Stepping Out

Private First Class Joseph Sommers tried to squat down as he waited for the helicopters that would shuttle him and the rest of his company into action.  He could have taken his pack off and sat on it, but he didn’t want to take a chance on delaying the process when the choppers finally arrived.  This was Joe’s first mission since arriving in Vietnam and he knew that he was going to screw something up; all of the veterans had made certain that he knew that.  Joe just didn’t want it to happen first thing.  Since he couldn’t squat without the risk of the weight of the pack pulling him over onto his backside, Joe just stood silently and smoked while he waited.

Joe tried to take his mind off of the action that lay before him by remembering his home in San Diego.  Home hadn’t been kind to Joe.  For reasons that he could never understand he had been picked out by the other kids in the neighborhood to be bullied.  Hardly a month would go by without him being beaten up at school or at the neighborhood park or just walking back from violin lessons,

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers,” someone would yell and soon his violin case would be in the bushes, his sheet music scattered to the wind, and Joe lying on the sidewalk with his mouth or nose bleeding.

This situation persisted throughout Joe’s school years, and in his heart and mind visions of revenge had wrestled with the message of forgiveness that he heard preached and taught at the East San Diego Christian Church every Sunday.  Joe’s head would pray for the strength to forgive the kids who made his life hell, while his heart prayed that God would send lightening or plague or any other catastrophe to blast his tormentors to a hell of their own.

In time Joe began to believe that for some reason that he would never know he deserved what he was given.  He would try to fight back, but it was as if he knew that he would be beaten once again before he even started and it would be better to get it over with quickly rather than prolong – and maybe worsen – the inevitable.

At last Joe graduated from high school.   “The world is open to you all” some speaker was saying.  “You only have to step out and take your place in it.”  “Take my place in it” Joe thought as he sat listening under the gray June sky.  “What the hell is my place in it?  A punching bag?  Maybe it IS a punching bag.  I never had the balls to really stand up and fight back, and I’m just as big as most of those kids are who slapped and hit and spit on me.  Maybe the world really is open to me, and then again maybe that speaker is full of shit and I have this coming to me and nothing’s going to change.”

Joe mulled these thoughts for two weeks after graduation.  He stayed at home, not wishing to face the kids that he might run into at the park or the beach or, well, just about anywhere.  All that time his mind seethed over the import of what he had heard at graduation.  Was the world truly open to Joe, or was he just a punching bag.  It couldn’t be both.

At last Joe’s eighteenth birthday came.  Joe’s parents asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and the answer to that question came to Joe like an epiphany.  “I want to join the Army.  Today.”

Joe’s mother stood in stunned silence.  “Are you crazy?” she blurted out at last.  “Have you noticed that there’s a war going on?”

“Yes Mom” Joe replied.  “Dad fought in a war and now it’s my turn to go too.”

“You’re darned right your father fought in a war, and I waited every day to see if two officers were going to walk up onto the porch and ring the doorbell and tell me that my husband was dead.  Now you want me to do it again with you.  What in the hell is the matter with you men?”

Joe’s mother sat down and began to cry.  His father tried to comfort her, but she seemed to be as mad at him as she was at Joe.  Joe was sorry to have hurt his mother.  She had been his greatest comfort during the awful times of his childhood and he felt the sting of having caused her this pain.  She would have been especially grieved if she knew that her outburst had confirmed Joe in his decision, and convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

“What in the hell is the matter with you men?” she had asked.  “Men.”  She had used the word “Men” and included him in that group.  Here was what he sought.  He would not be “Miss Sommers” or the human punching bag for one more day.  Joe would be a man, even if he got himself killed trying.

After Joe’s mother accepted that she could do nothing to prevent Joe’s departure his father asked if they could drive him to the recruiter’s office downtown.  “No Dad.  I want to take the bus.  I want to do this myself, from the beginning to the end.”  Joe remembered his father telling him of taking a train from a town in Missouri to a naval training center somewhere on the Great Lakes in the 1930’s.  Joe would only take the Number Seven bus down University Avenue and then down Park Boulevard into downtown San Diego, but he was going to do it on his own.

The Park lay in the direction opposite University Avenue, but Joe chose to walk through that park on the beginning of his journey.  Matt and Chad and Reuben and a couple of girls who would have never thought of letting Joe know their names were sitting on a picnic bench underneath a scruffy pine tree as he walked by.

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers” Joe heard for the thousandth time.  Among the catcalls and insults Joe heard the question “Where you going to, Missy?”

Joe stopped directly in front of them and said “I’m going to join the Army.  If any of you ladies want to go with me, step up.”

“They don’t let sissies join the Army” Matt replied with his usual idiotic sneer.

“Then why don’t you get up off of your ugly ass and come down with me and see for yourself?  Maybe you could even join too.  I’m sure that they have room in boot camp for two more.  Hell, all of you can come.  Come on!  Let’s see how brave you are when people are shooting at you.”

The laughter stopped for a minute.  “Perhaps that thought is sinking into their microscopic brains” Joe thought.  Before they could begin their derision again Joe continued speaking.  “I have more important things to do than piss away a morning with you.  Anyone with a set of balls on them can come and get on a bus with me.”  Joe then slowly, as impudently as he could manage, turned his back on them and walked away, leaving several very confused ex-tormentors sitting on their bench.

Joe thought about that day as he stood at the edge of the LZ (Landing Zone), but his daydream abruptly ended when he heard the Wop Wop Wop of the approaching helicopters.  “Saddle up, gentlemen” Corporal Zincker said with a calm voice.

Joe was anything but calm.  He had been assigned to his unit four months after finishing Advanced Infantry Training at a fort in Texas.  When he arrived at Camp Charlie, somewhere near Pleiku in central Vietnam, he was given the usual treatment dished out to FNG’s (pronounced F’nG’s, and meaning Fucking New Guys).  “Don’t get me killed, FNG.  I’m rotating home in two months.”  “Oh shit.  Are we getting another FNG?” and so on.

Joe knew that new guys were replacing buddies who had rotated home, been wounded or killed.  A veteran who had befriended him in Texas had told him what to expect and advised him to “not get yourself killed, and the guys will come around in time.”  That was a better deal than he had at home.  The guys never came around there.

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

The chopper had touched down and Joe’s squad moved quickly to take their places behind the door gunner who sat behind his M60 machine gun.  All kidding and FNG stuff was over now.  Soon this helicopter and a lot of others would come to within a foot or two of the ground and men would jump out into a world where bullets and bombs and other gadgets of war would define their lives for as long as they could hang onto them.

“I don’t have to be here” Joe thought as the helicopter lifted off and another took its place.  Joe remembered that when he first arrived in-country the previous company clerk had just been wounded by a sniper and had been shipped, or ‘medivaced’, to a hospital in Japan.  Joe knew how to type, so he was assigned to replace the clerk.

“But sir” Joe had argued with his Commanding Officer.  “I didn’t sign up to be a clerk.  Why do I have to do this?”

“Because you’re government property, Sommers, and you will do what the government tells you to do’ was the CO’s reply.  “I’m the government, and I’m telling you to put your ass in front of that typewriter and start clerking, and if you give me any more shit I can add latrine duty to your chores.”

Joe didn’t savor the idea of latrine duty,  and so he ground his teeth day after day as the men went out on missions while he stayed behind and typed morning reports.  At last, a replacement Admin Specialist arrived and Joe Sommers found his name on a list of men going out on the next mission.

Sitting in a row on that chopper, Joe was both exhilarated and terrified.  This journey was very nearly over.  For almost nineteen years, life had tried to beat him into submission and had failed.  Joe Sommers was not willing to be a punching bag.  He was not willing to be a company clerk.  Joe Sommers would be a man, even if it killed him.

They were below treetop level now and Joe knew that the call to “un-ass” would come in a moment.  “This is a hot LZ gentlemen.  We don’t want to linger” a chopper crewman hollered over the roar of the engines and blades.  The gunner cut loose with a burst from the 60, spraying the tall grass and brush in front of him with hot death for anyone who dared to poke their heads up.

Joe had been placed so that he would be the third person out of the chopper.  That way the squad leader and one veteran would lead him, and the ten guys behind him would kick him in the ass if he screwed anything up.  Joe knew that’s just the way that they did it, and he was glad that it was that way.  He would either survive this and then deal with the “World that is open to you all,” or he would die on his feet facing his enemy.  Either way was fine with him.

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

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