LIKE A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY
Dedicated to all the veterans of the Vietnam war who
returned to a country they no longer recognized
And to the Americans of African descent who
were made to feel as if they were something less.
Thibodaux, La Fourche Parish, Louisiana
♦ 1973 ♦
Tuesday, January 2
Slugger Janx should have hated the color white. His father, Charley, and his mother, Martha May, filled their home with a collection of things that were white, from the refrigerator, to the stove, to the deep freeze, the living room carpet, and even one of their couches—not stark white, but cream. His parents bought vanilla ice cream, and it was a rare day that they bought topping, but even then it was caramel or strawberry.
His childhood and teenage years were filled with white, from white notebook paper, to white shoes, and even white underwear. His whole life he had been told that because his skin was nearly the shade of chocolate cake he would never amount to anything, while his white school mates naturally were destined for glory—more or less. Yes, Slugger Janx had every reason to hate white, but he didn’t.
He sure did envy it sometimes, though.
Tall and broad-shouldered, disdained for his color and feared for his temper and his strength, Slugger Janx, was known only to his mother and Pastor Williams by his real given name: Bryant.
Slugger sat on a rusty galvanized garbage can in front of a nameless café on Bayou Street, where only the poor people came to eat, mostly poor black people. And he hardly had enough money anymore even to eat there. He wished he was back in Vietnam, back at USARVIS, or what he and the guys all called Camp LBJ—literally standing for Long Binh Jail, but by some ironic twist of fate the same initials as a United States president despised and hated by Army grunt and officer alike.
Lyndon Baines Johnson had been no friend to the troops in Vietnam.
It was the second of January, and still pushing eighty degrees. The humid air pressed down on Slugger and smelled sweet, the smell of warm trees and moss and the sluggish waters of the Bayou La Fourche, which glided by just behind the café. But the air coming out of the café wasn’t quite so sweet; overpowering the smells of Cajun cooking were the odors of rancid grease and the acrid smoke thereof.
To no surprise of Slugger’s, he once more saw the 1965 Mercury Park Lane Marauder turn the corner two blocks away and start down Bayou Road toward him. It was a convertible, and it had everything. Best of all, it wasn’t white, although the top would have been, if it was up. This car was light blue and shone in the Louisiana sun like a piece of sky plopped straight out of heaven. Unfortunately, it was filled with white, long-haired hippie freaks, as he and the guys coming back from Nam called them—and they seemed like something that had climbed straight out of hell.
Those hippie freaks hated Slugger Janx’s guts. Not because they knew him, but because he was a Negro, and a Vietnam vet.
A baby killer.
Not only was Slugger not surprised to see them, but he had actually hoped they would return. It was the only reason he had come back here today—hoping for another chance. They would come jabbing their fingers in his face, screaming at him. The day before, the young man in the front passenger seat had even spat in his face.
They claimed they were “pacifists,” and Slugger was a murderer of babies. He wondered how pacifist they would be today.
All of them were about to find out.
The day before, the six total strangers had taken him by surprise. He had been greeted with the same vile hatred at the airport on his return from Nam two months ago. Foolishly, he had thought that was the end of it. He had served his country! He should have been hailed a returning hero. What was wrong? Why were he and his pals hated so bad here in their own country?
He had been removed from Vietnam because they didn’t want him there anymore. He had finished his tour. And he had returned to a United States that didn’t want him anymore either.
Slugger Janx felt like a man without a country.
But Slugger was done being pushed. His back was up against the wall. He was on his turf here, and here he would take a stand.
“Hey! It’s the nigger again! Baby killer! Baby killer!” Heads jutted out of the Marauder’s windows, and the taunting began when the car was still a hundred feet down the road.
Slugger stepped lazily off the garbage can. He flexed his right hand. Today, he was wearing not only the same four pocket fatigue jacket he had been wearing the day before, but his Army pants and boots as well. He was a soldier! He was not going to run.
The Marauder vomited out four long-haired young men and two blond women with Jane Fonda page boy haircuts. He doubted there was one of them over twenty, and they acted thirteen.
They came at him with violent gestures, poking their fingers at him, telling him they didn’t want “his kind” in their neighborhood. They were worked up on booze, or something bigger. They were brave. Invincible.
The dark-haired leader wore a many-hued shirt, untucked at the waist, with an overpowering collar that could jab someone’s eye out, and flare-legged jeans. He looked like the type who had to talk loud and bold in hopes that no one would notice his limbs had the circumference of a wooden match.
Marching at his shoulder was a longer-haired blond cohort with a long-sleeved purple shirt and narrow-legged black and white-striped pants that ended in ridiculous looking tan and brown platform shoes. “Mr. Shoes” wasn’t going to last five seconds when the action started.
The other four were just as loud as the mob leaders, but they hung back behind them. Maybe somebody in the group actually had enough sense to understand that if a soldier could fight in Vietnam he could fight in America.
Flared Pants got up close to Slugger’s face, no more than two feet away, and screamed at the top of his lungs, “HEY, BABY KILLER! I thought I told you we didn’t—”
Slugger thought maybe he had intended to say they didn’t want him here, but thanks to Slugger’s knee, he was now carrying his family jewels somewhere up around his solar plexus, all of a sudden he no longer seemed interested in having a conversation about the pros and cons of going to war in a foreign country.
Without a chance for anyone to do anything but gasp, Slugger turned and drove the heel of his army boot in a sideways kick into Mr. Shoes’ knee, making his leg cave in, and making Mr. Shoes go screaming down on his ear as if the asphalt must have something intriguing to say.
Like a clutch of new chicks, the other four scattered as Slugger stepped close and grabbed Flared Pants by the front of his shirt. Like an old pro trained by the wild and hateful black prisoners he had guarded at Long Binh Jail, Slugger hawked up mucus and returned the same favor Flared Pants had done for him the day before, then screamed in his face: “Look, boy, it’s the same color as yores!”
He whirled again as Mr. Shoes was trying to get up on his good knee and kicked him in the side of the face. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard something crack.
The other four were screaming obscenities at him, yelling for help from any passerby, none of whom seemed to have any inclination to get involved.
Soon, a black Ford pickup appeared and screeched to a stop next to Slugger. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties with sideburns that would keep a badger warm leaned out the driver’s window and said, “Hey, boy, you better get in here ’fore the cops git here!”
The other two men with him yelled their agreement, and Slugger realized they were right. This wasn’t going to go well for him if the law showed. He hadn’t cared much when he wanted to teach the hippies a lesson, but suddenly he did. He had seen the cages at Camp LBJ. He didn’t relish being in a cage here.
He leaped up into the pickup bed, and the pickup spun around and sped away the same direction it had come, out of town. A ways out, they took a farm road too fast, nearly making Slugger fall over the side. They were now heading north, and they bumped along for a few miles over a terrible washboard road.
Slugger breathed a big sigh. He wanted to laugh, but he was still too worked up. He had just done what he had set out to do, but now it didn’t feel as good as he had thought it would. What he really wanted most of all was to be left alone. He was surprised by but thankful for the kindness of the men in the pickup. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all.
They left the last of the farm fields and entered an area where trees loomed thick on either side of the road, hiding secrets deep in their shadows. Here the truck pulled over at the first side trail that jutted off into the trees to the right. There was no longer any sign of civilization, so Slugger was going to have to walk a ways to get back home. But maybe the exercise would do him good. Maybe it would calm his nerves, and perhaps the heat would be blown over by the time he got back to town. Either way, these white men had done him a favor. The cops sure weren’t going to find Slugger Janx today.
He hopped out of the truck bed as the three men in the cab got out and shut their doors.
Sideburns met him by the rear wheel well, as the other two started around to the back of the truck. Slugger was trying to decide if he should simply thank these good old boys or if he dared try to shake their hands. He had shaken plenty of white hands over in Nam, where color didn’t really mean anything—at least not to him and his buddies.
“Thanks for the help,” said Slugger, not knowing how to address these men, who were, after all, white, and not in his league.
Sideburns didn’t feint. He didn’t even blink. He punched Slugger hard in the mouth, and when he fell backward it was into waiting arms.
Before he could recover from the blow, he saw Sideburns stepping forward, and a fist sank deep in his stomach, taking all his air and making him gag. He felt the men behind him holding his arms, and he heard them laughing. He smelled strong beer and whiskey, and he tasted blood.
Sideburns’ fists fell over and over, and Slugger felt his head rocking back and forth. He felt a kick to the groin and the men who held him let go of his arms, allowing him to fall on his knees.
Sideburns delivered a mind-numbing kick to his chest that knocked him on his back, and he saw the blurry sky whirling around him.
“Them idjits back there might be hippies, an’ a bunch o’ worthless pricks,” Slugger could hear Sideburns growl through the terrible ringing in his ears. “But them’s still white folks, boy, an’ don’t you ever fergit that ag’in. You better learn yore place now yore back in the States. That green coat don’t mean squat, an’ it shore don’t mean you got the right to go fightin’ with white folks.”
Rollicking laughter filled Slugger’s head as one last spiteful kick took him hard in the ribs. The laughter continued but faded in intensity, and soon he heard the pickup doors shut.
The pickup started up, blowing black smoke on Slugger Janx, as it backed out to the road, spun around, and headed back the way they had come.
Be sure to Order the First Three Savage Law books
autographed and personalized by Kirby Jonas