Taz and Kodak

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

Dinner in General

The news conference simply ended without anyone indicating it was over. People were gathered in groups, talking. The staff was clearing chairs that the officers now stood behind. At the first possible opportunity Taz headed for the stairs with Kodak right behind him.

Much to Taz's chagrin a skinny lieutenant took hold of the B.A.R. once he got to the bottom of the steps.

"I've got to get this ready to be shipped to Hawaii," he said, relieving Taz of the responsibility.

"I can't keep it with me?"

"Not in the hotel. They'd shit themselves they see you walking through the lobby with this thing. They have very strict gun laws."

Taz understood, but he was used to getting his own way and arguing with officers always ended badly. He was top dog at present and causing trouble wouldn't look good, but he was fond of his weapon.

Kodak had money waiting for him when he checked at the desk for messages, and a note from his editor.

' You're under contract to us. We will honor our end if you intend to honor yours. Brent.'

Kodak hadn't had time to think and an envelope of ten crisp new twenty dollar bills struck him as odd. They'd been sending him a single twenty dollar bill each time they returned prints to him twice a month. He hadn't even taken the roll of film out of the camera that was in there the day he and Taz got separated from 1st squad.

They took a taxi to pick up the remainder of the tailored goods and Kodak bought Taz and himself some shirts off the rack and stopped at the place recommended to get jeans and sneakers. Taz bought a black baseball cap with the word Rebel emblazoned in red.

It was five when they returned to the hotel and the formal dinner wasn't until eight. They'd have time to relax and give the room service staff some exercise. Taz still spent a lot of time looking over the menu to plan what to try next. Having an option made him feel like a kid at Christmas.

The dinner was held in the main dining room of the Pagoda. It could hold several hundred people, with a like number of people in civvies as in uniform. There were many couples, both civilian and military. Conversation buzzed at every table when Taz and Kodak were escorted into the room.

The applause began almost immediately, and before they got to the guest of honor's table, everyone stood applauding loudly. There were two photographers in dress military uniforms.

General Walker was tall and broadly built. He had the usual short military haircut. His hair was dark with streaks of gray, giving him a distinguished look. As soon as Taz got within an arm's length, he was reaching for Taz's hand. As they shook, the general used his other hand to seal the deal, lending warmth to his commanding demeanor.

Taz smiled, appreciating if not understanding the reception, although he wasn't comfortable with the applause. Taz sat beside the general and Kodak sat next to Taz. Once they sat down, everyone sat down. The applause faded as the servers were immediately swarming over the fifty or sixty tables.

"How are you, son?" the general asked.

"Fine, sir," Taz said, looking like a million bucks in his new tailored dress uniform.

As they chatted a photographer moved in front of the table to take a dozen photos of the two men talking together. He disappeared off to one side to be out of the way.

"How do you like the room?" General Walker asked.

"It's nothing like Nam, sir."

"No, I suppose not. I keep it for when I need to stay overnight in Tokyo. It's there for dignitaries or special guests. They make a great club sandwich you want to try. Best I've had this side of the States."

"We've had half a dozen since we got up there," Taz revealed, surprised he had anything in common with a general.

The general laughed, patting Taz's back approvingly. He was a sincere man who didn't waste time worrying about his image. He knew his job and he did it. He liked Japan and had a fondness for the people. He regretted the casualties in Vietnam but lacked the rank to change the policy. He was able to impact his little corner of the army, but that's as far as it went and he knew it.

The food began to come and the conversation slowed as the clinking and clanking began. The buzz of voices was reduced by the amount of food that kept appearing. Taz had no trouble focusing on the food and actually recognized the all-American food. He polished off his prime rib in no time.

There were to be no speeches. The general offered Taz a big black cigar after the meal and Taz obligingly took it, and let him hold the lighter so he could fire it up. He'd never smoked a cigar and so he coughed a few times without giving up on the vice. He held the cigar as the general took him from table to table, to talk to the officers and gentlemen the general wanted Taz to meet.

Mostly it stopped with the first dozen tables nearest to the general's table. Some men did approach and tried to join the conversation, but mostly the contacts were tightly controlled by General Walker.

By nine thirty the general was moving Taz through a doorway into the main bar, using his hand to guide the guest of honor. They sat at a long table with a dozen other general officers, with aides at the ready for any and all orders.

"Taz, I want to introduce you to something I think you'll enjoy. By the cut of your jib you'll take to it like a duck takes to a duckette."

There were some chuckles as Kodak stood at the bar monitoring the military meeting. As he was completely suited to news conferences and journalists, so Taz was better able to negotiate the military maze, except when the bottle was brought to the general to inspect and then double barrel shot glasses were set down in front of the officers as more black cigars appeared.

The general poured Taz's glass to the rim without a drop slipping out over the side. Taz sat staring at the beautiful brown hue of the liquor. Major Wilson was soon taking the bottle, pouring it into the general's glass and working his way down the table until every glass was full.

"To Private Tazerski, Taz," the general said, lifting his glass and drinking half before putting it down.

All the officers tilted their glasses towards Taz before downing as much as they could consume in one swallow.

"Go ahead, son. I don't stand much on ceremony. This is the perfect after dinner drink with my cigars. I'll have a box sent to your room. You'll find several bottles of this in your liquor cabinet in the room, but I'm sure you've found it by now, industrious soldier that you are."

Taz glanced at Kodak, who nodded to give Taz permission to consume the drink. He picked it up and looked at it carefully, sensing this was way better than any hooch he could score in Nam. He placed it to his lips, and slowly drained the double shot into his stomach, feeling its warm fire beginning to glow.

"Well, son, is it a man's drink or not?"

"Yes, sir," Taz said, made a little hoarse by the potency of the whiskey.

"Aged and bonded 30 year old liquor, son. Nothing like it."

The general reached his hand out to receive the bottle that now was kept by Major Wilson. He handed over the new bottle with only a few drinks taken from the top. The general turned to fill Taz's glass again. Taz's hand covered the top and the general looked into his eyes for the first time.

"You don't like it?" he said, sounding annoyed at this possibility.

"It's the best liquor I've ever had. I've never tasted anything like it. I've just come out of a war zone, sir. I'm already feeling that first drink. I don't want to make an ass out of myself. Especially, I don't want to embarrass you. I seem to be on stage all the time. It wouldn't be smart to be seen as anything but the soldier you've made me out to be."

The general remained silent. Taz moved his hand and the general handed the bottle back to Major Wilson, who sneered at Taz as he took it. The only thing better than this soldier getting drunk and acting like a fool was him pissing off the general.

Taz watched Wilson backing up, keeping his eyes on him. There were no fond feelings there.

"Taz, you're okay with me, drunk or sober. I've been known to tear up more than one bar in my time, but you're right, this isn't about what I like or even what you like. It's about the army and what they like. One day all this shit will be over with and we'll just be a couple of rednecks back in the States. I want you to come up to my place in Montana and we'll drink our asses plumb off."

"Yes, sir," Taz said, smiling broadly at the general's earthy tones.

He liked the man and no one noticed his glass remained empty. The general leaned in to tell his heroic soldier about his wife and two sons, and about the rugged mountains and plains he could see from the porch of his house. He made it sound like home and he made Taz feel like he was part of it.

After an hour of talking louder and louder as the bar filled up, the general took Taz to the corner of the bar. Taz was still feeling no pain and the general was three sheets to the wind, but without a hint of losing control of himself. The bartender worked his way down to where the two men stood, with the general towering over Taz.

"What's your pleasure, gentlemen?"

"Bring us two ginger ales and a bowl of those fancy pretzels," the general said without appearing the least bit uncomfortable.

"Son, Taz, what do you want? What can an old war horse do to make this easier on you? I can see it's not your cup of tea. I can't undo what's being done by forces that have gone way beyond being under control, but I can open any door needs opened and I can see to it you have whatever you want to make it easier on you. Tell me, what is it I can do to make this come out okay?"

Without missing a beat Taz knew exactly what he wanted from the general.

"Your major is wrapped too damn tight around the axle. My man Kodak knows what I need and what I want. I don't like mouthy folks who think their shit don't stink. Get me a lieutenant or a sergeant or someone who can talk to Kodak. Kodak can tell me in a way I understand. That way I'm where I'm supposed to be when I'm supposed to be there."

"Wilson? He annoy you, son?" the general asked, concern in his voice.

"He's an asshole, sir. I don't mean any disrespect. You asked."

"I thought it was me. That fellow's been annoying me since they assigned him to me. I think he might be keeping an eye on me for one of Westmoreland's generals. I don't play the game the way the big boys like. Wilson's one of them, not one of us."

"I don't know about any of that, but if I got to be pushed and prodded, I'd rather have Kodak doing the pushing and prodding. I trust him and I depend on him."

"I tell you what, son. Cook is the boy on your front door. He got shot over in Nam. I met him on a visit to the hospital. I asked to have him assigned to me. I'll see to it he takes care of the scheduling the next few days and he can tell you or your boy Kodak. That suit you?"

"Yes, sir, that suits me swell. Cook's all right."

"I'll see if I can't find a latrine for the major to polish up for me. I've been wondering about him for a while now. I'm glad we had this talk."

"I think he could do a fine job of that."

"Look, son, you need anything, anyone else annoys you, you got my number. I'm a long way from where you're heading, but I know people. I've been in this man's army for 25 years. Can't help but get to know a thing or two about a thing or two. Keep in touch with me and if you need something, give me a shot at it."

"Yes, sir, that's nice of you. I didn't expect a general to be a regular guy," Taz observed.

"I was a guy a long time before I was a general, Taz. I'm still just a guy. This damn war makes me worry for my army."

"Thank you, sir."

"You going to make me drink this ginger ale?" the general asked. "It gives me gas."

"No, sir. I appreciate you understanding about the booze."

"Bartender, give me a double of the 30 year old stuff."

"At your service, General," the bartender smiled, banging down a double shot glass and filling it to the very top.

"To you, son," the general said. "May you have a long life and at least one great love."

General Walker knocked it straight down, leaving his eyes watery.

Taz raised his glass toward Kodak and smiled at him, drinking the ginger ale straight down as if it was hard liquor. Kodak laughed and saluted his friend for his self-control.

Major Wilson kept his eye on Taz, taking notice of all his peculiarities. He was certain he would find a way to put this private in his place, but he hadn't heard his new orders yet.

Taz had spoken to every officer in Gen. Walker's chain of command, but he'd only remember the general, whom he called, "general." The general leaned affectionately toward Taz as what he had to say was meant for only the private's ears. All the officers noticed the general's demeanor and thought it uncharacteristic for their boss. He wasn't a warm man and at times he raged about battles and tactics that killed so many of his men and marines as well.

It was war and there was little time for warm fuzzy friendships, but Gen. Walker saw Taz as one of his boys, and he could well have been one of his sons. It did get the general's mind off the war and on something way more pleasant. Someone had come back alive.

It was well after midnight when Taz and Kodak returned to their room. The guards were gone and one photographer took a picture of them going into the elevator. Taz waved as the doors closed, snatching back his hand just in time.

"You had a good time," Kodak said.

"The general is okay," Taz said, appreciating the way the officer had treated him. "The officers I've known have spent most of their time busting on my ass. It's different with Gen. Walker."

"Yes, it is," Kodak said, letting his hand rest fondly on Taz's arm.

There was no room service but Cook and Mason hadn't eaten all of their club sandwiches. Taz was starved and polished them off, after hanging up his dress uniform. He turned on the television and they lay on the bed watching a Japanese program, not understanding a word.

Early the next morning the phone was ringing, the television was blaring, and Taz covered his head with one of the half dozen pillows he'd asked for.

"Hello," Kodak said, forcing his eyes to stay open. "Yes, sir. Yes, sir. He'll be ready. He's in the shower right now. Yes, sir. Goodbye."

"One of your sisters is going to come wash your mouth out you don't stop lying," Taz said through the pillow.

"General's office. They're sending a car for you at noon. Dress. You'll be lunching with your buddy at one."

"What about you?" Taz asked, placing the pillow on his chest.

"It's your army, not mine. I'll go find some journalists to cozy up to. No telling what might be going on back in the world. They might have blown it up by now."

The sergeant held the door open for Taz and he slid into the backseat. The soldier drove silently through the heavy Tokyo traffic. Taz felt like a fish out of water. He looked back once and caught sight of Kodak, who'd come out to watch the car pull away. Taz felt uncomfortable being separated from his friend. He couldn't remember the last time they were apart for more than a few minutes.

The officer's club was a-buzz when the general brought Taz in, and there were some short conversations as they walked back to a private room that was set just for the two of them.

"Let me order," the general said as Taz nodded agreement. "Two T-bones. Baked potato with extra sour cream and butter on the side, chives. Fresh salad. Vegetable of the day. Give me a bucket of those onion rings for the middle of the table."

The general poured them both a drink from the bottle beside the table. He held his glass up toward Taz before drinking it down. Taz took a sip and left it alone. His mouth was watering for the steak. Liquor would ruin it, and he was looking forward to wrapping his teeth around the beef. He waited to find out what he was doing there.

"I've been going over your record, Taz. I asked for it before you came."

"Oh, shit!" Taz said. "You found out I'm a fuck-up."

"No, I found nothing of the kind, son. You've had a few run-ins, but you're in a war zone. I approve of spirited soldiers. That's not what I was looking at. I knew all I needed to know about you in the first five minutes. I confess I don't understand why you do what you do, but I know you're a hell of a soldier."

"You got that out of my file?"

"You've been wounded twice. No Purple Heart awarded for either one. There are reports from your sergeant. You refused medical treatment once and would only let the nurse put alcohol and adhesive tape on the other wound. There's a description by Sgt. Jacoby on the two incidents when he put you in for the medals."

"He never told me he put me in for the Purple Heart," Taz admitted. "I would have told him not to bother."

"Why? You were wounded in battle with the enemy. You put your life on the line. When you're wounded, you deserve the award."

"You seen some of the guys that are really hurt. They got legs and arms shot off. Some are blind. I don't want no medal for getting a scratch. Those guys deserve the awards."

"That's why you and the army are at odds. It's not your call, son. Your leadership makes those calls. The medal doesn't simply represent blood has been drawn. It represents the fact you were there, making a sacrifice for your country. If we only measured it by who has the worst wounds, we'd miss the purposeful hero."

"I suppose. I don't like that word. I don't fight because I want to get medals."

"Why do you fight, son?"

"It's my job. I'm in the army. They put me out there to do my job. I do it. I draw my pay. It's all I expect."

"And you drink too much," the general added.

"No, I drink just enough. You have read my record."

"You took one drink last night and you've taken a sip of some of the finest whiskey this side of heaven today. How's that?"

"I've got a new job, General. It's not my idea but I know it isn't me they are all gaga about. It's the guys that no one knows are out there. It's the guys that were out there and will never get home. I'm not a smart soldier but I know all this stuff has nothing to do with me. Someone took a picture. Someone else liked it. I got my ass separated from my unit. I was lost and this was Search for Tomorrow or some such as that. The Great American Soap Opera. It has nothing to do with me. I'm just the guy holding the gun for all those other guys. I don't want to embarrass them by embarrassing myself."

"You're a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for. I got me some officers aren't half as smart as you and they're mature men, looking to make a career out of this war."

"That's their problem. I've got all I can handle here. I don't have any desire to embarrass myself, you, or all those guys still back there fighting."

"You want to go back to your unit, son?"

"No. I never want to go back there again. I hate Nam more than I hate my old man and I never figured I could hate anything as much as I hate him."

"He signed you up at 17 so you could join the army?"

"No, I signed me up. He didn't sign those papers. The last time I saw him I flipped him off and went out the front door. I'll never go back. Now, I've got nowhere to go."

"That's not good to hate your father, son. I mean I know there can be hard feelings. Fathers and sons have been misunderstanding each other since time began. You'd do best making peace with him if you want to find peace in your life. Hating is a bad business. I'd say it is out of character for you. You don't seem like a hater."

"When I was nine, I was always small, I saw a horse out in front of the A&P. A kid was riding it. It just was the neatest thing I'd ever seen. I wanted to ride it and I broke away from my old man. When he caught up with me I was begging him to give me a quarter so I could ride it. He grabbed my arm and yanked it so hard it broke in two places. At the hospital he was all apology and horrified he'd damaged his son. They bought it. They put my arm back together and I was more cast than anything else. But my butt didn't have a cast on it. When he got me home he beat me for breaking my arm. I don't mean he beat me, I mean he beat the hell out of me for putting him in that position.

"I made up my mind that day I'd never be hurt again. I'd never let my body be damaged in any way no matter what he did to me. I also vowed I'd kill him the first chance I got. I joined the army instead. I don't want to be in prison for the rest of my life. Don't tell me I don't hate my father."

The general sat silent, staring at the boy telling him the most horrible story he'd ever heard involving fathers and sons. He knew all he knew couldn't undo what had been done to Taz, or erase it from his memory. The best thing to do was to let go of it.

The food came, and letting go of it was done in a flurry of silverware and chewing. Taz had never told the truth about breaking his arm before. The story was, he'd fallen off the horse in front of the A&P. Taz was uncoordinated and not too bright, and his father simply had to endure his missteps and falls. The doctors and nurses were quite sympathetic to his cock and bull stories.

He no longer felt the pain of it. For a long time he woke up in pain, even after the cast was removed, and he was mostly healed. The terror he felt around his father was only exceeded by his hatred for him.

Taz had never had a better steak, not that he ever had much steak to compare it with. He felt relatively comfortable consuming the meal in his usual fast fashion. The coffee was the best he'd ever had and the general kept his cup filled.

The general hadn't eaten much at all. He'd rarely been shocked, surprised, or sickened, being a general in a war zone. He did what was expected without expecting to make much of a difference. He was powerful enough to feel respected, without being powerful enough to make a difference to his men.

Taz was a breath of fresh air to Gen. Walker. If it wasn't for the mission the army singled him out to do, he'd have had Taz assigned to his headquarters. He'd have found a place where he could have kept an eye on him.

It was unusual for soldiers to speak their mind to the general and this made Taz all the more likeable, although he wasn't aware that soldiers didn't talk to the general the way he did. He'd sent officers off to the middle of nowhere for less.

"I'm sorry I made you tell me that story, son," he said, after having watched Taz eat everything but the napkins. "There are more onion rings. I can order another batch."

The general tipped the bowl with the few onion rings left. Taz scooped them up, downed them, drank some coffee, and examined the T-bone for a morsel of meat he might have missed. The general smiled at the unpretentious display.

"I can order another steak if you like. There are plenty more where that came from. I can see the cattle will need to be on alert once you get back to the States."

"Montana cattle country?" Taz inquired.

"Montana is a little bit of everything. Cattle, farms, mines and wilderness. You're never far from being in the middle of nowhere."

"I been there. We call it Vietnam."

"No, this is wilderness you'd understand. Wild sheep, bear, mountain lions, and streams so full of trout you can walk across them and never get your feet wet. You ever had a trout you just pulled out of a river?"

"No, sir. The last fish I caught was a fish fillet sandwich down at McDonalds."

This made the general smile an ironic smile, and at the same time he felt a hard twinge in his heart. How could it be that someone Taz's age had never been fishing? It seemed almost impossible from his perspective. He'd been fishing since he was five and his father, The General, had come home on leave back a few years before the Great Depression. They hiked up into the mountains and his father showed him how to affix a fly to his line. It was an art sure to fascinate any Montana boy.

He went fishing with his father and brothers for a week by the time he was six, and he had been hunting since he was just a little older than that. He and his brothers supplied food for the family table during the Depression, while his father was away, and before they began raising cattle.

Gen. Walker came from a long line of General Walkers and he rarely let himself think too carefully about the lives of the men he commanded. Taz had him looking more closely at the life of a man who had no options when it came to going to war. Taz's war started at home and a whirlwind had picked him up and deposited him on the general's doorstep. Records were easy to read but men seldom were.

"I've been looking at your records, like I said."

Taz took the shot of liquor and emptied it. He wasn't going to leave anything behind if he was about to be thrown out on his ear. The general watched the soldier drink.

"I'd normally offer you another, but I won't this time," he said respectfully. "You've been demoted a couple of times. Five. How do you feel about that?"

"General, when I fight I hold nothing back. You get all I got. When I'm back at camp I drink. I drink the same way I fight. I mean no disrespect but that's how I handle being in Vietnam."

The general listened and sought to measure his words to reassure Taz he wasn't offended.

"While you're still in my command, I'll give you your stripes back. In view of what your orders are, I'm promoting you to sergeant. I hope that won't interfere in any way with how you view the army."

"No, sir. I didn't expect it. Thank you."

"I've looked at Sgt. Jacoby's report on your actions on the day you went missing. Impressive, sergeant," he said, making sure he used the new rank. "Had you been killed we'd be talking about the Medal of Honor. He has put you in for the Bronze Star. Your actions don't warrant the Bronze Star in my opinion. I've resubmitted the paperwork, and you'll be awarded the Silver Star the morning before I put you on the plane to Hawaii."

"Wow," Taz said, thinking nothing could surprise him until now.

"There are words that go with the awarding of such a medal. Above and beyond the call of duty, disregarding his own safety, and with a great display of valor his actions saved lives. In regular language, you risked your life to save the lives of your unit, as well as the pilot and co-pilot of the chopper. I haven't seen their report but Sgt. Jacoby doesn't leave much out."

"I don't know what to say," Taz said.

"You don't need to say anything, son. Thank you. I'm proud to know you. As I've told you, you have my phone number. No matter where you are or what the circumstances, you need my help, you call me. Any trouble, I want to know about it."

"I will, General. Thank you."

"Once this thing is over and you get your life back, come to Montana. There's a line shack up in the foothills above the ranch where we graze cattle in the fall. We'll go up there and I'll show you how to tie flies to a trout line. We'll pan fry them next to the stream we take them out of."

"That's pretty nice of you. I've never been friends with an officer before, General."

"You haven't lived until you've fraternized with a general, Sergeant."

"Sounds serious," Taz said. "I know I've never eaten better. Fame does have its perks."

"It's my privilege, son. The promotion is already official, so, you're out of uniform. My driver will see to it you get back to the hotel. I've taken the liberty to have a seamstress sent to your room to sew your stripes on your other uniforms while you've been out. Give this uniform to Cook and he'll see to it that the proper rank is put on it right away. By the way, I reassigned Major Wilson to get him out of your hair. He seemed rather surprised."

"Thanks. I'd be getting my ass busted again if that asshole kept watching me the way he did. I think he might be with the Viet Cong."

Both men laughed as Gen. Walker told Taz that duty called but he'd see him again before his departure for Hawaii.

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