Bukowski, Me and R.O.T.C: A Proposition V Tale


POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

In his autobiographical novel Ham on Rye, the poet Charles Bukowski described ROTC:

"ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) was for the misfits. Like I said, it was either that or gym. I would have taken gym but I didn't want people to see the boils on my back. There was something wrong with everybody enrolled in R.O.T.C. It almost entirely consisted of guys who didn't like sports or guys whose parents forced them to take R.O.T.C. because they thought it was patriotic. The parents of rich kids tended to be more patriotic because they had more to lose if the country went under"

It was 1981. I was boarding the 18 Sloat bus in San Francisco when the driver said to me, "Rotten old tomato cans?" I looked at the driver. "Huh?" I said. He laughed and said; "R.O.T.C. stands for rotten old tomato cans". I smiled, paid my fare and went to the back of the bus. I looked at my R.O.T.C. uniform, the drab color of it contrasting with the vivid green and yellow leaves on the trees in passing. I ran my fingers over the brass buttons I'd vigorously shined with brasso polish the night before.

I remember my father calling it a monkey suit and how I was a fool for wearing it. I remember struggling to tie my tie. I remember the way it hung around my neck like a noose. I rode to school. I wasn't a patriot--I didn't like the idea of the military. To me the military was behind the massacres of native peoples and the stealing of indigenous lands.

I had relatives who'd served in the military--an uncle who served in the Philippines in WWII and a cousin who served in Vietnam. They left one way and returned another. My father looked at my J.R.O.T.C. (Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps) uniform and at me in disgust. Dad may have been born in the US, but was Pilipino to the bone. He didn't graduate from high school. He knew more.

To be honest, the reason I got into J.R.O.T.C. was that it was an alternative to PE. I had acquired a fascination with girls and spent many hours on my Afro--dousing my fuzzy head of hair with products such as Afro sheen and Murray's pomade. Going to PE meant getting my hair messed up. Hell if I was going to do that. I had to look good for the girls. The asthetic beauty of my hair could not be compromised--no, never. The folks I encountered in J.R.O.T.C were, as Bukowski said, misfits. Some were in it for the same reason I was--to keep their hair looking good.

But an ironic thing transpired--I was promoted from a buck private cadet to staff sergeant/platoon leader because I was very proficient at marching drills and could get the entire group of misfits to stay in perfect formation. I was even a decent shot on the firing range. I remember my platoon leader on the day John Wayne died. "He was a great man, a great man", he said. I couldn't think of any great things John Wayne had done--movies included--but I stayed quiet. My platoon leader must have known of the great things accomplished by "The Duke".

One day the military recruiters came in. They talked about military service and how we could acquire money for college and marketable skills when we got into the "real" world. They showed us a film that seemed like a travelogue. We saw military men eating and laughing and having fun overseas. When I suggested that the films weren't giving the true story, a recruiter responded by saying there was nothing wrong with having fun after you work--that they were merely showing that side of it. "Don't you have fun after you work?" they asked. I didn't have a job.

All of this brings me to PROP V on the November ballot. San Francisco eliminated JROTC in 2006 after nearly 60% of San Franciscans voted in 2005 to eliminate military recruiters from schools. The proponents of Prop V deny that it is a recruitment program and are injecting big money to ensure its passage. The proponents say that J.R.O.T.C. promotes leadership and responsible behavior. Riva Enteen from the organization "No Military Recruitment in Our Schools" feels that the youth can focus their energy in better ways. "San Francisco needs a safety response plan in case of a major disaster. The youth could be trained as responders". Members of the San Francisco school board have called for such a program--calling it "student emergency response Volunteers". There is already a leadership development course with community service in place to provide a non-military alternative to JROTC".

I recently saw a picture of high school students walking door to door asking the community to support PROP V. I thought of the school arts programs that have been cut and of the displacement and gentrification in our neighborhoods and about elders in rooms. We need those young people's hands to not carry guns but to carry our elders fresh flowers; to guide them down flights of stairs. We need our youth to listen to the stories and songs and poetry of the ancestors and claim what is theirs. They need to hold hands with the elders and walk in the sun without the deafening noise of the blue angels to ruin it all.

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