I was standing in line at the Safeway in this small NE Washington town when I noticed that the six or so guys in line ahead of me were alike, somehow.
It wasn't immediately clear what they had in common, but I had plenty of time to work it out, because the checker was slower than a Christmas show.
I ran through the possible links they might share: ethnic? Well, they were white, but that didn't prove much, because (except for the Hispanics who do all the real work in the US) everyone in this town was white. I didn't recognize them, but in some canine brain-node I knew them, and hated them on instinct. I felt like Hunter Thompson's attorney looking in horror at a convention of Narcs: "Know them? I know these people in my goddam blood!"
But I couldn't put a name to them. They were short guys, mostly. Stumpy, chests bowed out -- the silhouette of middleaged men who are trying hard not to notice that their pecs are becoming chimp-dugs, their guts ever more convex.
They were all buying booze -- that was one clue. Bad booze: mostly beer, favorite beverage of idiots.
And, lame as they were, they strutted, holding their place in the express line as if blocking out for a rebound.
They were dressed confusingly: Harley Davidson leather vests, but starched shirts under them. They all wore boots, fanciful cowboy boots -- but the boots were clean, like the straining jeans they wore low under their pot bellies. Whatever they were, they sure weren't cowboys: they didn't have the squint or the leather face.
And though they didn't seem very tough, they exuded the pugnacity which white American males affect once they're reasonably certain there are no armed people of color in the vicinity.
But above all, they swaggered, proud as Dostoevskii's convicts -- and for no discernible reason. What were they?
I followed them out. As they dispersed to their cars, others exactly like them were pulling in and stomping toward the Safeway, jingling belt keyrings like oldtime Folsom St leatherboys. Were they some new kind of gay thing? But that couldn't be it; even the toughest gays wear a flinch, knowing the mob may turn on them in a second. These guys were the mob itself -- noisy, vain and dumb as roosters.
They were getting in and out of the kind of vehicles you wanted at twelve: Harleys and the cheaper SUVs, Marlboro pickups and ATVs. And not a fleck of mud on any of them.
Something else marked them: the bumper stickers: "Rush Is Right," "Semper Fi," and the old favorite about "...When they pry it from my cold, dead fingers." (An excellent offer. Damn shame no one took them up on that.
Along with the bumper stickers, there were these cicrular decals in the back windows of the pickups. I swerved to scan them, weaving through the parking lot like a lost wino. That's what identified them: these little decals were from the Army, or the Navy, or the Marines, or even the wretched Coast Guard. Retired noncoms! That's what they were! Of course! Should've figured it out sooner.
But then I've never seen the American army in person. How many US Army vehicles do you see on a given day? Unless you're one of the sutler-maggots worming around a big base, you never see a tank or an APC, and rarely even catch a glimpse of the softshelled vehicles. I never saw the US Army in their olive-drab flesh til I went to Germany. They don't hide over there. Their M1s crunch the asphalt like peanut brittle every German summer, writing out in snake-like ruts a reminder of who won and who lost.
But at home, the dogs are kept kennelled. Raping a Japanese schoolgirl is acceptable collateral damage, but God forbid the troops should disturb the middle class at home. In fact. the visibility of the armed forces in their home country is a good index of the country's strength, as long as you remember that it's an inverse relationship: the more visible the soldiers, the weaker the state. The Army of Paraguay is on every corner; the American armed forces are just a rumor for most Americans -- a pair of contrails in the sky, a few soft-shelled olive drab trucks in the slow lane of the Interstate.