Chapter 8

Johnny and I were both atypical National Honor Society members who…along with twenty-four other ‘more normal’ kids went to Chicago one month before graduation for our 3 day, 2 night senior trip.

We basically just hung out together…just the two of us…because the other kids avoided us…we were like “the bad boys of NHS.”

We tried to get the room assignments changed so we could share a room…but no one was on board with that.

We were just friends, after all, so we didn’t see a problem…our advisor, however, didn’t agree.

Both of us smoked like chimneys so there were many very ‘intimate’ moments in the train’s tiny bathroom…sharing cigarettes…

There was also very little sleep that weekend…and sometimes it was nice to put my weary head on Johnny’s chest.

And…even nicer when he would put his arm around me and say, “Little, tired Tinka,” and kiss the top of my head.

One day, we ditched the other kids and went to the Lincoln Park Zoo instead of the ‘scheduled’ trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was a  beautiful day and we wanted to be outside.

We ate hot dogs and ice cream and smoked two packs of cigarettes.

We tried to get this young guy with really long hair to buy us some beer at a liquor store we had scoped out…but that didn’t fly.

We thought we were so daring…

We thought we were so much cooler than the other kids.  We really weren’t.

The other kids thought we were just plain nuts.  We probably were.

Then one month later we were throwing our mortar boards into the air at the graduation ceremony.

“Let’s keep in touch this summer, Riley.” Johnny said and kissed my forehead…I was dating some jock at the time…who was hovering nearby.

“Call me anytime, Johnny and we’ll do something.” I said and I reached up to kiss his cheek.  He was dating some blonde bombshell from Richfield…also hovering.

“Done.” He said.

But…summer flew by…and even though we talked many times on the phone we never got together.

 

 

Chapter 9

Johnny took his full ride scholarship to the private and very expensive Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He had moved into an older one-bedroom apartment on Goodrich Avenue.  He said he liked it because of the big windows that over looked the tree-lined street.

Johnny’s parents were bankrolling his apartment rent.

Plus they were giving him a monthly allowance as a reward for “studying so hard” in high school the he had earned a scholarship.

“They should be paying me!” I had half-heartedly complained to Johnny when he had told me about his windfall one day while talking on the phone this summer.

Johnny had paused…

“Yes…that may be true…but, Riley, I am a GENIUS….you know.”

He always jokingly bragged about his I.Q.  It was like 152 or 160 or something nutso high like that.

“Yes…” I replied slowly. “But…I read somewhere…there’s a fine line between being a genius and being crazy…you know…JOHN!”  He hated it when I called him John and I laughed and hung up the phone.

I was going to go to the University of Minnesota and living at home with mom and dad to save money.

I was waiting to hear if I had secured the highly sought after “weekend popcorn girl” job at the Campus Theater.  I needed the extra money.  My student loan hadn’t kicked in yet.

The pay was really good and you could study during the movie…and eat as much popcorn as you wanted…and butter.

Johnny and I had tried to talk every day during the summer and then when school began…it was harder.

College life was different.  So much time…and yet…so little time.

We didn’t actually see each other for almost five months.

But then…one night at a ridiculously drunken party…in a ridiculously crowded tiny apartment in Dinky Town near the University of Minnesota campus…

“Johnny!  What are you doing here?  Are you slumming?”  I said…and put my arms out for a hug.

“Tinka…give me a kiss.”  And I did.

Both Johnny and I got blind drunk and were not dating anyone else…so…

It seemed appropriate…and about time.

It was a ratty little apartment but it had one bedroom with a door that locked…and we locked it.

 

 

Chapter 11

Around the middle of June, Johnny got his Order to Report for Induction.  He had been drafted.

“What about your student deferment, Johnny?   What about that?” I cried.

Johnny sat at our kitchen table, shaking his head.

“You know, before you moved in, I remember taking this test…it was some kind of draft test…I don’t know…I didn’t pay that much attention.”

“I had been out the night before…didn’t get much sleep before taking it…I was a little hung-over…”

He looked up at me sheepishly.

“I should have had you there, Tinka, slipping me notes…”

I frantically paced around the small kitchen as Johnny sat holding the letter in his hands…looking at it in total disbelief.

“I never really thought it would happen.” He said quietly.

“I think I have about two weeks before I have to report.”  He looked again at the letter and let it fall to the floor.

I picked it up and tore it in half.  Then I tore it in half again.

“NO!!!!  You’re not going!!!  I won’t let you go!” I shouted.

“There must be something we can do!  We’ve got to do something!  Wait!!!  Why can’t we get married, Johnny?  They don’t take married men, right?” I said.

That deferment ended last August Riley.  Apparently, Johnson needs the wisdom of the married man.” He said sarcastically.

“Canada….we’ll move to Canada.  Lots of boys are doing it, Johnny.  We can do…”

Before I could finish, Johnny was holding up his hand and shaking his head…

“My dad would disown me, Riley…and forbid my mom and Alec from visiting me. ”

I knew how close Johnny and his mom were and Johnny loved his little brother so much.  Alec was just two years younger than Johnny…and he idolized him.

“You know how my dad feels about “duty and service to country”.  He said glumly.  Both Johnny’s dad and grandfather had served in the Army…and both during war time.

“If I went to Canada, I wouldn’t see my mom or Alec ever again, Riley.”

“Well if you die in some fucking rice field in Nam…you won’t see them ever again either…will you!!!!” I screamed at him.

 

Chapter 12

At the airport…Johnny held me in his arms as tears poured down my face and my body shook with sobs.

“It took so long for us to find each other…” I cried.

“Please don’t leave me, Johnny!!  I will die without you!!  I will!  I will die!”  And my voice rose…causing others nearby to look away from the painfully sad couple…

Johnny pulled back…and took my face in his hands…as I had done to him so many times in high school…but this time he was forcing me to listen.

“I will never leave you again, Tinka…I promise!  When this year is over…I will come home to you and we will always be together.  I promise you.”

And then he kissed all the tears from my cheeks and held me so tight I could hardly breathe and then…before one more second passed…he quickly turned and walked away.

One year later…Johnny Taylor came home…as promised.

Fucking Amen.

Chapter 13

MANY, MANY YEARS LATER…

So…there I sat…in the restaurant section of Larson’s grocery store…watching dead leaves swirl around on their charming but now “Closed for the Winter” patio…leaves whistling by…like the memories from so many years ago…

I finished my coffee and looked out the window and wondered how soon it would snow…

I had been gone from Minnesota for a long time and had only returned a few months ago to help Alec’s wife, Cara, deal with the crushing burden of his unexpected illness and impending death.

Alec had joined me in Canada rather than register for the draft in 1969, secured a college degree, met the enchanting Cara, got married and then returned to the United States in 1977 after President Carter issued amnesty to those men who had moved to Canada rather than go to Vietnam.

He and Cara had visited me several times each year…they had no children…so we became a “family”.

Dearest Cara…confined to a wheelchair after a car accident several years ago…had reluctantly asked me for help…and I had come down with no hesitation.

I was pretty confident that enough years had gone by for any of the ghosts from my past to rise up and cause me any problems…I was pretty sure of that by now…sure that they were all dead.

I got up, grabbed my purse, turned and started to walk toward the grocery area of the store…when suddenly there was a slight tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and looked at a white-haired man…about my own age…maybe a couple of years past seventy.

He tilted his head a bit but didn’t quite smile.  Then…in a low, gravelly voice…that is usually the result of years of smoking and drinking…or both..he said…

“Remember me?”

And…at first, I didn’t remember.

But then I looked a little harder…past the many years of living that can sometimes change a person completely.

I looked at his odd eyes.  He was wearing bright, blue contact lenses.

I thought…how strange for an older man to do so…

But then he smiled…and suddenly I knew exactly who he was…

“I thought you were dead, Tommy.”

 

Chapter 14

After Johnny died, I registered for Fall classes at the University of Minnesota because I knew I should.

I moved back home…partly to save on expenses…but mostly to absorb the healing magic that only parents can give you when you’re hurting…I needed a lot of magic right now.

I had packed up all of Johnny’s clothes and had given them all to the Salvation Army because I knew Johnny would like that…except for one blue plaid flannel shirt that I think I wore more than he did…it was ‘our shirt’…it still smelled of Old Spice…Johnny’s favorite after-shave cologne.

I had called Johnny’s mom and asked her if she wanted any of Johnny’s clothes or if she thought Alec would want anything.

“No, Riley.  The Salvation Army is a good place for them.  Alec is having a really hard time dealing with John’s death…he blames his father.”

“He says when he has to register for the draft in two years, he’s going to Canada instead…”

I didn’t know what to say…I wasn’t sure if Johnny had told anyone of my idea for us to go to Canada.  But then she continued…

“John told Alec that he wanted to go to Canada with you…and would have…if it hadn’t been for their father being so against it.”

“I wish he had gone, Riley.  I wish the two of you had just packed up and gone to Canada.”

More tears than I thought possible were falling down my cheeks and stopped me from saying anything more than a choked good bye.

 

Chapter 15

I hadn’t gone to Johnny’s funeral.  His father had planned a huge memorial for his first-born son…full of praise for the bravery John had shown in proudly fighting for his country.

If I had gone to Johnny’s funeral, this is what I would have said to his father.

“He OD’d on heroin, Mr. Taylor.”

“Maybe you’d like to read all the letters Johnny sent me.  They rip my heart to shreds every time I read them.”

“I don’t want to read them…but it’s all I have of him now.”

“He was so full of pain and horror at having…even accidentally…killed innocent women and children…he couldn’t sleep…not without drugs…and sometimes not even with drugs.”

“His heart was broken after watching so many of his friends blown to pieces right before his eyes or bleed to death in his arms…crying like little kids…so scared…because they didn’t want to die but knew they were going to.”

“He was haunted by the blood that poured from the bodies of all the Vietcong soldiers he had killed…some who looked younger than Alec.”

“He wasn’t a brave hero, Mr. Taylor…he was just trying to survive…just like all the other boys around him.”

“They were all just trying to survive and come home…just come home.”

That’s what I would have said to his father if I had been at Johnny’s funeral.

And…that’s why I stayed away.