Friends of My Youth…

Quietly saying hello to a guy I know from work, as we happen to sit down at the bar together to order a cold beer during the dry heat of this late Friday afternoon in May. The frosty beer tastes pretty good to me as this last week had seemed to just drag on and on. I don’t usually stop after work much anymore, just straight home to almost grown kids and the usual debates of teenage years and the household chores. We talk of nothing important as the work week slips from the front of our conversation and we turned to the plans for the weekend. But then that’s how the conversation usually is… nothing of much consequence, not going so deep and skirting anything that matters a great deal. It strikes me that the term superficial must have been invented to describe just such kind of talk. What do I know of him, this younger, leaner guy sitting next to me as we bathe in the aroma of stale beer and cigarettes? He hates working in the shipping department at the plant, has a too small house in the ‘burbs, couple of kids in grade school and a wife that is perfecting shopping as a way to nirvana. Born and raised in this town, near as I can tell. Not like me, the rolling stone…

Turning to him, I abruptly realize that he has asked me again what my plans are for the weekend… He is going to a ball game and then a barbecue, his wife to the mall. I say I hadn’t made any special plans and make a quick goodbye. Pushing away from my now warm beer, I head out to the dusty lot and squint my way over to the oven I call my car. That musty heat bakes the memory of the dim, cool bar from me as I point the car into the holiday traffic. Everybody seems to be trying to hurry somewhere with bags of everything strapped to the top or bulging against the rear windows of a too filled car. The jam rolls me slowly along to an exit that just seems to be ignored by the horde of tailgating, sweating, would-be escapees. Don’t know why I took it, it’s not on my normal set of routes home. Maybe the roads are too crowded to suit my mood and I can’t relate to these lemmings on their way to water. But this seems a quieter, somehow a better path…

Most all the cars are packed full and going the other way on this back road, so the driving is easy. The sun is still pretty strong and high, making the bugs swarm, spattering against the windshield and sometimes zinging on my arm draped over the car door. It feels satisfying to drive along this dusty blacktop, with nowhere special in mind… something I haven’t done for many a season. A little knoll with some scruffy looking trees sits on a rise just ahead, so I pull it over onto the shoulder next to a tangle of wild rose bushes the bees have found in earnest. Haven’t been here before and so I look around a bit before settling down against a warm, rough fieldstone in the shade. Pretty place this is, with only the occasional passing car to mark the quiet.

Sitting there just silently watching, like a time so very many years ago, it suddenly strikes me funny but I can’t seem to recall having much of a conversation of any importance to me with any of the people I say I know for the longest time. It wasn’t always like that I remind myself. A long time ago I shared all kinds of hopes and fears with men now lost to the years. There was a skinny guy from Mississippi by the name of Danny, who always had a ready smile and an easy charm. He and I were just thrown together by accident in the service as so often happens. The sort of guy you just know you can depend on and trust. Then there was Don, he was older than I and a Master Sergeant but that didn’t seem to matter all that much. He was more like the kind of older brother you wish you could have had. John R. was a fire plug, quiet and steady, the sort who is the glue in a group of guys. Not a flashy guy, he just spoke volumes by saying not much at all. And there was… "Doc." What the hell was a guy with Ph.D. in political science doing trying to run recon with this bunch of young hard noses? We didn’t get along any. He once said to me that he didn’t trust me because my eyes were too close together and I didn’t know whether to laugh in his face or what. I never got to find out if he was just having me on or if he really was serious. All these long dead faces came unbidden, one by one to my wandering mind as I sat there, silent, on the warm ground.

The shadows getting longer reminded me that I was overdue for supper and Corey would begin to worry why I haven’t called. Brushing the grass off and stretching my legs, I ambled over to my car and started the trip home. I wanted to have some noise now that those thoughts that had been so long submerged were taken out again, so I hit the switch for the radio. I just caught the tail end of an old favorite tune and smiled as it thrummed out its last. After the commercials were over, the jock said: "Here’s one from the vaults to kick off this Memorial Day weekend… from 1970 by Elton John… Talking Old Soldiers."

Why, Hello… Say, can I buy you another glass of beer?

Why thanks a lot, that’s kind of you, it’s nice to know you care…

These days there’s so much goin’ on… No one seems to wanna know.

I may be just an old soldier to some… But, I know how it feels to grow old.

Yeah, that’s right… You can see me here… most every night.

You always see me starin’… at the walls and at the lights.

Funny, I remember… Oh, this is years ago I’d say.

I’d stand at that bar… with my friends, who’ve passed away

and drink three times the beer than I can drink today…

Yeah, I know how it feels… to grow old.

I know what they’re sayin’ Son… there goes old Mad Joe again.

Well, I may be mad at that… I’ve seen enough to make a man go out his brain.

What do they know what it’s like to have a graveyard as a friend?

‘Cause that where they are, Boy… All of them…

Don’t seem likely I’ll get friends like that again…. Yeah.

Well, it’s time I moved off… but it’s been great, just listening to you.

And I might even see you… next time I’m passin’ through.

You’re right. There’s so much goin’ on…

No one seems to wanna know…

But keep well, keep well old friend and have another drink on me…

Just ignore all the others. You got your memories… you got your memories…
 
 

In Memoriam of 1LT Danny Day Entrican, MSGT Don Gilbreth, SGT John R. Jones,

Capt "Doc" Watson and all the others, MACV-SOG, Command and Control North, 1971.

©1998, T. J. Marzullo

"Talking Old Soldiers" written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin