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Sergeant Lee

by Richard T. Driskill

Yes, my baby left
Never said a word
Was it something I done,
Something that she heard?

–Arthur Crudup

 

After the war I still owed the Marine Corps two years for teaching me how to fly. ‘How to fly,’ sounds downright liberating doesn’t it? But after you pick up legless and armless teenagers every day for thirteen months, hear even above the rotor din their screaming, flying loses some of its romance. It’s been over forty-five years and I’ve never had to fight the urge to get back into a bird. Life wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really life either. It was like being stranded in an elevator caught between floors, and I couldn’t wait for some repair man to come get me out.

Freddie and I had it all planned, having worked it out in every sensuous detail during our nights in boot camp. We’d start out in Spain, head down to Morocco and just keep going. Seems like a long time ago, but I remember everything, the puke green of the walls, the smell of hot water on the cement floor, the coldness of my M-1 barrel. But Freddie, far better officer material than me, could never get his eight chin-ups in this big Marine Corps Physical Training test, and so he washed out. Six weeks later he’s in Vietnam, where he had the bad luck of being in the same place as two 50-caliber machine gun rounds. They didn’t teach Newton in Advanced Infantry Training. Meant I’d have to go to Spain on my own. That’s life, that’s death, I guess.

Back in the world—though it wasn’t the same world I’d left–I mostly flew and drank. Oh, I tried at first to console some of my buddies’ widows, but I was so confused in those days that I ended up falling in love with them. Freud could have explained to me all about deflected emotions, but they didn’t teach us about him either.

The Marine Corps has very strict rules about flying and drinking. They have to, you see, because they certainly don’t want to discourage drinking. The unofficial SOP on this is that as you’re heading out on a mission, you can’t drink within fifty feet of the helicopter. I could tell you tales about what goes on in the Officer’s Club when the wives are home putting the kids to bed, but that’s another story. Besides, I stopped going to the club about a month after I got back from the Nam; got tired of hearing the boys, first look around to make sure that none of their old squadron mates were there, and then launch into how they almost got the Silver Star. I did know a few guys who got one, but they didn’t hang around at Happy Hour.

You see, here’s the problem: you hear a lot of stories about how we all smoked heroin over there, but the truth is it was the enlisted guys who smoked; we officers were more like our daddies. We drank. It was all subsidized over there, so that you could get any drink imaginable for ten cents. That’s right: ten cents, one tenth of a dollar. Well, you can imagine: you tell yourself that you’re probably going to be shot down the next day, so you walk into the club with a couple of bucks, flirt with the cute Vietnamese girl behind the bar—I’m amazed how many of my buddies still talk about her, wondering if she made it to Westminster or died in some re-education camp. Damn, she was a nice girl–and you leave hammered.

So when we got back to the world and had to buy our drinks in even the dingiest of dives, we found ourselves running up bills of forty and fifty dollars. I knew I had a problem, but what else was I going to do while waiting inside the elevator.

But I digress. When I was a kid there was this comedian who always said that in his routine, but my digressions are the willful avoidance of things I’d rather not think about. Like Freddie, like my buddies’ widows, like the goddamn elevator.

The Corps enlarged my mind in other ways, to be sure. Being the only bachelor in my stateside squadron, I’d volunteer for any educational opportunity that came along. Now, you might not think that the Marine Corps cares about the development of the mind, but you’d be surprised how many free courses were on offer, a real goddamned Harvard, swear to God. Every month or so, the Education Officer—this pot-bellied guy who was convinced that “a pound of food is a pound of food, and that a pound of chocolate isn’t going to make you any fatter than a pound of fish”—would come up to tell me about another good deal. Crazy stuff, like a jungle survival school in Panama, even though I’d already been to one in the Philippines, and I sure wasn’t going back to the Nam. But that was fine for me: my sister-in-law is from Panama, and I figured that after surviving on a couple of snakes for three days, I could have four to visit her family and see the sights.

Then there was a week-long Parade School. Can you believe it? Oh, yeah: being the only bachelor, the other guys wanted to play baseball with their kids on Saturdays, so they kept asking me to take their Parade duty. And so I’d peel myself off the floor on Saturday mornings—sometimes my own—and head out to Orange or Santa-Ana—all those Southern California towns look the same–to lead a group of sixteen Vietnam vets who weren’t any keener than I was about being there. I can tell you that the crowds weren’t lining the streets in those days: mostly mothers and widows.

But, hey, if I was going to do it I might as well do it right. Right? Bullshit. I couldn’t have cared less—or is it I could have cared less? I hear it both ways—about the proper way to manipulate my sword for this or that parade step, but the school was in Florida Keys, and I always remember seeing pictures of that long and lean bridge extending over turquoise water. I figure I could call in sick a couple of days, rent a Mustang and drive back and forth across that bridge.

But I really digress. I was going to tell you about was what happened in Memphis Tennessee at Computer School. Now, I had no idea what computers were for in this crazy world. They were big as refrigerators in those days, and cost a hell of a lot more.

Whoa, I almost forgot to tell you about the best educational program of them all. This time I’m still in the Nam, flying a mission that wasn’t too dangerous, just a little fire from a distant tree-line. Out of nowhere this camouflaged Marine runs into the zone just as I’m about to take off. I swear, it was just like the guy who delivered the mail to Willard when he’s at that last outpost before he gets to Kurtz. When it first came out, I couldn’t stand the movie, but that was because it was like telling the secrets I was trying to hide. How did Coppola know all that? Anyway, this guy, probably a recon type, comes over to my side of the helicopter, slips me an envelope, and then disappears in the bush again. I’m asking myself, what the hell was the guy doing out there. So I give the letter to my co-pilot to read so I can get us out of the zone, and it says that I’m supposed to go back immediately to the base and report to the CO.

So I’m reviewing the recent past, both in the air and in the bar, trying to figure out what I was in trouble for. So many possibilities. But when I walked into the Colonel’s office—this great big swarthy guy; looked a lot like Tony Soprano—he was all smiles, asking me if I wanted a drink since I’d finished flying for a while. Turns out, I had half an hour to pack for a three-day course in Udong, Thailand. Something very hush, so hush I never did find out what course it was supposed to be.

Well, I throw a few things together–I mean how many civilian things did we have in Nam?—and I go out to the flight line where a big Air Force C-45’s waiting for me and two other guys. They didn’t know any more than I did, and so we sat there in our little webbed seats, happy as hell that these were three days we wouldn’t be in the jungle getting shot to shit.

So we get to Thailand where some officious top sergeant asks to see our top-secret clearances. Well. I’m not exactly sure who has those, but we certainly didn’t. I guess first lieutenants could be told little stuff but couldn’t be trusted with the big game plan, so they only cleared us for secret clearances. In fact, they never told me any secrets at all, and I sure as hell didn’t want to know any.

Then Top tells us that there won’t be another flight out of there for three days, so they we’re still going to put us up in a hotel, and we’re all looking at one another not believing that we’d landed three extra days of R&R.

So we throw our stuff in the rooms and head down to the bar, of course. Over the counter there was a big stuffed bass, arching out like he was at the end of your line. In fact, once my eyes dilated a bit I saw that somebody had made the bar look just like home, that is, if your home’s in Tuscaloosa. Big ol’ Confederate flag tacked on the wall, pleated Naugahyde booths behind us, veneer pine paneling everywhere, big sign below the TV about how every Saturday was “Game Night,” smaller sign in red, “Faggots not served,” Bud on tap, fried this and fried that if you didn’t want to eat upstairs in the restaurant.

Damn shame about the Bud, ‘horse piss’ as my old man would day. I mean, they make some damn good beers in Asia, and these guys had to import Bud. Patsy Cline—I did like her, a lot—was singing “Crazy” on the jukebox. Man, was it ever. Well, I got around the Bud by starting with a whiskey, straight up, and Bill and I sat back, thinking how good it was to not have to fly in the morning.

By now we can see quite well, and we notice that all the other guys sitting at the bar were wearing Hawaiian shirts, I mean, the kind you saw in the late 50’s, the colors  kinda matted and bright at the same time, exotic flowers you’d never seen, so beautiful you’d think some artist had imagined them. I’m looking all around at the shirts, and the guy to my left takes that at as an invitation to slither over to me, all smiley, car salesman like. As he’s coming, there’s another Hawaiian shirt making its way toward Bill–a goddamn Pincer movement.”

“Hey, bud, you’re in Chatterbox, aren’t you.”

Now I know something’s funny. These shirts already knew which squadron we were in. A set–up, but we still didn’t know what for. “Married?” I shook my head no, Bill shook his yes. Either way they had a response. Not married, I wouldn’t mind coming back to Asia for a while. Married, “how could I support my family on a Marine Corps pay check?”

“Here, let me buy you a drink, Marine. Think about it: you get the shit shot out of you and all you get is the pleasure of having to write up an incident report. Every time I return with a bullet hole, I get a tax-free five thousand dollar bonus. How much they paying you guys now?”

I told him.

“Sheeit! I get three times that, my room in this hotel and my bar bills taken care of.”

And then it hit me. I’d seen these guys in the jungle a couple of times. Unmarked helicopters, one of them silver. Goddamn Air America, the CIA’s little private air force.

“Smell that?” I asked the guy.

“What?”

“Something sure stinks in here. Smells like a dead rat, or something.”

“A comedian, huh? Man, I was going to offer you a way to make something of yourself. Maybe even a way to take off some of your time after Nam. Well, fuck you, you little Yankee faggot.”

I pointed to the red sign and said, “Thank you. Thank you very much,” threw some Thai baht on the bar—I have no idea how much–, grabbed his limp little hand and shook it. Bill and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, ran up the stairs and through one of those revolving doors, took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the midday sun, and headed out to see what Udong had on offer. Three days later, we’d be back In Country. I had spit in the devil’s eye. No regrets.

O.K., all right, Memphis, Tennessee. I promise. Well I accepted this week-long computer school in Memphis, because I had always wanted to wander around Beale Street, I mean, the Baptist Church, Wet Willie’s, W.C. Handy. . . It hadn’t become a big tourist place yet, still kinda gritty, seedy, but what music.

I can’t remember how I ended up in the Bluebird Motel. Had the pound-is-a-pound guy arranged it? Did Marines get a discount? I really can’t remember. Anyway, it was within two blocks of Beale, a mile from my classes, the sheets and towels were clean, the lady who ran it a real Mama type, and she’d given me a room on the back side of the big blue neon bird. It was fine. True, the bathroom was down the hall, but there was a sink in the room, an ice machine, and Mrs. Evans gave you a key to the outside door as long as you were “careful to lock up after you got in.”

I can be very disciplined, I really can, and before the school even started I had arranged my schedule. I’d sit through class from 8:00 to 2:00, nap from 3:00 to 7:00, shower and head out to one of those great bar-b-que places—$2.95 for all you could eat!–, and get there early into a different little blues joint every night, sit at a front table and just listen to these amazing players until 3:00. Then, I’d have a little breakfast in an all-night diner, and make my way back to the Blue Bird. You’re right, I hadn’t allowed any time for studying, but I figured I’d take good notes and pay close attention so I wouldn’t need to. But these refrigerators were so boring I kept falling asleep, the only flaw in my schedule.

 

***

 

“Cap’n, you alright?”

I don’t know how long Sarge been at the door, but I surely wasn’t all right. I hadn’t scheduled in the hangovers. I couldn’t help it. I mean, I’d never heard of half these guys, but they were all more than all right, having busked up and down Beale, finally breaking in to some struggling club, and you knew they still had to be at work early the next morning. They sang the blues because they had to. Sure wasn’t going feed the family.

“Cap’n, we’re gonna be late, Sir.”

Now ain’t that the goddamned Marine Corps? Here’s this squared-away sergeant, at least ten years older than this irresponsible drunk, and he treats me like I’m his old man. God, my head! I felt that morning old enough to be anyone’s father.

But it was worth it. I mean, here was a chance I’d never have again. To hear the Beale Street Blues Boy singing “The Sky’s Crying,” holding Lucille up to see the tears, eyes closed, his fingers seducing her down roads unnavigable by words alone.

 

***

 

The door was cracked open, the forty-watt light bulb on. Mrs. Evans must have given me the goddamn honeymoon suite or something. Sarge’s room was tiny, just room for a single bed and a little veneer chest of drawers, now cleared of the brochure with its beautiful blue bird in a palm lined garden singing the praise of Memphis as “A Visitor’s Paradise,” and commandeered as a desk.

“Hey, Cap’n, have a seat.”

“You mean, have a bed, huh?”

“Back in school, huh? Must be ol’ hat for you, Cap’n, but I haven’t cracked a book since I was sixteen, and I can’t remember much of what I was supposed to have studied back then, anyway. Funny, how now I was usually the one looking in to make sure the kids were studying. They would have gotten a kick out of this, I’ll tell you.”

There was just enough room on the chest-of-drawers for Computers are the Future, a lamp, and one of those Sears family portraits. The photographer must have had the family sitting around an invisible table, but the effect was that they were all lying on the ground looking happily toward the camera.  Sarge and a still pretty wife bookended two little toe-heads, the parents’ left hands clasped around the kids’ right hands,  their smiles wide enough so you could see where their back molars still hadn’t decided to come in. Sarge’s wife–maybe just a hard day–looks just past the camera, her perfect upper teeth worrying slightly the lower lip. Sears always uses that brownish velveteen backdrop, supposed to be sophisticated and shadowy, but it looked a lot like the soiled carpet in the room. The family looked, how can I say it, so darned clean and Christian, like they’d just come from Church.

“I just came by to see if you wanted to go to Beale Street. Rumor is that B.B. King is going to make a guest appearance tonight at Handy’s. What do you say?”

“I’d love to, Sir, but I’d better study. Besides, Cheryl might call, and I’d hate to miss that. But that’s awfully nice of you, Sir.”

“Look, I’m on my way out of this man’s Marine Corps, and we’re just two classmates in the same little school, so maybe you could drop the ‘Sir.’ The name’s Tom.”

“I’ll try, Sir. I mean, Tom.”

“Well maybe tomorrow, huh?”

“Sure.  Maybe tomorrow.”

 

***

      He turned down my invitation the next night, and I could tell that, one, he’d probably prefer Waylon Jennings to B.B. King, two, he probably didn’t approve of my drinking. Besides, this course obviously meant a lot to him, probably a new future in the Corps. He was at the top of the class—me, hovering near the bottom—and would stay there only if he steered clear of any questionable influence. Still, he wouldn’t drop the Sir nonsense, but during the day we came to share the ease of brothers, not my own, but the kind of relationship you see in the movies. We’d have lunch together, joke around between classes, and I still figured I could probably get him over to Beale Street to celebrate the completion of the course.

 

***

 

“Sophia was seven then, she’d be seventeen now.”

I knew better than to go after that strange grammatical distance, so I just waited for Billy to go on. Billy, I was calling him Billy now, and after walking around him all these years in memory I still think of him as a fresh-faced blue-eyed boy.

“When we took that picture, she was my little girl. I tried hard to love ‘em both the same, but there was something about her that would have made her anyone’s favorite. I mean she was so smart and so excited about everything. I mean, here’s this little eight-year-old laying out a fly better than most adults, reading a trail like she’s half deer. If you were going to show her anything new, you’d better know it darn well yourself, because she would ask about all the little details, storing ‘em all away in that sweet little head of hers. Best way to start a fire, where you needed to give up on a fly and drop in a salmon egg. Best student in her glass, best soccer player on her team, best everything. But it never went to her head. Just as nice as could be, always praising Robert and everyone else around her. Not a phony humility; that’s just the way she was.”

Given the length of the preamble, I knew I was in for a long story. “Come on, let’s head out for some bar-b-que, and you can tell me all about your girl over some lovely ribs.  Cheryl called last night. How ‘bout it? I promise to get you in early.”

“Sir, I don’t think I’d be very good company for you tonight. I really appreciate how you’ve treated me but I don’t think I’ll be going out with you.”

The barrier in place again, I knew there was nothing I could do to talk him into a night out, so I let it go. I was heading for the door when he started in again.

“Ya see, everything was fine after my first tour In Country. She had me go to her class in my uniform and explain every medal, every ribbon. I mean, it was just like an Audie Murphy movie. I was her hero.

“Well, she had been given a scholarship to go to this fancy private school in D.C. We didn’t even know there were such schools. She found out everything on her own, applied by herself. The first we knew about it is when she came for us to fill out forms about our financial situation. You know how it is: you’re so happy for the kid, and yet you know she’s getting way out ahead of you. By the time I got back from my second tour, I’d lost her.

“You remember coming back to the World. I mean, you’re looking around the room and thinking you must be dreaming. I mean, the last time you shaved, the last time you did anything, you were In Country. And now your wife is sleeping next to you, clean sheets, carpet on the floor, and you just can’t quite believe it. And since those are the same clean sheets, the same carpet, the same house, you make the mistake of thinking that people are the same, too. Like your wife and Sophia and Robert had been kind of suspended in air for the last thirteen months. You sure as anything aren’t the same. I mean, how can you be with all that you’ve seen?

“So Sophia comes into the bedroom. Cheryl was up making my homecoming breakfast. I was still thinking this is my little girl, but all the changes that happen to any teenage girl in more than a year. She gives me the longest hug, and then she starts, ‘Dad, you’re the gentlest man I know. You’re so smart; you can do anything. Dad, I want you to quit the Corps. You’ve got five years of the G.I. Bill coming to you. Go to the university, learn how to do something meaningful with your life.’

“I mean, I wasn’t ready for all this. ‘And who’s going to pay all the bills while I’m at the university, Hon. Look, I told her, ‘three more years, just give me three more years. And then I can retire at half pay, and I will, I will go back to school and become anything you want. But, hon, for those three years I do what the Corps tells me to do; I go where the Corps tells me to go’.”

 

 

Damn neon lights, seems they can last five or six years, then when you forget about them, all of a sudden they start their little death dance. It was like the light show the last time I’d heard the Dead at the Fillmore. I had my back to the bird but when it began to flicker I could see all too clearly Billy’s face. Well, he didn’t look like young Billy at all, more like a flower in one of those Disney nature movies that goes from seed to bloom, begins to die and withers in about fifteen seconds. Every time that bird flickered on, Billy got older, wrinkled and sere, a face of blue death.

“And then she said, calm as you like, ‘All right, Dad. You go where the Marine Corps tells you, and I’ll go as far from here as I can.’ And then she got up, gave me a kiss on the forehead and walked out of the room.

“You see, Cap’n, I was still thinking this was the same little girl I’d left. But all the things that had gone on in her beautiful little head those last thirteen months . . . .

“She never said anything more about all that; in fact, she never said anything at all. It was killin’ me. Robert locked the door to his room, Cheryl was off to Mass every morning. About a month later, Sophia heads off to school and never comes back. That was two years ago. We still haven’t found her; she doesn’t want to be found.

“She was right, of course. I mean, Cap’n, did you see any reason for us to be over there. Just a bunch of farmers, strugglin’ to get their crop in, just like my parents.”

No, I didn’t. And so we both sat there in the temple at the feet of a fifteen-year-old girl. I was supposed to say something, something that might bring back his daughter. I mean, it had happened to me before. Some forty-year-old sergeant comes to you because you’ve got bars on your collar and asks you how to piece back together a broken life. Why they thought I knew any more than any other twenty-five-year old kid, I don’t know. . .

And then, Billy pulls out this little foam cooler from under his bed. That boy had probably never been inside a liquor store before, and here he has all iced-down a six pack of Bud.

“I thought maybe we could celebrate here tonight, Cap’n. No more crying tales, I promise. Your friendship has meant a lot to me. Never really knew an officer before.”

And so I did drink a couple of those god-awful Bud’s, and we sat there a while trying out some small talk. And I began to think that everything’s fine again. I’d tell Mrs. Evans about her wounded bird at breakfast. I didn’t know where the switch was to put it out of its misery.

Well, I told myself we had it both ways: I’d celebrated with Billy, and I’d celebrate again on Beale Street. The problem was, when I got there, I couldn’t keep my mind on the music. Billy Krudup had come back just to give a lift to the club that had given him a start, and he, too, was going on about “My baby left me.”

I guess it was the girl’s line about her dad being the gentlest man she’d ever known that got me thinking about the time the gentlest man I’d ever known took me fishing at Uncle Johnny’s. Now, there wasn’t any real fishing there, just a few blue gills and crappie in these reedy swamps. But I was crazy about fishing, and Dad had promised to take me. The thing is, Aunt Dot waltzes in the night before and decides everyone was going to the movies. Now, my dad didn’t usually care much about the movies, but this was a Wallace Beery film, and Dad, for some reason, really liked old Wallace Beery.

“Timmy, do you think we could put off fishing until tomorrow?”

“But you promised.”

What I remember most is this fish, about four inches long, all shriveled up on the splintered boards of some old pier, and my brothers and Aunt Dot coming back to tell us all about the great movie we’d missed.

Dad never said anything, but if I could have that morning back. . .

And so Krudup kept singing, and I kept on drinking, but it didn’t help any. So, I poured myself into a cab and headed back to the Blue Bird.

At first I thought the colored lights were coming from that dying bird, but I sobered up just like that when I saw the red and blue lights were on top of three police cars.

“Cap’n Hogan, hon, I knocked on your door as soon as I heard the shot.” Mrs. Evans still in her robe, without makeup looked as if she just might float away. “When I knew for sure you were out, I called the police. I just couldn’t make myself go in there alone.”

They weren’t going to let me in, but I told them I was Sergeant Lee’s commanding officer. They were dusting the pistol for fingerprints, I guess, but they pretty much knew what had happened.

Everything in the room had been squared away. Damn Billy, Marine Corps to the end. And there was that Sears portrait. He must have been saying goodbye to it. Sophia’s eyes followed me around the room, Billy’s eyes wouldn’t let go either, and the pair of them have sat there all these years, just alongside that sun-baked fish.