"Hey, Arthurs, I Grabbed Alice's Crotch"

In 1972 I enlisted in the US Army and, that summer, was going thru AIT (Advanced Individual Training) courses to become a Photographic Laboratory Technician at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

This was long before digital cameras became common or ubiquitous. (The concept was first proposed in 1961, but the first practical version wasn't until 1975.) Photographic film, and film processing, were the obligatory method to take and make photos. Film processing took place in darkrooms, where exposed film or photo-paper was swashed in trays of chemicals for a set number of minutes.

There were about a dozen people in the course, and the darkroom held six; three active at the developing stations, the other three standing about a yard behind waiting their turn. (The doubling-up was to minimize any light leakage from people entering or leaving the darkroom.) The other half-dozen students would wait their turn outside, either taking a break or being told to police the streets and lawns. ("police", in this context, meant picking up cigarette butts from the ground; thank a veteran someday for your not having to wade through hip-deep drifts of cigarette butts stretching from horizon to horizon; sometimes it seemed like the military's major purpose.)

The senior member of the group was nicknamed "Nick", an E-5 (Sergeant-level) about five or six years older than the rest of us. He had a wife and kid. Nick had reenlisted after an earlier tour to gain the additional training. He was  a joker, tending towards the crude and lewd side.

One of the other people in the course was a WAC (Womens Army Corps) member, Alice.

(names have been changed, blah blah blah)

One day, I was in the second group, waiting outside. The first group, which included Nick and Alice, exited the training building. Nick had a big grin on his face. Alice had a frozen expression on her own.

Nick walked up to me and said, in a low voice: "Hey, Arthurs, I grabbed Alice's crotch in the darkroom." Then he chuckled.

My mind kind of froze. My face kinda froze. It wasn't that uncommon to occasionally hear guys bragging or lying about copping a tit feel from women they dated or socialized with. But... grabbing a crotch? Doing it in a classroom? With four other people present, even if in total darkness? That... that was so far over the line I couldn't wrap my mind around it. Decent people didn't do things like that.

Here's what should have happened then:

I should have called Nick out on his behavior. I should have said, "What the hell is wrong with you? What would you think of someone who did that to your wife or daughter?" I should have shamed him, or at least tried to shame him.

I should have gone to Alice. I should have said to her, "Nick told me he grabbed your crotch in the darkroom. If you want to report this, I will back you up."

I should have reported what Nick told me to the officer in charge of the training class. What would have happened to Nick then? Most likely, in that time and in that social environment, Nick would have been called into his CO's office, given a verbal reaming and warned to never try anything like that again. Possibly he would have been taken out of that group of students and made to start over with the next group. At worst, he might have been expelled from the class and sent back to Infantry, which in 1972 still held a good chance of being sent to Vietnam. An Article 15 (the Army's version of a misdemeanor charge) or court-martial were extremely unlikely.

I did none of that.

I just stared at Nick. I didn't smile, or frown, or show any expression at all. After a few seconds, he chuckled again, then moved on. I don't know if he told any of the others what he'd done. I don't know why he picked me to tell first; I already had kind of a reputation for being a stick-up-my-ass, no-fun kinda guy who'd rather read a book than drink a beer or watch a sports game. Maybe I was just the closest person when he left the training building.

The instructor called the second group to go into the darkroom. I got in line and went in. I didn't look towards Alice.

That where the incident ended. I don't know if Alice ever said anything about it to anyone. Nick never mentioned it again, at least in my presence.

That's not where the shame and regret ended. Because this wasn't something where I looked back on it in later years and thought "I should have acted differently back then."

I knew at the time that I should take some kind of action about it, what needed to be done. I didn't do any of it.

I knew at the time that I was being a chickenshit by trying to ignore it, by trying to avoid any involvement. I ignored it anyway.

I knew at the time that this was one of those moments that show a man what kind of man he is. And I turned out to be a coward. I passed the Photo Lab Tech course, but failed the Decent Person test.

Over the years, I've said or written or done things I've regretted or felt ashamed for. This is one of the biggest. Even after forty-plus years, thinking about it leaves a hollow, sick feeling in my chest.

And now, forty-four years later, the entire freaking country has heard a Presidential candidate brag about how he can grab a woman's pussy and get away with it.

This is a moment when every voter has to decide: "What's the right thing to do?"

Don't be Donald Trump.

Don't be Billy Bush.

And for God's sake, don't be me.

And, Alice, I'm sorry I failed you forty-four years ago.

1 comment:

Will Shetterly said...

I completely get why you feel this way, but what you're forgetting is the strange obligation men had toward women at the time: the decision to act had to be hers. In retrospect, yes, you might've done more to let the man know you didn't approve and to let the woman know you would support her if she wanted you to, but part of the reason you didn't act was, I suspect, because you didn't want to add to her embarrassment, thinking that if her choice was to pretend nothing had happened, you had to respect that.

It was a fucked-up time. And still is, of course.