Daily Archives: 5 September 2004

Good Soldier Outlier: Induction

The Army recruiter in Charlottesville had sent word to the induction center at Richmond that he was sending them a couple of hippies. But my brother and I had shaved off our beards and trimmed our hair before arriving there.

We entered the Army on the same day in April 1969. My brother, younger but more precocious than I, had dropped out of high school, and then finished his GED in the States. After I had dropped out of college, we had whimsically decided to head for Mexico in my little Studebaker Lark, with hardly enough cash to pay for the gas.

We were broke by the time we got to New Orleans, so we worked as day laborers until the engine broke down. Dad would only send us money to fix it if we promised to come back home–which we did, and then began negotiating with the local Army recruiter. After taking a battery of aptitude tests, I signed up for language school and my brother for warrant officer flight school–flying helicopters.

Somewhere on the induction questionnaire I had tried to salve my pacifist conscience by opining that I was signing up for language school in hopes of eventually helping to increase international understanding rather than making war–or words to that effect. Well, somebody must have actually looked over our answers, because my brother and I were both called in for questioning, separately, and forced to affirm that we would indeed obey orders.

After the usual induction procedures–standing in line nearly naked while medics jammed their fingers into our crotches and asked us to turn aside and cough; holding our arms still so the immunization guns wouldn’t draw blood; demonstrating whether or not our bare feet were flat–we were herded onto a train, me as far as Ft. Benning, GA, my brother to Ft. Polk, LA.

I had grown up riding trains in Japan, but this was only my second train ride in the U.S. (The first was from Martinsburg, WV, to San Francisco, CA, on the way to Japan when I was one year old.) People were playing dollar-ante poker at the far end of the car; while we were playing nickel-ante poker at our end. I was on a winning streak, but my brother was the one losing the most, and I had to extend him credit. Whenever I was up a few dollars, I would buy a round of beers.

The next morning we got off the train at Columbus, GA, some of us more broke than others, and waited for the bus from Ft. Benning to come pick us up. When a Drill Sergeant finally arrived, one trouble-seeking punk from Georgia asked him whether Drill Sergeants worked bankers’ hours. He later paid dearly for that remark.

We were still innocent then of how fearsome a Drill Instructor (DI) could be, but we would begin to find out as soon as we reached the other end of that bus ride.

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Naipaul’s Nashville: Baptists

Naipaul titles his chapter on Nashville, “Sanctities”: referring to both religion and music.

The magazine in my hotel room, mixing its metaphors, said that Nashville was “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Churches took up twelve pages of the Yellow Pages directory. The Tennessean had a “religion news” editor, and there was a weekly page of “religion news,” with many advertisements for churches (especially Church of Christ churches), some with a photograph of the stylish-looking pastor or preacher. Most of the Protestants in Nashville belonged to the fundamentalist frontier faiths; the predominant denomination was the Southern Baptist.

The classier churches, the Presbyterian and the Episcopalian, looked at this Baptist predominance from a certain social distance, without rancor or competitiveness.

Dr. Tom Ward, the Episcopalian pastor of Christ Church, said that the Southern Baptists who sometimes came to his church found it too quiet: “‘Y’all don’t preach.’ The Baptist ethos is the preached word. Which is the ethos of the Christian church in the South. Preaching meaning the emotional speech rather than the learned essay of the Church of England–preaching the word and counting the number of saved souls. But I have to say this. To say, ‘I’m a Southern Baptist,’ is another way of saying, ‘I’m a Southerner.’ What I mean is that that is the ethos, religiously. What is buried in their psyches is the fear of hellfire and damnation. My father was read out of the United Methodist Church in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1931–when he was seventeen–because he went to a dance. That’s the Methodist Church. A lot of the Ku Klux Klan literature is Christian. Revivalism–why? To rekindle the spirit. What spirit? One bad step; many bad steps; and you have the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Presbyterian pastor of Westminster, K. C. Ptomey, agreed that the Southern Baptist identity was in part the Southern identity. “That’s very accurate. You see, a Southern Baptist distinguishes himself from an American Baptist. American Baptists are much more open-minded; they are not so rigid. I would add about the Southern Baptists: it has to do with sharing biblical literalism; it has to do with morality. For example, to be a Southern Baptist is to be a teetotaler. Morality, dancing, drinking–it encompasses the whole of life.”

I asked him about the revivalism. “The revivalist mind-set is ‘to get back to God.’ You often hear the words used.”

“‘Back’?”

“‘Lost’ is the word they use. And what they mean by that is ‘damned.’ And therefore they need to be revived.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 233-234.

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Naipaul’s Nashville: Music

Naipaul interviews Nashville songwriter Bob McDill.

No amount of questioning, no amount of explaining, even from someone as willing to talk as Bob McDill was, could take one to the magic: the calling up and recognition of impulses that on the surface were simple, but which, put together with music, made rich with a chorus, seemed to catch undefined places in the heart and memory.

Mama said, don’t go near that river.

Don’t go hangin’ round ole Catfish John.

But come the mornin’ I’d always be there

Walkin’ in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn.

Almost nothing at first. But then the images and the associations come: Mama, river, catfish, footsteps, delta, dawn.

Bob McDill said he had had to learn the subculture. But the Southern images and words of his best songs are far from the stylized motifs of a good deal of country music. And though he makes much of writing in an office in a matter-of-fact, day-to-day way–and perhaps because he talks in a matter-of-fact way, since the mystery cannot be described–it is probably true that, when moved, he writes with that most private part of the self with which Proust said serious writers write.

He says that his best song is “Good Ole Boys like Me.”

When I was a kid Uncle Remus he put me to bed,

With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.

Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man

With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.

And he talked about honor and things I should know.

Then he staggered a little as he went out the door….

I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be.

So what do you do with good ole boys like me?

Every detail there was considered. His aim, he said, was to get as much of the South as he could in a few lines. And the song has become very famous; many people I spoke to referred to it; the mood of the song spoke for them. A “good ole boy” … was a redneck; but it was also a more general word for an old Southerner, someone made by the old ways. The song might seem ironical, then celebratory. But below that it is an elegy for the South, old history and myth, old community, old faith.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 247-248.

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