Friday, March 21, 2008

Mac won't back down

Mac was a guy I met on the first day we were in the Army. We went through basic training together, were in the same artillery unit in Germany, and we were discharged on the same day.

When I met Mac he was looking glum, sitting in his seat on the train taking us to Fort Lewis, Washington. Mac quickly got into his particulars. He was older than us other guys; we were all 19 and 20, and he was 26, just about to turn 27. He'd gotten a divorce from his wife, and since they had a child he'd had a married father deferment. As soon as he was divorced his ex-wife called the draft board and they scooped him up. It happened to guys all the time.

The first thing I noticed about Mac is that while he was a very handsome man, he was also short. He could not have been taller than 5'2". I found out later Mac had talents, and could fix anything. He'd worked as a mechanic all his life. When we were in Germany his job was as a mechanic for our battery, working on our big guns.

Mac was basically illiterate. He'd dropped out of school, and I'm sure now he had a learning disability, maybe dyslexia. Beyond some very simple things he couldn't read or write. He could never sit down and read a newspaper, for example, but he could read a street sign. When we were in basic training he'd clean my rifle and I'd write his letters home.

Mac was also a loan shark. He had cash; if a guy needed $10 Mac was there with a ten-spot. On payday the guy paid him $15. Mac had no problems at all with that sort of math. Throughout his time in the Army he kept a small notebook with the transactions listed in whatever notations he was able to use. He was always there on payday to get his payback. That sort of thing was illegal under military law, but it went on all the time. Since Mac didn't have a lot of expenses and wasn't a spendthrift, his usurious earnings went home with him after our hitches were up, and he had a bundle.

Mac was small, but tough. He'd gone to tough schools, he'd grown up poor from a bad part of town. One day he had a dispute with a guy in our artillery unit. The man's name was Gross; he was from the group ahead of us and was set to rotate back to the States in January 1968. In German Gross means large, and Gross was large. He was at least 6'2" and solidly muscled. When he had borrowed money from Mac, about $50 as I recall, he had agreed to the terms, but on payday he objected to paying back $75. This was always a time when Mac, in the best tradition of loan sharks everywhere, had to show he meant business. He challenged Gross to a fight for after work behind the barracks. Gross agreed, figuring there would be no fight because no way, no how, could this shorty ever really fight a big guy like Gross. He didn't count on Mac and his tough upbringing. When he was growing up Mac had fought every day of his life. As an adult he'd fought in bars, in alleys, at work.

Mac looked at it this way: a guy does not back down. If he says he's going to fight, then he fights. Mac said, "I don't care if Gross kills me, I won't back down." So what happened was there was no fight because Gross backed down. I guess he didn't want to be guilty of manslaughter and hold up his discharge. He handed Mac the $75 and that was that. For Mac there was no gloating, it was just another day's business.

A few weeks after we were discharged I talked to another of my friends, Ralph, who along with Mac, had been with me the whole two years. Ralph told me that the day Mac got home from the Army he called his ex-wife. She worked at a bar. He picked her up when she got off at 2:00 a.m. and they had sex on the seat of his pick-up truck. As I told Ralph, "She screwed him with the draft board, then he screwed her."

In memory of Mac, here's Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers doing, "Won't Back Down":

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