sputniks. I was twenty-one but couldn't figure out which party to vote against.
Instead I phoned my draft board and told them to send me that notice.
I object to conscription the way a lobster objects to boiling water: it may be his finest hour but it's not his choice. Nevertheless I love my country. Yes, I do, despite propaganda all through school about how patriotism is obsolete. One of my great-grandfathers died at Gettysburg and my father made that long walk back from Chosen Reservoir, so I didn't buy this new idea. I argued against it in class — until it got me a "D," in Social Studies, then I shut up and passed the course.
But I didn't change my opinions to match those of a teacher who didn't know Little Round Top from Seminary Ridge.
Are you of my generation? If not, do you know why we turned out so wrongheaded? Or did you just write us off as "juvenile delinquents"?
I could write a book. Brother! But I'll note one key fact: After you've spent years and years trying to knock the patriotism out of a boy, don't expect him to cheer when he gets a notice reading: GREETINGS: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States —
Talk about a "Lost Generation!" I've read that post-World War One jazz — Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and so on — and it strikes me that all they had to worry about was wood alcohol in bootleg liquor. They had the world by the tail — so why were they crying?
Sure, they had Hitler and the Depression ahead of them. But they didn't know that. We had Khrushchev and the H-bomb and we certainly did know.
But we were not a "Lost Generation." We were worse; we were the "Safe Generation." Not beatniks. The Beats were never more than a few hundred out of millions. Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy's poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn't think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren't rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. "Security" was our unspoken watchword.
Most of our watchwords were unspoken but we followed them as compulsively as a baby duck takes to water. "Don't fight City Hall." "Get it while the getting is good." "Don't get caught." High goals, these, great moral values, and they all mean "Security." "Going steady" (my generation's contribution to the American Dream) was based on security; it insured that Saturday night could never be the loneliest night for the weak. If you went steady, competition was eliminated.
But we had ambitions. Yes, sir! Stall off your draft board and get through college. Get married and get her pregnant, with both families helping you to stay on as a draft-immune student. Line up a job well thought of by draft boards, say with some missile firm. Better yet, take postgraduate work if your folks (or hers) could afford it and have another kid and get safely beyond the draft — besides, a doctor's degree was a union card, for promotion and pay and retirement.
Short of a pregnant wife with well-to-do parents the greatest security lay in being 4-F. Punctured eardrums were good but an allergy was best. One of my neighbors had a terrible asthma that lasted till his twenty-sixth birthday. No fake — he was allergic to draft boards. Another escape was to convince an army psychiatrist that your interests were more suited to the State Department than to the army. More than half of my generation were "unfit for military service."
I don't find this surprising. There is an old picture of a people traveling by sleigh through deep woods — pursued by wolves. Every now and then they grab one of their number and toss him to the wolves. That's conscription even if you call it "selective service" and pretty it up with USOs and "veterans' benefits" — it's tossing a minority to the wolves while the rest go on with that single-minded pursuit of the three-car garage, the swimming pool, and the safe and secure retirement benefits.
I am not being holier-than-thou; I was after that same three-car garage myself.
However, my folks could not put me through college. My stepfather was an air force warrant officer with all he could handle to buy shoes for his own kids. When he was transferred to Germany just before my high school senior year and I was invited to move in with my father's sister and her husband, both of us were relieved.
I was no better off financially as my uncle-in-law was supporting a first wife — under California law much like being an Alabama field hand before the Civil War. But I had $35 a month as a "surviving dependent of a deceased veteran." (Not "war orphan," which is another deal that pays more.) My mother was certain that Dad's death had resulted from wounds but the Veterans Administration thought differently, so I was just a "surviving dependent."
Thirty-five dollars a month did not fill the hole I put in their groceries and it was understood that when I graduated I would root for myself. By doing my military time, no doubt — but I had my own plan; I played football and finished senior year season with the California Central Valley secondary school record for yards gained and a broken nose — and started in at the local State College the next fall with a job "sweeping the gym" at $10 more a month than that pension, plus fees.
I couldn't see the end but my plan was clear: Hang on, teeth and toenails, and get an engineering degree. Avoid the draft and marriage. On graduation get a deferred-status job. Save money and pick up a law degree, too — because, back in Homestead, Florida, a teacher had pointed out that, while engineers made money, the big money and boss jobs went to lawyers. So I was going to beat the game, yes, sir! Be a Horatio Alger hero. I would have headed straight for that law degree but for the fact that the college did not offer law.
At the end of the season my sophomore year they deemphasized football.
We had had a perfect season — no wins. "Flash" Gordon (that's me — in the sports write-ups) stood one in yardage and points; nevertheless Coach and I were out of jobs. Oh, I "swept the gym" the rest of that year on basketball, fencing, and track, but the alumnus who picked up the tab wasn't interested in a basketball player who was only six feet one. I spent that summer pushing an idiot stick and trying to line up a deal elsewhere. I turned twenty-one that summer, which chopped that $35/month, too. Shortly after Labor Day I fell back on a previously prepared position, i.e., I made that phone call to my draft board.
I had in mind a year in the air force, then win a competitive appointment to the air force academy — be an astronaut and famous, instead of rich.
Well, we can't all be astronauts. The air force had its quota or something. I was in the army so fast I hardly had time to pack.
So I set out to be the best chaplain's clerk in the army; I made sure that "typing" was listed as one of my skills. If I had anything to say about it, I was going to do my time at Fort Carson, typing neat copies while going to night school on the side.
I didn't have anything to say about it.
Ever been in Southeast Asia? It makes Florida look like a desert. Wherever you step it squishes. Instead of tractors they use water buffaloes. The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you. It wasn't a war — not even a "Police Action." We were "Military Advisers." But a Military Adviser who has been dead four days in that heat smells the same way a corpse does in a real war.
I was promoted to corporal. I was promoted seven times. To corporal.
I didn't have the right attitude. So my company commander said. My daddy had been a marine and my stepfather was air force; my only army ambition had been to be a chaplain's clerk Stateside. I didn't like the army. My company commander didn't like the army either; he was a first lieutenant who hadn't made captain and every time he got to brooding, Corporal Gordon lost his stripes.
I lost them the last time for telling him that I was writing to my Congressman to find out why I was the only man in Southeast Asia who was going to be retired for old age instead of going home when his time was up — and that made him so mad he not only busted me but went out and was a hero, and then he was dead. And that's how I got this scar across my broken nose because I was a hero, too, and should have received the Medal of Honor, only nobody was looking.
While I was recovering, they decided to send me home.
Major Ian Hay, back in the "War to End War," described the structure of military organizations: Regardless of T.O., all military bureaucracies consist of a Surprise Party Department, a Practical Joke Department, and a Fairy Godmother Department. The first two process most matters as the third is very small; the Fairy Godmother Department is one elderly female GS-5 clerk usually out on sick leave.
But when she is at her desk, she sometimes puts down her knitting and picks a name passing across her desk and does something nice. You have seen how I was whipsawed by the Surprise Party and Practical Joke Departments; this time the Fairy Godmother Department picked Pfc. Gordon.
Like this — when I knew that I was going home as soon as my face healed (little brown brother hadn't sterilized his bolo), I put in a request to be discharged in Wiesbaden, where my family was, rather than California, home of record. I am not criticizing little brown brother; he hadn't intended me to heal at all — and he would have managed it if he hadn't been killing my company commander and too hurried to do a good job on me. I hadn't sterilized my bayonet but he didn't complain, he just sighed and came apart, like a doll with its sawdust cut. I felt grateful to him; he not only had rigged the dice so that I got out of the army, he also gave me a great idea.
He and the ward surgeon — the Surgeon had said, "You're going to get well, son. But you'll be scarred like a Heidelberg student."
Which got me thinking — you couldn't get a decent job without a degree, any more than you could be a plasterer without being a son or nephew of somebody in the plasterers' union. But there are degrees and degrees. Sir Isaac Newton, with a degree from a cow college such as mine, would wash bottles for Joe Thumbfingers — if Joe had a degree from a European university.
Why not Heidelberg? I intended to milk my G.I. benefits; I had that in mind when I put in that too hasty call to my draft board.
According to my mother everything was cheaper in Germany. Maybe I could stretch those benefits into a doctor's degree. Herr Doktor Gordon, mit scars on der face from Heidelberg yet! — that would rate an extra $3,000 a year from any missile firm.
Hell, I would fight a couple of student duels and add real Heidelberg scars to back up the dandy I had. Fencing was a sport I really enjoyed (though the one that counted least toward "sweeping the gym"). Some people cannot stand knives, swords, bayonets, anything sharp; psychiatrists have a word for it: aichmophobia. Idiots who drive cars a hundred miles an hour on fifty-mile-an-hour roads will nevertheless panic at the sight of a bare blade.
I've never been bothered that way and that's why I'm alive and one reason why I kept being bucked back to corporal. A "Military Adviser" can't afford to be afraid of knives, bayonets, and such; he must cope with them. I've never been afraid of them because I'm always sure I can do unto another what he is planning to do unto me.
I've always been right, except that time I made the mistake of being a hero, and that wasn't too bad a mistake. If I had tried to bug out instead of staying to disembowel him, he would have chopped my spine in two. As it was, he never got a proper swing at me; his jungle cutter just slashed my face as he came apart — leaving me with a nasty wound that was infected long before the helicopters came. But I never felt it. Presently I got dizzy and sat down in the mud and when I woke up, a medic was giving me plasma.
I rather looked forward to trying a Heidelberg duel. They pad your body and arm and neck and put a steel guard on your eyes and nose and across your ears — this is not like encountering a pragmatic Marxist in the jungle. I once handled one of those swords they use in Heidelberg; it was a light, straight saber, sharp on the edge, sharp a few inches on the back — but a blunt point! A toy, suited only to make pretty scars for girls to admire.
I got a map and whaddayuh know! — Heidelberg is just down the road from Wiesbaden. So I requested my discharge in Wiesbaden.
The ward surgeon said, "You're an optimist, son," but initialed it. The medical sergeant in charge of paperwork said, "Out of the question, Soldier." I won't say money changed hands but the endorsement the hospital's C.O. signed read FORWARDED. The ward agreed that I was bucking for a psycho; Uncle Sugar does not give free trips around the world to Pfcs.
I was already so far around that I was as close to Hoboken as to San Francisco — and closer to Wiesbaden. However, policy called for shipping returnees back via the Pacific. Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can't be ignored.
The Fairy Godmother Department woke up and touched me with its wand.
I was about to climb aboard a bucket called the General Jones bound for Manila, Taipei, Yokohama, Pearl, and Seattle when a dispatch came granting my every whim and then some. I was ordered to HQ USAREUR, Heidelberg, Germany, by available military transportation, for discharge, at own request, see reference foxtrot. Accumulated leave could be taken or paid, see reference bravo. Subject man was authorized to return to Zone Interior (the States) any time within twelve months of separation, via available military transportation at no further expense to the government. Unquote.
The paper-work sergeant called me in and showed me this, his face glowing with innocent glee. "Only there ain't no 'available transportation,' Soldier — so haul ass aboard the General Jones. You're going to Seattle, like I said."
I knew what he meant: The only transport going west in a long, long time had sailed for Singapore thirty-six hours earlier. I stared at that dispatch, thinking about boiling oil and wondering if he had held it back just long enough to keep me from sailing under it.
I shook my head. "I'm going to catch the General Smith in Singapore. Be a real human type, Sarge, and cut me a set of orders for it."
"Your orders are cut. For the Jones. For Seattle."
"Gosh," I said thoughtfully. "I guess I had better go cry on the chaplain." I faded out fast but I didn't see the chaplain; I went to the airfield. It took five minutes to find that no commercial nor U.S. military flight was headed for Singapore in time to do me any good.
But there was an Australian military transport headed for Singapore that night. Aussies weren't even "military advisers" but often were around, as "military observers." I found the plane's skipper, a flight leftenant, and put the situation to him. He grinned and said, "Always room for one more bloke. Wheels up shortly after tea, likely. If the old girl will fly." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1963 Robert A. Heinlein. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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