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Iraqi Nights

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Veterans frequent my tavern once in a while, the ones that are still alive; that would be Iraq veterans; the Vietnam guys are pretty much over the hill, when it comes to downing the demons of their halcyon days. Ole Sarge comes first to mind; he was a strapping man in his mid-fifties, still active in the National Guard; in fact the oldest active duty NCO, according to him; he was a cook, down at the Air Station Armory, by the airport. He was the most quintessential, Gunga Din-looking sergeant ever: handle-bar mustache, swept-back hair, and always wore camo fatigues and a beret. I remember he was really gung-ho when Bush Senior first contemplated bombing Baghdad. Sarge would disappear from time to time, down in California, where they sent him to cook for firefighters. Then he would come back, down a few beers, and do pushups on the floor, to show he still could, until his wife started yelling. But Sarge liked his beer. Often, I would see him, in full uniform; beret, insignia and all, walking past the trailer park, pushing a grocery cart, like some decorated derelict, to check the dumpsters for empty bottles and cans to recycle. Some of the other veterans gave him grief, at least behind his back, for so publically disgracing the uniform. But a sarge's pay only goes so far, apparently, and food stamps, not much further. Sarge's forays could have just been public theater, on how to conduct oneself, on a survival trek, in a community of slim pickings. After the war dragged on, however, he lost his enthusiasm. I know he wanted to retire, but he said the army kept adding to his required service time, because of the Iraq War. He finally got sick; I remember him coming in for his last beer. I knew it was his last because of the gleam in his eyes when he swallowed, like black mud glittering in the bottom of a waterhole. He died a week later, and had a military funeral, up on the hill at the Veterans Cemetery, with a traditional three volley, 21 gun, salute. Patrons rented a white Limo, and afterward gathered at the tavern.

Then there was Big Bill, a veteran of the first Gulf War; he was six-foot-two, built and looked like wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, in blue denim, with red hair, and drove a tow truck. His wife Annette, a big-boned girl, worked as my bartender. We made the newspapers when she pulled a baton on an unruly customer, and a reporter was visiting for a PR article, and wrote us up, with a full color, front page, picture, as a waterhole of local, if not loco, color. Bill and Annette were from eastern Oregon, farm country, and moved to the city because farm life was dead. I got to know Bill a little; he had a brother who was the biggest tree trunk I ever saw, no exaggeration; he made Big Bill look normal, but Bill said with a twinkle that he knew which leg his brother hurt in football, and could hold his own. Later, when his brother lost a foot to diabetes, Bill was sad-angry for a split second; he didn't show much emotion, but you could tell how he felt. He summed himself up saying he spent most of his Army career as an MP, and the last two years as a sniper--"I'm not proud of what I did over there," he said, with a shrug. And that was that.

Then there is Ramos, the big, dark-haired, Hispanic guy, handsome, quiet, well spoken, ten years in the Marines. He came in to visit Gail, my Puerto Rican bartender, who worked evenings and was good-looking. At the time, I was trying to replace an air conditioner. Ramos seemed focused and moved with an athletic discipline. He had a job working with special needs kids with autism. With Gail, his shoulders relaxed; she was someone he could talk to. The TV was on. She was expressing exasperation with George W and the presidential election. She said she wished Kerry would win, because our guys were dying in that "stupid Iraq War.

"Hey!" Ramos suddenly exploded and stood up. "I was there!"--he barked. The bar got quiet. "I was with Uday and Qusay!"

Ramos was shaking; he looked down. Gail fell silent. Uday and Qusay--the words hung like an alien shroud. Saddam's boys. Those two dead guys on TV. Ramos seemed stuck, like a cardboard cutout, in some sort of war game room, but the wrong room.

"Well"--I tried to diffuse the situation--"Ralph Nader will probably win, anyway."

"Right--" Ramos shook his head sideways, and took a swig from his bottle. Gail wiped the counter. I fiddled with the A.C.. It was getting dark.

Then there was George and Jill's son, Tom, a slim guy, not far out of high school, who was in Special Forces, and scheduled for Afghanistan in a year. He was training in South America somewhere, learning to eat bugs and lizards, but for security reasons, he could not reveal his location. Once in a while, they got a card from him, with no return address. Jill worked for me for a while, but it did not pan out, and when they brought Tom to meet me, he gave me a kind of lethal look, like a good son, I suppose.

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Adrian was an ex-82nd Airborne soldier, in his mid-forties, with a dual U.S./Canadian citizenship. He worked construction in the winter, and his gold mine in British Columbia, in the summer. I remember when he returned from mining, he would bring back big bottles of aspirin-codeine, prescription drugs in the U.S., but inexpensive over-the-counter drugs in Canada. Years earlier, after he had broken his leg badly in a parachute jump, the Army would not let him re-enlist. When the Iraq War started, however, he thought he might have a shot again. When they said no, he was bummed. He definitely liked his beer after work, but the taste would usually turn to anger. I 86'd him until he apologized to a bartender that he "went off" on. He returned to Canada instead. The bartender was black. I don't think it was racial. But who the hell knows?

Another bartender, Michelle, only twenty-one, who also worked for Walmart, had a younger brother in boot camp whom they finally sent to Baghdad. Before that, he was in Job Corp, a training program for troubled youth, because she said, "he could not stick to anything." After he went to Iraq, his wife (who lived in South Carolina) sent her three-year old daughter to live in Oregon with Michelle, because she had met "another guy."

Then there was Bad Wayne, a kind of local bar legend and raconteur, who had a son in Iraq. Wayne died with a gallon of vodka; some homeless barfly found him in his apartment, and did not tell anybody for a day. After Wayne was cremated, none of his family could come up with the funeral home money--about three hundred dollars--so the home kept his urn. We started a collection at the tavern (I thought it might make a good curio behind the bar; he spent most the time there, anyway) until the director lady finally called, and said they would "forgive" the debt because of hardship considerations, after they learned that Wayne had a son in Iraq. The family was dutifully notified. Later, we had a wake.

And then there is my more recent Halliburton friend, Kurt, a lean, craggy, sixtyish, full blood, Native American, from North Carolina, who served in the 82nd Airborne in early Viet Nam, moved on to the Army Corps of Engineers, heavy equipment operator, and electrical generator repair, on the Alaska Pipeline, in South America, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, before retiring this year. He was getting to know his three sons, who although unemployed, are good bar customers. Acknowledging the adjustment of actually living with his wife for the first time in thirty years--he explained with a laugh--"but she liked the paychecks." Shaking with Parkinson's (probably from Nam), he says, like someone who knows--"we are going to completely redo the Middle East--Those countries have been fighting forever. Then, after we blow everything up, we are going to rebuild it right." Looking at the Caterpillar tractor that sits vacant on a giant asphalt mountain across the street, he nods. "When that happens," he says, "Halliburton will give me a call again. Even though I'm old." He swigs his bottle of Budwiser.

Even the guy from the Lottery, who comes in to repair Video Poker machines, is an Iraq veteran. He is a pleasant, rounded guy, and still makes trips to the Middle East, for some kind of logistical technical purpose, probably National Guard training. He never talks about it, other than once, when I mentioned something about it being safer on the technical end, compared to all the wounded troops. "Actually..." he hesitated, "I was pretty badly wounded over there." He said it with a kind of detached nostalgia, like it was some kind of diode that had gone bad, and been replaced. I look for some defect, but he offers nothing.

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I cannot leave Butch out, who lives in the tenement apartment across the street. The first time I saw him, he was still in the National Guard; I thought he was developmentally disabled, by his vague look and hesitant voice, but it was because the top of his skull had been sawn off, and was stored in a OHSU hospital freezer. Meanwhile he wore a plastic cap, until the swelling went down, so they would glue the skull back on with, and I kid you not, "Brain Bondo".

Butch, however, was not injured in the war; it was a bar fight; someone kicked his head against a curb, when Butch was a more brash man. His head looks ok, now, a little dented, but some sort of neurological bad luck left his legs paralyzed, and he rides around in an electric cart with a small American Flag on top. Disabled, he drives right into the bar for an occasional Pabst. The troubling thing is, after spending twenty years and two months in the National Guard, he gets no benefits, no VA hospital meds, checkups, nor anything; nada, NOTHING. The Guard says it is because he was never active duty, although he faithfully served a weekend per month for over twenty years, with the annual two-week training sessions. Butch takes it in stride (far as a motorized wheelchair can), even though he fought forest fires, helped with Saint Helen's cleanups, after the volcano blew, and all the other thing Guardsmen do, as well as remaining always combat-ready, for not much money. Living on his $670 social security and food stamps is a challenge. But Butch cannot afford to hold grudges. He still puts on the uniform, once in a while.

Heck, I might as well throw in another name. Al was in Vietnam in 64, with a 45 Colt revolver. After returning, he worked as a cost estimator for a boat/barge-building company, that contracted with the Navy. They build fuel barges in Portland, sail them down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the Atlantic, over to Iraq. Seems like an expensive way to finance a war, but it does spread the wealth. Al got a divorce, and got pushed into early retirement, because the company was cutting costs, and looking for guys with less seniority. With time on his hands, he bought a brand new Harley Electra Glide, but the red-chromed rocket does not extinguish his damped-down anger. Maybe it is the nagging, droop-foot, cancer problem from Agent Orange.

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Conceived on west coast,born on east coast,returned to northwest spawning grounds. Never far from water. Degree in biology, minor: socio/psychology. Nature-oriented. Building trades,marine carpentry, Army Veteran, ex-social worker, ex-tavern (more...)
 

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