Saturday, September 03, 2005

Molloy the Magnificent

Molloy: the name sticks with me--the guy in Beckett's novel who couldn't remember his name when arrested by the police for leaning the wrong way on his bicycle. Why, of all names, is that the one that occurred to me when I had to choose a name? Why not Wilfred? Why not Orson? Some very fine people are named Orson, like Welles and Bean. Why not Augustus? I might have the blood of empire running in my veins. Is that empirical blood?

But I think I know the answer. It goes way back to college days at UCSB (hm, way, way back), when there was still an ROTC requirement (Reserve Officer Training Corps.). All males had to have two years of ROTC, unless, of course, they transferred in after their sophomore year. Those of us who went in unsuspecting as freshmen--we were up, uniforms pressed, brass polished, shoes spit-shined, at 6:00 AM every Thursday morning. And we took classes in military stuff. I remember two things from all those long ago classes: a) any little hillock in a landscape can provide cover from enemy fire (that was valuable); b) when in hot pursuit over the battlefield, make sure you bayonet any fallen enemy you pass; they could be scamming, rise up, and shoot you from behind, the scum. Somehow, it seemed like a terrible impediment to forward movement to have to stop, make sure you stabbed home, and then move on. But these were advisements from an ancient world. Modern technology has made such dangers obsolete.

But I started to relate the probable origin of my fascination with the name Molloy. First, it's an important fact that I was a musician in the ROTC band, not a future soldier at all. Early one morning, as I was warming up, noodling around, wanting, of course, to play my best when it came to all those 120 bpm Sousa masterpieces, the bandleader whispered a warning that one of the officers was advancing upon me with a glowering look and I should, in a word, can it. Well, before I knew what was happening, there was that officer demanding to know my name, rank, and serial number. Unfortunately, under pressure of his severe questioning--he had stern eyebrows that moved bushily when he barked, and his hat waggled behind his waggling ears--I couldn't immediately think of my name. Can you believe it? It was just like Molloy in the novel, only I hadn't read the novel yet. My hesitation was a deep source of consternation for the officer, who immediately flung a witty and cerebral taunt at me: "Can't you remember your name, soldier?" Being addressed as "soldier" threw me off, too. My fellow band members stood around in sympathetic anguish, and the band leader gave me this "I tried to warn you" look.

I redeemed myself under these stressful circumstances by looking down at my name tag. And lo, there was my name. I read it off, sounding it out carefully, to the officer, whose name, I believe (I glanced at his name tag as well) was "Reed." "Sir," I barked, "Molloy! My name is Molloy!" Now, of course, I didn't actually say that, because that isn't really my name. That's what the character in the novel says. But I did read off my name, which infuriated him even more than my martial noodling. He stormed off, grinding his jaws and clenching his military fists in a military way, probably wishing he could court martial me, or put me in the brig, or drive me off a plank. Me, I took my place in line,mulling over the possibility that I had , for the moment, brought to a halt, over a name, the American military establishment. I had found my hillock under fire and the enemy gave up on me.

A subordinate blog:

The demise of ROTC at UC: A protest in the best spirit of the 20th century. It was still two years before the Viet Nam anti-war uprisings and protests, but some anonymous persons, whose names shall remain unknown (I was not one of them, and I really have no idea who they were) found their voice. It was the last day of a year that had been uneventful except for my brave encounter recounted above. The students were assembled on the parade ground, brass bright and sparkling in the early sun. A breeze blew. Eucalyptus leaves waved. In the distance the ocean shimmered. The aspiring soldiers stood at attention; they shouldered their arms; they saluted smartly; they stared straight ahead. The officers on the platform exuded nobility (this was really just the front of an old and not too well-maintained barracks building left over from WWII) ready to inspect. The band played on.

When suddenly, above the fixed stares of the officers, Mickey Mouse, dressed in parade uniform, saluting smartly himself, unfurled before the ranks. He was smiling his happy-go-lucky cartoon smile. Laughter swept the ranks; apoplexy swept the officers, and angry shouts of "Order! Order! Stop that laughing! Now!!!!" burst from their 50mm mouths, spreading shrapnel. But that morning, America's finest could not squelch American's merriest, and the perpetrators escaped unknown and unrequited.

At the end of that year--unfortunately after I had finished my ROTC requirement--the University of California Regents, in their wisdom, did away with the requirement that America's young men should receive rudimentary military training as part of their intellectual growth. Two years later, UC Berkeley was in a turmoil of civil rights and anti-war protest; some three or four years later, the Bank of America in Isla Vista (the party-down community next to the university campus) went up in flames. By then, I was at Berkeley myself, trying to study in the graduate library. A friend tells me that one day (I happened to miss this one), the police or the California National Guard fired shots at protesters, and several bullets strayed into the serenity of that contemplative retreat and splintered its polished woodwork.

A final note on the ROTC. My first year, I played drums in the band. I was the only snare drummer, and there was a single bass drummer, who had never actually played an instrument before but loved jazz. As the only snare drummer, I could pretty much make up whatever cadences I wanted whenever I wanted. The bass drummer only had to keep time. But he and I, at dinner one night (we lived in the same dorm, went to the same dining commons), concocted a nifty idea: The US military should be exposed to unusual time signatures (Dave Brubeck was making headlines around this time). I remembered the inspiring scene from The Glenn Miller Story, in which Glenn Miller (Jimmy Stewart, really), in the midst of a desultory review parade, runs across the parade ground and has his band play the "St. Louis Blues March." The soldiers are transformed into a snappy, swinging unit. The message, obviously, is that jazz can make a person happy to be in the military. So John and I thought, if the "St. Louis Blues" can do that for Glenn Miller, a "Take Five" meter might have a similar effect for the Army Aspirants of UCSB. We put our plan into action the next morning and played 5/4 cadences on the march field.

It was exhilarating. We were exalted.

But something, somewhere, was wrong: the left foot only hit the ground on the first beat every now and then. The commanding officer, stopwatch in hand, came over and remarked: "The Scots Guard marches at 104 BPM; the U.S. Army marches at 120 BPM. Pick it up." The bandleader signalled to us to pick up the tempo. Which we did. Since we didn't get a signal to untangle the meter, we let that go, and the U.S. Army marched in 5/4 awhile longer.

At the end of the semester the bandleader informed me that I would get a B for ROTC instead of an A. After all, he said, we had had an agreement--I would play well, and things would be okay. I played the 5/4 cadences expertly, but it seems they were not what he--or the U.S. Military--had in mind.

This was 1961. I firmly believe that John and I, in our wisdom and in our small but artistic way, anticipated the protests that shook America to its foundations and reverberates today in the ongoing, so-called "Wars of Culture" that shake various Fox commentators to their foundations and have called down the wrath of such organizations as the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition and the Right Reverend Lou Sheldon, who's been hawking his book on the "gay agenda" for America. Years later, I read the wonderful, exuberant scene in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum where little Oskar, hiding under the stands, plays Viennese waltzes on his drum for a Nazi parade review. The rigid ceremony disintegrates into confusion.

John and I had to do our part. If I could remember his last name, I would, at long last, announce it loud and clear for celebration. He was a hero. He sacrificed for his country. I can still see him strutting along, banging hell out of that bass drum. We were both cracking up. The identify of Deep Throat, that great patriot, was revealed at last. Unless somehow, sometime, somewhere John reads this and reveals himself, another great patriot will go unsung. So much the worse for history. Historians talk about the thousands of people who disappear down Pynchon's vast toilet of history without ever being heard of. This, I'm afraid, is as close to rescue as I can bring John: the near wreck of a parade review on a college campus in a program about to be disbanded anyway. We gave it our own little nudge.

I can, at long last, tell this story. The statute of limitations on felony 5/4 has expired, and military tribunals today are otherwise occupied.