Sturgis, this Oklahoman with a broad battleship like back, kept to himself. Barrel chested and endowed with a disarming, constant scowl, Sturgis reeked of anti-social tendencies. At first glance, he seemed a demigod of physical and military prowess sent to show the weakness of mortal soldiers everywhere. All brawn, little brain, no laughs. Robot Soldier perfection. During the day, he’d sit alone either reading a Clancy novel or writing a letter. At night, he’d haunt the barracks, often while consuming Sangria in a ‘I Love Portobello’ coffee mug, and lumbering through the halls bellowing, “Panama Baby!” or “Who wants to arm wrestle?”. Often his solo parade was born late on a Tuesday. We all heard him through our doors, his hands slapping the walls.  No one went outside during his walks.  Sturgis was looking for something during his Sangria lined haunting. A thing not issued by the Army.

It was  September and the mornings were cool and damp. Morning formation was at oh-six-thirty. Forty some odd soldiers milling around talking about whatever there was for them to talk about. Plans for the weekend, memories of last night, who won the game on AFR. Reston and I were standing by the tree as Tarboro smoked a few feet away. Sturgis walked by, the air-filled with Sangria and aftershave.

Hey Sturgis, Reston said, you should come with us to the club Friday.

Clubs are like gyms; only amateurs need ’em. Besides, they don’t sell Sangria.

Dude, every bar sells Sangria down here.

Sturgis squared up and looked at us. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at Reston, Me, or the jungle in the distance.
He groaned and moved away.

The topic was never revisited.

We were sitting under the bohio one day in October when Smith brought Sturgis up.

You know what I heard about Sturgis? He’s been paying to play with some local girl up in his room. You know he’s got the big corner room all to himself right?

He’s got a roommate. Some guy in Alpha Company who is always in the interior somewhere.

Yeah, whatever. He’s alone all the fucking time right? So, I hear he’s been paying some girl to come to his room late at night. Ruiz came back to the room Sunday morning at around four. He had CQ and was coming back to get…well, anyway. I don’t know why he coming back. But he told me he was coming up the stairs and some girl was walking out of Sturgis’ room counting some cash.

Bullshit. Sturgis? No way. Tarboro said.

Why not? I asked. Even a barracks rat needs lovin’!

Was she good-looking? Reston asked.

Shit I don’t know. Ruiz said he was sure it was even a girl. Said she walked like a dude.

Oh shit.

Oh shit is right. That would explain a lot you know? Why he doesn’t go out. Why he drinks wine.

Man, I drink wine. Wine is like 18 percent alcohol versus three and half for beer. Wine gets you buzzed quicker.

Reston, you seriously drink wine? I asked.

I have, on occasion. It’s pretty good and girls think you’re cultured if you drink wine.

Yogurt’s got culture, you’re just a ho! Tarboro said. Everyone laughed.

Seriously! Smith said, we’re talking about Sturgis and his she-hims. Who’s gonna ask him?

What? Ask him? You’re outta your fucking mind. I ain’t asking that big, evil-looking bastard anything. Whadda you say to him? Hey Sturgis, you like boys dressed up like girls?

Transvestite. Tarboro said. They’re called transvestites.

Sorry about that. We don’t have many of those in Mahalia and they don’t exactly throw that on a vocabulary tests.

Shelton walked up and took a seat near Reston.

What’s up?

Tarboro is confessing his fascination with Transvestites. I said.

Dumbass, I was just saying.

Oh, Shelton said. I thought for a minute you said Transylvania. You know like that movie with all the weird vampires and Meatloaf sings that song.

Everyone looked confused.

Anyway. No, Smith hears Sturgis likes some Panamanian Transvestite and the he, she, it shows up late night for a little arm wrestling.

That’s just gross. Shelton said.

Yeah it is, you should tell him next time you see him. Reston said.

Which one is Sturgis? Shelton said.

Big bastard. Muscles on top of muscles with rebar running through them.

Shelton laughed. Yeah, I’ll keep my opinion to myself.

There is no Fall season in Panama. The seasons are Rainy and Dry, that’s it. The child in me kept waiting for the Mango tree in front of our barracks to turn Orange, then Brown. I would look through the screen and wonder if the Panamanian cutting grass had ever seen a rake or smelled wet leaves. What would my life be like, I thought, had I never played backyard football with freezing hands? What would it feel like to not have the memory of raking leaves, jumping in them, and getting yelled at to rake them all back up? My mind rolled over the what ifs and whys found in the quiet. What would be different if Dad had stayed? If I’d studied in school more. Each chance I got, I looked at that tree and waited for it to show Fall to me, to let me see a moment of my home. The sun would set behind the barracks, bringing the shadows to creep across Fort Davis. First the landing field in the front, then the pool and club. The rooftops of the quad buildings would fade then suddenly only the twinkling of the distant Canal’s lights. When able, I would watch the darkening and listen to the questions in my mind as the nocturnal jungle echoed over the quiet fort. A few times I found myself mumbling words under breath as Sturgis topped the stairs, Sangria in hand. I’d smile, he’d ignore me and my night would end.

Halloween approached and the rumors about Sturgis became established, unspoken, facts. From other Romeos, we learned that Sturgis’ behavior could land him a dishonorable discharge and potentially Leavenworth time for bringing ‘unsecure’ personnel into the barracks. We joked about the idea of secure and unsecure personnel in barracks that housed Army-issued beer machines. The rumors must have touched Sturgis’s ears for he was more withdrawn in time. He was seen running and pushing-up around the barracks and that was it. When we gathered under the bohio, or in the office during heavy rains, Sturgis behaved as if no one were there. Sightings of Sturgis and his partner increased, leading us to joke about them less and less.

Sturgis was on guard duty at the Tank Farm as guys talked about it under the Bohio.
Crude jokes and judgement abound, and right here I’d say I didn’t go along but I did. Everyone joked about some. Everyone except Shelton. After a while, he lost it.

We’re here because we enlisted, Shelton yelled. You enlisted for college, I enlisted for patriotism. It shouldn’t matter what Sturgis does, you know? He enlisted. He’s wearing the uniform and that’s all that should matter. You think he wants to hit on you Ruiz, or that he might try and screw you in a foxhole? That’s just dumb. That guy is bigger and tougher and meaner than all of us and when bullets start flying are you gonna check and see who the guy screwed last night before you protect him, or expect him to protect you? No, buncha assholes. Just let him go.

Shelton got up and walked away.

Ole’ Shelton’s a queer too, someone said.

Shelton came rushing back to the table and got up in the soldier’s face.
No, I’m not. I’m a soldier in the United States Army and so is he. More than that he’s a Romeo and you’re acting like a bunch of jack asses who can’t see past your own asses.

Tarboro laughed quietly. Asses can’t see past your asses…

Shut up Neil, Shelton said.  Seriously? You too. You should know better than all this shit man. We’re in this together, all of this. Nobody goes it alone, remember?

Sturgis became more withdrawn but on Halloween night no one gave much thought to him. The NCO club was holding a costume party and everyone was jived about the idea of Sexy Panamanian Vampires or half-dressed Columbian Nurses. They were letting locals on post for the event and our restricted duty was up on October 30.

The night of the costume party came and we four dressed up in the same outfit: Young Soldier Trying to Get Laid. It was the most popular male costume of the evening, all the Romeos wore it. The latrine reeked of various cologne while beer cans sat in pools of their own sweat on the shelves above the sinks. Music was blaring from J.P.’s boombox as guys laughed and joked about their prospects for the night. I was leaving the latrine, decked out in my best faded jeans, button-up shirt and flip-flops when Reston ran up.

Dude, you gotta come. No shit. M.P.s came up the steps and I said, “Hey nice costume.” and they didn’t laugh. So I watched them and they were headed towards Sturgis’s room.

No shit.

No shit. This is gonna get ugly they try to arrest that big bastard.

We knocked on the door and retrieve Tarboro as we headed over. By the time we got there, two M.P.s were standing outside his room and we could see through the open door, two more inside. One, a jet black guy, was reading something to Sturgis. The big man sat still, looking forward. He nodded and looked down at the floor.

Ruiz came up the stairs and yelled, Holy Shit man. They’re some M.P.s out front and I think they got Sturgis’s girl, guy…whatever with them. She’s crying all over the place, screaming about Sturgis hitting her or they broke up. I couldn’t tell too much. But she kept screaming, el es un maricon, maricon.

What’s that mean? Reston said.

She called him a fag, Ruiz said.

I saw Sturgis through the door as he began to pack his duffel bag. It all seemed surreal. The M.P.s there, the faint sound of the spanish transvestite screaming outside. I found myself wondering what to do when I heard Reston ask the question aloud.

I don’t know, Tarboro said. Sure as hell don’t seem right, you know.

Other Romeos gathered, mostly to gawk, as Sturgis finished packing his bags. No one spoke. We heard the distant thump of the NCO club waking up and muffled words coming from the M.P.to Sturgis and back.

Ruiz spoke up. This is fucked up man. This guy was up for dying for his country but they don’t want him because of what he does behind a locked door.

The irony of Ruiz’s defense brought a smile to my face.

Sturgis exited the room with his duffel bag over his shoulder. His eyes never left the floor.

Take care Sturgis, one guy said.

Sturgis groaned and kept moving.

You soldiers disperse now, the M.P said. Go on about your business.

We stood there and watched Sturgis walk away.

Go on about your business Soldiers. This is over.

As a flock of birds, we moved as one away from the scene and crossed the barracks to another stairwell.
Words of protest and disbelief grew as our feet hustled down the back steps. We exited and ran around the barracks to the front.

Sturgis was just leaving the building. Even in the light, it was obvious Sturgis’s girl was a Transvestite. She had big brown eyes framed in red from tears, full red lips and an Adam’s apple as big as a melon.

The big man caught her eye.

Por que Hernando? He said.

You say you no love me. I no love you maricon, if you no love me.

But goddamn, you ruined my entire life, you fucking bitch.

She responded in Spanish, swinging her muscular arms in the air as an M.P. tried to stop her.

The M.P.s pushed Sturgis towards the other HUMVEE to no avail. He moved when he wanted to, if he wanted to.

I said I just needed time. I told you I can’t just take you home with me. Hernando, I do love you.

She stopped yelling. Si?

Si? the big man said.

Holy shit, Reston said standing next to me. What the fuck?

Shut up man.

Honey, I can’t now. I just can’t anymore. It’s illegal in the Army. Another M.P. came over to assist the struggling duo in moving Sturgis.

Oh, I’m sorry then, Hernando said. I do love you maricon. Goodbye. She got back in the Humvee.

Sturgis began to move with the M.P.s requests. His eyes died as Hernando sat in the HUMVEE.
We began to go our ways when I noticed Shelton standing in his shorts with shaving cream still on his face.

He was saluting.

We didn’t go out that night.

Later, in our room, Tarboro was smoking as I tried to write in my journal.

You know man, I don’t know.  Tarboro said.  I couldn’t tell if Sturgis was crying because of his career or because of his broken heart.

Yeah.  I said.

It just don’t seem right, you know?  He said, crushing his cigarette.

I know.

Advertisements