My father stopped in the middle of a sentence and said, “Oh, scared? No. Me and Bobby Murray from Medford went into the buddy program, you see,” he said, glancing at Ray who nodded in recognition. “It meant you and a friend went through boot camp together…” And so my father was off: he described his first day at the Great Lakes Naval Base in 1962. He recounted breezy tropical days in Cuba while stationed at Guantanamo Bay or “Gitmo” as he called it. He remembered a Chief Petty Officer in Norfolk who pulled rank on him about some nonsense regulation. On and on it went and Ray listened patiently, even amusedly, to these tender-hearted reminiscences of the peacetime Navy. My father’s nostalgia-trip eventually swung back to his first days in the service. I saw an opening. “Marine boot camp is the toughest one though, right?” I said.
My father pinched his lips, paused and looked at Ray.
“They’re just different,” Ray said, shifting in his seat and patting his shirt pocket for his Kools. “Marines and sailors have different jobs.”
“I’m reading this book on Parris Island. It says the guys who go to boot camp in California are called Hollywood Marines.”
“It’s true! He’s reading a book on the Marines,” my mother interjected with a mixture of pride and astonishment, as if I had decided to skip high school and go straight on to Harvard. “He saw it reviewed in The Globe, and he made me drive him right down to the mall to buy a copy.”
“Let me see that book,” Ray said before lighting a cigarette and winking at my mother.
I thumped the paperback on the table in front of him and he paged through it with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He scanned the index then the photo section. His eyes narrowed as smoke wafted across his vision. “Know him. I know this guy. Heard of him. He was with me at 29 Palms,” he looked up at Linda for a second. “Marty O’Callaghan. Remember him? He’s in here.” Linda managed a smile, but she was clearly done with the Marines and their parochial civilization. Two decades of combat tours and cross-country moves had wrung the curiosity right out of her.
“In the book, some guy complained the M-16 was no good,” I said, gaining confidence while I had the floor. “One Marine said it was junk: that it jammed when mud and water got in it.”
Ray eyeballed me and then looked down at the ashtray as he extinguished his cigarette. “It’s not the rifle that matters, but the man behind the trigger.”
Ray said this simply and without effect. He wasn’t trying to impress anybody. He was just making, from his perspective, a banal observation, something like: “Yeah, generally it doesn’t snow around here until late November.”
I would spend most of my adult life foisting opinions on people, but Ray had known something true, and he got it the only way you can–by risking everything to know it.
Linda had prepared Easter dinner with the same mixture of personal responsibility and terror that she brought to the ICU. Endless platters filled with lamb, glazed ham, fish fillets, stuffing, yams, green vegetables and simmering sauces and gravies rounded the table for what seemed like an hour, filling the room with the sound of utensils clinking against dishware. During dinner there were only a few deadening silences, including one where Linda filled the void by berating Courtney’s table etiquette. When she was done with her, Linda mentioned that Ray’s Marine retirement party had been a great success. “The commanding officer of Camp Lejeune flew up–a colonel–just for Ray,” she said. “That doesn’t happen for any retiring Marine you know.”
“Is that so?” my mother said, her eyes fixed on the porcelain gravy bowl she was delivering to Linda. “A colonel. Imagine that.”
I sensed a plan was afoot to elicit conversation from Ray. Linda must have wanted him to talk about his feelings surrounding retirement. But Ray didn’t bite. During the meal he acted less like a father and husband, and more like a man enduring house arrest. In the finished basement he had his gun room and deer taxidermies, known quantities all of them. But upstairs with his wife and daughter and the customs of family life, he was strictly a resident alien. It wasn’t that he was distant, as much as he was categorically confounded.
My mother made another attempt to draw Ray out. She told him about our family trip to Washington D.C. that included an unplanned side trip to the Quantico Marine base in Virginia. Her father had been a sailor and a Boston police officer and she had a fascination with men in uniform. We got lost several times in the back roads of Virginia, and when we found the base, the Marines turned us away.
“I tried to sweet talk the guard at the front gate,” my mother said. “But he was like, ‘Sorry, Ma’am. No visitors allowed’ . . . I was expecting a bit more southern hospitality from your Marine buddies there, Ray.”
“Yeah, I warned them a bunch of yahoos from Boston were coming down,” Ray said, and then without missing a beat, he turned to Courtney and laid into her as if finally identifying the source of his irritation. “Did you clean that room like I asked you?”
Courtney hesitated–she’d clearly forgotten–and hesitation was fatal both on the battlefield and inside the Wozniak family.
“You’re excused from the dinner table,” Linda said, now really laying into her. “March right in there and get busy: the closet, the bed, under the bed, everything. And Maureen,” she said, seizing my sister’s wrist. “You stay here, sweetie, because she’ll rope you right into helping her.”
Linda and my mother began clearing the table after Courtney marched off to her room. Linda announced there’d be coffee, Boston creme pie and rhubarb pie, but it would be later, once she’d squared away the kitchen.
Ray kicked at the leg of my chair. “Come on. Let’s take a drive. I’ll show you my truck.”
Linda heard Ray as she swept into the room with a stack of Tupperware. “So where are you going now?” she asked him.
“I was thinking . . . China.”
“A drive,” he said looking at me. “Bobby’s had enough table talk and fussing. Poor boy is probably dying of boredom.”
“Don’t be long though . . . Anne,” she said following my mother into the kitchen. “What time you guys planning on leaving? The guys are taking–”
We didn’t wait around for any more discussion. Ray hustled me down the stairs and we were out.
As we drove through the town Ray pointed out local landmarks: Forge Pond, the junior high school, the gambrel home of his buddy Sully. The windows were down and his left arm dangled out languidly. He tuned the radio to Oldies 103. It was strange, but I didn’t feel the pressure to make conversation the way I did with most adults. I felt like an equal. Just a buddy out for drive.
Ray pulled into a White Hen Pantry convenience store. It was one of the only places open on Easter day. “You want anything?” he said, pausing before climbing out. I shook my head.
Ray returned to the cab with a pack of gum and a hard pack of Kools he was pounding against his thumb. He gave me a little grin as I glanced at the pack he’d tossed onto the dash. “Don’t say anything about this,” he said. “She’ll kill me if she found out.” Linda was an ex-smoker, a zealot reformer type who, apropos of nothing, had launched into an invective that afternoon against smoking. I laughed. I was an accessory to Ray’s rebellion. This was the secret world of men–I’d finally been ushered in–and it smelled like menthol and diesel fumes.
Ray turned onto a wooded back road where the branches were still bare and leafless. He lit another cigarette and as he sped up he shifted the truck into fourth: he was going to drive and chain-smoke while he had the chance.
“I read all the black guys in Vietnam smoked Kools,” I said, fearing I sounded like a silly child.
Ray smirked and nodded as he took a long drag. He was loose and easy for the first time all day. “You read a lot,” he finally said. I shrugged my shoulders.
The sun gleaned down through the naked branches and settled onto the earth with a still and silent grace. The late afternoon light splashed off beech, oak and poplar, promising long days ahead, blossoms and the resurrection of summer.