The Men I Served With

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July 2, 2013 by jamesessj

Charlie Dunston was eighteen and from Billings, Montana. He bit the big one in Da Nang. Not the big one as in death, but the big one as in this really big watermelon we found at a street vendor. But there was a grenade inside that blew off most of his moustache. He was never the same, after. Wouldn’t eat fruits of any kind. Not even grapes, which a grenade would have to be tiny to fit inside of. Last I heard Charlie was living in Key West with Herbert Ingraham, who’d been his sergeant and then, later, his live-in lover. Or roommate. Or physical therapist. I never did get clear what their relationship was. They were living together in Key West, anyway, last I heard. Or maybe they were living separately in two different towns called Key and West. To tell you the truth, I’m making a lot of this up. It’s the medication.

My least-favorite war buddy was always Ginger Rogers. Don’t let the name fool you — Ginger wasn’t a woman and he wasn’t a spice. He was six-foot-six of the meanest man you ever met, and that’s including Nestor Buenavista, who once punched a mirror for looking at him wrong. Ginger would frighten little kids for the fun of it and then bray like a donkey as he laughed. Or maybe that was his asthma. He still frightened little kids, though. Or maybe it was his asthma that frightened them, him clutching his chest and getting all red the way he did. That could explain it. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t mean, though — Davey Sanders asked him what his hometown was and Ginger said, “Hell.” We looked it up later and there is a Hell (it’s in Nebraska), so Ginger could have been telling the truth, but at the time we just thought, “Holy cow, Ginger’s from Hell.” That’ll color your opinion of a guy, lemme tell you, finding out he’s from Hell. It’s hard to come back from that, opinion-wise. Ginger died at Normandy, I heard. Not in battle, just there on the beach.

Then there was Ricky Fontana. Ricky was my best friend for a while, before he started taking drugs. Paxil, Xanax, Lithium — the medics had him on every pill you ever heard of, to fight his depression. He wasn’t depressed over the war, though — he was depressed over the Mets’ performance in the postseason. He popped pills like they were M&Ms. One minute he’d be wildly happy, the next minute he’d be sobbing and asking who in their right mind would have traded away Nolan Ryan. Ricky was the best soldier I ever knew — he ran into heavy enemy fire to bring back Chinese for me and the other guys, and then when he saw they’d forgotten the soy sauce, he ran back. We loved Ricky, even after the Mets dropped four in a row to the Phillies and he fell into a tailspin. He died fighting in Afghanistan. A title bout, versus Buster Douglas.

Certain men, when facing death on a daily basis, turn into something ugly. That was the case with Dexter Hadley, who got uglier every day, till all we had to do was point his face at the front line and our unit could claim another hundred enemy casualties. Trouble was, sometimes Dex pointed his face toward us — and claimed another hundred casualties, every one of them friendly. Dex bounced around from unit to unit until finally he was killed by a sniper who mistook him for a plate of spaghetti. Why the sniper was shooting at a plate of spaghetti is a mystery that’s never been fully explained. Dex’s daughter Desi comes to our reunions, and the irony is that she’s the prettiest girl you ever saw. Unless you saw Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Homer Gosley was African American, with skin so dark you just assumed he was someone else’s shadow. He had a beautiful singing voice, but no breath control to speak of — couldn’t hold a note for more than two seconds, and if he did even that he’d come up gasping. Songs that took four minutes in the original, Homer’d do ’em in less than one. He could belt out an entire opera while he took a leak. His brother Simon was the exact opposite, could hold his breath for hours but couldn’t carry a tune if the tune was his daughter and she was trapped in a burning building. Homer and Simon made it home in one piece, or two pieces, I guess, since there were two of them. When they came home they fell in love with the same woman and ended up marrying her. Homer got her Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and Simon got her Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Sundays she got for herself. They live in Portland now and have seven kids, half of whom are Homer’s and half of whom are Simon’s.

But if we’re talking tragedy, the one name that has to come up is that of Wilbur Emu. Wilbur came from a broken home — it had been torn in half by a tornado — and though he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, he was also a stone-cold killer. When it got cold he’d go outside and kill stones. Can that be right? How do you kill a stone? Maybe it’s the medication again. Anyway, Wilbur Emu. Geez, even the name sounds made-up. Wilbur would sit up in a tree all night long with his rifle in his hands and stare through the scope at the enemy eating their dinner or listening to soft jazz and then he’d put a bullet directly through their earlobes. The higher-ups were furious with him, saying why didn’t he just aim a little to the left and put that bullet through their brains, but Wilbur’s response was that no one who’s had a bullet shot through his earlobe is ever going to come anywhere near a war situation ever again. As evidence he showed us his own earlobes, which usually he kept hidden beneath heavy woolen camo muffs — but his lobes weren’t there. They’d been shot off in the last war. That shut the higher-ups up. We asked Wilbur later how it had happened. He’d been eating his dinner, he said, listening to soft jazz, when suddenly his earlobes disintegrated in a red mist. “I swore I’d never go anywhere near a war situation again,” he said. “But Wilbur,” we said, “you are near a war situation. You are in a war situation. You volunteered.” Wilbur stared at us with sad eyes. “That is the tragedy,” he said.

One man I served with later became a woman — or, as he put it, was a woman all along, trapped in a man’s body. Gerry (he kept the same name when he changed genders) was never the effeminate type, except insofar as once a month he’d get extremely argumentative. He liked cars and steaks and football and lawn darts, just like all the other guys. He even frequented the red-light district, though in war-time, what with the flares, almost every district is lit up in red. I caught up with Gerry (he has a very fast walk) in Billings, Montana, where he was visiting Charlie Dunston‘s family. Seems he and Charlie had been really good friends. Gerry was afraid of how Charlie would react to the news that Gerry was now Gerry. Charlie’s mother had reassured Gerry that Charlie was a broad-minded boy who lived in Key West with his…friend…Herbert. Or did Charlie live in Key and Herbert live in West? Or vice-versa? Charlie’s mother wasn’t sure. She may have been making it up. Whatever the case, Gerry is happy now, though he is unmarried, unemployed, and homeless.

The guy I miss the most is Pete MacGregor. “Pistol Pete,” we used to call him, though he preferred a submachine gun. Pete was a great guy, the kind of guy who’d buy you a beer with his last dollar and then only remind you of it two or three times when you next got paid. He was an expert marksman, could shoot the dot off an i in 8-point font at five hundred yards. But he was crazy in love with a woman named Hunger, whose parents had forbidden her to get involved with a serviceman. He ran off with her anyway, until their legs got tired, then they hopped on a bus. They lived in base housing, a beautiful home decorated entirely in caulk, and Hunger was soon pregnant with their first child. The baby was born without a face, however, Pete’s fellow soldiers were soon making cruel remarks about Pete “shooting blanks.” Pete started drinking and wound up taking a gig as a mercenary in Sri Lanka. No one’s heard from him since, though rumors abound. He was one of Saddam Hussein’s body doubles. He went up a Cambodian river on a secret mission to kill an American colonel. He started his own religion. He started his own restaurant. He started smoking. He quit smoking. He died in bed. He died in a bunk bed. He changed his name to Submachinegun MacGregor. He had plastic surgery and is now a dead ringer for himself, but twenty years younger. Who knows what became of Pete? Well, obviously Pete does.

All these names. All these faces. (Except for Pete’s baby.) Homer and Simon and Gerry and Charlie and Ricky and Ginger…so many memories. I was having dinner with Captain Leland Lupree, our CO from back in the day, and he said he couldn’t remember any of these guys. He couldn’t even remember me, and was this close to calling the MPs. I told him about the medication I was on. He laughed and said it was okay, he was on medication, too. Just as I might have been making these guys up, he might have been making them…down? I said, That’s what battle does to a man. You can never go back to what you were before. Captain Lupree nodded. War is hell, he said. No, I said. Hell is a town in Nebraska.


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the author, if he lives that long

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July 2013
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