From what he told me, and he never told me much, the lieutenant became a lieutenant lest he become dead in his daddy's eyes. Military service was a given in his family. A child was born, graduated high school and enlisted or was commissioned as an officer. A few of these children hadn't graduated from a damn thing, not even elementary school, but they had the good fortune to be of age to serve when the country needed men, men and more men, boys really, and academic credentials be damned. Some of the children hadn't waited for their number to be picked in the great lottery of conscription; they'd figured, well, hell, the niggers and the poor white trash get drafted first anyway, so might as well swear allegiance voluntarily. So much for the lieutenant's family history.
He didn't identify the wars in which a family member had served and I ain't asked him, just figured at least one in every generation and he was the one for his; the only one there could be since he was an only child, a circumstance that had sealed his fate/doom/destiny as much as being an only son had done mine. Only child. Only son. If only . . .
Hometown history was another matter altogether, one about which he could talk forever. Christ, el-tee, shut the fuck up, wouldja? I gotta get some sleep. Born and brought up in an unincorporated town without a single paved road (all were gravel or dirt) he thought, filial duty aside, the military was a good idea or, if not bonafide good, at least there were plenty worse (not serving and being, for all intents and purposes, dead to his father being a plenty worse idea regarding his future) and, anyway, he might get to see the world, become enraptured by an exotic culture (meaning not Western) or an exotic girl (not a blue-eyed blonde) or an exotic religion (not Christian, specifically not Presbyterian) and he might put aside some money, retire with a comfortable pension, live somewhere with paved city streets and either a riverfront or an ocean coast. A landlocked dirt town had made him soul-thirsty for water. En route to our first tour he'd been excited about seeing the Tigris and the Euphrates. At the end of our second tour he'd wanted to spit in the former and piss in the latter, just on principle.
It wouldn't be purely correct to define our relationship as brotherly, though it wasn't strictly professional either. As the highest ranking NCO in the platoon I had to be closer to him and this closeness would have been required even if I thought him to be an asshole which reminds me of a bit of wisdom he'd shared on the topic of homosexuals in the military. Homosexuality didn't offend him, he'd said, and had nothing to do with a man's ability to kill the enemy. Someone had said that it didn't offend him either, not on a moral or a religious basis, but the sex, Can't ever see myself fucking some guy's asshole - shiver, spit for emphasis - fucking yuck, man, just can't ever see myself doing it. The lieutenant had then inquired if the disgusted soldier had ever, and if not, could he ever see himself sodomizing a woman. Yeah, but, you know, el-tee, that's different. But it wasn't. An asshole is an asshole. The act is the act. This was how the lieutenant thought and this was the kind of thinking he put into his orders. As the senior NCO my job was to make sure his orders were followed and if not give a good goddamn reason as to why not which wasn't easy as it would be seen as questioning his judgment, his wisdom. I agree that an asshole is an asshole but an enemy is not an enemy. Sometimes it's a poor dumb motherfucker who didn't have the sense to get the hell out of Dodge. Before the 2nd Battle of Fallujah we gave the male citizens thereof two weeks to leave or else be considered a valid target. The lieutenant didn't have a problem with this particular shading of R.O.E. If you're wondering if I had a problem with teenage boys being valid targets I offer this as answer: Cyrus explained softly to Adam the nature of a soldier. And though his knowledge came from research rather than experience, he knew and he was accurate. He told his son of the sad dignity that can belong to a soldier, how he is necessary in the light of all the failures of man - the penalty of our frailties (East of Eden, Steinbeck).
That'd been one hell of a battle, Fallujah. Maybe if we'd done it right the first time the lieutenant would not have come to regard those rivers as receptacles for spit and piss, maybe he would not have opted to keep his soul thirsty, dry as the sand of the theater of war in which virgin boys were targets and corpses were shot to make sure they stayed corpses and even that disgusted soldier had vowed that he would fuck a guy's asshole if that would get him out of the war, out of uniform; far too often he'd gotten excited whenever our unit was tagged to bring up the rear of an assault.
After our third and final tour (forty-five months of our lives) the lieutenant decided that he'd done his duty both to his family's tradition and to his country and returned to his hometown to do I don't know what. From what he told me, and he didn't tell me much, he meant to simply not be in the Army anymore. What that means depends upon the soldier. For some it means getting a great civil servant job, buying a house, pursuing a degree, for others it's finding some kind of work, just paying the bills, keeping the lights on and the water running, and for the rest it means just doing enough to wake up breathing. Turns out that, for the lieutenant, it meant - and still does, for all I know - keeping his sad dignity to himself for years and years while earning a decent paycheck at a cannery in the industrial center of the city nearest that no-paved-road town he'd grown up in; city, by God, incorporated, a six figure metro population and water: man-made modest ponds for public parks - still, it was water and spent his afternoons staring at it in his favorite park. It wasn't the park's benches or trees, flowers or quiet spots that attracted him, simply its closeness to his job. After his shift (starting before sunrise, ending just after noon) he stopped at this park, his flask of gin his only company, and read a field manual on combat arms.
What have you been doin' with yourself, lieut?
Canning fruit and packing the cans on pallets.
Visting a nearby park.
Well, it's a park.
I sit, drink -
What're you reading these days?
Shit, lieut, don't you know how to operate a T.O.W. by now?
This joke about a tube launched-optically tracked-wire guided missile brought a smile, thin and watery, to the lieutenant's somewhat bloated faced. It was the joke behind the joke, really, see this particular missile is an anti-tank missile and we were cavalry which, in these days of modern warfare, means tanks. Our mounts are mechanized. A tank regiment armed with anti-tank weapons - funny as shit, ain't it?
Insurgents often took cover in mosques which we weren't, per R.O.E., supposed to officially, on-the-dotted-line desecrate. Unofficially, off-the-line, fuck em.
If those assholes keep it up (firing at us from a mosque) put a T.O.W. through the front door.
Roger that, sir.
Sure, we could've fired back with the guns on our tanks but, well, hell, smoke em if you got em and fire em if you got em, right?
In a general way I asked about his daddy, How's the folks?
Mama Lieut, fine; Daddy Lieut, dead.
Been sick for the longest time.
That's too bad.
An uncle of mine had also been sick for the longest time and this past Tuesday he died. On my way to the funeral I stopped to visit the lieutenant who'd gotten my number from another sergeant (same troop, different platoon) who, other than by brother-in-law, is the only Yankee who can insult my football team without vulgar consequences.
How many championships has your team won?
Not as many as yours has lost.
Well, at least mine made it to the championship game.
I'm sure that makes all the difference. Got their asses kicked, but, by God, they made it.
From what he told me, and he didn't tell me much, the lieutenant wanted to see me to make amends. We met at that favorite park of his, sat on a bench by the pond, smiled at waterfowl, shared the liquid indulgence from his flask. He'd named a pair of Mallards: Queenie and Quackers. He'd asked about others in our platoon by the names we'd given them: Klantucky (hillbilly from Kentucky), Alphabet (Serbian fella whose name no one could pronounce properly), Knarley (surfer type kid from CA), Hoodoo (Hatian fella), Tater (farmboy from Idaho) and Mean Bean (violent motherfucker from Boston) among others. The lieutenant had always been the lieutenant or lieut or el-tee and none of us had killed an I-rack-ie during our three tours. Saudi Arabians, Jordanians, Iranians, Chechnyans . . . hell, where were all the natives who didn't want us in their country, wanted to kill us, get us the fuck out? Ain't that how it was? Had to be: that's what the media said was happening and the media don't fucking lie. Impartial motherfuckers.
Condolences were given on the death of my uncle. Died in the same town he'd been born in. Full fucking circle, right? At my funeral, the lieutenant asked, do I want him to eulogize me, assuming he outlived me.
Sure, lieut, that'd be fine.
And would I want him to mention . . .
. . . what's that, lieut?
That . . . kid, you know, that one kid . . .
Billy the Kid? The Sundance Kid? What kid?
. . . the one . . . you forgot him? On purpose, right? Can't say that I blame you. I wouldn't want to remember him either.
Remember his t-shirt advertizing some soccer team ain't none of us ever heard of; his bare feet whose soles must've been thicker than leather; his shorts that didn't match in any goddamn way the colors of his shirt; his maniacal shadow-boxing as he challenged, "C'mon, mistah, c'mon . . . mistah, mistah . . . c'mon, mistah, c'mon . . . " and then dropped his fists to pantomime firing a gun, " . . . mistah, mistah . . . c'mon, c'mon mistah . . . c'mon . . . " and it'd been Hoodoo who'd put his hands softly fatherly sadly on the kid's skinny shoulders, "C'mon, little man, let's get you on outta here 'fore one of these crazy motherfuckers shoots you." It'd never occurred to us, wrapped up in our mission duty survival, that war could drive a kid crazy.
Not Billy the Kid, not the Sundance Kid, but the Crazy Kid from Fallujah.
You weren't wrong, the lieutenant said, that kid was just out of his mind. None of us could've done right by him. You weren't wrong. Would you want me to mention that?
Queenie and Quackers waddled by, ruffling tail feathers, snapping bills. A nursery school bus pulled up, was purged from its load of restless toddlers. Boys, girls, little children who don't understand the joke of a tank regiment equipped with anti-tank weaponry, who don't know how to question the logic of killing teenage boys because they stayed 15 days at their home, and one little girl child resembled my niece and one little boy child shared features with my youngest nephew and one shouting laughing running boy child reminded us both of that Crazy Kid who'd wanted to box us shoot us overcome us without the sanity of knowing why; did I want him to be remembered at my death?
I'll leave it up to you, lieut.
To his an asshole-is-an-asshole wisdom.
That pond, no where neaer as long as either the Tigris or the Euphrates, no goddamn where near, took on a stillness, its breeze-induced ripples gone faster and sadder than the sunlight, blink, gone, and the toddlers hustled back onto their bus, Queenie and Quackers, I imagine, grateful for their departure. My own departure was quick and simple. Shaking of hands, patting of shoulders, wishes for all the best. I think, sometime when he'd crept away, the lieutenant had spat and pissed his best into those rivers of our war. He ain't looked his best that day and, shit, probably I ain't either. But, then again, I wasn't the one who'd asked about a crazy kid who'd made no more difference in our war than a ripple in the Tigris, a swale in the Euphrates.
I imagine one day one of those carefree toddlers will discover the lieutenant's body slumped dead on a bench or bloated and floating in the pond. And if I give a eulogy I don't think I'll mention that Crazy Kid, the rightness or wrongness, the craziness or saneness; don't think I'll mention assholes and anti-tank weapons; I might mention dignity and sadness and failure; I might mention connection to one's hometown, duty to family, duty to country. Sure as shit I won't say a goddamn word about the flask we emptied, about the dirty speculations we made about the caretakers of those toddlers.