Alpha company waited until dusk to cross the rice field. The commander assured his men it would be safer then, but safer than what? There was no refuge in this god-forsaken jungle, only lesser-degrees of hell. He should have been home looking after his mother, punching his kid brother in the arm, hitting a curveball over the fence, drinking a milk-shake so thick it produces instant brain-freeze; doing pretty much anything—anywhere, other than fighting another man’s war. This wasn’t even close to how he supposed it would end.
The commander was wrong. Ritchie made the edge of the field and collapsed in the undergrowth. An enemy round had ripped through his left knee cap and even the slightest pressure caused pain to radiate upward through his thigh and settle deep in his gut. The crawl had taken much longer than it should, but Ritchie couldn’t stomach seeing the frozen faces of friends, bloody innards worn on the outside, good men lying face down. He couldn’t allow his mind to absorb the images, not now. There was no getting past the blood trail he’d left behind. It was only a matter of time before it was discovered. Decisions were deceptively simple; do nothing and meet with a final dispatching bullet, or mount an ill-advised attack. There were honorable ways for a Marine to check out, but waiting to be shot like a dog wasn’t one of them.
Ritchie listened to the foreign chatter as ‘Charlies’ combed the field. He couldn’t understand a word, but hoped to determine the number and position of the enemy. Hacking and slashing at the greenery they attempted to unearth the wounded. He felt the weight of his combat knife heavy on his side. If death came calling he intended to face the reaper head on. Both of them were about to find out how much damage a one-legged Marine was capable of inflicting.
He knew well the awful toll of hand-to-hand combat. A significant chasm existed between simply taking a man’s life via a well-placed round, and the task of dispatching him face to face. The introduction of guns had complicated matters, made killing too easy, sparing a man unsettling details; a mouth laying agape, waiting for a last ragged breathe that never came, eyes stretched wide in disbelief, yet ironically unable to see the bullet charging towards 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 here, mere boys struggled with fatal choices every day.
Ritchie waited on his back trail, eventually an unlucky soldier would pass within striking distance. Sounds associated with the clearing of vines were insufficient to mask those replaying in his head. Fear coursing through your soul, so loud you can hear it; the uncertainty of outcome regarding the struggle, the unfamiliar sound of a blade slicing cleanly through a windpipe, and the awful gurgling sounds that followed. Finally, as the lifeless weight of another man rests against you, your soul begins to weep and you pray that this will be the final time.
Chilling scenes from killings past caused his body to shiver and glisten in a cold sweat. Ritchie’s heart-rate ratcheted as he watched a single soldier veer dangerously close. Like a tiger, he leapt from his hiding spot and quickly gained control of the thrashing man. Gritting his teeth he began to draw the blade across the exposed throat; his necessary work almost complete.
“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, unwilling to completely trust his ears. Fearing a trick, he loosened his grip only slightly. Slowly he became aware of his young brother’s fists beating upon his back, demanding their mother’s release.
Ritchie immediately raised his hands towards the bedroom ceiling. When she turned to face him, he grabbed his mother and kissed her forehead, tears collecting at the corner of his eyes.
“Ma, I swear I didn’t know it was you—couldn’t never hurt you, ma. Havin’ one of them, damn ole dreams again.”
Betty made use of her apron and wiped his tears. Soon after her husband’s passing, she made a vow to protect her children from all harm but some things are beyond a mother’s reach. Each horrible night her family was separated she prayed that God would bring Ritchie home safely. 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 longed for rest.
“It’s alright, baby, I 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 goin' to Birmingham ‘safternoon to see another doctor. Now go on—git.”
Ben, the youngest of the boys, sat fidgeting in the waiting room chair. Thoughts of baseball consumed his young mind. It had been more than a year since Ritchie came home and he hadn’t even shown the slightest interest for the game. Ritchie’s record of ten home-runs in a single game still stood, balls that sailed well past the chicken fence and into the tall grass that bordered the Johnson farm. 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 the young man’s chest. He glanced at the chart and nodded his head in affirmation.
“Healthy as a horse, I’d say! So what seems to be the matter, young man?”
Ritchie glanced 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.
“Doc, I’d rather not speak in front of momma.”
The doctor lowered his black framed glasses, peered 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’s shoulder on the way out.
“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, ‘xactly. Just ain’t been right, since comin’ back—my head I mean. Strange thoughts ‘creepin’ round all the time, don’t seem like I fit in no more. Momma and Ben, they treat me extra good now, but with these haints and buggas haggin’ round I’m ‘fraid I might hurt one of ‘em, and I can’t live with that.”
“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. Seems like it’s ok sometimes, for maybe a week, but they keep comin’ back—dreams, real as anything, doc. Can’t shake ‘em and can’t run from ‘em; seems like I can’t get nowhere they ain’t.”
“Alright son, you can go back to the waiting room now. 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 up?”
“Mrs. Barnard, I believe your son’s very ill, but I need him to take a test to confirm my suspicions.”
“What kinda test?”
“Something that would allow me to properly gauge his metal state.”
Betty faced flushed with anger.
“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 for his country and I’m damn proud of him. Ain’t gonna reward him by havin’ him put some place where all he got to do is watch his roommate drool. Thank you for yer time, doctor. We’ll be on our way now!”
Betty hoisted her youngest from the chair, while signaling for Ritchie to follow. No one spoke during the two-hour drive home. Betty’s mind, still consumed with anger and frustration, Ben thinking of playing in his first World Series, and Ritchie doing his best to think of nothing at all.
Betty placed a bag of groceries inside the door, and reached for another. With little warning, life had become difficult. She understood the challenges associated with being a single mother, but Ritchie’s troubles were of another kind, one that couldn’t be solved by working a double-shift.
Ben came streaking down the stairs with his baseball glove in hand.
“Headed over to the Johnsons, ma—be back around dark!”
She opened the cupboard with a smile. Young 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 already lost Ritchie. That damned war claimed many a young life, and 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 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.
“Damn—can’t hardly ‘ford groceries as it is, clumsy old fool droppin’ things now.”
On her way to retrieve a towel Betty noticed an envelope on the table. Dish-towels and spills suddenly became unimportant. Betty folded into the easy-chair and opened the envelope addressed to Momma.
Been havin’ an extra bad day, decided to take the ole coon dog for a run. Ben sure loves his baseball. You make sure he practices good, some day he might just find a spot in da majors. Momma, I’m hurtin’ way deep down inside, don’t know how to fix it. I know you hurt too, I hear ya cryin’ at night, and know its cause of me and the way I am now. I feels like that sick old calf we had, couldn’t stand to look at it sufferin’, but can’t put it down neither. Kinda why I’m huntin’ today, don’t wanna be a burden to ya, don’t wanna see ya hurt like that.
That night in my bedroom, didn’t mean ya no harm; thawt the gooks was comin’ after me again. I’m so awful tired, momma, tired of fightin’ things ain’t there.
Ya took good care of me, but I’m grown now, need to fend on my own. Pop’d be proud of what ya done fer us boys. Sure will miss yer cookin’. Don’t hold supper count a me. Figurin’ I’ll be gone a good while. Don’t know ‘xactly where I’m goin’, but ‘spect it’s far, far away. Think I’ll just keep walkin’ til I find somewhere they ain’t!