Michael E. Tank
THE LAST LONG NIGHT
Bill folded the old flag and tucked it under his arm. It was growing dark now; the evening was cool, quiet and calm. He stood for a moment sadly looking around at the growing shadows and with a deep sigh turned towards the house and walked slowly to the front door. Stepping through into the dark lonely home he closed the door behind him for the last time
The house smelled of stale cigarettes and beer mingled with that musty odor of the unwashed and of old food. He laid the flag on a dust covered table by the door and moved into the darkened room. Sitting in his padded rocking chair he turned on a floor lamp and picked up an old picture album and as he rocked gently in the corner of the shadowy room he slowly began to turn the pages of his life
Bill was fifty-five years old today, alone now these past two years; his wife of thirty years had finally left him and for good this time. Three times in the past she had moved out but always she had returned, to give it one more chance: now those chances were gone, and six months ago he had just given up. This time he had let himself go completely, started drinking again, forgot about taking care of himself.
His hair was shoulder length and matted, a ragged beard grew off his chin. He wore the same clothes for days on end, changing them now only on occasion and, sometime in the not so distant past, he remembers taking a shower. Bill just didn’t think about such things anymore, and there was no one around to complain or care. And he drank, a few beers during the day and bourbon whiskey when it became night
Sickly and frail, suffering from the aging wounds he had received in Vietnam, with a rash that popped up on his skin from deep inside that had started in his late thirties – small red dots that itched, itched so badly that he scratched till they bled then he scratched some more. Bill knew in his heart the rash was from the Agent Orange he had swallowed in Nam. The old VA doctor told him he was allergic to strawberries, it didn’t matter that he never ate them.
And of course there were the wounds. Two tours in Vietnam, two wounds to end those tours. The first, a bullet through his left shoulder, the older he got the stiffer the shoulder grew. But the second had been the worst, damn near killed him at twenty-one years of age: a rocket burst had ripped open his right side, broken his leg; he still carried around small junks of steel.
But these physical ailments were not the worst of it, he could live with pain he had for most of his life, it was the mental anguish he could no longer endure. Flashbacks came in the middle of the day, nightmares and cold sweats throughout the long nights only to awake screaming, shaking, trembling, crying, and too afraid to go back to sleep. So he would sit and numb the pain with the drink until he lost consciousness and dreamt no more.
Bill had not always been in such a sad state. He had grown up in a loving Mid-Western family, he the oldest with two sisters and a brother. Their mother: a beautiful, loving, religious soul who had doted over her children. His father was troubled, but hard working and kind, and had loved them all dearly. It had been for Bill a good and happy childhood of hard work, sunny summers and school activities
He had been a handsome, athletic young man, outgoing and popular in school. Lettering in high school sports, he grew up to be lean and strong. It was in high school where he had met his wife, Jessica, dark haired, energetic and petite; she captured his heart at his first sight of her and they had been together ever since. The one true love of his life had stayed with him for all those years and now she was gone.
After high school Bill had enlisted in the Marine Corps with the hope of making it a career. Just before he was to leave for his first tour in Vietnam, Bill and Jessie were married. He now looked sadly at their wedding picture, remembering, longing for that happier time: Jessie, beautiful and radiant as her dark auburn hair and violet eyes contrasted with her white gown: Bill, so young, tanned and handsome, standing tall and looking sharp in his Marine dress blues
That was probably the last time in his life when he was completely happy for, even though he knew on their wedding day that he was to leave for Vietnam, in his innocence he had no idea of what was really in store for him or of the price he was to ultimately pay for the duty to his Country, and after his final return he would forever look at this picture and wonder whatever had happened to that smiling young man?
The second of his wounds had broken his leg in two places, forever ending his chance at a career in the Corps. It took him almost a year to recover from his wounds and by then Jessie’s and his first child was born. June would be the first of two girls for the proud couple as Jennifer was born a year later.
Now healthy and with a family Bill went to work and tried to forget about the war.
And for a while he seemed to forget – or at least to put it out of his mind. But as the years went by there were troubling signs that all was not well. His depression was almost constant and no matter how hard he tried he just could not shake it. He seemed to be unable to be happy, to feel joy or show any signs of exhilaration. Most people just figured he was a low-key individual or at worst an ‘old grouch’.
He had few close friends mainly just people he met at work and he never really associated or did things with them, although most people thought highly of him. He and Jessie rarely went to parties or other people’s home nor did they entertain. Bill kept to himself and always felt better when he got home at night and as the years passed this solitude increased and he became even more withdrawn.
He had a constant feeling of impending doom and everything he did was overshadowed with it. Always waiting for that other shoe to drop, he became reluctant to venture out except to work. Year after year Jessie planned family outings and vacations, only to end up taking the girls herself. Approaching Bill with her plans for the trips in three or four months hence, Bill would always agree to go and he would actually look forward to the time away with his family
But as the time to leave grew nearer he would become apprehensive, irritable – until finally he would tell her he had to work, or was not feeling well: anything to stop from going out into the unknown. And then he would worry until they returned. In the entire time they had been married there had been only one vacation as a family and that was long ago when the girls were just four and three years old.
Also it seemed that the harder he worked, the further he got behind – that no matter what he did he was not doing enough, and what he was doing was not good enough. At work he would check and recheck his finished work, doubling or tripling the time the job should take. That did not go unnoticed and because of it, he soon began to lose jobs, which increased his frustration. In the last two years he worked he lost six different jobs and it was getting harder to find work
But the most troubling sign was his anger: a fast rising tide of rage that surprised and shocked even him. Small inconsequential matters would make him explode in a burst of anger laced with profanities. Mostly, the anger would disappear as quickly as it had come, but by then the damage was done. It was the anger coupled with his growing use of alcohol that created the wedge between him and his girls, for although he never struck or hurt them or their mother, this show of anger was itself terrifying.
Some mornings Bill would awaken and be mad at the world and not really knowing why. He would brood over this or that, nothing of importance, just pissed off at everything and nothing. Loud sudden noises made him jump and cringe and the anger would flash in his head like a hot iron. He would yell at the girls if it had been their fault, or swear blindly at whatever made the disturbance – then he would be sorry to have frightened them, be ashamed, and grow depressed by his sudden outbursts
Underneath all these feelings of anger, depression, frustration and fear was a deep disturbing guilt that he had survived while so many of his friends had not: that un-Marine-like he had left them behind. He always felt – knew that he should have died in Vietnam. He tried desperately but unsuccessfully to bury that guilt. It ate at his heart like a cancer and there seemed to be no cure.
He started experiencing flashbacks and the nightmares became all too frequent. Driving on a rainy day coming up and over a hill seeing the rain soaked farmland spread out before him. Standing in his brother’s dark hay field at night with the tree lines silhouetted by a thousand stars, hearing a chopper’s ‘thump, thump’ as it passed overhead, the smell of diesel fuel or heavy rains. It wasn’t that these things just brought back a memory, they took him back; he was there again in Nam.
Bill did not remember when he had his first thoughts of suicide but those thoughts slowly began to flourish and take form. He planned in detail how and when he could accomplish this forbidden act. Eventually it became a fantasy for him, a daydream of unfolding release. He even set a few conditions that must be met before he could finally perform his undoing.
First – his mother would have had to have passed away; his father had died years before. Second – the girls must be grown and out of school. Next Jessie had to be provided for and there would be no suicide note. And finally it had to be clean, no messy, shocking scene for someone to discover or clean up. Like another one of his jobs, even this death by his own hand had to be perfect.
That’s how his life evolved; in his late twenties he was busy forgetting the unforgettable. By his early thirties he imagined he, Jessie and the girls had a chance at some kind of happiness. In his late thirties and forties the stress of always finding a new job or hoping to hold on to the one he had was wearing him down, the nightmares began in earnest and the flashbacks increased. By the time he was fifty he was drinking heavily just to forget and could not sleep at all.
He was out of work, again, and at a very low point when his brother-in-law told him about the VA. Applying for benefits he slowly, frustratingly made it through their process. At the ripe old age of fifty-two he received total and permanent disability from the VA for his wounds and something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known as ‘PTSD’. And for a while as he learned more of what was wrong, he had some hope.
But of course it was not the answer he had hoped it would be, for he was looking for a miracle. And he soon learned that even though the VA was there to help it was still just a bureaucracy; understaffed, forever underfunded, with an always-growing influx of new Veterans needing help. He started out seeing a psychiatrist once every two weeks, a medical doctor once every six months. By the end of all the initial appointments and exams he had seventeen different prescriptions.
Every time he walked out of the clinic he had two or three new meds to take. From the Doctor he had two different medicines for high blood pressure, a cream for the rash, an asthma spray, a nasal spray, two types of pills for allergies he didn’t even know he had, two types of pills to cut through congestion, pills to help his upset stomach, two types of pain relievers and a pill to either increase or decrease, he never really understood which, something called enzymes.
From the psychiatrist he got sleeping pills that knocked him for a loop, and was started on one then another type of mood changing drug, both with no marked improvement. So he was then prescribed the ‘Big P’, Prozac. After six months of experimenting with all these drugs and becoming ill from all the side effects, Bill dropped most of them, including the Prozac.
After all, the nightmares were still there and so too was his suicide plan. Yet the lack of improvement with the drug use was not what bothered him most. It was the people he had contact with in the VA, on his third appointment with his psychiatrist, he received a rude awakening and learned how harassed these people were with their heavy work load and just how truly unimportant he was in this vast, jumbled scheme of things called ‘VA Health Care’.
As he entered the psychiatrist’s office the Doc was just hanging up the phone, and smiling; He gave Bill an apology for being kept waiting over an hour past his appointment time but he had just gotten some good news, “And what was that?” Bill had asked. “I just found out that one of my patients didn’t commit suicide so I didn’t lose him after all.” “Well that is good news.” said Bill. Yeah,” continued the smiling shrink, “He was murdered.”
“Murdered? He’s still dead, so I guess you did lose him after all.” Bill said starting to feel his anger rise. “Yes but he didn’t commit suicide.” uttered the smiling shrink. Bill got the picture: it’s just like a baseball player hitting a sacrifice fly, he’s still out but it didn’t hurt his average, that’s what this all boiled down to, a game, what’s the final score. Not too many suicides on the shrink’s batting average, so he must be doing a good job.
Any doctor/patient trust that might have begun to develop flew out the window with that exchange. Bill only saw the shrink a couple more times as he was shuttled off to one of the assistants. The time spent with this new therapist was nothing more than one-sided bullshit sessions with Bill sitting quietly, listening to old ‘war’ stories that couldn’t possibly have been true, always with this ‘dogface’ medic coming out on top by out smarting or beating up the other guy.
If the shrink had given Bill the ‘picture’ of how things really were then his assistant framed that picture and hung it on the wall for him. Bill inquired about a rehabilitation program he heard was available with a chance to take some classes and maybe work towards a new vocation, or if nothing else to help him bide his time in this disability ‘retirement’.
The assistant said that he knew of this program and would call the woman in charge in their district. Bill was anxious to get into such a program. After all he was still a relatively young man and he felt he still could be of some use to somebody doing something. At their next meeting Bill asked what the therapist had found out. The big man leaned back in his chair and smiled at Bill.
Interlocking his fingers he laid his hands on his chest and said, “Yep, I called her and told her about you and your interest in entering the rehab program.
But she told me you can’t get in it.” “Why not?” Bill asked. “Because of your disability.” “But I thought that was why I could get in.” said Bill. “Look man, you’re 100%, you’re unemployable, and like she said you’re un-rehabilitatable.”
“Un-rehabilitatable?” Bill wasn’t even sure if that was a real word, but he knew what it meant. If they felt that way, why were they even seeing him? But it was suggested that Bill join a group of Vets that met once a week, he agreed to try it. The group was to work on anger management, discuss each other’s problems, to talk things out. Bill had had little contact with other Vets through the years and had never really discussed Vietnam.
In Bill’s mind’s eye he had always held the image of the men he served with when he had left them and although he knew that he had aged, when he walked into that first Veteran’s group meeting he wondered what all these old men were doing here? It was a strange, eerie feeling. He attended only two of the meetings, mainly because he did not like leaving his home but also because he started to incorporate some of the other men’s nightmares with his own.
In Nam he had once been called upon to act as a ‘tunnel rat’, and once was all he could take. A tunnel rat crawls into a VC tunnel with a .45 and a flashlight to see what is stored underground. Lying flat on his stomach, his arms extended forward over his head, one holding the .45, the other searching the darkness ahead with the beam of the flashlight. The light reaches out a few feet only to disappear into a solid black void as if it had hit a wall
Inching away from the safety of the dimming light of his entrance, his adrenalin pumping, his heart racing, his breathing labored as if he were running. It is an exhausting and terrifying ordeal using only his legs and elbows to push him along, watching carefully for any signs of booby traps, snakes, rats, spiders or centipedes, or worse – an enemy soldier somewhere ahead, the sweat pours down burning his eyes.
Trapped now in this tomblike confinement minutes can seem like hours. As Bill was crawling past a small, overhead air vent something like a piece of heavy rope fell onto his back. As he lay in the damp, dark, hot, stinking tunnel, the rope began to slither over his butt and down his leg. Every muscle in his body tightened as he tried to lie perfectly still, yet his every impulse was to run
His mind was screaming in horror but he uttered not a sound.
The snake ran off his leg and down the tunnel where Bill had started, he doesn’t remember how he got out. Now as he sat listening to the others, a Marine was telling of time during a heavy monsoon rain when he and some others found themselves on a flooded plain with the only dry spot on a small hill. Making their way to the mud covered hill, only to realize that every snake for miles was doing the same. A small band of Marines swinging at dozens of snakes with their rifles, shovels, and boots, in the rain.
On his second tour, on one of the many ambushes Bill had endured, an ambush that did not go well, Bill had done something that he still cannot understand, and that he has never told anyone: a single dreamlike moment’s action that he has asked God for Forgiveness a thousand times. On a night when he lost a good friend and maybe, he believes, his soul, an incident that he believes not even these other Veterans would understand – until the soldier spoke.
The soldier had been with the Air Cav when Charlie had over run their position one night. He had been badly wounded and med-i-vaced out to an aid station in the rear. Early in that dark morning he awoke in pain and with IV’s stuck in his arm. Around him in the ward were others from his unit who had been wounded, but in the bed next to his was none other than a VC who had also been wounded in the fight.
This soldier’s last conscience thoughts, before waking, had been in the heat of a fierce man-on-man battle, seeing many of his friends killed and wounded, fighting for his very life. In his drugged, confused state this death match still raged. Struggling to get up, inadvertently pulling the IV’s from his arm the soldier stumbled towards his enemy. Crashing down upon the VC, his fingers wrapped around the wounded mans throat.
The VC fought back, clawing and hitting the soldier in the face and chest but to no avail. With all his strength the delirious soldier squeezed the VC’s throat crushing his thumbs into the windpipe. Shaking the VC like a rag doll under him until the hated enemy moved no more. Releasing his deadly grip the soldier straightened, staggered backwards and collapsed to the floor
When he awoke he was back in his bed, the IV’s reattached, and the VC’s bed was empty.
The Air Cav soldier broke down and sobbed as he finished the telling of this real life nightmare. After a few minutes he collected himself to tell the group that he had never before spoken of that morning. That no one at the aid station had even mentioned finding the dead VC and the soldier lying so near
He told how he thought maybe it had all been a dream, or hallucination, that he didn’t really do it – until later a soldier lying in the bed across from him told him that he would have done the same thing.
Bill’s head dropped to his chest to hide his eyes under the bill of his cap as the soldier told his story. This is your chance to unload your own horror – he thought to himself – if these men can’t understand then no one ever will. He started to speak, just as another man began his tale, so Bill again fell silent. He did not try to speak again about that night nor would he return to the group
What he had decided to take to his grave was much like what the soldier had done. Only Bill had not used his hands, he had used his rifle. A week or so before he was wounded that second time, Bill had taken part in an ambush in an old Vietnamese cemetery. Lying in the wet grass among the graves, the Marines had set up an ambush covering a narrow trail that the VC used.
They had set up their claymores, picked out their positions and waited through the damp night. It had rained hard twice on the Marines but it had stopped again when they saw movement. Slowly Charlie moved up the trail across from the Marines. The VC carried their rifles at port and all had heavy packs on their backs – all walked carefully spaced from the man in front and behind, alert.
One, two, three, now six, then ten had come abreast when the first claymore was set off followed immediately by two others and the automatic fire of the 60 and M-16’s. It should have been a turkey shoot as they hardly had time to return fire. Call it bad luck; call it fate, but a couple of quick bursts from the fleeing Charlie had found flesh. One badly wounded Marine, one dead and one pissed off Sergeant.
The Sergeant was mad because he felt the ambush had been triggered too soon: the Marine who had set off the first claymore was a Lance Corporal everyone called ‘Mud’. But Mud was beyond caring if the Sergeant was PO’d, he was the dead Marine, and he was Bill’s friend. Mud had just thrown a grenade as three rounds zipped across his chest. He was dead when he hit the ground
Mud was a good Marine but he was also sort of like the class clown of the squad, a small cheerful young man who had smiled a lot and gotten along with everybody. Hardly anybody remembered his real name as everyone, including the Lieutenant called him Mud. But he had come by his nickname honestly and hilariously. It happened at the end of a long, uneventful but exhausting daytime patrol about six months prior.
The squad had humped out late that morning in a driving rain, which had continued most of the day. As they came into the hill where their base camp was located they had to come up and over a small rise. Now this small hump in the ground was usually not a problem for the Marines to navigate but the rains had caused it to become a slimy, slippery mass of brown sludge. As the Marines started down this slippery slope some slid or slipped but had little real trouble…
… until Mud came to the apex of the slope and started down. With his second downward step he slipped, flipping up in the air and landing on his back, sliding feet first he slid downward scooping up the mud as he passed. As the slope was not steep, he did not move very fast, yet he was helpless in this slime to stop. In his futile efforts to abort this awkward decent he only made things worse as he kept changing positions.
Sliding down feet first on his back, then sideways, then moving to head first on his back, until finally somehow flipping himself over onto his stomach and sliding down head first. The whole squad had by now had noticed his sorry predicament and where all standing still watching this free-form mud-surfing and, as boys will be boys, howling with good natured laughter. All the while Mud was getting absolutely saturated with………… well…… mud.
By now the Marines guarding the camp perimeter had also noticed Mud’s unorthodox return home and had joined the squad in their laughter and delightful diversion. By the time Mud stopped moving at the bottom of the slope he looked like a ball of goo. Bill and Corporal Heinz helped Mud to his feet only to once again break into uncontrollable laughter, for here was this little guy coated from head to toe with a half inch of mud, like it had been sprayed on.
There was but one spot on him that showed cleanly: only the whites of his eyes as even his teeth were covered as he spit mud from his mouth. It was matted in his hair, down over his face and shoulders, stuck to his chest, back and down his legs. Mud had filled every pocket in his flak jacket and trousers; covered his boots and web belt and M-16. It was down his shirt and between his flak and shirt and filled his jungle cover as it swung from its strap.
If Mud had only weighed 145 pounds when he first stepped off he now was at least 180. Every man from the squad gathered around still chuckling and him patting him on his back or head and with every slap on the back or pat on his head mud would fly off him and stick to the others. It was all in fun and Mud took it as such in his good-natured way and laughed along with the guys. It was just what this tired group of young men had needed and they all knew it.
That’s when Sgt. Gatlin walked up – the Sergeant was not known for his sense of humor, he was a large black man from Mississippi, a Marine through and though, all business all the time. But even the Sergeant was grinning from ear to ear as he spoke in his booming voice, “Out-f*^king-standing Mud Marine, you slid through all that shit and never dropped your weapon!” He then took out his canteen and poured it over Mud’s head, soon to be copied gleefully by the squad.
From that day on he was known as Mud and he became a favorite in the squad. He was a good Marine, did his job and then some: there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his fellow Marines or they for him. And now he was dead at age nineteen years, three months and forever holding. When the word spread throughout the squad, the Sergeant wasn’t the only one now in a rage.
Bill reloaded and with four other Marines went out to check the dead and wounded VC. Doc Baker was frantically working on L/Cpl Brent who had taken two rounds in the stomach, and Brent in his agony didn’t care who or what heard him as he screamed out with his pain. But there were others crying out in their anguish as the Marines could hear three or four VC.
The Marines with their flashlights separated and carefully closed in on the noises.
Bill had come upon two gooks, ripped open by the claymores; he shined his light on them and moved on. Time and again these Marines had seen how their friends had gotten shot, stepped on a booby trap, to get killed or wounded and then the battle would be over – or there had been no battle at all – watching their buddies die or cry out in their pain as they lie wounded and broken, the enemy long gone and they are left with no one to fight, nowhere to get revenge or release their anger.
But tonight Mud was dead, Brent was crying out in agony and there were still some gooks out there alive. Bill and his squad wanted those gooks, wanted them to be alive, they wanted to at last release this fury. They wanted some payback, and payback was a scarce commodity in Vietnam. A few yards down the trail a Marine’s light danced through the darkness and came to rest on the ground. Three muzzle flashes aimed at the ground, the quick report of the shots and all was quiet except for Brent.
Bill moved on, his light hitting the foot of a VC, he slowly moved closer tracing the light up the VC’s body until it came to the man’s face, he was alive, young, scared and in pain, his eyes wide and pleading. Neither of the men made a sound as Bill hovered over the wounded VC. He seemed to be standing over the man for a long time but in reality it was only a few seconds. The VC had a massive chest wound and was having a very hard time breathing.
Bill felt nothing for him, no pity, no compassion, no hatred; he just stood there looking down. Holding his 16 with one hand he pointed it at the gook’s face, staring straight into the other man’s eyes. Down the trail came more flashes and the report of three more rounds being fired. With the noise the wounded VC held up one hand, palm upward and frantically began to jabber away. Bill fired two rounds into his face, lowered the weapon, turned and walked away without remorse.
The final count that night had been: one Marine dead, one Marine wounded and med-i-vaced out and nine dead Victor Charlie’s – no wounded VC’s and no prisoners. For years Bill had been able to push that night out of his consciousness: it had become almost a dream, a nightmare that could not have really happened for it had been a different world with different rules in a different time.
But worlds and rules change with time and although Bill had felt nothing when he had killed the wounded VC, in his maturing world of today his guilt was eating away at his soul – for what acts a young man can justify and even commit, an old man will pay for in his sleep.
There had been one person he had contact with who had helped him for a while: an intelligent, caring woman, a therapist with the Vet Center. She had helped him see the problems and trap falls that he had been victim to, helped him to understand what this monster PTSD could do, and why he was the way he was.
It was she who made him realize that there were others just like him and brought about this realization that he and his father, as Veterans, though from different wars, had so much in common. But she had been transferred and with that Bill stopped going to the clinic. And that had been a long time ago now.
Bill rocked slowly in the chair and drank a shot of the bourbon, resting the album on his lap he thought of his father. How as a child or even as a young man back from his own war, he had never thought of what the man must have been going through, but reflecting now he realized that every feeling he felt and every problem he had, so too had his father.
His father had never talked about his war, not even when Bill had come home from Vietnam. His father always seemed depressed, he drank a lot and there was that same type of sudden anger. He went to work religiously but other than that never seemed to go anywhere. In his entire childhood there had been just one family vacation – to visit his father’s sister in Wisconsin when Bill was ten.
As the man had grown older he never went anywhere, staying at home. Like Bill he had no close friends, just people he knew at work. His mother went about her business much the same as Jessie had, mostly alone. Was his father always waiting for that other shoe to drop, too? And then there was the suicide – or at least the attempt.
It was late one summer evening when Bill had pulled into his father’s gravel driveway, the lights from his car shinning deep into the back yard where he saw his father standing on a chair reaching up into the old tree. Bill shut off the car, got out and walked back to where his father was, wondering just what the old man could be up to out here in the dark.
With the moon shinning bright, as Bill got closer he could see something hanging from the tree. The old man went clumsily about his task as if he hadn’t noticed the car drive up until Bill was within a few steps and he realized his dad had a rope around a branch and his neck. Bill raced towards him and yelled, “Dad, what are you doing?” just as the old man stepped off the chair.
Bill caught him on his shoulder holding the bigger man up for all he was worth. His father seemed to have passed out either form drink or the effort and was dead weight. Bill was pushing him up with all his might trying to get some slack in the rope while trying to loosen the loop with his one free hand. His father began to mumble pleading with Bill to let him go.
Unable to work the rope free, Bill was growing tired from the effort and frantic. With one last great effort he pushed the old man back towards the chair, lifting his foot onto the seat. His dad had seemed to come around and realizing who was there stood up on the chair relieving the strain on Bill and looking down at his son. He reached up, took the noose off his neck and as he stepped off told Bill, “You should have let me go.”
His father had been drinking and was very drunk. Bill watched him stagger towards the house and in the door. He took the rope down, threw it into his car and followed the old man inside. His father was already half way up the stairs where he would sleep it off. Bill watched as his father made the climb never to speak about the incident again.
He loved his father so very much. And just four short years later he received a call from his mother early in the morning telling him that his father had died. Bill got to their house just minutes after the coroner arrived. The coroner asked if Bill and his brother-in-law could help carry the body down the stairs. When they went into the bedroom his father was already in a body bag – just like the ones in Nam.
The three men picked up the body bag and went out into the hallway towards the stairs. Carrying this man he loved, they made the three steps to the landing where they had to turn. Bill looked down the long stairway seeing his mother and sister crying in the hallway. They started down the staircase, the body shifting in the bag. And like his unknown escape from the VC tunnel, Bill does not remember reaching the bottom.
Now he understood the torment that his father had been going through and tonight there would be no sons to stop him. He had always loved his father, and that was what hurt most about his own daughters. With all the same behavior that he and his father had shown, how could he love his father so much while his girls hated theirs?
From early on they had always seemed distant to him. They loved, even worshiped their mother but in turn had no use for him. He loved them and had tried to show it but to no avail. And it hurt him terribly, troubled him more than the problems with the war, for nothing can hurt as eternally as the lost love of your children.
He knew they didn’t understand what his life had been like, that they couldn’t begin to comprehend what he or any other Veterans had been through. And he understood that: how could anyone unless they had been through it? But can’t you still love someone, even if you don’t understand them? Apparently not – at least not in this case.
His oldest daughter had once sat down with him and demanded that he put this war behind him, to forget about his service, his Corps, the men who he had served and fought with. It was all in the past” she had said, “it was just a few short years of your life. Why have you allowed it to control the rest of your life? Move on” she had said, “Get over it and enjoy your life.”
Pretty heady stuff coming from a twenty-five year old: it was the last time they had spoken. Of course it was all coming from relatives – a parrot repeating what she had heard – mainly from Bill’s sister and her husband, and he hadn’t spoken to them now in years. It was not the brother-in-law who hooked him up with the VA, for he was a Marine himself. This was coming from the one who had enlisted in the National Guard to avoid the draft.
It has always been easy for some to tell others how they should feel; to explain what someone has to do to make their lives better. It seems so simple for the outsider looking in to tell that Veteran what has to be done. “Just let ‘it’ go, forget about it, put it in your past, move on, get some help, be a man.” Like you haven’t been trying to do just that since your ass hit the seat on your Freedom Bird.
“All you need to do is get a good job and get back to work.” “Jesus! Where were they when I had lost every job I have ever had? Six jobs in four years, and I was never absent, hardly ever late, I worked my ass off. Those jobs and that work had not stopped the nightmares, the depression, that anger where, if the boss had said one more word, he was going down.”
“Ah, the hell with it!” Bill thought, “Let the meek inherit the earth. Sooner or later someone will come along and take it away from them. As for me, as much as I want to end this shit, I would do it all again. How could I not; to stand there and watch those boys go off without me? Not to serve my country, someone has to pay this price. To hell with ‘em.”
Bill dropped the picture album on the floor where it fell open to a photo of Jessie and the girls. It was time, rising from his chair, he had thought that he could sit here and reflect on his life tonight but the booze and his anger would not allow it. He walked slowly into the corner and slid open the bottom drawer of an old desk, pulled out a bundled oily rag wrapped around an old .45 – just like the one he had carried into that tunnel.
He walked back to the chair and sat down, sliding back the action to chamber a round. He poured another shot, drank it in one swift movement and threw the glass across the room breaking it on the wall. He wiped his sweaty brow with the sleeve of his shirt, laid the gun in his lap. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back into the chair silently scanning the gloomy room. He was ready.
Bill did not really want to die; if only his life could be better, he was just so exhausted living life this way. He was tired of the haunting faces of the dead in his dreams, his friends, his enemies, the innocents. Since they were going to keep invading his nights, then tonight he would invade theirs. He was weary of hearing their screams, for the agonizing screams of the dying forever echo in your mind. He was ashamed of always being afraid, and of what he was never really sure: nothing yet everything
What he was about to do had nothing to do with revenge nor was he looking for sympathy. His loneliness had so fatigued his soul that he no longer cared to go on. Yet he knew that it had been no one’s fault but his own, for even before Jessie and the girls had left he had always been alone in his own mind and heart, even though he loved them all. And in the end he knew it had been this unwanted solitude that had helped to drive them away.
He missed his sweet Jessie, her smile, her laughter, her loving touch and even her anger, her soft breathing at night as she lay curled by his side, the sight of her walking through a room. There had been some good times and he knew that she loved him. But he also knew that Jessie had had to leave, for her own survival because depression is contagious and living with Bill she too had fallen victim to it.
He knew now what he had done in Vietnam so very long ago. He had built a solid, impregnable, inner wall around his heart, surrounding his emotions: a wall that trapped his feelings deep inside to deaden and destroy them. And the only beasts that could survive inside its ghastly corridors were the demons of his dreams. This was the only way to crumble this cold structure, destroy the demons, and silence their wicked cries.
Even the conditions he had set were now almost fulfilled. His mother had passed away a few weeks before Jessie had left. The girls were grown and gone, out of his life except for his love for them and the pain. Jessie would be well taken care of, at least financially. He had written no note. Except for his decision to use a gun it was almost perfect.
He sat up in the chair picked up the gun and paused as he realized that he was now the same age as his father when he had stopped him by the tree. Sweat was running off his forehead; he could feel the blood pounding in his temples. A slight headache tapped at his brain. He raised the pistol with trembling hands, turning the barrel towards him and placing his thumb on the trigger.
Raising the gun to his mouth, his heart drumming, the sweat now stinging his eyes, he placed the gun to his opened lips, felt the coolness of the metal, steel between his teeth, tasted the oil. Both hands on the gun were shaking, with his eyes lifted to the ceiling. He closed them forcing the tears to run down his cheeks. “Lord, forgive me for taking another life.” he prayed to himself.
He opened his eyes and the ceiling was turning, the liquor and tension was making him ill. He closed his eyes quickly to stop the spinning and he gagged with an aborted attempt to vomit. He took a long deep breath through his nose, and let it out. He felt calmer now and squeezed the trigger with his thumb. His last thought was of Jessie
©Copyright August 10, 2003 by Michael E. Tank