Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day on a trout stream




On Memorial Day weekends, I drift back to Virginia Beach of 1967 and a summer night in a dimly-lit tavern. The thick fishy smell of the ocean is fresh in my mind, even aftrer four decades. I can hear crashing waves relentlessly pounding the sand flat. Boat lights blink and bob in the dark. I hear the big ships moan in the black night.
These thoughts return uninvited every year around this long weekend, when the nation pauses to grill boat, fish, golf, salute a parade or just take a holiday from work. The days whip by like tornadoes of eating, drinking and laughing amid a riot of music, motorboats, Harleys and boisterious teenaged boys.
Away from the riot, a few people will pay homage to the men and women who died in defense of our country. I'll remember, too, but I'll flee alone to a trout stream. There, it's always quiet. And I think that's just fitting.
Forty-four years ago, the noise was welcomed. It was July and, of course, it was pavement-shimmering hot. Johnny and I were sitting in The Ravern at Virginia Beach, drinking sweaty mugs full of ice-cold beer with our girlfriends. We looked like overcooked lobsters, our faces bight as stoplights, and we were having the time of our lives. We knew we would never die.
Johnny and I had been on the high school wrestling team at Maury High. He had wrestled heavyweights thick as cows, mostly. I wrestled the little guys, the lightweights. I think Johnny was more like 180; I was a soaking-wet 125 by the time my junior year rolled around. He was always overachieving and won a football scholarship to Tennessee when normal-sized people played. I, ever the underachiever, made fourth-string on the Virginia Tech wrestling team.
Once, at a high school dance, I discovered the mysteries of gin and was horribly surprised to find this stuff could make you sick. It also could kill you, but who worries about such when you're a teenager? We were indestructible. We knew we would never die.
Besides, Johnny was there to make me puke; probably kept me alive.
I had run into Johnny that summer night at The raven by accident. I hadn't seen him in a while, not since he took off for Marine Corps boot camp. He was just back, and I was getting ready to go.
Johnny was delighted at that bit of what I thought should have been considered sorrowful news. He spent a good portion of the evening scaring the red off my sunburn with horror tales of sadistic drill instructors who lived to beat on, yell at and torture Marine recruits. I'm convinced some were evil.
We didn't talk about world news that night. We certainly did not discuss Vietnam. We were not political. We were just two beer-swilling guys with their girlfriends in a Virginia Beach tavern talking about good times. What war? And who cared? We knew we would never die.
We left late, diving into the black, humid night, letting the ocean's breath wash over our stinging skin. We said our goodbyes and our good-lucks while fading into the night. I took off for Parris Island in a couple of days. Johnny took off for Vietnam. I remember his huge smile framed by all that redness. He had a great smile.
I never saw that smile again.
I never saw Johnny again.
Johnny was shot and killed in Nam by enemy fire in 1968,
So, now we have another Memorial Day for people who need reminders that war is, indeed, hell. In a day of video-game warfare, it's easy to become detached, or just plain not care, which I submit is far worse. If it's not on TV, it's not happening?
I don't need a reminder. Neither should you.
Even in a mountain trout stream, I can almost smell the ocean air and hear waves slapping the beach.
Semper fi.

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