A Taste of Home: A Short Story

Undercover cop Brandon, whom Mike met at the American Legion, spoke confidently, the way you do when you usually get your own way with or without a warrant. Just making conversation Mike had casually mentioned how unpatriotic it is that Pizza Hut restaurants do business in Hanoi, Vietnam.

“Germany’s one of our biggest trading partners,” Brandon said.

That set Mike back on his barstool.

“What’s that mean?”

The young detective addressed him the way a college professor might talk to one of his more mediocre students.

“I get it,” Brandon said. “Germany is now our most important trading partner in Europe. People born after 1980 aren’t invested in Vietnam like Boomers are. For reference, way more people died in the U.S. because of drug overdoses just last year, during a pandemic no less, than all of the Americans combined that died as a result of the Vietnam War during the entire conflict.”

“Boomers?” Mike said.

“Baby Boomers like you,” Brandon said.

Born in 1947 Mike never thought of himself as a Boomer. Sure, he heard the term and saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on TV and tapped his foot to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But to call him a name, a Boomer, hurt his feelings. Mike was much more than that.

Stunned, he came back with what little bluster he had left.

“Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken is in Hanoi, too,” Mike said.

Brandon laughed.

“Bet you could have eaten some KFC when you were in Vietnam,” he said.

Mike flashed back to the time he ate leeches and cold greasy rice gruel during the four months in a tiger cage at the hands of the Viet Cong (VC) team that captured him before he escaped. A small unit had wiped out his squad. His captors quickly told him they were the few who fight the many, the weak who fight the strong. Winners in the end, the Vietnamese now even owned American fast food franchises.

One month into his imprisonment, during a forced labor work detail in the sweltering jungle sun, Mike found a half-inch red thread buried in a puddle of red mud teeming with mosquitoes. A second piece of string, this one white, turned up a month later in a shovel full of dirt piled on a fresh grave. The blue twine appeared just days after that, tangled in a bamboo stalk.

Why Mike kept all three pieces of fiber was anybody’s guess – a vision made of hope, perhaps, or maybe a method to his madness.

A month later he gazed defiantly at the tiny ragged symbol of his nation he somehow wove to create a miniature American flag facsimile that kept him from giving up, a vaguely recognizable symbol of liberty.

At night he’d insert the flag into his rectum. During the day whenever he could he’d retrieve the flag and recite to himself the words he could remember from the Star Spangled Banner. He’d then stick the flag up his ass all over again, a terrible thought, but one that increased the odds that the flag was still there when he needed it again.

Now the enemy wouldn’t break him even if they killed him. He knew what he was, what he stood for and why he was fighting. He didn’t know shit about the Pentagon Papers or the intricate political machinations of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon’s war but he knew why he was fighting.

Mike wanted to live.

He wanted pizza and fried chicken. He wanted a cold couple of cans of Schmidt’s beer and a carton of non filtered Chesterfield Kings. More than anything Mike wanted to be free. And one day he was.

Two Huey gunships roared over the trees as the door gunners opened fire. Mike’s VC guards went down in a row although Mike somehow survived. The crew had him up and out before he realized what had happened.

“You are one lucky sumbitch,” a laughing Black soldier on board told him.

“Coming in we didn’t even see you,” said another.

Mike asked for a cigarette. The Black soldier lit and gave him a Chesterfield. Then he gave him the pack and his Zippo lighter imprinted with a skull and crossbones on the front. When Mike reached for the smoke he realized his right fist was clenched. When he uncurled his fingers he saw his little flag.

That’s what Mike always called it, his little flag.

The Veterans’ Day parade fifty years later dawned hot, 85 degrees by noon and heading to triple digits by early afternoon. With lights flashing and sirens screaming, fire trucks and police cars slowly drove the packed parade route. High school bands played. Cheerleaders cheered. The Chamber of Commerce marched with elected officials who waved their most patriotic waves to the patriotic crowd.

Then came the corporate sponsors led by a woman dressed as a huge bucket of chicken, her legs kicking up at bended knees. A half dozen people dressed as dancing pizzas followed.

Brandon stood across the street laughing and clapping his hands in time to the melodious sounds of the marching band that made the crowd feel better than children do when they hear music from an ice cream truck.

The dancing pizzas did it for Mike. Dancing pizzas put Mike over the top.

Just the night before Mike had Googled “Pizza Hut Afghanistan.”  Of course Pizza Hut served pizza in Kabul and Kandahar.

Time Magazine reported back in 2011 that Gen. David Petraeus reversed a decision by Gen. Petraeus’s predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In March 2010 McChrystal called for an end to junk food culture on U.S.-led coalition bases, and banned food outlets including Pizza Hut, Burger King and Dairy Queen. One of his top deputies said in a written statement at the time: “This is a war zone – not an amusement park.”

Time also reported that following Gen. Petraeus’ reversal of this decision, Pizza Hut said it was “proud to be serving the men and women who serve in Afghanistan.”

Sitting in front of his computer in his underwear and battered boonie hat left over from the war, Mike’s eyes welled up.

“The Taliban probably owns the franchises,” he said.

Now looking into his palm into which he had pressed his little flag, the badge of courage that got him where he was today, Mike stood alone on the sidewalk, hearing the cheers, watching the waves, feeling his heart pound inside his chest.

Kneeling, Mike bowed his head.

People thought he was praying.

Mike wasn’t praying.

America was preying, victimizing the sacrifices of the nation’s war dead and wounded – losses, actually, not sacrifices – that resulted from corporate lies, Pentagon generals’ and defense contractors’ duplicitous deceit and the cold actions of White House criminals. These self-absorbed bastards cared nothing for peasants who suffered and died in Vietnam, poor men, women and children napalmed, shot and bombed, collateral damage drowned in blood and pain.

Afghanistan war was no different.

Why? So the privileged there could one day escape as they did in Saigon? So the Afghan president could run away with $169 million in American taxpayer money and suffer no consequences? So American 19-year-olds could never make it to 20? What about Afghan civilians with no connections to the American government, who spoke no English and couldn’t read and write in their own language? They, too, wanted out. They, too, wanted to run – and not for the Pizza Hut buffet.

Pulling his cherished Zippo lighter from his pocket, Mike flicked the wheel that chipped the flint that lit the flame fed by the lighter fluid in which he soaked the Zippo that morning. He used to light his cigarettes by snapping his fingers to turn the wheel that set the fire in motion. Back then everybody laughed at the trick. Holding up the lighter in one hand and his little flag in the other, Mike began to cry.

A woman shrieked.

“He’s burning the flag. He’s burning the flag.”

Mike lit the underside of his sacred symbol that quickly burned and disintegrated into smoking, black, curly ash.

Picking up speed as he raced across the street, Brandon already had his handcuffs out as he threw a full body block that caught Mike above the waist and knocked him off his feet and into the gutter, cracking his skull on the curb that soon ran red with blood.

A meaty man with a bulging belly flushed angrily and pointed to Mike splayed unconscious in the street.

“That’s what’s wrong with this country,” he said. “Guys like him.”