Ghosts In Baseball Caps
February 1, 2012
to most of you,
except on Veteran’s Day
and Memorial Day.
I’m that grey haired old guy
in the funny ball cap
with the gold writing
and strange looking
insignias on the front.
If you choose to see me,
I may be sitting quietly,
on a bench in the mall,
waiting for my wife
to finish shopping,
or at the library
trying to figure out how
to work the damned computer,
I just pass you on the street.
You don’t notice me.
Sometimes I have a cane or a walker,
and sometimes I’m riding
one of those funny looking
electric scooters with a faded
black and white POW flag,
flappin’ on a pole,
fastened to the seat behind me,
with duct tape.
We’re the ghosts of wars past,
both Hot and Cold.
We see each other,
a smile and a nod,
signal brotherhood and pride,
when we pass each other.
We make our way,
sitting or standing,
as best we’re able,
of past glories
and past horrors.
The weight of these memories,
good and bad,
are carried with pride.
Canes, walkers, and scooters,
may be our current
means of transportation,
but do not signify
any weakening of spirit.
You wave flags
when we leave,
you cheer when we return,
go on with your lives,
leaving us invisible
‘till the next parade,
when again, we’re saluted;
To ease the guilt
of burdens not shared?
In the lobby of the Veteran’s Hospital
there’s a large wall mural
bearing the words,
“The Price of Freedom
Is Evident Here.”
Twenty-two returned veterans
commit suicide every day.
On any given night,
more than 300,000 veterans are living on the streets.
You really want to do something?
Forget the salute!
Reach out and help a returning vet get his life back;
That’s a meaningful tribute to those who’ve served.
A Toast To Johnny “E”
February 29, 2012
“Hey, anybody remember Johnny “E”?
Didn’t think so.”
You could always find Johnny “E”
in the last seat,
at the end of the bar,
for “Happy Hour” at
over on 1st Ave.
“Three fingers Bushmill..…neat.”
Always “dressed to the nines”
with a carefully arranged
and shellacked “comb-over,”
and wearing the classic
powder blue, polyester sport coat
he got thirty-five years ago
back in ‘72
on his way home from “Nam”.
“Hey Johnny “E”,
haven’t seen ya’ for a while.
How ya’ doin’?”
“Aggghhh, the ambulance took me
to Emergency at Bellevue,
instead of the VA Hospital.
Eight weeks there with pneumonia,
and they tell me I got a bad liver
rents out my apartment
to a woman with a kid.
‘Cause he hasn’t heard from me,
he thinks I’m dead.
Thirty-five years of my life
he throws in a fuckin’ dumpster.
My car’s missing.
I go down to the tow pound.
They auctioned off my car
for $75 bucks.
They said I owed $2,300 in
tow charges, fines ,
and storage fees.
I got $468 in my savings account.
I’m runnin’ outa’ fuckin’ options here, ya’ know?”
He spends “happy hours” at
The International for a few more weeks until his stash runs out,
just tryin’ to stay warm
and keep a little buzz goin’.
As the weather gets colder,
panhandlin’ ain’t workin’ for him anymore,
When I run into him again,
he’s sleepin’ on a heat vent
by the Chase bank on 2nd Avenue.
I spot him a twenty,
and ask, “Hey, Johnny “E”, how’s it goin’?”
“Rejoice, rejoice, we got no choice….right?
Maybe I need to try the VA again, huh?
I was a door gunner on a Huey back in Nam, ya’ know?
Company A, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry,
I lit up a lot of fuckin’ VC with that big 50’, man!
No retreat, no surrender; right brother?
They owe us somethin’.”
I don’t see Johnny any more that winter;
on the street
or at The International.
Late one night
I’m over at the Black & White on 10th Street,
shootin’ the shit with Harry “The Hat,”
and outta’ nowhere, he says, “Hey, remember Johnny “E”?
Frankie “The Cop” tells me,
they found him dead
in a room over at the St. Marks Hotel, back in March.
Yeah, he was face down in a Swanson TV dinner;
Mac & Cheese, I think,
still wearin’ that fuckin’ polyester sport coat .
Frankie says nobody claimed his body.
Can ya’ believe that shit?”
“Hey Billy, three fingers Bushmill….neat!
To Johnny “E”;
No retreat, no surrender.
Fuckin’ “A” brother!”
A Grunt’s Story
An Irish American “Boyo,”
young and sweet,
from the Jersey shore,
quits the seminary and joins up
“It’s the right thing to do!”
Idealism, innocence ?
somewhere in the rice paddies
in Southeast Asia
back in 1969.
We spat at the man
who came home.
We called him “murderer”
and “baby killer”.
Yet, we sent him to “fight” again,
on college campuses;
ordered him to fire on students with rubber bullets.
What were we thinking? “Let’s really fuck this guy up?”
Now, he watches only movies made before 1960.
“Gave up on politics with LBJ!”
He hates politicians, “Hanoi Jane,” Religion, Hippies,
and especially war protesters.
He drinks way too much Bud Lite
and watches the Mets lose,
unwilling and unable
to walk or even stand anymore...
“I’m no fuckin’ hero,” he says.
A Bronze Star and Purple Heart claim otherwise.
“I was just tryin’ to save my ass...They were in the way.”
Buried deep in his nightmares
the truth hides, unreleasable,
as though “Confined to solitary”
His woman is the target
now of his anger,
and each bears the scars,
both mental and physical,
of their private war.
Housebound for years and likely to die there,
his hair goes uncut and mostly unwashed,
his nails untrimmed;
an eerie visage of an “end stage” Howard Hughes.
Cancer almost kills him….
Too angry to die that way,
Seemingly broken, yet unrepentant,
his statement to the world is “Fuck you!”
To most, he seems just a “shell of a man”
but, if you hold him close to your ear,
you can still hear faint traces
of ocean waves on the Jersey shore.
We buy this weekend place in the Catskills back in 1982.
I wake up one Saturday morning to find a greasy piece of notepaper taped to our kitchen screen door. In bad hand scribbling is written, “Best stop stealing stone from my property wall, or else.” and it’s signed, “Your neighbor.”
Well, if you know anything at all about Sullivan County, you surely know that you can’t dig an inch of dirt without hitting stones. That’s why most old properties are bordered by stone walls, layed there when the ground was cleared. My surveyor placed my property line markers smack in the middle of the stone walls surrounding our property, so legally the stone fence belongs to both sides. Having retrieved plenty of stone from digging a flower garden and tomato patch, I certainly have no good reason to be stealing stones from anyone. We’re trying to figure where to dump the stones we’ve dug up already.
I decide to pay a visit to our new neighbor. Since I’ve already learned that the locals don’t much like city folks, particularly Italians and Jews, I pack my .22 magnum, two shot derringer in me back pocket, cross over the stone fence, and head up the hill looking for a house.
I hike past an overgrown apple orchard, up a long hill, through acres of freshly timbered land, until I reach a beautiful lake, with a small very rustic shack by the side of it. I slosh through mud up to the front of the shack and knock on a crudely made wooden door. I knock several times with no response.
Finally the door slowly creaks open a few inches and a voice growls, “What?” I reply, “I’m your neighbor.” I slip the note from my door through the small opening. It’s taken by an unseen hand. Silence. After about two minutes, the door slowly swings partially open to reveal my new neighbor. He’s old and unshaven, wearing a stained V neck T-shirt and dirty coveralls. His hair is sparse, grey, and looks to have been unwashed for some time. When he finally speaks, it’s apparent that most of his teeth are gone and he kind of blubbers his words out through sunken lips. “Come in, boy.” The door swings open and I step into a small dark cavern piled from floor to ceiling with newspapers and magazines with only a small winding path to walk through. He leads me through the path of newspapers into a second larger room that’s very sparsely furnished with a sink, a small bed, a wood stove in the center, and a large curio cabinet filled with tiny figurines and other items. It seem totally out of place in this dungeon. There are two small chairs by the stove. He gestures for me to take a seat.
“Cup of tea?”
He walks to the small sink and picks up two china cups. He pulls a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket and carefully wipes them after running a bit of water on them. He takes them to the stove and pours two cups of tea from a cast iron kettle sitting atop the stove. He hands me a cup and sits.
“Well?” he says.
I state firmly, “I’ve got my own good supply of Sullivan County flowers (that’s what they call rocks up there) so I certainly have no good reason to be stealing any from the wall. And for your information, my property line runs through the center of that stone wall so I’m technically half owner of those stones.”
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Phillip Giambri. What’s yours?”
“Riley,” he says.
Silence for a bit. “Looks to me like some of them stones on my wall are missing. Know anything about that if it’s not you?”
“Looks to me like that wall has been falling apart for a very long time and hasn’t been mended or cared for by anyone. Why be concerned now? Is it because I moved in next door?”
Long silence. “Just figured your kind come up from the city and think everything is yours for the taking.”
“Well you best be doing some rethinking on that, ‘cause the last thing I need is more stone.”
We sit for a bit silently drinking our tea. I finally stand and walk over to the curio cabinet and look at the figurines when he says, “Ever been to Japan?
“Well those are ancient Japanese Ivory miniatures. Collected them for years when I was overseas.”
“And how did you come to be spending so much time “overseas?”
“Did some time with the Navy.”
“Submarines. North Atlantic mostly. Off the coast of Russia during the Cold War.”
His demeanor suddenly softens and he breaks into what could almost pass for a sly grin through those caved in lips.
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“(MACV-SOG) Pause ….. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group.”
“What’s the hell does that mean?”
“Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force. We did strategic reconnaissance, covert operations, psychological warfare .... a little bit of a lot of shit.”
“Mostly Laos and some others, before it all got big and bad.”
He stands up and says, “I need some air.”
We make our way through the musty smelling newspaper tunnel and out to the front of the shack. He starts walking toward the lake and I notice he kinda’ drags his right leg some.
“Arthritis got you?”
“Naah. Got in some shit up in the mountains with the Hmong. We were tryin’ to shut down the Ho Chi Minn Trail and cut the supply line into Nam. Didn’t go too well. Took a round in the hip, but one of ‘em covered me with his body. He took the rest of it. Good fighters, them Hmong.”
Long silence as we both stare off into the lake.
“So how’s a guy like you who collects ancient Japanese ivory figurines and did Special Ops for the military, end up in this shithole Sullivan County?”
“Don’t much like bein’ around people anymore, and this is as good a place as any to be alone.”
He finally asks, “Do you hunt?”
“No. I’m not much for eating meat and don’t’ see any point in killing for no good reason.”
“Well somebody’s been up here trophy hunting deer, leaving bodies with no heads. I catch ‘em and there’s gonna’ be some hell to pay. This land’s all posted and I don’t like trespassers with no respect for wildlife on my land.”
“You up here by yourself?”
“Got a boy. Does maintenance over at Kingston mall. He visits once in a while.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“I teach proper English to those Spanish kids from the city over at the Prison. Bring some food to folks over the mountain that’re pretty needy. You know there’s a lot of really bad off folks up here who’s kids don’t eat regular. That bothers me some. I try to help a little. I get good money from the government.”
“I’m thinkin’ I’ve already run off my mouth too much and it’s best you be goin’.”
“Well Riley, it’s been nice meeting you and I hope you see that I’m just looking to be a good neighbor.”
“Eyetalian, that name?”
“I’m askin’ if you’re Eyetalian.”
Not too many around here. Best watch your back with the Woodchucks.”
“Yeah, the locals. They don’t take much to your kind.”
“What about you? Do they every bother you?”
“Nope. They keep their distance. They’ve learned better from me.”
On that mysterious reply, I shake his hand and head off around the lake back toward my house.
I call out, “See ya’, Riley!”
“See ya’, kid!”
Over the next year there’s a lot more good oak and maple taken out of there by lumber haulers; must be worth thousands. Next I hear, he’s sold off the place to some rich family from Long Island. I never see him again.