An interrupted journey

Every time I was at the VA hospital, I saw Bruce. I never met him but I heard his name called often. He knew all about me but that was his job. Greeting, guiding, and directing each of us to the proper location was a huge job. There were so many signs and it could be very confusing.

Like most our age, he too suffered from Agent Orange exposure. He got his does in the jungles of Vietnam and my dose was on a ship. Regardless of where the exposure occurred, the effects all hurt just the same. I met a fellow one day that said the pain was “like sticking your feet in the fires of hell.”

“Today’s my last day working here. My wife died two years ago. Got me a little cabin over in Webster County. How about you and me find us a table in the back of the cafe? I’ve got a story to pass on.” He continued. “I know you are a writer and I need to share this story. I have never even shared it with my wife. If you don’t print it I’ll understand, but it needs to be shared.” We found that little corner and I listened for three fascinating hours without saying a word.

“We were Navy Seals together. When you are killing or being killed, the guy next to you is your best friend, at least for the moment. Billy was my best friend at time, but always a friend. Seals never ask for volunteers — that’s a foregone conclusion.”

“Billy, I need you in my quarters.” He went over the plan. The mission was so secret he was to move on it immediately. The village along the coast was crawling with the enemy. The plan to attack was one of their locations! Our troops were waiting just off shore. If you encounter anyone, you were to use your silencer or slit their throat.

The still water barely made a ripple as Billy set off. Sooner than he expected, he came upon a hut half on land and half in the still water. As soon as he surfaced, he was right in the middle of the hut. Sitting and looking right at him was a young boy and girl, both about ten years old. In the middle was a grandmother. They said nothing. Fear said enough. He raised his rifle without a sound. The grandmother fell backwards, then forward. The young girl did the same. However, the young boy stood in front of his fallen family. He should have fallen immediately but he stood for nearly thirty seconds with the bravery of a hero in battle.

He continued the story as tears ran unashamedly down my face.

Billy searched the shore a half mile in either direction. He even walked through the village, cautiously at first, and then he strolled through the many huts and towers. He reported over his talkie to his commanding office in a voice the commander had never heard. “There isn’t a “bleeping” soul here except a grandmother and two babies and all the ships and men don’t need to be afraid of them. My mission here is over forever.” The commanding officer listened as the sound of a gunshot traveled through the phone. When we recovered his body, he was lying with his arm around the bravest little soldier of the war.

“The story is just beginning. If you are gonna write about it, write the whole thing.”

“I was given the honor to escort Billy’s body back to Kentucky. It was way back in a holler — coal miner country. I learned that his dad worked five years after he learned he had black lung, before the deadly disease took his life. When I shook hands with his mother, it was like shaking hands with a weight lifter and an angel. When she hugged me, I wanted her to hold me just one more moment. When she talked about her coal miner husband, she referred to him with the humility of a saint. The boys wanted to know all about their hero brother. I sure as hell did not disappoint them. The funeral home had brick walls stained by coal dust. The big double door creaked, the hinges crying for oil. I asked to stay the night with the casket, as it was my self-imposed duty.

Bruce took a sip of water and told me I still had an hour before my appointment. “Now here is the story, only one small part because the whole thing as told to me is too simple for us to understand.”

“It was three in the morning. I thought the funeral director had walked in since he stayed at the apartment next door, but that was not to be. As I looked around, there stood Billy. My knee-jerk reaction was to look at the casket, and Billy’s body was still there. Yet he was standing before me, surrounded by a bright blue haze.”

He spoke to me as I sat transfixed. “Bo, you tell my mom the truth. You felt her handshake and hug. She can handle that. Remember Bo, always the truth. You got a million questions, I know. Some of the answers will come when you are sitting by one of those cool mountain streams in Webster County. Get away from this concrete world.”

“I will tell you that I done talked to my dad, but the first one to greet me was that brave little Vietnamese boy. If you worried about suicide, sometimes in life if it is a bullied kid, a tired old man, or a woman with trials they cannot handle, He understands. One of the differences between a suicide and another soul whose journey was not interrupted is that He hugs us a little bit longer.” The way He explained it was “sometimes a soul finds a mountain it just can’t climb.”

I saw her the next morning. She put her finger to my lips and gently said, “Sometimes you get one of them mountains you just can’t climb.”