Arata likes giving orders. I don’t. He can also take orders, something I also have trouble with. This is partly the fault of my small learning problem—mixed-brain dominance, an educator friend called it, when I explained that, although I’m a righty, there are some things I prefer doing with my left hand, such as shooting a rifle. This makes me naturally clumsy. Once, when my mother saw me play basketball, she wanted to know why I spent so much time on the floor.
I met Arata because I was working on a book of applied ethics that included moral dilemmas, and I wanted a military response to one of the questions. One day, he was in the hall with an inspector general. I introduced myself to them both and asked the white-haired senior officer if he would agree to answer a question for the book. Arata, afraid I was a lunatic anti-ROTC professor, like a good junior officer, deflected the request and said he would like to see the question himself.
ROTC and The New College, where I teach at Hofstra, were uneasy neighbors housed in one building. The New College began as an alternative to traditional education in the 60’s, and by the 1990’s contained the rump of progressive causes, a place sometimes identified by the rest of the university, and the local press, as a bastion of feminist and Marxist ideologies. For years, my only association with ROTC was looking at a display on the ground floor, trying to remember which ranked higher, colonel or major.
Arata read the scenario I presented to him about a West Point cadet caught between the honor system and loyalty to a cheating friend and asked if he could contribute to the book. Arata, it turned out, wasn’t like any professional soldier I had known before, and, over the next several months, we developed a fondness for one another.
During the Vietnam War, I declared myself a conscientious objector. This was largely a symbolic gesture, since I already had finished my military obligation. When I was a teenager, it was simply assumed that you would be drafted. It was only later that young men drank quarts of honey to raise their blood sugar to dangerous levels or had their doctors write reports on their delicate constitutions. In 1961, when I joined the army, these options were beyond consideration.
My friend Joel Feldman told me that, if we joined the army reserves before we were 18, we would only serve three-and-a-half years attending weekly meetings and two weeks of active duty during the summer, instead of the usual six years required of reservists. There was no way we could escape six months of active duty, though, and, for that period of time, I would have to be a real soldier.
The added bonus of joining the reserves so young was that we could choose whatever unit we preferred. We heard about a Special Services company, a unit that during WWII ran the R&R (Rest & Recreation) center at the French Riviera for American troops. The group also met in an office building in midtown Manhattan, and no one wore uniforms. The company required that its members take an audition to demonstrate a talent, but none of us had any. Still, because of our youth, we had to be accepted.
Joel, Marty Schlow, and I signed up and joined a company of soldiers who were opera singers, musicians, athletes, dancers, and directors. Some of the reservists were also comedians and TV comedy-show writers. One night, someone instead of using a training film showed the Hollywood movie Picnic, running it backwards, so we saw it from end to beginning. Another night, we watched a first-aid demonstration in which the instructor, explaining how to treat a cut, swathed a companion in bandages from head to foot like a mummy.
During summer camp, a ballet dancer led our PT exercises in the quadrangle in front of the barracks.
“OK, men,” he said, with no authority whatsoever. “Take your positions. Now, hands on hips,” and we bent our knees, feet straight ahead—one-two, one-two, now one foot at a right angle, up-down, through all four ballet positions, thirty Tinkerbells in combat boots. Soldiers from other companies stopped their exercises to watch us place our arms over our heads and position our feet now splayed 180 degrees.
Another day at camp, we had a lecture on camouflage. One of the men found a tree limb and stuck the limb taller than himself into his belt, wrapped a roll of toilet paper around his head, and sang an Israeli song as he charged around as if crazed from a blazing desert sun.
These antics didn’t sit well with our supervising officer, an earnest soldier from the Pentagon who had apoplectic fits, which only further undermined whatever respect the others may have had for him. In exasperation, our commanding officer issued dire warnings: If we kept this up, our reports to the Pentagon would be so bad that we were in danger of being disbanded.
During our second year in the reserve unit, we were told that we had to wear our uniforms to the next meeting. Despite the protests that some didn’t even know they had a uniform, that morning we lined up in the hall of the office building in which we met. There were dress green trousers that weren’t hemmed, patches sewn upside down on sleeves, loafers with fatigues, sport shirts with khaki field jackets, argyle socks, and silk ties. Soon after this costume ball, the unit was disbanded. I was transferred to a company of journalists and issued typewriters at meetings to men who sat and wrote stories about fictitious battles.
I didn’t make any better soldier than I did a Boy Scout, an affiliation that lasted through one week at summer camp. I cried so bitterly when my parents visited on the weekend that they had to take me home. I hated wearing a uniform. I hated being told what to do. I hated washing dishes and scrubbing pans in the mess hall.
I also cried the first time they visited me at boot camp in Ft. Dix. One Saturday, they found me behind the mess hall scrubbing the underside of a removable walk-in refrigerator floor. I had KP duty thirteen times during eight weeks of basic training; I lost weekend passes because my blanket didn’t fit tight enough on my bed. During advanced infantry training, I was tossed out of the color guard because my boots didn’t shine sufficiently; I never learned to put my rifle back together in the dark, and the machine gun always wound up with extra parts after re-assembly. When I received my honorable discharge in 1965, I hadn’t made PFC, an amazing achievement since Private First Class is a rank usually achieved by simply not expiring.
Arata wears a uniform most of the time. You can’t avoid uniforms in the military, even at night, as this time calls for boxer shorts and T-shirts. I always slept in pajamas and saw no reason why I should give up the practice now that I was in the army. Mine were red polka dot. My bunk was at the far end from the hall, so when the commanding officer came in just before lights out, we jumped to attention and stood mutely at our bedsides. He inspected the troops as he walked by solemnly in his paratrooper-starched uniform. Finally, he reached my end of the barracks and, for the first time, saw me. He walked past, then returned. He stared and said, shaking his head, “Dobrin, I’ve been in this man’s army for twenty years, and I’ve never seen anyone wear pajamas before.”