One of my teenage friends from down the street was Gary Black, and with his green teeth and twirp ears and deformed tongue that made it a little difficult for him to speak and hold in his saliva, I might not have ever been his friend, except that I found fascinating the way Gary reveled in his peculiarities and deficiencies as a way of shocking those who were planning on spending their life avoiding oddities such as himself.
My mother often suggested I drop Gary as a friend because I told the whole truth about Gary. Little did she know that other more presentable friends I had who passed her judicious inspection were much more broken, insulated, self-absorbed, damaged, and damaging. Some of the things they said or failed to say still hurt, and I still soothe the wounds they inflicted. Gary, however, left no such wounds. But he did leave this earth in a shocking and eerie manner. This is the story of his death and it's a long tale, for it took twenty years to unfold.
I never played with army men as a child. Other boys had the various shades of green plastic extruded men, but I stared at them with dread. "What in the hell is this guy holding a machine gun for?" was my usual thought. "And why are they killing each other?" I wasn't afraid to strap on a gun and holster and shoot some bad guys tryin' to steal Dale Evan's horse and pretend that I could sing as well as her husband Roy, but I'll be durned if I wanted to go out on a battlefield and die in glory killing a bunch of guys just like me who are doing it for the same reason I am: so we won't go to jail like Muhammed Ali did. Die with valor and glory? That ain't glory! And I sensed it as a child. Powerful instincts screamed at me to stay away from war.
By the time I became a young man, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a corrupt Texas politician, had become the President of the United States of America. I had worked with others to defeat this man as a Young Republican, and as history shows, we were soundly defeated. The historic trouncing the Republicans received at the polls left me discouraged at the ability of the American people to choose the proper leader, and it became a valuable lesson. The American public will not necessarily vote for the best choice of leaders to lead our country. As much as I admire LBJ's civil rights legislation, I feel somewhat vindicated by his dismal spending record and his tragic war in Vietnam. To think that LBJ and his campaign director, Bill Moyers, were able to convince the American people that Barry Goldwater would lead us into war!
Lyndon Baines Johnson was the epitome of someone I did not want to pledge my allegiance to, and I knew that if I went into the military I would be his subject and he would arm me with a machine gun, and I had seen what they did to Muhammed Ali who claimed religious immunity, and I wasn't a registered Quaker, so I checked out other ways to get out of the Army draft.
I discovered that anyone who had certain types of ulcers would be considered "unfit for duty." I remembered that I had been diagnosed with peptic ulcers when I was in the ninth grade. I remember it was the ninth grade because that is when I was at the age to begin driving, and my mother would often tell me that I was too nervous to drive, what with my peptic ulcers and all. I considered this a misdiagnosis, because there was no way I would ever outworry my mother, and she had a driver's license.
Without thinking much about what the words "unfit for duty" meant, I went to the physician who had diagnosed my ulcers and he kindly agreed to write a letter stating the fact that indeed, I had been diagnosed with peptic ulcers. I took his letter with me to the physical exam given to all Army inductees as I had been instructed.
I went through the whole routine:
I watched hippies outside the building where the physicals would take place. They were shoveling in raisins by the handful because they heard that excess iron in the blood caused by ingesting a lot of raisins would cause the doctor to reject them for miltary service. I was too morose over the prospect of bein' forced to shoot at "gooks" to tell them that if they weren't gonna be rejected for wearin' tie dye and reekin' of marahoochie, I didn't believe that some much needed iron and a case of shake-itis of the blowhole later once the raisins kicked in would make much of a difference.
I watched in horrid fascination as the physical examination scene from Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" unfolded. This included but is not limited to hearing such phrases as: "Completely strip down. Turn your back to me. Spread your legs. Now bend over as far you can" or "You have great hearing. We'll give you a walkie-talkie and put you right in the middle of all the shootin' 'cause you'll be able to hear over all the gunfire" or "Turn your head to the right and cough" or "You're not afraid o' dyin', are ya?" or "If there are any weenies and pussies who think they are too special to serve in Uncle Sam's Army and save America from its enemies, please step forward and present your pitiful excuses for not performing your military service to your country.
That's when I stepped forward and presented some fellow in a uniform the letter from my family physician. He looked at it, then proceeded to stamp so many documents so quickly it looked like he was tryin' to be funny and I almost laughed, but by this time nothin' was funny, not even Bill Cosby. This soldier finished stamping a dozen documents a dozen times, looked up at me and said, "You'll go after the women and children. Please step through that door."
To my right was a door. I opened it and found myself standing in an alley of the same building I had entered for the exam. I turned around and the door was locked behind me. I stepped out into that downtown traffic thinking my problems were over.
I discovered that I was given the military draft classification of IV-F, an albatross that would perch on my crow's nest for years. I was not a worldly man so I didn't figure it out for a long time. All I knew is that all of a sudden, for some reason, I couldn't land a decent job. I realized years later, when draft status was no longer required on resumes, that I immediately started getting better jobs. Then it hit me! I checked on it and it was true! The draft classification IV-F included people with serious mental illnesses. No one would hire me 'cause I they thought I was nuts. I think it was very dishonest of the U.S. Army to make that information common knowledge.
Later I was given a drug that cured me of ulcers. I knew I wasn't any more nervous than anyone else. Ulcers are not caused by nervousness and mental dysfunction; they are caused by a bacteria. It was all an old wives' tale. My ulcers were easily eliminated with a simple drug named Tagamet. Suddenly, no more pain on an empty stomach.
As bad as my situation was, Gary Black didn't fare as well. Gary was inducted into the Army, made a cook, and shipped off to Vietnam. He came back with the typical traumas of every soldier but with a "twist."
Gary claimed that he died in Vietnam. After he said it three times, I remembered he said it and knew it for what it was: a very unusual comment that called on me to inquire further. I quizzed him about it. All he would say was, "I don't know how to say it. All I know is, I died in Vietnam. And I know when I died. I am not supposed to be here. I'm supposed to be dead."
I asked Gary to tell me when he died. It took him a few months to get up the courage to tell me, then he told me of the night he died.
"I woke up in the middle of the night and heard gunfire. It was real close so I knew the gooks had penetrated our camp. I ran from my tent straight into a bunker. It was like in the movies. The guy behind me got shot. He was just a second slower than me, and he got hit hard with machine gun fire. He was dead. I hid in the bunker for a long time listening to everybody scream. It was like a nightmare. Guys were yellin' and screamin' like animals. Later, when the sun came up and the shooting died down, the few guys in my unit that were still alive came out of hiding. I'll never forget what we saw. Our guys' bodies had been mutilated, shot up with so many bullets you couldn't tell who they were. Some of the bodies had their penises cut off and their penises were nailed to trees and door frames and other stuff. It was like a nightmare. It was all gory. What was weird was there wasn't any bodies of any gooks. Not a one. Not even a sign of any. How could the gooks come into our camp and do all that stuff to us without gettin' shot? And if they were shot, how could the gooks haul off all the bodies and not even leave a trace of them? It was horrible. All I know is, I am supposed to be dead."
Gary slowly dropped the topic and never bought it up again, but years later out of the clear blue I could ask him, "Gary, are you alive?" Without hesitation, he'd say, "Nah. I'm not supposed to be here."
I moved to another city and years later I received a phone call from a mutual friend of Gary's. She sounded very serious and concerned.
"I think Gary is going crazy. He's seeing things."
"What kind of things?"
"He's imagining people that aren't there."
"Does he seem normal otherwise? Is it just these people he sees?"
"Yeah, he's still Gary, as normal as that is, but he's goin'around telling everybody about these imaginary people he's seein'. To tell you the truth, I'm seriously worried about Gary. Of course, he got fired from his job for telling everybody there about these imaginary people,"
"He lost his job? He loved that job. He needed that job."
"Yeah, but he told everybody at work and so they fired him. He's more concerned about these people he sees than his job."
"Thanks for letting me know about it. I'm gonna call Gary right now."
And I did, right then and there. Gary was at home probably doing what he always did when he didn't have a job or anything to do. He was sittin' in front of the TV and drinkin' a cream soda.
Gary told me that something weird was goin on. He told me he was seeing strange people that weren't human. The first time he saw one, the nonhuman was standing at the side of the road. Gary said, "He was starin' right at me, and he wasn't a human." I asked Gary if he looked human, and he said that he was close to being human, but he couldn't quite describe it. It was more of a "feeling" that they weren't human. he told me they didn't look right. "They aren't human," is all he could say. More people standing at the side of the road appeared, and then he saw them in cars driving beside him, or going the other way, or the one that scared him the most. It was a non-human looking out of the rear passenger seat of a car that was on an overpass that Gary was driving underneath. He said that one scared him the most because when he saw that one, he knew all of these inhumans were truly watching him, and they were increasing in numbers.
Gary told me he told everyone about it but he was sure no one believed him. His bosses at work heard about it and fired him because they said he was losing his mind. I told Gary I believed him. I told him I didn't believe that he was just seeing these inhumans. I told him I believed him all the way. The inhumans were actually there. I didn't tell him that in order to gain his confidence or to "cure" him. I did it because I know Gary. They were there. No one else saw the inhuman look on their faces, but Gary did, and I told him I believed him.
We talked a few more times over the next few weeks and months. Gary said he enjoyed being at home and not out in public because the inhumans were never at his house to frighten him. They were only out in public. We never talked about Vietnam and his night of terror, and I don't think either one of us ever made the connection.
A phone call came one evening. Gary had died of a heart attack sitting in front of his television set, probably with a cream soda in his hand. I wrote his mother and told Mrs. Black that her son, Gary, was one of the most interesting and best friends I ever had, and I would miss him.
Years later, I watched a movie titled "Jacob's Ladder" starring Tim Robbins and Elizabeth Pena. I won't comment on my interpretation of the movie, although my story of Gary's death probably gives you some insight as to what my interpretation may be, but I will ask this question.
It is possible for a citizen to commit treason against their own government. Is it possible for a government to commit treason against its own citizens?