Return To The Real World, Part III

The stay in our hanger lasted ten hours, the last five of which I spent buzzing on my cot or walking around the hanger.  The amphetamine that I had taken was slow-acting and long-lasting, so it took a while for my mind and body to ramp fully up, and by the time that I got there many of the other G.I.’s had fallen off to sleep on their cots.  There was a row of low windows on one side of the building and, on one of my walks around the inside perimeter, I pulled up a chair in front of those windows so that, by sitting on the back with my feet on the seat, I could look out and see aircraft arriving and departing.  I would amuse myself by wondering where each arriving plane had come from and where each departing one was going.  The quiet of the hanger and the pharmaceutical buzz of my brain made me go from places in my memory to places which I imagined to be in my future, and I practically moved into those fantasies and called them my home.

I thought of my last few weeks at the port, where I had announced to anybody who wanted to listen that I was through with the Army.  “Retired” is what I called it.  “You can’t retire” my First Sergeant told me.  “Well, I have” was my response.  I was moved around from one prospective job to another but I was adamant; I was through with the Army and they might as well get used to it.  One day Sarge took me out into the broiling sum and pointed to a pile of sandbags resting against one side of the port’s communications bunker.  “Move that pile to the other side of the bunker” I was told.

So that’s what I proceeded to do.  It was a mindless task but was pleasantly physical and helped me to pass the time.  The problem was that the sun was brutal, and after a while I was dizzy and drenched with sweat, and here is where the genius of the First Sergeant showed up.  Inside the bunker it was air conditioned, as electronics tend to work as better in a cool environment than they do in the heat.  The rules however were that NOBODY was authorized to be in that bunker except for a few people who monitored and operated the radio gear for official port purposes  My sad-sack ass was definitely not on the “Authorized” list of people who were allowed to enter the air conditioned paradise which lay only the thickness of a door from where I stood.  I began to duck inside anyway from time to time, and because the radioman was a friend he wouldn’t kick me out right away.  We would listen to Velvet Underground or the Doors for a while, but then he would urge me to leave, as he could get into serious trouble by allowing me to be caught there.  So out I would go and resume humping those by now damned sandbags.

Finally I completed my task and this time, instead of putting my friend at risk, I found a shady corner on the east side of the bunker and sat down in the dirt with my back against the sandbagged wall.  First Sergeant eventually became aware of this and came out to inspect my work.  “Well done Durden” he said.  “Now pick them up and put them back where you found them.”

I was thoroughly pissed, mostly because I had been so completely snookered by the First Sergeant.  Fuming, I indolently began to drag one bag at a time from where I had just placed them back to where they had originally rested.  I moved at a glacial pace, determined to take until the day I left Vietnam to finish that job, and smarting at having been outfoxed by the First Sergeant in the first place.  At one point I ducked back into the commo bunker to cool off but my friend shouted at me “Get out!  There’s a general and a congressman or two choppering in within the hour.  This place is going to be crawling with brass!”

I returned back to the furnace and resumed my task, and that’s when the epiphany struck me.  Galvanized into action, I began to select the greenest, fullest, most intact sandbags that I could find and set out to make a gigantic peace sigh in the red dirt where the helicopter was most likely to land.  I was afraid that I would be too late and worked like a dervish to complete my project, and I did complete it with time to spare.  The giant sign was all but unnoticeable from ground level, but from the air it stood out like a huge sore thumb.  I was once again resting in the deepening shade of the commo bunker when I heard the “Whop whop whop whop” of the helicopter rotor blades that announced the approach of all of that official dead weight who had come to inspect our humble operation.

I can only imagine the stir that my peace symbol caused, because Sarge never mentioned it to me.  That afternoon I climbed aboard the bus that would return me to Camp Camelot and I never again returned to the port.  I was two weeks shy of my ETS, or Expiration of Term of Service, and spent the first of those weeks lounging in my bunk, sitting in the warm morning sunshine on top of our water tower, and sneaking into the big concrete headquarters buildings a quarter of a mile behind my battalion area, where hamburgers and french fries, air conditioning and flush toilets could be found.

At the end of that week our detachment’s unit clerk came to me in the middle of the morning and said “Get your shit together Durden.  You’re going home.”  A week early was unheard of but I chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Two hours later my footlocker was empty, my mattress stripped down and folded in half on my bunk, and I was sitting in the shade at the 90th Replacement waiting for my name to be called.

These memories of the past, as well as other thoughts about my future, played in my head in that dimly lit hanger as I watched the activity outside the windows slow down.  Nearly all of the guys were asleep now, and a low melody of men snoring drifted to my ears.  A very few others lay on their cots and smoked.  I fell into a place where everything around me blended into an unreal sense of ‘Now’; where past and future were etherial and elusive of grip.  Did all of that shit at the port really happen?  Am I really going home?  Is this just a dream?  These and other questions ebbed and flowed through my mind as I sat on the thin back of that chair with my butt becoming numb, and all of them were taking me to places and times other than there and then in a hanger in Japan, still thousands of miles from home.

Well towards morning the hanger lights snapped on, bringing me back to the here and now in the blink of an eye.  “We’re sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep gentlemen, but we thought that you might want to go home.”  That announcement, delivered by an Air Force NCO, would have brought a cheer from us the day before.  Now, after all of our delays and discouragements, we did what most soldiers everywhere would do: grumbled about being awakened, and shuffled slowly into formation, dubious of the Air Force sergeant’s claim that we were going anywhere at all.  “When I see it I’ll believe it” growled one skeptic who stood in line behind me.  “I wonder where they’ll strand our asses next?” contributed another.

Still, when the word finally came to board the plane we stepped out with an optimism driven by the conviction that they couldn’t do any worse than they already had, and one by one we climbed back into our suspect aircraft and buckled in for the next leg of our journey.  Somehow my old neighbor ended up somewhere else on the plane and a younger guy plopped down in the middle seat next to me.  He said “Hi”, but my mind was zipping along a thousand miles an hour and I don’t believe that I responded.  In a short while we were snug in our seats and the pilot nosed the plane across the base to the end of the runway, and then goosed that old jalopy into gear.  Once again we lifted off, this time into the inky blackness of deep night, and began winging our way straight into the direction in which lay our homes.

The drug that I had taken had me vibrating in my seat, keeping me fully awake.  My new neighbor was quickly asleep again, his rhythmic breathing contributing to the sense of stillness and night that pervaded the darkened aircraft.  I had on my reading light and surprisingly found myself able to concentrate on my book.  Periodically I would turn off the light and peer out the window which lay at my shoulder, straining to see the first glow of the new day into which we were flying.  Every time there was nothing but black, and I would return to my book.

It is odd, now that I think back on it, how the hours were lengthened by my artificial wakefulness yet shortened by becoming part of a heterogeneous block of time, constructed of pages read, memories reflected upon, plans laid, searches out the window for the reluctant dawn, all stitched together by the sounds of slumber coming from a few score exhausted soldiers.  I know it was several hours that passed between lifting off of the runway in Japan and the arrival of the long sought dawn of the new day somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but they all blended together and seemed to form a warp in time and space that allowed me to slip, barely conscious of time itself, from the blackened sky of Japan to a point where the glow of tomorrow at last appeared in the eastern sky.

At first I could hardly believe my eyes, and I left my reading light off and stared out of the window for several minutes until I was sure.  At last I decided that my eyes did not deceive me; off to the east the dawn was coming at us as fast as we were racing towards it.  I wanted to leap out of my seat and cheer, but almost everyone else was asleep and I kept it down.  After a few minutes the exhilaration subsided and I resumed my reading, looking up every two or three pages to measure the increase in the light that was first glowing in the east, then spreading west across the sky, and now pouring in through the windows.

Guys were beginning to wake up, and none of them seemed to be as excited about the new day as I was.  Maybe it was the amphetamines, and maybe it’s because I had sat up all night searching for the glow that would announce the day that I expected to get home, but I felt this new day in a poetic sense.  It was  a new day in every way that I could imagine!  We would be home that day!  Don’t you guys get it?  Apparently they didn’t get it, and nothing more than a low murmur of conversation could be heard, and that only intermittently over the background muffled roar of the jet engines under the wings which lay outside our windows.

There is one thing that we did hear very clearly though.  Once the flight crew informed the pilot that we were all awake we were all called to attention by the familiar voice coming through the crackle and static of the overhead speakers.  “We’ve made a change in our flight plan while you were sleeping.”  A stunned silence gripped the cabin as the pilot continued with his report.  “Wind conditions were not as favorable as they usually are and so we could not proceed due east.  We will therefore be landing in Anchorage, Alaska, where we will refuel and you will get a chance to stretch your legs and get breakfast, if you would prefer that to the breakfast which we can provide you here on the plane.  We will be landing in three hours and should be on the ground for an hour and a half, two hours at the most.  We can assure you that this is all routine and we will once again be in the air and on our way to Travis soon enough.”

Well, that’s not so bad” I said to my new neighbor who had finally awakened.  “Anchorage?  Where’s that?”  “Alaska” I told him.  “We’re way north of Travis, but at least we’re on our own side of the ocean.”  I resumed looking out of my window and after about two and a half hours we began to drop lower in the sky.  At last we began to cross what seemed like an endless mud flat which finally firmed up and became the western end of the airport at Anchorage, Alaska.  The pilot taxied up to the terminal and soon the ramp was rolled out to the side of the plane and the door opened.

I couldn’t wait to get outside of the plane and place my feet on American soil!  I also couldn’t wait to get into the terminal and buy myself a beer.  We shuffled towards the door and when my turn came around I popped out of the plane, and it was then that I received a shock that I had not expected.

I had been in summer for the last two straight years.  From May of 1967 until May of 1969 I had been in Texas, San Diego, and Vietnam, and I had not seen the temperature below 70 degrees for all of that time.  Now, as I climbed down that ramp, I was dressed in thin jungle fatigues in temperatures somewhere in the low 40’s.  “Holy shit!” I cried, and made my dash with the other guys for the terminal before we all froze to death.  I made my way straight to the bar and asked for a beer.  “You have some I.D.?”  “Sure,” I said and fished out my wallet which contained my military I.D.  “Sorry kid.  You’re not 21”.  I looked at the bartender for a moment, dumbfounded by his announcement.  “But I’m just getting back from two years in Vietnam.  How the hell can I be too young to do anything?”  “Sorry kid” he said.  “I don’t make the rules.  I’d pour for you if it wouldn’t mean my ass, but I can’t do it.”

I fumed big time, but there was nothing that I could do, so I walked around the terminal stretching my legs, cursing the Army, cursing Alaska, cursing all of the people seated at the bar enjoying their drinks and cursing anything else that I could think of that might need a good tongue lashing.  A good breakfast could be had at the terminal though, and the amphetamines had worn off to the degree that a plate of sausage and eggs and potatoes and a cup of strong black coffee that weren’t dehydrated and poured out of a box in the back of a mess hall sounded like a good option.  I ordered and ate one of the most delicious meals that I have ever eaten in my life.  Finishing up, I paid the bill and was unaware of the glare that I received from the waitress as I pushed away from the table and left to line up back at our loading gate.  I was very young, and had no idea that one customarily left a little money under a dish as a tip for your server.  I hope that her next customer was extraordinarily generous.

At last, the refueling was completed and we raced back through the chilly air to regain our seats in the plane that we were coming to love a little bit more than we had earlier.  Once again we buckled in, the jet roared down the runway and climbed furiously in order to get over the mountain that was inconveniently placed at the end of that strip of concrete.  In a little while the pilot came on the overhead and announced “we have reached our cruising altitude and the winds are cooperating with us.  If we do not have to refuel in Washington State we hope to have you on the ground at Travis by 19 hundred hours.  You’re almost home gentlemen.”

You Can’t Go Home Again, Part I

“You can’t go home again,” or so Thomas Wolfe told us in his novel bearing that title which was published posthumously in 1940. “I can never go home again” the musical group We Five melodiously assured us in 1965. I have no doubt that Mr. Wolfe was a very smart fellow, and heaven knows that I listened to and loved We Five’s album ‘You Were On My Mind’ album over and over again.  It was therefore with some trepidation that I pulled over to the curb and parked one day in 1987 right in front of the house in which I had lived in or been connected to for most of twenty four years. I had been thinking about this house for the entire morning, when I should have been paying attention at the conference in San Diego that my employer in Portland Oregon had sent me too. This was the first day of the conference but all I could think about was being back in the city where I grew up. Before long it became obvious to me that I would never be able to pay attention to speakers presenting on topics like “The Advance of Venous Duplex over Maximum Venous Outflow” or “Predicted Restenosis of Carotid Endarterectomy” until I put the distraction of being in my hometown behind me. The topics of the afternoon schedule did not apply to my practice, and so I checked out after the complimentary lunch and drove over highways and streets, some changed and some familiar, and soon found myself parked in front of the house in which I had grown up and wondering what to do next.

I could see at a glance that a good deal had changed in the ten years since I had seen the place. The postage stamp-sized lawn in front of the boxy stucco house was still there, but you could tell at a glance that it was not nearly the priority that it had been when I lived there. My father gave me the duty of watering and mowing the lawn every Saturday, complete with edging and raking and periodically spreading composted steer manure over the lush, green Saint Augustine grass. That grass, at least once the manure had been absorbed into it, made a soft surface upon which my brother Brad and I, and other kids in the neighborhood, would roughhouse. What I saw on that day would not be much fun to wrestle on. The ground appeared to be hard, the grass yellow more than green, and thin. Getting thrown on your backside in a game of ‘lawn football’ (invented by my friend Pat and I) on this grass would more likely earn one a trip to the chiropractor than the fit of laughter that more normally accompanied our games.

And the tree was gone too. We enjoyed a tall evergreen tree that grew on the property line between our property and our neighbor’s, or at least very close to it. I remember it to have been a pine of some sort, and we would spend a good many hours on any day of the year climbing to the top, or out as far as we dared to go on the big, spreading branches.  I would sometimes flee there to hide, such as the time that my brother Brad attempted to chop the head off of one of our chickens and only got the job mostly done.  We had purchased a dozen chicks and hoped to secure eggs from the hens.  Somehow we ended up with a dozen roosters (to this day I believe that we were scammed!).  Dad was determined that we should receive some benefit for our expense and efforts and decided, one day, that one of the birds would go into the stew pot.

The doomed chicken was selected an the neck laid against a big, rectangular block of wood that we had in the back yard. Brad raised the hatchet and down it came with a dull “Thwock.”  I have read that in some societies in the Middle Ages when a condemned prisoner was led to the block that he would give the axeman a small sum of money to ensure that the executioner would exercise diligence in completing his work with one clean stroke.  The chicken, unfortunately, had no small purse to offer and the stroke succeeded in only MOSTLY severing the head.

What followed was predictable.  The thoroughly dead chicken began to run around the yard ‘like a chicken with it’s head cut off’. Only it wasn’t entirely cut off.  Chicken blood was splattering hither and yon while the head flopped around madly, dangling from its tread of skin, until the bird ended its macabre gavotte and lay down in the dust, dead as a door-nail.  At least, that is how I am told that it ended.  I wouldn’t know.  Before the bird could lie down twitching its last twitch I has hiking my horrified ass up into the tree and climbing to the highest tip that would support my weight. I knew as a fact that the chicken was waiting around some corner of the house or behind a bush, and that as soon as I set foot upon terra firma it would be there to run at me, sling its head around on its bloody tether and peck me in the leg with its lifeless beak.  I stayed in that tree for hours, and Brad made himself scarce somewhere as well. Mom dutifully plucked and cooked the chicken, but Dad enjoyed a solitary meal that afternoon.  The next weekend the remaining eleven birds were packed up and given to a less squeamish family friend who lived in the country, where they no doubt came to a similar end, but one that I did not have to witness.

Now only a low, aging stump remained where that noble pine once stood. Our neighbor always feared that a good wind would one day put it down, turning her small replica of our house into a duplex. Dad didn’t care for the old harridan, but after we boys had grown out of climbing trees he slowly lost his determination to keep the tree, and finally caved in. I would have rather it had fallen on her, but then I would not have been the one to pay for the legal expenses, so I guess that I had no legitimate say in the affair. I had shortly become completely finished with the tree anyway, a story to which I will return later.

I stood on the sidewalk looking at the house, and debated what to do. I had seen it well enough that I should be able to declare that the itch had been sufficiently scratched and gone my way, but that stinking itch just wouldn’t go away. It became increasingly clear that I would have to go to the front door, knock, and if anyone should be home I would introduce myself and ask if it would be permissible for me to take a look in my old back yard. My mind made up, I strode up the concrete walkway that Dad and I had poured twenty years or more earlier, mounted the two steps onto the tiny porch, and knocked on the door.

The door had once been finely finished, well sanded and with many coats of varnish brushed it to protect it from the dry air of southern California. Now it was laced with myriad cracks, and the varnish was flaking and peeling.  I stood there looking at that door, remembering the pride that Dad placed in anything that he did and also thinking of all the times that I had burst through that door, ten thousand times at least, when at last I heard a locking mechanism turning and heard the hinges squeak slightly as the door swung slowly, partially open.

A small face appeared at the door, peered at me for an instant, and then turned back into the interior of the house and said “Mama, no sé quién es.” The door closed, and after a moment or two a larger version of the first face stared out at me from the small crack that the barely opened door afforded.  “Hello” she said tentatively.

“Hello” I replied. “My name is Glenn, and I grew up in this house. I’m sorry to be a bother to you, but I am only in town for a few more days and I would like very much to just take a look at the back yard. I have a lot of memories of growing up here and I would love to see what has changed and what hasn’t. I would completely understand if you are not comfortable with this, and if so I will not bother you again.” The woman said “wait a minute” and closed the door. No more than a minute or two passed but I was becoming convinced that this was a bad idea.  I raised my hand to knock on the door again, this time to tell the lady that I was sorry to have been a bother, when the door opened once again and the older, larger face reappeared. “Come around to the back, and we will meet you” she said.

Surprised and pleased, I stepped to the right of the door, through a small arched aperture which led from the porch down to ground level, a space of about a foot and a half, and on to the dining room corner of the house.  At that corner there began a low, gated chain link fence which stretched across the driveway; a fence that my father had put in after I had returned from Vietnam.  My eyes drifted over to a newer, whiter patch of concrete that stood out against the half-century old concrete of the rest of the driveway.  I chuckled as I saw that patch.

Dad had used a sledge hammer to pound out the three holes in the old existing driveway where he intended to set the poles which would anchor the two ends and the gate. I had just ridden my bike about twelve or thirteen miles from where I lived with several other people and smoked a joint along the way.  I enjoyed smoking marijuana in the most obvious of places because that is where people least expected one to do so, so after nearly exploding my heart by crawling up an almost vertical secondary hillside road out of El Cajon Valley into Fletcher Hills, I lit my cigar-sized joint and smoked it while I glided easily down the mostly downhill seven or eight miles that remained between me and my family home. I was going for dinner, which was certain to be a far tastier event than anything that I could whip up at the kitchen in our rented house.

When I arrived at my childhood home I asked Dad what he was doing. He explained his mission and then disappeared into the garage at the far corner of the lot to get something that he needed. With my well-addled senses I analyzed the holes in the concrete and somehow concluded that one more hole was needed. Perhaps because the two holes intended to hold the gate posts were clustered to one side of the proposed fence, far from the third  posthole which lay solitary and lonely at the other end, offended my seriously skewed sense of feng shui, or perhaps because there was some more elemental, bizarro caricature of common sense lurking in my Id that grasped at its opportunity to bask momentarily in the light of day, it seemed obvious to me that one more hole was desperately needed for balance, and I determined that I would step up to the plate and help Dad with his project.

The sledge was leaning against the house, and I picked it up and began whaling away at a spot I had somehow calculated to be the place where Dad needed one more hole in his driveway. In spite of my sketchy lifestyle I was twenty two years old and in pretty good physical shape. Therefore, by the time Dad returned I had a pretty good divot banged out of his driveway. “What the hell are you doing?” Dad asked me, more in amazement than annoyance. “Well”, I answered, “I thought you needed one more hole for balance, so I busted it out for you.”

If I would have done this before enlisting in the army Dad would probably have knuckled my head and given me a half-dozen nasty and annoying tasks to perform to atone for my sins. On this day he just laughed and told me to put down the sledge before I did any more damage. Dad explained the concept of gates needing posts but that the middle of a nine foot stretch of chain link fence did not need them so much.  In an instant I realized the idiocy of my act and apologized, but Dad said not to worry. “I’m mixing up concrete to pour around the posts, and I have plenty to patch that hole as well.” We retreated to the back yard and opened a couple of beers while the rented mixer turned Dad’s cement and sand and gravel and water round and round, until the slushy mess was ready to pour around the three poles, as well as patch the one hole that could not boast a good reason for being there. I thought of that day as I opened the gate of the fence that my Dad had set the poles for  sixteen years earlier.

The mistress of the house and two of her children met me at the back door and we walked together to the end of the concrete driveway which extended a few feet past the corner of the house. “We used to have a garage there” I said, pointing to an area of grass, dirt and weeds which proceeded fifteen feet or so from the end of the driveway. “My father wanted a bigger garage to hold the car and all of his tools, so he built that garage over there” – I pointed to the structure in the far corner of the back yard that opened onto the alley – “and we tore down the old garage which once stood here.”

That new garage was actually a source of angst for me.  My father had the foundation poured, but then he did every bit of the carpentry and wiring and roofing and siding, and everything else that one needed to do to build a functioning garage.  Dad had also done a lot of wiring and plumbing and other maintenance and remodel work on the house.  I had no natural ability for such things, and this was made worse by the fact that both Dad and my brother were very accomplished automobile mechanics.  I had neither the talent nor inclination to do these things but I certainly felt like less of a person because of that.  Dad didn’t help things when he told me one day “Son, when you grow up you had better learn how to make a living with your head, because if you have to depend on your hands you’ll starve.”  The really sad thing is that I spent seven of my adult years working in construction only to prove ultimately that my father was right.

“That was my bedroom window” I said, pointing to the window in the corner of the house that we had just walked around. “That’s my window” exclaimed the young girl who had initially answered at the front door.  “When I lived here we had a plant called a ‘night blooming jasmine’ that grew right there” – I pointed to a spot near the window – “and every night the flowers would open up and my whole room would smell like jasmine”.  “Oooh, I want a jasmine” the girl, who might have been twelve years old, squealed as she clapped her hands and bounced a little on her toes. Mom just smiled and mumbled “Maybe.” What I didn’t tell her was that the fragrance of that bush could actually be overpowering, and that I didn’t always like it so much.  It was nevertheless fun connecting over it with this new little resident of what I felt, just a little bit, was still my room.

I then walked over to a bench-style swing and set down on it. The swing faced west, towards the alley, and another swing much like the first faced back toward the house across a square wooden table top. The girl sat next to me, with us now being best buddies and all, while Mom and the younger boy sat on the swing facing us. “Let me tell you about these swings,” I began—.”