Monday, December 23, 2013
Blue Room Christmas
Blue Room Christmas
Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the horror of the shade.
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
"I'll have a blue Christmas without you..."
As sung by Ernest Tubb
We had this big old oak tree across the road from the VA where we lived when we got kicked out for breaking the rules. The Blue Room we called it. Its limbs spread out like a great umbrella and even in a good rain it stayed pretty dry. Cool in the summer but colder than a well diggers ass in the Klondike in the winter. But we didn't care, we were just a bunch of wine guzzling old GIs living out our wasted lives.
When we finished the suspension, usually a week, no more than a month, they'd take us back in, clean us up, feed, dry us out and start all over again. It got to be a way of life with most of us.
No, I say old, and some of us were on in years, but old just means you had served at least two years in some branch of the service. Me? I was thirty five when I first saw the Blue Room. Drafted in 1968 I served two years, most of it in the Nam. Big Red 1. Infantry. Dog face gravel agitator. I Corps. I never thought much about the killing I did - when I did it - but the older I got the more it seemed to bother me. At least that's the excuse I use for turning into a falling down, pissy assed drunk.
Ten years of hard drinking left me without family, friends or any kind of life. To tell the truth I learned to drink 3.2 beer in the Army, liked it, then moved on to the hard stuff. The war didn't fracture me in any way. I don't believe in all this post traumatic syndrome bullshit.
Well, I didn't have any place left to go. I'd heard the VA would at least feed me, give me a place to sleep. I woke up one cold November morning on the sidewalk in front of an old house that had been converted to a VA office. A sign on the front porch said "Veterans...start here." I wobbled in to get out of the cold and to get what I could. Help wasn't on my mind.
Most people I've known don't know drunks. You can't help them by being sympathetic or loving or caring; a drunk will take advantage of you - all he cares about is booze and all his energy is used to get it. His thirst for alcohol is the core of his being. And he does not appreciate your sympathy but will allow it to help him get what wants, booze. At least, this has been my experience; I'm not saying all drunks are like this, I'm saying just me. I don't put labels on nobody and I don't tell nobody how to live. But, dogooder, you turn your back on me and I'll steal you blind so I can get blind stinking drunk. And by the way there's a hell of a lot of difference between an alcoholic and a drunk. An alcoholic tries a drunk don't give a shit.
Anyway, I went into that VA office and they took care of all the paperwork to get me to the VA Center in Biloxi. By 1500 hours I was on a bus full of drunks heading South. We had a pretty good time passing around the bottle we are magicians at hiding.
It reminded me of that bus ride from the induction center at Charlotte to boot camp at Fort Jackson. Instead of being afraid, though, this time we didn't give a shit. the bus driver tried to talk religion to us but we just laughed him down.
"Git these drunken bastards off my bus," he said to the VA guy when we arrived at the center. We piled out, a drunken gaggle, he slammed his doors, whipped that old machine around, and blue smoked it out of there. A sign on its rear read "Jesus Saves."
Another mistake when dealing with drunks.
I ain't saying Jesus don't save, what I am saying is people who push Jesus on drunks are pissing in the wind. This drunk, me, I mean Jesus is just another weakness I can exploit to quince my thirst. Again, and let me make this "crystal clear," I ain't speaking for nobody but me.
At the VA the first thing they tried to do was clean us up. No way. Again, pissing in the wind. Some big dude in white kept yelling about how bad we stunk. To him maybe but a drunk don't give a damn about smell: bugs, lice, itch, puke, smeared shit - don't mean no more to us than a cow pissing on a flat rock. This rigmarole goes on until they finally get us in some kind of shape they can live with. Then more paperwork: rules, regulations, do's don'ts, to us it meant nothing. We'll say anything you want to hear if it'll get us a drink. Simple as that.
After a while, after they've got us herded into this big hard tiled open bay, an old soldier dressed in the Class A's, clatters out from behind tall curtains, his low quarters clicking as he marches across the slick deck. He wears ODs, olive drab, and a short Ike jacket, its sleeves laddered with hash marks; stacked above his left breast pocket are rows of multifarious ribbons, topped off with the only badge I recognize: the CIB, combat infantrymans badge. I guessed him WWII or Korea. His shoes are brown so he's from the "brown shoe corps." before my time. The hair under his garrison, or cunt cap, is snow white, and a same color pencil mustache wiggles neat under his thin, slanting downward needle nose. I think he is a major, or was, but I could never tell the difference between a gold and silver acorn, A major or a light colonel. Both assholes as I remember. All it meant to me anyway is salute.
Well, this dandy little major or whatever "addressed" us and it went something like this:
"Gentlemen, welcome to the Biloxi Veterans Center. We are glad to have you. I am Major John J. Parrish, United States Army - retired. (Pause). Can you believe that just a few short years ago I was one of you? Again he paused and it got quieter than church as we eyeballed one another. Bullshit!
"Yes, gentlemen, I was. I came here a hopeless case. I wasted life swimming in my on sea of self imposed helplessness. The VA cleansed me, gave me back my self respect. Saved me. Made me feel like a soldier again."
Uh oh. He said some nasty words. Especially about being a soldier...again? This caused some feet shuffling and eyes rolled toward windows and doors.
"But first, you must want to help yourselves." Clasping his hands behind his back at parade rest, he circled us as if we were Tank Hill recruits.
"I implore you...put forth the effort!" He poked a hole in the air.
Then "It will behoove you."
Then sickeningly "Follow the rules."
Then unbelievingly sickening "Apply yourselves."
Then just flat unbelievingly nauseating "Always remember as ex-military men you are representatives of your country...the United States of America!"
The whatever major blah, blah, blah, blorted and gaffed for half an hour. Then just at the moment mutiny was imminent he strutted back to center stage, clicked his heels, saluted sharply and said "Carry on, gentlemen."
That little fellow really impressed us and for about a minute eyes looked down and sideways.
He was a drunk? An alcoholic, maybe. Not a drunk. Like I said there's a big difference. A drunk don't give a shit; he don't try to impress you or make out to be anything but what he is, a drunk. Unless he's hurting for a drink, then he'll pretend to be anything you want him to be. An alcoholic pretends he ain't, says he can quit anytime he feels like it; he's always pretending he's done this and that and he's going to do this or that. A drunk don't give a damn what you think of him, he don't want to quit; an alcoholic is unhappy; a drunk is happy...as long as he's got something to drink. So. The old soldier was just pissing in the wind. Talking to hear his head roar.
The next couple of days they drowned us with paperwork. You had to tell them by filling out the proper forms what was wrong with you and why you needed help from the VA. Was your "problem" service connected? Were you a combat soldier? Hell, all they had to do was smell us and they'd know what the problem is. But you can't put down you come to the VA because you were a drunk. What they really wanted you to prove was you're a drunk because of what you experienced during your tour of active duty. None of it made sense. But most of us were there because we wanted a meal ticket, a free ride. And that's what the VA was: one big free ride with Uncle Sam and his taxpayers doing the paying.
Nobody stopped drinking. And nobody tried to stop you from drinking. The grounds, hallways, latrines were cluttered with ripple red, sneaky pete, four roses, sterno canned heat. The party went on.
The place was clean (according to our standards), the chow good, and the beds soft.
Then about the third day the shrinking started. My shrink, a goofy little weasel looking dude in thick glasses, had a voice like a little kid's. He squealed.
"Now, Robert, what do you think caused you to start drinking?"
"Hmmm. Why do you drink?"
"I like it."
"Hmmm." Every question he asked he'd studiously record something in his little spiral notebook.
"Why are you at the VA?"
"I need help."
"Hmmm. What kind of help?"
"I don't know. I'm a veteran and people said I needed help and the VA could help me."
"Hmmm. What kind of help do you think you need, Robert?" I didn't like the way he said Robert. And I had to think about that one.
"Well, doc," I said, "it sure is nice to have three squares and a roof over my head."
"Do you think the VA help will stop your drinking?"
"I hope not. I didn't come here to stop drinking." Now he started squirming and double
"Hmmm. So you think the VA should help you but you don't know how?"
"Yeah, doc, that's it. I'm a vet and it's owed to me."
"Hmmm," he said, "I see" and smacked my application with a big rubber stamp that said
See what I mean? He knew I was a drunk and booze the problem. But he wanted my service experience to be the cause of my drinking; I wanted the easy life at the VA - he wanted me to be a "battle scarred veteran" who drank to drown his memories.
Battle scarred? Now, combat experienced, yeah, I ain't had one bad dream about what I did. I did exactly what my unit, the Big Red One, wanted me to do - kill dinks. Any and all of them. And that's what I did for nearly 2 years - kill them before they killed me. Now, don't get me wrong I ain't no baby killer and I don't like killing at all - but I did what I had to do. And I do feel bad about what happened - sometimes. Like that time up in the highlands.
At the time we had run out of 2nd looies and "they" had to make platoon leaders out of guys like me, corporals. It coast a hell of a lot more for lieutenants than corporals since we didn't go to college or OCS or West Point and were what they call OJT, on the job trained. Anyway, Sergeant Major Blackwell made me platoon leader, 2nd platoon Charley company, a small arms outfit. Mostly 16s, a couple of 79s and a BAR. I didn't want the job but only God argues with a sergeant major.
Our mission was to got to a village around Da Nang somewhere, can't remember the name of it because, like dink names, they all sound the same. Take the village, destroy all VC, VC sympathizers, and ARVNs.
Which made no sense to me: how could a shitty little old village of filthy huts and shity little kids and worm out old folks be a threat to world peace? No matter. I did my time, my goal to get out of that miserable place.
Double file, we tramped into the village. No resistance. We didn't expect any from kids and old folks. But if I was to get out of this mess alive I'd have to be careful. I sent 1st squad out as security, 2nd and 3rd searching the stinking dead fish smelling huts and 4th interrogating any suspected Charley sympathizers . We'd been there many times and found nothing, we expected the same.
Something went wrong. The whole stinking place lit up like a Christmas tree; we took fire from every angle. I had no choice; we returned fire and a lot of civilians got killed, men, women, and kids. I lost Lacy and Small, killed by kids with grenades, kids they bounced on their knees and fed chocolate just minutes before.
Yeah, I opened up and I still think I done the right thing. Dreams? Naw. Just a thought now and then. But I'm sure sorry it happened. What happened happened.
So. The shrink just wanted to use these things to justify my drinking. Why? I guess he had a good paying job and wanted to keep it. Now let me make something else "crystal clear": the world, America, the Army, the VA - or anybody - owes me anything. I did my duty.
The VA? well, it's just a good place for a drunk like me to hang out, take advantage and keep drinking.
And that's what we did. Every night there was a party somewhere: in the stairwells, behind the library, in the basement, in the woods nearby. The staff brought us booze and we shared it with them. Everybody partied. What a hustle; free food, clean sheets (which didn't matter, we didn't know the difference), no work, easy booze and free cigarettes. And sex if you wanted it.
Old Gertie, the dietician, would bring her girls around after work (theirs); she loved GIs, especially me.
"Gertie," I declared, "Your nymphomania complements my satyriasis."
"Robert," she said, "you're too young to be wasting your life away in here. Why, you come home with me. I'll take care of you. You're one smart dude, ain't no telling what you could do sober."
"Do? Hell, Gertie, I don't want to do nothing. Ain't nothing I want to do."
She'd just laugh and say "See what I mean. See how clever you are with words? Do some Shakespeare for me, lover. I just love it when you do Shakespeare."
"Okay, Big Mama...I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree..." She'd crack up.
"I just love that old Shakespeare," she howled. "Do some more."
"Gaily bedight a gallant knight in sunshine and in shadow, had journeyed long singing a song in search of El Dorado."
"Oh, God, I love the way you do it. So serious, saying every world like you really knew what it meant. So Shakespearean. God, Robert, you should be a writer or something."
Or something. I am, Big Mama, I'm a drunk.
And that's the way it went at the VA. One big party. But like they say, all good things must come to an end.
As I recall I got there in 79 or 80, don't really know. Kinda hazy. But I think I'd been there about a year when everything went to shit city. One bright spring morning after a heavy week of solid boozing a bunch of strangers invaded the VA. All the old hands disappeared; gone the old major, gone the squealing shrink, gone good Old Gert. Gone even the number 1 VA god, the director (which meant nothing because we'd never seen her/him).
A whole new gang of white and mint green coated thugs took over the joint. With them came rules and regulations passed down by the new highly visible VA god who wandered the hallways, allies, corners, latrines, wards, day and night.
New rules: (1) no drinking (2) no partying except at VA sponsored functions (3) no fraternizing (no more Gert) (4) all rules will be observed OR VA "rights" will be suspended.
Well, rule number 1 would and could not be followed. A drunk drinks. Within a month pick slips flew. Lines got longer at the Admin Building and up the neat, shrub lined sidewalk to and out the Main Gate. I lasted about three months or it took them that long to catch me.
"You were drinking in the dorm, Mister Phister?" said the new director who looked like a West Point full bull about to make his first star. I decided not to answer him.
"Did you or did you not drink wine in the dormitory." No answer.
"Do you want to appeal?" That used to be a way out: you could stay while they considered your case. Not now. New rule: member must submit appeal from outside the walls.
Since I didn't answer he snatched up his big stamp, rolled it on his pad, and smacked my paperwork so hard a fleck of black ink appeared on my VA issued white shirt.
"Damn," I said, looking at the speck then to him. He smiled and said into his desk com "Thirty days. Get him out of here." Two big, double dipping, retired Army sergeants snatched me up and in about ten minutes I found myself on a forced march up the sidewalk heading for the Blue Room.
The Blue Room. Across from the high columned main gate, the giant oak, some said, was over one hundred years old. The local rebs said it was used as an aid station for Confederate wounded: Jeff Davis used to visit his troops there. It's limbs draped out over the sidewalk like the feathers of a mothering hen. From outside in the Mississippi sun you couldn't see anything but darkness but from inside, under the limbs, you see all the way to the VA admin and almost all the way to Biloxi on the Bay.
Inside, under the branches, it looked like a hobo jungle: bunks, sleeping bags, blankets, card board, wine bottles, cigarette butts, with all kinds of human garbage hanging from the lower limbs: mostly half washed clothes stinking like mildew and shity drawers. The concrete hard dirt floor strewn with deep trash; discarded canned heat cans, plastic spoons, worn out brogans, c ration remains.
Sound bad? Not really. If you're a drunk you don't see it or smell it. It's just another flop house without room service; you've got to put out a little effort to survive; there ain't nobody around to provide those life essentials that most folks have spent their lives getting.
When I first stepped in the Blue Room I must admit I covered my nose. I'd been in the Big House a while and I guess my system lost the real smell of the drunk's world. Had to get re-used to that stinging, potent piss smell that cut your breath.
"Hey, Robert, come on in. Welcome to the Blue Room."
When my eyes finally cleared I saw Birl, the Bag of Bones, sitting crossed legged on a metal milk crate. "You got anything to drink, Robert?" he whined again through a many times busted nose squashed flat against his bony face.
"Hey, Bones, what's happening? How you been?"
"You got anything to drink, Robert?" he repeated past his only tooth which hug down and over his chin. That's what I like about a drunk, they come straight to the point.
"Naw, Bones, they took it away and kicked me out. I got three bucks though." I reached for the money and as my hand barely cleared my pocket Bones snatched it and went, out into the yellow sun light. Before I could find a place in the debris to sit he was back with three bottles of ripple red. He handed me a bottle, tucked one safely under a skinny, filthy arm, uncapped the third, took a long, eye watering swig, and passed it to me, half gone. I finished it. Then we sat down to sip our own bottles. Bones passed me a chunk of half rotten, molded cheese, the Blue Room drunk's favorite food. We sipped and nibbled, peering into the shadows like rats looking for cats.
"We gots some rules, here too," Bones said, "Just so we can get along."
"Can't be as bad as the Big House."
"Naw." But we both knew our mission: get readmitted. Why? Because if we didn't we'd die. And no matter how useless we were, we did not want to die sober. The VA was our savior; we could always get booze in there; we'd just have to be careful, wait for the command to change again.
"To die sober, to sleep, perchance to dream, aye there's the rub, Birl, my Bones Man"
"You crazy, man," he said then licked the snot running from his squashed nose.
"Always share your booze."
"No visitors. Drunks only."
" No preaching."
"No bawling and squalling."
"And there ain't no use to clean up nothing cause it will just get filthy again. You'll get used to the smell."
"And no corn holing." Bones paused, looked at me from behind his watery, colorless, almost useless gray eyes. "And no saluting. This is the last one you'll get." He snapped off a left handed salute, giggled, farted, belched and added "No apologies."
"Sounds good to me, Bones. Where do I bunk?"
In the next week the Blue Room filled up. According to Bones, who'd been in and out of VA for 20 years, it was a passing thing. Just like in the Army when there was a change of command: the new regime would be all spit and polish and by The Book. Then the newness would wear off, or the OIC would get promoted (the real reason for the change) and it would fall back to what it really was: a flop house for drunks. Bones had seen it many times.
"Just hang on, stay drunk, and it'll come around."
But it didn't.
By mid September bodies spilled onto the sidewalk. The town folks like our money but they didn't like our bodies spilling out into the street, especially on Sunday mornings. Soon the cops came around and forced everybody back under the branches of the Blue Room. The joint bulged. And the rules started breaking. Body count too high.
By Thanksgiving the weather forced more under the branches. At this rate our Christmas would be ruined.
Again according to Bones, Christmas was our best time. Something about it made folks be good to us. Once a year they came, the Baptists, the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the 7th Day Adventists, the Holly Rollers, searching for our lost souls - which we gladly surrendered. They knew what we wanted, booze, but they could't give it. So they gave us gift money which we used to buy gifts, booze. Truth is they didn't want to be bothered with us, they just needed to fulfill their annual christmas( capitalizing just didn't fit) duty.
"Christmas money will buy booze on up into spring," Bones said. "If we manage it right."
This Christmas there was fear. Fear of not being able to get booze. And that meant being sober. That meant facing the real world. The puking, the shaking, the withdrawing, the DTs, the hotter than hell sweating, the screaming nerves, the flashbacks, the memories. All the heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. We would be human again and we did not want that. We'd have to cope, to face the things regular folks do in staying alive. Everyday decisions would have to be made. We'd have to start again. No way! God, even go to work.
"But," Bones said, "It looks bad for us this year. Something is wrong."
And Bones was right.
The Blue Room bulged, more VA drunks came, a steady queue from across the street. Out of the VA they gaggled but none went in.
No Christmas christians showed up with the christmas money. The squeeze was on: no money, no booze. We'd have to vacate the Blue Room. Plain, the good city folks no longer felt it their christian duty to help us. And the red, white and blue VA didn't want us. Go? Where? How?
"Robert, you must save us," Bones said about a week before Christmas.
"Me? Why me? Do I look like the Savior?"
"You the only one who can think clear enough to figure anything out. We've elected you our leader."
"We, Bones? Who the hell is we?"
"The BRDA, the Blue Room Drunks Association. We've got to do something. As you can see we're already starting to act like civilians. Arguing among ourselves, fighting, non sharing. All because we ain't got no booze. The pipeline is drying up. Our only hope was the VA. But now that's gone. Like it or not we've got to do like the rest of the world - unite in our cause."
"Bones," I said, "you're doing a pretty good job of talking why don't you be the leader?"
"Robert, you've got charisma, my man. charisma."
The next day we showed up at the mayor's office. The deal: First I'd talk to His Honor. The reasoning; Since he wanted rid of us so badly maybe he could talk to the new VA honcho into taking us back in. I cleaned up some but the mayor's secretary fell back doing a double take with a screwed up nose.
"Lord have mercy," she said, turning her head away. Bones stood behind me in his piss stained khakis, must have been him. The blue haired secretary retreated through a big door behind her, yelling on her way for us to stay put. We did. For about 5 minutes voices, a man and a woman's bantered, punctuated with words like "lord have mercy," "outrageous," "God forbid," and "right here in the mayor's office?" Finally, "I'll handle this." Then whispering.
A tall, athletic looking man about 40 came through the door and stepped behind the secretary's desk using it as a barricade.
"Yes?" he said. I extended my hand but he just glanced at it and kept his arms behind him. "Something I can do for you?"
And there it was again. That look, that aurora, that electrical wave that told us he hated even the sight of us...drunks. I hated to say what I did because I hated him.
"We need help," I said. I trembled as the sweats started oozing under my grubby shirt. Soon, I guessed, I would stink as bad as Bones. Mister Mayor stood silently looking past us.
"What kind of help?" His words cut coldly, incisively, his delivery immediate and pointed. No doubt he knew how to say exactly what he wanted and how to place the words. I was no match for him. I found no spot of humaneness where I could make contact. He was the Man, I was the Drunk. So I said again "We need help." I added "Sir." "We need help, sir."
Keeping his hands behind his back he rocked up and down on his toes, still looking past us.
"I have no intention of wasting this city's money on a pack of filthy, lowlife, sorry, good for nothing drunks." He looked dead at me.
"Kill the phony ass motherfucker," Bones said from behind me. Then "Kill the Viet Cong communist loving son of a bitch" just as the cops busted through the door. They slammed us to the floor, stomped on us a while, then hauled us off by the ass. At least
I thought as they hurled us onto the street, we'll have a place to say. But they didn't take us to jail; they didn't want us either. We found ourselves back at the Blue Room, scraped and bleeding.
"It's clear now, Bones, nobody wants us. Not even in jail. They want us gone."
About an hour later, as we nursed our busted heads, 5 police patrol sedans pulled up to the curb, blues flashing.
"Viet Cong charley mutterfuckers," Bones said, fixing his imaginary bayonet, "I'll get me some." I expected our lives to end at that moment. Nothing happened. Nobody got out. A loudspeaker came on and a magnolia dripping man's voice addressed the miscreant misfits of the Blue Room. Across the street a Salvation Army soldier walked up and down the sidewalk pinging his bell.
"Now...ya'll let me have ya'll's attention. Ya'll are trespassing on city propity...This here oak tree is city propity and as such that makes ya'll lawbreakers. Now...usually we put law breakers in jail. But in ya'll's case and because it is Christmas we are not going to do that. No, sir, gentlemen, nobody goes to jail but you will vacate this city propity mucho pronto. Comprendo? Do you understand? Background giggling and laughing came to us
through the open mike.
The Blue Room gang hovered in the shadows but no one spoke. Hoot owl dead eyes blinked their understanding.
"I take it ya'll's silence means ya'll understand. Now...here's the deal. Ya'll got three days to vacate the premises. Three days. If ya'll ain't gone when we come back in three days you will be removed from this here city propity with whatever means necessary.
Off they roared, blues flashing, sirens screaming.
The first thing I thought to do was make an appeal at the VA headquarters across the street but at some time during the night they closed tight the ugly big iron spiked gates.
A squad of billy sticked retired sergeants patrolled the area. We gaggled in the Blue Room. It was plain: we had to leave. But. Where would we go?
Inside under the branches the stinking crowd sucked on empty bottles, scratched and waited. Nothing else to do. The toughest part of the whole deal was there was not enough to drink. Skirmishes erupted over empty bottles; not fights, there was not enough strength in the whole gaggle to throw a punch. Mostly they scratched, gouged, bit. Two full platoons of wasted GIs clamoring over empty bottles.
"I am an American fighting man," came the words above the whimpering, whining, sobbing mass. "I serve in the armed forces which protect my country and its way of life." In the dimness, just as the street lights came on, Sergeant Bones, his wasted body quivering at attention, his right hand saluting, stood at attention and delivered his final soliloquy "I am prepared to die in their defense."
Something happened. We became real GIs again. Though our bodies ached for alcohol, our hearts ached for each other. Eyes brightened, hand shakes firmed, old feelings returned:
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Everything is copecetic, GI."
"Toughest GI who ever shit between two combat boots."
"We're all the same. I ain't never seen nobody who didn't bleed red."
"I might buy the farm but I''m gonna git me some."
"Merry Christmas, GI." During the night a few of us heeded the police and wandered off. They'd be found later in dippsy dumpsters, behind shopping malls, and down on the cold Biloxi beaches. But morning found the rest of us, all forty or so, combat ready. Again they chose me their leader.
"You was a officer and a gentlemun by a ack of congress. And you gots charisma," Sergeant Bones said. We had three days, before they came back, Christmas Eve, before they came back and cleaned house.
"We surrounded, L. T. but you'll figure something out won't you?"
"Sergeant Bones, that's why they made me an officer and a gentleman, I can figure things out
Our situation reminded me of one up in Eye Corps at Lang Vie...I think it was...Our camp was being overrun by NVA regulars in tanks. Had us trapped in bunkers. No way out. Hopeless. All night long they poured napalm down on us, bounced thousands of ricocheting tracer rounds down the concrete bunker steps. When the sun rose they left. Twelve of us walked out unscathed. That was a miracle. Why not another one?
Wasn't Christmas a tale of miracles? How can anyone believe in Christmas without believing in miracles? Reality labels it nonsense : a woman having a baby without being knocked up by a man, three wise men following a star, the son of God lying in a filthy stall, his situation as futile as ours? Nobody wanted that kid or his family. Nobody wanted us. They had God on their side, maybe we could too.
Our situation took me back even further. As a kid I was taught Christmas celebrated Jesus' birthday, that he was the son of God, sent by his deddy to save the world from its sins. Simple as that? It was the only religion I needed to know; if I believed it and followed its teachings I would be saved and go to heaven; if the world believed it there would be peace. No fighting, not hatred, no bad things; if the world believed it. Somehow along the way I lost my religion, the world got in the way. I quit believing it.
For sure I couldn't get religion again and expect God to deliver us from evil. We definitely needed help but a sudden seeing the light would never remove the scales from their eyes. Hell, we didn't even know what we wanted - except booze - and we weren't about to give that up on promises to be delivered.
Drunks don't work that way: we have reached a point where feelings and emotions mean only one thing: a way to get a drink. We care about Jesus or Mohammed or Moses, or whomever, or Hanukkah, or Christmas as long as it gets us a drink. Drink is our God.
But something happened. Christmas Eve morning found us calm, euphoric. Still enjoying each other, telling war stories and even singing Christmas carols. Mouths still watered for there was little wine left. But it was shared. Since we had no Christmas money, the liquor store down the street put us off limits. Some had the shakes now and the sharp Gulf Coast winter winds added to them. Bones rattled under his battered field jacket.
"Them Congs coming today?" he squeaked. "They coming ain't they, L. T.?"
"Let 'em come, old soldier, we can handle them. Can't we?"
""You fucking A we can, L.T. Let 'em come. Merry Christmas, sir."
"Merry Christmas, Sergeant Bones. Prepare your troops for combat. Fix bayonets!"
"Yes, sir," Bones saluted, this time with the correct right hand and faced his "troops."
"Ready on the left?" Bones belched his orders. "Ready on the right? Ready on the firing line?" They shouldered their make believe M16s. "Unlock your pieces." They clicked their safeties. Bones spun about face. "Sir, 2nd platoon, Charley company prepared and ready." He now snapped out the words and held his salute until I returned it. "Ready for
So, like a good officer, I trooped the line inspecting my troops. I spoke to each one as I looked him up and down from his life battered face down his wasted body to his twisted feet. They all looked the same: emaciated, wasted and smelled the same, bad. Even I could smell them. But this Christmas Eve morning their eyes glistened like Christmas tree lights, hopeful, pleading, bright. Each in his own feeble way returned my salute. After I finished I marched to my platoon leader position in front of my troops.
"Sergeant Bones, the troops are in outstanding shape. They passed inspection with flying colors. Best damn platoon I ever led."
"Thank you, sir," Bones snapped off a salute.
"Give them at ease."
"At ease!" he squalled and they responded though some wobbled and lost their balance.
"You wish to address the platoon, sir?" Bones said. No. I had no intention of addressing anybody, I had no right, no authority but something tore at me. Something lost deep within me had found its way to the surface and Bones knew it.
"Please, sir," Bones whispered, "it's Christmas."
What could I possibly say that meant anything to them? I'm a drunk just like them, and all I wanted was a drink: words, feelings, can't replace that longing. Today, they'd face the toughest battle of their lives. What they need is booze to encourage them. Not a half assed philosophical floppage from one of their own.
"Sergeant Bones," I mumbled in protest, turning to the little wasted warrior. His face glowed, his one snagged tooth hanging out, his birdlike chest out and above the ragged left breast a red white candy stripped Good Conduct Medal. He stood tall, soldiering, ready to do his duty as an American fighting man. Telling me I needed to do mine as his leader.
I reached inside a pocket and worked out the little silver bar I had carried for years, my only reminder of what I had been, the only thing I had not traded for a drink, the only tangible token of a life I had believed in. I handed it to Sergeant Bones and he pinned it on my collar, stepped back, saluted and said "At ease, gentlemen, our commanding officer has something to say."
A raspy cheer went up then it got quieter than whispering elephant grass.
"Seats!" Bones shouted and they instantly sat huddling close, their eyes on their CO, the old man. The Salvation Army bell from across the street clanged; and as I heard it, for the first time since I was a kid, I asked God to help me. Help me find the words to help these poor ragged out bastards. Help me be the leader they expect me to be. Help me be the leader I used to be. Help me be the "L. T." again. But, please God, don't let it come out like preaching, don't make it sound like something a soul saving civilian would say.
These are GIs. Help me speak their language. It must have been several minutes before I spoke.
"Gentlemen, yea though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death you will
fear no evil for you are...still...the meanest motherfuckers in the valley."
A jump school cheer shook the leaves of the Blue Room so its limbs quivered, then died as quickly as their bright eyes looked to me.
"And you're still the toughest GIs who ever shit between GI combat boots."
"Yea," another clatter went out. But quickly their eyes settled back on me, expecting me to say something else.
"Tell them about love, sir," Bones whispered from behind me. Love? What did I know about love? I hadn't felt it in years. The last time I tried to make contact with it was when my father died and I said "Dad, I love you." But he looked through me, turned his head and died. Hell, the man who begot me didn't love me, how cold I express something I didn't feel?
"Gentlemen," I cleared my throat. "this is a very special time for us GIs" I expected boos but they silently waited, their eyes yet bright, their busted life battered faces eager . "Very special in that we are here as brothers." To me I sounded officious, condescending like so many of the officers and gentlemen I had known. But this gaggle of wasted humanity accepted my words; they sighed and looked at each other, they touched, and smiled.
They passed around the last bottle of ripple red, each taking a tiny sip and passing it on.
"Our brotherhood we earned. It is special. We are special. It has been tested. Our lives have been touched with it; we have been made one. We must never forget nor let the world forget our feeling for one another...this brotherhood."
"Now you got it, sir," Sergeant Bones said and I felt his closeness, his trembling hand on the small of my back.
"Today you will be tested again. The special bond that holds us together will be stretched to its fullest. That...love...for each other will be our only salvation. For today we will be called upon again to do what has to be done because someone has to do it." Hooahs, semper fis, airbornes and can dos, shook the Blue Room like the report of 155s.
"Git some," Bones hollered as he touched my shoulder.
"Check your gear, gentlemen," I choked. They shook hands, hugged, saluted, inspecting and checking each others weapons and web gear.
As they settled down, Old Gunny handed Sergeant Bones the bottle holding the last precious drops. Bones touched it to his lips, wiped it and handed it to me. I lifted it up toward the troops.
"Into the mouth and over the gums, look out stomach here she comes." I toasted. They roared...roared like a theater full of MGM lions...Ars Gratia Artis!
"Are you ready?" I shouted.
"Sir," they replied in unison, "yes sir!"
"Then, together let us walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Thank you for allowing me to lead you. And if God is really there I pray he will look over you as you are the toughest GIs who ever shit between combat boots. And you are the salt of the earth.
And you are hangin there on the cross...and..."
"That's it, sir," Bones whispered, "Don't start no weepy shit. You sounding like a civilian."
"Gentlemen," I swelled, "Let's all sing a Christmas carol."
"Yeah, how about Jingle Bells," shouted Gunny.
"All right, Jingle Bells it is..."
"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the fucking way.."
At 1500 hours on Christmas Eve, nineteen eighty something, as they had promised, the Gulf Coast Sherriff's Department roared along side The Blue Room, bailed out, and commenced kicking ass.
Author: Rocky Rutherford