I didn’t much like any of the five, who seemed coarse and offensive to me. It was 1954 and I’d just been reassigned to an Army intelligence and reconnaissance platoon stationed in Friedberg, Germany. There were six of us from the platoon who occupied a small barracks room at the regimental headquarters of the Seventh Division – Benny, Sal, Mort, Henry, Gage, and me. We were all draftees and Privates in an infantry company. The five others, the ones I didn’t like, were “good soldiers” I think you’d call them, but in the barracks or out on a weekend pass, they and I had nothing in common. On paydays, they would take their pittance of a Private’s pay and head up to Frankfurt to get drunk and laid. They knew all the bars where prostitutes hung out. Monday morning reveille invariably found them hung over and broke, with nothing left for the rest of the month but card games and the endless boastful chatter they kept up. I suppose I felt superior to my five barracks mates, but mostly I just didn’t know how to relate to them. Perhaps it was easier to dislike them than to admit to myself that I felt awkwardly disconnected and lonely in their presence. I tried to bullshit with them but the pretense failed to be even the least bit convincing, especially to me. To their credit, they tolerated me at least as well as I did them.
There was one unoccupied bunk in our room and Benny was using it to store his copies of Sports Illustrated that his parents had subscribed for him. But when George Gurney arrived and was assigned to our platoon, Benny had to give up the space. George Gurney was from the tiny town of Boswell in Choctaw County, Oklahoma. He told us this when he plunked his duffle bag down on the empty bunk and introduced himself by his full name: “I’m George Steven Gurney from Boswell, Choctaw County, Oklahoma,” he announced, and insisted on shaking everyone’s hand. When Benny’s turn came he pumped away on George’s hand and said, “Well I’m sure glad to meet someone from Choctaw County. I’m Benny Edwin Roberts from Brooklyn, New York” Everyone but George was grinning, and I knew the razzing had just begun. George, having exhausted his repertoire of prepared conversation, appeared suddenly shy and busied himself putting his things in his locker. With George’s arrival, there were now seven of us in the room, all draftees, George having been drafted right out of high school, though he’d rather have kept his part time job at the Boswell Garage.
From the start, the others were continually concocting ways of generating laughs at George’s expense, who either didn’t mind or didn’t notice he was being made fun of. Between themselves they dubbed him “Okie.” To his face, he remained “George Steven Gurney” until the humor in saying so wore out and George Steven Gurney was reduced to simply “Gurney.” But for all the rough teasing he underwent, George fit in with the others better than I had. For one thing he liked to play cards and wasn’t half bad at it, winning an occasional hand. But he wouldn’t gamble, saying it wasn’t right to waste good money, and noting rather wryly I thought that the others seldom had money to gamble with. “I don’t need any IOU’s,” was how he put it. Discovering he had some experience in auto mechanics, the Regimental commander put George to work at the motor pool. But you’d never know it to look at his hands. He’d scrub with a brush until his nails were clean and the tips of his fingers pink with abrasion. He kept his bunk neatly made and spent his first month of overseas pay to buy some fitted uniforms and a starched cap in replacement of the floppy nondescript Army issue. He was big and muscular with freckles and wavy red hair that he combed whenever he passed a mirror or window glass that reflected his image.
The guys liked to quiz George about girls. Was he getting laid (a term they had to explain to him) back at Boswell High? He always waved aside their inquiries by telling them that he didn’t like to talk about girls that way. I don’t know how they pried it out of him, but they discovered somehow that George was virgin and that he’d barely tasted beer if even that. And so the scheme was hatched between the five of them to get George drunk and laid, as if his not having been drunk and laid were some sort of violation of the natural order of things. I’d already observed this rather unimaginative manhood ritual in basic training at Fort Ord, California where guys who very likely rarely drank at home and perhaps had never had sex with a girl felt suddenly compelled to get drunk and laid now that they were in the Army. To hear them tell it, they’d all had regular sex back home and were horny from lack of accustomed action. George had apparently come through basic training in Oklahoma without ever acquiring his rightful manhood. It was something that simply had to be fixed.
At first, George refused to go to town with the guys, and spent his weekends at the base Service Club library where I thought he was a little sweet on a young German girl, Eada, who worked there. I was a reader myself and so I’d see George there and how he’d hunt out a book in the stacks somewhere, check it out, and then sit with it at one of the library tables with an open book that he never read a page of. What he did instead was watch Eada as she moved among the stacks re-shelving books. And then he’d check out another and yet another until he was peering out from behind a veritable stack of unread literature. In the meantime one of the guys, I think it was Gage, brought George a German pornography magazine he’d picked up in Frankfurt. George, though initially reluctant, couldn’t resist looking at it. After that first look, he looked a lot, and the guys started razzing him about spending so much time in the restroom.
When the second payday after George’s arrival came round, George left for Frankfurt with the other five on a one-day pass. I was asleep when the guys got back from Frankfurt and so the first I knew of their return was about 6 a.m. when George woke me with an agonized cry of “Oh God! What have I done?” What he’d done was awful. He was smeared with his own feces from his neck to his knees. How he’d managed in his sleep to distribute the mess over so much of his own flesh still puzzles me. The others were hung over, but when they heard George’s call, they staggered out of their bunks to see what was wrong. Benny was the first to see what had happened. George was trying to get up but Benny said, “Just stay put, Gurney. Don’t get up. We got to figure this out. Quit crying. We’ll fix it.” And George, with his knees drawn up in the bed, was rocking back and forth in his own mess, saying, “But what have I done, Benny.” “What you’ve done is shit on yourself,” Benny said.
They did fix it as Benny promised they would. They recruited me to make sure the hall to the shower room was unoccupied. There was no one in sight and so when I’d turned on the shower and got the water to the right temperature, I gave them the all clear whistle. Benny and Hank in their underpants and bare feet came down the hall with George all smeared with shit and mumbling “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” It was as sorry a sight as I ever expect to see in this life. But stay with me on this when I say it was a touching sight as well, especially when Benny and Hank got right into the shower with George, scrubbing him down and standing barefoot in the brown drizzle that washed off him. When they had George clean and toweled dry, they scrubbed the shower floor with disinfectant. In the meantime Mort, who was assigned to the post laundry facility, had stripped George’s bedding and hauled it over to the laundry to wash it. Sal and Phil hauled George’s smeared mattress over to an empty barracks and exchanged it for one of the mattresses there. The five of them, well six including me included, managed all this without outside detection.
It was almost a week later when I overheard George ask Benny if he got laid. “Yeh man. Don’t you remember? She said you were the best ever.” George looked pleased with the news. I knew better. Benny had already told me in confidence that once he got started George drank two German beers, which are about the same proof as red wine. After that he was pretty much out of it. But they’d still gone ahead with the plan to get George laid. But by the time the woman got George into one of the upstairs rooms, he more or less passed out on the bed before she could get his pants down. George simply wasn’t in shape for any sort of manhood ceremony. She told the others to come and get him that she’d need the room later on.
How am I to regard this whole episode? It was five against one with five of my barrack’s mates out to get a few laughs out of George. And I suppose they did get some laughs. But at what cost to George? Of course they didn’t expect it to end the way it did. They didn’t plan as Benny put it for George to “shit all over himself.” And when things went bad, they went all out to set them right again. Apparently, George was their buddy after all. Even the sourest circumstance is often tinged with an unsuspected sweetness. I’ve had to learn over the years that most things come in pairs – a twin birth. What I witnessed at 6 a.m. on a hung-over morning at Friedberg Kaserne was one life’s more unlikely occurrence of these matched siblings.
After Benny’s doctored report about George getting laid, George had an unmistakable swagger about him; he seemed happy with his newfound manhood. But he was so chastened by the aftermath of his night of conquest that he didn’t try a repeat and went back to evenings in the library where he actually began to talk to Eada.