At age 18, Theo volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. Based near the demilitarized zone, he saw much fighting and lost most of his left arm in 1968. Post war, Theo learned karate, opened a dojo, married, fathered three children, got his college degree and became a high school teacher. The Philly native settled in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Yesterday, Theo was in sub-freezing Philly to see his two sons, other relatives and many old friends. Around noon, he dropped into Friendly Lounge to meet his cousin, Felix, and me. I thought we would just chatter over a few Yuenglings, but Theo insisted on lunch, his treat, at the rather fancy Anastasi, a seafood eatery down the street.
Soon after we were seated, Theo showed me a newspaper clipping on his smart phone, "This is what happened exactly 50 years ago." The article's title, "48 Marines Killed, 81 Wounded by Reds in Battle for Village."
"In Fallujah, it did."
"But it was never that high, not 48 Marines in one day." Later, I checked to find out that the deadliest day for Americans in Iraq ended with 37 deaths, with 30 from a helicopter crash.
At age 69, Theo appeared at least a decade younger, with no beer belly or bad posture, and his demeanor was calm, his words measured. At the table were also his two sons, Aaron and another whose name escapes me, for he was so silent and inconspicuous. Both were in their 30's.
Scanning the unfamiliar menu, I saw that pan seared dry scallops were $27, pasta with clams, mussels, shrimp, lump crab in a marinara sauce was $22, but the shrimp platter with fries and slaw was only twelve bucks, so I chose that.
A year and a half ago, I interviewed Tony the cook, who worked at Anastasi. Six months later, Tony got fired for allegedly stealing while working Anastasi's parking lot. The security camera kept catching Tony turning his back as he counted the Federal Reserve notes. To keep Tony from starving, many of us at Friendly then lent or gave money to the scrawny, hard drinking and lottery ticket addicted man. I chipped in $40, a sort of belated payment for his being so generous with his life's details. Stories nourish. Neglecting to pay his gas bill, Tony's apartment, whom he shared with his sister, was also freezing. The cranky, aging lady's a bipolar, pot puffing and wine swilling waitress who's probably fired by now. Skipping out on all his debts, Tony then went home to Bucks County, only to die, I just found out yesterday. Tony, "I've been with a lot of women. I love women. I've been with 138, and I'm working on 139. Any day now. I ain't dead yet." He was 56.
Depending on how smug or sheltered you are, Tony is either a freakish outlier or quite typical of our despairing working class. Underpaid, overworked and forced to compete with an endless supply of immigrants, legal and illegal, they're increasingly blighted by every social pathology. Whenever they complain about anything, they're jeered by our condescending media as being reactionary, racist or just plain losers who are more than deserving of their dismal lot. For 2017, drug overdose deaths in Philly are around 1,200, up from 900 of just last year. Nationwide, the 2016 drug body count was 65,000, more than all the American deaths from the Vietnam War. Is Fentanyl from China a payback, with interest, for the opium trade of the 18th and 19th centuries?
Theo went to Vietnam because he believed in fighting Communism. Aaron, however, believes his father was definitely on the wrong side of history. Capitalism is imploding, he's convinced, because it is inherently unjust, and China is the future. Unlike Western countries, China doesn't exploit lesser countries but help to develop them, through respectful cooperation.
"China is about China," I added.
Aaron, "Unlike the US, with its many wars and bases all over, China has never invaded anybody."