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Triggering incident

August 23, 2000
10:14 a.m. Shoney’s Restaurant
Butler, Pennsylvania

A waitress pours hot coffee into my cup, spilling a bit into the saucer. She apologizes. I tell her not to worry. If she helps elect me President, I say, she will be eligible for tax credits totaling $2300, and if she is bludgeoned, her attacker could be prosecuted not only under conventional law but also under hate crimes law if applicable. She winks at me and offers me one of those little containers of half-and-half. I do not wink back, lest she consider that an endorsement of the nonbiodegradable containers.


March 12, 1971
10:20 a.m.

My war buddies and I are walking to the corner café, where we have reservations for 5:15. We will start out with drinks and appetizers, and if we are in the mood, we’ll follow that with a light dinner. They have excellent Vietnamese food.

We are walking down the middle of the street. We are wearing sunglasses and walking in slow motion. The Vietnamese are watching us. We are young, brazen, angry. One of us—the Texan—kicks up a boot’s worth of dust. A frail uninsured child coughs offstage and is comforted by his mama-san.

We sit down at our regular table. I ask for the spring rolls, but because I have an article on horticulture to finish that night—the newsletter’s deadline is the next morning—I will chase it with coffee instead of beer. A moment later, she returns. It is said that the coffee in country is bitter. But the men are yet more bitter. Still more bitter is the toothpaste with which the Army provides us. Bitterest of all is, um, did I mention the coffee? So bad.

Gordonstern has ordered a delicate pancake flavored with rice wine and fried until the edges turn dark brown. "I love the smell of delicate pancakes flavored with rice wine and fried until the edges turn dark brown," I say, "in the afternoon. But I hate the smell of these pancakes in the morning."

When considering horticulture—and how it takes enriched soil to grow a strong, green fern—I have a thought: In my first race for Congress, which I’m really not thinking about right now at all because I’m too disillusioned, I’ll run two weeks of ads in The Tennessean and then we’ll make a $10,000 media buy in prime time.

I take out my pad and pencil from my camouflage back pocket and try to jot it down when it happens. The point is dull. I cannot write with the pencil because the point is dull.

I do not overreact. I do not lose my composure. Instead, I ask for a Thai iced tea, and when the waitress comes to our table to pour it in my glass, I take her pencil from her apron, place it between my chopsticks—so it resembles a third chopstick, a harmless vestigial one—and when she leaves, scribble the critical note.

I ponder this place, this moral quagmire, this Tigerland, and what it drives men to do.

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