Not every man's life is a soldier's service.
Holy shit on a stick. I must have been living under a rock. How could I not have heard until this weekend that a movie adaptation of one of my favorite novels is hitting theatres this month. Factotum. Henry Chinaski brought to life by Neanderthal-browed Matt Dillon in what many reviews say is a career-best performance. Guess they’ve produced the novel in a modern setting. Which probably works just as well (and helped with the budget, I’m sure). I have a new love for Norway. Or Norweigians…Bent Hamer adapted the bastard and shot in Minnesota in 2004. Guess it did okay at Sundance, as it is getting distributed. Hope this is better than Barfly, for chrissakes. The trailer seems to capture the proper tonality at least.
How I found out about this development is almost as good as hearing about it in the first place: from the bearded mug of a 58 year old Boatswain's Mate, Petty Officer, Second Class (Ret)Richard Kaczmarek. “You shit-bird son-of-bitch, preppy ass motherfucker…you call yourself a Bukowski fan?” Ricky, as he’s known, is one of those people who, when you describe him to others, seems like an exaggeration. Before I get into all the details, know this: the guy has a tattoo on the inside of his bottom lip. When he folds it down (revealing deep yellow ochre teeth, receding gums and plenty of silver filling work) you can read in navy blue his “mantra”: FUCK IT.
Mantra. That’s one of his words. You imagine him repeating the one on his lip to himself over and over and you begin to feel a sense of dread as to the fragile threads of impulse control in place with this polar bear of a man. What was I doing drinking pints of Yuengling with this character? A good question.
See I had a meeting with my accountant. Seems there were a ton of missing receipts in my “entertainment” deductible. (Another story). I was feeling particularly chipper that day and laid a rap on the receptionist, a cute eastern European, who surprisingly agreed to give me her number. Her name was Katia. She asked if I wanted to go to a party. I had visions of crushed OxyContin and Polish Martinis. Boy, was I wrong. She told me to meet her at this Lower East Side bar, Rolf’s, that Friday. I walked into the worst dive in the neighborhood full of Polish and Polish Americans celebrating a young solider about to head out to Iraq. I shit you not.
The kid, Private First Class USMC Richard Kaczmarek, Jr. was fresh back from Ft. Lejuene, NC. 19 years old. Can’t wait to deploy. His big brother is a NYPD policeman, Officer Joseph Kaczmarek. Officer Joe was dating Katia’s sister. Hence her attendance. And mine. His dad, you guessed it. Ricky, Sr.
It is important to note, I rolled into Rolf’s dressed completely inappropriately. “Look here, we done got us Bruce Fucking Wayne!” bellowed pater famamils, Boatswain's Mate Kaczmarek.
Ricky Kaczmarek, Sr. stood all of five eleven, but with the hands of a seven-footer. Huge mitts, the fingernails bitten down across stubby fingers. On his left hand, a wedding band, thin, gold. On his right, a skull ring, large, silver. He was a wide figure, with a huge stomach. Barrel-chested I guess you'd call it. His arms were heavily tattooed, the right with an Japanese style sleeve and the right with various naval motifs.
"This one here," he said, referencing his wedding band "…this shits a rememberence. So's this”, he drawls, bringing the sausage link fingers of his right hand into a fist. “My left is my past. The right, my future. I done fucked up the best thing in my life when I lost my wife. She had every right to throw me out. I was no good. Weren't until her funeral a year and a half ago that I reconnected with my kids.” He calls the rings “Memento Mori”.
See, once Katia came and introduced me to the family (and once I was able to pound about 3 pints) the Kaczmarek’s took a shine to your hero. “You really do nothing all day?” asked a young man, maybe 22. “Shit…I’ll be your bodyguard bro. Pay me to sit around your house, man. Guard your money.” “Yeah, I bet you beat off like a hundred times a day,” said another.
Ricky Senior asked me flat out…”all I want to know is do you support the troops.” Now people…I didn’t survive to 32 years, the better part of the last dozen frequenting bars, by not seeking to “remember my audience” as much as possible. It’s part of my charm. Of course I support the troops. And I do. I may not be such a fan of the war…but I sure as fuck don’t hold the men and women fighting it responsible for the decision to invade. I said none of this, of course.
“Hell yeah I do,” I think I said.
It was early, but that didn’t seem to affect the degree of intoxication in place at this function. There were a number of National Guardsmen there. Most of whom had seen active duty in Iraq in the Army before recently coming home. These were E-3s and E-4s, grunts. And they were shit canned. The topic of group therapy was heavily discussed. These guys had seen people die. They weren’t complaining. They were all firm in the statement that “they knew what they signed up for”. They all agreed the situation was 100% fucked up, but they wanted us to “win”. A lot of them said how hard it is to keep your temper once you’re back home. How they hate it that people assume stuff like The Mahmoudiya incident happens on a regular basis. When asked though, they agreed that it probably did “go down”. One specialist put it this way, “…it’s confusing. You like these people, you’re trying to help them and then they go and try to kill you and you want to lash out. Soldiers are getting fucked up, and bad shit can happen.”
Bad shit indeed. Boatswain's Mate Kaczmarek had seen his fair share of bad shit. The younger soliders had kind words for Ricky Senior. They had been welcomed home as heroes whereas he was “spit on”. He’d been moved from the Green Water Navy to the Brown Water Navy in 1968 and saw some significant action. Never wounded in combat, Ricky Senior is on disability. His stories help paint a picture why. They each involve drinking a ton and some sort of physical violence. Disrespect is a big thing with Ricky Senior. Jarhead assholes? Stomp em. Fly boy brown shoe shit heels? Stomp em. Uppity Gold Bar Ensign? Stomp em. Ricky was in the brig a lot. Busted down from Chief twice.
“They discharged me cause they said I was crazy,” he says, poking me in the chest with his finger. “You know what? I am.” I pounded my beer and replied, “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.”
“Holy shit…that’s Bukowski!” remarked Ricky Senior. “Yeah I’m a fan,” I noted. So was Ricky Senior. That was how I came to find out about the film. People are a strange animal, are they not?
As for Ricky, Jr…his father has said he requested Marine Corps MOS 0351, Infantry. An Assaultman. With a tear in his eye he looked at the ground. “I’m proud of him. He’s got courage. But I wish he was in the rear with the gear. Something safe. Something administrative and shit. Stupid fucking kid.”
As for Katia, she took me home that night…said I was quite a hit. This surprised her. She expected I would have had problems with those guys. I said, I expect I would have had my ass kicked had I not been properly invited. She said, no…you know, because of where you come from in relation to them. I said, no way. I respect those guys immensely. I have problems with what seems to happen to them over there. That they have to get all fucked up. “It’s their choice,” she said. She was right of course.
I think of the stresses these cats face. The way it seems to haunt them not for months, but for decades. I think of the rest of us, snug in our entertainment cocoons, politicians included and I think again of Bukowski:
you never had it to begin with.”