Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sailor Vic

I was sailing through the hot summer’s air and I could smell the chlorine in the water shortly before we became one. I had gone in with my clothes on, I pushed myself up for air and the smell had turned sour, full of diesel exhaust and cordite. The brown river water was warm, one of the sailors on a riverboat gave me a hand, he looked twelve years old with a twisted smile and crazy in his eyes, the way that youth do when they have been in combat for too long or have taken a street drug that has taken them. Thick black smoke reached for an electric blue sky that hung over the river and shone through the canopy. “Welcome aboard my boat!” He exclaimed shaking my hand wildly, “This motherfucker is going all the way, gonna’ take it to Thailand and open a bar, you know what I mean man?” I didn’t know what he meant. Another sailor manning the fifty caliber machine gun was pumping away but the gun made no sound, all I could hear was his breathing and the brass casings bouncing off the deck. I gaped at my wet clothes and was in awe that I found myself in desert digital camouflage, a familiar sight seemed distant. The sailors were dressed in olive drab with black boots. “Fuck this Perfume River shit! All they give us is dead Marines coming out of Hue! Fucked up man, I don’t want to be hauling these poor dead bastards!” Tracer fire erupted from the tree line and the air lit up like Christmas but none of the gunfire made any noise. I looked at the nametape of the wild eyed sailor and it all made sense, it read Czito.
“Well what the fuck are you doing here Anderson, you wanna come on my boat and not be conversational?” He twisted himself with intensity. “What can a young man learn without war?” I ask. The Czito scratched at his chin. His smile faded, “Don’t you come on my boat and ask me a question like that! This is where I live man, same with the dead boys on the deck! Don’t be shitting where we live!” A dead Marine sat upright and looked me in the eye, “Listen to the old man.” “Just shut the fuck up Anderson and I will show you.” I pushed myself up for air and the chlorine smelled pleasant on a hot day in Los Angeles. Victor Czito an ancient friend of my father and Navy Vietnam Veteran had pushed me into a pool not realizing that these days pushing people in pools usually involves electronics. We drank fine tequila and he told me his story of the Perfume River. In the year 2012 nobody hates war more than the Czito because somewhere on a riverboat is a kid scared shitless as I was in Fallujah. The young man continues endlessly rocking away at his fifty caliber and the young intense sailor screams over the noise of the gunfire loud as an exploding sun, “Anything he fucking wants!”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Younger Cousin

Time is becoming more relevant to me as a younger aging man. I think I am moving in the direction of better understanding the inevitable cruelness of mortality as I am shifting from the invincible mirage of youth to the realistic tangibility that is a fragile life. I received a post card today inviting me to attend my cousin’s high school graduation and for a moment the world went still in the way it does when the hairs on the back of my neck raise and I am left to think about a decade before. I was seventeen years old when I touched the turf of school for the last time in the month of June and on Friday the 13th with six hundred and sixty six fellow graduates from Palmdale High School; we started the class with closer to nine hundred I am sure.

 My father had been an embedded reporter serving in Iraq since March of 2003 and was able to make it home in time for me to graduate. That night my family and I went to dinner on the nice end of town and as a high school gift I was given new swim trunks. A few weeks later I took a Greyhound bus north to where my Uncle lived so that I could pump propane for him during the summer and before I left for boot-camp. The war in Iraq seemed impermanent listening to the radio news as I traveled from grocery store to grocery store replenishing waning supplies of propane for the store’s floor buffers that would keep shiny tile for happy suburbanites. We rode in the cab of a Ford pick-up truck with a 200 gallon propane tank in the covered bed of the truck that fueled our trip and my Uncle Chuck’s livelihood. He raced cars for fun and during his free time would travel the indy “sprint-car” racing circuit from California to Colorado. A sprint car is a homemade land rocket that must follow specific standards to race, with a fuselage constructed of panels of carbon fiber in the shape of a bullet attached to an oversized engine that requires a land pilot to navigate a field of speeding death asphalt, these drivers race for nothing more than the rush of speed. That year Uncle Chuck informed me that this would be the hardest work I would have ever completed in my life and that when it was done I would be ready to be a Marine.

That year he did not hire that standard pit crew that came as a natural fixture to the other sprint cars on the circuit. Nor did he hire an extra spotter whose job would normally be to watch the racing car with a pair of binoculars and call over a radio connected to the driver, the positions of his enemies on the track. In the summer of 2003 Uncle Chuck let me know that I would be performing all of these jobs, pit crew, spotter and I would push start his car onto the track driving a four wheeler. With this development and since he unlike the other drivers owned his own car this would be a way to save a pile of money, it was a brilliant plan. Most sprint car drivers had sponsors who owned their car but Uncle Chuck had built his own and that season it was finishing top three.

 I had heart, but zero mechanical talent; I had been raised by a newspaper man whose father had nailed his garage door shut after it stopped working properly. My dad could change a tire and that’s about where my expertise ended. Shortly before a race Uncle Chuck let me know that if he blew a tire I would have to help him change it on the track. The process worked like this; after we did a onceover of the car, checked the fluids, tire pressure and fixtures I would hop on a four wheeler and push the race car onto the track full of other race cars speeding well over a hundred miles an hour, after I did that without killing myself I would ride the four wheeler to the spotting stands where the other more mature spotters would laugh as I came running up the bleachers. My Uncle would race the first and last lap blind and at the end of the race I would get on the four wheeler and he would tell me whether or not he needed to be pushed into the pits, which were made up of large trailers full of tool boxes that the cars could be transported in when they were not racing. Chuck had an old horse trailer he had rigged into a race-car trailer, he lived "Do it yourself".Sometimes the car could make it to his trailer with the momentum of the last lap but the engine would die below an idle because it operated only at a high rate of RPM. .

His kids were with him, my cousin’s C.J. and Jessica. They would watch the race while dad and I worked. One time the announcer happily explained to the audience that a new driver who had turned 18 years old was participating in her first race. I got to the spotting stands and the thunder sound of the cars on the track was rumbling as I sighted in on Uncle Chuck, the insiders new him as “Mad Dog”,a play on his last name Maddox, but he earned the name for being an asshole on the track. The girl’s car got to close to the Mad Dog and he turned into her, both cars went up on two wheels and she had become too shaken to race up at the front with the pack. Chuck was laughing on the microphone and I could hear her spotters swearing as they began to give me the stink eye and curse my Uncle. One of the spotters told me to tell my Uncle to, “Watch his ass in the pits.” I radioed the message to my Uncle and he laughed and told me everyone could hear us on the net and that he would see me in the pits.

 I ran down the aluminum bleachers and mounted my four wheeled steed, I cruised through the mud and back to the trailer where Chuck’s car would soon roll up to, but there was a crowd, the girl’s sponsor and pit crew were waiting for him. They were swearing as soon as I got there so I picked up a tire iron because I had heard about pit fights and these people seemed pissed. Chuck’s never ending classic country music was playing from his jerry-rigged tool box when his car came in neutral to the trailer. The girl’s sponsor was a fat guy and he started screaming at Chuck that he would kill him if he ever touched his car again. From under his helmet Chuck sarcastically responded with, “Fuuuck you”. The sponsor had not heard him so my Uncle repeated himself after taking his helmet off with a smile, “Fuuuck you.” I gripped the tire iron and there was no fight, my Uncle was too slick for a fight, he got his mission done and moved along to the sound of a party, to this day he lives an eternal weekend earned through hard work. My cousin who was a boy of eight at the time became my hero when I was in Fallujah and his mother wrote me about C.J. building a shrine with my pictures and candles, praying to it.

That last night in Colorado was July 4th and my Uncle wanted to know if it was alright with me if we left before the fireworks, I couldn’t see why not because we had more work to do and more summer to live but that night we drove through the empty desert of Wyoming and the black night was illuminated with fireworks far off in the distance for hours. That night we all slept in the same room together and Uncle Chuck told C.J. and Jessica, “Your cousin is going off to serve our country and we should be very proud of him.” They agreed and we slept, at some point I woke up in war and the day after I received a letter that my cousin is graduating High School. I will be there, and this summer he will work for me as I film a documentary capturing my life since I turned eighteen. A year after I worked his father’s car I had left for war, my praying cousin will hear the story but live at peace, when I am done with him he will understand something, he will never have worked this hard in his whole life. I remember how fresh the world seemed and how dark it became, what can a young man learn without war?