Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Fishing With Carl Fleshman

Was discussing with a friend how folks tend to tell me things. It reminded me of this story. It's a little longer than my usual blog posts, but I think it's a quick read.~GHC


One thing you could say about Carl was, he had a lot of forgetting to do. He started each day with a half gallon of Popov vodka and chased it with a case of beer to keep the ghosts away. Once he told me that in the morning he drank to remember friends whose faces never aged and at night he drank to forget the charred and broken bodies of those he had killed. But no matter how much he drank, he never forgot or forgave himself.       2340 words

Fishing with Carl Fleshman - by Ginger Hamilton Caudill

One thing you could say about Carl was, he had a lot of forgetting to do. He started each day with a half gallon of Popov vodka and chased it with a case of beer to keep the ghosts away. Once he told me that in the morning he drank to remember friends whose faces never aged and at night he drank to forget the charred and broken bodies of those he had killed. But no matter how much he drank, he never forgot or forgave himself. 
Despite a trimmed russet beard and dark brown hair, shirt always tucked in, pants pressed with a precision crease from waist to toe, Carl’s weathered face and haunted eyes revealed the firestorm that raged within. His hazel eyes long ago ceased to sparkle. Like many of his generation, he unwillingly hosted an entourage of specters.
Carl and I were neighbors for about five years in the early 1980s. He lived in the apartment directly below mine. The busybody lady next door told me he was a shell-shocked Vietnam vet. He kept to himself, only communicating in slight nods and mumbled hellos when happenstance brought the two of us together at the mailbox or in the laundry room. 
A friend gave me a kitten. Carl was at the mailboxes as I entered the lobby, trying to hold onto her as she yowled in fear and scrambled up the front of me. He asked me what I’d named her.
Creases formed at the corners of his eyes as he smiled. That faint glimpse of God revealed itself for a split second then retreated as if under fire. 
“Nice name,” he mumbled as he disappeared inside his apartment and closed the door.
After he smiled, I was determined to get to know him. I figured there was a human being trapped inside the zombie of a man who shambled to the mailbox and scurried out of the laundry room whenever I showed up. 
The next time we met at the mailbox, I gathered my courage and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m Jessie. I live upstairs from you.”
“Yes ma’am.”
I saw that his face was covered in angry red blemishes.
“What’s your name?”
“Carl, Carl Fleshman.” His voice croaked, as if he hadn’t used it in a long time.
“Hi, Carl. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” and he lumbered back inside the safety of his apartment. 
I’d noticed that he loaded a johnboat onto his van and disappeared every Friday. He returned Sunday evening with a tackle box and fishing gear, but never any fish. I decided fishing would be a conversation starter and I was determined to make friends with him. I was sitting out front in a lawn chair when he got home the following Sunday evening.
“Been fishing, Carl?”
“Hi Jessie. Yep, been fishing.” He tried to walk past me but I pressed him. 
“I used to love to go fishing but I haven’t been in years. You go often?”
Carl stopped. He seemed torn between heading into the building for the relative safety of his lair and honoring some faint memory of social norms that he’d learned in a life that ended in Southeast Asia.
“Yeah, I go every week. It’s what keeps me alive.”
I don’t know why but I said, “I’m glad you’re alive.”
He stared at me with those dull hazel eyes for a moment then escaped inside the building.
After that awkward conversation, Carl allowed me to get to know him a little better. In some ways it was like gaining a wild animal’s trust. Our dicey relationship couldn’t be rushed – if I pushed too hard, Carl would avoid me for several weeks. Eventually, he taught me his limits and I tried to respect them.
One time I invited him to my apartment for some spaghetti.
“I don’t eat food.”
“You don’t eat food? What do you mean?”
“I don’t eat food. I take vitamins instead. I get everything I need to stay alive with the vitamins. I drink a half gallon of vodka, about a case of beer, and a fistful of vitamins. Keeps me going.” 
Though I offered him every meal I knew how to cook, he never took me up on any of them and insisted he only took vitamins. 
We met at the mailbox one afternoon and he invited me to visit with him in his apartment. Naturally curious, I agreed.
The structure of his apartment was a carbon copy of my own. There, the similarity ended. A floor-to-ceiling bookcase packed with leather-bound volumes stood guard on one side the gas fireplace. On the other side was a large palm thriving in a brilliant red Chinese pot. A pair of forest green wingback chairs and a matching sofa with Queen Anne legs filled most of the remainder of the room. A magnificent ten-point buck’s head towered above the fireplace, keeping watch over the room. 
“Wow, that was a big buck.”
Carl looked out the window at something I couldn’t see. “Yeah, I got that years ago, hunting with my dad. I don’t hunt any more.”
He invited me to sit and asked me the last question I ever expected from him -- if I’d like some tea. 
“No, thank you, I don’t drink tea.”
“Me either but my parents stop by sometimes. I keep it for them. Do you mind if I have a beer? I don’t want to be rude.”
I assured him I didn’t think he was rude. He walked to the kitchen and returned with two beers. Before I could politely decline, he grinned wryly and said, “Can’t let the first soldier get lonely.”
As we got to know each other, I learned that his father was the real estate agent who managed our apartment building. After some small talk and getting acquainted, I asked him about his time in Vietnam. He started with random memories of sights and smells, new experiences. He reminisced about mosquitoes, the relentless heat and humidity. He kept going to the kitchen for fresh beers, and eventually came back with a twelve pack that he finished by the time I left. 
He said they had a Vietnamese cook who’d serve their rice with a shot of seasoning called nuck malm.
“Nuck malm is fermented herring sauce. It’s real salty and it tastes great but it smelled worse than anything else in Vietnam, and that’s saying something. The way they make Nuck Malm is they layer salt and herrings until it fills a silo. Then they leave it in the sun until black juice drips out the bottom. They collect the juice and bottle it, and that’s nuck malm. They say that buzzards that flew over the factory where they made it would drop dead from the smell.”
I found out Carl had been at Khe Sahn in April of 1967. His unit was decimated in a heavy fog-laden battle. They’d gotten pinned down and took heavy casualties. 
He said the Vietcong had U-shaped bunkers. They started throwing grenades and heavy small arms fire at the Marines. They’d pop up out of the bunker, throw a grenade, and duck back down. Carl said while his men concentrated on the one bunker where the grenade originated from that another gook would pop up behind them and throw another grenade. 
“I’ll bet you were scared to death.”
“We were terrified. Hell, every one of us pissed in our pants but it was raining so hard you couldn’t tell it.”
He spoke of carrying the dead and wounded on stretchers as the rain beat down so hard they couldn’t see, of slipping and sliding in the slimy duck pond-smelling mud, struggling up hills with the stretchers as the dead or injured rolled off and down the inclines. He spoke quietly and for the most part without emotion, as if he were describing an ungodly film that endlessly played in his head and he knew every frame of it by heart -- about retrieving his friends’ bodies, about thirsting and having no water because it had all been given to the wounded, of being nineteen and so far from home, of feeling hopeless. 
He spoke of but did not describe horrific injuries except to say that at one point he’d asked his buddy Steve, who was holding up the other end of the stretcher they bore, a question. When he received no answer he looked back over his shoulder to see Steve frozen, suspended for a moment in a ghastly standing stance, just before he toppled over, his head blown away.
His spoke of flash burns, of being pinned down, caught in a murderous crossfire, with mortar rounds falling all around he and his men. The VC had a machine gun – at the time Carl’s unit didn’t know what caliber it was, but it was a pretty heavy. It chewed up trees, anything that was in front of them. The helicopters tried to land numerous times but were driven back by a barrage of gunfire.
Eventually support arrived and they were evacuated. He went to a field hospital first, then to the Naval hospital in De Nang. 
“Were you injured?”
“Yeah. It would’ve been better had I died.” 
I never asked about his injuries, and he never told me what they were.
Carl told me about killing people, “gooks” he called then. 
“When we came across a village, it was us or the gooks. You didn’t know if they were VC or not; you just had to kill them – all of them.”
“Even the women?”
“All of them.”
“God, that must’ve been so hard for you to do.”
He didn’t say anything then, just sucked down the rest of his beer. I waited for a few moments to see if he’d speak again. He didn’t.
“Carl, I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.”
He continued to stare, watching that movie from hell. I doubted it would ever end – just keep playing in an endless loop of carnage and pain.
He blinked several times then sighed twice, big, deep staccato sighs. Then he looked at me. There was no expression on his face. We sat for an awkward time, Carl facing me with those haunted, unseeing eyes and me not knowing what to say or do. 

I thought it best if I just left. Any words I could say would be like a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. I knew he had bared his soul to me and, due to my immaturity -- or it’s possible that no one could be mature enough to adequately respond -- I felt humbled and ashamed. 
“Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. I’m gonna head up the stairs. Is there anything I can do?”
It sounded so lame but it was all I could think to say.
“No, I’m good.”
It was dusk by the time I left.
* * *
After that afternoon whenever I’d arrive home, he’d open the door a crack, stick his head out and shyly ask if I had time for a visit. I made sure I had the time.
Once he invited me to go fishing with him. I knew it was a huge step on his part, going out on a limb so to speak and risking rejection. I didn’t relish being holed up in the woods for two days with a man who on occasion ran into the parking lot with a rifle screaming “They’re coming through the wire!” I didn’t believe Carl would harm me, but I didn’t feel safe alone with him for two days out in the woods. But how could I shut him off after he’d opened up to me?
I told him I’d go.
I agonized all week long. At night I’d awaken, damp with perspiration, from dreams where something happened and Carl snapped while we were camping. I discussed the pending trip with my friends who all thought I’d lost my mind to even consider going away with this time bomb of a man I’d told them about. 
On Thursday, I met Carl at the mailbox. 
“Wanna come inside and talk?” he asked.
I felt like I was breaking up with him when I told him I couldn’t go.
“Carl, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go away with you this weekend. Can we keep our friendship on this level? I like you a lot, but I just don’t feel good about the trip.”
He studied his moccasins as if he’d been expecting this very conversation. After a minute, Carl sighed and said, “You’re probably right.” He shrank in the chair and suddenly looked twenty years older.
“Hey, how about you coming up to my place and I’ll show you my fish tank?” I’d never asked him into my apartment before, but I’d been telling him how excited I was to get an aquarium.
Carl followed me up the stairs. I had a moment of panic – I don’t know why – as we reached my landing. I felt trapped and afraid. My hand trembled as I unlocked the door. He’d never been inside my apartment before. 
Once inside, I pointed to the aquarium. 
“Be right back. You enjoy the fish.” I excused myself and went to the bathroom to try and settle my nerves.
Carl didn’t notice me when I returned. He was squatted in front of the tank with his back toward me. I saw his face reflected in the aquarium glass. Instead of the weather-beaten hurting unit of a man I’d come to know, I saw the reflection of a bright-eyed young boy with an unselfconscious grin on his face. 
I stood silently, loathe to intrude. It was as if Carl’s soul had somehow slipped out of its painful prison. Before long, Carl’s demon jailor would discover the escape and reclaim his soul, but for a few minutes Carl Fleshman tasted freedom.

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