War is prison too.
Specialist Haywood T. Kirkland
25th Infantry Division, Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam
Hopped up on ‘number tens’—a cocktail of Quaaludes and speed—Willie Kearns, one of our black sergeants, stormed into the mess hall and murdered three white soldiers. Then Kearns slumped to his knees, braced his rifle’s stock on the floor, and pressed the warm muzzle into the flesh under his chin.
That was how I always pictured it anyway, so that’s what I told the boys. I turned down the radio in my garage gym and described to the three teenagers how the gunfire pierced the peaceful hum of the rear camp in An Khe.
Crack-Crack-Crack. Pause. Then one more.
The do-ragged heads bowed ‘round my footlocker waiting on the kitty in a game of bid whist popped to alert. I dropped my cards and rushed to the row of Quonset huts along with everyone else. The three troops Kearns spared—two brothers and an esé—tottered into a clutch with the rest of us, watching the medics cart out three blood soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers. Kearns they brought out last—doped to the eyeballs, endotracheal tube taped like a flagpole to the sloppy mass that had been his face, body still quaking in the Dexatrine funky-chicken. What is it about certain sons of bitches that makes them so damn hard to kill?
“That’s it?” Simon asked.
I’d left out the part about sons of bitches, but studying Simon’s restless, oil-slick dark face, I understood that including that tidbit wouldn’t have made any difference no how. I still wouldn’t have lived the sorta mythical war that boy wanted to hear about.
I jerked a thumb at the two forty five pound plates on my side of the barbell. “You good with this?”
“Leave it, Mr. Frank,” Simon answered, a little quicker than he outghta have.
Simon had been my eldest son Michael’s best friend for something like five years by then and a near permanent fixture at my house all that time. That boy shoulda known he wasn’t getting some foxhole brotherhood bullshit outta me.
It was a bright Sunday morning and the garage door was half-masted to the autumn breeze. I took a deep breath and turned from Simon’s hungry stare to my own sons, Michael and Gabriel.
“I ever tell you guys I had to get circumcised after I was drafted?”
“How old were you?” Gabriel asked. My youngest, the writer. That was the fall of ’96. Gabriel must have been about twelve then.
I scissored my fingers at Gabe. “Just turned eighteen.”
That set the three of them to squirming in they sneakers, hands inching towards nether regions.
“So, circumcision was a condition of your conscription to fight a war for a government that treated you like a second-class citizen?” Michael asked, without pausing for breath.
I chuckled. “Exactly.” Over the years I’d referred to getting drafted as a lot of things—mostly as a motherfucker—but never as ‘conscription.’
“The unkindest cut of all,” Michael said, shaking his head.
“Julius Caesar.” Simon flashed them pearls at Michael. I remember every time I saw that boy smile. He was stingy with them grins, like each one cost him fifty bucks and he was on a limited income.
“All right.” I knifed my hand towards Simon’s chest. “Enough messing around, Sy. Let’s go.”
Simon slid under the weight, settling his shoulders onto the bench’s leather cushion. He clasped and unclasped his fingers on the perforated steel, then pulled himself eye to barbell and lowered himself back to the bench. Once. Twice. After the third go he popped the weight off the rack with his funky “oohyuhken” grunt—from that Street Fighter video game them boys loved so much. Simon lowered the bar to his chest then fought it back up. Steady, machine-like for a solid set of eight. Two more than I’d got. I guess that Vietnam hair the boy had had up his ass all morning was good for something.
“Oh, I see you angling for a title shot, huh, young buck?” I said, twisting my trunk in an exaggerated torso stretch.
That set the boys to laughing.
As a deputy warden over at Antoine State Prison I hadn’t done a forced cell movement in more than a decade, but I still pushed heavy weights. At sixteen, Simon—a gymnast lean, three-sport jock—was already matching me plate for plate. My own sons had been blessed with my caramel complexion and (as much as I hate to say it myself) good looks, but not my stocky frame. Or as Gabe put it, “Mom named us for angels, Dad, not dwarves.” Pair of jokers, Gabriel and Michael, the both of them. Still, them two brainiacs preferred my Sunday morning garage gospels of mass, discipline, and force to the kind they’d a been listening to down at New Hope Baptist with their mother right then.
Michael turned up a Tupac song that sounded to me like an X-rated Saturday morning cartoon jingle. Tupac. That boy with all them frivolous tattoos. Ink was like an affair; something a man should have only if it meant something.
“This guy getting shot is a big deal, huh?” I said.
“Do you remember when Marvin Gaye died, Dad?” Michael asked.
“Vaguely.” One of them lies I used to tell outta that general spirit of keeping at least part of my mask up.
“Well, I remember it. You were washing the car. Mom came running outside with the news. You said, ‘Jesus.’ Then you sat on the curb.”
“How old were you then?” I asked.
Michael blinked twice. “Five. But I remember. You sat there awhile.”
I grunted, restrained my smile. What would I have done with my life if I’d had half them boys’ brains?
I watched Sy bounce from the bench to his feet. He leaned over, touched his toes—chest pressed to thighs—and held.
I sure as shit wouldn’t have joined the army. That’s for damn sure.
At Antoine State Prison the next Saturday, Ettie Moten—our head counselor and Simon’s mother—sat on the opposite end of my tan steel desk watching me thumb through her ‘Prison Rape Elimination Plan.’
“You know what the COs are saying about this PREP stuff?” I asked, not looking up.
“I can guess,” Ettie said.
“Install liquid soap dispensers in the showers.”
Ettie, perched like some kinda Ethiopian goddess in my burnt-orange carpeted office, looked at me.
“You know.” I glanced up for the punch line. “That way no one can drop the soap.”
“That’s actually pretty good.” Ettie, unsmiling, tucked a braid behind her ear.
I hadn’t cracked that PREP folder all week and she definitely could tell.
“Did you speak to Simon?” Ettie asked.
Something else I hadn’t done.
“Yeah.” I paused. “Kind of.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means I think the boy has his mind made up regardless of what I tell him.”
“Did he tell you,” Ettie asked in that cadence black women reserved for speaking to trifling motherfuckers, “that his father died a couple days ago?”
I’d seen Sy at my house half a dozen times since our last weight lifting session together and he hadn’t said a thing. Jesus. Sixteen years old and carried his self like Jim Brown in the fourth quarter.
“I never talked to Simon about his father. Didn’t wanna give the impression I was trying to take his place.”
Ettie waited for me to meet her eyes. “News flash, Frank. You filled that void a long time ago.”
“You said Simon never met him.” I pinched the bridge of nose. “Troy, right?”
“Never. But we’ll be going down to New Orleans for the funeral. Simon will meet some of his father’s…” Ettie scanned the off-white stucco wall behind me before deciding on, “colleagues.”
“Panthers?” I asked.
“Former Panthers. Just like me.” Ettie smiled tightly. “I talked to Claire a couple hours ago.”
After all these years my wife had never fully warmed to Ettie. Claire the red-boned, processed-hair, ‘we shall overcome’ church girl and Ettie the headwrap wearing, Angela Davis spouting ideologue who wasn’t passing anybody’s paper-bag test. Claire accepted Ettie like she did my night shifts—something you tolerated for decent health insurance. And Ettie knew it. But Simon—brick faced as he was to the world—never failed to make Claire laugh, probably more than she wanted to. And Ettie knew that too.
“Claire and I agreed that you need to talk to Simon before we head down to New Orleans. He’s on the cusp, Frank. Him and Michael. They’ll be seventeen in a couple weeks. Old enough for the military’s delayed entry program. The decisions those two make this year are bigees.”
“I don’t know what to tell that boy about the military. Even when I first got back, I never talked about Vietnam much. You know that. Gives people less of a chance of pissing me off.”
That excuse sounded even more pathetic than the shit about not wanting to replace Simon’s father. Everybody knew someone who’d fought in Vietnam and didn’t want to talk about it. Still, I figure it’s better than being one of those guys who never shut up about it, the ones who saw themselves as the true victims of the war. Everybody knew one of them guys too.
“Tell him the truth,” Ettie said.
The prison’s public announcement system screeched to life, startling both of us. “Code red, Wing Two! Code Red, Wing Two!”
Ettie smoothed her pants against her thighs with her palms. “Should I wait in my office?”
Ettie and I had worked at Antoine together for more than twenty years. Long enough for her to know that, whether this was an assault on a correctional officer, a fight between inmates, or a medical emergency, her role was, for now, to get outta the way.
I stood up behind my desk. “Give me an hour or so to sort this out.” I tapped a finger on the PREP folder. “I know this is important. We’ll discuss it, ok?”
Ettie gaze dropped to her watch. I glanced at the wall-mounted clock behind her. 18:30 already.
“Let’s do it Monday. Don’t make me have to track your sorry butt down again, Frank.” Ettie stood, placing a hand on her hip. “Good to go?”
“Ok.” I smirked at her CO jargon. “And I’ll talk to Simon. Really talk to him.”
I hauled ass for leather down the stairs of the staff wing, across the reception area, and up to the thick glass of the control room. Measmer, a gangly, blonde former coastguardsman fresh out of the academy, leaned into the VHF radio base station, pen poised over a blank notepad.
I drummed my fingers on the glass, caught the youngster’s eyes, and pointed to the door.
“Oh shit. Sorry, Warden,” Measmer mouthed. He walked to the 1950’s style control panel and buzzed me in.
“What we got?” I asked.
“Not sure, Warden. Nestor’s in charge in Wing Two today.”
We exchanged a look. Measmer got it. A good kid—one of the best to come out of that class.
“None of them have gotten on the horn yet to confirm what’s going on. Nothing on the CCTV either.” Measmer gestured to the row of TV screens flickering between black and white views of empty stairways, hallways, and rec rooms.
“Try Nestor again,” I said.
Measmer keyed the VHF handset. “Whiskey Tango one, this is Charlie Romeo.”
The handheld on my hip squawked from proximity to the base station. I twisted the knob on the device to turn down the volume.
“Charlie Romeo, this is Whiskey Tango one.” Nestor’s voice, giddy with excitement, crackled through the VHF speaker. “Alert Delta Whiskey One that he needs to come up here.”
Measmer looked at me.
“Tell him I’m coming up.”
Measmer spoke into the handset, “Copy that. Delta Whiskey One en route.” Then to me, “Want me to go up with you, Warden?”
“What? And abandon your post?” I placed my hand on Measmer’s shoulder. “Hold the fort down here.”
Measmer buzzed me through to the prisoner side of the facility.
My chloroform shoes echoed in the deserted hallway, their glossy shine reflecting the dull glow of the wall mounted emergency lights—that dim 24-hour reminder of the reality of incarceration. I bounded up the ladder well to Wing Two and punched the buzzer, mind tight with that rush I learned to both sorta love and sorta hate during the war.
Nestor struggled opened the steel door and began speaking before I could even step in, his tone that of a schoolboy tattling to the teacher.
“Riggs threatened me from his cell. He’s got a shank. Now he’s demanding to talk to you.” Nestor waited a good five seconds before adding, “Warden.”
I gave him a look that could have reshaped iron. “Let me in, Nestor.”
Two standing fans oscillated hot air and the smell of disinfectant around the taut, windowless space. Eights COs suited in react gear—body armor, batons, and shields—stood in the tiny area just before the cellblock, artificial light glinting on lowered visors. Nestor cocked his head at me in anticipation of my orders.
If a cartoonist was to sketch up a prison guard—exploiting every lame-ass stereotype us COs despised—he would turn out someone exactly like Nestor. The latest accusation of misconduct against the bastard involved instigation of a fight between two inmates.
“Did you see those fucking apes going at it?” Nestor joked in the break-room afterwards.
Nestor never talked about the event that prompted his transfer from McAlster prison a few years ago. But I heard young COs whisper to one another, “That’s him. That’s Colin Nestor. Dude broke a con’s jaw in Big Mac.” You could tell Nestor loved that the story had grown legs.
The seasoned COs almost universally disliked Nestor, but they would back him against a con. The same groupthink compelled soldiers to cover for each other in Vietnam, for everything from curfew violations to rape. But institutional loyalty alone didn’t explain the concentrated aggression in the dense space. Behind their face shields the COs’ eyes pleaded for a ‘go’ order. They wanted to storm a cell and stomp a con. I know the feeling, but have a hard time explaining it, harder still justifying it. Shit. Maybe we were all more like Nestor than I wanted to admit.
“I saw the weapon,” Nestor said, more to the other COs than to me. “Reason enough for a forced cell move to Special Quarters.” Long pause. “Warden.”
“Shut up, Nestor.” I faced the assembled COs. “Stand fast here. Lemme try talking to him first.”
“Roger that, Warden,” The COs responded in unison.
I started down the row of cells, a spider of cold sweat crawling down my back. The cellblock reeked of that pitched battle between human excrement and industrial strength bleach. As a Deputy Warden, I didn’t walk the rows much anymore. That cellblock stench I had grown so used to while earning my stripes immediately sets my heart to thudding in my chest nowadays.
From behind the bars a detached voice cursed all creation. “Fuck me. Fuck this. Fuck you.”
My gut corded. “It’s Warden Mathis, Riggs.”
A shank clattered onto the grey tiled floor in front of the cell.
“Appreciate you coming up, Warden,” Riggs said. “I know your boys are dying to have a go at me.”
I kneeled, picked up the shank. A toothbrush handle reinforced with electrical tape, sharpened on the end, and spliced with a disposable razor. I turned the nasty little piece of work over in my hands, admiring it. Prison and combat encouraged ingenuity.
I moved to the front of the cell. “What’s going on, Riggs?”
“That bitch-ass Nestor talking about how the last governor granted less than three percent of paroles for lifers.” Riggs leaned his forehead against the bars. “Like I don’t already fucking know that.”
As a black, non-snitching, former gangbanger convicted of murder, Riggs occupied the top of the Antoine prisoner hierarchy—a delicate equilibrium of connection, conviction, sexual preference, and race (not necessarily in that order).
I’d known Riggs since I was a rookie CO. Back when I was still patrolling the yard during rec time, watching sparrows catch a buzz on the electric fence, knowing full well I was within swinging distance of every concealed shank on that patch of grass and concrete—the only part of Antoine that the sun touched. Hell, the better part of both our lives had been more about prison than anything else.
“You pulled the shank to get Nestor to shut up.”
“Yeah,” Riggs replied.
“You got anything else in there we need to know about?”
“Relax. No one’s going to pursue this. Get some sleep, Riggs. We’ll have the governor’s decision in the morning.”
Riggs nodded, opened his mouth as if to thank me, but didn’t. Then he shut his eyes and nodded again.
The governor’s denial of Riggs’s parole came through bright and early, just after first count.
I stayed on a couple hours after shift to escort Riggs back to gen pop myself. That and to have a couple choice words with Nestor. That little bastard needed to fully understand that if he tried to write up Riggs he’d be doing so without any support from me.
By the time I left the facility late that morning all I wanted was to shit, shower, shave, and sleep.
Back at the house, after ticking the first two ‘to do’ items off my list, I wiped the steam from my bathroom mirror in preparation to enjoy number three. I squeezed a dime-sized portion of shaving cream onto my boar’s hair brush then splayed the lather across my face, savoring that worn leather aroma and the sounds of my wife fussing over church clothes in our adjacent bedroom. I reached over my head with my left hand, pulled the cheek tight, and ran the straight razor down my face in short, smooth strokes. A proper shave. Ain’t nothing quite like it.
If memory serves, it was later that same year that I demonstrated the process to all three of the boys. When I flicked out my straight edge Simon looked me dead in the eyes, serious as a heart attack, and said, “That is pretty freaking bad ass, Mr. Frank.” Setting the four of us to giggling like schoolgirls.
I got my first proper shave at Am Tinh’s, the spade whorehouses outside the base camp in An Khe. In ’71 the G.I. version of tolerance didn’t extend to getting laid. Shit. Probably still don’t. In the rear, the white boys hocus-pocused some of the Vietnamese whores into Sally-Annes and viciously protected they investment. Meanwhile the fiercest black cats made sure that even the down white boys knew better than to set foot in Am Tinh’s.
“Trust me, young blood,” my best friend Dawk told me, running the saw edge of his Swiss Army Knife through his moustache. “Joint’s got the best juke box in ‘Nam.”
I chose Qui, a ‘mamma-san’ in her, maybe, late twenties, which put her a decade ahead of me. I convinced myself this was some kind of enlightened decision. But truth told it was because them teenage whores—faces cemented by nights of hard liquor and closed fists—terrified me. Don’t get me twisted, Qui frightened me in the same way, but she was older and somehow that made the whole arrangement seem okay. It wasn’t until I got back stateside that I realized just how unrecognizable my wartime caveats had rendered my morals.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how much I loved them nights at Am Tinh’s. The baths that never quite washed off the exhaustion and fear, the saffron tinged breeze flapping them floor length vanilla curtains, the deep purple dusks through the glassless windows, staring into Qui’s narrow dry eyes before drifting off to sleep.
About then I noticed Claire, in the mirror, watching me shave.
“How long you been there?”
“Long enough to know your mind is someplace else.” Claire raised a manicured eyebrow. “Ettie called last night.”
“I know,” I said. “Ettie’s pulling out all the stops.”
“Can you blame her?” Claire asked.
I met my wife’s gaze in the bathroom mirror. It took a lot for Claire to say that.
“The boys are down in the basement,” Claire said. “All ready for you to get them out of morning service so you and Simon can lift.”
“I’m gonna talk to them.” I glided the straight edge over my cheek. “All three of them.”
Number four on my ‘to do’ list was gonna have to wait.
Claire nodded, watching her reflection as she adjusted the lace doily pinned to her hair.
“New church crown?” I winked, holding the blade under the tap.
Claire dropped her shoulder into my back. “I’ve had this one for years, boo.”
I caught up with the boys in my basement, watching BET.
“Hey, guys,” I said.
Simon, in his jock uniform of a t-shirt and sweatpants, lay on the floor with a sofa pillow under his head. “Hey.” He gave me a thumbs-up then pulled a knee into his chest with a clack.
Michael and Gabriel nodded to me from the couch.
I lowered myself onto the recliner, missing the days when sitting down didn’t require quite so much effort.
“I want to talk to you about the army, Simon.”
Simon sat up, cradling his knees between his elbows.
“Come on.” Michael tapped Gabriel’s leg. “Let these two indulge their fascist side.”
“No.” I looked at my sons. “I want you two to stay.”
Michael and Gabriel exchanged shrugs then settled back onto the couch.
I took a breath.
“Most of the fighting I was involved in took place in Cambodia. That probably doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to you guys now. But it meant we fought more NVA than Viet Cong. North Vietnamese Regulars. Professionals. Real soldiers, like us.”
“The heavy contact went down ten or fifteen miles over the border. I can count those times on one hand. I was shitting myself with fear every time. I spent that entire year terrified and exhausted. Hell, sometimes the only reason I didn’t bolt was because I was just too ass-whipped tired.” I paused, looked at Simon. “You’d handle it better.” I waved off Simon’s protest. “Nah. You would. But there was something else too. Kind of like getting off. Like an orgasm, when you thought you smoked one.”
That last bit was embarrassing. But how do you express it? That war is hell, but at its height it’s also life. Life multiplied by some number no one’s heard of yet.
“Mostly though, we shot farm animals: pigs, chicken, oxen…”
“Why?” Simon asked.
“Some villages were suspected of supporting the enemy,” I answered. “Hell, the only reason I carried that zippo was to burn hooches. I didn’t even smoke.”
Fragile, ancient things them villages. We’d decimate even the big ones in an afternoon without hardly putting our minds to it. The whole company—a hundred plus grunts—watching flames take shape on thatched roofs in the midday sun. My nineteen year old mind figuring that surely this many people wouldn’t expel this much effort on something wrong, would they? Then the sergeants would form us up and we’d drag ass on. Flamethrower heat from them smoldering huts at our backs, women’s screams ringing in our ears, usually without a single V.C. in tow, and me so God damned tired that as far as judgment went I might as well have been piss-drunk.
The disgust on the boys’ faces jarred me back to the basement.
“What do you mean, ‘when you thought you smoked one?’ ” Gabriel asked.
“You could never really be sure,” I nodded at Gabe’s tone, enraged as he was at the injustice of it all. I hope that boy never loses the capacity for that sorta rage, and I wish to God I had had the guts to tell him that right then and there.
What I did do was place my hand on Gabe’s knee and say, “It’s ok, son.”
I didn’t know shit from apple gravy when I first showed up. Under ambush, I aped what the other dudes in my platoon were doing and sent rounds down range. Looking back, I’m pretty sure something would have shifted inside me if I’d actually killed someone. I would’ve known. But I didn’t tell the boys that. I didn’t wanna cop outta what I might’ve done.
“My first squad leader was a lot like you, Simon. Dawkins. Terrell Dawkins. Tough motherfucker. All gas, no brakes. Always volunteering to walk point. When I first met him I thought he was nuts.”
I tried to describe Dawk during that first meeting, him sitting on a rock, staring into the bush, and flipping the selector switch on his weapon back and forth between semi and full. In a cadre of touched men Dawk’s mania stood out, making him the platoon superstar.
“Terrell’s theory was the second man was more likely to get hit than the first. Dawk was the kind of guy who didn’t get medals, just that deep field respect that mattered more.” I stopped short, reminding myself: no bullshit. “He was a good killer. One of our best.”
“God smiles on idiots and drunks,” Michael said.
“Fortune favors the bold.” Simon didn’t smile, but I could tell he wanted to.
“I don’t know about all that.” Them two knuckleheads were constantly tossing quotes back and forth at each other. “In war you learn more about cowardice than courage. That and luck.”
All them crazy superstitious rituals to fool yourself into believing that it wasn’t just random. Always volunteering for point, only smoking on every second break, never walking in tank tracks. All desperate bids to convince yourself that getting smoked depended on more than just ending up fifth in line on patrol, or where you took a shit, or when you noticed that your bootlaces were untied. Charlie was greasing three hundred G.I.s a month in ’71 and every one of them had come up with a whole laundry list of reasons why it wouldn’t be him filling that flag-draped metal coffin. It just so happened that Terrell’s crazy superstitious rituals gave that motherfucker the confidence to stalk the jungle like a God damned immortal. Boys like Terrell—and Simon—don’t need much convincing of their immortality. In my experience, that type fears cowardice more than anything that might actually kill them.
On some level we all must ‘a known that it was just dumb luck that kept us from getting hit when Terrell was on point. But the fact remained: the men of 3rd Platoon-Bravo Company-1st Calvary Division didn’t get hit when Terrell walked point. Never. Not once. Even on patrols a good ten, fifteen miles into Cambodia—the heart of Indian country—so far out that we was resupplied by mermite cans kicked out the side of a Huey.
“Terrell was already in his second tour when I showed up in the summer of ‘71. He had something to prove. Usually that made guys dangerous. But not Terrell. I think deep down Terrell wanted to challenge all the things whites had been telling him his whole life. After he made staff sergeant, he bucked for a third tour. When my year in country was up I rotated back to the States and spent the rest of my enlistment at Ft. Carson handing out basketballs at the base gym.”
I licked my lips. I wished I had brought a taste of liquor down to the basement with me. Sunday morning be damned.
“Terrell and me used to talk a lot about Black Nationalism. How the war in Vietnam was going to change everything for the black man in the United States. He once asked me what niggers had done when they returned from America’s other wars.” The boys winced. I guess that word grated outta my mouth, but not Tupac’s. I ploughed ahead. “They’d kept on being niggers. But this time it was gonna be different.”
When I was seventeen, almost everyone I knew was black. Lieutenant Nic Voivodeanu, the 3rd platoon commander, had been my first white friend. Well, as much as a 2nd Lieutenant could be a Private First Class’s friend anyway.
One time in the mess hall in An Khe, Nic spotted me in the middle of scratching out a letter home.
“Who’re you writing to, Mathis?” Nic asked.
“My mom, sir.”
I returned to my letter, but felt the LT still standing there, examining the top of my head.
“Sir?” I asked, looking up.
“How old are you, Mathis?”
Nic grinned. “I bet your parents are proud.”
I didn’t say how, before leaving for boot camp, my mom made a point of telling me about the battered, castrated body of a black WWII veteran, swinging from a yellow poplar in her neighborhood back in Tennessee.
“They’d stripped off his uniform before stringing him up,” my mom had told me.
Nah, I didn’t tell my West Point educated lieutenant that. Instead I nodded and returned the LT’s smile.
Nic couldn’t understand the rage of the flip-flopped men tracking our platoon in the bush, still less those flip-flopped men’s perfect comprehension of us black draftees marching for an empire that didn’t want us. The same way even a CO like Measmer couldn’t see himself pulling a shank on a hack like Nestor. They saw gooks and cons, where I saw—see—men with identities shaped around survival. Men like me, only more desperate and maybe, just maybe, more brave.
“We arrived to Vietnam as just two more boys without the juice to get out of that selective service letter.” I knifed a hand in Michael’s direction, unintentionally giving the boy a jump. “Conscripts. But we became volunteers. Every single one of us over there was really a volunteer. I guess I’m still trying to figure out how to feel about that.”
That last bit I said more to myself than to the boys.
“The lieutenant wrote to me at Ft. Carson when Terrell finally caught one.” I ain’t sure how long it took to medevac Terrell back to the division hospital in An Khe, after he stepped on that manure tinged punji stick. I do know the wound went gangrenous. Terrell was dead in a week. Staff Sergeants didn’t walk point. Maybe Terrell had been the number two man when the contaminated wood pierced his boot. Nic didn’t say.
I wasn’t close to all the guys our platoon lost in Vietnam. I watched in silence as PFC Danny Hames gurgled pink froth waiting for a dust-off, Doc Reynolds fighting those obscene, animal bits leaking from the hillbilly’s punctured body. Exactly a week after Nic ordered Hames to remove the Confederate flag he’d draped over his bunk. Nah, I hadn’t felt sorrow while Hames lay there, making the sound of a baby working up for a good scream. Distress and disgust, yeah. Same as I’d felt when they’d carted Sgt. Kearns’s psychotic, murdering ass out of the mess tent. But not sorrow.
But here’s the thing. Losing so many contemporaries—boys like Dawk, Hames and Kearns, boys with similar hopes, fears, and families—so early in life wears on your soul in a way that I couldn’t articulate to them boys. Hell. How do you articulate any of it? Growing old in an afternoon? The whore you were tighter with than most of the men covering your six? The fantastic beauty of muzzles flashes at night? Friendships cleansed of all those things that seem so important back in the world?
Instead I maintained an eye contact with Simon that the teenager—as tough as that boy was—just couldn’t bear.
“The things that defined my service won’t define yours.” My gaze settled onto my clasped hands in surrender. “Kids join the military for a lot of different reasons, Sy. Make sure you’re doing it for the right ones.”
A week later, Simon attended his father’s funeral in New Orleans. Two weeks after that I drove him to the recruiter’s office. He never mentioned his father’s funeral. Still hasn’t.
“What defined your service, Mr. Frank?” Simon asked, as we drove to the strip mall that contained Antoine’s storefront row of recruiters’ offices.
I stared at the station wagon’s windshield for a couple seconds.
“Violence, race, and drugs.”
“That won’t define mine.”
He was probably right. Them boys generally was.
Simon signed a delayed entry contract guaranteeing him a shot at the Special Forces Medic ‘pipeline.’ Everything he wanted.
The boys graduated in the spring of ‘98 and had one last summer together. In the autumn Michael packed for Columbia University, Simon for Fort Bragg.
The governor granted Riggs’s parole on July 14th 2004, a Wednesday. Measmer, looking sharp and confident with supervisor’s pips shining on his collar, walked Riggs downstairs. I watched Measmer and Riggs trading jokes as they passed through the sally-port to the staff side. Measmer handed me the manila folder that contained Riggs’s file.
I signed the pink release slip paper-clipped to the front of the folder. Then I shook Riggs’s hand. In my twenty-seven years at Antoine this was the third time I personally met a prisoner for release.
Riggs smiled, eyes wide and moist at the edges. “Now for the hard part.”
I found Simon sitting in my living room with Clare and Gabriel that evening.
Simon, in ramrod straight civvies, popped to his feet. “Look at you, old man.”
I grabbed him and held him way too long in a vain attempt to chokehold the restlessness still pulsating from his body. Be still now, son. Now is the time to be still.
Simon told safe, prepackaged, war-stories. The constipation he suffered from weeks of eating nothing but MREs, the Afghan ‘terp whose English was flawless until he cussed (bastard son of cocksucking motherfuck! Yes! You, my friend!), the exhibitionist sergeant with the penchant for walking on his hands in the nude.
“What was his name?” Gabriel asked.
“Who?” Simon said.
“The nudist sergeant.”
“Appenzeller.” Simon’s smooth ebony face dropped to the empty coffee cup in his hands. Then he met my eyes. “Justin. Sergeant Justin Appenzeller. All gas, no brakes, that guy.”
I heard things that my wife and son didn’t. Things both Simon and I were glad the other understood, but that we wouldn’t say aloud; as if we had an unspoken pact not to sully the language of peace with descriptions of war.
“He smiles more,” Clare said, clearing the coffee cups in the living room after the boys left.
I hugged my wife from behind.
Clare reached over her shoulder with her free hand and pulled my cheek close to hers.
“He does smile more,” I whispered.
You made it, son. Now comes the hard part.
While in the United States Marine Corps, Dewaine served in Syria, Jordan, and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Dewaine spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. He is now based in the Philippines as the Field Security Adviser for the Asian Development Bank.