The Collegiate Scholar - Summer 2010 University of Pennsylvania Chapter
The Wedding Guests
By: John McCabe
As the wedding guests arrived, I found a place at the bar. I bowed my head, staring at my drink. The news that morning about a possible war in Iraq was unsettling everybody. I read the old newspaper article again. It was about us when we were teenagers in Burholme stealing cars, and getting in gang trouble. I don’t even know how I ended up with it, except I save everything. When I raised my head, I was in the company of my old friends; the ones I grew up with. They were all around the bar and out on the floor. I put the paper back in my pocket. My friend Greeny’s eyes met mine and he unflinchingly said, “We were surrounded by a battalion of N.V.A. I turned and asked the Forward Observer what he was doing. He and I called in artillery. He, the 105’s and I got fire in from an Australian Navy ship off the coast.” I hadn’t realized he was talking to me. When I did and heard that he was talking about himself in the war in Vietnam, I for some reason, saw us all crouched along a railroad bank in North Philadelphia. We were teenagers waiting to “rumble’ as we called it, with another gang. The cops came that night and Greeny and I were running away, I remembered how fast he could run. I saw him with his chin pointed out.
Greeny went on with the story but I was distracted. I was looking at his son’s eyes beside him, and the military cut of his hairline and that soldier’s posture in the shoulders. His son was busy entering manhood. He had been to Kosovo. He said, “We flew right over the Serbian Army while they were walking out.” I wondered if Greeny’s son ever ran fast like his Dad did fleeing the Philadelphia cops when we were boys.
Then I turned back to Green’s face. He looked old. He was older, of course, older than ever, though I still thought he looked strong, even handsome. No wonder he had a girlfriend at his age. We were both in our sixties now. Then I saw him in my mind with soaking wet gloves squeezed in his hands on the sloping hills of Burholme Park. We were twelve and sledding. Sledding all afternoon, and soaking wet on the soft snow amidst the pillows, and walking cat paws of foggy air. We were twelve and it was really all just beginning. There was the sound of crows, the alarming cry of crows always in the park. They shouted at us over and over, but we were twelve and didn’t know they fretted about us.
Greeny’s girlfriend came over and stood looking at his son and then at me. I nodded to her and we walked away to the dessert table. I had known her since I was ten. We were in parochial school together. I could still see her in her blue Catholic uniform with her unbagged books held against her breasts. She always held her books against her breasts, even later when she was in high school and had breasts.
We picked at the pastries on the wedding buffet, and she obviously looked for her favorite things. Dark chocolates got nudged first, small things with thick soft icing, bitten right in half and one white trimmed swirl of lime green brilliance carried off. After the bites she had discarded the bitten remains defiantly. I smiled at her, recognizing and remembering her playfulness. I thought, “Green’s lucky.”
When we walked back, Greeny was taking us through the same battle in Vietnam. I was surprised to hear him speak about it in such detail. People think some of these guys don’t tell these things because none of us really know what they went through. Maybe they think, no matter what they say to us we won’t understand.
“We were deployed perfectly to defend ourselves. My 3rd Platoon was in reserve so we had our rear covered. They couldn’t just get around us.” I started thinking about him having gloves in the cold snow when we were twelve in 1955. I never had gloves. My hands were always reddened and biting cold all the time. Maybe he had better parents so he had gloves, I thought. Maybe that’s why he went to Vietnam, because he was the kind of guy who would have gloves and artillery fire and the things he needed wherever he was. Maybe I didn’t go to Vietnam because I wouldn’t have had even bullets and no artillery or naval ship fire. It is strange how your mind works. I saw the dessert table being blown up by 105 rounds. His girlfriend was looking and I knew she would have laughed if she saw what I was thinking. All those cakes and pastries flying around. His son said, “We met with all the children when we marched into Yugoslavia. They greeted us as heroes. We even cried with them. No one could beat us. We were linked to each other, we knew it.”
I remembered how we all walked home from those sledding days in Burholme Park. For a moment while Green talked to his son about war and soldiering, I drifted to one of those walks. Something I didn’t want to have happen was happening. I was going back into our past, that untouchable youth before the great shocks. I wanted to deny or eradicate us as serving Spartans or pawns of the empowered classes and corporate Politicians. Something seemed always to cancel those thoughts out, but this thinking had energy. The two veterans kept me in their conversation, acknowledging my time in the Infantry, and my unfortunate involvement with nuclear weapons. I think they had to tell some stories to each other and I facilitated their exchange. It was important. You could see that in their eyes as plain as sunshine. I was glad to help them but I was walking far away at the same time, walking down the tree-lined path to our streets, those streets in the neighborhood. Sloane was there and Big D and Mickey, Joe, Danny Bates and me, Nick the Stick. We were smoking the same cigarette, passing it around, a Camel. Donna and the two Mary’s were sitting on our sleds, letting us pull them along home. Nails and the Forward Look was half a block ahead with Johnny Mac whom we called Jimmy Dean. They were all there in my daydream, and they were all around me at the wedding except Big “D” and Sloane. They had been killed.
Greeny said, “We slept the next day for hours, right in our position. When we woke up and had to write the report, the Forward Observer said, ‘God did we do all that? I said, Yeah, we had to.”
“Anyway,” he said looking at me, and then his son, “we couldn’t believe all we had done.”
His son was facing me and sharing his impressions of his father in a combat zone some thirty-five years back in our time. Green turned, and walked off a few steps. I heard him call over to the bar, “Mary, c’mon.” She looked toward him, her pocketbook held against her breasts, and a drink in the other hand, smiling. The same smile, the smile all the way back to the sledding when the crows tried to chase us away from the foggy air. That was when it all began, when we were all twelve years old in Burholme. Before anybody could put us into ranks we knew how to just hang out, loving each other. You could have saved the world with the likes of us and maybe we have. Greeny’s son moved his wheelchair over to the bar and ordered a glass of water to help him with his pills. Greeny fingered the back of the chair gently kicking at the wheel with his oversized shoe which he wore since recovering from a Viet-Cong booby trap wire detonation somewhere north of the Mekong Delta. As I watched, I wondered if either of them, or anyone, would ever believe the health injuries from those senseless discreet nuclear tests. I remembered the tests on Nevada’s lower basin far from Vietnam, or Serbia, or any other future nightmare.
The band playing for the wedding began their first set with a song from the fifties, when we were all kids, in that brief time between all the damn wars. “Imagine,” I thought, “if we had instead, stayed at peace over the last fifty years, we might be getting used to it by now. Our biggest memories,” I realized, “would be stuff like running from the cops, falling in love with someone like Greeny’s girlfriend, having kids like Greeny’s son, and sledding all day on the slopes of Burholme Park.”