theutopiauniverse on THE PIANO thewritingdeputy on THE PIANO Jeanne Smith on THE PIANO Ellen Hawley on FOR THE GOOD OF HUMANITY Sherrie on THE GAME
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My wife wants a piano. She doesn’t play the piano and neither do I. There are all kinds of musical chromosomes floating around in my DNA. My mother never had a piano lesson in her life, she couldn’t read music, but she could play the piano by ear (mostly polkas, but it still technically counts as music.) My father’s brother overflowed with musical talent. My grandmother said when he was a baby, if someone played a song on the piano and hit a wrong note, he would start crying. When he grew up he got a doctorate in music and was the head of the music department at a major university. I’m not sure where all those chromosomes went, but I have the musical talent of a deaf badger with brain damage.
When I was young my mother made me take piano lessons. At that period in history it was the patriotic duty of all mothers to torture their sons by sending them to piano lessons (I believe it was a law passed by the Truman Administration. It had to do with toughening young boys up for the military. Having to practice Speed Boat until your fingers stiffened and became bloody stumps prepared you for sitting in a foxhole later in life with mortar rounds detonating around you. Either way you felt as if you were going to die. I’m still a firm believer that the piano lessons had more to do with the repeal of the draft than the Vietnam War.)
My two older sisters also took piano lessons, but they could play songs that you could tell were songs. My songs all sounded the same: very long pauses between the wrong notes.
My piano teacher: Okay, you sit here and try to figure out which note comes next. I’m going to run to the store to pick up some things and come back and make us some cookies. If you haven’t figured out which note it is by then, I’ll give you another hint.
After hearing me practice the piano for a month, my mother decided a better use for the money she was spending for my piano lessons would be to throw it out the window of a moving car and hope some poor person found it. I was given a reprieve from taking lessons, and as far as I know Mom never did any time in federal prison for it.
My oldest daughter took piano lessons and was good at it. My son took piano lessons, too, and after a month his teacher suggested we throw the piano lessons’ money out a car window. He inherited the deaf-brain-damaged-badger gene from me. My son also tried to play the trombone. After a week of lessons he would go down to the river and sit for an hour when he was supposed to be taking his lesson. When my wife found out, she was furious. I pretended to be mad too, but what I thought was: That’s my boy.
My grandson plays the trombone, and he’s good at it. He wants to major in music when he goes to college. My oldest daughter, his mother, wants him to major in making-a-boatload-of-money-so-you-don’t-have-to-live-with-your-parents-until-your-forty, and the trombone is the wrong instrument for that. (Tommy Dorsey was the exception.)
How did this post start again …? Okay, I remember. My wife wants a piano. We had a piano at one time. It was an ancient full size upright that weighed eighteen gazillion tons. The floor in our first house would creak under its weight, pleading with me to get the monster off it. I half expected to come home one day to find a giant hole in the floor and the monster in the basement between the furnace and the shelves of canned sauerkraut, completely unharmed of course. You just couldn’t hurt those old giants. When we moved to our new house, we took the monster with us. You can still see the scar from my hernia surgery. After a few years we gave it away to a clueless family that actually wanted it.
When I was growing up the only pianos you ever saw were the big uprights or the grand pianos the schools had. The little spinet pianos hadn’t become popular yet. When I was little I had a friend, Curtis, who had a baby grand piano in his house. Curtis was a few years older than me and a good musician. He played the guitar, piano and coronet. He and his father were on television once on some amateur show playing You Are My Sunshine on their coronets. (It might have been The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour, but I doubt it.) I was over at his house once when his parents were gone. He was playing the piano while his cocker spaniel lay on the floor nearby. I had on an old pair of Curtis’ hip boots he had left out, and I was attempting to balance a broom on the palm of my hand. Both of us were smoking cigarettes we had borrowed from his father’s pack on top of the fridge. My cigarette was dangling tough guy like from my lips when the broom started to get away from me. When I moved to catch it, I tripped over the dog which made me drop my cigarette which went down Curtis’ back which made him jump up which knocked over the ashtray with his lit cigarette which went into my hip boots. By the time we were done gyrating and wildly pulling off clothes, I was on the floor in my underwear where the dog had been, Curtis was wearing the hip boots backwards with the broom clenched in his teeth while the dog played the piano—and even without fingers the dog still played better than I ever did.
Anyway, my wife wants to get a piano, and the reason she wants it is because someone wants to give it to her for free. This post was supposed to be about how people will take anything if it’s free or they have a coupon, but it’s a little late for any of that now.
I stopped filling my birdfeeder for a few days. There are some younger birds who are at it all the time. It’s the middle of summer and food is easy to find, but they still sit at the feeder slurping up the grub. One bird in particular, a young cardinal, caught my attention. His mother first brought him to the feeder—I never saw a father. He’s been there ever since, hanging out with a few ne’er-do-well blue jays and sparrows. They don’t do anything constructive. They just throw smart aleck comments at the other birds and loiter around annoying the mourning doves and chickadees. One day I’m sure I saw them smoking crack(ed corn).
You don’t expect that kind of behavior from cardinals. They’re some of the good birds … church people. As with all bird parents, the mommy and daddy cardinal expect their little one to grow up to be something… maybe the Pope. (It never happens. No matter how hard they try, they never make it passed cardinal. I think there’s some racism involved.) The other day the mother cardinal stopped by to talk to her offspring.
Mother Cardinal: Reginald, we need to talk.
Sparrow: Reginald? I thought your name was Card Frenzy 5?
Blue Jay: Hey, who’s the sweet little cougar?
Reginald (alias Card Frenzy 5): Whoa. Hey man, that’s my mom you’re talking about.
Blue Jay: Your mom’s a fox, Card.
Reginald: Come on man, give me a break here.
Blue Jay putting a wing around Mother Cardinal: Hey sweet momma, how ‘bout you and me go someplace where we can get better acquainted? You know what they say: “Once you try jay you can’t stay away.”
Mother Cardinal shrugging off his wing: You’re crude and despicable. Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?
Blue Jay smiling: You’re trying to sound mad, but I got you blushing.
Sparrow: She’s a cardinal, Dude. Her face is always red.
Mother Cardinal: Reginald, can I talk to you alone?
Reginald, speaking to the other two birds: Can you guys give us a couple minutes?
Blue Jay smiling: I’m going over to the tree behind you. I’ll be checking out the view from the rear.
The sparrow and blue jay fly off.
Mother Cardinal: How can you hang around with those reprobates?
Reginald: They’re not that bad, and they don’t reprobate that much … well maybe the sparrow does.
Mother Cardinal: Reginald, what are you planning on doing with your life? Your father and I had such high hopes for you.
Reginald: This isn’t about that Pope-thing again is it? Because I don’t ever see it happening.
Mother Cardinal: It’s not that, but you’re wasting your life hanging around this feeder all day. There’s so much more to life than this.
Reginald: You’re the one who showed me the feeder.
Mother Cardinal, suddenly sobbing: I was a young single mother. It was early spring. Food was scarce. That’s what the feeder is for. Emergency situations. You don’t make a living from it!
Reginald: I’m surviving.
Mother Cardinal: But that’s all you’ll ever do is survive. Don’t you want to thrive? There is so much more out there than birdseed. There are bugs, berries, worms, caterpillars and grubs.
Reginald: Other than the berries, that stuff sounds pretty gross.
Mother Cardinal: You can’t depend on man to feed you all your life.
Reginald: Why not? If he’s willing to give me free food, I’m willing to take it.
Mother Cardinal: If you depend on someone, they own you and can control you. What if someday the man says, “No pooping on my car or I won’t fill the feeder.”
Reginald, shrugging: Then I guess I’d stop pooping on his car. I’ve never been into that anyway.”
Mother Cardinal after a gasp: It is the God-given right of every bird to poop on cars, especially freshly-washed ones. And what happens when the man tells you not to do other things if you want fed? Like banging into closed windows or getting into Walmart and flying around in the rafters?
Reginald: He’d never do that. He likes those things as much as we do.
Mother Cardinal gives a frustrated sigh: I’m not going to argue with you. All I ask is you think about your future. Winter is coming.
So I stopped filling the feeder to try and get the young birds out looking for food on their own. Three days later I went out to my pickup and, FILL THE FEEDER, BUTTWIPE, OR ELSE, was written on the hood in bird poop. I filled the feeder. I didn’t want to find out what or else meant.
My wife walked into the room holding a red outfit in one hand and a blue one in the other hand.
“Which of these should I wear to the Cavanaugh’s?” she asked.
I’ve been playing this game for well over forty years, and I still don’t understand it. When it’s over, I never know if I’ve lost or if it was a tie. I never win. I’ve come to accept that.
It has nothing to do with the dresses. When it comes to fashion, my opinion is the last one my wife would want. Remember, I’m the one who bought her a lavender Velour jogging suit—see BUYING PRESENTS (SORT OF). It doesn’t matter which dress I pick. She’s going to wear the one she wants to wear. It will probably be the pink print or green pants suit that are still hanging in her closet.
Sometimes we play the game with other things such as paint colors or pictures.
My wife: Honey, should we put the picture we got from the kids on the north or west wall of the living room?
Me: I think the light would hit it better on the west wall.
It’s a sure bet the picture will end up in the dining room or maybe downstairs in the TV room or anywhere but the west wall of the living room.
For a time I thought she was asking my opinion so she could find out where the picture wouldn’t look good, some kind of reverse psychology: If I like something, then it has to be wrong. But there are too many places the picture could hang, and she only gives me the chance to eliminate one of them.
Compared to this game the Do-these-jeans-make-my-butt-look-big Game is a breeze. Most first-timers will answer no in that game. “Ha, ha,” I laugh wildly. A common rookie mistake. The problem with no is there are too many variables. Maybe somebody told you a very funny joke a couple days before and remnants of a laugh are still clinging to your face. She’ll think your smirking, or because it’s thee answer, she’ll think you’re being disingenuous—Heaven help you if you hesitate as if you had to think about it before you said no.
The correct answer to the Do-these-jeans-make-my-butt-look-big Game is (If you have a pencil write this down): Only a blind moron would think you have a big butt. I’m surprised you can even keep those jeans from falling down. There’s just nothing there to hold them up. You say it loudly and immediately, and you give that answer even if you’re married to a whale … and I mean an actual whale from SeaWorld.
Unlike the Big Butt Game where you want a fast response, with The Game you need to spend some time contemplating your decision. My wife likes to think I am putting as much thought into my decision as I would in pondering the fate of the free world. What I normally do is try to remember what leftovers are in the fridge that I can eat later on, then after a few minutes I go eeny meeny miney moe and pick one of the dresses. When I know she isn’t going to wear whichever one I pick, it’s hard to get excited about it.
Once when I was young and very stupid, I thought I could avoid playing the game. I jumped out of my chair and started pulling off my shirt. “If we’re going to the Cavanaugh’s, I better get my shower taken,” I shouted. Turns out we weren’t going to the Cavanaugh’s until the following day. Good thing. It gave me a day to find out who the Cavanaugh’s are.
I’ve come to the conclusion that The Game is like the Rorschach inkblot test. My wife is doing some kind of psycho-analysis on me from my choice of dresses or picture locations. She’s probably determined that I’ve gone stark raving mad– It’s possible from playing The Game so much. I’m sure when she gets together with her friends for coffee they review the results of The Game.
Friend Number One: My husband picked the burgundy jumper. Can you believe it? The burgundy jumper.
Friend Number Two: I don’t want to brag, but my husband picked the little black dress.
Friend Number Three: You are so lucky, and I am sooo jealous.
My Wife, speaking in an embarrassed whisper: He picked the west living room wall again.
A gasp goes around the table.
Friend Number Two: I am so sorry for you.
Friend Number One: Wow, I never thought anything would make me glad I have my husband.
Friend Number Three, giving my wife a one-armed hug: Why do you stay with him, Sweetie?
My Wife, wiping a tear from her cheek: I don’t know. I should have left him years ago when he first picked lavender Velour, but I thought I could change him. Now I don’t know what to do. He gets along with my family, the grandkids like him, and he’s fantastic at the Big Butt Game.
I believe there are things that happen which cannot be explained by worldly means, e.g., how rap and disco became popular, why the Chicago Cubs can’t win a World Series and many things involving politicians. (Where the sock goes when you put it in the clothes dryer and end up with one odd sock when you pair them up, used to be on the list, but I figured out the dryer is actually knitting a new sock from lint in the lint trap. You are not short one sock, but long one sock. You don’t have to thank me. It’s enough knowing I can clarify these things for you.)
I recently finished writing my first horror novel, The Almond People. In writing it I had to get in touch with the supernatural world. The supernatural world is not something you want to be friends with. It’s a lousy house guest. It finishes the peanut butter and leaves the empty jar in the cupboard, leaves the toilet seat up and never replaces the toilet paper roll when it uses the last of it. The worst part is, my wife blames me for all this. I try to tell her it’s our supernatural guest, but she doesn’t listen. Even when she can’t find her phone, which is most of the time, she blames me instead of the supernatural.
Over the course of my lifetime I have had some experiences with the supernatural. Once when I was fifteen, I was walking down to the river with my friend Franny to do some fishing. Somewhere during the walk and switching my rod from hand to hand, a Timex watch I had gotten for Christmas came off my wrist. I didn’t notice it until we were down at the river. Franny and I went back and searched the quarter-mile of pasture we’d walked through for two hours and couldn’t find it. Thirty years later to the day, Franny and I were walking through the same field to go fishing. I looked down at the ground and what did I see? You guessed it. A four-leaf clover! I never find four-leaf clovers. Even when I get down on my hands and knees and search for them I can’t find one, and this time I find one just walking through the pasture. Franny was amazed. The supernatural had to be responsible.
Sometimes the supernatural can be downright scary. Take the other night. I awoke suddenly in the wee hours of the morning, which by itself isn’t unusual. My bladder has become a three-hour alarm clock—they should call it the wee wee hours of the morning. But this time something was different. An icy chill crawled up my spine. I removed my wife’s cold feet from my back and the shiver went away, but still something wasn’t right. In the bedroom a thick white haze hung low to the floor like a fog in a cemetery on a humid night. I made a mental note to tell my wife to turn her aroma mist diffuser down a notch or two.
Suddenly I was gripped by an eerie feeling of foreboding. I knew something scary was going to happen, because it always does in horror novels after you have an eerie feeling of foreboding. I sat up in bed, and looked around. Then … I SAW IT! A creature silently watched me from across the room. It had a ghastly pale face with wild, unblinking eyes that glared at me. Its mouth gaped open. Tufts of stringy hair stood up on its head at severe angles like the snakes on Medusa. It was a monster without a hint of simple intelligence on its subhuman face.
I shook and whimpered in fear. A tear ran down my cheek. I didn’t have to pee anymore. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. We had to get out of the house before it came after us.
“Honey, wake up,” I said shaking my wife. “There’s a horrific beast in the room with us.”
“Does that dog have gas again?” she mumbled and rolled over. “I keep telling you not to feed her table scraps.”
“I’m not talking about the stupid dog! There’s a real monster in the room!”
She rose up on an elbow and looked around. “Where?”
How could she not see it? “Over there,” I said pointing at the hideous creature.
“Where,” she asked again, looking where I was pointing. “Over by the mirror?”
I looked closer at the monster … It was wearing my pajamas.
“Never mind,” I said. “Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming.”
She laid back down. “Am I dreaming the bed’s wet, too?”
“Yes, you are.”
That’s what I hate the most about the supernatural. It can do that shape-shifting thing and suddenly turn itself into a mirror.
Long ago in a different time I worked at a packinghouse to support my wife’s and kids’ addiction to food, clothing and heat. One day a guy I worked with told me he had joined the ‘Possum Club.
I studied him suspiciously. “You, who won’t buy Girl Scout Cookies from my daughter, joined a benevolent organization to raise money for charity?” I asked.
First of all the ‘Possums are not a benevolent organization,” he said. “They’ll let anyone join—I’m a Methodist, and they don’t care—and it’s not about raising money for charity. It’s about beer and poker.”
“Of course. How could I not see that,” I said. It started to make sense.
“It’s like this,” he explained. “After the meetings they stay at the lodge and drink beer and play poker until the wee hours of the morning. I love drinking beer and playing poker. But if I told my wife that I’m going out to drink beer and play poker until after midnight once a week, she’d yell at me for a half-hour and maybe leave me. I can’t have that. Nobody makes a pecan pie like she does.
“So I tell her I’m going out to raise money for poor, homeless, disease-plagued, handicapped orphans in Africa, and she says, ‘Awwwwe,’ and makes me a pecan pie.
“I’ve got it made. Every Wednesday I have pecan pie for dessert then go out and play poker and drink beer, and I’m a hero in my wife’s eyes.”
I had to admit the guy had a racket going. But it doesn’t work for everyone.
One Friday night my wife came into the living room while I was watching TV. She was carrying what looked like a handwritten copy of War and Peace.
“What you got there, Sweetheart?” I asked.
“It’s your honey-do list for this weekend,” she said. “The other half is up on the kitchen table. I’d like you to start with cleaning out the rain gutters first.”
Right away I knew I had to do something quick, so I borrowed a page from my friend at work.
“Oh, I would just love to get right on that,” I said, putting as much disappointment in my voice as I could manage. “The problem is, the Iowa DNR has just put out a notice that Spirit Lake is overpopulated with walleyes. It’s a dire emergency. If they don’t get some of them out, the entire ecosystem could suffer. I was planning on spending the weekend helping to thin down the population.”
I gave her my best disappointed look. I swear I could see pecan pies disappearing in front of my eyes.
“You’re lying,” she said.
“I AM NOT!” I protested, lying loudly. “Do you want our grandkids to grow up never knowing what a walleye looks like because they went extinct?”
Usually the grandkid card got me something, but this time her face looked as if there was a possibility that our grandkids may never see a pecan pie again.
“I’ll give you two reasons why I don’t believe you,” she said. “First: I’ve never heard of there being too many walleyes in a lake; and second, I’ve seen you fish, and your chances of actually catching a walleye and thinning down the population are about the same as if they needed the mermaid population thinned down.”
So I didn’t get to go fishing. On the bright side, by Monday you could see yourself in bottom of our rain gutters.
I’ve finally made it down to my recommended BMI weight. It was only five pounds under the point when people started asking, “How long do you have to live?”
Losing weight has never been a problem for me. My first wrestling coach, Neckless Mangen, said losing weight was completely a mental thing. “Weight loss is not a problem if you remember two things:
Number one: When you’re trying to lose weight, you’re going to get hungry.
Number Two: Nobody ever died from being hungry.”
Number one: When you’re trying to lose weight, you’re going to get hungry.
Number Two: Nobody ever died from being hungry.”
I know you’re saying,” Hey Broccoli Brain, what about all those people in Somalia and Ethiopia? They died from being hungry”—and you’re saying it in that smug nasal way that drives everyone up the wall.
Sorry Big Mac Breath, those people died from not eating. A doctor has never looked down at a three hundred pound corpse laying on a gurney and said, “If only he’d had some more pizza, he’d still be alive today.”
Hunger is a symptom, like pain, not a condition. Nobody dies from pain. They die from what’s causing the pain. The pain just makes you wish you were dead—like hunger.
(Let me make it clear, I am not suggesting anyone lose weight. The only negative comment I have ever had on this blog was when I did a post on weight loss. Somebody thought I was making fun of fat people. I am not. My mother was a big woman most of her life until she reached stage four breast cancer. Her weight dropped to under a hundred pounds, and I wished with all my heart that big roly-poly woman I had grown up with would return.)
I believe people should weigh whatever weight they can stay at comfortably. It’s no fun fighting to lose weight. I have a friend, Lucky. His body wants to weigh two thirty, and he wants to weigh two hundred. They are constantly feuding, and his body always wins. Twice a year Lucky will go on a diet for a couple months.
When he hits two hundred five or so, he’ll say, “I can’t wait until I get off this diet so I can start eating again.”
?????? Why did you lose the weight if you’re going to just put it on again? Accept that you’re going to weigh two thirty and you and your body can be friends and go out for ice cream.
I know another guy who is BFF with his body. He never diets. He says he did it once, lost ten pounds in a month and put it back on in less than a week. There is no willpower in him, and he loves to eat. The way he eats is an art form. There is a ritual to the way he eats. He will arrange the food on his plate so everything is in the perfect place on his plate with nothing touching. Then he’ll put on salt and pepper and whatever condiments he needs, arranging them with all the patience, precision and artistry Da Vinci used on the Mona Lisa. When he has his masterpiece arranged just right, he’ll load his fork and slowly ease it into his mouth, savoring it, rolling it on his tongue so each of his taste buds gets to share in the orgy.
That wouldn’t work for me. I’m a fast eater. I always have been. Normally I’m done eating, have the table cleared off and I’m downstairs watching TV before my wife finishes her salad. I grew up in a big, poor family. Meals were not an all-you-can-eat buffet. We’d heard rumors of something called leftovers, but we thought it was a mythical creature that didn’t really exist, like unicorns or honest politicians. At our house if you wanted seconds of gruel, rat casserole or road-kill surprise, you had to beat everyone done with firsts. Usually I got the seconds because I’ve always been good at eating and peeing—now that I’m old, it’s just eating.
I’m not sure how long I’ll stay down here at my perfect BMI. I just wanted to see if I could get there. Now that I have, I’m not sure what’s next. As good as I am at losing weight, I’m just as bad at keeping it off. So be whatever weight you want to be. And let me say again for all you people getting ready to send me irate comments, I am NOT making fun of fat people.
I might have an announcement coming up soon. I’ll keep you informed.
The first actual eight-hour-a-day-hate-it-after-two-hours-but have-to-keep-working-because-I-need-the-money-to-buy-frivolous-junk-I–thought-I-just-had-to-have job I ever had was in the summer when I was in high school. I worked nights at a chicken canning factory that made C-Rations for the military. (True story: Years later, I ran into a former Green Beret who had been in Vietnam. He said one time his team had been in a running firefight with the NVA for two days as they tried to work their way back to their base. During a break in the fighting, he stopped to eat his last can of C-Rats. He opened a can of chicken made at the factory. Inside was a glob of chicken fat and the index finger from a blue rubber glove. He said both of them were ten times better tasting than the chicken that was normally in the can.)
I worked beside an old guy everyone called Swede—I think his real name was Lars Swenson, but it seems so ethnically perfect, I’m sure you’d think I was making it up if I said that was his name, so I’ll just call him Swede. I was sixteen and he was about forty-five or a hundred and seventeen, because when you’re a teenager it’s hard to tell the age of old people. All I knew for sure is he should have died a long long time ago.
Swede was a big, bald, fat guy with a beer belly that flopped down over his crotch and came close to outstretching the reach of his stubby arms. Someone once asked Swede to buy a belt buckle for a charity fundraiser
“Nobody’s seen the one I got for over ten years. Why would I want to buy another one?”
Swede was very opinionated about politics and most of his solutions to world problems were simple: nuke’em. Nuke North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea and Russia. Take a couple weeks off to build more missiles and Nuke China. Nuke Canada to get rid of the draft dodgers, and hold a big anti-war rally out in the desert and nuke the war protestors, too.
“What’s the sense in having all these nukes if you ain’t going to use them? Would you leave a new Corvette just sit in your garage?”
Problem solved. End of story.
Although Swede had strong opinions about everything, he still believed this was America, and he would defend to the death everyone’s constitutional and God-given right to agree with him. There were numerous college kids working at the factory. The Hippie, anti-draft and anti-war movements were well represented. Heated discussions and yelling matches between Swede and the college kids erupted on a regular basis, and usually ended with red-faced screaming and various chicken parts, and sometimes whole chickens, being thrown across the room. I’m sure if Personal Nuclear Weapons had been available, a mushroom cloud would have hung constantly over the factory.
Swede had been in WWII. When it started he had been too young to go, but as soon as he was old enough, he joined. By that time the Battle of the Bulge was winding down, and the Allies were making their final push toward Berlin. Swede drove a truck hauling supplies to the troops from the coast. I’m sure some Army phycologist talked to Swede for about three minutes and decided it wouldn’t be prudent for his unit to let Swede anywhere near something that could be made to explode.
I once asked Swede if he had earned any medals. He said the closest he’d come to combat was one foggy morning when an American P51 Mustang had mistaken their truck convoy for a German armored column. The plane swung around to set up for a strafing run, and everyone in the unit got out of the vehicles and started waving and banging on the insignias on the trucks. The pilot realized his mistake and pulled up before he started firing.
“All I did was ruin a good pair of skivvies. And they don’t give medals for that.”
The Vietnam War was going on at the time. Soldiers would come back from the war and wait in California to be discharged. Usually it took sixty to ninety days to get the paperwork done, and there was nothing for the soldier to do but wait. The Army started telling the guys to just go home. Officially the Army still owned them, but it was time to get on with the rest of their lives. They’d send the discharge papers when they came through. Many of the former soldiers would enroll in our local junior college on the GI Bill and work nights at the chicken factory for some extra money. I worked side by side with guys who less than thirty days before had been in the jungles of Vietnam getting shot at by the enemy. It made for interesting stories and interesting reactions when unexpected loud noises happened. Dropping a stack of stainless steel pans sent half of them diving for cover.
At one point I ended up on the production line sandwiched between Swede on my right and a returning soldier named Bud on my left. (Actually his name was John Smith, but if I told you that, you’d think I was making it up.) Bud had been drafted into the Army and still had a few wood slivers under his fingernails from when they’d dragged him out of his house and across the porch. He went to Vietnam with the combat engineers. He wasn’t an engineer. He was a construction worker.
Bud figured he had it made. No humping through the mosquito-infested jungle in three hundred degree temperatures and twice that in humidity. No bullets, hand grenades, mortars or having to eat chicken C-Rations. When he’d finished orientation, they sent him out to a fire base where he was hauling 2X4s from a pallet to the construction site where they were building a hut. After a couple hours supersonic bees started zipping by his head. It took him a moment to realize they were bullets. SOMEONE WAS SHOOTING AT HIM! He hit the dirt and lay on his belly cursing the Army for making the buttons on his fatigues so big as to keep him so far off the ground.
In a moment an old sergeant was standing over him screaming. “What are you doing down there, Private Smith? That lumber ain’t going to move itself. Get back to work.”
Every day the supersonic bees would streak by him, and they expected him to just keep working. After a couple weeks, Bud decided if he was going to get shot at, he’d like to be able to at least shoot back. The base had something like a help wanted board where you could go to different schools to change your specialty. He chose to be a gunner on a helicopter.
When Bud finished the school, they put him on a scout helicopter. That’s one of those teeny ones where it’s just the pilot and the gunner.
Bud described their job as, “Flying around trying to get people to shoot at us.”
After they were shot at, they’d engage the enemy until they could get the big Apocalypse Now gunships to come in and shoot everything up. They must have been good at their job, because Bud was shot down three times: twice by the enemy and once he shot himself down when the pilot swung the helicopter blades through his line of fire. He was wounded once and got a couple medals for things that “didn’t amount to much.”—I always wondered what “didn’t amount to much” meant, but Bud wouldn’t talk about it.
One particularly hot night at the factory time seemed to drag on forever. It was one of those night when you checked the clock on the wall to make sure it was plugged in, because the hands never seemed to move. I was bored, hot and sweaty with Swede on one side of me and Bud on the other.
To liven things up and make time go faster, I turned to Swede and said, “Eric in case up got his draft notice yesterday. He says he’s not going. Says he’ll run to Canada before he’ll go into the Army.”
Swede’s face turned red, his neck swelled and his fingers started making little pushing motions as if detonating a nuclear device.
“If I had to do it all over again, that’s what I’d do,” Bud said. “I’d run to Canada.”
I expected Mount Swede to erupt on him. It didn’t happen. They both put their heads down and kept working.
A few minutes later the relief guy came and gave Bud a bathroom break.
“So why didn’t you explode on him?” I asked when Bud was gone.
“A guy can say anything he wants and it don’t matter,” Swede said. “It’s what he does that counts.”
It may be the only thing Swede ever said that showed any wisdom, and I’ve tried to remember it to this day … especially the times when I wished I had a Personal Nuclear Weapon.
I’m still working on three different books. Hopefully one of these days I can just cut loose on one of them.