A short story of the lives of a couple of veterans after the war.
|Telling the Story
He seemed afraid of his own shadow, sitting there perched on the edge of his chair, as if ready to take flight at any moment. His knees quivered, and in an attempt to quiet them, he crossed his right leg over his left and crossed it again at the ankles. This only prompted his entire body to quake, so he methodically unwound himself and went back to smoothing his knees. He looked around the group to see if anyone had noticed, but no one had. They were all consumed by their own attempts to keep themselves in the room, hands clutching their seats. Some barely hung on and were standing near the door, hoping an optimal moment to escape would come. None came.
Soon enough, the door monitor motioned that no one else appeared to be coming and the meeting was called to order with a roll call; first names only, of course. No one bothered with their real names, and if they did, nobody noticed. Real names didn’t matter; just the facts and we knew what those were. At least, we thought we did.
We had been waiting for weeks to hear Sparrow’s story. That was the guy perched on his chair. Like I said, real names didn’t matter; some were made up for guys and stuck no matter what they called themselves.
Slowly Sparrow began to speak, quietly, stuttering, then clear, monotone, and direct.
“I was escaping a boring life in the fields of Iowa and a Dad who drank too much and cared too little. His short temper kept me in a state of high alert with an incubating ability to hide in plain sight, but preferably in a deep hole where he couldn’t reach. Anyway, by the time I was sixteen, I figured I couldn’t tolerate any more close calls at home. The odds were against me and I needed a lifeline, so I went to enlist in the Army. They said I needed my Dad to sign, but I knew he would refuse, so I doctored my birth certificate. The Marines cared the least about my doctored certificate, so the Marines it was. After sixteen weeks of training and two weeks flunking out of tactical weapons school, I was on my way to ‘Nam. I was assigned to Charlie Company heading up to the front with the next rotation in a few months. Guys told me we were lucky to get time to acclimate and settle in. I didn’t even know what those words meant. All I knew was that every night rounds flew over our heads, flares lit up the skies and I didn’t know what sleep was. I only knew I was conscious and afraid or I was waking up to a nightmare. The days were long, hot, and boring beyond belief. I looked at leaving Iowa with a little bit of regret and envy with every helicopter that flew out loaded with a new crop of fresh faces. As I said, I was sixteen, but there was a guy there even younger than I was. We called him Recruit. Everybody looked out for Recruit and I don’t think any of us could have told you why. Now when I look back, I think he reminded all of us of what we gave up and would never recover; undeniable youthful innocence."
Sparrow spoke with an eloquence none of us knew he had. The story he told was familiar, but he managed to bring it all back to life. When he was interrupted due to time, we all let out a collective sigh of relief. I don’t think we realized we weren’t breathing.
I took my time gathering myself together to leave. I kept staring over at Sparrow as guys walked up to shake his hand and others walked by to nod in agreement with something he said. No one smiled and no one laughed. The air was too thick for me and I had a serious set of beers waiting for me somewhere. It was always strange when the old guys started talking about Vietnam. It was so long ago, it was hard to believe it ever happened or anyone cared beyond this room of misfits. I just wondered where Sparrow was going with his story.
I had just settled into my second beer when I noticed a familiar frame walk into the bar. You can always tell when someone’s been in war. They enter the room, search out the exits, and try to make sure there aren’t any familiar faces around. Not that they don’t want to meet friends, they just want to know when they’re around. They also sit with a wall to their backs, just as I was sitting. No sense having an enemy sneak up on you. An honorable enemy wouldn’t sneak up on a guy, but who had an honorable enemy?
When Sparrow saw me, he nodded his head slightly, and walked to the other side of the bar. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but that wasn’t it. We were in a gay bar, after all, so what was the problem? It wasn’t even a cruising bar. It was a sit down and get drunk kind of bar; for serious drinkers only. I was a little offended. It was apparent Sparrow and I had secrets in common, rare ones. Maybe there were some he wanted to keep. Suddenly, the beer wasn’t calling out to me. I wouldn’t be able to get drunk no matter how many beers I had. Thinking screws it all up. I ducked out the back. I love bars that have a back door near the rest-room. I was gone before Sparrow even reached his booth.
The next week, I was determined to get to the meeting just before the speaker was to begin. I wanted to make sure I was nowhere near Sparrow. I wanted to be able to hide my eyes and not have to lock up or explain why I wasn’t looking up, if even to no one but myself. That turned out to be not particularly good planning, as the only seat open was the one next to the speaker. I settled in for a difficult time, both observing and being observed. Sparrow began.
“We spent the next few weeks learning not to salute, cutting the word sir from our vocabularies, and repeatedly cleaning our guns. We all felt we were losing our edge, but the experienced guys repeatedly just shut us down by telling us we didn’t have an edge. We were in their country, not ours, they repeated. The monotony was beginning to wear on us when the day finally arrived for our scheduled departure. We’d written all the letters home and packaged in each was our last vestiges of the past. Each letter was a letter of introduction and of good-bye which we hoped would reach home before word of our deaths.
When we packed up all our gear and settled in for our short flight up-country, I, for whatever reason or luck, sat next to Recruit. He was shaking like a leaf and making me all nervous, so I did what I could to help calm him down, if for no other reason than to distract myself. I asked where he was from and why he joined up. Both were unforgivable invasions of privacy, but what the hell, we were all going to die anyway. It was a foregone conclusion that both he and I would be dead later that day. As it was, our platoon was dropped off upstream, along this river, where we set up camp. I remember feeling like we were sitting ducks and thinking that river would be red with our blood before nightfall. I was almost right. Just as the sun started to set, they came at us hard from across the river. We didn’t have time to get scared and fought through the entire night, never once spotting a living breathing soul. Our captain called in airstrikes that lit the river on fire. I didn’t know water could burn, but that river burned and boiled a lot of bodies that night, but none of them ours, we checked the next morning. It was the first any of us had seen of the enemy, but now the enemy had seen us. We hoped we made a good impression.
We spent the next day trying to sleep, re-dig our trenches, and regroup for the fight we knew was coming again that night. And it did. The river was on fire again. This continued for weeks, then was replaced by daytime raids, and then they just ended.
We sent recon units across the river, but they all came back empty-handed. They had simply disengaged. Several more weeks went by and we were coming up to our six month anniversary. Any anniversary is suspect and covered with superstition, so we tried to ignore it and wouldn’t believe it until we had boarded the helicopters and were leaving the river’s edge.
Being off the front-line was met with palpable relief, but it would take weeks for the tension to lift. We weren't that far off the front lines. When we started to get shelled more frequently back there, we were sluggish to re-engage. We finally sent out small units of scouts. They would go out early in the morning and return in the early afternoon, usually with little to add and not having seen a thing.
One afternoon though, we got radio contact they were coming in hot. The scout unit came back in full-retreat having engaged what they thought was a small early advance unit, only to discover it was a lot bigger than they thought. How they had gotten through our front lines without being seen was beyond our comprehension, yet there they were. We found ourselves being shelled rather severely, but we were holding our own. We just feared for the night. Night-time was always worse.
It appeared the higher-ups were afraid of the night as well and decided to launch a counter-offensive and sandwich the enemy between us, hopefully leaving them no escape. Good plan except the enemy must have figured running through the base was easier than trying to retreat through a force of undetermined size behind them. All we saw were screaming men and firepower heading in our direction. In no time, we were in hand to hand combat and literally fighting from foxhole to foxhole with the nighttime lit only by bullets and explosions. I’d never bashed in a person’s head before that night, but by the time it was over, I was highly familiar with the sensation of a skull caving in to blunt force from an M-16 and thereby silencing two screams, mine and his. This brutal dance went on all night with none of us expecting to see daylight."
Again, they called time and the guys slowly streamed out. This time they left in silence. It was a little too real for the old guys and completely bewildering for us younger guys. The closest we got to hand to hand combat was a suicide bomber exploding body parts on us. We were much more used to anonymous road-side bombs.
I didn’t even remember looking at Sparrow as he spoke, but I do remember looking at his hands. They continued to look so gentle and expressive and had stopped shaking soon after he began speaking. Now they were hanging limply drained at his side as I stumbled to find my legs and run out of the hall, away from him.
Every time one of those social worker types asks me how much I drink, I always want to answer “not enough.” I figure if I can remember how many drinks I have at one sitting then I’m obviously too sober. I once met a guy who when asked how much he drank, just held up his hands about a foot apart. Now, he did have a drinking problem and no one could deny that. As I sat there looking at the clear fluid languishing the insides of my beer bottle, I was contemplating my own denial.
I felt rather than saw that I was being watched. Nothing spoils my appetite more than being an appetizer for somebody else. That’s not the way I roll. I barely lifted my eyes to search around in the darkness for my unwelcome admirer. I didn’t lock eyes with anybody and was just about to massage my “this must be paranoia button” when I felt it again. This time I did catch a glimpse of someone, but since he wasn’t my type, I just brushed it aside and him with it. I polished off my beer, but instead of staying for the six or seven others I might ordinarily have, I looked up for the clearest exit. As I gathered my coat and felt for my cell phone, the bar-back hustled over a beer from my secret admirer. I stared at it like it had legs of its own and rather than have to rudely brush off my fan base, I made a hasty retreat.
I made it out without being accosted or confronted or anything, and slowed my pace as I rounded the second corner. I didn’t realize I was relieved until I heard a sound and felt eyes on me again. This I didn’t like. I had just turned off of a busier street and was now in one of the alleys the real estate people called lanes. I turned around to face my ardent admirer and was confronted by two young guys who were looking at a victim not a piece of trade. I hoped I wouldn’t be dead when this dance was over. I wasn’t even particularly hopeful they would be dead. I knew the kids in this neighborhood liked to carry guns and knives and I was just about to offer up my ransom when I saw another figure coming up behind these two. It was Sparrow. He motioned that he would take the one of the right leaving me the one of the left. Neither of these poor suckers seemed to know what was about to happen. I was even surprised by the speed of the assault. All of my instincts and training kicked in. I was a second from breaking the guy’s neck when I decided, since I had the luxury of time, to choke him into unconsciousness instead. Sparrow must have had the same flash as I did as our eyes locked in the darkness and I could see he was doing the same thing. That eye lock was potent, practically pornographic. I was done.
It was a few minutes after we left the alley and my pulse and blood pressure returned to normal that I began to have questions. How was Sparrow there to rescue me? Who sent me the beer? How long were those two tracking me? Question after question arose in my head. I looked over at Sparrow and I’m sure he could see the panic in my face. My guard was up. “I’m screwed up. I don’t owe you an explanation,” he said. He turned and walked away from me and didn’t look over his shoulder once. I watched. I waited. I also knew I needed to get out of there. I was too high to be safe and knew I would return to being drunk in a minute or two. I was also hot and bothered, and that light switch hadn’t been turned on in years. I stopped off at a bodega I didn’t know to report a White dude in a suit being mugged in the alley. That ought to get the guys some attention before they had time to wake up and wander off. They were vulnerable and unprotected without their firing pins. Hopefully, they wouldn’t try and have a shoot-out with the cops. They’d lose that too.
The next week, I waited for Sparrow outside the meeting hall. We needed to talk. He didn’t show. I went in anyway and suffered through an incredible cry-baby session of “why me?” The unanswerable questions always make me want to scream, especially when they’re asked out loud. I spent the entire meeting trying to breathe and not wonder about Sparrow. He’d invaded my brain all week and I’d managed to stay sober the whole week. The incident the week before had me spooked. I didn’t know I wanted to stay alive, but I did know I didn’t want to be hurt, physically or mentally. I was done with that.
It was another three weeks before Sparrow showed up again. I chalked it up to nerves, but noticed a slight wince when he sat down. As he looked around the room, I couldn’t wait for him to spot me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or expected, but the smile of recognition floored me. I was glued to my chair. I may have even blushed, if that was possible. The room went quiet as they ceded the floor to Sparrow. He began.
"The fighting was over a couple hours before daylight. It stopped as suddenly as it began. Some of us collapsed in our foxholes and you could hear guys praying, crying, and shaking. There was none of the usual bragging after an offensive. I guess because this was a defensive. Everybody was trying to defend themselves.
As the darkness lifted and we could make out the mayhem, it was awful. There were bodies everywhere. There were some in the foxholes where we slept and you could see guys struggling to pull them out. The ground was so wet you would have thought it had rained, but it hadn’t. It was soaked with blood. I walked over to drag one of the bodies to the makeshift pile we were creating to identify the dead. For whatever reason, I figured if the body was close to me, I may have participated in his demise. Anytime, I saw a skull caved in, I automatically took credit, or blame, if it was a familiar. On one of my trips to the pile, I snagged this little guy's body on something sticking up out of the mud near where I’d slept. I’d walked and dragged over that same area numerous times that morning, but now I was snagged. I cursed under my breath and pulled. I really didn’t have much energy to spare, but you know how anger motivates us. I wasn’t going to be done in by a stick, so I reached over to pull it out. It was a hand attached to an arm and a body that was attached to a face I knew; a face far too young to be staring out into nothingness with its skull crushed. Recruit was dead and to this day, I don’t know if I killed him. Was he one of those faces hidden by night and screaming in fear retreating from the enemy and sandwiched between us and them? It’s my recurring nightmare and up until a month ago, I never expected it to end. It finally occurred to me that I could just forgive myself and move on. I still had choices. I could stop waiting for some retribution or some salvation."
And there it ended as abruptly as it began. The room stayed quiet for a few minutes as we all let it sink in. Slowly, people stood up, milled around and headed for the exits. I just sat there. I couldn’t move. I stared at Sparrow just as he stared at me, only removing his gaze as people walked up to shake his hand and block his view. I got up to introduce myself to this man I wanted to mess up my life.