By John Thomas Tuft
They called him Johnny Smoke because when he was the star tailback for the East Allegheny Wildcats in the year of our lord 19 and 69, the coach said when Johnny ran, all you saw was smoke. That was the year that the shiny new high school opened, east out the Lincoln Highway to the Kmart plaza, hang a right on to Route 48, and in half a mile there it rose on an old slag heap and coke cinders pile, like a sphinx of hopes and aspirations for the generations of descendants of steelworkers, WABCO workers in Wilmerding and Wall, East Mckeesport, North Versailles, and, lest we forget, Crestas Terrace. The era of getting a job after school at Kings Family Restaurant or killing time at the Burger King. Students from the St. Roberts Catholic school got their first inescapable taste of the real world mixing with heathen protestants and the lines of race being papered over with forced busing. And if a young man did not get into Penn State or Pitt, a union job in the mills or a job pushing a broom at Continental Can in West Mifflin, he could take full advantage of an all-expense paid trip on Uncle Sam’s dime to the garden spot of Vietnam.
It was the year before the ultra-modern Three Rivers Stadium would open, after the ushers’ union declined the request for female ushers to wear miniskirts, and the following spring on opening day, fellow students would fall to their deaths while trying to jump from one pedestrian ramp to another. But by then, Johnny Smoke was an infantryman, slogging through rice paddies while taking orders from some fuzz faced Marines second lieutenant and taking fire from an elusive enemy. With a soundtrack of constant helicopter rotors slashing thick humidity, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, incoming fire from AK-47s and screaming rockets, or the ominous silence of B-52s high overhead dropping “lazy dogs” along Ho Chi Minh Trail, the awful “whoosh” of napalm igniting and sucking oxygen, Johnny Smoke knew he was not there to win anything but his and his buddies’ survival.
Johnny put in his 13 months hell tour, twice narrowly avoiding the disaster of pits full of pungi sticks smeared with feces, two lungsful of Agent Orange, somehow avoiding the plague of heroin, and went stateside for thirty days. He tried to talk to his old teachers at East Allegheny, but really, white kids and black kids shouting and swinging in the indoor courtyard outside the cafeteria, algebra and English lit be damned, was as disorienting for him as making his way through jungle in pitch darkness and absolute silence. Johnny Smoke went to the Marines and asked to go in country once again. Because he still had buddies there. You don’t abandon buddies or dishonor their blood. Ever. The ranks were swollen with dumb draftees, kids in chamo and 8 weeks of basic at Paris Island. Somebody had to look out for them.
So, Johnny Smoke went back. It is exhausting trying to keep teenagers focused on anything, but in Vietnam focus meant living or dying. Johnny took his responsibilities seriously. He became a combination of Hell’s tour guide and tough SOB den mother. By some stroke of military genius, he got a kid from back home, Lenny from Wall, in his platoon. He used threats, bullying, reason, charm, whatever it took to keep Lenny alive. They would sit and argue over which family back home has the cutest girls: the Knezevichs, Manns, or Kellars? Would you rather go to a Pirates or Steelers game? What time of night was best to drag race and with which carburetor? Did anything exciting ever happen in Wilmerding? Whose French fries were best, Kings or Eat N Park? Both Johnny Smoke and Lenny from Wall made it safely back to North Versailles and life went on. Lenny remained in the military and retired a full colonel.
Fifty years pass. Johnny Smoke is in a nursing home. Time, wear and tear, and the luck of the draw take their toll. Johnny suffers from dementia. In his mind, it is always time to reup for service in Vietnam. He wakes up every morning, frantic that he’s going to miss the plane. Searches desperately for his uniform and weapon. “My boys need me,” he cries. “I got to get them all home.” He is beside himself and nothing can console him about letting down his buddies. One day a shadow fills the doorway. Johnny Smoke looks up. There before him, in full uniform and regalia of a colonel, stands Lenny. Johnny salutes him. “Marine, come with me!” Lenny commands. He gets Johnny Smoke in the car and drives to East Allegheny Junior/Senior High School. Marches him across the parking lot and into Joseph Churchman Stadium. Out onto the field to the fifty-yard line.
There on the slag heap and coke cinder pile of history, Lenny from Wall slowly salutes Johnny Smoke. Then he hands him a fancy written proclamation, signed by the President of the United States. “From a grateful nation: For your service, bravery, and sacrifice. You have done your duty. Well done.” Lenny takes an arm to guide Johnny Smoke home, murmuring so only the two of them hear it: “You don’t abandon your buddies. Or dishonor their blood. Ever.”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.