A story about virtue in the heart of chaos.
A Short Story of Sorts by
Thomas C. Curtis
My grandfather, once back when I was a small child with no comprehension skills in regards to parables or proverbs or adages or things of the sort, told me a story about one night in 1966, when the rain had been falling heavily every day for almost a month, and his men were falling ill with malaria in the dank forests of Vietnam. As far as I can remember, the dictation of this story to me and my cousin Jeffrey when we were seven and six, respectively, was the only instance in which my grandfather ever mentioned the Vietnam War to his grandchildren before he died in the fall of 2007 after years of battling with kidney and liver problems. Honestly, I can only remember the story at all because of the way he told it.
Jeffrey and I were playing with HotWheels cars on the floor of my grandparents' den as my grandfather watched 60 Minutes in an old rocking chair. He was like that, my grandfather. He displayed so many of the traits stereotypically possessed by old Southern men - from watching the news in an old rocking chair to shaving with powder-based cream long after the invention of the aerosol Barbasol can to mowing his lawn on riding mower in a red baseball cap, a white tee shirt, and khaki shorts - and no one ever once remarked on it. It just seemed so natural on him. It would not be too far of a stretch to say that my grandfather was the archetypal old Southern man. Didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't cuss (at least not in front of the children, anyway), and didn't complain about a goddamn thing except his nagging wife, whom he loved dearly until the day he died. He was a good man, and humble at that. What I remember most about him was his energy. Whenever we would walk in the door to my grandparents' house, he was always ready to play with us grandchildren. He would chase us around the house, and we would chase him, and sometimes he would pretend like he didn't want to play with us until we either:
a) did a complete and thorough job of convincing him of why he should join us, or
b) gave up in our pursuits with our heads hung low and moved on to something else, at which point he would jump out from behind something and scare us into running in all directions around the house.
We always hoped for "b".
This one afternoon, however, all of that light-hearted energy drained from his face, and he looked at me with a dead seriousness. It was just that: seriousness. Not anger or frustration or annoyance. Just a certain level of seriousness that can only be found in the faces of those who have witnessed some great trauma. He wasn't watching the two of us play. He wasn't watching the television. Hell, as far as my grandfather was concerned, Jeffrey wasn't even there. He stared at me in my youth and my innocence with an empty, almost lifeless expression, and I looked up and made eye contact with him for what felt like the first time, and I knew that I whatever he was about to tell me was important, and I needed to pay attention.
I put down my cars. Jeffrey kept playing as if nothing was happening. I locked eyes with the old man. He had always looked so big to me. We called him the "Big Bear" when playing. And he was just that: big and bearlike. His form and muscle mass had escaped him some over the years, but he still had that look about him; that bearlike look that children find both terrifying and comforting at the same time. At that moment, though, he looked small. He looked like just another one of the grandchildren playing in the old house. I don't know if it was me seeing him as a child or him seeing me as an adult, but either way, we had just become equals.
"There's a difference," he started like a man delivering his brother's eulogy, overwhelmed with weakness and trying to sound strong. "There's a difference between a good man and a virtuous man."
I stared at him in silence as he broke our gaze and watched the floor. Jeffrey was making a great deal of noise in the background, crashing toy cars into each other and making them explode. I couldn't hear any of that, though. All that background noise faded out like it does in movies when the point of view shifts or the hero starts saying something important.
"Your daddy and I, we got a lot in common," the old man said. "We've both seen how bad this world can be."
"You'll see it, too, one day. Maybe not the way we did, but you'll see it, too. Your daddy, you see, he was a Marine. And that may not mean much to you now, but in about ten, fifteen years you'll start to understand what that means, and it will answer a bunch of questions you'll have about why things happened the way they did and why he does the things he does.
"Me, I was in the Navy. Almost made Admiral, but I turned it down because my wife told me that, if I moved the family one more time, even if it was the last time, she was gettin' a divorce. I never could win an argument against that woman."
He stopped for a minute, eyes fixed on the burnt orange carpet.
"I was in the Vietnam War," he told me.
"I know you don't know what that was or what it was about or why it's important, but you will. I was in the Vietnam War in 1966. Now, I was an engineer. I wasn't supposed to see any action over there. I was just supposed to work on building bridges and roads for the supply trucks to move on so we could get help out to our boys who needed it. But you see, that's the thing about the Vietnam War. Nothing really went like it was supposed to."
He pause again and shook his head. His eyes found their way back to mine. They were glazed with a thin layer of saline and mucus and outlined with a halo of bright red.
"There was one day... It had been raining for about a month, and it didn't look like it was gonna stop anytime soon. There was one day we were bushwhacking through the jungle, trying to cut a clearing for a new supply road, trying to find the best way to make it run so that the ground wouldn't fall out from underneath you as you're driving on it. I was out with about five or six men from my squad. The rest of them were on bed rest with malaria. We each had our hand shovels and our machetes and our rifles and a few pairs of socks, but that was it. We had been hiking for about an hour, hour and a half - not too long, but just enough to be distanced a good ways from the rest of the company - when we stopped to change our socks.
"You have to do that out there so that you don't get malaria or mess up your feet. If you don't change your socks, they get soggy and wet and mosquitoes lay their eggs in them. Even if they don't, you can still ruin the nerves in your feet for a couple day, make it so you can't walk.
"Anyway, we had stopped to change our socks, and one of our men, name was Dallas, cause he was from Dallas, he went over to the bushes to relieve himself. He was over there, doing his thing, and we were all leaned up against a tree, changing our socks. A few seconds later, Dallas started screaming and hollering like a newborn baby. And he turned around. And we all looked at him, his hands and pants all covered in blood; not much left were his dick used to be. And we just stood there for a minute, staring at him, not knowing what to make of the whole ordeal.
"Turns out, the bush he had chosen to relieve himself in was the nesting ground of a sharp-nosed pit viper. They call those things 'hundred pacers', because if you get bit by one, you get a hundred paces before you die.
"So Dallas was making all sorts of noise, alerting ever gook in the damn jungle as to where we were, and the rest of us are trying to shut him up and find some way to help him and clean up the blood on where his dick should be. After a minute or two of all that commotion, our Squad Leader, a man by the name of Joshua Leibowitz, pulled out his pistol and he shot Dallas right in the head. After that, no one said a word for hours."
We sat there in silence for a moment. I realized that I was no longer looking at my grandfather, but rather staring at a black and white photograph of him and my grandmother on their wedding day.
"The reason I told you that story," he continued, after what seemed like several hours of pure silence accompanied by the sounds of toy cars exploding in the distance. "Is this. Joshua Leibowitz was a virtuous man. He knew what he had to do, and he did it, and he didn't hesitate any longer than it took for him to realize what exactly what it was he needed to do. He saved all of our lives, and he put Dallas out of his misery before he had to suffer anymore. That's virtue. And it doesn't matter if he's Christian or Jewish or a Muslim or a Pagan. A virtuous man knows what he's gotta do and he does it, no questions asked. Even if it ends up hurting him in the long run. A good man, on the other hand, he'll help people out, and he'll do what others ask him to, and he won't ask for a reward. But a virtuous man doesn't need to be asked."
He sat there, rocking slowly in his old rocking chair, staring off into nothing. I couldn't look at him. I wasn't scared or upset or anything of the sort. More in shock, really. I just couldn't bring myself to look at the man.
"Be a virtuous man," he said as he went back to watching the news.