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.