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Al and I had nothing in common. He grew up in Omaha. His dad was a postman and decorated Second World War veteran. His mom stayed home to raise three kids. Al was the oldest and made his family proud when he signed up for Nam.
My father was a gynaecologist and my mother a psychotherapist in New Haven. They didn’t have time for more kids than me. Pissed the hell out of them when I signed up for Nam.
Al and I stand next to each other once a year. Hell, we don’t have enough in common to get together more than that. Life slows down to a creep as I stare down to these train tracks. It’s been hard. What the fuck are we supposed to do? Pretend it didn’t happen? Live a life of smiley faces? Ignore the grenades in our hearts? This is our moment of truth that takes us back to when we felt alive. Nam.
We will stick to our pact just like when we covered each other’s asses. Our band of brothers put our lives in each other’s hands. There were no second chances on reconnaissance patrols. We were in it together. And maybe we’ll go out together. Trust your buddy is what we were told. And we did. And we will. If you jump, so will I.
“I shot a motherfuckin’ teenager ’cause I thought he had a gun. He was just goin’ out to harvest some rice. I was pretty fucked up – on uppers. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” said Al.
I stand next to him, knowing that these may be my final moments. I look up for a moment and gaze around the station. All I see are a bunch of clones that have never lived, pretending to be somebody who is going somewhere. And a lot of the world believes in them. Shallow lives. Half-assed jobs and no clue about reality. It’s like someone painted a watercolour of who they should be and they walked right the hell into it. They know shit about life. Their little suburban Connecticut lives may soon go Technicolor in red.
“It was me that shot Sgt. Kinsley in the back.” I’d been holding onto that one and knew Al would be surprised.
“I always suspected that, you son of a bitch,” he said without looking up.
I was surprised by his half laugh but also by a hint of admiration in his voice. I instantly knew that he wished he had the guts to do it himself. Kinsley was a piece of work. His mistake was taking it out on us. Hell, there were plenty of Vietcong who got to know his wrath, but why’d he have to be such an asshole to his own guys? I try not to think about the stories I’d heard about how his dad used to kick the shit outta him. And his first wife cheated all the time. That dude had some anger issues. And I guess so do I.
This is the fourth April 14th that we’re meeting at the train station in Greenwich, Connecticut. It’s the anniversary of our enlistments in 1972. We’re practically opposites in every way but the one that counts. We both learned what it means to be alive in the same time and place. Now we’ll decide if we go out together in a blast of the old glory.
Nam followed us home. Suzy doesn’t get it…doesn’t get me. She used to get high with her friends. Pointed fingers at the war they said never shoulda been. Talkin’, laughin’, having a grand ol’ time…while I was shootin’ at them and then in my arm.
All these robots think they have lives. But they don’t have a clue. I know how to wake them up. I’ll bet none of these pussies would’ve signed up. Look at them – suits, briefcases, and rain jackets. The rain jackets piss me off. Looks like all two hundred of them went to the same store. Don’t getwet guys. You might melt or get blasted by a Cong!
Suzy wants me to pretend I’m someone else. Act like I wasn’t there. Teach Timmy how to not be me. Well, guess what? He’s a lot more me than you think.
Al and I have been in the same therapy group for two years now. Danny Morgan and Stanley Evans gave it up about a year ago. If I dig deep inside, I know that I admire them. I’m not sure if I have the guts to do it, but maybe Al will force my hand. Or maybe I’ll force his.
“I shot some other fuckin’ kid just for the hell of it. I was pretty messed up,” says Al.
We stand tall as a commuter train rolls in, loads up, and takes off again. The next train doesn’t stop in Greenwich; it just races by. We’re still here.
Timmy, be strong. Don’t let anyone tell you how to think or act. Be yourself! Just don’t be me.
Becky is a great therapist, and we all respect her for going to Nam. But working in the hospital wasn’t the same as being on the front lines. Our group of twelve is down to eight. Two moved away, and two had the guts to do what they had to.
Four of us had gotten high on weed one night and made a pact –Truth or Dare, Nam version. We had been the stars of evening reconnaissance, in teams of two. We would keep those same teams. I’d always been amazed at Al’s sixth sense. Even though we were messed up, he always seemed able to smell the Cong.
We were all classified as “high risk” when we got back from Nam and got in trouble with the law pretty fast. What Becky doesn’t seem to get is that life ain’t worth it. We’re all living in Nam, even though our bodies are here. The brave ones couldn’t handle that and had the guts to act. They went out in a blast of the glory we used to feel, but calling it glory is probably an exaggeration. Life and death floating on each breath. Nothing between us and evermore except a thin veil. A curtain about to rise.
“It was me that stole Danny’s bag of grass that time,” I say.
Al laughs again, staring down to the tracks. His laugh seems different, like he’s already made a decision. A rat scurries under the far platform. The late afternoon sun seems so bright that it’s like a dream. It makes the indoor seating area across the tracks look like part of the toy train station I used to play with as a kid, something about the green colour. I think back to my childhood. My parents were grooming me to be a doctor. Dad’s life wasn’t what it seemed. Was I the only one who noticed all the times he cheated on mom?
Al takes a deep breath. I glance over. He’s lost somewhere – reminds me of the times we were on night duty, his otherworldly focus. It scares me. What the hell is he thinking? I’m prepared to act. The only thing that’s certain is that I will never break our pact. How could I?
If he jumps, I will follow. It’s kinda weird. My last breath could be determined by my bud. Or maybe I’ll force his hand in a flash of glory.
I look down the tracks and see a train about a mile away. I know this might be my last moment on earth. I think back to Sally Nordquist in junior high and how much I lusted for her. How did I let my parents talk me out of seeing her, just cause her parents were divorced and had left the church? How could I have been so stupid? Everything might have been different.
I think back to my curtailed high school baseball career. Instead, I had to take Latin classes after school to up my chances of getting into a prestigious college. Even then I didn’t have the guts to be myself. Timmy, don’t be like me. Suzy, I’m sorry.
“I beat up Danny all the time when I first got back,” said Al. “He didn’t do anything. I was just pissed at the world and took it out on the kid.”
I sensed that that might be the one to make him jump, knowing his history with Danny. I’m prepared to follow. The train is about a half mile away now.
I remember how proud I was to enlist. This is the first real thing I ever did, I’d thought to myself. College had been a disaster. I wasn’t cut out for it and hated all the entitled students who thought they were better than the assholes who went to Nam. They were puppets, with parents and selfish desires pulling their strings. I don’t think even one of them really wanted to be a doctor. It’s funny looking back. I sent my parents a letter instead of telling them in person that I enlisted. I still remember the angry phone call from Dad…
The train is about a quarter mile away now. Al is wavering over the tracks. A group of seagulls lands across from us and walks along the empty platform. I don’t think about how odd it is to have seagulls here. Colours are dreamlike and alive. The train, the platform, the lady with a yellow umbrella creeping up the steps toward the platform all seem surreal, disconnected.
The train whistle blows. The sun slips behind a cloud. The smell of the train comes to me on a gust of wind, reminds me of a gun right after I shoot. Reminds me of the time we were shipping out from Fort Bragg, riding a train. That was the first step toward landing in Nam.
The sound gets louder. I think about the time I stole Jimmy Hadley’s baseball bat, and how badly I felt after I threw it away. Why am I thinking of that?
The train gets closer. The sun breaks out from the clouds. Timmy, I’m sorry! Suzy, remember the good times!
Al lets out a yell. I travel to another dimension. Colours fade in a blur of motion and light. I hear the seagulls squawking…