THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter II

“What are you talking about?” Chris asked softly.  “What do you mean he ain’t coming home?”

Sonny gave his beer another slow spin and sat back a little deeper in his chair.  “Ah, shit!” he muttered.  “Why did I have to be the one to tell you this?”   Then he set his beer down and looked straight at his friend.  “It’s the truth, man.  At least I think it is.  Tom’s not coming home.  He didn’t make it.  We got the word a couple of weeks ago; or I guess I should say that I got the word.  I heard about it from Jake Olsen.  You know, he’s Jackie’s older brother.  He works at the transmission shop up on University Avenue and I saw him when I took Pop’s Chevy there to get it adjusted.  He asked me if I’d heard about it, and I told him that I hadn’t.”

Chris sat motionless in his chair, ignoring his beer.  Thoughts came to him in bunches, jumbled and disoriented and not making any sense of what he had just heard.  Tom was the guy in the crisp, clean fatigues that were ironed and starched and proper for viewing by the generals and colonels and other brass who infested his comfortable and secure duty station at Long Binh.  Chris knew his friend Sonny though; knew him well.  Sonny wouldn’t joke about this, and Chris had seen enough of the viciousness that life could throw at a person, so he took little time in accepting the awful truth, or probability at least, that his best friend for most of his life was dead.

“How did it happen?” Chris asked.  “Did he go and try to be a hero?”

“I don’t know much about it” Sonny replied.  Jake said that he heard it from somebody else.  I asked him if he was sure and he said that he was pretty sure that the person should know.  I don’t know if it was Jackie or not.  Anyway, he was pretty busy and said that he had to get back to work.  I thought that maybe your family would know and would have told you something.  I guess they didn’t.”

Chris thought about that for a minute and then said “No, they didn’t say anything.  They probably don’t know.  They liked Tom but didn’t really connect with his family.  I don’t remember if they ever even met them.”

Silence once again took possession of the room as Chris tried to get his thoughts working properly.  Meanwhile, Sonny cudgeled his brains, trying to think of the right words to say to his friend.  Those words didn’t come to him.

“Damn!” Chris exploded.  He brought his fist down on the round wooden table next to his chair.  One leg of the table buckled and his beer went flying.  Chris looked at the ruined table and narrowly suppressed a desire to get up and kick it across the room.  He struggled to get his rage under control and at last looked at his mute and miserable friend and said “I’m sorry about the table, man.  I gotta get outta here.  I gotta think some.”  He looked at his bottle of beer that had rolled over to where his friend sat silent and immobile.  “Sorry about the beer, too” he said.

“No man.  Ain’t nothing.  I’m sorry that I had to tell you.”  Sonny looked at the beer and then, without looking up, croaked out once again “I really am sorry.”

Chris looked at his suffering friend for a moment and then said “Not your fault, Bro.  It’s cool.  I just gotta go.”

He turned and walked out through the door of the converted garage, down the driveway and onto Chamoune Avenue.  From there he began to walk through the old neighborhood, sometimes barely moving forward and sometimes stalking angrily down the sidewalk past a house or a path to one of the many nearby canyons or any of a hundred places that had played a part in the life that he had shared with Tom.

After a while Chris arrived at the park where he had once held court with the other kids of the neighborhood.  It was nearly unchanged since the day that he and Tom had boarded a bus and took the ride downtown to join the Army three years earlier.  There were the same basketball courts, the same swings, slide and other rides for the younger children, and the same picnic benches out in the field.

The people, however, were different.  Chris didn’t recognize anyone as he walked through the park.  The kids he and Tom had hung out with had grown up and moved on.  Three years can change a lot of things.  A new crop of teens shot baskets or smoked cigarettes out on the benches, while a new herd of younger children played on the slide and swings.  A new community had taken up residence, replacing the old one of Chris’ youth that had moved away, and nobody was interested in the unrecognized young man who walked through their realm.

Nobody, that is, except one teen, one member of a group of teens, who was leaning against a boxed structure that held trash cans which rested at the edge of the path along which Chris was walking.  Chris was almost unaware of the group of young people who were gathered there as he walked by, still trying to come to terms with his friend’s death.  As he passed the group he became aware of a sound; somebody was whistling “Anchors Aweigh.”  San Diego is a Navy town, and it was not uncommon for young people of that city to look down upon sailors, just as the local kids from the town near his duty station in Georgia had sometimes made things difficult for soldiers.

Chris realized that somebody had seen his almost shaved head and smooth face and decided to bait a sailor.  He stopped, turned, and saw that the whistler was a short but thick young man with dark hair, fuzz on his upper lip, and an insolent sneer on his face.  He stood for a moment and looked at the teen as if he was a specimen of some sort of bug in a display case in a museum, and then the dam holding back his anger and frustration broke.

He crossed the distance between himself and the teen before that unlucky person could react.  Chris gripped the kid’s shirt, pulled him erect and then slammed him against the building which stood on the other side of the path along which he had been walking.  As the kid bounced off of the building Chris grabbed a shoulder, spun him around, and buried a fist into his gut.

The teen crumpled to the ground and Chris twirled to face the kid’s four friends who stood frozen against the wooden structure.  They were too surprised to have moved yet, and Chris instantly assessed which one would most likely pose the greatest threat, should they decide to come to their friend’s aid.  That person was the second from the left; a taller kid than his now immobilized adversary but not much less stocky. Chris fixed his eyes upon those of the kid and only pointed a finger at him.  That finger spoke death and carnage if he made a move toward Chris, and the teen read it accurately.

The speed and violence of Chris’ attack and his one-digit admonition had frozen the other boys so he turned back to the ringleader, who was now struggling to rise to one knee and get some breath back into his lungs.  Rage flowed through Chris’ arteries, through his arterioles, and through capillaries which carried both blood and bloodlust to bathe the very cells of his body.  For two years Chris had engaged the enemy in Vietnam, his fighting fueled by self-defense, a belief in his country’s cause, and loyalty to his comrades, but never by hate.  To be sure he had felt anger when he saw men; boys really, die.  He always knew however that the enemy were little more than boys too, and that they too were dying.  Because of that he couldn’t hate them.

Today he faced a whole different scenario.  Another soldier, an older one who had spent a few years at college before dropping out and accepting his inevitable draft notice, told Chris about the berserkers.  “They were Vikings, Norsemen or Danes or whatever, who would work themselves up into a psychotic frenzy before they went into battle.  In that state they would charge their enemy like fiends straight outta hell, completely oblivious to pain or anything else other than death.  The story has it that they would take an arrow through the heart and still kill two more of the enemy before they fell dead.”  Today Chris had become the berserker.

The teen was on one knee now, still struggling to get his breath back.  He was not a small kid.  The other boys were not as tough-looking as his victim was, but not much less so, and there was four of them.  Even so, Chris looked at the lot of them and all he could see was a bunch of ass that needed to be kicked to within and inch of their lives.

“What’s going on here?  You know we don’t permit fighting on the park grounds!”  The question and the statement came from behind Chris, and in his current condition he didn’t like the idea of a new adversary coming up on his rear.  He whirled and saw a man of similar age as his own advancing with an air of authority.  Chris crouched slightly, preparing to launch the kick that would crush the new challenger’s larynx, and the man wisely halted his advance.

This new character in the drama held up his hands, palms out towards Chris, and said “Hold on now.  Let’s settle down here.  There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt now.  Will you tell me what’s going on?”

Chris saw the badge pinned to the new person’s vest and perceived that he was one of the recreation leaders at the park.  Chris’ offensive posture lessened by the slightest degree.  The new person noticed that and deftly directed his attention away from Chris and onto the so far only slightly damaged teen.

“Buck” he said.  “You know the rules about fighting on park grounds.”  He stepped widely around Chris and helped the boy up to his feet.  Chris had thought about knocking this person out as he walked around him and then finishing his business with Buck and the other boys.  The berserker had not yet fully unleashed on his enemies and was screaming to be turned loose.  But the voice of the last Army officer that he had ever saluted, the one who he had heard at the beginning of this very day, seeped into his seething consciousness.

“The U.S. Army would consider it a favor if you don’t kill the pitiful bastard who does any of that to you.  Just keep your cool, get home, and get on with your lives.”

That voice somehow penetrated Chris’ fury and gave him something to focus on other than beating and maiming everyone who stood in front of him.  The struggle between sanity and its opposite played on Chris’ face for all to see.  The recreation leader began to appreciate even more fully the nearness to real harm or worse toward which these boys had strayed.  He took steps to defuse the bomb.

“OK.  That was a bad start on my part” he said to Chris.  “Let’s straighten this out so that nobody gets hurt or in trouble.  Buck,” he turned to the boy.  “What happened here?”

“What happened” Chris interjected, “is that these little pukes don’t know how to show respect.  I spent too much time in a shithole too bad for you to even imagine it, to come home and take shit from some snot-nosed punk.”  Chris’ rage had cooled to merely a seething anger, allowing some thread of reason to return to him.  He looked directly at Buck and continued.  “Your smart punk-ass mouth nearly got you killed just now, boy.  You see me walking down the street, you better turn and walk in a different direction.”

Chris then looked at the recreation leader and said “That’s all I have to say,” He then turned and walked away.  The recreation leader understood that a very bad situation was now over and that it was best to let Chris.  Chris could hear the leader lecturing the boys as he walked, but he had no interest in what was being said.  He just wanted to get away from the park and from people, for whom he was now in no way fit company.

Chris’ steps now led him past the Fielding’s house, and Chris was tempted to mount the steps, ring the bell, and ask the grieving parents what in the world had happened.  He couldn’t do that though.  He was having enough trouble dealing with the news of Tom’s death himself.  How could he now stand in front of Tom’s parents, parents who were probably grieving even more than he was, and who very well might blame him for Tom being in the Army in the first place?

And were they right?  Was it his fault?  Wouldn’t Tom be ending his third year of college and be only one year away from beginning postgraduate work, or taking a four year degree and entering a business that would make him wealthy and respected, if it wasn’t for Tom following him one last time?  The agony of that thought punched Chris in the gut with more force than he had punched Buck, and the effect of that blow left him gasping as much as his did to Buck.  He whirled and continued to walk, and now his path led him past the Olsen residence.  He didn’t know if Jackie still lived there, or even if she did, he didn’t know if she would want to speak to him either.

Jackie Olsen was the skinny, plain-Jane little girl who’s family moved into the neighborhood when Chris and Tom were in the second grade. Over the next ten years she grew to become by far the most attractive girl of Chris’ acquaintance.  He became attracted to her as this change became obvious, but it was Tom who first saw the beautiful person who was wrapped up in that awkward and gangling body.

Jackie was learning to play the violin, and Tom was genuinely impressed with her ability to bring music out of a little wooden box with strings attached to it.  Tom’s enforced proficiency with math and academics stirred admiration in Jackie’s mind, and the pleasure that each of these two people took in being recognized by the other as somebody who deserved to be noticed for their own accomplishments matured at length into a deep friendship and a determination to pursue that friendship to whatever ends it would take them.

Once Chris became aware of Jackie’s physical beauty he began to try to attract her attention.  He applied his charming show-off act with full energy, and was amazed and annoyed upon learning that this time his clown show was going to fall flat.  Jackie was friendly with Chris for Tom’s sake, but only rarely allowed herself to be found alone with him, and when that was unavoidable she excused herself and made herself scarce at the earliest opportunity.

Tom, as smart as he was, was too committed to his friendship with Chris to notice that there was any interest on his part toward Jackie, and too infatuated with Jackie and certain of her regard for him to entertain the possibility of having a rival.  He divided his limited free time between Best Friend and Best Girl, and by his senior year in high school those two parties had arrived at an unspoken understanding. Chris didn’t stop in front of the Olsen house.  He never really knew Jackie’s parents and once again thought about the likelihood of a less than friendly reception from Jackie herself.  Without hesitating he continued to walk on down the street.

An hour later it was beginning to get dark.  Chris entered the front door of their house and nodded to his mother and brother.  His father was the early-to-bed type, and was already snoring in his bedroom. Chuck was studying at the dining room table and Chris’ mother was working a crossword puzzle in front of the television.

Mrs. Paine nodded back to him and said “I’m going to have to get used to you coming through that door.  Would you like some ice cream?  Or maybe some toast and milk?  You always did like that when you were young.”

Chris tried to smile back, but it was a feeble attempt.  “No, but thanks.  Mom, have you heard anything about Tom?”

“Not a word” she replied.  “What do his parents say?  I mean, I assumed that you went their first thing.”

“Naw, I went to Sonny’s.  I just wondered if you heard anything.  That’s all.”

“Nope” she replied.  “I supposed that he should get home about the same time as you, but then you would know more about that than me.”

“Yeah” Chris mumbled.  “He should.  Well, I’m going to sit in the back yard for a while before I go to bed.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chris nodded again to his mother and waved weakly in the direction of Chuck, and then went to sit in a chair in the back yard and cry alone until well after the Paine household was dark.

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter 2

“What the fuck.  What are you talking about?” Chris asked softly.  “What do you mean he ain’t coming home?”

Sonny gave his beer another slow spin and sat back a little deeper in his chair.  “Ah, shit!” he muttered.  “Why did I have to be the one to tell you this?”   Then he set his beer down and looked straight at his friend.  “It’s the truth, man.  At least I think it is.  Tom’s not coming home.  He didn’t make it.  We got the word a couple of weeks ago; or I guess I should say that I got the word.  I heard about it from Jake Olsen.  You know, he’s Jackie’s older brother.  He works at the transmission shop up on University Avenue and I saw him when I took Pop’s Chevy there to get it adjusted.  He asked me if I’d heard about it, and I told him that I hadn’t.”

Chris sat motionless in his chair, ignoring his beer.  Thoughts came to him in bunches, jumbled and disoriented and not making any sense of what he had just heard.  Tom was the guy in the crisp, clean fatigues that were ironed and starched and proper for viewing by the generals and colonels and other brass who infested his comfortable and secure duty station at Long Binh.  Chris knew his friend Sonny though; knew him well.  Sonny wouldn’t joke about this, and Chris had seen enough of the viciousness that life could throw at a person, so he took little time in accepting the awful truth, or probability at least, that his best friend for most of his life was dead.

“How did it happen?” Chris asked.  “Did he go and try to be a hero?”

“I don’t know much about it” Sonny replied.  Jake said that he heard it from somebody else.  I asked him if he was sure and he said that he was pretty sure that the person should know.  I don’t know if it was Jackie or not.  Anyway, he was pretty busy and said that he had to get back to work.  I thought that maybe your family would know and would have told you something.  I guess they didn’t.”

Chris thought about that for a minute and then said “No, they didn’t say anything.  They probably don’t know.  They liked Tom but didn’t really connect with his family.  I don’t remember if they ever even met them.”

Silence once again took possession of the room as Chris tried to get his thoughts working properly.  Meanwhile, Sonny cudgeled his brains, trying to think of the right words to say to his friend.  Those words didn’t come to him.

“Damn!” Chris exploded.  He brought his fist down on the round wooden table next to his chair.  One leg of the table buckled and his beer went flying.  Chris looked at the ruined table and narrowly suppressed a desire to get up and kick it across the room.  He struggled to get his rage under control and at last looked at his mute and miserable friend and said “I’m sorry about the table, man.  I gotta get outta here.  I gotta think some.”  He looked at his bottle of beer that had rolled over to where his friend sat silent and immobile.  “Sorry about the beer, too” he said.

“No man.  Ain’t nothing.  I’m sorry that I had to tell you.”  Sonny looked at the beer and then, without looking up, croaked out once again “I really am sorry.”

Chris looked at his suffering friend for a moment and then said “Not your fault, Bro.  It’s cool.  I just gotta go.”

He turned and walked out through the door of the converted garage, down the driveway and onto Chamoune Avenue.  From there he began to walk through the old neighborhood, sometimes barely moving forward and sometimes stalking angrily down the sidewalk past a house or a path to one of the many nearby canyons or any of a hundred places that had played a part in the life that he had shared with Tom.

After a while Chris arrived at the park where he had once held court with the other kids of the neighborhood.  It was nearly unchanged since the day that he and Tom had boarded a bus and took the ride downtown to join the Army three years earlier.  There were the same basketball courts, the same swings, slide and other rides for the younger children, and the same picnic benches out in the field.

The people, however, were different.  Chris didn’t recognize anyone as he walked through the park.  The kids he and Tom had hung out with had grown up and moved on.  Three years can change a lot of things.  A new crop of teens shot baskets or smoked cigarettes out on the benches, while a new herd of younger children played on the slide and swings.  A new community had taken up residence, replacing the old one of Chris’ youth that had moved away, and nobody was interested in the unrecognized young man who walked through their realm.

Nobody, that is, except one teen, one member of a group of teens, who was leaning against a boxed structure that held trash cans which rested at the edge of the path along which Chris was walking.  Chris was almost unaware of the group of young people who were gathered there as he walked by, still trying to come to terms with his friend’s death.  As he passed the group he became aware of a sound; somebody was whistling “Anchors Aweigh.”  San Diego is a Navy town, and it was not uncommon for young people of that city to look down upon sailors, just as the local kids from the town near his duty station in Georgia had sometimes made things difficult for soldiers.

Chris realized that somebody had seen his almost shaved head and smooth face and decided to bait a sailor.  He stopped, turned, and saw that the whistler was a short but thick young man with dark hair, fuzz on his upper lip, and an insolent sneer on his face.  He stood for a moment and looked at the teen as if he was a specimen of some sort of bug in a display case in a museum, and then the dam holding back his anger and frustration broke.

He crossed the distance between himself and the teen before that unlucky person could react.  Chris gripped the kid’s shirt, pulled him erect and then slammed him against the building which stood on the other side of the path along which he had been walking.  As the kid bounced off of the building Chris grabbed a shoulder, spun him around, and buried a fist into his gut.

The teen crumpled to the ground and Chris twirled to face the kid’s four friends who stood frozen against the wooden structure.  They were too surprised to have moved yet, and Chris instantly assessed which one would most likely pose the greatest threat, should they decide to come to their friend’s aid.  That person was the second from the left; a taller kid than his now immobilized adversary but not much less stocky. Chris fixed his eyes upon those of the kid and only pointed a finger at him.  That finger spoke death and carnage if he made a move toward Chris, and the teen read it accurately.

The speed and violence of Chris’ attack and his one-digit admonition had frozen the other boys so he turned back to the ringleader, who was now struggling to rise to one knee and get some breath back into his lungs.  Rage flowed through Chris’ arteries, through his arterioles, and through capillaries which carried both blood and bloodlust to bathe the very cells of his body.  For two years Chris had engaged the enemy in Vietnam, his fighting fueled by self-defense, a belief in his country’s cause, and loyalty to his comrades, but never by hate.  To be sure he had felt anger when he saw men; boys really, die.  He always knew however that the enemy were little more than boys too, and that they too were dying.  Because of that he couldn’t hate them.

Today he faced a whole different scenario.  Another soldier, an older one who had spent a few years at college before dropping out and accepting his inevitable draft notice, told Chris about the berserkers.  “They were Vikings, Norsemen or Danes or whatever, who would work themselves up into a psychotic frenzy before they went into battle.  In that state they would charge their enemy like fiends straight outta hell, completely oblivious to pain or anything else other than death.  The story has it that they would take an arrow through the heart and still kill two more of the enemy before they fell dead.”  Today Chris had become the berserker.

The teen was on one knee now, still struggling to get his breath back.  He was not a small kid.  The other boys were not as tough-looking as his victim was, but not much less so, and there was four of them.  Even so, Chris looked at the lot of them and all he could see was a bunch of ass that needed to be kicked to within and inch of their lives.

“What’s going on here?  You know we don’t permit fighting on the park grounds!”  The question and the statement came from behind Chris, and in his current condition he didn’t like the idea of a new adversary coming up on his rear.  He whirled and saw a man of similar age as his own advancing with an air of authority.  Chris crouched slightly, preparing to launch the kick that would crush the new challenger’s larynx, and the man wisely halted his advance.

This new character in the drama held up his hands, palms out towards Chris, and said “Hold on now.  Let’s settle down here.  There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt now.  Will you tell me what’s going on?”

Chris saw the badge pinned to the new person’s vest and perceived that he was one of the recreation leaders at the park.  Chris’ offensive posture lessened by the slightest degree.  The new person noticed that and deftly directed his attention away from Chris and onto the so far only slightly damaged teen.

“Buck” he said.  “You know the rules about fighting on park grounds.”  He stepped widely around Chris and helped the boy up to his feet.  Chris had thought about knocking this person out as he walked around him and then finishing his business with Buck and the other boys.  The berserker had not yet fully unleashed on his enemies and was screaming to be turned loose.  But the voice of the last Army officer that he had ever saluted, the one who he had heard at the beginning of this very day, seeped into his seething consciousness.

“The U.S. Army would consider it a favor if you don’t kill the pitiful bastard who does any of that to you.  Just keep your cool, get home, and get on with your lives.”

That voice somehow penetrated Chris’ fury and gave him something to focus on other than beating and maiming everyone who stood in front of him.  The struggle between sanity and its opposite played on Chris’ face for all to see.  The recreation leader began to appreciate even more fully the nearness to real harm or worse toward which these boys had strayed.  He took steps to defuse the bomb.

“OK.  That was a bad start on my part” he said to Chris.  “Let’s straighten this out so that nobody gets hurt or in trouble.  Buck,” he turned to the boy.  “What happened here?”

“What happened” Chris interjected, “is that these little pukes don’t know how to show respect.  I spent too much time in a shithole too bad for you to even imagine it, to come home and take shit from some snot-nosed punk.”  Chris’ rage had cooled to merely a seething anger, allowing some thread of reason to return to him.  He looked directly at Buck and continued.  “Your smart punk-ass mouth nearly got you killed just now, boy.  You see me walking down the street, you better turn and walk in a different direction.”

Chris then looked at the recreation leader and said “That’s all I have to say,” He then turned and walked away.  The recreation leader understood that a very bad situation was now over and that it was best to let Chris.  Chris could hear the leader lecturing the boys as he walked, but he had no interest in what was being said.  He just wanted to get away from the park and from people, for whom he was now in no way fit company.

Chris’ steps now led him past the Fielding’s house, and Chris was tempted to mount the steps, ring the bell, and ask the grieving parents what in the world had happened.  He couldn’t do that though.  He was having enough trouble dealing with the news of Tom’s death himself.  How could he now stand in front of Tom’s parents, parents who were probably grieving even more than he was, and who very well might blame him for Tom being in the Army in the first place?

And were they right?  Was it his fault?  Wouldn’t Tom be ending his third year of college and be only one year away from beginning postgraduate work, or taking a four year degree and entering a business that would make him wealthy and respected, if it wasn’t for Tom following him one last time?  The agony of that thought punched Chris in the gut with more force than he had punched Buck, and the effect of that blow left him gasping as much as his did to Buck.  He whirled and continued to walk, and now his path led him past the Olsen residence.  He didn’t know if Jackie still lived there, or even if she did, he didn’t know if she would want to speak to him either.

Jackie Olsen was the skinny, plain-Jane little girl who’s family moved into the neighborhood when Chris and Tom were in the second grade. Over the next ten years she grew to become by far the most attractive girl of Chris’ acquaintance.  He became attracted to her as this change became obvious, but it was Tom who first saw the beautiful person who was wrapped up in that awkward and gangling body.

Jackie was learning to play the violin, and Tom was genuinely impressed with her ability to bring music out of a little wooden box with strings attached to it.  Tom’s enforced proficiency with math and academics stirred admiration in Jackie’s mind, and the pleasure that each of these two people took in being recognized by the other as somebody who deserved to be noticed for their own accomplishments matured at length into a deep friendship and a determination to pursue that friendship to whatever ends it would take them.

Once Chris became aware of Jackie’s physical beauty he began to try to attract her attention.  He applied his charming show-off act with full energy, and was amazed and annoyed upon learning that this time his clown show was going to fall flat.  Jackie was friendly with Chris for Tom’s sake, but only rarely allowed herself to be found alone with him, and when that was unavoidable she excused herself and made herself scarce at the earliest opportunity.

Tom, as smart as he was, was too committed to his friendship with Chris to notice that there was any interest on his part toward Jackie, and too infatuated with Jackie and certain of her regard for him to entertain the possibility of having a rival.  He divided his limited free time between Best Friend and Best Girl, and by his senior year in high school those two parties had arrived at an unspoken understanding. Chris didn’t stop in front of the Olsen house.  He never really knew Jackie’s parents and once again thought about the likelihood of a less than friendly reception from Jackie herself.  Without hesitating he continued to walk on down the street.

An hour later it was beginning to get dark.  Chris entered the front door of their house and nodded to his mother and brother.  His father was the early-to-bed type, and was already snoring in his bedroom. Chuck was studying at the dining room table and Chris’ mother was working a crossword puzzle in front of the television.

Mrs. Paine nodded back to him and said “I’m going to have to get used to you coming through that door.  Would you like some ice cream?  Or maybe some toast and milk?  You always did like that when you were young.”

Chris tried to smile back, but it was a feeble attempt.  “No, but thanks.  Mom, have you heard anything about Tom?”

“Not a word” she replied.  “What do his parents say?  I mean, I assumed that you went their first thing.”

“Naw, I went to Sonny’s.  I just wondered if you heard anything.  That’s all.”

“Nope” she replied.  “I supposed that he should get home about the same time as you, but then you would know more about that than me.”

“Yeah” Chris mumbled.  “He should.  Well, I’m going to sit in the back yard for a while before I go to bed.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Chris nodded again to his mother and waved weakly in the direction of Chuck, and then went to sit in a chair in the back yard and cry alone until well after the Paine household was dark.

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

     Chris Paine yawned and opened his eyes.  His neck hurt from being cocked over and resting at an odd angle in a chair that wasn’t designed for daytime napping.  He sat up in the chair, wincing from the pain that shot down his right shoulder from his tormented neck.  “I must have been sleeping” he thought, in what was a world class understatement.  His mouth was dry, and he began to suck on his tongue, trying to generate some moisture.  Chris’ jaw had dropped open while he slept and all of the saliva had drained from his mouth, flowed across the stubble of beard that had begun to grow on his chin, and dripped onto the shoulder of his shirt.

He pulled up his tee shirt and wiped his chin with it, while eyeing the half-finished bottle of beer that rested on the table next to his chair.  The beer had long since assumed ambient temperature, and Chris decided to replace it with a fresh bottle from the cooler on the floor beside his chair.  He fished out a new one and took a drink before putting it next to the warm beer on the table.

The ache in his neck was subsiding, and he gazed at the vista which spread out before him.  Chris was occupying the balcony that was attached to his room on the second floor of the Hotel Jacumba, a withered shell of the roaring destination that it had been in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Now, in late June of 1969, the hotel and the town after which it had been named were like the last apple left on the tree; wrinkled and spongy, sporting a few worm holes and ready to drop.  A few of the first floor rooms were still open for the occasional customer.  Chris had secured this second floor room by making his reservation three months in advance.  The room had been dusted, bedding freshened, and a fan provided for air conditioning.

Chris had become interested in the Hotel Jacumba early in life.  His father was fond of camping and picnicking in the mountains and deserts of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and the journey to and from those camping and picnic sites frequently took them past the hotel.  Later on, when Chris was in his teen years, he would take long, solitary drives through those mountains and deserts when he wasn’t hanging out with friends at the beach, trying to impress Jackie Olsen with his surfing skills.  On those drives he would let his usually active mind rest and fill with daydreams.

The graying Hotel Jacumba had captured a place in those daydreams.  “Had it been glamorous?  Had movie stars met there to escape the cameras?  Were there ghosts that haunted the rooms and halls, remembering more gay and prosperous times?”  Chris enjoyed these and other daydreams of that place, and  those daydreams continued while he finished high school, joined the Army, and found himself spending first one and then most of a second year in the highlands of South Vietnam.  Amidst the alternating boredom and terrifying action of those two years, the image of the peace that might be found within the silent and aging walls of the Hotel Jacumba became an attraction that slowly grew large in his mind.

Chris was halfway through his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he met Calvin Hall.  Calvin was an admin guy; a clerk of some sort at the big supply depot in the center of the Army compound outside of the small Vietnamese city where Chris was stationed.  Calvin did double duty as a bartender at the Enlisted Men’s Club, where Chris spent many of his off duty hours.  Over time Chris and Calvin discovered that they were both native San Diegans.  Chris had been born there of parents who moved to San Diego from Kansas to escape the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.  Calvin was Native American, of the Kumayaay people, so his roots in San Diego County ran a good deal deeper than did those of Chris.

At first, Chris and Calvin shared only their common geographical roots.  Finding somebody in a wooden EM club in the highlands of Vietnam who knew about the fish fry every Friday night at Barrett Junction and the Santa Anna winds that would blow hot and dry across a parched landscape half a world away provided the foundation of their friendship.

What sealed their friendship however was Chris and Calvin’s shared acquaintance and friendship with Tom Fielding.  Tom was Chris’ best friend, a kid he had grown up with in San Diego.  Tom was quiet, when compared with Chris at least.  This was not particularly surprising.  A tornado would be quiet when compared with Chris.  Tom was a reader and a thinker.  He would weigh the risk versus the benefit before entering into an adventure which could lead to trouble.  Chris lived for the adventures.  He loved the adrenalin rush of being one step ahead of a police officer or angry teenager who was a little bit older and bigger than him.  Chris somehow never got into serious trouble, but anything less than serious trouble was perfectly all right with him.

Tom was the most unlikely best friend that a guy like Chris could have.  Many other kids in the neighborhood were drawn to Chris because of his devil-may-care attitude, and that included many of the girls.  Tom, on the other hand, was considered to be something of a nerd.  His father expected much from him, so on many nights when Chris was the main attraction at the local park, or days when he was surfing and amazing his friends, and anyone else who cared to watch, with his fearless moves on his board, Tom was home studying math, diagraming sentences and researching William the Conqueror.  This resulted in Chris being the only kid in the neighborhood who could hang ten on a surfboard or engineer a sneak-in through the back door of the Academy Theater, and Tom being the only guy who knew the year in which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on a cathedral door in Germany, or how to work a quadratic equation.

Yet they completed each other.  Chris drew out of Tom the kid who wanted to be a hero; who wanted to be the high school quarterback that dated the cheerleaders, and Tom pulled Chris back to earth.  When Chris wanted to climb a sheer rock face in Mission Gorge or challenge some kids from another high school who were looking at him in a way that he didn’t like, Tom was frequently there to defuse the situation in such a way that it didn’t feel to Chris like he was backing down.

When graduation came around Chris had no plans for the future and Tom just wanted to gain his freedom.  Of course, Tom’s father expected him to go to college and become a doctor or engineer or giant of some industry or other.  Tom’s high school grades were excellent and his father had the resources to send him to almost any college that he chose.  Tom was tempted to follow that path too, if of no other reason than to get out from under his father’s thumb.

Chris, on the other hand, had no such aspirations.  His high school performance had been average, and with financial help from his parents he could have afforded to attend a local junior college.  But Chris’ restless mind was not drawn to the classroom and nights hunched over the desk in his bedroom, studying English and math and history.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew that he didn’t want to do that.  On one afternoon less than a month after graduation, Chris and Tom were sitting on a picnic bench in the field of the neighborhood park discussing their dilemma.

“My Dad’s really getting on my nerves” Tom said.  “He wanted me to start applying to colleges the day after graduation.  I wish that he would just get off my back for once.”

“ So, have you applied to any?” Chris asked.

“Yeah, I sent a few letters out, after Dad checked them for spelling and grammar, of course” Tom replied with a grimace.

Chris chuckled at that.  “Lucky you.  So, would you go to any of them if they accept you?”

“Only if it’s really far away” Tom replied.  “How ‘bout you?  What’re you going to do now?  You know that there’s a war going on.  You’d better go to school or become a fireman or a cop or something before they come and take you away.”

Chris laughed out loud at that.  “Yeah.  Me as a cop.  I can really see that one!”

Tom also laughed at that.  “OK, maybe that one isn’t going to happen.  All the same, you know that you’ll get drafted if you don’t do something, right?”

“I suppose so” Chris replied.  “Well, if it’s going to happen anyway, maybe I should just go down to the recruiter and get it over with.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Tom asked.

“No” Chris replied.  “Hell no,  and why not?  I don’t want to do any of those things that you suggested, and it’s like you said; I’ll get drafted if I don’t do something.  So why not just go do it?”

“Well for one reason, because people shoot at you in wars.”

“Who says I’ll be in the war?  There’s soldiers in the U.S., in Europe, Japan, heck, they’re all over the place.  I might never even see Vietnam.  Hey, why don’t you joint with me?  We could do the Buddy System thing that I heard about and do basic training together.”

Tom began to form his objection to that idea but found that those objections were hollow.  At school he would still be beholden to his father, no matter how far away he was.  In the military he would be under the authority of his chain of command instead, and would probably find more freedom at the Navy Base down the street than he would at a college campus two thousand miles away.

Chris noticed Tom’s hesitation and followed up right away.  “Come on, man.  Let’s go do it.  The bus runs straight to the Army recruiter downtown.

Tom’s struggle continued, but the vision of the freedom that he might find in the military was winning the argument.  “Why Army?” he asked.  “Why not the Navy or Air Force?”

“Naw, I can’t see that.  I want to be on the ground.  I like the beach, but I can’t see myself floating in the middle of the ocean or flying all over the place.  If I’m doing military, I want to do MILITARY!  Come on man.  Let’s go do it.”

“My Dad would shit a squealing worm” Tom said and then he added “I guess that would make it worth it.  OK.  Let’s go.”

And that’s what they did.  Tom poured his heart into the physical rigors of basic training and managed to perform just well enough to prevent being made to go through it all over again.  Chris, predictably, treated basic training like a Boy Scout camp, marching and exercising and shooting and throwing grenades around like he had been born to do it.  At the end of eight weeks Chris was sent off to Georgia to begin Airborne training.  Tom stayed right where he was and began to learn how to type and file and do the things that made offices work, whether in Washington D.C. or at a firebase in the Vietnam highlands.

That was the last time that they had any contact with each other for most of their three year hitches in the Army, but when Chris met and got to know Calvin he learned that Calvin had served with Tom at the big First Logistical Command headquarters building down country in Long Binh.  Using Calvin’s information, Chris made contact with Tom and hitched a ride on a transport plane to Saigon, and then a chopper to Long Binh.

Chris and Tom got roaring drunk at the NCO club that night.  Tom was an E-5 and so his rank qualified him to enter that club.  Chris was an E-3, and so Tom borrowed a buddy’s fatigue shirt which sported the insignia necessary to permit Chris’ entry into the NCO club.  They caught up with two and half years’ separation in one weekend, and made plans to get together when they got home to San Diego six months hence.

“Now don’t go getting yourself killed pulling some John Wayne stunt” Tom said to Chris as he prepared to board the helicopter that would begin his trip back to his base in the highlands.

“Don’t you worry about me” Chris replied.  “You know that I’m the very soul of caution.”

“Oh, yeah.  I know that all right.  You just be careful.”

Chris promised that he would do that, and the two friends parted company.

Six months later Chris’ tour of duty with the Army ended when he completed his second tour in Vietnam.  He felt the fear that had been his constant companion for the last year and half increase as he transitioned from his unit in the highlands to a replacement battalion at Bien Hoa.  That fear was fermenting in the bottom of his stomach as he waited for his name to be called so that he could board the plane that would carry him home.  At last he was watching the green floor of Vietnam fall further and further below him.  “God,” he thought.  “I’d hate to die this close to being out of this stinkhole.”

Chris made it out alive though, and in a little over twenty four hours he was with a group of men that was being addressed by a Captain at Oakland Army Terminal.  “Men,” he said.  “You will soon be walking through the doors behind you, civilians once again.  Even though you will be civilians however, you will walk out of here wearing class A dress greens, and so far as anybody out there knows you are still government property.  Perhaps you have heard about how things are here in the Real World, and perhaps you have not, but I’m going to give you the straight skinny.

Not everybody out there is going to like you, because they don’t like what that uniform you’re wearing stands for.  You may be called some unpleasant names, and you may even be spit at.  The U.S. Army would consider it a favor if you don’t kill the pitiful bastard who does any of that to you.  Just keep your cool, get home, and get on with your lives.  Does everyone understand me?”

The men all nodded and grumbled “Yes Sir.”  Chris leaned over to the soldier standing to his left and said in a soft voice “Sounds like the bullshit rules of engagement apply over here too.”

“And I’ll treat them the same here as I did in the Nam,” the soldier muttered in response.

“All right men,” the Captain continued.  “Form up in front of the paymaster’s window.  He’ll give you your last pay and you can get your sorry civilian asses out of my terminal.”

Chris’ last act as a soldier took less than twenty minutes.  With a wallet full of money, a smile on his face and his duffle bag slung over his shoulder, he stepped outside, climbed into a waiting cab, and six hours later walked through the front door into the house that he had grown up in.

As Chris looked out across the dry valley that stretched north toward the boulder-strewn hills, toward Interstate 8 which connected San Diego with points east and bypassed Jacumba in the process, his mind returned to that day.  he had walked out of his house after his first home cooked dinner in nearly a year, and felt the dirt and strain and fear of his nearly two years at war drain away.  Oh yes.  He had felt fear.  Chris Paine, the fearless one, had seen enough blood and fire and terror to last several people’s lifetimes, and now he was walking down the steps in front of his house like a civilized person, toward the sidewalk that led two blocks away to the house of Sonny Rusinko.

Sonny had flat feet and bad allergies, so the military had told him to go and find employment elsewhere.  “I guess they don’t want guys who’ll sneeze and give away their position” he had laughed when Chris and Tom told him what they had just done.  “I’ll be here when you get home and we’ll have a few beers.  Legal this time, too.”  Now, three years later, he was walking down Landis Avenue towards Sonny’s house, like he’d done hundreds of times before.

 

“Hey, man.  Long time no see!” Sonny boomed when Chris walked into the garage-turned-living quarters where he lived behind the Rusinko house.  Sonny gave Chris a handshake with a huge paw and pulled him into the room.  “Sit down, man.  Shit, it’s good to see you.  How long you been in town?”

“Just flew in today” Chris responded.  “Ate dinner and spent some time with the folks and came here as soon as it was cool to leave the house.”

“I feel special.  You driving?”

“Naw.  I felt like burning a little energy and walked.  You driving yet?”

“Nope.  Ain’t noplace I need to go that the bus doesn’t get close to.  You want a beer?”

“Yeah, that’d go down easy.  I’m dry as a bone.”

Sonny reached into the tiny refrigerator that rested on a workbench and withdrew two long necked bottles of beer.  “Here you go” he said as he handed one of them to Chris.  “So, what are you going to do on this first afternoon of freedom?”

Chris twisted the top off of the beer and took a long drink.  “I plan on taking it easy tonight.  You know, go back home, hang with the family some more.  Dad goes to bed early but Mom and Chuck will want to spend the evening talking about nothing in general and convincing themselves that I’m really still alive.  I guess I can do that with them.”

“That would be decent of you.  What about tomorrow?  You wanna go and hang out somewhere?”

“Yeah, that’d be OK.  First thing though, I want to go over to Tommy Fielding’s place.  We were supposed to get out about the same time, and I want to see if he’s home yet.  I saw him six months ago in the ‘Nam, you know.”

Sonny sat up a little more straight in his chair when Chris mentioned his friend Tom.  He turned the bottle in his big hands once or twice and then sat back into his chair, as if he was a big balloon that had lost some of its air.  “So, you haven’t heard, I guess.”

“Heard what?” Chris asked.  He had noticed the change in Sonny’s demeanor when Tom’s name was brought up.  “Heard what, man?”  Chris asked again.  “What about Tom?”

“Ah, shit!  So I get to tell you.”  Sonny hesitated again, then drew in a big breath and slowly let it out.  Sonny was a very big man; afraid of nothing, but his reluctance to speak again was all over his face.

“What is it Sonny?  Spit it out” Chris urged him, with fear beginning to rise from his gut up into his throat.  “Come on.  What are you talking about?”

Sonny took one more breath and then looked Chris directly in his eyes.  “I’m sorry that I have to be the one to tell you.  Tom didn’t make it.  He’s not coming home.”