A Chance to Play Football: A Wisconsin Game; An American Sport
by Bob Keith
A chance to play football; the sandlot 1966-'68
Pretty much the same dozen or so boys played sandlot football for those two school years. To the chagrin of their teachers, they played tackle - full speed. They were ten, eleven, and twelve years old - Fifth and Sixth Graders. They played from fall, through the bitter Wisconsin winters, into the spring, taking a small diversion from time to time to play some softball on the first warm days. They played at noon lunch and recess out on the old lot behind their school. Big-city kids sentenced to their asphalt playgrounds would have loved the old weedy and rolling plot of earth surrounded by corn fields on two sides and a few houses on the other two. If I had to guess, I would say it was about five acres. I was one of those boys.
It was once a one-room school in the little village of Lima Center, Wisconsin. Liiimah, pronounced like the bean - and the locals just dropped the "Center." Pronounce Lima with an "ee" like the capital city of Peru and folks knew you were some kind of outsider. It is a community of used-to-be places. Over the years the school added two more rooms. It used to be its own school system, at some point encompassing the students of a half dozen other one-room schools of the 1800s construct; those back-road rural schools had eventually deferred to the Lima school - the age of school buses.
Lima Center was also a place of cautious speculations. Many coversations often started or ended with the anecdotes, "I guess;" "I suppose;" "well, they say;" and, "I imagine so."
My dad had spent his first eight years of school in the same building. I am guesssing back then it used to have just two rooms - basically two buildings side by side. And it used to have eight grades instead of six. As an adult, my dad was once on its school board. Eventually, the Whitewater School District absorbed the Lima Center School. My dad seemed relieved.
There was a basement with a kitchen and a lunch room under the original building. Those that played band instruments took their training down there from the band teacher that came once a week. Some strange sounds came out of that basement on those days. We were mandated to practice "Duck and Cover" nuclear war drills in that same basement from time to time. The Cold War and its perennial symbiotic hot war in Vietnam loomed constantly in the backdrop. There were hushed mentions of big brothers and uncles that had returned from strange places in the World. One older cousin would never return home. His dad was a big farmer with big rough hands from a former era of the horse-drawn plow. The distraught man sat in mourning every Sunday for a year in the church up the road and cried. Nowadays, the old school building is a ruddy apartment. An old swing frame we played on sits to the side of the front yard to this day.
By the time I arrived at the school at six years old, each of its then three rooms had two grades and one teacher per room. There were about 10 kids in each grade. In those days there was no kindergarten. In the Fifth and Sixth Grade room the old roof bell rope hung from the ceiling. They used to pull that rope and ring that old bell that sat in its bell tower on top of the roof. That was back during the first couple years I attended; but, somewhere along the line they installed an electric bell. When the school closed down a few years after I left, they took the bell and put it in front of the high school (now junior high) with a plaque like it was some kind of damn antique....I am thinking that then makes me some kind of damn antique too.
Each school day, two chosen Sixth Graders put up the flag in the morning and took it down at night. This task was assigned the whole year to the same two boys. I was one of those boys. So well I learned to fold the flag, years later while in the Army I once showed a couple of mooks the right way to do it before they had to pull honor guard duty.
Except for a small gaggle of children from the village proper, these students were mostly farm kids. They were tough and wise at their young ages. Many came to school with their barn work cloths on. On the farm, many had experienced life, death, heart break, injury, responsibility, and hard work, all before the age of 11.
Some of their dads had been in the most egregious combat in World War II - The Pacific, Europe, and Africa. My dad was one such dad. There was a general timbre hovering amongst us kids like fog, that there was a much worse world out there somewhere than little Lima Center, Wisconsin. And our dads were sometimes emissaries of that realization - with first hand knowledge. It was all the more reason to play football with abandon and "appreciate the good life and fate afforded us."
It never dawned on us in the least that playing tackle football with no equipment on might be a tad dangerous. But the games had to be faithfully played. Someone had built a baseball back-stop with four used telephone poles and chain link fence. It was about fifteen feet high. It made a dandy goal post for field goals. On a recent drive by the old school, I noticed the old treated phone poles still standing their ground. The fencing has long rusted away.
We refereed ourselves. By the Fifth and Sixth Grades we had mastered most of the rules of the exclusively American sport. We followed the pro rules for the most part. And, it was the mid-1960s - the era of Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers. We were used to living in a state with a national winner. The country looked to Wisconsin for a master template of their special game that was rapidly challenging baseball as the national pastime.
I found that I was good at this uniquely American game. There was no shame in mastering it. Almost everyone appreciated the sport of football. Our dads would sit on Sundays right along with us and watch the Packers....on black and white televisions. Besides farming lingo, it was an activity both fathers and sons could talk about. We all knew the names of the many players - Chicago Bears as well as the Packers. You played this game, you learned fair play, respect, teamwork, strategy, and honor. What more could a dad ask for out of a kid? If we were lucky, we could move on to the high school program on down the scholastic road.
I have no memory of the smallest of injuries among the bunch of us. I still remember the names of the rugged troupe of boys: Wayne, Donny, Bobby, Rodney, Geno, Billy, another Rodney, Randy, Doug, Johnny, David, and Steve. One of the Rodney's and Johnny have since past away.
I remember the aches and pains from the daily pounding. I learned I could play almost every position on the field. A few years later I got to play four years of high school football. A couple of us made it out of that school yard sandlot to the organized team culture. The coaches found they needed to un-teach us our sandlot bad habits. I played all four years injury free in the organized realm of high school and I ultimately determined my experience was successful. Apparently so did some others as there was a couple of awards bestowed me of which at the time, I am now thinking, I did not necessarily take seriously.
But, the caveat is this. It is unlikely I would have fared as well as I ultimately did in the very competitive, organized, and cliquey culture of football had I not played those two wild years in that old school yard in Lima.
A chance to play football; the wait 1968-'70
Part Two of my lucky foray into football is more about waiting for Part Three than actual football talk.
Franklin Junior High School in Whitewater, used to be the high school. My dad went there from 1932 to 1936. All that remains of the joint now as a plot of grass with a couple of chunks of cement sticking out of the ground. They tore it down almost 20 years ago, hauled off the rubble, and that is where the project ended. I can only imagine how much asbestos loomed in its old walls and ceilings. It sat in the middle of the residential neighborhood on the old west side of Whitewater.
To think of it now it could have readily been a school building in the inner city of Milwaukee. It also could have passed for a minimum security prison building. The east or front side of the infamous three-story structure had a lawn, but no one ever played catch or touch football there. There was a mild slope from the street up to the school. One lonely park bench sat along the sidewalk to the front doors. No one ever sat on it. On the west side sat an athletic field that was so hard it might as well have been asphalt. In fact after I came back from the Army I noticed it was officially paved over with asphalt. To the north was marginal space for a few teachers to park. To the south was a very utilitarian outdoor basketball court.
Upon arriving at Seventh Grade the culture shock was stunning. The girls were still required to wear dresses; the Lima girls had often worn slacks. The boys were expected to wear pants other than jeans. T-shirts were taboo. Gone were our comfortable work jeans and t-shirts that we never thought twice about wearing at Lima. And too, gone was our marvelous endless Lima playground and its delightful nooks and crannies. Gone was our former Lima freedom and comfort zone, now lost in the maze of bigger school anonymity. We were now the new kids among city kids that had known each other since kindergarten. Us kids from Lima felt like we had boarded the wrong ship and then we suddenly turned to look back at there was the fleeting shore, moving off to the distance - it was too late to return to Lima.
There was no organized football back then in our junior high. I had been lead astray with hope by an older farm kid who had sung some praises for the gym class flag football program. It turned out to be rather brief and lame. A bleak option found a gaggle of boys sometimes gathered on that hard lot to play touch football for about 15 minutes at our short "modern" and "modular lunch." In the free-for-all it always ended up being, one day I remember pushing a speed demon named Jesse, out of bounds. I saved a touch down. He turned and said an odd word I would hear for the first time in my life:
"You're a prick, kid."
My dreams of football were becoming as melancholy as the news from the Vietnam War. The breaks at lunch were so short we could not play any type of sports much. I missed my Lima football games, and even our occasional softball games.
I remember playing our brief couple of weeks of flag football in gym class. A big guy who I would later play next to on the high school varsity football team was quarterbacking the other side. He had no business touching the football let alone throwing a pass. I intercepted it and ran for a touch down. For a brief moment the old Lima feeling came back. It was short lived. The next day in gym class we were to join up with the girls to begin... the square dancing module.
Then too, the Packers were hitting a sudden decline. Lombardi was now in the front office, and soon to move to the Washington Redskins. In retrospect, we were being introduced at our young age to a thing in life called..., "change."
The then Wisconsin State University of Whitewater was a block away. The Vietnam War protesting timbre was now within hearing distance. It brought the war ever closer to us farm kids. By early 1970 the Old Main building on the university campus burned down. The cause was never known, but with the national war protests still in high gear and sometimes violent, it was always thought a possible source. My take is that the building was so old there was probably an electrical fire of the Civil War era wiring. Or, someone left a cigarette burning in an old dusty office. Younger readers will never have experienced the culture of smoky offices and work places - ash trays overflowing on desks.
The whole mood of the era rubbed off on our school. There were numerous threats to the Franklin school that first year I was there that sent us all home early. I am not sure if any perp or perps were ever caught.
It is amazing I made it through those two years. There was a private college campus book store a block away. We were not supposed to go there but we sometimes did anyway on our short lunch break. A guy I would later linebacker along side on the high school football team got tossed out of the place on his nose one day in Eighth Grade for suspicion of shop lifting. When he pulled himself off the ground, he flipped off the store manager, cursed him with colorful expletives, and pulled the stolen candy bar out of his shirt and chowed it down.
The school experimented with a smoking lounge for students. Can you imagine the outrage by the nanny state at-large today regarding dozens of 12 to 14 year olds puffing away at their fags and butts in a sanctioned area - all under the watchful eye of the mother state?
Once on a weekend visit to town, as a friend and I walked to the hamburger joint at lunch for a break from playing basketball at the Armory, some drunken college guys in Indian costume came out of their private dorm and shot us with rubber-tipped arrows. Nowadays they would book'em for assault and battery. We just ran - they were too drunk to catch us.
We spent a lot of time at that old Armory gym on weekends. Our moms would take turns driving us in. In the summer they would drop us off at the outdoor Franklin court. The small gym at Franklin had a floor that was so loose the ball often would not bounce. In lieu of football, we were introduced to organized basketball. Back at Lima we had a bent rim with a dirt court area. I noticed that after I left Lima, they finally put a patch of asphalt and a new rim behind the school. Some of us Lima kids spent a good couple years using that court after hours. On the farm my dad put up two rims in the barn haymow and one out back of the barn on the cement pad. I made the Franklin team in Eighth Grade. I was so pumped up when my dad actually was able to break away from his farm duties and come to one of my basketball games. Franklin's old gym had a circular balcony around it and onlookers lined the railings, looking down at us like Christians being sent to the lions. It is a wonder it did not collapse. Perhaps if I had tried just a little harder, basketball could have taken me somewhere. But I longed for my football.
In gym class we were introduced to wrestling. They actually had an ad hock intramural tournament segueing off the gym program. I fared average. It just was not my cup of tea.
During that whole long two-year football drought in our junior high setting, I thought and wished about the high school gridiron team. That wait seems like an impossible task now from the perspective of an old guy. But perhaps it was like wishing for years for that 16th birthday; to finally be able to get behind that steering wheel in the car and the freedom it promised.
Youth affords us a matter-of-fact perseverance that often abandons us in old age.
A chance to play football; Early high school gridiron 1970-'72
Word made the rounds that if you wanted to play football in high school you needed to get yourself to the campus a few weeks before school started and get in the process. I had dreamed about playing organized football for so long, the culture shock of the new environment did not jilt me in the least. The high school on Elizabeth Street in Whitewater had been built in the late 1950s to accommodate the huge Baby Boom generation. It was modern and sleek. The building had wings that were dedicated to each of the four grades...Freshman Hall, Sophomore Hall, Junior Hall, Senior Hall.
To my surprise, the culture shock of moving to the new environment was inviting. It spoke to the mantra we had been sold all through our previous education:
"You are the new generation after World War II. America helped save the world from fascism. The future is at your disposal. You can do anything you want in life in America. The United State is where people of the world look for freedom and guidance. We are fighting communism as we speak. We as the older generation are going to help you Baby Boomers by building new schools that offer you options to facilitate your goals and keep The American Dream alive."
Even in the throws of the Vietnam War era, the above rhetoric was hard to disparage. In the summer of 1970, I headed to football practice at the quasi new campus.
Some kids were culled to go on to the Junior Varsity from the get-go - a couple moved right up to Varsity. Here I would be introduced to..."the politics" of sports. If your family was prominent in the community and/or your family donated resources to the various athletic clubs, they wielded power to get Junior Boy farther up the sports ladder than us farm kids from Lima Center.
On a beautiful Wisconsin summer day, my mom drove me into my first football meeting at the high school. As part of the faceless rabble, I would be on the Freshman Squad. I did not care about the lowly status - I was going to play football. Even in my naive and lazy 14-year-old state of mind, I somehow knew this activity was important. A great term surfaced decades later - I was a consummate "slacker." But for some reason a yearning came from a place in my psyche; I immediately buckled down to hold the course - showed up for all the practices and tried to follow the instructions of the coaches. How could I be afraid? These city kids did not scare me in the least; and I had been working with old grumpy farmers for years. And, I had played two years of feral tackle football at the Lima school with tough boys in their farm work cloths and shit-kicker work boots.
By coming to football practice at the campus prior to the school year, we learned the lay of land before our fellow Freshmen did. I remember showing my classmates around once school started. One other thing hit me like a brick. The relatively newer high school was everything the ancient junior high was not. The high school staff seemed to be comfortable addressing us as young adults as opposed to the Soviet-esque junior high timbre. There seemed to be classes offered that actually were relevant to finding a niche in life after school.
From my scrappy sandlot football days and farm-kid past, I had learned to "knock heads" on the gridiron without much complaint. I had also learned to pace myself. All this I brought to camp combat-ready. I found myself being bumped around to fill in on special teams, defensive nose guard and offensive guard. At some point before the first game, I was placed ahead of several city kids (who had originally been pre-anointed to be starters) and firmly locked in at fullback on offense as a starter, and several positions on defense as a backup. I was put in that backfield position primarily as a blocker and rarely carried the ball.
The Green Bay Packers influence constantly lingered like a specter in the back stage of our football experiences. Lombardi was famous for using a drill called...."the nutcracker." You simply set up two padded tackling dummies about five feet apart and run a play with three guys - one tackler, one blocker, one runner. You must stay within the dummies. It was exceptionally violent....even for the pro football level. But, any coach who was worth his salt in Wisconsin or New York (Lombardi's home town), knew of the infamous nutcracker drill. It was in this drill that I frequently prevailed in at all three positions, as we were all expected to rotate our obligations. The coaches ran the drill over and over again. We all stood in line and waited our turn. I became a guy nobody was fond of standing next to in line. Hence, I supposed I owe a bit of my starting position to Ol' Vince.
The role of beating the odds against the deck-stacked city kids, played well to my parents who had always had to struggle for their rewards in life because of their farm, Irish, Scottish, poor, and non-college backgrounds. We had a pretty good season I believe if my memory is correct, only losing one game.
The following season I headed to the Junior Varsity team. Here I learned the lesson of culling and attrition. We lost some players to the varsity. We also dropped off some players from the previous year that gave up on the sport or found themselves working either on family farms or elsewhere. It was the 1970s; farming still pulled kids from school activities as well as school in general. A neighborhood kid who played football quit school at the then legal Wisconsin age of 16 to work on the farm.
Partly because our JV team having a limited number of players and the fact I "kept plugging away" as my mom would be known to put it, I played offence and defense and special teams. I still held on to my fullback role on offence as well as some offensive guard work; but, I found myself as the starting middle linebacker on defense. I was now in the same position as one of my heroes, the infamous Number 66, Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke.
I was a 60 minute guy. I loved the chance to play, but be careful what you wish for. I would get very tired. And now decades later we know it was not all game fatigue. I have a congenital heart and blood condition which was only officially diagnosed in 2001 - congenital and genetic respectively. It had however plagued me prior to the diagnosis in various manifestations for years - even long before I played in those Lima Center football skirmishes.
The full-time role on the field almost had a negative effect. The regimen made me so tired, sometimes discouragement set in that I was not playing as well as I had hoped for. Non-the-less, I would always talk myself up again - a trick my mom had drilled into me. Another testimony to the resilience of youth. As I recall, our small team only lost a couple games.
One of my favorite tasks as a big shot for the JV team was that a couple times a week we were called on in practice to play the taxi-squad for the varsity. In other words, we were brought up to "the big field" to be fodder in scrimmages to help prepare the varsity for their next Conference game. It was dangerous but right up an old Lima player's alley.
I loved going up to play the varsity. But more importantly, it introduced me to the two regionally famous varsity coaches. There he was; the legendary Jim Crummey marshalling his troops, the decades-long head coach of the varsity squad and a man who had no known enemies in the whole of the Southern Lakes Conference region. And there too was Coach Crummey's equally legendary assistant, Jack Mead, a former professional football player who actually had played with the New York Giants.
Their solid football reputations and professional demeanors preceded them both.
A chance to play football; the big time; the Junior year 1972-'73
Coach Jim Crummey. The great man. He was a small man in physical stature. He had thick glasses, a tuft of unruly hair on the top of his head, and an occasional thoughtful and unimposing smile on his face. James Crummey had been the head coach at Whitewater as long as anyone could remember. From time to time he would comment that he had coached one of our dads or two. I believe the man's resume says he took over the job in 1943. There was a stint in the Navy during "'The War." And then back to coaching. He only mentioned the war once to us. It was in the context of smoking.
"I tried smoking in the Navy during the war fella's, and I did not like it. Even with all that stress and waiting that the military sometimes sends one's way," he said one day. He was trying to do that "behavior-off-the-field chat" with his "fella's," as he would call us all.
Coach's record and note keeping skills were legendary. During a team meeting it was not uncommon, in fact ritual, to hear him swear, "Now where the hell are my notes; who took my damn notes?"
I had gotten acquainted with Coach Crummey as a Freshman and Junior Varsity player. But also, the coach was one of the in-the-car Driver's Education teachers. In the spring of my sophomore year, a couple times a week Coach would dutifully take me and a couple of my peers out to practice driving. Coach Crummy had the patients of biblical Job. He would sit calmly in the passenger seat and give the driver guidance. Sometimes as we found out, Coach often had us drive by his boat-sales marina. No one found that unusual in those days. In fact years later as a supervisor with the City of Dallas I would sometimes drive by our house there to check and see if all was well. Anyway, by the time I got to the varsity team, I had picked up on a few of Coach's nuances.
In my untrained eye, but usually reliable Irish intuition, I could tell James Crummey was a decent fellow. But probably more important than my humble observations was the fact that Coach Crummey had a talent for tempering the culture of small-town sports politics. I can remember no one ever speaking ill of Coach - a remarkable accomplishment in a profession which was under constant pressure from boaster clubs, parents, athletic clubs, and businesses trying to influence a small town coach's decisions about how to coach the team and whose kids to play in the games on Friday nights.
Our preparation for Varsity football, at least in my case, had been adequate enough to avoid a major culture shock once we moved up to the big league. Remember, I had been on the J.V. taxi crew that would be brought up to the old black chat track field north of the high school to do a bit of scrimmage with the Varsity players. You knew you were at the big time when you were up there at that old field with the gridiron practice field on the inside of the crude old track field. Fall on that track and you would get a knee, palm, elbow, or butt full of black chat gravel. Coach always made us run a quarter mile race with our team peers in full equipment around that track each practice - linemen against linemen, backs against backs, ends against ends, et cetera. Being a small lineman, I usually compensated for my smaller size by being a good runner and caught the coaches' eyes by faring well in the races.
Coach Crummey's assistant was the venerable Jack Mead. Ol' Jack was the boy's physical education instructor (Gym Teacher). He also lived only a couple miles from our farm and once in a while I would find myself over at their farmette paling around with Jack's son Mark who was in my class and also on the football team. Although he had bad knees, Mr. Mead would sometimes play basketball with us. I remember his old car that had push-buttons on the dash to change the gears in lieu of a gear shifter. It was a big old lumbering vehicle from another era that seemed to shadow Jack's own personality. So, I was well acquainted with Mr. Mead. But perhaps most interesting and more important, Ol' Jack had played in the National Football League in his younger days, notably for the New York Giants.
Coach Mead was a big man and a quiet man. And, like my dad he rationed his words, but when he did speak you got the point. Coach Crummey would always ask Mr. Mead if he had anything to add after a pre-game pep-talk. Usually Coach Mead declined other than saying something like, "Let's get'em men." Once, Coach Mead told a story. We were all surprised at his departure from his usual three words as he headed into a vignette.
"Fellas," Coach Mead said as he started his contribution. "Once while playing for the Giants I was whistling in the locker room before a big game. The biggest guy on the team came up to me and said, "Quit whistling Mead...or I am going to punch you...right...in...the...nose."
We all waited for some type of anecdote to the story. Nothing came. That was it. That was Coach Jack. After that, I was always cautious to not whistle or tell too many jokes before a game. I think I got the point.
I got a shitty helmet that first year on Varsity. And, my shoes (cleats as we called them) fit like clown shoes. But I suppose I should take solace in the fact the equipment was provided in those days. I hear now, half the schools in the country expect the kids (mom and dad, or guardians) to provide all the equipment. But I was just glad to play with the "big team."
There was another variable to this new rung in my sports ladder - I drove myself to practice. The poetic full circle had come to fruition. Coach Crummy was part of my learning to get my driver's license. Now, I would be playing football for the man, driving to his practices myself, leaving the era of "reliant-on-mom's-taxi" long behind.
That year on Varsity, I did get to play. I played almost every special teams play that fall of 1972 - kickoffs, extra points, field goals, punts. In that capacity, I would frequently find myself as a lineman in those special teams situations. My name was also penciled in as a second string offensive guard and a second string defensive linebacker position on that clip board Coach always had trouble finding. But bear in mind Coach was not as goofy as first blush might suggest. His teams continually fared well in the always competitive Southern Lakes Conference - by then elevated to a 12-team, two division league. And, there was now an end-of-season playoff game for the championship.
The high school had no football stadium of its own in those days and they used the field up at the college. Prior to 1970 the high school Varsity games were played at the old and soggy Hamilton Field gridiron in the middle of the University of Wisconsin -Whitewater campus. I remember going to watch games there; that old stadium is gone now having been retired to a humble plot of grass between McGraw and Heide Halls; it sits at the base of the east side of the famous glaciated Drumlin hill that the original Old Main building was situated on.
After 1970 our games moved to the new Warhawk Stadium (now Perkins Stadium) built on the north side of Whitewater in amphitheater construction style and on another glaciated slope. It was and still is a state of the art presentation and is the third largest football stadium in Wisconsin able to hold upwards of 13,000 people at full capacity. I remember my breath was taken away by its intimidating size the first time I ran out on the field in the cool fall air on a football Friday night in 1972.
Coach seemed to be tapping some of the Green Bay Packers play book. One of our go-to plays was the Green Bay sweep - a play Coach Vince Lombardi had perfected in his heyday with "The Pack."
That Junior year of mine, we lost our first game to Jefferson (non-conference opener) but went on to win our eight conference games. We then played in the first conference interdivisional Championship game beating Burlington 35 to 0. The game was held on our own turf at Warhawk Stadium, on a Wednesday night if my memory serves me correct.
A chance to play football; the opportunity; the Senior year 1973-'74
In the spring of 1973 before my Senior year, I made up my mind to bulk up a bit. I was a small kid - skinny, five-foot ten-inches tall, and 165 pounds dripping wet. That previous season as I held my head above water on that talented Varsity football team, one day Assistant Coach Mead was giving a rare monologue during our linemen drills.
"Boys, I tell ya. Farm kids these days don't have the forearms like the guys did back when they still plowed the fields with horses. Wrestling those plow handles really put some muscles on those arms - just like Popeye," Coach Mead said quietly. To my horror, he was looking right at me.
That next spring, I launched into a weight lifting and running regimen. I picked up a cheap weight bench and barbells at K-Mart in Janesville. Somehow, I kept the exercise routine intact, working out every day. There was some incentive because the positions on the team were certainly there. We did not have too many guys on the team anyway and we had lost quite a few seniors to graduation. All I had to do was stay the course and I would have my dream of starting on the Varsity team. Seven long years ago that little scrapper on the sandlot had dreamed of starting on a "real" football team. I was finally at the precipice.
There was a brochure on the locker room bulletin board in the spring of my junior year. It was in regards to a football camp offered at the UW-Whitwater campus. I believe it cost 95 Bucks for a whole week. We got to stay in a dorm room. The only other guy from our team to take them up on their camp was our quarterback Jim. He had been slung into the position because a fellow named Reid who was suppose to take the job, had a pesky injury and he declined to even play our senior year.
So, Jim and I joined the other 40 or so guys from around Southern Wisconsin that attended. It was a great experience. I learned lots of defensive tricks. The offensive linemen stuff was pretty status quo. The weather was great for that week. Later that summer, Jim and I entered our Varsity practice schedule with a leg up on the rest of our team. What was interesting was that neither of us were marquee players touted by the papers. And what was really cool was that by the end of the season, we both would have to be added to the "chosen ones" list.
There was a brief scare to the future of our season. The teachers went on strike. Both Crummy and Mead were also teachers. However, without skipping a beat, some administrators, held the summer practices for a week until the strike was resolved. What was perhaps good was the fact we basically all became player coaches for a week. It may have helped us later in the season when initiative had to be taken in tough games.
I had plotted all summer to get to the first practice early and lay claim to a dandy helmet with a heavy cage face mask. For shoes I went back to K-Mart and bought a pair of lightweight soccer shoes with cleats. I think those shoes set me back eight Bucks - a good deal of cash for a mook like me. Remember, this was still an era that school districts provided the equipment for sports. Those shoes were light as hell and allowed me good mobility compared to the clown shoes I was sentenced to the year before. The only problem is I got some bad bruises a couple of times because when stepped on by real football shoes it was punishing. My light European soccer shoes had no thick protection on the top like regular American gridiron shoes. By the end of the season they had a couple rolls of tape holding them together.
I would be number 63, the same number that Green Bay Packer Fuzzy Thurston wore back in the glory days.
A chance to play football; the big time; the Senior year 1973-'74
As it turned out we only ended up with about 20 guys on the Varsity football team. Hardly enough to even work up a team scrimmage. At first I was tagged to start at offensive guard. This I had expected for some time. Not a glamorous assignment, but heck, Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer wrote a best selling book about the position - Instant Replay. But as fate would have it, a fellow named Pete that was supposed to start at defensive end, had a perennial shoulder injury to nurse along. Coach Crummey put Pete at offensive center and decreed that would be the only position he would be allowed to play with said bad shoulder.
"Be careful what you wish for," a teammate of mine said. I was called on to take that defensive end position Pete gave up, as well as my offensive guard position. I would also find myself playing on all the special teams. I became a 60 minute guy again like I had been on the Junior Varsity team two years earlier.
I remember our first game, a non-conference rematch with Jefferson, and how overheated I got playing full-time at the varsity level. This was not the jovial and docile JV rubric anymore. Many of these guys would be playing in college the next year. Then, early in the game I got whacked in the head and sat in the middle of the field stunned. I kind of came to as our star pass receiver Mark B. was dragging me back to the offensive huddle. Mark went on four years later to try out for the Chicago Bears. I played the rest of the game in a daze. Nowadays, after a hit like I had taken, I would be carted off in an ambulance to the hospital. I found out the next day we had actually won the game.
With headache in tow from the previous game, my heart sank the next week as we only came up with a tie against longtime rival Elkhorn. The anxiety heightened because we had been pegged by state media to be a rather good team. But more importantly, Coach Crummey had made it known before the season started that this was his last year of coaching. I had a sick feeling as I suspect everyone else did as well, that we were on the precipice of letting this regionally well-known, universally liked, and time-tested great coach...down.
Between Coach's tirades and our own self-ridicule we overcame our early setbacks. Game after game we crushed our opponents. Several of the games we scored over 50 points. I actually scored a defensive touchdown after picking up a fumble against East Troy. Mom said my dad sprung to his feet in the stands. It was a great burden for him to attend away games while trying to get away from the farm for a few hours.
Here we were again at the end of our season and having to play Burlington in the interconference championship game. We all had a feeling this year's rematch might not be so easy. Burlington had a grudge with us to address regarding their loss in the championship game the previous season. Our intuitions were sound. They were always a much bigger school in number and player physical size. It always seemed like they had a hundred football players pile out of several buses just before game-time each time we had a game with them.
The night of our last practice before the title game, Coach Crummey gave us an impassioned and tearful speech, and a goodbye. I remember him mentioning that we were one of his best teams he ever coached, perhaps second only to the 1956 team. "Would you agree Jack?" Coach asked Assistant Coach Mead. Of course Coach Mead just nodded in affirmation.
Each of us seniors then said a couple words to the team. I still remember what I said. I had prepared a little something no one had ever bothered to say to me in any previous end-of-season testimonials. It was something I thought a couple other underrated guys I palled around with during our rough and long ascent to being mainstream players might have at any point along the way appreciated and would now hopefully appreciate:
"I would like to thank all the second string guys for taking all the practice punishment all season. We had to practice on somebody and it had to be you. I hope it makes you tougher for your future challenges. Good luck next year."
Gridlock languished on late into the championship game with a low score. Late in the game we drove down for a hard earned touchdown. I remember thinking, "Well, it was not pretty, but it looks like we will win." But with seconds left, Burlington was slinging passes in desperation. With no time left, one of the passes connected and my heart sank. Remarkably, Mark B. who also played defensive safety as well as offensive pass receiver, ran the guy down on the goal line.
To this day, people still cringe when they look at the film. The call could have gone either way. It looks like the receiver went out of bounds right at the goal line. Had he gotten in (or maybe he really did, its too late now), Burlington would have won with no time left.
Instead the referee ruled in our favor and we won our second conference championship in a row. In those days we had no divisional classes. There was no state playoff system back then either. We were rated by state coaches and media against the biggest teams in the state. We placed fourth overall in the entire whole of Wisconsin - even though we were one of the smaller schools in the state.
A few weeks after the season, a guidance counselor came into one of my classes to get me. I thought I was in trouble of some sort. In his office he handed me a letter. To my stunned amazement, I had been chosen to the first team of the Southern Lakes All-conference Team as Defensive End. And, it was a position I was never originally slated to play and had never played coming up through the ranks. Fate and Pete's bum shoulder found me in that unlikely role.
Everyone seemed to want to spread some gratitude around to us guys. I remember several banquet invitations by several civic groups. I remember one dandy fried chicken dinner one night at a supper club. All of us sitting and laughing, but also becoming well aware it would probably be the last time we would all be together as a team. Coach got up to say a few words and of course, he had lost his notes.
It was 1999 or so and Heide and I were doing our living-in-the-boonies gig out in the middle of Green County, Wisconsin. There we were on our farmette with a bunch of fat house cats, on a winding narrow country road with a herd of cows as neighbors. We lived with no listed address, an unlisted phone number, and only a Post Office box number. Somebody found me. An invitation came in the mail inviting former football player Bob Keith to the dedication of the athletic field behind the new high school in Whitewater. It was to be named after Jim Crummey.
For some reason we trekked the 60 miles to the humble event. At the time I was still working and taking classes in Madison. A couple years later I would be making the 60 mile commute regularly to work at, and go to school at UW-Whitewater. But in 1999 it seemed like an ordeal.
There was a small group of people assembled at the dedication site. The new field was still rough around the edges. The new school sprawled in the back ground. It was a robust economy Clinton era construct - large and spared no cost. There in the midst of the small crowd was Coach. He still looked the same - in his humble suit coat and tie, thick classes, and tuft of unruly hair on top of his head. Some old teachers and dignitaries of his football era got up to speak. They had of course aged considerably in over 25 years. Mark B. the hero of the last game of Crummey's career, and the same guy who once tried out for the Bears, got up and presented Coach with a box of Wheaties with a picture of...Coach Crummey on the cover.
Finally, Coach Crummey got up to say a few words. As usual he started out with a determined look, just as he had done in those pregame pep talks so long ago. He hesitated for second, looked like he might choke up like he had a knack for sometimes doing for an important rhetorical ass-kicking, and then to my astonishment, he said, "Now where the hell are my damn notes? Who took my damn notes?"
Afterward, being that the crowd was small, Heide suggested I say a couple words to Coach before the dedication broke up.
"No, that's ok," I said, "I just want to remember him like this - losing his notes and stuff."
As we pulled out of the parking lot, there went Coach driving slowly by us on Walworth Avenue in front of the new school with his family in his big old car. I think it was an old Cadillac or Lincoln. It would be the last time I ever saw him. He died a couple years later.
I had only been in Germany one day.We military guys never added the “West” before the Germany.There was a nine-hour flight from Fort Dix, New Jersey, a landing in Frankfurt, and a bus ride to Nuremberg to see my rear duty station for one hour – an old bombed out Nazi military barracks from a by-gone era, repaired enough to house crass U.S. Army Engineers in the 1970s - the odious Merrell Barracks.
The bus was a contractor rig with soft seats - like the kind senior citizens ride around American in. I later learned it was called "The 'Cruit Bus." "'Cruit" short for recruit. It really came to fruition when the big bus pulled into the quadrangle of the old German Army compound I was to call my duty station. It was a multi-story brick menagerie with bullet holes from World War II still on some of the outside walls. The bus parked itself in the center of the parade grounds surrounded by the four multi-story billets. Suddenly from some of the windows flew beer cans, garbage, flashlight batteries, and various fruit. As the handful of us exited the bus we were jeered and screamed at by onlookers hanging from the open windows. Their screams echoed in the old architecture. Are these my fellow soldiers? Perhaps this is the brig.
“What the fuck is your story, trooper,” said Sergeant First Class Miller with a glower.His little ugly dog by his desk leveled a low growl my direction.Miller was the duty Transition Sergeant down stairs in the barracks.He was one of those guys that had stayed in the Army over 30 years.Later in my tour of duty I would see him bounced around to just about every bullshit desk on base – Library; Personal Vehicle; Drug and Alcohol Rehab.; Reenlistment…. He would be around long enough to piss someone important off, but because of his time-in-service they would just move him to another desk. Hell, he had been in World War II for god’s sake.
Corporal Gino de la Guardia reporting for duty,” I said, rather half heartedly.
“You need to take your long-hair-wearing, Italian’d-named ass up to the border DeLingaling. Don’t the Army cut your fuck’n hair back in “The World” anymore, son?
“It was a long trip Sarge,” I said and sighed. “I’ll cut your fuck’n hair and I hope you don’t like it asshole; bastards like you have fucked up my Engineers,” Miller said.He took my written orders and pointed out through the mausoleum type door of the decaying Prussian-esque building.
There was a duce-and-a-half cargo truck ride up to the Czechoslovakian border to my Army unit’s field detachment near “The Wall.”I later found out that no matter what we did, that man-made piece of geography was always in the background somewhere.A one-thousand mile barrier between East and West – it ran down the middle of Europe during the 45 year Cold War. Then, it took a detour and cut the land city-island of Berlin in half as well. In 1972 I arrived at its tangled barbed wire, minefields, and German Shepard guard dogs.It had long become a fixture of the border culture by that time. Orwellian guard towers loomed on its entire length – nation after nation – one tower never out of sight of the next. It ripped through the middle of towns and villages, an “Iron Curtain” casting an odious shadow on playgrounds, cemeteries, and markets.After I will leave the country and my Army obligation, “the Wall” continues to stay up another 17 years.
It was already 19:00 hours when I finally got up there to Grafenwoehr.You really were not stationed in Germany if Grafenwoehr is an unfamiliar place to you.I missed evening chow by two hours – no one at the mess hall but kitchen-patrol privates washing pots and pans. And, there was the old cook – Mess Sergeant.
“You’ll probably find your Engineers in the cantina.It’s in the middle of the Quonset huts,” said the mess sergeant nodding his head toward some dilapidated World War II style billets.There were way too many wrinkles on his face.He looked 50 but was most likely in his mid twenties. He looked like he had maybe done one too many tours in ‘Nam.
“Lucky you – boy.Your Combat Engineers are a bunch of drunks,” he offered through his whiskbroom mustache.He eyed the Engineer castle on my beret. The Second Armored Cavalry wore black berets way back in the 1970s, long before the Army adopted berets as a whole. And, the Engineer castle is very distinct. Decades later, some lunatic interviewing me for a job insisted there was no such thing as Army Engineers.
The pots and pans shook as the big turret-guns from the tanks fired off from the target range firing-pad just yards away from the mess hall tent; I ducked and looked toward the sound of the blast. When I turned back toward the Ol' Sarge, he was holding out a ham sandwich he had whipped up in seconds - he had a hint of a smile on his ruddy face. “Damn glad you’re here,” said First Lieutenant Constantine.I found him playing cards with what I later found out was his platoon – my platoon. He waved off my salute.There were already dozens of German beer bottles strewn about the table and floor in their – in our – piece of the cantina. “‘Nam has sucked our personnel resources to the bone,” sighed Constantine.He continued his pontification on the state of geopolitical affairs unsolicited as he gulped a beer.“Guys either just go back to ‘The World’ from ‘Nam or new recruits don’t join at all any more.Germany doesn’t get shit for replacements. The draft is winding down too.”
Constantine looked at my stateside unit patch and then asked, “How in the fuck did you draw this shit duty station?” “Orders came down one day,” was all I could offer.Then I added, “I still have a year left on my enlistment.”
“How the fuck you manage to stay out of 'Nam?” Constantine said and then paused…and looked through me. Then he continued, “You enlisted for this shit?”But he didn’t wait for an answer.
“Where’s my manners?” he said through a belch.
Then he proceeded to introduce me to the guys at the make-shift card table with the pile of crumpled money and billowing cigarettes on it.Another blast fired off from the target range and the concussion from its intensity raised all the bottle caps, money, and poker chips off the table and rearranged them an inch or so. There were the usual suspects.There was Smitty, Caps, Luna, MacAmmis, Caffee, Cotton, and Newk.Their unshaven faces peered through a curtain of cigarette smoke.They did not have to explain their station in life.They still wore their Vietnam combat patches on their fatigue shirts.This is the protocol, you do the time and your combat unit patch accompanies your next unit’s patch on your shirt.But mostly, I could tell by their auras.Their eyes – sunken, pupils deep, dark, looked at me through the smoke – had seen God’s temperamental, schizophrenic emissaries of death.Most of them were finishing out their enlistments in Germany after doing 12 months in ‘Nam.The oldest amongst them was probably 20. “Sorry to pull some bullshit on you right off the plane, brother, but we have bunker duty tonight.Get with Sergeant Long and he will get you down there when there is a target range ceasefire,” Constantine said.Before he even finished the sentence he turned and gulped down a beer and started dealing the cards to the guys around the table.
“When the big guns fire up it is a shit storm of fireworks,” said Smitty looking up from his hand of cards.Then he added, “Your Uncle Sammy likes to make a big lot of boom-boom for the Ruskies over on the other side of the Wall.”There was muffled laughter from the table.
MacAmmis, who disturbingly resembled one of those monkies one might win at the carnival, asked me, “Hey, new guy.You know what to do if the Ruskies come charging across the border tonight?”He did not wait for an answer before he said, “Bend over, reach up with your lips, and kiss your ass goodbye.”They all laughed, more of a sinister laugh rather than a comedy, inspired laugh.MacAmmis offered one last caveat, “Six Ruskies to every one of us, new guy.”They all laughed sadistically again – from their necks, not their stomachs. I found Sergeant Long crushing out a cigarette butt on the side of the beat up six-wheeled contraption of a truck we would take down range to the target bunker. I had never seen this type of vehicle state-side. I later found out it was called a 'Goat.
Sergeant Long's jacket was covered with range dust.He looked more like a World War II sergeant from the old movies than one of those modern poster boys they plastered on the recruiting ads in the early ‘70s. 'Nam wasn’t going so well and the PR had to be stepped up.Yet, with all his John Wayne demeanor Sergeant Long was probably all of 21.
“Let’s go, new guy,” Long said.
He smirked like maybe he took new guys down to the bunker and never needed to bring them back.I imagined him bragging to the card players, yah, I never brung a ‘cruit back from that fuck’n bunker alive yet boys. Then there would be laughter and shaking of heads, but just long enough until the cards were dealt again. Even though I had already spent almost two years in the Army and outranked half of them to boot, I would still have to prove myself to these worn veterans.To them I would be a recruit until future notice – ‘cruit. Gino the fuck'n 'cruit
I tried not to think about what could happen down range in a bunker when five tanks from the Second Armored Cavalry sat side by side and fired artillery volleys at the berm of targets that sat directly in front of the bunker that I would spend the night in.American tank crews sat day after day facing-off across the border with allegedly well-trained Russian tank crews. Adding insult to injury, the Russian tanks were bigger, more powerful machines.MacAmmis was right. The tank crews were also outnumbered six to one.In the cantina, in a fit of camaraderie, they would not hesitate to pound a whining homesick corporal to a bloody pulp.That is, one who carelessly made reference to any faults their unit may have – imagined or otherwise. The bunker duty routine was that, when the firing stopped, the bunker crew hops out and replaces the destroyed plywood targets – one could only hope the tank crews paid attention to the radio directions to maintain cease fire.A realistic potential was this: The paperwork concerning one accidentally blown up corporal down range by the tank guys is not likely to see the light of day.
MacAmmis appeared from nowhere to drive the Gamma Goat truck to take me down range.He had a beer bottle sticking out each fatigue jacket pocket. And he, this little ape of a man with his four-day beard, would drive the infamous M-561 6x6, amphibious, articulating-steering truck - the fucking 'Goat. It was a six-wheeled Orwellian mechanical beast. It was designed to navagate the rice paddies and rivers of 'Nam - only problem, it frequently got stuck in the paddies...and worse yet, it easily sank in the river. Long and I rode in the back on the wood bench.We rumbled down the shrapnel-filled trail to the bunker.
Sergeant Long looked at me with an unlit cigarette in his mouth and said, “I was killed in Nha Trang in ’71 you know that new guy?Them docs in 'Nam brought me back to life.What were you doing in ‘71, mowing the unit commander’s fuck'n yard in California?”
He took out a lighter, clicked it open and lit the cigarette.Up front MacAmmis was slugging down one of his beers as he negotiated a pile of blown-up metal in the road.It was then I noticed the tipped over can of gasoline in the back with us.
“That little spill make you nervous new guy?”Long said as we bounced in the back.
The gas soaked the soles of our boots.I looked at Long’s cigarette as ashes fluttered to the gassy bed of the truck as he smoked it down to a butt. He took one last long drag.
“Fuck you, new guy,” he said.He flicked the lit cigarette into the gas.It shot out of his fingers like a small jet.The fiery butt extinguished in the fluid and at the impact there was a little sound - shizzz.I shut my eyes for a second and thought about home.
“Not bad, new guy,” Long said.He smiled with only one side of his mouth.Then he continued, “The last new guy jumped out the back of this here 'Goat and broke his collar bone."
I don’t remember much of what I did in that bunker for 24 hours.I remember my bunker mate was a private named Wally.I remember they had given us a whole box of fresh ham sandwiches and a case of Coca-Cola to tide us over.Wally demolished most of the sandwiches.The walls were damp and carved with generations of graffiti from soldiers manning the bunker from armies dating back to the Prussians.FTA – “fuck-the-army” dominated the more recent hieroglyphics.
The next day Long and MacAmmis came back with the 'Goat during a cease fire to pick us up. Now he had a five-day growth of beard. In the back of the truck with Long rode a man with captain bars on his collar.Wally and I jumped up in the back of the 'Goat, I started to salute the officer but Wally grabbed my hand and brought it back down. These guys still had their ‘Nam habits.They did not always salute officers so as not to give away their rank to the enemy. MacAmmis put the truck in gear and roared out like he was in a Baja dirt race.
After a bit the Captain looked at me and said, “Cross your mind new guy as to why an officer might be riding down range in a piece of shit Gamma Goat like this?”
“Hadn’t given it too much thought, sir,” I said.There was no spirit in my voice.
The captain looked at me over his glasses and smiled like an old friend – like an upper classman about to give a freshman some advice as to how to make an athletic squad.He took his beret off and held it next to his chest as if he were showing respect at a funeral.His hair was thinning on the top.He was probably 23 – could have been the captain of my high school football team.He pronounced his words like he had actually seen the inside of an English book.He probably had a couple years of college that got him eligible for officer training.Maybe he even spent time in the seminary or rabbinical – perhaps an English major.
I pondered the possibility of one savior in a hole from hell – one ally in a geo-global den of iniquity.The captain stared at me in the back of the bouncing truck and smiled.My heart warmed at the first sign of sanity in three days. I imagined him as a blue-collar guy who was going down range with his troopers to show them solidarity.
The Captain grinned as if reading my mind, and then he pouted.The pout became an ever flaring glower as his faced reddened.
He turned on me like a man just awakened from his asylum bed and hollered, “I am your unit commander new guy and you ‘will’ call me Captain Hellgod.This is my personal outpost of paradise.Ninety-nine percent of the mother fuckers back in ‘The World’ do not even know or care this fuck’n place exists.”
Then he added in a poetic cadence, “Paradise, needs not its outposts of necessity known to the banal.”He paused and tipped his head as if looking through my soul.
After the thoughful relfection, he continued his rant, “And you – you new guy – you are going to be my musical whore-bitch today.Now sing me the Corps of Engineers battle hymn new guy."
The Captian paused and then his voice crescendoed, "Sing it now - fuck'n 'cruit!”
Sergeant Long smiled his one-sided smile - lit a cigarette. A smell of gasoline wafted off the bed of the 'Goat. Wally looked out over the tank target range and pulled a ham sandwich out of his coat.MacAmmis wiped beer foam off his lips as he negotiated around an old skeleton of a target tank in the trail. I looked at the lot of them.I looked out the back of the bouncing truck.I looked out over the moonscape of the tank target range.I looked up through the driver’s compartment and out the front window.I imagined just over the tank firing-pad knoll and beyond the tree line could be found the roof of a “Wall” guard tower – the silhouette of a Russian soldier with AK-47 machine gun just recognizable.
My sight focused on the moment now and I looked up-range at the row of odious olive-drab green and camouflage colored tanks sitting patiently on the tank firing-pad – ominous gun turrets pointed in our direction – with their overused but patient engines belching out black diesel smoke.The tank crews displayed American flags from the long turret radio antennas.The silhouettes of the tanks got bigger as we drove back. As we got closer I could see the tattered edges of the worn flags.A haze of heat loomed about the flags and the hot idling engines.
Thirteen months left in the Army.My heart sank.
“Sing you goddamn ‘cruit,” shouted the Captain over the high-pitched 'Goat engine. His eyes bulged out of their sockets.
The words of the Captain and the Engineer song sloshed in the murky sludge in my mind.
"We are, we are, we are, we are the Army Engineers.We can, we can, we can, we can, demolish…"
- by Bob Keith, May 9, 2005 -
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A Father's Day
by Bob Keith
I would give a great deal of my resources, thousands of dollars, sign a sordid contract, make a deal with a devil, all to just to talk once again even for just a few minutes to my father. I was fortunate to have grown up on a family farm. In those days children usually worked at various tasks depending on their age, to support the daily operation of the farm. I got to see my father at work from my first memories to 18 years old. From 12 to 18 years old I actually worked along side him. Of course, due to school large durations of this work were in the summers. But there were many winter nights feeding the cows and then tossing bales of hay down the shoot from the haymow to the milking area to bolster the pile of hay for my dad and uncle to later feed the cows the next morning. There were weekends of cleaning the cafe pens. I learned to back the large manure-spreader straight down the barn aisle. It had to be backed with the old wobbly-frontend tractor. The big wheels of the spreader hung over the gutters the stanchioned milk-cows dropped their shit in. Dropping a wheel in the deep shit-filled gutter meant an ordeal of digging and lifting the tire of the heavy shit-filled vehicle out of the mess. The first time I made the mistake he just left me to undo it myself. Years later in my blue-collar jobs, I could back any trailored vehicle anywhere.
On reflection, after I moved away, I realized I knew things about him even my mom did not know. Men reveal sides of themselves, often subtlety, that one can only see as they work. I saw him quietly reflect on the seasons and the seasonal angle of the sun as we might pause under a tree or the shade of a wagon during combining oats or bailing hay. I saw him pause pained as the latest news from the Vietnam War filtered over the radio in the work truck. I saw him berate his own brother for letting some hay get rained on – you can’t put wet hay in a barn. My memories of my father are sometimes tweaked when I find an item that was somehow connected to him. These things are in my box of odds and ends. These things often aren’t in a box per say. They are at many times in a box only in my memory.
There is a hammer he got me for some birthday or Christmas. I was probably about 12 – much work responsibility seemed to start at 12. It is an adult worker’s hammer. On the farm, roofs and doors and things are repaired in-house. In other words, we fixed our own stuff. When a child was big enough to participate in a carpenter job, perhaps a new wall to a calf pen, or putting new shingles on a shed, you know you were now in the special status. Farmers prided themselves on straight corn rows, and other farmers knew we all fixed our own barn roofs. If the shingles were lined crooked, it was frowned upon. It was there for all to see – your prowess of making straight corn rows, your straight shingle carpenter job was your character. Your straight rows spoke to your farming ability – your validation of your trade. Children were not allowed to jeopardize that image. When I got that hammer it was like a hunter giving his child a rifle. Without anything being spoken, it was understood that on the next project I would somehow participate.
That hammer sits in a low sided cardboard box in the basement of my house. In the corner of one of my bookshelves in my basement study area sits the box. Once my wife learned of the easily accessible tools and moved the hammer to the upstairs office desk drawer. I noticed its absence from the box and there was a quick inquisition of my poor wife; the hammer was replaced to its station of honor in my box of useful tools in my man-space in the basement.
I live in the house now he and mom moved to in town. He died in 1988 and she in 2001. My wife rebuilt the whole upstairs to her style. Don’t get me wrong, this is good. She needs to get her signature on a house that came from my family. It must have been to her like moving into a house that belonged to a husband’s first wife. But in the basement and the back shed still sit things I know my dad left there. There is a chisel and screw driver both resting on the door frame of the work shed. There is an oil can I have never moved that sits on a shelf in the garage. Even the remodeling guys did not touch it while eating lunch in the garage. The oil can came from the farm. I remember it from the work shed. You never know when something will need a bit of oil to stop a squeak. I know the last one to have touched it was my dad, now probably over twenty years ago.
I have taken to riding my bicycle again to train for a possible oversees ride in Vietnam. Now in my fifties and not having ridden much in decades I will need to reinstate some stamina to deal with the 100 degree days and forty-mile-a-day expectations I will put on myself. But in Wisconsin the weather changes quickly. The other day 20 miles from home the sun set and the chill of fall enveloped me as I meandered down a township road surrounded by corn. Its crispy fall leaves rubbed together in the breeze. My hands began to get cold. In my travel bag on the back wheel frame was a pair of soft brown work gloves. The type my dad used. There were not too many tractor tool boxes on the farm without a pair of them inside amongst the tools. “Hey dad you got a pair of gloves or something, it is getting cold out here in the field.” He would just smile and pull a pair from somewhere, often with holes in them, and hand them to me.” The work would continue. Back on the bike I stopped and found the gloves in the bag. I smiled as I could almost see him hand them to me as he smiled then shake his head a bit without saying anything, most likely amused at my latest scheme with Vietnam.
“We had a rough time in Kaserine in ’42. We were lucky to get out. Not much about Africa in all the history books,” he said once after I got out of the Army. It was in response to some anxiety I had about being in the military during Vietnam. It was the only thing he ever said about his military service. Farmers rationed words and he was no exception. If he had manipulated the system he could have been exempted from military service, but it was not his way. Farmers were exempt in World War II. A short stint working in the town feed mill while his brother ran the farm got my dad tagged for the military draft.
In a box in the basement just a few shelves up from the box with the hammer is a small candy can with some military metals and his dog tags. My mom gave me the box after dad died. “Here, you take this stuff, you were in the Army. You might be more able to figure out what it means,” she said rather sadly. Years later while doing a story on the Second World War for a college news paper I looked up the medals’ significance. They are in recognition of his service in theaters of war, campaigns as they are often called, in Africa that history shows involved some of the United States’ worst defeats in war time. The conditions the soldiers endured, I read, in the African desert were often abysmal. He never once complained, at least to me except that one hint. And that he gave up only grudgingly.
I have no brothers and sisters. I have no children. When I am gone the hammer and oilcan will no doubt end up in a garage sale as my wife purges the man-spaces of the house. Or, perhaps her new boyfriend or husband will leave the hammer on the side of a truck and it will fall in the street. Perhaps he will leave it out in the rain in the garden while fixing a trellis and it will be forgotten until the next homeowner digs it up, crusts of rust on the handle, with the tiller.
If I live long enough to become physically incapacitated, I will sit and ponder as the sun shines in my one window in my nursing home room. It will remind me of the basement windows over the east facing wall where the wash tubs were. The morning sun would come through those windows warming the floor for the old dog Ginger. My dad’s dog before I was born. I only remember her as old and her red hair turning grey. On the dusty window shelf of one of the windows was a small hammer with a worn wooden handle. Decades of neglect in the morning sun had cracked the handle. In all the years I lived on that farm before I joined the Army, that hammer sat there in the cobwebs. When I returned after my military service I noticed the hammer was still there. I think it was under stood that it was something my dad’s dad had left there. It was never really mentioned but I just know it was that way.
In my memory part of my box of stuff is a note to myself that I need to talk to my dad. I never asked him much about his own dad, my grandfather who I never knew. The subject would come up but there was work to be done. There would always be time to sort out grandfather’s history. But when my dad retired I had long moved away. There is an open space in my box if that information ever becomes revealed. It travels with me now simply as a folder with the heading “Incomplete information.”
I need to talk to dad and ask him if he thinks I’ve done ok. He insisted emphatically that I never be a farmer – that I should error on the side of anything else. I carry that request in my memory box – I live it. Well dad, I’ve done just about everything else but farm. When I ride my bicycle out in the country I need to ask him who used to live where. I moved away for thirty years and came back to my home area. People have moved in, had lives, died, or moved on all since I was here before. I need to ask him how he stayed married to one woman for 40 years.
He visited me one time in Texas. I took him to a farm museum on the out side of Dallas. It displayed old tractors and replicated barns. Some caretakers half heartedly tended to some sad-faced animals. He looked into the hayfield near the rusting tractors the kids played on in the play ground and he said with just his eyes, “Bob, why the hell did you bring me here?”
Last year I went to a war museum in Saigon, Vietnam. Professors, students, family, my wife, and friends, all people who had never been there - had never been to the country - had told me I needed to see it. I had avoided it on earlier trips to the country but I finally relented to the pressure. The kids were playing on an old tank. In a covered plaza, people paused uncomfortably at war correspondent pictures of horrible war scenes. I looked at the wall that half heartedly protected the museum grounds. I thought of my dad because I summon his wisdom often. That wisdom accompanies me in my traveling memory box. I brought my dad up in my mind. His baseball cap was on just a bit tilted just like the farmers wear them after a long day’s work and they ride out in the old pickup truck in the evening with a piece of straw in their mouths to inspect a crop in the field. That dad came to me and I saw him in his jeans, dusty work shoes, and a t-shirt with a hole in it that my mother could only sigh at. He gave me one of those crooked farmer smiles and said, “Bob, why the hell did you bring yourself here?”
- by Bob Keith, September 30, 2005 -
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- by Bob Keith, June, 1999 -
"The new temporary cantonment(1) area will be erected in less than half a day," Lieutenant Calibrino said.
He pronounced his words a little too officiously at first then tapered off as if realizing he should speak a bit more like one of the men.
"Yooz guys shouldn’t need no gear."
No one could ever tell if he was trying to dumb down to the enlisted men or if he really was in a quandary as to just how he should act. He rarely used profanity and when he did he sounded even more unnatural. He wore a dour expression on his twenty-three-year-old face – an out-of-place adult look on a face that still held some baby fat in the cheeks and a mustache more fuzz than whisker.
The instructions made a small spot on the back of Pete’s neck tingle. Unassuming as he could be at times, he did not bother to analyze this instinct. As the lieutenant shuffled away, Eighteen-year-old Private Pete MacRoberts crawled in the open door seating area of the vibrating Huey(2) with the big red crosses on the front and sides. The unshaven American Warrant(3) Officer in the pilot seat flicked a bent cigarette butt out his open window.
Pete never thought of it before now, but he could not ever recall seeing a black pilot since he had been in the Army or anywhere, for that matter. Then he remembered his tent-mate and frowned. Private First Class (PFC) Robert Lee Cotton had deflated Pete in that line of "I ain’t never seen that before" thinking.
"There is a library on the campus of the University of Texas that has all kinds of bookoo(4) shit in it you never seen before white boy," Cotton said one day pleased and confident, as he shook his leg with a swagger he had made famous.
Cotton had attended college there for three semesters until his mother died of cancer. While he was attending to her affairs, as he so often put, "that fuck’n letter came from Sam the Man." Cotton embellished the tale as often as others would tolerate.
In the copilot’s seat of the vibrating helicopter Pete now waited in sat not a copilot, but a child’s lunch pale with the images of Cowboys and Indians in faded scratched yellow paint.
Even with the air of the blades, the humidity was suffocating. Pete tucked his jungle hat in his pants for the windy ride. Today, he felt comfortable in his worn fatigues. He had finally been in the Army long enough to break a pair in. They no longer stunk of the newness that branded him as a 'cruit(5). His dog tag’s chain pulled on the couple of hairs on his chest codifying along with the worn cloths, the metamorphosis to adulthood.
Pete smiled and pulled a wad of Military Payment Certificates out of his fatigue pocket. He counted them and placed them one atop the other, all facing the same direction. His old boss at the gas station used to go around and check the gas jockys' money. You would be scolded if your money was not neat and tidy. The boss insisted the ordered cash cut down on mistakes out at the pumps when the money was exchanged after the jocks filled up the customers' tanks. The 'Nam Certificates were suppose to cut down on black market activity by the locals as opposed to using U.S. Dollars. Pete did not know much about the dynamics of the underworld but he did know Rose the stripper would take the "funny money." He promised himself if this little tent building project did not last too long he would trip down to the Pink Pussy Club in Saigon.
As he daydreamed and stared out the open side of the chopper, Pete thought the row of idling helicopters looked like giant ugly creatures from a grade-B monster movie. He imagined plucking Rose the stripper from their evil clutches and wisking her off to safety. Rose faded from his imagination as from around the side of one of the big ugly olive-drab birds, came two ARVN Rangers(6), fully-loaded with weapons and with flack-jacket vests protecting their chest areas. Their steel pot helmets were tied down tight like a football player’s should be to avoid it being popped off by a broadside hit. They reminded Pete of the last high school football game he played in only less than a year ago. We only had 15 guys on the team but we beat those bastardswith their sixty fuck’n guys, Pete thought to himself and smiled. The ARVN soldiers climbed aboard without acknowledging Pete. Pete’s steal pot chinstrap never worked and he pondered a bit why none of his shit ever seemed to work.
Today, Pete’s steal pot helmet held down some newspapers that his mother had sent from home. The cookies she had individually wrapped had long been devoured by some of the guys in his unit. The helmet and the broken chinstrap sat back at the tent he shared with PFC Cotton, Sergeant Glubber, and an odd colored hairless housecat with one back leg missing. Pete named the pathetic little cat, Cool Daddy-o.
"He needs a name with some dignity," Pete had told his tentmates. Cotton had nodded as if saying, "of course," and surmised the beast descended from a hairless breed hailing from colonial days of French opulence and occupation in Southeast Asia. Sergeant Glubber suspected the beleaguered animal was a diseased runt that was lice and flea ridden.
"You know Charlie(7) will only eat a varmint like that one leg at a time; ol' baldy there must have made a run for it. Or...should I say, a limp for it?" Sergeant Glubber said to Pete one day with a sadistic grin and a deep West Virginian drawl.
Pete was mortified. He loved animals. Much to his dad's frustration, Pete tryed to save every lost-cause animal that wandered on to the farm - they often surrender their feral dignaty for a gamble at help from humans. Pete had learned that at a young age. Having heard all the folk lore from guys like Glubber about the peril of small animals in 'Nam, Pete was stunned one day when the little cat appeared under his field sleeping cot.
He was befuddled the cat seemed to have a keen instinct for the safe parimeter around the cot and rarely left it except to use the box full of sand he had placed just outside the tent. The cat's little face perked up whenever Pete returned to the tent. There would however be, a silhouette of a glowering face coming from under the cot when Glubber was around.
"Where the fuck’s yu’als shit Razboe," a bony-cheeked Sergeant Newk Glubber said to Pete as he piled in the open-sided humming aircraft with his M-16 rifle and extra ammunition magazines loaded with shinny bullets. Sergeant Glubber never called anyone by their real name. People would be hit with a nickname as soon as they stepped off the helicopter their first day and into as Newk put it, "my Goddamn theater of war." As he climbed in the helicopter he cringed as he assessed Pete’s absence of weaponry and gear.
"Lieutenant Calibrino said we would be right back," Pete shouted over the noise of the helicopter. He sounded as if he needed to apologize for the Lieutenant. What am I doing? Pete thought to himself. Everybody knows Lieutenants are dumbasses.
"That dumb bastard," Newk growled with his bloodshot eyes bugging out. Even though it sounded like a reasonable assessment, Pete turned his head and pouted at the derogatory comment. Crass as the young Noncom(8) could be, Pete did however have an odd affection for Sergeant Glubber. Pete had no siblings and the nineteen-year-old off-color West Virginian filled a void.
"Your going to get your mother-fucker shot off Razboe," Newk shouted again, over the chopper racket. The two Vietnamese Rangers stared straight ahead as if Pete and Newk did not exist. Pete could not help sneaking peaks at them. They looked fourteen years old and one looked like a girl.
Before Pete could second-guess his inadequate gear, a cigarette butt flicked out the pilot’s window, and the chopper shook and lifted off at an obnoxious angle. Out the left door, Pete could see two more helicopters flying along side and out the right door was one. Like the bright green of a fresh bloody tattoo, the landscape passed peacefully beneath the aircraft. The sensation was not that much different than the five-dollar helicopter ride Pete had taken only two years earlier when he was sixteen. A pilot and his small helicopter had set up shop in the recreational bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells one summer. The only difference was that the five-dollar ride had doors. Pete could smell this ride—the air, the soil, the color.
"These motherfuck’n so-called allies of ours ain’t noth’n but fuck’n children," Newk barked with bourbon breath in Pete’s ear.
One of the soldiers slowly glanced at Newk with what Pete thought he could detect, a look of hate. Did he hear what Newk said? Was it Newk’s out-right honesty that was so abrasive, yet so adhesive, Pete often wondered to himself. Newk was brutally unapologetic for his life and his demeanor.
Pete’s people from Wisconsin in contrast, talked in innuendoes and euphemisms. It must have been a Scottish trait to never say exactly what one meant unless it was a dire emergency. Only when Pete’s dad wanted to drill something into someone’s head would he finally speak up, and then, only after painful mulling. Newk was a creature Pete had never envisioned before. He could never get Cotton’s assessment of Newk out of his mind.
"At least I know where that motherfuck’n white boy is coming from," Cotton pondered, referring to Newk one day as he and Pete erected a tent in the blazing sun. "I’ll never have to worry about that boy stabbing me in the back while I sleep. He’ll just shoot me between the fuck’n eyes someday while I’m in the chow line." Cotton was from Bryan, Texas and chastised Pete mercilessly in his Southern drawl about Pete never having, as Cotton put it, "seen a black man in your life until you got to boot camp."
"Do you know why my name is Cotton, then white boy?" Robert Lee loved to bait Pete.
` "I’ll tell you why," Robert Lee never waited for an answer from Pete.
"When them white folks came down to Texas two years after all them other slaves had been freed and asked what we wanted our names to be, my people just looked out over all them damn cotton fields and told them white people, ‘that’l do.’ Do ya’al get my fuck’n drift white boy?" Cotton always finished with a crescendo.
Pete could only sigh. He wondered though once in a while, if Cotton was not quite as polished at hating as Newk was. Newk’s hate seemed to arrive second nature. Cotton’s hate always seemed slightly disingenuous.
Ten minutes into the ride the choppers circled a small hospital encampment with crosses on the tops of most of the tents and buildings. A cigarette butt popped out the pilots window as the choppers dropped to the ground and the Vietnamese soldiers hopped out to load some medical equipment and tent supplies in one of the choppers as other soldiers appeared from the compound to help. Pete had been in the Army long enough to let the others do the work until someone might jump you about it.
"I have to talk to that Butter-bar(9) lieutenant," Newk shouted as he vanished in the dust kicked up by the rotating blades.
As Pete sat and let others do the work, he thought about the Lieutenant. Once, a month ago, Lieutenant Calibrino had stopped and peered through the open window of the cab to a Deuce-and-a-half cargo truck that Pete was sitting behind the steering wheel in. The young Lieutenant stepped up on the running board to view Pete eye to eye, then to Pete’s horrified embarrassment, the officer asked, "can I sing you a song? I know quite a few from my school." Like watching himself shut his own hand in a door and not being able to stop it, Pete fixated as the Lieutenant began to sing a Latin prayer. After two years of studying toward being a Priest, Calibrino had without explanation abruptly joined the army. Lacking officers in the early 1970s, the Army sent him to Officer Candidate School (OCS) while he was still a Buck(10) Sergeant. A few weeks later Second Lieutenant Paulie Calibrino boarded a plane for Southeast Asia. He had been in the Army just fifteen months.
"You can call me Paul, don’t tell anyone I said so though," he had said and smiled after he stopped singing. As he turned to step off the running board he bounced right into Sergeant Glubber.
"Newk," said the Lieutenant.
"Lieutenant," Newk had returned facetiously.
Pete had found out later, that as often happens in the military, these two soldiers had met before at another duty station. It seems a very young Buck Sergeant in charge of small weapons during Calibrino’s O.C.S. training had been one Newk Alexander Glubber.
"I use to torment the shit out of that boy when he was a Leuy(11) wannabe," Newk often confided to Pete. Once the crass West Virginian called the Lieutenant a shake-and-bake(12).
Saluting was usually not done in combat zones as it identified officers to would-be snipers. At the truck in Pete’s presence that day, no salute was exchanged and in this instance, Pete had the instinct that these two would not exchange one had they been at Nixon’s inauguration. After a moment of staring at each other, Lieutenant Calibrino passed on around Newk and then made his way to the Command Bunker where he would no doubt receive his daily dose of verbal abuse from the command staff.
"What the hell kind of tough-guy Italian lives in Nebraska," Newk had often complained to Pete.
Whenever Newk tore into Calabrino, Pete reflected on the day they had all been loaded up and sent to do a physical training test (PT) at the main headquarters physical training field in Saigon. Calibrino could barely make the one-mile run. On the sidelines of the track Calibrino confided to Pete that he had a congenital heart defect.
"I never told them when I enlisted," Calibrino said in-between gasps for breath as he grabbed at his knees. "I wanted to join. My Uncle Frank was killed in Korea." Then in a rare burst of obscenities he said, "Besides, we shouldn’t be doing a goddamn PT test in 'Nam anyway. Get that shit. PT in 'Nam. What the Fuck, hey Pete?" To Pete, Calibrino always seemed un-officer like. But rather, he seemed like an older kid from the neighborhood. Years later Pete looked up the word "congenital."
Drifting back into reality and looking across the landing zone, Pete saw Newk’s slim bony face close to Lieutenant Calibrino’s pudgy mustached face. Newk’s arms were flailing up and down and pointing back at Pete’s helicopter. Out of the corner of his eye Pete saw the Warrant Officer pilot flick another butt out the window. Pete saw Cotton walk up to the two dusty figures and shake his leg not with his famous swagger but with more of a nervous jerking. The motor pool Sergeant tagged Cotton as Ol’ Professor Shake-a-Leg and Newk took the nickname and ran with it. Pete saw Cotton turn and walk away from the two shaking his head and leg and mouth something Pete knew probably included the phrase, "fucked-up white people." Pete considered Cotton his best friend even though Cotton was so much older at 20.
Newk stomped over to the helicopter and threw Pete his M-16 rifle, flack jacket and a couple loaded ammunition magazines. "I’ll shit another weapon," shouted Newk. "Shake-a-Leg and I will take the last chopper. Some of the shit ain’t ready yet. Don’t do a fuck’n thing unless those bastards threaten to shoot you." Newk nodded toward the ARVN soldiers and presented them a rather sadistic grin, "shoot them first if you feel like it. There should be a bookoo shit-load of them there to help set up." As Newk stomped off, the two soldiers slid back into their seats. Without looking to see if anyone was ready, the pilot flicked another butt out the window and lifted off.
About fifteen minutes out, the three choppers minus Newk and Cotton’s fourth, made another circle and descended to a clearing which was supposed to be a new medical staging area to replace the one they had just lifted off from. It would be a place to triage wounded, mostly South Vietnamese, treat them there and send them back to fight or air lift them back to Pete’s base camp where there was a better equipped hospital staff.
Wounded and sick soldiers and civilians passed through the hospital in the two months he had been around but Pete had never given much thought to the origins of their woes. His was a small engineer platoon attached to the Army field hospital. They did all the garbage details such as building landing pads and security fences, pulling guard duty, setting up tents, digging shit holes, and assisting with the transportation of patients. Engineers did not have the term ‘not-my-job’ in their repertoire.
"A medical unit?" Pete’s dad said on the other end of the static filled phone line when Pete called from Saigon one weekend. "Well, them medics pieced together a good bunch of us after Rommel put us on our bellies at Kasserine in February ’43," Peter MacRoberts Senior said with the cautious optimism that had helped him farm on shitty soil for almost thirty years.
The middle-aged farmer’s was a different war. Any time the least bit of doubt was cast on a veteran or the war he would opt on the side of patriotism. Someone would cast some aspersion of a particular farmer’s skills and Pete’s dad would always burst from his brooding silence to point out if applicable, that the man was a veteran and lucky to be farming at all. Farmers were exempt from the draft in World War II days. But, like Pete’s dad, many went anyway. "Why’s your dad so much older than the other dads," kids would ask Pete from time to time. "The war got in the way, they had to stay ‘til it was over" is all Pete could ever say.
Pete never dared point out to his dad the irony of the Vietnam age group being berated by the older generation for avoiding the military draft when however, some historical statistics observed, that when World War II started, the number of new farmers in America seemed to exponentially jump.
For over ten years in Vietnam, American men and women had spent nine to twelve-month stints at this war and then rotated home or to other duty stations. Pete’s stint is in late 1972 and there is only a handful of men left in his platoon.
"This is like a part-time gig, not like what I’ve read about double-udouble-utwo," Cotton often complained. Different titles for the war emerged from society – Conflict and Police Action to name a couple – until finally denial relented and by the time Pete was there it was called a war.
Newk called Pete a dumb bastard for coming to 'Nam, not having any brothers or sisters.
"You could’a have made a case to stay yu’als ass at home Razboe," Newk would argue like a fifty-dollar lawyer.
"You too Professor," Newk would continue his dissertation. "You could have gotten a hardship waiver for your sick Mamma. You and Razboe are both damn fools."
"Besides Ol’ Tricky(13) is sending us all back to the World(14) any fuck’n day," Newk would often say.
Not to be fooled by his West Virginian slang, the casual observer might be surprised to learn Newk had graduated high in his high school class and had excelled in basketball and golf, of all sports, and was courted by several colleges out Virginia way. But, as he openly confided to anyone and everyone he could corner, "'Nam was one place that ol’ pregnant girl would not come to look for him."
Now as the chopper prepared to touch down, Pete was sorry he did not bring a canteen full of water. Maybe there is something with the supplies, Pete thought. He thought of all the ration boxes the soldiers had loaded. Pete liked to Bogart(15) the tuna cans in the rations. As the three aircraft’s landing gear touched the dusty clearing and as Pete rummaged through a ration box, from some unknown calling, that small spot on the back of Pete’s neck started to tingle again. Looking out over the landing zone, it was empty of activity. There was none of Newk’s shit-load of South Vietnamese Rangers who were supposed to have secured a perimeter. Pete glanced out the open side at the grass blowing in the empty clearing and thought, but surely, the lead chopperhad called ahead to make sure – someone was in charge. Had Pete been in the Army just a bit longer he might have realized that the chopper with the lead field authority aboard was the one that stayed behind to finish up the work at the first staging area. And, a greater authority yet, sat hunkered in that command bunker Lieutenant Calibrino so often emerged from so depressed.
Years later, Pete would reflect that from the Command Bunker the line of authority became conveniently ever more blurred all the way back to the World. "N-F-B-I-C-C-F-U-W-P, nef-bic-fup," Cotton would often say and Pete couldn’t help laughing. Sitting alone in a bar after the war, Pete would still smile and say out loud, "No fuck’n body in charge ‘cept fucked up white people."
As another cigarette butt flicked past Pete’s open door, the helicopter set down. From the corner of his eye Pete caught four South Vietnamese soldiers appear from the bush. There was something odd about their faces. Then it dawned on him.
Pete had a peek at terror once, and he knew it was terror he now saw on those faces. He had seen a neighbor child choke on a hard piece of candy given to it by the Post Office lady. She smiled down at the child and it popped the candy into its mouth and immediately grabbed at its throat with both hands. It was at the small general store in the village down the road from his dad’s farm. It was one of those old stores that had everything – Post Office, soda fountain, groceries, hardware, and on and on. Everyone in the store stood petrified as statues as the child turned blue and neared death. Then Pete’s grandma walked up and picked the child up by the ankles. Later Pete could never remember if it was a boy or a girl. The onlookers still stood frozen as the old woman beat its back violently until the candy popped out. He could never forget that sunken-eyed look of impending doom – the detached expression of that suffocating child, sickening to the helpless parents as they watched.
Two of the soldiers were dragging one blood-soaked comrade. The toes of his boots dragged in the dirt and grass. Through the noise of the choppers Pete thought he heard pops and then louder pops. The fourth soldier fired his weapon wildly to the rear. Those four soldiers, what was left of a hundred-man company had probably given the all clear because if they had not, the choppers would have never landed.
What Pete had not realized, is as this was unfolding, he had instinctively stepped out of the chopper as he had done so often before into the Asian sun to do what ever the latest dirty work was at hand. He found himself crouching with his knees bent only a little, making him only a couple inches shorter than he really was. The two soldiers on Pete’s chopper had also jumped down.
Moving in what looked to be slow motion, the two soldiers moved toward their wounded countrymen. More pops seemed to come from all around Pete. Out of the corner of his eye in all the chaos Pete could have sworn he saw a butt flick out the chopper window as the bird now having surely taken some bullet hits, rose higher and higher above Pete. He saw the soldier being dragged, dropped by his comrades as his limp body turned to dead weight. Pete had moved a dead body once at the hospital and was taken back at how cumbersome it was.
As if an orchestra had lulled its listeners into daydream and then with a surprise ending abruptly stopped playing, all the soldiers went down. It was however, not of their own intention. They were being riddled with bullets. Pete had never seen a bullet enter a living thing before. His dad rebuffed hunting as a time luxury a farmer could not afford. With all the soldiers gone from the landscape, it was at this point that Pete realized Newk’s M-16 rifle was in the seat of the chopper now a couple hundred feet above.
When the three helicopters had landed, Pete’s was in the middle. Now the door gunner on the chopper to the right fired his mounted door weapon wildly in as many directions as his field of vision would let him. As this firing continued, the chopper on the left stated to smoke, and some people jumped off but then vanished. "You fool, you shot your own chopper." Pete mouthed the words but nothing came out. He could feel his heart pounding under his fatigue shirt and with no undershirt to absorb the palpation, he could see the shirt’s pocket move with each beat. But then the chopper with the wild door gunner started to smoke also. Hovering just off the ground in smoke and fire with the door gunner still blazing away, the chopper moved sideways right toward Pete. It seemed that at some points, the door gunner was firing right through Pete. Every few rounds or so, a tracer round was put in the ammunition magazine to aid the would-be shooter in their aim. These fiery blazes now passed through Pete’s position and he momentarily shut his eyes expecting to be hit. It never dawned on him to dive to the ground. The chopper then passed by Pete missing him by a few feet and veered into the other smoking chopper – parts flung outward in all directions. Pete never realized that in the time since his chopper landed and to this point, only forty-five seconds had passed.
One of the engines from the wrecked helicopters still hummed in the mess of burning metal. The pops Pete heard earlier were louder and seemed closer now. A chill road up Pete’s back as he could hear the clacking of what might be voices. Pete never realized he was now alone in the middle of what the TV guys called a firefight, and the Viet Cong(16) probably never knew there was only one Capitalist left alive on the ground, with no weapon to boot.
Events appeared to be tied in eternity and Pete momentarily thought he could sense they were happening before they happened. The fourth helicopter—the one Newk and Cotton took that had stayed late to finish up the work—now appeared, but now also with smoke coming from somewhere under its under-belly. Pete could see Newk’s mouth moving as he fired the door gun evenly and steady out the side door of the over-loaded chopper. "Motherfuck’n bastards," he seemed to be saying over and over. It looked like an ARVN soldier was tossing gear out the other door, and through the smoke next to Newk was Cotton, motioning and saying what looked to Pete, if he read Cotton’s lips right, were the words, "Run white boy, run like a motherfucker!" But Pete froze and their chopper too was losing power. As the chopper touched the ground, Newk and Cotton jumped and ran toward Pete.
"Get down Razboe, get down" Newk seemed to be yelling, teeth bucked out, with that squinted, irritated face Pete had seen so many times before. In a photo image fit to be locked in one’s soul for life, Lieutenant Calibrino followed the two with a pistol, firing wildly in the air at nothing.
Pete crashed to the ground with the impact of a crushing blind-side tackle in a losing game after you were not really trying anymore and someone suckered you a cheapshot you deserved.
Cotton lie on half of Pete, and said rather matter-a-factly, "I’m going home white boy. I've been fuck'n shot; the fuckers shot me." He showed Pete a bleeding forearm as they both recovered to a prone position. Pete could only focus on Cotton shaking that leg of his a hundred miles an hour.
"That fuck’n pile of shit chopper ain’t taking nobody home and going no fuck’n place," Newk shouted.
Twenty-five yards away their chopper sat useless and smoking, still with blades turning. Pete could see the soldier still throwing gear out the other door. In the pilots window he could see a figure frantically moving and shouting. Now, Pete could not only make out clacking of voices he could see the tops of heads moving about on the edge of the clearing. "We’re fucked," an unfamiliar voice came from Lieutenant Calibrino’s mouth as he spoke into the pistol grip of his weapon. He looked as if he were calling home into the grip while the four of them lying shoulder to shoulder in the burning grass waited. Pete could not hear all the words but he heard enough to know the lieutenant was saying another prayer.
Pete started to think what a strange thing death is. Not like what he imagined at all – notlike TV. The only thing of significance that occupied his thoughts was a nagging question, "whowould feed Daddy-o the cat after they were all dead as a door nail?" And then his heart sank, "Rose the stripper would be disappointed." What a strange thing to think; no life running before the eyes; nothing but the image of a sad 17-year-old stripper mixed with the vision of a hairless, three-legged cat anxious for a tidbit of food, limping with bald tail twisting and curling. The beast thinks it is prancing and it never realizes its fur and leg are gone. What an odd thing to have stuck in a mind for eternity after the bullets would riddle a body to shreds.
All the activity in Newk’s smoldering chopper ceased as Pete could see silhouettes of guerrilla soldiers on the other side pummel the hulk with bullets. They had no packs of supplies loading them down, just shorts, cloth shirts, and rifles firing what ammunition they could hold. Cotton, with a demeanor Pete had never witnessed from the opinionated Texan, said softly as he looked Pete right in the eyes from ten inches away, legs silent, "we are not going to make it are we Pete?"
At exactly that moment he had resigned himself to die. The roar was deafening. Ah, now here was sweet death arriving with a vengeance as he imagined it should and must. Death. Death come to take him from this shit-hole of a war. Death loud and smelling like human shit and unmoved by pity.
I was a fool, Pete thought. Newk was right. Fuck these people, fuck them all. Fuck Tricky and his fat cheeks. Fuck Dad and his naïve belief in some cautious patriotism. Fuck Mom and her newspapers. Fuck their complicit generation that coerced us here and coddled this war for a decade – that unassuming generation that was lucky enough to save the world once. Fuck God himself and all his temperamental benevolence. Only a rascal prick of a god could let a war like this happen. Fuck you bastards, fuck you all.
But the roar was not sweet death. It was emanating from military issue. With an engine belching fire and tiny pieces of red-hot metal, Pete’s chopper lowered back down and hovered two feet off the ground right on top of the four men. There it was, forgotten in the fray. It had been hovering above their heads like an old buzzard waiting to pluck their bones. A buzzard that had a few patches of feathers missing and did not care about the jungle tiger that had already taken some chunks out of the prey.
Hot machine fluids mixed with dirt splattered them. There was the smell of burning fatigues, human hair and skin. Sick sweet smells good to last a lifetime and some day re-invoked by some dumbass in a bar burning hair on his arm with a cigarette. They crawled in the gaping metal-shard ridden hole that used to be the aerodynamically engineered side opening of a combat proven aircraft. The now vibrating wreck waited patiently like a sick dog that knew it was going to be shot by the master it still loved. They pulled each other on board what no longer looked to Pete like a helicopter but rather now, a mangled green bird struggling to rise from dirt along the highway after some chance meeting with a bus window.
Their faces wore the fraught insanity one might find on a lost Picasso. Fuel, sparks, hot-smoking hydraulic oil, and bodily fluids spattered them from head to toe. The M-16 Newk loaned Pete sat neatly on the burning seat where he had left it when he habitually stepped off the chopper – that moment of absentmindedness that what now seemed hours ago but in reality was only minutes. As the helicopter began to rise, he could no longer distinguish between enemy bullets and what was flying metal shrapnel from the helicopter itself. In the midst of this fiery ascent, Pete rested his head on someone’s bloody, urine-soaked boot as they lie on the floor and stare out the sideless machine at the Earth as it went moving slowly away. For just a second he saw out of the corner of his eye, a smoky object other than machine remnant, go spiraling to the ground. As the screaming machine rose inch by inch, now engulfed in flames, Pete glanced at the pilot in time to see him put another cigarette in his mouth.
(1) Cantonment: A compound to house soldiers – usually a temporary setting.
(2) Huey: Nickname for the UH-1 series helicopter. Proven to be exceptionally reliable even after taking extreme damage in combat.
(3) Warrant: A category of officer usually found in Army aviation and the technical trades.
(4) Beaucoup: Vietnamese/French term for "many" and "lots of ..." (5) 'Cruit: A new soldier.
(6) ARVN: Army of the Republic of South Vietnam.
(7) Charlie: Generally the enemy, but sometimes the Vietnamese at large.
(8) Noncom: A noncommissioned officer – in other words, a sergeant.
(9) Butter-bar: A second lieutenant, named for the gold bar they wore; the lowest ranking officer.
(10) Buck Sergeant: The lowest ranking sergeant.
(11) Leuy: Lieutenant.
(12) Shake-and-bake: A sergeant put through an accelerated officer training program.
(13) Tricky Dick: President Richard M. Nixon.
(14) The World: America; USA; Home.
(15) Bogart: To hoard something.
(16) Viet Cong: South Vietnamese guerrillas sometimes assisted by the North Vietnamese Army. They fought the government of South Vietnam, ARVN soldiers, and U.S. soldiers. The name was given to them by their advisories and they did not refer to themselves as such.
Two ARVN soldiers: Killed in action in the service of the Republic of South Vietnam; buried in one unmarked grave several miles northwest of Saigon in an open clearing, August 1972. Ages at time of death; 17, 16.
Captain Paulie Francis Calibrino: Died July 1976, at Rhamstein Army Facility, West Germany while training in Aerial Descent from helicopters. Cause of death; Myocardial Infarction secondary to a congenital heart defect. Age at time of death; 26.
Chopper Pilot Warrant Officer Edward Rama: Resigned as California Woman’s Federal Penitentiary prison guard, June 1977. Severely injured in smoking related bedroom fire at father’s California nudist resort in January 1980. Released from San Diego Veteran’s Hospital February 1981. Current address unknown.
Newk A. Glubber: Shot dead by girlfriend at a residence in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 1985. Cause of death; massive hemorrhage. Age at time of death; 32.
Pete MacRoberts Jr.: Hospitalized August 1985, Madison Wisconsin Veteran’s Hospital; Chronic Deep Vein Thrombosis of lower legs, secondary to Alcoholism. Died November 1986. Cause of death; Brain Embolism due to dislodged blot clot from lower right leg. Age at time of death; 32.
Robert Lee Cotton: Died March 1989, Dallas, Texas Veterans Hospital. Cause of death; Renal Failure secondary to Leukemia. Age at time of death; 37.
Peter MacRoberts Sr.: Died October 1990, at home. Cause of death; Natural due to aging. Occupation; Farmer. Age at time of death; 80.
Veteran status: Service in World War II; European African Middle Eastern Theater of War. Rank; Technical Sergeant. Battle Ribbons; Tunisian, Algeria French Morroccan, Naples Foggia, Rome Arno, Po Valley, Northern Appennines. Medals; Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star.
Feline: Name; Daddy-o. Sex; male. Breed; Rex Mix. Animal death status; Died October 1991. Past history; smuggled to United States mainland on C-130 cargo transport from Thailand, November 1972. Last known owner; Mrs. Peter MacRoberts Sr., Milton, Wisconsin. Estimated age at time of death; 19 years.
- Nines Lives, Copywrite, June, 1999, by Bob Keith -
back to top _____________________________________________________
by Bob Keith
Lori sat on the lounge sofa in her dirty socks and did her college homework as usual.Paul worked on his too.He spent many Sunday afternoons at the ambulance barn doing homework.He often described his own house as like being in a noisy school bus.Between his elderly mom, wife Beth, little Georgiana, and the menagerie of adopted animals, he could not hear himself think.Nor could he focus on anything longer than a few minutes before he would be summoned to sort out some crisis.
Paul sought refuge at the quiet ambulance building years before Lori showed up on the scene.He had been going back to college part-time for what seemed to him like way too long now, but the peace of the emergency building always suited him – he finished many a procrastinated research paper there.Lori on the other hand, had joined the ambulance to compliment her pre-medical school experiences. Lori seemed to unwittingly taunt him with her mussed hair and crooked smile.She frequently spilled soup and pizza down her sweat shirt which never seemed to unnerve her.She often responded to a 911 page-out with a piece of pepperoni or sauce still on the breast of her sweatshirt.Her breasts were so big the lunch debris often road along with no trouble.Paul was often tempted to ask, “hey, Lori, you gonn’a finish that?” But he never did. That afternoon, he had enough.After the year or so of knowing her, today he thought, what the hell, what the fuck does it matter any more at my age?A now long-dead boss at the gas station Paul worked at during high school used to belabor missed opportunities in life – especially during his Korean War days. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Lori brushed her hair aside for what was probably the hundredth time that day.It was baby blond hair that looked so soft and always hung in her face.It had the texture of little Georgiana’s.This time as she pushed her hair out of eyes her turquoise bracelet got stuck in a few strands. “Oooow,” Lori giggled.Then she said, “This better not break.My little sister got it for me.She got one just like it for herself too, and she wears it she says, for her big sister.”She untangled the bracelet, admired it on her wrist, and then she smiled like she had just picked up a kitten. “God damn it,” Paul said.
“Wha?” Lori returned and looked over at him.
“Why don’t you ever return my e-mails?Did your lame boyfriend give you flowers for Valentine’s Day? Has anyone of your boyfriends every gotten you anything nice or thoughtful?Has anyone ever in your life thrown a blanket on your sorry butt because you passed out on the cold floor doing homework?Has anyone ever held your head while you puke in the toilet after you have one of your college all-nighters? Has anyone ever done anything decent for you besides me and your sister?”
She looked at him and bit her lower lip; she rapped her pencil a couple times on her book, closed it, stood up and walked over to Paul’s work table.“Come here,” she said, and headed for the ambulance.
Paul followed her out to the ambulance bay and they stood in the late afternoon light coming through the narrow windows that spanned the big over-head bay doors.The shiny white ambulance sat at the ready behind its assigned door.Umbilical power cords hung from the ceiling connecting to its charging system.Its assorted medical equipment charged and in wait, inside – cardiac arrest defibrillators, heart monitors, suction canisters, oxygen flow systems – all powered up with tiny lights flashing.The back of the ambulance reminded Paul of a picture he once saw of the inside of the space station – switches, light panels, equipment hooks, oxygen tanks, padded walls. The filtered afternoon light beam from the setting sun cast a foreboding angelic aura into the quiet bay.
Lori took a couple of his ruddy fingers in her soft hand.“Look,” she said.And there was what seemed to Paul like an eternal pause.“I don’t ever want what happened after the Christmas party to ever happen again.” Paul looked up to the ceiling.Then after a moment, he said, “As I recall, nothing happened.” “It was about to,” she said and looked to the side. “So let me get this straight.You don’t ever want what didn’t happen – but was about to happen – to ever happen again?” Paul said and smiled. She looked at him for a second then she turned her mouth in a pout. “Fuck you, Paul Pogorelski, I want nothing to happen.” she said.She looked at his shoulder and sighed. “Be careful what you wish for,” Paul said with a scrunched-up half-hearted smile. Daga, Daga, Daga, Daga, the paging system screamed in the ambulance bay like an echo chamber. * * *
Tigre the cat slept on the Dot Matrix printer.He is old now and Beth calls him Grey Tigre.It is warm up there – the heat of the power system rises to the top of the unit and it warms his old arthritic bones.When the perch is empty of the beast, there are cat hairs matted into the core of the printing works.It still pushes out copies about one every two minutes if it needed to be called into service.Paul never bought the latest technology – he could neither afford it, but more relevantly, he just did not care. A mysterious black device about the size of a computer mouse sat clipped to the cardboard box of printer paper.It boasted the hard plastic cover of a miniature audio speaker; it presented little buttons and mysterious flashing pin-head size lights – an ambulance pager. On the chair in front of the computer sat Paul Pogorelski.His chin nodded off his chest with every breath – there is a hint of a snore.His hair grayer than brown, puffed down on his shoulders.Crow’s feet encroached on the corners of his eyes.Similar lines could be seen on his once muscular hands.
“Come to bed, Paul,” said Beth.She held Georgiana’s hand in one hand and she gave him a gentle nudge on the shoulder with the other. Then she continued her plea, “I admire your taking on night classes at your age but you are killing yourself with poor sleep habits.You will never see your 51st birthday.”She turned to lead the child out of the little work room.Before she turned to follow, Georgiana gave Paul a little punch and giggled.Paul was abruptly dismissed as her attention zeroed in on the cat.
“Tiggie,” said Georgiana.“Tiggie,” she said again as she smiled and pointed at the cat.The odd colored creature cracked one eye open ever so slightly. Tigre came from the rural animal shelter where Beth put in some time helping out.One day Paul had swung by in an old truck they used to have, to pick her up after a shift; as she piled in she mentioned the litter of tiny kittens dropped anonymously at the back door to the shelter that morning.They all died but one that day.The shelter couldn’t keep such a tiny creature.It fit in the palm of her hand, its eyes were still sealed shut, and it needed an eyedropper to feed it. The shelter had limited help and hours.This creature would need 24-hour care if it were to live at all.Paul pulled out of the shelter driveway during the story and headed down the road.As Beth labored on with the little beast’s plight, her eyes filled with tears.
Paul stopped the old truck, paused for a moment, backed it back down the road, jumped out, ran in and got the kitten.
Georgiana, on the other hand, belonged to Beth’s younger brother Timmy.Both Timmy and his wife Nikie were in the National Guard.Beth took in the child when both parents’ unit got called up for deployment to Iraq.This particular evening, Beth put a little bow in the child’s soft brown hair.Beth and Paul never had any children and Beth doted over Georgiana, yet at the same time, she often seemed a bit awkward with the girl.Now tonight, both females had on pajamas with images of teddy bears and both had socks with cat faces on them. Beth had a tendency to let her hair touch her shoulders while other women her age had long since moved to a shorter style that was easier to care for.At 46 it was still quite blond but a ruddier blond and it was easy to mistake Georgiana for Beth’s granddaughter.This mistake, if one were to make it irked Beth to no end.The faux pas could risk Beth’s distain for life.
The beast Tigre opened one eye and he followed Beth and Georgiana’s exit from the work room.The tip of his tail rose like the head of a snake.The cat abruptly raised its head and its eyes bugged a bit.It glowered at the silent pager clipped to the box.The cat’s tail buffed out.A howl followed.“Reeooooooow.”Then again, “Reeoooooooow.Reeoooooooow.”
“Tiggie”, said Georgiana looking back at the semi-hairless creature.Then she said, “Fi-tuck.”She smiled and bounced a bit as her focus switched to the pager.“Fi-tuck,” she said again.The cat continued to cry. Daga, daga, daga, daga, the pager screamed.It continued in rapid succession. It pounded like a little air hammer.Daga, daga, daga, daga.Then it fell into a constant static.Tigre the cat gave one last low growl and bound to the threshold of the door.He blasted past the two females and vanished down the basement stairs hitting only one step on the way down.
Paul jolted in the chair.He mumbled, “What the hell?”
“Stop it, the bunch of you, you will wake Gramma,” Beth said.She crinkled her nose and mouth in a pout.Then she said, “goddamn you Paul, you’re not going.Someone else can go for a change – you just went on a run this afternoon.It’s Sunday night damn it.”
“Motor vehicle versus tree, unknown number of patients at this time; it appears there is one occupant with unknown injury status pinned in the vehicle,” the steady voice on the pager said. “Oh, shit,” Beth said.Both Beth and Paul knew too well the little device has limited communication capabilities and more information may or may not come from it later.Paul defined it as an unreliable narrator. Paul knew no one had signed up for the crew leader spot for that evening.Lori with her one year of experience would be there alone as usual.He jumped up and stumbled past Beth and Georgiana.He headed for the kitchen and the back door.On the sofa sleeping sitting up, was Paul’s mom.Through the living room he had to step over her feet that were propped on the coffee table.He bumped her and then the table as he stumbled over them.Beth and Paul had brought her to their house when she became too frail to be at her own home alone. At the jolt, Paul’s mom was startled awake, and a basket of nuts and candy tipped and spilled on the sofa and floor.Around her lap on the sofa and coffee table were some baskets of fruit, nuts, candy, and bows that her ladies’ group gave to poorer families in the area for Thanksgiving time.Lately they also gave these baskets to military families and firefighters and the like.Actually, there weren’t too many in the small community who didn’t get one after all was said and done.Blue Earth had a population of 512.The locals called it Blurth.You could always tell an outsider or tourist by the way they said “Blue Earth” in two distinct words. “Fi-tuck,” Georgiana said.She smiled and bounced and clapped her hands. She bent over and picked up some candy off the floor and popped it in her mouth. “Fi-tuck,” she said again.Pieces of candy spit from her mouth. “Hey you…drop that,” Beth said.She tried to grab the candy from the child but she was hopelessly too late. Paul stopped at the outside door to put on his shoes.He put on one shoe then grabbed his blue reflective jacket.Then he realized he needed his second shoe and bent to put it on.When he stood up there was his mom.She was a tiny woman and her head only came up to his chest.There was a hint of a once red tint to her gray hair.She held the pager out to him in her boney hand.Her hands had no body fat left on them and the veins were clearly visible.But, at 87 she still kept her nails done up.Beth had fixed them up for her earlier that day.The polish still looked wet. “You’ll need this damn thing won’t you?”Paul’s mom said.She shook the noisy static-making pager at him. Then she continued, “Tie your hair back Paul.You’ll scare your patients.”
“Jesus Christ, Mom” Paul said.He snatched the pager out of his mom’s hand, turned to bump the door frame with his shoulder and stumbled out the door.“Turn on the scanner to listen in,” he said as he vanished into the night.
The night was cool and the leaves were beginning to drop off the trees.The partial moon lit the driveway of the old farm house.The three miles of distance between the farm house and the edge of the town left enough darkness to let the stars show in the cloudless night. Paul hopped in the old compact car and fired up the engine.Neither front quarter panel displayed the same color as the original body.Someone had attempted to convert the old car to an off-road racer and then gave up.The little car’s hopped-up engine roared as the car vibrated down the drive way.Paul turned down the farm road toward town.As he disappeared over the hill, leaves flutter in the moonlit street in his rear. Paul flicked on the switch for the red emergency lights on the dashboard.Ambulance and fire crew members were allowed to adorn their front dash with these flashing lights.Nothing came on.Paul wiggled the bundle of tangled wires connected to the dash and the emergency lights.They flickered for a second and then popped on.The wires hung about his dash like spaghetti.Then he clipped the pager to his jacket collar as he drove with one hand and dug in his coat pocket with the other looking for his glasses. By the city limits sign the little car’s fenders shook from the 85 miles an hour.He passed the 25 miles-an-hour sign and stones and dirt kicked up behind the car as the speedometer hit 90.Paul knew darn well he was way past – in fact 55 miles-per-hour past – the 10 miles-per-hour “due regard” grace speed allowed responders to travel over the posted speed limit.Blue Earth’s one police officer had clocked out for the day hours ago.
The pager just finished repeating the message again as Paul pulled into the ambulance parking lot.The ambulance was already pulling out to the driveway, red lights blazing in all directions; with the big overhead door still rising to the top of the ceiling. The fire siren wailed down at the fire station cutting the cool fall air like a knife.Firefighters begin to pull into the station in a hodgepodge of personal vehicles.Gravel flies and dust follows them into the parking lot.
* * *
Lori Albers is 20 and not yet old enough to drive the ambulance on the street – impatient to also add driving to her ambulance resume, and since she usually spends her shifts at the building, she always pulls it out the door before the driver gets there.She pulls the emergency brake on the ambulance and hops out of the driver’s seat.Its big reflective-red 879 on the white side flickers in the lights.As the rig vibrates in the driveway, its multitude of flashing lights creates a carnival aura.Lori was there at the ambulance building as Paul knew she would be, studying homework in the little lounge when the pager went off.She met Paul at the side door of the rig.She glanced in his eyes and the corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly.They both climbed up the steps to the back patient area of the ambulance. Paul remembered the first time he met Lori in the office at the ambulance building.He was stunned when he came around the dim lit corner of the little office and there sat a youthful replica of a Beth. “I’m going to be a doctor,” Lori said after Paul had looked a bit perplexed at her big anatomy text book and then glanced at her big breast portfolio covered with a dirty sweat shirt.Then as she looked in her workbook and flipped a couple pages, she had asked him, “Hey, you know how to spell unconscious?”
Now in the back of the ambulance Lori looked at Paul with that crooked smile and asked, “Where’s Red?”
“Give him time,” Paul said.
“County to Blurth, 879.What’s you status, 879?”The dispatcher on the other end of the dash radio asked.It was Jim Erber’s voice coming from the radio.He had gone to high school in Blue Earth. Paul reached to the front seat and snatched the hand mike.
“Stand-byCounty.We are awaiting crew,” Paul said into the mike.
“Be advised there are no law enforcement units in the vicinity of crash at present 879,” Jim the dispatcher said.He said it in a calm precise voice like a mom might say, “Don’t forget to look both ways before you cross the street dear.”It was a stress-breaking offering, typical of Jim.It gave information, yet it had an effect that let the listener know someone else was out there calm and aware of impending chaos, and that at least someone was aware that the listener might be about to step into a fire storm.
A red pickup with a winch on the front and some bails of hay in the back, bounded up the driveway and screeched to a stop by the ambulance.Red Hatwigg jumped into the ambulance driver’s seat.His hair is silver gray.Some straw from the barn is still sticking to the back of his ball cap.His gray side burns are a little too long to be fashionable and he hadn’t shaved in a couple days.“Too busy for that shit,” Red would often say if someone ribbed him.Paul hoped he had some of Red’s energy when he got that old.Red had just turned 72.Now the old farmer grabbed the dash mike with the hand with the most fingers left.The ambulance filled with the aroma of cow manure from Red’s boots.He advised the County that 879 was en route. “Hang on,” Red said.He glanced around at the patient area in the back but did not really check to see if anyone was there.
“Due regard,” Paul said. “What?” Red said.
“Drive under 100,” Paul said.
“What?” Red said.
“Just fucking go,” Lori said.She yelled it at them both. Red confirmed the location of the crash with the dispatcher, flipped on the sirens with the nub of a finger and the ambulance bounded down the country roads in the direction of the crash – sirens blaring in the cool fall air.Lori and Paul fiddled with the car-wreck equipment they might need.They bounced back and forth in the back as they tried to assemble the necessary items – assemblage all hinged on information given to the dispatcher by an unofficial, often unreliable source on scene.
“Hefty Road,” Red hollered back to Lori and Paul.“Hang on.”
“My second grade teacher was Mrs. Hefty,” Lori said.She zipped up the shoulder bag around the portable oxygen tank and smiled like someone had just handed her a rose.The ambulance went around one of the notorious Hefty Road corners and she and the bag landed in Paul’s lap. “Jesus Christ, Lori” Paul said.
Lori’s baby blond hair flopped in her face. She frowned as if she had just been handed a report card containing an “F.”Then she giggled and picked herself off Paul’s lap.But Paul’s attention already moved beyond Lori’s demeanor.
* * *
“Oh, fuck,” Paul said.He looked through the front window through the crawlway to the front of the ambulance.Red had pulled up as close as he could get to the crash.
“Stick with me, Lori,” Paul said. He jumped out of the ambulance.Lori frowned and followed with a couple bags of equipment.Officer Rita Kepp met Paul at the door.He stopped and Lori ran into his back.
“The fuck…?” Lori said and blew a blond swath of hair out of her face with a puff. “This is a fuck’n mess Paul.I’ve got three vehicles…I think, maybe four,” Rita said.She pointed toward the ditch and then the woods.“And, Old Man Hookstead’s barn is on fire down in the clearing. I am not sure what the hell is going on.” Paul looked through the trees down toward the old abandoned barn. Like so many old farm homesteads, all that was left was a dilapidated barn. The old Nineteenth Century structures where once the capstones of a thieving rural economy.Now this one was slowly being consumed by flames. “What the fuck?” Lori said.
Rita stopped her narrative and looked at Lori who was still puffing her hair out of her face and then gave Rita a faint smile. Rita changed her bottom lip slightly to a pout and said, “Lori Albers, your little sister ain’t headed for nowhere but problems if she keeps hang’n round those shit kickers from Dan Town and…” Paul reached out and tugged on Rita’s shirt sleeve cuff before Rita could finish her commentary on Lori’s sister.“What the hell are you doing way up here Rita?” Paul asked. “Both county deputies are way over on the Lafayette side of the county – some shed fire, and a barn or something in Dan Town.Sounds like they are helping get the cows out.” Rita said.Then she continued, “Might be some kids involved – maybe arson, probably drunk.They may have fled the scene in various vehicles. Jesus, it never rains but it pours.”The red lights from her patrol car and the ambulance turned her shiny police buttons and badge into a neon lava lamp. “We heard the county radio report about your call.Montpellier sent me up to see if I could assist you here,” Rita continued.She smiled at Paul for a second.Then she added, “I was just getting off duty anyway.” There is a hint of freckles in Rita’s face that is lit up from all the flashing emergency lights.There is some gray in her black hair making it salt and pepper, and it is tucked behind both ears and it drops down on her shoulders onto her police shirt.She has dark piercing eyes and the smooth skin around her eyes has no crows’ feet, even without makeup.In each ear lobe there is a tiny tear-drop earring.Dangling ones might get grabbed by a drunk, or worse.The ambulance crews learned the same lesson too.Paul gave up trying to warn Lori and always smiled when she wore dangling hoops.Rita looks 30 but Paul knows she is 50.The police patch on her shoulder reads, To protect and serveMontpellier – city of trees.Holstered on her side…a menacing black pistol.
Paul always quietly admired Rita for going to the police academy at 40 years old.He had met her in his first emergency medical technician (EMT) class.The medical class was part of her police training.Paul was just doing the medical bit as a volunteer.Being the same age as Rita he remembered thinking at the time how hard it might be for him to keep up with a rigorous expanded training like that himself.He remembered getting his foot stuck in a ladder at the fire training building. Now here they both stood ten years later apparently sharing the responsibility to sort out this wreck and fire too boot.
* * *
Red rubbed his whiskery chin with the two fingers he had left on his right hand.His skin was dark and leathery from decades of working in the sun.His baseball hat tilted to the side like he had just got off work for the day.He scanned the scene and shook his grey head. “This is two pounds of cow shit in a one pound paper sack,” Red said.Lori looked up at him with her crooked smile and nodded. Fire trucks were beginning to pull up.The three ambulance crew members stood distinguished by their blue reflective jackets.The Star of Life emblem reflected on their backs.The firefighters in their ruddy tan turnout gear, helmets, and black boots besieged down on the three like medieval soldiers.Their metal-splitting tools and pneumatic door-ripping jaw devices replaced swords and armor.The Jaws-of-Life and anti-flame foam guns were their modern weapons of choice.Rita looked like a black neon specter among them all.
“Which vehicle you want us to work first, Paul?” Big Ed Naddy said.The big man hopped out of the new bright-red fire command vehicle as it pulled up by the ambulance. Red once described Big Ed as, “the kind of Volunteer Fire Department Chief that only might give up his post after he dies – and then…only reluctantly.”
Big Ed’s fire helmet sat on his huge head like one of those party hats people wear on New Year’s Eve.He looked down at Paul waiting for his cue that would then dictate which vehicle would be literally torn to shreds by the mechanical jaws in a matter of minutes.
“Which vehicle you want us on first, Paul? “ Big Ed asked again, and then he added. “We got Engine 4 down at Ol’ Man Hookstead’s barn.You know he’s got some mules and a plow horse he keeps in there.The boys are trying to get them out. Ol’ Hookstead ain’t got no electricity or water in that damn barn anymore.I got a hold of Tim Duerst to get his milk truck up here full of water; we ain’t got enough tankers for this mess. I called in Paoli Fire Department for help as well.” “Fi-tuck,” Paul said.He smiled at Big Ed and looked at the polished new fire command truck. Smoke from one of the wrecked vehicles started to mix with swamp fog and weaved in and out around the shiny truck.Embers from the burning barn down in the clearing shot up into the night over the trees.
“What?” Big Ed said.He towered over Paul, Rita, Lori, and Red.
“Fi-tuck,” Paul said. “Say what?” Big Ed said again. “Secure a landing zone Chief,” Paul said.“Call the helicopter from the UniversityHospital.” Paul cast a quick gaze over the whole scene then he said, “might as well try to cut out the one that’s in the car on the road – good a place as any to start.”
Then Paul turned to Red.“Red call dispatch and tell them to alert Montpellier and Lafayette to get their ambulances up here. What the fuck…fire trucks too.Never mind Dan Town, sounds like they're probably tied up with their own fires.This here is a fuckeration and we’re gon’na need a shit load of help.”
“Triage,” Lori said.She grabbed Paul’s jacket sleeve and said, “Come on Paul let them do their thing, we’ve got to triage the patients and see if anyone’s still alive.” Paul grinned just a bit and looked at Lori and then gave a slight nod.Of course, he thought.Then he allowed himself one more second of reflection on the ironies of the job, As usual they got drawn into every issue but the reason they were called – patients.He cast a gaze over the scene.It looked like an F-16 Fighter jet had strafed a country road of unsuspecting locals out on a Sunday night.
One car was upside-down in the road.Someone, it looked like a girl, was still seat belted in the driver’s seat.She hung upside down, her hair hanging on the roof.Her arm moved an inch back and forth every so often.A young man leaned on the upside down car and clutched a cell phone in one hand and held his head with the other.Blood dribbled down his face in several places.One eye was swollen and crusted shut.His pants and underwear were gone – completely ripped off. In the middle of it all stood two older men.They probably had wandered in from neighboring farms or stopped their pickup trucks to take in these odd activities that might never happen on their farm road again in their lifetime.One of the men wore camouflage hunting gear and an orange hat.The other wore bib overalls and a yellow baseball cap with a farm implement logo.This bib-clad man had probably just finished milking the cows and saw all the commotion up on the farm road curve.They both leaned on the upside-down car with the girl in it like they were leaning on the wood fence that was by the grandstand at the county fair.They leaned and chatted with their hats a bit cocked to one side as if they were at the tractor-pull after a long day in the farm fields.The man in the bibs puffed on a tobacco pipe as he leaned over the under carriage of the wrecked hulk.Oil and antifreeze dripped from the upside-down hood. They both had to be careful to not step on the upside-down girl’s foot that she now had wiggled out the crushed side window.They ignored the young man leaning on the car with the bloody face like they might ignore a drunk weaving at the tractor-pull fence.They most likely opted for the car-wreak entertainment as sooner or later all old barn fires look the same.
The man in the orange hunting hat interrupted his dialogue on this year’s ongoingcorn harvest and shook his head a bit and finally pointed at the bloody, pant-less young man and said, “that ol’ boy there didn’t fair so well – and miss’n his britches too.”
“Fellers,” Big Ed hollered out at the men.He bounded toward them in his boots and turnout gear.The weight it took to cover his massive body in heavy Kevlar fire fighting gear made his ascent a cumbersome exercise at best.Then he shook a gloved finger at them and began the scolding.
“You got to get the hell away from the damn car boys,” Big Ed said. The two men looked hurt and hesitated like they did not want to give up their coveted spectator positions on that fence at the tractor-pull.As Big Ed’s fire fighters converged on the upside-down car the two men are besieged and pushed out of the way by default.Firefighters jam wood cribbing under the vehicle to keep it from rocking.The bloody, pant-less young man is ushered away from the wreck by Rita. There are headlights blaring and wrapped around a tree in the woods.There is what appears to be a giant crushed tin can attached to the lights and the tree.At first glance, there looks to be a roll of blankets and coats maybe from the ripped open trunk.The bundle of cloth lies just in the field of vision by the crushed car that is attached to the tree.On closer inspection by a firefighter it is discovered to be a body – a young man, maybe 20. There is the end of a pickup truck sticking upright in the deep ditch on the other side of the road.A car door lay on the shoulder of the road in front of the skyward pickup truck bed.The door lay on a pond of broken window glass.There is a crushed purse, some coins, a pack of cigarettes, and a cell phone in the road.The cell phone has blood on it.In the middle of this debris in road is a smashed liquor bottle. A crash scene takes on a life of its own.Paul often described it as organized chaos to Lori when she used to ask what it was like before she went on her first car wreck. At a crash scene things get done under the auspice of perpetual motion.Vehicle roofs are peeled off like orange peels, doors are ripped from their hinges, and a helicopter or two may land.Generators will fire up.Firefighters will stand guard with nozzles attached to hoses that run back to fire trucks carrying tanks filled with flame retardant foam.They stand in wait as their comrades assault the wrecked vehicles with their metal cutting weapons.The road is crisscrossed by so many fire hoses and pneumatic air hoses it looks like a giant plate of spaghetti.Emergency personnel one may not have seen in two years will arrive on scene from other towns that have been summoned to help.A team of searchers assembles to scour the woods and the corn field for someone who might have been flung hundreds of feet from the wreck or who might have sustained a head injury and then crawls off in a stupor.One of the victims of a crash often turns out to be a relative, friend, or neighbor of one of the responders – that is just the way it is in a small county. Through it all, Jim Erber’s dispatch voice patiently answers frantic queries from various medical and fire units that have been pulled into the foray – often miles out of their usual jurisdiction.Until the helicopter arrives with its professional crew, Rita and Jim are the only two people being paid in the midst of the legion of responders – Rita past her shift in the employ of another jurisdiction, and Jim miles away back at CountyDispatch. Paul went to check the body in the woods by the blaring headlights that were stuck to the tree.He sent Lori to check another body peeking out from under the pickup truck.It was discovered by a firefighter. Lori knelt on one knee in a couple inches of ditch water beside the crinkled hulk of a truck.Her forward tennis shoe filled with cold water.She brushed broken glass and mud off the arm sticking out from under the truck and discovered it had a pulse.She huffed her hair out of her face with a puff of breath.Her hair fell back in her face as she pulled the IV kit out of her medical bag and began to start an IV line on the arm.A young firefighter held a flood lamp over her shoulder and a generator roared a high pitch up on the road and the lamp got brighter.The firefighter looked to the side when the blood gushed out the end of the needle before Lori got the fluid line secured to it.The rest of the body which belonged to the arm was pinned under the truck.Lori couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.She set the drip rate on the fluid bag and hung it on what was left of the door handle of the truck.
“Will they make it?” the young firefighter asked Lori.
“Make what?” Lori said.She looked up at the young man holding the light and squinted from the glare.
Rita knelt down beside her.“Hey Lori – ‘you a doctor yet?”Rita asked. Lori gave Rita a little sideways nod.“No not yet Rita,” Lori said as she readjusted the fluid flow on the IV bag.Then she began pumping up a blood pressure cuff on the arm.
“Too bad,” Rita said.“I think we will need one before we are done here. * * *
Rita stood up and turned right into Paul who was standing unnoticed over them both. “Where are we at with this mess Paul?” Rita asked him. Paul did not answerer her.His eyes were trained on the anonymous arm. “Rita, take Lori up to the patient by the tree in the woods to help the Montpellier crew,” Paul said.
Paul wiped his nose with the back of his bloody-gloved hand and then bit his lip.This was not the Paul she knew.The Paul with the dryly cynical whit he refused to give up even in a crisis.She thought he was just another old smart ass when she first met him.She had grown to miss him now that she was so far away working in Montpellier.When she worked for Blurth she would see him more.And after 10 years of meeting up at training, conferences, and real emergency events that would bring an average citizen to their knees, she knew his smart-alecky whit well – now, something was wrong.
Rita was going to point out to Paul the guy up by the tree was already declared dead and help was pointless but then she looked into Paul’s eyes.Rita could see his eyes just ever so slightly welling with tears.Paul in turn then looked at the arm, then he looked at Lori who was busy adjusting her equipment, then he looked up the ditch slope, and then back at Rita.
Rita put her finger on her chin as she gritted her teeth.Then she said, “Come on Lori, Paul needs you up top with the patients up there.This here mess needs the firefighters now.”
Lori stopped what she was doing and looked at Paul for explanation.“Go on Lori, I need you up top, I’ll sort out this one here.You’ve done a good job getting this one started,” Paul said, but he looked away from her to over beyond the truck and through the swirling ground fog.
* * *
Lori puffed her hair out of her face, grabbed her medical bag and huffed up the steep ditch.When she got to the top of the ditch to the road and focused in on the direction of the patient by the tree in the woods she met Paul’s mom.
“Have some coffee,” Paul’s mom said.The old woman thrust a cup of steaming coffee at Lori.She wore a parka with a fuzzy hood and brown gloves with dandy lions on them.She held out the coffee and the liquid shook in the cup.“Take it dear, you’ll catch your death of cold,” Paul’s mom continued. “Thank you, Mrs. Pogorelski,” Lori said, and she smiled at the old woman and took the coffee. Beth, with Georgiana and two Thermoses in tow came up to Paul’s mom and Lori.“Come on Gramma, we are at a point where we are getting in these people’s way. We might be better served to go down to the barn fire,” Beth said.Georgiana wearing a pink hooded winter coat and snow mittens, clapped and pointed at a firefighter as he lumbered by with a pry bar. “They need some sustenance out here to calm their nerves,” Paul’s mom returned.
Lori and Beth’s eyes met.“Oh, hello Beth,” Lori said and looked to the side.Beth just looked at Lori and sighed.There was a pause.
“What are you doing out here,” Lori asked, still looking off to the side.
There was a moment of silence.
“Firemen need something to warm their stomachs.When Uncle Al’s barn burned years ago we made forty pots of coffee for them,” Paul’s mom said, breaking the silence.The old woman looked at one and then the other and then she made a “hmmm” sound.Then she added, “We heard on the police scanner at home that you all might be stuck out here for awhile.” The firefighters were beginning their assault toward the truck in the ditch.Beth raised one eyebrow at Lori, turned and ushered Georgiana and Paul’s mom to what looked like a relatively secured area to the side of the crash scene in the direction of the old burning barn. Lori looked down for a second at her bracelet, made a faint smile, then headed toward the car in the woods with her coffee and medical bag.
* * *
Montpellier’s ambulance now on the scene lit the woods up like a carnival midway.Their fire trucks also arrived and converged on the barn in the woods to help Big Ed’s crew. The lights coming through the trees reminded Paul of a war zone.The canopy of old trees and the lights on the road made it seem like a cavern. The medical helicopter was landing on the road above the ditch in an opening in the canopy – the light from the landing flares the firefighters laid out danced in the night air.The roar of the chopper was deafening.These moments always reminded Paul of ‘Nam even though during his time there he never saw combat - he had seen enough staging before and results after to last a life time. Events this day were eerily similar to that war chaos that takes on a life of its own.
Down in the ditch, Paul gave Rita one last look.Before Rita turned to follow Lori’s path up the ditch, Paul said, “If I find out for sure I’ll signal you on the portable radio and you bring her back down here.It will be a fuck’n mess.No use causing any unwarranted panic now in case I’m wrong.”
Rita sighed, turned, paused, then ran her fingers through her graying hair, gave Paul one last glance, then turned again and trudged up the ditch slope. Paul looked down at the arm protruding from under the truck.Crushing injuries were vicious.A person might live for hours trapped under an object – even talk to rescuers – only to die upon removal – the internal clotted blood and fluids racing through and clogging the heart and lungs, killing the patient. As firefighters descended down the grade to remove the truck and set up more lights, Paul focused on the sparkle of metal and stone-blue that twinkled from near the wrist of the anonymous entrapped arm.The sparkling clump was detached and lie amongst the mud and water as if it had been ripped from the arm.It peeked out from under the broken glass, leaves, and ditch debris at various points.Paul kneeled down and picked up the object emanating the sparkle and held it at eye level. He twisted it a bit in the light of the firefighter's flood lamp, squinted, and focused in on a strand of connected stone and metal...in Paul's blood covered glove dangled a turquoise bracelet.
It was akin to the old question.“If a tree falls in the forest, and no body is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?”You can stand on the deck of the pool or the shore of the waterfront and scan with a pattern back and forth and by the time you look back a person has slipped silently under.And in maybe only in three and a half feet of water too boot.But, in deference to the old saying about the tree falling, just because you did not see them or hear them slip in to the water, it does not mean they are not drowned.
Two years ago when he started lifeguarding as a part-time job to fit around college, it did not strike Andrew as a phenomena.But now he could not help notice, in a wink of an eye, people were up and out of the water and gone.If his attention was on the other side of the pool, when he would look back, the person had vanished.Andrew would more often than not, walk over to the spot he last remembered the person to be and look down and under the water.But then a trail of wet foot prints making to the locker room would betray the exited patron.
Andrew was a stroller.Being older than most other guards, he did not like to sit as it made his legs ache; so, he never minded his little search expeditions. He liked to look down in the blind spot under the guard tower.Jokingly to himself, he called it a body check and would mouth it aloud and smile – “body-check.”
Andrew farmed himself out to different pools like a contractor.They all wanted his full-time attention, but thirty years of working over 50 McJobs had taught him never to put all his eggs in one crappy-job basket.These types of part-time, minimum wage, non-benefit, merit-less, weekend-scheduling employers would smile at you for months if things were going their way. And then, with the seemingly innocent pass of a magic wand after some internal corporate heart break, they would fire you, lay you off, or at best furlough you. They would turn on you like some kind of schizophrenic sociopath that had lured you into a friendly conversation at a café while their care giver had stepped into the restroom.
As he sat for hours on end watching the often empty pool his mind would often drift... “What an odd vocation,” Andrew sometimes cross examined himself.“What are you trying to prove in your forties then working as a…lifeguard, Mr. Held?Andrew Held that is your real name I trust?”The inquisitor within him would engage.
“But it fits my college schedule your honor,” Andrew would answer himself.
“And this school,” his honor would press.“This too is an attempt to prove something at 49-years-old?”
“No, No, you don’t understand.” Andrew would plead with the prosecutor within himself.There was always a team of scowling attorneys behind the prosecutor.One always seemed to look a bit like Andrew’s wife.“It’s just something I never got to do and I want to now.”
“So your bitter then?” the jurist inside his head would pry. “A bitter old college student in red swim trunks? With a bit of a paunch I might add,” the judge said and then laughed – the jury could be heard chuckling in the background.
“No, I am glad,” Andrew pleaded with his inner judge. “I am not sorry for my choice at all. I want an education so I can get the hell out of blue-collar bull shit.”
“Silence!” the voice demanded.“The jury will disregard that last statement. We already know what a sorry bastard you are, Held, or excuse me – we knooww how sorry you are – more laughter from the gallery in his mind.
Andrew got his quiet revenge against his inquisitioning conscious – ubiquitous recertifications – involving practice rescues with fellow guards. During the continual lifesaving skills sessions the guards practiced saving each other.Many of the techniques required holding the victim around the chest with one hand and swimming ashore or to the side of the pool as the case may be, with the other. Most of the fellow lifeguards were seventeen year old women.They would frequently giggle as he towed them onto the side of the pool in perfect rescue cadence.On those training days, Andrew would crasp on to more seventeen year old breasts by , than he had in all his high school or Army days put together.
“How’d your training go?” Andrew’s wife would always ask with an evil eyebrow raised as he trudged in the door with puckered skin.
“Just awful; the young swimmers always leave me in the dust,” he would always lie.This, he had frequent battles over, with that prosecutor in his mind – especially the one that resembled his wife.
“Hmmm, you look just fine; any guys in your refresher this time?” his wife always returned as she looked at him suspiciously over her reading classes.
“Andy, Andy, are you with us,” the relief guard touched him on the shoulder.“Come back to us Andy,” the young perfect face smiled.The trial had come to a welcomed end, for today any way.
“Oh, I was just rolling some medical terms through my head for my afternoon class.” Andrew lied quickly.
“What ever, see youtomorrow,” she still smiled politely as if saying good bye to a teacher she despised but had to endure to collect a needed grade.
“What was her name any way?” It was probably something like Heather or Ashley or Tara. Andrew would sometimes reflect on the demographics. In the past two years, there had been 30 young females, most with perky breasts, and a dozen young men; all the guards were between 17 and 23 years old.They never stayed long no matter which pool it was.They all were on a methodical quest for a higher education.
The young fellows were the worst, not ever looking at Andrew as if they admired his tenacity at 49 to keep up with the rigors of training for this type job, but rather, they frequently looked at him with suspicion as if they where silently thinking, “why would such an old bastard waste his time at a McJob like this one?”Andrew quit memorizing their names after the first couple months.Some of them came late to relieve him, some came on time, and some disappeared and never returned again. They all smiled politely, all the time.On those days the relief did not show up, Andrew would have to call the current manager and wait the extra time to be relieved.The pool could never be abandoned.The managers rarely smiled.
Once during winter holidays, he came in the university pool he also worked at and to his surprise, someone had signed him up for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. The pool was a therapeutic facility set up by the university hospital and had to be open 365 days a year. The original name assigned the days was crossed off and Andrew’s was penciled in.
When Andrew confronted the young man who was crossed off as to what was going on, the guy said with an incredulous glance, “An old guy like you won’t have anything to do on the holiday; I have to go to a couple concerts with my posse.”
Andrew told the young man to, “fuck off.”And, he snatched the pen out of from behind the kid’s ear and scratched out his name.
“Weeks of boredom followed by two minutes of terror,” Andrew’s cardiopulmonary resuscitation re-certification (CPR) instructor said and smiled to the class one night.She always started her classes with that line and usually threw Andrew an extra special smile.Her hair always seemed a little too mussed up and Andrew got the impression she always gave him a bit too much hands-on direction. This class had to be taken once a year.Between this and his volunteer ambulance duty, Andrew must have taken the class six times in two and a half years.
“How is it I always end up with the same instructor?” Andrew thought and winced.Or is it that only one poor soul is willing to teach the redundant, skills refresher course over and over again.Andrew had tired early on of CPR training manikins and their unrelenting smell of plastic.
The people Andrew feared he would some day have to use his CPR skills on, were mostly octogenarians who waddled into the shallow end of the different pools at various times to do their arthritis rehabilitation.No matter where the class was held or who taught it, Andrew noticed the same regimen evolved.This involved mostly ignoring the thirty-something dishwater blond instructor — who would be frantically barking out commands — and chat amongst themselves.Occasionally, they would raise a hand or leg then go back to chatting and giggling.Usually there were 20 or so older women with maybe two old guys in the group.The old guys would do even less, maybe moving an arm twice in the whole class period, sometimes pestering the instructor about her personal life and then laughing inappropriately at the evasive responses.
The old men from the pool and men like them from the gym, Andrew would invariably cross paths with in the locker room.No matter how secluded Andrew would select a locker, these curmudgeons would always find him and pull up residence next to him, taking the next locker in a row of fifteen empty units.They would belch and expel flatus and no matter what body part they would move they would groan.The groaning started at the door to the locker room and geared up to an almost constant groan by the time they had invaded Andrew’s air space.
Once, one of the old buggers that came in every morning and took 45 minutes to paddle one lap, sat next to Andrew, farted, and asked, “Hey man, I been thinking; can you actually fuck’n swim? Cause all you do is sit around on your damned ass.”
Sometimes Andrew would just grab his things in hast and move to another locker but another old guy would happen though the door groaning and take up the cause, heading for Andrew.Heading out to the parking lot or coming in to pull his shift — usually one minute late — these same old people would block the pathway.They would never take the wall of the aisle, but would waddle with butts the size of Chevrolets, right down the middle of the path, causing patrons and staff to have to enter the oblivious world of the very elderly at zero miles an hour.
Andrew preferred indoor pools.If it rained or stormed they still stayed open.When the first frost came they still stayed open; day after day, year after year.Outdoor facilities where more glamorous to work at, but job security was lousy at best.He had acquired affection for the early morning shifts.These he could do before college classes.They were usually three hour shifts starting at , the patrons were over 30-years-old and under 70, and they only swam laps.Once in a great while a swimmer would complain about some minor imperfection with the facility, then they would dutifully march off to the locker room.
In contrast, over one summer, because of a summer class schedule conflict, Andrew took a mid-day shift.Two hundred little kids under the age of nine would converge on the pool every day and wreak absolute havoc on the facility.They were bused in from summer camp some where that did not have a lake.When Andrew arrived home, he would look like one of those survivors of a plane crash-landing, caught on television just after the rescuers arrived.The teenage guards, however, simply sat and looked on as the little beasts pummeled each other ad nauseam.
One of Andrew’s many McJobs had been a school bus driver.With 200 children in the pool it looked to Andrew like a half submerged school bus in four feet of water.Once while substituting for another bus driver who quit, Andrew was advised by the supervisor that a pair of nine-year-olds, an Amy with flaming red hair and freckles, and a Clifford with a bowl cut, must never sit anywhere but the front seat.When Andrew pulled the bus over about half way through the route and asked Amy why she had just flailed on a now sobbing Clifford with both fists, she simply replied, “But Clifford has to be beaten…every day!”
Sometimes Andrew would take his next favorite shift which was the closing shift.Here, he would watch the young swim teams work out for two hour sessions.Andrew would stand amazed at the endurance the unassuming young athletes had.They would swim laps of one form or another continuously the whole time, 25 yards a length without pausing except to look at the coach who occasionally bellowed technique changes at them.Andrew enjoyed watching the young warriors invade the solitude at the near end of a senior citizen exercise class.Forty little ten-year-old souls would converge on the pristine water like forty gazelles invading the wadding pond of a lazy family of hippopotami.Complaints would be lodged at the office and Andrew would smile politely like his young colleague guards had taught him so well.On those evenings Andrew took comfort that belch and flatus would be spewed overtime in the locker room but the elderly men would be long gone by the time the pool closed and Andrew needed his locker.
Andrew had come to work at pools not like his young swim team oriented colleagues, but by way of his ambulance training.While taking one of several ongoing medical technician courses, Andrew filled an empty class slot with a college lifeguard class.Not having swum in years, he convinced himself he could do it yet, and if nothing else, he already knew most of the medical protocols.Besides at his age, the unintended “perky-breast” benefits were beyond anything he had foreseen.His old buddies at the neighborhood tavern could only awe in envy on the retelling of the training peccadilloes.
The one quality Andrew did have over most of his young colleagues was the fact that he saw sick and dying people all the time on the ambulance.He had, however, never had to perform CPR on a patient. He would always end up performing some other task at an ambulance scene. “Luck of the draw,” an emergency room nurse will tell you.
On a humid day in late July, not long before many of the local guards would go back to their colleges in other cities, Andrew entered the health care pool he had been working at lately like he always did just as the minute hand struck the top of the hour to the start of an evening shift.This was a transitional time.Management had gone home.The arthritis class had broken up for the night.A few of them still lingered and giggled and one old man said something to the perky-breasted female lifeguard and then laughed inappropriately loud.They, of course, were waddling toward their respective locker rooms.There was no swim team renting the lap pool this night.The thirty something instructor hurriedly put her equipment away.She barely gave Andrew a glance as she bent over the equipment box. She looked up and she caught him looking at her backside.She gave him a glower as if to say, “What are you looking at you old pervert; get a real job.”
A couple of lap swimmers swam back and forth at the far side of the pool away from the one lifeguard stand. That elevated stand, which of course had the young dirty-blond haired, perky-breasted woman sitting atop it in the chair.She most likely had a name Andrew would never remember – Phoebe, Roxanne, or Tamica.And of course, she smiled toward Andrew politely.Andrew signed his name large like an artist on the marker board the patrons had asked for, so as they claimed, they could know their guards.Andrew suspected they really liked to have a name when they would snitch back to the management about guard improprieties such as laughing with boyfriends or girlfriends and eating chips on the job.
This night Andrew approached the guard stand and got a strange feeling.The guard stand towered on the edge of one side to the deep end of the pool.When Andrew did his strolls he would frequently look under the stand along that wall as a force of habit, because, from the chair atop the stand, one could not see the bottom of the pool by the wall.
The young perky-breasted guard on the chair continued her smile as she watched Andrew’s pilgrimage through the waddlers.He could see the young woman mouth something polite his way like she always did as she and closed the book she had been reading and dismounted the chair; the two of them exchanged niceties, but his gaze was affixed to the bottom of the pool under the chair.There was a shadow peeking from the blind spot.It looked like a towel on the bottom.
Andrew remembered the way the Wheel-chair Nazi looked when she drove her electric wheel chair out of the locker room and right into the…deep end of the pool.
“I’ve been feeling faint all week; my medication needs to be readjusted; keep an eye on me, won’t you Mr. Lifeguard?” she had said one night.The woman came in every night religiously, parked her chair, slid down into the pool, and did 20 laps.She wore a tight black swimming cap that made her head look like a bullet.Her one-piece swim suit was always way too tight on her chunky body.
Andrew mumbled under his breath that perhaps if she felt faint she might consider keeping her fat ass…out of the fucking pool – “Then don’t get in the damn water; fool.”Everything went fine that night, but the next night she rolled right out of locker room door and into the deep end of the pool.At the bottom, her whole ensemble looked like a blanket lying on the bottom.Water distorts how objects look. She survived just fine, and Andrew relished her embarrassment to no end.
Under the lifeguard tower this night Andrew looked back at the perky-breasted girl whose shift was ending.
“In the water, there... problem,” Andrew tried to yell but little sound came out of his mouth as he plunged head first, which was not the protocol he had trained a hundred times to do.But “people do odd things in real emergences” the mussed-hair CPR instructor had often said as she would wink at Andrew.Feet first entry into the water was the standard rescue protocol.Nor did he enter with the required rescue tube as he had not yet picked one up having just walked in the pool area.Andrew’s heart raced and his middle-aged weight took him right to the bottom.
When he oriented and he focused his eyes in the chlorine, the body of a man stood on the fifteen foot bottom as if he were reading a plaque on the pool wall.Andrew never remembered getting the man to the surface.
When both heads popped up, Andrew calmly said to the perky-breasted life guard, “Call 911 on the wall-phone and don’t hang up.”She must have initially thought he was goofing off as he met her face bent over the edge with a smile on it.Then she realized Andrew had a body with him and she staggered off with tears welling in her eyes.
Another protocol over-sight.In a hundred training sessions she would have helped pull the man on deck.Not to be undone by his mistake, Andrew pulled the man to the handicap ramp and dragged the man to the deck.Looking up, Andrew grasped the thirty-something aerobics instructor’s forearm rather hard.She had just come over to see what the commotion was all about.
Without giving her an explanation he looked her in the eyes, which he rarely ever did to people, and said in an irritated voice, “Walk to that phone; take it from that girl; do not hang up until told to do so.”The woman raised her eye brows, turned and headed for the phone.
Andrew new the man was dead.He was gray in color and from his ambulance experience Andrew knew the man had been dead for a while.He was deader than dead.The human brain suffers damage after only four to six minutes without oxygen.Andrew knew this man had probably been under for longer than fifteen minutes. “Christ,” he thought, “maybe thirty.”Wheels turned in Andrew’s head and instead of admitting defeat he started CPR.From his ambulance experiences, he knew he would be questioned later for decisions he made now.The perky-breasted guard came back and knelt to assist with two-person CPR, but Andrew knew they were only going through the motions.
“Will he be ok?” the female guard asked while doing chest compressions on the dead man. As she pushed on his chest tears fell on the man’s shoulder.And as his chest softened from the punishment, she could feel and Andrew could hear the man’s ribs breaking.They did not switch off doing compressions and breaths as protocol would dictate and after a few minutes they were both beginning to become exhausted.But Andrew did pause and answer her question.This pause during CPR was another protocol violation.But Andrew knew it did not matter.
“The paramedics will have more equipment.They will be able to help him,” Andrew lied.He had a bad feeling after he said it but he didn’t know if it was because of the lie or because there was a dead man lying on his back on the deck.
When Andrew worked as a welder at a pathetic job during the Rust Belt days of the 1970's, his partner in the welding bay of the factory was a prick named Jim who would always go out at lunch and get drunk and doped up. This Jim was a horrible imp of a little man. Andrew saw him as some kind of ugly troll. The afternoons were bad.The two had to share tools and toss them back and forth to one another under the trucks they were welding on.By quitting time, Andrew’s legs and arms were bruised from the tools being wildly flung at him by an intoxicated Jim.As Jim hurled the welder tip across the floor to Andrew it would sputter and spark and Jim would cursed and fling verbal abuses.It was the Seventies, and if Andrew complained there probably would be no other job waiting, as this Jim was cousins with the foreman.
One snowy afternoon, Jim recklessly pulled a truck with a moving van box on the back of it into the welding bay.On top of the van box was two feet of snow.In the hot enclosed welding bay, the snow quickly melted to form a lake under the truck.Andrew annoyed by the obvious safety factor, relayed to Jim he was going to find some wood pallets to stand on while welding his side of the truck. “Hurry up, you slow bastard,” Jim said with whiskey breath and bugged out, bloodshot eyes. As he walked away, he heard the welder kick in.Shaking his head, Andrew went for the pallets.When he returned with two pallets, he was astounded to find Jim frozen to the vehicle, welding rod in hand, in water to his ankles, slowly being electrocuted.For an instant, it crossed Andrew’s mind that in the enclosed bay Jim could not be seen or heard crying for help.He could then, walk off to the restroom and when he returned in ten minutes, Jim would most likely be dead.As Andrew pulled the big emergency switch on the wall and shut power off in half the factory, managers came running from their hiding places. “What the fuck you doing, Held?” his manager had shouted as he ran up to Andrew. “Quit fuck’n with my switches.” As the power left Jim’s body, Andrew could see Jim still mouthing with no sound, “turn hitt o’ o’ off.”The manager just stood with his mouth open.Jim could not have seen nor could any one else have seen Andrew’s moment of hesitation.Jim dropped to the floor, burnt like a cat narrowly escaping a barn fire but, non-the-less, alive.
Maybe this man lying long dead now on the floor was what Jim might have been, and God was scolding, “See, this is what you could have caused.”The man was rather big, maybe six foot four and 300 pounds and Andrew was later surprised he had pulled him out of the water alone.This was not one of the octogenarians, this man was only in his sixties but well on his way to joining the Chevrolet butt club.This sixtyish age group would often slide into the pool for a quick dip for only a couple minutes after using the gym adjacent to the pool.Andrew was often surprise by their sudden appearance long after they had apparently entered the water.They did not swim, they quietly sculled along, and often Andrew would only notice them as they were leaving the pool area going quietly back through the locker room door.
Andrew wondered what his anal boss would think about the dead guy.She was about 35, with kids and a husband.She was a bit hefty in a swim suit as she taught water aerobics.Once Andrew had a heart arrhythmia after a stressful ambulance call - it almost killed him.In the hospital, intensive care unit a telephone was shoved in Andrew’s face as he struggled for air due to a woefully inefficient heart beat.
“Say, Andrew, can you call someone to fill in for you the next couple days?” his boss had asked.
Andrew’s wife surmised what was developing and snatched the phone up and said, “You damn fool, they don’t need phones up here in intensive care; people that get put in here won’t need a phone where they are going.Call someone your damn self!” And she abruptly hung up on the boss.
The paper read, “Apparently the shift before had not noticed the body in the bottom of the pool.The lifeguard coming in on the new shift discovered the oversight and proceeded to administer life saving steps.”
At this point the article listed all the poor man’s life accomplishments along with the names of his wife, children and grandchildren.Andrew never even tried to explain he knew the guy was probably deader than dead — room temperature dead as Andrew’s emergency medical colleagues would say — long before he walked in the door to the pool.And he never mentioned to anyone that he himself had often seen this same man only as the guy exited the pool area having completely avoided Andrew’s sometimes half hearted surveillance for up to ten minutes.The perky-breasted female guard never returned to work at that place.
For years the vision of the dead man haunted Andrew.What’s more, there must have been some kind of head or spinal injury, or stroke involved.For, the reality that Andrew never mentioned to any one about the incident was, the man had a huge priapism – a permanent penile erection. In his ambulance work, he would also find male patients of violent traffic crashs with a priapism. It was a creepy sign the person was in dire trouble.
As he pulled the man up the handicap ramp, the massive erection became evident.Andrew remembered in the locker room overhearing this very same man once telling one of the octogenarians about his wife’s battle with cancer.This was not the odd thing about the encounter.With the age of the patrons, heath was a frequent topic amongst them.What Andrew remembered as weird was one of the mentally disabled guys sitting near the men.Some group home brought in a van load of mentally disabled patients to the pool a couple times a week.At nine or so in the morning Andrew would move a couple of the lap lines over so there was a place for the group to have open-swim.The mentally disabled guy, had what is known as “affect” – inappropriate verbal responses.When the older fellow was taking about his wife’s cancer, Mentally-disabled-guy just looked over and laughed loudly…, “ha, haaa, ha, haa, ha, heeee!”
One day, Mentally-disabled-guy was in his open-swim area just bouncing up and down with his back to Andrew.Andrew remembered the man who was now dead, politely walking up to the lifeguard stand and saying matter-of-factly, “Pardon me, but that retarded boy in the middle of the open-swim area there has his schlong hanging out and he is shaking it at the women swimmers.”
Andrew, pouted, hollered at Mentally-disabled-guy, and shook his finger at him.Mentally-disabled-guy ducked his head and curled his bottom lip.A second later came a loud, “ha, haaa, ha, haa, ha, heeee!”
Presenty, Andrew looked up from the dead man on the pool deck and envisioned Mentally-disabled-guy pointing at the giant penis sticking straight up in the dead man’s loose swim suit. In his mind Andrew saw Mentally-disabled-guy curl his bottom lip, duck his head and then fire off a, “ha, haaa, ha, haa, ha, heeee!”
Suddenly, Mentally-disabled-guy faded from Andrew’s mind.A paramedic knelt down beside them and started hooking up the dead guy to the defibrillator.
Several years after the incident, maybe six or so, Andrew stood at the bar in a favorite tavern of his which conveniently sat across from his work place. He sat drinking a beer during lunch hour on Friday a afternoon. He had given up ambulance work, hadn’t swum for years, and after fifteen years of sobriety, started drinking again. Although he had graduated college with an impressive grade point average, he was now in the demographic age group that just did not get hired. “You’re over qualified sir; you have too much education sir; you have too much experience for the job sir.”These are all human resources code phrases for, “Your too fuck’n old – get lost sir.” Andrew still worked blue-collar now in a printing plant. Not as in something to use his college for; not as an office worker; not as a manager – no,...as a bundle lifter.He often sat and pondered his plight and smiled to himself as he ordered another beer and looked at his now old hands. They were not shriveled from pool water these days, but calloused from lifting tons of paper product a day. The smile would always come when he thought about an article or two he had read romanticizing the blue-collar work world. It was always the same contrived nonsense. There would always be a picture of some poor schlep in his bib-overalls. The articles aways labored on about the schlep's life-long toils and alleged contributions and the craft he or she had honed over the decades.
"Dumb bastard writers; they never worked a blue-collar job in their lives," Andrew would often say out loud in his tavern as he blew foam off another beer. After a culp of beer, he would say to no one in particular, "The fuck'n place could not wait to get your old ass out the door."
“You are a rather hard one to find,” the woman in her mid twenties said and did not smile as she walked to Andrew's piece of the bar.
“You have guarded your soul well— unlisted phone number; P.O. Box.One of your cronies at the printing building across the street said you hang out here.I can’t talk to anyone about this, so you will sit and listen and then you will never see me again.”
At this point Andrew wondered if this was a woman he had somehow wronged after his wife left him.She had left about five years ago, standing finally one last time at the kitchen door and sighing.After eighteen years he never saw her again.After she left he had several relationships he cared not to remember. Perhaps this woman was one he forgot about or it was a friend of one of those old liaisons, and it was coming home to roost.
“You don’t remember me do you?The woman continued without emotion.It figures.”She sat down on a bar stool without being asked and lit up a cigarette under the no smoking sign and continued, “I hate the word closure.It is a trendy New Age feel good word for yuppies and weak prosecutors.Closure of what then I always wonder when some university psyche goo-goo brings it up; perhaps closure of an anal retentive hole in some attorney’s ass when the law suit is over?”
Andrew thought for a second and looked at the woman.Her hair was slightly oily like it was due for a shampoo.Her sweat shirt had stains on the front.Her eyes had crow’s feet. Her finger nails were chewed down. Her hands looked rough and red like she might work in hot water all day – a dishwasher or some such thing.Then he noticed her large breasts.And then it became apparent.This is the perky-breasted lifeguard from the pool all that time ago.
“I have had two divorces and I am an alcoholic,” she labored on. “I can not keep a job.”
Andrew looked like he was going to suggest some type of avenue to help her but she cut him off before he could get a word out.
“I don’t need you to talk.I just need you to listen to me.I had to see you.It was just something I had to do and I will not apologize for finding you.”
Andrew smiled a little and shook his head back and forth just a bit.
Before he could direct his thoughts she continued. “No one listens, they sometimes sit and give me lip service but they don’t listen.I want you to listen."
“A man is dead; a family lost its father, people's lives were ruined, because I was sitting and studying for a..., fucking marketing exam and did not notice him drown.” Then she continued after blowing out a big puff of smoke and flicking the ashes of the cigarette on the floor.
"You were able to shield yourself from all the agony, even though you were right in the middle of it..., you're a lucky bastard,” she said and stared at him adamantly.
"Was it an insult or a compliment," Andrew wondered as he looked at the foam on top of his beer and the smoke hover around the bar.He had been through all the interviews, the court hearings, the follow-up interviews; he had seen the pictures of the perky-breasted lifeguard put in the paper as if she were an ax-murdering perp; he had seen the other pictures in the paper of the tearful family members in court..., but for him it all ended years ago and he never took it too serious.Or at least he convinced himself of that.The dead swimmer’s face was gone and Andrew could not conjure it up.It had blended in with two dozen other dead faces he had seen at ambulance calls he had went to in those days.He had left that chapter of his life behind as well.No more wreaking CPR dummies.The creepy dummies, the ambulance patients, the dead man in the pool, had all become one continuous dead face.
“Just as well,” he thought as he took a sip of beer.
When he tilted his head up to swallow, he realized the woman had gone.