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Do you know about Stork?

March 5, 2015

We all had nicknames in the brig in Memphis.  Mine at first was “buzzard,” given to me by a guy in a nearby cell who seemed to hate me.  I guess the most surprising thing in the hard cell was the hippie graffiti on the stainless steel walls, scratched in.  I guess I never did know what the anonymous folks did the scratching with.  They had no coins, no keys.  The peace signs surprised me.  Sure, the usual curse words graced the walls, also boasts about how long they endured being locked up.  Also, the home towns.  I can’t remember much specifics, except one guy was from Tupelo, Mississippi.  I played checkers with him.  I beat him, so I joyfully leaped up and down on the metal bed frame and a guard thought I was killing my cellmate.  That was after I thawed.

I was surprised a first by the peace signs because I had believed the marines and sailors were largely killers.  Even the ones in the brig, I thought.  Oh, intellectually I knew I would encounter other anti-military people more like me, and I was really staking my life on that being true.  One guy—a marine I met in the brig—was from North Dakota and he had an entire community giving him emotional support for his being non-cooperative with the war in Vietnam.  I know because he showed me a letter from home.  I envied him.  I was not against the war for any noble reason.  I was simply afraid for my life, and I didn’t feel like I even had much of a home in Montana anymore because I had joined the service despite pleading and threats.  My JAG lawyer, Lt Vickery, tried to suggest that my motive for getting into trouble was the laudable, political, moral reason like the guy from North Dakota had, but it wasn’t.  I was doing only what any another person would have done.

I was the buzzard, and I hated my nickname.  It embarrassed me.  Therefore, that first night of confinement, I turned my face to the wall and wished Skutch would shut up.  That wasn’t really his name, but that was sort of like it.  I just can’t remember.  That wasn’t really similar to his nickname either.  If Skutch were really the name others used for him, it would have been his real last name.

He was damned bright, Skutch, and boasted about his gift for talking.  That made him sort of scary, because I felt I had terrible secrets.  I actually heard mean voices.  It was hard to know if Skutch was mean or friendly.  He was certainly persistent.  I believe he spent most of my first night in the brig regaling me with insults and mocking me because I was silent.  I felt confused, profoundly alone, sad unto death.  I didn’t know why Skutch wouldn’t just leave me alone.  I didn’t know why he repeatedly called me “Buzz, Buzz Buzz.  Buzzard, the Bizzzzzerk Buzzard.”  I eventually met him.  He was a rather tall, pudgy, bland-looking 19-year-old with a charismatic, animated, talkative manner.  My trouble was I didn’t have anything to say.  That was monstrous for me.  I was very tall, skinny, very quiet, very stupid.

I wanted to just close my eyes and sleep.  I was in the cell farthest from the end of the hall.  The fourth one.  I wasn’t sure if Skutch was in the third one, but I thought he was.  The voices that tormented me sounded through the bars at the front of our cages and down the 30-foot hall in front of them.  Most of the cells had windows that could open across the hallway, but not mine because it was the last one at the end of the hall.  Summer in Memphis smelled good like mowed lawn and clean sheets.  The grassy yard surrounded our wooden, converted WW II barracks on 3 sides.  A chainlink fence with concertina wire further reminded us how unwelcome we were anywhere else.  A double gate down a short sidewalk led to the front entrance.  You get the idea.  The building was white 2-story with heavy screens bolted to all the windows.  Toward the left rear was the receiving area and an elaborate gray panel with levers and a hand crank with the mechanics of opening the 4 cell doors in the hard cell area.  That’s were I was at first.  We slept on the concrete every night but one.  While I was there I wrote a letter complaining about conditions, so an inspector visited us.  Just prior to that, one night we all got mattresses that were too wide for our narrow steel bunks, so we all got more than just the wool military blanket.  We never got pillows.  Instead we used the Bibles or the roll of toilet paper for our heads.  The guards always removed the heavy paper cylinder from the toilet paper, but I never found out why.

Skutch never again played much of a role for me after the first couple of days.  I desperately wanted to be able to thaw out and speak, but like I said, I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I had voices in my head in addition to those I heard from Skutch and whoever else was there that first night.  Someone else always chimed in with “There it is!” when Skutch said I was a “Buzzard.”  I thought I heard other voices too, but I never did know about them.

The longer I was unable to speak the worse my situation, I thought.  I felt myself disintegrating into smaller and smaller life forms.  I started as a person, then smaller and smaller animals.  A cat, a mouse, a cockroach, an ant, then smaller and smaller plants.  I fell asleep after being certain that I had split into an infinite number of barley plants.  A year before I joined the service I had moved irrigation pipe in high school and college in barley fields.  Even my brother helped me one summer.  Another summer a girlfriend helped me for a while until I started smoking lots of cannabis.  Then I got too lazy for work and quit.

Because of the offense I was charged with the command required that I be evaluated for mental health.  I took a multiple-question examination.  It was pretty difficult because my short-term memory was terrible and the questions were ambiguous.  The questions repeated every few pages, just worded differently, and I couldn’t remember how I had answered before so I had to guess.  I wanted to be insane, sort of.  Or I didn’t want to be insane because being so was damned terrifying!

I had wanted to be insane back in Missoula because one of my best friends, Mike Fiedler, had to go to the state mental hospital for evaluation because he had been caught swimming nude in Rattlesnake Creek.  When the judge told him to go to Warm Springs for an evaluation, Mike said, “Thanks, judge.”  When we dropped Mike at the door of the psychiatric intake building, he said “I’m equally impressed by the locks on the door.”

Before I joined the Marines, one of the last things I said to my old girlfriend was, “I’m insane.  I want to be insane.”  (Also, I thought, I have a new girlfriend.)

She replied, “That’s the first honest thing you’ve said to me in a long time.”  I think she could tell by my tone of voice.  I asked her to leave me alone, so I watched her as she walked across the bridge over the river.  I did not see her for years after that.

In Memphis, in the brig, I no longer wanted to be insane.  Therefore, I was glad to visit a clinical psychologist soon after I had taken the written test.  He looked bored as he wrote in a notebook. He asked me a probing open-ended question.  I told him about the voices in my head.  I told him about feeling fragmented into smaller and smaller creatures, even barley plants.  He was scribbling on his notepad, so I slowed so that he could keep up.

“So you just want to get out of the Marines?”  he said.  Wow, he really knew how to get to the point.

“I want to be able to talk again,” I answered.  By that time I really didn’t care where I was.  I didn’t even care if I went back to Montana because I no longer had a sweetheart.  I didn’t care if I stayed in the brig forever.  I didn’t like the marines, so I figured I would make them feed me and keep me.  I wasn’t going to let them off easy.

“You are a schizophrenic 240.” (I’m not sure about the number 240.  It was some number or other.)

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s just a diagnostic code,” he said.  But I didn’t believe him.

Strangely, I felt much, much better after telling him my most heartfelt thoughts and fears.  And I started to thaw.

About then someone gave me the nickname, “Stork.”

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