Nov. 11, 2003


by Victor W. Pearn

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Poem: "Receiving," by Victor W. Pearn, from Devil Dogs and Jarheads (Busca, Inc.).


After you sprint
from the barber chair
you come to a long counter.
Great shouting
down the halls:
what is your waist size,
your shoe size?
Somebody throws a sea bag
green socks fly at you
belts, T shirts, boxer shorts,
all the articles of clothing
you will need for the next 12 weeks.
If you get the wrong size
too bad, tough shit, wear them.

Then the herd
stampedes into a room
with cubical desks.
You are given a box,
take off your civilian
clothes, put them into
the box, and address
the box to your home.
This is your last chance
to get rid of any contraband,
guns, knives, drugs you may
have brought with you without
getting into trouble.
It is the last time
you will see that box.

Get your group shower.
Gold dial soap bars
five shower heads
blast steam, duck under,
lather up, rinse off,
get out, drip dry, try on
your new boxer shorts,
T shirt, green utility pants
and socks, black basketball shoes,
gray sweatshirt, put on your hat
grab your sea bag and run
out the door. Everybody waiting.

The sea bag on your shoulder
might weigh 60 pounds.
The DI wants you to
form four lines.
The tallest man
in front. The shortest man
in the rear of the line.
Now put your left hand
on the shoulder of the
man in front of you,
and lock your right arm
around the left arm
of the man to your right.
Now walk and stagger
like a million legged

Nobody knows how to march,
but somehow you finally
reach your assigned quarters.

Metal bunkbeds, wooden footlockers,
pick a bed, put your sea bag
into the footlocker.

You are given two green wool
blankets, two sheets, a pillow
a pillowcase, and the soft spoken
DI demonstrates how
to make your bed with
military folds,
expects you to
make your rack
like that,
gives you ten minutes
to make your bed.
And when he returns
your rack made,
you will be
standing at attention
in your skivvies.

The angry
green and red eyed
Drill Instructor
comes in yelling
to get your covers off.
"Take off those covers,"
everybody starts ripping
blankets and throwing them
on the floor.
Angry DI throws people
on the floor, anybody
he can get his hands on.
Then he grabs a recruit,
pulls his hat off and says,
"ladies this is your cover
and you better have
those racks made
before the other DI
gets back."

Soft spoken DI
comes in. Your bed is made.
You are at attention
in your skivvies.
He checks arms, legs, backs
for bruises, wounds,
broken bones, to be sure
we are healthy,
then tells us to get in bed.
At the light switch
he says, "there are armed
guards outside the door
with orders to shoot anybody
that tries to escape,"
then he turns out the lights.
"Good night ladies."
It is 3 a.m.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces. November 11 was originally called Armistice Day, because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. The armistice was signed at 11:00 AM, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. After four years of brutal trench fighting, nine million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded. It was called "The War to End All Wars," because it was the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and it made many people so sick of war that they hoped no war would ever break out again.

Many intellectuals and artists were disillusioned by the war. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride."

It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990) and, most recently, Timequake (1997). His family was descended from German immigrants, and both of his parents were fluent in German, but they did not teach the language to Kurt because he was born at a time when Americans still considered Germans an enemy from World War I. Vonnegut said, "[My parents] volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism." His father forced him to go to college to study biochemistry, though he wanted to be a journalist. Vonnegut said, "[College] was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for." He was failing almost all of his classes when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he jumped at the chance to join the army and get out of school.

In December of 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and forced to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that burned up all the oxygen in the city and killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners only survived because they slept in a meat locker three stories below the ground. When they walked outside, they were almost the only living people in a city that had burned to the ground.

After the war, Vonnegut started publishing fiction about the dangers of technology, but his work wasn't taken seriously. He said, "I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction' . . . and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." While writing other books, he kept trying to work on a novel about the bombing of Dresden. At one point he drew a diagram of the book's plot on the back of a roll of wallpaper. Finally, in 1967, he traveled back to Dresden to do research, came back, and wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade; A Duty-Dance with Death (1969). It's about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said, "[I knew] after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn't have to write at all anymore if I didn't want to. . . . I suppose that flowers, when they're through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served."

Slaughterhouse-Five was published at the height of the Vietnam War, and the book made Vonnegut a hero among the war protesters. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said that anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers. He has since become one of the most popular guest lecturers at universities across the country.

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