For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Republic of Vietnam, 24 December 1968
I turned slowly, doing a 360-degree sweep of the compound with my two eyes. Squinting against the bright morning sunlight I mentally inventoried the local flora and fauna, paying particularly close attention to the tall tropical palms, noticing how very still everything was in the absence of even a hint of a breeze. Stopping my circular traverse of the camp at the zero degree point, I rolled my head backward, closed my eyes and let the sunlight finish evaporating the water from my face. The rain had stopped only ten minutes before and already my clothes were dry to the touch. I almost felt refreshed, like I'd just got dressed. But I knew that this feeling wouldn’t last long, and my clothes would be soaked again soon only this time from the inside out. The humidity in this country, especially at this time of year made August in Mississippi seem positively Eden like!
Removing my helmet I pulled a green terry cloth towel from around my neck and covered my head like an Arab nomad, then replaced the hard hat back on its perch. This was the only shade that didn’t require me to compete with indigenous personnel of the insect variety, i.e. mosquitoes, centipedes, millipedes and various other (as my sister would say) yucky creepy crawlies for a cool shaded piece of real estate. Reason enough for my shamefully miserable attitude I suppose, but today I just had an old fashioned case of the homesick blues.
I found myself wishing for the opposite of here, a nice freezing cold New England winter. I stood next to the mess tent and watched the evidence of this morning’s downpour vaporize into steam and I day dreamed of the snow back home in Albany, New York. I missed the cold crisp air; the white puffs of my heated breath that came with each exhale as I walked out each morning to fetch the newspaper, dressed in only my pj’s and slippers. And I missed my mother’s hot cocoa and on special occasions, her hot cider with the cinnamon sticks for stirring. I missed her freshly baked bread and the heavenly aroma that wafted through the house when she cooked for us. I missed her cabbage soup and Grandmother’s Mulligan stew, and I even missed the god-awful porridge that Mom would whip up each morning for breakfast. “This will stick to your ribs sonny, and it’ll put hair on your chest boy,” she would say encouragingly. Of course I would always answer back, “and will it do the same for Shannon Ma?” And then not surprisingly, my left handed quip would prompt her to swat me smartly on the back of my head, playfully scolding me, “don’t you be sassing your mother ye silly goose!”
Basically, I just missed being home, and I was struggling to keep my joy in tact in spite of this incredibly hot and sticky day. But hey now, it was Christmas Eve after all, and everyone was bound to be feeling at least as homesick as me. I was going to have to dig pretty darn deep to find a little of old St. Nick’s good cheer in me, and then somehow find a way to share it, without getting beat up in the process! I was fairly certain that nobody would be role playing as Santa Claus around here, not with this weather. Anyone fool enough to dress up in a furry wool suit and long whiskers in this heat would just be asking for a section eight (psychiatric discharge)! No sir, we were just going to have to rely on a healthy dose of fellowship, administered the plain old-fashioned way, person to person. I was pretty sure that there was still time enough to salvage some Christmas spirit between now and tomorrow morning!
“Hey Nancy, you’ve got mail squirt,” hollered Lt. Walker from his tacky, multi-colored, webbed chaise lounge chair, located in front of his quarters, carefully positioned for the optimum tanning experience, of course.
“Come on, shake a leg, before the ink runs in this heat!”
“Be right there,” I yelled back, walking a little faster, while trying not to raise my body temperature too much, it was still a long time before the relative cool of night. When I reached him, Aaron Walker tipped his Chicago Cub’s baseball cap up with his index finger, and looked at me from behind the turquoise lenses of his latest pair of groovy shades.
“Way to haul ass Kelly, good thing the tent wasn’t on fire!”
“Oops, will ya look at that,” he said checking his wrist watch.
“You’re just in time for cocktails!” It was ten o’clock in the morning, I thought, good golly miss molly!
“Pull up a chair and read me all the news from home,” he ordered, genuinely interested.
“Where was it you were from again, Paduchaville, right?”
I took the letter from his hand and started to answer, "Well, I ah, ya see, umm…”
“Oh come on dude, it’s a slow mail day, nobody else got much of anything, looks like you’re the main attraction Irish!”
He was right of course; it would be bad form not to share with the outfit on a shutout day like this one. Besides, the envelope was pretty thick, so I suspected that there were at least a couple of letters in there. Probably one from Mom, one from Shannon, and maybe one from Uncle Chuck, his were everyone’s favorite. And if I knew my mother, there was bound to be a decent amount of Christmas cheer within these pages, at least enough to pass around the camp. Ahhh, and nobody could fling the blarney like my Uncle Charles, why the man could blather on for days! My mother had always said that she was fairly certain that when he died it would be in mid sentence!
Nurse Carla really fancied hearing his letters, and would always playfully ask if he were single when I finished reading them. When I said no, she would tease me mercilessly, asking if there were any other Kelly men of marrying age, wink wink, or at least any that weren’t planning on becoming cops, jockeys, or priests, that is! She always drew a blush from me with that one, and then she would kiss me on the top of my head as she walked away. I was discovering that chastity was going to be a real challenge, what was that girl’s name on the train again, darn it?
“Yeah, OK,” I said unfolding a lawn chair and sitting across from Lt. Walker.
“What’ll it be Ethan, warm gin, warm beer, or whatever this brown stuff is,” Aaron asked, swirling a tumbler full of an amber colored liquid in front of his face, trying to ascertain the nature of the contents. He squinted at the glass as he held it high over his head, directly in the path of the sun’s rays, then, quickly tossed the contents onto the ground at the base of his tent.
“Whoops,” he said, quickly sitting up straight.
“Remember Ethan lad, discretion is always the better part of valor my young friend,” he said rolling his eyes toward the newly formed puddle on the ground.
“Now that I think about it, I seem to recall Nurse Carla being too tired to walk all the way over to the latrine last night,” he said, rolling his eyes in the opposite direction, indicating the path to said restroom, located about one hundred fifty yards to the east.
“Think I’ll pass on the beverage offer lieutenant,” I said.
“Thanks just the same.”
“Not a problem Ethan my boy, more for me,” he said pulling a Budweiser from the stainless steel cooler. Inside there were about a dozen or so cans, floating in tepid water, that may have been ice about an hour ago.
“Alright, now, so what does Mom have to say today,” he asked, popping the can of beer open with the church key hanging from a chain around his neck. The white frothy foam oozed out of the opening and Lt. Walker slurped it up noisily taking a nice long swig.
“Ahhhhhhh, mother’s milk,” he said closing his eyes, a big smile slowly spreading ear to ear across his lean, square jawed face.
“Sorry, go on, continue please, continue,” he said with a wave of his hand while he leaned back in the lounge chair and wiggled himself into a comfortable listening position. I cleared my throat and started to read Mom’s letter first:
“Dearest Ethan, I am hoping that this letter finds you safely in the Lord’s care and good graces. We’re all missing you so much son, myself most of all. Your sister Shannon brought home a stray pup yesterday. Your uncle Liam says that it’s a jack terrier, or a russell terrier, or some such name, I really don’t know for certain? And she wanted to call the little nibbler Ethan; of course I would have none of it. Can you imagine I asked her, having to swat that poor pooch with a rolled up newspaper whenever it misbehaved and then be scolding it, calling it by your brother’s name, it just wouldn’t be proper I said to her. So, she decided to call him Paulie instead, I guess you’ll have to be explaining that one to your poor friend when you see him next. You know, I ran into his mother at the market the other day, I was buying some mutton for Sunday supper. And she told me that young Paul had gone to Viet Nam as well. Do you see him often when you’re working over there? I hope so, that would be nice I think”
“Ethan, your Mom is a nutbar, does she think that you’re away at summer camp? Is she even remotely aware that it’s the USMC not the YMCA that you belong to for now? And isn’t your buddy Paul a swabbie on a flat top somewhere,” Lt. Walker complained, lobbing rhetorical questions at me in rapid succession?
“Well, she’s not exactly up on the military lingo, in fact she still thinks the Marine Corps is an extension of the Boy Scouts, for kids that can no longer fit into their short britches of course!”
“God bless civilians,” he said toasting my mother and finishing off his first brew of our little story hour.
I turned the page over and continued with the news from home. Mother went on about the lawn being too long and wishing I was home to take care of that. She complained profusely about Shannon and her shenanigans and then asked me to forgive her blathering, reminding me how much she loved the two of us. Lieutenant Walker laughed out loud at her reference to the presidential race back home. She was alarmed that Nixon could likely win the election, “can you believe it sonny, an Episcopalian in the White House, and saints preserve us!” She ended the letter with her usual flair, and actually brought an uncharacteristic tear to the eye of our arrogant young chopper pilot, when she prayed for us all. I think it was the fact that she mentioned each and every one of my buddies by name, including Lt. Walker.
“That was nice Ethan, but if you tell anyone that I got a little misty here, I’ll super glue your hand to your pecker, are we clear on that,” he said curtly. He showed me the same glare that Timmy Mahoney would give me, right before he socked me in the snout whenever I pushed his patience on the playground.
“Lighten up ace, you should be much more worried about what I can do to your reputation around here, stud,” Carla said from behind my chair. She must have walked up while I was reading, very sneaky qualities this nurse possessed! She unfolded another beach chair and set it next to the cooler beside Arron Walker.
“Nobody knows your dirty little secrets like I do baby,” she said with a wicked little smile, as she took a sip from the beer he handed to her.
“Cool it Carla, we got a crowd forming here,” Aaron said, indicating the arrival of my roommate Mitchell and Lance Cpl. Larry Polen. Lieutenant Walker tossed a beer to each of them as they pulled up a seat joining the three of us.
“Hey carnal, heard you got a letter today Holmes, I could use a little slice of the world right about now ese,” Mitchell said, taking a sip of his beer. Mitchell always looked funny with a beer in his hand, he had such a baby face. Sure, he may have been twenty-five, older than everyone here but Aaron Walker, but he only looked fifteen, if that!
“Yeah Kelly, gotta share the wealth, you know the code,” Cpl. Polen chimed in.
“Alright, everyone keep your shirts on,” I said, reassembling the pages into their original order. Presently I went ahead and read my mom’s letter over again and then read Shannon’s, it was short but sweet. Shannon did manage to explain how she came to name the puppy Paulie. “He’s so soft and furry, just like Paulie!” I took a little time to explain that remark to my captive audience.
“Oh man, Paulie used to get so mad whenever we were at the community pool in the summertime, and Shannon would sneak behind him with her doll’s hairbrush and comb his back, it was classic! He would chase her around the pool, threatening all kinds of mayhem, and then lose her when she dived into the water, my sister could swim circles around any of us. After about five minutes of flailing around in the pool trying to catch my tadpole of a sibling, he would eddy over to the side, pull himself out of the pool and onto the deck, and lay flat on his back breathing heavily, plotting his revenge. It was a regular ritual with those two, but harmless, and one that provided a ton of belly laughs for the neighborhood!”
Then, much to Carla’s delight I pulled out a couple pages from my Uncle Chuck. Her eyes sparkled like lights on a Christmas tree, and she scooted her chair closer to me so as not miss a single word! Pausing slightly for effect, I began to read his letter trying my best to impersonate my Uncle, using the thickest Irish/Gaelic accent that I could muster:
“So boy, they went and made a soldier of ye did they. Well, so long as they know that you’re the good Lord’s soldier first, as are we all, aye right? Well now, about your Uncle Liam, oh sonny, he’s as batty as ever he is. Still harassing that poor State Senator over your Da’s wake and now he has taken to writing to the President of these United States, his Lordship himself!
My uncle went on to tell us all about the family happenings, who had done what to whom, the complete unabridged diary of the Kelly clan, including all their usual shenanigans. And he did so in that delightfully entertaining fashion of which everyone had grown so fond. I never knew my Uncle Chuck to let an audience down, not ever! When I finished reading I looked up and caught Carla wiping away tear with her shirtsleeve. I folded the pages neatly and returned them to the colorful airmail envelope, looking around at everyone as I stuffed it into my shirt pocket.
“I think I’m gonna go and write my Dad a letter,” Carla said, getting up and walking slowly toward her quarters. She gave my hair a tug as she passed, then stopped suddenly, “Ethan, can I have the letter until tomorrow, I want to have something to open in the morning. I promise I’ll give it back at breakfast, OK?” I didn’t hesitate, or even turn in my chair, I just pulled out the envelope and held it over my shoulder. I felt her fingers brush my hand as she took it, and then she kissed me on the top of my head, “Thanks,” was all she said.
“No worries Lieutenant, Merry Christmas,” I said softly, as I watched the fellas give me the business with their mime performance of me fraternizing with an officer. The camp’s public address system suddenly broke up our quiet time, loudly announcing a scramble. ShowTime, we all thought simultaneously, as we swiftly scrambled to our feet and took off in multiple directions, frantically but methodically preparing to move out!
Tony and I jumped up into the chopper as the engines whined and the rotors began to slowly spin, wobbling dangerously until they reached a suitable RPM. I tossed the meds bag to Tony. He stowed it under beneath the stokes and litters. Mitchell pulled the cover off the 50MM machine gun hanging in the doorway and then strapped himself into the shoulder harness tethered to the airframe. He gave the breech a good hard tug, making him officially locked and loaded. I didn’t like that thing, but secretly I was glad it was there, my faith not being as strong as it could be I guess?
“Saddle up girls, we’re outta here,” Lt. Walker shouted over the noise, tapping the top of his head, signaling that we were lifting off.
“What’s the story LT, where are we headed,” Tony hollered leaning into the front cab of the helicopter. The sergeant seated in the second chair, the co-pilot’s seat, leaned back and shouted over his shoulder, “couple of minor GSW’s (gun shot wounds), squad of riflemen about twenty clicks northeast of Da Nang need to be extracted from a cold LZ. It’ll be us and two-niner-bravo in for the pick up, Butch and Sundance will be running cover for us.” Sergeant Dixon then went back to reading the checklist on his clipboard, and Tony returned to take his seat in the hold with Mitchell and me.
“What did we pull this time Tony,” I asked as the chopper lifted off the ground just seconds after two-niner-bravo had done likewise.
“No biggie, picking up some grunts a little north of here, just Band-Aids and kissing boo boos, that’s all,” he said giving us the universal signal for a boring run by stroking the airspace above his lap with his clenched fist.
“Ay Dios mio, you’re bad ese, you’re bad,” Mitchell said with a grin on his face.
I turned and looked out the doorway so as to hide my own grin and the blush spreading across my face. The choppers leveled out as they flew into formation, the fast moving air providing some comfort by drying the sweat from our faces. I was tempted to remove my heavy, uncomfortable flak jacket for the ride to the LZ, but changed my mind when I caught a glimpse of Mitchell kissing his crucifix and then his weapon. There was not much of an updraft on this run so the ride was pretty smooth, meaning we weren’t bouncing around the hold, loosening all of our teeth in the process. About 20 minutes out we sighted the green smoke indicating a safe landing zone.
“Well, there was that to be thankful for,” I thought to myself, saying a quick prayer for us all.
I didn’t think anyone would mind. Our escorts flew past us in a hurry, on their way to reconnoiter the position before we set down. I could hear Lt. Walker talking with the ground and took a peek out the door to get a read on the situation below. From what I could see, everything looked pretty quiet; at least we wouldn’t be sprinting around, dodging bullets and whatnot on this trip. Sergeant Dixon got our attention by slapping the thin metal barrier between the cockpit and us.
“Get set,” he shouted, showing us the thumbs down sign with both hands, shaking them vigorously.
I grabbed the front end of a litter in my right hand and squatted on my heels waiting for the skids to touch the ground. Tony was right behind me with the opposite end of the litter in his left hand, his right hand holding onto the meds bag slung over his right shoulder and tucked securely under his arm. I looked up and watched Mitchell scan the area, sweeping his weapon from side to side, the butt firm against his shoulder, his right index finger resting lightly on the trigger guard, and the rest of his hand gripping the stock with white knuckle intensity.
“OK, here we go again,” I said under my breath, as the skids touched down, and poof, Tony and I were on our way, what a team!
Three sweaty marines jumped into the helicopter at the same time that we jumped out. We made a beeline for a group of four grunts crouching over two men lying in the grass on their backs. They were directly in front of us about thirty meters from the chopper.
“OVER HERE,” yelled an arm-waving Corporal, he was missing his helmet and his head was bleeding from a nasty gash dangerously close to his left eye. Tony and I covered the distance in about ten seconds and set our stuff down next to the nearest body.
“Whatta we got here,” asked Tony, quickly checking under the field bandage of the nearest horizontal marine, not waiting for a response from anyone.
“Oh boy, it’s a large caliber gun shot wound to the shoulder,” he said turning the soldier gently.
“Looks like the round went right through him! His clavicle’s busted, and we got a compound fracture of the humorous as well. Good thing this kid passed out!”
“Best give him a little morphine though, we don’t want him coming to on the return flight and freaking out, right,” he asked rhetorically.
I nodded my head in agreement, “Yeah, a small dose though, and let’s sling his arm before we transport him, better he doesn’t get a look at what’s left of his arm, OK?” Tony held the syringe between his teeth as he removed the cap from the pre-set dose of morphine with one hand and felt for a nice thick vein with the other. Once the drug was administered Tony and I lifted the man onto the litter and let two of his buddies tote him back to the chopper.
“Hey,” I yelled after them, “Bring back another litter for this guy,” I said pointing to the next patient.
“WELL, it’s about God damn time, I can see that I’m gonna have to ride in the back of the bus again! Even way out here there ain’t no justice for the black man,” shouted the wounded marine next to Tony.
“Hold still buddy, let me take a look at you. And I think that you meant to say equality didn’t you,” Tony said in a low tone that made me a little nervous.
“Who are you, the Chinese Clarence Darrow? Shut the fuck up and get me on that helo, chop chop!” I grabbed Tony’s hand as he reached for his side arm and stared him down, communicating with him telepathically, pleading with him to cool it! Tony stood down for the moment, and scooted closer to the injured man to get a better look at the damage. I silently gave thanks for the fact that God saved fools from themselves, especially on holy days, at least that was my story for today, and I was sticking too it!
“Just for shits and giggles, I’m Japanese! And for the record, you shut the fuck up before your big mouth interferes with my field diagnosis and I mistakenly amputate your johnson!” Apparently this marine was not much for church and such, as he proceeded to get right back into my fellow corpsman's face.
“Let’s go bitch, wrap a towel around my foot and get me to that transport!”
“Hold your horses Sambo, this looks pretty goddamn bad,” Tony said clenching his teeth and ripping open the wounded marine’s pants leg with a little too much gusto.
“Ohhhhh, mother fucker, that hurt! And who you calling Sambo, stumpy?”
“You know what, out a respect for that very sharp K-bar in your hand and for Mr. Johnson here, I’m gonna forget about your racist comment for now,” the wounded marine said calmly through clenched teeth, placing his helmet in his lap and looking over at me for moral support.
“You seen and heard it all, right Opie,” he continued, making eye contact with me?
“There is a lot of trauma here Ethan,” Tony said to me as he continued to work.
“I’ll need to set a tourniquet here, and then we’ll need to see about cauterizing this wound or he’s gonna bleed out on the ride back. Man, this is one ugly wound Ethan!”
“You don’t need to tell me Doc, I know exactly what I got going on here. Check this out mother fucker,” the black marine said proudly, jerking his right leg from Tony’s grip and twirling his foot quickly in small circles, spraying us both with blood and mud.
“Just look at this mess, look what Charlie’s done to Momma Cole’s middle boy JoJo? The son-of-a-bitches done shot off my three favorite toes! They fucked up a perfectly good pair of Uncle Sam’s boots too!”
“What are the boys in the neighborhood gonna call me now, step and a half?”
“Oh man, I’m gonna have to live with that handle all the way to judgment day!”
“Probably be limping around like Amos McCoy all the live long day as well, Lord have mercy, this is pitiful, pit-i-ful!”
I couldn’t help but snort out a chuckle at this guy’s comic delivery, he was smooth enough to be on The Ed Sullivan Show I thought to myself.
“Give it a rest JoJo,” yelled a big marine through a thick southern drawl. He was standing just to the left of me, actually he was kneeling, his shoulder leaning against his M16, his large hands holding the weapon firmly in place, butt end down in the dirt. Oh my gosh, this guy was huge, he was almost as tall on his knees as the guy who was standing next to him was.
“That’s right Holmes, let the doc do his thing man, so we can all get outta this shit before the dinks pick up our trail,” said the smaller marine.
“You can just kiss my black ass poncho! If you had been awake on your watch Mr. Charlie wouldn’t have been able to sucker punch us like he done,” said their wounded comrade, spitting the words out through obvious pain.
“He’s right Junior, this one’s on you man,” the big man said, turning his head and spitting a healthy stream of tobacco juice into the elephant grass.
“You tell him Wesley, you tell him!”
“Owwww, goddamn-it this hurts!”
“Come on doc, give me something man,” JoJo pleaded with my partner.
Tony was already swabbing a nice thick vein with a cotton-ball soaked in alcohol, prepping JoJo’s arm for a morphine injection. He jammed in the needle skillfully and administered a healthy dose. The effect was immediate, and the agitated marine became visibly loose and sedate as the drug ran through his bloodstream and he succumbed to the warm peaceful feeling that was engulfing him.
“Ohhhh man, that shit is good doc, put a few of those in my pocket for later my little Oriental brother,” JoJo said to Tony in a singsong kind of voice.
“Oh yeah, you know what Junior, this stuff almost makes up for your dumb ass, you freaky little wetback motherfucker,” JoJo continued, as he lay very still and wagged his finger at the sky above him.
“A viente, cabron (same to you, bastard),” Junior replied, smiling and slinging his rifle onto his shoulder. “Come on Texas, let’s pick this fool up and get on the chopper,” Junior hollered at his buddy, slapping him on the shoulder as he walked to where we had laid JoJo out on a litter.
“Come on Hightower, rapido gordo, ariba!”
The big Texan grunted as he picked himself up and trotted over to join his buddy. The two of them grabbed the litter and started jogging towards the helicopter. Tony and I ran along side of them, my partner holding the IV bag with the lactated ringers while I carried the fallen soldier’s weapon and helmet. JoJo was in another world trying to sing what sounded to me like ‘Baby love’ by the Supremes. He was way too out of it to enunciate anything recognizable, but I was pretty sure that he had the tune down. By the time we reached the helo, all five of us were singing the song at the top of our lungs. I suddenly had a crazy thought, except for all the blood and death stuff, I could actually see where my mother might confuse the USMC with the YMCA, maybe a little, maybe.
“Madre Dios, ola carnal,” Mitchell shouted at the marine they called Junior as we scooted JoJo into the chopper hold. Junior and the big Texan carried their buddy into the center of the aircraft and set the litter down.
“Hey, homeboy, we wondered where you got transferred to,” Junior said, as he duck walked over to his friend manning the heavy machine gun. He stood up and embraced Mitchell, slapping him vigorously on the back with both hands. Their heads bumped together sending their helmets crashing to the deck in the process. Tony scooped the hats up and placed them one at a time back onto their heads, “You guys may still need these,” he said, turning back to help me secure the litters to the deck for the return run.
“Junior, leave the poor guy alone! Let him do his job man. How ya doin Rojas,” Hightower shouted over the rotor noise as the helicopter started to leave the ground. Mitchell waved back at Hightower and gave him the thumbs up sign, “I’m cool Wesley, good to see you ese!”
“Likewise runt, hey, did you hear about Gunny and Scotty Jenkins,” asked Hightower?
“Oh man, that was fucked up Holmes. We should have gone back and got him man, I’m really pissed about that,” Junior lamented, slamming his palms hard against the deck.
“Do you mind, I was talking to Mitchell,” Hightower said, sneering at Junior. I could see that these three guys had a history, and frankly I was enjoying their little reunion. Too bad JoJo was unconscious, I was pretty sure he would have added a real comedic, if not explosive element to the group dynamic.
“Yeah man, I heard about them just before I transferred to this FSSB. I didn’t know Scotty too good, he was pretty new, but I really miss the Gunny, he was good people ya know,” Mitchell said loudly, his head resting on his arm which was lying across the top of the big swaying weapon.
“Horale,” Junior said in agreement.
On that note, everyone settled into a silence that lasted the remainder of the return flight. While we all bounced around in place as the helicopter battled with the thermal updrafts, I studied the faces and posture of our passengers. I noticed that there was a comfortable familiarity about the small group. It wasn’t that they were anything alike as individuals, not even close, but there was something about them, about the way they looked at things, at one another, as if they were reading each other’s thoughts. And then it dawned on me just what it was that I was picking up on. In fact, I realized that I had some of the same feelings myself, within my own circle, within our own outfit.
These guys had been molded into a close order unit, a team, fused together by bullets, blood, and boredom, they were a family, by circumstance more than choice, but family none the less, you could feel it on the air. Now I understood what the term brother’s in arms really meant, it was cool, very cool.
We routinely landed back at the FSSB, everything was SOP. Tony and I rushed our charges over to triage so that they could be racked and stacked according to the severity of their wounds. Then we went back to the rig and cleaned up the mess, washing the mud, blood, and people bits out of the hold, finally stowing the gear and refilling the meds. Afterwards it was a tepid shower, some fresh clothes to sweat in and a visit to the mess tent for a nourishing, bland helping of whatever cookie had run over this morning. Oh man, there wasn’t much anyone of us wouldn’t have given for a gallon jar of Tabasco, anything to add some taste to these meals!
“Hey doc, over here,” called Junior, he was seated at a table near the coffee dispenser. I walked over to join him, and saw that he was with his buddy Hightower as well as my roommate Mitchell. Setting my tray on the table beside Mitchell I stepped over the bench to work my way into a seat next to him.
“Scoot over some Mitchell,” I said, squeezing in at the busy table. Even though chow had officially ended an hour or so ago the joint was still hoping with stragglers and tourists. We tended to refer to all of the people passing through camp (military and civilian alike) as tourists. Kind of gave the place sort of a resort feeling if you let your imagination run freely. The mess tent had a tendency to stay crowded, what with people trying to escape the heat and all. The large screened in area was a favorite shady spot for most of us. Combine a cool drink with the two big fans that oscillated at either end of the structure, moving the air and keeping it from stagnating, and well sir, that was just little slice of Heaven. Just close your eyes and you were on the beach in Atlantic City, or shore side at Lake George.
The three marines sat there drinking coffee, their empty trays stacked clumsily between them in the center of the table. They must have been positively starved because there wasn't a noticeable scrap left anywhere that I could see. Not even a hint of the lumpy brown stuff (gravy I thought…hoped) that smothered our beloved mess sergeant’s entrée of the day (meatloaf I wondered…prayed).
“How’s JoJo doc, he gonna be OK,” Junior asked, sipping his coffee as I took my seat.
I wasn’t comfortable when the guys in the field referred to me as doc, it wasn’t right, I was no doctor, I was just an ambulance attendant chasing through the weeds and tall grass looking for anyone who couldn’t run on their own. I started to say something then stopped, I had grown tired of correcting people, and besides they called anyone with a Red Cross on their helmet doc. Of course that insignia may have meant a little more to me than most, as it was a symbol of my faith as well. I smiled to myself wondering how many times I had been caught frantically reciting Psalm 23 (the Lord is my Shepard…),while running like heck with Tony through muck, mire, and gunfire.
“Hey, doc, where you at man,” Junior asked, snapping his fingers in front of my face, breaking my trance?
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“JoJo, what do you know ese?”
“Oh… right, last I saw he was in the OR getting treated. It’ll likely be a while, you’ll just have to wait and see. I’m pretty sure he’ll be in recovery in a couple of hours. Unless there are problems and they need to fly him to the base hospital in Da Nang?” I answered.
Junior didn’t say the words, but his eyes spoke for him. I waited a minute longer for an audible response and then added, “You know what, soon as I wolf down this chow I’ll go look in on him for you,” I said reassuringly. Junior smiled at me from over his coffee mug.
“Thanks doc.” He set down his mug and nudged Mitchell with his elbow.
“What’s your name anyway doc?”
“Kelly,” I said.
“No man, your Christian name?”
“Sorry, its Ethan, Ethan Kelly,” I replied apologetically.
“Thanks for pulling us out back there, and for putting up with JoJo’s bullshit,” Hightower said in his pleasant southern drawl.
“You know, he don’t mean nothin by it, it’s just his way. Hell, everybody deals with fear a little different, you know how it is,” he added astutely.
“Not a problem, he wasn’t that bad really, I’ve had worse experiences. I’d rather deal with a witty smart-ass than a stiff any day of the week,” I said with a mouth full of food.
Good thing I wasn’t at the supper table back home or I would have been pinched under the table by now. Hmm, I guess just by thinking of it I had already been virtually pinched anyway. I shook my head and smiled to myself, unknowingly thinking out loud, “man, what awesome powers Mom’s possess!”
“Yo, daydreamer,” Junior said snapping his fingers again.
“I’m Arturo, Arturo Martinez, but people just call me Junior. Not because my pop’s name is Arturo too, but because I’m usually the shortest guy in the room,” he said, standing up to proudly show off his five foot five inch frame.
“The big redneck over there is Wesley Hightower. But he’ll answer to gordo, cabron, or just plain old maricon, as well. But I suggest you call him by those names with a running start,” Junior laughed.
“Shut up Junior! Look man; don’t waste your time listening to this sorry wetback. Just call me Hightower, sort of fits my frame, as you can see.” I reached across the table and shook his enormous paw. He was right about the name and the frame, this was the biggest guy I’d ever seen.
“Nice to meet you guys,” I said letting go of Hightower’s hand. “You had to have been a football player Hightower, am I right,” I asked? Hightower must have been more humble then he let on, as he sort of blushed a little at my inquiry.
“In High School I was, never got to play past that though. I needed to help my family with the ranch and such. Course, then I went and got myself drafted just because I wasn’t going to college. Which, I could have been if Daddy hadn’t been feeling so poorly. I’d have taken me take that scholarship to UT, and played ball for the Longhorns! But then the letter came and it seemed that Uncle Sam needed me a might more than Daddy did, I shoulda kept playing ball I reckon.”
“Bet you were good,” I said, shoveling the last of the mystery meat into my mouth, trying to chew it without actually tasting it.
“Oh man Ethan, if he played football anything like he kills dinks, then he would have been a, what do you call that, um, umm, oh yeah, an All-American, horale!” Junior said with genuine pride.
“CAN IT Junior,” Hightower said, getting up from the table to refill his coffee mug.
“I’m gonna go check in with the CO and see how soon we can get back to our unit,” Wesley said, waving as he walked out of the mess tent. Junior and Mitchell waved back and then turned to me, waiting for me to say something next I guessed.
“So, you two know each other from, where,” I asked, conducting the conversation, using my fork as a baton? I wasn’t in any hurry to wait out the rest of the superheated holiday lying in my bunk, re-reading letters and weeks old sports pages.
“Me, Junior, and Hightower were in boot camp together back in California. We didn’t meet up with JoJo until we got here, almost eight months ago,” answered Mitchell.
“Yeah, we been through some serious shit together ese, serious. But were still here, not like some of the others,” Junior said, staring out the screen at the people milling around the camp doing this and that.
His look became distant and the smile had faded from his face, prompting me to be weary. I had been here long enough to know that combat vets generally had short fuses and large charges, so I decided to be comfortably on edge with Mr. Martinez. Junior turned back from gazing out the window and caught me watching him.
“Something on your mind,” he asked?
“No, just thinking about getting some seconds,” I said, it was the first thing to pop into my head, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get up and actually do it, if Junior called my bluff.
“What are you nuts cabron, that stuff will kill you deader than Charlie will,” Junior gasped, clutching his heart, and laughing his ass off!
Making a mental entry into my swear word diary, I snickered weakly along with him, grateful to have dodged a gastro-intestinal bullet. I looked over at Mitchell and he was grinning as well. After a minute or two, Mitchell continued to fill me in on their history from boot camp. He told me about the time Junior’s cousin Sal tried to shoot him for stinking up his cherry ride after a graduation drunk in San Diego. He talked about his mates, Hightower, Angel, and Scotty as well as some others. But, he talked mostly about their Gunnery Sergeant, how this man had taken a real interest in them, encouraging them and building them into men. How the gunny had been like a father to some of the guys that passed through, on their way to whatever the future held, Junior included.
“He used to ride Junior really hard sometimes. But then I would see them talking afterwards, when they thought nobody was around. I’d see him put his arm around homeboy, get him in a play headlock, make him laugh like a little kid, while giving him a couple dozen nuggies. He found Junior’s smile, the streets had taken that from him a long time ago, but he found it, and gave it back,” Mitchell said, his voice trailing off. I looked over at Junior, he was silent, listening intently, and stirring his cold coffee.
“Man, then we lost Gunny a few weeks back, just before I transferred to this outfit. He shouldn’t have been here ya know, he didn’t have to come back here he’d already done his time and then some. You know, not a day goes by I don’t think about him, he took care of us out here, like we were his own kids man,” Mitchell added, looking over at Junior, nodding his head knowingly. That was all the spark that Junior needed to go off, he slammed his fist onto the table and yelled as loud as he could.
“That was fucked up man, I mean really fucked up,” his likeable demeanor changing instantly into a state of fury, like someone had flipped a switch.
“Easy Holmes, callate, be cool hombre, be cool,” Mitchell said, standing up to calm his friend, coaxing him to sit back down. And just as suddenly it was over, Junior’s rage switched off like someone just turned out the light in the room. Mitchell looked over at me and indicated with a slow nod that it was OK, that everything was under control.
“We were pretty close you know, all of us from that class I mean,” Mitchell said in an even tone.
“The Gunny was even able to keep us all together as a unit for about the first four months in country. Then slowly the Corps began to split us up, transferring us from one Rifle Company to the next, filling needs here and there, as guys rotated back to the world either in a seat or in a box. There were just eight of us still together when Gunny, ah, I mean, Sergeant Marquette got himself killed last month. And Scotty, well, he got it with the Gunny, trying to haul him into a helo during a running firefight at a hot landing zone. They had to ID him from his tags because the dinks had shot his face off. The gunny man, he got left behind after he fell a couple hundred feet back to the ground. That’s what’s eating at Junior, he didn’t get a chance to say good-bye, that was hard for him, still is,” Mitchell said, squeezing his buddy’s shoulder with his right hand.
“That’s all I want to say about that.”
I nodded at Mitchell like I understood, but I didn’t really. Yes, I had seen death before, here and at home. But I had never lost someone so close, so quickly and so violently. The nearest I came was losing my own Father, but I had a long time to prepare for his death. And when his time came, it was more of a relief than a shock. God help me, I was actually happy that his suffering was over, and more selfishly, that my suffering was over. I had time to rationalize, to come to a peaceful understanding that he would always be with me. I could feel my eyes getting moist, so looking down at my feet, I pretended like I was scratching an itch and rubbed at my face.
“That’s rough Mitchell, I can’t even imagine what that must have been like,” I said softly.
Junior suddenly stood up and started laughing, “Que pesado (this is boring) ese, let’s grab Hightower and catch a ride into Da Nang, raise a little Christmas hell, no?”
“What do you think carnal, feliz navidad,” Junior said, climbing off of the bench and pulling Mitchell up by his shoulders.
“Ah, I don’t know, what about you Ethan, you want to come with us,” Mitchell almost pleaded with me. I sensed that he wasn’t too anxious about hanging out and partying with his buddies. I also suspected that they could be quite a handful when it came to raising hell. Even still, that town was no place for a fledging man of God, I knew that much. I was still young, dumb and full of cum, and I didn’t need to be brazenly subjecting myself to Satan’s softer temptations, especially not on Christmas Eve!
“Naw, I don’t think so Mitchell, that’s not for me, you know that. Why don’t you guys stay here and we’ll see if we can scare up a poker game, I’m sure Carla and Larry will be up for it.” Mitchell started to answer, but Junior cut him off.
“Thanks but no thanks doc, that’s not for PFC Me. Besides, JoJo told Hightower about a couple places he knows, and I want to treat my homeboy here to an early Christmas present,” he said with a wicked little smile.
“Aye Dios mio,” Mitchell said weakly, as they walked away together.
Junior planted one arm firmly around his buddy, and with the other he waved good-bye to me from over his own shoulder, never glancing back in my direction. I felt a little guilty about leaving Mitchell in Junior’s care, but he was a grown man I reasoned. I got up and bused the table, watching the two of them cross the camp towards the hospital, “must be checking up on JoJo,” I muttered.
It was getting pretty late, and I was more than a little worried about Mitchell. He wasn’t much of a party boy from what I could see, and he was with some dangerous company in that respect, that was for sure. Alcohol, loneliness, and battle fatigue made for quite a witch’s brew. Add in a few random elements, like women, and let’s see, oh yeah, more women, and the mixture could be positively lethal! It wasn’t hard to guess where those guys would be hanging out tonight, or what was on the party menu. I just hoped that Mitchell would be able to stand his ground under the kind of peer pressure that I knew Junior was going to lay on him. Goading him into tagging along for whatever mischief he was planning.
I shook my head and turned over onto my side in my bunk, trying to keep my mind on my book. I was reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe for the umpteenth time, one of Da’s favorites. I had just reached the part where he decides to name his newfound savage friend Friday. It was one of the best parts of the story. There was a soft knock at the door and I closed the book and tilted my head back towards the sound. Tony, who was playing gin rummy with Cpl. Polen at the card table, spoke up and answered for the tent, “Come on in, it ain’t like it’s locked or anything!” Lieutenant Cardinale walked in wearing a bathrobe over her khakis and tee shirt. She went over to where Larry Polen was seated and looked over his shoulder scanning the cards in his hand.
“Still on that hot streak, are ya Larry? Hope you guys aren’t playing for serious coin,” she said winking at Tony.
“Oh CRAP, you’re making it real hard not to shoot you Larry,” Tony said in disgust, putting down the Queen of Diamonds as his discard. Larry scooped it up and then laid down his hand, a colorful display of Kings, Queens, and Jacks, "GIN!”
“Goddamn it,” Tony shouted, tossing his cards at the corporal. Larry picked them up and started counting his points.
“Let’s see, that’s 20 for the gin, oh wow, and another 84 in your hand. At a nickel a point that brings tonight’s total to $17.80, looks like Christmas has come early for old Larry!”
“I tried to tell you that was coming Tony,” Carla said grinning at the frustrated corpsman.
“Well why didn’t you just say so lieutenant?”
“What am I supposed to do, read your mind or something?”
“HEY, be nice now, it’ll be Christmas in about an hour or so,” she replied, pulling a chair over next to my bunk.
“I’m Buddhist Carla. I don’t believe in Santa you crazy bitch!”
“Come on Larry, shuffle and deal, you’re not leaving here until I win all my money back, pencil neck!” Tony and Larry continued with their card game and I rolled over to see what had brought our visitor out at such a late hour.
“I thought you would be all tucked in, counting sheep, trying to fall asleep so that Santa wouldn’t pass over your tent tonight,” I teased, smiling at her, and hugging my book like it was my faithful childhood companion, Buster the beat up teddy bear. Good thing I had given him to Shannon some time ago, otherwise it would have been Ethan, the beat up corpsman out here! She smiled back and then leaned forward in her seat.
“Have you guys seen Aaron tonight,” she asked?
I shook my head, “Nope, not once since we got back from the evac this afternoon, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, just have this queer feeling and it’s keeping me up. I thought he would have stopped by before now, you know, to wish me a Merry Christmas,” she said with a weak grin.
“Hey,” she said, quickly changing the subject. “Who was that tall drink of water you and Mitchell were eating with at chow earlier,” she asked, putting back on her tomboy armor?
“That was a buddy of one of the GSW’s we brought in today, his name is Hightower.”
“That fits I guess, what about the other guy, the beaner?”
“That was Junior Martinez, he’s a real piece of work. Turns out Mitchell and those two were boots together in California. Mitchell transferred from their outfit to ours after they got shot up awhile back. They lost their sergeant and another guy in the process, sounded pretty hairy.”
“Where is Mitchell tonight anyways, he’s always such a homebody, I just noticed he wasn’t here?”
“Junior dragged him along for some R&R in Da Nang with Hightower and few others.”
“You think Aaron might have gone with them,” she asked, her frightened, little girl voice returning for a second?
“Might have, they were looking for someone resourceful to help them score a ride into the city.”
“That rat bastard, stood me up to go out whoring with the boys,” she said, slapping her thighs hard enough to attract Tony’s attention.
“Man troubles Nurse Carla, I could have told you that was coming,” he teased sarcastically.
“Shut up Yama-whatever, I wasn’t talking to you!”
“Look who’s forgetting about Christmas being just around the corner now,” Tony said chuckling.
“OK Tony, I surrender, give me a break here will ya!”
She turned back and looked me directly in the eyes, “Listen Ethan, I’m a little worried, women’s intuition stuff ya know? Do you mind if I just sit here with you for a little while? Maybe you can read to me from that book, it’ll keep my mind from conjuring up all sorts of horrible things.”
“Yeah, sure Carla, I used to read this to my sister all the time. She liked it mostly because I would change my voice to fit each of the different characters. It was like acting in a one man play.”
“I’d like that Ethan,” she said scooting the chair closer to my bunk. I sat up and crossed my legs Indian style and placed the book in my lap.
“Oh, and just so you know, if none of those horrible scenarios plays out with Aaron, I am going to beat the bejesus outta that man when I see him next!” I nodded at her in mock support and started to read Chapter One…
I was awakened by a commotion outside of the tent, a jeep or a taxi I wasn’t sure which, had screeched to a sudden stop a few yards away. I must have dosed off while reading the book to Carla. I rolled my head from side to side, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I noticed that I was leaning against a tent support, the book face down on the bunk to my right. Sprawled out on my bunk to my left, was Lieutenant Cardinale fast asleep. My heavy wool blanket covered all of her body except her feet, which were snugly tucked into my lap keeping her cold feet nice and warm. My legs were still crossed Indian style and I was feeling the stiffness in my joints.
I gently lifted Carla’s feet out of my lap and started to get up, my knees ached from being stuck in that position for hours. And my feet were suffering from the absence of decent circulation. When they finally touched the ground it was as if a thousand needles were being pushed into them. I stamped around in the dark quarters trying to hasten the flow of blood and a return to normalcy. I could hear shouting in the compound, but I couldn’t make out any words, whoever it was, they were moving in a direction away from our quarters. I pulled on my jump boots and started for the door.
“Where are you going,” a little voice said from behind me. I turned around and saw Carla propped up on one elbow, rubbing her eyes with her little fist.
“It’s probably nothing, go back to sleep,” I whispered.
She started to lie back down when the shouting outside returned, a little louder and closer this time. I recognized Junior’s voice right away, he was talking fast and he was obviously agitated. Then Hightower’s deep voice broke through the silent night.
“Shut up Junior, you’ll wake the whole camp stupid. Let’s get him into his tent and see how bad it is,” he said in a loud whisper.
The door to the tent burst open as Aaron Walker and Wesley Hightower entered quickly, carrying an unconscious Mitchell Rojas over to his bunk in the corner. Junior Martinez was right behind them, toting my roommate’s helmet and boots. He tossed them carelessly onto the card table with a loud thud, and looked over at me.
“We got trouble ese, get your medicine bag Ethan, homeboy is hurt man,” he said excitedly, pointing over at Mitchell’s bunk.
I rubbed my eyes roughly then slapped myself awake with both hands, focusing on the scene that was unfolding around me. Things were happening fast and furious, a real frenzy, but oddly, my mind was processing it all silently and in slow motion. I did a slow 360-degree turn in the spot I was standing in. I noticed that Carla was missing, no longer curled up on my bunk. Hightower rushed by me with a handful of bloody towels, Aaron Walker was kneeling beside Mitchell’s bunk holding a flashlight above his head and over the shoulder of Tony Yamamoka, who was sitting on the edge of the bed in his olive colored skivvies.
He was tending to our roommate, doing what he was trained to do. Junior hovered around them, pacing back and forth erratically, pulling his sweat soaked hair back with one hand and dragging his other hand repeatedly across his pant leg, trying to remove the blood before it became a permanent stain. Tony turned towards me and I could see that he was yelling something at me, but I could only see his lips moving, I heard no sound. Suddenly someone shoved passed me, knocking me out of the way in the process. And then a sharp, familiar pain wrestled me from the hold of my hysterical paralysis. It was Nurse Carla, and she had pinched me good and hard, twisting my nipple through my tee shirt. She reached up and yanked me down by my ear lobe to her five foot three inch eye level.
“You want to get in the game here Ethan,” she hissed!
I rapidly blinked back at her, fluttering my eyes like a prom queen, and jerked free from her hold.
“Owww, goddamn-it Carla,” I swore, rubbing my ear and chest like a chimp in the circus.
The chaos of the moment surrounded me now as all of my senses came back on line simultaneously. The bulk of the action was over at Mitchell’s bunk, and I could see that one of the surgeons had taken Tony’s place at Mitchell’s side and was frantically working. Carla must have fetched him; he must have been the fullback that ran through me a moment ago. And considering the severity of the pain in my shoulder, Hightower must have been blocking for him! I moved closer to get a better look without getting in the way, when a bloody hand reached back toward me and grabbed my wrist.
“Here, take this bandage and put a lot of pressure right here, right where my hand is now,” shouted the surgeon, who I recognized immediately as Captain Fornell.
“Yes sir,” I replied quickly, dropping to my knees and scooting in next to Mitchell.
I got a fast peek at what looked like a pretty deep stab wound to the abdomen, and then slapped the bandage over the nasty gash and pressed down with a considerable amount of pressure. Now I had done this at least a dozen times in the field, but working on someone that I knew was very different. Now I was scared, and I had to fight with myself to ignore the instinct to cut and run. I felt Mitchell reach down with his hands and place them over my own. He was trying to speak to me, but his voice was soft and low, and I couldn’t hear him over all the commotion in the room. I leaned forward trying to make eye contact with him, but Tony and the doctor were in front of me, blocking my line of vision.
I watched Tony run an IV with lactated ringers while Dr. Fornell ran his stethoscope across Mitchell’s chest and abdomen, listening closely, trying to determine if any of Mitchell’s vital organs had been punctured or lacerated. Captain Fornell called for Carla and whispered something in her ear that sent her running out of the tent a second later, Lt. Walker following quickly after her. Meanwhile, Tony wrapped a BP sleeve around Mitchell’s arm and started squeezing the pump to inflate it. Like a well choreographed dance, Captain Fornell positioned his stethoscope over the main artery on Mitchell’s left arm and waited for Tony to open the valve so that he could get a good read.
“We’re running out of time people, come on Carla, where are you sweetheart,” Capt. Fornell said tersely, mostly to himself. Mitchell started to shudder and flail around in his bunk, and it was difficult to keep the bandage on the wound, his body was so slick with all of the blood and fluids.
“He’s crashing Doc,” Tony shouted, trying to hold Mitchell still, leaning onto his shoulders with all of his weight. Mitchell’s hands still held onto mine, but his grip was getting noticeably weaker.
“Hold on Mitchy, hang in there buddy,” I said in a loud whisper, repositioning my hands and the blood soaked bandage over the wound, applying more pressure with my tired arms. I prayed for God to give us a little more time, to give Mitchell’s body a little more strength. But there was so much blood, and it was leaking out of him much faster than the IV could replace it.
“CARLA, where’s that goddamn plasma,” the Doc shouted at the ceiling, his frustration visibly and audibly apparent!
Junior was on his knees muttering to himself and getting in the way, trying to scooch in closer to his friend.
“Somebody get this man out of my way,” Captain Fornell ordered.
“Aye Aye sir,” Hightower said, gently picking Junior up and walking him over to my bunk. Junior didn’t offer much resistance, he was totally out of it, and emotionally drained.
“Come on Junior, let the man work, we’ll wait over here,” Hightower said, sitting down next to his buddy who had curled up into a fetal position on my cot.
A small crowd had gathered outside the tent, about ten or fifteen people, standing around in their skivvies and pj’s, watching our little drama unfold. It got very quiet as we all waited for the cavalry to arrive with the plasma and mobile surgical kit, a few minutes feeling like a few hours. All of a sudden, Mitchell’s weak, raspy voice broke through the uncomfortable silence, and he choked out my name.
“Ethan, Father are you here?” I looked at him and saw that his eyes were open.
He was looking up at the ceiling, watching the lamp swing, slowly casting shadows back and forth across the room. He drew in two quick breaths and then blinked his eyes.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” he coughed swallowing hard.
“It’s been a while since my last confession,” he whispered to the air. I caught a glimpse of his face and watched a tear roll down his cheek.
“Oh fuck me,” I thought out loud.
I wasn’t prepared for this, this was sacrilegious, I wasn’t actually a real priest yet. How could I take his confession? I lowered my head and wiped my sweaty brow on my bare arm, trying to keep the pressure constant on my dying friend’s wound.
“Father, are you there?”
Now it was my turn to swallow hard, “Yes my son, I am here.”
I glanced over at Tony he closed his eyes and bowed his head. I looked down at Captain Fornell, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his elbows resting on his knees, his face buried in his hands. The room became very small, like there was only space for Mitchell and myself.
“Father… Ethan, please help me,” he drew in a couple more quick, shallow breaths, “ help me give thanks for His love and forgiveness.”
“The Lord be with you Mitchell Rojas.”
“And also with you Father”
“What is your good confession my son?”
“I tried to help him. I tried to help Junior Father. I fucked up homey… I fucked up!”
“It’s enough that you tried my son, God’s grace is with you.”
Mitchell closed his eyes and coughed hard, I could feel that his bleeding had slowed considerably. His color was pale, even in this light. His body shuddered again and Captain Fornell rose from the deck and put his finger to Mitchell’s neck, checking his carotid artery for a pulse. Mitchell opened his eyes and drew in a long deep breath through his nose then let it out slowly, startling the doctor.
“Ethan, my wife, my boy, Father, please,” he whispered.
“Yeah, Mitchy, what about em?”
I waited for a reply, but none came, just a long silence instead. Mitchell lay very still, his eyes still open, his chest no longer rising and falling with any breath.
“Peace be with you Mitchell Rojas, go with God my friend.”
“Via con Dios, mi carnal, via con Dios,” I heard Junior whimpering from across the room.
Captain Fornell started to reach over and close Mitchell’s eyes when the cavalry arrived. Carla set the surgical kit at the doctor’s feet and tossed Tony a fresh bag of plasma. Energized by the possibility of working a miracle, the small team of medical personnel went to work. The Captain pushed me aside and started to prep Mitchell’s body for one last stand, while Tony started chest compressions and Carla quickly inserted a breathing tube down his throat and attached the respirator bag. I slowly walked backwards toward my bunk to stand with Hightower and Junior, my hands still covered with Mitchell’s blood.
“He’s dead ain’t he hoss,” Hightower asked?
“They ain’t gonna bring him back are they?”
“What the hell happened tonight,” I asked without turning around to face either of them?
“What can I say, it was stupid, really, really stupid. We got drunk, went to one of JoJo’s coochie houses, tried to get Mitchell to loosen up a little. He must come from a dry county in California, cause he didn’t but sip on one beer the whole night. And there was no way we were gonna get him to follow us inside with the women. So he just sat out front on an old rumble seat and sipped that warm beer, flipping through an Archie comic book that belonged to a kid of one of the girl’s.”
“Cut to the chase Wesley, how did he get knifed?”
“Well sir, Junior got into an argument with this whore, over what she thought she had earned. You know how the women are over here, when one starts hollering they ALL start hollering, shrieking really, in that VC gibberish where they sound more like cats fighting in the alley! It got so loud that Mitchell must have thought that we were in trouble, so he busted in the joint like John Wayne. As soon as he walked in the door, that girl’s momma, she stabbed him with a bayonet that she was using to chop up some cabbage. That’s the whole story, I swear,” Hightower said shaking his head.
I was really angry, and I was tempted to go off on both of them, not to mention Lt. Walker who should have known better, but all I could think of was Mitchell’s last words. I had taken his confession, and it was he had asked for forgiveness, for letting down his friends. His last moments on this earth were all about forgiveness, about his love for his family, about his love for his friends, about his love for his God. I was cut deeply and to the heart by my friend’s selfless act of contrition, and my angry emotions were instantly replaced by a desire to reach out, just as Mitchell had.
I turned around slowly and made eye contact with Hightower, stepping closer to him. His body tensed for an instant, his thick muscled arms flexing, in anticipation of defending himself. He eased a bit when he realized that I wasn’t getting ready to charge at him. I reached down and touched his shoulder, then looked down at Junior. He was so quiet, lying there on his side, rocking slowly back and forth. I knelt beside my bunk and sat back on my heels. He looked up at me with wet eyes, his hands clasped together as if in prayer, biting down on his thumbs that were wedged between his teeth. I heard the team giving up in the background.
“That’s it, time of death, 00:07, 25 December 1968, Merry Christmas everyone,” Captain Fornell said to whoever was keeping the official record. I put my head down and rubbed my eyes with my thumb and four fingers.
“You know what, his last thoughts were of his family and his friends. He prayed for you guys, for all of us,” I said, still rubbing my tired eyes.
“Lo ciento, por favor, ay Dios mio, lo ciento mi amigo, lo ciento,” Junior moaned, clutching the wool blanket and weeping into it. I looked up at Junior and watched him dealing with his anguish.
“If you really mean that Junior, then honor the faith he had in you by having some faith yourself. Take some of the love that Mitchell showed us all tonight and use it! Change your heart; share it with yourself and everyone you know. Whatever you do man, don’t take this war home with you ese. Leave it all here, let it just die here man.”
“It’s easy to hate, it’s much harder to forgive. Take Mitchell’s gift with you and do likewise, forgive everyone of everything, start with yourself buddy!
I stood up and turned to look back toward Mitchell’s bunk. He was lying there alone now, his wool blanket pulled up over his face. I had always thought that it was queer how people were so frightened by the peaceful face of death. And I remembered a poem my Da used to recite at times like these, when someone near and dear had passed, or was near to passing. It went like something like this:
Like a dark and silent specter…he stands and waits for me
Neither smile nor frown upon his face…am I allowed to see
Blessed by some and cursed by others…and feared by nearly all
He’s ne’er afraid in dark, nor light…to show his deathly pall
If I’m alone and deep in pain…if life I cannot see
I’ll sooth myself with silent prayers…it’s me he’s come to see
I looked over at Carla, her back was to me, and she was busily packing away the equipment and supplies. I watched as Tony walked over to her and put his arm around her. She leaned her head onto his shoulder while she kept on working. Captain Fornell passed by me and nodded, and then stepped into the doorway to speak with the SP’s who were standing by, waiting for the facts. Lieutenant Walker strode over to where Carla and Tony were standing. He stood behind them for a second or two and then stepped forward embracing them both with his two big arms.
I took a deep breath and then glanced back over my shoulder at Hightower and Junior. Then I looked straight up at the ceiling and exhaled deeply. I closed my eyes and prayed silently for the strength to follow the same advice I had just given Junior. I wondered how the news would be delivered to Mitchell’s family, but knew instinctively that it would be cold, coming from strangers, or worse still by way of a form letter. There wasn’t much I could do about it though, because it would be at least a year before they cut me loose from here. I remembered Mitchell’s story about his boy being healed by a little girl.
“Pity you weren’t here tonight, we coulda used you,” I said softly to myself, regretting my tone as soon as I said it.
I decided that I would write his family and tell them about how well he had lived. Tell them that it was his family that he called for in his final moments. Maybe I would visit with them one day, so there could be a face with the name, someone real to hug, somebody who had been there with him at the end. I think Mitchell would like that, actually I knew that he would. Hadn’t he had asked me only a few weeks ago to come see him after all this craziness, after I got my official collar. Maybe I would go, maybe. But a year was a long time over here. For all I knew someone might have to write a similar letter to my own family. Shaking that thought off, I walked over to where my three friends were huddled, and joined them in a group hug. Right about now I needed a little love myself.