by D S Sault (~7200 words) © Dean Sault, April 2008 A middle-aged man limped down the front walk of his home, footing made tenuous by a growing layer of February snow. At the street, he opened his mailbox and rifled past bills and junk mail, hoping to find a special letter. His son’s commander had discovered the un-mailed correspondence while going through the soldier’s personal things and dropped it into the mail. That same day, the officer sent the obligatory “missing in action” telegraph notification to the family and, at the end of the mandatory military wording, he added a personal note warning them to keep an eye out for the letter. There it was! With fingertips calloused by years in his machine shop, the soldier’s father lightly brushed across the face of the rumpled envelope, feeling every crease. Each word on the outside of the letter was from his son’s own hand...the home address, the return military APO. He read it all, even the postmark of December 22, nineteen sixty-eight. The last thoughts his oldest child would ever share with him waited inside this scuffed envelope. A painful lump formed in the man’s throat. He relied more than usual on his cane as he cautiously walked back to the front porch. Sliding a small pocketknife blade under the envelope’s flap, he sliced it open, revealing the folded pages within. He hesitated to remove the contents. Somehow, the words in that letter meant the end of his oldest son’s life. There seemed no good reason to hasten the moment. The soldier’s father stood outside his front door, not able to bring himself to enter. His own father, many years before, taught him that men do not show feelings, a lesson he dutifully passed on to his own sons. He feared he might not live up to those childhood expectations when he finally chose to read these words from his son. No, he decided, at this moment he needed to be alone. A gentle breeze left a thin layer of snow on the porch bench, despite the short awning above. It did not matter. He sat on the cold wooden slats, hands trembling - though not from the cold. After carefully straightening the creases in the letter, the soldier’s father began reading. Each word spoke to him, as if read aloud by his son. “Hey Dad, I miss you and Mom. Hope you guys have a great Christmas. Maybe you could do me a favor. You remember that military allotment comin outta my pay? It’s goin into that savings account you set up for me when I joined the Army. I never did take your name off that account. I’d appreciate if you could take out twenty dollars for each of my brothers and give it to them for Christmas. Ain’t no way I can send nothing from here. Take twenty for you and Mom, too. Merry Christmas! Me and the guys set up a little Christmas tree in our hooch...that’s a tent. Well, it ain’t a real pine tree, just some kinda scrub bush we picked up on patrol last week. I used some a them candy canes, the ones Mom sent, for decorations. Some asshole’s been stealing em off our tree! I found the wrappers outside. If I catch that son of a bitch, he’ll get wunna them ‘you’ll-think-twice-next-time’ whoopins, you know, like the one you gave me when I broke into that church. You ‘member that? I was twelve and I saw all that money in the collection plate an’ figured nobody’d miss some. Bought me that new shotgun I wanted. When you figured out how I bought it, you made me take it back to the gun shop and give all the money back to that preacher. When we got home, wow! Those bruises hurt for a week, even after the strap marks went away! Sure wish I learned my lesson from you, back then. Dad, I gotta get something off my chest. Yeah, I know you always told me, men don’t get mushy, but I never did say thank you for what you done after the fire. Hell, I don’t even think I told you I was sorry. When we burned down Mr. Ketchen’s barn, it was me that lit that fire, not Jake. He said he’d take the fall cause he’s a minor. We knew he’d get off easy. And me, you got that prosecutor to let me join the Army instead’a doing time as a assory, accessor...I can’t spell the word, but you know what I mean. I know this don’t change nothing, now that Jake’s off probation, but I just wanted you to know the truth. I’m real sorry for turning out to be such a bad son. I know you did your best, and you done a good job! I just didn’t listen. Thanks for doing your best. Well, I guess you’re pissed at me now for getting all mushy. That’s too damn bad, old man! You’re tough...you’ll get over it. Besides, you can’t whoop me anymore! Ha-ha! We’re goin over the fence tomorrow...that means we’re sneaking into Cambodia on a deep recon mission. We’re not supposed to tell nobody about it. Last time when I was at the USO, the one down in Saigon, President Nixon was on television. He told all the reporters that we don’t have no US troops in Laos or Cambodia. What a crock! The NVA know we’re there! Guess they don’t watch no television! HaHa! I got a bad feeling about this one, Dad. Supposed to be a big NVA force moving south, toward IV Corp. We gotta find em and call in the flyboys for a air strike. You should feel the ground shake when them bombers light up the gooks in a Arc Light saturation bombing! Can’t hear worth a damn for a couple days afterward! Sure glad it’s them, and not me! Anyway, our lerp team...that’s what they call us Long Range Recon Patrol guys...we’re headin out before first light in the morning - that’s so local spies don’t see us leavin and tell their VC buddies. I think we’ll be gone a couple weeks, maybe a month. I’ll write again when I get back. Dad, if anything happens to me in Cambodia, the government will tell ya I’m missing in action. Don’t believe em! If I’m alive, I’ll find a way to get back. You taught me to survive in the woods. I learned to hunt, and be tough, just like you. When the Army put me through survival school, I laughed at em...wasn’t near as bad as keeping up with you in the bush! One of the DIs asked me what was so funny, I told him he ain’t seen nothin tougher than my dad! Well, I gotta get some rest. Like I said, I got a bad feeling about this one. Think we’re gonna lose some guys on this mission. I promise I’ll do everything in my power to protect my buddies and get home, but you never know when your number’s up over here. Just in case things don’t work out, please don’t let my little brothers forget me. And, tell Mom how much I love her. I’m leavin a bunch of pictures of me and my buddies in my foot locker, you know, just in case. Hell, I shouldn’t be talkin this way. It’s bad juju. Nothing’s gonna happen to me! I’m tough as my Dad! Love ya, Pete ps. Dad, don’t let my little brothers come over here. Something just ain’t right about this war.” The letter slipped out of the father’s hand, falling into the snow at his feet. Inside the house, people talked loudly as they celebrated the birthday of Pete’s youngest brother. The man on the porch stared into the past, a past he longed to change. His chest heaved beyond his ability to stop. Tears rolled silently down his rough cheeks. Every decision he made while raising his son now seemed wrong. What if...? This preceded thought after thought, as he chastised himself for his son’s death. What if I did not push him into the Army? He thought about his role when he fought for a more constructive punishment for his son’s arson. What if I let him suffer the consequences of his actions? He’d still be alive...if I did not get involved. Yeah, he’d be on probation now...but he’d be alive. The front door opened from inside. “What are you doing out here in the cold, honey?” Pete’s mom leaned out to see her husband sitting on the porch bench. “I’ll be in shortly, Cathy. I’m just enjoying the fresh snow on the lawn.” “Well, don’t stay out here much longer. You’ll catch your death of pneumonia. Besides, Johnny has something he wants to tell you.” She forced herself to feign happiness for the sake of her other children, but deep down, grief for the loss of her eldest son ate away at her. “What’s that by your foot?” She noticed the letter. “It’s just a parts list. I gotta pick em up for the shop in the morning. Now, get inside woman!” He spoke unnecessarily gruff, and looked away so she could not see his face. “I told you, I’ll be in real quick!” When the door closed, Pete’s dad picked up the letter, crumpled it into a wad and shoved it to the bottom of his pants pocket. Before he opened the door, a dark green sedan, driving much too fast, rushed down their slushy street. It slid to a stop directly in front of his house and a young man, dressed in formal military uniform, charged up the slippery walk. The last time someone like this visited was last month, when Pete’s family received the formal news about his disappearance in action. “Sir! Are you retired Gunny Sergeant, Bill Johnson?” “Yeah, whadda you want?” Sgt. Johnson spoke with a touch of anger in his voice. For a fleeting moment, he resented that the government would repeat their prior notification. Once was more than enough. Then it dawned on him, they found Pete’s body! Sgt. Johnson steeled himself for the worst. “Sergeant, I came over here the minute the phone call arrived in our office.” The lieutenant poured out the words, while struggling to catch his breath. “They found your son...he’s alive!” “What?” The retired sergeant did not dare to believe his ears. “It’s true, sir! He’s in bad shape, survived twenty-eight days with three bullets in his back and half his leg blown off. Medics say it’s a miracle. Can you come with me, Sarge? I’ve got a Pac-comm direct-line to his hospital at Cam Rahn Bay. You can get the details from his doctor.” Both men headed for the sedan idling in the street. Sergeant Johnson limped behind the younger man, his speed limited by an artificial leg. The officer held the car door open while Sgt. Johnson struggled to fit his rigid prosthesis through the opening. On the way to the local Army base, the young man tried to make friendly conversation. “My C.O. told me about what you did in Korea, Sarge. I hear you saved your whole platoon in a firefight with nearly two hundred Chinese regulars. I’ve never met a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient before. It’s an honor to meet you, sir!” “Thanks.” Sgt. Johnson recovered from his initial shock enough to remember his manners. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t catch your name.” “Lieutenant Cole...Robert Cole, sir.” Even though the sergeant was not an officer, the younger man continued to call him “sir”, out of respect. “From what they tell me, your boy’s a hero. His unit got trapped and he stayed behind in the mouth of a narrow pass. He pinned down the NVA by himself so his men could escape.” Sgt. Johnson set his jaw in admiration for his son. Lt. Cole slowed at the base entrance, waiting for a permission to pass gesture and salute from the MP. Once they cleared the checkpoint, he continued. “When his recon team got to radio range, they called in the air strike, just like he ordered them to. It took his team two weeks after that to reach the extraction point. They all made it, thanks to your son! Sarge, you should know that every one of his team volunteered to go back and get him, but the bomb-damage assessment photos after Arc Light showed complete destruction of the area. Command said no one could have survived. Sir, he must be one hell of a chip off the old block!” The olive-green sedan stopped in front of the base Communications Center. Inside, a technician directed Sgt. Johnson to a blue telephone. It had no dials, only a single red light at its center. The red light lit up, and when instructed, the medically retired soldier took the phone off its cradle. The next thing he heard startled him to his core. “Dad? Dad, is that you?” Pete’s voice was weak. “Hey Petey, I’m right here. How’re you doing, son?” “Not so good, Dad. Doc says I lost my leg below the knee. They’re gonna take the bullets outta my back as soon as I get a little stronger. How’s, Mom? Did you tell her I made it?” "I came straight over to the base when I heard. I’ll tell Mom as soon as I get home, I promise.” “Dad, I’m sorry for letting you down...again.” Pete’s voice was quickly fading. “Knock that kinda talk off, damn it!” Sgt. Johnson chastised his son. Then, with deep pride in his voice, he tried to encourage the young man, “Pete, you get better real fast! And, don’t you worry about that leg. I know just the guy who can teach you to get around on one leg! You know, it’s really not too bad! You’ll do just fine son. And Pete...I’m proud of you!” The light on the blue phone went out. On the way home, Sgt. Johnson reached into his pocket. He contemplated the crumpled paper for several minutes before rolling down his window and throwing the letter into the slush along the roadside. Some things just don’t need to be said. Several months passed, while Pete healed and underwent a full course of physical therapy in a military hospital. Tears of joy poured from his mother when he hobbled into their living room for the first time since he left for Nam. His physical condition did not matter to her...her child was home. “I made your favorite chicken’n dumplings for dinner.” Pete’s mother straightened some wrinkles in his shirt collar as she talked. “I put fresh sheets on your bed and I made Dad charge the battery in your car, so it’s running. Oh Peter, I’m so happy to have you home!” She engulfed her oldest son in an awkward hug, trying to thread her arms under his crutches so she could feel his entire body within her grasp. Pete shook his head slightly, and looked at his father, acting as if her emotional display was a bit too much. Dad just winked back. Later that night, after everyone else went to bed, Pete and his father sat on the back patio listening to the crickets chirp. They didn’t say anything for the longest time, but Pete seemed antsy. “Dad, did you get a letter from me back in January?” “No, son. Why?” “You sure? My CO told me he mailed it.” “I think I’d remember if I got a letter from you, at that time.” Pete’s dad tried to let his son forget about the emotional things he said. “Why’r you lying to me, Dad? I know you got the letter.” “Now, how would you know a thing like that?” The sergeant acted surprised. “C’mon, Dad. Don’t screw with me. Bobby thanked me for the twenty bucks I give him for Christmas.” “I’m sorry, Pete. You said some things in that letter that I thought you might want to forget. I was just trying to let you off the hook. I’m the only one who read it.” “Thanks Dad, but I meant every word. One thing I learned in Nam is that sometimes you don’t get a second chance. One of my buddies, Marty Rich, he was a short timer. Had less than ten days left in country till he caught a freedom bird. Marty volunteered for perimeter duty. Shoulda been his last patrol. Damn VC got him, shot right through the head, never knew what hit him. CO asked me to pack his stuff up for his family. Dad, I got choked up when I saw pictures of his new baby. That little girl will never know her daddy.” “Yeah Pete, I did that a few times in Korea. Choked me up, too.” Pete’s bond with his father changed in that moment. Father and son became fellow soldiers - men who shared the insanity of war. “Dad, when I was trapped inside that NVA perimeter, I found an old bomb crater with a field of fire that let me hold off the NVA so my guys could get away. There was so many gooks, I went through all my clips and frags...and they just kept coming. One even got into my crater. He sprayed me on auto but I got him. I refused to let them win. I was down to half a clip and one frag left when Arc Light hit. Jesus Christ that was scary! I dropped to the bottom of the crater and covered my head till it stopped. When I looked back over the lip, they were all dead, every damn one of them. Half my leg was gone too. I don’t know how I made it. I laid in that hole for a week, eating bugs and worms after my C rations was gone. When my canteen ran out, I caught rainwater. I just laid there, in my own piss. You don’t know how many times I wanted to give up...but I made a promise to you, Dad! That’s what kept me going.” Pete’s dad knew this was an important moment for his son. Every soldier needs release for the pent up tensions of war. The older soldier opened a beer and handed it to his son without saying anything. “Thanks, Dad.” Pete took a sip, “Did they tell you how I got outta Cambodia?” “No.” “Bunch’a Hmongs saved me! They were picking through dead NVA, looking for valuables. When they got to me...they couldn’t believe I was alive. Half the village come out to carry me across the mud left by the bombs. Couple old women stripped me and washed my wounds. They put leeches on my back and leg...hurt like Hell and gave me the shakes so bad I couldn’t keep food down. That’s when they gimme me some kinda rice wine. Got me drunk, but at least I could eat!” “I’ve had homemade rice wine, in Korea.” Pete’s dad broke into a knowing smile. “Pretty good kick!” “Tell me about it! I spent almost a month in that village getting drunk every time they stuck leeches on me. You know, I kept having weird dreams, too...about that fire in Mr. Ketchen’s barn. Every night, same dream.” The beer took its toll on Sgt. Johnson’s bladder so he interrupted his son and went inside to take care of business. When he returned, Pete seemed anxious to finish his story. “Better now, old man?” Pete asked in jest. “Dad, you ever meet ROK Marines when you were in Korea?” “Yeah. Fought side by side with em on the Pusan peninsula. You were still in diapers. Some of the toughest sons-a-bitches I ever met! Why?” “I tried to communicate with the villagers so I could get a message back to our forces, but it was impossible. One night, the village chief and a couple Asian military guys woke me up. They were carrying M-16’s, so I knew they were on our side, but I didn’t understand them either, and they left. Turns out, these guys were a ROK recon team. Took a couple days for them to get word back to our side. I guess when our guys asked for my location, the ROKs refused to tell em. They said if American choppers land anywhere near that village, it would bring suspicion on the villagers and the NVA would wipe out the whole village. They tell me our guys were pretty pissed!” “So, how’d you get back?” Sgt. Johnson asked, angered by the complicated politics and logistics in Vietnam. It was not like that in his day. If a soldier went down, you moved Heaven and Earth to get him back. “A bunch of Korean marines showed up at the village with a stretcher and a US medic. Those ROKs took turns carrying me through mountain passes and a couple valleys full of elephant grass, till we got to an American LZ on the Nam side of the fence. Took a coupla days, and they never slept! Tough bastards!” Sgt. Johnson’s appreciation for the Korean Marines swelled. Pete took several big chugs from his beer. “That’s pretty much all, Dad. The rest is just medics, drugs, surgeries..." Pete pointed at his dad's artificial leg. "...you know the drill.” Both men leaned back in their green plastic porch chairs, grateful for the late night chill at the end of a hot summer day. Fireflies twinkled in the distance while father and son enjoyed silent comradeship. After several minutes, Sgt. Johnson brought up an old issue that needed attending. “Pete, you given any thought to Mr. Ketchen’s barn? You know, he still hasn’t rebuilt it.” “Funny you ask about that, Dad. When I was in that village, I promised myself, if I lived through this, I’d find a way to repay him. He’s gotta be what, seventy years old?” “Actually, he’s over eighty. His wife died while you were in recon school. They say he hasn’t been the same since. How you gonna build him a new barn, when you don’t have any money and with only one good leg?” Pete thought for a moment, “I don’t know, but I’ll find a way.” That night, Sgt. Johnson struggled to sleep as his son relived Vietnam through terrifying dreams. “Incoming!” Pete half mumbled, half shouted in his sleep. All night long, a steady stream of nightmares, at irregular intervals, produced more call-outs...“Medic!”, “Oh no, they got Marty!”, “Gooks in the wire!”, “Sappers!” Each time the old soldier heard his son call out, he checked on the young man, but was careful not to wake him. As tough as this was, he knew his son had to follow the path of countless soldiers before him. Long after the surgeries healed, the emotional wounds of war would still be raw. The next morning, Pete rose before anyone else. His dad heard the front door close and looked out the upstairs bedroom window. Pete hobbled down the uneven pavement along the side of the road, with his grandfather’s shotgun tied to one of the crutches.