Achilles

This is one of my older stories but one never posted on Facebook.  I hope any who read it find it enjoyable.

One summer day back in 1960 I found myself holding a large knife and shaking in my shoes, hiding in a row of bushes between 44th St. and the low, gray buildings of the shuffleboard courts at the neighborhood park near my home in San Diego.  It was a typically warm day and the bees were humming as they effortlessly but diligently sought out what little pollen there was to be had from the tiny, yellowish-white flowers of those waxy-leaved shrubs.  The shrubs stood about four feet high, which made it possible for me to hide my slight frame and the mammoth blade which I carried from sight.  At least I thought that they would do so.  As it turned out, I never got to test the theory of my invisibility, which I am perfectly convinced is one of the best things in my life that never happened to me.

In those days it was considered noble to fight.  Fights happened on schoolyards, playgrounds, city streets and front and back yards.  Sometimes they were planned:  “I’ll meet you in Terry’s back yard” or “be behind the shuffleboard courts at 11:00 on Saturday” somebody might say, and woe to the challenged party if he (it was virtually always a ‘he’ back then) failed to show.   Even if you knew that you would probably receive a beating, the black eyes and bloody noses and perhaps loose tooth here and there was infinitely preferable to the label of ‘chicken’.

Usually a few bumps on the head and a bloody nose was the most that came from these events.  Kicking was definitely discouraged and a guy who was knocked down was always allowed to get back up.  When a winner was obviously in command he would often ask “have you had enough”?  With an answer in the affirmative the fight was concluded and the combatants would go their separate ways, occasionally after a handshake, and the whole thing would become a topic of conversation for an hour or two and then forgotten.

Nobody explained those rules to Bill Samuels.

Bill was the pudgy kid who was the butt of many jokes and some harmless but nevertheless humiliating bullying.  Bill tried to be everyone’s friend because it was better than being everyone’s target, but that strategy met with minimal success.  Many of the guys in the neighborhood felt sorry for Bill but didn’t dare to take his part for fear of drawing unnecessary wrath their way as well.  Bill settled into the role of neighborhood punching bag with as much dignity as he could muster.  And then one summer Bill grew up.

Well, at least Bill grew.  The pudgy kid began to shoot skyward until he stood about six feet two or three inches and weighed about two hundred  pounds, and the pudge transformed into hard, angry muscle.  Bill was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he knew that several aces had just been dealt to him and he was intent on playing his hand.  His former tormentors were sought out one by one and given terrific beatings each.  No handshakes, no limitation on offensive moves, and no gentlemen’s agreement to limit the mayhem.  Bill was a revenge machine.

Those who had not participated in Bill’s early difficulties could hope to be his friend, but this was never a risk-free proposition.  Bill had become accustomed to exercising his newfound prowess and would occasionally pop somebody who was with him right out of the blue.  It was never a crippling blow however and many of us felt that a red ear or a bruise on the shoulder every now and then was a small price to pay to be considered by Bill to be a friend rather than an enemy (and Bill tended to look at the world exclusively in those categories).  It was therefore with considerable dread that I heard that Bill had challenged my brother William (not to be confused with Bill) to “meet me behind the shuffleboard courts”.

The source of this conflict is something common to adolescence and puberty around the world.  Linda Crumm, a classmate of mine, was developing a little faster than the other girls in our neighborhood and Bill was convinced that he had the inside track on her affections.  I have no idea what Linda’s views of this situation were but they were irrelevant; Bill felt that she was his girl or very soon would be.  My brother had other ideas.

William was smaller than Bill but I never knew him to show fear of anything.  My brother was a scrapper and would let no threat or insult go by without a challenge.  At least that is how I perceived my brother whom I looked up to like a conquering hero.  William had somehow noticed and perhaps even caught the attention of Linda and it became known that he was a rival who disputed the amorous claims of Bill.  It would never occur to Bill that the best course of action would be to behave himself in a manner to suggest that he would be the better catch, thereby winning the heart of the fair lady.  Bill’s barely limbic powers of logic and reason simply arrived at one plan:  Beat William to a pulp.  I heard about the arrangement and my blood went cold.  I knew that my brother could not take Bill and I knew the condition that Bill left his opponents in.  This prospect left me nearly nauseous, and I knew that I had to do something.

My plan grew out of my father’s favorite form of punishment other than knuckling my head.  When I had committed a transgression deemed unworthy of corporal punishment I was ‘put on restriction’, or what would today be called being grounded. When on restriction I was sentenced to remain within the four walls of our very small house until the indeterminate sentence was lifted.  In such times I found it to be the better part of valor to make myself invisible, thus lessening the likelihood of an escalation of the punishment to a higher and much more uncomfortable level, and remained in my room.  Mom would smuggle heavily buttered stacks of toast and glasses of milk into my prison cell while I would hunker down and ride out the storm.

This plan had it’s weak links and one was boredom.  Living as I did in San Diego it was almost always a beautiful day or evening outside, and all of my friends were playing and hanging out at the park just a quarter-block up the street.  The knowledge of this, if I allowed myself to dwell upon it, would have been painful enough to tempt me to unwise and potentially disastrous attempts to circumvent Dad’s justice.  I had to find a more or less silent way to entertain myself.  An escape from my dilemma presented itself in the form of three sets of encyclopedias that were placed for some unknown reason in my room.

One of these sets, the “Encyclopedia Americana”,  contained what must have been every fact known to mortal man since the beginning of time.  Each volume of this massive set contained big words about even bigger topics that I could no more follow than fly out of my window and speak with the catbirds that perched on our TV antenna and tormented our two cats.  I always felt smarter after reading an article in that encyclopedia even though I couldn’t have told you what I had just read if my life depended on it.

On another bookshelf rested another encyclopedia set, this one the “Britannica Junior”.  This encyclopedia was much more my style and in it I was far more likely to read about ‘kites’ than ‘kinesis’, but in many ways this set of books was just too elementary, even with me being only twelve at the time.  Both of the encyclopedias shared an additional shortcoming; they were just as old as I was.  Even in those times a dozen years meant a great deal of change, and while some articles were still relevant the writing style and many of the articles were not.  The solution to my problem was to be found in the third set of books, an up-to-date “World Book” encyclopedia.

The World Book was a dream come true.  All of the articles reflected the state of knowledge (or the presumption of knowledge) that existed at that time.  The photos were in color, the charts and graphs explained trends and the range of topics from aardvarks to Zeeland gave me hours of random reading and learning that any teacher could scarcely hope to obtain from a student.  I would kneel before the altar of my books, close my eyes and select a volume to read, and after a few days of my silence and seclusion my father would remember that I existed and have no doubt that I had suffered greatly, and allow me the grace to be released from my captivity.  I would leave my room and my books with the certain knowledge that, before very much time went by, I would be reunited with my fast friends in the now-bearable condition of ‘restriction’.

It was while in a state of restriction that I read about the achilles tendon.  Achilles, as every kid who spent much time on restriction and read Edith Hamilton’s “Greek Mythology” and the World Book encyclopedia knows, was the son of the nymph Thetis and of Peleus, the king of a legendary warrior people called the Myrmidons.  Thetis attempted to make her son immortal, as any mother would, by holding him by his heel and dipping him in the river Styx.  The plan worked fairly well and Achilles grew up to Kick massive amounts of tail until, by accident or design, an arrow struck him in his one vulnerable spot; his heel by which his mother held him as the rest was submerged.

Renaissance anatomists were aware of Greek myths just as I was and so, as they dissected bodies and learned how the human machine was put together they inevitably named that tendon which connected the plantaris, gastrocnemius and soleus muscles to the calcaneus bone the ‘achilles tendon’.  One other fact which was exposed to me was that the achilles tendon, if cut, would render it impossible for a person to walk.  Or fight.

So there I was, hiding amongst the waxy leaves, tiny flowers and humming bees, armed with my restriction-engendered knowledge of the achilles tendon and a very large, heavy knife honed to the best edge that I could manage waiting for the crowds to gather and the combat to begin.  My plan was that as the combatants circled each other I would dash out and slice through the achilles tendon of Bill Samuels and save the life of my brother.  I do not mean to imply that I was cool and calculating about the whole thing.  I was trembling, breathing shallow, irregular breaths and gripping the knife with sweaty hands like a drowning man clutching at a plank of wood.  If called upon to actually implement my plan I would have very likely failed and cut myself to ribbons in the bargain, but there I was anyway; me, myself, I, and that big heavy knife.

And nobody else.  Eleven o’clock came and went and no William, no Bill, and no crowds of onlookers to urge them on.  I had no idea what had happened, but by eleven thirty it was obvious that the plan had changed, so I sheathed my knife and carried it back to the place that it usually occupied in our garage.

Much later I learned that Charlie, the only guy in the neighborhood who was tougher than Bill Samuels owed my brother a favor and convinced Bill that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by calling off the fight.  Nobody believed that Bill was afraid of William or that he could not take him, and Charlie would dish out a beating to Bill that would make what Bill dished out to William look like a picnic by comparison if the fight went on as planned.  Bill, proving that some level of reason could penetrate his thick skull, considered his options and chose discretion.  The day ended with my brother alive, Bill Samuels able to walk, me not in jail or dead, and Linda Crumm sick of the lot of us.  At least somebody exercised some common sense in this affair.

Hosea Rock Opera Song 4: Hosea’s Proposal

Hosea follows Gomer down a dingy hallway to her room, where Gomer expects that he is just another john paying for sex.  To her amazement Hosea not only proposes marriage but says that he is ordered by God to do so.  Gomer is no stranger to delusional men and suspects that Hosea is just one more.  Hosea does throw her a curve however which makes her a bit more receptive to his offer of marriage.  To be sung as a ballad in the style of Gordon Lightfoot.

I’ve come to you Gomer ’cause you mean something to me, and I see in you  much more than a whore.

I don’t know your family and I don’t know where you’ve been, I don’t know if you’ve ever loved or even had a friend.

You look at me as a piece of meat, nothing but another paying john, but I came here begin a journey and what I want is for you to come along.

‘Cause I would love you and take you for my wife.

Yes I would love you and stay with you all of my life.

Yes I would make of you my wife, and bend my back for you., I’d hear your words with sympathy and hold you when you’re blue.

I promise I’ll forget your past, it’s no worse than my own, and with you standing next to me we’ll make ourselves a home.

Oh I would love you, and take you for my wife.

Yes I would love you, and stay with you all of my life.

Well I must go it’s getting late and I must get to bed, I’ll bet you have a thing or two that’s running through your head.

My offering is genuine, it comes straight from my heart, if you come with me I swear from you I’ll never part.

So here’s the price for you tonight and now I’m going to leave, the only cost to you my love is that you must believe,

That I would love you, and take you for my wife.

Yes I would love you and be true to you all of my life.

The Story of One Eyed Jack, or ‘set the table for 100’

Winter of 1973 found your humble author pursuing a higher education at Sonoma State College, now Sonoma State University, in the town of Cotati, California.  Cotati was a wide spot in U.S. Route 101 about one hour or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Sonoma State was the newest of the California State Colleges then and there were no dormitories yet, so students were left to find lodging as best they could in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, or somewhere in the rural countryside where the locals would take in a student or two to augment their income.

I was fortunate enough to find an apartment in a two building complex that was about 200 yards across a flat field with a narrow asphalt path that led from just across the street to the west parking lot of the school.  This complex housed something like 200 students and was conducive to just about anything but studying.  My unit consisted of a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms and one bath.  Three of us were lodged in that unit, and on a roll of the dice I ended up alone in one bedroom while my roommates Roy-Boy and Animal shared the other.  It was a good arrangement, from my point of view, and we all got along very well considering that each one of us was, in our own very unique and individual ways, crazy as loons.

I can safely say that every night in that complex when school was in session there was at least one party going on.  Many times the entire complex was a party.  My crew in building ‘A’ would frequently be at the poolside, winter or spring, skinny dipping and making music.  Some of us played actual instruments and the rest of us would improvise.  On such a night a cacophony produced by anything that could be blown, scraped, plucked, thumped or tickled would waft out into the dark Sonoma night accompanied by the voices of those who’s preference for instruments of auditory torture ran to the vocal cords.  As a result our courtyard would not infrequently look and sound like a couple of the circles of Dante’s vision of Inferno.

One of the earliest members of this fiendish ensemble was Jack.  Jack was a tomcat, and I mean 100% tomcat.  He was probably once a pet because he was not overly skittish around us once he became accustomed to us.  Jack would hang around us looking for a handout or some morsel that might fall to the concrete paving of the pool area.  More often we would find him diving in our dumpster looking for gustatory jewels which we had carelessly thrown away out of the ignorance of our abundance.

Jack was a large cat but there wasn’t much fat on him.  Lean at the hip with a ragged coat and a tattered ear, he was a veteran of many a scrape with plenty of evidence of battles lost as well as battles won.  Chief of his battle scars was his right eye, which always drooped to a greater or lesser extent from day to day, and a tearing or weeping of fluid which made it look like he was crying, or got something irritating stuck in the eye.  The wounded eye never got much better or much worse as time went on, and we just accepted that feature as part of his essential ‘Jackness’.

A couple who lived in my building, Jan and Sheila, took a particular shine to Jack and began to feed him when he wasn’t out catting around, and eventually the attraction of a warm bed and steady meals was sufficient to entice Jack to move in, more or less, with Jan and Sheila.  These two people were probably my best friends there and so I got a chance to get to know Jack pretty well.  One afternoon we were sitting in their living room petting and sharing treats with Jack when Sheila said “We ought to take Jack to a vet and get him checked out.  He probably has worms and maybe we could get his eye fixed.”

“I would love to Honey”, responded Jan, “but how are we going to do that”  We’re eating on food stamps as it is you know.

“It couldn’t cost that much” I chimed in, demonstrating how little I knew about such things.  “Maybe if we just squeeze a few bucks out of our food budgets next month we could get a little done for him, and then more each time we scraped a little together’.

“I think it’ll take more than that” said Sheila.  ‘I’ll call a vet tomorrow and see what this kind of thing would cost”.

“That sounds like a plan Babe” said Jan, and then we dropped that subject in order to pursue weightier matters, such as the dull roar that was beginning to pick up over at the poolside.  It was actually a few days later that Sheila obtained the information that we needed, and the number set us back on our heels.  “The vet said anywhere from $80 to $150 to do the kind of check-up that we talked about.  Any work that he had to do on the eye would be more.”

We sat there thunderstruck, just looking at each other in bewilderment.  Jack sat over on a pillow, fresh from having a mouthful of dried food and looking at us with his perpetual ‘wink’ as Jan called it.  At that time my entire monthly budget was $125 from the G.I. Bill check that I got every month.  That included rent, food, and the all important beer ration.  Jan and Sheila had less than me, therefore the already-mentioned food stamps.

“Maybe we could take up a collection” offered Jan.  “Everybody else likes Jack too.”

“Yeah, they like him as long as they don’t have to pay for him” I said.  “Their budgets are the same as ours; beer, rent and food, and pretty much in that order of priority”.

Speaking of food, I sparked something of a revolution in the food habits in our building.  Being of Southern and Appalachian extraction I learned early on how to eat cheaply.  Beans, rice, ham hock, greens and various inexpensive soups were the mainstay of my diet, and my body was well accustomed to eating these low-budget delicacies.  Such was not the case with many of my neighbors.  We would leave our doors unlocked and people would routinely enter my unit and heat up a pan of soup or beans.  My only request was that they leave some change and a little bit in the pot, and clean the pan so that I could use it when my turn came around.

One afternoon when I was actually working on a paper on Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations at the site of the ancient city of Jericho I heard the door open and close and a female voice cry out my name.  “Back here” I shouted, wondering what this innovation of a female person looking for me could be about.  I heard rapid footsteps and found myself confronted by and obviously agitated Maureen, one of my co-tenants and the significant other of Joe.  Maureen was pure Irish, and at this moment in time her Irish was up.

“You stop letting him eat here” she barked.

“What are you talking about Mo?” I asked, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.

“It’s your damn beans” she said.  “When Joe’s been eating them I can’t be around him.  He’s peeling the paint off of the walls.”

“I’m sorry Mo, but that’s something that you guys are going to have to work out.  I can’t very well share with everyone else but tell him to bug off.”

“Isn’t there something that you can add to them, or something he could take to knock the edge off?  I’m telling you, I can’t live with him if he keeps this up”.

I invited Maureen to sit down and I tried to calm her down, with some success, and we talked for a while.  Maureen and Joe were another couple of my favorite people in that complex.  Finally I threw out, only half in jest, and idea.

“Why don’t you have a couple of bowls yourself; you know, fight fire with fire?  I’m getting hungry and wouldn’t mind some company.”  Maureen just looked at me blankly for a moment and then as a devilish grin began to grow at the edges of her mouth,  said “Sure.  who knows, I might like them too.”

Like them she did, and in Maureen’s virgin gastrointestinal tract the components of those beans frolicked like young sheep gamboling in a field in spring with lush grasses and wild flowers growing in profusion.

Full of pinto beans and the promise of retribution Maureen returned to the desecrated love nest of Joe and Mo and waited for her lunch to reach it’s full measure of payback potency.  All of Building ‘A’ knew when the knockout blow was delivered.

Jeez, Mo, did something crawl up you and die?” cried Joe.  He was answered by a fiendish cackle and ‘braack’.

Within minutes we heard a door slam as Joe exited their unit to find succor and a breath of fresh air in the field between our buildings and the college.  Roy Boy, Animal and I were lying on the floor laughing until I thought that we would pee our pants.  I arose after I composed myself and went around the corner of the building to look through the window into Joe and Mo’s unit.  Maureen was dancing gaily in the kitchen as I looked in and I knocked on the window.  Maureen turned, broke into a huge smile, and waved for me to come in.  I declined that honor and she smiled even more broadly.  She gave me a thumbs up which I returned with a smile and retraced my steps back to my unit.  Peace did return to the Mo and Joe unit, and Mo came over often to learn from me how to make those wonderful beans and other cheap meals.  It was always a little dangerous to go over to Joe and Mo’s place after she began to cook that stuff herself.

Anyway, Jan and Sheila and I were cudgeling our brains trying to figure out how to raise the money to give old Jack a tune up.  Beer, rent, and food was pretty much all of our budgets.  Beer was untouchable.  Everyone has priorities, and beer was top priority for most of us.  Rent; everybody had to pay rent, so that one was no use to us.  Food; everybody needs food.  Everybody eats food.  Everybody – wait!  Not everybody likes to cook food but everybody likes to eat food!  There it was, starring us in the face from the beginning.  “Let’s have a benefit dinner for old Jack” I said.  Jan and Sheila’s faces lit up with big grins and we struck hands on the deal.

Jan was useless in a kitchen, so the best he could offer was to stay out of the way.  Sheila was by far the most skilled cook of the three of us but she was more oriented to a delicate kitchen and palate.  What we needed was bulk, and that is where I shine in a kitchen.  We laid our plans and started saving our pennies, and Jan and I even cut into our beer allowance.  Jan was a passable calligrapher and he began to produce exquisite posters to put up throughout the complex announcing a spaghetti feed to benefit Jack.

Interest ran high, and on the morning of the big day I began to prepare a large kettle of my own sauce recipe: ground beef and pork, tomato sauce and paste, onions, garlic, mushrooms, olives, peppers and a pinch or two of various spices, simmered for a few hours.  In an even larger kettle we threw the noodles as the time to serve drew near.  After letting them boil for a few minutes I began to pluck individual noodles out and throw them on the wall.  When the noodle would stick to the wall it was done.

Sheila opened the door and the first of a horde began to file through.  Jan snatched noodles out of the kettle and I applied dippers full of sauce while Sheila passed the hat.  Technically the food was free, but Sheila put the serious stink eye on any chiselers who thought that he’d get away with a free meal.  People filled every corner of our unit and spilled out into the courtyard and beyond.  We served every bit of that spaghetti except for the plate that I saved for myself.  Jan and Sheila did not indulge, as they were vegetarians. After the last diner had left we counted our take; minus the cost of the raw materials we had raised $78 and some change, not a small amount in those days.

The next day Sheila made and appointment with a vet, and on the appointed date we cornered Jack and wrapped him up in a towel so that he wouldn’t do too much damage to us on the way.  We all piled into my old Dodge Lancer and began the trip to the vet.  Jack liked this idea about as much as Joe liked Maureen’s revenge, and was pretty edgy when we carried him into a room filled with other cats and some dogs too. Our turn finally came and we stepped up to the counter with Doctor Hendricks.

“Well then, who’s cat is this?” he asked.  We looked at each other and said “Well, Doc, nobody’s really”.

He looked at us kind of funny and said “so you want me to work on nobody’s cat?”

“Well Doc, he’s a stray that we all have come to like and so we want to fix him up some if we can” Sheila said, telling him the story of the benefit dinner.  “We raised $78 and some change and can each of us add a few dollars more if we have to.  What can you do for Jack with that?”  The doctor just stood there for a few moments and repeated the story to make sure that he understood it.  He decided that he did understand it and said “OK.  Let me keep him until this afternoon and I’ll see what we can do”.

We thanked the doctor profusely and then went about our day’s business.  About four in the afternoon we returned to pick up a bathed, wormed, vaccinated, and thoroughly mortified Jack.  the doctor said that the damage to his eye was permanent, but he could see out of it, it did not seem to cause pain, and would not negatively impact him if he remained indoors.  Jan and Sheila decided on the spot that Jack was their indoor cat from that moment forward.

“How much did this cost?” asked a nervous Sheila.  She knew that the extent of the doctor’s work was probably a good deal more than we had.

“How much did you say you raised?”

“Seventy eight dollars and some change.”

“Then the bill comes to seventy eight dollars” he said.  “And change”.

With further expressions of gratitude we returned to Jan and Sheila’s unit and turned Jack loose to sulk in his corner and lick his wounded pride until dinnertime.

I remained friends with Jan and Sheila for a few years until my gypsy lifestyle led me to new fields.  The last thing I remember of Jack was him doing one of his favorite things.  Jan and I opened a couple of beers and rolled a doobie the size of a Havana cigar and enjoyed both while Jan’s excellent stereo boomed out album after album of Pink Floyd.  Jack loved that band and would sit still as a statue about four feet away from the speaker, winking his wounded right eye at Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and the boys as long as the music would play.

I was told that Jack lived a couple more years after I left the scene.  He died a happy and loved cat.

Hosea Rock Opera Song 3, to be done in the style of the great Tina Turner

Hosea has spent a lot of time looking for the prostitute (OK, let’s say it; the whore) that God has told him to marry but hasn’t found her yet.  Tired and a little confused he stops into a bar to have a beer before going home for the night.  Upon entering the bar he hears the singer on the low stage up front.  The singer is barely barely at all and strutting her stuff for the crowd.  Their eyes meet and the connection is instantly made, although Gomer does not yet have any idea what Hosea’s mission is.

Well I see you standing in the back of the room, and I see you near the edge of the stage,

you came in thinking you were cool as the night, but your blood is beginning to rage.

You might have girl at home you might have a wife, maybe have a baby or two,

but just right now you’ve quit thinking ’bout them, and I know what you are wanting to do.

‘Cause I’m hot, I’m hot, I’m just about as hot as they get.

I’m hot, I’m hot, and you know that I could make you sweat.

So if you’re thinking I’m the girl next door that’s just one of the many things I’m not.

I’m bad to the bone and I’ll be wrecking your home and you’ll be loving it boy, ’cause I’m hot.

So come up closer sucker I can make your fanny pucker when i lay on you a motion or two.

You ain’t seen nuthin’ ’till you see this girl a-struttin’ and I’m struttin’ all my sweetness for you.

If you buy into my action I can promise satisfaction you may think it’s love but that’s not what call it.

It’s a business deal that’s gonna make you squeal, and it starts when you open up your wallet.

‘Cause i’m hot, I’m hot, I’m just about as hot as they get.

I’m hot, I’m hot, and you know that I could make you sweat.

So if you’re thinking I’m the girl next door, that’s just one of the many things i’m not.

I’m bad to the bone and I’ll be wrecking your home and you’ll be loving it boy ’cause I’m hot.

Time is a-wastin’ and it’s you I should be tastin’ and my room is at the end of the hall.

I could keep on dancing if the price was right but I can see that you’ve been hearing nature call.

So come on son, you know the evening is young, and all you want is just to spend it with me.

Just come into my room I’ll have you baying at the moon and you’ll be wondering how this pleasure came to be.

‘Cause I’m hot, I’m hot, I’m just about as hot as they get.

I’m hot, I’m hot, and you know that I could make you sweat.

So if you’re thinking I’m the girl next door, that’s just one of the many things I’m not.

I’m bad to the bone and I’ll be wrecking your home and you’ll be loving it boy ’cause I’m hot.

Squggle, or how the War was really won

I wrote this story just a few days before December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and that day always makes me think of my father.  Dad was a sailor but was not stationed at Pearl on that infamous day.  I don’t recall that he ever told me where he was on December 7, 1941,  but I heard a lot about what happened to him soon after.  Dad was on a battleship for a couple of years and then on a repair ship for the last year or two of the war.  He told me many stories of those years.

Dad was a good storyteller in a time when people appreciated a good story.  I remember scruntching up next to him on our sofa and listening to the grownups talk when company would come over.  “Company” would usually mean men and women of similar age and experience as my parents, so the conversations and stories would carry a mix of the familiar and the exotic. Topics ranged from the mundane events of the day to places and events far removed from the tiny living room of our stucco house in San Diego.

Dad was a storyteller alright, but above all things he was a yarn-spinner.  When my brother Brad and I were alone with Dad and there was free time on an evening in the back yard or at a campground in the mountains east of the city Dad could whip up a story out of thin air that would have both of us silent and spellbound until the final “…and that’s how it really happened” was pronounced.  Of course, Dad’s range was a bit narrow.  He was after all a Georgia farm boy who joined the Navy to escape the Great Depression, and not a novelist with an extensive education from a great university.  He did study at a fine institution for the art of the yarn however.  Nobody tells a better story than a military man, and no branch of the military produces more or better storytellers and yarn-spinners than the U.S. Navy.

Some of my favorite stories were told to me while we were in the bathtub.  When Dad was stationed in San Diego and not at sea he would take a bath with me.  I was small enough that we could fit quite nicely in the big iron tub.  When Dad was young they also had a tub which was filled with water drawn by hand and heated on a big black wood burning stove, so multiple parties enjoying a bath together was considered a very common and practical thing to do.  Anyway, we would draw a tubful of hot water and ease into it, with Dad leaning against the sloping end and me with my back up against the straight wall at the drain end of the tub.  It was at these times that Dad would tell me about Squggle.

Squggle was a sea creature.  Dad never did tell me the exact nature and physiognomy of Squggle, preferring that I use my own imagination to fill in the details I suppose, but enough details came out during the stories to permit me to craft the image of something like an octopus.  Squggle had a particular affinity for the U.S. Navy and a decided antipathy for the navy of the Japanese Empire.  Dad never explained why that should be so, and it never occurred to me that this was anything other than perfectly normal.  And so we would literally spend hours in the bathtub, Dad spinning tales of Squggle like a master weaver making a Navajo rug or a Belgian lace and me soaking them in like some kind of sponge with an endless capacity.  Sometimes we would pull the rubber stopper and drain out half of the water which had cooled off while Squggle assisted the Navy in this battle or that, which always ended in defeat for the Japanese and another victory for the American Navy.  We would run another half-tub of hot water and Dad, if he had his game on, would launch into another tale, perhaps another story of Squggle.

I wish that I had a memory of Dad’s stories exact enough to do them justice, or perhaps the skill to weave such tales of my own.  Sadly, I have neither.  But as I sit here thinking of Dad and the hours of wonder that he blessed me with so long ago I feel compelled to try my best to capture even an echo of the beauty of his stories.  I hope that there are at least a few small parts of this story that you find entertaining, and I assure you that they are but a thin pale shadow of the tales told to me by the Master.

This story takes place at the beginning of World War II.  The forces of the Japanese Empire have celebrated one victory after another over all foes and are poised to establish unopposed dominance in Asia.  The only force which stands between Japan and it’s goal is a band of American and Filipino soldiers who are stoutly resisting the Japanese Army in The Philippines.  General McArthur is holding on by his fingernails and badly needs supplies in order to continue the fight.  Admiral Nimitz knows the danger faced by any American fleet that steams into the battle zone in order to resupply McArthur and his joint force, and has to weigh carefully whether he dares to risk it with such limited ships and men as are available after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Send us in” growls Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey.  “We can’t let those brave men be starved into surrender when there’s still fight left in ’em!”  “But think of the risk” replied Nimitz.  “If you go down to the bottom there will be nothing left between Japan and Hawaii, or the West Coast of America for that matter.”  “I know it looks chancy” says Halsey.  “But I’m giving you ten-to-one that we can push through and sink a few Japanese ships in the bargain”.

Admiral Nimitz was not entirely convinced, but there was somewhat of an assurance in Admiral Halsey’s voice and manner that gave him the courage to go ahead with the plan.

In a few days a small force under the command of Bull Halsey had been scraped together from what was left at Pearl and was steaming west, straight into the battle zone.  The sailors all knew that an important battle was coming, one that they may not come back from.  Their courage was bolstered however by the calm assurance that Halsey seemed to show.  The sailors saw Halsey stroll about the deck, smoking and chatting with the sailors and staring fixedly toward the west, toward the battle that waited.  Halsey seemed calm as he scaned the horizon, and also seemed to study the ripples which appeared in the evening just as the red sun began to extinguish itself in the western waters.  The men noticed those ripples shortly after putting out from Pearl and at first thought that they might be enemy submarines, but the admiral gazed at those ripples and showed no sign of concern.  Soon some of the men decided that they were American submarines which only surfaced at night, while others ceased to think of them at all.  On and on they steamed, growing ever closer to The Philippines and ever closer to danger.

Admiral Yamamoto knew that they were coming.  Spies and other intelligence, plus his knowledge of America and Americans, told him that this patchwork fleet would be coming to bring supplies to the embattled fighters on The Philippines sooner or later, and he was ready for them.  One mighty battleship, three cruisers and fifteen destroyers were waiting in the islands, looking for any sign of the Americans.  They did not know which route the Americans would take, but they stationed themselves so that they could move quickly to intercept no matter which final approach Halsey chose.  The Japanese were alert, well trained, and ready for a fight.

Halsey checked his maps and charts and chose a path between two islands.  The clouds that stacked up against the peak of the mountain on the island to the right would give him cover from attacking Japanese planes and the narrow, shallow channel between the two islands would give the Japanese little room to maneuver if they chose to engage in that spot.  General McArthur and his army was just a hundred miles further west, and if they could sneak through this gap between the islands they would be at their destination by morning and could say “mission accomplished”,  for the moment at least.

Admiral Yamamoto knew their plan however.  Submarines had reported the Americans’ course and seaplanes had dipped into and out of those cloud banks and confirmed the Americans’ position and heading.  Yamamoto had placed the battleship and cruisers with their huge naval guns on the right and destroyers with their deadly torpedos on the left.  Halsey was steaming right into a trap.

The bright sun began to glow a softer red as the day slipped into evening and Halsey steered straight into that channel between the islands.  All the while he stared intently into the west and also into the water.  All of the sailors on deck went about their duties with one eye on their work and the other on Halsey, but one sailor near the bow who was mopping near the anchor chain hole look instead out to sea.  The sailor wasn’t sure, but he thought that he saw what looked lie a large, gray tube of something with a blunt end, glistening in the dancing waves and deepening shadows of late afternoon, and pointing to the far side of the island, towards the left.                                                                                                              That was the smaller island of the two and it had no high peak.  As a consequence there were no clouds banked up against a mountain to obscure the view, which made it strategically insane to steam in that direction.  Admiral Halsey noted this phenomenon too, and ordered the fleet to change course to the left and swing around the backside of that island anyway.  As he did so he ordered all of his sailors to get ready for battle.  The little fleet began to swing around behind the island and come in from the south.  As it did so Admiral Halsey noticed two things; the rear of the Japanese destroyer group began to come into view and the ripples which had accompanied the fleet all the way from Pearl were now gone.  Halsey allowed himself a small smile before he set his famous battle frown, with lower jaw jutting forward as if daring defeat to take a swing at him.

The transport ships fled on towards the hungry troops to the west as the small fleet of cruisers and destroyers opened fire on the unsuspecting Japanese destroyers.  Near misses were soon followed by devastating hits and huge explosions began to rock the enemy ships while fires began to gnaw at their vitals.  Quickly there were eleven destroyers sinking or burning beyond control while the remaining four fled towards the presumed safety of the Japanese battleship and cruisers.  Halsey pressed on, as if ignorant of or indifferent to the massive guns of the Japanese ships that were even at that moment being trained on his fleet.

Yamamoto could not believe that the American ships would sail straight into his guns, and he gave orders to fire at will.  The mammoth turrets of the battleship swung towards the Americans and the barrels raised up to train their lethal aim on the advancing prey.  The Japanese fire control officer barked his orders and shells the size of cars were rammed into the the guns with a huge charge of powder behind it to propel those lethal packages against the American ships.

Just as the officer prepared to scream “fire” a huge tentacle rose out of the water which was coiled around a boulder brought up from the bottom of the sea.  With a quick movement that tentacle stuffed the boulder into one of the gun barrels while other tentacles pushed the ship ever so slightly out of alignment with the American ships.  The officer in charge cried “fire” and all of the powder charges were ignited.  Eight of the gigantic shells were hurled through the pacific Ocean sky to splash down harmlessly into the water well away from the American ships.  The ninth gun however,  the one into which the boulder had been stuffed, blew up igniting the rest of the powder charges in the turret, destroying the turret and taking with it most of the bow of the doomed battleship.  As the ship began to take on water the crew became much more interested in beaching the damaged vessel on the nearby island shore than continuing a fight with the Americans.

The Japanese cruisers continued to blaze away and succeeded in sinking one and damaging a few other American ships, but the Japanese sailors soon saw that huge tentacles had begun to pluck their shipmates off of the decks and some destroyers were being pulled towards nearby rocks.  All the while the American ships drove into their midst with guns blazing and torpedos churning through the water and in a very short time the two surviving Japanese cruisers and one of the destroyers were speeding north as fast as their engines could propel them, carrying Admiral Yamamoto away to lick his wounds and plan to fight another day.

The American ships were busy the rest of the evening putting out their fires and pulling survivors from both navies out of the water.  As the last glow of the day barely illuminated the waters of that now-silent battleground Admiral Halsey gazed intently into the waters.  Then, just before the Pacific sky slipped from the dim light of evening into the pitch dark of night, the waters foamed and bubbled as a giant gray shape rose slightly above the surface.  A great eye, alien but somehow friendly, blinked a salute to Admiral Halsey.  The Admiral, in his turn, lifted his cap and made a small bow to that great shape, and it slipped back below the surface to rest and wait for the next time that it’s help was needed.

At this time I would beg for another story, but even my father would eventually tire and declare that it must end for the night.  After completing our baths he would climb out to towel off and prepare for bed.  I would always pull the rubber drain stopper and loved to watch as the water would whirlpool down the drain.  Lower, lower, lower it would go until at last the final inch of water would begin it’s exit and the whirlpool would give way to a sucking sound, a sound that I never connected to my father’s stories, a sound only pointed out to me decades later by my brother after Dad had passed away.  A sound that was a lot like “squggle, squggle, squggle”.

Phiz; a story of Vietnam

Being in a war is a bad thing. Sometimes wars are fought for good reasons, at least most people believe that to be true, and being in them may sometimes be a necessity, but actually participating on a personal level in a war is always a very bad thing. I can testify to this fact based upon my own experience. Nearly two years of my life were spent in Vietnam and I can say with conviction that my life would not be diminished in the least if I had never set foot in that land. But there I was, and in the manner common to most people and virtually all nineteen year old American males I set out to make the best of it. Being an extrovert I chose the path of engaging in many friendships to dull the pain of being ten thousand miles from home and with people shooting at me.

It only took a short while for me to become a member of a group of friends. Hiawatha Hardison was my first, followed soon after by Jeff Murdy and Alex Viggiani. We hung together for a while, but as people came and went by means natural and unnatural a new and more permanent core of friends was formed. Most of us had nicknames, as is common when guys live together. Jeff Murdy was called “Murds”, or “Magical Mystery Murds”.  Rex Randolph was known only as “Chief”.  Why?  I don’t know. Gary Mercer was “The Perch”, or Strawberry Perch”, an allusion to the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Perch was a very psychedelic guy before most of us had heard of psychedelic. There was also “Oz”, “Big Plow”, and “Lumberjack.”  I was called “Creeper”, and another of our group, Ray Cloud, was full-blood Cherokee and so we called him “Chief” too, which showed a lamentable lack of imagination on our part. The weird thing is that we never confused Rex with Ray. It was sort of like a”my other brother Darryl” thing.

We all spent a good deal of time together and did what so many soldiers did in that war when they were not on duty; we drank beer, listened to what music we could get, smoked a great deal of the native herb, and simply hung out and talked. Many interesting stories could be told about us sitting around telling those stories. I now propose to tell a few.

One of my favorite stories that was told to me by Chief. You’ll have to figure out which one for yourself. We were drinking some beer and sharing a few doobies on a dark hillside behind our unit area telling stories about where we came from and what we wanted to do when we returned to “The Real World”, as we used to refer to the United States of America and just about anywhere else that wasn’t Vietnam. Concerning most of those stories told that night I remember nothing, but in the course of the evening Chief shared with me one event in his life and it was such a singular story that it has stayed with me these forty five years.

Chief was a young man from Oklahoma who enlisted in the Army shortly after he turned eighteen years old. Native Americans have few reasons to fight and die for the United States but their warrior traditions prompt many to enlist and serve with peculiar distinction. Chief said he didn’t enlist because he was an American; he did so because he was a warrior.  Anyway, shortly before he turned eighteen he was at a ceremony attended by a small number of men in a tipi out on the plains. There was a small fire (white men build large fires and sit far from them, Cherokee build small fires and sit close, he told me) and the night was filled with stories and drumming and song. In the middle of the ceremony, according to Chief, a tiny buffalo no higher than perhaps twelve inches at the shoulder ran in through the opening of the tipi. The buffalo made an unspecified number of circuits around the inside of the tipi and then ran back outside. Chief said that all of the men in the tipi who had their eyes open followed the course of this tiny buffalo, and he felt that those with eyes closed who were singing and/or praying were equally aware of it’s presence. Nobody spoke of this after the ceremony, and Chief believed that if he survived the war and returned to Oklahoma he might then hear more about what that meant.

Retelling the story stirred some sort of emotion within The Chief because he went back into the battalion area, returned with an empty Jerry can and began to softly drum on it with the palms of his hands and sing softly in the familiar vocalizations common to Native Americans. Being a friend who knew that he had just been told something that most White guys didn’t get to hear, and being almost hypnotized by the beauty of his soft, heartfelt chant, and also being stoned to the gills, I just sat there and took in the whole picture.

I have since thought often about Chief’s story. Chief was a rational guy.  He had no fear of black cats or walking under ladders. He had a medicine pouch but he put a great deal more trust in a couple of thicknesses of sandbags to stop a high-velocity bullet or schrapnel from a mortar bomb or Chinese rocket. Chief didn’t believe in fairy tales. He also did not doubt in the least that a tiny buffalo entered a tipi and ran around it a few times before exiting back into the Oklahoma night, and that the older men knew what that meant. Chief did survive the war and, assuming that he made it back to Oklahoma, I believe that he was told the meaning of that visitation. I hope that if I should ever meet Chief again in this life or the next he shares that story with me, but I will understand if he doesn’t.

There were also stories which were made while we were there in Vietnam, and one of my favorites of that category concerns the arrival in-country of Young Bob Wilson. His name really was Bob Wilson, and he really was very young in more ways than just age. Bob’s innocence and naivete appealed to us all and we took him into our circle immediately.  One evening within days of Young Bob Wilson’s arrival we had the opportunity to welcome him properly to Vietnam. The story goes like this.

On this particular evening we were engaged in our favorite pastime; sitting on that hill behind our battalion area drinking beer and smoking dope and telling stories. Young Bob Wilson, being a new guy and unaccustomed to the strength of the local herb that we were smoking, was very nearly hallucinating. As the sun began to sink into the green mass of the jungle and the sky began to turn to dusk, the boys of the 199th Infantry began to lob some illumination flares into the darkening sky over the wire on our perimeter. They did this randomly in order to keep any Viet Cong who might be thinking of sneaking in and doing mischief on their toes. On this evening there were a few more flares than usual, but that might have been because the 199th picked up a few new guys of their own, or they may have simply been bored. In any case, after a dozen or so had gone up Young Bob Wilson asked nobody in particular “does this happen all of the time”? One smart aleck of the bunch replied “No, that’s more than I’ve seen since the Tet Offensive.”  “Really?” gulped Young Bob Wilson with a good deal more than a hint of concern in his voice.

It was as if the canine part of each of our brains were wired together at that moment in time, and somebody had thrown a bowl of raw meat in front of us. We were suddenly tuned into one thought and one purpose.  One after another we declared that we had never seen so many flares, and told stories of mortar and rocket barrages followed by human wave assaults that were either stopped at the wire surrounding our battalion area, or resulted in hand-to-hand combat from mess hall to latrine to the very footlockers at the end of our bunks. You could see Young Bob Wilson’s complexion blanch more and more as this massive shipment of bullshit was run past him with deliveries that should have earned us all Oscars. The pièce de résistance came from a source which none of us could have predicted or planned if we had wanted to.

The evening meal had been consumed and it was time for the K.P. detail to begin cleaning up. All of the pots, pans, dishes and implements of consumption were cleaned in hot water, and this hot water was obtained by submerging heaters into fifty-five gallon drums filled with water.  These heaters had a fire chamber into which some fuel, probably diesel, was dripped. This created a continuous roaring fire that quickly heated the water. Our mess hall had probably twenty of these stoves adjacent to the building under a tin roof which kept the rain off the mess crew. The metal chimneys of these stoves ran up through the tin roof. In order to light the heaters one must start the drip, step back, and throw a lighted match into the fire chamber. The resultant ignition would produce a ‘whoomp’ and a flash of flame and smoke that would belch up out of the metal chimneys.  Young Bob Wilson was sitting on that hill, watching those flares, listening to our crap with visions of the Battle of the Bulge running through his young stoned head, when one by one those stoves began to ignite with their ‘whoomps’ and gouts of fire and smoke erupting into the evening air as if the exhaust pipes of hell had been opened.

“Incoming” we all shrieked, just as if we had rehearsed it. We all leaped to our feet (which was quite an accomplishment when you consider the level of self-medicating that we had indulged in) and a couple of the guys yelled “get to the bunker.”  We all began to run but after a few steps we pulled up and watched as the barely discernible backside of of the olive drab-clad  Young Bob Wilson disappeared into the evening gloom of Camp Camelot, Long Binh, Republic of Vietnam, on what was an otherwise very peaceful and uneventful night.

It was reported that Young Bob Wilson sat alone in a bunker for almost an hour until a guy from H&H Company went in asked him what the hell he was doing. After explaining that he was waiting for the “all clear” and that the rest of his party didn’t make it off of the hill in the attack, the H&H guy berated Young Bob Wilson for being a New Guy (he actually threw in an additional adjective which I will leave out) and an idiot, which was traditional, while the rest of us sat on the hilside and had a robust laugh at Young Bob Wilson’s expense. We then returned to telling stories about how cool we had been before we found ourselves at the tender mercy of the U.S. Army and how cool we were going to be once we returned home.  Young Bob Wilson was warmly embraced, back-slapped, and properly intoxicated -on the house- the next day to let him know that he was fully accepted,  and he and I had a year-long friendship after that.

One story that I remember fills me with some melancholy however, and that is the story of Phiz. Warren Pfister was from rural Iowa. His family lived on a farm in close proximity to a small town, one of the many towns of two hundred or so people which dot the Midwest. We loved it when his family would send him treats. Many of us would receive those boxes of goodies from our families which we called “care packages”, but we would especially like those that came to Phiz because of the exceptionally high quality of the goodies contained therein. There were sausages, cheeses, crackers, dried fruits and things that the rest of us never got. My canned tuna, Campbell’s chicken and rice soup and potted meat really never got the boys too excited, but a package from Iowa was sure to get a rumble of expectation spreading throughout the group.

Phiz was a little older than most of us. I think that he was twenty five or six, but I am not sure. He was also a melancholy sort of guy by nature.  Phiz was fun to be with because, among other reasons, he told stories of the farm and the land and small town America that many of us urban dwellers had no experience with at all. We were a very diverse group and enjoyed hearing about the lives of each other on farms and in towns and cities, ghettos and barrios and reservations. If the rest of the world could achieve the acceptance and community that we did in that place there would be a lot less grief. Funny how this community feeling grew up in the middle of a war, the most irrational and violent of possible environments, but there it is. Phiz would frequently retire into a quiet place where we could not follow and we knew in those times to let him be by himself. He would emerge when he chose to and not before.

Phiz and I became good friends, possibly because I was one of the less boisterous of the bunch and had a penchant for reading. Phiz also read and we would share books. He liked poetry particularly and I preferred history, so we would trade books and get greater insight into each other’s lives than was common with the rest of the guys.

“Phiz,” I asked one day when we were both faking being sick and stayed back from the day’s regular duties, “what you gonna do when you check out on us?” Phiz only had a couple of weeks left before cycling back to the U.S. and a little later being discharged from the Army. We were both sitting in lawn chairs on a platform about twelve feet high upon which sat the five hundred gallon wood and rubber water tank that provided water for our showers. This gave us a beautiful view of the jungle which stretched off to the north and the flat delta of the Mekong River which retreated into the southern horizon. This also made us excellent targets for any snipers who thought it worthwhile to risk their lives to pick off two of the most useless soldiers in the U.S. Army, but we didn’t think too much about that. Phiz must have been more than usually convivial that day because he answered me.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be really happy, Creeper, here or back there” he replied. “I get to feeling good about myself and life and all but then this awful weight comes down on me that tells me I’m just fooling myself and trying to dodge the train that’s going to hit me no matter how hard I try to avoid it.” “Wow, really?” I asked with my usual absence of depth.  “Why do you feel like that?  We all have crap that’s happened to us but you just get up and move on.”  “I wish it was that easy for me” he answered, “but it just isn’t.  You see, the thing that I want most is to be married and have a family, but I don’t believe that I can ever do that”.  “Why not?” I asked. “I am really shy in spite of all the bullshit stories that I tell about my prowess with the ladies but I am pretty sure that there’s a girl for me back in the world if I just look hard enough and wait long enough.” I felt pretty good about the quality of my reasoned argument.  “I’ve tried a couple of times” Phiz replied, “but it just seems like there is something about me that girls can’t respect. I don’t think that trying one after the other is going to bring some magical change that will suddenly make me the man of some girl’s dreams. Sooner or later the whole damn thing will fall apart and I will just be left feeling lousy and like a loser again.” “Jeez, Phiz, I don’t think you have been at this long enough to know that. What are you, twenty-five or something?  You haven’t given this thing enough time.” Suddenly, twenty years old and a couple of beers down the hatch and I was seeing myself as some kind of Sigmund Freud.  “How the hell can you know that you can’t find the right girl?” Phiz sat silently in his chair for a while, finishing his beer and opening another while he thought, and then told me his story.

When he was sixteen Phiz had his first girlfriend. Actually, she was the first girl who had responded to him in any way at all, and he was excited that he had broken the ice. They had only gone out for burgers and a movie or two and had made out in the back seat of his car once or twice before he ran into her at a party in town. “She was there with another guy” Phiz told me. “Well, he could have been a friend or a relative” I offered lamely. “No, she was WITH another guy. If you’d have rolled a marble down either one’s spine it would have rolled down the same butt crack.” “Well, I think that we’ve all had some of that” I suggested, when in fact I didn’t know jack about such things. “There’s always another.”  “There was” Phiz said almost dreamily, as if he was looking at someone or someplace other than the Vietnamese countryside. “There was Wanda”.

Phiz had met Wanda a year later and they had hit it off very well.  Dinner out and movies, evenings spent with each other’s families, and time alone where they would talk about plans for a home and family and trips to the Great Lakes and maybe even California sometime. “Sounds promising to me” I said, coming as I did from California and preparing myself to tell him of some good places to visit. “But one night I was working on a car with a friend of mine and he had a cousin visiting from the next town over. We just turned wrenches and drank a couple of beers and talked like guys do. I mentioned Wanda and this guy, Ted was his name I think, said ‘is that Wanda Thurston?'” “It is” I answered, prepared to accept his glowing approval of the delight of my heart.

“I hate to say this man, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean any harm. I just think that you should know about this. Wanda Thurston has been hanging around with a guy over in Abbotsville, and they are a whole lot more than friends.” “I declared that this was not possible and I was inclined to punch the bastard in the head, but he described Wanda in such a way that I could not deny that we were speaking of the same person.  Also, there was such an obvious reluctance and sympathy in his speech that I finally decided that he must be telling the truth.” “And he was?” I asked.  “Yes, Wanda admitted it readily when I confronted her.  She wasn’t nasty about it; she just said that her dreams didn’t seem to include me anymore, so she was looking for her future somewhere else.”

Phiz sat silent for a while, staring off towards the place where a hill used to be. A battalion-sized unit of North Vietnamese regulars had dug into that hill during the Tet Offensive and raised a lot of hell us until the 199th Infantry boys, with support by the big, slow gunships with three miniguns on the side, dug them out of that hill one bloody foxhole at a time. It was not pretty to watch but I am eternally grateful that those guys were on that particular detail and not me! After it was over the 87th Engineers went to that hill with their heavy equipment and spread it truckload by truckload over the Mekong Delta. I don’t know if that was a defensive move or if they were just pissed off at that hill. Either way, Phiz just sat there for a while gazing off where the hill used to be.

While Phiz nursed his thoughts in silence my own thoughts began to drift to other places but suddenly it struck me:  one day recently when Phiz had received a care package the Strawberry Perch told me he had seen a note and a picture. Perch said that it had come from Phiz’s wife.

“Phiz, somebody said that you already have a wife” I said.  Phiz continued to look over the Delta to the south where the hill had once been, then got up, told me to stay put, and climbed down the ladder from the tower platform and disappeared into the hut in which we bunked. He emerged a short while later carrying an envelope. As soon as Phiz sat back into his lawn chair, opened yet another warm beer and lit a joint he handed me the envelope. I saw that it came from a “Mrs. W. Pfister” and had been posted two weeks ago, which meant that this was still fresh news for Phiz. I just stared at the envelope and at Phiz for a moment. Phiz exhaled a cloud of smoke, took a swig of warm beer and grunted “read it.”

The letter began “Dear Warren”, and went on to detail how she had met her ‘soul mate’, or something like that,  who was even now living in their house, and how she hoped Warren would stay in the military or find a girl somewhere else and move in with her or basically do anything except come back to Iowa. While that was being worked out she would continue living in the house that was being paid for out of Phiz’s Specialist Fourth Class salary (with combat pay). “She didn’t say that it would work out best if I got killed over here so she could get a nice insurance settlement, but she might as well have said it” said Phiz, barely above a whisper.

I had seen break-ups between boys and girls ‘going steady’ before, but I had never witnessed anything like this. For probably the first time in my life I was smart enough to realize that I didn’t have one appropriate word to say and inexplicably held my tongue.  I took a hit off of the doobie that Phiz had been bogarting, opened my own next beer, and sat there in silence. After a while I asked “are you gonna kick his ass?”

“Nah, I know what he’s getting.  I can’t do worse to him than that.”

“Well, at least are you going to kick her out of the house? You’re going to get a divorce, aren’t you”

Phiz thought about my question, and probably not for the first time. “No, I don’t think so.”  I have grounds, I know, but I just personally hate divorce.  She’ll probably cut me loose soon enough anyway, because I think that I am going to get the spousal allowance cut to the least the Army will allow, then when I get out that will dry up too if she hasn’t pursued a divorce already. I will find a small hole somewhere and crawl into it, and try to get on with life as best I can. That’s why my dream of a family won’t happen.  At least part of the reason why. Mostly it just seems like I can’t make a good relationship with a girl happen no matter what I do. Besides, if she gets lazy or whatever, I will maybe continue to be married to this person whom I hope to never see again. It just doesn’t exactly make for a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ ending, does it?”

I sat in my lawn chair under the warm Vietnam sun, equally stunned by the story I had just heard and the Cambodian redleaf weed that we were smoking. I spluttered and fumed a bit over the injustice of it all but I could tell that Phiz didn’t want to talk anymore, so we just sat side by side on that water tower and watched the nothingness that was happening under the late morning sky.

After a while we descended from the water tower and returned to our bunks where we were supposed to be recovering from our bogus illnesses.  I read a little and daydreamed a lot, and around seven in the evening the rest of the guys returned from duty and the nightly party began in earnest.  Phiz was his usual self and no mention was made of our conversation to anyone.

It remained that way for the short while that Phiz remained in-country, and after dodging a few more bullets he climbed onto a plane to some fort somewhere in the U.S. of A., where after completing his three years he was discharged honorably from the Army. Phiz sent me a few letters over the next couple of years. They were postmarked from Grand Junction, Colorado, but Phiz actually lived in one of the smaller communities nearby. Phiz did plumbing, painting, carpentry, piano tuning, brain surgery; in short, anything he had to do to make a living. He said that he was attending a little country church, had quit smoking pot but brewed his own beer (which was still illegal back then), and was living a reasonably happy life with a doberman pincer and a collie and a couple of cats.

I lost contact with Phiz in the mid 1970’s when I lost contact with most of the third planet from the sun, and I sometimes wonder how he has fared these many years.  I do believe that if I ever see him he will be living alone but for a few dogs and cats, and I don’t know if that would be a happy or a sad thing.  What I do know however is that I wish my brother the very best in life.

Hosea Rock Opera, song 2

Hosea has been given the unenviable task of marrying a prostitute to symbolize the relationship that God sees between Himself and His people.  Hosea is not thrilled, but he is doing as asked.  Tonight he is walking the streets of his town looking for the woman whom he must marry.  Song is to be sung in a Mark Knopfler sound.

God told me to look for her, out where there is pain.

Where good people don’t go, at least that’s what they claim.

I’ll know when I find her, the sum of my fears.

The girl God has made for me, my harvest of tears.

Why has it come to this, this thing I must do?

And why have we fallen so far, from the plan made by You?

At first I just thought of my pain, from what you want me to do.

But now I know it’s just a bit, of the pain felt by you.

Of the pain felt by you.

I’ve walked through the dark streets, I’ve looked in the bars.

Sad women in costumes, pimps watching from cars.

They both are just wreckage, of what once was a life.

But none of these women, will become my wife.

Will become my wife.

Why has it come to this, this thing I must do?

And why have we fallen so far, from the plan made by You?

At first I just thought of my pain, from what you want me to do.

But now I know it’s just a bit, of the pain felt by You.

Of the pain felt by You.

I’vel been walking these streets all night, gonna get in my car.

Looked in eery dark corner, looked near and looked far.

I think that I’m done for the night, and that’s music I hear.

I think I’ll stop in at that bar, and have me a beer.

Yes I think I’ll stop in at that bar, and have me a beer.

Why has it come to this, this thing I must do?

And why have we fallen so far, from the plan made by You?

At first I just thought of my pain, from what you want me to do.

But now I know it’s just a bit, of the pain felt by You.

Of the pain felt by you.