So I found myself sitting on a bench, waiting in a wooden building at Fort Holabird, an Army base in Baltimore, Maryland. A corporal, looking glum, walked through the rows of new recruits who were still dressed in blue jeans and button-down shirts, raggedy shorts and holey tee-shirts, distributing copies of the New Testament. When he tried to hand one to me, I said, “No thanks.” Heads turned, the corporal shrugged and moved on to the next former civilian, the next unredeemed sinner, and then heads turned back, except for a black guy with a short Afro, raised eyebrows, and a rubbery face. I later learned that his name was Herb Mulkey.

“Hey, man, you crazy?” he said. “It’s free. I’ll take it.”

“Like you ain’t got none already,” another black guy said.

“Hey, it don’t hurt nobody to have more Bibles. I just send it home to my brother.”

They laughed, and Mulkey did a little dance while he sat on the bench, looking like a Looney Tunes character pumping his legs just before zipping away and leaving a puff of dust. But I noticed that another inductee, a white guy, hadn’t looked away but was sizing me up. He wore glasses and had a droopy mustache, a round, large face with deep-set eyes, and a shock of dark hair over his forehead. But he didn’t get up to approach me and introduce himself, and eventually he lowered his head and stared at the papers he was holding.

All morning, we signed forms and sat around on the hard benches, learning the mantra of Army existence, “Hurry up and wait,” eventually taking the oath, repeating after the captain like a congregation chiming the minister.

Around noon, a soldier at Station B called me up to the front. “Drury,” he said, “they need someone to work over at headquarters. They want somebody with pretty high test-scores. Go over to Building 86 and see Specialist Salvo.” I walked over to headquarters and waited. Salvo, who was young and babyfaced, gave me a list of birthdates to match with draft-lottery numbers, and a tally sheet on which to enter the slash-marks. I added everything up and turned in the results to the secretary “in record time,” as she put it.

Salvo and the secretary took the sheet to an adding machine, but its calculations disputed my double-checked totals. “No one’s infallible,” she said with a smirk. I looked at the sheet myself, squinting and counting, and eventually pointed out a slash-mark they had failed to punch in. They thanked me, and I left. It was a small triumph on a bad day.

At 4:30, we piled onto a bus that grunted and lurched off the base, but we stopped two blocks away to eat dinner at a restaurant. I discovered, upon visiting the room marked “Gentlemen,” that I was constipated.

When we arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey, we piled off the bus into the base theater whose marquee announced “LET IT BE.” An officer stood on stage and told us, “These next few days will be the most traumatic ones of your life.” Or did he say “dramatic”?

Later, we were marshaled into a room full of chairs, where we sat down and waited. Another officer walked in with a black plate on his shirt reading “Slaughter.” I wondered whether it was a name or a command. In a soft voice, he said, “Cut out the bullshit in the back” and then led us to another room full of chairs. We sat for a few minutes, fidgeting; until the loudspeaker began to blast out martial music. A voice came over: “Welcome to Fort Dix. This is Major So-and-So, speaking for General What’s-His-Name, the post commander. The one thing you’re all asking yourselves is ‘Can I meet the challenge?’ and I tell you yes,youcan.” Each of us received a packet of information, filled out more forms, and was requisitioned part of his clothing issue.

Carrying our newly issued duffel bags full of goodies, including boxer shorts as well as briefs, along with all sorts of toilet articles, we strolled across the tree-lined base until we reached our barracks in the reception center and shuffled in. The second floor, one big room, was marked C Company, Platoon 15. There were two rows of bunks perpendicular to the walls, like dominoes lined up and ready to be toppled over in a chain reaction, with a wide aisle down the middle. I claimed an upper bunk that was marked Line 38—like a poem, I thought.

Lights out didn’t mean we went to sleep right away. In fact, it was talk, talk, talk for at least two hours—and I was keeping track with my glow-in-the-dark watch. The guy in the next bunk, on the bottom, did impressions of an alley cat. Every now and then someone called out a question like “Who’s from where?” or “Who’s asleep?” and proceeded around the room: “21?” “22?” “23?” and so on, reeling off the line number of each bunk.

“What are your nicknames?”







Someone called out, “You know the cans they got hung up?” referring to the tin butt-cans nailed to support posts. “They’re to pee in.”

“What if you gotta shit?”

“Do it in your hand and throw it out the window!”

A motorcyclist was roaring around the barracks, the engine grumbling and farting, so someone yelled, “Next time he comes around, I’m gonna piss through the window on him.”

Now and then a cry went out, “Uh-oh, here comes the D.I.!” But no drill instructor ever came, not on our first night in the Army.


The next few days were idyllic: slow-paced, relaxed, wafted by breezes, shaded by enormous maples and oaks. The bunk beds made our temporary billets feel chummy, but not nearly so much as the toilets without stalls. At first my constipation didn’t bother me, since at least it kept me from the exposure of squatting on a toilet in front of people. The coffee cans painted red, filled with sand, and nailed to the wooden posts in the barracks struck me as picturesque touches, like gas-burning sconces in a gingerbread hotel, although they were intended for cigarette butts.

I was surprised at the pleasantness of Army life. It reminded me of the “phony war” I read about in a folio of newspaper front pages that I swiped from my mother and then lost. I thought about that tranquil period on the western front, after the Blitzkrieg had crushed Poland and after the Allies had declared war, when everyone was biding his time, not even storm clouds gathering above an Impressionist picnic but wispy cirrus clouds, which we called mares’ tails back home in Maryland, brush-strokes of powdery white like eraser streaks on a blackboard—sure signs of bad weather to come.

Since we had arrived on a Friday night, all we did on Saturday was get haircuts. The black barber with a head of stubble and flared white sideburns said “S’il vous plaît” to each customer, offering a Continental bow, holding his electric clippers next to his breast pocket. We sat in wooden church pews and waited our turns. Earlier that morning, I had used a straight razor for the first time, lathering up soap in lieu of shaving cream, as one of the sergeants had recommended, and managing to cut my chin. The sergeant was easygoing, a short-timer who would soon be discharged, and told us, “There’s no one here on the weekends.” Someone added, “No one but the devil.”

With all that free time, we lazed around in the barracks. I had brought the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly and was reading an exposé of the Famous Writers School and an article by someone who was a contestant on Jeopardy and found it much more difficult to buzz in and respond correctly on the air than at home. Both pieces provided warnings about things that were harder than they looked from the comfort of your easy chair.

Two bunks down was the white guy who had stared at me in the induction center when I refused to accept the free Bible. Oddly enough, he also had orders for language school in Monterey, where we would both be studying German. I asked him why he had signed up for that. “I can sell it,” he said. “My first choice was Russian but the course was cancelled.”

His name was John Walker, and we had been born within thirty miles of each other on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. My act of defiance when the chaplain’s aide was distributing testaments at Fort Holabird, pulling the slim green volumes from a cardboard box, had made Walker perk up and notice me as an “odd character.” I had seen him frowning in my direction and thought he looked, with his prominent mustache, like Clark Gable at a low point in some melodrama, but the courtly barber had eliminated any remnants of facial hair among trainees in the reception center.

“I was astonished,” Walker said. “Why would anyone refuse a book, any book, much less a free Bible, even if it was just the New Testament. I thought it was an elegant, handsomely bound edition, not cheap-looking in the least, even though it was green. I was astonished, dumbfounded. I thought you were out of your mind.”

“Maybe,” I said. “You may be right, but it galled me, the way they tried to force us to take something when we had no resistance. And just the New Testament! What about soldiers who were Jewish?”

“I seemed outlandish to refuse it, however. Excessive. Even a little affected.”

“I didn’t say ‘So help me God’ either when I took the oath.”

“Then I doubt, very seriously, if you’re legally in the Army at all. You’d have an excellent case for appeal, if you chose to pursue it. I’d give them a hard time about it.”


Later on Saturday night, when we were once again making a lot of raucous noise, a captain came up the stairs and yelled, “Everybody out of their bunks!” He scowled. “Chow is seven to eight-thirty.” He strutted to the end of the room and shouted an order: “Lock that door!” He walked back again and said, “Somebody empty that trash can.”

As he began to leave, someone asked, “When do we eat?”

The captain turned slowly around, “Didn’t you fucking hear me? Breakfast is at seven o’clock, goddamnit. If you want to stay in bed and sleep, don’t go.”

“When’s church?” someone asked.

“Services are eight to eleven in the chapel.”

“We gotta go?”

“No, you don’t gotta go.”

He left but returned in a few minutes when the noise resumed. “If I hear any more fucking hollering, we’re gonna play games tonight. And I’m the referee. And I don’t play fair.”

He went stamping back down the stairs, and the room was dead silent for a moment, nothing but crickets outside the open windows. Then someone, in a subdued voice, said, “When do we eat?”


On Sunday, Midsummer’s Day, it was overcast but cool. No one had awakened me in the middle of the night, so I missed my duty as fire guard. Several trainees were playing poker at the far end of the room. I heard someone talking about “one of the oldest tricks in the book”: if you put a nickel in the slot of a pay phone and simultaneously push the return button, you get a dial tone—but it only worked on the old ones.

I opened a window of the barracks and crawled out on the skirt-like lower roof, settling myself on the shingles, leaning against the whitewashed clapboard, with a view of well-kept lawns and a gigantic water tower, next to a pine with glistening needles, still wet from an early morning rain, with my blue composition book open and my pen ready.

Birds flew as though descending a staircase and then swinging up in a smooth arc. Weeds like starfish and clover like white pebbles spangled the grass below me. A huge yellow triangle hung from a red L-shaped gallows. There was a sharp demarcation between the newly-mown lawn and the high flowing grass near the woods, like a linoleum-floor bordering a thick carpet. The sky in the east, away from the burning sunset, looked like rock strata, shaded pink and blue and black.

All of the barracks looked alike—two stories, architecture in the style of an old railroad station, a middle roof beneath the second floor like a hat brim, black shingles whitened as if with chalk, white siding with a green stripe along the bottom, the building supported by pilings. The rainwater that had collected around and under the barracks make them look as though they were built on piers.

Before I left the roof ledge, trainees started poking their heads out the balcony door, saying “You gonna jump?” and “Need some help?” One of them came out, stood at attention, and yelled: “Get off that goddamn roof on the double!” I figured that the smell of pine and the solitude made it worth the trouble, so I didn’t go back in right away.

In the evening, I confessed to Walker that I had enlisted because I wanted to become a poet. “I’ve always wanted to write a novel called Shore Bound,” he said, “because of the play on words: bound in the sense of being tied down, unable to break away or go thither, but also heading back home from a considerable distance, bound for the Eastern Shore. My best friend is a poet. In our yearbook, there’s a picture of him lying on a beach by the Chester River, next to a poem of his that he’d inscribed in the sand.” I was jealous immediately, since I wanted to be both a poet and Walker’s new best friend.


On Monday morning, we marched to get the rest of our garments issue and went to the dispensary for immunizations. I had trouble keeping in step and was upset by the taunts from several trainees in the ranks behind me.

The air gun felt like an electric shock. We had eye checkups, and I eventually got a hideous pair of plastic frames that I exchanged for wire rims as soon as I returned home on leave. When they drew blood for tests, Walker fainted.

“They gonna wear your ass off,” one of the easy-going sergeants said.

“How many people are killed in basic training,” someone asked him, “on the average?”

Everyone laughed.

“At Fort Dix, only one I know of, and he shot himself. He stumbled over his own feet and fired a bullet through his head.” Another trainee had shot a hole through his hand and ended up in the stockade before receiving a dishonorable discharge.

While we were standing in line waiting for something, another group of recruits was marching lackadaisically on the other side of the street. “Hey! We’re from Cincinnati!” one of them yelled, “We got the Big Red Machine!”

“Go Orioles,” someone in our Maryland contingent yelled back. Both teams would meet that fall in the World Series, which Baltimore would win, but the fans who were chanting back and forth on a beautiful summer day at Fort Dix now belonged to the Big Red-White-and-Blue War Machine, and some of them would never come back.

We had our first major incident that night. At the other end of the room, four trainees were playing cards, and of course they were playing for money. A PFC, out of uniform, came up and watched until someone noticed him and said “Who the fuck are you?”

“All right,” he said, “Stay as you are. No one touch the money.” He continued, “Gambling is against regulations. Either I take you to the orderly room and you pay $75 apiece, or you fork over the pot.” They accused him of blackmail.

He left, but in a few minutes he brought back a sergeant who ordered the four poker players to stand at attention in front of the bunks.

“I was in Vietnam for one and a half years,” he said, pacing before them, staring into their eyes, “and if that didn’t fuck me up, neither will you. I’ve got 107 days left in this goddamn Army. I just don’t care anymore. You’re nothing. You’re the lowest thing in the Army—be-bops off the street. I’ve been here six months, and this is the first platoon I haven’t got along with. If you guys don’t straighten up, I’ll have a battalion of MPs come to get you. You can whip my ass, but gentlemen, if you do, you’ll land in the stockade for hitting a non-commissioned officer. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and I’ll be ready when you do, I’ll be ready. I’m awake all night.”

“If he catch you, by rights, he can take the whole fucking pot,” a black sergeant told us the next morning. “Post someone on guard. And hide the pot under the dust-cover. If anyone asks, you say, ‘See any money?’ Don’t let anyone catch you with your pants down. Drinking ain’t allowed either, but if you get a bottle, don’t sit in the middle of the floor and drink it.”

After a pause, one of the trainees said, “Sarge, how was it in Nam?”

“Oh,” he replied, “just like downtown.”

Most of the sergeants at the reception center were laid-back, probably on the verge of being discharged from the service. Sergeant Kenney, for example, was bald, white, chubby, and polyglottal. He had the habit of stroking his shirt’s neck-line near the top button.

“Sarge, we don’t have time for showers,” someone said.

“Don’t have time for showers,” he said, his index finger moved slowly in a V up from his shirt button and down, stroking his chest. “Well, go to a sink and take a—I don’t like to say this, boys—a whore’s bath.” He giggled.


We went through various tests for most of the day. Waiting in line to enter the mess hall and sign in for lunch, Walker and I were standing on white circles on the pavement, advancing slowly, moving like tokens on a game board.

We were talking about whether or not doctors who are drafted go through basic training, when another soldier turned around and said, “O.C.S., but not Infantry basic. They can’t make them go backwards.”

Walker and I listened, arms crossed.

“I want out,” he said. “When I showed up at the recruiter’s, I had tracks on my arms. My pupils were totally dilated. I was stoned when I came in to be processed too.”

His name was Poole, and he looked more like a hardened foot soldier than anyone in our group—the craziest ones usually do—his head shaved so close it looked white, a wild-eyed look that might suggest a killer instinct as much as a drug habit. He wore rumpled fatigues that only he, it seemed, had been issued. It figured. We moved up a space.

“Why’d you enlist?” I asked.

“When I was seventeen,” he went on, “I tried to kill myself. I’m from Boston. Actually Salem. Two guys brought me a strait-jacket last night. I told them I wanted to see a shrink. I demanded my rights.”

He played with a plastic bracelet on his left wrist. If he really did have needle marks or scars, they were covered by the long sleeves of his fatigue shirt.

“What did you enlist for?” Walker asked.

“Fixed station. Electronics. For a goof, when I signed up, I gave the recruiter fraudulent information.”

“You’re in trouble then.”

Walker was the nearest thing we had to a legal authority at the reception center. In college, his nickname was the Verbal Viper, although he barely managed to maintain a B average. Still, he knew words and talked about them, peculiar words like mephitic and sesquepedalian, and our shared interest in language made us friends from the start. His interest was purer than mine, however, since I was convinced that learning more about words was a crucial step in my poetic education. His linguistic prowess gave him an air of authority that carried over into all matters begging for litigation, which was a frequent topic of discussion at Fort Dix.

Back in the chummy clubhouse of our barracks, Walker talked about working in a pickle house back home in Sharptown on the Nanticoke River. Some know-it-all in the barracks declared, “They have a boardwalk three feet high above the bins.”

“Three feet high? Five feet. The barrels themselves are eight feet deep. They soak the pickles in there for eight months. Yellow when they come in. Then they treat them with alum and food coloring.”

“What kind of shit do they put in?”

“Shit. Urine. Vinegar. Never eat any pickles!”


On our last night at the reception center, several of us gathered on neighboring bunk beds to talk about black-and-white relations: Herb Mulkey (a black guy I’d met on the day we were inducted, who came from Mt. Airy, had an expressive, comic face, and said his nickname was “Sugar Bear”), Smokey (who was also black, told us he had Irish and Cherokee ancestors, and felt happy that “younger people are coming together”), Walker (who would be joining me in language school after basic training and whom they dubbed “The Professor”), “Reds” (who had bright orange hair and a nasty leer, was quick to make abrasive, sarcastic remarks, and was proud to be a bigot), and me (the silent would-be poet). Another black trainee, who called himself a militant, walked over to our bunks to educate us about Black History: “We gave you music,” he said. “White people got goddamn harps!”

Reds insisted on using “colored” instead of “black” when he referred to African-Americans. Mulkey said he used the expression too but it was different. “I’m proud of being black,” he said to Reds. “I call myself black. You can call yourself white, even if you are red.”

Mulkey had the bunk next to mine. He told us about his bad days in high school when a white guy named Musselman was picking on him. “Tomorrow,” he said, “I’m gonna kick your ass, boy.” Mulkey told his father he wasn’t going to school. “If you don’t, I’ll kick your ass.” Mulkey took a pistol with him and went to school late enough so the halls were empty, but when he was cornered in the boys’ room, he pulled out the pistol and fired, grazing Musselman in the arm, the bullet ricocheting against the tiles and fixtures, the crack of the gunshot reverberating. That was the end of the bullying.

Hearing him talk was a revelation to me. One of the benefits of joining the Army, besides evading the draft and the war in Vietnam, besides getting some discipline, besides learning how to become a poet, was getting to know black people better. My home town of Cambridge, Maryland, was rigidly segregated and emerged as a flash point in the civil rights struggle in 1963 when H. Rap Brown gave a fiery speech and rioting broke out. But my mother and I had moved away several years earlier and were living in a suburb of Washington, D.C. When I returned for visits to Cambridge, one of the families I stayed with was openly, smugly, defiantly bigoted and sneered, “If you like colored people so much, would you marry one of them?” I was only 13, but I replied, “Yes, I would, if I loved her.”

And yet my education in Bethesda was just as segregated. Walt Whitman High School, a bastion of liberal suburbanites, was almost entirely white. I can’t recall black students in any of my classes. But I volunteered to help with Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign during the early months of 1968, making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches at Sidwell Friends School and driving boxes of them downtown to the muddy grounds of Resurrection City, a shanty town erected on the Mall. I was trying to make amends.


Walker, who was remarkably flat-footed, as well as faint-hearted about getting inoculations, missed taking some tests and was delayed in his processing. After that night in the bunks when we held our summit on racial harmony, he was assigned to a different company, Echo instead of Delta. I would see him again at language school in California and maybe, occasionally, when his new company marched past us or showed up at the rifle range.

Like it or not, we were both stuck in basic training, coming to the end of our easy-going time in the reception center, an overture whose tempo was andante, a walking pace, never louder than mezzo forte. We didn’t want to kill anyone or be shot at, but it didn’t seem likely we’d ever see combat, considering that we were headed to language school to learn German—although you could never be sure. We wanted to use it for all it was worth, to “collect them bennies,” as a sergeant said he planned to do when he was discharged from the service in a week. We wanted Europe, not Asia, German, not Vietnamese, transcribing and translating radio broadcasts near the Iron Curtain, not calling on a squawk box for air support.

One day a drill sergeant strolled through the grounds by our barracks, looking us over, sizing us up. He was astonishingly short. His hair was pitch black and so were his eyes, which were narrow and slitted. He didn’t have the slouch we saw in the reception center’s non-commissioned officers, the short-timers. He stood absolutely erect, probably to stretch himself up to regulation height, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and he walked with a slow, measured pace.

So far we had idled away our time, quartered in run-down wooden barracks that dated, we guessed, from the Second World War. The days were bucolic, breezy and calm, with easy errands and simple tasks and an abundance of free time. It even smelled good, the pines and the clover and occasional whiffs of honeysuckle. Who would imagine the country was at war?

John Philip Drury

John, the author of four poetry collections, most recently Sea Level Rising (Able Muse Press, 2015), teaches at the University of Cincinnati. “Reception Center” is part of The Bad Soldier: A Picaresque Memoir about enlisting in the army to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War, which is currently seeking a publisher. The opening chapter, “Heading for a Total Eclipse,” was published as a Ploughshares Solo. Another chapter, “Interrogator’s Guide,” appeared in The Evansville Review.

Share This