The Easy Way Out
Disclaimer: Tour of Duty and the characters herein are the property of Zev Braun Productions. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money is being made from this story.
Summary: Memories of Myron's past leave him struggling to deal with the darkness of his present.
A winter's day, in a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window, to the streets below
On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow
I am a rock. I am an island.
I build walls; a fortress steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock. I am an island.
Don't talk of love—well, I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock. I am an island.
I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock. I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.
Words and Music by Paul Simon/Recorded by Simon and Garfunkle
Thursday, January 6, 1968, 0630 hours
The words of the song echoed through Lieutenant Myron Goldman's head as he listened to it play over the airwaves of the armed forces radio. It brought back memories of the first time he'd heard it over a year ago—how he had immediately identified with what the writer was saying. As if someone had looked inside his very soul, and saw what was hidden there. And taken it, turning it into a song so that all the world could hear his own private pain.
It was a bitter irony that he should hear it again today, of all days.
Monday, January 3, 1968, 0800 hours (three days earlier)
Bravo Company's Second Platoon stood in formation outside the mess tent on the firebase. Anderson made his way down the line of men, inspecting each one and paying special attention to the new replacements that had just joined them three days before. He grasped the dog tags of one of them and gave them a gentle shake, listening to the jingle.
"Sounds kind of pretty, don't ya think so, Private?" he asked benevolently. "I reckon Charlie'll think they sound mighty pretty too, as we're didi-boppin' on down the trail. I got a better idea, though—why don't you tape these suckers together, that way we won't let every VC within half a klick know we're coming. Sound good to you, soldier?" His voice rose steadily and he moved ever so slightly until he was nearly nose to nose with the boy. He dropped the dog tags and shook his head in disbelief as he turned away, wondering if anybody paid attention anymore during their time in boot camp.
Lieutenant Goldman approached the men from the direction of the Command Post bunker. He took the helmet he carried from under his arm and placed it on his head, pulling the strap under his chin. "Alright, Sergeant, let's saddle up. Get these men on the chopper."
There was an edge to the lieutenant's voice that set off warning bells in Anderson's mind. The lieutenant was in one of his moods again. They'd been getting worse over the past week, with no obvious end in sight. Zeke sighed patiently, mentally preparing himself for a day of defusing the lieutenant's temper.
'Yeah, just a sec, LT. I need another minute to finish checking the troops."
"Just what the hell have you been doing out here, Anderson?" Goldman yelled. The fury that seemingly appeared out of nowhere in his voice was unmistakable. "I mean, come on Sergeant, you've been out here for 10 minutes already, and these men should be ready. Now, I said I want them on the choppers, and I mean now! Or is that going to be too much for you?"
Several of the men in Anderson's squad shifted nervously. Though Sarge and the LT often disagreed, it was unusual for the lieutenant to berate the sergeant in front of the men. Taylor glanced sideways at Percell and rolled his eyes. Goldman noticed it, and came to stand in front of Marcus, directing his wrath toward the PFC. "You got a problem here, Taylor?" he yelled.
"No, Sir," Taylor answered awkwardly, keeping his gaze straight ahead rather than meeting the lieutenant's icy stare.
"I hope not. Because if I catch one more look like that or hear one snide remark out of you, you'll be on latrine duty for a week. Is that understood?" As Goldman continued to yell, Taylor could feel the heat from the lieutenant's breath on his face.
"Yes, Sir. Understood, Sir," Taylor responded.
"Then let's move it, Anderson!" Goldman shifted his gaze and his fury back to the platoon sergeant as quickly as he had focused it on Taylor.
Anderson stepped up to the lieutenant and lowered his voice so as not to be overheard by the men. "Beggin' the lieutenant's pardon, Sir, but if we climb on these choppers before these men are squared away, we both know what will happen. And I don't imagine either one of us wants to be bringin' these boys home in a bag, Sir."
Something in the sergeant's quiet manner caught Goldman's attention, and he paused. He saw the value in Anderson's words, and though his rage never lessened, he nodded his head tersely to allow the sergeant to continue his inspection. "Three minutes, Sergeant," he replied in a voice that was barely audible.
Anderson watched him briefly as the angry young man made his way to where the slicks were waiting, their rotors already churning up the red dust into small tornados that danced playfully across the ground. He could see that Goldman's anger was reaching the point of no return, but he felt powerless to help his friend as the young lieutenant struggled to remain sane in a world where nothing made sense--where death was the only constant companion you could rely on.
Before he allowed himself to think on it any further, the reality of preparing the men crowded in and he returned to the task at hand.
Tuesday, January 4, 1968, 13:30 hours
"Percell!" Anderson called as he made his way past the squads chowing down over to where the young man sat on a rock, cleaning his M-16.
Danny looked up from the weapon he was stripping and paused, watching as the platoon sergeant approached.
Anderson came up and sat down next to the young man, pulling up his legs and draping his arms over his knees, the barrel of his M-16 resting against his left shoulder. "You doin' alright?" he asked, carefully observing the enlisted man's face.
"Yeah, Sarge. I'm just great," Danny answered sarcastically, returning to his work.
Percell was already feeling badly that his weapon had jammed up on him when the platoon stumbled upon a couple VC this morning. He thanked God that Johnson and Taylor had been right behind him, taking out the enemy soldiers before they had a chance to fire off a single shot. But to have the LT subsequently chew him out in front of the guys had just been the icing on the cake.
Anderson could see the guilt Percell was dealing with and knew that it was misplaced. As was Zeke's custom, he had sought Danny out in order to help him deal with his emotions and get his head back together. "Danny, ya did nothin' wrong, ya hear me? Your weapon jammed is all. It happens." Anderson's hand slapped at his own neck in an attempt to remove the mosquito that was feasting there.
"I s'pose," Danny sulked.
"Alright, now listen here, Percell, ya gotta shake this thing off, okay? It don't mean nothin'. LT's got stuff on his mind, 'n you just happened to get in his line of fire. Don't sweat it, okay?"
Danny's piercing blue eyes looked up at the sergeant and pushed aside his guilt long enough to see the truth in his words. He was once again grateful that fate had placed him in the care of Anderson for his time in 'Nam. He couldn't imagine making it through with anyone else.
With an almost imperceptible sigh, he released the burden the LT had placed on his shoulders. "Okay, Sarge. I hear ya."
"Atta boy, Percell," Sarge said, standing to his feet and giving Danny a gentle smack on the back of his head. "And Danny?" he added.
"Keep the weapon clean." Anderson grinned and walked away.
Danny's only response was to laugh and throw the rag he was using at the retreating sergeant's back.
Zeke felt it hit him between the shoulder blades at the same instant he heard the gunshot ring out, and for the briefest of moments he thought he'd been hit. His confusion was short-lived, however, and his well-defined instincts took over as he threw himself to the ground.
"DOWN! EVERYBODY DOWN!" he yelled out, using the weeds at the side of the trail to provide himself with some protection.
The platoon reacted immediately, taking cover and pulling out their weapons in almost the same motion. Seconds later the air was pierced by the sound of the M-16s firing at the unseen enemy.
After a minute, Goldman heard no evidence that their shots were being returned, and he gave the order to cease fire. He listened cautiously to the ensuing silence, waiting. "Anderson!" he yelled. "You see anything?"
"No, Sir," the sergeant replied. "Anybody got anything? Talk to me!" he yelled to the platoon.
"It was coming from our ten o'clock, Sarge!" Ruiz answered. "I think we smoked 'im!"
"Harrington and Parks!" the lieutenant called to the two men directly to his right. "Check it out!" Myron could feel the anger growing inside of him at this delay in their mission. The last thing he felt like dealing with right now was a sniper, and he hoped like hell that one of the men had already taken him down.
The two PFCs slowly rose to their feet and began to head cautiously in the direction Ruiz had pointed out. They had barely gone two yards when another shot rang out. Goldman watched in horror as Harrington was hit squarely in the chest. His body was flung backwards by the force of the blow and he fell nearly on top of the lieutenant, quivering, but very much awake.
"MEDIC!" Goldman screamed, wiping his face in a futile attempt to remove Harrington's splattered blood. "Doc, get the hell up here!" Goldman crawled around to where he could see the red stain rapidly spreading across the young boy's shirt. He ripped it aside, exposing Harrington's chest and the wound that had left a gaping hole there. There was a trickle of blood coming from the private's mouth, and a wild look in his eyes. His trembling hand reached up and grabbed hold of Myron's uniform. "LT…" he said, gasping for breath. "LT…"
Goldman watched helplessly as the young boy's eyes began to glaze over and his ragged breathing slowed. Harrington's hand slowly released its grasp on the lieutenant and fell away. He was dead before the medic could even get to him.
"DAMN IT!!" Goldman shouted, incensed by the senseless death of this young man. "DAMN IT ALL TO HELL!" Unable to contain the rage he felt within, he leapt to his feet and charged into the brush, withdrawing his service revolver from its holster. He felt and saw nothing but the desire to act upon his rage, not caring at all of the risk he posed to himself.
"LT! GET DOWN!" Anderson called after him. Receiving no response, Anderson jumped up and followed after him, cursing the lieutenant's stupidity under his breath. "Hold your fire!" he shouted to the men, determined not to add to the danger Goldman had already placed himself in.
As Myron crashed through the brush, he suddenly found himself staring at the sniper, not ten feet away. The sniper had the lieutenant directly in the sights of the M-16 he had stolen from the body of a dead GI two weeks before. Though Myron saw this, it barely registered and he made no move to slow down. For scarcely an instant, Myron contemplated doing nothing. He wondered what it would be like to just give in, to just give up…
Like she had…
Zeke came through the bushes in time to watch the scene before him as if it were in slow motion. He saw Myron hesitate briefly before charging ahead, raising the pistol to firing position. He saw the sniper take aim, closing one eye for a better view as his finger curled around the trigger. As Zeke watched that same finger pull the trigger, he felt the thundering of his heart, his mind screaming against the inevitable.
The sniper's last action was to look down at the weapon that had jammed in his grasp, just before Myron emptied the entire clip of his revolver into the VC's body.
The jungle became deathly silent, save for the labored breathing of the two men. In the stillness that followed, Zeke stared at his platoon leader as if he'd never seen him before. Myron stood there, weapon still drawn, breathing heavily. He watched the VC as he slowly stopped twitching, and then moved to kick the weapon away from the body. He glanced briefly at Zeke, feeling the sergeant's horrified concern, but consciously choosing to shut it out.
Zeke captured Myron's gaze for only an instant, and he saw clearly the regret that was unmistakable in the younger man's eyes. But Zeke was uncertain if Myron's sorrow was for killing the sniper, or regret that the sniper hadn't killed him first.
An hour later the platoon was at the PZ, waiting for the dust-off. The body of PFC Harrington lay on a poncho spread on the ground. The men who were not securing the perimeter stood together in small clusters, in quiet conversations. Zeke walked over to where Myron stood aimlessly scanning the horizon for the Hueys.
"LT?" he asked quietly.
"What is it, Sergeant?" Lieutentant Goldman asked in his best "I'm the officer" voice.
"LT, what happened out there today?" Anderson allowed his gaze to wander over the lieutenant's drawn features. He could see by the distance in Myron's face that he wasn't likely to be getting any straight answers, but Zeke still felt a need to understand exactly what he had witnessed.
"I killed a sniper, Sergeant. End of story."
"Yessir. You did do that. You surely did. It's just, well, LT, there's killin' and then there's killin'."
Myron gave no indication that he had heard Anderson.
"Aw, hell, LT, ya ran out in the line of fire 'n nearly got yourself blown away!"
Myron inhaled deeply from the cigarette he held. "Yeah, well, if I had, at least then I wouldn't have to be writing to Harrington's parents. 'Dear Mrs. Harrington, I'm sorry your son was shot and killed—if I'd known the sniper was still there, I'd have never ordered him to his death…." Myron tossed the butt to the ground and angrily crushed it with the heel of his boot. The anger blazing in his dark eyes slowly dimmed and he suddenly looked old beyond his years. "Hell, I couldn't save him anymore than I could save her," he said almost inaudibly.
"What's that, LT? Who couldn't ya save?" Zeke asked quietly, not sure if he'd heard right.
"Forget it, Sergeant." Myron snapped, gazing into the distance. Thoughts of his mother had plagued him all week, though he desperately wanted to turn them off. Six years…six years Thursday. God, has it really been that long? Still seems like yesterday. He bitterly remembered the pain following her death, how angry he'd been, how he couldn't forgive her. But lately, he almost felt he could understand what might have driven his mother to such a choice.
"Look, LT, if ya wanna talk about anything…" Zeke offered.
"I said let it go!" Myron answered harshly, wondering what had possessed him to bring up the subject anyway. Anderson was already keeping too close a watch on him. His platoon sergeant could be like a dog with a bone when it came to the men he cared about, and the last thing Myron needed was to send him any red flags.
Zeke wasn't sure what to make of that statement, but he could hear the anguish barely concealed in the lieutenant's words and decided to change his tack. He softened his voice, attempting to reason with Goldman. "All's I'm saying, LT, is that I wouldn't wanna be loading you onto the chopper in a poncho too."
Zeke could feel the wall the lieutenant had placed between them as if he'd watched the younger man build it brick by brick. The gaze that Myron turned upon him would have turned a weaker man to ice.
"Choppers are coming in, Sergeant. Get the men ready for loading," Goldman said in a lifeless voice. With that, he turned and left the sergeant staring after him, wondering why the air had suddenly turned cool.
Thursday, January 6, 1968, 1930 hours
"Hey, Sarge." Johnson called as he noticed Anderson heading past the southern entrance to Ladybird, where the young man had pulled guard duty for the second time in two days. The intense heat of the late afternoon still surrounded and enveloped him, though the sun had finally relinquished its place in the sky. "Have you got a second?"
Sergeant Zeke Anderson slowed his pace to answer him. "Johnson, ain't you supposed to be keepin' an eye out for Victor Charles so all of us can be restin' easy?" The smile on his face tempered his words, but the private understood the message all the same. Sergeant Anderson always managed to find a way to motivate the men to the business at hand without knocking them in the head with it. That was one of the reasons the men responded to him as easily as they did.
"I hear ya, Sarge, and I am, I promise. But I got somethin' on my mind, and I sure could use a chance to talk to ya about it." Johnson's warm brown eyes continued to scan the tree line 100 meters out for any sign of activity. His M-16 remained loose in his grasp, and he pulled the olive drab towel from around his neck and used it to wipe the sweat from his face.
"Alright then, Johnson--you figure you can talk 'n keep your eyes 'n ears open at the same time?" Anderson changed his direction and came to lean casually against a wall of sandbags nearby, resting his shotgun against his leg. He crossed his bare arms over his chest and waited expectantly.
"Yeah. Yeah, I can do that," Marvin replied.
"Then what's on your mind, son?"
Johnson sighed, obviously struggling with how to approach the subject matter. "It's about the LT…." he began, and then hesitated. He didn't want the sergeant to think he was complaining, but he'd been noticing for days the lieutenant's growing state of distraction and moodiness. Though this was nothing new to any of them, it seemed to be getting worse by the minute. Most of the men in the squad, in the platoon, for that matter, were making every effort to stay out of Goldman's way, just to escape being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting their butts all but chewed off.
Johnson's mention of the lieutenant immediately set those warning bells off again in Anderson's mind. That the LT had something major going on in his life right now was apparent to anyone looking. Even the sergeant had little clue how to deal with the mood swings this past week, and the concern he felt over his friend grew exponentially just by hearing his observations confirmed by Johnson. He waited for the young man to continue his train of thought.
"Somethin' ain't right, Sarge." Johnson stated, shifting uncomfortably. "I mean, LT's always had a temper, but ya know, that's okay, we can deal with it. We know he's just got a job to do like the rest of us, 'n it ain't easy being the one in charge. But he seems different lately. Flyin' off about stupid little things. Like nearly takin' Percell's head off after his gun jammed a couple of days ago. These weapons are a piece of junk, Sarge! Everybody knows they jam up, no matter how much ya clean them. And everybody knows Danny takes damn good care of his stuff!" Johnson could feel his frustration growing, and he took a deep breath to calm himself before going on.
"But it's more than that. He just don't seem like himself, ya know? It's almost like he don't care no more what happens to him. Or us." He allowed his words to trail off.
Johnson's statement hit Anderson right between the eyes. It's almost like he don't care no more what happens to him… The warning bells in his mind turned into a full alarm as things began to fall into place.
Anderson hastily pushed himself off the pile of sandbags and grabbed his shotgun by the barrel. As he turned and walked back the way he had come from, he told Johnson not to worry. He'd take care of the LT.
He made his way toward the CP Bunker in search of the lieutenant, urged on solely by his own intuition and hoping like hell he was wrong.
As the sergeant hurried along, a conversation he'd had with General Goldman nearly three weeks earlier crept back into his thoughts.
Tuesday, December 14, 1967, 1350 hours
Zeke was walking across the base at Chu-Lai from the enlisted men's barracks toward the mess tent with Percell and Taylor. All three men were looking forward to a hot meal. Not a good, hot meal, but it still beat c-rats. The general spotted him, almost as if he had been watching for Anderson, waiting for him.
"Sergeant—have you got a minute?"
Zeke separated himself from the two other men with a nod and approached the general, offering him a salute. "Yes, Sir," he replied. A staff sergeant didn't tell a two-star he didn't have time for him. No matter what his personal opinion of the man might be.
General Goldman returned the salute, looking intently at Zeke, almost as if he were sizing him up. He offered no opinion of his findings, however, and merely held out his hand in the direction he wished to take. "Walk with me, will you?"
Zeke fell into step beside the general, wondering exactly what was going on.
"You and my son, you work rather closely with each other?" the general asked. He kept his hands clasped behind his back as he walked, his posture stiff and unyielding.
Knowing the question was rhetorical, Zeke chose to answer anyway. "Yes, Sir."
"You seem to make a good team. You work well together. It's obvious that Myron thinks highly of you," the general mused.
Zeke looked sideways at him, somewhat surprised by the officer's openness. "Thank you, Sir. I think pretty highly of him too. He's a fine officer—you should be proud."
"Yes…" General Goldman stated, and then fell silent. His gaze was drawn to the perimeter where he stared at the men working there without really noticing them. His thoughts, as they so often did these days, wandered back in time to the earlier years of his marriage. So much was missed. So many opportunities lost…he wished once again there was more time to repair the damage done.
Pulling his mind back to the present with an effort, he stopped walking and turned to face the sergeant.
"He trusts you, Sergeant," the general stated.
"I'd like to think so, Sir," Zeke agreed quietly.
"Don't take that lightly. Trust is not something that comes easily to my son…"
"No, Sir, it doesn't." Zeke had stopped walking as well, and he casually removed the strap of his rifle from his shoulder and rested the weapon on the ground.
"I know what my son thinks of me," General Goldman acknowledged , though the admission was costing him. "But he's still my son, and I…I'd just like you to keep an eye out for him. Be there for him. Can you do that?"
Though Zeke was puzzled by the general's sudden concern for the son he hadn't seen in years, he agreed. "Yes, Sir, I can do that."
And the staff sergeant had every intention of keeping his promise as he watched the general solemnly walk away.
Thursday, January 6, 1968, 1945 hours
"LT?" Anderson stood just outside the tent that Goldman inhabited. Ladybird was cast in the dim light of early evening shadows. The sun was already just a memory on her horizon, and it would be only minutes until darkness fully enveloped her. And evil lurked in the darkness of 'Nam, waiting to ensnare any who might fall prey to it.
"LT, you in there?" The impatience Zeke felt could be heard in his voice. His unnamed fear had increased with each failure as he attempted to locate the lieutenant, and he was beginning to lose hope.
Just as he started to turn away, he heard the slightest noise from within the tent. Only a hint of movement, but it was enough to cause him to pause and cock his head, listening intently. Nothing more came, but he drew a deep breath and pushed aside the tent flap, entering.
The interior of the tent was dim, but even with the scant light Anderson could see the place was a disaster. Olive drab clothes were strewn everywhere. The pillow and coarse blanket from the rack lay in a pile on the floor, and there were papers scattered about. The lieutenant's M-16 and ammo belt were tossed carelessly on the cot along with several grenades, and the smell of cigarette smoke was heavy in the air, turning Zeke's mouth bitter.
The lieutenant himself sat in a rumpled heap next to his foot locker, one leg drawn up to his chest, the other spread out in front of him. A lit cigarette dangled precariously from the fingers of his left hand as his arm was draped loosely across his knee. His face sported several days worth of growth, and the circles beneath his eyes told of the many sleepless nights he'd recently faced. His dark eyes remained open, but held an emptiness to them, and he did not look up when the staff sergeant came in.
The footlocker he was leaning against was serving as a table. A c-rat can full of ashes and cigarette butts lay next to a half empty bottle of whiskey and a small transistor radio, whose batteries had run out some time ago, leaving the machine silent.
"LT. What's goin' on?" Zeke asked as his eyes adjusted to the increasing darkness. "What say we get some light in here?" He reached for the pull string on the light hanging in the center of the tent and turned it on. The bulb flickered, casting an eerie glow over both men, before taking hold and chasing back the darkness.
As Anderson's mind continued to feverishly process the signs he saw before him, the conversation he'd shared with the LT in the Officers' Quarters at Chu Lai during General Goldman's visit replayed in his mind. He'd known then that it was the first time the lieutenant had been able to open up to him, sharing with him a past that Zeke doubted he had ever talked about. Zeke knew that the lieutenant had finally handed over his trust to him that day, and that was the very reason he wasn't about to abandon his friend now.
Monday, December 13, 1967, 2200 hours
"Well, now, LT, look here…I'm not, I'm not an expert on this, but maybe your old man, he looks at you, he sees himself 30 years ago, ya know, like you're his future. I mean, that's a tough cross for you to bear."
"Yeah, well, I can't relive his past glories."
"No, you can't. But maybe you can see the difference between a man who, ya know, who had high hopes for his son, and a man who's hangin' on to the last thing he's got in the world."
"My old man had everything in the world…then about 6 years ago, my mother took a fist full of sleeping pills…she never woke up. And to this day, he has never dealt with it. Now, I look in his eyes…" He hesitated. "Nothing. I get nothing back."
The sergeant's startled eyes darted to Goldman's face. His announcement about his past left Anderson stunned, but what shocked him even more was the way the lieutenant said it—his voice casual, almost detached. Simply stating the facts. He sat there on the table in the officer's quarters next to the bare wooden walls smoking a cigarette and talking about his mother's death, her suicide as if it meant nothing to him.
But then Myron turned towards Zeke, and captured his eyes. And in that one instant, Zeke caught a glimpse into the window of Goldman's soul. He saw the whispery shadows of darkness, the memories that haunted him. The aching grief that left the young man in front of him tormented and suffering over an event that forever changed his life.
His heart still racing, Zeke searched for something to say. But there were no words…
Thursday, January 6, 1968, 1947 hours
Zeke offered up a brief prayer that this time, he would find the right words.
Goldman had yet to acknowledge Anderson's presence. Zeke knew this, knew that though the lieutenant might be physically here in front of him, in reality he was miles away. Zeke found himself dealing with an intense desire to reach out to his friend and pull him back from whatever place it was the lieutenant now inhabited. He laid his rifle down and crouched near the younger man, gently placing his hand on Goldman's shoulder.
"LT?" Zeke said quietly. "C'mon, now, LT, you wanna tell me what's goin' on here?"
Myron dragged his gaze to meet Anderson's concern. He pulled his arm away from the other man's grasp, tapping onto the floor the ash of his cigarette before raising it to his lips. He inhaled slowly, the seconds creeping by as he held off answering the platoon sergeant.
"Nothin', Sergeant. Not a damn thing," he finally responded.
Anderson could smell the whiskey on Goldman's breath, could hear the slight slur in his speech. But the lieutenant's eyes, though haunted, were clear. Instinct told Zeke that his CO was not as drunk as he could be. Probably not as drunk as the young man would like to be.
Zeke moved the blanket out of his way and shifted his position so that he was facing the LT. It was then that he noticed that the lieutenant's right hand was clenched loosely around his service revolver. A chill ran up the staff sergeant's spine as he saw with sudden clarity exactly what he had just walked in on. The unknown anxiety that had been hanging in the back of his thoughts for days had just been identified. It had a name.
Its name was loss.
From the moment Goldman had set foot in Vietnam, Zeke had invested so much in him, spent so much time teaching him the ropes, helping him survive, trying to keep him from going over the edge. He wanted nothing more than to be able to protect the lieutenant from the hell that surrounded them both. Their growing friendship was the one thing Zeke counted on himself for sanity, in a place where you could count on nothing.
Anderson knew that today he had almost lost that, not by an unknown VC or NVA soldier, but by the lieutenant's own hand.
In a world full of losses, this was one Zeke didn't think he could recover from.
"What's with the gun, LT?" Zeke asked softly, the tension he felt obvious in his voice.
Goldman lifted the revolver into the air and turned it over in his hand, examining it. "It's a war, Sergeant. Guns are everywhere. Or maybe you haven't noticed?" he asked bitterly.
"Yes, Sir, I know it's a war. But I'm bettin' that you ain't plannin' on usin' that weapon on any VC tonight, are ya?"
Myron's weary gaze shifted away from Zeke as if he was unable to face the intensity and concern he saw in the other man's eyes. "What if I'm not?" he mumbled, almost to himself. "Don't mean nothing…"
"THE HELL IT DON'T!" Zeke moved so suddenly that he caught the lieutenant completely unprepared. He wrenched the gun from Myron's grasp, removing the clip and flinging the gun across the officer's quarters where it hit the canvas wall of the tent and dropped to the dirt floor, coming to a clattering rest.
"IT MEANS SOMETHIN' TO ME!" he yelled in anger, his breathing labored. He stood across from Goldman in the small, darkened tent, every muscle in his body screaming with rage. Time stood still as he looked down at the younger man and struggled visibly with his effort to regain control.
He inhaled deeply, releasing his clenched fists as if by doing so he could release his fury. "It means somethin' to me," he repeated in a voice that was barely contained.
Goldman felt his own fury grow as he shakily raised himself to his full height and stared at the sergeant. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing, Anderson?" he asked, using his hand to shove Zeke backwards. "Who the hell are you to come in here and mess with me like that? You just qualified yourself for an Article 90, you know that? I could ship you off to Long Binh faster than you knew what hit you," he yelled, feeling as if a dam inside him had burst, and nothing but anger and rage were there to spill forth.
He took a breath, preparing to continue his verbal assault, when he noticed that Anderson was beginning to smile. The smile caught him off-guard in much the same way the sergeant had done a moment earlier with the gun, and the lieutenant felt his fury draining.
"Did you hear me, Anderson? I said I could court-martial you in a heart beat," Goldman asked in a quieter tone.
"I heard ya, Sir," Zeke answered. "Do it. Just go ahead 'n do it. I'd rather have you fightin' with me than not fightin' at all…"
The two men faced each other silently, Goldman struggling with uncertainty. He knew. HE KNEW! How the hell could he know? When did he figure out I'd stopped fighting? Stopped trying? Stopped caring? I hadn't even figured it out yet…
How is it that this man knows me better than I know myself?
Zeke watched his CO's face as the younger man wrestled with his thoughts. His own were in turmoil, and he knew they were far from being out of the woods yet. He desperately searched for a way to bring the lieutenant out of the despair he'd fallen into, to help his friend weather this storm. And he watched wordlessly as Goldman sank onto the cot next to him and sat down, leaning over with his head in his hands.
"Oh, God, Zeke. I don't think I can do this anymore. I thought it was supposed to get easier as time went by, but I don't understand it any better now than I did then. Some days I just don't know what to do…"
Zeke could hear the anguish in Goldman's voice, and lowered himself to sit next to him on the foot of the rack. "It was your momma, Sir, wasn't it? She was the one you couldn't save." His voice was quiet, almost soothing.
Myron ran his fingers across his forehead, pressing them into his temples before dropping his hands and turning his head sideways to look at the sergeant.
"How did you know?" he asked in a voice that was barely audible.
"I didn't. Not for sure, anyway. Just kinda put two 'n two together," Zeke answered.
The two men sat in silence as a gentle breeze began to push back the stifling heat. Myron could hear in the background the voices of the men as they made their way back from the mess tent. The noise served as a gentle reminder that outside the walls of this tent, the war continued on.
"I was sitting here tonight, trying to chase away the demons," Myron stated softly. "But sometimes, the demons, they just don't want to leave, you know?"
Zeke digested this statement thoughtfully. He knew in his heart the only chance his lieutenant had of dealing with this sorrow was to share the burden, and he'd do just about anything to keep him talking. Ever so gently, he pushed the conversation ahead. "How long has it been, LT?"
Myron drew a shaky breath and reached for another cigarette, lighting it with hands that noticeably trembled. He inhaled deeply as he snapped the lid shut on his lighter and tossed it back onto the footlocker. "Six years," he replied, blowing the smoke through his lips in a steady stream. "Six years to the day."
Today? Zeke thought; things finally beginning to make sense. Damn. No wonder the poor boy has been walking on the edge.
"Some days, most days I think I'm doing okay with it…other times, especially days like today…I don't know. It just eats at me and I can't think of anything else…I mean, I knew she was lonely--God, she was so lonely…I tried to be there for her, but it wasn't enough. I wasn't enough."
Anderson could hear the torment of the young boy Goldman had once been in his shaky voice. He watched in quiet sympathy as the lieutenant sat there with his elbows resting on his knees, and silently willed the younger man to continue.
"Sometimes, I can almost understand why she did it. When I was younger, I used to think about it all the time. You know. Doing it myself. Came close a few times, especially right after she died. A part of me just wanted to escape, I think, from all the pain. But another part of me wanted to do it just to punish my father. It would serve him right…."
He brought his hands together, holding the cigarette carefully between them. "Now, here in this place, surrounded by nothing but death…" his voice trailed off.
Goldman raised his head slightly and stared at nothing. His voice continued to grow quieter, until Zeke was nearly straining to hear him. "I sat here today, trying to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. I guess my father was right about me screwing everything up. Cuz I couldn't even manage that."
Zeke shifted on the cot so that he could see into the lieutenant's eyes. His own heart recoiled from the suffering he heard in the LT's shaky voice, and he was driven by a need to help the young man understand the one thing he had missed.
"LT, I'm, I'm no expert here. I mean, I didn't know your momma, ya know? I don't know what kind of hurt she found herself in to make her think that killin' herself and leavin' you alone was the only answer." He paused, wanting so much to get his thoughts across to his friend in a way that made sense.
"I do know your momma's only son. I know he's a good man, a good officer…and a good friend. I've seen him lay his life on the line for his men over 'n over. And I've seen him continue to fight even when the odds 'r stacked way against him."
"Seems to me your momma musta been a special lady to raise a son like that. Killin' yourself, that's the easy part, ya know? It's living day to day in this hellhole and survivin' that takes real courage. You ain't never been one to take the easy way out, LT. You don't wanna start now. I figure your momma taught you better'n that."
Zeke watched in silent pain as a single tear traced a path down the lieutenant's cheek.
"It hurts." Myron's voice was tortured as the admission was torn from his wounded soul.
"I know, LT, I know. But sometimes, maybe hurtin' is better than not feelin' anything at all. At least it lets you know you're alive." Zeke gently clapped his hand on Goldman's shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze. "You're a survivor, LT. Don't ever forget that. Just take it one step at a time. And when ya think you can't make it, take a look around. I'll be there. That's a promise."
Through the haze of his pain and confusion, Goldman knew in that moment what a rare and precious gift he'd been given the day he met Zeke Anderson.
As he sat there in the dim light, Myron was suddenly overcome with the exhaustion of the emotionally drained, a soul-stealing weariness that came from within and left him feeling completely leaden, unable to function. Zeke felt this rather than saw it, and he made a move to lift himself off of the cot.
The lieutenant, noticing his action, straightened up and ran a hand through his hair. Struggling to regain his emotional balance, he fell back on the only defense that came naturally to him and let the officer within take over. "It's getting late, Sergeant. Why don't you head on out and get some sleep?"
"No, Sir. You go ahead—sleep—I know ya need it. But if it's all the same to you, LT, I think I'll just sit here a spell."
"Zeke," Myron hesitated, "you don't need to do that."
"I know I don't, LT." He gave Goldman his lopsided grin. "But I'll be here anyway. Cuz ya never know when ya might need a friend." He reached down and picked up the lieutenant's weapon and walked over to the table the officer used as a desk. Anderson grabbed one of the chairs there, turning it backwards and straddling it comfortably, and without conscious thought he began stripping the weapon down to clean it.
Myron crushed out his cigarette, not even bothering to remove his boots. He lowered his weary body to the rack and pulled his legs up onto the cot, grasping the pillow and hugging it to him. His eyelids became increasingly heavy, and he knew the blissful escape of sleep was only minutes away.
Tonight, for the first time since his mother died, he didn't fear the darkness, or the evil he'd always known was there within.
Because this night, he knew he was not alone.