Taz and Kodak
by Rick Beck
The following day Kodak met with Ben Bradley at Katherine Graham's journalist dinner. He wore his charcoal gray suit. The people he was introduced to were formal, polite, and well-mannered. A story with Kodak's comments in quotes appeared on the front page of the Washington Post the following morning. Right beside it was the story of Taz attending an army banquet near the Pentagon.
While Kodak had been noncommittal on questions about the war, each of his comments appeared in a story about the newest celebrities making the rounds in DC. Taz laughed when he read it, Major Costello cringed when he read it, and people began to recognize both Taz and Kodak on sight in the Capitol City.
There would be a congressional reception for the pair a week later and before that they expected they'd meet everyone who was anyone in DC.
The schedule began to fill up the boys spare time. In Washington everyone wanted to be seen with the pair. Kodak was wined and dined by reporters, newspaper executives, and congressmen. All wanted to be photographed with the photo-journalist who captured the image that captivated a nation.
Taz was led into a large room decorated in a fine dark shiny wood. The flags of the country and each military service stood in stands behind a lighter colored desk that wrapped around half the room and allowed the most important generals and admirals to be seated behind it as they faced whoever it was that appeared before them.
One of the officers was Gen. Walker, but there was nothing more than a nod in recognition. Taz sat alone at a table at the center of it all as the final officers came in to take their seats,
This was unique in his experiences. Up until his appearance at the Pentagon, it was relatively informal. These men took his presence far more seriously and wanted answers to questions about his experience with fighting the Viet Cong.
He skipped the stock answers he'd been developing since his first appearance in front of an audience. He'd met with officers all over the country in officers' clubs and bars. He listened to the questions carefully and answered them as completely as he could.
Even at the Pentagon he enjoyed celebrity and the questions mostly required Taz's opinion. He was smart enough to be brief and concise. The general staff had been playing musical chairs since Nixon brought his 'secret plan' to end the war to the White House. So far no one knew what the plan might be and while they waited, having Sgt. Tazerski for lunch was a popular idea.
Taz agreed his goodwill tour was important in bringing people out to support one of the warriors who fought the war. No one disagreed or was disagreeable as they listened and smiled. The debriefing lasted two hours and some minutes as most generals asked a question or two.
Once they were ready to call it a day, they thanked Taz for coming and asked him to stay for a few minutes to chat casually with his superiors. Taz wanted to speak to Gen. Walker and wasn't sure he hadn't done something to displease him. He'd been in town most of two weeks and hadn't heard from him. Major Costello couldn't tell him why.
The sight of a couple of dozen generals and admirals applauding his performance was unnerving. This was a difficult crowd at best and having them applaud did nothing to comfort him.
"You are a lucky lad. The Lord was obviously with you out there, son," Gen. Gallagher spoke loudly.
"No, sir, just 1st squad," Taz said, knowing who had his back.
"A sense of humor too. After what you've been through that's a mighty fine character trait. We're all proud of you, son," he said, as other generals pushed closer and Taz stretched to find Gen. Walker.
"Is Gen. Walker still here?" he asked the next happy hand shaker.
"Oh, Walker, he's meeting with his general staff. Half the boys here are in his command. With Westmoreland leaving, there's a new ball game. Gen. Walker has to keep his Asia Command lean and mean."
"I've been on the road for a few months. I didn't know any of that."
"Yes you have, and representing us well, Sergeant. We are proud of you. You're the face on this war and Lord knows we've had nothing but a sour face for some time," Gen. Wood observed. "Yours is a big improvement."
Taz thought of finding out where Gen. Walker was holding his meetings, deciding if the general wanted him he'd send for him. It was his only disappointment in Washington.
"We have some officers heading for Walter Reed. Do you want to accompany us to the hospital? We like chatting with our boys over there when time allows," Gen. Summers said.
"Yes, sir, I'd like that. I could be one of them," Taz said with certainty.
"Oh, yes, The General wants you to take his driver, Kendall. He's dying to go somewhere. You'll like him. Fine fellow. He'll see to it you get to the congressional reception tonight. You and your photographer friend are guests of honor, I believe."
"Yes, sir, I think we are. I prefer the hospital," Taz confessed.
"Good for you, son. Nothing but stuffed shirts go to those affairs. Very official, very formal, with tons of hot air. They take themselves very seriously. They hold the purse for this war and we're depending on that beautiful smile of yours to open it so we win this war. They're suckers for big smiles. We've got a lot riding on yours, son."
Taz greeted Kendall warmly and felt a connection to Gen. Walker as they drove the twenty minutes to Walter Reed Hospital. He thought over what Gen. Summers said to him. He quizzed Kendall on how Gen. Walker was doing.
The hospital reminded Taz of a college campus. There were guys roaming around in blue army hospital issue with various kinds of wounds, some apparent and some invisible.
There was a cluster of generals and their aides at the front entrance. Hospital staff came to greet them. Taz followed the commotion and blended in with the general disruption. No one noticed a sergeant, even a prim and proper one.
There were ambulatory soldiers who stood at an abbreviated attention, not sure of the protocol that came with a dozen high ranking officers, who came to chat.
There was laughter and a loud general chatter that held the uncomfortable looking wounded in place, trying to look properly pleased but not too much so.
Taz made the first right turn where he saw walking wounded moving in and out of a doorway.
Reaching the first door, he slipped inside and began greeting the bedridden soldiers first. It took less than five minutes for other soldiers to gather around and guys came from other rooms, once they heard Sgt. Tazerski was in the hospital.
Unlike with the generals, Taz was at home with the troops. This was the part of his duty that he liked most. Nurses came to protest the insurrection and then came back with copies of Time for Taz to sign.
Each week there was more chaos that went with his presence among the wounded. It was easy to go in, make a speech, and disappear before anyone could corner him, but at a place like Walter Reed he was forced to face the war and its real cost. As much as he wanted to be there with the men, he knew, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' This had him feeling he was a fraud."
Once in a military hospital, Taz was determined to visit each room and speak to each man who would allow it. He felt it his duty more keenly than any other duties assigned. His hand at times grew sore and his jaws tight from the constant shaking and smiling.
Taz accepted food in each wing of the hospital and when the men weren't sharing food from their trays, the nurses were bringing him sodas and chips. It was a rare day when everyone forgot their troubles.
Taz got a lift from being among the men. Many were only a few days out of Nam. They weren't without experience with high powered visitors, but none were welcomed the way their own hero was welcomed. Some soldiers followed Taz as he progressed through the hospital. More copies of Time appeared, some dog-eared, and Taz signed them with a smile.
Some soldiers were more seriously wounded than others. Some had been seriously wounded but were well on their way to healing. Others weren't so lucky. There was the depression, the loneliness, and the question of what was left of their lives. Taz reached out to each one, shaking and smiling.
For today they were all delighted to have a diversion. The monotony of a daily routine was lost in the excitement. No matter how serious the wound, a smile never hurt and laughter proved to be good medicine. His job was to cheer them up.
After a short stop at a nursing station, Taz was pointed toward a men's room down the nearest hallway.
"You need any help, Sergeant?" one nurse asked.
"Delilah, you hussy," one nurse chided.
The three of them laughed at the idea of helping the young stud soldier.
Taz leaned on the sink and stared at his face. His life seemed like a dream. He looked so young. He felt so old. He didn't know what his life would be like when he took his discharge. The time wasn't far off now. He had decided not to reenlist. In a year and nine months he hadn't taken a single day of leave. He had nowhere to go. As he looked at himself, he still had nowhere to go.
It was a daunting proposition. There were few calls for machine gunners or former soldiers that were willing to talk about a war everyone hated.
He straightened his uniform one final time and was grateful none of the soldiers had followed him into the men's room. He took one deep breath, put the smile back on his face, and headed for the door.
As he started up the hall, there was a half open door on his right. Inside was a single bed, a single soldier, and lots of tubes and beeping machines. Taz stepped inside the door to look at the half naked soldier bandaged from his chest to his groin.
"You can't be in here," a nurse whispered as she forced her way in past him.
"Dave? That you?" the boy's weak voice asked, barely audible above the sound of the machines.
"Yeah, it's me," Taz said, sensing the need for Dave in the kid's voice.
"What's his name?"
"Charlie. He was called, Charlie."
"I couldn't stay away once I knew you were here," Taz said.
"I knew you'd come. I knew it. I could always depend on you, Dave."
"Yeah, you can depend on me."
"You can't stay in here, Sergeant. He's dying. There's nothing that can be done but let him rest quietly."
"Then I can't hurt him can I?" Taz said, moving a chair next to the bed.
"Damn it's so nice hearing your voice. I knew you'd come, you know. I was just thinking about you, Dave, and here you are. I wanted to tell you that you were right. I shouldn't have joined. I should have listened to you. You are always right, you know. Now look at me."
"How are you?" Taz asked.
"Oh, I'm a mess. I hurt in my stomach. I can hardly see anything. They tell me it's the drugs. I feel like shit, Dave. I should have listened to your ass. You're always right, you know."
Taz sat holding the soldiers hand. Charlie talked and filled in all the pieces for Taz but he did most of the talking. He had a lot to say to his friend and he was almost happy as he let the words flow. It was sad, but Taz was glad to be of service to another soldier, even if it meant helping him die.
"Sergeant, you can't be in here," a doctor said in his most official voice, as the nurse stood obediently beside him with an, I told you so look on her face.
"I'm staying. What happened to him?"
"Mortar fire. A Shau Valley as I understand. His platoon got ambushed."
"That's over by Laos, isn't it?" Taz asked.
"Yes, it is. There's a hell of a battle brewing. These aren't the first casualties we've seen from that area."
"They put him back together over there. After nine operations his organs are failing. He's bleeding internally. We don't dare open him up again. It's only a matter of time."
"He looks so young," Taz said wistfully, looking at the smooth boyish face. "Isn't there some chance?"
"He won't last out the afternoon. The nurses are keeping an eye on him. You don't need to bother staying. There's nothing you can do."
"It's no bother. He looks like a little boy. How old is he?" Taz tried again.
The doctor had no answer. He picked up the chart. His dark eyes studied the chart to find the proper line.
"Eighteen. Just eighteen," the doctor said, seeming to be struck sad by what he said.
"Thanks. I'll sit with him," Taz said.
The determination was obvious in his voice. The doctor didn't know who Taz was and he didn't care. Why should he object to an act of kindness?
Taz turned to listen to Charlie chattering away. He had a lot to tell his friend and you could sense in his voice he knew there wasn't much time to tell him.
He talked about being a kid with Dave near Columbia, Missouri and how much mischief they'd gotten themselves into. The boy laughed, holding Taz's hand tightly and seeming to take strength from the physical contact.
Taz knew he'd take the kid's name and one day he'd go to Missouri and find Dave to tell him how his friend Charlie had died.
"I really feel like shit, Dave. I think they got me good. I'm sure glad you're here. I'm scared. I'm really scared, Dave. I'm such a baby."
"Nothing to be scared of, Charlie. It's going to be okay. Here, I brought you something to keep you safe."
Taz unbuttoned the top of his blouse, slipping the peace symbol out from under his T-shirt and slipping it over his head.
"Here, I brought this for you. It has protected me and it'll keep you safe, Charlie. You'll see."
"What is it, Dave?" he asked with excitement, as Taz slipped it gently around his neck.
"It's a peace symbol. It'll bring you peace, Charlie. It's brought me peace and I don't need it anymore. I want you to have it. You'll see. Go ahead and hold it. You'll see how it helps to take away all the fear."
"Leave it to you. I never meant all that stuff I said to you, when you tried to talk me out of joining up. I know you were right now. The war was no place for me. Why didn't I listen to you? Now look at me. I haven't lived yet, Dave, and look at me. I should have listened to you all right. You were always way smarter than me."
"Don't worry about it. I know you didn't mean it. I'm here aren't I? We're cool."
"Will you stay and take me home, Dave? I'd like that. We'd be together again. Just like old times."
"I'll stay until you're ready to go," Taz said and Charlie smiled as his sparkling blue green eyes blinked up at the ceiling.
Charlie held the peace symbol in one hand and Taz's hand in the other. He stopped talking for a time. His expression changed and the happiness and sparkle left his face. His excitement faded.
"It's okay. I do feel better. Peaceful like. How'd you know it would work? Even my gut feels better now."
"Someone gave it to me one day. He told me it would help me find peace. It did. I always thought it was the stuff outside that made the biggest difference, but it wasn't like that at all. The peace came from inside me," Taz explained thoughtfully, not sure when he realized he had found peace within himself.
"Maybe you ought to keep it? It sounds like it's important to you."
"No, I don't need it anymore. You need it. I gave it to you."
"Thanks. I knew you'd come. I knew it. I don't know how I knew. I was lying here alone, you know. I began thinking about you. Next thing I know you're here."
Charlie swallowed hard and seemed to be seeing something some distance away as his eyes fluttered a few times.
"I'm really tired. Don't leave me, okay? I'm going to rest my eyes. I'm glad you came, Dave. I'm glad."
Charlie grew silent. The sounds of the machines grew louder. There was an obvious weakening in the beeping. One final desperate beep came just before the buzzing began.
Taz sat holding Charlie's hand as the nurses came in and turned off the maddening machines. There was no hurry, no frantic reaction to the soldier's inability to stay alive.
A few minutes later Kendall stepped into the room.
"Sarge," Kendall said softly.
"They've got to take him out of here. He's gone, Sarge. Let go of his hand so they can take him."
Taz woke as if he'd been in a deep dark sleep. His head ached and he felt like he'd been hit by a truck. He was tired and didn't feel very well. The smell of the hospital nauseated him.
"What's this?" the nurse said, as she unhooked the wires and tubes from the body.
"Don't touch it. It's his," Taz snapped viciously.
"What is it?" the nurse asked curiously, looking at the crudely fashioned piece of metal.
"It's a peace symbol," Taz said more conciliatory.
"Oh, yeah, I've seen these. Not the place for one of these, do you think?"
"It's the perfect place for it. It's his. Let him keep it. It isn't hurting anything," Taz pleaded as the nurse looked quizzically.
She couldn't help but wonder what a soldier like Sgt. Tazerski was doing with such a thing. She knew better than to ask and would get rid of it after he left.
"There's an exit just past the latrine, Sarge. I brought the car around so you don't need to go back through the hospital. You got to get back to the hotel, shower, shave, get into a new uniform. You can't be late for that deal tonight. Gen. Walker would skin us both."
Taz hesitated at the door, turning to take one last look.
"Goodbye, Charlie," Taz said sadly. "I'll tell Dave I stood in for him."
He followed Kendall to the car. In a few minutes they were driving back toward the hotel.
"You know where the Lincoln Memorial is, Kendall?" Taz asked.
"Sure. I drive Gen. Walker all over this town. He won't let no one else drive him, you know. He likes it there. He talks to Lincoln. He's a general talking to a block of granite.
"I shouldn't say stuff like that. That's another reason he keeps me around. I don't say nothin' about nothin'. We got to get moving, Sarge. That deal starts in a couple of hours and you look like hell."
"That's where I want to go. Lincoln Memorial."
Kendall didn't like it, but he wasn't there to argue with the people he drove.
Taz told Kendall to sit tight as he left the car to walk up the sidewalk toward the stairs. He looked up through the columns as he climbed. He moved between the columns into the chamber and stood before the massive monumental man sitting at the center of the memorial.
Taz threw his most snappy salute at the statue.
He felt a loyalty to Lincoln, who stood up for the people. There was a bond he knew they shared, even though he'd not known it before.
He stood reading Lincoln's words, which were carved all around the ceiling above the statue. His hand went to his chest as he felt for the missing peace symbol. It had become a reflex any time Taz felt uneasy or fearful. It had been there a long time.
He moved his hand away from his chest.
"It's getting late," Kendall said softly, as he stood behind Taz expecting him to snap at him for mentioning time. "You're going to be late, Sarge, and both our asses are going to get chewed off."
"You know where I'm going?"
"Yeah, Sarge, I been there a few times. You need to get changed. You can't go there looking like that. These are important people, Sarge. These are very important people, congressmen, their wives. They don't take kindly to being stood up."
"You know that kid died?"
"I know, Sarge," Kendall said, made uneasy by the question. "They told me he would. I shouldn't have let you stay in there. Gen. Walker is going to take a big bite out of my ass on account I did. He's going to get another chunk if I don't have you where you're supposed to be on time, looking like one squared away army grunt."
"He was an important person, Kendall. Not Gen. Walker, not all the bullshit people who think they're important or who think I'm important. They're shit. That kid was important, you know. He was important to me and none of those assholes will even know he died for them. They don't care as long as I'm on time and in my best dress uniform, tailored for a fine fit, thank you very much. It's all bullshit, Kendall. We're bullshit."
"Sarge! We got to go. Please. You can tell me all about it tomorrow. I'm supposed to be looking out for you. Keep you out of trouble. I'm going to be a private tomorrow. You're going to be in the stockade."
"Yeah, you've done a fine job, Kendall. You can't undo what I've seen. You can't undo what I've done."
"I know, Sarge. It's time. Please!"
"He freed the slaves, you know?" Taz said, looking back over his shoulder at Lincoln before looking down the steep stone staircase ahead of them. "Martin Luther King spoke on those steps one day. The people were spread as far as the eye could see to hear his words. They were important. They died too. The good people always die."
"That kid died and I got my picture taken holding a gun, like thousands of other grunts are doing right now, only no one took a picture of them and now I'm an American hero. The hero was Charlie and the boys who died or came back with pieces missing."
"Sarge, that's how life works. Some of us get our pictures taken and some of us get buried. We're at war. Those people waiting to salute you need their heroes. Why don't we go give them a good look at you and we can talk all night about it? It's time to go. You got to let me do my job."
"I know. I know. I can't do this anymore, Kendall. I can't. I'm scared," Taz confessed, feeling a ton of weight on his chest. "He's not talking to the granite. He's talking to Lincoln's spirit. Can't you feel it? That's what this place is here for."
Kendall started down the stairs in the hope he wasn't alone. Taz followed him to the car. Kendall could only hope Taz's insubordination had ended. They'd be lucky to make it to the congressional reception on time.
There was a darkness that hung around Taz that Kendall felt. He still needed to get him showered and into a fresh uniform and time was running out. Kendall steered the car toward the hotel, going as swiftly as he dared. It wasn't far to the ballroom and he still thought he could get Taz there on time.
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