The sound of my father's voice echoes up out the past to me as I drive past the state line for the first time in forty-three years.
I can still hear my mom crying after the slamming of the door, the loud shattering of glass from the other side of the closed door. I never found out just what was broken in such fury.
Fury I caused.
The miles roll past like the memories. Signpost after signpost. Everyone of them bringing me closer to the home I left.
Was sent from.
The year it began was 1962. I was a fifteen-year-old with dreams of following my family's footsteps and going off to war. My father and uncles had fought in World War II and Korea. My older brother was already part of the US deployment to Vietnam and there I was playing Army with my friends in the woods near the house with our B.B guns, eager to go.
I was such a fool.
In so many ways.
You see I had a secret. One I could tell no one.
I was in love.
"Huh. At fifteen what the hell did you know about love? About as much as you knew about war!" I tell myself as I drive past the green road sign showing me it's forty more miles to the house I was born in.
It was in October when I came to realize it. I had known her for most of my life. She was my nanny. My family's maid. A twenty five-year-old black woman named Maryloo. Maryloo... Post? No Potter! Maryloo Potter.
She had the most beautiful eyes. Not that a fifteen year old was aware of things like eyes. At that age my own eyes never went that far up her.
It was in October. We were watching the new TV that Dad had bought, gathered in the "TV room" watching as the President told us of the end of the world.
There were nukes in Cuba!
My younger brother and two sisters were sent out the room when they started to cry. Hell my sisters were both too young to even know what a nuclear bomb was. They were crying cause my brother started to.
I could understand how they felt though.
I wanted to cry as well.
After she got them up to their rooms and occupied with toys or schoolwork I saw Maryloo come back to by the door. Our eyes met as I watched her listening to the TV with us. She was as scared as I was. Hell by itself that made me more scared. Here was the woman I had seen stand down a rabid dog with a stick, catch snakes barehanded and carry them out the yard.
And she was afraid.
A desire to go to her and protect her came over me then. I had never felt it's like before in my life. Not like that anyway.
Whenever I had gotten into the scrapes that all boys do it had always been Maryloo who patched me back up. A bit of Mercurochrome, a Band-Aid, a cold Coke Cola and a slice of pie could cure anything this world could throw at me. That and a hug from my nanny. And now here she was. The one with tears at her eyes.
For some reason I didn't think a slice of pie was what she needed to help her get through this. Maybe a man's strong arms around her to give her some comfort. To make her feel protected. For some reason... maybe the memories of all those patched up scraped knees,... I felt that I should be the one to give her that.
At the time I didn't know why I felt that way. Now looking back I know. Know as well as I know the river under the bridge I'm driving across. It's because that was the day when I put the boy I had been away, and took my first true steps to becoming the man that I am.
Dad saw her standing there then and sent her to go make coffee. He disapproved of the nigra getting any kind of access to public news. Said it made them uppity. He would say it in front of them like they couldn't understand English.
Kind of like the way you would talk around a dog, or a small child. Like they wouldn't understand if you didn't say the words they knew.
He hated black people...hell the only reason Maryloo worked for us was Moma. She had grown up with a black maid and demanded one when she got married.
Leaving my family to listen to the news being repeated I got up and headed first I the direction of the bathroom then circled around and into the kitchen. I watched her bustling around the room making the coffee. I could tell with maturity beyond my years that she was putting her fear into her work so she didn't have to think of it.
She looked up from filling the coffeepot at the sink, and seeing it's me, smiled.
"You okay, Willy boy?" she asked me, her throat tight. Her fear's only outlet.
I crossed to her side. Taking a glass down off the shelf, I held it under the water when she moved the pot out the way. I felt the warmth of her arm against mine. Something I never noticed like this before.
"Are you alright Maryloo?"
She gave me a nod of her head and went to get the coffee from the cabinet. I watched her spooning it into the percolator's basket.
Watching her moving about the simple task with the awareness of a man growing in me second by second, I saw a thousand little things I had never noticed about her come to light then.
Finishing my water, I rinsed out the glass and put it on the towel by the sink. As she plugged in the pot I moved over behind her.
She turned startled to find me that close.
I was holding her in my arms before she can protest.
"Shu...It's okay," I told her as I held her tighter.
I felt things then I hadn't known before. Feelings I had no words for. Not then. Now...I know them to be love. The love of a man for a woman. The desire to keep her safe.
Hell at that time I was just surprised to know that I was so much taller than her.
I felt her relax into my arms after a moment for a number of heartbeats. My chin came to rest on the top of her head. Her thick hair a soft wiry pillow to my cheek.
She gave me a pat on my arm after a bit and I slowly turned her loose. She looked up at my face with a strange look in her eyes. It's then that I noticed just how beautiful her eyes were.
She gave me a slow smile."It'll be alright Willy b..." she looked me over again. Then shook her head a little. "William. All that bad news? Ain't gonna amount to nothing." She glances over at the coffeepot as it bubbled to a stop. "Now you go on and get you a piece of that pie over there while I take your Daddy this coffee."
I watched her fill a pot and put the cups on the tray. She turned to look at me watching her...gave me a smile and nodded towards the pie.
As I cut me a slice, it occurred to me that I was not afraid anymore. I chuckle as I thought about the fact I came in here to comfort her and she ended up doing that for me. And with a piece of pie at that.
I chuckle at the memory as I take the turn towards the old house.
1965? I was eighteen. Had my draft card in hand. The war in Vietnam had just exploded and they were calling up anyone who wanted to go and some who didn't. I was of the first type. That proves I was still a fool.
And I was still in love.
Oh, I had never even told her. Kept what I felt for her to myself. Safer that way. Sometimes though I would catch the hint of a smile that led me to believe she knew. Kind of a shared grin every once and awhile.
My high school years were like any other young white boy in Alabama at that time I guess. I had a steady gal for a while. Can't remember her name now. That ought to tell you about what I felt for her.
That was also the year my brother Jimmy came home from the war. Under a flag.
It was also my first battle with my father and his racist feelings towards colored people. Hell, he hated hearing me even use that word. To him they were niggers and always would be.
But the day of my brother Jimmy's funeral I was in my father's face like a man grown. One who would not back down no matter what came of it. You see my daddy didn't want Maryloo going to the funeral.
But Maryloo had raised Jimmy, just as much as she had raised me and was just as torn apart by his death as any of our family. I would be damned if even he was going to tell her she couldn't be there!
The memories of the rifles sound out to me as I drive past the white marble wall of the cemetery. I can still see the trees I stood under that day. I know my brother's marker isn't far from them but I'm past it before I can make it out. I plan on coming back before I leave to put flowers on his grave. And Moma's. Hell even Daddy's I guess, though the old racist son of a bitch doesn't really deserve them.
There's also another...who I need to place flowers for.
My tear-filled eyes go to the courthouse building as I drive past it. I can still see the place where I got on the bus to go to boot camp. I can't see the little alcove. I don't have to though. Memories tell me what happened there. Good memories.
My head already near shaved by the family barber I got out the cab next to a small alleyway that goes to no where. I had only a small bag of personals with me. The government was going to see to my needs for the next few years.
I made Momma not come. The loss of Jimmy over there and my going had been too hard on her. Her health had been in decline for the last few months since the funeral.
Daddy had to work. He told me to take care and kill a few of those yellow bastards to avenge Jimmy. He and I haven't really been on good terms since the funeral.
I looked over to the bus stop. The bus wasn't here yet but then I was early. I saw a few others that I knew. Boys I went to school with. I was about to walk over to join them when I heard my name. Looking up the alleyway I saw Maryloo standing by the place where it turned into a dead end.
I glanced around. Not seeing anyone watching me, I walked into the alley and around the corner.
I could tell she'd been crying. She had a smile for me though.
"You going to be careful over there now, William? You know your Moma can't take another one of them gun funerals." I saw her breathe in deep and look down. "I can't either."
"I'm going to be alright, Maryloo. You'll see. This things going to blow over in no time. Hell we beat Japan and Germany... this ain't nothing but a little pimple of a county. I'll be back home before y'all know I've been gone."
She smiled and held out her hand to me. When I took it, I noticed again the sharp contrast in color between her skin and mine. I wished it wasn't there. I wished it with all my heart.
"I'm going to be praying to God every night for that very thing, William." She looked up at me and blinked away tears. I could see the fear in her. Like those nights years ago when we were so worried about bombs falling out the sky to burn us all to death.
Like then, the need to offer her comfort came to me.
Maybe it's the fact I was going off to a war that's already killed one member of my family. Maybe it was the verbal battles I've been in with my father lately. Maybe it was the years of love I'd felt for this woman but never been able to express them. I don't know for sure even now just what it was that gave me that moment of courage.
I pulled her into me even as I stepped forward. I saw the started look in her eyes for only a second then she was tight in my arms.
And my lips were pressed into hers.
She felt like a startled bird in my arms for a second,first afraid to move, then trying to flutter away. But slowly, ever so very slowly, I began to feel her kissing me back.
How long I kissed her for I don't know. Memory tells me it was a very long time but those kinds of memories can't be trusted at my age.
I think it was the sound of the bus' brakes that broke the kiss. As I slowly leaned back away from her, I saw her eyes open, then look around us in terror. After a second when she saw there isn't anyone who could have seen us she looked back to my face. Her eyes softened, that slow smile came back and I saw her start to softly chuckle.
"You a fool. Gonna get us both in trouble," she told me, smiling. "You know you can't go kissing on no colored woman in this state."
I smiled and nodded. Before she could stop me, I leaned in and kissed her again. Her lips parted this time and I breathed in her breath as I kiss her. I felt her push against my chest after a few seconds. Our lips slowly parted.
"Now stop that for we get caught." She shook her head, looking up at me. "Your bus is here, William," she reminded me.
I nodded and with a lot of reluctance turned her lose. She looked at me for a second, then she was back in my arms, pressed hard against my chest.
"Don't you damn well get your fool self killed over there. You hear me, my Willy boy? Don't you damn well die on me."
I held her to me as she cried herself out. Then with my own eyes not dry, I left her standing there in that alleyway and walked to my bus.
One of the guys I went to school with must have seen me leave the alley and made a joke about me getting a last minute piece of pussy. He doesn't know how I wish he was right.
As I turn the car down the long parkway, my mind shies away from the memories of the war. The things I did and that were done to me. I have enough nights waking up to those evil memories. I don't need to consciously relive them. Though I'll never forget even a single second.
Instead I think of the cab ride from the airport.
It was 1968 and the last leaves were falling all red and golden. I felt lost and had come full circle all at the same time.
My uniform hung loose on me. I had lost a lot of weight in the two months I was hospitalized after the battle of Khe Sanh. but I looked at the little purple ribbon on my chest. It sat with the other one, showing my bravery at a battle I can barely remember. I just remember the mortar and the rockets falling like rain for days on end, then I was waking up in an army hospital with people telling me it was almost a month later.
I used my cane to get out the cab while the driver held open the door for me. I smiled and thanked him.
"No... thank you."
I nodded. It was a much better feeling than the one that I gotten when I flew into California. The people there. The signs.
I shook away the memories and walked with a heavy limp towards the front door of the house.
It opened before I could get to it and I was nearly bowled over by the love of my family. My younger sisters all but tackled me, my Momma hearty hugged me to death. Dad about broke my hand.
It was the tears in those beautiful dark eyes and her smiling face that told me I was home.
I saw my younger brother, Tommy, take my duffel from the cab driver. I could see the same desire to go fight in his eyes when he looked at me in my uniform. I knew I didn't have it anymore.
I stretched out my leg and eased into the dining room chair. They tried to guide me to the TV room but I knew that soft chairs and couches would be beyond me at that moment.
Running my hand across my leg I caught my dad's eyes. He was rubbing at his left arm with the same half-aware gesture, then he noticed what I was doing.
"Its bad over there ain't it?" he asked, pulling up the seat at the end of the table.
I gave a slow nod.
"We been watching the news. Looks like a whole different type of war from what I fought. Y'all seem to be doing a lot of hunting through those jungles."
I looked down and noticed I was spinning the salt shaker in my hands. I made myself stop.
I could tell dad wanted to sit and swap war stories but for me the war is not something I did twenty years ago it was what I was doing just the other day.
"Yea seen all them flower painted fools? Those long-haired faggots with their signs. Government ought to round up every one of those hippie traitors. Lock them all up for the duration. That's what we did for them Jap spies we had here back in my war. Put them flower kissers in a camp somewhere out in the desert till this thing blows over."
I looked up and smiled when Maryloo brought me a glass of ice tea.
"This one isn't going to blow over, Dad. Hell, if anything, it's just reaching a point where it's beginning to drag out more." I wet my mouth with a sip of the tea. I knew this was going to be a long argument. I could feel the first signs of it already.
"Well, that's a load of crap! All you boys need to do is get a little more initiative going over there! Like we did back in the big one." He thumped the table with a fist. "Hell, if you would just go out and shoot all those black pajama wearing rice eaters this thing would be over in no time."
I took a deep breath.
"Dad, this isn't your war. It's nothing like it. There are no front lines" I shook my head. I took a sip of the tea, then tried to explain. "We followed a group of VC for three days through thick as hell jungle. We had to stop maybe every hundred and twenty feet to clear sharpened bamboo stakes out of our way. Every mile or so, one of those 'rice eaters' will jump up out of a grass-covered hole and unload a full clip of AK right in the middle of us. Sometimes they will kill or wound five of us to every one of them. Oh, we blow that one to hell sure enough. But then we have to tend to our wounded, call in a hog chopper to fly them out. By the time we get back on their trail they have more than likely gone into a village. They just take off their uniforms, hide their guns and they blend right in. Of course they do. Half of them are probably from that village. Now before we can enter that village we have to call back to headquarters and have them call and see if the village is a fire zone. If it's not we can't do shit unless we are fired on."
"Well, that's stupid!"
"Oh yeah. Well, let's say they can't find a village to hide in. Then they make for the Cambodia border. They cross that and we can't follow without orders from on high. Even when we get that miracle of miracles it doesn't help. They go a few more dozen miles north and they are in Laos. Were we can't go no matter what. Half the people over there who are supposed to be our allies are really working for both sides. Taking money from both sides, while they smile in the faces of both."
"Well, you need to shoot all them fuckers then! That's what I'm talking about. Initiative! You boys over there know who those assholes are. Just take them off in the deep woods and don't bring them back."
"When we do that the press is all over it within days. I know you have seen those kinds of news reports."
Dad slowly nodded.
"Yea. Bunch of milksops! Reporting everything you boys are doing over there like it's never been done before. Damn, it this is a war! You can't kill the enemy politely."
"Dad, half the time we never even see the enemy. Other than the flashes of their guns from the cover of the jungle."
"Well, you need to..."
The argument went on well into the night. My little brother sat big eyed, drawn to every word. Dad began to get mad with me that I didn't agree with him on how the President should just nuke those commies back into the Stone Age.
"It worked for Japan! Look at them slant-eyed bastards now. They fall over themselves to help us."
Momma moved into the room and put her hand on his shoulder.
"Daddy, let him be. Can't you see your son's about to fall asleep where he's sitting."
My dad looked at me and after a second blew a loud harrumph out his nose. He got up and left the dining room to go eat dinner in front of the TV.
Maryloo placed a plate of food plus a bowl with large portion of peach cobbler next to it in front of me.
"We need to be getting some weight back on him," she told my Momma.
My mother nodded and headed into the TV room to eat with dad. I soon heard Mike Wallace reporting on the Apollo program.