Veteran or survivor? A forgotten war destroyed much more than flesh and bone.
|Joe Atkins went into The Gauntlet with the rest of third platoon, confused and scared. Billy Tenor and Billy Hilton, too. Fred Garrington, who was an animal when he was behind the machine gun and a teddy bear every other minute of the day. Smitty. Both of the Kellie boys. His best friend, Hal Parker, the only other vet from WWII he'd met, and upon whom he'd come to rely.
Joe never came out on the other end. Neither did the Kellies, or The Animal, or Hal, or…or any of them.
But Dutch did. Oh yes sir, Sergeant Dutch McAllister did.
Dutch looked around at the white walls and cots, not comprehending. He didn't really see any of it anyway; his mind was too busy trying unsee the disaster up in Chongchon. The burning vehicles, wrecked tanks. The turkey shoot the Chinese had when the grunts tried to run for it. The swamp of death those grunts became…
"My God," he whispered. "I gotta… I gotta get back to… I gotta…" His eyes started to focus, to dart around frantically. "Doc!"
The medic did his best balancing act between casual and urgent, striding down the aisle between the beds to the man in the sling and head bandages.
"That's alright Sarge, you're alright, buddy. Easy now." He reached out a hand to calm or support McAllister, as needed.
"The boys need… I gotta--!"
The medic saw Dutch's eyes seeing what wasn't there, replaying the disaster over and over. He wondered if he'd ever get used to these shattered men and minds and souls. He pushed the sadness out of his voice for McAllister's sake and delivered the soothing story he'd practiced and delivered to too many others like this.
"Okay, Sarge, slow down." The medic kicked his lips and continued the merciful fiction. "Hey, you did good, old hoss, just as fine as paint, so easy now. You brought 'em through, buddy. The Cap'n said he was damn proud to have you in his company, and he sent you to get some R&R. The men like you who toughed it out need a little time to rest, okay?"
Sergeant Dutch McAllister breathed out a sigh and seemed to deflate. Hs eyes blurred over again, and he laid back on his cot in a slow, weary motion. "I am pretty tired, doc. Pretty tired and then a little more, I guess."
As McAllister's fluttered closed, the medic looked at him sadly. He hated lying to these men; he wondered if ANY of the cap'ns that led their men into that meat grinder survived to the other side. You go on and rest Sarge. You earned it, buddy.
"What do you want?" The young man's hair was longish and unkempt. His glasses were smeared.
"What? Why would-- hey man, what--?! I fought in the war, man, Over There! I lost-- I fought…"
"Yeah, well I got run over by a car in Santa Fe and lost my right leg to gangrene, so I guess we're even. Now waddya want: bunk, board, or a bus ticket?" The young man was cross, and sick of soldiers--soldiers like his daddy, swaggering around in their fancy green uniforms and throwing orders and getting all the girls…
Dutch looked at him seated behind the counter, wiry and thin. Rude crutches leaned against the counter behind him.
"Well?" The guy was casually impatient, even though there was no line behind McAllister. "Bunk? Board? Or Bus?" he repeated slowly and condescendingly.
Dutch's eyes fluttered and he looked around, confused, even a little afraid. "I guess I don't know, really. I… I was in the war, you see…" He wasn't looking across the counter; he wasn't talking to man who had lost his leg. Dutch McAllister's voice trailed off, and he left the hot little office to wander up and down the street until he remembered.
Nine years later the fellow behind the counter would remember McAllister every time he looked around the fifth floor in the hospital his mother called home ever since she fell and hit her head and was never again quite…right.
"I fought in the war. Yes sir... I fought in the war..."
The young men with long hair and beards turned away from him, night after night. Ol' Dutch. A fixture down at Maggie's every Thursday through Saturday. He was a thin, quiet old man who wore a perpetually distracted look, as though he was confused…but couldn't remember about what. Come Saturday night, once he was in his cups, he toted out the same old war stories about the ridges, the Chinese, the generals, and that idiot MacArthur. The stories were always the same, but each seemed woven through with disappointed uncertainty. And everyone had heard them all before.
After ten o'clock or so on Saturday nights, Ol' Dutch really didn't tell any story but one, over and over.
"I was in the war, young man, did ya know? Yep. We fought us a nasty little war over there…" And he drank his beer and tried not to remember any of it very clearly at all.