A Short Story by Mark Laming

Helmet with Flag Background

Last week I was watching a cartoon with my grandson York. The silver robot with the expressionless metal face and swinging arms was breaking down the door, ripping its way into the house. Inside the living room, the rabbit dressed in trousers and shirt was hiding and shivering with fear.

York gripped my arm and I told him not to squeeze so hard, but he was really scared and edged closer to me hiding his eyes with one of the cushions.

He held the handset at arm’s length, clicked and on came a ball game. The New York Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers but I could sense he wasn’t interested. So off he went to seek out his Grandma in the kitchen. I heard him say ‘What are we going to do now?’

On hearing York’s question my mind drifted back to when I was a young man and to a friend who delivered our mail. Joe was a cheery sort of a fellow, tall and slim with a toothy smile. He always had a good word to say about everyone in our sleepy town. When we went to war his favourite expression was, ‘What are we going to do now? Mail man Joe always said this when the bullets were flying over our heads.

The day I got my draft notice, it was Joe who delivered the dreaded letter. He’d worked out that I had also been called up. He said he’d got his papers and would see me out there. He left me sitting on the veranda, rocking in Ma’s old chair with my mind spinning. I watched Joe heading back to town on the Old Blossom Road until he was out of sight. I was so scared and didn’t want to leave my family; this was all so unfair. My life was fine out here in West Virginia.

With a cool October breeze that seemed to be calling my name, I stared at the papers that were taking me to war and considered the likelihood that I may not be coming back. The news on Vietnam was frightening with so many lost lives already. I’d been dreading receiving the draft instructions as I knew my life was to change for ever. Our soldiers would be fighting against an enemy we rarely saw, in a jungle we couldn’t master and for a cause we barely understood.

The day I left, hundreds of young men said goodbye to parents, family and lovers. Some had even married in those short few months as the date grew closer. We felt important as huge crowds at the station cheered. It seemed like most of the young men in my town were on that train, including mail man Joe. Our army haircuts and uniforms transformed our appearance as we became the brave soldiers being sent overseas.

I was being transported to a country that I’d only given a cursory glance to on the school globe. Companionship between us men was intense with morale set high to come out of this conflict alive. In truth we were so scared and you could smell the fear in the air. I kept telling myself that I was going to survive whatever they threw at me.

On disembarking we joined thousands of other troops, vehicles and the weaponry we hoped would end the hostilities. It wasn’t long before we were indoctrinated with the instruments of death and destruction as we moved into the horrors of the jungle battlefield. We endured the cold as well as the massive heat in the summer. All the time I kept thinking that my dreams would still be here tomorrow, but I may not be!

Our troop was based in the middle of Viet Cong territory and we changed from caring young men into cold blooded killers. On one particular day we appeared to be gaining ground. There were bodies all around the clearing and the stench stung my nostrils. Then to my amazement it all went quiet.

I turned to look at Joe, then machine gun fire rang out. Joe was never to return home.

For those of us who survived the ordeal, we returned to the US not as heroes, but as downhearted lost souls. It appeared the government wanted to forget this conflict. It became clear they were ashamed of the events that had occurred. Apart from our families and loved ones, there were no official welcoming ceremonies for our platoon. No bunting or cheering crowds, only shattered soldiers longing to get home.

So, war time memories stay with you. The companions you lost, the things they said you treasure. You grow older but you never forget.

I often think of Joe but I prefer to remember the happier times when we played cards and drank ginger beer. Late into the afternoon we talked sweethearts and cars. The world was ours for the taking, or so we thought. I still see Joe’s kind face and feel the empathy we shared as our lives changed forever.

Fortunately since those dark days of war, life has been kind to me, and with a wonderful wife by my side we are enjoying our retirement. We live in the house I inherited from my parents and our children have flown the nest.

Most early evenings I like to sit on the veranda rocking in Ma’s chair staring over the fields as the birds swoop over the banks of the Ohio River. I listen to the hum of the cars and trucks on the Old Blossom Road that was once a track and smile as I picture Joe waving madly as he approaches the house.

In my mind Joe is always just around the corner on the Old Blossom Road.