A Better Way

By Bernie Suttle

trench knife

 

“Tom”, Herb said, “Tell me once more about your face-off with the Alpine Gang.

“Not again”

“Yes, I think there’s a great story there, maybe even a homily. You were always the tough one. The one things happened to. Go ahead. You can tell your brother.”

“Well, okay. It was like this. I was new at Cathedral Boys High School. Three years behind you. We were down by the L.A. railway yards, near Chinatown on North Hill, Alpine Gang turf, Ronnie Renish and me.”

“Did you know where you were headed? Did you have a plan?”

“Not really. Not spoken. It was a weekday after school. I wanted to see the alleys. We were looking for some excitement. I had a trench knife, rumored to be illegal if carried by a civilian.”

“I loved that knife. I’d seen it in Commando, a magazine at Curley’s barbershop. A Vet who had one traded it for my car accessories I ‘d gotten through Midnight Auto Supply: hubcaps, antennae, hood ornaments.”

“Switchblades were popular with the guys I met at the Youth Authority. Trench knives were the most threatening, evil appearing weapons. Ready to use right now with the finger-holed handgrip. Made to do immediate damage.”

“At night I hid it under my mattress. Daytimes I carried it against my ribs inside my leather jacket, ready to pull at any chance.”

“Ronnie and I went into an alley off First by Alameda. It stunk of garbage and whatever. The alley got darker and came to a T. We each went a different way.

When my way came to a dead end I heard behind me, “White boy, what you doin’ in our turf?”

“I spun around and saw a guy, about my age, shorter, in a long sleeve plaid shirt hanging outside his baggy, khaki, pachuco pants. My hand reached inside my jacket, for the steel. To be ready. I heard, ‘You need a lesson, not to be here.’”

“I pulled the trench knife out, remembered to hold it underhanded like a practiced knife fighter, showing it in the most menacing way. The guy took a step in front and slightly to the right of me, made a move with his right hand and laid the end of the barrel of a .38 revolver on the center of my forehead. Right where the ashes go on Ash Wednesday.”

“Give me the pig sticker or you get a bullet right now.”

“Even now I feel that cold steel on my forehead and the warm urine running down my leg.”

“I shook the knife off my fingers, heard it clatter onto the pavement. He removed the pistol from my forehead, grabbed the knife and said, now vete, get out of here,” still holding the gun aimed at my head.”

“Tom, you were always the adventuresome one, near the edge, but landing on your feet.”

“Yeah, I just always wanted to go, to do, to be something, right now. You were the quiet, studious one. Seemed boring to me.” 

Herb said,” When our Dad was lost at sea in WWll, Mom, you and I got along best we could. She got on at Blue Seal laundry. Got enough hours to pay the rent and feed us. I liked school and pitching on the high school baseball team. You learned about life and the streets of LA. I believe I was in the seminary by the time you had the alley incident. Then you went into the Army.”

“ Yeah, Jack Reader, an L.A. cop pulled me in and gave me an ultimatum. “Tom Fitzpatrick, I’ve had your file since you aged out of the Youth Authority. You should be an inmate at the Jail. I’ve got three cases that’ll send you there right now. I’m tired of dealing with you. You keep running the streets you’ll be either doing hard time or be dead. Tell you what; you go with me tomorrow to the Induction Center. I’ve got a contact there that will take you in no questions asked.”

“We did. I did. And six weeks later I was on my way to Korea.”

“There I was the coldest and most scared I ever was. The Chinese came pouring across the Yalu River. Thousands and thousands of them. I lay on my belly on the frozen, rocky ground, shaking from fear and cold. They pushed and climbed over their fallen predecessors to take my next bullet. Then a mortar shell took my left shoulder off my body. My whole self was aflame with pain and shock. Medics took me by stretcher out of battle to the MASH tent where I lay outside on the ground with many others. The day darkened, the temperature dropped, the North wind increased. I didn’t know if I was dying. I didn’t care. ‘God take me now.’ I don’t want to be saved so I can do this again.” I lay there crying with relief. My war was over.”

“Wow! Tom, you sure had an active life and almost death. But you kept coming back for more. How long did it take after Korea for you to heal?”

“Six months at Lederman then I was released with a medal and a disability. Never was a student and didn’t know how or what to study. Landed in Frisco. Knocked around and ended up at Saint Ignatius Center. They took me in, cleaned me up gave me a room and a job helping guys like me. While there I thought there must be a better way for me to live, more like you. Slow down, think more, get some schooling. I began to wonder if they’d take someone like me in the seminary. They did. I’ve been with the Society ever since.”

“Herb, I’m glad we live in the same rectory.”

“Tom, I have a bottle of Jameson’s’ here. Would you care for a drop before you go back to your room? It helps one sleep you know.”

“No thanks, Herb. I sleep fine as it is.”

         Are you saying Mass tomorrow?”

“Yes, Tom, 7AM at the Cathedral. And you?”

“My Mass is here in the Chapel at 8:15.”

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