The Year One

by Richard Natale

illustrated by Charlie Cochet

The One Year Richard Natale 100px by CC

Tom’s mother wrote to say how relieved she was to learn that he’d landed a job as a reporter for the Army newspaper in Korea.  She enclosed a crisp five dollar bill and advised him to buy “whatever your heart desires.” Though they hadn’t seen each other since Tom was seven when she (literally) ran off with the postman, they corresponded from time to time and she would mail the occasional Christmas or birthday present, an argyle sweater vest, an Erector set.

He did not blame his mother for eloping with the mild-mannered letter carrier. Tom’s father was a man without a kind word for either of them.  As a child whenever Tom looked up, he would catch his father wincing across the kitchen table as if his son was a stray his wife had picked up on the way home from the hospital and refused to give away.  What little affection there was in him was reserved for Lacey, a whore who lived in a one room apartment over the Italian barber shop in St. Joe.

After his mother left, Tom was forced to share a bed with his father who had circulation problems in his feet and used the boy’s body heat to warm them during the night.  Otherwise neither was much of a talker and they kept to themselves.  On Saturday afternoons, Tom accompanied his father to town.  The panel truck pulled up in front of the Regal Theatre and he was handed a quarter, enough for a double feature and a few sticks of black licorice.  Then he drove off to spend the rest of the day with Lacey.  Often Tom had to wait for him in front of the Regal long after the last show had emptied out.

When Tom was eleven, his father was killed in a grain elevator accident.  Lacey was the only other person at the funeral.  She sat in the back of the church until the end of the service but didn’t stay for the burial.  Since his parents had never divorced, his mother inherited the farm and turned its management over to her brother Leon, who moved in with his family.  Tom now shared his bed with two male cousins.  “No funny stuff, hear?” Uncle Leon cautioned.  Tom nodded meekly, though he hadn’t the vaguest notion what his uncle meant.

Soon after he was deployed, Tom landed an assignment as driver for Colonel Philip Dore (pronounced Dor-ay).  The name originally had an acute accent over the “e”, which the colonel refused to use. He said it looked “fruity.”  Yet, he insisted that his subordinates pronounce it correctly and reprimanded them if they didn’t.  “I’m only going to say it once, boys.  It’s Do-ray as in do-re-mi.  Even a grunt should be able to remember that.”

Selecting Tom as his driver seemed like a random choice.  On a bitterly cold afternoon, Tom was sitting on a stoop outside the barracks polishing his shoes, buffing the tip of his boots so hard he almost scratched the leather.  Whenever possible, he separated from the others in his barracks.  He’d made few friends since enlisting.  Tall and attractive in an unflashy way, Tom was laconic to the point of being socially obtuse.  Even the hayseeds regarded him as a dullard.  Not that he wasn’t bright.  He’d graduated high school with honors and been accepted to the state university.  His mother agreed to pay the tuition if Tom promised to stick it out for the whole four years.  He agreed then dropped out in his second year to enlist.

A jeep pulled up to the stoop and jerked to a halt.  Tom bounded to his feet and saluted the officer in the front seat, a confident, handsome man with an inviting smile and noticeably thick, jet-black eyebrows.  The colonel looked him over and put a finger to his lips. “Private, do you think you would be able to steer my Jeep through this miserable terrain without flipping her over and getting me killed?” he asked point blank.

“Yes sir,” Tom barked without a moment’s hesitation, though apart from a tractor he’d never been behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.

“Good.  This fortunate boy here,” he said pointing to Gabriel, the fresh-faced young man behind the wheel, “is being discharged tomorrow and sent back to his mother with all his parts intact, and I’ll be requiring the services of a new driver.”

“It would be my honor, sir,” Tom said, his teeth clacking from the cold and nerves.  It seemed the appropriate response.  Dore gave him the top-to-bottom once again then asked his name and that of his superior.  The driver jotted down the information on a note pad.

“Gabriel here will be by later to fill you in on your duties and to tell you when and where to report,” he said then flicked his hand motioning for Gabriel to drive on.  The specks of mud the jeep kicked up in its wake attached themselves to Tom’s not quite dry shoes, and he had to start all over again.  This time he was more careful.  The colonel would be judging him by the shine of his shoes, the crease of his slacks, the knot of his tie – and he was eager to pass this crucial first test.

Even with the potential for land mines and the occasional ambush there was less danger in serving as Colonel Dore’s driver than going out on patrol.  It also afforded Tom the opportunity to pass his days beside one of the base’s most-respected officers, a man with whom he would otherwise have little contact.

A jeep, as he had suspected, was not a tractor and his initial attempts to navigate were at best erratic.  He frequently stalled out and once came perilously close to stripping the gears.  “Listen here,” the colonel upbraided him, “you need to spend a few hours practicing when I’m not sitting here and in danger of being catapulted through the windshield.  Are we clear on that?”

“Yes sir,” Tom said, looking down at the blurred reflection in his immaculately polished shoes.

His driving slowly improved but he still made several mistakes, enough that he expected to be replaced at any moment.  Gabriel had noted the limits of the colonel’s tolerance the day he came by to bone up Tom on his responsibilities.  “You’ll either be what the colonel wants or he’ll find someone else,” he said snidely.  Tom was taken aback by his tone, which he found odd and only later appreciated.

But Dore showed no inclination to dismiss him.  His criticisms soon devolved into good-natured ribbing and Tom couldn’t help but laugh along.  “It’s okay,” Dore would say, “could happen to anyone on this alien planet they call Korea.  If I get out of this place alive, I swear I will never eat rice again for the rest of my life.”

The colonel was not always congenial.  His behavior varied from day to day and Tom could usually pinpoint his mood at first sight.  If he emerged from his quarters with his head bowed and slinked into the front seat without a word, it meant he was nursing a hangover and Tom could expect to be growled at for even the tiniest infraction.  If he hopped into the front seat humming, it would be a good day and the colonel would be engaging and chatty.

Almost from the start, Tom was attracted to the colonel.  At the time he interpreted those feelings as hero worship.  He admired Dore’s style of command, the subtle way he exerted his authority over Tom without feeling the need to diminish him – a rare occurrence in the interaction between officers and enlisted men.  On their forays into the countryside, the colonel was unfailingly kind to the locals – particularly the children, noting that they were a constant reminder of how much he missed his three sons Dean, Seth and Charles, whose photos were always at the ready and whose Little League batting averages he could recite from memory.  “Those boys are my finest achievement,” he crowed.  The colonel rarely mentioned his wife and when he did, referred to her simply as “the Mrs.”

Tom hung on to the colonel’s every word and studied him with a mix of envy and hunger.  He’d met so few men of character in his short life and none as prepossessing.  Dore was an educated Easterner with a degree in civil engineering who hailed from a prominent Main Line Philadelphia family.  His lineage, he told Tom, dated back to the time of Benjamin Franklin.  “I suspect that the first Dore was a French mercenary who fought in the Revolution and was later rewarded with citizenship.  Either that or he was some crazy Huguenot on the lam,” he brayed.  Tom laughed along but later had to look up the word Huguenot.

On the long, boring drives, the colonel often hummed passages from classical music pieces, closing his eyes and raising his large but delicate hands to conduct an imaginary orchestra in large, fluid motions.

“That was the third movement of Beethoven’s Sixth,” he said calmly when he was finished – “or maybe it was the ninth movement of Beethoven’s Third or the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth,” he teased.  “You don’t know and probably don’t care,” he added, rumpling Tom’s shoulder.  “Pay no attention to me.  I’m just a show-off.”

But the colonel wasn’t merely showing off.  He felt an abiding passion for what he called “long-hair” music and Tom was amazed by his facility for carrying complex orchestral arrangements in his head.  He could mimic the delicate trill of a flute, the deft pizzicato of the strings or the melancholy wail of an oboe.  “I have a natural ear for music and taught myself how to play the piano,” he boasted.  “In another life I would have been a heck of a maestro, a regular Leopold Stokowski.”  Then he scoffed.  “Damn you Dore and your pipe dreams.”

The colonel understood that Tom had never been exposed to anyone whose interests extended farther than putting food on the table and setting aside a few nickels for a rainy day.  So he went out of his way to educate him, to explain the significance of certain musical passages, his eyes sometimes welling up as if moved by his own narration. “I’m never less than astonished at the beauty men can create by the simple act of mathematically stringing notes together.  Then they’ll turn around and firebomb an entire city incinerating thousands of men, women and children.  But I don’t think Mozart or Bach would have made a good bomber pilot.  Verdi and Tchaikovsky maybe.  And definitely Wagner.  Drive on young Thomas.”

One Friday afternoon, Tom deposited the colonel at the door to the Officers’ Club.  Just before he went in, Dore turned. “I suppose you’ll be going to the whores this weekend with the rest of the boys.”  Tom blushed all over and almost choked.  How had the colonel guessed that he had finally summoned up the nerve to visit the local brothel if for no other reason than to be done with it? His virginity – he saw no reason to deny it – left him open to jibes from his peers.  “How’s that little romance going with your right hand?”  “Does she make you happy?  You might want to try her twin sister.  I hear she’s a real party girl.”

Tom didn’t resent the ribbing, not really.  They were just flapping their gums in the wind as his father used to say.  Besides, his barracks mates had eased up on him since he became the colonel’s driver.  They found it curious that a rube like Tom had managed to secure such an enviable assignment and figured there must be more to him than meets the eye.  Besides, it couldn’t hurt to be in good with a fellow soldier who spent his days seated beside one of the base’s most popular officers.

“I bet the ladies perk up when they see you coming,” Dore winked conspiratorially.  Tom was flattered and now even more eager to gain experience.  At twenty-one he was in hormonal high-season, and curious.  Not about women in particular, but about the act of intercourse, which the other guys discussed in the most ecstatic terms.  They couldn’t all be exaggerating.

“Now you make sure the young lady washes her privates thoroughly beforehand and give your Johnson a good scrubbing when you’re done,” the colonel advised pointing his index finger at Tom.  “And let me tell you something else.  I know you young men deplore the idea of wearing a rubber even though it’s the only sure way to keep the clap at bay.  But look at it this way.  It’ll make you last longer, so you won’t be putting out good money for nothing more than a wet hand job,” he chortled, his shoulders rolling.

Flustered by Dore’s candor, Tom averted his eyes.  “Look at me,” the colonel commanded.  Dore moved in close until his breath was in Tom’s face.  “You’re a quiet boy.  Too quiet.  You need to stoke the fire.”

The colonel pivoted and walked into the club.  The door flapped behind him.  Tom began to shake all over and breathe heavily, releasing wisps into the muggy night air.  He wasn’t quite sure what the colonel was driving at, but he was suddenly more excited than he’d ever been in his entire life.

He chalked it up to being the recipient of an older, more sophisticated man’s attentions.  Instead of visiting the brothel that weekend, he stayed behind in the barracks and tried to devise ways to impress the colonel, to make himself worthy in his eyes and was frustrated when he couldn’t come up with a single idea.

A few weeks later, at the start of the rainy season, they were caught in a downpour on the way back to the base.  The colonel ordered him to pull off to the side of the road and park under a cluster of trees to wait out the storm.  Tom put up the cloth roof but left the side flaps down.  Without any air, the inside of the vehicle would become a sauna.  The cadence of the steady rain set the colonel’s fingers dancing and he launched into the overture from “The Marriage of Figaro.”  Afterwards, Tom told him it was the most beautiful piece of music he’d ever heard.  “It makes me happy to hear you say that,” the colonel smiled.

Tom closed his eyes and lay back in his seat, feeling relaxed and exhilarated at the same time.  The colonel’s hand reached across and stroked the back of his head.  Tom didn’t react fearing that if he did, the colonel might stop.  Then he leaned in and loosened Tom’s tie and gently unbuttoned his shirt.  The sensation of Dore’s sweat against his face and the taste of his warm, thick saliva made Tom’s head reel.

Dore said things to him that afternoon no man should ever say to anyone but his wife.  Later, in the colonel’s musty, dimly lit office, Dore ordered Tom to take off his clothes.  He obediently disrobed, but fumbled with the khaki shorts that would reveal his arousal.  In one swift motion, the colonel yanked them down around his ankles, undid the buttons of his fly and forced himself on Tom.  The pain frightened him, less because of the brutal discomfort than the blinding desire that accompanied it.

Tom and the colonel came to an understanding that night, one that continued on base and off for the next eleven months until Dore was reassigned to Japan.  Tom called it year one in his life and it passed in an instant.

During an unguarded moment on one of the last nights they were together, the colonel admitted that he could have asked for Tom to be transferred to Japan without arousing suspicion.  “But if I did, well, things would eventually go off the rails – for both of us.”  Tom pretended to understand as his body turned in on itself like a plant desiccating in the desert sun.  On the way back to his barracks, Tom pulled off to a secluded spot, rested his head on the steering wheel and wept.

Before he left, Dore recommended Tom to the army newspaper.  “I told them they couldn’t live without you,” he said.

© Richard Natale.  Illustration ©  Charlie Cochet. All rights reserved.  

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