Sam's father had a gruff voice. He spoke with the gravel and asphalt intonations of one who had smoked regularly until receiving that mortal ultimatum
. He still, however, got high and within minutes of my arrival he had passed me a joint
"Well, Mikey, how's that?" He said my name like "Mah-kee," in the same Alabama accent that carried my late grandfather's voice. It was packed brilliantly, shredded finely and it was rolled just firmly enough. The smell and color of the marijuana was also excellent. This was a veteran smoker.
"So, Mr. Kirchner, where'd you learn to roll 'em like this?" Came my question.
"Well, in Vietnam. My commander was even better than me. And call me 'Mike,' damn it."
We began talking about the war, "We call it 'the Vietnam Conflict' because we lost. World War One and Two were victories, so we call them wars. Even Operation Desert Storm receives the honor of being a war."
"How did pilots fare in 'Nam? You never hear too much about the air war."
"Mikey, only veterans sound half way reasonable calling it 'Nam, and even then they sound like idiots. We gave it that name to take it's identity. Vietnam is really a beautiful country, had I not been tasked to kill its countrymen I would've like to live there," he said, inhaling deeply and exhaling thick white smoke.
"But yeah, it was a ground war, mostly. That's where most of our boys died. We took care of bombers and did a lot of watching out. There was a constant fear of the Russians back then, which is mostly why I was in the sky anyway."
Mike stared at the ceiling quietly for a few minutes. It was entertaining to see a man who was more than twice my age and fantastically intelligent sit in stoned reverie. He looked to Sam, "Do you remember Toby?"
"Shit, dad, you think I'd forget the first pet we ever had? She laid next to me every night, for christ sake."
"It'll be ten years, tomorrow, since she died. I never told you or mom this but I go out to where I shot her every year. Your mom's the only woman I ever loved more."
Sam seemed taken aback. He had told me that as Mike was getting older he was more and more open about emotional things. I asked, brazenly, "You shot her? Isn't that kind of cruel?"
"When she'd hear the gun go off she'd spring to life, tracking whatever it was that I shot. If it was a rabbit or a duck she'd tromp back happily and drop it at my feet. If it was a deer she would follow it for as long as it could run. Don't think about one death as more cruel than another, think about deaths in terms of kindness. If I'd've taken her to the vet to get her kill shot then the last thing she would know is laying, lonely on a table with the hands of a stranger fondling her.
"My way, she died sitting in front of her best friend and the last sound she heard was one that had always made her happy."
The only reply I could muster was silence.
Once the joint was finished Sam and I decided to go hunt. I had proven a really good shot at the range and he said he'd like to see how I faired against moving targets. Mike came with us into the gun room, where each gun was pristinely dust-free and locked behind glass. He pointed at the smallest of them, a child's rifle.
"As soon as I'd heard Theresa had a boy I ran out to buy a rifle. Finally, someone to hunt with.
"The first time I took him out hunting," he turned to me, "He took out a fawn that was bigger than him. He grabbed it by its legs and tried to carry it on his back. At one point he was tugging so hard his eyes closed and when I saw him I laughed my ass off. He had dug himself a hole in the mud with his feet, the deer was so heavy."
I looked to him, "So, are you gonna come hunt with us?" He pointed to a camera behind the glass with the rifles, "That's all I shoot with now. I've gotten tired of killing things. I think once you get older it becomes less about killing and more about making things last forever." He came with us.
He got some fantastic pictures.