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Spearfish Lake Tales
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Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 24

After I got back to college I didn’t tell Cat about my idea right away, mostly because at that point it was just an idea and I wasn’t sure yet that I’d be interested in it. It was Vietnam, after all, with all that implied, and at the tail end of 1967 it didn’t imply anything good even if I hadn’t known what was to come.

But that red-haired girl with her lovely smile kept popping up in my mind. It had been the face of hope to me as well as to a lot of other guys, and in some way I couldn’t quite explain I felt like I ought to pay her back a little for the favor she had done for me.

Maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad, I thought. Again going back into Joe’s memories, I had met a handful of guys who had kept extending in Vietnam mostly because they liked it there. Yes, the place was hot, dirty, and primitive; even the nicest places in Saigon weren’t all that nice and much of it was a squalid oriental slum. Things were even worse elsewhere. But for a few people, it had a taste of adventure; the booze was cheap and the dope was even cheaper if you were into that thing, and some guys were. Up until the point of Tet, anyway, the Saigon area had been relatively safe, although GI’s were often reminded that there were bad guys out there in Indian country. I remember one older sergeant telling me that he hadn’t been home in five years and didn’t plan on going home anytime soon since the money was good and he was just as happy to not have his wife yelling at him.

Besides, I rationalized, being there in the USO might not be nearly the same thing as being there in the Army. On top of that, I wouldn’t be driving a truck. Post-Tet Saigon might not be quite as safe as it had been pre-Tet, but from what I remembered of the news in those years – not much – it might be fairly safe.

It was a week before I heard back from the USO in Washington. They sent me a “thank you for your interest” form letter, along with a couple of brochures. Yes, the money was good – $7200 annually to start. (I know it doesn’t sound like much today, but after fifty years of inflation that would have been close to $50,000 a year – not bad money for a girl not yet out of college.) It was especially good in that most living expenses like room and board were covered. In addition, they had free rest and relaxation opportunities quarterly to various Asian cities because of the stress levels; most soldiers only got one annually.

But there were some other things that made it seem less attractive. For example, there were United Service Organization Canteens in other places besides Saigon; they were all over the country, and some were in places that had the reputation of being a lot nastier than the capital. Applicants had to sign up for a minimum of eighteen months, which would be awkward at best and probably impossible considering the starting date at Université de Lancy-Paquis. Worse, we had to be college graduates, and the minimum age was twenty-four, and they wanted to have people with experience in recreation, entertainment, or food service. From what I could see that did a pretty good job of killing it.

However, I thought about it for a while. If that long-ago GI that Joe remembered had been correct, the USO was hurting for people to fill those jobs, so they might be willing to bend the rules a little. After another day of thinking about it, I gathered up a pocket full of quarters, hiked down to the gas station where there was a pay phone, and called the USO headquarters in New York.

I got punted around to a couple of different offices before I found someone who I could talk to about it; she sounded like a secretary to me, and I never got her name. After explaining my problem with the admission date in Switzerland, the woman said that it was one point where they might be willing to bend the rules a little, but that the age and college graduate thing probably was a little too much to swallow.

“Darn,” I told her. “It seems like a good thing to be doing.”

“I think it is,” she said. “I spent eighteen months at the USO Canteen in Da Nang. It was very hard, but it was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. In spite of all the demonstrations and horse manure you hear from the anti-war crowd today, I think it was worth every minute.”

“Yeah, I’m a little tired of hearing all that stuff myself,” I agreed. “My brother is in Vietnam right now, but he’s getting short. He tells me that the USO girls have given him hope to keep on going.”

“That’s what we were supposed to do,” she replied. “Sometimes it’s very hard, but often you can look back and see that you’ve made a great difference in people’s lives.”

“Yeah, well, I guess it’s not going to happen for me.”

“Just a second,” she replied. There was a brief pause, and when she came back to the phone her voice was lower and guarded as if she didn’t want someone to overhear. “Try the Red Cross in Washington,” she said. “They do most of the same stuff we did, but a little different. I know they’re hurting for people as bad as we are, and their minimum age is twenty-one. They don’t want as long a tour, and they might be willing to give you a break on the college graduate requirement.”

“You don’t say,” I smiled, my hope springing back into life. “You wouldn’t happen to have an address, would you?”

 It was another week and a half before the brochure from the Red Cross showed up. Yes, my unknown friend in the New York office of the USO had been correct about a lot of things – the requirements were just a little bit looser, enough that I could qualify if they bent the rule about college graduation. They did much the same thing as the USO girls I remembered. Like the USO, they had locations in most countries where American troops were stationed, not just Vietnam, although it was clear that most of the interest was directed there.

This had potential.

Up until this point I had kept my inquiries from Cat, mostly because they were just inquiries, and I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the idea.

At that time the anti-war sentiment was reaching new levels, and as Joe I remembered that things were just getting started in comparison to what was to come. Since as Joe I hadn’t been fully aware of what was happening in the States, but I remembered that 1968 had been a crazy year and I was just as happy to spend most of it safe in Germany, where there wasn’t rioting in the streets. Not that Europe was that safe, since Paris was shut down in the summer for student protests. It was not a good time for a visit there – that was for sure.

Cat and I didn’t talk about the anti-war protests very much; for the most part, they were far away, something happening elsewhere. We had heard some griping about the draft around climber campsites earlier in the summer, but many of the climbers were enough older that the draft was no longer a factor in their lives. We never heard much about it on the campus at Venable, mostly because it was a conservative kind of place where such attitudes were not necessarily appreciated. In fact, at that time I would have to say it was more pro-war than anti-war, although there were certainly some guys around who were only attending college because it gave them a student deferment from the draft. With a little luck and possibly marriage and a kid or two it could be a permanent deferment.

We were, however, aware of the protests, and attempts to evade the draft. Jerry Sawyer, one of my high school classmates who thought he was such hot stuff, was currently living in Alberta to avoid the draft, which in my mind proved that he was the jerk I had always thought he was anyway.

It was getting close to the Christmas break, and it was time to let Cat in on my thinking so she could be considering it over the holidays. “Cat,” I said, “I think I’ve come up with a job that would do what we want it to do.”

“You have?” she said. “What is it?”

“Working for the Red Cross,” I told her, and handed her the brochures. “It probably wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world, but the pay is good.”

She glanced them over quickly. “Jo,” she said after a moment, “this says the job could be in Vietnam. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?”

“It’s a country in Southeast Asia,” I told her. “Hot, humid, full of soldiers. We haven’t been there yet.” Well you haven’t, I amended silently.

“Jo, you have led me into some crazy things, but this is absolutely the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. Don’t you know there’s a war going on there?”

“Sure there’s a war going on there. That’s why it’s full of soldiers that need to be reminded once in a while that there’s a home waiting for them. Remember that guy we met in London? He had it good by comparison. I’ve talked to a woman who did the job, and she said it’s one of those things that need to be done. She said that it’s more uncomfortable than it is dangerous.”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I think it would take more guts than I have.”

“Cat,” I said. “Did you have guts enough to climb up the shoulder of El Cap with me? Or some of those goofy climbs Pat and Dick led us on in the Black Canyon? Those take a lot of guts, Cat. You and I have courage, and we are good at evaluating risks. From what I’ve been able to find out, the risk is acceptable. Like I said, the place is hot, humid, dirty, and uncomfortable. But there are half a million guys there who need to be reminded of what they’re fighting for. Not glory, not necessarily their country, but for their homes and their families. Joey tells me that sometimes it takes a woman’s voice to keep them going. I think it’s our duty to provide that voice.”

“That wouldn’t exactly be a popular thing for us to do,” she shook her head. It was clear to me that she wasn’t very interested in the deal, but the more I had thought about it the more I realized that it was the good thing, the right thing, to do. Cat and I may have been the best of friends, a better friend than I’d ever had in either of my lives, but I had by now come to the conclusion that I would go it alone if I had to. It may have been more Joe making that decision than Joan, but that was the way it was.

“No, it wouldn’t,” I agreed. “But how many women did you see climbing on El Cap? And how many of them did you see standing on the ground, looking up at us and thinking that we had to be out of our heads?”

“Hell if I know. I wasn’t looking down. I was mostly looking up at your ass leading us up the wall. Right now I think I’m doing it again.”

“But we got to the top, didn’t we?”

I think we kicked it around for hours. I tried to give her my impression of the idea without letting my Joe memories influence things very much, and that was hard. But I think I made the point that fewer and fewer people were giving the guys on the ground the respect that they deserved, and someone needed to balance that off a little bit. No, it would not be a popular job, and there probably would be some people who would vilify us for doing it, but it had to be done. If nothing else, Cat and I were better prepared mentally to do it than other girls, mostly because almost everyone thought we were crazy anyway for the climbing we did.

I don’t think Cat was buying my arguments very much. At least one of the problems was that her mother would probably have kittens when she found out about it; we had gotten her a little used to our taking off traveling and climbing for the summer, but this was a huge escalation by comparison. Nothing was settled by the time the term ended and we headed to our respective homes for Christmas, and I was beginning to think that I was not going to be able to talk Cat into it.

Christmas break was long and boring, as usual. About the only thing that interested me was finding out a little more about the Red Cross representative job, and I couldn’t find out much about it from Simsville. I hadn’t broken the news about my considering the job to my folks, and I didn’t want to tell them while Joey was still in Vietnam. That might be a little too much for them to swallow, and it might be a little bit too much after he’d gotten home, too.

Joey was getting really short now, and would be home in little more than a month. After a little bit of discussion, we decided that we would do something special for him – we would hold off most of celebrating Christmas until he could be with us. We could put off the opening of presents and the big Christmas dinner until we were a whole family again. I didn’t mind, not in the slightest, especially considering those Red Cross brochures that were hidden among my notebooks in my room.

Now, I have to admit that I was viewing a lot of this from Joe’s perspective, although as usual I couldn’t tell anyone that and had to be careful about what I said. But there was a rightness about the decision that couldn’t be denied.

Cat and I called each other several times over Christmas, although we never talked about the job. She didn’t need to say anything to tell me that she still wasn’t crazy about it.

I was glad to get back to college in January. The holidays had been dull once again, and I was glad to have them over with. Cat and I still had a heavy class load, and we turned to it. We did not often talk about the Red Cross job, although she knew I was still considering it, and I knew she was reluctant to the extent that she was barely interested in it at all. It looked as if we would be going two different directions in the future, and we might not get back together afterward.

On the morning of Wednesday, January 31, the housemother came to our room. “Joan,” she said, “you had a call from your parents, and they said it was important. They would like you to call them back as soon as possible.”

We didn’t have phones in our rooms in those days, but there was a pay phone down in the lobby, and I scurried right down there, expecting what the news was going to be. It proved I was right: Joey was just about to get aboard an airliner in San Francisco. He’d made it back to the States safely! My Joe memories told me that he would, but there was always the possibility of a discontinuity somewhere along the way so it was still a relief.

“Mom, Dad,” I said. “If I drive like hell, I can make it down there in time to go to the airport with you.”

“You’ve got two hours at the outside,” Dad told me. “But I’m sure he would like to have you there to welcome him home.”

I rushed back up to the room, mostly to grab my coat and give Cat the news. “Can I come along?” she asked.

“I don’t see why not, there ought to be room for five of us in Mom’s car. Grab your coat, let’s go!”

We were out of the door in seconds and literally ran to the gas station. Fortunately it had been a nice day and the Karmann-Ghia’s windows weren’t covered over with frost, so we were on the street in a flash, and in not much longer I was pushing the car as hard as I had ever driven it. “God, I am so relieved,” I told Cat. “I mean, I was pretty sure he was going to make it back, but still.”

“That ought to take a load off your mind. It does mine, too.” Cat had only met Joey once and then briefly, but she had heard enough about him from me. Plus, with all the discussion of the Red Cross representative job in the last month she had taken special interest in what he had gone through.

We made it in time, but only because the speedometer was buried down as far as it would go on several straight stretches of highway as the Corvair engine roared behind us. It was about as fast as a Karmann Ghia could go unless you dropped it out of an airplane. Thank goodness we never met a cop!

Cat and I slid into the driveway at home as the folks were going out to Mom’s huge old Oldsmobile, and within seconds the two of us were in the back seat. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it,” Dad said as he pulled out of the driveway.

“I was beginning to wonder too,” I told him. “For once I was wishing that you’d put a turbocharger in it after all.”

Dad was able to drive a little more sedately to O’Hare where Joey’s plane was to come in, but we made it on time. In those days you didn’t have to wait at baggage pickup for incoming passengers, but could go right to the boarding gate, and we were waiting for him as the plane pulled in. We were not the only ones waiting, and it was a while before he got off the plane in the middle of a crowd, wearing his uniform. He looked a little tired and drawn and had lost a lot of weight, but it was good to see him.

We were standing well back; he saw us and came in our direction as we headed toward him. But a woman – and I use the term lightly – got in front of us, yelled, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself you fucking warmonger,” and spat on him.

Mom was not a person with a violent temper. In fact, she was just about the most placid person I knew. But I’ll give her credit – she grabbed that alleged person by the shoulder, yanked her around, and whacked her across the face with perhaps the most vicious slap I had ever seen, yelling, “You don’t treat a man like that for doing his duty!”

The woman lurched back and then fell over backward, possibly because my foot was in the way. That caused me to stumble, and in the process I kicked her in the side. I wished I had been wearing my climbing boots; I might have been able to break a couple of her ribs.

I don’t know what happened to her after that but I think it had been made clear to her that she was not desired in our presence.

Although Joey was by then wrapped in Mom’s and Dad’s arms, he looked very downcast, and he had every reason to. That was a hell of a thank you for spending a year serving his country in a dangerous, far-away place. The folks were not very happy about it either. Eventually they broke apart, but before anything could be said, Cat took Joey in her arms. “Let me give you a better welcome home,” she said, and kissed him.

It was no little peck on the lips either. She got right in there, wrapped her arms around him tightly, and sucked his tongue up like a vacuum cleaner. It was no short kiss; it went on for several minutes, and before long their hands were groping each other in places that really shouldn’t be groped in public. If it hadn’t been for the other people standing around in the terminal, the folks, and me, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see clothes coming off.

As Joe, I sure as hell hadn’t had a welcome home like that, but under the circumstances I thought I could live with the discontinuity and I suspected Joey could, too.

Finally they pulled apart enough to walk down the hallway of the terminal arm in arm, although there was no breaking them apart. We got Joey’s bags, got in the car and headed for home, with the two of them cuddling in the back seat.

What with everything it was late when we got back to Simsville. Mom invited us in for coffee or something, but Cat and I really needed to be getting back to Venable; Joey hadn’t slept literally since leaving Bien Hoa, and he was exhausted; I was a little surprised he hadn’t fallen asleep in Cat’s arms.

Cat and I got in the Karmann Ghia and headed back to college at a much more sedate pace than we had been going on the way down. We didn’t say much of anything, because somehow there wasn’t much to say. We had parked the car in its usual spot at the gas station and were walking back to campus when Cat asked, “Jo, could I borrow the car tomorrow?”

“I suppose,” I told her. “Have you got something in mind?”

“Yeah,” she admitted neutrally. “I got a moment alone to talk to Joey, and your folks are going to both be working tomorrow. I think I want to give him the homecoming he really deserves.”

“I’m not going to stand in your way,” I replied, figuring out just exactly what she meant. “Are you getting interested in him?”

“No, not really,” she replied. “I don’t want to get you upset by saying this, but he’s not really my type. But he deserves better treatment than he got when he first got off the plane, and I guess I’m the only one who can give it to him. Actually, with what he was poking me in the belly with there in the terminal, it ought to be rewarding for both of us.”

“Thank you, Cat,” thinking that as Joe I could have stood to be welcomed home like that, but it never happened. Another discontinuity, I guessed, but a welcome one, especially for Joey. “I almost think I ought to do it myself, but I am his sister, after all.”

“Yeah,” she smirked. “Then when I get back, let’s get those applications I know you’ve been hiding filled out and off to the Red Cross.”

“So you changed your mind?”

“Not exactly. That bitch in the terminal changed it for me.”

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To be continued . . .

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