30 March 2015

Jerry Joins the Army

When Jerry Oliver left his girlfriend’s house she started playing an album by this chick singer named Joni Mitchell. Jerry could hear it coming out of her window as he got into his car. For some reason Jerry felt like Monya — that was his girlfriend — would think of some other guy when she listened to this Mitchell gal sing. In fact he couldn’t shake the thought.

Jerry knew for a fact that Monya had been with several guys before they met and even when they first started dating.  Jerry was kind of okay with all this, after all he was a modern guy plus Monya was a really pretty girl and free spirited and all too.

Sometimes Jerry thought how lucky he was to be with Monya. Sometimes he felt like he wasn’t in her league. Jerry wasn't some big stud and hadn't even played football in high school. Jerry was average height, a fairly good tennis player but mediocre in other sports. He was good enough looking but no Steve McQueen. Jerry would have been the first to admit all of this. As for Monya, well she was a straight up fox. It was a heckuva boost to Jerry's ego that his girlfriend was beautiful.

So Jerry drove home on this warm April night in 1969 wondering what guys Monya thought about when she listened to Joni Mitchell. He also started thinking again about joining the service. This was a topic he’d given a lot of consideration to lately. What he liked best about it was the GI Bill and what he liked least was the idea of going to some shithole like Vietnam and getting his dick shot off.

Jerry had worked his way through two years of college and it was a royal pain. Yeah his folks had offered him dough but he wanted to be fully independent, especially since mom and dad just got by themselves. Also he hated the shit jobs he’d had since sophomore year of high school: bagging in the goddamned grocery store, pumping gas, unloading crates at a warehouse. No, if he did some time in the military, he could finish college and wouldn’t have to scrape together pennies to do it or go straight from classes to work. On top of all that Jerry needed a break from school. From kindergarten through two years of university it had been pretty much non stop, especially since his mom always made him go to Summer School.

When Jerry got home he called his brother Ronnie who was six years older and in Jerry’s mind sixty years wiser. Ronnie had a good job as sales executive and had been giving Jerry advice since forever. Ronnie wasn’t to crazy about his kid brother going into the army what with a war going on and told him so. But he also said that the army could be really good for him and teach him some valuable life lessons. Plus he could see that Jerry wanted a break from college. Working full time for awhile might be an option but it would probably be at some crappy job. Ronnie told him all this but again added, "I still don’t like the idea of you getting shipped to Vietnam.” Then Ronnie added: “but it is a helluva good thing for you to do, to serve your country and all, being patriotic is important and all this will look good on your resume.”

That pretty much sold Ronnie. He’d go down and enlist the next day, as long as they’d let him finish this semester of college.

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When Jerry went down to the induction center he went alone. He'd had dinner with his parents, Ronnie and his kid sister Julie the night before. He said his goodbyes to friends at a party the day before that and that evening had gone out with Monya one last time. He could tell that Monya was ready for him to go. The passion had been going out of their relationship since before Jerry's enlistment. In fact Jerry was pretty sure that Monya had been seeing other guys already. It was hard to stay in love with a girl who had mentally and emotionally checked out of your relationship. Maybe Jerry would write to Monya from the army and maybe he wouldn't. They did make love that last night together and for the first in months there'd been some real intensity and excitement. Jerry figured it was because it was the last time they'd do it. Maybe if Monya had stayed hot for him Jerry would never have enlisted. Maybe.

As Jerry waited in the induction center to be processed, he wondered how often he'd get laid while in the army. He also started missing friends and activities like playing poker and tennis and shootin' the shit with his pals. Jerry wondered if maybe he'd made a mistake. So he forced himself to focus on the long run and how this was going to be the best thing for the rest of his life. If nothing else he would have some powerful and different experiences that would shape him into what his dad liked to call, "a real man." Dad was proud as hell that Jerry was going into the service. He'd done a stint himself and that was during World War II. Mom was nervous and worried but she got nervous and worried when one of her kids so much as went to the movies. That's just the way moms are, Jerry figured.

There were two guys sitting next to Jerry and he got to talking to them. One was from Jerry's rival high school and they kind of knew a few of the same people and neighborhoods. His name was Lance Dorsett and he seemed like someone Jerry could be buddies with. The other fella was from a small town about an hour away. He seemed pretty depressed like this was the last place he wanted to be. His name was Mason Oglethorpe. Jerry had a hard time not laughing at the name. It totally blew that Mason was so gloomy but Jerry figured he'd get over it and maybe they'd become buddies too. Mason was a big fella who looked strong as an ox. Lance was built about like Jerry, more nimble than strong.

It was good to get to know some guys right away. Jerry could see that he was going to meet a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, this was another big plus to joining the service. Heck, some of these guys could be friends for life and some could provide valuable connections in years to come. By the time of the induction Jerry was feeling pretty good about life.

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This one time on leave Jerry went into a little bar that wasn't too crowded. He'd no sooner ordered his beer than someone put a song on the jukebox and it was that Joni Mitchell number that Jerry had heard wafting out of Monya's bedroom that one time. It gave Jerry a kind of sick feeling in his stomach. Not like nausea but more like jealousy. He imagined her kissing some other guy, maybe being in the sack with someone. Jerry had written to Monya a couple of times and received one letter. It was pretty short and didn't say a whole lot. It sure wasn't very affectionate or lovey dovey. Jerry had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that it was over with Monya but still she had been the closest girlfriend he'd ever had. Jerry sipped his beer and felt kind of lousy. Finally his buddies showed up. One of them was Lance who he'd been inducted with. The other guy was Johnny Packard who was from Alabama. Johnny was what you would call a redneck. His political views seemed pretty out there to Jerry but he was a cool guy in most other ways and a lot of fun to hang with so Jerry let the political stuff go.

The trio ended up carousing all over town that night, at one point ending up in a party with a bunch of hippies. Someone produced marijuana and everyone smoked it except Johnny who said grass was "for niggers and drug addicts." The hippies didn't seem too bothered by Johnny despite all the insults he ended up hurling at them, probably because they were so high. Lance ended up scoring with one of the chicks. Lance was what Jerry considered to be a ladies man. Jerry tried to get one of the chicks into the sack too but she was with this big hippie and not interested in a solider with a crewcut. The next day Jerry had a pretty good hangover but a ten mile hike with a full pack on a hot day sweated it out.

Jerry was loving and hating the service at the same time. He liked the discipline, figuring it would be good for him in the future. He also liked the camaraderie. Most of the other guys were pretty cool. Jerry had never had trouble making friends anyway. At the same time Jerry found all the drills and duties to be draining and often purposeless. He also hated the loss of so many basic freedoms and the way sergeants would yell at you for the littlest thing. But overall Jerry was pretty happy with his decision to enlist. Well, until the day he found out he was being deployed to Vietnam, then he felt sick to his stomach about it.

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Jerry was laying in mud and was soaking wet and there was blood trickling out of a flesh wound in his forehead. There was noise coming from everywhere: gunfire, shouts, explosions, screams, chattering, radio static. Jerry was alone and scared. Not quite alone. Lance was laying a few feet away from him but he was dead. Jerry couldn't quite wrap his mind around the notion that this handsome young friend of his had ceased to be. It seemed incompehrensible. He'd seen body bags and he knew guys who'd been killed in action but this was the first time Jerry had seen someone killed. And it was his best army buddy.

Their platoon had been out on patrol when they suddenly started taking heavy fire. They were in a clearing and pinned down. Two guys were wounded, one of the badly. The radio was also a casualty. Their sergeant ordered Jerry and Lance to make their way back to base to report their situation and position and get help. The two buddies had gotten up and sprinted for the trees zig zagging all the way. Somehow they'd made it. But as they were sprinting along the trail toward camp, shots started coming from all directions. Two North Vietnamese soldiers appeared from behind a tree. Lance saw them immediately and shot them both. One of them got off a shot just as he was hit and it took off the top of Lance's head. With bullets flying from Jerry didn't where, he ran towards a big bush and dove behind it, right into a big puddle soaking himself. Jerry rolled out of the puddle and into the mud and waited. He didn't know what for.

Jerry reasoned that he should wait a few minutes and then trying moving back towards camp, it seemed suicidal to move now. Maybe re-enforcements were on the way. Jerry felt in his pockets. His cigarettes were wet and so were his letters. He'd just that morning gotten two letters from home and both had made him as happy as he'd ever been. One was from Monya. She'd written that she'd had a new boyfriend for awhile but it hadn't worked out but it made her realize how special Jerry was. She wondered in the letter why she'd taken him for granted, he was the best guy she'd ever met and she said she hoped they could get back together when he got out of the service. Jerry never expected such a letter from her and was over the moon. The other letter was from his mother telling about how dad had earned a huge bonus at work and that he'd be able to retire sooner than they thought and, whether Jerry liked it or not, they were setting aside some money for him to help finish college with. Jerry could just feel his parents' joy over the windfall and how important it was for them to help Jerry out. He almost cried.

Jerry was sorry the letters were wet and wished he'd had a chance to answer them before this patrol. He was thinking about how great his folks and Monya were when he noticed some movement in the bushes a few yards ahead. A few seconds later Jerry got up on his haunches and looked up to see two North Vietnamese soldiers standing above him with their rifles pointed at his head. Jerry wondered how they'd snuck up on him so quietly.

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