I was eighteen and thought I was a man. What eighteen-year-old doesn’t? I had joined the Navy Reserve and was headed to Chicago for boot camp at Great Lakes Training Center on a train from New Orleans. Just a country boy from Podunk, Mississippi, I had never been on a train. I’d never even been out of Mississippi except for a couple of fishing trips with my old man, one to Louisiana and one to Florida.
I ordered pancakes for breakfast, not knowing if breakfast was included with the ticket—provided by good old Uncle Sam—or if I’d have to pay. I didn’t want to ask for fear of seeming gauche. A surly waiter plopped down a plate with two pancakes on it—no butter, no syrup. I didn’t want to ask for butter and syrup for the same reason I hadn’t asked if breakfast was included in the ticket price. Maybe people who rode trains ate their pancakes dry. Maybe only country folk from Podunk poured syrup over them, so I choked them down as best I could.
To say I was not exactly worldly would be an understatement. I was a bumpkin—but not as much of a bumpkin as Randy, the sailor from Pelahatchie I met at the station. I don’t think he’d ever been away from his daddy’s peanut farm. He was tall and gangly with dry hair and buck teeth. I thought he looked like Li’l Abner. He sounded like he was shouting through a megaphone whenever he spoke.
Just to impress upon you how unsophisticated we were, let me jump ahead a moment to after boot camp, when they sent us to Washington, D.C. We did the usual tourist things—visited the Lincoln Memorial, walked around the mall, climbed all 897 steps of the Washington Monument, and stared through the fence at the White House. I stared as much at the other tourists as I did at the big house. There were cowboys and Indians (both kinds of Indians), and Blacks and whites, and people with every imaginable kind of dress. “Look at all these people,” I said to Randy, and that was when Randy, with a voice I was sure could be heard in Virginia, shouted out, “Gawldurnit”—yes, he really did say gawldurnit—“Gawldurnit, everybody up here wears shoes!”
I wanted to sink into the sidewalk.
That night we went to a bar where Randy picked up an older woman (probably every bit of twenty-eight). She invited him to come home with her and insisted I come along. At her apartment, we discovered she had a six-year-old daughter being babysat by a teenager. She paid the babysitter and the babysitter skedaddled. Randy and the woman went off into the bedroom to make whoopee while I kept the kid entertained. That’s the kind of guy I was—the kind of guy who distracts the kid while my friend gets laid.
Back to the train trip to Chicago. We met a couple of other sailors heading to Great Lakes. They were from Memphis, and clearly a lot more worldly than we were. They’d been to Chicago before, and one had even been to New York City. We played poker in the club car late into the night, drinking whisky and telling tales. They talked about all the women they had been with and told us they’d take us to a whorehouse they knew about in Chicago.
After four or five drinks, I had to go to the bathroom. I staggered my way forward in the rocking train, dizzy and disoriented from the booze and the movement of the train. I couldn’t find the men’s room, and I was getting desperate to pee. I went as far forward as I could possibly go, through car after car, and then turned around and made my way back, holding myself by then and—I confess it—leaking a little in my dress white uniform. I swear to God, there were no bathrooms on that train.
Then I came up with a brilliant idea. There were sleeper cars with hammock-like bunks that sagged in the middle. And there were cars with regular seats. While trudging car-to-car, I had noticed there were a lot of empty seats and people were sleeping in the few that were occupied. I figured I could pee in my hammock and then go sleep in one of the unoccupied seats. No problem.
So which bunk was mine? They all looked alike, but I remembered it was the second one in on the right—only, well, you know, I was drunk and disoriented and really didn’t know if I was headed toward the engine or the caboose. I found what I thought was my bunk and unbuttoned the thirteen buttons of my sailor suit (buttons symbolizing the thirteen original colonies, we were told) and let loose.
That was when the woman screamed. “Help! Rape!” Within seconds three big train cops grabbed me and hustled me off to, of all places, the men’s room. They slammed me against a wall and held me there and peppered me with questions. I tried my best to answer them as meekly as possible while holding my pants up with one hand and trying not to pee anymore. “No,” I said. “I didn’t touch the woman. I didn’t even know she was there. I was…I was…I guess I was sleepwalking. I thought I was in the men’s room. I just had to pee.”
Finally, one of the cops left, came back and said, “I talked to the woman and she corroborates his story. He didn’t touch her, he just peed on her. She said he must’ve been sleepwalking.” She actually said sleepwalking, as if she had known that was my excuse and was covering for me.
The cops took my name and serial number and said they were going to report the incident to my commanding officer. I spent the whole two weeks of boot camp terrorized that I was going to be tossed in the brig, maybe given a dishonorable discharge. I was horrified that I would have to explain it to my mother back home, but I never heard another word about it.
I thought about it in that woman’s apartment in Washington, D.C. One thing I did while I was there was open up her dictionary and look up the word “corroborate.”
Alec Clayton is a frequent contributor to Creative Colloquy. He lives in Olympia and writes for the Weekly Volcano, The News-Tribune and OLY ARTS. He’s published eight novels. His latest novel is Tupelo, the story of a set of identical twins growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s.