Jonas Agonistes Chapter 1: Like a Novel by Robbe-Grillet
I avoided bourbon but not scotch. Scotch. I found it helped me sleep, but upon further discrimination and many scientific trials I decided it helped me do something like sleep. I pushed it aside. I even poured out one of the half-full bottles in my drawer. Not the other one, though. Just one.
Two weeks before, I left the Corps. Unwillingly, grudgingly, silently, at my own request, but I left. I resigned. Not in disgrace, but "don't show your face around here again, Buddy" was the implication. For about a fortnight, I toasted my discharge in a motel in Jacksonville, NC. I stayed at a terrible place, drinking more of that scotch, wishing I had a friend, finding one in the bottle. I was not suicidal. I did what we all should do when we have no one to go to. And there was no one.
The major warned me. "You are a candidate for all sorts of neurotic behaviors, Lieutenant. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism, fantasies... Don't give in to them. You did what you could. You did right. The system failed you. Hell, the system eats up moral decisions, and doesn't even spit them out. Talk to that priest friend of yours. Get a girlfriend. If they can handle it, talk to your parents. Get a counselor or a therapist. But remember: al Gatar is off limits. Al Gatar is classified. They are already considering declassifying it, so it should come off the list. But not yet. Soon, maybe."
For two years Major Marx had steered me through a pseudo-legal system of innuendo, implication, half-truth, and exhaustive restatement, threat, cynicism, and frustration. Two years repeating the same story, recounting the same action on the same day, over and over while my interrogators looked for a flaw, for a changed word or idea, a discrepancy. I was the main character in a novel by Robbe-Grillet, each chapter repeated with only a small change here, a nip and tuck there. Finally the major brokered a decision that the Corps would NOT pursue charges like mutiny or murder or disobedience of orders. In return, all I had to do was resign, accept an honorable discharge-and get the hell out of our Marine Corps. So I did. It was probably for the best. I was starting to smell like Camp Lejeune, and Camp Lejeune smelled like Dewar's.
And I thought Dewar's smelled more and more like kerosene.
So I drove home to Mom and Dad, taking my time, using secondary roads, eating in little diners with girls waiting on me, listening to their southern accents, ordering grits and ham and greasy burgers. I avoided thought about my future. I wore civilian clothes, but my high and tight gave me away for a serviceman and especially a Marine. My Mustang was only two and a half years old, paid off, and worked wonders for my attitude, keeping me on an even keel. It was my most important possession, except for that Dewar's half bottle in the trunk. I found a little, run-down motel along the highway just across the Ohio as it was getting dark and I put in. I could have made it all the way home, but I was in no hurry. No one knew I was coming. I was a low expectation.
I could not like-sleep without the Dewar's, but I didn't drink it anyway. There were too many arms and legs in my mind, too many women in burkas clutching babies, two too many dead Marines. I think I needed a sleeping pill. How do I get that? Walk into a doctor's office and say, hey, I got some people killed and I'd like some pills to make me forget? Or maybe I could just say, I'm having trouble sleeping and Dewar's doesn't do it for me anymore, Doc. Can I get a pill? Ambien? Trazodone? Heroin?
I didn't think he'd give me the opium but I had a shot at the others. I lay there thinking I was the victim of raised standards. I used to think like-sleep was good enough, and now it wasn't. Perhaps I should reconsider? That scotch was in the trunk, not far at all. But it was 7 in the morning, I was four or five hours from home, from Mom, from my birthplace, from Father Rick, from Jane Austen née Miller, the prettiest girl in the ninth grade. Eighth grade too. Dad was there. Maybe I had friends I couldn't remember. The scotch was sounding better all of a sudden. I think the major was correct: I was definitely a candidate for neuroses.
I pulled into the driveway at home about 3 in the afternoon. I hadn't touched the scotch, which felt like a victory, if a sad one. The sun was out, it was cool but not cold, most of the leaves were still on the trees, the house and street and neighborhood all looked the same. I had last been here two-no, two and a half years ago, just before I deployed with my platoon to Afghanistan.
I had seen Mom and Dad upon my ignominious return, alone. They met my plane, but I had been in handcuffs at that point. I was allowed to say hi, kiss mom, and head to the brigᷫ to await a hearing. I was restricted to Camp Lejeune once a judge got me out of the brig, pending results of the investigation since there were no charges. We went to the beach a few times, the O club, but then they had gone home and I had entered the Long Winter of My Discontent. Now I was home. No job. No prospects. Out of jail, though. Home.
I pulled my two seabags out of the trunk and backseat of the Mustang and locked the car. I carried things up the steps to the big front porch. I decided to knock-I didn't think it right to just walk in when I'd been away for years. I knocked. I waited. Then I rang the doorbell, and I heard Mom coming down the stairs. She was there. I think that moms can tell if one is suffering, and can tell if one is suffering justifiably. She just looked at me for a few seconds. Ultimately she pushed the storm door open and I was in her arms. I whispered, "No charges, Mom, I'm out of the Marines. Honorable discharge." She said, "You did what was right, Jonas. I don't know what you did, I don't know if anyone was hurt, but I know you did the best that could be done. I'm so glad you are home!"
I cried. I have cried many times over al Gatar. So it goes, said Vonnegut.
"I have an applicant here, Mrs. Gilchromie, a veteran requesting he be admitted for teacher education and history. A guy from the Marines. He wants to get his teaching license. He needs student teaching and two...no, one methods class. He also wants to start work on a master's in history. Got out of the Marines in October. Oh, he was in Afghanistan, but there is nothing about that in the record sent to us. Resume, application, some references." Marjorie Morningbloom just pointed out the obvious to her boss.
"Is it on computer?"
"Yes, Ma'am," she responded.
Barb Gilchromie called it up. Jonas Simms, bachelor's from Miami in Oxford, First Lieutenant, nothing about the details of service in Afghanistan. Honorable discharge.
"Do we have transcripts from Miami?"
"Yes, Ma'am, pretty good. 3.23 undergrad. Strong in English. Likes history, though. Weak in foreign language; barely qualified with two years German."
The dean looked at the documents, thinking. "I have a request here from Merciful Saviour High for a more experienced student teacher to work full time and move into a position. I think they had a teacher get sick. Here it is... This could be the guy. Is he Catholic?"
"We don't ask that, Barb!!"-but then Mrs. Morningbloom said quietly, "But yes he is. It's in his military records."
"Crazy world, isn't it Marj? I still would recommend him. Call him in. I'd like to talk to him. He fits this post, if he has enough presence. I'll give Marty a call out at Saviour."
Mrs. Morningbloom dialed the number on the application. It rang a house in Sky Grey, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati.
"Hello?" A man's voice.
"Hello, I'm Marjorie Morningbloom calling for Mr. Jonas Simms?"
"Mr. Simms, I'm trying to arrange an interview for you with Ms. Gilchromie, the dean of the school of education here at the University of Cincinnati." Morningbloom always liked to say the full name of the university; UC just seemed to abbreviate the dignity of the school.
"Yes, Ma'am," replied Simms. "When would she like to see me?"
"As soon as possible, Sir, she has openings today and tomorrow if you can make one."
"How about this afternoon?" Simms asked. He needed a half hour to shave. At least he was sober.
"Will 2:00 work for you?
"Yes, I'll be there at 2." And so it was arranged. He hurried to shave and clean up. He needed to iron a shirt.
At 2 he walked into Marjorie Morningbloom's office.
"Right this way. Ms. Gilchromie is expecting you." She led him into an office cluttered with books, papers, and years of experience.
Ms. Gilchromie rose and held out her hand. "Mr. Simms, I'm happy to meet you."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
Before her stood a strong-looking young man, perhaps 25, with dark brown but short hair, wearing a sport coat and shirt with a button down collar and a tie. He was wearing corduroy trousers. The clothes ensemble looked new, which it was.
"Have a seat, Jonas. Is it okay if I call you that?"
"Of course. May I call you Barb?"
She laughed. "If you think it appropriate, then of course."
"Thank you again, then, Ms. Gilchromie." She noticed the hint of a smile and she appreciated his little gesture of respect. She returned it.
"Mr. Simms, I called you in because your application indicates a desire to student teach. Almost all student teaching assignments were made long ago. But I have a last minute request from a high school that a student teacher with outstanding credentials or greater than usual successful experience be allowed to student teach while performing the full duties of a teacher. To be plain, a teacher at one of the local schools has become ill and will be unable to fulfill her duties in the second semester. The school would like to fill the position with a student teacher as a full time substitute using an emergency license. These are occasionally granted for cases like this. So you would be student teaching for us but working full time as a teacher for them. You would be paid on the substitute schedule. We have a part-time social studies instructor who teaches at this school who would act as your mentor and cooperating teacher. You would also need to attend at least a methods class here, in the evenings or on weekends, depending on availability. Would you like to be considered for this position?"
Jonas considered. It would mean more pressure, but he had already been a Marine officer; it might lead to a full time permanent position next year.
"Yes, I'd like to be considered."
"Good! I hope you are flexible. They will want to meet with you soon. They do not want this hanging over their heads. Schools hate for tragedies to bog them down, I think you can understand. It is Merciful Saviour High School in Sky Grey, which is where you live, correct? I'll call their principal as soon as we finish, send her your documents, and hopefully they will interview you soon."
"Thank you for everything, Ma'am." She indicated he might leave, and she picked up the phone.
Late that afternoon, Jonas received a call from Sharon Martin of Merciful Saviour High School.
"Yes, this is Jonas Simms."
"Mr. Simms, this is Sharon Martin. I am the principal of Merciful Saviour High School. We are just outside Sky Grey. I'd like to arrange an interview for a position here."
"Of course, Ms. Martin. I can come anytime."
"If you could make it tonight around 7 it would really help us. We are swamped with work right now."
"I'll be there at 7, Ma'am."
"Uh, Ms. Gilchromie faxed us most of your documents, including a list of references. Are these current?"
"More or less, Ma'am. although the local ones are less so. The main reference is Major Tom Marx. He and I worked closely together for the last two years. The others-Father Rick was a childhood friend I lost touch with about the time I went into the Marines, etc.-they were all longer ago."
"I don't see a commanding officer listed here from the Marines, Mr. Simms."
"No, I believe Major Marx may be able to shed some light on that, Ma'am." Simms then went quiet, afraid he would say too much.
"I will certainly try to get in touch with him. I expect to see you in a few hours then, Mr. Simms."
Jonas was worried. She was smart.
At 6:00 Sharon Martin and Father David Elkins met in the conference room next to Sharon's office.
"It's strange. He would not say why he didn't have his commanding officer as a reference. For the last two years! It seems he might be hiding something," she said.
"Yeah. All the vets we've interviewed have included their last commanding officers for sure. I wonder what this Marx will have to say."
"I reached his office. He's an attorney in D.C., in the Marine Reserves. He's supposed to call back."
On cue, the phone rang.
"Hello? Merciful Saviour High School. This is Principal Martin. May I help you?"
Tom Marx spoke up. "Principal Martin? Tom Marx. Major Tom Marx when I am on duty. I understand you are calling to inquire about Jonas Simms, who I know as Lieutenant Jonas Simms, USMCR."
"Uh, yes Mr. Marx. I'm going to put you on speaker here. Father David Elkins is with me. We have the responsibility of hiring a new teacher and are considering hiring Jonas Simms."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Hire him. No one will do a better job for you. No one will work harder. No one will be better for your kids to be around. When Jonas Simms left the Marine Corps, the Corps lost its best young officer. Not one of the best. The best."
Fr. Elkins looked at Principal Martin. His look said, Is this for real?
Fr. Elkins: "What was your relationship to Lt. Simms?"
Marx: "I am a JAG officer. Lt. Simms and I worked day in and day out on a court case. His case. I was assigned as his defense counsel. I cannot tell you what he was charged with-actually he was never charged. I can tell you nothing about the case. It is still classified, or I would tell you. I hope to have the reports and documents declassified, but it will not be this month."
Martin: "I wondered why he had no commanding officer's recommendation."
Marx: "That's because he was restricted to Camp Lejeune for two years. Officially he worked for the base. In reality, he had no duties. He was not in the brig, but it was almost as bad. I wrote his fitness reports and the commanding general signed them. As he was not writing them himself, and as he wanted no contact with Lt. Simms, the general demanded the evaluations be non-controversial. They were vanilla. It is unfortunate. Lt. Simms is extraordinary."
Fr. Elkins: "You really have us intrigued, Major Marx."
Marx laughed. "I will say something for the record if you want to record this. Here. I have known many brave men in the Marine Corps. I have known men who lost their lives saving others, selflessly acting when it would mean their own deaths. I have investigated brave men for the awarding of the Medal of Honor. So I do not say this lightly: Lt. Simms is the most morally courageous person I have ever met. You will see no medal or award. There is no statement in his file. I cannot tell you what happened or what he did. Maybe someday. He faced an impossible situation and acted morally when, I believe, most men would not."
Fr. Elkins looked at Ms. Martin. She mouthed the word, Wow.
Fr. Elkins: "Could you repeat that? I want to copy it down."
And so they did.
Marx: "I do not know if Lt. Simms will be a good teacher. I can tell you that his men trusted him implicitly. They to a man stood for him. I have never seen such loyalty. And from every-EVERY-one of them, there was a statement that Simms was the best lieutenant or best officer they had ever served with. I speak of his character. If I had children, I'd want them to be around as many teachers like Jonas as I could find. And I think you'll only find one."
Martin: "Major, are you given to overstatement, perhaps?"
Laughing, Marx said, "Ma'am, and Sir, I only wish I had been able to save Lt. Simms's career in the Marines. Unfortunately political considerations undermined his cause. He is a remarkable man. Oh, and he doesn't know it."
Fr. Elkins: "Humility is more welcome in my business than yours."
Marx said with a hint of humor, "True. He is alone as far as the Corps goes. Humility is perhaps the virtue least recognized by the Marine Corps. He was placed in an impossible situation and behaved with integrity, grit, and with complete disregard for his own life and career. He realized his actions would threaten or end his career-he told his platoon sergeant. His after action statements were scrupulously consistent, detailed, and true to every verifiable fact. The Corps ostracized him before it investigated, almost as completely as you hear happens at the academies. His friends disappeared. For the last two years he stood alone. Now that he is home, I hope he finds old friends and makes new ones."
Fr. Elkins: "I think you have given us a lot to think about. We may get back in touch with you, but I can say for myself I look forward to meeting him." There was a pause.
Marx: "Feel free to contact me about him any time. I only wish I could have helped him more. Thank you, and goodnight."
Ms. Martin clicked off the phone. They sat in silence.
Fr. Elkins said, "I don't care if he can't teach. We have a responsibility to surround our kids with people of character. I've never heard such a recommendation. Let me check with a chaplain I know at Arlington; I want to find out if this Marx guy is something other than he claims."
There were nights I didn't remember going to bed, and I'd find a half-full glass of whisky sitting by my chair on an end table. I don't waste liquor, so I knew I must have been too drunk to justify, too drunk to think, too drunk to read, too drunk period. For some reason it's the lost last hour of a small binge that finally brought me up short. I knew I was drinking to a problem, threatening my liver, my mind, the job I expected to start after Christmas, my plan for a master's, a future.
Mom and Dad must have seen it, but they didn't say anything. They'd get up with me still asleep or in that like-sleep state and I'd awaken an hour or so later with a dirty, sour feeling. My hangovers didn't hurt, they just depressed. I wanted milk then. I knew I'd done wrong. Perhaps Mom and Dad felt like I needed the release. Perhaps they knew I needed something and just hoped and prayed I'd come around. They knew I wanted the job and the degree. Perhaps they trusted me-who could not trust myself. Perhaps they just hoped it would go away with time and patience.
Mom got me back to church. For some reason, she always felt Mass cured ills. Maybe it does. "Fr. Rick is saying Mass at 9 Sunday," she said. "But he's been given a new assignment, so he won't be here long." Rick had been my best friend up to 9th grade, when he had headed to Saviour and I'd headed to Sky Grey Public. He'd ended up in a seminary and was ordained while I was in the Marines. Right now he was associate pastor of our home parish, Merciful God.
I drove my Mustang to Mass about 10 minutes early and found a seat in the back. For some reason I wanted to be unobtrusive. Some people went to Mass to be part of a community; I usually wanted solitude, introspection, prayer in a private way. But I was there, and by 9 the place was full. There on the right was Jane Miller Austen, prettiest girl in the eighth grade, ninth grade, and most other grades to to be honest, now with a toddler holding one hand and an infant on her other arm. The unworthy husband, Austen, was carrying a diaper bag and a punkin seat. He was tall. I decided he looked smug, married to Jane and with two kids. I wanted some bourbon. I'd finished my half bottle of scotch and hadn't replenished it, and now I regretted it.