Novicki was the last guy you'd ever expect to miss later on in life, when basic training was over. He wasn't over five-seven or so, a bit on the thin side, and he wore glasses. He was naturally awkward, uncoordinated. He was the kind of kid who always gets picked next to last in sandlot games despite a pure desire to play the game. With Novicki, it was the same for hand-to-hand combat. He'd never get it, and he'd be the last to know. That's the way it was the first time he tried to use it for real.
The first pass we got from Charlie company, he walked down the main street, if you can call it that, of that town near Ft. Dix, New Jersey with the drumbeat cadence of the drill sergeant still beating in his brain, causing him to make square turns and even at least once to do a silent "to the rear, march." The rest of us looked at each other and shook our heads.
Going into a dark place called "The Base Cafe" was his idea. We stood back and chuckled when he bellied up to the bar like an old pro, put his right foot on the gold rail, and ordered a draught beer like he'd been doing it all his life. When he got served, the rest of us did the same thing. We were having a pretty good time until two girls came in. Novicki wanted to go after the pretty one right away. The rest of us tried to warn him against it.
"Look, Novicki," Kramer said, "I think she's with one of those guys." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the pool table, where two guys were playing and a couple of others were standing around.
She and her friend were sitting in a booth near the pool table, and she was talking to one of the players when he wasn't shooting. He had on a red T-shirt, one of those kind with a little pocket, and he had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his left sleeve above a tatoo of what looked like a heart from across the room. He was pretty muscular and tanned. You could tell he didn't like GIs. He'd look over and say something to the guys he was shooting pool with, and then they'd all laugh, staring straight at us. We were on their turf, and this one guy wanted us to know he didn't like it. Neither did his friends. All this seemed lost on Novicki.
"She came in alone," Novicki said as he stepped down from the barstool to go over to her booth.
We all shook our heads again and watched his back as he walked around the pool table, coming real close to messing up the other player's shot. He stood between the women in the booth and the player who'd been talking to the pretty one. The player looked him over, but it was his turn to shoot, so he turned back to the game.
Novicki sat down across from the two women and began a pitch we couldn't hear. We shrugged and turned back to our beers and talked about how good it was going to be to finish basic training. We still had four weeks to go and we all hated it.
Novicki loved it. He took to basic like a good student takes to college. Kramer, Vitale, and I had all been lousy students in college--that's how we'd ended up at Dix. Novicki was hardly out of high school, and he thought he was finally learning something useful. He liked the bayonet practice, where you yelled, "Kill! Kill! Kill!" and stabbed a straw dummy; he liked double-timing out to the rifle range, five miles each way, even when it was so hot your feet felt like Pop 'n' Fresh dough right before you peel the label and pop the seam; he liked the PT, too, even though he wasn't any good at pushups and usually fell off the horizontal ladder at the turn. But most of all, he loved hand to hand.
He was like the skinny kid in the back of comic books who gets sand kicked in his face all the time until finally he gets fed up and takes a body-building course so he can get back at all the bullies. After four weeks of basic Novicki was ready for some respect. He didn't say it, exactly, but you could tell. He was one of the few GIs who'd actually practice his hand-to-hand moves. He didn't go off into a corner or behind a building, either. He'd go into his stance in the middle of the barracks and "hee-yup" against imaginary Viet Cong coming from all directions. It was real annoying when you had to dodge flailing arms and legs on your way to the latrine to brush your teeth.
At first, we just tolerated Novicki. He was like the eager yappy dog that follows you everywhere whether you want him to or not. We were all in basic together, so there wasn't any point in making him feel bad. Kramer, Vitale, and I were a temporary team that we knew would break up when basic training ended. Friendships couldn't go too deep or it'd be too hard when we left Dix. Either that or you'd have to establish a lifelong friendship right there and then, and we all knew better. We had an idea of what we faced down the road.
Novicki didn't even go that far. Sure, he was a hanger-on, but he didn't really want people close to him. Maybe he thought of basic as a new beginning and someone who got too close might find out about his past. He had no clue that his past showed through everything he did. He probably trailed the three of us because we didn't need any more friends, now that I think of it, and we were all a couple of years older and gave him more slack than the other soldiers. Most of them didn't want anything to do with him.
We hadn't really planned on Novicki when we'd talked about getting off the base for that first pass. It was only for four hours, but we had visions of Johanna and whatever else might exist in this small town. When we left the barracks, there he was with us, and nobody seemed to mind. We even got a kick out of him sometimes. It was like having your own resident clown along to break the monotony. The three of us had a lot to learn and we knew it. Novicki was so eager to arrive that just being a soldier in basic made him feel he'd already made it to the promised land.
I guess it was Novicki's glasses that made him look smart, but he wasn't. I had to coach him to help him pass the written tests, and it took him a long time to learn to roll his underwear neatly and make his bed well enough so the drill sergeant got off our backs. It was obvious why he'd never gone to college, and I found out later he'd dropped out of high school as soon as he turned sixteen. He would have joined the army right then, too, but his mother wouldn't sign the paper. She couldn't stop him when he'd celebrated his seventeenth birthday by going to the recruiter. Novicki's father had been killed in Korea, I found out, too, so he had a lot more in his duffel bag than the average GI.
The thing I think looking back on it all these years later that made me kind of like Novicki was his naked desire. We all wanted things--money, women, status--some of which we might get if we survived this damned war in something like whole condition, but Novicki wanted them all right now, and he was constantly talking about what he was going to do to the world. To the rest of us, the army was an obstacle, a dangerous detour away from life's regular road that threatened our futures and made us a bit wary. For Novicki, the army was part of the package. It was the turning point of his life--the way to get what he wanted.
Most of the younger soldiers put as much space between themselves and Novicki as possible. I guess they didn't want anyone to confuse them with him, so they constantly made fun of him. There were even dark threats of GI parties for Novicki, and if it hadn't been for Kramer, Vitale, and me, it might have happened. We'd all but forgotten about Novicki and were nearly finished with our beers when he appeared at our elbows.
"Let's get out of here," he said. "This place sucks."
"She shoot you down?" Vitale asked.
"I'll tell you about it. Let's go."
Outside, Kramer said, "She was with that guy, wasn't she."
"She would've gone with me, but she thought he'd start trouble."
"Uh huh," Kramer said.
"No. Really. I told her I'd take care of him, but she didn't want me to. I would've, though."
"Novicki, that guy would've cleaned your clock," I said, partly in disbelief that he couldn't see that.
"Not now he wouldn't."
"What d'ya mean, not now," I said. "Hee yup!" Novicki said as he took his stance, feet planted and arms raised bent at the elbows, open hands ready.
We all laughed and kept walking, and you could almost hear Novicki keeping cadence in his mind as he marched beside us.
We must have gotten separated right after we entered the department store. I'd done some amateur racing in college, and the bicycles had caught my eye from across the store. They didn't have anything decent, but it made me want to find a real bicycle store, so I tried to find my buddies. I found Vitale looking at some wheel covers in the automotive section. He was always talking about the Corvette he'd had to store in his father's garage when he got drafted. We found Kramer at the checkout counter with some candy and peanuts and a book--stuff we couldn't get on the base since we hadn't been allowed to go to the PX. We couldn't find Novicki anywhere, so we went outside looking for him.
Down the street we saw a small group of people gathered in a circle, so we headed in that direction. We pushed our way into the circle and saw Novicki. He was sitting--a mess--and two guys from our platoon, Jackson and Slade, were trying to help him. Slade was trying to hand him his glasses, and Jackson was trying to get him to his feet
"What happened?" Kramer asked Slade, who was still holding out the
glasses, which Novicki still hadn't noticed.
"He got in a fight with a bunch of guys."
"Civilians?" I asked.
Slade nodded his head. "There was some big guy with three other guys."
"Red shirt?" I asked.
"Yeah. A red T-shirt."
"Couldn't you stop it?" Kramer asked.
"We was over there," Slade said, pointing across the street. "I heard a 'hee yup' and looked over just as this guy punches Novicki. Then Novicki gets up and goes 'hee yup' again like a real asshole and the guy punches him again. Then Novicki gets up again and goes 'hee yup' again and 'bam!' That time he didn't get up. We ran over here and they disappeared."
"You okay, Novicki?" Kramer asked as he squatted beside him trying to get his attention.
Novicki tried to focus on Kramer's face. Kramer reached over and took the glasses and put them on his face.
"Yeah," Novicki said, looking like he didn't know why the hell he was sitting there on the sidewalk.
"Let's get you up and see if you can walk," Kramer said. Novicki got up a bit unsteadily and looked around at the crowd of about twenty people who'd gathered there. "Was it that same guy from the bar?" I asked.
Novicki pondered this question like it was the toughest question on the exam. Finally he started to see the shore through all the fog. "Yeah," he said. "Let's go get 'em," Vitale said. "Counting Jackson and Slade, we've got five guys." Kramer waved him off. "How'd it happen, Novicki?" "I dunno. I heard, 'Hey, soldier. Wanna go to a party?' and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and he punched me right in the jaw. Knocked me flat. I got up and tried hand to hand on him, but I must've been too groggy.""Are you crazy, Novicki?" I said. "That guy would've clobbered you even if you'd hit him first."
The rest of us looked at Novicki, whose khaki shirt, pulled out of his pants, was filthy. His glasses were so cockeyed that one of the lenses didn't even cover his eye, already puffed up and looking bad. Kramer was still supporting him.
"We're taking you back to the base," Kramer said. "It's not worth
a court martial, or even an Article 15. You're going to be okay."
"I wanna get him," Novicki said, pushing away from Kramer to stand on his own. "We got all this training. So let's use it."
"You guys all set?" Jackson asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks for helping him out."
"Yeah, thanks, guys," Kramer said. "See you back at the base."
He turned back to Novicki. "Let's go."
"I want another chance at that guy," Novicki said.
"You're going to have plenty of chances," Kramer said. "Don't worry."
"Yeah," Vitale added. "One of these days, that guy'll get his. He'll run into the wrong guy one of these days."
"Yeah, Novicki," I said. "You're just not the wrong guy. Least not this time."
"I shoulda been watching for him," Novicki said.
"You shouldn't have left us," Kramer said.
Suddenly we'd all realized that Novicki was someone to protect, like a national treasure, this guy who wasn't afraid to talk about the desires we all had, too, but were too timid or doubtful to mention, this young kid who treated every day like his life was just beginning to get sunny and the future was even brighter. And the more I thought about how he'd gotten up three times unafraid to take a pounding from the townie brute, the more I began to feel a kind of respect for Novicki. He'd had to take a lot of crap every day of his life, but he had the guts to take it and not lose hope. He didn't have any sense, of course, but he had guts, and I liked that about him.
I guess Vitale was thinking some of the same thoughts, because he said, "You know, Kramer, I think you're wrong. We shouldn't let them push Novicki around--or anybody else. So what if this is their town. None of us want to be here, do we? We just don't have a choice. I say fuck the army and fuck this town."
"I just want to finish basic," Kramer said. "We shouldn't go
looking for trouble."
"What're they going to do to us?" Vitale asked. "Draft us and send us to Vietnam?"
That did it for me. "I'm in," I said. "Let's go back to that bar and teach those guys some respect."
"All Right!" Novicki beamed, cockeyed glasses and all.
"Yeah," Kramer finally agreed. "To hell with them."
It was quiet inside the bar. Just the bartender and one old guy on a barstool who looked like he'd lost his wife to cancer or a younger guy. Vitale walked over.
"You know that guy who was in here playing pool? With the red
"I don't want no trouble here," the bartender said, looking us over warily.
"Well he and his three friends just jumped Novicki, here. From behind. Know what I mean? From behind! I want to talk to him. Know where he is?"
"Nope," the bartender said.
"He come in here often?"
"Not really. I seen him a few times, but I don't know his name or nuthin'."
"Well," Vitale said menacingly. "I think he comes in here a lot. You tell him we'll be back. Maybe tonight. Maybe next week. Maybe in a few weeks. But before we ship out, we'll find him. You tell him we're looking for him."
"If I see him," the bartender said, "I'll tell him--what did you say your name was?" He looked at the nametag. "I'll tell him 'Private Vital' is looking for him, okay, Vital?"
I hadn't thought of the nametag thing, and I started wondering what the bartender could do with that, but Vitale was ready for him. "Vitalee," Vitale corrected him, accenting the last syllable. "Yeah. You tell him Antonio Vitale from Brooklyn is looking for him. Tell him if he wants to find me he can come to the base. Headquarters company, 3rd battalion. Got that? Headquarters company, 3rd batallion. Antonio Vitale. Or he can just wait here and I'll come back, like I said."
"Hey, Vitale," Kramer said with a big grin when we were outside, "I thought you said you were from someplace right here in Jersey. What's this Antonio from Brooklyn crap?"
Vitale grinned. "Yeah. 'Peter Vitale from Montclair.' That would've made him shit his pants, huh? Keep the bastard wondering for a few days."
When we got back to the barracks, Jackson and Slade were already there. They all cheered when Novicki walked in, and all evening people were coming up to him and saying, "hee yup!" in a good-natured way. He loved the attention and didn't even overplay his wounds, which surprised me.
During the next four weeks, Novicki calmed down quite a bit, and he became a stronger, better soldier right before our eyes. By the time graduation came, he'd lost some of the goofy look and had acquired an edge that was actually convincing. We all shook his hand as he left for Fort Polk, Louisianna to learn how to drive a bulldozer or something. Vitale was headed for Benning for airborne. Kramer and I were going to Gordon to learn about radios.
"See you in the Nam," Novicki said.
"Not if I can help it," I replied.
"You're on your own there," Kramer said.
"Well then, I'll see ya in Hell. You'll all get *there* eventually."
"Take it slow, Novicki," Vitale said.
"Later," Novicki said as he weaved away bent over to fight the pull of his duffel bag.
We all looked at each other, shook our heads, and smiled.
About a year later I was working out of a place called My Tho in the delta of the Mekong River, and after slogging through the paddies, I thought about Novicki almost every week when I got back to base and read the list of KIAs in _The Stars and Stripes_ while my feet dried out in the NCO club. I thought of all of us he'd be the first.
Never saw his name, though. And a few weeks ago, when I finally made it to Washington to prove to the VA doctor that I could, I looked for his name in that guide book they have for the wall. Wasn't there. Vitale never made it back to his Corvette, though, and Kramer was engraved on the same panel. They'd been in the same issue of _The Stars and Stripes_, too.
I felt pretty lonely as I wheeled myself around the Capitol, which had gone on doing what it did as if Kramer and Vitale didn't change a thing. Young people in their twenties and thirties were walking around in suits like they knew everything there was to know. I thought about trying to find Novicki, but I couldn't remember where he'd come from, and I decided it wasn't a good idea, anyway, because I still don't feel comfortable being around anyone who knew me before 1968. So I imagined Novicki years older, with maybe a little gray around his ears, taking his kid to Little League, and maybe Boy Scouts, and even maybe teaching him a little hand to hand--trying to be the father he'd never had. I decided if he'd gotten that far, he'd probably been a pretty good one.