I. Sergeant Pecker
The first time I met Randolph Dolan I did not like him. I was having dinner in the mess hall with Schappert and Silva and few others when every woman’s head in the entire hall turned toward the chow line to watch a tall dark-haired guy collecting his dinner. I knew his name was Dolan because he was in the same class as me. I’d never spoken to him. Why? Because Dolan was so good looking that I immediately suspected him of insincerity. Who the hell joins the Army looking like that? He was as tall as me, but leaner, with black tousled hair that was thick as moss and bright green eyes. He walked straight to our table and sat down and immediately launched into a dissertation on Shakespeare that went something like “Of course Shakespeare was a great writer, I’m not faulting his talent, but half of his plays involve battles of some kind and that’s my beef. As in the case of Henry IV, or even Julius Caesar—which begins with the end of one war and ends with the beginning of another—they all lack a certain authenticity because, and the historical record is clear on this, Shakespeare never swung a sword in anger or threw a spear in battle or cleaved skulls with a battle axe.”
The rest of us, with the exception of Schappert (he’d gone to college), had never read Shakespeare. But Dolan looked so damned handsome that we were obliged to sit there and listen to him yap away between mouthfuls of fried yakisoba noodles and iceberg lettuce salad smothered in a half dozen packets of Thousand Island dressing, all of which he washed down with gulps of thin black coffee. When the cup was empty, he walked to the stainless steel coffee dispenser and refilled his cup. On the way back he lingered a moment by a table where a First Lieutenant was eating dinner. She was a curvy lady, 30-ish, with bleached blond hair up in a ponytail and a crisp starched uniform. She sat upright, pretending to eat her dinner, moving food from one side of her plate to another. All her attention was on Dolan. He was obviously teasing her. The nurse took it as a positive sign. She looked around the room and if she saw another girl, perhaps younger and better looking, she threw her a feral look. It was fascinating to watch, like a wolf mother defending her pup. The nurse was both matronly and lascivious; it was this combination, Dolan would later admit, that appealed to his sense of adventure. Any one of us had a shot with an enlisted girl, but a commissioned officer was a rare trophy.
Dolan sat down and continued where he left off. “Compare Shakespeare with say, Vonnegut. Now there’s a guy whose writing is equal to the action he’d seen. I mean, survive the fire-bombing of Dresden and live to write about it? Though I doubt Kurt killed anyone,” Randolph said, shaking his head sadly at Vonnegut’s misfortune. “That’s a drawback to be sure. But to his credit he steers clear of battle scenes. You shouldn’t write battle scenes unless you’ve been in them, that’s all. Shakespeare should have stuck to political intrigue. Of course, this whole argument is moot if you happen to believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. That’s right. There’s a whole group of scholars who believe it was a man named Marlowe, I think. I’ll have to research what Marlowe’s combat experience was, and report back to you on that.”
Dolan suddenly excused himself, picked up his tray and walked past the nurse, giving her the barest nod. As he dropped his tray off in the wash rack, the nurse stood up and followed right behind him. They disappeared out the door, Dolan about ten paces ahead of her.
The next morning we were standing in formation when a crappy red Honda pulled up. Dolan jumped out and walked right into formation just as the cadre called us to attention. At first he declined to divulge details. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,” he smirked. But he wasn’t the kind of person who could suppress a good story. By the end of our run, we knew she’d taken him to her apartment off-base, screwed him before going to sleep, and then again when they woke up. While he showered, she fixed him a home cooked breakfast and coffee and dropped him off back at the barracks, all before zero six thirty.
“Her? She’s nice girl,” Dolan said after giving us the dirty details, as if trying to claw back the high ground. “She was lonely, of course, but they’re all lonely. A good attitude, and beautiful breasts for a woman her age. I wish her the best.”
As much as I wanted to hold a grudge, I admitted to myself I liked him. He was as blameless for his personality as he was for being handsome and skinny. Though to be honest, we were all skinny back then. And not just the skinny ones, if you know what I mean. Even the medium and the fat ones were skinny. Maybe a better word is hale. We had rosy cheeks like salmon steaks, and skinny flagpole legs from running like hell every morning. Most of us were right in the middle: physically fit, a little baby fat clinging to our chins, hale of body, horny of mind, and good to go. That’s not to say Dolan wasn’t special. He would have slipped right into a pair of skinny jeans like a glove; he would have been the perfect hipster model—but this was 1992. The term hipster hadn’t come back into fashion. There were no skinny jeans or Internet or 9/11 or any wars. The old days. A time when we muddled through our analog lives with a sense of rhythm, fortunes won and lost like the tides, in cadence with the universe.
Dolan’s fame as a ladies man was only surpassed by his prowess as a medic. We were stationed at Fort Sam to learn a very specialized kind of medicine. The Army wanted guys they could drop anywhere in the world, in any situation, who’d be able to set up a field hospital and treat trauma victims, deliver babies, inoculate cattle, and so on. We were housed in brick barracks, two guys to a room. Our classrooms were also brick, but single storied, long and narrow, like matchsticks arranged side by side, 20 at a stretch. The classrooms had tables that sat eight chairs, and were arranged five rows deep. Two hours of instruction, smoke break, two hours of instruction, lunch break, two hours, smoke, two hours and then we were off until zero six thirty the next morning. For some reason, I’ve never lost the image of those smoke breaks. It was an opportunity to work out the wrinkles in our baser natures, cursing, cracking jokes, impromptu wrestling matches, belching, farting. Corporal Moranis, a former carnie who’d joined the Army to escape the Tattooed Woman, would snap to attention after each fart and give a mock salute, cigarette still in hand.
“Yes, sir, Mr. President!”
But what I remember the clearest is all of us standing in the shade of the doggy old pine trees, in between the red brick classrooms, on a stretch of wan yellow grass growing unauthorized along the sidewalk. For some reason I was never a smoker, but most guys did smoke, and they did so beautifully, in sharp inhales and extended, dreamy exhales that released the smoke into the humid air of the San Antonio summer, where it hung among the pine trees like a low coastal fog.
Dolan didn’t mess around like the rest of us. He took class very seriously. He always sat up straight, with his pencil at the ready to jot down notes. His backpack, which he was constantly repacking during the smoke break, contained everything he needed: books, pens, pencils, a novel or two, an Atlas, a Gerber multi-tool (a.k.a a parachute tool), and a small but comprehensive first aid kit. And while he was always known as a diligent student, his real fame came out of an obscure class, urinary catheterization.
The cadre for UC was Sergeant Major Millbrook, a wiry old guy who’d served in Vietnam 20 years before. He was deaf unless you shouted at him and then he cursed you for shouting. He was the real deal, though; old Millbrook had disremembered more about being a medic than we’d ever know.
The class started in typical Millbrook fashion, with him cursing, bent over straight-legged at the waist as he fished through the utility closet. A minute or two later he came out with a life-size naked male practice dummy, holding its flaccid rubber penis like a suitcase handle. He tossed the dummy on the table, where it made a squishy noise, like wet latex gloves rubbing together. Without any introduction, Millbrook squeezed the rubber penis with one craggy hand and with the other he held up a floppy orange catheter about two feet long and the diameter of a pencil. “The first thing is to prepare the penis,” Millbrook said. Everyone snickered at the dummy’s penis playing dead-dog in Millbrook’s hand, even Dolan, who was busy jotting down notes. Millbrook had fought in a real war, and as such he was one of the few cadre who Dolan respected and he paid extra attention to whatever Millbrook said.
“Swab the tip of the penis” Millbrook said, dabbing the cock with a cotton alcohol patch. “Dip the catheter in lubricant. Pinch the tip of the penis to open the urethra and insert the catheter up into the bladder.” A universal gasp of horror went up as Millbrook indelicately crammed the catheter inside the dummy’s urethra. All twenty of us reflexively grabbed our own crotches in self-defense.
“Come on, men!” Millbrook barked. “You’ve seen it a dozen times. Now pair up and grab your catheter kits. It’s game time.”
A student named Corporal Hollis went red in the face. He was a sweet guy who’d come from Ranger battalion. But Hollis had a bad case of religion-induced homophobia. He abhorred the very thought of handling another man’s penis, even for the sake of medical science. Hollis folded his arms defensively across his chest and stared at his desk. Millbrook noticed immediately.
“What’s your malfunction, Hollis?” Millbrook asked. I suspect after years of teaching urinary catheterization to commandos he was on the lookout for Hollis-types.
“I just can’t do it,” Hollis said quietly, avoiding Millbrook’s gaze. “My mom didn’t raise a faggot.”
The room went silent. All eyes were on Millbrook, who seemed amused by Hollis’s statement.
“Really?” Millbrook asked. “How do you know?”
“Know what, Sergeant Major?”
Hollis was super uncomfortable, which was red meat for Millbrook.
“How do you know, as you said, that your mama didn’t raise no faggot?”
“You got problems with your ears, corporal? You want me to talk louder? You said you ain’t no faggot,” Millbrook shouted. “I want to know how you know you ain’t no faggot.”
Hollis went red in the face and mumbled something incoherent.
“Let me ask you another way, Corporal. Have you ever sucked a dick?”
The class erupted in laughter. Millbrook held up his hand and we shut up instantly.
“Sergeant Major!” Hollis cried. He was blushing furiously.
“No I haven’t sucked a dick, for Heaven’s sake!”
At that moment, Hollis would have dropped his pants and allowed every man in the room to give him a urinary catheter rather than submit to Millbrook’s interrogation.
“So you’ve never sucked a dick yet you claim to know that you are not a faggot. Very interesting.”
Millbrook clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace slowly up and down the room, like a lawyer deliberating before the Supreme Court.
“In fact, you’re just guessing you’re not a faggot, aren’t you, corporal? I mean, you have no proof, do you?”
Millbrook stopped in front of Hollis’s desk.
“You see Hollis, that’s the difference between you and me. I don’t have your problem. Why? Because I have sucked a dick. Shut your mouth, corporal! You’ll let the flies in.” Hollis snapped his mouth shut. “It was on a transport ship in the South China Sea. 1968. I did it for a pack of cigarettes and a buck knife. And guess what? I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, I vomited half way through sucking that dick and never tried it again.”
“Do you see where I’m going here, Corporal? I know I don’t like to suck dick and therefore I’m not gay. But you on the other hand, you’ve never sucked a dick. That means you go to bed every night wondering, if maybe, just maybe, you like sucking dick!”
Millbrook gave Hollis a few seconds to soak in the crushing humiliation he’d received in front of all of us.
“Okay men,” Millbrook said. “Everyone grab your catheters. Whether you know you’re a faggot or not.”
Millbrook kicked Hollis’s desk for emphasis.
The class paired off and Dolan was Hollis’s partner. Without hesitation, Dolan dropped his trousers and boxers and stood casually with his pecker swinging free and happy as he laid down on the table, his hands behind his head, ready to be catheterized.
Poor Hollis was a mess, sweating and coughing, his hands trembling like an addict. Three times he tried to grab Randolph’s penis, and three times Hollis pulled away in terror. Finally he slumped down into his chair, about ready to cry. Millbrook was watching with keen interest. If Hollis refused to train, he’d be kicked out of the course. Dolan propped himself up on his elbows, completely comfortable with the situation despite his balls resting on the tabletop.
“Listen to me, Hollis. Forget Millbrook,” Randolph said in a quiet, soothing tone. “The Sergeant Major didn’t really suck a dick. He just said that to make a point. We’re doing intimate training here. You need to get over this queer thing ASAP. What if one of your men goes down with gunshot wound to the abdomen and you need to put in a catheter?” Dolan leaned in, his naked butt squeaking across the wooden desk top as he shifted his weight forward. He grabbed Hollis by bicep. “Goddamnit, dude, his life might depend on you!”
Hollis took a deep breath and nodded. Dolan smiled encouragingly and lay down on the desk again. He adjusted his testicles just so, and put on his war face.
“Now grab my dick,” Dolan said.
Hollis grabbed Dolan’s dick.
“Slightly pinch the head until my urethra opens. That’s right. Dip the tip of the catheter in lube.” Hollis did as he was told. “Wipe off the excess, not too much, now stick it in my urethra, keep going, that’s fine—OH FUCKING SHIT THAT HURTS!” Hollis jerked back, nearly yanking the catheter out. “DON’T STOP GODDAMNIT! KEEP GOING—YOU’RE HALF WAY THERE—STEADY NOW—STEADY.”
Dolan’s shrill voice cut through the room. His face went white, he had a death grip on the table top when suddenly the catheter bag resting on Dolan’s stomach flopped and fluttered, like a trout in a canoe. The pouch swelled with the fluid from Randolph’s bladder.
Hollis’s face broke out into a fantastic, elated grin. Dolan looked up, his face sweaty and quivering, the latex tube dangling out of his penis.
He patted Hollis’s arm weakly.
“I knew you could do it,” said Dolan, who promptly passed out.
After that, Dolan could do no wrong in our eyes. He was far and away the best medic. Too good, you might say. For his part, Dolan considered the cadre, aside from Millbrook, to be inferior medics to himself. He hated the way they delivered their classes like automatons, in dull monotones. “We should record these assholes and play it back for insomniacs, because of their proven ability to put healthy young men to sleep in minutes.” To counter the impulse to sleep, he peppered the cadre with questions, “excuse me, Sergeant So and So, you said the protocol for anaphylactic shock is to lay the patient supine and then deliver the epinephrine. Wouldn’t it be better to deliver the epi first and then have the patient lie down, no? Okay, well you’re the expert,” he’d say, though it was clear Dolan didn’t think the cadre were the experts at all. In private, he’d let loose on them, calling them apes and useless and an embarrassment to Special Forces. “These guys call themselves Green Berets? They’re green turds, that’s all. When the shit hits the fan, I hope they’re far from me. I’ll shoot them myself and save the enemy the trouble.”
That was other thing about Dolan: eventually, and without fail, every conversation turned toward war.
Fair enough, we were training to be combat soldiers. But mention of war gave me indigestion. Mostly because I didn’t believe war, and by that I mean a real shooting war like Vietnam, was a possibility. The last war, the Gulf War, lasted a 100 hours. For the record, that is just over four days. Not once when I lay on my belly and shot pop-up targets did I imagine a real person on the receiving end of my bullets. Not even later, after school was over and we’d earned our Green Berets, did I take the idea of war seriously. I considered fighting to be a form of scrimmage, that’s all.
Dolan took a profound interest in my indifference, as if it were a variety of mental illness. I’d lie on the couch in the common room and he’d sit on the chair next to me.
“Your parents are together, is that right? How many siblings? Poor, rich, what? Right in the middle? Very interesting. Any sexual deviancy, perverted uncles, that kind of thing? Did you kill small animals for pleasure? Light cats on fire? No? Religion? No? Atheists? What, Roman Catholic? That explains a lot. Now Schappert said you never trained a day for Special Forces Assessment. He said you just showed up and mowed through it and that you were selected by the skin of your teeth. Is that true? Fascinating. And did you know what a Green Beret does for living? Did you know you’d be a killer some day?”
I resisted all his efforts to bring me into the light.
“Leave me alone, Dolan! You’re killing me with these questions all the time. I told you I don’t know why I joined up. I just did it. End of story.”
“Just a few more questions, to set the record straight. You say now you don’t know why you joined Special Forces, yet earlier you said you joined up toescape a girl in San Francisco who wants you to marry her. Yes you did say that. I want to know if she asked you to marry her? No? So you’re just guessing. Well, this is all very interesting. But it’s no excuse for not paying attention in class. One day you might be the only person who can save some poor fucker’s life.”
But it’s impossible to bail out a ship that’s halfway sunk. As a student, I was failing. For some reason I thought I had plenty of time to catch up. When Dolan and the others were practicing their trauma techniques on one another, I was out collecting books—novels, plays, anything Dolan had mentioned in his speeches. I would vaguely pay attention in class, but when the day was over I’d drive to Borders and buy a copy of Henry IV or Slaughterhouse Five or books by other authors whose names popped up, like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. That’s not to say I read any of them. Each new book I stacked up on my dresser between the lamp and alarm clock like a temple to an unknown god. Every few weeks I’d pull a volume down and flip through a page or two before nodding off to sleep. I never finished a single chapter during my years in the Army! Still, the books were precious as oxygen to me. I believed in them and knew I’d read them one day. Until that time came, my job was to lug those books from duty station to duty station for the next six years, to crisscross the Western Hemisphere with them, to set them upon the dresser reverently, and to wait for that moment when the pace of life changed, when the constant physical movement, the glut of physical experience, gave way to a more stationary life, some place where I’d own a chair with a foot stool and maybe my own bed and who knows? Maybe then I’d actually sit down and read. I believed in that dream, anyway.The Army couldn’t wait on me. The months flew by and suddenly the final exams were upon us. Each man was assigned a person from our class to act as a patient. We all prayed for someone with veins big as ropes—the better to give an IV with. O God, I prayed, please give me Thompson! His intern vein is the size of a crowbar, O Lord, and I need big all the help I can get. Instead, when the horn blew and the cadre cried out “Medic!” and I came running around the building, who was lying there grinning from ear to ear but Moranis, the ex-carnie. He had fake blood splattered all over him and he was moaning theatrically, “Oooooh, ooooh, save me, Doc! Ooooooo.”
In my defense, I found all his “wounds” and patched him up properly, following all the protocols. For a moment there, I thought, Holy Shit, I’m going to pass this after all. But then it came time for the IVs, and the whole treatment fell apart. For a guy who could do a hundred push-ups in two minutes, Moranis’s arms were as soft and fleshy as an infant’s. And his veins were like tiny blue spider webs under his skin. I attempted to stick a needle in him 12 times before the cadre announced that Moranis was dead. I collapsed on my knees in the dirt, breathing heavily. A dead patient meant I’d failed. The cadre walked off without a word. Moranis, who’d been holding in a fart, let it out sympathetically and gave a weak salute, to cheer me up.
“Yes, sir, Mr. President!”
He said it to lighten the moment, which I appreciated, but it didn’t help. The cadre failed me. Normally they would have kicked me out of the program, but someone took mercy on me and recycled me into the class behind us. That would give me three more months to improve. If I failed the next time, they’d send me back to my old unit, a broken down mechanized division that was so fucked up that when the Gulf War came around, a general who came to inspect our readiness for combat was reported to have said he’d send every boy scout unit in America before sending us to war! The thought of going back there made me nauseous. I was hoping for a little sympathy from Dolan but he had no time for me. Dolan had passed with the highest score in the class. I was still sulking the next day when I came to say good-bye. He was packing his bags for the move to Fort Bragg, where the final phase of our training took place. Dolan gave me his told-you-so speech, along with some tips.
“Remember to cut off pieces of tape and slap them on your IV bags before you pack them. That way you’re ready to go when the catheter is in place. And always check the backside. If there’s an entry wound there’s damn sure to be an exit wound. If you don’t check, they’ll say you missed it. Hell, Igoe, you know all this anyway. You have to know this, anyway. At Bragg you’ll get a real patient, one that will die on you if you’re not careful.”
And with that Dolan was gone, along with the others in my class—correction, my old class. It was bad enough that I was left alone to muddle through without Dolan. But his last comment, about getting a live patient at Bragg, made everything feel hopeless. Even if I passed the final at Fort Sam, how would I make it through Bragg?
Maybe if it was a normal human patient waiting for me at Bragg, well, that idea I could wrap my head around. With humans you could ask questions, poke them and prod them and they’d tell you how they’re feeling, if their bowel movements were regular, how much it hurts on a scale of one to ten. If all else fails and your human patient was going to die, you could tell a joke or give them a hug, anything to make them feel better.
But it wasn’t a human being who was waiting for us at Fort Bragg.
It wasn’t even an anatomically correct male rubber dummy.
At Bragg, our patients, who we’d have to keep alive at all costs, who did not speak our language, who did not enjoy a good hug, who we’d have to spoon feed when sick, who’d we have to wrap our own bodies around to keep warm in the muck and the rain of a North Carolina winter, who we’d even have to operate on to keep alive, these incalculably valuable patients were—goats!
To be continued…
MATT IGOE is a farmer in the Hudson Valley. He can be reached at mattigoe[at]gmail.com