combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Red Badge of Nothing
excerpted from The Savage Quiet September Sun

"I had seen nothing sacred, and the things
That were glorious had no glory ...."
by Ernest Hemingway

          On 9/11 Jeff and I got on the subway after meeting on West Street. I remember looking up at the Twin Towers, feeling rather insignificant when I gazed up at the two monoliths bright against the deeply blue sky. That was the last time I saw the buildings intact, for we had a meeting up on Sixth Avenue and 42 Street. By the time we came up from the subway by Bryant Park, people were pointing south and chattering and crying. Jeff and I stood there looking down Sixth Avenue, and what we saw defied comprehension. The Towers were on fire, with gray smoke pouring into the blue powder sky, and everything spiraled out of control after that.

          We wandered a long time that day after learning our meeting had been cancelled. Several people who were to be there had been detained in the Towers; we later learned they perished in Windows on the World, the lovely restaurant from which many times I gazed out at my city while enjoying exquisite meals. Jeff and I ended up renting a room in a rundown hotel near Times Square; we decided early on that neither one of us wanted to walk back home – he to New Jersey and I to Long Island. Right around the corner from this hotel was one of those old dark Manhattan bars: the perfect place to go to be lost for an afternoon or longer if necessary.

          On our third round of martinis, Jeff leaned his elbows on the table and put a finger in the air. He was thirty-two years old, a rather handsome and athletic fellow, and his blue eyes matched the color of the sky that day. He had been a Marine before becoming a lawyer, and though I didn't know him back then, I always believed he had been a fine soldier. "Bob, when they figure out what the hell happened today, and they will, I'm going to sign up and go wherever it is these bastards came from."

          The rumble of multiple conversations shook the crowded room, and I glanced up at the television over the bar to see the images of the Towers coming down; this horrific sight was being shown over and over again. "Jeff, let's just wait and see."

          He pierced an olive in his glass with a plastic stirrer and lifted it to his mouth. "We went through this before in '93. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the same bastards came back for more, and this time they hit a homerun."

          I closed my eyes and leaned back against the hard booth. "Jim Walsh was down there today having breakfast. He's gone, man."

          "And Mary and Donovan were there with him," Jeff noted, still chewing the olive.

          "Jim asked me to join them," I said, remembering the call I got the day before, "but I told him I wanted to drop Sarah off for her first day of school."

          Jeff pointed at me and sipped the martini. "See, that's why you're absolved here, Bob. Being a family man, no one can expect you to go. But me, I've got no strings. I also have the training, so they can use me pretty much right away."

          I took a deep breath and stared at my martini, the olives looking like little depth charges at the bottom of the glass. "We don't even know what it's all about yet."

          "Well, I know what it's all about and I'm ready to kick some ass."

          I looked up and saw a sea of executives in dark suits, some leaning on the bar, others at tables. I realized everyone was talking like Jeff; the whole room was filled with the drumbeat of battle. There would be no prisoners taken with these fellows, for they had figured out who the enemy was and they were going to get him. I shivered in the heat of the room, for the first time in my life I knew what it meant to be inevitably headed toward war.

          Jeff ended up going to Afghanistan. I saw him once before he left, and he wore fatigues and a buzz cut like he had been in the Marines his whole life. Jeff had the mentality for soldiering; he climbed mountains, skydived, and went deep sea scuba diving without a thought. One time we were on vacation in Jamaica before I was married, and we were drinking in a place called Rick's Café. There was a jagged cliff right next to the place, and the locals were diving off it into the deep blue water far below. Jeff suddenly gave me his wallet, took off his shirt and shoes, and said, "No guts, no glory!" He jumped from the cliff in a beautiful swooping dive. I admired him at the time, for I never would have had the courage to follow him, and I thought we needed daredevils like him.

          I had to get back to normal life after 9/11, and this meant being without my best friend. It also involved my company moving uptown due to the loss of our headquarters in 7 World Trade Center. Nothing seemed real in those days after the attacks, even the weather in New York was unmercifully sunny and beautiful. I had never remembered such a lovely late summer followed by autumn; it was as if the heavens above New York were so petrified and impenetrable that rain and clouds could not possibly move into the area.

          My family and remaining friends became more important than ever in my life. Instead of working late most days, I chose to come home early and read books with Sarah. Even just watching television with my wife seemed like a pleasure, and Janice and I even held hands as we sat on the sofa, which we hadn't done in years. I had heard many people were taking long looks at their lives, examining their place in the world, like never before, due to the attacks. I know that I felt grateful every day that I had taken Sarah to her first day of nursery school that morning, for it had saved my life.

          Of course, there were many other side effects after 9/11. More than ever before, I heard people expressing themselves about politics and the world. In my town on Long Island, flags seemed to be flying from every house, store front, and car antenna. I saw everyone, from senior citizens to little children, wearing American flag shirts and sweaters, many with the words "United We Stand" on them.

          I secretly and cynically wondered how "united" we really were, yet I initially felt caught up in the patriotism too, especially remembering the newspaper pictures of the hijackers and stories about Al Qaeda. It seemed a given that this unprecedented attack on our country needed a swift and furious response. I almost felt more secure knowing that Jeff was over in Afghanistan, for if anyone were going to find Osama Bin Laden it would be Jeff Coyne.

          Janice insisted on a Christmas tree even though I questioned the propriety of it. Maybe a more muted celebration was in order, but as the first days of December came and went, the neighbors on our street decorated with even more vigor than ever before. As one of them noted, "We'll send a message to those damn terrorists."

          A few days before Christmas, I was just finishing up work for the day in my office when my secretary Tina opened the door and said, "Someone is on the phone for you."

          "Who is it?"

          "A Mrs. Coyne." Tina was a pretty girl with long blonde hair and bright green eyes. She leaned her head in and her eyes sparkled as she whispered, "I think it's Jeff's mother."

          A shiver went through me, making me sweaty and cold all in a second, and I looked at the flashing button on my phone and said, "I'll take it." Tina closed the door and I took a deep breath, not wanting to pick up but knowing that I had to. I hit the button and pressed my palms against my temples as I spoke into the speakerphone. "Yes, hello?"

          "Hello, is this Bob Rinaldi?"

          "Yes, it is. Mrs. Coyne?"

          "Yes, I am Jeff's mother."

          "Has something happened?" I asked hoarsely.

          "He was ... wounded," her voice started cracking, "severely wounded."

          "Oh, Mrs. Coyne, I'm so sorry." What I long prayed wouldn't happen had come to pass.

          "I ... know you are his best friend."

          "Yes, I ... am."

          "I just wanted you to know, Bob."

          Jeff was first sent to the American hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and came home in late January. I went to see him in the veteran's hospital in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. He was sitting in a wheelchair staring out the window watching all the cars moving along the parkway, with the Verrazano Bridge in the distance, bright and sharp in the cold morning. The top of his head was bandaged with some of the material covering the right side of his face including his eye; and, as I stood looking at him, I realized that his right arm was gone up to the elbow and that a cast ran up the rest of his arm and over his shoulder. Another cast covered his left leg all the way up to his hip.

          Since I didn't know what to say, I cleared my throat and said, "Hey, Jeff."

          Jeff turned slightly in order to see me with his left eye. He raised the stump of his bandaged right arm and moved it back and forth like he was waving. "Hi, Bob."

          I found a chair and pulled it up next to him. He was illuminated by the light coming in the window, and his left eye was clear and dry as he stared at me. "Your mother told me you were here, so I hope you don't mind that I came."

          "No, I ... don't mind. You can get a good look at the freak."

          "Oh, come on, Jeff."

          Jeff breathed deeply and stared out the window, his reflection staring back at him. "I lost my eye, Bob, and part of my face. What else am I going to be but a freak now?"

          "It's ... not like that."

          "Oh yeah, Bob, well how the hell is it then?"

          I looked away from him, watching his still reflection on the window glass. It was a stupid question, but I felt compelled to ask it. "How are you feeling, you know, otherwise?"

          Jeff shook his head a bit. "Oh, just peachy, Bob. It hurts when I piss; it hurts when I eat and when I laugh, but I never laugh."

          "What happened?"

          "We were outside Kandahar. Got in a firefight with the Taliban as they left the city. It was just fierce, man. We killed so many of them, but they killed lots of our guys too."

          I couldn't believe Jeff could lose at anything, and I started feeling like a greater loss was waiting for all of us in the years to come. I sat back and stared out at the bridge, its lovely suspension cables shimmering in the sunshine. I wanted to say something more, to let Jeff know I cared about him, but the truth was that I felt so angry that the war had destroyed him in such a way.

          "Jeff," I said as I put my hand on his good arm, "everyone at work has been asking about you."

          "Yeah, well you can tell them all about me."

          "Your job is waiting for you when you're ready."

          Jeff looked down at my hand on his arm like he didn't want it there, so I pulled it away quickly. "How can I ever go back to work?"

          "Hey, no one knows the accounts like you do."

          "No, Bob, I mean physically. All those girls I flirted with will pity me now, but none of them will want to date me either."

          "You dated plenty of them in your time." I didn't know why I said that, so I decided to keep quiet.

          "Look, I am a freak show now, Bob. They'll patch me up and I'll be Frankenstein and Cyclops and the Mummy all in one."

          "Hey, they can work miracles today."

          Jeff turned the wheelchair to face me. "Take a look at me, Bob. It's going to take more than a miracle. I'll never forget one of the doctors at Landstuhl because at least he was honest with me. He told me the truth, and I needed that. He told me the goddamn truth!"

          "I don't know what to say ....", and then I caught myself and put my hand over my mouth self-consciously.

          "You know what, Bob? There's nothing to say." I took my hand away from my face and put it on top of the other on my lap. "I used to say No guts, no glory' and it was all in fun back then, but I meant it too. Now I know the truth about it all. You look at me and tell me where you see the glory'."

          I felt mute and said nothing. I remembered that I had brought him an extra large Hershey Bar, so I pulled it out of my coat pocket and handed it to him silently. "I ... I remembered you liked this stuff."

          "Yeah, I used to," Jeff said as he looked at it in his left hand. "You know, Bob, I paid my dues. My chart should read Dues Paid in Full' in big red letters."

          "You paid your dues and then some," I said, feeling compelled to say something.

          "Yeah," he said, "and then some. Now my reward is this." He lifted the chocolate bar toward me and said, "Open it."

          I tore the wrapper and then the foil, and I returned the bar to him and he bit off a large piece. As he chewed I said, "Well, the job is there for you if and when you're ever ready."

          Jeff bit another piece off and chewed, but it seemed he wasn't enjoying it. "I guess I'm not making it clear enough for you, Bob. I'm just plain done, man. I'm thirty-three years old and finished. I'd been better off if those Taliban bastards just killed me."

          "Oh, don't say that, Jeff. You're alive."

          He motioned with the chocolate bar at his body and limbs. "This ain't alive, man. Believe me, I know."

          I sat there and wondered how true his feelings were, that maybe after a long time of healing and recovery he would see things differently. I just felt sick as I watched him continue to eat the chocolate bar, with some of it creating an ever widening dark circle around his mouth. I looked around the room, seeing other veterans in wheelchairs, walking with crutches or canes, and talking with their visitors. Were they all like Jeff: overcome by the disease of war that would seemingly never go away?

          After he finished eating the whole bar, I got some paper towels and he wiped his face clean. I stood over him with my hands in the pockets of my coat, and Jeff turned the wheelchair toward the window. "Tell everyone that I don't want any company or flowers or cards."

          "But people want to do something ...."

          "I just want to be left alone."

          "I'll tell them."

          As I started walking away, he called to me. "And don't come back, Bob. Okay?"

          I nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, whatever you want, Jeff."

          I left the building and walked across the parking lot toward my car. I realized how I took even the simple process of walking for granted. When I reached my car, I turned around and looked up at the building. I saw Jeff jumping out the window, in a swooping and graceful dive reminiscent of the one he made in Jamaica off the cliff. Now his wheelchair separated from his body like parts of a NASA rocket, and Jeff plummeted toward the earth with his casts and bandages bright in the sunshine. He hit the ground with a powerful thud, the wheelchair coming down farther away and crushing the roof of a parked car. I ran to him and saw his broken body sprawled on the grass, a crooked smile frozen on his face in death.

          I snapped out of my daydream knowing that Jeff would end it that way if he could. I got in the car and decided I wasn't going to work. I would take the day off and pick Sarah up from school and spend the rest of the afternoon with her, but first I was going to church. I would light a candle and pray for Jeff, the guy who used to say No guts, no glory'. He was just one of many who went to war looking for glory and found nothing but guts. I drove away into the brilliant cold January morning, thinking it was a perfect day to pray for the dead and get on with living.

by Victor Lana
... who is a professor of English at Berkeley College in Manhattan, the author of two novels [A Death in Prague (2001), and Move (2003)], and of numerous short stories published in literary magazines and online journals. In 1982, he was presented the National Arts Club Award for Poetry. This selection is excerpted from his forthcoming collection entitled The Savage Quiet September Sun.

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