Lugnuts is my squad leader. Ten years older than me, he’s a former Marine, so for him this weekend-warrior stint is a vacation. And he resents anyone around him who never served in the Marines, which is practically all of us.
But especially me.
You can find his face in any encyclopedia under ‘Early Man,’ the species with the single, double-duty eyebrow that resembles a long taxidermal caterpillar mounted across the granite overhang of his ridged forehead. He has two smokey blue eyes, empty and feral, and the requisite slack jaw.
Three times already I’ve reported to him this morning, presenting my much-rubbed-if-not-sharper machete. Three times he’s dismissed me with contempt.
“How’s this?” I’d asked a half hour earlier.
“Like something some three-year-old mighta did!” he sneered around a cigarette butt smoked so short it ought to be blistering his lip.
The third time is not always the charm…
“Oh, Sergeant?” I call, as I approach him on a fourth foray...
Sleeves rolled up, calloused fingers caked black with grease, he’s squatting on a stool downstairs in the motor pool over a rough hewn work table buried in tools. He’s working on some infernal, gunked gadget-assembly, our very own Doctor Lugnuts demonstrating your basic carburetorectomy. His pit bull brain identifies my voice, and that recognition, as always, seems to yank his plug and shut him right down. His mechanical movements silently cease. No acknowledgement of anything. No eye contact. Just a robot with an abrupt power-pack disconnect.
Patiently, I stand at his side holding the upright machete by the handle like a bouquet of flowers, my peace offering. Finally, and optimistically, I offer, “So how’s this, Sergeant?”
My ears detect a long rasp, and I realize that’s him exhaling, but doing so without any animation whatsoever, releasing his steam after the shut-down sequence.
His eyes roll, and I watch The Expression gradually taking shape on his ugly mug, the same expression we little guys always see on ouir big brothers’ faces whenever we say something like, “Well, Mom said I can go with ya!” The why-didn’t-you-die-at-birth expression.
“The hell you want now, Lifer?”
I no longer correct him about my name. He knows it’s Lyford. But, on the other hand of course, his name isn’t Lugnuts. At least, though, I’m not stupid enough to call him that to his face.
His large head swivels me-ward atop the thick piston of his rope-muscled neck. Silent alarms go off in my brain…
The Dog That Doesn’t Bark!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When I was eleven, a kid named Ernie invited me over to his house after school on a Friday. Half way there, a furious man in a deranged rage accosted us on the sidewalk, blocking our path an actual rifle!
“Your dog bit my Jenny!” he bawled. “All she was doing was swinging on the swings, and he just bit her!”
And Ernie, sobbing, cried desperately, “My dog wouldn’t bite anyone ‘cause he’s a good dog, and anyway we keep him tied up so it wasn’t even him!”
To which this villain right out of Lassie, Come Home shot back, “Oh it was him all right! And now lemme tell you what, Little Mr. Man: when I find him, he’s gonna be a dead dog! You got that? DEAD!” By now I was crying as well, and the two of us took off running all the rest of the way to Ernie’s.
This was the first Bad Man I’d ever encountered this side of the silver screen. But Ol’ Yeller and Big Red had taught me two stone-hard facts of life: all dogs are GOOD, and all dog-hating, mean-voiced men brandishing rifles are BAD. I felt so sorry for Ernie’s maligned creature that, when we arrived, I left Ernie in the kitchen to be consoled by his mom and ran straight to the living room.
There he was, a shaggy auburn and black Lab-German Shepherd-et cetera mix, lying on the rug in front of the TV. The picture of innocence. The indoor dog, not the kind to be hunting the streets, savaging girls on swings. No. In fact, if I were allowed to have a dog (which I never was), I knew instictively I’d want one just like this one.
I landed on my knees before him.
He obviously accepted me because he didn’t even bark. Other dogs always barked. But not this fella, no. He was silent and motionless and polite. I couldn’t imagine a gentler companion.
I buried my fingers in his jowls and lifted his noble face up into mine, and baby-talked. “You wouldn’t hurt anybody, now wouldja! Nosiree! You wouldn’t hurt a flea!”
We were eye to eye. It occurred to me that I should rub noses with him. But just before our noses quite connected, his head began to rotate sideways on the swivel of his thick, rope-muscled, neck… probably inviting me to scratch his old ear if I wanted. And I wanted to. Oh, we were going to be such great friends!
And that’s when this new ‘friend,’ without any emotion whatsoever and seemingly with malice toward none, simply snap-clamped my right hand in his yellow teeth like some rogue gator! No bark. No growl even. Just crunch! sending a cobalt-blue lightning bolt to overload and flash-fry the circuitry of my brain…
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sergeant Lugnut’s face has ratcheted the full ninety degrees and come to a mechanical rest with his eyes locked on mine. His mouth looks as if it might open. I take a step back, a bit more out of range.
“The machete’s all… sharpened,” I chirp, with a hollow attempt at sounding convincing, like I know what I’m talking about.
He simply looks at me. He doesn’t speak (no bark, no growl even). He doesn’t even blink! No expression. Just a glaze over his eyes.
I glance down at the machete, nod to it a couple of times like maybe that’ll help prime his conversation pump. It doesn’t. “So,” I say, “now what?”
Eventually, as if speaking to a cockroach, he says, “Now..?”
He sneers. “Well now… in fact, right now... what I need you to do is get your sorry-ass face out of my face, and get… this… blade sharpened! And sharpened right!”
His venom always jolts me a little, even though I’m conditioned to anticipate it. At the same time, it rankles. Normally I’m not one to poke a bear with a stick (hell, I’d never make a single wave if I could help it), but I’m also not accustomed to having someone go into an apoplectic meltdown of disgust simply because I’ve walked into the room, or because I simply exist. I mean, get to know me first; then hate my guts if you want.
I consider poking the bear…
“It doesn’t seem to want to… sharpen, Sergeant,” I say, at a loss for a better explanation.
Again I get the rolling of the eyes. “Well then, I guess at least you know what you’ll be doing here for the next five years, don’t you, Gomer!”
“What… you want me to keep doing it, even if it’s not working?”
“Well Christ, I’m looking at something that ain’t working’ right now! Ain’t I!?”
All right then. This is where I decide to poke... to become the tar baby and turn him into Brer Rabbit. It’s a little brain-game I sometimes play with him…
“OK, I’ll get right to it. I’ll do it. And why? 'Cause you’re the squad leader. You got the stripes.”
“Hey. The whiz kid’s got it all figured out!”
“So I’ll do it. But you know what...?”
“No, I don’t. But I don’t have to know what, and I don’t want to know what.”
“I’ll do it if you order me to do it. And… I’ll do it if you ask me nice.”
He blinks. There’s a process going on in there somewhere behind the eyes.
What’d you just say to me?” It’s a dangerous question.
“Said I’d do it.”
“No, you didn’t say you’d do it. You said you’d do it if … I was ‘nice’?” He’s incredulous.
“Either way. I said I’d do it either way.” I know I have to choose my words carefully here. I’m skating on thin ice. But I’ve become a pretty skillful communicator with The Big Lug over the last few drills. Practice makes perfect. See, the trick is to argue with the man in a way that doesn’t really sound like you’re arguing with him.
It passes the time.
“Lemme tell you something, Hemorrhoid! There ain’t any ‘either way.’ There’s just my goddamn way, see. And you just do it my goddamn way. Don’t make no difference how you feel about my goddamn way, because you don’t have any goddamn feelings in my goddamn squad. All you have in this squad is that goddamn machete there, and all you have to do is goddamn sharpen it!”
“That’s all I’m saying…”
“No. You’re not saying anything!”
“Well, I’m saying I’ll do what you tell me to.”
“Do it if you order me to… do it if you ask me to. Either way…”
“No! You don’t! You just DO it! And you do it WHEN I tell you to!”
“Exactly. See... I’m not arguing with that. I’m just saying.”
Dr. Lugnuts quietly places the aborted carburetor fetus on the work table, and rises to his feet. His eyes have begun boring two smoldering holes in my skull. “You value your sorry ass, Lifer? You do, then you better do yourself one pretty-damn-quick about-face and beat feet back down your hole. And you better do it silent! And you better do it now!”
Being fairly fluent in body language, I’ve already reached the landing at the top of the stairs leading back into the main floor before the word ‘now.’
“OK, but don’t blame me if the machete looks like a sickle by tomorrow afternoon!” I slam the motor pool door behind me.
Five years is a eternity, man…