I ain’t a vain man y’understan, so when I say that there was a time when jess’bout every American knew my name it’s cause it is a plain an simple fact, Lord’s truth. I dare say some of the folks over in U-rope knew my name too, but then I guess supposin on things like that is vain, so for that I make my apologies. Well time moves on and I was soon forgot which suits me damn fine, and you will have t’pardon me for the odd cuss here an there. Time moves on but some folks memories do not; you know the kind, always a talkin’ bout the old days an how things is so bad now an kids have no respect and such like. Well I don’t go with any of that, fer most of us time now is a damn sight better than when I was a kid – there I go , cussing again. I knows for a FACT that things is better. Anyways, if I keep on with that I’m gonna get really riled up an that ain’t what I intend to talk to you bout.
When I was seven years old I came home from School again – always walked even tho it was three miles each way; the School bus, I learned pretty fast, was no good place to be. Where was I, yep, I know, I came home, pants ripped, a trace of blood and snot still on my face, my school shirt looked like I had been a rollin in the storm drain –which I had. The sight of me like this was nuthin new. Momma would take my old clothes and with some kind of magic that only Mommas know, they would be ready the next day, lip spickeddy spotless, all sewed back up like they jess came outta the box. But this time, for some reason, Pa decided to have a little ‘man on man’ talk, he said. That sounded good to me, aged seven, my yes, man to MAN. I never forgot what he said to that time neither. He said, “Son, none of us chooses to come into this world and when we do come, none of can choose to be a King or a bum or whatever – you is what you is. Well one thing is a choice and that is that Momma and me, well we really wanted a child and we prayed to the Good Lord, and he gave us you, your two brothers and your sister. The Lord heard us and blessed us many times over. We all love you, love all of you, with all our hearts but you have to understand that folks have a place in life, like the Kings and the Queens and the bums and the football players – and some of them are bums too (he winked here cos I knew what team he was jibbing). Well we have our place too and its one reason you don’t wanna ride the School bus. As you grow now you gonna find a whole lot more reasons, but no matter how tough things get, know that back here, home, you can be a King if you want.”
I was flipping Burgers in the local J-J outlet – you know the one, the one with that stupid thing they do on the TV “Jay Jay,Jay Jay, drive-thru take-out, eat-in, whatever you say”
Now company rules says that there muss all aways be two people at any time on account of the danger from the fat fryers. They ain’t kidding bout that neither, damn things look pre-war to me – no not that war, I mean World War 2! It happens that my boss likes his time in his bed –he shacked up with the Woman who drifted into town last year and rented the old Erickson place – but you don’t wanna hear about all that I guess. Anyway, he spossed to be in at 7 am when the night shift go home and I start – he aint. Not ever. On a good day he might make it in before the mid-day rush – but not as many times as I can count all my fingers and toes. So most days I work double but I gets to be my own Boss, and I kinda like that. It was thirty after seven, I had em standing in line five deep as well as three trucks backed up at the drive-thru window. They was all a cussin like they always do and I was running around, trying my best not to take a dive into the fat fryer (the Company was concerned bout getting they assess sued –didn’t give one tiny damn bout us, or so I figured). I was getting both lines down – shoot, they was only waitin bout 4 minutes a time which to me, is mighty fast food, when I noticed a guy come join the line. Now jess cos its me a frying and a flippin and pulling Cokes don’t mean I don’t have a good set of eyes in my head an don’t mean I don’t use ‘em. I guess I didn’t need to say that, not on account of, well y’all know and if y’don’t, well I’m telling it now. The guy was wearing a suit that I could see was hand stitched and probly cost more’n six months of my wages (before robbin-folk-blind- taxes), I also noticed the silk shirt and the handmade – they had to be handmade, fancy tooled cowboy boots too. I noticed his eyes were a real steely blue – set his face like somebody you shouldn’t mess with, and he had a kinda familiar look too, but I couldn’t place him, ‘sides, I had enough to do without worrying about things like that. He was carryin a snow white briefcase – I ain’t never seen one like that before or since. When, in a while, I got to touch it it felt like the softest kid leather you ever touched. He was bout Six-one – a tall guy, and I guess maybe 180 pounds and he looked lean an fit – no Burger ever ended its greasy moment in that mouth I reckoned (wrongly again as it happens). When the guy in front of him was picking up his order, a- cussin and a-shouting at me for been so damn slow, Whitecase went over to the door and opened it, with a smile, to let loud-n-cussin-mouth out, then turned the door sign to read ‘CLOSED’, shut the door and flipped the lock. Afore he could say ‘Good day I had reached under the counter and came up with my trusty baseball bat- maybe this guy made his money robbin’ small outta town joints like this – hell, what was I s’posed to think ? Before I could make my threat out loud, he smiled, his eyes had a kinda twinkle too – didn’t look mean at all, more like an old buddy saying ‘hi’ after a long time away. He held up his hands and spoke in mock (not mock-ing) fear, just fun like.
“Whoa! Easy there Elijah. Don’t you recognize me ?” I looked at him real good and I was sure that if I ever saw some guy with as fat a billfold as this guy must have, well thenI’d remember him real good – and yet there was something...”Well if you ain’t about robbin’ me you can go right back to my door, unlock it and turn the sign around on your way out” I said with as much authority as I dared. And he kept right on smiling, “and anyway” I added, “how come you know my name ?” and I gave him ‘the look’, you know, the one your Pa gives you when he knows you is a lyin. His hand moved inside his jacket and a grabbed for the bat again and was swinging it back to crack his head like a ripe old melon, but the hand came back with a real nice looking billfold, which he opened. Whitecase took out a card and handed it to me. I took it with one hand but kept my friend that bat held tight in the other while I took a peek at the card, and that’s when I dropped the bat. It bounced off the counter, hit the side of the fryer, and rolled under the metal-sink-on-legs we had. I looked at the card again and I swear to this day that my face was pure white, “Oh shit...I mean...I don’t rightly use then words Sir...but...well...oh My Lord...”, I was coming out with all kinds of stuff while I was trying to think what I should say, “ I guess this means I’m fired, huh ?” was the best I could do, but he kept right on smiling and I just stared at the business card of J.J Austin – yep, Jay Jay his-self, right there in front of my counter, or better, his counter.
“Why don’t you fix us both some coffee and we can sit and have ourselves a bit of a jaw and a smoke ?”
“Yessir! Yessir, right away Mister Austin Sir” I replied, rushing out with a cloth to make sure a table really was spotless - I took great pride in that, in the fact that the only grease in the place was in that old fryer, but I still went out and polished a table, “You take a seat right here and I’ll be a few minutes” I said, pulling out a chair for him, and I swear his smile still had a twinkle in his eye – not a mocking one y’undertan, the kinda look when your Momma gives you a present and she just knows how you is gonna be so excited when you opens it up – that kinda twinkle. Still, I had no idea why the Owner – not the President of the Company or even the man who reported to him, but the Big Fish his self, was doin’ in this outta the way, sorry lookin’ diner on the road that the Inter-State kindly put outta business when it threw its concrete five lanes right around my town. I served a whole lotta fries when they was building it, and then they all went away, as did most of the town.
I set down the coffee and stayed standin’ there, respectful, and poured it – usually it comes in those nasty white plastic cups but I had a coupla regular mugs we employees used and I always kept them nice and clean too.
“Sit down, sit down”, he said as he motioned to the chair, “Mmm, that’s not a bad cup of coffee – seems this part of the product ain’t at all bad.”
I looked at him as best I dared I could,”I guess...what with the bat and all that, and the fac’ that I never knew who you is...well I guess you’re gonna fire me, huh, Mister Austin ?”
The smile vanished and his face took on a real serious look and I knew what was coming, or I thought I knew.
“Well now, there’s a few things. Company policy with hold-ups is to hand over the money and call the Cops when it’s safe to do so. Number two is that there must be two people at least on duty and I only see you...”but he could see my face falling more with every word and he suddenly laughed right out loud, I mean real loud.
“Hell Eli – is it okay to call you Eli?”
I nodded, numbly, confused a might too.
“Hell, I was just joshing. Let me tell you what brings me this way and then, I hope, you have story to tell me that will, well, fill in the gaps, if you’ve a mind to ?”
I didn’t know what on God’s Earth he was talkin’ bout so I just nodded again, “So I’m not fired then ?” was all I said.
“No, nothing like that – well not for you, that’s for sure. Let me tell you a little about the Company. I sit on my office at the top of the tallest building you ever saw, way back East and a whole Army of people, people like you, are out there making me money. It’s really that simple at times – but running this whole thing, well that ain’t so simple. I have managers and under them more managers and so it goes on. We are opening up three new outlets a week, every week. Imagine that! We are in eighteen States and plan to be in all of ‘em within the next three years, Europe too. We’re growing like corn under the sun. Every now and then I like to pick someplace and go see how things are running for myself- you see all I get a reports, I get a lot of reports. I know all about that lazy bum that I pay to manage this place, I know he ain’t paying you what you should be getting too, and I also know that the guy who manages him”, he looked at his watch then, a real fancy one like with lots of dials and stuff, “correction, who used to manage this whole State. He got fired about five minutes ago. Your Boss is gonna get fired in about another thirty minutes. Which leaves you and this diner.”
“So I am getting a pink slip then ?” I said, thinkin’ he was just messin’ with me like folk always had. My face must have looked just about as miserable as I felt – fellow goin’ roun’ firing everybody an’ all – we all got a livin’ to earn.
“No. This has nothing to do with you getting fired so forget all that nonsense, quite the opposite in fact, but I’ll get to that. Take a good look now – do you know me from someplace else, say, if we were both twenty years younger and I was wearing a Marine Officer’s uniform...? Do you know me now?” He reached across with a hand to reassure me , smilin’ as he spoke, “and don’t worry about a thing, you have nothing to worry about.”
Before I could think ‘bout that I heard Frank McCrae a cursin’ and yellin’ at the drive-thru window like he always did, every mornin’,“Hey! Any you numb-nuts in there gonna serve me my Breakfast! Hot Damn! I got a long days work ahead of me so get your ass here right NOW!” My ex-Marine Boss caught my arm as I made to stand up, “You stay put Eli, I’ll go see your customer.” Well he kinda wandered over to the hatch and lowered his voice so as I couldn’ hear nuthin’ but the fat spittin’ in the fryer. I have no idea what he said to Frank, but Frank lit outta there, the hatch got locked shut, and on his way back to the table, the fryer go turned off too.
“That fryer takes an hour or so to really get goin’ when it’s cold, so when I need to open up aggin, that’ll be a long wait”, I said.
“Don’t worry about it for today. We’re closed”.
“I cant take a day out, I needs the money”, I protested.
“You’ll get paid – and what’s owing you too. Now, have you got a handle on me yet ?”
I had, it came back to me real quick – it was watching him walk over to that hatch, “Yeah, I know you now, but you is three hours and eight minutes early - if that old clock on the wall is right; I do believe it’s always a might fast when it comes to my goin’ home time.”
He shook his head slowly, “Yes, that was a sorry day, not only for the US Army but for the United States too, a very sorry day.”
“You mean then, or what happened before ?”
“I guess both – after all, couldn’t have been one without the other, and that’s what I want to talk to you about, if you’ve a mind ?”
I looked at him again real good. ‘Look into a man’s eyes if you want to see into his heart’, my Pa told me once. So I looked and I liked what I saw, which was a might confusing. “Damn! Excuse me Lord. I stood across that jumped up courtroom, directly opposite you for seventeen minutes and forty-two seconds.”
“To my great shame, I never forgot that either – fastest Court Marshall in US Army history – Navy and Air Force too, and I’m real sorry for that.”
“Sorry Huh ? They railroaded me through that non-sense trial and stopped short of the tar and feathers – they’d have dun that too if they had a brush!”
“When Lieutenant Mallory came in with his head all freshly bandaged, and Sergeant Jackson hobbled in on his crutch – well their testimonies finished it really – of course, nobody knew the real truth of it then. And there’s the thing. I was set-up too. They pulled me in with strict orders to make it quick because you were as guilty as hell. Later, well later everybody knows you were innocent and that movie they made set you up as a Grade1 hero, but you didn’t want none of it – you just disappeared, and now, here we are.”
I laughed, a polite laugh, not mocking. “The movie! Oh yeah. I seed that when it got to HBO – where in hell – sorry Lord – did that get that story from. Hah, that was real funny and Malllory and Jackson came out okay too. I laughed a lot about that!”
“I went through West Point with Aubury Mallory – he was a son-of-a-bitch then and I wanted to know how the Mallory I knew was suddenly a Hero. I started to dig around right after they shipped you out, but all I got was closed doors and orders to leave things be. But I didn’t. Those seventeen minutes...”
“and forty-two seconds”, I added
“..And forty-two seconds, told me a whole lot about you and I could see right off that things were a little too ‘right’, and another thing, I train and fight with the best – the United States Marine Corps – and we know a thing or two about what makes a man the man he is. By the end of the month just about every soldier on the base was fed up with Mallory’s tale of bravery, and most of the Officers had had enough of his free-loading on the subject – but nobody knew him well enough to think that he was doing nothing but bragging. His men, your platoon, were questioned – it was quick and easy because they all said the same thing, and you can guess what that was. It was about five weeks after the trial that they shipped me out to a base in Mildenhall. You ever heard of that ?”
I shook my head, “No Sir, can’t say I have. Kansas way maybe ?” The ‘Sir’ just fell right in there.
“No, not Kansas – its over in England, a long way from anyplace and a good place to put a guy like me who insists on asking the wrong people the wrong questions. I quit the Army the next year.”
“And here you is!”
“Here I am. So. You willing to tell me what really happened – you know, the stuff that you only told one other person ?”
“You mean The President ? Hell yeah, why not, but you got to tell me something too. Do you know what happened to the Lieutenant and to Jackson ? I’m kinda curious now. I never thought about ‘em much over the years - my Pa told me that if I gets to hate then in the end, that’s all I have in me, so I let things be, but now, seeing you again, well, I jest wondered ? At the time I was told to leave things be - no good upsetting the people all over again, would be a bad thing for the country they said, so I did like I was asked to do.”
“Sure I know that and I am surprised they didn’t want to tell you back then, after all, it would make no difference but then, I can see the bad PR side of it too, you know, Heroes the one day – but you could say that they got what was coming to them”, he replied with a wry smile, “Jackson pulled some R&R in Bangkok, that would be around a week after. Three days later the Thai Police found him in his hotel room with his throat slit from ear to ear, so neatly you would think a surgeon had done it. It turned out that Jackson had rolled back in the night before, so drunk he couldn’t stand, helped along by his company – a local Ladyboy. You heard about them ?”
I nodded.” Yeah, I heard about them – never met one, not that I knows of”.
“Not that you would, hard to tell. Anyway, Jackson woke up the next day and found that the balls in his hand were not his own, so he started to beat up on the kid -the Ladyboy – who pulled a knife, and there you go.”
“I guess that was as bad a come-uppance as you might not expect. Amen to Sergeant Jackson.”
“As bad ? No, not really. The Marines are a close-knit bunch of guys and they kept in touch with me, over in England. Now this would be around six weeks since the trial – if you can call it that. General Copeland arrived, no notice, no warning, no escort, just a Huey Gunship dropping down into the camp as if it had just flown a mission. They say that the General was out of that Helicopter and shouting orders before it even touched down – just jumped clean out, and boy, was he mad. It was not long after that, that you got out, and the rest, well the rest is up to you. All anybody really knew was that the Commanding Officer was chin deep in the brown stuff for something to do with your Court Marshall.”
“There were some good guys too in my platoon. Sometimes I find myself a-wonderin’ what happened to those guys and I gets to thinkin’ that one fine day I may go look some of ‘em up.”
“I have some real bad news about your old platoon” replied JJ with a sad look in his eyes, “A week later, you know after you had been shipped out, a shiny new Lieutenant came in, direct from the USA. A Gung-ho kinds guy, you know what I mean. Well he set out on his first patrol – the CO told him to make it a day out and a day back in as it was his first time in the wonders of the Vietnam jungle and also to remember that he had no Jungle experience yet so be sure to listen to your Top-Kick, a replacement for Sergeant Jackson, may he rest in peace. They went out at first light and no sign of them was ever found – just vanished off the face of the earth – which was easy enough to do out there.”
I guess my face fell, “All those guys....that’s real sad, and I’ll bet Mallory ended up as a General too huh ?”
“No, no he didn’t, not at all. When I said that nobody knew about the General’s visit, that wasn’t exactly true. Nobody ever found out how Mallory got wind, but everybody figured that he did. He was still on sick leave, what with...but the night before the visit he pulled together the new platoon that he was to take on and high tailed it out of camp. Those guys were a lot luckier than your guys – they all made it back, somehow, except Mallory that is.. They said that all Mallory wanted to do was head North – said that if he went much further he would cross the border – which is believed to have been his intention. You ever come across Punji stick traps ?”
I nodded my head,”Oh yeah, few times. Never would’ve believed that bamboo could be made so sharp.”
“Mallory got firsthand experience of that – a whole mess of them strapped to a tree branch. He went past, tripped it, and the thing stuck him like a hog roast. Being so far North, they buried him right there and finally, turned back.”
“It sort of figures. Everybody who saw what happened that day was dead – I should still be in the hole in Leavenworth – but I ain’t” I said, but my Momma would’ve known that twinkle in my eye for when I wasn’t zactly tellin all.
“ Mallory and Jackson were left as they were, as far as everybody knew, Heroes to the end. So come on Eli, what happened next ? What really went down in Nam and how come you got sprung out, as you rightly should’ve been? I saw that movie they made – looked like a whole lot of crap to me.”
I stood up and went back to the counter, “I’ll fetch us some fresh coffee and then, well then I guess I’ll say my piece. You the boss, and I appreciate now what you was tryin’ to do. Only right I tells you all about it.” I was back at the table, set down the coffee, and began to recount something that was as clear then as the day it happened. Now don’t get me wrong – I ain’t saying I wakes up nights screaming I is back in Nam – no Sir, the Good Lord lets me sleep real good, but there ain’t nothing wrong with my memory.
“We broke through the Jungle on the top of a hill. Below us was a small river – I have no idea of its name and it don’t matter none. There was a small village at the side of the river – a dozen or so huts built up on poles, fires burning judging by the smoke from a few of them. There was some pigs and chickens too I saw, but no people – not a one, and not a sound neither, save for grunting and clucking. Whole place looked deserted. There was some clothes hanging from a line strung between two huts and a couple of canoes pulled up by the river – but no people. Well by then there was a kinda pattern. Every time we hit on a village, I got to be point man – that meant I had to go in and check it out before the others came on in, then the Lieutenant and Sergeant Jackson would lead – all tough and sharp, and they would call in the rest of the guys. Me ? I usually pulled guard, someplace unpleasant. ”
“What ! The rest of the platoon, didn’t they say anything , anything at all?”
“One guy, Bronski did. I’ll tell you about what happened to him in a while. The day before we had made a contact – weren’t no fight really, four VCs and we cut them to ribbons. Well Bronski had trouble with his carbine – it kept jamming, so the Lieutenant had him swap with my. Bronski was none too happy ‘bout that, but he had to what he was told – Lieutenant Mallory was real fond of drawing his automatic to explain how he could shoot any one of us for mutiny if he so chose – and he would too, we all knew that. Bonski wanted to give me back my own weapon this time, but Mallory shut him up, so while the guys got themselves undercover, down I went.
I already seen a lot of places after the VC had passed by and this was the same, or I thought it was. First hut – men, women and kids, slaughtered – and you could see that the pretty ones had provided a lot of fun before they got to die. Next hut the same, and so on. I don’t need to describe what I saw in detail; they was all much the same, so I turned around and waved Mallory and Jackson to come on in while I went into the last hut – the one furthest away. I stepped inside that one and it was real bad, lot of kids together – I don’t wanna go there, but then I see one of them was looking at me, was trying to say something. Damn! We might save one and I thanked the Lord for her. I rested my carbine against the wall, right by the door, and then went over to kneel by her, but she managed to raise a hand as if to push me away. I don’t speak no native but I was smiling and being real gentle, and then, out the corner of my eye, I just caught the sight of another ‘dead guy’ who was jumping to his feet and hollerin’ at me, trying to get his AK on me in that small space. I did the only thing I could do – I made a dive for him and at the same time pulled my knife- I carried a hunting knife back then – my Pa gave it to me on my eighteenth birthday and for some reason, Mallory let me keep it. The AK let off a shot or two as I hit him – we went right through the wall of the hut, dropped a few feet – they always built them things on legs, but you know that, and hit the dirt. All hell broke loose then. The VC had dug real shallow pits all over the place and covered ‘em with twigs n’stuff. Well it seemed like God’s Earth was erupting VC and they was popping of those AKs every which way .Our guys were pinned down and the VC grabbed the Lieutenant and Sergeant Jackson.
“They got ‘em without a fight ?”
“It was all so fast. My knife had taken care of my VC who had landed right on top of me – we sorta twisted as we fell, so I was staying real still so those nasty Gooks would think I was dead too. Mallory had taken to wearing a pair of those Aviator shades that the fly-boys liked to wear. One of the VC that had him tore them off his head, put ‘em on, and showed all his boys who had a good laugh at that. Then he started shoutin’ at our boys in that odd high-pitched pidgin English of theirs to come on down and then nobody would get hurt. But they ain’t for movin’, no sir, so the VC started blasting away at ‘em. There was one just three feet in front of me, still hunkered down in his hole so I crept over and my knife took care of him too. Now I had two AKs – my carbine wasn’t worth snowflake in Hell. Now, my Pa told me a whole lotta wise things as I grew up and he always said as how God made everybody special, how every single one of us has a gift that He gave us. My Pa, well folks said that if he stood a rockin’ chair made of Cherry Wood in the yard, then by Spring it would bear Cherries – I used to laugh at that, but fact is, he could grow just about anything, which was real handy. – I always had a big appetite. Now my gift was altogether different; by the age of eleven I could shoot the head off any nail in our old barn – Pa made me top doin’ it on account he figured the thing might come down if I took out all the nails. I never made no thing about it when I got drafted and nobody seemed to notice that when we had gotten ourselves into a fight, every bullet I shot took out one of them. So there I was, two AK47s and a whole mess of VC. Suddenly, real fast, the guy with the shades flicked a wicked looking knife across Mallory’s face, and off came an ear! Mallory screamed like a stuck pig and the VC found it real funny, ‘specially when the guy pretended to try to put them back on Mallory – but made them keep falling off.”
“I have to interrupt you Eli. What were your guys doing now ?”
“My guys ? Most of ‘em had their heads in the dirt, but a couple were taking pot-shots – came nearer to killin’ me than any VC. Shoot! About twenty yards to me left were two more so I took them out as soon as they started firing again – like a Turkey shoot. Still, nobody noticed ‘cos they was all having fun with Jackson now. His pants were around his knees and his dick was resting on that sharp blade. Excuse me, but he had shit himself. There was no doubt what was coming. I hit that bad-ass VC right in the middle of his right eye, punched a hole clean through his fancy new shades. I was a might annoyed at that because I was aiming to split them across his nose, but those old AKs ain’t the most accurate of weapons. That’s when things got really excitin’. The VC spun around to face me and a couple more of our guys sprung up now that they weren’t bein’ shot at. I took out another two, a-jumping and a-rolling around so they had a job to hit me – but that made no difference to my hitting them.
Three of them then decided to run straight at me, figuring like they always did that one of ‘em would make it. They was wrong. This was no more than a minute or two but them VCs were a scattering this way and that and now all of our guys were up and firing. I took out two more and then...well after that I don’t rightly remember, there was just a whole mess of shooting and killin’ until all of a sudden it went quiet – real quiet. I thought I heard a couple of faint gunshots from the direction those three had lit out and figured they was just leaving us a calling card. I looked around me and all I could see was dead VC – it was real bad. As I began to walk back down the village to Mallory, our guys came a whooping and yellin’ down the hill. There was a VC near to Jackson who moved a bit –he was fakin’ dead. Mallory was holding his head – the blood was all over his shirt, and he drew his automatic and shot the Gook right between the eyes. Then he turned on me and started yellin’.
“So Jackson got wounded in the fire-fight then ?”
I shook my head because Jackson’s Purple heart was a real doozey. “No Sir, there weren’t no mark on him. Don’t go rushin’ me. Mallory still had his gun drawn and he put it to my head now.”
“He did what ?” asked WhiteCase incredulously.
“He started shoutin’ as to how I had set him and Jackson up, not doing my job, using an AK so as I could shoot him in the back an’ make it look like the VC had done it. The other guys arrived and he said that he had the right to shoot me then and there and that only he and Jackson by holding the men together had saved everybody. He tore away my AK (I had dropped the other when it ran empty) and said I was under arrest and he would see me Court Marshalled when we got back. A couple of the guys began to speak out but Mallory turned on them with his gun and yelled that he would shoot them right there if they saw any different. He sent me back with Jackson to get my carbine, which Jackson then gave back to Bronski to carry. Our Medic patched up Mallory as best he could. I was still sent out on point, and we began to go back. Hell, there was no place I could run to, even if I had a mind to do so.”
“I can hardly believe what I’m hearing! He did that to you, then put you on point, unarmed ?”
“Well, I still had my knife”, I said with a grin.
“And the other guys – they just let all this happen?”
“For a while, but they was mighty unhappy –I knew that. First night we made a camp, had some rations, then Bronski rounded on Mallory. He said that what he saw was a whole lot different to the Lieutenant’s version of events. He said he was gonna say his piece when we got back and if the Lieutenant wants to arrest him too, then to go right ahead. A few of the other guys were mumbling that they agreed too. Mallory looked at them for a minute or two, then drew his pistol. He said, if that’s what you want, better hand back those weapons – Bronski was holding my carbine and his own – the one that was jammed up, and he threw them down to the ground- he was real mad now. The jammed one, well I don’t know why it did, but it fired and put a bullet clean through Jackson’s leg, and that’s how he got his Purple Heart ! Bullet going through meant nothin’ to dig out when we got back, so nobody would know it was one of ours – if everybody kept quiet that is.”
“But they did at the trial, they all said the same thing – the same version as Mallory If only Bronski hadn’t got hit by that sniper, I’m sure he would have told the truth.”
I shook my head again, “yeah, I bet he would too, but that weren’t no sniper. Mallory shot him dead right there, told the others he would shoot ‘em all if he had to. I was a might surprised he didn’t decide to shoot me too, after all.”
“Jesus! Did you ever see that Movie they made the year after it happened ?”
I really laughed at that one. “Not then, no interest to me. I did see it a couple of years back on HBO though – pretty much crap, I thought, but that’s Hollywood and they never had the real story now did they ?”
“Given that The President knew what really went on you would have thought that he might have had them can it – I mean, no true story ever came out. Mallory and Jackson came out as the good guys in the movie and they had you as some grunt who got a bit lucky.”
“Yeah, I know, but old Nixon...tricky Dickie huh ?”
“I see what you mean. So I ended up as the patsy that made sure you went to Leavenworth for fifty years – damn lucky to miss a firing squad they said. I feel so ashamed you know, I did later, when you got out and I feel a whole lot worse now.”
“Ain’t your fault – like me, you done what you was told to do. That’s the Army, it’s what we did.”
“I guess it was bad in there ?”
“Bad ? It was a whole barrel of maggoty rotting apples worse n’bad. Two days” I held up two fingers to emphasise my point, “two days I was there, and then I was in the hole. Oh, it ain’t no Hollywood hole, even there they had rules. It weren’t no underground hell-hole with rats and all that stuff. They had single cell, built in the boiler room. No windows. Metal cot, planks, one blanket – not that you needed one with that old boiler bangin’ and clankin’ in your head every second of every day, cooking that cell wall real nice. They came in regular and treated me to a taste of their night-sticks, and I knows for a fact, that ain’t in the regulations. Tell the truth, I was pretty messed up and I didn’t figure I’d make it to Thanksgiving.”
“You were there five weeks in all ? Must have been a lot tougher than you’re telling ?”
“Five weeks, three days and eleven hours. Then The Good Lord I reckon could stand it no more. The cell door was opened on that day and I fell to the floor in a ball – I had learned that it was the best way to save my head from being split like a ripe old melon. I was waiting for the club but it never came. I heard a voice from outside – for a moment I really thought it was Him – it was a strong voice, a man in command’s voice. He shouted at the two MPs to help me to my feet, then stepped into the cell. He looked around and in a very low voice he said, ‘oh my sweet Jesus, what has been going on here ?’, to himself I guess. I was on my feet now, still thinkin’ this was them foolin’ around. The other guy – I saw then that he was a Major no less, got real mad. He grabbed those MP’s sticks and yelled at them to salute me. Well they looked real hard at me – heads turned so as the Major didn’t see, and they kinda waived a hand a bit. Thwack! The Major let ‘em both have one each from their sticks across the back and told ‘em to throw up a real salute and that if he had a say in matters, they would be in my cell real soon. I knew then that it was no joke, but I didn’t know what was goin’ on.”
“Did he have a name, this Major.”
I smiled real wide at that – this was one officer I would never, ever forget. “Oh yeah. Major Irvine Eastwood. You ever hear of him ?”
“Major Eastwood ? No. Major-General Eastwood, yep, and I would bet he is the same man – Chief of Staff now, spends most of his time in The White House.”
I nodded, “Yeah, a regular guy that Major, Gen’ral whatever he is now.. He took my arm, real gentle, I was a bit embarrassed at that what with him being a Major an’ all, but he helped me along, out of the block, and we kept on walking too, right across the square to an automobile, parked outside the main office block. I thought I was deamin’. He asked me if I wanted to sit in back, or up front with him. I must’ve given him a look as if I thought he was insane – S’ok, he said, your choice – hell you earned it. Well I couldn’t sit in no fancy car being driven by no Major so I sits in the front, the Major starts her up and then, glory of glory, the main gates open and out we go. I thanked The Lord most sincerely at that, and then I asked the question, what’s goin’ on Major Sir ?”
“And he told you huh ?”
“Nope. Said that job was for somebody one helluva lot more important than him. Said he knew I shouldn’t have been there – in Leavenworth, had orders to come get me, and that’s what he was doin’. I guess I nodded off about then, slept like a baby. When I woke up it was dark and we was where we were goin’. We was at an Army Base, no idea where or what its’ name was, didn’t much care. Took me straight to sick bay. They cleaned me up, dressed a couple of nasty looking scrapes I had and then, oh man, there laid out all neat on the bed, the most ‘maculate Dress Uniform I ever saw, and it was for me. Can you believe that ? I put that on and the boots they give me had a shine like you would not believe, and when I looked into the mirror, well then I felt so proud.”
“Proud ? Of the Army ? After what it had done to you ?”
“Yes, proud. That’s what I felt, but if I had knowed where I was goin’, I might have saved a little pride up. We left the sick-bay after I had a good meal – they gave me a steak done just fine – and not tasting of piss like my food had for weeks. There was a Huey sitting on the ground and the Major took me to it, we got in, and the next thing I knows, there’s The White House down below and us circling to land, which we did. The White House! I didn’t know what to think then, I mean, i had to be dead. I woke that day in The Hole and dyin’ a bit more, now, the evening, and I was about to go into The White House. No doubt about it. I was dead for sure, and heaven wasn’t too bad a place to be. I didn’t let on before, but I knew the name Copeland and I knew who he was, but lettin’ on when you told me what he done would’ve taken the edge off.” I smiled my smile that said ‘see, I got you’.
“Okay Eli. So it was the General then, all along ?”
“Nope, not directly. I was taken into The Man’s office, The President of the United States and before I could close my mouth, which I knew was on his floor, and throw up my best salute, he walked over to me, grabbed my hand, and shook it, and then he said, ‘sorry’. The President his self said ‘sorry’ to me! Then he told me the rest of the story, the part nobody but the people in that room and one Green Beret Captain knew. On that day back in Nam, a Green Beret team was up in the jungle – you know about those guys, spend weeks at a time out there picking off high ranking VC, then just come in to re-supply and back out again. Well there was a team out there, nearby and they had reached the village just as the VC finished butchering everybody. They thought about goin’ in, but then they saw the VC dig those shallow trenches – they never see that before, so they figured to stay around a piece in case they was needed – couldn’t really spare the ammo on account there was nineteen VC in all, but the six Green Beret guys thought the odds were on their side. I did laugh at that. When it all happened they were set to come on in but it was all so fast they had no need to. Three of the VC lit out – I told you I thought I heard some shots from the Jungle. I did. That was the Green Berets, taking out those three sons of bitches – forgive me Lord. I weren’t counting, but they said they never saw shooting like it – I took out eleven they said while Jackson was pulling up his pants and Mallory was running around holding his head. Our guys finally took out four of them, and Mallory shot the other one. The Green Beret guys made a note about what they saw and went on about their business. I ain’t braggin’ none about those eleven dead VC, I was just doin’ my job. It was a few weeks later that they went back to re-supply. Now the Captain wanted to find me and went to the Commanding Officer so as he could make a report and put me up for a medal – ‘magine that. When he found out what had been done he was real mad. As things turned out, his name was Copeland too – Captain Peter Copeland – grandson of General Copeland, and I guess you can figure out the rest.
“So The President his self told me all this, said justice had already met up with Mallory and Jackson and asked me to try to forget, forgive too maybe – which I do, and then he did that other thing, he made me the first Black American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. And that’s when I felt the proudest American of all. Amen.”
Author’s note: This story is of course, fiction. I mean no disrespect to any American or American serviceman or woman and especially those special people that have earned America’s highest award.
William Carney was the first African-American recipient. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his actions on July 18, 1863 at Fort Wagner.
While serving in Viet Nam as a medic assigned to 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Specialist/SFC Lawrence Joel received the Silver Star and the Medal of Honour for his heroism in a battle with the Viet Cong that occurred on November 8, 1965. He was the first living black American to receive this medal since the Spanish-American War in 1898.