The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Five

“Huh?  Where you been?” Calvin asked.

Chris waved his hand as a sign of general irritation with himself.  “Ah, I don’t know” he replied.  “It’s been a tough month.”  He then went on to relate to Calvin his low points since he returned home.

“Wow, so you got slapped in the kisser and a threat to get yourself shot.  Shit, cousin, you might as well have stayed in the Nam.”

“Yeah, it feels that way sometimes.  Things could get shitty over there, but at least they made sense, sort of.”

“So, where’s your head at now, buddy?  How are your doing?  I mean, how are you really doing?”

“Oh, I think that I’ll get it together.  My family has been really supportive, and they’ve given me time to be left alone and try to work things out.  My Dad’s been really great, too.  He gets up early and we have breakfast together and I spill my guts.  He was a flyboy in Europe in World War II; flew bomber missions over Germany and stuff.  He’s been there and back, and he knows something about how I feel.  Mom and Chuck are cool too, but those mornings with Dad are pretty special.”

“Yeah” Calvin agreed.  “Family’s a big deal.  My uncle was in the War too.  He was a grunt in the 29th Division.  He knows a lot about it.”

“I think that I’d like to meet your uncle” Chris said.  “One grunt to another.”

“Uh, I don’t think that would be a good idea” Calvin replied.

“Why not?  Doesn’t he like to talk about that stuff?”

“Yeah, he talks – – -.  Hey, what about that girl; what’s her name?  The one who macked on your head.  You going to press her for an apology?  That was wrong, you know.”

“I know.  Uh, maybe later.  Her sister came to my house the next day.  She was just a kid when I joined up, but now we’re going to be starting college at the same time.  Oh, yeah.  I’m going to go to college!  Me, the first class academic goldbrick of the century!  Anyway, Pam – that’s her name – came to my house the next day, like I said, and told me that she talked with Jackie for a long time that day.  Jackie admitted that she shouldn’t have fired off on me but she was pissed and surprised that I was there.  She still doesn’t want to look at me, but it’s more about missing Tom than it’s about being mad at me.  At least, that’s what Pam said.”

“That’s good, Cuz.  I’m glad that you had at least one thing go right.  This Pam sounds like she has a good head on her shoulders.”

“Yeah, she does.  I told her that I would meet Jackie any time if she wanted to iron things out and she told me to give her sister time, and that I could talk to her – Pam, that is – any time that I like.  She’s pretty mature for a kid that was in high school two months ago.”

“Not everyone suffers from arrested development like you and I do” Calvin said with a laugh, and Chris laughed with him.

Calvin had by this time finished his beer.  Chris noticed this and drained the warm remains of his own.  He then handed Calvin another and opened a new one as well.  “Say, I got a question for you.” Chris opened.

“Shoot” Calvin responded.

“You’re Indian, and I know that Indians are tuned into natural stuff.  I think they are anyway; I don’t actually know jack about what Indians think, but that’s the general opinion.  Anyway, a hawk flew into my room this morning, flew around it for a few seconds and then flew back out.  Now, what the hell would that mean to a medicine man?”

Calvin chuckled at that.  “My uncle would tell you that it means a dumb bird got lost and ended up screwing around in a white man’s hotel room.”

It was Chris’ turn to laugh.  “Yeah, I’ll bet that bird had a story to tell when he got home.”

Calvin was then quiet for a moment and at last said “I don’t know a lot about the lore of the elders, but hawks are supposed to be messengers from the spirit world.  That’s what some say anyway.  Like I said, I don’t know a lot about that.  When I was a punk kid in San Diego I didn’t care much about that sort of thing.  In fact, I tried to put distance between me and my heritage back then.  Since I got home I’ve been living on the Rez where more people are into the old ways, but I haven’t heard much about hawks and such.”

“Really?  I think it would be cool to hear about that stuff.”

“Maybe, I guess.  But we Kumeyaay, and especially the more traditional people, are pretty serious about their spiritual stuff and don’t share it with just anyone.”

“They don’t share it with you?”

“Not so much.”

“Why not?”

Well, I ignored it all when I was a kid in the city, and then when I came home from Vietnam I was a Catholic.  That doesn’t play so well in their book, and they’re going to have decide that in spite of all of that I’m still Kumeyaay under it all.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that; that you’re a church-goer, that is.  How come you drink beer and cuss?  I’m not ripping on you; it doesn’t matter to me if you’re a Catholic or a Buddhist or a Martian.  I’m just wondering.”

Calvin laughed, and his laughter was easy and unaffected.  “Hey, all of us Christians aren’t of the ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ variety.  Jesus’ first miracle was to make enough wine to keep a whole wedding party stoned, and when he chased the money changers out of the Temple I doubt that he said ‘Go away from here, you bad guys,’ or some milk toast crap like that.  Being Christian doesn’t mean turning into some sort of insipid wet towel; at least, not to me.”

“Insipid!  Man, how do you come up with big words like that?  What the hell does that mean?”

“Let’s just say that it’s not a compliment.  Anyway, like I said, I’m still Kumeyaay under it all, and I still feel most at home when I’m with my people.  But nobody’s told me yet what a hawk’s doing flying into a white guy’s hotel room.  I’ll ask my uncle when I see him next.  So, tell me about school.  You going to college, eh?”

“Yeah.  It seems like a good thing to do.  I mean, I could go into construction.  They’re building stuff all over San Diego.  Heck, maybe I will anyway in the long run.  But if Uncle Sam wants to give me money every month to go to school, I think I’ll take him up on the offer.”

“So what are you going to be?  A doctor?  A lawyer?”

“I thought I’d be a lawyer, and then run for President.”

Calvin laughed at that.  “Yeah” he replied, “I’ll not hold my breath and wait for that one.”

“What, you doubting my abilities?” Chris asked.

“No, I’m doubting your sanity” Calvin replied.  “No, seriously.  What do you want to do?”

“Ah, I don’t know, man.  I’ll just start with the general stuff.  They wanted me to pick a major right off the bat, so I chose business.  I can change that any time I like though.  Maybe I’ll do business and then do construction, and become a real estate tycoon.”

“From shitbird to tycoon.  Now there’d be a story.”

Chris drew some ice from his cooler and flipped it at his friend, and then said “How ‘bout you, man?  Sam’ll give you the same bucks that he’s going to give me.  You ever thought of going to college?”

“Hah!” Calvin replied.  That’s not likely.”

“Why not?” Chris pressed.  “You’re a pretty smart guy.  Heck, you worked in an office and tended bar while I was getting my ass shot at, so that says something.”

“That says more about you than it does me” Calvin replied, making the motion of flicking ice back at Chris.  “Naw, man.  I was never good at school.  I got kicked out of high school and finished at Snyder.”

“Hard Guy High, eh?”

“Yeah, I got a diploma, but I mostly got it for showing up and not causing too much trouble.”

“Well, shit.  That was then and this is now.  I mean, I’m not trying to pressure you into anything.  It’s just an idea, but if you can get Sam to foot the bill on an education, what the hay?”

“I’ll have to think about that” Calvin replied with a chuckle, “but I doubt it.  Hey, did you catch what I said about Tom, or were you spaced out when I told you that?”

“Uh, I don’t think that I was at home.  You want to give me another try?”

“OK.  Pay attention now.  So Tom was living at Long Binh, real close to the big, fancy office where he worked.

“Yeah, I know the place.  I visited there once, remember?  He did have it pretty cush.”

“Uh-huh.  People weren’t suppose to die there.  His hooch wasn’t all that far from the perimeter wire, but except for during the Tet Offensive there was never any real action there.  Well, one night a couple of months before he was due to rotate out, Charlie dropped a mortar or a rocket right on top of Tom’s hooch.  There was twenty bunks in the building, as usual, and the round must have landed pretty close to Tom’s bunk.  Some of the guys survived with shrapnel wounds, concussion and busted eardrums, but Tom and a bunch of others died on the spot.”

“No shit” Chris muttered.  “One mortar falls on that resort, and it has to right on top of Tom.”

“Yeah, man, you know how it is.  Luck of the draw.  You can run from death but you can’t hide from it.  When it’s your time, it’ll come and take you, no matter where you are, and that’s a fact.  It was Tom’s time, that’s all.”

Chris sat still and thought about that.  Was it really as easy as Calvin had just put it?  Tom’s time was up, and it didn’t matter where he was?  That interpretation of things would certainly take a load of guilt off of Chris’ shoulders, but was that the way it actually was?  Chris would like to believe that, but could he?  Or would that be just a big cop-out?”

“Hey, buddy!”  Calvin was snapping his fingers in front of Chris’ face.  “You still with me?”

“Yeah, I stayed home this time.  So, do you really believe that?  I mean, that we have a time to go and that’s just all there is to it?”

“Sort of.  I mean, I don’t think about that sort of thing all the time, but it seems to answer a lot of questions.  It’s like a guy’s driving home at night, it doesn’t matter whether he’s coming home from a bar or from church, and a deer runs in front of his car and goes through the window, snapping the dude’s neck.  What are the odds of that?

Or the Sweetwater River is really low but a kid still slips on a rock, knocks himself out and drowns in a six inch deep stream.  And then you go and do a tour in Vietnam in the Central Highlands and get involved in hot action on a regular basis, and yet walk away without a scratch.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just luck or it’s just random, but I guess I have to believe that there’s some sort of order behind it.”

“Man, I’d like to know that’s true.  I wish that Tom’s folks and Jackie could know it too.  Maybe that could make everybody rest easier.”

“Maybe so.  Like I said, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it just seems to make sense.  To me, anyway.”

Chris chewed on that thought for a few moments, but was pulled away from it by a rumble in his stomach.  “Hey, you getting hungry?”

“I could eat” Calvin replied.  “You want to go to my place?  I’ve got some Spam and could whip up some sandwiches.”

Chris made a face at Calvin and then replied “No thanks.  I saw a place up the road between here and Boulevard called Sadie’s.  It said ‘fish fry on Friday nights’ on a sign outside, and it’s Friday night.”

A cloud seemed to pass over Calvin’s face and he replied “I don’t think so.  That place can get a little rough.”

“Rough?” Chris replied.  “More rough than Vietnam?  Come on.  We don’t have to stay all night.  Let’s just get some food and then bail out.”

Calvin was clearly not comfortable with that idea but Chris insisted and Calvin finally yielded to his friend’s persuasion.  Twenty minutes later they were seated at a table near the front door of Sadie’s.  Calvin continued to look uneasy and Chris tried to loosen him up with small talk.  After what seemed to be a very long wait a young woman came to their table to take their order.  Chris passed on the fish and ordered a burger and fries and a beer.  Calvin ordered the fish and a soft drink.

“What’s that all about?” Chris asked when the soda was placed before his friend.

“Well, this is sort of a cowboy place” Calvin replied.  “They don’t really care much for Indians here, and I don’t want to feed their prejudice about Indians and alcohol.”

Chris was dumbfounded by this revelation.  “What?  Are you saying that the owners here are more worried about your race than the color of your money?”

“Yep” Calvin replied.  “The owners, the employees, the customers, you name it.  Look, I’ve been Native all my life, and this is the reality that I live.  In the city it’s not so obvious but it’s still there.  Out here there are fewer distractions, so you can see it a lot easier.”

Chris was shocked by this information, and a wave of anger flowed through him.  His friend had spent a year in Vietnam, unlike most of the people who would visit this place tonight.  If anybody had earned the right to enjoy a plate of fish and a beer in peace it was Calvin, and he expressed that thought to his friend.

“Earning’s got nothing to do with it” Calvin replied.  “We are who we are.  Some of us have power and some of us don’t, and those who have it like to remind those who don’t what the score is when the don’ts get uppity.”

Their food arrived while Chris and Calvin discussed this sad reality.  Calvin looked his fish and fries over carefully, and to Chris’ inquiring gaze replied “Just making sure that there’s no spit on it.”

Chris looked his burger over as well, and found that his appetite was diminishing by the minute.  His examination revealed no obvious unwanted condiments on his food and he began to eat.  He decided that they would waste no time eating and leaving, and Calvin appeared to be following the same program.

At that time three men entered the building and surveyed the room, as if looking for anyone that they knew.  Their gaze at last fell on Chris and Calvin, and a look of disgust crept into their faces.  They continued over to the bar, sitting at a corner from which they could watch the two friends.

The newcomers began to talk and sometimes laugh, maybe a little too loud it seemed to Chris, and every so often he could hear negative comments over the babble in the room.  “When did you start serving drunk Indians?” one of them asked of the man tending the bar.  Another commented that there was an unpleasant odor in the room, and maybe the trash hadn’t been taken out.


The bartender looked both nervous and angry, and Chris decided that it was just about time to get on the road.  He felt his own anger rising at the damnable injustice of the situation, but the three men were in their mid to upper twenties, lean from hard work, and outnumbered Chris and Calvin three to two.  Chris didn’t like those odds and decided that it was time for him and Calvin to finish their meal and leave.

The waitress, who had wanted their departure since the moment that they had walked through the door, had already brought the check.  Chris pulled a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet that more than covered the food and a generous tip, caught the waitress’ attention, and pointed to the money.  She nodded acknowledgement and they rose and left the establishment without looking back.

That was a mistake.


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