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Parallel Tracks Layed Long Ago…


~ Excerpt from  A Friend Request
by C L Gillmore Chapter One

“Parallel tracks laid long ago
Beginning at a place called yesterday,
… Where daydreams first began to grow
And tomorrow seemed so far away.”

Rockton, Illinois
Fall 2007


I watched as Ben trekked from the idling school bus, across the graveled bus yard and headed in my direction, his breath trailing back and then fading into the crisp, cold morning air. He was a big guy. Always was taller than me, even though he was two years younger. At six feet, he still looked pretty damn commanding in his faded green Army field jacket. The Green Bay Packer’s stocking hat added another couple inches. Nice touch. Ben Chapman always was a classy dresser.

Not quite as classy as Jake Richardson though. And then I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror, hair sticking out in every direction from underneath my faded, frayed Chicago Cubs baseball hat. Classy. Yep, I was a real class act this morning.

Geez, that field jacket had to be an antique by now. Hell, Ben and I were antiques now.

I remember when Ben came back from Vietnam in 1970 after being discharged out. He was wearing that M-65 U.S. Army Military field jacket when he stepped off the red, white and silver Trailways bus from Chicago. The jacket looked worn and frayed, used—like it had been through a hell of lot—and so did Ben. He aged in those two years. Not just physically. He was much older now than all of us he’d left behind.

He told me months later how very strange it was being in the jungle one day and the next on his parent’s porch back home as a civilian. I think that jacket helped him during the transition period. He’d worn it nearly every winter since then. He never talked much about Vietnam, what he’d seen or been through, and I never asked.

Hell, I still remember when he left for Vietnam. It was winter 1967. Ben was 18. I was twenty.

I’d just moved in with a couple of buddies, Jerry Parker and Max Reed, at Parkridge Apartments in Champaign. We were all taking classes at U of I during the day and moonlighting in a band called Common Bond at night. Jerry played bass guitar, Max played keyboard and I was the lighting and sound guy.

I think all the band members lived at Parkridge back then. Maybe. Hard to remember. It was a long time ago.

Ben and I go way back. Played together as kids. Both local boys who grew up fishing and hunting together in the green, fertile farmlands along the Rock River where our parents and grandparents homesteaded and farmed.

Ben was still living at home in Rockton when he called and told me he’d been drafted. I hated hearing that word, drafted. Somehow it made me feel guilty for my Class 4F status—registrant not acceptable for military service. I flunked my physical a few months earlier due to both a wool and metal allergy. I never had to worry about being drafted or about going to Vietnam. Lucky me. Not so lucky for Ben.

I wanted to see Ben before he left…in case he didn’t come back. That was a real possibility during the Vietnam War. Even in the small towns surrounding Rockton there were already young men who left and didn’t come home. They didn’t come home to their families, their farms or their lives. They died young and alone in a country nearly 10,000 miles away. A country none of them even knew existed before they stepped off the plane to defend it.

Ben hitched from Rockton to Champaign. Something only an 18-year old kid would do in the dead of an Illinois winter. But hitching back then was different than now. It was relatively safe and you were pretty much assured of a ride. And if they knew you were heading for Vietnam, you pretty much had a guaranteed ride to the front door of your destination and a hot meal on the way.

Ben turned up on our doorstep a couple of days following the phone call, suitcase in hand. A local farmer and his wife picked him up not too far out of Rockton and brought him all the way to Champaign, stopping only once for gas and cheeseburgers. Their son was already in Vietnam.

Ben stayed with my friends and me at Parkridge Apartments during those two weeks before he shipped out for Nam. God, what a fucking great two weeks we spent.

Spent. Good descriptive word now that I think about it.

After a couple phone calls, Jerry fixed Ben up with this tall, leggy redhead that first night he showed up at our door. What was her name? Laurie? Gina? No…Gloria. Yes, that was it. Like the song by Shadows of Knight…G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria was just the ticket for a young man leaving for Vietnam.

It was a party from then on with Ben and the leggy redheaded Gloria, Jerry and his girlfriend Karen, the lead singer Cash and his wife Sam, and Max with somebody’s sister. Can’t remember whose sister.

Maybe Sam’s.

And me.

And Rose.

We partied hard, non-stop, day and night, for the next two weeks—tripping on mescaline and acid, drinking beer and wine, eating pizza and cheeseburgers and getting laid as much as possible—sleeping only after we passed out or from sheer exhaustion.

When you’re young and in love or lust the possibilities are sweet and you figure your time is endless. I think that’s what I figured anyway.

At the end of the two weeks when Ben left for Vietnam, he was wiped out, hung over and sporting the biggest smile of his young life as he climbed on the chartered Greyhound bus heading for Basic at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

There were eight of us huddled together for warmth that morning at the bus station—Cash, Sam, Jerry, Karen, Max, Gloria and Rose and me.

We watched through the fogged up bus windows as Ben walked down the center aisle, situated himself near a window and despite the bitter cold, slid the glass window open as far as it would go.

We shared a few last comments, jokes and bits of advice with him, trying to keep the conversation light for as long as we possibly could. He and Gloria held hands through the window. She sporting his big, clunky class ring on her left hand. She promised to wait for Ben and he believed her. He believed her because he loved her.

Could you actually be in love at 18 or even at 20? I knew the answer to that then and now. Love can happen at any age. There are no rules when it comes to affairs of the heart. You can fall in love just as hard and as deep when you’re young and inexperienced as you can when you are older and filled with experience. The capacity for the heart to love another shows no age preference. Love is timeless.

That morning our short time together passed in a blur of nervous laughter, forced smiles, fleeting promises and freezing temperatures. And before we knew…it was time to go.

Ben wiped tears from his cheeks with his free hand, clutching Gloria’s hand with the other, as we said and then waved our final good-byes. There were no dry eyes that morning, only frozen tears on bright red cheeks.

Tears for the lost innocence of us all.

Ben reluctantly let go of Gloria’s hand and then her fingers as the bus slowly edged away from the terminal and away from all of us…tires crunching in the snow, the smoky gray exhaust plume spiraling behind.

The open window framed Ben’s smiling face as we watched his right hand and fingers form the peace sign. In turn, we smiled, raised our gloved hands and flashed the sign back to him. We could still see his hand, raised in the peace sign and extended out the window as the bus made its final turn at the end of the block.

Peace. Love. War.

“Time it was and what a time it was…it was

A time of innocence a time of confidences.”

Simon and Garfunkel. Old Friends/Bookends. How was it that I still remembered the words after all these years?

“Preserve your memories…they’re all that’s left you.”

Our friend, my childhood friend, Ben was gone. We went back to our apartments, our part-time jobs, our college classes. Ben went to war in the jungles of a country called Vietnam.

It was a reality check for all of us that day. It was winter, 1967.

And Gloria, the leggy redhead—who made a fleeting promise to wait for him, like a thousand other girls did back then—sent Ben a “Dear John” letter after one month, along with his clunky class ring. She explained she’d met someone else and that she was sure he would want her to be happy. Right. War was hell and circumstance broke a young man’s heart in more ways than one back then.

Words to live by. Then and now.

By the time the Vietnam War ended in April 1975…58,226 service men and support personnel would not be coming back. One in ten would be killed and 11,465 of those killed would be under the age of 20. In the State of Illinois alone 2,934 would die.

This time Ben was lucky. He wasn’t one of the statistics. My friend came back. Back to Rockton, Illinois. Back to his future.

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