Saturday, October 5, 2019

Part 2: Servant Public

            We were wise indeed could we discern truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it.  Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand… In the long run every Government is the exact symbol of its People, with their wisdom and unwisdom; we have to say, like People like Government.  Thomas Carlyle

Sam tried to recall how many Fourth of July army reunions there had been of the old outfit since Nam, but he couldn’t recall exactly – so many years had passed, and brain cells killed, that his mind tended to be a little fuzzy of late.  He recollected though, at least four or five organized ones for Foxtrot Company writ large and then the various informal mini-get-togethers like the epic Great Rust Belt Tour the winter of ’71 for a few in his old platoon. 
The year 1971 was an exciting time in the young life of Sam Noble.  He was living and working in Washington, D.C. and had more money in his pocket than he ever had before – as a GS-4 civil servant he was making almost ten grand a year and the world was his oyster. 
Plus the holiday season was getting close enough so that government was already starting to slow down, even though Christmas was still a few weeks away.  He wouldn’t be starting his diplomatic courier travels again until the new year, and he was excited about the prospects of going to mysterious Brazil for the first time. 
Archibald “Archie” Jefferson and Sam had been talking for months about getting together again, since Archie, although crippled for life from his car accident, was feeling chipper because his painful physical therapy, psychological counseling, and difficult recovery had finally concluded after many years.  He was living at home in Chicago’s south side in the Cabrini Green housing project and was dying to get away from the city and take a road trip somewhere with guys from the old platoon.
It was serendipitous when Howie Edwards called Sam from Arizona and said he was flying into Chicago for a job interview – Howie was finishing up his master’s degree at Thunderbird International and was also thinking about working for the federal government, just like Sam.  Somehow, he’d gotten a hold of four fifty-yard-line tickets to the Packers-Bears Monday night football game up in Green Bay so the destination was now set – that Howie, he always had an angle on somehow beating the system. 
Pedro Campana had just purchased a used Ford Econoline van and spruced it up with shag carpeting, eight track, and built-in bar, and said he was up for a trip to “break her in.”  He’d had enough of his native Little Havana working in his father’s shoe store in Miami, and the Cuban-American was itching to see more of the country.  Everybody was psyched and looking forward to maybe catching a glimpse of Howard “Tell it like it is” Cosell, Frank Gifford, and of course everybody’s favorite Texan, good ol’ boy Dandy Don “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas” Meredith.
The van was perfect; it had a powerful V8 engine and plenty of room for Archie’s wheelchair, and in the likelihood that anyone passed out, it could sleep four people no problem; but the heater sucked.  The friends started out early Monday morning for a leisure drive up north – kickoff wasn’t until 8:00 p.m. local cheesehead time so there was no need to be in a hurry. 


They were certainly well stocked for partying all the way there, spending the night, and coming back the following day, or depending on how lucky they got with the chicks, maybe even the day after that.  Those large Wisconsin women, Archie called them “hodags,” they threw off a lot of heat in summer but in winter they kept you nice and toasty.
Archie couldn’t do any driving, but the other three could so one could spare the other lest the Quaaludes, angel dust PCP, reefer, the legendary Mogen David “Mad Dog” 20/20 fortified wine, and Boone’s Farm Apple wine get too overpowering.  Just in case a quick boost was needed to clear out the cobwebs, as usual Howie had a large supply of nose candy handy.  The only thing they forgot was beer, but that was easily solvable; after all, they were heading up to God’s country, the land of beer; the elixir of life.  Why not combine a football game outing with a pub-crawl on the way to the game in a sort of moveable feast-tailgate party situation?
          Since Archie’s colostomy bag needed emptying, and the other boys had to make a bladder stop anyway, a detour was made into lovely downtown Kenosha where the first pitchers of Heileman’s Old Style were purchased beneath the city’s belching smokestacks. 


Although only mid-morning, the nightshift workers from the AMC factory were downing shots of Jameson washed down with draft beer at their blue-collar tavern, so it seemed joining them was the only polite and neighborly thing to do.  By lunchtime, Sam’s posse had made it as far as a Racine tavern and enjoyed a few more pitchers of Old Style with press operators from the Case tractor plant.  It was already three in the afternoon when they stopped in west Milwaukee and, sure enough, the tavern they entered was full of guys who worked in the Harley-Davidson foundry.
After a quick pick-me-up from Howie’s little bag of magical white pixie dust, it was time to hustle northward – it was already starting to get dark up there in tundra country and they’d just make the kickoff if they didn’t screw around anymore.  Fond du Lac, that place was their downfall; so close, so damn close, not even sixty miles left to get to Green Bay. 
Later on, everybody needed someone to blame for not making it to the game, so they picked on Sam – they couldn’t blame Pedro, it was his ride they were using; Howie supplied the tickets, although on Tuesday morning that became a moot point; and hell, Archie was cripple so how could you blame him?  Truth is, no one remembered who suggested they stop one more time for “a last pitcher,” but Sam was driving the van at the time so he had to bear the burden of designated driver and party-commissioner-in-charge, even though his blood-alcohol content was probably five times above the legal limit.
The tavern was just off Highway 41, and a nice, friendly one it was.  Assembly line workers, mostly female, from Mercury’s outboard engine plant were gracious enough to invite the boys to a few pitchers on them, and then one thing led to another and the next thing you knew, the place was jumping with women and the bar was lined with shot glasses full of Peppermint Schnapps. 
Sam befriended a white mongrel dog just roaming around the premises, mostly Shepard by the looks of him, and fed it beer out of an ashtray all night spiked with schnapps.  The other guys got into a heated came of pinball and before long they were playing something called chug-a-pin.  “Come on yous guys, a shot of schnapps won’t kill you,” the lovelies said and, of course, the ex-GIs believed them. 
The beloved Packers were on television and this bar was packed to the rafters – Bart Starr was a god to Packer fans and this was to be his last game in the NFL, so everyone in Wisconsin was tuned in.  To this day, neither Sam nor any of his comrades could tell you who won the game, or anything about the game for that matter, but they never forgot waking up the next morning in the freezing van, in the tavern’s parking lot, faces caked with vomit, and stepping outside into a driving blizzard with wind chill temperature of minus twenty-degrees Fahrenheit to take a leak. 
When they opened the door to get out, Sam’s drinking canine partner was waiting for him all cute and curled up in the snow, but unfortunately little Fido had drank too much the night before, passed out, and apparently froze to death.


Company F’s official reunions had always been held in Washington because that city was the magnet for Vietnam vets protesting the war through the years, and also for vets not protesting the war but who supported the vet protesters – after all, it was a brotherhood right or wrong.  It did seem, though, that as the years passed the intervals between reunions grew longer since people just got on with their own lives raising kids and such, and when the old guys became empty-nesters, they rekindled interest in reunions again out of nostalgia for the old days, when they were young, and knowing their life’s race was almost run. 
Sitting around drinking beer with your cronies you didn’t feel quite so old, even though their/your faces bore only a passing weathered resemblance to the images captured by the black and white photos now faded and stored in shoeboxes. 
It is a fact of life, however, that good friends stay good friends and like fine wine, only get better with age.  It is another fact of life that if you can count on one hand the number of truly good friends you make during your relatively short time on Earth, you’re a lucky person.
Washington had a lot to offer for sightseeing and picture taking, something to keep the husbands and wives busy during the day, to pass time until the evening festivities when the one main objective was to get wasted, exchange witty barbs with each other, and relive but a small proportion of the total time spent on this Earth, but a raw time so indelible it was never to be forgotten.  Sam enjoyed the reunions, and didn’t mind the sarcastic digs at him being a stinky-cheese life-long bureaucrat, because after all, he was.  
Or being called the professor at every reunion, “Hey Sam, you wrote your masterpiece yet,” they’d say and Sam would respond, “No, not yet, but I’m thinking about it.”  One of these days, just wait, one of these days Sam would think.  So naturally Archie brought it up again at this July 4th army reunion.
Archie piped up, “Hey Sam, tell the guys how you came up with the lame name for a main character.”  Sam had been kidding around with Archie just a few days before about this really cool name he had come up with for a book hero.  Now he was on the hook because everyone shouted in unison for an explanation.
“Thanks Archie, you prick!” Sam said half jokingly.  “So my favorite actors of all time are John ‘Duke’ Wayne and Robert Mitchum so I just combined their names and came up with Duke Mitchum.  Plus the fact Robert Mitchum recorded one of my favorite songs of all time which is NASCAR’s anthem – The Ballad of Thunder Road.
And they were in two great movies together, the western ‘El Dorado’ and the story of D-Day ‘The Longest Day.’”  At which point Pedro chimed in and said, “You sure about that Sam, wasn’t the western called Rio Bravo?” 
Sam then clarified that this was a common mistake since the storyline and director for both movies was the same but Rio Bravo was made first starring Dean Martin and singer Ricky Nelson as the young heartthrob Colorado, whereas El Dorado had Robert Mitchum playing Dean Martin’s role and a young James Caan playing Ricky Nelson’s role but called Mississippi.  Whereas Nelson and Martin sang as a duo the song My Rifle, My Pony, and Me, Caan recited verses of the poem El Dorado by Edgar Allan Poe throughout the movie.  All Pedro could come up with was, “Oh.”  Everyone agreed Duke Mitchum was a pretty cool name.


No, the kidding around was alright, but what made him uncomfortable were the stories about kids and grandkids, and the exchanging of family photos with one another, and those furtive glances showing tinges of guilt they felt because they knew they shouldn’t be talking about such things in front of Sam – “remember what happened to his little girl, wasn’t it awful?” 
These lucky men, except for him and Archie, their legacy would be carried on and even though the memory of the family patriarchs might be forgotten over time, their genes would live on and so they’d achieve at least a small measure of immortality. 
Sam, on the other hand, was the last of the Mohicans – when he kicked the bucket, and later when his younger wife Nellie followed, that would be the end of the line.  It was like the lament at the end of the movie of the same name, one of Sam’s all-time favorites with Daniel Day-Lewis and the beautiful Madeleine Stowe, when the old chief, having just seen his son Uncas slain by the evil Magua says “I, Chingachgook – I am last of the Mohicans.” 
There was another line from that movie, one that he couldn’t get out of his head whenever he thought about his little Sarah.  It was when Hawkeye and Cora were behind the waterfall at night, and Magua disguised as a Mohawk was closing in on them with a war party with torches ablaze.  Hawkeye had no choice but to abandon Cora because it was better to run and fight another day rather than stand and die; it was the smart thing to do.  So he tells Cora, “Stay alive, no matter what.  I will find you.  No matter how long it takes, I will find you.”


The 2008 reunion was set up so everyone was supposed to arrive in Rosslyn on Wednesday, do sightseeing on Thursday, Foxtrot Company dinner and official party that night, Potomac River cruise on Friday, and fireworks on the Mall that night for the big finale. 
The best part of the schedule, though, was the impromptu party on Wednesday evening, usually in the hotel bar, after everyone checked in and the guys from his old platoon got together without the womenfolk in tow.  That’s when the adrenal was the highest, as high as it could get any way for men in their early to mid-sixties, and everyone felt like getting hammered with their army buddies, like in the olden days. 
Adding to the festive mood this year was the fact that everyone pretty much knew this was the farewell tour – after 2008 there would probably be no more reunions so why not let your hair down this one last time.  The logistics, personal health, and life in general were getting too complicated so the time had finally arrived for everyone to go his own way.
It wasn’t even close to midnight yet, but the old platoon didn’t have the staying power they had as young bucks, back when you could stay shit-faced until the wee hours of the morning and still manage to get into work.  They got drunk quicker, becoming raucous and all talking at the same time to anybody and everybody, and nobody in particular. 
Gathered around three joined-tables covered with Budweiser beer bottles and shot glasses that once held José Cuervo and Jack Daniels were nine good men - Sam and Archie, Pedro Campana, Jody Carp, Little George Young, Jimbo Phelps, Billy Gelman, Bobbo Hansen, and Stu Anderson – the two Steves couldn’t make it and no one knew where the other living members of the platoon were anymore; they’d lost contact. 
Company commander Captain Rainos was some big mucky-muck in the business world for the last thirty years and sent his regrets saying he couldn’t attend the reunion because he was doing a deal in China, opening up a new factory or something – he was president of a private sector corporation and apparently quite wealthy.
And battalion commander Lt. Colonel Parrent had stayed in the service after Nam and actually rose to the rank of major general before retiring to South Carolina, but lung cancer took him six years ago – too many non-filtered Chesterfields, Pall Malls, Lucky Strikes, and Camels over his career.  Then there was the company’s legendary First Sergeant George Savidge who left the service and moved to San Diego, where he ran a construction equipment company and later retired.           
The Top drove down to Baja Mexico to go fishing one fine day, going out by himself in a twenty-foot boat, and never came back alive.  Seems he had a heart attack and fell out of the boat, and his body washed up on shore three weeks later – that was fifteen years ago.
Feeling rather inebriated himself, Sam’s attention to the witty staccato conversation drifted in and out of consciousness, but he still managed to recall a few of the choicer tidbits through a haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.  It was a no-smoking joint but nobody cared, particularly the good-looking waitress who was making a fortune in tips.

… fucking baseball players today, they’re all on steroids, all their records should be wiped clean and they should get their asses barred for life from professional sports…
… Yastremski, now that was a baseball player, and how about Brooks Robinson, Stan Musial, Sandy Kofax, Hank Aaron, Dick Allen, Bob Gibson, Roger Maris, and the Mick…
… Rusty Staub, that was one helluva of a ballplayer, they called him “Le Grande Orange” up in Montreal…

… is he a relative of Agent Orange, that shit’s still got me tripping…
…yeah, and how about Roberto Clemente, I saw him in a game with Pittsburgh playing the Cubs at Wrigley, he made a throw from right field that was incredible and got a guy sliding into home…

…must have been the same Cubs who choked in ’69 even though they had great players like Santo, Beckert, Banks, Hunley, Williams, Hickman, and Kessinger, man that was some team… 
Archie said remembering 1969 well, when he was on army disability and still getting painful therapy for his back, and the Miracle Mets won the series.  He’d been in a wheelchair four years by then.

… hands down the best C-ration in Nam was the scrambled eggs with ham…
… no way, beans and franks, followed by spaghetti and meatballs…
… beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot, the more you toot the better you feel, so let’s have beans for every meal…
… I loved that canned processed cheese spread, the peanut butter and jelly, and the chocolate hockey pucks…
…  the lima beans and ham, and the desiccated meat in a can, that was some foul shit…

… the best latrine graffiti of all time: those that write on shithouse walls, roll their shit in little balls, those that read these words of wit, eat those little balls of shit…
… I still got that goddamn C-ration P38 can opener that didn’t work for shit…
I’m an old cowhand, from the Rio Grand, but my legs ain’t bowed, and my cheeks ain’t tanned, I know every trail in the Lone Star State ‘cause I drove them all in my Ford V8 singing whoopee-eye-oh-ky-yay…

… okay, very good, but do your balls hang low do they rattle to and fro, can you tie’em in a knot, can you tie’em in a bow, can you throw’em over your shoulder like a continental soldier, do your balls hang low…
…or, better yet there’s a place in France where they wear no underpants and the men go around with their dingdongs hanging down…

… I’ll tell you what’s really overrated, fucking caviar…
… no shit, and throw in there calamari, and room temperature wine, cognac, and escargot…
… and nasty-assed sushi, who can eat that shit anyway, it’ll never catch on in America…

… so I got this great idea for a snack food called dippums, they’re two potato chips pressed together with onion dip sandwiched in between…
… better yet, jumbo marshmallows with graham cracker pieces and chocolate already stuffed inside for easy roasted s’mores…

… best idea ever, pre-packaged peanut butter and jam slices, like they do with processed cheese, no more torn up Wonder Bread…
… there you go again, baffle ‘em with brilliance and dazzle ‘em with bullshit…
… let’s kick the tires and light the fires big daddy, more fucking tequila shots please…
… drop kick me Jesus, through the goalposts of life…

… shit, you fuckers still ain’t drunk enough if you can lay down on the floor and not hold on…
… how can chickens be so fat and have such skinny faces…
… pass me them nachos, I’m so hungry I could eat a frozen dog, right Sammy…

… I ain’t smoked any weed in thirty fucking years, I hear it’s really expensive these days, even the Mexican sticks and seeds shit…
… our waitress is pretty damn fine looking, like Bob “Join the Peace Corps” Hope once said, she’s got the kind of lips I like, one on top and one on the bottom…

… yeah, she’s got my mojo working…
… hey, is it just me or does the Statue of Liberty have big tits…
… what has two legs and bleeds a lot, half a dog…
… date homeless women, you don’t have to worry where you drop them off…

… if money didn’t grow on tree, why do banks have branches…
… Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya, they love to get their fingers in your hair…
… anybody here ever smell mothballs, how’d you get their little legs apart?
… drinks anybody, I got the next round…
… don’t open up your shirt, you generous bastard, your heart’ll fall out…

… hey Archie, you still fixing photocopy machines, must be satisfying work…
… yeah, those paper jams and paper cuts, they can paralyze the whole office…
… you still over at that fancy think-tank Archie, why’d they hire you for, some affirmative action quota…
… speaking of paralyzed, hire the special needs folks, it’s fun to watch ‘em work…


Invariably, as it always did, the conversation turned to politics and the state of the U.S. economy.  Utter poverty still existed in so much of the world, Sam had seen it in his travels, but he never thought he would see so much poverty in his own country. Taxpayers were footing the bill yet again for an expensive war on a massive scale in the Middle East.  Except for Sam and Archie, the other guys were already drawing Social Security checks, having elected the smaller payout at age sixty two – times were hard, job retirement pensions weren’t enough to live on, and personal savings were almost non-existent in today’s America.    
And who knows, Social Security and Medicare might not even be around in a few more years.  Pedro had made his way up to Alaska by 1974, driving his old Ford van all the way, and worked a few years on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline where he made a bundle of money and opened up a VHS video equipment and tape rental store in Homer. 
Sam never got tired of hearing Pedro’s fabulous stories about working on the pipeline the three years the project was going.  He sold his store some years before because everything was going DVD and he couldn’t afford to make the investment to convert his business to offer the new hi-tech products. 
He and his wife still lived up there, and she worked at Safeway to make ends meet.  Old Stu still worked somewhere down in Mississippi on the Gulf, in one of the new fancy casinos built after Hurricane Katrina came through and destroyed everything.  Bobbo retired from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in Joliet after thirty years, got a good pension, and raised hunting dogs in his spare time. 
Billy Gelman was a math teacher in some Jewish elementary school in Los Angeles for many years, and still taught part time to earn a little extra spending money, and Little George owned half a mushroom farm just outside Portland.  Jody Carp retired from the real estate business and worked part time at Jack-in-the-Box somewhere in suburban Newark.  But everyone had one thing in common – they were geopolitical experts on a wide range of subjects.
“I’m telling you guys, those hacks on the boob tube are saying this one is going to be worse than the Great Depression.  We need to elect someone like Hapgood as President and throw out those fucking Republicans for screwing up the economy.”  Buchanan “Bo” Hapgood was a charismatic, young, and highly intelligent African-American politician and war hero from the First Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm.  He was a fellow warrior from the Army’s First Infantry Division, the Big Red One.
Billy considered the so-called experts on 24/7 cable television broadcasts to be modern-day snake-oil salesmen and carnival hucksters, pretty-boys totally out of touch with mainstream America, sitting in their comfortable studios in New York and Washington, preaching their endless, biased drivel.
“No shit, I hear they got people waiting in long lines for discount groceries and free handouts all over the Midwest – in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois because of those massive layoffs at Ford and GM.  Man, that’s a lot of Bunny Bread and Velveeta cheese sandwiches being eaten. 
Unemployment out there in the heartland is the highest it has been in fifty years, and let me tell you folks are worried.  This reminds me of the stories my parents used to tell me about the 1930s when people stood in bread lines for hours, and soup kitchens were everywhere.”  With that, Bobbo powered back another shot of Jack Daniels.
Little George had his own take on the state of America, “Makes you wonder if we’re better off now, or our kids are better off than when we was kids.  Why the hell did we go to Nam for anyway, and all those boys getting their asses shot off in Iraq and Afghanistan, it just ain’t right man.”
“My oldest granddaughter just started a small private college, real smart girl,” Jody said, “and it’s going to cost forty grand a year to send her there for tuition, books, food, dormitory, spending money; forty fucking grand a year!  My son has to scrape every cent together he can, sell one of his cars, take out a loan by mortgaging his house to the hilt, and the girl is still going to have to take out student loans herself. 
By the time she graduates, even with my son’s help, she’ll still owe over a hundred grand and be lucky to find work the way this economy is going.  Those fancy universities raise tuition two and three times faster than inflation and that’s discrimination against all the poor kids who deserve rich kid educations too.”


Jody was on a roll and added, “You know what my son gave her to take with her to school?  Beside an expensive laptop computer, cell phone, iPod, and all the usual crap; he gave her a jar of lodate pills, a gas mask, and a hazmat suit in case of terrorist attacks.  You know what lodite pills are for - they’re to be taken orally in case of radiation poisoning!  Now tell me we’re better off now than when we was kids.  Duck and cover classroom training in the 1950s was never like this. 
Hell, when I went to college on the G.I. Bill, I took my vinyl records, a record player, a typewriter, blue jeans, six cinder blocks, three wooden boards, hippy beads, a case of Ripple, a case of Pabst, a church key, and a sack of pot!”  That comment drew a loud round of applause and laughter.
The studious Stu had a much more serious, historically based view of current events.  “Who the hell are we anyway to preach to other cultures and religions how to set up a democratic government system, I mean, realistically what makes us such experts?  During America’s first fifty years, our national policy was genocide to rid the country of those pesky Indians, then it took us another fifty years to end slavery…”
Archie, the only African American present, interrupted and drew more laughs by saying, “I hear that, fuckin’ white men kept the brothers down a long time, but we bounced back stronger than ever,” and then there were high-fives around the tables. 
“… and then it took us another fifty years to give women the right to vote.  And guess what, fifty years after that we were the first country to use atomic bombs ever, and we dropped them on two crowded cities full of civilians.  No one has done anything nearly as brutal or destructive since, not even the terrorists.”
Stu’s last comment sounded way too liberal so Sam spoke up by saying, “That’s true, but had Truman not dropped the bomb we could have lost over a million boys trying to take fortress Japan.”
“You’re right Sam, but you know what really worries me,” Stu paused a second obviously concerned, “it’s what if our country has finally reached a stage in its history where its ungovernable, I mean, is our economy and population just too damn big, and is our system too damn corrupt and complicated?”  Jody asked, “Whadaya mean?”
“Well, our government set up by the Founding Fathers started out as an experiment, no one really knew if our fledgling democratic system would work or not.  It has never worked perfectly ever since, even after more than 200 years, or else we wouldn’t have had the Civil War.  Who’s to say that in today’s world, with the existing technologies, geopolitics, demographics, race, and all that bullshit, that a President, any President, is able to lead at all, and that a Congress is able to legislate, the way things are currently organized. 
I mean just look at us; our country is technically bankrupt, and all the politicians ever do is argue with each other, try to blame each other for screwing up the economy, and steal money from taxpayers to pay for pet projects to get themselves reelected.  Or the president sends more troops abroad. 


Do you know we have American troops in over 100 countries around the world to help with nation building – how much does that cost?  And what does the world think of us?  They hate us!  Remember the saying, ‘let no good deed go unpunished?’”  It was getting late, and the boys were fading fast.
“Man, that’s some pretty heavy shit, what y’all do all day, watch CNN and Fox News?”  Archie’s comment restored at least some degree of levity into the conversation as he gulped down yet another shot of Jack.
“No, Stu’s right,” Sam spoke up, “Our government is really screwed up.  Public servants my big fat ass!  We’re just the servant public and elected politicians in Washington are the lords and masters.  They should empower us more and themselves less, the way our Founding Fathers intended it to be.  What happens one day if waving the flag and telling young men to go to war to fight for this country isn’t enough?  Kids aren’t stupid, they’re not going to go to the Middle East to protect oil supplies so fat cats back here can make big money while they get their asses shot off.  
That’s really our bedrock if you think about it – patriotism – and if people ever start questioning that, we’re screwed.  It’s all about having rules and then getting everyone to follow them, equally, and together, and not allowing the elite of society to do whatever they feel like doing.”
“Goddamn Sam, well said, considering you’re a life-long teat-sucking bureaucrat.  Why don’t you write your goddamn book anyway if you’re so smart?  They’ll keep a copy of it in the Library of Congress forever and you’ll be immortal.  What other nuggets of wisdom do you have for us?”  As everyone laughed at Sam, hurting his feelings slightly although no one noticed, Stu was draining his beer bottle with one hand while simultaneously raising his other hand to get the waitress’ attention to order a replacement.
“Yeah Sam, and make sure you put in the book a chapter on your medals, and how you and Archie got to be such fucking war heroes by ‘killing’ a bunch of oil drums and how he shot you in the ass.”  Pedro’s comment drew out yet another burst of laughter.
“You’re goddamned lucky, Pedro, I was fixin’ to double-tonk your ass anyway and take all your money,” was Archie’s response and kept the laughter going. 
It used to be at this juncture, in the recurring mention of the “oil drum caper” at reunions, that Howie Edwards’ name usually came up, but this was the second reunion that no one chose to bring up his name; the consensus had become that what he did was a black mark against the outfit so he could never be forgiven, no matter what the reason was for doing what he did – that is, with the exception of Sam, who still considered Howie his friend. 
This forgiveness took great effort because, after all, Howie was the first spook in the history of the CIA to defect to the Soviet Union and by so doing dishonored and shamed not only his country but the old platoon as well. 


After a moment, Sam continued, “Well, I think the average American breadwinner just wants to work for a living, be happy, pay taxes, and make sure he takes good care of his family’s future.  As long as he or she perceives the system to be working fairly, whether it is or not, they’re happy and tears will well up in their eyes when they sing the Star Spangled Banner at a ball game. 
It may sound corny, but the heart and soul of America lies in the spirit of its people, their generosity, their unquestioning belief in the system, in God, in the country’s leadership, the responsibility they feel to pay taxes, and to help neighbors in times of crisis long before the government shows up to help like what happened in New Orleans.  If this trust in the system ever starts eroding, watch out – we may never get it back and then our experiment with democracy, and our republic, is history.
It’s only when we have catastrophes and disasters, things our government can’t mask with bullshit spin control that we see how weak our leadership truly is – like 9/11 and Katrina.  The first event was a complete failure of our intelligence community, and the second of incompetent people at FEMA. 
Even with plenty of advanced warning, New Orleans’ problems were laid bare and we saw all the poverty that had been swept under the carpet for generations by politicians.  Government spending in Washington is completely out of control because they use money as a substitute for efficient management, that’s why we’re bankrupt.”
Sam, it seemed, had all this bottled up for a long time, and he had a quiet and attentive audience.  Jody spoke up and asked, “Yeah, but there must be some kind of budgetary process to catch spending abuses, that’s why we have a Congress.”
“There’s a process alright, but no one is held accountable, so when no one respects the rules, you don’t have any rules.  Trust me, people in government don’t want to rock the boat on their watch, all they want to do is to retire and draw their fat pensions and leave the problems for somebody else to worry about after they’ve gone.”
“So what’s the solution Sam?  Politicians and bureaucrats are like wives – can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”  Jody asked a very good question, and Sam paused for a second before answering so the laughter could die down.
“Well, I ain’t no genius but it seems to me there are only two possibilities – make government as small as possible, and by that I mean fire about eighty-percent of those worthless fuckin’ bureaucrats in Washington immediately, me included…”  That brought Sam cheers and pats on the back all around – of course, he was retiring in a couple of years so his pension was secure.  “Or what Sam?”  Jody was persistent.
“Or find an endless supply of wealth somewhere, a veritable cornucopia that just keeps on giving, one not funded by taxpayers, and then just let the politicians spend to their hearts content, not that they don’t already.  But at least they wouldn’t be taking money out of the pockets of America’s working poor and soon-on-their-way to be poor, like us guys.”
“Hear, hear, I’ll drink to that,” Jody said satisfied with Sam’s answer and in unison all the glasses were raised in toast, well, except for Archie’s.  He was so drunk by now he was almost falling out of his wheelchair, but could still manage to speak up rather loudly.
“You know what it’s about man?  It’s like my grandma told me.  She said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ It don’t matter what you say, shit’s going to happen in its own way and in its own time.  When you’re born, you’re life’s already figured out by the good Lord, it’s fate and you can’t change it.  It’s all about politics man, just politics. 
You got to grab all the gold where you can and when you can and fuck everybody else.  It’s always been about gold, man, and it’ll always be about gold!  You assholes don’t know what I know!”
No one said anything for the next few moments, not because they were thinking about Archie’s drunken outburst, weird sounding as it was, but because it was that time of night and that moment of a party when everyone was totally inebriated and knew it was time to wrap it up – at 9:00 a.m. in the morning everyone was to meet in the lobby to catch the Metro over to the Smithsonian and hit the museums along the Mall and go sightseeing with the wives. 
Archie felt insulted that no one paid tribute to his or his grandma’s wisdom and although he remained silent, he was pissed off about it.  He also didn’t like that crack about hiring special needs people, being confined to a wheelchair was nothing to joke about.  After the sightseeing, there was to be the main event.


Everyone from Foxtrot was to meet at the Lincoln Memorial for a tour, then walk over to pay respects at the Vietnam Memorial, like they did at every reunion, to touch the Wall gently over a couple of the 58,196 names made immortal by the cold, black granite engravings, something which never ceased to be a very moving and emotional experience and somber occasion. 
It’s always been true and it’ll always be true, that well worn cliché of freedom didn’t come free.  And everyman among them, Sam included, knew it wouldn’t be much longer until each of them had a black slab of cold tombstone carved with their names on it – the baby boomer generation of veterans was coming to an end.  Will their sacrifices be remembered?
“Gentlemen, I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s past my bedtime,” as Pedro uttered these words glancing at his watch, everyone pretty much mumbled in agreement and began shuffling about; he continued, “but it’s time again for our sacred tradition, it’s time to remember our fallen comrades from the old platoon, so will you all join me in lifting a glass in respectful memory of Private First Class Theodore O’Connor and Corporal Walter Hoffman, who fought and died for this country, right or wrong.  May God bless ‘em and may God bless our United States of America.”
To a man, everyone joined Pedro and lifted a glass to toast the memory of their young friends who never had a chance to grow old, and chimed in with “to Teddy and Wally, amen, or hear, hear.”  Christ, they were barely out of their teens when they died.

(This is a work of fiction.  Although some real-world names, organizations, historical settings, and situations are used to enhance the authenticity of the story, any similarities to actual persons, organizations, or situations are coincidental and all portrayals are purely the product of the author’s imagination.  This is the second edition abridged version 2019.  First edition Copyright © 2006.  All rights reserved)

No comments:

Post a Comment