After coming home from the war, John continued to strip cars despite the colostomy bag he now tucked in a pouch on his waist. Race car drivers from the county race track flocked to the salvage yard when they heard John was back home. They would’ve kept John busy rebuilding gears, suspensions, engines and drive trains but he didn’t want the anxiety, the aggravation of filling orders or keeping to schedules. And he hated repetitive work. John’s art, his expression, he felt, was best borne in building a hot rod out of a 1944 sedan delivery, or 1942 Ford panel truck.
“Everyone needs to find something that helps them get along with what they got,” Hiram told Rita when she worried about John working in the yard with his colostomy bag. “You can’t take away the few things that give a person pleasure.”
“Oh, there’s all sorts of things people do to give ’em pleasure. You know, Ralph and I were talking…”
“You two are always gabbin’ about things you don’t know a thing about. It isn’t about living in the eyes of others, it’s about accepting life as meaningful and purposeful. John is who he is and you have to respect that.”
One day in the Fall of 1963 Bill walked into the yard just as if he had been there all along. John hadn’t thought much of Bill the past few years. Rita mentioned something about dad having to let him go but it was unimportant to John and he had forgotten about it.
Bill had been hanging around Dev Gavlin’s horse stable for two years after losing his job with Trenton. Virgie encouraged him to send his poetry to various publications but all of his submissions were rejected, save for a few zine publishers for unpublished poets.
His foot had been aching him constantly when he lost his job with Trenton. He had a permanent muscle strain from his lower shin to the top of his foot and he walked with a cane. He applied hot compresses and constantly massaged his foot and leg. Virgie knew he would have a rough go in life but she was also worried she would have to take care of him for the rest of his life. She was hopeful after he discarded the cane and his foot was getting stronger. And when he was walking three miles a day she was convinced he’d had enough time to rest up for another push into the work force.
Virgie was home Monday through Thursdays, in Chicago the rest of the time. Bill had been reading poetry, watching TV, drawing pictures, and eating boiled beans and fried potatoes. It was almost two years before Virgie could see that Bill’s limp was almost unnoticeable and that he was capable of getting a job. She let him take the car but she told him he had to leave the house at 7:30 AM and could return after 5:PM. He thought about it the night before as he went to sleep and could only think of working with the Hapflik’s.
John remembered Bill when he saw him pull in to the yard. He had been thinking lately that it would be great if he didn’t have to talk to so many goddamn know-it-alls every day. John gave a smirk of gratitude to the God who was listening to that prayer. Bill saw the smirk and was a bit offended; he misread it as an air of authority. Still, it was better to put up with it from John than from somebody he didn’t know. Bill came up to John and both stooped under the hood of a Jeep listening to a screeching belt.
“Remember where we keep the alternators?” asked John in the deep monotone he had affected since Bill had last seen him.
“I don’t imagine you came to talk,” said John without expression. “Dad’ll be glad to have ya around.”
Bill would find out John wasn’t usually in a good mood and generally bitched about politics or the evening news. Bill wasn’t sure how he felt about politics any more. No matter how much of it he heard on the radio, saw in the paper, he was never convinced by any of it. John mused that communities were families nestled together, each with their space in the neighborhood, a voice of the community with degrees of class distinction, just like apes. The humans just moved more elegantly, had more intricate use of their fingers, made more calculations for their own amusement. Bill laughed. And he noticed it was the first time he had laughed in years. All humans were still just apes, we just delude ourselves with our reasoning amusement which leads us to believe we are more civil than we have a right to think.
Bill wasn’t as nimble with tools as John and Hiram but he wielded a quick and accurate torch, and he could use the tow truck and drive a hilo. Rita objected but John told her to mind her own business. He had to run the business and Bill was a good helper and that was that. Though neither he nor Hiram pushed it by ever inviting Bill into to the house.
John had little tolerance for the puritan rhetoric of people around him but he still watched the political news to keep in mind the things he hated. No nation’s politics were above scrutiny. Everyone’s personal independence was the real war at hand. No political leader ever spoke into a microphone without the support of money. But power always benefits itself and is never magnanimous. Powerful personal independence never served the employer best, nor the government. An American owed his existence to the United States of America.
John was fighting in Indonesia while Kennedy and Kruschev engaged the media; yet, his loyalty was with the president and the nation while being on constant look out for snipers and rush attacks from squads of Vietcong. For John, communism was an ideology of servitude. Lenin and Mao were just theory to the Americans around John, while he had seen communism used as a tool for those strong enough and smart enough to seize power.
Hiram and John were watching a documentary about the Korean War, and as the wounded American soldiers were being carried back on stretchers Hiram pointed out one of the bearers and the casual way he was walking, “Lookit that. You never see a communist soldier swinging his hips like that for the camera. Betcha we don’t see any footage of the enemy swaggering like that. Too afraid to slouch.”
“Servitude,” answered John dryly.
There was no footage of the North Koreans or the Chinese slouching on camera, but Hiram and John watched a slaughter of men being fed, wave after wave, into a buzzsaw of bullets, grenades, bayonets and bombs. “The Chinese communists under Mao had deposed Chiang Kaishek, and the Koreans supported Kim in the countryside more than Rhee,” the narrator told them. “Communism relies on a compulsory grassroots organization of village communities. This way, it spreads like a rash, indoctrinating the poor and empowering them through rhetoric and compulsory military enlistment.”
“Hey, isn’t that what Kaishek did before Mao?,” Hiram asked but John didn’t answer. John couldn’t see any man marching to death under Stalin, Mao, or Chiang Kaishek, but in the end every man faced death under duty, no matter the ideology of the those who gave the orders.
“In contrast with the Chinese forces, who marched in the cold with ragged supply lines in canvas shoes…” the narrator continued. John blocked out the droning voice of the narrator and saw soldiers posing for the camera; the American with his dignity, fighting for the good of capitalism and another generation of American existence. It was for the right to choose between jobs, schools and politicians that John hoped to help bring to nations fighting the soul-slaughtering communism. As John saw it, the Chinese communists gained a stronghold on their country by breaking its spirit, sacrificing tens of millions through revolution and fighting in WWII, Korea; and now countless had died of famine; all because of power. The world was an orbit of discordant branches of ancestry with bodies indoctrinated into the ways of certain people in certain places in certain times in history; all denying the right of others to be equal without some some sort of physical resolution.
It was scary to think of living in China in 1963. Comparatively, Americans lived as gods with our houses and possessions and communications. But even the Chinese had capital and output, producing, selling, discarding, repeat. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and now Vietnam. The goal was not a military victory over communism, or any other ideology, but a stalemate to produce a foothold for the American capitalism that had taken over the interests of European nations.
In the ninth grade John had argued with Bill, who had repeated Virgie, that the goal of the military wasn’t to win some conflict. To win or lose was just media talk. Military activity benefited corporate contractors that employed people. The free market of military commerce – logistics, weaponry, aircraft, tanks, electronic equipment and supervision – was driven by quarterly profits thanks to the procurement of funds from governments like the United States.
John read in the newspaper every night about the Soviet tanks asserting power and crushing rebellion and was youthful enough to want to fight the bully communists. But after returning from Indonesia John recalled that Ike had warned about the military industrial complex in his farewell speech. Now the military industrial complex superseded the soldier his father had been, and which MacArthur symbolized.
John didn’t trust Nixon. He was high on Goldwater before he enlisted, after returning home he despised him for thinking the allies should atomic bomb the North Vietnamese. The Russians would retaliate, the Chinese would swarm Indonesia, and WWIII would be under way. So went the narrative in John’s brain. For John, the war, any war was far removed from the specter of the evening news. He would lie awake at night trying to figure it out: why? He heard that the U.S. had to contain the communist aggression, especially after the Berlin Blockade and the clamp down in Hungary in 1956, but in Korea, MacArthur was insane to start up with an enemy that combined the technology of the Soviets and the manpower of the Chinese. Truman had saved the world by removing MacArthur.
“They should’ve let MacArthur conquer the Chinese,” Rita often asserted along with uncle Ralph. It was a point of contention between Hiram and Ralph. MacArthur’s world was one of military conquest. But as John now saw it – taking up Bill’s argument – in the best of all possible economic worlds the wars never end. Governments keep spending for military equipment and services, and the attrition caused by war contributes to the prosperity of the surviving; and if a few tens of millions die of famine it is only for the good of the nation. Those who died in war would only have died in poverty anyway, aside from a few exceptions whose outcomes were apparently destined by some God or another. Uncle Ralph was aghast at John.
“I don’t think I like that kind of cynicism,” said uncle Ralph.
John shoveled a hunk of meatloaf into his mouth quickly followed by a spoonful of gravy. Nobody said anything. With his expressionless face and fish eyes leveled at uncle Ralph he uttered, “God’s in your head, uncle Ralph. He ain’t a member of congress.”
“He is on the chamber of commerce, I think,” Hiram noted. The comment almost made John laugh. A hint of a snicker appeared. He knew it did because his mother gave him that hot look she always did just before saying, “you wipe that smirk off your face, mister.” This time she kept the comment to herself.
For a few months after Hiram passed away, uncle Ralph was over every day to see Rita, and John grew more and more agitated with the constant talk of nationalism and freedom. One night ,when John was trying to watch the evening news, uncle Ralph was telling Rita that JFK had done the right thing by committing more troops to South Vietnam, but then Johnson seemed like another Truman, talking tough but afraid to commit to the destruction of communism.
John looked at uncle Ralph and said in a forced tone, “why don’t you shut the hell up? Just once. Just…shut the fuck up.” Uncle Ralph was quiet for a half hour and then protested to Rita at the door when he left. Rita confronted John. All John said was, “you two haven’t any idea what freedom means to a gun.”
Through Virgie’s open door one day, Bill saw a large creature devouring a boy. Virgie told him it was Venus consuming her son – a Venus of mixed gender with breasts and a large, erect penis.
Clara had inherited an endowment fund for the arts and an artist colony in Vermont, and Virgie was going to stay there for three months. Bill was left alone. He had the car but little money for gas. A small allotment which Virgie left that was to cover food and anything else he needed for three months was quickly gobbled up. Unfortunately, she had not paid the electric bill and Bill had to use most of the money to turn the electricity back on.
It was when Virgie returned from her artist retreat that she informed Bill he had to earn his own way and he returned to the Hapfliks. In time, Rita Hapflik relented to Bill’s presence in the yard. She watched him through the kitchen window. He didn’t seem to say much. He was deferential to John and he was there to lift heavy objects for Hiram. She laughed to think that she could be comforted knowing that it was Bill who was there to look after both of her men.
Besides Hiram’s declining health, she was worried John was sinking in spirit. It involved more than religion. Besides, she would never be able to get him to go to church. She knew he was drunk every day but the moroseness and drunkenness was a symptom of a greater illness, one that she could not fight by herself. She prayed for him but no longer believed in him.
John told her that he could see no redeeming value in changing the nature of foreign people. Everyone was part of a barbaric society for which they sacrificed themselves by walking into the line of fire at the command of an officer. Rita strongly disagreed. All societies had to be given a chance. Maybe the Asians were still in more of a barbaric state and had to learn from us how to be civilized.
“They are just as civilized as us,” said John. “They don’t have the technology to match our cruelty but they make up for it with viciousness. If they become our predators it is because we teach them to be.”
“Well, rather to be the hunter than the hunted,” said Rita.
John remembered lying in a ditch waiting to be killed. He knew what it was like to be both hunter and hunted. He wasn’t sure what higher purpose was involved when his killer was distracted and skipped him. If God was going to speak through the man who distracted the soldier then God could’ve spoke before all the other soldiers in the platoon were killed. When it was just he who had been saved on several occasions, only to be returned to the junkyard to live with a colostomy bag: what higher purpose could that have for himself? A poster soldier boy didn’t wear a colostomy bag.
Even if all that had happened to him didn’t happen, he couldn’t be a salesman for the military industry, slinging uncle Sam slogans at kids to go die for those seeking corporate power. He thought of uncle Sam as sort of like Saul the tax collector, vehemently crucifying Christians and then the conversion; to be one with them in order to have authority over them. “I am just like you, you are just like me. We must serve each other.” But just what were we serving, and for whom? Ideology is accompanied by a nervous herd fervor that is always on the lookout for direction from that which is deemed higher than the individual self.
Maybe God was just having a bad day each time John had suffered at the hands of the Vietcong, or the Viet Minh. His mother would put it into Jobean perspective, somehow. And for that he loved her. His mother was practical and demanding, but the world went on and she was going to make sure she was right there with it.
John, however, slunk from living, and stayed away from her when he was tanked at the end of a day of wrenching auto parts and drinking beer. Rita saw one day just how much beer he was drinking when she saw John running out of the garage at 10:AM to puke and then walk back to the fridge in the garage to get another beer.
By the time John was 27, he was drinking a case of beer every day and smoking weed with a group of veterans who gathered around him wherever he was working. Hiram still managed to come out to the garage to help out most mornings, while Bill greeted customers and did repairs. By 11:AM John would polish off half the case and go in to get something to eat, followed by a nap.
Hiram would rest in his chair until John came in and then hobble out to the garage and putter around until John came back out. His neck gave him constant sharp pains that made it hard to see and he had vertigo that always made it feel like he was about to fall down.
After Hiram passed away John would be up at 5AM, drinking a case of beer by 2PM and then going in for the day. Bill did all of the towing and even worked clean up detail for the sheriff after auto accidents. He was doing the important work but was being paid as much as a high school worker. John would forget their conversations about getting Bill more pay, and Bill would have to get any signatures he needed from John in the early morning. Bill began to fill out job slips and have John sign them so he wouldn’t argue with customers who came while Bill wasn’t there.
The business was getting so backed up with brake work, body repair and tuneups that Bill began to deal more with the customers than John, who wasn’t to be seen much of the time. Rita, assured by Gail Gavlin that Bill was a good person, began coming out at 11 AM to talk with Bill and see what John was doing. Rita called the accountant and had Bill’s pay raised. She believed that God watched over everyone in some way and that Bill was looking over her son and the memory of her husband. This Bill, whom she treated so badly just because of something she overheard. If Gail Gavlin said he’s a good man than he probably is.