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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Under the Eagle's Wings

by Hank Merrell

I retired last year, early I guess you have to say, at sixty three, though it wasn’t soon enough for me what with bad knees and constant back pain from too many years hauling brick and mud.  What nobody told me about retirement is that you spend a lot of time looking backwards, that and ruminating on what a fine mess we’ve made of things.  “We” as in all of us, you and me and our whole culture.  It seems like there aren’t many good people left these days.  I mean salt of the earth people you can trust.  Not many people to inspire us or make us believe we can fix some of our problems.  So I’ve been looking back, thinking on my long dead mother, on cousins who have passed, on guys I served with a lifetime ago—some good, some not so good, some who sacrificed their young lives for a war we never understood.  Mostly I’ve been thinking about an old friend, one of the true good guys, one of the best guys I ever knew.  Now he’s old like me, older in fact, and newly retired as well.  I guess thinking about the past is a symptom of too much time on my hands, something that comes naturally with age, a thing I hadn’t anticipated as part of the retirement package.

The “him” I’ve been thinking about most is Clifton “The Eagle” Williams.  The Eagle got that name stuck on him in country and it’s really the only name I knew him by.  A lot of guys said he’d gotten the name because of that look in his eyes he’s still got, that look that seemed to see everything whether it wanted to be seen or not, that and the beak he’s got for a nose if you look at him in profile.  I think the name came from the way he’d come sweeping out of nowhere, flying in at goofy speed any time the call for a medic went up.  He had a rep by the time I met him because of the speed and the courage he showed, the way he hauled ass to somebody who’d been zapped, sprinting like if he came at you fast enough the bullets still zipping around couldn’t hit him.  Somehow they never did, which was unusual for a medic.  Some guys hung close because they thought he was charmed.  Others hung back because they thought his time had to be short.  I first became his friend mostly because I thought he might teach me enough to stay alive.  I guess he did.  I was lucky.  I never needed him to come running to me, but if I had, The Eagle would have been the guy I wanted.

He was the kind of guy who not only dropped out of the sky to try and save your ass, he stayed with you.  I don’t just mean that he stayed with the guys who ate it, he stayed with you whenever things turned south, when you were hurting over one thing or another, a letter from home or a bad op where everything had been in the shit from the time you saddled up.  He stayed with you when you made green mistakes and when you just didn’t think you could hump it any more.  He was good at listening.  The Eagle would smile at the most unlikely times.  A lot of the time he wouldn’t say much at all, give you that smile like he knew you needed to hear yourself talk or you’d just figured something out for yourself if you’d only listen.

I didn’t know him long, a little under four months near the beginning of my tour before he cycled out.  Guys came and went a lot, especially medics.  Guys arrived in clean green to replace those who went out in body bags or on EVACs.  We had other good medics but never one as good as him.  He wasn’t just brave, he was smart.  Despite the way he’d come crashing in on a guy who got hit, if you watched him, you’d see he was always taking it all in, planning cover and escape routes.  In the field it felt like you never saw his whole face, he was always just one eye peering out from behind a tree or over a trench.  He packed a 16, but he chose carrying more medical supplies over more clips.  He was a disciplined guy. He made his entire unit take their anti-malaria pills like clockwork.  He inspected feet almost every day.  He packed small side kits with medical supplies so that he could drop his pack, get to a guy faster, and still have what he needed to save his ass.  I told him once that he should be a doctor and he just looked at me like I was from another planet and then showed me that damn smile.  I remember he said, “Don’t you think I’ll have had my fill?”  By the time I knew him he’d probably saved more guys than most doctors do in a career and a lot of them who would have never made it under somebody else’s care.  He brushed aside such compliments.  Once he said to me, “Ain’t nothing more than what I hope somebody else would do for me.”  The thing was that not many others did.

To make a long story short, he made it out, and eventually I did too.  I figured he was just crazy enough to sign up for another tour, but he wasn’t that brand of crazy.  I guess he’d had his fill, like he’d said.  I didn’t know any of this for a long time of course.  Despite a lot of promises, I barely stayed in touch with any of the guys I served most my time with, let alone the ones who had come and gone along the way.  It must have been about 1978 when I stumbled onto him again.  I mean that almost literally.  I’d had some rough patches in my life, but I was starting to get it together and one of the things that helped was volunteering as a fireman in my hometown in western Mass.  That year there was a firemen’s convention in Baltimore.  I tried never to miss those conventions.  Firemen know how to have a good time.  Most of my life I worked as a mason, just like my father before me, and there’s a hell of a lot of old brick in Baltimore, so I spent a good part of my time wandering around the old parts sections looking at brick buildings—an old habit my dad had passed along as well.  I was nosing around places I probably had no business being.  Who should I run into?  I’d been thinking about him too because I remembered he was from Baltimore.  I kept thinking, “What are the odds?”  I saw him a block away.  I would have known him anywhere.  The Eagle was all bones and gangly limbs and he had this loose-jointed walk you could recognize in a crowd.  We used to tease him about it.  He called it his “jive step.”

As soon as he heard me shout, “Hey, Eagle,” he turned and then ran to me.  He hugged me like I was some long lost brother.  People on the sidewalk stared.  I was the only white person in sight.  Forty minutes later we’d killed the first bottle of Jack.  Neither of us was exactly a stranger to Jack in those days.  He’d had his share of rough times too, you could tell.  I’d seen a marriage turn ugly and end badly.  He hadn’t made it to the front of the church but he’d been dumped by two different live-in girlfriends.  He said he’d had a hard time holding down a steady job.  He was in shape though.  That discipline had stuck.  He ran five miles a day and played ball for an hour or two most days.  He still smiled.  It came easy to him.  We spent the afternoon together and mostly he listened to me talk.  When he did talk, he seemed like The Eagle I’d known, a guy who spoke about plans for the future.  He was a guy who thought more about other people than himself.  He told me about how the things he knew…the people, his old neighborhood, kids…had changed, how the world had become a more dangerous place.  He talked about how he wanted to fight against that change.  He didn’t speak in abstractions.  He told me about ideas for youth programs and mentorships.  He discussed plans to involve teachers and ministers and businessmen in the lives of kids.  He talked like a crusader.  He almost had me wanting to sign up.

He wasn’t the kind of guy who talked much about his past.  That wasn’t his style.  Truth was, I didn’t know much about him.  I knew he was from Baltimore and that he had a sister he was close to.  I knew he liked the Redskins and hated the Celtics, something he never let me forget.  That was about the sum total of what I knew about his past and yet I felt like I knew his dreams.

We drank some more, a lot more.  I invited him to come back with me and attend some of the parties that the convention was putting on, but he said no.  We exchanged addresses.  Then I took a taxi back to my hotel and passed out.

If you knew me, you wouldn’t be surprised that it was The Eagle who wrote the first letter, not me.  It came something like five months later.  Mostly he asked about me and encouraged me to take the EMT training courses I’d talked about when I saw him, something I eventually did and probably wouldn’t have done without his encouragement.  Despite the Jack that day, I remember him telling me he thought I’d be good at it.  Coming from the best, it meant a lot to me.  In his letter he told me I should think about going to fire school and getting paid for what I loved doing instead of volunteering my time.  There are times I think I should have listened to him, but I had it in my mind to start my own masonry business.  I remember in that first letter he told me about how he’d volunteered as a big brother and then he spent a lot of the letter telling me how great this kid was he’d been assigned to, a kid named Tyrell who didn’t have a dad or any brothers.  When I wrote back, I said, “Ditto.  You should get paid for what you love to do.”

We wrote a couple of times a year, me mostly Christmas cards and postcards with a quick note, him long letters full with things he was doing or helping with, like coaching AAU basketball, helping start a community center, tutoring kids in biology in after school programs.  Without fail he asked about me.  He knew I was serious about the woman I was dating then and he asked about her too.  He remembered her name.  Carol.  She became my wife and this time it stuck.  Kids came along and life got busy.  I wasn’t very good about writing him.  He didn’t have a wife or kids, except all those he gave his time to. We wrote less often, and still, out of the blue, once or twice a year I’d get a letter.  He wrote about programs he was involved in.  He wrote about the good he found in people.  He asked about me and about my family.  If I complained about how hard it was trying to keep a business going, he reminded me that I worked for myself and that no one was telling me I couldn’t try for more and that the only boss I had to argue with was myself.

This kept up for years.  If I had to guess, I’d say that I was one of hundreds of people he took the time to stay in touch with.  That’s the kind of guy he is. If it wasn’t for The Eagle, I doubt that I’d ever started taking college classes, ones in literature and art where I studied things I’d only dreamed about.  I never finished a degree or anything, never became some hotshot executive, but I’ve never regretted taking those classes.  It’s something I still do, whether it’s at the college or at the community center.  Classes opened my eyes to things I hadn’t considered before.  I found out I like to write and that I can understand books about places I’d struggle to find on a globe before.  The Eagle was the one who convinced me to try such things in the first place and the one who encouraged me along the way.  Over time the letters became emails and we talked more frequently.  It took him longer than me to follow his own advice, but eventually he started taking courses too, only he earned a degree and got a job teaching high school biology.

Clifton "The Eagle" Williams

It’s a funny thing because we’ve only seen each other twice more in all those years, once some ten years ago when I was back in Baltimore for another convention and then just a few months ago.  I’d taken the grandkids down to do the whole D.C. thing, the museums and the monuments and such.  I took them to see the wall.  I’d planned the extra day and made the side trip to Baltimore.  I set the kids loose in the Aquarium and the Eagle met us.  Typical of him, he’d brought the kids Oriole’s caps and one of the new Presidential coins each.

We had coffee while my grandkids explored.  It was the third face to face conversation we’d had in forty two years.  We picked up like it was the most natural thing in the world.  Only this time we talked about those ugly years after the war, the only time we ever talked about such things.  Maybe it was because I told him about visiting the wall and what I’d felt there.  We both admitted to years of drinking too much, withdrawing too much.  We were both guilty of keeping distance from the people we needed most.  We talked for the first time about the bad dreams and the nights without sleep, the bosses we’d smarted off to and the women we’d irritated.  I argued that whatever baggage we had in common, he’d still always done the right thing and had focused on making things better.

He flashed that smile and laughed.  “Right thing, hell,” he said.  “I spent years smoking dope and drinking turpentine, man.  I tried to play like I was a street tough.  I hurt people that had been nice to me.  I sold dope.  I had a brother die in 1976,” he said.  “I didn’t even make it to his funeral.  Don’t talk to me about doing the right thing.”

I told him that things got bad for all of us for awhile.

“Bad,” he said.  “Ugly.  But that was SOP.”

“Yeah, but you turned it around.  What changed?”

“My nephew died,” he said.  “My dead brother’s son.  Shot over a dime bag or some such nonsense.  It hit me hard.  I realized that when my brother died, I should have stepped n.  Instead I barely knew the kid.”

I told him I was sorry.

“Same sad story,” he said.   “I seen it a thousand times.”

I asked him if he was teaching yet then.

The Eagle laughed.  “That’s when I stopped drinking.  Took me years before I started taking classes.  Years more to get a degree.  The first ten years I spent inside a school building was as a janitor,” he said, “and that was still a step up from where I’d been.

“I lost myself for a long time,” he said.  “There was a time I prided myself on doing the right thing.  I thought I had my shit together.  I prepared myself mentally.  I planned ahead.  I made myself calm down when everything around me was falling apart.  But I lost that guy along the way somewhere.  When things got bad, I panicked and ran.  Took a long time to find the man I was once.  By then not many people believed in me, so I had to learn to believe in myself.  I’ve tried to spend my good years making sure the kids I came in contact with always knew somebody believed in them.”

He’s got as much energy now as I had at nineteen when I met him.  I couldn’t help but notice how he looks around a lot like he’s afraid he’ll miss out on something.  One knee bounced the whole time he talked, like he had things to do and he was anxious to get on to doing them.  I wondered if my life wouldn’t be different had I not run into him on a street in Baltimore.  I wondered if my life had measured up.

I asked him if he’d ever been let down by the kids he’d invested in.

“Is the Pope Catholic?  Sometimes you’ve got to look awful hard to see the good in some folks.  But mostly it’s there if you give them the chance.  I’ve been given a lot of second chances.  Maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to extend that courtesy to other people.”

When we said our goodbyes that day, we promised to email.  We have, more often than ever.  I’m better about it now.   I try to ask about him and his life more.  He usually avoids such business and asks about me.  After we met he said I should be proud of my grandchildren, and I am.  I’m proud of them, proud of a marriage that’s lasted, and proud of my two sons.  They are good people.  It may be that I’ll never see the man again.  Who knows?  I’ve tried my best to thank him for teaching me things that have made me a better man.  When I tell him such things, he tells me I’m full of crap.  He doesn’t use the little smiley faces in his email like my grandkids do, and I’m glad for that, but sometimes when I read something he’s written I can see him smile.

Hank Merrell is a retired mason who now lives in Clearwater, FL.  He plays a decent trombone, regards himself as a poor but enthusiastic landscape painter, and is working on several short pieces about his experiences in and immediately after the Vietnam War.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Would love to hear more about your experiences as a mason as well. Hope to see more from you.