Chapter 35

Epilogue

"There are no great men. Just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet."

-Admiral William F. Halsey

NOVEMBER 13, 1982

Gomer and Lou Ann stood amid the throng of people in the Constitution Gardens, located in Washington, D.C. Twelve-year-old Vincent, wearing a baseball cap at a crooked angle the way his father always had, along with eleven-year-old Millicent, who'd been graced with Gomer's dark hair and Lou Ann's soft features, stood at their parents' side. A little ways off, their five-year-old twin daughters Norma and Grace played around the base of one of the statues. Duke and Morgan stood next to the Pyles, their ten-year-old son Will and seven-year-old daughter Starr with them. They were standing on the rise of a hill, looking down at the newly dedicated Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. The Wall's shiny black granite shone in the sun, reflecting the images of the veterans visiting it. Listed on its panels were the names of every known man and woman listed as MIA or KIA in the military conflict. Just when everyone had thought they'd been able to put the Vietnam years behind them, they had to go and erect this wall. The two men, dressed in their khaki service uniforms even though they were on vacation, both anticipated and dreaded the walk they'd have to take along its panels.

Duke sighed and turned to his friend. "Well, we've stalled long enough, don't you think?"

Gomer silently nodded. The two Marines slowly began making their way down to the beginning of the wall.

Vincent made a move to follow them, but Lou Ann laid her hands on his shoulders. The boy looked up at her, his wide brown eyes imploring. "But Ma, why cain't I go?"

"This is somethin' your daddy an' Lieutenant Colonel Slater got to do on their own." She told him gently. She knew the men had questioned whether or not to bring their families along, and from the get-go Lou Ann could tell that this would be painful for Gomer. She and Morgan both knew their place through unspoken agreement. They had come this far and would go no further in invading the privacy of their husbands. The time spent at the Wall itself was a journey for Duke and Gomer alone.

As the duo walked down to the Wall's start, they encountered a startlingly familiar figure in their path. The gray, weathered old man stood in a black sport coat, his back hunched against the chilly November wind. His right hand lay resting in his pocket. His recognizable scowl turned upon them as they came into his view.

"Sergeant! Sergeant Brooks!" Duke exclaimed in surprise.

"Hey, Sergeant! How are you?" Gomer extended his hand for a friendly shake, but the man made no move to accept it.

Brooks stood there, eying the two in their uniforms disparagingly. Finally, he spoke. "Whaddaya want?"

"How've you been?" Gomer asked. "Doin' well?"

"Well? Well?" Brooks slowly extracted his hand from the pocket and held it before them accusingly. "Does it look like I'm well?"

Gomer and Duke cringed as they took in the gruesome sight. Brooks' battle wound had crippled him for life, forcing him to retire from the Marine Corps. Red scars marked where his hand had been stitched back to his arm. The fingers were curled and disfigured. It was devoid of all movement, rendering the hand utterly useless.

"Gosh, Sarge. I…I'm sorry. I didn't know…" Duke stammered.

Brooks only grunted in reply, shoving his hand angrily back into its pocket.

"Sergeant? You seen the Wall yet?" Gomer pointed to the start of the slowly rising black panels.

"Yeah, yeah." He grumbled, striding away gruffly.

Gomer turned and called to him over his shoulder. "Have a nice day now, Sergeant!" He shrugged and the two started their walk down the Wall.

No recognizable names struck them at the beginning. Their service in the conflict hadn't been until the very end. But even though they didn't know any of the names at the beginning of the Wall, the massive amount of names struck a chord with them potently. They advanced slowly with the respect for men who had went before them.

They were three quarters of the way through when Gomer stopped and ran his hand over a name on one of the panels. "Lookit here, Duke. It's Private Winslow."

"Huh." Duke stood beside him, reading the name. "I remember him. Odd little guy, wasn't he? We hadn't been there too long…must have been '69."

Gomer nodded. "I won't never forget the say he done got blowed up by that mine…"

-

Gomer slowly crept forward through the jungle, hunched low, his rifle at the ready. He was situated at the rear of the line of troops. Duke, being platoon corporal, was patrolling up front with Sergeant Brooks. He never knew so much went into these patrolling missions. He had only been in Vietnam for a month or so, and was still getting readjusted to the conditions of actual battle.

He glanced up at the hot, fuzzy sky and wished it were just a little bit more gracious. The trees provided little to no respite; the humidity was far too stifling. He didn't know the sun could be so hot. It wasn't anything like the hot days at Camp Henderson or Mayberry!

Suddenly, the men stopped in their tracks. A loud explosion, accompanied by a shrill, terrified scream echoed through the trees ahead. Sergeant Brooks began to yell and several of the men hustled into action.

"What's goin' on?" Gomer asked, craning his head to see what the fuss was all about.

"It's Private Winslow. He stepped on a mine." John Redfoot, who'd been standing in front of him, curtly replied.

"GET HIM OUTTA HERE! CALL THE BAC SI! MOVE MOVE MOVE!" Brooks cried, pointing back in the direction they'd come.

Duke and Private Lancaster rushed down the ranks, carrying what was left of Winslow.

Gomer felt his stomach drop when he saw the private. The explosion had cost him two legs and an arm. His wounds were spilling blood profusely onto the jungle floor. He screamed hysterically as the two carried him away, his eyes rolling wildly. Gomer never forgot the haunted look on the man's face as he passed by. It was the expression of a man who knew he was about to die, and he was utterly terrified of that inevitable prospect.

"Oh, God, please…please, God, please…please!" Were the only coherent words he was able to cry out.

Gomer shook his head slowly, watching Duke and Lancaster as they carried the dying man off. "Lord have mercy on his poor soul," he murmured sadly.

-

They shivered involuntarily before slowly moving farther down the wall. They were no longer passively scanning the names on the Wall. They looked at the lists intently for the next name. They nodded at their fellow mourners and soldiers, a silent understanding as a result of their shared experiences between them.

Duke was the first to find the name. "Here he is, Gome." He pointed to one close to the base of one of the panels.

"Goll-ly, there's the Fargo Wagon." Gomer smiled wanly. "Duke, he was a real nice feller. Why do you think he went an' killed himself?"

Duke shook his head. He knew why. And that was something he would take to his grave. "He was addicted, Gomer. That's what did him in."

Gomer sighed sadly. "He was a real nice feller, too…"

-

Private First Class James C. Fargo sat on his helmet in the middle of the encampment, a thin paperback novel laying open on his lap. He studied the words intently, pushing his reading glasses farther up his nose to see more clearly.

Gomer caught sight of the solitary figure and went over join him. "Hey, Jim. How are you?"

"Number one, Gome." He answered, not even bothering to look up from the novel.

Gomer sat next to him in silence for a few minutes, then turned to him again. "What you readin'?"

"Common Sense." He curtly replied.

Gomer sat dumbfounded for a few moments. "Well, it may be for you, but it ain't too clear to me at all. You got your hand coverin' the title up, anyway."

"No, Gomer." Fargo sighed, closing the book and taking off his glasses. "Common Sense is the name of Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet. It describes the atrocities of the King's rule and the need for colonial independence in America. I had to do an in-depth study on it for my degree in American Political Studies at Cambridge."

"That's purdy long for a pamphlet." Gomer picked up the book and flipped through it. He opened it at one page and struggled to read a line of the text. "You sure this is English?"

"Yes!" Fargo snatched the book back. "Thomas Paine was one of the most influential British philosophers of the 18th century."

"I had to read a book once in school." Gomer smiled. "It was one about this girl an' a pig an' a spider. They was real nice brand-new books, too. It was a real nice story."

"You read Charlotte's Web?" Fargo laughed. "What grade? Fourth?"

Gomer shook his head. "No. Warn't that."

"Third? Second? First?"

"No…" Gomer frowned in concentration, counting on his fingers. "I guess I had to be about seventeen or eighteen, thereabouts."

"High school?" Fargo's eyes widened in surprise. "You read Charlotte's Web as a senior in high school?"

"Yep." Gomer grinned. "Took us all year to read it, too."

Fargo laughed and shook his head. "Wow. And here you are a rank ahead of me."

Gomer shrugged. "I still thought it was a nice book."

"You sure are somethin', Gome."

Gomer smiled. "You're purdy smart too, Jim."

-

Gomer shook his head and smiled. "It's a shame it had to end up for you that way, Jim." He turned to Duke. "Maybe, if we'd found out sooner, he would still be here. Do you think?"

Duke closed his eyes and shook his head. "No, Gome. Come on."

They moved over to the next panel and scanned the names along it. Duke reached up and brushed his fingers over one of the engravings. "There. There he is."

"Will? He was a right nice kid, too. Came from a small town like I did." Gomer nodded, remembering the young country boy. "He was real little to be over there."

"Yeah. I was with him when he died, you know." Duke shook his head, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. "He was a great kid…"

-

"You know what animals I always like best?" Will turned to Duke as the two sat down with their dinners one evening. The meager c-rations were for the most part tasteless. It was the company at dinnertime that made the break worthwhile. The boy looked over at the older corporal and smiled.

"No. What's that?" Duke turned to the young man companionably. Gomer had been assigned a utilities detail for tripping over the sergeant's foot earlier. Duke was on his own for dinner tonight. But Will was there. He'd always taken a liking to the boy. In a way, he reminded Duke of Gomer.

"Cattle. There's just something about cattle I really like." Will pushed around the rations on his plate. "Back home, when I used to do the milking, it was always my favorite time of the day. They're really friendly, in their own sense. The spring cattle drive was always the best time of the year, too. Riding alongside those cows all day." He shook his head and smiled. "It just don't get better than that."

Duke grinned and nodded. The kid was as enthusiastic about cows as Fargo was about his books. It was no wonder the two guys, coming from completely different walks of life, butted heads so regularly. But the boy was honest and diligent. He was all Montana rancher in the making. "Do any rodeo?"

"The roping events. That's the best part." Will smiled "Fact, that's how I met Fanny Maywater. She beat me in the Clark county rodeo these last two years now. Now Fanny, she can hog-tie a calf." His eyes shone admiringly for the high school sweetheart he'd left behind.

"How do the Marines compare to cattle?" Duke asked.

Will laughed. "The Marines is another thing entire, you know? I remember when I told Dad I got drafted. Thought he'd raise heck cause it meant dropping school. But he was real cool about it. Said it'd help me grow up."

Duke raised his eyebrows. As far as he could tell, Will was still a boy, a wide-eyed eagle scout stepping into the big leagues who still hadn't figured out what it was all about. "Good advice. Any regrets?"

Will shrugged. "Nope. I guess I'm still too young to have any of them hangin' over my head. I was kind of plannin' on dropping school anyway. It was taking too much time away from my cattle."

Duke laughed. "True enough."

"The Marines is different from cows, though. With cows, you just feel like they're there with you." Will murmured. "But with the Marines, you know. Make any sense to you?"

"Perfect sense." Duke smiled and patted the boy's back. Call it security, call it loyalty, call it camaraderie. A Marine always had his brothers' backs.

-

"I named my son after him." Duke wiped away his tears and shook his head. "He was too young to go. But he went. He went for his buddies. Most patriotic kid I ever met." His hand hovered over the name a final moment. "Nice knowing you, buddy."

The two officers turned to the next panel in search of the rest. Sure enough, carved right next to each other, were the names of the rest of the ill-fated first patrol.

'DANIEL W. LANCASTER'…

-

"Hey, wait up!" Private Lancaster ran across camp and jumped on top of Duke, giving him a noogie.

Duke laughed and threw the man over his shoulder. "Not so fast, Danny!"

Lancaster jumped to his feet and butted Duke in the chest with his head playfully. "Come on, say uncle!"

"Not this time!" Duke abruptly sat down and kicked Lancaster's feet out from under him. The private landed right on top of him, effectively pinning him to the ground.

"Got ya this time! Come on, say it!" He exclaimed gleefully.

"You're forgetting my secret weapon, Danny." Duke smiled and craned his neck as far as it could go. "Hey, Gomer! Help me out here!"

"Oh, no! Not your secret weapon!"

Duke only caught sight of Lancaster's horror-stricken face for a moment before he was blown aside by Gomer coming to his friend's aid. Lancaster tried to run off, but the duo was too fast for him. They tackled him and pinned him down so that he couldn't even move.

"Okay…okay…" Lancaster panted. "Uncle!"

Duke and Gomer backed off. "That's why you don't mess with the Henderson boys!" Duke crowed triumphantly.

"No fair! You two ganged up on me!" Lancaster cried.

"Oh, come on, Danny! Don't claim foul!"

"Sure, Danny. Why don't you jus' get yourself a teammate? Then we'd be even." Gomer added.

"It's not fair! It doesn't count!" Lancaster countered, laughing.

"Then why don't we just retry and get Shrenk over here to ref it this time? Then we'll see who's playing fair!"

"I'll do that!" Lancaster cried, running off in the direction of the tents. Duke laughed at the man's retreating back while Gomer could only smile.

-

Their eyes moved to the name next to it. 'JESS H. COCKLIN'…

-

"Hey, Trojan!" Duke called when he caught Cocklin hunched down over by one of the shrubs. "What are you doing?"

"Growing my own effing garden of my own effing food so I don't got to eat that effing shit they feed us," Cocklin grumbled in reply.

"Well, I know it rains a lot here, but it doesn't rain every day. What are you going to do to keep your crops alive during the dry spells?" Duke asked.

Cocklin grinned and held up one of his beer cans. "I was just watering them right now."

"Hey, fellers. What you doin'?" Gomer sat down next to them and picked up the roots lying at Cocklin's feet. "Been out scavagin' again?"

"Um, not exactly, Gomer…" Cocklin began.

Gomer nodded, listening as he took a bite of the root.

"Gomer, you don't want to eat that!" Duke cried.

"Well, why not?" Gomer asked nonchalantly, then suddenly screwed his face up. He turned and quickly spat it out in the shrub. "I ain't tasted that since Cambodier!"

Cocklin sheepishly held up his can. "Sorry, Gome. I know how touchy you get about alcohol."

Duke stifled a laugh as Gomer just shook his head.

-

Finally, Gomer and Duke looked at the last name on the row. 'THOMAS A. REEVES'…

-

"And so this guy comes up to me and says, 'Sorry, dude. But that's my hot dog!'" Reeves concluded.

Gomer and Duke laughed. The trio was trapped in the private's tent, finding momentary respite from the torrential downpour occurring right outside. They all knew that at any moment Brooks would rouse them and pull them from the shelter of their tents. Their sergeant loved making them run in the heavy rain.

"Come on, Tom. Your draw." Duke gestured to the deck, holding his own hand secretively.

"I don't have to. I got gin." Reeves laughed, setting the cards down for Duke to see.

The corporal only glanced at them before throwing his hand in. "Well, there goes my spare canteen."

"And I'll be needing it for that first patrol mission tomorrow, too!" Reeves added happily.

"Cain I play?" Gomer asked, picking up a handful of cards. He looked at them for a moment before his eyes widened in surprise. "There's pitchers of girls on these cards!"

Reeves shrugged. "Sure. What else?"

Gomer quickly dropped them as if they were on fire. "Shame, shame, shame!" He shook his head reprovingly.

"Hey, if I'm gonna strain my eyes over a bunch of cards for a few hours, I might as well look at something nice." Reeves grinned and held up the ace of spades. "Aren't these some lookers, though?"

"Hey, lay off. Gomer doesn't buy into that." Duke intervened sternly. "Some of us already got lookers back home."

Gomer looked bleakly out at the pelting rain. "You know what? I write Lou Ann about how it rains for days here, an' she cain't hardly believe it. Why do you think it jus' goes on an' on like that here?" He hugged his knees in an effort to protect himself against the prevailing damp.

Duke shrugged. "I don't know. Climate, I guess."

"No, no." Reeves shook his head. "I know why it rains like that all the time."

"Why's that?" Gomer asked.

"It's urban legend, what I've been told." Reeves shrugged. "Well…they say it's all the people who's been killed in this goddamned war, crying down on us."

Duke nodded his head. "Sounds all right to me."

Reeves looked out through the tent flap at the falling rain. "You think the Fargo Wagon's out there crying over us?"

The three sat in silence, shivering, until Brooks called them out for the run.

-

Gomer and Duke bowed their heads for a moment before straightening and moving a little further down the wall. Neither said a word. They both knew whose name would appear next. Wordlessly, they both scanned for it.

As he searched, Gomer couldn't help but appreciate how shiny and clear the black marble was. He could see himself when he scanned the names. He turned and looked ahead. Where the wall ended, he could see the Lincoln Memorial standing what seemed to be squarely at the end of the path. The sun cast the memorial's sidelong reflection in the marble as well. In fact, Lincoln's statue almost seemed to be pointing right at…

"Will you look at that," Gomer murmured, pointing to the top of the panel. "There he is."

Duke followed his gaze and swallowed, nodding. "Yup. There he is."

'JOHNATHAN P. SHRENK.'

A diamond engraved into the stone preceded his name, denoting that he was confirmed dead.

A chilly November breeze riffled by the two men, but they hardly felt it. They were both thinking back on the friendly lieutenant who had done everything he possibly could for his men…

-

"…And you be careful about how you carry those hand grenades, okay Walker?" Lieutenant Shrenk clapped the private heartily on the back.

"Okay. Thanks, Shrenk." Private Walker Hughes took the proffered ammo and moved away in the direction of his tent.

Shrenk stood in his authoritive, nonchalant stance and scanned the encampment as he lit a cigarette. He took a long draw, watching the smoke he exhaled disappear into the sky above. This was the only moment he found that offered respite from his harrowing job. Turning back to the men, he caught sight of Gomer and Duke. He smiled and strolled over their way. "Hey, if it isn't my boys! How's it goin'?"

"Number ten, Shrenk." Gomer answered, groping around on the ground beside Duke. "I done took off my weddin' ring so I could clean the inside of my rifle an' I lost it."

"Of course he would just have to lose it," Duke grumbled. "And I'm stuck helping him look for it."

Shrenk glanced at something in his palm "It wouldn't happen to be gold, plain on the outside, with 'June 17, 1969' inscribed on the inside?"

Gomer jumped up. "That's it! Thank you, Shrenk! Where was it?"

Shrenk tossed him the ring and gave him a cockeyed grin. "Under your helmet."

"Oh, now I remember! That's where I put it so's I wouldn't lose it to begin with!" Gomer smiled, slipping the band back on its rightful finger.

Duke rolled his eyes. "Oh, brother."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Gomer cried. "I never would've found it without you, Shrenk."

"Sure you would. Next time you picked up your helmet." Shrenk laughed, putting out his cigarette with his foot. "Now that the crisis is solved, I wanted to give you guys the heads up. Couple of Charlie spies opened fire on the other part of this camp last night. Bad stuff. Had some of our guys killed. Since we know they're in the area, we're on the alert. So unless you're armed, keep away from the edge of camp, okay?"

Duke nodded. "Got it, Shrenk."

"Yeah, well, I gotta go police the camp, spread the word around the rest of the men." Shrenk began moving off.

"Have fun," Gomer said in parting.

The lieutenant grunted in reply. "You think it's fun playing nursemaid to a bunch of sorry sods who don't know right from left? You should try it sometime and see what it does to you!"

Gomer, taken aback at the reply, looked stunned. "Goll-ly, I sure am sorry, Shrenk. I didn't mean it that way." He turned his gaze down at the ground.

The lieutenant turned back to them, the grim smile back in place. "Hey, it's on the number one, you hear? Look, I shouldn't be the one getting short with my men. Got this temper, you know?" He laughed, shaking his head as he gave them both sharp blows to the back. "CYA and get outta here, all right?"

-

Gomer studied the name. It seemed ironic that Shrenk's name ended up right at the top of the panel, centered in the row of names. He slowly smiled. "He'd be tickled to death to see his name right there like that."

"You think?" Duke murmured beside him.

"Uh-huh." Gomer nodded emphatically. "You know what else, Duke? I think he wanted it to be this way."

Duke thought back on all the lieutenant had said and caught Gomer's meaning. "Yeah…Yeah, Gome. I think you're right."

They finished silently paying the man their last respects and slowly walked toward the end of the Wall. They slung their arms over each other's shoulders and laughed companionably as the granite beside them slowly receded back into the ground. It was as though the two had just relived a terrifying nightmare and reveled in the fact that it was finally behind them. They only paused once more to read the inscription on the final panel.

'OUR NATION HONORS THE COURAGE, SACRIFICE, AND DEVOTION TO DUTY AND COUNTRY OF ITS VIETNAM VETERANS. THIS MEMORIAL WAS BUILT WITH PRIVATE CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. NOVEMBER 11, 1982.'

"Isn't it ironic?" Duke breathed. "It wasn't all that long ago that everyone wanted to forget. Now they want us to remember."

"But…Duke? That inscription ain't right. It's got it all wrong." Gomer frowned as he finished reading the words. "It warn't duty or country an' all that." He inclined his head back in the direction of the Wall. "It was them fellers back there."

"Yeah." Duke smiled. "But that's something the world may never know."

America could pick and choose what she wanted to remember. She could choose her heroes with abandon, bestowing the title on anyone who came along on whom her people could feel a tidal wave of false hope and security. Little did she know, there were no such heroes as she described. The names on the wall were no faceless heroes. They may have been Marines, they may have been soldiers. But in the end, all of them were simply just men.

Gomer and Duke's silhouettes cast long shadows across the Wall as they slowly re-climbed the hill to join their families.

-

APRIL 5th, 1988

"My name is Carter. Gunnery Sergeant Vincent Carter. Remember that name, because it'll be the only name important to you from now on." Carter eyed the young boots lined up before him warily. Climbing in years but not in vivacity, Carter had requested a DI position and had been granted it. Now, entering the twilight of his career, he was determined to take one last platoon from the very beginning to the top. And he vowed that this one would be his best yet.

He was as short and scrappy as he ever was. His hair had almost completely grayed and his face was lined with age. But he still carried himself as proud and upright as he had when he was younger. He almost lost his Smokey the Bear hat as he whirled around in a neat and precise facing. What were people talking about? He hadn't lost his old touch! He could still train a Marine as good or better as any of them! Even Sergeant Boyle! Hadn't Pyle been proof of that?

He set his hat further down on his face, frowning stonily at the recruits as he marched up and down before them. "I am your senior drill instructor. Your momma and your poppa. I will be watching over you every single minute!"

"Poppa? He's so ancient, he could be our grandfather!" One of the men snickered.

"Shh! That ain't nice at all!" The young man standing next to him whispered in reply.

"You men are going to try to become Marines," Carter continued. "You will be following in the footsteps of men who have served from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."

Out of the corner of Carter's eye, he caught one of the men whispering to another. He marched right up to the perpetrator and came face to face with a tall, dark-haired recruit with a dopey, hangdog expression on his face. "What did you say, private?"

"I was jus' sayin' how that's from the Marine Hymn an' I know all the words to it. I really do."

"Huh?" A strange feeling of deja-vu befell the sergeant.

"Uh-huh. You know why? One time when I was a boy, my daddy, he left one of his trainin' manuals out with the words printed on the back of it, that's how come I learned it."

"State your name, Private." Carter barked.

The young man simply grinned. "You know my name, Sergeant. It's Vincent, same as yourn."

"Private, in the Marines you are known by your surname and surname only! Is that clear?"

"Clear as the spots on a bobcat. You know what, Sergeant? I cain see your nose hairs when you look up at me like that."

Carter frowned and shook his head. "Just state your name!"

"Pyle, sir!" The boy drew himself up as he said it.

"Pyle, you will not speak unless spoken to from now on!"

"Yes, sir. An' I sure am sorry, sir. I guess it's cause it's my first day an' I'm real excited an' all. You know how long I waited to join the Marines? My whole life, is what."

"Two weeks' KP for talking!" Carter growled before stepping away. Inside, he was moaning. Oh, boy. Here we go again! He had known this was coming. Major Pyle had even called him last night to tell him that his son had his enlistment papers in order and was ready to report the next morning. But it still was a lot harder than he'd anticipated.

If he thinks he's going to get special treatment because he's my godson, he's got another thing coming! Carter thought smugly before resuming his 'welcome aboard' speech. "All of your standard issue items will be kept in this bucket." He picked up one of the metal buckets for the men to see. "Your toothbrush, your comb, your razor. You will be assigned one bunk, one locker, one rifle and one footlocker…" He whirled around as he caught Vincent waving his hand in the air. "What is it now, Pyle?"

Vincent smiled and lowered his hand. "Scuse me, Sergeant. But I was wonderin'. Cain we request whether or not we get a top bunk or a bottom bunk? Cause I'd really like to have a bottom one. You see, I found out when I was five that I kinder get nosebleeds at high altitudes. So I really would just like it if I didn't take that chance. Now, I don't want to be forward or nuthin', but do you think that would be all right if I slept on the bottom anyway? I'm sure the other fellers won't mind."

Carter frowned in disgust. "What do you think this is, the girl scouts? LIKE I SAID, YOUR BUNK WILL BE ASSIGNED!"

He turned back to the rest of the men. "The purpose of the platoon is for every man to work together and pull his own weight in order to accomplish a task. You will be training over obstacle courses, hiking with full combat gear, and completing basic training lessons. You will be held responsible not only for keeping your own belongings squared away, you will also have to work together to keep the barracks and surrounding area immaculate. I may even assign extra details as I see fit." He turned around to start up the line from the other direction. His shoulders slumped as he caught sight of Vincent waving his hand again. "No, Pyle, you don't get to pick the details!"

"It warn't that." Vincent lowered his hand. "I was jus' wonderin'. What kinder basic lessons are we gonna be learnin'? Do they got anythin' to do with figures? Cause I ain't very good with figures. I never was. They jus' get me so confused an' turned around what with all them columns an' such? Never understood that." He shook his head. "But if they's readin' lessons, well, readin' I cain do, so long as I take it slow. But writin', now that's somethin' I cain do. You should see my printin'. Ma jus' praises it to high heaven! She's got a lot of my printin' on the refrigerator back home. Have you seen it yet, Sergeant? It's jus' the purdiest…"

Carter roughly clapped a hand over the boy's mouth. "There are no figures, no books, and no printing! And I hate to burst your bubble, but with all the other things we needed to fit in, there was no time left over for recess!" He withdrew his hand, frowning in frustration at the recruit.

"Really? That's a shame. Recess always was my best subject."

Carter stifled a groan, trying desperately to continue his speech. "In the Marine Corps, there is no room for tardiness and orders are to be followed once given. That means you will get up at reveille and be ready for morning roll call! You will present yourselves to all superior officers with the utmost respect! When I say jump, you will jump! When I say run, you will run! You will do everything I say without question."

He whirled around, only to find the troublesome recruit waving his arm around again. Must the kid have a rebuttal for everything? "PYLE!" He strode up to the boy and got in his face once again. "Make your explanation quick this time, and for your sake it better be good!"

"It sure is." Vincent grinned and put his hand down. "It was what you said about treatin' all your superior officers with respect. Since I'm in the Marines now, that makes my daddy a superior officer, don't it? Now, when I was growin' up, we'd always use to play on the floor an' bump into the furniture an' Ma would get real mad. We still do that sometimes. I was jus' wonderin' if I cain't do that anymore, cause it may be bein' disrespectful in some way."

Carter studied the boy, feeling as though he were about to be sick. "Pyle…"

"Yes, Sergeant?"

"You hate me, don't you?"

Vincent smiled at him. "Oh, no, Sergeant. I like you. I like you a lot. After all we been through together, how cain't I? All them years of babysittin', rockin', diaper changin'…"

Carter heated up instantly. "PYLE! THAT'S ENOUGH! I DO NOT WANT TO SEE THAT HAND UP OR HEAR ANY MORE OF YOUR STUPID QUESTIONS AGAIN! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

Vincent looked at the ground like a scolded puppy. "Yes, Sergeant."

Carter breezed past the men, anxious to make up for lost time. "You are not in the Army and you're not in the Navy! You are amphibious troops! You will be training on both the land and the sea! You will use our terminology and partake in all of our customs! So when I say hit the deck, you will hit the deck! When I say you always wear your covers outside, you will wear your covers outside! When I say…"

This time when he turned around, he caught Vincent whispering to the man standing next to him.

"…An' I ain't never been on a real boat before, 'cept this one time my Uncle Goober took me out on his fishin' boat when I was seven. That was a lot of fun. An' I caught three big fish, too! But I ain't never been on one of them great big boats, even though I seen a lot of 'em before. You think them big boats rock around as much as Uncle Goober's boat? Cause if they do, then I may have some problems with gettin' a little green under the collar? You see, that kinder happens when I get rocked around for long periods of time…"

Carter's face slowly turned purple. His eyes bulged from their sockets and his head shook with fury. Everything in his visage turned red. His fists clenched and unclenched themselves at his sides. Finally, when he could hold it in no longer, he let it blow.

"PYYYYYYYYYLLLLLLE!"

-

Later that evening, Carter entered the office and strode up to the desk. He stopped and saluted smartly. "Sergeant Carter reporting as ordered, sir!"

Major Gomer Pyle grinned and saluted him back. "Goll-ly, Sergeant. This sure does feel funny, don't it?"

He got no reply. Carter still stood at attention.

"Oh. You cain relax now, Sergeant." Gomer murmured, sitting down on the edge of his desk. The years had done little to change his appearance. His wide brown eyes and infectious smile still held the same vivacity of his son's. He still stood as straight and tall as he had twenty years ago, looking every bit the six foot he was. His face had weathered slightly with age and his jet-black hair was touched with gray at the temples, giving him a distinguished look that came with graceful aging.

Carter's shoulders slumped and he smiled at the major. "Thanks, Pyle. Well, how are Lou Ann and the girls?"

Gomer laughed and smiled. "Purdy as ever an' gettin' purdier by the day. An' Miss Bunny, she doin' all right?"

"Fine, fine. She says thank you for inviting her over to dinner the other night." Carter replied. "I have to say, though, I was surprised when you called me down here. Working late again?"

"Kind of." Gomer reached down and moved some papers aside. "What I really wanted to know is how Vincent's workin' out."

Carter sighed. He might as well tell it to Pyle straight. "I don't mean any disrespect, sir, but your son is one of the stupidest recruits to ever come under my command! He's ignorant, he's goofy, he doesn't know when to shut his mouth, gets stuck on the smallest of things, frets over nothing, never stops smiling, the slowest mover in the platoon, can't get into step for the life of him, leaves his gear all over the place, and gets himself into the worst trouble imaginable!"

Carter paced angrily, shaking his head. "In other words, he's exactly like you when you joined up!"

Major Gomer Pyle smiled reflectively. "Well, I guess that means he's gonna turn out all right, won't he, Sergeant?"

The grizzled sergeant stopped his pacing and looked for a long time at the man sitting on his desk before him. He'd come a long way from the very first day they'd known each other. And the longer he thought about it, the more Carter realized he wouldn't have traded being a part of it for the world. He put a hand on Pyle's shoulder, a smile slowly spreading across his face. "Yeah. Yeah, he certainly will."