Chapter 11—"Universal Soldier"
Christmas vacation was a time of omission. I didn’t lie to my parents. I simply omitted talking about sex, drugs and alcohol. It was my journey, not theirs. We talked about my classes, the school newspaper, my anti-war work. It filled the time.
Second semester started.
I sat on a couch in Hixson Lounge strumming my guitar. Hixson Lounge was my second home. In between classes, that was my place to study, play my guitar or simply hang out. Hook sat down next to me and handed me a box.
“My Christmas present?” I asked him.
“Open it.” I stared at the medal in the box. “I’m a hero. Bronze Star to go with my Purple Heart. Trying for a whole rainbow of medals.”
“Congratulations?” He didn’t seem too happy to have the medal.
“I’m not going to keep it.”
“You deserve it.” I picked up the medal. It was the same one my uncle got in World War II. He displayed it in the china cabinet in his dining room. My uncle told me stories of the war. It seemed glorious. It wasn’t.
My dad didn’t fight in World War II. He told the draft board he wouldn’t carry a gun. He volunteered to go as a chaplain. The war ended and he never had to go. He stayed a pacifist his whole life.
“I’m sending it back.” Hook shifted uneasily.
I looked at him, the medal still in my hand. “You can’t send it back. You earned it. You saved two of your buddies.”
“Anybody would have done the same thing.”
“Not true. You lost a hand and still hauled two guys to safety.” I put the medal back in the box.
Hook took the box from me and snapped it shut. “The recruiters promised glory. They lied. All I got was a stainless steel hook and this piece of cheap jewelry. Anyhow, I’m sending it back.” He put the box in the pocket of the army jacket.
“You got a good jacket out of the deal.” Hook always wore his army jacket and a red bandana around his head. I loved the look.
“You want to know the worst thing I did in Nam?”
I knew he was going to tell me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.
“One day, about seven months in, I am outside at the airfield on base smoking a cigarette near a couple of fifty-five gallon drums of fuel.”
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I said.
“Quit when I got back. Anyway, as I stood there the fumes in those drums made me sick to my stomach.”
Hook sat still, looking down at the floor. I slipped the guitar strap over my head and balanced the guitar against the couch.
Hook continued, “An airplane landed and forty guys in clean fatigues got off. I yelled to them, ‘Get the fuck back on that plane. Go home.’ They couldn’t hear me. It wouldn’t have mattered. It was too late."
"In front of me, on the other side of those drums of fuel, were four bodies waiting to be boarded on that same plane. They were in these black body bags with white name tags hanging from them. It was fucking hot out there. It was so goddamn humid. I saw the heat rising off the asphalt. And there was the smell of the fuel.” Hook’s voice got softer and lower. I leaned in to hear the rest of the story. He still wouldn’t look at me.
“The person guarding the bodies asked if I’d keep watch over them while he finished the paperwork.” Hook glanced up at me. “What were those bodies going to do? Get up and run away?” He looked down again. “I walked over to those four dead bodies next to the fifty-five gallon drums of fuel, smoking my cigarette. I needed to know who I was guarding. I picked up the tag on the first body. Michael, twenty. Then the other three. James, twenty-one. Andrew, twenty. David, nineteen. I remember those names as though it happened yesterday. Fuck, I thought. They are my age. What were they doing dead? I inhaled and exhaled the smoke. I looked again at the fifty-five gallon drums of fuel. I looked at those four dead bodies. I looked at the new recruits in their clean pants.”
Hook glanced up at me again. “The worse thing I did in Nam? I wanted to throw my cigarette in those drums of fuel and burn up those bodies. I wanted them to disappear. I wanted them to go up in flames. God, I hated those bodies.”
I was silent. Our eyes locked.
“Sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel the heat. I smell those drums of fuel. I see those four dead bodies with the white tags. Michael. James. Andrew. David. They don’t know I hated their guts and wanted them to disappear. Their families don’t know I wanted to burn them.”
I reached out for my guitar and pulled it into my lap. The guitar steadied me.
“I planned on reenlisting. I left my buddies there. I’m not keeping the damn medal.”
Hook got up to leave, then leaned down and kissed me on the top of the head. He tugged my braids with his good hand. “Thanks for listening. It don’t mean nothin’ anyhow.”
“That’s what you keep telling me.”
He stopped for a moment and grinned. “See you later.” I strummed my guitar.
I thought about Michael, James, Andrew and David. They had mothers and fathers, girlfriends, wives, children, brothers, sister, uncles, cousins, dentists, aunts, Sunday school teachers, friends, scout leaders, next-door neighbors. They could have been my friend, my lover, the father of my children. They were simply four dead bodies in four black plastic bags with white tags next to two stinking fifty-five gallon drums of fuel. Goddamn war.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 21,462