Monday, March 4, 2013
Church of Lost Hats Sample Chapter
“About Those Who ‘Hate the Army.’ Regrettably, there are some soldiers and even some officers quite brazen in saying, ‘I don't like...’ or ‘I hate the Army.’ Some few are so loud and insistent about it, and seemingly so proud of it, as to cause wonder about their loyalty to the nation that favors them with citizenship. For too many years we have overlooked such occurrences with a good-natured tolerance, but the situation deserves consideration. What is the real meaning behind such assertions? What can be done to change the view of those who are antagonistic to the nation's defense forces? How can we change these individuals from poor and unreliable members into useful ones? Not by ignoring them, surely.
What these individuals are voicing, perhaps without intent, is their hatred of the
, their rejection of the duties of a citizen, or their fervent unwillingness to do anything whatsoever to protect their individual freedoms and opportunities, which they take for granted. Our country can endure a small portion of such individuals; but if time should ever come that the majority of our people choose this philosophy, our nation will go the way of ancient United States and other vanished nations of the modern as well as ancient eras. The correction of shallow beliefs and unpatriotic actions is worth a strong effort.” Rome
From the Army Officer's Guide, Chapter 17, "Responsibilities of Command."
Some parts of the past do not go away. We never choose the memories that stay with us. They choose us. I stood at parade rest with eighty-six future Army chaplains, the Army Chaplain School Basic Class of 1994. It was an art to be able to see everything without moving your eyes: the indirect inspection of one's fate. The drill sergeants moved through the three platoons looking for all manners of crime and high treason against the republic. Loose strings, otherwise known as “ranger ropes,” were my squat sergeant's favorite correction. Before formation, theology students and ministers, who might have worried about Systematic Theology, Church History, or this Sunday's sermon before going to Army Chaplain School, now scurried around each other with lighters and finger nail clippers like fascist mothers over soldier sons and their dreaded strings. All of the chaplains outranked the sergeants, but that was just another item of reality suspended for the summer.
I watched the traffic on the main drag through
to my left as I stared straight ahead. The white, rectangular buildings of the US Army Chaplain School and adjacent Fort Monmouth loomed ahead of me. A thin veil of clouds drifted by the hot sun of the New Jersey summer. West Point Prep School
"Class, atten-hut," croaked Sergeant Nelson.
Eighty-six chaplains and chaplain candidates, who wanted to pepper their seminary training and careers with this madness, snapped to attention. Why had I signed on for this? Every morning at 4:00 AM when my alarm went off, I wondered and plotted my escape, the ordinariness of sleeping in. The sanctuary of pillow. But I had escaped years ago, I thought. I had left the
ten years ago in an uncertain state of mind. History repeats itself: first as a tragedy, then as a farce. I think it was Karl Marx who said that. Or maybe it was Groucho. Every day I would pull on my Army t-shirt still a little wet from yesterday's PT. I would join Steve Jorgensen and Brad Cook for the morning commute to the PT field and 5:00 morning formation. Brad had the car. Cadets at United States Military Academy West Point sure didn't drive to formation.
For the last ten years, I had thought theology and the priesthood had taken me past my West Point memories to new ground. Behind my new calling, Jesus beard, and large theology tomes, I thought I had escaped West Point by going to divinity school. The Episcopal Church had its own version of duty, pageantry, and inert bureaucracy, so the trade of vocation had seemed complete. After graduating from seminary two years ago, I had begun my ministry as a chaplain at an Episcopal school in
. I had also married my former girlfriend Emily Andrews from Salt Lake City, Utah . We had reconnected after the death of her sister Hannah in 1992, literally reuniting at her funeral. Emily and I were trying to figure out together how clerical marriages worked near the end of the millennium, and residing in New York didn't help to clarify anything, living as Gentiles among the Mormon population. Even Jews are Gentiles in Utah . Emily had taken an instant dislike to Utah, and two years had only deepened her initial gloomy opinion. Utah
I had taken a commission in the Army Reserve earlier in April, and I was the lone
West Point dropout in Chaplain School Class 94-02. I would most likely be assigned to a reserve unit somewhere in after Utah , an Episcopal chaplain among the many Mormon volunteers in the Army Reserve or Utah National Guard. There were several graduates of the Military Academy, including two from my old class of 1988, but I was the stray black sheep from the long grey line. My old classmates didn’t remember me, though I recognized them immediately. I didn't know whether returning to the scene of the crime would be redemption for my memories and soul. Or was I demonstrating how brainwashed I had been at the age of eighteen? It was my mystery in the New Jersey summer heat ten years after Beast Barracks at the Military Academy. Army Chaplain School
But the best time of day, the precious hours when I let myself off the old hook of guilt and duty, was happy hour with the Episcopalians.
"Beer me, Steve," I said lighting up a smoke from Steve Jorgensen’s ever present pack of Marlboros.
Beer just appeared in Steve's fridge around 5:00, as if he had some benevolent avatar who replenished his sacramental supply on a daily basis. Whether he had the greatest craving or was simply the most generous was unclear. Steve tossed me the current bargain of the day at the PX, a Lowenbrau. We were lodged at the Bachelor’s Officer’s Quarters at Fort Monmouth, a definite improvement over my Spartan days of perpetual Lent at the Unites States Military Academy. That was a decade ago. But ten years means nothing if you still haven't resolved the past.
"What's up, Nick? What class did you have today?"
"It was pearls before swine. I finished up the US Army course on Funds Management," I said.
"Sounds very stimulating," Steve said with a smile.
"Oh yeah," I gestured, imitating solitary activity with my right hand. Apart from our wives, we were back to teenage hormonal levels, humor, and pastimes.
"The peerless instructor said three things will get SAM the Chaplain into trouble. Sex, alcohol, and money. Fortunately, I've never had a problem with money. Besides pecuniary incompetence. Sammy needs to keep his nose, and pecker, clean. What class did you have?"
"Airland Battle with Captain Brown. How does an infantry officer get assigned to chaplain school?"
"How was the class? Are you hard core now? Am I all alone with the bad attitude and long hair? You're the only ranger buddy I could really love."
"I feel like Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. Goose stepping like a badass in the desert, looking for Iraqis. Just wait until I get to my parish, we'll have PT before every service."
Steve had been hired by a wealthy parish in
. He was an ordained deacon, which was the learner's permit before the priesthood. You got to wear the collar, but you had no magic hands for the Mass. He had been in the Air Force for eight years prior to going to seminary at Bexley Hall in Rochester, New York. "It's like working for IBM," he was fond of saying about the Air Force. Slots for chaplains among the junior birdmen were hard to come by, so he was with the dogs, the Army, for Chaplain School. He had come back to the military out of a sense of familiarity, and to hedge his bets about how parish work might go. For many clergy, military chaplaincy seemed to offer security and larger salaries than many denominations paid their ministers. Steve didn't stand out in any way, and if he hadn't been an Episcopalian I might never have met the short guy with the wire rim glasses and the ironic look of confusion. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
There was a knock at the door. The sergeants stayed away from the BOQ, which was a huge change from the Academy and my experience with the gestapo knock and the paranoid snap-to at West Point. There was nothing to fear here. If I had had a microwave, a fridge full of brews, a fresh pack of smokes, daily happy hour, cable television, and no weapons training ten years ago, I'd be a
West Point ring knocker.
"Entrez," said Steve as he zeroed in on the beer before him and took a long gulp.
Davis Lawson entered with a martini in tow.
"Hey sexy," said Steve.
"Hail to the chief. We are not worthy," I said to our elder statesman and rector of a D.C. parish. Lawson had served for ten years at a tony church in Georgetown before joining the D.C. National Guard out of a lingering sense of duty to country.
"More like inhale to the chief,"
said waving at our smoke signals and hurrying to the window. "Mind if I open a window?" Davis
Steve nodded yes, and Davis drew the window and curtain on our darkness anyway. Davis had an air that made drinking seem rather dignified, even Victorian; that it was beneficial for the spiritual life of clergy to observe a cocktail hour. He had slipped out of his fatigue blouse and was wearing his brown t-shirt, but he might just as well have been sipping a sherry at a Georgetown townhouse, conversing about the new administration in Washington.
"How was your day at the war?" he asked us.
"Sucked," said Steve.
"My class was outstanding. Memorial Services,"
told us. Davis
"Everyone loves a good funeral, especially the loved one who gets the stars and stripes," I mumbled as I headed for the fridge for another cold one. "It builds morale."
"It builds lovely cemeteries," said Steve. “I love Arlington.”
"That's why we're here," I said. Steve and I high-fived as I returned with a beer. "We're the gravediggers! Have you seen my shovel?"
"Oh shut up. You guys have rotten attitudes," Davis scolded us. Even as he cut loose with us, he always held himself prim and aloof. He was in love with the military.
"We're still waiting for our conversion experience," Steve pointed out.
"Yeah, when is that scheduled?" I asked reaching for the master schedule of the Chaplain Officer Basic Course. "You'd think these people would be smart enough to put it at the beginning."
"Oh, I love this video," Steve said as he turned up the sound with the remote control.
It was the Rollins Band, a group I would never have known were it not for the prep school kids I now taught back in
. A well-built man painted red screamed "I'm a liar!" on the TV. Salt Lake
Steve was transfixed. He loved popular culture. Steve saw the prophetic in the inane.
"He must be from the Clinton Administration,"
said with a smile. Davis
"Uh oh, here he goes, the right winger among us," I warned Steve.
"Yeah, don't pick on Bill," said Steve. "He's got enough problems, following his johnson wherever it leads him. Just because you and George Bush are ranger buddies doesn't mean you can dis our Commander-in-Chief. Even if he is a hard dog to keep on the porch."
"Let me get the story right. Did you actually see George H. W. Bush naked? Locker room at the Metropolitan Club?" I asked, poking fun at Davis for his many connections.
"Not exactly," said Davis with a smile. "But he does drop by my parish on occasion. His daughter is a parishioner."
"Barbara was naked?" Steve asked with a look of mock horror.
"No, both the former president and his wife managed to dress beforehand."
"I can't tell you how relieved I am to finally get the story right," I said as I shook a butt from Steve's already diminished pack.
Davis was a Republican, a popular designation at Army Chaplain School, as it was now throughout the military. I had been dropped for pushups many times at
West Point for being a Democrat. Ronald Reagan had been the Pied Piper of patriotism during the eighties, and most of the chaplains were evangelical and marching to the right, even without the Gipper leading them anymore. Steve and I were the liberal freaks.
The evening went around as they did each night until taps. We had to go out for more beer. Davis forgot his barracks cap, so he slumped in the driver's seat, scanning the parking lot for military police, while we went into the liquor store on base.
was at an age when remembering headgear seemed especially difficult. New habits are hard to learn, especially for the clergy. At one especially low point in the evening, Steve started calling 1-800 sex phone lines. He made up the numbers out of the raunch of seven digit possibility, but there was always someone out there for a soldier. He was utterly mad with too much bargain Lowenbrau in his system. He called a Roman Catholic chaplain, a real flamer, and sang part of the Mass with a Polish accent on his answering machine. Davis
"What kind of a dick has an answering machine at boot camp?"
The last I time I saw Steve that evening he was jamming pencil lead into the doorknob lock of an evangelical chaplain that he didn't like. I steered him home to his room to keep him out of further mischief.
We craved our free time together. I put the puzzle of myself aside for our extended happy hour. What haunted me was becoming familiar. Like the furniture of the house where you grew up, and I was opening rooms no longer sealed shut, unafraid of finding my younger self in them. I was going back to go forward. It was like being in two places at once that summer. I was twenty-eight, and I was eighteen. I was beginning to like the kid who had left
West Point, the gothic fortress of his soul. But like all dropouts, or West Point immortals, I was still walking the campus looking for the exit forever, unable to close the door on the past. I was still wandering the unresolved dream campus, the old scenes without closure. Seminary was resolved, even with my disciplinary suspension, but not that old fort on the Hudson River. It was still wide open.
I was discovering the kid who had met his father's dejected eyes after coming home from West Point like Benedict Arnold; the father who died before my ordination and my commission as a First Lieutenant in the Army. He had never met the man, only the broken boy. Could you really fix the past? Did I want to? Why was I still on trial?
The dream that night brought my worlds together. I walked the sidewalk adjacent to the
West Point parade ground. I walked it slowly, savoring the many details of the academy in the Hudson Valley, the sad and sweet circuit of the immortal. I walked toward the row houses where the instructors and tactical officers lived. The campus was deserted, and I walked directly to the house with the porch light on. It had a large screen porch, and the old man was reading inside. My father came often to me in my dreams.
"I've been waiting for you," he said to me as a stream of cigarette smoke left his lips. He wore the khaki uniform of a Navy Chief Petty Officer. I wore fatigues. No hat.
"You still smoking?" I asked, as I took one for myself.
He nodded. "No worries about health now," he said with a laugh.
"What are you reading?"
"Naval history from World War II by Morison. You know I met him several times. But it was just to keep me awake."
"For the Army-Navy game tonight with me. Redemption isn't simple, it's like a debt we all have but can never pay off. I mean I feel it, but I don't know how to live it. I just want to leave this campus once and for all. To escape, finally. I want to get on with my life."
"You have. You're a priest. I'm very proud of you."
He looked away from the loving words. Even in death, and in dreams, the simplest things are so hard.
"It's like throwing things with your left hand, isn't it?" I asked him. "Love is like throwing with your left hand. You know it’s the feminine side of the body."
"Yeah, and I was never good at it."
"So the military is this childhood game we play to avoid the feelings surrounding the game. You cried when I got my appointment to
West Point," I said.
"I also cried when you left," my father said to me. "But now I see you're an officer. What is this shit?"
His eyes, deep blue as ever, twinkled at me.
"Don't you keep up with anything? Isn't there any communication among the dead folk? Our Irish communion of saints?"
"I'm just pulling your chain, lieutenant. But a commission means nothing if you don't use it."
"Ah, you always had a condition, a catch. Just like old times. Except with Helen."
"Your sister didn't need me on her ass all the time. You did."
Rain started to fall on the roof of the porch. The light between us started to flicker.
"Almost out of time," he said to me. "Keep working on that left hand. You're getting better, but there is more pain coming."
"What kind of pain? What's going to happen?"
The light went out on the old West Point campus. His chair was now empty before me in the darkness, and I could hear a distant bugle warning of the morning dawn, as the stars above disappeared without a trace.
The alarm clock rang at 4:00 AM. A hangover lay behind my eyes, and my mouth tasted like an ashtray. I stumbled towards the bathroom for my PT uniform. It was disgusting, but I pulled it on anyway. I looked at the toilet and considered ejecting the meager contents of my stomach. Four in the morning was no time to fix the past.
At there was a knock on the door. Steve.
"Hey, bud, I'm really hurting," he told me.
He looked terrible.
"Plunder and purge, Lieutenant. We're Christians, not Buddhists. You have to pay the piper if you want to dance."
"Does he take credit cards? The Army still owes me money. They're using trained apes in accounting, I hear. And I gotta quit smoking."
"Let's quit until five."
We shook hands ceremoniously.
Steve and I piled into Brad's Honda Civic for the drive to the PT field. Brad was a Free Church minister from Iowa who was living vicariously through the liberals.
"You guys look like shit," he told us.
"Thanks, bud. You're looking kind of cute today in your little shorts," Steve said. “I saw a cat yesterday, and it really turned me on. I’m not kidding. The Army is making me hornier.”
"He's got a little problem," I whispered to Brad from the back seat as he shifted gears.
"What are you talking about? You did this to me," Steve corrected.
"I'm still working out my hostilities toward the Army," I explained. "After all, we were drafted."
"Nope. This is the all-volunteer Army," said Steve. “Since there’s no draft, our foreign policy no longer has to make any sense.”
"You mean I can leave?" I asked.
"Stop the car!" Steve shouted, while comically trying to grab the wheel.
"Hell no, we won't go!" I chanted, over and over.
"Of all the chaplains to chauffeur, I get the Episcopalians," said Brad. "Somebody up there doesn't like me."
"That's just the luck of the draw," I told him. I knew he loved us.
"Our redeemer liveth," Steve added.
"Your redeemer has a lot of work to do."
Like many in the ministry, Brad had a lot going on under the hood. He had dropped out of Naval ROTC at Iowa State, and taken a few years to get his head together, to take the bull by the horns. His brother was the golden boy, an
graduate. Brad was now a pastor at a small church in Annapolis , his own humble version of the family gold. He worked hard to be a conservative, but he had to in his denomination. A Free Church evangelical minister would be pushing the envelope just to buy a six-pack of beer at the corner market. That would be enough to engage the trip wire of gossip over hedges and pews, even send a supervisor out to see the fallen shepherd of the flock. A six pack to him was like a rock of crack and a box of porno tapes for us. But he was most comfortable with the Episcopal cocktail circuit at chaplain school. Others speculated, openly, whether our crowd was saved. We would never be born again. Once was more than enough. Bill Clinton wasn't saved, I had learned at Army Chaplain School. This place was no waste of time. The President of the Iowa was first in his class of the damned, the baby boomers on their way to hellfire. No word on Chelsea, or Buddy the dog. Hillary was definitely going to hell. Yet on the first weekend of leave, Brad invited me to the nude beach we had all heard about, at Sandy Hook on the Jersey shore. I joined him to see my future neighbors in evangelical hell. United States
"Did you see that black chick?" he asked me as we surveyed the Edenic human landscape at the beach.
"Couldn't miss her, big guy. I wonder if she sings in her choir. Should we evangelize her? You know, a laying on of hands?"
Brad was married and had two kids back in the heartland. We all called home every night.
During PT Steve dropped out of the run while hacking up a lung. I felt ok as the toxins burned in the human engine. Davis Lawson was glowing like a gospel singer, clapping out the inane cadences boyishly, joyfully; they were mostly about the sergeant's granny and how much tougher she was than us: "When my granny was ninety-six, she did PT just for kicks."
It meant so much for
to be here, serving his country. He was healing the wound from Vietnam, and his former hiding place among the elite during that war. In me there was some kind of moral split. It had been there from the beginning, and I could never overcome the division in me. That summer in Davis , I was thinking the split was supposed to be there. I was part draft resister and sixties kid listening to Bob Dylan, part New Jersey West Point cadet serving Old Glory. Some conflicts are here to stay, so you might as well get comfortable with them. I was ready for the burden to lift as a chaplain, but I was unsure how to do it. I had come for the truth of who I was. I never knew comfortably who I was after West Point, not that I had a clue beforehand. It was my fall, my grief, my loss of innocence. The garden was blown apart, shattered beyond repair, but the woods of manhood also had a secret beauty in the man I was becoming.
"So why did you come here?" the counselor asked me.
She was wearing levis and a plain white blouse. She had dark hair that was cut short and the earnest concern of a psychology major and then Ph.D, trying to solve the world's problems, one happy patient at a time. She was a civilian psychologist employed by West Point. The interview was required for cadets considering leaving the grey and holy tribe. I had been interviewed by my squad leader, company commander, and tactical officer. The commander had told me that someone had been rejected so that I could be there as a cadet, and that I had a moral debt to that person. The counselor was my absolute favorite. If only she would stop looking so concerned. I looked out at the academy grounds I had never been able to look at before as I raced around like an idiot, a West Point plebe.
"I guess it had a lot to do with my father."
"Was he in the service?"
"The Navy in World War II. He was so pumped when I came here."
"Does he know you want to leave?"
"What did he say?" she asked as she crossed her legs.
"He told me to stay put. He said it's a phase; that I'll speed past this and forget it ever happened."
"Are you close to him?"
"Yes and no. He was always pretty distant. I thought I would get closer to him by being here."
"You can't be here for him." She paused. "You can only be here for yourself."
"I don't know anymore. Do people stay here for themselves? Or are they too terrified to leave?"
"Both, I would guess."
She smiled at me. Nobody smiled at West Point, not openly like that. Her name was Jenny Pritchard, Ph.D from UC Davis. The University of California sounded pretty good about now. I could put off these feelings for years in the UC system. Her job made sense to me.
"I'm doing crazy shit," I said suddenly.
"Yesterday two upperclassmen told me to halt. 'Mister, halt!' might as well be my name.
'Not today boys,' I yelled back at them. I have no idea why, it was pure impulse. I jumped down the stairs and ran into the locker room in the basement. I hid in a locker. They yelled and threatened me, saying very unflattering things about my parentage, most of them untrue. I sat there in the locker thinking, 'I worked my ass off for four years to come to this place, and here I am hiding from the Gestapo in a locker.'"
"Why did your run, Nick?"
"It seemed completely reasonable. It still does. I didn't want to talk to those idiots. I still don't. I find myself laughing in formation. I've been told to 'smirk off' so many times, I feel like a Russian vodka. I really could use a martini, to be perfectly honest. But I’m a gin man. Make sure to put that in your notes."
She laughed. "You're under a lot of stress."
"Tell me about it. I haven't had an erection in three months. No wood."
"That's not uncommon."
"For monks and eunuchs maybe."
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"I think so. In her last letter, it appeared I did."
"Three thousand miles and the lifespan of the rose."
Dr. Pritchard laughed again, and her brown eyes were bright behind her glasses. She was enjoying the interview, required as per regulations. We were both just doing our duty.
Your barracks or mine? I wanted to ask her, but didn’t.
"You're not like the other cadets I see."
"I'm a regular Holden Caulfield in grey. Goddamn Army. Is it possible I'm not cut out for this place?"
"It's possible, but you also wanted to come here very badly."
"It's my dark side. We don't get along. I spend my nights being chased by samurais in my dreams."
My uniform was taken away, gradually. In pieces. We can all be reduced, and West Point loves the theater of reductive humiliation. What it can’t build up, it tears down publicly. There was a separate formation for the quitters. We were bad for morale, and I didn't have to run from upperclassmen anymore. I had my last session with Jenny Pritchard, Ph.D, and I sat in her office in just the grey pants and white shirt stripped of insignia. No hat. And a plane ticket to
. San Francisco
West Point conversation I had was with my Beast Barracks roommate Trotter Ridgeway. It was a very short talk. We had never gotten along during that awful summer. We had passed each other by the parade ground near the statue of General Eisenhower. He was on his way to class, and I was on my way to sunny California. Cadet Ridgeway was carrying his books, while I was carrying a box of equipment I had to turn in. He eyed my hatless condition and reduced uniform status.
"I heard you were leaving."
"I always knew you were fucked up."
My high school girlfriend Annie Taylor met me at the airport. She felt small in my arms. My friends now at Cal and Stanford showed up. My dream had risen, and it had died. Something had fallen in me, like something terrible being said in the dark. I couldn't hear the words, just the hiss of masculine judgment. I would look for answers in my girlfriend's olive skin and kisses, but the scent of youthful spring was gone. It would never be combined with innocence again. I had watched pride come to life in my father's eyes; now I would watch it die, and something bright between us recede, never to be seen again. He died in my second year of seminary.
I could always go back to the military, I told myself a hundred times. But I needed to find myself. I would return to the academy a thousand times in my haunted dreams. A dream had expired like a breath. I would learn to dream other dreams. I think back on the cadet in his pared down uniform rereading Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, in the West Point library, instead of going to classes he would never finish. I now hold him in my mind, with a gentleness of memory. Right decisions are painful. I was getting to know that cadet at chaplain school ten years later, and things lost were coming back. Things I thought dead were now alive again.
That morning after PT and the morning run, I took a quick shower before morning formation. I brushed my teeth for the second time; my hangover had lifted during the run. Briefcases leaned against trees at the academic formation as we got our instructions for the day. My first class was Leadership Doctrine taught by Colonel David Andrews, a former infantry officer and now an Episcopal Bishop with a Ph.D in Church History. With his wire rim glasses and boyish features, he looked and acted more like a college professor than an Army officer. His lecture flew over the heads of my platoon.
"I think I'm in love," I said to Steve as we listened to Andrews speak about leadership.
"I've got wood," he replied.
One of the younger chaplains, a former artillery officer, with a buzz cut stared at us.
"He's just jealous," Steve told me, loud enough for buzzcutt to hear. "We saw him first."
"You guys need to lock it up," he scolded us.
"And you need to get a nicer barber," I said.
"That's not a haircut," Steve whispered to me. "That's a circumcision."
Colonel Andrews made us feel like we belonged; like you didn't have to be a meathead every minute to be in the Army. Andrews was an intellectual, and he didn't hide it. It was the only class where I participated in discussion actively.
After class we had a lecture to all three platoons in the main auditorium. A colonel from the Signal Corps was lecturing about the commander-chaplain relationship. Since the Signal Corps was high tech, he was overcompensating by being extra macho for the sissy chaplains. He was trying to shake loose any liberals who didn't belong.
"Who's in charge of the religious program in a unit?"
"That would be God," Steve mumbled under his breath.
The colonel looked us over like a drill sergeant.
"The religious program in a unit belongs to the commander," he said, proudly scanning for cynics or liberal leaks of intelligence. Of course, we were trained to know that truth flowed down the steep terrain of rank.
"The chaplain runs the religious program at my discretion," he informed us.
"What a penis," Steve whispered.
I nodded and slumped in my seat. Colonel Rambo of the Signal Corps then proceeded to show slides of the gulf war with patriotic music piped in through the speakers: "I'm proud to be an American 'cause at least I know I'm free." "Hooahs," the tribal grunt of enthusiasm and idiocy rose from the seated chaplains.
"We're being trained to be cheerleaders today," I said to Steve.
"What did you think this was? Boot camp for prophets?"
After the slides, the Colonel continued. "Some of you come from traditions with confession and confidentiality."
"Imagine that," Steve said with a snicker.
"But sometimes for the good of a unit, you need to tell to tell me everything. I need to know if a soldier can't carry out the mission. If a soldier is gay, you need to let me know immediately."
I knew that the key to survival in the Army, especially in the chaplaincy, was to not really listen to anything that in the civilian world was offensive, or stupid. I had to let presentations like this one slide off my back. I had to learn the art of the non-response, like a Buddhist monk before desire and temptation. It was the same moral split that had paralyzed me at
It was good to be a soldier again. That was in my blood. But redemption was not simple at all, and I stood before endless mirrors making sure I was squared away for the eternal inspection of my soul and manhood. I was living close to the source that summer, but it just brought up more questions. I was beginning to really like the dropout, Cadet Geary. I was looking for him--to embrace him--at Fort Monmouth.
On the last weekend in June, Steve Jorgensen, Brad Cook, and I headed up to West Point on our weekend leave. It would be my first time back to the academy in ten years. Even when I lived in New York City, I had never visited the Military Academy. I didn't even talk about it much.
We drove up the Palisades Parkway, the advent of upstate New York. We wore our class B uniforms. As we drove through Highland Falls, the small town near the Academy, I couldn't believe I was going back. As an officer. A First Lieutenant. Cadet Geary was returning to the scene of the crime.
At the guard post, we received our first salute. We drove past Michie Stadium, the place where high school overachievers became cadets on Reception Day.
Steve turned up Bob Marley on the tape deck.
“Lively up yourself, and don’t be no drag,” Bob sang.
The narrow streets of the academy were quiet as we made our way to Trophy Point, the hallowed ground where I had taken my first oath of office. Where was Edgar Allen Poe, my favorite dropout, when you needed him? He had been expelled for going to a formation in the nude, as the story goes. Good for him. Timothy Leary was the more recent dropout who became a subversive in the wave of 1960s self-indulgence. Reception Day for the class of 1998 was a week away, and the upperclassmen who would lead Beast Barracks were on campus. Most of them wore black and gold PT uniforms, like bumble bees about to go to work.
"This place is serious. Intense," said Steve.
"Nick, how are you doing?"
We turned right at the Catholic Chapel and headed east towards Trophy Point and the parade ground. One of the chaplains at Fort Monmouth, a West Point graduate, said it was a place that still seemed big on returning. Even the survivors had the look. Like me they weren't sure what had hit them.
One of my students at school in Salt Lake had just applied to the Naval Academy and asked me for advice: "You're joining a tribe. You will be initiated, and you're part of the tribe no matter what you do. If you really have to go, you must." The student, a black kid, just nodded. He decided on the University of Utah, but eventually ended up in the Army as an enlisted man.
My priesthood had come out of the ashes of this place, this ground. My compassion for others was born in exile from my tribe. My life would not be one success after another. That's what a man is. I knew that as I walked the sidewalk adjacent to the parade ground. A soldier has a right to be confused, I smiled to myself. Even then, Steve, Brad, and I walked according to rank. Steve was on the left as a Second Lieutenant, and I was in the middle because Brad had been commissioned before me. I stopped and stared out at Washington Hall and the statue of General George Washington across the vast green of the parade ground.
From where I stood that day, it looked like the gothic Cadet Chapel was part of Washington Hall; that it had grown out of the top of the central building that housed the cadets and their massive dining hall. But the chapel was on higher ground. I wouldn't have to come back in my dreams anymore. I had come back as an officer. The immortal day had happened, and the poem of the boy was finally written.