Return To The Real World, Part V

And so I was pulled back to consciousness by the bustle beginning to take place around me.  Commanders, captains and clerks were turning on lights, opening windows and hopefully arranging stacks of papers next to their typewriters; papers which would soon include my discharge orders.  I sat up with the other derelict soldiers who had been left deserted on the riser when the Oakland Army Terminal shut down at 2300 hours the evening before, and tried to rub the sleepiness out of my eyes.  As I regained full consciousness I became aware of the fact that my mouth tasted like an ashtray.  I had quit smoking cigarettes in Vietnam but still enjoyed an occasional cigar.  The events of the past 48 hours qualified as an occasion, so I had purchased a four pack of cigars the evening before, and reaching into my shirt pocket I found that the last one was still intact.  I extracted the tube of tobacco and bummed a light from one of the other awakening G.I.’s.

As I sat back to enjoy my smoke a new urn of coffee was brought out to replace the hog swill that I had used to extinguish the butt of my last cigar of the previous evening.  This urn undoubtedly contained a much better product and I arose and mosied over to get a cup.  I was pleased to find that my assumption was correct; the coffee was the same strong and flavorful stuff that I had drunk for nearly the last three years, and the aroma soon drove the other guys over to the urn to get cups of their own.

As we sat there waiting for the process to resume I took the opportunity to do what soldiers everywhere do; I told a story.  “You know, this Army coffee kept me out of a lot of lousy duty” I began in the time-honored manner of all yarn spinners.  “How’s that?” replied one of the other guys, playing his role to perfection.  “Well, I like working in the kitchen and cooking, and when I was in basic training at Ord I had KP (Kitchen Police, or kitchen duty) on the day that our company had to march ten or fifteen miles out into the country in full packs, set up tents, and do night and day maneuvers for two or three days.  I ended up helping to pack up the field kitchen and mess tent and rode in the back end of a deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton truck) to our bivouac area.  We set up the tent and assembled the kitchen long before the ‘cruits (recruits) got there, so Sarge made some coffee and we sat around for an hour or two until he got the word to start cooking dinner.  The Joe’s came into the area and had to pitch tents before they could eat, and they looked like shit when they came into our tent, but we were doing just fine.

After that I always volunteered for KP when there was a crappy detail to avoid, and sometimes I would take a guy’s KP in return for their weekend pass.  I tell you, sitting in a tent in the early morning with a cup of hot coffee and some of the best SOS (creamed beef on toast, or Shit on a Shingle) that the mess sergeant could cook while listening to his stories, some going back to World War II, were some of the best times I had in the Army.”  The guys all smiled and nodded.  Nobody appreciates a good scam that gets you out of boring or dangerous work nearly as much as a soldier does.  At ten minutes until seven a great commotion erupted behind us.  The doors to the building yawned open and a new batch of soldiers filed in, probably the next bunch of returnees, we assumed.

“Durden, Glenn!”  A new clerk bawled out my name and I jumped up, ready to make an end of this.  “Come in, Durden.  We’re almost done here.  When you leave this station you will get into your Class A dress uniform for the final station.  You’re almost done, soldier.”  I could hardly believe my ears but the clerk was as good as his word, and not twenty minutes later I had traded fatigues and combat boots for my rumpled green dress uniform with it’s shirt the color of baby puke and my “low quarter” dress shoes which had all been stuffed into my bag.  Emerging from a restroom so attired I proceeded to the last station.

“Here is your last payday soldier.  How would you like your money:  cash, check or travelers checks?” I had a little cash left in my pockets and so foolishly opted for travelers checks, which were duly issued and signed.  “OK.  Sign this paper here,”  the clerk pushed one more paper toward me that looked like the fifteen thousand other papers that I had already signed, “and we’ll be done.”  I signed as quickly as I could, scrawling my name across the bottom of the paper.  The clerk slid a folded sheaf of discharge orders to me and asked for my military ID card, which I cheerfully yielded up to him.  “That’s it.  Get out of here, man.”

I picked up my bag and walked out of the building, dazed and hardly daring to believe what I had just heard and witnessed.  Outside it was a glorious spring morning in the Bay Area and I felt like this must be what entering heaven would feel like.  Nearly three years earlier I climbed off of a bus near midnight in front of a mess hall at Ford Ord, and now I was walking towards a taxi with every step leading me farther away from all of that.  Two other guys were negotiating with the driver and I came up to make it three.  We agreed on a price and soon passed through the gates of Oakland Army Terminal.  I didn’t look back.

We chattered excitedly as the driver made his way towards San Francisco International Airport.  I don’t remember anybody’s name or where they were going to; this was my time and that’s all I was focused on.  We passed over the bridge and through The City, finally arriving at the front of the airport.  I saw none of the protesters who were reported to show up anywhere in the City where soldiers might appear in order to spit on them and call baby killers and so forth.  I can’t predict how I would have reacted in such an instance but nothing of the sort happened.  We paid the driver, shook hands and went our separate ways.

I headed straight to the Pacific Southwest Airlines ticket counter and took my place in line, and at length my turn came.  I approached the counter, gave my destination and waited for the ticket to be sold to me.  After a few minutes the agent pushed a ticket in my direction and said “That will be $78.69.”  I took out my travelers checks and prepared to countersign when she asked “can I see your ID?”  I had, of course, surrendered my military ID less than an hour earlier and told her this.  “I’m sorry sir, I can’t accept a travelers check without some sort of ID.”

“Ma’am, I don’t have any ID.  I have just been discharged from the Army.  I have a drivers license in my chest of drawers at home because I didn’t need it much in Vietnam where I’ve spent the last two goddam years.”  My frustration with the tragicomedy of snafus and delays on this odyssey was beginning to reach a boiling point, and my near exhaustion that a few hours of sleep had only barely begun to address only added to my irritability.  “Look, all I ask is that I be allowed to go home and take this green monkey suit off.  I have a name badge that says my name pinned to my chest.  I have orders that say Glenn L. Durden is a free man and can go home now.  What the hell do I have to do to buy a ticket from you that will get me there?”

“I’m sorry sir.  I don’t make the rules—.”  At this point a vein at my right temple was about to explode.  The customers lined up behind me came to my aid however, and averted a replay of the Tet Offensive right there at the ticket counter.  “Come on lady.  Sell the man a ticket!” said the customer behind me.  “Yeah” chimed in a lady behind him.  “What the hell’s wrong with you.  Does he have to bleed for you right here on the floor?”  A chorus of other voices began to rise up and the flustered agent, who’s fault it really wasn’t after all, held up her hands and said “OK.  Wait here and I’ll get a supervisor.”

She left the counter and in no time at all a guy in a natty little suit came out and asked the eternal, smarmy question:  “OK, what seems to be the problem here?”  I explained the problem to an accompanying chorus of muttered threats and imprecations from the other travelers.  “It doesn’t sound to me like we have a problem at all” he said, averting a small crisis.  “Here.  Sign these two checks and we’ll get you some change and a seat on flight 1079, leaving here in about—” he consulted his wristwatch in a sweeping and dramatic fashion —“fifty five minutes.  There’ll be a stopover in Long Beach and we”ll have you in San Diego at 1:44 this afternoon.”

1:44 PM this afternoon!”  Not 1344 hours, but 1:44 PM  “Is there anything else that we can do for you Mr. Durden?”  Once again, ‘Mr. Durden!’  Not Specialist Durden, not soldier, not ‘cruit, grunt, goldbrick, shitbird or anything else that I had been called the last three years.  Mister Durden responded with “No sir.  Thank you very much for your help.”  I took my ticket and carried my bag to the appropriate gate, and there awaited my flight which was right on time.  At last the gate opened and I queued up to board.  A flight attendant took one of my tickets – the one to Long beach – and I put the ticket for the second leg of my final journey into a crease in my peaked garrison cap.  Soldiers now wear cute little berets, but back then we wore garrison caps, and traveling soldiers always put their tickets in that crease.  It was like they were made for it.  I found my seat, stashed my bag in the overhead compartment, sat down and buckled up, and then fell fast asleep.

“Hey buddy, wake up.  Wake up soldier.”  An elbow was nudging me in the ribs as I regained consciousness.  I looked over at my traveling companion, a civilian in his middle years, as wakefulness slowly returned to me.  “Where are we?” I asked.  “Coming into Lindberg” he told me.  I looked with bleary eyes out the window and saw the brown layer of smog that hovered over the city.  “Humph” I thought.  “That’s different.”  We came down uneventfully and in fifteen minutes I was talking to my mother on a telephone in the terminal.  “I’m home Mom.  Can you come and pick me up?”

We lived a half hour from the airport, and it seemed like forever before Mom’s ’62 Mercury pulled up in front of me outside of the terminal doors.  I got an affectionate tongue lashing for not having bothered to call home once I was on this side of the Pacific Ocean, but I mostly ignored it as we passed by the North Bay area, then past the old Spanish Presidio buildings up the hill from the mouth of Mission Valley.  Now we drove past the new football stadium where the Chargers played.  I had not yet seen this building and it looked like the apex of modern sports to me. At last we drove up Fairmont hill and through the neighborhood that I had called home for the last seventeen years.

“Mom,” I asked when we got home.  “I’m too young now to buy a beer.  Would you go up to the store and get me a six pack while I shower?”  Mom agreed and soon I was alone, standing in the shower at the house that I had called home since I was four years old.  After the water had washed off nearly three days of dirt and sweat, some of which had first stuck to my body at Long Binh, Vietnam, I toweled off and dressed in shorts and a tee shirt and went out to enjoy my first beer as a civilian.

Mom had bought two six packs and I sipped one and talked with Mom until Dad got home from work.  He greeted me with a handshake and tears that he only barely held back.  Pop opened a beer of his own and then procured a shot of the rye whiskey that he kept on the back porch.  We then yakked while Mom bustled about in the kitchen.  At length my brother Brad returned from his classes at San Diego State.  He too opened one of the beers and we talked until Mom sang out “Dinner’s served.”  Then the four of us sat down at the table as civilians for the first time in three years.

After dinner, with hellos all well said and a stomach bursting with the best food that I had tasted in a very long time, I excused myself and strapped on the sandals that I had brought home from Vietnam.  Ray Matlock, one of my oldest neighborhood friends, had returned from the ‘Nam only two weeks earlier, and I wanted to go savor my freedom with somebody who could really relate.

At length I stepped out of the front door with a straw hat on to hide my extremely short hair.  My first sergeant in Vietnam had threatened to hold me back if my hair, which I had always cheated on, wasn’t Army length.  I doubted that he would really do it but didn’t want to incur unnecessary risk, so I had my head virtually shaved.  Now, with a smooth face and a cue ball for a head I walked down the two steps off of the front porch, down the walkway that Dad and I had framed up and poured years earlier, and over the sidewalk that I had grown up walking and running on.

So many of my brothers had trouble coming home from Vietnam.  Some you could say never quite made it home at all.  That was not my story.  As I walked along the sidewalk to Ray’s house, the three previous years were already beginning to recede into the past.  New experiences would replace the old ones and the worst of the old ones would in time be relegated to my dreams, and those increasingly far apart.  I, Glenn Durden, was home.

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