Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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He was insane, totally sociopathic & I loved him like a father. Pete Raster owned a print shop on the edge of Minneapolis. Every press, ever camera, ever cutter & folder, all of it, borrowed or stolen from another printer. I worked for him for three years.
His wife had cancer of the throat & answered the phone whispering "printing"--it sounded like a grunt & a cough coupled together. The paper companies wouldn't deliver paper because of his credit. We borrowed trucks to go to their warehouses with cash.
He moved eight times in three years; the man paid no rent for three years, none--he'd equipped the presses with eyebolts so we could forklift them out. I helped him move eight times. He changed the name of the company each time.
No taxes, no payroll, really no company. We split the cash each week. On a bad week, he'd sell a piece of equipment for a little folding money.
We worked seven days a week for maybe three hours a day, ate all our meals in the shop & watched a tv when we ran the presses. It had the smell of a heaven.
His wife eventually died & he moved all the stuff down to Phoenix in the middle of a Saturday night, owing the landlord four months of back rent. He opened another shop & he's sleeping with a schoolteacher who just happens to have a bit of money.
I spent the middle 70s reading Reader's Digest condensed books & raising my daughters; I looked forward to my disability check from the VA each month.
Every six months I went for a physical. It was the only time I met other Nam vets; all of us sitting on benches at their disability clinic, smoking cigarettes & waiting for our name to be called. The doctors were bored civil servants. A little clerk gave us travel pay home. It was senseless, but we needed the signature on the government check.
Lots of one-legged, one-armed men in that room. & fury.
The last time I reported for a physical they had security guards in the waiting room.
Christmas night, 1969. I'm in the opthalmologist's chair--Can Tho City--an army clinic, my head locked into a slit lamp machine, my chin resting on a cup. A young doctor gingerly pulls small pieces of metal out of my left eye.
Our PBR had taken some wicked fire as we rode up a large canal 15 miles north of Can Tho. A rocket had exploded right next to the boat & I went overboard unhurt & unarmed, maybe a bit stunned. The crew was in the water. Two more boats came out the canal, blasting every living thing in the ville with cannons. A South Vietnamese Navy monitor pulled to twenty feet of the bank & laid in with its flame thrower. Small arms fire came from the jungle. None of us were killed--a few of them were burned. One of the boats picked us up in the water.
I slept through the night but couldn't open my eye in the morning. I caught a ride into town with some Seabees.
The doctor numbed the eye & poured in a fluorescent dye. Then he pulled the minute splinters out. I stayed in my rack for two days, puking the pain away. Happy holidays.
Easter Sunday & I was in the woods, firing a.410 shotgun right into the face of a small fox. Fourteen years old & carrying a shotgun, I was a typical Western Pennsylvania kid.
He was tough, tougher than any deer. He shook his head & snorted, walked on. I shot him again, blowing the legs right out from under him. That gun was tough too.
I walked those woods till dinner & had something to show for myself. I skinned it & threw it away.
One leg shorter than the other & deformed lungs from polio, Ray Augerman was still an asshole. I slept with his wife on Wednesdays.
She was a beauty, legs right up to her ass & tits that would take out an eye. Her one kid didn't ruin her vaginal muscles. It was lovely.
He caught me & her in their bedroom, naked as chimps. He had an old old Smith & Wesson pistol dangling by his side; I put on my pants & waited on the grave. He never fired--he cried.
I'd have cried too if I had to sleep on that wet spot.
My Aunt Carolina was a recluse, lived in this small red brick house in Point Marion; I don't remember her face but I did help clean the house when she died. One bedroom with a man's portrait on the wall, a tiny living room & no tv. She spent years--at least fifteen--having groceries & liquor delivered. My mother would try to visit her. We sat in the car with the locks down & she talked to my aunt through a screen door.
I remember the insignificant.
She cleaned her false teeth with bleach. Her brand of cigarette was Chesterfield's. She had been married once but the family never knew or met him; it lasted less than a heartbeat.
That's all I knew--nothing.
That house was immaculate, as if she never lived there one day. Just spotless.
95% of Vietnam was just hours pounding against the human clock. Boredom, miles of mud & water. Flick a Salem into the water & watch it float downstream.
The horror always came unexpectedly, in a package wrapped so tight you couldn't take your eyes off of it. After the burned & mutilated bodies stopped blinking, your dead best friend would pull up a seat & spend the night with you, talking out of a contorted face & no mouth at all.
After the first month you pulled deep into yourself.
I used to check my children in the crib, touch their face & feel their breath on my hand. I was never sure they were alive.
So wonderful, legs hanging out the door of a helicopter flying 800 feet over the heads of farmers, people bent over the rice. A good breeze, the smell of paddy water & that big ball sun. Recon by air.
It took a committed man or woman to take a potshot at a helicopter; the Viet Cong in the Delta were committed but not stupid. They picked the shots, the ambush, they didn't lose much. They liked to leave us alone, let the boobytraps suck us dry.
Charlie didn't have helicopters.
Ghosts don't fly.
Plain of Reeds. Always death in those swamps & canals, always. The VC owned it day & night; they had no weekends off. We mounted missions in there & people died every fucking time. Leeches & water snakes. I saw a guy get sucked so deep into the mud that it took a helicopter to pull him straight up--his boots & pants still in that cesspool.
Charlie loved it in there, miserable terrain & filth. He knew how to dig in. We found a company headquarters in an offshoot of a six foot wide canal, actually had to swim into it. They had already left--to god knows where--but they left some food, some rice & fish heads.
We took rubber rafts & skimmer boats down the swamps & canals, using a radar at night to guide us. It was senseless--we were lost more times than not--no matter how many we killed, it changed nothing. It was one hell of a killing ground.
A riot in the Pittsburgh Federal Building the day I enlisted & went to boot camp. The guys that had been drafted into the army refused to take the pledge & busted up the waiting rooms, smashing plastic chairs & fake wood tables against the walls.
Federal marshals were called in & they came in breaking heads. Those draftees still didn't pledge undying love to the country; they left on a bus to basic training.
I was on the other side of the hall, the Navy & Marine Corps side. We had all enlisted & were ready to die in our innocence. They nodded their heads in agreement & we took an airplane to Chicago.
The war began.
I liked Saigon, been there a couple times visiting the Navy Exchange & had ordered a new Olds 442 through the GM rep that had an office there. A great deal, pick it up soon as I got home. If I died, my brother could have it.
It was sweet. Nineteen years old with a big engine & a cooler in the back. Bronze paint, rally wheels, Hurst shifter. Pop in an 8-track & a two-legged woman. I put 3,000 miles on it in a couple weeks. The motor blew outside Baltimore & I left the car on the side of the road. Just walked away.
There was something very wrong with me.
My hands had been going numb & the headaches were increasing in frequency; I had a skin rash down my legs & I was snapping apart with anger.
1979. The VA wasn't owning up to Agent Orange. I had the symptoms & didn't know it. My semiannual physicals were good, with elevated liver functions.
A year later we took my youngest daughter to the doctor for a flu she couldn't shake; her blood test came back leukemia. Good remission rate with leukemia, they told me. They didn't say little kids died. She started chemotherapy, just out of diapers. I can barely write this, thinking of her in a hospital bed, bald & crying; I was insane with grief long before she died.
He wasn't paying attention & my IV was backing blood up the tubing; I was on the medevac sandbags adding my fluids to the slime.
Two buddies helped me in there minutes before, my IV bag was thrown to the floor. I was just a leg wound, a no-big-deal, no ticket home. The guy right next to me--an army trooper from a unit that got waxed--was absently tugging at a piece of his intestine, trying to stick it back in the hole. I never saw a grayer face. The corpsman slapped a large dressing on his stomach & hit him with Morphine.
I pulled the IV out of my own arm & got a taste of that morphine. They could've sawed my fucking legs right off.
They were friendly, Jack & Faye Olson. Lived right across the street from us in Norfolk & they helped furnish our house with used junk when we moved in, barely married a year.
He was a Navy lifer right at the end of his twenty. Jack saw the coast of Vietnam from an aircraft carrier. He & his wife liked Uncle Sammy well enough to cash his checks for the rest of their lives.
Our wives were instant sisters. We got along just fine--I gave him gas money every week & we drove to the base in his big black Buick till the day my wife showed off our bedroom to Faye & she noticed the trail of bloodstains leading to the bathroom.
I drove myself in 1972.
My mother had been home only two weeks before I found the first hidden bottle. I dumped it out & sat Mr. Gilbey's on her night stand.
I had saved all the bloody rags she had vomited in, a stack of white wash cloths & towels turned permanently pink from her esophageal hemorrhage.
She waved me off.
I came back months later & every cupboard & drawer had a bottle stuck in it. The old lady was always a mover.
I rushed her into the mall, so damn cold outside that my eyelashes formed icicles--really. The windchill was 45-below-nothing but my daughter wanted a Baskin-Robbins ice cream. I had wrapped her up tight, barely a face sticking out. I covered her with a blanket. She was right at the end of her leukemia--what she wanted, I made sure she had.
The little kid ate the ice cream cone, then another. Gulped them down. Her gray eyes were big but the circles under them were huge.
She sat in my lap as I had a coffee. I ticked her very very lightly; her ribs were sticking right through her skin--so emaciated I could see the blue veins in her face.
But it was a good moment. One of the last.
Delayed Stress Syndrome.
He was a new kid, a helper on the press next to mine, barely nineteen with a mouthful of snuff. He was going to spend the day dipping ink out of a press, changing plates & loading paper--sweating bad for the minimum.
& he dropped a carton of paper to the floor--it must've weighed a good 150 & it exploded. I went to the floor, looking for the mortar flash. Ready, real ready for a firefight. My heart pounding my ribs, goddamn adrenaline closing my throat & vision.
I remembered where I was & it embarrassed me so much I walked over & squeezed his neck hard, warning him.
Delayed Stress Syndrome.
No way out of the grave. I'm going to ride this whore Vietnam straight down the ovarian death; I don't think about the war, it thinks about me, loves me, holds my face in its charred arms & grins.
Everybody I knew is dead, fucking gone, alive only in my mind; I have this terrible responsibility to keep them walking, fill their veins with blood & move their lips. I got to count on these words.
This is crazy. I'm still reliving firefights that existed for only minutes--mygod, I've thought about them & seen them behind my eyes for hundreds of hours. Some of the horror cannot be mouthed. There are no words to describe a scream.
Maybe I would've fucking blown it without Vietnam.
But I don't know why every relationship I've ever had with a woman has turned to shit soup. The only constant is me. I don't have the stomach to look at all the lives I've mangled.
I have two.44 mags under my couch & one more in the car. They ease the pain. One day they'll take all the pain & drive it down to the butcher shop.
All day I fought suicide & I won. I've nailed my right hand to this chair, stuck my knife right through it to the wood. I type with the other.
Because If I'm not bleeding, it ain't worth the reading.
I know nothing else.