Milius, McCarthy, and Me, or the Dawning Red in the West

by Russell Worth Parker

Born in the wake of the Great Daylight Fireball, the only child of a divorce finalized in 1972, well before he understood parents sometimes live together, the boy was small and lonely and precocious and living upon six hundred acres of farm and forest. There were no neighbor kids proximate; no pick-up football games. There was just the boy and the woods around Athens, Georgia and the Daisy BB gun he carried, bestocked in plastic and slick bored. A boy’s heart calls for the cold steel a man’s hands will someday find. It was then as it had ever been or ever would be.  

There would be war, and the boy would find himself within its province, of that he was certain. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was yet three years hence and the boy had barely attained a decade on earth, yet knew with the certainty of the Judge that “it makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

The boy found his friends in books, yellow of page and soft of cover. Pulp novels written under unlikely pen names, military histories awash in tiny print, or “there I was” biographies— they were all soldiers in the service of a destiny written before the boy or any of the authors came mewling unto this plane. Every page a blood-besotted exaltation of the kind of man the boy wanted to be, already desperate to join the dance, to take on the hyper-masculine qualities of a fictional assassin or the grim resolve of a Marine on Guadalcanal. On television, Vietnamese tanks ground into Cambodia. Soviet commandos took the centers of government in Afghanistan. A Marine raised his hand before the Congress, resplendent in green and swathed in ribbons. A Japanese rifle the boy’s Marine grandfather brought home from an island awash in blood hung on the wall as his father’s Marine uniform hung neatly bagged in a closet across town, both silently calling him to their measure. 

The boy rode his bicycle to the local tobacconist, where he could stand quietly, back against a rack, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine, whence he learned he was better dead than red. He stepped aside, solemn as a judge, to let grown men pass on their way to the glossy paper harlots sold from the back, pitying them their weakness, for he knew honor and glory awaited him. He imagined himself amongst guerillas, fighting the Bear. Even before he had a man’s carriage, he knew men either govern, are governed, or rebel. He needed but one desperate fight won, face smoke blackened and hands blood rimed, or lost in some glorious immolation burning his shadow upon the wall for decades. But in the 1980s, playground predations notwithstanding, there was but one monolith of which to avail himself. Opportunities to dance with the Bear were few and far between for a bookish middle-class boy in the Athens, Georgia suburbs. 

Then came a day dawned red. Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet paratroopers drifted down to light upon Colorado’s front range. The strategic value of Calumet, Colorado was of only passing question to the boy or John Milius or presumptively, McCarthy, for the answer to the blood question lay in whether a group of teenagers, Wolverines as they fashioned themselves, would see their occupiers swallowed by a leviathan of their own design. But honest men and Milius knew they must always answer to the Judge, must determine whether Wolverines might become but McCarthy’s “legion of horribles” in the pursuit of their own deliverance, “clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners.”

Omaha, Kansas City, even Washington, DC lay as rubble irradiated, though the boy only found out after Cuban MIG-21s struck down Lieutenant Colonel Andy Tanner’s F-15, an Eagle torn asunder by fire and fragment. He found his South occupied once again, this time by Godless Communists who were stopped only when they discovered themselves to be but false dancers on the banks of the Mississippi, broken upon the face of the Rockies. Thereon, half a million scarecrows prayed for succor other than rats and sawdust and of a moment, one another. Pyres lit the sky as offerings to a God made manifest in the hopes of a billion screaming Chinamen rendered six hundred million.

The two toughest kids on the block will fight. The boy had fashioned himself thus, all indications contrary, and saw himself as he wanted to be seen in Jed and Matt Eckert, set to puzzle danger from an early age and unafraid to. A Wolverine he felt he was and would be, able to withstand those things that beset a boy, smaller and slower afoot than his peers. Their time in the hills was but time to become stronger, as was his amongst the trees and barns of the farm. Their victories over the Bear, over Colonel Bella, over the collaborators, were his yet to come against those things that vexed him. As the Eckerts sought vengeance in the name of their father, him clinging unto a wire fence shouting, “Avenge me! Avenge me!” so would the boy find a mission, a way to set right those depredations that beset him, real and imagined, making him strong in his mind if he were still only corporeally picayune. 

Came a day after the Red Dawn. The boy himself dancing among burning rain drops in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding the truth to be neither all nor none of Milius or McCarthy. Again came the Judge, a terrible enormity hairless and pale, saying, “Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.” The boy danced. It could only be that way and not some other way.

Truants

by David Armand

It was 1995. My friend Matt had just gotten his drivers license that past summer and his mom’s old car, a gray Honda Civic with a hatchback and a stickshift in the center console. It had a tape deck, and he would drive to our house listening to Metallica and Megadeth and Pantera and AC/DC, the speakers in the door vibrating the tinted windows in their metal frames as he drove up our gravel driveway.

My mom didn’t want my brother and me riding in the car with anyone, but she had known Matt for years and he had spent many weekends at our trailer in Folsom, so sometimes she would let him pick us up on his way to school. There was something thrilling about riding to school in your friend’s car like that, pulling up in the grass lot where the older kids parked their trucks and hung out smoking cigarettes before class.

We were in tenth grade that year, and I hadn’t gotten my own license yet. Usually we’d ride the bus to school or my mom would take us if we woke up late. In fact, she had dropped us off that morning when we decided, just after second period, to skip the rest of the day.

My brother and Matt and I all met in the commons area next to one of the Coke machines and told a couple of our friends we were leaving, probably just to see what their reaction would be, but more likely to elevate our status to that of people who actually did things like skip school in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere to go, anything really to do, but it felt important that we were leaving that morning.

After the bell rang and a few students were still left in the hallways, running toward their classrooms so they wouldn’t be marked tardy, Matt and my brother and I walked out the side entrance and to the parking lot. We moved quickly, but also as though we were supposed to be doing that, trying to avoid suspicion by seeming confident and in control, like we knew where we were going and why we were going there.

No one saw us as we climbed into the little car, and Matt turned on the radio and rolled down the windows. We pulled out of the school and headed down Highway 21 toward Covington.

“What do y’all wanna do?” Matt asked, yelling over the windrush and the music. My brother was riding up front and I was sitting in the cramped seat in the back so I had to lean up for them to hear me.

“Jenn skipped school today, too,” I said. “We could always go to her house and see what she’s up to.”

Jenn was a girl whom I was somewhat dating, though we hadn’t actually gone on any dates. I was really more infatuated with her than anything else, and I think she probably just liked me out of boredom. She had come over to my trailer in Folsom a couple of times when my parents weren’t home, staying at my neighbor Stacey’s house and then they’d both sneak through the woods when it was dark so we could hang out.

But I was so young and nervous I didn’t know what to do once she was there. We would sit on the sofa and make out for a while, and when she got up and pulled me into my bedroom, easing into my tiny bunkbed and then reaching up for me to get on top of her, I would think of a reason to leave the room or otherwise just climb in next to her and keep making out. I could never go any further than that.

Jenn wasn’t older than me, just more experienced, and I was intimidated by her. Once she had sat on the trampoline in my back yard and asked me to bite her neck. Stacey was there with us, and Jenn had asked her to bite her neck too. So we both sat there with Jenn between us as we bit her flesh and she sighed with what I guess was some kind of pleasure. At fifteen everything feels so confusing and weird, it’s hard to say what is going on at any given time. I was simply overwhelmed by my feelings for Jenn and I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t attracted to her, but I also didn’t want her to think I was scared—which I was.

Even though she had tried to get me to sleep with her, and even though God knows I wanted to, I was afraid—not of disease or pregnancy or any of the things they warn you against in school. I had no moral objections to it. I was a fifteen-year-old boy. All I thought about was sex. But when it came down to it, I was terrified. Scared I wouldn’t know what to do, how to do it. That I would be no good at it, and would thus be humiliated.

I remember one time being at my grandmother’s house of all places, sitting on the sofa next to Jenn underneath a blanket while we feigned watching a movie on TV. Stacey was there too, sitting on the other side of Jenn as Jenn reached her hand over to my leg and started rubbing my jeans. I was immediately turned on, and I knew Jenn could tell. She moved her fingers over me slowly, feeling me with her palm lightly brushing over my jeans, but never taking her eyes from the movie on TV. I tried to lean back into the sofa, to let myself ease into what was happening without anyone noticing.

Jenn moved her fingers up and down, slowly, but she kept her hand on the outside of my jeans. The movie kept playing, and Stacey pretended not to notice what was going on. I was sweating now. My stomach felt tight, clenched in on itself. Something was on the verge of happening. And then Jenn just stopped. She looked at me for a moment before turning back to the movie. And that was it. I knew what it could be like with her but I wouldn’t know for sure, she seemed to be saying, unless I made the next move. But I never did.

And now here I was trying to convince Matt to drive to her house.

Matt said, “Man, I don’t wanna go over there. I can’t stand her.”

“What do you care?” I said. “We don’t have anything better to do.”

“Shit, dude,” he said. “I guess we can pick her up. I don’t know, but I don’t want to hang out at her house all day.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, man. I doubt she’ll want to either,” I said. I had thought maybe Matt could drop me off over there, and Jenn and I could be alone. Her mom was at work and who knew what could have happened? But I also knew it would be a betrayal to Matt and my brother to just ditch them like that. Besides, they could have just left me there, and I’d be stuck. It wasn’t worth the risk.

When we got to her house, Jenn was sitting outside on the front porch smoking a cigarette; it was as if she had known we were coming. I watched her as she stood up and walked out to the driveway where we were waiting in Matt’s car.

“Hey,” she said. “What are y’all doing here?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just driving around, I guess.”

Jenn dropped the cigarette on the gravel driveway and rubbed it out with her tennis shoe. Then she bent down and picked it up and stuffed it in the pack. She put it in her back pocket, making a square against her tight jeans. I looked away, but could still see the reflection of her long legs in the car’s sideview mirror. I was hoping she’d come with us, wherever it was we were headed.

“Do you wanna come with us?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’d be cool. Just let me go get my purse real quick.”

“Okay. Cool.”

I could sense Matt tensing up; he had probably been hoping she wouldn’t come. Then I watched Jenn through the sideview mirror as she walked back up the driveway and then onto the screened-in porch. A little dog barked from inside the house.

“Shit,” Matt was saying now, more to my brother than to me. “I wish she wasn’t coming.”

My brother didn’t say anything, just sat there looking out the window. I don’t think he liked Jenn either.

Anyway, Jenn got in the small car and Matt had to lift his seat forward and nearly press his cheek to the steering wheel so she could climb in to where I was sitting. Once she was in, Matt put his seat back, closed the door, then slipped Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon into the cassette player and turned it up loud. He had two big speakers stuffed into the trunk, just under the hatchback window behind Jenn and me. I could feel the bass vibrating against my neck and back and shoulders.

Then he pulled out of the driveway and turned onto Tyler Street, heading toward downtown Covington.

“Can you please turn that down?” Jenn said, tapping Matt on the shoulder.

“What?”

“Can you turn it down?” she said again.

Matt didn’t answer her, just dialed the knob a bit to the left so the music wasn’t as loud. I could see him through the rearview mirror rolling his eyes. Then Jenn scooted closer to me. Nobody said anything.

We kept driving.

Finally my brother said something about the new Super Wal-Mart that had just opened. Until recently the only Wal-Mart was down the road, closer to the interstate, and it was a pretty small store as far as Wal-Marts go. You couldn’t get groceries there or anything like that.

But this new Wal-Mart was supposed to be gigantic, and none of us had been to it yet.

“Y’all wanna go?” Matt said, looking at Jenn and me through the rearview mirror.

I looked at Jenn, who just shrugged. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s cool with me.”

So we drove up Highway 190 and turned in to the sprawling asphalt parking lot, climbed out the car, and walked inside. The whole time I kept looking around to make sure we didn’t see anyone we knew. I kept feeling on edge since we were supposed to be in school. I didn’t know if cops could bust you for that or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

I was also worried that Jenn might try to take something from the store without paying for it. She often bragged about the clothes and tapes and movies and makeup she would steal from the mall in Slidell when she went there with her other friends. It was just something else to do out of boredom, I guess, but I didn’t want to get in that kind of trouble if I could avoid it.

Matt and my brother went to look at the tapes in the music section, and Jenn and I walked around somewhat aimlessly. I remember being amazed that there was a McDonald’s in the back of the store. An actual place where you could sit down and eat food. I had never seen anything like it. It seemed phenomenal at the time.

After a while, though, we got bored and I could tell Jenn was starting to get restless. Fidgety. She kept sighing and rolling her eyes, looking pouty. Then she said she wanted to go back home before her mom got there; and anyway we needed to start driving to Folsom to meet my own mom at the bus stop. Our plan was to tell her that we missed the bus and that Matt just gave us a ride home. We were feeling pretty good about the whole idea, like we actually might pull it off.

But after we dropped Jenn off at her house, then drove up Highway 25 back to Folsom and got to the bus stop, my mom’s car wasn’t there like it should’ve been. I knew the bus hadn’t come yet so maybe she was running late, I thought.

“I guess we can just wait,” I told Matt. “She’ll probably be here in a minute.”

“Yeah,” he said, then just turned the radio back up and looked out the window. He still seemed irritated with me for having to hang around Jenn all day.

A minute passed. Then ten. Then twenty. We had already watched our bus come and go, depositing its load of kids to walk the rest of the way home or otherwise get in the car with their parents, like we were supposed to have done, but our mom just wasn’t there.

After a while, we decided to drive back to our trailer to see if anyone was home, thinking that maybe some line of communication had gotten crossed earlier. I was starting to feel nervous though. And this feeling was only intensified when we pulled up the long gravel driveway and saw that my mom’s car wasn’t parked where it was supposed to be. In fact, no one appeared to be home at all.

“Shit, man,” Matt said. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” my brother said.

“Let’s go back to the bus stop again,” I said. “Maybe she’s there and we just missed her or something.”

“Yeah,” Matt said. None of us knew what else to do.

So we drove back to the bus stop, and this time we saw my mom’s car right away. She was already rolling down her window and staring at us. She didn’t look happy.

“Hey, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said as he pulled up alongside the idling car, smiling, trying to play everything off as best he could.

“Get y’all’s asses back home,” my mom said.

“What?” my brother asked, looking over Matt and through the rolled-down window.

“You heard me, son. Get your asses home. Now.”

I sort of slouched down in the back seat, not saying anything. There was nothing to say. Somehow it seemed she had figured out what we had done.

Then she pulled away and turned onto Highway 25, heading north toward our trailer, driving fast. Matt followed her.

“Man, we’re fucked,” I said. “She looked pissed. I wonder how she found out.”

“I don’t know,” Matt said. “But y’all are gonna be in some shit now, dude.”

We pulled up in the driveway behind my mom’s van, which was still running. I could see her sitting inside still. Then we got out of Matt’s car and started walking toward the porch. My mom got out and followed us and just as we got to the first step going up, she slapped Matt across his cheek. Not hard but enough to scare us. She never hit my brother or me and now she was hitting our friend.

“Where in the hell were y’all?” she said.

“What?” my brother said.

“Don’t ‘what’ me, Bryan. I went to y’all’s school and y’all weren’t there. You made me look like a complete moron.”

“We got a ride home with Matt,” I said, still trying to hold on to the lie of the original story we had planned to tell. “We missed the bus.”

“David, don’t lie to me. Y’all didn’t even stay at school today. I went to check y’all out because your grandfather had a heart attack this morning.”

“God, which one?” I said.

“Your dad’s dad.”

“Is he okay?”

“They don’t know. He’s in the hospital. All I know is that I get to y’all’s school this morning and the lady at the desk calls your classrooms, and y’all aren’t there. ‘Sure they’re here,’ I told her. ‘I just dropped them off a little while ago.’

“‘Well, ma’am, they’re not in class. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they skipped?’

“‘Skipped?’ I told her. ‘My sons don’t skip school.’ The lady just laughed at me. Do you know how embarrassing that was?”

“Sorry, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said.

“Just get your ass home, Matt. I don’t want to hear anything from you right now at all.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Matt said, looking down at his shoes. His cheek was still red from where my mom had slapped him. You could see the marks from her fingers on his face. “Later, y’all,” he said to me and my brother.

“Later,” we said.

Then we watched him as he walked back to his car and drove away. My mom’s van was still running, and my younger sister was sitting in her car seat in the back.

“Y’all don’t have time to go inside,” my mom was saying now. “Everyone’s still waiting at the hospital.”

“Is he okay?” Bryan said.

“I told y’all I don’t know, son.”

“Is Dad there?” he said.

“Of course he is.”

“Does he know we skipped school?” I said.

“Yeah, David, he knows. I had to call him to tell him why we couldn’t be at the hospital until later. That y’all’s asses weren’t where you were supposed to be when I came to get you.”

I didn’t say anything. There was nothing else to say. And so the hour-long drive to the hospital was quiet and tense. Plenty of time to reflect on what we had done and where we were going and what might be about to happen.

***

My grandfather managed to hang on for a little while after that, and my dad was too distracted to say anything to us about skipping school. It felt horrible though. It probably would have been better to just get in trouble instead of quietly feeling selfish and immature and irresponsible like that. And to know that everyone in our family knew it, too.

But no one else said anything about us skipping, and we eventually decided to leave when the doctors said there was not much more they could do. My dad stayed though, and when he came back home later that evening and I asked him how our grandfather was doing, all he said as he stood in the doorway was, “He’s gone, babe.”

Then he looked away, still holding the screen door open with his arm, but I could tell he was sobbing. His eyes were red, and his mouth quivered slightly. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry like that. And it didn’t seem to matter anymore that my brother and I had skipped school that day, had gotten caught, and had embarrassed our family.

This was something important, and I still remember how my dad put his head in his hands that night. The sound of his crying, how it echoed and bled through the thin walls of our trailer. Like something that was trying to get away, to escape from the place where it had been trapped for too long. Even if leaving meant it could never come back. Or if it did, nothing would ever be the same again anyway.


David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. From 2017 – 2019, he served as Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he is currently assistant professor of creative writing. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. He has since published three more novels, two collections of poetry, and a memoir. His latest book Mirrors is forthcoming from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.

An editor’s reblog: “When Reading Meant Everything”

The following was originally published on editor Foster Dickson’s website in August 2019.


All of the books pictured here came into my life between ages 14 to 20, during the years 1989 through 1994, while I was in high school or the first two years of college, and each of them changed my life in its own way. It was a bleak time for me; my parents got divorced, my older brother got married and moved out, and my father remarried quickly, all in 1990, and once high school was done in ’92, our inability to afford much in the way of college meant that I would continue to live at home and attend a local school while working full-time. I was tethered to a life I didn’t want to lead in a place I didn’t want to be, and books (and music and movies, too) were my gateway to something greater than what I saw around me.

Though, as a young kid, I was something like the bullied Bastian in The Neverending Story who escaped from the world through books, what I have found in books and magazines (and music and movies) since then is expansion. By high school, I was no longer reading to get away from the world— I was reading to know it better, to see and to know more of it, to glimpse ways of life I hadn’t imagined, even when I couldn’t physically leave where I was.

Beyond the fantasy works of JRR Tolkien, Ursula K LeGuin, and Madeleine L’Engle that I enjoyed when I was young, the first book that truly changed my life was Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a work I never would have chosen for myself but which was assigned by Mrs. Brock in ninth-grade English. In this mid-century French novel, a man named Meursault’s passive refusal to participate in aspects of life that he doesn’t care about causes him to be taken for a sociopath when he stabs and kills a man in an altercation that results from a misunderstanding. At fourteen, what I saw in Meursault was not a heartless murderer who deserved the death penalty, but a man who was utterly exasperated with having a life he didn’t want being crammed down his throat.

That same year, I borrowed another book that I had seen on a friend’s shelf, knowing nothing more about it than its intriguing title: Beyond Good and Evil. This work of philosophy by 19th-century German existentialist Friedrich Nietszche, was wayover my head, though I did manage to finish it, urged forward by having people constantly say that I had no business reading such things. They had thrown down the gauntlet, issued a challenge, and I wouldn’t be bested. I’ll admit freely that I only understood parts of what I read, but for me, it was like Rocky’s goal in the first movie: I wanted go the distance. I knew I couldn’t beat Beyond Good and Evil, but I also wouldn’t be able to hold my head up in the neighborhood if I got knocked out by it. Some teenagers wanted a high ACT score or a sports championship, I wanted to read and understand books that no one around me read.

Later in high school, two other vastly dissimilar books moved my understanding of literature and reading forward again: Edgar Lee Master’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthologyand Danny Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive, a tell-all biography of Jim Morrison. Though I don’t remember when I encountered that latter book, Spoon Rivercame to me through a theatrical adaptation we put on when I was a junior in high school. (The book, published in 1915, contains interconnected monologues spoken from the grave by the town’s dead citizens.) After the show was over, I went out and bought the book to read all of the poems, and this experience led me to two realizations: that people carry things inside themselves that the rest of us never know, and that I loved poetry. Where The Stranger was the first literary work that made me look deeply and critically at the world outside, Spoon River made me look deeply and critically at the world inside. By contrast, that second work – a mass-market paperback about hippie-era Los Angeles – taught me something that neither Camus, nor Nietzsche, nor Masters could: that writing could be cool, and that nonfiction could be, too. Books didn’t have to be dull and droll— they could be about rock stars.

After high school, reading became a way of life. Working, attending a commuter college, and living at home with my mother severely limited “the college experience” for me, which led me regularly and often into the arms of literature. Reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans one after the other at age eighteen fertilized the seed that was planted by No One Here Gets Out Alive— a life lived on the edge could be a writer’s material. Discovering the Beats then led me to Henry Miller’s lurid and wild Tropic of Cancerand to Richard Brautigan’s quirky novels Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar. My affection for Kerouac also led me to his literary idol Thomas Wolfe, whose florid and sprawling Look Homeward, Angel is heartbreakingly sad and beautiful. Somewhere in there, Walt Whitman came into my purview via Allen Ginsberg, and along the way, possibly via Camus, I found Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer (Le Gran Meaulnes), which is still my favorite coming-of-age novel.

Stranded in pre-internet Alabama, reading meant everything. These were the years between the release of Nirvana’s Bleach and the suicide of Kurt Cobain; during the years that REM put out Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, and Monster; in the five-year span that started with Say Anything and ended with Reality Bites. . . And it makes me sad that I don’t see young people reading like I used to, for the reasons I used to. And don’t tell me that anything on the internet is even a remote parallel, and don’t compare the books I just listed to Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. These literary idols of mine didn’t offer readily available screen adaptations or collectible merchandise to garner revenue from my isolated and desperate teenage sense that there absolutely must be something more out there, something more than what was at arm’s length. Back then, there were only the words on the pages, words were so masterfully strung together that nothing else was necessary. Not followers or subscribers, not clicks or likes, not trending or sales ranking, not chat rooms or fan conventions . . . just the words on the page. And, with reading, that’s the way it ought to be.