Looking back, I suppose our wedding was the social event of the season. If only I would’ve known how it would end…
It was the story of a beautiful rich girl marrying an average- looking poor boy. I was that boy. I came from a middle-class home with working parents and five children.
She had one brother, but clearly was her daddy’s girl. Daddy was a politician. I doubt that Mummy ever worked a day in her life. Their children had everything there was to have. Including a jail sentence.
My name is Chris.
I remember the day I came home from my four year stint in the Army. Dressed in my uniform for the last time, carrying my worldly possessions in a duffel bag, I descended the bus steps. I don’t know what I imagined I’d find, but this wasn’t it. Remember “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the perennial Christmas movie starring Jimmy Stewart? When the younger brother Harry came home from the war? There were crowds of cheering people, a high schoolband played, and the hero was welcomed with open arms.
Coming home from Viet Nam was totally different. Nobody was there, except for my mom and dad, standing nervously in the bus station. Nobody cared. No marching band, no flags flapping in the breeze, no loving relatives. I couldn’t believe how much my parents had aged! Mom was graying around the hairline last time I saw her, but now she was completely white. Dad probably wished he had white hair, because most of his was gone.
Now came the decision of what to do with my life. My previous job at a local garage was gone. Someone else had been hired. I could start at the bottom of the ladder if I wished to work there. I didn’t.
I had been trained as a medical corpsman while in the service. In spite of the horrors I had experienced in the jungles and rice paddies of ‘Nam, I developed some skills, compassion, and a desire to care for sick and injured people. One of the Army docs I had worked with encouraged me, and another buddy of mine, also a corpsman, to enter a medical field.
My Army buddy Paul planned to study nursing. This was a relatively open field for men at the time, with lots of opportunities for a fulfilling career. I looked into it, and decided to give it a try. With the basics under my belt, and the G.I. bill, I could always switch to radiology or lab technician if nursing wasn’t meant for me.
My dad nearly blew a gasket.
“What are you? A queer or something? You want to wipe asses for a living? That’s women’s work!” he exploded at me.
“Why? Women’s hands are shaped different or function different from men’s? Men can wipe asses too. Besides, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, Dad, in case you never noticed. You’ve been in the hospital. Who gave you your medicine? Explained the doctors’ orders when you were ready to go home? How about the nurse that took care of Grandma at home after she had a stroke? You think only girls can do that?”
The disgusted look on his face told me everything I needed to know.
“You know, Dad? Sometimes I think you wish I would’ve come home in a box. Then I’d be something to you, a hero, instead of some burned out guy who doesn’t want to do “real man’s” work.”
If I were younger, I know he would’ve back-handed me. Now I was bigger, smarter, and not likely to take the abuse he’d doled out when I was a kid.
“You think I should be as cop? Like you? A guy who drives around town in a cruiser for eight hours, not really seeing anything that he doesn’t want to see? What do you do all day? When was your last arrest? Domestic violence intervention? Hah! You probably sided with the man, telling the wife she shouldn’t smart off to him.” I swallowed, and kept going. I wished I could wipe the arrogant sneer off of his face. I knew I had gone too far and there was no way back.
“I’ll go to school and study what I want and work where I like. And if you don’t like it, that’s tough shit. I don’t give a damn what you think anymore.”
He said, “Get out of my house.”
I said, “With pleasure.”
Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” blared from my truck’s radio as I pealed out of the driveway. Down deep inside I knew this was the way it should be. I was too old to live at home.
I crashed with my cousin Marty and his wife until I got my shit together and found a place to live. Marty and Chloe were great people. I had been the best man when they got married five years ago.
The three-room-with-bath, second floor walk-up apartment was about two miles from the college campus where I was enrolled. When my dad was working I went to the house and gathered up my stuff. My mother cried while I packed. I promised that I’d visit her and that I wasn’t angry with her, but really, I was. Where was her backbone all these years when her husband smacked her sons around? I never saw him physically abuse her, but many times we watched him berate her over something stupid, or belittle her in front of other people.
It was around this time that the nightmares started. I called them Nam mares. Crashing helicopters, burning children, soldiers creeping through the jungle, not knowing what lies ahead. I woke up tossing and turning on a relatively good night; screaming, on a bad night.
I attended classes during the day and worked when I could. I tried not to sleep, if I could help it. I manned the counter overnight at a gas station, studying when I wasn’t busy, which was frequently. I was just as happy to be awake at night, because the Nam mares didn’t show up as much during the day when I napped.
Summers, I did grunt work for a local tree removal company. I was the guy who gathered the branches and fed them to the shredder, then dumped the bags into a truck. I ran errands, got coffee, and gassed up the trucks. The owner paid me well, probably better than a grunt deserved, because I worked hard and never complained.
With working two jobs, my social life was non-existent. Occasionally I went to see the local baseball team play. A bunch of guys that I hung out with in high school played on the team, and mostly they were married or had a steady girl. Joe and his wife had a baby already. We were twenty-four by now, and they had actual lives, something I was lacking. I got drafted while they were college boys. Now they had families and were moving along with their careers. I was pretty much at square one.
Some of the wives tried to set me up with single girlfriends, but none of them worked out. Not that I was trying to be picky. These women were ready to find a guy to marry and start their families, not get hooked up with a guy still in school who planned to be a nurse. Chloe called one afternoon when I got home from work to ask if I was free that night.
“Free but not easy, Chlo,” I told her. I could hear her record player blasting a Sonny and Cher tune in the background.
She giggled. “There’s a girl in my office who broke up with her boyfriend a few weeks ago. I was thinkin’ you’d be perfect for her.”
“I’m not perfect in anyone’s eyes, hon. But anyway, what’s she like?”
“Ummm, long, dark brown hair, very pretty, about …five-eight, I’d say…medium build. Great sense of humor, she cracks me up all the time at work. So…will you do it? Please, Chris?”
“You’re begging. That scares me. What’s wrong?”
“Nuthin.’ I was afraid you’d say no.”
“Why? Am I such a rotten bastard that you have to coax me?”
“Noooo,” she sort of whined. “You never seem to like the girls I introduce you to.”
“Let me ask you…is she eager to get married? Did you tell her I have at least three more years before I can even think about that, maybe more if it takes any time to find a job?”
“I mentioned that you were in nursing school…”
“What else did you say?”
“Well, that maybe you’d keep going and become a doctor.”
“Chloe, my love, it’s two different things. Nursing isn’t the entry level position for becoming a doctor. Two separate occupations. Did you say that because you were embarrassed that I want to be a nurse?”
“Chris, you know I love you. Just trying to find a girl for you. That’s all.”