It was well past midnight and the Officers Club main bar was empty except for the barmaid, Jeannie, a black-haired beauty with a dynamite figure that I had been attempting to charm for a week now. If I didn’t succeed tonight, I never would.
Three boisterous revelers who had struck out with the women who clogged the downstairs lounge on Friday and Saturday nights interrupted our flirting light banter. I shook my head. If you couldn’t snag a woman in the club’s weekend meat market, you couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse with a credit card. Jeannie brought the trio a pitcher and settled back in across the bar from me.
This was 1975 and Saigon had finally fallen. The Army was in its third year of refilling its depleted post-Vietnam ranks with anyone who could walk, talk, and pass random drug tests in a recruiting program with the tag line, “Today’s Army Wants to Join You!” The noisy lieutenants at the table to my left were some of the newest specimens of what it was that my Army wanted to join, and I could see from the corner of my eye two of them goading the third to approach me and beard the old lion. Whether he succeeded or the lion roared and sent him packing was immaterial to the two instigators. Either way, they would have their fun—or so they thought.
He left the table and took a seat on the barstool to my left. I pretended to ignore his presence, but peripherally saw him staring intently at the warrant officer corps insignia on my left collar.
“So, you’re a warrant officer, huh?”
I took a swig of my beer. “Yup.”
“So, what is that? Some kind of third lieutenant or something?”
I slowly turned on my stool. The two at the table already had their heads lowered, giggling like schoolgirls.
“You should,” I sagely began and then paused, “think of the warrant officer as an uncle who unexpectedly appears at family gatherings and is spoken about in hushed tones—a sort of worldly, well-traveled bon vivant of mysterious and indeterminate means.
“But more to your point,” I continued, thrusting an evangelic finger skyward, my voice becoming passionate, “we are the Army’s sole repository of arcane skills and knowledge. If you could drain the brains of every warrant officer in the Army, you would fill the rooms of the Ancient Library of Alexandria! Collectively speaking, if we don’t know it, it isn’t worth knowing and if we can’t do it, it isn’t worth doing!”
I paused again for effect, locked my eyes to his, drew in close and lowered my voice to just above a whisper. “If you are serious about mastering your profession and should we take kindly interest in you, we will use our skills and knowledge to hasten your advancement to that pinnacle of your calling,” another dramatic pause and quick glance skyward, “the general’s star.” I spoke the words “the general’s star” with reverence.
“So saith the Chief,” I solemnly concluded.
The youngster with the gold bar on his collar stared wide-eyed at what he was sure was a drunken lunatic. I held my solemn facial expression just long enough to truly frighten him and then broke into a grin. Both of us simultaneously erupted into uproarious laughter. Tears streamed from the lieutenant’s eyes as he signaled a two fingered “V” to Jeannie. She shook her head and smiled her amused approval of my performance as she brought us two fresh drafts.
The lieutenant and I lifted our mugs in mutual salute as his slack-jawed buddies looked at one another in disbelief, then back to us. Unable to resist their curiosity, they joined us at the bar standing to either side of me.
“Tell ‘em!” my gold-barred admirer demanded, slapping my shoulder. “Tell ‘em what you told me.
“I asked him what a warrant officer was and he said—” A second fit of laughter removed the lieutenant’s ability to speak.
I repeated my little monologue and the lieutenant again went into peals of laughter with one of his friends fully joining in his mirth this time.
A half smile, half snarl fleetingly crossed the third one’s lips, quickly replaced by a scowl. I had ruined his fun. I knew his type well, and I felt sorry for the troops he would lead.
Jeannie saw the trouble brewing, too. “I forgot to tell you all,” she came over and said, “but those last beers I brought were last call.”
I excused myself, walked down the hall, and peeked outside the club door. A military police car was out there where it usually was at closing time, waiting to pounce on potential DUIs like the three inside.
“How’re y’all getting home?” I asked, rejoining the group.
“I’m driving,” the good-humored lieutenant who had first approached me announced.
“Uh-uh. MPs are parked outside.
“Call ‘em a cab, Jeannie. Okay?”
I followed the three out to the parking lot when the taxi arrived; made sure they didn’t change their minds and go for their car, and then headed back in to the bar. If my half mug of beer was still there, it would be a good sign. If not—
The half mug was gone—replaced by a full one.
“That was good of you to keep them out of trouble like that,” Jeannie offered, looking up from her glass washing.
“Well, two of ‘em might actually be something someday, and maybe they’ll remember me if I ever need a favor.”
“That MP car still out there?” she asked.
“Well, how the hell are you planning to get home then?”
I graced her with the much practiced raised eyebrow and boyish grin that I’m still convinced Tom Selleck stole from me five years later in his “Magnum, P.I.” series.
She blushed, slowly walked down her side of the bar to where I sat, and lingeringly appraised me with doe eyes. “Give me twenty minutes to close,” she finally breathed. Her long polished fingernail tapped the rim of my beer mug. “And nurse that.”
Copyright © 2009 by Gary Stephens
Gary Stephens is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer and the author of the 2007 techno-thriller, Epiphany