|Jan/Feb 2009 Nonfiction|
My mother spoke English with a Spanish accent. She styled her hair like Jacquelyn Kennedy's and wore fashionable clothes. I remember walking with her in a town square in Puerto Rico where shoppers milled, when a paddy wagon veered and policemen jumped to the curb. They swung batons at a group of shoeshine boys who dropped their shine boxes and scattered. I heard batons smack naked backs. My mother pulled at my hand, but I resisted—those boys were my age but they were different, darker-skinned and wearing ragged clothes. Running in fear. In the security of my mother's hand, I realized my state of grace in the world. A status I found out later could change without warning.
I remember my father with his widow's peak hair shined back, wearing aviator sunglasses and playing the bongos. After heating the drum skins over the stove, he thumped them to exquisite pops, then sat and pounded them with cool ferocity. Me, the toddler with charcoal smudge eyebrows, spellbound by his elegant mastery of brute percussion. I still wonder how a pale Anglo of English/German extraction could possess such rhythmic intensity. Yet, I realize now that his voice was his true instrument. He had a radio drawl that instilled calm, yet he could project command voice like a drill sergeant. Command voice moved soldiers through unholy conditions. His voice brought him far from a broken home in the broken American South. Moved him at the speed of sound.
With duffle slung over his shoulder, he reported to the flight line. Not long after takeoff he found himself strapped by the open door of an overloaded C-54 as the cargo plane strained to gain altitude over looming mountains. The plane skimmed slopes, evaded pinnacles, crossed voids. Word crackled through the headsets: they had to jettison cargo or they weren't going to make it. In the bitter cold windblasts, he and another crewmember heaved crates to the yawning gape, watched them burst on the rocks, saw plumes of snow fly.
In Germany some local nuns came to the Air Base to teach Catechism. Their faces were deeply lined. They stood in front of my fifth-grade class and told of eating shoe leather to survive as the bombs rained. They held ritual roll call. When the nuns called my name, I raised my arms to the light streaming in from the window and said, "Here I am o' lord," and felt embarrassed, but I obeyed as I had been taught.
On family drives in our black Pontiac, we saw token remnants of World War II: buildings shattered by bombs, legislated to remain rubble, to remind Germans of the price paid for aggression. My father parked at the edge of an overlook where we marveled at the Mosel valley, the gray curve of the river, the hillsides lush with Riesling grapes. Even in youth I knew to view it with a sense of history. Renewal in a land where men like my father had once rained bombs.
"If there is a heaven, it will look like this," my father said in an aside to my mother.
"Will we all be together in heaven?" I asked, standing between them.
He smiled and said, "You and your mother will be at the top of the hill." He used his hand to show a high horizon and then lowered his hand like a plane coming in for a landing. "I will probably be down here."
"But will you still be in heaven?" I asked.
In the Hunsruck Mountains, military convoys hauled missiles past farm tractors. The countryside smelled of hay and manure. In farm towns, bell-ringing criers shouted the news. Beyond the forested horizon another threat loomed. The nuns told us that someday we would be tempted to lie and steal and possibly in conflict, find ourselves swept into the madness of the most mortal of sins.
The Air Base waged Cold War against the Soviets. Each night, I lay my head on my pillow and listened as the bugler played "Taps" over the Giant Voice system. Soon after, a roar came from the flight line. When the F-104s fired their afterburners in the darkness and passed overhead on their way toward the frontier, I knew the nuns had it right.
I wrote a paper in Catechism entitled "The Valley of Friends and Enemies," about a timeless place where hostilities have ceased but peace does not quite reign, because there are things worth having passion for, even worth fighting for, but it is better if they are worked out.
Reginald would be in my valley. A barrel-chested, African-American Captain, he lived next door to us in the Philippines. He watched over me when it was my father's turn to go to Vietnam. Reginald took a baseball bat and killed a rat that ran loose in our house. Reginald tutored me in the strikes and blocks of Karate, so a sixteen-year-old boy could stand against the Filipino gangs of Balibago Angeles City. I never had a chance to thank him, for when it was his turn to go to Vietnam, he never returned.
In Balibago Angeles City, days rose bright and hot, and nights fell to a black velvet canvas daubed in painted lights. Jeepneys and motorbikes rolled along an artery of broken mirror nightclubs. Capillaries terminated in guarded compounds. Diamond Subdivision was our compound.
One night, I attended a house party with Jeffcoat. We left the party and walked down a tree-lined street as Jimi Hendrix feedbacks faded behind us. Zinc roofs shone under the streetlamps. Bats dove into the cones of light and flew off. We were high on Darvons and Scotch.
We passed a bus bench where a big Samoan wearing a jean vest was hanging out with two girls. I recognized the Samoan from school. A gang of Filipinos that had been hiding in the shadows leapt into the street and surrounded us. I recognized them as Los Teenersbugs and the young man who led them as Reny. I had heard that Reny's father beat him with chains and that he sometimes went shirtless to show his scars. His hawk face and lean tension recalled a coiled cobra as he jutted a finger toward us and challenged us to fight.
"It wouldn't be fair," I said, "all of you against just us two." I could see there was no way out. I was glad Jeffcoat was there, gangly and tall as an adult. "Let me find more guys," I pleaded, "to even things out." A few guys had left the party but steered wide of us. "Hey, help us out over here," I pleaded, but they only moved away faster.
Reny kicked me in the chest, hard. I was shoved back, but fear snapped into anger. I lunged wildly at him and swung but missed. I was attacked from both flanks, and I vigorously blocked the punches with a degree of control. A punch I never saw burst my lip. I saw white light for an instant, then swung with a roundhouse that connected by luck. As they swarmed into me, I saw Jeffcoat break into a run. The son-of-a-bitch deserted.
I knew if I went down I would be stomped. I knew I had to stay standing no matter what came. I felt as if a wave were crashing over me. I heard someone yelling and saw the big Samoan approaching.
"I know this guy," he was telling them, "He's alright." The Samoan broke through the group, put a big arm around my neck and said, "He's my friend." I felt dwarfed, dominated. He let go, and I recoiled slightly and wiped blood from my lip.
Reny's narrow eyes glittered. "You're all right," he virtually hissed. "You're all right with us."
I walked home alone that night, angry, bruised, and cursing Jeffcoat, wishing my father was back from Vietnam.
A few months passed. One Friday night a group of us hid in the jungle brush by the edge of the base where the Caraboa Bus Line (Caraboa Butt Licker to us) made a stop. It was a part of the base where thieves cut through the fence, so some nights the Military Police fired parachute flares over the area. We watched the flares drift in the darkness and rock the shadows of the brush. The police weren't interested in dependents inside the fence, though we hunkered in ambush. Our ammunition: egg, both hardboiled and raw.
Bayoni and Honesto were with us. (Honesto, whose father would one day be assassinated, and who as an adult would triumphantly step into his place in Filipino politics.)
The bus approached, a grey and red school bus style that had particleboard windows that slid up to offer protection from rain or slid down into a slot when it was hot. The windows were down, and along the length of the bus, elbows hung out. The GI's were dressed in their Friday-night best as they headed toward Angeles City with its Wild West nightclubs and bordellos.
I don't remember our signal, but the eggs hit rapid-fire with sickening crunches. Shouts and curses tore the balmy repose. The bus jolted to a halt. In the momentum, doors swung open. GI's swarmed out like shaken hornets, and we boys were suddenly running through the bush toward the NCO housing area.
I heard grunts, pants, and branches snapping behind me. In the surreal light, I saw a GI break out across a backyard toward me, when out of the corner of my eyes I saw something miraculous. The GI was at a full run when he was suddenly jerked horizontal. His feet flew straight out, and for an instant he floated suspended above the ground like a magic carpet. Then he dropped flat onto his back into the dirt, gagging and clutching his throat. It took me a second before I realized the poor bastard had been clothes-lined.
I broke out around the building into a quadrangle of town homes, and then I spotted Honesto, all legs and bounding up a short stairway of a home that wasn't his. The GI's burst into the quadrangle hollering for vengeance. I had just disappeared around a corner.
It wasn't until later that I found out Honesto had simply opened some stranger's front door, turned as if leaving, pulled a comb from his pocket, and started slicking the Tancho pomade in his jet-black hair like he was out for an evening lark.
"Did you see some guys run by here?" the panting GI's asked. Honesto was cool except for one thing. He pointed out the direction we had run!
Behind the houses, I led single file with Jeffcoat running behind me. I sensed at least three GI's gaining on us. I could hear screams and shouts, and I knew Bayoni was caught somewhere. I rounded a corner just in time to duck into the shadow of an elevated back porch. Jeffcoat burst around and two GI's grabbed him. I held my breath and made ready to lunge when something held me fixed. My conscience wrestled with duty, fear, and remembrance as I watched from the shadows as the two GI's punched Turncoat. I had gotten my revenge at a shameful cost.
It was rare that I would spend time indoors, but in our tropical home in Diamond Subdivision, I stretched out on a rattan chaise lounge and read my father's survival manual. I glanced up and through the window and saw our Philippine Constabulary guard by the wall at the end of the driveway, sitting in his chair under a tree and cradling an M-16. His face was bronze, his cheekbones high, his eyes furtively watching from the shadows. Another guard joined him, and the two lunched on dog meat.
I also read the log of Captain Bligh of the Bounty who was cast adrift by mutineers, and who survived in an open boat packed with crewmembers for 47 days. Dangerously dehydrated, some of his men drank seawater that proved to be fatal. What a mad hope for nature to dangle, afloat in a world where life-giving water is in reality, undrinkable brine.
One night, I lay in bed, the ceiling fan rattling with the window slats open to the night air. I heard a sound outside. I don't know how I differentiated that rustle from the rattle of the fan, but I did. I knelt up in bed and pressed my face to the screen. All I could see in the back yard was a papaya tree and the high wall embedded with glass. I lay back down and stared at the window until a shadow moved across the slats and a face loomed in the window. Washed in moonlight, the face appeared ghostly. I froze and feigned sleep but watched through narrowed eyes. The face looked around. When it backed away from the window, I slid to the floor and crawled to my parent's bedroom. My father woke with a start, but in whispers gleaned the situation, and in one motion swung his long legs onto the floor and removed a .45 Colt from a night table. Wearing only dark pajama trousers, he headed for the door, but before he got to the driveway we heard gunfire several houses away, which turned out to be warning shots and a return volley.
A man operating a canister of anesthetic gas was apprehended and arrested. That man was our guard. A ring of guards was implicated. Wearing gasmasks, they had incapacitated an entire family in order to rob at leisure. A child with spinal bifida was on life support.
I understood that appearances could be deceiving. "Look to actions for truth," father said, "not words." But I wondered how anyone could have seen the treachery of our guards. I suppose even Captain Bligh could have made the argument for eternal vigilance.
After my father had been back in the Philippines for several months, he came home one night, entered and walked grimly up to my mother and spoke to her in whispers. My mother gasped. My father looked expectantly at me and then walked out the door. My mother approached me and said that a friend who served with my father had left weeks ago to Thailand where he had been unable to connect with his Air America helicopter at Ubon. The man was one of eight men to load drums of diesel fuel into an SOS Pony Express helicopter and fly to a remote site in Laos, where they had come under enemy fire. The helicopter crashed. Three men had jumped from the craft and escaped into the jungle, injured but alive. The other five men were burned beyond recognition. Who had escaped alive and who had burned was still a mystery. The news had splintered their family, and so my mother asked if it were okay that the son bunked with me until they made the identifications. She said the boy was in my class at school, that he needed a friend. I said, "Sure." Moments later my father walked in with Jeffcoat.
I had not spoken to Jeffcoat since the night of the bus ambush. There in the living room came the turnabout—security was a fac¨ade, and I found myself just as suddenly as Jeffcoat plunged into the valley of friends and enemies. My father didn't speak a word, which was itself a miracle. In my room, I indicated to Jeffcoat that he could take the bottom bunk and I would take the top bunk. I climbed up the ladder into my bunk. Jeffcoat hung his shirt on a hanger, folded his trousers over the desk chair, aligned the creases with deliberate precision, lined his shoes up under the chair, and then crawled into his bunk.
We talked in the darkness about a cologne that was popular among the guys at school, Hai Karate, with its martial arts name and superfluous sharp spicy scents. We talked about girls we liked, and then about Liz, a twelve-year old girl who was having sex with groups of boys in the woods behind the school. Not that we weren't as sexually curious as everyone else, but not so much so that we would take advantage of someone of such tender age, and we wondered how it came to be that she was so scandalously promiscuous, and what her father would do if he returned from Vietnam. We didn't talk about our own scandalous behavior. We talked about how it could be that Jeffcoat's father was shot down in Laos when the war was supposed to be in Vietnam. In the darkness, we strolled in the bright sunshine along the gray curve of the river in the valley of friends and enemies until at last we fell asleep. Days and nights continued to pass in Diamond Subdivision. A week later, the identification that we all awaited finally arrived: Jeffcoat's father was among the dead.
A few nights before my father left for Vietnam, he had a dream. He was in a coffin, buried alive. He began hitting his head against the side, determined to kill himself rather than suffer slow suffocation. He described this dream to us the next morning while standing on the shining clay tiles in the living room. When he finished speaking, there was only the shush, shush, shush of the maid buffing the waxed floor, her skirt hiked and held at the thigh, her bare brown leg and foot atop a coconut shell-half abrading the floor in a circular motion, shush, shush, shush.
My mother looked only at her husband of seventeen years. They had been married almost as many years as he was in the military. He had been a loving father, a good provider who answered to a personal and professional code. I silently concurred with the look in her eyes. A few days later he shipped out.
My mother worked as a Nurse's aide at the Base hospital, assisting the wounded that had been flown directly from Vietnam to the advanced surgical wards at Clark Air Base.
Passing a door, she heard a voice call to her. She went in and saw a young man bandaged and propped up on the bed. He had neither arms nor legs.
"Ma'am, could you help me smoke a cigarette?" he said in a Southern drawl.
"Of course." She forced a cheerful smile as she plucked a Lucky Strike from a packet on the bedside. After putting a cigarette in her mouth, she lit it and took a puff. She then placed the cigarette to his mouth and held it as he puffed, removed it until he appeared ready.
"This is my life," he said. "This is it from now on. Forever. I have a car back home; it's up on blocks. I had hoped to restore it." He tried to hold back his tears. She struggled, having practiced being a rock of cheer, a fighting-back-bitter-tears rock of cheer. He finished the cigarette, and she laid it in the ashtray.
"Thank you," he said.
"You're quite welcome. You heal up now. There's a lot of people waiting to see you back home." She left to the emergency stairwell and behind closed doors, sobbed.
That night when we sat around the dinner table, she told us what had happened at the hospital. My father listened and served from a casserole dish into our plates.
"This war is wrong," she said. It had just slipped out. All activity at the table stopped.
"But mom," I said, "The teacher said we are supporting the South Vietnamese against—"
"Your mother has spoken, Son," my father said in his quiet drawl that this time rippled through me like command voice.
He looked at his wife, my mother. She pushed a strand of hair off her forehead. I could see admiration in his eyes. My mother had kept our home together the best she could during his tours of duty. She had kept herself productive at the hospital, kept herself fit at the base bowling alley. Whenever he returned, they danced in the living room and she taught him every Latin step the former bongo king lived for.
My father scooped from the casserole dish into her plate. "Anyway honey," he said, putting down the casserole dish. "I have to leave again at the end of the month."
"I know," she said, putting her napkin in her lap.