by Timothy Sever
I had been home from Germany two months now. Bought a used ’58 Chevy from my friend’s dad who worked at a car dealer. It was clean and ran good and that was all I wanted.
I spent a cold winter where I was stationed near Munich so it was good to be back in the warmth of California. The US Army was starting to deescalate troops from Germany and most of my unit was being deployed to Fort Devins in Massachusetts. I think it was actually colder there than Munich. Fortunately, my time being up, I was able to avoid more frigid weather. I was happy to get my Good Conduct Medal and return to civilian life.
I was starting classes at the junior college and even though I was only twenty- two, I felt like the old man sitting in the classroom. Most of the students were recent high school graduates, and most of those were marking time until they figured out what to do with the rest of their lives. They looked bored and uninterested.
As for me, after three years of military life, I was happy to be taking some classes and driving my own car. Not that I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life, but I somehow felt like I had some direction. For once.
Happy to be in my first day of class for Music Appreciation, I held my pen over an open blank spiral notebook ready to take notes. As I sat in my desk waiting for the teacher to arrive, someone tapped me on the forearm and I turned to look at the girl sitting next to me on my right. She was young and pretty and looked familiar. She smiled at the puzzled look on my face and said, “Margaret Carter, from across the street.”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s been a few years.”
“Your mother said you recently got out of the Army.”
“Yeah, a couple months ago.”
“It’s nice to see you again,” she said. “Now that we’re in the same class I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
“Uh, that’ll be good,” I said, feeling lame and uncomfortable.
At that moment, the teacher entered the room and saved me from more embarrassment. I returned to staring at my blank notebook. I was hoping the teacher would start talking so I could write something in my notebook.
Instead, the teacher, a man, started emptying a large canvas satchel and setting books and papers on the desk. He seemed to be taking his time about the whole affair. I glanced over at Margaret and she just smiled at me. I looked at the teacher again, feigning a deep interest in higher education.
I didn’t impress Margaret. She was talking to the girl on her right who she apparently knew from high school or maybe our neighborhood. I didn’t recognize her, but that didn’t mean anything.
Class finally ended and I had a half-page of notes in my notebook. Not much for almost an hour of class. I saw Margaret look at my notebook as she stood up. Hopefully, she thought I must have an incredible memory. She said it was nice seeing me again and I said the same to her and we parted ways.
After the last class of the day, I had a good feeling about college and was happy to be on the road to higher learning. Whatever the hell that was. I was ready for a couple of cold beers.
I drove my new used Chevy to Bud’s Tavern which had a sign on the front window that claimed: “The Coldest Beer In Town.” I entered and sat on a stool in front of a U-shaped bar. There were only about a half-dozen patrons. Bud, I assumed the guy was the owner, kept glass mugs in a freezer. He grabbed one and poured ice cold beer into a frosty glass mug and placed it in front of me.
“Thanks,” I said, and placed a ten-dollar bill on the wet, slimy surface of the bar.
Bud took the ten and didn’t return. I wondered if he had just given himself a nice tip. Well, I guess the sign out front was right—it was damn cold beer. Just the cure for a long day of classes.
Before my time in the Army, and I was below the legal drinking age, I drove by Bud’s Tavern all the time. It was on the main drag north of town in an area of old commercial buildings, a rental equipment yard enclosed behind a chain link fence, and a popular German restaurant. I had eaten at the restaurant just one time with my parents. What I remembered was about three pounds of potato salad and a humongous bratwurst sausage on a large plate. I wondered if Germans ate like that all the time.
I wasn’t sure if I could finish the last few swallows of my second beer; between the beer and my thoughts of all that potato salad, I felt quite full. I also felt drowsy from the beer and the long day of classes.
I heard the front door of the tavern squeak open and I turned to see who else was looking for “the coldest beer in town” this late in the afternoon. I was surprised to see someone I recognized from what I now considered “the good old days.”
It was Frank Cardinal. We had both attended Catholic grade school and high school together. We weren’t exactly friends or anything like that but we were familiar with each other in what you might call a “friendly way.”
When he saw me looking at him, he grinned and walked up to me.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he said. He kept the grin on his face and looked at me like I had a secret and he knew what it was.
I remembered back when we were in school and it seemed like he had a perpetual grin; even when he wanted to wrestle me after school when we were in eighth grade. He always wanted to fight. Not out of meanness or anything like that. He just liked the challenge and activity of fighting. As I remembered, he wasn’t much of a student, so perhaps fighting was a preferable challenge to studying. More rewarding.
“Sit down, have a beer,” I said.
Frank peeled his long legs around the bar stool and sat down. Frank was over six feet tall, gangly, with long legs and long arms and had short brown hair that was always unkempt. My guess was he never bothered combing it in the morning before leaving home. Looking at his wide grin and mussed hair, I realized he had retained his boyish look from eighth grade. But, in some strange way, he also reminded me of an old man – a seasoned man, one who has experienced more than he probably should have. His grin didn’t mask the pain in his eyes.
Despite the image of the large plate of potato salad, I decided to stay and have another beer with Frank. Bud got two more frosty mugs out of the freezer and drew two ice cold beers for us. I told Frank I was buying. What the hell, Bud had returned my change from my first beer so I figured I was ahead.
Frank was never much of a talker. Maybe that was another reason why he liked fighting—there was no talking involved.
“So, what have you been up to?” I said.
“Nothing. Just hanging out.”
“You were in the Marines. Right?”
“When did you get out?”
“I just got out myself,” I said. “November.”
He drank from his beer but didn’t respond.
“I thought you went in after me,” I said, filling the silence.
“I did. Got an early out after I rotated back to the States.”
“I was in the brig. For fighting MPs.”
The fighting again. “They work you over in the brig?”
“Where was it?”
“Marine Corps Base in Quantico…Virginia.”
“So, after a year in ‘Nam, they spanked you pretty good back in the states.”
“Well put,” Frank said.
“Some solitary confinement?”
“That was part of it.”
“Are you glad to be out?”
“Sort of. I liked the Marines and my time in Vietnam. You know…popping gooks.”
“Actually, Frank, I don’t know. I got orders to Germany.”
“Good for you,” Frank said.
I drank from my beer. I was starting to understand the reason for the pain that seemed to bleed from his eyes. Frank had always been somewhat of a thorn in the side to any authority and apparently the military — the Marines — didn’t appreciate his recalcitrant nature. It was obvious that he was experiencing repercussions from his time in the brig. And also his time in Vietnam.
Frank seemed antsy, like he was late for an appointment.
“You gotta go?” I asked him.
“I’m good. Hey, why don’t you come by my place and check it out. I live in the trailer park just down the road from here.”
“Sam’s Auto Court?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty cool. Got my own place.”
Sam’s Auto Court was a trailer park that my brothers and I used to ride by on our bikes on our way to little league baseball. We were often tempted to ride through it to see what it was like but never did. Sam’s was a collection of mostly small, rundown trailers and old cars and pickup trucks. The residents didn’t appear to be in much better condition.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I should get going.”
“Come on,” he said, with that big grin. “You can check out my guns.”
Great. A guy that likes to fight and just got out of the brig wants to show me his guns.
“I don’t have a car,” Frank said, “Give me a ride and you can see my place.”
I was trying to figure out how to extricate myself from this situation I somehow fell into. “How about another beer?”
“No. I’m not much of a drinker.”
Well, at least he had that going for him. He nudged me on the shoulder and said, “Help out a fellow grunt. Give me a ride home.”
We climbed into my ’58 Chevy and headed for Sam’s Auto Court.
“Nice car,” Frank said.
“It’s clean and runs good.”
We pulled into Sam’s Auto Court and it was pretty much like I remembered from my little league days: small trailers with hitches and flat tires. Frank directed me to his place. Frank’s trailer was small and dark green, almost black. It looked like it had caught fire and burned awhile before the fire was extinguished.
“Park next to it,” Frank said.
He unlocked the trailer door and we stepped into an atmosphere of grunge and shadows. Moth-eaten curtains hung like sad-faced varmints. The cheap paneling on the walls was almost as dark as the exterior of the trailer.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Frank said.
The trailer was virtually one big room from front to rear, although there was a partial wall that separated the central living area from what I assumed to be the bedroom. A narrow counter served to divide the tiny kitchen area from the living room.
Frank took three steps across the living room and unlocked a tall metal gun cabinet finished in a dark green and was also the newest and cleanest looking item in the trailer. He removed a rifle from the cabinet and handed it to me. “What do you think?”
It appeared to be a .22 semi-automatic with a dark walnut wood stock.
“Remington?” I said.
“Yeah.” He handed me a banana clip that must have held thirty rounds. Frank continued to grin at me and pointed at the banana-shaped magazine. “That’s what makes that little .22,” Frank said. “Thirty rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger.”
He pointed again at the banana clip and said, “Lock it in, then you can really feel the effect.”
I looked at the giant magazine and it was fully loaded. “That might not be a good idea,” I said.
He took the rifle from me and held out his hand. I gave him the magazine and he jammed it into the rifle, raised the rifle, and sighted at the bedroom wall. “POP-POP-POP.”
“Careful with that, Frank.”
He pulled the slide back and chambered a round.
“Christ, Frank. What are you doing?”
“You gotta feel it,” he said. Then he lowered the rifle, removed the magazine, and ejected the chambered round. He knelt down and picked up the .22 round. As he stood up, he said, “you gotta see my Python.”
“I’ve really got to get going.”
“Check it out before you leave.”
He removed the Python from the gun cabinet and handed it to me. It was a Colt .357 magnum six-shot revolver with a brushed stainless-steel finish and dark brown wood-grain hand grips. I was surprised at how heavy it was. I released the revolving chamber and it flipped out to the side. It was loaded with six rounds. “You always keep this loaded?” I said.
“I keep it locked in the cabinet. Besides, what good is it if it’s not loaded?” His big grin seemed to be getting weirder by the minute. I gave him the Python and he returned it to the gun cabinet. I felt a wave of relief when he locked the gun cabinet.
“Let’s fight,” Frank said.
“Let’s fight like we used to.”
“That was only one time,” I said. “And it was in eighth grade.”
“But you beat me. You need to give me a chance to even things up.”
He brushed past me and opened the trailer door. “C’mon. No fists, just wrestle.”
“I don’t remember beating you,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter. One match and then you can go. Two grunts going at it.”
I stepped down the metal stairs and stood in the dirt just outside of the trailer. I guess I should be happy; at least we weren’t armed with guns. Yet.
He grabbed my shoulders and tried pushing me to the ground. His wide grin had evolved into an almost hysterical silent laugh. He was in his element. I didn’t want to fight him but there seemed to be no other choice. He continued to push using the weight of his body and as I resisted, he leaned even harder into me. I pushed back and then suddenly twisted him around, pulled, and our momentum took us to the ground. I landed on top of him and the impact knocked the air out of Frank.
I got to my knees and watched helplessly as he struggled to breathe. He was in pain yet the grin wasn’t completely gone. For some reason, I wasn’t surprised. Finally, he started breathing and I grabbed his wrist and helped him up.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just got the breath knocked out of me.” His big grin had returned as well. “I’m ready. Let’s go again.”
“No, I’m done, Frank.”
“Then that’s twice you beat me,” Frank said.
“No. I just fell on you. Nobody won.”
I brushed the dirt off my shirt and pants and said, “Hey, it’s been good seeing you again…and, nice place.”
I reached out and we shook hands, then I got into my ’58 Chevy. I started the engine and backed out of the parking space into the paved road. I cranked my window down and waved at him as I pulled forward.
Frank waved back with his long arm. Still grinning.
After completing my first semester at the junior college, it was a relief to just be working a job and not having to attend classes. I worked for a landscape contractor doing some bookkeeping and coordinating projects with the field superintendent. I liked the work and made decent money.
One night in July, after getting off work, I was driving south on the freeway on my way home. Just ahead of me on the shoulder was a tall man hitchhiking. As a rule, I don’t pickup hitchhikers, so I didn’t slow down. But, as I passed the hitchhiker, he looked over at me and grinned as I drove by. It was Frank. I guess he still didn’t have a car. I felt kind of bad for not stopping and giving him a ride but I was going too fast and there was heavy traffic so I couldn’t have stopped anyway. I thought that maybe I should exit the freeway and go back and give him a ride. But I kept driving.
Finally, my conscience got the better of me and I exited the freeway and re-entered headed back northbound. I knew there wasn’t an exit near the location that I saw Frank hitchhiking so I would have to drive by where I had last seen him and take the first exit after that. As I neared the location Frank had been standing, I slowed a little and looked across the freeway. Frank was gone. I figured he must have gotten a ride, so I took the next exit and headed south again. I stayed in the right lane and checked the shoulder to make sure, but he was definitely gone.
I felt a sadness envelop me. I thought of Frank with that big, almost childish grin and melancholy face and the trauma he had been through in Vietnam and his time in the brig in Quantico that played with his mind and emotions. No wonder he didn’t talk much.
I had no idea if I would ever see him again but I hoped that somehow time would bring him some peace.
Well, if I never saw him again, at least I got to check out his cool trailer.
That was important to him.