A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 19

Going Home

Sitting up in a motel room trying to put pieces of my past back into place wasn't anything I intended to do. I seldom looked back at my roots. There was nothing in my childhood that made it worth living. By the time I met Keith my life was pretty much set for me. Meeting him didn't alter anything about my life but his friendship gave me the strength to finish.

I had turned sixteen by the time he went into the army. He had little alternative. He wasn't college material and never did well in school. He was never trained for a trade. He graduated but it took a struggle because he didn't want to be in school. The law demanded he be there and there weren't any acceptable options for him then.

Keith joined the army to get the training he wanted all along. There was no place else for him to go for that, and he faced being drafted even if he could find a place where he could learn a trade. Keith simply wasn't a very valuable member of society, so he was a prime candidate for our latest war or police action or whatever we were calling it then. How time numbs the senses to the past.

I did need to survive for most of two years without him. I thought at the time I'd miss him a lot more than he would miss me. Not known for his writing skills, I figured I'd see him off and wouldn't know anything until he returned. I was surprised when his letters showed up every couple of weeks. It was good to hear from him and to know he was alive. Only, I became more and more worried about him and while his first letters were great, the letters that followed turned pretty hopeless.

I am not sure I could have made it through those things he made it through. I don't know where the strength came from. The one thing that became obvious after he was there a few months, he wanted to come home and he didn't believe he would. He credited his father with his survival, "That son of a bitch was meaner than any of the NVA.

The one thing I did know was that he feared being left there. He wanted to come home under his own power or at least in a box. He did not want to serve eternity in the soil of a foreign country. I never understood that much. Keith never believed in much. He wasn't a flag raiser or a bible beater, but he became both, in some ways, while there. The change was noticeable to me because it was the kind of thing we discussed when we were kids.

We lived in a country where we had it good, only neither of us had it very good. We lived in a country where all men were created equal, only some were a lot more equal than others. We both had no family to depend on but we were told how important family, God, and country was. None of it applied to us. Nothing made much difference. Only one thing had gotten me out alive, and that was my own determination to find something after I turned eighteen. I had a desire to find and make my own life without having my mother standing over me, threatening me with retribution and anger.

No, all the things America was supposed to be didn't apply to us. Yes, we ate well. Yes, we were clothed. Yes, we went to school. No, there wasn't any love or warmth or encouragement. We pretty much made it on our own. No, if we'd been born in India or Africa, we might not have survived at all, but that had more to do with the quality of medicine than it did with America being a great fortress in the storm.

As I said, some people were born more equal than others. The kids with families and money got deferments and went on to college and poor kids got the opportunity to serve. Thinking this was the best of Keith's life was hard. He had it mean back in Baltimore. He found a way to survive it, and then his country sent him to Vietnam to die for those more equal parts of our society who would go on to be doctors, lawyers, and Indian Chiefs. Keith would go on to be fertilizer, wrapped in our countries flag, and no one would ever know his name.

Keith's father had murdered his step-mother the year I graduated high school. He died in jail some years later. He had no brothers and sisters he knew of. In fact there was no one alive that remembered he lived. I wasn't even sure he lived, but then there were the letters. There were the words that spoke of how a kid that barely made it, suddenly found out his biggest battle wasn't with his old man. His world had expanded and now he was in the middle of some other father's fight.

I don't know I read the last letters that closely back then. They brought me down, and I'd skim over them to get to the parts where he mentioned me or something I could relate to. There came a time I didn't want to know any more about his suffering. I didn't want to hear any more about Tray and the girlfriend that dumped him while he was fighting to keep America free.

At first I wished I was Keith's age and I was the one watching his back and he was watching mine, but that passed, and I was glad I wasn't there enduring what he endured. I felt bad I felt that way, but I couldn't hide that I wanted to live. I didn't want to kill anyone or fight anyone because the politicos, who never once gave a damn about my drunken mother abusing me, said it was necessary to preserve democracy around the world. The world didn't seem very democratic when I looked at my mother's disapproving face every time I came home.

Yes, had I been the same age as Keith, I'd have gone down the glory road and discovered for myself that glory didn't come without a price. Certainly I was glad that America was free but I came to believe we could maintain our freedom without killing Vietnamese. I thought we could maintain freedom with a lot better results if we learned to talk to our adversaries rather than threaten them because we could kick their asses if we were willing to spend the lives to do it.

My feet hit the street and I was among the unwashed ingrates that ate teargas in a war no one knew was ever fought. I was fighting for Keith and Tray and everyone in his squad, his company, his entire fucking army. I put my body on the line against the cops and the powers that be. I felt no guilt because my best friend was in Vietnam. I did feel guilty that my efforts, our efforts were not enough to get him home before he came home in a body bag.

I never had anything against one man that went to fight my country's war. I respected they did what it was they had to do. I knew Keith had to do it because there was no way he could avoid it. We talked for weeks about ways he might avoid the draft. He knew because he had no skills and wasn't well educated that he would end up over there. Neither of us doubted that at all. In the equality of things Keith equaled soldier.

I was an equal opportunity protester. I wanted all our men to come home, not just Keith. I wanted the withdrawal to treat all men equal and get them all out alive. At the time I suppose I was idealistic, though I thought I was right I didn't see our soldiers as being wrong. They were trained to follow orders and their orders were simple. I merely wanted the orders to change, and they had, but not in time to save the only guy I'd ever known as a friend. In the end my war protest days had ended in failure. The thing I wanted most was denied me and I learned to put it behind me along with everything else I'd left in Baltimore all those years ago.

How in the hell I ended up in a motel room with a stack of letters from a long ago dead friend, I don't know. I don't know why seeing his name had struck me in the way it had. I had no idea how his name got on those dog tags. I asked for his dog tags, before he went over there. He let me wear them while he was home but he told me he had to have them back. He wanted to go have a pair made for me with his name on them, duplicates that novelty shops made while you waited. I didn't want duplicates. I wanted the ones he had worn.

How did that boy end up with dog tags with Keith's name on them. I hadn't spoken to anyone that knew Keith since I left my neighborhood on graduation day. No one knew we were friends. Very few people had ever heard me mention his name and none of them knew who he was. I hardly remembered who he was. I'd put my past behind me and here I was, having dreams of burning alive, lying up in a dive reading letters from my past.

It took two days for me to be able to think about going home. I just wanted to lie up there and shut out the world. I couldn't do that. I did have a life. I did have things I was responsible to do. I did walk out of a court proceeding that stared me. I'd need to jump through hoops to explain that one. At least I had the good taste to act like a nut in front of my shrink. Now he knew what he was up against.

It only took me twenty minutes to get to the house. Kathy was waiting at the door when I came from the garage. She hugged me tightly and we kissed. At least she didn't meet me with a packed bag and a divorce decree.

"Did you take care of it?" She asked as we walked to the kitchen holding hands.

"No," I said.

"John Morales called. You should call him. I think he's trying to fire you. Jay Jordan called, I think he's trying to save you. They seemed very disturbed, Thomas. What's it all about? What are those?" She asked, indicating the letters I was carrying.

"Nothing. Letters. Old letters," I said.

"Can I see?" She asked seeming okay with me.

"No. I'm not ready for that," I said.

"Who from. Some long lost mistress you've kept hidden from me all these years?" She asked, kidding me.

"No. They are from Keith," I said.

"He was in the military?" She said.

"Yes," I said. "Army."

"I've never seen these. I thought we shared everything?" She said.

"We do, Kathy. These have been in the bottom of our safe deposit box since before we got married. I've just never taken them out."

"Wow! No wonder they look yellowed. Can we talk about them?"

"Not much to talk about. You know he was my friend. He wrote me after he went into the military," I said.

"I see. Vietnam?"

"Yes, Vietnam."

"I see," she said.

"Remember the time we closed the highway in front of school. All the kids sat in the middle and wouldn't move. The cops came and wanted to arrest us all, but the governor said to leave us alone until we were ready to move," she said, smiling. "We stayed out there until midnight that first time."

"Sit-ins. Our weapon of choice. Yes, I do remember that. We weren't even dating then," I said.

"Yes, but we held hands while we sat down in the street," she said.

"That must have been the first time," I said.

"I think it was. See where it got us. Two kids and a house. Be careful who you hold hands with."

"Yeah!" I said.

"Isn't there anyone else you can talk to about this? Why now with all the other stuff going on, Thomas. The dream, courts, psychiatrist. Haven't you got enough happening without digging this up right now?"

"It's all part of the same thing," I said.

"How could that be? Mr. Morales sounded worried. Dr. Jordan said for you to call the minute you returned home. They don't want you to do this, Thomas. They care what happens to you. I care."

"I know you do, dear, but there comes a time when you've got to figure it out for yourself before you can let anyone help you. I'm at that point. I have no idea what it all means. What's happening is impossible. The entire sequence of events is too bizarre to mean anything, but it's all connected somehow. I know that now."

"He died?"


"I'm sorry," she said, squeezing my hand.

"I know."

We sat and drank some tea. I took my shower and changed clothes before facing my professional team on the phone. Kathy sat beside me at the kitchen table as I made the calls.

"John Morales, please. Thomas Brittle. He's waiting for my call."

Mr. Morales wasn't pleased with my antics. He'd successfully argued that we should talk to both of the boys involved in my second arrest. The prosecutor had once more stalled and the judge gave him until the following week to come up with names and addresses. Francis Crumb had already given us his information, so we only needed to identify and locate boy two.

"The judge was on our team until you took your walk, Mr. Brittle. What in the hell is on your mind, pulling a stunt like that?"

At least he waited until the end to call me crazy. That seemed hopeful, and he hadn't quit.

"It's difficult to explain. What happened to the dog tags," I asked. "I want them."

"Dog tags? Oh, Jay had a pair of dog tags. He took them. He wants to talk to you and I think you need to keep seeing him until all of this is over."

"Yes, you're probably right. I'm going to call him next. You can talk about it on the golf course," I said.

Jay Jordan had to return my call after he finished with his patient. He too seemed a bit miffed with me. I mostly listened to him explain how bad I made him look saying I was sane and then going off like I was crazy. No one walks out of court like that. Well, almost no one.

"Where are the tags?" I asked.

"In my office," he said.

"I want them," I said.

"You can pick them up at our next session. We can talk about them. Who do they belong to?"

"Me," I said.

"You are Michael K. Clark?"

"I bought them. The tags are mine," I said.

"Who is he?"

"He's nobody," I said.

"I might not be the brightest psychiatrist in the arena, but I saw your face when you took off out of the courtroom. I saw your face when you read the name on the dog tags. You might be able to fool everyone else, but that name hit you square between the eyes when you read it. Who is Michael K. Park?"

"It's a long story," I said.

"Okay, I've got them. You come and tell me the story, say Thursday at four. I'll have plenty of coffee and we can send out for sandwiches if need be. If you want the dog tags I'll trade them for what it is they signify to you."

"I don't know I can talk about it," I said.

"I sure as hell can't give you the dog tags if they are going to make you act like a god damn fool. You can convince me, Thursday, 4p.m. Be there."

The phone clanked in my ear. How did he know if I'd be there or not?

"Not happy campers?" Kathy said.

"Not even. Your husband sure knows how to upset people. I can't wait to see the judge again," I said.

"Why's that?"

"I walked out of court," I said.

"Nice touch. You have something against the judge?"

"No, but I think he has something against me," I said.

"What did you do for two days, dear?" She finally asked.

"Thought," I said.

"You couldn't think here?"

"I didn't want to be here."

"Where were you?"

"Dear, I was nowhere. Believe me when I say that. I took a motel room. Caprice Motel. It looks just like it sounds," I said.

"I bet. Do they rent rooms by the hour there?"

"Probably. I didn't ask. I paid cash so they couldn't trace me in case they send out ads with the daily specials listed."

"Sounds romantic, Thomas."

"I'm sorry, Kathy. I know this isn't fair to you. I can't explain it yet. I might never be able to explain it. I've got to take care of it now. I need time," I said.

"Thomas, you've had twenty-five years. I think I can spare a few more days. You do what you must do. I'll be here when it's over."

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