This 'n' That

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lest We Forget Our Turbulent Past

ALL THE BOYS OF SUMMER HAVE GONE

A story originally published in The-Idler at www.the-idler.com, 30 May 2000.


Jordan Butler lay in his hospital bed in Saigon, recovering from a head wound he had received during an ambush by a tenacious band of NVA up in Tay Ninh Province.

He and his unit had been out on a long-range reconnaissance mission. They were all so exhausted that when they finally stopped to rest, none of them had the strength to speak. Jordie, as he liked to be called, found a spot away from the others and slumped to the ground. He eased his head back until it rested on his helmet, sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. He wished for time to pass where he rested in the same way. For he savored each second of silence and solitude he could snatch from all the bewildering chaos of battle, away from the one seeking him; the one who wanted to take his life and Jordie his.

When would it all end?

He wondered.

How had he ended up where he was, struggling just to stay alive?

Jordie closed his eyes. Instantly, he felt the heat of the sun on his eyelids. A mosquito began to sing in his ear. Sweat slithered down his face, parting the dirt and grit on its descent. He swatted at the mosquito and wiped away sweat, knowing he would repeat the ritual again and again deep into the night. At night, he had to concentrate on the unseen that watched him, patiently seeking an opportunity to strike.

Take his life.

Jordie could never see him, but he felt him out there.

He would close his eyes then, though he the never truly slept.

Not the way he used to back home in his dad's house on 307 North Ashley Street in his room across from his younger brother, Trent. Chris, his younger sister, was in the room next to his. Jordie's dad and mother were across the hall, asleep in the master bedroom.

There and then, he was safe.

He would awake mornings and go to school, or in the summer he might go to the park to swim in the pool or play baseball, using the tattered mitt his dad had used to play center and left field in the minor leagues for the Chicago Cubs.

Jordie did not know whether he fought harder to remember or to forget. One was just as painful as the other. He remembered, he sometimes surmised, when he clung desperately to every shred of life during times he believed that the normalcy of life, as he had once known it, would return. He tried to forget when he believed no other world existed, save the hell he abhorred so much. And there was no escape, no end except death.

Jordie lifted his head up off his helmet and unbuttoned his fatigue shirt. He had felt a stinging sensation on his chest. He already knew what it was before he gripped hard the leech that had begun to suck blood out of him. He laid the creature beneath the heel of his boot and came down on it until it split in half, spitting Jordie's blood inches high before it settled on the sole of his boot. He did the same to another that made him scramble to find it up near his crotch inside his pants. Swatting mosquitoes and swiping sweat away, he laid his head back on his helmet again. He closed his eyes. Weak chuckles rippled past him through hot, thick air.

An explosion, a bright flash and then darkness was all Jordie remembered when he awoke in a hospital bed. It was dark. At first he believed he was home, and he could look across his room and see his brother Trent sleeping. Instead, he could barely make out the form of something in white; it groaned as if in pain.

Jordie tried to sit up, but pain in his head kept him down. He threw his hands up to his face and felt bandages wrapped snugly around the top of his head. His fingers ran over his eyes, his nose and mouth. He pulled the blankets down to see if the rest of his body resembled what he saw laying in its bed on one side of him. Jordie grabbed at his own lower torso and touched pajamas made of a soft, cotton like fabric.

Beneath them was his own flesh.

He let his head fall back on his pillow, relieved and thankful. He quickly glanced to the other side of him and saw that the form in the bed was not like the one he had seen in white. It was on its back and free of bandages. Blankets concealed the lower half of the form. But it looked flat there, as if parts of the form were missing. Jordie explored the rest of the room, but he was unable to see clearly, since his vision seemed to be impaired.

He could hear a whirling noise.

Arching his head upward, he saw the blurred image of a fan spinning idly from the ceiling. He heard more groaning, and now sobbing.

The isolation, the strangeness of Jordie's surroundings intensified the pain that split his head down its center. What caused it? A tube stuck in his left arm was attached to a bottle above him that contained some kind of liquid.

He understood he was in a hospital, but where?

How?

Weightlessness came over him; and he felt himself drifting. He grew weaker and weaker, as if his strength was being drained from his body by some invisible force. Whatever it was that had come for him, he did not have the will to resist its power.

Involuntarily, his eyes closed.

The moaning, the crying, the whirling of the fan quieted. His vision languished and finally withered away.

Thoughts of Edie claimed his mind and he was glad.

Late morning sunshine glistened, reflecting its light off the bumper of a highly polished chrome bumper. It was the Fourth of July, 1966. Jordie was out in front of his house, applying a coat of wax on his black, 1957 Chevy convertible. Afterwards, he would wipe clean its deepred leather interior. On the car radio, Chad and Jeremy sang a tranquil tune about saying goodbye to a summer love. It made Jordie sad.

Finished with his car, he would drive to Edie Clarke's house and spend the remainder of the day and evening with her. A skinny farm girl from Bowling Green with freckles sprinkled on her nose and cheeks, Edie befriended Jordie in Mrs. Cagle's seventh grade English class; and Jordie was crazy about her.

He knew she had grown to care for him as more than a friend, but he was never sure how much.

And now he wondered if Edie would marry him, if he asked. It would be the last Fourth of July he and Edie would be together, at least for quite some time. Jordie had been drafted into the Army in June, a month after graduating from high school. He was due to leave for boot camp at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri in three days.

Edie would enroll at Indiana University in the fall. He heard the telephone ring inside the house as his mother called out to him, telling him it was Edie.

The black 1957 Chevy convertible cruised west on National Avenue to Tom's Parkmore where Jordie and Edie would have chili dogs, french fries, and ice cold root beer for lunch. The top was down on the Chevy and the radio was tuned to WBOW AM. Tommy James and the Shondells deliberated being alone with the girl of their dreams. Jordie took in the G.C. Murphy, Five and Dime store; the Riddell National Bank; Leifheits Mens store. He bought his favorite green pullover sweater there. And a pair of nice tan, wool slacks to go with it. With a peek down Walnut street, he saw the Cooper Theater, where he spent most Saturday afternoons watching matinees with Edie.

"A Patch of Blue" was on the marquee now.

He turned to Edie and saw the way the wind sailed through her soft auburn hair, blowing it in and out of her sun-kissed face. Her effervescent smile was for only him.

The waitress rolled up to Jordie's car on roller-skates, dressed in a red and white striped mini-skirt. When she finished scribbling out Jordie and Edie's orders, she roller-skated back to the order window. Jordie pretended to admire her tanned, muscular legs as she leaned against another car taking the driver's order. Edie placed her hand firmly under Jordie's chin and turned his eyes to hers.

"What's so special about the view over there?"

Jordie kissed Edie lightly on her lips.

"Nothing," he said, searching for signs of love in Edie's eyes.

"Love me?" Whispered Jordie.

The waitress delivered two tall frosted mugs of root beer to Jordie'scar.

"Let's see. You still got two chili dogs and two fries comin'. Right?"

It was enough to distract Edie and prevent her from giving Jordie an answer to a question he had been afraid to ask since the night of their senior prom back in April, when he'd realized he had fallen in love with Edie.

"Oh, I love the root beer at this place," said Edie beaming. Jordie handed Edie one of the mugs and a straw.

"Edie. I want to ask you something."

"I know. I could see it coming, even before we left my house. You're broke. And you want me to pay."

Edie was in a playful mood, perhaps to mask the melancholy that overtook her as the days went by and the time drew near when she and Jordie would separate for the first time in five years.

There was a war on in Southeast Asia. Although American soldiers were supposedly not heavily involved, the newspaper and television news accounts that Edie read and saw spoke more frequently of American young men being killed or wounded in battle.

Edie was deeply concerned about Jordie. At the same time, she knew she had to keep her wits about her in order to do well in her studies at Indiana University, where she would be in a little over amonth.

She could hardly afford to let her emotions get the best of her.

Jordie recognized Edie's light mood and could not bring himself to ruin it by becoming serious. He was prepared to do whatever it took to see her happy. He thought that if he had been a better student in high school, he might be going to college with her nstead of the Army.

"Jordie. What were you going to ask me?" quizzed Edie, drawing up a sip of root beer through her straw.

"Huh?" Nothing." Jordie scooped catsup with a french fry and offered her a bite. She moved his hand aside, searching his face with indigo eyes. In her mind, Edie wondered if they would always be a couple. Or was there some unseen force waiting to pull them apart eternally.

Jordie started his car.

"Maybe it'll come back to me later. Ready?"

Edie put her half empty mug out on the tray that was attached to the car. The waitress rolled up fast and took it.

"Thanks! Come back!" And she skated vigorously away.

Jordie and Edie stayed in each other's arms at the Fourth of July dance sponsored by the local American Legion. Fireworks came afterwards at Forest Park baseball stadium. Jordie and Edie sat alone in the upper deck, watching the display.

"Dad used to wake me and Trent up early mornings in the summer when he was on vacation and bring us out here to play little league ball,"reminisced Jordie, looking out at silver and gold streaks of fireworks launched from home plate. "I wasn't much good at it. Trent wasn't either. Dad never did know how much we hated playin'. Trent more than me. I think."

"But you kept trying for him," said Edie, ignoring the fireworks and admiring Jordie.

"Dad knew we were better than the way we played."

Jordie turned and met Edie's gaze.

They sat silent, staring into each other's eyes. The fireworks finale came. Long, wide strips of red, white, and blue streaked up against a moonlit sky and melted tranquilly away. Resounding cheers and applause erupted throughout every section of the stadium. Jordie kissed Edie in a way that he had never done before.

His lips were still moist next to hers when he spoke:

"Edie. Will you marry me?"

She whispered into his ear:

"Yes."

***