Return to index...
GUS AT THE POOP DECK
Hermosa Beach, California
It was down the Cape over thirty years ago, a guy I did not know, early in the morning. He was drinking heavily, a guy recently returned. I don't know what triggered his outburst; he was a fellow I didn't particularly like, hostile, angry - and then triggered. He pulled a knife from his belt and attacked a tree with it, stabbing it over and over as he screamed about the whole thing, stabbing, stabbing, screaming, until his friends calmed him down and he lay down in a hammock, and went to sleep...
I always stay at the Sea Sprite on Hermosa Beach when working in Los Angeles. Always try to make it to the Poop Deck for the sunset. Out of the Sea Sprite - hopefully Room 6 - down the stairs onto the strand, turn north and toward the little hole in the wall fifty yards down on the right. I noticed the place initially because of a 'Boston Bruins Hockey Game Tonight On TV' sign posted out front.
The bar is not new and shiny. Its' bartenders are hardened souls who look as though they've had their share of booze. Its patrons are grizzled locals, and kids looking for cheap pitchers of beer. The older patrons sitting in a kind of silent majority, as though they share some long, lost secret that does not require conversation. Away from the bar is a line of chairs against the one-way windows, overlooking what scenery moves by on the strand, as well as an unobstructed view of the wonderful sundowns that bless the west coast.
Gus is the bartender, been one here for twenty years. We have become friends because he is from Needham, Massachusetts, and I am from Norwood. Old high school rivalries. Today I overhear that Gus was once a Marine, and when he comes by to refill my glass, I ask him if this is true. He nods, leans against the bar.
"What year did you graduate?" I ask him.
"That's close," I say. He knows full well what I mean, and what I'm getting at.
"Close to what?"
"Well, close to some bad years to graduate from high school and go into the Marines." He folds his arms, leans forward on the bar and stares at me.
"What are you asking me, was I in Vietnam?"
"I was in J-1."
"J-1?" I ask, and he laughs.
"You weren't there, or you'd know what I mean," he said, and walked away.
Teddy graduated with me in 1972. While I was burning my draft card, he was enlisting, and serving in the special forces. No one really knows what happened to Teddy over there, but when he came home, he began robbing a series of little grocery stores with a penknife. A clarion call for help. They didn't even sentence him to serve any time. I sat with Teddy recently, over thirty years later.
"You know," I said to him, "you once told me you'd tell me what happened over there."
"I'll tell you some night," Teddy responded, "when we drink 30 beers..."
"So you weren't a Marine," Gus said to me, and I shook my head. His shift over, the bartender had come around the bar and sat next to me. He cradled a glass of beer in both hands. He told some good, self-deprecating drinking stories, and then decided to explain.
"Well, you don't talk about Vietnam to anyone else. It wouldn't be right to those you left. You just don't do it."
"I don't want to hear about what you did there," I said, prodding him on. "I'm more interested in how it shaped your life. What effect the experience had on your life."
"Well, it was jail or the Marines," Gus told me. "Vagrancy, whatever that means. I graduate from high school, and I want my party time. My old man - we're Swedes, both stubborn as hell - my old man wants me to work. I want to party. So I'm stubborn and I say the hell with you, I'm outta here. Lived out of suitcases around Needham with my buddies. We had a cottage down the cape. I go down there and break in with a couple of my buddies. No big deal, my family owns it. My older brothers did it, for chrissakes. But my old man files charges. Vagrancy. So I'm in Dedham Court, and the judge says either you join up, or you do time. Hell, that's a no-brainer. Me and my buddies, we're football players, we're hot shits, we go to the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and none of 'em want anything to do with me. I go to the Marines - the old Customs House in downtown Boston, the one with the big clock - I go into the Marine office and they say, when can you start!
"Parris Island kicked the shit out of me. It turned me around. We're football players, we thought we were tough. I mean it kicked the shit out of me! I think every asshole kid in this world ought to go into the Marines to put some respect in them." Gus stopped talking then, sipped his beer. "You ain't writing this down or anything, right?"
"I'm not even gonna remember it."
After we close on our house in Vermont, my wife Terry and I sit with Peter. I give him a present, a copy of my novel Killing Frank McGee. I give him a short synopsis of the wartime story.
"I was an officer myself in Vietnam," he says. "Regular Army."
"Really. Some time I'd like to talk to you about that."
"Oh," Peter replied, matter-of-factly, "I don't talk to anyone about that."
I nodded, thinking of Gus at the Poop Deck.
You know," the lawyer continued, "funny thing just happened about that. I won't talk to anyone about that. But my wife took my daughter out shopping a couple of weeks ago, and I had the DVD Saving Private Ryan. So no one was around so I figured what the heck. I put it in. And I'll tell you...I was sobbing. I don't know if I've suppressed this stuff or not, I mean, I think I'm pretty sane, have dealt with it pretty well, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with me, I don't know...but I was just crying my eyes out, literally weeping, and my wife and daughter came home..."
Gus stood up and turned around, pointed to a serving spoon-sized indentation in the back of his leg.
"J-1 sector was up north. Da Nang. An AK-47 did that. That's what it looks like, what an AK-47 does to you. I killed the bastard that did it - I had my .45 out and just blasted boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! - you know MASH? The only reason I didn't lose my leg is because of Hawkeye and what's-his-name, what's the other guy's name, you know, MASH, the TV show. If it wasn't for Hawkeye and his buddy I'd be on a prothetic leg my whole life."
"How did it happen?"
"We were looking for our —, and -"
"What's a —?" I interrupted, and Gus jerked his head toward me. It was such an odd word that I don't recall it now. Marine jargon.
"You don't know what - oh Christ," he said, threw his hands up in the air and walked away, shaking his head. He sat back down with the silent row, and I realized who they were, what their common bond was. I walked over to the window, to watch the sun go down. I stare at the sun, drowning in Pacific waters. Someone nearby mentions that it goes fast, once it starts. As it slides, everyone on the strand, everyone in the restaurants, everyone in the bars, all the joggers, the volleyball players - everyone stops to watch. I look at Gus with the charred remains of his wartime buddies, their faces gaunt and tired with thirty-five years of hazy alcohol and vivid memories, all of them staring out the window, perhaps at the land beyond.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great American jurist, served in the Grand Army of the Republic during his youth. In his memoir over fifty years later he said that it was incumbent on all young men to participate in the grand events of their day. The many men that I have met through the years, as well as the charred remains lining the bar here in the Poop Deck, make me wonder. The Civil War had certainly treated Oliver Wendell Holmes and his triumphant fellow warriors better than Vietnam had treated Gus and his battered band of brothers.
I turn back to the dying sun. I know what I see. I just wanted to know what he saw.