Surprise ~ Surprise

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Trenton, New Jersey
It’s early morning as Carole and I sit quietly in her car at the Trenton train station. She’s my girlfriend for over a year now and I love her. We hold hands and kiss. “I’ll call you from Fort Bragg.” Carole drives away, and I step into the station. “Oh. . .” Don Hackett stands there, with his hands jammed in pockets. We know each other from high school, but not that well. “Induction?” “Yeah.” Don’s lanky, got long hair, a barely visible moustache and wears orange beads. He’s a wannabe hippie, but he’ll be a hippie with a buzz cut soon enough. “Am I gonna have to hang out with this guy?”

Philadelphia Induction Center
Along with at least a hundred other guys, Don and I go through the all-day processing that will officially put us into the army. Don and I are both nineteen years old, and so are most of the other guys. Almost half are African American and hail from Philadelphia itself. It’s a wild bunch, with lots of endless chatter and cavorting.

To finish processing in a large classroom-like space, we all sign the final papers and hand them to the Staff Sergeant in charge. He has us raise our right hands and recite the Oath for Induction. He then stacks the papers neatly and declares, “We gotcha!” Don and I glance at each other. “Oh, shit.”
As evening approaches, they herd us onto a train in Philly to head down to Washington, D.C. After a three-hour layover, we reboard a train with sleeper cars. Don and I talk about our families, teachers from school, along with other friends we know who’ve been to Vietnam or are in the service now. We were in high school together for four years and this is the longest conversation we’ve had. He picks up a newspaper to read his horoscope. “I think I’m a Gemini. That means there’re two of me. What’s your sign?” I just shake my head. Don’s not a bad guy, but I’m sure we’ll end up in different companies. Hope I get stationed stateside or maybe go to Germany. Don almost went to Canada – not surprised. I didn’t want to be drafted, but Canada, no way.

Fort Bragg, North Carolina
We arrive and take buses to the Reception Center. The barracks are vintage World War II and are clean and spare. Don and I both smoke Marlboros, so we can help each other in a pinch. Because we’re into Labor Day weekend, we just sit around and are minded by sergeants who’ve been to Vietnam and will leave the army in the weeks and months ahead. How I envy them – they’re almost done, and they’ve been through it.

For Basic Training, Don and I end up in the same company. “Oh, well. . .” The Drill Sergeants are high-octane and scary. Most of them are seasoned combat veterans. Some are Airborne Rangers, and Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne, so expectations are high. Our head Drill Sergeant, Jones – African American, maybe thirty years old — is a tiger. He’s tough; but fair. Low-crawling and pushups are ordered for the slightest infraction. Make a mistake and you’re on the ground.

On the second day, Drill Sergeant Jones asks me, “Did you play football?” “Yes, Drill Sergeant!” “Good, you’re a Squad Leader.” “Okay . . .” Don, later kids me, “Oh, I’ll follow you to hell and back, Sir!” It’s funny, but now I’ve responsibility, which will probably include Don. “Somebody’s gotta look after this guy.”
It doesn’t take long before the physical demands, along with the overall extreme emotional pitch give me a heightened focus, and I’m soon in the best shape of my life. I call Carole once a week. Her voice and sweet words reach me from the neck down. Don doesn’t have a girlfriend and likes to hear about Carole and me. And I love talking about her.

Up at five a.m. every day, we run as a company in Tee-shirts – all one hundred and fifty of us. Drill Sergeant Jones runs circles around the entire company. We finish our run two miles later, and then must salute precisely in front of Drill Sergeant Jones before entering the Mess Hall. Don can barely finish the run. I pull him aside, “Hey, Buddy, run with me from now on.” And he does. “Let’s earn those Marlboros!”

Throughout Basic we’re forced to contend with Drill Sergeant Beetle – yes, Beetle, a huge dark figure, who’s feared, but not respected. Most of what screams out of his mouth is, “Don’t fuck with me!” Beetle’s a brute and hits guys if no one’s looking. Don’t know what happened to him in Vietnam, but he manufactures venom every day. He goes after Don every so often. He hates Don, calls him a hot dog and a scumbag, sending him to the ground repeatedly. Whenever possible, I try to distract Beetle with a dumb question — like a matador bouncing a red cape — and wave Don away.

As the weeks progress, I thrive on the structure and responsibility. Don does only what he has to, to get by, but he’s become a friend. It’s the fifth week, and we qualify at the Rifle Range. The top fifteen shooters get a weekend pass. “What?” To my surprise, I shoot eighth – expert. Don qualifies, but barely. I get on a plane to Philadelphia for one day and that night. My parents and Carole pick me up, and we go home. Carole and I are given privacy and it’s magical. What a stark contrast: to go from the rigors of being pushed beyond your limits as a soldier, to the affection and sensuality of Carole. The next morning, I go back to Fort Bragg. Don wants a blow-by-blow recounting of the night. I just smile.

We’ve got two more weeks of Basic Training. Don and I enjoy a respite to smoke a couple of Marlboros as Sergeant Beetle looks for his next victim. We make sure not to make eye contact with him. Then Don mumbles, “Hey, man, don’t fuck with me.” I crack and laugh to myself. I whisper back, “No, man, don’t you fuck with me!” We giggle like schoolboys. Don’t need to get Beetle’s attention. This interplay continues with Don, especially if I get too serious, and it works every time. Don hates the army and I make sure he’s not picked on.

We finish Basic and are bussed up to Fort Lee, Virginia. It’s late February, when Don and I receive our orders for Vietnam. Right after this, Don finds marijuana and talks me into smoking a joint with him. It’s cold, but we go outside to smoke. The stars are visible, and we ponder the year ahead. Don stares at the starlit sky. “Wow, what’s up there?” Don now appears more vulnerable. As we take in the stars, I say, “Damn, I’m really gonna miss, Carole.” Don brings his gaze down, “Hey, they got R & Rs, man. You can meet her.” “Yeah, I guess.” Neither of us wants to go over there. Wow, I’m stoned and suddenly burst out laughing. As Don starts to laugh, he asks, “Are you thinking about that maniac, Sergeant Beetle?” I nod through the belly laugh.

After two days of in-country processing, Don’s sent to Camp Eagle – 101st Airborne and I head to Chu Lai – the Americal Division. With three months in, I make Sergeant. Fast forward – it’s six months and I’m due for an R & R. I try to go to Hawaii to meet Carole, but only married guys can do that. “Bummer. . .” So, I opt for Australia. With Don up at Camp Eagle, I leave Chu Lai two days early to visit him. I hitchhike via helicopters to Camp Eagle; then I double back to Da Nang to go to Sydney. Throughout this time, my mother and Don’s mother talk on the phone every few days and compare letters. I’ve Don’s address, and I hope he’s there. It’s not like you can call ahead.

I find his company and where he works. I step into a helicopter maintenance hangar, and Don leaps to his feet, “Delate! What the hell are you doing here?” “Can’t believe I took four choppers to see you, buddy – and don’t fuck with me.” We laugh and drink beer that night. Don loves the night sky and the stars, so we walk. I observe, “You’re not wearing your rank. How come?” He looks off, “Got busted — bad attitude.” I lean in. “That should be most of us.” We stop and look up. Don sighs, “We did this in Virginia. I do this every night here. When I look up at the stars, I can breathe.” Don stares up more but appears to be going deeper inside. Vietnam can do that. I’m just glad to see my friend, a friend I didn’t want at one time. In Vietnam, when rockets or mortars aren’t flying in, the nighttime is radiant. “God, I miss Carole.”

Don goes to Missouri, and I go to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to finish our time in the army. I’m near home and back with Carole, but it’s rocky now. So many severe changes on my part. I’m angry, behaving badly, drinking and palling around with too many X-rated people. In a desperate decision, I enroll at the local community college. Now out of the service, Don and I get together to listen to music and put on the soundtrack of Hair, the musical. He closes his eyes and hums along with the song “Good Morning Starshine.” I snap my fingers. “Hey, Don, go to college with me.” “No.” “Are you just gonna smoke dope and rock out?” He doesn’t answer. As he opens his eyes, he asks, “What for?” I argue, “The war changed our lives. Now it’s up to us to create the next change. That makes sense, right? Come on.” He rolls his head around, “Okay, why not?” “That’s the spirit; we’ll do this together!” I change the record, putting on All Things Must Pass by George Harrison.

A couple of months into the first semester, I feel purposeful and I love what I’m learning. The drift between Carole and me grows. She loves sit-coms, and I’m fast absorbing Herman Hesse and Hemingway. I haven’t seen Don around campus that much. So, we grab some time in the Student Union and drink coffee. “Hey, Don, I met Isaac Asimov the other night.” Depressed, he looks at his unopened books and rolls a joint. “No more, I can’t do this.” I frown, “No, no, man, what are you gonna do?” He shakes his head. “You know how to get with the program, Brian, I don’t.” “What the hell are you talkin’ about? I’m half out of my goddam mind. College is saving my life. Hey, we got through Vietnam and we made it home!” Don holds up the rolled joint — I slam my fist on the table and leave. The next day, Don quits college and finds a job at a warehouse.

After that, Don and I fall out of touch. Maybe a year later I learn that Don, driving a forklift, had an accident and was killed. “What? No. . .” Don was a buddy, a good friend and I’m numb. Why am I not feeling anything? I should be crying.

A couple of months later, I’m sleeping and I dream. I dream that I’m floating out among the stars. In the distance I see somebody else. It’s Don. We float toward each other. As Don gets close, I hear, “Hey, man, don’t fuck with me.” I laugh, “No, man, don’t you fuck with me.” As our laughing subsides, Don looks around, “Isn’t it beautiful here?” My eyes water. “Yeah, it is.” After a long silence, I ask, “Are you, okay?” He smiles. “Yeah, I am, you?” I nod. “I am. I’m good,” I say. As we float away from each other, I wake up. And I cry for my friend.

As I look back, I’m very grateful Don and I became friends. And how fortunate that I got to visit Don in Vietnam and how lucky for me that Don visited me in the stars. Surprise ~ Surprise. I still miss him.


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