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Bill Murray and the formality of death

INSIDE/OUT

Part 1 of 2.

I was 19, sitting in front of my mom’s TV, eating a bowl of corn

flakes and wondering what to do with the rest of my life. The “I’m

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young, free and the world is my oyster” attitude I adopted after

graduating from high school had worn off a year earlier, replaced

with the “I’m not getting any younger and life is just passing me by”

feeling that would last me well into my 20s. I had absolutely no

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plans, money or the remotest desire to go to college.

But time was running out. A month earlier, my mom had taken the

door off my bedroom, an unmistakable signal that it was time for me

to move on. But move on to where? Truly, I hadn’t a clue. And then,

the commercial came on.

“In the Army, we do more before 6 a.m. than most people do in an

entire day.”

Well, now, that’s productive, I thought to myself. I glanced over

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at the clock. It was past 2 p.m. and I was just getting around to

breakfast. It wasn’t the first time I had considered the military as

a career option, but those musings had always stopped cold at the

thought of boot camp. Rigorous exercise, making my bed every morning

and sharing a latrine with 40 perfect strangers -- it didn’t seem

right.

But exercise, bed making and latrines were nowhere to be seen in

this commercial. Military recruitment ads were a lot different then

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than they are today. Today’s Army commercials stress glory, honor and

thrills -- legions of bright-eyed young men and women are shown

having the time of their lives, storming over hills and deserts while

loaded down with cool-looking, high-tech gear.

But back when I was 19, less than a decade after Nixon ended the

draft, the military was having a hard time attracting enough

volunteers to field a platoon. So the recruitment commercials at the

time were masterpieces of marketing. No scenes of camouflaged

soldiers humping heavy rucksacks over sand dunes. No speechifying

about such difficult abstractions as duty and patriotism. Instead,

the commercials stressed the two things most likely to attract

America’s aimless and unemployed: money and vocational training.

“The Army taught me the skills I needed for a great career in

aviation electronics,” a smiling youth in a white shirt and tie said

to the camera. “I always wanted to go to college, but who could

afford it?” asked another, smartly dressed in a business power suit.

“The Army paid for my tuition and taught me the discipline I needed

to stay the course.”

Well, it’s not like I don’t have the time, I thought to myself. I

decided to give it a try.

The next day, I walked into the recruiting office downtown,

convinced I would immediately be confronted by a uniformed Jack Webb

who would order me to stand at attention while he examined my teeth.

But it was nothing like that. Instead, the recruiting officer, Sgt.

Burrito (no, really, Sgt. Burrito) proved to be witty, urbane and

entirely sympathetic to my situation.

“Parents pushing you out the door, huh?” he asked as he handed me

a Pepsi.

“My mother, yeah. It’s getting pretty obvious.”

“But that isn’t what’s really bothering you, is it? It’s that fear

that you’re letting her down, isn’t it? That growing sense that

you’re disappointing her, and after everything she’s done for you.”

“Yes. God, yes,” I whispered, tears welling up. “You don’t

understand what it’s like.”

“Yes, David, I do,” he said, gently patting my hand. “But it

doesn’t have to be like this. Let me show you what the Army can do

for you.”

The next couple of weeks passed so pleasantly I was hardly aware I

was being recruited. Burrito and I chatted for hours about my future.

We watched cool videos about young men and women whose empty and

conflicted lives had been made whole under the tutelage of Uncle Sam.

Burrito even guided me through an aptitude test that did wonders to

improve my self-esteem.

“Wow, just look at these test scores!” Burrito exclaimed. “Hey,

Sgt. Gallegos!” he shouted to his partner. “You’d better show this

kid some respect! You might be taking orders from him some day!”

Sgt. Gallegos smiled and threw me a mock salute.

“You know, David, with these scores, you can pretty much write

your own ticket,” Burrito said. “Are you sure you want to go into the

Guard?”

I nodded. Joining the National Guard was a decision I had made

after a long talk with my mother. Mom was happy I was finally taking

a step toward adulthood, but she knew me and was concerned I might be

getting myself into something I’d regret later. She suggested I try

the National Guard first, just to see if the military really was for

me.

Finally, the day came when I was to take the oath of service. I

rode the bus downtown to the big military induction center on Hill

Street, my heart pounding with excitement. I had made up my mind that

this was something I definitely wanted to do, so the swearing-in

seemed merely a formality that I was anxious to get out of the way.

I was directed to a room where I joined about 30 other men my age

sitting on wooden benches and waiting for the show to begin. A young

officer walked into the room and announced that the oath would be

administered shortly, but first there were a couple of items we

needed to be clear on before taking the final step. He then went

around the room and spoke to us in groups of five.

“The penalty for desertion during peacetime is 20 to 30 years at

hard labor,” he said quietly, his eyes and tone indicating that this

was no joke. “The penalty for desertion during wartime is death.”

Death?

I lifted my finger to ask the officer to elaborate on the “death”

part, but he had already moved on to the next group.

Death?

At no time during my conversations with Sgt. Burrito had the word

death come up. In fact, at no time had he mentioned so much as the

possibility of bodily injury. But there it was.

Oh, don’t be so such a wimp, I thought to myself. I had recently

seen the movie “Stripes,” in which Bill Murray and Harold Ramis join

the Army on a lark and go through a series of madcap misadventures.

Sure, it was tough and a little dangerous for them at first, but they

managed to bluster and swagger their way through it and look cool all

the while. That’s what I’ll do, I told myself. I’ll bluster and

swagger my way through it.

The officer asked everyone to raise their right hands. I lifted

mine, and in my best Bill Murray voice, surrendered my life to Uncle

Sam.

* DAVID SILVA is the News-Press city editor. His columns runs

weekends. Reach him at 637-3231, or by e-mail at

david.silva@latimes.com.


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