Written by Joseph Pine during the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar ’20
“Welcome to IHOP, how many in your party?” asks the older woman at the counter as she ushers in the all-night partiers looking to sober up, early risers looking for a caffeine fix and families looking for a meal after a long flight. Each time the door opens the sounds of traffic is mixed with the sounds of planes landing and taking off from the airport, not a quarter of a mile away. I cannot seem to hear anything but the blood swelling my veins. The thump, thump, thump of my heart is getting louder as my scope of vision is narrowing. I try to revert back to my training to slow my breathing and open up my field of vision; I know that if this was taking place in a combat zone this could be deadly, but this isn’t a combat zone, this is at home in IHOP on a peaceful Sunday morning.
Allen, my “partner in crime,” and I had been assigned to the same unit and we had worked side-by-side doing all the seemingly meaningless tasks that a motor sergeant (me) and a logistics sergeant (Allen) have to do on weekend drills. Today we were assigned with going to the park and making sure those in our unit that had to take a physical training test weren’t using the shortcut. Before leaving the armory, the First Sergeant tasked out the 130-soldier strong unit. Allen’s and my assignment seemed to be the last thing on “Top’s” mind. Feeling like we weren’t an integral part of that day’s mission, we figured we wouldn’t be missed if we partook in a nice big breakfast that would sooth our ruffled feathers. After all, we were sergeants, the backbone of the Army, and we had to watch for PT cheaters; both of us felt our time could be better spent elsewhere.
We knew that everyone in the unit had to pass our area of operation for the breakfast mission we code named “sausage party,” so we waited in the unit parking lot until everyone was gone. I drove a very large and loud Ford F-250 sitting on monster truck tires that would be easily recognized, causing our mission to be a failure so we decided against my vehicle. Allen had tinted windows and a new car that no one in the unit would recognize so it became our mighty steed that would take us to victory. We waited in the unit’s parking lot hidden behind the limo-tint of Allen’s car until the last soldier taking the PT test turned out on the main road. Once the last car was gone, we headed to our real area of operation, IHOP.
We felt confident that no one in our unit would be at the restaurant or recognize Allen’s car, but still we waited until there was a clear shot to get inside without having to spend any unnecessary time in the parking lot exposing us to passers-by. Our unit shared the same facilities as two other units and the likelihood of being spotted walking into IHOP was a real concern, after all this was Rhode Island and the National Guard was small. Everyone seemed to know each other; this was especially true in the military police units. Allen and I were inseparable, if one of us was spotted, it was a fair assessment that the other was close by. It wasn’t hard to spot us either: Allen was a 5-foot 6 in 250 lbs black guy and I was a 5-foot 11 in 160 lbs white guy. We couldn’t have been more different and stood out among the military police officers that made up our unit.
We had been friends for years. He was taking advantage of all the college benefits that the National Guard provided. I worked as a full-time federal technician for the Guard. Despite our career differences, we always made time to hang out together and always had each other’s back while we were getting away with as many shenanigans as possible. A National Guard military police unit is a weird place for a logistics NCO and a motor sergeant, and being that we were in the headquarters unit, it was even weirder. Almost everyone in the unit was either an MP or had crossed trained to be an MP. Allen and I were the rare exceptions, the black sheep of the unit, only needed for menial tasks while stateside. Deployments were a different story. We were frequently dispatched to acquire items for our unit when going through normal channels would raise too many red flags. For instance, tires for a bobcat that higher command doesn’t know you have, that might cost you a few pairs of handcuffs or a case of batteries; the messaging was always, “You don’t know where they came from and we were never here.” The military police always needed people like us even if they didn’t admit it. After all, they needed to maintain a certain level of plausible deniability.
With all that we had done for the MP’s on our minds and knowing that we would soon be tasked with setting up over a hundred chairs after mopping the drill shed for that afternoon’s chain of command, we were bitter about our PT test assignment. We set out to enjoy a very large breakfast. With our ACU sleeves rolled up and a swagger that only a person that is doing something wrong can muster, we waited for the waitress to seat us. We both could tell that the woman looked at us with a warm smile and was thinking, “Thank god, normal people.” It was clear that she had been in the service industry for a very long time, and Sunday mornings dealing with all night partiers was a shift she could do without.
She seated us at a window overlooking the parking lot. Allen was facing the intersection where he could see if there were any cars belonging to soldiers in our unit. I sat looking out into the parking lot, always scanning for anyone in uniform. We both had a plan and an excuse ready if we were caught. We both had had our fair share of ass-chewing and wore them as badges of honor. We always reminisced about these over a cold beer or two after Sunday’s final formation.
With a plan in place we looked at our menus. I drank my cheap industrial coffee that sat in a craft already on our table. As Allen waited for the waitress to bring his chocolate milk, we pondered over what we wanted. I decided I was going all out and getting the biggest breakfast I could get knowing that I had already passed my yearly PT test. Allen was scouring over the heart healthy options. Allen loved to work out and his car was filled with water bottles and gym bags. I could only imagine they were filled with workout clothes that were well past their prime and smelled like a New England Patriots locker room. It wasn’t long before our waitress came by and delivered a tall glass of ice-cold chocolate milk.
As Allen put the glass to his lips and took a sip, the waitress asked where I got the fresh coffee cup from. She said she hadn’t had a chance to clear and reset the table before we sat down. I was immediately sprayed with ice cold chocolate milk. I knew it was ice cold because I was wearing it. Allen figured out that because our waitress hadn’t reset the table, I was drinking out of a coffee cup that the previous patrons had used and couldn’t contain his laughter even if it meant showering me with his favorite beverage. Not being able to control her laughter either, the waitress let out a snort that can only happen when something is so genuinely funny holding in it could be painful. As the laughing ended, the clean-up began. Napkins from the waitress apron cleaned up the biggest part of the mess and with my uniform, being the army’s worst attempt at camouflage, Allen’s chocolate milk actually blended in with the digital ACU pattern. We ordered our food. I went to take a sip from my (but not really my) coffee, but with the speed of a ninja, Allen’s hand covered the cup before I was able to ingest another sip.
As we waited for our breakfast, we talked about our families and how that our sons shared the same love of soccer and how we were pinning our retirement hopes on them becoming soccer superstars and us never having to wear the uniform again. Allen and I had deployed a couple of times, but this was the first unit that we were assigned to that brought us together. Our friendship had spanned a few deployments, with each of us watching the other board the plane to some far-off land and counting the days until we could drink together again.
At the time, I wasn’t the college type, and I was happy working a forty-hour week for the Army and drilling on the weekends. Allen on the other hand, was hard at work attending courses to work with the youth and was the butt of my jokes every time I saw him. I would always ask if he had finished school yet, already knowing the answer. Allen would reply by asking, “Why don’t you at least take a couple of classes at CCRI and slowly prepare yourself to get out of the Army?” I always told him that I wasn’t the college type and it wasn’t in the cards for me.
He would bring up my love for history and politics and that I could do better than turning wrenches in the Army. We had both seen our share of things between my time in the Navy and now the Army and his years in the active duty Army. We were getting tired of the politics and being assigned to units that didn’t value us, as well as the toxic leadership that had invaded the military from years of endless wars.
It seemed that it was taking forever for our food to arrive and a little bit of worry began to creep in our seemingly lite conversation about the PT test being over before we ate. As we waited, the thoughts of our table not being cleaned began to enter my mind, and I noticed how sticky the first third of the table was. Having two children, one that was just out of highchair age, I chalked up the stickiness to a child enjoying a plate of chocolate chip pancakes with extra maple syrup. I hated overnight drill weekends. The smallest thing made me think of my two kids at home. Having just returned from a two-month mission in South America, an overnight drill was not something I wanted to do. I became lost in my thoughts for a moment before Allen asked if I was ok. Snapping back to reality, I answered, “Oh yeah, sorry I didn’t sleep well last night.” We never slept well on drill weekends.
Allen and I always slept in the back of one of the unit’s cargo trucks to avoid the MP’s and their chest pounding about how cool they were. On one of our let’s just say less than above board trading missions we were able to secure two cots that weren’t on the books and supply didn’t know about. Having these two cots allowed us to set up pretty much anywhere for the night.
Our food arrived just as we were about to make the decision to ask the waitress if she could make our order to go. Our mission focus was now on devouring the meal in front of us. My plate was piled high with pancakes, eggs, toast, bacon and sausage and Allen’s with his veggie egg white omelet and turkey bacon. Our meals could not have been more different, but the fate of the items on those plates was going to be the same. As we ate the only thing that stopped the chewing was laughter about the latest drama occurring at our sister company. Soldiers from the military police company not more than twenty miles from our unit were always a source of our laughter.
We were finishing up our meals and waiting for the check, but it was taking longer than the normal time to arrive. We figured it was because the restaurant was busy. As time continued to go on without a check, we began to think that someone had paid for our meals and the waitress hadn’t had the time to tell us. People paying for soldiers’ meals happened a lot. It was a gesture to show support for the troops that always made Allen and me uncomfortable and we never wanted it to occur. Both of us could understand why people wanted to do it and we always gave the obligatory protest but, in the end, always let it happen. We both felt that no matter how much we didn’t want it to happen, it would be hurtful to those that wanted to show how much they supported the troops. As we looked around and waited for our check, we both noticed a large group of around ten or twelve men looking at us as they talked with our waitress. She had been taking care of us as well as their table. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clear that our waitress was uneasy and protesting whatever it was they were proposing.
I knew we were outnumbered, and if something was to happen, our little mission to sneak in breakfast and return to the unit undetected would be blown. Without a world spoken between us, we knew if something were to happen, we had to step in. It wasn’t long before our waitress broke contact with the table full of men and walked by ours. She was walking in a way that would allow her to get somewhere away from the prying eyes of the patrons enjoying Sunday breakfast. Allen and I directed our attention to the other table and the men gathering their belongings preparing to exit. It wasn’t long before we would find out what had made the waitress walk to the kitchen so quickly. It would be both my breaking point and a defining moment in my life.
As all but one of the men walked out the front door of the restaurant, a single member of their party walked over to the table where Allen and I sat. At first we thought that he was going to ask us if we knew his second cousin that was in the Army back in 1988 and was in Desert Storm, because everyone in the Army knows everyone that ever served, or some stupid comment about killing ragheads. While Allen and I shifted in the booth to face the disheveled man reeking of cigar smoke and cheap booze masked by gas station cologne stood at the end of the table. The hair on the back of my neck began to stand up. From getting into scrap ups as an English kid in Newport’s Historically Irish fifth ward neighborhood to getting into bar fights while in the US Navy, I have never shied away from conflict, in fact I rather enjoyed it. I figured that I had left that “me” on the pier, after all I was now a father and an NCO in the US Army. I would soon realize that was not the case.
The words that came from the guys mouth still ring in my ears to this day, “Here nigger, you take care of this for us,” as he dropped his check on the table. As he began to walk away, a rage boiled over in me and I sprung from the booth. As I leapt from the booth the Leatherman multitool on my belt got caught on the edge of the table, making all the dishes on it go flying into the air and crashing back down. Once I cleared the booth, I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck from behind. I had been blinded by rage and had missed this guy’s friends coming from behind. I did the only thing I could think of—fight!
It wasn’t long before I heard Allen in my ear in a loud whisper telling me to “knock it the fuck off and let it go.” Allen had been the Mack truck. He had taken me to the ground and was now manhandling me back into the booth. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Why was Allen stopping me? Why was Allen preventing me from knocking this guy’s teeth down his throat? Did he question whether or not I could? Did he have a plan to get him out in the parking lot? All I could think about was how they were getting away. Allen calmly motioned for the waitress and requested two waters. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t understand what we were waiting for and why no one else in the place seemed to care. Only seconds before everyone within listening distance heard what was said, and they had no doubt seen what had happened, but people just continued stuffing their faces and talking in hushed tones.
Our waitress returned to our table with two large glasses of water. Her eyeliner had run down her cheeks from tears she just shed. I struggled to see anything that wasn’t right in front of me as tunnel vision had set in. I was enraged with the man that was now walking away after assaulting my brother. I was enraged at my brother for not doing anything about it. I was enraged that he stopped me from stomping a racist. As I grasped the glass of water, my eyes locked onto Allen’s, and I saw a type of pain that I had never seen before.
After I consumed my glass of water my vision began to return, but not as before. I no longer had tunnel vision, but I couldn’t see the world through the eyes I once did. A scar on my throat that I had received in service to this country, one that I will carry for the rest of my life trying to defend those that cannot defend themselves, pulsed widely.
My head ached from a combination of a brain freeze and a sudden onset of high blood pressure as I consumed my second glass of water. A single tear burned as it made its way down my face landing on the table littered with spilled coffee and dirty dishes. I couldn’t help but notice Allen wasn’t shaken by the events that just took place. He began rearranging the scattered dishes and policing up my used sugar packets. I reached out and placed my shaking hand on his in a silent plea for him to stop for a moment and engage me in some way. As my hand grasped his, I silently begged for him to yell at me, tell me I was stupid for overreacting, tell me if it wasn’t for him, I would have gotten my ass whooped.
The waitress was soon busing our table and couldn’t stop apologizing for what happened. She told us that the men wanted her to deliver their message of hate and were willing to pay her to do it. She had refused. I couldn’t accept her apology. I struggled to understand how she could even stand there and listen to their proposal.
Allen tried to comfort her by saying, “some people are just assholes” as he looked squarely at me when he said assholes. I was taken back by this and when the waitress left, I confronted him about looking at me while saying that.
“You don’t get it do you?” he asked.
“Get what? I guess I don’t, so why don’t you inform me.” I snapped at him, shocking myself with the amount of rage I aimed towards my friend and my brother.
Allen asked me, “What did you intend to accomplish by attacking that guy and what do you think the outcome would have been?” I wished I could say that I had some deep-thinking epiphany or a great answer, but I didn’t.
We talked over another round of coffee and chocolate milk. Allen talked, and I listened. I listened to my brother, the person that I would give my life to protect tell me that this was not the first time something like this had happened to him and it wouldn’t be the last. I sat there dumbfounded at what was being told to me, how almost every drill weekend he was pulled over and taken out of his car because of his window tint and how people stared at him as he went about the mundane task of grocery shopping. My heart ached and my brain couldn’t compute that even in the uniform of the United States Army he was judged by the color of his skin and nothing more. He continued to tell me as much as he would have loved to watch me tune the offending party up, it wouldn’t have changed anything nor would it have solved anything, and said simply, “If you wanted to change the world, you have to be better than the ones that screw it up.”
Those words gnaw at me to this day and have ignited a flame in me to learn as much as possible about the history of our country and to stand up for those whose voices aren’t readily heard. Since that day I have dedicated my life to teaching American History with an emphasis on the contributions of minorities to the United States. Allen and I still talk often and while we are no longer serving in the military, we both continue to work for a better community.
I forgive that IHOP waitress just as my friend forgave me.
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