The Weight of Living
A simple envelope arrived, addressed to a John Tate.
“Fuck me,” he exhaled leaning against the diamond-tiled counter to support his suddenly wobbling legs. His head fell backwards like a lead weight as he slowed his breathing and with trembling fingers ripped open the letter, eyes glued to the block of typed words: an order to report for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States of America in five weeks. The eagle seal for the Selective Service System was stamped in the left-hand corner with a mandatory address from the president directly under the seal.
“John,” a garish voice called from the doorway. He stuffed the envelope and letter in an open box of Cheerios sitting on the counter.
“Pirate,” he yelled back absentmindedly at his father and regretted the decision immediately. He usually corrected people who still called him by his given name instead of the nickname coined by his best friend. Freshman and sophomore years of High School were spent with Pirate constantly picking fights with the upperclassmen and constantly sporting black eye. His friends started teasing him about looking like a pirate because of it and the name stuck. But his father was a different matter. His father’s reddened face appeared instantly in the doorframe to the kitchen, twisting his tie.
“John is the name your mother and I gave you so best get used to it.” Pirate resisted the urge to argue back almost giving himself a headache. His father moved around the tidy kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee from the full pot and then reached for the box of Cheerios….Pirate jumped from his chair but his father already had opened the top of the cardboard flaps. Pirate cursed under his breath, low enough without his father hearing.
“What’s this?” He unfolded the paper and smoothed the middle. His eyes shifted left and right. His father looked a little too thrilled when he handed his son the letter while sipping at his black coffee. Puffs of steam arose from the rim of the mug and Pirate silently wished the hot beverage would spill on his carefully ironed starch white button down shirt and black tie. His little brother’s sudden laughter eased the tension building between Pirate and his father as he bounded through the kitchen, knocking over a chair and almost, to Pirate’s pleasure bumped into their father, who sidestepped the gangly teenager at the last second.
“Have fun at the game!” He yelled while grabbing the newspaper and sitting in the chair opposite his least favorite child. Pirate did not mind playing second string to his little brother. His father’s approval dropped from his top priority in his preteens to a bare acknowledgement of his father’s high standards now that he was eighteen.
“I’m glad you’re finally going to have some responsibility and get you away from those so called friends.”
“Because going to a war zone will fix all that,” Pirate quipped.
“Watch your mouth. Maybe serving in the military will set your priorities straight.”
“You’re also forgetting that it will also cause you to lose one of your sons but since you only claim Daniel, it won’t be too much of a loss. Just remember to mourn in front of people at my funeral for appearance sake, Dad. Or better yet, I can run away since I sure as Hell don’t support the war in Vietnam and you can live with the joy of a deserter as a son.” He said the last sentence bitterly without thinking of the implication but the glare and his father’s fist flying into his jaw made him realize he’d said it aloud. The punch set him crashing to the linoleum floor along with his chair. His father stood abruptly, slung the freezer door open and threw a frozen bag of peas at Pirate’s feet. Without a word he slammed the back door, bypassing his startled wife who entered carrying a brown sack of groceries. When she saw Pirate sitting on the floor with peas pressed firmly against his reddened jaw she knelt beside him.
“Oh my God, Pirate! What happened?”
“Daniel ran into me. He accidently hit me with his helmet.” She frowned at the explanation but didn’t press further. “Look, I’ll see you later. I’ve gotta meet Dean at the beach.”
“Okay.” She waited a beat almost hoping for more information than sighted.” Well, have fun.”
* * *
Crisp, cool waves nipped at the plain surfboards bobbing atop the ocean’s surface. Pirate sat upright, legs dangling on either side while his best friend, Dean, had his entire torso stretched flat across the board with his hands and legs gliding in the Pacific. Dean’s sun streaked light brown hair matched that of his friend, from long hours on the water trying to catch that perfect start of summer wave. Graduation lurked behind them, four torturous years of detention, boring teachers and failed tests. However, he would miss steadying behind the bleachers with girls, those that would give him the time of day at least.
“So what did the ol’ man say when you told him?” Dean questioned propping his right hand over his eyes to shield away the glare. With a pop of his shoulders, Pirate tilted his chin slightly upward, pointing to a blossoming purplish yellow shape just along his jawline. His skin still felt tender to the touch but his years of picking fights as freshman against seniors was much easier than a punch from his father and a hell of a lot more fun.
“Maybe it won’t be as bad as you think,” he suggested.
Pirate scoffed loudly at his remark and cut his bluish grey eyes in his direction. “Easy for you to say. You have at least two months to not worry about the draft.”
Dean flipped from his stomach to his back. “Um…I’m actually considering …ya know….joining…,” he replied slowly, stressing every syllable, picking at his green swimming trunks.
Because they were only a short distance from one another, Pirate pressed his foot to the edge of Dean’s board and kicked the board firmly. He smiled as the desired effect took hold, flipping Dean into the salty water. As he heard a slew of curses mixed with a gurgle of saltwater coughs, Pirate swam back to shore, sporting a satisfied smirk. Pitching his board into the sand, his legs crumpled beneath him. His elbows sank into the scorching sand but the heat was a welcoming sensation after leaving the cool water.
The beach was almost deserted. This particular stretch of shoreline rarely saw tourists and with the day just beginning, it would remain free of people for the next couple of hours, until noon. Pirate sighed. He wished everyday could be like today, watching the white peaks of the waves rise and fall, gaining speed just feet from the shore, before crashing onto sandy beach. The annoying gawks of seagulls diving into the water to find fish sounded serene today. Perhaps because it was a sound he would never hear again. In five short weeks, boot camp, followed by rain and bullets would replace the warmth and safety of home.
Dean trudged toward Pirate, kicked some sand at him before falling beside him. “Look, I’m sorry. I know how you feel about the war, and I was only trying to help.” He spoke, losing some anger but knowing he would enact his revenge later. Pirate sighed again, accepting his friend’s apology.
“I know. But we just graduated, I wanted to enjoy this summer. And now I’m being forced to fight in a country where the chances of survival…” he trailed off letting the sentence sink in. Pirate understood Dean’s beliefs differed slightly even though they disagreed. Of course they both wanted a carefree summer but Dean understood the obligation of adulthood and Pirate wanted to give adulthood the middle finger.
“If it were me in your shoes, I would probably feel the same way. That’s why I’m enlisting before that decision is made for me. But if you really cannot go through with it,” Dean paused and took a breath, “there’s this guy near the border who guides tourists through a popular trail on their hiking trips. It leads to a river and from there Mexico is only a short walk.” Pirate jerked his head to look at him. The most patriotic of their small group of friends was saying something that would land him in jail or worse.
“You mean desert. Are you serious? Don’t you remember what happened to James?” The beach began to litter with more locals but they paid them no attention. They could only think back to that morning in late March. Like so many others, James received a draft card. What they did not expect came after he received the notice. The seniors me in the large auditorium awaiting the class president to give his end of year speech. Their friends, lounging in the very back row, ready to nap as soon as the hour-long lecture began, surrounded Pirate and Dean. Everyone’s careless chatter however simmered instantly when someone other than the president stepped in front of the podium. They recognized him; his brother was the town’s prodigy basketball player and had even won a full ride scholarship to California State but that changed when he was drafted. But unlike other men, he left the same happy guy who planned to serve in the army and return home to finish his education. These big dreams died with him when the Vietcong raided their camp one night, leaving piles of uniforms and gear minus their owners. The military police who investigated the incident never found the bodies and soon conspiracy theories arose from those suspicious of the government. And one of those theorists stood in front of the 137 members of the class of 1969.
Pirate remembered confusion and then nausea as he noticed what his fellow classmate held, a silver Zippo in one hand and a rectangle piece of paper in the other. One sentence mixed with one action sealed his life. “Here’s what I think of this war.” His voice wavered, possibly realizing how serious the consequences of what he was about to do. As soon as the flame met the paper and began transforming it to ash, Pirate lurched forward in his seat, ready to rush to the stage. But strong fingers dug into his forearm, fingers that would leave bruises and indentions after they left, rooted him to his seat. Dean shook his head in warning. Two officers appeared, assigned to the school because of the increase in protesters, appeared in front of the the red curtain and tacked James.
Only later did they learn the full extent. Police brutality at its highest. James suffered a punctured lung, two broken ribs, and a possible fractured spine. He might never walk again, that is when the doctors decide to release him from the ventilator that allows him to breathe without choking. It was tragedy but not the first person to burn his draft card. There were peaceful protests and violent ones erupting all of the country.
“Yes but this is just a hike. You’re not doing anything out of the ordinary. I’ll drive you there myself.” Dean broke the trance with a smile as if it was another on their ditch school plans. Pirate gathered sand in his palm, focusing on the grains drain between the gaps. Desertion was a death sentence. However, going to Vietnam… another death sentence. He closed his eyes, watched them turn red from the sun. He lost either way.
* * *
Pirate rolled his body out of the black Chevy Pickup, the tangy yet sweet smell of freedom wafting from inside the truck. Southern California was in the middle of a stifling heat wave, and standing on the red desert wasteland of the Sonoran Desert, he reveled in the sensation as the sun’s rays hit his tan skin, temporarily fading the hole, radiating from the draft card in his back pocket. The small oasis lay in front of him. Dean leaned out of the truck’s window, “I’ll be right here…ya know…just in case.” Pirate nodded once. If he chose to cross the border, he would never see Dean or any of his other close friends again. And if he failed to cross the border, he would most likely die in Vietnam. It was a lose-lose situation.
He needed someone to show him the easiest path to Mexico and that person sat under a frayed striped umbrella with a half lit cigarette dangling between thin cracked lips. Tendrils of light gray smoke danced around the old man’s tobacco stained fingers as he blew out a breath then a hacking, dry cough burst forth.
Pirate asked him did he know the quickest route to the river when the old man quietened, who then spit a gob of black mucus onto the earth. Shaking slightly on stick thin legs, he stood and began walking in the opposite direction with a garbled brown stick. Pirate followed him for ten minutes before his guide stopped and began coughing violently, his whole body shaking, as one or both of his lungs tried to expel from his chest. Before he could help, the man straightened and continued walking as if this was a natural occurrence.
They walked in an awkward silence. Pirate attempted conversation with no success. “My friends call me Pirate,” he began when a stench like nothing he’d ever smelled stopped him. Bile burned in his throat and he almost vomited the sandwich he ate earlier. He twisted his body around facing the opposite direction and covered his mouth trying to breathe in anything but the putrid odor of rotting flesh. Closing his eyes briefly, he only saw the image printed behind his eyelids: a body pulled apart, bones peeking out from the ashen ripped skin, chunks of body ripped from the skeleton by scavengers.
“Such a shame.” An unexpected voice like sandpaper caused Pirate to turn his body at the old man, trying to block out the dead boy, no older than twenty. “I know why you’re here,” he continued. “You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.”
“I’m eighty-five years old. I can barely hold a cigarette without it shaking, let alone kill a man six decades younger than me. Most likely, the patrollers done him in. They scour the area like hounds, begging to find a deserter.” Pirate forced himself to glance at the body, a mistake, before doubling over, emptying the contents of his stomach on to the desert sand. His throat burned as if hot coals had been forced down his windpipe. He crouched, his breathing strained.
The man continued, holding his body upright with his walking stick, “I’ve led countless young men here. They think I’m stupid. Of course they were deserters. But I have no hand in what happens once they cross. I’m just a tour guide.”
“Why are you telling me this? If you don’t care what happens to them, why tell me the border patrol murders deserters?”
“You don’t seem like the others. They have their mind set on leaving this country. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky few, or maybe you won’t make it ten feet once I leave before the patrol finds you. That choice is yours and yours alone.” Pirate consumed his words like a man starved. What would happen when his mother or Daniel discovered he’d disappeared? Would they search for him? Or would his father convince them their son and brother was nothing but a weakling who couldn’t stand obligation?
Clenching his fists at his side, he stood. “Let’s head back. I’ve seen enough.” I’m a coward, he thought to himself as the man fell into step beside him. He was a coward because he only thought of the embarrassment that would follow his family for the rest of their lives. A son for a deserter, an older brother who did not serve his country when it needed those able to fight. But what about his freedom? His freedom expired the second he opened that fated letter.
The old man clapped a hand on his shoulder, perhaps as a comforting gesture or perhaps as a right choice motion. The border was an unachievable fantasy for all those men stripped of free will and Pirate just gave up trying to beat the system. His luck would run out or the world would catch up on him.
Dean was leaning against the rusted exterior with arms crossed over his chest when Pirate returned, face creased in stiff resolve. Pirate moved past him and Dean handed a bill to the old man.
“What happened?” Dean asked. Pirate moved passed him to face the truck’s hood. He shook his head.
“I fucking chickened out. That’s what happened,” Pirate yelled forcefully ten slammed his fist downward into the metal, forming dent.
“Hey don’t take it out on my truck.” Dean replied but Pirate’s mood only worsened.
“It was right there. I only had a few feet between me and Mexico but I couldn’t go through with it.” He laughed bitterly. “That tour guide showed me a murdered deserter and yet I still wanted to cross. Murdered because of desertion sounds a helluva lot better than being shot to death thousands of miles away.”
Dean pushed him backward into the truck, “You know what. You need to stop with this bullshit. There are plenty of guys who make it back from war. Not everyone dies in combat.”
Pirate jerked out of his grasp. “Yeah and how many people do you now who’ve survived a deadly war huh? The president is deploying more soldiers because soldiers are dying.”
“Yeah and with that type of morale you are headed down the same path. You’re smarter than you think. You’ll pull through this war.” Pirate slipped down the side of the truck, sitting on the ground with his knees pulled against his chest.
“I’m terrified,” he admitted suddenly. Dean joined him but kept his mouth closed as he continued, “what if I survive and am a completely different person? You can’t spend months in a place where people are constantly dying without an impact.”
“If we’re being honest here, I’m not joining so I won’t get drafted. I’m joining so you won’t be alone over there.” Pirate stared at the reddish cliffs. He was relieved and saddened by Dean’s confession.
“We’re pathetic,” Pirate finally stated. Dean laughed a real hearty laugh that caused Pirate to join in. Dean stood and reached a hand down to Pirate, who grabbed it. They faced each other.
“You’ve had my back all these years even when I deserved a good ass kicking. It’s time I repaid the favor.” He reached out and punched Dean lightly in the chest.
“Come on. We can still catch a couple waves before sun down.” As they drove back to San Diego Pirate felt lighter. He no longer had to carry the heavy weight of living alone. They now shared that burden.
Megan Ray is a senior at the University of North Georgia. She will graduate in August of 2016 with a Bachelor’s in English with a concentration in Writing & Publication and plans to pursue a career in publishing.