Boy From the High Country

by Arthur Kent

Chapter 10


The blazing sun produced no sensation of heat. I was sitting on a brick-hard surface, a dike between rice paddies created from the mud and baked by the sun. Nick's lips were moving, but I could near no words. The only sound was an eerie, vibrating whine like a thousand distant electronic crickets. Tran was on my lap, stroking the hairs on my arm, as always marveling that my skin was not as bare and smooth as his own. Ky was astride Nick's hips, smiling as the big blonde American practiced his limited Vietnamese vocabulary. The war seemed far away. I marveled at my friend Nick. From the first he had shown such compassion and concern for the children. The buzzing whine was louder now, and my head began to throb in time with its cycles. Suddenly, Tran's head exploded in a grisly spume of blood and bone and brain tissue, and I felt myself toppling backward into the paddy behind me. As if in slow motion I saw Nick and Ky fling their arms and legs outward in a paroxysm of death as bullets slammed into their bodies and propelled them backward from the dike. Then as if someone had thrown a switch the sound began, the rattle of automatic weapons fire, the crump of mortar shells exploding.

I sat bolt upright in bed, or tried to, but the cabinets above me were too low. My head slammed into them, and I dropped back down onto the pillow. My heart was racing, my breath rushing in and out in frantic gasps. The sheet beneath me was drenched with sweat. There was a distant roll of thunder. Kelly stirred beside me, just enough to ask, "S'matter?"

"Go back to sleep, Kel," I said. "I'm going to go to the bathroom."

Kelly rolled over and was immediately asleep again. I pulled on a pair of sweats, slipped into my sandals, and stepped out into the cool night. I locked the camper door for Kelly's safety. As I fumbled with the lock, I found that I was trembling. I thought I had laid those demons to rest, but now after thirty years, the dream had returned. Why now? Why here?

I knew I would get too cold just standing there, but if I went back to bed, I would be unable to sleep. Perhaps this was the opportunity I had needed to straighten out my thinking about Kelly, about myself, about the inevitable day when this idyllic interlude would come to an end. The parallel loops of roadway through the campground would enable me to walk a long distance without ever getting far from the camper. I always thought better on my feet anyway.

I met Nick at Fort Riley in the summer of 1967. He and I were the only college graduates in the company who were not officers. I had taught in a boys' boarding school for one disastrous year after college, and was looking for another job when the draft caught me. In college I couldn't afford to hire others to type my term papers, so in self defense I had learned to type. Hence the Army, in its infinite wisdom, sent me to clerk school, where I had to go through the motions of learning to type all over again. Most of the others in that class came out typing by the Columbus system: discover and land. Nick was trained as a supply sergeant, a job which required the ability to read and to count -- the perfect place for a college graduate, in a typical military misuse of resources. We were part of a recently reactivated unit that would travel en masse by troop ship to Vietnam.

Thrown together as we were by the exigencies of war, Nick and I became good friends. We talked history and philosophy, and once a week we would try to solve all the world's problems at the enlisted men's club over mugs of beer. Neither of us was given to nights out on the town, so soon we were occasionally referred to as the two homos. No one meant that seriously; it was clear to all in the company that we had become brothers, not lovers.

Once aboard the USNS Geiger, Nick and I volunteered to publish the ship's newspaper, which we printed each morning on a mimeograph machine and hand delivered to the officers' quarterrs. We dragged the mattresses from our bunks into the tiny newspaper office and slept there, thus sparing us from from being doused in projectile vomiting from seasick soldiers in higher bunks.

The battalion arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. It was hot, it was dusty, we were lonely and far from home. No matter what the calendar said, it was not Christmas. An entire village had been forcibly moved half a mile down the Mekong River so that our battalion could occupy a strategic river bend. Our company headquarters was located in what had once been the home of the village headman. Every evening a dozen or more infantrymen would sit in the largest room watching televsion -- yes, we had packed a TV set and a large chest freezer aboard the troop ship, and there was television programming in English broadcast from Saigon -- and we could also watch small lizards as they lurked up high in the ceiling beams, gorging themselves on the bugs that clustered around the light bulbs.

It was an as yet unfortified camp, located in what the Army regarded as pacified territory. Villagers wandered freely through the camp after passing the most rudimentary of checkpoints, selling trinkets, pornographic photos, souvenirs, locally bottled Coca-Cola, almost anything that a G.I. might want. I will never forget the biazarre experience of squatting over the hastily-dug trench latrine while a Vietnamese woman tried to sell me a Coke. How did she think I would be able to reach for a wallet? Marijuana rolled into cigarettes and sold in meticulously ironed-out and restored American cigarette packs, and temporary bed partners, were marginally harder to find. Nick and I were not buying either one.

Nick and I shared a two-bed small room in the house rather than sleeping in one of the large tents with the men who would do the real fighting. There we could sit in our off hours and bitch about how the Army was ruining our lives, and swap stories about our imagined exploits as college students, Nick at DePauw, me at Willamette. Unlike me, Nick was able to see more than the promise of a free burial plot in our impending assignment to Southeast Asia. Back in Kansas he had raided the post library for books on Vietnamese history and culture, and even brought back an introduction to the language. Little by little he encouraged me to see this tour of duty as an opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world. We should see ourselves as tourists, Nick said, except that people might be shooting at us. Because of our jobs with the company headquarters staff, it was unlikely that we would ever have to shoot at anyone, unless there was a direct attack. We had not been trained for field operations.

The first of the boys showed up on the second day. Nick and I were taking a break on the nearest rice paddy dike when four boys appeared, barefoot, shirtless, wearing only the blue shorts that were part of their uniform for school. Before they were old enough for school, the village children went naked. The boys were fascinated by our white skin and by the hair growing on our arms.

Tran and Ky were the two who returned day after day. We discovered that Ky's father was in the South Vietnamese army, and Tran's father had been killed. Nick practiced his Vietnamese, and tried to get me to join in, but I seemed to have no ear for the language. We showed them how to throw Frisbees, even played some rudimentary games of catch. It wasn't long before both youngsters were better at these sports than I was.

In spite of the minimum of verbal communication, I was becoming quite attached to the two boys. I had always been a magnet for children. It was almost embarrassing how toddlers belonging to complete strangers would hold up their arms to be picked up in supermarkets and department stores. I was a clean-cut kid, and parents were not as suspicious of motives as they are now. At church I could always be found entertaining the young children during the break between Sunday School and the worship service. I was more comfortable with them than I was with my peers, because I was painfully shy and awkward. With the children, I could be myself.

There was something else, too. When I was physically very close to a child, I could somehow sense his or her mood. I always seemed to be able to give a smile or a soft word when it was needed. Among my family's friends, I was well known for my ability to quiet fussing children.

And so it was with Tran. Unlike American boys his age, he was completely uninhibited in his expression of emotion. Vietnamese boys thought nothing of holding hands, walking arm in arm or with arms on shoulders. If he wanted a hug, which was often, Tran would simply walk up to me with his arms open. He often wanted to cuddle in my lap and just look out at the world from a safe location. Because he and Ky had been raised without television or manufactured toys, they were not as restless and easily bored as children back home.

I was surprised as hell the first time Tran kissed me. It was exactly the kiss a child might give a parent or a close relative, except it was on the lips. Perhaps this was easier for me to accept because on my father's side of the family, kisses on the lips were routine from my aunts and uncles, though only from my father's brothers and sisters, not from their spouses. There was never anything even vaguely sexual about the times we spent with Tran and Ky.

My time with Nick and the Vietnamese boys ended too soon, and horribly. We had been in country only three weeks when a sniper's bullets snuffed out the lives of my best friend and the two young boys I had come to love like my own children. In spite of the gunfire that broke out from our side in response, this had not been a full-scale attack. It was hit and run. Tran and Ky were simply in the way. I lay in the rice paddy covered with the blood and flesh of a boy who had trusted me, and who for his trust had taken a bullet that should have killed me. I knew that my best friend was dead. My mind retreated into darkness.

It was a week before I came out of my fog in the psychiatric section of the field hospital. The Army shrink was like everyone else in the military, by the book and barely competent, but he did help me to see that Tran's death was not my fault. I would simply have to learn to live with the emptiness. I think it was about then that I began to turn my thoughts back toward teaching. I had not been able to make a difference to Tran and Ky, but perhaps I could repay the debt I owed them, and in some way carry on the legacy of Nick's teaching me, by teaching others. It was not easy to apply for teaching positions by mail from the Mekong delta, but with the help of my alma mater's teacher placement service I was offered a position at Oswego Academy near Portland, where I have been teaching ever since.

My ability to sense the emotions of others was both a blessing and a curse in the years that followed. It made me a patient and considerate lover, able to sense what my wife needed and putting her gratification ahead of my own. I remembered something my father used to say: "Love can always wait to give; lust can never wait to get." My compassion and empathy extended to my students and to total strangers, but my wife had been raised in an emotionally abusive household where the dad had made the family a fortress against the outside world. Eventually she could no longer live with the fact that I did not devote all of my attention and energy to her, although it took her twenty years to make up her mind to leave me. The lasting legacy of that marriage was my daughter Heidi. I became a single parent because my wife's way of leaving the marriage was to sleep with her boss. Heidi hated her so much for that betrayal that she refused even to stay overnight in her house, and no court would force a custody arrangement on a young teenager.

I missed being married, and I remarried too soon. To my second wife, who pursued me to the altar, I was a trophy. She had been through an abusive marriage and a messy divorce, and I was proof that she could still attract a man. When that wore thin after less than five years, she gave me my marching orders: find your own apartment within sixty days.

When I fell in love, I fell hard. Both divorces were emotionally wrenching experiences for me. I was devastated. My sense of self-worth was reduced to nearly zero. It was my relationship with my students and colleagues and my daughter that sustained me through both times. The time I spent listening to my students, the fact that I treated them in class as intelligent people who could contribute to each other's learning, was paid back to me with interest when I was the one in distress. But I vowed that I would never again fall in love. I had had enough of that kind of pain.

My walk through the chill morning darkness finally came to an end. I smiled as I remembered a story about the great educator John Dewey at Columbia. One day he came to class and began rambling on about something that was not obviously related to the course, and his bewildered students tried to follow him. When the class time ended, Dewey looked at his students and said, "Thank you. I understand that much better now." I had talked myself out, so to speak, and I understood myself much better now.

This trip was my declaration of independence. When I started out I was determined that I would never need anyone again, I would never care again, because caring only led to heartache. Then I found Kelly asleep on that picnic table. With his thin frame and olive skin he was a slightly grown up version of my Tran, my lost and destroyed Tran. And now the tears came. I stood in the road and sobbed helplessly, crying the tears I had never shed in that hospital in Vietnam, weeping at last for Tran and Ky and Nick, for a loss so devastating that I had never acknowledged it, had never mourned the loss, even when I was in the depths of despair over the failures of my marriages.

My legs refused to support me any longer, and I sat down against a log that marked a parking spot at the end of one of the loops of road. How long I sat there I do not know. I was groaning aloud, trying however not to disturb anyone. I cried until no more tears would come. My abdominal muscles were aching from the heaving sobs that had wracked my body. When at last my grief had run its course, I leaned my head back against the bare log and rested.

I knew now why I had moved so easily into a simple and boyish kind of sex with Kelly. He had stirred my unconscious memories and had broken my determination to be alone. I had reverted to the age I knew best, which was not my chronological age but the age of the people with whom I spent most of my time. I became a teenager, doing what I had never even thought of in my own sexually repressed youth: experimenting sexually with a friend. My adult self had been strong enough only to keep me from allowing him to return the favor.

At the same time, with my gift and curse of empathy, I had felt Kelly's need and answered it without thinking. I still did not understand how Kelly, who apparently had been so sexually traumatized by his stepbrother, could have felt as he did about me. It made no sense. He should have been like a frightened animal, tentative and cautious and suspicious. I might never know the answer, but I was sure I had not misinterpreted him.

In that same moment, there dawned on me with awful certainty the realization that this time with Kelly could not last. I could revert to adolescence for a while, but not for long. I really was too old to be his father, and in any case, even if we could straighten out the mess created by his running away, I would not be an acceptable guardian for any child. I was single. I lived in a one-bedroom condominium, and after the financial devastation of two divorces I could not afford to buy anything larger, not in Portland's burgeoning economy. The question was whether I could find a solution that would not leave Kelly worse off than when I found him.

At length I rose and returned to the camper. The eastern sky was brightening toward dawn when I unlocked the camper door. When I crawled back into bed with Kelly, he roused himself and turned to give me a hug. "Have you been gone a long time?" he asked.

"Yes. I had a bad dream and I had to walk around for a while to think about it."

"Was the dream about me?"

"No, Kelly. You only give me good dreams."

"I was dreaming about you again."

"Again? Do you dream about me often?"

"I've been dreaming about you for a long time."

"But Kelly, we've only known each other for two days."

He rose up on one elbow and looked down at me. "But you were in my dreams before I ever met you."

"Kel, how can that be?"

"I don't know, exactly. You remember the boys I told you about, the ones I made up in my mind to take the pain?" I nodded my assent without speaking. "There was more. When I... went away like that, there was someone else there, besides my mother and father. And then when I met you, I knew it had been you all along."

"Kelly, I just don't understand. When did this start?"

He dropped back down on his pillow. He was wide awake now, striving to explain to me how I had somehow fitted into his life. "When I lived at Freddie's house, well I already told you how we used to do things together, I mean in bed, with each other's bodies. Freddie said he knew a place on the Internet where we could read about the things we were doing. He had a computer in his room, and he looked up this story site called Nifty. That's where I read about Cody and Jeff. Did you ever see that story?"

"Yes, Kelly, I have read that story."

"Well I liked Cody's story. There were some other stories by boys who had run away or whose parents kicked them out. And when I read about Jeff taking Cody home, I wished I could leave and go with somebody who would love me. I knew that if those other boys could find someone, there was somebody who would find me. In those dreams I had where I was with my mother or my father, and sometimes at night too, there was this kind man who picked me up and held me and took me away from Jason and my stepdad. He was in my dreams so much that I knew he had to be real, somewhere. I couldn't quite see him very well, but when you held me in the shower, you felt just like he did in my dreams, and I knew that you were my Jeff." Kelly rolled over and threw his arm across my chest. "I waited for you for so long," he said. "And you finally came."

My God. Kelly didn't seem to realize that the Nifty stories were fiction. He had heard these other boys tell about being rescued, and had become convinced that this always happened for the lost boys. I thought back to the story of Cody and Jeff. I remembered how Cody tried to show affection in the only way he had ever known true affection, a sexual way; how Jeff had resisted, and told Cody it was wrong; how Cody had reacted in frustration and anger and had nearly walked out; how Jeff realized that Cody needed to love him in this way, and had given in. In Kelly's mind, the conversations I had wanted to have with him had already taken place. In his dreams and fantasies he had already expressed his frustration and need to his rescuer, to me. The longings aroused by his relationship with Freddie, the physical pleasure he had gotten in spite of the brutal attitude of Jason, he had transferred to his fantasies, and then I had stepped right into that fantasy. Fantasy and reality had become one, seamlessly blending together. That night in the shower with Kelly was not a new event for him. It was a continuation. Its outcome was already determined in Kelly's imagination.

At that moment I had no idea how I would be able to handle this situation. But at least I now understood, probably as well as I ever would, what the situation was.

"I love you, Uncle Art," he said.

I held Kelly tightly in my arms and said, "I love you, Kel. No matter what, I will always love you." I held him a moment longer, then finally relaxed. He was content. "Come on, let's get some breakfast," I said. "We have a big day ahead of us."

About the Vietnam dream: The real life Nick and Tran were both killed in Vietnam, but not at the same time, and not under the circumstances depicted in the story. The episode of grief delayed really did happen to me, but on a different occasion. Everything I said about Nick's character is true of the young man I knew. I have simply changed his name. Most of the other details in Art's recollections of Vietnam are accurate descriptions of what I eperienced there.

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