Desafinado (Off-Key)

Brazil 66 was a new musical group that was on its way to making a name for itself and a fortune for its members and the record producers.  I loved the sound, a blend of bossa nova and jazz and other influences.  Now we didn’t get much of the new music in the far east but the new guys in the platoon might bring in their albums from the states and we could listen.  The PX carried some of the new stuff but nothing very exciting, if you know what I mean.  But I’d have to wait to hear Country Joe and The Fish or Canned Heat or Dave Van Ronk.  These people were too degenerate for Army personnel.  No, very dangerous influences.  But we could get a ton of good jazz, from bop to cool the Brazilian.  I was stuck on Brazilian, let me tell you.  And I loved singing.  The problem was ever since puberty I couldn’t sing worth a damn.  That was a great frustration for me, just couldn’t sing along with the song to save my life.

Antonio Caetano was in our platoon, a good man to have around.  He was also Brazilian on his maternal side.  Tony introduced us to a lot of good jazz, like Stan Getz and the Jobim brothers, and Brazil 66.  The music had an affect on me, you know, very melodic and yet very deep in structure.  Very intense music, emotionally connecting to the senses.  I was all set to head off to Rio when my time was up.  Of course Tony had lived in Bahia for a while with his aunt and grandmother.  His parents sent him down there every summer as a way of making sure he kept close family connections.  “Bill, my mother believes in a close family.  Sometimes she would come down with me for a couple of weeks.  And sometimes my father would come with us.  We would walk the avenues in the evening and listen to the music spill out the doorways.  It was so exciting when I was young.  I think I might go live there for a awhile when my enlistment is up.”

“Tony, let me come with you.”  We had this discussion before.  “Bill, you can’t speak Portuguese and I can’t always be your interpreter.”

“Then teach me the language.  You know it, teach me.”  Tony would shake his head and smile.  “The best I can do is a few phrases and you have trouble even with those I tried to teach you.”  He had a point.

But then he came into the barracks one evening and said, “Bill, their starting a Portuguese Language class over at the training center.  Get down there tonight if you want to join.  So I gathered a couple of pencils, a note pad, and an ink pen then literally ran to the training center.  I had to ask around for the location of the class but finally I found it and walked through the door.  The teacher was a young woman and she already had a dozen students.  I could see why as a few gave me dirty looks.

“Are you registered?  What is your name?”  The pretty woman with the nice voice was talking to me.

“No, I just got word that a Portuguese Language class had started.  Am I too late?  I thought this was the first meeting.”

“Actually, it’s the second meeting but that’s alright.  You can fill out the forms after class.  Sit there by Corporal Reagan.  He’ll be glad to share his book with you tonight.  The Corporal shot me a quick glance and then decided he could score a couple of points with our instructor.  “By the way, my name is Maria Gilberto.  As the rest of you others know I’ll try to conduct this class exclusively in Portuguese.  So let’s begin.”

Tony’s help hadn’t been in vain as I was recalling some of the phrases he tried to teach me.  The night went quickly and the class was over.  Perhaps a bit too soon for me but I was having a bit of fun.  Maria brought over some paperwork for me to fill out and said I would need to come to the office tomorrow and pay for the class.  Hey, you didn’t need to tell me twice.  I caught up with Corporal reagan later and told him she was very glad to see him help me.  Well, so it’s a white lie.  The man is in my regiment and I don’t need a corporal for an enemy.  When I got  back to the barracks me and Tony had a talk.

“I am so glad you told me about this class.  You know what, all those phrases you were teaching me started to come back.  Imagine that?”  Hey, I was one happy man.  If I learned enough Portuguese Tony just might take me to Bahia a couple of years from now.  Wow, think of it.  I just might see Brazil after all.  Tony was a little quiet and then his face lit up with a big grin.

“I stood outside the door and watched you guys.  You were to only one who didn’t try to impress Maria.  Tell you what, tomorrow night you and I will practice your conversation lesson.  Good enough?”  Good enough, are you kidding?

“Thanks Tony, I won’t make you sorry for helping me.”

Long about the twelfth class Maria was playing songs in Portuguese and we were trying to sing along.  She called learning the rhythms of the language.  Unfortunately what I made up for in rhythm I lacked in tone.  I told you puberty played me a dirty trick.  The one night even Maria was getting an earful and called me Desafinado, tone deaf.  Unfortunately that name stuck and it was all over the regiment.  Every sargeant and every officer called me Desafinado. Big Joke!  Even tony called me that name.  Well, him I didn’t mind and it was like an friendly nickname.

Six months passed and we were in the middle of the second semester of conversational Portuguese when we got the word.  Tet.  It was on our minds and we figured that our brigade and may our regiment might be deployed to Saigon or Hue.  We were wrong, we were going north and then towards Laos.  A brigade had lost a significant number of their platoon members and we would replace them for the duration.  More than likely that meant the next twelve months.  It took us two months to break the back of the NVA regiments in our area but more were on their way.

We got a brief respite, a week in Saigon but the MPs were so think we had no fun and almost everything was off limits.  At least no one was shooting at us.  We had a better chance of catching a grenade from a civilian.  So back up north after our rest.  We were now in reserve as we waited for replacements from the states.  I think we were only at eighty percent when we were ordered out again.  The newbies were still green and if we wanted to save our own skins we had to do a hurry up job of trying to get them half way up to speed.  Some general must have been in a hurry to make that next star.

My platoon under Lt Johnson was on patrol that day.  We shoved off at 5 am and walked through the morning steam.  Let me tell you, it ain’t no mist, it’s steam.  Johnson was a good man, fair and honest.  He knew his stuff and he knew us.  you can’t ask more of a platoon leader than that.  Corporal Thorn and PFC garcia were our pointmen.  Thorn used to hunt antelope and mountain goat in Montana.  He was a damn good tracker.  Garcia was another natural.  He use to run with gangs in LA.  He joined the Army to get away from it and have a chance of living to a ripe old age.  We never ran into an ambush when they were on point.  So we went out and tried to run the NVA to ground, but they didn’t have much fight in them when it came to a fair fight.

But then they promoted Lt Johnson and we got a green second louie, name of Craigmire.  He was going to make his mark his way, come hell or high water.  Take our advice?  What did we know, we were just enlisted grunts to order around.  We went out a week later, same routine.  But this time our green leader, Lt Quagmire assigned point to Tony and a replacement corporal.  Hell, I don’t think most of us knew his name.  Five miles out of camp we got hit.  It wasn’t Tony’s fault, the corporal insisted on playing John Wayne, walked us right into a trap.  The corporal was dead and Tony wounded.  We lost thirty men, either dead or dying.  Another platoon was sent out as rescue and we dragged our asses back to camp.  Tony was hit bad and airlifted out.  He hung on for a couple of days.

I wrote home to his folks.  Said I was proud to be his friend.  Said he was a regular guy.  Said he help to save us from annihilation.  So maybe it a little white lie.  So maybe his folks have some memory to hold on to.  Truth was, Tony was a natural hero.  Three months later I got hit, bad enough to be airlifted to Saigon.  A month later I was in an Army hospital recuperating.  Another six months and I was mustered out, medical disability.  I now walked with a slight limp.  Well, that’s the breaks in life.  Tony had left a letter for me.  He had a request and asked that I fulfill it.  He wanted me to meet his parents.  He didn’t say why, he didn’t have to.

So I collected my back pay and bought a ticket to Miami.  His parents met me at the airport.  “So your the one Tony called Desafinado, he spoke so warmly of you.  Almost like a brother.  Come, stay with us for a while.”  His mother had a warm smile and eyes full of tears.  For the next month I stayed and we talked of Tony, laughed at the funny stories I related for him.  But I never went to Bahia.

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