I had at that time no idea what kind of a story this was the beginning of. I did not exactly hang out with Jerry after that day but we were friendly with each other. We did not seek each other out at school or at the part, but sometimes we would walk together to school when we happened to meet on the street and would sometimes sit on the picnic tables in the field at the park, or just sit in the swings and talk about superficial stuff. Dutch continued to menace Jerry for a week or two but that tailed off and in a couple of months’ time Jerry was completely left alone. One day, Dutch showed up at school looking like he had gone through a meat grinder and said that he didn’t know who had dished out that punishment; said that it came out of the dark on his way home the night before. We all thought there was more to it; Dutch looked scared.
After that year, Jerry’s family moved out of our school district and I lost track of him. In fact, I don’t believe that I thought about Jerry one time after he left Knox Elementary until the day our paths crossed once again in Vietnam.
It was late afternoon and I was leaving the outside dining area of the Continental Hotel, a French-style operation that was a legacy of the one hundred year French colonization of Vietnam. I had no idea what the meat was that appeared on my plate, it could have been water buffalo as far as I knew, but on the menu it said “steak”, and that was good enough for me. I had been eating at our mess tent for most of a year and any variety in my dining experience was much to be sought.
I paid my bill and exited the building in order to catch a ride back to the port on the Saigon River where my unit performed its mission of providing administrative support for the stevedores and yardmen and warehousemen and mechanics and everyone else that it took to run a busy seaport round-the-clock every day of the year. My choices were many; a passing Army truck, a cycalo – a sort of motorized pedicab – or a Saigon taxi such as were always nearby in that busy city. I saw that a taxi was at that moment disgorging a passenger in front of the hotel and I walked over to take his place in the microscopic front seat of that tiny vehicle. I waited as the passenger first pivoted on his butt and swung his long legs sideways and out onto the sidewalk, and then propelled himself out of the vehicle with first his elbows and then by pushing with his hands, rising to stand erect before me. I didn’t recognize the face but the name stenciled in black on his olive drab Army uniform read “WARNOCK”.
“Jerry?” I asked tentatively
The soldier looked at me for only a moment and then said “Glenn! How’ve you been doing these last ten years?” Jerry didn’t look at my name patch, or I didn’t see him do it anyway. He just seemed to remember me. I told the taxi driver that I would pay him in the Army script instead of the Vietnamese currency if he would wait a minute, which he was more than willing to do.
“How the hell have YOU been, Jerry?” I asked, glad to see a hometown face in this land far from home. “I haven’t seen you since, what, 1958?”
“59” Jerry said. “Yes, it’s been a while. You have time to catch up a little?”
“No, I have to get back to Newport on the river before the buses leave at 6. We convoy to Long Binh, where I’m based. You ever make it to Long Binh?”
“Yeah, every once in a while. I could come out some time, but you say you work at Newport? I could meet you there just about any day.”
“Yeah, I’m at Newport, but we don’t have a club there, and I’d like to buy you a beer.”
“I’m not a really big alcohol drinker, but that’s OK. We’ll do Long Binh. You ever get a day off?”
“I do indeed. Every other Sunday. In fact, next Sunday is my day off. I’m with the 91st Transportation Battalion, right off of the road to Cat Lai. I’ll tell the guys at Headquarters that you’re coming. They’ll know where to find me.”
“Deal. I’ll see you in Long Binh.”
Jerry stuck out his hand to shake on it and I offered mine tentatively in reply. Although I was nineteen years old and had been in war for what was beginning to feel like a lifetime I still was not comfortable with adult trappings like shaking hands. I knew that it was something that people did, but it felt like something that I was “doing” rather than like a natural rhythm of life. Jerry, however, shook my hand with a firm grip and easy confidence. I filed that experience away under the heading of “so that’s how you do it” and said goodbye.
I squeezed into the taxi and said “Saigon Port”, and the driver wheeled crazily into the chaotic Saigon traffic which looked completely disorganized and potentially deadly (which, like any traffic anywhere, it could be) until you learned it’s rhythm, and he then drove me back to the port from where a small landing craft called a ‘mike boat’ would ferry me up the Saigon River to Newport Army Terminal and the bus convoy which would return me to my bunk at Long Binh.
Jerry showed up at Battalion headquarters close to noon the next Sunday. Since it was my day off I had returned to my bunk after morning formation to resume my slumber of the night before. I had received a care package from my mother a couple of days earlier and so a can of potted meat spread over several saltine crackers which had begun to soften in the humid Vietnamese lowland climate had replaced breakfast in the mess tent. Vince Kazmirowski, the battalion clerk, came through the door of our one-story aluminum hut, which we called a hooch, that I and twenty three other guys called home. He told me of Jerry’s arrival and I left quickly to go and claim him.
“Hey man, welcome to my world” I said with genuine warmth when I saw Jerry seated in a folding metal chair next to the screen door. Jerry rose smiling, and I made it a point to stick my hand out first this time.
“Hey to you! How’re you doing?” He greeted.
“Excellent. Couldn’t be better. Unless I was home, civilian, and with my girlfriend” I replied.
“Yeah. FTA.” FTA, to all of us grunts, stood for Fuck The Army, unless there was a lifer, as we called career officers and NCO’s standing around nearby, in which case it stood for Fun, Travel and Adventure with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
“You hungry man?” I asked.
“Yeah, I could use some chow.”
We walked a couple of yards behind the headquarters building to the big wood and canvas structure which was our mess hall while a permanent wooden structure was being built next to HQ. I have no idea what was being served up that day but no doubt it was uninspiring and, if we were lucky, devoid of taste. We loaded our trays and sat down in a corner by a bank of screened windows. It wasn’t too hot yet, and as we were in the “dry” season the humidity was not nearly as bad as it would be six months later. We ate quickly, as soldiers usually do, and then refilled our coffee mugs, and I finally got around to asking Jerry what he had been up to the last several years.
“That’s a long story” he began, “and I’m not entirely sure that you would believe it. My sense tells me that you might but I’m not always right. What do you remember about me?”
“Well, I remember that you didn’t have the happiest childhood, not that most of us did I suppose. I remember that you got beat up a lot, but that after that weird thing with the dog, all of that stopped. I wondered about that dog thing, too. I thought for sure that he would eat you alive. I also noticed that people left you alone, pretty much, after that. I figured that your dad went to the principal, or the police, or both maybe, and Dutch got the law laid on him. Then a little while later you were gone, and I have to confess that I never really thought about you very much after that.”
Jerry sipped his coffee and waited for a moment before speaking again. “Glenn, I’m going to tell you about what that ‘dog thing’ was all about. Parts of this will sound fantastic to you; hell, it still sounds fantastic to me. I just ask you to suspend disbelief when those parts come around and listen to the whole story before you judge whether to believe it or not. Are you going to be good to go with that?”
“Yeah, I think I can handle that” I said, wondering what in the world Jerry was about to say.
“OK, here goes. Dutch really fucked me up when he dished out that beating”
“Yeah man” I interjected. “I didn’t like that at all.”
“No, I mean things you couldn’t see. There were things inside of me that were badly damaged. I could feel it but I couldn’t move to escape or defend myself. When they pitched me over that fence I thought I would die whether the dog got me or not. Have you ever felt like you were about to die?”
Weird question to ask of a guy in a war zone. In fact I had recently felt exactly that. A few months prior to this day a Viet Cong soldier lobbed a bomb into an ammunition bunker which exploded like a nuclear device. I stood flat-footed watching the the expanding explosion as it sped my way and looked like it would do so until it gobbled me up, and there wasn’t one damned thing that I could do about it. Happily for me the explosion reached it’s destructive limit before it reached me, but that feeling of helplessness and eminent doom was still vivid in my mind, and I shared it briefly with Jerry.
“Well, that’s how I felt, only I had a large dog and internal injuries to think about. When the dog came over to me however I felt almost instantly like I didn’t need to fear him. In fact, it was sort of like the dog said “Don’t worry. They can’t hurt you here.” He licked me, sort of the way that a mother dog licks her puppies, and gave me a little bite on the forearm. The bite, it was more like just a nip really, didn’t hurt and immediately I began to feel like whatever was wrong on my insides was starting to knit itself back together. I didn’t stop hurting, not by a long shot, but my fear of what was going on inside of me left me, just like my fear of the dog had left me.”
At this point Jerry saw me looking at him with an expression that was a mix of “This guy is certifiable” and “Is he dangerous?” all over my face. “I told you that this would be a lot to swallow. Are you going to want to hear more, or should I go now?”
I was tempted to wish him well and show him the door, but I could still remember the actions of that giant mutt so many years earlier and how they did not make sense. This story was not any more strange than the dog thing had been, so I struggled to suspend my judgement and said “Go on.”
“I appreciated you walking to my house with me after that incident. I had just gotten the shit beaten out of me, should have been killed by the dog, and knew that I would hear pure bullshit from my parents when I got home. Mrs. Larson didn’t care whether I was alive or dead; she just didn’t need a lawsuit. You were the only person that day who actually cared just about me, and I could feel it – sense it. That meant a lot to me.”
Jerry got up to get a refill of his coffee, and I remained at the table nursing the cooling remains of my own mug of the strong, black Army stuff. He returned momentarily and asked “You ready for more?” I nodded my assent, although I was not entirely convinced that I was in fact ready for more of this lunacy. Jerry sat down with his refreshed mug of coffee and continued.
“When I got home and went in the door my parents were both home. I can still hear my dad: “Jerry! What the hell has happened to you now? Have those boys been picking on you again? That does it! I’m going to the principal and get you some protection.” Dad had been threatening me with that but I had always talked him out of it, thinking that it would just be taken off of the school grounds and get worse. I told him “No Dad, don’t do that. I’ve got a handle on this.” I don’t know how I knew that I had a handle on it, but I did know it. “Handle on it my ass. You look like hamburger!” At that moment my mother came in from the laundry room and saw me. “My God! Clarence, forget the principal. You have to go to the police.”
“No Mom!” I shouted. “That’s just what I do NOT need. Let me work this out myself.”
“Work it out?” my father roared. “All they can do besides this is kill you. I want the little bastards thrown into jail.”
Dad reached for the phone to call the police but I walked over to the phone and pressed down the button to disconnect the call. My father was not accustomed to this sort of behavior from me. In fact, he was as likely to light up my ass as anybody else was. My action took him by surprise.
“Dad, if you feel you need to go to the principal, that will be fine with me. It may cause me more trouble and it may not. But please, don’t call the police. I’ve told you that I have a handle on this and I do. Would you just trust me this one time?”
“What sort of handle do you have on anything?” Dad asked. I noticed, however, that he was putting down the phone.
“I don’t exactly know how to explain it Dad. I can’t spell it out for you, but I know it. Give me just a little bit of time, and if nothing changes I won’t object to you calling anybody that you feel is best.
My father stood there, holding the phone receiver in his hand, and just looked at me. Mom then took me by the arm and led me to the kitchen sink, where she washed my lacerations and abrasions with warm, soapy water, and then began to dab mercurochrome on them to prevent infection. Hurt like hell too. I knew that Dad would do whatever he would do and it was out of my hands, so I left him alone. After dinner I went to my room and after finally falling asleep, I slept like the dead until nine or so the next morning.”
“Yeah, I didn’t see you at school the next day and figured that your folks had taken you to the hospital.”
“They probably would have if I wouldn’t have improved so much. Mom didn’t get me up for school because she thought I still might need to see a doctor. But I really was doing a lot better, so I just relaxed around the house for the whole day. Dad went to Knox and spoke with the principal that day. He told Mr. Hensil that if he couldn’t keep his child safe at school the police would get involved. The principal told Dad to keep me home Friday as well. He would speak to all of the staff and keep a very heightened watch over me. At any sign of any violence or threat of violence against me the perpetrators would be expelled. That solution was good enough for Dad and he came home to share this information with Mom and me.
My recovery was quicker than I could have believed. By the time Monday rolled around and I went back to school the bruises were beginning to fade and the cuts and abrasions were healing. They were still scabby, but cuts that you would expect to need stitches had closed up and were healing nicely. Mom was very nervous when I left to walk to school; she wanted to drive me, but I told her that everything would be alright. I knew that she didn’t really believe me. I didn’t know at the time if I really believed myself! But whether I believed it or not, my gut told me that it was true, and out the door I went.
It didn’t take long for me to run into Dutch, who was with Kurt and Charlie. “Hey She-Miss-Woman. You come back for more?” he said to me with his punk-ass grin.
“No Dutch, I didn’t” I told him, and looked him straight in the eye. I stood there ready to fight if Dutch came at me, and I knew exactly where I would hit him, or kick him, or bite him, or grab him so that I could shove his head through a wall if he came at me. And that was really weird, because I had always been afraid when I had fought back against the bullies before.”
“Afraid?” I interjected. “Man, it seemed like you were always ready to jump into it back then.”
“I wanted it to look like that. I thought if I presented myself as being ready to defend myself without fear I would eventually get some respect and be left alone. In reality, whenever I got into a fight I was so scared that I could hardly stand up. Sometimes I would simply lose touch with time and awareness, and go from standing up and throwing punches to lying on the ground bleeding the next moment that I was aware of, but I didn’t remember how I got there.”
“Shit, man, that sounds like hell!”
“It was hell. Every day I would catch it at school or at the Park or on my way from one place to another, and every night I would hear about it from my dad, how I had to stand up for myself or how he was going to get involved. Never once did I get somebody who just said “This isn’t right. You shouldn’t have to deal with this. Nobody should.” You came as close as anybody to that after the dog thing. Anyway, this time I looked at Dutch with no fear, only preparation for what I would do if I had to, and the certainty that I would do it with maximum force and effect, and that Dutch would be lucky to survive.
And Dutch knew that something had changed. Stupid as he was, and saying that Dutch was more stupid than a goat is being disrespectful to goats in the extreme, he knew that this time would be different. I could see it in his eyes; I could see the way he shifted his position a little to one foot, then the other. I could SMELL it on him. I knew that I owned Dutch, and somewhere in that teaspoon full of slug shit that he called a brain he knew it too.
I didn’t say a word to Dutch that day. He said some shit and then left. I saw Mrs. Sandifer watching from the door to her classroom. I knew that she was monitoring the situation for my own protection, and I knew that I didn’t need it. I didn’t look directly at her, and went about my business.
Later that day, when I was walking across the pavement during lunch, I saw Charlie giving me the eye. He was playing four-square with a kickball and I knew what was coming. Of course, that wasn’t a stroke of genius; that sort of shit was always coming. I just never seemed to figure it out before. I looked everywhere except at Charlie, trying to lull him into thinking that I was asleep as usual but also checking to see if any teachers or other playground monitors were on duty. They weren’t, so I kept walking in a straight line past where Charlie was getting ready to chuck that ball at the back of my head as soon as I got past him.
How did I know that? I had no idea then and I don’t really know how to explain it today. I just KNEW it. I even knew the timing; I would walk four steps past being even with him and he would let the ball go.
I walked three and a half steps and the turned. Charlie was indeed in the act of winding up and throwing the ball. My turning surprised him and threw off his timing. He chucked a crippled duck at me which I caught with ease and then fired back in one motion. Charlie never saw any of that coming, and I caught him as flat footed as a freshman on the football team. The ball hit Charlie full in the face and it was well inflated, so it hit him like a brick. By the time I walked over to where he was bent over and holding his face the blood was beginning to pour out of his broken nose. I grabbed Charlie by the shoulders of his shirt and dragged him upright.
‘Charlie’ I said, ‘There’s nothing I would like to do now more than to put my kneecap into your face and then beat you to death. Not to a bloody pulp, but to death. And that is exactly what I will do if you ever fuck with me again. I’m not trying to scare you and I’m not trying to impress anyone on this playground. In fact, I might be the best friend that you have on the playground right now because I’m giving you the best advice that anyone can give you on how to stay alive. The next time you fuck with me you die. Now get your ugly, stupid ass to the nurse’s office and quit bleeding all over the playground.’
Charlie’s reaction was a lot like Dutch’s had been. He was not used to a Jerry Warnock who did not accept being a punching bag and he was not used to being the one standing there with his nose bloody, his face on fire, and a whole lot of people watching him have to back down and just take it. Charlie didn’t say a damned word. He just turned and walked away. Everyone who was watching this just stood and stared. I made eye contact with everyone that I could to let them know that what they had just seen was real, and the way that things would be from then on.”
I had long since finished my coffee and sat at the table fingering the thick ceramic mug as Jerry told his story. “Hold that thought” I told him. “I’m going to get a refill. You want one?”
Jerry declined. I arose and went over to the coffee maker that was on all day and night in this place that was never completely asleep. I returned with my refill and plopped back into my chair. I was fascinated by Jerry’s story, and I liked a tale of paybacks as much as anyone did. There were still a lot of gaps that I wanted to fill in, and so I said “What made the difference, Man? I can see all of this happening, but what made you turn from being a walking target one day and Superman the next? I didn’t see you take Charlie out but I heard about it. Everyone said that you sucker punched him and that they were going to get you for it. I remember telling you right after the incident, that you should watch your back, but I didn’t have any real idea of what had happened. I just knew how everybody was talking about how they were going to pound on you, and usually that meant you were going to get pounded on. I didn’t think a lot about it then and I didn’t think about it at all for the last ten years, or however long it’s been, but that was a pretty big change What was behind it?”
Jerry decided to refill his own cup and returned with his mug full of hot, black mud. He sat down, collected his thoughts, drew a long breath and then said “OK, this is where it gets weird. When I walked home that day that I broke Charlie’s nose I passed by the Larson’s house. Duke, the dog, was out in the yard and came running to the fence. I left the sidewalk and walked across the lawn and sat down on my side of the fence. Duke wasn’t barking, and in fact just sat down on his haunches within a few feet of my face. He was just sitting there, panting a little bit because it was a warm day, with his face in a dopey dog grin and his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. I just sat there too. I didn’t talk to the dog or put my fingers through the fence. We just sat there almost laying against each other. I felt a real peace and security. The peace; I have no idea where that came from and I can hardly describe it. I had no fear of anyone or anything, and I was eager to get revenge for all of the pain that I had lived with. When I plastered Charlie in his ugly face I liked it. When I pulled him up by his shirt and looked into his eyes that were no more than a foot from my own I saw the pain and confusion and fear in them. It was like I tasted his emotions. It was like three different fruits; an apple for the pain, a pear for the confusion, and a banana, the sweetest of all, for the fear.
And I wanted more. I had wanted to really hurt Charlie but I knew that the people monitoring the yard would be out momentarily, and I did not want that sort attention. When I told him to go to the nurse I enjoyed giving him an order, and I really enjoyed seeing him shrink before me and obey like a servant. It was like food; I could eat the power and triumph and it tasted good and if felt good in my stomach. When I looked at the other kids on the playground it was like T-Bone steaks looking back at me. Everything about my body projected this message: ‘I’m hungry. Make one move toward me and I will eat you right here, right now’, and I know that on some level they felt it. The power was intoxicating. I had never felt that before. When I walked away my fists and feet ached to strike, to hurt, to repay. It took an effort to settle myself down and walk to a corner of the playground where there were mostly first graders, where I would be ignored and left along.
That urge to hurt passed fairly quickly, but there were echoes of it bouncing around my mind and body the rest of the day at school. When I walked home and leaned up against the fence with Duke on the other side of it the lust for revenge receded greatly, but by no means vanished altogether. It seemed like I gained some of the personality of that big dog. I would always remember that I had been injured, and would not let myself be injured again. I also knew that even if I was overwhelmed by numbers of opponents I would fight savagely as long as I could; I would never be a victim again. I found a beautiful balance point between anger and fear, power and weakness, and I found it sitting next to that dog. After a while I got up, stuck my fingers through the chain link fence and scratched behind Duke’s ears. He enjoyed it, and then trotted back to his doghouse under a tree.
I went home and Mom was waiting at the door for me. ‘How was school?’ she asked, trying to to be too obvious as she examined my face and knuckles. ‘It was fine Mom’ I said. ‘No trouble. I think everyone wants to get along a little better now.’ She looked at me skeptically but said nothing more. Later I went through the same drill with my father. ‘I’m glad that the principal has gotten things under control’ he said, and I only nodded. I didn’t know what to tell either one of them about how I had changed or if I should tell them anything at all. ‘Nothing’ seemed to be the best choice, so I changed the subject and they soon dropped the whole thing.
After dinner I asked if I could go out for an hour or two. ‘Where do you want to go?’ they asked. ‘The Park’ was my answer. ‘I don’t know’ said my father. ‘I don’t know if it is safe there. You’ve had a good day, why take a chance?’ ‘Good day or not, Dad, I can’t spend my life hiding. I’ll be OK. I’ll keep my eyes open and walk away if any trouble appears. I don’t need any of that stuff and don’t want it any more than you do.’ Mom wasn’t convinced but Dad saw the logic of it and said OK, but he might walk by the Park once or twice just to be sure. I told him that would be fine and he let me walk out the door.
I went to the Park but really didn’t do very much there; played a round of tetherball or two but mostly watched the others and watched for any of Dutch’s bunch to show up. Nobody did show up, so at last I left to return home. Once again I was going past the Larson’s house and once again I walked across their lawn and sat down by the fence. It was getting dark, light was shining out through the front windows of their house but none came through the windows on the side where I sat in the shadows. I could smell the dog strongly, and once again felt the peace that I had felt earlier. I was lost in thinking about why and how that could be when I heard the back door open and the click of Duke’s nails on the concrete walkway which led from that door to the gate at the back of the yard.
I heard Duke stop; perhaps he smelled me or knew of my presence through some other faculty. I don’t really know. He just stopped and came walking over to where I was sitting by the fence. I felt that peace even more strongly and wondered how in hell the presence of the dog could have anything to do with that. Still, I knew that the dog was either the source of the peace or at least involved with it somehow. I wanted to let the dog know how much I appreciated this gift, whether it came from him or only through him, and I reached up to scratch his ears again.”
Jerry stopped at this point and looked intently into his mug, as if searching for the right words to say in the now cool black liquid which remained untouched.
“Yeah, so you went to scratch the dog” I said. “Then what?”
Jerry continued to stare at his cup, obviously wrestling with what to say, or whether to even say it at all. Finally, he looked up from his mug and stared directly into my eyes. “Glenn, I have been debating whether to tell you about this since I ran into you on Tu Do Street. I still don’t know if it is a good idea. I sense that you can handle my story, but my sense isn’t always right. I believe that I’ve said that before. I hope that it is right however, because I’m going to tell it to you come what may. Before I do however I want to answer some questions before you ask them. No, I am not crazy. No, I am not shitting you. No, this isn’t a joke. I know you might come up with some other questions along those lines and the answer will be more or less the same as I’ve already given you.”
Jerry thought for a moment longer and then said simply “I looked at my hand and it had turned into the paw of a dog.