My Friend Alex
A Short Story by John A. McCabe
Orangutans are large, but in general they are quite gentle.
Adult males can be aggressive, but for the most part
they keep to themselves. They are uniquely arboreal –
living their lives quietly up in the trees away from predators…
and only descending to the forest floor when they must.
Somewhere in my memory of memories there is a treasured one of my old friend Alexander Riccio. Always, my first thoughts of Alex are his impersonations. He could mimic the voice and sound of anyone or anything, whether it was John Wayne on Iwo Jima, a gobbler turkey, or a guy we just bought coffee from in the Seven-Eleven. Alex became whatever he was imitating.
Alex had another explicit talent: he could laugh as if he were the cosmic comic connection to all humor in the universe. Like a high-powered centrifugal force, his laugh exploded out of him and into everything nearby. I can see his face aglow and eyes tightened into slits of glee.
Alex was a person who never should have been completely free to do anything he wanted, or what others urged him to do. Physically, his stature bore little or no resemblance to that of an Atlas or Hercules, but he was strong and full-bodied with a barrel-like chest plate, and sizable biceps, and seemingly in possession of immeasurable strength. This caused him occasional and unforeseen problems, as for example during his short but memorable career as a Police Officer. During his thirty-two days on the force, it’s true that he did cut a capable figure in his dark blue uniform, seated officially in his black and white Ford Cruiser, a broad smile on his face.
After denting the entire hood of the police car with the whole body of a child abuser and being discovered naked in a house trailer with the Police Chief’s loving wife, he met up with the chief briefly, just long enough be fired. Although Alex’s dismissal was instantaneous, it took over four minutes to convince Alex he was not permitted to get back into his blue police uniform. Calling me to get some clothes and a ride home, Alex seemed petulant about losing his police job until we started laughing. It was always very difficult to discuss or do anything that takes caring or concentration while Alex was laughing.
As you can guess, I knew Alex for a longtime. We met as very young men in an under-age bar and grill in Philadelphia’s north end. In those days my reflexes were considered rapid by those who knew me, and it was those quick reactions that saved Alex from getting a second dart thrown into the back of his head in an unfriendly game in that corner bar, The Chicken Coop. I caught the second dart in the palm of my hand. Of course, that meant it was sticking out of my palm for a while. Alex was appreciative and he pulled it out for me. From then on, he was always friendly to me. But it was really the laughter that day that cemented our friendship. After all, everything at that time had a funny side, except maybe the first few seconds of Alex’s next biggest challenge.
As I said earlier, both Alex and I agreed that he was a guy who should have had limits, you know, boundaries of behavior or some form of restraints. This was not just to be taken as mere suggestion or polite advice. It was a good idea, a better model concept for Alex.
In fact, I had this thought one day, which I shared with him, “You would have made a great pet had you come into the world as a big, happy, even dumb dog. You would have been really happy.” I knew that by sheer instinct, and Alex agreed. As further proof, I started to call Alex, Rex, the very next day and that nickname stuck, maybe because it was so close to his human name. I felt that any big old dog would be fond of the new name. Secretly I think Alex liked the name because it made him laugh. Of course, we just laughed about that idea even though we knew it was true.
Did I tell you, yet that Alex/Rex fought an Orangutan? Yeah, he did. It was at what you would describe as a big carnival or maybe more accurately, a small circus. They had an average-size Orangutan in a cage and a handwritten sign and a Carny, Hawker-type guy with a bowtie and a shrill pitched voice, saying with repetition, “Where are today’s brave souls? Who is ready now to fight Crackers, the great Orangutan?” As all carnival announcers promote the show, as the greatest, the show of shows, their pitch no less than a net of capture thrown over the dull, and the thrill seekers, and adults turned to children, he knowingly targeted Alex on instinct. The bowtie man was trying to shrink a wide smile of conquest, as he noticed Alex making steps forward. The thin man flicking his bowtie with confidence announced to all, “Here is our hero… What be your name Pilgrim?”
“Officer Alex, retired, Sir.” the big man roared as both men guffawed at the remark.
The sign and the hawker claimed that, if you could stay in the cage – they called it a ring – with Crackers for two minutes, you would win $50.00. They charged only 50 cents to witness each contestant as he met Crackers in person inside the locked steel cage. The event was free admission to Alex.
In my opinion, spectators were shocked by how fast Alex/Rex was ready to go in through the steel cage door. I was immediately reminded of the many times I had to help Alex complete difficult things. He started this time with his usual laughter as he stood outside and investigated the cage.
Alex was only with Crackers a short time, very short seconds when he ran, stumbling back to the cage door with a whole new look on his face. I never saw him express raw shock before and his barefaced fear had a grip on many in the audience who made gasping noises. The people recoiling all around me brought on panic in me immediately. It was how wide-open Alex’s mouth stayed and how his eyes bulged like they might detach. I understood, and even expected it, when I saw Crackers throw Alex sideways against a section of the steel bars, and later when Alex said, “It was as if I was as light as a pencil.” I thought you would not have heard the pencil like you did big old Alex hitting the bars.
When not dealing with disbelievers, Alex/Rex loved to tell the Crackers story and do his laugh. I loved the way he told it, especially at the end of the story, when every time, Alex fully mimicked the Orangutan as if he were Crackers.
* * *
Still in our twenties, Alex and I became separated by time and place. When I heard that he had been drafted into the army and sent to the war in Vietnam, I started losing sleep at night. I spoke to his mother and she told me his address. He was in the 4th Infantry Division that had deployed from Fort Lewis to Camp Enari Pleiku, Vietnam on 25 September 1966.
When Alex was drafted, I found out, in the newspapers that the 4th Infantrymen were taking a beating, and Alex was with them. The division was in combat from the western Central Highlands on the border between Cambodia and Vietnam to somewhere on the South China Sea. The division experienced intense combat against the People’s Army of Vietnam in the mountainous area of the invading United States Army’s II Corps.
I met up with the rear platoon position of Alex’s Company out there in the central highlands. It was late in the evening, my first day. It may seem hard to believe, but even though I had already served my time in the army, I reenlisted to join my great friend. My previous special guerilla insurgency and counter guerilla insurgency training in the infantry convinced me that I would be able to help Alex stay alive,
I really had no idea what I was getting into and no idea what Dragon Mountain, in the Central Highlands, threatened. All that first night I wondered if I would even find or see Alex when the morning came. For the most part, when in the field, we couldn’t see too far because we were either in tall grass up to our chests, in very rough terrain, or wading through forbidding waterways. From what was going on, beginning on that first night, I doubted everything. I had preconceived useless, inapplicable ideas of what a war was, at least this war, because it was impossible to predict what the next moment would present. I wasn’t even trying to sleep those nights. I worried myself awake among the strange sounds of the nightmarish jungle world around us.
That first night I consoled myself by thinking I might see Alex the next day, maybe. It all seemed crazy. Late that first night my new comrades told us replacements that they knew that the enemy would come with what they called a Sapper attack, which meant the enemies’ most fierce full attack in the hours before dawn. When the Vietnamese came in their swift dedication to warfare, it was nothing but fury. I fired only one volley of rounds from my M-16 because I didn’t know for sure how to avoid hitting my own guys. But I fought one man with my hands until he was breaking loose of my grip, and another NVA soldier running past me helped him by shooting at me. It was very clear in those seconds that the man I struggled with did not want to be there either. I was fortunate to have hit him hard before he hit me — or killed me.
When the attack abated and after about an hour of quiet but scary darkness, morning light broke into a purple-red sky, and the aftermath of the battle began to develop into morbid chaos, I still had my previous military rank and that gave me the freedom to roam, so I began a cautious search for Alex.
I learned that Private Alexander Riccio had charged into an NVA squad pushing those people around and into each other until he was shot repeatedly by their small arms fire. During the charge he was probably unarmed. He had left his weapon under a tree where he and another G.I. were elected that night to be on a forward position L.P., (listening post).
There were no Orangutans in Vietnam– except for those in my mind. They were over 1,600 miles away that afternoon when the army flew Alex away from Vietnam. Alex’s body bag was suspended on a cable-rope below a helicopter. The Chopper flew steady and set on a course for the rear as it hovered over the mountain, but all the while the body bag swung unceasingly from side to side in looping motions below the helicopter.
There were three helicopters flying dead bodies off that L.Z, (landing zone). I watched in a trance as Alex swayed up above the treetops. He was being transported in that gentle almost motherly motion. I thought of an Orangutan Momma carefully carrying her offspring gripped in one hand from branch to branch. There was, however, all that noise until he was far enough away for that muffled nearly silent cry of Vietnam to settle and surround me, and I was very alone. The next morning, I thought I heard Alex laughing, but it was only a daydream. The war soon suffocated the laughing in my heart. My friend had flown away, another wasted American life had been taken.
Years later, the war was deemed a mistake. Unlike Alex’s picking a fight with Crackers the Orangutan, this was somebody else’s mistake, a very big mistake. If Alex had been an Orangutan, he could have stayed in the trees where he would laugh and tell us, “You could have learned from being human and from all the living beings around you.” Now I know that war is the dumbest of mistakes, that it wastes lives and cruelly makes for sorrow, even among those who know how to laugh out loud.
John A. McCabe, a lifelong writer in all genres, is an active member of the Writers Guild at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. His novel, The Girl in Japan: A Young Soldier’s Story, centers on his studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A short story writer, he also authored two short story collections. The first, Tracks Through Our Lives, published by The Pearl S. Buck Writing Center Press, tells Philadelphia stories and tales of remarkable friendships. His second collection, The Bridge Walker, consists of seventy short story titles. He was published by the National Society of Collegiate Scholars 2010 as a U. Penn Chapter participant with his story The Wedding Guests. His works appear in the PSB Literary Journal. He has also published poetry. John was a recent Presenter at the West Virginia University Gateway Conference honoring the legacy of Pearl S. Buck. His topic was Pearl’s 1959 novel Command the Morning, her historic fiction exposé of the Manhattan Project. Mr. McCabe was also a Presenter at the 10 June 2019 National Association of Atomic Veterans 40th annual convention in Dayton.
Visit him at www.mccabeauthor.com