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“OUR OLD MAN wants to go back,” David said. “He’s determined to go back. He misses the fellows still there, and that’s why he wants to go back. He’s a soldier.” Leo sat down beside David on the barracks steps, and said, “Look at it this way. He did two combat tours, and now he’s home again. What else could they want? He’s on the fast track: West Point, beautiful wife, baby on the way, combat tough. He’ll be a full bird before you know it. And now you’re telling me he wants to go back? He must be nuts.” They had trained all day in the blazing August heat. It was Jungle Land, combat troops for Viet Nam, Fort Polk, Louisiana, 1968. In the cool evening after the day’s heat the camp lay still. The troops were asleep however they had dropped in bed, some of them with boots on. The moon was almost full and had cleared the trees beyond the drill field. Mist had gathered over the drill field, which the moonlight bathed serenely. “He thinks America is where the soldiers are, where the fighting is,” David said. “And none of this that’s happening here is real. I’ve heard him talking about it with Stratton. They both want to go back. ‘Captain,’ Stratton says, ‘we can win this war. We have to win. We’ve gone too far.’” “Supposed to be a big call up,” Leo said, vaguely. “It doesn’t seem like they’re winding down any over there.” He lit a cigarette. He was a friendly, skinny kid from Tennessee; his voice had the soft, polite lilt of the southern back country. David was from Massachusetts. He had signed up for Airborne, and he was getting very excited, because it was only a few more weeks till Fort Bragg, fifteen days and a wake up. “I’m ready,” David said. “I want to be a soldier.” “I don’t know. Lifer shit. It’s like an addiction, you catch it, you can’t stop. Then no sense makes any sense. It’s like our old man. How do you stop?” “You don’t stop. Why?” “Well, steady work, seems like.” The moon was rising, and the moon light reached down and tangled in the
pine boughs. In day time a brief downpour often interrupted the sun and the countryside became intensely green. With the sundown the wild moon and the languidly cool and clean moist air came out. The violent days of the countryside were wrapped in soft nights. “Anyway,” Leo said, “the Captain isn’t going back.” “How do you know?” “He can’t walk.” “I thought it was just a couple of sore ribs, or whatever?” “Worse. But Lovell, the other guy walked away.” Leo smoked. “Think about it! Two tours of combat duty and not a scratch, and now back safe in America and he’s crippled for six months! There are drawbacks to being a real life hero.” Leo stared into the dark, where the idea was still rattling. Then he said, “They say he comes from some big time Dallas family, Lovell. His mother has been in and out of the HQ almost every day lately. How many mothers would you say could pull that off? Milton told me, you know the guy Stratton sent over the HQ to rattle papers? He told me all about it. I guess the kid, Lovell, was writing his mother and sister these heart wrenching letters that he couldn’t stand it any more, and so on and so forth; too depressed to continue. Wanted to die. So his mother came all the way from Dallas to show the old man these letters. She’s a sturdy, nice looking woman, too, says Milton; and anybody should know that her views are the right views. The old man is afraid of her. He blushes, stammers, don’t know what to say. So she’s showing him the letters, and she’s trying to explain how her boy has been just so with life for a long time, and he’s so exceptional and she’s afraid he’ll do something to himself. These sorts of things you can pass through, if somebody will help out, and all that. The family will be eternally grateful. What can the Captain say? You’re supposed to do the training. That’s all he knows. If you don’t do the training, they put you in the brig. It’s war time. What else could he tell her? Why is she asking him, anyway? They can’t let you out because you write sad letters home. So he explains that to her, and she’s pissed off and she leaves. Nobody else will even talk to her about it. And a couple of days later it happens.”
“Leo, why? Who the hell would want him! So he goes back to his mother. Who cares?” “Yes, but that’s not the way up above in this world sees it. So anyway, one thing leads to another. The old man is scared shitless of this broad. He’s afraid he’ll say the wrong thing. He’s worse scared of her than hand-to-hand combat. Stratton says the Captain is scared of his wife. That’s why he’s a hero. So he promises to watch over her boy, take him under his wing, sort of. Do you know him David? Lovell?” “I’ve probably seen him. But of all the numb nuts around here, how’d you know which one he was?” “He’s tallish, a good looking kid. He talks like he has a lemon in his mouth. He went to school back East or someplace. He is kind-hearted, though, polite. When the old man’s wife walks in, who’s pregnant, Lovell jumps up, gives her his chair to sit in, fans her with a newspaper, offers to help her with the shopping. And he’s that way with everybody. Milton said if you tell him your dad has a touch of arthritis, all day he’s worried about your dad’s arthritis. ‘Call him, Milty, find out how he is,’ says Lovell. That’s Lovell. So they’re fond of him. It’s natural. I guess the Captain was doing whatever he could to keep him stateside. It ain’t right, I know that, but what the hell, there’s more to this world than black and white. You know? Duty to country. Small stuff. I don’t know. The Captain is all in a sweat. The collar of his uniform is dark with sweat. He comes up with a job for Lovell: Company Clerk, Fort Dix, USA. So listen to this. One day Lovell ups and walks outside and climbs the water tower across the Kissatchi Boulevard, and there he is at the top of the water tower, standing on that little catwalk you can see up there. So he’s standing, teetering on the catwalk. And pretty soon a good big crowd is gathering around to watch. Inside HQ they’re finally wondering where Lovell is. ‘Where’s Henry?’ says the Captain. And he’s starting to get excited, because he can see outside all the traffic stopped on the boulevard. And he runs outside, and there’s Lovell, teetering back and forth on the catwalk in a trance. Five miles high. So our old man dives through the crowd, and he’s shouting, ‘Henry, don’t do anything. Please. We need to talk. I’m coming up.’ ‘Don’t do it, Captain,’ says Lovell.
‘Please, don’t do it.’ But like I say, our old man ain’t a regular hero, he’s a real, everyday hero. So he scurries up the ladder and vaults onto the catwalk like a monkey, and he’s standing at one end of the catwalk, and Lovell at the other end. The Captain is down on his knees, you can see that he’s begging. Sgt. Stratton was there and he saw it all, and he said, ‘He put it to him, the Captain did. He told Lovell he was going to grab him, and they were both going down together. And the Captain explained how, if anything should happen, his baby would be born and grow up without a father, and Lovell should think of his own dear mother, and his family and how much they love him, and all that. He really put it to him,’ says Stratton. “Anyway, eventually the old man got right on top of him. He took him down, and he had him in sort of a hug hold from behind. Now you could see, Stratton said, Lovell was a little calmer, as if he had given up. The Captain seemed to have it all figured out, except for swinging him onto the ladder down. Lovell was suddenly too scared to swing himself around onto the ladder. Looked like he wanted to, but he just couldn’t. So the old man grabs him up in one arm, he’s still behind him, see, and he sort of swings himself and grabs hold of the ladder and deposits Lovell onto the ladder with him. Now they’re clinging to the ladder, four arms, four legs in fatigues like a big, green spider, and they’re both descending slowly. And they’re getting there, almost to the bottom, another twenty, thirty feet, when Lovell decides he doesn’t want to go down any farther. In fact, suddenly he’s throwing a big hissy fit. Anybody but our old man would have just left him there to do his own whatever. But no, they’re actually wrestling on the ladder. And Lovell, being above, gets him good with the heel of his boot, kicked him in the face hard, and the Captain drops off. He’s like a cat, twisting around to land on his feet, and he almost got it right. So Lovell’s looking down, wild-eyed. ‘Captain! Captain!’ And he scurries the rest of the way down. ‘I’m so sorry. Are you all right?’ ‘No, dammit!’ says the Captain. What happened was, besides the frigged up ribs, he blew out a knee on one leg and broke an ankle on the other. So he won’t be going back to ’Nam for awhile, due to the fact he’s in a wheelchair.” “Where’s Lovell?”
“He left. They picked him up walking down the boulevard, starry eyed. He’s getting out, you know. He’s mentally disabled, incompetent, or whatever they call it. He’s going home. I forget, ask Milton, he knows all about these things. He told me about another guy...” “Oh no,” David said. “Some other time.” Leo laughed. David went inside and fell into his bunk, groaning. He hoped the Captain was the real hero, not Lovell. He didn’t sleep much. What if Mrs. Lovell was the real hero? He got up after awhile because he couldn’t sleep, and he went outside. There was the moonlight on the drill field. And the dew on the grass felt like when he was a kid and he used to get up early to walk in the grass in summer. Now he walked out in the grass on the drill field alone before anybody else in the morning, and he dreamed about glory in battle.
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