SUDDENLY THAT SUMMER
“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”
Willow Creek, Wisconsin—March–May 1967
Billy shoved the leash of his shaggy, multicolored mutt into Jay’s hand. “Ringo’s yours
In the gray light of dawn, his words gave Jay a shiver she couldn’t quite shake.
“He’s yours,” Jay insisted, though she had been the one to find the puppy curled up in the
alley behind the café. Jay had a knack for finding the lost—be it keys, shoes, or furry things.
“He’ll always be yours.”
Momma, chatting with the driver of the big white bus that would take Billy away,
glanced in Jay’s direction.
Jay swallowed, and something just south of disgusting slid down her throat. “Right?” she
asked more quietly, and Momma turned back.
“Sure.” Billy ran his hand over Jay’s long, tangled hair, then tugged on the ends the way
he always had, the way she was going to miss more than she’d ever missed Daddy. “He’s mine,
but while I’m gone, he can be the mascot of the Four Musketeers.”
Which was the unoriginal name Billy had given to Jay and her three best friends: Mags,
Ronnie, and Helen.
The driver strode past. “Say your good-byes, kid.”
Billy was so excited to get started on the path he’d been dreaming of since . . . forever,
the path that would mold him into the man he wanted to be, the man their grandfather expected
him to be, that he practically bounced.
He hugged Jay, and she clung. She was scared in a way she’d never been before. What if
he didn’t come home?
“I’ll be fine,” Billy said as if he knew what she was thinking. Sometimes she wondered.
“This is something I have to do.”
“You didn’t have to. Not yet. You wanted to.”
He’d practically begged to.
“If I don’t enlist, eventually I’ll be drafted. Being dragged to the war isn’t the way to go
to war. Especially when I believe in the war.”
Billy planned to save the world toot sweet from yet another threat on democracy. Jay
wasn’t sure democracy was worth it.
“Gramps has been training me for this since I could walk.”
Momma, who hovered nearby, muttered something that sounded very much like fucking
old man, except Momma never used the F-word. Ever.
Because of his only son’s desertion, as well as his refusal to enlist despite military service
being a Johnson family tradition, Gramps had pushed Billy to be stronger, quicker, smarter,
better, more than the father who had come and gone before.
As a result, Billy could track any animal in the forest by the time he was eight. He’d
received his first rifle on his tenth birthday. By twelve, he was the best shot in the county. Not
that he’d actually killed anything yet.
“Deer look like Ringo when they’re dead,” he’d confided to Jay.
What the hell was he going to do in Vietnam? Dead people had to look like . . . dead
Nevertheless, Jay put on a happy face when Billy climbed on that bus; she kept it on as
the bus pulled away, and Ringo tried to follow—the leash he had never needed before suddenly
made sense. But once the bus was history, Jay’s smile died.
Months passed while they waited for a letter that would explain what would happen to
Billy next. Would he come home? For how long? When? The only communication they received
was an odd, worrisome note that arrived with the clothes he’d worn the day he’d left.
Dear Momma and Jay,
Here are some things I no longer need. I have arrived at Fort Polk in Louisiana and I am
With love, your son and brother, Billy Johnson
* * *
Fort Polk, Louisiana—March–May 1967
Billy stared straight ahead as he left everything he’d ever known and loved behind. He
told himself he would only look forward from now on. That’s what a man did. In truth, if he
watched Willow Creek, Momma, Jay, Ringo disappear—maybe forever—he thought he might
cry, and if he started crying before he even got to basic, how would he ever become a standout
star in Vietnam? Gramps had been disappointed in Billy for most of his life. That ended now.
Several hours later, Billy reached Chicago, where he made his way off the bus and onto a
southbound train. He wasn’t in his seat for more than a minute before a colored recruit climbed
on. Even though old Lyndon B. had passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there was still a lot of
“seat taken,” “saved,” and other comments as he made his way down the aisle. Not a one of them
wiped the smile off the guy’s face.
Billy started to wonder if he was retarded. Except, if that were the case, how had he
ended up on the train to Fort Polk?
It made Billy mad how people were behaving, so when the fella stopped next to Billy’s
seat and lifted his eyebrows above the big, black Buddy Holly glasses, Billy moved to the
“Thanks, man. I’m Terrell. Terrell Jones.”
“BJ!” Terrell smacked his palm against Billy’s, then drew it back slow and flicked his
own hand away. “That’s how us Negroes say howdy. Gimme some skin.” He did the palm slap,
draw, flick motion again.
Since Terrell called himself Negro instead of colored, Billy figured he’d best do the same,
if he had to call him anything but Terrell, and why would he?
Terrell had an Afro as big and messy as Jimi’s. It was hard, at first, for Billy to keep his
eyes off it.
“You wanna touch my fro, bro?”
Billy did, so bad he sat on his hands to keep from doing it. Touching someone’s hair was
weird and would probably earn him strange glances, though they were already getting a few that
he couldn’t figure. So what if he sat with Terrell? No one else had wanted to.
“You always this quiet?” Terrell nudged Billy with a bony elbow. “Still mad about being
drafted? I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Terrell shoved his long fingers into the center of all that hair and scratched. “Why in hell
would you do that?”
“To stop communist aggression.”
Terrell laughed so hard everyone gawked.
“He . . . he . . .” Terrell managed to get his breath. “Enlisted.”
Eyes widened in faces both white and black. Billy’s flamed red.
At least Terrell didn’t continue the conversation until the rest of the guys stopped staring.
“You believe that propaganda?”
Billy wasn’t sure what propaganda was, but he didn’t let on.
“If we’d have stopped Hitler,” he began.
“Not the same.”
“Little man, big, bad dreams. People dying.”
“Not our people, BJ.”
Every time Terrell called him BJ, Billy wondered if he was supposed to call Terrell TJ,
but he didn’t have the guts. His gramps always told him no guts, no glory, but Billy would rather
not lose the only friend he had here by reaching for glory he didn’t need.
“We’re goin’ to a country where the trees different, the bugs different, the language
different. You foolish enough to think everyone’s gonna be happy to see us? I hear they hate us,
and they only gonna hate us more as time goes on.”
“But we’re trying to save them.”
Terrell shook his head. “You crazy.”
In New Orleans, they got off the train, then waited for a bus to take them to Fort Polk,
several hours away. Right outside of town, Billy fell asleep to the sound of Terrell’s voice. He
awoke to just-before-dawn darkness and the same sound. Had Terrell been talking the entire
A man appeared at the front of the bus, tall and wide in the shoulders, with hair so short it
was hard to decide if it was white or blond. His face a constant shade of fury, his mouth opened
so wide words seemed to erupt from an endless cavern of teeth.
“Off your ass and on your feet! Move it, move it! Vacate this goddamn bus right now!”
Everyone jumped up at once, stepping on toes, cursing. After a lot of pushing and
shoving, they managed to reach the ground.
“Form a line. Alphabetical order! Now!”
This wasn’t as simple as it seemed. Hardly anyone knew anyone else’s first name, let
alone their last. Add to that they were tired, scared, and it took a half hour to decipher where
everyone belonged. But by the time they were in alphabetical order, Billy could have recited
nearly all the names from memory.
Getting to know you, US Army style.