Echoes of War
Some people thought that the biggest advantage to being a teacher was summer vacation, but Rosemary Thomas didn't agree with them. She loved teaching and learning, and on a day like today, the last day of the school year, she felt, with a wistful mixture of sadness and excitement that something important was coming to a close and something unknown but full of potential was about to begin.
She paced to the row of open windows at the back of her classroom. Her high school seniors were sweating from the heat of a June day in Kansas and from the stress of their final exam in calculus. She walked back toward the front of the room, looking over her students' shoulders as they worked. Her fans, brought from home, droned as they oscillated, moving the air but not cooling it.
"Mrs. T?" Mark Warren's pudgy face was wet with perspiration. His eyes were tragic with martyrdom and accusation. "Why is it so hot in here? The least they could do is air condition this old building. They should send us home on days like this."
Kevin Larson looked scornfully across the room at his classmate. "Maybe you should join the Army like my brother did. He's in Iraq right now, and the real temperature is a hundred and twenty degrees."
Rosemary was tall and willowy with thick red hair just beginning to fade as threads of silver became more obvious. Her students joked that they were giving her gray hair, and it might be true, especially in the case of Kevin's brother and others who were in the military. She worried about them because she knew too well what could happen.
Two years ago Kevin's brother had been one of her students and had been sitting where his brother sat now. When he told her that he was joining the Army, he explained, "It's the only way I know to strike back at the terrorists who attacked us on September 11. That day I realized how much I love this country."
Then this spring Kevin started talking about following in his brother's footsteps by joining the military after graduation. Rosemary asked him what his parents thought. "I don't think they're in favor of it. To tell the truth, I don't think they could take it right now. I'm going to have to wait until my brother at least gets back into the states."
Since Kevin's remark about the heat in Iraq, several of her students had paused in their work and were gazing pensively into space. "Come on, everyone," she said. "Get back to work. This is the last test for the year. We can make it."
For the final day of the school year, she had worn her trusty, lightweight, blue suit. It usually kept her cool, but by noon, she had shed the jacket, and her sleeveless blouse was sticking to her back. She gazed over the heads of her students through the open windows to the sun-baked scene outside. The bright sun reflected sharply off the cars in the parking lot, hurting her eyes. The minutes crawled by.
The bell rang. Students began pouring out of their classrooms. Some were cheering in the halls. Rosemary's students finished their work and handed in their papers as they filed out.
"Don't flunk me, please Mrs. T."
"Have a good summer, everyone. Best of luck next year."
As the last student left, Megan Riley, a graduate from a year ago, came through the door in her Army uniform.
Rosemary smiled to see her. She looked cool and competent in her khaki slacks and shirt. She wore her hat at a distinctive angle and looked, to Rosemary, both confident and vulnerable.
"Megan, welcome back to calculus class!"
"How are you doing, Mrs. T? I just wanted to stop by to say hello. I'm home on leave right now."
"I'm glad to see you. You look great. That uniform really suits you."
"Thanks. You look good too. I remember that suit. I always liked it. It emphasizes your blue eyes."
"How nice! Thank you. How long will you be home?"
"I've got five more days. Then we're off to Iraq."
When Rosemary first learned that Megan had joined the Army, she sincerely wished that she had known about it in time to try to talk her out of it. She longed to ask her why she had joined.
"I just wanted to stop in and tell you how much I always got out of your classes. What you taught helped me score well on the tests the Army gave us. Got me a good rating and a good duty. My life in Iraq will be better, thanks to you."
Megan had not always been the easiest student to get along with in class. She was bright and expected A's. When Rosemary gave her a B for her last semester in calculus, Megan had protested bitterly and tried to get Rosemary to change the grade. It had been especially tough for Rosemary to be firm because Megan was a friend of her daughter, June, and spent hours at their home. She often joined them for meals, and Rosemary suspected that not only was she a friend to June, but she might have had a "crush" on Rosemary's son, Mike.
Rosemary felt that she and Megan had ended that last semester of calculus on a sour note. She hadn't seen much of her since graduation. June and Mike were both away at school, so Megan hadn't been around to visit them. Then she had enlisted and gone off for training. Megan's tribute now to her teaching, and the timing of it, touched Rosemary deeply.
"You deserve the credit, not me. You have plenty of brains, and you're a hard worker."
"I couldn't have done it without you. I'll get good training in the Army and funds for college later."
Maybe that was the deciding factor, money for college. It seemed ironic to Rosemary that she might have encouraged Megan to develop skills that she would be risking her life to use. That wasn't what she had in mind when she faced her classes every day. Was she helping people learn only so that they could go to war?
When Rosemary started to college in the sixties, she and many of her classmates had been full of idealism and hope for the future. She remembered one of her education professors who used to say, "If I can just do my job without doing any harm or hurting anyone, I will be happy." But Rosemary wasn't willing to settle for that. She wanted to make the world a better place. She believed that she could do something through her teaching to make a difference in the world.
Then, when she and her childhood sweetheart, Robert, were
sophomores in college, his grade point average dropped, and he
was drafted. After boot camp, he went straight to Vietnam. He
wrote letters to her all during his tour of duty, including the
two times when he was in the hospital recuperating from wounds.
He always tried to be upbeat, but even the things he tried to
describe as funny filled her with dread.
"Dear Rosemary: I love you honey. I'm in Tokyo right now - I'm okay - but I'm in the hospital. I got a couple of small ouchies in our last get-together with the little men in black pajamas. Ha, Ha! We were out on ambush and somebody got twitchy and fired too soon, so the Cong knew where we were and wanted to party before we were ready. At least I'll be out of action for awhile so you and my mom and dad won't have to worry about me. I'm not hurt enough to get sent home. Too bad!"
After that letter, Rosemary wanted to join the anti-war demonstrations that were rampant on campus. But she didn't because of the fear that it might hurt Robert. Instead, each week she sent him boxes of cookies with letters and love notes tucked inside.
Today, looking at Megan in her uniform, she wondered about finding a demonstration against the war in Iraq. That would set the town's patriotic mainstream on its ear! She wasn't even sure of what she thought about this war. The one thing she was sure of was that she didn't want her students or anyone else dying in the desert.
Megan was continuing the conversation. "What will you be doing this summer? Do you have any classes to take?"
"A couple of short workshop classes. The rest of the time I'll be at home. We hope to spend quite a bit of time with Mike and June."
Their daughter, June, was finishing her first year in the pre-veterinary program at Kansas State University. Mike would be a senior in pre-medicine at Kansas University. He had been a sophomore on September 11, 200l. At the time, he wanted to join the military with several of his classmates, but Rosemary and Robert talked him out of it. They were sure that if they hadn't, he would be in Iraq right now.
Megan's face looked wistful. "Tell them both hello for me, will you Mrs. T.? And Mr. T. too."
"I will. They'll want to know what you're doing. Do you have your address with you? We'd like to keep in touch."
Megan grinned and pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Rosemary. "I'd love to hear from you."
"Count on it. We'll all be thinking about you and praying for your safety."
"I'll be thinking about everyone back here too. You have a good summer and a good school year next year. I'll come and see you when I get back." She reached for Rosemary, and they hugged a little bit awkwardly. Then Megan was gone.
Rosemary gathered up the exams and put them in her briefcase. Her hands were shaking. Tears stung her eyes. A feeling of angry helplessness gripped her heart. She walked briskly out of the building to her car, barely conscious of the hot wind that swept through the parking lot.
Inside the car, the air was too hot to breathe. The steering wheel burned her hands. She started the car. The air conditioner and radio came on as she backed out of her parking space. She took a deep breath as the air in the car began to cool. It was news time, and she caught the end of a report on the latest casualties in Iraq. She switched off the radio and headed downtown. With both of the kids coming home from college tomorrow, Rosemary wanted to stock up on their favorite things.
As she turned into the grocery store parking lot, she saw the billboard she had noticed on several earlier trips: Don't be scared, be prepared!
Rosemary smiled wryly to herself. The message was appealing. She had no desire to be scared, but she wondered just how anyone could be prepared. She also wondered who was paying for the billboard. Could it be related to the government's office of Homeland Security?
Inside, she wheeled her cart from aisle to aisle and allowed her worries about her students and the troubled world to slip away. The thought of the weekend with the kids and no classes on Monday made her smile to herself as she piled the cart with goodies.
The man behind her in the checkout line had his cart loaded with canned goods and bottled water. The woman ahead of her was talking to the checker as she unloaded her cart.
"Well, I saw the sign, and I don't know what it means either. There's an e-mail address at the bottom of the billboard. I'm tempted to click on it just to find out what it's all about."
Rosemary joined the conversation. "Are you talking about the Don't be scared, be prepared billboard?"
"Yes. That's the one. I'm sure it has to do with some kind of anti-terrorism effort."
"I can tell you about it, ladies." It was the man with the canned goods. He wore military style khaki pants, army surplus boots and a blue work shirt with the sleeves cut out. His muscular arms were decorated with vivid tattoos, including one of a bright green snake coiled to strike.
"What's it all about, then?" The checker and everyone else within earshot were listening now.
"There's an organization that is trying to help people get prepared, and I belong to it."
A man at the next counter, Harvey Stroud, turned toward the speaker. Rosemary knew him from school board meetings where he was blunt and outspoken. "Are you one of those survivalists holed up out at the old Meeks farm?"
"We don't call ourselves survivalists, sir."
"Well, paramilitary then."
"None of the above. We're a hundred percent Americans. We call ourselves the Rural Activists Against Terrorism, and we're looking for members and supporters, men and women who want to make our homeland safer." His eyes, behind gold-rimmed glasses, were pale blue, and one of them twitched perceptibly as he searched the faces around him for a sign of support. His gaze rested on Rosemary.
She was familiar with the sensation of connecting with youthful strangers. Sometimes they were former students, but this one wasn't. She had noticed over the years that even without knowing that she was a teacher, certain young people seemed to expect her to understand and listen to them.
She could be standing in line at the movies. Other people her age would be looking darkly and uncomfortably at a noisy group of teenagers at the front of the line. Had they cut in? Were they going to be wild and disruptive when they got inside and the movie started? Inevitably one of the teens would notice her and start talking to her, even if they didn't know her from school. "Do you think this line is ever going to move? This movie is supposed to be good, isn't it? That's why the line is so long. It better be worth all this waiting in line. Are we being too rowdy? Don't pay any attention to us!"
One of Rosemary's professional assets had always been that, unlike a large part of the adult world, she was not uncomfortable around teenagers, but the young man in the grocery store made her nervous. She looked away.
Harvey Stroud commented dryly, "I suppose by supporters, you mean contributors."
"Not just that." The young man's tanned face flushed.
"Well, is your group pro-war or anti-war?"
"Neither! We're anti-terror, and you know that if we weren't fighting terrorists in Iraq, they would be right here attacking us in our streets. It may come to that anyway, and we want to be able to fight back!"
"It's a bunch of damn foolishness!"
"Not to us. If anyone's interested, here's some fliers that tell about us." He handed one to Rosemary and to anyone else who would take one. The flier was printed on cheap paper and was computer generated. It featured graphics of the American Flag, exploding fireworks, and the slogan, "Don't be scared, be prepared." The text was rambling and lengthy Rosemary skimmed it quickly. It included a list of items that people should have on hand in a survival kit. Weapons and ammunition were on the list with recommendations of what to buy for people who didn't already own firearms. She kept an emergency kit at the farm in case of a tornado or other natural disaster which might cut them off from civilization for awhile, but there wasn't a gun on the place.
She started to lay the paper on the counter but decided to take it home and show it to Robert. She slipped the flier into the grocery bag, which the checker was filling for her. The young man behind her nodded approvingly. "Thank you for your interest, ma'am. Just give us a call if you need anything. Or go on line to our e-mail address."
Rosemary paid and hurried outside with her purchases. She didn't want anyone to think she was interested, least of all the young man. Leaving the air-conditioned store behind, she stepped into the intense late afternoon heat. The pavement scorched the soles of her feet through her shoes. She squinted against the brightness.
The road home passed through patches of hot, treeless spaces lined with wheat fields. Shimmering waves of heat rose off the blacktop. As she neared home, she drove through tree shaded stretches that seemed dark and cool. In the distance Rosemary could see the farm nestled in green, promising a refuge from the heat. Robert's car was in the driveway.
She turned in and came to a stop at the mailbox. She noticed a pickup truck, painted camouflage style, passing the farm. It must have been following her. "It had to be that kid with the fliers," she thought as she drove on in. Robert came out to help her unload the groceries. He was a stocky man, still in good physical condition, and he carried the bags with ease. He wore a baseball cap to cover his thinning hair.
"Did you see that pickup truck go by when I pulled in?"
"No I didn't. Was there a problem with it?"
"I'm not sure. There was a guy at the grocery store handing out fliers and talking about some group he belongs to." She showed Robert the flier.
"I've heard about these guys. They spend their time stockpiling supplies and weapons. Some of them are ex-military guys. They want to be ready for guerilla warfare or a nuclear attack or something."
"Well, Harvey Stroud was in the store. He says they're living out at the Meeks farm. He said it was a bunch of foolishness. Damn foolishness, in fact, is what he said."
"I've heard that one of them is related to Homer Meeks." Robert was reading the flier quickly.
"I think that guy at the grocery store was following me to see where I live. When I took this flier from him, I think it gave him the idea I might want to join his group or donate money or something."
"What kind of truck was it?"
"It was a pickup painted like camouflage."
"He might just be on his way home, but this would be a roundabout way to get to the Meeks farm. Let me know if you see him around again." Robert looked worried, but a minute later he was smiling as he unpacked three different flavors of ice cream from the grocery bags.
After they put everything away, he poured them a glass of iced tea, and they went out to the screened porch. There was almost always a breeze on the farm, and this time of day it seemed refreshingly cool. Robert sighed and smiled at her as they sat on the porch swing. "There's no better place to be at the end of the day than right here. Especially with the kids coming home for the weekend."
Rosemary lived for moments like this. It was a relief to disconnect from work and world events. Too much of the time lately the news of terrorism and American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan took both of them back to the days of the Vietnam War.
At the end of his tour of duty, Rosemary had wondered if Robert could recover from his physical and emotional wounds. Now, years later, she believed that he had made it back from Vietnam in pretty good shape. She knew of others who had not been so lucky. She saw them downtown sometimes. Two or three Vietnam Veterans had come home to Kansas only to wind up homeless and alone. Some of them tried to drown bad memories in alcohol or drugs. One man rolled all over town in his wheelchair, talking to himself and occasionally frightening people.
But Robert left the jungle behind him and returned to the small Kansas town with its rolling fields of wheat that rustled and whispered in the wind. He tamed his memories of dense trees and vines and sweat and fear. He and Rosemary were married. They had two children, Mike and June.
When he first got home from his tour of duty, he decided to finish college. "I think I'll be a high school math teacher like you."
But when he encountered teenagers during his student teaching, he told Rosemary that they scared him.
"What do you mean, they scare you?"
"They're mouthy and rude. I'm afraid I'll hurt one of them."
"I don't know. I'm not gentle or idealistic like you."
"You're more idealistic and gentle than I've ever been!"
Robert shook his head sadly, "Not anymore."
Rosemary knew that at times a killing rage boiled up within her husband, and he subdued it with difficulty. It could be a simple thing that would set it off: a car cutting in front of him in traffic, a bill that he wasn't expecting, a waitress who accidentally seated someone else ahead of him in a restaurant. He never directed his anger against her, and he learned to control it before the kids were born, but Rosemary knew the anger and pain were still there. She had developed the habit of being careful around him. She tried to shield him from irritating situations or things that might evoke a bad memory in him. Sometimes, at first, the effort was almost too much for her, but eventually it got easier.
He got his degree but stayed away from teaching. Then he fell into a job manufacturing ambulances. Rosemary worried that he was underemployed. "It's an assembly line job. Won't you get bored doing the same thing over and over?"
"Not if it's a good thing. And this job is putting ambulances together. I'll be turning out shiny, magnificent mobile lifesaving machines."
Over the years, Rosemary kept teaching high school math, and Robert kept working at the ambulance factory. He moved around from department to department and shift to shift until eventually he gained an in depth knowledge of the entire process of building and equipping ambulances.
His masterpieces were shipped all over the country. From time to time he would recognize one of his company's products on the road. Everyone in the family learned that any kind of ambulance memorabilia or book about ambulances would make his brown eyes light up and soften the lines on his forehead. He and Rosemary collected articles, made scrapbooks and kept files.
Robert built a long shelf above the windows in the sunroom, and it was filled with models of his company's ambulances. He also had a collection of framed photos of early ambulances, including those that were horse-drawn. He had a drawer full of awards and certificates of achievement that his company had awarded him over the years for his enthusiastic work at his job, but he refused to display them in the same way that he refused to display his medals from the Vietnam War.
Often he hummed and whistled as they worked over his projects.
"I love ambulances," he said.
"I bless the day you found them," said Rosemary. "You're my ambulance man!"
After supper, they went for a walk. Even though the weather had been unusually hot for early June, there had been plenty of rain, and the farm looked lush and green. Trees with their summer leaves nodded gracefully all around the brick farmhouse. Masses of daisies bloomed just beyond the clothesline. Orchid throated iris and tangerine daylilies lined the gravel driveway. Golden acres of wheat stretched away over sloping hills. Rosemary inhaled luxuriously all the scents of the earth and growing things.
They walked the path that led around the perimeter of their farm. They didn't farm the land themselves. They rented it out to a neighbor, but they had flower and vegetable gardens. The beans and tomatoes were coming along nicely. Rows of zinnias, marigolds and larkspur were flourishing in the back border. Rosemary and Robert bent to pull a few stray weeds. "How come weeds always pop up so fast?" Robert wondered. "They never seem to have a small stage like corn or peas."
"I know. One day the garden is clean, and the next day, boom, with no warning there are big old weeds all over the place."
They both turned to watch as a pickup truck turned into their driveway.
"That's the truck I was telling you about," Rosemary said.
Robert's face flushed with anger. "Well of all the nerve! I'll just put a stop to this right now. You stay here." He started walking forcefully toward the truck. Rosemary caught up with him and grabbed his arm.
"No, Robert, no! He might have a gun or something."
Rosemary could see the driver looking intently around their property. Then he turned their way and saw them. Rosemary got a good look at him and recognized his pale eyes and his short blonde haircut. He backed out quickly and drove off.
"I'd say he looked kind of scared," Robert said as the truck sped away.
"I guess he didn't expect to see a big tough guy like you heading in his direction."
"I guess not." Robert grinned.
"I wish I hadn't taken that flier."
"Don't you want to be prepared?" Robert joked as they walked back to the house.
"I think I'll get prepared for the kids getting home by marinating the steaks before we go to bed. Want to help?"
"Oh boy, the prodigal kids are coming home. I guess that means I'll be getting some good food."
"You always get good food."
"Yeah, but not as good as I get when the kids are home from college."
They worked around the kitchen until bedtime. As Rosemary turned back the covers and slid into bed, the long day in the hot high school building caught up with her. She wanted to tell Robert about Megan Riley's visit, but she knew he'd be as upset as she was. Instead, she asked him about his day at work and fell asleep as he was telling her about it. Sometime after midnight, she woke up. "What woke me up?" she wondered silently.
Had she heard something? The pickup truck? Footsteps on the porch? Or was it only the moonlight angling into the open bedroom window and into her eyes? The cool night breeze caressed her bare skin. The sheer curtains billowed silently. She stretched, turned on her side towards her husband and away from the moon, and snuggled cozily into the pillow.
Then she slipped into a dream she had started having years ago when Robert was in Vietnam.
He was in the middle of a nighttime ambush gone wrong. At first he and his platoon were stalking through the wet green mists of the jungle floor. Above him, the haze ended at the treetops, and the sky was clear. The golden moon was sailing through the night, oblivious to the danger below. Rosemary became aware of an insistent drumming sound like the distant repetitious impact of mortar fire.
They were moving into place around the enemy position. Then in a moment, the ambushers were ambushed. Enemy fire exploded out of the fog all around them.
She could see him crouching among the jungle reeds. He was his young self, lean and muscular. Flares and artillery flashed, lighting his face, tight with fear, eyes wide open, pupils dilated, looking for the source of the gunfire as his buddies went down around him. His lips curled back from his teeth in a snarl of rage.
Suddenly, shining out of the darkness, through the streaming vines, his eyes locked onto the startled eyes of one of the Vietcong gunners. Their gazes held for a moment. Then Robert leaped to his feet and charged. He hurtled toward the surprised enemy. Silhouetted against an orange glow, he flew into a tangle of gunfire and twisted tendrils of vegetation.
There was a sense of motion and impact. The pounding noise was loud now. The shooting stopped, and dead or dying enemies were all around him. Robert left them and ran crouching to his friends. He called their names as he moved from one to the other until he found someone breathing.
"Bernie, Bernie, hang on buddy. It's Robert. I'm going to get you out of here!"
She saw him try to lift Bernie. She saw the wounded Vietcong rise to his knees out of the foliage and take aim. She tried to scream a warning to Robert, but she was paralyzed. Then she saw him jerk violently as the dying enemy's bullets hit home.
Rosemary jolted awake in the dark bedroom. The moon had gone. Her heart was pounding. There was a roaring sound in her ears. "Why couldn't I warn him? I could see what was happening. Why couldn't I do something?"
Beside her, Robert, though asleep, reached for her hand. "It was just a dream," she told herself. "Vietnam is over. Robert is here. We're safe." Eventually she slipped gratefully into dreamless sleep.
When she woke up later, she heard her favorite sounds - those morning sounds that told her the dark night had passed and she and Robert were still alive, here on their farm in Kansas. A cardinal and his wife sang in the lilac bush outside the window.
She could hear Robert in the shower and smelled the coffee he always started as soon as he got up. He came out of the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist. The scars from his war wounds had faded only slightly with the years. His upper right thigh, his calves, his chest just above the right nipple, his waist above the towel, and his back below the towel were all deeply marked, indented and puckered. Two of the wounds had been minor souvenirs from early battles during his tour of duty. Most of them had been acquired in the same action that had earned him a Bronze Star.
He leaned over to kiss her. "Good morning, sweetheart," he said. There were crinkly laugh lines around his brown eyes, curiously at odds with the deep worry lines in his forehead. She kissed him back and touched the damp fringe of hair on his nearly bald head. He laughed ruefully. "Yep, honey, I washed more of my hair down the shower drain this morning. Pretty soon it will be all gone. I'll look like an old man. People will think you're my daughter. How is my pretty girl this morning? Did you get enough sleep?"
"I think so."
"You were having that nightmare again, weren't you?"
"Yes. It's funny that you were in the war, and I'm the one who still dreams about it. Did I wake you up?"
"No, I was dreaming about the new ambulance we're designing for the Army. It was a happy dream. But you were thrashing around and moaning."
Her nightmares weren't always the same. In one variation she dreamed she was a Vietnamese mother trying to find her children during a bombing attack. Sometimes she was the medic who found Robert bleeding in the mud. Sometimes she was Robert bouncing along on a stretcher looking up at the sky that should have been blue, but it wasn't. Above the rotting green jungle, the sky was purplish, disfigured, smoke blackened, looming over everything like a giant bruise.
Rosemary shook her head to clear it. "I need coffee."
"I'll bring you a cup right here."
"No, let's go to the kitchen. I'm hungry."
The kitchen was painted a sunny yellow with sky blue cupboards. Robert had taken off the old cupboard doors and carefully sanded each one before he coated them with multiple layers of Rosemary's favorite color. White trim, an herbal ceiling border, and windows full of green plants made their kitchen the cheeriest room in the house.
Robert started the toast while Rosemary turned on the small television set on the kitchen counter. The news report was in full swing. Overnight, another American soldier had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. A suicide bomber had blown up an Iraqi police station killing dozens of the Iraqis who were trying to provide stability in their country. Rosemary's eyes grew dark with worry. "When are things going to start getting better over there?"
Robert sat two cups of coffee on the kitchen table and buttered the toast. "I don't know what to think. No wonder you're having nightmares."
They sipped their coffee and munched toast, eyes on the screen. Robert stood up and began pacing from one end of the kitchen to the other. He paused to scoop out a handful of his wife's chocolate chip cookies from the cookie jar. He munched them distractedly as he turned back to the television. "Maybe we should make a rule that on Saturday morning, we only watch cartoons." He shifted anxiously from one foot to the other as he concentrated on the reporter.
Rosemary watched Robert. "Cartoons might be a good idea for every day." His pacing accelerated. He was still eating one cookie after another.
"Cookies for breakfast?" Rosemary asked with a smile.
"Sure. You've got your flour, your fresh eggs - all that good stuff." He switched off the TV. "Best of all, they're homemade by loving hands." He lifted Rosemary's hands and kissed each one.
The day passed with the sweet anticipation of the kids getting home. Rosemary worked on grading her students' tests and filling out grade reports to be turned in to the office on Monday. Robert went out to mow the grass. After awhile, she heard the mower stop. She jumped up and rushed outside just as June drove into the driveway.
Rosemary knew that she and her daughter looked alike, but June's eyes were a brighter, clearer blue, and her red hair had not had time to fade. She was lively and optimistic and had a way of brightening things up whenever she arrived.
As the three of them went into the house, Robert asked, "Any idea of when Mike is planning to get here? I thought he would get home before you."
June said, "Actually, I think he wanted me to get here first. He's got something to tell you. He wanted me to prepare you a little bit, but he's going to want to tell you about it himself."
"What's going on? Is it something good?" Rosemary asked.
"Look, he's not in trouble or anything."
Robert sat down quickly at the kitchen table. His face was pale. "Tell us, June."
"Come on, Dad, Mom. Mike will be here in a minute. You've got to let him tell you. You've got to give him a little time until he feels the moment is right to tell you. Promise me that we'll just have dinner and wait until he's ready."
"I don't know if I can," Rosemary said. A feeling of dread was gathering around her heart.
"Let's talk about other things until he gets here. Take our minds off everything."
They didn't have long to wait. Mike drove into the driveway, and Rosemary, Robert and June all hurried out to meet him. "Remember to wait," June warned.
Rosemary felt a wave of love at the sight of her son. He was tall and lanky with dark hair and serious brown eyes. The way he tilted his head and smiled into her eyes when he talked reminded her of Robert. When he hugged her, she didn't want to let him go.
"Is dinner ready?"
"It will be soon. Can we help you unload the car?"
"I didn't bring much with me. I've got to head back Monday."
"Is that your news?" Robert asked.
"Some of it." They waited for more, but it didn't come. Robert started the grill, and soon all four of them were bustling around getting dinner on the table.
Mike asked, "How is the end of the school year shaping up, Mom?"
"I think we're going to make it. My semester exams are all finished as of yesterday. I've already started on the grading."
"And the ambulance business?"
"It's great. We have a new contract with the military, and our designers have come up with an armored version that is going to be quite a lifesaver."
They chatted all through dinner scrupulously avoiding Mike's news. Later, Rosemary wouldn't remember eating at all. Robert dished up ice cream for dessert. Rosemary said, "It's so good to have you guys home." She turned to Mike. "Even if you do have to get right back."
"Well, I guess I'd better explain. June already knows, and she's here for moral support."
Robert passed around the ice cream bowls and sat down. "What? You're not flunking some class, are you? Are you going to summer school?"
"No, it's nothing like that. Things are right on track. I wish I could think of an easy way to say this. I know what both of you went through when dad was in Vietnam. But here it is. I've joined the Navy. I'm postponing my senior year until after I get out."
Rosemary and Robert sat very still. Robert's face was white and frozen. Rosemary imagined that hers was too. She wanted to take Robert's hand, but he was too far away. "But you're going to medical school after you graduate," she said.
"I'm still going, but I want to do this first. If I wait until after medical school, I'll be too old. It will be better for me to finish my senior year right before I go to medical school. And after my service, I'll have some education benefits to help me through medical school. I know you guys talked me out of this once, but I have to do it now." He turned earnestly to his dad. "You served in Vietnam, and your dad and mom's dad both went to Korea."
"But we were drafted! Is it because of Iraq?"
"It's not just Iraq or Afghanistan. I would want to serve even if we weren't at war right now."
"I went to Vietnam, but I didn't want to. I wasn't even sure that it was morally right to fight. I thought seriously about going to Canada. After the war, the way things were back here, all the stuff that came out, I felt betrayed."
"But you did your duty. You did more than your share. You were a hero! I don't expect to be a hero. I just want to do my part."
Robert's voice rose until he was almost shouting. "That was one year of my life a long time ago. I'm no hero. I'm an ambulance man!"
June stood up and put an arm around her father's shoulder. "We've always been so proud of you. And maybe Mike won't be in combat like you were. Remember what happened to Uncle Tony. He went in just two weeks after you did, and he missed Vietnam altogether. He decided to make a career out of the military. He was in the army for twenty years and never was in combat. He retired at age 42 and opened a hardware store."
"It's different now! I never wanted anyone in my family to go through what I went through. What I had to go through because I was drafted. I didn't have a choice. You do!"
"Have you ever thought," Mike asked, "That if you hadn't been drafted, you might have chosen to go into the Army anyway?"
"No way! Not with Vietnam going on." Now Robert was on his feet. His face was red. He punctuated each word with a sharp rap on the table. "Speaking of choosing, remember this. When you're in the military, you lose your power of making choices. Someone else does the thinking for you, and if you don't agree, it doesn't matter."
"I've got to do my part!" Mike said.
June chimed in earnestly, "It's too late to talk him out of anything. He's already signed on the dotted line. I know how you feel. You want him to be safe and successful. But I understand where Mike's coming from. I'm proud of him, and I wish I could figure out how to do my part too."
"Surely not," Rosemary said without being sure what she meant. She had hoped that June might talk Mike into changing his mind. But now she was talking about doing her part. Rosemary couldn't take her eyes away from Robert's face. He began to pace frantically around the dining room table.
"I should have talked more about the horrible things that happened. The things I saw that I'll never forget. The things I did! I think you have some kind of wrong idea about what you're getting into."
Mike looked steadily at his Dad. "You didn't know what you were getting into either. You did everything you could in the war and afterwards. I've always admired the way you tried to make a better world for us and for others. I just hope that I can do half as well."
Suddenly Rosemary could hear her heart pounding. It was over. He was going. She thought of her years of nightmares. The lurking enemy had finally invaded her home. No place was safe. She closed her eyes and remembered Robert's dark figure in her dream, silhouetted against the flashes of gunfire. "I haven't been dreaming about Robert. It's me," she thought. "I'm there. Now it won't be the jungle. It will be the desert, and I won't be able to change anything!"
She must have made a sound because all three members of her family turned toward her at once. They fell silent as they looked at her. In a parody of that new billboard, all she could say was: "I'm not prepared, and I'm scared."
by LaDean Peterson
... who is a retired high school teacher of French and English; this is her first published story.