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Published: January 18th 2015
Karen and I left Maine and made it as far south as Carlisle Pennsylvania. We stayed at the Carlisle Barracks Army base which is a sort of living museum and the site of the US Army war college. After a comfortable night we did our morning workout in the same gymnasium where the Olympian; Jim Thorpe trained when he was a student at the Carlisle Indian school. The old building had been beautifully restored with historic photographs of early 20th-Century students lining the walls. We had a good workout but hardly felt Olympian when we left. Carlisle Barracks was a major surprise for us. A wonderful place with friendly people, good location and most importantly a bowling alley where Karen and I each played four games. I keep hitting the Boston pocket and my hook has gone to hell but I'm working on it.
We had a short drive to Cumberland where I was catching my train to Chicago. Karen was heading on to Garrett County to spend time with friends. Another vacation from the vacation. We'd been traveling for eleven months at this point. By late afternoon we were passing through the Hancock notch with the setting sun in
Once a major industrial hub due to its location on rail, canal and river trading routes. Today Cumberland, is one of the poorest statistical areas in the United States, ranking 305th out of 318 metropolitan areas in per capita income.
our eyes. The mountain ridges faded into the horizon in pales of blue.
It's 5:45 New Years eve and I'm standing in front of the Cumberland, Maryland train station. The platform consists of a concrete rectangle. A few plastic chairs are bolted to the slab. The AMTRAK Katrina-trailer waiting room is closed for the holiday. It's dusk and the temps are failing faster than the daylight. The cold is vice gripping my knuckles and the train isn't scheduled to arrive for another two hours and that's a best guess. It's AMTRAK. The crisp air tastes ferrous. I see a familiar light and tell Karen to head on out to her friends' place.
I drag my bags down a narrow flight of stairs lit by a single bare bulb and enter the local VFW. Holiday makers hang off the ancient wooden bar like exhausted seahorses. A wire rack against the faux wood-paneled wall is crammed with bags of chips and Cheetohs. A college bowl game plays on the TV but nobody is watching. A dry-erase board reads: Have A Safe Holiday. Each letter is drawn in a different color. The low-hanging acoustic tile ceiling is geographed with
Nice people, beautiful country, no work.
rust-brown water stains. In the dining room a dozen card-tables covered with paper American flag tablecloths sit unattended. I assume the dinner party is starting later. Dusty, framed black and white photographs of men in WWII uniforms hang haphazardly around the rooms. A large, beautiful mural entitled 'Ft. Cumberland' sits brightly illuminated behind protective glass panels. In it, two bewildered Indians look out over a river at a log fort atop a small grassy hill. On the river, white men fish from rowboats with long cane poles. The painting's gold-hued sky is swirled in wispy cloud.
They're playing old country music through the speakers. It's homey. The place smells of C-ration Chesterfields and stale beer.
At the racetrack-shaped bar, a pair of bottle-nosed Wallace Beery lookalikes tend to the mostly elderly crowd. Pittsburgh Steeler jackets abound. Beat to shit and back veterans wearing baseball caps embroidered with the units they served in and dates of deployment, sit hunched over bottles of beer. Their heads are pulled tightly down into their shoulders. They tear at lottery tickets that they purchase by the fistful from the barkeeps who deal them out of little plastic hamburger baskets. Every few minutes one
of the bartenders sweeps the bar of discards with a thick forearm. The floors are littered with brown and white paper slips. The men at the bar eye me in-between tickets. The room feels very warm and very dry. A few painted ladies clog a corner of the rail. They window shop the available men while they sip Tequila Sunrises through short, brown swizzle-sticks.
A foamy glass of Coors is thunked down in front of me. Wallace Beery number one leans across the scarred bar resting on his elbows. His pumpkin-sized head is comfortably cradled in two broad, calloused palms. His flattened fingertips are drumming away at his gray temples. He asks me about my military service.
What branch were you in son?
Army I reply.
What was your MOS?
92 Bravo. Med tech. I took an ambitious pull from the beer and winced. My teeth were frosty tuning forks. The bartender stared at me like my Dad used to.
He leaned back off his elbows and gave the bar a perfunctory wipe with a tattered rag. When I pulled a bill out of my pocket he waved me off.
Your money's no
good here. We're happy to have you. The Chicago train is always late. I'll let you know when it gets here. And if it don't get here there's a cot in the office you can have. He looked dead serious. Let me know if you're hungry. We got stuff. We talk for a minute before he starts away. I heft the stony hand he proffers when we shake. He moves down the rail towards the ladies, leading with his basket.
An old woman, three sheets to the wind, leans carefully over the empty stool that separates us and tells me that she's from Danville, Illinois. She's wearing an old platinum wedding set. Her penciled eyebrows are a matched set of St. Louis arches A wizened man in a red satin cap and jacket sits beside her. His eyes are focused on something inside his beer bottle. His lips are pursed. He looks like he's doing math in his head and doing it badly.
Dick Van Dyke is from Danville she tells me. Her eyes look misty to me or maybe her cat-lady glasses are dirty. The lenses are as thick as Karen's Grandma Jane's were. Jerry Van Dyke
is from Danville too! Her enthusiasm is swelling with the telling. Gene is from Danville. Her statement hangs in the air like ash. Gene who?, the man sitting next to her asks. He's still staring into his bottle. He wears a sharp-toothed rat's grin. He's run this game before. She chews on her knuckle for an uncomfortably long moment. She looks as if she's going to start crying for the loss of the memory. Don't worry I shush her. I'll look it up on the internet. She brightens up. You do that she says. He's a famous actor. My old girlfriend's daughter's cousin used to date him. She really liked him.
A small attractive woman appears between us and leans over the empty bar stool. Dick Van Dyke's acquaintance looks miffed with the interloper but she doesn't have any fight left in her. Are you the one who's going to Chicago, the new lady asks. I nod. I heard that you were stationed in Germany. I look towards the end of the room where the bartender is holding court over a huddle of drinkers.
My husband was in Germany she tells me. He went to Germany after he
left Vietnam. He liked Germany but he doesn't talk about Vietnam very much. Her eyes are as bright and hard as steel nails. I asked her name. I'm Debby Golden Eyes I hear her say. My husband's name is Lloyd. We're sitting over there and she presses a manicured finger at the airspace above the talkative bartender. Come over if you can. She half smiles at me when I shake her hand as if I'm doing something quaint.
Wallace Beery looks over and points to the tap. I shake my head and loft the nearly full glass before me. He gives me a thumbs up. The painted girls have locked onto me and they're squirming around in their seats like they're about to become ambulatory. I grab my bags and slide down the wall to the end of the room just past Ft. Cumberland. There I find Debby Golden Eyes and Lloyd. Lloyd is a good looking guy. Stylish Marylander in a Harris tweed jacket and a matching Fedora. Leather patches on the elbows. Probably has a library card.
We talk about his days in Germany outside Stuttgart. Then we talk about Nam. He was a truck driver there in '68. Hauling supplies from Cam Rahn Bay up to the central highlands. He used to go to Buon Ma Thuot a lot. He liked Buon Ma Thuot. He'd run a 5-Ton in a fast moving convoy of two hundred vehicles from the port going north through Nha Trang and then up into the mountains. He said that he'd thought about going back to see Buon Ma Thuot but didn't think he ever would. Too old.
We talked about my time there. What I had seen. The Marines living in Danang. Lloyd was surprised at that. American Vets living there voluntarily. He liked the idea of it. I told him about the people. Their friendliness. Lloyd softened. Do they ever give you a hard time he asked. And before I could begin to answer he went on. I killed one of them, he blurts out. He was on a bike. A young guy. Went right in front of me. I felt it. Every truck behind me ran over him too but I was the first one. I think it was my fault. His voice fades to a whisper. I think on that a lot now. Debby Golden Eyes is hugging up Lloyd's arm and sobbing softly through clenched eyes. News to her. Lloyd doesn't talk about Vietnam very much. Debby loves Lloyd very much.
I pulled out my laptop and showed them pictures from Nha Trang and Buon Ma Thuot and Saigon and all of the other places and people Karen and I have seen and met in Vietnam. Lloyd asked for my e-mail and I his and Debby wrote down their address and their name which is Debby and Lloyd Geldeneisen and then the bartender shouts out; Lucky day son! Your train is here. I grabbed up my bags and hauled ass, pausing at the Cheetohs to wave goodbye to Debby and Lloyd who were waving back brightly from in-front of the mural. Their eyes all aglow with Fort Cumberland fire.
It's a new year. Anything can happen.
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