Just before my outfit left for Vietnam I went to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, to photograph a training exercise. I drove there from Ft. Benning, and on the Saturday afternoon that I was to return I found a skinny, worried-looking PFC waiting beside my big Pontiac Bonneville.
“’Scuse me, PFC,” he said, none too sure of himself.
I said my first name and stuck out my hand. He shook it perfunctorily, like a ritual whose purpose he didn’t quite understand.
“Call me Henry,” he said. “I heard you was driving back to Benning, and I wondered if I could ride along. I could chip in for gas and oil…”
Why the hell not, I thought.
No good deed ever goes unpunished. Thirty minutes out of Fayetteville, Henry dropped the other boot. “Say, is there any way I could get you to go a little out of the way, so’s I could stop by home and say goodbye to my folks?” he said. “Before we ship out for Vietnam and all?”
As if he’d just that minute thought of it.
I pulled off the road and broke out a map. “Show me,” I said.
He traced the detour with a dirty fingernail: Instead of heading south through Columbia and then on to Atlanta, we were to swing west, then north through the mountains and on up to a crossroads just over the Tennessee line.
“Just a couple of hours north of Ashville, and then coming back we could drop down through Chattanooga and then it’s a straight shot to Atlanta.”
In other words, 300 miles out of our way.
“That’s an extra tank of gas,” I said. “Maybe more.”
“I’ll buy the gas,” he said. “Got almost twenty dollar.”
At twenty-five cents a gallon, a tank of pre-OPEC regular leaded went for under five.
I’m not sure why I didn’t say no, or suggest that he take a bus from Columbia. Maybe it was because we had only the weekend and I knew little about this part of the country. An adventure, I thought. What the hell. Maybe I’d never get another chance to see rural Tennessee.
“Let’s do it,” I said, and we eased back into traffic.
The sun was just over the trees when we stopped in front of Henry’s home in a bushy hollow. I saw a tired pile of weathered wood and peeling paint that seemed ready to collapse onto a sagging porch. I looked at Henry, mouth agape.
“Round here we say, ‘Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash,’” he shrugged.
Inside we found his parents and three little sisters sitting around a bare table on a bare plank floor surrounded by walls bare bur for a calendar with a picture of Jesus as a honey blonde with pain in his blue eyes.
The looks on Henry’s parents and sisters’ faces mirrored the calendar.
“Who died?” I blurted before my brain arrested my tongue.
“It’s your brother,” said Henry’s mom, only forty-something but all wrinkled skin and jutting bones. For all her Sunday-go-to-meeting attire — it was 7:00 am — she seemed as tired and worn as the house.
“What happened?” asked Henry.
The story tumbled out in roundabout fashion, parts supplied by first one youngster, then another. Henry’s dad sat silent, brooding.
The upshot was that Henry’s 16-year-old brother, William, was in a cell at the Justice of the Peace’s Office.
He’d gone to work at the crossroads gas station the previous evening. Friends came by. They’d offered him a jar of something pale and potent: corn liquor. When he woke up, Mr. Granville, who owned the station as well as the adjacent grocery store, was standing over him. His friends were long gone. The cigar box that had held the cash was empty. The pump meter said the box should have held nearly forty dollars.
I turned to Henry. "We've got to head back to Benning," I said.
"I know. But…"
"I can't leave William in the hoosegow."
"It was 40 bucks. He's a kid. What could they do to him?"
"Could we talk outside?"
We stepped out on the porch and Henry closed the door.
"It's Sunday,” he said.
I nodded, as if to say, so what?
“In an hour ‘most everybody in town will be in church. If William ain't there, people will wonder why. Time the Reverend gives the lesson, everyone will know that William drinks and is friends with thieves. Makes ma and pa look real bad."
"What do you expect me to do about it?"
"Could you maybe drive me over to talk to Mr. Granville?"
“The gas station owner? I thought your brother was in jail.”
“Granville’s Justice of the Peace, too.”
So the victim of this crime was also judge and jury. Sweet, I thought.
I wanted to be on my way. But right then I had an idea.
Half an hour later, wearing my one suit, a starched white shirt and a conservative tie and accompanied by Henry’s parents, I entered the general store. My hair was GI short, but this was the South and crew cuts were common; I just hoped Granville wouldn’t notice my black, Army-issue shoes.
He was a big man gone to fat, wearing pressed trousers and a Panama hat over some kind of off-white cotton shirt, his jowls quivering with indignation. When he saw William’s parents he went off on them, growling that the young pup in his lockup didn’t have the sense of a good hound, wondering why he’d lacked the upbringing to refuse moonshine, and so forth. He vented for a good ten minutes. I let him wind down and then, before Henry’s parents, whom I had asked to remain silent, could speak, I introduced myself.
I never actually said that I was a lawyer, just that my office wasn’t too far from Atlanta, that I’d been visiting one of the boy’s relatives, and that the family had asked me to represent them in this matter.
It was a tissue of truths. As far as it went.
Granville turned to Henry’s parents, and they nodded.
He looked out the window and gave my big, year-old Bonneville a long, appraising stare.
“Well, what are you looking for?” said the big man.
“Bail,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll want some kind of hearing before you dispose of this, but in the meantime, if you have the authority, I’d like to make it possible for this young man to accompany his family to church this morning, where he might be instructed in the Lord’s wisdom and perhaps see the error of his ways.”
All this in my best approximation of a good ole Georgia boy’s accent.
“Certainly, I’ve got the authority,” said the big man, indignant at my implied challenge. I kept my mouth shut, waiting.
“Bail will be fifty dollars. Plus full restitution,” he said.
That was more than a month’s take-home pay for an Army PFC in 1965. Fortunately, I’d drawn a per diem advance for my temporary duty; springing William would leave me broke except for an emergency twenty I kept in my shoe and a couple of dollars in parking change.
And I had to make a car payment the next week.
Maybe I could get an advance on my pay, I thought, as I counted the money into Granville’s outstretched hand.
Half an hour later, Henry’s family, including the chastened William, was in church and Henry and I were on the road to Chattanooga.
“What do think’ll happen to your brother?”
“Probably nothing,” replied Henry. “Granville is just about money, is all. But I’ll pay you back. Every cent.”
I mentioned my impending car payment. “When do you think that might be?”
“Army sends some of my pay home every month.” he replied, shamefaced. It’s gonna take me awhile.”
I grunted, thinking that I didn’t know if he’d return from Vietnam alive. Or if I would. Or if I’d still have legs and arms.
For a long moment the only sound was the purring of the Pontiac’s big engine and the wind rushing past the car.
"What’ll you do about your car payment?" asked Henry.
"I won't need a car in Vietnam," I said.
“I’ll pay you back, you’ll see.”
Maybe, I thought.
“If you come back in one piece, I want you to paint that house."
“I’ll pay you back. Every dime,” he insisted.
I did run into Henry in Vietnam, and he had no cash but did me a big favor. Then we lost track of each other. And although he never repaid the money, by the time I got back from the war I didn’t much care.
In 1990 I flew back to Georgia for a veterans reunion. Over 4,000 men attended, but Henry wasn't among them.
Before returning home I rented a car and drove all night to a Tennessee hamlet. As the sun came up, I wondered if I could find Henry's house again.
It turned out to be easy. It was the only one in the hollow that had been painted in years.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.