The Bravo Company Drill Sergeants called it the "Grease Pit".
The pit was an underground drainage compartment about the size of a freshly dug grave behind the Mess Hall. Beneath its whitewashed plank lid, an arrangement of sewer pipes separated kitchen waste water from floating grease by creating a sludge pool nearly five feet deep. The soap-foamed scum that collected on its surface reeked of rancid animal fat, death; rank and serial number.
The Drill Sergeants called it the "Grease Pit," but I knew it was a trap.
As the chubby son of a pipefitter turned engineer, I was familiar with the principle of a `trap´; an unsophisticated plumbing design logic. But ordinary logic was in short supply during my time in Basic Training. New recruits were routinely punished for their size, intelligence or beliefs. Fatties were sent to work in the Mess Hall. College Grads were put under the command of an unschooled moron and moral conviction "attitude cases" rode hard and harassed until they broke; at least until something broke.
But the grease pit was a very special penance, reserved for the outrageous crime of being willfully different -- the felony of independent or introspective thought while in the military. Political and spiritual matters had no place on the training schedule and all thought had to be subordinate to the Great Tenet of Basic Training - "More sweat in practice, less blood on the battlefield" - and the Army's Macho Qualifier - "Would you share a fox-hole with this man?"
I was sentenced to clean the grease pit because I was fat and a former Biology teacher drew his penalty for having a Ph.D., but Brasso Johnson, a Black Divinity student from Boston, well, he was just caught in the trap.
Brasso had been through two full Basic Training programs and two fourteen-day stockade confinements. I was told that he had been continually harassed and punished during those hundred and twenty seven days. This third, and final, training cycle was his last chance to conform -- actually a mere administrative formality -- before a perfunctory Court Martial and long term imprisonment.
At first, he had been lumped in with other Conscientious Objectors. But the training cadre especially despised Brasso’s reaction to their brutality; prayer and meditation. He could have been Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew, for he spoke the timeless message of peace and unity that these religions hold dear. He told the Company’s First Sergeant, “I am guarding myself as a soldier - a soldier of peace.” and found himself at war with the United States Army.
"This is the smell of death." Brasso told me on the first day we were punished together. He lifted the grease pit cover and the stench staggered me. Years later, bloated Viet Cong bodies stacked outside the Plantation perimeter in Bien Hoa put a human face on that rot-vomit sense-memory.
Brasso shook his head and murmured, "Something is terribly wrong."
He was nearly six feet tall and gaunt to the point of appearing skeletal. His cocoa complexion had a dry, almost dusty pallor brought on by fervent abstinence and punitive sleep deprivation. I remember his long delicate fingers, hinged on knotted joints, gently setting the plank pit cover aside to avoid a tuft of seed clover that would have been crushed by its weight. Brasso’s innate thoughtfulness was so unselfconscious that I shivered in recognition of this natural beneficence.
But, something was terribly wrong.
That day he told me what I needed to know to survive.
"If you don't give them what they want during the first couple of weeks, they’ll assign you so much extra duty and punishment it'll be impossible to get enough training for you to graduate out." His green baseball cap showed a thin white ring between its sweatband and its top button; a line formed where Brasso’s grease met the pit’s grease. "So then they re-cycle you through again and double down on you. If you knuckle under and pass, they take it as a sign of their efficiency. If not..." He looked off at a truck delivering beef carcasses to the Mess Hall: headless, gutless, bloodless, tan, lean and hard.
And here I was an engineer's son: white, fat and soft.
"Higgins," he whispered, "somethin's gone wrong in this country: Martin, then Bobby, `The Great Society´ shot down in `Nam´ while they train their children to kill for rubber tires and paper democracy." Brasso's brown eyes looked soft and tired in a face that framed the lost dream and disappointment of a young man prepared for a devout life, only to be forced into the trap. His mouth twitched, struggled, to form the word that described all the pain and confusion in his mind:
Brasso was twenty-two years old.
He reached down into the pit with the big-can-on-a-stick and skimmed off a strip of grease. Murky, soap-blue water poured out dozens of knife-point stabs in its metal bottom, falling back down, punching gimlet holes in the fetid foam carpet that floated on the water. When the streams ran white with oily spew, he shook the can empty into a plastic pail that stored the waste until Saturday, the day renderers came with their fly-stuck tanker truck and hip boots.
I wanted to be his friend; shoulder some of that measureless weight, but so deep was his sorrow that I never managed to be much more than a witness to his suffering, a bystander actually. He called me Higgins because all we had were name tags and extra duty, no other escape, well past friendship, far beyond brotherhood; trapped together.
If you rub ammoniated spirits on brass it gives up its tarnish and shines brightly, clean and pure. If you drink it, something goes terribly wrong. It’s not the ammonia, a body can handle a bit of that with gut-ache and retching. The spirits, however, are strong and have no shared venture with the body. Grain alcohol unhinges the mind, petroleum distillates coat vital exchange tissues and both attack the liver and kidneys, the traps that strain our blood. When that body system fails, you drown in your own waste; septic shock.
Brasso is the brand name of the brass cleaner and it is a staple of military life. It was also a cruel nickname, given to Johnson by his Platoon sergeant.
"I could only get two swallows down before it all came back up," Brasso told me. "I tried again, but I never was a drinker -- the smell makes me sick to my stomach."
I stepped down into the pit and dragged the stick-can across the pale scud of deathspume. The footholds were worn, greasy wood chocks nailed into the walls just above the waterline. Once in awhile someone would slip and fall in - hopefully feet first - and sink waist deep in the water-sludge, doomed to smell for days. He’d have to pitch his fatigues into the dumpster, for no amount of washing would remove the stench and stain.
I’d heard a rumor that one recruit had fallen in head-first and couldn’t turn upright in the cramped pool. Recurrent nightmares about suffocating plagued me.
"My problem was," Brasso continued, "swallowing don't get it. You need to get a couple ounces into your lungs."
My leg slipped off the right foothold chock and I grabbed the wall of the pit as if the earth had opened up under me. Brasso watched, having slipped and fallen many times. My fear must have seemed comically ridiculous, unwarranted. I struggled to find the chock with the toe of my boot, climbed out and laid back on the grass to catch my breath.
"Now I'll have to steal me a can," he continued. "Lord, they even make me shave in front of the squad leader so's I don't slit my throat. Give me the same razor every morning, I use it, dry it and place it back in his hand." His face was a mass of razor bumps, ingrown hairs and tiny scabs, his brass belt buckle an antique green moiré tarnish.
Brasso's uniforms and boots and hats were all grease pit smirched, marking him with the sign of the BoLo - Be On the Look Out - one who is "b'low average". During his second cycle, the other recruits, outraged at his lack of esprit de corps, decided that all “Brasso” Johnson’s laundry would go into the Battalion incinerator. In their hearts, though, each wished that the smoldering fatigues still contained the little Black trouble-maker and his Mahatma Gandhi fag talk. "BoLo jerk! Get with the program."
I watched him step down into the pit -- too far down. "Brasso!"
When I looked into the pit, he was already standing chest deep in the muck, looking up at me with the smile of a child whose birthday falls on the anniversary of his mother's death. "See, Higgins? Ain’t nothing to it. Make bein' in the same as bein' out. Satyagraha -- hold to the truth. The British poured urine on Gandhi and still he sat. Satyagraha."
"Fuck, man." I shuddered, convulsed by one of those rare moments when the harsh glare of reality reveals truth in such a way that it will never fit back into its neat little box again, never stay under the white plank lid behind the Mess Hall. I knew he was walking dead right then, but he would not agree to their terms of surrender. I held out my hand to help him back up and he just gripped it and rolled out a Black Solidarity handshake that was impossible for me to anticipate or match. So his hand moved around mine, each gesture, fist, clench and tap was a pledge, a promise I could not return -- Power, Brotherhood, Unity, Blood. I stared into his face and, for the first time, saw the man. He was now my brother and I didn’t even know his first name.
Finally, he took my hand, climbed out of the pit and walked away.
To this day I count him as the first casualty of `Nam I knew personally.
My throat tightened and my hunger pangs turned to a dread fear that someday I would walk on his path, stand in that water, try to breathe what I could not swallow.
Within a week I was up and at `em with the other fools, still the fatty, still being "sucker punched" in the gut by Drill Sergeant Brimmer every time he saw me, just to remind me of my personal enemy -- my stomach. Only now, as I began to lose weight and perform better, I was on my way to becoming a potential success story for the Sergeants and their cadre, so they laid off half a notch. I lost forty pounds in forty days and led my platoon in all test scores. I got a "Most Improved Trooper" award and a Private First Class stripe months before any other recruit would.
Big fuckin' deal.
We even went out to Bau Bang Village, a mock-up of a Vietnamese peasant hamlet, to fire blanks into straw thatched huts and march pajama-clad actors around like Assault Rifle Boy Scouts playing out a campfire melodrama at the Dead Serious Jamboree.
Brasso stopped recognizing me, preferring to keep his eyes on the ground when I called out his name. I spent my precious free afternoons before graduation walking silently beside him as he "policed up" cigarette butts on the vast Fort Jackson parade field.
I’d bribed an old alky Lifer cook with a carton of Marlboros to teach me the Black Solidarity handshake; the moves, the meanings. “Givin’ dap” he called it, rubbing his greasy palms on the apron of his Cook’s whites and taking my hands in his. He told me that clenching our fingertips symbolized solidarity, pounding my fist on my chest over my heart (mea culpa) signified my willingness to die for unity and tapping our backhands together reminded us that pain is part of the path. I practiced “givin’ dap” with a Puerto Rican bunkmate headed for Chopper School, both knowing that we were better off being part of than apart from.
But when I laid it on Brasso, his hand was small, cold and shriveled, motionless as I tried to make the same promise, give him the same honor he had given me weeks before. We sat on the crabgrass and he folded his feet under himself, rested his wrists on his knees. His hands were held so that the tip of his thumb met the tip of his forefinger. I knew it as the hand signal for things being “okay”, the gesture Catholic priests make during the Consecration of the Host and the sign of a Bodhisattva who is free from fear.
What quality of the human eye is lost when the end has been seen? What changes occur in the minute musculature of lid and brow that denies any glint of vitality long before the spirit reaches its goal? Why did this man have to die?
I walked back to the Company street, feeling smaller with each step, my heart in my throat, on the road to Viet Nam and more of this senseless, greasy, petroleum, rubber tire killing. Each time I turned to look at Brasso I hoped he would get up and walk on... and on and on, into gray-haired hobbling, skipping grandchildren birthday party, with a little wife, a little life, with peace in their hearts and minds. I hoped he would walk past our military compound -- by definition a mixture of many into one -- some distilled, some strained and rendered into tallow -- callow candles with flames that shined so brightly.
But he never moved, goddamn it, so still he sat. And I walked away with his face forever in my mind.
Now, years later, I see him surrounded by flowers, his greasy green fatigues gone snow white, his sadness aged into infinite compassion, sitting on a soft pillow that holds him above the ground that would soon open to swallow him whole.
Well, he missed Roll Call the next day and the Military Police locked him up for a few hours. Our Commanding Officer reduced him in rank, net result - zero, reduced his pay, net result - zero, confined him to quarters, net result - you cannot take away from a man something that he does not have. But more importantly, my lesson in all this was: you cannot take from a man that which he refuses to yield.
The night before our graduation we busied ourselves in the barracks, preparing our equipment and uniforms until the Drill Instructors showed up drunk and boisterous. Sergeant Brimmer, shirtless and sweating, called me into his room and pulled his pants down below his waist. "Go ahead, Higgs, it's your turn." I threw my fist at his navel, wanting to punch through it, spill his guts onto the buffed linoleum, then drag his lifeless body out onto the Company street to show everyone of these motherfuckers what happens when you mess with Higgins. But it was like hitting the side of a bull: solid, sinewy, resilient.
"You done good, Higgs, come the long way `round," he said through a swig of Seagrams, "but you still punch like a fucking fairy." He handed me the bottle and I took a big pull that rolled down into my throat and came back up just as fast. I held my mouth and nose closed to keep from spraying it out, but only some of it would go back down, the rest shot up into my nose. Gagging and snorting, sucking some of the alcohol into my lungs, I couldn't breathe that spirit fire, so Brimmer called the other Drill Sergeants into the room and closed the door.
They laughed and derided me, but it wasn't the usual "too fat for a foxhole" shit, it was "Damn boy, didn't your Pappy ever teach you how to drink?" An acne-scarred Corporal handed me his beer and ordered me to chug it down. As I did, Brimmer poked his finger into my belly. "I feel a Boilermaker," he sneered, "hope it don't blow!" They laughed; I coughed and laughed. There was a two second, smile, nod, three-way take, then Brimmer growled, "Now, get the fuck out of my room, Whistledick!"
I rinsed the taste out of my mouth at a hair-fouled sink in the latrine, but kept coughing up blood-flecked phlegm for hours.
The whole Company stayed up most of the night, preparing for a final morning inspection before our graduation ceremony, arranging our gear in the footlockers, spit-shining boots, polishing our brass belt-buckles.
By first call at 4:30 a.m. almost everyone was still awake, anxious and waiting. But instead of rousing us like they had done sixty times before, the Drill Instructors ordered us to stay in our beds, eyes on the bunk above or on the ceiling, no questions, no exceptions, piss your goddamned shorts if you have to!
I kept a shiny metal toilet-kit mirror under my pillow, a covert observation trick I learned after being blanketed and beaten in the dead of night during my first week. Slid up along the side of my head and tilted, it let me see out the window and out onto the street.
The Sergeants were standing in a circle, one of them holding a blanket. There was some toe poking and muttering, but I couldn't see what was on the ground. When the blanket was unfurled and guided down I knew Brasso was dead.
My tears started and my choked-backed sobs shook the bunk bed. My lower bunky, Chicester, yelled, "Hey Higgs, no jerkin' off!" The barracks rocked with puerile laughter, so I was free to cry out loud. When the Drill Sergeants heard the howl they flew into a rage, a rampage, to find out who would laugh at the death of a fellow soldier. "Higgins!" somebody yelled. Brimmer ran to my bunk and put his face up to mine, ready to tear me a new asshole, but when he saw my tears his rage shifted from retribution to indignation, "You hold your mud, you soft fuck."
I don't remember anything I did after that until the graduation ceremony, standing at attention on the parade field six hours later. The word was that Brasso stole a can of brass polish, poured it down his throat, then held his mouth and nose closed with his hands. Someone punched him until he threw up, then ran for the Officer of the Day. Before he returned, Brasso had climbed to the top of our two-story barracks building, folded his hands in prayer and dove head-first onto the asphalt. "Never even put his hands out in front of him." they whispered, "Flat-head fuck," someone uttered, "Brasso the Assho'!"
The portly General went on and on as we stood on the crabgrass, not a cigarette butt in sight, policed right, looking Regular Army.
"...with thanks to these fine leaders, your leaders, who have the sworn duty of putting your training first, your needs before theirs, your lives before their own. Their qualifications are in the very letters of the word leader: Loyalty beyond reproach, Extra courage, Abhorrence of deceit, Devotion to duty, Eagerness to learn, Responsibility to God and Country. Too often we focus on courage alone, bravery, valor, all of which is nothing without training..."
I was graduated, trained, and shipped away tan, lean and hard into a future I chose by concession, compromise and self-deception. Shame and guilt were my tarnish; anger was my polish.
I've never met anyone that walked the earth as Brasso had, no one that held the same passionate truth, no one that turned and faced the pursuer, bared their chest with the same courage... bravery... valor.
So I, Sgt. Martin Higgins, U.S. Army (ret.), acting in the capacity of "Most Improved Trooper" of Bravo Company, Fifth Battalion, Second Brigade and on behalf of the United Sates Army Training Center (Infantry) Fort Jackson, South Carolina, do hereby designate Private Brasso Johnson, the Bravest Man in Bravo Company. And in honor of his extreme sacrifice, do hereby order that all brass remain unpolished in perpetuity.
Because there is something terribly wrong.
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