Taz and Kodak
by Rick Beck
A few hours after being airlifted out of camp, they were back, laughing and happy to have returned safe. There were laments about Ramos and how much everyone enjoyed listening to him strumming his guitar after a few beers, singing Cielito Lindo or Streets of Laredo in a raspy Latin rendition of the familiar tunes.
Ramos was a simple soldier who liked cards, hated war, and there were stories about his family, his girlfriend, and home that he told. When he didn't feel like singing, he strummed softly, furnishing the background music for 1st squad's war. His music had ended and no one expected to see him again.
The guitar was left to lean near where he slept. His bunk was left unmade from the final time he'd slept in it. His gear was piled on his bunk and on the floor under it. It wasn't time to erase Ramos yet, but one day all signs of him would be gone, except for the guitar, waiting for 1st squad's next guitar player.
After a toast to Ramos which went something like, 'to Ramos,' there was no further mention of him. Kodak photographed the guitar from several angles. He didn't take any picture of Ramos once he was wounded. Kodak didn't want that kind of print coming back to camp in a pile of prints he'd taken for 1st squad. Besides, that wasn't the story he was telling. That story was told too often already and it had been told by better journalists than him.
It was an evening of cards and happy soldiers. Having survived another clash with Charlie was something to celebrate. The firepower of Taz was toasted and all was well with 1st squad.
"To Taz!" they saluted, raising their beers to him, as he sat on his bunk cleaning the B.A.R.
Taz raised his beer high for all to see with his back remaining turned to the celebration. He was even invisible when he was their hero. He rarely drank from the beers the soldiers took him, but they made good props for him to raise when he returned salutes. He almost never drank until the B.A.R. was clean and put away.
That day's skirmish wasn't mentioned and Kodak approved. It had been little more than a quick exchange, not worthy of celebration. The only casualty was Washington's helmet, already replaced. A second clash in two days was troubling. He wondered if it might be a sign?
As guys came and went, they'd pat Taz on the back or in some way acknowledge their appreciation for him. When the beer flowed, Taz could always go out and come back with a bottle of booze if no one delivered one soon enough.
Kodak knew Taz was a harmless drunk. He'd known mean drunks. He wasn't a big drinker because of them. The thought of losing control of himself was never big on his agenda.
He didn't like it when Taz drank, because it meant the hopes of intelligent conversation were gone. He wanted to have a discussion with Taz that didn't center on them showering together or his sisters' influence on his wardrobe, but this was how Taz deflected attempts to get inside his defenses. He was a solitary man, but he had begun to say things that went beyond anything he'd said before.
They'd talked enough for Kodak to know there was a lot more to Taz than soldier and drunk. There was a past and hopefully a future Kodak wanted to know about. It didn't seem to be on Taz's mind, but the objections weren't as strenuous as they once were.
Taz was the last to load on a chopper and the first man off. While it may not expose him to any more risk than the rest of 1st squad, it certainly exposed him to the risk longer. He seemed to accept this as his duty. Kodak wanted to know why.
Kodak assumed Taz didn't care if he was killed or not. He drank to forget and he took risks to fulfill some need to prove his manhood. He was a hero to Kodak, but that didn't add any dimension to who Taz was beyond the two obvious things. He seemed to exist in a very tightly defined universe, but Kodak wasn't buying it. If he drank to forget, what was it he was trying to forget?
The rest of the squad celebrated coming back from a search and destroy mission. It was all the better when they destroyed. It's why they were there and if they destroyed enough today, maybe there wouldn't be so much to destroy tomorrow. Getting back to camp had more meaning by virtue of the clash. It gave them a purpose, even if other men paid the forfeit of their lives.
Now they could laugh and drink and play cards. Each had a personality. Hale was happy and carefree, drunk or sober. Cohen was all-business, never giving you much. Washington was the gopher, the go getter that got it, the babysitter before Kodak. Temple was intense and always on point. He saw what was ahead before turning a corner.
Jacoby was sergeant and when he wasn't all-business, he was still the sergeant, and you didn't forget that. Otherwise, Jacoby was laid back when off duty and didn't put himself between his men and their idea of a good time. He partied with his men without seeming like just one of the guys. They always knew he was Sgt. Jacoby.
Those were the people Kodak could think he knew, and this allowed him to know which picture to take and which to leave alone. There was respect involved. By showing respect he was given respect. He would have far more success if he stayed in the background and out of the way, even if he always seemed to be in Taz's way.
Each soldier had his limit and that's when Kodak stepped back to be nothing more than scenery. It's why he took only a distant shot of Ramos, once he discovered he'd been wounded. No one wanted to have a camera shoved in their face at a bad moment.
It was what war was about. It was the cost of war photographs often documented. Kodak knew he'd built a trust with 1st squad. He wouldn't jeopardize their trust to get his shot, when it might upset the soldiers. 1st squad was the home team and Kodak was visiting. He was trying to reveal the truth without getting in their way. He didn't want to tell their story at their expense. He wanted to tell their story the way they saw it. They were warriors and when they weren't warriors, they were just guys. That's what Kodak photographed.
Kodak examined his camera, looking at the lens for a long time as he lay on his bunk, listening to the happy soldiers celebrating life. He aimed and shot the camera much like they wielded their M-16s. Perhaps he gave more thought to what photo he'd take, but the connection between them wasn't missed on him.
He learned from journalism class, if you were going to get the story you couldn't represent a threat to the subject. Kodak related it to being something like a sponge. You sit there looking quite ordinary, as you soak up whatever information you can. Then you decide what is relevant and can be told in a picture and what violates the trust.
Kodak would learn that all new guys were 'new meat' and they weren't to be assimilated too quickly. The guys in the squad owe loyalty to one another. The longer they are together the more loyal they become. 'New meat' often comes and goes while more experienced soldiers stay on together. "New meat' doesn't always know enough to stay alive.
Experience tells you where to go and when to go there. You learn when to step and when to go around. The men in-country the longest are wiser by ten. 'New meat' may come and go with no one knowing who they are.
You can't afford to care about someone who is likely to die, and each new soldier was more at risk and his mistake might kill him and others as well. It was nothing personal, because war is about surviving. No one is going to hold your hand to walk you around danger, and any tears shed are likely to be shed in private.
There were only two ways you left a squad, until your time was up. You could leave on a helicopter taking you to a hospital. You could leave in a body-bag. If you counted your days before you went back to the world, you better not do it out loud. Guys who counted got over cautious and too cautious could be as bad as careless.
Kodak called for a jeep to go to the airbase the next day before Taz would get up. There were several rolls of film he wanted to send out and he needed to get away for a couple of hours.
It was a new driver but they all drove like Mario Andretti. He went inside and sat his film on the counter. It didn't take long and there was one more reason he wanted to go to the journalism section.
"That battle in the North. How'd it turn out?" Kodak asked, having thought of it every day since his last time there.
"Khe Sanh? We kicked butt, sonny. They ain't called the US Marines for nothing," the bigger, more military looking soldier said.
"Good," Kodak agreed. "Many casualties?"
"Yep, those boys took one hell of a beating. They stood their ground and kept them son bitches off our firebase. We showed 'em we ain't no pansies, sonny.
"They were re-supplied by ground, and once they got ammunition, they pushed Charlie back to bring in close air support and that cleared the way for the choppers to get in."
"Good, Check for mail," Kodak said, flashing his ID.
"Nope. Clean as a whistle. No one love you no more, Paul?" the soldier said sadly, leaning on the counter to listen.
Paul hadn't been called Paul for so long he almost failed to recognize his own name. Even his editor wrote Kodak on messages. He realized he was Kodak. It didn't matter how that had happened.
"I guess not," Kodak said, stepping back out into the still cool morning air, leaving inquiring minds behind.
As he waited for his transportation, he caught sight of a big bellied cargo plane at the end of the tarmac. There was something shiny standing in rows near the tail section of the plane. He would have missed it if not for the glare created by the sun shining on them. Like any curious journalist, something that glitters was irresistible to the newshound. Kodak needed to know what he was looking at.
' What the hell?' he thought, wondering what could be that shiny that they were sending back to the States.
As he got halfway across the blacktop surface he could see they were small metal boxes and each was being loaded by hand with a steady stream of soldiers going on and off the rear of the plane.
' What would they be loading by hand with all those forklifts resting nearby?' He thought as he walked to get a closer view.
"Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven," he counted aloud as they'd hardly made a dent in the pile of metal containers.
"Hey, sailor, you don't want to go over there," the jeep jockey said before Kodak knew he was there.
"What's in those containers?" Kodak asked, calculating rapidly in his brain and coming up empty.
"It's our guys, man. They're going home," he said. "Come on, man, you don't want to go over there."
"Our guys?" Kodak stopped dead in his tracks as the jeep jockey pulled up to put the passenger seat next to where he stood.
Kodak watched as two men carried each shiny metal object up the ramp onto the rear of the plane. He calculated the size of the boxes. They weren't big enough for coffins. They were thin and long and two men easily carried one.
"Caskets?" he said more than asked, trying to think they weren't.
"Shipping caskets. They stay in cold storage until we got a plane load," the driver said, pointing at a building in a corner of the airfield.
The sign read mortuary.
"Our guys," Kodak said, thinking 'my guys.' "They from the battle up North? Khe Sanh?"
He sat down in the seat with no urge to get any closer. It would have been easier had he not had a far away look. He saw the faces of his guys and felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Some, I suppose. I don't know if they've got those boys out of there yet. They were only able to get in for the re-supply last week. There's no rush now."
The ride back was particularly quiet. After the jeep left him he walked away from camp. He needed to think. There had to be dozens, hundreds even. How many Americans were dying? This conversation with himself always came back to 1st squad. How would he handle major casualties involving his guys? How could he handle it? What was he doing there anyway?
Kodak knew men died at war, but he had no idea so many were dying in this one. He didn't know anything about the Vietnam War, except it was a war and he wanted to see it up close. Seeing piles and piles of soldier's caskets was too close for comfort. The cost of war had never been made so apparent. Shiny boxes with the bodies of boys who a short time ago were full of hopes and dreams.
Kodak didn't feel he was in any more danger than before but what he feared was that 1st squad wasn't as safe as he once thought. These were unpleasant thoughts to have. He'd grown fond of 1st squad and he didn't want any of them to go home that way.
The idea of having a photo-journalist was popular with the squad. Having your photo-journalist killed while with your squad would be depressing. He was safer than anyone else, because 1st squad kept him safe.
Kodak knew he was protected by the men around him and Taz was too protective. His danger was limited by everyone, except when he went into a battlefield looking for Taz. He knew better and he did it anyway. This time he wasn't in that much danger. Charlie wasn't looking for a fight and they'd eagerly gone back into the jungle.
If one of the enemy lay back to cover his unit's retreat, he might try to take out Kodak, which meant his squad would try to stop him. His presence created risk. His actions created even more risk.
It turned out fine yesterday and Hale came to the rescue, after he became lost. Kodak vowed he'd never take that kind of risk again. Getting caught up in the emotion of the moment in battle didn't leave a lot of time for clear thought. Kodak reacted without thinking. He hadn't been able to do anything about that yet.
Hale had put it in perspective. It made him feel good that Hale took up for him in front of Taz, and Taz was just doing time, hoping to live to tell about it. Although Kodak felt Taz wouldn't tell anyone about it. If he lived to get home from the war, he would keep it locked inside.
Kodak had a lot on his mind and walking away from camp was no smarter than walking off into the jungle, but it was the only way to be alone.
Sgt. Jacoby came late to the game. He put his map away, after the meeting with the other sergeants. He was later because there was a battle of note to discuss from two days before. They'd probably compared notes with the battalion officers to decide what came next. If there was anything left of the force, it was out of reach for the time being. Sightings had stopped.
Sgt. Jacoby never talked about what took place at the meetings. No one asked him or if they did Kodak never heard such a conversation. It was as if they were in two different armies. Sgt. Jacoby belonged to the army that made the plans and the squad belonged to the army that carried them out.
Kodak thought he wanted to know what came next but it wasn't his place to let his curiosity surface. Some of the guys retired from the game, some never came to the table, and others wrote letters home, read, or lounged on their bunks. Each relaxed in his own way.
The money always flowed in the same direction and the same three men were usually left to divvy up the squad's pay, or that part of it that went into the middle of the table. Cohen always seemed to win, Temple mostly won, and Jacoby won as often as he lost. The rest of the squad got out of the game the first night or some lasted until the second.
Kodak played the same twenty bucks every month. He seldom lasted into the second day. He would rather read, and many times he sat out the end of the month game and played once they were down to penny ante, after most members of the squad were broke.
Kodak read by the light coming from the card game and fell asleep about halfway through The Hobbit.
"Hey, come on, let's go eat," Hale said, shaking Kodak until his eyes snapped open.
"What day is it?"
"It's tomorrow already. It's time to eat. You'll feel better once we get some coffee in our stomachs. Come on, Kodak. Get up."
"You'll feel better," Kodak muttered.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I will. Everyone else is asleep. I don't like going alone. Besides, I can talk to you."
"Did he piss last night?" Kodak asked, stalling for time enough so he could find his legs.
"It's Taz. Of course he peed himself. It's what he does."
"Don't remind me."
"Well, come on and you won't need to think about it. He won't need to get up for hours. We'll probably have a couple of days to do nothing but sleep and eat. Ain't it great?"
"How is it you have so much energy?" Kodak asked sleepily.
"Early bird gets the worm, dude. First he's got to get a cup of coffee. Worms ain't up yet."
The coffee was strong, the eggs were bland, but Kodak liked the toast that was cold by the time it hit the tray in the serving line. Guys were rowdy and loud after a good night's sleep. It reminded Kodak of the cafeteria at school.
A lot of the guys were like Hale. A few hours of sleep and they had to get up and do something. Hale was intelligent, polite, and he had a surprising amount of experience for a nineteen year old.
Between yawns Kodak noticed how young some of the guys looked. They all seemed to have extraordinary appetites. He'd left his camera under his bunk and satisfied himself by taking mental pictures of the men he ate with, or didn't eat with in this case.
Kodak went back to his book once he got back to quarters, while most of the guys lounged around, making small talk, and coming and going in small groups as the morning passed. The quiet suited everyone in 1st squad just fine.
By about three Kodak was getting hungry. He figured to kill two birds with one stone, and roused Taz from his stupor. Getting Taz on his feet, he stripped down his bed before dragging him over to the shower tent. He knew as quick as he shed his towel there would be fodder for Taz's odd sense of humor, but he was in no mood for it today. It had to be done and he was doing it.
Much to his surprise Taz was a pussycat. Of course it was no surprise, because you never knew what you'd get with Taz. In short order Taz was able to hold himself up. There were no remarks, jokes, or references to Kodak's endowment or where he put it. Kodak was almost disappointed by the smooth transition from drunk to sober soldier.
Was Taz mad at him?
Taz dressed himself but needed Kodak to lace up his boots, because leaning over reminded Taz he wasn't sober yet. Kodak knelt in front of him and laced them as Taz watched and remained silent. Why was he even wearing his boots?
The mess tent was just starting to form lines for the evening meal. Kodak stood behind Taz who wasted no time. Kodak flashed his credentials and the sergeant smiled. It was all quite civil in the face of an army that truly believed it traveled on its stomach, even when it wasn't going anywhere.
He followed Taz off to one side and they were quickly digging into the steaming hot meal.
There were no tastes he recognized right off but it was hot and he'd skipped lunch. After consuming much of what he'd taken, Taz watched Kodak eat. It was remarkable Taz could keep anything down after drinking all that booze.
Once Taz finished and remained seated with him, Kodak knew it was coming. Taz couldn't be quiet for that long and not come up with something wiseass to say. He was waiting for the right moment.
"You never did tell me what you feed it," Taz said in a nonchalant and casual way.
"Why do you want to ruin my meal? What do you get out of talking that way?"
"I've got a Nikon myself. You're a professional and I thought you'd give me hints about the right film."
"Oh," Kodak said. "It's all Kodak film. My paper sent me a hundred rolls in a box last month, the one under my bed. I'll never use it all. I'll give you a few rolls if you want."
"Nah, it's at home. I'm here. Kodak, you own a piece of Kodak, Kodak?"
"No, I own the camera. I own my pictures."
"You do? How's that work?"
"My college professor said that I wanted to own the rights to my work, because it was my life that was on the line. My paper pays my expenses and gets first rights to publish the pictures they like."
"Can you make much money on pictures?" Taz asked.
"No, but you want to own what's yours. I might have enough to put in the book I'll write about all this."
"You going to write about me, Kodak?"
Kodak looked at Taz thinking this was very unlike him. He'd been acting strange since he got up. The curiosity about what he did and asking about his intentions was new.
"I'll never get rich taking pictures. If I write that book you'll probably be mentioned."
"You must get all the girls with that thing," Taz followed up smoothly.
"Me? Girls? No, I'm not a ladies man. I had pimples. I had serious pimples. Besides, I only figured photography was the way to go when no one would take me seriously as a reporter. For some reason they need photographers," Kodak explained carefully.
Taz put his finger to his head and cocked his thumb and made a shooting sound when his finger went off.
"What's that mean?"
"It means photographers don't last all that long. It's a lot easier to stand behind a tree and write about men shooting at each other. To take a picture you've got to get out in front of the tree," Taz said, repeating the finger to his head to emphasis his meaning.
"But I meant your peter. I'll never feel the same going into battle with my girlfriend again after having that thing up the crack of my ass," Taz said, using the finger to fire at Kodak's lap.
"You know, you're an asshole, don't you?" Kodak said. "I'm sure I've told you that."
"I'm hurt and after all we've meant to one another," Taz said. "Does this mean the engagement is off?"
"I've never been around a man who talks about another man's endowment before," Kodak said.
"It's not normal," Kodak insisted on the verge of losing his temper.
"What's normal? I'm out here shooting at human beings and they're shooting back at me and this is normal, but my curiosity about someone with an impressive appendage between his legs isn't normal?"
"You know what I mean," Kodak defended. "You don't talk about it in public."
"I naturally assumed the girls got off on it, but forgive me for noticing what a lot of guys must have noticed by now."
"Yes, but they had manners enough not to talk about it."
"That may be true but you didn't have it up the crack of their ass, or maybe you did. It would be hard not to notice in that case," Taz said, checking to see if he'd gotten a rise out of Kodak yet.
"You should be grateful that I take care of you."
"Oh, I am. I never said I wasn't grateful. I don't think I'm grateful enough to bend over for you. I might be a lean mean fighting machine, but I ain't no fool."
"Why do you say that stuff?"
"The truth? I don't know. I'm an honest guy and the look on your face only encourages me. You take everything so seriously and it gives me something to do."
"You hardly talk at all, and when you do talk, all you want to talk about is my dick. It's frustrating."
"You should be grateful. I usually don't have much to say to anyone. You're different. You got my attention. I'm not sure I trust you enough to bend over to pick up the soap though, but who knows what surprises the future might hold?"
"How am I different?"
"You're the first guy that had his dick up my ass. As a matter of consequence from holding me up in the shower no doubt, except for the erection. I keep asking myself about that. I can understand your reluctance to explain your feelings for my ass, but who else would I ask, I ask you?"
"It's a biological reaction I have no control over. My dick just does it when it wants."
"It's not when but what it wants that worries me, and let's call it a cock. One of my friends at home was named Dick and every time you say dick, I picture him. Cock is more accurate anyway."
"Not Peter?" Kodak quizzed with a smirk. "I had a friend named Peter."
"I didn't have any friends. You can say Peter if it suits you."
"Why are we talking about this?"
"We're talking about your proclivity to become erect while you're standing behind me in the shower. The terminology is simple mechanics if we can agree on the terminology."
"Cock is fine with me," Kodak said, exasperated.
"Yes, well, there is some truth in that comment, I suspect."
"Cut it out, Taz. I'm not amused. Why do you turn everything inside out and sideways? You're not getting away with it this time. I don't want you talking about my dick, peter, cock, is that understood?"
"Why are you so angry with me? I just asked a question of a man who takes care of me. I'm not good with girls. I'm not good with anyone as you may have noticed. I don't like anyone and they don't like me, but you're new here. Forgive me for living," Taz said in fraudulent despair.
"What about your girlfriend?" Kodak wondered.
"I lied. I've never had one. I just turned nineteen. Do you think it's too late? How many girls would date a guy who kills people for a living? I think it's too late."
Kodak stared at Taz for a minute, trying to remember the circuitous route that brought them to where they were in their conversation. There was a question on his mind that had been there since the first time he helped Taz shower.
"Are you… are you…. A homosexual?" he leaned forward before he said the word softly.
"I'm nothing. I've never done anything with anyone, but I've never had a big prick up against my ass before either. It was something. I'm not sure what, but what the hay, we may all be dead tomorrow. You got to get your thrills while you can. If you tell anyone I said that, I'll deny it.
"I told you not to talk about my…."
"You said dick, peter, cock. I have a good memory when I'm sober. What happens when I'm drunk, no biggy. I can live with what I don't know I did. I said prick and you haven't told me about your girlfriends. It is what normal guys talk about in a place like this. I hear that all the time."
"I had pimples. I told you that. Girls wouldn't get within a country mile of me."
"You're from the country?"
"No, I'm not from the country. Quit it."
"You are confusing. So you've not used that thing on a chick?"
"Yes, and you are Kodak. I said thing. I was very careful not to say dick, peter, or cock. Can't I get some credit for trying?"
"You aren't funny."
"I've been told that. Charlie in particular believes it, but not for long if I have anything to do with it. I really have difficulty with someone that is taking pictures of men dying but can't say the word dick without blushing. We've all got one. I venture to say all the men here have one. I won't ask them to prove it, that wouldn't be normal, but you can trust me on this one."
"We don't have to talk about it. I want to talk to you. I like talking to you. There's a lot of other things to talk about, Taz," Kodak implored, determined to get beyond the limited topics Taz talked about.
"Yes, there are. We're fighting for truth and freedom so I can talk about a guy's dick if I feel like it."
"Not mine," Kodak insisted.
"But yours is the only one I've been in touch with."
"Quit it. I'm not talking about it anymore."
"Are you homosexual?"
"No. I am not," Kodak objected.
"No… you am not what?"
"I'm not what you said."
"You're not very persuasive. If I were you I'd want to be clear on this subject. Don't you think?"
"I'm not homosexual," Kodak said angrily as several nearby tables went quiet, looking toward the very loud Kodak.
"I didn't think so," Taz said, smiling proudly. "It's safe, Kodak. You're safe. My life is a snake pit. You really think I came over here to think about that? No, I came here to get away from that. Don't expect me to feel guilty about embarrassing you. You invite embarrassment. It's the best I got right now, Kodak. Maybe be happy I talk to you at all. I don't talk to anyone."
Kodak wasn't sure what that meant. He heard the words and he needed to give it some thought.
His food was cold and so was the idea of trying to get to know Taz better at the moment. He'd never met anyone like him before and the only good thing to come out of their dinner time chat was Taz talking in full sentences, even if the topic of conversation was perplexing, it was talking.
Kodak did feel happy about that. He would work on it.
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