Neil O. Jones wrote about war, sometimes spot on, sometimes indirectly, but always with an effective punch. Neil died one year ago today. What better way to remember him than to share a story he wrote maybe twelve years ago. This one has a favorite saying of his: “champion of the world.” I do miss his voice, this dialect, this storytelling mind.
One thing about Neil: he never drank. Maybe a sip of wine or a beer now and then, but never much, because of his alcoholic father.
Of all Neil’s boyhood lifetime friends from the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, T-Bone is still with us. Ronny died as a young man in an auto accident. Jimmy died a few months before Neil did. And any little boy named Victory Over Japan deserves his own story.
By Neil O. Jones
If there was ever an individual’s name to represent his baby boomer generation, it was my friend Victory over Japan, called V.J. for short. He was born the same day as the event—August 14, 1945. Though he was not in the neighborhood long, he made two memories that are so sharp, they will always be with me.
His family lived one street over from me there in south Dallas, on Shellhorse Road, about halfway down, on the left, of the deadend road. Two other buddies, the brothers Jimmy and Ronny, as well as their mom and dad—Papa Earl—lived at the end of Shellhorse. Actually V.J.’s mom met my mother before he and I met. They often rode the same bus home from their jobs and they talked and got to know each other on their walk home from the bus stop. They both worked selling to the public, my mother at a clothing store and V.J.’s mom as a waitress at the downtown Dallas Woolworth’s lunch counter. The women learned they had boys near in age, and as they got to know each other better, they learned they had another like concern—alcoholic husbands.
I first met V.J. in the summer of my tenth year. Jimmy, Ronny, T-Bone, and I were taking turns rolling down the steep gravel hill on Shellhorse Road in the brothers’ Radio Flyer wagon. We were seeing who could roll the farthest with just the driver pushing himself off the hill. T-Bone was the leader so far, as he had marked his spot with the marking rock. He was a good six feet ahead of Ronny, who was about three feet ahead of his brother, Jimmy. It was my turn. I gave myself a good push-off, and I had a clean mount. I was able to miss the slowing big rocks and deep gravel. As I made my way down and saw I had a chance for a win, I heard an encouraging voice.
“Lay flat and scoot it when you slow down,” V.J. said from his seat on his porch.
As I approached the marking rock, at first I didn’t think I was going to get there. Then I thought I might just tie T-Bone. My front wheel was finishing its last revolution when I heard, “Now. Scoot it.” And I gave it one good scoot, enough to claim the long distance neighborhood championship of the world—by a half a wheel length.
“Neat,” V.J. said. “You did it.”
The rest of the guys came down to verify the mark. They were all talking about the run when I noticed my new coach-cheerleader friend still sitting on his porch. I told him, loud enough so the others could hear, “We’re going to do some suicide dives. You wanna come?”
He was up before I finished the question. We all gave our names as we walked back up the hill. “I’m V.J.,” he started out. “My whole first name is Victory over Japan ‘cause I was born the day the Japs give up. I go by V.J. And my daddy was in the Army somewhere in the Pacific, my mom told me. And I was born that day and my mom said she knew my dad would be coming home and she was so happy about me being born and victory day and him coming home and she figured it was a sign or something so she named me Victory over Japan, but like I said, you guys can call me V.J. Ever’body does.” I got the feeling he had told that story a few times.
There was an odd silence. Just saying you were maybe named after an uncle or grandfather, didn’t seem like much. Finally I could think of nothing but the obvious. “I’m Neil. These two are Jimmy there, and Ronny. They’re brothers. The cotton top there is Gerald, but we call him T-Bone ‘cause he’s skinny. You can just call him T-Bone. Ever’body does.”
At the top of the hill we looked back at the run. Shellhorse Road, from our angle, began on the high end at Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard, and butted into busy Lancaster Road on the lower end. The flat part between the brothers’ yard and the hill was our starting point. One kid would drive the wagon while another pushed him across the flat part of the road, past Mrs. Cullum’s house and under her big pecan tree until the steep downhill part was reached. The suspension-less wagon bounced on the little rocks and slid a little on and over the bigger ones. In season, we cracked a mess of pecans in our path. At the plummet point, the runner gave one last shove of the wagon just as the driver reached the steep drop in the road. The worst or best wreck I ever saw, depending on your perspective, happened the day V.J. joined the troupe.
It must have been V.J.’s fifth or sixth run as driver and he had made it all the way down without wrecking and he was feeling a little cocky, I guess. T-Bone and I were getting ready to be the pushers when V.J. said, “Can’t y’all push any faster? You push like a couple of girls.” T-Bone and I looked at each other. Without saying anything, sometimes we could communicate pretty well.
T-Bone pulled the wagon back into Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard so we could have more of a running start. We both kicked out holes as starting blocks to get a good jump start. We each took a back corner and rocked the wagon back and forth.
“On three,” I said. “One . . . two . . . three!” And we were off. I timed “three” in rhythm with the forward rocking of the wagon.
The rear of the wagon scooted a little to the side and for a moment tried to catch up with the front. With both his fists together on the wagon tongue handle, V.J. turned the front wheels and adjusted nicely. The wagon straightened just in time before coming to the wallered-out tire ruts on the edge of the brothers’ yard. It was a washed out spot on one side that everybody slowed down for as they drove in. V.J. either could not control the wagon or he aimed for the hole as he hit it square. The front wheels dipped, followed by the drop of the back wheels and the wagon was airborne briefly, slamming down with T-Bone and I still hanging on and pushing as fast as our little legs would carry us. Once on the level part of Shellhorse, we got good grip with our Keds and the speed increased to the point of reaching maximum velocity just as we got to the edge of the hill. Our timing was good because we both gave our parting super shove in sync and with such force that we both stumbled and fell as we launched our bodies horizontal in the act.
V.J screamed. He began to lose control immediately. Bouncing a little sideways, he over-corrected and was headed for the ditch. I looked up from my position on the ground to take in the visual that happened in the next few seconds that I, or T-Bone I suspect, will never forget.
V.J. tried to bring the wagon back into control but there was no way. His right side wheels slipped in the ditch and I heard him scream again just before he slammed into the end of Mr. Woodruff’s culvert hard enough to bust out a piece of concrete. The collision put a big dent in the front of the wagon and the wagon tongue/steering wheel bent funny after it nearly impaled and then flipped V.J. And he took another pretty good lick as he flew out, skidded a ways on his hands and head and wound up rolling to a stop in the middle of old lady Johnson’s petunia patch. One of his shoes flew a good ten feet farther.
Old widow Johnson had to have been in her eighties then but people who had known her for years claimed she was as spry and mean an old hen as she ever was. She didn’t put up with foolishness from anybody, especially neighborhood toeheads who had no respect for her flower garden. She came near swallowing her dip as she arose from her rocker on her front porch.
“Well I’ll swanee,” she hollered. “You kids ain’t got a lick of sense in the bunch of you! Get out of my flowers, boy!” and she fairly jumped off her porch and was whacking him with her walking stick as she continued yelling at him. “I didn’t sweat and (whack!) dig to plant ‘em (whack!) just to have you (whack!) waller all over ‘em!”
Mrs. Johnson’s piercing voice cut through the neighborhood, and one at a time heads looked out of windows and some folk came out front to see what the ruckus was all about. V.J., poor V.J., must have landed harder on his bean than we thought because he was hobbling away fast, but the wrong way. I hollered at him and he sort of got his senses back, luckily before he walked into the zooming traffic of Lancaster Road. He did a hobble step pivot on a stiff leg and was headed right. He was sniffling and his head was bleeding, as was his hand he was holding against his chest, but all-in-all he was limping along at a pretty good clip, bumping up and down with each step and favoring his right side. On his shoeless left foot a dirty white sock was pulled off the ankle and bent under his foot and dragging.
T-Bone got the wagon, and I threw in the broken off front wheel, and he pulled it up the hill. Jimmy stuck the piece of concrete back, as if Mrs. Johnson would keep her mouth shut to Mr. Woodruff about it. Ronny went into Mrs. Johnson’s yard to get V.J.’s shoe so he caught a double barrel shot of her wrath at close range, but he was quick and did stay out of stick-swinging reach. Jimmy was running ahead with his arms held out like a receiver and Ronny saw he was open so he let the shoe fly in a wobbly spiral. Jimmy caught it in stride and passed us all and was the first one back to Mrs. Cullum’s pecan tree. The rest of us joined him, with V.J., the wounded one, hobbling in stiff legged and last. He looked plumb pulverized and pitiful, but as he caught up with us he started to laugh between the sniffles. The rest of us joined in. We would face the consequences later when we had to. For the moment we were on top of that hill and we laughed till we hurt and we were alive and loving it. V.J. made his bones that day.
My other strong memory of V.J. also involves him getting the worst of it, this time from his dad. There were a few times I was in V.J.’s house when his old man was there. He was always drinking Kentucky Times whiskey and every time I saw him, he was already there, drunk as a souse. I knew the speech, and the bloodshot eyes, and the smell all too well from my own dad, and I didn’t like to be around it at home or anywhere else. We usually played outside. The neighborhood kids didn’t play much at V.J.’s house or at my house for the same drunken reasons. I’m sure I was at his house more than the other kids because I understood his situation, like he understood mine.
V.J.’s daddy did mostly labor jobs on construction sites when he could get the work. He also did odd cleanup jobs in the neighborhood. Everybody knew to talk to his wife the night before if there was a job because she would keep him sober that morning to go to work. And he worked fine as long as he was sober. The family owned no car so he either rode the bus to construction jobs or got a coworker to pick him up. He never worked regular.
In a way I hated that old man, and in another way I felt sorry for him and in still another way, I admired him. I hated him I think because, like my dad, when he got drunk he was mean as a stepped-on water moccasin, and he took out his anger on those close to him. I felt sorry for him because he had the saddest face on a man I have ever seen. His mouth was downturned on the ends like an Emmet Kelly clown face, but there was nothing made up about it. His eyes were blank, distant and empty when he was drunk and quiet. When he was drunk, loud, and mean, his eyes were cutting and vicious looking, like Death’s head as I imagined. V.J. had told us about his dad’s experience in the Phillipines, as he had heard it from one of his dad’s Eighth Army buddies who had visited once. One time I saw the father’s scar V.J. had told me about. It was an indentation on his left side that stuck in about a half inch and wrapped halfway around his side below his ribs. V.J. told me it was where a Japanese soldier’s bayonet had pierced him and then ripped out his side as V.J.’s dad wrestled it away and then killed the soldier by pounding his head to mush with the rifle butt. He was not a man to be trifled with, and I was one of the few people who knew that.
Late that fall, T-Bone, V.J. and I were rolling down Shellhorse again. The brothers’ wagon had since been wrecked too often and the axles were bent, so their mom turned it into a planter she kept under their front room window. Not to be sidelined for long, the three of us came up with a makeshift hill racer. It was just an oblong wooden crate we had attached with casters we had found in T-Bone’s garage. Although we did the best we could, the vehicle looked kind of funny because there were two sizes of wheels. We tried it both ways and learned it rolled better with the small wheels in the back, making it less likely to flip forward. We couldn’t guide the thing; we just sort of aimed it before we shoved off the hill. There was just enough room for two to ride. The small wheels dragged on some of the bigger rocks, preventing us from getting up much speed. We did ride on the opposite side of the road from Mrs. Johnson’s, per V.J.’s request. Once I was pushing the two of them and at the last second pushed the back end a little sideways so it would head for the old lady’s yard, but my scheme didn’t work. T-Bone and V.J. both stirred up a dust cloud as they bailed out into the gravel before they would risk the wrath of Mrs. Johnson again.
V.J. and I took our turn as pilot and co-pilot. T-Bone had just given us a good send-off. I was in the back and couldn’t see much. V.J. was waving and shouting, “Hey, Daddy, watch us. Here we come.” I looked around V.J. as we bounced down the hill and saw that his dad had just turned up Shellhorse and was walking toward their house with a sack of groceries. He waved back. We came to a stop about twenty feet from him.
“You boys be careful with that thing, you hear?” he said as he approached us.
“Yessir,” V.J. said. “Look at our two-man racecar. We made it ourselves.”
V.J. and I got out so he could get a good look. He tilted it on its side and said, “Oh yeah. She’s a good ‘un, all right. No brakes and no steering wheel, but you got you a nice rope handle to pull it up the hill with.” He laughed a little. “Yeah. She’s a dandy. You boys just be careful, and you best not let your Mama see you.”
Most of the two hours of daylight left we spent riding that hill, until V.J. found a horned toad that caught our interest. In turn we petted it and studied it and V.J poked a little finger in its mouth just to show us its pink insides. We all liked horned toads but V.J. especially loved to mess with them. T-Bone caught a grasshopper and tried to feed it to the horned toad but I guess it was not in the mood for eating with three giants around it pulling its legs and rubbing its underbelly and poking at its thorny head.
When we heard his parents going at it, V.J. kneeled down and put the horned toad back in the grass. “You go on little guy. I’ll play with you again some day.” V.J. stood and said to us, “I gotta go. He’s drunk by now and something set him off and he may be getting rough.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why go now? Do what I do and wait till it blows over and he goes to sleep and things quiet down.”
“No,” V.J. said. “I can’t,” and T-Bone and I watched as he opened his screen door and entered just as there was a loud crash of something breaking inside.
T-Bone and I started back to our homes on Arden Road, but we took our time. The yelling lowered to just the man talking loud, but we could still hear everything being said. Then the fight picked up again. This time it sounded like something heavy was slammed against the wall and it seemed the whole house shook. Then we heard V.J.’s voice, “Don’t, Daddy, don’t. Leave her alone!”
The man yelled, “Why you little . . .” and then there was a cracking sound, and the sound of jostling and things being turned over and the mother’s voice begging the man to stop, “Before you kill him.”
The mother pushed the screen door open with one hand and was pulling her son out of the house with the other. The drunken man came through the door a second later and threw a couch pillow at them, but missed. “Go ahead and go and sleep outside for all I care. Just get the hell out!”
We came up to them and the mother seemed glad to see someone. “Neil, is your mother home? Do you think we could come over? My boy here is gonna need some tending to.”
I told her yes and we all went to my house where we got in the light and my mother did what she could for the two of them. V.J. was the worse off. He had a black eye and his nose was bleeding and looked kind of bent. There were scratches around one of his wrists, but what amazed me was the mark I saw next. As I stood behind him, I saw something through his thin tee shirt that was dark and big. I pointed it out to my mother. She had him raise his shirt to reveal the second visual image of V.J. I’ll never lose. It was the perfect outline of a red handprint. Later it became a bruise-blackened handprint.
V.J.’s mom kept saying she was sorry for putting her problems on us and my mother told her it was no bother. She told my mother that her husband was not usually that way, but he was not feeling well lately and that made him mean. Mother nodded and said, “Yes honey, I know.” They stayed about an hour. I walked back with them and watched as the mother picked up her couch pillow in the yard and they entered the dark, quiet house.
A month later on a Saturday morning early, I ran to V.J.’s house because I had caught a fat horned toad and I wanted to show him. On his front porch I saw through the front window the house was empty. There was a hand-drawn “For Rent” sign attached to the screen door with bobby pins.
As I sat there on his steps, I felt the movement of the horned toad in my shirt pocket. I pulled it out and poked my little finger in its mouth to see its pink insides. Then I put my little thorny-head buddy between my feet and watched as it hesitated in its sudden freedom.
“Go on little guy,” I said. “Lay flat and scoot. I’ll play with you again some time.” I poked it a little and it ran into the high grass.
On my way home, I moved slower. I wondered what happened to V.J. and his family. I think about it still, now and then. The mother probably stayed with her husband; she had few choices. V.J. stayed around at least another five or six years, for his mother’s sake, if not for his own protection. He would have gotten as big as the father and maybe held his own in future go-rounds. The father, I suspect, continued to see an eyeless, misshapen Japanese face every time he drew back for another swing at his Victory over Japan. He is likely dead by now. My guess is V.J. and his mother are glad he is finally able to rest.
My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.
I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.
January 31, 2017
We Lost a Friend
Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes
We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.
We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.
Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.
Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
that the battle is lost.
This ain’t Nam.
From Neil’s book Brothers, All
“It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.
“Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.
Another battle ahead.
Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.
And so it begins.”
And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.
You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.
You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.
You fought the battles. You did your part.
It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.
Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.
For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
You won before you lost.
You won before you lost.