Commotion in the auditorium aroused the attention of Dan Douglas. He was here by special invitation, though he has never done any public speaking.
What am I going to say?
The pastor said there was no reason to prepare. But this was a full house. Surely they want something more than just winging it.
Dan is a Vietnam veteran. He pulled two tours in Southeast Asia in the early seventies. And, though he was highly decorated, he would gladly return them all, considering the lingering effects spawned during incidents which garnered him three purple hearts: but left him partially disabled.
Likewise, at times like this, when an abundance of ambient sounds cannot be easily discerned, and his own state is agitated, he finds his focus reverting back to those earlier days when friendships forged in preparation and survival of humanity’s worst become life-long bonds.
Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1969: a Southern California surfer, a West Texas cow puncher, and a combination street smart, holy rolling, blues boy from New Orleans are thrown together. Yet how they ever became friends is still up for debate. Even their barracks buddies swore they were three aliens jabbering away in different languages. Dan was always “stoked,” and talked about “righteous waves,” and “bikini babes with legs for days.” Mad Dog Mason countered with rodeo exploits, how he missed his horse, NASCAR racing, and unfettered pride in the Lone Star state. And James Waxton, known as Rev, because of his habitually reading the Bible, was a living archive of Delta Blues and Bourbon Street Jazz: and he would gladly sing it any time of the day or night.
Yep, the trio took to claiming their friendship was forged through heaven, hell, and eight downbeats from Basin Street. And a boot camp officer, noticing how the trio was inseparable, called them a “reverse Oreo:” two vanilla cookies on the outside with a little chocolate in the middle.
Dan could not help smiling as the memories began to cloud out the auditorium, and all things present.
Yep! Two glorious weeks of leave before shipping out overseas, and I’m going home.
Dan looked up and saw Rev staring at him with a concerned look.
“Yeah,” said Dan. “Why?”
“Cuz’ you haven’t responded to our last three questions,” Rev said, “or to Mad Dog calling you a love-struck fool.”
Dan glanced toward Mad Dog, who saluted him with the wrong hand, while giving him ‘the bird’ and gulping down the last of his brew.
“Well?” Rev said.
“Are your parents going to meet you at the airport tomorrow?”
Damn! Dan thought. I guess I had daydreamed a bit, because I don’t recall that being asked.
Mad Dog cut in before Dan could respond. “I told you he’s not going home to be with his parents. He’s gonna’ try out some of my roping and riding techniques on Diane.” And he blew a kiss in Dan’s direction, and fluttered his eyes.
Dan let it slide. After all, Diane was the major theme of most of his thoughts. His arms ached to hold her. And if it’s this bad after five months, how bad will it be after a year in ‘Nam?
“You’re doin’ it again,” Mad Dog barked. “Maybe we should’ve gone out to celebrate.” No response from his friends. “Come on you two, we just graduated for christsakes!”
His slip of the tongue drew the appropriate glances from his buddies, so Mad Dog, upon realizing what he had said, apologized to Rev. It was a rather unique sight to see in a military barracks. Rev is all of a hundred and fifty pounds, dripping wet. Mad Dog is well over two-hundred. Yet out of his respect for his little buddy, he will watch what he says — and he will only curb his tongue around Rev.
Rev has that distinct quality. He somehow attracts an unusual loyalty from anyone who takes the time to get to know him. Most of the GIs laughed at him initially, with his Bible reading, going off to pray, or nursing a soft drink while the rest of them polished off something more substantial. Yet he hung in there when many macho-fakes dropped out. He earned their respect.
However, the trait was just a part of Rev’s personality. It was prevalent even before he became a Christian. Since his father was imprisoned for life, and his mother was a Beat Street whore addicted to “H”, he grew up on the street. And his ability to gain loyalty from the dishonest, and often dangerous, street element helped him survive, and even thrive in the shadowy recesses of New Orleans underworld.
Hell, even the drill instructors fell under his spell, Dan recalled.
He was remembering how the DIs enjoyed calling the new recruits derogatory names upon their arrival.
“You will answer to Ass Digger,” a barrel-chested runt of a DI told Dan.
“And you’re the resident Steer Queer,” the DI informed Mad Dog.
Mad Dog then earned a hundred pushups for snapping back: “Do I get first dibs, or is it sloppy seconds after you?”
Before the vertically challenged DI selected a name for Rev, he overheard him tell another recruit that Christians are Spiritual Jews. So the instructors began to mock him with the title of “Little Chocolate Jew Boy.” But it changed within weeks.
Rev saved the life of a walking clusterfuck: a raw recruit whose IQ was ninety-nine cents short of a dollar. Just the type of draftee you want to bring to the artillery range and hand over explosives to.
The SOB fell asleep during the lecture, then tried to fake his way through the exercise, and set up a claymore mine in his own direction: a feat in itself, since claymores have front and back stamped on the casing. And, though the DIs missed it, Rev didn’t, and tackled him just as he depressed the clicker. Neither was injured, but they finally booted the Jughead out, since he blew a dozen holes in the Company Commander’s jeep. And the DIs took to calling Rev “Preacher Man” and “Little Samson” after that.
The trio continued to reminisce about the graduation, the course, and what they would do on leave. And, instinctively, they continued polishing brass and spit-shining boots during the conversation. Drilled in habits are hard to break.
They were soon joined by three other barracks buddies: J.J., Rico, and Tommy “the Chinaman” Lee. They had just come from the enlisted man’s club. The military is big on keeping the hierarchy strongly ingrained. Everyone has to work together, but you live and play with your peers. That’s why most military bases have three clubs: an officer’s club, an NCO club, and an enlisted man’s club.
“You guys didn’t hang around here all night, did ya’?” Rico said spitting out half the words in his over lubricated state.
“You shoulda’ joined us,” J.J. said. “It was funny as hell to see the Chinaman puke all over his date.” A comment that sparked GI laughter and it would permeate the rest of their bullshit session.
“I thought it would improve her looks,” said the glassy eyed Chinaman.
“It was a her?” Dan said with mock surprise.
“The jury’s still out on that one,” J.J. said. And the BS banter continued to steam forward as they continued to imbibe while packing their personal belongings and military issue for their upcoming departures.
When most their gear was ready and the night was winding down, Rico began to stare at Rev through clouded thoughts and bloodshot eyes. And it took nearly ten minutes for his alcohol dulled senses to formulate something to say.
“Hey, Bible Thumper,” he began slowly. “You ain’t said shit hardly.”
“Shit hardly,” Rev said while burping up his soft drink. And everyone except Rico laughed.
“Listen — listen — Bible Thumper,” Rico said. “I bet when you go home you pray for the war to end before the rest of us — heart-takers and — women-breakers — get a chance to be heroes.”
“I ain’t never broke a woman in my life,” Dan said.
“I broke a cherry,” the Chinaman said while crunching a beer can on his forehead.
“Don’t you mean popped?” Dan said.
“Like popped goes in the weasel,” J.J. said, and laughed himself to tears as his fermented brain caught the image he suggested.
Mad Dog had not cared for the insinuation of Rico’s remark, but had to wait until he vacated the latrine to reply.
“Watch out, Rico,” Mad Dog said as he made his way back to the group. “Rev has a mainline to heaven. He might ask God to keep you overseas permanently.”
Rico’s eyes grew wide, and his head bobbed in his intoxicated condition, while trying to contemplate the ramifications of Mad Dog’s comment. And the others laughed for the umpteenth time: though J.J. was still laughing at his weasel popping image.
As the laughter subsided Dan began to wonder: Why doesn’t Rev ever get pissed off at Refried Rico for his stupid badgering?
“Listen up, you clowns!” came the familiar voice of Corporal Lewis. “Privates Waxton, Mason, and Douglas: if you can get your gear together asap, you can leave. The military hop bumped three off for disciplinary action. You can take their places.”
The immediate hooting and hollering from the trio ignited jealousy in the three who would remain, but not enough to stop them from well-wishing and the usual farewells. Neither trio believed they would ever see the others again. Rev, Mad Dog, and Dan were the only ones shipping out to the same unit.
I’m glad my pals are going with me overseas, Dan thought, as the trio exited the barracks. But right now, all I want is to get on that hop and go home.
A pat on Dan’s back returned his thoughts to the present. It was the pastor.
“Are you ready for this?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine.”
“I’ll signal when we’re ready.”
As the reverend departed Dan rescanned the auditorium with a hint of admiration. The Reverend has come a long way. He has a large church, wonderful family, and thousands of friends. It’s hard to believe this all came about because of a friendship over thirty years ago.
[*See what happens to the friends when they finally get to Vietnam in Part 2.]