That Army bus was a small one, just enough room for the eight of us and our gear.
It was hotter than the Devil’s own oven in the summer, freezing in the winter, and leaked both spring and fall. I lived inside that olive drab shell for better than two full years with the rest of the Honor Guard as we bumped and wound over and back the Appalachians through West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. War was what keep us busy those years ’67, ’68, and part of ’69. We took turns driving, those of us who knew how, but when we got to our stop it was always Larry who played Taps and presented the flag to the family. The rest of us stood there, after we each fired three times. Then Larry, horn under his arm, would salute and give who-ever the folded flag. Then we’d drive to the next one. Little towns mostly, some places not even towns at all.
When they sent us out from base that first time, That ole Sergeant explained;
“Just because you boys ain’t too sharp don’t mean you can’t serve your country.
You’re doin’ your duty at home is all, shootin’ off blanks in honor of the dead.”
We honored the dead alright, if there was enough left of ‘em to send back home. Soldiers families tried real hard to be strong and proud for their boy, for their country.
It was the brothers and sisters, high school friends. Them all being just kids like us, crying maybe or everything held all tight inside. Wives and sweat-hearts were the worse. Seeing them just tore me up. Tore me up bad every time. Bothered us all one way or another. Some guys drank enough or drugged enough not to feel it, or maybe
just not feel it as bad.
I turned eighteen on that bus, nineteen too, and we gave out must have been better
than a thousand flags. Didn’t keep one. Didn’t keep anything really, just my boots (them being the only shoes I had). Other guys on the bus, them GI’s, came and went, and I left in my time too. What stayed with me was the families, keeping themselves together when they were in such pain because they didn’t know what else to do. Young girls in tears, or worse real quiet. I’ll never forget them. Went back my old job, or near enough. Still workin’ DQ. Just mostly on the grille now, only mop-up weekday nights’. I see kids come in, no older than we was. Always hungry after the game or a school play. I think; well maybe where I was those Vietnam years was like a school play. I wished so hard the dead boys would come in from the wings, pushin’ each other and taking their bows. The broken hearted girls smiling now, holding roses their proud daddy’s brung ‘em. But the dead boys were still dead, and the sad girls was left to heal them selves all up and down them back roads.
Ticket thirty-three and I waited while lower numbers were called out. Since the kitchen just announced twenty-one, I knew my basil udon noodles were still distant.
Just like that it seemed; I was day dreaming about tigers and if they spoke like us what would their voices be like? Would they have Indian accents or tiger accents (what was are tiger accents like?) and then I wanted Indian food instead of those impending yet aloof noodles; but pretty sure there are tigers in Thailand so the noodles would still be ok. Were they marsupial tigers? No, that’s in Tasmanian and I never had Tasmanian food so I drew a blank, but what were the Tamale Tigers? Salsa band or South American socialist militia? Not sure; that one could go either way.
Then I saw shoes flash in the mirror near the bar by the floor and they were woman’s red high-top Converse, but the stars were on the insides of her ankles and I didn’t know if this reversal was a trick of the mirror or she just had them on the wrong feet. But then the counter guy called “thirty-three” and I forgot what the tigers were saying and the girl with the high-tops was gone which was good since I have issues with women’s
feet and shoes and well, ….issues.
Noodles were suddenly my sole focus but they were bland and I wished I had gone to the Indian place run by tigers and have the lovely tiger hostess in her flowing silk sari with her unsettling gaze recommend “the catch of the day”. I was scared to ask what it was and ordered it anyway earning a wide smile and a rumbly deep purr as she said “ excellent choice” and I swear she flicked her tail just for me she swayed away to the kitchen. But by then I must have finished my noodles, (or maybe the crows at the next table took them- not sure), and should be getting back to work. Back to being head fact checker for the King, or maybe reviewer of fake Tasmanian restaurants. Just have to see what it says on my office door. Think I have an office anyway.
A table for one is just no fun.
Traveling on business you learn.
Tired of hotel restaurant’s snappy themes:
* Pumpernickel Pub
* Captain Flapjack’s Galley
* Blarney Stone Buffet
Break the cycle I said to myself!
Go to the nearby “Hard Rock Cafe.”
Have pizza with Elvis and Elton,
(Little Betty Boop won’t eat a thing!)
Quickly seated, so few solo nook request
Would I have a monster bacon-burger with a Gene Simmons?
Maybe a cherry-coke with Norma Jeane,
(her skirt blowing wildly between breathless sips.)
My table was between the restrooms,
Behind the coat rack, but it had a theme!
The obituary of Maureen Starkey,
Liverpool hairdresser and first wife of Ringo Starr.
Conversationally we were well matched.
On the train looking through an independent literary journal I read a poem that made no sense to me at all. It was mostly about watching TV in the desert (I think). The train groaned and swayed along and my eyes were suddenly caught by the line “Alien Cave Woman Sex.“ Absolutely no image came to mind, none. Nothing at all. In my best David Sedaris voice I thought “Well, that’s interesting” and read something else. But the words “Alien Cave Woman Sex” wouldn’t leave. Weeks later I was reading a novel about a family of circus performers. They worked side-shows as “Living Oddities.” They’re acts were not “Big Tent Material”. The narrator says to another character “It’s like having a secret. Like having a bluebird tattooed under your pubic hair.” I can clearly see a small vivid cartoon bluebird, but not on anyone (anywhere!), just by itself. Another twist of words stuck in my head. Another unclaimed picture.
Neither phrase would go away. They would not be banished. Why couldn’t I leave them somewhere? Casually work them into conversation and abandon them. Give them to a stranger. Let someone else deal with the mess. I didn’t make up either one. Why should I be stuck? Burdened for months with these two unspeakable clunkers. Finally I wrote my way out of this putrid mess with a short story.
A handsome and mysterious stranger is suddenly stuck with appendicitis while waiting in line for the Alien Cave Woman Sex theme ride. While prepping him for surgery Carnival Nurse Betty Brazen was surprised (and intrigued) to discovers his secret tattoo. And quick as that both phrases were gone! Vanquished forever!
Freedom at last, because now, they have become yours. “Enjoy.”