On my second day after returning from the first Gulf War, I was walking across across the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment common grounds when I heard an authoritative voice presumably shouting at me.
“Hey there, soldier!” The voice shouted. “What the fuck you wearin’?”
I looked around and saw The Sergeant Major and snapped to attention and waited for him to walk close enough to talk without shouting back at him. He stopped in front of me and put a half smoked and unlit cigar into his mouth and looked me up and down for a moment, removed his cigar, and said in a loud but calm voice, “I asked what the fuck you wearin’, Private.”
I was wearing my old green jungle fatigues because the post commander had ordered everyone to stop wearing tan desert fatigues and switch to standard uniforms as soon as we returned. My green fatigues were from basic training, and didn’t have the 82nd Airborne patch yet, or airborne wings or anything other than my name and rank, Partin, Private E2. The pants were too short for my legs and the ends ended above my boots and couldn’t be tucked in like regulations required. I had tightened the draw strings, but my legs would have flashed while I was walking, especially because I was lost in thought and my strides were long and exposed my socks and boots with every step. And the pants were comically tight on me, more like spandex or yoga pants or panty hose than the pants that had given our unit our nickname, The Devils in Baggy Pants, a name given to us by a German officer when the 504th Parachute Infantry Battallion first began dropping in by parachute in WWII, when our pants were baggy to hold extra ammunition and water; I doubt that seeing devils in yoga pants would have had the same impact or become our moniker.
The overshirt was so tight on me that I couldn’t button the top few buttons, and my skin tight undershirt was pressed against my chest. My dog tag chain and tags could be seen pressing through the brown understhirt, and the unauthorized but tolerated cross I wore was seen pressed against the shirt under my dog tags. It was a warm spring day in North Carolina, and the post commander had ordered sleeves rolled up, but I could only make one fold in my sleeves before reaching my elbow instead of the required two, and the edges of my sleeve flapped near my elbow when I walked.
I was unsure how to answer his rhetorical question, so I answered obliquely and said, “I grew in Iraq, Sergeant Major.”
He paused and chewed on his cigar butt for a few moments and said, with a clarity that implied he frequently spoke with a cigar between his lips, “At ease, private.”
I moved my legs to shoulder width and folded my right arm behind my back and held my boxes in my left arm, and he looked me up and down again. He radiated a sense of presence, as if he wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else and could choose how to spend his time.
His uniform was within regulations without being ostentatious; it was ironed, but not starched. His boots were shined, but not with the glassy polish of people who spent hours spit shining their boots, or paid to have one of the civilian shops that surrounded Fort Bragg do it for them. Those shops also pressed and starched uniforms, and most high ranking soldiers who lived off post kept the civilian shops busy, but something about The Sergeant Major’s uniform seemed like it had been done by a hand iron and was just fine, which seemed to me more respectable than people who tried too hard. His maroon beret was tilted slightly off kilter on his head, and though most of us intentionally wore ours slightly cocked, because it looked better, but The Sergeant Major’s beret seemed hap hazard, as looking better were the least of his concerns. He was of average height and average build and had a slightly pudgy belly and the confidence to not suck it in. Everything about him radiated sufficiency and being unrushed.
His left shoulder wore the 82nd Airborne patch with the classic AA letters for “All American” and topped with Airborne tab; above that was a Ranger tab. His chest was a mass of badges that would impress anyone I knew. He had the long rifle with wings of the Combat Infantry Badge that I knew I’d soon be awarded, and of course he was airborne. But, his parachute wings had the elaborate wreath on top that signified a Master Blaster, a high ranking jump master able to inspect other jumpers, and he had three mustard seeds, tiny bronze oak leaves on his parachute that said he had parachuted into combat at least three times that we knew of. He had air assault wings, the helicopter synonymous with the 101st Airborne and their motto, “This We’ll Defend,” and a pathfinder badge, the elite teams that parachuted into trees and blew up enough trees to create a drop zone for a mass tach parachute assault; their logo was “First In, Last Out.” There was no more space for badges to be sewn on his chest, but I sensed he had more to choose from and could select them like Uncle Bob used to select which cuff links to wear each day.
His right shoulder wore the legendary Sky Soldiers combat patch. I had heard that he had four combat patches, including one of the special forces groups and from undisclosed missions. Everyone in the 504th had heard that in Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia – the rumors varied – he was the first American to successfully complete a skyhook extraction from deep within enemy territory with General Stormin’ Norman Swartchcoff himself, the four star general who had just led all Allied forces to victory in only nine months of buildup in Desert Shield and war in Desert Storm, and rumors of what our leaders did in previous wars were common topics of conversation as we cleaned our weapons and returned home. The Seargent Major had been a prisoner in Vietnam and kept in a small metal box for months before being rescued by one of President Kennedy’s early Special Forces teams; allegedly, when they opened his box he stood up and laughed and said, “Thank you, Huah! Any of you mother fuckers got a cigar?” And then he fought with them as all men tried to extract themselves from deep within Vietnamese territory, and that’s why he could wear a Special Forces combat patch without having been through SF school or assigned to an SF team.
By every definition I knew, The Sergeant Major was a stark raving badass, a man not to be triffled with who was unafraid of anything. I had heard him speak once a few months before, just before we crossed the border and began the war, and even from the back of a crowd I had trusted him and sensed that everyone around did, too. He was respected regardless of his badges.
A cherry lieutenant approached nearby and The Sergeant Major and I came to attention and he removed his cigar and we both saluted.
“Strike Hold, sir!” The Sergeat Major. In airborne school, we said, “All the way,” but in the 82nd we said our unit’s motto. The 504th Parachute Infantry regiment’s was “Strike Hold,” a reference to our WWII days of parachuting deep into combat and holding an area until slower units with heavier equipment could catch up. Not much had changed in 50 years.
The LT saluted back and we lowered our salutes and he slowed his walk and looked me up and down and smirked and nodded to The Sergeant Major as if glad the old man was taking care of such a young and undisciplined private. The cherry’s uniform was starched and his boots were so shiny that they reflected sunlight. He had the obligatory basic airborne wings and a Ranger tab, but no combat patch. He had probably just returned from officer training school and had obtained a slot in Ranger school and the 82nd was his first duty assignment. He stopped, perhaps imagining he was taking control of the situation with his facial expression, which, to me, seemed like an actor trying to appear like a commander in control. He looked me up and down again and seemed like he’d say something, but before he could speak The Sergeant Major began patting his pockets and he interrupted and asked the LT if he wanted a cigar. The LT looked at him and his eyes briefly locked on to The Sergeant Major’s chest badges and he said no thank you and told us to carry on, confident that everything was in control. The Sergeant Major nodded and said, “Huah! Sir!” and the LT walked away and we returned to being at ease and doing what we were doing.
He replaced his cigar but and moved it like a part of his body, swinging it to the corner of his lips. He said, “You grew? Well, shit, Private. Ain’t they got another uniform for you?”
“No, Sergeant Major. Supply is out of jungle fatigues.”
“Well, shit, Huah. Ain’t you got money saved after wankin’ your meat in Iraq all this time? Or did you already spend it in the War Zone?”
The War Zone was a civilian strip of bars, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, disguised but unambiguous brothels, used car lots, pawn shops, and drug dealers who knew what was and what was not detectable in the 82nd’s random drug tests. The War Zone also had at least a dozen army surplus stores, and most soldiers bought new uniforms there rather than waiting for the two free ones issued once a year.
“No, Sergeant Major. HQ can’t find my paychecks.” In 1991, pachchecks were pieces of paper you would have to take to a bank and request cash. Most soldiers were strongly encouraged to use direct deposit into a bank account to avoid loosing paychecks, but I had transitioned through Fort Bragg on my way to Desert Shield too quickly to establish a bank account. Not only could they not find my paychecks, they were unsure if there was evidence that I had existed outside of our shared memories from the previous few months in combat. My situation had become something of a joke around HQ, an example of how military bureaucracy created improbably situations. No one knew what do do about me, and by the army’s definition I didn’t exist, so they had told me to hurry up and wait and they’d get me squared away. I was sent away with a few chuckles about what would happen if an officer saw how I was dressed.
He asked my first sergeant’s name and I told him, and then he was silent for a few moments and rolled his cigar with his lips and alternated tucking it into either side of his mouth a few times while staring into my eyes. I couldn’t help it: I smiled slightly. I believe he saw my smile and then saw me differently.
“You that motha’ fucka’ who speaks sand nigga’ and does magic tricks and shit, ain’t ya?”
Just like with his first rhetorical question, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I remained silent and waited patiently. He chewed on the cigar poking from the corner of his lips and stared at me a moment more, then he smiled broadly and shoved his right hand into his baggy pants pocket and fumbled around, obviously searching for something.
“Hey there, Huah! You want a cigar?” He didn’t wait for me to answer, but exaggerated his fumbling and smiled broadly and said, “I got one right here!” He yanked a few times but couldn’t get it out of his pocket, and suddenly he said loudly and with a playful tone, “Oh shit, Huah! That ain’t a cigar! It’s my dick! My big fat black dick!” He removed his hand and burst into laughter and slapped me on the arm with the hand that had just said was clutching his big fat black dick, and I tried not to react. Fortunately, I kept smiling and he kept laughing.
“All right, Huah. If Top don’t get you squared away with a paycheck and uniform this week, you come see me, okay?” I said ok, and he replaced his cigar and moved it to the corner of his mouth and we chatted about the war a bit and how I ended up there so small and so young, and what I wanted to do next. He dismissed me, and I continued across the common grounds and upstairs to the barracks for D-Co.
183 paratroopers in the 504th that didn’t have an EIB yet were asked to get one in the weeks that followed. It was a semi annual test of sorts, a combination of being able to operate every weapon that could be used by any infantryman, ranging from pistols to machine guns to bazookas to Claymore mines; and basic first aide, land navigation with map and compass, radio and secure frequencies proficiency, radio commands to communicate with artillery and air support, etc. The two days of testing began with a physical fitness test set above army standards; I can’t recall the numbers we used then, but it was approximately 60 pushups in two minutes, 50 sit ups in two minutes, and a two mile run in under 14 minutes. The test concluded with a 12 mile ruck sack march in full combat gear and with 45 pounds inside your ruck.
I was one of three soldiers in the 504th to earn the EIB in the weeks after Desert Storm out of 183 people attempting the two days of weapons demonstrations, marksmanship, and physical tests that concluded with a 12 mile march in about 80 to 90 pounds of combat gear. People were surprise we had so many failures, and higher command was furious. They attributed it to apathy, because even expert infantrymen would have to review regulations and know all the nuances of weapon performance, like distances possible vs ethical under the geneva convention, which placed restrictions on where we could or couldn’t use things like shotguns to maim or .50 caliber machine guns to plow down people not in vehicles. War has ethics, after all. But most soldiers seemed more interested in spending their combat pay in the War Zone than studying or training, and in the nine months the 82nd had been in Desert Shield and Storm many had become flabby and out of physical conditioning for the two mile run in under 14 minutes and at least 60 pushups and and 50 situps within two minutes to pass the physical; coincidentally, 82 pushups was a perfect score for the army, not just the 82nd, and I had maximized my PT test and come in the forced respectably with the first dozen or so people to finish it. And I had made perfect scores on all simulated weapons tests, which made sense after having just used many of them in combat. I was unsure why 179 other people failed the Expert Infantry test, especially so many who proudly wore the more coveted Combat Infantry Badge; and, for some reason I don’t fully understand, when I was finally issued jungle combat fatigues that fit I had an EIB sewn on instead of a CIB. Perhaps I felt the need to differentiate myself, or perhaps I felt I had earned the EIB simply because I had studied and practiced for weapons I didn’t know instead of drinking in the War Zone with the other soldiers.
I returned from the War Zone with my new, large sized uniforms sewn with an 82nd patch on each shoulder, my parachute wings, EIB, and new rank as a recently promoted Private First Class, a PFC, E3. My beret was new and still a bit puffy, but I had wet it and pulled it tightly on my head to hold its shape better and be less like a cherry’s beret. I was walking across the common ground with my uniforms when I heard a voice presumably shouting at me.
“Hey there Dolly!” Sergeant Walker shouted from near his office, smiling. I stopped and waited.
“What the fuck did you do now?”
I was unsure, and I remained silent.
“The Sergeant Major wants to see you,” he said, still smiling.
“Don’t fuck up,” he added. Sgt. Walker always gave good advice.
Sgt. Walker had been my platoon sergeant in the war. Our relationship had changed drastically since he had picked me up at a makeshift battallion headquarters in the middle of the desert after I rode in the back of a mail truck four day to reach the 504th on the front line. We were both different people now; the cliche’s are true, and war sucks ass and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, even my enemy.
I strolled to battalion headquarters by the main road. The 504th had 900 soldiers in five companies, A through D and HQ. The Sgt. Major was in HQ, and was responsible for all 900 of us and rarely had time for meeting privates in private. I wondered what would happen; and, even after all that had happened, the little boy inside of me felt like I was being called to my middle school principal’s office to be paddled. But, by then I knew no one would ever touch me without my permission again and that by almost anyone on Earth’s definition, I was a stark raving badass. I felt my emotions pendulum back and forth between trepidation and defiance as I waited outside the Seargent Major’s office.
The battallion commander walked out of the Sergeant Major’s office, a full bird colonel whose name I don’t recall, and I snapped to attention and he chuckled and patted me on the arm and said, “At ease, Partin,” and walked away. The Sgt Major was still inside his office and saw me and beckoned me inside and said, “Goddamn, Huah! You don’t look lie a cherry no more.”
He offered me a cigar from the box on his desk. I declined but felt myself relax, especially because being offered a cigar from a box was much nicer than his offer in our last encounter. Nothing about this meeting seemed like punishment, and I knew I wasn’t a 12 year old boy in trouble. I was an 18 year old paratrooper and combat veteran and had earned the Expert Infantry Badge when 179 of America’s Guard of Honor had not. I breathed deeply and let my chest fill my large jungle fatigues and waited to hear why the Sgt. Major had called me to his office out of 900 other paratroopers, especially after seeing that a full bird colonel had been there before me and a folder on his desk with my name on it.
He put an unlit cigar in his mouth and sat across from me and tapped a folder with my name on it that had been open on his desk.
“Says here you were the youngest mother fucker in the war, Huah, out of 560,000 swingin’ dicks. How the fuck did that happen?”
“I was emancipated, Sgt. Major. Louisiana uses the Napoleonic law code, and I was able to join the 82nd at age 16.”
“Napoleonic code? What kinda backwoods hillbilly shit is that?”
I told him, and he said, “Holy shit, Huah! You a smart mother fucker. How’d you pick the 82nd?”
“An ROTC instructor at my high school served in the 82nd during Vietnam,” I said, “and he was a good man and I admired him.”
That was partially true – Sarge was a good man and I appreciated him – but I was becoming more and more unsure why I had joined. I had even begun to suspect divine intervention, perhaps because Mrs. Abrams had said I was important and I believed her, but mostly all of the coincidences leading up to that moment with the Sgt. Major, from Big Daddy being called an All American hero in the news to the the Baton Rouge Teamsters hosting the film “Everybody’s All American” to my face seen by millions of people watching Late Night with David Letterman just before the news first announced the 82nd was leaving Fort Bragg to free the people of Kuwait. Paw Paw telling me I had 82nd stitches. And many, many more small coincidences that had been rattling through my head ever since we survived our first battle. And of course there was the part about Big Daddy killing Audie Murphy and President Kennedy. I had too many irreverent incidents in my thoughts to discuss with anyone, especially a commander who would think I was crazy. I felt it was simpler to attribute my choices to simple things, like saying Sarge was the reason I choose the 82nd.
“You was in ROTC? Is that how you were an E2?”
“No, Sgt. Major. I wrestled. But Sarge was also the school security guard and saw me before and after school at practice. I’m an E2 because I joined the delayed entry program a year ahead of leaving so that I could finish my senior year of wrestling.” I decided it wasn’t worth mentioning the three years of history Sarge and I shared, and how he hand’t reported me for skipping school or smoking behind the gym before I joined the wrestling team, though I can’t imagine The Sgt Major judging anyone for smoking or cursing, or anything else for that matter. I felt I could trust him, though I didn’t know why and was still reticent to be completely truthful, especially when I was unsure what the truth was and was trying to understand what was happening to me; I felt that I was still growing and in transition, and I was more anxious to see what happened next than to explain the past.
The Sgt. Major tapped the folder on his desk.
“How is it you got your EIB when 200 other mother fuckers didn’t?
“I studied, Sgt. Major. My squad helped. Sgt Weber asked Skinny…” I paused briefly, catching my mistake born from habit and quickly continued, “…Specialist Foster to work with me. I learn better speaking out loud. And a platoon from Bravo Company I met in Khobar Towers asked me to train with them, and they had weapons I hadn’t used before and taught them to me what I didn’t know.” Embarassingly, I couldn’t recall which platoon name; I had met so many people the past two weeks of cleaning equipment in Khobar Towers before coming home that I sometimes felt overwhelmed with all of the new names, units, and acronyms.
The EIB still used many outdated weapons that were weak in power but portable and used primarily by infantry foot soldiers, and Delta Company didn’t know those weapons because they were relatively useless to a Delta Company platoon with .50 cal machine guns and MK 19 grenade launchers and TOW missles. A tiny and antiquated hand held anti-armor gadget wasn’t useful enough to remove .50 cal ammunition to carry it, but it was part of the antiquated EIB exam and wasn’t hard to learn if you focused and weren’t hung over from the War Zone.
“Yeah, I heard. That’s good initiative, Huah.”
He looked down at the folder and tapped it absent mindedly for a few moments before looking back up at me.
“The colonel said you was good at talkin’ to civilians and don’t tell no bullshit.”
I was unsure what he meant, and for a brief moment I felt a wave of trepedation again as I recalled speaking freely with a group of generals and civilians after the war ended and we were staying at Khobar Towers, when I was too exhausted to speak politely. The wave passed, and I was glad I remained silent because the Sgt. Major continued.
“I hear you’re good with a bayonette,” he said, smiling broadly.
“I am, Sgt. Major,” I replied as a matter of fact.
He chuckled and leaned back and rested his hands on his paunch and asked, “You wanna meet the ambassador from Panama and a bunch of civilian politician wannabes, Huah?”
I stared blankly, unsure what he was asking.
“We was gonna have a dinner with the Panama ambassador and a handful of senators and congressmen before we got called or Iraq, and none of those motherfuckers would have come to Iraq to meet us, so we gonna meet them here next month. We gonna talk about what happened in Panama and what we want the 82nd to do going forward, and we want a few enlisted men there to show them what the politicians call ‘the new soldier’ and shit.”
He paused and I nodded to show I was listening.
“But last year’s soldier of the year got caught doin’ drugs and is being demoted, and we can’t have an E1 who does drugs talkin’ to the Panama ambassador about why we invaded his country for the war on drugs.”
I saw his point and smiled at the irony and began to see where he was going. My breathing quickened in anticipation.
“You’d have to wear your dress greens and sit at a table with a table cloth and fancy plates. Don’t spit in your soup and shit. You OK with that, Huah?”
“Yes, Sgt. Major.”
We chatted about what would happen at the dinner and what I could say and should not mention, and I left his office feeling giddy and light headed and confident and anxious for the future. I saw the difference in how I had felt walking to his office, and realized that I was no longer a middle school kid scared of his teachers or a little boy scared of his mother. I was a paratrooper and decorated war hero and was being asked to meet ambassadors and politicians, and I had earned an EIB. And I was good with a bayonet.
I returned to the barracks and waited in line to use the phone and make airline reservations. When my turn came, I called the post travel agent, planning to fly to Baton Rouge and meet Cristi and the Abrams, but on a whim I bought a one-way plane ticket to Little Rock, Arkansas, and another from Little Rock to Baton Rouge, and then one from Baton Rouge back to Fayetteville North Carolina. I believed I’d honor my father, like Mrs. Abram’s had pointed to in the New Testament, and I called the only phone number I knew for him, his former neighbor Bill, and relayed a message that I’d be in Little Rock in two weeks and could stay for three days. I hung up the phone and allowed the next person in line to take my place.
The next day, Sgt. Walker came to my room in the barracks that I shared with Skinny, and he had an envelope with $200 in cash.
“Dolly, you’re more trouble than you’re worth,” he said, smiling. “The Sgt. Major chewed my ass for not getting you squared away, so here.” He handed me the envelope and said that the Sgt. Major had called him after speaking with me and ‘chewed his ass’ for a while. Supply issues and beurocracy weren’t the Sgt. Major’s concern; taking care of troops was his concern, and he reminded Sgt. Walker that it should be his concern, too, and Sgt. Walker realized that lending me money until HQ found my paychecks or issued me uniforms would have saved everyone time and is what a leader should have done; though those were my thoughts and not his words.
“As soon as you get your paycheck, pay me back or I’ll have you scrubbing toilettes every weekend until you leave this man’s army!” He exaggerated his intensity to mimic a famous movie star drill sergeant from the film Full Metal Jacket, and I laughed and thanked him.
“Oh, and by the way. Congratulations. You’re a PFC now.” He handed me a piece of paper saying I was promoted to Private, First Class, and a small box with PFC rank for my dress uniform. It was an automatic promotion based on my time in service and not any special acknowledgement, and the most important part would be that I’d receive an extra $80 a month if HQ ever found my records and issued a paycheck.
We parted, and I found a ride to the War Zone and bought a few large jungle fatigues and had them sewn with my PFC rank, an 82nd patch on each shoulder, my jump wings, and an EIB instead of a CIB.
Of course, I had Partin and US Army sewn on, too. Everyone wore their name and owner, like a pet wearing dog tags, I thought. If I was going to be a pet, I wanted to be one that wore whatever else he chose, and after I had received so much attention for my EIB I felt more attachment to earning it than being awarded a CIB. I returned to base, and, like everyone else, spent my time cleaning the barracks and repairing equipment and training to regain physical stamina after many months of restricted motion. No one seemed to notice me now that my uniform fit, and I looked just like every other swinging dick in the 504th with close cropped hair and green fatigues and a combat patch.
Two weeks later, I arrived at the Little Rock airport and met my dad at the gate. In the parking lot, I stepped into the passenger side of my dad’s worn out 1979 Chevy Impala. The inside waws held together with duct tape and wood screws, and it still had an eight-track player and he still had the music he had listened to when I was a boy. It reeked of weed and body odor.
He patted my chest and said I had finally grown and lit a joint. I asked him not to because I would be randomly tested for drugs back in North Carolina, but he didn’t seem to hear. I rolled down my window and tried to breathe fresh air and listened to him rant on the hour drive to Clinton, usually enough time for him to finish one joint but not enough for a second, but this time he was excited to talk and rolled another joint while driving with his knees and he ranted about the war and told me about his trip to Washington DC to speak to congress; he had won a national essay contest for new law school students to challenge the constitution on a current issue, and he had chosen the right to burn American flags as a form of the first amendment’s right to free speech. He didn’t ask me about the war or my experiences or my opinion. I would have agreed with him, just like I had agreed with him about not pledging allegiance to any flag in school, but I wouldn’t have ranted about it, especially now that I was in the army and, ironically, no one had to pledge allegiance to anything other than, ironically, defending the U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Ranting seemed childish, and as I tried to breathe fresh Arkansas air my mood soured and I questioned my choice to fly there.
We pulled down the dirt road to where his old property used to be, and he said Bill and a group of friends were having a party for my visit. When I didn’t respond and kept a sour look on my face, his voice raised and he began telling me that I had grown too big for my britches and he pointed at my face. I must have looked furious, because he slammed the car to a halt and raised his voice too loud for our confined space and said things I don’t recall because I was alarmed by how rapid my heart was beating and how shallow my breath had become. I felt I had to get out of the car and away from his finger, and I opened the door and stepped out while he was still talking. That infuriated him and he got out and rushed over to me and told me to respect him and he poked his finger into my chest and my jaw clenched and I slowly and quietly asked him to stop, and that infuriated him more. No one tells my dad what to do, except for Big Daddy and a few arresting sheriffs over the years.
He poked and poked and I finally knocked his hand away using the wax-on wax-off move from 1983’s Karate Kid – it really works – and he became furious and went to shove me hard. It would have been the first time he shoved me, and I knew he wouldn’t do more than that, but I wasn’t thinking by that point and reacted in self defense. I tapped his arms upward and his momentum carried him forward but with arms upraised, and I lowered my center of gravity as I shot towards his hips and then stood up and lifted him in the air, far away from the ground and his base, just like how Hercules weakened the giant Antaeus. I pivoted away and let him fall to the earth, accelerating him just enough to knock the wind out of him when he hit, and I followed him to the ground and habitually locked his legs and pushed down on his back to lock him in place. He bellowed that he would “whup my ass” when he stood up, and without thinking I began punching his face until he shut up, coming in an arc around the back of his head and hitting his cheek lightly at first but, uncharacteristically of me, grabbing his hair with my left hand and rotating his face so that I could get a straight punch in. The first hard punch dazed him and that’s when he stopped shouting and I had won, but something was happening that surprised me and I watched my body hold his head still with my left hand and reach back with my right, and I heard my dad’s voice reciting the the protaganist of Where The Red Fern Grows in a fight against bullies where he “reached his arm all the way back to Arkansas,” and I yelled in exasperation and tried to stop my right fist but I was unable to stop its momentum forward and saw my fist approaching my dad’s upturned face and the temple that some part of me was aiming for, and I saw his temple cracking and bone shards piercing his brain and probably killing him and I threw my body forward and my fist kept moving and hit the dirt above his head, bloodying my first two knuckles and probably causing small cracks in the bone; the damage to my fist would have been worse if my body hadn’t moved in a continuous motion after I lunged forward, rolling over my fist and defusing the blow.
I quickly recovered my base and sat on my knees and looked at the sky and raised my hands and vented in the form of a shriek I had never heard from my body and haven’t heard since. A trickle of blood dripped down the back of my right hand and I sobered from the sight and the sense of pain I began to feel in my hand, and I saw my dad covering his face and just as shocked as I was by my actions and screech.
“Why wouldn’t you stop!” I bellowed towards the sky. I was still on my knees and brought my fists to my lap and looked at them. My breath was calming and my heartbeat was returning to normal.
“Why did you have to be so weird,” I said without realizing why I said it; I only recalled saying it afterwards.
I breathed a few times and felt beads of sweat dripping down my temple, and I stared one of the strongest men I had ever known curled in a ball and crying in front of me. He looked up and I saw that his eye was swelling and would become a black eye, and I saw his exposed temple and felt a sharp bite of fear recalling how I had almost not stopped myself and how I was unable to honor my father. I walked away with tears dripping down my cheeks, then I began jogging and made the two miles to Bill’s house in less than 14 minutes. My dad slowly followed in his Chevy.
He had been right, and a group of his old friends were there. None were veterans, and most had dodged the Vietnam draft and were anti-war and pro-marijuana, and they respectfully didn’t smoke around me but got high and told me how they had been worried about me, and how Desert Storm had been different than Vietnam, that we were defending a country being bullied and that was good, and that Stormin’ Normin’ had begun with a plan and set milestones and got us home in nine months rather than the twenty years that Vietnam would take and, unbeknown to everyone, the twenty years that the second Gulf War would last. Some felt badly for when they had been young and disprespected soldiers, and they said that as they matured they learned to respect the individual and to restrain opinions, especially against people who had experienced things we hoped no other people ever would. We laughed together and I told a few of the funnier stories and watched my dad in my peripheal vision, brooding and not looking at us and hulking in a corner, deflated. I felt sorry for him. Until then, only Big Daddy and a few sheriffs had gotten him to stop talking, and as I’ve mentioned I can’t imagine what it was like to have Big Daddy be rough on you and then to have your son beat you badly. Waves of empathetic sadness drifted in my body as I continued to smile and share stories about pooping in the desert and how quickly dung beetles turn your turds into tiny balls and vanish with them back into the sand.
My dad and I barely spoke for two days, and when he dropped me off at the Little Rock airport he looked at me with a huge blackened eye and hugged me and told me he loved me and I said I love you too dad and boarded the plane to Baton Rouge.
I had a window seat and cried a bit as we landed and I saw Granny’s empty house below my window. She had died while I was gone.
Cristi and Leah and the Abrams were waiting for me with a big, brightly colored sign that said, “Welcome Home Magik!” They had piles of gifts: Cristi had a book of artwork made by soldiers in WWII. Leah whispered my gift into my ear and said I’d get it later. The Abrams had all of the letters I had written to them from the gulf and a few memoirs, and they said I should turn my letters into a book and then a movie. We laughed about that all the way back to there house for a small celebration, and the next day Leah and a group of strippers from her club picked me up in a limosine and drove me to New Orleans for a night of celebrating. For a brief while we rode with our heads poked out of the sun roof, and as we passed where I used to perform magic with Walter I looked for him but didn’t see him. I hoped he was having as much fun as I was.
Mrs. Abrams lent me Mr. Abrams car, the old family van that the Abrams brothers called their ‘urban assault vehicle,’ and =for the next few days I visited the schools that had written me in the gulf and planned a full day with Mrs. Abrams’s fifth grade class and another in my kindergarten teacher’s class.
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A few days before I was supposed to fly back to Fort Bragg, I visited Auntie Lo. Surprisingly, she had stopped drinking and said that the little plaque I had given her after Uncle Bob died had helped: “”The past can not be changed, but the future is whatever you want it to be.” She kept it on the kitchen counter where she used to make her and Uncle Bob cocktails. She hugged me and told me that she also focused on me and wishing me safety, and had felt bad that I ended up in the army. She said that the plaque and thinking of me kept her sober at home, and that volunteering at the hospital with other spouses of terminally ill patients had led to her having friends outside of Uncle Bob’s work friends, who never showed up any more, and their country club friends, which she never saw because she couldn’t afford the club dues without Uncle Bob’s income. All of that sounded sad to me, especially because I never wanted to be in a hospital again after spending so long there with Uncle Bob, but Auntie Lo radiated a peace that I had never sensed in her and I felt happy for her. She gave me Uncle Bob’s car, coincidentally also a 1979 Chevy Impala but in mint condition and with a cassette player that Uncle Bob had added years later. And she gave me his Rolex watch, and we cried together a bit. I called the airline and canceled my flight home, and left to see Wendy before I’d leave Louisiana and drive back to North Carolina.
I arrived at Wendy’s new house in a new gold course development just outside of Saint Francisville and was greated by our Irish Setters who either recognized me or greeted all guests by jumping on them and wagging their tales and trying to lick their face. I laughed because they couldn’t reach my face but had been able to only a year before, and I asked them if they noticed I had grown and I ran around the yard a while with them while Wendy waited in the doorway.
She looked sad, and I was unsure what to say as I approached. When I finally reached her I looked down, surprised at how tiny she seemed, and she burst into tears and threw her arms around my waist and burried her head in my chest and bawled and kept alternating between saying she was glad to see me and how worried she had been and how sorry she was; though she never clarrified what she was sorry for and I never asked.
She talked about how she had been following the 82nd in news articles about the war and took me to a guest bedroom that was laid out like a military planning room, full news articles and a big map with lines drawn on it. A small table had a few photos of me and a boy in an old army uniform that I’d later learn was her boyfriend who had died in Vietnam the year she met my dad. She said she knew I was in the north, but that was all. I pointed to the small bend in the border where we were and traced my finger to where we entered Iraq and our final battle at the Khamisiyah Airport, and she replied with more details than I was aware civilians new. Apparently, we had been in the news every day.
We talked and she cried and I said I had to go, that I was driving Uncle Bob’s car back to Fort Bragg. I showed her that I was wearing his watch, and she reminded me that he always said he tried to live a life without regrets, and that she wanted to get close to me as mother and son. I responded by trying to call her “mom,” but we both laughed at how unnatural that sounded and I said, “I love you, Wendy,” and she said, “I love you too, Jason,” and we hugged and she cried some more.
She really was tiny, and she felt frail in my arms. I recalled seeing my dad push her and couldn’t imagine me ever pushing someone so tiny and frail and in need of love. I hugged her tightly and felt waves of love flow through me, and I realized that Mrs. Abrams was right: forgiveness is for the forgiver.
I got on the road and retraced Ben and my route north from the summer before. I had forgotten to buy cassette tapes and the radio stations were few and far between, and I drove 14 hours in silence and reflected on all that had happened the past year and the words of Auntie Lo, and I wondered what I wanted my future to be and it was a wonderful, relaxing, drive back to Fort Bragg.
Almost as soon as I arrived I began polishing my silver medals and dress uniform shoes and reading military history and the legal cases for and against the Panama invasion. At the banquet, I was surprised that the Sgt. Major wasn’t there and that all of the uniforms were full bird colonels or generals, except for a few other enlisted men from E4-E6, all of them with mustard seeds on their jump wings. The banquet hall was huge and was decorated with famous paratroopers, like the one with a dirty and exhausted WWII foot soldier holding a practically useless bazooka and standing beside the trench he had just dug in the snow to hold off a division of German tanks. The reporter who took the photo quoted the soldier as saying, “I’m the 82nd, and this is as far as the bastards are going.” Tough words, but I would have preferred to have a TOW or two and preferably a fleet of M1 Abrams tanks behind me before making that claim. But, respectfully, I acknowledged that he did the best he could and that their sacrifices led to my anti-armor training and kept me and my platoon alive fifty years later.
Interestingly, there was a photo of Audie Murphy, even though he hadn’t been Airborne. He looked younger than I remembered, even though it was the same photo I had seen at the infantry museum. I was staring at it when the battallion commander approached and asked if I knew who Audie Murphy was. I said I seen his display the Fort Benning infantry museum, and I quoted his number of kills and said that I read his airplane crash in 1971 had been determined an accident. The commander laughed and said he didn’t know many people who knew those details, and I didn’t say more. He said I was like him, a country boy without a father who learned to shoot by hunting, and that I even looked a bit like him, always smiling.
I smiled and remained silent and followed the commander to our table with two sentators or congressmen – I always confuse the two, and don’t recall their names – and the Panamanian ambassador to the United States. During the dinner I behaved well and focused on cutting my food like I had learned from Aunt Mary and Uncle Jon, the fancy way they do in Europe, and the ambassador was doing the same, like his father from Spain had, and we joked about things I don’t recall. The commander mentioned that the new, all-volunteer army was attracting different types of soldiers, peaceful warriors who saw the world differently than even a few years before, and he mentioned my young age as a soldier and history in the foster system that led me to being emancipated, and of course my service in Desert Storm as an example. The ambassador seemed impressed, and asked me where I learned my values and ethics. Without hesitating, I replied, “My high school wrestling coach and foster mother.” and I must have spoke with conviction because everyone at the table nodded didn’t say more.
Like many things I said, it was a lie; Mrs. Abrams was never my foster mother, but that seemed close to the truth and was a much simpler story. Besides, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to tell the whole story, otherwise I’d have to explain how Big Daddy may have killed Audie Murphy and President Kennedy, and that would have changed the tone of dinner more than I wanted.
Chocolate cake and coffee was served for dessert, and a few of the senators or congressmen tried to eat like the ambassador and me, but it takes practice and everyone laughed and reverted to old habits and talked about things I don’t recall. I was distracted, focusing on my lie. I was unsure why I lied so quickly, and upon reflection I realized that after all of my thoughts on how to honor your mother and father, I was unsure constituted a mother and father when you’ve been in the foster system; it’s less like two blood relatives and more like a series of people and influences accumulating over time, but I didn’t realize that yet and in my mind and in my heart I knew that everything good that had happened to me since graduating high school had been because of Coach Ketelsen and Mrs. Abrams, and I felt the same love for them that I imagined other people feeling for their parents.
We finished dinner and I was dismissed and walked home to the Delta Dawgs of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, the All Americans, America’s Guard of Honor, and my family for the next three years. As I walked I pondered what I wanted those years to look like. According to the small plaque on Auntie Lo’s counter, it could be anything I wanted it to be. I glanced at Uncle Bob’s watch and saw it was almost ten pm – then I corrected my mind and said almost 2200 hours – and I said whatever I chose I would try to live without regrets.
To begin with, I’d stop drinking coffee, because I was wide awake and regretted drinking a cup with dessert. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling for a few hours and simply felt good about how interesting life could be. I knew that my alarm would go off in a few hours and the sergeant on duty would come upstairs and call us to physical training, but I couldn’t sleep. At first it was the coffee, then it was my mind. So much had happened in such a short time. I couldn’t imagine what the next three years would be like, but I felt it could be anything I wanted it to be.
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