A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.
~ Edwin M. Kelley
The cold November wind was unusual for Tampa and I remarked as much to the old boy standing next to me. Instead of responding he turned away; his affectation of exercise not real convincing with his cane, knee brace and posture cantilevered by a distended abdomen. They don’t let you get too close, these old veterans.
I smile and pull up the hood of my sweatshirt and turn to look at the other men waiting. There is nothing making us come here except that if you don’t the VA stops mailing your meds and when your meds run out you start hearing voices and forgetting stuff, like the guy who got lost on his way to the mailbox. Fifty years of war have made the VA a growth industry, where the concrete never sets and outpatient overflow parks at the mall. Their transportation department carries on the military tradition of punctuality and just as I check my watch a dark blue bus rounds the bend, every half-hour on the nose.
“How’d you get here, in a ambulance?” says the intentionally ungrammatical and exaggeratedly incredulous Navy doctor, getting a laugh. He is looking at a form provided by the teenager standing in front of his table.
“No, a bus,” comes the reply, as the examinee reaches up with both hands to sweep back his long blond hair. In school we called him Beach Boy and his smooth tan shows it still. On the form he checked yes to every disease and wrote in a couple more, hoping that one of them would flunk him out of his pre-induction physical.
“Nothing wrong with you, next!” And Beach Boy, like the rest of us wearing nothing but briefs, takes his paperwork and walks solemnly out the door.
Chief Nine Toes is no longer with us because they rejected him right off. He was standing next to me in formation when a guy in a white Navy uniform noticed his missing big toe and hollered “that’s an out!” He called an officer over to verify and they pulled him out of line and told him to get dressed so he missed out on the rest of the fun, provided free of charge to all potential draftees along with a bus ride to the Jacksonville AFEES, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
The Chief lost his big toe in a lawn mower accident but it didn’t seem to faze him because he played football right along, excelling as a kick returner. On the ride back to Tampa we teased him about it but not for long, because the seriousness of the deal came over us. There was a war in Southeast Asia and they were killing off nineteen year olds so fast they needed replacements every week and the more they killed the more they sent over, selected by birthday lottery.
“I had a heart murmur but the son of a bitch went away,” says Fabian Lazzara, rocking in his seat, highly agitated. As a high school all-star he was Fab Fabian but in college he was one and done, leaving him with no deferment and no heart murmur notwithstanding his insistence otherwise to the medical personnel of the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station.
“Anybody else flunk?” he shouts, half standing and twisting in his seat to survey the whole bus. No one but Nine Toes, sitting alone in the front row, as self-conscious as a man in a booth eating lunch by himself.
Walking down the center aisle I look around at the other outpatients, bundled up like Russian peasants on their way to the farm. You’d think that sooner or later I’d run into a man from that first bus ride but it’s never happened or if it did we didn’t recognize each other; we’re all sixty now. Chief Nine Toes is long gone, dead at fifty of diabetes and kidney failure, having lived out his anonymous life as an overnight guard and a morning drinker.
The guy with the knee brace gets on last, taking a seat in the front row. He stretches out his leg and says something to the driver, who nods and reaches to shut the door. From a seat by the window I look out at the vast parking lot and see in the distance a man walking fast and waving like wait for me but the bus keeps rolling. When he figures out the driver can’t see him the man slows his pace with a gesture like never mind, he’ll catch the next one.
I look at my reflection in the glass and feel the flush of a flashback, picking up pace with the speed of the bus. It runs by in a blur but I don’t panic because I know how it ends, when the picture syncs back up with the story. I rest my head against the window and wait for it, thinking about the lessons learned.
Army training uncovers predisposition but predisposition counts way more than training. Physical predisposition, that is, because training can’t duplicate the conditions needed to reveal predispositions of the mind. They become evident only when reality overruns imagination and the mission disconnects down to hunter and prey, even among your own. That’s when the differences present, as they say in medicine.
The bus stops in front of the massive hospital and the driver opens the door, letting in the cold air. I half stand in my seat and turn to look at the phantoms walking past. One guy saw bad things happen and flipped out, the next came out of it okay. One guy missed the bus and shrugged it off, another one stubbed his toe and disappeared.