The year was 1963. We were young and naive. We were full of wild oats. We celebrated the moment and we were bad. Yeah, right. Our lives revolved around girls, cars and booze, though not necessarily in that order. A car to drive along with freedom of time and space led to many a night of drunken revelry. This one was no different.
It was quiet on the back streets of Charleston at one in the morning in those days. Our town was a backwater village of quiet Southern simplicity. A time of order that would be shattered in the years to come. Now? Only we shattered the calm as we whipped around the corner on two wheels, tires crying out in squeals of agony accompanied by laughter from the four occupants bouncing in our seats. The car had slammed back onto four wheels only to jump again when I hit a garbage can lid lying in the street.
"Watch out, dipstick! How you expect me to drink outta the bottle if you keep whipping around corners and hittin' bumps where ever you see 'em?"
"Sorry. Didn't see the lid. You finished with that bottle?" I asked reaching into the back seat.
"Hell no. I ain't even started." I could see J... lifting the pint to his lips in the rear view.
"Well save me some! I bought the damn stuff!" Clyde had shown me around town one Saturday afternoon. All the shops that sold a bottle under the counter were on his route. Some of the shops were in areas I'd have been scared to enter. He felt no such fear. Why should he? He knew everyone by their first name. The place I frequented was on Wentworth. It was a news stand. Clyde usually parked in front and I ran in to purchase the Calverts Extra for the two of us. The guy behind the counter was always amenable to my money and Clyde's wave from the curb. I often went there without him as I had the previous evening to get us this pint that J... was hogging in the back seat.
"So what if you bought it?" J... yelled back at me. "Your're drivin'. You don't need it."
"I can always stop the car and you can walk." I knew that was the wrong thing to say but it just popped out. J... lowered the bottle, looked directly into my eyes in the rear view and said, "Yeah? you gonna make me?" He smiled knowing the answer.
I had slowed down to make my threat more valid but seeing his smile and movement toward the front I threw it into second and hit the accelerator. The momentum slammed him back into the seat.
"Yeah, I thought so," he said after which he took a long pull of the bottle. I watched the amber liquid lower in the upturned bottle. He stopped with a choke and cough covering his mouth and shoving the bottle into his neighbor's hand.
"Smooooth," he coughed.
"Come on guys hand it here. I should get a slug."
"Yeah we know," said G...
"You bought it!" they said in unison.
From G.... it went to I... and then to me. I eyed it as it was placed in my hand. It was enough to give me a buzz. Upending it my eyes closed with the burn in my throat.
I opened my eyes. I hit the brake. The car squealed to a stop in the center of the deserted street.
'What? What is it?"
"There! That fellow needs help."
"Come on! Let's go help him!" The doors squeaked open but G... said, "Wait."
We all looked at the intersection as we leaned on the doors half in and half out of the car. There under the street lamp in front of the wall that shown the girl sitting on the crescent moon advertising Miller Beer was one soldier surrounded by six burly miscreants. He was in a crouch watching them carefully as they closed in on him. His head moved from side to side as his body became a coiled spring. The circle of toughs moved slowly in his direction. One of them finally jumped at the soldier swinging his fist. We were rooted to the spot spellbound by the activity before us.
The soldier moved swiftly to the side and threw his fist with accurate speed. The crack of nose cartilage was like a firecracker. The attacker staggered back his hands over his face. The blood poured freely.
Two at his back stepped forward, their curses echoing off the Miller girl. The soldier's foot flashed around in an arc cracking their heads, laying them out. Their heads bounced on the pavement with loud reports and they crumpled on the asphalt.
We were speechless with amazement.
Three of the attackers were left. They looked at each other and charged.
The soldier popped the one on his left with the flat plane of five fingers to the windpipe. He backhanded the one to his right startling him and kicked high into the third's groin which sent him tumbling into the street clutching his groin. Four of them lay in agony. The two standing took off sprinting down the dark street.
It had taken a minute, a minute and a half.
We jumped out of the car and raced over to him. Like a wire recoiling he returned to his stance as he saw us approach. He shouted at us, "Come on you bastards! Come join your friends. I can take you all on and take your car there before you know what hit you."
'Whoa, man. We're not with them. We thought you needed help."
"Hell no, I don't need your help. I'm a f...ing Green Beret. I'm a f...ing trained killer. Why would I need your pansy ass help?"
We stood a ways back. He was drunk. Very drunk, but poised to unleash his training. It was apparent he didn't believe us.
"It's OK, really. Maybe we could give you a ride?
'Yeah," he said rising to his full height. He was about 5'9". His was a solid frame with a heavy chest and a slim waist. His arms were the result of much work with weights. He could have lifted me over his head I'm certain. His sleeves carried sergeant stripes. His tailored uniform was unpressed with his shirt tail half in and half out. He staggered as he took a step. As he gathered himself together, his foot lashed out connecting with the ribs of a moaning attacker. The man rolled into the gutter then lay silent.
"Sonofabitch," he mumbled. He began to search the ground with his eyes.
"Whatcha lookin' for?" I asked.
"My beret.. My green beret. I gotta find it," he mumbled as he stumbled around eyes to the ground.
"What does it look like?" I asked. "You from Paris, France?"
"Hell no, I ain't from Paris. Ain't you seen an army uniform before? Uncle Sam's finest," he continued to mumble. "It's a green beret. My headgear. Part of my uniform."
"Come on guys. Let's help him find his beret."
We mulled around the area looking for a green beret even though we had no idea what it was.
"Is this it?" I asked, holding up a dirty cap.
"No, that's not a beret. There. That's it over there." He was pointing to a pile of green cloth that was matted up against the wall. The girl sitting on the crescent moon holding a green bottle of beer looked down on us as we collected the bit of cloth and gave it to him.
"Thanks," he said beating it against his trouser leg. He brushed it off and stood up squaring his shoulders. He placed it on his head in a manner that reminded me of Napoleon crowning himself at his own coronation. Then he set it at an angle.
"Alright. Let's go." He marched off toward the car. His attackers had quietly removed themselves from the scene while we had searched for the beret.
"You hungry?" I asked.
"Hell yeah, I'm hungry! There some place to get some chow?" he looked at us quizzically. "I ain't found much in this town after midnight."
"Patio's always open," said G... as we piled into the car.
"You guys are alright," said the soldier as he took possession of the front seat. J..., G... and I... wedged into the back seat.
As I took off I decided to ask, "I know this is a stupid question, but what's a green beret?" That beret looked stupid to me. I wondered why all the fuss.
He looked at me with total disbelief.
"The Green Beret is the best of the best. He's trained to live off the land behind enemy territory. He's trained to kill and destroy the enemy. He's trained to to make those gook bastards piss their pants at the mere whisper of the words, Green Beret. You think Marines are tough? They are pansy asses compared to me and my brothers. We are the army's best, bar none.
"I could kill you with the flick of my wrist, pop the door handle and throw you out before your next breath. I'm the best."
I slid as close to the door as I could. I looked at him. He was sitting bolt upright, ramrod straight with eyes to the front. He was tightly wound and I didn't want to do anything to unwind him. But I did have a tendency to ask stupid questions.
"Have you killed anyone?" I stammered.
"Stupid question," he said staring forward. "Where's this grub you promised?"
We continued on in silence. One of my buddies offered him the bottle.
"Care for a drink," he asked.
"Thanks," said the soldier. He took it, downed the remainder then tossed the bottle out the window. It shattered on the pavement behind us. I punched the gas.
The Patio was a little ways up the street when I said, "There up ahead. The Patio and hamburgers the size of 45 records."
We began to breathe easier knowing we could unload this guy.. He was beginning to make me nervous.
I pulled up to the back door and stopped. We all climbed out. There weren't many customers inside this time of the morning but those who were there looked up to take in the uniform. There were some who smiled a bit when they saw the beret on the soldier's head. They were obviously as ignorant as I was.
The soldier took off his beret and folded it through his belt flashing a look of drunken anger at the smirkers.
"Got a problem over there, junior?" he asked looking at a high schooler sitting in the corner.
The guy's smile disappeared into a face filled with fear. He muttered no and turned to his friend.
"Stupid bastard," the soldier said as he sat.
"How's about a hamburger and some fries over here for our friend," J... yelled at the waitress. She nodded and turned to the cook who tossed a patty on the grill. "And a beer," J... added.
We sat in silence as the sound of sizzling hamburger blended with the music from the jukebox.
Finally, G... asked, "where are you stationed?"
"I been in Nam."
"Nam? Where's Nam?" I asked.
"Viet Nam! You fellas are the dumbest bunch I've ever run across. I been over there fighting a war and you dumb shits done't even know where it is. You don't appreciate shit."
He started to rise. The anger was turning his face red."
"Whoa, soldier." It was the owner coming over to the table.He was always there at the first sign of trouble.
"It's alright, friend. I brought you a beer. Maybe you could tell me about your tour of duty. I was in the last one. And Korea. I can sympathize. You're absolutely right about these dipshits. They don't know the first thing about soldiering. They don't appreciate your sacrifice because they're too busy drinkin' and lookin' for girls. Teenagers still in school are only good for two things, eatin' and shittin'. But me? I want to hear all you got to tell. That burger and beer are on me."
"Thank you, friend," said the soldier. His fists slowly unclinched, a smile crept onto his face and he relaxed in his seat taking the beer.
The waitress brought his food. The owner took it and moved to the table in the corner. The soldier followed. They began to swap war stories over table. The beer continued to flow as the owner waved the waitress over periodically.
We ordered cokes all around as we began to swap our own stories of female conquests and how drunk we'd been at the last school dance. Not once did Viet Nam come up in our conversation because we never watched the news that much. Last time we'd been glued to the TV set over news was the during of mourning days following the assassination of President Kennedy. News sucked. It was always bad and we had no use for it. The world was just opening up to us. We knew we were going to take it by storm when our chance came. This high school crap was the only thing holding us back. One more year and we'd be outta there and into the real world. We wouldn't be taking orders from anyone. We'd find a job we liked never to buckle down. We'd be free.
The reverie at our table came to a sudden halt as a piercing scream came from the corner. We all stopped and turned. The owner motioned for us to sit down and butt out. We did. The stillness was broken by sobs. They were coming from the corner.
"Oh God! I can't tell you the things I've done. The things they've done. It's horrible. Yes, I'm the best and I've proved it over and over. The last one...the last one...the kids....the kids..." The sentence broke off into heart wrenching sobs. "The kids..." his voice trailed off.
"What's he talking about?" one of us asked.
The soldier jumped up, his chair skidded into the wall. His face was wet with tears. He was set to come for us. The owner restrained by grabbing his forearm.
"You stupid bastards will know soon enough! You wait! Never heard of Viet Nam? You will. You will." His voice trailed off into sobs. The owner put his arm around him and looked at us. The sadness in his eyes spoke of things he had witnessed during his time in the army.
"Come on, son," said the owner. "Pull yourself together now."
"You don't understand. I've been over there a full tour. I'm here on leave. It's over tonight. I'm shipping back for a second tour. I...I don't want to go back. I can't go back. I'm afraid I'll never see the states again. It's too much. I can't go back..." His eyes pleaded with the owner. His hands gripped the owner's arms.
"Please...," he whispered.
"Alright, son. Alright. Here. Have another beer. Try to get hold of yourself. You have to do what you have to do. I did. I hated it. I never wanted to go. But there are times when we have to do what is right..."
"No! You don't understand. This isn't like your war. This is different. Totally different."
"War is war, son. We men have to carry our load. We have to do our duty. Come on now. Maybe you could use some coffee. I'll drive you back to the base myself. It'll be alright." The owner helped him back into his chair while signalling the waitress to bring coffee.
The soldier stared at the beer in his hand, then slid it away.
"Yeah, coffee. That'll make it right. I know. I have to go. I don't have a choice. You're right. It'll be fine."
His eyes were empty. It was as if he turned to a copse in front of us. His eyes became flat and lifeless, staring straight ahead. He lifted the coffee cup to his lips and sipped. He was no longer with us but back in the jungles we knew nothing of. He remained docile while he drank his coffee. When he'd finished, he stood pulling the beret from his belt. Once again he crowned himself, then pulled it to one side as he stood straight with pride. The Green Beret looked at the owner. He recovered his composure. His eyes remained haunted, however. He shuffled along side the owner who led him to his car. He opened the door to the passenger side. The soldier sat. The owner, sadness in his eyes, backed up , turned and left the parking lot.
We all looked at each other as if to say, 'What the hell was that all about?" but no one did.
The night was almost over. The sun had begun to spill its light in the east. The new day was dawning. A new awareness would soon creep into our lives. The times of high school with all its hardships and pleasures would come to an end in a year. Our lives would be impacted by that unknown country in the east just as the soldier had told us. He was whisked out of our lives to a fate unknown. I hope he returned from his second tour safely. We never saw him again. We never spoke of him again. But that night has always remained with me.