I bristled a bit at being called ‘kid’, but when I thought about it for a second, I realized that to him, anyone my age was just a kid. So I answered politely and respectfully.
“No sir, I don’t. But I don’t think I’m going to get a choice. So I’ve been trying to get as fit as I can, and Sgt. Joyce has been teaching me all he can about weapons.”
Looking at Sgt. Joyce, Gunny said “Well, at least he’s sane Marv. He’s smart enough to know that going to Nam is not a good thing…. But since he looks like a frickin’ girl!, he’s gonna have a hard time at Basic and probably even afterward, and you and I both know it.”
“Yeah Joe, I know. And that’s why I called you. He just turned 17 so he’s got just under a year before they draft him. He wants to beat them to the punch and volunteer so at least he has a bit of say in what happens to start with. I want you to teach him everything you can in the time we’ve got. Get him ready for the crap he’s going to face when he gets to Basic. If he can make top of his class in Basic he might get a shot at picking his slot. He’s a good kid and I don’t want to see him get shipped out as a friggin’ grunt right after Basic”
“Well, I suppose it’s worth a shot. Whaddya say kid, you want to learn what I can teach you?”
While they were talking I had been sitting there thinking about what Gunny had just said. I looked like a girl? Girls didn’t have muscles like I did, they didn’t train like I did, they didn’t look like I do. Did they?
“I look like a girl?!” were the first words that came out of my mouth.
“Yeah kid, sorry to say, but you do.” replied Gunny. “So, do you want to work with me or not?”
“Umm, yeah. Yeah, I do sir.”
“Okay kid, as a favor to Marv, and cause you look like a good kid, I’m willing. BUT, you gotta give me 100 fucking percent all the time. And we are going to train the 2 times a week you are normally here. Marv says he doesn’t have anything else he can teach you.”
Then almost as an afterthought, “And stop calling me sir. I work for a living.”
“Yes, si… Gunny.”
The first month with Gunny Martin was hell. I was sore in places I didn’t know existed, and he tossed me around like a rag doll. But I was learning. Learning what it would take to help keep me alive. And while he was teaching me unarmed combat, he was also teaching me things about how to stay alive in Vietnam. I was soaking up as much information as he could give me.
And as hard as he worked me, I kept coming back for more.
I was now a senior in high school, and it was only a matter of months before graduation and the Army. I was studying and training all the time. Not that it had any real effect on my social life or anything, because I certainly wasn’t one of the ‘in-crowd’. I didn’t have a girlfriend, nor did I even date, really. I mean, I was still a friend with a lot of the girls, but I wasn’t dating or Prom material. The guys pretty much left me alone except for the normal crap I took about looking like a ‘fag’ and crap like that.
Christmas that year had a whole new meaning too. We all knew that by next Christmas I was likely to be somewhere other than home. Most likely spending it with that big silent elephant, Vietnam. Mum and dad were both trying to be strong and cheerful, but I could see the toll it was taking on them. There was a quiet desperation about that Christmas, as if we were trying to pack a lifetime of memories into that one Christmas.
And in a way, I guess we were.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last Christmas I would ever see my father. He died after being hit by a drunk driver just before I phased out of Basic, a few weeks early. I was given my three days of leave to attend the funeral. When I came home my mother told me what had happened. I vowed then never to take another drink, or date anyone who did. I didn’t want what happened to my father to happen to anyone else because of me.
I’ve not had a drink since.
His funeral was a somber affair. Sgt. Joyce (who told me to call him Marv now) and Gunny Martin came to support me. Mom’s sister, my aunt Joy came out from California to stay with mom for a while. A few people from dad’s work showed up, and a few of the kids that I had gotten along with at school came to pay their respects.
When we got back to the house that night after the funeral, my mom had this funny look in her eyes. I wouldn’t see that same type of look again until I had been in-country for a few months. Its that look people get when they have seen and experienced too much. In ‘Nam they called it the “thousand yard” stare. Kind of a vacant, running on autopilot kind of look. Some people can get over it, some people can’t, and some just push it aside and continue on, truckin’ on. Which is fine if they don’t crash hard some years later. We spent that evening and the next few days talking about what had to be done. You know, all the usual things –the house, the bank, the utilities, the life insurance and all of that stuff. Mom was a bit like a robot, but we eventually got through it all. I was really glad Aunty Joy had come to stay with her for a while. I would worry a little less since she had someone with her. But I digress from the story I’ve been telling you. Or is that ingress? I guess I was kind of jumping ahead.
Anyway, shortly after Christmas, I was working with Gunny Martin on a Saturday afternoon. We had moved from the basic unarmed stuff to the tricks he had learned in a lifetime of service around the world with the Marine Corps. All the back alley tricks and dodges that kept him alive for 30 years from China to the Philippines to Nicaragua and all points in between. It was during this workout, where I actually ‘killed’ the Gunny three times. Yep, that’s what I said – three times. It was the first time I’d ever gotten to him more than once.
It was after this workout that he said that he and Sergeant Joyce wanted to talk to me, “We’ve got some ideas to bounce off you.”
I said “Sure, but I need to let my family know I won’t be home for dinner.” I didn’t want my mother going to the extra trouble of making a meal if I wasn’t going to be home to eat it.
I was constantly amazed by the people who lived in my hometown. You’d know Gunny Martin was a soldier to look at him, just as you would Sergeant Joyce. But until they allowed you to get to know them, you would have no idea of the crap they lived through and survived. Or for that matter, how their gruff exteriors hid exceedingly sharp minds. These were the men who got me to reading Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Thucydides, Liddell Hart, Mao Tse-Tung, Machiavelli, Rommel, Musashi and von Mellenthin. They opened my mind to possibilities that I previously had no idea existed.
So... when the Gunny said they wanted to talk, it behooved me to listen. I had learned a lot about and from both of these men. I sometimes wondered if they looked upon me as the child they never had. Through their friendship with each other, and with my father, they were able and willing to teach ‘their’ son everything they could. I would never be able to repay the love and kindness they showed me. So, after calling Mom and getting cleaned up, we headed out to the Gunny’s car. While I could drive, I saw no point to buying a car that I wasn’t going to need for a while. And besides, it wasn’t that big a town that you couldn’t walk most places.
We climbed in, and pulled away from the armory. Gunny looked over at me and said, “We’re going to go over to Marv’s place. One of the three of us will burn some steaks at some point and we’ll talk over your future in the military. Sound like a plan to you?”
“Sure thing Gunny. If Sarge is okay with it, I’ll be happy to do it. In fact if we stop at the Jewel on the way, I’ll pick up a few things to go with the steaks.”
Oh, yes…I never did mention that as an only child, my mother taught me to cook and cook well. She also taught me to be able to run a house on my own. Laundry, ironing, cleaning and everything else. I often wonder even now if she knew deep down that she was showing her daughter things that every woman should know.
“That works for me kid. I’m a lousy cook and I know it. I’m not sure that Marv is much better.”
So, we stopped at the Jewel grocery store. After checking with the Gunny to make sure Sarge had already gotten the steaks, I nipped into the store. I grabbed some dried pasta, a few spices and some olive oil, the makings for a scratch spaghetti sauce and the ingredients for a salad. Thinking of who I was going to cook for, I also threw in a nice fresh Italian loaf, and the making for my Favorite cookies – an Italian Hazelnut Espresso Shortbread.
I figured if nothing else, I could give these two wonderful men a partial thank you by cooking them a good meal. Now I know what you’re saying. Stevens is not an Italian name. You’re right, it’s not. But there were a couple of Italian families in the neighborhood and Mrs. Tortelli and Mrs. Fazzari were wonderful cooks and wonderful women who generously taught me how to cook Italian food when they saw how much I enjoyed it.
We continued on to Sgt. Joyce’s place, not really talking a lot, just relaxing after the day’s workout. We turned onto Elm Street and a couple of minutes later we were pulling up in front of a nice little bungalow. It wasn’t that big, but it was certainly the best kept house on the block. The walks and driveway were all shoveled, the house certainly appeared to be in excellent repair and the trees had obviously been properly trimmed just before winter. It was immediately apparent to me that this was Sgt. Joyce’s house. It embodied all that I knew about him. Neat, properly squared away, orderly.
As the Gunny and I approached the door, it opened, and there was Sgt. Joyce telling us to come in before we let all of Winter into the house. Once we got into the house I could see a much different man than I normally saw. While the house was small, it was tastefully furnished, and there were small pieces of art and sculpture around the living room. It was obvious to me that the sergeant had chosen items that meant something to him from his duty stations around the world, while keeping in mind an overall plan for his home. He had more layers to him than I had ever guessed.
“Coffee pot’s on, you two. Cups are in the cupboard above the maker. So’s the sugar. Creamer is in the fridge. When you two have finished playing with your coffee come on into the living room and we’ll talk.”
Gunny grabbed a couple of mugs out of the cupboard and looked at me with a questioning eye. I nodded and he reached the sugar out as well. He filled the two mugs, grabbed his and went into the living room. I reached into the fridge, grabbed the creamer, added a generous dollop as well as a couple of spoons of sugar, gave it a quick stir and went out to the living room. Sarge and the Gunny were making small talk when I came into the room, and as I sat down they turned to me.
“So Sarge, you guys wanted to talk to me?”
“Yeah, we do. We’ve been talking about your options for the Army and we wanted to get your thoughts. We know you’ve said you want to go into Special Forces. Are you still serious about that?”
“Yes, Sarge I am. With everything you guys have been teaching me, and all the reading about tactics and military history I’ve been doing, it still seems to make the most sense. For a number of reasons actually. First is the advancement potential – if I go Special Forces after Basic, I’m fast tracked for sergeant. And I can specialize to a larger degree than I could in the regular Army. Second, if everything you guys have told me is accurate, the Team members look after each other far more than in a regular unit, so my chances of survival are higher from that perspective – although the risk factor of the missions they undertake may balance that out. Third, it would appear that Special Forces is more interested in skills and respects those skills and abilities to a higher degree than a regular unit does.”
“Yeah, okay….it’s obvious you’ve thought about this a lot. And for what it’s worth, I agree with your reasons. Joe?”
“Yeah, me too. I admit that I have a bias towards the Marines and Marine Force Recon or the Seals though. But, if you’re looking at this from the long term, the Army does have more options to offer career wise.”
“Look Lyon, me and Marv have been kickin’ this back and forth for the last couple of months. We’ve been trying to decide the best way in for you and the best fit at the same time. We’ve come up with a plan that we think is workable.”
“Fill me in, Gunny.” The way they talked made me feel like I had a couple of extra dads, or uncles that were looking out for one of their own.
“Right. There’s a few things you got to know up front. First is, with your parent’s permission and the approval of the Army, you can join early. That’s before you turn 18 and before your name goes into the draft lottery. Now this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Army’s permission isn’t automatic. You will have to meet both physical standards and intellectual standards. They will do testing for this. And even if you wow them in testing, it very often doesn’t happen. But with three or four recommendation letters from the right people and, if we do it through the right recruiting sergeant, it could happen.”
Tilting my head with an inquisitive look, I asked “You mean like letters from the Senator that Dad went to school with?”
This time Sgt. Joyce picked up the talking while looking me right in the eye saying, “No Lyon, letters from politicians would get your file red flagged either for using your political influence, or as a warning to others to stay the hell away from you because of the politics. The best letters would be to come from fairly high ranking officers, and non-coms. That’s where we would like to help you.”
“Now there’s a few things about the Gunny and I that you need to know. And that you need to keep to yourself. It’s nothing that we aren’t proud of, but we both like our privacy and we both don’t want people treating us different. We’re the same guys people have always known, we just have a few things that some don’t.”
I was really starting to wonder what Sarge was talking about. It was like they were trying to hide part of their past or something. Mind you, they did say it wasn’t something they were ashamed of. The look on my face must have been priceless, because they both were looking at me and started to laugh.
Gunny Martin stifled his chuckles. “If you could see the look on your face, kid! What it comes down to is at other times in our lives, for things neither of us think were anything more than our duty, we were decorated. And along the way we both were sergeants for officers who are now fairly senior in the Army and the Marines. Marv here, is entitled to wear the blue ribbon with all the stars on it.”
I was now openly gaping at Sgt. Joyce.
“You were awarded the Medal of Honor, Sarge? Can you tell me what for?”
“Lyon, I’m not going to get into the details. It was a long time ago. But the simple answer is for surviving when most of the rest of my company didn’t. I’m proud of what I did… I know it saved more lives than it took, but I left a lot of good friends on the field that day. And they earned that medal every bit as much as I did, if not more.”
I was amazed, but I guess not surprised at how self-depreciating Sgt. Joyce was about it. I think a small part of me understood what he was trying to say; and I certainly knew how folks in town would react to a Medal winner. I also knew that the Sarge didn’t want to be made out to be a hero.
“As much as I don’t want this info to get out Lyon, Joe and I both know a letter from a Medal winner will go a long way to helping you get where you want to go. And I phoned one of my old CO’s who is now a General. I explained the situation, he asked my opinion of you, which I gave him, and he agreed to give a letter of support based on that recommendation”
I was stunned. That these two men would do this for me left me in absolute shock and awe. And Sarge wasn’t finished.
“Joe here, as well as being an unarmed combat instructor is pretty highly decorated himself, Lyon. He has been awarded the Navy Cross twice. And I shit you not, if the Marines award you the Navy Cross, you better believe it’s because you came back alive. Not very many Marine Medal winners lived to have it awarded to them. And when we were talking about how to go about it, the just
retired Commandant of the Corps was Joe’s Company and then Battalion Commander, a number of years ago.”
“Yeah kid, I talked to the General just last week. He just asked me if you had ever ‘killed’ me during the time I’ve been working with you. When I told him yes, he pointed out that even at his prime, he never did, and he never saw a boot even get close the whole time I was at Parris Island. He will also supply a letter of recommendation to the entry board.”
“Joe and I think that with those letters, and the right choice of recruiting sergeants, that we can help you get to where you want to go. Of course, like we told you, you also need your parent’s permission.”
“Sarge, Gunny….I don’t know what to say except, thank you. Thank you for working with me over this past year. And thank you for allowing your privacy to be breached to help me out. I am very grateful.”
“Kid, we wouldn’t do it for you if we didn’t think you had it in you” rumbled the Gunny.
“Well. Why don’t I make us supper with those steaks while you guys sit and relax. It’s the least I can do to say thank you. Besides, it will let me think of ways to talk to my parents about this.”
While I started to prepare my ingredients to make the sauce for the pasta, I looked around the kitchen to see what Sarge had. Looking through the cupboards, it appeared that Sgt. Joyce was more of a cook than Joe thought. He had all the tools of the trade with which to make wonderful food. I knew I had everything to make a great meal for these two extra dads/uncles I seem to have acquired.
Now, let’s see. All of the vegetables are prepped for my spaghetti sauce, so I better get it started. A good sauce should simmer for a while. Well, actually, according to Mrs. Fazzari it should simmer all day but I didn’t have that kind of time. Lightly sautéing the onions and garlic in olive oil I added my peppers, mushrooms and celery along with the oregano, basil and a bit of marjoram. Oh, it was starting to smell good. Adding the diced tomatoes and then hand crushing the canned Roma tomatoes as I added them, the sauce began to take on the aroma of a proper sauce as the scents of all the mingling spices started to permeate the kitchen.
Yes, I know, I talk about how I cook my food a lot. But it is one of the ways that I could express my creativity while maintaining that masculine façade. After all, the best chefs in the world were men, weren’t they? Popping the lid on the sauce and turning down the heat so it could simmer, I turned to the rest of the meal.
Well, the cookies needed to be next, since they would take a while to bake and cool if we wanted them for dessert. Getting all my dough ready, I proceeded to prepare them somewhat like a traditional Scottish shortbread – a pan version if you will. As opposed to the small individual cookies that most Americans had come to expect. Well, set them aside for the moment, they don’t need to go in for 15 or 20 minutes yet.
Doing these things that were so familiar to me allowed my mind to concentrate on what we had talked about and how we would approach my mother and father. I didn’t think my father was going to be that much of a problem, since he was the one that had brought me to Sgt. Joyce in the first place. The knotty problem was how to sell whatever plan we came up with to my mother. Well, I would think about it some more while I completed everything for dinner. Quickly whisking together a nice vinaigrette for the salad, I turned to the steaks. A nice spice rub, I think. That combined with a fast sear in a cast iron pan should turn out quite nice. Hmmm… deglaze the pan with some red wine if Sarge has some, and make a nice sauce to finish the steaks off.
Grabbing the coffeepot, I went back into the living room where Sarge and Gunny were still talking.
“Dinner will be about another 45 minutes or so, gentlemen. Would you like a top up on coffee right now? I’m going to make a stronger espresso style blend to go with dinner.”
Getting a couple of affirmative nods, I topped up their cups. Heading back toward the kitchen, I turned and paused for a moment.
“Oh, and Sarge do you have a bottle of red wine in the house? I’d like to use a bit for the sauce for the steaks, and I figured we could all have a glass with dinner as well.”
“Yeah, I keep a couple of bottles around. I’ll grab you one. You know of course that I shouldn’t be letting you have any since you’re underage? But what the hell, soon enough you’ll probably be in ‘Nam and a drink with friends is always a nice thing.”
I turned and headed back into the kitchen, a little smile crossing my face. Sarge considered me a friend... who’d have thought.
Anyway, getting back to the matter at hand – supper, I dug the steaks out of the fridge so I could look at them and see how long they would take to cook. Oh geeze, what did they do? Make 3 steaks out of an entire cow? These things are huge. It’ll take forever to cook them properly. I hope they like their steaks rare, otherwise it might be tomorrow before we eat. Hmmm, better check to see how they like them done.
Setting out the steaks to bring them up to room temperature – I found that I get better control of cooking time and doneness if I do – I poked my head around the corner and asked them how they wanted their steaks. I was praying that neither wanted them well done.
“Knock the hooves and the horns off it, throw it through the fire and put it on the plate!” replied Gunny.
“Yeah, sounds good to me too, Lyon. Nice and rare.”
Okay, back to the food. Hmmm, maybe a nice meal for my parents, and have the Sarge and Gunny over to help explain the plan to them... might work. A good meal and a few glasses of wine can often make something a little more palatable. Well, finishing up my rub for the steaks and getting the cookies into the oven, it would soon be time to get the pasta and the steaks on. Now was a good time to take a moment to set the table. Scant minutes later, I was calling the other two to the table for dinner. The meal had turned out pretty much perfect. The steaks were just right, as was everything else.
As Sarge and Gunny sat down they viewed the meal on the table.
“God damn, Lyon, that looks good. I don’t think I’ve sat down to a meal like this in years.”
Gunny voiced his agreement and we got started. There wasn’t much talking as we ate the rather humongous meal in front of us.
“Lyon my boy, I haven’t eaten that good in a very long time. You got some hidden talents.”
Holding up his glass, Gunny looked solemn for a moment and said a phrase I will have heard too many times in the years yet to come.
Realising that this was a moment for Sarge and the Gunny, I kept silent as they raised their glasses to each other and drank.
» » » » » »
L. J. STEVENS, Vol. One (4th part)
T D Aldoennetti
with contributing authors
Kate Hart & Denise Trask
All characters in this work have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relationship whatsoever to anyone or anything bearing the same name or names. The characters contained herein are not even distantly inspired by any specific individuals known or unknown to the author. All incidents described or alluded to within this work are pure invention. No affiliations, involvements or gender assignations due to the use of any images contained within this work are to be implied, intended or inferred.
Cover image copyright Maps.com and shown for clarification of area in which the story begins it’s evolution.
DUTY CALLS, L.J. Stevens Vol. One Copyright © 2012 USA, Earth by R. A. Dumas.
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