Much in one’s life happens by chance, subject to forces outside one’s control, and it’s surprising that a lot of it is good, not so surprising that some of it seems bad and strange.
My short extraordinary friendship with Malvin Vigneault began over half a century ago when some obscure clerk cut orders for two basic training graduates from Ft. Benning to satisfy a manpower need in Company I of the 345th Infantry, then being reactivated and fattened and trained at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. He cut the orders as he did, and unconcernedly paired our destinies.
Friendship is, in the end, inexplicable. It starts because bunks happen to be across from one another, first words are vaguely right, each sizing up the other and finding nothing wrong.
He was from Manchester, New Hampshire. I was from New York City. He smoked pipes which he rubbed against his country nose to make them shiny, and I blew cigarette smoke through my nostrils to look tough and streetwise, appropriate for a born citizen of the Big City. We had nothing in common except our youth and, now that I look back on it, the terrible shared hunger of youth to experience everything and more. We knew we were young and living in exciting times and did not worry about the consequences for doing so; we did know that most of what would come afterwards would be anticlimactic, a whimper to the intensity we were to be given so early on a silver platter.
The South Carolina days were sweaty and uncomfortable, sand and scrub oaks, chiggers digging in under your belt, and frequent doses of sadism masquerading as military discipline.
But, there was also some precious time off in Columbia. I recall the pleasure in wandering the streets and seeing a curious world quite ordinary to other human beings. Each of us had other friends, of course. He more than I. He exuded a non-threatening, non-judgmental understanding that made him welcome anywhere. I was more frenetic, impatient with the slow-paced world.
One night in Columbia we were lured into a photographer’s shop to have our picture taken together-“Hey, soldiers, how about a souvenir picture?” The backdrop was a canvas on which was painted a phony bar, the props provided were liquor bottles and glasses. I had a fifth, he holds a glass, and we look at one another. My left arm is around his shoulder. Neither of us knows that in a few short months I would be wounded and he would be dead.
Then shortly afterwards we were overseas, landing on a misty morning in Scotland, getting closer to the action. But Britain, that civilized gentle country, was new to us and almost as exciting as smelling Cordite nearby. The British were so graceful and grateful about our presence. We lived in a Territorial Army barracks with straw for mattresses in the town of Leek in Staffordshire. Calisthenics in the cold November fog in the morning. In wartime everything moves fast, because that’s what we want it to do, and the welcome mat was everywhere. Just looking at books in the public library would result in an invitation to have tea with the head librarian. In the pubs it was difficult to pay for a drink.
In wandering, we were picked up by an elderly couple at the Congregational Church and given supper and invited back again and again. We gained surrogate parents, and they, childless, gained two sons, all in the space of two or three short weeks. (After college I went back and lived with them for a time, and one winter I even rented a farmhouse near Leek. That town became home to me in a very real sense. Or was it that Malvin’s ghost was there?) All that remains of that period in time are dripping November trees, tiny row houses, fog, vague streets in the blackout, and helpful Air Wardens with shielded torches.
Then we crossed the Channel. The seven hills of Metz brightening red with artillery fire. Our fire, or their fire? No one knew.
Previously published in
The Golden Acorn News