Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Brian's Song, Part I

My father belonged to the Air Force, so we packed up and moved every three or four years, from Idaho to Sacramento to Riverside to Omaha to Colorado Springs to Upper Michigan, and then back to Riverside, where my family finally settled. The move from Colorado Springs to Michigan was my favorite, not just because I was able to escape from Colorado Springs, but because Michigan was a departure from suburbia. We lived on an Air Force base carved out of a forest in the middle of nowhere, about 45 miles away from Marquette, population 45,000. I picked blueberries with my sisters and trudged a couple miles down to the lake every day to "fish" with my brother, systematically proving that no fish lived in the lake. My brother left to go on his mission, so I braced myself for another miserable first day in a new school.

When I got on the bus, I hid my nervousness by making a beeline for an empty seat and then staring out the window. Before I knew it, a tall kid with blond hair and blues eyes moved over from a different seat, plopped himself next to me, and started yammering in a thick Southern accent.

"You the new guy, ain't ya? Mah daddy says your daddy say you a backstroka. What's your time?"

"One oh seven," I lied. It was really a couple seconds slower at the time.

"Aw, I got dat beat. I go a one oh six. You better find another stroke, hear? Say, what's your name?"

"Bob."

"Bob? That ain't no kinda name. We'll git you a real name. Don't worry."

That was Brian. From Shreveport, Louisiana. In either this blog or the other one, I've written about a guy who shot sitting ducks, talked me into scuba diving for the first time at night in the ocean, and broke out of a mental ward. Brian. I thought it would be a good idea to string together my favorite Brian anecdotes:

The South Done Run Outta Amnition

Until I met Brian, I had no idea that anyone who wasn't a history buff still cared about the Civil War. Brian was still furious with the North, so he refused to call Michigan home. I got the sense that he was hoping for another Civil War to break out so that he could enlist and charge across the fields with drawn sword. He had a bunch of Civil War memorabilia, including a sword that his great great grandfather allegedly fought with. Brian explained to me that the notches in the sword were a sign of the fact that his ancestor was a great fighter, so he added to his family's reputation by smacking the sword against his cast iron bed frame. Brian taught me that the South had much better fighters than the North, but the South lost only because they ran out of ammunition. When I asked him what he thought of freeing the slaves, he said I read too many books. The war wasn't about freeing the slaves. That was a just an excuse. No, it was about independence. The North stole their independence with lies and carpetbags.

Family Matters

Brian's father was a workaholic, his mother was an alcoholic, and his younger brother was a 6'5" weed. I went over to Brian's house dozens of times, and I saw his father there only once or twice. In fairness, he was the Base Commander, so he had a lot of responsibilities, but Brian said his father couldn't stand seeing his wife drinking herself to death and was probably carrying on with another woman. His family lived in one of the fancier houses on the base, or at least it had been fancy before they moved in. There were cracks and dents in walls where Brian and his younger brother Scott had thrown each other, and there was a gaping hole where Brian had fired his shotgun in anger. My head caused one of the dents. When I laughed at something mean Brian had said to his brother, Scott shoved my head into the wall. I stepped out of the fight because it was two against one.

Brian's mother was polite unless she was binge drinking, in which case she'd hear Brian and me walk in through the door and say something like, "Who on earth is that? Is that that Bob boy? What does he want? Get him out!" Then Brian and his mother would shout and curse at each other. When I tried to leave, Brian would grab me and yell at me to ignore his crazy bitch mother and go down in the basement. So I'd go down in the stark basement where the television sat on a crate in front of an unpadded throw rug and wait for Brian to finish yelling at his mother. This happened more than once.

Trouble with the Law

Brian wasn't a big fan of the law, and the law wasn't a big fan of Brian. The military police on the Air Force base knew Brian by sight and name. You'd like to think there was a camaraderie between Brian and the cops who tried to catch him, like between Boss Hogg and the Duke boys, but no, the MPs simply hated Brian. Whenever we'd try to get back on base after curfew, we knew we'd get hassled if Brian was with us. In fact, we had our rights read to us several times just for breaking curfew. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one . . . Of course, Brian couldn't just shut up. He had to insult the military police, there would be a flare-up, and Brian's father would have to intervene.

I don't know why the MPs disliked Brian so much. It's not like he stole things or beat people up. He just drove fast and crazy. Once he drove past the front gate without stopping and showing his military ID, which is a no-no on a military base, and there were a couple of domestic disputes at home that required police intervention, including the shotgun incident. Whenever I was doing seriously illegal stuff with Brian, like shooting ducks on the military base, we never got caught. The only time we were thrown in jail was fairly innocent. Brian's father was an Air Force pilot, so he had a couple of those fighter pilot helmets with the oxygen mask proboscis. Brian and I thought it would be a swell idea to drive around the base wearing those helmets, and of course a humorless MP pulled us over. I immediately took off my helmet, but Brian left his helmet on. When the cop asked him for his license and registration, Brian spoke to him through the mask as if he were a pilot speaking to a ground control operator. "Delta gamma, we have a request for a license and registration check. Permission to override. Out." While I was still laughing, another car pulled up, and some MPs read our rights yet again and led us to the police station in handcuffs. The crime -- impersonating a commissioned officer. We knew Brian's father would get us off the hook because he was the base commander, and they knew we knew it, but they still made us sit there behind bars for a couple of hours, getting scared straight by boredom.

Of course, I enjoyed Brian's crazy behavior more than I should have. I was an obedient Mormon boy, so being along for the ride gave me plenty of vicarious thrills.

Sitting Ducks

I know I've written about this before, but I need to include it again for continuity. One day, Brian was overly excited about ducks. When I think back on it now, he was showing signs of manic-depressive behavior, and this was part of the mania. He called me by my nickname, Z, which was short for Zero. (The football players in my science class called me a zero because I swam instead of played football. Go Colts!)

"I seen 'em, Z. Ducks! They're just sitting in the pond. All we need to do is git em."

"What are you talking about? Why do we need ducks?"

He looked at me like I was crazy. "So that we can make duck l'orange!"

Ah, of course. What was I thinking? We walked into Brian's house, past his drunk mother sprawled on the expensive couch, and into Brian's bedroom, where he pulled out his gun supply. He called it his "ordnance."

"I git the shotgun, because I'm the only one who's going to be doing any real killin'. But you can't just walk through the woods without a rifle, so you take this here. It's a 30 aught 6, so be careful. If you hit a duck with this here rifle, they ain't gonna be nothin' left, and then we'll just be left with a can of orange juice for dinner. And here, take these. You need you some waders."

K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base was divided into two sections: a large residential area and the military complex. Between those two areas was a huge forest, including a lake where I lifeguarded during the summer. There was a small pond at the bottom of the ravine near the main road. As we were making our way through the forest, I had in the back of my mind that this was nothing but ridiculous play-acting. After all, I'd been out with Brian before to hunt bear, and we never came close to seeing a bear. All of a sudden, Brian shushed me and got a serious look on his face. He pointed at the pond through the trees, where a mother duck was leading her ducklings. Brian stalked his prey. That cracked me up for some reason, so I followed along trying desperately not to laugh out loud. Brian got within 20 yards or so and BOOM! There was a big splash in the water. The mother duck was swimming in circles while Brian reloaded.

"Shoot, Z, shoot!"

I tried to shoot but the safety was on. I flipped the switch and fired from my hip. There was a little splash about three feet in front of the duck, and the duck stopped moving. One of the three ducklings had swum away, one was dead, and the other was up-side-down and kicking its feet. Brian scooped up the duck and said we need to clear out.

"But what about the little duck?" I said.

"Aw, it'll just die like a bug. We need to go!"

I grabbed the little duck and started to run. We heard sirens, which may or may not have been related to us. After running for a few minutes, we stopped so that Brian could listen.

"Here, Brian. Kill this."

Brian glared at me.

"Naw, you kill it. Just snap its neck. Ain't no different than a chicken."

"I've never killed a chicken. You do it, and let's go."

Brian held up his hands. I think he got tired of the fact that I wanted to experience the tag-along thrills without getting my hands dirty, so he was taking a stand. I looked down at the duckling, which was still moving. I knew I had to kill it, but I couldn't bring myself to wringing its neck. So I decided to throw it against a tree. I missed.

"What . . . the . . . hell was that?" Brian said.

"I missed the tree. I'll be right back." I started to go look for the duckling, but Brian said he heard a noise again. Someone might be after us. I didn't hear anything, but I started to run anyway. Brian saw some ducks flying in the air, so he stopped and shot. He missed.

"Run!" he yelled. We ran a few miles back to Brian's house, where he went to work on the cutting board. While skinning the duck, he found a slug that he claimed was from my rifle.

"You killed it!" he exulted.

He skinned the duck, took some orange juice concentrate from the freezer, and fried the duck meat. We ate duck l'orange.

[To be continued...]