Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Small Victory in a Lost War

By Jimmie von Tungeln

            If the old woman hadn’t come on after the stripper, things might have started a little smoother. After all, who would want to follow a tall, dark Eurasian woman who took off nearly everything she had on in front of a thousand horny service men? And I do mean all she had on, except for a tiny strip of gauze—Tony Grant would claim the next day, “I swear I could see that bitch’s nipples from where I was sitting”—across her bosom and a triangular patch covering her “Forbidden Garden.” The USO waltzed out some weird acts back in those days, some deliberately designed, it seemed, to drive men crazy. The generals allowed it and then wondered why men were so hard to control out in the jungle.

            Anyway, the stripper was through and she wasn’t coming back out. It would have been dangerous, too much heat and too much beer. This was an enlisted men’s club in the I-Corp and not a gentleman’s joint in Manhattan. The next act better damn sure be a good one though. Feelings were running high. A half-decent rock and roll band would have been nice, anyone who could do a passable version of the Vietnam Vets’ National Anthem—“We’ve Got To Get Out of This Place.

            But no. Out walks this tiny woman of indeterminate age, at least fifty, in a long sequined black dress that fell from her tiny shoulders almost to the floor. Her hair was clipped short and showed some signs of gray. Cheap-looking ear rings hung nearly to her shoulders. Her makeup looked as if it had been applied by a first-week beauty school student. Christ almighty!

Tiny and aged as she was, though, she had spunk. She walked up to the mike like she was at Carnegie Hall and waited for her piano player to get seated. The place was quiet for a moment, from sheer disbelief I suspect.

            Then the rumbling started and you could here someone yelling for the stripper to come back out. I heard a grunt scream, “Get that old bag out of here.”

            The shouts of disapproval were so loud that only those in the first couple of rows could hear her when she said, “I know I can’t compete with that last act. I only know a few old songs, some Irish and some not. Maybe you’ll enjoy one or two of them.”

            With that, the piano hit a strong, commanding chord, and from that frail tiny body soared a sound so linear and pure that one could imagine it piercing the back wall of the club and flying straight into the jungle and beyond.”

Over in Killarney
Many years ago,
My Mother sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low.”

The sounds emerging from that ancient (to us at least, young fools that we were) face were so strange and haunting that those nearest the stage hushed immediately and this allowed the full force of her voice to carry further.

“Just a simple little ditty,
In her good old Irish way,
And l'd give the world if she could sing
That song to me this day.”

A wave of silence undulated across the room as the voice filled it with an assurance formed, no doubt, by many years of knocking about places with forgettable names and long-forgotten faces.

One never knows what to expect, does one? -C.W.
"Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, that's an Irish lullaby.

            By this time her voice was challenged only by the soft movement of hands moving cans of beer and heads turning to watch. She finished the song and, in perfect timing, the piano player led her into “My Wild Irish Rose.” A few in the crowd began to move with the music. Some even hummed along with the song.  She finished it and looked at the crowd and smiled. It was sort of an impish smile if you can imagine. Then she dropped a shoulder, thrust a bony hip toward us and pointed a blue-veined foot directly at those in the front row.

“I hate to see, that evening sun go down.”

            The piano player supported her with a sweeping blues chord and she was off. Somehow she didn’t seem as old as she had when she started. The crowd just watched in disbelieving approval. She finished this number and than stopped and looked us over as if to say, “What do you think now, boys?”

Now these weren’t college boys or Irish rovers. Twenty-four hours earlier some of them had been killing Viet Cong, unsuspecting villagers, or water buffaloes—anything that got in their way. But their minds sure weren’t on killing now. The applause started in the front and moved over us like a rolling artillery barrage. The building shook like it might fall at any moment. She just kept singing.

            Who can remember what all she performed that night? It seemed over before it started. Each time she finished a song, the room erupted and hundreds of beer cans pounded on tables. As she came out for her third encore, she thanked us and we knew we would never hear her sing again. Those USO shows moved around quickly and we were only there for “365 and a wake-up.”

            “I’ll leave you with this, for that special one back home,” she said and looked at the floor as if it had some secret message written on it. Raising her head, she looked at each one of us and smiled.

            “I’ll be seeing you,” she sang.

            “In all those old familiar places.”

            You didn’t dare look around at a goddam soul for you knew you were about to start bawling and then they would too. We couldn’t cry, though. Hell, we were supposed to be killers. And tomorrow we might be. Not tonight, though. Tonight we were just a bunch of homesick boys enjoying a moment of peace in a world that seemed to have forgotten about us.

In that small cafe …that park across the way…

Life does have its moments, and I’ve never forgotten that one.


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