The Sugar House (Original Title: Veteran's Day 1996)

Who really knew Bill Blowers? One or two people. Who actually cared about him? No one cared very much.

Sure it can be said that I, as his squad leader, was required to have concern for his well being. I am even glad to say that my concern transcended the feeling of responsibility a leader is supposed to have for a subordinate. I grew to like Bill.

Loners don’t invite much in the way of friendship. This particular fellow didn’t respond very well to leadership either – which is what drew my attention to him when I first came to Charley Company. He had a smart mouth.

He was an enigma. A puzzle that no one cared to solve. Except me.

I was to grow used to Bill always bumming the coffee from my C-rations. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, he always drank coffee and smoked cigarettes.

"Hey. Got any smokes? Got any coffee?" I made certain that I had these items on hand.

Soon he began to take my canteen cup with him and return with coffee for me.

No one wanted to share guard duty with him, so he and I wound up pulling it together. I set up the mortar to shoot a DT (Defensive Target), and he checked the data on the sight to make sure it was correct. A round or two was shot and we’d settle down in the gunpit and shoot the breeze.

What makes a loner? Could it be that he has never been given a chance to say what is on his mind? Everyone has sensitivities and deep feelings. Was his brashness a way of covering up some long remembered hurt? His unwillingness to conform hurt him. The Army doesn’t much reward independent minded people.

The Army could have been more grateful. Before I arrived in Vietnam, Charley Company was running an operation along with an armored unit. A trip flare had accidentally gone off inside an Armored Personnel Carrier loaded with ammunition. While everyone made a hasty retreat from what was sure to be a large explosion, Bill nonchalantly went inside the APC and removed the flare.

"I save the government thousands of dollars and do you think that they would show their appreciation? An Arcom (Army Commendation Medal) would have been nice!"

Our platoon played a lot of cards. Bill was an excellent Spades player. I made certain that he was my partner – much to the chagrin of opponents. I used to laugh as Bill reached with a long arm (the guy was all elbows) to throw down a 2 or 3 of spades in order to trump a trick the opposing team badly needed. He’d say with a smile that those baby spades were his "sappers".

There was a story that I liked to hear Bill Blowers tell. It was the kind of story one doesn’t mind hearing more than once. It was likely that the casual listener would not consider the story profound or interesting – unless the listener knew Bill Blowers. He was not one to waste words.

It was about his home in upstate New York. The maple trees had long since lost their color and their leaves lay buried deep beneath the snow.

The sap was running in the dead of winter, and Bill’s job was to process it into maple sugar.

I had visions of him going about from tree to tree gathering buckets of sap that were nailed to trees. Instead, he explained of an elaborate system that piped the sap into the sugar house – which is where he worked.

"Man it is so quiet out there. Out in the middle of the woods. Nobody around. I don’t even listen to the radio. You got to keep a wood fire going in the sugar house to cook the sap. It’s an easy job. All you got to do is keep the fire going and stir. There’s plenty of time to drink coffee and smoke and listen to the fire. When I get back home that’s what I’m going to do."

It’s funny that I can’t remember what happened to Bill Blowers. He was just one of, literally, hundreds of guys that one meets in the military.

Many times I found myself deep in discussion with different guys while sitting in the dirt of a gunpit, somewhere in the combat zone.

The people and the places and the things spoken, which we took for granted back then, now become landmarks that remind us of our endurance.

Did Bill Blowers find his sugar house? I am reasonably sure that he did.

My wish is that all veterans, in search of their own place of solitude and peace, may find it soon.

Happy Veteran’s Day