Just as the Fazzones had made the trek to Ft. Dix NJ, to see Anthony and I graduate Basic Combat Training, my parents made the trip from my hometown of Brookfield, Georgia to Ft. Benning to see us graduate Infantry School. As fascinating as it is to watch close quarters drill, batallion size movements can be equally impressive, with hundreds of men performing in unison after months of rigorous training.
Although my father’s stoic face betrayed little emotion, my mother was absolutely beaming with pride. She was undoubtedly aware of what lay ahead , but chose to enjoy the moment, and be as uplifting as possible for her son.
But in the back of both their minds was the nightly newscast by Walter Cronkite as he faithfully reported the body count in southeast asia. It had become a nightly tradition of sorts across the land, with this being the first war to come into our living rooms each night.
The troops’ travel orders had been passed out prior to the ceremony, and except for those with busses leaving right away, there was time for most to enjoy some well earned leisure. Ant and Miner joined us at a picnic table in the shade at my mom’s insistence.
“Why I swear you boys looked so good out there today. I am so proud of all of y’all.” Lore exclaimed. “Eugene, why so glum? Something wrong?”
Obviously shy, Miner looked at the ground a moment before answering. “I’m not going with my buddies, ma’am. They aren’t letting me go to Viet Nam. I’m going to Germany instead. I reckon some folks would consider that a blessing, but I was all set and ready” he said.
Seeing the young man’s obvious disappointment, my dad sought to console him. “Don’t take it too hard son. We need troops everywhere, and God might have bigger plans for you. I know you been a big help to the boys here. You never know, something might have rubbed off that could save them one day. You’re going to be a good soldier. That’s what counts, son. There are too many out there not even willing to wear the uniform.
For whatever it’s worth, I’m damn proud of you.” Ron told him.
Having a family who was bitter over his exodus from the coal mines, this seemed to visibly affect Miner. Ron rightly figured the boy needed some support, even if from outside his own family.
Having ascertained that none of us were due to ship out before the next day, Dad announced dinner invitations to my friends, who, after a consistent diet of mess hall food, enthusiastically accepted. Pritchard’s Fish Camp was a Columbus, Georgia landmark, going back for decades. Located out in the county, it was a nondescipt wooden structure with a dirt packed parking lot. My Grandfather , who had met a client there on legal business years ago, gave them the tip.
In addition to a central dining room, there were private dining rooms as well. Nothing fancy, mind you. Quite the opposite actually. The rooms served as a haven for families to eat as if they were at home without observation, to be as messy and gluttonly as they chose. One’s appetite was the only limit as to the amount of catfish, slaw and hushpuppies one could consume here. Everything was fresh, as local fishermen dropped by with their catch throughout the day for which Pritchard’s paid cash.
“Looks like I finally get to pay back Ant for that that fine Italian food his momma fixed us up in Brooklyn.” I said, digging into some fried okra. “Still ain’t as good as momma’s fried chicken though.” The last remark causing Mom to blush slightly. As the sweet tea flowed and the bones piled up, Johnny knew this would forever be a good memory.
Back outside, Dad leaned against the front fender of the old Ford Galaxie and enjoyed a cigarette with his arm around Mom, while we milled around discussing our future and making the usual promises of having a reunion one day. Seemingly appearing from nowhere, an old man approached Dad and extended his hand.
The old gent had a pronounced limp and was somewhat facially disfigured, notably a missing eye and deep scar that ran from the empty socket. He also smelled strongly of alcohol, although his speech was clear and unslurring.
“Pardon my interrupting, sir, obviously you are with family. I won’t trouble you none. My name’s Lucien. Lucien Fisher.” he announced.
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Fisher.” my father said as he took the old man’s hand. “My name is Ron Reed and this is my wife Loretta.”
“It’s an honor, sir. I just have to ask, is one of them fellows in uniform your son?” the old gentleman inquired.
“Why, yes, sir, the one on the right, and to be honest, I’d be proud to claim all three of them if I could.” Ron answered.
“Looks like they’re green. On the way over yonder I reckon?” Lucien asked.
“Yes sir, you’d be right. Two of them anyway.” Ron replied “Why do you ask?”
The old man gave Ron a long gaze, from far away it seemed. With a tremble in his voice, he simply said “May God bless ’em.” as he walked away without another word.
As Ron finished his smoke, wondering what that was all about, a waitress on a shift change approched Ron and Lore.
“Old codger wasn’t bothering y’all was he? He gets drunk sometimes, well most of the time really.” she asked.
“Oh, no ma’am. He seemed like a nice enough man.” Ron told her.
“That’s good, he doesn’t mean any harm. You see, that’s my uncle. He’s not near as old as he looks either. He had a bad time in World War Two; Normandy, infantry. He was shot six times and Lord knows what all else he won’t talk about. Before his wife left him, she said he couldn’t sleep without waking up screaming all hours of the night. Fishes a lot, and won’t take a dime for what he brings us. We always leave a bottle out by the back door for him anyway. You may not understand, but it probably did him good just seeing them boys in uniform. It’s not often he even speaks to anybody, much less takes their hand. You made his day, glad y’all decided to come here today.”