Saturday, December 28, 2013

Overheard in a bar - Chapter 4

King Kong approached quickly, parting the crowd with his bulk.  My training took over.  He reached for my upper arm but I turned and all he got was a handful of my sport coat sleeve.  He swore at me.

I heard Fred yell, "Bill, don't!"

My legs were a mess but the rest of me hadn't been neglected during my hospital stay.  I brought my arm up inside and over his, quickly locking it under my arm and I twisted my left side back yanking him off balance and he stumbled forward a little.  I slapped his left ear with the palm of my hand to stun him.  When he brought his hand up to guard I thumped his floating rib twice as hard as I could.  I was trying to break it but I didn't.  He was big and tough, but he wasn't prepared for this.  No doubt he was used to throwing out drunks half his size.  I hit him again in the arm pit then brought the edge of my hand down above his shoulder.  That was it for him.  He went down on his knees.

I hadn't heard any sound except Fred's plea, but now I could hear women screaming and men yelling.  I looked up and right at Jenny who was holding both hands over her mouth, her eyes staring as though she couldn't understand what had just happened. 

Then Fred yelled again, "Look out!"  A hard object hit me in the kidney, taking my breath away, then another one glanced off my head knocking me down onto the table which collapsed to the floor beneath me.  I found myself splashed with cold bourbon and dusted with cigarette ashes and in considerable pain.  The floor felt gritty under my cheek. and I could see shoes backing away. 

A voice said, "Alright!  You're coming with us!  Sergeant Monahan will love you!" and a pair of enormous hands cuffed my hands behind my back and lifted me off the floor.  I was turned around and found myself staring at a short, dark, stocky cop who glared at me and held a short billy club in his right fist.  I looked over my shoulder at a craggy sunburned face with large blue eyes underneath bushy white eyebrows and a blue peaked cap.  His one hand had my wrists shoved up high toward my shoulder blades.  It hurt.  I had a brief moment of wanting to fight it out, but he must've read my mind because he jerked my hands higher.  These guys were different.  No bluffing and blundering like the bouncer.  They knew exactly how far to go to make me realize they could go a lot farther and I wouldn't like it.  It was time to do as I was told. I suddenly didn't like the idea of meeting Sergeant Monahan.

I had a brief glimpse of the bartender supervising a kitchen boy with a mop as they cleaned up the mess.  King Kong was kneeling and trying to move his left arm.  Fred and Jenny grabbed their coats and were following us out.  They watched as I was frog marched down the street to the police station.  It was only a block away.  The night was foggy and cool.  Except for the pain from the cuffs and the hold, I began to feel better.  The cold, merciless me drained away into the damp night.  I briefly felt part of humanity again, but my other, inside pain returned.  By the time we reached the station door I wanted a cigarette and a drink again.  I wanted to get back to my room at the hospital barracks.  I felt incredibly tired and I wanted sleep. 

They hustled me in through the front door, then into the next room.  There was no one there except the desk sergeant who was standing at a file cabinet stuffing something in the top drawer.  He had authority written all over him.  He was half a foot taller than me, and straight as a flagpole.  He had a white moustache and his white hair was combed straight back and parted in the middle.  This had to be Sergeant Monahan. 

He spoke to the cops while staring at me.  "What's the story with this one, Al?  This the guy from down the street?"

The short cop spoke.  "Yeah, ex-Marine who got a snootful and caused a ruckus.  He's tough.  He put big Till on the floor."

The desk sergeant raised his eyebrows and nodded a time or two and looked at me for another few seconds without a word.  Then with a smile from the eyes down, "Ah, you're not so tough, are you son?  Take those cuffs off, Murphy and sit him down.  Al, there are no ex-Marines, only former Marines."  That got my attention and had me sitting up straight in the chair, even in my damaged condition.  My shoulders hurt, but something told me to sit still and clam up. 

"OK, you guys can go.  We're fine here."  The other two cops didn't move.  "Well, go on.  Broadway ain't gonna keep itself clean, fellas!"  I heard them shuffle out.  The Sergeant fixed his eyes on me and cocked one eyebrow upward.

"What's the story here, Son?  How drunk are you really?  Need a night in the tank?  We got a nice room all ready for you personally.  It's a slow night here, so you can have it all to yourself.  It'll be a little drafty, but that's the way it goes." 

"No.  Uh, no sir."  Don't know why I added the "sir."  Just instinct.  "I'm not close to drunk.  Just had a bad moment in there, and the bouncer pushed me too far."

He regarded me for a little, nodding again, to himself more than anything, as though he was guessing silently that he'd be right about me.

"Had some bad memories, did you?"  I nodded and stared at the floor.  I felt ashamed.  I was in the presence of someone who must've been a senior NCO in the Marines.  He had Master Gunnery Sergeant chevrons stamped on his forehead.  Judging by his age, he must've seen action in the Great War, or Haiti or China or any number of places.  I was sitting in front of him because I'd begun to come apart at the seams.  I felt worse than useless. 

"I know it's tough, Son, but you can't go busting up guys just because you had a bad time overseas.  Get me?"

"Yeah, but I didn't do anything to get kicked out.  The bouncer just doesn't like Marines.  He was working me.  He tried to get me started earlier but I didn't take the bait.  I defended myself when he came after me.  I didn't fight for this country just to get shoved around by some big meathead with a chip on his shoulder."

He just nodded and looked straight into my eyes.

"Tell me what happened."  I didn't at first believe him, but looking at him I thought he meant it. 

"Well, I heard this kid tell his girl he wanted to join up and I thought I should set him strai-"

"Not what just happened, Son.  Tell me what happened to you.  Out there.  In the Pacific.   Guadalcanal?  Gloucester?"

"I don't know if I can talk about that, Sir." I really just didn't want to hear myself tell the same dreary tale again. 

"Stop calling me 'Sir.'"

I looked at him for a moment.  He was hard in every line, but something told me he was fair, and could understand.  I felt myself relaxing a little. I took a breath to settle my nerves. 

"I lost a foot on the 'Canal.  Japanese grenade.  I killed a Japanese trooper with my bayonet and, and...."  I just stopped and held my hands up.  I was locking up again.  I looked around the room and when I turned back toward the sergeant, he had rolled a cigarette and was handing it to me across the desk.  He rolled one for himself and lit both with a huge wooden match.

"I gotcha, Son.  Don't say another word.  See the part on top of my head?"  He leaned forward and I looked to see the puffy ridge of a scar about four inches long running right down the middle of his scalp.  "Cacos machete got me when we took Fort Riviere back in '15.  I'll never forget it.  I didn't even see the guy but his blade ran right through my Stetson and along my head.  I had blood running into my eyes and I thought I was done for, but Captain Butlerl shot him before he could finish me off.  I had a hell of a headache for a few days."

I relaxed a little.  I began to think the night might not end badly.  He reached a hand across the desk.

"Gunnery Sergeant Tim Monaghan, retired."  He said "retired" with ill-disguised contempt.  "Your name?"  I told him and we shook hands.  He wrote it down on a sheet on his blotter, but that was all. 

As he wrote he said, "You know, Bill, it'll get better as time goes by, but you gotta work at it.  No one is gonna help you sort it out much.  I fought in France, and we slugged it out pretty good with the Huns at Belleau Wood.  I still see the faces of the men I killed.  Shot two of 'em at close range with a scatter gun.  I don't need to tell you what that does.  Pretty awful thing to do to someone, even if they did deserve it.  Got a bad case of shell shock and they sent me home here to Oakland.  I had about a month in the sanitarium then they mustered me out.  I didn't sleep much for about ten years without having nightmares, night sweats, you name it.  The Priest at de Sales helped, but it was really up to me.  The Navy had some shrinks but who needs those guys.  Joining the Force helped too.  What I mean to say is, you'll be OK someday, but get your teeth into something.  You out now that your foot's gone?"

"I don't know.  Maybe I'll stay in.  Don't know what else to do."

"Well, whether you do or you don't make sure you have somewhere you have to be most days.  Don't have too many days where you sit around playing mumbledy-peg with your trench knife and knocking back a few.  That's a quick road to one of my cells, or worse.  Get yourself some exercise.  Get down to LaLanne's exercise place a couple of blocks down and over one, I think.  He's kind of different, might even be a fairy, but he knows how to shape a man up.  Best thing for you." 

I just nodded and stared at the floor.  His understanding was the last thing I'd expected, and I felt terribly ashamed.  It would've better if he'd tossed me in the cell.

"Hold your head up, Bill.  You've got every reason to."  I wasn't so sure about that.

"Don't look down, Marine!  You're gonna walk out of here tonight, but I don't wanna hear anymore about you busting up bouncers, even if that particular son of a bitch deserved it.  Yeah, I've had my disagreements with Till.  He was 4F'd with a heart murmur and he doesn't handle it too well.  He's a clerk at City Hall during the day.  Bouncing at night gives him a chance to be a tough guy.  Forget about him.  You worry about yourself.  Go easy on the smokes and the booze.  Once in a while...OK, but they'll break you down in the end if you overdo it.  OK?"

He stopped and sat back in his chair, and puffed his cigarette.  I couldn't help but grin at the irony.  He grinned back.  It was good to be in the presence.  I knew he was right.  Old sweats always are.

"OK.  Thanks, Gunny.  I'll keep that all in mind."  I took a deep breath then finished my smoke.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Overheard in a Bar - Chapter 3

I climbed down from my perch on the bar stool.  I felt nervous and unsteady, as though getting up was a brand new thing I hadn't learned yet.  I grabbed the bar to keep my hand from shaking and convince myself I wouldn't fall over.  Fred stared as I stumped over and stood by the chair opposite him.  I set my drink on the table and gave him my best Corporal's glare that right away told him he couldn't say no.

"Can I join you for a moment?  Just until your girl comes back."  I tried to sound casual, but not really. 

He looked guarded and aware.  He looked back toward the entrance to the hallway where the ladies room was located, then back at me, and silently waved at the empty chair with his chin.  I sat down.  He sat up but didn't relax, didn't take his hand from his pocket.  He didn't say anything right away.  I just looked him in the eye, as I lit another.  He looked at my lighter and my tremble.  His eyes narrowed.

"You know, she's gonna be back any minute.  What can I do for you?"

"It's what you can do for me, Son."  He didn't like that much, being called "Son" but that's the way I used to talk to the privates after I made corporal, and old habits die hard.  He straightened up a little.  "I don't think she's gonna be right back, Fred.  Not for a little while.  She needs to get herself together.  Maybe Miranda's in there helping her out."  His eyes grew a little larger at this.  "Don't look so surprised.  I've been sitting there the last hour or so listening to you two bat it around."

"She's not my girl." He said it as though he wished she was.  "What's it to you anyway?"  He was feisty, this kid.  I gave him that.  He'd make it through boot camp OK if I failed. 

"Oh, she's your girl alright." I grinned.  "Take it easy.  I'm not gonna do anything rash.  I just need to pass on a little hard earned wisdom.  You need it."  He started to interrupt but I held up my hand and he stopped.  "Hold on, Son.  I think you're on the verge of throwing something away and I can't let that happen without a fight."  Poor choice of words, but I said it anyway. 

"Who are you?" 

I offered my hand.  He didn't take it.  "Call me Bill.  Call me someone who's been where you seem to want awfully badly to go.  I just came over here to try and stop you.  It's not a place anyone should want to go."

"How would you know?"

"I think maybe you already figured that out, Fred.  You saw the way I walked over here.  I don't limp around like that for fun...wasn't born with it, either."

He cleared his throat and took his hand out of his pocket and put it on the table and shifted his chair forward a little.  I took that as a signal that he was ready to listen.  My nerves twanged and I knew this wouldn't be any easier on me than on him.  I really didn't want to talk about any of it again, just like Jenny.  I fished a couple of bucks out of my pocket and handed it across the table.

"Get us a couple.  Bourbon.  Rocks."  I pulled on my Lucky Strike and held the table with my free hand.  OK, easy now.  No grenades, no Type 92s traversing the river bank.  No bullets cracking overhead.  No screams.  I listened to the people laughing and the glasses clinking and the music and told myself again, there was nothing to fear in this nice friendly bar in Oakland, California.  By the time Fred returned I'd collected myself.  I took a swallow and thanked him.

"What happened to you . . . uh, Bill?"  Well, that was progress.

"Details are not important." He might not guess that I just couldn't recite them again.  "I was on Guadalcanal.  A Japanese grenade went off near my foot and shattered my lower leg.  So, I had to have it off below the knee.  I'm just out of the Naval Hospital over at Oak Knoll.  They fouled up my phony leg and made it too short, so I limp."  I chuckled, and I could feel myself grinning slightly with half my face, but I didn't mean a millimeter of it.

He winced as I told him, and quickly took a sip.  He just stared at me, evidently not finding the humor in it either.  I continued, and felt myself shaking inside.

"It was pretty awful, Fred, and I suggest you stay pu-"

"Were you at Bloody Ridge?"  They always asked about that. 

"Yeah, first at Alligator Creek, then up on the Ridge where I lost my foot.  Now look-"

"Edson's Raiders?" He'd quickly gone from suspicious to awestruck, the way guys like him always did when they heard about it.  If they only knew.  

"No, 2nd Battalion, First Marines.  I was a runner and took ammo up up there just as the second attack came in.  They needed every rifle they could get so I just stayed put." I foolishly thought that would satisfy him. 

"What was it like?  Did you shoot anyone?"  I didn't answer.  Not because it was a dumb question, but because I had to grit my teeth at the memory.  A shiver passed through me.  When I didn't reply he gushed, "I guess you guys whipped those Nips in the end, anyway."

He was a little wide-eyed with something like fearful admiration.  I suppose he figured I still carried a k-bar around just in case I needed to deal with someone.  Something about that bothered me.  It wasn't the same thing as when the corpsmen and nurses in the hospital asked those questions.  That was distasteful, but you could understand in a way since they had to deal with those of us who got chopped up but lived to tell about it.  This was beyond that.  I shivered again and just looked at him. 

Then the flood gates opened and I let him have it.

"Listen kid, they broke through in a bunch of places and you wouldn't wanna know what we had to do to drive them out.  Yeah, we whipped 'em in the end, but it was almost the end of us.  Those posters you see, and those stupid goddamn cartoons where the Japs are these little guys with glasses and big teeth?  It's all horseshit!  Got it?  They aren't little guys with glasses and big teeth.  They're a lot of tough sons of bitches, ready to fucking die on order!  They ran right into our rifles and machine guns and just kept coming.  We killed those fuckers by the bucketful and they didn't even slow down!"

I stopped then, realizing I was yelling.  I was gripping the table with one hand and my drink with the other.  My smoke had disappeared.  Fred was staring at me and he'd eased back from the table holding his drink.  He looked like he was getting ready to take off.  The couple at the next table was staring at me the same way, the girl with her handbag tightly clutched.  I guess they didn't hear that kind of talk much.

I felt the tension ebb slowly.  I put my drink down carefully, and ran a hand over my face then wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers.  I took a deep breath through my nose the way they taught me at the hospital.  OK.  I hadn't burst out like that in the whole year I'd been home, but I should've known it would happen sooner or later. 

"Sorry, Fred."  I held my hands up, nodded to the couple, who didn't seem to relax at all.  "Sorry, folks."  I turned back to Fred.  He had relaxed a little.

"Go easy, Bill.  No enemy here.  Just us."  He waved his hand to take in the crowd but never took his eyes off me.  This kid had something.  He didn't run, he wasn't afraid to talk to me.  He took a sip and slowly put his drink back on the table, never taking his eyes off me.  I was calming down, but I felt sick again.  I was sweating and beginning to feel disoriented.  I quickly lit up and took a sip.  The couple hadn't stopped staring at me.  The girl leaned over and murmured something in the guy's ear, then they got up and left.  I noticed one of the bartenders staring at me with an appraising look.  He signaled with two fingers and a large black haired guy in a dark suit came over from the near the door.  Without taking his eyes off me the bartender leaned over and said something to the big guy, who gave me a look of tired regret.  He drifted slowly over toward our table like an aircraft carrier through a fleet of sailboats.  His piercing black eyes looked down at me from a large soft face as his mouth moved slightly.

"Are we having a problem over here?" he rumbled in a voice that came up from somewhere below the cellar.  I didn't say a word, just stared at him.  I wasn't scared.  I would never again be scared of anything another man could send my way.  He could tell he hadn't rattled me and didn't seem to like it too well.  He leaned down and put a hand like a baseball mitt on the table, which he softly tapped with his forefinger to make his point.

"Pal, you can't go nuts in here and chase good customers out with wild talk about Japs.  Got it?"

I still didn't say a word.

"You read me?  What's your friend's problem here?" This last bit to Fred, who seemed to come out of a stupor.

"No, look . . . he's had a bad time.  Guadalcanal.  He's OK now.  We'll be fine over here.  No problems.  Just gonna drink our drinks and wait for, uh, my girl to come back from the Ladies Room."

The black eyes turned back to me.  "Marine?"

I nodded.

"Huh!  Another Marine.  I don't like Marines.  Especially ones who don't speak.  Think you're some kinda blood drinker, huh?"

He was doing his best, but I wasn't biting.  

"You take it easy in here, Mack.  I'm watchin' you.  One more time and you're out."

He straightened up, gave me that raised eyebrow look to make sure I knew he really meant it, and turned away and drifted off to his perch at the far end of the bar.  I could see him sit with his arms folded, staring at me as though I'd ruined his night.  I took a breath and realized I felt better.  King Kong had taken my mind off my troubles and oddly settled my nerves with his threat.  Facing off against him I didn't worry about myself.  I turned back to Fred.

"Son, it was the worst night of my life.  I wasn't scared at first.  I'd been though a fight down at Alligator Creek and that was bad.  Most of my squad got killed.  Still, I found out I could shoot straight and fast when I had to, and kill a man no problem if he was coming to kill me.  It's not so hard to do when they're a hundred yards away, or even fifty.  It's a whole different thing when they're right in front of you and it's either get your bayonet into 'em or die.  You do it because there's no time to think about it first."

I had to stop and take a sip.  My mind was going a thousand miles an hour and I started to feel the urge to run that I had every time I thought of what I'd done and seen that night.  Fred was just scowling thoughtfully at me.  I went on.

"Later on, when they stopped attacking and we had a few moments, I started to realize what I'd done and I started shaking and I couldn't stop.  Someone must've noticed 'cause the Lieutenant sent me back for more ammo.  Just before I got to my feet they took the Jap I'd killed and rolled him away from our hole.  I can't forget his guts running out over my boondockers.  That's when the grenade came in out of the dark and the next attack began.  I remember being lifted off my feet and landing a few feet away then being dragged away from the gunfire.  Someone picked me up and carried me toward our rear area.  Bullets cracked overhead and I could hear myself screaming."

At this point I had to stop. I was about to fall apart.  The images were moving through my mind at frightening speed.  I was gripping the table again and raising my voice.  The sounds of the bar were receding and I could only hear my breathing and smell stale tobacco and whiskey.  I swallowed uncomfortably to fight down the coppery taste of panic in my mouth and ran a trembling hand through my hair.  The tough Marine combat vet at the bar who had decided to show Fred the error of his ways was about to collapse into a puddle.  I leaned back and slapped my hands flat on the table top and looked around, not seeing anyone in particular or any escape.  Fred was good to the moment. 

"Bill, just take it easy.  I get the point.  You don't need to say any more."

I could feel tears starting in my eyes.  Somehow I kept it together.  I looked down at the table but out of the corner of my eye I could see a dark haired girl who must've Jenny navigating through the crowd toward our table looking at me with rising alarm, and I suddenly felt like a bum who'd stumbled in from the dark to cadge a drink.  I felt dirty and out of place.  I started to get up, but Fred stopped me.

"Stay here a minute.  I don't think you're in any shape to go anywhere just yet."

"I'm in fine fucking shape!  Look, your girl's coming back.  Just one last word.  Stay the hell outta combat arms.  It's the worst feeling you can have, to kill someone.  Reasons don't matter.  Doesn't matter if you had to kill him, you still did it, and you will suffer.  I never saw his face clearly, but I think about him every goddamn day.  I did my duty and fought for my country and my brothers and I'm proud of all of that, but I can't get over it.  If you have to serve, go join the Navy and be a corpsman and save people.  Be a hero saving lives.  You'd be good at it.  Marines will love you for it."

At this point I noticed Jenny standing there staring at me.  She'd heard me and the look on her face was kind.  She half lifted her hand and was about to speak when she looked up past me.  King Kong was looming out of the crowd, scowling at me and hooking his thumb toward the door with a sudden movement.  Something inside me switched off and I felt myself go cold the same way I did when the enemy came howling across the mouth of Alligator Creek.