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.
“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


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,

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

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.
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.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Paddlin'

There is no story that is not true.
~ Chinua Achebe

Author’s Note: Some dialogue in this work of fiction uses profanity. While I do not condone the use of profanity, its use was necessary to paint an accurate picture of selected characters. Those offended by this type of language should not read on…

On a December day in 1978, the day before Christmas break, Marco Manfredi walked into the Priest’s first period freshman Religion class just ahead of the bell. Glancing over, Marco could see the good Father, the Priest, at the front of the room, feet kicked up on the desk, reading the newspaper. This wasn’t unusual, and Marco was hoping the Priest would keep on reading, even after the bell rang because he had some work to do for his next class. Marco slipped into his desk, and looked up at the Father, waiting for class to start.

The Priest wore the traditional black garb and white collar of a Catholic man of the cloth…with one exception, that being the football shoes. Yes, at the school, and sometimes even when he held Mass, the Priest wore white Adidas Star football shoes with black stripes. Some of the guys got a kick out of it, but not many kids openly busted on the Priest. If you got caught doing that, you were sure to get a slap across the back of the head and a one-way ticket to Hell.

So, why did the Priest wear football cleats? Well, they were our team’s game shoes, and the Priest was the team Chaplin. However, the quiet consensus was that the Priest had as much reverence for the Coach as he did for the Almighty Himself. This always struck Marco and some of the boys as odd. The Coach was pretty much a brutal and savage guy, and he bred fear like a flash fire. That’s how he kept things under control, which seemed to clash with the whole peace, love, and agape that the Priest preached on those rare days when he was inclined to teach and live as a man of the cloth.

In fact, in the fall, Marco had read Of Mice and Men in his English class. He had joked with some of the guys that the Priest and the Coach were really kind of like George and Lenny. He put a good bit together, and he would crack the boys up on the bus home from school with his version of Of Men and Mieces.

“Coach is my friend. Coach, tell me more about the rabbits.”
“Goddamnit Father! I’m tired of fucking telling you fucking rabbit stories.”
“But Coach, I want to love them, and touch them, and pet them, and…”
“Shaddup, Father. Now go get me the church wine and a pouch of chew.”
“Ok Coach, ok Coach! Coach is my friend…”

That would usually get them yuckin’ it up on the bus, and Marco liked to make people laugh. He had a thing for impressions, and the chicks seem to dig it.
Sometimes, when they were together, it was fun to watch the Priest following the Coach around, and you could hear the Priest cursing, just like the Coach. He was definitely a secular wannabe, which was really somewhat sad. However, that really wasn’t Marco’s biggest concern at the moment. He had his mind set on the twenty-five terms that he had not yet looked up and defined for his next class.

When the bell rang, the Priest put his paper down and glared at the freshman over the thick round lenses of his John Lennon-style specs. He had a blonde bowl haircut that would have made Oliver Cromwell proud, and he always frowned before he talked.

“I’m not teaching today. Sit down, shut up and do something.”
Finally, in a Religion class, no less, God answered one of Marco’s prayers. He now had time to get his World Cultures homework done for second period.

“Thank you sweet Lord!” Marco muttered. He tapped Michael Murray on the shoulder. “Hey, man. Can I borrow a pencil?”

Marco buried his head, hunched over the textbook and study questions, and put his mind to work. If he could just get through this day, the rest of the week was gravy. Tomorrow was a half day, and after the school Mass, Christmas break began. The word was that after Mass, one of the girls from the junior class was having a big party at her Gran’s house over in Shenandoah. Granny was off to New York for the holidays, and her doting granddaughter was watching after Granny’s parrot.

Michael Murray started a deep, hushed conversation with Debbi Sweeny who was sitting next to him. They were talking about the party. Marco was soon lost in World Cultures. Abruptly, the voice of a pissed-off Priest drew Marco’s attention. It was directed at him.

“Manfredi, I thought I told you to shut up and do something.”
“Father, I’m not talking! I’m doing my homework for next period.”
“Don’t tell me what I hear and don’t hear Manfredi, just shut up and do something.”
This was a losing battle, and Marco answered with a respectful “Yes Father” and went back to work. The clock was ticking. Lost in a fog of definitions and terms from ancient Mesopotamia, Marco was soon back in his groove, and it looked as if he might actually get this homework done for the next class.

For a second time, Marco was pulled back by the sound of the Priest’s voice.
“Manfredi, are you deaf or what? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
In this reply, Marco got a bit more defensive and angry in his response to the Priest.
“Father, it’s not me! I’m not talkin’! I’m working on something.” at the same time holding his homework paper up and waving and rattling it, probably a bit more forceful than necessary, it in the air “Look Father!”

“Are you saying I don’t hear you talkin’, Marco?”
“Father, I’m sayin’ it’s not me you hear talking’, it’s them!” Marco pointed to Michael and Debbi in front of him. Normally, he didn’t sell out anyone, but this was getting ridiculous.

The Priest glared at Marco for a good ten seconds, but the glint of the ancient lighting in the classroom made his eyes invisible and hard to read. Marco glared back, perhaps with too much defiance. Finally, the Priest buried his face back behind the paper again, murmuring something that Marco couldn’t hear. Marco cast a glance to the big clock next to the crucifix on the front wall. He had twenty minutes left and fifteen more terms to define.

“Cuneiform” he muttered underneath his breath and started back to leafing through the pages of the text to find the definition.

With about ten minutes left in class, there was a final exchange. However, this time, the Priest jumped up from his chair to deliver some fire and brimstone.

“Dammit the hell, Manfredi! You’re a damn hard head, aren’t you?” Marco stared in shock (and it wasn’t because of the language) at the Priest. The Priest glared at Marco one last time and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

The class erupted.
“Damn Marco, what did you do?”
“What’s wrong?”
“Where’s he going?”
“Do we have any homework?”
“Hey, did you hear about the big party in Frackville after Mass tomorrow?”
“It’s not in Frackville, moron. It’s in Shenandoah.”
“Hey, did anyone do the World Cultures homework?”

Marco didn’t understand what the deal was with the Padre, but he wasn’t going to worry about it now. Only two definitions left.

The Priest never returned to class…

Marco took the long way around to his locker between classes. He was trying to avoid Esther, his crazy ex-girlfriend. She was his first high school steady, but he’d broken up with her months ago. Since then, she’d left him a death note in his locker. She always carried a blade in her purse, and she’d vowed to cut him at the first opportunity. When he did see her in the halls, she would start to reach into the purse. She was from Girardville, and he should have known better. They were all crazy over in Gville.

Marco reached his locker uncut and unmolested; he tossed the Religion book to the bottom, and then jogged up the back stairs, slipping into Mr. McGuire’s Western Civs class just before the bell rang. He wound his way through the rows to his seat. First row, last seat. It was the perfect location for daydreaming, and seats hadn’t been changed since they were first assigned back in September. It was winter now, of course, and the view out of the large windows was spectacular. The first real snow of that year covered the landscape, and Marco could see far across the valley, and up the gentle slope of Broad Mountain. Almost every day since school started, Marco spent a large part of World Cultures lost in la-la land while McGuire waxed and waned about the Sumerians and Cuneiform, the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and a host of other ancient civilizations.

The bell rang, but McGuire wasn’t yet in class. Marco looked around. It was a typical day in second period. Pam Shea sat at the front, taking aspirins in a lame attempt to make herself sick so she could go home. The guy in front of Marco was copying the homework of the girl in front of him, and everyone else was talking. Someone on the other side of the room asked “Where’s McGuire?” Marco wondered that himself as he browsed through the terms that he had hastily defined in the Priest’s class, crossing all t’s and dotting all i’s. Finally, Mr. McGuire appeared at the door and called the class to attention.

“Quiet down!” He glared at the class, his bushy grey eyebrows drawn in a stern line across his forehead. A hush quickly fell over twenty-five freshman. He cleared his throat.

“Mr. Marco Manfredi. I have a message for you.”
Instantly, Marco’s stomach felt funny, and his spider sense began tingling. In a very dramatic fashion, one exclusively inherent to teachers of history, McGuire strolled across the room carefully enunciating his words.

“Please… report…immediately… to… the Coach’s office.” He looked at Marco, Marco looked back at McGuire, and then he noticed everyone looking at him. Nobody said a thing. Nobody had to say a thing; everybody knew…this wasn’t good.

Slowly, Marco made his way through the mingled desks, his mind running a mile a minute. Walking into the hall, he heard Mr. McGuire pulling the door shut and beginning his daily drone. “All right class, take out your definitions and turn to page...”

Marco walked down the stairs and then outside into the December cold. He wracked his brain, wondering what the deal was. The Coach had been riding him hard since football season finished. Coach knew that Marco was pissed because Coach had not “permitted” him to play freshman basketball. Rather, the Coach thought Marco’s time would be better-spent pumping iron in the weight room. Despite what you wanted to do, at Bishop McShea, in December of 1978, you did what the Coach told you to do, or you paid. On top of that, someone, an old player probably, had told the Coach that Marco was ripped at a keg party up at one of the strippin’ pits two weeks ago. Well, he was ripped, there was no denying that, but Marco thought it was wrong to single him out. Everybody else was drinking too, including most of his teammates, and a good chunk of the student body of McShea High. Either way, it was just another excuse for Coach to bust Marco’s balls, and Coach had warned Marco recently to “get your shit together” if he wanted to play football for the Coach and McShea High.

The wind bit into Marco’s exposed skin, and he pulled the sleeves down on his navy blue school sweater. Following the path from the school to field house, Marco walked into the warm gym. It was empty and dark; his footfalls echoed as he walked across the hardwood floors to the door that led downstairs into Coach’s small, secluded office in the locker room.

The moment Marco walked through the door he knew he was screwed. The Coach’s voice boomed.

“Manfredi! Get your ass in here. We’ve been waiting for you!”
There they both sat, the Priest and the Coach, feet kicked up on Coach’s desk, each wearing white Adidas Star football shoes. Both smiled at Marco, and he quickly realized this situation had the potential to get very ugly. However, even as Marco began to consider how bad this scene could turn out for him, he was still, in that far away part of his mind that views images objectively, amused at the picture before him. It really was a surreal scene. There was the Coach, sitting in the anointed robes of his profession, gray sweats and a white “McShea PE” t-shirt emblazed with blue letters, a huge chew grinding in his mouth, tobacco juice running down his chin, staining his biker-style goatee. And of course, the Priest, like coach, a fat wad of chew in his mouth. A dirty brass spittoon sat on the cluttered desk between them. The Coach spoke again. It was time for the game to begin.

“So, Marco, the Padre here tells me you’ve been dickin’ around in religion class. What’s your fuckin’ problem Manfredi? This is a fuckin’ Catlic’ school. We can’t have you being a damn jackass in Religion class. That's bullshit, son.”

Marco tried to mount a defense, but it was futile.
“But Coach, I didn’t do anything, I swear…”

He cut Marco off with a raised had, and an abrupt “Bullshit!” Juice and spit spewed from his mouth; he slammed his fist on the desk and his voice he grew louder and louder. “Bullshit, Bullshit, Bullshit, Bullshit! The last “bullshit” echoed in the small locker room when the Coach finished roaring. Then he sat back down, put his feet back up on the desk, spit out some juice into the spittoon, and continued in a taunting tone.

“Marco, are you tellin’ me that the Padre here, a man of the cloth, anointed by Jesus H. Christ himself, is lying to me? Is that what you’re tellin’ me? Is that? Is that what you’re sayin’? This man of God is lyin’? That’s what you’re sayin’. Is that what you think he’s saying Padre?”

For the first time, the Priest spoke up.
“Yeah..I think that’s what he’s saying.”

Marco locked eyes with the priest, and his contempt for this servant of God certainly showed on his face like words written on a giant billboard.

“I hate this bastard…this prick…I fucking hate him.” Sinful thoughts spewed through Marco’s mind. Disillusionment danced in his head, and at that moment, he lost faith in the Church. His brain worked overtime. “Why would he lie? Why? What did the Priest prove by lying?” There would be more questions later. One more thought…”To Hell with the Church. I’m done.”

The Coach smiled. That sick bastard was enjoying this, and the party was just getting started. Marco could see tiny pieces of tobacco in his teeth. Now Marco began to get scared.

“Manfredi, I told you a week ago to get your shit together, and you just thought I was shootin’ the shit, didn’t ya?”
“No Coach, I didn’t. I’m trying.”
“Well then, what’s this bullshit all about? Did you think I was blowin’ smoke up your ass, son? Did you?”
“No Coach, I didn’t.”
“Well, I’m gonna tell you what, Marco, I’m not going to paddle you. I’m gonna let the Padre here deliver your punishment. Maybe this is your lucky day.” He started laughing, a diabolical, “He, he, he…” The Padre, just like his secular idol, joined in with laughter. Fucking George and Lenny.

The Coach rose from his chair, and he reached for the large paddle with holes in it that hung amid the trophies, plaques, and framed certificates on the wall behind his desk.

Marco thought, “Maybe he’s right. Maybe it is my lucky day? The Priest didn’t look like an incredibly strong man, and the dude was 150 lbs or so, soaking wet. As far as Marco knew, the Priest wasn’t in great shape either. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad?

The Coach handed the paddle to the priest and pointed to a line taped on the tile locker room floor.

“Go head Marco, grab your ankles. It’s time for your penance.” They both yucked it up at the reference to one of the seven sacraments.

Marco grabbed his ankles and looked through his legs. The last thing he saw as he braced for impact was the Priest’s white Adidas Star football shoes settling into position behind him. Marco closed his eyes…

…The force of the blow lurched Marco forward, and the sting was immediate.
So was the Coach’s coaching. He jumped from the chair. He loved this.

“No, no, no Padre! You have to keep your hips square and follow through, just like you’re hitting a tee shot. Square your hips, square’em! Try it again, Manfredi won’t mind. You don’t mind, do you, son?”

“No Coach.” The pain was growing, but when coach pointed, Marco moved again to the line on the floor. They were not going to break him.

“Now go ahead Padre, remember, square your hips and follow through. Again, the white shoes stepped up, and Marco braced…

The second blow was much harder than the first, and the sound of the paddle connecting with Marco’s ass popped like a .22 caliber pistol shot. Marco could feel tears welling up as the pain screamed across his hindquarters. This time, the Priest knocked Marco even farther across the locker room.
Again, the Coach was up and coaching, feeling it necessary to critique the Priest’s style and form.

“Atta boy Padre, much better! But, look, you still pulled up a bit, try it again and follow through. Remember, square up and follow through. Assume the position Manfredi, we’re going to get this right.”

Anger, pain, sadness and frustration all welled inside of Marco simultaneously. This was not fair, this was wrong. Marco now knew these two sick bastards set him up, and they were enjoying this sadistic ceremony. Even worse, one of them was a Priest. It was so wrong. He tried badly to keep himself together, but he could feel his internal stitches pulling apart at the seam. He was very close to losing his shit. Tears ran down his face now, and the pain was almost unbearable; he was wrong about the Priest. He was stronger than he looked, but he wasn’t going to let either of them think they’d won. In an act of defiance, and without being told, Marco stepped to the line and assumed the position.

The final blow from the Priest knocked Marco to his knees, and pain seared and erupted through him. It was stinging and burning, and Marco leaned his head onto the cold tiled floor. There was silence for just a second, and then Marco heard the Coach’s raspy voice slicing through his waves of agony.

“Goddammit Padre! That sucked. You’re swingin’ like a Goddam frickin’ pussy. Gimme that fucking paddle and let me show you how to do it. Jesus H. Christ, Padre. Get your ass off the floor, Marco.” Marco moved slowly, too slowly. The next thing he felt was the Coach’s foot kicking him in the ass.

“I said…get your ass off that fucking floor, toe that fucking line and assume the position…now, you little prick!”

Marco limped to the line and bent over. All his movements, now, were filled with pain. He briefly opened his eyes in time to see the spit stained white Adidas Star football shoes stepping up, the raising up and down, settling finally, into a comfortable stance, and then Marco closed his eyes as the Coach’s toes pointed slightly inward.

This time, like the blast from a shotgun, the sound of the paddle connecting with Marco filled the small room, and then lingered in the air. The mighty force of the blow drove Marco into the lockers, and the smash of the cold metal against his face broke his forward motion. Marco slide down the lockers and then crumbled to the floor, heaving sobs now, like a baby. His whole body hurt now, and tears, mingled with blood from the cuts to his face and head from the lockers, fell to the floor in rivulets. Marco heaved and wept. It was more than the pain, now, that made him cry. It was the degradation, the humiliation, the corruption of trust, and the pure evil of the whole ugly scene, the aberration of faith, and ultimately a final loss of innocence, which drove him to honest, real and raw despair. Marco bawled and moaned, crying, as he had never cried before…and he couldn’t stop.

The Coach and the Priest started out the door and up the steps to the gym. The Coach stopped, turned and barked at Marco.
“Get your shit together. You have fifteen minutes to get to class. If you’re late, I see your ass right back here. Don’t ever lie to a man of the fucking cloth, you fucking pussy…and keep your mouth shut in Goddam Religion class.” The Priest peered over the Coach’s shoulder, taking the scene in. Marco could barely see either of them.

The door closed and Marco could hear them laughing as they walked up the stairs. Things got dark and foggy and Marco closed his eyes.

Time passed, and with the pain, Marco wasn’t sure if he was hallucinating or dreaming there on the cold tile. A searing throb resonated from his ass up his back and down his legs.

“This must be what it feels like when you’re shot.” His nerves continued screaming, and parts of his body twitched like he’d been shocked. “Maybe this is what it felt like to be electrocuted?” Shot and zapped. Two for the price of one…who said a Catholic education was a bad investment? You get two for the price of one.

Slowly, Marco rose to his knees, taught himself to walk again, and slowly he moved up the stairs. The pain was brutal. As before, the gym was empty, and as Marco loped across the floor, through the shadows of the darkened gym, he saw the clock on the opposite wall. It was 11:36. Marco began to reconstruct the morning in his mind, like you do the day after a big ripper, when the fog of alcohol makes the night before seem like a bad dream. Bits and pieces come back to you, and you never like what you remember. Marco spoke aloud to no one.

“Let’s see…homeroom, 8:30-9:00, Religion, 9:05-9:50, World Cultures, 9:55…Maybe I did pass out? Biology now…screw that, I’m not going. Lunch in 20 minutes.” Marco didn’t know where the Coach and the Priest disappeared to, but he had no desire to see either of them again today. He was going to lay low till lunch. He made his way out the double doors of the gym into the bright sunlight. The reflection blinded him for a moment, his body oblivious now to the cold, and slowly, he crossed the path back to school and headed for his locker.

As the freshman class bounced into the lunchroom, Marco leaned against the back wall in the corner, behind a table, eating his sandwich, trying to practice his cooliosis. Someone shouted.
“Holy Christ! It’s Marco!

There was a mad mob rush. Word had spread around school during his absence and rumors abounded. Trying to figure out how he would handle this situation, he realized, at that exact moment in life that he could create his own legend…rock star status style. Quickly, wide-eyed freshmen, including wide-eyed freshmen girls, surrounded Marco. Yes, wide-eyed freshmen girls looking at Marco with their dreamy wide-eyed freshman eyes.
Classmates began firing questions in a roar. Reverently, he put down his egg salad sandwich, and raised his hand. The crowd hushed, and Marco commenced to telling his tale of the face off with the two-headed, fire-breathing dragon.

At the end of that day, in the soft afterglow of reflection, Marco Manfredi realized he’d learned a few important lessons. First off, it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, Life really isn’t fair, and even if you’re innocent, you can still be found guilty. When it comes right down to it, except for your real friends, you can’t trust anybody, especially the Church. That, and, as you travel through life, you will cross paths with people who are just plain mean. Mean. There’s no explanation for it, there’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just the way they are, and that sucks for the rest of us who are not. Yeah, life wasn’t fair, but it is made up of the stuff that makes for a good story, and a good story can take you far in life. Marco embraced the moment.

“So, the Coach takes the paddle…he stands up slowly…and bangs it against the wall three times, like a giant, and he says…Manfredi! Assume the position…”