Chapter 49—"Light My Fire"
Soon it would be 1971. The year I would graduate from college. The year I would continue to wait for Marty to get out of prison. The year I would figure out how to spend my time, start my career, hang tight. Four and a half months done. Eighteen percent. Eighty-two percent to go.
I visited Mom and Dad for three days over Christmas but couldn’t stay long. I had to return north to visit Marty. I drove to Springfield to spend New Year’s Eve with Mom Olsen, Billy and Julie. I sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of hot chocolate and eating her famous brownies. She sprinkled half of the brownies with crushed walnuts, the other half with powdered sugar. Billy sat at the end of the table and Julie stood behind him with her arms draped over his shoulders. It took me four minutes before I noticed the diamond on Julie’s finger. I almost choked on the bite of brownie in my mouth as I jumped up and grabbed her hand. “Why didn’t you tell me the second it happened? Does Marty know? Why didn’t he tell me?”
“We wanted to tell you in person and we’re going up Sunday with you to tell Marty.”
I gave Billy a kiss on the cheek and looked at Julie. “Are you sure about this guy?”
Julie leaned down and kissed Billy on the other check. “Well, I’m counting on having you as a sister-in-law. That’s why I said yes.” Billy turned around and pulled her down for a kiss.
“A year ago Billy said, ‘We still have a few things to figure out.’ Guess you figured them out.”
Julie leaned down and put her chin on Billy’s head, her arms again wrapped around his neck. Billy took her hands. “I guess you could say that.” Julie blushed.
Five games of Hearts later, the ball dropped in Times Square and Mom Olsen called it a night, kissing us all and telling us not to stay up too late. We were determined to stay up until the real midnight. Three handed Hearts was more brutal. My dad taught me to be brutal in Hearts. “Always try to shoot the moon,” he said. I got stuck with twenty-four points once, shot the moon once, and most of the time ended up in the middle.
Right before midnight Billy asked if I wanted to go to Detroit with him the end of January to attend the Winter Soldier Investigation sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Fueled by Lt. William Calley’s court-martial and trial for the brutality of the massacres at My Lai, the Vets were gathering to tell their stories.
“There are so many stories to tell. So many atrocities,” he said
“Sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot,” I said.
“I have to get rid of this shit I carry with me every day. I’m thinking if I publically say it, I can put it to sleep.”
“You only obeyed orders,” I said to Billy.
“That’s the problem. The orders are criminal.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Mostly I asked myself if I could hear it. What could be worse than having a buddy die in your arms? I thought of Hook and his stories. I missed him still, always. He’d go. I could too.
“Then I’m in.”
Midnight came and went. I knew Marty, if he were awake, thought of me.
After a trip to wish Marty a Happy New Year, Rick, Ronda and I set off for Winnipeg. It was damn cold there.
Suddenly we were hugging Peter, introducing him to Ronda. He seemed very much home. Suki had a new liter of pups, four in all. A beautiful woman walked into the house. Peter introduced Susie and tenderly put his hand on her belly. “And baby makes three.” I looked around the house that Peter built on the land. A handmade crib stood in the corner. A rocking horse lacked only the varnish. Fresh bread cooled on the counter. Susie and Peter looked at each other.
“I’m jealous,” I said. “You’re never coming home.”
Peter kissed me on the forehead. “I am home, Beck. I’m right where I belong.”
We shared a dinner of bread, soup and fresh radishes. We told Peter about Marty and the trial, a trial by tears, a trial of tears, a trail of tears. I showed him pictures of baby Dennis.
“Those two years with you were the best of my life,” Peter said. “I will always cherish them. I don’t miss them but I will always cherish them.”
I cherished it too, the people I lived with and the things we went through. We went through a lot. I don’t think I could have made it without them. Generations went through war and depression before, dust storms and dance crazes. But Vietnam? Kennedy? King? Kennedy? Kent State? Revolution on college campuses? Riots? Police brutality? Boycotts? Strikes? Death? I wonder if future generations will ever understand or care. When they look back, what will they say? You tried but you didn’t finish the job?
Ronda, Rick and I spent three days exploring the commune, touring the green house and learning about the communal farming that produced enough food for the season. I was in limbo. Everyone had a place to go and I was suspended in space waiting for Marty, waiting for my life.
Peter and Susie stayed at that commune north of Winnipeg. Their baby girl, Joy, grew up there. When President Carter, on his first day of office in 1977, declared amnesty for the more than 100,000 who went abroad during the Vietnam War years, they stayed in Canada.
Marty made the best of his situation in prison and seemed to thrive. How was that possible? But that was Marty. Scheming, plotting, strategizing, analyzing, making friends. Although I took cookies every couple of weeks, we never got back to that dirty gritty room with the green chipped painted walls.
I told Marty about commune plans and our visit to Peter’s. “What do you think? When I graduate, I could build us a house with the money I have, live on the commune. And when you get out, we could move into our little house and never leave.”
“That sounds like an idea,” he said as my feet went up his pants leg and his hand grabbed mine. “God, I miss seeing you every day. When this is over I am never leaving your side.”
“I’m right there with you,” I said as the hour came to a close.
When I got out to my car I sat and cried and cried and cried. Why is the time going so damn slow? It’s Catch-22 boring right now.
By the time I got back to the house a blizzard raged outside. I hoped someone built a fire and put pot of tea to warm on the stove. That’s what I wanted to see. That’s what I expected to see. Instead I saw Ronda and Rick cuddling on the couch. When I walked in, Ronda jumped up. Not soon enough.
“You have got to be kidding me.” I looked back and forth at the two of them. “How long has this been going on?”
Ronda said, “Oh, about three hours.”
Rick grinned from the couch. “Well, it’s actually been going on a bit longer for me.”
“Me too, actually,” Ronda said.
“You didn’t want her to move in,” I said to Rick.
“That was before I met her. I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.”
“That is not true,” I said. “You two bicker night after night.” I turned to Ronda. “I am not giving up my late night music jams for anything, bedroom or not. Furthermore.” There always seemed to be a furthermore. “How come I didn’t know you were even slightly interested in Rick? You always told me he irritated you.”
Rick said, “You talked about me? How sweet.”
“Shut up, Rick. It wasn’t sweet at all. She detested you. This relationship is doomed from the start.” I turned to Ronda again, “How could you keep this from me?”
She grinned. “I wasn’t keeping anything from you.”
Rick interrupted, “I was.”
“Shut up, Rick. This isn’t about you.”
“This morning we started talking about the commune. We drove out to the piece of land that I had been looking at. We came back and ate lunch then started playing some music. He suggested some coffee. I got up, he got up and then, I’m not exactly sure what happened, we accidently bumped into each other.”
“On purpose,” Rick said.
“I said shut up, Rick. Ronda is telling the story.”
“He rubbed against my arm. It all became crystal clear in that one moment. The rest is history.”
I turned to Rick. “Now you talk. Tell me your side of the story.”
“It’s pretty much as she told it except she left out the part where I’ve been trying to bump into her for a while now.’
“You two are the most unlikely couple I know. Ronda and Rick doesn’t even sound good together. Two names that begin with the same letter. That’s not allowed.” I looked back and forth at the two of them. They looked so happy. “So are you moving up or is he moving down?”
Simultaneously Rick said “up” and Ronda said “down.” “Guess we should talk about it, huh?” Ronda said. I loved new love. I was jealous.
Eventually Ronda moved down to Rick’s room and the second-floor bedroom stayed empty. When I felt lonely on the second floor I went up into my attic room and lay on the bed, looking around at the walls. The nails to hold my clothes were still in the wall. I could see the tack holes by the light switch where I hung the pictures I took from Jeff’s room. One McCarthy poster still hung on the wall. Paint had peeled off where I hung the other posters. That was a long time ago. That was lovers ago. It didn’t make me sad anymore. But when I felt sad missing Marty, for some reason that place surrounded me.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 55,149