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Happy Was The Soldier!

Published in the Post, August 11, 1956

Coby was an Alabama lad, six feet five tall; with blue eyes and a smile that spilled over from some inner reservoir of delight. He walked around in his private cloud, always grinning, humming, chuckling, telling himself stories, slapping his thighs in gratitude for his own inexhaustible good company. “Man, oh, man,” he would chortle, “that’s mighty fine stuff. Yes, suh, yes, suh, that’s mighty fine stuff.” He was entirely at home with himself — his body, his history, his reveries. He was the happiest man I ever knew. His moods ran an exceptionally narrow gamut, being bounded at the lower end by pleasure and at the upper range by bliss. The only thing he was sensitive about was his height, which he unfailingly gave, in rueful confession, at “five foot seventeen.”

On the post we always knew when Coby was about to materialize; you could hear, in advance, the humming or whistling or chuckling of his unremittent dialogue with himself. Hear it? No. Overhear it. For his contact with any of us—with the universe beyond his own fantasies — was fragmentary, and oddly compassionate. I think he felt sorry for everyone who did not live with him in the remembered past with which he chose to replace the present.

Coby was an exceedingly co-operative soldier, but he was most oddly co-ordinated. His limbs seemed to live a life independent of his torso. When Coby drew himself to attention, he did it in pieces, as it were —as if his brain were obliged to send messages to the outlying provinces of his bodily empire; naturally it took more time for a foot to respond than, say, a hand, since the one was so much farther away from headquarters than the other.

Coby looked strong — very strong — but he did not feel strong. And a man who does not feel strong simply is not able to lift certain loads, or move certain objects, or heave, haul, toss or carry things which much weaker men manage to do because they want to be strong. This was an illusion Coby had never seriously entertained. He did not give a damn about physical strength; he wanted harmony, not power. He found himself in a world where men competed — for jobs, for women, for money, for promotions. Coby never competed for anything. He was content with himself, encouraged himself, enjoyed himself and admired himself. “His ego,” the post psychiatrist later remarked in a special report to the C.O.,” is inaccessible to conventional appeals.”

It certainly was. Coby was the only private in the United States Army who never made his bed; his sergeant made his bed for him, each and every morning. I think he is the only private in military history whom neither sergeants nor lieutenants nor captains nor majors nor colonels could prevail upon. They tried — all of them. Lord knows they tried. They tried command and cajolery, threats and bluster and reprisals, but Coby would not make his bed. He would hear out the orders, the threats, the reasoning, the appeals to sense, to teamwork, to esprit de corps. Then all he’d say, with the utmost kindliness, was: ‘”Tain’t fit for a grown man to make his own bed.”

All this broke upon our collective awareness the first morning after Coby was shipped to our installation. His sergeant came into quarters just before inspection to find Coby staring out the window happily, humming a roundelay. His bed was unmade.
Sergeant Pulaski, an uncomplicated Polish boy from Chicago, called, “Clay!”

“Yes, suh,” Coby beamed.

“Clay,” said Sergeant Pulaski sternly, “You didn’t make your bed.”

“That’s right, suh.”

Sergeant Pulaski wrinkled his brow. “Why not?”

Coby said, “‘Tain’t fit for a grown man to make his own bed.”
Sergeant Pulaski, who had a gift for unvarnished command, put his fists on his hips at once and barked, “What the hell kind of stuff is that?”

“Back home,” said Coby, “my maw always makes my bed. Ever since I been born my maw always made that bed.”

“In the Army,” said Sergeant Pulaski very slowly, “there ain’t no mommas to make no beds. In the Army, soldier, everyone except officers makes his own bed. Now make that bed.”

Coby took thought and shook his head with an air of the most amiable reluctance. “Suh, I don’t want to make no trouble for nobody, nohow, but I jest cain’t do it.”

“And why, may I ask, cain’t you just do it?”

“Because I jest couldn’t face my maw again if I made my own bed.”

Sergeant Pulaski stared at Coby, tightened his lips, said, “A guy asks for trouble he’s gonna get trouble,” and stalked out.

Coby lay down on his bed and played the harmonica. In less than five minutes, Sergeant Pulaski returned with Lieutenant Bienstock. Bienstock, a second lieutenant with fuzz on his cheek, but not on his chin, was an enthusiastic exponent of that come-on-fellows-let’s-all-put-our-shoulders-to-the-wheel-together attitude which never fails to puzzle military observers from abroad, who expect an army to be divided simply into these who command and those who obey.

He hastened into the barracks now with shining eyes, alert ears and palpitating disbelief. “Which one? Where, sergeant? Which one is it? . . . That one? Oh. . . . On your feet, soldier.”

As Coby undulated himself upward, part after part, until he stood more or less at attention, Lieutenant Bienstock paled slightly.
“Mornin’, suh,” Coby smiled.

Lieutenant Bienstock glanced uneasily at Sergeant Pulaski and said, “Now, listen. Clay. You don’t want to get into any trouble, do you? And we certainly don’t want to make you any trouble. Now, what’s all this I hear about your not intending to make your bed?”
Coby looked down at his superior from bland, unruffled heights. “I don’t want to make no trouble for nobody nohow. I like it here, suh. But I never made up no bed in m’whole life. It jest don’t feel right, and I couldn’t look my maw in the eye agin.”

Lieutenant Bienstock stared at the kind, forbearing face above him, and, in a slightly strained voice, asked, “Do you realize what you’re saying. Clay? Do you know what this means? Why—you’re deliberately refusing to obey an order from a superior officer!”

“Oh, no, suh,” Coby said. “I ain’t refusin’ t’obey no one, nohow. No. suh.”

“Then you’ll go ahead and make that bed.”

“Cain’t,” said Coby.

“You certainly can. You know you can, and it’s silly to say you can’t.”

“Cain’t,” said Coby.

Lieutenant Bienstock glanced at Sergeant Pulaski nervously, wet his lips, studied the ceiling for a moment, and said, “Sergeant, take this man to Captain Howard’s office. Wait for me there.”

“Right.” Sergeant Pulaski saluted and nodded to Coby, who regarded Lieutenant Bienstock in the kindest possible way before ambling out. Bienstock lighted a cigarette quickly, inhaled deeply, and thought very hard, organizing all his thoughts. There were a great many of them. Then he hurried out and headed for Captain Howard’s office.

Coby was sitting on a long bench, one foot drawn up with his elbow on it, his hand dangling loosely, moving in lazy rhythm to his humming. Sergeant Pulaski was standing next to him in the correctest possible military posture. Lieutenant Bienstock regarded Coby sententiously, giving him one last chance to recant. Coby started to mobilize his bodily ingredients for ascent with a smile so understanding that Lieutenant Bienstock turned on his heel and strode into Captain Howard’s private office.

Captain Howard was a mint sucker. He was efficient, crisp, hard-working and mean. An automobile salesman from Wichita, he was a stern believer in fair play, cold showers and clean thoughts. His thoughts were so clean that he spent most of his free time planning a laundry service he was going to run as soon as his term of service was over. He was the kind of partial personality known as “a man’s man.” He had few friends and many doubts. When he was sure no one was watching, he bit his nails. When he went to sleep, he looked anxious.

He was tallying up some requisition forms when Lieutenant Bienstock entered. Bienstock saluted smartly, accepted Captain Howard’s cursory “Proceed,” and recited the details of Private Coby Clay’s one-man defiance of the simplest and most universal requirement of military life.

When he finished, Captain Howard looked up with an expression of incipient outrage. “He won’t make his bed?”

Lieutenant Bienstock cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. He says he won’t make his bed.”

Captain Howard stared at Bienstock as if at one who had just told him the sun had risen in the west that morning.

“He says it’s against his principles, sir,” said Bienstock.

“His principles?” Captain Howard echoed. “What the hell is he, a Mohammedan or something?”

“No, sir. He’s from the South.”

“So what? Half this installation is — “

“Says his maw always made his bed for him an it ‘tain’t — it isn’t fit for a grown man to make his own bed.”

Captain Howard leaned forward, hunched his shoulders like a fullback plowing through the line, and cried, “His maw? What the hell’s the matter with you, Bienstock?”

“Nothing, sir,” said Bienstock with a pained expression. “I was just quoting.”

“He calls his mother ‘maw’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is he a hillbilly or something?”

Bienstock hesitated. “I think he’s an illiterate, sir.”

“To hell with that. I don’t care if he’s a Mason. Do you mean to stand there and say you let a damn dogface pull something like refusing to make his own bed on you?

“Sir, I explained and insisted and argued with him, and I even –”

Howard’s face assumed various hues of impatience as Lieutenant Bienstock proceeded. This made Lieutenant Bienstock more nervous, and he began to stammer. This made Captain Howard’s lips thread themselves so that contempt replaced impatience. This made Lieutenant Bienstock blush. This made Captain Howard slap his desk with his open palm and snap, “You argued with him? What the hell’s the matter with you anyway, Bienstock? You’re an officer of the United States Army! Act like one. Throw that no-good, gold-bricking louse in the guardhouse.”

“Sir?”

“You heard me! Throw him in the can!”

“I thought —“

“Don’t! Give him to the MP’s, boy—to the MP’s. Twenty-four hours in the cooler will’cool off that joker. It’s as simple as that. ‘He won’t make his bed.’ Ha! “It ain’t fit for a grown man,’” Howard repeated in disgust. “Holy Moses, man, even the communists make their own beds! Dismissed!”

Lieutenant Bienstock wiped his brow the minute he got outside the door, signaled to Sergeant Pulaski, and strode out while Sergeant Pulaski told Coby, “Up!” When they were more than fifty feet from Captain Howard’s office, Lieutenant Bienstock made a last earnest effort with Coby, who listened with the utmost consideration. You could see that he wouldn’t want to hurt Lieutenant Bienstock’s feelings for anything in the world. But what he said, after Bienstock’s moving appeal to reason, was “’Tain’t fit for a grown man to— “

“Sergeant,” said Bienstock manfully, “take this man to the guardhouse! By order of Captain Howard.”

Coby spent that day and night behind bars. He spent most of the day singing and slept through the night like a particularly contented lamb.

Sergeant Pulaski was waiting for Coby with a knowing smile when Coby returned to the barracks from the guardhouse the next day.

Coby was delighted to see him. “Man, oh, man,” he chuckled, “I caught up on plenty of shut-eye.”

Pulaski said, “O.K., Coby. Let’s us have no more trouble from you, huh?”

Coby’s eyes moved serenely around the room, coming to rest on his own bed in the far corner. It looked as neat, tight and oblong as a coffin.

“We got commended for neat quarters this morning,” said Sergeant Pulaski defensively. “O.K., O.K., so I made the bed up myself. But no more trouble from you, huh. Clay?”

“No, suh,” said Coby. “I ain’t aimin’ to give nobody—”

“— no trouble no how,” Pulaski finished. “I heard you. Now get the lead out and fall in with your squad.”

Coby spent the day training with his company, went to sleep that night, rose the next morning, helped his comrades mop the floor and sweep the stairs, lent a helping hand to one and all, humming and smiling all the while—but he did not make his bed. Sergeant Pulaski looked baffled as he went out to find Lieutenant Bienstock once more.

Bienstock gave Coby a fervent ten-minute lecture on military discipline, Captain Howard’s cold heart and the reputation of Colonel Fenshaw, a terror in disciplinary matters. Coby could not have been more interested in these novel insights into the military organization of which he was so new a part. But he would not sacrifice his principles; he would not sully his mother’s image of him; he would not make his bed. He returned to the guardhouse. And Sergeant Pulaski made his bed again, while Coby sang for his colleagues in the can.

The next day Coby was back with his fellows. That night he slept in the bed which Sergeant Pulaski had made that morning. The next morning he declined to make his bed, with real affection and regret, and went to the guardhouse again.

This went on for a week, Coby spending alternate nights at the guardhouse, sleeping alternate nights in the bed which the desperate Sergeant Pulaski so despairingly made for him. When it seemed clear that Coby Clay was willing to spend the rest of his days in this idyllic double life, Lieutenant Bienstock reported to Captain Howard with an unmistakable note of panic in his voice.

Captain Howard studied Lieutenant Bienstock with disgust mingled with disbelief, saying, between his many fine, well-brushed teeth, “Bring that soldier in to me.” He had never laid eyes on Coby Clay.

When Coby presented himself, Captain Howard was on the telephone, his back to the door, reading aloud from a report and chewing out a lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps. Captain Howard was feeling especially curt, concise and complete that day. He slammed the phone down, turned in his chair, deliberately keeping his eyes on the report, waiting for the familiar phrase: “Private – reporting, sir,” from the erect body on the other side of the desk. He did not get the salutation, because Coby did not know it.

Captain Howard put his pencil down slowly, exactly parallel to the blotter pad, assumed an expression of icy foreboding, then lifted his eyes up the height of the private waiting for his dispensation. This calculated movement of the eyes had always before served Captain Howard’s purposes; it was a kind of slow deflation of the other’s ego, a deliberate chopping down of hope or pretension, a tactical maneuver which made it crystal-clear who was standing and who was sitting and who was going to continue standing at the sole pleasure of who was sitting. But Lieutenant Bienstock had forgotten to tell Captain Howard how tall Coby Clay was. By the time Captain Howard’s gaze had reached the unexpected height of Coby’s chin, Wilbur Howard, who was only five feet eight had his head far in the socket of his neck and his eyes were bugged into an involuntary bulge.

Coby was smiling sheepishly, us he always did when people first comprehended his height. “ I come right over here, suh, jest like that there other fellow told me.”

“Who?” asked Captain Howard.

“That there other fellow. The one brought me here before.”
Captain Howard could feel his neck getting hot. “That ‘other fellow’ is Lieutenant Bienstock, and you will refer to him hereafter by name.”

“He never told me his name,” said Coby.

“Well, I’m telling you his name!” Captain Howard said, slamming his open palm upon the desk. “And even if you don’t know his name, you could call him lieutenant. You understand that much, don’t you?”

“Is that what that there fella is?” asked Coby, always grateful for increment to his store of knowledge. “A lieutenan’? My!”

Captain Howard turned sideward and poured himself a glass of water, noting with relief that his hands were quite steady. He sipped the water slowly, held the glass in his hand, studied it, placed the glass back on the table to his left, leaned forward, put his palms together and said in a low, even voice. “Clay, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am about to tell you. I’ll say it slowly, so there is not the slightest chance you’ll misunderstand. It involves your making a decision that may affect your whole life. Are you ready?”

Coby drew his brows together, thinking over every word Captain Howard had uttered, and nodded.

Captain Howard took a long breath and let it out, word by word. “Either you make your bed every morning, without a single complaint, or I’ll put you in the guardhouse for a whole, solid, thirty-day month.” He fixed Coby with his deadliest I-take-no-nonsense-from-anyone stare.

“Is that clear?”

Coby nodded.

“You understand it?”

Coby nodded again.

“Any question you want to ask?”

Coby shook his head.

“Fine. Now, which will it be?”

“How’s that again, suh?” asked Coby.

Captain Howard gritted his many teeth. ‘”Which—will—it—be? Make your bed every- morning or go to the jug for thirty days?”

Coby sighed, endowing the man seated before and below him with infinite compassion. “I don’t want to make no trouble for no one nohow, suh, but ‘tain’t fit for a grown man to–

The blood drained out of Captain Howard’s face, and all sorts of evil thoughts welled up in him and had to be denied. He pressed a button on his desk crisply. “Good-by, soldier.”

Coby spent the next month in the guardhouse. It was, according to the reports that swept through our installation with the speed of a forest fire, the happiest month in Coby’s life. The MP’s and Captain Howard and Major Forman—to whom Captain Howard brought the problem, confessing defeat—simply could not believe it. They could understand it, but they could not believe it. Or perhaps it was the other way around.

For Coby Clay was behaving in such a way that the entire theory of punishment as a deterrent force was in danger. Every day Coby spent happily in the guardhouse meant that the punitive was losing its power, its symbolic warning. For the whole idea of a guardhouse, or any place of confinement, rests on the assumption that detention is hateful to man’s free spirit, crippling to man’s free soul. But now one whole sector of the United States Army was confronted with a man for whom detention held no terrors, confinement meant no deprivation, discipline represented no threat. The awful, confounding truth which was dawning on our brass was this: Private Coby Clay, of Alabama, liked the guardhouse. In fact, he preferred it to the barracks. There was something about the bounded, ordered microcosm of detention that appealed to Coby no end; life was reduced to its simplest form—devoid of conflict or the irksome necessities of choice. In the guardhouse, Coby slept like a king, ate like a horse and sang like an angel for one and all.

The fact that Coby declined to make his bed while in the guardhouse too—politely, but without uncertainly—presented its own special problem to the MP’s; after all, there was no other guardhouse to which you could send a man in punishment for not making his bed in the guardhouse in which he was. “What in hell can I do?” Major Inglehart, the MP in charge, was often heard to moan. No one knew how to answer him.

Nor was this all. The other prisoners, who regarded Coby with both affection and respect, were beginning to be converted to Coby’s unique philosophy of life; the insidious idea began to germinate in their brains that perhaps they could get away with not making their beds. To nip this development in the bud, Major Inglehart transferred Coby to a cell with one Lacy Bucks, a young enlistee from Mississippi who could not endure Yankees but felt blixid-brother lo anyone south of Kentucky. The major interviewed Private Bucks personally and, after a certain amount of shilly-shallying, ordered Bucks to make up Coby’s bed every morning. “And don’t tell anyone you’re doing it,” said Inglehart darkly.

Bucks seemed perfectly contented to do this for the major, relying on justice to reward him in the end. Coby, of course, never had reason to tell anyone who it was that was making his bed. He never needed to initiate any discussion of the bed problem at all; it was no problem to him. At home, his maw had, and so on. Then Sergeant Pulaski had; now Lacy Bucks did. It was the most natural thing in the world to Coby Clay.

We all knew that things simply could not go on this way forever. Besides, there was the problem of work details. Men being punished in a guardhouse cannot, obviously, be permitted to spend their days in happy idleness while all around them earnest comrades drill like furies, crawl through mud, contest with barbed wire, run obstacle courses with full pack under a merciless sun. The Army cannot be that naive.

Major Inglehart put Coby, Private Bucks and a barrel-chested Italian boy named Tony Caralucciano into a detail to police the grounds. It seemed a safe-enough assignment. But as it worked out, that threesome damn near demoralized our entire installation. For on any well-run army post every prisoner must be accompanied by an armed guard whenever he—I mean the prisoner—is allowed outside the guardhouse. Each man out of our guardhouse was followed, wherever he went, by a fully armed MP with a rifle, ammunition belt and battle helmet. This meant that as Coby, Lacy Bucks and Tony Caralucciano ambled happily across the grounds—in a memorable formation which I shall describe forthwith—three MP’s, carrying rifles und wearing battle helmets, marched stiffly behind in slow parade. And since the heat was very great on our post that summer, often clawing at our senses with shimmering hands, the three prisoners in fatigue clothes were conspicuously more comfortable than their nominally freer custodians.

The formation of the work detail added its own particular piquancy to the scene. Coby always took the middle spot, looming up above Lacy Bucks on his right and Tony Curalucciano on his left. Tony carried a long pole with a nail at the end; Lacy carried a burlap sack. As the three devoted men moved lazily across the ground they had been assigned to make bereft of trash, Tony would spear a piece of paper—a chewing-gum wrapper, an envelope, a crumpled ball of unrequited love—on the end of the nail that was on the end of the pole, and would hold the pole out toward Coby. Coby would then remove the paper from the nail with the utmost delicacy, crooking his little finger, would bring his hand across from left lo right, where Lacy Bucks was holding the sack open, and would then let the piece of paper drop daintily into the sack. He hummed or sung during the entire operation. This helped the morale of his guards considerably.

Tony Caralucciano had a fine saloon voice and, in the great tradition of the people from whom his stock flowed, was a passionate lover of Verdi and Puccini. Lucy Bucks was strictly a hot-jazz type, the kind who tries to find in life somewhere the archaic excitations of the syncopated. Coby, a man of broad and generous interests, liked to sing anything. And these three good men soon learned to float together on the sea of their common fantasies, singing or humming while they worked and as the moment moved them. It was a thing beautiful to hear and, once heard, never to be forgotten. It went like this:

Each morning when the trio moved into position ahead of their helmeted Cerberi, Coby would greet the day by humming a note—any note, whichever note best suited his mood. His mood was unfailingly happy. If Tony was feeling very operatic he would take off, using Coby’s theme note as a springboard, into anything from Tosca to Madame Butterfly. If it was Lacy Bucks who was in touch with his private muses, he would give out with anything from One o’Clock Jump to Roll, Jordan, Roll. And if Coby wanted to override his confreres, he would simply sing out his own immemorial hymns. There was no set pattern to it; whoever sang, the others accompanied; whatever one man finished, another would take up, on the last long, expiring note, for his own. It was as close to true understanding as any three men can ever get. As one of the guards was heard to mutter many months later, still struggling with his confusion and dismay: “Them was the happiest damn guys pickin’ up trash I ever did meet.”

When Coby’s month of punishment ended, he returned, refreshed and forgiving, to the jurisdiction of Sergeant Pulaski, who studied him in silence for a long, long moment before asking, “Coby, you learned your lesson? You gonna be a good guy and make your own bed?” Before Coby could ever finish shaking his head, Sergeant Pulaski threw his head back, glaring at the heavens, and cried, “Oh, hell! O.K.! All right. I give up! You win! A couple million guys in the whole damn American Army, from North and South and East and West, and I have to draw you. So O.K., Clay. That’s the way God wants it, that’s the way He’s gonna have it. I’ll make your damn bed from now on!”

And he did. Every morning. Every single morning, an American sergeant made a private’s bed for him. It was the talk of the post, naturally, and not a day passed but what Pulaski got kidded and razzed and needled about this transmogrification of the established order. Sergeant Pulaski began to get mighty edgy, I can tell you.

Then one day Coby loomed over Pulaski and said, “You got a minute maybe, for me to ask you somethin’?”

“Come on, come on,” said Pulaski crossly. “Talk fast. I got my rear in a wringer.”

Coby scratched his head. “Well, I been figgerin’ out about this bedmakin’. ‘Tain’t fit for a man to make his own bed, like my maw says. But I been thinkin’ an’ dreamin’ an’ schemin’ an’ all, an’ I don’t see no right reason why a man cain’t make up someone else’s bed. Like you been doin’ for me! I figger my maw wouldn’t hardly mind if I did the same little thing for you.”

The kidding of Sergeant Pulaski stopped after that. For from then on, until that whole regiment of brave men was shipped overseas, while Sergeant Pulaski made Coby’s bed each morning, Coby— humming of dark glades and promised lands—made Pulaski’s.

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  • Jim C

    One of the most amusing, yet extremely creative pieces that I have ever read! If this is typical of Saturday Evening Post online fare, I need to be more diligent in reviewing each edition.