Power to the People

“Shut up, man!” I hissed at Frank. He kept laughing while we were trying to sneak through the MP billet area in Phan Rang. We’d learned that they had a generator they weren’t using, but holding it in reserve in case theirs broke down. So many companies and platoons had no power except for what could be snagged from the main power lines. The mains weren’t reliable because they were overloaded and so brownouts and outright failures were consistent. Such were the conditions at a base camp during the Vietnam war.

“Fedder is gonna owe us big.” whispered Frank. Fedder was a huge black man from Philly. He stood six foot six and weighed in at 270 pounds, not a bit of it fat. He ripped the sleeves of his jungle fatigues off at the shoulder because his biceps were just too big. One flex of his arm and the double seam was history. His thighs matched my waistline and his calves were at least four times bigger than mine. Barrel chested and simply huge, he was intimidating to see. Whenever he was a part of our group as we went bar hopping on our time off, we never got into fights and never were denied entry into any bars, even those ferociously defended as the reserved area of this or that unit. Any challenge would cut off with a gurgle when the challenger got a look at Fedder. He was a monster.

But Fedder was also a pretty cool guy. Streetwise from growing up in North Philadelphia he was nobody’s fool. But he was a decent guy and pretty philosophical in spite of his background. He liked to read just about anything, you could often find him with his face in anything from a magazine to the classics. He had a very extensive stereo system and a huge collection of blues in boxes and boxes of reel to reel tapes. We intended to steal the generator from the MPs as a favor to Fedder -as well as to get some consistent light.

Our target was a Briggs and Stratton 5 hp generator that put out 1800 watts of 120 volt power. It was more than adequate to power our billet; a wooden platform with a frame that held up a 12 man tent. It was a little after 11 pm and most of the activity of the base for the 101st Airborne Division had wound down. There was still noise, there always was, what with unceasing sorties and cargo aircraft coming and going from the major airstrip run by the Air Force, the distant booms of mortars or sporadic gunfire from activities klicks away, all set to the soundtrack of competing officer, NCO and enlisted club music. A weird mixture of country and rock and roll.

In our favor was the steady noise level, the deep shadowed and dark areas coupled to our own sense of entitlement to equipment we needed that was being hoarded, unused, by a unit not particularly appreciated. Cops are cops, no matter the color of uniform. It’s not like we saw MPs as real cops. Their job seemed to be getting in the way as we real soldiers just tried to get by.

We were hunched over now and jogging through the shadows, headed for a storage tent that sat removed from the main MP cluster of hooches and op tents. We had to stop short and freeze a few times as MPs came and went, but we made it to the supply tent undetected. Frank pulled a Buck knife from his pocket and cut a five foot slit top to bottom on the backside and held it open while I slipped inside. Totally dark, I couldn’t see a thing. I stuck my hand back out through the slit and made a grabbing motion. Frank picked up on my need and handed me a flashlight with a red lens. It didn’t make a lot of light, but that was a good thing because it was less likely to attract attention.  Stuff was piled in shelves that ran front to back and I spotted the generator on the bottom shelf, basically the ground, a of third set. I grabbed it, holding onto it by its tubular steel frame and pulled it into the aisle. It was heavier than I thought it would be. It weighed more than a hundred pounds.

Still, I dead lifted it and shuffled to the back of the tent and tried to step through the slit with it. I caught my foot on the canvass and fell forward. It hit the ground with a loud thud and I fell on top of it.  Frank clamped one hand over my mouth in case I was gonna yell in pain, and scooped up the flashlight and shut it off with the other.  He let go of me and each of us moved to opposite sides of the tent to scout for anyone who might have heard the commotion and was coming to investigate.  Neither of us saw anyone, so we both grabbed onto the generator and jogged from the back of the supply tent to the next structure and then the next.

It stunk where we had chosen to rest and figured out right away we were hiding behind the MP latrine.  “Jeez Louise,” mumbled Frank. “What to these guys eat?” I suppressed a laugh.

“Who’s out there?” asked a voice from inside the latrine.

Frank and I looked at each other, mentally debating whether we should answer. We apparently decided because we both grabbed our end of the generator and took off towards a cluster of another unit’s billets. We heard the door to the MP latrine slam shut and a shout asking what we were doing. Already losing our wind, we ran even faster, the heavy generator trying to pull our arms out of our shoulder sockets.  We could hear the running footfalls behind us and knew that  Latrine Guy was in pursuit.

We dodged around the corner to cut through the unit’s collection of tents and sandbag walls trying to lose the guy chasing us but he was gaining. “In there.” grunted Frank, nodding towards the door to a Conex shipping container that was being used as a building. We ducked inside and closed the door gently but quickly. Standing there trying to control our breathing in spite of a deep desire to pant from exertion, we heard Mr. Latrine stomping past our hiding place at double time. We both breathed a sigh of relief -and then realized we weren’t alone.

Slowly turning around, we saw that there were eight guys in there, sitting on crates and cases as makeshift chairs. An empty cable spool made a table they were playing cards at. The Rolling Stones were singing about getting no satisfaction quietly from a Japanese boom box, one of those new cassette machines someone must have picked up during R&R to Hong Kong.  They were boonie rats, infantry like us, killing some time smoking dope, drinking warm beer and playing poker. “So, what do we have here?” asked one of the guys, standing.

“Just passing through.” I said. “We’ll be gone in a second.”

“What’s your hurry, man?” he asked. His tone wasn’t unfriendly, but he was looking at us the same way the others were. Like a pack of dogs who just realized a rabbit has wandered into their kennel. “You should stay a while and be friendly, you know? It’s kinda impolite to bust in on a game.”

“Yeah,” said one of the other guys, rising. “If you’re in too much of a hurry, maybe you should, you know, pay some kind of toll.”

“We got nothing, guy.” Frank answered.

“Nothing? I’m sure you must have something. I mean, how about that generator?”

“Screw that!” I barked. Okay, I get the protocol. We should cough up something -it’s only fair. But it wasn’t going to be the generator. My arms hurt, my chest hurt, and by now we had a bunch of MPs looking for us. We didn’t know whether or not the guy who chased us got a look at us, at least beyond seeing that we were GIs. “Man, we just went through the shit to get this. I don’t mind paying some respect for the hospitality, but not the generator.”

“So, what else you got then?”

“I got a fifth of Seagram back at the hooch. How about that?” said Frank. “Seems like a fair trade.”

“Okay, we’ll take the booze but we’re gonna come along with you to collect. You know, in case you get lost tryin’ to find your way back here.”

“Fair enough.” said Frank.

I stuck my head out the door and looked around to see if any MPs were around. I didn’t see any, so we all filed out of the Conex container and headed back to our area. The grunts were nice enough to help carry the generator. We made it to the billet without bumping into any MPs.

“Hey, Fedder,” called out Frank as we came in the door. “Lookit what we brought ya!”

The boonies crowded in behind us and most of them gasped when they took a look at the monstrous man who towered over them. “Holy shit,” someone said.

Fedder looked at the generator and got a wide smile on his face. Frank went to his footlocker and fetched the fifth of whiskey he promised. Looking nervously at Fedder, the lead boonie said that payment wasn’t really necessary. Amazing. It’s like Fedder was our own personal credit card with no end of the month payment. But Frank and I both told them it was cool and handed over the booze.

An hour later it was going on one in the morning, but the group had managed to scrounge up some gas, hook up Fedders stereo, and we were playing poker for cigarettes and listening to some smooth blues from Fedder’s gigantic speakers.

“War is hell.” said the boonie. We all nodded in time with the music. I bid two Marlboros and took two cards.

Between school and the future

I wakened to sunlight streaming in through the window. It took me a minute to clear enough cobwebs from my head to recall the previous day. It had been just before dinner time when I had arrived at the sanitarium, so whatever they gave me to relax with was pretty strong. I hung my feet over the edge of the bed and stood up. I wavered a bit, still woozy. Stepping to the window afforded me a view of the huge lawn fronting the property and reminded me that there were heavy steel bars on the windows. I crossed the room and tried my door. It was unlocked and so I ventured out into the open area, what they called the dayroom. Mrs Hill walked in through the locking door from the entryway and the corridor to the offices.

“Bob, you’re awake. Good. Come with me and let me explain what’s going on. I’m sure you’re curious.” She could say that again. I was also pretty pissed off at my father. I followed her out of the locked are and down the corridor to her office. A frosted glass window made up the top half of a solid oak door. Her name was painted on the glass and beneath it the words ‘Facility Director.’ She went behind her desk and sat down and pointed to a comfortable overstuffed char that faced her desk. I sat down.

“What’s happening here, Mrs. Hill?” I asked.

“Your father believes that you are suffering from a mental illness. He has had you committed to our care.”

“For how long?”

“So far, indefinitely. But we do have a say in that and we’re going to be giving you some tests and have you speak with a number of our staff psychologists and psychiatrists. I’ve known you a long time, and I find it difficult to believe that you’re in need of commitment, but we’re going to do as your father has asked. Do you mind talking to me or the other members of the staff?”

I told her no, I didn’t have a problem with that. She smiled widely and told me not to worry, that things would work out for the best. worse come to worse, in a year I would be 18 and could choose to leave. She sent me back to my room after explaining the rules, where I was allowed to be, and a few tips in getting along with the others who were confined as I was. She reminded me that most of them needed to be at the institution.

I admit that I had always been highly strung and independent. I got on just fine with my mother, my friends, and usually my sister -although she often took dad’s side in any disputes. I had been expelled from three schools for violating rules repeatedly, but they were rules like reading after lights out, leaving the school grounds without permission, and for being kind of a wise guy with people in authority. I wasn’t a thief, I didn’t vandalize property or things of that nature.  I tended to have disagreements that resulted in trading blows with fellow students, but it was reticently admitted that I never through the first punch. I usually just got on someone’s last nerve until a battle broke out. For the most part, I got on well with other students, of course having a core group. A posse or a clique of friends I hung with. I wasn’t a liar, when confronted with a perceived misdeed I wouldn’t deny it but often had a ‘so what’ attitude attached.

Back in my room an orderly strolled in and gave me another shot. He said it was vitamins, but the way I seemed to drift into the Twilight Zone shortly after inoculation indicated maybe it wasn’t vitamins. In fact, it was Thorazine. It was given to all patients as a matter of course. The food they served was about as good as I got at the school, maybe a step up. But it still was mass produced and seemed to be mostly meatloaf, pork chops, and fried chicken with sides of vegetables, a piece of white bread and a pat of butter. They gave me a number of models and the tools to make them. A week later I had eight model airplanes festooning the horizontal surfaces in my room. Other than that I watched television. Mornings and afternoons offered little I was interested in, mostly soap operas and game shows. When the afternoon came, so did the cartoons and sitcoms. Thanks to the drugs, time seemed to just slip by. There were a number of fellow patients in with me. None of us was interested in making friends, but neither were we adverse to talking. Conversations tended to relate to television. “James Arness does a good job as Marshal Dillon but the fella that plays Chester, well, I think they should have gotten Jack Benny.”

“Jack Benny?” I repeated.

“Yeah. He’s a riot.”

“I’m going to go read.”

I did have sessions with Mrs. Hill, Dr. Brunner, a psychologist, and Dr. pained who was a psychiatrist and MD. He signed off on everyone’s prescriptions for zombie juice. I was neither happy to be there or unhappy. I was just sort of idling. A lot of that thanks to Mr. Thorazine. When three weeks had passed, Mrs. Hill sent for me and I met her in her office.

“There’s nothing wrong with you.” she said. “You’re an intelligent but spirited young man with a streak of independence a mile wide. But you aren’t mentally ill and my personal belief is that you don’t belong here. In fact, I think it would damage you in the long run if you stayed. I explained this to your father but he insisted that I and the staff should take more time and test you further. He is convinced there’s something wrong with you. I asked him and your mother to participate in family sessions. I think if we can get a good dialog going that we can get everyone to see the value in each of you. Your father, however, refused saying that he wasn’t crazy and didn’t need a psychiatrist probing his mind.  Your mother was happy to participate, but you already get along with her wonderfully and so I don’t feel there would be much point.”

“So, you’re telling me that even though I’m not a looney, I have to stay here because my father doesn’t like me.”

She looked sad. “That’s a way of putting it.”

“There’s nothing I can do?”

“Well, no. In my professional capacity I cannot suggest that you fight with the therapists or get your hopes up to be released. In a personal capacity though, I thought I’d mention that maintenance is washing windows this afternoon and all of the restraint grilles will be hinged open so the washers can reach the windows to clean them. You can go back to your room now.”

What did she just say? And was she grinning at me when she passed along that tidbit? Is this a trap? I jump out a window and run and that proves that I’m unstable and should be locked up? I went to my room and sat there thinking. The orderly should be by shortly to give me my Thorazine shot so I waited for him. I saw him with his try of vials and syringes, but he walked past my room, giving me a smile and a wink as he passed. I went over and shut my door and stepped to the window. Sure enough the bars were hinged wide open. I tried the window and it was unlocked and slid up quite easily. I stuck my head out and looked all around. I saw no one, not even the window washers. Being on the ground floor, it was nothing to swing my legs over the sill and then hop down to the ground. I ran hard straight across the huge lawn, making for the gate. No sirens erupted, no dogs or technicians were chasing me and I made it to the gate and jogged down the street towards freedom. At the end of the block I heard my name called. Katy, Mrs. Hill’s 18 year old daughter was standing next to her parked Volkswagen bug.

“Get in.” she said.

I did.

“Right about now my mom is talking to your mom, apologizing that you managed to slip away and that she has NO idea where you’ve gone off to, and wondered aloud if I would head to New York City. I’m taking you to our house. You can stay there while we all work up a plan for you.”

“Wow.” I said. “This is exciting.” Katy laughed as she drove. I watcher her a while, check out her pretty face, long brown hair that hung to her shoulder blades, and her deep blue eyes. “So, um, are you seeing anyone?” She laughed again.

“Mom said you had a lot of spirit.”

“So, are you?”

“Not at the moment.”

to be continued …