Old Timer

(Part 3—this story continues Our shaving grace)

Having the whole platoon shaved was not Fink’s best move. It gave us an identity, to be sure, but not the one he had intended. We were punished because of Andy, because of his mocking defiance of authority, but in his absence he quickly became a martyr in whose name our hardships were endured. When he returned at dusk, with fresh bruises and a long cut above his eyebrow, he entered the barrack to eager sympathy. Even the fat guy was friendlier.

“You were right,” he told Andy.

“About what?” Andy asked as he eased himself onto his bunk.

He winced with pain when the fat guy sat down next to him, moving the mattress.

“Fuck this place,” the fat guy agreed. “And fuck Fink.”

Andy smiled and looked around at our bald heads.

“What happened to you?” he asked Doc who had a large band-aid stuck across his.

“It’s stupid,” Doc said. “I should ask you that question.”

“Don’t.”


Over the next few weeks we talked to Old Timer every day. Each time Fink made us go back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes Levin couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we didn’t shout out in unison when we returned. Now and then someone turned around short. When none of this happened, Fink invented another reason, and we went again.

And again.

But in the end, Fink was no match for Andy’s jelly-like flexibility and fake incompetence.

“To avoid being pushed around you must offer no resistance,” he told us.

He sat on his bunk, folding his socks. They were supposed to be rolled into a ball that made a little smile and placed in a row in our lockers for Fink to inspect.

“It’s a sock,” Andy said, holding it up. “I’m planning to wear it on my foot. I don’t care what it looks like until then.”

For Doc, compliance was the way of least resistance.

“Why don’t you just roll them up?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How’s that no resistance?”

“What I meant,” Andy explained, “is that you must offer no resistance when they punish you. This isn’t the sort of prison where they can beat and torture you. They have to get you to do it yourself. Don’t, and you’ll be fine. They can’t squeeze a marshmallow through a keyhole.”

When Andy was sent to talk to Old Timer he jogged at a pace he could sustain indefinitely, despite Fink screaming for him to hurry up. When Fink made him do pushups instead, he gave out after a few even though he could easily have done a hundred. Whatever punishment Fink invented, Andy performed in a slipshod way. When Fink tried to punish us for Andy’s transgressions, we did the same. Fink had little choice but to stop after a while. We weren’t volunteers and so we couldn’t be fired. He couldn’t have Andy charged for every breach of discipline or he’d risk unpleasant questions about his own competence.


Once, when we were drilling as practice for an official parade, Andy continued marching in a straight line after the platoon had wheeled to the left. He marched off into the distance, deaf to Fink’s shouting. Fink had to run after him. He sent Andy to talk to Old Timer and then he made him do pushups when he didn’t seem to have tired from running. Fink ended up standing over Andy while he slowly grunted and heaved in the dust, doing only a few pushups before Fink had to give up in disgust.

On another occasion Andy wore his boots on the wrong feet. It gave his walk a weird lilt and made him look like a duck nearing a dam. Fink took all morning to figure this out and Andy looked pained and puzzled when his boots were finally identified as the source of the problem.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” Fink shouted, kicking at his boots. “Have you got rocks in your head!?”

“Corporal?”

“Rocks! Are you deaf too!?”

“I heard you perfectly, Corporal,” Andy said in a level tone, “but what were you saying?”

Fink was blinded with rage. He leapt at Andy and knocked him to the ground. Then he restrained himself.

“Get up!” he snapped hastily.

Andy ignored him. He sat in the dust and swapped his boots, taking his time. He got up when he was finished, dusted himself down and stood to attention. It was clear to us then, as it must have been to Fink, that Andy was the inmate the prison would never break.


On our last day of basic training a soldier was run over in the street beyond the fence of the parade ground. There was a dull thud and the shudder of wheels skidding along the tar. Fink made us wait while he and other instructors ran out through the gate to help or have a look. But the man was dead, his body bent and wrong.

We watched while the men in the street gave up and talked and smoked and told one another competing versions of what they’d seen. Fink leant against the fence, his one boot pulled up under him. He made a long arc with his hand and slapped it into the other, demonstrating how the man had been thrown on impact.

Andy watched all this without a word. As he watched, he played with his beret. He flattened it and pulled it down the wrong way, slanted to the left. He looked like a French peasant.

Beyond the fence, the instructors exhausted the possibilities of speculation. Traffic began to back up in the street and Fink directed it around the scene of the accident. When the medics arrived, he returned to the parade ground.

“Come, come,” he barked. “Show’s over!”

We slowly assembled in drill formation. In the street, a man in civilian clothes photographed the body.

“Ri—ight face!” Fink cried.

Andy faced left.

“Your other right,” Fink hissed through gritted teeth.

Andy turned his head, facing as we did, but something bothered Fink. He came around until he could see down the ranks of the platoon. Then he spotted Andy’s beret.

“No fucking wonder!” he bellowed.

He tore the beret from Andy’s head.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you!?” he howled.

He threw the beret to the ground and stomped on it. Then he held his hand in the direction of Old Timer.

“Go talk,” he said.

In the street the medics had put the body on a stretcher. Andy stepped forward and stood next to Fink. Together they looked at Old Timer.

“Now?” Andy asked. “After all this?”

Fink shut his eyes and controlled himself.

“He’s waiting,” he said.

Andy shrugged and started walking in the direction of Old Timer. He didn’t lift his boots and scraped along in a drifting trail of dust. Fink watched him, transfixed, as did we. When Andy reached the tree, he remained there, nodding and pointing in our direction, as though he was actually talking to Old Timer.

Fink stood with his hands on his hips, flexing his jaw muscles. Andy talked for a while and then started on his way back. In the street the medics had driven off with the body of the dead man.

“So—!?” Fink heaved and quaked when Andy finally arrived. “You talked to Old Timer?”

“I did, Corporal.”

Fink made what looked like a superhuman effort to remain calm.

“And what you tell him?”

Andy considered his answer carefully.

“Everything, Corporal.”

Fink feigned surprise.

“You did?” he said. “And what’s he say?”

Andy hesitated like someone bearing bad news.

“Corporal,” he said, “he’d like to talk to Corporal now.”



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Our shaving grace

(Part 2—this story continues The waiting game)

Docs gathered his things and came to sit with us. Andy lay back against his bag again and gestured in the direction of the corporals behind us.

“Are you into hominid fossils, or what?”

“No,” Doc said unhappily. “It’s crustaceans, actually.”

“Oh Christ,” Andy hissed, sitting up.

“What’s wrong with crustaceans?”

“No, look—”

From the far end of the parade ground a gangly man strode toward us, using what looked like invisible ski poles. Even at a distance he looked angry. His beret was rolled up and tucked under his epaulette and flapped about like a pet parrot.

This,” Andy said when the man got closer, “is it.”

This, it turned out, was Corporal Fink. He arrived with crunching boots in a puff of dust. He circled us and surveyed us with obvious disgust. Every now and then he lunged at someone for no apparent reason. He had a long face and long teeth, like a cartoon donkey, and the sharp ridge formed by his hair gave him the appearance of having slept in a corner. While the other corporals were the inevitable outcomes of bad breeding, Fink looked like the result of a more intimate arrangement.

“Get up!!” he cried.

We staggered to our feet.

“See that tree!?”

He pointed at a small, gnarled tree at the far end of the parade ground, in the same direction he’d just come from.

We could see it.

“Go talk to Old Timer!”

We looked at Fink, and at the tree.

“Go!!!”


And so it began. We ran to Old Timer in confusion, stumbling and bumping into one another. Some of us cheated and didn’t go all the way, turning short with those already on their way back. Fink saw us and we had to go again. The second time, no one cheated, but there were stragglers.

We went again.

And again.

We’d all heard stories told by older men who’d been to the Army and returned. We knew the military expedient of punishing the group instead of the individual. But we also knew that we were still alone. There would be border patrols and riot control, things done at the behest of a government we didn’t like. Everyone had heard of someone who’d died. Most of us were afraid, but nobody said so.


For Andy, in contrast, conscription seemed to be a break from more demanding things. He walked from the parade ground on that first day without lifting his feet, shuffling and grunting, but Fink didn’t notice. We were issued fatigues and taken to the canteen where we ate a meal of glutenous blobs in quiet bewilderment.

“Eat your pumpkin!” Sergeant Sinden screeched.

He had been stalking the aisles behind us and now he jabbed at a lump of pumpkin Andy had isolated on his divided steel tray.

“I don’t eat pumpkin, Sergeant,” Andy said in a tone that the third Earl of Shaftesbury might have used to address his butler. “On principle.”

Sinden inflated until he looked like a five foot semicolon. He was speechless with rage.

“It’s a religious matter,” Andy added.

Sinden emitted a noise that sounded like a muffled engine, and at that Andy stirred his pumpkin.

“I’m also allergic,” he said.

When Sinden had gone, having hovered over Andy while he licked his pumpkin but never quite ate it, we were shown to our barracks. There would an inspection the next morning, Fink announced, at exactly 04:00. To begin with, we were to iron our bunks using toothpaste to sharpen the edges of the blankets.

“I want to clean my nails on them,” Fink shouted by means of an explanation.

We were to shave, shine the floor, bone our boots and square away the rest of our kit. Having shouted all this, Fink left.

“Why the fuck must I shave?” a guy with a beard demanded to know.

“What’s bone?” another guy asked.

Andy got onto his bunk and dropped off to sleep. We set about cleaning things, but after a while we began to wonder what to do about him.

“Let’s wake him,” Doc suggested. “He’ll be in shit.”

We’ll be in shit,” someone else remarked.

But we left Andy asleep and got on with what we’d been told to do. At 03:30 the lights came on automatically. Andy declined offers to get up and we had to leave him asleep. At exactly 04:00 Fink arrived. We were lined up next to our bunks while Andy snored gently near the back of the barrack. Fink took up a position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

Thinking back on this now, I’m sure that Fink was saved by the simplistic wiring of his brain. It spared him from a full understanding of Andy’s defiance. He smiled as he strode toward the heaving blanket.

“Rise and shine!” he cried and brought down his boot on a part of the blanket that looked like a shoulder.

Andy put out his head from under the blanket and blinked at Fink. Then he extracted his arm and peered at his watch. He seemed a little irritated and it was obvious that it was only his good upbringing that enabled him to tolerate Fink.

“Could you come back,” he suggested, “at ten?”

Fink hauled Andy off his bunk and dragged him out the door. From the windows we watched as they went down the road between the rows of barracks to Sergeant Sinden’s office. Andy wore what he’d slept in—boxer shorts and an old T-shirt. He shuffled while Fink gibbered and shouted and darted around him. The military police fetched Andy from Sinden’s office. They put him in the back of a van and drove off to the Detention Barracks nearby.

“He’s getting charged,” Levin said.

“How’d you know?” someone asked.

“What’s charged?” someone else asked.

“My brother got charged,” Levin said.

“What for?”

“He refused to do PT on the Sabbath.”

A few minutes later Fink returned and kicked over Andy’s unmade bunk. Then we went to the parade ground and talked to Old Timer about Andy.


Andy returned after dark. He had a bruise under his left eye and didn’t answer questions about the Detention Barracks. Some were angry at him for the punishment we’d received.

“Dude,” a fat guy threatened, “we got fucked up because of you.”

“You got fucked up because of Fink,” Andy said calmly. “Nothing here is because of me. Or you.”

He sat on his bunk and laced his boots.

“Yeah,” the fat guy insisted, “but if you got up when we did, none of this would’ve happened!”

Andy stopped what he was doing.

“If I had, something else would’ve happened.”

Andy ironed his fatigues and helped to polish the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and shaved his head.

Our hair was to be cut the next morning, and we all dreaded this. The hairstyle applied to new conscripts was famous, and a basic thing, a short shearing that left you looking like half a tennis ball. The goal was uniformity and a loss of identity.

“What you do that for?” Doc asked when Andy returned. “You look like Humpty Dumpty.”

I’d like to decide what my hair looks like,” Andy explained. “Besides, I could’ve been bald to begin with.”

At 04:00 Fink resumed his position near the door, riding up and down on his toes and heels.

Then he saw Andy.

“Where the fuck’s your hair!?” he demanded when he reached him.

He was taller than Andy and bent over him.

“Corporal!”

“Where’s it!? What!!?”

“Corporal said fuck, Corporal.”

Fink almost lost his balance.

“So fucking what!!?” he sputtered.

“Sergeant Sinden said to report instructors who swore at us, Corporal.”

Fink hauled Andy out the door and down the road to Sinden’s office for a second time. The military police came and fetched him again, presumably for shaving his head and thereby damaging military property.

“Now he’s fucked,” Levin whispered.

Fink returned to the barrack but we didn’t go to talk to Old Timer. As punishment he instructed the barber to shave our heads as well. We queued up with the other platoons but Fink had seen to it that we went in first to ensure that his request was properly executed. We emerged one by one, bald, to the growing alarm of recruits from other platoons waiting outside.


The barber was a leathery, wry man. He smoked incessantly and his beard was stained a large yellow dot around his mouth. His was an easy, unchanging job, and Fink’s request had leant a touch of excitement to his day. He also had an assistant—a serviceman with little ambition to do anything else—and they shaved us in pairs. Doc and I went in together.

“I have a mole,” Doc warned before the barber could begin.

“Is that so?” the barber mused. “I have a squirrel.”

“No,” Doc said, “on my head.”

“You’re lucky,” the barber replied as he adjusted his clippers. “The squirrel has to stay at home.”

He turned up the radio playing from a shelf on the wall.

“What’s the squirrel’s name?” Doc ventured nervously.

“Look,” the barber said, stopping as he was about to start, “what’s this bullshit? Next you’ll want my address so you can meet the squirrel. Then there’ll be phone calls in the middle of the night. Before I know it you’ve moved in. Fuck that. Now shuddap.”



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