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I grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. It was a good life. I had parents who loved me and three older sisters who loved me sometimes. I had lots of aunts, uncles and cousins and a group of friends around my own age that hung out together and did things kids normally do. My friends and I would spend our summers playing baseball, mowing grass, making hay or anything else we could find to make a few dollars. As teenagers growing up in the early 1960's, our lives were very ordinary. Most every summer day we would wind up swimming in the local creek, swinging from a rope tied to "the tree". Even though there were lots of trees in the area, that one was special because it had several heavy limbs that hung out over the water. We would roast hotdogs, corn, potatoes and sometimes bull frogs over an open fire. We smoked cigarettes we stole from our parents. When one of us was able to get it, we would drink beer, wine or liquor that was confiscated from our parents. The trick to not getting caught stealing cigarettes was to just take two or three out of an already opened pack - nobody would ever notice. The same technique would work for booze as well. I remember one day taking a little bit from four or five different bottles of whiskey and pouring it all in a mason jar. That day we hit the mother load as one of my friends did the same thing. I think there were five or six of us and we all got drunk just before we all got sick. Just ordinary kids doing what kids do.
Because of where we grew up we knew very little about crime. Most of our parents never locked their doors at night and hardly anyone locked their car doors. Everybody knew everybody else and there was a sense of trust in the community. (Except for the occasional cigarette or booze thieves.) We knew nothing about street crime or gangs or rape or murder, except for what we might see on TV. At that age we didn't know if people were kidding or not when they said "don't touch black people, the black might rub off on your hands." We didn't have any black people in our community to touch. I always wondered, but never really asked anyone, if black people told their children not to touch white people because it might rub off.
In our lives at that time the most important things in life were sports, girls, what kind of car we would have when we got our driver's license, girls, who was the strongest among us, girls, who would be the first among us to actually have sex and what it was really like, and, of course, GIRLS.
As a group, our all time favorite thing to do was sleeping outside or camping. Sometimes it was as simple as throwing a sleeping bag on the back porch of somebody's house or the back porch of the local elementary school, where nobody could see us. Our main source of entertainment was looking at Playboy magazines somebody swiped from somewhere, or lighting farts. If you have never done this, it is really funny to see a blue flame shooting out of somebody's butt. It takes passing gas to a whole new level. Warning: it could be dangerous to your health. Teenage boys generally have hair on their butts that can and will catch fire. Also explaining to your mother how you got a burn mark on the back of your underwear can be problem. Another reason for sleeping out was generally there was a slumber party somewhere in the area. At these slumber parties were - you guessed it - girls. Need I say more?
We also loved to hike in the mountains near our homes and sleep out under the stars with a big campfire. This was one of the few things we did where no girls were allowed. I don't know why, but it was an unwritten rule. Our hikes would often last a few days. We would build lean-tos into the side of a bank, or build a roof over a depression in the ground. We would line the floors with hemlock limbs and pine needles and it was quite comfortable. We had one favorite spot where the creek split and there was a small island in the middle. Unfortunately every spring it would get washed away when the high waters came. We hiked, camped, played war games or army as we called it, and generally just loved being out in the woods. When we younger, we were allowed to carry BB guns. When we were in the woods, no bird or chipmunk was safe. As we got older, 14 or so, our parents allowed us to carry .22 rifles. This was our way of life. From a young age, we were "Never point a gun at another person, whether it's loaded or not." Even with the BB guns this was a rule we adhered to. We were taught to respect guns, not fear them. For us it was an embarrassment and inexcusable to point a gun at anyone else.
We did lots of shooting. In the '60's, you could buy a box of fifty .22 rounds for 40 or 50 cents. We naturally become very good shots. We could shoot acorns off tall oak trees; we could shoot bottle caps at 50 yards. One of my friends could consistently shoot bumble bees flying through the air.
We learned what plants were edible; we learned to lay hot rocks from a campfire on the ground beneath us in our lean-to to keep us warm at night. We learned to survive on what we had and loved it all. Little did we know, for some of us these skills would be put to the test someday.
One of the pleasures of summertime we had was the town reservoir that was located on the mountain near where we camped. At night we would climb the chain link fence that surrounded the reservoir and skinny dip in the water that everybody in town was drinking. We joked about peeing in the water and hoping a certain teacher we didn't like was drinking that water. We were so stupid it took us a while to realize that some of us were drinking the same water at home. We all heard about the war in Viet Nam, but we really didn't know much about it. Mostly what we knew about war was the stories we heard from our parents and other relatives about WWII or Korea. We were all pretty naive and just assumed we would all be around and be friends for the rest of our lives.
Fast forward a few years to 1968. Things had changed. We were now old enough to go to war, but not to vote. Some of my friends were in college; some were already fighting the Vietnam War. The rest of us received our draft notices. The days of innocence were over. In January of 1968, I received word one of my childhood friends, Carl, had been shot, but would survive. A few weeks later, I visited Carl at his parents' home. He was badly wounded in his right leg and faced a long recovery. He would never fully recover from the wound and would always walk with a limp. He told me that being shot at and shot sucks. He said he hoped I never had the experience. I saw the pain in his eyes and I heard it in the way he talked. It wasn't the pain in his leg that I saw, it was deeper than that. His speech was deliberate and filled with pauses, he seemed distant. He wasn't the same joking, impulsive guy I grew up with. It was the look in his eyes that stuck with me - a distant, hollow look. Carl had changed; I guessed that's what war does to you.
I wished him well, as I knew he would be going to rehab for quite a while. I told him it was great to see him again, and chatted with his parents a bit. As I was leaving, Carl grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear "if you go over there man be careful, it ain't no picnic."
My visit with Carl caused me to think. I was twice his size and a bigger target. I couldn't help but think about the guy that shot Carl; his dad apparently didn't teach him to never point a gun at anybody. For me personally, that was the first time the Vietnam War was real. Carl was a guy I really cared about.
In two weeks I'd be taking my physical for the draft. Would I get shot? Would I be like Carl and come home crippled? Would I come home at all?
Two weeks went fast, and I reported for the physical. It was like a huge locker room with guys standing in lines in their underwear. Doctors were checking for I don't know what. Some guy told me to drop my drawers, bend over and spread 'em. Why the hell did he stick his finger up my butt? They were poking in my mouth, my ears, grabbing my nuts and telling me to cough and shining a light in my eyes. They gave me a bunch of papers and told me to get dressed. Some Army guy out front told me he would see me later. What the hell does that mean? Did I pass or fail?
The following week I got a notice that I passed the physical. I had to decide if I wanted to enlist or wait to be drafted.
The week after the notice came; I got a call from a friend that one of our mutual friends, Don, had been killed in action. His body would be flown home next week for burial. Holy shit, he's the first person from our little town to be killed over there.
The next week, my friends and I met outside the funeral home for Don's funeral. We decided to all go in together. Out of the six of us, two had received their orders to report, two of us were awaiting orders and two had college deferments. Now a friend of ours was dead. There was an air of somberness among us, not the joking or grab-assing we would normally have. Don was only 19 years old, a year older than me, and now he was gone. When I looked at my friends I saw fear, indecision, and a lot of tears. That day had changed us all. As we said goodbye, I think we were all secretly asking ourselves who would be next. I had lost family members and friends before, but this was different. This wasn't an accident or natural causes. Don was shot to death, fighting in a war in a place most of us didn't even know existed a couple of years ago, in some province I couldn't even pronounce.
One by one we were all called up to active duty. Rob was first, then Stu, then Tom. We were now being called men. Just last year, as high school seniors, we were boys. What made the difference? Did being eligible to be shot make you a man? I remember as a child someone would call me a little man or young man. Usually when my dad called me a young man, I knew I screwed up somehow. As teenagers we wanted to be looked upon as men, but we didn't have a clue what that meant. Was this what it took to be a man? To be scared out of your mind, to risk your life for your country, leave your family not knowing if you would ever see them again? Hell, I didn't know.
The next big question was, do I enlist or wait to be drafted? Everybody had an opinion on this. If you enlist in the Air Force or Navy, the chances of going to Vietnam were less, but it was a four year commitment. If you enlist in the Army or Marines it was a four year commitment as well, but according to the recruiters you got to choose the job you wanted, if it was available. Yeah right. If you waited to be drafted, it was a two year commitment, but you would probably wind up in the Nam. How the hell does an eighteen year old make the right decision about that? Somehow enlisting in the Air Force or Navy didn't seem right to me. I had never flown on an airplane and I got seasick, even on small boats. So I narrowed it down to the Army or Marines. Enlist or be drafted? My decision was made for me two weeks later; I got my notice to report for induction into the U. S. Army in thirty days. I was drafted.
Four days later I received another phone call. My good friend Dick had been killed in action in Vietnam. Dick grew up four houses away from Don on the same street. I'd known him most of my life. We went to the same school and church, played ball, roamed the woods, fished and swam together. He was tall and thin and was a pretty good baseball pitcher. We called him Dick the Stick. The next day I stopped to see his parents. His dad was always a rough speaking, sort of intimidating man; that day his words were barely audible. I'd never seen a man cry so much before. It was a helpless feeling for me, not knowing what to say or do to comfort him. He thanked me for coming and asked if I would mind being a pall bearer at the funeral. I said I would be honored to do so. He hugged me and it was one of those moments when nothing was said, but the pain we each felt was understood by the other as we both cried.
My friends and I got together that evening in the woods. None of us were old enough to drink, but we were drinking beer anyhow. A few of us looked old enough, and it was never a problem to get some beer. Somehow it just didn't seem to make sense again: we were not old enough to drink, but now, two of us were dead. There were only four of us tonight, and although none of us wanted to admit it, we were all scared. We reminisced about Dick: what a good curve ball he had, how he could eat like a pig and never gain weight, and how shy he was around girls. We couldn't remember of him ever going on a date. We built a fire and slept around it all night. Even though we drank beer all night none of us really got drunk. I think we all felt this might be the last time we would have the chance to do this together for a while or maybe ever. Over the years, we had our share of fights, arguments and pissing matches with each other, but there was a bond among us that we didn't even share with our own family members.
There were a lot of people at Dick's funeral and I knew most of them. I could see Don's grave not far away, fresh enough that new grass had not started to grow over it yet. As pall bearers, we were all very nervous. I know when the honor guard gave their gun salute, we all jumped. When Taps was played, we all cried. The one thing that stuck with me that day and will until the day I die, was Dick's father shaking the hands of the pall bearers and saying to all of us "thanks a million boys, Dick loved all of you." All I could say was "you're welcome." I wanted to say you don't have to thank me, I'm honored to do it, but I didn't. It just didn't seem real, but it was all too real. Part of me wanted to seek revenge for the death of my friends, part of me was scared to death, and yet another part of me wanted to go back to being an irresponsible teenager. The reality of it all hung like a dark thunderstorm cloud over all of us that day.
Welcome to Fort Dix, NJ. We got off a bus and some guy was barking orders to us that we didn't understand. He talked so fast that we were all confused. We moved like a herd of sheep, following one another. If the first guy went to the wrong place, we were all going to the wrong place. We reported to a building where there are barbers shaving guys' heads. The smart asses asked us how we wanted our hair cut and then shaved everyone down to the roots. Next they issued us clothing called fatigues. There was no modesty; we were all naked and putting on military issued underwear and fatigues. Some of the guys were bitching their clothes didn't fit; mine were ok. We marched to a building they called a barracks. Two rows of bunk beds, a big bathroom with a row of sinks and one big shower. The building to me looked like a cattle barn. I grabbed a lower bunk and a black guy grabbed the bunk above me. I introduced myself, we shook hands and he said his name was James Robinson. He's from a town near Richmond, VA. A little while later I realized that was only the second time I had ever touched a black man. Talk about being a country hick! The first time was my junior year in high school, during a wrestling match. The guys on my team were riding me pretty hard about wrestling a black guy. I was unsure about it myself. Once the match started, it was obviously no different than wrestling a white guy. After the match was over, we shook hands and talked about wrestling a bit and he seemed like a nice guy. Afterwards I thought about how weird it must have been for him; he was the only black kid in the whole gym.
That wasn't a problem for James Robinson; it looked like almost half of the guys in the barracks were black. As I was making my bed, I glanced at my right hand and noticed the black from James' hand didn't come off onto my hand. I'm sure my face turned beet red as I realized what a stupid thing that was to think. I sure didn't want James to think I was so dumb. I never really got the courage to ask him if he worried about the white coming off my hand. There were a few guys arguing over bunks, but that was short lived. Shortly the drill instructor was in the barracks barking orders. According to him, we were the dumbest people on earth and the only things we needed to know, he would teach us. That was a little hard for me to swallow, but the guy was pretty intimidating. He ran us through some formations outside and, after observing us for half an hour, maybe we were the dumbest people on earth. The next morning we were up before the sun, doing calisthenics and running and running and running. I was 5' 10" and 190 pounds. My body was made for running over things, not around them all day. I didn't really mind the calisthenics, but all that damn running sucked.
Excerpted from White Lion by Walter Williams Copyright © 2011 by Walter Williams. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 6, 2011
Posted August 18, 2011
This book is one you won't put down until the end. Has a great story that was presented well--would make a great movie! This book is appealing, even to women.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.