Ole’ Tin-tin -Chapter Four

“We started our training,” grandpa said.  “Most of us had never even seen the kind of weapons we were given, much less fired one.  We were given gear that we didn’t really know what to do with, and there wasn’t much help from the other guys, because they were just as green as we were.  There were the usual physicals and jumping jacks, getting used to very little sleep, eating horrible food and getting yelled at like we were less than vermin, but we muddled through.  Before we knew it, the six weeks were over and we were loaded onto a C-123, headed to Vietnam.”

“When we landed, we jumped out of that plane and like so many others, were ready to do our part.  We were going to save the world by wiping out the bad guys.  We were going to make ripples.  God, we were so na├»ve.”

“One of the first things we saw were the other platoons, coming back from a search and destroy mission.”  Grandpa looked down for what seemed to be several minutes before he continued.  His voice almost broke when he said “back then, I couldn’t speak to the horrors of war.  I could only speak to the emptiness in the eyes of those who fought and by some miracle, survived physically, but would remain forever changed.”

“They didn’t speak to us.  Hell, they didn’t even look at us.  They just walked by like they were in a daze.  We didn’t really know what to make of them.”

“We were told to go find our platoon leader, Staff Sargent Weston.  While wandering around like a pack of lost puppies, we heard the other guys saying things like, ‘they’re idiots, don’t know where to go when they’re walking around, don’t know what to take with them, don’t know how to wear their gear or carry their weapons properly, can’t respond to basic commands, waste their ammo, and flake out.  Hell, they even cry and start calling for their mamas, because they’re homesick.  They’re liabilities, boys, so watch your sixes.  They kind of saw us as a dangerous handicap, and figured we’d get snuffed out the first time we were sent ‘in country’.”

“George and I weren’t too bothered by what they said.  Neither of us had a clue what lay ahead…and when I think back, it was probably a blessing.”

“We finally found Weston.  He had been in country for a while and I remember that he had this blank look on his face.  When we walked up, he looked at George and said, ‘goddamn boy.  You look like a tree.  These boys are going to have to dig a trench for you to walk in.  Otherwise, you’re going to be a moving target.  Now, everybody get your shit together.  We’re heading out tomorrow at first light’.”

“When morning came, we were ready and our emotions ranged from being excited to anxious to worried to being scared shitless.  Sargent Weston was a man of few words and gave us the most basic instructions about what to do and what not to do.  ‘Never salute an officer, keep your powder dry, and if you get lost,’ he said, ‘whatever you do, don’t call out.  Just stay put, keep your head down and we’ll find you…eventually…and tree…keep that goddamned harmonica stowed in your pants’.  Apparently, along with the rest of the camp, Sargent Weston had heard George playing ole tin-tin.”

Grandpa looked down and said, “waiting on our helicopter, we saw soldiers unloading bodies from another one, laying them in a row, and covering them with tarps.  Then we watched as they threw huge buckets of water in the cargo hold to wash away all the blood.  Sargent Weston looked at the pilot and asked, ‘how many’?  The pilot said, ’38’.”

“I think, not yet able to grasp the concept of what war really was, I imagined he was asking about soldiers who had been wounded.  I remember when we took off, the wind from the helicopter blades blew off all those tarps, and we were looking at dead soldiers.  Things started to become a little more real for me after seeing that.  I was looking at ripples.”

I asked Grandpa if he would like to take a break.  I laughed when he said, “yep.  Let’s go get us another Dr. Pepper.  Nowadays, there’s not much an ice cold Dr. Pepper can’t cure, don’t you think?”

He took a sip and started talking in an almost monotone voice, like he was reading from a script.  I think maybe it was the only way he could cope with the sadness and regret he felt as he began to open old wounds that had never really healed.

 

To be continued___________________

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Three

I couldn’t wait for him to continue, although I could tell that it was going to be painful.  I could see it in his eyes and I could hear it in his voice.  A sort of agonizing rendition of a life he had lived so many years ago.

But again, his voice seemed to have a lilt when he spoke of George.  He laughed and said, “George and I got on that Greyhound and as soon as we started rolling, he started singing.  I wasn’t sure if the rest of the guys were going to throw us off the bus or join in the fun, but after a few minutes of his caterwauling, they chimed right in.  Later, he had the whole bus rolling in the aisles when he gave one of the worst performances of the National Anthem you ever heard, but at least he remembered all of the words.”

I’ll tell you,” he said.  “George never met a stranger, and I never met anyone who didn’t instantly like him…with the exception of his sixth grade teacher, of course, and there was no excuse for the humiliation he got from that old bitty.”

“After a few hours on the road, George reached into his pocket and pulled out a harmonica.  I remember thinking ‘Oh, Good Lord.’  Anyway, he took to playing what I’m sure he thought was a symphony worthy performance.  To the rest of us, it sounded like a screeching banshee who was experiencing decapitation.”

“He was so proud of that harmonica.  When I asked him where in the world he had gotten it, he said, ‘at Lords’ Drugstore.  Remember…old Sandy Lords’ folks owned it?  Shoot…I even got a good-bye smooch on the cheek from Sandy before I left’.  Then he winked and said, ‘she said she’d wait for me’.  I laughed and said that even if I believed him, and I didn’t, he should have told her that he was going to be gone for a minute.”

“George looked at me and said, ‘you’re just jealous because you didn’t get a smooch and you don’t have this wonderful, marvelous, magical musical instrument in your pocket’.”

“That, I said, is just a piece of tin.  Tin!  The other guys heard me and started chanting ‘tin-tin…tin-tin…tin-tin, and from then on…that’s what it was called.”

I was curious about George and I asked Grandpa what he looked like.  He said, “what do you think he looked like?”  I said, “well, I think he was probably around five eight or nine, had sandy blonde hair, wore glasses; maybe had a few freckles sprinkled over his nose, was of average build and always had a wide grin on his face.”

Grandpa leaned over and looked at me with his intense eyes.  I thought he was going to say something like, “wow.  Pretty good guess,” but he didn’t.  Instead, he said “you might want to hold onto your day job, because I’m not sure you’d make it as a profiler.”

“George,” he said, “was six foot, six and a half inches tall.  He had jet black hair, pale blue eyes and was built like a wrestler, but you are right about one thing.  He always had a grin on his face.”

I’m not sure that I would describe the way my grandpa spoke about George as nostalgic or poignant.  It was more bittersweet, and to me, that was somehow more painful.

“Tell me more,” I begged.

Grandpa took a deep breath and continued.  “Well, we finally got to the base and I remember how we strutted off the bus, like we were all somebodies.  But it didn’t take very long for us to find out that we were nobodies.  We were just the newest green recruits…grunts…wide-eyed and bushy-tailed innocent soldier-wannabes.  FNGs.”

“We didn’t’ know it then…but we,” he said, “we were lambs being readied to be sent to the slaughter.”

I felt numb and couldn’t find any words.

Then grandpa looked at me and said, “do you realize that if you drop the ‘s’ from slaughter, it spells laughter?”

 

To be continued________________

 

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Two

Over the last few years, I began to notice that my grandfathers’ body had gotten old and frail and trying to ignore it had become futile.  I found myself mourning the man he used to be.  This remarkable man who had been such a powerful influence on my life, had a mind that was still sharp, but he was imprisoned in a worn-out, disintegrating shell.

We no longer walked down to the lake to throw stones, and spent most of our time sitting on the front porch, still drinking Dr. Pepper from the bottle and just talking, like before, but it was different now.  I believe he knew that he was running out of time when he said, “I’m not long for this world.”

He got up, took his cane and walked into the house.  When he came back, he was holding the box that housed Ole Tin-tin.  As he handed it to me he said, “I want you to have this now.”

I took it and realized that it was what used to be a harmonica.

“Was this yours?” I asked.  He shook his head and said, “no.  It belonged to my best friend.”

As he began to tell me the story about Ole Tin-tin, I didn’t know that it would be the last story he would ever tell.

“Do you remember the picture of the young man on the shelf?  That young man was me,” he said.  “It was taken when I was your age.  I was in my uniform and I was so proud.  There was a war going on, you know…the Vietnam War, and I had been called to serve.”

I had heard of that war but I never knew that my grandfather had been in the service, and I surely never knew that he had been in that war.  He never talked about it.  Nobody did.

“Are those medals yours?” I asked.  He said “yes.”  When I asked him what they were for, I could see the pain in his eyes as he thoughtfully paused and said, “for causing ripples.”

“Vietnam,” he said, “was a war no one wanted, and we didn’t know then, but it was a war we wouldn’t win.  Still, there were those of us who were duty-bound to serve our country…the country we loved, and when you love something, you should be willing to lay down your life to protect it.  That’s what so many young men did, and so many of those young men lost their lives doing just that.”

I put my hand on his and said, “Grandpa, you know how much I love your stories, but if it is too painful to talk about, I understand.  And I want you to know how precious your stories have been to me.  I cherish them and I cherish you.  Your stories will be with me forever and some day, I hope I’ll be telling them to my own grandson…or granddaughter, and maybe I’ll have a few of my own to tell.”

I wasn’t really sure what serving in the war had to do with an old harmonica, but his spirit seemed to lighten when he said two words.

“George Revelle.”  He shook his head and said, “George and I met when we were in the fourth grade.  We were caught smoking behind the school, and both got our little fannies warmed when we got home.  After that, we were inseparable.  We were like two grounded ships when we weren’t together and when we were together, we were like two peas in a pod.”  He smiled and said, “he was at my house more than he was at his own, and we sure could get up to some mischief.  That’s why I’ve always thought my mother had to have been a saint.”

“We told each other our secrets, shared our heartbreak when a girl didn’t give us a second glance, knew each others’ hopes and dreams, and planned to become millionaires by the time we were in our twenties.”

Then he looked down and said, “you know, time steals things.  It steals childhoods.  It steals hopes and dreams, but it’s not really about what time steals.  It’s about what it leaves behind.  Memories.  That’s what it leaves behind.”

He was quiet for a few minutes, and then laughed as he said, “George was something else.  His sixth grade teacher was what we called, back then, an old maid, and she was a mean-spirited woman.  He used to turn in his homework, with his name at the top…just like we all had to do, but he put Geo. Revelle.  One day, he said she held up his paper in front of the whole class and chastised him.  “You will sign your full name on your work.  This is pure laziness, and there is no room for laziness in my classroom’!”

“And,” he went on.  “He loved to sing.  Now, mind you, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it, but that didn’t keep him from belting out whatever song he last heard on the radio.  He sure did make me laugh.  I could be in the worst mood, but George would somehow, some way, do something to make me laugh and forget whatever was on my mind.”

“My orders came, and the day I told George that I was going to be headed to boot-camp, I couldn’t believe it when he said his orders had come as well and we were headed to the same base.”

 

To be continued______________

 

 

 

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter One

For as long as I can remember, it sat on the top shelf of my grandfathers’ bookcase, housed in a clear acrylic box with an engraved brass plate at the bottom that said “Ole Tin-tin.”  Next to it were several medals hanging from the picture of a young man.  I didn’t know who the man was and I had no idea what the medals were for…they were always just there.

I asked my grandfather about the box once.  I remember the sadness in his eyes when he looked at it and said, “that’s ole’ Tin-tin.  One day when you’re older, I’ll tell you the story about it; and when I’m gone, I’ll pass it along to you.”

I didn’t ask where it came from or what that name meant, and it was certainly nothing I would long for in the years to come.  I was too young to understand, and I really didn’t care.  To me, it was just some old rusty piece of metal.

I spent every summer with my grandfather and those warm, lazy days and nights would leave me with some of the best memories of my life.  I loved to listen to the stories he told about his childhood and he always had a twinkle in his eyes when he told me about the mischief he “got up to.”
He’d smile, shake his head and say, “my poor mother, bless her soul.  She had the patience of Job.  I don’t know how she survived raising me.”
Then he turned and said, “when I was a little boy, I was quite a handful, you know.”

As I grew older, I would come to appreciate the final five words he always said when it was time for me to go home.  “Be good to your mother.”

Sometimes my grandfather and I would go down to the lake and throw little stones.  He’d tell me to watch the ripples every time I threw one.  “See?” he said.  “Every time you throw a stone, whether it be little or big, it makes ripples in the water.  That’s a reaction.  It’s just like life.  Those ripples might not seem noteworthy to you, and may even be viewed as beautiful, but it disrupts the calm of the water.  Everything you do in your life will have a reaction.  It may be insignificant or it may be life-changing, so just be sure that you always try to do the right thing, and cause as few disruptive ripples as possible.”

I loved our times late in the afternoon.  It would be just the two of us, sitting on the front porch and drinking Dr. Pepper from the bottle.  I listened intently to his famous stories and what he called his “pearls of wisdom.”  He told me about how, as a little boy, he loved to run down the hill barefoot.  “There was a method to my madness, you see,” he said.  “If I could make it all the way down without stepping on a cow patty, I won.”

“Won what?” I asked.  He looked at me and said, “why bragging rights, of course.  Running all the way down that hill and making it to the bottom with nothing but a few grass stains on your feet was quite the conquest.”

“How many times did you win?” I asked.  He laughed and said, “only once, but it’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.  You see…sometimes, it’s the simplest, most innocent things from childhood that stay with you forever.”  His gaze drifted away as he quietly said, “and the loss of childhood innocence is always such a tragedy.”

He was a wise man, and a good man.  He never raised his voice, nor did he ever make me feel that I was anything less than the most special kid in the world.  When he sometimes used big words I didn’t understand, he always took the time to explain what they meant and would then smile and say, “see?  You just got a new wrinkle in your brain.”

The year I turned eighteen was the last summer I spent with my grandfather.

 

To be continued________________