Chapter 38—"You've Made Me So Very Happy"
That Christmas Nixon began to withdraw troops from Vietnam. For those still slated to die, it was a meaningless gesture.
The December moratorium. Peace on Earth. Good Will to All. Troops rotted in the monsoons of Vietnam living with daily fear and excruciating fatigue, fighting mosquitoes and fighting to survive. While those young men celebrated Christmas with a prayer, ‘Let me live one more day,’ I walked the streets of my hometown with my dad handing out literature to shoppers.
Most people were supportive and asked kindly, “How is college?”
Some were downright hostile.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Smith,” I smiled at the man I had known most of my life. He was the father of one of my high school friends. “Is Jennifer home for Christmas?”
“She gets home tomorrow.” He looked at the leaflet I handed him then looked back at me. “Becky. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You a minister’s daughter, advocating communism.”
“I’m not advocating communism, Mr. Smith. I am advocating an end to the war.”
“I still say your father would be shocked to know you’re here. The next time I see him I’ll tell him. Maybe he can knock some sense into you.”
“That’s a good idea. You can catch him on the next corner handing out leaflets. Have a Merry Christmas and say hi to Jennifer for me. Tell her to give me a call.”
I spent two weeks with my parents soaking in the family love, decorating cookies, opening homemade presents.
But I missed Marty like crazy and finally headed back north to meet him in Springfield. It was late afternoon when I drove up to the small brick house. I honked the horn, got out of the car, and opened the trunk to haul out my suitcase. Marty met me there. Two weeks is too damn long for new love. I held him, kissed him and looked him in the eye. “God, I missed you.”
Billy and Mom Olsen sat at the dining room table. The three had been engaged in a wild game of Crazy Eights to pass the time until my arrival. Billy was wearing the red bandana, with a glint in his eyes and his cheeks filled out.
I hugged Mom Olsen first. Then I went over to Billy, leaned over and hugged him. “You look great,” I said.
“Dinner in an hour,” Mom Olsen said. “You kids catch up.” I don’t think she meant that we should sneak away in the bedroom but that’s exactly what Marty and I did.
“I’m going to take my stuff upstairs,” I grabbed my suitcase.
“Let me help.” Marty took it from me. Billy grinned.
We made it upstairs in five seconds and out of our clothes in fifteen seconds flat. Nine minutes later we were downstairs in time to catch up with each other.
I helped set the table for dinner. Then I sat at the table with Billy and asked him about his life.
“Well, I got me a girlfriend and I’m starting back to school to finish my senior year. G.I. bill is picking up the cost.” He said it all casually while fiddling with the fork in front of him.
“Halt right there, mister. You can’t throw out, ‘I got me a girlfriend’ and then move on like it’s something you say every day.” I turned to Marty. “You knew, didn’t you?” He shook his head yes. “Why didn’t you tell me when I called?” I hit him on the arm.
“Billy wanted to tell you himself.”
“Tell me everything.”
“After we saw you in November, I checked myself into the V.A. I was having trouble with some of the equipment that keeps me going. There was this student nurse who worked the floor the day I checked myself in. The first thing she said to me when she walked in my room was, ‘I love that bandana in your hair.’ It was love at first sight. We talked all day and when her shift was over I asked her if she’d be back the next day. She simply said, ‘Not as a nurse.’ Wasn’t sure what she meant until she walked in the next day with a box of hot dogs grilled to perfection and two Sports Illustrated magazines. Her name is Julie and for some reason she likes me. I tried to discourage her and tell her how impossible it would be to date someone like me.” He paused.
“Keep going. I want you to get to the good part.”
“You mean the part that’s none of your business?” He grinned and gave me a slight wink. Marty held my hand under the table, rubbing my thigh with his thumb. God, that turned me on.
“After I got out of the hospital she invited me to dinner. Picked me up, took me to this cool Mexican restaurant.”
“The restaurant is not important, Billy. Get to the good part.”
“She brought me home, rolled me up to the door, put the brake on my wheelchair, came around the front, sat on my lap, put her arms around my neck and kissed me whole. We’ve got a lot to figure out but so far so good. Hey, did you hear about my Christmas present?”
“Wait a minute. You can’t move from ‘kissed me whole’ to Christmas present. I want to know about the kiss. What the hell does ‘kissed me whole’ mean?”
“We’re going out together tomorrow night. You can ask her all the questions you want.”
“Trust me. I will. So, were you surprised at your Christmas present?” He got a car with hand controls.
“Billy, watch your mouth.” Mom Olsen put a bowl of potatoes in the middle of the table.
I got up to help bring in the food from the kitchen. Billy’s mom took both of my hands and looked me in the eye. “Thanks for what you did for Billy.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“What you did in that room with him in November was the turning point.”
“It would have happened eventually without me.”
“But you made it happen then.” She hugged me and whispered, “By the way, I do know what you did in Billy’s room that night. I raised two boys. I knew what was up. Thank you.”
The next night I met Julie. She was everything Billy said. Julie was beautiful with dark brown hair, halfway down her back. But her real beauty was this rare thing that comes from inside people when they are truly happy. I didn’t learn much about Julie’s life that night. Maybe she’d never felt pain. Maybe she’d never lost anyone she ever loved. Maybe she had and made the decision that pain wouldn’t define her life. Whatever the reason, she was truly happy.
“What the hell are you doing hanging out with Billy?” I asked her.
She smiled at Billy. “He’s funny.”
“True.” Anybody who can make me laugh until I get hiccups is down to the bone funny.
“He’s intelligent, well-read.”
“That’s all he’s been doing for the entire past year and a half, reading.”
“He’s kind and generous to a fault. He would give the shirt off his back if someone needed it.”
Then Billy said, “Tell her the real reason.”
“What? You’re a good kisser?”
“That one and also the one about how I’m about the handsomest man you’ve ever met.”
He took after his brother. Marty took after him. I saw a picture of their dad and they both took after him.
“Julie, I will warn you about one thing. It may be the deal breaker.”
“Tell me now before I get more invested in this relationship.”
Billy took her hand. “Too late. You can’t go back now.”
“He’s a terrible singer,” I said.
We celebrated the end of the 1960s by watching the ball drop at Times Square a second time. I kissed Marty. Julie kissed Billy. We toasted with a glass of champagne, reminisced a bit about the past year and made predictions about the new decade.
The 60s were over. They were fun, exciting, everything a young person could ask for. Drama, passion, love, determination, purpose, meaning. And they were filled with everything no one should have to endure. War, death, assassinations, rage, conflict, hatred, and deep dark holes filled with deep dark pain.
It was 1970. I wanted time to stop right there in the living room at Marty’s childhood home. I didn’t want January to come. Or February, March, April, May, June when Marty would graduate and something would happen. When Peter would graduate and something would happen. The two of them would go somewhere or be somewhere and nobody knew where or when or how.
“Happy New Year,” I kissed Marty deep and held him tight.
“I wonder what this new decade will bring,” he said. I didn’t want to know.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 48,936