“The Proles”: My fantasy of Armageddon, Cold-War (1970) style

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The Proles” is my 400-page typewritten “unpublished novel” manuscript, my first.

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Creation of manuscript:

I wrote most of the novel by hand in spiral notebooks while living in the barracks at Fort Eustis, VA while in the Army, throughout much of 1969.  It appears that I finished the handwritten draft in early 1970 after starting to work for RCA in Princeton NJ, and had typewritten most of the manuscript by early September 1970.  It appears that I did some work and revision while on a job assignment in Indianapolis in the early summer of 1970.

In the early fall of 1970, as I went back home to Arlington for a weekend on the train, I accidentally left my only copy at the Trenton NJ Amtrak station.  I got off in Philadelphia and took a commuter train back to Trenton to recover it.  The ticket agent still had it.

I wrote an epilogue and a summary and typed it in 1972.  After starting a new job with Univac and while living in Caldwell, NJ, I contacted someone through old contacts at RCA and sent it to Knopf in the late fall of 1972.  This didn’t get very far.

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Plot and concept:

The novel is in two parts, “The Covenant” and “The Great Summons”.

The first five chapters of the novel are strictly autobiographical.  They closely track my own life as follows:

Chapter 1:  the end of the spring semester at the University of Kansas, 1967

Chapter 2:  a summer job with the Navy Department in the summer of 1967

Chapter 3:  a fall semester at the University of Kansas and completion of my degree, 1967-1968.

Chapter 4: My fourteen weeks of Basic Combat Training in the Army, early 1968.

Chapter 5: My tours at the Pentagon (summer of 1968) and mysterious transfer to Fort Eustis in September 1968, and my remaining time there in 1969.

For these chapters I made some changes.  I call myself “John Maurcek”.  The University of Kansas becomes Kansas Weslyan (even though nothing is sectarian) and Lawrence KS becomes Atkins.  Fort Jackson SC becomes Fort Wilson (half way to Fort Gordon).

The general idea is that John meets a number of students and various people in the Army and pieces together a “conspiracy theory”.  One of the most charismatic, Hans Zugfel, appears at his summer job in Chapter 2, and seems to have a mysterious history of trips to the Soviet Union.  It seems that the Reds have developed a doomsday weapon that can vaporize matter but encode the information that created it digitally.

In Chapter 6, one of John’s other cohorts, named “Rado Suhl”, fights in Vietnam and witnesses the effect of the weapon.

In Chapter 7, John has not actually found his first job yet (in actual fact I had), and Zugfel summons him on a treasure hunt.  He winds up meeting “Oscar” (another friend from Fort Eustis) near a military base in North Dakota.  He enters the facility and loses sense of time.  He and Oscar are let go after a little while, and given a ride.  At the first gas station, they learn that nuclear war has broken out and destroyed most of the country.

Part II has six chapters named after sections of the Requiem Mass.  (Maybe the structure is a bit like Havergal Brian’s “Gothic Symphony”).  John meets a woman, Tovina, and with her travels a wasteland, eventually making it back to the East Coast.  Eventually, after some misadventures (including a place called an “Amusement Tent” in Nebraska and the delivery of some more characters)  he and Tovina (now possibly pregnant) arrive on the East Coast near the remains of Princeton .  Zugfel judges Bill regarding Bill’s hero-worship of him, and then Bill has to decide if he and Tovina are game for a long space voyage to a new planet.  The Earth, however, is finally destroyed.

Relation to my other Books:

Chapter 4, called “Interlude”, giving the details of my Basic Training in 1968, is reproduced in the “Fiction” section of the new book “Do Ask, Do Tell III: Speech Is a Fundamental Right, Being Listened to Is a Privilege”.  A more compact account had been provided as Chapter 2 of “Do Ask, Do Tell I: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” in 1997 (totally as a non-fiction narrative using Fort Jackson as the place).

The more detailed account in the new book is disturbing.  It tends to portray me as a mooch or coward, concerned about his own comfort when thrown into a situation where others make gender-related demands for the supposed common good.  But of course these demands are only valid if the “domino theory” of communism as understood in the 1960s holds and if the government indeed has the legal warrant to conscript for this common good.

The previous chapter 3 (“Development”, following the earlier “Exposition”))  gives some of the details of “John’s” experience as an assistant instructor at graduate school in Kansas, teaching a section of algebra designed for slower students.  John exudes “power” of the students in a manner similar to how he thought teachers and authorities in general had wielded power over him in his own teen and early college years.  Many students flunk, including one given an automatic F for cheating.  John knows that some of these students could lose their draft deferments if he fails them, and wind up more likely to serve as cannon fodder (especially in infrantry) in Vietnam.  The chapter also describes some travels with a roommate (one dedicated to Ayn Rand’s individualism, and with whom he has good rapport, compared to what had happened at William and Mary), as well as the last two weeks of transition from graduate student (with some powers in teaching himself), going through Master’s orals, to Army life as a “prole”.  There is a posting on my companion site with some passages from early pages of the book that develop this point, here.

Another story in the DADT III book, “The Ocelot the Way He Is”, brings up the issue of sending other college students to the draft by flunking them, as if John had played both sides of the issue.

The Chapter that follows Basic, 5 (“The Investigations”) chronicles his life in permanent party.  He spends three months in the Pentagon and living on post at Fort Myer.  He makes some jokes in the office about having been a “bad detail man”.  Mysteriously, he is transferred to Ft. Eustis.  This seems to have to do with his previous psychiatric history, and this may be the only portion of the novel where his expulsion for “latent homosexuality” is discussed.  Once at Fort Eustis, he makes friends in the barracks in his own way, as most of the other men are similarly relatively well educated.  One campadre, “Oscar”, had enlisted for three years to ensure staying out of combat.  Oscar, while studying genealogy in conjunction with joining the LDS church, is quite taken in by John’s hangups about latent homosexuality, joins in the jokes, with repeated caricatures of Tiny Tim. (and “The Gesture”, where moonfaced Oscar bends his wrist and says “O Go Way Butterfly” — we called that “OGAB”).   But other characters, for whom John assigns “animal names” like Lizard, Ostrich, and particularly The Ocelot,  impress John, who starts to imagine how they could fit into (or have wind of)  a particular “conspiracy”, to rid the world of the parasites and underserving.  (John is called “Chickenman” — because he’s everywhere.)   By the time I was at Ft. Eustis, we all knew about the proletariat “cultural revolution” in China, where everyone took turns being a peasant, and thought that the Soviets would ensure that the same thing could be imposed on us, one by one, even if took nukes to do it. Even, I thought that the USSR’s National Anthem (performed in the 1981 movie “Reds”) was much more stirring than our own.

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Relation to historical truth:

I’ve noted the fictional locations already,  The main deviation from reality starts in Chapter 5.  I propose that the Army canceled the program of specialized MOS’s (like my “01E20” Mathematician) for enlisted men with advanced degrees.  I don’t recall for sure whether the Army really did this, but I believe that it did eventually.   At Fort Eustis, the Berkeley doctoral graduate “Rado Suhl” asks to be transferred and goes to Vietnam, in time to witness the doomsday weapon.  I think he did get transferred shortly after I left (on Feb. 7, 1970).

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In the book, I don’t get a civilian professional job before getting out of the Army, and go right on the treasure hunt.  In reality, I had two major offers (RCA and Bell Labs) by mid December 1969.  I started work at RCA on February 16, 1970, reporting at the Cherry Hill NJ location.

In the book, John is accused of homosexuality in the last few months and placed  on general duty, where he has to live in the bay with Special Troops and share KP.  This did not happen.  But we constantly “feared” being sent “back to the bay”, which we called “BTTB”.

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Psychological Aspects

This whole time, John sees his own life as from outside like an observer.  Everything in his life is about meaning and symbolism rather than direct experience.  He has emotion generated by music and by his ideals, and fantasies about ideal men (as explained in the DADT III book, around p. 44-45. He has no concept of a relationship with someone based on genuine complementarity, even less with the idea that he could biologically father life and that if he did so, that could “mean” anything.  In fact, he might relish communicating the idea that less competitive men should not father children and have a lineage — but that would feed the idea of eugenics.   He seems to lack some basic instincts.  Yet, within his own frame of reference, his own universe with its own rules, everything is fascinating.  Autism (at least in this form mild enough to invite moral disapproval) really works, even rocks.  So it’s possible to view a conspiracy theory through this lens and make it work, even make it funny.  Perhaps it sounds like satire.  You can pick up this 1969-1970 typed manuscript at random passages, and it seems quite seductive and captivating to share John’s beliefs, worldviews, and fears, even about his own vulnerable body image.

There is something very dark about how John sees other people.  You could say, as objects, as pawns or chess pieces, to be scored (that is, a Bishop is “worth” three and a half pawns).  Physical attributes become part-objects, and affect whether John can feel any emotional stake in the person.  It’s possible for someone to “lose it”, either because of his own bad living habits, or because of the actions of others (as in combat).  Then he is forever worthless, whatever the cause.  On a private level that is meaningless, but as people get taken in by it (as they do in the military barracks, especially in Chapter 5), it has its effect.  Politically, it can become dangerous, feeding racism or an attitude that people can become expendable.  Organized crime and fascism both feed on that process;  communism at least pretends that it addresses it.  People need to be able to enter relationships (marriages) and keep them when something unfortunate happens to one partner, all the more if in war.  

Of course, this style of thinking, even if we had just fought WWII to defeat it, had been reinforced by the draft and deferment system, which led that some people’s lives were more expendable than others.

There is a lot of talk of male beauty, and of resentment of the old cultural norm that only women should be valued for passive beauty.  There is some focus on various secondary attributes of men in spots (with phrases like “mannish flesh”).  Nevertheless, all the sex scenes are heterosexual.  Near the end of Part I, Hans Zugfel finally has intercourse with his mystery girl friend “Holdine” (whom John has met clandestinely); the scene builds up very slowly, as John imagines it during masturbatory fantasy.  But John never imagines being with Zugfel or any other male directly in the book.  John’s “second coming” would not occur until 1973.   In the second half, near the end, as written, he attempts intimacy with Tovina, and is disturbed at what he sees when she undresses.  Would it make sense to have children in such a world anyway?

Various men looked at my handwritten manuscript in the barracks, and chuckled at how they were presented.  The standing joke was “The Proles,, rated X”.  Now, that’s NC-17.  But it probably would be rated R if made today.

Will “The Proles” ever sweep across the screen?  That I’ll take up in a subsequent posting.

(Published Tuesday March 25, 2014 about 5 PM EDT.)

4 thoughts on ““The Proles”: My fantasy of Armageddon, Cold-War (1970) style”

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