Wedding Bell Blues

A friend of mine has been so close to marriage with the same woman I fear it may never happen and yet it seems probable. I can’t say why or how or when, but my gut feeling is that they will one day tie the knot if only in old age and about to die and be buried. Did you ever have a pair of friends like that?  Now I knew Bill from my time in the service, we had survive Vietnam together and he was an engaging fellow.  You know, the type, quick wit, mannered and polite, not your ordinary six pack beer drinking good old boy.  Not that I have anything against good old boys.  Corporal Treadaway was certainly one of Georgia’s finest examples and a hell of a good friend in a fire fight, lord has mercy.  But Bill was a bit different from the norm.  He never made rank beyond private first class, not for lack of leadership ability but it spite of it, if you know what I mean.  He was never deemed worthy in military terms and yet the squad, perhaps the entire company would have followed him into the jaws of hell itself.  Well, just saying.

 

Marilyn was bill’s girlfriend, his fiancee, if you like.  Not that there was ever a formal pledge of troth between them, just an understanding, much like a gentleman’s agreement, to use an old outdated term.  If anything, Bill was a man of honor, it set a standard among the platoon.  but all good things must come to an end, if one can call time spent in the years of compulsory service to one’s country.  And the assumption was that when Bill went home it would be the start of a new life with wife and children and some suitable job that paid the bills (no pun intended).  My own life plans when I returned, home form the hill, was a stint in college and then that promised middle class life on saw in Look and Life magazines.  But he who travels on the GI Bill travels best alone.  I put aside all thought of hearth and family and kin gathered round the yule tide table with figgy pudding and roast goose.  I thought that bill would make that transition to local job and family but I was surprised to hear that such was not the case.  The marriage was to be put off momentarily.  Bill, had of all things, become a rough neck in the oil patch and that meant long periods away from home.  Well, I can understand, what right does a man have to tie a woman down to the life of a nomad.  He said that he needed a nest egg for their happiness, or at least his.  Men like some sense of independence and being tied to a skirt was demeaning.

 

I had graduated with a degree in English and Literature, the thinking was that I would become the next great American novelist.  Such lofty goals and apparently so little talent, what can I say, I over estimated my abilities.  So I took a job as a technical writer for an Oil company, of all things.  Good thing I have a good sense of mechanical application, something I credit to my father and brothers.  Bill was working steadily in Texas, Oklahoma, and several other states.  He wrote and said he was saving quite a bit of money and he might be ready to go into business for himself.  What kind of business, I asked?  Oil field supply replied he.  Two years later he was broke and Marilyn was assuming the role of old maid.  I told him, “Damn it, marry the woman, come hell or high water.  She deserves better than to be kept waiting.”  “no”, was his answer, “I want it all to be right.”  Well, it seemed that Smokey and the Bandit was sweeping the country and Bill became a truck driver.  He was home so little that one wondered if he was still alive.  Yet he had a plan.  He would become an owner operator and then turn independent trucker, maybe start his one specialized transportation company.  There was money to be made hauling windmill blades cross country.  Well, next thing you know is that he now has five trucks and four drivers working for him and he is back to making some money.

 

Then came the raging inflation and the very high fuel prices and that put him right out of business again.  I was beginning to think his run of bad luck might be perpetual.  Mean while Marilyn was remaining true to him.  Not like she didn’t have the sharks circling round her hose every night.  Let me tell you, Marilyn was one of those women one dreams of having as a wife.  she is self sacrificing, loyal, loving, devoted, well I could go on with her virtues.  Lets just say that she was a good hearted woman in love with a good timing man.  Oh, not that Bill was on the make or involved with other women.  His virtue was that he was just as loyal to Marilyn as she to him.  Now it was a year after his last bankruptcy and Bill was down on his luck, so to speak.  Hell, let’s not mince words, he hadn’t a penny to his name and Marilyn provide him with a new stake.  At times I could have wept for them.  But I could have wept for myself as well.  the oil company didn’t need my services any longer and I was cast adrift.  Well, from technical writing I went into the machine shop business.  I had some savings, a partner, and a bank loan.  We made good on the investment and the work load keeps us busy.  I was now officially middle class with the income to show for it.  A least I put away a goodly portion for my old age.  I guess the third times a charm for Bill had finally stumbles upon something that was needed, was profitable, and would give him security for the next twenty or forty years,  Without benefit of university classes, Bill had become a fiction writer.  He found that secret to story telling that is so elusive to those of us who would write.

 

I talked with him at length one night and he told me that once he understood how to tell a story the rest was a breeze.  He said the stories just flowed, as if by magic.  One day you didn’t have a clue as to write a story and the next stories came pouring out.  So now it is almost twenty years later and he is a well know author making a decent living.  Seems he is reaching that middle class status we all longed for but had difficulty reaching.  I received a letter in the mail last week from Bill, he wanted to know if I would do the honors of being best man.  Seems he was determined to make an “honest” woman of Marilyn.  He was going to put an end, as he put it, to her “wedding bells blues.”

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Moma Told Me Not To Come

For those of us who weren’t fortunate sons, as Dan Foggerty sang, we have our various war stories. Now some are the stories about the horrors of war and others confined to the horrors of simply being in the service and at it’s mercy.  It’s all part of having been in, usually against one’s will.  How many of us have suffered at the hands of the friendly sergeants and the all too charming lieutenants.  In the three or four years that you serve you run into your share of characters.  Now for the average fellow, life is bearable.  I mean, you have your moments of degradation but you kiss and make up and life goes on until your enlistment runs out.  Then the lieutenants and sergeants try kissing your hand and foot to make you re-enlist, for the bennies, of course.  It’s always for the bennies.  Why if they had no benifits no one, even the generals would re-enlist.  You’ve got to admire that logic.  But most of us are captive civilians, if you know what I mean.  The introduction never really takes hold, we are never quite convinced that Uncle Sam’s way is the best.

 

So we fight our battles where we can.  Mostly it’s a guerilla warfare thing, hit and run, hide in the day and strike at night routine.  For those of us who have a little more intelligence that the average friend sergeant and charming lieutenant, sanity is a highly prised state of mind.  Thinking for oneself it the ultimate revenge on all the idiocy the institution of a formalized army or navy or air force can impose.  The irony is that adaptation to changing circumstances is highly prised by the  services and yet is rarely done.  But we, the dedicated trouble makers know how to adapt.  In a sense, we write the rules for those lifers to follow.  I mean, it’s really a matter of not just beating the system but using it against itself without it knowing that is exactly what is happening.  As an example, a friend of mine from a previous assignment had three months left before his enlistment ended.  He had no intentions of re-enlisting, he was going back to university to finish his degree and get a real job.  But in 1970 the Air Force decreed that all E-4s had to take the 5-level test.  that is the qualifying test one takes in one’s speciality if one wants to advance to E-5 or sergeant, non commissioned officer.  Williams didn’t want to take the test.  He had to work graveyard, since he was on an E-4 and rank has it privilege, and that meant staying up during the day to take a needless test.  Funny thing about all these smart officers, college grads to the man, is that they rarely understand what they are doing.  So the test is multiple choice.  But there are added features.  Some officer thought there should be a column “F” so that it would be marked if a question was to be eliminated from the test.  Hey, that’s a license to steal.  Mark the ones you know to be correct and then mark everything else void.  Well, surely the computer scoring these test would know which test questions were suppose to be eliminated and show that a “fraud” had been committed.  Nope, not on your tintype.  He “aced” the test with three questions marked correct.  Well the colonel was impressed and gave him a three day pass.  When he got back, having less than a month to serve, he told them how he got that perfect score.  The shit hit the fan, as it always does, and the worst they could do was not to recommend him for re-enlistment.  Do you detect a bit or irony?

 

As for myself, I pulled two great feats when I was overseas.  The first started out innocent enough.  The Squadron had crammed four men into two man rooms.  Compared to the other services, that might have been considered a luxury.  Basic training had been the standard open bay barracks and training school had been eight man to a room.  Three men to our room was tolerable and the last one in, or two, in this case had their lockers out in the hallway.  Quite inconvenient not to mention the lack of privacy we thought our due.  So as we lost one roommate I decided to replace the door tag with a new name.  I gave the man a serial number (the first four numbers determine where a man enlisted), gave him a rank, and gave him a duty station.  I really didn’t expect to fool anyone, just a little prank.  As luck would have it, I lost the other two roommates about two months later.  Hey, we hadn’t been burdened with a replacement for the fourth man, why not try it again for two more fake airmen?  So I make up two more door tags and placed them in the slots.  Well, a month went by and no new roommate.  I was enjoying my streak of luck and it was nice to have a room all to myself.  Since my shift was graveyard I had a sign to that effect on the door to forestall any inspection, not that one of the friendly sergeants wouldn’t have come in anyway, but at least if they did they came in quietly.  Now the other thing I did was to get extra sheets and blankets and kept the beds made.  Lhe lockers all had locks on them.  And nothing like a few personal affects like pictures of girlfriends.  I mean, if you want the prank to work you need to take care of the details.  You know, I got away with that charade for a little more than four months.  Then one day the first sergeant caught up with outside my door.  The poor man had been lying in wait.  He came up to the door and asked about one name.  Who is this guy and what do you know about him?  I said I work graveyard and never saw him.  Then he asked about the other two.  Well, I said, I really don’t pal around with them at all.  He then asked me a direct question.  These airmen, they don’t exist, do they?  Ah sarge, you got me.  You’ll have two new roommates this afternoon was all he said and left.  I found out that there had been quite a few queries back to the various departments searching for these people.  the name were in the file and so were the serial numbers, but nothing matched.  At least he earned his pay for a few months.

 

I worked in communications as what we termed “Titless WAF”, that’s a teletype operator.  It also encompasses telephone operator as well.  Both of these specialities, such as one could expect, were hardly cutting edge technology.  But back in 1967 and 68 digital transmission was just starting it’s infancy.  We had a couple pieces of IBM equipment, things today’s techie has never seen or touched, but were new and exciting.  I learned how to program a 407 accounting machine using the wire straps.  I worked on the graveyard shift and message traffic was a bit slow.  So I read the manual and played with the machine.  The 026 keypunch was another piece of equipment and I learned how I could automate card cutting (punching out the holes in the IBM card),  and we had the 089 sorter.  But the piece of equipment that fascinated me was the 3654 Duplex/Simplex Transmission unit.  That was the machine that one either sent digital transmissions by using IBM cards or received digital transmission by it cutting IBM cards.  After about six months I had my own little duty station all to myself.  The fact was, the sergeant who taught me rotated back to the states and I was the only one who knew how to operate the machines.  Every once in a while I got dragged in during the day or evening to take care of something important, but this was my “command”, as it were.  Here, I was king, I was “sarge” to everyone else.  That went on for some eight months.  Then one day I was called in and told I had stateside orders.  I had to hurry up and get all the red tape paperwork done and don’t bother to come back to the comm center.  I had only three days to get out of Dodge.  You can guess what happened?  There was no one to replace me and I hadn’t trained anyone.  It never occurred the the master sergeant to see that another airman knew how to operate those machines.  Well, what do you want, he had been a tail gunner in a B-28 bomber in Korea.  SNAFU, if I remember correctly.

Another Crazy Day

Dream the night away and forget about everything, Yes, forget about everything.  Did you ever what to change your life, leave the rat race and go somewhere, anywhere.  Find some town where your soul meant something.  For me it was Mendicino, the town, the county, the ideal of living free.  I wanted out of he rat race, out of that crowded suburbia so many people call living.  I had a dream about buying some land, somewhere I could settle down in that simple way.  Chop wood, haul water, if I remember the book.  Sometimes I still dream about it, sometimes I listen in the night and create that sense of change I always wanted and never quite managed.  You know what I mean?  Sure you do.  We all had that dream, those of us who mattered in the late sixties.  But dreams take money and I had none.  What else is new?  The young never have the money for their dreams.  So we settle for what we can get.

 

I settled for working for the phone company as a lineman and cable splicer.  Craft work, union work, physical work.  I hired on at just above minimum wage, I could reach the exalted top wage of seven dollars in five years.  Think of it, seven dollars an hour.  My god, I remember when three dollars an hour was a decent wage.  But that was before I paid my dues to Uncle Sam, back when three dollars was a good wage and got you a decent apartment and a nice girlfriend and a good car, better than the 55 Buick Century I had at the time.  Hey, the thing was fast enough, could do Columbus to Cincinnati in an hour and ten minutes, about a hundred miles an hour.  Two years later I acquired a wife and nine months later we had a daughter.  We struggled financially before I got the job with the phone company.  Some part time work, then a real nasty minimum wage job.  difficult to make ends meet when you’re young and have so many wants.  We bought a house, really more than I could afford and the bills were starting to pile up.  Trying to be middle class is like a solid gold trap.  Your foot gets caught and you become afraid to chew it off to free yourself.  I picked up what overtime was given me, that helped out financially but she complained when I worked a few hours late or a Saturday.  Said I didn’t love her enough.  After four years of marriage we called it quits.  Broke even on the sale of the house and moved her into an apartment in another city.

 

So that solid gold trap got a little tarnish and bent up but the teeth bit into my ankle harder.  Child support, Montessori summer school for my daughter to help out on child care, some clothes shopping here and there.  Playing weekend father, man, that was the worst.  It gets to you after awhile.  Then she finds another man and he’s playing real daddy.  Bastard!  Later I find out he was a real bastard, would sometime become physically abusive.  Bastard!  No, man, got to keep my head down, got to work what overtime I can get.  She got the car, so I walk to work, just a couple of blocks from my apartment, a dive, bad neighborhood.  It’s a lonely time,  a very lonely time.  Take the bus to community college at night, got to advance in the company, need to make foreman if a position ever opens up.  At least it occupies my time, gets me out of the apartment.  A couple more raises where the Union COLA kicks in, inflation just eats that up.  You know, you’re making more and consuming less.  I feel like I’m running as fast as I can but I don’t get anywhere.  The VA college payments help, keeps me even for now.

 

Mother Earth News is like an escapist Disneyland.  Yeah, go back to living off the land but I still need a day job and I work in the city.  Besides, it takes money to buy raw land.  Oh, I know all about this new way of living.  got to pay cash for the land because the bank won’t lend money against raw land.  and if you want to build that log cabin you need some timberland with trees, big trees.  You know how many trees it takes to build a simple 500 square foot cabin?  so I put in for a transfer to the country areas.  ain’t no openings and the company has frozen everyone in place for the next two to five years.  So I’m still stuck in my trap, the rent keeps getting higher every year, and the ex has moved to Utah.  Lucky if I can see my daughter a couple times a year, fly her out at my expense.  Just as long as it’s not on holidays.  Big deal that, family comes first.  I’m just a single dad pretending he has a child and paying for the pretense.

 

My dream won’t go away.  I took a couple of trips to where I want to be, but every time I’m there and see the happy people living my dream I feel that knife plunge deeper in my heart.  I’ve got a little money saved, maybe a couple thousand but land prices keep rising.  My dream keeps slipping into the future.  Gone through a couple of girl friends but that’s about all.  None seem to stick and only one ever thought much about my dream.  They all talked about careers and family and I talk about dreams.  Yeah, I’m a rolling stone in a sea of romance.  Every year I get a little older and every year Mendicino gets a little further, must be close to a million miles by now.  These old dreams never die a natural death.  And Mother Earth News changed, I stopped reading it years ago as it became quite the commercial success, becoming the very thing it was against.  We’ve all changed, even the land has gotten yuppified.  Think of it, wineries, bed and breakfast places, commercial retreats for the novice artists and writers.  And me?  I’ve been priced out of my dream.  Oh, it’s still there, like all our old dreams, it lingers alike a long and slow death, haunting our memories.  At least I’m out of the city, sort of.  Found a small community that is rural like enough for my childhood memories and distant enough from city life.  Even got me a wife that likes much of what I like.  Anyway, this reality is nice, I like it.  We’re happy enough.  I might even settle down and forget about everything.

Long Time Gone

It”s been a long time coming and it’s going to be a long time gone. Youth never knows where it’s headed until some outside action points to the direction one is suppose to take, required to take. At least that is what my invitation to join Uncle Sam’s merry band of pranksters said. It had taken the selective Service board to find, me, catch up to my lack or wherewithal.  I looked at Jeanne, those tears were over the loss of puppy more than the loss of a love affair.  I was being rescued and I knew that things would never be the same.  If not the draft, then the problem of a pregnancy and years of low wage unskilled labor would be our reward.  No, Uncle sam was doing us both a favor and we both knew it.  You know haw that goes, you gotta put on the show that somehow you cared because it is required and makes both your lives seem noble.  It’s the mid sixties, for god’s sake, we’re supposed to have these noble dreams.  Still, three years is a long time gone, a long time for a young man and a young woman.

 

So there I stood, suitcase at my feet, packed with what few portable luxuries I could afford to bring.  She was worried that I would be sent to Viet Man to die in some rice paddy.  I told her it would take six months before they would even consider sending me.  Well, at least I meant that much to her.  But I knew it wasn’t me, I wasn’t the one she saw herself settled down to for thirty or forty years of marriage.  I couldn’t conceive of twenty years of marriage, let alone ten.  Hell, I couldn’t conceive of marriage right now in the next six months.  No, I knew this breakup was a long time coming, it had no where else to go.  I mean, what was the point?  No, we both deserved better.  she with her mother’s influence, call it the reality of being dominated, manipulated.  I instinctively knew the pattern, my mother tried her best to manipulate me.  I was a hard sell, a tough customer to close.  So here I was at the Greyhound station waiting for the bus that would take me to the airport, would take me out of my adolescent years and put me on the road to manhood.  Yeah, I had some idea what was in store.  Shaved heads, marching all day, sergeants yelling at you all the time.  Yeah, that premonition of something worse than football summer camp and three or four practices a day.  Marriage wasn’t as easy to figure and I didn’t want to try.

 

The bus pulled in, the driver took my suitcase and placed it in the belly.  I gave her a quick kiss, nothing longer, nothing prolonged like the movies show you’re suppose to do.  I knew it would be a long time before I came back.  I didn’t want to come back.  I was breaking my ties for something unknown and I knew it.  I just didn’t know what.  Yes, I’ll write.  Everybody writes, it’s a fact of loneliness.  But what would I write?  Did I miss you?  You were handy, comfortable to have around.  Yeah, you can spend all your love making time and wasn’t that what we had done for the past year?  So she waves, sheds a tear or two, draws back from the platform, waiting for the final curtain.  The other passengers are now aboard and the driver has closed the door.  As we pull out, I see her turn around and head for her mother’s car, the canary yellow Buick coupe.  She always called it the Yellow Bird, as if it had some soul of it’s own.  I think it was a projection of her own wish, to be her own person.  Momma wouldn’t permit that.  Momma had control over the family fortune and that meant no matter what Jeanne wanted momma would decide what was best.  Yeah, I bet she could kick some friendly sargeant ass any day of the week.

 

An hour later the bus pulled into the airport unloading zone.  Inside I met the recruiting sergeant with his sharp pressed uniform.  He handed me a vanilla envelope with the paperwork for the six of us traveling on to the next city.  My name is low on the alphabet so I am appointed in charge of the other five.  So make me an officier.  It wouldn’t be the first time that the alphabet gave me a “command”, for what it’s worth.  Half an hour later we are on board the aircraft headed for basic training.  No brass band, just a welcome from the stewardess.  Yes, that is what they were called back then.  Bought myself a whiskey sour for the ride, it’d be a long time before I would ever have another.  Another two hours and we would land near the basic training base.  Another bus ride, late night assembly and official swearing in, barricks assignment.  In the morning we would find our assignments and be marched by one of the friendly sergeants to that company headquarters where a disinterested captain or lieutenant would tell us what a great adventure awaited us in his company and by the way, don’t fuck up.  Yes, we are ushered into the world of hurry up and wait.  Later I find it’s just like marriage, but that’s another story.  Right now we have to go through the various buildings to get our shots, our clothes, and some chow between the buildings.  then it’s to the barracks where we will spend twelve weeks learning how to spit shine boots and march in formation.  Time enough to learn how to fire a rifle, qualify as markman, and learn how to break it down and clean it.  Yeah, lots of busy work and maybe a sunday to write someone.

 

Mail call and you stand in formation at ease, smoke em if you got em.  God, I quit that habit just to take it back up again, what a waste.  She got the address from my mother, helpful woman.  Some get mail, most don’t.  In another week more mail will show up.  We got all kinds in our company, even one we have to give a shower party, a special invite, so to speak.  Yeah, this is democracy and we are all the same, except for the friendly sergeants who are god, just ask them.  A few more letters and a fem more exchanges of lies.  We graduate from boot camp, as if we had a choice in the matter.  Now it is off to whatever school, from AIT to electronics to Mp or cook school.  One has to be real low IQ to be assigned as a cook or MP.  the cooks are always the little guys while the MPs are always the big guys, go figure.  Then six months later and it’s off to Hell, her fears came true.  I don’t mind, I know she is ready to find Mr Right, or at least the approved individual her mother selects.  so I head for southeast asia and she heads for the approved man in her life.  Life has a way of being perverse in an almost unintelligible way.  He would be no where near Mr Right.  He would beat her, beat the children, go on alcoholic binges, and then when he saw the light, would be dead from a heart attack six months later.  I never got so much as a scratch in my year of hell.  Go figure.