I sat for another forty-five minutes, not really thinking about anything. The bar was starting to fill up with the usual cast and there weren’t that many stools open. I ordered another beer. The bartender was busy flirting and pushing her cleavage in the faces of better looking guys who would probably tip better, so I went to take a piss. When I got back, my beer was waiting for me, and the stool next to me was occupied by an older guy with no neck who was as tall as he was wide and bald.
He saw me sit down and nodded in my direction. “How ya doin?”
I nodded back, wondering if there was a sign over my head that read TALK TO ME. I CARE ABOUT YOUR THOUGHTS.
We sat in a wonderful silence until the sports channel pundits started talking politics. As if their thoughts on the latest baseball scores and their insipid need to think they’re entertaining somebody besides themselves wasn’t annoying enough – they felt like they had to talk about politics.
“It won’t be long now,” He said to no one in particular.
Great. I didn’t answer him or even look in his direction. No one else did either.
“It won’t be long boys, til we’re living in the Socialist States of America.”
But the guy on the other side of him took the bait. “Whadoya mean?” And that was all this guy needed to get rolling. He took a breath like he was getting ready to start a prepared speech.
“It’s just that the way things are going, democracy is going out the window. Take health care for example. They wanna put on us socialized medicine – you know, RATIONED medicine – like they have it in Canada and Britain. But it doesn’t work. We got the best system of health care in the world and it’s going down the tubes.”
The moron on the other side of him grunted something about “fucking commies.” Apparently he took this as a hint that he should keep talking. I was trying to focus on my beer.
“And then there’s the war. The President wants to take us out of the Middle East. But you know what? He’s a Muslim. They have pictures of him attending a Muslim School. And he shouldn’t have even been able to RUN for President! He wasn’t born here.”
The guy whose face I was fantasizing about smashing in nodded his empty head in agreement. “Damn right. Muslims. Kill ‘em all.”
“Yeah,” he nodded in agreement with himself as he sat taller in his barstool and looked around. “Pretty soon we’re gonna be payin’ higher taxes and havin’ the government in ALL our business.”
“Yeah,” said the gruntamatic.
I drained my beer and told the bartender to pour me another. I usually didn’t get involved in political discussions, at the bar or anywhere else. All it ever turned into was a headache. One of the “he said, he said, she said” kind of discussions that never really goes anywhere. Politics was one of those things that people talked about just to sound smart – even if it rarely worked.
“People are lovin’ him now. But wait and see. Pretty soon there won’t be anything left.”
The bartender interrupted him. “You want another one Sarge?”
Sarge. The pieces started to fit together. Ex-military guys all have that same swagger. What was it my dad used tell me? “You can take the man out of the military, but you can’t take the military out of the man.” Never was there a truer thing said. Dad was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant. But the only thing that really changed about him was he wasn’t in uniform. He woke up before dawn everyday – even on the weekends. He shaved every morning. Cut his hair when it hinted at touching his collar. And when he wanted something done – you could damn well count on it being done, exactly the way he wanted it.
Sarge smiled and nodded. “Sure do, darlin’.” He waited until she brought him another beer and walked away before he started talking again. “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eatin’ crackers,” he said. The gruntamatic nodded in agreement and eyed the bartender with not too subtle thoughts etched into his face.
“But what was I talking about? Oh, yeah.” He took a drink of his beer. “Not that the last administration was any better. But at least they had the military down right, you know?”
I was telling myself that smacking this old guy in the back of the head would just get me tossed out of the bar. There were other bars I could go to – but none of them were as close. The choice between walking more and listening to more of Sarge’s bullshit was tough. One the one hand, it was clear that he was full of bullshit and that most everybody except the stubble faced dumbass on the other side of him seemed to ignore him. On the other hand, the silence would have been nice.
Politics made me sick. I thought about the recruiters who called me before I was out of high school. They promised me college money, a career, and a sense of pride. They said I had the aptitude to do pretty much whatever I wanted – I guess they based that on some test or another that I’d taken. We filled out so many bubble forms – so many exams, pre-tests, practice tests, surveys – that one more didn’t make a difference. We used to get out of regular classes just to sit in the cafeteria and fill out the forms, so I didn’t really care about anything other than the fact that I didn’t have to sit through algebra. I didn’t even read the questions. I made designs and pictures. Little dots in the shape of boats, cars, smiley faces.
As a kid, political discussions I saw almost always ended in one of two ways. A couple of drunks got together and started talking politics. The President did this. The President shouldn’t do that. Congress should impeach him. Congress is owned by the corporations. Congress is owned by the mega-churches. The entire government is in the back pocket of the World Bank. After a while, the two people talking (it was never a group discussion. Most people have better sense than to interrupt a couple of assholes bitching about politics) would either agree with one another or they’d start yelling and somebody would get punched. The only people who seemed to be able to talk politics without getting punched or punching somebody else were politicians. And nothing they ever said made any sense to me.
Dad wasn’t one to talk politics; not that he didn’t have his opinions, or that he wouldn’t let you know exactly what he thought when he thought you needed to know. But I think mostly he knew there was no point in arguing about it. Arguing politics never changed anybody’s mind. I remember trying to watch debates on TV with him. Most of what they said was some slightly different version of what their opponent said, and for the most part, except for their names, they were interchangeable. As I got older, I started to notice that things changed very little regardless of who was in office. Some things just don’t change. Not really.
I almost managed to drown Sarge out of my head until I he proclaimed with all the authority of his second beer, “The truth is, the most stable form of government is a military dictatorship.”
I looked down at my beer and briefly thought about abandoning it. Fuck that. I wasn’t about to walk away just because of one asshole. I looked around the bar. There were no open stools.
“The problem with democracy,” he went on, “is that it depends on people to do the right thing. Sure there are laws, but people get away with a lot of shit. In a military dictatorship, for example, there wouldn’t be any question about the war, or joining the military. Service would be COMPULSORY. So all these egg heads and intellectuals who run things would have to stop their shit or get mowed over.”
The gruntamatic answered with an affirmative nod and a grunt. I guess neither of them had ever heard of the draft, back when we had one.
Once when I was thirteen, I told my Dad I wanted to join the military. I was expecting him to smile and be proud. The son who wanted to follow in his footsteps. All he did was look at me and ask me why.
I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know. It seems cool.”
“What ‘seems cool’ about it?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “I think it might be cool to fly jet planes.”
“You know that not everyone gets to do that, right?”
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t other things just as important.”
“It’s just not as easy as it sounds.”
We didn’t talk about it again after that. But as I got older I think I started to understand what he was trying to say in a round about way. He’d dropped out of high school and joined up when he was seventeen. He got away with it mostly because the teachers were glad to be rid of him and it was one less mouth to feed at home. And he clearly enjoyed something about it. He stayed in for twenty years. But I think maybe he wanted something else for his kids. Something better. Something different. He was always talking about having options.
I wondered what kind of options Sarge had when he was kid. Not that it made much difference. He was still as annoying as hell, and there was nothing he said that he hadn’t heard on Fox News or a.m. talk radio. The mouthpiece changes, but the sound stays the same. He was giving me a headache. It’s amazing how the same shit ideas recycle themselves over and over again. I wondered if Sarge had his own private compound with stockpiles of guns and beef jerky. Maybe he was one of those guys who had a website loaded with misspelled words and wrongly attributed quotes. Maybe he ran a small newsletter out of his house with a circulation of twenty people who had turned their social security cards into the court house.
I used to know a guy like that. Terry. I met him after Dad died. He gave me all these pamphlets and print outs about how the government used military personnel as guinea pigs. I didn’t know what to think about any of it; but it was better to have a reason than to accept all the church-laden bullshit I had been hearing up to that point. Eventually, Terry turned in his social security card and driver’s license, proclaiming to the very confused clerk that he “wasn’t gonna be a tool of the machine anymore,” and that she – a matronly little church going woman with silver hair and spider-rimmed bifocal that she kept on a chain so’s not to lose them – “could tell those mother fuckers” he was onto them and their game. “No one’s gonna own ME! YOU’RE ALL SLAVES!!” he screamed and left before court house security had chance to escort him out of the building. He’d take heavy doses of acid, climb up onto the roof of his house, and point at sky, claiming that the black helicopters were coming to take him away. Terry ended up taking one too many trip, and the last I heard of him he was catatonic in a state hospital somewhere in Kentucky.
Sarge didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who took heavy drugs; but he did strike me as the type who might benefit from trying them.
“And now that they’re getting rid of paper money,” he said, “and with this ‘banking crisis’ (he made parenthetical signs with his hands) look for the World Bank and the IMF to come and consolidate everything. That’s what they’re doing in the European Union. Pretty soon, we won’t be spending dollars anymore. We’ll be spending Euros.”
“Yeah,” the gruntamatic grunted. “An’ we’ll be speakin’ Spanish.”
Sarge laughed in agreement. I drained my beer and paid my tab. The bartender smiled at me, probably hoping for a better tip. When I left, Sarge was still talking and the gruntamatic was still grunting. When I walked outside, the sun was going down in the west. The sky was clear of black helicopters and clouds.