About Me

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Paso Robles, California, United States
Novelist, poet, songwriter, and journalist, I bring over four decades of experience to the written page. I just finished Mental Hygiene, a coming of age novel set in Fort Jackson, SC circa 1967-68.

Friday, August 27, 2010

MENTAL HYGIENE - a Novel by Timothy Dean Martin


"There must be some way out of here,
Said the joker to the thief..."

All Along the Watchtower
Bob Dylan 1968

Chapter One

The tailpipes of Michael Murphy’s ’65 red Mustang convertible played a backbeat to the rock and roll on the car radio as he waited at the main gate. It was a hot, sticky South Carolina March day, and he was stuck in yet another line. The long indoctrination in boot camp, and his ability to see the futility of pushing back, kept him from honking his horn.

He was owned, a draftee, an ill-trained Psychological Social Work Technician, undergraduate English major with just enough military training to be incompetent. As a Southern California upper middle class, handsome white boy with a particular gift of manipulating circumstances, Murphy held a clear idea of how lucky he was to be stationed in the land of magnolias and rednecks.

Some asshole in a VW van honked behind him. The guy obviously didn’t understand how things worked. Murphy waved and pulled up to the guard shack, unflappable. The MP at the gate asked for a copy of his orders, giving his best hostile stare and icy military manner. Murphy turned down the radio.

"Do you know where you are going, Specialist?" he barked.

"I think I can find my way. Is the back gate straight ahead?"

"Move along," the MP answered. Not to be outdone, he flipped the copy of the orders into Murphy’s lap. Murphy gunned the engine and turned up the radio, entering the fort that would be his home for the remaining fifteen months of a twenty-four month draft.

Fatality statistics hung over Fort Jackson like a funeral wreath made from a spring bouquet. Everywhere Murphy looked as he drove down the fort's main drag, Marion Avenue, he saw troops who probably wouldn’t be alive the following summer, lots of smiling soldiers on a pleasant early spring day. There was no getting used to it. He just kept his eye on the ball and tiptoed through the system.

It was 1967 and most of his fellow draftees were already in Vietnam. Murphy imagined, and rightly so, that some of them were already dead. The Vietnam War was killing about a thousand U.S. troops a month, and Congress had just authorized four and a half billion dollars per year to finance the slaughter. Vietnam was the ultimate place to avoid.

Murphy’s guidance counselor in high school once told him, "Bad stuff happens to everybody." Murphy’s parents, on the other hand, were advocates of the saying, "Good things happen to good people." Murphy’s own opinion was that good things AND bad things happen to good people unless they manipulate those things to suit their own ends. It's better to report the bad news than to be it.

The Mental Hygiene Clinic was down a long driveway just off Marion Avenue, across from Hospital Headquarters, isolated enough from the main hospital building to suit its reputation. Although the Clinic was part of the hospital, its personnel were only attached, or lent out in civilian terms, to Hospital Company. Mental Hygiene was officially assigned to Headquarters Company, which wanted nothing to do with shrinks. As if to prove the point, Headquarters Company was located several blocks away from the Clinic. This was the perfect situation for a guy like Murphy, a way to slip between the cracks and remain unscathed.

The one-story building that housed Mental Hygiene ran perpendicular from a front inside hallway lined with windows on both sides. Murphy parked in the mostly empty parking lot in front of the building, got slowly out of the Mustang and paused. Last stop and then home. With no more hesitation, he bounded up the five steps and walked into the structure.

Murphy opened the Mental Hygiene door just in time to see a soldier wildly dive over the counter of the waiting area and attach his hands to the receptionist’s enormous breasts. The WAC squealed loudly, flailing her arms. With three quick steps and a lunge, Murphy grasped the waistband of the attacker, his feet slipping out from under him, and they both fell back into the waiting area. The attacker landed on top of him with a thud and then began to laugh.

The soldier sat up. "You interrupted my date, man. Who are you?"

He had to be a patient. Gazing around the reception area from his seat on the floor, Murphy observed three other troops waiting for appointments, trying their best to avoid eye contact with either him or his rumpled cohort. The WAC receptionist grinned and straightened the front of her blouse in a very provocative manner.

Murphy finally mustered up an answer. "I’m Specialist Murphy, pal. Don’t you think that you ought to wait for a cheap feel like the rest of the patients?"

"Yes, if I was one, Murphy." The soldier stood up and casually dusted himself off. "I’m Jimmy Leary from Manhattan Beach, California. The Army’s holding me captive against my will. Oh, I also work here."

"Thanks, Murphy," the WAC interrupted. "My name is Specialist Denise Lang and this asshole is always trying to feel me up. Thank you for saving me."

"So, Murphy, are you the new guy? Welcome," Leary extended his hand. The blond-haired Leary was a solid five feet eight inches and half a head shorter than Murphy, but he shook hands like a much bigger man. He looked like a surfer. "I’ve got a reputation to uphold, and she loves it." He nodded to Murphy and smiled.

Murphy chuckled. "Thanks for cluing me in. Who do I report to, the ringmaster?"

"You report to Sergeant Gonzales," Leary said. "He’s the NCOIC here, and the only guy in the Clinic with no psychology background. Also, I suspect that he’s borderline retarded, but that’s purely subjective."

"Anyway, he’s out to lunch." Lang wiggled as she spoke. "I’m about to take lunch myself. If you want, I’ll show you around the base."

Murphy paused longer than politeness would dictate, and then answered, "I think that I’d better stick right here until the Sergeant gets back. Maybe some other time."

Lang wiggled again, looking him up and down. "Any other time at all."

That’s an interesting affectation, Murphy thought.

Leary gave him a quick tour through the Clinic, walking down a long hall past several offices that were unoccupied except for desks full of paperwork. "Everybody’s out except for me. I’m on lunch watch," Leary explained. "Even mental health gets a lunch break." He laughed.

At the back of the Clinic stood a large conference room, with chairs, a podium, and a couple of long naugahyde couches along the back wall. "This is where we have meetings," Leary said. "Major Green, the ultimate guy in charge, rarely has meetings. But Gonzales loves to have them. Isn't it interesting that the lower the IQ, the more meetings one wants to have? By the way, I bunk here with the Major’s blessing. I’m sure I can work out the same deal for you. There’s an extra couch."

"Sounds good," Murphy replied. "I’ve got no particular fondness for barracks life."

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