To begin with, I offer condolence for your father's passing. As you know, we were buddies for several years. I would have attended the funeral, but no one thought to contact me. (I say this not to complain or make excuses, but simply to explain.)
You may be curious why I'm writing more than a decade after his burial. I wonder myself. I guess I'm puzzled by my memories, anxious to know what, if anything, your father's life and death meant. I wonder how a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing rogue such as John produced a son like you, a personable fellow who wears khakis while selling insurance door to door and who dutifully fills a pew next to his wife and children on Sunday mornings. You have defied expectations, Billy. I think your father would be proud. But I doubt he would have wished such a life for himself. He was drawn to danger like a barking dog to a saucer of antifreeze.
The day I met him, I was a teenager slumming around the trailer park on the far side of town, looking to buy some PCP. He was selling. He rode a motorcycle, bareheaded and single handed: Georgia had no helmet law in those days, and his left arm was in a cast. The broken arm was muscular above the bandage. Cherokee eyes squinted against the sun beneath a shaggy, salt-and-pepper mane, evocative of Charles Bronson.
He was newly home from the rice paddies of Viet Nam. Before our meeting, my only source of information about Viet Nam veterans was the television. I had been served up tales of middle class youth called to war, who instead escaped to Canada; of patriotic working-class kids who answered the nation's summons, only to return disillusioned, bitter, perhaps maimed; and of wealthy children who manipulated college deferments like so many wild cards in a game of draw poker, at last to graduate and be granted a commission to command a battalion. John did not resemble any of these depictions.
He might have fit the stereotype of the noble soldier, now broken, but for the fact that he neither championed nor abused his country. He vilified "gooks", true enough, but he expressed neither affectation nor contempt for the USA. Today, I feel certain his decision to volunteer for the Marines was triggered less by patriotism than the prospect of the thrill of combat.
Where, I wonder, did he acquire this thirst for adventure? Was he born a daredevil, or did some singular childhood experience shape him? Was he simply the product of a coarse upbringing, or did his personality result from a genetic quirk? Likely some combination of nature and nurture molded him. Likely, I will never know the answer in full. Recollections of his youth are perilous, untrustworthy, for the narrative is distorted by knowledge of events that had yet to occur. John's origins will remain forever shrouded by legends created, not during grade school or even on the battlefield, but on barstools of American Legion halls and the folding chairs of leftist consciousness-raising groups.
After our initial meeting, I didn't see your father until several years later when my wife and I, newly wed, purchased the property across the street. The house was our first, a cute box of shingled frugality in a neighborhood of similar structures, interspersed with rusting trailers whose Plexiglas storm doors hung askew on single hinges.
Your parents, Billy, were recently divorced. You lived with your father, who in turn lived with his mother. As my family moved our belongings in, your mother arrived to pick you up. She parked her Plymouth in the driveway, and the two of you left with a friend (perhaps a boyfriend). My wife and I continued to set up housekeeping, toting cardboard boxes laden with dishes and plastic bags full of folded laundry into our new home.
John appeared in the drive across the street. He was barefooted, shirtless, and wore cutoff denim shorts. He carried a 22 caliber rifle. His face was contorted, his gait clumsy, his complexion crimson. He circled your mother's automobile, firing from the waist, flattening every tire and shattering every window.
Telling this story in years to come, I placed myself hunkered behind a piece of plyboard, watching events unfold with a 9mm automatic in my fist, waiting to drop your father at the first stray round. In truth, I'm sure I hid, but don't recall if I had the presence of mind to arm myself. At any rate, he never missed. Every bullet struck its target. I was impressed. A few days later, when my family's belongings were distributed among the various rooms of our new home, the television antenna mounted and garbage cans placed outside the chain link fence that enclosed our little piece of ground, I crossed the street and renewed my acquaintance with your father.
We soon realized we had much in common. We each drank beer continuously, and savored a tall drink of bourbon on special occasions such as a full moon, idle whim, or rowdy mood. I dealt marijuana, and John smoked heavily. Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the federal government kept him flush with Xanax, another vice we shared. And we both liked guns.
He was taken more with the potency of semiautomatic weaponry, and I, with the aesthetics of antiques and finely-machined steel. Despite this slight discrepancy in taste, I confess we each fancied ourselves masculine in the extreme, and guns were the oh-so-phallic manifestation of that image.
Upon becoming neighbors we swaggered and postured, trading tales across a page wire fence about blood and sweat spilled in love and war. Later, when each felt safe, we discreetly swapped joints for pills across that same divide.
Over the next several years, John gained weight. He appeared to grow resigned to life as an aging, divorced veteran, dependent upon family for financial support. Eventually, as my own marriage, career, and emotional stability began to falter, he and I took to spending long, lazy afternoons together, watching joints smolder to roaches between nicotine stained fingertips, until at last evening fell so hard and we greeted the night with a bottle of cheap, sweet wine beneath a star spangled canopy, swaying atop the scraggly patch of lawn that fronted my home.
Some say that familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps. The world at large saw John as The Psycho Vet, a man who was "still in Saigon", a snarling cur worthy of a wide berth if little else. He was unpopular, but he was feared. Contrary to this image, I came to know an old drunk who was hopelessly dependent on his "medication", a man who longed to be comforted by a God he feared to face. I came to know a bitter dreamer who was scorned in love, resentful, yet who imagined that romance lay just across the horizon.
I wonder how you saw him, Billy. Like myself, were you first proud of the fierce warrior, but finally embarrassed by the old boozer? Or was the order reversed in your case? Did your feelings resemble mine at all? I honestly have no idea. The man who mystified so many, your father, was often transparent in my eyes, but you, who live a life so many would recognize, remain an enigma. How did you transcend your upbringing to become yourself?
There are many tales I could regale you with. How old were you when your father donned fatigues, took up a deer rifle, and climbed atop your grandmother's house? How old, when he fired on helicopters hovering near his illicit garden? (Johnny got his gun, indeed.) If the county dispatcher sent one patrol car to our block, she sent three. Do you remember these events, Billy? Do you smile, remembering? Or would you would prefer I cut this missive short?
Well. Before closing, allow me to share a final anecdote. I must describe an exchange that defined your father in my eyes, when the fearsome guerrilla met the bedraggled sot, and the two became as one.
John's moods were inexplicable. I could say that when he drank whiskey he was one way, and when he took benzos another. But in truth, I never knew what to expect. He might become melancholy or belligerent on two beers with no provocation. A pint of whiskey might cause a fight, or make him sing with joy. On the afternoon I speak of, we were drinking beer in his bedroom, and he was on a crying jag. I considered leaving. But I decided to stay, perhaps because I dreaded my wife's hostility more than I disliked his antics.
We perched on the edge of his neatly made bed to smoke a joint. He began speaking in the usual way, bragging about his combat experience: "Everybody said I was crazy. I wore a tee shirt that said, 'Happiness is a Confirmed Kill.'" First he cackled, then he swore. His face sagged. "The shirt was a gift from Sergeant Powell. Powell was a black man. I saw him the day he stepped on a land mine. His legs disappeared from underneath him, and his torso flopped to the ground. First it bounced, and then it just lay there. Lord God, there wasn't a thing I could do but stand and watch..." Tears streamed down my friend's cheeks. Again I considered making my apologies and leaving. But before I could, he spoke again: "The worst part wasn't seeing friends die, though. The worst part was watching strangers die. The ones I killed. The kids.” Turning sideways on the bedcovers to face me, he continued: "I had to do it, see. I had to. The VC, those dirty bastards, they wired children with explosives and sent em at us. I saw it with my own eyes, over and over. A kid holds his arms out. A grunt stops and smiles, then explodes. So when they came at me, I shot em. I had to. But oh God, Randy, what am I tell gonna tell Jesus? What am I gonna say when I try to go home, and I say, 'I had to do it, Jesus,' and he pokes his finger in my chest and says, 'Sergeant Lowry, you MURDERED CHILDREN...'"
Your father collapsed into my arms then, and I held him as he cried while the joint smoldered in a nearby ashtray. In some dark corner of my thoughts, I wondered, "If a neighbor looked in the window and saw us hugging, would he think we were queers?" I decided I didn't care, that if some fellow talked about my pal that way I'd blow his sorry brains out.
When I saw your father's funeral announced in the News Free Press, my turn to cry had come. The tears were for me because I knew I would miss him. For his part, I suspect he was pleased to be out of pain, gone to meet his Maker or else simply to rest. I suspect he was glad to go, but I don't believe he killed himself. John was no quitter. He overdosed, sure enough, but despite the coroner's ruling, I think he simply lost track of time and took his "medicine" once too often. But anyway, is an accidental overdose really so far from suicide?
Now, Billy, comes the portion of this saga I have had such difficultly arriving at. When your father and I were running the mean streets together, drinking Red Lady 21 for breakfast on the pockmarked asphalt behind Johnson's Dry Cleaners, smoking joints and gobbling pills in his bedroom of an afternoon, handing out beer to neighborhood children and lying to each other about our sex lives- and always, always, cleaning and comparing our weapons—there was an aspect of our relationship that outsiders failed to see, and likely would not have understood if they had. The simple fact was that John and I loved one another. We truly did, and that's what I wrote to tell you. In this shithole world we live in, love, real love, the type characterized by honesty and trust, is a quantity not often exchanged. When it is, I think the occasion worthy of note.
Randy Lowens lives in a cabin on a forested Kentucky hillside. He has known many beautiful people over the course of his life, and many screwed up individuals. Invariably they were the same folks. He has been published previously by Unlikely 2.0.
Thanks. Glad to know it moved you.