How had I—a nineteen-year-old from a cockroach-infested house in Youngstown, Ohio—end up in this bizarre situation?
In the morning at the Intelligence Division’s underground bunker I’d take the Top Secret war plan teletyped in from SAC Headquarters in Omaha and plot crosshairs on Mao Tse Tung’s castle in Peking and on The Kremlin in Moscow, and then in the evening I’d sit and get drunk on Kentucky bourbon with the wife of a B-52 stratofortress navigator, who at the moment was flying a holding pattern in the Adriatic, in readiness for the declaration of WWIII, because of the international crisis caused by the Russians, who had recently installed nuclear rocket launchers in Cuba. The shit, everyone said, was about to hit the fan.
The Major, meanwhile, had made it very clear to me. His wife was, uh, high strung, something I might have already noticed. Moody. Prone to fits of black depression. She drinks too goddamned much, and I’m worried about her. Now that Carla is gone Beth is all alone. It would be nice if you could spend some of your free time at the house, he said. I’d appreciate it.
When a superior officer expresses a desire, you take that as a direct order, which by tradition and law you are obliged to obey. Now, I was a model airman, perfect in my military appearance and bearing. My brass was always polished, my creases sharp, and my low-quarters meticulously spit-shined. My salute was crisp, correct, emphatic. So naturally I did precisely what the Major asked me to do. I just followed his orders. Yes, I know. It’s the old Nuremburg defense. Yes, you’re right, an enlisted man who fraternizes with an officer is technically violating an article in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
But wait, this isn’t exactly black and white. The Major said—and all the others in the Wing agreed—that I was totally miscast as an enlisted man. Any day now my orders for Roswell AFB will come in. I’ll go to that remote base in the New Mexico desert and take a battery of screening tests, and a physical, and then head for Officer Candidate School in Texas, and then on to Navigator's training. I’ll graduate as a second lieutenant. I’ll wear gleaming gold bars and the shiny silver wings of a B-52 Navigator. An officer and a gentleman, by act of Congress.
Any day now those orders will come in. Paperwork takes time.
Meanwhile, Beth and I are in the living room drinking Leon's Yellowstone. By nine thirty we both are pretty wasted. With big dark eyes she peers at me over her glass, which remains temporarily suspended at her lips, as she tries to get me back in focus.
Okay. Where was I?
Leon drinks way too much, you know? But no wonder he drinks. If I went through what he went through I’d drink too. Oh, that’s so funny. What in hell am I doing right now? Ha-ha-ha. Do you think I’m drunk? Just a little?
Well, you don’t know the half of it, buster. Did I ever tell you that Leon accidentally shot his first wife? No? Well, he did. He was cleaning his shotgun and it fell and hit the floor and went off. BOOM. Half her face was blown away. They had to repaint the wall because of all the blood and brains. You know? Poor Leon was in shock. Absolutely devastated. And the police questioned him over and over again for weeks. WEEKS. They tried to get him to admit he did it on purpose, which was totally ridiculous because he loved that woman. He really did. It was an accident.
And, well, it totally messed up Karen. His youngest daughter. You know, the one who is never here. She’s been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She lives with her maternal grandparents. She comes to visit here once in a while, but she always leaves after a day or two. The accident messed her up totally. She really loved her mom, honest to God. It took Leon three years to get over it. Three years.
Carla’s much stronger than Karen. She never lets things bother her one bit. I wonder how she and Jack are getting along. Funny, isn’t it? How two sisters can be so different. They even look different, Karen and Carla. Karen has red hair, Carla has her father’s black hair. Marion was a blonde. Go figure.
I need another drink. How about you?