I hit the D.C. beltway - America's answer to the Autobahn - and squeezed my Honda into the onrush of speeding cars, a Mercedes nearly clipping my front-right bumper. The jerk was driving with no hands - the left holding a cell phone to his ear, the other waving a stogie. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it was some Congressional cretin running late for a meeting.
Three or four times a year, I made this pain-in-the-butt trip to Washington to spend some quality time with my brother Ernie. Ernie was the oldest of my siblings - followed by Estelle, Eunice, Enid and Elaine. I was the youngest, the baby of the brood. When Ernie was drafted a year out of high school, hustled through basic training at Fort Dix and whisked off to Vietnam, I was but ten-years-of-age. I was too busy clothes-pinning baseball cards to bicycle spokes, to wonder about the cause and effects of that ridiculous war.
At five-five and one-thirty, Ernie drew one of the dirtiest jobs of all - a tunnel rat. Time after time - armed with nothing more than a flashlight and a .45 - he crawled deep into tunnel complexes to seek out and kill any VC who might be holed-up there. Considering the snakes, scorpions and fire ants, together with Giant Crab Spiders and trip wires, the VC posed less than half the problem. If the tunnel was large enough, Ernie was part of a team, but, more often than not, he had to go it alone. After six harrowing months, the doctors declared him unfit for duty. With a medical discharge in pocket, he was on his way home. Thanks for the sacrifice, pal - so get on with your life.
I can still remember his less-than-glorious homecoming, as he shambled into the house, with sunken eyes, a week's growth of beard and his breath reeking of alcohol. His dress uniform - stained with food and drink - was as wrinkled as crumpled tissue paper, with a couple of its brass buttons missing. Not to mention a shiner and split lip from some barroom brawl he had gotten into during a layover in Los Angeles. He was a shadow of his former fun loving self, speaking little and jumping at the slightest of sounds. Nearly every night his cries would raise the dead and rushing into his room, we would find him sitting bolt upright in bed, wide-eyed and hyperventilating, his body drenched in a cold sweat. To make matters worse, there was the claustrophobia, the arachnophobia and a dozen other phobias.
Our father, who had been a gung-ho Marine in the South Pacific, was the head of the local VFW, his many medals and ribbons and war souvenirs adorning the walls of his private study. Oh, yes, indeed - he was a self-proclaimed Audie Murphy and Sergeant York, wrapped into one. Despite witnessing three years of savage warfare, he prided himself on coming home "sound of body, mind and soul." Hardly a day passed without he and Ernie squaring off in an argument, Dad calling him a "wimp" or a "sissy" or a classic example of the new "weak-kneed generation." Following one especially violent altercation, Ernie rushed off to a neighborhood bar to nurse a lacerated lip and stayed away for nearly a week. Being her first-born, Mom always sided with Ernie, shielding him against our father's patriotic tirades and cooking him his favorite meals - meals that he poked over and left largely uneaten.
One evening, three months following his return, Ernie notified us at the supper table that he was heading for Washington D.C., where he had landed a job with some government agency - an agency that he left unnamed and refused to discuss. Wasting little time, he packed early the next morning and bid us all a hasty goodbye, refusing Father's offer of a ride as he hustled out the door. Embracing our tearful mother halfway across the front lawn, he promised to write her every chance he got - a promise that he never kept.
It wasn't long before Dad discovered what Ernie's new job was - a homeless person, languishing on the Washington Mall and living off the charity and goodwill of others. Believe me, he was far from being alone, for it seemed that Washington had more beggars than the whole city of Calcutta - fifteen-thousand strong and a good many of them Vietnam vets.
In a fit of wounded pride, Dad sped down to D.C. to confront his "no account son" and the two of them resorted to fisticuffs, right there, beneath the marble gaze of good old Honest Abe. Lucky for them the first cop along was a Korean vet, who, after taking both sides of the argument into consideration, sent our father packing with a mere wag of the finger. Unfazed by Mother's sorrowful pleas, good old Dad set down the law - under no conditions was Ernie to be welcomed home again. He was history, ancient history.
Locating a parking space, I locked the Honda and walked a good six blocks to the Mall. I had no idea where to start my search, for Ernie was constantly on the move, staking out different spots to call his own. I stopped, looking in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial then sweeping my eyes the length of the Reflecting Pool, toward the distant spike of the Washington Monument.
Spotting two homeless men parked on a bench, I decided to wander over, a bit uneasy under their watchful glares. One was a hulking black dude, clad in a knit watch cap and ankle-length wool coat, despite a temperature of nearly a hundred degrees. His companion was a holdover from "The Night of the Living Dead", with squinty eyes and bad teeth, his spindly arms emblazoned with tattoos from the shoulders clear to the wrists. If looks could have killed, I would have died a hundred painful deaths.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. Can either of you tell me where I can find Ernie Prescott?"
Overcoat looked me over, as though I were green with twin antennae. "Did'ja hear that, Lester? This guy called us 'gentlemen.'"
"Jesus H. Christ," replied Lester, glancing over his shoulder. "I hope to shit no one heard him. It would play hell with our reputations."
I grinned, not quite certain on how to proceed.
"Why you lookin' for Ernie Prescott?" asked Overcoat. "You a cop or sum'thin?"
"Naw," chuckled Lester. "He looks too wimpy-ass to be a cop."
"You better watch your ass with Prescott." Overcoat picked up a butt from the ground, straightening it between thumb and forefinger to see if there was enough to smoke. "That mother is one crazy dude. He nearly bit my ear off awhile back. Yup, he's one crazy, psychotic dude."
"Uh --- Ernie's my brother. I'm here to pay a visit."
Lester stared at me, squinting. "Yeah, now that I look, I can see the resemblance. Ugliness must run in the family."
"Please, guys; all I want to do is find Ernie. I'm not looking for any trouble."
"We ain't gonna give you any trouble," Overcoat reassured me, holding out his massive hands, palms up. "You wouldn't happen to have an extra smoke, would'ja?"
"Sure," I replied, digging into my pocket and tossing him a nearly full pack of Marlboros. "Keep the whole thing. Consider it payment for an answer to my question."
"Hey, thanks, man!" Smiling from ear-to-ear, Overcoat jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Ernie has a bench he calls 'home', on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. It's jus' up from the Korean War Memorial."
"Thanks. You gents have a nice day."
I followed a path that led me past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, heading for the other side of the Reflecting Pool. A group of Japanese tourists, looking like clones in black suits and ties and white shirts, were jabbering excitedly while snapping pictures of everything and everybody in their circumference of vision. Two little girls, decked out in bright sundresses, sat dangling their bare feet in the Reflecting Pool, tossing scraps of bread to a flotilla of ducks. A jet roared overhead, leaving a white vapor trail in its wake.
I located Ernie surprisingly fast - stretched out on a bench with his legs crossed at the ankles and his long fingers clasped, prayer-like, across his chest. Looking as serene and carefree as a corpse in a coffin, I was almost sorry that I had to wake him. I stood there for a few moments, taking in his greasy, shoulder-length hair; his narrow, weather-beaten face; the scruffy beard, flecked with gray and clotted with bits of dried food. The crescent-shaped scar over his right eye - from a bike mishap when he was a kid - was stark white against the chestnut-brown of his skin. He was clad in camouflage fatigues, an olive-green bush hat and a pair of badly scuffed combat boots. I could not help but wondering - why did so many of these poor souls from the Vietnam War choose to wear Army duds? Was it a love-hate thing? Was it some sort of penance, or merely a means in which to make a statement? Stuffed under the bench was an old, olive drab duffel bag, with USA in faded black letters.
"Hey, Ernie," I called, gently shaking his shoulder. "Wake up, Ern."
He muttered under his breath.
"Ernest! C'mon, man, rise and shine."
An eye popped open, regarding me for a second, then snapped shut - followed by a long, phlegm-rattling groan. "Ah, Jesus, kid. You screwed up my nap."
"Well, that's some howdy-do."
"I'm nursing a major hangover, here." Ernie winced as though he had swallowed a rotten egg. "Cheap wine does it to me - every time."
"How about sitting up to make room for me?"
"How about I stay right here, just as I am, and you can come back some other time?"
"For Christ-sakes; give me a break."
Groaning, Ernie swung his legs off the bench and sat up, burying his face in his hands.
I plopped down next to him, took a sniff and quickly moved to the far end of the bench. God, he smelled something awful - like an outhouse festering under a hundred-degree sun.
"What's the matter, kid; you don't care for my aroma?"
"When's the last time you took a shower?"
"I had a bubble bath - maybe a month ago - at the White House. The President lets me use his private bath."
"Let me guess. Then the two of you hunkered down in the Oval Office to discuss the fate of the free world."
"Yeah, but it was in the Rose Garden."
"Christ, Ernie, you're really something."
Just then, a homeless man shuffled along the walk - an old dude with a mop of snow-white hair and matching moustache. He reminded me of a down-and-out Colonel Sanders. Stopping, he held out a bag in Ernie's direction. "I got some day-old doughnuts from Starbucks. You want one?"
"Jesus, yeah, Ruben; it's just what I need." Ernie shot a hand into the bag and pulled out a jelly doughnut, wolfing it down in two bites. "Wish you had a black coffee to go along with it."
"The waitress isn't that generous."
"I get them all the time. You have to use the right line of bullshit. Ruben, this is my brother, Elton. Elton, this is Ruben."
I accepted the old man's hand, which felt as hard and curled as the talon of a bird. He smelled even worse then my brother.
Ruben cocked me an eye. "Yeah, you two look like one another." He held out the bag. "I got two doughnuts left. You want one?"
"No thanks. You need them more than I do."
Shrugging, the old man hobbled off in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial.
"You're not going to believe this," said Ernie, watching his departure. "Ruben, there, was once a hotshot broker on Wall Street - top of the heap. He had a loving wife, three college-grad sons and a twenty-room mansion in Scarsdale. Not to mention a Mercedes, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a vacation pad in Aspen - the whole enchilada."
"C'mon! What the hell happened to him?"
"The rat race burned him out. He's actually happier, now, then way back when."
"Man-oh-man, that's hard to believe." I plopped the bag I was holding onto Ernie's lap. "Here's a little care package from Mom."
"What's in it?"
"She threw in a package of boxer shorts and another of socks, plus a dozen of her famous brownies. Also a tooth brush, toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash."
Ernie shoved the supplies into his duffel bag. "Christ, she should have been a dentist. How's she doing, anyways?"
"She thinks about you all the time, man. You should move back to Jersey, make her last years happy ones."
"Jersey, eeeccchhh! I'd as soon be back in Nam, burning leeches from my flesh." Ernie scrubbed his face with his hands, making a sandpapery sound. "How's the old man - just like I give two shits?"
"High blood pressure, sugar, rheumatism, glaucoma, you name it."
"The indefatigable, old war horse is finally going lame, huh? Does he still hate me?"
"He doesn't hate you. He just hates the way you've chosen to live."
"Christ, he would have been proud as punch if I'd been blown to smithereens in Nam."
Suddenly, a daddy longlegs dropped from a tree onto the bench. It was harmless spider to one-and-all, but to Ernie it was a red-eyed, fire-breathing tunnel monster, coming to suck the juices of life from his body. He froze - turning ghostly white, mouth flapping in shock, his horrified eyes looking as though they were about to pop from their sockets.
"C'mon, Ernie, it won't hurt you."
"Get --- Get --- Get that damn thing out of here!"
"Little kids play with them, for Christ-sakes."
"Quick, quick - get it out of here! Kill it, man, kill it!"
I gently picked up the spider, placed it in the palm of my hand and walked off a few paces, depositing it on the grass. When I returned, Ernie was patting his chest, trying to catch his breath.
"C'mon, let's take a walk. It'll help you to calm down and sober up."
"Jesus, kid, how could you touch that thing?"
"C'mon, let's go, show me the sites."
We headed in the direction of the Washington Monument, Ernie in the lead, moving along in his peculiar, penguin-like strut, the duffel bag slung over his frail shoulder. The effort was playing havoc with his hangover and every now and then, he would let out a long, wounded groan, his free hand massaging his temple.
I looked over to see Overcoat and Lester watching us from the other side of the Reflecting Pool. Lester raised a middle finger high into the air, pumping it in our direction.
"Hey, Ernie; you know those two jerks, over there?"
"Oh, yeah, they're a real sweet pair. Tyrone was in the First cavalry, Quang Tri, nineteen-sixty-eight. I heard he got a dishonorable discharge for one reason or another. His pal, Lester, is nothing but a worthless junkie. Man, I'm the Duke of Earl compared to those two."
Tyrone said that you nearly bit off his ear."
Ernie barked a laugh. "He tried to steal my duffle. Next time, I'll bite off more than his ear."
We walked past the Washington Monument, Ernie informing me that the difference in shades - maybe midway up - was where the construction had continued, after the project had remained dormant during the Civil War.
As we approached the Capitol a half hour later, he stopped, screwing
up his face as though he was sucking on an extra sour lemon. "Well,
there it is - the marble mausoleum - home to the pandering pundits."
"There's not a soul in there - either party - who gives a rat's ass about us Vietnam vets. The same will go for our boys in Iraq." Ernie chuckled, indicating a marble walk, lined with flowers. "A few months back, I took a whiz, right over there. I spent a night in jail for that little transgression. It wasn't bad though. At least I got a square meal - meatloaf, mashed potatoes and broccoli."
"Hey, talking about food; what say I treat you to a nice breakfast?"
"You got to be kidding. There's not a joint in this city that would let me past its gilded doors. But I just happen to know of a good place and the food is top notch. C'mon, follow me."
We headed up New Jersey Avenue, heading toward Old Downtown. The sky had darkened, portending a late morning storm. I thought I heard a crackle of thunder, far off in the distance. Three blocks up, Ernie came to a stop in front of an old brick building, its windows boarded up with sections of plywood. Over the front door hung a sign, which read - SOUP KITCHEN, open six-to-six.
"You're taking me to a soup kitchen?"
"Best food in town. The place is operated by the Reverend Alonzo Biggs, from the First Emmanuel Baptist Church."
Before I could argue against it, Ernie swung open the door and bid me to enter with a sweeping flourish of his arm. I was greeted by a crazy hodge-podge of smells - body odor, boozy breath and musty clothes, mixed with the tantalizing aroma of bacon and eggs and freshly brewed coffee. A dozen picnic tables had been set up, end-to-end, and there was hardly a place left in which to sit down.
A huge, broad-shouldered Negro - wearing a food-stained apron - headed in our direction, his rolled-up sleeves, exposing arms the size of tree trunks. When he smiled, the overhead lighting twinkled off a gold tooth - front and center.
"Ernest, my man - I'm glad you could drop by."
They shook, their hands performing a little ghetto how-de-do.
"How's it going, Rev? This is my brother, Elton. El, this is the Reverend Alonzo Biggs."
I looked up at the preacher, awestruck by his size. "Well, you certainly live up to your name."
He boomed a laugh, pumping my little hand in his paw. "Ernest has told me quite a bit about you. How the two of you are the last surviving members of the Prescott clan."
"He said that, huh?"
"I'm glad that the two of you can get together, once-and-awhile. Well, eat hearty, boys. I believe you can find an opening on one of the benches."
I watched the Reverend depart then turned to Ernie, crinkling a brow. "Well, that's a sad story - us being the last of the Prescott clan."
"Yeah, well, you know."
"No, I can honestly say I don't."
"C'mon, man - it gains me a lot more sympathy. Let's eat."
We grabbed plates, moving along the table and trying a little bit of everything - bacon and eggs, pancakes, sausage links and home fries - rounding it all out with a steaming mug of coffee. Despite the horrible stench of the woman sitting next to me, I cleaned my plate and considered going back for seconds. As we were about to leave, the Reverend hustled over to bid us a fond farewell, inviting us to come back anytime we wanted.
We walked back to the Mall, chatting and picking our teeth with complimentary toothpicks, under a sky the color of a fresh bruise. Before I realized it were at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Tourists were taking pictures and a young woman was lifting a block of names with a pencil and tracing paper. At the foot of the Memorial, loved ones had left everything from letters and flowers to a baseball glove and a can of Coke. Ernie stopped, rubbing a finger gently over a name. I leaned in close and saw that it was a soldier by the name of Arthur Wynocki.
"Did you know him, Ern?"
"Yeah - Artie Wynocki. He was a little, eighteen-year-old farm boy from somewhere in Iowa. Just outside of Davenport, I think. He was a tunnel rat, just like me."
"He got killed, huh?"
"If he didn't, he wouldn't be on the Wall."
"We tied him to a rope and lowered him into a tunnel near Cu Chi. There were hundreds of tunnels in that area. He hadn't been down there two minutes when we heard this big explosion. When we pulled him up, all that we got were his legs."
"He was a real good kid," Ernie said, still rubbing the name. "Little Artie," he added in a strangled whisper.
"You know, Ern; you have got to stop doing this to yourself."
"Reliving that damn war. You've got to forget about it, once-and-for-all."
"Let me tell you, kiddo," he said, sweeping an arm along the Memorial. "This is my family - all fifty-eight thousand of them. They talked the talk and walked the walk. And they don't give me any bullshit like Dad."
A little boy stopped dead in his tracks and eyed Ernie, as if he had popped from the black granite of the Wall - a phantom of a war long past. Ernie growled, showing his teeth, and the kid ran off, calling for his mother.
As we headed back to Ernie's bench, I noticed black clouds trooping across the sky like circus elephants on parade.
"Hey, Ern. Where do you go when it rains?"
"If it's hot - like now - I just sit here and get drenched. It's the closest thing that I've got to a shower. When it's cold, I head over to the White House and the First Lady fixes me up with the Lincoln Bedroom."
"Well, kid, I guess it's adios."
"Yeah, I guess. I'll try to get down, again, in a couple of months."
Ernie wrapped his arms around me, pulling me close. "I love ya," he whispered, his breath warm against my ear.
"I love you too, man."
"Bring Mom down next time."
"I'll try. It's tough -you know - with Dad and all."
With that, Ernie sprawled out on his bench, sighing and pulling the brim of his bush hat low over his eyes. He wiggled his fingers in a goodbye.
As I headed back to my car, the sky opened up and the rain came down in buckets.
In early October, I brought Mom down to visit Ernie, but we couldn't find him anywhere. We asked a number of the homeless where he was - including Ruben - but none of them could remember seeing him in the last couple of weeks. We didn't fare any better at the shelters and soup kitchens and clinics, nor the hospitals or police headquarters. Even the Reverend Biggs hadn't seen him for a spell. Mom was beside herself with worry, but we had no other choice but to head home and wonder.
Later that week, I was watching CNN when I caught some footage of a group of Vietnam vets visiting Ho Chi Minh City. They were mostly upper middle class to wealthy men, wearing bright shirts and Foster Grants, and packing the latest in cameras and camcorders. Then - for perhaps five seconds - the camera zoomed in on a bearded, shaggy-haired dude, wearing a camouflage outfit and bush hat. No! Was it - could it possibly be? Had Ernie somehow - through theft, a good con, or a generous benefactor - gotten together enough money for a flight to Vietnam - to the land that had caused him such irreparable damage? Was it strictly a vacation, or had he gone there to confront his many demons? Ah, I was probably jumping the gun - it had to be someone who looked like him.
I waited patiently for a repeat of the broadcast. When it came an hour later, my nose was nearly touching the screen. Yes, yes, oh yes - if it wasn't Ernie, it had to be his identical twin! Right down to that crescent-shaped scar over his right eye. And he was smiling right at the camera, for all of us - family, friends and especially Dad - who just might be watching.
I plopped onto the sofa, my brain whirling. Would he return a better man, or worse than ever? That was the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. But, no matter - he was with those who "walked the walk and talked the talk" and in the end that was all that really mattered.