Authors: Eric Fair
Camus says we cannot know God. In the dorm, my roommate sees me reading the book and says, “I love Camus. Fucking genius.” On Sunday morning, I wake up early to go to church. I open the window and turn on the lights. I bang drawers and drop coins on the floor. The girlfriend climbs out of bed, naked, and says, “Think of this when you're trying to pray.”
Mike and I eventually become friends. We return to our dorm room after dinner and watch the evening news together. One evening, there is a report about changing attitudes in the military. There is talk in Washington about finding ways to allow gay men and women to serve in uniform. Mike is surprised to hear me say something supportive about this.
In the coming weeks, Mike introduces me to his friends. Some are gay. Some are not. None of them go to church. In the evening, after class, I walk back to the dorm along Commonwealth Ave with Mike's girlfriend. She says, “We just thought you were one of the bad guys.”
In the summer of 1993, Army Rangers are dying in Somalia. I'm working at First Presbyterian Church again, playing Frisbee, going to amusement parks, and teaching Bible study. I visit the Army recruiters on Stefko Boulevard in Bethlehem. I don't tell my parents this time. I don't need permission to enlist. President Clinton withdraws troops from Somalia. Wars don't last long anymore.
I move off campus for my senior year. I take a class on World War I. I read about the generation of 1914, trench warfare, and mustard gas. I read
All Quiet on the Western Front
and write a paper about Wilfred Owen.
I read an article in the
about a war on the streets of Boston. The article mentions the infamous 1989 Charles Stuart case and how it exposed racism in the city. Charles Stuart, a white man, drove his wife to the Mission Hill neighborhood and murdered her. He blamed the crime on a black man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. People in Boston thought of Mission Hill and the Bromley-Heath housing project as places filled with bad black men, so they believed the story was true. Police tore Mission Hill apart. They arrested a black man. The case fell apart. It turns out Charles Stuart was in debt. He murdered his wife for the insurance payment. Charles Stuart eventually committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. The police released the innocent black man from custody. But in the early 1990s, as I read about a war on the streets of Boston, people still think of Bromley-Heath and Mission Hill as bad places full of bad people.
A friend of mine from Gordon who is studying urban ministry rents an apartment in Roxbury with three other men on the condition that there are always two whites and two blacks in the apartment. He wants to prove that blacks and whites can live together. When one of the roommates gets married and moves out, I'm offered one of the white rooms. In the evenings I work in downtown Boston, delivering packages to law firms and tax lawyers. I work late into the night. Afterward, I ride my bike back to Roxbury through neighborhoods where my roommates tell me not to ride my bike.
The apartment is often engulfed in a concert of police sirens and shouting matches. I eavesdrop on domestic disputes from the back porch and avoid the drunks and addicts as I ride my bike to campus. I watch the news and hear about a shooting that took place a few blocks away. At night, the four of us sit out back and talk about Boston. Jay, one of the black roommates, works for a Christian organization called Young Life. Some of the kids who attend Young Life in Roxbury are former gang members. Jay says the gang members tell him the difference between the Boston police and the Metro police. He says there are black Boston police officers, but there are no black Metro police officers. He says no one cares when the Boston police show up, but the Metro guys mean business. He says, “You don't fuck with the Metro guys.”
Jay is a large man. He was a star athlete in high school and was recruited to play basketball in college. He always has friends at the apartment. My other roommates tell me that these friends are associated with the gangs in Bromley-Heath and Mission Hill. Some of them come from opposing gangs, but when they're with Jay, everyone is safe.
One evening, Jay and I are the only two in the apartment. He says, “Why are you always avoiding me? Why are you always leaving when I show up?” I tell him about wanting to be a police officer. I assume black people don't want to be police officers. I don't tell Jay this. He says, “If you want to protect people in this city, you're going to have to learn to hang out with black people.”
On Sundays I begin to attend a Pentecostal church in Dorchester with the guys from the apartment. We arrive early and set up metal folding chairs and the overhead projector. There are guitars, drums, and clapping. Many of the congregants are black. After the sermon they gather in the aisle and share the peace. They mingle and hug and say, “Peace be with you.” This is something Presbyterians don't do. On the way home I tell my roommates that I'm just not a “share the peace” kind of guy. Jay says, “Maybe you're just meant to be a Metro police guy.”
In the fall of 1993, my senior year at Boston University, I call the Boston Police Department and enroll in the testing program. I've done what my parents asked and earned my degree, but I haven't lost interest in law enforcement. There is a civil service test in January. There are more than seven thousand applicants. I earn a perfect score, but it's not enough. Applicants with “preference points” are elevated on the list. I call the recruitment office and ask for advice. “Join the Army, get veterans' preference, and we'll see you when you get back.”
In 1994, I graduate from Boston University and return home to Bethlehem. The steel company isn't making anything anymore. The newspapers write about decentralization. The blast furnaces go quiet. Paratroopers invade Haiti. My father calls and says that CNN has come to Liberty High School to ask questions about the intervention. They want the perspective of a working-class town, and they're going to interview my father's history class. He asks me to videotape the event.
I sit down with Don and tell him about the civil service test in Boston. He says, “When God closes a window, he opens a door.” I tell him I'm joining the Army. I tell him it's a necessary step to becoming a police officer.
On Sundays, I visit my Presbyterian grandmother after church. When I tell her about joining the military, she talks about the day my grandfather left for the Army. She hands me a black-and-white photograph of him in uniform. He's waiting for the train, heading back to base after a short furlough. My two-year-old father stands next to him, hanging on his leg. She talks about how everyone thought World War II was necessary. They all felt they were doing the right thing, that it was good they were marching off to war, that it was good that everyone was doing their part. Then she says, “Of course, we didn't actually know what they were going through. We didn't actually know what they were doing over there. If we did, I'm not sure how we would have felt.”
My grandmother sounds sad, but she quickly changes the subject. She starts telling the stories about family and all the places they have come from. She pulls out the enormous Bible that once sat on the lectern in the church at Spruce Creek. It was published in 1874. She remembers playing in her grandfather's office and being told to be quiet because he was working on a sermon. She tells me that the Bible is mine. She writes my name on an index card and slips it into the cover page. I can't help but sense a certain disappointment that I haven't followed in her grandfather's footsteps.
In 1995 I open the door at the Army recruiting station on Stefko Boulevard. Friends, to include Mr. Gentry, have advised me to apply to Officer Candidate School. This is the path most college graduates take into the military. Officers lead a much better life in the Army than enlisted personnel. They are paid better, live in better housing, and outrank every enlisted soldier. Enlisted soldiers are forced to do menial jobs like raking leaves and cleaning toilets. They are housed in the barracks alongside other soldiers and receive half the salary of an officer. But enlisted soldiers, unlike officers, can choose their own training school and select their own career path. I want to control my own path. I want to be a military policeman, so I enlist.
I take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a multiple-choice exam that tells the Army whether you are smart enough to be a military policeman. I am. But I'm also smart enough to be trained as an artilleryman, a water purification specialist, and a Patriot missile repairman. I don't want to do these jobs. No one else does, either. But the recruiter tells me that there aren't enough slots for the military police and he can offer me a better choice of duty stations if I take one of the jobs no one wants. When I hesitate, he says they might still be able to arrange military police training. I just need to sign first. He'll arrange it later.
I know this isn't true. Mr. Gentry warned me about recruiters desperate to fill jobs that no one wants to take. They find a way to make you sign, then rescind promises or alter agreements, and you end up tightening screws on Patriot missiles for three years. When I get up to leave, the recruiter's supervisor steps in. He says they can offer me whatever I want; I just need to be patient. Sign the paperwork and everything will work out. I keep moving toward the door. He says, “What about the language program?”
I was never aware the Army had a language program. The recruiter tells me my ASVAB score qualifies me for the Defense Language Institute (DLI). I sit back down and we talk about the life of a military linguist. He assures me the experience would benefit my pursuit of a law enforcement career, even open doors to intelligence agencies. He convinces me to sign the papers. I enlist as an Arabic linguist.
But the recruiter doesn't tell me everything. He doesn't tell me that I still have to take the Army's Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) in order to qualify for the Arabic program. If I fail the test, I'll be forced to choose from whatever jobs the Army makes available. I've signed the papers. The Army owns me for the next five years. The recruiters know that most candidates fail to score high enough on the DLAB to qualify for Arabic. They expect the same from me. When I pass the test a week later, they seem disappointed. One of them laughs and says, “Everyone flunks out of Arabic eventually.” None of them wish me luck. I board a plane in Harrisburg and fly to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I spend the flight thinking I should have listened to Mr. Gentry and become an officer. I wonder what else the recruiters haven't told me.
Three miles into a six-mile run and my legs begin to burn. It's Francis. He's pushing us harder than normal this morning. We began the run in formation, four columns of twelve men each, but as the pace increases, the formation begins to fall apart. Faster runners move to the front as the slower runners fall to the back.
Sergeant First Class Francis unleashes a tirade of profanity as the slowest runners fade from view. The formation turns back to pick up stragglers, forcing faster runners to cover twice the distance. Francis makes one last push. He sings a cadence to keep us in step.
I went to the church
Where all the people pray
I took out my Claymore
And I blew them all away
Singing left right, left right, left right kill
Left right, left right, you know I will.
The formation fails again. We circle back but do not continue the run. Francis orders us into a ditch on the side of the road. We rest our feet on the edge and put our hands down into the sludge. We hold the position as long as we can. Before long, we are fighting to keep our faces out of the mud. There is more profanity from Francis.
We return to the barracks, where Francis punishes us for our performance in the morning run. He starts with the electric chair. We put our backs against the wall and bend our legs. He locks us into a crouched position that results in muscle failure of the quads, hamstrings, and calves. It hurts. We raise ten-pound rubber rifles and hold them parallel to the ground. Our legs are on fire, then our arms, too. He orders us to the ground. We lie on our stomachs and stretch our hands above our heads. We roll left, we roll right, we roll left, we roll right. We do jumping jacks. We do push-ups. We do sit-ups. When muscles fail, we lock ourselves into the front leaning rest. When we can't do that, we run in place with the rifles above our heads. Then it's back to the electric chair.
At night, we serve hour-long shifts as fireguards. The barracks are quiet. There are no drill sergeants. We wax the floors and clean the toilets. I write to Don Hackett and tell him I may have made a mistake. I wake up thinking about the electric chair.
It is late October and the leaves are changing. In the mornings, there is frost on the ground. Francis marches us out into the woods to a small cinder-block building with a smokestack in the center. We are issued gas masks and chemical suits. The masks have the stale stench of fresh rubber. We suction them onto our faces and pull the straps over the backs of our heads. The eyepieces fog up. The air inside the mask is thick and difficult to breathe. When we fail to don the masks in the appropriate manner, Francis orders us to sit in the electric chair. Sweat pours down our faces inside the masks. The masks starve us of oxygen. Pools of sweat slosh around in the bottom of the mask.
Francis approaches each of us and tests the seal on our masks before marching us into the cinder-block building. Inside, there is a smoky haze that stings the back of my neck. We turn and face a large Plexiglas window, where Francis stands with a microphone and a large smile. We hear muffled orders through our masks. When we remove the masks, we vomit, we choke, we wheeze. Long strands of mucus drain out our noses and onto the grass.