From The Irishman&Other Stories

The Western Girl

I didn’t know Lieutenant Karen Johnson in any real sense, though she seemed friendly enough.  Still, she was a Lieutenant and a member of the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, while I was a lowly PFC working in the orderly room.  There was that gulf separating enlisted men and officers, especially female officers.  I couldn’t just walk up to her and say, “let’s go have a drink,” but I always had an eye out for her, since the day she arrived at the 555th Evacuation Hospital, called, in typical military parlance, the Triple Nickel. 

            The hospital was built on the edge of the smoggy sprawl of Saigon.  By 1972 it had become a miniature city in itself consisting of rows of Quonset huts encircled by scatterings of GP Medium tents for living quarters, with permanent structures sited at one end for mess hall, chapel and even a small PX.  A packed-earth road separated the hospital proper from the living quarters, and sometimes, walking along, I would spot Lieutenant Johnson coming the other way and would veer over toward her, trying not to be too obvious.  Protocol called for me to render a salute, though protocol wasn’t on my mind.  I would snap off a militarily correct one, not like the sloppy salutes you usually saw in the Medical Corps, including with it my best smile.  Her typical response would be a wave, a return smile and a friendly “Hi.”  Sometimes she would even wink, which would have made my day except that our encounters consisted of no more than those few seconds in passing.

            Karen Johnson was definitely not the military type.  In a way she reminded of girls I had known at my New Jersey high school, the ones with their skirts worn shorter than the prescribed length, showing too much leg, and the top buttons of their blouses unbuttoned and the rumors of loose behavior.  The horny boys at my high school appreciated those girls, just as the horny men of the Triple Nickel appreciated Lieutenant Johnson.  With her blond hair pinned back any old way, making her no less pretty for it, and her fatigue pants worn snug and her fatigue blouse undone at the top against the tropical heat, she would move between the rows of the wounded on the recovery wards, seemingly oblivious to the eyes following her hip-swiveling walk.  It was rumored she was having an affair with one of the doctors and had been the object of several reprimands from the hospital commander for conduct unbecoming, or so the story went. 

            I finally got to know her the day I was about to start my week of rest and relaxation, or R&R, from Vietnam.  Seated on an Air Force bus crowded with other soldiers and airmen waiting to be taken to Ton Son Nhut airbase and the plane for Hawaii, I was busy with thoughts of brown-skin Hawaiian girls and tropical drinks, which were interrupted by the sight of Karen boarding the bus wearing her tropical dress uniform, with a little overseas cap perched at an angle on her blond head.  It was the first time I’d seen her in a skirt, and she looked good making her way down the aisle.  Halfway down she spotted me and, with a smile and a wink, said, “Hey Ted, what a surprise.”  The surprise for me was that she even knew my name.  She then proceeded toward the back of the bus, after which I didn’t see her for the remainder of the trip, including after our plane had arrived at Hickam Field on Oahu.  I figured that officers were probably processed apart from the rest of us several hundred soon-to-be revelers who, after deplaning, were bussed to another part of the base and herded into a large room to endure a brief lecture about comporting ourselves in a proper manner while guests of the Hawaiian people.  We were then told to choose a hotel from a list posted on a wall, which created a mob scene, everyone trying to get at the list at the same time.  When I squeezed in close enough to read it I picked one at random.

            At the hotel, after I had unpacked and was about to take a shower, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it to see Karen standing there wearing a short skirt and a dark red top held up by thin spaghetti straps.  She was barefoot and carried a pair of sandals in one hand.  A small purse hung by a thin chain over one shoulder.  She smiled.

            “Lieutenant Johnson,” I said.

            She walked in past me.  “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to drink, would you?”  She stood looking around, while I stared at the backs of her legs and her bare feet and painted toenails and the way her blonde hair went with the tan of her shoulders.  “Nice room,” she said,  “It’s just like mine.”  She turned to look at me.  “How about just calling me Karen.”   

            “Karen, then,” I said, the first time I had ever spoken her name.  “I wish I had something to drink, but I just got here, same as you.”

            “Then how about this instead?”  She reached into her purse, which appeared to be tightly packed with something, and wriggled out a plastic bag that was three-quarters full of Vietnamese marijuana.  I knew from some experience that it was pretty potent stuff.

            “You took a chance bringing that out of the country,” I said.

            “I like taking chances.  Why do you think I happened to pick the same hotel as you?”

            “I don’t know,” I said, grinning foolishly while trying to catch up.

            “I saw on the sign-up list that you picked this place, so I thought maybe we could have some fun together.”

            It took about a half second for that to sink in.  “I didn’t even see you there.”

            “Maybe I was stalking you.”  She laughed.

            After that the week went by fast, as much from the fact that Karen Johnson had magically appeared at my door with her stash of grass as from the stoned state we immediately fell into.  That first day she rolled the first joint, and we shared it in my room.  Then Karen, sitting next to me on the bed, pushed me back and rolled over on top of me and closed her eyes, making me think she might just go to sleep.  Then she opened her eyes and leaned her head back and said, “It’s a nice face.” 



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