“Ayup, scared the poor booger half to death. it’s bad enough the kid has to freeze his butt delivering papers with the wind chill at minus 40, but to come upon Clyde like that. I’d be surprised if he ever delivers another newspaper.” I knew I was having trouble being heard. Between the whirling emotions coursing through me and the keening of a bitter Sunday morning wind outside, it wasn’t easy. I said goodbye to my cousin Phil and willed my shaking hand to set the phone back in its cradle.
I watched crime scene tape slapping in the fierce wind out by my mailbox as I drank a third cup of badly brewed coffee and remembered the scene a scant three hours earlier. The paperboy had come upon my best friend Clyde Randall leaning against the post, clad in a tattered sweatshirt and equally tattered jeans, holding a half empty bottle of Old Rose whiskey. Both he and the contents of the bottle were frozen solid. I had wondered briefly why Clyde had been out in such weather dressed like that, before giving in to a monumental sense of loss as I dialed 911.
The sheriff’s deputy and the medical examiner had borrowed a kettle of hot water to help free Clyde’s body from the iron box that was holding it in an unforgiving grip. Neither had attempted to do the same with the bottle clutched by his solidly frozen left hand. Somehow that seemed perfectly appropriate in a bizarre way. Later today, after I had finished recovering from the shock and had gone through my own private grief, I’d have to brave the elements and make a formal identification at the county courthouse. I knew I’d also have to make funeral arrangements but I wasn’t up to it at the moment.
I filled the pellet stove and stared out the living room window as I heard the familiar uptake of the auger followed by the whine of the blower motor, forcing frigid air through the newly deposited pellets. The burst of warm air behind me was a small, but welcome comfort as I watched snow devils chase each other across the icy surface at the foot of the hill. Clyde and I had pretty much lived on and in Simonton Pond when we were growing up. With his father long gone and his mother having to work two jobs in order to support three kids, Clyde was informally adopted by my parents, even to having his own room next to mine upstairs in this house.
We had done everything together, hunting, fishing, stealing apples from the neighboring orchard, even double-dated through high school. Clyde hadn’t been a very good student and when we graduated back in 1969, I went to college and he got a job as a welder’s apprentice at Bath Iron Works. He had a natural aptitude for working with metal and completed the training program two months ahead of schedule. That, coupled with an engagement to a girl from East Prospect, had his future looking really bright while I struggled with classes of 200 and a deceptively inviting social scene. By Christmas time, we were headed in different directions; Clyde was headed down rose lane, while I was on the thin edge of flunking out and disappointing my parents.
How quickly things can change when you least expect them. By Valentine’s Day, I was maintaining a B average and had escaped the party scene while Clyde had been drafted over protests by Bath Iron Works management that he was essential to the war effort as a welder. He thought briefly about joining the coast guard, but his hesitation cost him as the quota for the month filled up in a heartbeat. By April Fools Day, he was in Texas halfway through basic training.
The summer of 1970 was gloomy in more ways than one. I was working as a bridge painter, but fog and rain limited us to three days or less per week. News from Clyde matched the weather. Despite his welding skills, the army had sent him to infantry school and he would be shipping to Vietnam shortly after Labor Day. Matters were compounded when his wife to be got cold feet and broke the engagement long distance. I didn’t hear from Clyde for almost four months. As his tour crept toward an end, his letters became shorter and bleaker. He kept referring to events that he said were beyond belief or description and had him seeking refuge in whatever the mind numbing substance of the day happened to be. I felt completely helpless and even a bit guilty because my life at the university was really good.
After he was discharged, Clyde didn’t come back to Maine right away. BIW was required to keep his job open for six months and he said he needed time away from home to see if he could exorcise the devils who had taken up residence in his head. He was living in a commune outside of Sacramento, California.
I barely recognized the animated skeleton who knocked on my door one night in October. Clyde looked like Charlie Manson with Jesus eyes. He was shaky and wouldn’t look at me. I let him smoke a couple joints on the back porch while I wondered if I was in any position to help him. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure and that hurt a lot.
Over the next six hours, he rambled, sometimes incoherently sometimes with frightening clarity, about things he had seen and things he thought he should have prevented from happening in remote Vietnamese villages. His mental body count was horrifying. I did my best to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault, but I might as well been trying to reverse the flow of a glacier.
After a stay at the V.A. hospital, Clyde started attending AA meetings and went back to work as a welder. Neither effort was successful. Almost every time sparks started flying when he welded, Clyde flashed back to nighttime scenes of tracer bullets ripping through villages and body parts would fly at him from all directions. He couldn’t take it without some form of emotional anesthesia and failed three drug tests. The iron works did everything they could to help him, trying Clyde in several different jobs, but the internal damage was too severe. He was let go while on another stint at the V.A. hospital.
The army, always a good enabler, assessed his combat-related disability at 80%, ensuring that he wouldn’t have to work, but still have enough income to feed his addiction. Clyde supplemented the pension by doing odd jobs and picking the roadsides for returnable cans and bottles.
I watched helplessly over the next twenty-five years as Clyde retreated a bit further every day, trying to find a place where the demons couldn’t hurt him. He always had a place to crash at the farm as I kept his room available. Sometimes, he’d hole up there for days at, staring at nothing until I roused him for a meal. Other times, he’d vanish for weeks at a time, always returning, never talking about where he went or what he did. I came to accept that someday, Clyde would disappear for good, either physically or spiritually. Today was that day. Even though he had been like a ghost for years, I knew the hole in my spirit would take a long time to heal.
I shrugged on my coat and grabbed my car keys. Better to get busy making final plans for Clyde than sitting around playing the what-if game. As I turned toward town, I could swear I saw Clyde’s ghost leaning against the mailbox post, a look of peace finally spreading across his face.
I wrote this several years ago when I couldn’t get a conversation I had with a guy who was AWOL from the army back in 1969 out of my head. We were pretty hammered in one of the Mill Avenue dives I frequented and he had no place to sleep, so I brought him back to the fraternity house I was living in and he slept on a couch in the living room. Before we crashed, he talked at length about why he wasn’t going back and how many horror stories were locked in his head.
I never saw him again and didn’t get his name, but I see his brothers at AA meetings every week, many of them the fortunate victims of war because they were able to meet their demons in ways that got them clean and sober. Even so, most of them are still experiencing the same things that my Clyde did. War is a nasty, evil and terrible thing to inflict on spiritual beings.