The Red, White, and Blue
By Joseph Milosch
I drove heroin hooked soldiers to the infirmary. These men openly cried, or moaned rocking on the back bench of my pick up. One, with his blond hair parted down the middle, wore glasses with circular blue lenses. The MP’s made him sing “TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME.” His voice split, and large drops of spit hung as if hooked on teeth and gums.
Six weeks later, Dexter reported to me. He said, “I remember you; you drove me to the hospital my first night stateside. You weren’t afraid to let me ride in the cab.” He thought he was clever, and called me, “The driver.” Every day after lunch, he’d sit stoned in the tool room. Sometimes, he would play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on his harmonica. He thought it was the blues.
He’d finger his choker of beads–red, white, and blue. To Dex it was like the tradesman’s cap my great grandfather wore. It stated who he was. “I’ve got my dad’s hands,” he told me, “See how large they are. That’s why my veins are so good. These hands need a lot of blood.” His blue beads stood for his bloodline and his family’s hatred towards any government agency including the draft board and the military.
He was the son of a machinist and the grandson of the last blacksmith in his hometown. “I can stand in front of my lathe all day, trimming, listening to the lathe. I love the long lean note that floats when its engine heats up and whines at a higher pitch.” Dex believed his red beads stood for the engines’ heat and the blood he left on the machine shop floor.
His white beads stood for what he believed, and that was what his family believed, “When you became rich, you became a Republican, until then you put in 8 hours work for 8 hours pay.” Dex believed he should defy all government laws. He’d use drugs. He’d show up late for formation. He wouldn’t stitch one corner of his nametag, and he’d roll up the sleeves of his uniform in winter, roll them down in summer. He would rebel. He was a confederate. His spirit would not be defeated. Drugs purified his spirit. That was what the white beads stood for, what he believed, and how he’d lived each day.
I watched the sway of his necklace as he polished galvanized fittings with steel wool. I saw his thin build, his fox–like nose, and thought of his Nam experience. In country he was the platoon’s tunnel rat. He was liked because he was fearless. He said his platoon was like our company’s sergeants, “They didn’t know anything about me,” and Dex spoke about root–like rocks rattling his helmet. He spoke about night–throated tunnels devouring light, spoke of that neck cramping fear appearing as balls of sweat on his chin. Dex spoke about what he knew, “One time I felt something alive, a snake, a lizard pressing against my thigh. I felt its heat. It made my asshole pucker,” and his face twitched as if the cold bones of the tunnel’s hands felt his face.
Everyone knew of Dex’s overseas reputation, knew Dex worked in the tool room. They knew he painted the shelving army green with black trim. He bought green felt, and lined parts boxes with it. They knew he stood elbows and couplings on their ends, and he scraped rust off pipe wrenches, putty off putty knives, sanded three hammers’ wooden handles. They knew he washed 24, 12X12 windowpanes. He stacked them. Put brown paper between them. Paper cut so square not an eighth of an inch of light came between the edge of glass and the edge of paper.
All this meant nothing to the mess sergeant who refused him entry to the mess hall, unless a Non Commissioned Officer accompanied him.