A psychologist on the radio said that as we grow older we tend to remember things pulled up from the deep recesses of our minds, events and images, we thought had been long forgotten. I’ve discovered I can usually remember short snippets or soundbites of my earlier days but rarely see the big picture. And some of these disjointed, fragmented stories from my past cause me to lie awake at night as I try to fill in the missing pieces.

This was the case when, totally out of the blue, I found myself still awake at 2am a few nights ago thinking about Sparky and trying to focus, in my mind’s eye, on the wine bottle in his hand. I can see Sparky perfectly and I can see the blue wine bottle, but I can’t bring the label into focus. And not knowing, not remembering, the name of the wine is driving me nuts…and robbing me of my sleep.

Sparky and I shared an Army barracks room. The first time we met he said he was surprised they had assigned him a roommate given the fact that he had just gotten out of rehab. He told me he was nineteen and got heavy into drugs in Nam. He didn’t look much older than sixteen and except for a few whiskers on his upper lip didn’t have any facial hair at all. His bloodshot eyes were the most brilliant blue I had ever seen and his fair, unkempt hair was so blond it was almost white. He was very thin and not much more than five feet three inches tall. He looked like a momma’s boy but deep inside dwelt the broken soul of a spent old man.

“All the guys in my unit were stoned most of the time” he told me. “I suppose that’s how we kept from going crazy, or blowing our own brains out. Hey, want to see a picture of the first gook I killed?” And with that he produced a wrinkled photo of dead Charlie flat on his back in a rice paddy.

Sparky was too young to buy booze and when he realized I was over twenty-one he said “I’ll buy if you fly.” I didn’t drink more than the occasional beer so he had to tell me what to get.

“Make sure you get that specific kinda wine. Gives the best buzz.”

There was a pond on post with red-winged blackbirds perched on cattails and large boulders surrounding it. Sparky liked it there because he said it made him feel at peace. We would spend as much or our free time as possible hanging out there. He would talk and I would listen. And we would drink wine.

I had pulled guard duty one weekend and it was 8 pm before I got back to my room. I opened the door and flicked on the light. Sparky’s bed was stripped and the blankets were neatly folded at the foot of the bed. I opened his footlocker and it was empty – all of his stuff was gone. The next day I knocked on the First Sargent’s door.

“Enter” he grumbled. He looked up from his desk and glared at me.
“Top, what’s happened to Private Franklin?” I said.
He looked back down at the paperwork on his desk and said “Discharged. Anything else?”
“No. Thanks Top.”

That was nearly fifty years ago. I never saw Sparky again but I can see him as if it were yesterday.

I just can’t read the label on the wine bottle.

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