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Unlucky Moon: Recollections of a Rifleman

On Freedom Bird approaching California Welcome Home, Soldier 

"Eighteen hours wasn't enough."

My Freedom Bird touched down at Travis Air Force base in southern California on November 3, 1968, two days before Richard Nixon was elected President. When our landing gear touched the runway, almost every soldier, Marine, airmen and sailor aboard that plane cheered and howled.

At Travis, many of us headed for the bathrooms to change our uniforms. We shed our tropical khakis and donned our dress winter greens. From Travis, a group of us took a bus ride to the San Francisco Airport to catch our flights home. At the airport, the men on the bus, veterans who had been traveling together since leaving Nam more than eighteen hours earlier, shook hands, wished each other luck, and walked off in different directions.

With duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I went looking for an airport bar to have a cold beer and call home. Throughout the long flight from Nam, I had this knot in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t figure it. It wasn't my fear of flying. It was something else. Unlike the other veterans on the plane, I hadn’t cheered when the plane landed. A beer would help relax me, I thought.

As I walked through the terminal looking for a bar I noticed the way civilians looked at me. The stares of some made me uneasy. I was sure it was the uniform.  A beer would help. But first I had to call Brooklyn and let my family know I was back in the States.

I found a bar with a phone booth in the back. A single customer sat at the bar, a middle aged man in a gray business suit. The bartender watched me as I walked to the back of the bar. I dropped my duffel bag outside the booth, closed the door and made the long distance call. As I waited for someone to pick up at the other end, I glanced at the bartender. He was watching me. It's the uniform again, I thought.

I heard my eighteen year old kid sister on the phone. It was great.  Hearing her voice helped ease the tension in my gut. When she realized who was calling, she became excited on the phone. She was happy I was safe in California. She asked for my flight's expected arrival time in New York so she could invite family and friends over the house for a homecoming party. I told her I didn’t want a party, at least not for a few days. She sounded disappointed, but said she understood. That's what I wanted, I said.   

After the call, I looked forward to a cold beer. I picked up my duffel bag and walked over to the bar. The bartender was waiting, looking as if he expected trouble. I ordered a beer.

"I'm sorry soldier," said the bartender, " but I need to see some ID. You have to be twenty-one to drink in California. I’m sorry, but it’s the law." He was a big guy, half-a-foot taller than me, yet he seemed nervous asking me for ID. 

I remember thinking he was joking. This is a comedian, I thought, who liked playing jokes on soldiers coming home from the war. I expected him to bust out laughing and tell me he was joking, maybe even offer me a beer on the house. So I waited, waited for the him to bust out laughing, to tell me he was joking, to ask me what kind of beer I wanted.

The place was empty except for the middle-aged man in the gray suit who sat a few stools away at the bar. I looked at the stranger. "He's kidding, right?"  I said, not really expecting an answer. I turned back to the bartender and repeated my question, "You're kidding, right?"

"It's the law in California," he said, a little too loudly. "I'm sorry. I don’t like it, but it’s the law. Soldiers come in here all the time and I have to ask them for ID. I don't like it, they don't like it, but if you’re under twenty-one and I serve you alcohol I can lose my job."

I could see he was dead serious. He wasn't going to sell me a beer unless I could prove I was twenty-one, which I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure how to react. Wasn't it obvious I had just flown in from Nam. At first, I was more embarrassed than angry. Then I realized the situation was actually absurd, hilarious even. I began to laugh. I think the bartender misinterpreted my laughter for something more ominous. He started shaking his head, perhaps thinking I was about to do something crazy. After all, I had just emerged from a jungle war eighteen hours earlier. The bartender's concerned look kept me laughing. I realized this poor bastard was going through this shit with young veterans all the time. Maybe he'd gotten into a fight or two. Maybe police were called, arrests made.

For me, it was embarrassing, sad and funny all at once. There I stood in my dress greens, an airborne trooper back from the war, wearing a rainbow of ribbons on my chest, jump boots on my feet, trousers bloused, enemy shell fragments embedded in my jaw and neck, an airborne cap cocked to the side of my head. I didn't feel the part, but I looked like a goddamn war hero. But to the State of California and this bartender, I was still a minor.

This meant one thing. I was back in the Real World. The war was back there somewhere, with its own terrible rules. Goodbye to all that. For me, the war was over. I was now expected to live by a another set of rules. In the Real World they had rules about who could and couldn't drink beer. The problem was that I didn't have a switch in my head that I could flip to make an immediate adjustment. I wasn't ready to accommodate these new rules. It was too sudden. Eighteen hours wasn't enough. I still had this knot in my stomach. I was thirsty. I needed a beer and didn't really give a shit about the laws of California. My uniform was my fucking ID. The situation stopped being amusing.

The bartender was still talking but I wasn't listening. I watched the bartender as he took a bottle of beer from the refrigerator behind the bar and brought it to the only other customer in the place, the middle aged man in the suit. The refrigerator had big glass doors. I could see the cold, green and brown bottles of beer inside sitting on the shelves. I decided I would walk behind the bar and take one.  I would warn the bartender so he wouldn't think I was coming after him.  I didn’t want trouble. I would tell him up front I was going back there and get a beer and pay for it and since he wasn't serving me he shouldn't worry about losing his job. 

I prepared myself for a scrap; but just before I spoke, the man in the suit took the bottle of beer just handed him and gently pushed it toward me, leaving it on the smooth, shiny bartop within my reach.

"Welcome home, soldier," said the stranger in the suit. "The beer’s on me."

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Copyright © 2000 Edward Blanco