Taz and Kodak
by Rick Beck
Taz was still confounded by his fame. Men like Gen. Morse made him want to return to Vietnam and forget the entire deal. Men like those he met at the hospital made him want to be a better man.
He was taken to Kodak's hotel and Kodak came down to escort him to his room. The hotel would be happy to put him in a room near Kodak, but Kodak said that wouldn't be necessary.
The general's driver brought Taz's bag up to the room, shook his hand, and wished him luck. The concierge backed from the room as soon as Taz and Kodak agreed he wasn't needed.
"Where the hell have you been?" Kodak asked, throwing his arms around Taz and hugging him close.
"You don't want to know," Taz said "I met the biggest dickhead general I've ever known."
"You've known a lot?" Kodak asked.
"Enough to know I don't want to meet any more. I need a shower. My ass is dragging. I hardly slept on the plane. I can't believe they didn't let me clean up."
"That's your man's army. I've been stuck with newspapermen all day. Speaking of dickheads. They can't wait to meet you."
"Yeah, well, if I don't get a shower, they won't see me. I'm beat," Taz said, yanking off his shoes and sitting on the second big bed in the room. "Nice quarters."
"Yeah, there's a fruit basket over there. There's a dinner at nine. I'm sure you're expected. They told me they'd be making arrangements to get you here as soon as they could get the army to give you up."
"They ran me off," Taz said. "I didn't make any friends at the officers' club. I don't think they understood me."
"What did you do?" Kodak asked.
"Nothing. It's what they had me doing and then wanted me to stop doing, but I finished what I started, and I'm not sure they approved of that tactic."
"I'm afraid to ask," Kodak said.
"They took me to the hospital. The wounded from Nam who haven't made it home yet. They were after photos of me meeting the wounded. They thought they'd make it a quick stop. I stayed and shook every soldier's hand in the place, doctors and nurses too.
"I talked to the ones who wanted to talk. Some were massively messed up. These men wanted me to pay attention to them. No one has ever wanted me to pay attention to them," Taz revealed. "I stayed as long as they wanted to talk to me."
"I wouldn't say that. I happen to know personally someone that wants you to pay attention to him," Kodak smiled.
"They looked at me with these admiring looks. These were guys in serious despair before I arrived, and by the time I left, most of them were smiling and happy. They handed out those damn magazines. I don't know where they could get so many Time magazines. The army must print them. I must have signed a hundred."
"We've got most of the day tomorrow we can talk. You need to jump in the bath and catch a shave. I like this look personally, but there's a dinner we need to attend in about an hour and a half. You need to freshen up, handsome."
"What's a bath? I haven't had a bath since I was ten," Taz said, "I'm kind of a shower guy, when I'm this tired."
"No shower, soldier. You'll just need to rough it."
"I can't swim."
"I'll be your lifeguard. I'll get it ready for you. You'll love it. They've got bubble bath and bath oil beads in there to make your skin soft and they have little soaps carved to look like tiny roses. I think they're roses. Tell me what you think."
Kodak examined the detail and showed the soap to Taz for inspection. He didn't know what to make of soap someone took the time to carve into a flower.
"Just what a man wants to hear after a flight across the Pacific followed by a hard day's work. 'There ain't no shower?'"
"No shower. Just the bathtub."
"Okay, let me get out of this monkey suit."
Kodak went in to prepare the bath and Taz was still in his socks and green army boxer shorts when he returned.
"It's a swimming pool," Taz observed. "All it needs is a diving board," He continued, as he saw the tub almost full of water.
"Yeah, but it's only four feet deep," Kodak said. "I don't think we'll need the life vests."
"I'd just need the low diving board then," Taz said, stripping down and stepping into the tub which had been sunk into the bathroom floor. "Come on in, the water's fine."
Kodak stepped down into the tub, immediately feeling Taz's hand reaching for his.
The water ran, the bubbles floated lavishly, and they were content to sit holding hands beneath the suds. The water rose to Taz's square chin. Kodak's delicate blushing shoulders protruded from the rich lather. Taz blew the bubbles away from his mouth. They were finally able to relax, knowing the other was safe.
Their thighs rested together as their fingers intertwined. Each took refuge in the other's eyes. It was a relief being together again. Both had experienced fame as a single and didn't like the taste it left in their mouth. They could keep doing it and do it believably, but only as a duo.
Kodak knew he could cut and run anytime he got tired of the zoo. He also was keenly aware that Taz could not run with him. He was under orders and, while he might be able to stretch the boundaries a bit, he'd best not test the patience of too many officers too many times. A frontal assault was not the only way to make a soldier's life miserable.
Being together gave each a strength he didn't possess alone. Caring about one another meant a larger consideration, no matter the situation. So far they'd been left alone to get the job done as it was prescribed by the US Army.
Taz understood he had value to the enlisted men and draftees. He didn't give a damn about much but he found he cared about the other soldiers. Even more importantly, the other soldiers cared about him. They'd shown him more respect in an afternoon than he'd received in his lifetime. It was a mutual admiration society.
He avoided more than a casual glance and a fond farewell to his wounded comrades in 1st squad. He forced himself to do that, regarding it bad luck to dwell on what happened to a guy after he'd been hit.
Now, it was these soldiers he found himself drawn to. If this new found fame could do some good, he wanted to do it for them. This was duty he enjoyed.
Kodak was a journalist/photographer. He could walk away and write a book about his experience with war. No one would think ill of him if he said he was done and they'd need to send someone else to keep track of Taz's tour. He could do that but he wouldn't.
He wasn't much concerned about the journalistic aspect of what he was doing. He could probably show up anywhere and get an interview for a job at a paper or even on television. His one word name would be recognized.
There was an open market on journalists who had seen the war up close, when the country was definitely questioning the wisdom involved in getting the country up to its knees in deep doo-doo in Vietnam. A book was a natural byproduct of his experience, although he wouldn't write it until Taz was free of his obligation to the army. This way Kodak could write it the way he saw it without putting Taz at risk.
They'd endured a sudden harsh separation. Neither of them was prepared to be pulled apart. They'd both had a strong desire to be together the entire time they weren't. They had no desire to be pulled apart again.
They weren't certain this could be a reality they controlled, but it was a reality they would pursue. They'd have to make contingency plans for situations they couldn't predict. Obviously the army could do anything they wanted with Taz. As long as he didn't stray too far from the reservation, they'd probably be allowed to stay together.
Landing in California was a relief to both of them. Kodak was home, even if Taz wasn't. They were both relieved to be back in the States, because Hawaii didn't seem much different from Vietnam. What was ahead couldn't be predicted. It was probably going to be a lot like their last few stops. People couldn't get enough of the pair and it was nice in a crazy sort of way.
The military ceremonies were conducted when the plane taxied over to the terminal, where soldiers and civilians applauded and cheered the deplaning. Even the air smelled better to Kodak.
Wearing one of his Hawaiian outfits, yellow on green, Kodak waved enthusiastically, which got the crowd to roar. Taz had removed his uniform and kept it hung up until just before they landed, when he put it back on. This had him looking sharp, even if he was thinking of a nice bath with lots of bubbles.
There was an official presentation of the colors at the bottom of the stairs of the plane. Taz spent a few minutes saluting superior officers, shaking hands, smiling for the cameras, and making his way to the enlisted men, who broke formation to surround him. Each had in mind sharing Taz's hand.
There were no remarks and the press had a field day catching both Kodak and Taz by surprise. Kodak realized he needed to carry his camera to return the favor and photograph the photographers who were photographing him.
They yelled Kodak's name and he ended up shaking each journalist's hand as they quizzed him on how it felt to be home. Taz stayed close behind, shaking every hand Kodak shook. They weren't planning on being separated this time.
"How does it feel, being back in America?" a voice thrusting forth a microphone yelled in his direction.
This was the signal to smile.
Kodak stopped as the microphone appeared in between two heads of men who secured a place in front.
"I don't know. It's great. Being here is great. I didn't think much about it until I was here. It's been hectic. It's nothing like Vietnam."
No, it wasn't. Even though Kodak was only an observer, he'd seen enough to feel like he had been at war.
When he'd left the States to find out what war was, he thought he'd come back with an answer. He couldn't put war into words. It was about men, people, ideology, and strategy, but how war began or how you stopped it was as big a mystery to Kodak as it was before he left.
There were army bases, marine bases, air force bases, and naval facilities all over California. For the first time Taz was not under the control of the army. He was freely flowing around the state, spending a few days in or near each facility. He'd be the guest of whatever city was closest, and he appeared at the pleasure of the civilian city fathers.
There were civilians who greeted the plane and, after a formal military service to greet the returning hero, the military presence was muted.
Taz was to be presented to the American people as a returning Vietnam war hero. Keeping the army out of the picture was a strategic decision. The American people were disillusioned and Taz was someone who could give a more acceptable look to the war.
It was at the airport that the second cover of Time magazine was shown to Taz & Kodak. It was a picture of Taz taken after the fire fight, while he reloaded the B.A.R. His arms were bulging, his eyes piercing and focused, with the caption, 'Have you seen this man?'
He was America's hero.
It was in response to the reports that Taz and Kodak had gone missing in the Vietnam jungle, after an ambush. There was an article that proclaimed him a hero, saving his squad, but most likely making the ultimate sacrifice, along with the heroic photographer who had been left behind as a wounded helicopter struggled to save the men and crew inside.
"Jesus," Kodak said. "They do think you're John Wayne."
Unlike the first picture, you didn't need to draw any conclusion about the man's fighting skill the second time around. The story asked the question, "Have you seen this man?" describing his heroic deed and the fact he was MIA and presumed KIA, sacrificing his life to save his buddies.
Taz had not only saved his unit, he'd returned from the dead.
Time magazine received thousands of letters inquiring about Taz. There weren't as many inquiring about the photographer who was missing with him, but many did ask the question, 'Would the photographer be safe since he is a journalist?' By the time the, "Have you seen this man?" picture appeared, Taz and Kodak were back in friendly hands.
It was a story that went around the world as fast as any story ever had. It was a miracle. It was a coincidence of all coincidences. It was a piece of the Vietnam saga that the American people could all agree on. There were no protests and there was no anger over the happy ending, except it was merely beginning for the pair.
This time Taz and Kodak were driven straightaway to their hotel. They no longer rated the Presidential or Honeymoon Suite, being given excellent accommodations in excellent hotels, but in California you never knew when a president or a honeymooning king might come calling, so you didn't want a couple of nondescript youngsters occupying the most prestigious rooms.
And they didn't notice any change after living in a tent. As long as they were alone and together, after closing the door of whatever room they were escorted to, they were happy. Their first response was to check the lock before engaging in a fond embrace, a kiss, and frequent hand holding, while reading telegrams and cards thanking them for their service to the nation.
Bouncing on the bed was routine and the two boys giggled a lot, happy for no reason at all. The first order of business was to mess up the second bed and forget it. Anytime the second bed was made up, they'd immediately give it a good going over, which got them laughing.
They knew they were under the microscope and being safe was better than giving the journalists more to talk about than their stumble through the jungle. They'd accepted the fame as necessary and manageable if they wanted to stay together, but the madness seem to be growing.
They were now a couple. It wasn't only in the mind of the army or the media. All of the requests for appearances came asking for both Taz and Kodak. They attended functions together, even at the military bases. They each got significant applause when introduced to crowds. Both had been heroic even if not heroes, and who can say what a hero truly is?
The boys took the hand they were dealt and made the most of it. The first class treatment was great, the food was great, and the long endless flights merged into long endless train trips that would carry them up and back down the coast of California.
Kodak loved the scenery. He'd never seen the state from that angle before. Taz sat next to the window but was more interested in Kodak than the landscape. When Kodak leaned across him to click off a few pictures of some scene he saw, Taz might nibble on his ear or simply make sure at least one of Kodak's hands got a good feel of his arousal.
It was after a visit to military bases in and around the San Diego area, some time in the second month of touring, that the long train trip to San Francisco was begun. The last stop before the trek into LA was Oceanside, a sleepy seaside town adjacent to a large marine presence in Southern California. They'd spent two days there at the beginning of the week before.
The train was soon in motion again, heading for all points north. The train moved along the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. There was time for some great pictures and soft chat as Taz wore his uniform but Kodak stayed in his Hawaiian attire, blue on brown. The half full car was quiet, with the ocean view captivating much of the attention.
It was two marines one seat up and on the opposite side of the car that caused the trouble. Taz and Kodak were simply being Taz and Kodak. They didn't make much of a fuss, being happy being together, but appearing to be happy being together wasn't to everyone's liking.
These were moments the two men cherished. The journalists didn't trail them and they were free of close scrutiny until they reached the next stop on their tour, and by that time they were ready for another round of appearances and speaking engagements. They kept their smiles handy and were adjusting well to their roles.
Some scrutiny comes unexpectedly and without invitation at times.
"Fucking faggots," a voice interjected just loud enough to be heard across the isle.
Taz rolled his face across Kodak's shoulder, hearing the epithet and wanting to see from whence it came. His face didn't display the rage the word was beginning to boil inside of him.
The second spitting of the single word condemnation had Taz up, across Kodak, and he was standing in the isle as the marine came out of his seat, looking for action. The two men stood chest to chest, staring. It was more chest to chin, and Taz was left looking up at the self-righteous six foot something marine.
"You mean me, Marine?" Taz ordered with his voice.
"If it fits you I mean you," the marine barked into Taz's face as both of them blew up like a couple of overweight bullfrogs.
"Taz," Kodak interrupted, grabbing Taz's forearm to break the engagement with the much bigger man.
"Brand," was the retort of the marine's companion.
"Can't you see I'm working here," Brandon answered, chest pressed hard against Taz as the two men continued to stare, ready to rock and roll.
"Taz," Kodak said, loosening the grip on his forearm in case they came to blows.
The fourth man started rummaging in the gym bag he had between his legs on the floor. He seemed to be furiously looking for something and then, he found it.
"Brandon," the second marine stated firmly.
"I told you to leave me alone. I'm busy with this punk," Brandon said.
"You need to look at this," his companion suggested.
"What?" Brandon snapped, looking back over his shoulder to see the cover of the Time magazine his friend held up for him to look at. "He's him."
"Shit you say. This little squirt? You are him," the marine said surprised, as he checked Taz's face. "You're Sgt. Tazerski? You're my hero, man. I don't believe it. How you doing?"
There were handshakes and the marine was suddenly all smiles. The acrimony melted with the realization of the company the marines were keeping. There was laughter and a pen for Taz to sign the cover of the magazine.
Brandon bought sandwiches and beer in the dining car and the marines quizzed Taz on his time in Nam. They were going home to Fresno before shipping out to the war zone. Taz forgot the insult and felt a kinship, even though they were marines. He knew what they would face and that was enough for him to forgive the insult that brought them together. Kodak thought about Khe Sanh.
Warfare was a lot like riding a train. The skirmishes flared up unexpectedly and died down as quickly. The country was beautiful without enough time to appreciate it. The travel had become the best time, when friends were made, and the big battles were won.
The following day Kodak signed the magazine, leaving the marines smiling when they left the train for Fresno, as the boys went on to San Francisco.
An army staff car, photographers, and an officer waited to greet them before taking them to their hotel. The Presidio was the only base in the city but accommodations were in town where they'd have access to all the sights.
It was early in the morning, the streets were damp from an overnight rain, but the sky was blue and the temperatures about perfect. The air smelled fresh and the city was still half asleep as they ended up high in the city with a room that overlooked San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz. It was one more spectacular view on a tour of spectacular views.
Everyone was happy to see them. There was luncheon at the Presidio, dinner at the Mark Hopkins, and people at both who were anxious to hear the two speak. These were buttoned down and formal affairs that forced Kodak back into one of his finely tailored suits.
The staff car would pick them up and deliver them to each event. There was one last speaking engagement in two days and they'd depart the city the following Monday, a week away. It would be on to Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. They both loved California but looked forward to seeing more of the country.
San Francisco was alive with activity. After walking to Fisherman's Wharf for a sandwich, Taz wanted to escape up Powell Street, hoping on and off the cable car each time they passed a spot that excited him. He bought a short sleeve shirt and a pair of jeans in a second hand shop, leaving his uniform in the middle of the hill to be cleaned and pressed. It was the same uniform he always traveled in and it required a lot of attention. The other tailored uniforms were saved for appearances and cleaned and pressed at each stop.
Being in jeans, he liked the way they bound him and held his butt. The shirt outlined a more defined body than he'd had before leaving for Asia. The usual medium he always wore was snug, firmly outlining his chest and showing off his arms.
The appearances went smoothly. The routine was less stressful and their preparation was solid. Even nibbling at the food was perfected to an art, so they could have something they really wanted once back in the hotel. It seemed a small price to pay for the kind of freedom they had the majority of time.
The driver of the staff car offered to standby and take them any place they wanted to go, but they cut the driver loose so they could be on their own. It was on the day there was nothing to do that Taz sent his jeans and shirt to be laundered. He put on the fresh uniform from the Powell Street cleaners and felt at home in it. His pride in the uniform had only grown during the touring.
Being in civvies made him feel… out of uniform. He had adjusted to the military and he had nothing that wasn't military by the time he left Vietnam. There was simply no place to go and no reason to be out of uniform, except in camp and in quarters.
It was a pleasant place. The rolling hills and smiling faces greeted them as they tackled the innards of the city. That's when they found it.
"That's it," Kodak said happily.
"Really? What's it?"
"Haight-Ashbury. See the sign?"
"Haight Street and Ashbury Street," Taz read.
"This is Haight."
"I don't hate anyone," Taz returned.
There was a change in the people who mingled about. They stood on corners, in between cars parked along the street, in doorways, and huddling in the middle of a sidewalk to talk. Most were brightly clad in the most outrageous of colors. It was a little like entering Oz.
The boys wore hair as long as the girls. Some were even prettier. They waved at passing cars that beeped. A hand shot into the air and without exception the one finger salute had become two in this place. The first two fingers formed a V as they held their palm outward and often yelled, "Peace."
Taz thought this to be particularly peculiar. Why peace?
As they climbed to the top of the hill, there were more and more colorfully dressed kids for the most part. They all seemed to be in their middle or late teens with the exception of twenty something's, with the men all wearing beards to accompany their long hair.
"Doesn't anyone work?" Taz wondered aloud, walking around this gathering and that.
"They're hippies," Kodak explained, as if that should explain it all.
"Oh, I've heard about hippies. They're weirder than I thought. Who dresses them?" Taz asked amazed.
"They're non-conformist. Anti-establishment," Kodak stressed.
"You can say that again. Weird too. Why are they all so happy? I've never seen so many happy people in one spot. Don't they know there are rules. No happiness. It's one of the first things I learned."
"They've dropped out. No rules. Nothing to be unhappy about. It's like a commune. They feed each other and if someone has a place to stay, they offer it to whoever wants to spend time inside. Mostly they prefer being outdoors together, when the weather cooperates."
"They sure do. They're really together up here," Taz said as they looked across the street into Golden Gate Park where hundreds of people sat in small groups all over that end of the park.
Once they stepped into the park there was a change in the relaxed atmosphere. Many heads began to turn in their direction. Everyone was looking at Taz, his creases tight, shoes highly polished, tie perfectly tied, and his ribbons displayed on his dress uniform.
"It's not you, Colonel. It's your uniform," a fellow seated near Taz's feet revealed.
"What?" Taz said, looking down at the speaker.
It was one of the older faces. He wore silver wire rim glasses that peered out from between long blond hair that streamed down over his shoulders, down his back, and the hair around his glasses dropped down onto a brightly colored shirt. There were more colors than in a rainbow. There was an embroidered headband circling his head. It was navy blue with brightly colored flowers covering it. He wore pants that looked like jeans, but there were great streaks of yellow amongst the blue of the jeans, and splotches that were almost white but not quite.
"Baby killer," a distant voice interjected into the scene.
"What did he say?" Taz said.
Kodak felt Taz's forearm as it tensed with an uncoiled punch, as his fist reacted naturally to the ultimate insult.
"Hey, Colonel, relax. Don't pay any attention to the children. They've got brothers over there. Some have brothers in the ground. They don't understand the war but they are no threat to you."
"Who the hell are you?" Taz snapped, feeling threatened, but he let his fist relax, sensing the threat had passed.
"Solomon, Colonel. We're no threat to you," he said, sensing Taz's reaction. "We're lovers, not fighters, friend. You are safe among us. Nothing but words for weapons here."
"Safe here? You're damn right I'm safe anywhere I go. I'm a sergeant in the US Army and I fight for you dudes," Taz explained a bit too loudly and with an unexpected fervor in spite of where he was, perhaps because of it.
"If you're fighting for me, Colonel, don't. I don't know anyone in Vietnam. I don't want anyone dead in Vietnam. I especially don't want you dead, friend," Solomon explained softly as a dozen long haired teens stood to come to stand with the man who spoke of non-violence.
"I especially don't want anyone here to go there to kill the Vietnamese. We have no desire to be in their country."
The new arrivals nodded and spoke their agreement with his comments. They were very young.
"Here, friend. I want you to have this. You need it much more than I do. You'll know what to do with it. You'll feel what it is."
The willowy man slipped a chain with a pendant the size of a silver dollar dominating it from around his neck. He slipped it gently over Taz's head, while Taz watched the ceremony, not ready to read anything offensive into it. The man wasn't anymore threatening than a small puppy. Taz was on his turf and decided to follow his customs. It was a curious charm. It was crude, handmade, and different, like Solomon.
He seemed sincere and without hostility, which couldn't be said of all the youngsters who stood with him. They were a mixture of black and white, young and younger, and some wore peaceful expressions, while others looked hard on the uniformed man in their midst.
"What is it?" Taz asked, curious and not willing to insult the gift giver.
"This is a peace sign. I make them. They represent my desire to spread universal brotherhood and a gentle understanding between all people. You need to accept its power, friend."
"Why do you think I need it?" Taz inquired, even more curious.
"I know things. I see things. I see your heart. It's a good heart, friend. You are a good man who uses violence only when it is thrust upon you. Misled perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. Take this gift in the spirit in which I give it. We shall part in peace with my hope that one day we will all join in making peace in our universe, not war.
"When you find that you no longer need this gift, or perhaps the time will come you see someone who needs its power more than you, feel free to pass it along to share the power of peace this symbol will provide.
"All of us here are part of the same dream, friend. Join us. This is what I know and see. Peace be with you in your long journey."
Taz looked at the hand made peace symbol. Its simplicity was obvious but there was a beauty in the design. Solomon flashed the peace sign as he turned to lead his entourage into the hippie horde.
Kodak returned the peace sign as he'd seen it issued. He watched the unusual man as people spoke his name, touched his hand as he passed, and always smiled with their faces turned up to the sun.
"What do you make of that?" Taz asked.
"Wise guy," Kodak answered.
"Yeah, a regular wise guy all right. You think he was serious? You think this hunk of metal has magical powers?"
"What wasn't serious? Seemed serious to me. Did you see how the kids reacted to him? Strange."
"Me too. I wanted to punch someone there for a minute, but he did something to me. I don't know what. You think this thing has power?" Taz asked, examining the gift.
"If you believe it does. What does it hurt? The sentiment is one I like. I've seen war and I like this a lot more. I love it. Look at them. They're all… all… beautiful people."
"Yeah, but you dress like them," Taz said, looking at Kodak's yellow on green outfit as bright as anything in the park. "You are like them… beautiful, you know."
"I come in peace," Kodak said blushing. "That's about the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Taz. It's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me."
They didn't stay in the park. The looks weren't threatening but they did express some alarm and apprehension by the lookers. Most were too young to know anything about war but they obviously associated Taz's uniform with authority and unpleasantness. These were the young escaping authority and seeking their peaceful place. War was something they'd choose to avoid.
It was routinely bantered about that guys went to Canada to escape the draft. Most of the hippies were too young to worry about it, but they weren't exactly what the army was looking for either. You can force guys into uniform. You can send them to Vietnam. Making warriors out of them was another matter.
The walk away from Golden Gate Park came with far more notice than the walk in. The uniform brought long hard looks, stares of recognition and then concern. Taz did his best not to allow these youngsters to upset him. He calculated most were fifteen or sixteen, and he remembered being seventeen, when he first put on his uniform. He thought these kids looked far too young for war and he wondered if he'd been too young.
"Look at that," Kodak said. "You ever seen anything like it?"
The Volkswagen bus was multi-colored, flowered, and ablaze in stars and the Milky Way. Taz and Kodak stopped to take a close-up look, and a tall lean young man stepped out of the back, blocking any view they might get of the inside.
"Move along, soldier. You din't lose nothin' here," the frail looking lad observed.
"We were just admiring the VW," Kodak said, smelling the acrid smoke as it drifted out of the wide open door that gave access to the back of the bus.
"He's cool, Comanche. Look, he's wearing a peace symbol," a young girl explained as she hopped from the back of the VW. "You been there, friend?"
"Just came back from there."
"Where'd you get the peace symbol," Comanche inquired, losing his tough edge.
"Solomon," Taz said, seeing the boy go from surly to sad.
"I got a brother over there, you know," Comanche said.
"Where?" came Taz's easy reply.
"Central Highlands. Haven't heard a word in over a month. I want to see him so bad. We never got along, you know? I wouldn't even mind if he kicked my ass. I'd like to know he's safe."
"What if I'd been him? Looking for you, say. I came down the block in my uniform and some other guy jumps out of the VW. He says, 'Move along soldier' to me, but you were in the back and didn't look out. I didn't look in, and so I didn't know we were a few feet away from one another, and so I walked on and we never got to see each other. What about that? Do you really want to turn away every soldier, son?"
Taz wished to make his point in an imagery even a fifteen-year-old boy might understand. He wasn't the army and he wasn't the war. It was okay for the kids to hate both, but hating him was out of line. He was doing a job and got no say in the matter. He wanted this kid to understand that. It was important to him. If they needed someone to blame they'd need to start by looking beyond his uniform.
Comanche stared into Taz's face. His eyes filled with tears. They ran like rain. The boy sobbed. He put his arms around Taz and blubbered on his shoulder. Taz looked at Kodak for instruction, but found a dumbfounded look to match his own. Taz put his arms around the splinter of a boy, who was even thinner than he looked.
"It's okay," Taz said. "The mail is slow in combat zones. They don't get it out too often. They don't want to risk it. Your brother's probably fine and they have a letter at home from him by now."
"You think so?" Comanche said, standing up tall and wiping his tears with the back of his hands, first one and then the other.
"Sure thing," Taz reassured him with a smile. "I just wanted you to think of me as a person. A soldier like your brother. I'm not that different from your brother. We're in the army. We aren't the army."
"I know," Comanche said. "I'm sorry. You want some weed? It's some really good shit."
"No," Taz laughed. "I don't think I need any of that."
"You're okay," Comanche observed. "I like you."
He smiled through the tears that still ran on his cheeks. He had pimples and his front right tooth was chipped. He had a cleft chin and vividly blue eyes.
"You're okay, too, Comanche. Just remember we're people too. Your brother will be okay."
"Yes, sir," Comanche said, becoming formal as he felt Taz's authority and responded to it like a young boy in school.
"I know you," the little girl said. "I've seen you somewhere before. What's your name?"
"No, I don't think I've ever been there," Taz said, looking to make a getaway before someone came up with a copy of Time magazine.
Kodak started moving further down the hill on which they'd found the colorful VW bus.
"Can I see you again? I know how to show a fellow a good time," the girl bragged.
"Sharon," Comanche blurted. "You're my girl."
"I could be his girl too," she said, standing boldly, hands on hips as Taz and Kodak laughed as they put distance between them and certain danger.
The only places where they'd stopped to sample a new kind of gathering, they had been met with hostility. They parted with some understanding for the sentiment of the fresh boyish faces and their starry-eyed girls, still looking for a few good men.
Taz hadn't thought that much about going to Vietnam, except he knew he'd die there. This was the attraction for him. Suicide by war sounded simple. With men dying, bullets flying, and bombers dropping bombs, dying should be easy, he'd thought, but he hadn't lived.
Taz had nothing to live for and so dying seemed like a good idea, but war is unpredictable, a lot like life. He'd met someone who made life interesting enough for Taz to want to take a shot at living.
Two very different lives cross paths and form an unbreakable bond. Like war, love is unpredictable. The chemistry is a mystery. Two elements combine, forming a compound that's so strong bullets and bombs can't pull them apart.
Taz and Kodak have survived war. What remains to be seen is if they can survive a culture that hates men who love each other.
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