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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Daddy? Dad?

It was 2 AM in the morning and a harsh Arkansas thunderstorm rolled in with all its fanfare. I should have been asleep but I just laid in the bed wide awake next to my wife who was not having anything to do with my insomnia. Through the blinds, flashes of light danced on the walls and the rolling sound of thunder ricocheted through the sky. I was alone with my thoughts.

A very strong lightning bolt, lite the room for just a second, when I noticed a small silhouette standing at the bedroom door. Daddy? Dad? “Come on little guy”, and with the scurry of little feet my son jumped into the bed and snuggled in. My son was only five years old. The storm had scarred him and safe in his Dad’s arms he soon went to sleep. However, for me, the night had only begun. Though I was with two people I loved more than anything else in the world, I was alone. The memories would not leave me. I couldn't shake the memories, no matter how I tried.

My mind wandered back to December, 1967 on the Cambodian border near the Parrot's Beak. My unit came upon a small village with only a few houses. Surrounding the village were those perfectly manicured rice paddies maintained by villagers from the same family down through the centuries. A tourist agency could have taken a picture of the scene and made a postcard of the image. It was so beautiful.

In a clump of bushes, the troops came upon a small pipe protruding out of the ground, indicating an underground bunker. The Vietcong used the pipes in order to get air into their bunkers and tunnels. American Infantry couldn't find an entrance anywhere so they began to dig out the area near the pipe and sure enough, they broke through to an underground room.

I was the Platoons "Tunnel Rat" which meant that I would have to drop into the unknown darkness below and search around for whatever was there. I took off my gear, put on my gas mask, pulled out my flashlight and checked my 38 Police Special which I carried for such moments. Other members of the Platoon popped a couple tear gas grenades, threw them into the hole and after about 30 seconds, I dropped in the hole landing on my knees in the darkness.

With my flashlight, I noticed I was not alone. A small man was leaned up against the wall and he was choking and gagging from the tear gas. He wore only a pair of shorts. In a moment of panic, and in truth, just to see what it was like, I fired two shots into the gagging man. The man's eyes said told me he was very surprised. It's the eyes you remember the most.

The man died not more than five feet from me. It was not necessary to kill him. He was unarmed and helpless. The knowledge of knowing I didn't have to kill him, has haunted me every day for fifty years. I have no excuse. I may rot in Hell one day. It would be easier if there was no God. I would have less fear as I approach my end days. In my heart, I feel as though I will be confronted for what i had done. I will not have an excuse.

Afraid and already feeling guilt for what I had done, I climbed out of the hole and told everyone around what had happened. They all congratulated me but I was feeling no pride. I began to get sick with the thought of what had just transpired. There was no honor in what I had done.

Another member of the Platoon went back into the hole, tied a rope around the dead mans feet, and soon they dragged his body out and laid him on the ground for inspection. They all patted him on the back and praised him but he wasn't feeling their joy. He was beginning to shake.

In a little while a very small women ran out of the house screaming and crying. She dropped down on her knees over the dead man. She began to babble and talk and in between her moans she told a “Kit Carson” (interpreter) how he was only a farmer. The South Vietnamese were in the area kidnapping local men to serve in their army. He was hiding from them because he didn't want to leave his family. He wanted to care for his crop.

She looked up at him and in a scornful voice, a pointed finger and tears running down her face, she told him what she thought of of the kid who had just killed her husband. He didn't need to understand the language. The message was clear. The look in her eyes would stay with him for all his remaining years. Her eyes were so vivid in his memory, that stormy night in Arkansas.

Then he felt something hitting his leg and when he turned around and looked down a small boy was crying and hitting his leg. The boy was about five years and was hitting the leg of the man that had just killed his father. It is this memory that haunted him a thousand times. The wife and child's anguish lingered as the lightning bolts illuminated the bedroom walls. He had to get up as he had done many times before.

He wandered into the hallway and as usual, he was alone. Only his memories kept him company. That was the burden he had to bear. No one understood. No one cared and if they did, words cannot express the meaning of the experience. He had to carry the memory all alone.

He paced around back and forth, hanging his head and feeling so ashamed. He knew the little boy back in Vietnam would never be able to run to his father for comfort. He killed the comfort a little boy would need when storms filled the sky.

In the hallway, alone, he paced and paced. The storm outside was getting worse. One could hear the trees swaying in the wind and lightning bolts were erupting filling the room with light. Soon he heard a small voice coming from the bedroom. Daddy? Dad? Was it the voice of his son or was it the voice of a child far away and long ago. In his dreams, he was unable to tell. Sometimes, awake, he didn't know either.
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