ANGELS: Shock & Awe

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Chapter 6

My father’s nickname in Junior High, apparently by public acclamation, was “Professor.” By High School, even many of his teachers used it. Tall, thin, bespectacled, his voice a low Gregory Peck rumble from the age of thirteen, no one was ever more born to his lot in life. Which is not to say that he didn’t spend quite some time fighting Fate tooth and nail. He graduated from High School (at age fifteen of course—he had skipped both second and fifth grades) in 1967; he did his absolute best to become an honest-to-God-is-dead hippie, but it was a lost cause. I’ve seen the one remaining relic of the time, a faded Polaroid, and he somehow looks ridiculous, serious, awkward, stoic, and both ashamed and proud of himself all at the same time. Imagine a young Mister Rogers disguised as early James Taylor. My dad, Sweet Baby Fred.

So, halfway through college he swung hard about and joined the Navy ROTC. Thus it was that my father, the Professor, was ultimately shipped off to Viet Nam. His tour of duty was less than a year, cut short by the war’s undignified end. He came home with two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a slight limp. Even these scant details only came to light a tiny tidbit at a time; Gareth and I stumbled across his medals during a family move, Grandpa K let something slip at a holiday dinner, things like that. We were led to believe that Dad spent those months as some kind of medic on a hospital ship, injured by accident, not action. Back stateside, he served out his commission as aide to a rear admiral in San Diego. He continued to serve in the Navy Reserve, but otherwise gave up his battle against Fate, exchanging dress whites for tweed and pipe, and earning his Ph.D. at SDSU. There he met and married the lovely Mary Margaret Underhill (AKA Mom) and very rarely spoke of his few months in Southeast Asia to her or anyone else.

But then came Election Night, 2004. I had dropped by to mooch a free meal, and hung around for the returns. When the results became obvious, my father uncharacteristically swore under his breath, then stood and excused himself out to the front porch, the only place he was allowed to smoke his pipe anymore. “Damn,” he said again as I joined him.

“Sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”

“No, no, son. It’s… Please. Stay. Sorry to be so querulous.” He struck a match.

“Querulous?”

“You know. Choleric.”

I laughed. Only my Dad could use such words in a sentence. He raised an eyebrow in response. “You mean grumpy,” I said, shaking my head.

He looked at me for a long moment. “Exactly,” he said. He struck another match, his first attempt at lighting his pipe having gone cold. He’d been smoking that same pipe off and on for at least thirty years, but getting it properly lit was always a challenge somehow. This time it took, and soon I could smell its sweet, wonderful aroma. (Except for the obligatory college marijuana—and really, precious little of that—I’ve never smoked. But every time I’m around my father and his pipe I seriously consider joining the club.)

We stood at the porch rail, saying nothing. It was quite dark; the streetlight nearest the house was out, and the Moon wasn’t up yet. I turned and leaned back against the rail as Dad continued to gaze out into the darkness. The flickering bluish light from the TV two rooms away made the living room curtains glow and shift as blue states and red states were being tallied by talking heads. Out here on the porch, the only sound was the constant highway hum a few blocks away, punctuated by the occasional deep rumbling bark from Delilah, the Great Dane two doors down. Others might have found this long silence between us awkward, but it wasn’t silence; it was quiet, which is not the same thing. Some of my fondest memories of time with my father are of these long, quiet moments. Often they ended with a simple exchange of “good-nights.” But tonight my father spoke:

“A couple of months ago, I received a letter inviting me to sign on with a group calling themselves ‘Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.’” He worked his pipe for a moment, producing a cloud around his head, then went on: “You’ve seen the ads. I threw the letter away. I should have responded, though. I should have told them to go to Hell.”

What? He had lost me at “Swiftboat Veterans.”

“We heard all about John Kerry at Mare Island. How he’d come home and dishonored his own service, his comrades-in-arms. My CO spat every time his name came up. And it was hard not to hate him, testifying before Congress, marching in parades, speaking at rallies with Bitch Hanoi Jane, telling the world that the duty we were training for was tantamount to atrocity.

“We shipped out on my twenty-first birthday. If I had to, I could run that day down for you minute by minute. It is still that clear to me. Can’t tell you what I had for breakfast this morning, but over thirty years later, I still recall every minute.” He smiled ruefully; pulled on his pipe. “Okay, maybe I exaggerate.” He closed his eyes. “But really, that’s how it feels.” He sighed, then took another pull on the pipe. My father is not given to sentimental reflection. Across the street, there was a sudden multi-colored illumination. I looked over my shoulder; the Hansons had turned on their Christmas light display. Dad snorted and said, “Three days after Halloween and they have their Christmas lights up already.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Bah.”

“Humbug,” he replied. It was a little ritual between us. Drove Mom crazy.

Dad turned his back on the Hansons’ premature holiday spirit and seemed to study the structure of our front door for a while. Finally, he returned to his story: “Our very first mission, two of us were killed. A bullet creased my arm, although I didn’t know it until hours later. And we blew that little river village to bits. But all I really remember is the knot of sheer terror in my gut. Everything else is a blur. Two of my best friends, the closest thing I ever had to brothers, were killed on my watch, and I have no real memory of it.” He took another moment to relight his pipe. I wondered if I should say something, but I didn’t want to break the spell. After a long moment he went on, more quietly now: “Honestly, the whole tour of duty is the same. All a haze. I ate, I slept, I tied my shoes, I made my bunk; but I only know all that because I must have done. I don’t really remember any of it.

“Except my last mission. It was supposed to be a milk run, an easy mop-up operation. In a way, I guess it was. Bombers had pulverized the riverside. There wasn’t a sampan still afloat.

“We came up on the largest village. Then the wind shifted and smoke blanketed the water. Visibility went to nil in a heartbeat. The smell was indescribable. We could hear the screams and moans of the dying—some weird acoustics made it sound as if they were all around the boat, inches away.

“We throttled back. Then—well, it was as if the very air around us exploded. I didn’t know if VC reinforcements had arrived or there were survivors popping out of spider-holes, and I didn’t know if they could see us somehow or were just lucky, but now the screaming came from us. We returned fire, blind.

“Then the wind shifted again. And what we saw… Women, children… all that firepower aimed at us had come from three boys, trying to cover these last villagers’ escape. One of them stood his ground. We cut him down. The other two ran. I beached the boat. And we—well, I guess we ‘mopped up.’” He turned to me. “There’s a military expression: ‘fog of battle.’ Over the years, I’ve thought about that a lot. My entire time over there is one kind of haze. But that last mission… more of a fugue than a fog. I remember it—too much of it—but from a distance, as if it all happened to a character in a book I read once. The Red Badge of Courage maybe. When it was all over, the enemy was dead and three of us were injured, including me. I had a bullet in my buttocks.” He cast me a sidelong glance. “Shot in the ass by one of my own men. They say I saved his life, by which they may mean that I didn’t turn around and shoot him dead on the spot. Anyway. I wound up with another Purple Heart, a Silver Star, a ticket home, and no sign of thanks from an ungrateful nation.”

“I always thought you came home when the war ended.”

“I did. By the time I finished malingering in the hospital, Saigon was falling.”

“Ah.”

“And since the war was over, it never fell on me to testify before Congress, or join protests, or speak at rallies. Which is good, because I don’t know that I’d have had the courage.” His pipe had gone cold; he dropped it into his jacket pocket. “Almost anybody can return fire, or steer a boat, or throw a grenade. That’s not courage, it’s reflexes. But to stand before the Emperor and declare him naked…” (Dad’s always been prone to classic fable metaphors) “…that takes courage.”

My father’s thoughts on courage have been on my mind a lot lately.

And that “battle fugue.” Over the next few hours, as our little band of misfits stepped into the fresh hell around that fallen 747, that’s all I have—a fugue right out of Hieronymus Bosch’s worst nightmares: body parts, burning houses, heart-rending screams… and that terrible smell. I remember it all as if from a distance. There were no survivors from the plane, of course, but dozens of victims from the crowded neighborhood below. Flaming jet fuel had burst from the crash like napalm, trapping drivers in their stalled cars, setting off old cedar-shake roofs like kindling.

We did what we could, which was little enough. Yet now, in our forced rediscovery of the stone-age culture of oral history, tales have come back to me of the Crazy Kilted Hero of Anaheim, who led a group of stalwart strangers to restore hope and order in the burning wake of Delta 978. (So many thousands of planes crashed that day, yet each is remembered locally by its flight number. How these numbers are known is a mystery to me, but everywhere I go, folks talk of Southwest 602 or United 65 or whatever. It’s one of the paradoxes of the times—each number represents a unique event, but considered universally, it’s all one: the planes came down.)

Another paradox: on the one hand, I know that in an intellectual sense I am that Kilted Hero; on the other hand, there is no such person. The survivors formed him up out of pure mythic energy, a Galahad a la Braveheart, Don Quixote of the Suburbs. Or, irony of ironies, a Guardian Angel.

As far as I know, no one has ever equated the Kilted Hero with The Chosen. That’s all I’d need.

Inevitably, of course, the crises morphed by invisible steps into Life Goes On. Neighbors re-bonded; strangers stranded by their useless cars were welcomed into undamaged homes; finally, resources were pooled to make a community meal of cold sandwiches, which we ate in an impromptu “park” of an empty lot.

The “Angel in the Sky” looming above the smoky haze became a part of the background, as unremarkable as a mountain or distant thunderheads. No one had the energy or inclination to discuss theology; they were too busy staying alive. This community had of course suffered a cataclysmic one-two punch—the Trumps had shattered the air, killing every sixth or seventh person or so, crashing cars, creating the initial chaos, and then, while noses were still bleeding, heads were still reeling, and survivors were trying to resuscitate the fallen, Delta 978 had come down on them, like the hammer of a cruel god.

As I looked around while eating my bologna sandwich (by far one of the best meals I’ve ever had) I realized that most of these folks, my little tribe included, were in a state of a kind of ambulatory shock. An extreme case of “battle fugue” was keeping them—mostly—sane. And now nearly all of them were beginning to look at me with a what-do-we-do-now? flicker in their eyes. I took a breath, ready to take charge.

If I had followed through, today I’d probably be the “mayor” of that little community, settling petty disputes, rationing resources, accepting them as my responsibility. There are times when I sincerely wish I had taken that path.

Instead I turned to young Marcus, who had not left my side all afternoon. His eyes showed that same earnest expectation, except with him it was different—it was personal. If I had been in the market for a sidekick, he stood ready—Kilt-Man & Marcus, ready to save the world, one suburban block at a time. I was not in such a market.

“Marcus, where do you live?”

He blinked, processing the question, pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Mission Viejo.”

Ah. A good twenty-five miles away. With our current available mode of transportation—walking—it might as well have been a hundred. I nodded, realizing that I already had a plan, and this played right into it. Even if Marcus wanted to go home, it wasn’t practical, at least in the short term. He had no place better to go right now. I, on the other hand, did: I needed to get back inside the park, pyramid be damned. I couldn’t take Marcus or anyone else with me. But if I declared my intention, he’d insist on talking me out of it, or failing that, coming along. I needed to give him a reason to stay behind.

And I had already spotted her. Earlier, I had set Scott and Lisa on the task of an informal census. They had identified several kids whose parents were either dead or at some distant place of work. Friends and neighbors had laid at least temporary claim to all of them. Except this one girl. She was a tough little tomboy type who looked thirteen or fourteen, tops. She called herself Lor, and when we tried to place her with a family, some neighbors vouched that she was indeed nearly eighteen; her name was Lorraine Parker and she had lived with her mother in a house that was still smoldering near the crash site. Her mother was at work in downtown LA. None of these families were chomping at the bit to take Lor in; she insisted she’d be just fine on her own.

Which was ridiculous. She was a ninety-pound, four-foot-eleven elfin child, whatever she thought of herself. Over the course of the afternoon she had rarely been out sight of my merry band, especially Marcus. The two couples, Keith & Kellie and Scott & Lisa, had already claimed temporary squatters’ rights to an empty house. (Its owner was out of the country and not expected home for months, even before the Trumps had no doubt stranded her in Tokyo forever.) Now I just had to steer Marcus in little Lor’s direction. If I read their goofy looks at each other at all accurately, Nature would then take its course.

I angled my head for Marcus to step closer. “You live with your parents, Marcus?”

“No sir. They live up in Oakland. I share an apartment with three other guys.”

Perfect. I lowered my voice. “Marcus, I have to leave.” What to say, exactly? If I told him I was going to try to get back in the pyramid, he was guaranteed to freak out. “My grandfather only lives two or three miles from here…” This was true, but I hadn’t given it a conscious thought until I blurted it out. So? “I need to make sure he’s okay.” As I said it, I realized it was true, too. I suddenly needed to see Papa Nick.

“Sure! Of course! I’ll go with you—”

Oops. “No. That’s what I’m getting at. We can’t both go. You’re the only other person around here who has all his wits about him—okay, most of his wits…” I smiled; he chuckled, shaking his head. “You need to keep Scott and Kellie and Keith and Lisa out of trouble…”

“I think you’ve got your couples mixed up.”

“That’s just what I’m talking about!” Marcus snorted a little laugh. “Besides…” I caught his eye and gestured toward Lor, who sat on the curb finishing her sandwich a few yards away. “Who’s gonna look after her?”

He blushed. Bingo. “She’s made it pretty clear she can take care of herself.”

I put my arm around his shoulder and led him a few paces away. “Good for her. Maybe your job is just to stay close enough to make sure she’s right.”

He nodded. “Maybe.”

“Listen.” We stopped; I turned so that Marcus could see the girl behind me. “You don’t have to get all knight-in-shiny-armor on her. She’ll kick your ass from here to Sunday.” He chortled. “So don’t try to help her. Ask her to help you.”

He frowned. “I don’t get it. She’ll smell bullshit a mile away.”

“No bullshit involved. You do need her help. She knows the people here; you don’t. She knows who can be counted on, who you should avoid, all that. Tell Scott and the gang that they need her. Bring her in. She’ll step up.”

“You think so?”

“I do.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “I gotta go. These are your people now, Marcus. Take care of them.”

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to the others? They’ll—”

“I have to get to my grandfather’s house before dark. It’s best if I just slip away.” His eyes were looking past me. “What’s she doing?”

He looked back at me. I saw a little flash of insight in his eyes. “Trying hard not to look this way.”

I smiled. “You’ll do okay, Marcus.”

I gave him one more slap on the shoulder, then turned and walked away.

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