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Tour of Duty



Published July 25, 2012 at 10:14 a.m.

The intersection of Church and Main streets is Burlington’s epicenter of late-night activity. Not surprisingly, it’s also the primary zone for taxi seekers to hook up with cabbies for their rides home.

In addition, there’s a lesser taxi hub a few blocks to the north — on Pearl Street, at the divide of North and South Winooski. This corner boasts a trio of bars: the Other Place, Radio Bean and — a recent addition — the relocated Three Needs. The ambience of this cluster is decidedly different from that of Church Street: less tony, a more local, laid-back clientele. Some might call it a hippie vibe.

On a late Saturday evening, way past last call, I took a spin down Pearl hoping to snag one last straggler and call it a night. Sure enough, two young men hailed me from the sidewalk just down from Three Needs. Both sported blond buzz cuts, an atypical look for this easygoing town. One climbed into the rear seat, the other took shotgun.

My seatmate said, “Sir, we need to get to Motel 6. Do you know where that’s at?”

“I sure do, my brother,” I replied. “And what brings you boys to town?”

“Sorry, did you say something?” the guy asked, holding up a hand to cup his left ear. “I can’t hear too good, and that’s a whole story.”

Immediately I flashed on war injury. Buzz cut aside, this man sitting beside me had it written all over him. At 3 in the morning, he appeared wired tight, ready to burst — miles from a devil-may-care twentysomething. My intuition told me he was troubled, maybe even in crisis. I shifted my tone accordingly.

As we slowly ascended the Pearl Street hill, I asked, a little louder but gently, “What happened to your hearing?”

“We just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. This was my third, Brian’s second. We were serving in Kandahar, near the Pakistan border. An RPG took out a tank I was standing near, and my ears are still ringing.”

“Are you guys friends?”

Brian said, “We sure are. Me and Todd grew up in the same small town in Nebraska. We enlisted together, right out of high school.”

“Whatcha doing up in Vermont?”

“Well, before this last deployment,” Brian explained, “we had a day before we had to fly out of Boston, so we drove up here. We had an awesome time, so we figured we’d try it again before we flew back home. The women here are great, real natural-like.”

“I hear you, brother,” I agreed, though it’s been 30 years since I’ve done any running after women. I’m not sure I’d remember what to do if I caught one. Still, in the spirit of male camaraderie, I added, “They don’t call it ‘Girlington’ for nothing.”

“I don’t know about that,” Todd said, and not in a lighthearted way. “Like, in the bar, I start talking to some girl. She asks what do you do, and I tell her I blow things up and kill people, and she just kind of walks away.”

His friend in the back said, “Todd here is kind of intense. I think he’ll chill once we get back to Nebraska.”

Todd barely reacted to Brian’s comment. He seemed intensely present in one way, but, in another, a million miles away. Though I was more than twice his age, I had no frame of reference to relate to his experience. I was just young enough to miss call-up for the Vietnam War, an instance of dumb luck for which I am forever grateful. The truth is, I know I’m not the kind of soul who could survive combat. Christ, I’m traumatized for days when I accidentally run over a squirrel.

“How long was this last tour?” I asked. “I mean, do you get leave much?”

“Yeah, right,” Todd replied. “We’ve been there since last August, nonstop. Don’t get me wrong. This is the best time I’ve had in my life, being in the military. I’d go back in a heartbeat, if they let me. But they told me I’ve done my part and my service is over now.”

In the rearview mirror, I saw Brian nodding his head, his lips tight. I got the feeling he was looking out for Todd, that he understood the precariousness of his buddy’s state of mind.

I remember the 1970 Edwin Starr No. 1 hit song “War,” with the chorus, “War / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing.” I suppose I would have willingly fought in my dad’s war — the one against the Nazis — or in the Civil War, on the Union side to end slavery. On this subject I’m conflicted; the morality remains hazy. It just feels like, for humankind as a species — in 2012, for God’s sake — it’s far too late in the game to perpetuate the bloodshed.

At the Motel 6, Brian paid me the fare while Todd remained in his seat. I almost said, “Thank you for your service,” but caught myself. The words and the sentiment just seemed inadequate and trite. Instead, I looked directly at Todd, whose blue eyes expressed the panic of a deer in headlights. I said, “Take care of yourself, son. Now’s the time, back with your family in Nebraska. You’ve earned it.”

Todd gave a slight nod, though I couldn’t tell if my words meant anything to him. And why should they? At this point, he remained on high alert — finger on the trigger, ready for the next assault.