About six weeks after I began dating Cadence, I received a phone call from Sid. He was out in the world with his own independent photography business, but he had a little bit of news for me. Apparently he made a friend after I left, somebody who took control of the operation after I had departed. Sid gleefully announced how this crazy friend of his was heading my way, and told me to get ready. I couldn’t help but laugh, because in the mother of all twists, I was actually in a van with Cadence and her family coming home from a church service. I gently suggested to Sid that maybe his friend would need to come out here and tone it down. He, however, insisted that I would be coming out of retirement.
As predicted, Private Steven Holmgren arrived at Fort Campbell about two months later. I had broken up with Cadence by that point, mostly due to our differences becoming too glaring to ignore. However, contrary to what you might think, I was not looking to jump back into my old lifestyle. In fact, I snubbed Steve based entirely upon Sid’s phone call. Steve noticed, and he looked visibly hurt.
However, I soon realized that nobody else was being friendly to the guy. He was a member of HHC, and for the most part it seemed that nobody cared much for him. SFC Smalls had completely snubbed him and relegated him to the attic room in the HHC building, so it made him immediately resentful of the people around him. Furthermore, nobody seemed interested in showing him around or helping him get integrated.
Sgt. Windsor thought that we would be a happy pairing, so after a few days he told Steve and I to go out and write a story together. He gave us the lead and the location, and turned us loose. I knew what Sgt. Windsor was doing: he was keeping us away from the HHC guys and giving me a chance to lay low. Steve and I promptly disappeared until the end of the workday.
Instead of looking for news, we went outside of the installation to go get coffee. Steve voiced boredom with the army, and frustration with life in general. He told me he was recently married to a girl he had just met, and that he thought that maybe he had made a mistake. I was on the same page with him about the boredom, and had my own frustrations as well with the fairer sex. He seemed far more emotionally mature than Sid ever was. He also didn’t strike me as a particularly wild individual, as was suggested. I was wondering if perhaps Sid had embellished a little bit just to make sure his friend was not alone.
But Steve had a devious streak, and it didn’t take long for him to show it. Within about two weeks of us going out and doing our ‘assignment,’ I went to his apartment one Friday afternoon to get stoned.
We rolled up a few joints and went for a drive. We took a long look at our surroundings. The city of Clarksville was just so sad. Everything had an army taint to it. Everything seemed to cater to the kind of male that neither of us were. Everything was designed for instant gratification for Alpha males. The food was nothing more that fattening bullshit with no substance, the diversions were cheap and boring, and the women all seemed to be married or in between marriages (and ironically cynical about soldiers).
We grumbled about the futility of it all. Steve was an aspiring musician and I was an aspiring academic, and we felt like we had seen enough. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to align myself with a guy who was as dissatisfied as I was, but what do you do when your job is also your home? What do you do when you’re crammed on an installation with fifty thousand people who are nothing like you? My stability was gone and my job sucked. I was right back to having absolutely nothing to lose.
So I started getting high with Steve.
And no, we wouldn’t smoke in our uniforms. We would duck out early to go to his house, change clothes, smoke, change back into our uniforms, then get back into my smelly old Saturn and smoke a few cigarettes. Every now and again we’d use a splash of CK One, but honestly I think we were ignored so frequently that it didn’t matter either way.
There was one day where we were feeling particularly bored and restless, and Steve casually asked me if I had ever tried “robo-tripping.” Sid used to do that nonsense all the time in our barracks room, and he would scare the crap out of me because he would be absolutely out of his head for hours. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in ever trying it, I was in a particularly foul mood that day, and so was Steve. I was not yet sold on the idea, but we received a slap in the face from the HHC staff that I think pushed us both over the edge.
Basically, one of the civilian interns, Kelly, was given a job that she didn’t want to do. It involved something ridiculously tedious, like taping numbers that were out of order to a thousand pieces of paper. When she tried to give it to Steve, I told her to bugger off. She then came back with Sgt. McDonald, who insisted that we were supposed to do what the interns told us. I told him that they were not in our chain of command, and that she was just pawning something off on us that had nothing to do with the newspaper.
So the buck-tooth sergeant mustered up some of that false courage that seemed to be in abundance and proudly proclaimed: “Oh, yeah? Well then I’m ORDERING you to listen to Kelly.”
That’s when I said to myself screw it.
Let’s fucking robo-trip.
Steve and I went out for Mexican food at lunch, then we went to a grocery store to pick up a box of Coricidin. I was still a little on the fence about it all, because it was starting to sound like something that was not a proportional response to the conflict that just occurred. I was back and forth with it in my mind, and I voiced concerns with it to Steve. Whenever I saw Sid robo-tripping, he looked supremely out of his head. He assured us that we would not be dosing anywhere near as high as Sid, and I suppose that was what convinced me.
After all, a nice buzz would certainly curtail the frustration of the task ahead.
Just as I had caught up with Steve on the medicine aisle, he motioned for us to leave. Son of a bitch. Was he really shoplifting? What a way to kick off the festivities.
When we got to my car, we split up the haul. Sixteen pills, eight apiece. That’s seven more than the suggested dosage. That should do the trick, right?
We hurried back to the office, up to the attic room that was supposed to be our work space. As expected, we were ignored, disregarded, and left to our own devices. We tried to pick back up on a task that we were given. I cut out the numbers, and Steve began taping them. After about ten minutes, Steve began pulling out his pubic hair and taping them to the pages. Somehow, this made me feel a little better about the argument that had taken place that day.
After about thirty minutes, I started to feel incredibly hot. Another five minutes passed and I began to sweat profusely. I was completely unable to concentrate. My stomach was doing all kinds of rumbling and gurgling, and I hopped up and quickly hurried down the stairs to go vomit.
My path was clear when I burst into the bathroom and retched in the closest stall. A wave of bright colors appears before my eyes as I did. It was incredible and disgusting all at the same time. As I snorted to try and dislodge an undigested bean that had made its way into my nasal cavity, I heard the door open. Dislodged, the bean hit the back of my throat and immediately caused me to gag again. I coughed and blew chinks again. The smell was horrible, but the colors were oh so pretty.
I waited for whoever it was to clear out of the bathroom, then I made my way to the sink and tried to rinse out my mouth and then splash water on my face. When I looked in the mirror, I freaked out. It looked like my eyes were ninety percent pupil. Everybody would be able to tell that I was tripping. I began to panic.
I rushed back upstairs to see how Steve was doing. When I entered the room all I could see was an army uniform with a big, red, dopey-looking balloon coming out of the top. He was grinning stupidly, his mouth more agape than forming an actual smile. His pupils were enormous like mine, and he was also sweating profusely.
“How you feelin’, man?” he asked. He was beginning to morph into Judge Doom at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
“I just puked! What the hell did we do?” My voice sounded weird. It sounded like I was talking extremely slow, and in somebody else’s voice. It was only then that I even stopped to question the consumption of that much cold medicine. How much worse was the trip going to get? Could I get a handle on it? Steve seemed to be in control. How do you reign in this horrible drug?
“McCollum!” A voice called from downstairs.
This was the end. I was screwed. Everyone knew what I was doing, and this was the final straw. It was time to turn myself in. I would find a job in time. Maybe I could go and get my old job back at The Landings. I left on a good note out there. I could spend the rest of my days cutting grass, and…
“McCollum, hurry up, man!” It was Sgt. Windsor. Thank the Good Lord. He might go easy on me. If one of those other idiots found me, I was doomed for sure.
I crept slowly down the stairs, trying my best to avoid eye contact.
“Listen, man,” he started, looking at my eyes suspiciously, “I’ve got a really bad sinus infection, and I heard you throwing up earlier. Let’s just quietly make our way out that door and come back tomorrow. Hooah?”
“Hooah,” I blurted out, already having done an about face. With all the secrecy and care of a three-year-old, I burst through the door and hurried to my car. I cautiously drove back to my barracks room, closed the curtains, and turned off all the lights.
After a long shower, I made a blanket fort and watched Jackie Chan movies for around eight hours. Sergeant Windsor had released me only half an hour after returning from lunch, so I had a nice, long afternoon to trip my brains out without having to worry about premature separation from the army. That night, I dreamed of weird colors and shapes, and had some of the most restful sleep since those 72 hours I spent in quarantine during basic training.
It didn’t end with the robo-tripping. About a week later, Steve was injured on a mechanical bull at a bar outside of Fort Campbell. However, he went to the clinic on Monday after a PT run and blamed it on the run. I don’t exactly know the nature of the injury; all I know is that Steve came back to the office right before lunch to show me a bottle of 90 Percocet that had just been given to him by an army doctor. That’s when I realized that Sid’s words were absolutely prophetic.
So after being pill-free for eighteen months, I dove back in.
When you have access to that many pills, you get to the point where addiction is absolutely inevitable. I have no idea how anybody didn’t notice during this time. We finished the first bottle in a little over two weeks, and Steve was given a second bottle just like that. It was absurd. I remember I was in my barracks room one day with Steve and my hands were shaking from anticipation of pumping more poison into my body.
We were also smoking joints laced with some kind of throat spray. I can’t even tell you why we felt the need to do this. All I know is that our dealer would ask us if we wanted a regular bag or a ‘special’ bag, and we normally went for the special bag. Blame the marketing, I guess.
Again, I have no idea how nobody noticed.
The third time Steve had his pills refilled, he was only given 30. It was then that we had to sit down and talk about how we were going to ration them out better. Steve suggested we begin snorting them, but I was against that idea. However, I suggested that chewing them was rather effective, as was grinding them up and taking them with alcohol. He chose his way, and I chose mine.
One afternoon I was in my barracks room eating lunch by myself. I made two veggie burgers, a Tom Collins, and then I pulled out out one and a half Percocet to break up. As I shakily completed the ritual of crushing my bounty, I looked at my desk. In the corner sat the veggie burgers, ironically contrasting the cocktail of poison I was about to suck down. I couldn’t help but wonder how everything had gotten so bad again. It was so easy to get pills and it was so easy to get away with everything. Why didn’t anybody see what we were doing? Why was I unable to control myself?
And how the hell did this happen? How did this old flame of mine manage to track me down? I washed down the powder with my Tom Collins, fighting back tears.
Fortunately, Steve did get his medical discharge. It was around two months from the day I was assigned to take him around the installation. But it all ended exactly when it needed to. We had become so hung up on pills that I don’t know what else would have stopped us other than a sudden interruption of this kind.
For his last week, I completely avoided him. He left me a few voicemails telling me I was a jerk for being that way, but the only reason I was avoiding him was that I needed to try once again and get my head on straight. I went to his weed guy a few more times after he left to make sure I was back on an even keel, and then I committed myself once again to trying to find a way to navigate military life without having to be so fucked up all the time.