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

The Hill

          James R. O'Connor Junior, Major U.S. Army retired, died a few years back. I was in town visiting my mother and she suggested we should go to the funeral.

          "You knew him, Danny. We need to go and pay our respects," she said putting on a red plaid woolen scarf that made her look ten years older, or at least ten years behind the times.

          "I knew him when I was like fourteen or fifteen," I said.

          "That counts."

          "I never hardly talked to him."

          "I imagine Kim will be there."

          We missed the funeral. That was probably by design. My mother doesn't like funerals. But she feels obligated. She always feels obligated.

          The reception was at the O'Connor's house, which was easy enough to find, because it was around the corner, kind of, from where we used to live. I say kind of because that neighborhood had a number of streets that dead-ended around a gully, that led into some woods, that surrounded a storm sewer kind of creek, that led into a highway right-of-way. I used to slip out the backdoor, cut across our sloping side yard, jump the trampled fence, get scratched by a few briars, balance on the boards across the creek, and end up at Kim's sliding backdoor in a couple of minutes. It took a lot longer to drive to Kim's house, take a right and then another right, which actually curved left, like the gully, and then finally take another right to the end of the cul-de-sac.

          The O'Connor's house looked about the same — light blue — just like it was six or seven years before when I'd known it. I gave my mother my arm as we walked up the rain-slick brick walkway. We had our collars up.

          The front door was ajar. Nobody answered our knock, so we just went in. I didn't see anybody I knew, which was a relief. I don't know if I'd ever been through the front door before. I'd always gone in around back.

          I let my mother disappear into a crowd of churchwomen in the entryway. I kept my coat on and wandered into the kitchen. The kitchen I did know. That was my territory. When we were kids we were always sneaking up to the kitchen.

          There were half-dug-into Tupperware and plastic-wrapped dishes of Jell-O and baked beans, lima beans, bean salad, and bean dip on the counters. There were empty platters in the sink and more stacked up on the stove. I just wanted a glass of water, but you couldn't quite get a glass up under the faucet, because there was so much stuff stacked up in the sink. I turned it on anyway and the water ricocheted off the dirty plates all over the front of me. I looked around for a dishtowel or a rag and there was one draped over the doorknob of the door to the basement.

          The basement — Kim's mother called it the rec room; her father called it his den. I called it a basement just to bug Kim.

          "It's not a basement. It's like a family multi-purpose room," Kim used to explain before learning she'd been played for a sucker, and hit a ping-pong ball as hard as she could at me.

          "What, like the school gym?"

          "You're such a stoop," Kim would say with a gentleness in her eyes. The only other person she called a stoop was her brother.

          Her older brother, Jimmy — there were just the two kids — had made the basement into what it was, or what it became. He'd made the big improvements — a single bed walled off by a row of filing cabinets and metal shelves, a three-legged comfy chair and a listing couch, a record player with an old thick middle spindle for 45s, a coat hanger rod suspended from exposed pipes on the ceiling, and a series of tie-dyed sheets to wall off the laundry room. He'd rolled the lawn mower outside, so you didn't have to trip over it at night. He almost always used the glass sliding door to go in and out of the house. Then he went to college.

          So, Kim inherited the territory, moving out of her pink and Barbie bedroom, spending more and more time downstairs. She put up posters of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, even though she was only ten when Jimi died. She had her brother's taste in music.

          When we were fifteen that one summer, we did a lot of hanging out in Kim's basement. Peter Meyers, Wendy and Katie Salander, Kim and me. We were inseparable, for a while anyway. We were lazy, couldn't drive, and not much was asked of us. We were teenagers.

          That's what I was thinking when I turned the knob of the basement door, glanced around hoping nobody was looking, and started to descend.

          "You live in my basement?"

          "Huh?" was my adolescent response. It felt like I jumped about fifteen feet into the air. I'd been sent up by Kim to get some potato chips from the kitchen. The major was between me and the door.

          "I asked you a question."

          "Ah, no ...."

          "I think you do. I think you live in my basement."

          "No, really, I ... I ...."

          "I ought to charge you rent." The major half smiled. He let me pass by. I was so grateful. I didn't even know who he was.

          Major O'Connor had come home in the middle of the summer, toward the end of June. He was back again from Vietnam. He'd been there a mess of times.

          He slept mostly — either up in the master bedroom with the window air-conditioner blasting away, or in the leather easy chair in front of the TV. You might hear a door click shut or click open. Sometimes you'd hear footsteps up above, the toilet flush, the shades being drawn; but mostly you didn't hear anything, and you hoped it would stay that way.

          "Kimmie, get your hair out of your eyes, and remember to make sure your father gets his medicine," was about all Mrs. O'Connor ever said to Kim. She had a long-white-gloved and leopard-skin pill-box-hat Jackie Kennedy kind of look about her. She was sort of stuck in that era, or at least that's what my mother said.

          She sold real estate and was always leaving unread messages on the refrigerator. She never came downstairs, not even to do laundry. That was left up to Kim. The basement always smelled like laundry. I kind of liked that smell. I still like the smell of laundry. "You could be so pretty," Kim's mother would take a glossy red-nailed pinky and try to tuck a lock of Kim's blonde hair behind an ear. Kim would duck away and head for the basement. I thought Kim looked like Peggy Lipton of the Mod Squad. I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

          Kim and I first met when we were just turning twelve, just after sixth grade, just before junior high school. I was cutting through her backyard. It was towards the end of summer. The O'Connors had just moved in. I was humming. God, can you believe that, I was humming. She came completely out of nowhere and scared the hell out of me.

          "Where you going?" she asked.

          I looked around. "Home," I said.

          "What? You live in the woods?"

          "I wish."

          I showed Kim most of my world that day — the one clear pool in the creek, the four boards that made the bridge, the climbing tree, and the path to the highway that you weren't supposed to take. I told her my dad was never home and she said hers wasn't either.

          We played together almost all the time for a while — ping-pong and the "What do you wanna do? I don't know, what do you wanna do?" kind of stuff, and then it rained or she got sent off to an aunt. I forget which and it might've been both.

          Anyway, it was around Labor Day before I saw her again. I was coming out of the woods, cutting up the hill of her backyard. Probably going to Pete's, that's what I was usually doing. Kim just appeared in front of me. She was just there. She was always doing that. She didn't say anything. She stood in my way halfway up the hill. I didn't say anything either and veered left to go around her. Shifting, she again stood in my way. So, I stopped and then started right. She moved and stood in my way. I stopped again, leaned left and then tried to sprint an end around. She pushed me and I slipped a little. I got my footing, faked and tried again. She caught me like a linebacker and we both went rolling down the hill of zoysia grass — prickly and soft at the same time. We ended up with her sitting on my chest trying to pin my wrists to the ground. I wiggled and bucked her off and took off up the hill once again. She barely caught my ankle and I landed flat on my face. She tried to run by me to reclaim the higher ground and I grabbed her ankle, held on, and pulled. We went rolling back down the hill again, with her ending up on my chest again, trying to pin my wrists to the ground again. I bucked and fought and we wrestled. We got up, yanking and grabbing. She caught me by one wrist with both hands, swung me 'round as hard as she could, and I went flying. I got up, grabbed her by a wrist, did the same thing, and she went flying. It was almost fun, but it really wasn't. It was like a war. Neither of us got anywhere. Neither of us could make it to the top of the hill without being tackled by the other, sliding and rolling down in a pile to the bottom again. We went on forever, until neither of us could hardly stand up.

          We finally fell over, laying there side by side on the slope of the hill, smudged and grass-stained, breathing hard under the warm quiet sky. There was grass in my left ear. My pant knees were torn and I had a bloodied elbow. Kim had a bit lip and her hair was tangled across her face, with bits of blond straw sticking out. We laid there a long time, long enough to put our hands behind our heads and watch the clouds. We never said a word. Her mother called. Kim, propped up on one elbow, kissed my forehead and ran up the hill.

          I lay there, till almost full dark, until I finally went back home, because I couldn't remember where I'd been headed in the first place.

          School started a day or two later, and for the next three years I seldom saw Kim, maybe a time or two, maybe with other kids. But we went to different junior highs — me to public school, and her to the Catholic school at the other end of town. I sometimes cut through her backyard just to see if she'd come out.

          The ping-pong table is the first thing you see when you go down the stairs or come through the sliding glass back door to the O'Connor's den — either way. The table almost always had a box or hamper on top of it, that you had to move to play. When I went down during the funeral reception there was a box of books and files sitting on the table. I set them off to the side. I found some ping-pong paddles on a metal shelf. They were covered with cobwebs, leaning on a dented ping-pong ball. I took the ball and a taped over cracked paddle, then mindlessly kept the ball bobbing. It was something I did a lot that summer in Kim's father's den.

          "Kind of hard to play ping-pong by yourself, isn't it?"

          That was the first thing Kim's father ever said to me. He'd appeared out of nowhere, which was the way he usually appeared. I was alone in the basement waiting for Kim and the twins. A lot of times I'd come over and there'd be nobody there. They'd be over at a party or something, but I'd hang around anyway, bopping a ping-pong ball and watching fuzzy gray TV — hanging around like the bald snow tire that leaned against the furnace.

          Sometimes, I'd fall asleep on the lop-sided couch. Kim would come home from wherever she'd been and throw a blanket over me. "You're such a stoop," she'd say. She asked me how come my mom didn't worry. I told her that I'd told my mom that it wasn't that I didn't come home; it was that I left real early. I told her I had a paper route.

          The major looked at me like he was looking into a pool for something he could recognize, but the ripples kept getting in the way.

          "I just try to keep bopping it," I said, and I tried to hand him the ping-pong paddle, because that's what I thought I was supposed to do.

          He waved it away, wandered over to the snow tire and kicked it. "Don't hurt yourself," he said as he drifted back upstairs.

          Ping-pong was pretty much the only game we played down in the basement. Five-handed ping-pong, and smoking the little bit of weed that Peter could steal from his brother. And smoking cigarettes to cover up the dope smoke, and drinking the weird concoctions Wendy and Katie mixed together from their parent's liquor cabinet.

          My once best friend, Peter Meyers, who was just getting weirder and weirder all through ninth grade, had told me there was this house that the twins hung out at that was pretty cool. He was in love with Wendy and/or Katie — alternately, sequentially, equally, like he couldn't decide — as if a pimply wreck of a teenager like him deserved, and would probably get, both of them. They were taller than Peter and much healthier looking. They'd been born eight minutes apart and lived two doors down from Kim. They liked to pretend that nobody could tell them apart. Their parents partied incessantly — they called it finding themselves — and drank relentlessly — gallons of vodka, not pints, not fifths, but gallons. The girls could lift as much as they wanted. Who was going to notice? They tried to ignore Peter, but he'd discovered the lowest form of acceptance — he usually had something they wanted.

          So, I followed him over one day just before the spring semester of school ended. It was Kim's house. I couldn't believe it. She still looked like Peggy Lipton — making me feel twelve, or an anemic fifteen.

          A lot of things had changed in those three summers from sixth to ninth grade. Kim's mother got a job. My mother got a job. It was the mid-70s. Everybody's mother got a job. Her father was coming home sometime that summer. They didn't quite know when. Mine had already left.

          The group clicked for a while. We called ourselves the refugees, because that's what we felt like, or wished we felt like. I guess that's what made us fifteen. We spelled out refugees with magnets on the refrigerator in the kitchen. We giggled a lot.

          Looking back, it wasn't all that long of a time that the five of us hung out in the O'Connor's rec room. It just felt like forever.

          As soon as the major came home — to a house he'd hardly ever seen — the dynamics in the basement changed. Kim had the major to look after. "You're responsible," her mother constantly said.

          The twins claimed that he creeped them out. I don't know why, because they never ran into him. I was the one that was always running into him. So, the twins mainly stopped by to smoke whatever Peter had lured them with and then headed out to the next party. Peter followed, saying he was supposed to get his license in August, and that was going to change their lives, his life, somebody's life. The O'Connor's den wasn't a refuge — it was more like a bus stop.

          "What are these, man?" It was July, hot and muggy outside and cool and muggy in the basement. Peter opened the glass cabinet that hung by the stairs on the beaverboard wall — the same kind of beaverboard everybody put in their basements — that held the major's medals and military souvenirs. Hanging on a couple of pegs over the case was the usual Japanese ceremonial sword and scabbard that every U.S. officer who'd ever been overseas seemed to have.

          "They're just my dad's medals." Kim tried to push the case closed.

          "What are they for? Did he get Purple Hearts and stuff?"

          "I don't know," Kim said. "He never talks about them."

          But see, he did talk about them — to me.

          "You know what this one's for?" Mister O'Connor — he told me not to call him major because he wasn't a major anymore — had cut off the usual route up to the kitchen. I was there alone, as usual. There was liquor on his breath, as usual. That and the smell of whatever medicine he was supposedly taking.

          "No, sir," I mumbled as I stood there with a Pop Tart from his kitchen in my hand.

          "That's Korea. That's where I got my start." He rubbed his right arm. "God, I was almost as young as you." He looked at me like maybe my face would turn into somebody he knew. "This one here — the '68 Campaign in the Mekong Delta. What a fuckin' mess. You know what I mean?"

          "Uh huh."

          "This one's a Purple Heart. Got it going up the Hill." He expelled a breath. "We've all got our hills, right?"

          "That one's kind of neat," I said, pointing to a shiny one.

          "Good Conduct Medal. Everybody got one of those damn things." He pulled on the glass door that kind of opened like a medicine cabinet. He carefully unpinned the medal, weighed it in his palm for a couple of seconds, and said, "It's yours."

          "Really? ... you sure?" I sounded like a nine year old kid. I wanted to ask if I could play with the sword, too.

          "Can we put 'em on?" asked Wendy.

          "Yeah," chimed in Katie.

          "No, just leave them alone," said Kim.

          "Aw, come on."


          "Just for a little bit."

          Peter popped open the case, pulled a medal off the board and held it to his chest. He did a Nazi salute and said, "Hey, I'm General Pancho Villa, man, and I have given myself all these medals, man!"

          "What for?" squealed Wendy.

          "For bravery above and beyond, and even beyond that, man, for dealing the most dope in ninth grade." Peter pulled another one out of the cabinet and tried to pin it to Wendy's sleeveless blouse. "And I pin this one on you."

          "Watch it, you turd." Wendy giggled and slapped Peter's hand away.

          "Hey, your boobs deserve a medal as much as anybody's," Peter laughed. "How about you, Katie?"

          "Yeah, like in your dreams."

          "Peter please put 'em back," Kim pleaded.

          Peter pulled a couple more medals and ribbons off the board. "Hey, Danny, you need an award too, man. Come here. I give you this, man, in the recognition of ... ouch, man, I pricked myself." Peter flicked the medal across the ping-pong table and it slid over the edge to the floor.

          "Put 'em back," I said.

          Peter smirked and shrugged. He reached in the cabinet once more. In the last few months he'd become a royal asshole. Some kids do that in junior high. Some do it for the rest of their lives. It was only halfway through that summer and I was praying that they would just disappear, that vacations or family reunions or anything would suck those three away from Kim and me. Peter was a good head taller than me, but I did it anyway. I slammed him against the beaverboard wall as hard as I could. The display case crashed to the floor and fell open. The medals shot out across the tiles underneath the furnace and the ping-pong table. The glass cover cracked.

          We all froze for a second.

          "Now, look what you did," Peter screamed. He tried to push back, but he was too drunk. I held him against the wall.

          "Just leave, you guys. Please, just leave," Kim said. The twins had already drifted out the door and Peter slipped out of my grip, following them like a stray dog.

          I was shaking like a leaf. I'd never really hit anybody before and now I wanted to do it again and again.

          Kim and I crawled around on the cool floor underneath the ping-pong table gathering up the medals. She stepped on one with a bare foot. I used a broom handle to slide one out from under one of the metal shelves. Our shoulders touched as we stuck the medals back on the board, one by one. We did it as fast as we could, like that would help make it better. We hung the case back up on the wall.

          "Shit, I think one's missing. I can't believe it." Kim pressed her head with her palms, wiped away a tear. She mumbled, "I can't believe it," once more, and then followed the twins to a party.

          The glass cabinet was there at the bottom of the stairs, still hanging on the beaverboard, when I went down during the funeral reception. The glass was still cracked. The missing medal — it's in a box of my stuff in a drawer in my mother's apartment.

          "Move over, Stoop." Kim lay down beside me on the lumpy lop-sided couch and pulled the covers over her shoulder. I'd decided to stay that night. My mother had said my father might stop by — just to chat — 'nuf said.

          "They're both up there." Kim pulled my arm around her warm waist and I spooned behind her. "I can't stand when they're both home," she said. "It's worse than when it's only one of them. They just stare like zombies. My dad doesn't say anything and my mother doesn't say anything. And I can't stand them."

          I kissed the back of her neck. It smelled like nothing I'd ever smelled before. I kissed the collar of her t-shirt and the top of her ear. I kissed her hair. I wanted to kiss every strand. Kim pulled my arm around her tighter and fell asleep.

          So began the summer of our gentle fumblings. It was the most wonderful and confusing time I'd ever known in my short little life. All I wanted — all I waited for — was for Kim to be there. I ran, I excused myself, I left everything to go to her rec room and wait. She still went out to parties with the twins sometimes. Sometimes I went along; most of the time, not. Sometimes I got stuck at home and just had to stay, which was hell. Sometimes Kim slept upstairs. She'd had a boyfriend the year before. He was like seventeen or eighteen or some other God-awful, unreachable thing. He'd made love to her in a car. I hated that guy with all my might. I wanted him completely and utterly erased. I did a lot of ping-pong ball bopping.

          And like life imitating art, if art imitates lies, I did end up with an early-morning paper route. My friend Ken went to camp and asked me to sub. So, I was up at five in the morning throwing papers at the screen doors of every other house in the neighborhood.

          I was almost always dead tired all the time and that was almost the best part. I'd get done with the paper route around six thirty or seven o'clock, trudge up the hill and slip through the glass sliding door of Kim's house, lay down next to her on her brother's single bed — we'd abandoned the couch and moved to the bed — and try to go back to sleep. Kim smelled warm and drowsy. I wanted to touch her, having something of me touching something of her, all the time. Sometimes she'd get up to check on her father. Sometimes she'd smoke whatever was left from the night before. Most of the time, the mornings were ours. I still love slow, warm, dull mornings. Around ten or eleven o'clock, lawn mowers and barking dogs would start up, or the phone would ring. We'd ignore all that we could, and stay in the single bed as long as we could. I thought the month of August would be what our lives would be like forever. I thought we'd get married.

          Kim's mother never seemed to be home, but there were always cookies and bologna around, so, I'd periodically surface up to the kitchen.

          "You know what I do for a living?" As usual the major made me jump fifteen feet through the ceiling. He was always doing that. He was leaning against the doorframe to the hall and his breath smelled like an ashtray full of bourbon. He had a bottle of little orange pills in his hand.

          "No, sir."

          "I'm a spook. A goddamned spook."

          "Like a ghost?"

          "Oh, for God's sake — a spy. A spy with the C-fucking-IA. Hell of a thing for an Army officer to become."

          "What do you do?" I asked.

          "Used to gather intelligence, like they'd know intel if they saw it. Damn idiots. Everything they touch turns to crap. Everything."

          I didn't say anything. I had no idea of what to say. I was just hoping he'd go away.

          "I should've seen it coming." He wobbled. "I wanna tell you something," and, leaning into me, he told me a story about the Delta, the jungle and a hill, a horrible hill, more than once, maybe five times, maybe ten. He always started at the same place and ended halfway, not quite finishing what he was talking about, and he always ended with what I thought was — but wasn't — halfway advice. "You don't have to take every hill. You know what I mean? Sometimes they don't even know where they're sending you. I want you to remember this. Not every hill's necessary."

          I don't know why I said this, because the guy was just scary, but I kind of liked him, and I wasn't scared anymore, and I just asked off the cuff, "If you don't like them, why don't you quit?"

          He arched his back and pushed himself off the doorjamb. He stood up straight. He held the medicine bottle at arms length, studying it, and then set it down on the countertop.

          "Too late for that."

          "Why?" I can't believe I actually said that to him. I looked him in the eye, as if I might understand whatever I might see — as if his experience could be translated into something my inexperience would recognize.

          He blinked and took a breath and let it expire. "Kid, you seem like a smart kid, so I'm going to give you a little bit of friendly advice."

          I figured he was going to tell me to join the Navy instead of the Army.

          He ran his fingers through his thinning too-short hair and wiped his hand over his face. "Always know where you are. Always. And if you don't know, figure it out. Figure out where you are, and if you can't get out, you dig in. You understand? Don't expose yourself. You don't expose those depending on you. Right?"

          I nodded. I had no idea what he was talking about.

          "Don't let anybody ever tell you different. It gets so damned loud. You know what I mean? You look familiar. Do I know you?"

          "I kind of hang around with Kim."

          "Naw, that's not it."

          I looked at my half eaten sandwich. "Can I go now?"

          "Yeah, get back to your unit."

          As I started to open the door to go back down into my secluded world, he added, "And kid, don't you worry. We'll get you out of here. We'll get everybody out."

          I once read that the men in Vietnam liked Jimi Hendrix best — him or Creedence. But when I was a kid all I remember hearing on the radio in those days were the Carpenters. They just owned the radio. They were on all the time. But you gotta hope it was Jimi, because you just can't quite picture guys going into battle, getting shot at and blown up, singing "they long to be close to you."

          On a couple of shelves in the O'Connor's rec room is Kim's brother's record collection. I guess he never came back to get them. I don't think he ever came back at all. I found myself thumbing through the collection. There was Close to You right next to Captain Beefheart, right next to Frank Zappa, next to the necessary Beatles, next to the Cowsills.

          "Thought I'd find you down here." Kim's voice, lower and more adult, made me jump. God, I was always jumping in that house.

          I stood up. I don't think I'd ever seen her in a dress before. She was in black and in heels. I pointed to the boxes of albums. "I was just ...." I said.

          "Thanks for coming. It means a lot," Kim said like she'd been saying it all afternoon, which I guess she had.

          She picked up a ping-pong paddle and spun it around in her hand, the same way she had done when she was fifteen. "You wanna keep score?" she asked, bopping the dented ball just over the net.

          "Naw. Do you?"


          We never did when we were kids.

          We bopped the ball back and forth. We couldn't keep it going more than two or three times. We were awful.

          On the last night that I ever saw Kim as a kid there was an argument going on upstairs. It woke us up. It pounded us like an ocean and we were the beach. Kim's parents were having it out. I'd never heard anybody have it out before. My dad always just slammed the door and left. Kim was shivering. It was the muggiest, warmest night of the summer. We only had a sheet over us and Kim was shivering lying next to me.

          "Goddammit, Fran, they're screwing with me," Kim's father screamed up above us.

          I wanted to curl up into a little ball. I curled around Kim and she was already as small as she could be.

          "They're screwing with everything — me, you, everything."

          I kissed a lock of Kim's hair that I'd twisted around my finger. Her shoulders were cool and so smooth. Kim tried to kiss back but her tears kept sliding between our lips. She bent her head away.

          "It's got to stop. It's too loud." The major wasn't making a whole lot of sense.

          "Stop it, Jim, stop it."

          Kim whispered a prayer to herself. The O'Connor's were Catholic, although I don't think they were very Catholic. I don't remember Kim doing any Hail, Marys or nothing, but she did have a gold cross on a gold chain and it lay across her collarbone. I kissed it.

          "They're supposed to be on our side," the major screamed. "Doesn't that mean anything to them? Doesn't that mean a goddamned thing to anybody anywhere? They didn't come back."

          It stormed on like that — a rising roar of thunderous words that went on and on. I don't know how long.

          Then it got quiet, eerily quiet. We lay there waiting for one more shouted word, or one last shoe to drop, or some final thing. It didn't feel finished. But you can't keep waiting tense like that forever. I felt Kim's shoulders start to relax and her eyes start to close. I began to nod off myself. I'd catch myself and then nod again.

          The door at the top of the stairs opened. The sound of footsteps came down tentatively, one at a time. Each step seemed to take longer than the last, getting closer.

          The light in the laundry room came on. The light in our room came on. It felt like forever, but then in one easy motion the tie-dyed sheets that made a door for the little bedroom slid apart.

          "Daddy, Jesus, what are you doing down here?" Kim jumped up. She'd barely pulled on my Led Zeppelin t-shirt and her panties. I'd jumped up, too. I had a sheet wrapped halfway around my middle.

          Mister O'Connor looked around like he was running five hours, five days, five years behind everything. He ran his finger across the chipped top of the dresser, like he was checking for dust. It took an eternity watching that finger. My jeans and underwear were in a pile, almost shouting at him from the rug at the side of the single bed. There was nowhere to go — absolutely nowhere.

          "I just thought I'd come down," the major said.

          "There's nothing going on."

          He took that in. We didn't move. We leaned. We didn't look at each other. We didn't look at him.

          "Where's your uniform, son?"

          "Can't you sleep?" I asked.

          "Sometimes, I think sleep is overrated," the major replied.

          "Do you think you need to take some more of your medicine, Daddy?" Kim asked.

          "I don't think I want to take it anymore."


          There was another long, leaning silence.

          "You know, I'm sorry. I'm very sorry. I apologize. But I don't quite know where I am."

          The light to the stairs clicked on. Kim's mother came halfway down and called, "Jimmie, Jimmie, come here, sweetheart. Come on, come on back up, baby."

          He looked very old. He turned and slowly retreated up the stairs.

          "Kim, tell your friend to go home." And the light clicked out.

          I thought about staying in the woods that night, but it was drizzling outside, and I fell into the creek crossing over the four board bridge.

          I got home and my mother was up with a cup of coffee and clear, defeated eyes. She told me to sit down — that's always trouble. I sat down. I was told I was going to be going. I was told I was going to be living with my father somewhere in Michigan. It was all arranged. It was happening right away. What do you mean right away? It was happening whether I liked it or not, but it would be ok. They were really looking forward to it and I should be, too. Everything would be fine, just fine. I tried to stare hard at my mother, but I was going to cry. I started to turn my head away, but she met my eyes. She didn't turn away like she did when she told you to do the dishes. She looked me in the eye and said the most honest thing she'd ever said to me, "He's got the better lawyer."

          "What about the paper route?"

          "It'll all be taken care of, honey."

          "But I'm responsible," I said. And what exactly was I saying? What I wanted to say was, what about Kim? What about me and Kim and being together forever? ... about getting married? What about all the things I forgot to say to Kim. I'll be back. I'll never leave. I'll save you. I'll save myself. Let's keep in touch.

          Kim's father's words did help. "Know where you are." I did finally find out where I was. I was in Michigan. I was there for all of high school. I ran cross-country. You just run all the time. You don't have to think. I wasn't very good at it. Sometimes I just slowed down and stopped in the middle of a race. The only thing I did right was forgive my mother. She'd found a small apartment and I went there for Thanksgivings. I tried to write a letter to Kim once, but I just balled it up.

          "I used to be so jealous of you," Kim said.

          I stopped bonking the ping-pong ball and just looked at her.

          "You're the only one he ever really said stuff to." She paused. "I figured he must've told you some secret."

          One time, maybe a week or two before I was sent away, there was a big storm. Kim's mother had hauled Kim off somewhere. Kim had rolled her eyes, but there was nothing she could do. So, I was waiting as usual. The TV was flipping. The lights flickering off and on. And I stood and watched the storm through the sliding glass doors. I liked storms. I liked the sudden coolness and the smell of warm wet asphalt.

          A big clap of lightening boomed, and every detail in the basement lit up for a fraction of a second. Out of the corner of my eye, the major was there in a bathrobe and slippers in the space behind the furnace.

          "Son, get away from the windows. Those are enemy rounds. Get down."

          "It's just a storm," I said.

          "Get down."

          "It's really pretty," I said.

          He darted out quicker than I thought he could, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me toward his corner. I stumbled over the edge of the bed and banged and scraped my knee on the concrete floor. He dragged me the rest of the way.

          "We're going to have to wait it out," he said.

          "Wait what out?" I asked.

          "Kid, if you're gonna survive in this man's army, you'd better get a grip."

          So, we sat with our backs against a cinder block wall, waiting out the storm, like we were camping out or something. He had a flashlight and a compass. He offered me a cigarette and said he wished we had a few beers. I said so too, and I almost got up and looked for the half smoked joint in the ashtray by the bed, but then I thought that might be pushing it.

          "I'm gonna tell you a secret, Davy. I'm gonna tell you something everybody better know."

          "Ok," I said, "but, I'm not Davy."

          "Somethings are always with you. No matter what, they are always with you."

          He reached into his shirt pocket. It was one of those short-sleeved Banlon shirts with a little button-down pocket that he had to wriggle his fingers into in order to get at what he wanted. He pulled out a small photograph, smaller than the size of a snapshot. The edges were bent. He smoothed them out.

          "Here," he said. I took it and shined the flashlight on a black-and-white picture of his family, maybe ten or twelve years old. I recognized him, because he had the same haircut. I pretty much recognized Mrs. O'Connor. And then there were a couple of little kids. A frowning boy, maybe age eight or ten, and a little girl, about three, sitting on her mother's lap.

          "That's what's always with me," he said.

          I reached into my pocket, pulled out my thin, moneyless wallet, and handed him a postage-stamp-sized eighth grade class picture of me. He nodded like it was a good deal. "Now, you're with me, too," he said.

          The lights flickered back on. Mister O'Connor wiped the sweat from his forehead. He opened his hand and found a couple of pills. "I guess I'm supposed to take these," he said. He went back upstairs and popped open a beer.

          "He got better after a while," Kim said. "They sent him back to a VA hospital and changed his meds and stuff. They had a psychiatrist but he wouldn't talk to them. He said he'd be all right and he got ok. It took a couple of years. But he did. He went back to school and got a degree. He was like a kindergarten teacher. Can you believe that? He liked little kids. I think he was pretty happy towards the end. But he never talked about anything. I wanted him to say something so bad. I used to listen to him telling you stuff."

          "You did?"

          "When he'd tell you about his medals, I wanted him to tell me that so bad."

          "But nothing he said ever made any sense," I complained.

          Kim looked around and found a couple of boxes piled with papers and old brown Thermo-faxes. She pulled a few files from here and there, and spread them out on the ping-pong table.

          "I had to figure it out," Kim said. "I just had to. It took a long time. I used the Freedom of Information Act and everything."

          She found a photo of a group of Army guys leaning on a jeep, some with guns, smiling and looking serious at the same time.

          "You wanna really know what happened?"

          I could only nod.

          "When he was in the Army and when he was in Vietnam, he was in some kind of special forces thing. I don't even know what the acronym means. Half the documents I got a hold of are all crossed out. They sent him in to take a hill across the border in Cambodia where they weren't supposed to be. It was supposed to be a big big top-secret, and the CIA was running the operation. This is way before the bombings started. And they sent him up the wrong hill. Can you believe that? They sent him up the wrong hill. They got the coordinates backwards or some crap. Half the guys got cut to pieces and the other half got bombed by our side. And they didn't go in to get them right away, because they weren't supposed to be there."

          She tapped the photo with her finger. "Everybody in this picture, except my dad, got killed. The CIA wanted to cover up — making those horrible quote signs in the air with her fingers — the incident." Kim rolled her eyes. "No kidding. It's unbelievable. So, they recruited my father. The people who were responsible for killing everybody he knew transferred him out of the Army into intelligence. It was like a payoff or something. Can you believe it? It must've been so weird, and he never said a word — ever."

          She pointed at a figure in the photo sitting on the hood of the jeep. "You see that guy?" We looked so our heads were almost touching. A strand of her hair touched my cheek.

          "Yeah, he looks kind of like ...."

          "Like you."

          And I guess he sort of did.

          "David Baufman, Private First Class. I found some old letters. My dad liked him. He looked after him." She paused then began again. "I bet he was pretty surprised to find Davy in his basement."

          She shrugged a quick half-smile, turned away and began to tidy up the pile of papers and photographs. "You know, one time my mother asked your mother for a picture of you and I couldn't figure out why. She gave it to my dad, but he said he already had one. He showed her. I don't know where he got it, but he had a picture of you."

          My heart was pounding. Did he ever figure it out? Who was who? Did he have any last words?

          "You ok, Stoop?" Kim touched my arm. "I guess I kind of gave you a snoot full."

          I wanted it to be August again. "How'd he die?" I asked.

          "Heart attack at forty-nine. Bam — out of the blue. But I kind of like to think it had something to do with Agent Orange. I always liked a good conspiracy theory, myself." She smiled her bright Peggy Lipton smile.

          I wanted to curl up next to Kim on that crumby musty bed. Kim said, "God, this place is a wreck down here."

          Ping pong, ping pong sounded as a little kid came thumping down the steps one by one, toddled over to the table, grabbed one of the ping-pong paddles and banged it like a gavel. Ping pong, ping pong.

          Kim went to him. "Sweetie, stop that. Now, come on, come here, come here a minute."

          Ping pong.

          "Danny, this is Jimmie." Bang bang. "Jimmie, stop that. I want you to meet somebody." She picked the kid up, like only a mother can pick up a kid, and swung him to her hip. She beamed.

          He squirmed right back down. Ping pong.

          A voice from up the stairs hollered down, "You got him?"

          "Yeah," Kim hollered back up.

          "Ok, because we've gotta get going pretty soon."

          "We'll be right up. I'll be just a minute." She pushed some hair back from her forehead and gave a jeez smile. "My husband. He's stationed over at Andrews."

          Behind us we heard the glass door slide open and we turned as fast as we could. Kim looked caught and scared for a second, then she relaxed. We went to the open door. We could see him fine. Her son had just left her father's den and was happily slipping and clawing up the most unnecessary hill in the world. He turned and waved, and then solemnly watched the cars go by on the highway that had finally replaced the woods.

by Brian Price
... who is an independent drama and comedy writer/producer for public radio and other audio media. In 1995 he formed Great Northern Audio Theatre Productions with partner Jerry Stearns; producing Tumbleweed Roundup, Permafrost, Dialogue With Martian Trombone, Mark Time, and many other nationally distributed shows. Most recently he has directed productions for Columbia College Chicago, Grist Mill Productions, the National Audio Theatre Festivals Workshop, and his own Dakota Reader Series.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones