A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 20


Dr. Jordan had the dog tags on his desk when I arrived. True to his word, there was a coffee pot in front of the window. It was new. A can of Maxwell House Coffee was beside the coffee maker. The pot was newly filled with dark rich looking coffee.

"Can I see them," I said.

He leaned forward from his usual position. The tags sat not quite touching the manila file with my name etched on the tag. He tossed them at me and my hockey player reaction had me snag them out of the air.

"What's it about, Thomas."

"I don't know," I said.

"What do you know. I want to know about those tags. What does the K. stand for, Thomas."

"How'd you figure it out?" I said.

"Wasn't difficult. You don't come with a very large cast of players," he said.

"His name was Kennith. Odd spelling but his family was from Kentucky. He went by Keith because he hated his name."

"What's in the bundle?" He asked.

"His letters," I said.

"I'm going to ask you again. What's going on? Who are these kids? What do they have to do with Michael Clark?"

"Dr. Jordy, I don't have a clue. I don't know. Until Crumb gave me those dog tags, there was no connection between them and Keith."

"You turned blue and rushed out of the court. Why?"

"Seeing his name. It struck me hard. I don't know why," I said.

"What about the letters. We going to take a look?"

"I think so. You can look them over. Do you want to do it while I'm here or I can come back after you've read them," I said.

"I have left the evening free. Let's see if we can't get to the other side of this today if we can. You willing to give it a try?"

"At this point I'll do anything to end this. I can't handle much more of this. I thought my life was under control, but now, I don't know anything any more."

I fixed myself a cup of coffee while Dr. Jordan carefully opened one envelop after another, replacing one letter before going to the next. It was almost dark by the time he'd put the letters down, half read, half unread.

"How old were you?"

"Sixteen when he left."

"How did they make you feel. Knowing your only friend was losing it," he said.

"He wasn't losing it. He was depressed because he was there."

"Were you depressed because he was there?"


"Did you want to be there with him instead of this, Tray, I believe?"

"Sure. At first. Not after a few months. I stopped reading the entire letters," I said.

"What did you read?" He asked.

"Skimmed over the depressing crap and looked for stuff about me, home, anything but that shit he was in. I didn't want to know," I said.

"You didn't go?"

"No. I went to college."

"You felt guilty you didn't go and your friend went?"

"I protested the war. When I was still in high school and then when I got to college."

"You a hippie?" He asked.

"No. I was a kid that didn't think the war was right," I said.

"How did you know what was right or wrong. Do you think we get involved in wars for the fun of it?"

"I don't know why?" I said. "You'd think after a few thousand years we'd figure something out besides killing each other. War is just legal killing by the state," I said.

"You against the death penalty?" He asked.

"Yes. I'm against all killing. State sanctioned is the worst," I said.

"Why's that?"

"We claim to be moral and religious. We have no right to kill, no matter how powerful the politicians think they are," I said.

"Abortion?" He asked.

"Look, I'm not here to discuss politics."

"Just trying to get an idea of what direction your sympathy goes in."

"I think there should be alternatives to abortion. Liberal adoption laws. Shit, adopted parents can't be any worse than the real ones. There should be liberal contraception and liberal education," I said.

"Oh, you're liberal?" He said.

"On education, certainly. The more knowledge the better," I said.

"Good, good. I feel the same way. About knowledge, that is. I don't have opinions about big issues. I'm not qualified," he said.

"Right!" I said.

"Want to visit the couch?"


"I think we need to go into the rest of the letters together," he said.

"Why the rest," I said. "Why not the first?"

"Most Vietnam veterans went over there thinking they were upholding the values of America. Lots stopped believing that before they came home. Many felt the war was wrong. It sounds like Keith thought that way. Since you've never really read the entire letters, well, perhaps its time you dealt with his reality. Maybe you can get over the guilt you feel," he said.

"I don't feel guilty. I was a kid. There was nothing I could do," I said.

"Lie down and humor me, okay? Have you had the dream?"

"Yes," I said.

"What's the release phrase?"

"Holy smoke."

"Does it work?"


"Trust me, Thomas. We're going to solve the mystery today. I want you to leave here today feeling like you at least understand what is happening to you. I think we can do that."

Dr. Jordan read through the next letters in the pile. I'd read them all while in the motel room, so there was nothing new. There were four letters I'd never read. I read the first few paragraphs of the first of the four, and I kept writing Keith but I never read anything else he sent me. I still couldn't read them. Twenty-five years later I still couldn't open them.

After another hour he got to the final four. He removed the letter after putting away the previous letter. He sat looking at it for a long time without speaking. For the first time he read without reading aloud. He looked at the other three letters, still unopened. He read the letter to himself again and I started crying. He did not console me or tell me it was okay to cry. I hadn't cried when I read it. I merely put it back in the envelope and decided not to read his letters any longer.

After my crying slowed he said, "Do you want me to read it aloud, or do you want to continue to avoid the truth."

"Read it," I said, feeling as though I'd been speared.

Dear Tommy,

I have been trying to write this since yesterday, but I can't write about it. I figured the worst that could happen to me had already happened. Being in this hell is as bad as it gets. I guess you're tired of listening to me whine about it. That's why its hard to write this. I thought of you all last night. How I'd like to look into those innocent eyes of yours. There is no innocents here, kid. I thought I'd seen it all but I hadn't.

Tray took a mortar round yesterday on the way back from patrol. It was bad. I've never been alone since I been here, but I'm alone now, dude. Tray and I kept each other alive all these months. He only had two weeks left. The Lieutenant talked about pulling him off the line in a few days so he didn't take any risks.

I've tried to remember all the things we've talked about. He loved his family so much and they wrote him every day. He got letters and packages all the time. There's a box here for him now. I want to write them but I don't know what to tell them. He read me their letters and shared everything with me. I had little I could give to him but my friendship. When you live with someone, watch people die around you, you watch your bud's back. You get close while you do it. I didn't think I'd ever get as close to anyone as we got, but Tray was right up there with you, dude. How do I tell his people he's dead?

That's one I've got to work out on my own, I guess. I only have four weeks, Tommy. Four weeks and back to the world. Some times I don't think I'll make it. Now, I don't know if I care. No one else talks to me but the Lieutenant. The guys called us Salt & Pepper. The blacks hated Tray for being my friend. The whites hate me for being his friend. No one tried to help him, even the medic got lost, not that anyone could have done anything.

As bad as its been I've always had Tray to talk to. Now I ain't go no one and my best friend died in my arms. What bummer. I'd even take one of the old man's beatings over this.

I'll write more later. I can't think right now. Be cool, dude.



"Wow! That's a tough one," Dr. Jordan said, reaching for the Kleenex.

"Yeah! I didn't read any more. I never finished that one. I kept writing him every few days, but I didn't want to get any mail from him. Then, my letters started coming back. I knew. He knew. He was just waiting to die."

"Do I read the rest of them? Or you want to leave them sealed?"

"Can't get any worse," I said. "That tore my heart out then and it does now. Whoever said war is hell sure underestimated it."

Dear Tommy,

Sorry I haven't written in a few days. Not much to say. We've been on patrol every night for weeks. We're short again and can't go out until we get two more guys. They come and get a few guys now and again to fill out another patrol.

Oh yeah! I'm top dog now. I'm the oldest guy in country in my squad. I go out point on patrols and try to keep the newbees alive. It ain't easy dude. How the hell I made it, I don't know. These guys get younger all the time. I think maybe if I put them back in the squad, they won't get it so fast, but they do. We see it first. Damn gooks are everywhere.

I'm fine. Still ain't written Tray's people. I can't right now. Maybe in a few days. I really miss the guy. The Lieutenant gave me his box. Said he'd usually return it, but he knew Tray would want me to have it. The other guys wanted some of the cookies. I ate every fucking one of them and nearly puked, but I wasn't letting those fuckers eat one crumb. I got dry socks. I got almost enough to wear a new pair every day until I get home, dude.

Yeah, I'm getting real short now. Lieutenant says he'll pull me off the line before my final two weeks starts. Says he should have pulled Tray out sooner. He liked him. He said he didn't want to separate us. I hate officers, but Brown, he's cool. Actually a guy you can talk to. Not many of those here.

I can't believe it is almost over, Tommy. Just a few more weeks and I'll be seeing you again. Some times I wake up and think I won't make it back. Man I don't want to die in this place.



Dear Tommy,

Two days and two weeks, dude. Man I can't wait. I want to get to Tokyo and get a room and stay in the baths for a couple of days before they ship me back home. I will come into San Francisco first and then fly to BWI. Will you be there? I can't wait, dude. I never thought the day would come. It seems like I been here forever. Thinking it is almost over is weird. I don't know what I want to do first. Sleep about a week. Maybe sleep in a tub. My feet are rotting again. Man, I'm a mess. You won't know me. I'll where a sign with my name in big letters so you know me.

I've got another patrol and two newbees came yesterday. One of them is scrawny like you. The rifle is bigger than he is. He doesn't know anything and I want to teach him before I go home. Maybe he can make it too, huh? I'm going to try. I got to get out of here and get some chow before we go out. I'll write more later.



"Here's the final one. He seems to be almost looking forward to coming home. At least he got to the end of it. He did have hope," Dr. Jordan said.

"How cruel is that? Fucker stayed on patrol to try to help the new kids survive. Fucker died thinking about the guys he was leaving behind. Fucker didn't care about me waiting for him," I said, more bitter than I ever thought I was.

Dear Tommy,

Okay, dude, this is the real deal. This is the most important thing I ever asked you to do. I got this feeling and I want you to promise me one thing. I never wrote Tray's people. I couldn't. I'm so close to going home, I want to go in person. I want them to know he didn't die alone. I want them to know he died in my arms, looking into my eyes. It was kind of peaceful, and quick, dude. He was there, looking at me, and he just died like that.

You got to let them know that if anything happens to me. I don't want them reading, Your Son Is Dead, and not knowing how he died. It was dusk, we'd been out awhile after dinner. We hadn't found anyone and Charlie was in his tunnels, waiting for the dark. There were three mortar rounds. Poof, Poof, Poof. I was off to his left and one landed right in front of him. His chest took the brunt of it.

"Man, that was close," he said.

He didn't even know his chest was full of shrapnel. He thought it had just knocked him down. There was a lot of blood but I couldn't tell where he was hit.

"You're going to be okay. I'll get you out of here," I told him.

I wanted to pick him up and carry him, but one of the guys stopped me. They were calling for a helicopter.

"Hey, Keith, I don't want to leave you. You'll get your ass shot off without me," he said. He still didn't know how bad he was hit. He laughed a weak laugh and grabbed my shirt like he finally felt the pain. That was it. He closed his eyes and said, "Momma."

I knew he was dead. He didn't suffer, Tommy, and you got to let his momma know his last word was about her. She needs to know that. You and I don't have a fucker that cares about us. Tray had people that loved him. They got to know how he died. If I don't get back, you go to Newark. You see his family. I'm writing down his home address, and all his information. The army already got all his stuff and sent it. I just want them to know how he died. Okay?

See you soon.



"No you won't," I said.

"He sounds like one hell of a friend," Dr. Jordan said.

"Yeah, he was hell," I said.

"How do you feel?"

"Like he just died again. Like he was just ripped out of my body. I feel angry and mean. I miss him," I said and there was nothing left to say.

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