This story is by Frederic Widlak and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Mike finally felt relaxed, sitting alone on the sunny patio at Pete’s place. He finished his Bucking Bronco burger and curds as he waited for his next Jack and Coke. No sense sitting inside. Don’t want to watch TV news. The A/C isn’t working, and it’s too dark to see who is on the other side of the room. Sometimes it’s too crowded and noisy to feel comfortable.
It was a couple days ago, but hard to remember the flight from DCA to ORD or the bus rides from O’Hare to Madison and from Madison to Oshkosh. The Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House is like a dream. The statutory time limit was waived. Mike’s service in Vietnam ended thirty years ago. Hometown given as Cleveland.
“Sergeant Slatnowski’s extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty at the risk of his life maintain the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
From dress uniform with fruit salad to jeans, T-shirt, and Cub cap in two days. The uniform is in the drawer. Pretty much forever. Clara, the matronly waitress, brought the next Jack and Coke and Mike paid for it right away. He had a hard time remembering the tab and didn’t like knowing how much J.D. he drank in one afternoon. No watch—time of day doesn’t matter anymore. No calls—cell phone is at home. No talking to reporters—been there, done that in DC.
“Incoming! Incoming! Take cover!” Shit! I’m hit! What a blast! I can’t hear anything. Lights are out. I can’t see anything. Where’s Joe? Where are you, buddy? Stay down! There is still shooting. Can’t tell who is who. Some NVA must have got into the camp. Found a flashlight. Who is lying here? God, what a fucking mess! This must be Joe, but his face is gone. Got to get outside to help my CO. Matt, are you out there? I got Joe’s M14 and clips. Where is the way out?
“Hey Clara, another Jack and Coke…and please empty my ashtray. Thanks to you and Pete for covering for me.” This is the only place where I can be left alone until the sun goes down. Jack Daniel and Camels are my only friends right now. My folks are retired in Arizona. Rest of the family is in Cleveland. Didn’t make close friends in Milwaukee, and I don’t want any. I made good money as an insurance agent in Milwaukee, but it was long hours and talking to a lot of people. I can’t do that anymore. VA benefits keep me going.
“Sergeant Slatnowski, I want you to understand what I have found about your condition. Your PTSD symptoms are getting worse. I will help you, but you have to work hard to help yourself. Your close friends can help a lot, but you must trust them and be honest with them. There are several issues that we need to discuss, and this will take many visits. Are you OK with coming here to Milwaukee every two weeks?”
Close friends? I don’t have any. Come to Milwaukee again? So, there is no pill to get rid of PTSD? I liked Milwaukee while I was working, but I can’t stand going there now. Maybe I can go to the VA Hospital in Madison. I don’t like the UW students, but Madison isn’t as crowded as Milwaukee, and I don’t know anyone there.
“Clara, another Jack and Coke, please…and a couple packs of Camels. You know the kind I like.” Mike sat at a small table in the corner of the walled patio so that he could see the doorway and anyone else. He picked up this habit in Nam…the VA doc called it hyper-vigilance. If he thought he recognized someone entering, he pulled down the visor of his Cub cap and froze.
“Mike Slatnowski…is that you?” Oh, hell…my cover is gone. Lieutenant Matthew Heintz now had gray hair, a slight limp, and looked shorter than when he led Mike’s platoon in Vietnam. Mike looked up at his former CO and nodded a blurred recognition. “Mike, why are you hiding behind that beard? Everyone who saw you on TV knows that most of your left ear is gone. Why didn’t you have plastic surgery? Hell, the VA should pay for that for a MOH.”
“Matt, I value my privacy. If you want to sit down and talk, that’s OK—but I don’t want people to see me. Were you looking for me? How did you find me?”
“Mike, believe me, running into you is an accident. I got a promotion from my company and was transferred here. Isn’t this a great place for fishing? This bar is such a friendly place. I never thanked you enough for saving my life and the other guys in our outfit. Tell me what’s happened since Nam.”
Mike was taken by such surprise that he slurred his story, but gave all the details. “When I got back from Nam, I had nightmares about the attack when Joe was killed. In my dreams, I didn’t save anyone. I froze. You were killed, too. I thought that drinking would help me forget. After I lost my job, I went to the VA Hospital for help. When I heard about the MOH, I knew that you sent the app-application. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even th-thank you.”
“Matt, you are the f-f-first person that I have trusted to hear these things. I haven’t been to confession since high school. I’m not even sure why I told you. The MOH is for heroes. I’m not a hero. That’s all I want to say. What’s your story?”
“Mike, compared to yours, I don’t have much of a story. I’m thirsty.”
“Clara, a couple a’ Point Special Lagers. I’m slowing down now to listen to my CO. I’m sure that Jack can find some new friends.”