“Boomer” Winfrey

Varmint County Correspondent

Memorial Day is now past and with it, the unofficial beginning of summer here in Varmint County.  

Folks are tending their gardens and the kids have all finished school and descended upon Mud Lake, the boys with their fishing poles and the girls with their suntan oil, and vice-versa.

This being election year, summer also brings a curse with it: a plague of campaigning politicians showing up at every gathering of three or more people, from family picnics to church socials. Lawyer McSwine was even spotted pressing flesh out behind Smiley’s Pool Emporium at the liar’s bench, where a cluster of old-timers hang out whittling big sticks into little sticks and sharing tall tales.

Best estimate is that not a one of those geezers has voted since Harry Truman left office, but Philbert McSwine figured they must have relatives with current voter registration cards.

Memorial Day itself is a time for veterans’ parades and memorial services and a traditional time when family matriarchs gather the grandkids to help them clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors, most of whom the kids never met.

Lower Primroy has its veterans’ parade in the morning, followed by a somber wreath-laying ceremony at the monument on the courthouse lawn, which dates to the Spanish-American War and sports a pair of rusty, decaying howitzers. There used to be three of the ancient artillery pieces until Corky Pinetar, Fennie Hockmeyer and Peavy Perkins decided it would be fun to bombard the high school athletic field house one summer afternoon.

Peavy had somehow obtained a couple of shells for the 105 mm gun but the boys forgot to check the barrel first for rust and corrosion. The barrel split on the first shot, a flying metal shard knocking out Corky’s front teeth. The shell managed a short trajectory before exploding, sparing the three teenagers’ lives, but falling far short of its target and demolishing Granny Annabelle Cocklin’s chicken coop instead.

The grand marshal for this year’s parade was supposed to be Fire Chief Stanley “The Torch” Aslinger, but Stanley fell into one of his periodic Memorial Day funks and slipped off to the mountains to be by himself. Loopy Cooter McBean assumed the role instead, donning his tattered old Green Beret uniform decorated by an accumulation of medals and ribbons.

The State Commandant of the National Guard, General “Hap” Turgeon, made Varmint County’s parade part of his Memorial Day swing this year, and everybody got a kick out of watching the General and his staff forced to come to attention and salute the disheveled Cooter with his long hair and scraggly beard.

The General had no choice of course. Officers must always salute a Medal of Honor, which Cooter had looped around his neck for the occasion.

After the ceremonies were over, Cooter changed into his usual uniform, a pair of patched camouflage pants and a frayed denim shirt, and set out to find Stanley, finding him as expected sitting on the peak of the rock formation known as McCracken’s Neck.

“Not thinkin’ about doing nuthin’ stupid, are you?” Cooter asked.

“What? Nah, if I wanted to off myself, I’d just go over to Haig Hollow and pick a fight. I just like this place. You can see for miles and it’s quiet,” Stanley replied.

“Yeah, I like quiet too. Beats being in the middle of all that hoopla back in town.”

“It go alright? I didn’t mean to stick you with having to be grand marshal and deal with all those stuffed shirts. I just couldn’t deal with it this year.”

“Yeah, I let the generals and colonels all salute the medal. Got a kick out it, that disgusted look on their faces when they got a look at their ‘war hero.’ Ha!”

“Yeah, when they gonna learn there ain’t no such thing as a war hero, just survivors.”

“They’ll never learn, I suppose. The politicians make the wars and let the little guys fight and die in them. My niece’s son Toby just got back from Afghanistan. He came over last week from North Carolina just to see me,” Cooter said. “Know what he told me? He said, ‘Uncle Cooter, I heard about your time in Vietnam from grandma and my mom, and how it changed you, but I never quite got it ’til it was my time to go to war. It was all games and playing soldier here at home. It’s different over there. You see things that you want to forget but can never quite shake.’

“‘Some handle it better than others,’ I told him. ‘I lost too much of my humanity over there. When I came back I wasn’t fit company for family or friends. You’re engaged to get married. You need to handle it for the sake of the people who love you.’”

“Yeah, well I expect he’ll do alright. He’s got a lady love to keep him grounded.”

“I hope so. I had a girlfriend when I came back from ’Nam,” Cooter recalled. “I was so messed up it didn’t work out between us. Did you have a girl waiting on you when you came back, Stanley?”

“Nah. I had one over in Vietnam. Really loved that girl but she died.”

“What happened?”

“One of the villagers where she lived told the Viet Cong she was seeing an American. They came, murdered her and her whole family.”

“What did you do?”

“You know how I got my nickname ‘the Torch’?”

“Never heard the story.”

“I was an army explosives expert. I could blow up or burn anything in whatever way was required. I knew the exact amount of C-4 to use to disintegrate a Viet Cong safe house without cracking a window in the hospital next door.”

“After they murdered my girlfriend, I went a little crazy and went AWOL for a time. Some guys kill a man and have to live with it; some guys take out a whole squad of VC while others drop a bomb that levels a city block. I destroyed an entire province.”

“Whew, that’s a lot of destruction.”

“Yeah, one by one I torched or blew up every village, and every underground Viet Cong tunnel in Quai Noc Province until only ashes remained.”

“When I turned myself in to the MPs, the Army didn’t know what to do with me. On the one hand, I had destroyed a lot of private property and may have taken a few innocent lives. On the other hand, I had wiped out the supply depots, tunnel complexes and headquarters for over 10,000 VC and an entire division of North Vietnamese regulars. In the end they gave me a medal, a psychological discharge and sent me home.”

“That’s a heavy burden to carry.”

“It didn’t stop there. When I came home, I began setting fires all over Varmint County. I would have ended up in prison but Judge Hugh Ray and Sheriff Smoky called me in for a little sit-down.

“‘Stanley,’ they told me, ‘We’re in need of a new fire chief for Lower Primroy. We figure a man who’s an expert at burning things would also be the best man to put in charge of putting fires out.’

“It worked. I took the job as a way to make amends and stuck with it all these years. I got enough time in to retire years ago, but what else would I do?” 

“Do like me, I guess. Hunt, fish, and pick up a few odd jobs here and there.”

“Well, Cooter, look at the time. Aren’t the Haigs celebrating with the first batch of their spring run tonight?”

“Time to get off this mountain and join the festivities, I guess. We old-timers can’t let these kids just back from Iraq or Afghanistan have all the fun!”