It was during a field training exercise near the fortified Bavarian village of Rottenburg when I was first exposed to Jungle Fever.
“Hey Taylor, Do you want to get out of these woods and take a shower? I can make it happen,” my leader, a black man offered.
“Of course, Sgt. Smith. We’ve been out here for three weeks. I have never been this long without a bath. I feel like dirt. How do you manage to look so clean while the rest of us look like rags?”
“I take pride in myself as a soldier, that’s all,” Sgt. Smith explained.
“Sterek spilled diesel fuel on me last night in the tent. I can’t wait to get this smell off me. My skin’s been burning. A shower sure sounds good, Sgt. Smith. How long until this training exercise is over?”
“Nobody knows. We are simulating war with Russia, Taylor. In war, it may be months between baths. That is why during peacetime, I am like a soldier during war,” Sgt. Smith explained while smiling, revealing large white teeth, some capped in gold.
“I can’t wait to get back to the barracks. I haven’t heard any music in three weeks. Nothing but the Army radios and encoded messages. It’s enough to drive anyone mad,” I protested.
We slept in tents inside Army issued, down-filled sleeping bags. Snow blanketed our communications equipment and the camouflage netting over our heads blended the very appearance of our existence into the rolling hillsides of Bavaria like a soap lather in a bubble bath.
I was so tired of the woods and the dirt. Bavaria at Christmas is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Once our antennas were in the air, transmitting encoded messages along far distances and the rest of the brigade was busy playing war games throughout southern Germany, those stationed with 141 Signal Battalion had nothing to do but to keep the lines of communications open and stay warm inside of tents and commo trucks. We had no running water, yet still I shaved in a canteen cup every morning while using the mirror on the door of my green jeep. Army regulations required that soldiers like me could not have facial hair while in uniform, even while on maneuvers. No hot water. Dirty face. Stinky butt. All I wanted was a shower. Sgt. Smith always had a surprise up his sleeve which often involved breaking some sort of military regulation, but his intentions were often good, as he strived to be a ‘good leader and take-charge, non-commissioned officer’.
“Will the whole section be taking showers tonight?” I asked Sgt. Smith. His huge white eyes flashed from side to side, in Fred Flinstone manner. He searched the dark woods all round us to be sure nobody could hear what he was about to reveal to me. He started to tell me his plan for getting me a bath from under his heavy, Gazzo-like, Army helmet.
“I’m married. You understand that, right, Taylor?” He asked.
“Yes. Sgt. Smith. You live off post with your wife and kids, otherwise you would live in the barracks with Sterek and me. I’ve even met your wife. Why would you ask me that,” I questioned while reaching into the cargo pocket of my BDU pants to pull out a fresh, dry pair of wool and leather gloves.
“I’m taking you to meet the German woman who I have been banging for the last three weeks. While you were sleeping in the tent with the rest of them, I’ve been sleeping warm, next to a white, German woman. No offense Taylor, but I never thought of white people like this before. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you and Sterek.”
“You haven’t been hard on us, in my opinion. You are a good section leader, no matter what the color of your skin is. Sterek and I both think you’re cool.”
“What did you just say, Taylor?”
“You’re a good chief. I like working in your squad, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir. How many times must I tell you that? I’m not a commissioned officer. I was talking about what you said about the color of my skin. Just look at it, Taylor. Did you ever see skin like this? So smooth and dark like chocolate, wouldn’t you say? Frau Hersher told me that she never felt skin as soft is mine!”
“How did you meet her?”
“Was rolling wire about two miles from here and she drove by in a Audi and I waved at her.”
“She stopped, just like that?”
“You don’t know how we Black man have it here in Germany, Taylor. I sure wish I could share the wealth with you, but the women of Europe love us Black men. Just look at my skin; beautiful, ain’t it?”
I just smiled and reassured Sgt. Smith’s ego by telling him that he had good skin, unleashing a fib of sorts, because I noticed nothing particularly suave about the skin he was in– just a pepper- black exterior flesh embedded with huge white eyes that revealed a severe hated for being stuck outside in the cold when there were other options. Sgt. Smith loved the military, but hated playing soldier. He found ways of finding alternate shelters when our unit was on training exercises in the woods– through the gift of his ‘rich dark’ skin that German women ‘couldn’t get enough of’.
“Look, I appreciate you sneaking me out of camp, but if we get caught, you must promise to say that you ordered me to come with you. This is a violation of the Commander’s policy. We could both get into big trouble, so if we get caught…”
“Taylor. You know me better than that. I always take good care of my soldiers. I’m a good section chief, no?”
“Yes. Very good as a matter of fact. Alright, Sgt. Smith, as long as you say so,” I responded. I was happy to have the chance of feeling water on my chilled, almost frost-bitten body. I was prepared to face an Article 15 just for a warm bath.
“You must promise not to say a word of this to anyone. I’m married, remember. If you tell, this could ruin my life.You can get a shower and a good meal. We will be done there in no time. We only got three hours though. I’ll meet you at Sgt. Downing’s truck at twenty-one hundred. We’re taking his truck. I gave him a twenty and told him to hide out in the RATT rig until we return. They’ll assume Downing ran back to post for supplies.”
“I promise. I will not say a word. I owe you one. You are such a good leader, Sgt. Smith.”
The German woman who Sgt. Smith had been sneaking off to see was an old woman, at least in her forties. She spoke good English and made me coffee and offered me her shower.
“Ain’t she pretty?” Sgt. Smith asked.
“Yes, very pretty,” I replied as steam rolled from under the bathroom door as I headed that way.
“We’ll be in the other room.”
“Alright,” I said from behind a closed door while peeling smelly clothing that had seemed freeze-dried to my white, freckled skin.
After I got out of the tub, I sat and drank three cups of bitter German coffee before Sgt. Smith returned to the kitchen to offer new orders–
“You can come join us. Did you ever do a train?” He asked.
“How peculiar the black are with their dialects, I thought before responding– “No thanks.” I was simply happy to be clean again.
It was too embarrassing to come out that very moment to Sgt. Smith, and the German girlfriend who seemed infatuated with me sitting at her table, drinking her coffee. It was more than just my emotions involved when I rejected the sexual advance of the NCO. What about the old woman, I thought, wanting to protect her feelings from my ‘choices’. I really was not that interested, despite a sinister curiosity that offered me a slight erection. I reached for a sweet piece of bread that the German woman had served on a platter with apple butter when we first arrived at her house, life Army vampires.
The half- naked, wrinkled German woman clung to Sgt. Smith’s married black arm as he invited me into their massive ball of black and white flesh. My skin was red from the hot shower. I felt exotic and perhaps the pasty-white German woman had just as much fever for me as she did Sgt. Smith. I wasn’t sure.
She was old enough to have been my grandmother. My stomach churned. I longed for the coldness of the woods again. I missed my mom. It seemed at any moment they would both come after me as I sat motionless, wrapped only in a towel, water still dripping down my tender face and over my pink lips that were even larger than Sgt. Smiths.
I only wanted a shower. Not to come out of the water closet.
“Are you sure,” Sgt. Smith asked. He was much fatter naked than I had originally thought.
“Yes. I’m saving it for marriage,” I explained.
“It’s alright,” the German woman replied, as if not to offend me for what happened to homosexuals during the Holocaust.
“It’s not that,” I said before either my section chief or his German girl on the side could assume things about me– “It’s just that I have never been with anyone yet.” It was true. I was nineteen and still a virgin and didn’t want to swing on the vines of the jungle with two grown adults, one black and smooth, the other white and wrinkled. It had nothing to do with my sexuality! I was clean and didn’t want to get dirty again. It was as simple as that.
Who was I to judge them for adultery? Would my participation have made it less of a sin?