Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 14

4th Of July

By the end of June I'd settle into RamTech as though I'd been there much longer. All the nightmare stories I'd heard about employers passed out of my thoughts. It was far easier going to work each day than it had been going to school. It was likely the paycheck might have influenced my feelings.

There was a company picnic scheduled for Independence Day. It was my first chance to observer the people of RamTech away from the workplace. I was included in the mailroom conversations about the event. No one said I had to show up, but I'd have felt odd ignoring something the boss spent his time and money arranging specifically for the enjoyment of his employees.

Everything I heard made the picnic sound like something the mailroom personnel were excited about. We enjoyed a day on Mercer Island cooking out and eating burgers, Brats, chicken, and fresh grilled ears of corn. There were games to play and the holiday was topped off by a fireworks display.

My brother John was also anxious to attend the party. There was to be softball, horseshoes, and football. I wasn't big on any of it, but that didn't mean I couldn't join in if the circumstances were right. I was told the evening fireworks display was worth the trip. I was looking forward to the food and a day in the fresh air if it didn't rain.

I stuck with my brother and the people from the mailroom. Ms. Mars introduced me to her husband and a son that wasn't much younger than me. She had a daughter who was off with her boyfriend and it added a bit more information about my boss. I nodded at Mr. McMichael who was busy with a group of older men, looking a bit out of place in white shirts and ties as they sat around an empty picnic table chatting.

I played horseshoes with John. Hooking the horseshoe, minus the horse, around a piece of pipe driven into the ground wasn't that great a challenge. I think I'd played at another picnic somewhere when I was really young and my family still did things together. John beat me twice and I turned down his offer of a rematch. The scoring was a little weird but I didn't take much time thinking about it. Two games were enough to get it out of my system, but John seemed pleased I played. It was far easier being with him as adults than it ever was when we were kids.

John and I had never been close. By the time I was old enough to go off with him, he left and never came home again. He'd been a bit of a bully as an older brother, wanting everything his way. If I protested he popped me up side the head, much as our father had done if the mood struck him, and having no fondness for being popped, I surrendered to whatever were their wishes. It was a simple response but humiliating to always be forced to yield.

I felt more at home tossing a football around. I could do that pretty well and it was something John and I had done while he was still home, but not often, because even when he was living at home, he was rarely around. We hadn't done much together beyond mandatory family outing. John learned to avoid these as he grew older, refusing to respond to my father's disdain. It didn't please my father, but John no longer cared about pleasing my father.

While John had been bossy and hostile for much of my early childhood, he'd made every effort to welcome me at his apartment. He brought home dinner most nights and we ate together and talked if he didn't take me out. He seemed genuinely interested in whom I had become, wanted frequent updates on Carl, and he listened to my tales about my job at RamTech.

He admitted to being less than enthusiastic about recommending his brother, because he had such a good relationship with people at work, but he decided he owed it to me to make up for being no help to me when we were younger. Now he was glad I'd gone to work there. He'd heard good things about me in more than one office at work. I'd gained the reputation of being polite and energetic. John said I had made a good impression, especially on Ms. Mars, although he didn't know her well.

He was particularly curious about Carl and what happened once Carl came back. I was vague when discussing our future. We'd agreed to wait until he was back to make any final long-term plans. Neither of us wanted to tempt fate, make a lot of definite plans for when he returned from Japan, and then have something come up that got in out way.

Once we were together, we could plan the future without risking a lot of interference. He owed the Army time but it was supposed to be served near his Alabama home, after being overseas for most of fifteen months. He wasn't sure where, but it would be a lot closer to Alabama than Japan, that was for sure. We did talk about where it made sense for us to live and I agreed I'd go along with whatever pleased him. My main interest was in being wherever Carl was.

"You're going to leave RamTech?" John had asked.

"Yes, I don't think Carl will want to stay out here. The Army will have a lot to say about it."

"I wouldn't say anything, until you're sure. No point in letting them know you aren't staying around before it's necessary. They'll have to deal with it when the time comes. I hope you two are happy, Billie Joe. It was lucky you found each other."

My brother's casual observation about me leaving the job he'd secured for me was a surprise. I was reluctant to tell him and more reluctant to lie. I'd learned it's far easier to deal with a situation by telling the truth rather than by trying to pull the wool over somebody's eyes, which then creates all kinds of complications you must add to the mix. In this case it proved to be spot on. John wanted me to have the life I wanted just as he had the life he wanted. Staying around to please him wasn't a good idea for either of us, not that it was a consideration.

I went down to watch some sailboats race around the Point. I was sure it was a bunch of young guys by the way they raced one another frantically, each doing his best to steal the wind from the other's sail. At times they seemed dangerously close to each other but they apparently knew what they were doing and didn't sink one another in their exuberance to win out.

Mr. McMichael was standing at a long shiny grill with his sleeves rolled up and his tie blowing in the breeze as I walked back toward where I'd staked out a place with other mailroom folk.

"Young Walker, you busy?" he asked.

"No, sir," I said.

"You know how to flip burgers?"

"Yes, sir," I chuckled. "That's about it as far as my cooking skills go, but I turn a mean burger, Mr. McMichael."

"Yeah, well, come on over here and give me a hand. I've got to make a pit stop. I don't want to leave them to their own device."

He handed me the tool he was using and looked at the thick burgers dripping juices onto the glowing coals before he left me alone with the food. It smelled mighty good. In just a few minutes he was walking back toward me and I never got to sneak a sample.

"Okay," he said, returning to the grill.

He picked up a fork and started to turn the Brats gently, releasing more juices to sizzle against the coals.

"You play golf, young Walker?" he asked, drinking from a soda he had placed to one side.

"No, sir."

"And what is your opinion of golf?" he asked.

"I don't know much about it. It's boring on television."

"We're going to play nine holes after we put on the feedbag. How'd you like to come along and get a close up look at the game?"

"Sure," I said, having nothing better to do, and I didn't want to refuse the big boss so early in my career.

"Would you consider carrying a golf bag? You are a strong young man and the older guys like to walk for the exercise, but the bags weigh a bit more than they can comfortably carry."

"I thought they had carts for that," I surmised.

"Yes, well, as you'll see by the sign near the clubhouse, this is an official Mercer Island Ecology Foundation Golf Event. No carts. We have to walk the course and some of the bigger donors are simply too old to carry their own bags.

"You game? The key word in what I'm telling you is donors. It pays to pamper the big donors who share our responsible attitude toward the environment."

"Yeah, it's not like I've got anything else to do. I don't mind at all, Mr. McMichael. I thought this was the company picnic?"

"Yes, but the clubhouse and golf course give us access at times when donors are available in the interest of the environment. Already being here with the company allows me to steal a couple of hours from the fun to raise money. I don't bring the foundation to the office with me, but I take advantage of whatever circumstances allow us to socialize with donors."

"No need to explain the details. I don't mind carrying a bag, and if it is doing some good for the environment, it makes it better."

"Good, young Walker. I shall fix you the first hamburger of the day as your reward. Must keep up your strength, you know. You do eat hamburger?"

"Yes, sir. I love a good hamburger and those look great," I felt a little twinge as I saw Brit closing his eyes and biting into my burger in the cafeteria at lunch in school.

"I made this batch up last night. My own special recipe! Actually, my mother's if I must be honest about it, but I've expanded on her taste treat. Forty pounds of ground sirloin marinated and seasoned with an old family recipe and here you go. I'm sure you are more interested in the eating than the history," he said, slipping the fat dripping burger on a fat lightly grilled Kaiser roll as my mouth watered.

He placed it on a Styrofoam plate before handing it across the grill to me. The plate had three divides for me to fill with potato salad and potato chips. I added a thick slice of Bermuda onion, tomato, and some pickle to top off my mountain of burger.

The first bite told me that Mr. McMichael knew his way around a hamburger. He watched until he saw the expression on my face and the juices run from the corners of my mouth.

"That's a burger," I said agreeably before taking another quick bite, holding it so the juices ran off my hands.

He seemed way too nice for a boss. He treated me like I might treat one of my friends. I sensed that there was more to my duties of carrying a golf bag than carrying a golf bag. As with most adults, I was never quite sure of what to make of him. I'd never been that good at knowing the good ones from the assholes, but one thing was for sure, Mr. McMichael was no a'hole. He made me feel like my presence was important to him. I don't know where that came from, but on every encounter I left feeling better about myself, him, and RamTech and nothing that happened at the picnic changed my mind.

The sign was between the practice green and the first tee. I was curious about what it meant or maybe about what they did, since I'd handled some envelopes containing proceeds for the foundation. The number of guys playing golf was hard to tell. I stayed in Mr. McMichael's group and I carried his father's golf bag. Mr. McMichael carried his own.

They fussed with each other over which club to use and Mr. McMichael called his father Dad and his father called him Dan. It was difficult to tell what their relationship was, but they did play golf together and neither of them acted as if he might use a club on the other.

Neither of them played well enough to write home about, making it seem like their participation was part of promoting the Foundation. The golf game was part of the fundraising. While I listened they talked about the reduction of salmon, limited fresh water, pollution, and about Mr. McMichael's wicked slice. There was more fussing and scores too high for me to add in my head, but no one asked me if I was keeping score. I knew better. I was simply carrying golf clubs.

"What does the Foundation do?" I asked my boss, once his father had gone to get a drink and take a leak.

"We're trying to get some old salmon runs opened and put back the way they once were. We're losing more salmon every year and by establishing a spawning system that gives them a chance to lay their eggs without interference, we might help them survive."

"You mean there won't be any more salmon?"

"If we don't do something shortly, the northwest salmon is doomed. There are salmon farms but it's a different salmon and a poor imitation when compared with a salmon in the wild."

"That's bad. I like salmon," I admitted, trying to calculate life without them.

"Do you fish, young Walker?"

"I've been. When I was real young. My father took my brother and me. Minnesota. There are tons of places to fish."

"Nothing like hooking into a full sized salmon. They are quite a catch. Once you fish salmon, anything but big game fishing is child's play."

"You catch them?" I asked, thinking there was some incongruity in his comment.

"Not any longer. They're endangered. I went on a catch and release a couple of years back, but even catching them and putting them back worried me. What if I injured one severely enough that he didn't survive? I couldn't take the risk if I was going to advocate for salmon.

"I work to save them. We work to preserve the habitat for all wild things. Man is crowding wild things out of our lives. We are robbing our children of the opportunity to go into the woods and enjoy the different brands of wildlife that have always been there before. We can't simply roll over the top of anything we please."

"That's cool. What you are doing? That's what the envelopes full of money are for, preserve habitat?"

"That's what we do. We'll collect a good bit today. We mail out information and keep people informed of legislation and what needs to be done to preserve our environment. It's not much but it is better than sitting by and watching the destruction of wildlife without fighting to preserve what's left before it's lost as well."

"Yes, sir, it sounds like a good thing to be doing. The salmon need fresh water? You mentioned limited fresh water."

"No, that's purely selfish. I like water. I like having it to drink, to bathe in, and for fresh-water salmon. Corporations around the world are buying up sources of fresh water. They intend to sell it once an area has no source of fresh water. The price of gasoline might look like a drop in the bucket if a substance such as water is allowed to be owned by corporations whose only desire is to make money off it."

"That's serious business," I agreed.

We went back to the game when his father returned and all three of us were ready to call it quits after they played nine holes. It had taken a little more than two hours without any hurrying involved. I'd walked enough to last me for a while. Mr. McMichael tried to give me a twenty dollar bill for carrying his father's clubs when we got back to the clubhouse.

"I didn't do that for money, Mr. McMichael," I insisted.

"You earned it. That's hard work carrying those golf clubs around. Go ahead and take it, Billie Joe. My father hears you'll do it for nothing and he'll be calling you every time he goes out to play."

"No, sir. You add it to the money that goes to the Foundation. I don't want you to pay me for helping with a charity event. I did it because you asked for my help and you don't charge people for helping them. Consider it my contribution to helping save the salmon. I wish I was able to stay around to watch it all happen."

"Okay, young Walker. Thanks," he said, looking at me as I left them to go into the clubhouse to socialize with the contributors who'd finished their golf games.

He didn't ask me to join them and I wouldn't have gone if he did. Actually, I couldn't wait to wrap my lips around another burger before I looked for my brother to make sure he didn't forget I was there.

As I sat down at the mailroom table, Ms. Mars walked over and brought me a cold soda.

"Here you go, Billie Joe, right off the ice. You enjoying yourself?"

"Thank you. Yes, I'm having a very nice time. These hamburgers are great."

"Yes, they are. Mr. McMichael is very impressed with you, you know."

"I'm not very impressive, Ms. Mars. I do my best to do a good job."

"Don't sell yourself short, Billie Joe and don't look a gift horse in the mouse. If he offers you a better job at RamTech, don't you hesitate to take it. I'd hate losing such a promising young man like you, but I wouldn't mind if I was seeing you move on up in the company."

"I've only been there a few weeks," I said. "I like my job. I like my boss."

"Mr. McMichael doesn't take long recognizing talent. That's how RamTech got there. He started out in his garage after college. He knew what he was doing." "It's not his Dad's company?" I asked, having assumed the obvious.

"No, but his father was his first full time employee. He retired on a very nice pension I might add. No, RamTech is all Daniel McMichael's invention. He's a shrewd businessman. I don't want you to give a second thought if it comes to leaving us for a better position."

"Yes, ma'am, but I'm not going anywhere."

That was about the oddest conversation I'd ever had. It was something like an out-of-body experience. I didn't feel like I was really there or maybe Ms. Mars wasn't. Maybe I'd dreamed the entire conversation, or maybe I was back home in Minnesota dreaming all this. Why would anyone promote me in only a few weeks after I took the job. It was obvious to me that Mr. McMichael was a busy man and spending a lot of time thinking about a delivery boy wasn't a very productive way for him to be spending his time.

After my third hamburger, even though I spaced them pretty far a part, I felt bloated and the soda didn't do anything to relieve the discomfort. I threw a Frisbee with some kids near the softball field. The sun was fairly warm by late afternoon but a breeze off the water kept it comfortable enough for me. By the time it was getting dark I needed my sweater from the car. Dark clouds rolled over later in the day but rainfall didn't visit our picnic.

The fireworks display was impressive but not set off over the water where I expected. Instead, the 4th of July show was in the middle of the golf course where all the remnants could be accounted for and collected once the show was over.

A Seattle band accompanied the show and continued to play after the fireworks were done. Seats were set up where you could sit and listen as long as you liked, but John was ready to go and we didn't stay around for the late entertainment.

We stopped at Dunkin' Donuts on the way home and got our sugar fix all ready to go for the next morning before we headed to work. I was still waddling with burgers in my belly, but I knew I'd polish off my share of donuts for breakfast. I was going to be fat as a house before Carl got back and I tried to dial my appetite back but with little success.

Carl knew what time to call that night. I'd told him we'd be going to the company picnic. I gave him a rundown on our 4th of July celebration in the States. He told me about the big celebration on the base and they ate and drank and had plenty of entertainment. I imagined being so far from home on the 4th was a bit more difficult than spending it on Mercer Island.

"You packed yet?" I asked.

"It's only July, Billie Joe."

"You don't want to take a chance of missing your plane," I argued.

"Don't worry, babe, I won't miss that airplane, even if I've got to run all the way to the flight line."

"How far is it to there?"

"Down at the end of the street. We can hear the planes taking off from the barracks."

"That doesn't keep you awake?"

"You get use to it. It isn't that loud. I hardly hear them unless no one has their radio on. Then you can hear them if you listen close enough."

"I miss you," I said, wishing I could touch him.

"I know, babe. It won't be long and we'll be together for good."

"I can't wait. I won't let you out of my sight," I threatened.

"Cool."

We talked about him having six more weeks before he'd be on his way home. It was overwhelming to see how swiftly time was passing now that school was over. He didn't relate to it moving all that fast for him, but he was stuck in the same routine day in and day out.

I had him hold the phone over his heart so I could listen to it beating. I wouldn't let him hang up so I could listen to him breathe. He laughed and told me there were two guys waiting to use the phone. I told him he had it and not to give it up, but he told me he had to get ready for duty. It was already tomorrow in his world and tomorrow in my world wasn't far off.

"I love you, Billie Joe," he said as he hung up and I held the phone until the dial tone hummed in my ear and then the buzzing that comes from a phone being off the hook.

I hung up and pushed the phone away from the mattress on the floor where I slept. My fatigued body couldn't override my wandering mind. I had Carl on the brain and I couldn't stop thinking about him.

When I fell asleep I dreamed about jumping salmon, spawning and filling the waters as though they still thrived and weren't in danger of going extinct. I knew the entire time it was a dream.

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