It was still early in the afternoon and I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of the day since I didn’t know anybody so on my way back to the barracks I stopped at the library to get some books. Due to all the time I’d spent in Barnes and Noble before joining the army, reading all sorts of books had developed into my preferred manner of killing time. But, in reality, I wasn’t much of a reader. As I looked around and tried to figure out what kind of books might keep me busy, an interesting thought occurred to me. I’d been there about a week and based on my experiences thus far, I was worried that I was living in a culture vacuum. All the guys in my section, my roommate, and pretty much everyone else I’d met seemed to only care about getting drunk, getting into fights, discussing various parts of the female anatomy, showing off how tough they were, and generally all manner of caveman type activities. Now I was all for drinking and female companionship but where I was from we never sat around and talked about it constantly. So I was kind of worried about how I would get along with the guys in the barracks. I wanted to fit in but I didn’t want to become just like them. With that in mind I decided to borrow some books that not only interested me but that would challenge my mind a bit. This, I thought, would keep me from becoming a caveman myself.
I got my books and headed back to the barracks where a bunch of the guys were hanging around outside. In front of our barracks was a little barbeque area with a big stone grill. On the weekends a lot of the guys would get a bunch of beer and meat and continue the age old American tradition of grilling and getting drunk on watery beer. I hadn’t really talked to any of them since I was still in Head Start and none of them were particularly welcoming so I just walked into the barracks without even looking at them, although a big part of me really wanted to join them. As I was walking in SGT Hanover yelled over to me and told me to hang on. He walked over, beer in hand, and asked what I was up to and I said “nothing much, spent the morning walking around downtown and now I got some books so I figured I’d just go up to the room and do some reading.” Hanover looked down at the stack of books I was holding and asked to see what I was reading. He looked at the book on top – a collection of poems by Robert Frost – and got a confused look on his face, then a half-smile. “Goddamn Thibodeau, what are you some kind of scholar?!” I laughed and made a joke about wanting to keep my mind sharp and then his face took on its familiar solemn look and he kind of looked a bit uncomfortable in this semi-social situation. “Well, we’re just drinking some beers and cooking some food….you can join us if you want…” I said thanks and that I’d come down after putting my stuff away.
Well, this was it, I was finally about to hang out with the guys. I was actually pretty nervous, like I was the new kid at school who was being invited to a party for the first time where you didn’t really know anybody. I had never been a very outgoing person and didn’t make friends very easily so I was probably more uncomfortable than anything. These were people that I had no experience hanging out with. Even in the reserves most of the people I knew were college students or people with families. I didn’t have much “caveman” in me so I wasn’t sure I’d fit in very well because I had no intention of changing my personality just to be one of the guys. As it turned out, most of them were pretty cool. Of course it helped that they had been drinking for a while and were a bit friendlier than they might have been otherwise. What I didn’t realize at the time was that in the military, people are constantly coming and going. People leave, new people arrive. So being the new guy wasn’t really any big deal. To them, everything was the same except that there was a new person around. To me, I was the same but the entire world around me was new.
It was obvious to everyone right away that the new guy wasn’t just new, he was different. Hanover had told everyone about my eclectic selection of reading material, that was the first clue. The second was my taste in beer. Over the years my taste in beer had evolved quite a bit. When I was in college I drank the cheapest stuff I could get because I couldn’t afford anything else. It was about getting drunk for the least amount of money, no matter how nasty the beer tasted, so I drank stuff like Keystone and Milwaukee’s Best. When I graduated and started working I started buying slightly better beer. My roommates drank Sam Adams but I didn’t like it at first. I wasn’t used to drinking beer with actual flavor. Eventually I took to it and when I did, most domestic American beer started tasting horrible to me. Pretty soon there was an explosion in the popularity of microbreweries and the focus was on craft beers and specialty beers with unique and complex tastes. Then, sometime in the mid-nineties, I discovered Guinness stout which has been my brew of choice ever since. So there I was surrounded by a bunch of people who were all drinking Budweiser, Bud Light and Miller Genuine Draft. I didn’t want to seem like a snob but I just could not stomach the stuff. And I also could not, for the life of me, understand why these people were drinking this stuff when they were in a country known, above all, for its world class beer. It was incomprehensible to me. I made polite conversation with a few of them but most of the conversation was dominated by Falcon who was in his element and holding court. He was buzzing pretty well and was as loud and obnoxious as ever. But his stories were amusing and most of us just sat there while he loudly and animatedly told them. After an hour or so, Martinez drove up and joined the party. Martinez was married and lived off base but from what I could tell, his home life wasn’t very pleasant as he spent most of his time in the barracks hanging out with us. After a while I could not take the beer selection any longer and asked if anyone wanted to go to the shoppette with me to get something else. Martinez offered to drive me up which was cool because it gave me a chance to get to know him a little bit. He turned out to be a really good guy, easy going and likeable. We got to the shoppette and walked into the beer cooler and to my great astonishment they had Murphy’s Irish Stout in the big “widget” bottles. A widget bottle was a bottle with a little plastic widget that, when the bottle was opened, released some kind of gas used in the beer you get on draft in a bar. This is supposed to make the beer tastes similar to what you would get on draft rather than in a bottle and as such, the beer was supposed to be drunk out of a glass. Well I don’t have to tell you that I was in heaven and bought a case, along with a big glass to drink it out of. We got back to the bbq and everyone looked at the beer I’d bought with astonishment, as if they’d never seen dark beer in a bottle before. The looks on their faces when I poured it were just priceless, as if I were drinking some kind of beer from the future. It didn’t take Falcon long to chime in – “What the hell is that? Is that motor oil?!”
Pretty soon a guy named Garnett strolled over and joined us. Garnett was an Irish guy from New York City so we started talking and it felt great to talk to a fellow “Yankee”. There was some initial tension between us because he was from New York and I was from near Boston, which meant he was a Yankee fan and I was a Red Sox fan but it soon passed and we realized that we had quite a bit in common. He was especially impressed when I told him about how we used to hang out in the Irish pubs a lot back home and that I knew a lot of Irish drinking songs. He also loved how I pronounced his name with my Boston accent – “Gah-net”. Garnett also had some kind of problem with his right eye, which had some kind of red blood splotch in it; it was obvious that he’d been in a fight recently. I offered him a Murphy’s and he declined, opting instead for a Budweiser. I jokingly gave him a hard time for that – “you can’t be Irish if you prefer a Bud over a Murphy’s!”, but he didn’t seem to mind. Hanover, on the other hand, wanted to try one. He went to his room and got a glass and poured himself one and was surprised to find that he actually liked it. Eventually Falcon asked me for one as well – not because he wanted to try it but because he had run out of Budweiser. And in keeping with his character, he drank it right out of the bottle. “It tastes like motor oil!” he kept yelling, but he finished the whole bottle. The next morning he even complained that it had turned his shit black. The rest of the day was pretty much the same but it was great because it was a perfect opportunity to meet most of the guys in the barracks that hung out together and that I would likely be spending most of my free time with. Two of these were Britt and Johns, a couple of mechanics who shared a room on the floor below me. Gerald Britt was a redneck from North Carolina and Patrick Johns was a gentle giant from Wyoming. I call him a gentle giant because he was probably the biggest guy in the company, around 6’5 or 6’6 and built pretty solid, and someone who you would not want to get into a fight with. However he had a very calm demeanor and never started trouble with anyone. Britt was a lot smaller and could be hyper at times but I liked him right away as well. As the day turned into night somebody mentioned going to the NCO club.
(Stay tuned for Part 18...)