A Long Time Passing

by Rick Beck

Chapter 22

Home Comes A Hero

"Have you been reading the news?"

"No, I carefully avoid the news. I don't want to cloud my thoughts with the reality around me."

"Haven't you wondered how I got this file so quickly. Obviously it would have been filed deep in the army depot archives with millions of other files just like it. No computers then. Yet, in a few days, here it is. Copies of everything," he said.

"No, I really didn't wonder about it. You got it. I now know he died there, trying to be a hero. He didn't come home. I went on with my life. What else could I do? I was a kid. My life was changing. I was graduating high school a month later. What could I do?" I said, pacing like I had that first day.

"Do you know where his mother is?"

"His mother? She died. Had cancer or something. She had moved to… I don't remember. I think he said Texas. She moved to Texas and remarried. He hadn't seen her in years. Mostly because of how his old man was. She couldn't get near him without a war breaking out. She wrote him and told him she was dying of cancer. It wasn't long before he left for Vietnam. It was after he came out of basic and infantry school. Austin, no, maybe Houston, I don't remember."

"Her new name? Do you remember that?"

"He wouldn't have used her name. He called her, "my mother." That's all I ever knew."

"Did he have any other relatives? Aunts & Uncles? Half brothers and sisters from his mother's new marriage? Did he speak of any other family?"

"No. Had an uncle killed in WWII. Never old enough to be married. I don't know about his mother's family. He never talked about her. The step-mother had been married to his father for years and years. It's all he knew."

"In September there was a lot of talk of improving relations with Vietnam. We've sent some officials to open a consul there. They have been discussing establishing trade relations."

"The war just ended twenty years ago. Hell, we never fought Castro and we don't even talk to him. That can't be true," I said, unexpectedly angered by the prospect of dealing with my countries bitter enemy.

I believed people should talk rather than fight. Hell, let them talk each other to death if need be, but why send kids to die because the old farts didn't know how to talk to one another? Why didn't they establish trade relations before they fought a war?"

"As a token of good will the Vietnamese people returned nine bodies of US servicemen," he said.

I sat back on the couch, processing what he was saying. None of it added up until he mentioned the bodies being returned. I looked inside my cup of coffee.



"They found him?"

"Yes. They've identified the body. His file was right on top when I called for it. They are trying to locate his next of kin. It sounds like that's you," he said without hesitating.

"We're not related," I said.

"Yes, you're related in spirit. You're related in a way that bound you together in life and it binds you together in death. You are now in a position to welcome him home. Keith came home last month. It took them all this time to identify him. They haven't been able to locate next of kin. The army has changed a lot. They want him buried with honors at Arlington. I think he would want you to be there. You interested?"

I'd lived decades with Keith absent from my life. We'd only been friends a few years. It didn't seem to matter. I still pictured him as he was when he left in his uniform the last time I saw him. For years I couldn't picture him at all. There were no pictures of him to remind me what he looked like. Kids didn't think they might need a picture so they could remember what their best friend looked like. For all those years I couldn't picture his face, but sitting in Dr. Jordan's office, I could see him as clearly as the last time I saw him.

"They want a war protester to help bury a war hero?" I said. "I'm sure I'm in the FBI files."

"It's over, Thomas. These are different times. We've finally forgiven each other. We all fought that war. Those of us that went there and those of us that fought our government in the street, we all fought and its over and everyone can come home now. It's time we forgive each other."

"You said they couldn't identify him. How's that? I thought they could identify anyone now. They just took the guy out of the Unknown's Tomb because they could identify him."

"Keith has no living relative that anyone knows of for DNA tests. According to the clerk I talked to, they had diagrams drawn of where Keith was when the napalm was dropped that day. The Vietnamese diagram of where this body was found corresponds with it. The wounds correspond with the wounds he received prior to the bombing. The other body found was that of the soldier Keith was trying to rescue. He has a million family members for DNA. The bodies were burnt, causing mummification, but DNA was preserved in some of the bone tissue."

"What about his dog tags?" I asked, trying to put something together in my mind.

"There were none found," he said, as I held the dog tags that were delivered to me in court.

"That wasn't Keith. That boy was not Keith. I knew Keith when he was that age. His hair wasn't the same, the eyes, the face wasn't anything like him. It wasn't Keith," I said.

"I don't know, Thomas. I don't know what it means. Some times there are things in the universe that don't make sense. We can sit here and try to explain it, what it means, how it happened like this, but I don't think there is an answer that we are going to understand. I think this is one case where we are going to be left with mysteries we can't solve. That's something we might need to accept."

"You're a fucking shrink. How can it just not make any sense? That's a cop out. You're supposed to have the answers," I said. "What am I paying you for? How is it I have dog tags with his name on it. They couldn't find his dog tags. How could anyone know that Michael Clark was Keith? I had to think for a minute before I knew the name. This is really fucked up."

"Thomas, some things don't make sense. We can sit around trying to figure out why for the rest of time, and we might not know any more than we do right now. I can't explain the dog tags to you. I can give you a lot of theory about the dead dying with unfinished business and not resting until whatever needs to be done is done. As bizarre as that may sound I have read cases of where the dead refuse to leave until some business is finished. Especially when there is a traumatic death involved. Perhaps it is just a matter of getting him home and in the ground."

"So you're saying a spook got into my car to rattle my cage, for what? It wasn't Keith. No way no how. It wasn't him," I said, angered by not knowing what was going on.

I sat jingling the dog tags, wondering if they were the real deal while not understanding what was happening. I replayed the two meetings with the boy. It was not Keith. I knew what Keith looked like. We were friends when he was that age.

"Wasn't him, wasn't him, wasn't him," I said feeling like an accused child.

"What was it he said to you? You said you didn't know what it meant."

"You've got to go back?" I said.

"Maybe you have to go back to your friendship? Go back to when you were kids together? Go back to his letters? Go back to your neighborhood?"

"Wait a minute," I said. "The last letter. He asked me to go see Tray's mother. I never knew that. I never read his last letters. Could that be it? I need to see Tray's mother? It's too simple."

"Unfinished business? Seems to qualify," Dr. Jordan said. "You could invite them to his funeral. He was the last friend her son had. Tray did die in his arms. Yes, if she is still alive, she'd want to be at Keith's funeral. I believe she would."

The phone rang. It was his cellphone that was on the table next to the coffee. The noise rattled through the room as he looked annoyed.

"I turned that thing off," Dr. Jordan said, looking at the phone to check the on/off switch. "I thought I did."

"Yeah, busy, call back in an hour," he said. "Oh, yeah, hi. Can you call back on the real phone. He's here now. I'll put it on the speakerphone if it's that earth shaking. Yeah, okay. Fine. I'll pick up when you call.

He disconnected the call, checking the switches again as he went to his desk. Apparently the ringers on the office phones were turned off but he waited for one of the lights to come on while he watched it.

"Hey, how's it hanging John Foster," Dr. Jordan said.

"Sideways at present. What's the name on those dog tags?" He asked.

"Clark, Michael," Dr. Jordan said.

"You aren't going to believe this one, heir doctor," Morales said in a bad German accent. "I couldn't remember the name but I knew it sounded familiar when I heard it."

"What's that?"

"That kid they arrested with Brittle, his name is Michael Kennith Clark. It gets better, my doctor. What's his connection to Brittle. Ask him about the name."

"I don't need to ask. It's your turn to hold on to your seat, my shyster friend. Only his best boyhood friend. Killed in Nam over twenty ears ago while Thomas was still a boy. Thomas said it wasn't him? The boy he picked up was definitely not Michael Clark who he calls Keith," Dr. Jordan said. "He'd remember his best friend."

"Hey, the finger prints came back, Michael Kennith Clark, twice arrested for prostitution, and get this one, once on Eastern Avenue right in front of the store where Mr. Brittle left him the first time they met? Would you like me to hit one more nerve?"

"It wasn't him," I said, screaming like he couldn't hear me. "It… wasn't… him."

"Damn, Mr. Brittle, they've strung lines to Baltimore from there. I hear you fine," he said.

"Sorry!" I apologized. "The boy that got in my car was not my friend Keith."

"Did your buddy ever work the street, Thomas?" Morales asked. "This says he did. Do you know?"

"Yes," I said, preferring not to remember that detail. "Lots of kids did. It's how he got money. I sat two feet from this kid. It wasn't Keith. Don't you think I'd know my best friend?"

"It gets better. Are you both sitting down?"

"Yes, we're seated," Dr. Jordan said.

"They lost him. The address is no good. He was supposed to be transferred from county to juvie after the arrest was recorded. No record of him leaving county lock-up. No record of him ever arriving at juvie. Nothing. Without a trace, heir doctor," he said. "I don't guess this is all that surprising to you two, but it surprised the hell out of me when the fingerprints were from 1968. That idiot prosecutor was still pushing the case. He thought it said 86. Has ADD or some disability. Mainly he's a prosecutor and can't let go of a case."

"It wasn't him," I said.

"John Foster?"

"Yeah, heir doctor?"

"He is here. He was lost in Nam. They just brought his remains back. He's waiting burial at Arlington as soon as they find next of kin."

"When did he get back here?" Morales asked. "Don't tell me. About the time the boy got into Brittle's car?"

"I'd say right about that time Thomas started having the nightmares right after that. It seems to all correspond to his remains being brought home," Dr. Jordan said. "You know the nightmares were about him burning alive?"

"I think you mentioned it," Morales said.

"Michael Clark was napalmed. He may well have been alive," Dr. Jordan said.

"Man, I want off this shit. There is something wrong with this business. You're telling me all this started at the same time his body came back from Nam?"

"That's what I'm telling you. We were just discussing it," I said. "I have the man's military record in front of me. Gives all the details."

"Mr. Brittle, we've got to appear in front of the judge in chambers in two days. I think maybe Dr. Jordan should be there to assure we aren't both nuts, but the judge might want Dr. Jordan checked if he gives him this story as an explanation for your behavior. The judge wants to know how someone arrested in 1968 can still be a teenager? I wouldn't mind getting the answer to that one myself. I think he wants to bottle whatever it is the kid is on. The judge doesn't know the kid got lost in the system. I think you've off the hook on the charges. I'd leave out most of this stuff about your buddy. I don't think most judges want to hear crap like that."

"I agree, John Foster. We can give him the basic outline without the ghost story. Does the case still have legs?" Dr. Jordan asked. "The prosecutor really doesn't want to pursue any of this."

"Not that I can see. I'd want to call the kid as a witness. The judge knows the game plan. He can't let them prosecute if the guy Thomas was with was a teenager in 1968. That would make him old as us. No, I think they'll be glad to get rid of this one."

"Don't remind me I'm getting old. I'll see if I can't change some appointments and I'll be there. You went to Nam, John Foster?"

"Yeah, I did," he said. DaNang class of 71."

"It doesn't sound like there is any family for this guy. I think Thomas will want to bury his friend. Personally, I'm hooked. I want to be there for a returning hero. You want to clear your calendar for that day, whenever we can arrange it," he said. "We can check with you when we know the date."

"I have no problem with that. You'll need to give me more details of how all this happened. I have a very well organized mind and none of this makes a damn bit of sense to me. I always appreciate it when my job is made easy, Jay, but this is too spooky to be easy. Maybe if I know the entire story, it will make more sense," he said.

"No, it won't, John Foster. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense. It's one of those things that you hear happens to someone else, but no one knows how it happens. We'd best just leave it at that. Looking too deeply will only further the mystery."

"I want to hear the story anyway, heir doctor. Don't try to put me off. I'm entitled," Morales said.

"Sure! We play golf in a few days. I'll try it out on you then. There are still a couple of loose ends, but I think you just went a long way in wrapping them up, my ambulance chasing friend."

"Mr. Brittle, I'll call you at home and set up a time for us to meet before court. You okay?"

"Maybe better than I have been, Mr. Morales. At least there is an explanation for it all, even if I don't understand it."

"You kept telling me you had this compulsion to meet with this kid after that first time. Do you think it all fits with what's coming out? Especially since the boy doesn't seem to exist."

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