Everybody Goes Home in October
By David Daniel
In Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, On the Road, his protagonist, setting off on yet another road journey, heading back to the East Coast this time, tells us, “The bus roared on. I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.” This month marks the 51st anniversary of Kerouac’s passing.
In the late summer and fall of 1969 I was undergoing army basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. At the end of the eight-week cycle, bone-weary but fit, my fellow trainees and I assembled before the barracks in company formation one last time. Our company commander stood at the front, reading out names. “Dodge, Michael. Report to Ft. Riley for advanced individual training prior to going to the Republic of Viet Nam. Bolduc, John, to Ft. Campbell…” Members of the training cadre handed out the printed orders. It was like a solemn mail call. “Smith, Everett, Ft. Ord…”
And so it went, through the ranks. Guys would get their orders and then huddle to compare notes. Most were assigned to further training prior to being sent to Viet Nam. A few, who had applied for officer school, got orders to Ft. Benning, Georgia. From there, many of them, too, would go to Viet Nam, where, as raw 2nd Lieutenants, they would be assigned, among other things, to lead men in combat. Without any of us saying it, we all considered the possibility, I think, that a number of us in formation that day were not too many months away from being dead.
This was not just melodramatic thinking. Dix was located adjacent to McGuire Air Force Base, and from time to time a military cargo transport plane would come lumbering low overhead, and raising their voices to be heard over the growl of its engines, our drill sergeants wouldn’t miss the opportunity to point out that it was carrying home bodies of service men KIA. The instructors’ purpose was to get us to listen up, learn this stuff—so we wouldn’t be future passengers on such a flight; but haunted by that image of caskets laid out in rows in some big cargo bay, I began to wonder deeply what the war was all about.
On that the final day of basic training, when the last name was called, I alone had not received orders. I pointed this out to the CO and was told that this sometimes happened, that there was probably a minor snafu and orders would be forthcoming in a day or two. In the meantime, I was on administrative hold and would have to wait.
Everyone else packed to go, stripping bunks for a final time, calling goodbyes, and soon departed. It was strange, I suppose, going from having lived cheek-to-jowl with forty men for the past eight weeks, to finding myself alone. But I wasn’t unhappy with the solitude and the quiet. For two months there had been precious little of both. Happy to wait out the promised “day or two” until orders came, I went to the PX to buy a few things. One was a large bag of Peanut M&M’s. The other thing I wanted was some books.
During the training cycle, reading material had been scarce. Beyond letters from home, graffiti on the latrine walls, and the nudie mags that some of the trainees stashed under their mattresses (only to have them uncovered at the first inspection), there’d been little to read. Time had been scarce, too. So, finding myself suddenly in limbo, I went to the bookrack in the PX and selected three paperbacks. One was a pictorial history of World War II in the South Pacific, my Dad’s war. I also bought a slim volume of poems by Stephen Crane. The other book was a 95-cent Signet edition of On the Road, written by fellow Bay Stater, Jack Kerouac. I had never read it, and now, imagining I was somehow, if only briefly, invisible to the people in charge, I was going to have a little space of sanity between my ears, and time to read.
But an army opposes no enemy as vehemently as it does idleness. I was quickly rousted from my fantasy of serenity and put on KP. Each morning at 0600 hours I would report to the mess hall to perform whatever scut work the cooks needed done: peeling potatoes, scrubbing down mess tables, hauling garbage. At night, grease-filmed and bushed from the day’s labor, I would return to the barracks, shower, and lie in my bunk with my M&M’s and a book. For no better reason than it was the book atop my short pile, I began with the illustrated history of WWII in the South Pacific.
My father had been at Pearl Harbor, assigned to a destroyer, and had gone ashore for church that quiet December morning in 1941. He was in for the duration, and though he saw a lot of action, much of it deadly, I knew precious little about his war, or about him, really. Reading the book, studying the grainy pictures, I was thinking of that taciturn man out in a rowboat with his sons, fishing, uncomplaining when he had to spend much of his time baiting hooks, untangling backlashes—once even quietly unhooking a Daredevil from his eyelid where I had managed to snag it on a cramped backcast from our tiny boat. Where another man might have thrown me overboard with a justified howl, Dad simply said, “You have to be more careful there, Dave.” At peace? Happy? I was never sure. Maybe reading the book about his war would give me some small access to him.
Still without orders, I continued on KP day after day. In leftover time, I finished the war book and picked up On the Road.
There are ironies adrift in certain choices we make, though sometimes they aren’t apparent for years. A friend of mine, in a similar context except that he had just arrived in Saigon, was browsing a bookstall at Tan Son Hut airport when he was struck by a title that mentioned his native state. He bought the book with little idea of who Henry David Thoreau was or what The Maine Woods was about. Same friend went on to serve as a perimeter guard near the Cambodian border during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Later he attended Columbia University, taking a Ph.D. in American Literature. His dissertation, a work of keen insight and scholarship, was on that great American pacifist, abolitionist, and philosopher, Thoreau.
While on admin hold, I started to grow a mustache. After the enforced close shaves and buzzcuts of boot camp, the idea of reclaiming some piece of self-identity, however small, was appealing. I had begun to imagine that in the huge gearworks of the Pentagon my existence had slipped through the cogs and fallen with a barely heard splash into the oil pan beneath, where I was now dimly afloat. Would I continue in this fashion until my hitch ran out? Discharged after two years of KP?
The situation had a kind of Catch-22 absurdist quality. Still, one heard of such bureaucratic mess-ups occurring. I actually weighed the wisdom of going and asking what had happened, and thus faced a dilemma (not the first nor last of those years). It was 1969, I remind you. My hairy, horny, happy, and high contemporaries might be in wildflower meadows from Amherst to Marin, pulling each other’s daisies, while the only thing I was pulling was KP: but at least I was safe and had my evenings free to read. Should I make myself known and thus draw fire, likely getting orders sending me to war, possibly consigning me to death? Or should I try to stay invisible?
I didn’t have to choose. On the morning of what would have been my sixth consecutive day of KP, a runner came to the all-but-deserted barracks and told me to report to the orderly room. There the CO informed me that my orders had come; I was to take three days’ leave before reporting to Ft. Hood, Texas, where I was to become an Information Specialist. I thanked him, saluted, and turned to go. “And, soldier,” he called as I reached the door, “shave.”
He meant my nascent mustache. I debated a moment. I hadn’t totally surrendered a belief in such a thing as individual rights. Besides, there was symbolic significance here. “Sir,” I said, “with all due respect”—I’d learned that little nugget of military courtesy, at least—“having completed basic training, I now have a right to grow facial hair, so long as it doesn’t extend below or beyond the edges of my mouth.”
He gave me a look of long-suffering patience, with tired eyes that said, Joe, we got forty thousand American guys dead in some pisshole in Southeast Asia, and I’m supposed to worry about facial hair or symbols or any of that Mickey Mouse shit? “JT,” he said (to him I was still “Joe Trainee”), “as long as your ass is mine, you’ll be clean-shaved. Get that pussy bumper off your lip.”
I weighed a practical argument. Was I even in his company any more? I certainly wasn’t a trainee. But I considered. My identity—whatever it might be at that moment—was more than a mustache, surely. There’d be other battles to fight. I ran back to the barracks and shaved. Packing, I hastily considered the things I would take home with me on my brief leave. Beyond a few items of clothing, there was little. I took the World War II book to give to my dad, and the Crane poems for future reading. I considered On the Road, lying there only half read. I was enjoying the ride, but knowing how busy I was going to be with just a few days home and an uncertain future, I left the book for some other traveler. In as much time as it took me to get a taxi, I was headed for the bus station.
My dad picked me up at the Greyhound depot in Boston, and as we rode back to my hometown together, we heard on the car radio that Jack Kerouac had died. It was October 21st 1969. Jack had been 47. My dad—also named Jack—was 50.
I know that Dad, after serving in the war, liked his adventures to be about as exciting as Ozzie Nelson’s—which is to say c-a-l-m. And he could not have been a student of Jack Kerouac. In fact, I doubt that Dad, with his rural high school education, had ever read a single word written by him. More likely he knew of Kerouac only as the popular press had invented him (beatnik, crazy man, drunkard) and would not have recognized that this was a distortion, any more than he could have fully embraced yet what was to come as the war in Viet Nam wore on and our country began to tear apart. But that chilly Friday afternoon in 1969, as we listened to the brief car radio report of Jack Kerouac’s passing, he noting no doubt my own attentiveness (my sense of being stunned at the coincidence of that very morning having left behind On the Road), my dad said quietly, “It’s important to honor a person’s life.”
Jack Daniel. The man of still waters and few words. Just that. Honor life.
For Jack Kerouac, who in the later years of his all-too-brief life would occasionally return to the city of his birth, it would often only lead to trouble—an arrest for public intoxication, hassles with in-laws and former friends—and he would not stay long. I sometimes imagine that his wanderings, both physical and spiritual, had taken him too far beyond the orbit of his native turf, and he discovered that, as fellow lover of October Thomas Wolfe had written, you can’t go home again.
Carved on Jack Kerouac’s large new marble gravestone in Edson Cemetery, in Lowell, Massachusetts, is the phrase “The Road is Life.” Nice. True. But I like the original gravestone too, a simple slab, flush with the earth, reading “He Honored Life.”
My Dad died in 1993 at age 73. For both Jacks, RIP.