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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sons of Mars and Thunder - three scenes from a WIP set at West Point

Sons of Mars and ThunderScenes One, Two and Three

This is a work in process, a prequel to Old Scores that takes Jake Driver back to his entry into West Point.

Scene One - March 15, 1965 - Milagro Hills, El Paso, Texas

The rattling sound of coyotes rummaging through garbage cans greeted Sergeant Major Buddy Collins, as he stepped from his banged-up and paint-daubed '55 Ford pickup. Light was just beginning to streak the west Texas sky. He turned up his collar and jammed his hands into the pockets of his olive-drab field jacket to ward off the morning chill. Vapor from his breath hung in the air. He glanced at his watch, waited a few minutes, then knocked at the McKean's front door at exactly zero six hundred.
Description:"Mornin' Buddy. Come on in for a cup of coffee." Consuelo McKean said, opening the door. "Hey Junior, es el tiempo. Uncle Buddy's here," she shouted to the back of the house before leading him into the kitchen. 
Consuelo’s house was a three-bedroom stone and stucco rambler on the last street of Milagro Hills, the last subdivision on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. There was absolutely nothing between the house and White Sands, New Mexico to the north but ninety miles of desert. It was a full thirty-minute commute to the central post area of Ft. Bliss. He had told Bobby McKean the house was too far out before Bobby bought it. However, it was a well-built house with a stone fence and large yard, and Bobby bought it anyway. After moving from post to post, rental to rental, Bobby had been determined his family would own the house they lived in for once in their lives.
This morning Buddy was taking seventeen year-old Bobby Junior on a "rabbit drive." Every so often, the jackrabbit population on the ranges at Ft. Bliss would explode. The solution was a major thinning called a "rabbit drive." Several hundred hunters would form a line and sweep through a range, shotguns in hand, blasting every rabbit in sight. Jackrabbits carried so many diseases, and their meat was so much tougher than that of their smaller white-tailed cousins, no one ever bothered to eat any of the thousands that died. It seemed such a waste. His father had trained him to "hunt what you need to eat, and eat what you hunt." At least a rabbit drive kept his shooting skills sharp. More importantly, this one gave him a good excuse to see Consuelo, "Connie," McKean.  
Connie was the prettiest woman he ever laid eyes on. He had loved her since the first day he saw her, and by then it was already too late, Connie was engaged to his best friend, Bobby McKean Senior. His heart drowned in the wide, dark pools of Connie’s eyes and was lost forever. Connie’s creamy skin, jet back hair and high, angular cheekbones seemed so exotic next to the pale blondes of his Irish Catholic youth. Consuelo Morales was the epitome of Mexican-American beauty. Somehow, Bobby had found her first, and she was his. Six months later, in June of '47, Bobby Jr. was born, a blessed event the timing of which no one on either side of the family ever mentioned.
Buddy never married. No woman could ever measure up, and Connie was always there in his life. Rather, he was always there in the McKean's life. He and Bobby were childhood schoolmates. They joined the army together, right out of high school in 1945. They took basic training together. They served in the same artillery battery at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. They made Buck Sergeant together just before the Korean Conflict.
If being a lifelong friend was not enough to make Bobby as close as a brother, Korea made him closer. They shipped out together, assigned as gun chiefs in the same 105MM artillery battery. When a Chinese human wave attack overran their unit, he and Bobby provided the covering fire that allowed their fire teams to retreat in good order with all of their wounded. Both earned Purple Hearts, and Silver Stars for valor. Their citations accurately chronicled the precision of their retreat, each in turn laying down a smothering hail of bullets from a Browning while the other found another position to defend. The part that described "overwhelming odds" was equally accurate. However, they both took exception to the passage that read: "without regard for personal safety." They considered what they did their duty, no more, no less. They certainly did their duty “with regard for their personal safety.”
The hottest crucible mankind could devise forged his love for Bobby. Ultimately, each gauged a man by one measure: "Would I want him in a foxhole next to me when the bullets begin to fly?" Whether it was battle drill, beer parties, bowling teams or bird hunting, they were inseparable. Connie often remarked that Bobby spent more time with him than Bobby did with her. She did it with a twinkle in her dark eyes and that tone that let him know it was OK, she understood. He was the man who had helped to bring her Bobby home from Korea in one piece.
Bobby’s orders to Vietnam in 1964 created one of the few times he and Bobby ever separated and changed all their lives forever. While accompanying a Colonel Jackson, senior advisor to a Vietnamese artillery battalion, on a routine inspection, Bobby's helicopter received massed VC ground fire and crashed. The door gunner died instantly. The ground fire badly wounded both pilots and they died in the subsequent fire. Rounds ripping through the floor of the helicopter severely wounded the colonel in the legs. Bobby was shaken but unhurt by the crash.
Without regard for his own personal safety, Bobby managed to drag the colonel and the door gunner’s M-60 machine gun from the burning helicopter to the relative safety of a levee dividing rice patties. He received severe wounds in the process. Bobby defended that position until help arrived.
For forty-five minutes, the time it took the Vietnamese artillery unit to locate them, Bobby single-handedly held off a hostile force of at least platoon size, killing twenty-seven, with the door gunner's M-60. Bobby died on a MASH operating table three hours later.

In the summer of 1964, the United States was host to a swelling anti-war movement. The public relations department of the Johnson Administration believed that exposure to a genuine U.S. hero could sway public opinion favorably. Recovering at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C., Colonel Jackson, whose father-in-law was a U.S. Senator, made a very strong case that Bobby should be that hero. So it was, that a grateful nation awarded Sergeant Major McKean the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Bobby was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. With the exception of the artillery salute, the Old Guard provided the same military honors accorded to John F. Kennedy two years earlier. A flag draped caisson bore him to the gravesite. The clear high notes of taps rang out their last, "Safely rest, God is nigh …" Six rifles cracked as one, once, twice, three times. The flag draped over Bobby's coffin was tenderly folded, and handed to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who spoke eloquently of the hero who had, "Given his life in his county's effort to stem the tide of Communism." More than twenty flashbulbs captured the moment when the president himself gave the flag to Connie, bending his sorrowful hound-dog face to hers to offer words of comfort. Stories chronicling the heroism of Bobby's life and death appeared in the Wall Street Journal and most major conservative newspapers in America.
For Connie, all the fanfare provided a mixed blessing. Travel, speaking engagements, and interviews filled her life, pushing the crushing grief from the forefront for hours at a time. She was proud that her country considered her Bobby a hero. She forced the bravest of faces. In death, she gave Bobby to America again, and again, in the same dutiful spirit with which she sent him off to work after a hot breakfast every morning at zero five thirty for eighteen years.
The middle of the night was the only time she gave in to a private, visceral grief that was hers alone. At  age thirty-six, ripe and vital, she could still imagine his powerful hands touching her, the hands she would no longer feel. She could still feel the ache in her body that he would no longer fill. She had not just lost her life's companion, the father to her son, but in a deeply animalistic sense, she had lost her mate. If she gave voice to that emotion, it might sound like the sorrowful howl of a single coyote in the desert behind their house.
In the following months, Buddy tried to be a strong shoulder for Connie to cry on. More often than not though, hers was the shoulder he cried on. Bobby was like a part of him, a part ripped away leaving a wound that still oozed. He felt the guilt of the soldier who was not there for his friend, the guilt of the soldier who still lives when others die. Mostly he felt horrible guilt for the real glimmer of hope he now felt that perhaps, in time, he might reveal his own love to Connie.

"Hey, congratulations big guy!" he said, rising to shake Bobby Jr.'s hand as Bobby Jr. entered the kitchen. "A little bird told me you got your official notice yesterday."
He looked over the compact frame of the young man before him. Junior, as everyone called him, was not a "big guy." Junior had inherited more of his features and stature from his mother's 5'3" form than from his blonde-haired, blue-eyed six-foot father. Junior stood 5'9"  and carried a well-muscled 155 lbs. Junior had a vaguely Latin look with his mother's dark hair, wide set eyes and cheekbones, and dark eyebrows that practically met above a strong aquiline nose. The effect was startlingly intense and hawk like. In fact, like his mama, Junior is drop dead gorgeous. I’ve seen the way he makes young girls giggle and young women suck in their breath and go all weak at the knees. It’s probably a good thing he went Cathedral High. In central downtown El Paso, the Christian Brothers provided a strong traditional education to about 200 young men in an environment devoid of the distractions of the fairer sex. Young Catholic women, taught by nuns, attended nearby St Agnes.
"Mom told you, didn't she?" Junior replied, smiling broadly.
"I have my sources," Buddy said smugly. He had actually followed Bobby's application through the entire process with the NCOIC of Admissions since the day he talked Bobby Jr. into applying. His source had called him to say the last set of acceptances for entrance with the United States Military Academy's Class of 1969 were dispatched by Western Union yesterday. Junior's name was among them.
"Brother Cletus would have killed me if I hadn't done well enough on the test to qualify," Junior said.
"Hell son, I'd a killed you myself. Your parents scrimpin' and scrapin' to send you to private school most o' your life, you better damn sure know enough by now to qualify," Buddy exclaimed with a smile. I know you're just fishing for a compliment and I'm not going to let you get away with it.
"That will be just about enough of that kind of talk, Sergeant Collins," Connie chimed. Connie was deeply religious. Connie attended Mass more days than not, and ran a tight ship when it came to vulgar talk in her home. 
He knew he was in trouble when he became “Sergeant Collins,” so he put on his best hangdog look and said, "Aw, I'm sorry Connie. I'll keep it buttoned." 
Connie smiled back in a frosty way he interpreted as, “you're forgiven but ...”
"Really, Uncle Buddy, I owe it all to you," Junior said filling the awkward pause. "If you hadn't researched the entrance rules and found out that sons of Medal of Honor winners who are qualified are automatically admitted, I'd be working my way through Texas Western this fall. Instead, I have what amounts to a four year free ride, with a guaranteed job at the end.
“First of all, Junior," he replied, "you don't owe me nothin’.” This good fortune you owe to your Dad. Think of it as his last great gift to you. Second of all, you don't get a four year free ride at West Point. They'll work your ... They'll work you real hard. You’ll have to measure up every step of the way or you're out of there on your ear. You'll get more book learnin', more exercise and more harassment than you can even imagine. I guarantee there will be times when you'll want to quit. But you won't, because you're Bobby McKean's son. I know what you're made of. You will take this opportunity your Dad has given you and make the most of it. And about that job at the end ... They're going to train you to be a leader of men, to be the guy who has to make life and death decisions in combat, who trains and disciplines troops, so they will survive. Uncle Sam will get his pound of flesh from you for your education. There ain't no such thing as a free ride."  
"Any, there isn't any such thing," Connie chimed in. He knew Connie grew up in a poor Mexican-American neighborhood, and was acutely aware that broken English relegated many of her relatives to a working underclass. She was a stickler for good grammar, including his.
"I know, I know. Come on Junior, grab your Dad's twelve-gauge and let's shoot us some rabbit," Buddy said putting down his coffee mug and smiling. He liked being henpecked, when it was Connie doing the pecking.
Junior grabbed his Mother's key ring, unlocked the gun cabinet in the garage, grabbed his Dad's Browning over and under, three boxes of shells, relocked the cabinet and headed for the truck. 
Connie stopped Buddy in the doorway, and gave him a quick hug. "That was quite a speech you made back there. Thank you. I think it's really important for Junior to realize how lucky he is." She paused with a twinkle in her eye. "When are you going to tell him how those four years will drain all his sense, leaving a lump of raw matter with “butterbars” attached, only a good NCO can turn into a real officer?"
"Jees, Connie, Bobby and I really used to say that didn't we?"
"Well, if Bobby said it, it must be true. Whadaya say we let Junior find out on his own?"
"Fine by me," Connie said. "Take good care of my boy out there on the drive. I don't want him anywhere near any of those guys Bobby said were drinking last time you and he went out. Guns and booze don't mix."
"I'll guard him with my life," Buddy said, looking her straight in the eyes.

Scene Two - March 15, 1965 - Ecuadorian Embassy, Washington, DC

The crystal chandeliers of the Ecuadorean embassy glittered. Clusters of young debutantes gathered by the punch bowl. Knots of tuxedo-clad young men at the edges of the grand ballroom cast furtive glances in their direction. Periodically, one would bravely scout the enemy at close range, or even foray into their midst. Often, he would return quickly, shot down in flames. Sometimes however, one would emerge, a sheepish grin on his face, a fair maiden on his arm, and proceed to the dance floor.
Normally this room was a grand dining room, capable of hosting international state dinners. Tonight, however, the long dining table was gone, disassembled and stored. The embassy hosted the first of the annual series of “Spring Embassy Balls.”
For thirty two years Mrs. Constance Taylor, the grand dame of the Washington debutante scene, had twisted arms and raised money, organizing these events to expose the children of Washington, D.C.'s elite, “her children” she called them, to the social graces. She considered it her sacred duty to keep alive the elegance and gentility of the society into which she was born.
The orchestra swept into a classic waltz tune, the Blue Danube. She was dismayed that this drove nearly all of the dancers from the floor. Most of her children came from very affluent families, attended private academies, and drove expensive cars. She knew few had mastered even the basics of ballroom dancing. They preferred to clutch and sway to slow music rather than attempt any structured steps. A waltz was just too much for most of them. She clucked and shook her head as she watched the mass exodus.
The parting youngsters exposed a single remaining couple dancing at the far end of the room. A tall blonde girl twirled around with an even taller blond young man. The girl was dressed in a light blue empire waisted gown, scooped just low enough to suggest the soft swell of her breasts. An elegant double-breasted tuxedo draped the young man's wide shouldered six-foot frame.
They moved as one. His right hand rode lightly at her waist. His left hand held her right, palm to palm at shoulder height. Her left hand swung the hem of her gown in time to the music, one, two, three, one two, three. They lengthened their strides using all of the dance floor as it emptied; sweeping, circling, first to the right, then to the left. They danced as though they had practiced together for years. "That, ladies, is dancing." Mrs. Taylor exclaimed to no one in particular, but loud enough so that most of the girls at the punch bowl heard her, and paused to watch.
Minutes later the music came to a close and the orchestra prepared for a break. The lone dancers stopped moving and stood, holding each other, aware that something magical had happened. Their breathing slowed. Even though they danced as though they had practiced together for years, they had met only minutes before. The young man became acutely aware of the beads of perspiration beginning to form between the young woman's breasts and asked, "Let me get you a punch?"
She smiled, "Sure. Come on." She dragged him by the hand toward the punch bowl.
"Cathy, dear, you must introduce me to your young man, I missed him in the receiving line," Mrs. Taylor commanded as the couple passed. Flushing, the young woman stopped. "Oh, Mrs. Taylor, this is Jake... uh..."  
"Driver," Jake said, taking Mrs. Taylor's outstretched hand. 
"Mr. Driver, this is the infamous Mrs. Taylor. And he's certainly not my young man," the young woman added.
"Miss Thomas has been coming to my little parties for years," Mrs. Taylor said. "You would think by now she would know all my euphemisms. Were you getting some punch, Jake?"
"Yes ma'am," he replied.
"Get one for me too will you, dear? We'll wait right here."
Jake nodded, smiled and moved off to the punch bowl leaving the two ladies together.
"You two danced beautifully, dear," she said, turning her attention to the young woman. "You better not let this one get away."
"Mrs. Taylor!" the girl exhaled in exasperation. "I met him just before we danced. I didn't even know his full name." Smiling, she added, "You're just teasing me aren't you?"
"Dear Cathy, you see right through me, don't you? Of course I am. But, you see I know more of this young man than you, and I can't resist sharing."
"He told me this is the only embassy dance he has ever come to. How do you know him?"
"As soon as I heard his name, dear, I knew who he was. This is one acorn that didn't drop very far from the tree," Mrs. Taylor said, with a faraway stare. "His father is General Jacob Driver. You see, I give a few invitations to each of these parties to senior officers at the Pentagon for their children to use. I was hoping that Jacob would encourage his son to come. He is the spitting image of his father twenty-seven years ago when he first came to my parties. That boy could dance too! However, the Driver I remember best was his grandfather. I first met him when he was a midshipman at Annapolis. He truly was the most beautiful dancer." The faraway look returned to her eyes. “I never told anyone this before. I don't know why I'm telling you now, but Jacob Driver Senior is the man I let get away fifty years ago. I chose Mr. Taylor and lived a wonderful life. I always wondered though. Now, that must be our little secret, dear. Did your Jake tell you he just accepted an appointment to West Point?"
“He’s not my Jake, Mrs. Taylor, and no, he didn't. But I understand what you said about not letting this one get away. He is something, isn't he?"
At that moment, Jake returned with the punch.
"Thank you," Cathy and Mrs. Taylor chimed in unison.
"That is a beautifully cut tuxedo, Jake," Mrs. Taylor added, "double breasted and such a beautiful cloth. So many today wear tuxedos with thin lapels. Where did you get it?"
Jake smiled. "Actually, it belonged to my grandfather. My mom had it tailored to fit me just two months ago, ma'am."
"Ah well, that explains it. They just don't make them like they used too, do they?" Mrs. Taylor said, with a knowing look and wink at Cathy. "Run along now children, the orchestra is coming back and you both dance so beautifully."

"She seems like a nice lady, but what was that wink all about?" Jake asked, as they moved back toward the dance floor.
"She was just sharing some history with me. It's amazing what you can learn from her. Mrs. Taylor is a powerful woman in Washington," Cathy said. "Nearly everyone who is anyone in Washington has been one of her children. She follows what happens in all of their lives like a benevolent grandparent. She knows so much about so many, you might say she knows where all the bodies are buried."
"Is that so?" Jake raised an eyebrow.
Cathy leaned into his chest. "Well, for example, when I told you I was accepted to Wellesley, you didn't tell me you had accepted an appointment to West Point, but Mrs. Taylor did."
"How did...? That's spooky!" He looked back over his shoulder at Mrs. Taylor who was still watching their progress back to the dance floor.
"Don't worry about it. Come on let’s dance," Cathy said.
Swaying to the opening strains of I Only Have Eyes For You, she melted her body against his with a top to bottom thoroughness, unlike anything he had ever felt before. In moments, the pressure of her moving body created a perfectly natural hydraulic effect that, despite its naturalness, thoroughly mortified him. He began to pull away. Cathy only pressed closer.
"Where did you learn to dance like this?" he gasped.
"A boy I dated last year taught it to me. He called it, dirty dancing. Do you like it?" Cathy asked, smiling mischievously up at him. She seemed to be enjoying the effect she was having on him.

 Scene Three -March 15, 1965 Mercer Island, Washington State

"You were accepted to Dartmouth, my alma mater. Your brother is there now. You were accepted to Princeton. You were accepted at the U Dub. I will pay for whichever one you want. Why must you persist in this self-destructive urge to go to West Point?" Sandy Liebermann shouted, his volume rising with each sentence. "Do you realize there is a war going on in Vietnam? You could be killed. Do you realize that you will owe the government 5 years of your life after graduation if you accept? What makes you think, at age eighteen, you should make a decision that fixes the next nine years of your life? And what about the firm? Do you know how few..."
"Dad, dad." His son sat on the grass in front him, and spoke softly trying to calm him. "You're making a spectacle of yourself. The neighbors will hear."
"I don't give a holy....," he began again.
"Dad!" His son jumped to his feet and stood jaw to jaw with him. "I've made up my mind. I'm not Sandy. I don't want to be a lawyer. I don't want to go to Dartmouth or the U, join a fraternity and drink my way through four years of college, so I can join the old boy network.  I want to be a soldier. I've accepted the appointment. You should be proud. The Lakeside education you're paying for has paid off. Now you won't have to pay for anything for me ever again."
The public school on Mercer Island in Washington State is among the best in the nation in college preparatory curriculum, and sends its share of students to top east coast and west coast schools. However, Bernard (“Sandy”) Liebermann’s lucrative law practice allowed all the Liebermann children to attend Seattle's most expensive and finest private school, Lakeside Academy.
He sat down on the grass holding his face between his hands. "I didn't send you to Lakeside all those years for you to become cannon fodder for the next hair-brained military excursion to some godforsaken place America has no reason being in the first place."
"Read your history, Dad. Kennedy got us into this so that the commies won't do in South Vietnam what they did to over a million Catholics and western sympathizers in North Vietnam after Diem Bien Phu. It was genocide on the scale of the holocaust. Or don't you care if the skin is yellow, the eyes are slanted, and they're not Jews?"
"That's a low blow and you know it!" he spat.
"No, it's not!  It's the late 30's all over again and the world has its head stuck in the sand!"
Sandy and his family lived in a comfortable four bedroom home on the northwest corner of Mercer Island, a ten mile long island in the middle of Lake Washington adjoining downtown Seattle, Washington. He and his wife had bought it when it was just a small summer waterfront cottage. Wealthy Seattlites visited the island and eastside for weekends by ferry before the floating bridges made daily access easy. Many, like them, moved to the island permanently when the I-90 floating bridge was complete. Mercer Island became a comfortable upper middle class enclave with a large Jewish community. He and Sharon felt comfortable there.
The house had grown considerably since, as had their family. Sandy arrived in 1946, followed quickly by Peter in 1947 and Mary in 1949. 
Bernard rose quickly to partner in his law firm. He had a gift for negotiation, able to cut quickly to the key issues of contractual disputes and lead all parties to consensus. He was not a confrontational person, but you would not know it by the relationship he had with his second son.
Whatever Bernard gave his children, Sandy, the oldest, accepted as his due. Peter, on the other hand, always looked a gift horse in the mouth. Peter always wanted to know all the strings attached to anything, so he could determine whether he was willing to pay the price. Where Sandy saw generosity, Peter saw obligation and manipulation. His oldest son, Sandy seemed to move effortlessly through life accepting with graciousness the wide and comfortable path laid before him. Peter fought the confines of that path every inch of the way, banging back and forth against the boundaries of his life like a loosely sprung truck bouncing down a deeply rutted road. Bernard suggested nice Jewish girls to Peter. Peter dated a bevy of gentiles. He discouraged drinking. Peter became a notorious party animal. He played Tennis. Peter took up Golf. He offered Peter a new car. Peter bought a beaten up '53 Chevy and rebuilt the engine himself with money he earned as a Lifeguard at the Mercer Island Country Club pool.
His daughter Mary was another thing altogether. Mary watched Peter’s trials with good humor. Mary did not have any qualms about accepting all the trappings of his successful life. However, Mary just as easily rejected the idea that accepting those trappings placed any obligation whatsoever on her behavior. Somehow, especially where he was concerned, Mary was always the manipulator, never the manipulated.                                
"Peter," he pled with his son, "what makes you think you will cut it at West Point. What the army will want from you is conformity. Are you a conformist? Anyone in authority says “zig,” you zag. Someone in authority says “jump,” do you say, “how high?” No. You say, “what for?” Son, they'll try to wring all that out of you, and they might break you in the process."
"I'll make it," Peter replied in a level tone.  "I'll make it because I want to do this for me.  For once in my life, I'm doing something I really want to do, not because you want me to, or because it’s good for me, or because it will look good on a college application, or make people think warm and fuzzy thoughts about me. It's just what I really want to do. With your approval or not, I'm going to do it."
Tears streaming down his long face, he got up, laid a hand on his son's shoulder and said, "Son, this destroys every dream your Mother and I ever had for you. I think it's wrong for you. I'm afraid for you. But I love you and I won't try to stand in your way. I want you to listen and really hear this:  If, for any reason, at any time, you want out, we'll be here for you. No judgement. No criticism. Just a different path.”