Taz and Kodak

by Rick Beck

Chapter 14

Homeward Bound

The engines on the huge transport were deafening. There was no one there to see them off but Kendall, who stood at the steps, until the two men went inside the plane.

The plane taxied directly onto the main runway and without so much as a hesitation they were rumbling along, building speed, until the smooth, quiet air replaced the tumult behind them. As they sped away from one kind of hullabaloo, another kind awaited them at journey's end. The previous all army show was coming to a city near you. It was only the beginning for the two unlikely heroes. The two men represented something beyond definition in an increasingly unpopular war.

Taz was tagged the fighting machine, Kodak was dubbed the fearless photographer. In some ways the descriptions were deceptive, coming from the group who identified closest with them. The journalist created the labels, but no one had to tell a soldier what Taz represented.

The happenstance of the picture was irrelevant. It was the image and how it was seen that propelled the excitement. Generals saw Taz as the prototype fighting machine. Newspaper editors and executives saw Kodak as the consummate journalist, heroic, with many stories yet to be told, and they couldn't wait to tell them.

These were treasures that begged to be exploited, but no one quite knew what they had. It didn't matter. They created excitement by showing up. People were hungry for men who could speak of honor and duty with their heads held high. This would sell in America.

It seemed anti-climactic having no one see them off as they departed Tokyo. It was like the show was over, once the medals were handed off and the enthusiasm waned. A sergeant showed them the door, where Kendall waited for them.

The military was serious business and they were a passing fancy. Being hustled off to a plane to be taken elsewhere was a refreshing relief. Not having hands to shake, smiles to return, and small talk to make was amazingly agreeable. It was like a show and the curtain had come down.

Taz might be a celebrity to the outside world, but he was a sergeant to the military. Maybe a sergeant with a high profile, but a soldier nonetheless. He followed orders and did his duty.

In no time at all there was nothing but water below them. Taz still hadn't calmed down from the experience at the hangar. Even with the plane all but empty, they sat together and spent some time decompressing from the loud reception.

It was fun being in Japan. It was more fun being out of Vietnam. They were now about to set down in Honolulu, the next stop on Taz's tour as arranged by the US Army, but Kodak was to be the rising star of the duo.

"You look quite the gentleman, Kodak," Taz observed after a long silence, looking at his friend's attire.

"I'd give a buck for my Hawaiian shirt and a nice pair of Bermuda shorts."

"You look good in your suit. You never looked so good."

"You look pretty good in yours. You fill it better each day. I was proud of you. You looked like a hero on that stage back there."

"I was scared shitless. I've never seen so many people. Where were you? I wanted you with me. I'm no good without you. You need to stay beside me if I'm going to stay calm."

"The army had other ideas. I was in the back but I had a great view. I didn't have my camera. I would loved to take pictures at the ceremony. It was hard just standing and watching."

"Someone was taking a lot of pictures. Every time I looked out to find you, I got flashes for my effort. I had spots in front of my eyes for most of the ceremony. I still can't figure out all the fuss."

"Me either," Kodak said, not telling Taz about his tears.

"You know what I would like right now?"

"No, what would you like?" Kodak played along.

"One of those triple-decker club sandwiches from the hotel. Man, those suckers were good. I've never had a sandwich like that before. I was too nervous to eat this morning."

Kodak picked up the canvas bag he'd been handed by Cook on the way out of the hotel. He unzipped it and reached inside to pull out a club sandwich on a paper plate, wrapped in cellophane and covered in potato chips.

"Oh, man, who thought of this?"

"I did. I had Cook get four wrapped for us to eat on the plane. It's going to be a long flight to Hawaii."

"How long?"

"It took ten hours to Vietnam. It's not quite that far from Tokyo. It'll be a long flight."

They each dug into the first of the club sandwiches. They weren't quite as tasty cold as when the bacon was crisp and warm, but it hit the spot and was a reminder of one of the more pleasant things they'd first found in Japan.

Before long they were both relaxing, with Kodak watching the water passing below. Each slept some, squirmed some, and thought a lot about the past couple of weeks. It seemed like days later when the transport touched down, wheels screeching, with the bumps of another runway apparent under the wheels of the plane.

They taxied for a long time and it looked like they might be back in Vietnam, with palm trees, jungle growth and empty tarmac out their window. The plane finally jerked to the right and hangars and a terminal came into view. The plane turned again, slowed and came to a stop as machinery sped past.

An officer moved down the isle and stopped beside the two weary travelers.

"It'll be a couple of minutes before the stairs are brought up. I'll be back to open the doors when they're secured. Don't leave anything behind. We'll be going back to Tokyo as soon as the cargo is loaded."

When they stood by the door, the captain pushed it open and stepped out in front of them to secure it. Taz and Kodak had to squint once they stepped into the brilliant daylight. A loud roar and applause greeted them.

The top of the terminal building was filled with people waving flags and making a lot of noise.

"What, the Beatles coming?" Taz asked, seriously surprised.

"No, I think they're here for you. I'd hoped we'd left all the insanity behind in Japan," Kodak said.

"Me too," Taz agreed, unable to process the confusion.

Once they came out of the jungle, they were exposed to the madness of the press. In Japan the press coverage and enthusiasm grew. Both figured, after the initial excitement and once the medals were awarded, the level of interest would fade, but when they taxied to the terminal near Honolulu, there were several thousand people there to greet them. It's not what they expected.

Two attractive young girls raced up the steps to put the traditional Hawaiian flowers around their necks. Kodak instinctively reached to protect his camera, but it wasn't there. He'd been told to pack it to keep it safe. Taz recoiled, catching himself, the surprise of being rushed to put a lavish perfumed lei around his neck being no threat, but Vietnam was closer than it seemed.

There were cheers, signs welcoming them, and a mixture of army, navy, and civilians closing in on the plane. An honor guard formed on the tarmac, complete with American and Hawaiian flags. A line of officers greeted both of them as they took the stairs to the ground. The band played, 'God Bless America.'

Taz again became the center of attention. The generals seemed anxious to return his snappy salute. The conversations were short, curt welcomes to Wheeler Air Field. As Kodak brought up the rear, a line of civilians wearing expensive suits were waiting for him.

"Mr. Anderson, welcome to Hawaii. The Honolulu News Bureau is proud to host your visit. We've assured Mr. Brent you'll be in good hands."

Kodak didn't immediately respond to 'Mr. Anderson.' He at first was tempted to look around to see who they were talking to. He'd always been Paul, except when his sisters called him Pauly, which he hated. It took a second for him to acknowledge them properly, and he spoke of the long flight, smiled and tried to look alert.

Men introduced themselves, shook his hand, and made small talk about Vietnam, California, and the action over there. He smiled, shook, listened, and retained almost nothing.

In a moment the boys were whisked away in different directions. Kodak tried to figure out where Taz was being taken. He was escorted to a limousine and with the editors and owners of Honolulu's major papers, they sped away from the airport.

Kodak was driven to a ceremony at city hall, where he was given a key to the city. Still unable to fathom the fuss, he smiled, shook more hands, accepting congratulations, before being escorted to a luncheon given in his honor.

He faced the glare of the cameras, reporters yelling questions, and more suited men than he'd ever encountered. Everyone wanted to shake his hand. They all smiled toothy grins and were glad to see him, whoever they were.

As he was taken into the dining room, he felt his unshaven face and wanting out of the suit he felt sewn into. Once more he found himself in the middle of handshaking, and when he looked up, he saw a life-sized picture of his friend, as it appeared on the cover of Time.

Under the picture was printed, photo by Paul Anderson.

Kodak wondered why it didn't give the name of his paper. Then he remembered the deal. They paid for the film, got first rights to print all his pictures, but he retained ownership. His college professor had stressed that this needed to be part of any contract he signed.

The talk went on and on. They sat down and were served chicken breasts with pineapple slices, rice and some fancy veggies. The mayor and other dignitaries spoke, and there were flaming Hawaiian desserts and flaming Hawaiian dancers. What any of this had to do with Kodak, he couldn't see. He smiled until his jaws got tired.

"I'd like to say that I once believed art to be the province of the elders. I've now seen artistic genius in the work of Mr. Paul Anderson. His series of pictures of Sgt. Tazerski is as fine a study by a war correspondent as I've ever seen, since World War II."

As the host spoke, applause followed each pause. Kodak was starting to see the larger picture. While it intrigued him, it wasn't about him. He'd just been there to work the camera. Taz was the subject matter and it was the photos of him that people saw. Clicking pictures didn't amount to a lot.

"Now, I'd like to introduce our guest of honor and maybe he'll tell us something about the good sergeant, since the army has him booked elsewhere this afternoon. Gentlemen, I give you Paul Anderson."

Kodak was not prepared for a speech. What the hell would he say? 'I take the pictures, Taz makes them real.' He looked at the gigantic photo of his friend, dominating the wall behind the table where he sat.

"Excuse me. Does someone have a bold tipped pen?"

The room buzzed and someone came up with what Kodak had in mind. The pen printed broadly in black and he went to work on the picture, blocking out Paul Anderson, writing Kodak.

"I'm Kodak," Kodak introduced himself anew. "I was Kodak to my men and that's good enough for me."

Kodak had no question about who he was. Paul Anderson had been left behind in the States, a student, an inexperienced young man. The man who had grown up in Vietnam was Kodak. It was clear to him that one had no resemblance to the other.

There was applause and a new appreciation for the photographer they honored. Kodak was a member of the 4th estate. He was a journalist, and at twenty he was on the top of his game. He'd taken an outdated camera to captured the essence of a warrior. That's who the men that honored him saw.

"I wouldn't be here without Taz, Sgt. Tazerski. I'm not a journalist without him. I'm not even a photographer without him. I wanted to see war. Taz showed it to me. I learned about men who fight war. I learned not to question their quirks when they put their lives on the line.

"You can't photograph what isn't there. I clicked my Kodak and in between the shutter snaps, Taz stepped beyond reality and into a world forever frozen in time, the fighting machine of 1st squad.

"I appreciate… all of this. It isn't deserved. I don't exist without Taz. He is the story, and I'm merely the man who holds the camera. I'm also exhausted. I've been on a plane all night. I need a shower and a shave, and then I might be able to think of more to say."

Kodak sat and took the applause for his honesty.

Kodak knew nothing about the grander plan. He knew he was nothing without Taz and it was even more apparent to him as he was given center stage by journalists. It was his picture going around the world as he wore his lei, ate his chicken, and accepted undeserved accolades. It was odd being separated from the real star.

After doing nothing for hours but sit, he was rushed off to meet the Honolulu elite. It was a lot to endure, but luckily the journalists had papers to get out and business to conduct. The luncheon was over.

The owner of the hotel, along with the most influential newspaper moguls, accompanied Kodak to his room. On the bed was a brand new Nikon, with lenses from here to there, a big camera bag meant to hold it all, a tripod and a flowered, thick strap that would hold the Nikon in place around his neck. On the other bed were a half dozen Hawaiian shirts and a half dozen pairs of shorts to match. They were loud colors and Kodak loved them. He couldn't wait to get out of the suit.

"This really isn't necessary, but thanks. Now I need to be with Taz. He has been fighting a war. We've been together ever since we got lost in the bush in Nam. Being back in the world means he needs me to keep him grounded. Take my word for it, it's the way it works if this deal is going to continue."

"That's a story in itself,' the mogul thought, then said, "I'll take care of it. We wouldn't want the sergeant to feel deserted in his hour of need. You're a pretty clever promoter. You stay close to that boy, Mr. Anderson. He's your meal ticket."

Kodak's face burned and when the man called him by his old name, he had the urge to deck him. He realized this was how business was done in the big time. The idea that Taz was the closest friend he'd ever had was lost on someone who saw dollar signs surrounding everything. Kodak's blood ran cold.

"I had my wife pick out the Nikon for you. I've got several. None as nice as that rig. It seemed appropriate, since that thing you're using is older than dirt."

"Yes, sir," Kodak smiled, thinking that camera was what brought him there.

He didn't get it. He'd stood behind Taz as he stood in the spotlight. Taz had sought to push him out front when he became uncomfortable, and that was okay. It all seemed like a whirlwind that would blow itself out, but he had misjudged. Not only had he misjudged what was happening, he'd let himself become part of a promotion. He wondered if Taz understood where they were heading?

"Well, son, we'll leave you to rest. We all wanted to meet you. You're the hottest thing in the news business. Everyone wants a look see. You get your shower and some rest and we'll see to it your young man gets delivered back here so we keep him happy."

Kodak walked with the final mogul to the door, closing the door behind him. He leaned his back against the door feeling relieved.

He took off his suit and laid it next to his suitcase. He picked up the orange shirt, the yellow one, and the dark green. Each had the exact same pattern, only the color was different. He calculated he'd never wear the same two colors. That was too ordinary. He placed the orange shirt with the blue shorts, the red shirt with the green shorts, and the blue shirt with the orange shorts, changing the green to the orange and the blue to the red. He realized there were about a hundred combinations he could create. He smiled. It was classic Kodak.

He went to the wide round tub in the living room sized bathroom, threw in fragrance, bath oil beads, and several bars of soap shaped like little roses. He stepped into the warm bubbling water as it filled to knee deep. He sat in one of the places carved out for you to sit low in the tub. He felt like he needed a shave, although he'd shaved in Japan and that was almost always good for a week.

Even in the bubble bath with extra bars of soap, Kodak did not feel clean.

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