Taz and Kodak

by Rick Beck

Chapter 19

The Reception

Kodak came rushing down the corridor in his Hawaiian attire, red on red. With the red carpet and the red rose wallpaper, he blended in stunningly well.

"Is he here?" Kodak asked impatiently as he came toward Kendall.

"Yes, sir, he's here, but you aren't going to like it," Kendall spoke as he swung open the door so Kodak's momentum wasn't impeded.

"Oh, Taz," Kodak moaned with disappointment.

"I tried to stop him. He jumped out of the car at a red light. I couldn't stop him. When he came back with the bottle, I tried to get it away from him. He told me he'd kill me if I touched it. I believed him. I saw my career flashing in front of my face.

"They said bring him back here. Keep him out of sight. I don't guess there's a cure to get him ready for this shindig? I know how to get wasted, not so much about unwasting someone."

"I'm sorry," Taz sang, looking up from an ugly uncomfortable looking thin green couch.

Taz lay on his side with hands stuffed between his knees with his knees drawn toward his chest. A nearly empty bottle of scotch was on its side in front of the couch.

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "Can you hold me for a minute? I need you to hold me. I can't do this any more. I can't do it. I'm scared."

"Go ahead, sir. I don't have nothin' to say about nothin'. I'm just a driver. I was, anyway."

"Does Gen. Walker know he's like this?" Kodak asked, having difficulty processing the scene and what to do about it.

"He knows all right. I called him. He told me where to take him. This isn't the best night he could have pulled this shit."

"No, it's not. Can you stand guard and not let anyone see him like this? I'll think of something to explain his absence."

"Yes, sir. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes."

"No, I suspect not. You can't do what he did and see what he saw and not pay the piper sooner or later."

"No, I guess not, but what are you going to do about all the dignitaries who are getting all gussied up to see him? They're going to be a little disappointed if he's a no show."

"I don't know. I've been waiting for it to catch up with him, but it's kind of short notice. I figured I'd see it coming. "He was drunk all the time over there. Went cold turkey to quit. I figured it was only a matter of time," Kodak revealed. "Oh, Taz, why tonight?"

"I won't let anyone in. The Gen. will be here once his day is done. He's still reorganizing his general staff and they're all scheduled to be here. They've been at it twenty hours a day. It's going to be a new ballgame over there."

"It's okay, babe, I'll keep you safe if I can," Kodak said, slipping behind Taz on the narrow couch, holding him tightly.

"Will you? That's nice. Thank you," Taz sang as he felt Kodak's arms holding him close. "Don't let go. I feel like I'm falling."

"I won't let you fall. I'll keep you safe, babe." Kodak promised. "I won't let go. Just go to sleep and I've got to go out there and tell them something, Taz. You'll be fine and I'll be here, when you wake up. Just go to sleep. I'm here."

"Thank you," he said with his voice fading, as was his connection to the scene. "Tell them… Tell them… I can't do this anymore. I'm afraid of people, you know. I like soldiers. I'm a soldier. Soldiers are okay."

"Yes, they are."

Kodak fought back his tears, kissing the back of Taz's head once he'd fallen asleep. He eased himself off the couch, trying to figure out what he'd say to the crowd gathering a few feet away to hear Taz tell his tale.

Kodak turned to look back at Taz when he reached the door. His heart ached for the hero of 1st squad. Kodak also felt the darkness around his friend. He wasn't sure what might happen because of the fall Taz had taken.

"Thanks for taking care of him, Kendall. You're a good soldier."

"Yes, sir. I couldn't stop him. Honest, I tried. He going to be okay?"

"No, he's not. He's back in Vietnam I suspect, fighting his own private war this time. I don't know if we can get him back again. Don't let anyone in here. He should stay a hero. No one needs to be able to take that away from him."

"Good as done, sir. He's not going to speak?" Kendall verified.

"No, I'll speak for him tonight. He took care of me in Vietnam and I'll take care of him back here if I can. This isn't a good audience to disappoint."

"Don't be too hard on him. He watched a soldier die this afternoon. I don't think he liked it. I knew it was a bad idea but you can't stop him when he makes up his mind to do something."

"I know. Pray for him to come home, Kendall," Kodak said mournfully, not looking back again.

"I will. I am."

Kodak stopped to get his clothes straightened up. There weren't a lot of questions when he showed up at the corner of the stage alone, before the host went on to announce the guests of honor.

He'd dressed to accompany Taz on stage as the guy who took the picture. With Taz looking like a million bucks in his tailored uniform, Kodak's Hawaiian attire was a fair contrast to the hero. He'd gone to the ballroom earlier in the day and decided on red.

It was perfect for this high powered crowd. He'd realized this was the top of the world. He thought it would be all downhill from here, having no idea how fast that journey would be.

Now he was the whole ball game and feeling a bit overexposed. He used the soft matching hat he'd found in a second hand shop in Georgetown to give his hands something to do as he twisted and pulled to hide his nerves.

He knew he had to do it but knowing how wasn't so apparent. He remembered how he was there to talk once Taz ran out of steam at the first few events. It wasn't long before Taz was in charge and out front of every speaking engagement. He seemed fine, almost happy, but looks can be deceiving. Kodak was never convinced that inside of Taz things were as calm as they appeared on the outside.

Kodak was introduced as Paul Anderson, speaking for Sgt. Tazerski who had taken ill. He'd never have thought to call it that but it helped take the sting out of the mess. The crowd grew restless at the news and their disappointment showed. The groan gave Kodak that sinking feeling. The bottom was rushing at him.

The applause told him they knew he was Kodak. They still thought taking a picture was a big deal. It still baffled him. It was a shot in a million, but he was all they had and they seemed pleased he had shown up. He wasn't what they had expected, but he'd have to do.

As the applause died down, Kodak moved to the center of the stage and began to adjust the microphone on the podium. He looked out over the dignitaries, important people all, and looking the role.

The audience looked for Taz, hoping he was well enough to be seen. They heard the introduction but as of yet didn't understand why the soldier they came to see was A.W.O.L. They weren't accustomed to disappointments. That was obvious as the crowd murmured.

"I'm Kodak," he said.

The audience applauded politely and waited. There was a gasp as the lights went down except for a spot that was placed on Kodak, spilling over his left shoulder.

The applause started before Kodak looked back over his shoulder to find the picture that had started it all. His knees felt weak and tears clouded his vision.

The applause became louder and continued for too long. Kodak wished his friend was there with him, but this was as close as he was going to get.

"Where's Taz?" someone yelled from the back of the auditorium.

Kodak stood silent, trying to smile. Should he lie? The question made him cringe. What could he say that hadn't been said. He wasn't going to say he was drunk, A.W.O.L., or missing in action.

He adjusted the microphone some more, looking for the right words. A million flooded through his brain. None slowed down.

"Taz is back in Vietnam," Kodak answered with a most serious tone in his voice.

"In Vietnam? He's not in Vietnam," the disembodied voice in the dark countered. "He was on the front page of the Post this morning."

Kodak adjusted the microphone, searching his inadequate brain. How could he say enough without saying too much? How could he tell them about his friend?

"Sometimes, you leave a war, but it doesn't leave you," Kodak said softly.

"What?" someone yelled.

"Shhh!" the restless people said.

"Taz is dealing with the war tonight. He can't join us. He asked me to tell you that."

There was a soft groan as the disappointment resurfaced. They'd come to see a war hero and a photographer wasn't exactly the same thing.

"But I'll tell him you asked about him. That will help. Let me tell you about him, since he isn't here to stop me."

Kodak looked back at the picture for inspiration. At the bottom of the picture was written,

AP Wire Photo by Kodak.

The applause died down as Kodak regrouped, still a novice at the fame game as a single. He looked over the crowd and tried to get his mind to produce words that could mean something to these people.

"Taz is not able to speak to you tonight and that's why they keep me around. I've never told anyone how I came to take that picture. There's been so much fuss over it and no one has ever asked me how I came to take it. Do you want to hear the story?"

"Yes," was the answer en masse, as soft lights came on around the walls of the ballroom.

"I hadn't been in-country long. In Vietnam that is. I had been going out on patrol for a week or more when I took the picture behind me. Taz was never anywhere to be seen. I mean I never knew where he was or even if he was with us, and believe me, I tried to find him. I was the last man in the formation. I wanted to make sure someone was between me and whatever might be behind us. Oh, he was supposed to be there. I just never saw him.

"On this day we were out on patrol and we walked into an ambush. It was a small part of a larger force left behind to keep 1st squad from catching up with the rest of the Viet Cong.

"One minute we were on another routine patrol and then all hell broke loose. It was a total surprise -- to me anyway. There was no sign of the enemy as far as I knew. The next thing I knew I was flat on my ass with Taz standing over me. This was the first time I saw him in action. It was the first combat I'd seen.

"It's an experience you can't imagine. I mean Taz was immediately in charge of the firefight. All our guys ducked out of his way, and he put down enough fire to put a crimp in that ambush.

"While I was lying there, watching him, I got the idea, since I was a photographer, I ought to get a picture. That's the picture I took.

"He wouldn't allow me to get up to take pictures as 1st squad took control of the battlefield. He didn't think it was safe for me. He said later it was too dangerous, and so I shot the picture from the ground with him towering over me with that big gun.

"Believe me, it takes an incident like that for Taz to tower over me."

The laughter told him the story was a success. He smiled and wanted.

"I don't usually get to talk about the kind of soldier Taz is, because he'd smack me if I did it in front of him. He only sees it as doing his job. So I'll tell you tonight since he isn't here to stop me. 1st squad knew what kind of soldier he was. Every man in 1st squad, including this photographer, knew he was the difference between life and death. No matter the situation, Taz stood out front, drew fire, and laid it down in a way the enemy had to dread.

"Taz has this keen vision that sees everything on the battlefield. He has even keener hearing. He can hear an enemy rifle when the soldier clicks in a new ammo clip. It's generally the last thing that soldier ever does. If one raises his head, takes time to set his rifle to open fire, or just scratches his ass, Taz makes that his final move.

"At first I couldn't keep up with what he did. It took time for me to understand he nailed snipers as they eased their rifles into position to take a shot, and he heard riflemen coming up from the rear or on one of our flanks. He could whirl and fire, turning back to fire again, before I knew what he was shooting at.

"When we were lost, it began with me jumping out of the chopper first in an effort to get some pictures of 1st squad hitting the ground to go into action. We were almost immediately under attack. Taz was usually the first man out to protect 1st squad. In this case he was returning fire right away. The chopper was able to lift up out of the LZ. As the VC was deciding to duck rather than die, Taz was signaling the pilot to go, leaving us behind. Taz was sacrificing his own life so that his unit and a helicopter survived.

"I told him he'd have jumped back into the chopper if not for me, but he told me this, 'they weren't about to let that helicopter get airborne. I changed their minds. They decided they had a better chance of staying alive if they let the chopper go. I had to stay behind to make that point.'

"That's the kind of soldier Sgt. Tazerski is. Yes, he survived. Believe me, it was blind dumb luck and his courage that saved us. If I'd known the entire truth, I'd have gone to pieces, but he never let me know the truth about our desperate situation.

"'Your being on the ground with me was a fluke, but it didn't change anything.'"

"That was Taz at war. He always knew his job. He was always the first man out of the chopper and he stood guard at each LZ, being the last man to get aboard before the chopper took off. He saw it as doing his duty and I saw it as heroic.

"That helicopter survived long enough to get 1st squad to safety. Taz emptied the B.A.R. keeping the VC fire to a minimum. Now, he carried an extra clip that day but other guys in 1st squad carried more clips for him so he wasn't weighed down.

"What I didn't know, and he didn't tell me, was when we left the LZ, tumbling down a steep incline, which probably saved our lives, Taz lost his extra clip. He had no ammo. We were out there for days virtually unarmed, but of course I never knew it.

"Taz never once let on how desperate our situation was. The enemy was all around us and we were 30 miles from base with no way to protect ourselves, except maybe use the B.A.R. for a club.

"It rained really bad for a couple of days and he fashioned us a small shelter he made out of jungle vegetation. It kept us dry but we were starving. Not only were we starving but during the night a VC rifle squad decided to set up camp a few feet from where we were staying out of the weather.

"No, this wasn't an episode of Ripley's Believe It Or Not, but what came next would qualify. Taz, who is unarmed, stole some of their rice and even an enemy grenade. I still didn't know he had no ammo and couldn't figure out why he wanted a grenade.

"When I look back on it, what he did, the kind of a man he is, I'm very lucky to be alive to tell you about it. I don't think I would be if I had been with anyone but Sgt. Tazerski.

"There is no doubt he conducted himself heroically whenever he was in the field. He would have died willingly for 1st squad if that was what it took to get them back to camp safely. His buddies came first. He always puts me first. I'm proud to at last have an opportunity to tell someone about the Taz I know and owe my life to."

The applause came like a crack of lightning and there were whistles and hoots of approval. Kodak was a hit as a single and it did relieve some of the stress he felt. He waited as the commotion died away. He thought as he waited for the room to go silent.

"I understand you are disappointed he isn't here to tell you his story tonight. Believe me, I sure as hell wish it was him up here and not me."

Laughter spread around the room as the audience sympathized with the journalist.

"I want you to remember this: Taz has been out there standing between you and the enemy. He did it willingly. He saw it as his duty. It isn't done without a cost when done right. Some men pay the ultimate price. Some men come back without any visible wounds.

"Taz was wounded in a way we can't see. He's spent the past few months appearing in front of audiences like this, well, not quite like this one."

Everyone laughed.

"He sees this as his duty. He sees it as an opportunity to tell the soldier's story. He's under orders to do it and he has done it with no regard for himself.

"Tonight he couldn't make it out here. He doesn't like this part of it all that much. He rarely speaks of himself. It's not in his nature. He would be the last one to tell you he's wounded. So I'll tell you.

"Don't judge him too harshly because you came all this way, got all gussied up to hear the hero speak. He is speaking to you. He's telling you he is tired. He's telling you he fought the good fight and he fought it well. He's telling you he can't get up to fight the battle any longer. He's telling you he needs time to go home to heal. He needs to go somewhere and forget the war, the bleeding, and the dying. He's talking to us and all he wants is to be left alone for awhile. I ask you to be grateful he stood between you and the enemy and now let him heal. He's given you all he's got."

The applause began softly and moved around the ballroom. People thought about those words, they stood and applauded louder, and the whistles and hoots of approval rang through the chandeliers.

"Taz took care of me. He took care of 1st squad. He was without fear and would stand and fight for as long as his unit was in danger."

The applause erupted all over again. Some people stood and some were content to stay seated.

"We'll get done here a lot faster if you'll stop that. I'm having a hard enough time going it alone tonight. I'm no public speaker, I'm barely a photographer," he said, and there was laughter and applause that came together.

People nodded approval and smiled at one another as they clapped.

"Men who go to war put their lives on the line for you. They might not face the enemy all the time but at all times they know they'll be facing the enemy.

"Killing is not an easy thing to do. When your country says to do it, that's what you do, but don't expect soldiers to come home unaltered by the experience. You can't possibly know what it is like to fight and watch men die if you haven't done it or watched it done. I just knew I was glad to be alive once it was over.

"One day we were lost in the bush and the next day we were receiving a hero's welcome in the States. One day death was but a step away and the next day we were standing in front of fine folks like you, staying in fine hotels and eating first class food. One day lost, starving, a step away from death, and the next day we were celebrities.

"Believe me, it isn't an easy transition, and I only took pictures. While Taz is heroic by virtue of his deeds, every man that answers his country's call is an American hero.

"Where would we be without them? They go and they fight to keep us safe and we owe them whatever it takes for them to readjust to being home. They've earned our patience if they don't immediately respond to whatever it is we are expecting from them."

"It's time we say welcome home, Sgt. Tazerski, job well-done and then we need to stand back and give him whatever time he needs to readjust to being home."

This time the applause lasted. Seats were deserted as the audience took a stand. It was the best Kodak had. It was all he had.

Kodak moved back from the microphone.


Returning to the room where he'd left Taz, he found the door open and the room empty. Kendall was gone. Only the nearly empty bottle of booze remained to prove Taz had been there. He sunk down on the uncomfortable damp green couch. Kodak cried.

Taking a lonely cab ride to the hotel, Taz wasn't there. There were no message to tell him where Taz had been taken.

Kodak didn't know if he'd ever see his friend again. He had no doubt he was back in the hands of the US Army. There had been a war going on inside Taz long before he left for Vietnam. His life was filled with strife and the constant battle to survive and he'd finally surrendered to his demons.

Whatever the treatment, the punishment, the fallout for what had taken place that last day, Kodak had no way of knowing the fate of his friend. If he went to the Washington Post the entire story would become public. Any chance for Taz to have a future would be lost.

The US Army had footed the bill for the tour. The tour was over. No one needed to tell Kodak. No one gave a damn about a tarnished hero.

Life was lonely without the man he loved in it. He'd been with Taz most of every day for a year. His absence weighed heavy on Kodak's aching heart.

Once healed, would Taz even want to see him? Would he remember?

Maybe he could reach Gen. Walker. Maybe Kendall could tell him where Taz was taken, but where would he find Kendall? Any day now they'd be back in Asia and Taz would be lost to him forever.

He called his paper to find out if he had any money coming to him. He asked about a job and had no appetite for life without Taz.

Prologue

"Okay, you've got your tickets and you'll be in Missoula before dark tonight. My sons will meet you at the airport and take you to the ranch. You make sure he doesn't try to get off the plane, Kodak," Gen. Walker ordered.

"I won't try to get off the fucking plane. What do you think I am? Where else have I got to go?"

"I'm still trying to figure that out, son. You've got your discharge papers? You better thank Kodak every day of your life for that honorable discharge. I'm not sure if I could have pulled your ass out of the fire with you standing up half the congress and all their wives. He had every wife in tears and wanting to adopt you. I guess I won that lottery.

"You certainly have a fan in this fellow. You better not let him get away. Loyalty like his is damn hard to come by these days."

"No, sir, I don't plan on doing that either. I'm not stupid, just crazy."

"I won't be there until late this year, but I'm coming up on retirement and I'm going to call it a day. This damn reorganization, this damn war has convinced me I need to live some before I die," Gen. Walker said, as he leaned into the backseat of his staff car.

"I'll keep the place from falling down until you get home," Taz said.

"You are going to have to help with the cattle. Both of you. I don't want to be missing any when I get back there. My boys will show you the ropes. If you find some military looking guys hanging around there, they'll be expecting you."

"Thanks, General. You saved my life," Taz said seriously.

"You gave me a lot to think about. I'm the one that should be thanking you, son. The ranch is there. One more soldier, more or less, don't matter much. I've always liked my soldiers and having some around the house seems right to me.

"Now, look, you can live in the main house. Lord knows there will be a crowd there by now, but the boys have set the line shack up for you. It's nicer than it sounds. No electricity. No TV, but the most beautiful damn sunsets on God's green earth. The air is fresh if you steer clear of the cow patties. They give new meaning to head clearing capabilities. You'll do okay.

"Kodak, take care of him. He needs you and that means I need you. Let me know if you need anything. You've got my numbers. I'll see you in a few months.

"Kendall, they're going to be late. What the hell are you doing sitting around here? I got to tell you to get your ass moving?"

"No, sir."

Kendall smiled, starting the engine, waiting for the general to close the door.

He reached into the backseat shaking first Kodak's hand and then Taz's before closing the door. He stood and watched the staff car heading for the gate.

The End

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