Stepping Out

Private First Class Joseph Sommers tried to squat down as he waited for the helicopters that would shuttle him and the rest of his company into action.  He could have taken his pack off and sat on it, but he didn’t want to take a chance on delaying the process when the choppers finally arrived.  This was Joe’s first mission since arriving in Vietnam and he knew that he was going to screw something up; all of the veterans had made certain that he knew that.  Joe just didn’t want it to happen first thing.  Since he couldn’t squat without the risk of the weight of the pack pulling him over onto his backside, Joe just stood silently and smoked while he waited.

Joe tried to take his mind off of the action that lay before him by remembering his home in San Diego.  Home hadn’t been kind to Joe.  For reasons that he could never understand he had been picked out by the other kids in the neighborhood to be bullied.  Hardly a month would go by without him being beaten up at school or at the neighborhood park or just walking back from violin lessons,

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers,” someone would yell and soon his violin case would be in the bushes, his sheet music scattered to the wind, and Joe lying on the sidewalk with his mouth or nose bleeding.

This situation persisted throughout Joe’s school years, and in his heart and mind visions of revenge had wrestled with the message of forgiveness that he heard preached and taught at the East San Diego Christian Church every Sunday.  Joe’s head would pray for the strength to forgive the kids who made his life hell, while his heart prayed that God would send lightening or plague or any other catastrophe to blast his tormentors to a hell of their own.

In time Joe began to believe that for some reason that he would never know he deserved what he was given.  He would try to fight back, but it was as if he knew that he would be beaten once again before he even started and it would be better to get it over with quickly rather than prolong – and maybe worsen – the inevitable.

At last Joe graduated from high school.   “The world is open to you all” some speaker was saying.  “You only have to step out and take your place in it.”  “Take my place in it” Joe thought as he sat listening under the gray June sky.  “What the hell is my place in it?  A punching bag?  Maybe it IS a punching bag.  I never had the balls to really stand up and fight back, and I’m just as big as most of those kids are who slapped and hit and spit on me.  Maybe the world really is open to me, and then again maybe that speaker is full of shit and I have this coming to me and nothing’s going to change.”

Joe mulled these thoughts for two weeks after graduation.  He stayed at home, not wishing to face the kids that he might run into at the park or the beach or, well, just about anywhere.  All that time his mind seethed over the import of what he had heard at graduation.  Was the world truly open to Joe, or was he just a punching bag.  It couldn’t be both.

At last Joe’s eighteenth birthday came.  Joe’s parents asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and the answer to that question came to Joe like an epiphany.  “I want to join the Army.  Today.”

Joe’s mother stood in stunned silence.  “Are you crazy?” she blurted out at last.  “Have you noticed that there’s a war going on?”

“Yes Mom” Joe replied.  “Dad fought in a war and now it’s my turn to go too.”

“You’re darned right your father fought in a war, and I waited every day to see if two officers were going to walk up onto the porch and ring the doorbell and tell me that my husband was dead.  Now you want me to do it again with you.  What in the hell is the matter with you men?”

Joe’s mother sat down and began to cry.  His father tried to comfort her, but she seemed to be as mad at him as she was at Joe.  Joe was sorry to have hurt his mother.  She had been his greatest comfort during the awful times of his childhood and he felt the sting of having caused her this pain.  She would have been especially grieved if she knew that her outburst had confirmed Joe in his decision, and convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

“What in the hell is the matter with you men?” she had asked.  “Men.”  She had used the word “Men” and included him in that group.  Here was what he sought.  He would not be “Miss Sommers” or the human punching bag for one more day.  Joe would be a man, even if he got himself killed trying.

After Joe’s mother accepted that she could do nothing to prevent Joe’s departure his father asked if they could drive him to the recruiter’s office downtown.  “No Dad.  I want to take the bus.  I want to do this myself, from the beginning to the end.”  Joe remembered his father telling him of taking a train from a town in Missouri to a naval training center somewhere on the Great Lakes in the 1930’s.  Joe would only take the Number Seven bus down University Avenue and then down Park Boulevard into downtown San Diego, but he was going to do it on his own.

The Park lay in the direction opposite University Avenue, but Joe chose to walk through that park on the beginning of his journey.  Matt and Chad and Reuben and a couple of girls who would have never thought of letting Joe know their names were sitting on a picnic bench underneath a scruffy pine tree as he walked by.

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers” Joe heard for the thousandth time.  Among the catcalls and insults Joe heard the question “Where you going to, Missy?”

Joe stopped directly in front of them and said “I’m going to join the Army.  If any of you ladies want to go with me, step up.”

“They don’t let sissies join the Army” Matt replied with his usual idiotic sneer.

“Then why don’t you get up off of your ugly ass and come down with me and see for yourself?  Maybe you could even join too.  I’m sure that they have room in boot camp for two more.  Hell, all of you can come.  Come on!  Let’s see how brave you are when people are shooting at you.”

The laughter stopped for a minute.  “Perhaps that thought is sinking into their microscopic brains” Joe thought.  Before they could begin their derision again Joe continued speaking.  “I have more important things to do than piss away a morning with you.  Anyone with a set of balls on them can come and get on a bus with me.”  Joe then slowly, as impudently as he could manage, turned his back on them and walked away, leaving several very confused ex-tormentors sitting on their bench.

Joe thought about that day as he stood at the edge of the LZ (Landing Zone), but his daydream abruptly ended when he heard the Wop Wop Wop of the approaching helicopters.  “Saddle up, gentlemen” Corporal Zincker said with a calm voice.

Joe was anything but calm.  He had been assigned to his unit four months after finishing Advanced Infantry Training at a fort in Texas.  When he arrived at Camp Charlie, somewhere near Pleiku in central Vietnam, he was given the usual treatment dished out to FNG’s (pronounced F’nG’s, and meaning Fucking New Guys).  “Don’t get me killed, FNG.  I’m rotating home in two months.”  “Oh shit.  Are we getting another FNG?” and so on.

Joe knew that new guys were replacing buddies who had rotated home, been wounded or killed.  A veteran who had befriended him in Texas had told him what to expect and advised him to “not get yourself killed, and the guys will come around in time.”  That was a better deal than he had at home.  The guys never came around there.

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

The chopper had touched down and Joe’s squad moved quickly to take their places behind the door gunner who sat behind his M60 machine gun.  All kidding and FNG stuff was over now.  Soon this helicopter and a lot of others would come to within a foot or two of the ground and men would jump out into a world where bullets and bombs and other gadgets of war would define their lives for as long as they could hang onto them.

“I don’t have to be here” Joe thought as the helicopter lifted off and another took its place.  Joe remembered that when he first arrived in-country the previous company clerk had just been wounded by a sniper and had been shipped, or ‘medivaced’, to a hospital in Japan.  Joe knew how to type, so he was assigned to replace the clerk.

“But sir” Joe had argued with his Commanding Officer.  “I didn’t sign up to be a clerk.  Why do I have to do this?”

“Because you’re government property, Sommers, and you will do what the government tells you to do’ was the CO’s reply.  “I’m the government, and I’m telling you to put your ass in front of that typewriter and start clerking, and if you give me any more shit I can add latrine duty to your chores.”

Joe didn’t savor the idea of latrine duty,  and so he ground his teeth day after day as the men went out on missions while he stayed behind and typed morning reports.  At last, a replacement Admin Specialist arrived and Joe Sommers found his name on a list of men going out on the next mission.

Sitting in a row on that chopper, Joe was both exhilarated and terrified.  This journey was very nearly over.  For almost nineteen years, life had tried to beat him into submission and had failed.  Joe Sommers was not willing to be a punching bag.  He was not willing to be a company clerk.  Joe Sommers would be a man, even if it killed him.

They were below treetop level now and Joe knew that the call to “un-ass” would come in a moment.  “This is a hot LZ gentlemen.  We don’t want to linger” a chopper crewman hollered over the roar of the engines and blades.  The gunner cut loose with a burst from the 60, spraying the tall grass and brush in front of him with hot death for anyone who dared to poke their heads up.

Joe had been placed so that he would be the third person out of the chopper.  That way the squad leader and one veteran would lead him, and the ten guys behind him would kick him in the ass if he screwed anything up.  Joe knew that’s just the way that they did it, and he was glad that it was that way.  He would either survive this and then deal with the “World that is open to you all,” or he would die on his feet facing his enemy.  Either way was fine with him.

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

A Boy And His Dog, Part 1

Jerry Warnock had never been able to inspire much in the way of respect, and I can’t really say why that was the case.  In stature, Jerry was neither taller nor shorter than most of the rest of us.  His build was neither skinny nor chubby.  Jerry’s parents seemed to make decent money, as his house was as good as most of ours and better than some, and his clothes were always new or at least well washed and maintained.  Jerry did not have a lisp or walk pigeon-toed, or play the accordion or anything else that would make him a target for disdain and abuse from the other kids in the neighborhood, but regardless of whether there was physical evidence of inferiority or not, the dynamic of the neighborhood pre-adolescent mob had detected some defect – to me unidentifiable – which drew their attention to Jerry with relentless and irresistible pressure.  It was just fun to beat up on Jerry Warnock.

Kurt Schmitz, one of my oldest friends, told me once of inviting Jerry to play Monopoly with him at Kurt’s house.  Kurt’s father was in the Navy and was frequently assigned somewhere out in the wide world.  His mother responded to her months of loneliness by working long shifts at a department store downtown and spending long evenings at the slightly seedy little bar on University Avenue, a few blocks away from their home.  As a consequence, Kurt and his sister Margot grew up more or less alone.

I suspect that Kurt must have been really bored to have invited Jerry to play any game with him, and I know for a fact that Kurt had no idea that Jerry was actually pretty good at playing Monopoly; good enough to put houses on Boardwalk and Park Place, hotels on Marvin Gardens, Ventnor Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, and also on the orange properties around the corner from the Free Parking space.  Kurt didn’t have much to counter with and soon Jerry had cleaned him out.  Kurt took offense at this and socked Jerry in the face and kicked him off of his front porch.  When we heard about this from Kurt we all laughed and took it for granted.  That’s what you did with people like Jerry Warnock.

I don’t want to create the impression that Jerry was a patsy however.  He never backed away from a fight, even if it was almost certain that he would not win it.  One time Jerry showed me the lacerations inside his lips that had resulted from the last time he had stood his ground, and consequently had the shit kicked out of him.  To him, those lacerations were a badge of honor.  “I may not win but I won’t lay down and take it” he once told me.  Yeah, he stood his ground, but that didn’t change the fact that Jerry was a punching bag, and he hated the fact that he could do nothing about it.

The worse day in Jerry’s life, at least that part of his life that I knew him back then, began one morning before school started in the fourth grade.  Jerry had been out on the schoolyard playing some game or other and a couple of the guys cooked up a little plan for him.  They liked to call Jerry “She-Miss-Woman” because that is as cold an insult as a bunch of ten year old boys could come up with, and Charlie Shipley threw out what seemed like a bright idea.

“She-Miss-woman probably needs to go to the bathroom before class starts.  Let’s throw her in there and hold the door closed.”  All present quickly agreed to do so.  Jerry was of course completely unaware of the plot and had no idea what was about to befall him.

“Hey Jerry”  Charlie yelled.  “Come over here for a minute.”

Jerry should have known better, but he came over anyway.

“Whata you want?” he asked.

Before an answer could be given he was grabbed by Charlie and Frank Schmidt and Dutch Plimpset, and while Kurt held open the door to the girls’ bathroom Jerry was unceremoniously tossed into that bathroom where there were no urinals.  The door was slammed shut and leaned against.  Jerry roared out his indignation, which barely penetrated the thick, wooden bathroom door as muffled yells, while the  shrill screams of the girls who had been availing themselves of the facilities added their higher decibels to the cacophony erupting behind those doors.  We didn’t hold pressure on that wound for long because the principal’s office was only a few feet down the hall and opposite the side which housed the girls’ bathroom.  Mr. Hensil, the new principal, was a fair man, but with his prematurely bald head he projected a no-nonsense image, and was in fact not at all afraid to use the paddle which hung from his office wall, a fact to which Dutch (whom we would later nickname ‘The Worm’) and Greg Blackstone could frequently attest.  We waited only a few moments before we stepped away from the door and melted into the crowd of kids moving like an innocent river through the halls of Henry Knox Elementary School.

Jerry came boiling through that door like a cork liberated from the neck of a champaign bottle, followed by a froth of young girls pushing and squealing and doing everything they could to escape from their violated sanctuary.  We heard this from Frankie Martinez, who just happened to be entering the hallway from outside the building when Jerry and his unwilling entourage made their exit.  Frankie hated that he had missed out on the fun, but he had the upper hand in that he could tell us about the aftermath;  Jerry’s red face and the giggles of the girls which found room for expression between their squeals, as those girls seemed to purposefully add to Jerry’s humiliation.

Later that day Jerry was looking for payback, and thought that he had found his opportunity at lunch.  A bunch of us kids were playing dodge ball and Jerry came late to the game.  Many of Jerry’s antagonists from that morning were in the center of the ring, dodging the three soccer-style balls which were being used simultaneously in order to ratchet up the degree of difficulty in dodging them.  The kids usually aimed for the body or, better still, the legs.  Balls aimed at the legs were harder to catch, and if somebody caught a ball that was thrown at him or her they could exit the circle and change places with the person who had thrown the ball.  Then, they could have the pleasure of nailing other kids in the ring.

Jerry wasn’t interested in the fine points of the game.  When the ball bounced his way he waited with it until Dutch was diverted by somebody who launched a shot at his kneecaps.  At that moment, with Dutch’s attention distracted, Jerry fired that ball with all the power that his spindly arms could muster, straight at the side of Dutch’s head.

The impact was something which roused admiration even among Jerry’s most better antagonists.  The ball collided with the side of dutch’s melon and knocked him right on his ass.  The blow was so expertly dealt that we all simply stopped the game and stared in mute amazement.  Dutch rolled on the ground for a moment and then sat up, rubbing his hand over his ear and drawing it back repeatedly to see if he was bleeding.

Jerry, who had a pitifully underdeveloped sense of self preservation, began to laugh like a hyena.  “There!  That’s what you get.  Who’s laughing now?  Maybe you’ll think about that next time you want to throw somebody into a bathroom.”  Jerry continued to laugh, and the rest of us couldn’t help but start to laugh too.  After all, Dutch was a nasty little shithead and many of us didn’t care so much for him ourselves.

Once Dutch cleared the cobwebs from his addled brain he grew red as a beet.  Rising from the ground he threw himself at Jerry with a hail of blows.  Jerry fought back gamely, the rage and humiliation of the morning driving him to efforts that he could rarely muster, but it was all in vain.  Dutch was too accomplished a fighter and had felt the sting of our laughter after being nearly cold-cocked by Jerry.  He quickly gained the upper hand and administered a terrific beating to Jerry before an adult playground monitor noticed the fracas and separated the boys, taking each one by an arm and marching them towards Mr Hencil’s office.  Jerry’s bleeding face was already beginning to redden and swell, and Dutch’s butt was almost certainly going to follow suit in the immediate future.

It was on this particular day when I began to feel sympathy for Jerry.  He hadn’t snitched on us when he gained his freedom from the bathroom; in fact, he never snitched on us when we made his life miserable.  And I didn’t really like Dutch any more than I liked Jerry.  Dutch and I had never tangled, but his friendship with some of the guys who I knew in my neighborhood had led me to disassociate with some of them.  There was an amoral crassness about Dutch that no ten year old boy could put his finger on and describe, but I felt it and sort of hoped that the shot that Dutch had taken from that hard leather ball would have softened him up a little so that Jerry could kick his ass good and proper.  That day wasn’t this day however, and a triumphant Dutch and a bloodied Jerry were marched away across the asphalt playground towards the principals office while we reformed our circle and continued our game.

Later that afternoon, at the recreation center that formed the nucleus of our neighborhood, Jerry ventured out of his house and came over to join the group of kids who had gathered there.  Dutch was not welcome at the recreation center per the leader of that place and so Jerry usually had an easier time of it there.  Today was not Jerry’s day however, and it was while Jerry was distracted by pushing the merry-go-round for some smaller kids that Dutch took advantage of the leader, Mrs. Lebec’s absence  that day, to venture onto the forbidden grounds of the rec center, or the Park as we called it.

Dutch, who never suffered any discipline in his single mother-led home, had nevertheless had his butt lit up for him by Mr. Hensil, who had a pretty good grasp on the dynamic at play here.  So when Dutch saw Jerry, one eye already black, lips puffy and a large red splotch across the right side of his face, he decided to finish the job he had started earlier at school.

Coming up behind Jerry, Dutch grabbed the back of his neck and slammed Jerry’s face into the metal seat of the merry-go-round.  The little kids screamed as blood spurted out of Jerry’s nose, and then Dutch threw him to the ground and knelt over him, pounding his face and body without pity.  Even Kurt and Greg and Frankie and Ray Loretto, who came with Dutch, seemed uneasy with this and at length I reacted impulsively and pushed Dutch off of the groaning and nearly motionless Jerry.

Dutch came up and prepared to take a swing at me.  I knew that I probably couldn’t take Dutch on but I was prepared to give it my best shot.  Dutch’s friends held him back however, apparently more than satisfied with the carnage already inflicted.

“Come on Dutch” I said.  “I don’t want any trouble with you.  He’s had enough though.  I don’t think he’ll mess with you again, so there ain’t no point in killing him.”

Dutch quit struggling to get free from his friends after a few moments and seemed to cool down.  “Yeah, OK” he said.  “I won’t beat on him any more.  I won’t beat on you either.  Today at least.”

I didn’t say anything back, but made a mental note that someday Dutch and I were going to have to settle this.  I hoped that I would be a little bigger when that day came.

I looked down and saw that Jerry was looking up at me through swollen eyes.  I couldn’t read the expression on his battered face then but now I know that it was something like a mix of surprise and gratitude.  Jerry wasn’t accustomed to kids defending him, and he was trying to figure out if he could trust his senses that this was really happening.  I was in no position to take my opposition to this abuse too far though, and so I stepped back, defusing the situation between Dutch and me.

That allowed Dutch to return his attention to Jerry.  He leaned down and picked Jerry up by his shirt, dragging him upright, and began marching him off of the Park grounds.  The commotion was sure to draw the attention of one of the assistant Rec leaders at any moment and Dutch knew it was time for him to vanish.  He began to half push, half carry Jerry to the sidewalk, then across the street, down three houses and then across the front lawn of the house belonging to the Larsons, who owned the neighborhood bakery and, also, a large and aggressive German shepherd.

“Come on guys,” Dutch said.  “Let’s pitch him over the fence.”  I hadn’t followed the other boys but I was watching from the Park.  When I saw them first push Jerry down and then raise him up over their heads, squirming and kicking, and then throw him over the fence into the domain of the fiercely territorial German shepherd, I ran across the street and down to the Larson’s house to see if I could stop a killing.  Dutch and the others had taken off and I ran up to the locked gate and peered in to se if, by any chance, the dog wasn’t there.

No such luck.  The dog was indeed there, and when the scared, bloody wreck that was Jerry fell hard on the dog’s side of the fence he emerged from his doghouse like a shot out of a gun and flew growling and barking straight at Jerry.

I arrived at the fence a few moments after the dog did and I expected the worse.  I had always feared dogs in general, and this brute in particular, and I almost turned away to go to the front door and see if the Larsons were at home, and if they wanted to pick up a dead body from their back yard.  Instead, I went directly to the fence and looked through the privacy slats which ran diagonally through the wire links.

Inside, Jerry had pulled himself up and was lying with his back against the fence.  The dog had stopped its mad dash and was sitting on his haunches a foot or two away from Jerry’s extended feet.  The dog seemed to be studying Jerry, tilting his head first one way and then the other.  Jerry was in so much pain, and was so thoroughly beaten in body and spirit, that he seemed resigned to the dog doing whatever it wished.  He just lay there, his back up against the fence with his arms beside him on the ground.  If the dog wanted his throat Jerry no longer had the will nor the interest to resist.  One thrust by the giant German shepherd and Jerry would bleed out in a matter of minutes, and his problems would finally be over.  Jerry knew it and the dog knew it, and I most definitely knew it.

I began to yell at the dog and try to attract its attention toward me, in order to give Jerry a chance to climb the fence and make his getaway.  To my surprise, the dog barely noticed me.  Usually my presence as far away as the sidewalk was sufficient to make the Nazi canine go ballistic.  Now, he glanced up at me as if I was no more than a passing car, and then stretched forth his neck and licked at the bruised and bleeding face of Jerry, who lay still but not seemingly in terror, or showing any kind of fear at all.  After a minute the dog turned its head to the right and lightly bit Jerry on the left arm.  The bite barely broke the skin and the dog licked the tiny dot of blood which had appeared there.  Jerry seemed not to notice this at all.

At this point I had seen enough to know that something very weird was going on, and that I had to do something about it.  I knew that I would not get into and out of that yard alive, no matter what was happening to Jerry, so I arose and went to the front door of the Larson’s home.  To my relief, Mrs. Larson answered when I pushed the bell.  “Hello Mrs. Larson” I began.  “I was at the Park across the street and I saw some boys throw another boy over your fence.  He’s back there now.”

“Oh, heaven’s sakes!” she cried and left me there on the steps in front of the door.  I heard the back door open and slam shut, and Mrs. Larson called for the dog to come to her, which it apparently did.  By this time I had descended from the front porch and returned to the fence.  The dog was chained up next to his doghouse on the other side of the yard and Mrs. Larson was helping Jerry to his feet.

“Who did this to you?” she asked Jerry as he gained his feet and stood there , wobbling slightly and trying to regain his balance.

“I don’t know” Jerry mumbled between broken lips.  “I never saw them before.”  Like I said, Jerry was not a snitch.

“Do you know who they are?”  Mrs. Larson asked, looking at me.

“No ma’am” I responded.  “I was way over there”.  I pointed towards the basketball court halfway across the Park.  “I could see what was happening but I don’t know who was doing it.”

Mrs. Larson looked skeptical and said something about the police.  Jerry said “I just want to go home ma’am.  If my parents want to call the police, maybe they should do it.”

That made sense to Mrs. Larson, and I added “I’ll help him to get home ma’am.  I know where he lives.”

Mrs. Larson agreed to that plan and led Jerry through the house and out onto the front porch.  I was going to help him walk but he seemed to have recovered his balance sufficiently to make it under his own power.  I walked with him anyway to make sure that he didn’t run into Dutch, who might have been lurking behind a parked car or a bush for all I knew.  I had decided that even if I had to fight Dutch and lose the friendship of the others, I wasn’t going to let this continue, at least not today.

When we got to Jerry’s house he asked if I wanted to come in.  I told him that I had to be getting home myself, which was a lie, and that I hoped he would be feeling better soon.  Before we separated however I had to ask him one question:  “What was that all about with the dog?  I thought he was going to eat you.”

“I did too” said Jerry.  “I knew that there was nothing I could do so I just got ready to be eaten.  I don’t know what happened.  I just knew that when he stopped and sat down, he was not going to hurt me.  It was like I knew him, or maybe more like he knew me.  I went from thinking that I was going to die to feeling safe.  I can’t explain it.”

I just shook my head and said “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever seen.  Well, I’ll see you around, and if I was you I would stay away from Dutch.”

Jerry smiled when I sat that and announced that he agreed with me wholeheartedly, for the time being anyway.  He then turned and walked up the steps and onto his front porch, and then through the door.  He looked back at me and gave me a little wave.  I waved back and then just shook my head again as the door closed behind him.