combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2004

The Last Dance

Some disgusting reprobate was broadcasting his lubricious indulgences to a radio audience busily buckling and buttoning itself into another work day, and I found his asinine prattle amusing ... if neither inspiring or enlightening. Most people were probably too busy to turn him off, as they rushed through their departure sequences. He deserved no attention at all, and wasn't even good background to coffee slurping and slamming doors; but I chortled anyway. My mother was bemused by my amusement, but then she didn't know what I knew.

This degenerate rapscallion shamelessly described a protracted debauch that culminated in a visit to a transvestite bar, where, because nobody can tell the difference with all those injections and cosmetics, he submitted to a lewd lap-dance. He confided to all and sundry, as if in the privacy of a sealed confessional, that he couldn't remember, but upon reflection, he really hoped that he didn't have a good time! ... as if not enjoying the act would redeem the act. It's a little like the modern casuistry of ascribing true homosexuality only to the partner who is receptive, instead of to the couple. It was ludicrous and illogical, and intended to outrage propriety ... but it had more than a kernel of truth.

I told her how I'd once violated the limits of a weekend pass to visit a larger, more cosmopolitan city than the free-enterprise zone setup around our base. The local fare outside the gate seemed to consist entirely of sleaze and clip joints devoted to fleecing every paycheck from everyone stationed there. It was something like the variety offered by the Taoist zookeeper ... you could get ripped-off by German beer, Italian wine, or Japanese sake, replete with triumphal retrospectives on American victories ... but the result was inevitable and invariable. The dirty little war in Vietnam was still too new to have developed its own stereotypic kitsch. At that time, it was still exotic and untrammel ... like the voluptuous whore who would become a withered crone by morning. I wanted to go where my de rigueur uniform would be somewhat anomalous, and a compassionate lure, instead of a target for exploitation and contempt.

Never having visited this metropolis before, and touring at a time predating underground travel guides, I did not know where to go for a good time. Too unsophisticated to ask a taxi driver, and too ignorant to consult the then-Bowdlerized yellow pages, I wandered the city looking for a revelation. I wasn't naïve enough to expect a sign beckoning lonely soldiers, but I was still skeptical enough to have suspected the veracity of any such beacon! Only later would I discover that the Provost Marshal regularly updated a list of prohibited establishments, which could be read by every red-blooded male as an enticement to mischief!

I wandered the highways and byways of this alternative to Soldier City in search of what was readily available in that disdained venue. It is probably an idiosyncrasy of all men that we crave variety as the spice of life, that we imagine the grass is greener on the other side, despite the fact that all cats are gray in the dark. If we are playing hide-and-seek with ourselves in some mythic Hindu garden, then it is a childish illusion we thoroughly enjoy. We pretend that the next person will say something interesting, or do something surprising. We imagine that the next sound or smell or taste will be better, and that our next lover will charm us in new ways. We hope that some circumstance will startle us, or that some situation will frighten us ... and that we'll recover soon enough to do it all over again. It's a delicious excitement! And we'll endure much privation to indulge ourselves.

I became bored with my adventure long before it had a chance to become interesting. Of course, I could have courted some interesting times by provoking one or another reaction, but my particular tastes were not that peculiar. In that zest for lifelong effort that disdained final achievement, my labors would be marked by incremental attainments ... as small but vital rewards to myself to encourage my own persistence. Even though I wore a uniform symbolizing martial virtues, I preferred such struggles to be abstract and distant. I was a lover, not a fighter; and could recall every bout of fisticuffs I'd ever endured. Despite my relative inexperience, I'd already encountered enough bluff bullies and hardened sadists to last a lifetime. I knew that some men actually enjoyed a brutal mauling, whether they won or lost, for the sheer sport of it; but I was not one of them. I didn't even like spankings, either giving or receiving. The concept of rough sex was repellent, and its actuality would be emasculating. My fantasies were touching and tender, and unrequited.

My tramping finally brought me to the night owl section of the city, which may or may not have included the red-light district ... I was still naïve enough to expect brothels to resemble cinematic portrayals. I would later learn that European prostitutes marketed their wares like American merchandise behind display windows ... giving a new and baser interpretation to window shopping! My privations included sore feet, unslaked lust, and sleeplessness, extending into hangover and insolvency. I toured the all-night cafés, game rooms, dance halls, tattoo parlors, adult bookstores, and finally bars. Being baby-faced and obviously underaged, I was excluded most places, was tolerated without service in a few, and accepted in the last ... becoming the last because my peregrinations ceased. As at the end of a pilgrim's trek, my yearned libations refreshed my body, mind, and spirit. I'd found an obscure home that would nourish and shelter me throughout my waning respite.

It was a bar typical of the times ... dim, decorated, dense, and deafening. Because my travels had exhausted me, I was pleased to nestle into a corner and observe this haven. Except for field exercises, I had not missed the regularity of a sleep schedule since some remotely daring parties and pranks in my juvenile past. Although tired, I was alert to my surroundings, and was charmed by all the lively people. They acted as if this were their normal routine, and were as animated as most people are at midday. After a period of meditation, I inferred that this was a favorite saloon, and that most of the clientele were gathered as if at an informal party. Men and women were visiting all over the room, laughing and chatting, drifting from table to table, bar to dance floor. The mood was cheerful and sprightly ... and, unlike many barrooms, there was a marked absence of aggression or hostility.

For someone who works with professional killers, my preoccupation with threat levels must make me seem cowardly; but all I can say is that I will fight if I must, but I much prefer to avoid it whenever possible. Avoidance entails situational sensitivity and spatial awareness. Before I approach someone, whether for conversation or companionship, I will try to ascertain the existence of any harmful entanglements. Likewise, I try to position myself in new environments so as to limit access or ensure egress. I've found that prevention is preferable to cure. This may classify me as a timid serviceman, but I have never pretended to be a valiant warrior. I'm just a guy trying to get along in a hazardous world that is too often unjust.

My corner barstool was a perfect perch, and gave me the confidence to approach a couple of slight attractive women. We shared drinks and dancing, and several of their friends joined our table with convivial conversation. They were kind enough to inquire about my posting, and several visitors mentioned their own military service, or the current state of global tension. They were far more sophisticated than I, and much more comfortable with me than I was with them. I was delighted to be accepted as a soldier boy, and not shunned as a rube with no better prospects than military service. I got well and truly drunk, on both the beverages I was illegally consuming, and on their essential human decency to a fellow creature. I could not have found a better place for sharing the milk of human kindness anywhere near my base. None of the fine ladies I met was charitable enough to invite me home, but I was not in any condition to return their favors. As the saying goes: there were smiles all around, and a good time was had by all!

A weekend pass in those days commenced after Saturday morning inspection and concluded not later than bed check on Sunday night. I'd spent too much of my off-duty time searching for the right place, but having found this congenial refuge filled with affable friends, I need not reconnoiter any further. Because the distance was great, I departed for my base camp as soon as the bar party broke up. We separated as the city awakened, and I made contingency plans and mental maps all the way back to the barracks. I found people who liked me, and people I wanted to know better. The men were handsome and polite. The women were attractive and graceful. Everyone seemed smart and stylish. I was captivated ... perhaps enchanted.

When signing back in to the Company, the Charge of Quarters noticed my countenance, and we traded some remarks. I soon had an audience of awed troopers listening to my account of a foray beyond the pale. By breakfast the gossip had spread, and I was getting alot of ribald comments and suspicious glances. I noticed that I was the object of discussion for several small groups, and I began to worry about official notice that would incur punishment for violating the pass limits. When I entered the latrine after work that night, everybody else departed ... that had never happened before, but in this day of odd happenings, I had no suspicion of ostracism. As soon as I finished showering, my section sergeant came into the latrine and looked me over. It was somewhat embarrassing to be scrutinized by a hard-ass lifer with fists cocked on his hips. He had me repeat my story of madcap adventure, and then asked me if I was really that stupid?! I confessed my stupidity, and added ingenuousness and guilelessness. He told me that the saloon I visited was a notorious sanctuary for homosexuals! And as I blushed from my toes, he further informed me that every woman that I'd purportedly admired was a transvestite! I tried to stammer out an explanation to the effect that it was the only bar that would serve me, that it was not my fault, but he just stood there with a disgusted expression until I spluttered out of steam. He then asked me if I thought their illegal service of alcoholic beverages to a minor was suspicious, but I don't think he wanted an answer, because he turned away before I could reply. As he left, I heard him mumble something about dumb shit and pogy bait. I somehow volunteered for extra duty and didn't get another pass for a month. Throughout that entire month of mortification, I replayed each agonizing instance of intimacy with the ladies at the saloon ... and I was exceedingly grateful to have missed consummation. Avoiding that peak experience was only the first bullet I had to dodge.

The next time I was granted liberty, I made a conspicuous spectacle of myself with every B-girl in Soldier City! I had something to prove, and I set about it with a will. As the old punch-line in several bad jokes expresses it: It's a dirty job but someone has to do it! ... and I took my medicine like a real man. I was a conspicuous patron of the clip joints and strip clubs, and I toured every back alley in hopes that my disproportionate consumption of the commercial cesspool would restore my good reputation. Years later, while reading Nietzsche, I would recognize the truth of this existential process because I had lived through the actual transmogrification. It didn't matter if the entertainer was uglier than my combat boot or fatter than a queen bee, because she had the right equipment, and could validate my paltry masculinity. It didn't matter if she was a shriveled popsy leftover from the Spanish American War, or the latest cosmetic approximation of Suzie Rottencrotch. In fact, it didn't matter if the mannish cavorting of the featured broad resembled General Longstreet serenading his drunken troops while dancing a jig on top of a tavern table, just as long as she wasn't he! I proceeded to wreck my health and my finances in my adoration of table dancers ... just to prove a moot point.

It took a long time for things to settle down and get back to something approaching normal, even if my masculine reputation was still unrecovered. Then the annual Company party killed any chance I might ever have had of escaping back into the regular olive-drab world. After a couple of lampoons of humorless sergeants and dumb officers, some singing and recitation, my section performed a skit ridiculing my misadventure. Since wives and girlfriends were in the audience, the skit wasn't as obscene as it could have been, but I'm sure that many excuses were made that night. Three of my section sergeants were dressed-up in kitchen apron skirts and mop-head wigs, garishly adorned with lipstick and rouge, and were seated around a table pretending to primp and gossip. Inasmuch as they were all unlovely specimens of grizzled manhood, complete with tattoos and cigars, they were a ludicrous sight! My bunkmate, the shortest man in our unit, entered from the opposite side wearing my field jacket, a pair of grotesquely oversized boots, a paper cunt cap emblazoned SUPER TROOPER, while leading the Mess Sergeant's attack Chihuahua wearing a sign: Pussy Hound. Everyone on stage mugged for the audience, with the girls batting their eyes and my surrogate looking like an acolyte who's found heaven! My surrogate took the remaining chair, waved for drinks, and another apron skirted and mop wigged female swished up to the table carrying a gigantic bottle labeled Love Potion. Drinks were poured ... well, some of what was poured did accidentally fall into each tumbler ... and the actors pretended to suddenly get drunk together in about one swallow! My surrogate petted the hands and wigs of the ladies, and then was jerked onto his feet by the ugliest of the women and forced to dance with her! ... it wasn't easy, since the woman had a potbelly, and my surrogate only came up to the woman's armpit, but they manfully tried their best. As soon as the dog was released, like most pets, he wanted to get under the feet of the dancers, so one of the other women took the leash, and led the dog back to the table. Once settled back at the table, the Chihuahua got under the skirts of the other women, growling and barking, until he was revealed to be eating an elongated hot dog! As the women shrieked their feigned distress, the dancers separated so my surrogate could open his (my!) field jacket to display a large heart pinned to his shirt! ... and then my surrogate was picked-up and carried away! While the audience roared and hooted, I just wanted to disappear into the ground! Just as life is more dreadful than death, so man's laughter is more terrible than his tears.

I know why outsiders become heroes, or drunks. The romance of danger and hardship had swollen the military's ranks, but that just meant that more people had a chance to vicariously enjoy another's humiliation. It's true ... you can run but you can't hide! So even though the war put everyone in motion and everything in chaos, I had the distinct impression that everybody knew my deep dark secret. I even heard the story later recounted in a Saigon barroom, and by then it had become anonymous legend, the way urban myths are vaguely attributed, so I could laugh along with everyone else ... and we all agreed that no true blue sentinel of American values could be that dumb! I constantly listened for keywords and suspected double-meanings. I was never again comfortable ... not with others, not with myself. Like a criminal, I expected a tap on my shoulder or a sly recognition, and the word would spread some more. I could never take the chance of making new friends for fear that they would eventually learn the truth, and reconsider all of my deeds. Because I could not abide the invidious comparison, I imposed more strictures upon myself.

In a way, going to distant lands where exotic peoples are being killed is redemptive. Most of the spit and polish mentality of the toy soldier military disappears when the requirements of battle dictate priorities and effective performance has realistic determinants. There is also the clash of cultures, wherein the B-girls from Okinawa to Thailand still hustle lonely GIs, but by overtly grabbing for crotch and wallet. The exotic dancers are preparation for short-time sex, because dancing is obviously a form of public foreplay. Everything is lived as if tomorrow might never come. In a war-torn land, even an enlisted man can afford the luxury of a companion who will help him hide his shame.

When I went on R & R to Australia during my second tour, it was to refresh my memory of the culture I'd left behind. Everything in Asia had a price tag, but being affordable didn't make it desirable. I was back to my original desire ... I wanted to meet some attractive women who didn't see me as something to scorn or exploit. I wanted to spend some time around blue-eyed blondes, who smelled clean, and spoke in complete sentences. I wanted to be with a woman I didn't have to explain things to, and share an environment she didn't have to explain to me. I wanted to dance with a woman who was my size. Some Aussie ladies volunteered to escort us, and I got to slow dance with one over dinner in a night club ... a slow dance is so much more intimate than the twitching rites of popular music, where the dancers may as well be alone. Sharing a little humanity in a candlelit fantasy was worth all the tribulations of war.

As the last and best dance of my life, this final slow dance represents bittersweet parting. It symbolizes the separation of idealized innocence from practical adulthood ... where innocent make believe and childish make it all better never end in happily ever after. When war is finally over, no matter how or why, so is the forever youth which danced to its tune.

by Bill Cummings
... who is a disabled veteran and freelance writer whose work has appeared previously in this magazine.