A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 21


I stayed on the couch and Dr. Jordan stayed in his chair a few feet away. The silence was everywhere. Random thoughts rushed around inside my head going nowhere. I recognized muffled traffic sounds coming from the window. Words were at a premium.

I don't have a clue what was on Dr. Jordan's mind but he seemed to be as speechless as I found myself. The letters had their own life. The words defined Keith in a way that I didn't recognize. He never had much to say. I had no memory of anything he said. His letters were the sum total of who he was, and by the final letter, it is obviously I no longer knew the depth of him.

"Thomas? How did he die?"

"I don't know. The letters I sent him started coming back. He knew he wasn't coming home. I think I knew before the letters started coming back. I guess I hadn't gotten a letter for a month or more. There were letters I hadn't opened but by that time he should have been close. He would have called me as soon as he got back to the world. I didn't expect any more letters by that time. Then the letters I'd sent to him, the ones with his address on them, started coming back to me. I knew what it meant. I didn't need to read the stamp they placed on it."

"That must have been a shock, difficult for you."

"I don't remember that. He'd been gone a year. It didn't have much of an impact. I felt sad. I felt empty inside, but I'd felt that all my life. How did I separate my usual unhappiness with my life from this? I don't know I did. It was just another kick in the balls."

"You never wanted to know what happened. Like with Tray. He'd have wanted you to know," he said. "You were the one he was coming home to."

"I suppose. I went over to his house to find out about the funeral. His old man told me to get the fuck away from his door and never come back. It was his kid. I didn't go back. Never saw where he was brought home. I read the papers so I'd know, but never saw anything. I was relatively helpless. Kids don't have any rights to information. I didn't know how to find out what I wanted to know. I just let it go."

"He never came back," Dr. Jordan said.

"What? How do you know?" I asked, sitting up on the couch when he gave me some information I'd never been able to get.

"I sent for his records. I was a doctor in the army. Before I became a shrink. Those dog tags, your reaction to the dog tags, made me curious about them. I called an old friend from my old army days. He's still an army doctor. No, imagination I tell him.

I knew he could get his jacket. What I didn't expect was how quickly he got them for me. Makes interesting reading. That Lieutenant Brown recommended him for a Silver Star. He got two purple hearts while he was in-country. I never saw him mention them in the letters," he said.

"He was wounded and never told me?" I said.

"Didn't want you to worry probably," he said. "Sounds like he cared about you."

"Yeah," I said.

I sat with my hands folded between my knees while I was studying his burgundy carpet and where my feet were planted on it. I heard Dr. Jordan moving in the room. He got up and opened a drawer in his desk, returning to his chair with me still lost in my own distant thoughts.

"Clark, Michael K.," He said, looking up from the file and at me to see if I was back. "Do you want to know?"

"I think it's time I know," I said. "Yes."

"Most of it is army forms and his military record. He scored marksman in basic training. His rating was average in most areas. Most of his test scores were average. He volunteered for Vietnam.

"He what?" I said.

"He requested Nam. Here's the request signed by a company commander. You didn't know that?"

"No, I didn't think anyone volunteered for there," I said. "Keith wasn't particularly patriotic, no more than I was, he was just older, had more to lose by being closer to draft age."

"Well, he volunteered. For the most part it is an undistinguished service record in the beginning. Got an article 15 for insubordination. Two, both in Nam, both filed by the same Sergeant. Seems they disagreed about some of their extra patrols. Keith a trouble maker?"

"No. Not even. He was no wimp either. He'd stand and fight if you got him mad," I said. "He didn't go looking for trouble."

"He made E-3 after arriving in name. Lost it temporarily after the article 15, got it back. He was promoted in the field to E-4 by Lieutenant Brown shortly before his death. He commanded the rifle squad when he was killed. Apparently Lt. Brown had a different opinion from the sergeant.

"Here's the report on that. His final patrol. It's also signed by Lt. Brown. There is a letter to Keith's father.

Mr. Clark,

I am Lt. Brown, your son's commanding officer. I don't usually write the family of one of my men, but Michael's sacrifice has convinced me to put your son in for the Silver Star. He was a good soldier although I have only been in Vietnam for a few months. I found I could depend on him to assist me in making some of the more difficult decisions I was faced with. I didn't hesitate promoting Michael, wanting him in charge of his rifle squad in spite of his protests. He was an exemplary soldier and human being, living up to what I expected of him in a position of command.

Please except my condolences and I hope in some small way this letter and the knowledge that your son died while trying to save the lives of his men will strengthen you in your hour of need. God Bless you.

Lieutenant Brown

"He didn't go by the name Michael," I said.

"Maybe he did over there," he said. "The army's not much with nicknames. Everything I read refers to him as Michael or Mike."

"His father could care less," I said.

"You really think so? I find it hard to believe he didn't feel some lose when his son died," Dr. Jordan said.

"They hated each other. He didn't care about Keith."

"So you should have gotten the letter?"

"Keith would have wanted me to get it. I was all he had. He was all I had then," I said. "I would like to have known those things."

"Life is unkind some times. This is the report filed by Lt. Brown on Sgt. Michael Clark's death. Two other boys died that day and three were wounded. They must have been hit hard.

"On March 23, 1970, Sgt. Michael Clark led his rifle squad out on a routine patrol west of Fire Base Charlie. This was a routine mission though the reports of enemy infiltration had grown in the preceding week. There were no unusual circumstances or events that would have indicated the kind of contact made by Sgt. Clark's squad.

At or about 18:30 hours Sgt. Clark's squad came under heavy sniper fire. The NVA had set up an ambush on their return route to base. Two of Sgt. Clark's men were wounded in the initial exchange. These men were pinned down by enemy fire in a position to the right and a hundred yards from the rest of the squad.

Sgt. Clark, with no regard for his own safety, went out to bring back one of the wounded. He was struck twice by rifle fire according to Corp. Evans, his radioman. The enemy fire increased, first coming from overhead in the towering palms near a sandy beach and then from several dozen ground troops. Sgt. Clark ordered Pvt. Evans to call for any available air support as well as a helicopter evacuation to take his men out. He then crawled back to retrieve the second of the two wounded men in spite of attempts by Corp. Evans and Corp. Wilson to restrain him.

Approximately seventy-five yards from where his squad was pinned down, Sgt. Clark reached the second wounded man. He was deceased from his wounds. Sgt. Clark ordered that air support lay down fire as soon as possible, giving the co-ordinance to his radio man to relay to command. I monitored this conversation from my headquarters, learning that Sgt. Clark had been wounded while saving one of his men.

The radio man protested Sgt. Clark's orders, yelling back and forth, Evans contention, they were too close to the attacking force to survive an air strike and were unable to change their position because of the persistent sniper fire. Evans then took a round while relaying information from Sgt. Clark. Pvt. Barkley spoke into the radio and said they were under increasing fire from snipers overhead and what seemed like an increasing ground force moving toward Sgt. Clark and the squad.

In his advanced position, Sgt. Clark managed to take out one of the snipers and engaged the ground force as it was closing on his position. He came under more intense fire until his position fell silent. It was my decision to follow his order for the air strike, and I called immediately for a strike on the initial co-ordinance he gave.

There were three jets called back from a mission along the Cambodian border who hadn't used their ordinance. They relayed that they were two minutes from the site with a full compliment of napalm, which they proceeded to drop on the advancing force. Corp. Evans radio was keyed open during this entire exchange, and the frantic scene immediately as the radio broadcast the silence with the sounds of a raging fire in the background.

Two helicopters were already on the way to pull Sgt. Clark's squad out. Pvt. Barkley said that Sgt. Clark's position was engulfed in flames. He seemed shaken but then confirmed all enemy fire had ceased. The entire area in front of his position was in flames.

The helicopters arrived shortly thereafter and under some small arms fire, they pulled out the survivors as what was identified as an advancing NVA company rushed toward their position. The decision was made by the men on the ground to pull out what remained of the squad and attempt to recover the bodies of the dead on a later operation. Because of our subsequent orders to evacuate Fire Base Charlie, we were never able to retrieve Sgt. Clark and Pvt. Raymond's remains, though there location is documented in this report.

There will be an investigation of these facts, but all indications are that Sgt. Clark knew his situation was desperate and he sacrificed himself so that his men could get out alive. I have recommended him for the Silver Star for heroism above and beyond the call of duty. I only regret we had to leave him behind.

Risking the lose of more good men to retrieve the bodies would seem to be contrary to the sacrifice Sgt. Clark made to save the men in his squad. He was a fine soldier and I was proud to serve with him. These facts are true according to my memory and notes of the events that took place that day.

Lt. Brown

"He was a hero," Dr. Jordan said, closing his hand in the folder.

"I guess. I'd rather he had come home. I still don't see the sense of that war," I said.

"We are all victims, Thomas. We don't get to choose the wars. That's left to wiser men," he said.

"It's left to other men that keep themselves well beyond the fire. There wouldn't be so many wars if they had to go out on patrol in the wars they choose," I said. "Keith died for fat old men that had dreams of power and glory."

"I suppose. Is all of this going to cause you more difficulty sleeping? I know facts like these can't be pleasant."

"I don't know. I don't know what it means. After all these years and suddenly its all back. I really thought it was over a long time ago. It would have been better to leave it alone."

"Some times it isn't over until it is over."

"What's that mean?"

"Life goes on, Thomas. We can only hang on at times. The events and what's been happening, the information you've been given. It's all meant to bring closure. In spite of you thinking it would be easier to just leave it alone, many times it haunts us deep down in side. Haunts out dreams. We don't know why, but often it is the result of some door slammed behind us without taking the time to close it properly."

"I had closure. My best friend died in a war that meant nothing. He didn't come home. It was closure. Our friendship was over," I said. "That's all there is. This is just opening it all back up again."

"Maybe, maybe not. You still have the memory. He was still the one, more than anyone else, who helped you survive the darkness," he said. "You need to see it through."

"Yeah! I suppose that's true. I can only relate to him as a friend I once had at a time I've put behind me. What else can I do? I won't relive that. I can't go there. I won't go there."

"That's all well and good. There is another way for you to get the closure you need. It might help you to follow through now," he said. "It could ease the pain you feel over losing Keith."

"What pain? It's over. How?" I said suspiciously. "How do I change any of this? I want it to be over. How did we get here. I came to you because of… because of… that boy."

"The boy that lead to the dog tags that led to this file. I can stop if you like."

"I guess I need to know. Let me have a cup of coffee. This is all so confusing. Everything was fine. It's not fair, going through it all over again. I lost him once."

The sounds outside had diminished. As I stood pouring my coffee, a single car passed a street that had been busy when I came in. I got lost wondering if I had put sugar in or not. I added more without testing it. I really didn't want the coffee. I needed a break from Dr. Jordan. I needed a break from Michael Clark the hero and his adoring Lieutenant. I took my time locating the couch once more.

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