| The Veteran
Her golden hair shimmered in the rays of a setting sun, as her fingers slowly slid from her budded lips and down her throat toward the lacing at the cleavage of her teddy. Nimble fingers undid the bow and the sheer garment glided down her smooth skin and crumpled at her feet. My adolescent heart beat at an accelerated pace.
The next thing I knew, I was standing on a London street corner as the Luftwaffe bombed the buildings to rubble. Hundreds of black suited Sebastian Cabots ran screaming past while an air raid siren blared. My eyes flipped open and I wasn’t in London at all, but tucked away in a warm bed next to a ringing alarm clock.
“Turn that damn thing off, fer Christ’s sake,” the Old Man bellowed from the next room.
As I fumbled for the clock in darkness, the ringing seemed to intensify. The clock rang in a way that could be felt, like fingers scarping a dry chalkboard. I knocked it from its stand and it clanked loud on the tile floor. The stem broke off in the fall, so I shoved the clock beneath my pillow and waited for it to wind down.
For one disoriented moment, I wondered why I chose to awaken when it was still dark outside. Then I remembered. It was Saturday, and I was going trout fishing with my two friends, Hoover and Burger.
After extracting the demonic clock from beneath the pillow, my eyes strained to focus on the luminous numerals. It was 4:00 AM. The crazy thing had gone off an hour early! I got up anyway. I didn’t want to risk being late.
I pried myself from beneath the sheets, stood on shaky limbs, and searched for the light switch. “Thud,” my little toe crumpled against the bedpost. Agonizing pain fired through my foot, up my leg, and dominated my entire body. I fell to the bed, bit into the pillow, and waited for the throbbing pain to grow, peak, and finally subside.
When the pain became bearable, I continued to search for the switch. Flipping it released the yellow invader, and my eyes panged in protest.
I squinted at the injured toe and spied a blood trickle through the cracked nail. From the creaky dresser drawer I removed my favorite trout fishing t-shirt, which pictured a leaping fluorescent brook trout. The caption beneath it read, “Trout Fishermen Make Better Lovers.”
I slipped into stretched out Fruit of the Looms, Levis jeans, wool socks, worn out Converse sneakers, and a Khaki colored fishing vest with twelve pockets for storing gear. Then I stepped from the bedroom and quietly padded down the hallway. The Old Man’s non-filtered cigarette voice complained to my mother.
“Why the hell does he wanna do dis every weekend? He’s nuts,” he grumbled.
I descended the stairs to the kitchen, where I brewed strong coffee, due to a mismeasurement of the grounds. Then I browned a frosted raspberry Pop Tart in the toaster, one of the few kitchen appliances I had mastered.
I usually won’t eat breakfast because my stomach is by nature, upset in the morning, but Burger wasn’t due for another hour, so I had time to kill.
While the third cup of coffee cooled in my Bullwinkle mug, with my head propped by an arm, the blond returned to my dreams, her lips pursed in a seductive pout. The distinct blast of a Bel Air’s horn yanked me from paradise this time.
I glared at the plastic vegetable clock that hung over the stove. It was now 6:30, and Burger was an hour late.
“Tell that asshole ta knock it the hell off!” the Old Man barked from bed.
Burger continued to lean on the horn until I came to the door.
“Knock it off, Burger!” I yelled.
“Am I early or somthin’? Come on, let’s get goin’. The sun’s already up,” yelled Burger from the car window.
I gathered my Sears Ted Williams autographed ultra light rod and reel combination, insulated hip boots, and a can of Green Giant Golden Niblets before stepping out into the sluggish morning air. Burger stood by the open trunk, waiting for me to load my gear.
Burger was boyishly fat, chinless, and his face always looked dirty because of intermittent patches of long whiskers, which he never shaved. The shrapnel from his most recent meal was usually lodged in his clothing. On this morning, egg yolk and splatters of ketchup were embedded in his psychedelic Grateful Dead t-shirt. A soiled New York Mets cap was cocked at a jaunty angle on his head, and matted strands of brown hair sprouted from beneath it.
Hoover sat in the passenger’s seat, munching on what looked like, and later smelled like salami on rye with spicy brown mustard. He had an Afro haircut, shiny bulbous nose, and size twelves that pointed out and ran nearly parallel to his shoulders. His neck also joined his body at an odd angle, and it pushed his head out in front of his chest. He looked like a walking question mark.
“You don’t blow the horn at this hour, you moron. The Old Man’s gonna be pissed when I get home,” I scolded.
“Calm down. You are grouchy. Did ya over sleep or somthin?” asked Burger.
I let it go. I don’t enjoy morning conversation, and any debate about the agreed starting time would end in a stalemate.
I hopped in the backseat of the rust bucket car, expecting the usual musty smell. Instead, I was assaulted by Hoover’s sandwich.
“Hey, I just remembered I forgot my net. We gotta go back and get it,” announced Hoover, through a mouthful of sandwich.
“No way. I ain’t drivin’ all the way back ta your house. Borrow one offa Hill,” said Burger.
“I don’t have an extra one,” I said.
“Sure ya do. I’ve seen it hangin’ up in your garage,” said Hoover.
‘No, I can’t loan you that one. It’s the Old Man’s, and it’s an Orvis.
The Old Man had beautiful tackle, which he pulled out for one annual, profanity filled fiasco. This net was made from varnished, seasoned walnut with triple reinforced Dacron netting. It was a work of art. I knew the Old Man wouldn’t want it loaned out, especially since he referred to my friends as “clowns” and “goofballs.”
“Well, all I know is I think the fishin’s gonna be great today. The paper said the stream was 'heavily stocked.' I can’t land fish without a net. We’ll have ta drive back ta my house,” said Hoover.
“No way. That’ll take over half an hour. Besides, I only got gas enough for one round trip ta the stream,” said Burger.
“Well then, take me to a store,” suggested Hoover.
“There ain’t no stores open at this hour,” Burger said angrily.
“Look, I’ll use my Old Man’s net and Hoover can use mine. If he wrecks it, he buys me a new one,” I finally said.
I left the Bel Air and retrieved the net from the nail it hung on in the garage. As the old car bucked and backfired out of the driveway, I could picture the Old Man cursing from up in the bedroom.
While lightly dozing during the drive, I picked up bits and pieces of the conversation between Hoover and Burger. They busily rated the physical attributes of some of the better-looking girls in our school.
“I can’t agree with ya. I’d give Anne an eight. Her tits aren’t big enough for a nine,” said Burger, in the slightly affected voice of a wine connoisseur.
“Well, maybe. Beverly’s a nine, though. She’s got melons!” said Hoover, with unbounded enthusiasm.
The way they spoke, you might have thought that these two had the option of dating these girls. If Hoover and Burger could have gotten dates at all, it would have been with girls who ranked much lower on the one to ten continuum. Because I had some loose grip on reality, I avoided these discussions.
I tried to find the golden haired girl, but something thumped beneath the Bel Air and brought me back to the surface. I quickly looked out the back window to see a mousy colored rabbit tumble to the side of the road.
“Damn stupid rabbit,” grumbled Burger.
Rabbits, cats, squirrels, and possums are uninformed about who rules the road.
We turned onto the winding, hilly, Elbow Fletcher Road. Burger wrestled with the steering wheel as the tires churned gravel on the road’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you slow down?” I asked.
“Just leave the drivin’ ta me. You’re witnessin’ the perfect union of man and machine,” said Burger.
“They both have the same amount of brains,” chuckled Hoover, displaying his lack of wit.
We were away from the ranchers and split-levels now, as the road cut through green forests. Grazing cows, fields of corn, and farmhouses occasionally interrupted the trees. It was quite picturesque, provided you could ignore the empty beer cans, newspapers, and fast food wrappers that lined the roadway.
This was as rustic as things got in New Jersey, and it seems the most aesthetic mix of man and nature, but it was quickly giving way to the housing developments and strip malls.
We followed this road for several miles, until we crossed the iron bridge that spanned Mud Creek. As the name indicated, this was not pristine water. Burger skidded the Bel Air into a dirt patch. The car sputtered and shook for a while, even after he cut off the engine.
I got out of the car and inhaled the musty stench that rose from the stream. It smelled like something organic decomposed down there. The murky water beneath the bridge moved slowly, and a thin layer of green scum floated on the surface. The sky was cloudless, but lacked brilliance due to the humidity.
I tugged on the hip boots, shouldered the rod and reel, and struck off down the path in a striding gait. Hoover and Burger still rooted in the trunk. I hoped to get off by myself.
Locusts buzzed in the trees, and unseen creatures rustled in the grasses along the path. The breeze carried the scent of manure to my nostrils. A green dragonfly with lifeless, marble sized eyes hovered in front of my chin for a few seconds, and then dove away.
Mud Creek had cut a gently sloping valley in the Jersey countryside. The path I followed wove up and down the bank, according to obstructions. Closer to the stream, the path turned to muck that sucked at my hip boots. When the path rose, I could see long, semi-scenic stretches of the stream.
My adrenalin flowed in anticipation, but in truth, the pursuit of a ten-inch hatchery trout is a modest thrill. After fifteen minutes of brisk walking, I reached a bend in the stream, which began a stretch that I particularly liked to fish. The water was swift, deep, and filled with pools created by rocks. It was a natural hatchery trout hangout.
I sat on a downed tree, opened the can of niblets, drained the water, and dumped the kernels in the bait box that was strapped to my hip. Then I rigged the four-pound test monofilament with a size eight hook and two BB split shots. I baited the hook with four plump kernels, and was ready for action.
Just then, I heard Hoover’s heavy footsteps thudding on the path.
“Hey Hill, Hoover forgot his bait,” he yelled, just before coming into view.
“Nothing new in that,” I replied.
Hoover arrived on the scene.
“Hey Hill, could ya loan me some corn? I forgot my can a worms,” he whined.
“Why don’t you borrow some worms from Burger?” I asked.
“No way. I only got a few. I’ll probly run out myself,” said Burger.
Burger never gave anything away. He wouldn’t have given any to Hoover, even if he owned a worm farm.
It was always the same problem with Hoover. He needed lunch money, or hooks, or to copy your homework. Once, he even asked to borrow a pair of my underwear. I shudder to think why he needed to borrow them, but I refused his request. It was too creepy.
“I wish your mother would pack your tackle. You’re a royal pain in the ass. Here, take this and get the hell away from me. I want to fish by myself,” I scolded.
I dumped a few ounces of corn in his mustard stained hand.
“Thanks, Hill,” he said enthusiastically.
It didn’t seem to matter what you said to Hoover. Nothing fazed him.
I turned my back and waded into the stream. The sound of rushing water surrounded me. I glanced over my shoulder and the two of them were still standing there. Burger looked like a television show’s version of a slob. Everything was mismatched and poor fitting, including his body parts. A blank faced Hoover stood at his side, his pale acned face crowned by Brillo pad hair.
“Hey, no offense, but I feel like fishing alone. You know, get a little peace of mind,” I said.
“Don’t worry. We’re goin’ further up stream ta where the good spots are,” said Burger.
Bring on the peace of mind, I thought to myself. My eyes took in the natural beauty, carefully avoiding an inexplicable length of pink toilet paper draped over a tree branch across the way.
I angled my first cast upstream. It drifted a few feet and became hopelessly snagged. I snapped the line and re-rigged. My mind began to churn, dredging up past humiliations on the sports field, and in romance.
There was the time I played first base for Flunt’s Funeral Home in the local Babe Ruth Baseball League. With runners at first and third and two outs, our third baseman fielded a routine grounder and fired a throw in the dirt. I dropped down to block it, but the ball bounced wild and struck me square in the forehead. In a momentary daze, I grabbed the ball and threw it to deep right-center field, which allowed all three runners to score. The runs turned out to be decisive, and after the game, I received back slaps and sarcastic praise from our opponents.
Then I recalled my pursuit of Cynthia Pratt. She was probably a little over my head, but I finally mustered the nerve to ask her for a date.
In the first sentence I ever spoke to her, a small blob of spit shot through my lips, hung in the air for an instant, and gently lighted on the front of her blouse. She wrinkled her face and frantically brushed at the drop. Then she glared at me, turned on her heel, and twitched off down the hallway, crushing my fragile teen-age ego.
I slowly fished downstream, methodically drifting my bait through all likely spots. I felt sticky and quite miserable. The air had begun to smell of rain.
“Hey Hill, ya doin’ any good?” a voice inquired from behind.
Because it belonged to Hoover, I ignored it. I heard him splash into the stream and noisily wade toward me.
“Take it easy. You’ll scare the fish,” I yelled at him.
“I hate ta bother ya, but I ran outta bait. The fish keep cleanin’ my hook,” he said.
“I would give it to you, but I simply don’t have any extra,” I sternly said.
“Yeah, that’s what I figured. Burger won’t loan me no worms either,” he sadly said.
“Why don’t you borrow a lure offa Burger,” I suggested.
“He said he don’t have one. Could you loan me one?” he sheepishly asked.
“No chance,” I said.
Hoover’s head dropped, and he sadly waded back toward shore.
“Wait a second Hoover. You can borrow my Rooster Tail. But don’t lose it,” I said.
Hoover, wearing his broadest grin, eagerly waded back to me and snatched the lure from my hand.
“Thanks Hill,” he exclaimed.
There, Wedged between his front teeth, was the shell from a kernel of corn.
“Damn it Hoover. You ate your bait! Bring my spinner back here, you slob,” I yelled.
“Don’t worry, I won’t lose it,” he yelled back as he climbed the bank, and then scurried down the path.
“You pain in the ass!” I yelled.
After a couple minutes of stewing, I attempted to forget about Hoover and get back to fishing. The dampness in the air had increased, and thunder rumbled in the distance.
I searched my mind for something pleasant, but nothing surfaced. For some reason, I just kept listening to the beat of my heart, and thinking I detected an irregularity.
Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap, and then a solid tug at my line. A few seconds later, I netted a lank, ten-inch hatchery rainbow trout.
I immediately grasped the trout, hooked my fingers in the gills, and pulled back on the head till the backbone snapped. This may seem barbaric, but it is more humane than allowing the trout to suffocate. Besides, the Old Man had a fondness for broiled trout, so this would make up for the morning noise. I fished with renewed enthusiasm, as the storm drew near.
A few more minutes passed, when the flash of metal caught my peripheral vision.
I looked up-stream and saw an object twisting in the current. I slowly discerned that it was hoop shaped with a green mesh. It was the net I had loaned to Hoover!
I reeled in my line and tried casting for it, but missed the mark. It quickly passed, bobbed a few times, and disappeared beneath the surface forever.
A raindrop splattered on the tip of my nose. I was disgusted. It was time to go. I waded out of the stream and walked up the path toward my companions.
When I found them, Burger stood in the middle of the stream, trying to untangle the bird’s nest of line that spilled from his reel. Hoover looked quite content as he sat against the base of a pine tree on shore.
“Where the hell’s my net?” I yelled.
“I lost it. I’m sorry. It was an accident. I’ll buy ya a better one,” he quickly spouted what sounded like a rehearsed delivery.
“You’re a horse’s ass,” I bluntly stated.
I was determined not to get any angrier. It just wasn’t worth it. I was reaching an age where I tried to control my anger with reasoning, but I must admit, my successes were infrequent.
“Come on, Burger. It’s gonna pour any second,” I yelled.
“Burger caught a nice chub. Burger, hold up the chub,” yelled Hoover.
Burger came trudging through the stream, dividing the water like he was the Queen Mary.
“Yeah, hell, look at this Hill,” he said, breathing heavily as he approached the bank.
He held up a six-inch chub that was so dried and puckered that I suspected he had found it dead.
“It’s a beauty,” I sarcastically said.
“Yeah, it fought good for its size,” he said a little doubtfully.
“I helped net it,” said Hoover.
“Like hell. You lost the net before I caught this baby,” said Burger.
“Hoover, you’ve relinquished all rights to speak in my presence,” I stated.
“What do you want? I fell in tryin’ ta save your damn net. What more was I supposed ta do?” whined Hoover.
“You weren’t tryin’ ta save the net. It was about a mile down stream before ya even realized it was gone,” said Burger.
“Look, it’s gonna rain any minute now. I’ll meet you two jerks back at the car,” I said.
I didn’t want to hear any more of the argument. I walked rapidly for a few moments, to make certain I traveled alone. Oddly enough, this was the most peaceful time of the outing. A gentle breeze rustled the grasses, and the air cooled as the storm approached. I inhaled deeply and enjoyed the sweet smell of honeysuckle. I noticed things like purple wild flowers, and an acrobatic gray squirrel bouncing pine limbs high in a treetop.
As I neared the car, the path rounded a bend and climbed to the top of a steep rise that overlooked a long stretch of stream. I stopped to scan for my associates and spotted a lone angler getting in some final casts before the downpour.
Detecting motion, my eyes traveled past him and up the bank some thirty yards to rest upon a peculiar sight. Hoover and Burger were crouched behind a bush. Every few seconds, one of them would pop up and toss something toward the stream. I surmised that the lone angler mistook their splashing stones to be rising fish.
Although it didn’t register at the moment, I believe this incident became the final push. I no longer felt comfortable in this trio. I walked on.
While leaning against the Bel Air’s trunk, and wrestling off my waders, I heard a distant yell.
“Git back here, you son-of-a-bitch!” an unfamiliar voice cried.
Just then, a wild-eyed Hoover scurried over the bank.
“There’s a nut after us!” Hoover panted.
He ran to the far side of the car and crouched down. Next, Burger came thudding over the bank, his fat jiggling with each stride, with one wading boot on and the other missing.
“Ahhhhhhh!” screamed Burger.
His mouth was opened wide, and his face was distorted by panic.
A third, more athletic figure bolted over the bank and closed fast. Burger ran for the car and yanked at the handle of a locked door. He turned to face his pursuer.
The lone angler grabbed the collar of Burger’s Grateful Dead t-shirt and jerked upward. The two stood chin to chin. The lone angler had a working class, stocky build and his hair was yellowy straw. His face was reddened, and the veins stuck out on his neck. The skin on his face looked stretched too tight.
Burger’s jaw hung slack and his eyes bugged out. He looked as though he had been clubbed with a baseball bat.
The lone angler’s mouth churned, but no sound came out. He seemed to struggle with himself. Tears rolled from his eyes. It was a strangely awkward, slow motion moment. He finally spoke in an achy, choking voice.
“I been dodgin’ God damn bullets in Nam fer two years. Now I gotta dodge God Damn rocks at home!”
He stuffed a forearm in Burger’s face. No hand joined the wrist. His mouth gurgled for a few seconds, and then shrieked, “God damn it!” at a near primal level.
Suddenly, he released Burger, turned, and bolted back over the bank. His presence had been commanding. Now I could breathe again.
During the ride home, I sat quietly in the back seat, replaying the scene in my head. Burger classified the lone angler as a “whacked out Nam vet.”
I knew that this incident would live in my mind throughout life. It was profound, poetic, and ugly. After all, it was a microcosm of the shabby welcome received by Viet Nam veterans when they returned to the states.
The Bel Air was backing out of our driveway when I remembered the Rooster Tail.
“Where’s my lure?” I yelled.
“Sorry, I snagged it and lost it,” Hoover yelled from the window.
The car drove away down our street.