Of River Walks, Dinner Cruises and Soldiers in the Night

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on January 21, 2014 0 Comments

He was drunk. He knew anyone seeing him would know he was drunk, and somewhere in the back of his mind he sort of wished that wasn’t so, but…

He took a drink from the bottle in the paper bag, hiccupping in the middle of it and spilling cheap whiskey down the front of the “GI Special” shirt he’d bought that afternoon. He choked on the whiskey, coughed it out into the river next to the bench on which he sat and thought about beautiful San Antonio, Texas… a city host to five military posts and tens of thousands of military retirees.

Several small bubbles rose from the bottom of the slow-moving river and burst in rapid succession. He wrinkled his nose. Something was definitely rotten in the state of Texas… at least at the concrete bottom of the San Antonio River.

At twenty-two years old, he’d been in the Army two years. He had just about a year to go, and the early September heat bore down on him and the river, making that year seem a lifetime long. He needed amusement, and that explained tonight.

Taking another drink, he looked around. His bench was half-hidden by overgrown Weigela and Honeysuckle, two flowering shrubs which, at the moment, were heavily infested with several varieties of bees pollinating the flowers. The river itself wound its way through downtown San Antonio, several feet below street level. Hotels had developed “dinner cruises” on small barges, and there was an amphitheater with stone seating across the river from its stage. A famous Flamenco guitarist had a studio nearby, and occasionally his students would show up and begin a guitar serenade, by tradition unannounced. Barges would pull up and people would debark to the seats… and a great time would be had by all. It was a no-cost extra that elevated the river dinner cruises on those nights to something very special.

The problem arose when some of the diners decided to forego the barge ride back to the hotel/restaurant and either stroll the river walk or head up to street level, which first entailed heading down to the river walk and then a short stroll along the river to a stair up to the street. All too often the overgrowth held invisible danger. There were gangs in San Antonio, and they preyed upon young airmen and soldiers and the young ladies they tried to impress by taking them for romantic dinner cruises and walks along the river.

He thought back to his encounter with a group of young thugs, and how quickly he’d found himself relieved of his wallet (and the girl of her purse), and how suddenly they’d found themselves in the river. He’d been so startled he hadn’t even struck a single blow. They’d had him and the girl before he’d had time to blink. Later he’d been told that getting tossed in the river was the least dangerous thing that could have happened to him. The girl, a WAC he’d enjoyed talking to for the past several weeks, had refused to even speak to him again.

His pride hurt, and his temper frayed, he soon had friends and acquaintances asking him what was bothering him. Since there didn’t seem to be anything else he could do, he told them. Most of his friends commiserated, but one small group came back in a few days with a plan.

He looked around again. When would they get here? Peering down the river he saw no one, but a glance up the river showed a momentary flare of movement in the inadequate glow of the ‘30s vintage streetlight from the street above. In shambling fashion he pushed himself upright and tried to get off the bench. Ten inches off the bench, his balance seemed to disappear and he sat down hard on the steel seat of the bench.

“Ugh,” he slurred, “bet that’s the same gang that jumped me last week.” He began the stand up maneuver again. This time a hand shoved him back down.

“Goin’ somere’s, soljier?” The breath that each word puffed into his face was redolent of cheap wine, cigarettes and hot peppers. “We think you should pay us a toll before you go.” Hands reached for his arms and throat.

“Now would be a good time, guys!” No longer drunk the young soldier stood up against the pressure on his shoulder. Taking a short swing, he threw a fast right into the stomach of the kid who’d spoken first.

Somebody said three words in Spanish, and somebody else said, “It’s the effin’ Green Berets!” But the last word was strangled as the speaker was tossed into the river.

The fight was brutal and short. As the last of the attackers was pulled from the river, the Green Beret sergeant bent over them and very quietly terrified them. When he was done, they, as had the three gangs before them, agreed that the US Army had a much bigger and badder gang than they did, and that the river walk belonged to the US Army.

As the gang members straggled away, the sergeant turned to the now obviously sober soldier who’d been the bait for the sting, “I think a couple more ought to do it,” he said.

But there were to be no more. Before another gang could be targeted, something called the “Gulf of Tonkin” event didn’t occur (but the President said it did), and the Green Berets were put into a fast-track training program. Within a few weeks they were in Vietnam, and he was staying away from the dangers of the river walk, where tough punks once again roamed without fear. A lesson, perhaps, in the temporary nature of peace achieved through violence.

In August, 1965, the young soldier turned down an excellent reenlistment offer and went home. In 1968, San Antonio hosted the World’s Fair… called it the HemisFair. As a part of the city’s renovations for the fair, the river and river walk were completely remade, lights were installed, landscaping was cut back to the point it couldn’t hide anything larger than a housecat and regular police patrols were established. Young lovers and elderly couples are no longer accosted by thugs as they stroll the riverside.

Reading about it, the young ex-GI thought, “Yeah, but our way was a lot more fun.”

 

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