Many years ago in a different life in a different world I sat at the kitchen table drinking Rolling Rock beer and wondering if I could ever get a full-time daily newspaper job writing the personal journalism that eventually shaped my identity and served as my calling card and meal ticket.
At the time I was working in a state prison with violent drug addicts — or maybe I just lost my job working in a prison with violent drug addicts — and was collecting unemployment and writing for the Harrisburg Independent Press, a free alternative weekly.
A tall, skinny gawky buddy of mine named Flanagan took photographs for the weekly rag and talked to the editor who thought I was a good writer. A few years later that same editor changed his mind about my talent when he worked as the press secretary for Gov. Dick Thornburgh and I kept slamming his boss.
Flanagan was a Vietnam veteran who told one of the best war stories I ever heard. Assigned to burn human waste at the Army base where he was stationed, he spent many a long night standing over flaming pits of crap. One night when he finished his shift he and his co-workers sat around the fire smoking joints. Deep into their euphoria, more soldiers joined them. Flanagan eventually realized he didn’t know any of the new guys and figured they were South Vietnamese paratroopers just back from a mission.
When Flanagan introduced himself the guy sitting next to him took a deep toke and poked himself in the chest with his index finger.
“Me VC,” he said.
“Me VC,” the guy repeated.
Flanagan laughed harder.
Now Flanagan did it.
“Me VC,” Flanagan said.
The soldier sitting beside him laughed so hard he could barely light another joint.
Flanagan wasn’t sure when it dawned on him that the five or six seasoned Viet Cong guerrillas who joined him at the fire pit had apparently breeched security and infiltrated the base. Flanagan said everybody got real stoned that night and eventually drifted their separate ways. What he experienced shaped his own personal peace talks that made him realize the absurdity of war.
Real war, of course, is hell.
Real war kills.
Flanagan lived to tell the story. He came to oppose war even though he mostly kept his politics to himself. For as long as I knew him, easy-going Flanagan just got high on life.