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Saturday, August 31, 2013

("Tell me over and over and over again my friend, you don’t believe, we’re on the eve of destruction”)…Barry McGuire

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Eleven

An Hoa, Republic of Viet Nam, November, 1968...Somewhere near Dodge City

They had been out humping the bush since daybreak after dropping in at the LZ about four or five clicks from the area known as Dodge City. It was a 36 square kilometer area south of DaNang and about twenty or so kilometers from where they had started from in An Hoa. The NVA and Mr. Charlie were thought to be thick in this place and the brass had decided that the Marines would be cleaning house big-time here. They had seen nothing but water buffalo, bugs, and skeeters all day, and then the daily downpour came at sunset. The rain would fall in big fat drops so thick that you could not see but a foot or two in any direction. And with the humidity, you actually were sweating as well. It was no wonder that the chicks here had such beautiful skin. If someone were to bottle this place, they’d make a fortune selling the world’s greatest moisturizer.

“Just like back home in Biloxi, Mississippi,” JoJo Cole would say in his smart-ass tone. He was a real pain, but usually he was more funny than irritating, and that was a nice diversion from the steady diet of fear and boredom. It was shortly after the rain stopped and the night fell that things got interesting, not the first encounter for most of them, but the last for some of them.

Junior lay very still in the tall elephant grass. He stared up at the night sky, a pitch-black backdrop freckled brilliantly by a million twinkling stars. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. You would never get a chance to see something like this in east LA he thought. The corners of his mouth began to pull his face up into a smile. It was the kind of smile that he usually saved for his kid sisters (Sonja and Leticia), his Mom and Grand-pop, his Tia Irma’s homemade tamales, and of course, the current Playmate of the Month.

He lay there, quiet and still, sweating bullets in the heat of the night, watching the stars blink back at him. A shooting star suddenly passed by quickly, falling from the sky like a ripe apple from a tree. The giggle that was about to escape his lips was stifled, as a large hand slapped over his mouth. Junior’s eyes snapped wide open almost bugging out of his head with the fear that he was about to be wasted by a VC ‘crawler’. He sighed, a loud exhale through his nose as he recognized Hightower.

The huge Texan’s face was grotesquely camouflaged with alternating stripes of olive green and black paint, and was one inch from his daydreaming friend’s. Hightower didn’t speak, but Junior understood his meaning by the look in his eyes. He was to be very quiet, make no sound. Obviously they were not alone! Junior blinked an affirmative to his buddy’s silent warning, placing one hand over Hightower’s and reaching for his M16 with the other. Wesley Hightower had been sent out on a solo recon detail after the firefight about a half-hour earlier. He let go of Junior’s face and rolled to his right, crawling quickly to where Gunny and D-Day the unit's current radio operator (aka Dave Davis) were hunkered.

“What you got for me boy?” Sgt. Marquette whispered loudly.

Hightower slid in close beside the two men and removed his helmet. He took the sweat towel from around his neck, dried the top of his head and replaced his cover back onto his head.

“We’re in deep shit Gunny! Charlie's crawling all around us, I had to grease one just to get back here,” he said still trying to catch is breath.

“I don’t know where that dip shit butter bar was trying to lead us, but he damn sure fucked things up real good this time!” Sergeant Marquette looked back at the frustrated grunt and scowled at him. He was about to reprimand him when a sing-song voice broke the hushed silence.

“Hell white boy, show some respect for the dead, he’s one of you ain’t he? All that pretty blond hair, crying shame, that’s what that is, mother fuckin cryin shame,” said PFC Joseph Cole from the other side of the muddy ditch.

“CAN IT JoJo, you trying to draw fire down on this position boy!” Gunny spat back at the soldier in a harsh whisper, his teeth clenched tightly.

“Son, that kind of talk ain’t gonna get us outta this jam now is it?”

“I know your momma didn’t teach you none of them words.”

They stared back at the bloody remains of Lieutenant Daniel Sheridan, their recently deceased platoon leader. He had been the latest in a string of 90-day wonders that routinely showed up in country. These young officers were commonly referred to as ‘butter bars’ because of the cloth rank insignia on their uniforms (shiny gold lieutenant bars weren’t a very good idea in the field). However among the combat vets the term was used more sarcastically, depicting the fact that these newbies didn’t know shit, and that meant they were a danger to whoever had to follow them. Typically you saluted and yes sir’d these guys but took direction from your platoon sergeant, the seasoned leadership in the field.

“Sorry Sergeant Percy. I didn’t mean nothin by it,” JoJo said flatly.

“Boy don’t you get familiar with me, I ain’t no kin to you. Refer to me as sergeant or gunny, do not call me by my Christian name, you hear!”

“Yes sergeant, loud and clear,” JoJo replied, getting up onto one knee and looking more alert.

“Wesley, get your redneck Texas ass over here and give me some details son,” Gunny said still glaring at JoJo.

Junior watched and listened to all of this while trying to be aware of every noise and movement around him. It was these times when all of your senses were heightened, when you could hear centipede’s footsteps, or a mouse fart. Still lying on his back, he released the safety with his right index finger and held the M16 a little tighter. Maybe not the wisest maneuver given these close quarters, but better ready and steady, than cautious and nauseous he decided. Junior smiled remembering the cadence drill from boot camp, “this my rifle, this is my gun, this ones for business, this ones for fun,” they would chant over and over while marching around the barracks in their skivvies one hand shouldering their M16 and the other holding their johnson. Tonight Junior and the rest of the platoon kept both hands on the business end of their M16’s. He turned his head to the right and could see Gunny talking into the radio handset, Hightower, Davis and Cole kneeling around him, each of them scanning the bush looking for signs of Mr. Charlie.

He set his gaze on the body of Lieutenant Sheridan and studied the stillness of it; it was almost like looking at a painting, like it wasn’t real. He turned his head to the left and suddenly everything was real again. Only five feet from where he rested in the muddy grass was another body. This one wasn’t in quite so peaceful a position as the lieutenant’s had been. This one was all turned and twisted, badly bruised, missing a part or two here and there, gizzards and giblets hanging from it’s middle and such, like a turkey freshly slaughtered for the feast. This one, not even an hour before, had been telling Junior a joke about the Easter Bunny, Cupid and the Tooth Fairy standing at the urinal in the officer's latrine. He couldn’t remember the punch-line, all he could remember was that he had been walking through this muck right next to this one when the mortar round slammed into the ground directly in front of them.

All he could remember was the ringing in his ears and the searing pain in his head as he rolled from side to side trying to make it stop. Seeing the tracers light up the night, whizzing by him, brilliant green and red streaks of light, it was almost beautiful. He could not hear the incoming rounds or the screams of the guys around him, the urgent directions hollered by his platoon sergeant, or the thump thump thump of tree-line mortar rounds as they rained deadly razor sharp fleshettes onto the ground and into the mud or bodies of the targets they found. All he could remember was that this twisted mass of flesh and bone lying near him had been his friend since day one at boot camp.

The guy had been with him through thick and thin, had carried his drunken behind out of many a tight spot, held him by the collar while he puked into his locker-box, and studied with him late after taps to help him get ready for his GED test. All he could remember was that this one was his friend, Angel Martinez. Junior, Angel, and Hightower were tight, the three amigos baby. Junior turned his head away and looked at the night sky again. Somehow it wasn’t as beautiful anymore. Someone was going to pay for this alright, oh yeah, someone was going to pay. Junior pulled back the lever on his weapon putting a round into the chamber, and set the switch to automatic. Most definitely, there was going to be some payback tonight!

The Huey banked to the left slightly and then leveled out flying at one hundred and fifteen knots, about one hundred meters above the trees below. It was a clear morning, not a cloud in the sky and nothing much happening below either from what the Air Cavalry Captain could see from his jockey seat. He adjusted the frequency on the radio located in the center of the control console and put a hand to his ear. They usually flew with the side doors open and so there was always a lot of racket to talk over.

“Foxhunt leader to posse, we’re getting close girls, we’ll circle once and drop in two at a time for extraction, Medi-Vacs first as usual,” Captain Wallace barked into the headset microphone.

“Lock and load, and try not to grease any of the good guys y’all. I don’t want to have to write any more FF letters home, OK?” he pleaded.

FF letters were sent to families explaining that their loved one had been killed or wounded by friendly fire. Captain Wallace wondered if any of these letters were ever actually mailed, as they had to be cleared by the brass first, and given the current popularity of the war, well, it wouldn't surprise me if those letters were lost on purpose.

“Roger that boss man, we have removed the blindfold from Corporal Parrish as instructed, that should help, but we aren’t responsible for those crossed eyes of his,” joked the last of the eight Huey pilots to check in.

“Real funny Garvey, that’ll cost you a Bud or two when we get back, over,” Captain Wallace replied. The sun was rising fast and high behind the squadron of Huey helicopters as they raced above the tree line toward the battle weary marines just a few minutes ahead. The shadows of the helicopters stretched long and lean across the countryside as they flew in formation, like a small pack of wild ‘mechanical’ ducks heading south for the winter. Small arms fire began peppering the sky around the Hueys and they climbed another hundred meters to a safer altitude.

“Foxhunt leader to Recon leader, pop some smoke Gunny, we’re getting close, over,” Captain Wallace said into his com-set. No reply, he repeated his order.

“Foxhunt leader to Recon leader, I say again, blow some smoke, do you copy, over?” There was a little loud crackling in his ear, but the Huey pilot could hear a response coming.

“Recon leader, to Foxhunt leader, little busy down here, this will be a hot LZ, I repeat, this will be a hot LZ, over,” came the voice of Sergeant Percy Marquette.

“Roger that Gunny, what’s the current situation, over.”

“Charlie has us pinned in a rice paddy about 300 yards from the original LZ, you’ll have to hover, too wet to land. Got two KIA’s, five badly wounded, and fifteen of Uncle Sam’s nephews keeping the dinks off of their buddies, they’re cold, hungry, and anxious, me included, over,” Percy said into the radio, the sound of automatic weapons blaring in the background.

“Roger that Gunny, keep your heads down, we’re coming in with the mini guns first and spraying the perimeter, do you copy, over?”

“Aye-aye Captain, give em hell sir, out!”

Captain Wallace looked over at his co-pilot and nodded, he then looked back over his shoulder at the door-gunner on the M60 gun that was side-mounted in the belly of the helicopter. A twenty year-old Private smiled at him chewing nervously on a thick wad of bubble gum and gave him the thumbs up sign. The Huey pilot turned back around in his seat and looked straight ahead at the hilly countryside, knowing that they were about to clear those hills and descend into a hornets nest of live fire and confusion. He held his breath a second and prayed for mercy for all, and for forgiveness for the lives he would take this day.

“Foxhunt leader to posse, you all heard the man, we got ants at the picnic.”

“Butch, Duke, Sundance, stay on my six and follow me in over the rise and over to the area around the red smoke yonder, copy?”

The three Huey pilots all acknowledged receipt of the orders as they followed Captain Wallace over the rise in attack formation. The red smoke that signified a hot LZ could be seen just to the left of their position. The ground-fire was heavy and everyone hoped that Charlie didn't have any RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades). If prayers were really heard then they would only have to deal with small arms weapons thought Captain Wallace, reassuring himself. He angled his helicopter toward the ground, the business side of the Huey ablaze with the action of the murderous fire from the M60 gun, hundreds of shell casings falling to the earth as the deadly projectiles sought out targets on the ground below. In a few minutes he and his crew will have put more minerals into the area than a thousand years of natural evolution. The Hueys circled in and out of the area surrounding the billowing red smoke for about fifteen minutes, cutting down grass, trees, bushes, and whatever or whoever crossed the path of their deadly purpose.

When Captain Wallace decided that the risk was minimal he ordered in the Medi-Vacs. The choppers tasked with providing cover for the pick up circled the area looking for signs of trouble. They darted around the perimeter, in close and then out wide just in case Charlie was trying to set up a mortar attack on the LZ. This morning their luck was good, or more precisely, Captain Wallace’s prayers had been heard.

“Foxhunt leader to Recon leader, how’s it going down there Gunny, over?”

“Going fine Captain, just what the doctor ordered sir!”

“Roger that Gunny, just another day at the office.”

The Huey gun-ships continued to patrol the perimeter while the Medi-vacs hovered near the rice paddy and the grunts carried their dead and wounded to the aircraft. Junior and Hightower were zipping up the body bag that held their buddy Angel, the wind from the helicopter rotors flattening the tall grass all around them. Junior was looking at his hands, they were covered with Angel’s blood after picking up what was left of him and stuffing it all into that heavy rubber bag. He was clenching his fists so tight that the blood oozed up from between his fingers, his body shook violently with frustrated anger, he finally screamed as loud as he could, “Nooooooo!”

Only Hightower could hear the cry, muffled by the racket of the hovering aircraft. Junior fell to his knees sitting back on the heels of his jump-boots, he slumped forward, arms resting on his thighs, and put his face into his bloody hands. He sobbed uncontrollably in that spot as Hightower stood over him, his big paw stroking his friend’s head and neck. The helicopter may have drowned out the sound of Junior’s anguish, but everyone looking out of the transport upon the scene could feel the weight of his frustration and desperation carried through the air in his silent primal scream. This was a life changing moment for everyone, how could it be any less. The memory of this action would haunt each of them, it would make men or monsters, only time would tell. In these few moments they had been exposed to the cruelest of diseases, hatred, a cancer that closed minds and hardened hearts. Cruel given that it was self-inflicted, and came with a cure that was always at hand. Cruel in that the cure was difficult to administer, because it required a change of heart, a willingness to forgive.

“Yo, Hightower, pick up Junior and let’s go man, let the corpsmen take Angel onto the sandman’s sled,” JoJo pleaded with the big Texan. Wesley looked over at JoJo and fought the urge to frag the smart-ass prick.

“Yeah, OK,” he said, and he leaned over to help Junior get to his feet.

“Lets go, lets go, lets go,” yelled the door-gunner, waiving them toward the Medi-Vac nearest them. Junior did not want to leave without Angel, and he struggled a bit with Hightower at first.

"Leave him man, the corpsmen are right behind us, they’ll put him on the transport Junior. You want to get us all slicked you dumb-ass wetback,” JoJo yelled at the distraught marine! Hightower put is beefy arms around his buddy from behind and picked him up off of his feet, kicking and screaming.

“Put me down ya big ape, I’m not leaving Angel here for the dinks!”

“Shut up Junior, look the corpsmen are right here, see!”

“Hold still or I’ll roll you up in a body bag like a burrito you crazy beaner. You can sweat in it all the way back to An Hoa for all I care,” Hightower shouted to his friend over the beating of the chopper’s rotor blades.

“Yeah, damn skippy,” JoJo added sarcastically.

“Shut your trap JoJo, I don’t need any of your jive nigger bullshit right now,” Hightower fired back at his least favorite marine.

“Who you callin nigger JIM, you better watch I don’t bust a cap in your big white behind while you run back to the chopper, that’s right, you heard me,” JoJo sassed back, looking around to see if he had enough witnesses.

“You jerk-offs better be on that transport in ten God damn seconds or I’ll bag and tag each of your sorry asses and write your mommas myself, now MOVE OUT,” shouted Sergeant Marquette as he ran up on the trio of squabbling grunts.

He motioned to the corpsmen to pick up Angel’s body and take him back to the helicopter. He turned to see if the three loud mouths had started for the transport as he ordered, fully prepared to shoot whoever was still standing where he last saw them. They were already at the chopper and Hightower was shoving Junior through the side door. Percy followed the corpsmen back to their ride, about three or four strides behind them. They were about five yards from the waiting chopper when the whole area erupted in small arms fire. Rounds were bouncing off of the helicopters, the trees and audibly ripping through the thick elephant grass making a sound like tearing wrapping paper. Percy let out a holler as he felt the bullet rip into his right hamstring muscle. Stopping dead in his tracks, he collapsed onto his left knee. Turning instinctively he opened fire in the general direction of the enemy. The door-gunner opened fire as well, covering Percy with hundreds of hot shell casings, each of them burning him wherever they made contact with his uncovered skin.

“Oh shit,” he exclaimed rolling to his left to get out of the way of the hot little bastards.

As the corpsmen lifted Angel onto the chopper the man holding the litter on the outside of the helicopter took two rounds in the back. He dropped his end of the litter and then Angel’s lifeless body, was hit by four or five rounds as well, the body bag ripping into tattered pieces. Percy scrambled to his feet, the pain in his leg nearly causing him to pass out. He grabbed the fallen corpsman and pulled him to his feet, shoving him as close to the hovering chopper as he could. The other corpsman and one of Percy’s marines from the platoon, PFC Scotty Jenkins, grabbed the unconscious man and dragged him into the helicopter. Percy turned back around, reloaded his M16 with a fresh clip and continued to return fire.

“Come on Gunny, gimmie your hand man, hey, gimmie your hand,” yelled Jenkins to his wounded platoon sergeant. Percy couldn’t hear him over the rotor noise and his chattering weapon.


Percy looked back over his shoulder, his weapon becoming almost too hot to hold, the smell of cordite filling his nostrils. He tried to blink the sweat from his eyes, not wanting to lift a hand from his M16 and risk being over run by Charlie. The dinks couldn’t be more than a hundred feet from his position now. Looking around he could see that this was the last chopper still on the ground. He could hear Jenkins urging him to get moving, he could hear Mr. Charlie shouting at him as well. He was bleeding badly and he knew the only thing keeping him on his feet was the adrenaline pumping swiftly through his body.

“Gunny, take my hand man,” Jenkins pleaded, one foot on the skid, leaning halfway out of the chopper, clinging to the airframe with one hand.

Percy turned back towards the enemy and squeezed off the last of his clip then dropped his weapon. He turned to reach for the soldier’s hand but the chopper had drifted up, just out of his reach. He tried to stand but the strength was gone from him, his right leg too badly damaged. He was ready to surrender to his fate when the helicopter skid appeared in front of his eyes and a pair of strong hands grabbed onto him. Jenkins pulled with all of his might on his sergeant’s shoulders and dragged him onto the skid below him. The corpsman holding onto his legs raised a hand to the pilot and signaled for him to take off. The young pilot lifted the chopper from the ground gently so as not to drop the precious cargo. As it climbed, Jenkins and the corpsman struggled with the task of pulling Percy into the aircraft. The chopper pitched suddenly to the right, sending everyone sliding toward the open door. The door-gunner slipped from his perch, his weapon tilting skyward, spraying the air with hot lead, mercifully, missing the rotors blades. Finally gaining control, the pilot leveled out the helicopter.

The door-gunner unhooked himself from the airframe and grabbed the two body bags before they slipped out the side door. He dragged the Lieutenant Sheridan’s and Angel’s bodies back to the center of the aircraft and then went over to help PFC Jenkins and the corpsman. The chopper continued to climb as the three of them worked on bringing Percy into the hold of the aircraft. Small arms rounds struck the bottom of the helicopter and a few ricocheted around the hold, but no one was hit. Jenkins looked down at his sergeant and the two of them made eye contact. Strangely, Percy noticed that this kid looked a lot like his Aunt Charlotte’s boy Henry. It was funny that he would be thinking like that right this minute, but he did. He smiled up at Jenkins, a big toothy grin. It was a smile that he hadn’t used in a very, very long time. Scotty Jenkins looked back at the Gunnery Sergeant and returned the smile. “What was this big goofy face all about, he wondered, it just seemed so absurd?” Jenkins tried to stay serious, but Gunny just looked so damn funny, and that ‘Buckwheat’ smile was so big, he couldn’t stop the giggles, this was so ridiculous!

“Jesus Christ, Gunny, you are one crazy mutha, you know that,” he said laughing out loud. Looking back over his shoulder while he struggled to get a better grip on Sergeant Marquette, he saw that the other two guys were looking at him kind of strange as well.

“It’s OK fellas, I think that Gunny might have a feather up his non-com ass,” he said, breaking into a deep belly laugh.

PFC Jenkins turned around to get back to the business of hauling Gunny into the chopper, when the round hit him square in the face, his head exploded like a ripe melon hitting the pavement. The corpsman and the door-gunner fell backward, as the weight they were supporting became lighter by half. Gunnery Sergeant Percy Marquette fell back to the earth watching the chopper get smaller and smaller as he waited for impact and the sweet relief of death. He laughed out loud right up until the moment he hit the ground and closed his eyes on this life forever.

Hightower kept looking out the helicopter from over the shoulder of the door-gunner who was tethered to the airframe. He was drawing some irritated looks from the guy so he sat back down on his helmet, pulling his knees close to him. He looked across at Junior and JoJo, they must have made up because Junior was fast asleep on JoJo’s shoulder. He and JoJo made eye contact and acknowledged one another with a nod of the head. Hightower peeked around the center bar and looked into the cockpit of the Huey. The two guys flying the chopper were shaking around in the buffeting turbulence as badly as everyone else, there was no such thing, as ‘first class’ on a bird like this. You were lucky to get off these things with both your kidneys still operating.

“Hey man, did everyone get off the ground back there,” Hightower shouted at the lieutenant in the pilot seat? There was no reply.

“Excuse me sir, did we get everybody?”

The pilot looked back at Hightower and gave him the ‘OK’ sign, touching his thumb and index finger together forming a letter ‘O’ sort of.

“Yeah, I think so,” he shouted his voice half stuttering with all the turbulence. Somehow that response didn’t make Hightower feel any better, there just wasn’t enough smile in his style. He stared back out the open door and watched the countryside whiz by.

“Kinda hard to figure all this shit out, ain’t it,” JoJo said loudly from across the way.

Wesley looked at him and sort of nodded in agreement, he didn’t want to hear any of JoJo’s usual bullshit, but he was much too tired to protest.

“Yeah, one minute we’re in hell, and the next we’re flying back to a warm cot, three squares and all the jack we can drink or weed we can toke, a real vacation, right?”

JoJo looked down at his bleeding arm, he must have taken a little shrapnel during the shit storm back at the hot LZ.

“Lord, will you look at that. Looks like Mr. Charlie has done bought old JoJo some RR in Saigon. Gonna be some mighty fine split-tail there mother fucker, fine, fine, fine, and ole JoJo’s gonna be gettin his groove on baby,” he said closing his tired eyes and smiling broadly.

The door-gunner seemed amused by JoJo’s performance as he laughed out loud. “Fuckin A man, Fuckin A,” he said in agreement. Hightower watched JoJo’s head roll around with the turbulence, thinking to himself how different everyone was and then again, how they were all the same. Back in the world none of these guys would ever have come together, at least not on their own they wouldn’t. In country, the rules were different. In country you made new rules and they were all about survival baby. In country it wasn’t your race, color, or religion that was important. It was a man’s heart, guts, and nerve that they were measured by. The conditions here were equalizing, it made them all the same. Everyone watched after everyone else because everyone had the same thing to lose, their life, and it made brothers of the oddest couples. After all, they were just a bunch of kids tossed together from all walks of life, except maybe the usual privileged few. They were expected to do the unthinkable, the down right unconscionable. These teams of misfits, when idle and inert, were only a danger to themselves really. But when stirred and shaken they came together in an extremely volatile mixture, one that the enemy came to fear. Fear was the catalyst, the motivator, and the glue that held them together. Hightower wondered for a moment if they would carry that closeness back to the world with them. Then he snorted a sigh and shook his head.

“No way,” he said in a loud whisper…“No way!”

“What you lookin at motherfucker, you thinkin about kissin me or something, you big ass gorilla,” JoJo said tiredly from under his tipped helmet.

“Shut up JoJo, don’t you ever give your mouth a rest man, I know my ears could use one right about now?”

“Fuck you Wesley!”

“Fuck you Joseph!”

“Hey, fuck both of you mensas, I’m trying to get some beauty sleep here cabrons, cut me a break OK,” Junior said still resting on JoJo’s shoulder.

“Junior, get your greasy enchilada ass off of me and go sit by your girlfriend over there,” JoJo said pointing over at Hightower!

“Man, JoJo I was just getting comfortable,” Junior whined as he crawled over to Hightower’s side of the chopper.

“Scoot over gordo, I need to crash here next to my carnal,” Junior said to Hightower, pointing to the exhausted marine next to him. He curled up on the space next to the big Texan, tucking his hands between his knees and resting his head on a stack of flack jackets.

“Mitchell, hey, Mitchell, you still alive under that hat baboso?”

Mitchell Rojas peeked out from under his tipped helmet and smiled weakly.

“Yo Junior, I’m still here homeboy,” he said.

“Horale! Hey man, you see Angel get it today?”

“Quiet Junior, leave it be ese, go back to sleep and remember the smiles man, not the bag of parts in the Huey back there,” Mitchell said, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb.

“Amen brother Rojas, Amen to that,” JoJo said from behind his closed tired eyes.

“Nite-nite homeys,” Junior said, closing his eyes and falling quickly back to sleep.

Junior decided to deal with Angel’s death later, they all would, right now, they just wanted to enjoy the relative safety of the moment. Junior’s buddies leaned their heads back against the airframe and followed his lead, choosing slumber for the duration of the bumpy ride back to An Hoa. What they didn’t know about Gunny or Jenkins was a blessing for now. There would be plenty of time to deal with that mess later.

Friday, August 23, 2013

(“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”) Proverbs 3:5

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Ten

Firebaugh, California, May 1968...

Tina could see that he was still taunting her, watching his reflection in the window. The morning light felt warm on her face as it beamed through the trees from her side of the big yellow school bus. She closed her eyes hoping that the action would also drown out the noise behind her, it didn’t.

“Tina, Tina, jellybeana, she’s a witch just like Serena, twitch her nose and blink her eyes, and she will make the dead bods rise,” sang a large curly headed sixth grader from across the aisle.

He laughed out loud and jabbed the kid next to him with his elbow. Hector smiled weakly, managing not to laugh along with the older boy who was responsible for all the commotion. He leaned forward and his head touched the seat in front of him. Hector tried to get Tina’s attention and communicate with his eyes that he was only going along with the teasing to keep from getting pounded himself. Let’s face it, being a ten-year-old and a minority in an overwhelmingly white public school was hard enough, no use rocking the boat by taking sides here. Besides, he knew that Tina was safe enough, the whole town watched after her anyway.

“Hey now, knock that crap off little man, don't make me stop this bus and write your name onto the list!” hollered our driver. The list was not someplace you wanted end up, unless of course you craved extra homework and didn’t need recess the rest of your life.

“No sir Mr. Dupree,” Davy Myers said, sitting back down and glaring at Tina.

Lionel Dupree had been driving this bus for the last couple of years, ever since he returned from his tour in Viet Nam. Not a particularly large man, in fact he was not much bigger than the Myers kid, who was pretty big for his age, standing in at five foot six inches. But it wasn’t his stature that kept the peace it was the look in his eyes. A look that projected scary images of unconscionable horrors and unknown demons, Lionel wasn’t someone to mess with or cross, you just knew that. But the look was really all he ever needed, nobody ever pushed him beyond that and once the situation was cooled, he was back to the happy-go-lucky fella that all the teachers and parents knew and loved.

“What about you Hector, are we cool?”

“Yes sir,” Hector mumbled.

“That’s better, we’re cool babies, we’re cool, right,” Lionel said, a big smile contradicting a menacing stare!

Tina turned her head towards the aisle, opened her eyes and looked directly at Davy and Hector. She smiled at them, and the curly haired bully started to say something, but suddenly just looked down at his shoes instead. Hector leaned back and smiled over at his little friend from around the big sixth grader. The bus lurched forward as it pulled away from the curb and continued the five-mile trip to Nestle Avenue Elementary School.

Tina twisted 180 degrees in her seat, pulled her knees up and tucked her feet underneath her. She lay her head on the thinly covered backrest and watched the world pass by the window. Focusing her attention on the telephone lines, she concentrated intensely, a game she liked to play because it made her tummy tingle, like a roller coaster she imagined, although she had never actually ridden one. She smiled and giggled to herself, her little head bouncing lightly on the backrest in time with the rhythm of the road.

“What a weirdo,” Davy Myers mumbled to himself, watching the little girl out of the corner of his eye.

“Shut up Davy,” Hector said under his breath, hoping he had not actually been heard, silently cursing his sudden burst of courage!

“Right on little brown brother, right on,” Lionel said, flashing his big toothy grin at Hector through the rear-view mirror. It was 8:15 in the morning, the day just starting for most, just ending for some, and quite possibly the last day on earth for one.

Victor Lopez finished topping off his pick-up truck and tapped the nozzle of the gas pump on the rim of the tank. Turning slowly to his left he re-hung the handle and hose with one hand while he spun the gas cap back in place with the other.

“Oh man, I better wash up,” he said out loud, catching a whiff of his hands and frowning.

His wife Maria really hated the smell of gasoline and seeing as he was headed home for a late breakfast he thought that he would wash up early for her sake. Victor and a small crew of day laborers had been out all night baling hay in the cool of the darkness, a common practice. It’s a process that needs to be performed while there is plenty of moisture in the air in order to keep the bales tight and neat.

Then, after a couple days drying in the hot sun, he would return with a new crew and a bale wagon to collect the bundles. In the mean time he was tired, hungry, and anxious to get home to the hot meal that he knew Maria would have waiting for him. Lord above, how he loved that woman, she was so much more than he deserved, he knew that. But, to his credit, he had made it his personal mission to give her the best life that he could manage, and to fill it with as much happiness as she could possibly stand.

He never did understand how such a beautiful woman could fall in love with such an ordinary man as himself. His mother had tried to explain once, that it was all part of God’s plan, to bring two people together, to give them the opportunity to recognize his gift of one for the other. And occasionally, if the two were listening to their own hearts, if they were able to acknowledge the instincts that only they could feel, then the seed that was planted would grow into a love everlasting.

Victor was thankful that he had listened to his heart that day so many years ago, and had not let his mind convince him that he was otherwise unworthy. He had seen a light in Maria’s eyes, a sparkle, that felt as though the Lord was winking at him, whispering, here is your destiny. He wasn’t sure whether or not she had the same experience, but he was pretty sure that it was God who kept putting them together in spite of life’s many obstacles. To be perfectly honest, there was really no reason for them to be together, other than they were meant to be together. He smiled to himself as he climbed into the truck and closed the door. Yeah, he would go home and have a mighty fine breakfast, take a nice hot shower, and hopefully, if his son was napping or suitably occupied, maybe even make love to his wife before dashing off around the ranch the rest of the day checking up on this and that. He reached across the bench seat to the passenger side and patted his daughter’s favorite picture book.

“Hop on Pop,” he said softly.

“Never fails!”

Waving to the clerk inside the filling station, Victor started the engine and pulled away, the bells ringing twice as the tires rolled over the trip cord on the ground. He switched on the radio and listened to Richie Valens singing “Oh Donna, Oh Donna…”

“To bad this guy is dead, he could have been big as the Beatles man,” Victor thought out loud.

Turning out of the driveway and onto the highway, he merged easily with the light Monday morning traffic. It was already hot out and he drove with the window down, his arm cocked at a forty-five degree angle, half in and half out of the pick-up. Even with his dark brown complexion he had a visible ‘trucker’s tan’ going. It was par for the course given the long hours he spent behind the wheel of one vehicle or another. He shot a one-handed wave at several passing cars and trucks, as was the custom in these small farming communities, Hell, everyone knew everyone else around here anyway. Victor looked out through his windshield and saw the big blue sky spreading across it.

“Man, gonna be another gorgeous day,” he said aloud to nobody in particular.

“Gracias Father,” he said, lifting his crucifix to his lips and kissing it, then stuffing it back into his shirt. The view in every direction was the same, pale blue sky and scattered white, wispy clouds. It really was a nice day in the making. Victor saw the school bus up ahead. It was waiting to turn right onto Nestle Avenue. He sped up and then rolled slowly along side, knowing that his daughter would be in her usual seat on the driver’s side of the bus.

Sure enough, there she was, he spotted her long dark hair with the pink headband on top, pulling her hair back away from her face. He tooted his horn lightly and leaned across to the passenger side of the pick-up, waving to his little girl. Tina looked over and saw her dad and turned in her seat, getting up onto her knees. She placed both of her hands against the window palms flush, and bounced up and down excitedly in her seat. “Papa, Papa,” she said lightly rapping on the window with both hands.

“OK now, sit on down baby girl before you hurt yourself,” Lionel said sternly but with a smile.

Tina sat back down on her heels and leaned her face towards the window, resting her forehead on the glass. Victor continued to wave, waiting at the traffic stop, and watched as his daughter settled back down into her seat. She leaned back a bit and put her two index fingers up to the glass, tracing out the shape of a heart with them. Looking straight into her father’s eyes through the glass, she said to him, “Te adoro Papa.”

Even though he couldn’t actually hear her, he could read her meaning and the words on her face, and he smiled brightly. He blew her a kiss as the stoplight changed to green and she pretended to catch it and put into her coat pocket. The bus then lurched forward and turned onto Nestle Avenue continuing the journey toward the elementary school. Victor sat back up and slowly cruised through the intersection, about ten seconds and five horn blasts later than he probably should have. He flashed the angry motorist behind him a ‘peace sign,’ and then checked his look in the rear-view mirror, adjusting the brim of his hat. Settling his arm back into position on the open window he tapped his fingers to the beat of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ by Eric Burden and The Animals.

Maria looked up at the cow hanging on the wall, the clock in its belly read 8:30, her husband would be along any time now. She walked over to the fridge and pulled out a bowl full of fresh eggs and set it on the counter near the stove. Opening the oven door she pulled out a heavy iron skillet and set it on the front burner. She turned to fetch some milk for the scrambled eggs and stopped suddenly, returned to the stove, and moved the skillet to a back burner, remembering that her son was able to climb up and reach things now.

“Mensa, Maria,” she said out loud, scolding herself, no use tempting fate she thought.

Maria started to switch on the burner and then decided to give Victor a few more minutes to arrive. Besides, everyone knows that breakfast is always best right out of the frying pan, piping hot, especially the machaca that she was planning to serve this morning. It was one of her husband’s favorites, he loved to tear the tortillas into pieces and scoop up the delicious mixture of scrambled eggs, onions, cilantro and shredded beef, topped with a fair amount of her home made salsa (she whipped up a fresh batch every day).

Oh, how she liked to watch him eat, it always made her feel so good seeing him enjoy the things that she prepared. It reminded her how much she loved being a wife, a partner, and a mother. That the life she had was the destiny she had always dreamed of. If you asked her, she would tell you that true love was always in the little things, and she was so grateful that God had sent her a man who understood that, without needing to have it explained to him.

She picked up the bowl of eggs from the countertop and put them back in the fridge to keep them from spoiling in the heat. This house was a blessing and she was grateful, but boy was it remarkably uncomfortable when the swamp cooler wasn’t working! A horn honked outside and Maria leaned across the sink to look out the window.

It was Randy and Jesus, probably stopping by to pick up something or other from the tool shed. She waved to them as they cruised by the house, a small cloud of dust following the truck. Maria slid the curtains shut to block out the sunlight trying to keep the house as cool as possible. At least there was a merciful little breeze and it blew the gingham curtains back at her as she walked away from the counter.

“Where is that man,” she muttered to herself, looking up at the cow clock again. Maria thought about inviting the fellas in for coffee to keep her occupied until Victor came home, well, really to keep her from worrying. She didn’t like it when circumstances delayed him, it made her nervous, and it wasn’t like him to be late for anything, especially a meal. She changed her mind about the coffee halfway to the kitchen door. She suspected that Victor might be more frisky than hungry this morning after being out in the fields all night, so company was probably not such a good idea. Maria blushed a little thinking about that possibility, well, maybe she was feeling the same way. Hey, a pillow can’t hug you back, she thought, a girl can only take so much, right?

“Mama, my shoes won’t tie,” Gilbert whined, walking into the room carrying a shoe in each chubby little hand. Her son had slimmed down considerably over the last year or so, finally getting some height to go with his girth. But he was still her little ‘gordo’, and he looked so cute shuffling into the room across the linoleum floor in his socks and a “Mickey Mouse” tee shirt from last summer’s vacation to Disneyland.

“Come here mijo, mommy will help you fix those old shoes,” she said fixing her face into a cute little pout as she knelt down to pick him up. Gilbert ran towards her, slipping along the way, and fell into her waiting arms. His giggles were muffled as his mother held him tightly to her chest, her long hair falling all around him like a shield, leaving only his little feet visible to anyone who might happen upon the scene. She stood up and carried her son to the counter and helped him with his shoes. Placing a shoe on each foot, she spread out the laces and took his hands in hers.

“Alright gordo, you put your hands on top of mine and watch me tie these things,” Maria said to her son, looking right into his eyes. Gilbert, tucked his chin down to his chest and nodded his head in the affirmative, his eyes tilted way up to maintain contact with his mother.

“OK, here we go, “she said and they started the daily routine together. Maria had played the same learning game with her daughter, and it hadn’t taken long for her to master the shoe lacing skill. And both of the children loved the little song she sang whenever she practiced this skill with them.

“Lay down the left one, lay down the right

Roll them in the green grass, pull them really tight

Raise them up to heaven and make some loop de loops

Pull one through the center and knot it up real good

Finish up by cinching up the clump with all your might

Then run along and play away the day until the night”

Maria and Gilbert sang this song a couple of times before she finally set him down and watched him race out of the kitchen towards the living room. A second or two later she heard the familiar sound of “Bugs Bunny” coming from the television, and she sat down at the table for a minute to fix herself another cup of instant coffee.

“Myaaaah, what’s up Doc?” she heard Bugs say from the other room. She smiled when she heard her son giggle at what ever was going on in the story. She glanced up at the cow again, Victor was pretty late, and her stomach began to ache a little. Maria got up quickly and went to the kitchen door. She stuck her head outside and hollered over to the tool shed.

“Hey Jesus, hey Randy, do want some coffee?”

The two men waved to her, nodding an enthusiastic acceptance to her offer, anything to take a break from all this heat! She went to the cupboard to get a couple of cups and switched on the burner under the teakettle, she wanted to keep busy, to keep from thinking bad thoughts. It was 9:38, where was that man anyway?

“Hola Senora,” Jesus said knocking on the wooden screen door as he walked inside the house, Randy followed right behind him. They stamped there feet on the doormat before entering, politely cleaning off most of the dirt from their boots. Maria motioned them over to the kitchen table and set the cups out next to the jar of ‘Taster’s Choice’ and the sugar bowl.

“Thought you guys could use a break from the sun,” she said sweetly.

“Muchas gracias Senora,” Jesus said holding out his cup for Maria to fill with hot water.

“Yeah, thanks a bunch Mrs. Lopez,” said Randy as he ladled in a spoonful of instant coffee into his cup.

“It’s no trouble, were you two with Victor last night baling hay?”

“Si, I was,” Jesus said stirring his coffee and blowing on the cup before taking a sip.

“I thought he would be here when we drove up, but I didn’t see his truck.

“Yeah, he should have beat us here by a good half hour,” Randy added.

“Oh, he’ll be along, he probably just stopped at the market on the way home, and you know how much he likes to flirt with Louisa,” Maria said nonchalantly.

Louisa Sanchez was a seventy-eight year old woman, a five foot nothing ball of fire, with the spunk and energy of a woman not even half her age. Every man, who came into the bodega was her boyfriend, and she loved to sweet-talk them all. She had been at that market for as long as Maria could remember, and probably a good deal longer than that.

The thought of Victor standing in line, uncomfortably trying to check out while Louisa chattered away, stealing sideways glances at her husband’s tight jeans, almost made her laugh out loud. He always did his best to pose in modestly provocative and exaggerated positions to encourage her attention, entertaining himself and anyone else standing nearby. Maria smiled to herself as she pictured this little scene and silently prayed that this was exactly what was delaying his arrival. She sat down at the table with the two hired hands and chatted idly, sipping coffee and checking the clock, deciding to wait until 10:00 before officially panicking.

Tina watched as her teacher, Mr. Rawlings, wrote the problem on the blackboard. She was good at arithmetic, and she already knew the answer to the long division exercise he was composing.

“Alright, who would like to volunteer to work this for the class,” he asked without turning around, admiring his penmanship? The class was silent, nobody was raising their hand, and nobody ever did so he was not surprised. He waited the prescribed thirty seconds before ‘volunteering’ someone.

“Hector, would you please come to the blackboard and help me solve this problem?”

The boy tried to make himself disappear, but when he opened his eyes he was still in class and everyone but the teacher was looking right at him. Another prayer falling on deaf ears he thought, too young to realize that the education he was receiving was the real answer to his prayers.

“Yes sir,” he said, getting up and slowly trudging up the aisle to join his teacher at the front of the class, preparing himself for the inevitable humiliating experience.

He was poked at with pencils and rulers as he walked the gauntlet, a couple of paper planes and rockets bouncing off of him as he reached the end. Mr. Rawlings turned and handed him the chalk, placing a hand on his shoulder and guiding him to the board. He opened one eye and peeked at the board, then quickly opened the other eye, big and wide. HE KNEW THIS ANSWER, it was the same problem his dad had helped him with the night before! He almost tripped over his own feet in his rush to the blackboard. He turned around and faced the class, a sly grin breaking across his face. They weren’t going to get the show they were expecting this morning, no sir!

Before Mr. Rawlings could deliver his routine admonishment for failing to work hard enough on homework, Hector turned back around and started to work the problem. He imagined his teacher and classmates silently marveling at the speed at which he ciphered through the steps. Chalk dust filled the air, sparks flew from his fingertips. He paused a second for effect, then sprinted to the finish, tempted to autograph the board at the end of his showcase. He turned slowly to smugly look back at all the nay-sayers, and quickly noticed his teacher’s wrinkled brow. Instantly he knew the cause, and he spun quickly back to the board and wrote at the top of the problem ‘r 3’ he had forgotten to show the remainder, WHEW, that was a close one!

“I am surprised, pleasantly, pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Rawlings said rubbing his chin whiskers with his left hand. He walked up to the blackboard and stood next to Hector, and placed his hand onto the child’s shoulder.

“Well done Mr. Hernandez, well done,” Mr. Rawlings said to his pupil.

He held out his hand for Hector to return the chalk, and then circled the problem placing an asterisk or star above it to acknowledge the child’s success. Hector beamed as he returned to his desk, the pokes and taunts replaced by pats on the back and high fives. Being a kid was cool, one minute you’re the goat and the next the hero. There are no such things as grudges among children they all live in the moment. Too bad that concept dies in all of us somewhere between puberty and death. Tina turned in her seat and clapped her hands rapidly in front of her chest so that only Hector could see, letting her friend know that she was happy for him.

Still lost in the moment, he could only manage a shoulder shrug and silly grin in response. Mr. Rawlings had completed writing a new problem onto the board and was about to ask for the next volunteer when the door opened suddenly and a visitor walked into the room. It was the Principle, Mrs. Titus and she was accompanied by a police officer, more accurately, Sheriff Cardwell. They came to the front of the class and Mrs. Titus whispered something to Mr. Rawlings. The Sheriff looked around the class making everyone a little uncomfortable. He removed his sunglasses and smiled at the children, allowing them all to collectively draw another breath.

“Don’t worry kids, nobody’s going to jail today,” he teased, winking at the class.

“OK people, we’re going to break for recess a little early this morning, I’m sure that will not spoil the day for any of you,” Mr. Rawlings said with a smile.

“Leave your books open to page 44 and quietly walk to the playground with Mrs. Titus,” he continued. The room was filled with the sound of squeaking chairs as everyone slid from behind their desks at the same time. Obeying their teacher’s request they quietly and orderly followed the Principle out of the classroom through the door. As they filed by his desk in the front of the room, Mr. Rawlings reached out and touched Tina on the shoulder.

“Tina Lopez, would you please wait here for a minute, the Sheriff would like to ask you something,” he said smiling, trying too hard not to make her nervous?

Tina nodded and stood next to her teacher as the rest of her classmates filed by, too happy about escaping the arithmetic lesson to notice she had been kept behind. Only Hector looked back over his shoulder on the way out the door, but he was washed away with the throng of recess minded third graders. When the last child had exited the classroom, Mr. Rawlings walked over and closed the door. He returned to Tina and took her hand and walked her over to a seat in the first row. She sat down and folded her hands in front of her on the desktop and looked at the two men who were leaning against the teacher’s desk.

“Tina, I’m sorry about scaring all you kids like this, but I sort of need your help sweetheart,” Sheriff Cardwell said in a soft even tone.

She liked the Sheriff. He was a nice man she thought. She had met him shortly after she had helped Hector’s sister Rosa with her baby’s birth. She remembered the day she first saw him because he had driven to her house with Senora Donnelly in the back of his police car. She was afraid that maybe he had come to take away all the mommies, and she was scared for her own. But, as it turned out, Mrs. Donnelly was in the back seat because Sheriff Cardwell’s blue-eyed Husky “Daisy” was sleeping in the front seat. Tina loved that dog, and her family was given one of her puppies as a present at Christmas, much to the dismay of El Guappo, the cat. She had named the puppy “Dustin” because his tail was always wagging dusting whatever was trailing behind him. Senora Donnelly had told her family that the Sheriff would always be nearby if ever they needed him, he was there to make sure that Tina would always be safe.

And since then, whenever a stranger appeared at the house with a sad story or a need, you could be certain that a Deputy would be along soon afterward. It never occurred to Tina that they needed protection of that kind, but her mother was much happier with the attention, that was obvious. She no longer jumped when the phone or the doorbell rang. Tina continued to stare at the two men, waiting for one of them to speak, to tell her what this visit was all about, and to tell her why she wasn’t out playing in the sun with her friends.

“Listen honey, something happened this morning,” the Sheriff continued.

“Ah hell,” Sheriff Cardwell said curtly, walking away toward the door, one hand on his hip, his hat in the other. He slapped his hat against his leg and turned back to face the little girl.

“Look, Tina, Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly asked me to come get you because someone needs your help.”

“I say, let the bastard die, he deserves to die, but damn it, there are some extenuating circumstances that are difficult to explain.”

“All I know is that the Donnelly’s are good people and they must have a good reason to send for you baby girl,” Sheriff Cardwell finished.

Tina just stared at him, understanding nothing except the reference to the Donnelly’s. Her teacher started to ask say something, but the Sheriff waved him off and walked over to Tina, taking a knee in front of the desk she was sitting at.

“Listen, I have a Deputy going over to your house right now to pick up your Momma, and she will meet us at the hospital. But we need to get going because there really isn’t much time, at least I don’t think that there is,” the Sheriff said, his eyebrows raising while he thought about that for a moment.

Tina nodded and scooted out from behind the desk, taking the Sheriff’s hand. They walked toward the door hand in hand, Sheriff Cardwell placing his cap back on his head. He took the sunglasses out of his pocket and placed them over his eyes as they walked out of the building and into the bright morning sun. He opened the passenger door of the car and helped the little girl inside, making sure to adjust the seatbelt to fit her small frame. Hopping into the driver’s side of the patrol car he drove off with the lights flashing but no siren. Hector watched the car race away from behind the chain-link fence, wondering what was going on?

Maria picked up the cups and put them in the sink, she turned on the water and rinsed them out, placing them on the drying rack on the counter. It was well past 10:00 and she was in an official panic now. She had asked Jesus and Randy to drive around and see if they could find Victor. She had almost shoved them out the door, shouting for them to get going and to call as soon as they found him. She tried to block all of the awful thoughts going through her mind, deciding instead to concentrate on how she would kill him herself if he weren’t already dead!

“Darn you Panson, there are telephones on every street corner, and I know you have an ashtray full of coins because you don’t smoke,” she cried out loud to herself. Gilbert walked into the kitchen and stood next to his mother, looking up at her, trying to decide if he should start crying as well. She took her hand away from her eyes and picked up her son, hugging him tightly and swaying her body from side to side as if they were dancing. The doorbell suddenly rang and Maria swung Gilbert onto her hip and carried him quickly into the front room. She could see Deputy Grady at the door through the screen. He removed his sunglasses and his hat as she approached the door.

“Excuse me Mrs. Lopez, the Sheriff asked me to stop by,” he said a little too nervously for her comfort.

“WHAT, what is it, where is my husband, what do you know,” she said rapidly and excitedly, her eyes moist and pleading. Her tone had startled her son and he started to cry, with that face kids make when they are more confused and scared than hurt or angry.

“Shhh, shhhhh, mijo, lo ciento baby, lo ciento,” she said trying to quiet her son and steady her nerves at the same time. She looked back at Deputy Grady from over her son’s little shoulder and waited for him to answer her. He just stood there, not exactly sure what to say next, he really didn’t know too much, and didn’t want that to show, typical rookie behavior.


“Oh, right, I’m sorry ma'am, yeah, well the Sheriff asked me to stop by and fetch you over to the ER at the County Trauma Center,” he stammered, embarrassed that this little woman was intimidating him more than she should be able to. Deputy Grady leaned closer to the screen as Maria ran back into the house, disappearing from his view.

“Mrs. Lopez, ma'am, we need to get a move on,” he said, reaching for the door handle to follow after her. Before he could turn the knob, Maria came crashing through the door, knocking him back a couple of steps. She was half way to his patrol car by the time he recovered enough to chase after her. She stopped in the middle of the lawn, fixing Gilberts baseball cap onto his head to shield his eyes from the sun.

“Let’s GO Grady, lets go, Victor is probably bleeding on some table somewhere, lets GO!”

The Deputy opened the car door and then closed it behind them as soon as she was seated. He ran around to his side and hopped in, turning the engine over and fastening his seatbelt simultaneously. He fumbled with his sunglasses and Maria swatted him on his arm, “Come ON Grady, step on it, where is the ‘thingy’ that turns on the lights and siren anyway,” she said anxiously.

“Take it easy will ya, we don’t even know what the emergency is anyway!”

“Well, use your talkie walkie, short wave telephone in a car, or whatever you call this thing in the middle here and find out!” Maria stamped both her feet on the floorboards and leaned back hard against the seat, “Ohhhhh, will you just hurry please!” Gilbert peeked out from behind his mother’s hair and looked over at the frustrated deputy. He reached out with his little hand and offered the poor man a cookie. Deputy Grady looked over and let a smile replace his frown for a millisecond then reached over, taking the cookie, and winked at the child.

“Thanks, I need this.” Maria turned her head to see what was going on.

“Oh for goodness sake, I only have patience for one baby this morning, OK?”

“We’re on our way now, don’t worry,” he said as he picked up the radio mike and called into dispatch to report his status.

“One Charlie Seven to dispatch, I picked up the Lopez woman, she has a small boy with her, and we’re in route to County Trauma, ETA ten minutes, over.”

“One Charlie Seven, acknowledged. Meet One David One on tack one, copy.”

“Roger that ten-four.”

“What did all of that mean?” Maria asked.

“It means that we will arrive at the hospital in about ten minutes,” Deputy Grady said.

“What about my husband, what did you find out?”

“Hold your horses will ya! I’ve got to contact the Sheriff, maybe he can help you with that one,” Grady quipped tiredly. Maria said nothing and just stared out the window, fighting the urge to chew on her thumbnail. Grady switched the dial on his radio and put the mike to his mouth.

“One David One, One David One, One Charlie Seven, over.”

The radio squawked at him a second or two and then Sheriff Cardwell’s voice came over the wireless.

“One Charlie Seven, what’s your twenty son, over.”

“I'm on Avenue C crossing 10th St. ETA seven minutes, over.’

“Ask him, ask him,” Maria pleaded.

“One David One, Sheriff, Mrs. Lopez is concerned about this call, do you have information about the whereabouts of her husband Victor, over?”

“One David One, kinda dicey out here right now Grady, tell Mrs. Lopez that I’ll bring her up to date when you arrive. Oh, and let her know that her daughter is here as well, that she is just fine, over and out.”

“One Charlie Seven Roger that boss, over and out.”

“Sorry Mrs. Lopez, you’ll just have to wait a few minutes.”

Maria didn’t answer, she was already praying. When she heard that Tina was with the Sheriff her worst fears were confirmed. She knew that Victor had been in a terrible accident and that he was either dying or dead already. Why else would the Sheriff have picked up her daughter and sent for her as well, why else would they be racing to the hospital. She sat in silence the rest of the trip, time seemingly standing still. She was no longer interested in arriving so quickly. Maria could feel her faith waning, and she tried to fight it, to cling to hope against hope that the Lord would be merciful. But the darker side was winning and she was falling into a depression that was cold and bleak.

Just as she was about to surrender, to abandon all of the blessings that she had come to know and to love, Gilbert dropped a cookie down her blouse and he went fishing for it. She watched passively as his little arm disappeared inside her shirt, searching for his lost treat. She turned her head, catching Deputy Grady looking at her strangely and snapped out of her trance. She pulled her son’s arm out of her shirt, cookie in hand, and quickly buttoned up her blouse, snapping Deputy Grady out of his trance. He cleared his throat and smiled weakly. She smiled back and shook her head. “Pigs,” she thought. Men were all the same, if breasts had any more power women would rule the world.

“We’re here,” Grady said coming to an abrupt stop at the entrance to the Emergency Room.

There were several patrol cars around as well as an ambulance, a fire truck, and some news vans. Whatever was going on, it looked like it might make the six o’clock news, there were trucks from channels four, two and seven that she could see. Grady opened her door and she and Gilbert got out of the car. A small crowd of people standing around the entrance turned quickly, and leveled their attention on Maria and her son. Grady put his arm around her and the baby and shielded them from the microphones and cameras as they made their way to the automatic doors.

“Officer, Officer, what can you tell us, who is this woman, is she the one, is she the one,” a short red-headed newswoman demanded rudely, standing way inside of his comfort zone.

Grady ignored everything and everyone as he bullied his way toward the door and finally into the ER. Once inside the mood became much quieter, almost too quiet given the level of commotion just outside those two doors. Maria looked around for someone or something familiar. At first there was nothing, and then over by yet another set of doors, laid across a chair, was Victor’s Levi’s Jacket, the same one he had worn to the alfalfa fields last night. She remembered he had it with him because she had to fight with him to take it, he didn’t like wearing jackets or heavy coats.

She froze when she noticed that it was covered in blood, the entire white wool collar was soaked in thickening red blood. She had not seen that much blood since Rosa Hernandez had given birth on her kitchen floor. Maria walked over to the chair and looked down at the bloody coat, her eyes beginning to moisten again. She tried to hold her composure, she hadn’t actually seen Victor yet, and nobody had said anything. Someone came up behind her and put an arm on her shoulder lightly.

“Maria, you need to come with me child,” said Alma Donnelly softly. She gently turned Maria around and hugged her and Gilbert, softly brushing Maria’s hair with her hand.

“Maria, MARIA! Look at me, let me know that you are hearing my words.” Maria looked at Alma and nodded, more confused than scared at the moment. She was prepared for the worst, and just wanted someone to get on with it.

“Yes,” she said weakly.

“OK now, we’re going to go into this room over here, and someone will explain all of this to you, do you understand me?”


The three of them walked to a second set of automatic doors and Deputy Grady pushed the large button on the wall, causing the doors to slide open. The sign over the door read “Burn Unit” and Maria could feel hers knees get weak, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to walk any further. This was not one of the possibilities that she had prepared herself for. She could feel Alma rubbing her shoulders as they walked slowly down the hall, busy people in green clothes looking at them as they passed avoiding any eye contact. She felt as though she had to pee all of the sudden, but that passed quickly and was replaced with an urge to vomit.

A tall man in long white lab coat stopped in front of them and said something to Alma, she could hear the sound of their voices, but the words did not register. The tall man smiled at her and then gestured to another set of doors, pushing a button to open them magically. She looked inside and saw Sheriff Cardwell standing at an intersection, his back to them his arms folded in front of him. He turned at the sound of the opening doors and smiled at Alma and Maria. He walked over to them and placed his hands onto Maria’s shoulders and tussled Gilbert's hair a little.

“I’m sorry for the rush and all the drama, but we had ourselves a situation here that sorta got out of hand quickly.”

“Victor, where is Victor, I, I saw his jacket in the hall, there was so much blood,” she whispered, not really looking at him.

“Come with me Maria, I’ll explain everything,” he said gently.

He turned and led them down the hall towards the same intersection that he was standing in only a moment ago. As they passed a room on the right, Maria looked over and stopped. Inside the room was Rosa Hernandez, she was sitting on a bed, handcuffed to the rail, a female Deputy standing nearby. Maria turned toward the room and stared inside until Rosa made eye contact. She had been crying, but smiled when she saw Maria, giving her a little wave with her other hand.

“Come on, I’ll tell you about that as well,” Sheriff Cardwell whispered.

They continued on and turned left at the intersection and Maria stopped again. She gasped, her eyes filling with tears as she handed Gilbert to Alma. She ran to the end of the hall as fast as she could and leaped into her husband’s arms, nearly knocking him down. She kissed him over and over, his face, his hands, his face again, and then threw her arms around his neck, clutching at his shirt, her hands closing with so much pressure that she nearly tore through the fabric.

“Where have you been,” she whispered, her face buried in the nape of his neck, breathing deeply and drinking in his pheromones.

“Where have you been Panson, I was so worried, I thought you were dead!”

“I’m sorry Honey, this all happened so fast, there was nothing I could do,” Victor said softly, stroking his wife’s long, beautiful hair. She sighed, and then looked up at him suddenly frightened again.

“Where is Tina, Grady said that Tina was here?”

“She’s fine Maria, she’s fine. She’s just been called to serve again. But honestly, I really wonder what the man upstairs was thinking where this one is concerned?”

“What are you talking about Victor, what do you mean, why is everyone acting so strange, why are all the TV people outside?” Sheriff Cardwell walked up to the couple and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Maria, you saw the Hernandez girl in the other room?”


“There was an incident this morning that involved her”

“She went to the free clinic over on Clemons Street, near Avenue F, and walked right like she owned the place,” Sheriff Cardwell paused and swallowed before he continued.

“She had a bottle of pop in her hand, or so the receptionist thought. She went right into the office where a Doctor Katz was working at his desk. The receptionist said that she heard them argue, and then it was quiet for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden the Doctor screamed for her to get out, and the door opened and Rosa started to exit. She stopped suddenly and looked right at the girl at the front desk, then told her that she was going to save her a lot of suffering. The receptionist peeked around her and saw that Dr. Katz was standing with his arms out as if he had just been hit with a water balloon, dripping wet with something that smelled familiar. Before it registered in her mind that what she smelled was gasoline, Rosa tossed a lit match into the room, and the place exploded in flames. By the time we arrived, the doctor was out on the wet grass, his clothes and hair still smoking from the fire. Apparently the paramedics were still in route when your husband drove by and saw the poor man run from the building, fully engulfed in flames. He pulled over and tackled him on the grass while the receptionist turned the garden hose on both of them. Rosa just sat on the steps and watched, rocking back and forth in a trance, saying over and over ‘that’s it for you.’

Nobody knew what she was talking about. We didn’t get the whole story until we got her in that room over there and she told us about the rape. In the last couple of hours there have been eight other girls that have come forward and testified to being raped by this doctor as well. If these accusations are true, then this guy may have gotten just what he deserved. Oh, I know, I shouldn’t say that out loud, I mean I am the Sheriff, but damn it, some of those girls are Tina’s age!” Maria looked back at her husband and asked him.

“Where is Tina now?” Victor started to speak when the Sheriff cut in again.

“Maria, your husband rode with that man to the hospital, and prayed with him while he lay dying.”

“He confessed to all of these charges in the ambulance and asked for forgiveness, he was delirious, he thought Victor was a priest.” Victor spoke up, “I didn’t know what to do Maria, but I felt that the Lord wanted me to do something, why else would he send me near that place, at exactly that moment, it’s not on the way home?”

“And you thought of Tina?” Victor looked down at his boots, “Yes, God help me, I thought about our daughter, you said yourself that there was no one that we could turn away.’

“Aiye Victor, this man is evil. He might have taken Tina as well, sooner or later!”

“Who are we to judge Maria, he was a man, he was suffering, we had the means to end his suffering, to offer hope?”

“Where is she Victor,” she asked again.

“In there,” Victor pointed to a room across the aisle.

There were two Deputies standing out front and she could see the shape of someone moving behind the frosted glass. She pushed away from her husband and walked past the Sheriff. When she got to the door a large Deputy extended his beefy arm to block her way. Sheriff Cardwell signaled the Deputy to let her in and he turned and opened the heavy wooden door. When she walked in she saw that the screen around the bed was pulled shut and she walked over to it. A nurse had just exited carrying two rolls of gauze and some adhesive tape. She stopped and looked at Maria.

“May I help you,” she asked? Maria didn’t answer her.

“Excuse me, I don’t think you should be in here,” she said and looked toward the door at the Deputy standing watch.

He motioned for her to come over to him and pointed toward the Sheriff and she left the room. Maria reached out and slid the curtain open, preparing herself for a hideous site. But when she opened her eyes and looked inside what she saw startled her. The man in the bed was sitting up right, his wrists and ankles shackled to the bed-frame, and his face was wet with tears. But there weren’t any signs that this man had been set afire, there were no burns or blisters, no bandages, no drying bloodstains like the ones all over Victor’s jacket. He looked absolutely normal, except he was silently sobbing looking down at the small girl at the foot of his bed.

Her head was on the blanket her little hands held onto the man’s left foot, she was sleeping peacefully, her soft breathing interrupted only by the rhythmic beeps of the heart monitor that was attached to the patient. Maria looked back at the man, this doctor, and this abuser of little girls and women. She really wanted to hate to hate him, she wanted to lash out on the behalf of those girls, she wanted to protect those he hurt, to protect those he might yet hurt, but she couldn’t. She was standing in a holy place, a place where the Lord was working for his children through his children. She walked over to the man and looked deeply into his eyes, they were raw and red. They stared at one another for a full minute, and then she reached over to him and wiped away a tear.

“I’m sorry,” he said weakly.

“I know,” she replied “I know.”

Maria turned and walked over to her daughter and stroked her hair, the pink headband was pushed up with the angle of her head. Maria pulled it off of her and then leaned over to whisper in her ear.

“Wake up mijita, let’s go home.” Tina stirred a little, yawned and stretched.

She looked back at her mother than over to the man and got up. Taking her mother’s hand they turned to walk away. As they started to leave, Tina stopped next to the bed and looked at the hand shackled to the rail. She reached over and took hold of one of his fingers and then looked up into his eyes. She held his gaze for a moment and then let go of his finger, she smiled and waved to him. Doctor Murray Katz felt the pressure in his chest and he leaned his head back against the pillow.

He closed his eyes tightly but the heart attack he was expecting did not come. What came instead was a feeling he didn’t recognize, one he had never experienced, a feeling that up till now he never believed in, for the first time in his life he felt love and the awesome power behind it. He listened as the door closed and locked behind his visitor and savior. The man he had been was dead, the man he would be, began his new life with two new words, repentance and forgiveness.

Victor huddled with his family near the nurse’s station in the trauma center’s burn unit. He watched the people going about their business, and noticed that they were trying too hard not to notice them. He could hear the noise outside the burn unit, every time someone came in or went out. He knew that things were going to be different now. They were not going to be able to hide in plain sight any longer.

He looked over at Alma Donnelly. She was talking with Sheriff Cardwell and her husband Arthur. They glanced his way periodically and smiled reassuringly. He knew that they were talking about them, trying to figure out a way that this could all go away. But this was too much, this was catnip to all the media lurking outside waiting for a chance to tempt them with the promise of riches, in order to exploit this phenomenon whatever way they could. No, he wouldn’t let them do that, he would take his family and run again, find somewhere to start again, perhaps the Donnelly’s could help, and he prayed that they would find a way.

He looked down at his family. They were all stretched out on the small uncomfortable sofa. Gilbert resting his head on Tina’s lap, Tina resting her head on Maria’s lap and Maria sound asleep on his shoulder. There was no shoulder for Victor to rest on, but he was in good hands, and he continued to pray for deliverance from this situation. He remembered what his mother had taught him as a boy, follow your heart son, and keep your faith strong. Everyone and everything that comes into your life is part of God’s plan for you, pay attention to the signs and listen to the spirit that guides you.

Your mind may be your most powerful tool, keep it sharp, but it’s your heart that has dominion over you, and can keep you from hurting yourself and others with that powerfully, sharp mind. Pretty smart for someone who never finished school he thought. He thought about his mother for a moment and pictured her smiling face. He decided that the true measure of a person’s life was the way in which they would be remembered by those who loved them, and by those who did not.

Victor yawned and looked at his watch, it was 12:45, past his normal lunchtime, and he was starving, he had already missed one meal today. As soon as the dust settled on this he was taking them all to A&W for a burgers and root beer, he could picture that frosty mug and began to salivate. He kissed his wife on the top of her head and leaned his head back against the wall. He hoped he had done the right thing today, it felt like the right thing, time would tell.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

(“hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…”)...Simon & Garfunkel

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Nine

Boston, Mass. May, 1968…Holy Cross University

Thud, thud, thud, the sound of a baseball bouncing off of a wall could be heard resonating down the hall of the dorm. A half naked student leaning against the wall, a bath towel wrapped around his waist maintaining his modesty was sweet-talking someone over the community telephone.

“Hey man, knock off the noise will ya!” he hollered at the unknown antagonist.

Thud, thud, thud, THUD, “UP YOURS!” Thud, thud, thud, thud, came the reply.
I recognized the mystery voice as my roommate Sean, and I knew the hallway ‘Romeo’ as well, one Wilson Walter Woodbury. A real piece of work, chock full of money, opportunities he didn’t have to earn, and himself! I smiled to myself, watching this familiar scene unfold, as I made my way toward our room.

“HEY ANDREWS, I said knock it OFF!”

Thud, thud, thud, CRASH, the sound of shattering glass startled both Wilson and myself. That wasn’t a good sign, because I knew it meant that my short fused friend would be coming after young Wilson like a screaming banshee. Deducing that there would be only a small window of opportunity to defuse this situation, I formulated a plan of action quickly. Taking off on a dead run I flew passed Wilson, grabbing his towel in the process.

“KELLY, you asshole!” screeched Mr. Woodbury, frantically trying to cover himself with the telephone handset.

I made a mental note to only use the phone in the Library from now on! Reaching the door to my room a millisecond later, I was just in time to intercept Sean exiting in the opposite direction. He had the great equalizer in hand, a Louisville Slugger, the one with Pete Rose’s autograph burned into the wood, his favorite piece of ash as he referred to it.

“Outta my way roomie, it’s a rude bashing that wanker's asking for,” Sean said through clenched teeth, trying to get passed me dressed in only his BVD’s and a ginney tee. I stood my ground and used my height and weight advantage to block my friend’s way.

“Move it Ethan, or you’ll be getting a wood shampoo as well!”

“Take it easy ya eejit, calm down, I handled it for ya already,” I said showing him the wet towel.

Sean settled down a second and peeked around me, just in time to catch a glimpse of Wilson’s skinny backside disappearing into his dorm room three doors down. Sean howled with laughter, doubling over, resting the bat across his knees then straightened up and put his arm around my shoulder leading the way back into our room. I looked back down the hall as I closed the door, checking for any sign of a counter attack. Sean and Wilson had been feuding since day one, so you could never be too careful. I turned in time to see Sean walk over to the busted out window and stick his fool head through empty space he created. That baseball must have been tied to a brick given the severity of the damage. Of course he paid no attention to the jagged pieces of glass hanging all around his noggin, typical!

“YO, Weezer, toss up me ball over dere,” he said in his mild Irish brogue, pointing toward the commons. A big, bushy haired freshman, who we all called Weezer (he suffered from asthma), waived up to him and trotted off to fetch the baseball from the bright green lawn.

“That’s a good lad Weez, chuck it on up here!” The big freshman picked up the ball, and did his best to imitate Koufax’s wind up, then threw the ball to Sean with surprising accuracy and velocity.

“How was that Sean,” he said, huffing and puffing after his ten-yard jog from the commons back to the stoop?

Chester Oliver Williams, Weezer’s given name, was sort of a local celebrity around here. To say that there was a LOT of him to love would be an understatement of colossal proportions. But where the Lord gives us certain challenges in life, he also gives us certain gifts to balance things out. All you just had to do was figure out what they were, sort of like a twisted egg hunt. Our buddy Weezer must have been peeking while the bunny was hiding the eggs, because he was blessed with many more gifts than challenges. First of all he had a heart and a spirit that matched his amazing girth, and if there were a picture here you’d be saying WOW right about now! And, he was an uncommon genius with regard to anything mathematical, which made him a popular addition to most of the campus cliques, especially around mid terms and finals.

Let’s face it, EVERYONE struggles with math. Only those gifted enough to speak it like a foreign language faired well, at least from my limited experience. It’s funny how petty idiosyncrasies can be happily overlooked in exchange for free tutoring, if not for outright ghost written homework, at a modest price of course. If those weren’t blessings enough, he also had the voice of an angel, one that rivaled any Irish tenor my parents ever dragged me to hear. Have you ever listened to a sound so incredibly sweet that it actually brought tears to your eyes?

“Nice throw Weezer, you holding out on the team big man?” Sean said laughing. Chet laughed as well and waived him off, settling back onto the stoop and his pile of books and papers. Sean stepped over me as he moved from the window, I was busy picking up the larger pieces of glass from the floor. He walked over to his un-made bed and flopped down into the molded center, tossing the baseball up in the air and catching it as he landed onto the old mattress with a squeaky thud.

“Just leave it Ethan, what it’s to you anyway, you’re otta here today aren’t ya,” Sean said nastily. I sighed, so, the crummy mood continued. He'd been pouting ever since he found out about the draft notice, and he grew more sullen with each passing day.

“Gimme a break Sean, its not like I enlisted ya know!”

“Yeah, well maybe if you had swallowed your pigheaded Kelly pride and let Weezer take your trig and physics mid-terms you wouldn’t have lost your deferment now would ya knucklehead!”

He got me with that one, it was true, I could have skated on Weezer’s good nature and kept my grade point average out of the red zone, but it just didn’t seem right. Who knew that the Feds were watching so closely anyway? Mother and Uncle Liam had argued and pleaded my case with some world class whining all the way to our State Senator, striking out on three pitches. At least they swung for the fence each time, I was so proud of them.

Worse still, it turned out that tapping Paulie’s ‘Navy connections’ was a real bad idea, earning me a fast track to the Marine Corps instead of a chance at stateside duty with the National Guard. At least my family was able to arrange through the same State Senator for me to enter the service as a conscientious objector, where I would be trained as a medical corpsman with the Navy. I had hoped that I might serve as a chaplain, but not being ordained seemed to be a deal killer. So, here I was, two days away from reporting to Buffalo for induction and then taking a bus ride to North Carolina and Camp Lejeune.

“Let’s call a truce OK Sean, I don’t want to leave on a sour note buddy,” I pleaded with my friend.

“I’ll be back to school before you know it, a year or so tops,” I said, failing to convince even myself.

“Yeah, whatever Ethan, you know how that goes, once things change they’re rarely the same!”

“Not fair Sean, you know me better than that,” I replied with a little attitude of my own.

“Ahhhhhh!” was all the response he could manage, resuming his solo game of catch.

I had a notion that he actually felt left out somehow, that he maybe even toyed with the idea of following along, maybe even enlisting. Sean Andrews was a scrapper that was for true, but to his credit, he was more of a realist and playground philosopher of sorts. While he didn’t run with the radical crowd, he did pay attention to their words and attended some of their protest rallies. And although he was raised as I was, in a strict Irish Catholic environment, taught from birth to respect honor, duty, family, God and Country. He was at just the right age to be led in whatever direction that caught the beat of his heart. Like most of us, he was just one inspiration or kiss away from jumping into a cause with both feet. I walked over and sat at the foot of his bed, catching the ball on its way down with my right hand. Sean folded his arms and just stared at the ceiling defiantly.

“I thought we talked this all out at the boozer last night?”

“We did, but yesterday it was only talk, and today is today. You know, for real,” he replied pouting. I couldn't think of anything comforting to say and just tossed the ball back up in the air for him to catch.

“I need to get my stuff together. My Uncle will be here any time to drive me to Albany.”

“Why don’t you come and spend a couple of days with us Sean, I’ll show you around, maybe run over to the Hall, you’ve never been right?”

“Nah Ethan, that’s time for your family and friends, they don’t need a stranger in the house.”

“Don’t be such a knob Sean, your one in the same and you know it!”

“You’ve talked to my Mom and sister on the phone more than I have, so it’s time they have a face to put with the voice.”

“Yeah, ya think so?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I said throwing some balled up socks at him, disrupting his concentration, causing the ball to hit him right between the eyes.

“Ahhh, DAMN IT, Ethan ya eejit!” he said jumping up from his bed, starting to take a run at me.

“THE GLASS, watch out for the broken glass!” I shouted warning him about the hazard before he ran through it in his stocking feet.

“You’re a lucky man Ethan Kelly, I was gonna brain ya!”

Weezer knocked loudly and stuck his head in the door at just the right moment. “Hey Kelly, your Dad’s outside, said to tell you to shake a leg.”

“That’s my uncle, Weez, tell him I’ll be right down.”

“OK, hey Andrews, better watch your step, Wilson’s in the hall with a couple of balloons that I’m pretty sure aren't filled with water,” Weezer added, giggling as he exited.

“Oh man, I’ll run interference and stall Uncle Liam while you get dressed and pack a bag, and be quick about it or we’ll hear all about it all the way to Albany,” I said to Sean, tossing his empty duffel bag to him and throwing my own over my shoulder. He shot me a quick okey-doke sign and rolled back onto his bed, feet in the air, pulling on his trousers with both legs at once. I slammed the door behind me hoping to startle Wilson into dropping at least one of his tainted missiles. I spotted him just outside of the lavatory, one balloon visible, and the other one presumably behind his back.

“Where’s that weasel roommate of yours Kelly?” he asked sneering. I walked slowly toward Wilson to give Sean time to get ready and figure out his escape route. I nodded at Wilson. “He’ll be along any minute.”

“Well, he’ll be spending the rest of the day bathing in tomato juice when I finish with him,” Wilson said, gently massaging the visible green balloon in his throwing hand.

“Don’t bet your life on it Willie boy, don’t bet your life,” I teased. He hated when we called him that. Wilson sneered at me when all of the sudden there was a loud crash, more breaking glass! Weezer shouted from down the hall, “There he goes, that crazy son of a bitch jumped out the window!”

“Oh SHIT!” yelled Wilson as he took off on a dash down the hall heading for the front door dropping the balloon he was holding behind him. WHEW, that was rank, he must have drank a whole six pack to come up with that much piss, yuck!

“Which way did he go Weez?” Wilson screamed at Chester.

“Around the corner and over toward the Library I think,” Chet replied, trying to keep a straight face. Wilson lit out like his pants were on fire and disappeared around the corner. About that time the door to our dorm room opened and out strolled young Master Sean Andrews, his duffel over his shoulder and a warm bottle of Dr. Pepper in his hand.

“Shall we go Mr. Kelly?” he asked nonchalantly.

“Indeed,” I said coolly. And we walked over to meet Uncle Liam by his big Cadillac. Sean stopped over to high-five Weezer on the way, and they congratulated each other on a fine piece of deception.

“Later big man,” Sean said saluting his co-conspirator.

“Pleasure working with ya, Andrews, you’re a natural,” Weezer said, returning the gesture.

“Come on boys, get your things in the trunk and let's go,” Uncle Liam said, in a hurry as usual.

We threw in our duffels and hopped in the car, Sean in back and me at shotgun. I settled into the seat and looked around the campus as we drove towards the exit onto the main thoroughfare. This place was not home, but I already missed it like it was. The reality of my situation had not fully set in yet, but I knew it was coming, maybe when I hugged my family goodbye in Buffalo, maybe when I arrived at boot camp, or maybe when the plane landed in Viet Nam, sooner or later it was coming.

“Who’s the wee chiseller in the back of me automobile Ethan?” my uncle asked.

“That’s the famous Sean Andrews Uncle Liam, of the Long Island Andrews, wealthy merchants so I’m told,” I said laying it on thick.

Uncle Liam glanced at Sean in the rear view mirror and studied him for a moment. The truth was that the Andrews family actually was a very large and successful shipping family, with a dozen merchant vessels sailing back and forth between New York and Portsmouth, England. Sean was the only child of Patrick Michael Andrews IV, a fourth generation merchant seaman who made his bones during the Second World War freighting everything from food and medical supplies to ammunition and equipment for the Allied forces in Europe. His shipping line was one of the few if not the only company to suffer zero losses during that period. Patrick Andrews took that reputation and built a small empire through the fifties and sixties, and Sean was the unenthusiastic heir apparent.

“Ach, he doesn’t look too bright now does he?” Uncle Liam commented snickering.

“He’ll surprise you Uncle, he’ll surprise you,” I said, knowing that Sean was undoubtedly flipping my uncle off from behind his seat.

“Pleasure to meet you too Mr. Kelly, a real pleasure it is sir,” Sean said far too politely.

I sensed that this might be a long trip, so I scooted down in my seat and rested my noggin against the soft head rest. Closing my eyes, I suddenly wished I had taken the train. I programmed myself to dream of my last trip home. I wanted to dream about that girl who had tugged at my heartstrings without even knowing it. I couldn’t remember her name to save my life, but I would never forget her face! Those eyes, that soft sweet voice, the giggle that made me sigh out loud, and the smell of lilac. I took that vision into a deep sleep, knowing that my Uncle must have been looking at me and wondering if I had gone completely daft, he may be right.

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