There are habits we often pick up and seldom realize why we do them. When I spent some time in Germany, about six months, really, I picked up the habit of putting mayonnaise on my french fires or cut potatoes, if you like. I never really thought about that practice of German patrons of McDonald’s and other hamburger franchises, it just seemed natural. As a kid I never really liked the taste of catsup and the bland yellow American mustard never appealed to me. Only later would I discover mustard from Dijon with all the assorted flavors. But I readily adapted to mayonnaise on my french fries, which disgusted my mother and father to no end. Now after all these years I still like to indulge that habit if I am having french fries with a meal. But I have become a Paleo man in my diet so potatoes are out except as a once or twice a month treat. Let’s face it, cutting the carbs out of one’s diet is next to impossible but at least I can limit my intake to once or twice a month.
But habits are fascinating studies of human behavior, such as hand washing. I’m a man and washing my hands is not a big deal. But my wife tends to wash far more frequently than I. Well, she is a woman and women do the strangest habits known to mankind. True, we all constructive habits, assuming there is such an animal. I love to read and hate to be bored. If I have to engage in dealing with some bureaucratic function that involves waiting in line then I take something to read with me. It’s a habit I acquired in high school and carried with me through the service and into the working world. Now I don’t know why I like reading as a time killer while waiting in line. Some individuals like to carry their music everywhere in the same manner as I do with reading material. Others feel the need to talk with their fellow sufferers until such companion sufferer is blue in the face and near death. Truth is, if you were to ask such individuals why they engaged in such behavior I bet you would hear the response, “I don’t know why.” Unfortunately habits can have a more sinister quality, as the one habit a friend of mine in the service indulged.
His story begins in Alabama back in the early sixties. Tommy Darrel was a good ole boy of the first rank. Well, one has to have lived in the vicinity of the old south to understand such a social order. He and his older brother had taken up the sport of boxing, of which his brother excelled, although Tommy Darrel was very good. One would not want to piss him off in a dark alley or a well lit barroom. His brother might, in the words of Marlon Brando’s character in On The Water Front, have been a contender. One wonders if the many blows to the head were responsible for the alcoholism that rages in both brothers. True, alcoholism is more about habituation than neurological disorders. Still, if asked why they drank so much one was apt to hear, “I don’t know why?”
Now after one of the brother’s barroom scenes the presiding judge gave Tommy Darrel a choice, enlist in the service or do two years hard time on the county farm. For those of you who have know no knowledge of county work farms, go watch the film Cool Hand Luke and you will have some idea of the choice of punishment. Tommy Darrel liked his freedom and thought he might just have a bit more freedom in the service than on a county chain gang. Hell, basic training was a walk in the park for someone who had trained as a boxer. Of course all is relative. Tommy Darrel told me of his disagreement with the friendly drill sergeant and the lack of promotion upon graduation from basic. He was fated to be a slick sleeve all his life.
Before you assume that Tommy Darrel was just another dumb hick off the farm let me set you straight. He was capable of some deep thought at times. But I think it was his knack for being more inventive that impressed me the most. In fact, I think that is what often saved him from living in the guard house so many times. Word got around of so little improvement in an NCOs room, nothing outstanding, really, but just practical fixes. Sort of like home improvement if you like. If you wanted something that was like an easy chair he could not only design one but make it out of the various scraps he scavenged. Pretty soon the officers caught on and then if he were involved in a fight downtown, well, there must have been circumstances. Of sure, there was always an incident or two that could not be overlooked. That’s why most of his hitch was spent as a slick sleeve.
But his real problem was alcohol. He liked to drink and then that would lead to fights, then the next thing you knew he’d bust some guys jaw and even send them to the hospital. Fortunately his drinking was sporadic. That is, he only drank when he had money and so often he was broke. Some of the NCOs would slip him a pint every so often and he would drink in the barracks. That’s when his legend was created. After making love to a pint in the evening someone might find him sleeping it off on top of a large chimney or a water tower. When asked, his answer was always the same, he didn’t remember getting up there or how he did it. Then he’d stay off the booze for a couple of days and talk about being afraid of doing something really dangerous. I remember he and I and my partner in crime (I ran a black market that dealt in favors only, you can’t leave fingerprints on favors and they don’t have serial numbers to record) Big Amos, a member of the local Hell’s Angels until he got his notice personally served by the local sheriff, were sitting in my room. I had it made big time, I was a corporal and entitled to share a quad room with three other corporals. Tommy Darrel got to talking about the time he and his brother went over to the local college in the next town. Now Tommy Darrel had read a little Shakespeare in high school and wanted to see a live performance. “So” he said, “we traveled off in the old 55 Ford cause that was all we could afford for transportation. We found the college auditorium and parked on the side street. Lucky for us the ticker takers thought we were members of the football team and let us in for free. I just a hell of good ole time listening to that iambic pentameter. John, my brother, was just laughing at me cause I was really into listening to the speeches, you know. Well, the play ended and we were on our way to the car when a couple of guys we once knew another high school and whom we had whipped several years running in football caught up with us. they said they knew this place where we could get some free drinks and so we went with them. The place wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall, if you know what I mean. There were a couple of old grizzled men sipping away at their tin cups and a couple of younger fellows, maybe five or ten years older than us and they was guzzling cans of beer and then squeezing the empties to see who could make them the flattest (beer cars were made out of steel in those days.). So we joined in the fun and of course John and me were best at making those cans flat which kind of bothered those guy while the two old men just laughed at them. The next thing I knew guys were swinging their fists at us and that’s all john needed. When he fought Golden Gloves they used to call him the watchmaker because he tended to clean a guy’s clock real good. Well, we was going real good when a couple more guys came in and sort of uneven the odds, know what I mean. Oh, we were doing some real good damage they a couple of them got behind me and the next thing I knew I was hit over the head and thrown out the door. Them two really raised a lump on my skull seeing how they had a blackjack with them. Course I had had my fill of the white lightening the old geezers were sipping so I wasn’t feeling too much pain. But what scared the living daylights out of me is that I had woken up in some church steeple that didn’t have no stairs or ladder. To this day I can’t say how I got up there. The opening was too small to allow any man to haul another man my size up through it. I just don’t know how I got up there. I just don’t know. It may be the death of me yet.”