I didn’t say anything for a moment. I just stared at Jerry, waiting for him to crack a smile or do something to indicate that he had just played a trick on me. After searching Jerry’s face and finding not a wrinkle at the edge of the eye nor the slightest curl of a smile at the corner of his mouth it sunk in that he was serious.
“You’re shitting me” I said numbly. This wasn’t in the form of a question, which Jerry had requested that I not ask. I said it in the form of a declaration, indicating that in my opinion he was either really was shitting me or crazy as a loon. Jerry didn’t move much; just lifted his mug slowly to his lips and took a sip of his now-cold coffee. He put the mug down and, never letting his eyes leave mine, slowly nodded his head in the back and forth motion indicating the negative.
“No. I am not shitting you. What I have just told you is true. I know that it is a lot to take in, but I have decided to gamble and give it a try. If you don’t want to hear any more I will understand, and I’ll be getting back to Saigon. Maybe I should do that anyway, and let you think about this for a while. I haven’t told anybody about this for ten years and I can go on if necessary. I just felt like it would be nice to have one person who could know this about me and share the secret. You stepped up to help me ten years ago and I sensed that you might do it again. I hope I’m right, but I won’t be pushy about it. I am dead serious, and I hope that you can accept that. Either share this with me, or think I’m crazy and put me out of your mind. But either way, I hope you will keep this conversation private. I will of course deny having ever said anything like this if I’m asked.”
I just sat there mutely and looked at Jerry. It soon became apparent to me that he was in fact dead serious, which raised some very unsettling questions. Was Jerry dangerous? Was he some sort of maniac living in violent fantasies? The thought even crossed my mind ‘Is this guy some sort of werewolf, or does his crazy ass believe that he is?’
After a long while I just said “That’s a lot to take in man. It isn’t every day that somebody tells me that his hand turned into a dog’s paw.”
“Well, there’s more to it than that” Jerry went on. “That was just the first incident. Over time I learned that I can become a dog. A whole dog, top to bottom. I thought about telling you about this in little bits but I am tired of my secret. It is a lot to carry alone, and I’ve made a gamble. I can, at will, assume the shape of any dog I want. I’m in complete control of it; it’s not like a werewolf thing. I’d love to share the whole thing with you if you would let me, but I know that it sounds like I’m a couple of tacos short of a combo plate. If you are freaked out by this and just want me to go I will do exactly that. In fact, I may just go now anyway and let you think about all of this. I can give you my unit address and you can send me a letter if you want to talk more about this, or you can just forget that you ever met me. I’ll understand either way.”
I felt sort of numb and stupid. I just sat in my chair and stared at Jerry, unable to form a coherent thought, much less a sentence. Jerry didn’t look or sound like he was crazy, outside of the impossible bullshit story that he was running by me. I looked down at his hand, which looked just like any other human hand that I had seen in my twenty years of existence. It was insane. Hands don’t become paws. Lon Chaney Junior was an actor and his werewolf was the work of a makeup crew and time lapse photography. It wold be an act of sheer lunacy to get taken in by such a story. Still, Jerry’s calm demeanor communicated something that said ‘Maybe’ to me, and somehow I couldn’t just get up and tell Jerry to get the hell out of my mess tent. Finally I managed to put together a couple of coherent thoughts and shared them with this strange figure from out of my past.
“Jerry, this is the craziest shit that I have ever heard, and you can’t believe that you can just walk in here and tell me that,” – I looked left and right to make sure that nobody was listening to our conversation – “that you can turn yourself into a fucking dog. That’s just nuts and I should find some MP’s to hold you until the shrinks can get into your head and fix you or send you to the farm where you can’t hurt anyone.”
I sat back and looked at Jerry, playing absentmindedly with my mug and trying to put together my next thoughts. Jerry interrupted this process.
“Why don’t you?”
I didn’t have an answer to that question. It was nearly certain that Jerry was crazy and I mostly wanted him to get up and walk out of the mess tent and never see him again. And yet, Jerry did not look threatening, did not look vacant and disconnected the way you would expect a crazy person to look. I had seen a couple of people reach the limit of what they could take over the last year and Jerry did not look one little bit like that.
No, the look in Jerry’s face was one of complete rationality. I was sure that if I asked he would get up and walk away, and I would never see him again. He had just told me something absurd and unbelievable, but he did not press his case and continue to argue his assertion. Jerry’s relaxed posture and composed face communicated more than anything else ‘You can trust me, but I’ll understand if you choose not to,’ and that was enough to keep me from telling him to hit the road that very minute.
Finally I gave in to my inability to call for help from the mess staff and decided that maybe I would listen to Jerry’s story – some other time.
“Look man, that’s a lot of shit to swallow in one helping. I’ll tell you the truth; I think you’re stoned or crazy. Shit like that just doesn’t happen. I don’t know why you’re telling me this stuff, but I’m not buying it; not at all. Still, I’m curious why you’re here telling me this, and I don’t think that you’re a danger to yourself or others, so let me think about what you’ve said, and maybe we’ll talk again later. In the meantime, I seriously recommend that you get some medical help. Normal people don’t go around saying shit like that out loud, and even though you look normal enough, I think you should be a little bit worried. Why don’t you go now, and maybe we can talk again some other time.”
Jerry agreed, to my considerable surprise, and pushed his chair back from the table. He arose, as did I, and extended his hand in offer to shake mine. I looked at Jerry’s hand and imagined a big, hairy paw, and hesitated to take it. Jerry seemed to understand my reticence and laughed out loud. “It’s OK” he said. “I don’t have fleas,” and then he laughed again.
Jerry retracted his hand and stuck it into his pocket. A moment later he withdrew it and extended to me a Vietnamese incense holder that was a little brass bell-shaped object with holes in it into which one could insert sticks of incense. It had a yellow ribbon attached to it and Jerry said “Examine this very closely and then tie it to your bunk. Don’t ask questions, just tie it to your bunk. If we get together again I’ll tell you what this little gizmo means.”
I stuck out my hand and took the bauble, and then Jerry turned to walk away. After a couple of steps he turned back to me and said “Remember. You can reach me at the address that I gave you. I’m going to tell you this straight up. I am not crazy. I’m not making this up. I can prove everything I’ve told you, but I’m not a freak in a circus or a carnival. I’ve spent several years fully learning that fact and I won’t become a freak show in order to gain acceptance that won’t last the first storm anyway. If you should come to accept that I am different but worth being a friend to, then I will show you my difference. I will not show it to you in order to make you believe me, and then become my friend. That sort of thing never lasts.”
With that Jerry turned and walked across the mess tent and out the door into the bright Vietnamese sunlight. I continued to stand in front of the table before which we had just been sitting and stared first at the door, then at the brass incense holder, and then back at the door. “Man”, I thought. “when the guys get back from work they are going to get a laugh out of this!”
‘The Guys’ were due to be home at about 7:00 PM. The mess tent would be open but most of them would eat snacks and stuff from our care packages rather than waste time there. We were usually more inclined to drink our dinner than to eat it, and before much time had passed after the buses had disgorged the troops returning from the port we were all at the Enlisted Men’s Club in our battalion area emptying our pockets of military payment certificates, or ‘Monopoly money’ as we called it, and telling the soldier who was waiting tables to keep the beer coming as long as there was money on the table to pay for it. Several times I began to bring up the tale that Jerry had told me, certain that the guys would get a good laugh over that crazy shit, and even subconsciously relished the thought that I would claim the spotlight with my bizarre story. I really did enjoy those rare times when I could be the center of attention and do something or have a story that was better than anyone else’s. A couple of times I tried but I could never quite pull the trigger. Crazy as Jerry’s story was it felt to me like telling it to these other guys in order to get a laugh would be a lot like running with the pack who tortured Jerry at the elementary school so long ago.
Later, when we were sitting on the wooden porch of our hooch, laid back in our lawn chairs wearing only our Army-issued olive drab underwear and with towels draped around our necks for no other good reason than as a group identifier, we passed joints of almost psychedelic Cambodian pot around and a bottle of bourbon, but no matter how stoned I got I couldn’t bring myself to bring up Jerry’s visit.
Finally I got up and staggered to my bunk. I switched on the enormous floor fan that I had “liberated” from the port and pulled back the blanket on my bunk. A quick inspection of the sheet underneath showed that Leroy, the snake that we kept in our hooch to keep the rodent population under control, was not curled up in my bunk that evening, and neither was there a little collection of snake turds to mark his having passed by.
As I began to crawl into bed I remembered the incense holder that Jerry had given me earlier that day. I dug it out of the pocket of my fatigue pants and tied it to the edge of the bunk. “That dude’s crazier than shit” I thought, and crawled into my bunk. Five o’clock in the morning was less than five hours away, when I would have to ‘un-ass’ my bunk, so I had to get to sleep. I didn’t give the incense burner or Jerry another thought after that, and passed into the deep sleep of the crazy, the stoned or the dead.
I don’t really know why I didn’t tell any of the guys about the story that Jerry told me. Nothing could have been better for getting a laugh than sharing the story of my own personal werewolf, but for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable telling my friends about ‘Jerry the Dog Boy’. Maybe it really was because I still thought of him as the kid who always got his ass kicked, and I didn’t want to pile on, or maybe it was for some other reason that I couldn’t think of then and can’t think of now. For whatever reason, I hesitated to tell of my visit with Jerry, and by the end of that evening I had decided to forget about it altogether myself. At five the next morning we were roused from our bunks as usual so that we could get dressed, get into formation for a head count, eat breakfast and be on the bus at 6:20 for the convoy to the port. It was a long two weeks before I had another day off, and so I lost myself in the rhythm of life and work in Vietnam.