Letter From Milo: Wild Thing

October 9th, 2017

Dickie Kaiser’s father owned a workingman’s tavern on 5th Avenue in Gary, near the main entrance to the U.S. Steel plant. Dickie grew up among rowdy, hard-drinking, and often violent steelworkers. Juke box music was the soundtrack of his young life.

Dickie and I were high school classmates and friends. As teenagers, we enjoyed some of the same low-life pleasures – hanging out in pool rooms, drinking cheap beer, trying to get lucky with the local girls, and smoking reefer when the Serrano brothers had some available.

We were classic bad influences, the kind of guys that parents warned their children to stay away from. As a result of these well-intentioned parental advisories, Dickie and I never lacked for company.

Dickie was always up for a good time. Everybody liked him. He was a lot of fun, but sometimes, when he was drinking, he would get mean. He’d start arguments with people for no reason and sometimes those disagreements turned into brawls.

Dickie was scrawny, about 140 pounds, and not very tough. But he had a big mouth and it regularly got him into trouble. Fortunately for him, some of the boys in our crowd were genuine tough guys. They saved Dickie from taking a lot of beatings. They liked and protected him. Dickie may have started the fights, but the big boys finished them.

After graduating high school, Dickie enrolled in a college. He lasted about two months. Shortly after dropping out, he got drafted into the United States Army and sent to Vietnam, where, I believe, he served as a mechanic or a truck driver.

A year in a war zone didn’t do much to improve Dickie’s temperament. If anything, his time in Vietnam made him even feistier, and he was drinking more than ever.

He tried college again, on the G.I. Bill, enrolling in Indiana State University, where I happened to be studying. Again, he only lasted a couple of months. Despite a few unpleasant incidents, it was fun having my old friend around.

I was in a fog most of my college years and don’t remember much of Dickie’s short stay, but I do recall that he once asked me to call him Rick, instead of Dickie. Apparently, the name Dickie wasn’t dignified enough.

I said, “Sure, Dickie, whatever you want.”

He went to work in his father’s tavern for a while, but argumentative bartenders are bad for business and the old man fired him. Dickie wasted a few years knocking around the country, spending time in Florida, the West Coast, and then back in Indiana. The last I heard, he had relocated to one of the southwestern states.

In the mid-1970s, I had settled in Chicago, sharing a coach house on Burling, just south of Armitage, with my dear friends Bruce Diksas and Wayne Gray. One afternoon, about two o’clock, I was awakened by a phone call from my sister.

“I’ve got some bad news. It’s about Dickie Kaiser.”

“Ah, shit. What did that crazy fucker do now?”

“He’s in a hospital in Phoenix. He got beat up in a bar. I heard his skull was fractured in several places. If he lives he’ll have serious brain damage.”

I made a few phone calls, trying to find out what had happened. The story, as I heard it, was that Dickie had gotten into an argument over a game of pool in a seedy bar in Phoenix. The argument quickly escalated into a fight and Dickie was nearly beaten to death with a pool cue. He had 11 fractures in his skull, which meant that some brutal bastard smashed Dickie’s head 11 times with the cue stick.

Dickie survived, but he would be hospitalized for the rest of his life. Fortunately, he was a veteran, so his medical costs were covered. When he was well enough to travel, his family had him transported to Hines V.A. Hospital, just outside of Chicago, where he would be closer to his loved ones.

When I heard that Dickie was at Hines V.A., I decided to visit him. I had told Bruce Diksas about Dickie’s misfortune and Bruce said he wanted to come along. Bruce and I were both Vietnam vets, living somewhat ragged and uncertain lives, and figured that while we were visiting Dickie we’d check out the hospital’s emergency room facilities, just in case.

I was shocked when I saw Dickie. He was slack-jawed, drooling, and pacing the hallway like a zombie. His head was misshapen, as if his skull had been squeezed in a vise. His hospital gown was stained and he smelled of piss. It was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen.

I was even more surprised when Dickie recognized me. As soon as he saw me he became animated, rushed up to me and grabbed my hand. “Tell my brother to come and get me real quick,” he said. “I got hurt in Vietnam. Tell my brother to come and get me real quick.”

“Sure, Dickie, no problem. I’ll tell him.”

When I introduced Bruce, Dickie recoiled, fearfully, at Bruce’s offer of a handshake. Then he turned to me again. “Tell my brother to come and get me real quick. I got hurt in Vietnam. Tell my brother to come and get me real quick.”

Bruce and I left the hospital pretty quickly. We didn’t have much to say on the drive back to Chicago. Finally, when we got close to the City, Bruce said, “Man, Dickie is in real bad shape. What was he like before this shit happened?”

I shrugged. “He was always a bit of a fuckup, but he was my friend. We grew up together. He and his brother, Danny, once put up 35 bucks to bail me out of jail on a disorderly conduct charge. He didn’t deserve to end up like this.”

“Nobody does.”

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