I spied on them from behind the magazine rack inside the pharmacy. The pharmacist’s wife spied them too. She groaned and more vigorously wiped down the soda fountain counter. Across the street, the GVM, Gallaher Village Men, sat on the cement wall in front of the grade school my father had attended four decades earlier. They weren’t men yet, the line of boys that included Bimbo and Smitty and Bags. They were high schoolers ranging from fifteen to eighteen, a ragtag crew of longhairs who wore patched bellbottoms and Army jackets, eyes often glassy from pot. They were routinely blamed for minor mayhem and petty thievery: shoplifting beer, knocking down street signs. Mostly they just loitered on that wall, or the one in front of the branch library, watching the city bus load and unload passengers at the pharmacy bus stop. I never saw them get on the bus. I don’t think they rumbled with other local gangs: the EEBs, for example, East End Boys. This was the early seventies. Boys no longer sported ducktails or folded cigarette packs into their t-shirt sleeves. These were no Marlon Brando wannabes. I don’t know what they wanted to be. I don’t think they knew either. Maybe nobody did as Nixon sent boys to Vietnam: 334,600 in 1970; 156,800 in 1971. Why get on a bus when your future wasn’t in your own hands?
Girls in my seventh-grade class wore copper POW/MIA bracelets engraved with the names of missing soldiers. Every night I watched war footage on the news with my father as anchormen tallied American dead. My two oldest brothers were eighteen and nineteen. They weren’t aimless. One was in college. One joined the Army instead of waiting to be drafted, a little power grab. My parents drove him to the airport, Steve in uniform with a buzzcut. I often wonder what parting words our veteran dad imparted, if he offered any. He did not cast many pearls, at least not to me. If my parents fretted over Steve, they hid it well. Now, I understand, Mom was surely praying for him as she washed supper dishes, darned countless socks. Dad likely offered rosaries. Had sympathetic night terrors on his son’s behalf.
But at the time their silence to me meant indifference. One Sunday I cut through the basement where Dad was watching football, Army versus Air Force. “Who you rooting for?”
“Air Force.” Dad was a WWII airman.
I pictured Steve in his Army fatigues. “Figures.”
“Marie!” It was a rare rebuke, and I deserved it, but I truly didn’t know how my father felt about his son. How he felt about any of us, really.
The GVM crushed on older girls like my sister and her best friend Terry. Tried to flirt with them as they strolled through Gville. They didn’t flirt with me, thankfully, which made it easier to sidle up to Bimbo that summer night he sat on the school wall, alone. Moths flittered in the streetlight beam encircling him. I’m not sure why I crossed the street, something in his posture perhaps, his downcast head. He spoke in code about his sister’s death. “She kicked the bucket,” he said, the first time I’d heard that euphemism. It took a minute to understand what he meant. Behind him, empty swings on the playground swayed. “She died?” “Yeah.” He knocked over an imaginary bucket with his sneaker. Maybe he was bullshitting me, but I believed him. I believed the sadness in his eyes.
Or maybe he had no sister and what he mourned were his options. His birthdate that could be plucked from a blue capsule in a lottery. I had no such worries, at thirteen, when my favorite t-shirt was a yellow smiley face. I wore my sunny future like a brag.
Within a few years they were gone, that wall of boys. Some got into deeper trouble and were offered the choice of Army or jail. Smitty supposedly drowned shortly after graduating high school. Bags died of cancer in his twenties, misdiagnosed by the military. By the time his mother got him home it was too late. I recently found a death notice for Bimbo, though I’m not sure it was him. He died at fifty-three of some lingering illness. The obituary listed two live sisters. No dead ones.
Steve made it home alive. He learned to fire mortars. Played war games in Hawaiian terrain that was similar to Vietnam’s. Sent blue airmail letters home that were left on the kitchen table for anyone to read. I don’t remember specifics, but they were well-crafted and funny. Our family often used humor to deflect having to feel. Once, my parents had friends over for dinner. Maybe the Gadbuts. The Crickmers. Mom joked that Steve was living the high life in Oahu. “I’d like to have that job.” Her voice dripped sarcasm. It angered me to hear her say that, to see her make that face, especially with Steve’s airmail letter tucked between the saltshaker and napkin holder. As if he were boarding at the Royal Hawaiian, sipping a Mai Tai, not dreading the thought that he might be sent further west.
Or maybe Mom was deflecting too. Avoiding the possibility of her son being one order away from Vietnam. Conjuring a cushy tour during her prayers enabled her to fall asleep. Maybe her prayer made it to him and one night he left Schofield and thumbed into town. Ordered a drink in that pink hotel and strolled outside, found a wall to sit on, Diamondhead in the distance, and beyond it nothing but ocean. Maybe his mind drifted on a breeze and Mom’s prayers, carrying him mile after mile to the sundrenched west coast, over desert and mountains, until he reached West Virginia, then Gallaher Village, where a row of boys sat on a concrete wall, dreading futures they could not possibly foresee.