I walked back to my bunk from the showers, clean and relaxed, though very sore from the punishing drill from earlier that night. There was a handful of soldiers grouped up by my bunk, talking to one another while spying on Dennis and McLaughlin, but when they noticed my approach, the group dispersed, except for Johanssen, my bunk mate on the left side, and First Squad leader of our platoon. He tried to look as though he was just getting ready to bed down, but shuffling through a drawer of neatly folded socks and underwear hardly looked inconspicuous. As I opened my locker to hang my towel to dry, Johanssen finally spoke up.
“I think it’s time for a party.”
“What kind of party?”
“Ya’know, a pillow party for the girls.”
I chuckled so quickly to the answer that even to this day I couldn’t have been certain if I was just responding in order to fit in, or I had found honest humor in the irony that the perfect specimen of White Americana with his hard brow, deep set and shadowy eyes, and a perfect physique of killer muscles and a killer’s mindset, was talking to the one fag who was actually hiding among the wolves, trying to slyly imply that I should be instrumental in carrying out some good ‘ole fashioned American vigilante justice.
“What’s so funny?”
“Pillow party for the girls?” I turned to face him as I pulled a shirt from the locker to wear for the night. I gave him my signature half grin of incredulity. He didn’t get the subtly of my response, but he knew he missed something, and glared back at me. For a moment, I thought he’d actually take a swing at me.
“Are you in,” he asked forcefully through a toothy, terrifying smile.
“Yeah, I’m cool.”
“Cool.” He relaxed his clenched jaw, the smile faded, and as he looked back over to Dennis and McLaughlin, he said, “I’ve got a special mission for you.”
I couldn’t ever recall many dreams throughout my life, and those that I had never wanted to remember, the nightmares of experiencing horrible disapproval from my mother, abandonment from my sisters, or the untimely, imagined deaths of my friends stuck in my mind as vivid as though they had been as real as the waking world. The night of the pillow party was no different. My eyes closed to the relaxing darkness behind my eyelids, and who I was became no thing at all.
“Poling, get up!”
It was like a shotgun had gone off in my ear. I nearly bounced out of my bunk, but hushed by Johanssen, and steadied by his hand on my shoulder. Then it happened. A rush of warm blood south to find its home. ‘Fuck. This isn’t the time for this shit,’ I told myself, hoping that the coming purpose would erase any desire for sex in the moment. What was my special mission?
I snuck over to Dennis’s bunk first. He and McLaughlin were the only ones asleep. There was a line of nearly six soldiers holding onto white pillow cases pulled taught with the weight of something heavy, like a boot, a bar of soap, or a book. I wanted to stop, turn around and go back to bed, but that option would have led to a similar fate, or even something worse. Once I was up near Dennis’s bunk, I carefully lowered myself onto my back and slid under the bed. All of those bunks had a simple mattress on top of exposed metal springs that connected to the aluminum frames. At the four corners of the bunk, I tied down the sheets into the coiled springs. After Dennis’s, I did the same to McLaughlin’s.
They weren’t getting out.
One by one the soldiers came to punish. With each strike came a cry of pain, and a plea for help. Though most of them dished out each swing in silence, many called them faggot, sissy, and homo, as they struck. I was about to get my pillow case, when Johanssen stopped me, handed over a second pillow case he’d been carrying that I hadn’t noticed, and whispered,
“You’ll go last.”
I sounded like a snake that hissed out a command, not a human.
I waited, and when everyone else was finished, I stepped up, trying not to look into reddened eyes of horror, tear stained cheeks of pain, or the desperate fight against my knotted work that had caged their mind and body. I raised to strike, and as I followed through, that snake hissed another command.
“Five, you have to hit them five times, each.”
For the briefest moment, I hesitated, frozen in my own terror. The moment lasted but the blink of an eye, but in that space, time slowed to where I knew my options. I either carried out the command to the letter, or I stopped right there. I made a choice, a choice that had consequences I never could have dreamed to come to fruition over the course of my Army career, or even that of my life, twenty to thirty years down the road.
I struck Dennis and McLaughlin five times each.
The lights to the barrack floors popped on.
“What in the holy living fuck of Satan is going on.” Drill Sergeant Hart charged in as everyone scattered to their bunks. “Lights out means Lights out you useless pieces of shit. Now, get to bed!” That’s when he stepped faster, and I found myself in bed and under the sheets as quickly as I could have managed. My heart pounded as I squeezed my eyes tight and ground my teeth. Where was the darkness when I needed it most?
“Stupid mother-fuckin’ crackheads.” At least that’s what I thought I heard, just before the squawk of the Drill Sergeant’s radio broke through. I couldn’t make out what the operator on the other side had said, but Hart cut him off, and demanded an emergency ambulance asap. The last sounds, aside from my pulse banging through my ears, that I heard that night were the sirens of aid failing to drown out the cries of pure agony.
Had I felt shame for what I had done? No. I knew if I hadn’t, that would have been me. I would have done anything in that moment to survive, but it was a choice, a choice that mattered. I put my survival within the group over the potential lack of survival of two others, who wronged the group. They weren’t being punished for being gay, whether they were gay or not. They had been punished for getting their brothers in trouble. I had been tested to see just how far I’d go to have my standing within the group unchallenged whether I was gay or not, but looking back now, I think everyone knew I was gay. My first nickname in the Army was Baby-killer Poling, and not because I had actually killed any babies, but because everyone had known that when had gotten up in the middle of the night, I was flushing sperm down the toilet, not a shit, and I had acquired name after the pillow party.
No one saw Dennis and McLaughlin again. Drill Sergeant Hart said that they had been discharged from the hospital and from the Army, and never said another word about it. We weren’t punished for having thrown the party, but no one else had talked about it either. It has never left my mind. I know I don’t deserve their forgiveness for my part, and I’ve never sought it out, but I continue to hope that they aren’t haunted by that moment as I am, and will always be. I know what I’m capable of doing in order to survive, and that wasn’t the only way I had been tested.
Thanks for listening.