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Army Brats

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					Army Brats

“I’ll sell it to you for twenty dollars.” My friend Joe and I were cruising behind Krueger Park in his 1974 Chevy Nova. It was a hot summer day and the torn tan vinyl upholstery absorbed the sun and burned at the back of my knees. The car never even had air conditioning in the first place and now only warm engine air came out of the vents. Joe was offering me his car. I was fifteen and hadn’t even had Driver’s Education yet. Twenty dollars was a good price for a car that ran, but it wasn’t the price that I had an issue with. Joe’s father was a Sergeant-mechanic from South Carolina where kids started driving as soon as they could reach the pedals. My dad was a Major-Chaplain from New Hampshire where you learned to drive on the family station wagon when you were sixteen and if you went to church every Sunday and worked summers maybe you could take it with you to college. “No thanks.” “Ok then, $15.” “No!” The center of Krueger Park was an old style German festhaus, designed in the thirties so that the working class in Baltimore could have a retreat. By the time it became our stomping grounds it was the Reagan years and Baltimore no longer had a working class. In the back of the parking lot there was a dirt road leading into the woods where

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there used to be cabins. It was a place where we could leave Ft. Meade and break some rules. First it was just a matter of actually breaking things, bottles and such. We’d make small talk about girls and fights at the school over cigarettes and beers stolen from his dad’s fridge. Small talk was about all Joe could manage. He had just finished summer school without passing English 9 and would be coming back for another try at freshman year. “So, how many Buds did you get this time?” “Ain’t got none.” “Sucks.” “Got something else though.” I recognized the joint from the drug unit in my Earth Science class back in seventh grade. “I don’t know. I can hide the beer smell with gum. But that stuff…” “Relax, I’m driving.” “No thanks.” “Just smoke with me. Tell you what, forget about the fifteen dollars.” “That’s not how it works.” “Come on, what else you gonna do?” “Don’t get all after school special on me. My dad is having some church people over for dinner.” Joe lit it up and smoked a few hits by himself. We sat on the trunk of his car, starring over the parched glass. The smell of his dry stale dope mixed with my cigarette smoke in the warped burning air and made for a toxic mix. Sweat was pouring down his

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cheeks. Despite the hot August weather Joe was in jeans, hiding the stretch marks on his legs. He was sixteen years old with an over-indulgent body and an undernourished intellect. His mom thought that being a good mother was stocking the freezer with plenty of Steak-ums and it showed on his frame. He was nearly three hundred pounds, “big Joe” in our circles. Behind his back I would make fun of him the same way everyone else made fun of me right to my face. I had come to Ft. Meade, Maryland when I in seventh grade wearing the wrong type of shoes and still hadn’t lived it down. Joe was one of my few friends, but I was always on the outlook for something better. After a few puffs he was sweating so hard that the end of the joint was getting wet. I could see the veins in his head throbbing, pushing sweat out of every pore. It was the perfect anti-drug poster. My father the Rev had been convinced I was taking drugs since sixth grade even though I had stayed clean. Sometimes when I came home after going out he would grab me by the chin and look into my eyes, looking for the signs that were never there. We got back into the car for a swing by the Chevron for sodas, Joe talking about “cotton mouth.” He put the car into reverse but the sight of another car tearing through the parking lot caught Joe’s attention. I didn’t recognize it but Joe’s eyes squinted into focus, the slow gears of his brain going into motion. “That’s Mark Merryfield’s Thunderbird.” “Shouldn’t we be getting out of here then?” “Nah, it’s cool. I got your back.” “Lets just go to my place and play Nintendo.” “Let see what they’re up to. He’s really a laid back guy.”

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“Yeah, he wasn’t too laid back when he slapped me for stepping on his backpack.” “You worry too much.” Mark Merryfield pulled up to my side of the car. I looked away and tried not to squirm as he talked to Joe. “Hey, what are you jack offs up to?” “Nothing. Just a little something something.” “You holding?” “Oh yeah.” “Cool, follow us.” As he pulled away I looked over into Mark’s car. He was staring me down and I quickly diverted my eyes. I noticed that he had the usual set of mullets with him, the regular smoking-in-the-boys room, satanic metal t-shirt set that all looked the same to me. They were the natives; far--flung Baltimore rural boys who lived in the ramshackle tiny shacks outside the base. They went to different elementary schools but feed into the high school on the base. I didn’t recognize the two boys in the back of Mark’s car, but I noticed Julie Munick sitting next to him in the passenger seat. As they drove off I could see her grinning at me. She had moved in at the end of my freshman year and hadn’t heard what a loser I was yet. She wasn’t particularly cute or anything, but she was one of the few girls I felt I had a chance with. “All right, let’s go then.” “You a sap. I think she wants you though.” “She’s with Mark.”

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“You a preacher’s boy though. Put on some of that charm. She’s a dirty girl, likes to ruin good little boys like you.” We followed Mark’s car through the dust, further down then we usually went. The road got bumpy and Joe nearly drove into the trees, his mind already clouded by the pot. We pulled up to a spot by Severn Creek strewn with beer cans and butane bottles. They two other boys never introduced themselves and didn’t say anything. Julie sat next to me on a log and I was too nervous to speak. Every time I glanced in her direction Mark would throw me a mean look. We smiled back and forth as he and Joe talked about cars and recent fights at school. They passed around the joint. Mark offered Julie the joint, who declined, but didn’t offer any to me. When the joint was down to a tiny nub Mark put it into his palm and clapped it out right in front of my face. “Boo!” “What’s up?” “You didn’t apologize.” “For what?” “Spilling beer on my car.” “I didn’t spill beer on your car.” “So I’m a liar?” Julie went over to the other boys, who were following my humiliation and smiling. Mark shoved me down over the side of the log. I fell back onto a broken bottle that tore my T-shirt and dug into my skin. Joe stepped between us. “Mark, be cool.”

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“All right Joe. It’s ok that you’re hanging out with this loser. I’ll forget about it. Here’s your chance to be in our crew. Let’s kick the mama boy’s ass and it’ll be all over by the time school starts next week.” I knew I was fucked. From all the moves I made in the military I had learned all the rules. You’re never in one place for more than a few years so you have to get to the top as quick as possible by screwing over as many people as you could. You only have friends until either you or the other guy gets a chance to turn on the other. Joe had the look in his eyes and I knew he had to join in on the beat-down. Mark saw it too and faced me again; sure that Joe was about to join him. But for once, after all forgotten friendships, temporary alliances, and back stabbing, I was surprised. Joe grabbed Mark and threw him to the ground. The other boys sprung up but I managed to trip one, who fell on top of Mark. The other boy stepped back when he came face to face with Joe and I. Before they had a chance to

regroup we were back in Joe’s car. Mark threw an empty spray paint can in our direction as we speed away. I wasn’t sure but swore I caught Julie smirking before she disappeared in the dust. “I don’t know what to say Joe.” “It’s nothing. I think that’s the only way you make friends with those guys anyway, by getting one over on them first.” “I don’t want to be friends with them. I’ve got an image to maintain.” “Yeah, well you’ve got to stop worrying so much about that image.” “I’ll tell you what, I’ll just give you that twenty dollars and you can keep the car.”

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“It’ll cost you thirty. But you have to take it with you. The damned MP’s are getting on our case about having too many vehicles. I’ll be getting a vette next week and need to make room.” We didn’t know it at that point, but during the next year our fathers would both reach the end of their hitches. He would be off to Ft Hood, Texas. I would luck out and only have to go over to the next state: Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. It was a perfect move for me, right into a better high school system and better options for college. We said we would keep in touch but I never heard from him again. At least for those last few months I was able to appreciate our friendship, the deepest I had through all those wretched years.

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