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Welcome Home, Soldier
(18 hours and we were home)
by: Ed Blanco
101st Airborne Division
1968
© 2008-1999


Ed Blanco's new website: http://www.unluckymoon.com

Welcome Home, Soldier

My Freedom Bird touched down at an Air Force base somewhere in southern California on November 3, 1968. I don't remember the name of the base. I do recall that as the landing gear touched the runway every soldier, sailor, airmen and Marine on the plane cheered and howled. At the base, many of us headed for the bathrooms to change out of our summer uniforms. We shed our khakis and donned our dress winter greens.  From the base we were bussed to the sprawling Los Angeles Airport to catch our flights home. When we got to the airport, the men on the bus, veterans who had been traveling together since leaving Nam eighteen hours earlier, shook hands, wished each other luck, and walked off in different directions.
       With duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I went looking for an airport bar to have a cold beer and call home. During the long flight from Nam, I had become aware of a gnawing knot in the pit of my stomach. I couldn't figure it out. It wasn't just my fear of flying. It was something else. Unlike the other veterans on the plane, I hadn't cheered when our plane had landed in California. A beer would help relax me, I thought.
       As I walked through the terminal looking for a bar I became aware of the way some civilians were looking at me. I was sure it was the uniform. Their stares made me uncomfortable and self-conscious. A beer would help. But first I had to call Brooklyn and let my family know I was back in the States.
       I found a bar that had a phone booth in the back. The place was empty except for a single customer at the bar, a middle-aged man in a business suit. The bartender watched me walk toward the back of the bar. I dropped my duffel bag outside the phone booth, closed the door and made the long distance call. As I waited for someone to pick up the phone, I glanced at the bartender. He was still watching me. It's the uniform again, I thought.
       My eighteen year old kid sister came on the phone. It was good hearing her voice. It helped ease the tightness in my stomach. When I told her it was me, her voice filled with excitement. She was happy to hear I was safe in California. She wanted to know what time I would arrive in New York so she could invite family and friends over the house, and give me a homecoming party. I told her I didn't want that, at least not for a few days. She sounded disappointed but said she understood. I gave her my arrival time in New York and asked her again not to invite people over the house. That was my wish, I said.
       After the call, I looked forward to a cold beer. I picked up my duffel bag and walked over to the bar where the bartender was waiting for me as if he expected trouble. I ordered a beer.
       "I'm sorry soldier," the bartender said, "I need to see some ID. You have to be 21 to drink in California. I'm sorry, but it's the law." I was smaller than the bartender by half a foot and posed no physical threat to him, yet he was nervous and uncomfortable asking me for ID.
       I remember thinking that he was joking. This was a comedian who liked playing jokes on soldiers returning home from the war. I expected him to bust out laughing at any moment and offer me a tall cold beer on the house. I waited for him to laugh, to tell me he was joking.
       The place was empty except for the middle-aged man in the business suit who sat at the bar a few seats away. This man and I exchanged looks. "He's kidding, right?" I asked. I turned to the bartender and repeated my question, "You're kidding, right?"
       "It's the law in California," he said, raising his voice a notch. "I'm sorry. I don't like it, but it's the law. Soldiers come in here all the time and I have to ask for IDs. I don't like it, but if you're under twenty-one and I serve you alcohol I can lose my job."
       He was dead serious. He wasn't going to sell me a beer unless I could prove I was twenty-one, which I wasn't. As the King of Siam would say, It was a puzzlement. I wasn't sure how to take this. Couldn't he see I just flew in from Nam.  At first I was more embarrassed than angry. Then I thought that what was happening to me was actually very funny, even hilarious. I began to laugh. I think the bartender misinterpreted my laughter for something more ominous and started shaking his head, worried perhaps that I was about to do something crazy. His look of concern made me laugh even harder.
       It was embarrassing, sad, absurd and funny all at the same time. There I stood in my dress greens, a combat veteran, a paratrooper just back from the war, wearing a salad of colorful war ribbons and medals on my chest, jump boots on my feet, an enemy shell fragment embedded in my jaw, an airborne cap cocked to the side of my head. I looked like a damn war hero if ever there was one, but as far as the State of California and this bartender were concerned, I was just a minor and prohibited from buying a beer.
       This meant only one thing: I was back in the real world. The war was back there somewhere, with its own terrible rules. Good-bye to all that. The war was over for me. I was now expected to live by another set of rules. In the real world they had rules about who could drink beer. The problem was that I didn't have a switch in my head that I could simply flip to make the needed adjustment. I wasn't quite ready for these new rules. It was too soon, too sudden.  Eighteen hours was not enough time. I still had this knot in my stomach. I was thirsty. I wanted my beer. My laughter died. The bartender was much bigger than I but I didn't give a damn. My uniform was my ID. I wanted my beer.
       The bartender was still jabbering about the laws of California as he took a beer bottle from the refrigerator behind the bar and brought it to the man in the suit. I decided I would go back there and take a beer from the refrigerator myself. I would warn the bartender so he wouldn't think I was coming after him. I didn't want any trouble with him. I would tell him up front that I was going behind the bar to get a beer and since he wasn't serving me he shouldn't worry about losing his job. But he shouldn't try and stop me. All I wanted was a beer.
       I prepared myself for how the bartender might react. My first day back and I was already getting into a fight.
Before I said a word, the stranger in the business suit took the beer bottle the bartender had just gave him and pushed it across the bar top toward me. The bottle slid smoothly across the shiny bar and came to a stop in front of me.
       "Welcome home, soldier," said the stranger in the suit. "The beer's on me."

 

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