The throaty rumble of the Firebird 400 became a growl as the tall young man tapped the clutch and shifted the jet black machine into 3rd gear, smoothly synchronizing the meshing gears. The twin air scoops on the hood inhaled the november chill, as the car accelerated, and the road became a blur.

               Matty glanced in the rear view mirror and watched the red cape cod house vanish  and the waving hands become tiny as the tail lights glowed in the dusk behind him, until there was just darkness… He clenched his jaw and fought away the tears , shaking his head in disbelief. This was HIS time, and no amount of doubt or sadness would change his mind. For the first time in his life, he was doing something for himself, free from the binds of military service and the war that had defined a generation.

               It was over, and with it, a new way of thinking. A nation now looked inward, and in it’s agony, forgot about the precious blood and the maimed heroes, and the indelible sound of the incoming mortars that still haunted the dreams of so many of it’s young men. It was too much to bear, and for many, easier to sweep away, into the dustbin of history. There, the white marble markers stretched on into the sunset as the mockingbirds called the rolls of the dead until the day when a granite wall would whisper the etched names once again.

             The young man would never forget, but would hide the pain of loss and the betrayal of his country deep inside while politicians fought on paper parapets and men of the cloth disparaged those left behind for how they loved in the face of all that pain. He was acutely aware, and had been for many years, that it was a simple thing to vilify someone different.  He had fought against that his entire life, and yet it was still in vogue as the lessons of history were lost on those who would not hear.

                 But now,  all of that was being left behind, as the green glow of the speedometer and the strobing lines on the asphalt road seduced the 21- year- old boy and the adrenaline pulsed through his body, raising goosebumps on his tanned arms. He checked the gauges again to make certain… Gas… Full. Oil pressure… 25 pounds and steady. Temperature… 165 and climbing. He’d glance at that gauge a thousand times on the journey south.

              This car was his escape. His jet to freedom, purchased with the money he saved from an early age and now it would magically lift him away, almost like a real jet, as the cockpit surrounded him in a dreamlike fashion with the multitude of gauges and lights.

                   He did not know what would happen, but he did know that whatever it was would change his life, and that was good enough.  At least for now. And so, he shifted into 4th gear and rolled the window down a little to let the cold air dry his eyes and brace him for the long road ahead.

                  It was almost 5:30 as the wide tires of the cruising car reached the concrete pavement of the Merritt Parkway and the road grew dark as the autumn sun sank from view, leaving Matty and the other travelers to light the way with their scattered headlights. The way south had become a ribbon of red, glowing taillights and oncoming streaks of strobing white lasers that grew in ferocity and vanished just as quickly, one after another… Endlessly.

            There was no need for a map. Matty knew the way to I- 95, and once he was there, it was mostly a simple matter of a long ride south where in the next 5 years, everything about his life would change. In those 5 years, he would live a dream that sometimes resembled a nightmare, as life dangled him in front of a ravenous tiger and challenged his courage and code. For that, he had no plan. It wouldn’t have mattered if he did.

              This story may take a while to recount. It is full of unimaginable twists and turns… Love and loss. Despair and vindication. I tell you now that it is the story of me, and it started long before that november eve, on a saturday in May in the year of our Lord, 1969…

                    “Bubba…”

                    “Huh?”

                     “What’re you thinkin’?”

                     “I don’t know… nothin’, I guess.”

                     “Nothin? Then, why is your heart pounding like that?”

                      “What’re you talking about, you maniac…”

                    Bobby laughed and rocked back, leaning his head on Matty’s shoulder. “Thump thump…th- thump thump! I can feel your heartbeat through my back and it got harder, just now!”

                       “Well, aren’t you the detective, huh?” The tall, blond teen sighed and closed his eyes. He cherished these moments in this special place. He and Bobby had found this hidden meadow the summer before and had come here to sunbathe during lunch… Bobby had insisted that they make their venture even more dangerous by stripping off their jeans and underwear and getting the full effect of the summer sun. He had even brought along a bottle of a coconut- scented tanning oil the second time, and had lavishly spread it across Matty’s back, in the most private areas, as he giggled with delight and his breathing became hoarse. Matty had shared in the sensual experiment, made all the more dangerous because of the remote possibility of discovery, by returning the favor, and kneading the oily mixture into the untanned backside and legs of his new lover.

                     They had only attempted this rendezvous a handful of times last year, because they discovered the meadow late in the summer, but this year they hoped to sneak away once a week, even if it was just to talk.

                      It was a time that both boys looked foward to, but the conditions had to be perfect. Today, the gentleman farmer was away and  the crews were being sent home early, except those that the tall boy deemed necessary to complete the planting of the tomato seedlings. They were nearly done, so Matty and Bobby became the final team, and  they were alone.

                      “Come on, Koles! What’re you thinking about? That cute kid, Trevor? … Yeah, I’ll bet that’s it! He really fills those shorts out, eh? Man, I had a tough time not looking at him this morning. He was sitting on the tractor wheel well and I could see right up his shorts! I think I saw the head of his pecker… I know I saw his balls! Man, he’s really …”

                          “OK.. OK!! Shut up already!! I was thinking about yesterday. You know, after the Memorial Day parade … The soldier with the missing hand in the cemetery. The one who I went over to talk to after the speeches”,  Matty blurted out.

                        Bobby was quiet for a moment. He sighed and turned his head until his mouth was near Matty’s ear. “He was a marine wasn’t he? Mike was army…”

               “Yeah. But he reminded me of Mike. He looked about the same age. I don’t know Bobby. I was standing there and I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mike had written and then I closed my eyes and it was like it all happened yesterday! I could feel him again… I was standing there with my head on his chest, asking if he could come home for my birthday, like some stupid kid… Like my birthday meant anything! He was heading off to war and all I could think about was my freakin’ birthday! “

                   “STOP!! What the hell are you talking about? You know that’s not true! You just didn’t want to let him go. You didn’t know how to keep him here. The whole thing about your birthday was so that he would come back to you, and he would have… At least from what you told me, you were like his family to him. A special brother. Don’t make it something that it never was! He’s gone. You can’t ever bring him back…”

                         ” I know… I know Bobby… But I don’t want people to forget, either.”

                Bobby sighed and  moved so that he was sitting by Matty’s side. He put his right arm around the slender boy and intertwined the fingers of his left hand with Matty’s. The two sat like that for a while as the nesting birds in the woods behind them sang their warnings to each other. Bobby finally broke the silence…

                          “What did you say to him, Koles?”

                           “The soldier?”

                            “Yeah, Corporal Nelson, right?”

                             Matty looked at his friend, startled. “How did you know his name? You stayed by the tree…”

                              Bobby giggled. “Hey, I can read! And I have eyes like a hawk! He had a name tag and the Corporal stripes… duh!!”

                              “Oh… right… Matty shrugged. “Well, I told him my name, and then I told him thanks.”

                              “Thanks?”

                              “Yeah… thanks. For risking his life to protect us… And then I told him I was sorry he lost his hand.”

                              “Geezz… you said that? What did he say?”

                               “Uh… Well, he said I was the first kid to tell him thanks and his voice started shaking.”

                               “Is that when you hugged him?”

                                “Yeah… I didn’t know what else to do… I remember that it helped Mike when I did that.”

                                “Did you tell him about Mike?”

                                “Kind of…”

                                “Kind of? Whatta ya mean?”

                             “Bobby… I kind of lied to him, and told him I lost a brother over there… I feel really bad about that. I didn’t know I was even going to say that! It just came out that way!”

                               The blond boy’s eyes filled with tears and he fought for composure. He reached up and wiped his face with the back of his hand and shook his head. “Bobby, I’ve been thinking about this a lot… It’s not right that Mike’s brothers will have to grow up without him. He did what he did for all of us, but he’s gone now, and nobody even really knows who he was. Do you know what I mean? He deserves more than that! He was a real hero! Somebody has to show people that he was a real man… Even if he loved me…”

                             It was too much to bear, and the 15- year- old boy buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Bobby held him close and tried to comfort the boy who meant so much to him, and wondered what it all meant. For the future of their love and the path that history had set in place. He did not know, but his best friend had already started a journey… the die was cast.

          The news had been bad for such a long time that it tore at the fabric of the great society … the place conceived in the mind of a compassionate president who had once believed in the moral obligations that made a great nation strong- that the greatness of a nation could be seen in the way it’s weakest and most vulnerable were cared for, no matter their race… That a great nation stood as a beacon to others. That  freedom was the grace bestowed on the descendants of struggle, who owed much to that legacy.

         Somewhere in his tenure, the bell of freedom ceased its joyful chime as the boys returned from that place halfway around the world, some who would never again drink from Freedom’s well. Others who would forever bear the scars of a misconceived and miscalculated arrogance. Remembered with despair, or forgotten with shame.

         By June of 1969, the ghosts numbered over 34,000 and each passing day brought new horrors to a devastated nation. Places like Mai Lai and Hamburger Hill, Khe Sahn and Quang Tri became emblazoned in the consciousness of those who were still listening.

       The blond farm boy was one of those. Each bit of news and the awful pictures that came from the tangled jungles of that strange land, hardened his resolve that this war must end, and if he was to enjoy the blessings of this blood- soaked liberty, he had a duty as clear as any that his father and uncles had faced a quarter century before. That freedom had never been free.

                            So, he prayed for strength on the hill overlooking the marsh to the south and the farm to the west and remembered… the words in a letter from one of the fallen and the tears in the eyes of another who had done their very best and were now passing the torch… He only asked to serve- as an honorable man.

                             Little did the boy know how difficult that would be.

July,  1972

              “All right gentlemen… Remember that all questions must be checked either yes or no, and for those that require some additional explanation, there is adequate space provided in those areas. Also, you may footnote the question and go to the last page of the questionnaire and you will see additional areas that can be used…”

                  The voice droned on and on as the young man sat at the desk in the assembly room with the long windows that looked out onto the terrazzo level of his new home. He felt the butterflies fluttering in his stomach and the telltale chill that accompanied them course through his body as he glanced at the other young men in the room. He wondered how many of them were just 17, like he was, and a sudden wave of homesickness rose from the depths and just as quickly disappeared, replaced by a searing realization… Question 23.  He read it again, and felt his face redden as it crystalized in his brain. ‘Are you a homosexual or have you ever engaged in homosexual activity?’

                         His hand trembled as he held the pen over the two boxes to the right of the question.

                   Yes or no. It really was quite simple. And in that moment, he knew that it was anything but simple. That the efforts of two years of preparation and competition that had finally resulted in his prestigious appointment hung at that very moment in the balance. That with one black check mark in the ‘yes’ box, he could annihilate all of the work and the risk that important people had taken by appointing him as a future leader in his country’s defense.

                     It was all so simple… He put the tip of the pen in the ‘no’ box and with that mark, dishonored the people who had meant the most to him, because there was no other way. He felt the tears starting to form in his eyes, but hardened his heart and pushed them away, as if the lie was a normal thing… The right way to start his service to the nation he loved. He moved to the next question and the one after but now it was just a blur as his shoulder’s slumped and his heart was heavy, like that of an old man who lived alone after a life of despair.

             After a while, the questions were over and the oath was taken, and with it, the promise,  “to protect and defend  the constitution of the United States Of America, so help me God.”

                  The blond haired boy steeled himself and lowered his hand like the rest of the young men as the solemnity of the moment settled over the quiet room. He looked at the shorter boy standing next to him and saw in his face, the look of determination that he felt on his own. That even tho this blessed nation had stumbled, she was still worthy of the blood spilled in her defense. That if the beacon would ever shine again, it would start with the new generation, and the conviction that honor was still an important  pillar of a free society.

            Matty took a deep breath and resigned himself to his fate. He was now at the mercy of a system that promised to make men from the ‘boys’ who walked through its gates.  But life had already taken away any innocence that the blond 17 -year-  old  ‘boy’ once had, and the barking commands that followed were lost in the shuffle of the seared memories from deep in his soul… Of  the things that had hardened his heart and resolve. Things that little boys should never see or feel.

                  The reason he was here.

Continued in Part 2…

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