By Walker Thomas   My escape took me as far as Tucson, where I ditched the car and volunteered for the draft. I bussed to El Paso for basic training at Fort Bliss. A grandfatherly major gave us forms and a pep talk.

“Boys, you’re men now. Time to realize that Mom and Dad won’t always be there to decide what you should do. From this moment on, you’ll make all the important decisions in your lives. It starts when you fill these out.”

Maybe the rest were boys. I knew the major’s mind and I was with him all the way.

I filled out tax forms, insurance forms —all the forms, except a prepared letter like I’d seen on the back of cereal boxes at the boys’ camp where I’d been a counselor. It announced my pleasure at having been called to duty, along with my promise to write home every week and an invitation for parents to attend my graduation from basic training. We were to add Moms’ and Dads’ addresses for a clerk to put on an envelope, and our Fort Bliss barracks addresses for parents to write back. I pushed that form aside. I’d driven across the country to be done with Mom and Dad, and the Army would be the last step in sloughing them off like old skin.

And then, an officer called my name out of all the others in a roomful of newly acknowledged men. I snapped to attention and gave my best salute.

“Yes, Sir!” I said.

“At ease!”

He resumed his grandfatherly tone. “Son, we can see you’re excited to be in the Army and we appreciate that. Oversights are usually frowned upon, but we’ll make an exception in this case. You’ve forgotten to fill out one of the forms.”

“Sir, was that the DD-XXX?”

“Why, yes it was.”

“That wasn’t an oversight, Sir. I chose not to fill that one out. Thank you, Sir.”

I sat down, pleased with the rapport so soon established with a ranking man.

“Who is this man’s commanding officer?” the major bellowed.

Capt. Thomas called out from the back of the room. “I am, Sir.”

“Capt. Thomas, take this man out of here. Do whatever you think appropriate. If you decide on courts martial, I’ll sign off on it.”

I walked sheepishly to the back of the room past other nervous eyes and out to the hall.

Capt. Thomas was a low-keyed ROTC officer serving his required time after college. He offered a sympathetic look, but I could only glare back. Recovered from the initial shock, I seethed. I’d been making adult decisions for a long time. The Army had asked me for one more, their major fucked it up.

“I can see you’re pretty wrought,” Capt. Thomas said.

He gave his winningest smile.

“Why don’t you go back to the barracks, get a good night’s sleep and drop by my office after breakfast?”

Before my hand was halfway up to salute the next morning, Captain Thomas reached across his desk to shake it.

“So, what’s bothering you?” he asked as if of a college roommate.

“I shouldn’t have to tell you this,” I said, though with a lessening of my initial surliness.

I told him about life under the thumb of an abusive father and of our final, violent confrontation.

“I can stop it here,” Capt. Thomas said, “but you’ll need to tell every commanding officer you get or your location will be released.”

I got a letter from my mother a few days later. I went to Capt. Thomas in a rage.

“That son of a bitch! I told the major you had good reasons and that I stood behind them.”

We both stared at the floor around our feet, and then he raised his eyes.

“That’s okay. I’m the only one who can release your next duty station. But you’ll need to go straight to that commanding officer or he’ll give it out. That’s the way it’s going to be as long as you’re in the Army.”

I was sent to take an electric generator course at the Army engineer school in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. I didn’t repeat my tale to my new CO. It was nobody’s business but mine.

I’d been there a couple of weeks when the kid in the bunk above pretended to masturbate with wild pelvic gyrations. The whole structure shook while I tried to read. I put my foot into where his buttocks bulged down through the military-grade mattress. I lifted him, bed and all, toward the ceiling. I lifted the steel frame out of its supports when I did. The bed teetered a moment as the jerk sat up. When he flopped back hard onto the bed, it broke loose from its supports and crashed down on my head.

A friendly junior officer visited me in the hospital the next day and asked me to drop in on the CO when I got out.

“Some SNAFU with your paperwork. Anyway, the captain wants to meet you.”

A Pennsylvania senator had demanded my location on behalf of my bereaved parents. My CO at Belvoir read between the lines. He wanted to talk before he acted on the government’s request. He made a quick study of my situation and promised to keep my current location and next posting a secret.

Someone up the line released the information without his permission. In a letter, my mother bubbled with news that a psychiatrist had assured her that my father had no treatable psychoses. I didn’t write back. I’d already been told he was a sociopath.

Half my class flunked out early and went to Nam: easy targets sent to sit beside loud, gasoline-powered generators at jungle outposts. Because I made the little effort required for good grades, I stayed on to learn how to generate the precise power needed for Nike guidance systems. After my rude introduction to the reality of a GI’s impotence, I’d become the kind of knucklehead who’d study late into the night, so I could score a perfect zero on a test. I was careful to miss every question, but instructors’ reputations were on the line, and I never scored lower than I had on the first test I’d taken before a bed on the head convinced me that military life was a sham. I’d be sent to a peaceful place when the second level of the course was done.

We used Nikes in Germany and Korea. I’d be sent to Korea. I would go straight to my CO when I arrived, but the brass in Washington, tired of headaches from commanding officers who didn’t fall into line, would release my forwarding address on their own. Someone even posted my APO in a Philadelphia newspaper. Sympathetic letters would come from high school girls who thought the address was for a jungle outpost in Nam. And I’d get happy domestic scenes from my mother. I would have to wait until I was out of the Army to shake off family ties.

In the few weeks while I waited at Belvoir for the Korean assignment, I met self-proclaimed genius and American Nazi, Private Freudlich. With his name, maybe the Nazi part was a dark joke, but it went past me back then.

I asked how he always got out of the Tuesday work details.

“Tuesdays I chat with a psychiatrist,” Freudlich said. “You should try it.”


“I told the CO I felt depressed, a little weird, like I didn’t fit in. He sent me to Psychology. Easy as that. Now I meet with the psychiatrist every Tuesday. Next to me, he’s the smartest guy here, always stops me when I begin to intellectualize.”

I’d awakened to a spray on my face a few nights earlier. I tried to bat it away a couple of times before I opened my eyes and saw a drunken soldier in boxers, one hand holding onto my wall locker, the other holding his part that was pissing on me. I jumped up.

“Martin!” I yelled.

He just kept pissing. I grabbed soap and towel and ran to the showers.

I returned from the showers to a barracks still filled with snores. Martin snored in his top bunk. A few beds down, my old, impermeable Army mattress held the puddle of his piss.

I stood at his bedside, eyes at the level of his snoring face.

“Martin, Martin.”

He slept soundly.

I brought a cup of water back from the latrines and tossed it on his face. It splashed onto Johnson in the next bunk, priming him to fight.

“The hell!”

“I’ve got to wake him up. He pissed all over my bed and now I can’t find my glasses.”

“So why the fuck you pouring water on me?”

“It splashed.”

“What’s going on?”

Martin was waking up.

“You pissed on me. Where’re my glasses?”

Martin, now the picture of forced sobriety, climbed down from his bunk and walked over to mine.

“What’re you talking about, man? Somebody played a trick on you: poured water on your bed.”

“No. You pissed.”

“It’s just water, man.”

Martin scooped some from the still unabsorbed puddle and brought it up to his face.

“It’s water. Smell it.”

“Don’t! It’s piss.”

“You threw water on me!” Johnson couldn’t let go of his own hurt.

“Just go back to bed,” Martin said, our calm center.

“He’s all fucked up,” he said of me to Johnson.

They returned to their beds, the recipient of errant drops still grumbling.

With urine puddled in a waxy, body-oil-slick depression in my vintage Army mattress, I sat up all night in the latrines.

Where was my rage when Martin pissed on me? My father would have come up off that bed and torn his head off his shoulders. I would have, too, but a violent streak had taken a brief respite. It would return soon. In barroom brawls, I’d tap into the rage I felt in the moment my father attacked and I hit him in a panic of self-defense. I’d learn to use that moment when fear and rage combined to make me all-powerful. He was a still-strong and youthful thirty-nine when he attacked, and had a fifty-pound advantage over me, but I left him unconscious in my mother’s arms. My year-younger sister, raped by him since she was a little girl, thought he was dead on her way past and out into the snow. She’d seen our abuser dead. When she ran, she ran from me. Violence had worked when I needed it, and would again, but it made me the monster.

The day after my late-night soaking, Martin said, “I remember it now. I did get up to piss. Shit, man, don’t tell anybody. I’ll look like a damn fool.”

I took that story to my already sympathetic CO and added that a Pennsylvania psychiatrist had advised me to follow up on my abuse. The CO sent me to Psychology.

The admitting psychologist was an easygoing black man drafted after he’d completed a master’s degree. He refused an officer’s commission and had just learned he was soon to be reassigned as a rifle-bearing grunt in Nam. Wednesdays became my days to complain about the inequities of Army life to a man who’d faced bigotry all his life and then the threat of death in war.

On my third visit, I blurted out, “Why don’t you send me to the psychiatrist. Freudlich gets to see the psychiatrist.”

“But Freudlich’s crazy,” the psychologist said, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Freudlich crazy. I’d never thought of that.

Something was wrong with me, though. Guys were developing post-traumatic stress disorders in Viet Nam while I came to the Army with a case already established. Diagnosed years later, mine reflected none of the experience of war and its terrors that rose beyond any I could imagine, but the symptoms of sudden-surfacing residual anger and uncertainty were the same.

I hate to imagine where I’d have ended up if the Army hadn’t come along to refocus my life. I look back now at two valuable years’ experience. At the time, though, all I saw was a lack of the personal freedom I’d struggled to obtain.         About the Author:Walker ThomasWalker Thomas wandered into a desert-mountain wilderness and stayed eight years. A Piss on the Cheek is drawn from a just-completed book manuscript that describes the experiences of those years and the life that compelled a man to live alone in a cave.