“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.