Stories

 
Red Line

A Veteran's Day

A Veteran's Day

Drawing by Judith Wolfe

"Goddammit it, Sean, it ain't right, forcing us into overtime, especially not at regular hourly rates."

"Look, Del, don't get pissed at me. I'm just the messenger. Management's downsizing and outsourcing everywhere. It's a bitch. It's their decision. At least they're not laying off yet."

Del hadn't hurt Sean, the thirty something, short, overweight, balding kid from accounting—just scared him with a nudge against the concrete shop wall and angry words in his face. Nothing personal. Just unmanaged anger at the manager.

Del Robinson was full of anger, but he'd never go postal—never blast away in the workplace. He didn't need a weapon. His six foot four, two hundred twenty pound, fifty plus year old body was intimidating enough. But working late meant pushing his own life farther out the door. And not doing it would cost Del his job.

They called Riley, the shop foreman, the next day from upstairs and he called Del off the cement shop floor into his carpeted office. Riley wore his pock-marked face and bulbous veined nose like a penitent's sackcloth and ashes. They were reminders of his own slips on the path of life. His homecoming after Army duty in Korea had been a series of alcoholic celebrations that lasted most of his adult years. Anderson Tool was the last grip he had on a steady paycheck.

"Do you really think I was going to hurt Sean?" Del went on the offensive.

Riley didn't move from his chair. He looked over his glasses and handed Del a list of anger management clinics. Nicotine had claimed the tips of Riley's fingers, and darkened already yellowed teeth that one rarely glimpsed in an unsmiling face.

"This really isn't your day. You're a vet with an anger problem. It isn't the first time, Del. You know it, I know it. Get help or get out."

In Riley's watery blue, blood-shot eyes Del read the message: this was it. At his age where would he find even a labor job? Trained as a carpenter and an electrician, both unions had blacklisted him for his many angry outbursts. Riley was offering him a hand instead of a boot.

The Seattle Behavior Clinic was on Riley's list and close to home. They provided after work counseling sessions.

"This class for depression and anger management meets for two hours once a week for four weeks. The court has remanded some of you. And employers have recommended others. We don't judge, but we do need full and active participation for the healing process. And to get my signature on your release form. Please fill out the attendance sheets and your individual name tags."

In her late thirties, the therapist's name tag said ‘Jennifer, MSW', and she was dressed in a white lab jacket with a high collared blouse and dark skirt falling below the knees. Her hair was cut short and she wore no makeup. There was an edge to her that said, ‘don't mess with me. I've seen and heard it all'.

Del took a seat at the oblong table in the windowless, cinderblock room painted institutional light green. He quickly appraised the five other men in the group. He knew the look of the vets like him: vacant eyes, smokers cough, hair in pony tails and tattoos. The hands on the table were formed into fists, opening and closing. They either came here or faced job loss or even prison. It wasn't hard to tell whether they were depressed or angry. Probably both. Like him.

After the routine of the name tags, Jennifer asked each participant why he thought he was there. They answered with long pauses from bowed heads and shuffling feet.

"Well then, let's start."

She opened her copy of the packet each had received in the mail. She asked them all questions, but Del only heard and answered his own.

"How do you feel today, Mr. Robinson? Have you had time to study the chart with the different faces showing various emotions under them? Some say ‘angry', or ‘smug' or ‘lonely', ‘bored' even."

She had all the right charts and the right things to say, but to Del she seemed too young and full of jargon to know much outside the packet. Like somebody's daughter.

"I'm still looking. They're nice drawings, though, aren't they?"

Del was not an angry person. But provoked, he could give it back. His high school football team knew him as the "stun gun" for his famous forearm shiver. The explosive thrust of his large forearm convinced opposing linemen they had business elsewhere.

In wasn't boredom his senior year that made him think about life after high school. But Del was eager even to believe the Army recruiter about service and patriotism. After all, Father Berger had prepared him with talks of godless communism and the domino theory in his political history class. He had even said in class, "it's ok to kill a commie for Jesus." Problem was that class came right after Brother Casey's discussions of the Ten Commandments at St. Regis boys' high school. So Del, the stun gun, was half way to being a Christian soldier when the recruiter, decked out with patches and medals and brass everywhere, offered him a world of travel and adventure, lasting friendships, and doing good in the world. Kind of like what the devil offered Jesus in the desert according to Brother Casey. The rifle in the pictures would replace his forearm shiver. And he'd be on the winning team, just like his class of l970 state champions.

He signed and basic training had been football camp with attitude. His Army aptitude tests qualified him as a clerk. But he didn't want to be the manager of the team. He wanted to put his nickname of stun gun to work. During leaves at home his tales of Army life were not much different from his friends' college stories of boozing and hanging out with new friends.

"Mr. Robinson, we need more than they're nice drawings. Open up and let things out and people in", Jennifer responded, with a testy edge to her voice. "Do you have any story you'd like to share, something the others could relate to?"

"Yeah, maybe."

Del met the Colombian, Carlos Perez during basic training. Carlos had been dodging Immigration agents while working in the US without papers. He joined hoping to stop looking over his shoulder. Later, that's all he'd be doing. He struggled with his English like Del struggled with spit and polish of Army life. They formed a bond.

"Delberto, you helps me, I helps you, ok?" He pronounced it jew helps me and made Del laugh. The flight to SE Asia with their infantry unit was the longest away game Del could imagine.

During a lull at his unit's forward firebase in Vietnam, Del won a week's R&R. He chose Singapore, the island nation, bastion of anti-communism Father Berger had told him about.

"Dammit, Carlos, are you going to be ok while I'm gone? We should be going together."

Del worried about Carlos because his English skeels, as he called them, didn't always function. Sometimes he mixed up the signals during a "scrimmage". Del was his other voice.

"Si, Delberto, don't worry about me none. You just get away from this place. I'll be ok. Like you always says, I'll keeps my head down."

And the day before Del was to leave for Singapore, their sergeant assigned Del and Carlos to patrol a known Viet Cong hamlet. "Incoming" and "ambush" were what Del heard first and Carlos heard last. Carlos had sure enough kept his head down during the mortar attack, but that forced his butt in the air. If the piece of metal that forced its way into Carlos' tissue had found its way higher up his body, his flak jacket or helmet might have deflected it. But his head was down. Just as he had promised Del. In the dust and the smoke and the noise Del saw Carlos' pant legs turn a dark green, like he had peed his pants, or worse.

"Dios mio, Delberto, I think I'm hit. Below my butt is hot and it stings."

There was no teasing him now about his pronunciation of eet and steengs.

"Hang on, Carlos, goddamm it."

"Mi madre, Delberto, tell her I love her."

Maybe it was the other wounded screaming, or maybe it was the sweat and tears that blurred his vision so that Del couldn't locate his first aid kit.

"I can't shut off the wound. The tourniquet's not working. Somebody help us!"

When Del located the artery's flow, he realized there weren't enough compresses in the entire squad to stop Carlos' life from squirting from him. With one hand he tried to maintain pressure on the wound; with the other Del cradled Carlos' head, hoping his stun-gun arm would ward off the cold hand that was cutting off his friend's breath; a breath coming in spurts, like the blood under Del's hand.

The triage medic from the evac chopper put two fingers on Carlos' neck, closed his eyes, and pulled off his dog tags. As he watched the chopper lift off, Del removed his own dog tags and laid them on the stained ground where Carlos had lain. Then he ran as fast as he could from there.

"Well, Jennifer, that's my story. And yes, I've got feelings. Feelings that I don't really want to be here. But I need to keep my wife and my job."

While he told his story, Del had received subtle looks and nods from several other men in the room.

"Yes, well, let's move to the emotion regulation chart in your packet. See the list of pleasant adult events? Some examples are relaxing, listening to music, lying in the sun, meeting new people, eating, etc. Can you tell the group what gives you pleasure, Mr. Robinson?"

"It used to be a lot of things."

Besides working on the Camaro, Del liked tinkering with the plumbing and wiring on the fixer-upper he and Mae had bought. She got him out to a dance once or twice a month. Meeting new people had never been easy for Del, especially not after Carlos. He'd seen enough of lying in the sun. Squinting through a gun sight into it; certainly not looking for new friends. Some people he knew from back then never left that position.

"Can you name some things from the list on the chart, Mr. Robinson? You've been quiet today. Everyone else has contributed to the group. Don't you want to add your feelings?"

"Sure. Well, maybe working on my Camaro. I drove it tonight. It's down in the garage."

"Tell us about your car, Mr. Robinson"

"I found it at a garage sale. The parents of a guy killed in Vietnam were selling off some of his things after they stopped crying. They were happy to sell it to a vet for a good price. The paint and upholstery were gone and there was mold everywhere. It leaked oil and all four tires were flat and bald. It needed a lot of work. Kind of like me. I thought I could restore it to its original state. It made me think of my own original state. It never makes me angry. It's something beautiful that I restored from nothing."

"We all need restoration at some time, maybe, Mr. Robinson."

"Yeah"

Del thought to himself, "was that really what it was down to? Him and his Camaro?" Feelings about people leave him flat lined now. Like those heart monitors on the medical shows. No ups or downs; just bursts, outbursts that get the phones ringing and bring the cops. And now he's in this group for anger management. Because he doesn't manage it.

"Shall we move to the Social Contact Impact and Social Supports chart? This segment addresses the support structures in our lives. Mr. Robinson, are you still with us?"

"Sure, right. I'm still looking for support structures."

"I can't be married to two men, Del. One of you tries to be a hard worker and provider. The other one is an abusive, boozing, runner from reality, screamer in dreams. I won't put up with it any more", his wife Mae had said. "You've made kindling of my parents' furniture. Your nights are longer than your days. I'd say get help, but it's almost too late. You're down to your last chance with me. One of these days you won't find me here anymore."

Mae had cheered his football successes in high school. When he returned she tried to nurse the scars she could trace with her fingers on his body. And the ones she couldn't see. He promised kids and dogs and trips to the beach. There'd be a house, a car. They'd grow old together; playing golf and watching the grandkids grow. But all that faded with the lost jobs and the fights. Their life together crumbled, like bad construction on sand. Sex became a non issue. Then separate beds in separate rooms. Next would be separate addresses.

His teenage kids didn't even go to college to move away. Del didn't blame them. But there was no one else. No more team.

And Jennifer the healer continued to plow on through her program.

"Next are the various problem area factors, such as weather and biology. We'll look at how to identify them and work on interventions. Please note, an intervention strategy in one area can often bring about adjustments in other areas. Mr. Robinson, how do you deal with factors of environment you cannot change?"

"Well, you sure as hell can't change the weather or the time"

"Very good, Mr. Robinson. But how can you change your expectations of them in order for you to cope?"

Del spent twelve months in country. There was the rainy season and the dry season. How the hell would Jennifer cope with the constant smell of sweat and dirt? She'd want a shower twice a day. The guys in the squad caught rainwater in the tent flaps, soaped up, and then let the flap down for their shower. How did anyone cope? With some rolled up green vegetation and Jack Daniels black.

"I'm still working on that. I guess you got to do what you got to do."

"What do you do, Mr. Robinson? Or better, what have you been doing?

"The wrong things, I guess. That's why I'm here, isn't it?"

"The next category is biology. As Mr. Robinson notes, we can't directly alter or intervene in the weather or time, but we can intervene in our biology and how it contributes to our condition. We oftentimes mask our issues with other means, such as legitimate medications, but also with drugs and alcohol. And importantly, what role does physical activity play? Physical exercise releases mood-altering chemicals called endorphins. Hunger can alter your mood, and your blood sugar content at any given time; but too much or too little of any interventions can become counter productive."

Del thought of Carlos' normal level of biology and how Del's intervention had been too little too late.

"And you, Mr. Robinson, would you like to add something?"

"Sure. Exercise is good. Sometimes it makes me feel better."

Del remembered the exercise he got just standing up with sixty pounds of pack and helmet and rifle with ammunition. But he didn't remember any endorphins. And his best exercise had been the walk through the check points while processing out of country. There were containers for the weapons, grenades and other ordnance that stayed behind. And then came the disinfectant wash. But it didn't wash away the fear or the guilt. Maybe Father Berger was wrong and you can't kill a commie for Jesus. Their faces returned over and over at night. There was no pill to make feelings return.

And then Jennifer announced: "Our next category discusses your spiritual life, whether you believe in a higher power. This deals with your connectedness to other people or to life in general. How about you, Mr. Robinson. Any thoughts?"

"Why don't you ask somebody else for a change?"

"I already have, Mr. Robinson. Everybody contributes something that might help the others."

"What if I didn't bring any spirituality to the party?"

"Please share with the group why you think you might not have any spirituality."

Was this about religion? Del didn't need any paper or ceremony to make it right. He didn't need any white collars, or incense or Bible readings. But they'd had a church wedding anyway. Mae insisted on getting the kids baptized. In church again. Maybe that's why nothing took. Because Del didn't want it, didn't think he needed it.

"Is it like a glue that keeps people together and makes them feel part of each other, this spirituality?"

"That's a bit unconventional, Mr. Robinson, but a great description nonetheless. Would you like to describe your analogy of glue?"

Was that it for Del? No glue. When someone puts something together, there has to be glue on both sides in order to get a solid bond. Maybe Del had too much Teflon on his soul. Nothing sticks. No one sticks. It wasn't like that over there. The whole team worked together. They all stuck together. Until death parted them.

"I guess I didn't bring enough glue to the party; nothing to make me stick to other people, or them to stick to me. I think I've lost it. I don't know where I can get some spiritual glue anymore."

"I like to think that's what we work on here, Mr. Robinson."

"Yeah."

"Let's move on to the category of Thoughts. Mr. Brandt told us earlier about how cognitive distortions consume a lot of his mental energies. He told of how even a gesture or look would set him off and give him no peace."

Del could relate to that. Like the accusing that won't go away.

"Sometimes when I go out in public I think people see the real me, the guy who took lives. They don't see some Joe trying to make a living. You know what I mean?"

Avoiding eye contact, the other men in the group nodded or mumbled, "I hear that."

"You all seem to agree that our thoughts can form what we call cognitive distortions, or thought images that intrude into our minds and cause us to act strangely. Mr. Robinson, would you like to share some of your troublesome behaviors?"

"I'm here because sometimes the anger inside me spills out into other peoples' space, and the fear that makes me do weird things. I don't even know what I'm afraid of anymore. Sometimes I'm afraid of the fear. Sometimes I'm angry at the fear that won't go away."

The neighbors had called the cops on Del the time he sat in the living room with a shotgun. Like ambush patrol. It wasn't loaded. But nobody knew that. It scared them. The cops were cool about it. They told him to stand down, and he did.

"So, Mr. Robinson, your emotions dictate your behavior. Is that what you think?

"I don't know. Sometimes I feel like I am entering a house and I can't get out. There is no door and the windows are fastened tight. I feel helpless. I…"

"I see our time is up. We'll have to take these issues up again next session.

But Del was warming to it, wanted to talk more.

"What do you really want from us, from me? You're not going to sign my get out of jail slip, are you?"

"Mr. Robinson, I want you to prepare the next packet for discussion. Sometimes it takes months or even years of work to improve ourselves. That's what I want from you. I am only here to record your progress. Don't' give up. Please."

Del mumbled goodbyes in answer to the ones he got. No long conversations for him. He asked himself could he wait months or years. Would this be the time he made it right? Would Mae or even Riley see any change?

The Camaro sprang effortlessly to life, purring to Del like the only friend it was. His large knarled hands formed gently around the thin steering wheel as he emerged with squealing tires out of the depths of the underground garage. He held his breath like a diver coming up for air. He would take control now. The sun's last rays brought clarity. Would Mae be a part of that clarity? Riley would just nod as he read the report from the clinic.

As he waited for the light to change, Del saw that his lane headed for I-90 Eastbound. Next to him, the lane went straight West in the direction of the sunset and home, wife and job. Maybe he wasn't really in the wrong lane. When the light changed and the first horn honked, he noticed he was still holding his breath. Exhaling deeply, he thought of Carlos and his old dog tags. He looked down at his wedding ring, removed it from his finger, placed it on Mae's side of the car, floored the gas pedal and followed the Camaro while it led him onto the ramp away from Mae and Riley, toward where the sun would rise tomorrow. Maybe this would be his day.

Published October 12, 2007 by Southern Ocean Review

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