A Private War

Chapter One

He had the phone installed at Carmen’s urging, so he could stop using the pay phone down the street to call his father.  Sneaking out at night like some druggie calling his connection, was the way she put it.  With the phone in the house he could call anytime, or his father could call him.  And phone calls can be traced, he wanted to say, though he didn’t.  He could almost hear her reply: who’s tracing your calls, after all these years?

            Then he installed the answering machine that he didn’t see the point of either.  That was also Carmen’s idea: what if your father calls and you’re not home?  It occurred to him to say, he can always call back.  But he gave in to her on that one too.  He never minded.  And in all the time since, he has never received a real message, so he is surprised, entering his Vancouver flat that afternoon, to see the LED light on the machine blinking. 

            He presses the play button and hears his name spoken, a name from thirty years ago when he was still called Tommy Kindred.  His first confused thought is that it is his father, even though it doesn’t sound like him, and anyway it doesn’t make sense.  The infrequent calls from him are always at night, and he wouldn’t use that name.  It’s been more than ten years since he’s even seen his father, since that last visit back home when he kept imagining everybody was a cop.  He listens to the first few sentences of the message.

            “Hey, Tommy.  Don’t ask how I know where you are.  That’s not important.  I’ve been in New York for years, and I knew you weren’t around here.  So I checked out where you used to live in New Jersey.  Then I did something I shouldn’t have done to find where you live now.  Tell your Dad I’m sorry.”

            He has barely heard anything beyond the first two words.  Pressing the stop button, he cuts off the voice in mid-sentence and closes his eyes to bring the memory forming in his head into sharper focus, as if that’s what he really wants to do.  But it isn’t even one of the big memories, which is a surprise now that this is finally happening.  It’s one of the others, the one where a nineteen-year-old version of himself, in the company of two hundred other GIs, is trooping down the long corridor toward the open door of the airplane.  A lot of the others were as young or even younger than he, and they were all in the same fix and probably felt the same sense of strangeness over the fact that they were about to board a big, shiny commercial jet wearing their helmets and standard-issue fatigue uniforms and combat boots, stowing the helmets in the overhead compartments, some of them carrying rifles aboard and stowing those in the overheads too.

            What happened after the boarding experience was equally strange, when they all took their seats like vacationers at the start of a trip and watched movies and eyed the stewardesses moving up and down the aisle serving them meals and drinks.  And all the while he kept thinking what an odd experience it was to be flying into a war zone like this.  Not that he was complaining, because he knew it could have been a lot worse.  He could have spent two weeks being seasick on an overcrowded troopship, only to be ferried to some beach while bullets whizzed by overhead, some to rip into the bodies of his comrades around him, though never into his.  But that was the stuff of the old war movies they’d all grown up on.  This war was different.  Eighteen hours it took in this war, flying into a setting sun, from San Francisco to Vietnam in less than a day.

            He pushes the memory aside and tries to make sense of what he’s just heard.  By now he thinks he knows who it is, but not what it means to have that voice suddenly show up on his answering machine, using the name he forgot about all those years ago.  For a minute he looks down through the second floor window of his flat at the traffic passing by outside.  When he turns back, the machine is still blinking at him.  He presses the play button again.

            “I’m in Seattle, which, if I’m reading the map right, is 100 miles south of the Canadian border and about 130 miles from where you are, up there in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Hey, I’ve always known you’d still be out there somewhere.  You were my hero back in country.  When you went over the hill, you made it possible for the others of us to do the same.  You were a hero to us all.

            “But now I need your help.  I’m in trouble.  Freddie Hopper’s dead and I think I might be next.

            “But hey, how do I know you even know who this is?  It’s Richard Goody, remember?”

            He presses the stop button again, remembering.  It’s like sending a light beam back into his memory, and he sees Rick Goody’s face, the lank hair hanging over one eye in perpetual violation of military haircut policy, the intense look as if he were constantly worried, the goofy grin when you said something funny.  But it was never Richard then, just Rick.  When you want to think of yourself differently, maybe you change your name. 

            Rick Goody was one of the first people he spoke to in 67, after the long flight over, after the group of bedraggled new arrivals was finally deposited into the heat and the noise of Ton Son Nhut airbase in Saigon and immediately hustled off the tarmac and onto a lineup of blue Air Force buses.  He was humping his duffel bag in one hand and his orders and a dog-eared paperback, a copy of “From Here to Eternity,” in the other.  He’d chosen it because it seemed like appropriate reading for the long flight over.  The book would figure greatly in the rest of his life, though he didn’t know it at the time.

            The blue Air Force buses deposited them at Camp Alpha, which served as the Army replacement camp for new arrivals to Vietnam and as a staging camp for the lucky ones returning home.  It wasn’t a long drive, but it was long enough for it to sink into all their brains that they were really there.  He didn’t say a word, aware of the soldier seated next to him and the others on the bus and the smell of body odor they all carried from the long flight.  Along with the rest of them, he took in the views outside the windows as they rode through the shimmering heat and dust, looking at the parade of Jeeps and trucks going in every direction.  A distant runway was busy with rumbling fighter planes taking off in twos and threes and not to any exercises.  This was real.

            At the Replacement Company orderly room, when it was his turn, he finally set down the heavy load of his duffel bag and handed over the sealed envelope containing his orders to a seated PFC.  Sweat had soaked through in spots on his shirt.  He glanced at the nametag on the PFCs starched and unstained fatigues: Goody.

            The PFC looked up at him with a grin.  “Welcome to the ‘Nam.”  He glanced at the dog-eared book still in Tommy’s hand.  “What do you think of it?”  The guy had an anxious look on his face as though he really wanted to hear Tommy’s opinion.

            “It’s pretty good,” Tommy said.

            Maybe it was the fact that the company commander of the Replacement Company, a first lieutenant, just happened to be passing through at that moment and just happened to overhear the brief conversation.  Maybe that was the seminal moment.  He thought about that for a long time afterward.


Make a Free Website with Yola.