Country music to me is simply stories that are set to music. A great example is "A Girl in the Night" by Ray Price:
"She lives her life in honkytonks and the crowded back street bar.
A world of make-believe that knows no sun, no moon or star.
Where the music's loud, she's in the crowd, a lonely girl in the night."
The main character in this story was a paratrooper in the 173rd Airborne in Viet Nam. The Airborne Hymn, "Blood on the Risers" is well known to all paratroopers, and dates from the Second World War:
Blood on the Risers
(Author unknown. To the tune of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.)
"He was just a rookie trooper and he surely shook with fright.
He checked off his equipment and made sure his pack was tight.
He had to sit and listen to those awful engines roar.
You ain't gonna jump no more.
Gory, gory, what a hell of way to die.
Gory, gory, what a hell of way to die.
Gory, gory, what a hell of way to die.
He ain't gonna jump no more."
This story reprises some of the characters and the locale from my earlier story, The Other Woman. Read that story first for background.
PROLOGUE—BIG BEND, TEXAS
We, my buddy Bobby Morse and a couple of our friends, had been riding our horses on the Blue Creek Trail in Big Bend National Park, dropping down to see the remains of the Homer Wilson Ranch. It was a rugged, dry country and I was glad to get off the damn horse for a while. My leg had tightened up, as I knew it would—it always did when I rode for more than a half hour—and I ruefully rubbed the ragged scar through my jeans with the heel of my hand.
I sank down in the dust and leaned against a convenient rock. I knocked the dottle out of my pipe and absently packed it as I looked up at the rocky mesa behind the remains of the ranch house. Massaging my leg I remembered that midnight made bright with flashing mortar rounds exploding all too frequently nearby when I got my personal memento of that crazy Asian war in the Pacific.
Operation Junction City was an eighty-two day military operation conducted by U.S. and Republic of Vietnam (RVN or South Vietnam) forces begun on February 22, 1967 during the Vietnam Conflict. It was the largest U.S. airborne operation since Operation Market Garden during the Second World War, the only major airborne operation in the Vietnam War, and was one of the largest U.S. operations of the Southeast Asian conflict.
The operation was launched with four US divisions, and was essentially a massive search-and-destroy mission along the Cambodian Border, looking for the Viet Cong headquarters in South Viet Nam. American troops over-ran much of the area before encountering significant resistance.
There were three major battles, each initiated by the Viet Cong: the first, at Ap Bau Bang; the second, at Fire Support Base Gold and the third at Ap Gu. In each battle, the Vietcong attacked US forces and were repulsed, suffering very heavy losses.
In all, the Viet Cong lost almost three thousand troops in the battles, while the US lost less than three hundred. Nevertheless, the Viet Cong headquarters, the main target of the operation, was not captured and, once the US troops withdrew, the Communists reoccupied the area.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade had come over to Nam from Okinawa—I was with Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Infantry. My job was to operate the radio for the battalion commander. It was a heavy PRC10 and I had to jump with an extra battery. I was okay until the second battle of Ap Bau Bang. I was standing next to the colonel and found myself lying on the ground in shock with the ugly sound of the AK47 bullet ricocheting off a nearby M-113 resounding in my ear. The deformed slug tore a chunk out of my thigh and gave me a ticket home.
Funny, though, I never dreamed of getting wounded. The nightmare that still woke me up with some regularity was to streamer in from a low level drop. The drop zone had been a large, dry rice paddy near the Cambodian border. As I left the C-130 I could see the DZ was already behind us. We'd jumped at 750 feet and right after my chute popped open with a jerk I saw a flash of white screaming past me. I'd seen a streamer once before on an equipment drop of some howitzers but I knew there was a living, screaming body at the end of this one ... for a few more seconds, anyway.
I'll never forget the scream that quickly reduced in volume with the Doppler effect. Sometimes as I lay awake in the stillness of the night I try to remember if that was Corporal Jennings—a kid I went to jump school with at Benning—screaming, or if it were my scream ... or both. Whichever, I lived that jump over and over except it was always my chute that failed. The dreams were always violent but mercifully short. I would see the jungle canopy flashing at me with breathtaking speed ... but I never hit the ground.
Every time after the dream the last stanza of the Airborne Hymn would run through my mind,
"There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the 'chute.
Intestines were a-dangling from his paratrooper suit.
He was a mess, they picked him up and poured him from his boots.
And he ain't gonna jump no more."
Heavy stuff at three in the morning.
A frown came over my face as an unwanted memory came to me as I heaved myself up to get back on my horse. As a strange epilog to my war experience I was at Stapleton Airport in Denver on my way home—in uniform with my purple heart prominent among my medals and still using a cane—and leaning against a post waiting for my connection to San Antonio to start boarding.
I was half asleep when this really cute girl walked up. She must have been about sixteen or so and I smiled as she approached me. I had my left leg bent to take the weight off it. She pointed at the bent leg and asked, "Did you get that in Viet Nam?"
I smiled at her and said, "Yes, I was..."
She interrupted me and said, "Good! I wish your whole fuckin' leg had been blown off." She spit in my face, turned, and ran into the Ladies restroom. I should have known from the "peace" symbol hanging around her neck that peace was the last thing she was thinking about.
The gate attendant handed me some tissues and murmured, "I'm sorry. That stuff happens all too often.
My folks were just happy to see their son, Spec 4 Thomas Patrick Ryan, home safe from the war.
I think the reason people like bars is that it gives them a chance to suspend reality, that is, to kind of put their life on hold for a couple of hours while they enjoy a beer, listen to the music, maybe dance a little ... and hide their loneliness. I mean, how can you be lonely when the place is crowded? That's really the key 'cause it isn't that you aren't lonely; it just gives you a few minutes to pretend you have a normal life and a love to share. Yeah, a love to share. What a joke!
I particularly liked Willy's Tavern because the bartenders were friendly—they took the time to learn your name—and if you were a little short they would run a tab for you. And speaking of which...
Jeanie was behind the bar tonight and she walked over with the little notebook she used to keep track of who owed what, "Hey, Tom, another?"
"Sure, Jeanie, then I gotta run." I didn't really but it made me sound like I had a life. "Hey, who's that dolly over there that's been putting all the quarters in the jukebox and wearing that tight dress so well?"
"That's Kathy Morgan ... well, really Kathy Jenner. She took her maiden name back when she dumped that asshole husband of hers. He owns that restaurant, Moxie's, over to Sabinal. He was supposed to be doing inventory one night when she stopped by and caught him with one of the waitresses. She's been pretty much broken up about it."
She bought me the beer and I signed my name, Tom Ryan, in her notebook. I looked over at Kathy—I'd seen her in a few times the last month of so. She was really nice looking. I couldn't imagine a man having a wife like that and messing around on her. She was maybe medium height with a small waist that made her bust and hips look bigger than they really were.
In a way it was sad to see such a nice looking woman wasting her life in bars and crowded honkytonks. She should have a real life ... like me. Sure.
I'd noticed that she never danced more than once with the same guy and never let anyone sit at her table. I'd see guys go up and try to sweet talk her but she would just sit there and shake her head. If the bar was crowded, like on a Friday or Saturday night, it would happen a lot and then she'd eventually get pissed off and get up and leave. I never saw her go out to some cowboy's truck and come back all mussed up a few minutes later like a lot of the other girls that came to places like this ... many of them married.
Somehow I had become fascinated watching her and wondering who she was, what had happened to her. She looked so lonely sitting there. Her hooded eyes seemed to show such regret. She sipped a glass of wine to pass the evening away ... just a girl alone, in the night.
Was she thinking of dreams that didn't last? Was she haunted by past heartaches? Was there a story of a love that wasn't right? Now the shadows hid her empty pride ... the loneliest girl I'd ever seem—hiding in the crowd.
I watched her light a cigarette, take a couple of puffs, and stub it out. The smoke seemed to bring tears to her eyes ... or maybe it was something else. Was she there to tempt a lover with that dress that hugged her so tightly?
On a whim I got up and walked over to her table. I figured if I didn't ask for anything maybe she would be more receptive.
"Hi, Kathy. Jeanie told me your name and suggested I offer to sit with you to keep the jerks away. I'm not doing anything so it's no bother for me." Jeanie hadn't really said that but I guessed she'd back me up.
She looked up at me like she was measuring me for a coffin and said, "If that's a pick up line, that's about the worst one I've ever heard. And believe me, Buddy, I've heard a lot of them!"
Taking a chance I sat down and looked seriously at her. Sometimes the truth is better than lying. "Well, the thing is I'm feeling sorta low down and lonely tonight. It would be nice to have someone to talk to and listen to the music with. If you don't want to talk, that's okay. I can just sit here and keep the wolves at bay for you. And by the way, my name is Tom, not Buddy."
She gave me a speculative look and then a faint smile, "Okay ... Tom. Sit for a while if it suits you."
She didn't say anything for a long time—just sat there nursing her beer and watching the crowd - then walked over to the jukebox. A bit later the sad, smooth sound of Faron Young came wafting through the smoke filled barroom:
"Oh, it's cryin' time again, you're gonna leave me.
I can see that far away look in your eyes."
I began to see what might be bothering her. Jeanie had told me a bit about her husband and she felt that Kathy wasn't upset so much about her loser husband as she was about being treated with such disrespect, that a man could be so low down to her. She sat there looking at the table as if she were intently listening to the lyrics. Sometimes I thought that listening to the jukebox was like getting psychiatric treatment for two bits. Of course, there is the part about you getting what you pay for.
Kathy had jet-black hair that was long and quite glossy ... and eyes the color of charcoal that seemed to draw me in. She was actually quite pretty, much more so than I had thought at first.
She suddenly stood up and with a faint nod turned and walked away, out the door and more than likely, out of my life. I sat there for a minute, thinking about her, and then went on home.
Home was a nicely finished but small house surrounded by a quarter section of pecan trees between Uvalde and Knippa. A neighbor took care of the trees and we split the proceeds. The house had two bedrooms and two baths with the kitchen and bedrooms built around one large great room. There were several huge oak trees in the front that provided shade.
I'd worked for a few years selling farm and ranch equipment but since the problems with Cindy Lou I lived on the income from several oil wells over by Midland that became mine when my dad died. They weren't pumping huge volumes, but I was getting around ten grand a month. That was plenty of money for me but it hadn't been near enough for Cindy.
I met Cindy the summer after I finished college in Austin, with a degree in Oil and Gas Engineering. Summers starting from when I'd finished high school, and then all the way through college, I'd worked as a roustabout, and then a roughneck for a friend of my dad who was into wildcatting in a big way in the area around Odessa. The first summer I'd mostly done gofer stuff and by the end I was doing the more complex, dangerous stuff. A roustabout does the work that requires little training and a roughneck does the stuff around the rig or involving handling pipe.
A roughneck's job breaks down into the different aspects of the job, such as tool pusher, driller, derrickhand, motorhand or floorhand/chainhand. The lowest job for a roughneck is a leadhand or worm. The lowest job is a worms's helper, called a ginsel. One roughneck calling another a ginsel was the quickest way to start a fight as it was considered a derogatory term.
There had been a break after my sophomore year of college for what I thought would be three years of the army but it lasted a bit under a year when I got shot in the leg in Nam. I'd had to use a cane for a couple years, and although I still walked with a bit of a limp it didn't really bother me. Because it had been a ricochet I had one butt-ugly scar on my left thigh. I was sensitive about it for a while but didn't think much of it anymore.
When I met Cindy at a bar in Midland, I didn't want to go into all that so I just told her I was in the "oil business." That turned out to be a huge mistake and I must have missed the way her eyes lit up. She became real friendly, real fast. It wasn't more than an hour later we were banging the headboard of her bed against the wall making all kinds of racket that failed to drown out her squealing.
We spent the next few weeks doing the horizontal tango—and variations thereof—whenever we had the time and a place. I started having second thoughts about her when she came up and told me that I was gonna be a daddy. I'll never forget that night. She showed up at my apartment one evening and said, "You're gonna be a daddy!" Damn! Could she be subtle, or what?
So I did the right thing, which for sure turned out to be totally the wrong thing. I had planned on staying with the same oil company I was working for but the way it worked is I made big money if a well came in and nothing but wages if it didn't. Cindy made it clear that we needed guaranteed money, and now. I found a job selling farm and ranch equipment in San Angelo and I turned out to be pretty good at it. Then my dad died and I got that extra income so I thought Cindy was reasonably happy.
Well, it turned out that reasonable wasn't in Cindy's vocabulary. It did turn out that she was really pregnant—at least she didn't lie about that. Six months after we were married, Jefferson Davis Ryan was born. Six months after he was born, Cindy took off with a guy that had a huge cattle ranch down in the Pampas of Argentina. She took Davy—that's what I called him anyway—with her. When he started school she started sending him to me for the summer school break—December through February in Bahia Blanca near where they lived.
Davy had turned out to be a pretty good kid. He was sixteen now and I'd lined up a job for him at a good friend's ranch starting when he came in several months for his stay. The ranch was four thousand acres and mostly a cattle ranch, although it was starting to be used for some private hunting, and was owned by Bobby and Annie Morse. Annie's first husband had worked on the same rig as I did for a couple of summers. A few years ago he had been killed in a blowout that had caught on fire. I'd met Annie a few times before they got married and then often afterwards.
Davy always came by himself. Once Cindy took off I never saw her again until the time of Davy's trouble. Davy said every year when he came that she seemed happy so I guess her rich gaucho was giving her something that I hadn't been able to give her. It probably had a lot to do with his sixty-one thousand acre ranch and only God knew how many cattle.
After I got home that first night I'd met Kathy I thought a lot about her. I mean, sure, she had a great figure and was pretty as all get out, but there was a presence about her that fascinated me. I had the strongest feeling that there was a lot more to her than I'd seen at first glance. I felt there were depths to her that few, if any, men ever got to see.
I also knew she was lonely ... really lonely. I'd seen many women do the bar/dance scene like in the song, " ... lookin' for love in all the wrong places." I had the sense that Kathy had been there, not because she was looking for a man, or for love, but because she wasn't happy with who she was and what her life had turned into. As I saw it she didn't want anyone else's company and she didn't want her own either, so she hid from herself in the noise and bustle of the crowds.
I went by Willy's a couple of times over the next few weeks but I didn't see Kathy again. Not that I was looking for her. Not by a long shot. Damn, I had sworn off women ... why would I keep my eyes open for one that just happened to be pretty and ... well, maybe I was looking for her. I emptied more than a few bottles of fine Texas beer trying to decide if I was really stupid or really wise. I did seem to get a lot smarter after a couple bottles of beer.
Then I met her again, unexpectedly, under what should have been more favorable circumstances. My buddy, Bobby, called and said they were having a big barbeque at his ranch and invited me to come over. It was going to be on Labor Day and he wanted me to come out a few days before to see if we could get a couple of small javelinas.
I'd never tasted them before, but Bobby told me, "The way I cook them is after preparing them, wrap them in bacon and then heavy duty aluminum foil. By getting young ones we don't have the problem of the scent glands and they are a lot more tender. I cook them at low heat for four or five hours. By then the meat just about falls off the bones."
"What do they taste like?"
"Well, some say they taste like the dark meat of chicken only a bit greasier. I don't think that does them justice. Cooked right they are delicious. I've got everything else we need. I'm fixing some huge porterhouse steaks, a couple of grilled kids and all the fixings."
I gave him a funny look at the grilled kids comment and he came right back with, "You know, whole baby goats that are slow roasted on the grill. It's best to hunt the javelinas around daybreak or dusk, your choice."
We decided on daybreak and by mid-morning we had three that Bobby thought were just right. On Labor Day I went over there early to help him get things ready and help cook. I had a lot of fun and Annie was a real sweetheart, as always.
Later in the morning she took me aside. "Tom, I hate to ask you but I'd really appreciate it if you could do me a favor."
She had done so much for me after Cindy left that I told her, "Sure, anything."
"Well, don't be too eager, although this isn't really what I'd call hard duty. I've got a friend that's recently gone through a bad divorce and seems kind of lost. She's lost confidence in herself and is so damn lonely it breaks my heart."
A bit confused, I asked, "Well, Annie, just what is it you want me to do?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'll introduce you and you can play it by ear. Try to spend some time with her ... you can show her what you are doing with the javelinas. Maybe chat with her. Anything you can do to distract her. I'm not asking you to do anything after this. If you can cheer her up a bit I'll be forever grateful."
"Sure, Annie. I'll be around—let me know when she gets here."
I hung around the grill area for a while—I was feelin' a bit proprietary about the javelinas. Bobby was also grilling a couple of suckling pigs and two lambs. Annie and some of her friends were taking care of the trimmings.
Bobby's son, Travis, and a cute blond who appeared to be about sixteen stopped by.
"Mr. Ryan, dad said I was to take over for you. This is Rae Dawn Miller. She lives at the ranch west of here. I think you've met her dad a couple of times. She's my girlfriend," he added somewhat bashfully. She seemed a bit startled by that revelation.
I took off and walked around for a while. It was a hot day with not a cloud in the sky ... just that deep blue Texas sky that went on forever. I saw Annie standing with Kathy and I wondered whether she was the friend Annie was telling me about. Maybe this wouldn't be hard duty after all.
I walked over to them expecting Kathy to say hello or something. She didn't say anything about having met me already so I took my cue from her and didn't say anything either.
Annie introduced us and then—not a surprise!—said, "I'd better get back to the kitchen or things will never be ready on time."
Kathy looked at me with a wry look on her face, and said, "Annie is a sweetheart and one of my best friends, but I'm getting tired of her trying to set me up all the time. If I want a man I'm quite capable of finding my own. Oh, well. Let's spend a little time together pretending to like each other so we don't hurt her feelings."
"Well, excuse me! I actually did like you and I really did want to spend some time with you. But if you see that as such a goddamn burden you can just go to hell!"
With that I stalked off, got in my truck and drove back to my place. Damn, the gall of that woman.
When I got home I ran for an hour around my pecan grove, the neighboring one and down a dirt road behind it. I sweat like one of the pigs Bobby had been roasting, and after taking a cold shower inhaled a couple of Shiner Bocks.
Bobby called later and apologized for both Annie and Kathy, "Jeez, I don't know what it is about a woman that just can't stand to see a man alone and happy." We chatted for a while about the barbeque and he promised to drop some meat off.
I went on to bed early and left the next morning for several days of fishing at Choke Canyon Reservoir. I was mostly doing catch and release for largemouth bass but I did catch some channel cat for dinner one night. I enjoyed just lazing around, sometimes talking with some of the other fishermen. I came here fairly regularly so I knew a few of the guys.
I thought about Kathy, but not too much. I had been interested in her but I didn't need the grief. I guess she must have been really hurt when her marriage failed. Oh, well. Not my problem.
I got home and there was a short message from Kathy apologizing for being rude. I erased it and forgot about it. I guess she was expecting me to call and forgive her or something 'cause the next time I saw her at Willy's she studiously ignored me. I could live with that.
I'd found a brunette that lived over in Uvalde that was fun to be with. I'd read a book about Sam Spade or some such and in describing the girl in the book it said she had "pneumatic thighs." That was Cherry. Nothing serious. She was about ten years younger than me and was out for a good time. She was a good dancer and great in the sack but I didn't think I wanted her around when Davy came up.
Thanksgiving came and went and suddenly Davy was here. I drove him out to Bobby's place each day and picked him up in the evenings or else Bobby or Annie dropped him off. He wanted to learn the breeding business and was going to take a couple of bulls back for his stepdad's ranch.
It was great to see him again—he had grown a couple of inches and put on some weight. He was a handsome kid and I knew he was going to have girl problems. Hell, I did too so what could I say.
About the middle of December, Davy wanted to visit a friend of his that lived in Uvalde for several days. On Friday night about ten he called me—his buddy's family had a family emergency in Austin and all of them left to drive up. He didn't want to stay by himself so I drove over to pick him up.
On the way back I stopped at Jake's Place, a newish dance hall a few blocks off highway 90. I'd sold Jake a shotgun that had belonged to my grandfather. It wasn't in great shape but it had some old time sentimental value for Jake. When I gave him the gun he didn't have the money with him so as long as I was close I figured I'd stop in and collect.
"Davy, just wait in the truck. It shouldn't take too long but Jake might make me drink a beer before he gives me the money."
It was a Friday night and the place was jumpin'. I saw Jake behind the bar and sure enough, he pulled a beer before he even came over. We chatted for a while and I congratulated him on the crowd.
"Yeah, this place has turned into a real money maker for me. I try to bring in good bands, so that eats into the profit a bit."
When I walked out Davy was standing there looking both scared and excited. "Dad, there's a guy over there trying to push a woman into a truck. It don't look like she really wants to go."
I ran over where he was pointing and just as I got there I guess the guy was tired trying to push this unwilling woman into the truck 'cause he grabbed her arm and pulled her back out. I didn't hesitate. I ran up behind him and placed a kick very carefully, just so the point of my cowboy boots caught him in the scrotum. He lost interest in the woman real fast and just kind of curled up in a fetal position, gasping like a fish out of water.
I looked down at the woman ... damn, it was Kathy. I tried to stand her up but she was out of it. Not really thinking about it I figured it best to get her the hell out of there and think on what I should do later. I threw her over my shoulder and carried her over to my truck.
"Strap her in, Davy."
Without waiting on him I fired up the truck and left. I explained to Davy who she was while I was trying to decide what to do. Her sudden snoring seemed to take away the option of taking her home since I had no idea of where she lived. I thought about taking her to Annie's but it was right on midnight now and I knew they got up early. I finally decided to just take her to my place. If she wound up not liking that ... well, to hell with her. She could find someone else to save her next time. Damn!
I carried her in the house and lay her on the sofa. Her jeans looked tight so I undid the snap at the waist and pulled her shirt out. I took her boots off with Davy's help and covered her with a sheet. It was still around ninety so I didn't think she'd get cold. I hadn't seen a purse so I called Jake and told him what happened. He thought that was funny as hell. The guy had called the police and said three men attacked him. He had her purse in his office so that was one thing Kathy wouldn't have to worry about.
Davy and I went to bed—he had his own room that was always set up. I took a quick shower and slept like a log. I woke once and checked on Kathy and she was in a deep sleep with a slight smile on her face. She really was quite attractive. Her disposition was certainly better when she slept.
The next morning I was up early as usual. Now that I was "retired" I couldn't sleep past six or six-thirty to save my soul. I didn't want to chance scaring her by waking her up so I ignored her and set about making breakfast. I was going to wake Davy up at seven. We were going fishing on the Frio River up by Concan. He liked to do the things he never got a chance to do in Argentina.
I put on some thick ham steaks, got some bread ready to toast and got the eggs out of the fridge. The coffee was ready so I sat at the table sipping and waiting for everyone to wake up. The kitchen was open to the living room but the sofa was facing away from me. Pretty soon I saw a head peak over it, and then it started. I should have expected what her reaction would be.
She jumped up and screeched, "God damn you. What the hell did you do to me last night?"
I looked at her, then turned and poured her a cup of coffee.
She took a couple of steps closer and started yelling, "You sonofabitch. You damn pervert. What did you do to me?"
Two things happened at once: Davy came running out of his bedroom rubbing his eyes, and asking, "Dad, what's going on?" At the same time I handed Kathy her coffee. She quieted down fast when she saw Davy—he looked way too sweet and innocent for me to have done much in the way of being a pervert.
"Kathy, if you would ask politely, 'Mr. Ryan, what happened last night?' I can explain everything."
She looked at me for a minute—she was clearly trying to adjust to the idea that maybe I wasn't a pervert. "Mr. Ryan ... Tom, how did I get here? What did happen last night?"