In the quiet darkness, well past midnight, where we had been drinking for about three hours with modulated care (if you can believe it) beside someone’s massive pool in the Poconos, the narrow beam cast by a flashlight came with an alarming start down the barrel of a sawed-off rifle bound to spread pain, sac pain, heart pain, knee cap pain. The rifle and the projected flash were steady, likely in the hands of a confident man beyond rifle-range tough, the heavy voice not asking but demanding an answer: “Who the hell are you guys? Speak up quickly, one of you, before this popper gets away from me. I’m not the best shot in the world.” The qualification he added in a mimicking tone said it better than any hard-line threat: ” but I don’t have to be.”
He knew what he was talking about. Authority rode with the voice as well as in the rifle, each element as if delivered by a sheriff’s starred badge or an officer with a collection of gold braid. He might even have been an old master sergeant still kicking his weight around, 20 hard years on the job, a neat array of tattooed service stripes probably running up both arms formal as tribal grace marks, born in ritual.
We all know the type.
We were up in the Poconos, and had been wandering in the night hallows, off normal routes, our exact whereabouts unknown, though we seemingly were closer to shooting stars, fields of small, still, shining stars, a July moon at announcement, a command of silence only now broken by a stranger’s voice, hard as old Gallagher’s home-made brew.
I was caught up in reflections, memories leaping for recognition, no weapon to shake myself free.
Believing that he obviously knew the capabilities of his altered weapon, I sobered quickly, jump-started a response, only a few beers under my belt. Not yet had I entered the massive pool, 90 feet across if an inch, cement set up as strong as a fortification, and my mind also tracing just how we had gotten here … on someone else’s property, at someone else’s pool, after legal midnight in the high Poconos of Pennsylvania.
Beside me at pool’s edge, caught in the same beam of light, in the aim of the scatter-type rifle, was Frank Mitlan, small, brawny, Pennsy native, once a comrade, now friend for life, as indeed were the others with me on this so-called respite.
A quick image of Frank came to me before I could say a word, him standing with a full field pack on his back in a line of troops at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in 1950, the war on in Korea, all of us itchy one way or another, and Frank, from that standing position, doing a full head-over-heels flip and landing with unparalleled ease on his feet, unruffled, in order, square-footed, in perfect balance, the field pack settled in place. It was a gift of some kind, I figured at first shot, knowing I’d never be able to flip myself like that even on a mechanical apparatus. Had he been presented with that gift? I asked myself immediately. But I was able to assess, he was built for it; muscular, in shape, lower to the ground, making me wonder how much is gift or hard work or natural talent or endless practice as well as the mental preparations for physical demands.
War, at odd times and odd points, says all the aforementioned comes in pieces, now and then bitter in taste or circumstance, now and then pronounced like salutations you oughtn’t to forget.
Gifts come, I believed, when you’re not looking for them, when you’re unknowingly staring them in the face, when some mystical hand taps you on the back and you hear a voice, “You’re up,” or “You’re in,” which is an “about and beyond” command, favor, dictum for the ages, and bound to be accepted.
Frank, 21, quartered in the same basic infantry squad with me, was blond, affable, in first-rate shape to say the least, and a gymnast by personal choice and long habit. His rare trips home brought back the best Polish cooking a household could provide. Now he was, as were all the others in that line of troops when he flipped himself with grand agility, my comrades, preparing for assignment to Korea, the war there about six months old and getting older and bolder in a hurry, waiting on us.
There were, even from a distance, distinctions about each of us … the lingo deployed from home neighborhoods, the mileage from home, favorite sports teams, vowed girls in wait, kid brothers anxious to try on parts of weekend uniforms, mothers who carried the inborn dread like a personal sack, fathers who had been to WW II of Europe or Pacific campaigns … and knowing the edge being honed for each of us, molding us into a force of arms and energy … only to be broken up at a distant assignment post as replacements needed by different outfits near the 38th parallel in Korea, right where the war had lingered for a spell.
Those assignments were not far away on the horizon, miles galloping in chunks, days and weeks and months in moments, the collection of new faces like conscription itself.
Before we saw him do another flip, in a magical flip of time and all its moments fore and aft, we were planning on gathering at Frank’s house in Bethlehem, all of us who had trained at Fort Devens, MA in 1950 with the 278th Regiment, activated from Tennessee for the Korean War, shipped over to 7th Division units, the 31st Infantry Regiment, the 17th, and the 49th Field Artillery Battalion, outfits still warm from WW II in the islands.
From the outset there came gifts of one sort or another: after the receipt of one gift, one hopes for another, looks around corners, takes chances, eyes a mailman or a stranger moving on the horizon, ducks at the right time. We had pieces of those possibilities still breathing, planning to attend the reunion as long as we could make it last, timing, jobs, wives, families to be considered.
I kept looking at the roads sending me to Bethlehem and hoped for at least a weekend in the Poconos, the way life and war and comradeship toss us in this passage of we lucky ones, the survivors or the gifted, the dumb lucky lot, the wary among us, the most gifted of individuals at war’s challenges. We were a dozen out of 50 or so from our original barracks.
Brother-in-law Norman, at the outset of this escapade, had bus line connections, and handed me a whole handful of tickets, I mean a handful as thick as a Chicago wad, entirely “green” in its value, all because I was still in college, couldn’t afford a car, and could not take the family car on such a jaunt.
“These’ll get you just about any place you want to go,” he said, yet with facial contortions demanding attention, “but before you get on any bus, make sure you have the single ticket for the intended ride in your hand. Don’t look like a dummy who’s been given the whole house.” He shook his finger at me in silent admonition.
Well, as things go for some of us, I blew it the first chance, in Boston, a mere dozen miles from home, barely on my way, stepping up into the bus, forgetting instructions, dipping my hand in my pocket, coming up with the thick wad of tickets that could likely get me around the country, if not the whole globe.
The driver smiled, widely, knowingly, saw connections leaping around me, nudged his head and said, in a faked hard manner, “Go sit yourself down.” I was on my way, but not before he put icing on the cake:”My kid brother made a trip I bet just like yours. Glad you got back.” It was like he read me the whole way, could tell me how it was going to come out … if his kid brother was a good story teller, with the same kind of light in his eyes. It took me a few moments to think he had also sponsored such travel into a piece of the past. And he nodded his punctuation at the bracelet on my wrist I’d made out of my Infantryman’s Combat Badge.
Not many pleasant hours later, the driver nodding once in a while in the rear view mirror, possibly seeing my anticipation, the next gift came walking down a sidewalk at a Pennsylvania open-air suburban stop, me sitting at the open window, getting fresh air, escaping a fellow traveler who had occasionally stepped outside when the bus stopped with his constant monologue about his wife’s peculiarities that were strictly OCD from the first word (and no paralysis in his tongue making me wonder if he spoke like that at home, constantly, always in tune.)
I looked again with the old eye on the sidewalk walker. Too entirely familiar were some of the bodily messages on the move, the gear he wore, the kicker being old fatigue pants hanging over boot tops, pockets probably filled with his lunch for the day, one coffee still in hand, steam rising in the early morning, even though June was on us.
The leaning frame that held him caught me first, the slant of his head, the dark glasses, the hair still as black as a new Chevy paint job. His steps were small steps, hesitant it seemed, as if he was in no hurry to get anywhere soon … even some jobs can wait. I perceived a limp I hadn’t seen at first look, and remembered he’d been “tagged” at Lake Hwachon, sent to the rear, ended up in hospital, discharged from the army but carrying mementos of sorts.
His name leaped off my tongue and out the window of the bus, with my arm flagging at him: “Hoppy!” I yelled. Again, “Hoppy! Hoppy.”
Amato “Hoppy” Magro, once of Fort Devens, once of the 17th Infantry Regiment, stopped abruptly in his tracks, saw my waving arm, my face, dropped his coffee, tried to board the bus as I was trying to get off, the driver slapping me on the back.
We warmed the whole bus stop, the passengers, the passers-by, the nodding driver who might be saying, “I damned well read this one.” Our arms were wrapped around each other as soon as I leaped off the bus, folks stopping in place, acknowledging some of our quick language, the recognition of a special meeting, a surprise meeting taking place in front of them, a “gift” for the day as one might say.
A few older gents, gray-heads, bearded by choice and morning freedoms, wearing huge smiles, new life leaping through their limbs, touching on the hallucinatory, clapped hands and all kinds of imagination and interpretation could be applied to a related event in their lives. I measured them as WW II survivors caught up in another gift.
We yelled unintelligently at first, a few curses coming back from wherever, old night-time password passed again, for both of us had carried .300 Walkie Talkies; “Parkerhouse Two,” he screamed. From its no-longer-anywhere came, “Easystreet Six,” from deepest memory, as though the cover over that past was thrown wide open for a split second. Another old gent, “somehow in the know,” nodded at a pal sitting on the same bench with him; I think he was choking up, in concert with this moment and a vivid past on a distant but now silent Pacific island or at the edge of a rebuilt borough in Europe.
Gifts, unexpected gifts, are blessings, often are messages from every kind of elsewhere.
The sawed-off rifle bearer said, with additional inflection and authority, “What the hell are you doing here?” His voice was excitable, contagious, as the initial hug stayed in place, me thinking he was thinking of our last meeting … in a hole on top of a mountain halfway across the world, Hell itself on the horizon, bugles blaring, the air singing with ammo on a wide and wild circumference. Our visions, our images, might have been exactly copied from that other life.
“I’m going to meet some of the guys in Bethlehem, at Frank Mitlan’s. We haven’t had your address for a couple of years.”
“Me and Leeta broke up, sold the place, moved on. No kids, though. I might try again. Who’s going?” There was a calmness of his face as though life wasn’t or hadn’t been as bad as he made it sound, and I noticed that the complexion of his face looked younger than he was; no scars, no wrinkles, no 40-ish changes yet, his eyes as honest as new headlights, his teeth carrying the perfect smile. I thought perhaps that marriage might not be his best deal.
We walked away from the bus and the driver yelled out behind us through the open doorway, “Good luck, guy. You can go anyplace with that packet of tickets. Looks like you got all our routes covered, but remember how we met.”
He was advising me and I felt the warmth in the air as he spoke, and then he mystified me when he yelled, “You know, guy, every once in a while, I pick out one of you and convey my thanks. You’re stick-outs. My kid brother was one of you and he was over there with Colonel Red McCaffrey, if you know the name, and he disappeared on a mission with Major Rice’s Raiders, if you know that name too.”
He was stepping on toes again, turning over name plates, ruffling the grouse, knocking down pins. It was apparent he could have been one of us, but for his age.
He was a present being unwrapped. If I ever managed to tell my brother-in-law Norman, the bus driver, he’d name this one who carried his soul on his chest, touched it endlessly with his hand, shared what it carried. There was no hang-dog littering his memory … pride rode in his collection. When I left his bus, though, I knew I’d never see him again, one of those faces passing over my shoulder, always on the high road, like a plane overhead, destination unknown. If he’s waiting on me again, the next meeting is somewhere ahead of me … that’d be a gift too. If you see him, tell him I remember.
Hoppy was all jazzed up. “What the hell are you doing here? You been to Pennsy before? Why’n’t you call me?”
“Call lost you? Quite a trick. But here’s what’s happening. Some of the old bunch are meeting at Frank Mitlan’s, on Halbert Drive in Bethlehem, They’ll be there in the morning. We’re going up into the Poconos.”
“Like who?” His mouth fell open, waiting for surprises.
“Big Pete,” I said, “Pete and Repete, Blackburn, Monaco, Kujawski, Jack Slack, Sudsy, Brendan’s coming from Chicago.”
He was waiting for the hammer: “Daracko and Batchar didn’t make it after they transferred out.”
His head shook and his eyes went past the morning sun, way past, to another day, another time, and I hugged him, my heart in my mouth, a ball of breath in my throat. It’s a feeling you can’t get past. It hangs on forever. It’s a leach of the emotions, having a kick all its own. Nothing much else is like it. Not divorce. Not failure. Not striking out with the bases loaded and down three runs. Losing a girl to another guy whose tone you hate.
“They shake their families for this trip?” Hoppy was point blank.
“To a man,” I replied, seeing something in his face that said a long story was behind his loneliness, his move, his absence, the marriage with Leeta gone like Daracko and Batchar were gone, a yesteryear or more gone off the calendar.
Something else hit me; I was aware that I had had other moments like this, where the air changed, a whole sweep of it, out of the southwest on a hot day, embers in it, forest fires, plains fires, buffeting, rocking you awake or asleep, knocking sense for a loop, playing large games and no umpires or referees around for final words, no judges, just you stiffening at that touch of air, that knowledge. It touches you in a strange and sometimes comforting way when pain or loss is as alive as it will ever be for a person like me, like us, sharers, comrades, having lost a staunch friend that life takes in one giant scoop and says the world is for this moment lonelier than you can remember … all the way back to the last time, the exact moment of loss, the single friendly hand disappearing under the waves of a world swollen with pain.
Hell, I knew I couldn’t talk to Hoppy about it, or probably any of the others. Some of them would say an apologetic “Huh?” knowing I was off on one of my side trips whose tracks they had seen before. Slack had said it once, in front of the others, “Tom’s an ass of the first order, but you can kiss him if you want to, because life lies heavier on him than on any of us. He measures each one of us, and by the ounce.” He was standing on a cot made out of tent poles and commo wire wrapped a hundred times, the “rations” were in and his third or fourth beer sat in hand as though it had never left the friendly confines. I had been mouthy on life.
Hoppy pulled me back all the way when he said, “I’ll be there. I got no ties or tags on me. Leeta always said I’d end up alone, except for you guys.” I’d never heard it said but knew it. His head shook in a quandary, as if he was saying, “How the hell did she know that before me?” The look on his face was a look that the others ought to see, but it would never be repeated. It was between Hoppy and me. And I knew he knew it. Probably Leeta knew it too, like everything else.
I knew what she meant and what Hoppy had suddenly realized, a little black dog was following him since he’d been in Korea, no doghouse to sleep in. But I loved him like I loved the others; we were a team though some hadn’t caught up to us on this inside stuff… not yet.
I had wandered but came back from the journeys; the flashlight beam was yet steady in its aim, as well as the stumpy rifle. Hell, we were in a safe zone; none of us could be shot now, not by a civilian even if he carried a crazy scattergun. A summary leaped from my mouth, cramming in as much information as possible, thwarting a needless trigger pull … “We’re Korean veterans from the 31st Regiment, 1st Battalion, and haven’t seen each other for a lot of years and we’re remembering some who didn’t get back here.”
I threw my hands out in supplication.
And this absolute stranger said, as though, for sure, another gift was coming our way: “Who was your CO?” and I said, “Yung Oak Kim,” and he said, after nodding at a quick association, partnering up in the celebration, “Drink what you want of my stock while you’re here, sleep where you want, but no glass around the pool as my chief warning because I’m having a party on Sunday night and none of you are invited.”
A jocular sarcasm littered his delivery. Commands came in quick order: “And police the area before you leave, every square inch of the place, especially around the pool. Don’t use any of my linens unless you want to launder and press what you use before you go … which is late tomorrow afternoon.” He looked at the imaginary watch on his wrist.
The explanations came in a secondary moment, after a handshake with me. “I was in the 32nd. I know Kim. If you’re bad boys, he’ll get even for me. Now, I’m going back to bed. I won’t be here in the morning. My driver is picking me up very early. I’m glad you gents made it home. I’m pleased to see you’ve gotten together, for we’re always remembering somebody who didn’t make it back with us. A few of my guys will be here Sunday. I’ll tell them about you, then I’ll call Kim and let him know what you’ve been up to, like home invasion.”
The sarcastic laugh came renewed in a heavy cough, a shake of a smiling head, and then he shut off the flashlight, In the shadows of the night, under stars, I saw him shoulder the weapon and head off to bed, leaving the war zone for the night.
None of us ever saw him again, as far as I know, and we did police the area like a horde of nit pickers.
I’ve seen a few of them since then, like Leone and Mitlan, in McKees Rocks and Bethlehem and Kujawski (RIP) in Crown Point, Indiana, and Brendan (?) in Chicago and Chuck Rumfola in Buffalo, New York on one splendid two-day visit years later. Friends unto eternity.
Nay; comrades unto that forever.
Nicholas A. Tonelli from Northeast Pennsylvania, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D