Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
WILLIAM R. KANOUSE
The Looney Tune
Tom Sedgwick sat one booth over from the man talking to himself. The man went on about his identification with Ryne Duren, the former New York Yankees' pitcher. His high school coach pegged him with "Ryne" because like his major league namesake he was wild. When warming up he used to reach the backstop with a high-hard one on a fly.
This McDonald's in Salisbury had a neon-look inside. Scattered on its walls were photos from the 1950s: Arthur Godfrey with an exotic monkey on his left shoulder and Buffalo Bob holding Howdy Doody and six shots of Marilyn Monroe that showcased her come-on face and scrumptious shoulders. Of course there were stills from Rebel Without a Cause and they all featured James Dean and souped-up cars. Close to the bathrooms was a Lucy and Dezi photo. Sedgwick said to himself that Lucille Ball looked real good in the promotion shot. A warm smile and very leggy and luxuriant reddish hair.
Sedgwick deployed The Philadelphia Inquirer to shield himself from the raggedy-bearded character to his right. The fortyish man sat close to the door that led to Salisbury Pike. The headline on that rainy August day screeched: IRAQ INVADES KUWAIT. Sedgwick saw it on TV but in print it was even more real. He read his paper and sipped his coffee and his stomach churned. He had drunk too much of it that day.
"Are ya readin' about that Pagan who shot that trooper in New Jersey? That Pagan hails from around here. The Pagans are enforcers for the Mafia. Yeah! The Mafia's influence even extends into Salisbury! Which is hard to believe!"
"Huh?" Sedgwick pretended like he hadn't heard a word the other said. He had camouflaged his face with the Inquirer.
"This Pagan wears a different suit everyday and he currently shaves on a regular basis. He's attemptin' to influence the jury."
"That's smart!" Sedgwick shuffled the paper around.
"Ya can get a refill on that. The girls mark the cups so ya only get one refill although they're really scribblin' obscene message on them. I don't trust'em and I didn't trust any of those VC women in Nam either."
Sedgwick stared out the window and fixed his eyes upon the PRODUCE JUNCTION sign which advertised Jersey tomatoes and peaches. He thought of picking up fresh produce after he left the McDonald's.
"Ya think I'm a nuisance and you're probably right. I'm what's called a Vietnam nut. Yeah! We're still around: us Vietnam nuts. They haven't killed us all off yet. And it was my ex-girlfriend that pins me with that name. VIETNAM 1"
He said it loudly and then his eyes distanced off. Sedgwick thought at that moment that his eyes were detached from his face.
Directly across from the fast-food outlet was Gallese Motor Co. The windshields of the cars on its lot screamed with chalked-on prices and above the used cars patriotic streamers fluttered in the wind-blown rain. A billboard that advertised a Golfers' Expo at the Valley Forge convention Center loomed close to the used car lot. Sedgwick told himself that he had not been to Valley Forge since he was a kid growing up in Salisbury. "I went with the cub scout" he said to himself.
"Were ya in?"
Sedgwick realized that the other was not going to let him alone. He could get up and move but that would be a bother.
"Was I in what?"
"A lot of guys were in the army."
"I'm not doin' bad!"
"Understand I'm collectin' on the damages! I will be collectin' for life!" He told Sedgwick that many years ago he had a job with the railroad. In time the railroad determined he was unsafe around its equipment. So he turned around with a "sharp cookie" of a lawyer and sued the VA. Further inquiry on Sedgwick's part uncovered that the other was "grabbing" a fat disability pension for what the VC did to him. He asked him where he got hit.
"I tell ya my eye falls right the fuck out! Falls right into my lap and the lieutenant says: 'Ryan! Your eye fell out! Are ya aware of that?' This's the same Lieutenant Johnson who says to me when I first arrive the unit to make sure I holler 'Japan' when I get hit. It's not if ya get hit but when ya get hit!"
"Did you holler Japan when you got hit?"
"I forgot! Forgot to holler Japan when I got hit!"
"It didn't mean anything. It was just a sayin'!"
"What happens after you're hit?"
"They send me back in a month. They graft my eye right back on and the doc says: 'Lucky ya hold onto that eye when it falls out. That's smart thinkin' and it shows good trainin'. Outstandin' trainin'!"'
At that point Sedgwick looked real hard at Ryan. Something had clicked in his head like when a pinball machine tilts. Sedgwick didn't want it to click but it did. Once when this click occurred he got in his car and drove a 100 miles to Wildwood and went on a drinking spree with Bill Stover whom he served with in the Delta. They got rotten drunk in a slew of Wildwood bars and they finished the night in the Wildwood Diner with two young women who couldn't make heads or tails out of what they were talking about. They talked of shit-burning details and killer teams and clackers and acid padsand mostly they talked of grunts who got it.
There was Keller. He stepped on a mine while Bravo Company was on a sweep along the Ba Rai River southwest of Saigon. Keller's right leg splattered all over the mud-slugged trail. It looked like an array of chicken parts scattered across the floor of an old-time butcher shop. Keller cried like a baby until the medics got enough morphine in him to quiet him. Before he got it Keller acted out the Sergeant Rocks' part. He boasted of a special mission he did for S-2 in Cambodia and he played match-up with VC ears in bars. He claimed he "earned" those ears during his first tour in Nam.
"So what happens after you're sent back?"
Ryan took a few seconds. "Johnson says: 'They send a looney tune back to me.' I overhear him tellin' battalion this."
"Were ya a looney tune when ya got back to Nam?"
"I'm on my way to becomin' one when I get back to my company. That's what a Marine shrink finally determines."
"That's what happen to you huh?" Sedgwick watched a dog weave through the traffic on the Pike. A high-wire act on the highway.
"Look!" Ryan wiped his pointed nose with his right hand. "I'm jumpin' way ahead of myself with this story because when I get back to Nam Johnson's my CO on accounta my former company commander had his body blown apart by a Bouncin' Betty. Ever seen one of those fuckers?'
"I seen them! One of the VC's most devastating inventions. They could kill you fast."
Ryan stopped again. His loose eyes gazed at Sedgwick's.
"What outfit were ya with?"
Sedgwick hesitated. He didn't want to get into it but the other had sprung it.
"Look! I never get hit and I'm only in the shit once. Ah ... once or twice! A lot of my days are just walks in the hot sun."
"Not like me! I become a bonafide looney tune!"
Ryan unfolded what happened between Johnson and himself. He served as Johnson's RTO man before he got hit. ("I humped that mother like a packhorse for him. He loved me like a brother.") Upon Ryan's return to the unit Johnson insisted that Ryan address him as sir. This Ryan fought because before they had been on a first-name basis. The conflict boiled over during Tet. Another company Delta was in a forward position near the DMZ and battalion lost them. The windup was Delta's being mauled badly by the NVA. Ryan's company Alpha had to pick up the pieces of Delta. He sketched how they rolled up those dead Marines from Delta in ponchos like "they were egg rolls." And when the dustoffs scooped them up you could see their boots sticking out of the open doors of the choppers. "They treated those bodies like salami!" It was at this time that his company was ordered to "real Indian country" where they came under intense artillery barrages.
"The shit hits the fire with Johnson right then! Ya see the enemy has its artillery mounted on railroad cars and they keep this artillery movin, in tunnels like it's on conveyor belts. The tunnels are covered with foliage. This's so the FACs can't find out where the artillery's comin'from. The NVA had it synchronized. That way we get hit every fifteen minutes. Throughout this artillery barrage Johnson's worried about what I should call him. I hide my ass and when he finds me I'm singin' 'The Good Ship Lollipop. 'I'll hum it for ya." It sounded like a bouncy song to Sedgwick. "I inform Captain Johnson that this nun we called "The Rock' ung it. Sung it as she beat on us. She'd sing it and paddle us at the same time. 'BOYS! The paddle's part of your education. Later on you'll love me for it. And even if you don't come to love me for it you'll never forget me. 'She really believed that. Believed that we'd love her later for the discipline she instilled into us. This's right up the street at St. Mark's. Maybe you're acquainted with it?"
Sedgwick ruminated. He had attended St. Mark's for eight years. He had no Sister Rock but he did have Sister Sam. She employed a yardstick. If it broke on your hand it was a sign from God and you had to buy her a new one at Martin's Hardware on Main Street. A good deal for the hardware store he mused to himself.
"Understand-Johnson had no interest in the source of my inspiration. He just couldn't understand why I was singin' that particular number. But he had been callin' me looney tune on a regular basis ever since I got back from the hospital ship. Once he tags me with it he never lets it go. Like he becomes obsessed with the sound of it!"
Ryan's eyes blinked at least three times Sedgwick thought. He looked outside at the ferocious rain and then back at Sedgwick. "You're in here lookin' for VC women?"
"No! I'm just gettin' tires put on down the street."
"Don't forget your refill on that coffee."
"Thanks for reminding me.."
"Hey! I'm not in bad shape financially!"
He abruptly drew Sedgwick's attention to a small apartment building on the other side of the Pike. The building was hazy in the rain and he motioned Sedgwick's eyes to a woman shaking her rug out the window in the rain. He told him to watch her closely for when she shook the rug she leaned far enough out the window for you to see her "jolly old nipples." Sedgwick saw the woman but no breasts. Ryan insisted that she flashed here breasts on a daily basis. "The cops know about it-but they are preoccupied with grabbing speeders on the city line on accounta Salisbury's desperate for revenue." He called Salisbury "the bone yard of the county." He claimed that John Bartram once owned a plantation in Salisbury and that indentured servants worked it. "They bonded themselves to Bartrarn for seven years and Bartram took his pick of the young Irish girls comin' off the boats. He did what he wanted with them. Kinky sex and everything!" Ryan got loud and shouted that "WHITE PEOPLE WORKED HIS PLANTATION! FUCKIN' WHITE PEOPLE!"
Sedgwick asked Ryan what he was on. Ryan listed all the drugs he had tried including heroin. He insisted that he had kicked his heroin habit. "I just do pot and speed these days although I highly recommend angel dust for a superior kick." He admitted to doing five months at the Meadows on a drug rap. He detailed how an unmarked police car pulled him over and how the cop went right for his trunk and uncovered a big bag of marijuana. He alleged that drug acquaintances had informed on him because he refused "to stoop down to their low life." Sedgwick asked him whether he was dealing and he nodded yes. He added that the girl who lived across the street from his put the hex on the police officer who arrested him Sergeant Saluto. Sedgwick wanted to know whether the woman was his girlfriend and he said no, although the woman had visited him at the Meadows in 1987. He elaborated upon his prison stretch by saying that the other prisoners jacked off onto Playboy pinups they had taped to the wall. Ryan couldn't do that because he needed something close to him. "Something to cuddle" were his exact words Sedgwick recalled.
Sedgwick believed that Ryan's eyes had settled upon an unseen target.
"If I look at a real young girl somethin' up here snaps!" He banged the left side of his head. "SNAPS!"
Sedgwick surveyed Ryan and stated: "I think my car's done."
"It's good that we can talk like this?"
"You'll wanta hear how I got out. It's a neat story!"
"I have to go!"
"Five more minutes for a fellow vet!"
"A fellow vet?"
"Sure! We gotta stick together! Otherwise whatta we got? ... Nothin'!" But Sedgwick was already out of his seat. The fast-food joint was empty except for two teenage girls giggling in the back who were seated under the James Dean pictures. Sedgwick was at the door and the rain slashing on the other side of it reminded him of his umbrella. He returned to the booth to retrieve it.
"Can't forget this!" Ryan waved the newspaper in front of him. "The Philadelphia Inquirer! It's better than any of this local trash!"
Sedgwick accepted the newspaper from Ryan before reaching down for his black umbrella.
"This story of mine will knock your brains out."
Sedgwick hesitated. Something from his past was clutching him.
"Did the young lady write somethin' on it?"
"A little notation! Nothing else!"
"That's what ya think!"
He examined the slash mark on the cup. "It shows that I got one refill." "The VC women are everywhere! Don't kid yourself."
Ryan smiled. Perhaps he only half-believed what he said. The other thought it to be a droopy smile.
But Ryan had another story. It dealt with a VC woman he had seen in the Salisbury Post Office. She wasn't even five-foot tall and she was carrying a bigfat box. The box was addressed to Ho Chi Minh City. "Guarantee ya that the two kids with her are VC offspring. One had a little horse emblem on his hat and the other kid's playin' with purple crepes. Later I see both kids chewin' on tree barks in Salisbury Park. And this woman was branded!!!"
"How do ya know that ?"
"Because I do!"
"What does it mean?"
"Huh?" Ryan stumbled. His eyes stared at the McDonald's sign. It promulgated over 80 BILLION SOLD.
"If she's branded-so what?"
"Let me tell ya! The VC have already taken over the laundry and the fish store. And I read where they're buyin' up old tire dumps like crazy. That tells me will be lookin' at Ho Chi Minhs in department stores pretty soon."
"Which could be a nice scandal!"
"They're here ten years and they're takin' over the country. How 'bout me? I'm one hundred percent American. Born and raised here!"
Sedgwick moved Ryan back to the story of how he got out of Nam. He needed to hear it even if it was only half true.
"The windup is my doin' forty-seven days this pot shop at Camp Pendelton."
"Pendelton sits right on the Pacific and I can still hear the thud of the ocean. It echoes in my ears because I hear it for those forty-seven days although I never see it. They place the Pacific off-limits to me. Ya see theyre tryin' to determine whether my battle fatigue's real or whether I just fabricate it."
"Did I what?"
"When Johnson catches up with me I'm not only singin' 'The Good Ship Lollipop' but I'm also listenin' to a delayed tape of the Phillies game on Armed Forces radio." He rubbed his nose. "I hada find out!"
"Find out what?"
"Why Ryne Duren got traded to the Phillies?"
"But ya got the radio!"
"I snatched the first platoon's radio for the helluva it!"
"What do you tell Johnson?"
"I tell him Ryne Duren sends his first warm-up pitch a hundred miles an hour into the screen because he doesn't want the batters to dig in and get comfortable. I lay on him that Ryne Duren has the same philosophy as Charlie. He don't want us to relax for one fuckin' second!"
"But the man has a company to run. He needs that radio!"
"I know he has a company to run. But he don't care about me-the Marine! He just cares about his career! His promotions! Look! I get the bumfuck Egypt when they send me back there! " He got louder. "I was hit and my eye fell out and they still send me back! just to fuck with me!"
"And Johnson? What does he finally do?"
"He treats me like a prisoner-of-war! 'NAME! RANK! AND SERIAL NUMBER MARINE!' I keep on tellun him that my name's Ryne Duren and that I just got traded to the Phillies. I ask him: 'Explain to me why I got traded? I was your best man outa the bullpen!'''
"What happened though?" Sedgwick stirred his coffee with the red stirrer.
"I was court-martialed! What did ya expect?"
"But with Johnson?"
"After he finds you and you sing that 'Lollipop' song to him?"
"It's like this! I told him the last time I got hit I forgot to holler Japan and I would up in a hospital ship. But now that I've tasted shrapnel for the second fuckin' time I'm doin' what ya tell me to do in the first place. Loud and clear I holler it! 'JAPAN! JAPAN! JAPAN!"'
With that ear-shattering blast Ryan bolted out of his seat and grazed the thin arm of a dark-haired young woman in a short skirt which caused the pertfaced female to lose control of a stack of trays. The trays slid to the floor like loose fish. Sedgwick jumped up and applied a firm grip to Ryan's soft right arm and forced him out of the restaurant and well away from it. The rain dumped down on them.
They were at the intersection of Salisbury pike and Springfield Road. A long half block from the McDonald's. Sedgwick believed the rain would deter the manager from pursuing Ryan. Perhaps the episode didn't get back to the balloon-faced manager for the girl couldn't have made much sense out of it. Sedgwick warned Ryan to get off the streets. "Look! The manager might've called the police. Anyway it's raining cats and dogs out here. You want to get inside somewhere." This made sense to Ryan. He wanted nothing to do with the police.
Sedgwick turned around and headed for the Goodyear's. He thought of returning to the McDonald's to retrieve his umbrella but he didn't bother. It was a mangy one and it wouldn't last long in the wind-huffed rain anyway. He ran across the rain-slick Salisbury Pike into Pepe's Bar and sat down at the Ushaped bar and ordered a double vodka and tonic and asked the barmaid for barnaps so he could dry his hair and face. He placed enough money on the bar to establish that he wanted the vodkas to keep coming.
Five construction workers in corduroy shirts and khaki pants sat to his right. They talked of being chased off the job by the wind and rain. Decrepit zombiezed drinkers were off to his left.
The TV was off. He found daytime TV deadening and he decided that the brawny barmaid with the slight goatee sprouting from her chin had played "Bad Boys" by the Miami Sound Machine on the jukebox. After he got a few vodkas under his belt he intended to play a few numbers.
He couldn't recall the last time he did any serious daytime drinking. But he needed to drink it off. He downed the first double and signaled the barmaid at the far end of the bar where she maintained her cigarettes and ashtray. Then he slipped off the high bar stool and dueled the jukebox. He found what he wanted and inserted four quarters into the machine and played the same number four times. He returned to his seat. The second double vodka was in front of him and he again lashed barnaps through his thinning hair. The rain had creamed him.
He shut out everything and everybody in the bar except for Credence and "Who'll stop the Rain." The song would juice what he was about to say to himself.
Words formed on his lips. That he was aware of. But the bar was fairly dark with light only creeping in from narrow windows. Who could see the words forming on his lips? Who cared? "What happened to Ryan could've happened to me. It was a roll of the dice. I was as scared as he was but I never got hit. Once shrapnel clawed my skin just above my left ankle. The shrapnel was like terrible spider bites. I still have the scars. But they ain't shit. I happened after Tet when we're out in the field all those days. In the boonies I couldn't get much sleep. The poncho liner was my blanket and the poncho itself kept the dampness of the nylon liner. I tried to get comfortable by taking the C-rat boxes and flattening them out. In that way I'd have a bed of sorts. But I never figure out how to manipulate those C-boxes in a way that would keep the rats away from my face. You have to be a contortionist to keep those rats off you. They'd come across your poncho and you'd want to put the '16' 6' right on them and blow their brains out. But you couldn't do it. If I finally did doze off it seemed like that very next moment I'd be woken up to pull perimeter.
"Where we get hit and wind up in the shit is along the Ba Rai River. This was definitely after Keller stepped on that mine because Harris took over second platoon. It was the next day I believe. Yeah! We take it along the Ruong Canal just northeast of Sa Dec. First it's mortar rounds. They about bust our eardrums and within seconds it's AK-47 fire from the tree line to our right. We leap for cover and then start busting caps all over the place. Our gunner Spec 4 Thompsom gets it in the face right after the fracas starts. His head looks like a bowl of puked spaghetti. So the sarg puts me on the sixty. Thompsom had attached a C-rat can to the machine gun's side. That permitted the ammo belt to move smoothly through the breech and not get tangled up like netting. I got that sixty sounding like a jackhammer. I'm blasting away at the tree line and the sixty gets so fucking hot that it eventually burns up in our hands-mine and the ammo feeder's. It felt as if I had just burnt up a car. It's a sensation-and-a-half. The sarg couldn't believe I cooked it.
"It seems like our slicks are on the scene in no time. They drop rockets in front of us. Drop them practically in our laps! Those gunships just about blew up the earth! They chew up those mangrove trees. I know my battalion commander's high above the fray in his Charlie-Charlie and that the xo's below him in his own slick. The xo finally did come down. He's a little squirt of a guy and he looks real strack and he asks the usual bullshit questions. But the main thing he does is check out the KlAs and take pictures. A lot of guys are snapping pictures. It's that kind of war. A picture-taking war!"
Tom Sedgwick stopped talking to himself for a minute. He hailed the woman again and she poured him a little extra this time and left the bottle of Gordon's with its wild boar's head cameo on its label in front of him. The vodka spiraled to his head and it made the war convulse in his mind.
"That's the only time I'm really in the big time shit. A lot of days are just walks in the hot sun humpin' those lousy rucks. After Tet the VC had shot their load in the Delta. They needed time to rebuild. Things got fairly quiet. At least where I was. I became an expert shammer and by the time the heavy rains came in early August I was out of the field. And when that typhoon hit on September 7 and rolled over the Hueys and ripped up hootches I had been out of the bush for a good month. That typhoon created some mess at Dong Tam, division headquarters.
"After my twelve are up I'm sent to Fort Hood. I'm with the Second Armored and it's educational because I learn about tank warfare in the desert. On one very hot Texas afternoon my battalion's at a base camp way out in the boonies. I'm playing basketball and I come down wrong after grabbing a rebound, so they put me on a chopper and on the way in I take in the monster of a fort that Hood is. It's a spectacle. But I say to the chiselfaced warrant officer that' it's all chicken shit! Every fuckin' thing below us!' I said CHICKEN SHIT good and loud and no one but the pilot and his assistant hear me. The pilot's a two-tour Vietnam vet and he know exactly what I mean."
Sedgwick believed chicken shit ranged loudly in the bar because the construction workers swayed their heads in his direction and the barmaid was immediately in front of him. He told her he was done and she took the bottle away and turned on the TV. Perhaps she was trying to neutralize CCR and "Who'll Stop the Rain."
Wheel of Fortune blared out that the grand prize was a seven day cruise with the stop at St. Croix featuring an excursion to the island's unique underwater park. The cruise was courtesy of Viking Lines.
He left Pepe's. The TV drove him out.
The rain had ceased although clouds hung low and appeared to race in the sky. He strayed to the creek just behind the bar. The usually docile creek swelled with gushing water and with debris from upstream. A swamp oak which hovered over the creek was strange with clothes. The tree seemed to be growing clothes: jeans and plaid shirts and calico dresses. Much had fallen to the ground. Everything soaked. The old tree was sling-shotted back and forth by the wind and a crow perched precariously in it. Sedgwick stared at the crow; the crow peered at him. "Two voyeurs" he thought. "A world chained by voyeurism."
Sedgwick crossed Salisbury Pike for the second time. He thought of getting his umbrella, but he wanted to steer clear of the McDonald's for it reminded him of that ugly side effect of the war: the dope-gutted veteran. The war was sprung in his head again and he couldn't grow a good moustache. He could recite all the Kentucky Derby winners from 1919 to 1967: Sir Barton to Proud Clarion. Why he started with 1919 Sedgwick never asked. The Derby loomed bigger in Thompsom's mind than the Super Bowl, the Derby a weekend binge with everybody in Louisville "drunk as a skunk." Thompsorn got it approximately two months before Forward Pass won it going away in 1968. He was Sedgwick's closest friend in Nam and it was Thompsom who taught him on night patrol not to look directly at an object at night for it will appear like it is moving. "'Tommy! When were on the trail at night and ya think ya see somethin' always scan to the right and left of it. That way ya'll see it for what it really fuckin' is. The bush is one deceptive mother at night!... It was also Thompsorn who showed Sedgwick how to wrap tape around his ankles. Between the blousings and his boots. This kept the leeches off your legs. Or almost did.
Thompsom wanted Sedgwick to visit him for the '69 Derby when they I would both be back in the "world." Sedgwick didn't cry when the medics scooped up the remains of Thompsom's body and shoved those remains into the plastic body bag. But he cried later, when he wrote his family in Kentucky. They never wrote back.
He picked up his car at the Goodyear's. The tires were very clean and he knew they'd only look that clean for one fleeting moment. He pulled onto the Pike and the war continued to blare in his head like a built-in boom box that couldn't shut itself down. He considered Ryan's last question. "After Ryne Duren was traded, whatever happened to him?" Sedgwick recalled talking more baseball than football in Nam because it had those sacrosanct statistics whereas football didn't. In Nam those baseball stats became magnified since the soldiers seldom saw the games. Sedgwick didn't talk baseball in Nam the way Ryan did. The war had made another person out of him and then they made him do 47 days in the pot shop. They didn't let him off easy. Examples must be set. Always examples, and Sedgwick knew that was the only way an army could operate. That he had learned in training, in Nam. Ryan, he understood, was one of the unfortunate victims of that psychology.
Sedgwick was halted ten-car lengths below the busy intersection just above the McDonald's where Salisbury Pike crossed Main Street. St. Mark's occupied much of the block to the left. Ryan had attended St. Mark's at roughly the same time as Sedgwick. He pondered having bumped into Ryan in the pitted asphalt yard, Ryan two or three grades behind him. The sheer anonymity of the whole business was numbing. More than numbing.
The light changed and Sedgwick was parallel to the intersection. At that moment he saw Ryan off to his right where the bowling alley once was. It had been subdivided into a hodgepodge of different things and one of those things was the FIRST EMANUEL PRAYERS PARTNERS CHURCH. Ryan walked into the church like he belonged there. Sedgwick had traced his movement via the rear view. He chuckled to himself and he didn't know why Ryan's entering the storefront church struck him as funny. But it did.