Anything Will Help

Eric Chandler

by Eric Chandler

The white van showed up with a black driver. He was an older guy with close-cropped gray hair. He was friendly, got my bags into the back and hurried to the side door of the 16-passenger van to let me in. Just him and me. I wasn’t late. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the Denver airport. I fiddled with my phone.

We stopped at a red light. It was a one-way street in front of us going to the left. There was no crossing traffic from the right. He could’ve taken that left. Instead, he leaned out the window and talked to somebody in a wheelchair on the sidewalk.

He was an old man with the brown face of someone who lives outside. Not the tan of a guy who golfs a lot or spends time in his fishing boat. The mahogany leather face of someone who is always outdoors. Always. With the compulsory gray-yellow hair. I couldn’t quite hear what the driver was saying to him.

When the man answered back, you could see his jaw moving with the inward-turned lips of a man who is missing most, or all, of his teeth. He had a black baseball cap with the words “Vietnam Veteran” on the front. White letters soiled to gray.

“Hey, here’s a little something for you.” The driver unbuckled, got his wallet out of his back pocket and reached out to hand the man a bill. I don’t know how much he gave him.

The Vet struggled to stand, hunched across and reached for the money. His cardboard sign (ANYTHING WILL HELP) almost fell to the ground. He almost fell, too. He sat back down and his mouth squished around as he said a few more words. The driver buckled up and we pressed on.

“That was nice of you,” I said.

“I was in Vietnam,” he said.

I said, “Huh,” and nodded my head. I avoided blurting out a kneejerk, Thank You For Your Service.

“When were you there?”

“67 and 68. I was there when they started the Tet Offensive.”

He said, “A lot of Vietnam guys got pretty messed up. It didn’t affect me at all. I was too busy chasing girls.”

“I was born in 67. How does that make you feel?”

“Oh, man, you’re just a kid.”

We drove on the side streets, jostling around through the potholes, avoiding the traffic on the gridlocked main highway to the airport.

I couldn’t stop myself. “I deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once. But I was a flyboy, so I had it easy.”

“When I went out to a firebase, and somebody saw an enemy platoon coming toward us, they called in air support from the Navy Phantoms. They blew up the whole hillside. They flew off—zoom—and did a barrel roll as they left.” He shot his right hand out and swirled it to add emphasis to the departure of the fighters.

“That was helpful, I bet.”

“Oh yeah.”

“All of my missions were Close Air Support. I always tried to help the guys on the ground. It was good to be helpful.”

I tried to picture the green of Vietnam with the orange and black explosions blossoming on the hillside. All I ever saw downrange was brown, brown, shit all around, like the old fighter pilot song says. About that time, we passed a sign that said Metro Cannabis adopted that stretch of Colorado highway. There was enough garbage to qualify as a road in Baghdad. Great job, stoners.

We were silent the rest of the way to the airport. I wanted to ask him if he remembered Vietnam clearly. Did he remember how it felt when the shock wave from the bombs rolled through the firebase? I wanted to tell him I think about my wars every day. That I was writing things down so I could remember them. That I already felt them slipping away. Memories. Time. Life.

We pulled up to the outermost island. He jumped out and grabbed my bags out of the back. I decided to give him a tip that was ten times bigger than I normally did. Probably crass of me, but I wanted to put something real behind my words. I wanted to thank him for complicating my simple, yet mean-spirited, view of my fellow man. He was already a good man. A few bucks wouldn’t reinforce that. But, maybe he’d forward my money to another guy who needed it. Maybe I could be a good man by extension.

“Thanks for helping that dude.” I gave him a twenty and shook his hand.

“Oh, thank you,” he said, surprised. His nametag said “Cecil.”

We looked each other right in the eye.

“I felt like it was my duty,” he said.

We both nodded. I turned and left.

I couldn’t breathe. One island. Crosswalk. Another island. Crosswalk.

Finally the automatic door slid open and fed me some conditioned air.

 

 

Travis Klempan

Travis K. Color

I enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. I originally wanted to go in as an interpreter, complete with a year of training in Monterey, California, but my minor and expunged criminal record (self-admitted at MEPS, falling victim to a recruiter’s lies) prevented me from getting a Top Secret clearance. I was also borderline color blind, so either Corpsman was the only job open to me, or MEPS needed another couple Docs to send to the Fleet. I went to Boot Camp at Great Mistakes in July 1999, hating the humidity more than any other single thing. I went to A School at Great Lakes, too, graduating in January, hating the cold more than any other single thing. I went to Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton, California, then was assigned to 1st Maintenance Battalion. I applied for and was accepted to the Naval Academy, where I reported after spending a year calculating the minimum scores necessary to graduate from the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island. I did four years at Annapolis, studying English literature and philosophy, so I could become the Strike Officer (when I got a Top Secret clearance; take THAT, bureaucracy!) and Force Protection Officer in USS Princeton out of San Diego. Two deployments later I volunteered for a year in Iraq, assembling presentations for teleconferences and doing my best to stay hydrated (though I did forget my reflective belt on numerous occasions). As a reward for volunteering for Iraq I picked Hawaii for follow-on (and terminal) orders. I was the Officer-in-Charge of a barge, named the Mobile At-Sea Sensor (MATSS, not as cool as our call sign, “Godzilla”). I got out in March of 2012 and came home to Lafayette, Colorado. I’ve been pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing for the past two years and graduate in July, after which I’ll have to get a real job.

LOA: How do you reconcile the difference in gravity between what you did in the military and what you do as a civilian? Do you get restless?

There were many days that the gravity of my circumstances in uniform were nil. I spent that year in Iraq putting together PowerPoint presentations for generals and colonels; I also read 105 books that year. I was the Gun Liaison Officer on the bridge when two aircraft carriers and an amphibious assault ship and their escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian Navies right alongside the whole time. I don’t think the military is an occupation like any other, though it shares numerous characteristics (boredom, routine, monotony, finding or inventing fun) with office life. Right now I’m finishing up my MFA in Creative Writing from a “hippie Buddhist school” and plan on returning to the Navy, but as a civilian instructor. So which is more important? I’m not sure. Gravity is where we find it (and when I write this, scientists have just discovered gravity waves) or make it. Is it important to be the best student I can be? Was it important that I knew what the hell I was doing when I was on the bridge in the middle of the night? Absolutely, because we should always take our work seriously (but takes ourselves less seriously).

LOA: F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “All life is a process of breaking down.” How have you used these breakdowns (often of the body and the mind, and even the nerves) as a platform for rebirth?

Absolutely. Just like muscles tear under weight training (note to self: get back to the gym) and rebuild stronger, so too do our emotional and mental muscles. However, just like overexertion or misdirection can ruin our physical bodies, so too can aimless or purposeless suffering can damage our psyches/souls/chis/what-have-yous. I wouldn’t say I’ve “reinvented” myself (for aren’t we always in a process of reinvention?) since I got out of the Navy, but I have decided what to hold on to (fierce loyalty, humor in the face of adversity, willingness to commit) and what to let go of (dogmatic devotion to ideas and not people, quick reactions and tempers, hardheadedness), so yes. I’m building back from the breakdown today. What are you doing?

LOA: What is the most life-changing event you’ve participated in since getting home?

My mom recently passed away after a prolonged battle with a rare disease. There were many moments of learning and clarity, but the biggest thing I’ll keep from her passing came in her last few days. She had held on to some bitterness, anger, and resentment from an entire lifetime. She chose to give it all up so she could spend her last hours with love in her heart. What I realized is she didn’t forgive or forget those people who’d hurt her, she just chose to release the negative energy. I don’t believe being kind means being soft. In fact, I think we could focus more in our culture and military on balancing sthira (steadiness) and sukha (ease), two Sanskrit words that are central to the practice of yoga (and life in general). Long story short, we can love more and love harder and love fiercer, lose fear and embrace restraint, and still be warriors.

LOA: What do you miss about the military?

First off, the people (except for the blower-offers, the lay-abouts, the career-minded, the pretend warriors). Secondly, the travel (except for the year in Iraq, or the six weeks in a row spent staring at waves off Guam and playing variations of the Kevin Bacon Game). Thirdly, the sense of mission and accomplishment (except for participation in a poorly-defined and poorly-executed war/occupation/whatever-it-was, and the time I spent reading People magazine because there was literally nothing to do). Fourthly, someone kicking my butt to work out (okay, that one is an unqualified miss).

LOA: What do you NOT miss about the military?

See above.

LOA: When you reflect on your time in uniform, what moment, or event, comes back to you most often?

I focus on a couple of moments. Two of them in particular are when we were dead in the water (DIW; for non-SWO/non-Navy types, DIW is what you don’t want to be – no engines, no rudders, at the whims and mercy of the seas). Luckily both were pretty benign, though the second time I was on the MATSS barge being towed a thousand miles out from Hawaii, and the tugboat didn’t realize right away that the towline had parted. For some reason I love thinking about those moments when we were adrift, literally following wave and current and wind. Our engines silent, miles from land, it might have been what early transatlantic sailors felt when they reached the Horse Latitudes. I don’t know, it was kind of fun each time.

LOA: Do you discuss your time overseas with your civilian friends? How do they respond?

I puttered around for a few years after I got out. I traveled, worked at a movie theater (as a popcorn-maker, not even anything fancy), and thought about going back to school. I applied to and was accepted into an MFA program in Creative Writing at probably the most polar opposite place from my military life. Naropa University is a Buddhist-inspired school focused on therapy and the arts and has few if any connections to the military, beyond a few veterans using the GI Bill (necessary to pay for the massively expensive private education afforded at a place which requires their students to take yoga or some other contemplative practice). I’ve got nine other writers in my cohort, and not a single one of them has given anything other than a positive response to my time in uniform. In fact, I’ve challenged their assumptions (so they’ve told me) about people in the military, especially that an entity as large as the DOD will have every type of human represented. I’m not the type to bring up “war stories” willy-nilly, though I often tell the humorous stories and highlight the Kafkaesque absurdity of my time in Iraq. I reciprocate with interest in their life stories, since their lives are just as fascinating as mine. One friend spent years working hard and shitty jobs on her way through undergrad and her first grad degree and is always good for a story about the evils of the capitalist system; another comes from Ireland and is traveling the world, meeting people and working alongside them; a third believes unceasingly in the saving power of poetry, and that idea is starting to rub off on me.

I know there’s a gap between veterans and civilians, and a lot of it comes from a lack of awareness on the part of the majority who’ve never served in uniform. But there’s also a stubbornness on the part of many veterans, who don’t seem like they want to engage in any sort of real conversation with people who have questions and are at least willing to listen. In simpler terms, we need to be storytellers as much as we need to listen to others.

Travis Klempan enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2006 and served as a Surface Warfare Officer until he left the Navy in 2012. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His writing has appeared in Atticus Review, Ash & Bones, and Helix Syntax, and his poetry was included in Volume 4 of Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. He is working on a novel about ghost stories in Iraq.

 

 

The Stay

David Dixon

David Dixon

Where I grew up, I knew a lot of farmers.  The oldest and most experienced of them seemed to have an amazing ability when it came to the weather.  Their understanding of nature was so great it seemed as if they could almost speak weather into or out of existence, as if they could bargain with the Earth itself.

When I asked them about it, how they could know the weather so well it seemed as if they were not merely predicting nature, but commanding it, they gave me all kinds of explanations:  “I can feel it in my bones” or “see them cows layin’ down over there?” or “my daddy used to tell us…” or “can’t you smell it?” or “once you been out here long enough, you just know.”

I never understood how those old timers could do that, and I still don’t.

My uncanny knack for prediction, my own esoteric knowledge of the cosmos, my gift, if you can call it that, is of a slightly different nature than the weather.

I sense Death.

I can hear it, smell it, see it–taste it, even–in a way others cannot.  I don’t know why, but I do know when.  I remember the first time it happened, half a world away and years ago.  I remember when I first discovered I knew, just like the farmer, things that others did not.  And that, just like like the old farmer with the rain–I could bargain with the universe, argue with it, and even forestall it–if only for a time.

But the universe is implacable.  No matter the relationship the farmer has with the thunderstorm, he cannot delay it forever–and no matter my relationship with Death, that most patient and personal of natural forces, it can only be delayed for a time.

People often avoid thinking about that truth until the end of their lives, until it’s too late to matter, until they realize they don’t fear death but more the possibility of eternal regret–regret of things done and not done, of words said and not said, of chances wasted and paths untaken, of lives out of balance like an overdrawn bank account.

Death arrives with a ledger not its own, but whether or not we are ready, it is there to collect.  It is not Death we owe–Death measures us against ourselves.  Death is only the messenger.  The final value of our lives is measured at that instant–did we do enough with what we had to leave a net positive?  Do our victories outweigh our regrets?  Is the measure of our lives a sum or a difference?

I’ve seen all kinds of people go.

I’ve seen people whose lives are so far in the red they’d have to live a thousand years to make it right.

I remember one of those–it’s been two years now–a man in a car accident on Grove Road, at the intersection just before the interstate.  He must have fallen asleep or something, because his pickup had drifted across the lanes and he’d hit a transfer carrying a load of railroad ties head on.  His F-150 never stood a chance.

I’d been driving around all night, like I usually do, listening for Death’s quiet-but-not-quite-silent footsteps.  I can, like that old farmer with the rain, hear Death, when I listen for it.  At first I had to strain to hear it’s approach, had to sit silent and still to the point of emotional exhaustion, to hear Death’s ghostly trod, but by this point, like the farmer, I’d been out there long enough to just know.

I was first on the scene, well before the paramedics and the police.  I could sense Death lingering there–waiting for me, I like to think.  The transfer truck driver was out of his cab, staring at the man trapped underneath the big rig in the wreckage of the Ford.  The trucker’s eyes were bulging wide and white in the darkness.

“He–I swear to God–I don’t–I mean, he was–was–was in his lane and then–all of a sudden, man–I–Jesus Christ–he just came over so fast,” the trucker stuttered.

I nodded.  “It happens, man; it happens.  You call the police yet?”  I try to get everyone else away when I work, plus giving people something useful to do helps them get over the trauma more quickly, so I’ve been told.

“Ah–uh, no–I mean.  Shit–I better call,” the man muttered.  “I was just trying–trying to see if there was any–anything I could… uh, do, you know?” he finished, voice rising, looking for approval, for comfort, for assurance that everything was going to be okay, whatever that meant.

I nodded again.  “Yeah, I know.  I’ll take care of him, okay?” I told him gently.  “You call 911 and set out some flares so no one else wrecks out here.”

The trucker nodded and climbed back up into the rig.  I saw his face lit by his cell phone screen as I knelt by the driver’s side of the destroyed pickup.

I could feel Death’s presence, impatient and almost annoyed.  No doubt there were other appointments to keep that night.

I’m sure the schedule is always full.

Where the transfer truck ended and the pickup truck began was hard to say.  The two vehicles were intertwined like teenage lovers, all interlocked curves and sharp angles.  The pavement was wet with leaking fluids and shards of broken glass sparkled like blood diamonds in the moonlight.

I reached into the mass of wreckage and felt a blood-slicked hand grasp mine.

“Can you hear me?” I asked only as loudly as it would take for whoever was inside to hear.

“Y–yes,” rasped a man’s voice, bewildered and afraid.  “Wh-what hap-happened?”  I shook my head at the question. So often, it’s the same–everyone looking for reason, for justification, as if they somehow expected the universe to admit it had erred–as if they could demand redress from fate.

“I don’t know,” I told him.  “It doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

“N-no… I guess not.”

“Listen to me,” I said, “I am going to help you, but–”

“You a doctor?” he croaked.  “You going to get me out of here?”

“No,” I told him softly but with careful solemnity.  “No I am not.  You are not going to get out, but–”
The man whimpered.  “But–get–get–” the man coughed a wet cough and I felt Death lean closer–”–get me out!  I don’t want to–to–”

“To die?” I asked.  “Very few do, when it comes down to it–even people who’ve lived a good life.  There’s nothing anybody can do about it, though.  Not even a doctor.”

I paused and squeezed his hand.  This next part is always the most difficult for people to understand.  “As long as you are holding onto my hand,” I told him, “you won’t die, okay?  You can’t die as long as I’m touching you, but–”

“Don’t let go!” he cried.  “Don’t let me go!”

“I have to,” I told him.  “I can’t hold Death off permanently–someday, it will be my time to die too, you know?  I can’t hold your hand forever.”

The man sobbed.

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I told you I would help, and I will, okay?  Tell me what you want me to do after this.  Tell me and I’ll do it.  Do you–”

“Hold–hold my hand–” the man snapped.  “Don’t let me die!”

“I told you,” I reminded him, “I can’t do that but for so long.  Think about what I said.  What do you want me to do?  Most people don’t get this chance.  Don’t waste it!  Think about it.  You tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.”

There was silence.  There usually is.

Finally, the man sniffed from inside the wreck.  “I–I–I–do you know… Phillip Mackey?”

“No,” I told him.  “But I can find him.”

“Okay,” the man said, “Okay.  Find him and… and tell him I’m sorry.  Tell him I never–never–shoulda’ run his daughter off from the church.  Tell him I was wrong when…” the man trailed off but resumed with renewed vigor “…I was wrong when I done it and I knew it–even–even then.  You tell him I done a lot of things I regretted, but nothing… nothing more than that.  You hear me?”

“I hear you,” I replied.  “Is Phillip gonna’ know what church you’re talking about?”

The man sobbed again.  “Y–yeah… He’ll know.  I–I’m Jim Hicks.  I–I was his preacher when his youngest–Stephanie–got pregnant and she wasn’t married.  I… I preached hellfire and damnation for three… three Sundays.  Stephane–sh–she ran away and… next thing…” the man sobbed and couldn’t finish.

I felt Death overpowering me, reaching into the truck, desperate to pry Hicks’s hand loose from my grip.  I squeezed more tightly–it wasn’t time, not yet.

“Do you want me to tell Stephanie you’re sorry too?” I asked him.

“You can’t!” the man in the truck wailed.  “You can’t!  Not no more, not unless…” he sobbed.  “I guess maybe I can tell her myself… if the Lord’ll let me…”

“Okay,” I said softly.  “I understand.  I’ll find Phillip Mackey and tell him.”

I took a deep breath.  Now came the most difficult part.

“I’m going to let go, now, all right?” I told him.

“What happens then?” the man asked, less panic in his voice than curiosity.  “What happens after… after you let go?  I die–you–you said that–but then what?”

I shrugged.  I have never thought of an answer better than the truth, despite all times I’ve been asked.

“I don’t know,” I told him.

“O-Okay,” the man said.

I gave his hand a final squeeze and he returned it.  He let go first–which made it easier.  I let go and our hands separated.

I heard the man sigh and felt the eerie presence of Death–that eternal champion–as it swept past me.  Then the presence was gone, and I knew Jim Hicks was gone with it.

I always tell people they’ve got a chance most don’t, and it’s true.

What I don’t tell them is the other truth–that it doesn’t usually do any good.  If a life is as far in arrears as some folks’, a stranger coming out of the blue to apologize to a wronged wife or say “I love you” to an underappreciated former boyfriend rarely means much.  Like Shakespeare said, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

As soon as I said the name Jim Hicks to Phillip Mackey, he slammed the door in my face.

I can only tip the scales but so much.

Not everybody is taken with his life’s ledger in the red, though.  I’ve been fortunate enough to stave off death for a moment for some mighty deserving folks, too.

I remember a young kid in the hospital just last week.  I usually don’t go to hospitals because it’s just too much–I can’t make it everywhere, and when I’m talking to one person I can feel Death all around me, taking people here and there.  I wind up rushing, and that’s not right.  That’s worse than not being there at all.

It kills me, I’d say, if it weren’t so ironic.

Last week, though, I felt Death beckon me, felt it reach out and nudge me with a bony finger and bid me follow.  I did, and wound up at St. Francis, stalking the halls while Death made regular visits behind the doctors and checked the same charts and graphs.

I found myself led to a room on the third floor.  I knew I was only a few steps ahead, so I pushed the door open and let myself in.  The room was full of cellophane balloons wishing the boy well, flower arrangement after flower arrangement, and stacks of cards from family and classmates.  The scene had the standard hospital soundtrack:  the soft hum of electronics and the rhythmic, muted beep beep of various monitors.  A young black boy of thirteen or fourteen lay in the bed, skin gray and body thin and flushed with sweat.

I remembered hearing on the local news about three boys who’d gotten meningitis.  I could sense the coming dark and knew the boy and I weren’t alone.

When he heard the door open, his eyes fluttered open.  Death took a step back and I had a mental image of it waiting just outside the door.

“Hey,” the boy said, voice flat and drained.

“Hey,” I said.  “Listen–do you mind if I hold your hand?”
He nodded.  “Yeah, you can–I’m not contagious.  That’s what they say, but you know how that goes…  It’s good to have somebody here, you know?  My mom is usually, but… she’s with my sister right now… Jayla’s afraid to come up here…”  I smiled and started to speak but he continued.  “She’s not afraid, ‘cause, uh, she thinks she’s gonna’ get sick.  It’s just–she–she don’t want to see me like this, you know?”

I took his hand.  His grip was weak.

“I understand, I really do.  What’s your name?”  I don’t always ask, but this time I did.

“Marcus–but most everybody calls me Marc, ‘cept for my mom.”

“Okay, Marc, I’m Will,” I told him.  “Listen, I don’t know how to tell you this–” I began.

“You a preacher?” Marc interrupted.  “I know I’m gonna’ die, okay?  It isn’t gonna’ scare me, all right?  I’m way past that, you know?  I’m young, but that don’t make me dumb.”

I smiled as bravely as I could.  It was rare to find somebody like this–sometimes, I swear they help me more than I help them.  “Okay, Marc, you got me.  I’m not a preacher, though, but that is kind of what I was gonna’ say.”

“C’mon man, I know what’s up,” he said with a twinkle in his eye as if he’d gotten the best of me.

“But, it’s not that simple,” I told him.  “Thing is, Marc, I have kind of this… gift, you could say.  I know when people are going to die.”  I remember getting a lump in my throat, which is kind of crazy considering I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’d had this exact conversation.  “Marc, you’re going to go when I let go of your hand–but not until then, all right?  I can’t hold your hand forever so–”

“‘Course you can’t,” Marc agreed.  “You got to live too, you know?  You can’t just park it up here for the rest of your life.  But… if I go when you do, can you at least hold on ‘till my mom gets back up here?  And maybe she can bring Jayla in too?”

“Yeah,” I told him, “I can hold on for that long.  I tell you what else–you tell me what you want me to do for you after… after I let go and I’ll do it–anything.”

“I told Jayla I was gonna’ fix the basketball hoop in front of the garage,” he said without hesitation.  “Me and K from down the street broke it by accident a coupla’ months ago and I never… never did get it put back up for her.  You promise you gonna’ fix it?”

“I swear I’ll fix it, Marc, I swear,” I told him.

We sat around for a few more minutes and talked about the NBA finals.  When I told him the Clippers had beaten the Spurs in game seven the night before, he laughed.  “I told K Tim Duncan was too old!” Marc said with as much glee as his ragged body could muster.  “I told him, but he’s always all over Tim Duncan!”

The door opened to admit a weary, well-dressed black woman who could only have been Marc’s mother.  She arched her eyebrow at me and opened her mouth–no doubt to justifiably ask who the hell I was–when her son spoke first.

“Hey, Mom, this is Will.  We been talking about the Finals.  Did you know the Spurs lost?  Make sure you tell K I told him they wasn’t gonna’ make it this year–don’t let him tell you he said it too, ‘cause he didn’t.”

“Okay, baby, I will,” she told him plaintively.  “You okay?”

He smiled.  “No, Mom, I really ain’t… Hey, listen, mom–for real–I don’t think I’m gonna’ be around much longer… I want to see Jayla, okay?  Tell her it’s important.”

“Baby, baby, Marcus, you’re gonna’ be okay, all right?” the woman was in tears.  “You’re gonna’ make it, don’t say that!”

“Mom,” Marc said with a sigh, “just please go get Jayla, okay?”

Marc’s mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue and disappeared outside the door.

“You can let go now,” Marc told me.

“But–but–you said you wanted to see Jayla!” I protested.

“I didn’t say I was gonna’ let go, Will,” he told me with a weak grin.  “But when I go, I’m gonna’ go out when I wanna’ go, not when you say.  It’s gonna’ be my call, not yours.”

“All right, whatever you say, Marc,” I told him and let go.  I felt Death slip in the door without knocking, and knew it stood next to us, waiting.  Marc held my hand.

The door opened again and Marc’s mom came back with a tall, slender girl who looked to be 7 or 8, braids and beads in her hair.  The girl’s face was streaked with tears.

“Jayla,” Marc said.  “You gonna’ make it, okay, girl?  I’m gonna’ be watching out for you, you know? You got to listen to mom, all right, ‘cause I’m not gonna’… ah, be there, you know?  So do what she says and study hard… you hearin’ me?”

Jayla nodded.

“Good.  This is Will,” Marc said with a nod to me.  “He’s gonna’ fix the basketball goal up for you–he told me he would–and make sure you practice every day–I’m gonna’ be watchin’ from up there”–he pointed with his other hand to the ceiling–“and I wanna’ see you wearin’ that garnet and black when you get to college, all right?  I wanna’ see you out there on the court, got it?”

“Marcus, baby…” his mom said, sobbing.

“It’s gonna’ be all right, Mom,” Marc said.  As his mom and Jayla leaned in to hug him, he let go of my hand to put his arm around them.  Startled, I reached to grab his hand, but Marc moved too quickly.

Just before the heartrate monitor went off, Marc nodded to me.

The nurses rushed in and I grabbed his hand but to no avail.  A doctor shooed me out of the room and I found myself in the hallway.  I got Marc’s address off a card attached to some flowers on a cart outside the room.

The hoop was up that afternoon.

I don’t know if Jayla will play basketball in college or even go to college.  I just don’t know.  All I know is that I tried to help.

People often say that knowledge is power, but that’s not exactly true.

I learned that firsthand a decade ago, in a sweltering palm grove next to an irrigation canal, southeast of an insignificant Iraqi town named Tarmiyah.

I never saw the artillery rounds, tucked in like sleeping vipers underneath a fallen palm tree.

I felt something though, a second before it all happened.  It was the first time in my life I realized Death’s presence, and in all the years since, it was still the most intense I’ve ever felt it.  I could almost see the scythe, could almost smell the dank must of the crypt.  I felt Death’s tattered shroud as it swept over me.

Marquez was right beside me cursing Iraq’s spring heat when the world exploded.

I wound up a half-dozen feet away, ears ringing, blood stinging my eyes, right arm twisted at a grotesque angle, my helmet gone God knows where, my rifle snatched from my hands and tossed into the palm groves by the power of the blast.  My right leg was still attached but my uniform was solid red below the thigh.  I struggled for breath.  I felt like Atlas himself was standing on my chest.  I moved my arm to try to push myself up but realized that as badly broken as it was, it couldn’t sustain any weight.

A voice called out and I managed to pick my head up.

Marquez lay at beside me, moaning, in the shallow IED crater.

The blast had ripped him to shreds.  His legs were gone and his right arm was a mass of tendons and bone and sinew at the shoulder.  His face was burnt and his eyes swelled shut; his short black hair was matted with blood.  Marquez mouthed something and his left hand reached out to me, grasping for something–anything.  As I took his left hand as best I could with my damaged right, a shadow passed over us.

Above us stood Death, impossibly tall and dark in the sun-drenched palm grove.  Somehow I understood, that while Death was looking at me, it was there for Marquez.  I held Marquez’s hand.  I knew–I just did–that as long as I held his hand, Marquez would stay with us.  Death was waiting, yes, but it would wait.

I heard a voice.  It was Harper, the platoon medic.  “Shit! Shit! Shit!” he shouted.  “Smith!  Sergeant Sims!  Help me out over here!  Daniels and Marquez are hit bad over here, man!”

I heard Lieutenant Roberts yell back:  “Doc, I need Smith over here with me workin’ on Lee!  Can you spare him?”

I don’t remember the answer, but I do remember Harper and somebody else separating me and Marquez.  I remember blubbering snot and blood and crying like a child.

“No!  No!  Don’t take him!  I can’t let go of him!  He’ll die!  He’ll die!”

I remember screaming until I was hoarse, but no one listened.

I tried to warn them, but Harper and one of the other guys in the platoon pulled us away to get us onto litters for transport.  I remember Harper and Roberts whispering to me, trying to calm me down, trying to soothe me, trying to tell me it was going to be all right.  I remember seeing, out of the corner of my eye, a figure in a black shroud striding south into the darkened palm grove.

I knew the figure wasn’t leaving alone.

There was nothing I could do.  There still isn’t.  Death never picks the wrong house or the wrong day to show up.  When Death arrives, the decision is Final.  All I can do is delay–just provide a brief stay on the inevitable execution.

Oh, I’ve got knowledge.

But I don’t have any power.

 

David Dixon served as an active duty armor officer from 2003 to 2011 and deployed to Iraq three times.  He currently lives with his wife and children in Mauldin, South Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

Cam Dupre

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Cam Dupre is a Marine Infantryman who hails from Baton Rouge, LA.  Cam joined the USMC in 2007 when he was 18 years old.  During his 4 years he was assigned to 2/2 out of Camp Lejeune, NC and deployed to Iraq’s Al Anbar Province and Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.  After an honorable discharge Cam made the move to Chicago to pursue a career in acting and comedy.  After studying at Chicago’s Second City theater, Cam founded an all veteran touring theater company, Stars and Gripes to continue his service of Veteran outreach and awareness as well as to bring theater to the veteran world.  Cam is also a musician, rapper (under the name Diezel, Cam has recently released his debut album), and a Rubik’s cube speed solver with a record solve time of 38 seconds.

Cam currently lives in Chicago and tours with Stars and Gripes.  You can catch Cam performing with Stars and Gripes at Chicago Sketchfest 2016, where Stars and Gripes were chosen as top 5 must see shows by the Sun Times, as well as on Fridays in Feburary at Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theater 7pm.

LOA: How do you reconcile the difference in gravity between what you did in the military and what you do as a civilian? Do you get restless?

Cam:  I definitely had to do some searching.  I felt there was a void in my life after getting out of the military.  I had served such a high purpose for the last 4 years and after I felt under utilized and near useless.  The only thing that guided me was my passion for the arts.  I had put trust and faith into myself and followed the path that I felt was right for me.  It took 4 years of searching, trying, and failing constantly until I found my hook, my guiding light.  It was extremely hard, I wanted to give up, I felt lost, sad, and depressed but I just kept that faith and trusted that if I kept at it it was going to pay off some how.

LOA: Scott Fitzgerald said, “all life is a process of breaking down.” How have you used these breakdowns as a platform for rebirth?

Cam: Once you truly believe you hit rock bottom, the. You can only go up.  It reminds me of a combat mentality to accept that you’ve already, or will die.  Then the fear of death is no more.

LOA: What is the most life-changing event in which you’ve participated since getting home?

Cam: My experience with ayahuasca was very profound for me.  It transcends words so it’s very hard to explain, but it put me on a path of recovery for my PTSD that is unmatched by any therapy, pill, or medicine known to man.

LOA: What do you miss most about the military?

Cam: MY FUCKING WAR DOG BROTHERS!

LOA: What do you miss least about the military?

Cam: Having to salute during colors and any officer.

LOA: When you reflect on your time in uniform, what moment, or event, comes back to you most often?

Cam: The time I was sleeping in the barracks during lunch and had my entire squad jump me and give me a birthday beat down.

LOA:  Do you discuss your time overseas with your civilian friends? How do they respond?

Cam: Yes, I do.  I try to be as open with my experiences as possible.  If we as veterans aren’t open about our experiences there is no way for others to develop an understanding of us or our lifestyle.  I often tell people the worst thing you can do to learn about the military is watch the news.  I’d much rather civilians hear what’s happening overseas from someone that’s been verses the god awful media who could care less about truth.  I won’t spin my experience, I’ll tell you how is was, good, bad and ugly.  I get many different reactions, someone are stunned and speechless, some are interested and intrigued, some may not like it but like I said, it’s the truth and if rather civilians be educated by a vet than become ignorant by the media.

 

Left-hearted

 

by Michael Lund

by Michael Lund

It was not until his 70th birthday that Jackson learned his IVC (inferior vena cava) was on his left side, not the right as it is for more than 99.5% of all people.

“Oh, my gosh,” he exclaimed dramatically, bursting into the family room where his wife was reading her book club’s latest selection. “I’m left-hearted!”

He didn’t even know what he meant when he said it, but something must have been in the back of his mind connected to left-handedness (which, he’d heard, artistic people tend to be) or left-leaning (as if politics were genetic).

“What in the world are you talking about?” Rita asked, folding All the Light We Cannot See on a finger to keep her place.

“That aortic aneurysm scan I had last week,” he explained. “It showed that this major blood vessel in the middle of my body is on the wrong side—the IVC. All the blood in your lower trunk, abdomen, the pelvis and legs is carried to the right atrium of the heart by this, I guess, giant tube.”

“You do have one, though, don’t you?”

He frowned. “The aorta is on the right side. For all normal people, the IVC is more or less in front of it. But my IVC is on the left side of my body, way the hell from where it’s supposed to be, backasswards.”

“Well, you’ve been that way for seven decades, and you seem to function just fine.”

“How can you say that? All my circuits are crossed; I have been mis-wired since birth, before then, I guess. Who knows what this has done to me?”

As he said it, three incidents rose up in memory, moments when he’d felt such strong emotion that his heart pounded and he thought he might die. One occurred in war (“if the face had been reversed,” the radio man had said), a second in courtship (“star-crossed lovers,” he thought), and the third with a career change (“the road not taken”).

“Well, you’re wired to me now, have been, in fact, for 46 and half years. Better not say that’s not as it should be.”

“Humph.” He wheeled around and stepped into the kitchen. The dishwasher, running, would drown out any more negative comments from her. And he could get himself a beer.

It irritated him when Rita dismissed his concerns, especially if it involved his health, physical or mental. And he had concluded on the drive home from the clinic that his misplaced inferior vena cava had doomed him to a inferior fate. He stuck his head around the corner to assert, “If my stupid IVC had been on the right side, where it was supposed to be, my life would have taken a different course. I could have been famous, certainly wealthy, I bet even a hero.”

Retreating to the kitchen, he muttered, “Damn straight, wealthy from windmills.”

He went to the bar he’d modeled on the style of British pubs. He’s seen on some late- night show that pub masters in the Old Country keep their casks in the cellar and drew beer up to the bar with a long handled pump. He held his own glass at a slant under the mouth of his pearl- handled pump, which was connected to a keg in his basement. He drew slowly to minimize the foam and then took a long drink. (A voice inside his head said, “I hope our esophagus is correctly positioned and attached to our stomach!”)

“Rita,” he called. “I’m heading to the garden.”

After twenty years as a competent mechanical engineer, building water treatment plants and reservoirs, he’d had a chance to switch to a start-up company making turbines for the latest hi-tech windmills.

“Jackson, my man,” he college buddy Quentin said, “this is the chance of a lifetime. We’ve bought the rights to put windmills on a hundred miles of Wichita Mountain ridges. We can generate enough electricity to power half the state of Oklahoma.”

He and Quentin had gone to what was in the 1960s the University of Missouri at Rolla (formerly the School of Mines and Metallurgy) in their home town. Their families couldn’t afford to send them anywhere else, but it was a fine science and technology school.

He told Quentin, “I’ve got great seniority at Hydraulic, Inc., solid pension plan, good salary. Most of what I do now is channel paperwork to the right places—smooth and easy is the flow. Haven’t been out in the field in almost five years.”

“Come out and see our prototype, Jack. Your heart will go pit-a-pat.”

The Molino Gigante did, in fact, make his pulse flutter. The machine was a remarkable piece of workmanship, made out of remarkably strong but lightweight materials. It could withstand hurricane strength winds and its sealed and permanently lubricated parts would need almost no upkeep. Only a tornado landing right on top of one would do any damage.

But standing out on the isolated hilltop, Jackson had a panic attack. It was not just about starting life all over again. He’d have to ask his family to leave the only home they’d known. They would all need to learn the neighborhoods in a new town, find a home, transfer money to other banks, switch church and civic memberships to unfamiliar organizations, hand over their bodies to new doctors.

There was also something in that forbidding landscape—stark red rock, scrub trees battling prairie winds, hot summer baking the dirt, cold winters freezing the living. Rita, the son and two daughters, wouldn’t like it.

He had never been good at relocation himself, suffering from homesickness at college and an almost complete disorientation when he went into the Army. His heart pounded, and he told Quentin no even as he admitted that the prospect was intoxicating. But his breathing was shallow from fear, not excitement. The firm took off, and he could have retired a wealthy man at 50.

If he hadn’t been left-hearted.

He was comfortable in retirement but still worried by a gradual erosion of his assets. So he lived frugally, shopping for bargains and putting up vegetables he grew himself.

When he retired five years earlier, he installed an elaborate irrigation system in his backyard using two rain barrels fed by house gutters. Now all he had to do was turn the faucet and a steady flow would soak beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and eggplants all night long. He loved to watch the ground grow dark over the buried hoses with no charge to his water bill. He could imagine the plants roots wicking moisture up to green leaves and ripening fruit.

“Dinner in thirty minutes.” Rita had opened the kitchen window and called out to him. “Don’t get involved in something.”

Jackson thought of explaining that, like being left-hearted, his auditory system was probably crisscrossed. So what he heard was, “Do whatever you want, darling. You and I can dance naked to Duke Ellington tunes and sip martinis all evening.” But he raised a hand to acknowledge that he understood and said, “So long as my left-sided IVC doesn’t make me veer off to another house and another stern housewife.”

Contemplating his orderly garden—its hilled rows, tall tomatoes cages, pole bean teepees —he recalled the girl who got away. It was before he even knew Rita, which was after he came back from Vietnam. In college, he’d met one of the few female students in this engineering school and was love-struck.

Charlene Waters, a St. Louis girl, was posting the highest scores in an advanced mining engineering course. And she was ridiculously good-looking: cascading blonde hair, crystal blue eyes, and a slim, athletic body that slid into classrooms, seats, clothes. Jackson had never seen anyone like her and was determined to have his way with her. And so was every other unattached male at UMR.

They all quickly learned that Charlene could elude any attention she didn’t desire. Still, Jackson channeled his energy into a single, brilliant (he thought) scheme to sweep her off her feet. He would show her the mine he and two of his childhood friends had dug into the bottom of a limestone cave just west of town.

“That independent project Professor Wells told us to complete?” he whispered to her before class began one day.

“Yes,” she said with a noncommittal smile.

“I know where you and I could install a one tenth-scale mine elevator that would go down into soft Missouri rock. We lower a grabbing mechanism—like what you see in those bowling alley claw machines—and see what kind of rock or whatever we bring up.”

Another smile and a question. “When can we go check it out?”

This was too easy, he thought, but proposed they meet after Friday’s class.

On the half-a-mile hike out he had to control his breathing as he watched her glide among the hickory and oak, dance across creeks on rock stepping stones, slip into the hillside cave as if she’d made this trip a dozen times. A model student, he thought, she was also a forest creature in her natural habitat.

The flickering flame of his kerosene lantern lit up the damp rock walls and ceiling. Jackson pointed out the eight-inch hole he, Bill, and Jody had bored through the floor. They’d linked together sections of metal pipe, jammed an old boat propeller in the end, and cranked it with a car jack wrench until they broke through to an underground cavity of undetermined size. It was one of those silly childhood projects he now hoped to turn into a young adult romantic adventure.

“Listen,” he said, dropping a pebble into the opening. In a second they could hear a distant plunk or splash. “That could be gold . . . or oil.”

“Or uranium,” she said, kneeling beside him. “This is absolutely amazing. I’ll build the grappling jaws and a wench system to send it down. We’ll take pictures with my polaroid and get an A for sure.”

“Let’s use my 35-millimeter Nikon,” he said. “It’s a hobby, and I think we can lower it into our mine, take shots every foot down as we go.”

Again, Jackson wondered at how smoothly this was going. His heart was racing when on the walk back he said, “Why don’t we get a burger or something tomorrow? Go over the designs. You could come back to my house. I have a room in the basement.”

Again, a lovely smile. “I’d like that.” She stood up. “Of course, you do know I’m married.” He felt the sound had just been sucked out of the woods, all air from his lungs.

They did carry out the experiment, got A’s on the assignment and in the course. She squeezed his arm when the grades were posted and said, “I wish I’d met you earlier. We’re quite the team.”

He now knew it wasn’t bad timing that kept him from winning Charlene Waters (who became an astronaut and then manager of major NASA programs)—it was his left-heartedness. As a senior he had decided to take a year off after graduation and work for the National Park Service in Yellowstone. He got to see Old Faithful hundreds of times, but started college one year after Charlene, who met and married a plodding but pleasant geology major. Jackson’s left-heartedness had made him leave when he should have stayed.

“Dinner in ten minutes,” Rita called from the kitchen.

Not that he didn’t appreciate his wife. Still, it was unlikely she’d listen to Duke Ellington, dance naked, and sip martinis with him all evening as he imagined Charlene doing. He had three wonderful children and was generally content with his family. But . . .

He’d always believed Vietnam had been a detour worse than Yellowstone. Many of his friends enlisted to get training and assignment for specific jobs in the military, but it must have been his left-heartedness that waited for the draft and insisted he go wherever the Army sent him.

During his induction he told the personnel specialist in charge of assessing his skills that he’d had his own darkroom since he was twelve and that his work had been in shows in high school. He loved developing his own prints, learning by experimentation how to vary times in the developer, stop baths, and fixers that bring out or suppress colors. The Army declared him a photographer.

It was a fine, if generally routine, military job: taking “grip and grin” photographs of promotions, awards, special accomplishments, completed operations. But one time his Military Occupational Speciality put him in harm’s way. Now he wonders if his imbalanced physiology might account for at least part of the terror that ambushed him.

“You do have balls, don’t you?” his fellow photo specialist, Samuel (“The Sam”) Pool, taunted as they rolled a die to see which one of them would go out with a squad setting up a night ambush. Ninety-five percent of their duties were on their huge base protected by overwhelming firepower; neither wanted this assignment.

“Well, small ones, of course,” Jackson had countered. “Whereas yours . . . still up in your abdomen.”

The roll of the dice rolled Jackson out to the bush with a small group of battle-hardened soldiers. They must have read the fear on his face because they constantly reassured him. They knew what they were up to; it was unlikely they would encounter the enemy; the CO was primarily staging operations to keep the brass off their backs.

“The VC know we’re out here, man, and stay away from this route,” explained Bob, the diminutive radio man. He pointed at a creased map of infiltration trails and the major roads in the area. “You stay back with me, set up your equipment, do what I do.”

You couldn’t film night operations, but Jackson’s commander wanted an authentic sound track for some unspecific future project. Jackson carried two portable tape recorders but also, just in case, a 35-millimeter camera.

The squad leader explained the Claymore mine defense they were putting around their position at dusk. “These babes rip through whatever’s out there—man, tree, animal.” He was placing green plastic cases on short legs just off the ground, each with a convex face. On the top were the words, “Front Toward Enemy.” When the device was detonated, a layer of C-4 explosive blew about 700 steel balls in an arc that could be deadly up to 50 meters away.

“We’re going to hunker back here, pay close attention to our listening devices, use our night vision goggles. If anything happens—and it probably won’t—it’ll be over in a milli- second.”

His calming words were later offset by one man, probably irritated that they were saddled with a green correspondent. “Damn!” he whispered in Jackson’s ear. “Hope I set that somma-bitch up facing the right way.”

At a pre-dawn rustle of brush beyond their perimeter, Jackson felt his scrotum tighten. Then, when the flares lit up and the mines went off, there was a rush in his lower abdomen. The radio man later slipped him a clean pair of underwear.

Simple cowardice, Jackson had concluded and over time learned to live with the painful memory. Now it occurred to him that his system not his valor might have failed him. His vas deferens, the path his sperm was meant to travel on the way from testicle to urethra, had probably been misaligned since puberty, his ability to be a man twisted by biology, not mental or emotional weakness. Fear had taken over because his defenses were reversed, his capacities rerouted. Left-hearted.

“Dinner,” called Rita. He sighed and went in, stopping to draw a second beer. “Feeling better?” she asked him at the table.

“I don’t know. Still unsettled. Remember how, when our children asked our advice about what to study in college, and I always said, ‘Follow your heart’?”

“I do.”

“Well, I just wonder if I —or, more specifically, my congenitally misaligned circulatory system—channeled my own desires away from a higher destiny.” He waved a hand at the room, the house. “All this is fine, of course, but perhaps I could have done more, done better.”

Rita put down her fork. “Remember when your Army friend,”The Sam” Pool, came that time . . . what, twenty years ago?”

“Sure.”

“Well, he told me a bit more about your night ambush story—which,” she pointed a finger at him, “I was glad not to know about until fifteen years after the fact. He said you rigged the dice so you would loose. He was married, had less than a month to go, so you took the assignment. I think your funny heart did right.”

He looked down. “That’s his story.”

“And your turning down the Oklahoma job, which you say was your one chance to make it big? Part of the reason was that you didn’t like the area, true. And you had your concerns about whether people would actually accept wind power. But you also knew we didn’t want to move. The kids were happy in their schools. I had started work at the hospital. The family was happy where we were.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “But . . . “

“Don’t even start on Charlene Waters! She wouldn’t have kept you any longer than any of the four husbands and however many lovers she’s had over the years! Your silly heart, however it’s put together behind your bony old chest, took you right where you’re supposed to.”

He smiled.

“And,” she concluded, “you look at some of the pictures of Miss NASA today and then you look at me.” She sat up straight in her chair and tossed her hair. “Would you rather be listening to ’Satin Doll,’ sipping martinis, and dancing naked with until the wee hours of the morning?”

“You had me,” he laughed, “at ‘listening.’”

 

A native of Rolla, Missouri, Michael Lund is the author of numerous scholarly publications on the Victorian novel,  two collections of short stories—How to Not Tell a War Story and Eating With Veterans—and a number of novels inspired by The Mother Road, including Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story (2004), Growing up on Route 66 (1999), and Route 66 Looking-Glass (2014). Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University in Virginia, he teaches part-time and conducts writing workshops for Southside Stories, a free writing instruction program for veterans, active-duty military, and families hosted by Longwood University’s Office of Professional Studies.

American Soap

by Chris Whitehead

by Chris Whitehead

“So tell me a little bit about the soap industry.”
Frank looks at me. “Scum Off?” he asks.
“Tell me about Scum Off.”
“All right, I’ll tell you about my experience with Scum Off.” Frank nurses a cold one and settles back deeper, more comfortably into the couch.

Scum Off, as the label reads, is a 100% guaranteed, eco-friendly shower cleaner that’s goodon tile, marble, granite, porcelain, and fiberglass. It’s biodegradable, non-toxic, and removes 99.9% of germs. It is by far the world’s greatest soap.

Jason Frank is a traveling soap salesman, a trade he learned from his father. He started young, helping his dad: carrying boxes, setting up booths, that sort of thing.

“I’ve sold rugs, mats, sink swivel things, chamois, metal polish, all sorts of stuff.” Now he sells soap at fairs and home shows from Washington State to Washington DC. “Tell me,” I ask, “do you meet a lot of crazy people out there?”

He thinks for a minute and while he thinks I eat some homemade chicken and ham lasagna (Jason made it) and wait anxiously for the tales of pink elephants and tiny, angry carnival workers that I assume go hand and hand with selling soap.

Jason Frank looks like a grizzly bear in a red flannel shirt and although he doesn’t smoke, you feel like he should smell like grandpa’s pipe tobacco.

I met Jason in the Marines. It was the weekend and everyone else was out for a night on the town. I was sitting on my bunk reading and all of a sudden the door flings wide open and in walks this guy carrying a bag of tacos and a stack of brightly colored paper.

“Would you like some?” he points to the bag.
I don’t refuse free food.
Frank sat down at a small desk and starting cutting into his stack of paper. He had so many different scissors. He had straight scissors, straight-line cutters, circle cutters, and scissors with cute, wiggly edges. Why would anyone need so many scissors?

Turns out he was scrapbooking. I had heard of scrapbooking, and I’d even seen it on TV. I just hadn’t seen it in the Marine Corps infantry.

“I’m making a gift for my mom,” he says like it was nothing. You can’t argue with that. From then on we’ve been pretty good friends.

Jason and his wife own a couple of Australian cattle dogs. They’re trying to lick me, but Jason tells them to go lie down. Finally he answers my question. The old men, he says, are “the best.”

He explains that a lot of junk is sold at fairs. That’s the attraction. For example, there’s a workout device that goes back and forth like a teeter-totter. All you have to do is stand there and it works out your legs, butt, and abdominals.

It’s always the old men that run these booths. They get cute chicks to stand on the machines, and they’re just shaking all over the place while the old men just sit back and laugh. Frank gives me his best impression of a dirty, old man laugh.

My phone rings.
“Trina?” Frank asks. He always says my wife’s name like he’s Scooby Doo.
“Ya sorry, hang on just one second.”
Back home my truck is stuck in the mud. I hand the phone over to Frank and he tells her, step by step, how to get the truck out.

Frank gets off the phone and thinks for a minute. “Candy John,” he says after a minute, “he was an interesting guy.” Candy John worked the booth next to Jason at a small town country fair this summer. He’s an older gentleman, a veteran of Vietnam, who sells homemade candy and fudge with his wife.

“He was a Nazi.” says Frank taking a drink. “He was a Nazi. His father was Nazi, his grandfather…way, way back all Nazis. He told me,” Frank continues, “that the secret to good fudge is marshmallows.”

I’m not sure how to reply to that. I met Candy John once, but I’d missed that part. I did see John carrying around some old, hardbound book. It was blue and the corners were all crumpled and worn white and the pages were yellow and smelled funny kind of like the 50 cent book bin at the goodwill. John didn’t believe in the Bible, but he believed in that book whatever it was.

“He believed in that one book and he also believed that candy was the key to success,” Frank says.

He believed some other things too. For example, Candy John believed I should replace my psych meds with marijuana.

“They’re no good for you…quit takin’ meds and smoke the reefer.” John showed me the hand motions in case I didn’t know what he’s talking about.

“He loved his pot…loved his pot,” Frank recalls.

My phone rings again. The truck is still stuck and the dogs are licking me again. I hope my recorder is still on. Good…it’s still going.

Jason heads to the kitchen for another drink. John’s wife had a close encounter with extraterrestrials. She was driving down the road one evening, probably listening to the radio, and possibly thinking about a new fudge recipe she’d like to try when she turned a corner and…all of a sudden…as if out of nowhere…hovering out in the middle of a field was an alien space ship.

That night she lay in bed, eyes shut tight and trying to forget what she’d seen, but she had a dream. She dreams that the aliens are putting her up on some sort of surgical table. Night after night for three months…same dream. Finally one night she told John and the dreams stopped.

That’s Frank. You know him for a few hours and you want to tell him all your personal stuff. I don’t know what it is…maybe his confidence?
Confidence like the time he mouthed off to a corporal during a field training exercise and as a result got to do about 2,500 pushups.

“My arms were dead….dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”

We talk about the Marines. Why did he join? What did he get out of it? We talk about his deployments and the people he knew.

“This one time we were in Australia.” He starts telling me about the Australian MRE’s. The Australian MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) are great. They’re real food and you cook them with real fire, unlike American MRE’s which are heated with a glorified hand warmer. With ours “you felt like you were probably gonna get cancer within a month after pulling it out of the wrapper.” Frank makes a face.

They spent two weeks training outside of Townsville, Australia where “it’s dry as hell and there’s grass as far as the eye can see.” It’s windy too.

A guy in Frank’s team wanted to cook some food so he walked over and found a good place to start a fire. He lights a little starter fire and starts prepping his food. Everything is fine until he sees the fire start to flicker in the wind. Luckily a few feet away there are some crates he can use to protect his fire.

“That’ll work,” he thinks to himself. He stumbles over and picks up a box. It’s kind of heavy. He weighs it in his hands.

The box was heavy because it was full of mortar ammunition.

The 81mm HE mortar has a casualty radius of about 30 meters. That means if you are within 30 meters of a mortar explosion, you are going to miss weekend liberty in Australia. For some reason this guy used crates of explosives to protect his fire and then left his fire unattended. Frank laughs. That guy “got thrashed all day long…Australia was fun.”

This isn’t the only time Frank was inside the casualty radius of his own mortars.
An 81mm mortar is a nine pound projectile that can fly over three miles through the air before exploding. The secret is highly flammable (highly flammable) charges of gun powder that ignite when the mortar hits a firing pin. Occasionally mortars get stuck in the tube before they can drop far enough to hit the pin. When this happens you’re supposed to kick the tube and let the mortar fall the rest of the way.

Frank’s Platoon Sergeant showed him another way to do it. Leaning over the opening of the mortar tube, puffing on a cigarette, Gunny pulled the jammed round out with his bare hand like it was no big deal.

Well we’re still sitting on the couch. The dogs have given up on my face and are lying on the other side of the room. Frank’s finished his beer and my wife is calling to see if when I’m coming home.

“So Scum Off?” I ask again.
“I don’t think I’ll keep doing it.” Frank says thoughtfully. The money isn’t very consistent. He tells me about a couple times where he lost money driving out to fairs in the middle of nowhere. Speaking of driving, it’s time for me to go. “I’ll see you Thanksgiving though,” I say on the way out. Jason hands me a can of pumpkin and a recipe so I can bake my own desert when I get home.

I’ve got four more hours to drive. The sun’s disappearing behind the horizon and, while I’m not in bat country yet, my eyes are starting to play tricks. I’m tired.

Still I have to smile. I got some good food, some good stories, and of course…a bottle of Scum Off.

The End.

Chris did two Iraq tours and a float with the First Battalion, Fourth Marines. Now he is pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing at BYU. His work has been featured in Line of Advance and Central Penn Parent magazine. He is still, and always will be, on the lookout for camel spiders.

 

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