A normal viaduct in most respects, this concrete structure nonetheless harbors secrets; gives sanctuary to demons and angels alike. Since it resides on the outskirts of our town (a fact represented by the dearth of graffiti adorning its facades), it presents opportunity for motorists or other travelers needing respite from a storm. One evening in late May, I found out that storms rage out of control in places where few choose to look, even on the brightest lit days.
T.C.’s viaduct, as I now choose to call it, is technically designated as 11M265, Milepost 126. It almost sounds like the service number of some dog-faced washout from the war in Viet Nam. Perhaps the engineers who named it had a gift for irony or possessed a little precognitive power. More likely, the reference is mine and mine alone. I tend to think in terms of long past events that mean little to others.
It is not totally kismet that I stop here. Little Skunk Creek runs directly underneath the viaduct, and the sloping dirt road leading to its banks are usually passable under most conditions. The willow bushes have grown taller than a man and offer camouflage from all but the most stalwart intruder, a handy place to relieve myself when the distance between The Pump House and my house exceeds my bladder’s ability to store waste products. There is something sinfully delightful about pissing in a stream that I know runs directly into the city water plant. Most likely, I’m quite properly classified as a small-time urban terrorist. No matter, they could never prove it. My DNA will combine with that of every deer, raccoon, frog, water moccasin and sasquatch that ever anointed the stream. I doubt the CIA’s abilities in this respect, although I’ll get the bill for cleanup nonetheless.
I saw the little man quite by accident. He had chosen MY spot to answer the call of nature. There is something fascinating about the psychology of two men standing at adjoining urinals. It is nearly impossible for either to avoid making eye contact with the other. Such was the case, today.
“Mind if I join you, my back teeth are floatin’!” I’m nothing if not polite.
He looked up at me, then back down. “Free country… or haven’t you heard?”
It was obvious to the most casual observer that he held no regard for me whatsoever, so no more conversation ensued. Since he was there first, he completed his task and sat down against the abutment, staring at me through eyes of sad experience. His weathered green field jacket carried the grime of the road and he didn’t sweat, although it was almost ninety degrees. Instantly, I was fascinated by him and wanted to know more.
“Excuse me for intruding, but it’s hot, and I have a couple of beers in the truck, would you care for one?”
“Mister, I’ll drink every beer you got, but you make any move which suggests to me that you’re a homo, and I’ll field-strip you before you can holler, we understand each other?”
I held my hands up in front of me, palm outward, and walked back to the truck for the twelve-pack of Budweiser I had purchased for the weekend. We sat in the shade for hours; he shared stories of the road and I mostly nodded my head and listened politely. He was very likeable, and I couldn’t help but wonder what made him so different. Given his attire, my thoughts inevitably turned to the Viet Nam War. Instinctively I suspected he was a veteran, as am I, so I decided to find out.
“HMM-163, 1st MAR DIV, I-Corps, Khe Sahn, 1968.” The look he gave me, I’ll take to my grave. Then, he tossed his empty bottle onto the sand, reaching for another.
“Yea… somethin’ like that…” was all he said.
“Sorry… I didn’t mean to pry. I have a brother who is MIA”.
He stood, picked up his backpack, and raised his bottle to me. After giving me a grin that I recognized from my boyhood, he replied, “No you don’t.” Then, he slogged across the stream and disappeared into the woods on the other side.
Memorial Day will not ever be the same again…not for me. All the tributes and cemetery visits in the world couldn't replace the feelings generated inside me that day. I’ve not laid eyes on Thomas Edward Church since, but it’s not important. My brother's doing whatever it is that he's meant to do, and now I know that all those times when I feel his presence, I'm not crazy.