Walt adjusted his sunglasses to block the early morning sun as it reflected off the edge of the Piscataqua Bay Bridge and directly into his eyes. He accelerated just a dite and the rental Thunderbird picked-up the demand without hesitation. He leaned back and settled himself more comfortably into the soft, leather seat and let his mind wander a little, he was goin home. He looked up and saw his reflection in the rear view mirror and then he lifted his hand and rubbed it across the day-old stubble on his face. The light brown beard was mixed here and there with a just a hint of gray and Walt didn't particularly like that thought at all.
He lifted his dark glasses and looked at his reflection in his rear-view mirror more closely this time. His eyes were still the muddy brown they'd always been but the peripherals were dull and cloudy like the whites of a day-old egg.
He reached up and cranked open the sunroof and immediately felt a shock as the brisk morning air rushed against his face. He inhaled deeply through his nose and his nostrils rebelled at the unpleasant smell from the tidal pool and the marshy areas along the Maine coast. This was one smell that he had never grown to like, it reminded him of Nam and that was one place he didn't want to be reminded of. No matter where his job had taken him around the world, he was and always would be a "county" boy. The smell of the dirt in Aroostook County and the potatoes that he had picked when he was growing up were a part of his genes and they would be with him till the day he died!
As his eyes surveyed the outskirts of the city of Portland, his mind wandered back to his childhood in the county. He was the oldest boy of eight kids and it had been a rough childhood by anyone's standards. His father had been a hard worker and a drinker to boot, but he'd never laid a hand on any of them. He had to give him that. His mother, on the other hand, would kill you without a moment's hesitation and she had run a pretty tight ship too. With a husband and eight kids to care for, she didn't have time for gentleness and she certainly didn't have time for foolishness either. Mother believed in that old adage, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Mother never spared the rod and she didn't have any spoiled children either,' Walt chuckled to himself as he thought about all the numerous times that she'd tanned his ass for one reason or another.
Both mother and dad were long gone now and Walt thought of them often, especially when his mind wandered back home. He'd left Ashland right after graduation in June of "1959" and he'd never looked back. His mind slid back in time to the day he'd decided to join the Army.
It was an odd day in early May of 1959. It was odd because it was so warm so early in the year in northern Maine and this fact itself was disconcerting. The early, warm weather would be a topic of conversation until winter hit again around the middle of September. The old-timers would gather around the glowing wood stove at Tibbett's' Garage on Main Street and predict that an early spring meant that they were in for one "hellava" winter and usually they were right.
His father was ensconced in his usual place on an old car seat on the front porch and he was sitting in his favorite position, hunched over with his elbows balanced on both knees, with an ever-present Chesterfield cigarette clutched between his nicotine-stained fingers of his left hand. Every now and then, he would inhale deeply on the cigarette, dragging the killing smoke deep inside and his worn-out lungs would rebel, sending dad into a paroxysm of uncontrollable coughing and hacking. Tears, brought on by the coughing spell, would roll down his cheeks and he'd flick them away with his yellow stained fingers. He'd curse a few times, wipe the tears out of his eyes with the corner of his sleeve and try to catch his breath. Seeing that he'd smoked his current cigarette down to a butt, he'd flick it away into the dirt driveway and then he'd scrabble around in his pocket for his crumpled pack and another round.
Walt, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, watched his father go through this normal morning ritual for a few minutes and then he ventured out onto the porch. Dad, hearing him approach, looked up, smiled and nodded hello. Walt shaded his eyes against the harsh morning light of the Eastern sun and looked out across the dirt road to the empty potato field. If this spell of weather held, it wouldn't be long before that field would be planted in long rows of Green Mountains or what ever the hell kind they were going to plant again this year.
Dad was a "potato" man thru and thru. He'd been born into it and he was going to die because of it too. He'd worked in the woods at a loggin camp down around New Hampshire for a while when he was real young but there wasn't enough work for him there and besides his heart really wasn't in it. And it wasn't too long before his feet were following his heart back to northern Maine.
When his great uncle, Newell Smith, offered him a job with Maine Seed Potato Growers, he'd jumped at it. He was a hard worker and well-liked by the men and it wasn't long before he was foreman of a small crew of potato house workers.
In the summer, after the potatoes had reached a foot tall, Dad had to begin spraying or the potato plants would be destroyed by every bug or blight imaginable. In the old days, Dad sprayed from dawn to dusk with every chemical known to man. Some days he came home completely covered with a pale blue powder and we knew that he's been engulfed in Blue Vitrol all day long.
On other days, if he arrived home covered in a fine yellow powder, we knew that he'd been spraying DDT and if it was a powdered sugar white, it was Malethion or some other equally deadly chemical. After twenty-five years of planting, hoeing, spraying, harvesting, packing and shipping potatoes, Dad's drive was gone and so was his health. All the years of handling, breathing and ingesting all these chemicals combined with smoking too, Dad was dying.
Now that the pomp and circumstance of graduation was over, Walt was itchin to go and he heard the Army calling his name. Walt had tried to talk to his father about leaving but he really didn't know what to say to him. So, Walt decided that he would just tell him. "Dad, I know you ain't going to like this one bit but I joined the Army yesterday." Walt waited for his reaction but Dad never changed position and never said a word. Walt inhaled and went on, "I'll be leaving on Monday." Not hearing any reply, Walt turned around and looked sideways at his father. Dad took a last hard drag on his cigarette and flicked it into the dirt at his feet. "Well," he said softly, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." With that, he pulled himself up and walked slowly back into the house. Walt breathed a sigh of relief; he couldn't believe that it had been so easy!
Come Monday, true to his word, Walt took the first bus leaving the county and he never looked back. And true to their word, the Army sent him down to Fort Dix, New Jersey for basic training and then, after a series of tests, designed to tell them just what kind of kid they'd employed, they shipped him off to Officer's Candidate School in Virginia. It wasn't too long before Walt was on his way, career wise.
He'd heard all the stories about how the military used a guy up and spit him out when they'd gotten everything they'd wanted. But, Walt thought, in a way, they'd saved him. They'd saved him from a life filled with potatoes, back breaking drudgery and long, cold snow-filled winters. He couldn't imagine a life like his father had and he knew that if he'd had to stay in the county and grow potatoes, well he'd of killed himself and that was the truth!
The Army had sent him to all kinds of places and some he liked and some he didn't. He'd been assigned to the Ambassador's residence i9n India and had liked the people but hated the poverty and was glad when it was time to move on. His tour of duty in Germany had been interesting because he'd been assigned to the Intelligence Unit and he'd learned a lot about how the intelligence community works and about the world in general. Walt couldn't help thinking how naive the people of the county were when it came to world affairs.
After attending a particularly intense meeting where plans for future world involvement military-wise, were discussed and hearing just how far some nations were willing to go to achieve their goal, Walt shook to his very core. He'd come out of that meeting with his head swimming and his heart pounding. He certainly was a long way from the county now and maybe it wasn't such a good thing after all.
After a three-year stint that had taken him to England, Germany, India and last of all Vietnam, his tour was up and he was a civilian once again. Like everyone the world over, you can leave your place of birth, but your place of birth will never leave you. You can “bad-mouth” your hometown every chance you get to one and all but just like a homin pigeon, Walt soon found himself on a Grayhound heading north.
Walt looked out the window as the bus pulled in to Houlton for a quick rest stop and to pick-up passengers who were heading further north than he was. He unkinked his legs and slid out of the seat and stepped off the bus. He dug in his uniform pocket, fished out a Chesterfield and lit it. He laughed silently to himself as he realized that he may have been able to escape the county and the potatoes but he'd been just as hooked as dad by the tobacco companies.
As the large bus lumbered its way towards Presque Isle, he found himself eyeing the scenery and being surprised at the beauty of the softly rolling green, farmlands all around him. "Guess it was good for me to be away for a while," he thought to himself. "I never really noticed how beautiful it is in this neck of the woods." He settled back in his seat and watched as the never-ending potato fields flashed past his tinted window.
He'd already made arrangements at the rental place in Presque Isle to have a new, Thunderbird waiting for him. When the bus finally pulled into the station, he grabbed his duffel bag and walked the short distance down Main Street to the car rental office. He threw the bag into the backseat, slid into the creamy leather bucket seat, adjusted the mirror and started the engine. He never ceased being thrilled by the sound of the powerful engine and he revved it a couple of times just for effect before he shifted the car into drive and moved the Thunderbird out into the slowly moving traffic. He cruised slowly down the nearly empty street and saw that nothing had really changed in the three years he'd been gone. "No," he thought to himself, "I have to keep remembering, I'm the one who's different now, not them."
As the light changed, he shifted and turned left onto the Old Presque Isle Road towards home. He cruised through Mapleton and when the tiny village disappeared in his rear view mirror and he'd rounded Haystack, he gunned the car and flew the rest of the way down the Presque Isle Road into Ashland.
His first impulse was to flash through town and give the hicks something to really talk about. But after looking at his watch and seeing that it was nearly five, he pulled a u-turn in the parking lot of St. Mark's Church and headed back through town and up the Masardis Road towards home.
He cursed as he turned onto the Goding Road as the dust from the dirt road wafted over and into the car. "Some friggin things never change!" he thought as he quickly rolled the windows up and turned on the air conditioner. He'd have to find time to wash the car before he went visiting all his old high school buddies tomorrow night.
When he turned into the driveway at home, it was as though time had stood still. There dad sat in the same position on the old car seat just as though three years hadn't passed at all. Dad, seeing the fancy car pull into his dirt drive, raised his hand to shield his eyes from the setting sun. He stood up and upon recognizing who was driving the car, a wide, slow smile spread across his tired, weather-beaten face. He waited for Walt to slide out of the car and then his father stepped forward with his left hand extended. Walt was home!
Walt spent the next few days getting reacquainted with all his old buddies and catching up on the local gossip about who'd married who and who was knocked up and who was leaving whom. He hadn't told mother and dad that he was out for good yet because he didn't know what he was going to do. He had thirty days to make the decision, so he put off telling them his plans because, the truth be told, he didn't really have any.
The days at home slid into a routine and every night, he'd clean himself up and just as he was about to head out the door, he'd stop and wait. He'd grin to himself as he heard mother make her dire prediction about "drunks and fools" then he'd laugh out loud as he let the screen door slam behind him. He'd jump in the car and head down the Masardis Road headed to where ever his whim of the moment took him.
Sometimes, he'd head out to Portage Lake and Dean's Hotel and he was always hoping that he'd run into one of his old girlfriends, but he never did. Sometimes, he'd head up to Eagle Lake or if the pickings there were slim, on to Fort Kent to hoist a few. When he'd tired of those spots, he'd cruise over to Presque Isle and stop for a while at the Northeastland Hotel for a couple of rounds. But it wasn't too long before time began to lay heavy on his hands.
He and Dad had talked themselves out and that was something for Dad. He wasn't usually a talker, he was a listener. He'd listen as Walt related things he'd heard or seen in his travels around the world and sometimes he'd even asked a few questions but that was about all. Dad was still "babysitting" potatoes every day, getting up at four o'clock and going "to bed with the chickens" just like he'd done all his life. Now that the potato seed was in the ground, dad's work would really begin. Walt knew the regimen by heart, just as well as dad.
As the days of visiting slid by, one into another, Walt began to get that old familiar feeling in his head again. The feeling of panic about where he was going and what he was going to accomplish. He had to make a decision and make it soon. He had another week to go before he had to "re-up" in order to get the reenlistment bonus or get out of the Army for good. Strangely enough, it was mother who finally made the decision for him.
It was Saturday night and Walt had gotten dressed up and headed for Ashland and Michaud's Restaurant to socialize with the local hanger-ons, the guys who just had to drink a few before going on home to their wives and children.
By nine o'clock, Walt had hoisted quite a few and as he got up to head for the men's room, he leaned a little too heavily on the back of one of the chairs as he passed a crowded table. Taking offense, the man that he'd leaned on, jumped up and grabbed Walt and it was all over but the shouting. Walt's military training had also included martial arts and maybe he was drunk but he was quick and very good. The other guy never knew what hit him.
After the quick skirmish, Walt took himself home and up the stairs to bed. He'd asked mother to be sure and wake him bright and early the next morning because he'd made plans to drive to Caribou to see a girl that he'd gone to school with.
At exactly seven thirty the next morning, mother made her way up the long flight of stairs and knocked firmly on Walt's bedroom door. Getting no response, she rapped a little harder and called his name. Still no response. “That's funny,” she thought to herself. "I know he's here because he woke me up when he came crawlin home last night." She turned the handle and there he was in all his drunken glory. One arm flung over his eyes, mouth wide open and drunken snores coming at regular intervals. One long, white leg was half way off the bed and a housefly was buzzing around his foot. His clothes were flung all over the room and the room smelled as though a Budweiser convention had been held there.
The sight of her first born son, looking and smelling like the town drunk was a little more than mother could handle. She hated drinking! She forgot that she was happy that her son was home. She forgot that it had been a long three anxiety filled years without him. She forgot that she loved him as much as she did! She forgot all those sleepless nights she'd spent praying that he'd make it home safe from Viet Nam. She forgot everything! She pushed the bedroom door open with the flat of her hand and marched into the room like a general. It was the barroom smell of the bedroom that pushed her over the edge and she grabbed Walt by the foot and gave it a good twist.
Walt, still half-drunk, felt the pain from his twisted ankle shoot up his leg and his military martial arts training took over. He flew out of the bed with his hands raised over his head in a "kill" mode. He never saw that it was mother. He never saw the shrunken old woman with a worn out red bandanna tied around her head, cowering in fear by the end of the bed. All he saw was a shadowy figure with its arms raised, standing at the end of his bed and his natural instincts told him to protect himself. A primal scream erupted out of Walt's mouth as he landed on his feet directly in front of mother. Mother gasped, grabbed her chest and staggered backwards and emitted a scream of her own. Dad came running and the rest is history. Walt re-upped the same afternoon and headed out for another tour of Vietnam.
When folks around town asked Dad why Walt had reenlisted so suddenly, Dad thought for a moment and said, "It was the best thing for him really. If he'd stayed around any longer, he might of killed his mother!" Folks didn't know just what he meant by that and they really didn't dare to ask him either.
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
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See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.