By Michael Loyd Gray
It was the day after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but I just didn’t give a rat’s ass. What did that have to do with me? I’d just turned eighteen, sported a perpetual hardon, and cruised a canary yellow 1967 Firebird with chrome wheels. High school was in my rearview mirror and shrinking by the second. My grandfather called me a hotspur, and I thought I sensed a trace of admiration. I sure liked the sound of it: hotspur. There goes that hotspur, my grandfather would tell my mother whenever I’d peel out from our driveway.
My dad didn’t call me anything but Theodore, no matter how many times I asked for Ted, or even the occasional Teddy. Now he was in orbit with Neil Armstrong. This changes everything, my father muttered as he gazed dumbfounded up at the sky, still buzzed about a man on the moon.
I just didn’t get it. What’s changed? I slid onto a bucket seat, pushed a Stones tape into the eight-track, and turned up the volume; but when I looked up, my mother was waving at me from the mailbox. It wasn’t a hello wave, or a goodbye wave, or even a don’t squeal your tires wave. It was a come here now wave, and she looked sick to her stomach. Turned out, Richard Fucking Nixon had sent me a letter.
I waited until I was well down our street, Tricky Dicky’s letter jammed in a back pocket, before I abruptly dropped into second gear and popped the clutch for a quick squeal. I figured Nixon owed me that one. But I was mindful that my mother had heard enough for one day, what with this Army physical letter and my father all goggle-eyed over Neil Armstrong and his freaking small step for man and tremendous flying leap for mankind.
My father didn’t yet know about the letter. My mother said to wait a few days until the moon thing had lost its shine, and we laughed nervously at the pun. My father had a heart condition. It was my mother’s job to protect him from excitement and French fries. Now it was up to me, a horny hotspur from Argus, Illinois, to help protect America form Vietnam, a pissant country I wasn’t sure I could find on a globe, at a time when I couldn’t always locate third gear in my car’s transmission.
A few weeks later, it was the Army physical and not Armstrong’s stroll on the moon that changed things for me. Matt Grenville, Clark Busey, and I got drunk the night before. It seemed like a great idea until morning came, and we boarded a bus to Chicago at first light. Matt got a goodbye soldier boy blowjob from his girlfriend in his Corvair before we departed. He hadn’t told her we’d be back that evening. She thought we would go straight to Vietnam. I remember she cried and waved at the bus as it pulled out and Matt watched her for three blocks until we turned a corner and headed for the interstate north, and then he didn’t say anything for a while.
We all quickly fell asleep for a few hours and woke when the bus pulled up at a clump of blistered old buildings on the south side of Chicago. I had no idea where we were. Clark said to look for bullet holes in buildings, from Al Capone’s days, as though every building in Chicago must surely have some. Everything was a blur, with an occasional scene coming momentarily into sharp focus and then fading to fuzzy, surreal, slow motion. I thought at one point I saw Soldier Field but couldn’t be sure. It reminded me of Sundays in front of the TV, watching the Bears and eating peanut butter sandwiches and drinking Vess Cola. Those days now seemed like ancient history.
By now, our hangovers were magnified by lack of proper sleep. We stumbled off the bus and huddled, some of the boys lighting cigarettes. Pissed-off sergeants appeared as if on cue in crisp shirts and creased trousers. They stood ramrod straight, chins jutting out fiercely. With meaty hands planted firmly on hips, they looked us up and down as we gawked back, our hands stuffed in pockets, shirttails hanging out. Like sudden gusts of blustery wind, sergeants barked at us, poked us, called us ladies and pussies, and herded us like wayward sheep into a room with desks and test forms already on them.
You had to pass a written test to go to Vietnam?
A delicate-looking boy with shaggy blond hair plucked a harmonica from his back pocket as sergeants passed out pencils. The boy grinned at me with glazed blue eyes and began to blow some passable blues. Everyone stopped and listened to that boy. The two biggest sergeants, tall black men wearing Smoky the Bear hats shading penetrating eyes, lifted the boy from his seat as though he was weightless, and they hauled him toward the back of the room and out the door. The boy whimpered like a beaten dog and the harmonica fell from his mouth.
When the harmonica struck the floor, one of the sergeants kicked it into a metal waste basket by the door. We never saw that blond boy again. Matt and Clark looked at me, fear etched into their angelic faces, but nobody said anything. We weren’t even in the Army yet and already we were taking casualties.
After the written exam – I now can’t recall a single question — I picked up the harmonica and stuffed it in a back pocket as we were funneled into a room the size of a basketball court and ordered to strip. We carried our urine round in small cups, trying desperately not to spill it. Body odors filled the room. Farts punctuated the otherwise chilling quiet like distant gunfire. There were hundreds of white and black butts and swinging penises in a silent conga line winding though the various exam stations.
Our piss was checked, armpits examined, blood pressure monitored, anal cavities inspected. We left dignity behind with our clothes. Our identities were stolen, too. One boy, a gangly, goofy farm kid we got to know on the bus, tried to make a joke of it all and he pissed in someone else’s cup. They took him away, too.
An erection, however accidental, was unthinkable, horrible, and I silently prayed it would not happen to me. One boy thought that might get him off the hook with the Army and so he got one up. The line opened up as if Moses was parting the Red Sea, and everyone gave that boy a lot of room. He stood right in front of me. Sergeants swooped in like bats in uniforms. Another one of us was silently whisked away, the body count mounting. To where? Did a hardon really get you out of the Army?
I wondered if there was a secret place, a dungeon, maybe, where they stashed the fuckups. I wondered what would happen to them. Did they go to jail? Did sergeants beat them to a pulp? Were they still drafted? I worried I would break some rule unknown to me and end up in the secret dungeon, too. Everything and everyone in this strange, naked world was odd and new, and I felt palpable fear for the first time since my father’s heat attack a few years before.
Then it was over as abruptly as it began, and we realized an entire day had been consumed in a dizzying swirl. We got something to eat – I can’t remember what it was – and then we filed back on the bus for the trip home. We assessed the damage: all three of us were still 1-A: perfectly available and healthy specimens that the Army had employment opportunities for in the exotic Republic of Vietnam.
Matt was the first to break the torpor, the heavy silence hat had descended on us like a thick fog.
“One of those dickhead sergeants said we’re definitely going to Vietnam. Guaranteed.”
The three of us pondered that a moment.
“He can’t know that for sure,” Clark said. “He was just trying to scare you, man.”
“Well, it’s working, Clark. Okay?”
“Maye we’ll go someplace else,” Clark said, not sounding convinced. “Germany, maybe. I heard a guy say some of us might go to Germany.”
“Who said that?” Matt said. “One of those fuckface sergeants?”
“No,” Clark said. “The guy with the hardon said it.”
“He’s probably halfway to Vietnam by now,” Matt said. “With his fucking hardon.”
The trip home was much different than the voyage up. A few of the boys were in good spirits and slapped each other on shoulders because they’d failed their physicals and were safe. Some of the boys were proud to have passed because they believed that John Wayne bullshit and wanted to go fight – anywhere, and against anybody. One of the boys bragged about failing for “psychological reasons.” He seemed awful happy about it until I asked him what the psychological reasons were, and he just looked away, out a window.
“Oh, it’s nothing I can really talk about,” he said quietly.
Most of the boys took fitful naps, their faces mashed into the crooks between seats and windows. Some just stared stonily out windows at passing cornfields and soybean fields. Maybe some of them instead saw jungle, populated by black-clad Vietcong instead of farmers in their faded overhauls. To pass time and distract myself, I tied to think about the Bears, and then the Cubs, but it just seemed suddenly like kid stuff. I didn’t have a regular girlfriend, and so I tried to picture girlfriends I’d had, going back to junior high.
For some reason, I had trouble seeing all their faces clearly. They wouldn’t come into sharp focus. We crossed the Kankakee River, the water green and slow, and then around Gilman, I finally fell asleep and didn’t wake up until we lurched into the Argus bus terminal amidst a downpour.
I became aware of the soldiers among us. The dead and survivors had been streaming back from Vietnam for several years, but I’d not noticed them until now. How had they gone unnoticed? The war was on television all the time, regally narrated by Walter Cronkite, but my family had not been one of those routinely eating from TV trays and watching helicopters disgorge soldiers into wild elephant grass only to pick some of them up later in body bags.
I recalled during my senior year when a social studies teacher suddenly announced at the start of class that the war was over and the troops were coming home, that we had won, gloriously. He made a beautiful speech, and everyone was fascinated until he admitted he’d just made it up to get our attention to focus on current events. The war was definitely not over. It drug on.
Now, it beckoned me.
Jerry Ray Hawkins was the first survivor I met. We’d been on the track team together when I was a pukey sophomore and he was a senior. He never spoke to me back then because he was a senior stud and star two-twenty man, and I was just average in the eight-eighty; but he remembered me when I ran into him coming out of a bar. We went in and he bought me a beer. Jerry had joined up after he gradated and was shot in the knee in the A-Shau Valley and was home on leave. I’d never heard of the A-Shau Valley, and I vaguely thought I ought to look it up in an atlas at the library.
“My two-twenty days are over, man,” Jerry Ray said, rubbing his bad knee. “Kaput, dude.”
“How bad is it? I mean, Vietnam. How bad is it really?”
“It’s fucked up, man. You don’t want to fucking go there, man.”
“But I’ve been called up.”
He arched his eyebrows and sipped some beer.
“Then you’re fucked, dude. Sorry about that shit. Keep your head down, troop.”
“That’s your best advice? Keep my head down.”
“No, man. My best advice is fucking don’t go there.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“Sure you do, Teddy Boy. Listen to me, man. You don’t want to go to the fucking Nam.”
“You went. You enlisted.”
“Big time mistake, troop. Back then, I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.”
Jerry Ray had a deep tan, but as I looked closer into his dark, lined face, I realized he appeared older than he really was, which was only twenty-one. I saw the weariness in his eyes. When he came back from the men’s room, I noticed his limp.
“Do you have to go back soon, Jerry Ray?”
“Back to the mean fucking green? No fucking way, troop. I did my time. Now I get to ride out my hitch stateside.”
“That’s cool,” I said.
“It would be cool if you didn’t have notions of running track in college, Teddy Boy. Oh fucking well.”
We got two more beers and sipped them quietly for a moment. I heard someone playing pinball over in a corner, and when the balls smacked loudly against the glass cover, Jerry Ray winced.
“What’s the worst part about Vietnam?” I said.
“That it ain’t fucking Illinois, man.”
I nodded and waited a few seconds.
“But other than that?”
“Other than that? Shit, man — let’s see,” he said, pretending to have to think about it. “Oh, yeah—the worst thing is all those little people in black pajamas trying to shoot you. Yeah, that’d be my guess.”
“No, I seriously fucking doubt you see at all, Teddy Boy,” he said, his voice suddenly loud.
I looked over at the bar and several men on stools glanced at Jerry Ray. The bartender washing glasses stopped to look for a moment, too.
“On TV, they say we’re winning hearts and minds,” I said. “And turning the corner on the war.”
“Light at the end of the tunnel, right?” Jerry Ray laughs, sort of maniacally, his voice again too loud. The bartender shakes his head and the two men on stools whisper something between them that I can’t make out.
“If you believe that shit, Teddy Boy, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklynn I’ll sell you cheap, my friend.”
I tried to picture him as he was back when we were on the track team, but all I got were fleeting images of him running. He really was quite fast.
What’s a punji?” I asked. “I heard that somewhere.”
“You did, did you? Well, let me just tell you, man – see, Charlie sharpens up a stick so it will penetrate a boot.”
“Victor Charles,” he said. “The VC. Now—here’s the best part. See – Charlie dips the tip of that sharp stick in his own shit, so you get an infection. How about them apples? Charlie’s a sweet guy. Shit, man, sometimes he even puts a snake down there in the pit with the punji sticks.”
I sagged back in my chair, convinced Vietnam was a proper hell on Earth. Why did we even bother with such a place?
Jerry Ray lit a cigarette.
“I never used to smoke,” he said, “until I got to the Nam. My body used to be a temple, man.”
He got up to go.
“Thanks for the beer, Jerry Ray.”
“Least I could do. See you around – Ted.”
He started for the door.
“Hey,” I called to limping Jerry Ray. “What did you mean earlier, when you said I had a choice?”
Jerry Ray turned and pointed north.
“Canada’s that way,” he said, and then he stepped out into bright sunshine.
Clark and Matt had already located Canada. They came by my house the day after I saw Jerry Ray and they had an atlas between them on the front seat of Matt’s Corvair. I slid in back and we rode out to the forest preserve drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“It’s not really that far,” Matt says as he scanned the atlas. “I guess I always thought it was far. But you just drive up to Detroit and then you’re there, just across the river.”
“Then what?” I said.
“We become Canadians, Ted.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, no—there might be some test we’d have to take.”
“Like for going to Vietnam?”
“You know what I mean, Ted.”
“What about your mom and dad?” Clark said. “And your sister?”
Matt pretended to study the atlas. I handed PBRs to them, from the cooler in the backseat.
“They’ll have to go up there to see you, Matt,” I said. “If you come back here, your ass gets hauled to jail. You’ll be a draft dodger. A traitor, to some folks.”
“Don’t you think I’ve considered all that, Ted?”
“Have you? Did you consider you might not ever get to come back?”
“The war won’t last forever,” Clark said.
“No, but the resentment might.”
“It’ll all work out okay,” Matt said, forcing the optimism in his voice.
“I’m sure it will,” I said, “as long as it involves jail time.”
We sipped our beers quietly for a moment.
“Drive on up to the covered bridge,” Clark said. “They’ve been busting people drinking and cruising. If we go down to the river, the county mounties will think we’re just fisherman.”
We carried the cooler down to the Sangamon River, just downstream from the bridge. It was a clear night, the sky glittering with stars. The moon was near full and bright, and we could see the water in the moonlight. Crickets were in full symphony.
“You think they have PBR in Canada,” Clark abruptly said. “I’d miss my Pabst.”
“You’d drink Canadian beer, jerkoff,” Matt said. “Molson, I think.”
“They talk different up there, too,” I said.
“It’s still English, man,” Matt said. “They do speak English up there in Canuck land.”
“I wouldn’t call them that, Canucks.”
“I don’t think they like it.”
“It’d be okay, “Matt said, “because we’d be Canucks, too.”
“If you say so.”
“They don’t all speak English,” Clark said. “Not in Quebec. They speak French in Quebec.”
“So, we don’t fucking go to fucking Quebec,” Matt said, irritated.
I tossed a pebble into the river.
“We should have brought rods,” I said. “We could fish all night for bullheads.”
Clark heaved a big rock into the river, and it made a heavy splash.
“I wish we had some girls,” he said. “We could fish all night for that, too.”
We all giggled. Clark dug more beers from the cooler.
“They’ve got girls in Canada,” Matt said. “Don’t you worry about that.”
“They’ll keep you warm during those longass winters – like in that Beach Boys song,” I said.
“And they speak English,” Matt said. “Did I mention they speak English?”
“And they drink Molson,” I said.
“That’s so true,” Clark said. “They do drink Molson.”
“And if you ask real nice, Clark,” I said, “they’ll go over to Detroit and get you some Pabst. All you can carry. Ain’t that right, Matt?”
“That’s right. And they’ll go buy your rubbers for you, too. Ain’t that so, Ted?”
“But will they have my brand in Canada?” Clark said. “I’m a Trojan man.”
“They’ll get the Trojans when they get the beer,” I said. “Those Canadian girls know what they’re doing. But you could always try Canadian rubbers, to show patriotism for your new country.”
“Nope,” Clark said. “Trojans are made in the good old U.S.A. I’m sticking to them.”
“Or, vice versa,” I said, and Clark spits beer and laughs.
“Shit, Ted – I think some beer came out my nose.”
A car crossed the bridge just upstream, and then a spotlight came on.
“County mountie,” Matt said.
The spotlight beam danced first along the far bank, for maybe ten seconds, and then it crossed the river and came close to us before it went off. The car sat there for a good thirty seconds or more, then moved off slowly.
“Those county boys are lazy,” Matt said. “If something doesn’t jump out at them, they don’t get too worked up.”
“Do you think they took us for fishermen?” Clark said.
“No, jerkoff,” Matt said. “He figured we’re having a homo orgy.”
“You’re real funny, Matt,” Clark said. “You should be on the Smothers Brothers Show.”
“That’s what I’ll do in Canada. I’ll tell jokes about Americans and get my own TV show.”
“Let’s head back,” I said. “I don’t want to stay out here all night.”
“Pussy,” Matt said. “In Vietnam, you’ll have to stay out all night in the jungle, with snakes and tigers and shit like that.”
“Fuck-you, Matt,” I said, “and the horse you rode in on.”
“Yeah,” Clark said. “Fuck-you, Matt.”
“Okay, okay — we’ll head back. You don’t have to get your panties in a bunch.”
The county mountie had gone toward Route 150 and so we took country roads back toward Argus. Clark passed out in the front seat. I was buzzed but doing okay and talked to Matt to help keep him awake.
“You guys really going?” I said.
“Canada, jerkoff. What else have we been talking about tonight?”
After a long moment, he said, “Yeah, I suppose so. Sure as shit beats Vietnam.”
“What about Germany?” Maybe Clark heard that right. Maybe we’d all go to Germany.”
“I don’t sprechen the lingo,” Matt said. “I sucked at high school German. Besides, what’s to stop them from shipping us to Vietnam once we reach Germany? Have you thought about that one?”
“I suppose you’re right.”
We didn’t talk for a while. We barreled along county roads, wind whistling in through the windows. I put my arms around the passenger seat and leaned closer to Matt.
“You never said why,” I said. “Why we’d go. Is it because the war’s immoral, like hippies say?”
Matt twisted the radio dial, looking for WLS out of Chicago.
“I don’t think about that Jane Fonda shit very much,” he said. “I just don’t want to get shot. And I don’t think I can shoot anybody. Clark feels the same way.”
“I hear you,” was all I could think to say.
“It’s about survival, Ted. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that we’re all on our fucking own. Maybe it’s time you learned that, too.”
“Oh,” I say, and then I slumped into the backseat. My stomach suddenly hurt. An awful truth bubbled up from deep inside my very core and squirted to the surface with enormous pressure behind it: I’d bever really questioned any of it, not the draft notice, or the physical, and not even the war. I fidgeted in the backseat and felt something hard beneath me. It was the harmonica that boy dropped in Chicago, at the physicals. That boy, in his own way, had resisted. I had not. It stung me to realize that boy had more of a plan than I did. Like debris in a current, I’d allowed myself to just be carried along. I wasn’t that feisty hotspur my grandfather had relished.
Matt pulled us over on an overpass overlooking the interstate so he could piss. We straddled I-57. Matt turned on the emergency flashers so we wouldn’t get rear-ended. But it was a lonely, dark overpass on a dark and lonely county road and there wasn’t going to be much traffic. When Matt came back, he searched the radio again and found WLS. He patted his hands on the steering wheel in time while we listened to Jimi Hendrix sing “All Along the Watch Tower:”
There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief
There’s so much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Matt and I sang along with Jimi as we watched cars speeding along the interstate, north to Chicago, or south to Memphis. Matt struck the steering wheel harder and faster with the song, like he was a rock drummer. I thumped the back of the passenger seat awkwardly, out of time with the song, but trying hard to keep up.
Matt was still smacking the steering wheel with one hand when he used the other to slip the Corvair into gear. The car lurched forward. We turned on to the interstate, headed north. It began to rain as we slipped into the slipstream of cars. I was surprised there was so much traffic on I-57 so late at night. People going everywhere. How many of them really knew where they were going? I was wide awake now, trying to remember how many Argus exits there were before we passed the point of no return.
Copyright Gray 2023