A Tale of brotherhood at war
|Jim squeezed into the small kitchen and threaded his way between his wife Debbie and the refrigerator. He figured that while Debbie put the finishing touches on the snacks he would fish a deck of cards out of the junk drawer. At least he hoped there was a deck still in there, which would obviate the necessity of running to the store to buy a new one. Gary and Carol were due for their Friday night euchre game soon, and running to the store at the last minute was something Jim hoped to avoid. A two-fold miracle occurred. Firstly, the junk drawer, usually stuffed so full it required a screwdriver to dislodge an obstruction, slid fully open. Secondly, a brand new and as yet unopened deck of cards greeted him like a pearl in a rather strange looking oyster.
“It would appear that someone has cleaned up the disaster area we call a junk drawer.” Jim grabbed up the cards.
“Yes, I got tired of fighting with it,” Debbie looked up from the spinach dip she was preparing. “So I cleaned it out yesterday. I pitched the bad junk, and kept the good junk.”
Jim grinned at the concept of “bad, or good” junk. “Nicely done, Love.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and squeezed past her again, headed for the dining room. Sitting at the table, he opened the fresh pack of Bicycles. Jim fanned the cards and stared.
It was a small four man bunker on the outer perimeter of L.Z. Jamie. Just a modest little abode made of steel culvert and three layers of sandbag, but it was home…at least for now. Two ponchos tied together, one end anchored to the bunker with sandbags, the free end held up by fresh cut bamboo, provided that homey touch. The furniture would never make Good Housekeeping, but it functioned well for them. The chairs were M-16 ammo boxes emptied and turned on end, the table was two 105MM howitzer ammo boxes nailed together with legs made of the boards of their lids. Three weary figures, shirtless, but wearing helmets and flak vests watched the figure approach.
“Well hey there Professor,” the man in the center grinned. “We were starting to think you were in Canada, with all those draft dodgers, about now.”
“And let you guys have all the fun?” the Professor slid his M-16 off his shoulder and leaned it against the sandbagged wall. “There’s no way I’m letting that happen, Snakeman. It’s too cold for me in Canada anyway…so you guys are stuck with me.”
“We were about to invite Ho Chi Minh over to play some spades,” Snakeman hooked his thumb toward the jungle in front of the bunker. “but he seems to be a bit busy and seeing as how you’re here…I guess you’ll do.”
The four men chuckled as the Professor sat on the ammo box chair directly across from Snakeman. Hillbilly, seated to the Professor’s left, produced a deck of bicycles and laid it on the table. The Professor looked to the unknown man to his right. The darker green of his jungle fatigues gave him away as a recent arrival in-country. Snakeman caught the question that was forming on the Professor’s lips.
“This here is Lenny.” He slapped the new guy on the back. “He’s been in the squad four whole days now and we still haven’t come up with a good name for him. Don’t fret Lenny, my man, the Professor here is good at thinking up names. I had the honor of naming him though…can’t name yourself.”
The professor nodded at Lenny and Lenny nodded back. It was a gesture that signaled the initial acceptance between grunts. A primordial beginning of a year long ritual. The commencement of a life sustaining bond between brothers.
“Okay,” Lenny looked quizzically at Snakeman. “You told me how you and Hillbilly got your names, but why ‘the Professor’?”
“Because that dude,” Snakeman shot a finger at the Professor’s chest. “is just, pure and simple, too darned smart to be hanging out with us low-life 11-Bravos. He’s humped both a psychology book and another on some kind of philosophy over about a thousand miles of trails. Rumor has it that he dropped out of college for this ‘experience’. Isn’t that right Professor?”
The Professor gave a sheepish smile and nodded. I am not so sure about being all that smart, he thought. He looked out toward the jungle and wondered if this experience was worth what it cost. It sure hadn’t been pretty.
“Just cut the cards to see who deals.” Hillbilly tapped impatiently on the table.
“Looks like you get to cut and deal for me today.” Snakeman folded his arms across his chest and stared over the table at the Professor. “Your definitely the man today dude. Pick me a good one.”
“Hey, wait a minute.” Lenny looked around the table. “Why is he cutting and dealing for you?”
Snakeman turned his head and looked into Lenny’s eyes. “I don’t cheat my friends is why. Maybe Lenny boy is in need of an education guys.” Unfolding his arms, he picked up the deck of cards. “Pick a poker hand Len.”
”Pick a poker hand. Any poker hand you want.” Snakeman shuffled the cards.
“Um…full house…aces over eights.” Lenny was puzzled.
The professor and Hillbilly had seen this before, but both were always amazed. Lenny would get the card lesson of his life this day in the shade of the poncho awning.
“I’ll take a straight flush in diamonds, queen high.” Grinned the Professor.
Hillbilly wanted four fours, and Snakeman decided to give himself a big nothing, seven high. He shuffled a bit more and then started to deal the cards face up. Hillbilly and the Professor watched bemused as Lenny began to stare in disbelief. When the deal was done, each man had the hand they had selected. Lenny continued to stare. Aces over eights were burning a real lesson into his mind.
“My Dad was a card sharp in Tennessee.” Snakeman refolded his arms across his chest. “Well, to be honest, he was a card cheat and he began teaching me his tricks at about twelve I think it was. You see, when they cut out cards they aren’t all cut at exactly the same length. Over the years, my Dad taught me how to distinguish each card by length and select them out with my thumbnails as I shuffled. It is second nature for me to do it even when I don’t notice that I am doing it. So…I don’t cut or deal when I play cards with friends.”
The professor took up the cards and shuffled. Dealing them out for Snakeman, the game of spades began. It was a pleasant escape from the reality the men lived with. For that time, as the cards danced across the table and they spoke of the things that mattered to them, their families, the cars they wanted, the loves won, the loves lost, and those loves purely imagined, the war that had stolen into their souls retreated. It was being held back, for a brief moment of their weary young lives. It was God’s magic in a simple deck of cards.
Jim, the Professor, realized he was staring at the cards. Once again he knew just how much he missed those guys sitting around the ammo box table. It always amazed him how the very thing which carried them away from the war those long years ago was now the vehicle which bore him back to it. He smiled softly. The doorbell rang as he began to cull the deck of fifty two cards down to the number needed for a game of euchre.