The line was stagnant, stretching long and turning around a corner and disappearing from view. Dudes stood in a column; idling impatiently, hands in pockets, removing one to occasionally to fret and glower at a wristwatch. Cigarette smoke hung like swamp gas, and empty bottles of Coca-Cola along with discarded Jay’s Potato Chips samplers overfilled the trash. Everyone was silent, hoping for . . . I don’t know—maybe time travel, back to a time of bobbysoxers and beatniks.
I stood smack-dab in the middle of the procession—unmoving—as if I had grown roots. Hunger gnawed at my stomach, but I didn’t dare lose my space in the line up.
Eventually, the row did lessen, albeit tediously; the face of each retreating passerby mixed with sadness, anxiety, or anger as they left one by one.
And finally, the Devil be damned, it was my turn.
I listened to the clink of the coins dropping into the slot, and the whir of the rotary dial, then:
“Hello Ma, it’s me. . . . I’m fine, how are you and Dad? . . . That’s good. I’ve got something to tell you, Ma. I won’t be coming home for Christmas like I said. . . . No Ma, that’s not it. I’ve got orders for. . . . Yeah Ma, I’m still here. It’s just that I’ve got orders for—umm, Vietnam. . . . Mom, please don’t cry. I’ll be alright. Honest. . . . Thirteen months Ma, and I’ll be home again. . . . Alright Ma. . . . I will, I promise. Swear to God. . . . Okay Ma. . . . G’bye Ma.”
That was the gist of the conversation as pitiful as it seemed (abbreviated though . . . but you can fill in the gaps).
I trudged, chin on chest, out of the Oceanside USO and made my way toward the Pacific, and stood on the end of a pier—in the dusk and the drizzle. And as I stood there, a lone figure with the roar of the surf in my ears, and the California rain in my face and Pleasant Valley Sunday playing over the outside loudspeakers; I pondered about life (with a whopping and grand eighteen years under my belt) and death.
So what’s all this jazz about Vietnam anywho? replied the little man in my head. Ain’t no great shakes; be there and gone before I know it. Besides, I’m a U.S. gyrene—some of the coolest cats that ever walked the face of the earth, not to mention the badest. Can you dig it?
And right then and there I had decided that things were okey-dokey artichokey with me.
Vietnam, Shitnam! I’m about to split for combat, and like Shakespeare wrote about in Julius Caesar—Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.