Friday, January 18, 2008

Nowhere They Ain't

Although an author can never anticipate how a reader reacts, I feel this piece may require a disclaimer. This story references Vietnam. Some, especially those that were there, or lost loved one’s there, may not be comfortable reading it. By all means, stop right here. For those of you who continue, I’d like to make a request. Take a moment from your busy lives to analyze what these soldiers truly gave up. The next time you see a soldier, give them a pat on the back and thank them for serving; you never know, they may not be coming home.

Nowhere They Ain't
He lay motionless, buried in the undergrowth, concealing himself as best he could. Now comfortable with his attempt to remain undetected, he reluctantly inspected the damage. An enemy bullet had ripped through his left knee cap, leaving him with only one good leg. Excruciating pain radiated upward through his thigh and into his torso as he applied even the slightest amount of pressure. Blood pooled at the corners of his mouth, his lower lip receiving the brunt of his effort to remain silent. The taste of his own blood reminded him of the urgency of coming up with a plan. The results of doing nothing would be a final dispatching bullet through his brain. There were honorable ways for a Marine to check out, but lying, waiting to be shot like a dog couldn’t be counted as one of them.

Ritchie listened intently to the foreign chatter, not that he could understand a word, but only hoped to determine the number and position of the enemy forces. Hacking and slashing urgently at the vines, the soldiers hastily went about unearthing their wounded victim. Although Ritchie’s combat knife, the only weapon he possessed, seemed insignificant, he knew otherwise. If his death truly loomed immanent, he intended to inflict as much carnage as a one-legged marine could muster. Although Ritchie knew well, the awful toll hand to hand combat took on a mind.

A significant chasm existed between simply taking a man’s life via a well-placed round, and the task now facing him. Weapons allowed a soldier to remain distant and detached from his work. Perhaps the introduction of guns had made killing too easy. Sparing a man the unsettling details; a victim’s mouth gaping open awaiting one last ragged breathe that never came. Eyes stretched wide in disbelief, yet ironically still unable to detect the bullet that ripped through his skull. Distance in yards proportionately lessened the effects of taking a husband from a wife, a father from a child. Men were not designed to make such final decisions, yet he struggled with fatal choices each day.

He waited patiently on his back trail, realizing eventually an unlucky soldier would soon pass by within striking distance. Sounds associated with the clearing of vines were insufficient to mask those replaying in Ritchie’s head. The unfamiliar sound of a blade slicing cleanly through a windpipe and the gurgling sounds of a freshly slashed throat. Fear coursing through your soul, due to the uncertainty of outcome regarding the struggle. Finally, as the lifeless weight of another man rests against you, your hands covered in blood not of your own, you hear your soul weeping and praying that is the final time.

Chilling scenes from killings past prompted his body to rebel. Shivering and glistening in a cold sweat, Ritchie observed a single soldier, now veering dangerously close. He briefly considered the results of hesitation, then leaped from his hiding spot, and quickly gained control of the thrashing man. As he gritted his teeth and began to draw the blade across the man’s exposed throat, his necessary work interrupted by a familiar voice, cutting through the humid fog.

“Ritchie—Ritchie, what the hell are you doin’? Let momma go. For God’s sakes you’re gonna choke her!”

Ritchie shook his head from side to side, certain he had heard his kid brother’s voice, yet unwilling to completely trust his ears. Fearing a trick, he loosened his grip only slightly. Slowly he became aware of his young brother fists beating upon his back, demanding their mother’s release.

Once convinced, Ritchie immediately raised his hands towards the bedroom ceiling. As she turned around to face him, he grabbed his mother and kissed her forehead gently. Tears collected at the corner of his blue eyes, giving way to a sparkle his mother hadn’t seen for some time.

“Ma, I swear I didn’t know it was you—couldn’t never hurt you, ma. Had one of them, damn ole dreams again—won’t leave me alone, momma. I tried—to run from ‘em, but momma, just can’t get nowhere they ain’t.”

Betty held her son close and made good use of her apron, as she lovingly wiped the tears. Just after her husband’s passing, while contemplating raising these boys on her own, she made a vow to protect her children from all harm, but some things—regretful things, are out of a mother’s hands. Each horrible night her family remained separated, she prayed that God would bring Ritchie safely home. He had returned, but not the young boy that had left for Vietnam. His eyes had seen too much, his hand forced to perform unspeakable deeds, and now his troubled soul desperately sought only to rest.

“It’s alright, baby. Knew you was havin’ a bad dream, just hopin’ I could wake ya; keep the sufferin’ to ‘minimum. You get on downstairs and get some of ‘dat breakfast. We got to go into Birmingham s’afternoon to see another doctor; get you some good help, son. Now go on—git.”

Ben, the youngest of the boys, sat fidgeting in the waiting room chair. Thoughts of baseball consumed his young mind, but he did hope this doctor could help his brother. It had been more than a year since Ritchie came home and he hadn’t even shown the slightest interest for a game he used to live for. Ben missed his brother’s play; no one could crack that ball like Ritchie could. His record of ten home-runs in a single game, ten—over the chicken fence at the Johnston farm, still stood today. Many of the locals used to talk about Ritchie playing in the big leagues, but they didn’t talk much anymore, not about Ritchie playing baseball.

The doctor removed his stethoscope from Ritchie’s chest, and after looking at the chart nodded his head in affirmation.

“Healthy as a horse, I’d say! So what seems to be the matter young man?”

Ritchie glanced over at his mother, who appeared equally anxious to hear a response. He didn’t know exactly how to put his troubles into words, especially in mother’s presence. The doctor continued to tap his foot, as Ritchie searched for the correct words to describe the emotions he felt.

“Doc, I’d rather not speak, in front of momma.”

The doctor lowered his black framed glasses, peering at Ritchie and then at Betty.

“Ma’am, can you give us a few minutes—alone.”

Betty picked up her purse and patted her son on the shoulder. “You tell the good doctor what’s ailin’ ya, so as we can get the old Ritchie back.”

“So son, what is it that’s bothering you?”

“Well doc, ain’t somethin’ I can put into words, exactly. Just ain’t been right, since comin’ back; my head I mean. Strange thoughts ‘creepin’ round all the time, don’t seem to fit in no more. Momma and Ben, they treat me extra good now. But with these dream…I’m—I’m ‘fraid sometime I might hurt ‘em.”

“What do you mean, Ritchie? Do you feel like you want to hurt people sometimes?”

“No—not specially momma or Ben. Done more killin’ in ‘Nam than any man shoulda been asked to do, for his country or otherwise. Don’t wanna never hurt no one again, not on purpose. It’s ok sometimes, for maybe a week, but then they keep comin’ back, dreams, real as anything, doc. Can’t shake ‘em and can’t run from ‘em. Like I told momma, I can’t get nowhere they ain’t.”

“Alright son, you can go back to the waiting room now—and send your mother back in if you will.”

Betty allowed time for the door to close completely. “What do ya think, doc? Can ya fix him?”

“Mrs. Barnard, I believe your son’s very ill, but I’d like him to take a test to confirm my suspicions.”

“What kinda test?”

“A test that would allow me to properly judge his metal state.”

Betty faced flushed with anger and frustration. “You think Ritchie’s some kinda nut, don’t ya? Test—fer what? So you can lock ‘em away somewhere, forgit he ever existed. My boy gave everything he had for his country and I’m damn proud of him. Ain’t gonna reward him by havin’ him put in some institution, where they drool all over themselves. Ritchie ain’t like that; he just needs somethin’ to get rid of them dreams! Thank you for yer time, doctor. We’ll be on our way now!”

Betty grabbed her youngest son by the arm and hoisted him from the chair, signaling for Ritchie to follow. No one spoke during the two-hour drive home. Betty’s mind, still consumed with anger and frustration, Ben’s thinking of his first World Series, and Ritchie attempting to think of nothing, for nothing beat the alternative.


Betty placed a bag groceries just inside the front door, and went back to retrieve another. Barely able to function any longer; not only her body weary. She knew, full well, the challenges of a single mother, but Ritchie’s troubles were of another kind, one that couldn’t be solved by a double-shift.

Ben came streaking down the stairs headed for the door, with his trusty ball-glove in hand. “Headed over to the Johnstons, ma; be back around dark!”

As she began to put away the meager amount of food she had purchased, Betty shook her head and smiled, knowing Ben had developed the same love as Ritchie. The two of them were much alike, but Betty intended to keep a tighter reign on the youngest. She feared she had lost Ritchie to the war. That wretched war claimed many young lives, not just one’s returning in bags, but others just as broken. Borrowed for killing, in someone else’s cause, then when their usefulness determined done, turned loose back from where they came, ill-prepared to resume a life put on hold.

A bottle slipped from her tired grip and shattered on the floor, sending shards of glass in all directions.

“Damn—can’t hardly ‘ford groceries as it is, clumsy old fool droppin’ things now.”

As Betty made her way over to the counter, seeking a towel to clean up the mess, she noticed an envelope on the table. Picking it up, she instantly recognized the handwriting. The thoughts of a dish-towel, spills, and everything else at this moment seemed unimportant.

Betty fell into the easy-chair in the living room, and opened the envelope addressed to “Momma”

Went huntin’ this afternoon. Been havin’ extra bad thoughts today, needin’ to get someplace. Boy, Ben sure loves his baseball, make sure he practices good, some day he might just find a spot in da majors. Momma, I’m hurtin’; down way deep inside, don’t know how about to fix it. I know you hurt too momma, hear ya cryin’ at night. I ain’t foolish, know its cause me and the way I am now. Kinda why I’m huntin’ today, don’t wanna be no burden to ya no more, don’t wanna see ya hurt. ‘member ‘at night in my bedroom, didn’t mean ya no harm; thawt the gooks was comin’ after me again. I’m tired momma, tired of fightin’ things ain’t there.

Momma, ya took good care of me, but I’m grown now, need to fend on my own. Pop’d be proud of ya, what ya done fer us boys. Sure will miss yer cookin’. Don’t hold supper count a me, figurin’ I’ll be gone awhile. Can’t go far, cause I sure am tired, momma. I gotta place far away in mind; b’lieve it might be somewhere they ain’t!


Bubba said...

I particularly like the open-ended finish to this story. Honestly, I don't think you need the disclaimer. As a Vietnam vet, I didn't find it objectionable in any way. Sometimes understanding comes from sources we don't expect, I think.


Jo Janoski said...

Oh, you are an excellent writer! This touches the core and shoots pain through the reader. It takes post-traumatic stress disorder out of the textbooks and political doublespeak and puts a human face on it, as it should be. Well done.

Dan said...

Bob, I'm glad to hear that. I just didn't want to take a chance on causing a problem for someone, who's already dealt with enough. By the way, thanks for your service there!

Thank you Jo for your very kind although underserving words. Although I am a veteran of 'Desert Storm', I didn't see any action, yet I certainly sympathize with those that did.

~W~ said...

I have a very soft spot in my heart for any active duty military men and women. They sacrifice so much. This was great writing. Glad that I found your blog.

hfurness said...

I didn't serve, but I had a bunch of friends come back both in bags and bagged. As both your and Crane prove you didn't have to be there to understand what this type of experience does to everyone. And, because we don't remember history, we seem to be seeing this all over again. A damn fine piece of writing. thanks...

Shirley said...

Dan, thanks for proving me right when I told you that you had the potential to be an excellent writer. ;)

The emotional impact of this story is amazing and would bring anyone to tears. As Jo said, you make it real rather than a description in a medical dictionary. Very moving and sad.

Dan said...

W,Harry thank you for your comments. I'm currently struggling, searching for a topic for a new story.

Shirley, thanks for seeing potential. I hope to improve with each story, and lesson from bubba.