The Savage InnocentbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
(c)2009 By Adrian Leverkuhn
He was something of an enigma, at least when he was young, when we first met.
I can only hope to convey to you in the brief space of this fable that for him youth was a momentary lapse of reason. For you see, he was bigger than life, and I hasten to add with utmost seriousness, he knew it. That simple fact more than any other defined the course of events I hope to relate. Without this one simple fact to ground you all else will seem cumbersome, and faintly ridiculous.
I met him in my second year of high school, and yet he was already something of a god among mortals. He was, I need to say here and now, as flummoxed as we all were when at first we found ourselves walking through the strawberry fields of 1969, but like us all he was not yet full of the rebelliousness that defined those precious moments of our lives just ahead. But even in the eyes of a bell-bottomed round-eye romantic like myself I could tell there was something outrageous, maybe even titanic about the guy.
Dalton Rand was the American-Jock incarnate, the square-jawed fighter pilot-to-be who all but proclaimed the Age of Aquarius was about to come crashing down all over our pointy little heads. The basic problem with this seeming contradiction (and you will pardon my adherence to a modicum of discretion if I keep things a little hazy here) was that we had just been deposited onto the well-manicured grounds of a somewhat distinguished military academy in north-central Indiana. Vast manicured lawns rolled down past ordered rows of cedars to an old (though somewhat small) lake, presided over by a huge grey granite cathedral, ringed-in by football fields and parade grounds – all of it was as hard and as real as life had never been for us, even if the place was dedicated to creating young men proficient with an M1 carbine. It's the subtle ironies that sometimes keep things interesting, you know.
The truth is there was nothing subtle or ironic about Dalton Rand. He arrived on the same chartered motor-coach from O'Hare that dropped me off on a sweltering Saturday morning in August; his black-stenciled olive drab foot-locker matched mine in all but the scratches and dents accrued in transit. There were 43 of us on that bus, and I think, looking back on it, we must have all looked rather alike as well. I think someone more cynical than I might have said we looked rather patrician in our out-and-out buttoned-downed oxford-cloth, gray flannelled uniformity, but from where I sit now I think we must have looked something like lean loaves of Wonder-Bread. Maybe we were even then going a little stale. Who knows? I sure didn't.
As it happened we were both assigned to room 21, a second floor corner room that looked down on a little stone and brick-lined quad. My first impression of the view out the windows that lined two walls of our little beige room was that it was pretty nice – for a prison. Even the Civil War cannon aimed squarely at that window seemed so emplaced to enforce our involuntary confinement. I remembered looking at the school's glossy catalogue the winter before, at the ordered rows of scowling cadets and the fierce looking fullback charging behind pulling guards, and wanting passionately, furiously, to belong to this place. As is so often the case, it is wise to be careful what you wish for. Clio is a deadly muse, is she not?
I turned from that window and opened my footlocker, looked at the proscribed number of white boxer shorts labeled just so, at the white sheets my mother had laundered and folded not a day before, and I felt the first stabs of homesickness. Then I looked at Rand.
He was on lying on what would be his bed face up, staring intently at the ceiling as if pondering the very limits of the universe.
I noticed them then. The shoes on his feet.
Heavy, black wingtips on his feet, just like my father's. And probably, I thought, just like his father's.
His jaw was clenched, his left fist balled, the thumbnail digging into the skin on the side of his finger and rubbing back and forth with deep, frustrated tracks rising like a wake behind each passing stroke. Believe it or not that was the first time I noticed how clear-eyed he was, how full of manifest purpose he seemed to be. I remember placing folded white t-shirts and rolled-up black socks into a drawer while regarding him as one might a smoldering volcano across a narrow strait.
We had been told to get our belongings unpacked and squared-away yet Rand remained as fixed in place as a new specimen on a lepidopterists' examining-table, so I wasn't exactly surprised when a half hour later a short, blunt instrument named Crist, E. G. hove sharply into view and stared at my roommate with stammering disbelief roiling across his face.
"What the fuck are YOU doing, Cheesedick!" Crist, E. G. yelled as he took in the sight of the pinned butterfly.
The inert mass that was Dalton Rand barely stirred, the clear grey eyes barely came back to us for a moment, and he looked benignly at Crist, E. G. for a moment before looking back at the ceiling.
"I was thinking about your mother," Rand said, and Crist, E. G. began to tremble and fume.
"What did you say?" Crist, E. G. said.
"I was thinking about your mother, and the last time I fucked her up the ass," my roommate said clearly, and Crist, E. G. seemed like a kettle on the boil. He frothed over and got in Rand's face and started to yell something when the volcano blew.
Rand was off the bed and airborne in an instant and had Crist, E. G. by the neck and the balls pinned to the far wall, his own face just inches away from the shocked kids, the butterfly now a cobra, malevolent fury coiled in the air around his hissing smile, yet slowly he pulled back from the strike and let the kid slide slowly to the floor.
Eddie Crist had just met Dalton Rand and his world had been turned upside down.
So had mine, if you know what I mean.
We had, in fact, reported to campus two weeks early for football. The school was, therefore, not really in session, not really operating at full military power. Only a few staff were around, and none of the teachers who would define the perimeters of our existence over the next couple of years were anywhere to be seen. We hadn't been issued uniforms yet, didn't form up in front of the dorms every morning, yet all things being equal it wasn't quite like home, either. There was a residual informality lingering over the place that had yet to give way to the barked orders and clipped cadences that loomed, yet word of Crist's encounter with Rand had spread around campus like a barely-contained wildfire.
We had our breakfast early that first Monday morning, then reported to the locker room an hour later and suited up for practice. Being among the new kids, Rand and I were unknowns and relegated to tackling dummy status those first few days, and I felt a little tainted simply being his roommate. Guilt by association, I suppose, but the coaches didn't quite know what to make of Rand either, and so I suppose I fell into the same category. Gradually they began to work us into more drills as the hours passed.
Crist, E. G. was a short, stocky kid from Milwaukee, looked like one day he might even be muscular, and he considered himself a linebacker. He wore number 66, like his hero Ray Nitschke of the Packers. On that first Monday, late in the afternoon, Rand was lined up opposite Crist in the tackling pit. They faced one another as rookie versus veteran, buck private against first lieutenant, Crist all snarling and chest beating, his eyes red with full-blown fury, and when the coach's whistle pierced the air Rand lowered his head and drove his helmet right through Crist's gut. I remember looking down at the writhing numbers boiling in the red sand and thinking the kid didn't look a thing like Ray Nitschke.
It turned out there wasn't a thing Rand couldn't do better than anyone else on the squad and in due course he started throwing the ball. He could throw the ball. He could drive nails with a football at twenty yards, and rifle the thing through a swinging tire hanging from a tree time after time from thirty. Which put the coach in a bit of a position.
The presumed quarterback that year, Tucker Harriman, had been ordained long ago. Not by talent alone, mind you, but by dent of his father's having helmed the team through an almost mythical 12-0 season in 1944. And in truth Tucker wasn't a bad quarterback; no, he was better than any other kid in the league. The simple fact of the matter was that he was not even close to being as good as Rand. Tucker was, however, a senior; Rand was, like myself, a sophomore. The deck was stacked against Rand and Harriman strutted around the field like the stud we all assumed he was.
At the end of the second week we scrimmaged against the local high school's varsity squad. It was a neighborhood rivalry enjoyed by all the townies as the local kids, farmer's kids all, usually wiped our school's team right off the field within the first few minutes. Rumor had it their entire offensive line was harnessed up and plowed fields right through the summer to get ready for this season-opener; they took to the field late one afternoon as August was about to give up the ghost and we saw no reason to doubt the rumor. They cast a mighty shadow, no doubt about it, and at the end of the first quarter the score was 23 to zip. No doubt in your mind who was winning, is there?
The game now safely out of reach, the coach decided to preserve what little was left of Harriman's honor and sent the entire second team in, as well as a list of plays the coach wanted Rand to call. I was in this esteemed group, by the way, and by want of a certain girth and too much of the vertical had been relegated to wide receiver. The first play on Rand's crib sheet was a fullback plunge between center and left guard; true to form Rand called a wide right fly pattern and sent me long.
Let's just cut to the chase here and be done with it; Rand's first pass from scrimmage was completed to me for a touchdown and Coach benched Rand. Harriman threw another interception on our next possession and stomped from the field blaming the offensive line for failing to protect him. Coach blistered Rand in the locker room at halftime, told him he wasn't a team player; Rand made a germane if impertinent comment about how well the team was doing and everyone thought poor Coach was going to blow one of the veins in his forehead. Harriman and the first team started the second half.
Mid-way through the fourth quarter, the score now 55-7, Coach decided to send in the second stringers again. Mind you, the locals were still blooding their varsity squad (one assumes Romans must truly have enjoyed watching lions devour Christians on Saturday afternoons, right?) so when we of the scrawny hordes took to the field once again we could almost feel a palpable blood-lust radiating from the sidelines and stands across the field. It was really quite heartening in its way, a queer kind of Norman Rockwell moment. And coach had dutifully sent in yet another fullback plunge.
Rand broke the huddle and sent me and another receiver wide right again; coach was red-faced and howling like a treed monkey. The guys across the line could smell red meat now; they knew Rand was going to fire long again. I was about ten yards from coach and could see the veins on his forehead bulging while I listened to the count. On the snap I went long again then cut hard across field; Rand was already cutting up-field on the far side of the field and had cleared all but one deep safety by the time I made it across. I just managed to block the kid, a tall rangy kid about a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than myself, and Rand zipped into the end-zone untouched.
I'll never forget the look on Coach's face while we trotted back to the sideline: the lips on his weathered face were tightly pursed and his brown eyes hidden inside a distant squinting gaze, his arms were crossed over his chest and his feet were planted about a yard apart. He looked like he'd just eaten a raw oyster and while completely prepared to hate the experience had instead rather enjoyed the thing. It wasn't surprise I saw on his face as we walked past, either; no, he kept his eyes dead ahead as if reevaluating the very meaning of his existence. It was kind of odd, really. I mention this in passing only because Rand had that kind of impact on everyone even then.
Tucker Harriman started the first game of the regular season, by the way.
The next day all the other first year cadets arrived, and a small herd of upper-classmen as well. We were sent to the Quartermaster's for uniforms and to the nurse's office for flu shots, then across to the barber shop for a fresh set of white-walls. Rand was called to the Commandant's office later that afternoon and, I suppose, someone read him the riot act. Gross insubordination would not be tolerated, he told me later, had been the topic of conversation. I could see reflections of a red cape waving in his eyes even then, just as he dug his hooves in, and I could see the contours of a mighty battle shaping up that day. He lay down while he talked and resumed staring at the ceiling. Having read The Catcher in The Rye the year before, I hope you understand the queasy feeling I had in my gut while I listened to Rand was more than a little disconcerting.
And I suppose First Lieutenant Crist, E. G. had been informed of Rand's little chat in the Commandant's office because about an hour later he came pounding down the hall yelling that there would be a room inspection before dinner and everyone had better be ready – or else. Rand took off his clothes and threw them on the floor, grabbed a towel and walked off to the showers.
I suppose it's a flaw of mine but I went about straightening my things and all-in-all taking the military thing quite seriously; I shined my shoes, polished the spare brass insignia that would adorn my uniform, laid out my things just-so, just as proscribed in the Cadet's Manual of Conduct. I think I heard Rand laugh under his breath when he came back from his shower. He put his things away and dressed for dinner just as Crist arrived on the floor.
I was surprised, in a way, by what happened next. Rand stood at attention, eyes dead ahead, shoulders square, fingers just so as Crist came in our room. He looked over my stuff and complimented me then walked briskly from the room; I could just make out the faintest traces of a smile on Rand's face when we walked down the stairs to line-up outside the dorm. We were, you see, to march our way to the Dining Hall, and we were now confronted by legions of pimply faced Napoleons who were intent on making sure we did this just-so. With much shouting and consternation we managed to do just that.
Our table was headed by a very old retired Sergeant Major who, we were told, taught Military Science. He had, he told us, fought in Europe and Korea, and had wanted to go to Vietnam but been put out to pasture instead. I looked at the guy, Tom Shipman was his name, by the way, and had no doubt in my mind he could lead a battalion to retake Hue right after dinner. His belly was flat, his arms looked like worn-flesh over steel cable, and his eyes squinted like he was just then taking aim down the barrel of an M-16. He was a soldier through and through, and it was the first time I think Rand had ever been impressed by another human being.
Later that night, while we polished brass and melted Kiwi to do our shoes, we talked a little about what we'd been through those past few weeks. In his circumspect way Rand seemed to digest every emotion and question before opening his mouth, but several things became clear as we talked. He hated his father, missed his mother, and really, really hated being incarcerated "in this hell-hole." We hadn't talked too much before, at least not about personal stuff like this, so I was a little surprised by what came next.
"So why are you here?" I asked. "Didn't you want to come?"
He looked at me just then like I was some kind of pathogenic fungus under his microscope: "No. Did you?" he asked incredulously.
"Yeah, I did."
"No shit?" He continued his examination, now wide-eyed in disbelief.
"I cannot tell a lie, Rand. No shit."
"Aptly put. Why are you here?"
"I didn't have a choice."
"Really?" It was my turn to act the smart-ass so I jumped in head first.
"Really. My dad works for the State Department; we've lived in Europe most of my life." He looked away for a moment, parsing words and emotions, looking for just the right words, I suspect.
"That sounds kind of neat," I volleyed back into his court and ran to catch his next shot.
"He used to beat my mother, all the time. Until last year, anyway."
I didn't know what to say. "Who?" I think I finally said.
"What happened last year?"
"My brother was killed. Vietnam."
"He was a pilot. Navy."
"Yeah?" I looked at him hard now; his eyes were red and fixed on the shoe polish on the desk in front of him. Jaw rigid again, the muscles under the skin on the side of his face walked through the dimensions of his anger like a tiger pacing its cage.
"Shot down," he said through clenched teeth. "SAM."
"Sam?" I said, his meaning lost.
"Surface to air missile. S-A-M, Sam."
"Yeah. 'Oh.' Sometimes I imagine that's what he said, you know, when he realized what was about to happen."
"What happened to your father?"
"He stopped drinking."
"I think he stopped breathing, too, at least for a few months. I didn't see him much after that, then he sent us packing to D.C., enrolled me in this place."
"What about your mom?" I said as a tremble rolled over my skin.
"Jack Daniels," he said those two words so quietly I almost couldn't feel the hurt, and yet I understood. We had that much in common even then, I suppose.
I seem to remember going to class, but what stands out most clearly looking back was football practice and those first few games when poor Tucker Harriman floundered about like a kid who had stopped believing in himself, almost as if he too had stopped breathing. The games we played in early September were in-league; the opposing teams were from other mid-Western military schools like our own. Not as maliciously daunting as the local high school but pretty solid even so.
It didn't make a hell of a lot of difference. Harriman just couldn't handle the load and the coach didn't have the heart to bench him.
Then something characteristically weird happened. Everything about that year was weird, even if I didn't know it then. And like everything else it all revolved around my roommate.
Rand started working out with Harriman, coaching him, helping him; they stayed late after practice and threw the ball and talked a couple of times, then Rand convinced me and a couple of the other receivers to hang around and we ran patterns while the sun set every afternoon. The coaches watched, I guess, and covered for us; anyway, we turned up late for dinner more than once and no one blistered our tails. Pretty soon Harriman was completing passes again, even sounded a little more sure of himself. That was right before the next game, and all seemed right with our little world.
It was an away-game in Missouri and on the bus ride down Coach announced that Rand would be starting at quarterback. Harriman slid down in his seat and Rand's jaw clenched. We suited up and took to the field; Coach called a fullback blast after the kick-off and Rand audibled a slant out and threw an easy interception; the cornerback pranced into the end zone and spiked the ball.