SENIOR YEAR—1970-1971 Chapter 44—"Love Is Here And Now You're Gone"
Rick returned to the Rosebud Reservation to finish his research about how white men over thirty can, in good conscience, send young Native Americans to fight a war that few people support. The sociological jargon was much more sophisticated, but that was the gist of it.
I continued working at the city newspaper covering weddings, banquets, birthdays and fiftieth anniversaries. Those couples married and lived through the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, Hitler, Mussolini, the atom bomb, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. They stuck with each other and loved each other for fifty years.
Marty was gone. Every night for the past ten months I slept by his side, curled up by him, his arm around me. Every night for the past ten months he was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep and the first thing I saw when I woke up.
Now he was gone. I slept curled up on his side of the bed hoping to feel a little of him. It didn’t help. Before I fell asleep I saw an empty pillow. When I woke, expecting to see him, he wasn’t there. My breath caught going in. I grabbed his pillow in a panic and put it to my face. It didn’t smell like him anymore.
I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. I counted seven cracks next to the light fixture. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? I noticed stains on the curtains, worn spots in the carpet. The closet doorknob missed a screw. The light switch faceplate was missing.
None of that mattered before. Now it stared me in the face. Twenty-five months of this. Night after night. Alone, curled up, wanting to see his face. When would I stop crying? When would I feel normal again?
Marty moved into the Joliet Correctional Center, a building more than one hundred years old about a sixty-five mile drive away from me. They weren’t correcting anything with Marty. There was nothing to correct. He was in prison, plain and simple. A prison built one hundred years ago by the very men imprisoned there.
Prison regulations allowed Marty to receive two hours of calls every week and visits on Sunday. Every Sunday for the next twenty-five months I promised to visit.
The first Sunday was the hardest. I sat in the car looking at the Joliet Correctional Center, a fortress, a poor imitation of a medieval castle designed to keep the enemies in or keep them out. I’m not sure which. I could almost imagine Marty on his steed, fully armored, lance in hand, ready to charge. He did that in the courtroom and lost. They ensconced him behind the tall stonewalls, took away his steed, his armor, his lance. I prayed they wouldn’t take away his fight. I pulled the bandana from my belt loop and dried my eyes. Here’s where Marty is spending the next twenty-five months of his life. Locked behind these walls. What’s going to happen to him?
I walked in the massive front doors, signed in and waited. Then he appeared, in front of me, all of him. I didn’t want to cry. Kennedy stoic, I thought. I walked up and hugged him, kissed him gently. That was all that was allowed, no lingering.
“You got an hour,” the guard said, posting himself next to the wall, arms crossed, eyes scanning the prisoners and their visitors, ever cautious, looking for infractions. Like the lifeguards at the pools in the summer, eager to blow a whistle for the slightest thing. It was the power inherent in a whistle. We couldn’t hold hands during the hour but under the table I felt the pressure of his shoes against my flip-flopped feet. I missed him completely.
“What do you do all day?” I asked him that first Sunday.
“I wake about 6:30 to some kind of air-raid siren alarm, the kind they had when we were kids and had air raid drills at school.”
I remember the drills. When the siren went off, we dropped under our desks and put our hands over our heads. Drop. Duck. Cover. It wouldn’t protect us from a nuclear attack but it kept us in line. One day the siren went off accidentally. We did as we were trained. Rolled up in a ball on the floor under my desk at Hartley Elementary School, all I could think of was my blue Schwinn bike parked on the playground. It would be the first thing to go when the bomb dropped.
Marty continued. “The siren means we have ten minutes before they unlock the cell and we go to the courtyard for fifteen minutes of calisthenics. Then breakfast. I sit with someone different every day. I have to live with these guys for the next two years. I might as well get to know them. Thirty minutes later we have to be at our work stations.”
I moved my foot up inside his pants and felt skin against skin. I glanced at the guard. He wasn’t looking our way.
“I’m on laundry duty now. That’s where they put all the newbies. Hoping to get switched to the print shop or library sometime. We work until lunch. Break for an hour. Work stations for another couple hours. Dinner. Evening recreation. Then bed where I lie and think of you.”
“What do you do when you think of me?” He grinned but didn’t answer.
His days sounded like mine. Wake up. Stretch a bit to get my body going. Eat breakfast. Go to work until noon. Eat lunch. Back to work. Go home. Take a walk or weed the garden. Watch TV. Lie in bed and think of Marty. Day after day for twenty-five months.
I took the next week off work to visit my family and Marty’s. I needed Mom’s tuna-noodle casserole and Dad’s chocolate covered peanuts. I needed Mom Olsen’s home-made spaghetti and brownies.
“Twenty-five months,” I said to Mom and Dad. “How am I going to live through it?”
Dad looked at me. “We dropped you at Lake Forest thirty-six months ago. Those thirty-six months weren’t always easy for you.”
“That’s a complete understatement.” I put another chocolate covered peanut in my mouth.
“Time goes by one day at a time. That’s how you’ll get through this, one day at a time.” Dad took a chocolate covered peanut from the bowl and put it in his mouth.
By the time I left on Wednesday to head back north, Marty was three days closer to coming home.
I stopped in Springfield. I needed to sit with Mom Olsen and look at scrapbooks of Marty as a child. I needed to hear Billy talk about the pranks they pulled when they were young. I needed to sit on the front porch after Mom Olsen went to bed, smoke a joint and eat more brownies. I needed to sit in Billy’s lap and have his strong arms tell me that it was going to be all right, that Marty would come out the other end and so would I.
Mostly I needed Marty. Mostly I needed to put one foot in front of the other and go on. I did.
I was eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with sides of mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw and biscuits, reading the newest edition of Life Magazine when Rick returned from his summer on the reservation. It was good to have him back.
After we hugged and he insulted my choice of food I said, “I got a call from a woman who is looking for a place to live. Sounds like she’ll fit right in. Her name is Ronda.”
He took some mashed potatoes and poured too much pepper on them. “Who is she and how did she get our name?”
“She teaches at Lake Forest Academy and said she ran across someone who teaches at the college who gave her our name and number.” I poured a bunch of gravy over the mashed potatoes, broke off a huge hunk of white meat, dipped it into the gravy and potatoes.
Rick stopped eating. “No way.”
“Why not? The house is too big for the two of us. She seems nice and I could use another female. Against the war and all that.”
“She works at Lake Forest Academy, an elitist school for rich prep school kids.”
I almost choked on the chicken in my mouth. “You teach at an elitist college for kids who went to expensive prep schools.”
Rick stood and took his plate into the kitchen. He turned back to me. “No. She’ll bring her snooty attitude, her English literature, her pants suits, her high heels. She’ll bring steak and Wonder Bread.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t know anything about her.”
“I hate the name Ronda.”
“This is why I didn’t want you moving in. You are an arrogant self-righteous jerk.” I put another big piece of chicken in my mouth.
“I don’t want some snotty rich chick moving in. Especially one you don’t know anything about.”
“Did I you just call her a chick?”
“I did. Ronda. The elitist American Literature chick from Lake Forest Academy.”
I wanted to throw something at him but the only thing within my reach were tubs of mashed potatoes and gravy, two biscuits and a spoon. So instead I yelled at him, “She teaches history, Rick. She doesn’t teach American Literature. And how do you know she wears pants suits?”
“It will change everything having her here.”
“You changed everything having you here. I’m going to call her up and say yes. In the meantime, you need to get laid, Rick.”
“My sex life is none of your business,” Rick said.
I started to laugh, remembering the argument I had with Marty before Rick moved in.
“What’s so funny?” Rick asked.
“Marty and I had a huge argument before you moved in.”
“What did you argue about?”
“I didn’t want a sociology professor moving in here because I knew what would happen. Incense, pot, mason jars full of grains. You turned out okay.”
“I never knew you didn’t want me.”
“I didn’t want you real bad.” I thought about Marty in his cell, wondered if he was pacing. Wondered if he was pushing back his hair. I missed him at that moment. At every moment. But then and there at that moment. The argument was over. “I was wrong about you, Rick. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s meet her and decide.”
When Rick saw her peasant skirt, bare feet and beaded headband, he said yes. Ronda moved into our little white house in the country.
The class of 1974 showed up on campus. They missed the entire 60s. Rallies. Protests, Marches, Campaigns. Raw violence in the streets of Chicago. Occupations. Assassinations. Lotteries. Missing the 60s was like missing it all.
It seemed a life-time ago that I went to my first anti-war meeting in the men’s honor dorm, when I got seduced by a movement, sucked in by Jake, held in by the rest. I just had to make it through the next nine months to graduation and the rest of Marty’s twenty-five months.
Ronda moved into Peter’s second floor bedroom. She grew up in Great Neck, New York on Long Island. The name fit her reputation. In high school she was head cheerleader and voted most popular by the senior class. She wanted to be an airline stewardess but her parents insisted she go to college. They paid the bills so she enrolled at Columbia. It changed her. Maybe that’s why we connected so deeply. We both changed easily. She donated her wardrobe to the Salvation Army and bought bell-bottoms, peasant skirts and fringed moccasins. She majored in history with a minor in secondary education. After she graduated she spent a year in San Francisco and finally decided she needed to head back home. When she saw a job advertised at Lake Forest Academy, she applied. Chicago was half way home.
Once again the small white house outside of Lake Forest filled with life. Plotting, planning, scheming, laughing, jamming, singing, playing cards until early in the morning.
One day I came home and Rick and Ronda were arguing. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Rick. You really think that if you just tell people they can’t do that, they’ll stop?”
“Do what?” I asked. “Stop what?” They ignored me.
“Ronda. Your approach is based on the philosophy of ‘Do your own thing.’ Free float through the universe and hope the rest of the world catches up with you. The world doesn’t work that way.” Rick turned to stir the soup on the stove.
“You are not being fair,” Ronda said. “You make it sound like all I care about is me.” Ronda took a loaf of whole wheat bread out of the oven.
“When will the soup be ready?” I asked Rick. He ignored me. “What are you two even arguing about?”
The both looked at me and didn’t say a word.
“Well, you sound like that most of the time,” Rick said, glaring at her. She glared back.
The argument lasted through dinner. I never figured out what it was about. Who did what and where they did it and who tried to change what and how. I chimed in from time to time but mostly the two of them argued about who was the most right about the things they both agreed on anyway. They argued a lot about such things. I loved them both and couldn’t imagine them not in my life.
We finished dinner and the music started. I brought out my guitar. Ronda used the coffee table as a drum. Rick took to playing a flute he got while visiting the Rosebud. The music filled the house. Filled my soul. Filled my time.
While all this was happening, the war went on. The deaths continued. Fewer soldiers were sent but that didn’t mean that the ones who died were any less dead. Who would be the last American soldier to die in Vietnam? What would that be like?
Things calmed down on college campuses. Summers have a way of doing that. Fewer occupations, less violence. Colleges and universities adapted to demands and many divested in companies that supported the war effort. Hit them in the pocketbook. That’s the way to end this war.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 52,667