National service gonna set my soul on fire
My Old Friend Wally Kidder, a.k.a. the Walking Rant Machine, is neither rangy nor laconic—he’s stumpy and verbose—but he can be described as wry, if you picture wryness shot full of steroids and caffeine. When I saw him the other morning at our neighborhood coffee joint, he seemed even more overstimulated than usual. I’d barely had a chance to order my pumpkin-spiced half-caf soy latte before Wally was waving periodicals in my face and carrying on about Elvis and Viagra and the reinvigoration of America’s flaccid soul.
“I finally figured out the national-service thing,” he crowed triumphantly.
“Huh,” I said. “I didn’t know you were working on that.”
“I’ve been stewing about it since I was a pimply teen,” he said. “Look, you and I just happened to be born a little too late for the Vietnam draft. And since they made the military an all-volunteer deal, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I got away with something. Haven’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
“So the other day I’m watching golf. Think about that: watching…golf. Could there be a more telling sign of physical, mental, and moral decay?”
“I enjoy watching golf,” I mumbled.
“So do I! That’s the point. I had a beer in my hand and a smile on my big dopey face. And then here comes this ‘Viva Viagra’ commercial. Have you seen this thing?”
I had seen it several times. It’s the one where six middle-aged guys are having a jam session in a roadhouse, singing about their erectile-dysfunction medicine to the tune of the old Elvis Presley hit “Viva Las Vegas.” I’d been hoping Wally wouldn’t see it, because I knew it would set him off. Wally reveres Elvis, especially the young Elvis. He realizes that it’s weird and kitschy to be an Elvis fan. He doesn’t care; his attitude toward the King contains an irony that somehow doesn’t diminish the veneration.
“Everybody knows that Elvis in Vegas was a travesty,” Wally said. “An abomination unto the gods of music—hell, unto God, period. And yet it was still Elvis. It had its holy moments. Now, ‘Viva Las Vegas’ is a catchy number, but it celebrates everything that ended up killing him. So for these jokers at Pfizer to use that song to sell their crotch-doctoring concoction, well, it puts us in a pretty freaky Freudian neighborhood, doesn’t it?”
I said I wouldn’t know about that.
“But that’s not even what got to me,” Wally went on. “It was these guys. They were so well-fed, so well-groomed, so secure in their prosperous American manhood—now that they were on the blue diamonds, that is. They played and sang with a faux-bluesy earnestness that hadn’t been seen since Pat Boone covered ‘Tutti Frutti’ and sucked the juice right out of it. And they all had this carefully chosen ‘casual’ clothing”—he brandished the Territory Ahead catalog at me, as if my closet at home were full of Sofisticato T-shirts and Opportune Trousers and Flâneur Boots. “The whole thing made my skin crawl.”
“It’s just an ad.”
“You know, for a liberal-arts graduate, you can be mighty dense about psycho-semiotics and all that other meaning-related crap. Nothing is ‘just an ad.’ This is a portrait of the consumer as a smug, chubby, middle-aged man, bumptiously obsessed with the ‘quality of his erections.’ He’s looking for the same thing he wants in his Merlot: ‘oaky with a long finish.’ These guys are us. They’re what the advertising-industrial complex wants us to aspire to be, if we aren’t already. It’s the same bunch of guys from every other type of ad—food, beer, cell phones, financial planning—only here they’re in pre-coital male-bonding mode.”
“Are you a Viagra user?” I said, playing a hunch.
“Oh, wipe the smirk off your face,” he said. “I’m a Cialis man. On occasion. Anyway, we were talking about my epiphany.”
“Shouldn’t that be kept between you and your doctor?”
“Knock it off. Listen to this.” Wally whipped out a copy of Time magazine. “Here’s some guy named Richard Stengel: ‘Devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American.’ That’s good stuff. I agree with it. A lot of the presidential candidates are talking about it—rightly so. I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember, but I never felt justified in saying it because I hadn’t served myself. I didn’t feel I had the proper standing to make the suggestion. Then it hit me, there on the couch, watching these dorks warble about their tallywackers: Why should it be young Americans? Why not a universal draft for old farts like us?”
“Health, economics, and social upheaval, for starters,” I said. “And I can’t help but think you just want to punish these fictitious yuppie pitchmen because you hate their contrived style.”
“No, no, no. Did I not just say, in effect, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’? Monsieur Droopy, c’est moi, too. What those guys need, what I need, what you need—more than Viagra, more than Prozac, more than Lipitor, more than a pumpkin-flavored soy whatever, which is hardly a drink for an adult—is a couple years of honest labor and esprit de corps.”
“Wally,” I said. “If I want esprit de corps, I’ve got the bowling team.”
“I’m on that team. If we’re all you’ve got, God help you. Look, if the pre-boomers were the Greatest Generation, then we’re the limpest, and not just in Johnsonville. Now here’s the plan: Everyone between the ages of 45 and 50 has to spend two years in service, military or civilian. No exceptions, unless you’ve served previously. Fighting wars, enforcing peaces, peeling spuds, picking up litter, fixing up schools, and so forth. It’s not like there isn’t enough to keep us busy. We’re not quite too old to be useful, and hell, if the country needs cannon fodder, better me than my kid.”
Wally paused to breathe, then went on more quietly. “I told you I’ve been thinking about this since high school. Well, now I’ve got a pimply teen of my own.” This was true; his son was about the pimpliest kid I’d ever seen. “And even though he’s a pain in the ass most of the time, to me he’s the young Elvis: thing of beauty, joy forever, creation’s apogee, all that. Let him have a youth and a young adulthood. Let me do the service, at least for now. You and I—we’ve had our fun. Remember Bemidji, the summer of ’88?”
“Um...” I said. “Vaguely.”
“One more thing—the linchpin of the whole program,” Wally said as he stood to leave. “Only veterans and active-duty service people, military or civilian, can get prescriptions for Viagra and its ilk.”
And off he went—bald, stout, pugnacious. If he’d had a cigar in his hand, you might have mistaken him for Churchill.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson has flat feet, hay fever, a trick shoulder, and trifocals. But he’s ready to go if you are.