Then one day, Hank Gardiner, whom really had very little to say, I had met him the summer before, a relative of one of the gang members (The Cayuga Street Gang, also called ‘Donkeyland,’ by the local police who combed the neighborhood daily), who lived near our neighborhood, knew most of the guys, six-years older than I, said something in an almost whisper, after we had walked from the small neighborhood ‘Pitman,’ grocery store, near Granite Street, heading down towards the church steps, off Jackson and Sycamore Streets. He had parked his 1956 green Oldsmobile across the street from the church steps, by my friend, Bill Kapaun’s house (by twilight the whole gang would be there.)
He said, “I’ll be going soon!”
“Going where?” I asked.
“To Vietnam, the war, I’ll be a soldier, I volunteered.”
“Oh,” I said with a surprised tone to my voice, adding, “that war over, by China? Maybe you’ll not end up there?”
“No, the recruiter said I would,” replied Hank, “yup, tomorrow I go, can’t wait around here, nothing going on but drinking, fights, Chicks, nothing for a man my age to do but drink, and I can get some college in the Army also, I think I’ll take advantage of it. Just think, before school starts, in September, I’ll be fighting in Vietnam.”
“School, hick with school, I’d like to go with you now, tomorrow, I just as soon be gone, then sit around here.” I said as if wanting to follow him.
Then I hesitated, looked at his face, he was there already, so it appeared, daydreaming of his Army career.
Me and Hank would go down to his green Oldsmobile, occasionally-prior to this day-and he’d turn on the radio, and we’d sit, usually with a few other guys, he, usually being more inclined to talk to them, than me, except for today (perhaps because of my age, at fourteen), and we’d be listening to Elvis Presley songs, Rick Nelson, Johnny Cash, singers like that, tapping our feet on the asphalt street, leaning lightly against his car.
Just prior to dusk-just like today-we’d head on down to those church stops, that faced Jackson Street, the church being of red brick, and its tall steeple on the other side of us, the steps actually led into an addition to the church, perhaps the chapel, or hall of some kind, I never saw anyone go through those doors, they usually went to the back side of the building to get in it.
Anyhow, most of us guys in the neighborhood heard about the war in Vietnam, but up to now, now one went, and the war was not called a war, it was called a ‘Conflict’ perhaps to lessen the stigma. In consequence, Hank would be the first one to go, if indeed he went.
And we sat there, listing to a small battery radio, on the steps this pre-evening-it was a warm late afternoon, Oakland Cemetery across the street, they were locking the gates, and I could see Roger’s girlfriend, Shelly, she was walking about the Caretaker’s premises, she lived there with her mother and father, the old child to my understanding; she was the first girl I ever kissed, at the age of thirteen years old, Roger made a bit with her to do so, and after she did, I wanted a second round, and she and the guys laughed. But I was serious.
Well, there we were, Hank and I on the church steps, and a man walks by, “You know where Cayuga Street is?” he asked, and I said, “Down three blacks,” he was a stranger and we knew everyone on the block, everyone by Smiley’s friends, a guy who moved in a year prior, and Doug was going to get into a fight with him, but it never took place, maybe he was his friend, so I got thinking. Then down the block, I noticed several bodies coming, Jackie, the girl I was kind of dating was with them, she was Chippewa, dark hair, about five-foot one, cute, with dark eyes, she and her family lived up the block, on Sycamore Street. I noticed Doug and Larry, and Karin, with John were among the group, and behind them, Big Ace, Jerry, was trying to catch up, he was all of six-foot five inches tall, two-hundred and fifty-pounds, and a tinge slow, he was about ten-years older than I, and bought the booze for everyone, that is, he never had much money, and drank free off us, but we got the booze.
Jackie was the same age of me and she hung around near what was called the turn-around, next to my grandfather’s house, where me and my brother lived with our mother and grandpa. Next to that was an empty lot, and a hill called ‘Indian’s Hill,’ Jackie and I would go up there and kiss, oh not much more, just necking.
“Yes,” I said, “tomorrow I guess you got to go then!”
He, Hank, heard me, he put his hand on my shoulder, and it was a different kind of stillness.
“You?” he questioned “cannot go in the military for another four-years, if the war lasts that long, maybe I’ll be a sergeant then, and we’ll meet one another, it’s not all that long.”
“You’ll be killing all those…” I didn’t know what to call the enemy, so I left it at that…
The he explained in depth to do something, anything, but get out of this neighborhood he implied, when I was capable of doing so, that here there was only a dead end, a road that lead to no other roads. It made me think, planted a seed to be harvested later on. Oh I didn’t quite understand all the rudimentary that went along with that statement, we seldom do when your so close to the forest, it is hard to see it is a forest, likewise, it was hard for me to see, the dead end (but one person did say it correctly, some twenty-years after this day, when I was clean and sober, and becoming a counselor, he said at a meeting at the hospital to a group of recovering alcoholics, while I was taking an internship at Ramsey Hospital, “There are two corner bars in this neighborhood I went to, and I discovered the folks that live there, started drinking there since they were teenagers, and they are now older men, and still there, dying slowly of the alcohol…” he was talking of my neighborhood, and he didn’t of course realize it, and I never told him to my knowledge, but I did mentioned after the lecture I was aware of where, and whom he was talking).
Nonetheless, Hank went on to say, the Army was offering him opportunities to go to college (something that was foreign to me, I would hardly make it to High School, I felt, thus college was the forest thing from my mind, yet the goal of going to college, coming out of my neighborhood-as Greek, and as far fetched as it sounded, it would be an afterthought that would come back a throughout my teens, and even into my early twenties, perhaps Hank planted another muster seed in my subconscious, because it would grow, and someday I’d get my Ph.D.)
I was back then, too young for the Army, and Hank knew it, and as impressionable as I was with Hank, and the adventures the Army were starting to offer-travel and education-I didn’t fully understand it all, I was too young, and then one day, the next day he was gone, disappeared.
“I’ll write you,” I said to Hank.
“No,” he commented, “just finish school, I’ll be back on leave to see you and the gang, now and then!”
Anyhow, he was listening to me attentively for the first time it appeared, until the gang got to the church steps.
He punched me in my left arm, he was on that side of me, sitting on the stops, leaning back against the cement back of the upper step, my chin in my arms, my elbows on my knees, and I almost fell over,
“Yup,” he said, “You only got to stay here a while longer then join the Army and see the world.”
“See what?” I asked, then I noticed my brother Mike coming down Jackson Street, he was two years older than I, with Gary, whom was called Mouse, they had been working on his go-cart.
It was now a matter of minutes before the gang members were climbing up the steps “Shut up now,” said Hank, “you’re the only one that knows this…that I’m going tomorrow.”
“All right,” I answered back, as if to confirm my hearing him.
He then put his hands behind his back, leaned back more onto the upper step,
“Well, Chick,” said Jackie, with a smile, “anything goin’ on?”
“Nope,” I said, and she sat down beside me.
(I didn’t want hank to go, I didn’t hear Jackie, what she was saying, she was talking lightly, I seemed to have been in a fog, something like in a state of disassociation, in her world, but outside of it, like in a fish boil looking at everyone around you, she nudged me, slightly-the Vietnam war was running through my head-“are you alright?” she asked, perhaps thinking she did something wrong, and she hadn’t, and I moved my head right to left, and she sat quietly, talking to Karin below her whom was sitting with John, who would marry her in a number of years; after he and I would take off to Long Beach California, although that was years ahead, and when we’d come back she and he would marry.)
Jackie’s sister showed up, Jennie, her and Larry were going steady, and Larry was the tough guy of the neighborhood, whom I lived with a number of times, upon my return from several long trips. I lived for a summer in his attic, another summer in his garage, and had party after party, booze and girls, and I lived in a duplex he rented the upper apartment.
Well, Larry and Jennie were there, and my brother was dating Carol, and she showed up, and Ace was not dating anyone and dancing about as he often did.
“Jackie,” I said.
“Of course I’m all right, I’m just thinking.” she chuckled as if it was a delayed reaction, she had already forgotten she had asked how I was doing, and onto other things with the gang, talking about getting some cases of beer and either going to ‘Indian’s Hill’ to get drunk, or jumping the Cemetery fence and drinking among the ghosts and gravestones there.
I now looked at Hank, perhaps one of my last looks, and he said in a spirited voice, jumping up, pulling out the keys to his green 1956 Oldsmobile, in my ear, “Hush,” and I did not disclose his secret.
He stood up talking to a few of the guys, as then; Jackie asked if I would later go for a walk with her, down to Indians Hill. I could hear Mike talking to Carol, and Larry and Doug talking, and then Rick came up and sat with the guys.
Jerry, otherwise known as Ace, was singing a song called ‘Twenty-four Black Birds…” and everyone started laughing.
“Everyone pitch in two dollars, Ace is going to buy us two cases of beer, and a bottle of wine,” said one of he guys.
Ace looked at Doug, said, “I didn’t say I was going to!”
Roger and Ronnie, his brother had shown up, said, “Come on Ace get with it, you one of us or not!”
And so Ace, Doug, and Roger went to get the liquor up on Rice Street, on the other side of the Cemetery, “We’ll meet you guys down on Indian’s Hill,” said Roger, and he drove Ace and Doug up to the store to pick it up.
Hank was still standing, looked at me, “See…!” he said to me, nothing more, he figured it was a neighborhood affair, he seldom drank with us anyway, and so him not showing up at Indian’s Hill would not be any surprise.
I sat back down, watched Hank go to his Oldsmobile, not realizing this would be his last time I’d see him…
I saw Jackie pull out two dollars, gave it to me to give to Roger, to give to Ace to get the booze, and I did likewise, as everyone did, and they went to get as much booze the money would buy, Ace didn’t have a dime, as often he didn’t but when he did, he was generous with his money.
“I forgot my false teeth,” said Ace to Roger, and Roger replied, “you don’t really need them, but we can stop by and pick them up,” he lived on Sims, street, his father a Captain of the Fire Department of St. Paul, Minnesota. In a year or so, I would take a liking for his sister, she and I, like Jackie attended the same High School, Washington High on Rice Street, Kathy was her name, and she’d show up in the neighborhood and we’d hang out, we kissed only a few times, and it seemed it kind of fizzled away, although we were friends for the next twenty-years, until she got hit by a car. She had gotten married, and lived close to the two bars on the corner of Jackson and Acker.
And so Ace, Roger and Doug jumped into their cars, and Hank, into his, as Jackie and I headed with the rest of the gang to Indian’s Hill.
Now Hank was gone, and the first thing I knew was Jackie and I were on Indians’ Hill drinking with the gang, then it started to rain, and everyone ran for cover with a beer bottle in their hands, and four cases of beer up on the hill, by a large thick tree, Jackie and I with a blanket over our heads, down by my Grandfather’s garage-not sure where we got the blanket, I think I slipped it out of my house, and we kissed a bit, not much, and we held each other, lightly, and we could see the guys walked to and fro crisscross across the empty lot, everyone getting drunk, and the police driving by, shinning lights up into the thick of the bushes onto of the hill.
I thought about writing Hank, but I never got his Military Address, and so I stopped one day at his house, his brother, older brother came to the door, and I introduced myself to him, “Oh, yes!” he said, “Hank had mentioned your name a few times…!”
“I’d like to write him,” I said, it had been about nine months since I had seen him, I was all of fifteen-years old, plus a few months, date freely, no one in particular, although Jackie was still around, and Kathy, and I had met a girl called Sheila, I was in the second year of High School, she one year below me, and we danced at a lot of the park and school dances, and she always wanted me to make love to her, but I wouldn’t and she told me so, that I was missing something, and I suppose I was, but I was getting into drinking and quicker affairs, but she was popular in High School, and we dated that fall.
Anyhow, this visit accrued during the time I was seeing Sheila, and his brother took a second to say what he needed to say right, “He was killed in action in Vietnam, a few months ago.”
You really do not know what to say at a time like that, you just stand still numb, absorbing the substance of those words, as if you would like him to reconfirm what he said, although you know what he said. I was not prepared for that, a tear came to my eyes, I had no control over it, an automatic tear. My inners became disrupted, and I had to catch my breath.
“Oh…ooo!” I said, looking down at my feet to find words and all I found was zigzagging emotions.
And so I left it at that, what more can a person say, the brother tried to put a smile on his face, but couldn’t. And I couldn’t and I left as strangely as I had appeared.
I told myself, ‘…go get drunk,’ perhaps that is where I picked up some of my avoidance of stress: drink it away. I knew I was growing up fast, and the world around me would change, and I’d soon be making choices, like Hank did.
((In 1969, on my way back from San Francisco, and after visiting Mexico for a day, I’d head on up to Grand Forks, North Dakota, and thereafter, be joining the Army, more like drafted into it, and head onto Augsburg, Germany, and then onto Vietnam. Then it would be, a solider to a soldier as I had imagined it to be in the beginning, but it would have to be in a secret kind of world of our own, my own, because of course he was gone: but not forgotten. I would be heading on down to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for Basic Training, and then over to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, for more training, and to Fort Lewis for Jungle training. This was just the beginning of my world, my adventures to be, the ones he sadly did not get a chance to, but then, perhaps I did it for him, as they said in the neighborhood when I’d return, and I did return several times, they lived through my adventures) (or by proxy.))