THE MIDNIGHT HOUR…
The water beating on the cold lakeshore was incessant. Tom lay between the two dumpsters in the alley half a block from the lake, the water lapping along the edge if the nearby shore probably intended by God to be comforting, but it was not. The water seemed to pound instead of move gently through the man’s ear canals, and it affected his cold-induced dreams. A nearly destroyed sleeping bag, a purloined Chinese coat from Target (too cheap to have an alarm tag on it), and a Hudson Bay blanket, probably thrown out half a dozen times, only to resurface once again, out of a crying need to protect a barely living human from freezing solid. Those were the only collected possessions he had left. Tom tried to sleep but the water kept him up. He finally stood slowly in the dark alley, wondering if there was any police video, but then realizing he really didn’t care. Police arrest and incarceration would be warmer than the alley he’d chosen to hold up in for the coming of what he knew was going to be one long and dangerously cold night.
Tom collapsed his body, like it was made of soft overlapping plates, held together, but loosely in a sort of orderly disorder. He laid flat, his head coming to rest on a rolled-up towel, discarded earlier by a nearby restaurant backed up on the alley. It was hard not to curl into a ball, but if he did so he knew his tattered coverings would come part like a poorly assembled puzzle, and let in more cold than they kept out. He tried to reflect on the things that had happened during the daylight hours before. There was no possibility that he could think anything through, however, because sleep was his only escape. He went to sleep and all the crap went away. Dreams assaulted him with realities that almost always included him being some sort of participant in the outside world. He wasn’t a participant. He’d been reduced to an observer. Nobody wanted to talk to him and his gift of writing was almost extinguished simply because he had nothing to write upon.
None of it mattered anymore, or did it? Tom reflected as he tried to sleep, in the mild wind, in the cold of his alley existence. The police had come in the night before, several times. They’d been going to haul him away to whatever came next until their boss showed up one night. Mike, his name was. He’d knelt by Tom’s side, taking it all in. Tom watched the man check him out like a hawk examining prey. The stars on the man’s collar meant he was the police chief. His great black pick-up truck idled away just down the alley from where he lay The chief should have locked him up but he didn’t. Instead, he’d knelt to say a few words. He’d asked about the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines tattoo Tom should never have allowed it to be put on his forearm and had never been able to afford to have removed. The chief was an ex-Marine. It was in his eyes. It was in his square shoulders and his solid character. The chief asked Tom if he was a Marine but Tom just looked back into the chief’s deep black eyes. The Chief new knew without any answer being given…
“You can stay here,” he’d said, and then never come back. His officers had not come back either. He was waiting for Tom to die, Tom thought. They were all waiting for him to die. Maybe they would bury him with some sort of honor. Maybe no other Vietnam Vet had ever come to end up in their alley before. Maybe they were simply really good people. Tom didn’t know.
Tom went back to sleep and dreamed his dream of post-traumatic stress, although the VA people said he didn’t have that condition. He dreamed that he was on the bridge of a ship that stuck way out over the land. He was standing at the starboard bridge of the ship near its very tip. The ship was passing through the Panama Canal. Tom looked down. All kinds of people were down along the land below the bridge, as the metal shelf passed over them. They looked up at him. The ship moved slow. Tom wished it would move faster but that was not to be. He watched the people, his people, the ones who died so long ago, but somehow were alive down on the ground next to the edge of the canal. That was it. The undead dead people looked up at him without expression and he looked down at them the same way. That dream could never be told to the VA counselors. They’d commit any such dream teller to some sort of asylum from which there would be no return, or at the very least, living on a mandatory prescription that would take away every shred of any identity he had left. Tom had his alley, his half a sleeping bag and the other stuff. He also had the Kite Lady in a nearby store who yelled at him every day to get the hell out of ‘her’ alley, but then showed up later with MacDonald’s bags and a cup of hot coffee. The woman had an impossible personality, but a warm wonderful heart. Tom ate her fast food. He thanked her, but without her ever being there to thank. She put the food down, said something awful, and then retired, every time, back inside her store. She reminded Tom of his upbringing with the Maryknoll nuns in Hawaii. They’d loved him but beat him all the time…because they loved him. Tom had not understood, in those lonely hard days, but now he did. Getting beaten was okay, as long as the person beating you loved you. In Tom’s current condition, he needed any and all those kinds of understanding people he could get.
The night was long, tossed and cold. Tom could handle the cold. The dream kept making him wake up, but he’d close his eyes and end up diving right back into it. Nautical dawn was not far away, the time when darkness would be erased for another ten and a half hours in deep winter, at least where Tom was placed on the planet. Tom’s goal was to wait, and he thought about that simple exercise. He’d come too far in life to know what he was waiting for. Waiting for specific things to happen in life was a part of his old life that would likely never return. Now, to live, he waited for what he hoped might be revealed, but could not in any way imagine what it might be.
It was early night so he made his way down the alley toward a place called Popeyes Restaurant. He wondered if the food people actually paid a lot of money for was any good. But Tom wasn’t in search of any real answer to that question. He was actually there because the Mexicans working at the place came out of the back entrance all the time to either smoke or toss out the garbage. They saw him, and most probably saw their former selves in him, or at least so Tom thought. They fed him, mostly cast-off lamb. Tom loved lamb. He wondered how they either knew that or lucked into knowing that. They gave with no concern about getting anything back and Tom was always surprised by the simple fact that they didn’t hold his being a white guy against him. Their boss, a huge tough-looking man, occasionally came out to look at him but never said a word. Tom knew he wouldn’t get a bit of anything if that man didn’t approve. Tom knew he looked like a human dirtball. The big man would shake his head after a few seconds of staring and then go back into his restaurant. In the Corps, Tom showered twice a day, and later on, in real life, he’d kept that habit, but not anymore. There were no public showers open in the winter in Lake Geneva. Not a one.
A vehicle came seemingly from nowhere. It came, resembling something that out of Tom’s damaged vision appeared to be a giant Tonka truck, except there was a big Mercedes star on the grill. A man got out of the Tonka. What did he want, Tom wondered, as the man circled his small area and checked out everything about it. The man was meticulous, opening Tom’s pack, feeling the Hudson Bay for substance, or whatever information that touching it might give him.
“What do you want?” Tom rasped out, the words, his alcohol adjusted vocal cords barely being able to make understandable.
“I was called, so I came,” the diminutive man replied, settling into a crouch that allowed the bottom edge of his rich wool coat to almost touch the offensive surface of the alley asphalt.
“Who sent you?” Tom said, “that toy store woman down the alley?”
“You came out of the Nam?” the man asked, ignoring Tom’s question.
“Yes, I was there,” Tom admitted, trying to think about any good reason he might have for responding truthfully to the strange man.
“Where?” the man continued, rocking a bit on his heels, but giving the impression that he wasn’t in any hurry at all. His big cute truck idled, almost too silent to hear.
“Khe Shan, the Rock Pile and then on down the A Shau,” Tom replied, the stark discomforting images of so long ago running like a very rapid kaleidoscope through his mind.
“The A Shau,” the man breathed out, “and so who were you with in that rather difficult valley?”
“Rather difficult,” Tom repeated, wanting to laugh but not even smiling. The man just waited, saying nothing further.
“Three Five,” Tom finally said, giving the man his battalion and regimental number, wondering why he was putting up with the interrogation coming from somebody he knew nothing about.
“Me too,” the man said, after a few seconds.
“Me too, what?” Tom asked.
“Sixty-eight,” the man said as if that explained anything.
“Sixty-nine,” Tom responded, giving his own time in country.
“Really,” Tom finally said, “this is a bit strange.”
“That woman sent you to do what, make sure I’m real, that I die out here a frozen veteran because I won’t go live in one of those places where all those guys vegetate away in?”
“You believe in God?” the man asked, and then went right on without waiting for an answer. “You prayed to God for help, in this awful cold circumstance, and then you waited?”
“So?” Tom whispered out, not knowing whether he wanted the problematic man to stay or go away, o show he could know what he seemed to already know.
“You prayed and he sent me,” the man replied, his stare as intent and unblinking as anything Tom had ever witnessed.
“And who are you and why should I believe anything you say?” Tom got out, this time his voice showing some timber, drawn from ages of deep emotional distrust and anger.
“Junior,” the man said, his voice a whisper. “You don’t know me?”
“That Junior from the A Shau?” Tom replied, his tone showing surprise and hesitation. “So you came to kill me? To take me across that damned Bong Song River one more time?”
The man slowly stood up, walked to his waiting Tonka truck and opened the rear passenger door. He stood, holding it open, the slight cold wind blowing his coat gently back and forth as if to measure the seconds passing in time.
“Those Marines passed on in their time back in those awful days and worse nights, but not so you and I,” the man said. “It wasn’t all your choice then, but it is now.”
“You’re really that Junior?” Tom asked, bringing his body half erect and letting his pieced together protections against the cold and night partially fall to the alley pavement.
“Not here and not now in this life, but back then, yes, I was Junior,” the man responded, looking away from Tom for the first time, to stare down the valley out to to where the smoking freezing surface of the nearby lake lapped at the shore.
“You want me to go with you?” Tom asked.
The man gestured toward the open door. Tom noted the plush gray sheepskin covering on the seats. He slowly raised himself up to stand.
“You want me to get in there, on those seats, and do what?” Tom asked, pointing at the open door.
“You choose,” the man who called himself Junior said. “The door leads to the answers you’ve been seeking for so long, but you can’t know that. I don’t need you in my life, but the Chief of Police called. You don’t need me in your life but God thinks you do. Make your own decision though.”
The wind blew, the moisture-laden air wafted by, as Tom wondered and thought about what was standing before him. He’d had a good idea he wouldn’t survive the night on his own in the cold and wind, but now there was this new mystery to deal with.
“There’s an old expression,” Tom said, rising up and slowly making his way toward the open door, “all the way, up the hill…” he finished, getting into the vehicle with difficulty. The man who called himself Junior slammed the door with a final hard thudding sound and then got into the driver’s seat.
“Where do you want to go?” the man asked, with a laugh, as he turned on the radio or disc player. A song played mid-way through its length, and the words burned their way into Tom’s consciousness, as the truck pulled away: “Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea, to the open arms of the sea. Lonely rivers sigh: ‘Wait for me, wait for me,’ I’ll be coming home, wait for me.”
Tom realized that he didn’t know where he was going, and then that he didn’t care. He thought of Amazing Grace. He’d been lost and now maybe he was found. The reality of maybe being found was more profoundly satisfying than what the possible reality of it might entail. How could he possibly be found by someone from so far back, so lost down in that valley of the shadow of death? Junior was driven though and there was no denying him, just like the myths had whispered about him in 69.
“I’ll be coming home, wait for me…” Tom whispered out the song’s lyrics, but only to himself.
Great story, James…fresh on a recent memory. A group of us, usually six or seven, meet every other week and help one another massage some of the soreness of our War that still troubles us. Most of us are Army, a couple of guys Navy vets…grunts, gun bunnies, a signal Corps guy and me; an Army journalist. All of us are 70 or so. A few weeks back, one of the men began to cry as he told about his little brother who’s been listed as MIA since 1970. He was a Transportation Corps soldier, serving on a LST type Army craft delivering ordnance. For whatever reason, it exploded and sank and one body was recovered. This guy said that the worst part was “not that he’s dead…we can’t bring him home…”
those tragedies where the kids are never recovered are pretty terrible, hence why the Marine Corps tradition about bringing the dead home is so strong. Terrible
to live with that for the rest of your life. Thanks for sharing and making us all think about this thing called war and then even more about this special thing called combat.
You may not have a world class publisher but I do believe your audience is growing. You have a style that makes one look at the wreck of life we all live with a different perspective.
Ah, I don’t have any publisher. I publish using Amazon, which means I’m self edited and self published big time.
Regular publishers publish relatives and friends, for the most part, and the rest is just mythology…like Hollywood screenwriting.
Those businesses are closed, like television and radio too.
But that’s okay. I’m doing fine on my own. And besides, Hollywood, Washington, the academies and military would never appreciate this kind of writing…
and that means they would never let anyone use their stuff for authenticity.
But I much appreciate the sentiment. Thanks Pete…
What to add to this insightful reflection every vet knows, yet honestly wouldn’t choose to know? Hmmmm…I read this story and felt every bit of the frozen wet chill against unexpected moments of warmth given me only, by the beating hearts of others. I relived the doubt my brother would share with regard to time he’d already spent against an otherwise uncaring future driven even deeper with Tom’s unapologetic, ” So? “.
And now, having turned a corner on my recent “homeless existence” onto a new stretch of road that redefines that status and heading to “temporarily houseless”, I found that tiny little spark I was sure I’d lost along the way somehow.
The cold of winter is no longer my most immediate adversary, James. I’m a bit wiser for having read between the lines God continues to send you to write and people like me, to read.
The days are indeed going to be warmer…with the help Junior continues to provide, for the vets like Tom, and to the vets like me.
On behalf of my late brother Ron and my late father Dean, and on my own with whatever ‘ s left of what that ultimately amounts to be, I want only to say “thank you” for the reminder that truly… “home is where the heart is!”
I understand how you could identify so deeply with this story D.D. Thanks for doing the usual brilliant job you do of
taking it apart and making it more understandable. And the compliment you give me in doing that.
Thanks for another finely woven tale, Sir. The ending spoke at what ails many of us so callously altered and estranged by our War. I meet every other Thursday with a group of Vietnam Veterans: grunts, cannon cockers, an RTO, a couple of Squids and one Army journalist (me). We talk and lie and laugh and massage some of that ache that we all carry. One day last summer, one of the guys told us that it was the 50th year to the day that his little brother went Missing In Action. He began to cry and told us of the ambush in some I Corps jungle that swallowed him. And he said the worst part was “…not knowing if he could, one way or another, ever get home…” I thought about him when I read this story.
Thanks Neil. Yes, the fear of never getting back home, and then getting back home to discover that home had changed so much in our absence…although it had not
We could not see that we had changed so much that our vision of home wasn’t accurate at all. Thanks for the great comment in depth.
I fought it for 40 years before a heart attack sent me for help. I am a V A success story. Don’t know what you are fighting if you think it is normal
Thanks a ton, my friend. Means a lot to me to get feedback like that back…
LT – mighty close to the chest. There but for the Grace of God….
Thanks for the note, Craig.
Some days are better than others.
As you are so well aware, life has so many strange twists. Our lives have been filled with so many experiences, some terrifying, some beautiful and some so sublime that we feel the presence of our Creator so deftly lay His hand on us as to leave us in wonder of where He has led us. Those times, those times let us feel like maybe we, unworthy as we are, may be deserving or justified in drawing another breath. You captured one of those times here, Jim.
Sometimes, on the streets of small downtown American resorts and cities,
real life plays out every day and night in the cold.
This story, which I was not sure I should write because I did not want to play myself as to great a guy,
needs to be told and repeated.
We have to take these people in and help them to have a life.
They lost the ability to ask for help.
We have to supply that for them.
And thank you for your support, Sam.
Another heart felt story about what it is really like for so many Vets of so many different wars. Some just fought in their heads but they share memories of times that stole their innocence and families who will never understand as their wars were different. We see men on corners and just shake our heads as we wonder why they don’t go get a job. I pray that all will end someday but for each man that has a angel, probably four are out in an alley with anything they can find to fight off the cold. James, you write as you seem to get into their heads. Thank you.
I have been given a gift to get inside the heads of these men and women who cannot get out of their own heads. I have to intuit and understand for them.
I am trying my heart out to do that and thank you so much for understanding that.
I never had trouble communicating with Viet Nam vets when they came back, we were similar in age and growing up together. I just have to figure out a way to talk with the new guys coming back. Maybe just listening some more and being there. We as a country continue to make more damaged men and women and then tend to forget or push them away. Keep up the good writing, Sir.
Thanks Robert! Spot on….
My allergies are acting up.
Jim, you have a gift to immerse your reader into a story. I find myself able to become each character as you explore their circumstance.
I also try to project future events because of the backstory of TDHS, and your other stories.
I also see an attempt on your part to make sense of TDHS and dredging up these memories have made you relive “what if” scenarios. I wish you peace as you struggle with these demons and pray for the gift of understanding as you finish that project.
“Tom” actually contacted us through the Newspaper Facebook Page, but it was a challenge to connect.
Thanks for your input, Rob
Your writing….I have descriptive words but none that can truly convey how your writing touches jesrt and soul .God bless you
Brenda. I cannot thank you enough.
I have no world-class publisher and I have no giant crowd like John Grisham or one of those, to read and honor my works.
I just have this little website out here in the ice cold desert of life…
writing away about the realities were are, hopefully, all trying to deal with.
I am not universally respected or loved.
That you give me some of that is meaningful beyond what you might understand.
Jim, Then here is some more respect for the love you show for the Veterans. And for allowing your heart & soul to be opened up like a can of C rats w/ a rusty P38, sharing a story that too many young men & women lived, are still living with. A story that today’s young men & women should know, a story that they never want to be a part of, nor their children – But a story that maybe, just maybe will allow them to get a better understanding, to give a little more respect for the men & women who served & who are serving today. Thank you, Doug
Thanks Doug, means a lot to have the kind of support you are writing in this comment. Thank you so much.