My thoughts have lately been wandering through the past, resting on some interesting and outstanding, in both positive and negative ways, folks I've met since I left home at 18 or so, 40 years back.

These musings are tinged with guilt because I've always meant to write something about these particular people but haven't.

My head is in a yesterday space a lot right now because of the job I started 14 weeks ago. I'm an activities director for a fairly large assisted-living facility. (You can't call 'em nursing homes anymore, and our residents are not patients - marketing has even come to Alzheimer World.)

It is a place that forces you to confront change and the irrevocable passage of time. In a mere 100 days, two of my residents have died, another fell and broke her hip, two were sent on to more remedial places for more extensive, less independent care and a sixth lost her spouse. Working at a daycare, you see a lot of unlined faces and a few dirty Pampers. Working in assisted living, you see a lot of line-ravaged faces and a few dirty Pampers.

I think I'm good at the job. I like my residents and can see the folks they once were, before the ravages of Alzheimer's and dementia changed them forever. Many of them have had interesting lives, I know, because their adult children tell me so, some seemingly desperate for me to understand that shell of a person I am now coloring pictures with, or tossing a big, soft beachball to, was once a fully engaged, successful human being.

In honor of my balloon toss group, composed of folks from 70 (Early Onset Alzheimer's, a brutal thing) to 96, I am writing this week about Sgt. Ernest Fletcher, my drill instructor in Basic Training. I've mentioned once before how Fletcher, a small, thin but hard (wiry sounds too soft to describe his rail-like, veined and muscled body) East Texan, named me "White Dog" during Basic Training. He had a "Black Dog," too, and we were his favorites.

I got to know Fletcher a bit. He would call me into his office at the front of our barracks at night once in awhile and try to boozily explain his life to the gapemouthed Midwesterner I was.

"I might seem hard on you little f-----s, but you need to know this [military drills, weapons, hand-to-hand combat] because some of you all are gonna end up in Vietnam, and some of you all are gonna die there, too. I wanna feel I did my best to fight that s--t," he said more than once.

Drinking was a big part of Sarge's life. He might have had a wife and kids, but if he did, he didn't go home much. I'd tiptoe by in the middle of the night, sneaking out for a smoke, or going on guard or KP duty, and there he'd be, asleep in his chair, surrounded by cigarette butts and empty glasses - his cadre of young corporals came over nightly and drank with him.

I honestly got the feeling, though, under the hard talk, and some hard actions I don't have room to relate here (suffice it to say he drove a couple of overweight, blubbery trainees straight to the base hospital), he did care about us at least in the abstract, as a bunch of dumbly innocent, good-at-bottom American boys. Only once, deep in his cups, he'd looked at me and whispered, "Cannon Fodder."

I arrived at Basic Training with a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" I was reading. A $4 paperback. Sarge took it away from me and made some loudly disparaging comments about pointyheaded intellectuals. When a young lieutenant showed up to give us a welcoming speech the next day and solicited questions, I raised my hand, half-assed saluted and said I wanted my book back, if that was possible, since I hadn't finished it.

The chicken-necked, not-much-older-than-me second louie screamed something about how I had "a lot to learn." I looked over at Fletcher; he was laughing and shaking his head.

"You thought you'd get your goddamn little storybook back, huh, boy. You are some piece of work," he said later that night, grinning ear to ear. It was not long after I became White Dog.

Eventually, Basic came to an end. I'd liked it. Guns, games and exercise all day long. Second in the two-mile run with full pack. Qualified expert with the M-16. A pugil stick fight I'd won in front of a hundred guys. And three daily meals, nightly mail and "becoming" a man, all without having to think much about it, or so it seemed then in the early days of my brief "military career." Basic Training was the one time in the armed Forces where I shined.

Fletcher called me into his "office" that evening. Everybody was packing; discipline was relaxed.

"You got some room in one of your duffels?" he asked me. We had two bags for our 15-day going-home leave.

"A little, Sarge," I said.

"Go get it. Come back in here, close the door behind ya. You got 10 minutes."

I did as I was told. When I entered his now-empty office, I saw he'd opened a closet door behind his cot. The tight space was crammed full, from floor to ceiling, with paperbacks he'd confiscated over the years. I got me some books for the train ride home. Including a slightly battered copy of "The Grapes of Wrath."

Fletcher never spoke to me individually again.

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