A Sad Refrain
Greg: And, poof! There he was … gone … Del … my classmate … my bandmate … my best friend. I was devastated. The plan … over. College starting next week. Leaving home. Moving into a dorm. No Del. Band over. Cassandra back to high school. What the fuck happened?
I tried to put myself in his shoes. No place to live? I knew he was envious of what Cassandra and I had found, but hadn’t we always gone out of our way to include him in everything? Could it have been painful for him to see our happiness? Yeah, he owed money to my Dad, but that shouldn’t have been a big deal, not to my Dad, anyway.
The worst part … I felt like Del was moving on without me. He was pursuing a dream. He was going for it. I was being a sheep and just doing what was expected of me. I had never in my life been so depressed.
bonus segment: here’s the elder Greg’s original performance.
Del: Now we’re able to laugh about it, but there was nothing to laugh about then. I felt certain that it was time for me to leave, but there was nothing else certain about my life.
I didn’t know where I would live, where my next meal would come from. Looking back I see a mixed-up kid whose emotions were all over the map. I was scared shitless, but utterly confident that I was doing the right thing. To read my letters home you’d think I was having the time of my life.
But … the reality was an entirely different story. I’m living in a rented room in a sleazy building, eating crap food, working a shit job that pays next to nothing. You can hear it in the music I was doing …
Six Separate Planets
Greg: That first semester at college seemed to last forever. Cassandra was bugging me to teach her the guitar, and she picked it up pretty quickly. Then she wanted me to teach her Six Separate Planets which was another Little Prince song I had written the previous summer, although we had never played it in Grendel. It suited my mood of the moment pretty well, because I felt like I was on my own lonely planet at the moment. Next, after the New Year, she decided to make her professional debut at the Tuesday at the same club where Grendel was born, the Tete a Tete, rebranded as the Carnaby Cafe following the British Invasion.
She did a nice job with the song, even though she was nervous. As soon as she finished, a voice from the back called out, “Play Soldier Boy.”
Greg: We swiveled around to see who made the request, and there’s Del standing in full dress uniform! To call us shocked is an understatement. Was this some kind of joke? We assumed Del was in New York, finding his way in the music world. We hadn’t heard much from him in the last few months. Just a few really upbeat letters.
Here’s the evening through the gauze of memory.
The Last Weekend
Greg: The stories came flooding out. While we thought Del was in New York, paying his musical dues, he was in basic training. Now he had a three-day pass before he had to report to Fayetteville, North Carolina pending assignment. “Fayette-nam” joked Del. No one laughed.
Del: I came clean on the fact that life had spiraled downward much faster than I ever anticipated. Despite the humiliation of it all, Greg and Cassandra were as rapt and attentive as I had been last summer (Man! … was it just last summer?) listening to Cassandra reading from Le Petit Prince.
We laughed, we cried, we sang, we toasted, we promised, we swore … we did it again. We packed half a lifetime into those three days. If something happened to me in Vietnam, hey … at least I had lived more than half a lifetime.
Del: On Saturday night, the Brewsters put on a big, celebratory dinner for me. I was wearing borrowed civvies of Greg’s. His two sisters were there, Cassandra, and his mother and father. His mother pulled out all the stops on dinners, and Mr. Brewster was the expansive host. He even let Cassandra and Greg’s younger sister, both still in high school, have a glass of wine.
We made a round of toasts. When Cassandra’s turn came she said “Three years. It’s not that long. Greg will be a Junior in college and I’ll be a Sophomore. Del will come home and we’ll start a new band.”
“The $64,000 question is, what will be the name of the new band?” asked Greg.
“‘Grendel,’ silly boy” said Cassandra. “We’ll take Rhode Island by storm, then take off to New York and do the same.”
“First, we’ve gotta kick Lou Reed’s ass,” said Greg.
“One thing,” I said, “It shouldn’t take me three whole years to win this war.”
It was Mr. Brewster’s turn. “I’m believing Cassandra,” he said, raising his glass.
That set the tone for the rest of the weekend. We’d pass each other in the hallways, raise our arms and shout “I BELIEVE!” We’d pour a cup of coffee and … “I BELIEVE!” Even Mrs. Brewster was believing that weekend.
Only took me about 40 years to write a song about it, but eventually I did. Here it is performed by a band that call themselves The Spawn of Grendel:
Del: On Sunday morning of the Last Weekend I got up early, even though we had been up late. I went into the kitchen to make coffee. Cassandra was already there. She beat me to the punch.
We were futzing around, and she grabbed my hand. I knew this was the moment, but for what …?
“I …” I stammered, ready to profess my love. She held up her other hand to stop me. “Me, too,” she said. Then, she drew me closer and kissed me quickly. “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
“Greg’s my best friend,” I said.
“You won’t be cheating,” she said. “I’ll be Pamela, you’ll be Johnny. Sweet dreams.” And she kissed me again … maybe a second longer. The entire encounter was less than a minute, and that minute kept me going for … so many years.
Keep Your Powder Dry
Greg: We dropped off Del at the bus station for his trip to Fayette-nam. We all cried, not knowing when, or even if, we’d be together again. Cassandra said “It’s going to be ok. We’re going to get through this. We’ll be together again.”
I said “I’m believing Cassandra” and put my hand on her shoulder. Del put his hand on mine and said “I’m believing Cassandra.” Then he turned to board the bus.
Afterwards, we were drained.
That night I tried writing Del a letter. I intended that it be honest and sincere, but it quickly deteriorated into the realm of male banter. I knew it was a cliche, but I signed off with keep your powder dry.
Del: The next three weeks were an advanced course in tedium, interrupted only by letters from Greg and Cassandra and nightly dreams of Pamela. An air of fatalism hovered over Fayette-nam, and it didn’t disappoint us. We finally got our marching orders, and our unit was getting an expense-paid excursion to Southeast Asia!
Suite Dreams: Pamela & Johnny
Del: The life in Fayette-nam was an intensive exercise in tedium. There was nothing for unit to do while awaiting orders. Occasionally we’d be put through bullshit drills, but mostly it was boring, waiting for the ax to fall.
I read a few books, borrowed a guitar to play, made believe I was writing new music, and spending endless hours reliving events of The Last Weekend, especially the brief interaction with Cassandra on Sunday morning. Did she know I was going to say “I love you,” and did she stop me because she loved me, too. Or, did she stop me so that she wouldn’t have to say that she didn’t feel the same way. Or, was she just giving a scared, lonely boy a piece of driftwood to cling to.
And what did she mean when she said “I’ll see you in my dreams,” and came up with the personae of Pamela and Johnny? I didn’t know, and in some ways I didn’t want to know. That left me free to enjoy my own fantasies.
Welcome to my dreams!
The marching orders came eventually. We were headed to Saigon. After the weeks of waiting, news that we were shipping out came as a relief. They shipped to Camp Pendleton in California for a couple more weeks of waiting around, then … we’re off to the war!
The 20-foot Snake
Greg: You watch the news. You hear the body counts. Suddenly, everything took on a new dimension. Reality … I guess it’s called. Del didn’t write a lot, but he did tell us he was wounded in a training accident. I wasn’t until many years later when we heard more of the story. Mostly he sounded pretty miserable and depressed. Once in a while he would send a reel-to-reel tape of a song.
Greg: I thought a lot about the discrepancies in life. I was building up more and more rage about the folly of this war in Vietnam, but I’m doing it from the safety and comfort of a college dorm room where my biggest worry was whether or not I would wake up in time for my econ class.
I hated the war, but I didn’t hate the soldiers. I did hate the fact that most of them were there, because they didn’t have the privileges that I enjoyed with my student deferment. And, honestly, if the deferment went away, I would (admittedly with Daddy’s help) probably find a doctor who would send a letter saying I had flat feet, or something equally flimsy.
This led me more broadly to thinking about human migration. The Brewster family was so proud that they were among the travelers on the Mayflower, but were they brave pioneers for setting off to live in foreign lands. Or, were they kicked out? Were they the losers who lacked the privilege and resources to stay in the homeland?
I haven’t really come up with the answer to that one yet. Once thing was crystal clear … I was the one who stayed, and Del was the one who had to go.
Those Who Stay and Those Who Go
Felt queasy in my easy chair
About those who left and those who stayed
About dire deaths and deep despair
Of innocence lost in the fray
Make sure you write least once a week
To assuage the guilt of us who stayed
Wrapped up in life mundane and bleak
We oft forgot to check the mail
The welcome home was short not sweet
So many fought the will to live
While we in shame looked at our feet
And I for one won’t soon forgive
In one of my classes I learned that there are two basic stories in the world: a man sets off on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Which one was which?
I was definitely feeling queasy in my easy chair.
Songs from Vietnam
Del: I got out of the hospital in Saigon and was temporarily assigned to the office of the quartermaster. Our job, collectively to make sure equipment, materials and systems were available and functioning for missions. This was good, because I was safely out of harm’s way, but it filled me with survivor’s guilt.
Greg: As time went by, and the Vietnam War dragged on, I became increasingly uneasy. My anger at the U.S. Government grew sharply, while at the same time I felt embarrassed by the fact that I was ensconced in an ivory tower of privilege. The people fighting this idiotic war were uneducated, underprivileged, black or Hispanic. And while I felt some level of sympathy, it was nowhere near enough for to give up the comfort of my student deferment. I ranted, I marched, and I wrote letters to Del, mostly about music stuff.
Del: I treasured Greg’s and Cassandra’s letters, but my response weren’t very inspired. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about life in Vietnam. It toggled between excruciatingly boring and terrifying. Like most everyone here, I got as high as I could as often as I could. My unit was out in the field, and getting shredded. I went through basic with those guys. If we were taught one thing, it was to have each other’s backs. I wasn’t doing my part.
Greg: I was a hypocrite, and proud of it. I ached for Del, but at the same time thought he was an idiot for his decisions. He could be drinking beer, smoking dope, making music and having sex like all the rest of us. Fucking, stubborn idiot!
Del: Life was getting pretty damn confusing.
Then things got worse!
Some asshole sitting behind a desk in the Pentagon thought it would be a good idea for the next of kin for every deceased soldier to receive a sincere, handwritten letter from someone who personally knew the deceased. Try telling a platoon leader in the bush that he’s got to write three condolence letters before going on patrol!
But, as with all “mandatories,” compliance was required, so who’s actually going to churn out these letters … what’s the name of that new kid in the quartermaster’s office ….?
Del: I wasn’t the only one assigned to the personal letters, officially deemed “Condolence Notes, or “CNs”, to the next-of-kin for deceased soldiers. Three others– Homer, Jay, and Rocco– were similarly honored. We became fast friends, bonded by beer, black humor, and deep resentment of the U.S. Government. By this time (we’re talking 1969) you couldn’t find anyone on the ground who actually supported the U.S. war effort. We mostly did as we were told and tried to help each other to survive. Each day we’d get a list of names, addresses, and next of kin for the dearly departed. We’d divvy them up and write the letters during lulls in our regular jobs.
One night, totally wasted on pot and beer, we deemed ourselves “the Con Men.” We’d fall into hysterical laughter relating our literary fabrications of the day.
Greg: We heard less and less from Del, and when we did get a letter, it was bizarre and disjointed, flowery stuff about courage and duty and honor and profane pokes at Asshole-in-Chief William Westmoreland and Richard Fucking Nixon. It was hard to make sense of it.
Del: Believe it or not I was now in the final year of my service obligation. So were my fellow Con Men. Time flies when you’re having fun. Rocco was officially a short timer with only ninety days of active duty left. We spent all our spare time drinking, smoking dope, and commiserating with each other. I wasn’t sure, but I think Rocco was using cocaine and heroin, although he never talked about it.
Greg: Not a word about what he was doing over there, Not a word about his plans when he came back. An occasional comment, or a song fragment on a reel-to-reel tape. Once he did an entire version of The End by the Doors. He sounded very stoned.
Del: We talked mostly about how we could fuck things up for the Government. In our jobs at the office of the Quartermaster we had the power to create chaos with just a subtle manipulation on a procurement order. A slight slip of the pen could reroute a shipment of munitions bound for Da Nang to a Naval Base in the Philippines. We talked about subversion a lot, but we never acted, knowing that in the end the ones who would suffer would be the grunts in the field, not the assholes responsible for us being there.
Greg: Even though I was a Junior I had to think about taking the LSATs and where to apply for law school. I kinda wanted to be somewhere other than Providence, but my Dad lobbied for Brown, where he went, plus there was Cassandra to consider … what would be best for her?
Del: Then the bottom fell out of my life. I woke up to the sound of sobbing. It was Homer. “Hey, what’s up, man?”
“Rocco’s dead,” he said. “Fucking overdose. 82 fucking days to go, and he’s fucking dead, man.”
I had to write his Consolation Note. At least this one was truthful and sincere. Six weeks later I wrote another letter for one of my fellow Con Men. Jay blew his brains out with his service revolver. More guys than you knew were doing that. I was with him that evening. We were drinking and laughing. I wake up in the morning. He’s dead.
Homer seemed shaky but stable, but with the way he was drinking my guess was that there would be issues down the road. For practice I wrote my own condolence letter.
Greg: The last few letters from Del were rambling and incoherent, but made frequent reference to The Plan. We assumed that was Cassandra’s plan from The Last Weekend when we’d reunite after 3 years and reform Grendel. You know, I was ready for a little rock ‘n roll!
Del: I came up with a new plan. … one to help me survive.
End of Part 3
What is the New Plan?
Does Del make it safely out of Vietnam? Does he return to Providence to re-boot Grendel? Does Greg stray from the Proven Path to become a rock ‘n roller? Does he marry Cassandra? Or, does something entirely unexpected happen? Follow our plucky lads to the conclusion of Grendel: The Four-Chord Opera