The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Eleven

Chris stopped in the middle of the road and looked from there at the property.  There was nothing to indicate that Calvin’s uncle or anyone else was home, and  Chris took what was his first good look at where Calvin had once lived.  The single wide was a faded yellow with a brown metal roof.  The front door was reached by the small porch that he remembered from the last time that he was there.  The kitchen had been to the left as you entered the structure, and the bedroom where Calvin had slept was to the right.

The garage was bigger than the mobile home.  It sat about fifteen feet from the back corner where the bedrooms were, and rose six or seven feet higher.  It was a square structure, nearly as long as the mobile home but that same distance deep.  Two large hinged doors covered openings through which a car could be easily driven, and Chris had no doubt that Calvin’s crippled rides were behind those doors.

“Come on, let’s drive up and see” Sonny urged.

Chris looked at the empty road in front of them and then looked behind in the rear view mirror at the equally empty road behind them.  “I don’t think we’re going to get caught in rush hour traffic here” he said.

Chris continued to examine the property for any sign of occupation.  Sonny began to get fidgety and again said “Come on.  Let’s knock on the door.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea” Chris said.  “Calvin’s uncle made it pretty clear that he didn’t like me or any other white people.  I don’t think that he’d be too happy to see me.”

“Well then I’ll knock on the door.  I’m not white; I’m Polish.”

“I think that the difference might be lost on him” Chris replied.  He sat in the road for a minute or two longer and then, muttering “what the hell,” he pulled into the driveway.  Chris rolled up to the steps leading to the porch and stopped, turning off the engine.  He then leaned back in the seat.  Sonny reached for the door handle and Chris told him not to open the door.  “Why not?” Sonny asked.

“Calvin and I talked a lot back in Nam, and I remember that he once told me that the way to do this was to stop in plain sight.  If the person you’re visiting wants to talk, they’ll appear from the door or somewhere.  That tells you that it’s OK to come in.”

“That’s weird.  How long do you plan to sit here?  He might not even be home, or he might not see us.”

“No, maybe he isn’t home.  And if he’s too busy to have noticed that we arrived then he’s too busy to waste time on us.  I know, it sounds strange.  It’s what Calvin said though, so it’s his rules.  Maybe its like how many times you let the phone ring before you decide that nobody’s home, or if they are, they don’t want to talk to anybody.  I give it eight rings.  I guess I’ll give him eight rings.”

“Hmm.  Sounds whacky to me.  So do we leave a note or anything if he doesn’t come out.?”

“Probably not.  I’ll give it another two or three minutes.  You leave too soon and they think you didn’t want to speak to them very much anyway, and you hang around too long, well, you’re just being an annoying bastard.”

“How do you know all of that stuff?”

“Like I said; Calvin and I talked a lot.  When they weren’t trying to kill me over there I had a lot of time on my hands.  That place could get exciting in a hurry, but a lot of the time I spent just sitting around and waiting for the days to pass until I came home.  We talked a lot about our families and stuff, and his was so different from mine that I learned to just shut up and listen.  He’s a better story teller than me anyway, and it was a good way to kill a lot of time.”

Chris looked past Sonny through the passenger window to see if there was any crack in the door, but there wasn’t  “If he invites us in, which I don’t think he will do, he’ll probably offer us coffee.”

At that moment Chris became award of the sound of an approaching vehicle.  It was coming from the opposite direction than the way that they had entered the Rez.  It was a truck; Chris recognized it as the one that belonged to Calvin’s uncle.  The truck didn’t slow down a bit, but instead continued its course down the road.  Chris reached down and turned the key, and the car’s engine rumbled to life.

“We done here?” Sonny asked.

“Yep.  He doesn’t want to talk to us.”

“You sure he’s even here?  Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

“Nope.  That would put us right into the category of ‘annoying bastards.’  We’re done here for now.

“Well, this is all crazy to me” Sonny said.

“Yeah, well it’s crazy to me too.  Let’s get back to the city.”

Chris drove Sonny to his house and dropped him off, and then he returned to his own home.  His mother would be shopping or running errands, or visiting her friend Irene Chang, and Chuck would be hunched over his books.  Chris decided that he might as well learn how to relax and maybe even try to read a book, especially as he was due to begin classes in a little more than two months.

The rest of the week passed slowly.  Chris spent a lot of time indoors avoiding the sunshine, or relaxing in the shade of a large Torrey pine that grew in the back yard.  He had spent many hours of his youth climbing in that tree until he saw a large spider on a branch who’s coloring was a perfect camouflage.  On a later climb in that tree he saw another of the large arachnids, now that he knew how to spot what he was looking for.  Since that time he had been content to remain on the ground and merely enjoy the shade cast by the low but broad tree.

In the afternoons he enjoyed helping his mother in the kitchen, and in the evenings he would retire with his father to the garage.  It turned out that the project he was working on was restoring a 1949 Mercury, just like the one that James Dean played a deadly game of ‘chicken’ in in the movie “Rebel Without A Cause.”

His father had always been a capable mechanic, and had developed an interest in restoring classic automobiles while Chris was away in the Army.  “It kept him busy so that he wouldn’t think about you being over there” his mother told him.  Chris expressed surprise that his father was so affected by him being in a war, since the elder Paine had been in one himself.  “Yes.  He knew what war is all about.  How could that make him worry less?” his mother had asked.  It was with this in mind that Chris lingered in the garage with his father after the evening meal, helping a little but mostly just being with him.  His father, in turn, seemed to be happy to share space with his son.

The thought occurred to Chris during this week that perhaps his father could help Calvin to get his truck running.  He would need a work truck, and maybe his father could help him to save some money on the deal.  His father offered to look at the truck and, if it was not too big of a job, he would help to get it running again.

At last, Saturday came and with it the gathering with Calvin, Pam and Jackie at the Spear’s Point.  Calvin picked up Chris in his borrowed truck at about three in the afternoon.  He had worked a half-day, which is why he had not been free to retrieve his truck that morning and instead had to wait until the next day.  He had cleaned up quickly and, after stopping for Chris, they drove to the college area and parked a block away from the restaurant.

They were early, and so entered the establishment in order to get some food.  The place was not busy, as Pam had suggested would be the case.  They went to a counter where they could order and pay for their food, and were given a number to place on the table.  They each got a beer and picked the table farthest from any other customers.

It was instantly clear why this was considered to be a hangout for the smart students.  On the walls were posters and prints featuring the images of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and host of other men and women who Chris assumed were scientists and poets and scholars.  A large model of the solar system hung from the ceiling with the planets wheeling at different rates of speed around the sun, which was the one bright light in the place.

In one booth two students, one black and one white, were engaged in a game of chess.  “Look at that” Calvin said.  “The white guy has the black pieces and the black guy has the white ones.  I like that.”

“I hadn’t noticed” Chris said.  “Man, that solar system thing is cool!”

Calvin looked up at the solar system, then again at the other customers.  Some were engaged in low but earnest conversations.  Others were reading in the dim light or were writing in notebooks.  “You know, I think that I could get to like this stuff” he said.  “It’s like, they have their heads together in here.  No nonsense.  Yeah, maybe I could do the school thing.”

“Oh, hey” Chris said.  “I invited a friend of mine to come with us tomorrow, if that’s OK with you.”

“Sure.  One more white guy on Uncle’s property will really give him a case of anal flutter” Calvin said with a laugh.  “He IS white, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s white.  Well, he’s white and he’s Polish, so he knows a little bit about being on the outside.”

“That won’t cut much ice with Uncle.  He’d be just as glad for your friend to go back to Poland as he would for you to go back to England, or wherever your family came from.  It might be good to have him along though.  Can he handle himself?”

“Yeah, Sonny’s a pretty big guy.  Why?  You think there will be trouble?”

“Could be.  My uncle’s keeping his ear to the ground.  Word going around is that the two punks with Carlson were Dallas Briscoe and Ted Dennehey.  Both of them come from rich families and hang around with Carlson because they’re just as mean and low-life as he is.  They’re swearing that they’re going to get paybacks.”

“Well, they couldn’t hassle us on the Rez, could they?”

“They’re saying that they don’t care about no Rez; that they’ll jump us wherever they can find us.  Folks on the Rez are keeping their eyes peeled for them, and if they do start anything there it’s a federal offense and the FBI will get involved.  Carlson and his friends know that too, and they say that they don’t care, which is probably bullshit, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep our eyes open and bring a little insurance.”

Chris sat silently in his chair for a short while, looking through the window at the traffic on College Avenue.  Was Carlson and his thug friends in one of the vehicles whizzing by?  Were they able to pressure the hotel clerk into revealing Chris’ name and address?  Could they be lying in ambush somewhere between the restaurant and Calvin’s truck?  Would they be a threat to his family, or to Pam and Jackie if they saw them sitting with him in the Spear’s Point?  “Oh, man” Chris said.  “I thought that I left the damned war behind me.”

“I know what you mean, man” Calvin said.  “I wish that you hadn’t got sucked into my personal war.”

Chris stared at Calvin briefly and then replied “Well I’m in it, so let’s win this damned thing.”  They clinked their glasses and drank to that, and as they put their glasses back on the table the door opened and Pam and Jackie walked into the room.

Chris waved and caught their attention.  Both he and Calvin stood up as Pam and Jackie approached the table.  After greetings and introductions Chris asked “Is this table OK?”  Jackie said that she would prefer a booth, and they moved to one that was empty.  The girls weren’t hungry, but Jackie ordered a glass of wine and Pam, being under the legal age, an iced tea.  After a bit of introductory small talk, they got down to business.

Chris began the conversation with “So, as I told you before, Calvin spent several months with Tom before he was reassigned to my base camp.  Ask us anything you’d like to know, or you tell us anything that you would like for us to know.”  Jackie said that she wanted to hear Chris talk about the relationship that he had with Tom when they were young in his own words.

“I always had my own view of it”  she said, “but I want to know how you felt about him; how you treated him in your relationship.  Was he a second fiddle, as it seemed to me?  Sort of a Jerry Lewis to your Dean Martin?  I don’t mean to be bitter or nasty, but that was the impression that I carried with me all of the years that we were young together, and I would like to know the truth of it all now.  Please, tell me anything that you want as long as it’s the truth.  I can take it, I promise you.”

After thinking about his answer for a minute Chris replied.  “Well, the truth is that Tom was never a second fiddle to me.  At least, that’s the way that I saw it.  Yeah, I was a little bit crazy.”  Pam and Jackie both looked at him with an skeptical expression.  “OK, I guess I was more than a little bit crazy.  But I never took Tom for granted.  Look, I was the guy with the surfboard, or the skateboard, or the macho thing, but it covered up what I wasn’t, which was all the things that Tom was.  I admired Tom’s ability to play the piano.  I love music but I don’t have one lick of ability with playing an instrument or carrying a tune, and I knew it then as surely as I know it now.  When Tom would play the piano I would listen and know that he was head and shoulders above me in that department, and that was OK by me.

And when we were just hanging out and there were no cliffs to scale or people to impress I would pick Toms brains about historical and scientific and, well, all sorts of things.  I really liked that stuff.  I still do.  But I was so into doing things that it was painful for me to sit down and read.  It still is, and I’m going to struggle when I go back to school.  I already know that.  Tom would talk about those subjects in ways that made them seem to come alive and I could listen to him for hours, but only when we were alone.  Once a group of people arrived my show would go on.

Tom didn’t mind the crazy stuff all that much either.  At least, he said that he didn’t.  I understood his desire to get out from under his father’s thumb and he understood my trouble with not being any of those things that I admired so much in him.  No, Tom was no Jerry Lewis.  He wasn’t even Dean Martin.  To me he was the producer and director of his own show.  Tom was part of what, or who, I wanted to be, and now, when I’m going back to school, I don’t have him to help me.  I’m going to be on my own.  You know what?  It scares the crap out of me.”

Chris sat back in his chair, having said all that he could think of to say on the matter.  He took a sip of his beer and looked directly at Jackie, inviting her with his eyes to ask more if she wanted to hear more.  For his part, that was all that he could think of to say.

“Well, that’s just weird” Jackie said.  “I always thought that you could hardly wait to finish experiencing one thrill so that you could then run off and find a new one, and you dragged Tom after you.”

“Yeah, you’re right about some of that, but it wasn’t one-sided.  In fact, it was pretty much 50-50.  Tom was not afraid to get out there and mix it up with life.  He would always calculate the odds, whereas I was just peddle to the metal, but he was ready to go if the odds looked good that we’d get out of something in one piece.  It’s like I’ve already said; he hated being under his dad’s thumb and so he was ready to take chances, maybe just not as many as I would.  I think that’s why he went to Vietnam.  I’d be willing to bet that he volunteered for that duty.

“He did” Calvin said, interrupting the flow of Chris’ train of thought.  “He was stationed at some fort on the East Coast and he got tired of missing out on the action.  At least, that’s what he told me.”

Jackie now turned her attention to Calvin.  “So” she said.  “Were you very close to Tom?”

“Not at first.  We were in the same unit but bunked in separate hooches.  Oh, I’m sorry.  Hooches were prefabricated huts that we put together to live in.  Anyway, I’d been there for a couple of months already before he got in-country.  After he was there for a month or two we met at church and found out that we were both from San Diego.”

“Church!” Jackie and Chris said together.  “I didn’t know that Tom went to church” Chris said.

“Me either” Jackie echoed.  “How did that come about?”

“One of the guys in Tom’s hooch was a CA, a Chaplain’s Assistant, named Willy Freeman.  Tom and Willy got to be pretty tight, and it was how Willy lived that appealed to Tom.”

“Uh, so how did this guy live?” Chris asked.

“Willy didn’t just talk about this Christian stuff” Calvin continued.  “He lived it.  Here’s an example.  One day I was at the roach coach with him and Tom – – -.”  Jackie’s stare told Calvin to explain.  “The food truck.  This small truck would come around and you could by sandwiches and soft drinks and snacks from it.  We called it the ‘roach coach.’  Anyway, Tom bought some hard boiled eggs and dug out the yolks.”

“That’s right!” Jackie interrupted.  “Tom hated egg whites.”

“Yeah” Calvin continued.  “So, he dug out the yolk and dropped the white parts on the ground.  Well, before we could leave, an old Vietnamese woman who cleaned the hooches came and asked him if she could have that egg white.  We were all a little stupefied, and then Tom nodded that she could.

She bent down and picked that egg white up and started brushing the sand and dirt off of it, and she was just about to eat it right there.  Well, willy was going to have none of that.  He stopped her and then bought a bunch of eggs and sandwiches and chips and other stuff and gave it to her.

The old gal was amazed, and tried to thank Willy.  We were amazed too, and then we felt like turds in a punchbowl for not having done that ourselves.  Anyway, Willy brushed off the thanks and then emptied his pockets and bought stuff for the other Vietnamese women who worked in our unit area.  Every payday after that he would spend part of his salary to buy things that the Vietnamese workers needed.  It grew to include soap and canned goods and band aids and, well anything that they might need from the PX.

Other guys began to catch on, and whether they went to church or not they joined in the fun.  Those women adored Willy and the others, but Willy said he was just doing what Jesus commanded, which is to love his neighbor.

He was like that with everybody; really living what he believed, and so Tom got interested in spiritual stuff that way.  Sometimes Willy would CA for the Catholic priest who performed the mass in our unit if a Catholic CA wasn’t available.  He didn’t like that duty very much.  Our priest was sort of an asshole; uh, pardon my French.  But he was not very cool at all.  He would call out the stoners who were smoking dope on the hillside behind our unit, tell the congregation that they were not to be like those guys who were all going to hell and stuff like that.

But Willy didn’t buy into that sort of thing.  He was a friend to everyone.  If one of the stoners got a ‘Dear John’ letter, or lost a buddy in a fight somewhere, or was just down because he missed his home and had ten months to go before his tour ended, Willy was there.  He wouldn’t give BS advice or any advice at all unless he was asked.  He just listened and was there for them.

Well, Tom saw something in Willy’s actions that made him want to know what was behind them.  By the time I left he was taking classes and learning who Jesus is and what He really said and what the faith is really all about.  I think that he got baptized pretty soon after I left to go to Chris’ duty station.

Tom was drawn to Willy’s Protestant background but we had different chaplains rotate through our unit, so sometimes he’d go with me when my Catholic priest was there and then I would go with him when the Protestants would preach.  I don’t really care that much; Catholic or Protestant.

“I wonder why he never said anything to me about it?” Jackie said.

“He told me that he wanted to surprise you when he got home.  He wanted to take you to church and express his faith the first Sunday that he was back.  You know, he loved you an awful lot.  I’ve never really had a girl; never really loved one anyway, so I don’t know a lot about that, but I know that he loved you.  He told me that at least once a week.  In fact, I got tired of hearing it, but then like I said, I’ve never been in love.

He darned sure never got tired of saying it!  He was going to walk you right down the aisle at that church where you attend, and he was going to marry you at the front of that church, and you and him were going to raise a family and grow old and fat together.  That’s what he said, over and over.  He loved you and he loved God.  That I can swear to you is the truth.”

The three people in the booth sat silently and stared at Calvin.  Finally it was Pam who broke the silence.  “I knew Tom pretty well, but not as well as any of you did, so I suppose that I’m the least surprised to hear about this.”  She put her hand on Jackie’s arm and continued to speak.  “I really wish that he would have come home.  I would have liked very much to get to know him better.  I will say this though.  I believe that he’s a happy now as he could possibly be, and that he wants for us to be happy too.  I think we can honor him by being happy that he is in a good place and we have time before us to be like he was.”

“Yeah, he would tell you that he already is home” Calvin replied.  “It’s sad for us; I was blown away when Chris told me about it, but that’s how it always is for the ones who have to stay around for a little while longer.  Tom’s dead to this life but he’s very much alive and waiting for us in the next.  Of that I’m certain.”

Chris had no idea what he could say that would add to this conversation.  He was not ill-disposed toward religion in general, but he viewed a lot of Christians as hypocrites who said grand things and then did mean ones.  He didn’t think that mentioning that would be proper at this time.  Besides, the others at the table with him were pretty well grounded people; maybe they were on to something.  He would have to think more about that later.

Jackie and Calvin were soon carrying most of the conversation.  Calvin knew the Tom who had been thousands of miles away from Jackie and navigating himself through a war.  She heard about things that he had said and did that she recognized as coming from her Tom.  She also heard about the things that came from a Tom that she did not know so well; a Tom being forged in the fires of war, being shaped into a man with new facets, new strengths and perhaps weaknesses.  She eagerly dug for details and Calvin readily supplied them when he could.

Pam had little to add to the conversation, and Chris practically nothing at all.  In time they looked at each other and smiled; looked back at Calvin and Jackie and then at each other again.  Chris held up a finger to get everyone’s attention and was successful.  “Hey guys, I think I left something in the truck.  I’m going to go and see.  Then I’m going to get another beer.  Anybody want something when I return?”

Jackie said “No” and thanked him.  Calvin looked at Chris with a quizzical expression and Chris said “I had some papers with some stuff written down that I thought might be useful.  I won’t be long.”  Calvin shrugged and returned to the conversation.  Chris then looked at Pam and asked “You wanna walk with me?”  Pam smiled and said “Sure.”  They rose and walked out of the restaurant.

“You think they know that we’re gone?” Chris asked with a smile.

“Sure.  They know” Pam replied.  “But I don’t think that they care.”

Chris laughed and said “Probably not.  I had no idea that Jackie and Calvin would get along so well.  They’re like old friends.”

“Yes” Pam replied.  “Calvin is just what Jackie needed, I think.  He’s a wonderful storyteller.  It’s like we were watching Tom do all of those things that he’s talking about.  I’m really happy for Jackie.”

They walked a good deal more than a block up College Avenue and then turned around to walk back  “Aren’t you going to the car for some sort of papers?” Pam asked.

“Naw.  There’s no papers there.  I just wanted to let them talk alone.”  Pam looked at Chris and said a low “Hmm.”  Chris looked back at Pam and smiled, and then said “ and I wanted to take a walk with you.”

“Oh” Pam replied, and stared down College Avenue as they walked for a moment in silence.  After a short distance Pam brushed Chris’ arm with her fingertips and said “Good idea.”

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