In the days before Don't Ask! Don't Tell, the military had a way to marginalize undesirables. Welcome to the Gulag.
Welcome to Ft. Gordon, Ga - the Special Training Unit. It's 1967, the height of the Vietnam War and Private Winslow Gibbs has been drafted. He's two-hundred and seventy pounds and a bundle of nerves. He also has issues of a different nature, but in these days before the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, these are dealt with in the American Gulag, the Army's answer to the problem. What they don't count on are the ones like Private Gibbs, who want to survive it and serve. Based on the author's own experiences, Surviving an American Gulag is a story that the military would prefer remain a footnote. However, it is a defining moment and should not be lost to posterity. Also included with this work is "A Dime a Dip," a tale of the author's grandmother and her considerable efforts on behalf of thousands of migrant worker children.
The Standards of War
Private Winslow Gibbs rested on his bottom bunk feeling the first instance of safety after months of torment. He was hot and tired and fat and more than a little confused about his feelings toward army life and soldiers in general. Still he had broken the cycle and was relieved. Had he known the order that was coming his way, he might have been far less content in this safe harbor. He might have considered the window an escape, although his girth might have stuck him there, leaving him no course but to be a bung to keep the flies out. However, ignorance is a fine buffer between security and terror. Knowledge withheld gives precious souls a fantasy on which to cling, and like all fantasy, truth is evident in the revelation. Therefore, Private Winslow Gibbs, feeling his tribulation at an end, was actually poised at the road’s beginning; all prior events being no more that a prelude; and an easy prelude at that.
East of the City of Augusta, Georgia, on the banks of the willowed Savannah River, Fort Gordon baked, even in the weak February sun. It was a war year — 1967, and the military installation churned out in its flywheel America’s young men to fight the foes of democracy. From city and country, from swamp and high-rise, from volunteer to draftee, they came; or were brought to learn the art of surviving the enemy, so they could destroy the enemy. Lessons old in the craft, Spartan in the womb and centurion in the stance, spun from the mouths of automaton trainers, who had lived to teach these men how to outstrip death’s ultimatum, or not. A fruitful task promised the fatherland ample scope to keep the war fires ablaze.
Fort Gordon, sparse and nearly treeless, except for the occasional copse left to piss on when the authorities were back-turned, was divided into three parts. The permanent corps lived in neatly trimmed greenery, as posh as the Augustan golf courses that flanked the river. Here the officers and their families, and anyone tarred and feathered to be here, made the best of the apparent sameness of a military post and its redundant accommodations.
The training grounds however, were regimental barracks, each two stories high — wooden, cookie cutter, and coal furnace stoked, arrayed in groups of four – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. Each array stood adjacent to three, rubber-stamped, squat shanties — a mess hall, a quartermaster’s hut and a commander’s office (the Top’s shack). A small Physical Training course (PT for short) and drill field flanked each training unit, completing the suite. That and a flagpole. Twenty-four such training units arrayed around a vast parade ground, cuffed by a Post Exchange, a stockade, a motor pool, a chapel and a utility building. A troop churner, indeed.
Finally, there was the wilderness — a camp run-a-muck spread for miles over hill and dale, hard baked in the red Georgia clay beneath the tyrant southern sun. Here the trails were cruel and steeply designed for torment. Here stood the rifle ranges, the confidence courses, the gas warfare shack, the grenade toss, and that terror called the Infiltration course. No matter how much stamina was stored in a man’s gut, the wilderness could pummel it to dust. Those that survived were real men — shaped from longhaired hippies and poor gas pumpers and scrappy street punks and marginal college students, to arise to the standards of war.
Fortune always touted such brigades, but fortune never counted upon failure. That wasn’t prescribed in directives, those official brassy memoranda that shaped all recruits uniformly. What about short falls from the standard? What about those who yearned for home — to be away from the sterile dust bowl of the twenty-four training units? What about the disobedient, the malingerers and the fags? Not covered by instruction until . . . until the focus falls to a far away flank, to an isolated zone — a twenty-fifth unit, whispered about during smoke breaks and mess hall gossip and other such prattling. A place as mythic to the troops as Purgatory and certainly conjured up to make all soldiers toe the line. Yet, every now and then, a soldier could look down the road toward that isolation zone and see it; yet, not see it, because it was hidden in plain sight. Still, occasionally at roll call or at evening muster, a fellow troop would be missing, and yet no drill sergeant hysterics accompanied the disappearance. There was just a dash in the line, one closed up by a dress-right and an at-ease. Brief puzzlement. A shrug, and then on to the tortures of the day until, within a few hours, perhaps less, that soldier’s name was forgotten — red Georgia dust in the wind, hidden in plain sight.
Exactly when Private Winslow Gibbs decided he could no longer suffer the daily slings of military training only can be conjectured, but as he lay sprawled on the bottom bunk in the empty barracks, he had been delivered from those slings for the last two weeks. His whale belly arose above the mattress as he rested from lunch. It wasn’t a bad lunch for the army — beans and franks with some spud salad and sweet rolls. He did wish the salad had been tart, like the Brooklyn variety he came to relish, but Cookie was from Alabama, so the stuff was smothered in some sour shit. Despite that, the grub wasn’t bad, especially now that he didn’t need to trot from the table into formation and then march ten miles until he puked. In fact, he couldn’t march more than two miles before he puked, his breath hitching so fast he’d lose his keel and kneel in the bastard red clay. He had done that only once. Sergeant Eckles screamed at him, kicking butt until a jeep came to pick him up. Not a pretty sight, but this finally took Private Gibbs out of the training cycle and just two weeks ago.
Gibbs sighed and righted himself on the bunk’s edge. No one else was in the barracks, but it didn’t make a difference. Even bustling, as it had been just before lunch, he was scarcely noticed; except by the skinny prick that slept in the top bunk over his — Private Farley. Farley always cracked jokes on the blubber bones that anchored his bunk. Don’t roll over too hard, Gibbs. You’ll make me seasick. Gibbs ignored him, or attempted to ignore him. The other faceless clowns that laughed and jeered when Farley was on a roll were just that — faceless. He didn’t care; now that he no longer trained; no longer lined-up like a lemming and shouted Here sergeant, when his name was called. No longer swung like a monkey through the overhead bars to earn a meal in the mess hall. He hadn’t been able to do more than one rung anyway. He just hung there while Sgt. Eckles shouted Fat boy at him, or worse. Moreover, he no longer floundered through the daily dozen. No more mile run, which in his case was a twenty-minute walk. That was behind him now. Now he ran errands for Sergeant Fitz in the quartermaster shack.
Sergeant Fitzgerald, Fitz for short, didn’t work the drill, which meant he was a regular guy — almost human. He didn’t even fit the training bill being a bit smaller than Gibbs, flab overgrowing his musculature, and smoked an incessant cigar, when he wasn’t chawin’ and spittin’. In short, he was a lifer, and easy in his domain. He didn’t care who squatted behind his counter as long as it was manned. Gibbs was perfect for this, maybe because he was a good conversationalist and spoke circles about Fitz, but the flabby supply sergeant liked to listen, even stoking the gab. You’re a college boy. Can you quote Shakespeare and those other flower people? Gibbs could, and did. Fitz would settle back and listen as if the babble were hummingbirds come to feed. It was the rhythm more than the meaning. Who’s to say that empty prattle doesn’t hold more meaning than a dull, non-lyrical drone?
If Gibbs weren’t so relieved not to be busting his ass with the other grunts, he could have read the signs of his coming fate. Two days ago, Fitz was in a surly mood. He paced the wooden floor of the shack waiting for Gibbs to run the lists and sweep the floor.
“It’s about time.”
Gibbs darted for the broom, the big brushy one, attacking the rough pine floor.
“Beauty sleep, troop?”
There was an unaccustomed bite in Fitz’s voice; odd, considering that these two were only acquainted for a fortnight. Gibbs pressed his shoulder into the sweep. He ignored the comment, while Fitz muttered, puffing his billowing cigar. Suddenly, the sergeant stopped the broom with his hand and gazed into Gibbs’ eyes.
“College boy,” he snapped. “I like you just the same, but . . .”
“Am I doing something wrong?”
Fitz laughed. “Wrong? You’ve done every fuckin’ thing fuckin’ wrong, troop. But you’re not the first to sweep my floors, and not the last.”
“What do you mean?”
Fitz smiled, the cigar juices dripping over his stubbly chin. Then he frowned as if he saw another person before him, perhaps a regiment of nobodies — faces without faces. Then he placed his hand over Gibbs’ nametag.
“I might remember you,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Fitz chuckled. “Nothing, college boy. Finish up and we’ll play some checkers.”
The beans and franks were active, and Gibbs rode hard on some gas. It was a good thing Farley wasn’t there or there would have been a round of jokes.
Suddenly, glancing at his watch, Gibbs had a real concern. He was late. Very late. Sergeant Fitz was lenient, almost lax, but Gibbs was milking the golden calf now. He jumped up, grabbed his cap and field jacket, and double-timed it to the barrack’s door.
It was a Georgian February, where the nights were cold but the days sticky. With the ever- present dust and the choking aroma of the coal furnaces, Gibbs slung the army-issue jacket over his shoulder and hopped down the easy flight to the formation ground. The quartermaster shack stood across from the mess hall and the Top’s shack. As he scurried to Fitz’s domain, he noticed the Company Commander hopping into his jeep. The First Sergeant stood at the door of the Top’s shack. Gibbs slowed his pace. He didn’t want to attract the Top’s attention, and could have succeeded, as he was temporarily lost in the jeep’s dust. Gibbs came to attention and saluted the C.O. as he passed, but when the dust settled, Gibbs faced the First Sergeant across the road.
“Gibbs,” the First Sergeant called.
Gibbs froze. He wasn’t sure whether the Top, a gray haired old fustian called Billingsly, was merely being friendly, or whether he needed something from the supply shack.
“Yes, sir,” Gibbs barked.
“Don’t call me sir,” Billingsly snapped. “I want a word with you.”
“Yes, s . . . Yes.”
Gibbs crossed the road.
“Move our ass. We don’t stroll around here. Move it.”
Gibbs did his best impression of a run, following the Top into the shack. The place was a replica of the quartermaster’s shack only narrower in gauge. In place of the storeroom were two offices —one for the Top and one for the C.O. The company clerk clicked away on his manual upright. He was a spectacled string bean named Heinz.
“Heinz,” Billingsly snapped. “Smoke break.”
Heinz dropped his hands to his side, stood like an automaton, lifted the counter divider and shuttled toward the door.
“He’ll make sure we’re not disturbed.” The Top smiled a fatherly grin that unsettled Gibbs. This wasn’t going to be a supply request, and since Billingsly held the counter up for Gibbs to enter the inner sanctum of desks and cabinets, there seemed to be an agenda to this moment and for this troop. “Have a seat. This won’t take long.”
Gibbs took Heinz’s post, while the Top stood with his hands behind his back, rocking on his spit-shined ranger boots.
“What can we do here?” he commenced. “You haven’t made much progress, have you?”
Suddenly, Billingsly trembled. His face turned granite, his ashen frown readied to a snap. “Don’t give me that horseshit. I’ve seen crap come through these doors twice as big and far less strong than you, and leave us proud. Fit and blustering soldiers. Are you trying to get out of the army, Gibbs?”
“Don’t . . . call . . . me . . . sir.”
“Sorry for what? Sorry that you don’t give a shit about your country. Just what do you think you’re about? You can’t even lift your own body weight, so how are you going to go forward from here? How? You can’t stay in boot camp forever, you know. You have to move on, one way or the other. This ain’t a Boy Scout Camp.”
Gibbs trembled. He wasn’t sure what Billingsly was about. Would beatings commence? Would he put him in the stockade? Gibbs eyed the door. He had thoughts to bolt over the counter and flee to the quartermaster shack and seek Fitz’s shelter, but he couldn’t even lift his own body weight. What were the odds of him vaulting over the counter?
Billingsly brought his face square to Gibbs’. All sense of the fatherly was gone now.
“Here’s the deal, Gibbs. I want you to see Sergeant Fitz, but not to fold the God damned linen or sort the fucking boots. I want you to draw your weapon, son. I want you to proceed to your quarters and get your gear. Report back here at fourteen hundred hours. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” Gibbs stammered.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Now, hear me. You’re getting off light. You’re going out with Charlie platoon. You’ve heard of them, haven’t you? You do remember them. They’re at the Infiltration Course as we speak. You’re lucky. I’ll give you a round trip transport to the garden party, but you’re back in training troop, as of now.”
Gibbs rattled so much, his flesh reverberated, his shock complete.
“On your feet.”
Gibbs shot up.
“Now get the fuck out of here. Fourteen-hundred hours. Fully loaded and ready to go. And send Heinz back in. Move it.”
Gibbs scurried to the counter. He lifted it, nearly snapping it off its hinges. It slammed down once he passed. His breath hitched. He marched through the door, his eyes meeting Heinz, who sucked on the smoke. No words were exchanged. Heinz knew, and pushed back into the shack leaving Gibbs in his wake.
What had happened? He heard Fitz’s words tramping through his mind. You’ve done every fuckin’ thing fuckin’ wrong, troop. He stared across to the quartermaster’s shack and was suddenly afraid. It was no longer his safe haven. It was a place to draw his weapon. With much effort, Private Winslow Gibbs shambled toward the shack, tears standing in his eyes. He wanted to go home. He wanted his mother. The harsh Georgia sun gave no solace, no respite from fear. All he heard running through his head as he crossed the road was I might remember you and fourteen-hundred hours, troop.
Exit and Entry
“You okay, Gibbs?” Sergeant Fitz asked. He held the paperwork for the M-14 in one hand and the rifle clutched in the other. “Did you hear me?”
“I think I’m okay,” Gibbs said absently.
“Well, you don’t look so good, but I saw this coming. You’re pegged, so you better shoulder this weapon and wiggle your ass under the barbed wire.”
Gibbs stared at the weapon, but Fitz plunked the forms on the counter, and then slipped a pen from his ear. Gibbs didn’t move.
“You know the drill, Gibbs.”
He did. He issued weapons every morning and gathered the forms in neat stacks, filing them in the empty gun racks. He had been glad to be on the giving side of this routine, but now . . . he gazed at the form and trembled. The pen could have been as lethal as the M-14.
“Goddamn it, college boy. You never saw a pen before?”
Gibbs snapped his hand forward signing on some line, but it didn’t matter which one, because Fitz thrust the rifle across the counter. Gibbs caught it like some foreign object ripped from a comic book. Fitz rolled his eyes and spit his spent tobacco in the wastebasket.
“I haven’t fired this yet,” Gibbs stammered.
“And you won’t fire it today.” Fitz softened. “Last time I was through the Infiltration course, that thing was just something to tote and hold on to. The ordinance comes out of the ground. Boom. And whizzes overhead. Don’t stand up, or else . . .”
This well-meaning advice wasn’t helpful. Gibbs had heard many horrific stories about soldiers standing up on the Infiltration course and taking a bullet in the head. Therefore, Fitz’s reassurance was more confirmation of a terror than an anesthetic. Gibbs trembled, the weapon rattling in his unsure grip.
“Is there . . . is there any way you can . . . you know, talk to the Top. Tell him that you want me to work here. I’m good at supplies; and it’ll solve the problem. I’d be . . . be useful, serving, you know.”
Fitz shook his head. “That’s not how it works.” He steadied the weapon and escorted Gibbs to the door. “I never have a permanent supply clerk. There’s always some troop that mucks up and keeps me company. I will say, they don’t all quote Shakespeare, or are good checker players, but in the end, they all go on to their next assignment. That’s the army. So, just say fuck the army like we all do, and get on with it.”
Gibbs heard the words, but remained unconvinced. The daylight loomed before him, that and the Georgia clay. He couldn’t move from the threshold, but Fitz tapped his shoulder and nudged him through. “And hold that weapon right, college boy. Either that or sling it.”
Gibbs wanted to plead again, but he knew that Fitz was correct. His delusion to escape the pain of training in a comfortable niche of light work and checkers cracked. He was a college boy. This wasn’t the place for him, but when the bubble burst, it mocked him. He wanted to turn back to Fitz and at least thank him for being a friend, but then realized that Fitz was never a friend. He was a soft overlord, a bookmark in the real situation. Therefore, Private Gibbs sauntered to the crossroads toward the barracks.
In his mind, he could hear the bullets whizzing already, the bombs blasting. The barbed wire meshed over his low crawl. How could he low crawl? He could never low crawl. He would be stuck out there in the dust, in the night, cut and shredded with no escape but to stand and catch a bullet. Maybe that was the answer. Maybe that’s how he could get on with it. He began to weep, his nose running, choking down his throat. Then, he stopped — between the quartermaster shack and Charlie platoon barracks.
A wooden bumper hugged the road and he dropped to it, cradling the weapon on his knee. His trembling ceased, as did the weeping and the snot roll. He just froze, staring at the clay — blankly. The bullets ceased to fly, as did the blasting buckets. The world calmed, even to his heartbeat. He didn’t hear Fitz’s voice when it called to him. He didn’t notice the shuffling of boots that came up behind him. He didn’t note a word of the First Sergeant’s cursing.
Then a hand topped his. “Give me that,” said a voice.
Gibbs gazed up and recognized Heinz. He released the weapon to the company clerk.
“What’s wrong with him?” growled the Top.
“I think he should go to the infirmary,” Fitz suggested.
“No,” Billingsly said. “I’ll make a call. Heinz, take him to the barracks. Gather his gear, and wait with him.”
Gibbs heard these things, but didn’t care. To him these were disembodied voices, except he could see them now. He was happy not to have the M-14, and he thought Heinz was kind to take it away. Suddenly, Billingsly’s face was in his — the fatherly version.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Gibbs. Don’t worry about a thing. Don’t fret.”
Heinz gently tugged Gibbs up and moved him along toward the barracks. It was an invalid’s walk. No emotion. No fear. Everything’s going to be all right now. Heinz was at his side, a reassuring crutch. He had taken the weapon away. How nice. How kind. A wave of sleep overcame Gibbs, but he managed to reach the barrack’s door. The distant bunk looked vaguely familiar. It was a safe harbor now.
“What’s with him?” Private Farley asked. He was one of four returning trainees streaming into the barracks.
“Nothing,” Heinz said. “What are you guys doing back? You haven’t been finished the Infiltration course yet.”
Farley chuckled, his cracker smile taking Heinz and Gibbs in with one bolt. “Naw. We’re on K.P. Lucky break.” He cocked his head. “Has blubber gut finally gone over the moon?”
“Just mind your business.” Farley pointed to the top bunk. “Well, just be fast about it.”
Farley sneered. Heinz was only a corporal after all — no big shit. A paper pusher.
“He’s over the moon,” Farley shouted back to the other K. P. nominees. “I guess they’ll be taking him to that funny place down the road.” He laughed.
Heinz stood, blocking his way. The corporal was shorter than Farley by six inches; still, there was the air of the Top shack about him and Farley just clicked his tongue, grabbed his shower gear and headed toward the latrine. When he reached the threshold, which was near the front door, he raised his hand and shouted: “Your ride’s here, Gibbs. Good riddance.” Then, under his breath. “Faggot.”
Gibbs had heard it all. His mind focused on Heinz and he kept repeating the phrase. How kind. How kind. The fact that Heinz shooed Farley away only increased trust in the corporal. The crisis had passed — again. He was no longer in training. No Infiltration course. However, he also understood that he was not returning to the quartermaster shack and Sergeant Fitz’s supervision. He had no idea where the ride would take him. To the infirmary? To the stockade? To a bus stop? The funny place down the road? Did it matter, as long as it was away from here?
“Gibbs,” Heinz said, coaxing him to come. “It’s time, Gibbs. I’ll take your duffel bag to the jeep. Come on now.”
Gibbs obeyed. He clasped his jacket, his cap and not much else, Heinz acting as porter. The line of bunks shuffled by him as he walked to the front door. He heard the grab ass shower play of the K.P. crew, Farley’s cutlass voice trumping the faucets. Gibbs reached the door. Billingsly waved him to an awaiting jeep, motor running. The driver sat stiff, his stare under sunglasses, his hand on the gearshift.
“It’s for the best, Gibbs,” said the Top. He ushered the private into the front passenger seat.
Heinz slung the duffel bag into the back. He placed a hand on Gibbs’ shoulder. “I’ll be going now. Come visit.”
Gibbs wanted to say thanks, but the most he could muster was a dim smile. Then, the hand on the gearshift swerved forward and the jeep bolted for the main road — the one that went to that funny place.
Gibbs didn’t look back; nor did he look forward. There was a sudden sense of loneliness riding over the Georgia clay beside this shaded, laconic non-entity driver. In these moments, Gibbs had never felt so abandoned, so untethered to any place. He was no one in nowhere, and it might have suited him just fine. Had he known that at his destination he would be swept to the curb with other such souls with the same marooned spirit, he might have opted for a quick stand-up on the Infiltration course. He felt that he had truly gone over the moon.
The sign read:
Special Training Unit Number One
Restricted Inbound-Outbound Traffic
Post Commander Lt. Colonel Dripper
Commanding Officer 1st Lt. Frakus
Fort Gordon APO 80566
No gate, no fence and no other boundaries but this sign. In fact, the place appeared normal, like any of the training compounds with a few exceptions. There were only two barracks, and where the other two would normally be, stood a dusty drilling field. A small uncharacteristic building hugged the far edge of this ground. The Top shack and quartermaster hut stood in line with the barracks, while the mess hall was oriented lengthwise to them giving the training compound a compact appearance. There was also a large white building with French windows, like some abandoned chapel. A quarter-mile oval track and a P.T. course lay just below the mess hall; and a classroom — one story, covered with announcements, probably schedules and military catechisms. The other unusual feature of this otherwise normal compound was — trees. At least a dozen maples that shaded the buildings, the faux-chapel and the drilling field.
The jeep pulled up to the sign. The driver sat motionless, his sunglasses reflecting the late afternoon sun. Gibbs sat just as motionless. Then, he noticed a stocky drill sergeant dressed in full cadre attire, from spit-shined boots to Smokey the Bear hat, who sauntered around to the driver. The driver gave the sergeant a manila file folder that he flipped open, reading the hand scrawled orders.
“Bullshit,” said the sergeant. He had a distinct Spanish accent. “A hurry-here case — cajones. Joder.” He closed the folder and grinned. “Tell Billingsly that Sergeant Gonvea needs regulation type orders before I can put this troop through his paces.”
Sergeant Gonvea glanced at Gibbs. “Just in time for an inspection, troop. You won’t mind very much if I asked you to get out of the jeep, and maybe stay a while?”
Gibbs swallowed. The voice that commanded was gruff and bull baiting. This wasn’t the kinder, gentler army, the one designed for those who needed to take things with an easy stride. He swung his legs over the splashboard and got his considerable girth onto its feet. Sergeant Gonvea hefted the duffel bag out of the back and threw it before Gibbs. The driver put the jeep in gear and departed, leaving dust in his wake. Gibbs choked.
Gonvea circled his new recruit like a sculptor planning the next chisel bit. He cracked his knuckles and brought his dark, tan face into Gibbs’.
“Well, troop. Why don’t you . . .” He hesitated, leaning back for effect. Then, he shouted: “Pick up your fuckin’ duffel bag and follow me. This ain’t the goddamn Hilton.”
Gibbs fumbled with the bag, trying to perch it on his shoulder. It just wouldn’t stay there. With every step, it bobbled around like loose cargo in a hurricane. He trundled behind Gonvea, who mumbled the usual endearments native to drill sergeants. Then, Gonvea turned and rounded on him.
“Dumb queer,” he shouted. “Drag it if you can’t lift it. Inspection today and the Lieutenant’s waitin’.”
They reached the Top shack, Gibbs huffing, his chest tightening. He dragged the bag behind him, a burden he came to hate. Gonvea continued to swear as they entered the office climbing a low flight of four wooden steps — steps that could have been three flights to Gibbs in his struggle.
The office was small and similar to all the other cookie-cutter Top shacks — a partitioning counter between the world and the work area. A clerk (another corporal) worked at a corner desk. Unlike Heinz, this one was cursing at his typewriter. He shot an unfriendly glance at Gibbs, and cocked his head toward Gonvea
“Another one, Sergeant,” said the clerk. He had a flat New England accent, somewhere east of Worcester. “Where’s this one to?” Sergeant Gonvea handed over the paperwork. The clerk perused it. “This doesn’t tell me a helluva a lot.”
“The real stuff’s comin’. He’s goin’ to Bravo.”
“B Platoon,” said the clerk. “Getting full up there in the powder puff room.”
Gonvea shook his head. “Just process it, will ya. I don’t have no fuckin’ time to dance around the room with you. I have enough ladies on the cha cha floor. Is the Lieutenant ready for the inspection?”
“I am,” said the Lieutenant emerging from his office. He was a short man and slight, but was an absolute officer. He shone brilliantly, beyond either the Mexican or the Frappe-eater. “And who is this?”
“Private Winslow Gibbs, sir,” read the clerk.
“Gibbs, eh?” said the Lieutenant. “Sounds silver spoon. Where’re you from, Gibbs?”
“Brooklyn,” Gibbs replied.
“Troop,” Gonvea barked. “When Lieutenant Frakus asks you a question, you answer him with Sir.”
Gibbs trembled, straightened and reiterated. “Brooklyn, sir.”
“That’s more like it, troop.”
“Brooklyn,” Frakus mused. “Hmm. Do you know Manny Cohen by any chance?”
“No . . . sir.”
“I went to school with Manny Cohen. He was from Brooklyn. Nice guy.” The Lieutenant came across the partition and gave Gibbs the once over. “Winslow. You don’t mind if I don’t call you Winslow?”
“Gibbs’ll do. However, what do your folks call you? Winny? Whiney? Slow?” He laughed, but held his hand high stopping Gonvea mid-roar, and the clerk (whose name was Fitch) from falling off his chair. “No need to answer. We’ll call you Gibbs, unless you really screw the pooch. Then I’m sure we’ll find some more appropriate incentive-bearing names.”
“Yes . . . sir.”
Gibbs wasn’t sure what the game was here. He spied Fitch stifling giggles and could sense Gonvea’s joy as if it fed on his embarrassment. He was still trying to catch his breath from the duffel bag haul. This interview stoked his humiliation. However, somewhere in his spleen, he told himself sticks and stones, and none of this felt worse than the duffel bag marathon.
Lieutenant Frakus cuffed Gibbs’ shoulder. The tone turned serious.
“You’re here for one reason, Gibbs; and one reason only. You need to pass the tests. And when you do, you’ll be allowed to return to regular basic training. Simple as that. We’re a little stricter here, right Sergeant Gonvea?”
“You are also restricted here, Gibbs. From this moment on, you cannot go beyond the company boundaries. Sergeant Gonvea will show you where those are. We’ll take you for haircuts, escort you to church and we have a few venues beyond bounds, like the gym and the wilderness, but no PX. No movies. Nothing beyond here. We don’t have a barbed-wire fence, but don’t test the boundaries. You’ll be sorry if you do. Do you understand me?”
The words dawned on him. Quarantined. He was in some sort of prison, only without bars and guards. He looked toward Gonvea, who appeared more guard-like now than drill sergeant. He panicked, but quickly relegated his qualm to his legs.
Frakus pinched his arm. “Flab. We have intense physical training here, Gibbs — a diet for you and special classes. So, pick up your gear and come meet your platoon.”
Gibbs tried to hoist his duffel bag, but he lost his balance. Frakus rolled his eyes.
“Sergeant Gonvea, help him.”
“Yes, sir.” Gonvea gave Gibbs a foul look. “Only this once, troop, ‘cause when I get finished with you, you’ll be a fuckin’ mountain of muscle.” He roared, and then hoisted the bag.
What I expected from this book was a behind-the-scenes look at life in military basic training. What I got was an education of human nature in it's purist form. Through Private Gibbs, I met each character, I learned to accept and be accepted by all of them, I made mistakes and I corrected them, and I learned to love myself and then broadened that love to include others. Failures and successes were ever present and I learned to pick myself up when necessary and when to raise my hands and cheer. I ask myself, "Did I feel what the author wanted me to feel?" The answer is yes, his writing is that good.
Patterson's novelized memoir read just as that, a memoir. When I opened the first page, I felt as though I was sitting next to him, and when I closed the book, I shook his hand and thanked him for sharing the memories. It was easy to read, the story flowed, the characters were easy to keep track of, and the author never strayed from the path. All in all, I enjoyed my time spent in the 'American Gulag'.
A Testament to Fortitude
By Timothy Mulder (Los Angeles, CA USA)
Reading Gulag was both a pleasure and a source of inspiration.
From a practical perspective, the story is well constructed with characters rendered in such exquisite detail that the reader can feel their defiance, heroism and pain. While subjectively, Surviving an American Gulag is nothing short of a heart and gut wrenching exploration of true human fortitude.
Private Gibbs, the central, autobiographical character goes through a literal rebirth, an evolution of self, born of the instinctive need to survive and grow.
Caught in a time when the basic civil rights of individuals, who do not meet the exacting standards of the military, are routinely denigrated and dismissed from duty, the rich cast of characters are a testament to personal pride and courage.
The fact that, forty years later, circumstances in the American military are only marginally better, leaves this reader plagued with doubt.
Yet, I have only to recall the bravery and resourcefulness of the members of B Platoon, to have my faith restored.
This is a story of what it means to be both human and a soldier. Courage, compassion, honor and the innate need to pursue happiness, regardless of where that path takes you.
A thoroughly enjoyable read!
A Unique Perspective on Military Life
By Michael R. Hicks (Annapolis, MD USA)
Having served in the Army myself, I thought that this book provided a rather fascinating perspective of what for many is a very pivotal point in their lives: military basic training.
The story is told from the point of view of Private Winslow Gibbs, who seems totally unsuited to the military, particularly in the Vietnam-era draft: he is terribly overweight, emotionally soft and - although unbeknownst to himself at the time - homosexual, at a time when being "queer" in the military could land you in prison.
Patterson's telling of the story conveys the primitive conditions and harsh life experienced in basic training, from the total lack of privacy in the barracks to the grueling physical fitness training and the terror of night-time battle drills. Anyone who has ever had to spend time in one of the Army's many "splinter villages" will know from Patterson's words that he's been there himself. And those who haven't experienced the trials and tribulations of military training can gain a better understanding - and respect - for what our young service members experience before they even place themselves in harm's way; and while those of Patterson's generation had no choice during the draft, young men and women today volunteer for such hardships to serve their country, which is something so many of their countrymen do not truly appreciate.
Like those men and women, Patterson's hero - Private Gibbs - learns that he is more than he ever thought he could be. The training he endures, while harsh, reveals his inner strength, which is tempered and honed by his drill sergeant and the members of his platoon.
As for the gay aspect of the story, to me it was almost incidental. Patterson is clearly trying to portray the extreme hardships borne by gay men in the military at the time, and this book certainly does that well in a very non-graphic way.
But the bottom line, in my opinion, is the same as for any other tale of men (and, today, women) who prepare for the ultimate test of war: it's a story of comradeship, a tale of survival against what so often seems to be overwhelming odds.