Chapter Twenty

As it turned out, the timing for their little celebration to end all celebrations couldn't have been better!

For, three short days later, on July 1st, 1953, the United States Army began issuing early discharges to all officers and enlisted men who had seen ten months or more active duty during the Korean Conflict.

That meant that, with the exception of Corporal Walton and Captain McHennick, everyone assigned to the 4077th was eligible! Yes, their little group had seen more than their share of conflict in Korea.

Trials and tribulations have a tendency to pull people together. After enduring as many trials and overcoming as many tribulations as they had, their little group couldn't possibly have gotten any closer. The conflicting conditions they were forced to work under had molded them into a tightly knit unit and news that their unit was about to be broken up left them stunned.

They were too happy to be sad and yet too sad to be really happy. And so, a kind of emotional numbness pervaded the camp.

Captain Mulcahy never did make it back from his two weeks of R&R. He was transferred from Tokyo, Japan to Fort Bennett, Texas, in the twinkling of an order.

In fact, a day didn't pass that they weren't bidding a tearful goodbye to some member of their family and a half-hearted hello to some total stranger.

Everybody in the camp was grateful to Hawkeye for organizing their one last good time together—while they were still in the mood for celebrating.

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When Pierce first asked permission to move their patient into the infirmary at Sister Tereasa's Orphanage, Winchester thought he must be joking.

But then Hawkeye asked again and Charles realized that he wasn't joking. He was merely out of his mi-ind!

So Captain Hunnicutt remained in the old Post Op where he acquired a hearty appetite for Corporal Walton's cooking. He asked to be fed eight times a day, in the hope that he could somehow eat his way back to health.

Within a week, he had regained enough of his lost strength to be able to stand up straight and tall again. Though, as a result of some of his deeper contusions, he did walk with a slight limp.

The moment B.J. got back on his feet, he began playing doctor with the other patients in Doctor McHennick's ward.

Doctor McHennick would tolerate no competition from this soldier—regardless of his rank. So Captain Conceit complained to the Colonel…who complained to Winchester…who complained to his patient, saying that while he was being doctored, he was to refrain from doctoring others.

Because he would make no promises, B.J. was banished from all the wards and forced into exile in the Swamp.

With no patients to attend to, the convalescing Captain combated boredom by dreaming and scheming up the most devilishly clever ways to drive the rest of the camp crazy!

No one in the camp was spared. Even the patients found themselves on the receiving end of some of the crafty Captain's more imaginative (yet perfectly harmless) hoaxes.

After one of his playful patient's pranks was perpetrated upon him, Charles began to view Hawkeye's insane request in a different light.

Complaints started trickling in to the Colonel, who visited Hunnicutt and requested that he cease and desist from his practical jokery.

But, once again, the brooding, bored physician could make no promises.

At Major Winchester's suggestion, B.J. was banished from the entire camp, this time, and exiled to the infirmary of Sister Tereasa's Orphanage. Where Doctor Winchester checked on him every morning and Doctor Pierce visited him every night…right after he finished his other rounds—correction, after he and Captain McHennick finished their other rounds. It seemed like Captain Conceit went out of his way to get in his way.

McHennick bore the same gripe about Pierce and complained about him to the Colonel. McHennick said that he had been sent there as a replacement for Pierce but that he couldn't be a proper replacement if Pierce remained in the camp doing his job!

Potter told him he'd make a right proper replacement for Captain Hunnicutt then for he no longer remained in the camp doing his job.

A horrified McHennick assured the Colonel that he was no soldier!

Potter told him not to worry that Hunnicutt was no candidate for the cover of 'Stars and Stripes', himself!

A heartbroken McHennick sadly stated that all he wanted to do was practice medicine.

The Colonel told him that he should make a splendid replacement then because that was Doctor Hunnicutt's favorite pastime, too!

A stunned McHennick walked numbly and humbly back to his—er, Doctor Hunnicutt's ward.

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Hawkeye didn't have as much trouble unpacking, as he thought he'd have. In fact, he already considered the war as being over with. After all, the Army would've never issued the 'early outs' if the end weren't close in sight. He was so confident, in fact, that he began dismantling their still and shipping it home…one piece at a time. That way, he reasoned, it would slip past the Revenuers undetected. Of course, once his father had all the pieces, he'd probably put 'tube and tube' together and figure it out.

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Family members weren't the only ones leaving the 4077th those days. It was a time of healing for everyone. The wards were growing emptier and emptier everyday as their patients were being shipped overseas to hospitals back in the States…and there were no new casualties to take their place.

One patient followed his doctors' examples and passed up every opportunity to leave. It was Lieutenant Ron Ames intention to leave with Major Margaret Houlahan and then stay with Margaret Houlahan-Ames for the rest of his life. He spent all of his time and energy trying to get her to share his intention.

Margaret was flattered but stubborn. She told him that the Army was her whole way of life and that she could never live any other way.

He told her that nursing was her real way of life and that the Army was just her way of pleasing her retired Army Colonel father. He said that he was sure she could make her father just as proud of his ex-Army Major daughter if she were to pursue her nursing career as a civilian. He told her that it was about time that she started thinking of pleasing herself, for a change.

Margaret wouldn't speak to him at all for several days and when she finally did, she told him that it was too late for her to change…that too much water had gone under the bridge.

Ron told her better late than never…and that they could build new bridges—together.

Margaret denied this fanciful idea of his and continued to deny it…right up until about three hours before Ron's plane was due to leave States' side. Then, a lost and lonely Army Major stormed into her Colonel's office and asked him for her discharge.

Her very wise C.O. had prepared it and her travel papers—just in case. But, before he'd hand them over, he asked her if she'd still want them if she was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and assigned to an administrative office at Walter Reed's.

A misty-eyed Margaret assured him she'd want them even if she were promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to the Pentagon!

A misty-eyed Colonel Potter then pinned the silver oak leaf insignia of her new (and never to be old) rank to her collar and gave her a salute, a hug, a stack of official-looking papers and his best wishes.

After a tearfully short goodbye, Ex-Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Houlahan had Mullen fly her down to the Seoul airfield where she joined Ex-1st Lieutenant Ron Ames for a…lifetime.

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The day after Margaret's departure, B.J. showed up in camp and asked to be adopted—and to have his honorable medical discharge changed to just a plain old honorable one.

Colonel Potter took the orphan in and gave him a complete physical.

Hunnicutt's wrist and shoulder had mended well and his cast and sling were removed. Except for the two scars on his wrists and the two on his back, a tinge of yellow and brown here and there and the fact that he was still about twenty pounds underweight, the Captain was the nearly perfect picture of health.

His C.O. declared him fit for duty and then handed him a fresh set of documents discharging him from having to perform it…just plain old honorably.

B.J. declared that, thanks to his friends and fellow orphans, his reflex conditioning had nearly disappeared…along with about ninety percent of his bruises. He announced that he was now ready…willing…and able to go home.

Hawkeye found his discharge and made arrangements to leave Korea with his favorite favorite friend.

Charles secured his discharge and determined that he would accompany his bunkmates back to the States.

The three of them shared a few drinks in their Officer's and Enlisted Men's Club, and a few more over at Rosie's. They spent the rest of the evening, their last night in the Swamp, together…sipping Charles' fancy French booze and packing up their belongings, to the wistful accompaniment of Jean-Pierre Rampal and Chopin's Variations on a theme from Rossini's 'La Cenerentola'.

Colonel Potter and Klinger joined them in the Swamp around midnight and they made one final toast—a toast of farewell…which they had difficulty swallowing.

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When Winchester dryly remarked the next morning that they had packed up everything but the tent, strange looks suddenly came over his companions.

Hawkeye and B.J. turned to each other, wearing broad, devious grins. "Why not!" they chorused.

Then, right before an appalled Winchester's wide eyes, they proceeded to dismantle and pack up their tent. It didn't take them too long. They'd had lots of practice. The heavy, cumbersome canvas was stashed into a large wooden crate and tagged: "CONTENTS One Discharged Government Issue SWAMP".

And, after arranging for the crate's transfer to a garage in Crab Apple Cove, Maine, and an extremely emotional and short goodbye (Potter despised long ones.) Hawkeye and B.J. and Charles were off on the first leg of their long journey…home.

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It seemed the closer they got to their destination, the more uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn B.J. was becoming.

While they were sitting in the airport in Tokyo, waiting for seats on the next Eastbound flight, he stopped talking entirely and Hawkeye was compelled to inquire as to what was wrong. "What is it, Beej?"

His moody friend looked up from the letter he'd been reading and rereading. "Huh? Oh. Nothing. I was just thinking. You know, last month Peg actually made more money than I did."

Hawkeye noticed that his buddy seemed more worried than jealous. 'But why should his wife's income worry him? It shouldn't. Unless…' "You're thinking about telling her, aren't you!"

B.J. was only mildly surprised by his friend's on-target statement. "I have to."

"I thought we had 'that' all settled? Didn't you promise me you were gonna forget it?"

"I promised to always write 'cheerful' letters home."

"Okay. So now why are you planning to depress her in person?"

"Becau-ause…with fidelity out of the way, the only claim I can still make concerning our relationship is honesty. I've always been honest with her and I've got to be honest with her now."

"Fine. But I still think you're making a big mista-ake."

"I've already made the big mistake, remember? Now all I gotta do is find the courage to face up to the consequences…"

"If it's any consolation to you, the Peg Hunnicutt I've come to know through you and her letters seems like a very understanding, forgiving sort of person."

"Oh, she is! And if I had been out all night with the guys instead of with another woman, I know she'd be understanding…and forgiving. But I've never been unfaithful to her before. I have no idea how she's going to react…and I'm scared. Because she's managed very well on her own for the past year. Because she's accustomed to life without me…and because she just might decide to keep it that way…"

"Yeah? Well, don't sell her or yourself so short. After all, you would a' never even made the big mistake in the first place if you weren't such a nice gu-uy. And, while you're being so honest with her, be sure to include these honest little details in your account: like how she invited you over to her tent and like how you went there with the honorable intention of comforting a depressed friend. Granted, you should have known better. But, nobody's totally perfect. Though, I must say…you do come pretty close."

"Thanks, Hawk. Yah know, you're pretty perfect, yourself."

The two close to perfect friends exchanged broad grins.

Charles returned from his search for nourishment just then, saw their grins and suddenly felt a bit nervous. "You two are not plotting anything, are you?"

"You mean like a whoopee cushion under your seat?" Hawkeye innocently inquired.

"Or a joy buzzer in your pocket?" B.J. added.

Charles' hopeful expression vanished as his traveling companions turned to each other and shrugged…innocently. He feared the trip to San Francisco would prove to be a long one for him.

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It would prove to be an even longer one for their ex-patient.

The strain of over thirty-six hours of nearly continuous travel was almost too much for B.J. who, while having regained his health, was still a might lacking in the reserve energy and endurance departments.

By the time their Globemaster plane taxied to a stop on runway 9 of San Francisco's International Airport, Hunnicutt was on the verge of collapsing. His traveling companions had to practically carry him down the stairs of the unloading ramp.

The three of them stopped on the bottom step for a moment and stared down at the tarmac. Beneath that pavement was American soil…something they at times had thought they would never step foot on again. They glanced at each other and smiled. They then planted all six of their feet down on solid ground.

The three travelers just stood there for awhile, squinting in the bright sunlight and looking confused. Their biological clocks read: middle of the night, while their eyes were registering: middle of the day.

Hawkeye had called 'Trapper' John McIntyre from Tokyo the night before…or was it the morning before? Whichever it was, the man was waiting for them when they reached the Main Terminal.

After the two old buddies finished their bear-hugging, backslapping, hand-shaking, wisecracking reunion, and all introductions were made and all baggage was claimed, Trapper offered to buy everybody breakfast.

The weary travelers thanked him and then tried to explain that while their eyes were indeed saying it was time to wake up, their brains were screaming it was time to go to bed.

McIntyre laughed and said that was how it was for him when he first got back, too. He then announced that his old buddy was gonna be bunking with him. But, before he took Hawkeye home and put him ta bed, he wanted ta take his friends ta wherever they were gonna be stayin'.

The Bostonian thanked their hospitable host and requested to be taken to the nearest hotel. He had a twelve-hour layover before his next flight and he intended to 'kill' at least ten of those hours in his sleep.

"You don't have to go to a hotel, Charles. We have a guestroom. I'd love for you to meet Peg and I'm sure she wouldn't mind the company."

"Thank you…B.J.," Charles replied, addressing Hunnicutt by his first name. "But two is company…three's a crowd," he added, with a grateful grin and an uncharacteristic contraction. Hey…he was back in civilization. It was no longer necessary to speak the Queen's English.

The three Ex-Swamp Rats exchanged grins and handshakes.

Charles then asked 'Hawk' to see to it that 'B.J.' made it to bed.

Just before parting company, the tired trio made a solemn pledge…to try to keep in touch.

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Trapper and Hawkeye dropped B.J. off at 2102 East Leslie, his suburban home in Mill Valley, where he intended to give his wife and daughter the surprise of their lives!

But, they surprised him even more…by not being there.

Pierce and McIntyre half-carried their crushed companion upstairs.

"What? No story?" B.J. teased as Hawkeye carefully tucked him into bed.

"Not tonight—er, today. But I will give you this…" Hawkeye bent down and kissed his sleepy friend on the forehead. "Sweet dreams, Beej! I honestly hope everything works out okay with Peg."

"Thanks, Hawk," B.J. shakily replied. He took and shook Hawkeye's hand. Only, this time, he wasn't afraid to release it. Because he wasn't really letting go…he could never really let go. There was—and always would be—an unbreakable bond between them. Hunnicutt was confident that their bond of friendship was both long and strong enough to stretch clear across the country.

Pierce promised to stop by for a visit before he left for home, himself and then…he was gone.

Hunnicutt hugged his pillow…and waited for his wife and daughter to return.

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Peg Hunnicutt carried her groceries and her baby girl into the house. The groceries were put away. Her one-year-old was carted upstairs. It was time for the baby's afternoon nap.

While her Mommy prepared her crib—and a fresh diaper—for her, Erin Hunnicutt toddled off to go exploring.

She reached her Mommy's bedroom and froze in the open doorway.

There, in her Mommy's bed, was a sleeping mustached man who strongly resembled her 'Dawddy.'

Erin studied the motionless figure for a few moments and then jerked, startled, as her Mother called her name. She turned and went toddling back to her room, jabbering "Dawddy…Dawddy…Dawddy," all the way. She toddled right up to her Mother and then pointed to the picture of her Dawddy that was taped to the wall above her crib. "Dawddy-Dawddy-Dawddy," she jabbered so excitedly that Peg couldn't help but laugh.

"Yes, Erin," Peg patiently reassured her. "That's your Dawddy…" the woman's words trailed off and her grin vanished. She flashed the man in the photo a wistful smile, before continuing her search for the baby powder. By the time she located the can of talcum, the little person, whose bottom she intended to apply it to, had vanished…again. She grinned and gasped in frustration. "Er-in? Come he-ere! Mommy's gonna change your diaper…"

Her daughter obediently appeared in the open doorway a few moments later. She was holding something in her tightly clenched little fists.

"Erin, show Mommy what you've go—" Peg stopped talking, as her baby girl came toddling back into her room towing an olive drab jacket. An Army officer's jacket, a Captain's, judging by the two silver bars that were pinned on its epaulets. She was too stunned to move.

The powder can slipped through her fingers and fell to the floor with a dull 'thunk'.

The sound snapped her frozen limbs into action. She went dashing out the door and down the hall.

Mrs. Hunnicutt skidded to a stop in front of the open doorway to her room. Mr. Hunnicutt was lying there…in their bed…sound asleep. "B-B.J.?" she quietly declared. Her voice, and whole entire body, trembled with excitement. She rushed up to her no longer missing mate. "Darling?" she called out a bit louder.

But he just kept right on sleeping.

Peg couldn't wait for him to wake up. She had to take him in her arms. She had to hold him…hold him…hold him! She had been waiting soooooo lo-ong to hold him!

But B.J. still didn't stir from his slumber.

No matter. Peg held his limp body close to her heart and began rocking him…and crying. She had shed many a tear during his absence. His safe return certainly warranted a few more tears…of joy!

When even her crying failed to rouse him, Peg sniffled and pulled back. She blinked her vision clear and then took a good, long look at the unconscious man. Her husband's handsome face was expressionless. Unless 'wrung out' counted. She had never seen him look that exhausted before…or that thin! "What have they done to you?" she angrily demanded.

Her husband failed to reply.

She pulled him back into her arms and held on to him tighter than ever.

Her—their daughter appeared in the doorway. Erin was still clutching her Father's jacket and still slobbering on the U.S. Army Medical Corps insignia that was pinned to its lapel. The baby gave her Mommy a big smile and then pointed the shiny, brass, winged, serpents and staff insignia at the mustached man in her arms. "Dawddy."

"Yes," her Mother assured her, with a sad smile. "This is your Dawddy." At least, Peg sure hoped it was.

Her two biggest fears in the past year had been that her husband would never make it home alive…or that he'd make it home okay but the war would have changed him into a completely different person. Peg wanted B.J. back. She wanted the man she'd first fallen in love with.

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Since Mrs. Hunnicutt couldn't bring herself to leave her husband, she placed her—their daughter in the charge of a sitter.

Peg remained at B.J.'s side all that afternoon and into the evening.

The woman spent the long hours of her vigil rereading the letters her husband had sent her from Korea. The pages were filled with his firsthand impressions of war.

B.J. had tried to balance his accounts with equal portions of horror and humor. But the overwhelming frustration and anger that he felt, concerning the absolute senselessness of it all, was always there…hidden between the lines.

B.J.'s letters had provided Peg with the opportunity to share, at least in part, his feelings and experiences during a very trying time…a time she felt she could never have survived.

Had her gentle, soft-spoken, sensitive, easy-going husband survived? Or, had all that frustration and anger caused him to become cold and callous, bitter and withdrawn?

Her husband drew a deep breath in…exhaled it as a groan…and then ran a hand over his face.

The woman was about to find out.

B.J. was about to roll over and go back to sleep, when his nose suddenly detected a familiar fragrance and his foggy brain finally registered where he was. His eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright. "Peg?"

She was in his arms before he could even finish speaking her name.

As he held her…his embrace was firm, yet gentle. As he tried to tell her how much he loved and missed her…his words were soft-spoken.

And, as B.J. broke down and cried, Peg cried, too. The man she loved had survived!

They held each other tightly for a very long time.

B.J. gradually withdrew from their embrace.

Peg gave him a confused, questioning look.

Which he didn't see because he was avoiding her gaze. B.J. began to draw on the courage that he'd been trying to muster since leaving Korea. Why was it so hard to be honest? Why couldn't his mouth seem to form the words? No doubt about it! Saying what he had to say was proving to be the hardest thing he'd ever had to do in his entire life… 'convincing' the young NK Lieutenant to help them, included! He turned and stared blurrily into her beautiful blue eyes. "Peg, I—" He was forced to stop talking, as she pressed her fingers to his lips.

"I…know about…Lieutenant Donovan," Peg told him, in a whisper and watched, as the most amazed look came over his face. She took one of his letters from the stack of letters on her—their nightstand. "Sometimes…what you didn't say…told me more…than what you did," she softly explained. "And guilt…is written all over these pages…if you know how to…read between the lines."

B.J. looked even more amazed.

"Still, I'm glad you decided to tell me," Peg quietly continued. "Because I've decided…that, instead of hating you…for the one night you weren't faithful to me…I'm going to love you…and continue loving you…for the 337 nights that you were."

Her husband's vision blurred again. He took her gently back into his arms and they kissed…a tender…passionate…kiss.

Peg began to giggle.

B.J. pulled back and stared at his giggling mate in confusion.

"I can't help it," she declared with a grin. "Your mustache tickles."

"Want me to shave it off?" B.J. offered.

Peg grinned again and shook her pretty blonde head. "I love you just the way you are…"

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On the way to McIntyre's apartment, the two reunited Army pals had discussed Trapper's disunited marriage.

Hawkeye noticed that his friend talked about the divorce like it was a traffic summons.

There was no trace of bitterness or regret in Trapper's voice—until he mentioned who got custody of the girls…and the amount of his alimony check.

But Pierce knew that McIntyre was hurting inside. He knew that Trapper loved his ex-wife dearly and he suspected his 'liberated' friend would some day experience a great deal of 'regret'.

Trapper announced that he had a couple a' girls lined up for that night. Then he started reminiscing about the good old days at the 4077th. McIntyre reminded Pierce of some of the great times—and nurses—they'd shared together.

As he listened to Trapper's tales, Hawkeye realized—for the first time—just what a settling influence B.J. Hunnicutt must have had on him. He must have helped him reach some sort of an emotional maturity, or something. Because he was no longer satisfied with one-night stands. The word commitment no longer terrified him. Hawkeye wanted whatever future relationship that might develop, between him and a member of the opposite sex, to be as meaningful as it was enjoyable.

Hawkeye suddenly had a thought. How much of a settling influence could he have on Trapper in just three days?

"So…Hawk…You in the mood for a blonde…or a brunette?" he heard McIntyre inquire.

'Hawk' turned to his woman-chasing chum and smiled. It was gonna be real interesting finding out.

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To no one's surprise—especially not Radar's—Max Klinger was the last of 'them' to leave Korea. He left the day his replacement arrived—July the 27th, 1953…the day the Truce was signed.

Twelve hours later, the Korean War was ended.

EPILOGUE

On March 15th, 1974 the U.S. Army Medical Corps officially deactivated all of its surgical units still operating in Korea.

The concrete block buildings, which had long since replaced the drafty tents of wartime, were to be abandoned and torn down.

But the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital proved indestructible…for it remained perfectly intact…locked safely away…in the minds and hearts of the very special people who had both the privilege...and the misfortune…to have once been a part of it all.

The End

Author's note: Thanks to all for sticking with the story through to the end. Please take a moment to tell me what you liked…or didn't like about it. After all, it ain't carved in stone. :very big grin:

P.S. I have two other MASH stories that I have yet to type up onto my computer…maybe real life will slack off and I can post them some day, too…:fingers crossed:...:wave:

P.P.S. MASH ROCKS!