June, 2012 – Restaurant, shop and bar – Ketchikan, Alaska
James Barrios was on his fourth beer. A haze was beginning to form in his head. He knew his wife Phyllis would soon be looking for him; yet he kept talking and reminiscing. James hadn’t expected to run into another fellow Marine on the third-floor bar of an Alaskan souvenir shop. He had simply stopped in to escape his wife’s shopping spree. Plus, he wanted a quiet break from the other folks on his tour.
Tour – that word took on a whole new meaning nowadays in his mid-sixties. James and Phyllis had spent the last decade of retirement traveling to new locations all over the U.S. in organized senior citizen bus trips and sea cruises. In the 1960’s, however, tour meant something entirely different.
James began thinking about those Vietnam tour days just minutes ago. He had introduced himself to Bill, another white-haired, big-bellied fella who strode into the bar fifteen minutes after him wearing a USMC hat. James began envisioning incidents from nearly four decades earlier.
Bill and James were both drafted and trained in San Diego’s boot camp. After two beers and two minutes of easy conversation, both men discovered they were trained by the same meanest sonuvabitch drill instructor ever known to man. Bill laughed as James told him the story of having to go without food for three days when trying to sneak an extra slice of pizza onto his mess hall tray. They shared stories of dry heaving and collapsing on field runs.
The bartender asked the men if they were ready for another cold one. James replied yes.
Bill reached into his jeans pocket, pulling out his “Red Man” chewing tobacco saying, “No, I think I’ll take a break for a dip instead.” He offered James a handful.
“Damn, I’d like to but Phyllis would kill me,” James commented. “I’ve quit that shit for years now.”
Bill asked the bartender for a plastic cup. After several minutes of moving the dip around his tongue, he spit the remains out with a loud force. The sound echoed in James’ ears.
October 1969 – Several miles from Danang, Vietnam
“Good riddance, you filthy gook!” Lance Corporal Bryan Landry shouted and spit on the body of a Viet Cong teenager he just shot. He followed this act with a showing of his middle finger while urinating next to the deceased’s shattered skull.
James turned his head since he did not wish to witness any more of this scene. Bryan had a savage look in his eyes. He and several squad members danced around the body – spitting and singing how they were ready for their next kill. Although James knew the kid probably deserved to die, he could not conjure up that same anger Bryan felt. His buddy Paul had his legs blown off from the land mine’s blast, the mine that this Viet Cong had been caught detonating. James had to endure Paul’s agonizing screams and the endless blood streams that stained his clothes before Paul was taken by a flight medic.
No, James kept his spit inside the empty beer bottle he carried around. The bottle was used for the smokeless tobacco that his uncle shipped him from Morgan City, Louisiana. Three more months of this jungle hell, he thought to himself. I just have to stay alive for ninety-six more days. He reached his dirty fingers into his chew and pressed a thumb size’s worth into his mouth. The movements of his tongue against his teeth somehow comforted him through the nightmare.
January, 1970 – San Francisco International Airport terminal
“I’m warning you men now! There is a group of radical protestors that will be waiting for you when you step into the open area. Be ready for it! Do not, I repeat, do not engage them in conversation or activity. You men are free now. Go home to your families. Do not pay attention to them or what they say,” Major Grant advised the troops.
James was so happy to be setting foot on U.S. soil again. No war-avoiding, dope-smoking hippie was going to steal away his joy. He stood and smoothed his service uniform back into place, dreaming of his mom’s warm homemade bread and a cold soda.
James and the other men moved their way down the terminal. He could hear voices and shouts as they walked closer to the gate.
“Murderers! Baby killers!” yelled a dark-haired, thin white male wearing a blue tie-dyed shirt and brown bellbottoms. He threw dog food pebbles at another man positioned three persons in front of James.
“Sick bastards! You should have died there!” shouted a freckled, red haired girl who looked only fifteen. Her eyes were glazed over, almost frozen like.
“Heroes, my ass, I see no heroes here! Just a bunch of trigger-happy fools,” said a tall blonde male who pushed the guy walking in front of James. Marty, a limp-walking kid not much younger than James, nearly fell. James helped him gain balance. The crowd laughed at him and made vulgar gestures.
Then the blonde man spit into James’ face, just below his right eye. The saliva hit him fast and hard, like the bullet he imagined might take his life a few weeks earlier. It smelled like nicotine and unwashed armpits. The blood rose up in James skin. Anger took over him suddenly and fiercely. He could no longer tolerate the abuse from the crowd nor seeing his fellow men being treated with such disgust. He grabbed the blonde man by his shirt collar and cocked his fist back ready to punch.
“Stop James, you’ll be arrested!” said Major Grant quickly moving to separate the men. He gave James a look that indicated not to blow his chance of freedom.
James composed himself but not before spitting back on the beatnik first. The blonde male stumbled back with surprise and fell backwards onto his friends, the ill-mannered redhead and brunette. Now it was the troops’ turn to laugh at the hippies.
June, 2012 – Restaurant, shop and bar – Ketchikan, Alaska
“Hey man, where’d you go? You seemed far away for a minute. I asked you if you’re sure that you don’t want any of this snuff.” Bill spit into the plastic cup again, his words interrupting James’s flashback.
Back to present day, James replied, “What? Oh, no, I’m good, thanks though.”
Bill proceeded to tell James a few of his accounts from battles in Nha Trang. James asked for a final round of beers as Bill told the story of losing his friend during a night patrol. Bill said he held the hand of his buddy before he died in the jungle, spitting on it first. Although that seemed odd, spit for Bill was a symbol of brotherhood and gratitude. James liked that notion, much better than the hatred it caused at the end of his Vietnam tour.
The sun was setting. James heard the rustle of shopping bags and tired feet coming behind him. He smelled Phyllis’s perfume at his shoulder and knew it was time to go. Quietly he paid the bar tab for both he and Bill. James stood up to shake Bill’s hand and wish him well. Bill put out his hand.
James thought of the story Bill had just told, of him as a young soldier comforting a dying man in the jungle on foreign land. Although it must’ve looked odd to Phyllis and the bartender, James spit into his hand and placed it into Bill’s. Both men nodded with understanding and pride.
Phyllis then reached for James’ arm. He took her bags in one hand and slipped his other arm around her waist.
“Are you ready to go?” Phyllis asked James.
“I’ve let it go,” James said mostly to himself letting his Vietnam days unfold behind him.
“What babe?” Phyllis asked again, not hearing his remark.
“Yes, I’m ready to go,” he said.
James was ready to forget the past. He wanted to enjoy the new tours in his life, like the current Alaskan adventure.