Ghosts of the undying soldier
He wears a campaign hat just like my DI
Instead of stripes, he wears a badge and stares out the police car window asking if I know it’s against the law to hitch hike in New Jersey.
I tell him I guess I do.
I’m on pass between assignments, I tell him, waiting for AIT to start down at Fort Bragg, the first step in a long march that will lead across the United States and eventually to Vietnam.
He says he fought in “the big one” but the law is the law and tells me to get in the car.
I ask if I’m busted.
He laughs and says he’s giving me a ride to the beach, though cautions me about getting my hopes up about finding any ass there.
This is 1969.
Soldiers don’t rank the way they did in his day, and girls look for muscle and money, and despite my surviving basic training, I got very little of either.
He hums and old battle hymn as he steers the police cruiser down Route 37 towards the sea.
The air is cool for August, but the sun through the windshield is hot.
I sweat, wishing I had worn shorts instead of my weathered grunt uniform.
I itch but fear to scratch.
I didn’t even bring a bathing sit, just a pr of cut off jeans I have stashed in my bag.
I came to find a girl I knew from up north, a little tease named Susie Brett, whose name I couldn’t find in the phone book. So I headed towards the beach instead.
The cop stopped me instead.
He seems sad about me. He says he has a son who served. He says this in the past tense. I don’t ask about where his son is or what he is doing because I already know.
He asks if I am “regular army.”
I say yes, telling him I didn’t want to get dragged into the jungle the way the drafted boys do.
He says his son thought the same thing, then lets that sentence die as well.
We pass through familiar landscape, over ground my family has marched since my grandfather built his first bungalow here following “the big one” more than two decades earlier.
While the cop grumbles over the hippies and surfers that walk the sandy roadside, I see the ghosts of my family walking instead, sunburned faces still full of joy I can no longer believe in.
The cop drives me across the bay bridge then right up to the boardwalk, where he lets me out., grabbing my arm before I can escape.
“Be careful out there,” he tells me.
I assure him I will and watched him leave, his gaze locked on me in the rearview mirror as if he is looking back at someone who is not me, a ghost of someone he will never see again.