Another Dead Soldier (March 9, 2005)

The boys were flying on acid on the veneer line, that much I knew. I never worked on veneer but I saw it done. A matter of flipping big flat sheets of Doug fir off a chain and into bins. From there it was taken to the gluing department, rolled through a press and trimmed into plywood.

But that was all in the past. Now I was in the big empty, the decommissioned plywood plant, the place all the returning veterans seemed to end up when they got home. Welcome to the working class.

It had been shut down after only a few years, and I ended up later on working with a lot of the guys who had worked there, across the pond at the big mill, which at that point was busy with all sorts of production and maintenance.

My job in the plywood plant was as a fire watchman. I got to snoop around the ghostly insides, and climb the caged ladder up the outside wall. This gave me a view of Fort Bragg rooftops climbing the slope toward Harold Street. A pastel village in the morning mist. A myth.

Nothing could be real out there because everything was too real where I was.

On a high school field trip we had watched old man Dukes run the lathe, and followed the whole process all the way to the stacked units waiting to be shipped. The clamor and uproar had come to a stop. Everything was still in LP colors but an auction was scheduled to empty the place of its singular equipment. The lathes, bins, chains and presses would all be taken apart and either re-installed somewhere else or broken down for scrap. That's business.

My job was to make sure none of it burned up before it could be sold.

But this is really about later on. The way people would eat pills like lab rats and snort powders like courtly gentlemen while pounding away at the logs that ran through their lives like shit through a goose.

The competitive drinking that went on later, after work, when we'd gather in someone's little house, the kind built on the back of the lot, with a front gate opening on the alley.

Stumbling up to the Coast Hotel at opening time. We were beatniks without books wandering vaguely through a surreal landscape and unable to resist the elements of change.

They told me they flew on acid on the veneer line because of what happened overseas. When they crouched in temporary graves watching tracer fire and bombing runs. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Watching the green boys come in and the hamburger go out.

That was where the acid had been indispensable, because of two things: uncertainty about the justice and wisdom of the mission they were on, and the constant threat of arbitrary destruction. There were so many ways to die, not all of them pretty, few of them noble, all thorough. Acid transformed the experience into a vivid poem, an aesthetic exercise. 

Or so they said.

And when they got home: plywood. The place had run three shifts, and it's a safe bet that on the graveyard shift most of the laborers were veterans. That was the working class in those days. The odds were against you.

I believe they were still fighting that war every night from midnight until 8am. The shrieks and concussions, the blinding lights, the vivid reduction of things to their base elements, the shipping out of final product; all of it was in some very real way analogous to combat.

So they hammered themselves into their own little mental foxholes with whatever they could get their hands on. Because they wanted it, it was there.

Of course their appetite supported a vampire subculture of speed merchants and traffickers. Of substance controllers. Of buyers and sellers who could count on a certain level of cash flow directly proportionate to the number of dazed young war veterans working stupidly through the empty nights. Since life itself had become surreal they were forced to become surrealists, and as such they depended upon the array of pharmaceutical palliatives most available.

When you think of Fort Bragg's history you think of the big shaggy logs and the drying lumber. How busy it all was, to log the woods and then work the logs. Everybody had something to do.

Even after being sent overseas on a capitalistic scholarship and being posted to an exploding swamp, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Nixon and the department of Veteran's Affairs, there was still stumpage bobbing in the pond and a regular production schedule to think about. But how could anything be regular after that?

The machines were pretty much the same. Saws and rollers, buttons, devices to bind wood and devices to spread it out. All the apparatus out in the open, functioning coldly, frequently in need of repair.

The machinery had evolved along with everything else, from crude cast-iron and hand-power to smooth steel and humming dynamos. Production and efficiency increased predictably. 

The worker still faced tedium and apathy. It was hard not to. Machines make demands but do not give rewards. They just sit there spinning their parts, looking hungry and utilitarian.

This is all ancient history now, except for the vampire subculture which has rooted down in the mythical town.

The mill is an historical oddity, crouched on the bluff where nobody in their wildest dream would think to build a mill these days. The little pond full of crap and the city sewage plant, slowly rendering crap into something more benign.

But the vampires are still there. It seems they alone are eternal.

Supernaturally aware of their surroundings and motivated by who knows what perversions and obsessions.

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