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He hadnít told his mother he was coming home. He hadnít seen her in two years and wanted it to be a surprise. He had spent several hours on the bus and now loosened the tie on his Army uniform. Then he unbuttoned the brass buttons on his dress coat and finally loosened the laces on his right jump boot. His leg began to ache again. He reached for the aspirin bottle in his coat pocket, took out three, and chewed them like candy. He then found a warm can of beer in his overnight bag to wash down the residue in his mouth. He made a fist and rubbed his thigh with his knuckles, and watched the scenery of Bakersfield, California, go byóthe town he grew up in a long, long time ago.
When he left, there was not a moment he felt homesick. There were many times he wished he hadnít been in Vietnam, but he could think of a lot of places that would have provided more comfort than home.
He was reminded of the time the morning after one of his motherís drinking binges. She ordered him to clean out a pot that had burnt peas in it a half-inch thick. He had come home the night before in time to turn the stove off and douse the pot with cold water, his mother passed out at the kitchen table. The next morning, the kitchen smelled heavy with smoke, stale wine and cigarettes. As far as she was concerned, it was up to him to clean up the mess. She put the pot in front of him on the counter and a table knife next to it and said, "Get to work." He reached into the cupboard below the sink, pulled out an SOS pad and started in on the pot. She said, "I want you to clean it out with a knife."
"You told me to clean the pot. Thatís what Iím doing," he said reasonably.
"Donít you dare to defy your mother. Clean it out with that knife!" she cried. The fight was onóone of many that lasted an hour or two. A tug of war between craziness and reason, escalating in strength and size. Most of the time she tolerated him, but this could be interrupted by a battle of wills that usually ended in victory by the unreasonable.
With his mother, he could be patient and cool-headed in the most difficult conditions. With others, he was not as generous. He became a bully early on, a trait that extended into high school. Standing over someone after a fist fight had just as much pleasure as tricking girls into sex.
What sent him into the Army was a particularly new diversion he had thought up. He had never liked the neighborís dog, a German shepherd that was chained up. He could clearly see him from his upstairs bedroom window. He had drunk about eight beers when the dog began to bark. This annoyed him sober but now, with a good buzz on, it was just a knee-jerk reaction to take out his .22 rifle and take some potshots to see the dog run and come to the end of a 20-foot chain, as if he had hit an invisible wall. At the time he thought it was great sport Ö until the cops showed up.
He was 18 and could be tried as an adult. To avoid this, all he had to do was join the service. He knew about the war in Vietnam, but was not well-versed in current events. It seemed like the perfect way to get out of his motherís house and into a new adventure.
It was now 1969, a hot, muggy afternoon on the bus. Sweaty in his dress greens, he bloused his pant leg, laced up his jump boot and buttoned his coat. His stop was coming soon. He drained all of the backwash out of the can of beer and neatly crushed it an inch thick. Then he placed the tin into his overnight bag.
He pulled the cord above the window to signal the bus driver to stop. As things slowed down, he placed his hat square on his head. His hand brushed up against the large emblem on the left side of it. The emblem was emblazoned with a parachute. It occurred to him that he never jumped from anything but helicopters after training. This made him smile.The bus lurched forward and hissed as it came to a halt. He grabbed his bag and climbed out of his seat into the aisle, walking down to the front of the bus. It was odd how no one seemed to notice him. People reading newspapers. One man trimming his nails. An old woman staring into her purse. Young girls who couldnít wait to get to the mall. People preoccupied with their lives.
He walked all the way down the aisle and out of the bus before he realized that the only one to look at him was the bus driver. The driver was waiting for him to step down so he could close the door. He stepped onto the hot concrete as the door shut behind him and the bus hissed back onto the street.
It was hot and muggy and he dreaded walking the distance to his motherís house. He had gone about a block when a fat guy in a Ford Pinto pulled up to the curb. It had a cobalt-blue paint job, or used to before all the Bondo and gray primer was added. The driver rolled down the window on the passenger side and said, "My nameís Red. Want a ride?"
It was better than walking. The door flew open and he crawled inside, his spit-polished boots hitting crushed pop cans and cigarette ash. Red had on a sweat-stained green ball cap with Beechnut Chewing Tobacco written on the front. His T-shirt looked like he had been in a food fight, and it had risen up proudly over his navel.
Red signaled and pulled out into the street. "So, you get back from Nam?"
He looked at the fat man in the greasy ball cap and said, "Yeah."
"I can tell," said Red. "Yeah, I can tell from all that fruit salad on your chest." Red adjusted his cap, scratched his belly and asked, "What did you get all those medals for?"
"Theyíre ribbons," he said, and left it at that.
"Yeah, ribbons. I knew that," said Red. He took a deep drag on a Camel. When he exhaled, it spewed onto the windshield in an ugly gray haze.
There was an awkward silence for about two blocks until it was interrupted by the fat man. "So, you kill anybody?" he asked.
He stiffened and clutched his overnight bag harder. "Look, why donít you let me out here," he said.
Red pulled over to the curb. "Yeah, sure man. Whatever you say. Donít go psycho on me. I was just trying to do you a favor."
He opened the door and stepped onto the street, dragging two empty pop cans with him. He shut the door of the Pinto and waved Red on. The old relic took off in the flatulence of blue-black exhaust.
It wasnít far to his motherís house now. As he walked down the pavement, it was almost as if he was in boot camp. Marching, drilling in step with all the others gave him a sense of togetherness he had never known. He thought about his drill instructor and how much he had hated him for the physical ordeals and the public humiliation he had inflicted. He now understood that the D.I. was only preparing him for something worse to come. Not many, but a few were washed out during boot camp. He knew this would never happen to him. He had done his "basic training" at home.
Pounding the pavement in those jump boots made his leg ache again. His right hand held the overnight bag. With his left, he reached into his pocket again and found the bottle of aspirin. He was able to pop the top and shake several pills into his mouth and put the bottle back in his pocket. With nothing to wash them down, he chewed up the aspirins to make them easier to swallow. He wasnít far from his motherís house. There was a bad taste in his mouth.
His uniform was hot and sweaty in the August heat. He remembered the time his mother had bought him a uniform. He couldnít remember how old he had been, but he was still small enough to be carried. It was a little sailorís suit with short pants and a blue cap. The latest boyfriend had taken them to the zoo. She had bought him a paper bag full of popcorn. She had put him down to walk on his own and as he got a ways ahead of them, he heard them laughing. He turned around and saw them holding hands and laughing at the little boy in his sailorís suit. He felt his face go red. He was only six feet away from them, but it felt a lot farther.
He began to cry. Quietly at first, in little sobs. The laughter didnít stop. Then he cried loudly. Big gulps of air that turned into screams. She picked him up to try to comfort him. He just kept it up, wailing in his embarrassment. The Sunday outing was over.
They took him back to the car and started for home. The crying never stopped. The boyfriend was impatient. "Canít you shut the brat up?" She told him to pull over as they drove along the waterfront. Her latest love interest might have been married, but he didnít have kids and clearly needed a break.
They pulled the car over into the small parking lot. It was an observation area on a cliff with several benches. She took him over to one of the benches and sat down. She bounced him up and down to calm the child. Nothing seemed to work. She was at the end of her rope. She took him over to the edge of the cliff, carrying him like a duffel bag, one hand on his collar, the other on his waistband. She informed him that if the crying did not stop, he was going over the side. Genuinely scared, he continued to cry.
"Youíre going over, on three. Stop it. Stop it now."
One Ö two Ö three. He was sweeping out over the cliff. On "three," he was bewildered to feel she hadnít let go. He was coming back the other way.
When finally home, she stood him in his bedroom as she filled a suitcase full of his clothes, screaming at him the entire time. When the suitcase was full, she marched him to the front door and left him on the porch with a loud, "Youíre on your own!"
He sat on the first stair next to the suitcase full of underwear and began to sobóslow, quiet tears. Alone. Then suddenly behind him he heard secret gigglesómore humor he was not a part of, another joke he was not in on, between two people.
Now he found himself in front of the same porch. Only now he wasnít in a blue sailorís suit. He was standing in dress greensóboots polished, hair shaved to the skin, cap squarely on his head. He opened the door. This was the house he grew up in. He didnít have to knock.
As he came into the front room, he could hear her voice in the kitchen.
"Whoís there? I have a man in the house," she said nervously.
He turned the corner into the kitchen and found her with her new boyfriend, who had the unmistakable look of someone just released from jail. A gallon of cheap wine rested on the table. She looked up at him, startled, and said, "Oh, itís you." There was an awkward silence. Finally she slurred, "Oh, if you died I was gonna quit drinking."
The boyfriend in the T-shirt, tattoos shoulder to wrist, threw his head back and laughed. "What a warm welcome, kid. Thereís a motherís love for ya." The laugh fell into a low, hoarse whiskey cough.
He took off his Army cap, threw it on the table and waited for Boyfriend to say one more thing. The ex-con had seen that look in jail many a time. Boyfriend looked away from the soldierís stare and automatically reached into his shirt pocket for cigarettes.
The man/boy in uniform turned his anger toward her. Standing over his mother in a quiet rage, he watched her rubbing her wrinkled forehead while smoking. He sat down quietly next to his mother at the kitchen table and took out the bottle of aspirin. He shook out two and found his motherís glass of wine, greasy lipstick stains along the edge. He washed down the pills and quietly, without apparent emotion, said, "Hi, Mom, how you doiní? Always nice to see you."
She put her head into her hand. With the other, she raised a cigarette to her mouth and drew hard. When she exhaled, it was only stale, gray smoke. She hadnít known he was coming. He had caught the enemy by surprise. This was only a temporary condition of war. She will regroup, reinforce and fight another day.
He took another sip from the greasy glass and made a fist with his right hand. He rubbed his leg, knuckles-deep. He felt the old pain coming back.
Chris Reinertsen is a physical therapist living on the Olympic Peninsula with his wife and daughter. Chris has studied menís issues since 1991, and he is proud to be counted in the ranks of Vietnam veterans.
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