By J. Strauss
He said he’d been in Algiers, Algeria.
Algiers, Algeria. I asked him how a country could have a city named the same thing as the country, but he ignored me. He was smoking an ugly smelling foreign cigarette and wearing a pair of pants that were bloused into shiny black combat boots. Paratrooper boots.
“Why are you smoking those here? And why are you wearing those boots?”, I asked him, as we were standing in the foyer of an expensive restaurant right under a no smoking sign.
“Can’t stop”, as he blew out a big puff of obnoxious white smoke,
“It is bad, I know. I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop. The cigarettes, the boots, they make me feel right.” He stared at me, the smoke between us fading slowly away, before finishing our discussion with a question.
“I’m alright”, he asked in a deep French accent, and then stared for seconds before going on, “Aren’t I?”
I’d been a child when that chance meeting happened. I have never forgotten the man, nor the haunted look hidden in his deep black eyes. But it was the tone of his voice that had indelibly burned what he’d said into my young mind. The mysterious message was a dark tone of pathos driven despair. The tone had riveted my attention, like the deep single play of a very low piano note.
Although I have not forgotten that time, I also never associated with it.
I looked down at my own boots, so many years later. Desert boots. The good ones, the ones with inserts. Not like the old French Paratrooper boots. His had been polished to a high shine. My desert boots would never know the touch of anything except a brush. They were the most comfortable things I’d ever worn on my feet, which was why I always wore them. Sitting alone on the park bench, my long legs sprawled out before me, I breathed out slowly, watching smoke play down over my body and feet between gusts of the wind. I ground out the cigarette, not even half done, on the stone handle of the bench support.
It has been years since the war. The wars. First Vietnam, then Desert Storm, and finally Afghanistan, with some little inconsequential actions in between. I’d been tested several times for post-traumatic stress. I didn’t have it. Not even a touch of it.
But I couldn’t get the Algerian-serving Foreign Legionnaire from my mind.
Had that old guy from Algeria killed any of his own men? Out of pure necessity?
Because they were too badly wounded to get Medevac’d in time, or because they were going to kill the commanding officer for their opinion of his poor leadership (the C.O. being me)? Had that guy been shot, knifed and fragged? Had that guy spent a full year in the hospital, being told he would likely die at any moment, being force-fed with morphine until informed he was an addict, and then delivered back to his family wherein they walked right by him at the airport because he was a mere shadow of what he once had been?
No, I would have bet not. The poor son-of-a-bitch probably had seen some people killed, their guts left drying in the sun. The French Two-Rep bastard had probably shot a few people and then had them ask him why he had done that while they died in front of him. Not exactly tough stuff. Not normal stuff, but not that bad, in the scheme of such things, either. French Paratroopers of the Legion were notoriously emotional anyway. They fought at the drop of a hat, or Kepi in their case, at the least insult, not like Marines at all.
United States Marines could take it. Whatever it was. Oooorah, was the expression. It said it all. One Marine to another. Marines against the world. Screw the Army of One thing. It was Marine Corps. All the way, up the hill, and on to the next one.
A film was out called American Sniper. What a joke. Who the hell is dumb enough, in the modern world, to think you can figure out whether a bad guy is a bad buy over a mile away? Nobody. Blow the fools in place and move on. Done all the time. Just the way it is. If you’re in a war zone and don’t know it then you are dead by the time you find out. If you are in a war zone and know it then don’t stick your head up. Boom. Problem over. Marines alive and everyone else dead.
The movie should have been made with all Marines, and it should have been called Trouble City. The City of Hurt. The City of Pain. A place where real Marines spend time, knowing they are cutting years from the sentence they would have to spend in purgatory. Living after combat is extra time combat Marines are not entitled to. That precious extra time has to be spent doing something worthwhile.
I shifted uncomfortably on the bench, looking down at my watch.
I had twenty minutes before I went on. I was going to give a speech in front of a bunch of people, about life. About truth, lies, justice and mythology. I’d somehow become an expert at coming home from wars. And here I was sitting on a park bench looking out over the Santa Fe downtown plaza, wearing an expensive suit, desert combat boots and smoking a cigarette. Smoking was totally stupid, with what was known about lung cancer and all, and I knew it. The boots were so out of place with the suit, and the setting, that they didn’t bear thinking about.
I field stripped the cigarette. I tossed its remnants into the cooling winds of early autumn. They flitted away across the worn grass surface of the park. I was wearing the boots and smoking because those things made me feel somehow better. There was no worthwhile. That was mythology. I closed my eyes, trying to keep the real world from spinning around me.
I felt the wind sweep across my body, then die to a sudden stillness. I looked up to see a small child passing by on the sidewalk, holding his mother’s hand. Our eyes met.
“I am all right, aren’t I?” I asked him in a whisper too quiet to be heard, but the boy just looked back at me in silence, his eyes large, following my own as he passed by.
After reading several episodes, I realize I need to wait and read the book. It was a bit unnerving reading “chapters” every few days. I believe I can better handle spending a few days with a complete book.
Seems like forever, but should have First 10 days finalized in paperback and Kindle by the 20th of March
Sitting in the waiting room to be fitted for a new pair of hearing aides, guy sits next to my corner seat, had the EGA and Vietnam Vet pin. I asked him when he was there, he replied “Last night”. I said “Me too” Semper Fi Lt.
A few guys have written this rejoinder, which is a terrific one. Yes, last night.
Of course, last night. I have been to the VA a few times. It is always interesting to see what guys wear there.
Thanks for the story and it sure does get attention of us all who were there ‘last night.’
I have held back this comment. I served 4 1/2 yrs as Medic in Air Force 72-77. When I got out, I worked 1 1/2 years for Navy while doing some elective classes while waiting to get into nursing school. After working for a short while, I got into Surgical ICU position at VA. I have done a lot of ICU, ER & other types of nursing. Your stories resonate with me because I spent a lot of time fighting for people’s lives, babies & children being the worst. Some lazy snitch makes work even harder. We couldn’t kill or get rid of them. Regrets? Plenty. Did I miss something, should I have choked that dr. to get him/her to listen? Would they have lived if I had tried harder or worked longer? Nurses always have those certain scenarios they remember. Oh, the point is “scrubs”. I feel comfortable in surgical scrubs. Even though I am retired, I volunteer at a local VA Hospital & feel best in scrubs. Oh, & shoes must be comfortable at all times.
Well, Cathy…having come through the ‘system’ for more than a year of hospitals and treatment back
at the time, I can only say that my feelings about people like you, as you’ve risked telling on here,
knows no bounds. My senior nurse, or whatever the title was at the time, was Cathy in ICU at
Yokosuka. When I was transported back to CONUS she leaned down and said to me: “I know what you’ve done
and how you’ve handled the result and I want to tell you as a woman that I know your wife made the right
decision in you.” I left that place with a smile on my face. Under drugs for several months I’d babbled on
to her about things I could never remember. I was so happy not to have violated her belief in me or the care
she gave me right up to the last second. Thank you Cathy, for putting us Humpty Dumpty characters back together
again and yes, the cost is not dissimilar from the one we’ve paid following such harrowing conduct…
Don’t mean to babble on but nurses seem to fight for the sick, poor or hungry till they can no longer go on. A great nurse friend of mine worked well up into 80’s. Just died at 93. Another great friend I had, also deceased, was a WWII for the Japanese Navy. She & fellow nurses were captured by the Americans. So the nurses shaved their heads & put on men’s uniforms to fool the Americans. After her release, they gave her a pair of men’s army boots which were way too big. She was short but due to malaria & dysentery weighed only 40lbs on her release back to Japan. Her town was leveled & she had a hard time finding family among the tents. No one recognized her because she was so thin. She managed to fall in love with an American soldier, marry, & come to America. She was a great surgical nurse with a great sense of humor. Her name was Mitsu. We worked together in our side job of being camp nurses for underprivileged children from the city.
You can ‘bubble over’ here as much as you want Cathy. Thanks for the story about the nurses
in WWII. Wow. Now that’s a story worthy of cinema!
Thanks for being what you are and doing what you have done.
Appreciate you for liking the story and commenting here.
No matter where we are, no matter how far we’ve come from that place, we’re still that one step, the one sound, or that one scent away. Unlike you, I read, your writing brings it all ball back, maybe it’s good that it does, I might be able to put some of it away and I thank you for that. I have carried since 69, a passage from the Aeneid by Homer that says that because i am freshly back from the horrors of war, I am unfit to carry those things holy, I pray that it will pass some day and I’ll able to burn it and put it to rest, til then I go on, what else is there?
If Homer meant the word holy to mean; having a spiritually clean character, which is the way some dictionaries define the word,
then you are never going to be holy again my friend. You have been and will remain unclean, unless you search and find a religion
out there that lies enough to include you among the clean and sainted. You are down here with us, not exactly damned (NED) but you know what
I mean. Those times God visited us over there in actions, not words. That missed bullet, the fragments that claimed nearby buddies, the
right direction when there was no way….that sort of visiting. That first spotting round coming in spot on! Whom would have thought.
Anyway, once again Felix, you lay it down here with a measure butter knife, the rich texture of the edible resin in your words fit for the most
discerning of consumption.
Semper fi, my friend,
I’ve been browsing online more than 2 hours today, yet I
never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for
me. In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you
did, the net will be a lot more useful than ever before.
Thanks Christine. The spam filter said that you are spam, but your words did not seem to indicate that.
Let’s find out. What does spam do if you reply to it? Offer me a special deal on something?
Thanks for the compliment, if you meant it. If you are not a robot.