Napalm and Strawberry Shortcake

People typically share a sort of yearning affinity for the distinctive jingle that ice cream trucks use to bait neighborhood kids; Roland did not. He always found it sort of maddening, the anticipation. He would hear the truck faintly from his bedroom and smash open his piggy bank or desperately beg his parents for change, then sprint outside to buy his favorite strawberry shortcake, savoring every sweet, deliciously cool morsel. But when all was said and done, when the ice cream had been inhaled and the brain freeze was in full swing and the damned thing was driving off, he always felt angry, unsatisfied — and the eery, mocking soundtrack to this dissatisfaction was the infuriatingly jolly tune of an ice cream truck.

And so, in an effort to fill the void, Roland sought more (as is the post-War American way). He would save up more change or beg with yet more desperation — Roland was not a likable child — so that he could buy more ice cream. Less than surprisingly, the void remained unfilled; and the anger, even less surprisingly, grew twice as strong. The tail lights of the truck would leer at him cruelly as it drove away, leaving Roland seething on the street, blistering summer heat quickly melting the second strawberry shortcake he would unfailingly never succeed in finishing. The boy had been thwarted yet again, and was now out another 50 cents. It was more than just a case of the eyes being bigger than the stomach; his was an insatiable soul.

Surely, then, it was an unfortunate fate for Roland to bear, almost half a century later, to be driving around in a goddamned ice cream truck. He’d attempted to settle back into civilian life, to little effect. And who could blame him? To get off the plane from the fall of Saigon only to be spat on by ignorant, naive and spoiled hippies did not inspire him to try very hard when it came to the task of re-assimilating. Three tours over an eight year period (a substantial portion of his twenties), four toes, countless friends, and his mental health he had sacrificed for the American public in Vietnam; and all he had to show for it was a limp, a failed marriage, and a wide array of symptoms that were nothing if not synonymous with PTSD.

Such events as the battle of Khe Sanh or Hamburger Hill had been just as unforgiving to Roland’s appearance as they had to his psyche. Neither of his grandfathers had been bald, but he was well on his way. None of his physical scars were visible when clothed, which is more than could be said for the emotional ones. His facial expression, which never really varied from the Thousand Yard Stare, conveyed a sustained image of being deeply, irrevocably disturbed. Few things angered Roland more than when someone asked if he was “OK”, as if there were any answer that would be satisfactory to such an inane question. The South East Asian sun had left his skin a little worse for the wear, and the irony of being an ice cream truck driver with advanced Type II diabetes was never something he found especially amusing.

The gangrene that resulted from a seeming eternity spent in the jungle had claimed his left foot, so he had more than a bit of trouble getting around, ruling manual labor out. And since he’d spent his youth fighting Charlie overseas, Roland never went to college, which meant that options for employment were really quite limited. A shall we say less than personable disposition had lost Roland more than a few menial jobs; and so now, forced to live back at home, he found himself most disgruntled in the very same truck that had been the bane of his childhood.

Roland never really had flashbacks, because that would require the trauma to at some point take leave of his mind. The war was just as much a presence in his life at home as it was back in Nam. The aisles of a grocery store were the triple canopy jungles of Malaya. Standing in line at the post office was waiting for food at base camp. His ex-wife, Rebecca, was an NVA torture specialist, and the truck, his cell. Roland had no civilian friends, because he had nothing left to speak of with them. He had no army friends, because he had none left to speak of.

Unlike a number of troubled veterans, at no point in time did Roland regret anything he had done during the war. Sure, he’d cut off an ear, or two. He had killed a pregnant woman, but only once, and she had been holding a grenade. He listened for days to the screams of Charlie being tortured and did nothing. But these were all sins classified as standard in the shit, and he’d either seen or heard of far, far worse. There were few things he loved in the morning, and the smell of napalm was not one of them (as it is usually accompanied by the aroma of charred human flesh, which is not what you’d call appetizing).

Among the many unsavory habits he’d picked up overseas was heroin — which, in addition to being prohibitively expensive, is rather hard to come by in suburbia. Nevertheless, every so often, he’d venture into the city and score some China White. Roland found the children to be much more tolerable when he had a few lines of the gear in him, which really just meant he was less inclined to fantasize about taking a flamethrower to them.

Now and again, doctors at the VA would concede to prescribing him some morphine when he complained about pains in his leg, but it never lasted very long, and they’d always sort of look at him sideways when he asked. But at least he’d quit smoking in Vietnam, which was strongly discouraged by his superiors (as the ember of a cigarette acted very effectively as a bullseye for the skillfully camouflaged NVA marksman).

Never once would his bitch of an ex let Roland see their daughter, Karen, not that the girl expressed much outspoken desire to spend time with her father, anyway. He’d married Rebecca fresh out of high school, just before getting drafted, and she’d left him with most unceremonious haste after his return (for a Chinaman, of all things) — such was the luck of his draw.

Suffice it to say that Roland was in dire straits, and his days spent driving the ice cream truck weren’t doing much in the way of getting him out. The Fog of War never really lifted for him, living on in the chilly confines of the truck. Even so, he soldiers on — as is required of you in the shit — sneaking in an occasional strawberry shortcake…never still quite finding sufficient pleasure in doing so.

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