Like an emerald dropped by Sinbad’s roc into the Valley of the Serpents, Camp James Wilkinson, amidst the sand, sparkled from the red sun that was setting in Nevada across the salt flats. The serpents were literal enough, since rattlesnakes crushed by wheels of military trucks lay dead every day across the road from the Gap: for a roc, one of the huge ravens that generally circled overhead might serve; while Camp Wilkinson was hard and, at sunset, flaming, though not often gem-like otherwise. Tar-paper huts, known to the Corps of Engineers as theatre-of-operations barracks, sent up soft-coal smoke from their stovepipes into the winter sky; a half-dozen frame buildings somewhat larger than the barracks stood in an official row along the walk to the sentry-box at the gate; an interminable line of splintered fence-posts, bedecked with barbed wire, closed off Camp Wilkinson from the open desert-floor–but not from the dunes, which crept further between the huts with every evening wind. It was cold; a very thin coating of snow lay over whatever sand the wind could not get at; and on what military euphemism bestowed the title of parade-ground, a platoon of gawky young riflemen tramped up and down, bullied, badgered, sworn at, nervous as so many sheep.
Inside the draught-tormented structure called Post Headquarters, perched like a Malay’s hut on piles from out the sand, First Sergeant Simmons sat at his desk, a book before him. The sergeant wore a greenish mackinaw, for Col. Jack Hansen, in a burst of enthusiasm for conservation, had ordained that the fire in the headquarters furnace be allowed to die after five o’clock each day. It was nearly time for chow-call; but Sergeant Simmons, not relishing certain economies recently decreed by Colonel Sack Hansen in the administration of mess-halls, preferred to forego supper and have a hamburger at the little post-exchange, later. A square-built man of forty with a thick mane of hair and a quizzical twist to his month, the sergeant sat here alone nearly every evening, his desk being the only refuge from the radio-sets which brought cheer into the lives of the recruits of Camp James Wilkinson. Corporal Harry Weinburger, the wag of Barracks 12, once had informed a squad of raw conscripts at attention before Post Headquarters, “there’s an officer and a gentleman in there. The gentleman is the one with the chevrons. The officer has the Texan drawl.” His reference, so devoid of the military courtesy that was the delight of the commanding officer of Camp Wilkinson, was to Colonel Jack Hansen and First Sergeant W. F. Simmons. “If you want an address in Salt Lake City.” Corporal Weinburger had continued, casting a roguishly apprehensive eye toward the approaching figure of the officer of the day, “come to me. If you want, to borrow a buck, go to Sergeant-Major Simmons. If you want to find out where an enlisted man should go for a week-end pass, ask Colonel Hansen, and he’ll let you know. On Christmas, Colonel Jack Hansen will come into the mess-hall and tell you how he came up the hard way. But don’t you believe these rumors about how he was suckled by a werewolf; it was officer-candidate school gave him to us. He used to be a corporal himself, when he was human. What did he do in the War? Why, he launched the Alaskan Campaign of 1946, based on the Red Dug Bar, Fairbanks, and don’t you forget it. It gave him stomach-ulcers and the Purple Heart. You and me are in the army because they dragged us here by the hair. Why Sergeant Simmons is in the Army. God only knows. The C.O. is in the army because nobody else loves an ex-soda-jerker that Knows How to Handle Men. Dismissed.” Having concluded this mutinous harangue: the corporal went his way to the PX for a couple of bottles of 3.2. It was an unending source of sorrow to Weinburger that the nearest saloon, in the nearest town, was seventy miles away across the dead mountains, and that, incidentally, the nearest tree was thirty miles distant from Camp Wilkinson.
Sergeant Simmons’ book was a history of architecture, and he, smoking his cigar as he read, was halfway through the chapter on Germany when the back door of Post Headquarters banged open and Private Herb Dahmer strode in. Borne along by the evening wind, there came through the doorway, too, the chilly shout of the recruits being drilled until chow-call: “Hun, hoo hee. hoar; hum, hoo, hee, hoar.” A few grains of sand scudded along the floor, insolently, as if asserting their disputed dominion over Camp Wilkinson. It was hard to forget the sand at Wilkinson; a rubber dust-respirator, which had to be worn when a real gale came up, lay on the sergeant’s desk.
Private Dahmer, the nominal bugler, was rangy, somehow lupine, with a strong jaw. a long young face, a clever eye. He shut the door with a confident bang and an “Evening. Sarge.” Next to the sergeant’s desk was an enormous record-playing machine, the soul of the camp’s public address system; and Herb Dahmer. although he could blow a call, was the bugler now only in name,for Colonel Jack Hansen had ordered that henceforth all calls be sounded from records over the public-address megaphones. “That really, ought to turn the men out for reveille, Sergeant,” he had said to Simmon, with satisfaction, on hearing the echoing roar of seven megaphones scattered over the small enclosure of Camp Wilkinson. It did. Private Dahmer had only to switch on the phonograph and, between calls, to sweep out Post Headquarters. He now sounded the mess-call. The platoon of recruits came swinging by the building, not to be dismissed until at the mess-hall door: “Keep ’em in formation” was the legend of Colonel Jack Hansen had caused to be inscribed above the fireplace in the non-commissioned officers’ dub. Herb Dahmer turned a scornful eye upon the tense boys going down the walk in column of squads. “Bunch of stumblebums, this peacetime army, eh Serge? They oughta march the hell out of them.”
First Sergeant Simmons looked up from his book, briefly. “How old ant you, Dahmer?”
“Twenty-three. Won’t be long before I finish my second hitch. I been around, Sarge. I hit Normandy, and went all the way through; got nicked in the Hurtgen; shot up Nuremberg; stationed in Munich till last month. Don’t you worry. I wouldn’t be here in this fouled-up desert with those rookies if I had my say, Sarge.” He winked at Simmons. It was an odd sort of wink, the sergeant reflected–a kind of boyish leer, shrewd, good-humoured, conceited, even courageous, but not wholly pleasant. “Say, do you know that if you turn off this switch, you can play records in the room without them hearing outside, Sarge? Didn’t I see some records in the drawer here? Anything. good” He pulled open a record-cabinet.
‘I think you’ll find a ‘Doodle-de-doo’ and two or three others,” said Simmons, placidly, turning over a page. “Go ahead and play them, if it does you any good.”
”O.K., Sergeant-Major. What d’ya know? ‘Three Little Fishes’! And a Kate Smith, too.” Laying down the records on the disc, he proceeded to adjust the record-changer. “Yeah. Sarge, I know the ropes. If it hadn’t been for crap-games, I’d have made my pile in the German occupation. Blankets, cigarettes. currency exchange – I knew all the angles. What the hell! Why not? The captain was on to it, too. A blamed sight hotter than playing nursemaid to little germs out in the middle of the sand in Utah. Between you and me, Sergeant Simmons, how about this ‘biological warfare’ we’re playing with? Is it going to work, or is it some brass hat’s baby?”
Sergeant Simmons looked at an engraving of what had been the cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle. “They’ll manage. Rabbits and goats now, men next year, maybe–we’re great for progress, out here.”
“Yeah, but who’ll do the occupying when the scrap’s over? That’s what I want to know. No Moscow smallpox for me, Sarge.”
“It’s a nice initiation for those boys, eh. Dahmer?” The sergeant nodded towards the recruits disappearing into the mess-hall. “Really gives them an ideal to die for, doesn’t it? You know, those fellows are part of the first lot ever conscripted in peace, on this side of the ocean. What’s the difference between Bunker Hill and a tribe of bacilli? What do you say, Dahmer?”
“I don’t know that I get you. Sarge.” Dahmer sat on a corner of the desk, grinning. “Wilkinson’s a hole, but the army’s not a bad deal. Good pay, now; three squares a day: and you don’t, get shoved around by damned civilians. And I’m no dope. Sarge; I know the whole show on both sides of the ocean is a mess; and those guys outside are going to get shoved, and get pounded, and get starved. If you’ve got this monkey-suit on, you get fed, whether anybody else does or not. And when you’re across the water, you’re a king. You take a little stuff from the officers, sure; but then you get a chance to kick somebody else around, half the time. I’ll sign up again, when this hitch is over. When you’re in, you got Washington behind you. You’re with the right gang, the big gang.”
“We’re the janissaries, eh?” Simmons turned another page.
“Huh? How about a little music, Sarge?” Dahmer switched on the machine, and chanted to the tune; he had a decent voice:
‘Swim,’ said the mama fish, ‘swim if you can,’
So they swam and they swam right over the dam.
Boom, boom, diddum. doddum, wannum choo,
Boom, boom, diddum, doddum, wannum choo . . .
Say, I hope I’m not bothering you, Sarge. I thought since you were just readin’ . . .
“It’s all right,” said the sergeant. “You were in Germany; did you ever see much of Nuremberg?” He held up a picture for Dahmer’s inspection.
“Did I see it, Sarge! Why, that house over on the left I blew to hell. The S.S. was in the town, and they gave us a hard time. The artillery gave them a pasting, and we roughed things up when we came in more than we had to, to teach them a couple of things. I was a tank gunner, you know. I really gave it to that house. She’s all gone but one wall, now.”
“That’s quite a distinction for you, Dahmer. That was Albrecht Dürer’s house.”
“Yeah? Who? Am I supposed to know, Sarge? Say, I brought over something tonight maybe you can tell me about – something I picked up in Germany.” Dahmer pulled a roll of parchment out of an overcoat pocket. “Have a look, will you, Sarge? Think it’s worth anything?”
It was a scroll in Latin. Simmons, who knew a number of things not in line of duty, frowned over it for a few minutes. “Well,” he said, “this seems to be the fourteenth-century charter of the town of Kempten – the bishop gave it to them. Kempten’s the place Thomas a Kempis came from, you . . . . Where’d you get it, Dahmer?”
“I was in Kempten, Sarge.” Private Dahmer’s crooked smile came again. “What the hell! A guy’s entitled to a souvenir. Why, you should have seen what we did in France, let alone Germany. The captain pulled a four-by-six up to the back door of a museum in Lorraine and carted out old swords and stuff by the bushel. I traded him a good Luger for one sword, later. Sold it in New York. The captain collected junk like that. ‘Well, as I say, I just found this. Who’s Kempis. That mean this is worth something?”
“Why don’t you give it back, Dahmer?”
“Why should I? What did Kempten ever do for me? What’s it worth, Sarge ?
“I’ll give you a five for it.”
“‘Yeah? What’ll you get for it?”
“I’ll mail it back to Germany.”
“Yeah?” Dahmer half closed his eyes. “You wouldn’t kid me, Sarge? I’ll think it over.” He stuffed the parchment back inside his coat. “Don’t you think a guy’s entitled to make a little something for himself? After all, I had some rough scraps along the Rhine. Not that I got anything against the Germans; some of them are just about as good as G.I.s. Germany’s the best country there is, outside this. You oughta see the modern plumbing in some of those good houses! Nothing like it in France. Of course, I knocked off my share of them. We had seven tanks, Shermans, at this ravine in the Ruhr, and there was this company of silly-looking reserves—about like those guys outside–that surrendered, and we didn’t have a way to take them back; so we let them have it. Hell, everybody did it. Who was I to put in kick? The paratroops were worse than us, anyway. They’d gone through ahead of us, a couple of places. I found an old kraut with a white beard they’d hanged. He was in the Landwehr, you know, and maybe he took a shot at them. They hanged him – with barbed wire. Now, I wouldn’t of done that. He was an old codger, anyway. A scrappy lot of boys, those paratroopers. Say. Sarge, you ever see me do a Danny Kaye act? See how you like this.”
He put on another record, and accompanied it with pantomime. Simmons watched stolidly.
How you goin’ to keep ’em down on the farm,
After they’ve seen Paris?
How you goin’ to keep ’em away from Broadway,
Jazzin’ around, paintin the town? …
Not bad. eh, Sarge? God, those U.S.O. babies oughta donate some records that don’t have mould on them. I should of been in Special Service, not infantry. Somebody at the induction center messed up. You know I was a buck sergeant when I was in Munich, Sarge? No kidding. Look it up in my service record.”
“I believe you, Dahmer.”
“No, go ahead; look it up. And while you’re at it, let me take a look at my record, will you, Serge, old boy?”
Simmons took a key out of his pocket. “Why?”
“Well, ain’t a guy got a right to look at his own record, Sergeant? I don’t mean any trouble with you; but doesn’t a guy have a right? Is this a democracy, or not?”
“No, you don’t have a right,” said Simmons. “What do you want to know, though?” He unlocked a steel tile and drew out an envelope.
“Well, I want to know if there’s anything about that girl in Munich, Serge. I was busted on account of her.”
“No,” said Simmons, turning the leaves of the record-book, “there’s nothing about a girl. I see you were a sergeant. It only says, reduced to grade of private.” He put back the envelope and locked the file.
“Good deal, Serge. But they busted me, all the same, and shipped me out; they’d have court-martialed me, but they were too busy to take the time–it wasn’t worth it. Easier to ship me back here. Just wanted to know it wasn’t on the record, that’s all. I hope the Reds get that babe some day.”
Simmons had turned back to his book. “Did you see much of the Russians while you were in Bavaria?”
“Plenty, Sarge. Brother, would I like to drop a few tons of the little pets we tend out here right into their laps! I ask you, Sarge–what business have they got in Germany? I think we oughta give it to them right now, while we got it on the ball. Say, did you see where those krauts let that Schnacht off? They should of burned him alive.”
“Why?” asked Simmons, drowsily. “What did you have against him?”
“Well, he was a Nazi, wasn’t he? Anyway, he was an International Financier–one of those guys that start wars. They all oughta be taken out and strung up. That’s what the Army told us they were going to do, when I was in basic training–the democratic way, they said.”
Simmons stood up, his book under his arm. “I’m heading for the PX, Dahmer,” he said. “I guess that leaves you master of all you survey.”
Dahmer winked amicably. “O.K., Sergeant; don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Hold on just a second, though, and I’ll play this Katie Smith number for you. A great gal, Kate.” A gust hurled itself against the outer door, which Simmons had unlatched, and flung it back against the wall. Outside, the broken teeth of the Whitebone Range, the hills that shut off the dunes of Wilkinson from the ragged country to the north, were still savagely visible in the twilight. Simmons paused obligingly in the doorway.
“Here we go, Sarge,” called out Dahmer, from across the room, above the rattle of the flimsy building and the wail of the desert wind. “Here’s old Kate.” He switched on the record-player, and sang a duet:
Just like a little baby.
Climbing his mother’s knee,
America, I love you,
And there’s a hundred million others like me.
Thank you to Dr. Bradley J. Birzer for sharing Russell Kirk’s first published short story with us. It appeared in QUERN (1949), pp. 7-11. Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.