Gracie Allen and John Denver in Boot Camp

Discipline, structure, and growing up during peacetime

From a nearby bunk a girl loudly whispered in the dark, “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

A chorus of other recruits, at least four, answered, “Goodnight, Gracie!” in the high-pitched nasal tone of an old-school Hollywood dumb blonde.

I was fairly certain that the instigator of this almost nightly routine was a blonde girl from the division’s flag team who I more or less regarded as a bully. She seemed to think she was cute. She seemed to fancy herself a leader of some kind. I didn’t care for her during the day, but at night when she initiated the George Burns and Gracie Allen routine, first with a handful of girls, and by the end of the sixth week of training, fifteen or twenty girls, I really hated her.

And you know what? I remembered seeing a documentary about Burns and Allen, the married comedy team whose Burns and Allen Show ran in the 1930s and 40s, that said the whole “goodnight Gracie” thing wasn’t actually part of their routine. And why in the world would these girls want to do this non-routine in Navy basic training anyway? It bothered me to no end. No one stopped them. No recruit drill commander ever overheard what they were doing and told them it was un-Navylike. Part of me wanted to call out to the instigator and ask what her deal was, but she was always busy whispering with other girls and I just didn’t have it in me to get in the mix. Other than having befriended the only other older, college-educated recruit, I wasn’t doing great socially. But, I was in freaking boot camp, so why should I have to worry about my social life?

I was in freaking boot camp, so why should I have to worry about my social life?

Now, what the instigator’s routine certainly did do for me every night was pull John Denver to the forefront of my mind, via his movie with George Burns, Oh, God from 1977. I had the almost nightly habit of scrolling through a John album for entertainment and comfort as I was trying to fall asleep. Sleep was not generally elusive since we were lucky to get five or six hours a night, and we moved almost constantly the other nineteen hours of the day, but comfort was hard to come by.

Bereft of amusement, I closed my eyes tight and imagined scenes from Oh, God. John’s acting always made me uncomfortable, but I applauded his chutzpah in going after movie roles — he didn’t mind putting himself in uncomfortable situations. In that movie, John played a family man who worked at a grocery. His life wasn’t great and he had his doubts about the state the world was in. Suddenly God, played by Burns, began appearing to him with the message that he could and should make a positive difference. Though I wasn’t really looking for one, the parallel between the story’s set-up and my current situation didn’t completely escape me. Or maybe attempting to create a parallel was just another comfort-fix.

In 1975, the year I was born in Hobart, Indiana, my mother took me on long walks and sang Top 40 songs from the radio. That year was an outstanding one for John — probably the peak of his career. He had a string of number one songs and albums, he won an Emmy, was named country music’s performer of the year, and hosted the Tonight Show numerous times. I always wondered why his work resonated with me after it no longer resonated with our culture as a whole. He was most popular at the tail-end of Vietnam — perhaps the country needed someone who seemed honest and goodhearted as part of a healing process — but why did I need him?

Though I wasn’t really looking for one, the parallel between the story’s set-up and my current situation didn’t completely escape me. Or maybe attempting to create a parallel was just another comfort-fix.

So who knows how many times I’d heard his best known songs before the day when I was about six when “Country Roads” grabbed me by the collar. My family was in our white- canvas-topped orange Skylark when it came on the radio. I remember leaning forward to get closer to the speakers and asking, “Who is this?”

My parents and most of the rest of the world had gotten over John by 1981. So, in the car they looked at each other like I’d asked about buying bellbottoms, but eventually one of them answered my question.

Nineteen years after his death, people persist in thinking of John as a peace-nik. And I wondered if he would have disapproved of my having enlisted. He died in Monterey, near the Defense Language Institute, a year and a half before I moved there and began my Arabic course, and it wasn’t like I could have asked his advice even if he’d lived. But I still wondered what he would think. His own father had been a record-breaking Air Force pilot and John grew up moving from one base to the next; he knew more about military life than most people, which gave weight to any opposition to war he voiced.

In any case, John knew more about war and the military than I did. Growing up in Kansas City hadn’t given me any feel for military communities. Leavenworth was only half an hour away, but to see straight-backed men with short hair sporting the occasional uniform, one had to actually go to Leavenworth; they didn’t leak out into the city or suburbs. I never got the sense that anyone in my community cared about wars or the plight of the soldier or anything. I was raised during the Cold War when not much was happening in an obvious way. In fact, the feeling that I had was that I grew up entirely in peacetime. That’s how little I’d paid attention.

I was raised during the Cold War when not much was happening in an obvious way. In fact, the feeling that I had was that I grew up entirely in peacetime. That’s how little I’d paid attention.

And looking back, my reaction to the first Gulf War was pretty stupid.

My best friend Janet and I were at the mall when Congress declared war. I was still fifteen but she had been sixteen since November and her parents allowed us to take their minivan. A TV hung from the ceiling in the corridor and we stopped to watch the announcement.

What I knew of war came from L.M. Montgomery books — you know, the Anne of Green Gables series. By the time Anne was a teenager, Canada was involved in WWI. Her brothers and boyfriend had to go to war and wear a lot of khaki; the women back home fortified themselves with chicory-thinned coffee and cut down on sugar consumption… for The Cause.

So, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had sort of always hoped for a war. At the time of the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I’d been reading the books for at least five years and couldn’t get enough of heroes having to leave their girls behind, and the lonely dog who refused to eat and always sensed when his special boy was unexpectedly approaching by rail or when said boy was blown to pieces in a distant land. I never once thought I would like to be the figure who packed up and flew off to combat, but I certainly wanted to be the girl who got to skimp on meals, collect scrap metal, sew, and write letters to someone. Lots and lots of letters.

At the time of the outbreak of the first Gulf War, I’d been reading the books for at least five years and couldn’t get enough of heroes having to leave their girls behind, and the lonely dog who refused to eat.

Therefore, when we saw the declaration of war on the mall TV, I told Janet we needed to abort our shopping trip stat; I couldn’t believe my good luck and I wanted to begin pacing the floor and beating my breast, my family at my side. Maybe I’d learn to ululate if the situation grew desperate enough.

After Janet dropped me off, I burst through the front door and ran up the steps of our split-level ranch shouting, “Have you heard? We’re at war! Can you believe it?”

My parents and sister were sitting on my parents’ bed watching the smoky, green, loud, live coverage. I didn’t want to look away from — I think it was Gary Shepherd — ducking from tracer fire, trying to hold his earpiece in place. He seemed really scared.

I asked my father if there’d be a draft. He said if it went on long enough maybe there’d have to be. I crossed my fingers.

When the war ended only five weeks later, I was super disappointed. Nothing had even happened. It hadn’t changed our lives at all. I wondered when we’d have another chance at one of these things — to do it up right.

Thanks to my focus on Montgomery, I mainly knew about Canadian and British involvement in the First World War, and nothing else about any other war at all. I had some vague understanding of Vietnam because I’d seen movies and a replica of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall. Janet’s dad was a photographer in Vietnam but never spoke about it. I didn’t exactly ask him questions, but as I understood it he didn’t want to discuss his experience anyway. And, of course, I knew WWII was when the unpleasantness with Hitler had occurred. That about wrapped up my knowledge of war.

I knew WWII was when the unpleasantness with Hitler had occurred. That about wrapped up my knowledge of war.

Talk about a Lost Generation. I’m fairly comfortable saying that I wasn’t the only Gen Xer who was so ignorant.

We weren’t beatniks. We weren’t hippies. But we would have enjoyed being either. Particularly in college. We hadn’t earned one designation or the other, but were gladly standing on the shoulders of disheveled giants with our soft, clean feet.

We sat in our dark dorm rooms, candlelit, drinking Guinness, reading aloud to each other from our Great Books. We contemplated, we mused, we debated and cogitated. We learned to swing dance. But the beats we were imitating… didn’t they do the same out of their sense of world-weariness? Out of their severe feeling of having been beaten down by the wars and the economy and a sense of needing to make change happen? Shit, read two pages of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and you feel the real deal. Even the first few lines of the poem are so charged that any kid in a dim dorm room drinking foreign beer should be ashamed of himself:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn

looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly

connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-

ery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat

up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities

contemplating jazz…”

Then there was the hippie part, which was equally appealing. At St. John’s College we lay in the sun on the grassy knoll. We made daisy chains, braided them into each other’s hair. We didn’t wear shoes. We spoke of peace, we derided the idea that any type of fighting would bring about any type of peace. But what were we talking about? Vietnam? That ended before most of us were born. And the average unthinking person laments what happened in Vietnam. What did we have in our minds when we stitched peace symbols onto our jeans? Free love? Maybe that’s the part we liked.

And I don’t want to think that wars are the only things that can define a generation, but they do offer scaffolding. We were pretty unscaffolded.

When I was a college senior I had one friend, Steve, a divorcé in his 30s, who was an Air Force veteran. He stood out because he was an actual adult. He was balding. He tucked in his shirts and continued to seek regular haircuts all of first semester. By second semester he let his hair grow and adopted a slouchier dress code. We still sensed he was different from us, but he assimilated because he wanted to be part of the community. We liked him. Of course, he hadn’t seen “action” any more than we had, but he had worn a uniform. He had endured military relocations. He had taken orders, which many of us thought was the worst thing anyone could have to endure. Orders. You can’t tell me what to do. No one puts Baby in a corner.

I don’t want to think that wars are the only things that can define a generation, but they do offer scaffolding.

As time in training wore on, more and more I felt that I was in chains, à la Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality — “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they” — and less and less was I able to override the bullshit idea that I’d chosen to be at basic, and that I was being paid, and it was temporary, and that I’d be off to another life soon. Was any of that really true? I wasn’t so sure what was up to me and what wasn’t any more.

I remembered from John’s autobiography that he said of singing “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” (Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas), that “it surprised people” when he’d sing it — “this young white kid, with granny glasses, who didn’t seem like anyone who would worry about that.” He wrote that he found songs within himself about freedom, and though I’d listened to his songs all my life, it was only as I aged that I also was able to find those sentiments within myself. I, too, was young, white, middle class, no apparent disadvantages… But the reason John was a megastar was that he’d exploited those universals: everyone everywhere, at one time or another, thinks “I wish I knew how/it would feel/to be free/I wish I could break all these chains holding me.”

In a way I’d been worrying about freedom, or lack thereof, ever since I finished my bachelor’s. Mortimer Adler, one of the founding fathers of the St. John’s program, had said in a lecture I attended, that when we graduated our job was to look up from the books. We had the contents of the Great Books — the canon of Western culture — in our heads. The “great” books were defined, as I thought John’s songs were, by their authors’ ability to speak to human universals — and once we left school we absolutely had to look up from what we’d been studying and out at the world to attempt to make sense of life. In so many ways my enlisting felt like an unlikely move after completion of such a liberal degree. But in other ways I wondered if it made perfect sense. Living well takes a huge amount of discipline. Wasn’t there something about education in the classical sense, that required physical discipline, which we had none of at St. John’s — not even in sports — and required service to one’s country or community? By enlisting, I was completing the puzzle of my schooling, wasn’t I?

The “great” books were defined, as I thought John’s songs were, by their authors’ ability to speak to human universals.

And shouldn’t I feel thankful that I was in a situation that was really giving me reason to think about Rousseau’s ideas? “Let us agree then,” he wrote, “that might does not make right, and that we are bound to obey none but lawful authorities.” Were my drill commanders lawful authorities? Did I have just cause to oppose the authority they wielded over me? Did I even want to oppose them? Was I not an authority of some kind also? I wondered if I would ever have needed to think about these particular questions if I hadn’t subjected myself to the structure/strictures of basic training, though I now knew said training involved girls who imitated Hollywood blondes in the night, and longed for good humor and communion and leniency from those who were stricter-minded than they.

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