For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Republic of Viet Nam, 7, December, 1968
“I’ll see your half a buck and raise you a fiver, jack, what do you think about that, huh,” said Lance Corporal Larry Polen, slapping a ‘low five’ to his table neighbor, Corpsman Tony Yamamoka. They toasted his bold move by downing jelly-jar shots of JD, Larry managing to spill most of it into his lap. Knowing him, I was inclined to believe that the act was more deliberate than accidental; he really was kind of a weenie [Mental note here, ‘weenie’ as an adjective was not a candidate for ‘the list’, unless of course it was meant as an insult!]. Now five dollars was a pretty hefty bet for this group, it wasn’t like we were the Rockefellers playing at some posh club or anything close to that. No, we were just a rag tag gaggle of bored out of our mind jar-heads killing time, idly filling in the hours before the next bout of insanity.
“What are you so proud of Larry, you got nothing on top and I know you ain’t got nothing underneath. Hell half of Saigon knows that, you know how women talk boy,” snarled Lt. JG Aaron Walker, one of the five Medi-Vac pilots assigned to this FSSB (force service support group) unit. He wasn’t exactly the poster boy example of military esprit de corps. Tall for a chopper pilot, too tall if you stayed close to the rules, always out of uniform, trade mark colored shades, hair over the collar, and an ever-present five o’clock shadow. To say the least he was a tad unconventional, to say the most he was a royal pain in the keester for the CO. He glared at Cpl. Polen from over the top of his rectangle cut, rose colored shades, rocking back and forth on the Coca-Cola crate he was sitting on, watching to see if he flinched. Larry Polen, the polar opposite of the man across from him did not twitch a muscle, barely drew breath from what I could see, drummed the fingers of his right hand on his three down cards.
“You in or out.” He asked cool, calm, and collected?
Now I had seen this act a hundred times since arriving at this duty station a month ago, but I had to admit it never ceased to amaze me how this mouse of a man ALWAYS bested this self-centered lout. Apparently common sense was an option on the Walker model, which came standard with beauty, brawn and bravado.
“Ah man, he’s not bluffing, he has to have trips under there, I’m out,” said Lt. Walker as he shoved his hand towards the center, letting out an audible sigh of frustration. “Your play Ethan, maybe you can pull a couple more hearts from down under to go with the three you have topside and flush this weasel out!”
“Aaron, you folded with a pair of kings and queens showing, Polen doesn’t have squat, are ya completely daft man,” I hollered at the Lieutenant Junior Grade!
“You tell him Irish,” yelled 2nd Lt. Carla Cardinale, one of the surgical nurses and a regular at these card games. “What an ‘maroon’ Walker,” Carla said, borrowing a line from Bugs Bunny.
“And you have the nerve to bag on poor Larry about his tiny stones, gimme a break,” she laughed!
“Up yours dishwater,” LT Walker snapped back, weakly taking aim at her hair color.
“In your dreams buddy, you should be so lucky,” Carla shot back as she peeked at her hole cards one more time.
“Come on Ethan, its your bet, are you in or out,” she said, skillfully shielding her slightly bent hole cards with her right hand?
I stared at the pair of eight’s that I had showing, laying unimpressively next to a duce of hearts, a ten of diamonds, and the ace of clubs. Now I knew that my pair of eight’s had another sibling underneath and that three of a kind was a pretty darn good hand in seven-card stud. But, Cpl. Polen was awfully confident at this wee hour of the morning sitting on such a seemingly cold hand. And I was suddenly feeling very guilty about questioning Aaron Walker’s instincts! I peeked at my hole cards one more time, shielding them nicely, ala nurse Carla. Nope, looked like my silent prayer had gone unanswered, the water had not changed to wine, and neither of my other two cards had changed into an eight. So I decided to use the sense that the good lord had given me.
“I fold,” I said pushing my cards toward the pile of script in the center of the small table.
“Yeah, well if the altar boy here is nervous than so am I, count me out,” said Tony Yamamoka, tossing his cards, out of turn, into the pile as well.
Tony and I had been flying together with this Evac Squadron since the day we arrived in country six weeks ago. He was a good-natured guy, around my age, a foot shorter than I was but built like a power lifter, which came in handy given the duty we had pulled. Hopping off of helicopters and scampering around the countryside hauling wounded and worse back and forth had been a literal baptism of fire. Having someone like Tony around made the task tolerable. He would crack jokes the whole time we were under fire, carrying litters as fast and as gently as we could to the safety of the chopper and then racing back into the insanity to fetch another poor soul. He was able to keep us focused on what was at our fingertips, helped block out whatever was happening around us. In the process, making our entire world about six meters in diameter during the seven or eight, 2 to 3 minute dashes we performed routinely on each rescue mission. It was a gift he had, that was for true, one that I thanked God for each and every day.
“What is up with you guys, did someone hang a sign out front declaring this a ‘testosterone free zone’ or what,” Carla sighed. She looked at her cards again, she knew she had nothing, but she wanted to still be in when that weenie Larry Polen had to fold. And now he was going to take the biggest pot of the night and there was nothing she could do about it! She was pretty sure that his nothing was bigger than her nothing, so she leaned back against the tent support and pushed her cards into the pot with both hands.
“Take it Larry, looks like you’re the only one at the table with testicles tonight, at least I have a natural excuse,” she said looking disgustedly at Tony and me. Lance Cpl. Polen reached across the table and wrapped his two skinny arms around the pile of script, chits, i.o.u.’s, and losing hands. He pulled them into his personal comfort zone, a big triumphant grin spreading across his thin taut face.
“Pleasure doing business with y’all, I think this will be enough to turn in on tonight gents. Oh, and let’s not forget the generous contribution from the fairer sex as well, thank you kindly nurse Carla,” Larry Polen said slow and sweet, like pouring cold molasses from a mason jar.
“That’s Lt. Cardianle to you stumpy, and I hope you choke on it!”
“Now, now, let’s not get catty ‘lieutenant’ nurse Carla,” Cpl. Polen shot back.
Carla scrunched down low in her folding chair, extended her left leg as far as she could and kicked Larry in the balls under the table.
“Oooooooooo, you bitch,” squealed Cpl. Polen frantically reaching for his groin, spilling his treasures all over the tarpon floor and slamming his forehead onto the table.
“Meeeeooowwwww,” she giggled as she got up and walked towards the door.
“See you ladies in the morning, I’m gonna catch some sack time before reveille. Hope I didn’t scramble those eggs Larry, nitey nite sweet pea!” Lt. JG Aaron Walker hopped up on that cue and trotted after Nurse Carla.
“Good night girls, I think my luck is about to change, don’t wait up,” he said confidently as he went out the door into the dank night air.
The rickety wood framed door slammed behind him making a loud slapping noise that woke our newest roommate from his light slumber. Mitchell Rojas had joined the outfit a week before, replacing one of our door gunners, Rollie Lopez, who had been rotated back to the world after fifteen months in Viet Nam. Rollie (his real name was Raul), had been on the ‘short’ list for so long, that he had started to have the local street urchins take the first bite of his candy bars, just in case, what a nerd! Actually it was a well-known fact that the ‘shorter’ you got, the more superstitious you became, it was all relative. That kind of behavior would have really bothered me a lifetime ago, but since my battlefield inauguration, a scant two hours after arriving in country, I had become numb to it all, if not down right callused.
That was a harsh day in my short life to date. Twenty of us, ‘newbies’ they called us, were standing by a transport waiting to board when a loud explosion shook the ground and peppered us with debris and shrapnel. A jeep that was parked across the road from us, jumped straight up into the air, a good fifteen or twenty feet. I had been watching that very jeep the whole time I was standing in line with the others, getting a visual lay of the land so to speak. There had been two soldiers sitting in the front when a kid wearing a Red Sox jacket, a little boy maybe nine or ten years old, walked up to them carrying a puppy dog. I was watching as the driver reached down to pet the animal when the satchel charge strapped to the child went off. It had been concealed under the foul garment. I could remember later thinking callously. I hate the Red Sox! The explosion left a six-foot crater in the ground, the jeep a crumbled mess, and it’s occupants scattered around the perimeter in torn and tattered pieces, the child and puppy vaporized. If that weren’t chaos enough, three of the newbies standing in the very same line as Tony and I had been killed by the shrapnel that sprayed across the road in our direction. They had been in this country for one hundred twenty-seven minutes, just long enough to become a statistic for replay on the six o’clock news back home. My ears rang for days, but I had sustained no other physical injury. But I did learn lesson number one on day number one in country, and that was that nobody was guaranteed a tomorrow! So, as far as Rollie’s superstitions were concerned, I understood all to well.
Mitchell was nothing like his predecessor, he was in fact the exact opposite when it came to personalities. Rollie was robust, full of life, the first in line for whatever the in-crowd was up for, and Mitchell was shy, quiet and unassuming, the kind of guy that wouldn’t say crap if he had a mouthful. At least this was the man that we had come to know over the last eight days. Not exactly what you would expect from someone tasked with blowing the crud out of anything or anyone that got near the Medi-Vac or it’s crew. Now that I think about it, I had wondered right from the start how someone like him drew such hazardous duty. I mean he was not much bigger than the weapon he wielded. And if you added up the stacks of ammo boxes with the 50MM machine gun, the weaponry out weighed him by at least a hundred pounds. If it were not for the fact that he was tied to the airframe when he fired the gun, the chattering weapon would have dragged him around behind it as it recoiled wildly.
“Hey man, what’s with all the noise amigos,” Mitchell asked sleepily, looking in my direction.
“Games just ending Mitch, go back to sleep,” I said.
“Yeah, OK,” he replied, rolling over, turning his back to the room.
“Thanks for the contribution to the Cpl. Polen retirement fund fellow marines,” Larry said while he scooped all of his winnings into his helmet. He tucked the hat under his arm and made his way out of the tent and towards the non-com quarters. Tony threw an open canteen at him, and a stream of water arced across the doorway as the canteen hit the canvas wall.
“EAT ME LARRY,” Tony yelled from his bunk, bending over to unlace his jump boots, getting ready for lights out.
I walked over to my own bunk after I tugged on the chain from the ceiling outlet and cut the juice to the bulb. The new day had officially begun a couple of hours ago, but it sort of ran into the day before, which had sort of run into the week before. Lesson number two in country had come over time, I had discovered during the last six weeks that warfare was ninety-five percent agonizing boredom, accentuated by five percent of sheer terror. Secretly, down deep, I was rooting for boredom to win out over terror in the months to come. I scooted my jump boots underneath my cot, knelt beside it, and genuflected. I prepared to recite the prayer that I had said every night since I was a small boy. My Grandmother had taught it to my mother and she had taught it to Shannon and I. Of course each generation added a little something of their own, but it was basically the same as when Grandmother brought it over from her village in Ireland. I cleared my throat and listened for Tony and Mitchell, they had heard this so often, they had started to whisper along with me a couple of nights ago. I wasn’t sure if they knew that I knew, but no matter, the Lord accepts even the curious converts.
If you hear me Lord, if you have some time
Let me thank you for your blessings so kind
Let me praise you for the grace that you give
Let me share your love wherever I live
God bless Mothers & Fathers & Grandparents too
Aunties and Uncles and friends old and new
Puppy dogs, kitty cats, the whole petting zoo
Father please love us till we come home to you
I genuflected once more and crawled into my rack.
“Thanks Ethan,” whispered Tony from across the tent.
“Si, gracias ese, gracias la Senor,” yawned a weary Mitchell Rojas.
“No worries bunkies,” I said, pulling the heavy wool blanket up to my chin so I could sweat myself to sleep.
3:30am WOOSH, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP…The tent was suddenly illuminated with brilliant white light as the flares exploded high overhead. We all hit the floor and rolled under our cots, pulling our helmets onto our heads as quickly as we could. Holding our breath we waited for the mortar rounds to start falling in and around the camp. One minute, two minutes, three than five, no sound, the light beginning to fade as the flares burned out. We continued to wait for the all clear signal, you never knew about these things. Sometimes Charlie just likes to mess your our minds. Another few minutes still nothing, finally it was pitch black out and then one by one, lights began to flicker on around the camp. Yep, Mr. Charlie was just messin with us again, but better messed with than messed up I thought. We got back into bed without saying a word to one another, sadly these kinds of shows had become routine.
Reveille came a little later here than back at boot camp. There was no rush lately, we hadn’t had any casualties to speak of for a couple of weeks, thank God! Once the PA system finished its announcement I turned onto by back and stared at the ceiling for a second. I had kicked off the wool blanket in my sleep trying to escape the home made sauna and lay there in my government-issue skivvies, bathed in sweat. My tongue felt like it was wrapped in bacon and I made that smacking noise everyone does when they first wake up. Jack Daniel’s was not as smooth as Jameson was, but then good whiskey was always better than fair bourbon Uncle Chuck would say. I swung my legs out over the edge of my cot and let my bare feet come in contact with the canvas floor. Tony and Mitchell were already back from the latrine and showers and were lacing up their boots.
“Get enough rest there buzz,” Tony said sarcastically.
Apparently I may have been snoring ever so slightly, a trait I picked up from my mother oddly enough? My mother loved to sleep, and she could sleep through an earthquake I reckoned. But the woman would snore softly on her back and drool slightly on her stomach. Da used to say he would have to buy stock in Sears Roebuck with all the pillowcases he bought each year. The only way she slept peacefully and without incident was tucked snuggly onto my father’s shoulder. That was the best way to fall asleep with a woman my Da once told me. But sonny he said, after a while the blood settles in your arm and it’s the pins and needle treatment for ye. Oh Ethan, the tingling so intense it could drive a person daft enough to chew his own arm off. Not that I’d ever need the advise personally, but I stored it away to share with others should the opportunity ever present itself!
“Slept like a baby Yama-lama-ding-dong,” I teased back. He wasn’t amused and patted his sidearm to let me know. Sometimes you could joke with Tony and sometimes it was dangerous, he definitely had a chip on his shoulder from way back somewhere in life?
“Chow time homeboys, let’s go see what the mess sergeant backed over for breakfast,” Mitchell said, distracting our tense roommate. Tony smiled at Mitchell’s joke mostly because it was unusual for Mitchell to speak at all.
“OK Mitchy boy, let’s eat,” he replied as he finished tying his bootlace.
“You coming Ethan?”
“I’ll be right along, need to brush this rug off of my tongue and take a cool shower, save me some road kill you guys!”
I grabbed my shaving kit, my towel and some fresh underwear and followed my two friends out of the tent. They went east to the mess tent and I went west to the showers, it was already hot out, this would be my first Christmas away from home, my first Christmas without snow, this whole Viet Nam experience would be a series of firsts and lasts I reckoned.
After some fairly decent chow in the breakfast mess, we went about our daily chores. We took about twenty minutes to square away our quarters and then went over to the chopper to check our gear. Tony and I sorted through the first aid kits and took inventory, making sure none of the meds or any other essentials had grown legs in the night and found their way into some junkie’s locker box. Occasionally Mr. Charlie himself would sneak in and walk off with whatever they could, they had people suffering as well, it was hard to blame them. Mitchell uncovered and cleaned his weapon, sitting cross-legged in the chopper; he broke down the gun and cleaned it like he was bathing his child. It always amazed me how beautiful fine machinery could be, and how ugly a purpose it could have. Being an objector I did not carry a weapon, but I understood the necessity for them in man’s world.
“This is one bad ass gun Ethan,” Mitchell said to me as he oiled the barrel of the weapon. “I can grease dozens of dinks with this mutha ese! It’s a beautiful thing man, a beautiful thing.”
“Come on Mitch, you know it bothers me when you talk like that,” I said preaching.
“It’s not really you, those are just words you heard from someone else, I can see it on your face that you’re not comfortable saying them.”
“Leave him be Ethan, we need him sharp and dangerous man, you don’t want to screw up his aim do you,” Tony scolded me!
“That’s not what I meant to do,” I started to reply.
“YEAH, BUT YOU ARE FUCKING WITH HIS HEAD, SO KNOCK IT OFF,” Tony said getting right in my face.
Lesson number three in country, war is war and peace is peace, and never the twain shall meet. I had pushed his fear button and I knew it, so I quietly backed down and continued inventorying the meds bag. Tony stood there watching me, waiting for me to kick this up a notch, I had more sense than that. We needed to be tight as a unit and fighting amongst ourselves wasn’t a good tactic in that regard.
“Sorry guys, I’ll try and leave the preaching for Sunday’s after I get my collar,” I said. “And hopefully before I get my wings,” I added trying to get Tony to ease up a bit.
“Man, how did you end up here anyway,” Tony said disgustedly, shoving me playfully as he walked past me heading aft to check the stokes?
“I was drafted, just like you!”
“Hey Ethan,” Mitchell said in a loud whisper. I looked over his way.
“I’m sorry amigo, but he’s right ya know. I gotta keep my head in the game, for all of us. I want to get home and see my Louisa and my little boy Miguel, ya know?”
“I know Mitch, forgive me, bad habit of mine. I feel like I can read people, it’s weird.
Sometimes I feel as though I can see right into a person’s heart, know just what they are feeling. I don’t know if its intuition or wishful thinking, but whatever it is, it’s very real.” Mitchell nodded and looked out the door to see where Tony was.
“It’s funny Mitchell, I have had this sense all of my life. I knew that my father was going to die, I knew that I would be coming here, and I know that I will be going home. These weren’t hunches, I KNEW THEM, like reading tomorrow’s newspaper?” I looked at my friend and I could see he was looking at me strangely.
“Sorry Mitch, maybe it’s the road kill from breakfast talking, don’t pay any attention to me, I’m just rambling,” I said getting back to my work.
“No ese, I too believe that God works through people, I’ve seen this myself, I have. Madre Dios Ethan, it was a miracle, we all saw it. I watched Him save my Miguel with the heart of another child. I watched while my woman, my Louisa held our dead baby in her arms and sobbed. I watched this tiny nina, maybe only a couple years older than my son, come to her and bring him back with a kiss and a smile. I saw this Ethan, I saw this myself,” he said in a low voice, his eyes moist and glassy. Mitchell sniffled and wiped his eyes and face with his shirtsleeve. He stood up and placed the butt of the big gun on the floor of the chopper and pulled hard on the breech several times quickly, working the oil into the weapon. “I know that story sounds weird, maybe even silly. But its true ese, it really happened to us. One day maybe you’ll come see us after we get back to the world, when you become ‘Father Kelly’ you’ll come and bless my home and my family, OK?”
“Sure Mitch, sure, it’ll be my pleasure buddy,” I replied, watching him re-cover the machine gun and jump out of the aircraft.
“I’m hittin the head homey,” Mitchell said, slapping my shoulder as he passed by. I nodded in acknowledgement and zipped the meds bag closed.
“Let’s go to the drugstore Tony, inventory says that we’re light three morphine set ups and some liquid stitches (super glue).
8, December: 11:45am I can barely stand the humidity, just breathing starts the sweat glands into overdrive! It would be almost bearable if there were just a hint of a breeze, but no such luck, the air hung dank and dead calm. At least Mr. Charlie had sense enough to stay underground safe in the cool womb of mother earth. While we interlopers’ sweltered topside, the elements working on draining the might from our fight so to speak. Tony was reading a stack of Fantastic Four comics in his underwear on his bunk. He had a green sweat towel over his head under his Orioles baseball cap. Mitchell was lying on his bunk fully dressed, both his arms crossed over his face cat napping. He didn’t look near as uncomfortable as the rest of us, barely sweating at all.
“Hey Mitchell, how do you do that man,” I asked, hoping he was still awake?
“It’s not hard amigo, I learned this as a child working in the lettuce fields. You just wear an undershirt beneath a long sleeved shirt, a bandana around your neck, and keep your head and eyes covered. You will sweat like everyone else, but the layer of clothing underneath stays nice and damp, keeping your body temperature from rising and your energy and strength from escaping into the air.”
“Por nada homey.”
“Chow time boys,” Tony said as he pulled on his pants.
“How can you eat in heat like this,” I asked?
They didn’t call him Tony Baloney for nothing; the man had a stomach made of cast iron! I think that he would have been a fine addition to the eating machines I left back in Albany. I do believe that Paulie and Kenny would have been proud of this character!
“I can eat anything, anywhere, anytime, as long as there is gravy or Tabasco at the table, then whatever they’re serving is one of my favorites!” Tony said with more than a little pride.
Tony slipped on his unlaced boots and grabbed a shirt from the clothesline we had running down the center of the tent. You had to keep the line inside because it rained at least three times a day around here. He gave the shirt a quick sniff. As long as it didn’t smell like vomit, it was wearable. The rules of etiquette were slightly different in the forward areas. Mitch and I trudged slowly after him. I wonder what the mess sergeant had run over for lunch?
2:30pm “Any mail today Lt. Walker,” Mitchell and I asked in unison as we passed his quarters? Aaron Walker was sitting out front in on a lawn chair in a swimsuit and a surfer tee shirt, you know, the kind the Beach Boys wore, wide red and white horizontal stripes. He looked more like he was on vacation in Malibu then flying Hueys in Viet damn Nam, pardon my French, now there's another entry for the list! I had already added at least five pages since arriving. Why, by the end of my tour there may be multiple volumes! I decided then and there all future entries would be mental only.
“Sorry girls, your momma didn’t send no cookies this week Kelly. Oh yeah, and she didn’t send any tacos either Rojas,” Lt. Walker said acidly! We must have disturbed his beauty nap so we apologized.
“Sorry dude, didn’t mean to frazzle your karma, like wow man,” we chimed in together, running the rest of the way in case Aaron had a rock nearby. We slowed down as we reached the tent and looked back over our shoulders to see if he was following, nope, safe!
“Now what do you want to do, it won’t be suppertime for another couple of hours,” Mitchell asked.
These slow periods between actions were murder, oh not actual murder that came with the actions, but no less deadly to the general morale of the unit. We had finished a days work in about three hours this morning and we didn’t want to get too far ahead or we’d have nothing to do tomorrow. I looked through the screen window over at Tony who was sitting on my locker box.
“Hey, three flies up?”
“Yeah, I’m in,” he replied.
“What’s that,” Mitchell asked?
“Baseball my Spanish friend, that’s baseball!”
“I’m Mexican, and don’t you need bases and a field and a whole bunch of other guys to play this game?”
“Ahhh, that’s the beauty of this game. It’s so simple, you can adjust it to fit any situation. It is quite possibly the most perfect game God ever created, aside from foot races of course, but those are no fun, nothing to swing a bat at,” I explained.
Tony came out of the tent with our gloves (I had two, Da’s and mine), a couple of balls and our only bat, a 34 that I had bought at the PX in Da Nang. We headed toward the other side of the camp just past the mess tent and the post-op area. And as we passed by the nurses quarters Lt. Carla jumped out of her bunk and ran after us.
“I’m playing too,” she yelled.
“Oh wait a sec, lemme get my Dodger cap,” she hollered, stopping quickly to lean back inside of her tent and lift her baseball cap from its perch over the door.
“OK, now I’m ready!”
“You’re killing me Nurse Carla, I mean the Dodgers, really? Oh well, praise God it wasn’t a RedSox cap you went back for, cause then there would be trouble for sure!”
“In your ear Kelly, you Yankee fans are all the same, the Babe’s been dead for years, and Mantle was over rated, ya big Irish goofball,” she taunted back. I ignored her insults and looked over at Mitchell.
“You see Mitchy my boy, only baseball could breathe the life back into a day as dull as this. Stay close to me son, and I’ll be teaching about a whole new world,” I said to him as I put my arm around his shoulder and blathered on about Yogi, DiMaggio and Mantle.
The game had ended in a tie, not because each side had scored an equal number of runs, but because Tony had pulled his .45 automatic and threatened to shoot the next batter that scored during our last inning rally. The game was called in the name of pacifism or sheer cowardice, you choose, never the less nobody was killed so everyone won, seemed like the right call given the circumstances. I guess you could say Tony was a sore loser, a good thing in wartime, a not so good thing in peacetime; hopefully he would outgrow it by the time we rotated home! We tossed all of the gear into the tent as we passed by, and then went to the latrine to wash up for supper. I wonder what the mess sergeant had run over for dinner tonight?
I rolled over onto my stomach in my bunk and continued writing my letter to my little sister.
“So, like I said, I really like the picture of you and mom sitting on the front porch steps at home, thanks for sending it to me. And no, I have not seen any rats the size of small dogs over here. But as long as the subject of dogs has come up. Yes it is true, some of the local people raise dogs for food. I was kind of grossed out by it at first, but then it’s not like there is a supermarket just around the corner over here either. People do what they need to in order to survive and provide for their families. I learned real quickly that families are the same everywhere. They may look different, dress different, talk different, and eat different foods, but they all act the same. The kids all giggle the same way as you and I did, and the parents all smile the same way that Mom and Da do. I mean did, oh, I’m sorry Shannon, sometimes I still think Da is here with us.
Don’t say anything to Mom or Uncle Liam, but sometimes I talk with Da. When its dark and quiet, and I’m pretty sure everyone is sleeping or occupied, I kind of chat with him. I don’t actually hear him answer me at least not with words that I can actually hear, but I swear girl, I can sometimes feel an answer inside of me. I mean I feel all warm and I shudder like someone has walked right through me, and it makes me smile, makes me feel like I’ve just been hugged. I wish I was home with all of you right now, I wish I could hug you and tuck you in like I did before all of this. But don’t worry ye wee chiseller, I’ll be home soon enough and I’ll make up for all of the nights I’ve missed. Keep up with your studies sis, and help Mom as best you can, at least try not to drive her completely mad! Kiss and hug everyone for me, and tell Mom there is a letter for her on the way as well.
Merry Christmas, XOXOXOXO, your loving brother Ethan”
I blew on the ink a little to make sure it was dry enough to fold and place into an envelope. After reading it through once more I folded it neatly as was my custom, and then slipped it into the pre-addressed envelope. I gave the mail a little kiss and then placed it on top of my locker box so I would remember to give it to Cpl. Polen when he came over for the nightly card game. Looking at my watch I saw that the gang would start arriving within the hour, I decided I had time for a short catnap, maybe it would improve my luck.
9:30pm Sleepily I swiped at my face, something was tickling my nose. I opened my eyes but there was something covering them. Reaching up I pulled off the obstruction, it was one of Tony’s scummy sweat socks, beautiful, I had slept through the start of the game, and been poisoned at the same time! I tossed the sock at Tony who was busy looking at the five cards in his hand.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Tony said ducking in time for the sock to fly past him and onto Mitchell’s cot.
“Smooth Yamamoka, now I’ve got the tweener seat,” I whined!
“You snooze, you loose, you know the house rules Ethan,” Larry Polen said smugly.
The tweener seat was the chair between Nurse Carla and Aaron Walker.Whoever sat there was subjected to all of his grab ass thrusts and her less than lady like parries. It was a constant battle with them and pointless really, as she always ended up with him at the conclusion of the night. In the mean time I would be pinched and jabbed black and blue, talked through and kissed over the entire game. I looked at Aaron and decided my plea would fall onto deaf ears with him, so, I turned Carla’s way.
“Hey Lieutenant, would you mind changing seats with me tonight? I mean we both know you two are gonna leave here together anyway, can’t we just dispense with the Passion play this once, please,” I begged, wearing my most convincing altar boy expression? She looked at me for a long time, holding up the game.
“Hey Carla, are you in or out,” snapped Cpl. Polen?
She ignored him and continued to look at me, rocking her head from shoulder to shoulder like a puppy. She put her cards down and then placed both her hands on my face and kissed me softly on my mouth.
“Nope,” she said pulling away from me.
“He cheats when I sit next to him. He keeps trying to look at my whole cards while he tries to cop a feel,” she added.
“OK Larrykins, I’m in, whatcha got there sweet pea?” Larry showed his trips and Carla showed him the finger, it was going to be a long night!
11:30pm The game broke up early tonight, Cpl. Polen’s lucky streak was still on and when three of the four cards he drew were aces to go with the one he was holding, Tony decided he had to be cheating. It didn’t matter that Tony had been dealing, he was sure that Larry was just sneaky enough to pull it off. So before Tony could find his sidearm and permanently even the odds at the game, Nurse Carla, in a rare showing of compassion, leaped across the table and dragged the protesting Corporal out of the tent and off to the safety of anywhere but here! Actually, by the look on Larry’s face, I believe that he may have been more frightened of Lt. Carla than Tony. After all, Tony was mostly talk when it came to idle threats, and Carla, well? Aaron was right behind the two of them, and so the game was officially cancelled, there was no way he and Carla would be leaving her tent before reveille! Tony switched out the light and hopped onto his cot, “Goodnight girls!”
“Night Tony, night Ethan,” Mitchell said pulling his blanket up to his chin.
“G’night all,” I answered.
“Hey Ethan, don’t forget the prayer ese,” Mitchell said in the dark.
“I won’t Mitchy, in a minute OK?”
“OK, hey Ethan, are you really going to be a priest when you get back to the world?”
“Yeah, think so, why do you ask?”
“Well, that’s just it. Why do you want to be one of those guys?” I suddenly realized that nobody had ever asked me that before, “Good question Mitchy, I’ve wondered why myself many times.”
“It sort of comes to this. My whole life I have been taught that God is in my life. As I grew up I began to actually feel that he was, and didn’t need to be told as often. And now, at this point in my life, I can really feel Him here with me.”
“There is a purpose for me, and I can’t say for certain that as a priest it will be revealed, but it’s where my faith seems to be leading me.”
“So to answer your question, yeah, I really am going to be a priest when I get back to the world, when we all get back to the world.”
“Horale Father Kelly, horale.”
“Hey Kelly, you know, I don’t think that you can pitch in the majors if you’re in the clergy, too many Sunday games,” Tony teased.
“You’re right about that Tony, but I didn’t really have a decent curveball anyway.”
“That’s right, and your fastball was weak too ya noodle armed geek,” he said.
“Love you too Tony boy,” I teased back weakly, I thought my fastball was pretty good!
“Ethan, will you add my family to the prayer tonight,” Mitchell asked?
“Sure, you know I will.”
“Hey Mitchell, tell me more about the time your boy was revived?”
“He wasn’t revived ese, he was returned Ethan, returned from the dead, no doctors, no treatment, he was returned to us by la Senor!”
“I felt Him there with us Ethan. Just like you said you could feel him in your life now. He was in that little girl that day, I think that he is still with her.”
I started the nightly prayer and was sure to add a request to bless and keep Mitchell’s family in the Lords good graces. The fellas prayed along with me, reciting the parts that they remembered, and I wondered when we were through about the things that Mitchell had talked about. I made a mental note to find some time tomorrow to chat with him more about it. Like as not, we were in for yet another ho- hum day. I held my arm up to the screened window and squinted trying to make out the time. It was 11:55pm, lights out at the end of this day; I wonder what the mess sergeant will run over for breakfast tomorrow?