I have today only fleeting memories of the train ride up from Fayetteville through Washington to New York. I remember that the day was sunny and warm and I remember looking at the public buildings in Washington with a new fascination as they passed by the windows of the coach in which I rode. I was wearing my khaki uniform with jump boots, my pants bloused and the cap with the glider patch. I have no specific memories of any interaction with the other passengers.
As I reflect on it now, I realize that this would have been only ten days after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles. That event I remember rather vividly since the first news I heard of it was on the morning we were moved from a holding company at Fort Bragg to our permanent units. Someone had a transistor radio. It was about four in the morning. “Kennedy got shot. Again. “ Somehow, this one had seemed more personal than the last for reasons unique to my situation while at Jump School.
Now, a few scant weeks later, I had a weekend pass that gave me enough time to get home and back. We all understood ourselves – the remaining two brigades – to be ticketed for Vietnam by the end of the summer. The Third Brigade had gone in March at the tail end of Tet and no one yet saw anything in sight for the war but continued build-up and a steady feeding of the beast. So, for all I knew, there would be only one more leave before we were sent out across the Pacific and that one would have such a shadow over it that my mother and father would be hard-pressed to enjoy my presence undiluted.
This trip would be pure. And it would be a surprise. I’d made no calls ahead, signaled no intent. As far as they knew, I was at Fort Bragg. Period.
I had formed a little plan in my head as to how I would approach the house. I wanted to surprise my parents and felt that if they were to see the taxi glide up to the curb in front of the house and myself climb out, all real surprise would be diluted somehow. So, I resolved to be let off two blocks away, at the corner of Ambrose and Cornwell Avenues (the same corner that had been my first sighting point for my father’s evening arrivals from the train station) and walk the last hundred yards by myself.
The taxi dropped me off somewhere about 3 or 4 in the afternoon.
Again, I have only a general impression of that walk: sunlight, leafy trees soughing in a late afternoon breeze, green, well-kept lawns, sprinklers wetting the edges of the pavement and making their sibilant murmurs, the yells of children playing in the next street and, perhaps, the chirring of cicadas in the bright heat of the afternoon. And I would not have been me had I not been seeing my younger self walk the same sidewalk on his way home from grammar school and high school, books under an arm, on the lookout for some of the local beauties to round the next corner, perhaps.
My jump boots would have been well spit-shined, a technique that I’m sure continues unabated in the Army today. The skin of both index fingers hard grown callous on the inside surfaces that rubbed against the laces as I tied those boots each day for the past year. My khakis would have been tapered and starched and looked “strak” as we used to say. Brass: polished. Green infantry tabs on my epaulets and behind my jump wings. I had little fat on my body and more than a little muscle. I felt like I could eat the planet for dessert. I would have been walking in an unconscious parade ground stride, the soles of my boots striking the ground in a familiar cadence, my left arm swinging in the proper arc and my right carrying my overnight bag.
There is something to be said for being in your early twenties and trained to a purposeful edge. It feels good. Even in a very distant form of retrospect.
And then, I crossed the final intersection and passed the Schreiber’s house and turned into my own walkway at 64 Ambrose Avenue.
The front door was open behind the screened door in front of it. It was unlocked and I opened it and walked in to the dark cool of the living room. I could hear the television from the little den that had once been my bedroom and knew that my father must be there in his favorite chair between the windows watching the Yankees and waiting for The Mick to hit one out of the Stadium.
I turned to the right down the little hall that led past my parents’ bedroom and the tiny bathroom on that floor and stepped into the doorway of the den. My father was sitting in the far corner. He looked up and saw me.
“Son!” he said with a smile that could have illuminated the universe.
He jumped to his feet and we embraced in the middle of the tiny room.
It is funny how such a seemingly small thing can loom so large: a weekend pass, a train ride, a fragment of surprise.
The next day – Sunday, June 16, 1968 – was Fathers’ Day.