A PC Tale

Paul Cowan

Copyright 2004 by Paul Cowan

Photo of a solitary ice fisherman.

Michigan, in the fifties, was the state where I grew up and Muskegon was the town, right on Lake Michigan. The lake resembled the Gulf Of Mexico with its modest surf, sugar-white sand and big, high dunes. The similarity ended with icebergs in the winter and water so bone chillingly cold even in August, that "Your lips are blue!" was a common comment after only ten minutes in the surf.

Growing up in that time and place was simple. We played all day and half the night; kick the can, duck on a rock, chase, war, king of the hill, hide and seek, and ball. Depending on the weather, it was kickball, basketball, baseball, football or variations thereof. And when it wasn't ball, it was swimming, wrestling, ice skating, tennis or fishing.

Even in the winter we'd fish. Chip a hole through foot thick ice, bait a hook with frost bitten fingers, drop your line through the hole, and try to keep moving so' not to freeze to the very surface supporting you while waiting for a bite.

Father and Mother grew up in Muskegon and after World War Two, or The Big One, as he called it, moved my three-year-old brother Terry and me to Coral Gables, Florida, ostensibly for Pop to go to dental school at the University of Miami.

Dad had attacked Normandy on D-Day, stormed across Europe with Patton and won a battlefield commission along the way. He didn't speak of the war unless drunk, and then so sullenly and maudlinly that he was scary and made little sense.

Coral Gables was the funnest place to be as a kid. Weather was always balmy or stormy or blowy, but never cold. Terry and I were tots, him in third grade, me in kindergarten. Our folks weren't hands-on and we roved and roamed at will like orphans. We swam with sea cows in the canals and were man o' war stung together in the Atlantic. We fished. We constructed huge forts from palmetto fronds; ate lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits right off the trees; and shinnied up palms and consumed the coconuts as if we were Swiss Family Robinson brothers.

During a neighborhood rock fight, I hit a girl named Gretchen in the head and she nearly bled to death. Dad asked if I did it and I said no. He said he would punish me badly (and he could) if I lied and it would go easier if I fessed up. I fessed, learning forever afterward to pick my lies carefully.

After a couple years of this idyllic life in paradise, my parents lost their minds and moved us back to the snow and blow of Muskegon. I attended Irish Catholic grade and high schools and distinguished myself as the youngest ever altar boy and able athlete. Academics were so-so as Mom always said she didn't want any eggheads in the family.

After high school I got football scholarships to a Chicago junior college and following, a four-year college in Colorado. I captained each team as a diminutive linebacker.

I won an academic post-graduate scholarship to the University of Nevada Reno, dropped out after one semester and joined the army. I did basic combat, advanced infantry, infantry OCS, paratrooper training, jungle school and Vietnam, first as a rifle platoon leader, then commander of a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) team.

Now I know why when Dad got drunk he was sullen and maudlin when he talked about the war. He was just confused. Like me. And like me, he probably never got over the surprise of coming back alive. Or the guilt.

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