They dumped the blue capsules into the clear plastic bin, didn’t even bother to stir them up, and began drawing the numbers. Just the sight of those old, flabby gray-haired men, with all of their casual dignity, filled him with rage. There was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, of knowing that these old men drawing the numbers, and those old men out there somewhere, in some room, were pulling the strings that could send him to his death. And for what? He didn’t even understand the why of Vietnam, and he didn’t care. He wanted no part of this old man’s war. What these old men stood to gain, he didn’t know that either, but it would never be for his benefit. This he knew for certain.
He felt sweat at his temples, a tightness in his chest. He couldn’t take it anymore. He got up from the sofa and switched off the television. “I can’t do it. It’s too much”, was all he said. He wiped the sweat at his brow on the back of his hand and looked at Carol sheepishly.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Come on, come sit with me,” she patted the sofa cushion next to her.
“I never won a goddamn thing,” he said, shaking his head. “But they’ll get me. If not this lottery, then the next.” He ran his fingers through his hair, looking about aimlessly. “I can see it. It’s like I can feel forces working against me sometimes. I’ll win that lottery for sure. It’s one thing I’ll definitely win. They’ll pull my number.”
Carol rubbed his back tenderly. “You could refuse to go. I hear some guys are heading up to Canada.”
He shrugged her hand off. “I’m not going to Canada. That’s not possible.”
“Well Bobby , why not?” she said. “If others are going, I’m sure you could too. I mean, you’re a capable person. You’d figure it out.”
“How the hell would that work? Are you going to come to Canada? We’re supposed to get married.”
She sighed. “I suppose we could put it off for a bit.”
He shook his head, “No, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to do that. Anyway, everyone in my family has served. I just can’t refuse to go.”
He sat quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I think I have an idea. I was talking with the guys and I think I know what I’ll do”.
His idea was nothing short of life sustaining: enlist before his number was pulled. After some consideration he chose the Air Force, his choice predicated on the slim chance he’d ever find himself in a life or death combat situation. He could serve his time and then get on with his life. It would do little good to hope, pray, or protest, as this country was going to do what it was going to do regardless. His best bet for staying alive would be to control the outcome as much as possible. And so my father spent a year in Vietnam, laboring under a canopy of excruciating heat and humidity while loading bombs onto aircraft that pounded whole generations into instant human confetti.
The sounds and reverberations of war were something that happened over the horizon, echos and thunders you could almost imagine were something other than the sounds of death. Yet he lay awake nights plagued by thoughts of children being blown to pieces, bits of flesh and bone peppered over the jungles and rice paddies, with the emaciated, stray dogs he so often saw foraging for scraps, now lapping up these morsels.
He told himself he was fortunate, he wasn’t in the bush, he had played a smart hand, yet he felt sick with guilt. Whole villages blown to pieces, the farms and rice paddies and jungles littered with bombs, whole landscapes turned over, children and animals and innocents and enemies alike – all burned and shredded and turned to meal. To manage his anxiety he fortified himself with whiskey. Awaking in the morning, hungover and nauseous, with the slick, slimy sweat and stink of alcohol emanating from his skin, he’d toss back six to eight shots in quick succession. By the time he’d chased this with coffee and a couple of cigarettes he’d find himself steady, and dulled enough, to contend with another day of fevered action.
On the tarmac the planes came in and the artillery was attached and out they went, a seemingly endless procession of bombs. And the sun was punishing, bearing down and reflecting back off the tarmac, and it seemed there was never a goddamn cloud in the sky. They worked like a pit-stop crew, swarming the aircraft as it rolled in, a finely tuned series of movements and adjustments, checks and double checks, the team lead barking directions behind them. Twenty minutes and the aircraft was out, another one in the distance approaching the landing strip. This went on day in and day out. He couldn’t fathom how so much ordinance was needed, how there was jungle, or people, or anything still standing under this continuous bombardment.
Carol wrote to him weekly. Her latest letter informed him that the last draft lottery was complete. Had he taken his chances and stayed home they never would have pulled his number. “Goddamn bullshit”, he said, crumpling up the letter and tossing it. What kind of sick joke were the gods pulling, he wondered. He quickly lamented his choices, a truly debilitating lack of imagination he told himself – he could easily picture himself protesting now, tearing up or burning his draft card, anything but this.
The days wore on, his resentment building, his mind engaged in a constant internal argument, his frustrations spilling over into his interactions with his fellow airman. He was given a warning by his squad leader. He told himself he’d get his head on straight. A short time later he was given another warning, and a promise of punishment should the need arise. All the while the planes came in, the bombs were attached, the thunderous pounding reverberated in the distance. Right when it seemed he couldn’t take another moment of this, the day would end and he was back with his bottle of whiskey, drowning out the noise in his head, drowning out the thudding, concussive waves that crossed the hillsides and jungles and rice paddies to find its way to him. He tried to rid himself of these torments, telling himself he had no reason to feel this way – it could be so much worse.
And then, just like that, it was over. All the movement and stress and the dizzy, nauseating, sea-rolling whiskey induced numbness abruptly stopped. A blur of back-slaps and goodbyes and good lucks, and he was packed up and shipped back to the States. One of the first persons to greet him after arriving home was some asshole who spit on him, calling him a baby-killer. As he wiped spit from his cheek he surprised himself by laughing at that ugly face; a soft, pampered face staring back at him, its mouth a wet snarl, its whiskers sparse and few, its skin doughy with baby fat, the face of a child. He told himself he did not care, he was only glad to be home.
We were living just outside of the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. While dad went off to work, Mom stayed at home and took care of myself and my older brother, David. Home at that time was a rusted out double-wide trailer that dad was barely making the rent on. It resembled more a semi-crushed tin can than a mobile home and probably should have been condemned as a health hazard. Mom and dad had eyed it warily but decided it was a rental they could afford. They told themselves the boys were probably too young to have any memory of it (wrong) or lasting emotional damage.
Dad shrugged, “It’s temporary”.
Shortly after moving in, it was discovered that when even the most mild of storms blew through the area the trailer would see-saw on its foundation. David and I, oblivious to any danger, would improvise quick games of “pirates and shipwrecks” that involved gleefully throwing ourselves about with the trailer’s undulations. Our mother, her face sea green in color and clinging to the kitchen counter, would shriek at us to stop before we caused the trailer to capsize.
While we were too young to realize our living conditions were a failure of the “American Dream”, mom was growing suspect. She had other things in mind when signing on for marriage, Vietnam, and happily ever after.
Dad began working one of what would become many low-end manufacturing jobs. At this time he ran a machine that pasted labels onto aspirin bottles. His job consisted of feeding labels for various aspirin brands into a machine, threading them through a byzantine network of mechanical feeds, ensuring that as the bottles passed through the length of the machine the labels were properly attached. This was all predicated on a very specific timing that had to be carefully adjusted, though once properly calibrated he was only to stand there and wait for the machine to jam.
When the machine jammed, it would abruptly stop, and an alarm would start honking. My father would then search for the jam, or other mechanical upset. Most often the fix was just a matter of prying a misaligned aspirin bottle out of the feed. Once rectified, the machine was back in operation, thousands of bottles rattling by.
In the beginning all was well. Learning how to set-up the orders provided enough novelty and stimulation for my father to feel engaged and satisfied. This didn’t last long. Day after day he stood before the machine as the bottles rattled by, and inside he noted a peculiar feeling.
“It’s no way to treat a man,” he lamented to my mother. “I get lost…emptied…hallowed out. It’s like I don’t have any goddamn guts inside me.”
Over time the labels seemed to take on a life of their own, as if making a personal indictment against some unspoken shortcoming in his soul. “Fuck you,” he grumbled, loading a new order into the machine, an order whose labels happened to be the same brand of aspirin he was chewing through daily to alleviate the growing pain in his lower back. Onward the machine hummed and rattled with a rhythmic white-noise that lulled him into a heavy-lidded, hypnotic state. Suddenly the machine would crunch to a halt, the alarm sounding for the fiftieth goddamn time, and he would resurface from an instantly forgotten reverie. He’d lurch to the machine, fix the issue, press the “Run” button, and the process would continue.
“I can’t take it anymore Carol,” my father moaned. “The gods are punishing me!”
My mother, tight-lipped and weary, listened to his protestations. A short time later my father quit the aspirin factory. Within days, much to my mothers relief, he landed a job at the glue factory.
“Now that is how you stick it to the man!” he beamed to all of us over dinner that evening.
“What are you going to be doing?” David said.
Dad plowed another fish stick into his mouth, chewed twice, and swallowed. “Glue, making glue or something. I’m not sure, but anything is better than the aspirin factory”.
The first day at the glue factory dad discovered his job was to run a machine that applied glue to the back of the aspirin labels which were subsequently shipped to the aspirin factory.
“Goddamnit,” was all he said.
David and I glumly picked at our meat loaf. The meatloaf was cut into thick, gray slabs that were dropped on our plates and accompanied by a small pile of dry, oven-baked french fries, and a mushy side of California medley. A meal like this came with a weighty sense of resignation, an endurance task that would have to be completed. There was no getting out of it – it must be eaten. My dad would make sure of that. We drowned the meat-like matter with ketchup, squeezing thick rivulets of sauce over the top and sides in a vain attempt to infuse moisture into the dry cake. This gustatory overload of vinegar and tomato would often leave me feeling nauseous, though it felt a small price to pay for the opportunity to ensure the meat could be swallowed without a large, dry, bolus getting trapped in my throat. Woe unto the one who last grabbed a dwindling ketchup bottle, as lengthy, desperate attempts to free any remaining sauce could easily be met with my father’s irritation and the quick disposal of the wasted bottle.
I watched my mother make this meatloaf on many occasions. Standing at a slight remove, a growing sense of despair filling my insides, I sought to understand what made this dish so despairing to my brother and I. I never understood how something that seemed so moist, and filled with flavors while being prepared, could come out of the bread pan so dry and absent of taste. My mother worked at the counter, massaging the mass of ground beef with breadcrumbs, ketchup, mustard, and various seasonings. Her hands kneaded the pink, fragrant slime, while sticky, squelching and farting sounds erupted from the mush. She pushed and patted this mass into an old, burnt looking bread tin, and threw it in the oven where it was, for all intensive purposes, incinerated.
After what seemed like two to three hours, the bread tin would be pulled from the oven, a smoldering brick that would need to be pried from the pan. Mom would saw through a half-inch of shale-like top crust with a serrated knife, working in tandem with my father who would wedge a spatula down the side of the tin, forcefully pushing upward to release the meat.
Dad would call us into dinner, a forced march that David and I could barely muster. Once set before us, we’d each embark on a personal calculus while navigating our plates. My own approach was balanced on a need for moisture, and I suspect the same served as a guide for David. Since the meat needed all of the moisture it could get, my fries were left for last. Once the loaf was dispatched, I would use the fries like a squeegee to scrape up the last remnants of ketchup. It wasn’t much, but it was usually enough to get the dry potato sticks down. The vegetable matter, while a tasteless, bland mush, was a quick and tolerable matter. It was so overcooked you could practically swallow it without need of chewing.
“I picked up the lottery tickets,” mother said.
Dad ate heartily from a pile of meatloaf, french fries, California medley, and ketchup. “Three million dollars…” he said, shaking his head in wonder.
My mother took a last drag from her cigarette and stabbed it directly into a puddle of meat bits and ketchup on her plate. “We could get the hell out of this trailer with that kind of money”.
“I could retire,” dad said.
“Could we move into a house?” I said.
“House? We’d move into a goddamned mansion,” dad said.
Mom and dad had our attention. David pushed up his glasses. “We’d have our own rooms of course”.
Mother smiled warmly, “Of course honey. Your own rooms, and a new television. I swear that one never gets decent reception”.
“You should get a new car dad,” I said.
Dad nodded. “A nice one. Nothing used. So tired of everything being second-hand”.
“Yeah, like a Mustang!” David said.
“David, that’s not practical,” mom said. “One of those wagons. That’s what we’ll get”.
“Really?” David groaned.
Dad gave him a look of warning. “I’d like a new mower”.
Mom nodded, “And clothes for the kids, I swear they’re growing out of everything”.
“I want an Atari,” I said. David nodded with extra enthusiasm, a huge grin spreading over his face.
“Stove,” mom nodded toward the kitchen. “Gas stove. No electric”.
“We could go to Disney World for vacation,” David beamed.
“I want an Atari,” I said again.
“We heard you Greg,” mom said and patted my arm. “You can have an Atari”.
David and I gave each other a high-five, our eyes wide with excitement. An Atari. Oh man, it was going to be great.
We rattled off all the things we wanted, a warm, happy glow surrounding us. We were kind and courteous to one another. David offered to get my mother a new dress and father new socks and a tie. Mom was proud of him and tousled his hair. Not to be left out I offered to make a donation to charity. Dad liked that for the tax write-off we’d get.
“We could look into surgery for your eye,” dad said to me.
Startled, I said, “What’s the matter with my eye?”
“Yeah, what’s the matter with his eye?” mother said.
Dad wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Nothing…I just thought…”
But mother cut him off, “Nothing is right. There’s nothing wrong with your eye honey.”
It was quiet for a moment, the spell we had cast over ourselves dissipating.
“Well, we have to win first…” dad said.
What was the matter with my eye? Yeah, I failed to mention my eye. At that time I wasn’t overly self-conscious about it, so it didn’t come to mind. That would come soon enough, but at that point it was completely normal to me. You probably didn’t notice because my hair was long. It had been awhile since I had had a haircut. Then again, my hair was always kind of long, so maybe my mom was trying to hide it? But anyway, if you looked a bit closer, you’d notice something a bit peculiar peeking through my bangs.
Here, I’ll help you and brush my bangs back for a second. There, you see? Yep, I had a third eye. Right in the center of my forehead. It lay between my “natural” eyes and slightly above the indent of my nose. It wasn’t deformed or anything. It was green in color; a bright lime-like green whereas my other eyes were brown. It wasn’t a lazy eye either. It didn’t focus in tandem with the other eyes at all times, which meant my “natural” eyes could be staring to the right while my third eye was staring to the left, but that wasn’t the norm. This was odd looking of course, almost comical, the eye appearing to inhabit a life of its own during those moments, a set of interests and curiosities not aligned with the rest of my mind’s direction. At other times I would do it just for the laughs. Thankfully my third eye, as strange and unnatural as it was, did not possess an eyebrow.
It wasn’t an ugly or over-assuming eye either. Just like any other eye it was exquisitely formed, symmetrical, and balanced with my features. For my father to suggest surgery for this eye, well, it came as a surprise as there had never been any conversation, or even suggestion, that there was anything wrong with it. I was only five years old at the time and I had started to develop some ideas about it, but they were not fully formed. I was still innocent, feeling wholesome and mostly untouched by self-consciousness. I still felt just like everyone else.