A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 18

Lost Days

Various pictures of Keith flashed through my mind. The first was him being dressed for street hockey. That's how I first met him. There was a pick-up game a few blocks from my house. He was the biggest kid and I was one of the smallest. He'd body checked me into the pavement about five minutes into the game. He helped me up, feeling bad about his size advantage as though either of us could have done something about it.

I was a bit miffed and jerked my arm out of his when he tried to pick me up.

"Look, kid, I'm sorry," he said.

I turned my back and skated away. No one had ever apologized for anything they'd done to me before. He certainly didn't need to make the effort. One on one he could have squashed me and damn near did.

After the game he skated up and said, "You okay kid. Didn't mean to hit you so hard."

"I'm fine," I said. "You didn't hit me all that hard." I remembered how hard my teeth had rattled in my dizzy head right after.

"You're a tough little fucker. I'm Keith," he said like that was someone important I should know.

We must have played hockey against each other a hundred times. He always dominated the game. After that we were on the same team and it became easier to be friendly to the bigger and older boy. The next picture that came to my mind was the day I found out his secret. He said he didn't tell anyone but then he told me. He said that's why he played so rough. No one ever suspected it.

He'd had his back to me when I came up. We were playing over near his street that day. When he turned around his face looked like he'd met a meat grinder up close and personal.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Tough game last night," he had said, but it didn't look like the kind of injuries we took off the street. He had a fat lip, both of his eyes were black, and his nose was bent in a direction it didn't usually go in. He sat the last half of the game out, just watching from the curb. I'd never seen him sit out a game.

"What's up, Keith?" I asked, as he walked me back toward my street after the game.

"Nothing. Just a bit angry today. I might have hurt someone," he said.

"Why? I've seen you play hard lots of times. You never hurt anyone more than a knot on the head or a skinned elbow. What's up?"

There was more walking and talking and then I remember he turned around to face me when he told me.

"You promise me you'll never tell another living soul?" He asked.

"Sure, I promise. What' s the deal?" I said. "Why the mystery?"

"My old man kicks my ass," he said as we walked.


"My old man kicks the shit out of me," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"He hates me. Always has hated me. I won't hit him back and it enrages him," he said.

"You should hit the son of a bitch. He can't be all that big," I said. "You can't let him get away with it, Keith."

"I can't hit my old man, dude. He's all I got. Besides, I'm bigger an he is now. I could hurt him bad. It scares me because some times I want to hurt him."

"What about your step-mom," I asked, remembering the woman watching him from his front door.

"She's no help. She don't care. I ain't her kid."

There it was. Keith's dad was all he had and all I had was my mom, and both of us would have been better off alone. I guess that's the day Keith and I became best friends. I was going on fourteen and he was almost sixteen. We started to tell the other the truth about our lives.

I'd see him with his face messed up four more times while we knew each other. Each time was worse than the last. He started leaving the house when his old man came in during one of his rages. He'd knock on my door and I'd let him sleep on the floor of my room until things calmed down at his house.

Why my mom tolerated it I don't know. She saw his face after the first time he stayed over and I guess she felt sorry for him. I'd never had a friend and she'd never expressed any interest in whom my friends might be, so I don't have a clue why Keith was allowed to stay in my room any time the situation demanded. One summer he stayed at my house more than he stayed at his own.

The motel was one of those seedy affairs you see all the people on the run going to in the movies. The sign in front flashed on and off and that brought it to my attention. I asked for a room off the street. The old man gave me the last unit in the rear, second floor. All the shades were drawn when I entered and it was pitch black inside. It was just what I needed. I checked to see that the door was locked when I left without ever going in.

I drove to the bank near my house. In the bottom on my safe deposit box was a stack of letters I'd tied in a string and carried with me once I had left my house and gone off to college. It was all there was of Keith as far as I knew. I never met his father but he didn't sound like the sentimental kind of guy. I stopped at a phone at the corner of the bank and called the house.

"Kathy? Me. Don't expect me for a couple of days. If anyone calls, I'm out of town. I'll explain later, dear. Love you."

She didn't say anything after hello and I didn't give her a chance. Once I finished speaking I hung up the phone. Either Morales or Jordan or both had called her to announce my antics in the courtroom that morning. She'd be thinking I'd leaped off the deep end this time. Even she knew nothing about Keith but the name. It was the part of my past that had stayed buried, so to speak.

I suppose it was the writer inside me that required what I was about to do. I had put something away years ago, and I'd done it as successfully as I'd set aside my own mother. I did need to deal with her in a peripheral way on a few occasions before she had the courtesy to die. The rest of my youth was history. The only possible connection to me and my childhood were the letters Keith had written me from Vietnam.

When you lose your best friend, you cry a few times and you move on. No one in my life but me knew my best friend had died. I kept it to myself as I kept everything else. The only difference was the letters that came for eleven months and then they stopped, and it was as though Keith had never lived.

Now I was faced with two tasks. Deal with the lose of my best friend and deal with whatever was happening that brought his memory to the front burner at a time he wasn't even seldom thought about. I kept the letters because they did connect me to who I was back then, before I got out. Without Keith, I might not have gotten out. Had it not been for me, Keith may not have gotten out. He often thought he'd be killed or put in jail for killing someone else.

Dear Tommy,

Well, we got here yesterday. What can you say about this place? It's hot. You know how we used to sit on the curb in late August, and it was absolutely too hot to move. That's what this place is like, dude.

We don't have no time for anything. They kept us pretty busy getting our new gear and learning about this place. It looks okay except there are trees every place. I can't understand why they don't pave the place and let us go home. We flew in on a huge plan, almost three hundred of us on my plane. Most of us are just kids, well, all but a few over eighteen though.

The guys here aren't that friendly. Lots of black, dudes. I can't use that other word because I think they look at our male and there is a lot on talk about respect and calling a spade a spade, only I ain't never called no spade a spade before. You know how it was in Baltimore, well, we're all together out here. We're with them all the time and I don't much care about that part of it. They talk funny and act like hoods. I keep an eye on my stuff pretty close though.

Okay, kid, you said you'd write me back. It's time you let me know what's going on back in the real world. This place is unreal and these trees, man, I wish someone would cut down all these damn trees. See ya later. WRITE, write, write. I need to know if anyone is out there anymore.


Dear Tommy,

Went on our first S&D last night. That's search and destroy for you civilian types. We saw nothing but waded around in rice paddies. Man, can you dig it, the rice in the stores that come in those plastic bags, it grows out here in water, man. How crazy is that, anyway? It's green, man. Then we went into the bush. If trees and shit are nasty to look at during the day, its twice as bad at night. You can't see a damn thing, dude. We moved a few steps and stopped, listened, moved some more. I almost fell asleep a couple of times. I was never a night person anyway. You know that. Comes dark and my eyes are on automatic close. Out here they do this a lot at night.

Only one guy I know came here with me. I don't know where the other guys went from my plane. There were ten guys in my squad but they aren't very friendly toward me. Not that it bothers me. We have five spades and they are mouthy bastards. Sorry if the censor don't like that. I hate mouthy bastards, them being black mouthy bastards don't help none.

It's okay otherwise. We came back and had beer and some fresh beef. It wasn't bad. Some of the guys said it was like being home, but I never had hamburgers at my house. I still don't like beer, but guess what, after you sweat all night, getting everything down to your socks wet, a couple of brew really do help. I still can't get past the taste but they help to end the endless thirst we build up on patrol.

Please, dude, write me. I haven't heard a thing from there since I left boot camp. Is the world still there? Are you?


Dear Tommy,

Got my ass in a fire-fight last night, dude. It's the first action we've seen since I got here two weeks ago. The guys did good. We couldn't see the bastards but we returned fire, which incidentally cut down a few of those fucking trees that are everywhere. I can't breath in this place. I got something growing on my feet. They are wet all the time. My boots are mildewing and we're out of polish. I'm almost out of socks. They get holes in them after only a few patrols. They're always wet, dude.

A guy name Tray teamed up with me during the fight last night. We watched each other's back. He's from Jersey and he told me about his girl and his life there. Doesn't sound that different from B'town. He's cool, gave me a pair of dry socks when we got back to the fire base. I hope you don't mind. Friends are hard to come by here, dude, and no one acts very friendly. Tray says newbees don't last long. They're dumb as fence posts and make big targets. He said he was cutting me slack because I seemed to be able to take care of myself. No one talked to him either.

Tray tries to act like he's a bad ass, but he ain't. He sounded like he wanted to cry while he told me about his girlfriend. I felt sorry for him but at least he has a girlfriend. I only got you. I told him you were my best friend. I told him about the hockey games. He says they all play B'ball in Newark.

He's been here a few weeks more than me. No one talks to him either. The guys all have clicks. All white, all black, newbees, old guys. That's it. It's best if you don't cross those lines but not much chance to do it either. I talked to one of the older dudes, he just turned around and walked away like I wasn't nothing.

The guy I came in with took one in the back in the fire fight. They had him on a helicopter before we knew what was happening. I never seen nothing like that in B'more. Man, is that weird or what? We're out here in the middle of no where and this fucking helo drops out of the sky, and he's on the way to what they say is the best medical care in the world. It hardly don't make any sense to me.

I'm the youngest guy here in time left to serve in-country. One dude's been here the full ticket and goes home in a few days. He don't got to go on no more patrols so he stays save. What a lucky dude. I can't wait until I'm a short timer. Forty-six more weeks, dude. God, I miss that place. Go figure. I hated it while I was there.

Hey, kid, you take care of yourself. I'm cool here. I'll be okay. Tell me about what's happening there.



Just got three letters from your sorry ass. I'm fine, really. We're living the high life, dude. We had steaks last night, big thick juicy T-bones and beer, man, I had me six before dinner and a few after. Shit grows on you. I look forward to it after patrol. How the fuck do they get fresh meat here. I sure as hell hope it ain't artificial or some shit like that, but it is good, dude. I never ate like this before.

Hey, Tray got a box from home. His mom spoils the shit out of the kid. Two dozen pairs of new socks. Damn if he didn't give me half of them. Says he asked his mom to send some for me cause I ain't got no one that cares. I told him you cared but just couldn't do much that way for me. He's really cool. I've never talked to anyone like I talk to him, well, no one except you, but you know he's all I got here, so don't be pissed at me, okay.

We ain't seen no fire in a week. Man I can't tell one fucking slope from another. They all look alike, dude. They roam around camp during the day, bringing us shit and like that. At night they could be out here in their black pajamas for all I know. How can we know which is which when they are all the same? It confuses the hell out of me. What the fuck am I doing here? I don't look nothing like them, dude. They know who we are without any doubt.

One company got hit hard last night. They were chasing Charlie in the bush. Ended up in an ambush and then in their own cross-fire. We all worry about that. Half were killed or wounded. Charlie's smart and he knows this place better than us. I hear he's got tunnels all under our fire base. Scares shit out of me thinking he could come out of the ground at night. We have a watch up all the time, so little worry about them sneaking up on us, but it still scares me they can crawl around down there. How do we fight that?

Hey, I got to run, dude. Thanks for the mail, really. It's all that I look forward to. I'm glad you ain't forgot me, dude. I was worried you weren't writing me back. I write you every chance I get. I guess they was held up until I got relocated here. It was great knowing something about home. I miss you a lot. I'll be fine, keep the letters coming, dude.



Got hit hard last night. The entire fire base was attacked on three sides. We had all the machine guns glowing in the dark. Those little fuckers were like ants. No one knew it was coming. They usually build up in a place and we know it is just a matter of time, but they came from no where last night. There must have been a thousand of them dead on the ground this morning. I hear we lost twenty guys and twice as many wounded. That's a real bummer, dude. We were already short and now all these guys are done. We've doubled the watch and I'm about to go out to cut back the fucking shrubbery. You know all these fucking trees I hate, well, I got me an ax and our squad is cutting the clearing further back so we can see better and they can't get so close. I can't understand how they got on us like that. It's scary shit, dude.

There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about. I guess there's no time like the present. I know you're going to be pissed at me but I can't help it, Tommy. I don't make friends much and Tray is like my brother now. We watch each other's back and do everything but sleep together. We're together 24/7 dude. We depend on one another. Tray's black. I know I should have told you, but I was afraid you'd disown me. He's just like me, Tommy. There ain't no real difference. Please don't stop writing me. You're all I got back there. One day I hope I get back there. Please don't forget about me. I'm so entirely alone here. Forty more weeks and I'm on a plane home. Man, I hate this fucking place.

I'm glad we're still friends. I got two letters from you last week. Sounds like you are doing okay in school. What college are you going to. Your grades are good enough. Don't get drafted asshole, believe me, you don't want to be in this hole. They're calling my name, and I got to go play lumberjack now. I'll write some more later. What's up there?


Dear Tommy,

Just came back from sick call. My feet have the rot. So does everyone else. Tray is waiting for another box. His mom makes the most incredible chocolate chip cookies. They come all broken up, more like crumbs, but Tray gives me a few of the biggest pieces before we eat the bits. We haven't had any real food in awhile. Just rations. I do get coffee every day. The army doesn't move on its stomach unless coffee is in there first. Plenty of beer and we all sit around guzzling the shit every night. It used to make sleeping easier, but now I just lay awake and wonder if I'll ever see the real world again. How did I get in this fucking hole? What am I doing in this fucking hole?

We've been on patrol every night the last week. Haven't seen one gook but we know he sees us. The fire base strength is way low. We got some new meat yesterday. I don't talk to them. They're little boys they've thrown to the lions. I don't want to know them. The last two died right off. I understand now why they treated me like that. These guys are hamburger and I was lucky to make it. I'm not the youngest anymore, but almost. I'm smart enough to keep my powder dry.

Glad you don't mind about Tray. He's cool, dude. You'd like him. He's invited me to his house in Newark. Can you imagine that. Me, a white boy, staying in a black families home. Most of the blacks here are assholes, but Tray is totally cool. Most of the whites are assholes too, so I guess it evens out. We stay to ourselves and I think most of the guys are jealous because we don't need them. We watch each other's back and that's what it takes to stay alive. Being friends helps. I still miss your skinny ass though. I dream about you some times, dude. We are playing hockey and sitting around by the pool in Patterson Park. I didn't think I ever wanted to see that place again, dude, but I do. I mean I really want to get home.

We just came in off patrol and I need some sleep. I wanted to let you know I made it back one more time. I really miss you, dude. Pray for me, dude. I don't feel like I'll ever get back to the world. I don't feel like I'm ever going to see you again. Write me back real soon, okay. I live for your letters.


Dear Tommy,

Glad you still remember me, dude. We just came back off patrol. Lost two more guys. We're too light to go out now. They're calling in some more fresh meat. We lost one of the other new guys. He was this skinny ass kid that didn't know shit. Dumb guys should all get it that quick. It was his second day on patrol. Took it in the neck and dropped like a rock. There are snipers everywhere. We hardly see Charlie any more but he always seems to know where we are.

I got me some new socks. Tray got his box and split his with me again. He's getting the stare, dude. It isn't easy looking at him these days. Lots of guys have it. I think they're looking for home. They just stare off in the distance like something is out there. Never thought Tray would get it. He's so level headed. Dude wants to go to college and all. Couldn't afford it until he works a few years, so no deferment. Seems like half the guys here are black dudes. I never knew there were so many. You know, we didn't see that many back there. Sure, they had their section and we had ours, but half? That's a lot.

One of the old guys got a tape player yesterday. He got some Stones and Beatles tapes. The place is rocking today. I like it. I never listened to anything but country back in B'town. I guess I'm getting old too, huh? Listening to that rock & roll shit you was always trying to sell me. Only kidding, it's cool. I'm tired. Got to let you go. Keep me in your thoughts, brother. Pray I come home, please.


Dear Tommy,

We're back up to strength. We got four new guys all at once. That makes five out of eleven younger than me. Tray got a tape from his girl and played it on the old guys tape player. The bitch left him for someone else. Can you beat that shit. Fucker's hanging his ass out on the line for her and she dumps him. He's been real quiet. I guess he knew it was coming. He's changed the last few weeks. Harley talks at all these days. We ignore the new meat.

Hey, dude, you can call me Sergeant Clark if you don't mind. Got my promotion. One of our sergeants went home last week, the old one bought it a month ago. He was short but not short enough. He went home in a bag. Sad when they know they are close. They start looking over their shoulders all the time.

We've only had one guy go home since I've been here until the sergeant left. Five guys older than me now, five younger. I guess that really puts me in the middle. I think I get six dollars more a month. Maybe I'll buy me a house with it when I get home. I am coming home, dude, don't you ever doubt it. Once I get back to B'more, I'll never, ever, never ever leave that place again. I can't imagine bathing every day and eating three meals a day, real food I mean, not this dog food we eat. Funny how that simple shit seems too good to be true now. I'm just happy to have a day someone doesn't try to blow my brains out. Don't worry, there are two three stripers in the squad. I still don't walk point any more than I have to.

Tray has perked up a little. The thing with his girl really took it out of him. He talks a bit but doesn't ever talk about home or his family. I kind of miss hearing what It's like having a normal family. How about that, my white ass had to find a black friend to find out what having a family is like. All that horse shit we used to hear about blacks is just that. Tray's a lot like me only better. He has a brain and will go to college one day.

Thanks for the mail and the pictures. I forgot what you looked like, dude. Not really. School pictures are still as dorky as ever I see. They always made me look like a convict.

I got to run. It's chow time and mail goes out in a few. Take care, dude. Pray for me. I pray for you every night.



I fell asleep with the stack of letters on my chest. I dreamed about when Keith and I were boys. It seemed so real that I thought it was real. Then, I dreamed the dream about burning up. I kept saying, holy smoke, over and over again. I was never in the fire but I was too close to it for comfort.

It was dark when I woke up. There was no screaming and no fire in the room. In fact I had slept peacefully for awhile before I woke, more like normal. There was a diner across the street from the motel and I ate diner there. I thought of Keith and my childhood, being able to put things in perspective after twenty-five years had passed between then and now.

I sat watching the tube when I went back to my motel room. I left the letters sitting on the table next to the bed. I couldn't read any more just then. I didn't want to read any more ever. I knew what the letters said. I didn't remember the exact words, but I remembered how they went after all those years. I don't recall anything having the impact on me as what was happening to Keith had back then.

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