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March 2012 Volume 14 , Issue 3 submit to us!
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Tin+Soldiers+and+Nixon+Coming
by J. B. Hogan -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

When Dani Lane arrived home for the Christmas Holidays during her sophomore year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Grandpa Gabe Bowen was already ill and in bed with a high fever. Grandpa Gabe had moved in with Dani's parents the previous summer. He had done so, according to Dani's mother, Gabe's daughter, kicking and screaming.

The old man had reached the stage where he was no longer able to adequately care for himself in the house he and Grandma Joanie, already gone five years now, had lived in for some three decades. Knowing that he had reached another checkpoint in the clear path of his declining years did not sit well with the highly independent old man. But now, just a few months later, with a bad flu or some kind of virus burning through his body, it was a good thing the old man had people to look out for him.

Dani, who was Gabe's favorite grandchild and very well knew it -- her older brothers, Harry and Bill constantly reminded her should she ever forget -- was happy to watch out for grandpa. When she was young, he had often given her little presents that he didn't give the boys, always had some sort of chocolate treat for her, and would pat her on the head kindly, tousling her long, thick dark hair.

"Are you awake, grandpa?" Dani asked, pulling a chair alongside the old man's bed. "Mom gave me some Ibuprofen for you to take and some awful smelling cold medicine."

"Don't want that," Gabe muttered.

"But you gotta have it," Dani told him. "We've got to get you well. It's almost Christmas. Can't have grandpa sick for the holidays."

She handed the old man two brown pills which he dutifully swallowed with a big drink of water from a glass she held out.

"What's that other crap?" he asked.

"Some kind of cold medicine, grandpa. Mom says it'll break up your clogged sinuses."

"It's green. Looks like it'll kill me instead of make me well."

"Oh, grandpa," Dani shook her head. "Don't be such a big baby."

Gabe winked at his granddaughter and managed to down the foul-smelling and tasting liquid.

"Ugh," he grimaced. "That was horrible."

"But now it's all done."

"You'd make a great doctor, kiddo."

"Just for you, grandpa, just for you."

"Thanks, sweetheart. Did I ever tell you you're the spitting image of your late Grandma Joanie."

"Only about a thousand times," Dani said. "Now lean back and rest. I'll be right here."

"You do, you know," Gabe yawned, stretching his old body in the bed.

"I know," Dani smiled, adjusting his pillow and covers.

"I'm feeling sleepy."

"Rest then. It'll be good for you."

For a few moments, Gabe was quiet. He closed his eyes and his breathing became slower, more shallow. Dani watched over him, waited for him to definitely fall asleep. Just as she thought he was out, he mumbled something.

"What, grandpa?" she asked, leaning closer to the old man to hear.

"Don't have a clue," Gabe was saying, in just better than a whisper.

"Who doesn't have a clue?" Dani asked.

"Nobody," the old man said, his voice trailing off.

"Sure," Dani said, "no clue."

"Wrong," the old man managed to get out, just as he was falling asleep, "I was completely wrong."

"Oh, grandpa," Dani said, holding one of the old man's bone-skinny hands. "You're not wrong. You're the smartest man I know. You  . . . ."

But the old man was out now, far away, dreaming of another time and place. A night from his youth that lived within his aged soul still and always would.* * *

"Give me a hit off that," Gabe insisted, reaching for a fat joint his good friend Pete held.

"Easy, big man," Pete said, handing over the doobie in question, "you don't wanna get so messed up you can't taste the paella, do you?"

"Not likely," Gabe retorted, taking a big hit off the joint.

It was New Year's Eve, 1972, Springfield, Illinois. Gabe and his girlfriend Joanie had driven over from Missouri to celebrate the new year with their college buddy Pete, his girlfriend Cindy -- Joanie's best friend -- and Pete's brother Eddie. Pete and Eddie Avila were actually Pedro and Eduardo Avila from Chile. They had emigrated from South America to the Kansas City area with their parents back in the mid-1960s.

Pete, who had graduated from the same small mid-Missouri school as Gabe and Joanie, had been drafted while still an alien, learning his English and gaining citizenship while serving in the U. S. Army in Viet Nam. Eddie, a few years older, had somehow missed the draft and was now a budding entrepreneur as well as a top notch paella chef.

"How's the food comin'?" Gabe asked Eddie from behind a hazy cloud of smoke.

"Almost done," Eddie replied, giving his tantalizing recipe a final stirring. "Another five or ten minutes. You guys wash up and it'll be ready."

When the food finally hit the table, Gabe made a glutton of himself by piling his plate high with the flavorful mixture of rice, crabs, chicken, shrimp and sausage. A beer or two after the meal helped settle him down a bit.

"You're going to explode, Gabe," Joanie mildly chastised him.

"Too good not to do it," he said, belching loudly.

"God," Pete said, pretending to be offended, "you gringos are such pigs."

"When the revolution come," Gabe retorted, conjuring up words from the Last Poets album they'd been listening to all afternoon, "you won't be calling me piggy, you'll be saluting me as Comandante Gabriel."

"Oh, my God," Eddie laughed. "Díos mío."

"He is so full of it," Joanie said, shaking her head at Gabe. Pete and Cindy looked at each other and giggled.

"Mira, comandante," Pete snickered, "just because you had a little trouble back in mid-MO doesn't mean you're a revolutionary now."

"The system tried to take me down," Gabe said melodramatically, pushing his long hair away from his face, "and we beat it."

"That's why you can no longer live back there," Pete reminded his friend, "because you beat it?"

"I ain't in jail am I?" Gabe asked pointedly.

"Fair enough," Pete said.

"Let's not talk about that anymore," Joanie said, the memory of her and Gabe's ordeal still just a bit too fresh in her mind.

Gabe had been told by their old university that he couldn't go to graduate school unless he "cleaned" up -- that was, get a haircut, shave, and stop looking like a hippie. In addition to his unacceptable appearance, Gabe was an award-winning student journalist and had written pointed articles for the campus newspaper and a number of satirical pieces about the school administration for the student government newsletter. The two things together had apparently triggered his "dismissal" from grad school.

Not one to just step back from a good political fight, Gabe threatened to take the school to court over his expulsion. In short order, he found himself on the wrong end of a trumped up arrest, charged with assaulting a police officer during a campus disturbance.

Only his actual innocence and the testimony of six to eight people who put him in another town during the so-called disturbance kept him from real jail time. He had won the battle but not the war. He had to move on, leave the little college town behind, at least for the time being.

The ordeal had been stressful enough to Gabe but for Joanie, coming from a staunchly middle-class background -- to Gabe's ex-GI, poor boy one -- the whole affair was almost more than she could handle. Rehashing the whole sequence of events just frightened her and she wanted to enjoy the new year and the promise of a new phase in their lives without dwelling on the past.

"Yeah," Cindy chimed in, "let's get ready to go. The concert starts in less than a hour. We need to get with it."

"Right on, baby," Pete said, giving Cindy a big kiss on the cheek. "It's time for dessert now."

"Oh, no," Joanie moaned, "we're all completely full."

"I couldn't eat another bite," Gabe concurred.

"No, man," Pete said, "it's a whole other kind of treat."

"What are you talkin' about, dude?" Gabe asked.

"Show him, sweetie," Cindy laughed.

"What is it?" Joanie wondered, leaning forward to see what Pete had in his hand. Eddie had a big grin on his face.

"What are you guys up to?" Gabe said. You never knew what Pete and Eddie might have scored here in Abe Lincoln's hometown.

Pete opened his hand and held it out for the others to see. There were five very small pills in his palm.

"Acid?" Joanie guessed.

"Naw, man," Pete said, "this is supposed to be pure THC. The heart of the cannabis, man, brought right down to its essence, you dig?"

"Oh, I dig," Gabe said, nodding his head up and down.

He'd never heard of such a thing but he was ready for it. Back home in Missouri, they had tried to make hash by boiling down weed in a big pot. All they got was a ruined pot and some sticky residue on the bottom. The scientific experiment had failed the very unscientific group. If this stuff was what Pete said it was, it would be way stronger than hash. The thought made Gabe shiver like he'd already gone out into the cold New Year's Eve night. It didn't stop him from downing one of the pills with a big chug of beer, however; nor any of the others either.

"Well," Pete said, when everyone had swallowed one of the pills, "here we go."⃰ * * The drive down to the concert arena was uneventful, with the exception of more weed smoking and Eddie's inability to remember where they were going or for what reason.

"We're going to see Rare Earth, dude," Pete reminded his brother several times. "Downtown. The big concert place, man."

"Oh, yeah," Eddie snickered each time Pete retold him. "Dig it, Rare Earth."

The whole group was giggling by the time they got to the arena and it was virtually miraculous that they found the ticket line and got into the show.

Walking into the big music hall, with three levels of seating rising up from the floor in front of the stage, Gabe realized that whatever they had dropped -- pure THC or some garden variety of LSD, it didn't really matter at this point -- was really kicking in. Canned music was playing and weaving in and out of his brain as if moving from side to side. He could hear the hum of the crowd and bits and pieces of hundreds of conversations going on in the buzzing throng.

He figured there must have been eight to ten thousand in the arena or convention center or wherever it was that they were. It was really filling up fast and you could feel the excitement of the crowd. It was practically a physical entity it was so charged and overt.

With Joanie and Cindy's help, the friends found their seats and began to settle in on the second level almost directly in front of the stage. Pretty good location, Gabe allowed. Taking off his coat, he realized he was getting so out there, so high, that he might have to rein himself in, if possible. It was very warm inside, after the cold outdoors, and that made him comfortable and relaxed.

He shut his eyes and listened to the sounds: Pete and Eddie talking on his left, Joanie and Cindy on the right. Flashes of bright light shot through the space between his eyes and his closed eyelids. He felt himself drifting, floating, fading in and out of the world with the changing volume of the music, which was now blending together with the sounds of the crowd to make a mix that was both specific and undifferentiated all at the same time.

For several moments more, Gabe kept his eyes closed, marveling at the wonderful mixture of music and human voices. He felt that free-floating sensation again and this time it sort of frightened him. He was getting too far out, too far from the physical reality of the arena.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his eyes open, shook his head lightly and tried to focus on his surroundings. No one seemed to have noticed that he had gone away from them and when he looked around the arena he was suddenly overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and, more than that, who they were.

Everywhere he looked were young freaks, all younger than himself, all coming of age during this wonderful time of potential social and political revolution. He was one of them, older yes, like an older brother, sure, but one with them all. They would continue the movement, lead it to the next stage, bring on the great change that everyone so hoped for.

He had never in his life felt so connected to people, to a time, to a possibility of a greater world. And behind this feeling he heard the music that was playing as a prelude to the concert. "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming," he heard the band playing, "we're finally on our own."

With the music and the crowd and the charged atmosphere so vibrant around him, Gabe closed his eyes again and let the powerful sense of hope he was feeling consume him, course throughout his body. And when he opened his eyes once more, he realized -- strangely enough -- that he was actually crying. Not loudly, but weeping softly, thinking of the four dead in Ohio and how the generation had rallied around their killings. He envisioned a world beyond Kent State then, one in which such a horrific thing could never occur again. He saw an America that was just, and fair, and for all people, all of us.

And then that moment was gone. He hid his face so no one could see he'd gotten so emotional and he cheered loudly when the canned music ended and the lights went down for the beginning of the Rare Earth show. He forced himself to focus entirely on the music, on his friends, on the here and now. Once he thought Joanie might have had an idea what was going on with him, but he didn't look over at her and then that feeling passed, too. With a raucous opening number, Rare Earth ripped into their show and all was forgotten save the concert. It was New Year's Eve -- it was going to be a great time.***

Gabe struggled to wake up. His head hurt and he felt tired, drained of energy. Still, he twisted and turned in bed. The sheets seemed awfully cold.

"Grandpa," he heard Dani calling to him, "wake up. You're having a bad dream."

"What?" Gabe said, forcing himself back into the land of the living. "I feel clammy."

"I think your fever broke," Dani told him. "I think you're gonna beat the flu."

"Oh," Gabe sighed, lying back down on the now obviously wet sheets.

"You were talkin' to beat the band, Grandpa," Dani said.

Gabe essayed a weak smile for her. She was a sweet child and actually seemed to care for the old curmudgeon.

"What was I saying?" Gabe asked softly.

"Something about somebody being all wrong," Dani said. "Do you remember having a dream?"

"Not so much a dream," Gabe said, "as an old, almost forgotten memory."

"Back in the day?" Dani asked.

"Yeah," Gabe answered, "back in the day."

"Was it a bad memory? Was that why it was wrong?"

"No," Gabe explained, taking a drink of water from a small glass Dani offered him. "It was a good memory. It was just that I was wrong about what it meant."

"I don't think I understand exactly," Dani said. Gabe reached out and held his grand-daughter's hand briefly. "Is it a 60s kind of thing?"

"Yes," Gabe said. "I thought -- a lot of us thought -- that something big was getting ready to happen. That the world was going to change in a really profound, positive way. But it didn't. We failed it, ourselves, everyone, and we were wrong."

"Now, Grandpa," Dani mildly scolded Gabe, "you always tell me it's all out there in front of us and to not get hung up on the past. Always keep going forward, do the best you can every day, make something good happen today and tomorrow. Stay positive."

Gabe laughed and it caused him to have a small fit of coughing.

"You've been listening to me too much," he said haltingly.

"No way," Dani said. "Just because the world didn't change like your generation thought it was going to doesn't mean my generation has to give up hope that we can make the world a better place for the generations after us."

"You're the tops, kiddo," Gabe told his granddaughter, "you're our, no, the hope. And your proof that just maybe we weren't totally wrong after all."

"You bet, grandpa," Dani said. "That's the spirit. Never give up."

"Don't tell your folks about these conversations we have," Gabe advised Dani, "they'll think I'm trying to turn you into a radical or something. They're a lot more conservative than you and I are. They're sticks in the mud."

"I won't grandpa," Dani smiled. "I know."

"I know you do. That's why I can still have hope. Always keep it out there in front of you, kid."

"That's the ticket, grandpa."

"I better rest a little now, hon," Gabe said, rolling over on his side towards Dani. "Maybe I'll feel better after a little more rest."

"Of course you will," Dani said sweetly, "of course you will."

Gabe closed his eyes and felt a restful, needed sleep coming on. As he drifted off, he could feel Dani placing an extra-large towel against his back and legs to cover him from the damp sheets. In seconds he was sound asleep.

The girl stayed with him then, patting his long, skinny hands and listening to him breathe slowly but steadily for another quarter of an hour. When she was sure he was okay and resting comfortably, she got up and went back out into the living room.

The family Christmas tree was loaded down with red, green, and gold bulbs and strung with silver icicles. The multi-colored lights flashed off and on. It was another holiday season -- a festive, hopeful time of the year. She was glad her folks were out of the house for the time being. The empty quiet room seemed to match her reflective mood. In no time, she thought, it would be New Year's and another beginning. Another set of possibilities. Grandpa Gabe was at least right about one thing: it really was all out there, up ahead, out there in a future that beckoned to her.

 
 
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Features -- March 2012 -- Beginning Month Issue
 








J. B. Hogan
-- Additional Work --