Stories Tragedy

U.S. Army Issue Brown T-Shirt

“You can’t keep me here.”

“Please, Mr. Van de Kamp. Take your seat,” ordered the imperturbable headmaster, black eyes narrowing over his hawkish nose. The boy stood in his office. Out of uniform. Insolent.

“You can’t keep me here—” the boy repeated.

“I assure you, we can,” the headmaster flatly stated. “Your father—”

“My father can eat shit and die.”

“Mr. Van de Kamp, such language will not be tolerated here. You are well aware of our Code of Conduct.”

“You are well aware of my Code of Condick,” said the boy, lewdly grabbing his crotch.

“Mr. Van de Kamp! Govern yourself accordingly. Please sit down,” the headmaster said in as controlled and as firm of voice as the situation required.

“Have you checked into your dormitory?”

“Have you checked into your wife—because I hear she’s pretty hot,” the boy whispered conspiratorially. He winked in a knowing way at the headmaster.

“Young man, I never—”

“Maybe that’s the problem. The sexual revolution is going on—free love! You are just missing it. Maybe your wife is secretly on the pill, and she is having the time of her life. You’ve got to get with the times,” the boy said, snapping his fingers to make his point. Seeing the headmaster’s nonplussed reaction, the boy leaned over the headmaster’s large walnut desk and patronizingly patted the headmaster’s hand.

“Mr. Van de Kamp, I know you and your generation think you know everything. But as of today, September 5, 1967, you are still enrolled at this institution, and your father has signed our in loco parentis agreement, which means that this school—that I—act in the place of your father. This school—and I— are legally responsible for you.”

“Then this school—and you—can both eat shit and die.”

“Mr. Van de Kamp!”

“Sir?” said the boy, wide eyed, respectfully.

“You are being intolerable,” the headmaster firmly stated. He’d had his share of incorrigible young men in his life, but this one went beyond the pale.

“Sir, yes sir,” the boy gave him a mocking salute. “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” he sang loudly, swinging his feet over the side of the armchair.

“Please sit up straight in your chair like a man.” The headmaster’s tone barely contained his growing aggravation.

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung,” the boy sang quietly.

“Mr. Van de Kamp, this is what is going to transpire . . .” the headmaster paused to enumerate a series of commands.

Transpire.” The boy looked at him oddly. “Transpire?”

“Transpire. Occur. To come about—”

“Excuse-me-you-are-going-to-what?” the boy asked.

“I’m going to come about—”

“You pervert. All you boarding school types are perverts. I’m going to come about. Gross. No wonder your wife hates you.”

“Mr. Van de Kamp, you are putting words in my mouth.”

“What did you want me to put in your mouth?” The boy leered. He sat back, annoyed at it all. He continued to sing to himself, causally inspecting the books on the headmaster’s bookshelf. Pulling one out. Flipping through it. Dropping it on the floor. “Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game. It’s easy.”

“You are going to go back to your dormitory and dress appropriately for class,” the headmaster said calmly, attempting to control a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control. “You must wear your school jacket and polo shirt when on school premises.”

“I’m wearing this,” yelled the boy, standing up, tearing off his crisp white polo shirt that had been neatly embroidered with the school’s insignia. Underneath, the boy wore a U.S. Army issue brown t-shirt.

“Mr. Van de Kamp, you are not wearing school approved clothing.”

“Look,” the boy said languidly. “This is how it’s going to go down. I’m dropping out of school next Wednesday when I turn 17.”

“Your father—”

“My mother—my MOTHER—who is divorcing my father,” continued the boy, “will sign the necessary consent forms. I will head to Fort Dix for eight weeks of basic training. If there are no major SNAFUs, then I will fly to Fort Lewis in Washington state before shipping out to Vietnam. Maybe I’ll visit a prostitute near the base and lose my virginity. Or not. It doesn’t matter.”

“Mr. Van de Kamp—”

“I’m thinking they’ll assign me to some infantry division, but I’m definitely ground troop material. Chum for the sharks. The Vietnamese call sharks cá mập. I’ve been studying their language, you lỗ đít.”

“This is highly irregular. Certainly you cannot mean to—”

“Oh, I mean to. And who knows? By Thanksgiving, I may be in the Tây Ninh Province on Nui Ba Den. They call it the Black Virgin Mountain. Exotic, no?” The boy gave the headmaster a comical grin.

“Please, Mr. Van de Kamp,” the headmaster begged.

Nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved,” the boy continued to sing but his voice cracked on the last word of the lyrics.

“It’s all right, son,” said the headmaster quietly.

“I’ve been practicing, you know. All summer. I can carry 60 pounds of gear. I know the military alphabet: alpha, beta, charlie. Huh. Charlie.”

“Mr. Van de Kamp. Son,” he said again.

“Maybe I’ll be a radio operator like—” The boy stopped and looked at the headmaster, terrified. “I—I could be a machine gunner. Or maybe a tunnel rat.”

“You could be, Mr. Van de Kamp. You could be whatever you wish.”

There was silence.

The headmaster watched the boy fiddle with something on his wrist: a stainless steel, half inch wide bracelet. On the bracelet, the headmaster could just make out the name of another Van de Kamp, followed by a rank, service branch, country, and date of loss.

“I’m not afraid of going over there,” the boy said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hands like a child. “I know the language—I know some of it. I know enough to ask people questions. My mother thinks I could find—it’s just that—” He looked down at his wrist. A few tears made dark droplets on his U.S. Army issue brown t-shirt.

“Let’s take the morning off, Mr. Van de Kamp. Start your school day after lunch, what do you say?”

“I think I ripped my polo shirt,” he mumbled. Almost an apology.

“I’ll inform your teachers that the shirt you’re wearing will be acceptable for today.”

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