Disclaimer: I don't own MAGNUM PI or any of the original series' characters. I just borrow them from time to time for fun, not profit.
Foreword: In the season six episode Going Home we learned Thomas had been away from Tidewater for fifteen years. It's important to this story to remember when Thomas returned to Tidewater for Grampa Everett's funeral, his mother (Katherine) pointed out it was partly his fault that his brother Joey ran off. Until then Thomas had always blamed Frank and never considered that he might have inadvertently done something to push Joey into running away. At the end of Going Home we learned that Joey didn't just run off -- he ran off and joined the military, and was subsequently killed in Vietnam.
Bringing Joey Home
I had forgotten how perfect an autumn day in Northern Virginia could be. The sky was a deep blue and the humidity of summer had washed away, leaving the crisp, clean bite of autumn in the air. The leaves had turned, spreading a riot of color across the tree line at the edge of the gentle slope where we stood. A light breeze rustled a few brown leaves along the ground, early casualties in the annual march toward winter.
Clip-clop... Clip-clop... The sound echoed across the field as a team of horses pulled a caisson along a paved pathway toward us. The horses came to a stop and I heard the sharp click of six pairs of spit-shined shoes moving in unison. Muted orders were barked; six pairs of hands lifted a flag-draped casket from the caisson with the utmost care. Six strapping young men in perfectly pressed blue tunics and white trousers turned as one and waited for the order to carry their comrade to his final resting place.
I glanced at Mom standing next to me and could tell she also found the sounds jarringly familiar. I followed her eyes as she glanced to her left, where a simple white marker stood watch over Dad's grave, only a few hundred yards away. I remembered his funeral. I was only five, and trying to be brave, but wanting so badly to cry. I recalled saluting the flag, Dad's big watch heavy on my wrist. Mom stood ramrod straight that day, the picture of a stoic widow.
I was an adult now, looking sharp in my service dress blue uniform, the single wide and single narrow gold stripes of a Lieutenant Junior Grade shiny on my sleeves, an impressive SEAL budweiser pinned above two rows of medals on my chest. I was not the same wide-eyed twenty-two year old that graduated from the Naval Academy two and a half years ago. I'd seen too much since then, and in many ways I had grown very old. This time it was my turn to be strong, but my Dad's big watch still hung on my wrist, and I still felt like I wanted to cry.
I glanced at Mom again. Unlike Dad's funeral, today she looked frail and drawn, as though she might collapse at any moment. She clutched Frank's arm on one side and mine on the other, not bothering to dab at the tears spilling down her cheeks. Frank and I had never particularly gotten along and in the last few days that dislike had escalated to something bordering on hatred. But for the first time since I'd met him, my stepfather looked old. This isn't fair, I railed silently. It's not right! This shouldn't be happening...
I snapped to attention and saluted as the Marine honor guard carried the casket across the grass and carefully placed it on the bier over the open grave. I wasn't sure whether Mom sat down deliberately, or whether her knees gave out and she happened to land in her chair. As the chaplain began the graveside service, I let my thoughts drift back over the past week.
Our platoon leader, Lieutenant Commander Miller, met us as we climbed out of the chopper. "Magnum, I need to talk to you for a minute."
We'd been in the jungle for over a week and all I wanted was a shower and a change of clothes. Besides, he looked serious, and I figured I was going to get chewed out for the big bar fight with the Army Rangers, the night before we left on the mission. "Can I wash up first?"
"This won't take long," he answered, so I shrugged and followed him into his hooch. Marine First Lieutenant Ken Johnson, my Academy classmate, was standing inside wearing a grim look. My stomach started to churn. This wasn't about the bar fight…
He nodded. "Tom." His eyes were haunted. The news was bad.
"Magnum," said Miller, "we have a Red Cross message requesting your presence at home. Your..."
"Mom?" I interrupted, my heart starting to race. "Grampa?"
"No, they're fine. But..."
"Tom," Ken broke in. "There's no easy way..." His face twisted. "It's Joey."
"Joey?" I echoed numbly. I'd been handed bad news before. Lots of times. Friends, classmates, buddies... Sometimes close buddies. It always hurt. But this time it did more than hurt. This time it took my breath away, turned my legs into logs, my brain into mush. My chest got so tight I felt like I couldn't breathe. For a second, I thought my heart had actually stopped beating. I was sure I was going to puke. The room began to spin.
"Sit down," said Ken. "Breathe, buddy," he added in a far-away voice as I sank into a chair. These guys were used to delivering bad news, but not usually news that hit quite so close to home.
"How?" I asked woodenly.
"Three days ago," Ken answered, "we got pinned down. NVA machine gun nest was ripping us up pretty bad. Long story short, Private First Class Joseph Peterson and Sergeant Daniel McGinnis went forward and took out the nest. Both were..." He paused and cleared his throat. "Both were mortally wounded by enemy fire."
The formal words registered, but so distantly that it seemed impossible they were true. Ken continued, his voice cracking, "I'm sorry, Tom. I know I promised to keep him safe. I'm so sorry..."
"It's not your fault," I heard myself say, but it still felt as though I were watching someone else. If I acknowledged he was talking to me, I would also have to acknowledge the horrifying truth... Private First Class Joseph Peterson -- my little brother Joey -- was dead.
"Tell me," I demanded softly.
"We got him to battalion aide, but he'd taken too many hits... Lost too much blood..." I stared hard at him, waiting for the rest. "I was with him, holding his hand." He struggled, clamping a lid on his emotions. "He asked me to tell you..." He cleared his throat again as his eyes filled with tears, and continued in a ragged voice. "To tell you that he loved you, and your Mom, and his Dad. And to tell his Dad he's sorry."
I fought for control, and lost. I dropped my head into my hands and sobbed. Ken rested a supporting hand on my shoulder, but I could feel him shaking, too.
After a couple of minutes I regained some composure. "He shouldn't have been here," I said, my voice thick. "He was too gentle a soul for all this shit..."
I heard the distant voice again. "He died a hero, Tom. He saved all our lives."
I sat up. "Mom knows?" This is gonna kill her. I don't give a shit what it does to Frank.
"Yes," answered the commander. "We've got your emergency leave papers all set. You can catch a plane out tomorrow morning."
"The same plane Joey's on?"
Ken looked pissed, and Miller growled, "We couldn't say for sure when you would return from your mission, and mortuary affairs wouldn't hold his remains. He's on a plane leaving today."
I jumped to my feet. "Today? When?!"
"Less than an hour."
"I want to escort him."
"Magnum, there's no time..."
I swiped angrily at the tears on my face. "Bullshit! I've escorted before. I know what I'm doing. Frank forced him over here, now I'm going to bring him home, damn it!"
Ken held out a small rucksack. "We thought you might feel that way. Here's your ID, some clothes, and a few bucks to get you by. I've got a jeep outside; we can make the plane."
I glanced at Miller. He nodded. "We had a standby escort, but we put your name on the paperwork, hoping you'd make it back. My condolences to you and your family, Magnum. See you when you get back." He offered his hand, we shook, and then Ken and I ran for the jeep.
I looked out the window as the big plane lumbered down the runway, gathering speed. I was leaving Vietnam. I should have been happy, but I was numb. I reached the plane just before takeoff and hadn't even had a chance to wash my face. I smelled so badly of body odor and vile mud that I was offensive even to myself. The other few passengers, mostly escorts in dress uniforms, gave me a wide berth.
I laid my head back and closed my eyes. He should never have been here. One of those artsy, quiet kids with a gentle spirit, he could play guitar better than anyone I knew. He wrote songs that were pure poetry. He should have been in Nashville, not Saigon.
But Frank browbeat him relentlessly. Day after day, it was, "Boys don't cry. Be tough. Get in there and fight. Don't be such a sissy." Joey finally couldn't take it any more. I was on my first tour in 'Nam when I received the letter from Mom telling me that Joey had run away and joined the Marine Corps on his eighteenth birthday. I knew he didn't belong there, but I figured that he'd finally had enough of Frank's bullying, and decided to show him how tough he could be.
I drifted off to sleep with one of Joey's songs playing in my head.
I started awake as we banked and descended toward Hickam Air Force Base. Hawaii. Paradise. I was still numb.
When I stepped off the plane, the temperature felt about the same as in Saigon but the air smelled sweet and clean. I took a deep lungful, hoping it might help flush out all the bad crap lingering inside.
A Navy captain in dress whites approached. "Who the hell are you?"
I rendered a respectful, if weary, salute. "Lieutenant JG Magnum, sir."
He looked me over with disdain. "You the escort for," he looked down at his clipboard, "Peterson?"
"Yes, sir." His nametag identified him as Captain Cooly, and since he didn't want to be there any more than I did, I assumed he was the Pacific Command Casualty Assistance Duty Officer; in other words, the guy who acts as the official greeter of caskets.
"Where the hell are your dress whites?" he snapped. "No rank insignia? No nametag? You look like you just walked out of a damned rice paddy."
I felt a lump rise in my throat as my chest tightened and my muscles went taut. The last time I came back from Vietnam, I'd been spit on by protesters, this time I was being shit on by this pompous ass that'd probably never set foot outside the United States.
"Actually, sir," I snapped back, "that's exactly what I did. I walked out of a rice paddy and straight onto this airplane. And that body in the cargo hold? It's my brother's... So if you'll excuse me, sir..." I pushed past him as tears stung my eyes. Damn it, could they make this any harder?
I saluted as the cargo handlers carefully unloaded the casket and transferred it to the mortuary affairs hearse. "Sir," a voice called quietly.
I turned. He was at least fifteen years older than me, wearing aircrew wings on his chest and anchors with two stars on his collar. "Yes, Master Chief?"
"My condolences to you and your family," he said. I nodded. "I saw what happened with the captain." His face darkened. "He's an asshole." He handed me a piece of paper. "This about right for uniform size and medals?"
"Close." I motioned for his pen, changed a couple of sizes, and added a POW medal and Navy Cross to the list.
His eyes widened when I handed the list back. "Lieutenant stripes?"
"JG," I corrected wearily.
His eyes widened farther. "I've got the duty today. There's a duty driver waiting in front of the terminal. He'll get you something to eat and take you over to Pearl. Wash up and get some rest, sir. I'll bring a uniform to the Q in a few hours."
I couldn't speak. My lips pursed tight, I nodded, looked into his eyes and shook his hand hard.
He stared back and held onto my hand for a few extra seconds. "Some of us still know how it's supposed to work, sir."
I called Mom. She sounded as wooden and numb as I felt. I told her we'd be home in a couple of days. Then I showered, collapsed into bed, and woke up eighteen hours later. I had just finished tossing on clothes to go for a much-needed run when there was a knock on the door.
Figuring it was Master Chief, I threw open the door, shocked to see my Vietnam hooch-mate, Lieutenant Junior Grade Dan Cook, standing there in sneakers, shorts, and a T-shirt, holding a garment bag. "Hey, pal," he said quietly. "Howzit?" He came in and shut the door while I stood with my mouth hanging open.
"Dan? How…? What the hell?" I blurted.
"I ran into Master Chief Sanders in the uniform shop. He had a hell of a story to tell about a Navy escort who landed at Hickam yesterday afternoon. I told him I'd deliver your uniform."
"But why are you here? You're supposed to be in 'Nam…"
"Emergency leave," he said quietly. "Mom passed while you were out on the mission. Red Cross message from Dad. Her funeral was yesterday, or I'd have met you at Hickam." He walked to the closet and hung up the uniform.
Dan's Mom had been diagnosed with cancer just before we shipped out. "Aw, man... I'm sorry. Real sorry." I shook my head, trying to digest this latest bad news. Dan's dad had been stationed in DC while Dan and I were at the Naval Academy. The Cooks' house in Annapolis had been like my second home. "Your mom made a lot of good memories for us."
"She did, yep. Losing her wasn't unexpected, but still..." A faraway look spread over his face and his eyes glistened. "I'm sorry for you, too. Dad told me what happened." He shook his head sadly. "It's not right... How you holding up?"
"Not sure. Don't think it's sunk in yet…" It hadn't. I still felt like I was in the middle of a bad dream, about to wake up any minute. My own eyes filled with tears as we stood in awkward silence.
Dan finally swiped a hand across his eyes. "I could use a good run. How about you?"
I wiped my own eyes and nodded. "Yep. But I need to check in with the mortuary."
Dan held the door open. "Already taken care of. Your flight leaves tomorrow at twenty hundred. Show time seventeen hundred."
"But hey," I sputtered, "I owe Master Chief money."
Dan smiled. "He wouldn't take any money from me. Said to tell you not to worry about it; the captain's entertainment fund is a few dollars lighter, whatever that means."
The thought made me smile in spite of the situation. "I like his style… But I want to thank him, anyway."
"He also said, and I quote, 'Tell him thanks aren't necessary, and Godspeed for the rest of his trip home.'"
"Wow…" I shook my head.
"Old school sailor; knows how to take care of people. Let's run. I know just the place."
Dan drove east toward what he called the 'windward' side of the island. "Kalanianaole Highway," Dan spit out with a grin, showing off. "We used to drive out here every Sunday when I was a kid and Dad was stationed here. Some of the best scenery on the island." He wasn't kidding. The road ran right along the water for the most part, alternating between sandy beaches and high rocky cliffs. The air was warm and the sunshine felt great on my face.
Dan finally pulled in to a beach parking area. I tried to pronounce the name on the sign, "Way-ma..."
Dan laughed and cut me off. "It's pronounced Why-ma-nah-low. Best kept secret on Oahu. Most of the tourists stay in Waikiki and leave Waimanalo alone for the locals and a few savvy tourists who care more about natural beauty than glitter."
We jogged down to the beach and ran back in the direction we'd come for almost a mile, but then had to detour up to the road when our path was blocked by a large seawall. An equally impressive wall blocked access from the road. "What's this place?" I asked.
"Not sure. Some rich guy's estate, I think. He keeps everyone off the beach."
I grinned. "Maybe we should swim in, just to see what's there."
He grinned back. "I wouldn't. Big dogs, from what I hear, and a caretaker who shoots first and asks questions later."
"Sounds like fun."
"You're a weird one, Magnum."
We ran on in silence as the road curved around a small beach where about twenty surfers were taking advantage of a nice break. A steep cliff rose above them and two small islands just offshore made for a colorful backdrop. Past the surfers, the road rose sharply, but we were in great shape and didn't even start breathing hard.
The road dipped back toward a valley, and after another easy quarter mile Dan indicated a left turn onto what looked like a one lane service road. We began a steady climb up the sloping backside of the cliff we'd seen from the surfer's beach.
Fifteen minutes of hard work brought us to the end of the road, at the edge of the cliff looking down on the route we'd just run, a thousand feet below. We sucked wind, trying to catch our breath while I looked around. Several miles of pristine beach curved northwest the to the next point of land. A mountain range to the left paralleled the water, looming over the landscape. With nothing to impede its passage over thousands of miles of ocean, a steady trade wind buffeted the outcropping, whipping around the grass and green scrub vegetation that grew at the edge of the cliff. Far below, waves that had also traveled thousands of uninterrupted miles crashed against the rocky base of the cliff. The place was alive with noise and movement, yet also somehow quiet, peaceful. I was surprised I remembered what "peaceful" felt like.
Dan broke the silence. "Well?"
"Incredible. Where are we?"
"I thought you might like it. It's called Makapu'u Point. There's a lighthouse down the hill a little ways. In junior high I used to come up here when I needed to think." He took a deep breath. "You can breathe better up here. Slow down a little. Figure out what it is you need to do."
I closed my eyes and let the wind scrub my face. "Joey would have loved this place."
After another couple minutes of silence, Dan asked, "You wanna talk about it?"
I took one deep breath, then another. Even with Dan, I wasn't sure I wanted to let it out. But after I left here, there would be no one I could talk details with. "He was in Ken Johnson's platoon. They got pinned down. Joey and his sergeant..." My chin quivered. "They, ah... They took out a machine gun nest. Probably saved the whole platoon. Probably get Silver Stars, both of 'em..." Tears spilled down my cheeks.
"Damn..." Dan hung his head. There wasn't anything he could do and not much he could say. "Who'd have thought that quiet kid would turn out to be a hero?"
"Yeah," I rasped. "Who'd have thought..." I wanted to sob, to scream into the wind. But I didn't want to do that in front of Dan, so I struggled for control. I hoped I'd get back to this place again. Maybe on the way back to 'Nam.
As if on cue, Dan spoke up. "You going back?"
His question caught me by surprise, and I looked at him quizzically. "Whaddya mean? Of course I'm going back. What else would I do?"
"You don't have to," he continued quietly. "You can ask for humanitarian reassignment. Stateside."
I shook my head. "I can't do that. No way..."
"Why not? Joey's gone, Tom. Think about what your mom will go through if you go back."
I hadn't given it any thought, to this point. I hadn't dared think at all. I stared hard at my friend. "I got a job to do, Dan. Teammates to think about."
"I know. I'm just saying... Look, you've done your part. You're on your second tour. You've been a POW, for god's sake. Nobody's going to think any less of you, man. It's something you gotta consider, that's all."
I don't have to consider anything, damn it. "I'll think about it, okay?"
He nodded. "Tom... I don't know the right answer. I just know you have to think it through, or you'll regret it."
I turned away from Dan and walked to the very edge of the cliff. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to think. Part of me knew Dan was right; I should consider asking to leave 'Nam. But I also knew I had a job to do, responsibilities to my buddies. Responsibilities to the Navy, the country. How does that weigh against the responsibility to Mom? I shook my head and opened my eyes, wishing I could stay in this paradise and pretend the ugly realities of my world were nonexistent.
A full ten minutes later, I finally turned to Dan.
He pointed toward where the car was parked, far below. "Ready to head back?" he asked. "Hotel Street awaits, if you're up for it. Few beers might help, eh?"
I forced a smile. "I can still drink you under the table."
After a swim and a shower, we visited Admiral Cook's quarters so I could pay my respects, and then arrived on Hotel Street just after dark. We wandered through two or three bars and finally settled into a dark back corner of one that didn't seem too overrun with tourists or sailors.
We drank two beers apiece without talking much. Dan drained his glass and called to the bartender, "Kaipo, my friend. Scotch, please. Neat. Two." When they arrived he raised his glass. "Joey."
"Joey," I agreed sadly, and we drained our glasses. I motioned to Kaipo. "Keep 'em coming."
"Sure, brah," answered the big Hawaiian. "You okay?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Fine. Just keep 'em coming."
We toasted Cookie, and Dennis, and Red, and all the other buddies we'd lost in the last two years. There were a lot of dead buddies, which added up to a lot of scotch. Quietly, without fanfare or drama, we got plastered.
We weren't quite quiet enough to be anonymous, however. The guy who started it wasn't a hippy. No long, stringy hair. No sandals. No tie-dye. With his alligator logo shirt and leather loafers, he looked like a banker, or one of the country club set. From his seat a couple of barstools down he muttered, "Baby killers. That's what all of you are. Fucking baby killers."
"Easy, brah," said the bartender. "Don't want no trouble, eh?" He turned to us. "Never mind him. Here, have another, on the house."
I saw Dan's face twist as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight. Dan grabbed my arm and whispered, "He's just trying to rile us. Let it go." I nodded. He was right.
"Not me causing any trouble, friend. It's these damned baby killers coming in here, disrupting my vacation."
I held my breath. Just words. I cocked my head toward the door. Dan nodded. It was time for us to go.
When I stood, the other man slid from his barstool, stepped in front of me, and got right in my face. He was my height, but thirty pounds overweight and unsteady on his feet. "I hope the Viet Cong catch every damned one of you and toss you in prison. War criminals, that's what you are. Those guys in POW camps deserve to be there. Every goddam baby killer who got killed over there deserved to die."
I snapped. I don't remember shoving the guy backwards and pinning him against the wall. I don't remember pulling my knife from its hiding place, strapped to my calf. I don't remember Dan screaming at me to stop, although he assured me he did. In my next lucid moment, I had a razor-sharp combat knife at a stranger's throat, and he didn't look so tough any more. In fact, I was pretty sure he was in the process of wetting himself.
"Say again, asshole?" I demanded. From the panicked looks on both Dan's and the tourist's faces, I could tell that I must have looked damned scary. I don't think either one of them was sure what I was going to do, but Dan knew what I was capable of.
"Hey, man, I didn't mean it," the tourist squeaked.
"Trouble is, you did mean it." I snarled. "But, see, I've been there. In one of those camps. I watched my friend die there, screaming for help that we couldn't give him." I applied just enough pressure to the knife to scratch his skin. "You're a piece of shit who means nothing to me. Tell me why I shouldn't slit you open."
"Tom!" Dan's urgent voice in my ear demanded attention. "Let him go. He's not worth it. It won't bring Joey back."
We all stood frozen while I considered cutting him anyway. "Today's your lucky day. Go home, you son of a bitch. Get on your knees and thank God for good men like those guys locked in Vietnamese hell holes." I shoved him toward the door and he stumbled away as fast as he could on wobbly legs.
Dan threw a fifty on the bar, grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the door. "C'mon. Let's go."
Good plan. But we were too late. "Shit," we muttered in unison.
Master Chief Sanders was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, wearing a "Shore Patrol" armband, shaking his head and looking grim. "Damn it, Lieutenant..."
After convincing HPD that the Navy would deal appropriately with us, the Shore Patrol hauled us back to Pearl, where Master Chief Sanders walked over to report to the Duty Officer as we tumbled out of the van.
"Shit," muttered Dan.
"What?" I slurred. "It's Saturday. You know the duty guy is some FR."
"Just our goddam luck. That's not just any old Fucking Reservist, Magnum. Don't you know who that is?"
I shook my head. "Not a clue. Should I?" I needed to sit soon, or I was going to fall on my ass.
"Cripes!" exclaimed Dan under his breath. He leaned over and whispered in my ear. "That's McGarrett. He's the fucking Five-0 chief. State police."
"Huh?" I squinted at the Duty Officer, but without any hint of recognition.
"Yeah, man. He's a weekend warrior. Reserve spook, or some shit. Got a rep for throwing the book at drunks. We're screwed..."
"It's 'Intelligence Officer', Lieutenant." Neither of us had noticed Commander McGarrett close the distance between us. "Not 'spook'. You two care to explain this mess?"
Dan squirmed. "Not much to say, sir." He grimaced. "Hell of a day..."
McGarrett turned his attention to me. "Lieutenant Magnum, is it?"
I blinked hard and tried not to sway. I was seeing two of him. "Yes, sir."
"Master Chief says you had a knife at some tourist's throat..."
"'Fraid so, sir. He's one lucky SOB." I sensed Dan wince. Full disclosure wasn't the best idea under the circumstances, but I was drunk and didn't care.
The commander cocked his head and considered me for a few moments. "Are you the same Magnum whose name is on a manifest departing tomorrow?" he asked quietly.
My throat closed, but I managed to squeak a "Yes, sir."
He reached over and gripped my arm. "My condolences, shipmate," he said quietly. "Go take your brother home."
McGarrett turned to Dan and scowled. "You should have done a better job keeping your buddy out of trouble." Dan clenched his jaw and said nothing. The commander's face softened. "But I know you've had a tough time, too. My condolences to you and the admiral.
"A word of advice, gentlemen: believe me when I tell you there are better ways of dealing with grief than guzzling booze. Your livers will give out long before the heartache in your life subsides. But if you still feel the need to get stupid, at least keep it to the O Club. It's safer. For the tourists, anyway..."
McGarrett nodded toward me. I was struggling to stay upright. "Get him to bed. He's got a long trip tomorrow. The driver will take you to the Q."
Dan stared, open-mouthed.
"Go, Lieutenant, before I change my mind!" barked McGarrett. He hooked a thumb back over his shoulder and added, "You two can thank Master Chief for talking me into letting your sorry asses off the hook."
Dan dragged me to the van and shoved me inside. The driver was as astonished as Dan was. "Sir, with all due respect, who the hell ARE you?" I heard him exclaim as I passed out. "That guy throws the book at drunks. Always!"
I had no memory of Dan and the duty driver carrying me to my room, although Dan later assured me that's what happened. Next I knew, I was blinking sunlight out of my eyes, my head was pounding, and my mouth felt like it was full of cotton.
I left Dan snoring in the recliner across the room while I dragged myself into the head, swallowed aspirin and a quart of water, and stepped into a hot shower.
Dan was awake by the time I finished. "Feeling better?" he asked, rubbing his temples.
"Alive. You?" I tossed him the bottle of aspirin.
"We gotta go get your car."
"No. It's here. Master Chief took my keys last night and asked me where it was parked. He banged on the door about oh-five-hundred and handed me the keys."
I shook my head. "We sure as hell owe him. Any idea why he's doing all this?"
"Yeah, man, I know..." Dan hesitated and clenched his jaw. "He lost his dad at Pearl Harbor. His brother bought it during Tet..."
I froze in the middle of pulling on my shirt and stared at Dan. "What?"
"Yeah. His only family. Both buried at Punchbowl. Sucks."
"Damn..." I exclaimed softly.
"C'mon. We'll get coffee and breakfast, then there's someplace we gotta go before you leave."
We ate at the galley on base and returned to the BOQ.
"God, how many times have we climbed into these monkey suits?" asked Dan as we changed into our uniforms. He wore Summer White, the prescribed uniform at Pearl. I would swelter in wool Service Dress Blue so I'd be in the correct uniform when I landed at Andrews Air Force Base, late on Monday.
"Couple hundred, at least. Been a while, though…" I answered, preoccupied with tying a perfect knot in my navy blue tie.
"I think the last time was Red's funeral, wasn't it?" Dan asked sadly.
I nodded. "We need a few weddings to even things out."
"Don't look at me! That's the LAST thing I need right now! Maybe you and Ginger?"
I shook my head. "Haven't had a chance to tell you. I got a Dear John letter. Ginger decided to give pro tennis a shot."
Dan sighed. "Damn, the crap just keeps coming, doesn't it?"
I nodded and inhaled deeply. The clean starched cotton and new wool of my dress blues released familiar, comforting scents. They smell just like they did plebe year. So much had changed, but I still had the Navy to fall back on. Tradition. My buddies. As much my family as my biological family, maybe more. Along with the uniform, I pulled on impenetrable armor, just as I had for my friends' funerals. The uniform gave me definition: while I was wearing it, I knew exactly how to act. I had the duty of escorting my brother's body home, and the uniform gave me the ability to maintain my composure, for Joey's sake. It reminded me who I was: not Joey's big brother Tom, but Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas Sullivan Magnum, the Fourth, United States Navy. Duty. Responsibility. Dan wouldn't like it, Mom wouldn't like it; I was pretty sure I was going back to 'Nam. But I wasn't completely convinced my motivation was pure. Someone has to pay for what happened to Joey...
Out of habit, we both took one last look in the mirror. Dan ran his thumbs along his waistline, smoothing his shirt. I straightened my tie. We headed out.
I tossed my rucksack into Dan's car. He still insisted there was somewhere we had to visit; when we left Pearl he turned away from Hickam and toward downtown Honolulu. Ten minutes later we entered the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific -- "Punchbowl."
First at one "Sanders" grave, and then at a second, we laid the leis Dan had purchased from a roadside stand. "It's the least we can do," he said as we quietly paid our respects. As we climbed into the car and pulled away, another car approached and parked in the spot we'd just left. A familiar figure walked to the lei-draped gravestone and then snapped his head toward our car, but we were too far away for Master Chief to tell who we were.
Dan and I arrived at Hickam Air Ops promptly at seventeen hundred. I checked in and was told to expect "cargo loading" to commence at nineteen hundred. Cargo loading. Dan shook his head in silent commiseration.
We sat in silence. There wasn't much left to say. The one saving grace was the fact that my "cargo" duties meant we didn't have to sit out in the terminal with the rest of the passengers. The guys in Air Ops, despite the "cargo loading" comment, understood the need to be left alone.
At eighteen forty-five mortuary affairs arrived, followed at eighteen fifty by the Duty Officer, Captain Cooly. Dan and I stole a glance at each other and rose to meet the captain.
"Good afternoon, sir," we said in unison, respect for the rank ingrained in us even if we didn't think much of the man.
The captain ignored the greeting. "I see you found a uniform, Lieutenant," he droned.
"Yes, sir." I suppressed a smile. And you paid for it, you SOB.
Cooly turned on Dan. "I don't remember seeing your name on a manifest, Lieutenant Cook."
"No, sir, it's not. I'm here to see Lieutenant Magnum off."
Cooly peered at Dan and then at me. I wasn't sure what we'd ever done to piss the guy off, but his glare was full of malevolence. "Airman?" he called to the kid behind the counter, "are we ready to load?"
"Let's get this over with," growled Cooly.
Dan shook his head imperceptibly. Don't take him on, Tom, I imagined him saying. He's not worth it.
I blinked my eyes in agreement and clamped my jaw shut.
Cooly walked to the hearse without another word, the rest of us following behind. All other activity on the tarmac came to a halt while a Marine honor guard unloaded Joey's casket from the hearse and carried it to the C-141 that would take us home. Dan and I stood at rigid attention, our salutes perfect. Cooly's salute was sloppy.
As soon as the casket was aboard the aircraft, Captain Cooly glared at us, turned on his heel, and walked away without another word.
"What the hell did we ever do to him?" I asked incredulously.
"Not a clue. Maybe we kept him from his dinner," muttered Dan.
"He's a mustang, lieutenant." We both turned to the familiar voice of Master Chief Sanders. He was wearing his choker white dress uniform and had apparently been standing behind us for several minutes. "He came up through the ranks and hates what he refers to as 'college boys'. He particularly despises Annapolis grads."
"I thought you turned over the duty," commented Dan.
"I did. I'm not here as Duty Chief. I'm here because some of us remember how it's supposed to work." He pointed toward Punchbowl. "You two sure do. Thank you." His face creased into a dark smile. "Besides, I knew Cooly still had the duty, and I was a little concerned for his safety."
I confirmed the Master Chief's suspicions. "God help that man if I ever meet him on the street. I might just beat the shit out of him."
"Just make sure I'm there to help," said Dan.
"I'll forget I heard that ... as long as I can be around, too," added Master Chief. He glanced at the plane. "You two gonna be okay if I take off?" he asked.
I nodded. "We're good to go, Master Chief." I offered my hand. "Thank you." We shook hard.
"Glad I could help, Lieutenant. I only wish the circumstances had been different, and I hope we meet again."
I nodded again and pursed my lips hard to keep my chin from quivering.
Master Chief straightened to attention and saluted. We returned it smartly. "You boys take care of yourselves, hear? We want you back in one piece."
We nodded; he walked away.
I glanced at my watch. It was time to board. Dan dropped his chin. This part always sucked... We always said we'd see each other again but we knew it was a crapshoot. Dan's next trip out of 'Nam might be escorting my body; mine might be escorting his. We covered our fear with meaningless small talk.
"Say goodbye to your Dad for me."
"I will. Tell your Mom how sorry I am."
"I will. Tell Ken Johnson I'll be back to collect on that bar tab he owes me. He's not getting out of it this easy."
"You still got some thinking to do."
"It's done. I'll see you in a week or so."
"Decide after you see your Mom."
Dan stuck out his hand; I grabbed it and pulled him into a backslapping hug. "Thanks for everything. Take care of yourself. See you in a week or so."
He pursed his lips and nodded. "Take it easy, pal. See you when we see you."
I turned away and boarded the plane without looking back. I didn't dare. From now on, I was on my own, until I returned to 'Nam. No one else would understand.
I slept most of the way to California. We landed at Travis Air Force Base just before dawn to refuel, only to be informed that we'd be on the ground for several hours. Something about a piece of gear in the cockpit needing replacement, meaning we'd land in DC near midnight. Seems to take no time at all to get to 'Nam and forever to get home.
We finally got back in the air and once again I slept for most of the flight. The pressure change in my ears woke me up. This is it. Descending into DC. I glanced at my watch and did a little math. Twenty-three hundred, local time. I wasn't ready to see Mom. Wasn't ready to face Frank. Wasn't ready to face reality... With Dan, I could pretend we'd lost another buddy... Not Joey... Not my brother...
"Sir, when we land, you'll debark first." I had my eyes closed and I jumped at the tech sergeant's comment. "Sorry, sir," he continued. "Welcome home."
"No sweat, Sergeant. And thanks."
We landed uneventfully, and I made my way to the stairs leading to the tarmac. A Marine lieutenant colonel met me at the bottom. "Lieutenant Magnum?" he asked.
"Yes, sir." I saluted smartly and he returned it with equal professionalism.
He shook my hand. "Lieutenant Colonel Sean Little. My sincere condolences. I've been assigned as PFC Peterson's escort from here on, but of course you're welcome to participate as much or as little as you'd like."
"Thank you, Colonel. I appreciate that. I'd like to continue to escort him, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all. We're a team."
"Have you seen my mom?"
"She's waiting inside. She wants to follow to the funeral home. She's with, ah..."
My face turned stony. "Frank. He's my stepfather. My Dad died in Korea."
The colonel winced. "Damn. Sorry about that."
"It's okay. You couldn't have known."
The honor guard moved to the cargo ramp and we followed, falling silent during the solemn, familiar process of loading the casket into the funeral home's hearse for the drive to Tidewater.
We turned to the terminal. "Now the hard part." I said quietly. Lieutenant Colonel Little nodded.
Mom saw me come through the door and met me halfway across the terminal. She looked like she'd lost ten pounds she couldn't afford to lose. We hugged without a word, both crying. "I'm so sorry, Mom," I finally croaked.
"I know, Sport."
Oh, God. The pet name almost brought me to my knees.
She pulled away to look at me and ran a finger over a scrape on my cheek. "What's this?"
"It's nothing. Just a scratch from an argument in a bar." No point admitting it was a close call with a Viet Cong booby trap.
"Tom…" she admonished with a shake of her head. I glanced toward Frank. "Be civil," she begged.
"I will, I promise. Now's not the time," I assured her as Frank approached.
"Tom." Frank offered his hand and we shook warily.
"Frank. I'm sorry." I felt my face turning red. Sorry, my ass. This is your fault, you son of a bitch. Joey would never have been there if it weren't for you.
Thankfully, Lieutenant Colonel Little caught up to us. "Lieutenant, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, there's really no need for you to go all the way to the funeral home tonight; I'll take care of everything. The funeral director will meet with you and Pastor Hodges in the morning to review the arrangements. Please go ahead home and try to get some rest."
"But…" I began.
The colonel cut me off with a look and pulled me aside. His clear blue eyes held me with a piercing stare. "Lieutenant, your mother needs you. Let me take care of your brother for you."
I felt my throat close again as I nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you." I glanced at Frank. "You've got the easy part, you know."
"I figured as much. Go home. Get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning." He handed me his card. "This is my home phone number. Call if you need anything, otherwise I'll see you tomorrow at eleven hundred hours, at the funeral home. Wear civvies; we're not going to get many chances to in the next few days. "
We exchanged a handshake and I returned to Mom and Frank. Despite my contempt for Frank, I noticed he, too, looked pale and drawn. I hope I never know what it feels like to lose a child...
"Where's Grampa?" I asked.
"Since you were getting in so late he thought it best if he saw you in the morning," Mom answered. She smiled sadly. "He knew the two of you would stay up half the night talking if you saw him tonight."
"He's probably right. Let's go home," I said wearily.
Mom glanced over to make sure Lieutenant Colonel Little was gone and then and looked up at me. "Do you know what happened?" she asked quietly.
The truth, or lie and tell her I don't know? "What did Colonel Little tell you?"
"Only that Joey died 'as a result of enemy action.' Now I want you to tell me what happened."
I debated for a moment. Maybe she shouldn't know the details. Then again, maybe I could split the difference. "Mom, Frank..." I looked back and forth between them. "Joey's an honest-to-God hero. He and his sergeant saved the whole platoon… They got shot up…" My voice cracked and I paused. "An honest-to-God hero..."
"Will I be able to see him?" asked Mom. She knew from painful experience that the odds were against it.
"Now Katherine, I'm not going to allow you to…" Frank barked.
I cut him off. "I've seen him. Yes, you'll be able to see him." I wasn't going to give Mom details, but he'd been shot in the chest, so he looked okay. "And you'll be able to have an open casket, if you want."
Mom wiped away tears and hugged me.
Frank put a hand on my shoulder. ''Let's go home," he echoed heavily.
My old alarm clock dragged me awake and for a few confused heartbeats I thought I was back in high school. A few more moments and I remembered that this nightmare wasn't a dream. I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute and collected my thoughts. It was going to be a long day.
I pulled on a robe and stumbled to the kitchen for coffee; jet lag was beginning to catch up to me.
"Morning, Mom." I hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. "Did you sleep?"
"Morning, Sport." She pecked my cheek. "Some." Not much, judging by dark circles underneath her swollen eyes.
I filled a mug with coffee and took a swallow. "Is Grampa here yet?"
She smiled and pointed to her left. He was standing in the doorway, watching.
He took three steps and wrapped me in a hug. He was thinner than me, but taller. Despite my being named for the Magnums, I was the spitting image of Grampa Everett. "Welcome home, boy," he rumbled.
"I missed you so much." I felt tears sting my eyes. It was always okay to cry with Grampa, unlike Frank.
"Likewise, Thomas. Likewise, my boy." He slapped my back and turned me loose.
"Where's Frank?" I asked. I didn't really want to see him, I just wanted to know where he was so I could brace myself for the inevitable verbal sparring.
Mom and Grampa exchanged a glance "He ah... He went flying," she said quietly, looking at the floor.
"He what?" I exploded.
"Now, Tom, you know that's just his way..."
"Oh, right," I raged. "Like it was his way to go off flying when Joey's appendix burst, and you sat in the hospital all alone? His way, when Gramma got sick? Achh..." I turned away and flung my hand in disgust. "Grampa?" I appealed.
He grimaced and lifted his hands in defeat.
"Achh," I repeated as I stalked away toward the den.
"Tom." Mom's voice was very small, but I was too angry with Frank to consider that I, too, was causing pain, and I ignored her.
"Katherine." Grampa's deep voice was calm, soothing. "We have to leave before long. Why don't you go get ready."
I heard what sounded like a cross between an abbreviated wail and a hitching sob. "Oh, Daddy..." I'd never heard Mom sound so heartbroken and I really didn't like the idea that I'd contributed to it.
"There, there, kitten... Shhh... It'll all be okay..." I pictured Grampa enveloping her in a protective embrace, he so tall and she so bird-like. "We'll get through this. Go on and get dressed."
She sniffled and padded away on slipper-clad feet as Grampa walked in my direction. When he reached the den he quietly closed the French doors behind him.
"Thomas?" Stubborn man that I am, I kept my back turned, my hands jammed in my pockets. "Look at me, son."
I turned slowly, feeling worse about how I was acting. Grampa always had that effect, making people recognize their errors with just a soft comment, as though quietly holding a mirror in front of them. So different from Frank. "Yes, sir," I answered sheepishly.
"You did wrong back there."
I hung my head. "Yes, sir. I know." Anger flared again. "But he makes me so damned mad! He treats her like shit!"
"Language, son... Language. No need to be vulgar," he said in his soft Virginia drawl. I wasn't sure I'd ever heard him raise his voice, much less utter a cuss word. I always figured I'd inherited my sailorly ways from my other grandfather, although I'd never met him.
"Your mother's lost more than you can imagine this week. God Almighty forbid you ever lose a child. She needs your support." He put a hand on my shoulder. "People grieve in different ways, Thomas. I don't agree with Frank's way, but it helps him through. Some people scream, some cry, some drink. Frank goes flying. He checked with me before he left, you know, to make sure I'd stay with your mother. It's a character flaw, no doubt about it, that he departs the pattern in times of stress. It makes me angry as well, but right now I'm much more concerned about your mother's wellbeing than about Frank's shortcomings."
I hung my head again. He was right. He jammed his own hands in his pockets and continued. "In general, he's a good man. A good provider. He loves your mother." His voice tightened. "And he loved Joseph. He's broken, son. This has broken his heart."
"It should," I spat. "It's his fault Joey was out there."
Grampa's eyes flared bright with an anger I'd never seen before. "Are you sure?" he demanded.
"Of course I'm sure!" I exclaimed.
His gaze bored into me like a laser. "Don't be," he declared bluntly.
"You know how he treated Joey!"
Grampa closed his eyes for a few moments, working his jaw muscles, looking like he was trying to make a decision. When he opened his eyes, the lasers had softened again to the same dark green I saw in my own eyes. "Frank did his best; most parents do," he said softly. "He made mistakes, in my opinion, but he always thought he was doing what was best for Joseph. Your brother was different from the rest of us. Frank never quite understood that.
"Son, you're still very young, but you're going to have to put things with Frank aside, for your mother's sake. She's lost her husband, her mother, her brother, and now she's lost a son. Nothing in life is more painful. Your Uncle Charles, God rest his soul, died almost thirty years ago at Pearl Harbor, and it still pains me every single day." He stopped, his chin quivering briefly.
I took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I'm sorry, Grampa," I said quietly. "About Mom. I was selfish. I'll keep still. I promise."
He grasped my shoulders. "You're learning, boy. I'm proud of you."
My chest heaved unexpectedly and my eyes overflowed with tears. "Why?" I sobbed. ''Why Joey? Why not me?"
It was my turn to be pulled into his powerful hug. "I don't know, son. I surely do not know..." His voice cracked. "Someday when it's our time to go maybe the Lord will explain to us why he takes the good ones like your father and your brother and your uncle."
I nodded into his shoulder and allowed myself a few more choking sobs.
He patted my back gently, like he used to when I was a little boy.
"Y'all go on and get ready to go," he said. "We don't want to be late." Unlike me, Grampa and Mom were always particular about being on time.
I pulled away slowly. "Yes, sir." Our eyes met. "Thank you."
He smiled sadly. "You're a good boy, Thomas."
I apologized to Mom before we left. She nodded and hugged me. We'd been through this drill before; Frank and I had lots of arguments behind us.
Grampa drove, I sat in front, and Mom in back. We were all quiet until we arrived at Tidewater Funeral Home. "Tom," Mom asked softly, "do you have to go back?"
I twisted around in my seat. Her eyes looked sunken deep in their sockets. "Yes, Mom, I do."
"But Betsy Stevens says you could get some kind of reassignment? Because of Joey? Is that so?"
I glanced at Grampa. His look said, Be honest.
"There is such a thing, yes. But I have a job to do. I can't just leave. There aren't that many of us. The team is counting on me."
Mom looked down at her hands, clasped together in her lap. "Like they counted on you after you escaped from that awful prison camp?"
"Something like that, yeah..." I answered quietly. I wished Mom had never heard about the POW camp, but I'd been formally declared MIA, and the Navy had notified my next of kin.
"You could have come home then, too..."
"I could have..." I glanced at Grampa again. The tiniest shake of his head told me I'd get no help; this was between Mom and me. "But I had a job to do. Responsibilities..." I didn't know what else to say.
Mom forced a smile. "Well... I'm sorry I brought it up right now, but it was on my mind. Let's talk about this later, shall we? They're waiting for us inside."
Lieutenant Colonel Little and Pastor Hodges were waiting with Mr. Tuttle, the funeral director who'd buried everyone in our little town for over forty years. Mr. Tuttle droned on about schedules and limousines for a half hour, then Pastor Hodges ran through music and prayer options for another half hour while I struggled to stay awake. Lieutenant Colonel Little answered the odd question about military honors and protocol. So many details to dying. I wonder if Joey left anything undone. Not me. When I go there's not going to be anything left unfinished, no need for goodbyes. I had a guilty moment, thinking that I hadn't yet delivered Joey's last message, but the right opportunity hadn't presented itself. Damn Frank, going off flying... None of my friends would pull a stupid stunt like that...
"Huh? I'm sorry, Mom, what was that?" Damn, I really had been off in another world.
"Are you coming with us to see Joey?"
"If you want me to." It's not Joey. It's just his body. Joey's gone, damn it. At least I didn't say it out loud.
"Yes... Please..." She glanced at her watch. "I thought Frank would be here by now."
I looked at Grampa. He pursed his lips and shrugged. He wasn't happy with Frank, either. "Of course I'll come with you. I saw him in Hawaii. He doesn't look bad..." Not as if he had three big holes torn through his chest.
There was a soft knock on the office door and one of Mr. Tuttle's assistants poked his head in. "Excuse me, sir. Mr. Peterson is here."
Frank looked defeated. Haunted, almost. Not at all the overbearing guy I was used to. Grampa stood and motioned Frank into the seat beside Mom. Frank nodded at Grampa and at me, then kissed Mom on the cheek, all without a word. I'd never seen him so withdrawn. It was unnerving. I'd been prepared to scream at him, maybe even take a swing at him. This silence - it hung me up. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost...
"The viewing will be tomorrow evening, with the funeral Thursday morning at nine, followed by the ceremony at Arlington," Mom reported to Frank. At least she's telling him, not asking his opinion. "We're going to see him now..." Her voice faltered. Frank's face crumpled, but he caught himself and fixed a stony expression there.
Frank wrapped a protective arm around Mom's shoulders as we entered the viewing room. Even though I'd seen Joey at the mortuary in Hawaii, it was still a shock. Like most well prepared corpses, he looked peaceful, as though he might wake up if I shook his shoulder.
From behind I saw Mom sag and stepped forward to grab her arm. She straightened and waved me off. "I'm all right," she whispered. "But this never, ever gets any easier."
We ran through the obligatory "He looks good, doesn't he?" comments. I never understood why people say that at a viewing. Not knowing what else to say, I suppose.
Now seemed as good a time as any to pass on Joey's last words. "Mom, Frank, I've got a little more to tell you." Mom braced herself. "My classmate, Ken Johnson, was with Joey. Joey said to tell you that he loved you, both of you." Mom leaned her head against Frank's chest and closed her eyes.
I began to question the wisdom of passing on Joey's words. And for whatever reason, I hesitated. I don't want to tell him the rest. He doesn't deserve to hear... He didn't deserve Joey... Only because I had promised Grampa I wouldn't start anything, I swallowed my fury and did my best to keep my face blank. "Frank, there's one more thing. He also said to tell you he was sorry..." Though I can't imagine what the hell for.
Frank's face fell and he turned away. His chin dropped and his shoulders started to shake.
Mom hugged him. "Shhhh…" she soothed. "It's not your fault. It's no one's fault."
I didn't mean to... I didn't do it on purpose... But I heard myself sigh, and then watched as Frank stiffened and whipped around toward me.
"What was that?" he demanded, distraught. I'd never seen Frank distraught. It shook me.
"Nothing Frank -- it was nothing." I meant it, but Frank and I had too much history; he didn't believe me.
"Don't start with me, boy!"
Grampa's furious whisper cut in. "Not now, you two!"
"Please," Mom pleaded in a choked whisper.
Frank looked as guilty as I felt. "I'm sorry, Katherine," he said as he gathered her into a hug. "That was uncalled for." He glared at me over the top of her head.
I shook my head as if to say, "Not this time, Frank. I really didn't mean anything" and spoke softly as I lay my hand gently on Mom's back. "I'm sorry, Mom." She turned, and the tears in her eyes cut me like slivers of glass. "Listen," I continued quietly, "I have some things to go over with Lieutenant Colonel Little, then I'll be back to the house. Will you be okay?"
She nodded sadly. "I'll be fine, Sport. You go ahead." I figured she would have preferred we go to lunch together, what was left of our family, but she probably recognized the wisdom in separating Frank and me for a cooling-off period. Grampa squinted at me and shook his head in disappointment.
I hung my head. Shit. This time I didn't even mean to start anything. I promised...
"Damn it," I muttered as Lieutenant Colonel Little and I walked to his car. "I promised Grampa... Thanks for playing along. I had to get away from Frank."
"Your stepfather doesn't seem like quite the ass you make him out to be," he observed quietly.
"You didn't grow up in his household," I growled. "It's his fault Joey was out there! He never belonged in the Corps." My voice was up almost an octave, and I didn't care. "Joey wasn't like you and me!" I finished with a frustrated shout.
The colonel responded evenly to my tirade. "You know, Lieutenant, here's the thing... If Private Peterson didn't belong in the Corps, he never would have made it through Parris Island." He paused to let it sink in. "It might be time to cut your stepfather some slack."
"Not a chance! With all due respect, Colonel, you have no idea what you're talking about."
He raised his hands in surrender and shook his head. "Where are we going?"
"Can you drop me at home? I need a run."
"Yep, sure." We rode the rest of the way in silence.
I woke up early the next morning and hit the road again for another long run. I had just arrived back at the house and was pouring orange juice when I heard Mom and Frank coming down the stairs.
"No, sweetheart, I really don't need a ride to the beauty parlor, but thank you. Betsy and Miss Lillian are picking me up. I wasn't going to bother to have my hair done, you know, but Fannie insisted it would make me feel a little better, so I'll let her fix it for me. We'll probably stop for tea afterwards, just for a little while. Betsy lost her son in that awful accident last year, so she understands..."
She sighed. "I don't want Tom to go back. He's done his time in that awful place. Why can't he stay home? Get an assignment in Washington?" She was trying to keep her voice down, but it was tight with emotion.
"Katherine, the boy has to do what he thinks is right. If you try to stop him, he'll be miserable. He'd never survive in Washington; the politics would kill him. He's braver than most useless kids these days, I'll give him that. Damned hippies."
The doorbell rang. "That'll be Betsy," said Mom. I heard her gather her coat and purse. "Tom went out for a run. Please don't fight with him when he gets back?"
"Now don't you worry. You just go on and get your hair done, if it makes you feel better." He dropped his voice. "Although you don't need to. You're still as beautiful as the day I met you."
"And you're still just as charming."
I heard them kiss, heard Mom call, "Bye, Daddy" and heard Grampa reply, "See you in a while" from the den, then the front door opened and shut.
Frank entered the kitchen and I made a silent vow. I will not fight with you, Frank. I promised Grampa...
"I thought you were out running."
"Just got back."
"I want to know what you meant yesterday by that sigh."
I swallowed hard. "I told you. Nothing."
"That's a damned lie." He said it quietly. Too quietly.
I felt my face flush. I didn't like being called a liar, especially when I wasn't lying. But I took a deep breath, set my jaw, and started past him, out of the kitchen.
Frank blocked my path and planted his palm in the middle of my chest. "Damn it, boy, I want an answer!" If Grampa was the southern gentleman, Frank was every bit the good old boy.
"Frank, I'm going to tell you once. Take your hand off of me and get out of my way." My voice was also dangerously low.
"I want ... an answer." Frank was stubborn.
I grabbed a fistful of Frank's shirt, shoved him backwards, and pinned him against the refrigerator, scowling at him from three inches above his face. "You want an answer? Not that you care what I think, but you treated him like shit!" I could hear Grampa hurrying down the hall.
Frank grabbed my shirt and craned his neck upward so our noses almost touched. His face was beet red. "You think it was my fault that Joey was in that shithole?"
"He should have been in Nashville, writing songs, not off trying to prove to you he was the kind of he-man you thought he oughtta be!"
Frank's face twisted. His voice was tight, pained. "Boy, you have no idea what the hell you're talking about! Damn it! He was there..." He clamped his mouth shut, his chin quivering.
I pulled him a few inches away from the fridge and slammed him back against it. "Lay it on me, man! You got something to say? Say it!"
All of a sudden, Frank's expression looked strangely like Grampa's had yesterday. As though he were trying to make a big decision. He worked his jaw muscles, opened his mouth and then squeezed it shut again without saying anything.
Grampa shoved his way in between us. "Damn it, you two!" he exclaimed, his eyes flashing. We both stopped short, equally surprised by his cussing. "This must stop! Now!"
"Sumbitch, Everett, you know Joey was there because..." Frank started.
"Joseph is gone!" exclaimed Grampa, cutting him off. "God rest his soul, he's in a better place. But Katherine is here. She needs both of you and she most decidedly does not need this incessant combat between you. I declare! Your mamas raised you better than this. Now both of you, grow up!"
I caught the especially piercing look Grampa shot Frank's way. There was something they knew that I didn't, but my little voice was telling me to leave it alone. "I'll be upstairs. I need a shower."
As I trudged up the stairs I heard Grampa lay into Frank in an intense whisper he probably thought I wouldn't hear. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Everette, you know damned well it wasn't my all my fault that Joey ran off!" Frank's voice was cracking. I'd never heard his voice crack before. "You know that!"
My God, it sounds like he's crying.
"Now you listen here, Frank. We are not going to distract that boy. You know as well as I do he's going back to Vietnam, and Katherine needs him back home in one piece."
Yep, there's something going on...
After a long hot shower I spent the rest of the morning talking with Grampa. Frank was gone, I didn't ask where, and we avoided discussing the earlier altercation, instead catching up on local Tidewater news and commiserating about the Tigers' dismal season.
Grampa had also figured out that the scrape on my face wasn't from a bar fight. "Looks more to me like you came mighty close to being buried beside your brother, instead of escorting him home..."
Straightforward guy, Grampa. I cocked my head, trying to decide how much to tell him.
"Grenade?" he asked.
"Close. Booby trap. Almost got us."
"What happened to Joseph?"
"You sure you want to know?"
"Can't be any worse than what I saw in France, in the trenches."
"You've never talked about the war."
"It's not a thing a man talks about, generally."
"Now that I do understand."
"I was just a boy..." He closed his eyes for a moment. "When it ended I was glad to be alive. Too many of my friends weren't. I'd seen enough of the world. Came back home to Tidewater wanting nothing more than to live out a simple life in a small town."
"I'm not sure I could do that. Live my whole life here in Tidewater. Not that there's anything wrong with that!"
Grampa chuckled. "Not to worry. You were never meant to stay here, Thomas. You're very much a Magnum, you know."
I smiled, not quite sure what to say.
"Thomas... What happened to Joseph?" Grampa repeated softly.
You won't tell Mom? "
"Son, there are things your mother has no need to know."
I nodded. "Fair enough. Like I told Mom and Frank, Joey was a hero. My buddy, Ken Johnson, was his platoon leader. They got pinned down by a machine gun nest. Joey and his Sergeant charged the nest, took it out. But they took rounds to the chest, both of them. They died at the aid station."
Grampa sighed deeply. "Sitting ducks. And they knew it the minute they stood up." He shook his head slowly. "That's what I call real courage."
"He shouldn't have been there. Of all people, Joey didn't belong there."
"No one 'belongs' in a war, son. But the most unlikely among us often rise to the occasion. Just like Joseph."
We sat in silence for a few minutes, each lost in his own war, until Grampa glanced at his watch and said, "I do believe I'll find something to eat. Care to join me?"
We had all kinds of choices for lunch; there was more food than we knew what to do with. This was the small town south, where people pull together, and where as soon as someone sees activity at the funeral home all the women in town start cooking. In a lot of ways, I missed this place. I didn't miss the small town politics or the small town gossip, but I missed the closeness and the caring.
We reheated some barbeque and were sitting at the kitchen table eating when Mom arrived.
"Oh, good, you found Miss Lillian's barbeque! I'm sorry you had to fix your own dinner. We were longer at tea than I expected."
"Not to worry, kitten." Grampa smiled. "We may be men, but we're not helpless, you know."
Her eyes twinkled with amusement. It was nice to see. "Where's Frank?"
"He, ah..." Grampa cleared his throat, trying to buy time, or maybe think up a likely story. I was suddenly very interested in the food on my plate. "He went out," he continued, not meeting her eyes.
"Out? Out where? Did he go flying?"
"Well, he, ah... You know, he may have mentioned something about flying, yes," Grampa answered. I kept quiet. He'd do a better job of deflecting her anger.
"Why?" she demanded. "What happened?"
"Not a thing, kitten!"
Grampa and I stumbled over each other trying to assure her nothing was wrong, but we were trying way too hard.
Her eyes flashed just like Grampa's. "Thomas Sullivan Magnum... Daddy..." she snapped, planting her hands firmly on her hips. "A woman knows when a man is lying... And you two are particularly bad at it."
Grampa and I exchanged a glance, silently agreeing that no good could come of telling Mom what happened.
Mom peered back and forth between us for a few more moments. "But sometimes," she continued softly, "a woman has more sense than to ask why..." She closed her eyes and sighed. "It's going to be a long evening. I'm going to lie down for a bit. I'm just worn right out."
Once she was safely out of earshot, Grampa and I exchanged another look. "You and Frank are going to have to try harder, son. Much harder..."
I looked toward the staircase and grimaced. Damn it. Why do I always let Frank get to me? "Yes, sir. I know."
I fidgeted in my dress blues. I'd been in fatigues and away from neckties for a long time. We were nearing the end of the viewing, and I dearly wished we could have turned it into an Irish wake. I needed a drink, badly.
Following a strained but civil supper, we'd spent the last three hours at the funeral home greeting hundreds of friends and family members. Some were parents of Joey's friends, standing in for their absent sons who were still in Vietnam. I could see it in their eyes, what they were thinking when they looked at Mom and Frank, and when they looked at the casket -- there but for the grace of God...
The last few people were saying goodbye when Mom asked, "Did you see Karen or Don Eddie?"
I shook my head with a heavy sigh. "No, but I'm not surprised, I guess."
Mom sighed and seemed to sag. "After two years I thought maybe..." Something behind me caught her attention and she let out a little gasp.
I turned and saw two hippies standing in the doorway, looking like they'd rather be just about anywhere else. One girl, one guy, both dressed in fringed leather jackets, tie-dye shirts, blue jeans, and sandals. Both with long shaggy hair, he with a scruffy beard, each carrying some kind of leather purse thing over one shoulder. My cousin Karen and my best buddy from high school, Don Eddie Rice.
Mom grabbed my arm. "It's okay," I said quietly. "It doesn't matter now." Don Eddie's and my last meeting hadn't ended well. Angry, hateful words about war and peace had been flung back and forth, and we hadn't spoken in over two years.
I walked over to them slowly. "Karen."
"I'm so sorry, Tom," she said simply, tears running down her cheeks. We hugged and I turned to Don Eddie.
There was nothing but sorrow in his eyes. None of the fire or hatred that had been there the last time we'd seen each other. Don Eddie hung his head. "I know you don't want to talk to me," he said softly. "I just wanted to come pay my respects."
"Buddy..." My voice gave out as I opened my arms and we clung to each other, the warrior and the anti-war activist, united in our grief. "Thanks for coming, man. Joey would have appreciated it."
Don Eddie looked at Joey's casket. "He was a cool cat... And a great songwriter... It's such a waste, isn't it?" he whispered.
"A shame, yeah." My voice was just as hoarse. "A waste? God, I hope not..."
Mom joined us and after condolences were exchanged Mom pulled Karen and Don Eddie off to the side where they huddled in private conversation.
Grampa joined me near Joey's casket. "How you holding up, son?"
"Okay. You?" He's so worried about everyone else. I wonder who he leans on.
"Tolerable. The Lord and I have been having long talks this week."
I knew he wished I were more of a church-going man but I didn't really want to discuss it at the moment, so I changed the subject. "I'd hoped we might see Captain Magnum."
He shook his head. "He's been out of touch for over a year. The last phone number we knew about has been disconnected, and we don't have any idea where he is or how to contact him. He's got the wanderlust, that one."
"Like to meet him some day."
"I sure hope you get the chance. You're a lot like him."
The church was packed the next morning. I hadn't really noticed who was there because I made a point of keeping my eyes off the congregation and focused straight ahead as we followed Joey's casket up the aisle to our seats in the front row. Eyes in the boat, just like plebe year. This was turning out to be a lot harder than I'd expected.
The honor guard retreated and everyone settled in their seats. Miss Lillian, the pianist at Tidewater's little church for over forty years, played a simple rendition of Fairest Lord Jesus, just like she did on any number of Sundays. Pastor Hodges stood and began the service, thanking the congregation for being there. But for the casket, the flowers, and the somber mood, it could have been any Sunday service in my hometown church.
The choir stood for their first song. The director turned to Mom and bowed slightly, recognizing the fact that under other circumstances she would have been with them on the altar, dressed in a robe, singing soprano. It's where Joey got his talent, I thought as the choir began It Is Well With My Soul.
I'm sure it was a beautiful service, but I'd been away from church much longer than I'd been away from service dress uniforms and neckties and I was uncomfortable, like I didn't quite belong here any more. I thought about the last time I'd attended church with any regularity. Mandatory services at the Academy. As a plebe I didn't mind too much. Chapel was the one place where the upperclassmen couldn't haze you. But by the time I was an upperclassman, chapel cut into what would otherwise have been my free time and it grated on me as much as it had in high school when Frank demanded we attend church as a family. I always thought it was more for show than for the condition of our souls, and I dragged my feet every Sunday. So while I believed in God and in life after death and all that, and knew sometimes things happened for which I had no explanation, I mostly stayed away from church. Besides, at the moment I was pretty angry with God.
I caught movement in the aisle out of the corner of my eye and realized Pastor Hodges had introduced someone, but I'd missed who, or why. I turned my head and saw Don Eddie and Karen walking to the altar. What the...? Karen was wearing a simple black dress and had her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, but she looked pretty much the same as yesterday. Don Eddie, on the other hand, looked like a different person. His hair was trimmed just above his collar, he was clean-shaven, and he'd exchanged his tie-dye for a dark suit.
Don Eddie retrieved a guitar from behind the organ and began fingerpicking a familiar melody.
my light come shining,
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
The new Joe Cocker version... One of Joey's favorites...
Next, Don Eddie and Karen harmonized on a haunting ballad about making the most of a short lifetime. I recognized the song as one of Joey's and looked over at Mom; she nodded with a sad smile. Frank looked tense. He would never have allowed guitar music in church if he'd known what they were planning. I could almost read his thoughts: Damned hippie music.
The rest of the service was numbingly familiar. Pastor Hodges talked about what a good and gentle young man Joey had been, how this was his home-going celebration, and how God works in mysterious ways that we often don't understand. Grampa and the other church members called out heartfelt 'amens' and 'yes sirs' in agreement. A Marine colonel from DC spoke of Joey's and Sergeant McGinnis' heroism. Mom dabbed at her eyes. Frank sat stiff and straight. I tried not to let my mind wander too far; I didn't have the luxury of falling apart.
Finally, six young Marines marched forward, lifted the casket, executed a precise one hundred-eighty degree turn, and began a slow procession up the aisle toward the entrance. The detail paused to let the first few pews empty and gather behind them. As we waited to start moving, a bagpiper in the rear choir loft began a mournful Amazing Grace. Mom's knees buckled. Frank and I caught her, but she took a deep breath, pulled herself up straight and continued up the aisle, nodding to friends along the way but clutching tight to Frank's arm.
We spent only a few minutes outside greeting relatives and friends. Most everyone would either follow to Arlington or be at the house when we returned. Mom looked exhausted as we helped her into the limousine. The door closed, isolating us. Mom looked at Frank, looked at me, looked at Grampa, took one look through the windshield at the hearse, and fell to pieces. Her face crumpled, her chin fell to her chest, and she sobbed like I had never heard her sob before. Great wrenching, racking sobs. We couldn't help. Frank put an arm around her and let her cry. I reached out and patted her knee. "It'll be okay, Mom." It was a lie. It would never be okay, ever again.
After a couple of minutes Mom's sobs subsided to occasional hitching gasps, like when a little kid is overwrought and begins to calm down. She laid her head on Frank's chest and offered a weary, "It's okay. We can go now. I don't want to keep people waiting." Grampa rolled down the window and nodded to Mr. Tuttle.
It always struck me how life stops when someone dies. In Tidewater, over half the town attended Joey's funeral. This was a place where people held on to their faith, their lives revolving around their small town church. Outside our little hamlet, everyone else's life went on that day. Men went to work, women cooked supper and cleaned house, kids went to school. But for us, life stopped.
Tidewater was a small southern town in a rural southern county. Things were done a certain way. As the funeral procession wound through town and then through the countryside on the way to the highway and Arlington, every car pulled to the side, even those going in the other direction. Everyone on the sidewalk stopped and covered their hearts. Men removed their hats. No matter how they felt about Vietnam, a boy from their town was dead, a family in their town was hurting, and they rallied around as they had for generations. They rejoiced in the good times and held each other up in the bad times. I really do miss it, sometimes.
"Please rise for rendering of honors." I returned my attention to the cemetery. The chaplain had concluded his remarks. We're almost finished; here comes the hardest part.
I helped Mom to her feet, came to rigid attention and saluted. She jumped at each of the three rifle volleys. I didn't allow myself to think of Joey. Another funeral for a buddy. Tough, but that's how things go when there's a war on. My uniform and my place in life as a naval officer would carry me through. Or so I thought… My throat closed as the bugler sounded the first few notes of taps. I stifled the sobs that shook my chest, but tears ran unchecked down my cheeks. Joey...
The Marine honor guard folded the flag into a perfect triangle and delivered it to Lieutenant Colonel Little, who in turn walked to Mom in measured, ceremonial steps and knelt in front of her. "Ma'am, on behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's service to Country and Corps." Mom seemed to use up the very last of her energy reaching out to accept the flag he placed in her arms. Lieutenant Colonel Little shook Frank's hand and returned to the funeral detail at the same deliberate pace. More muted commands, and the detail marched away to prepare for the next funeral of the day.
"This concludes our ceremony. Thank you for attending." I heard the chaplain, but he sounded very far away. Grampa and Frank were pale; Mom more sad than I had ever seen her, even after Dad died. I felt completely drained. We stood and talked for a few minutes, and then it was time to go. Just like that.
Mom went to the casket and laid her hand on it. "Goodbye, Joey." It about killed me. Frank may have thought no one heard him whisper, "I love you, son." Even I had to admit it was true on some level. Grampa added, "See you bye-n-bye, Joseph. Save a place at the table for us."
I stood a few feet away, saying nothing and making no move toward the grave. "Are you going to say goodbye, Tom?" Mom asked quietly.
"I can't," I croaked. "I just can't..." Instead, I stepped in front of the casket, came to attention, and delivered a salute. "Semper Fi, Private..." There's no way I can say goodbye, Joey... No way...
Frank and I danced around each other all afternoon as we visited with the family and friends who filled the house after the funeral. I pointedly avoided being in the same room with him. If we caused each other pain so much the better, but neither of us wanted to hurt Mom any more, which was all we seemed to do when we interacted. Frank wasn't one to let things go, however, and I was sure he'd find the opportunity to make it clear he was in charge around here. I turn to leave the den and nearly bumped into him.
"I've been looking for you. Where have you been?" Frank snapped. "Go see your Uncle Edward. He's in the living room."
I bristled. "I already spoke with Uncle Edward and Aunt Nancy." I didn't take Frank's orders well.
Frank's neck turned red. "Boy, in this house I say who does what. Get used to it or get out."
I felt my own face redden. This time I will not fight with you, no matter how much you push me. "I ... already ... spoke ... with ... Uncle ... Edward..."
I slipped past Frank and escaped to the back deck. Don Eddie joined me. "You doin' okay?" he asked.
"I guess. You?"
"I guess. Feels a little funny in this monkey suit. Haven't worn one in a while."
I smiled. "I wasn't sure it was you... You and Karen did a great job with Joey's song."
"Thanks, man. Y'know, I got a connection in Nashville. He wants to record it. I'm hoping your Mom will let him."
"Cool! You know she'll let him. She always wanted Joey to go to Nashville. She hated that he joined the military."
We stood in silence for a couple of minutes.
"Karen says you could get reassigned stateside," Don Eddie commented, watching my reaction carefully. It seemed safe enough, so he continued. "You gonna?"
I shook my head. "No, man. Sorry to disappoint everyone, and I don't want to start a fight with you, but I gotta go back."
"You're not disappointing me. And no more fighting, you and me. I dig... I really do... You gotta do what you gotta do..."
I looked at him quizzically. "You have a change of heart?" I wasn't sure I wanted to have this discussion. This was how our big blowout got started two years ago.
"About the war? No. We shouldn't be there."
Uh-oh... Here we go...
He looked me in the eye. "But I guess I grew up enough to realize that we shouldn't be taking it out on you guys in the military."
My eyebrows shot up in astonishment. "Man! That's not how most anti-war people think."
"Believe me, I know. But I got sick of hearing you guys get blamed for politicians' decisions."
"Can't say politicians are high on my list..."
"I know the feeling."
We stood in silence for a couple of minutes.
"You free tomorrow?" I asked. "Can you give me a lift to Andrews?"
Don Eddie looked surprised. "Already? Your Mom gonna speak to me again if I do?"
I laughed out loud. "I think so. But I'm not sure. You might have to come with me."
His eyes widened. "You know THAT ain't gonna happen!" He laughed. "But I'll take my chances with your Mom; you got yourself a ride."
"Will you take me to Annapolis first?"
"Well, yeah, sure. But Annapolis isn't exactly on the way to Andrews. Won't you risk missing your plane?"
I looked toward the door to make sure no one could hear. "My flight doesn't leave until day after tomorrow. But it's time to go. Time to get away from Frank before one of us says or does something we'll really regret."
Don Eddie rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I noticed he's still the same old charming Frank... But why Annapolis? What's so important about the Academy? As I remember," he chuckled, "you couldn't get out of there fast enough."
"Funny how a little time and distance leaves the good memories intact. I want to go sit in the chapel for a few minutes. Walk along Stribling Walk. Throw pennies at Tecumseh. God knows I can use a little luck."
He peered at me. "What's the real reason?"
Intuitive guy, for a hippie. I crossed my arms and stared at the deck. "I suppose you want the truth?"
He cocked his head and rolled his eyes. "Yyyeees..."
My throat tightened unexpectedly. "Because it's the last place I was happy..." I cleared my throat. "The last time I felt young..."
Late in the evening the house finally began to empty. Mom found me sitting alone in the living room. She handed me a steaming mug of coffee and settled on the opposite couch with a mug of her own. I took a sip and almost choked. "There's booze in here!" I whispered with a wide-eyed glance toward the door.
Mom nodded with a sly smile. "A little Irish whiskey. I don't want to hurt Grampa's feelings, or insult the church ladies, but I like a little taste now and then. And you looked like you could use it."
I chuckled, shook my head, and took a large swallow. "You never cease to amaze me."
She stared at me for a few seconds. "You're going back, aren't you?"
I pursed my lips and finally nodded. "I have to. In the morning. My emergency leave is up, and I have to head back. Don Eddie said he'd drive me to Andrews."
She closed her eyes for a moment, looking pained, but then patted the couch beside her. "Come sit by me and talk for a while. God only knows the next time you'll be home."
I woke early and lay in bed enjoying the last few minutes of peace and quiet I'd have for a long time. I hoped for a day or two in Hawaii on the way back, but there were no guarantees. This might be the last time I slept in a real bed for months to come.
I took a long, hot shower -- most likely one of the last for a while -- and then packed my gear and sat around upstairs until I heard Frank leave the house. I figured he'd leave without saying goodbye. One more dig at me.
We made meaningless small talk over breakfast. Grampa and I did most of the talking; Mom was very quiet.
The doorbell rang. Mom looked stricken. Grampa reached across the table to grasp her hand.
"Kitten, would you get that, please? I need a minute with Thomas."
As soon as Mom was out of earshot I whispered, "Grampa, please try to understand why I have to go back."
"I understand your decision, son. I truly do. It's a hard thing, but God tells you in your heart the right thing to do, and that's what you have to do."
"My 'little voice'..."
"That's the Almighty speaking to you, son. Always listen carefully."
"I don't want to hurt Mom."
"Your mother will be okay. Despite what you think, Frank does love her, and he'll take care of her." His eyes twinkled. "And you know I will make sure all is well.
"A word of advice before you go, Thomas. Remember, things are not always as they seem. Sometimes when we make judgments without all the available information, we ultimately find out we are very wrong..."
Grampa and Frank's unspoken secret... "Is there something I should know?"
Grampa shook his head. "No, son. Just remember, sometimes you need an open mind."
Mom returned to the kitchen with Don Eddie and I ran upstairs to grab my gear.
Reluctantly, we walked to the driveway. I couldn't help taking a quick look around, trying to remember every detail. We reached the car; it was time to go. This part always sucks.
I hugged Grampa fiercely. "I love you Grampa. I'll miss you."
"I love you too, Thomas. Come home safe, hear?"
I turned to Mom.
"So soon... You're really going back..."
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. "You know I have to..."
She hung her head for a moment then reached up and took my face in her hands. "I know, Sport. You can't give up the Navy any more than your father or your grandfather could. It's in your blood. Just be careful... Please..." Her eyes filled with tears and her voice cracked. "I can't go through this again..."
"I will. I promise." I wrapped her in a hug, wondering for a moment if maybe I was making the wrong decision. But just for a moment.
"I love you, Tom," she whispered.
"I love you too, Mom. I'll see you soon." No goodbyes.
Don Eddie pulled away slowly. I leaned out the window and waved back over my shoulder until we turned the corner. Mom and Grampa stood in the street waving, and just before I lost sight both of them I saw Mom bury her head against Grampa's chest. It'll be a long time before I come back here... It wasn't a conscious decision; the thought came to me unsolicited. I didn't even like the idea, but I suspected it was true. I was pretty sure I'd see Mom, and Grampa, and probably even Frank before too awfully long. But at my next duty station. On my turf. Not here.
"You sure about this?" asked Don Eddie, glancing at the rear view mirror.
"Not sure about much of anything, but I can't stay here. Grampa came back from World War One and settled in here just fine. I can't. The Navy's my life. I don't know any other life."
"Can't spend your whole life in the Navy. And you might change your mind."
"Can't see it..."
"You don't play politics well, Tom. You never have. Sooner or later the government bullshit politics is going to chew you up. What then?"
I grinned. "Hell, maybe I'll just chuck it all and become a hippy beach bum."
"A beach bum? You?" he howled. "Now that's funny!"
Don Eddie flipped on the radio. Joe Cocker's I Shall Be Released was playing.
my light come shining,
From the west unto the east.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
Don Eddie sobered. "Weird stuff happens to you sometimes." He pointed at the radio. "Maybe it's a sign."
I shrugged. "Maybe so." My voice was tight.
"You got choices," Don Eddie pressed.
I felt something harden inside. Resolve? I wasn't sure. "No, I don't have choices. Not today. Today we're going to Annapolis. And then you're going to drop me off at Andrews."
Don Eddie nodded sadly. "Promise you'll come back to us?"
"You got it." I knew what he meant: Please don't come back in a box.
I'm twenty-four years old and I don't remember what it's like to be carefree. Or happy. Or in love. I'm headed back to a war zone, maybe for all the wrong reasons. I don't think I'm trying to prove anything to anyone, but maybe I'm as wrong about that as Joey was. Maybe I am trying to prove something to Dad. Or finish what he started.
I looked back over my shoulder one more time. Goodbye, Tidewater.
© J.J. Keegan 2007