Rescorla’s Game – Larry Gwin

The following is a chapter from Larry Gwin’s excellent book – Baptism – Ivy Books – 1999

Chapter 19

Rescorla’s Game


He would have a good weekend.  He would make love to a beautiful woman and throw a football with his son and pound down a cold Genessee and see the leaves – everything he’d dreamed of in Vietnam.  He was alive, and to forget that, to live as if this world were something other than a paradise, would be to dishonor the memory of his friends.

— Stewart O’Nan  —  The Names of the Dead

When I think of Rick Rescorla, I think of the twinkle in his eye – half joyful, half crazed, like a wild Cornish hawk.  He was, after all, a Brit.  When he was working, though, or out in the bush, that crazed irreverent twinkle disappeared – snuffed out like a candle in a strong wind and replaced by a cold steely glint that could sear right through you like the icy stare of death.  When Rick looked that way, he was ready for a kill.

I’d first seen that glint at LZ Albany.  He had just jumped ten feet from a hovering helicopter, killed three enemy soldiers on the ground, and maneuvered with his men into our last-ditch perimeter.  The next time I saw that glint was during that long painful trek over the mountains west of the Crow’s Foot, and it had scared the hell out of me.

But the way I want to remember Rick is that night in the O-club, when he showed us how to beer walk – an exercise in absurdity that captured the hearts and minds of the battalion’s younger officers and made for untold hours of chaos, oblivion, and joy.  It was mid-February, I think, after Bong Son – after Captain Cherry had joined us.

The O-club was up.  We’d built it ourselves: poured-concrete floor, wood-slat walls, screened windows, corrugated roof.  It had a makeshift bar in one corner, a few pieces of bamboo furniture we’d scrounged up in An Khe, a generator-powered refrigerator, and lights!  The place was safe, too.  It rested in a defilade.  All hell could break loose on the Green Line, and we could still sip our beers in peace.  All we needed was a stereo and some women.

I remember that night quite distinctly.  Eight or nine of us were there – lieutenants mostly, platoon leaders, artillery FOs, rifle company XOs – guys who humped the bush.  It was late, too – long after chow.  We must have been on a stand-down.  We had one every now and then – a night off to shower, or drink, or sleep, or catch up on all those unstarted projects.  I’d been in the club a while, drinking beer and horsing around, as we all were, when in walked Rick Rescorla.

“Ahah!” he chortled, that twinkle in his eye, seeing a bunch of us sitting there, ripe for a challenge.

I’d never appreciated the man’s subtle joy for sport.  I knew his reputation, that he’d served in the British army, that he’d signed up with ours “because it was the only one that had a war on,” that he’d been wounded lightly once and already recommended for two Silver Stars – one for the Ia Drang and one for Happy Valley.  I also knew that he was, with a few of us anyway, delightful company.  His favorite expression, an accusation, really, was that some of our field-grade officers (colonels and majors) “saw things through the rosey red hue.”  He was, without question, one of the best officers in the battalion, and the toughest, bar none.  He was older, too.  From our youthful vantage point, he’d reached the ancient age of twenty-eight.

After the usual banter, for he was good at that (and a raconteur of sorts, if I remember correctly), he sensed a lull in the evening’s revelry and issued his challenge.

“All right! All right!” he said, standing up, fortified now with a beer. “Let’s see how coordinated you chaps really are.  Let’s see if the strength you profess matches the bullshit I’m sure you’re full of.”

He said this loud enough for everyone to hear it, and his jaw jutted out with such mock ferocity that he simultaneously captured the attention and piqued the competitive ire of everyone present.  That was when I saw the first inkling of the greatest twinkle in any man’s eye I’ve ever seen.

“I’ll need two beers,” he said.  “Untapped.”  He made a tentative move toward the bar, then stopped, knowing intuitively that a younger man, a contender, perhaps, would get the beers for him.  Sure enough, a muscle-bound second lieutenant named Morrow, a new guy from Brooklyn, responded, and Rick found himself with two fresh cans in his hands – a Schlitz and a Carlings Black Label.  He looked them over disdainfully, inspecting them, really, then held them up for everyone to see.  Like a barker at a fair, he’d bagged us.

He turned and strode briskly to the far wall.  Swinging back to face us, he backed up against the wooden siding, banging the Corfam heels of his jungle boots against the framework.  We clustered around him.

“Give me some room!” he barked, waving his arms in front of him in a breaststroking motion, and we backed off a bit.

I saw Joel Sugdinis coming through the O-club door then.  He saw us, stopped, and smiled.  He didn’t go for a drink.  He just stood there, watching.

“Now,” Rick said.  “You place your heels against the wall, like this” – tapped them one at a time against the wall – “and you hold your beers like this” – he raised his arms and held them straight out, one beer in each hand, the tops of the cans pressed flat against his palms, the bottoms pointing outward so that each can was simply an extension of his hand and arm.  He flexed his wrists up and down so all could see.

“You then reach down, extending your arms as you go, and walk on your hands, using the beer cans to keep you from touching the floor.  You walk out as far as you can go, leaving one of the cans on the floor – as far away from the wall as you can leave it.  Then, using the other as a crutch, you work yourself back to a standing position without any part of your body touching the floor.”

He then demonstrated, bending over quickly, keeping his knees stiff and walking several steps comfortably on his beer-can-extended hands.  He stretched himself out with three or four more quick “steps” until he was in a push-up position, reached out effortlessly, and placed the can of Carlings an arm’s length to his front.  He then placed his free hand back on the hand holding the Schlitz, and with a series of quick, short backward thrusts, righted himself again without any part of his body touching the floor.  When he’d straightened up, he raised his arms triumphantly and said, “Voila!”

The twinkle in his eyes was starting to glow.

“Who wants to try it?” he said.

Morrow, the guy from Brooklyn, was quick to accept the challenge, but to our surprise, he couldn’t right himself after depositing his can several inches beyond Rick’s Black Label beer can.  Gordy Grove tried it next and failed as well, landing hard on his shoulder in dismay.  Dick Hogarth tried it, too, losing his balance while teetering on his steel-encased pedestal.  (In those days of yesteryear, beer cans were made of steel.)  Jim Kelly then took up the challenge, and being six-feet-four-inches tall, and built like coiled steel, managed to surpass all the previously disqualified attempts, stretching out and pushing his red-white-and-blue can of Pabst Blue Ribbon a good ten inches past Rescorla’s mark.

“Yeah!” someone growled.

“Right, Jim!” another cheered.

“Atta go, Lurch!” I heard myself say.

But Jim wasn’t finished yet.  We all waited, holding our breaths, while he assumed his two-handed recovery position and balanced for a tension-packed moment on his single remaining can.  He concentrated.  His jaw set.  He grimaced. And with one prodigious effort he thrust himself backward six inches, the bottom of his beer can scraping loudly against the cement as he did so.  He steadied himself, grimaced again, and repeated his backward thrust, gaining another foot or so.  Then, with growing confidence, he thrust himself backward two or three more times and stood up with a look of surprise on his face, surprise at how difficult that apparently simple task had really been.

The place went crazy for a while.  Cheers, guffaws, and laughter filled the air as people pounded his back and swamped him with congratulations.  Then everyone quieted down.  Matching Lurch’s effort appeared totally out of the question for Rick.  He was, after all, only six feet tall, and it looked as if he’d extended himself as far as he could on his demonstration run.

But Rescorla was ready.  He picked his own beers this time: Budweisers.  He stepped back to the starting line and calmly surveyed the crowd.  We were hungry for the cocky Brit’s humiliation, and the room went deathly still.  Rick was smiling, though – not at us, but to himself – as if humming some inner mantra and concentrating on an extension of himself beyond the limits of human endeavor.  Then he dropped again, took five quick steps on his beer-can hands to the point where his body was virtually parallel to the floor, slipped his Budweiser six inches past Kelly’s can of Pabst and, after a single tension-packed moment teetering on his precarious, steel-encased pedestal, pushed himself back to a standing position to the utter amazement of everyone in the room.

After a few seconds of stunned silence, the place went absolutely berserk, with people jumping up and down, screaming and yelling, cheering and laughing, pounding Rick on the back, and clambering all over themselves to get at the beer supply.  For a few happy moments, the O-club turned into bedlam.  All of its members but me.  For I had seen the look in Rick’s eyes when he’d risen from the challenge just met.  It showed such sublime pleasure, such pure delight, such unabashed joy, such glee, such incredible inner discipline, that it all began to make sense when later, after most of us had tried, and failed, and tried again to match his mark, he quietly retired from the contest and became a spectator.

I never saw him try it again.  He’d had his fun.  He’d shared his game.  And he’d conned us one and all.

“Beer walking,” as we later called it, became the battalion’s junior officers’ favorite pastime, with Jim “Lurch” Kelly ultimately attaining the much-coveted “Battalion Beer Walking championship” and holding on to it tenaciously, challenge after challenge.  The hours we spent after that memorable night, watching grown men teetering precariously on beer cans, straining to return to standing positions, bellowing in rage when they slipped, or collapsed, or a knee touched the floor, or a beer can crumpled beneath them, cursing at themselves in disgust, or glaring at the blisters rising from their already calloused and sometimes bleeding palms, all those mindless hours of chaos helped us forget where we were, why we were  there, what we were doing, and being asked to do.  They were wonderful, crazy, carefree hours, and they helped us purge our pain.

Rick Rescorla gave us that, and for that, I want to thank him.  Thanks, Rick.

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