Everybody walks in the twilight of sanity at some time in their life, when forces beyond their control shape and mold the fabric of reality, bending the wills of small and unimportant people into accepting the abstract political goals and desires of the ruling few. There have always been men caught up in this dehumanizing process...trapped somewhere between opposing realities of life and death, truth and lies, light and dark.
He was one of them. There was nothing special about him, except his unique serial number, USMC 2201072. He was on his way home from months of combat in Vietnam. Like tens of thousands of his generation, he agreed to fight a far-away war for idealistic reasons; sent to fight a war to save a poor and downtrodden people from the evils of Communism, and to defend America. Now, after the reality of war had fully set in, the fire of idealism and patriotism had burned down to the glowing embers of a determination simply to survive. Only 36 hours ago, he was at an insignificant dusty hell hole in Vietnam, and now he was circling O’Hare airport, Chicago, the city of his birth, where twenty years earlier everything began for him on a stormy summer evening when he was born in Southside Memorial Hospital, in 1947.
Like many children born before the age of modern medicine, he was born healthy, but quickly contracted jaundice; he refused to eat or respond to any treatment. His body quickly became emaciated. As the days passed, and he continued to lose weight, the doctors gave up hope for his survival. His very Catholic Aunt had him baptized by a priest; last rites were administered, and in retaliation, his mother, who was not what could be called a religious person, demanded that he be circumcised in remembrance of their father, Eli who was an assimilated Jew. The circumcision was done by a Jewish doctor at her request and he was given a Hebrew name: David. To everyone’s surprise, after the circumcision, his condition improved. He began to eat and gain weight. Even though mother named him David, his baptismal name was written on the birth certificate: Timothy.
In Vietnam, his nom de guerre soon became “Brad”. Being circumcised was very unusual for a Gentile born in the 40’s, but it would have an impact on his future life, specifically when he went into the Marines where he was asked about his religion in the receiving barracks at Marine Corps boot camp. He thought for a minute and then answered, “Agnostic?” The clerk looked at him, frowned and then asked, “Are you circumcised?” He said he was and the clerk seemed visibly happy at not having to write down a word he probably couldn’t spell, and so wrote “Jewish” in the service record book then punched Jewish on his aluminum dog tags; aluminum rectangles that he would carry with him for years.
The year 1947 was also the same year that Al Capone died, and the year that Jackie Robinson made history: Jackie Robinson changed everything for black Chicagoans and set the stage for the struggle that lay ahead for his people. This was a year before the military integrated, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, and eight years before Rosa Parks refused to step to the rear of a Montgomery bus. Jackie Robinson wasn’t just nudging people out of their comfort zones, he was shoving them with both hands. Over 46,000 people came to Wrigley Field that warm May day in 1947 to see the Dodgers vs. Cubs game. Never had a black man stepped onto a Chicago field to play big-league-ball. Some of his Dodger teammates initially refused to take the field with him, and among the Cubs as well, there was some talk of a boycott. But when he took the field for his debut game in the Major Leagues, the people clapped and cheered. The Dodgers won, 4-2. When the game ended, black Chicago fans climbed on the roof of the Dodgers’ team bus and leaned into its windows, trying to steal one more look at Robinson, the man who crossed the line.
He had served with blacks in Vietnam. Some were heroes, others were not, but all lived or died as United States Marines, and they were forever his brothers. The Marines only recognized one color, Marine Corps Green. Now, twenty years after Robinson broke the mold, he sat in a window seat, still smelling of Vietnam. No amount of washing would ever get rid of the faint smell of death, gunpowder, and napalm, which was both a physical and spiritual stench.
It was unusual for a Marine to be going home in ill-fitting civilian dress, and under normal circumstances, he would have been in a freshly pressed uniform. The emergency orders that had pulled him out of the ’Nam, however, left no time for spit and polish. He had a short layover in Seattle during which a Good Samaritan gave him some extra clothing, which allowed him to change from his jungle utilities to ill-fitting jeans and a short-sleeved shirt too large for his shrunken frame. Those battered jungle utilities had been more a part of him than the city below him now with its sleeping hundreds of thousands; a city both unaware and uncaring that yet another Marine was coming back from hell.
The “lucky ones” would return, but unfortunately, the memories of Vietnam would stay with them forever. For more hours than he could count, he had been fighting to stay awake but kept drowsing into a limbo, which was both part dream and part memory. He dozed for a moment and then snapped awake as he felt cold waves of fear fueling his body with a rush of adrenalin, causing him to react automatically with the instincts developed in Vietnam...instantly wary and alert. He had learned on patrol to be suspicious of anything different, anything even slightly out of place and here, in ‘The World’, everything was out of place, and his fear and caution made him as dangerous as he would be on patrol. He felt naked without his rifle. How could he defend himself? The adrenaline rushes continued, and after each attack subsided, he clung to the reality that he was home now. This was the United States. He was back in ‘The World’. There were no enemies here. Nevertheless, even here, a part of his mind and soul stayed in Vietnam, ten thousand miles away, where even in the insanity of war, there yet remained a familiarity of belonging to something that he desperately refused to let go of. Only now, he realized for the first time that what his old gunnery sergeant had told him was stark truth and reality: ‘You can take the Marine out of Vietnam, but you can never take Vietnam out of the Marine.’ As he saw his reflection in the port window, memories reached out and held him like a jealous lover and when everything dissolved into other scenes, he closed his eyes and slipped back into the familiar and brutally beautiful landscapes of Vietnam.
“You’re goin’ home, Corporal!” The words hit him like a bucket of cold water. He savored the words and let them sink into his conscience until they took on the form of an irrefutable fact. This is the day for which he had waited and fought to survive. His orders back to The World were in, marking an end to months of continuous combat. He had survived...and was going home to The World! “Yeah Gunny, back to The World! I’m so short that snakes shit on me.”
The Gunny’s face was an open book filled with Marine Corps history. A story etched in flesh that told of World War II, the Pacific Islands, then Korea, and now Vietnam...the Gunny was a “lifer” whose eyes had seen the horrors of three wars, his sanity preserved by a life dedicated to Corps and Country. No matter how far apart they were in age and rank, he felt a kinship with the Gunny. As chance would have it, the Gunny had served in the same unit with his two Uncles on islands that no Marine would ever forget: Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. In the Corps that was as good as, or better than, being family. “Brad, when you get back to the States don’t forget to send me a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Green Label. And never forget, no one ever really leaves Vietnam.”
“No sweat, Gunny, it’s on the top of my list.” He slung his M-14 rifle over his shoulder and picked up a small kit bag that contained essentials for the trip home, paused a moment to look back at the Tom O’Shea, a 105-mm Howitzer that belonged to a crew of Irish Marines and then started walking for the helicopter landing zone, or the LZ as they called it. He had been a part of that gun crew once, before volunteering to go out as a Forward Scout-Observer (FO). That gun had seen a lot of action, and the years and the wars had taken their toll. No one knew who was older, the Gunnery Sergeant, or the Tom O’Shea. A lot of the equipment the Marines were using was left over from the Korean War, and some of it was even WWII vintage. The Marine Corps, always first to serve and last to receive a budget from the Defense Department, had to beg, borrow, or steal its equipment. Still, what the Marines lacked in equipment they more than made up for in raw courage.
It was summer, and, with the monsoon still a month away, everything was covered with a fine powder of red dust. Each step he took caused the dust to ripple outward from his boots like miniature waves of bloodstained water. It was as if he were wading in some surreal stream. Summer in the “I Corps” was an unchanging and relentless dry heat that burned the soul, as well as the body—just as unbearable in its own way as the cold never-ending rains of the Monsoon were during the long hell of the Vietnamese winter. They had seen fire and they had seen rain. The I Corps Tactical Zone (pronounced ‘eye corps’) was bordered by the South China Sea on the East and Laos on the West. In the North, it was the first line of defense against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This was 3rd Marine Division Country.
The summer sun blazed down like a vengeful Mayan god gazing accusingly from a crystal blue cloudless sky. He could almost hear the heat thermals rumble as they stirred up miniature dust devils that swirled angrily through the firebase, causing wave after wave of dust the color of dried blood to splash against the sandbagged emplacements. ‘Surf’s up’ he thought, smiling at his own black humor as the weight of this world, his world, bore down causing him to sink ever deeper into the red dust.
His body ached from months of hardship and he was tired beyond caring and he was down from 190 pounds to an emaciated 125, and he knew that this fatigue was not caused by semi-starvation; rather it was more akin to the prolonged agony of the long-distance runner...a pain that came from someplace deep inside where some people believe the soul resides; a centrally located throb; an emptiness always being filled with a profound sorrow for friends who, torn by the raging beasts of war, were now memories, soon to become the bad dreams that would haunt him forever. ‘Pain abhors a vacuum,’ he thought.
The LZ was the highest feature of this surreal landscape, situated on a small mound-like hill, it was their lifeline; the single road that ran the entire length of Vietnam was cut more times than not, leaving a tenuous resupply route by air as the only viable alternative. The heat distorted the road’s image causing it to dance seductively from left to right, and then change shape like the fun-house mirrored reflections that had entertained him and his friends in a childhood that belonged to an America built on a culture created by Walt Disney Studios and John Wayne movies; that very culture had seduced them into volunteering for a tour in hell. This mirage suited “their Vietnam”: a huge senseless psychedelic joke being played on anyone luckless enough to be caught within. They had long since stopped fighting for the right of the Vietnamese to “self-determination”, having replaced that with a much simpler credo: do whatever it takes to survive and, “Kill ’em first and let God sort ’em out.”
Growing up in the years of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the “do not ask what your country can do for you” euphoria of President Kennedy, had made his volunteering for duty with the Marines in Vietnam an inevitability, a duty that had inexorably destroyed all that had gone before. He was about 13 or 14 years old, standing in awe, watching the newly mobilized hometown members of the 32nd National Guard Infantry Division as they marched to the trucks that would transport them to staging points in response to the Communist threat from Cuba. Filled with uninhibited patriotism, he had wanted to march off with them; years later that wish had come true and he was sent to fight yet another Communist threat, except that this time the threat had gone on far too long. No one had told them to “be careful what you wish for” and had “they done so, he probably wouldn’t have listened.
“Just live one day at a time, Tim,” his Uncle Donald had told when he joined up. Yet with every day that went by, Vietnam turned the survivors into a generation of hedonists, incapable of feeling anything except a tremendous drive to return to that elusive paradise of memories always referred to as The World. They expected the American people to be grateful. They expected them to remember them—to mourn their dead, and welcome the lucky ones, the battered survivors, back into the ranks of the living.
The thought of going home filled his mind with visions of unending cold drinks, fast food, girls, and being accepted back into the community and the home for which he had been so willing to lay down his life. He had done his best to help North Vietnamese soldiers die for their country, and while feeling no satisfaction at the thought, he wasn’t particularly bothered by it either. The idea of taking life had become commonplace and acceptable to everyone. The ghosts of the daily kills he took part in had yet to appear in his dreams—or haunt the periphery of his vision when, in the still quiet times, he would sit alone in a very private darkness.
He passed a group of Marines, their new utilities betraying the fact that they were ’boot to the ‘Nam’. ’Replacements!’ he thought, ’Fresh meat for the grinder!’ He looked down at his own jungle utilities, faded and torn, scrounged out of a pile of clothing and equipment that had been taken from the dead and wounded Marines, some of it bloodstained. It was fair game for ‘scrounging’ (a scrounger was highly valued in any Marine unit for his uncanny ability to “find” needed items) and scroungers would pick over the pile for usable jackets, pants, and jungle boots.
Looking at these new fish, he wondered how fast a young man could age in Vietnam. There was a huge generation gap even though they were all about the same age. They annoyed him. What were they doing here, in his Vietnam? These fresh-faced hard-charging young Marines, ready to kill, ready to die—were just more fresh meat. ‘Stupid fish’, he thought, ‘already on the hook and don’t even know it.’ He knew them very well because they were he and his friends, the grateful dead, who not so very long ago had arrived from an imaginary world now so far away, The World that had rapidly receded in both space and time as the agent orange that poisoned the jungles and forests of Vietnam claimed either their lives or their souls. They all wanted to kill. That was what they were trained to do, and it was what was expected of them.
Looking them over, he couldn’t help wondering how many would die, who would be maimed, and who would make it home. Replacements could never take the place of his friends.
One of them got up, smiled in a way that reminded him of a puppy wanting to make friends, and began walking toward him. For a second, he flashed back in time and saw himself as a new replacement, looking at the veteran Marines on their way back home. The circle closes, he thought, and turning his back on them, he entered the C.P. (Command Post). Inside were the tired old men, thirty to forty years old, who ran this small part of hell. Like their Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA.) counterparts in the hills, they were more concerned with the tomorrows than the todays. Today was history even as it happened. Men died, were maimed, destroyed both mentally and morally, but tomorrow the war would be won... and these men, the lords of hell, would go on to their promotions.
‘Lifers,’ he thought, and walked over to the Battalion Executive Officer (XO), “Corporal Bratvold reporting as ordered Sir.”
“Bratvold?” the X.O glanced up with tired indifference, “Yeah, that’s right, everyone calls you Brad...they’re cutting your orders right now...wait outside. We’ll call you when they’re ready.”
He turned and walked outside. No salutes in the ’Nam, saluting a superior officer would let a sniper know who to put on the top of his kill list. Lighting a cigarette, he slumped against the sandbag wall of the C.P. and talked to the replacements waiting to see the ‘old man’.
“What outfits did you draw?” he asked them.
“I drew Golf,” another replacement joined in.
“Doesn’t matter much,” he said, “they’re both good outfits.”
On the demilitarized zone, referred to only as “The Z”, there were daily artillery duels, bringing incoming death, night Patrols, search and destroy missions, whatever it took, and it was all the same no matter with which unit you served. Everything was a matter of luck or divine intervention. Most of his friends were already statistics. Seven hundred and fifty officers and men of the original battalion had already gone home before him...some of them in body bags, others returned to their families as cripples and some with no physical marks at all, finishing their tour in the ’Nam but having the ‘look’; eyes of old men, staring out of the faces of boys not old enough to vote or be served in a bar, boys who became men in Vietnam—men old enough to kill and to die.
On his last operation, they were caught in the open. The NVA. had withdrawn under fire, and the battalion had charged, Marine-style, into the valley. It was a trap. The battalion was caught in a box barrage of white phosphorous, fire raining from the sky in a way that made napalm look like a mercy killing. ‘Yes, they’d seen fire and they’d seen rain’. Then from across the ‘Z’, the enemy counter-attacked...a division of NVA. regulars. The fight went on for three days, until as they were being overrun Biff called artillery fire on their own positions. That was the only thing that stopped the NVA.
The pictures kept flashing through his mind...Murph, the radio operator, Lt. Biff Mullins, and what was left of the rest of their FO team, being evacuated...stacked and lashed down to the tanks that had finally arrived. The pictures of that operation in Con Tien had made the evening news. People watched without understanding as a tank stacked with the dead moved past the CBS camera crew.
He remembered seeing an arm jarred into a semblance of life by the moving tank, its hand seeming to move in a bizarre farewell wave...set in motion by the lurching tank that carried it, waving goodbye—waving goodbye to the past, to what they were, what they had become, and now what they could never be. As he watched the tanks take his friends to ‘Graves Registration’ the thought flashed through his mind like a silent accuser asking again and again, ‘Why you still alive, Brad? You should be there with them, those honored dead...the grateful dead, now in the underworld, where there is no wind, and the chariot of the sun is towed along, towed by the grateful dead.’
“What’s it like over here Corporal?” the question brought him out of his dark thoughts and, yet it took a long time until he finally answered, “The place grows on you,” he smiled at this private joke and thought about the fungus growing between his toes.
“Brad!” The battalion clerk stuck his head out of the C.P.
“Yeah,” he answered, grateful to be able to escape the dead men walking.
“The Major’ll see ya now.”
He walked inside and stood in front of the Major’s desk. The Major was a career office, Annapolis, football hero, square-faced and tall, “Sit down, Brad,” he sat and waited for the next move. The Major was using his ‘command’ voice.
“They zapped Biff.” The major folded his hands, as if he were praying.
“Yes sir, Biff was the officer in charge of our F.O. team. When the gooks over-ran us, he called fire in on our own position.”
“I’m recommending him for a Navy Cross. There should be something in this for you too. I understand that you’re the lone survivor of the team.”
“Yes, sir.” ’Shove the medals up your ass,’ he thought.
“How come you made it?” Had the major just accused him of having committed a crime?
“Just damn lucky, sir,” he said. ’Why had he survived?’ he remembered the concussion of the incoming high explosive 155 mm artillery rounds and losing consciousness until he rejoined the world with a terrific headache and a ringing in his ears as a corpsman was busily slapping a pressure bandage on his head. Evidently, the NVA. had left him for dead.
“That makes three times you’ve been hit this year, Son, that’s a Purple Heart with a Wounds Cluster in your SRB (Service Record Book).”
The major seemed to think it was a record, but he considered the wounds to be no more than ‘Band-Aid jobs’ so he only answered, “Yes sir.”
Thoughts about Biff came to mind; Biff, who had joined the team fresh from a Navy ROTC4 program and after spending a few weeks at Staging Battalion in California, was flown straight to Danang and from there over mean trails and days of fire and rain, to Dong Ha, Con Thien, and on to Khe Sahn. He was idealistic, trying to be a friend to his men instead of only being their officer. With Biff, there hadn’t been that insurmountable distance usually found between a Marine officer and the enlisted men. He remembered Biff when they first met. For want of something better to do, the Commanding Officer (C.O.) had decided to hold a rifle inspection, and since Biff was the new officer, had put him in charge. They cleaned their weapons of several months’ accumulated dust and resignedly formed a line for the inspection. Biff had stopped in front of him and took his rifle, “Not very clean, Corporal, how does she shoot?”
“Shoots fine sir,” ’Chicken shit second lieutenant’, he thought. The Lieutenant passed down the line. After the inspection, the company first sergeant chewed his ass and gave him the unwanted job of burning the ‘shitters’; barrels cut in half with handles welded on...receptacles that sat under the two and four-holler latrines. They had to be removed, carried by a two-man team, and ignited, their contents burned and then returned.
Later, when his work was finished Biff had stopped by, “I’m sorry I got you into trouble with the Top (the Sergeant Major). Your rifle was clean, but I felt that I had to find something wrong, to prove myself.”
The admission had startled him. “That’s OKAY, Lieutenant, so I pulled four hours of shit detail, so what.”
Actually, it was ‘skating duty’ with nothing more to do while the shit was burning than to smoke pot and bullshit with the rest of the shit detail.
“Well,” Biff looked embarrassed, “the guys call you Brad, right? Look, I just wanted you to know. I’m not really chicken shit...just new to all this.” Biff walked away.
The conversation had been totally unreal. Was an officer in the Marines admitting to a mistake, apologizing, and even making an attempt at friendliness? This was someone who needed watching. Later, when they were fresh out of Forward Observers because of death and jungle rot, Biff had asked him to volunteer.
“Why should I volunteer?”
“Because, Brad, I can work with you and because I think you’ll be good at it,” Biff said.
And, so he agreed to join the team. For the next few months, they had worked deep in the boonies with a rifle company of the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, then a few operations with the Third Recon, and back to the Fourth again. The days on Patrol and nights of sweating terror had passed in a daze until in the end; he was the last man standing of the original team.
“I think he’ll get it,” the voice of the Major brought him back.
“The Navy Cross,” the Major said, “I think that he’ll get the Navy Cross.”
“Be real nice for his family,” he said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Biff had taken R&R (Rest and Recreation) in Hawaii to get married just a month before he was killed.
“Anyway, here’re your papers. And have a good time back in The World,” as he took his orders the Major continued, “and come back in one piece, Brad. You’ll have a new team to train next month when the replacement FOs arrive.”
His papers! The Golden Ring in the Merry-go-round! The first prize in the lottery! The Mother Lode! Papers to the States! Nevertheless, it had cost him. He hadn’t wanted to extend his tour in Vietnam, but the letters from home had been getting strange, something had gone wrong with his mothers’ new marriage. She was frightened, uncertain, and had begged him to come home as soon as possible. So, he had to extend for another tour to get the thirty days ‘basket leave’.
He was going home, back to The World. What would await him after the thirty days leave when he had to return to hell wasn’t important in light of the opportunity to go home. First, he thought he would straighten things out at home, and then show off his medals to the small-town girls, enjoy being a hero, have drinks bought for him, and be generally fussed over, as was only right. There had been a demonstration against DOW Chemical recruiters at the university, but that had happened long after he left for Vietnam, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the university from two years before—a university more concerned with football games and panty raids than war protests. He kicked himself every day for leaving school and volunteering for the Marines and then compounding his idiocy, by volunteering for Vietnam.
Taking the papers, he had a premonition that they would never meet again. This immediately made him paranoid. Leaving the CP, he could feel the crosshairs of a telescopic sight focusing on the back of his head and braced himself for the impact...several tons of pressure exploding in a red mist of blood and gray matter, and later, the sound of the rifle drifting in from the perimeter—a sound which, mercifully, he would never hear. The only mercy in war was that you would never hear the shot that kills you. He’d seen it once before. A sergeant, his tour completed, was going up the ramp to a waiting cargo plane in Dong Ha; going back to The World, his papers in hand, joking and smiling, then suddenly, without a sound, splattered against the side of the plane, dead...and after another second, the sound of the 0.50 caliber sniper. Everyone was silently praying, ’Please God, not me, let it be someone else’.
Everyone sweats in Vietnam, but he could feel a different kind of sweat, which trickled down the small of his back, as if death was playing with his spine; his mouth went dry...he didn’t even care if he were a coward or not. He had stopped caring many months before and then, miraculously, he could breathe again. Death had passed him by. The sniper hadn’t fired...or perhaps there was no sniper.
As he continued walking toward the landing zone (LZ), the feeling of being in the crosshairs receded as the reality that the journey home finally started to sink in. All he had to do was survive long enough to get to the LZ, board a Huey Gunship, fly south to Da Nang, and catch a bird to The World. He thought about the birds of home...the blue jays calling softly in the warm moist summer heat seeming to cry ’rain, rain’.
There were no birds in Vietnam other than the birds of war and death: the gunships, phantom attack jets, the B-52 bombers flying so high you never saw them and only felt the earth shake under your feet as they dropped their deadly eggs, and then, when the sun set, the nighttime visits of the Douglas AC-47 Spooky that was lovingly known by the Marines as ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’. When the shit hits the fan that blessed bestial howl was the last thing the enemy heard as Puff cut loose with its 7.62 mm. G.E. mini-guns placing a round every 2 yards in any VC or NVA concentration. Puff was a godsend to Marines fighting against the odds. Steams of dragon fire would come out of a big black silhouette, cutting branches, trees, grass, and anything living to shreds.
The LZ for the Hueys consisted of a primitive sandbagged control center run by a harassed PFC (Private First Class). The air controller’s job, outside of staying alive, was to coordinate the flights of aircraft landing and taking off from his small empire. In this miniature Grand Central Station, you could catch a ride on any one of the many supply helicopters or special missions’ birds that landed every five minutes or so to take on bodies, load and unload supplies, and take short-timers, like him, back to ‘The World’. Sharing a trip with full body bags already lined up in a neat row for shipment south didn’t bother him ’nothing mattered’, nothing but getting out. It was always the same...brown sandbags, radio antenna, machine gun emplacements, and the dusty weary ageless Marines manning them...everything incongruously silhouetted against a striking blue sky. Always the dust, red as blood, and the cloudless blue sky, unchanging until the monsoon, when all would be the gray sky above, mud below.
“When’s the next bird in,” he asked the air controller.
“‘Bout sixty minutes,” he answered, “if you’re going to Da Nang, that is. The next bird to Da Nang is comin’ in real soon,” he pointed to a stack of body bags, “gotta take them back ’afore they start stinking really bad. They’re the boys from that ambush at the water-point last night. Real nasty...Charlie cut their balls off and put their pricks in their mouths.”
He nodded, “bastard Gooks!”
The Marines had learned from the enemy, and no-holds-barred and down and dirty was SOP (Standard operating procedures) for both sides now. ’Nice guys don’t last long in the ‘Nam’.
“Don’t matter who I share the chopper with, so long as it’s going my way. Nope, I’m not particular if the dead have balls or not.”
“You must be going home. I know I wouldn’t ride back with dead bodies for anything less than a ticket to The World.”
“That’s right. Got my ticket right here,” he patted his shirt, “I’m getting the fuck out of this place and going back to the land of the big P.X.”
“Well, good luck to you. Hey, call my folks will you, and tell them the last time you saw me I was still alive.”
“Sure,” he lied... ’fuck you too’ he thought, ’best way to get zapped is to ask someone to tell your parents you are still alive.’, “just write it down and I’ll give ’em a call,” he said out loud.
He heard a low rumbling coming from the rolling hills to the South. A thick black column of smoke began to snake its almost perfectly vertical way into the unforgiving sky.
“That’ll be the morning convoy out of Phu Bai. Looks like no mail today either. Another ambush,” the air controller spat a long thin brown streak of tobacco, “care for a ’chaw?”
He shook his head, “No thanks.”
He sat back and watched the pillar of smoke. Back in Boot Camp, they had taken the two-year draftees aside and, after assuring them that they were all going to be sent to the infantry to die, offered them a way out and if they agreed to enlist for another year they would be sent to truck-driving school. Faced with the choice of drive or die, they agreed, signed up for another year, and spent the next thirteen months on convoy duty in Vietnam, where the best they could hope for was coming home as an amputee. The sandbagged floor of the trucks was supposed to keep their balls intact, but it didn’t do much for their feet.
Someone limped up and sat beside him, “Any birds going out?”
“He says there’s one comin’ in another hour.”
“How long you been back from Con Tien?” Both of them had been there. It was something in the eyes and the red dust that covered them like a semi-transparent second skin, so he didn’t ask how the guy knew.
“Not long,” he answered, then noticing the Marine’s bandaged arm he asked, what happened to the wing?”
“This?” the man patted his bandage. “Bobby trap, an arrow, it went clear through and had to break the tip off and pull the rest back out. I hope it will be enough to get me some time in a base hospital and to keep me out of the boonies for a while. Doesn’t even hurt much since they gave me a shot of morphine, but the arm still smells like shit.”
“Cigarette?” he offered.
“Thanks. Light it for me will ya?”
“No sweat.” he pig-fucked the cigarette and put it in the Marine’s mouth. Drawing deeply on their cigarettes, they felt closer than brothers even if they’d never seen each other before.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Home,” he answered. It was answer enough.
The Marine looked at him with undisguised envy, “Lucky bastard!”
“Maybe not so lucky. I’ll be back in a month for another tour.”
“Stupid fish, already on the hook and ready for the frying pan.” The Marine laughed and then had a coughing-fit, and added, “Next they’ll talk you into turning lifer.” He gasped a choked chuckle.
“I got my reasons,” he was on the defensive, “don’t knock it unless you try it.”
“No way Jose! To each his own. No way in hell that I’ll extend for another six months. Man, I’m short...so short that lawyers shit on me and they’re even lower than snakes. After I get out of the hospital I’ll probably get my ticket home...back across the pond and home to The World.”
“Well, tomorrow about this time I should be getting off the plane back home smf scooping out all that round-eyed pussy.” The thought of going home made him feel almost...happy.
“It’s not the same as when we left, you know,” the Marine had suddenly turned serious. “You’ve been gone too long. Things are a changing. A friend of mine went back last month. They spat on him...called him every rotten name in the book. Said he killed babies and wasn’t fit to walk the streets.”
“You’re crazy. Things like that don’t happen back home,” he angrily ground his cigarette into the dust, “we’re fighting to keep them safe.”
“OKAY. Have it your way,” the Marine held up his good arm as if to fend off the anger, “you’ll find out soon enough for yourself. Sometimes I think that they’re the only lucky ones,” he indicated the row of dead Marines in their body bags and then lapsed into a brooding silence and seemed to fall asleep.
A corpsman, who until then had been busy with more of the walking wounded, came over and checked his bandage. “He’s out of it,” the corpsman said, “let him rest.”
“What happened to his arm?”
“Booby trap. Crossbow bolt with shit smeared on the tip. Said he was two days in the boonies before they could bring him in.”
“You guy’s never heard of medevac?”
The Corpsman bridled at the accusation, “Tell it to someone else, asshole. The medivac choppers tried to get them, the poor fuckers. The LZ was taking big stuff, incoming NVA 156mm Gook artillery…but they tried. Yeah, they tried then they died. They patched the walking wounded up and then evacuated them in Armored Personnel Carriers. There’s a chopper on the way to take them down to Danang to a real hospital.”
The little corpsman was being belligerent and Brad figured he had the right to be. “Sorry, didn’t mean anything by it. Just seems like a raw deal,” he apologized.
“No offense taken, Marine...I see you been there a few times too.”
“A few,” he agreed, “but not like that.”
To the east of the rising black smoke, he could make out a wing of phantoms systematically working the ridgeline over with napalm, while at the same time, to the west, a mountaintop seemed to leap into the sky, and then disappear behind a huge dust cloud. Later they heard a sound like a small earthquake, and he knew that the B-52’s were working the area over too. Soon “puff” would come, raining death on any surviving NVA. with its mini- cannons. He glanced at the Marine with the bandaged arm.
The man’s cigarette had burned down to his lips and the flesh was smoldering, “Wake up Asshole, you’re on fire!” He pulled the cigarette from the Marines’ mouth. There was no answer and then he realized that the man had died.
“Corpsman!” he shouted.
The corpsman checked for signs of life, “He bought it,” the corpsman’s eyes moistened, “sometimes they go like that. It’s the quiet ones who don’t cry or bitch much that are a’fixin’ to die. God knows what was in the shit they smeared on the arrow. Come on, let’s drag him over there with the others...they can bag and tag him later.”
He helped the “doc” drag the dead Marine to his silent place in a line of bagged and tagged brothers. While helping carry the still warm body he had to keep reminding himself that he was going home. Hanging on to that reality by the thinnest of threads he told himself over and over, ’Don’t lose it. You’re goin’ home … home ... home ... home.’
He remembered the long night at BK-17 an ARVN fort on the road between Hue and Dong Ha…
It was during the last days of the winter Monsoon in the I-CORPS and the battalion was hunkered down at Koby-Ton-ton which would be re-named Camp Carrol in honor of a fallen Marine officer. The cloud cover and endless rain had made air-strikes impossible and the only answer to units in the field who got into a tough spot was Marine Artillery. It was decided to move two big 155 howitzers to the old French fort to bring them under the protection of the big guns. He accompanied two of the battery’s guns and their crews on the wet trip down. They found a typical ARVN battalion of a few hundred men, living in and around the old fort, with their children, wives, dogs, and chickens running about the old parade ground. To the west, just beyond the concertina wire, there was a small Vietnamese village, perched precariously next to the only highway which connected Phu Bai with Dong Ha in the North.
The Marines took over an abandoned compound to the east of the fort, and placed the big guns in position to support the recon unit, fortifying the positions and coordinating with the ARVN unit which helped provide perimeter security. The Army had provided a quad 40-mm gun mounted on a Sherman tank body and was in position to help defend the enclave.
He spent a busy day filling sandbags and fortifying the machine gun nests. The work was hard and wet, and as night fell, they grabbed some sleep in the foul-smelling bunkers that gave some shelter in case of a mortar attack. The night passed uneventfully except for the big guns firing registration rounds and H&Is (harassment and interdiction used to make movement by the enemy risky, targeting approaches to the village and the road) every few hours.
The first thing he noticed when he went to the latrine area to take a morning piss in an empty 155-powder canister that had been converted into a urinal, was the silence…no sound was coming from the village nor the ARVN command area. The skipper sent a four-man patrol to the ARVN compound and they returned to report that the entire ARVN battalion was gone! The villagers were still there but refused to leave their huts.
Everyone who wasn’t manning the guns took up positions in the perimeter and waited. While the gun crews continued to give fire-support to the recon unit in the hills, he spent the day staring through the rain and mist with his fire-team as the tension mounted. There was no movement from the village, only an occasional eerie cry of a baby demanding to be fed. The day passed, and when the dark winter night covered the land, everyone remained in their positions, two men awake, while one was allowed to sleep. Drenched and cold, and covered with mosquitos as they were, sleep was fitful at best.
And then all hell broke loose. Bangalore torpedoes blew huge swaths through the wires and half-naked figures swarmed like angry ants into the compound…some of them with bamboo poles that had sputtering fuses attached to improvised explosives that they threw into bunker doors. Lance Corporal Venini pulled a John Wayne and manned the 50-cal mowing down the NVA as they tried to follow the sappers into the compound. An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) made a direct hit on the 50-cal throwing him, wounded and broken, into the mud. The army quad 40 was firing beehive ammo at the attacking NVA and the 155-gun crews were loading lug bolts and pieces of iron into the chamber of the big guns and firing them point blank in the direction that the enemy fire was coming from.
He watched as the half-naked VC sappers swarmed the 40-mm pouring gasoline on the gun and crew burning them alive. One sapper pushed a charge into the barrel of one of the big guns and exploded it together with his arm and half his face. Then, as suddenly as it started the firefight was over; the Vietnamese withdrew into the village, and the order came down to cease fire.
The enemy wounded were dispatched with a quick shot to the head. Among the Marine casualties was Venini, who screamed in pain until the morphine injections reduced him to moaning. The army crew was dead, and he and his fire team retrieved the charred bodies and then spent the rest of the night repairing the concertina wire, regrouping, and waiting for the next attack.
The skipper made repeated urgent calls for medivac (known as a dust off) but all aircraft were grounded because of the weather. The Corpsmen keep Venini sedated, but his moans got louder as the night went on.
The next day dawned as miserable and wet as the last, only this time they noticed movement near the wires. As the fog cleared, he saw a formation of men, women, and children being marched by the NVA into the wire. They were ordered to open fire. The NVA withdrew leaving the wounded and dying villagers behind. There was no medivac, and after another half day of screaming and begging for help, Venini finally died. An armored relief convoy made it up from Phu Bai and relieved the base. He returned North with the others, the screams of Venini and the villagers still ringing I the darker corners of his mind.
The sight of a few more Marines who wandered over and sat down brought him back to reality. Doc returned to tending the walking wounded. Later, someone from Graves Registration arrived in order to “tag and bag” the dead Marine. The process seemed coldly indifferent. They collected his papers, personal effects, dog tags, placed him in a body bag, tagged the bag, and registered it. The Marine in charge of the operation joked with his friend, and neither one of them seemed affected by what was happening.
“Any news on that bird?” he asked the radioman.
“Keep your shit together. Things are getting pretty hairy around here. If it keeps up, we’ll be completely cut off again. Right now, the only sure way in or out of here is by chopper.”
The Angel of Death could come any time to claim them and with this too familiar angel, would arrive the perpetual paranoia with which they lived every minute of every day. He got up, walked to the other side of the bunker, and pissed on the sandbags. In the valley, he saw a jeep plowing through the dust and making its way to the helipad. As it came closer, he could make out Smitty, the Battalion clerk, who drove up to the helipad stopped and waited a minute for the dust cloud that followed the jeep to clear and motioned for Brad to come down.
Buttoning his fly, he walked to meet him, “Smitty, you goin’ home too?”
Smitty looked at him for a long moment before answering, “Nope, and looks like maybe neither are you. Hop in, they want you back at battalion.”
“Fuck you, like hell I am! Tell them that I left before you found me. Ain’t no way in hell that I’m goin’ back to the CP!” he had expected a sniper’s bullet but not being called back at the last minute.
“Wait-one, Brad, no-can-do. I didn’t say they canceled your leave , they just want to see you before you go home.”
Grudgingly he swung his kitbag into the jeep, “Alright, but I hope they make it short. There’s a bird coming in any minute.”
They rode in silence back to the battalion command post. He was furious: fucking green machine...why him? They pulled up in front of the CP.
The Chaplain was waiting, “Leave the kit bag in the jeep, and come sit over here with me for a minute, Brad.”
“What’s this all about Chaplin?”
“I’m Chaplain McDermit. Have a cigarette.”
“Thanks,” he took the cigarette, “now sir, what’s this all about. I mean, I’m on my way home. If it’s about the letter I got from home, I’ve already spoken to the other Chaplain about it...and I’m going back to take care of things.”
“Letter?” Chaplain McDermit asked, and so he briefly filled him in. “Better sit down, son. I’m afraid I have some hard news for you. Your mother was killed four days ago.”
“What?” he whispered. Suddenly he couldn’t speak. His throat constricted into a dry lump as he sat there...and he could hear an ocean roaring in his ears…his mind spun, and he heard the distant rumble of the chariot of the sun or was it just the rolling thunder of an artillery barrage, and...his mother was...dead...her? At home?
“How...? Why...?” He started to shake.
“They don’t know. It took the Red Cross four days to find you out here. Are you religious?” The Chaplain asked.
“Sir...I’m just a Marine,” his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “There must have been something...an accident...an illness...something.”
“She’d been shot and that’s all we know,” the Chaplain’s voice seemed to echo. “That’s all we know,” he repeated, “and that your mother was shot to death four days ago. Try to understand, Son.”
“Understand what? God’s will?” he said bitterly, “I spend my time here in this goddamned shit-hole, and someone shoots my mother at home and you call it God’s will! When I was here protecting America, who was protecting her?” The tears were forming in his eyes, slowly blurring his vision until he willed them away. Despite the heat, he was very cold and couldn’t speak. A corpsman handed him some water and a pill, which he swallowed automatically.
The Chaplain pressed a pack of cigarettes into his hand, “Take these. Here are some more pills. When you get to Da Nang a friend of mine will be waiting for you, and he’ll get you a priority flight to Japan, and from there, God willing, back home. Remember...God is with you.”
He took the cigarettes and the pills. He would never forget this simple gesture of human kindness.
“The pills will help you, but if you take too many of them, you’ll sleep...so lay off them if you can.”
His mind began to blur...he got back in the jeep with Smitty. “Sorry, Brad,” Smitty said.
He didn’t have the strength to do more than just nod back. He only wanted to get home as soon as possible and ... and then what? He didn’t know. Four days already dead, his mind flashed to the dead VC rotting in the sun, the stench, and the flies, but then, they embalmed Americans, he thought…didn’t they? The flies wouldn’t get her. Had she been murdered? Would he have to kill the person responsible?
The pills numbed him. He neither felt nor knew anything as he was passed from helicopter to helicopter, like the Marines in their body bags, until he finally reached Da Nang. Once there a young chaplain took him in tow and bullied him onto a C-123 Cargo Plane heading to Iwakuni Airbase in Japan where he arrived in his jungle fatigues. Although they had taken his rifle from him in Da Nang, they had neglected to check his pockets. He still had a grenade that he took out of his pocket, shrugged, and stuffed it back. It would remain with him throughout the entire flight home. Iwakuni was like a dream that passed in a blur with no time to freshen up...yet another Chaplain...and then, without even enough time to breathe the clean air of Japan, another flight out to Seattle Washington.
The flight was populated by returning veterans, all were Army, and all in their dress uniforms. A pretty stewardess was serving beer and Jack Daniels, while there he sat, totally spaced out from the pills, a lone Marine, dusty, smelling of the jungle, with a look on his face that discouraged conversation.
Somewhere between Japan and Seattle, he slept but didn’t dream; he slipped into an oily dark sea, and it was cold. And then he felt someone going for his throat! He reached out and grabbed the frightened stewardess that had tried to awaken him. One of his hands was tightening painfully on the side of her face. It would leave a bruise. He released her with a muttered apology. She mumbled something about Marines being animals. He felt bad and he wanted to say more to her, but when they disembarked at the airport, she avoided him completely. The other flight attendants gave him cold looks as he walked into the terminal...he was alone, had no money, still dressed in jungle fatigues, and in great need of a bath.
He looked around in vain for the promised chaplain who was supposed to meet him, but as his fellow passengers thinned out, meeting loved ones, enjoying their first reunion in a year, he was left sitting in a plastic chair watching people who stared curiously at him, but no one came forward to tell him what to do next. ‘The Marine Corps,’ he thought, ‘SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.’ They had sent him off and had forgotten to tell anyone he was coming. He was tired and slipping his hand into his pocket, felt the grenade and thought, ’Don’t they know that there’s a war on, and at this minute people that they might even know are killing and being killed?’ People continued to walk by...some stared, and then politely looked away.
Then, out of nowhere, someone came over and stood over him. “You’re a bit out of uniform, Marine.” It was an Army Sergeant Major in full dress uniform.
“Just got in from the ‘Nam. I’m on emergency leave. Gotta get back to Wisconsin for my mothers’ funeral.”
“Look,” the Sergeant said, “I’m supposed to be working liaison for returning legs. No one mentioned anything about a grunt-Marine. I’m off duty now, so let’s go to my place, I’ll fix you something to eat, you can shower, and I’ll check with the Marines and try to get you sorted out. Maybe they can find out who you belong to.”
He nodded in agreement, got up, and let the Sergeant shepherd him through the airport. He didn’t have anything to lose, and besides… nothing mattered. They got into an Army staff car and as they drove through the streets of Seattle, he watched the people from the passenger seat and noticed that a lot had changed—the hemlines had gone almost all the way up to the ass-hole.
“Been gone a long time?” the Sergeant said without taking his eyes off the road.
“Eleven plus months,” he answered.
The Sergeant gave a low whistle, “Long time all right. Then you’re in for some surprises...like that,” he indicated four mini-skirted girls that strolled by as they stopped for a red light.
The girls turned and smiled at him; or were they just impressed by the car?
“The dresses are a lot shorter now,” his host observed, “too bad we can’t make any time in uniform now, with the anti-war protesters making it a crime for anyone to be in the service.”
“Fuck ‘em all,” he said. The important thing now was to just get back and settle things. After a while, they pulled up to a ranch-style house in a suburban area. ’Nice lawn, he thought, even got a stone fox in the yard.
“Well, here we are...home or at least it’s my parent’s house. Have you ever been to Seattle? No? Well, it’s probably the best place on earth. Nice people...plenty of jobs, and the sky’s the limit.”
Getting out of the car, he allowed the Sergeant to usher him into the rambling ranch-style Seattle home. “The bathroom’s the first door on the right; down that small hall, there...you’ll find soap, towels, and everything you need. There’s a shaving kit in the medicine cabinet. Use it. Throw your clothes outside, they have a washer and dryer here, so you can get them back in about an hour. In the meantime, I’ll make some calls and put something in the oven to heat.”
He would do it by the numbers: shit, shower, shave, eat, and get the hell on his way back home. Throwing his clothes into the hall as directed they both heard the metallic sound of the grenade hitting the tiled floor.
The Sergeant, startled, picked it up, and said, “I best dispose of this before you get arrested.”
Not knowing what to say, he said nothing, and only nodded. Once in the shower, he opened the hot water and let it clean most of the clinging stink and dust and as he looked down at his body through the billowing steam clouds he thought, ’God, I’ve lost weight!’ He hadn’t had time to look at himself in Vietnam. Too busy. His body was...skinny. Brown from the sun, no not brown but more of a sickly yellow.
He got out of the shower and looked in the mirror. What looked back at him was something, and someone, he had never known. At least his mother wouldn’t have to see him.
As he started to shave there came a knock at the door. “Throw out the underpants too.”
The Sergeant’s ignorance was amusing. “Don’t wear any underpants in the ’Nam,” he said.
An uneasy silence was followed by, “I’ll set you out some of my own, and a shirt and pair of jeans. They might be a bit big, but we can’t let you go around in your utilities, and that lack of underpants…is creepy.”
That was fine by him. It didn’t matter ... nothing mattered. He popped another pill. They weren’t half-bad and took the edge off everything. He wrapped himself in the robe the sergeant had thoughtfully placed by the door. There were even bedroom slippers together with the promised clothes and underpants, and a small tote bag for his things. He would keep his jungle boots, though; they were like a second pair of feet. What impressed him most was the flush toilet; he didn’t have to use it, but he flushed it a few times anyway just to watch the water go down. He had missed flush toilets as much as having something cold to drink.
After dressing, he followed his nose to the kitchen and sat down to a meal of bacon and eggs, a big gallon bottle of milk, which he greedily drank, and followed it by cup after cup of black coffee, while his host stared incredulously. He hadn’t tasted cold milk since he shipped out for the ’Nam. The sergeant watched him eat in silence, forking more food onto his plate, and refilling his glass when he’d emptied it.
When he finally could eat no more, the sergeant went over to the refrigerator, brought back two cans of ice-cold Olympia beer, and said, “I got through to the Marine contingent down at the port. They say to bring you on down. They’ll have some tickets for you...Chicago, and then Madison Wisconsin. You got any money?”
“Nothing.” he said, “except for what was in my pockets.”
“The grenade isn’t going to be much use here. I’ll take it back to the base tomorrow. Doesn’t anybody check anything anymore?” he was half amused, “I mean, walking around Seattle international airport and God knows how many other airports, with a grenade in your pocket!”
“Well, no one asked me for it,” he said defensively, “and it felt good sitting there in my pocket. I don’t suppose I could keep it.”
“Not a chance. As it is, I’m going to have to cook up a story about how I ‘found’ it in the wastepaper basket back in the terminal after our Army boys passed through. Listen,” he said, changing the subject, “they said that they’d give you a few hundred dollars advance on your back pay down at the base, but if they don’t, I’m going to give you a hundred up-front, and you can send it back when you get home.”
The offer was genuine, and he felt like there were still a few good people back home worth fighting for after all. “Thanks, but let’s wait until we see what the “crotch” will cough up. But thanks anyway.”
They left the house and drove down to the Naval Station. A sergeant from the M.P.’s escorted them to the disbursing section where a clerk handed him an envelope with tickets and counted out two hundred dollars in tens and twenties with a curt, “Sign here, it’ll be deducted from your pay.” Mechanically, he signed.
The Army Sergeant turned to the clerk. “Don’t you people have a uniform issue here? He’s on emergency leave and doesn’t have a proper uniform.”
“This is a navy base and the Marine contingent doesn’t have a store of spare uniforms. I’m sorry, he’ll have to go back the way he is.”
They left the base and returned to the airport. He was clean, fed, and hoped that someday he could repay this strange man, but knew that he couldn’t and that it didn’t matter. They shook hands and said goodbye. After the sergeant left, he realized that he never even asked the man his name. He boarded the plane for Chicago and promptly fell into another deep sleep and he dreamed, or did he? Was he ever awake?
The mosquitoes were bothering him. He looked through the steady falling rain, straining to make out movement, but there was nothing. All quiet, except for the frogs and the never-ending drizzle of the monsoon. He knew that the frogs were a great alarm system—if they were quiet then watch out! From time to time, someone shot up a sickly yellow flair and the rice paddy was transformed into a grotesque vision of Dante’s Inferno...shadows twisting with a life of their own, followed by total silence as even the frogs seemed to hold their breath...everything frozen in time, and finally, darkness covered the land like a black burial shroud. With the passing of that small sickly miniature sun struggling to shed some light through the ever-present monsoon clouds, life returned to normal; the chorus of frogs singing in the rain keeping him company as he sat in his foxhole, deep in freezing cold water. There were two Marines in every hole, with fifty percent alert, one slept if he could while the other kept watch. He heard movement ... someone was sneaking through the rice paddy. He could smell them, the smell of fish heads and unwashed bodies. He twisted the safety pin out of a hand grenade and released the spoon. As the spoon flew, he waited two more seconds before throwing the grenade in the general direction of the noise. There was an explosion and suddenly the entire area erupted in tracer rounds ... red and green, incoming green from the AK47’s and outgoing red. He heard the whine of incoming mortar rounds, and from down the line came the cry, “Incoming...incoming! Fix Bayonets!”
“Incoming!” He jumped forward in his seat...then, realizing that he had dozed again; he sank back into the cushions. People looked at him in alarm, but another soldier sitting across the aisle just smiled and gave him thumbs up.
Over the speaker, he could hear the professionally warm voice of the stewardess, “We are on their final approach to O’Hare field. Please fasten your seat belts and observe the no smoking sign. We hope you have had a pleasant flight with us.”
He would have a two-hour layover in O’Hare, a short flight to Truex Airport in Madison, and then twenty minutes down US Highway 51 to home. He considered calling his stepfather to let him know that he was coming but gave it up as a bad choice; he had never met the man and couldn’t help the gut feeling that the man was, if not guilty, at least responsible. So, instead, he decided to call his Aunt Eldorae who lived in Chicago. He dialed the number, waited for a few rings, and then a man answered...his Uncle Johnny, “John, this is Tim. I’m at O’Hare.” He almost used “Brad” but back here in The World people knew him by “Tim” and he silently told himself he would have to get used to it.
There was a long moment of silence. “Thank God the Red Cross found you. Have you called Grandma or Donald and let them know you’re coming? When’s your flight out?”
“I’ve got a flight in two hours. It should get me to Madison at about seven tonight. I haven’t called anyone yet.”
“We’ll call them for you then, and someone’ll meet you at the airport. One second, Eldorae wants to talk to you.”
His aunt took the phone, “Tim? Are you all right?” he could feel the tension in her voice, and asked himself, was he? Was he all right? “I guess so,” he answered, “do you know how it happened?”
He waited through a long silence, which made him wonder if they had been disconnected, until finally, she answered, “I’m coming to you. I’ll see you at the terminal restaurant in about a half an hour.” She handed the phone back to his Uncle. He could hear her talking to John as he muffled the phone, but it was clear by the background conversation they were having that she would be coming alone. John unmuffled the phone and asked him if he needed money.
“No, but thank you.” He said.
They would all be coming up for the funeral and he’d see John then. He had never been especially close to Uncle John, a soft-spoken taciturn man who seemed to hold everyone at arm’s length. Uncle Johnny had lost half his face in Guadalcanal, and only now, it occurred to him that this stoicism might have been the result of years of rehab and reconstruction. They did a great job on his face except that he would never be able to force his muscles into a smile again. John was a Roman Catholic and therefore not well liked by the rest of the family. Eldorae had converted to Catholicism for Johnny; a move that the stoic Norwegian Methodists in the family had taken years to forgive. His Uncle Wally had served with John, and fate, always fickle, saw to it that he never got a scratch during the entire war. Both of his uncles had been proud when he followed family tradition and had enlisted in the Corps. He grabbed a table in the restaurant, ordered a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich and coffee, and then hunkered down to wait for his aunt. While eating he observed the other customers talking happily, making plans, and seemingly totally oblivious to the death and destruction going on 10,000 miles away. That old saying from WWII kept passing through his mind, ‘Don’t they know there’s a war on?’ Finally, five cigarettes and three cups of coffee later, she arrived. His aunt carried her tall thin frame with dignity, but her eyes betrayed the depth of her grief.
At first, he thought she might try to hug him, but the moment passed, and instead, she just sat down and grasped his hand. He saw that she had been crying and her hands shook as she held her cigarette. “You asked me how it happened. I couldn’t tell you on the phone, but it’s safe here,” she paused, considered his eyes, then continued, “Burke killed her.”
“What? Who?” he didn’t understand.
“Leo, your so-called step-father, got drunk, forgot who he was— where he was, and killed her. Toward the end, he would get drunk and go back to his time in World War Two. Leo was a fifty missioner with a chest full of medals and an officer in the old Army Air Corps. He stayed in too...twenty-year man. Oh, they’ll try to cover it up, him and his rich bitch of a sister. But, we’ll get them both. He killed my sister.” She never once removed her eyes from his, not even when the tears started softly rolling down her cheeks.
“But how do you know?” he asked. His aunt was a strange woman. He remembered a visit they had a month before he shipped out to boot camp. They’d been sitting on the porch listing to the crickets. His mother was in the kitchen making coffee. His aunt had leaned close to him and, in a confidential whisper, informed him that everything was going to be fine. He would survive the war. He asked her why she was so certain. She smiled...and said the crickets told her. He realized she was serious and possibly a little insane. Thinking back, he remembered another time when she said the crickets told her that John Kennedy would be killed…and four months later the President was dead. This time there was no talk of crickets, “Surely she must have written to you?”
“Yes,” he admitted, “There were problems. She mentioned that he was drinking heavily again...had lost his job, and she sounded depressed. I never met him; Leo came into her life after I left for Vietnam. Someone from her past, she told me.” he didn’t tell Eldorae about the last letter she wrote describing a reoccurring dream that haunted her; she was in a room and in the middle of that room was a coffin. She walked to the coffin, looked in, and saw herself, then she heard a knock on the door and she knew it was Leo...his stepfather. She knew that if she opened the door what she saw in the coffin would come true. In her dream, she opened the door, and she wrote that now she was afraid of what might come next.
His aunt’s voice brought him back to the present, “We called her every week. At first, she seemed happy enough with the new marriage. I never liked him much myself, even when they first met twenty-five years ago when Leo and Charlie, your father, were fighting it out for Lenore. Charlie won, and Leo never forgave them. After the first month or so, your mother started getting depressed. She sounded dead inside...until about a week ago when she got your letter saying that you were coming home on leave. She was busy making up your room, buying special foods...calling up your friends, and acting like the old Lenore we all loved. And then... we got a call from Grandma telling us that she was dead,” she paused a moment and then whispered, “and she was pregnant. Did she tell you?”
‘Pregnant?’ he thought, ‘A lost brother or sister?’ and then he forced himself to answer, “She never told me.” He felt a crushing double loss, one for the mother whose life ended with that terrifying gunshot, and for the unborn, that never had a chance to live. He wanted to continue talking, but he was numb...and he felt that something had been left undone; as if he had walked out the door and forgotten to turn off the lights. They were both were chain smoking and the ashtray began to fill as she told him stories of their life together during the big depression. He knew them from listening to his mother and grandmother but didn’t have the heart to interrupt her as she re-lived memories of how they had all slept in one bed, and how they had left the farm to get an education in town at their Aunt Dora’s house. She talked about their World War II generation, ‘the greatest generation’, which they claimed had made the world a better place to live in. ’So, this was the better world they created.’ he thought. His mother was dead and, with her, a brother or sister he might have known, and this fact left him empty inside. He felt himself slipping in and out of reality and stopped paying attention to what his aunt was saying. He was sitting listening to his Aunt talking to him, but he couldn’t make out the words, and then, he would be back in Vietnam, or remembering glimpses of being with his mother in a thousand different places, all of which sprang painfully into his mind, only to slip away and evaporate like an early morning fog.
“They’re calling for boarding,” she said.
“They’re calling your flight, Tim. Better get going.”
“You’re right, I better get going. I’ll see you at the funeral.”
“Stay, Tim,” she said, “we can all drive up tomorrow. You can stay in our Jimmy’s room. He’s away at college...you’ve been through enough. Come home with me and let us take care of you.” She was pleading. But he couldn’t go home with her. He didn’t have the strength to help her and he knew that he couldn’t help himself either. There was something important he had to do. He had to get home and so, he apologized, thanked her for the offer, and explained that he had to go home and see for himself. They touched hands again, and he felt his mother in her touch, then she walked him to the embarkation gate where she hugged him goodbye for the last time. He would never really see her again after the funeral.
The plane was a puddle-jumper. A small jet used for the short hops between Chicago and all points North, West, East, or South. The first thing he noticed was that the stewardess was over thirty. Evidently, the younger girls got the West or East Coast runs and the over-the-hill set was relegated to the nowhere flights. She came over to him and started up a conversation. “You’re a Marine aren’t you.” she smiled.
“Yes I am.” he returned her smile. “I can always tell,” she said. “Just back from Vietnam?”
“Yes. I’m going home on leave,” she was an attractive woman, “how did you know I’m a Marine?”
“I was married to a Marine,” she smiled. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but do you mind if I sit down next to you?”
“Be my guest,” he wondered for a moment if this old woman of 30 was trying to pick him up. She sat down and straightened the folds of her tight mini-skirt. He looked at her...thirty or not she was still built like a brick shit house, “Where’s he stationed?”
“Who?” she asked.
“Your husband. You said he was a Marine.”
He waited to see how this would play out. “He always wanted to be a career Marine...a Lifer,” she looked past him, out through the porthole, “and he was killed five years ago in Vietnam. He was one of the first advisors to go in. So, when he was killed, I came home to Chicago and got my old job back with the airline. I fought hard for it...it’s not every day that a woman my age can pick up where she left off.”
“I’m sorry about your husband,” he said. Her husband had been killed five years ago back when he had been a sophomore in high school, “it seems like the war’s been going on forever.”
“I hate the war,” she said vehemently, “I hate everything about it. Guys like you...returning veterans...you’ve got to get them to stop it.”
He didn’t know what to say and realized she was expecting something. Perversely his first instinct was to lash out at her, and that gut feeling made him feel ashamed. Stop the war? Stop what they were fighting for? Make everything they sacrificed for worthless? What did she want him to say? “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry about your old man. He was a Marine, died a hero, and knew what he was doing. I’m a Marine too. While I was over in Vietnam, my mother was killed…shot to death, and I’m going home to bury her. When the funeral is over, I am going back to Vietnam to kill some more Cong for our country. This is our duty and what we signed up for.”
She looked at him; her eyes softened and seemed to lose some of their intensity. She wasn’t angry...only sad as she said, “God help you, Marine. Things are changing, and you had better change with them. The war’s wrong. Nobody’s on your side anymore. When you feel like talking give me a call.” She wrote her number on a piece of paper and handed it to him, “This is where I’m staying when in town. I share an apartment with a couple of friends. It’s not far from the airport. Give me a call when you get your head together.”
She got up and walked into the forward compartment. He took the address and considered throwing it away. Then he folded it and put it into his breast pocket. Mentally he upgraded her age to twenty-eight or so and wondered if she had any kids. Maybe he’d call her. But wishes were one thing and reality another, or as his Grandmother had always said, ‘wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which you get more of’.
He didn’t get a chance to talk to her again during the short flight. It seemed that they had just finished climbing when they were already descending and circling Madison. As he looked down at the city bathed in the neon glow of early evening, he remembered his short career as a student at the University of Wisconsin. Rising slightly in his seat, he thought he could make out the campus not far from the brilliantly illuminated State Capital building. He was coming home. When they landed and started taxing to the terminal he had the feeling that something was out of place; something wasn’t right. This was the terminal…but, not the terminal he had left a year before. What he saw was modern…slick and clean.
He hesitated at the ramp. A stewardess was wishing the passengers farewell. “Excuse me...but is this Madison?” he asked, feeling foolish.
“Of course, sir, unless somebody’s misplaced it.” She smiled at him, but she wasn’t amused.
“When I was here last time things seemed different,” he said as he started down the boarding ramp.
“Things are different,” she answered, “this is the new field. You must have left from old Truax field. We don’t use it anymore.”
“I guess that explains everything…things are different,” he said and wished he hadn’t brought the subject up. Home on leave before shipping out to Vietnam, he had said goodbye to his mother at home, and then, his uncle had driven both he and Linda, the niece of the man who would marry his mother some months later, to the airport. Linda...he never stopped thinking about her. She had practically moved in with them and he entertained a hope that they would end up like the people in the books and movies. He would go off to war, and she would be waiting when he came home, walking down the ramp…his mother and Linda together...but it was Linda who would count the most...because they would be getting married... but reality soon makes dreams vanish. After shipping out for Vietnam, she never answered his letters. It was as if Linda was only a dream. Three months later, he heard she was married. His mother had written shortly after her own marriage to give him the news. He never heard from her again and burned her picture in a futile attempt to purge himself of her memory.
Everything always goes full circle, and the past, mixed with the present, would be a distant shadow, but at the same time, always a dark silhouette mocking life. He walked past a dozing security man. The other passengers had already taken their bags from the conveyor belt and left...he waited...considered taking a cab, and then saw Donald walking in through the automatic door. Don hadn’t changed...still tall and dressed in a leather flight jacket, easily standing a full head above everyone else in the lobby. He remembered trying to keep up with Donald when they’d go hunting...him taking two steps to every one of his Uncles’ mile-long strides. Donald noticed him and walked over...he thrust out his hand. “Sorry, your homecoming couldn’t have been a better one. The cars outside. Got any bags?” he asked while extending his strong hand, which was calloused from work.
“No, just what I’m carrying.” They stood silently looking at one another for a minute. Neither knew what to say to the other, and then finally Donald shrugged, cleared his throat, and said, “Well, best get going then. Ma’s waiting up for you back at her apartment. You can stay with me at my place if you’d rather...”
“Naw. But thanks anyway. Grandma’s place’ll be fine.”
They walked out of the brightly lit terminal and climbed into the old Nash Rambler that had seen better days, and drove in silence down new streets...and out of Madison. He didn’t recognize anything until they hit Highway 51. Traffic was light... and he remembered that it had been that way since the completion of the new interstate, I-90 some years before. Highway 51 was already starting to die like everything else. They passed closed diners and darkened filling stations. Everything seemed covered with age and death. He should have died in Vietnam. It would have been better that way. He should have died...not her. His Uncle broke the silence, “Do you want we should kill that bastard, Leo?” His Uncle had just offered to help him plan and execute a murder, “Maybe.” he answered, “but it isn’t clear what happened...at least not to me, and these things take time...and planning. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold.”
“No one told you!” his uncle shot him an incredulous glance, “I would have thought that someone must have said something about how she died.”
“I talked with Eldorae...but you know what that’s like...what do you think happened?”
“I don’t know, Tim... They say she killed herself...but either way, that bastard’s responsible.”
“How do they say she did it?” he was starting to feel sick.
“They said she used a doubled barreled shotgun...your Fox...the one she bought you for your seventeenth birthday.”
“Jesus Fucking Christ!” he couldn’t believe it.
“They say she shot herself twice. Once in the chest and again in the stomach.” Donald was harassed, and he could see that his Uncle was also still in shock. Don was a hard man, but tonight was the first time he saw him close to tears. “They said she just pressed the barrels...against her...and reached down with them long arms of hers and...” Don couldn’t go on.
“Both barrels?” he asked.
He tried to picture it...he started shaking again. “Donald...?”
“There’s just one thing wrong; the Fox had only one trigger. To fire both barrels you have to pull the single trigger twice...nobody could do that to kill their self...no way, just no way she could have shot herself with a twelve-gauge shotgun, pick the damn thing up, and then shoot again.”