Not Letting Go
By Emmett Hall
1 – Iowa
In a cloud of trailing tan dust late-spring 1969 two Marine officers in dress blues drove their white Plymouth away from the pale yellow two-story farm house belonging to the Slaters. It was set back in the corner of ten thousand acres of cornfields in rural Poke County, Iowa.
Expressionless, Tilly watched the dust settle back on the road from the side porch that faced the barn. Irwin stood just behind her with his weathered hand on her shoulder.
In three to six weeks, the Marines told them, their son's body, Lieutenant John Slater, would arrive at Des Moines International Airport for them to claim. A survivor assistance officer would be contacting them in the next few days to help with the arrangements. A flash of anger sparked in her aching heart as she thought of her vibrant son that was to be gone for a short time was reduced to an arrangement like cut flowers to be displayed and cast away.
Her initial apprehension about John joining the Marines after graduating from college had come home to roost. She glanced down at the fifty-thousand-dollar check in her hand and let it drop. Pivoting out from under Irwin’s hand, Tilly went back in the house.
Irwin watched as a light breeze carried the paper into the bed of crimson red tulips. Many of the heavy tulip heads broke their stems along the flower bed edge toppling them over to lay on the manicured green lawn; wilting. Just yesterday all the flowers were all standing tall.
The screen door slammed shut behind Tilly as she went in jarring Irwin out of his stupor. He didn’t remember stepping down off the porch to retrieve the check, but there it was in his hand. Raising the check up to a cloudless vivid blue sky, he could see it was a United States Treasury check full of little square holes with the warning "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate" in small print below the issuer's identification. He had never seen anything like it, but he knew what it was. John had written from Officers Candidate School (OCS) in Quantico, VA that they paid him with a computer punch card that cashed just like a regular check.
The foot-long spring attached to the screen door creaked as he pulled it open and went in. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the living room lighting that was always dim mid-morning because the faux walnut paneling, and furnishings, even the light fern green recliner didn’t pull in much light from the sun climbing up on the other side of the house. He walked sluggishly into the kitchen and put the check on the wall phone shelf, then took a deep breath, and looked at his wife.
Tilly was a little taller than average at five-foot-eight, but not the willowy woman she had been up to her forties. She was still strong even with having gained an extra thirty pounds over the past few years. Her hair was a dark brunette with a few wisps of gray appearing in the part across the top of her head. At 48 she still looked fetching to him. He watched her methodically wash the breakfast dishes. She dipped one cereal bowl in the soapy water and swirled the inside of it with a yellow and green dishcloth, scraping some stubborn oatmeal off with her fingernail. Satisfied she dropped it in the fresh water in the other half of the sink. When that half filled up with the breakfast dishes, she pulled them out and put them on a wooden drying rack on the counter. Popping out the plunger, she stared out the window. The water vacated the sink with a sucking sound. She didn't move to rinse the soap as she usually did. Irwin stepped up to her side touching her arm.
"Tilly?" She didn't move. "Tilly, Honey,” he implored.
Jerking her arm away, she turned and strode over to the hallway and down the hall, she turned on him as he followed. "You told him it was okay to sign up," she growled.
Irwin defended himself. “I tried,” He said. “He’s twenty-two; there was nothing I could do.”
“Was twenty-two.” Tilly barked. "You killed him." She opened the bedroom door and slammed it behind her. The lock clicked with a resounding snap, shattering Irwin’s heart with silence.
Seven months earlier John Slater strode down the ramp of the C-130 MAC (Military Airlift Command) transport in Saigon with twenty other men of mixed military types, Army, Navy and Air Force. The heat off the tarmac was sweltering reminding him of his Uncles Bill’s glass-blowing kiln when you opened the door to it, and the heat belted you in the face. In seconds he stained the armpits and neckline of his fatigues. He had changed out of his dress uniform on the jet during the sixteen-hour flight from Hickam AFB at Pearl Harbor. Looking out at the surroundings, he could see the low-slung mountains in the distance through the heat rippling in waves across the field on the other side of the runway. Pretty view, he thought. Not at all like the flat expanse of farmland that went on for miles back home. The humidity in Iowa sucked he had felt; this was miserable. Shifting the sea bag to his left shoulder so he could return salutes if necessary, he moved along with the rest of the men to the terminal. He saw to the right of the double glass doors marked International Arriving was a single white metal door that had a sign over it marked U.S. Military Arriving. They all clustered around it entering one at a time.
Inside John saw four gray metal desks. A two foot by a five-foot sign hanging from the ceiling said ENLISTED, three of the desks were under it. The sign indicating OFFICERS had one desk directly below it. He and two others peeled off from the group and headed to it. An Army corporal with his sleeve tied in a knot above where the elbow should have been sat on a wooden chair behind a stack of papers and logbooks. The Corporal extended his remaining arm palm up. John kept looking at the empty sleeve not feeling sure how he thought about it.
“Orders, Sir,” the corporal gestured with his fingers.
“Sorry, Corporal Lowe,” John read his name from the tag sewn above the breast pocket. He was puzzled as to why a wounded man was here processing new arrivals. “Why are you here?” He gestured to the missing arm.
“Oh this,” Lowe grinned nodded at his missing arm. “Light duty, Sir.” He dropped the papers on the desk and scrawled John’s information into a large green log book. Taking a date stamp, he pounded the cover page of John’s orders, glanced up at the white faced 24-hour wall clock and wrote in the time, and handed the sheaf of papers back to him. “There is an Officer's canteen on the second floor, Sir. If you would wait there, someone will be along shortly to take you to your unit.”
* * *
John looked at his watch. Two hours had passed since his checking in. A squat couch manufactured by Asians for the short Asian stature he was sure, had a small coffee table in front of it. To stand up was a long haul, John smiled after climbing to his feet for his second cup of coffee. It was comfortable enough to sit on when he stretched his legs out straight.
Pondering about Lowe and his missing arm for a time, made him wonder if, perhaps, had he chosen wisely in joining the Marines. Up until Lowe, he never had a second thought about signing up except for the way his mom took the news. He almost changed his mind because it made her so sad and upset. She was his best friend. When he needed a confidant, she was the one he turned to, even more than Dad, Mom understood him. Mom never missed a debate match or any sports event. He could always look out and see her beaming face somewhere in the crowd. He always performed better knowing she would turn to the people next to her and tell them, “That’s my son.”
Examining his feelings again after seeing Lowe, he decided that he was where he needed to be. He could utilize his talents best in quelling the communist encroachment and free the South Vietnamese. Sacrifice for a few years was a small price to pay for doing the right thing.
Now he was starting to get irritated with the wait. He had already declined the advances of three different lovely barflies, all wanting to show him a good time in the first half-hour of his showing up there. They finally caught on he wasn’t interested and sat in a cluster at the end of the counter to buzz each new arrival to the canteen.
John was sure he could stand a spoon in the coffee. He decided not to go for another cup. It started out tasting like crap and got worst with the following two cups. Then he began to worry that his ride had come while he was in the can for the third time. No, he reasoned whoever was supposed to find him would have checked there. He started to wonder how long did it usually take as a tall, burly soldier in fatigue trousers and dark green T-shirt slammed the door open and yelled in the club room. “Lieutenant Slater!”
“Here,” He yelled back as he jumped up grabbing the sea bag. “Over here.”
The soldier strode over to John and looked down on him. John thought this is a first. Rarely at his six-foot-three inches tall did anyone look down on him. “I’m Sargeant Smith, Sir. I’ll take that for you.” Reaching over he effortlessly relieved John of his sea bag. “Got a jeep outside. Let’s get going before the damn thing runs off.”
The open vehicle careened right and then left, then right again as Smith deftly applied the gas, then brakes while weaving around bicycles and pedicabs. “So, Sir, you’re the new X.O.” It wasn’t a question as he raised his voice over the horn.
“That’s right Sergeant. Do you know what’s up? John asked. He had learned from the NCOs in Officers Candidate School that the Sergeant’s ran the units and knew everything there was to know.
"Here’s what I know. I’m sure the Captain will fill you in on the details. We'll get ferried in country by the 20th Special Forces squadron. They’re called the Green Hornets, a tough bunch of flyboys. They’ve gotten shredded a few times.
Ours is a new unit. Most of the men in the platoon are drawn from other units already here. I think about a third will be new meat. What we are to do is protect the CBs. Those are Navy construction squids; you know, sailors, that run bulldozers to push back a zone from the firebase out about a hundred yards or so. That way the gooks can’t sneak up on us. These huge Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters can pick up a small bulldozer and set it down in the middle of the jungle. Crazy stuff. So, we’ve plenty to look forward to, Sir.”
A gun goes off nearby. Startled John whips his head around.
“Not a problem, sir, they’re a couple of blocks over.”
Suddenly standing on the brakes to avoid running down an ox laden with ceramic pots John braced himself with his hands on the dashboard and side of the windshield.
It was the third time John ordered Private Riggs to take to the mound on the north perimeter and lay down fire. Now John’s temper flared to find Riggs huddled in the supply cave dug in the near center of the firebase. "Riggs! Get your ass out there now,” John screamed at him.
John kicked him in the backside, grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled him off the ground and threw him out the mouth of the hole. Riggs rifle skidded across the dirt as he rolled unceremoniously into a heap. "Get on the north perimeter. Report to Sargeant Smith. If you can’t find him watch for the Hueys and lay cover fire when they get here." He was fed up with Riggs, a skater of the first order from the moment he reported in. Skaters were scum, in John’s estimation. They worked harder at getting out of work than if they would just do the job in the first place. John kicked him in the ass again. "You're on report, you stinking coward."
Riggs scrambled to avoid the second kick and didn't make it. John was satisfied as the private headed out north, just as a mortar round buried itself deep in a soft pile of dirt created by the excavation of the supply hole and went off.
The ground absorbed most of the shock but, there was still enough energy from the blast to pick John up and slam him into the side of the supply cave entrance. John arched his back against the door plank then rolled forward and stood shaking his head side to side to clear the buzzing in his skull. Where the hell was his helmet? Oh, he flashed a grin at himself ruefully, it’s still on his head. Every pump of his heart sent a sensation through his brain that was decidedly uncomfortable. Then it slowly subsided, and he looked around. Blood was oozing from his shoulder and calf. His flak jacket had half-dozen tears in it over his chest and side exposing the ceramic plates. Well, he thought, the damn thing does work. Other than that he felt okay.
"Slater," the Captain yelled as he trotted up and handed him a radio and map. The captain looked at him, reached up and brushed the dirt off John’s face. “You okay?”
John nodded then answered. “Yeah, I’m fine. A mortar.”
"Okay then. We’re a half-hour out on Hueys for evacuation. Air cover is on its way. Call in coordinates for the F4's when they get here. The call is Two-Bravo-Charlie. They’re Hotspot One and Two.” Then he ran to the east line barking orders as he went. John scanned where he last saw Riggs. He was gone. That was good, at least he wasn’t hurt or not too badly. Another mortar hit farther out. John was pelted with dirt like a rainfall only dry was irritating, he crouched and head for the HQ shack.
John climbed belly first on top of the Command Headquarters shack, the tallest point on the base and took bearing and range from the markings laid in the fire zone and put them on the map. The sun had just dropped behind the trees on the distant hill casting long shadows that made it dark enough to start seeing the North Vietnamese’s tracer rounds. John had their coordinates now.
"Two-Bravo-Charlie, this is Hotspot One." The radio crackled. "We have some barbecue for you; where would you like it?"
"Hotspot One, this is Two-Bravo-Charlie," John spoke into the radio. "How much can you give us?"
The radio crackled again, "We only have time for one pass and have to move on. Make it good."
"Roger that," John said and gave the coordinates. Seconds later blinding white light erupted from the jungle 200 yards northeast as the jets tore the air. John felt the shock wave of the Napalm igniting then the waft of heat as a 150-yard segment of jungle 50 yards wide disappeared into flame. Twenty seconds later another section of jungle evaporated. Everything went silent as the glow of the jets exhaust faded like cooling cigarette lighters in the distance. Then they were gone.
Eighteen Marines and six SeaBees slowly stood up almost as if synchronized. The Captain ran over to John. "Wow, John. That was a damn fine call." He looked at the fiery patch of ground beyond the fire-free zone. “That was spot on." After a couple of minutes by John’s side watching the jungle burn the Captain turned his head John’s way. "Roster the men, have everyone get their gear for evac. Send four my way to the northeast corner to help with the wounded. They go first."
Two hours later John heard the beating of the Hueys blades. There were eight of them. Captain had seven wounded men, and four dead staged. They were already moving across the graded ground as the first of the helicopters set down avoiding the Caterpillar with a track blown off because of the flare the Captain laid on it. John lost count somewhere around twenty or twenty-one and finally gave up on the head count of men as they loaded up in the helicopters in the dark.
The sun had set fully and with a Huey at his back he scanned the base. Jonh knew there was nothing to see other than a few small fires from the shelling they took, but it felt strange to be abandoning it. He jumped into the last Huey as it lifted. It was pitch black in the chopper. It looked like he had this ride all to himself. He turned and sat on the edge of the door with his boots on the landing skid as the chopper quickly climbed through two hundred feet. It irked him at having to leave the firebase unfinished but figured they’d be back in a few days. Then he heard, "Kick me in the ass, you prick." He felt the boot hit him in the back.
John grasped the barrel of the 50-cal machine gun sticking out the door of the Huey as he was propelled out and off the ledge. He dangled for a fraction of a second then felt the cold barrel slip from his hand.
Irwin and his brother Bill sat on the porch swing sipping iced tea. Both were wearing blue bid coveralls even though it was Sunday. Irwin wasn't wearing shoes, just white socks after changing out of his church clothes. He had no intention of going any further than the porch today.
Bill took a sip, "Doesn't look like any change in Tilly’s feelings. She doesn’t look good, being as skinny as she’s is. You think a doctor could do her any good?"
"She said anything since the military was here?"
"Nothing since her telling me I was to blame for his dying." Irwin sighed. "Haven't heard her voice since then. Like she doesn’t let on that John was my son too." Irwin sighed again. “I have to be strong for her. I won’t get on to her about it in her fragile condition. I just have to be patient, and strong, strong…” His voice trailed off softly as he visibly sagged on the swing.
"It's been almost six months since we laid John to rest,” Bill noted. She won't talk to Sarah either or me. I don't understand it." As an afterthought, he told Irwin, "Sarah won't even come over with me anymore. Breaks her heart to see Tilly as she is.”
"I can’t get her to see a doctor,” Irwin told him. “Far as I know, she won't talk to anyone. Anybody comes over she won’t come to the door, and if they catch her in the yard, she just turns her back on them and goes in the house.”
Irwin continued. “I had John dressed in his red flannel shirt for the showing. He hated coveralls and never wore them. I would like to have put him in his uniform, but I had the feeling it wouldn’t sit well with Tilly. He was in red or blue flannel near year round. That’s what she remembers of him.”
Irwin went on, “Tilly never said a word at the funeral. She looked into the coffin, touched John's face and started crying. It was the first time she’d cried. I guess that was the first time she accepted it." His voice cracked a bit. Bill looked at him waiting grimly.
Irwin sighed again. "I hear her break down every day. Some days several times. She doesn't go out. Hardly eats, you see her skinny as a split rail. She’d work in the kitchen all afternoon poundn’ out meat for country fried steak or she’d make three or four apple lattice pies. Then she’d take the pies out and be giving them to the men, set the steak and gravy in front of me and go to John’s bedroom. Some nights she’d fall asleep in there on his bed."
"John’s dying hit her hard,” Bill said. “The sun rose and set on that boy. I never saw anyone love someone as much as Tilly loved John short of Jesus Christ Himself.”
"Oh, I think she loves John more than the Lord much as I hate to say it. John was everything to her. Even from the moment we left the hospital after he was born, she fawned over him. She never let him cry like a baby ought to. It didn't take long for John to realize he didn't have to ask me for permission for anything. He always went to her, and she rarely said no." He set his tea on the stool by the swing, rubbed his eyes with gnarled knuckles then pulled a handkerchief from his hind pocket and blew his nose. "It ain’t natural to outlive your kid.”
The brothers sat quietly for a bit as they gently rocked the swing in unison.
“She sat with him for hours, teaching him how to color in the lines.” Irwin’s words finally caught up with his thoughts. “She taught him how to read with those silly comic books on Superman, Flash, Green Lantern and that fish guy; he was reading chapter books before he went to kindergarten." Then he added, “And he understood them too.”
“"No it ain't natural to outlive your kid.” Bill agreed. Then he asked, ‘The Marines of all things. Why did John sign up? He knew it was dangerous. War is. We ought to know.”
Irwin remembered both he and Bill served in the Army with their final posting in India after seeing action in North Africa where Bill took a 7.96mm German rifle round through the shoulder fired by an Italian. When the first Italian restaurant opened in Ames, Bill was ready to go. No hard feelings he had said. “You came darn close to losing your arm. By the time I got you back to the field ambulance you had us drenched in blood.”
“That was a lifetime ago,” Bill said dismissively. “What about John?”
Irwin sighed again as his thoughts turned back to his son. “John felt he had to go. I think it was the Political Science degree that tipped him over to it. And he knew how I felt about the Communists during the World War. He thought the Communists had to be led by Satan. It was kinda hard to argue against that. But, I tried to convince him it was not the place for him to make a stand. Tilly threw a tilly-fit. That’s like a tizzy-fit only ten times worst. Even then, she didn’t think I’d tried hard enough to keep him home. Tilly said I should have ordered him to stay.” I
Irwin looked into his tea. Then took a sip. Setting it back on the stool, he finished his story. “He was a grown man. Nothing else to do but wish him well. For all the good that did.”
Irwin stood up and leaned against the white enameled porch post reclaiming his tea from the stool. He continued. “John said something about not letting the North Vietnamese overrun the south. Democracy could very well hang in the balance. He informed me that a mango farmer could care less about who is in charge of the country when they string chicken guts from tree to tree to help the bugs cross-pollinate the blossoms.” Irwin grinned for a brief moment. “Can’t imagine where he learned something like that. John said they would care when the farmers learn they have to turn their whole harvest over to a collective and get a ration back, according to what the communist government thinks they should have.”
“Well, you did your best.” Bill agreed as he leaned forward and stood up. "Time mends a broken heart, I hear. Give Tilly, my and Sara’s regards,” Bill told him. “I have to be getting back."
“Thanks for coming to services with me today.” Irwin waited on the porch while Bill fetched his church clothes from in the house. Bill stepped down off the porch, climbed into his pickup, waved and crept out of the driveway crunching the gravel. Irwin watched and waved back. Then he turned back to the house where he saw his wife in the recliner lit by the afternoon sun rapidly warming the room. Irwin eased the screen door shut to quiet the twangy spring. Then he went over to the other side of the couch and twisted the rod on the blinds shading the room enough to block the direct sun and still let in plenty of light.
Her eyes were closed. Irwin smiled, it was the most peaceful he had seen her since before John’s death. Over her forest-green shift, she wore the Mother’s Day apron John gave her when he was fifteen with the now not-so-bright pictures of hand sized sunflowers on it. Her hair had turned white after the Marines came over. She hacked off the remaining brown hair herself. Even though he had offered to take her to her hairdresser, she wouldn’t go. Her hair was getting longer now and much improved, yet she was still a fright.
He had been momentarily shocked at her last declaration to him. He knew John’s death wasn’t his fault, and he thought Tilly was lashing out and would reconcile with her feelings. That never happened. He didn’t even try after the first few weeks to engage her. She went on nearly as though he didn’t exist.
She locked him out of the master bedroom. He slept in the guest room since the two Marines had come to the house even when she slept in John’s room. The bedroom arrangement had become a silent, angry issue that he carried till she cried over John’s body in the funeral parlor. His anger dissipated like an early morning mist fleeing from the sun. He couldn’t be mad at her anymore. There was no direction he could find to go that would bring her back from where ever her grief had taken her. He was at a loss, too. He would wait.
She had the framed graduation picture of her and John together laying in her lap. On top of that was a picture of him in his uniform smiling under a beautiful trellised bougainvillea that her niece Frances took of him in California when he passed through on the way to Vietnam. The other hand held a fired cast of ruddy red clay, John's footprints from when he was a month old. Irwin slipped the cast from her hand, and she didn't move. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand then sank slowly to his knees next to her and rested his head on her cold arm. His wait was over.