The army sent me to San Francisco to be on the All-Army Track Team. The Presidio was an army post back then and wouldn’t become a national park until 1994. From my barrack, I had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge a quarter mile away. We held formations two times a day on the parade field, mornings in the mist and evenings before the sun set behind Seacliff. I only had to make both formations, attend track practice, and run fast. It was as close to being a professional runner as I ever got, and it was the kind of support I’d had in mind when I joined up.
After the foggy morning runs, I spent my free hours in the post library writing long, overwrought letters to friends and reading Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which I’d bought at City Lights Bookstore. I imagined the people who preceded me in San Francisco, such as Jack Kerouac, who was shy the way I sometimes felt—but man, he sure didn’t write shyly, and I didn’t want to, either. I liked that the beatniks were beaten down the way I felt at the time. I marinated, I’m telling you, right there at the corner of Haight-Ashbury, right where the hippies had stood. But by then, the cast looked more like drug addicts and homeless people and did not resemble the characters I’d read about and seen on TV. It reminded me that I still straddled worlds: a literary life and a military life, liberal and conservative, Mom’s way and Dad’s way, freaks and jocks, Christian and Science, or spirit and materialism. I still felt caught in the middle, not sure exactly who I was.
I was injured during my last race for the army. I led the race and wouldn’t drop out when my heel blistered. It was a championship race, and I thought people who DNF (did not finish) were quitters. I’d never dropped out of a race, which was obviously inflexible thinking and ignorant, because the injury ended my running career. The activity that had saved my life was no longer viable for me.
I returned to Fort Meyer on crutches and began a life stage that somehow couldn’t be about distance running. I was lost. But “Fuck up, move up” was an army maxim, so they made me a corporal, the lowest noncommissioned officer. I got my own team, which meant three guys plus me, and I was expected to keep them at a distance, not get personal. They had to respect the rank and take my orders without question, without complaint. They couldn’t even criticize me. Hypothetically, one day I might lead them into combat. I found the toughness, the invulnerability, the uniform like armor, but it wasn’t as good as I’d imagined. It was emotionally safe but lonely, and it certainly didn’t nurture me; it was as cold as moving chess pieces. I was a lonely chameleon with a really hard shell.
When my hitch ended, I drove off post and headed west. Have you ever felt freedom? Imagine being underwater, your lungs and head bursting, and you can’t stand it, but then you push off the bottom and crash through the surface with a gasp. It was like that, but one hundred times stronger and way longer and better.