by Marka Ormsby
The mortar blast took out three of his brothers in arms, and AK-47 gunfire erupted around the fallen soldiers.
“Corpsman, over here,” shouted PFC Joe Beckwith who lay beside his buddy, PFC Andy Wickmayer. “Three down. God dammit, hurry.”
“Beck, watch your left flank,” Sgt. Dan Daniel shouted back, “You got two gooks comin’ from the hooch.”
“Wick’s hit. Need a corpsman.”
“Watch your God damned flank, Beckwith.”
Beck turned to see two NVA coming straight for him. He pointed his M-16 in their direction and fired full automatic. Others did the same. The unrelenting firepower killed both NVA and others fleeing from the village. It was over in less than five interminable minutes.
Beck looked back at Andy lying on the ground, eyes fixed at the green wet canopy above. Andy was dead, and so were five other soldiers.
“Beck, check the gooks. Make sure they’re dead and mop up anyone in that hooch.”
Beck felt the bile rising in his throat. He’d been in-country two months and learned the toughest lesson of all. Life was about surviving another day. He moved carefully toward the hut. Scared shitless and angry all at the same time, he slowly opened the door. A Vietnamese woman and her young son lay dead on the floor. They got the NVA all right and “civilians” too. What a war! As Beck started to turn away, he caught a glimpse of the dead boy jumping to his feet. He held a grenade and gave a bloody cry as the thing exploded.
Joe Beckwith screamed and sat up in bed, shaking uncontrollably and drowning in sweat.
“Hey, Beckwith,” yelled a neighbor banging on the paper-thin walls of his cheap apartment. “Shut up, man. It’s three am. Some of us want to sleep.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Beckwith climbed out of bed and walked to his bathroom sink, stumbling over the empty bourbon bottle on the floor. He splashed water on his face and looked in the mirror. When did he get so old? He studied the bloodshot eyes, gray hair, and the perpetual stubble. He rarely shaved after retiring from Jake’s Auto Repair. Sleep was impossible, so he put on shorts and a fresh t-shirt and stepped out of his apartment into the warm, humid night. Living in Florida was great in the winter but sucked in the summer. He walked the familiar path to Jackie’s Diner, open 24-hours a day, every day.
“Hey, Joe,” said Ellen. “The usual?”
“Sure. Sounds good.”
Ellen brought him a cup of coffee and cream. “You okay? You look…”
“Worse than usual?”
“You said it, I didn’t.”
“It’s been a rough week,” said Joe as he took a sip of coffee.
“Aren’t they all?” Ellen worked nights, and being a divorced mother of two boys, her life was almost as big a train wreck as Joe’s.
She wiped the empty counters. The only other customer in the diner was sitting in a booth, sleeping off a bender.
“How’s the divorce coming?” asked Ellen. She had four more hours on her shift, and the drunk in the booth wasn’t much company.
“Final. Has been for three weeks.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“What’s there to say? She left me after forty-four years. We made it through all kinds of shit, and now, she wants out.” He didn’t elaborate on the anger, the constant rage he directed at her just because she was there. He never hit her physically, but his constant furor year after year wore finally her down. When he worked at the auto shop, fixing engines, making them hum again, he could leave the pain behind. When he retired, the nightmares returned, along with the anger and the shame. The emotional rift between them grew to a chasm. There were so many things he could never tell his friends, family, or loved ones. They would never understand. How could they? He didn’t.
Joe left the diner as the sun crept over the horizon. He walked along the boardwalk looking to the sea to settle his soul. He saw an old man sitting by the shore, painting a seascape, trying to capture the moment as waves broke over the beach and slipped back to the sea. He noticed a sign, “Buy a painting, save a Vietnam veteran – Half of every sale goes to the local Florida Vietnam Veterans Association.”
Joe walked up to the artist. “You’re a Vietnam vet?”
The painter continued his work without looking up, “Yeah, from ’69 to ’70. You?”
“It was tough coming home,” said the painter as he looked up at Joe. He offered his hand while looking at the four-inch scar on Joe’s right calf.
“Quite a scar, brother.”
“Yeah, second patrol. My buddy, Andy was killed in a mortar attack. Took some shrapnel. Didn’t notice until after…”
“Until after you did what you had to do.” They looked at each other, both understanding what didn’t need to be said.
“What’s your name?” asked the artist.
“Joe. I’m Andy Martinez. You getting any help?”
“Help? Why do you think I need help?”
Andy smiled. “You sleeping okay?”
“Not exactly.” Joe knew he couldn’t bullshit another Vietnam vet.
“I’ve been there, brother. If you want help, check out the VA Center on Miller Street. Here’s a card. I put my number on the back. Ain’t no shame in asking a brother for help.”
Joe put the card in his pocket. “Thanks, I’ll think about it,” he said and began to walk away.
“Hey Joe, the mind don’t heal itself. The pain don’t go away on its own, no matter how much you drink, do drugs, or whatever else you’ve tried.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Joe, appreciating the advice but not wanting to break the emotional barriers he’d fought so hard to build.
Joe spent the rest of the day walking around the marina, watching the boats sailing to and from the Atlantic. He didn’t want to return to his small, crappy apartment with the air conditioning grinding away, struggling to keep up with the heat. The sea breeze kept him reasonably comfortable as he meandered along the beach.
He took Andy’s card from his pocket several times, looking at it, fingering it. He wandered toward Miller Street to look at the old remodeled medical building that housed the VA Center. He’d known about it for years, but never thought much of the VA and didn’t think they could help. He stood across the street, staring. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said to himself and walked toward his apartment, stopping by the liquor store on his way home.
Joe awoke at 5 AM, screaming and drowning in sweat, like most nights.
“Beckwith, for God’s sake,” said the neighbor. “Every night, really?”
Joe got out of bed, made his trip to the bathroom sink and looked in the mirror.
“I can’t…” He faced another long day with a hangover and horrific images of a war long ago that wouldn’t go away.
There was still a half a fifth of bourbon on the coffee table. He ambled passed it to the closet where his Glock 9mm lay. He loaded the clip and slid it in place. One pull of the trigger, I can end this hell. He put the gun to his head and started to pull the trigger. All he could see was Andy Wickmayer lying in the mud with a bullet through his head. He put the gun down and sank into his chair, crying. He remembered another Andy. Andy Martinez, the artist he met the day before. He found Andy’s card and made the call, the most important call of his life.
“Hello?” A sleepy voice answered. “Hello? Anyone there?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Joe…Joe Beckwith. We met yesterday.”
“Oh, yeah, Joe. How you doing?”
“I need help.”
“Where are you?” Andy could hear the desperation in Joe’s voice, the same desperation he’d confronted five years ago.
“Home,” Joe gave Andy his address.
“I can be there in twenty minutes. Just sit, and don’t do anything until I get there.” Andy knew where Joe was coming from. He’d been there himself.
Joe walked into Jackie’s diner at 7 AM, much later than usual. This time, he had a friend with him. Joe was showered, shaved, and had clean clothes. For the first time, he wore his Vietnam Veteran cap. Andy had on his cap as well.
“Ellen, this is my buddy, Andy. Andy, Ellen.”
“Back at ya,” Ellen nodded as she poured them both some coffee.
“You two Army buddies, or something?” she said looking at their caps.
“You might say that,” said Andy.
“Joe, I didn’t know you were a Vietnam vet, and I didn’t think you had any friends.”
This was the first step. It was uncomfortable, just as Andy had said.
When Joe didn’t respond, Ellen asked, “So, when were you in Vietnam?”
Joe took a long sip of coffee. “I was there last night.”