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.”