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The Ecstasy of the Dancing Pariah

by Joseph Travis Logan

Mom and Dad –

 

As I guess you’ve gathered by now, the odds are against us ever seeing each other again. Prospects for survival are grim, and in the case I do make it out of here, I’m facing a lifetime in military prison. Having not spoken since our, well, spectacular falling out, even by our high standard for such a thing, I think I owe you a few words. So, enclosed you’ll find, if by the grace of God these pages ever reach you, an account the events that lead to my captivity.

 

That next morning, I did, of course, go to MEPS, the medical in-processing station, where you swear the oath. I can remember the singing recruiter, driving wildly, smiling in the rear view, reminding us in ad-libbed song how we were to respond to medical questions, No-no, no, no, no, no, no: no-no!

No, we shouted in chorus. A bunch of anxious teenagers and then me, thirty years old, barely awake after a night spent roaming in a rage our neighborhood side streets like an idiot after our fight. I expected to be picked up by a patrol car.

Yet, it was fun, and it was absurd. We sang the whole way and even picked up an addled young hitchhiker, who got totally lost in the fun of it herself, conducting us with a cigarette like a choirmaster from the front seat, the recruiter’s hand brazenly gripping her thigh.

Arriving on base, quiet settled over the van. We rolled to a stop in front of offices so remote, so surrounded by parking lots, looking around it felt like we’d lost sight of the shoreline at sea. Still, I remember being excited even if—and I always feel this way in these sprawling office parks—the dull sky hummed above like an old fan. The sun was somehow smaller, brighter – industrial like stadium lighting. Looking around, there were flashes and reflections from weird flotsam-jetsam mirrors and chrome awash in far off parking lots. Here at the edge of the void, nothing was natural. The light wasn’t the same as that which glimmered freely on the rippling tide in Waikiki. It was zombified, brainless, groping.

Inside, we slumped against walls of those lacquer-smoothed cinder block bricks and waited. An org chart of framed and labeled portraits of the executive branch looked on as the kids played hunting and racing games on their phones. From around a corner, some staff sergeant who spent his life heroically maintaining the alphabetical order started barking, and everyone scrambled up, one kid at parade rest, others at attention. It was ridiculous. I loved it already.

Sorted, seated, and lectured, we received the packets. I almost burst into laughter flipping through. Ever broken a bone? No. Been depressed? No. Violent thoughts? No. Smoked pot? Nope. Booze? Never touched the stuff! I turned pages so fast there was practically rotor wash blowing people out of their chairs around me. And, the prescience of those thousand, boldfaced ‘no’s’ wasn’t lost on me, for the record. I could feel the breath of them all on my neck, God, fate, karma, Athena, huddled together, cupping their hands to my ear, shouting: No! No! No! No! No! A thousand times no! By the end of it, I conceded but one ‘yes’ to these hundreds of questions. It was to the question, If you wear corrective lenses, is your vision correctable to 20/20? Yes! I finally said back to them. Yes, I can see, I get it! Yes, it’s wrong! Yes, I am doing it anyway! It was you who made me this way in the first place! One can only endure so much!

As for the other questions, I mean, of course I had been depressed, for god’s sake, and of course I had used drugs before. I was a failed ballet dancer joining the wartime infantry as an enlisted soldier at age 30. My career highlights consisted of getting cut from a competitive dance company because of temperament, some unpaid choreography for community theatre projects, and a string of restaurant jobs. I still lived with my parents. What on earth did they expect? And what kind of infantryman had never broken a bone or had a violent thought? I mean, really.

I swore in five hours later.

The next five months, spent bumming around Denver, dissipated before my starved eyes like pasta steam, and I shipped in January. It was very strange to pack two sets of clothes for a four-month trip.

Basic Training, as I’m sure you can imagine, was where the brainless authoritarianism really kicked into high gear, but it was fun. We stood rigid as wrought iron for hours in the snow, a T-shirt under a windbreaker, shouting offbeat this or that gruesome limerick as fanatical drill sergeants, torqued up on caffeine pills and undiagnosed Iraq war brain trauma, prowled the ranks in a seething rage. Absurd infractions—a single whisker by the razor missed—were invented to justify so-called corrective training. You drop and assume the front leaning rest position. I shudder in retrospect at the pompous utility of army jargon.

DOWN!

You lower chin to earth and hold. Tens of seconds pass in silence. You quiver on the verge of muscle failure, fingers under thin gloves red and numb in the snow. You breathe through your teeth; you shut your eyes; you pray, groans rising around you like bonfire ash to the moon.

UP!

ONE, you bellow.

DOWN!

Another squealing, grunting microeternity.

UP!

TWO!

And so on.

After months of nonstop drill and ceremony, the crisp tramp-tramp-tramp-tramp of 200 boots in thundering unison wasn’t just fun anymore, it was transcendent; the odes to stabbing and strangling we memorized weren’t just bawdy cacophonies, they were Spartan incantations booming from a hundred muscular men, armed and in spell-bound lockstep. We shoot, we run, we march, we sing! But these spectacular flits and flashes of revelation were fleeting, and they were more accidental than achieved: a glitchy nirvana, triggered by an ego abused and in hiding, not dissolved through purposeful meditation.

Like everything else in the Basic Combat Training context, it was somehow fun enduring the harsh grinding down of the ego. Nervously side-eyeing as the corner fold in my bed sheet was inspected with a ruler, every sock in a drawer, rolled precisely to some anal standard, dumped and stomped on for an imaginary infraction. I can’t believe I’m here, I’d think, smiling inside, the gnashing teeth of a screaming psycho an inch from my eyeball.

By month four, though, we were all counting the minutes, dreaming not just of favorite foods and sex denied, but of even the basic dignity of an unsupervised shower.

Landing in Hawaii the day after graduation, I saw for the first time truly exquisite sunlight. Through the terminal windows I could see the cracked tarmac lounging careless as Brigitte Bardot, letting the light particles spill over it, trapping them in its cracks, feeling them, working them and letting them work. The same with the palms, the hibiscus, and the grass. Everything I saw exuded slouching sophistication, like leisure-class aesthetes, accustomed to the dizzying flavor complexities of this twinkling caviarlight. I walked the terminal in a monomania, eyes on the floor-to-ceiling windows, oblivious to the celebrity of the uniform I was wearing—outstretched hands left hanging, unacknowledged thanks ringing out in my hypnotized wake. I pushed through the crowd and the nearest exit, wriggling like a sperm on the verge of conception, and finally it hit my face and eyelids; it was on my neck and hands and ears. I threw off bags and boots, tore off the uniform, and fell into the grass. I felt it with my bare hands and shoulders, neck and back, legs and butt: it was an ecstasy of fire, and I writhed in it as if being burned at the stake.

You’ll have to indulge me as I pass over the events that next precipitated, which culminated in a minor confrontation with local police. The authorities, of course, were not empathetic to my unclothed revelry, and so I began my time in Hawaii in handcuffs.

It turned out my unit wasn’t so bad, and to my great delight, we were deploying to Afghanistan in three months, with a stop-off first at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. After my arrest at the airport, I had to convince an Army psychologist that I was fit for duty in order to be deployable, so I needed to be on my best behavior. And I was. I was never late to formation, volunteered for extra duty, and kept myself in great shape. But as much as I knew I was being watched, and that I had to fit in socially, I just couldn’t bring myself to waste precious sunlight playing video games in the barracks. The duty day ended at 17:30, and I was off base by 18:15, embarking on a mountain hike that would enable me to behold from on high that exploding pink epiphany—the shining ocean and its white wreaths glowing golden at the rims, tauntingly baroque, the castaway spirit peering helplessly at a ship passing into heaven.

If only there had been an orchestra, a stage for every sunset. But, I’d given all that up – or, really, it gave up on me.

Starlight on Oahu was of much higher quality than any I’d elsewhere seen. Many nights I would stay for hours on the mountain, eating a to-go container of chow hall food, sipping whatever cheap PX merlot funneled into an empty water bottle, listening to the sounds of the jungle. Those first days in Hawaii were some of the best of my life outside of dance.

Fortuitously, my platoon sergeant, clearly the most reasonable man in the company, became interested in hiking himself. I shared stories about the grandeur and the views, and soon he started hiking with me. For me, hiking was partially about immersion and seclusion, but mostly it was just the best way to get there. For SFC Bermuda, who was in perfect shape, it was about fitness. He focused on obscure muscle groups in his upper thighs and glutes, and always pointed them out to me in other men. He would pack his rucksack to the brim and strap it on over his bare chest, insisting that I do the same. I agreed to be amicable. After a few trips, he started talking about exploring secluded areas beyond the lighted trail, and again I indulged him, but this culminated in an embarrassing misunderstanding. I politely told him that in the future, I’d prefer to hike alone.

We remained close friends, of course. During Stryker training, he made me his driver. During the regular duty day, he made me his runner. When the psychiatrist wrote to the commander declaring me fit for duty so long as I stayed on my prescription medication, it was SFC Bermuda who assured the CO that I was an asset to the platoon, and that he would administer my pills personally every day. When the commander called me into his office, he was very firm about this point, even as he praised me for the scores he read aloud from my personnel file. I told him I understood and marched out beaming.

To celebrate, I took a week of leave and found a hostel in Waikiki. The first day, I laid in the warm sand, letting the finespun beams twining down from heaven drape like silk on my neck and chest. My senses fluttered wakefully on, engorged by the sun, even when I slept. I tasted sugar-spray in the air and sank like a lost brick downwards and deep to the bottom of the creamy ocean that to my dozing eyes was red as claret. I swam and dived and surfed a sea in a haunted moon crater, the Mare Rubrum. I woke in the sand and caught a brilliant glint from an alien crab shell, a mosaic of tile and mirror, dripping black ink from its thorny claw as it scurried desperately to the tide, the last shoots of gleaming throne-gold disappearing beyond the horizon. I ran to see, but there was nothing but glass and foam washing over my feet.

I went back to the hostel and got drunk with some backpackers.

The next morning, I became engrossed with a six-ounce cup in the group dining area. In bulblight, it was as any orange juice glass you’ve seen, a nameless functionary with the temperament of a LEGO brick. Holding it up to the islandlight, though, it woke up; there was dignity and personality, irony and tragedy in it. It was a piece of delicate glass shaped like a serialized, industrial machine part. I burst into laughter. This wasn’t glassware, it was a tube, a sleeve, a beaker, a catch-can to be filled with dripping antifreeze, except that it was made of glass. Even as a cup, it was ludicrously small. Turning it slowly, I watched my reflected expression wither. This fragile, brilliant material, held hostage by barest, most conservative utility of form, wasn’t funny – it was heartbreaking.

I said a brief eulogy before granting it—whoopsie daisy—violent liberation on the hostel floor.

I couldn’t bear to look at another, so I left. I walked out of downtown Waikiki, beyond the crowded residential rows of single-story homes, and on and on, ignoring hundreds of other tortured forms along the way. I wandered into the jungle around lunch time and sat in the canopy slantlight admiring wild orchids. They were ancient. They were perfect.

I reported back to the unit later that week.

The deployment ceremony was such a mirthless debacle that—even as I write to say that I think about you every single day, and that, again and again, I am so, so sorry—I’m glad we weren’t on speaking terms then. I couldn’t have borne the humiliation of having you there.

***

The harsh sun at Fort Irwin, just west of the Mojave, scoured us. Command learned that we wouldn’t be using Strykers, slick armored vehicles with eight all-terrain tires, on our mission, and to them this was devastating. To the entire company, the captain said glumly as Eeyore, You guys do what you want, I guess, because I just give up. He came to formation once a week. Rumors spread that he didn’t get out of bed until after lunch. And maybe for good reason. We went to Irwin, the National Training Center, for intensive Stryker training before the deployment, starting with basic maintenance and culminating in a battalion-wide gunnery competition. With all that cancelled, many days we had nothing to do. The training we did have was generally nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation on life insurance and then another on the poisonous wildlife of Afghanistan. I kept in shape, but with a pill every night like a frontal lobotomy, the coarse sun like vinegar, I stayed inside mostly, looking at maps and reading, struggling with my newly blunted senses.

Life was dull. Though, apparently not for everyone else. In three months of idleness, our company earned a slew of disciplinary actions, culminating most notably with the 1SG himself caught fraternizing with a junior enlisted soldier from a support company. The commander was relieved the week planes started flying to Bagram.

In Hawaii, when I imagined Afghanistan, I imagined all kinds of things—a mosaic of sprawling mudbrick and cloud shadow and bedrock of cracked, crumbling, windblown grades of beige; crags rising abruptly by roadsides; the white windwoven ridge lines weaved into cloud-cleaving peaks; the lowland stone exposed and baking, regal green in shaggy patches; the sun flaring between cloud and jagged earth. I imagined glistening rivers, rich farmland. The Afghanistan I saw on the convoy between Bagram and our outpost, however, was a bleak and derelict wasteland of thin grass, bare soil, and weakling shrubs. On my map it was identified as degraded rangeland, a misreading of which turned into my pet name for our station: deranged grayland.

Still, I should have been thrilled by at least the implied danger, felt haunted by the ground-down Soviet bone powder that the wind dusted on my outpost every night. There should have been some fantasy, some creeping hysteria. But no. I was a zombie, senses dulled by three months of that California sun like a hot migraine. And the sunbeams leaning so hard against us every day in Afghanistan weren’t much of an improvement.

When new units rotated in, attacks spiked. So during the week of handover between our unit and the Marines we were replacing, we were hit by three IEDs and small arms fire. When they happened—the crack of the blast, the wap-pap-pap-pap-pap of ball bearings against up-armor in the wafting dust, the tinkle of pebbles on hoods, your panicking heart like a deer in traffic—you had to maintain presence of mind. You had to react to a possible ambush. Owning the first seconds of anarchy after a blast was crucial, and it dawned on me as we blew through the whirling roadside cratersmoke, Mark 19s shredding whatever moved in the hills, that I couldn’t tune out war like I could a screaming drill sergeant, and so I got serious about the job and stopped worrying about the quality of the light and the ugly scenery.

Thankfully we arrived in the fall, and as the temperature dropped, the fighting died down. I spent the winter scanning attentively for Taliban fighters who were apparently hibernating and IEDs that froze dead as pigeons. I spent subzero days and nights huddled in an observation post a few hundred meters beyond the walls of our FOB, overwatching barren sprawl. There were mostly goats, and their occasional farmhand paramours. I slept with my rifle. I dreamt about overwatch. I was so focused on the job that I couldn’t conceive of real light, the kind that could fold you in half and flick you away like a paper football, the kind that I’d ridden to the grass at the airport in Honolulu. Hawaii was like a crayon drawing to me; days blended together.

I can remember the spring: the rising temperature and early morning light, birdsong on the breeze. But the tones of our pre-shift meetings grew graver. Intel was more than just another weather report. In retrospect, it was like a screeching alarm before impact. On April 10th, SFC Bermuda was killed by a sniper as he stood outside the observation post beyond the FOB. He was still my closest friend in the unit, and his death shattered me. In secret—why draw attention to myself?—I cried in fits for days and days, to the point of vomiting. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep; I went off my regimen of prescription mind-erasers. I was totally lost and alone.

One of those nights, sleeplessly wandering the barrier shadows back on base, I saw my hand in the light of the moon, cut at the wrist by harsh black shadow. Every detail, every wrinkle and crevasse of breathing skin, every ticklish hair and dirt-packed cuticle, suddenly seemed ancient and holy to me. Extending my arm into the light, I realized it wasn’t just the hand, but the whole body. I knew what was happening, and resisted it. Slumping back against a HESCO barrier, I could still see my skin, barely. It was alive, reptilian, the usually flat, matte coloring suddenly complex, with natural reds rising. I felt possessed.

I had to see it in the light.

Just as I began taking off my uniform top, I was interrupted by a roving on-duty sergeant. I told him I was on my way to the shower—Wha—Huh? Hey, you’re right! I did forget my towel!

The light in the shower house was electric yellow swill. I let the water run over me as I tried to read the lines in my palms, but I couldn’t see anything. Drying myself by the bank of sinks, I beheld in the mirror a naked fool.

I needed the moon.

Peeking outside, I saw no one. But the door let out into shadows. I would have to run twenty feet out for direct light. I scanned again, more attentively, leaning farther into the air, a silent moment passing. I could rush straight out or try to sneak around behind the trailer for more seclusion, but what did it matter? All I needed was to quickly see myself in the light, and I’d come right back. Nobody was awake this late, and the patrolling E5 had already passed. I scanned one more time and then, using the doorframe as a vault, I burst forth, bounding down the trailer stairs wearing nothing but flip flops, sprinting like a madman through the moonshade. I leapt—instinctually, a jete—into the light, and landing gracefully, I was still a naked fool, only completely covered by gorgeous, reactive, living skin that was again, in the moonlight, a masterwork of subtle coloring and tanning, soft and delicate. I was like a living statue, every movement of the body the culmination of a hundred-thousand years of history. I was lost in the thought that I was the pinnacle of it all, twirling as if in a dream, tiny scars flickering, consciousness light as cloud vapor. Stopping to catch my breath, I realized what I’d always known; not that I had been dancing, but that I was dancer – here, miscast as soldier. I swept my arm and bent at the knee. Every movement—every petit saut—was a reclamation—attitude derrière—of natural order—arabesquehold…hold…—not from the army, or war—saut de chat—but—jete—from oblivion.

In flip flops, dancing ballet in the moonlight, I was as perfect as a wild orchid.

I won’t sully the mood with this scene’s abrupt ending, but according to the counseling statement, I carried on that way for as long as an hour.

Sent to the commander the next day, I was, to my surprise, questioned instead about the whereabouts of some 40mm dummy rounds – smooth, mushroomlike grenades used in the belt-fed Mark-19 grenade launcher – which caused a few barracks shakedowns some months previously when they went missing from the supply room. When I told him that I had no idea, he pressed into the nature of my relationship with the late SFC Bermuda, presenting startlingly intimate pictures—blatant and outrageous forgeries, of coursethat had been found among the late hero’s personal effects. I won’t stoop so low as to describe the tawdriness depicted therein, but a befouled 40mm grenade was discernable. He then held a ziplock bag containing one of the slimy rounds in question. I nearly fell over. I told him I had no idea who was masterminding this libelous conspiracy, but that they were tarnishing the memory of a fallen American hero. There was nothing he could do about it, he said, and told me that a representative from the office of the Inspector General was waiting to interview me.

I was speechless.

The crime of conspiracy, in this case aiding theft of government property, I was informed, carried with it a maximum penalty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of, among other things, up to ten years’ imprisonment. On top of that, a dishonorable discharge carried to civilian life the so-called collateral consequences of a felony, meaning if convicted I would lose the right to vote and be banned from some professions.

Some professions? I demanded. Who on earth knowingly hires a felon?

That night at the chow hall, I sat alone, as usual, though now barely present as I endlessly assessed my situation. My only friend was dead. I was at the center of an IG investigation for stolen government property, had another counseling statement on public nudity added to the one on psychological fitness. And then there was the thought of military prison, as if I weren’t already in one. It was too much to bear. Standing to leave, my plastic cup wobbled and fell off my tray, bouncing across the floor. The noise of it elicited howling from the usual idiots, and I paused for a moment listening to them. They were that plastic cup – thick and dim, created to be banged around some place like this without breaking. I thought of the tragic glass in Hawaii and of my own soft skin that was meant to twirl on stage or in the moonlight.

I kicked the cup on my way out the door.

The next day I rotated out, as scheduled, to the observation post where SFC Bermuda had been killed, beyond the HESCO barriers, beyond the wire. I pored over maps saved on my phone. The land between me and the Indus was not only one of the most dangerous areas in the world, but it was also this rocky, barren—excuse me—degraded fucking rangeland that offered absolutely no cover or concealment whatsoever. I would have to sneak from shrub to shrub at night and then sleep in foxholes during the days. It was absurd. It was never going to work.

I went anyway. Better smashed than ashamed.

I think a lot about the last time I saw natural light when I was free. Alone, coming fast down a hillside, two exhausted nights away from base, the soft-focus stars flaring in contrast to the crystalline sky, deep and dark and blue.  It was so clear, I saw depth. I could see the distance between stars. I remember the blurred moon like a quivering mirage. And then I collapsed from exhaustion.

I’m sure you’ve seen the YouTube videos. They tell me here I’m famous. The only American POW in Afghanistan. They’re going to get a lot of money for me.

Sure, they will.

I’m sorry it’s ending this way, but I can’t say I’m sorry to have been born who I am. But, I won’t rehash that argument here, I guess.

I miss and love you both, and, oh, if they are reporting me as a missing soldier, will you tell them what is actually true? That I am what I’ve always been – a dancer, trapped and without a chance.

 

  • John