Tag Archives: Short Story

Ah, ha, ha, ha stayin’ alive

March 12, 1978.

I spent the late winter Sunday in the Burtrum Hills, west of Upsala, Minnesota.  My dad was in his mid-fifties, and he and mom had not yet retired to the snowbird’s life.  So, if you live in Minnesota in the wintertime, you either hibernate or you adopt a wintertime hobby—snowmobiling & ice fishing were two of dad’s favorites, but that winter he spent making wood.  He bought stumpage rights to a 40 acre parcel of hardwoods.  Now, there was no practical reason why he made wood—after all, his business was as the fuel oil distributor in Upsala—but it was something to do to stay active.

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

We brought a six-pack along, as always.   Dad would work the chain saw, and I would split logs.  Then I would gather the lopped off small branches and heave them atop the bonfire started earlier with glugs of fuel oil.  Flames must have leaped twenty feet in the air.  His transistor radio blared the number one song of the day by the Bee Gees.

Well you can tell
by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man
no time to talk
Music loud and women warm
I’ve been kicked around
since I was born

I had my own wintertime hobby.  And summertime too.  I drank.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

We finished up as the red sun dipped behind a stand of white pine.  We covered some of the gear with a canvas tarp and piled ourselves into his pickup.  Mom had chili cooked back in Upsala, which I washed down with a couple more beers.  Soon my wife, six-month old baby daughter, and I headed to our own home along the Mississippi River north of St. Cloud.

And now it’s all right, it’s ok
and you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Lynn put Karin to bed while I chipped some ice for a Beefeater’s martini.  I was a classy drunk.  I only drank the best.  I rolled a joint.  Before long, I was exquisitely high, and Lynn looked away.  She knew it was pointless to say anything.

I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

But this night was different.  I had a secret plan.

Whether you’re a brother
or whether you’re a mother
you’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin
and everybody shakin’
and were stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

The next morning, I went early to work as a young associate at the leading St. Cloud law firm, and I placed a letter on the senior partner’s desk.  Then I drove a few blocks to the St. Cloud hospital where Karin had been born the previous fall.  The lady at the information desk said the Alcohol & Chemical Dependency unit was on 2 South.

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

The folks at the nurse’s station weren’t quite sure what to do with me.  They didn’t usually get Monday morning walk-ins in pin stripe suits.  I called Lynn and told her where I was.  She came as soon as she could arrange a babysitter, and my boss showed up too.

Well now I get low and I get high
And if I can’t get either, I really try
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes
I’m a dancin man and I just can’t lose

You know it’s all right, it’s ok
I’ll live to see another day
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Life goin’ nowhere
somebody help me
Somebody help me, yeah
I’m stayin’ alive…

That was thirty-four years ago, and I’m still clean and sober.  Saplings that we left on the slopes that day are pretty high by now.  Karin’s three years sober herself.

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

Eleven Eleven Eleven

The eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year happens once a century.  On November 11, 1911, the progressive former President Teddy Roosevelt was discovering that the increasingly conservative Republican Party no longer welcomed his moderate views about regulating corporations.  Hmmm.

Coincidentally, today is also Veteran’s Day, which derives from the signing of the peace at the conclusion of WWI on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.

Romeo 18I don’t remember Veterans Day in 1969, and I doubt whether my fellow soldiers in Vietnam paid much attention.  By then, the drawdown of troops had begun even as the war protests in the US accelerated.  On November 3rd, President Nixon had delivered his famous “silent majority” speech, and on November 15th, over a quarter million protesters descended upon Washington for the largest anti-war protest in US history.  Just as we were oblivious to Veteran’s Day, my comrades in K Company Rangers stationed at Camp Enari near Pleiku paid little attention to speeches and protests back home.  We had more immediate issues, and for us the geo-political ramifications of the war were of little concern.  It was around that time in 1969 that Ranger team 18 was formed—call sign Romeo one eight–consisting of (left to right) Billy Powers, yours truly, Mark Estopare, and Gary Heald.  The four of us stayed together as a team for four or five months.

Prowl paperbackSome of you know that I have published five short stories based upon our experiences, and today I announce the release of a compilation of the five in a book entitled Prowl.  Prowl is available as a Kindle eBook or paperback here, or in other eBook formats here.

The title is based upon the following passage:

Survival depended upon stealth. The black and brown stripes smeared across our faces matched our tiger fatigues, and we prowled silently and slowly. Unseen and unheard, we would be hunter and not hunted.

In slow motion, I lifted my combat boot over a rotting branch and gingerly stepped to the soft ground on the opposite side. Momentarily straddling the fallen limb, I scanned the brush from left to right before dropping my gaze to the forest floor ahead to plan for my next footfall. When I was satisfied, I shifted my weight forward and lifted my trailing foot over the branch. Again and again, the methodical process was repeated as I silently crept through tall ferns, low-hanging vines, and suspended air plants of a mountain valley in the central highlands of Vietnam. Behind me in five to ten yard intervals, my three Ranger teammates mimicked my actions. LRRPs on patrol.

We stalked men from the north, soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, searching for signs of their highways or hooches, hidden from the eyes of our helicopters by triple canopy jungle. But who stalked us?

In the branches above, a noisy flock of flycatchers bobbed and weaved for bugs, while the seed-eating finches flitted here and there in the low grass and brush; the birds didn’t notice us nor we them. Birdsongs and chattering squirrels said all was as it should be; silence would sound an alarm.

Memorial Day Memories

Allow a post of personal privilege.

My Dad was a Navy vet of WWII, a “Tin Can Sailor” who served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  His ship narrowly avoided diving kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa and later sailed into Tokyo Harbor as part of the fleet that would accept Japanese surrender.  His ship was the 2nd in line and entered in full alert, the crew manning their battle stations, unsure if the promise of surrender was just a ruse.  Growing up, I remember well the Japanese carbines and bayonets he had returned with as souvenirs.

Upsala mapI also remember well the Memorial Day parades down main street of small town America in the days of Ike and Elvis and my dad’s snappy new Chevy Impala with air-conditioning and a continental kit on the trunk.  The American Legion led the way, bearing arms and carrying the flag, and there was my dad.  A church had a big patch of grassy lawn right next to the general store, and that’s where the Legion ended up for a twenty-one gun salute.

“Ready, arms!”

“Ready, aim!”

“Ready, fire!”

Three times the squad fired blanks into the sky over the roof of the general store.  As soon as the Legionnaires would march away, the young boys, including my brother and me, would rush onto the lawn to claim the spent shell casings.  One of those boys I grew up with would later became a Major General.

I ended up a buck sergeant, E-5, and I spent Memorial Day 1970 in base camp near An Khe in the central highlands of Vietnam, waiting impatiently for the last couple days to pass before my return to Minnesota at the completion of my tour of duty.  There would be plenty of friendly faces to greet my return: my fiancé (we’ll celebrate our 40th anniversary in a few weeks), Mom and Dad, my two younger sisters, but not my brother who was embarking on his own tour of duty in Vietnam.  Our reunion would come later.

I remember my arrival in Fort Lewis, Washington, and the call home.  Mom couldn’t talk, she just sobbed.  After preliminary processing, I went to the 24-hour steak house and ate my welcome-home steak alone.  After more processing, I was finally on my way to Sea-Tac airport and a standby ticket on a Northwest jet to Minneapolis.  The plane was barely half-full, and a young woman asked to sit next to me although she could have sat anywhere.  She bought me a drink and thanked me for my service and listened to my stories until I drifted off to sleep.

Readjustment was not difficult for me, but jet lag was.  I remember waking up about 4 am and riding a bike around the deserted streets of Hopkins, Mn where I was staying with my fiancé who lived with her sister.  The sunrise was glorious as the neighborhood came alive.  But I was angry later when we visited a Sears store, and I saw plastic guns, replica M-16s, in the toy department.  War was not a game for kids to play.

I also remember two events back home in Upsala.  Dad took me to a regular meeting of his Lion’s Club.  When I was introduced, they gave me a standing ovation.  Bud, the small-town grocer, was the first to stand.  I gave the eulogy at Bud’s funeral a couple of years ago.  Two guys from Upsala died in the Vietnam war.  The funeral for Jerry Kalis occurred that June while I was home on leave, and I attended in my dress uniform.  I had attended the funeral for Jim Theisen before I entered the service.

Thanks for listening to my memories.  Click here for a prior post about Memorial Day and here for more info about my service as a Ranger (LRRP) and the short stories I have been writing the past couple of months.

UPDATE: I HAVE CREATED A SEPARATE WEBSITE ENTITLED “LRRPS OF VIETNAM”, AND I HAVE ALSO PUBLISHED FIVE SHORT STORIES BASED ON MY NAM EXPERIENCE.  THE SHORT STORIES, ENTITLED PROWL ARE AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK FOR $6.99 OR PAPERBACK FOR $9.95.