Monday, May 27, 2013

Arlington


              Legacy

A tombstone in Arlington,
A few tattered letters,
And a faded Polaroid or two
Are all I own
To remember you, dear Father.
Oh yes,
--And your last name too.

                                    Arlington

      In July 1976, our local Boy Scout troop—Frackville troop 91, traveled to Washington, D.C for a week of sightseeing and adventure.  We rode charter busses down to the Capital, and stayed in barracks on a local Army base. It was a an exciting experience for the boys from the Mountain City; we were roused each morning by a real Army revelry, and each day before we began a new adventure, we experienced breakfast in a genuine mess hall.

     Among our stops that week was Arlington National Cemetery, a place I hadn’t visited or really thought about much since my father’s funeral in February 1970. I was six when that happened, and by that July of 76, my age had doubled to twelve.  Somehow one of our scoutmasters, “Chief” Bulcavage, knew that my father was buried there.  Maybe my Mom told him, or maybe I even told him myself.  I don’t really remember.

    Chief, as everyone addressed him out of respect and admiration, was a great man and good person. As a boy growing up in a small town, I can remember seeing him around just about everywhere. He worked at the post office for many years; Chief officiated or coached just about every type of athletics, and he even found time to be an inspiring scoutmaster.  I could always sense that he genuinely cared about young people, and all the scouts worshiped him. Chief seem to have mastered the balance between toughness and tenderness, and everybody in the community appreciated his dedication.

      The evening before we visited Arlington, Chief called me out of my room at bed check.  I stepped into the dimly lit hallway and waited for him to speak.  He looked at me for a few seconds, and I was afraid I was in trouble for something—I wasn’t always a “model” Scout. I am scared. Then, he gently, yet firmly, put his hand on my shoulder and spoke.

      “Alex, would you like to visit your dad’s grave when we go to Arlington tomorrow?

     For some strange reason, I hadn’t even thought about this, and his question took me by surprise. My father was the stuff of stories and folklore in my mind, and we all know that stories come and go, somewhere between a dream and a memory.

     I looked up at Chief, and I saw security and strength in his eyes; I felt comfort in his hand on my shoulder.
     “Yes Chief,” I answered. “I would really like to do that.” He tussled my hair, winked at me, and smiled.
    “We’ll take our own little private side-tour to see it, Okay Alexander?” I smiled back.
    “Okay Chief.”

     The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of the most impressive events of decorum, discipline, and honor that I have ever witnessed. It really caught the attention of the Scouts from Schuylkill County, and even though we may not have completely understood the significance of the ceremony, we all were deeply impressed by it.

     Later, at John F. Kennedy’s grave, many Scouts posed for pictures with the capital shimmering in the background. It was a very bright and sunny July summer day. While I stood staring at the eternal flame, I felt the familiar hand of Chief grip me on the shoulder.  He quietly told me to follow him, and we set off down the steps from the JFK grave site, unnoticed by the rest of our sightseeing troop.

    “Do you know where his grave is Chief?” My voice cracked a little bit, and I realized I was nervous.
    “Yes, it is not far away” he answers, pulling a map out of his pocket as we strode down the path.  He hands it to me and continues talking.

     “Now, You’re the Boy Scout Alex.  Why don’t you see if you can show me how you got a few of those merit badges you’re sporting.”  He chuckled at his little joke, and I looked at the “X” on the map.
   We were only about fifty or so yards or so down the hill to the east of Kennedy’s grave when I located it on the map as my orientation point.  Quickly, I realized the “X” that marking my father’s grave was just west and north of the road we had now reached.

     “Yup scout, it is just around the corner.”  He pointed in the direction of a gentle rise in the landscape, and we left the road and stepped onto the hallowed ground.  Gingerly we tiptoed around the tombstones that lined the land, and now I followed Chief as he checked the numbers on the backs of the graves.  Finally, he stops.  Grave number 2222.

     “This is it,” he said, and we both looked down.

     “James H. Alexander” I said is a voice just above a whisper.  I look around for a moment at the surroundings, and suddenly the memories of his funeral are there with me. I started to feel strange and warm. I was not sure what to do next, but my natural reflex was to say a prayer. I dropped to my knees and make the sign of the cross.  As I closed my eyes to pray, a wave of sadness sweeps over me and tears began to roll down my face.  I was not sure why I was crying, but slowly I feel the bottom dropping out.  The last thing I remember with any clarity about that particular moment is Chief, kneeling next to me, with one arm tight around my shoulders.


       As I close my eyes and try to reach back to the past, I think I can almost...barely remember crawling in my father’s lap. I’m not exactly sure, but I think he’s wearing a khaki uniform, and his hat is off. We—my mom and I—might still be living in the small walkup apartment in Hazleton, but again, I’m not exactly sure.  My mom claims it is possible, and at the time, I would have been between two and three years old.  

     There is one other recollection from a time in Indiana.  I am standing on one side of the gravel road that circles the barn lot of the family farm, and my father stands on the other side; it seems he is urging me to come to him. Again, I swear he is wearing a uniform, and I recall the brightness of the sun is almost blinding. I see his outstretched arms, and it seems he is beckoning me to cross the road to him. His arms are stretched out to me and inviting. Yet even with the clarity of the surroundings, he still seems almost like he is a ghost. Then the memory fades away while the feelings of pain, emptiness and anger remain. I open my eyes.  This is not going to be easy.

      That’s it. Two memories, and truth is, I don’t even know if they’re really memories.  That still bothers me, and it frustrates me as I try to force my way back into the past to make sense of the present, and desperately try to understand what the future holds.

     I close my eyes again and move forward to a place where definitive cognition takes root in me. There is no mistaking these apparitions, and blurred lines melt into sharp clarity.

     In February of 1970, I had just turned six, and my mom and I were now living with my grandmother in Hazleton, Pa. Most of my mother’s family was congregated in a 3-block radius in that section of the mountain-top town, and there seemed to be family around every corner.

     One night, we were visiting with my Great Uncle Michael, who lived just down the alley and around the corner in a small second floor apartment. Urgent steps could be heard sharply climbing stairs to the apartment. I can remember the door opening, and there stood my grandma.  She wore a black coat and scarf, and she spoke excitedly of something urgent…I wasn’t clear what though.

     We’re going through the dark alley, my mom is pulling me along at a quickened pace; I can remember how cold it was that night, and then I’m in the house, talking to my Grandma from Indiana on the big black phone in the parlor. She is crying, but I don’t understand why; everyone is excited but I’m not getting it. My father is dead. It took me many years to understand it.

     Of all images conjured by my father’s death, I best remember his funeral and the events surrounding it. I am excited to see everyone. I recollect my Grandma Alexander there and my Aunt Ann, Uncle Donald, and cousin Wesley, and there were others.  I pulled Wesley--a grown man, up and down the breezeway of the hotel. He was entertaining me, and I can remember his big gentle hands and his warm comforting smile on that day. Perhaps he found some solace in my company.

     Memories melt to the gravesite. I still have a vision of the casket, resting on a black wagon; drawn by black horses. The American flag drapes over it, and the steeds come to a stand still as the procession reaches us.  It is a very cold day and the sky is gray. I remember the leafless branches reaching restless arms out over rows and rows of white tombstones.

     The casket is brought forward to where we are standing, and everyone is quiet. I’m still not sure of the deal, but then I remember people crying.  As smartly uniformed soldiers remove the flag from the coffin, they ceremonially fold it into a small triangle. One of them turns to an older woman with grayish-blonde hair who stands off to the side. I turn to my mom and ask her, “Why is that lady getting the flag?” My mom looks down at me with teary eyes and says nothing. She can only shake her head.

     I see the soldiers, dressed in their best blues, raise guns to their shoulders and take aim at the sky.  I am enthralled by the twenty-one-gun salute, but I also cringe at the sound of the reports.  I can still hear the sound of crying behind me, but I don’t turn around to see who it is. I can’t take my eyes off the casket.

     “My Daddy is in there,” I think to myself, but I don’t understand what that means. I don’t know him, and I still don’t get it. None of it clicks and none of it makes sense. I don’t know or understand what I’m missing, so I miss nothing. I’m just a kid on a field trip.

     As I look back on pictures of that day, I see myself smiling for the camera, tightly bundled to keep out the frigid February air.  The other people posing with me in the various Polaroids, Grandma, Aunt Ann, Uncle Donald, they all stare blankly at the camera. They know the truth of this day and smiling is not an option…they look through camera and beyond.  Shadows of reality cross their faces; the innocence of youth colors mine. I’m not sure who is better off at that moment.

    The funeral is over and I am in the back seat of a car. Somehow, in the confusion of grief and sorrow, I am with the lady who received the flag. She holds it in her hand, and I remember looking up at her face; she is sad and tears stream down her cheeks. She notices me gazing up at her, and she turns her head to look down at me.  She says nothing, but a small smile crosses her face. I smile back and look down at the flag. The triangle it forms is sharp and colorful, and I reach out to touch one of the razor like points.

    I’m not sure how long the Chief and I were at the gravesite; it seemed like a long time—I know I cried for a long time. Finally, Chief whispers something in my ear, then we both stand at attention and salute, then we turn and move back down the hill.

    Chief and I take a slow stroll through the cemetery back to the main entrance. There, we will meet the rest of the troop and head to Mount Vernon, our final stop for the day.

     “Alex, take a look around you. There’s an important lesson here.”

      “What’s that Chief?”

      “Freedom isn’t free. You should be proud that your father is buried here among our nation's warriors. He died so that we can live. By keeping their memories alive, we honor the dead and keep them alive forever. Do you understand that?

      “Yes Sir…I do. Thank you Chief…for taking me to see my Father.”

      “Alex, I was honored. Be proud.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Speech Given at the North Schuylkill High School 2010 Football Banquet, January 9, 2011

I am honored and humbled to speak before this esteemed audience; the players, coaches, cheerleaders, parents, relatives and friends of the 2010 North Schuylkill Spartans football team. So, first and foremost, let’s give it up for these lads and ladies.


In addition, I have to be honest, it is also a little strange to both be speaking here this afternoon, as well as living here, back in Schuylkill Co. for the first time since 1982 when I graduated from Cardinal Brennan High School and left for East Carolina University. The path for me as a football player, a coach and fan of the game has really has come full circle.

Technically, I didn’t start out as a Spartan, but by the proximity of geography and the bonds of friendship, I really might as well be. As Robyn mentioned in my introduction, I grew up in Frackville, 319 N. Center St., a stone’s throw from the Little League field at the top of town, in a trailer—it is still there. Then as I started my freshman year in 1978, we moved to Cresswell Gardens, a stone’s throw from North Schuylkill  High School. I played my first football game at Memorial Field in Frackville, and I played my last high school football game at North Schuylkill High School’s field, which CB used as our home field back during my days.

During those days, I also played basketball in your gym, snuck under the fence on Sunday’s to play tackle football on your field, I swam in your pool, and attended plays and productions in your auditorium. I even kissed a few of your girls at NS dances in the dark corners of the cafeteria. In between, I roamed coal region roads and the streets of Frackville, Ashland, Girardville, Ringtown, and the likes in cars filled with both Spartans and Chargers, and an occasional Blue Devil or Golden Bear sprinkled in for good measure.  We are all the sons and daughters of Coal Cracker culture, north of the mountain style. So now, after having the honor and pleasure to work at practice and on the sidelines with these incredible coaches and players, I guess I can say I truly am a Spartan. For this, I am truly thankful.

Though some things have changed since I left the “Skook” in 1982, other things did not. The first time I looked at the 2010 NS roster, I had to laugh. I might as well have been reading names on a NS or CB roster from the early 80’s. I saw names like Houser, McGrath, Kaufman, Grove, Gownley, Gallagher, Flail, Pavalko, Dean, Hutnick, Yagielinski, Noon, Green, Hughes… you get the idea. It was like I was in a time machine.

The story of how I came from the stands as a fan and casual observer, to a “volunteer part time coach/consultant” for the Spartans, and now as your speaker on this occasion is a testament to the undying and relentless love and passion for football in the coal region tradition.

I've  known Rick and Glenn Geist a long time. As soon as I moved back to Pa., Glenn started working on me. “Big Al, you gonna coach with us or what?” If you haven’t figured it out, it is very difficult to tell a Geist “no”, as that’s not a part of their vocabulary. Each time he asked, I’d tell him the same thing. “I would love to, but I work out of Harrisburg, I travel the state, and I never know where I’ll be in Pa. when the day ends.” In addition, my kids still lived in NC, and I knew I would be spending weekends out of state and in the Carolinas. I didn’t want to make a commitment I couldn’t follow through on, and I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep. That aside, Glenn and I spent a good part of the spring and summer talking about the upcoming season; he kept telling me how great these guys were, and what the Spartans were going to do on offense and defense. Of course, he kept asking me to coach, and I kept giving him the same answer. Finally, 3 games into the season, on the Sunday prior to the Haven game, he wore me down. We were sitting out on his back porch like we often did, talking about football.

“Big Al, I really need your help and I could use an extra set of eyes. Why don’t you try to come out to practice once a week on offense days? Come on, do it for me.” I pointed out to him that the offense was averaging 46 points a game and the defense had yet to give up a score, and that NS really didn’t need me. “We need to get better” was his reply. “Come on, do it for me, you’ll love these kids.” He just wouldn’t take “no”, so finally, I said “yes”.

I showed up for offensive practice that Wednesday, and he was right. I loved these kids. They were tough, hardworking, respectful, fun, and passionate about football. It had been over 10 years since I had coached, and now, I was back in the thick of it. About 30 seconds after I met these guys, I was hooked.

For those of us who have had the honor to play the game, we know down deep that football is the greatest team sport ever invented. The lessons learned from our collective football experiences shape us into the men we become. We are a man’s man, and women love us. It’s a fact.

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned? Honestly, they are so multiple, vast, and comprehensive, that I can’t even begin to do them all justice in a 15 minute speech here this afternoon, and the Eagles are on at 4:30. However, I think I have just enough time to share a few bedrocks of my football foundation. We’ll call them the “Big Lessons”. As you travel through life, you’ll fill in the missing pieces yourself, and you will work out your own perspective. But for now, listen up, and learn from mine.

1.  Football teaches you about life…plain and simple. You learn how to deal with adversity, pain, joy, and love. It pushes you mentally and physically to do things you never thought you could do, and it teaches you to play nicely with others. You learn respect—both how to earn it and how to give it; you learn about citizenship, in that you wear your school’s name proudly across your chest and that what you both say and do, on and off the gridiron, is a reflection of your school, your town, and your family. Football teaches you discipline—how to both control and unleash yourself, as well as when to do it and when not to; it is a continual quest to find that “Zen Zone” that allows you to perform in concert with your teammates like a well oiled bulldozer. Perhaps the biggest life lesson I’ve learn from football is that it teaches you how to persevere.

Perseverance, noun: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.  In short, never give up, never quit.

That means when you get knocked down, laid out, or smacked in the mouth, you get yourself back up again, pull your head together, and get ready for another play. Next time, you deliver the blow. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Act accordingly in both cases.  

2. Football teaches you about toughness. Of course, you come from the Coal Regions, so you get a double dose of tough. If you come from here, and you go out in the world, you’re ready for just about anything. And, if you play Coal Region football, that makes you even tougher, as far as I’m concerned. This is a tough place with tough people and tough football fans with high expectations. That being said, you train your body to take a beating, you train your mind to be sharp, and you gather strength from your teammates during those moments when times are tough. When it is hot and you are hurting, when your body is so sore and your legs so tired you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck, when the million distractions of life outside football cloud your focus, it becomes very easy to not do your best, or in some cases to quit. That is weak, and there is no room for weakness in this game. Not only does the game teach you toughness, but your daily interaction with your teammates, coaches, and the people who support you help instill this virtue as well. At North Schuylkill High School, if you take time to look around, you will not have to look far to see that you are surrounded by toughness. My advice to you is to open your eyes and ears, and pay attention to the lessons on toughness that exist in your life on a daily basis.

As a matter of fact there are 3 men in this room today who have, and continue to teach me life-long lessons about toughness. The first is Joe Halko. You all know Joe and what a great friend he is to Spartan athletics.

In the spring of 1983 at East Carolina, after a redshirt fall where I took my beatings on the scout team, I prepared myself to participate in my first spring football practice and compete for a position on the depth chart. In the first practice, on the first play, in the first live full contact drill, I blew knee out on a 1 on 1 drive block. I found out later that my patellar tendon, the tendon that holds the knee cap in place, decided to let go, and my knee cap shot out to the left side of my knee and was dislodged.

I was scheduled for surgery, and I spent almost 2 months in a straight cast from my ankle to the top of my hip. 1 week before I was to return home for the summer, the Doc cut my cast off to reveal a sagging lump of flesh that used to be my right leg. The muscles had atrophied, and my leg resembled a gelatinous blob that reminded me of blubber.

“Well,” the Doc said as I stared in shocked disbelief at what was left of my leg, “if you want to play football again, you need to make the right leg look like the left leg. Good luck with the physical therapy…have a nice summer.” I have to admit, I thought I was a pretty tough guy, but that day I cried.

So, I went home for the summer, and the first thing I did was go see Joe Halko. He agreed to work me out, 3 times a week, at 7:30 in the morning, before his office even opened. Over the next few months, there were at least a 1000 times that I just wanted to quit, give up, and make the pain end. Rehabbing that knee and leg was one of the toughest things I had ever done up to that point of my life, and it was a good thing I had one of the toughest guys I know to work me through it. While I worked my leg and knee, Joe would yell at me, get in my face, call me names like “girly boy”, and taunt me with phrases like, “I didn’t know you were from Chendo” and reduce me to a blubbering idiot, 3 times a week, all before 8 a.m. I would just barely walk out of his office, dripping with sweat, beet red, limping like a peg-leg pirate, with Joe behind me, still taunting me, “You coming back on Wednesday, or you just going to quit wussy-boy?” This relentless abuse carried on for 3 months.  In the end, it did take all three months, but I returned to camp in the beginning of August and passed my physical. If it hadn’t been for Joe and his relentless drive and toughness, I don’t know that I would have ever made it back.  Thank you, Joe Halko.

The next man who continues to teach me toughness is Assistant Coach Glenn Geist.  He was already a Spartan legend by the time we became friends and teammates at East Carolina University. I have to be honest, it felt good to have a coal region guy who had my back, and I his, a long way from home down in Dixie. One thing I’ve learned about Glen is that he is a man of action, not talk, and during our time together at ECU, I witnessed many feats of toughness—many of which I can’t repeat in this room, but two in particular  loom large in my memory, even today.

Early on, Glenn developed a deep love for the food at the training table, especially lunch. When he discovered that he could order as many double cheeseburgers as he could eat, it was game on. One day, in the winter of 1984, I sat with him at lunch and watched in amazement as he took down a record 15 double cheeseburgers. He wasn’t looking for attention; he was just spending quality time with his comfort food. It is tough to impress college football players, but a buzz spread across the room as he made return trip after return trip to the grill. Finally, as he finished the 15th double cheeseburger and leaned back into his chair, the room erupted in wild cheers. I might add that he had a piece of pie for dessert.

The other incident also had its start at the training table. For some time Glenn had been listening to Marcus Colerain, one of our teammates, talk about what a great wrestler he was and how dominate wrestling was in South Carolina. Colerain frequently bragged that he was the SC heavy weight state runner up for two years in a row.

Finally, one night at dinner, Glenn had enough. When Marcus finished talking, he quietly challenged Colerain to a wrestling match. “When?” Marcus asked.  “Now, up in the lobby of the dorm” was Glenn’s reply. Word travels quickly, and at the time, we all lived in the same dorm. Soon, there was a procession from the training table to the dorm, the furniture in the lobby was moved, and the room was quickly packed with about 75 guys.

The match began, and Glenn Geist from Germantown Pa, wiped the lobby up with Marcus Colerain, two time SC state heavyweight runner up. After pinning Colerain, Glenn told him. “That’s why you were runner up…”

I am sure it is no surprise that the third "tough guy" in this room is Coach Rick Geist. He was already a legend, even way up in Frackville, back in 6th, 7th and 8th grade when the Trojans played Ashland. His legend loomed large and we were all afraid of him. He was a man-child then; he was a wrecking ball in high school and a defensive monster.  We would eye each other cautiously at parties when our paths crossed, and I have to be honest…he scared me.  I had heard lots of stories, and I knew he was tough.

In June, of 1982 Rick and I were teammates on the Schuylkill County Senior All Star Football Team. That year, for the first time, we would be playing against the Berks County All Star team.

Rick suggested we ride together and car pool for the practices down at Schuylkill Haven High School. I really didn’t want to be in a car with him alone, but I was too scared to tell him no.  He drove first, and we shared a quite ride down for our first practice, the Monday after graduation. It was hot, we were in full gear, and practice was hard. We got back into his car for the ride home had some quiet conversation about the other players from other schools on the team.  I’d ask him, what did you think of Jones, or Miller, or Smith, as I went down the roster, and his stock answer was “He Sucks”.  As far as Rick was concerned, there was no one tougher than him. This is something he still believes today, and something he believes about his players. I can’t argue with him.

3.  That last lesson that football teaches, I believe, is about the supreme value, comradeship—love of your fellow man, your brothers. Football is not war, but in my experiences it is the closest thing to it, minus the bullets flying and the shells exploding, and the war metaphor is one that is often applied to the game of football. Through shared suffering and jubilation, a bond is built among teammates, an esprit de corp, if you will, that lasts a life time. In true team settings, you do your job and you do it correctly, not just for yourself, but for the man next to you, for your buddy, for your brother.

I am reminded of a scene from the HBO Mini-Series, Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks. The series follows “Easy” Company of 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne, from their drop behind the German lines in Normandy on D Day in June, 1944, and then across Europe and into Germany as WWII comes to a close in May of 1945. 

In the final episode, at the end of the war, a German General formally surrenders to the 506th and then asks for permission to address his troops one last time. It is ironic to me that the title for this epic American story, comes from a speech by a German General, but his words ring true, and I think apply here today. As the officer speaks, an American soldier who speaks German translates for Major Winters, the CO of the 506th:

“Men, it has been a tough war and a long war. We have fought bravely and valiantly for our country. You are a special group. We found in one another a bond that exists only in combat and among brothers. We have shared fox holes and we held each other in dire moments. We have seen death and suffered together. I am proud to have served with each of you. You deserve long happy lives in peace.”

It has been my experiences that the bond of comradeship forged during our football experiences has lasted a lifetime, and will never cease, even at death.

So, Spartans, hopefully, you will find these lessons from football hold true, and you will forge your own as you go through your life. Just remember to keep your eyes and ears open, and always be a humble student of the game.

In closing, I’d like to finish with some words of wisdom, my friend, Bob Kempsey. On Monday, November 22, 2010, I was on my way home from work in Harrisburg. It was a very emotional day as we had lost to N. Lehigh 48 hours earlier in the playoffs to finish 11-1. In addition, it was also my daughter’s 9th birthday, and it was the first time I was not with her to celebrate. I was an emotional wreck, and not ready to go home or to stop playing football. Sad and depressed, I stopped by Bob’s house at the bottom of the mountain in Gordon. We talked about the game a little bit, and then he said something that hit home and helped—even if just a little bit—to put things into perspective for me.

He said, “You know, I was a little upset with some of the people in the crowd at the end of the game. They were booing and jeering, complaining about the game, and bitching about what you all did wrong, and you know, it kind of ticked me off. These people quickly forget how much love and joy this team has brought to this area over the last few years. They made Friday nights fun, and they brought a lot of happiness and love to a place that doesn’t always breed love or happiness. People should be giving these guys a lot more love.”

Spartans, on behalf of all the “Skooks” north of the mountain, I’d like to personally thank you for the love. Your feats and accomplishments both on and off the field have made my life a better one, and I am a wiser and stronger man for the experiences I have shared with you. Always remember the lessons the game of football has given you, and never forget that you are obligated to give something back to the game. If you do that, that game lives on for future generations. Thanks for love, Lads…

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Recruit

Dedicated to my Father, Jim Alexander, July 27, 1938—February 07, 1970, on his Birthday
Part I: Mozella
As my son Jim’s high school days ended, I knew he couldn’t wait to leave the farm and go to college. His daddy, Glendon, though he would never say it out loud, hoped that Jim might want to stick around to work the farm, and maybe he could also help out a bit down at Uncle Donald’s Garage on the side. However, Glendon wanted Jim to do what life called him to do; he loved working with his oldest son, and he would miss Jim after he left for school. As it grew closer to graduation, down deep, Glendon knew that the boy would not be satisfied working seventy acres of Indiana land for the rest of his life.
Graduation at North Salem High School came and went, as did summer. Jim had gotten a music and academic scholarship and that fall he went off to college. As far as we could tell from his frequent letters and an occasional phone call, his first year at Indiana State University was uneventful.  He was playing the tuba in the ISU Marching Band, working a few hours a week at a gas station down there in Terra Haut, studying and going to class. He never did give us much information about his personal life. However, once over Christmas break of that first year, he did hint, with a wily smile, that he met a girl who had become quite soft on him, but that’s all he would say.  I remember asking him “Well, Jim, are you soft on her?” He just gave me that wily smile of his again, and said nothing. He had good grades that first year, and he came home for the summer, happy to work on the farm and help out in Donald’s garage in the evenings. That was a good summer.
Now, I’m not exactly sure what all happened in that the fall semester of his second year, but it seems Jim ran into some trouble.  Now, I don’t mean trouble with the law or anything like that; he was always a good and respectful boy.  I said earlier that Jim had no fear, but I guess I wasn’t exactly truthful about that. He did, just like most folks do, mind you, have a fear of failure. Maybe he’d spread himself too thin; I just don’t know, but he started struggling in school.
 My boy, Jim, always had a dern good head for numbers, but a math class that semester was really giving him a fit. Jim was never a complainer, but he was a smart boy, and I suspect the Professor may have had something to do with his problems. Either way, back in those days, you couldn’t drop a class in college. You were in it for the long haul.  Rather than take a failing grade in the math class, he decided to drop out of school and come on home back to the farm. Years, later, he sorta hinted that the gal who was soft on him had started to get a “marrying look” in her eyes. This also scared him a little, and maybe that had an impact on his decision.
The grades, the girl—my boy was not ready for any of this, so I reckon he thought it was time to get moving. He didn’t discuss any of this with Glendon and me before he made his mind up. He just showed up at home one day in November after it was all said and done, bags in his hand and a long look on his face. Well, neither of us was very happy with his decision, and Glendon made him to go look for a job that very day. It wasn’t that Glendon wasn’t sympathetic. He was just practical, and he always thought work was a fine cure for whatever was ailing your mind. So, just like that, Jim went from a classroom at ISU to the old steel mill in Danville within the span of forty-eight hours. 
          I did feel badly for my baby boy, but I had to let him grow up and figure things out on his own. I know this was the beginning of a very unsettling time in his life.  He did know what he wanted to do with his life, and he had no direction. I knew this bothered him, and I knew he was ashamed of himself because he left school, he did not like failure. I could tell it didn’t take long for frustration from the monotony of working at the old steel mill to set in and bring him down even more. It just broke my heart. 
     I have to hand it to him though; that boy didn’t complain much, and after a few months, Jim settled into a predictable routine. He was working the second shift at the steel mill, tinkering on cars and farm equipment in Donald’s garage, and he helped Glendon on the farm in between all that. Glendon had his boy back on the land, but truth be told, he wished his boy had come back to the farm because he wanted to, not because he had to. One night, we were talking about it, and Glendon opened up a book of Robert Frost’s poems. He turned to Death of the Hired Man.
     “Here it is Mozella, this is the line I’ve been thinking about since Jim came home.” He pushed his reading glasses up on his nose and spoke the lines from the book. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He paused and sighed. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way for him. I really wish it didn’t.”
      To save a few dollars, Jim began riding to and from work at the mill with some fellows who lived in Jamestown, a small village about three or so miles from our farm.  
        I know most of those Jamestown boys, and they were good eggs. They worked hard, but I also know Jim always felt a little uneasy with them. He’d known some of them, but the folks in Jamestown went to a different school. Once, I overhead him telling Glendon about how they teased him for being a college boy with his vocabulary and jabber of books and such. Jim knew it was good-natured ribbing and was a good sport about it; he had a good sense of humor, but I could tell it got stuck in his craw a little too. A mother can sense these things.
     When payday rolled around at the mill, the boys from Jamestown liked to stop by for a few drinks and a game or two of cards at one of the local bars after the second shift ended at 11:00 p.m.   Jim didn’t mind this too much except on days when he had to be at Donald’s garage at 7 in the morning, and as long as he was riding with the Jamestown boys, there wasn’t a whole he could do about it. I’d like to think differently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a snort or two himself from time to time.
      Now, my boy’s life really took a turn one night that March. To tell you honestly, the lives of many a folk in this particular part of the country took a turn that night too.  Now, I never could get much out of Jim about exactly what happened to him, but he did share a little with me the night before he went off to Vietnam the first time. 
     That Friday was payday at the mill, and as usual, after the shift ended the Jamestown boys stopped to play cards and toss back a few.  Jim really wasn’t in the mood to stop that night. He had work at Donald’s garage the next morning, and he wanted to go home and get some sleep. Those boys promised him they would just have a few cold ones and play a couple of hands of poker. Well, Jim told me one beer led to another for those boys, and one hand of poker led to the next. By 1 a.m., he knew this was going to be a long night for the Jamestown boys, and Jim was fed up. He knew it was too late to call us for a ride, and rightly so. Glendon would have never gone to get him.  He also said he thought about hitching a ride, but there was little, if any, traffic that time of night heading in our direction.  Funny thing was, when Jim got to this part of the story, he paused for a moment.  It seems he struggled with something, but I didn’t rush him. I just sat and waited until he started back up. 
     He began again, “Mom, I can’t really tell you much more except I decided to walk home.”  I smiled at him and rustled his hair. That was my Jim. I’m sure he figured that at least he would be moving, and motion was always a friend to my boy. As long as he was in motion, Jim always felt like he was going somewhere.  Ever since he was a baby, he’s been like that. Well, Jim never talked much more with me about that night, and I never pressed him to either.  The only one who knows the true story is Jim.
Part II: Jim
            It was well into Saturday morning when young Jim Alexander stepped out of the Red Dog Saloon and set off towards the edge of Danville.  When he reached the open land skirting the town limits, he paused and looked across the fields in the direction of home. There wasn’t a car in sight, and there would be no hitching a ride. Using the big blinking red beacon atop the giant radio tower over towards Brownsburg as his guide, Jim got his bearings. This light sat on the shoulders of a hulking metal tower built during World War II, and its amber glow could be seen for miles.  He knew this would provide the navigation he needed to get home.  He figured it was about eight miles or so as the crow flies, north by northwest.
     It was very early spring now, and the fields of central Indiana were just about primed for planting. There was still a nip in the air; Jim pulled his jacket collar up and set his brogues on a brisk pace over the countryside across on a beeline for the farm. A half moon lit his way through the fields, and faintly, he could see some lightening to the east and hear the distant thunder of a nasty early spring storm.
     The walk gave him plenty of time to think and put his life in perspective, and after mulling and stewing for a while; Jim began to talk out loud to himself. 
      “James, life is not working out as you had planned, now is it?”  He smiled at the sound of his voice carrying across the fields. He continued, mimicking the voice and air of an old teacher. 
“James, Dear Lad, prospects for your future are not very promising either, now are they? Sure, you could always keep working with Uncle Donald and Cousin Wesley at the garage. Sure, there will always be something to repair or fix, and you will always have a job, but is that all that life has to offer to you, Lad?” He grew quiet and thought for a moment, then speaking aloud as if to answer the teacher’s questions. 
     “Well,” he began in a defensive tone, “I could go back to school, but I would have to pay my way completely. I lost my scholarship when I left school, and Mom and Dad don’t have the money to give me, or even loan me for that matter. Hey, maybe I could move up to Indianapolis and find a better job and start saving some money so I could go back to college.”
Lost deep in those thoughts and a million others, and only a quarter of the way home, Jim began to feel some faint raindrops on the back of his neck.  He did not realize the distant storm was now an imminent threat.
Folks in that part of Indiana still speak in hushed and reverent tones about the storms that rolled through that part of the country in March of 1958. They were some of the worst and most destructive in Indiana history, and they spawned massive tornadoes that cut a deadly and destructive swath from east to west across the entire length of the state. As this event began to unfold, somewhere in the middle of the chaos, out in the open fields between Danville and Lizton, was young Jim.  Just about that time, back on the farm, his Mom was a little worried.
Part III: Mozella
As a mother, I can’t help but worry about my babies. I spent a lot of time worrying that night. To this day, I thank the Good Lord those tornadoes missed our farm by a half mile. Lots of land around us was badly ripped up, and the destruction looked like the path of a giant lawn mower run out of control over the fields. Lord knows, it really tore up some of our fields, but that was the least of my worries.   
Glendon shook me awake, yelling, “Mozella, get the boys. A twister is brewing!” I rushed to the boys’ rooms, rousing John Allen, with Jim not to be found. I could hear the wind howling and the rain pelting the house from the moment Glendon had woke me up, and I had no earthly idea he was walking home in this storm! If I did, I would have been fit to be hog tied… I’m not sure what I would have done if I did know.  Screaming, sideways rain and wind whipped the dark night into a furry. Glendon yell over the howl at the top of his lungs as I pushed John Allen into the shelter.
“WHHERE IS JIM?
“HE’S NOT HOME! I’ll never forget how we locked eyes at that moment, realizing something may have already happened to Jim. Glendon helped me down the steps.
“Mom, where’s Jimmy?” John Allen was scared, not just for himself, but for his big brother.
“It’s ok, Honey. Jim is fine. Just hold tight.”
We all hunkered down, but I refused to let Glendon lock the door from the inside. If Jim made it home and needed shelter, I wanted to make sure he could get in here. Up until he passed on, Glendon often teashed about how hard it was to hold that door shut from inside, even with John Allen’s help. 
Now, that wind screamed and wailed that night. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and I’d rather not ever hear anything like that again as long as I live. I can tell you that. The storm seemed to last forever. When we finally came out of the cellar, it was dawn, and there was a divide in the sky that I had never seen in my life. To the east, early light spread across the sky and the landscape like a light blanket. To the west, the sky and land were dark and black, with almost a solid line spreading across the sky separating the two sides. Limbs, trees, and parts of trees littered the landscape. It was a mess! John Allen and Glendon chattered with each other in amazement, and I walked up to the high spot on our land to survey the damage. I was afraid of what I would see of the surrounding country. What I did see was both heartwarming and disturbing at the same time. There he was…Jim, walking across the last field that separated him from home.  It was around six a.m.
Like I said earlier, Jim would never talk much about that night, but he must have seen either Heaven or Hell! I’m not sure which.  I yelled to Glendon and John Allen to come up here and there we all stood, watching Jim slowly advance. As he drew closer, we all could see that his clothes were torn and ragged; he was missing a boot and carrying the other, and his body, where we could see it through his tattered clothes, was covered with dirt and bruises.
Seeing us, he broke into an awkward gallop, waving his arms in the air. He was jabbering a little when he first recognized us, and he was not making much sense. As far as I could tell, nothing looked broken on him. That was good, but still I was worried. He seemed happy to see us. I gave him a big hug and immediately starting to fret and fuss over him, but Glendon put his hand on my shoulder and told me to just let him be.
We would find out later that the Red Dog Saloon, the bar Jim left that night in Danville, was smashed to splinters when a tornado plowed through the north side of town. Everyone in the place, including those poor boys from Jamestown, was killed.  It was a very sad time, and my boy was very lucky to be alive.   
I watched my son as he staggered into the house, and I swear, he took the longest bath I have ever known a boy or man to take.  He came out the bathroom looking like a prune, and he passed by us without saying a word. Then, believe it or not, he dropped into his bed and slept for almost 24 hours! I tried to wake him that evening for a meal, but he would not budge. Again, Glendon told me to just let him be, and so finally I did.
The day after the tornadoes was just as memorable in our family, and sometimes I’m not sure which day was worse for me as a Mother.  When Jim finally woke up the following morning, we were all sitting around the table finishing up breakfast. You know how some memories just stick with you? Well, I can still recollect how that morning March sun slowly crept through the east window, and there must have still been a chill in the air, because I also remember a small fire crackling and popping in our old wood stove.
Even with the fire burning, I still felt a deep chill than ran right down to the bone when I heard the door to Jim’s room, just off the kitchen, swing open with a slow squeak. I turned from the stove and saw my boy come out like Lazarus from the dead.  John Allen looked up from his eggs, smiling and saying, “Hiya Jimmy! It is good to see you awake!”
 Me, I didn’t say much of anything; I just studied my boy over the tops of my specs. A mother’s intuition told me he was not the same fella who left the house days earlier, and I had a feeling now was a time to listen, not talk. At least he had gotten home safely through the storm. Glendon peered up at Jim from over the top of the morning paper, nodded at him, and went back to the news. That was just his way.
Jim walked over to the stove, gave me a hug and a kiss on the top of the head. That boy loved some breakfast meat, I swear, I and watched him slowly and deliberately take a piece of bacon from the plate next to the cast iron skillet. He leaned against the counter, chewed on the bacon thoughtfully, and cleared his throat, speaking to Glendon.
 “Dad, I really need to borrow the Dodge today. I have to go to Indianapolis and see a man about a job.”
I can still recall how Glendon looked directly at Jim, fixing his eyes to Jim’s bright blue eyes. I swear, I will never forget that gaze between the two of them, and then Glendon nodded his head yes. My husband never wasted his words, and he wasn’t about to start now.  Sometime later, Glendon and I talked about that morning. We both agreed we heard something different and deeper in our son’s voice that day.
 Jim, my not-so-little boy, walked over and kissed me on the forehead again; he took another piece of bacon, and rustled John Allen’s hair as he walked back into his room and closed the door behind him.
Like I said before, only Jim really knows what happened in the middle of those Indiana fields that night, but one thing was for sure; my boy was different when he woke up that day.  Heck, I don’t even think he was a boy anymore. I am his Mama, and I do notice things.  I always told Glendon that Jim’s blue eyes took on a darker shade after that night in the fields, and at times they seemed to glow and look right through you. I guess, about that time, Jim was already thinking about going into the service.
Part III: New Recruit
The Army recruiting office on Market Street in Indianapolis was empty of prospects when Jim walked in at noon. A hulking Sergeant named Pratt manned the post, and he considered himself to be an instrument of all that was “Army” at that time in America. Pratt had lied about his age to fight in WWII, he had gone toe to toe with the Koreans and Chinese a few years back, and now his final duty station for ole Uncle Sam had him shaking trees in search of young men to follow in his footsteps. Pratt knew freedom depended on men like him, and he sized Jim up in the twenty paces from the door to his desk. Jim looked like his kind of man. His pitch was believable because he lived the life of a soldier, and he prided himself on being able to size up the men who came through his door. Pratt also must have noticed something in his eyes.  In that instant, the Sergeant knew that the Army life was the only life for this searching young man.
From the dawn of civilization, military service had provided a place for young men to learn discipline, honor, and self-worth, and Pratt preached this mantra to each wandering soul that crossed the threshold into his recruiting station. Pratt put on a really good show that day; he only needed a few more recruits for that month to set a new Army record for the Indianapolis post.  He limped animatedly about the room and swooning and swaying Jim with timeless tales of guts and glory; he promised the passage from boyhood to manhood and Jim was impressed.   Finally, Pratt’s show ended, and two hours had quickly passed. Not a soul entered the office during that time, and Jim felt as if he had been treated to a private command performance.
Easing back into his seat, Pratt stared at Jim. Jim stared back.  He wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next.
“Well,” said Pratt, “Why don’t you join up, Jimmy?  Let’s see if you’ve got the stuff it takes.” Jim, not ready to make a decision at that particular moment, asked Pratt for some brochures and information that he could take home to look over and share with his Father. Pratt knew he could not lose this one, and as he eased out of the chair to grab some papers, he decided he would use some divine intervention.  Pratt was making Jim’s decision for him.
Driving the twenty-five miles back to the farm that late afternoon, Jim felt both excitement and trepidation at the thought of an Army career. However, he decided he would come back to Indianapolis the next day and hear what the Navy and Marines had to say before he made any more decisions.  If the other guys were even half as interesting and entertaining, just experiencing the recruiting pitches alone would be worth the time he spent in those offices.
  That night at supper Jim took his usual place at the table.  He looked across at his father, and suddenly realized for the first time he was seeing his surroundings and environment in a different way. He drifted off… 
 He noticed how silhouettes and shadows cast by the setting sun danced across his father’s face like gypsies round a fire. His mom moved like a ghost across the floor, quickly and quietly putting out the full dishes of food. There was still talk of the tornadoes, and John Allen was excited because school would be closed again tomorrow. He would have time to work on his car.
“Jimmy, can you help me start to rebuild the transmission tomorrow?  Uncle Donald said I could get in the garage to work on it.”
 The question brought Jim’s attention back to reality, and he responded with a “huh?”
John Allen looked back with a furrowed brow; this was not like his brother. Finally, for the first time during the meal, Jim spoke.
“Folks, I’m thinking about going into the military.” His mother looked up at him and his father stopped chewing.  Time seemed to stand still.  Finally, John Allen broke the silence.
“Neato Jim!”
             Slowly, Jim’s father looked up from his plate of fried chicken, potatoes, and beans.
            “What branch, Jim?” he asked, as he looked his boy in the eye.
 With that, Jim excitedly began telling the family the story of his afternoon with Pratt.
“He even gave me some information to show you, Pop, but I had to sign a release to get it.” With this statement Jim drew the tale of his day in Indianapolis to a close. Silence hung in the air, and then Glendon spoke.
 “Go get the papers.”
The hiss and flare of fire and the smell of sulfur filled the air as Glendon lit his pipe and spread out Jim’s information on the table.  Mozella cleared dishes,  and John Allen went out to slop the hogs.  Glendon, always a stickler for detail, looked thorough everything carefully while his son sat and stared at his reflection in the east window.
As Glendon finished reading the very last piece of paper, the carbon copy Jim had signed, he began to chuckle softly.  Jim didn’t understand what the joke was, so he waited for his father to let him in on it. Mozella, recognizing the chuckle, stopped cleaning dishes and came to look over Glendon’s shoulder. The chuckle grew louder, and finally, Glendon took his glasses off to wipe a tear from the corner of his eye. He put the last piece of paper down, and for the second time that day, he looked his first-born square in the eyes. 
“Son,” he began in his deep, commanding voice, “You’re not going to believe this, but you are already in the United States Army.”
 A look of bewilderment crept over the faces of Jim and Mozella.
“James, the papers you signed are enlistment papers—did you read the fine print?” Jim’s jaw dropped to the floor.
 Mozella walked into the living room and sank down into the old hickory rocker.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nimbus


Bedazzled by Dusk,
Where the circus of Sunset
Meets the mighty Milky Way,
Roustabout stars
Sling super nova dust
Over the end of a perfect day.

Walking the midway,
Where the universe melts
Cosmos like fine ice cream,
We take in the sights
From the Ferris wheel
And ride a carousel of corona dreams.

The big top beckons,
Where comets command
Luna to jump through fire,
We gaze in amazement
At the celestial show
And feel the gravitational pull of desire.

Then you look in my eyes
Where the planets align
And deliver a cotton candy kiss,
I feel gravity release
And my oxygen depletes
As I am lost in the embrace of your nimbus.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Solar Flare




The countdown commences.
With the first flash of force
Eyes lock and
The boil begins
With no simmer, as
Bubbles burst in an
Ethereal atmosphere.

Lips meet in
A kindled kiss, and
Blast off begins.
Tangled arms tether
Us together against a
G-force thrust.

We flee our flaming orbit;
Unwrapped galaxy and
Infinite universe awaits.
Unrestrained gravity
Glides you to my lap,
And leisurely I enter
Your space.

With incremental movement
We melt into motion
And embark on our
Cosmic tango.

From deep in space
The blaze begins to burn
And lashes of flame
Lick at burning bodies
Lost in exploration.
Scorching, sizzling,
Boiling, blistering,
Fahrenheits unfathomed.
Without fear,
I fill you
With a solar flare.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Restraining Order


 Duty bound me
To restrain myself
And not cast another
Sly gaze her way,
For if I did, I knew,
I just knew,
--I was a dead man.

The old men, who sat stoically round
The coal stove on wicked winter days,
Would speak of such a phenomenon.
They tried to warn me then,
But being a boy
I only half heard.

“There’ll be jus’ one, little lad
She’ll grab holda’ ya
Before ya ever know it,
And then, Lad, It’ll be too late.
You’ll carry’er for the rest of yer life.”

Another relic, then, would pipe in.
“Ya Boyo, it’ll only happen once
In yer life, so be on yer guard.”
Then, there was silence, save the
Sole sound of hard coal cracking.
Finally, affirmations of “Mmm-hmm”
Were passed around the circle
Like the big jug
From which they would slowly sip all day.

I hated when the Seniors became serious,
So, I would sit to the side, patiently,
Waiting for stories to start again.
They tried to warn me then,
But being a boy
--I only half heard.

Now, voices whisper sympathetically,
Prophets’ predictions from the past
Reaching the reality of this moment in time.
So, I did not look again,
--That day.

As our ships passed in the night,
I convinced myself I was a man,
And a strong-willed man has no fear.
I practiced increments of restraint,
That convinced me that I was in control.
I was a fool to flout the wisdom,
For when warned,
I was but a boy,
And I only half heard.

On a December day,
I cast control to the curb,
And I stared straight into the
Sweet abyss,
And I fell,
--Unrestrained.

When chains come unbound
Freedom is a beautiful thing,
And with wild abandon
We roamed together, freely,
Through that strange terrain,
A momentary kingdom.
But, we only half listened to
Our own warnings, when we
Promised we would practice
Restraint.

When logic prevails,
It can be a good thing,
Or a bad thing,
Or it can be nothing,
If you  maintain restraint.
Such are the choices we make.

“The madness must end
And I am done with you now!”
Words I would rather
Not hear.
Words, I did not hear,
But she still delivered them.
Whatever the reason,
Matters not.
Chop wood; carry water.
Unrestrained, and I knew
I had to heed.
Now, I was a man,
And I could not half hear.

Day turns to night,
Night turns to day,
And I struggled and stray
Through these concrete realms.
Be that as it may,
I cannot defy the courtly command
And I must abide by
The restraining order.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Haircut

Jim looked up at the calendar in the platoon office. He was waiting for Sgt. Black to arrive so together, they could take care of some business. It was Friday, January 23, 1970; he had a little over three months to go, and he would be finished with his tour of Vietnam. Then, with any luck, by June, Jim would receive orders to return as a flight instructor at Fort Wolters, and he could finish out his army career in Mineral Wells, Texas. This was his second time in Vietnam, and on this hitch, he was assigned to the 610th Transportation Company, stationed at Camp Viking on the coast of Vietnam, about 8 miles north of Da Nang. It was a good outfit, and Jim had the opportunity to do a lot of flying. The 610th was responsible for servicing and repairing helicopters, and in addition to flying the big Chinooks, Jim, as a senior aviator, also served as a test pilot on many of the repaired aircraft.

Jim really didn’t want to come back to Vietnam. During his first tour, back in 1966, he’d served with the 1st Aviation Battalion, attached to the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He did a lot of combat flying, and Jim had his share of some hairy missions. However, during the monsoon season, on a routine nighttime flight to pick up a wounded soldier, a fatal accident occurred. Faulty equipment caused his aircraft, the Bell Huey, to crash land at 100 mph. Jim was the only survivor of the accident. He once showed a pal of his a picture of the wrecked chopper. The friend marveled, commenting that it was “a miracle by the hand of God” that Jim survived.

After a year of recovery and rehab, he was sent to Wolters as an instructor. Jim figured he’d seen the last of Southeast Asia, but as the war dragged on, helicopter pilots were in high demand, especially experienced pilots. In addition, there were officers, Captains and Majors, and the like, with flight experience returning from tours of the Nam, and everyone had a pal who wanted a posting at Wolters. Those commissioned officers, no matter how much Army experience Jim had under his belt, outranked him, a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO). Nevertheless, he was not without friends of his own, and up to about a month before he was to leave for Vietnam, there was still a chance that Jim would not have to ship out and would stay at Ft. Wolters. In the end, things just didn’t work out. Now, with a few months to go, he was just trying to do his job, do it well, and return home in one piece. That was a challenge for anyone who set foot in Vietnam, especially in 1970.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad in Vietnam, and this assignment had its perks. Each day he would marvel at the beauty of the South China Sea as he jockeyed out of the flight line at Camp Viking and began to gain altitude with an aircraft. Jim’s unit provided general support to more than 1,000 aircraft, as well as reassembling, test flying, and issuing all Army aircraft arriving in Vietnam through Da Nang. That meant there was always something to do and fix, and there was always aircraft needing flying. The Cau Do River appeared like a giant snake winding its way through the countryside and through Da Nang, finally emptying into the sea. Often, clouds and mist lingered over Monkey Mountain and Marble Mountain, shrouding them like some hidden house of the Gods. Sights like that almost made him forget for a moment, if only a moment, that he was in a war.

While Jim enjoyed his work, the constant motion of flying and his assignments in the air, he found himself greatly bothered by apathy on the ground that seemed to prevail among some of the enlisted men stationed in and around Camp Viking. It wasn’t like that in 1966. Then, every man kept himself wired tight, but he also realized that in 66 he was attached to a combat unit. However, even then, in the rear, soldiers still at least put on the pretense of Army discipline. Four years later, Vietnam was a different place, but the Army was still the same Army, and Jim was an Army man, through and through. At his core, he believed that maintaining discipline was essential in Army life, especially in a war zone. As far as he was concerned, there were no exceptions to the rules, especially when you’d been given a chance to make things right, yet discipline seemed to grow more and more lax with each passing day.

Recently, he’d been having some problems with a Specialist 4 aircraft mechanic Malcolm Green. For two days now, Jim had mentioned in passing to Green that he needed to get a regulation military haircut, and each time they had crossed paths since then, Jim had noticed that Green’s hair was still not cut to Army regs. Finally, earlier that day of 23 January, after morning formation, CWO Jim Alexander had a word with Mr. Green.

“Specialist Green, I need to speak you. Remain after dismissal”
Green lingered as the rest of the company dispersed, going about their morning duties. Jim waited with Green until everyone was well out of earshot, and then he began to speak.
“Specialist Green, I instructed you, two days ago, to get a regulation Army haircut, and you have yet to do so.” Jim paused, eyeballing Green for a moment to gauge reaction, and then he continued.

“If I didn’t know any better, Soldier, I would think you were directly disobeying an order. That would be a big problem, Mister.” Green said nothing, starring forward blankly. Jim continued.

“Now, …you will get a hair cut, Mister, and…you will report to me at 1330 hours today with that haircut. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir” answered Green in a flat voice. There was something eerie in his tone.
“Dismissed!” barked Jim, and then the CWO turned and walked away.

Now, Jim waited in the platoon HQ area for Sgt. Black, Green’s squad leader, to arrive. It was 13:00 hours. The sound of Black coming through the door drew Jim’s attention away from the calendar.

“Master Sergeant Black reporting as ordered, Sir!” Black ripped off a sharp salute.
“At ease, Sergeant. We need to talk about one of your troops. You want a cup of Joe?”
“Thank you, Sir.”

Jim leaned back in the swivel chair and Black poured a cup of coffee and sat in one of the empty camp chairs scattered around the room.
“Tell me about Specialist 4 Green.”

“Well, Sir, I have been having some minor difficulties with him, Sir. He has a problem doing what he is told, and he has no drive. He is pretty much a loner, and I do not see him socializing with the other men very much. Lately, he has become even more difficult.” Jim was silent for a moment, and Black waited for him to speak.

“Well” said Jim, “I have directed him twice to get a hair cut, the last time this morning at formation. He has been instructed to report to me at 13:30 with a military haircut, and I want you to be here when he arrives.” Jim paused, “We are going to take care of this together.”
“Yes Sir! What will we do when he arrives, Sir?” Black seemed a little nervous, but Jim just smiled at him.

“Relax Sergeant; let’s just see what happens when he gets here.”

At 13:30, Private Malcolm Green entered the platoon shop area. He was a skinny kid, a draftee, from Jersey City, New Jersey. He was just two months shy of his twenty-first birthday. Green said nothing as he entered the shop, saluted, and silently he stood before the two men. Black immediately noticed that the soldier did not appear to have his hair cut.
Jim spoke first.

“Private, it appears you still have not gotten a military hair cut.”

Green said nothing. He just stood silently. Jim sat quietly for a moment, mulling over what the next course of action would be. Finally, he rose up from the chair and spoke.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Private; you, me, and Sergeant Black are going to all take a little stroll over to the camp barber shop and get a quick trim. What do you say Sergeant? You wouldn’t mind going over to the barber shop with me and Green, would you?”
“No Sir” answered Black. Finally, now shifting from foot to foot like he was uncomfortable, Green spoke.

“I have gotten a hair cut.” His voice was flat and emotionless. Something about the sound of it made Black a little uneasy, but this was CWO Alexander’s show, and he was calling the shots.
Rather than argue, CWO Alexander, an Army man through and through, just gave the soldier an order.

“Let’s go.” and he headed out of the shop door. As Black moved to follow, he turned to Green.
“Let’s move it, Private.”

Green reluctantly followed.

The three men moved across the open common area of the Viking compound in a staggered line. It was a beautiful afternoon. Nearby, a group of off duty soldiers played volleyball on a makeshift court, shirts off, sweating and laughing loudly, bantering about the score and who among them had the hardest serve. Other soldiers moved here and there between the shops and offices that circled the area. After about thirty or so paces, Jim heard a shrill voice cut through the air. It was Green’s. This time, there was emotion.

“I have been to the barber, and I do not want to get another haircut!” It was almost a scream.

Jim slowed stride long enough to yell back over his shoulder at Green.
“At ease, soldier! Don’t make a scene.” Green mumbled an inaudible response, and something in it made Sergeant Black turn and face Specialist 4 Malcolm Green.

For Master Sergeant Black, reality geared down into slow motion as he observed Green pull something from his left pants pocket. Instantly, a grim recognition shook Black, and things shifted back into full speed as he yelled out a warning.

“He’s got a grenade!”

Black, now frozen like a statue, observed as, in one motion, Green reached with his right hand and deliberately pulled the pin out of the grenade and cast it to the ground. Then, Green held the grenade up and released the spoon mechanism. The deadly ball of metal would detonate in exactly four seconds.

The reality of life and death brought Black back to life in a flash, and he moved quickly for cover around the corner of a nearby building. As he hit the deck and rolled, he could see CWO Alexander hurriedly walking back towards Green. He had closed the distance quickly, and Black saw him grab Green by the wrist of the upraised arm as Green made a motion to toss the grenade. Jim stopped Green cold. The men were face to face, and neither spoke a word. Black covered his head, hearing the loud explosion that followed the detonation of the grenade.

Acrid smoke hung in the air as Black ran back towards the two soldiers. Through the smoke, he could see both men lying on the ground. As he got closer, he spied Jim’s right arm, or what was left of it, sticking up in the air. The arm was missing from the elbow down, and some pulp that resembled what used to be the rest of his arm and hand, lay a few feet away.

Green was beside him on his back. A large pool of blood colored the sandy ground underneath him gray, and his face was blue. It was obvious, from the gaping hole in side of Green’s head, that he was probably dead. Another soldier knelt at Jim’s side.

“Sergeant,” said Jim weakly as Black kneeled over him, “Get me a tourniquet.” There was yelling and lots of activity now. The wail of the ambulance could be heard in the background. From somewhere among the crowd that had now gathered, a tourniquet was produced, but the Sergeant with Jim was struggling and shaking, trying to figure out the best way to dress his wounds. Calmly, Jim gave the soldier instructions on how to bandage what remained of his arm. The ambulance arrived as the soldier finished, and then Jim closed his eyes…


Dear Mom, January 28, 1970
As you may have heard from Dorothy, I am not now in Vietnam, but rather in a hospital in Japan recuperating from an accident.
The accident occurred when a mentally deranged soldier tried to toss a grenade into a platoon formation in my company. I attempted to restrain him but was not completely successful, and the grenade exploded, blowing off my right hand and giving me some minor shrapnel wounds on the right side of my body. Do not worry; I am in no danger, and I will be home in 4-6 weeks. In the meantime, try to keep your spirits and Dorothy’s spirits both up.
My address here is 106 General Hospital, APOSF, 96503. Just keep in touch with Dorothy and keep her cheered up. I will be glad to get any letters from any of the relatives, but they must be sent airmail to arrive in time. At least I will not have to return to Vietnam, so now maybe I can live at home together with Dorothy for the rest of our days.
Pass this information along to John and Ann, especially since John contacted the Red Cross. I am feeling fine and chipper and expect to recuperate fast. Take care now and write soon.
Yours,
Jim
P.S. This letter is being written for me by a Red Cross worker.

The official Army car wound its way down the country roads of Hendricks County until it reached the small farm between Lizton and North Salem, Indiana. Gravel crunched as it pulled into the driveway, and the old collie barked at the two strangers who stepped out of the car and knocked at the door. When she opened the door, Mozella, who was wise to the ways of the world, knew exactly what was happening. The Army officer and her Methodist minister stood in the cold February air. She motioned them to follow and then turned and headed toward the living room.

She sat back in her rocking chair, and the minister put his hand on her shoulder while the Captain offered condolences and handed her a Western Union telegram in a yellow envelope. Mozella opened the it with shaking hands and began to scan the lines of the message. Her eyes quickly filled with tears.

THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY HAS ASKED ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER JAMES H. ALEXANDER DIED IN JAPAN ON 7 FEBRUARY 1970 AS A RESULT OF THE INJURIES HE PREVIOUSLY RECEIVED IN ACTION. PLEASE ACCEPT MY DEEPEST SYMPATHY. MRS. DOROTHY ALEXANDER WILL FURNISH INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE RETURN OF YOUR LATE SON
KENNETH G. WICKHAM MAJOR GENERAL USA THE ADJUNTANT GENERAL DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY WASHINGTON DC.