April 29th, 2020
“And there’s always retrospect (when you’re looking back)
To light a clearer path
Every five years or so I look back on my life
And I have a good laugh
You start at the top (start at the top)
Go full circle round
Catch a breeze
Take a spill
But ending up where I started again
Makes me want to stand still
Up on the watershed
Standing at the fork in the road
You can stand there and agonize
‘Til your agony’s your heaviest load
You’ll never fly as the crow flies
Get used to a country mile
When you’re learning to face
The path at your pace
Every choice is worth your while”
from “Watershed” by the Indigo Girls
Hans called yesterday.
He had just finished working a twenty-hour shift. He sounded dead tired. I could hear him popping open a Lime-a-rita as he talked on the phone. He bitched about work for a while. He had been pumping concrete at one job site for almost twelve hours straight. The mixer company wasn’t sending him trucks fast enough to keep up with the work. Hans wound up waiting for mud to pour, and that just made a difficult job harder. Hans had to do another pump job once the first one was done. He was dragging ass by the time he got home.
Somehow the conversation shifted over to Hans’ time in Iraq. That happens quite often when we talk. I guess Hans figures that he can tell me things and I will know what he means. Most of the time I do understand. Maybe it is because we both served in the military. The Army is our common ground, even though he was in combat and I never was.
He said, “Yeah, Dad, the Army was okay. I mean the wartime Army; not the Army we had after we got back from Iraq, with all the rules and nonsense. When we were in Iraq, we kicked some ass!”
I replied, “Well, that is what you were there for.”
Hans said, “Yeah, we were kind of wild in Iraq. Then we got back to Fort Hood, and it was all different. I knew it was time to get out when the Army started getting rid of the sergeants I liked. One of them got a DUI, and they just cut him loose. I could tell it was time to move on.”
He went on, “You know, I have been trying to get in touch with some of the guys I knew back then. I hooked up with a lieutenant that was in the other platoon. He was a cool, laid back kind of guy. He was the officer we had to talk to when we wanted to get a motorcycle.
I told the lieutenant what I was doing now. You know, I told him how I was driving this big truck and pumping concrete. He told me that he knew I would do good when I got out of the Army. He said that he could tell just by how I carried myself and how I acted around him.
Yeah, he was a good guy, not like those West Point lieutenants. You know what I mean, Dad? You were one of them.”
“I told him, “Yeah, I know.”
Hans laughed again, “The West Point guys, they thought they knew it all. I was the designated driver for one of them. Good God! That was something. We were taking small arms fire, and he was looking up what to do from a book!”
He went on, “I guess it didn’t help him with me asking him all the time, ‘What do I do now, LT? What do I do now?’ I don’t think he liked that.”
Hans chuckled, “If I had been that lieutenant, I would have just told our boys to fire up those fuckers with the 50 cal. I couldn’t believe that he was looking up the rules of engagement. Those West Point guys, they had to do everything by the book.”
“That I believe.”
I thought for a moment about emails I occasionally get from some of my West Point classmates. I never really understand why they bother to send them to me. The messages always seem to turn sentimental and strangely nostalgic. People use the emails to reminisce about events that I can’t or won’t remember. We graduated forty years ago, for Christ sake. I miss some of the people I knew back then, but I don’t miss the institution. I get the distinct impression that some of my classmates are stuck in 1980. I have trouble with that, but maybe that was their watershed.
Then Hans said, “When I was over there, I just wanted to keep from getting shot. I did anyway, once or twice. I got some shrapnel from a bullet in my shoulder blade. The doc told me that the metal might work its way out. I don’t think so; not from the bone. The body armor helped a lot.”
Hans thought for a moment and said, “I think they had worse diseases in Iraq than this corona virus.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
Hans took a drag off his cancer stick and said, “While I was there, I got dysentery. I know how I got it too. The thing is: that chicken I ate from the street vendor was the best I ever had. They must be immune to these things over there.”
“You know how the Army treated the dysentery? They gave us a laxative. They wanted to flush it out of our systems. I spent a couple days sitting in the conex, next to the porta-john, just waiting for the next chance to shit.”
There was a pause, and then Hans said, “I miss those days.”
I replied, “I miss flying helicopters. I dream about that at night. I don’t miss the Army, but I miss flying. I guess I’m glad that I joined up, but I am even gladder that I left.”
Hans said, “Yeah, I hear you. I miss being in tanks.”
I thought some more. I got out of the Army in 1986. I haven’t flown since then, but it is part of me. It always will be. Hans came back from Iraq in 2012. That experience will always be a part of him.
We were both remembering when we were younger, and we stood up on the watershed.