“They who go – feel not the pain of parting; it is they who stay behind that suffer.”
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My eyes shot open and I instinctively braced myself for the coming repercussions from the firing of the 155mm. Howitzers that sat about fifty feet away. Because the Aid Station that I ran was positioned in the center of’ the firing battery the muzzle of at least two of the large guns were always pointed and. then fired over my building.
Except for being blasted out of sleep by a night time firing mission I considered myself lucky to be assigned with this unit.
As an Army Medical Corpsman stationed in South Vietnam for the past eight months I had an easy job compared tothose who were beating the brush with an Infantry Unit. After a few seconds had passed, which gave me enough time to gather my wits together, I realized that the noise I heard wasn’t the loading of the guns that woke me but the banging of the screen door of the Aid Station.
The morning light streamed through the crack in the curtain that separated my sleeping quarters from the treatment room. Mixing with the near perfect silence that accompanied this new day I could hear that there was someone shuffling around in the treatment room.
In a near inaudible voice I said to the unknown and invading noise coining from the outer room,
“Have a seat. I’ll be out in a second.”
The inside of my mouth felt as if it were packed with wads of cotton and to add to that discomfort I had my own private artillery battle blasting away in my head. All of this the remnants of the Christmas Eve party held in the Motor Pool the night before.
Being the only Medic in this unit of nearly two hundred men I felt it was in the best interests of everyone that I didn’t indulge too often. But, being that it was Christmas Eve and, there was a so—called cease fire in effect I joined in on the party and had a few drinks with the guys, Convincing myself that a few drinks wouldn’t hurt I went to the party.
One or two led to three and then four. After that who was really counting, I surely wasn’t. How or when I got back to the Aid Station I have no idea, but it was clear now that the over indulgence the night before was making itself clear now.
As I tried to sit up I placed my hand over my eyes in the hope that that would help ease the pain. Then too there was the chance that my eyes would pop out due to the pounding and with my hand there I would have a chance to catch them before they hit the floor and shattered into a million pieces. My try at sitting up didn’t work, the pain was too great. My next idea was to roll onto my side, let my legs slip off the bed land on the floor and then just sit up.
As I made the move to roll over I heard the high pitched squeal of Tony’s voice coming from the treatment room, “All right. Number one Papa-san Doc, awake!”
Tony was a Vietnamese boy who had wandered into my Aid Station about/six months earlier looking for work. I had been told by many in the outfit that it wasn’t a good idea to hire these young children who wandered in and out of the American camps. Yet, I had come to notice that almost all of those who offered this advice had one or two of these kids working for them. Most were hired to wash clothes, but since I already had a wash girl to tend to my laundry. I wouldn’t be hiring Tony for that. What did impress me was that this boy could speak better English then most of the locals. At once I saw the benefit of this, and thought of how much help he could be acting as my interpreter when sick call was held in the nearby village. Even with that the overriding reason he was hired was I just didn’t have the heart to say no to those pleading black eyes that started up at me that day.
Now as I listened to his little feet scurring across the floor, the crashing of something being knocked over in his haste to get into the room, the realization of what was coming next crept into my slowed thought process.
“Tony, no! Not this morn…,” was all I had time to get out. While at the same time I rolled onto my stomach to help protect what little was in it as the seventy—eight pound, twelve year old bounced into the room.
In two strides the boy was across the room and air—borne. Tony landed on my back in the style of the All-.American cowboy who mounted his horse in a jump from the second floor balcony of a hotel. The momentum of his dive onto me, when he hit, knocked us both off the bed end with a crash we hit the floor. Considering the way I felt to start with and the awkward way in which we went off the bed both of us were lucky. Me, because I didn’t get sick right there on the spot and Tony because when be landed on me, his steed, he rode the fall out to the floor on the center of my back. In spite of the pain I was feeling I had to laugh as I rolled over onto my back. With me now laying there on my back and. Tony perched on my stomach we both laughed at the antics which took place.
As if somewhere inside of the boy there was a switch that turned him on and off he went from the giggling little boy with an impish glow that radiated from his whole face, to a serious, solemn young man. With his brow narrowed and his small almond shaped eyes squinting he scornfully stared down into my face. My laughing at this expression only caused him to exaggerate his already distorted facial features. Leaning forward and pressing his bony elbows onto my chest I tried to surpress my laughter and also figure out what he was up to. Moving his face down toward mine he started sniffing his nose and. when he was only inches from me he quickly sat up waving his hand in a sweeping motion under my nose, in a scolding tone of voice, that I knew was an attempt to imitate me when I got angry, Tony said, “You number ten drunk last night. Tony know, find boot outside,”
As much as I wanted to laugh I held it in and played along with the little game he started.
Looking away and in a shameful tone I said, “Yes, I sure was. I’m sorry, but since it is a special occasion will you forgive me?”
Turning my head a little arid watching him out of the corner of my eye I saw a smile creep across his face, the muscles relaxing in his brow and that ever delightful sparkle return to his eyes.
Leaning back down onto my chest he wrapped his arms around my neck and said in a voice louder than what I would have liked, “Papa-san Dcc still give Tony holiday?”
“If you mean do I still have a Christmas present for you, yes I do. But first I want to get cleaned up a little and you know I sure could use a cup of coffee,” I replied into the tiny ear now nestled next to my cheek.
“Tony go mess hall get coffee!” the boy said.
In a flash I recieved a peck of a kiss on the cheek and he was off me, out of the room, In seconds the banging again of the screen door said he was heading for the mess hail and my coffee.
As I freshened up and waited for Tony to return with my morning eye opener I marveled at the thoughts I had of how close the two of us had become.
I recalled the time just after he arrived and he had gotten sick. How worried I was because of his high fever. Staying with him for three days and nights until the fever broke. I thought of the many times in the past six months I would give him a day off, yet he would hang around just to keep me company. I recalled the time that I first realized that Tony and I were forming and bond that was stronger than just friendship. I had been ordered into the field to deliver emergency medical supplies but because of unforeseen delays I wasn’t able to return to our main camp on the day I had expected. When I finally did return a day late to my surprise I found Tony curled up asleep at the edge of the helicopter pad. When I woke him he seemed very shocked to see me and then broke down sobbing and, crying. When I tried to find out what had happened he emotionally explained that because I hadn’t returned when I said. I would be believed that I had been killed or just left him like his real family had done.
The bond that formed over those months was one of not just friendship but one of love. For a nineteen year old that didn’t know much about life to begin with and. then being sent into a conflict I knew even less about was overwhelming in itself. Then to top all of that here was a child who had become so attached to me and seemed to need me so very much it made me feel as f I had become an instant father. All of this was very heady stuff and my love for Tony grew as each day passed.
By the time Tony returned with what amounted to slightly over a mouthful of coffee, the rest I assumed was spilled in his haste to get back, I was cleaned up and had laid two of his Christmas presents out on the treatment table. When he entered the room arid spotted the presents in their brightly colored wrappings his eyes lit up end. I saw in his face the trouble he was having containing his excitement. I was sitting on a stool just in front of the table as be handed me the coffee cup he took a seat on my knee staring wide-eyed at the gifts before him.
“For Tony?” he questioned, looking from the presents, over his shoulder to me, and back again.
“Yes, they’re yours,” I said.
“But, this one, I continued as I picked up the white envelope from the table, “you won’t understand, so I’ll have to explain it to you.”
Sliding around on my knee the boy hooked his arm around my neck and gazed into my face as I spoke.
“Do you remember when we talked about maybe someday you coming to the States and living there?” I asked.
Like many of the Vietnamese people who came into contact with the GI’s, especially the children, they heard the stories from the Americans of how good the life was in the United States. Most of them and Tony being no exception dreamed of someday having a part of that good life. Longing to live in peace. At times I got the feeling that Tony had a hard time believing that there was no war in the States. Everyday of his short life had been filled with fighting, death, and destruction. Pilled with the struggles just to stay alive. You would have thought that little time would have been spent on daydreaming, but oh did a lot of them dream of that day of peace. Through us, the American GI, they built their dreams to live in peace and. some, like Tony, were wishing to have that dream come true in the United States.
That evening I had found Tony waiting for me on the chopper pad we sat there for hours and talked. He told me of how he had lost contact with his family because of the war. How the Viet Cong had entered their village and along with his three brothers and two sisters his mother had fled with them. The six of them winding up on the streets of Siagon. He told me about not knowing much about his father. The man had been drafted into the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam when Tony was five years old. Neither he nor his family had heard from the man again and as far as Tony knew his father was killed in the war.
Tony and. his family lived in the streets of Siagon for about a year, but then one day when Tony returned to the alleyway they called home after a search for food., his family and, their few belongings were gone. He tearfully told me how for months he searched the streets for them. Finally be just gave up slowly made his way back to his old village, in the hope that they had returned there. Not finding them he just kept on moving, searching, hoping, dreaming, then he wandered into my Aid Station.
“Tony, I talked with Captain Albright and told him all about you and your family. This letter is a copy of one he has sent to the officials in Saigon for me asking that they try to locate your family. Now, if they can’t be found or if something has happened to them then we are asking that the paperwork be started to allow you to come to the States and live there. Do you understand all of that?”
“I go World with you!’” the boy beamed.
The expression, the World, was used by the GI’s to mean the United. States. To most of us this little Country of South Vietnam was so far removed from the world we knew, that when we spoke of the States it was known as The World. Of course the children picked up on this term we used.
Well, I’m not sure about you living with me. That would be nice, but let’s get you back there first,” I answered him.
Nodding toward the table as I reached over and. slid a decorated box to a place just in front of the child I said, “Go ahead, open it it’s yours.”
Releasing his hold from around my neck Tony tore into the wrappings as if he has always celebrated Christmas. His actions and. expressions were like any child over the world when they recieve a present.
The blue Tee shirt he found in the box could have been a full wardrobe for the way he reacted. Beaming from ear to ear he tugged the shirt over his head and examined, the front of it as he pulled it down over his bare chest.
“Hey, that looks good. Okay, how ‘bout another present?” I said as I reached into my pocket. Tony stood silently, his eyes following my hand as I pulled the small box from my pocket that contained the Timex watch and placed it on the treatment table.
When I bought the watch at the PX back in Oho Lai I had had a feeling that once the boy got it that within a week he would sell it on the Black Market. The little bit of money he could get for the watch would buy rice for himself and the people he live with in the village. Tony was that way, I saw many times when he would forego his own wants or needs just to help someone else. Yet, even with this feeling I bought the watch. I recalled the times I would discover him wearing my own watch, and how fascinated he was with it. How grown—up he tried acting in front of the other children as he pranced around the compound with my watch on.
Opening the lid of the unwrapped box his mouth dropped open and. his eyes got as big as saucers when he saw the contents. Looking to me in disbelief I shook my head yes that it was his. With that slight shake of the head he threw his arms around my neck with such force and squeezed so hard, I had a little trouble breathing. It was worth it just to see him so happy.
Like other times when it seemed that he could read my mind he said, “Tony never sell.”
Releasing the grip from around my neck he sat back down on my knee: and I saw the tears of joy in his eyes. He then said, “You number one bestest Doc,” and threw his arms around me again.
Pulling him away from me I stared into his tear streaked face, smiled and said, “You’re number one too.”
After helping him to buckle the leather band around his tiny wrist I said, “Tony, I know you said you wouldn’t sell it,” nodding toward the watch, “but if you have to it’s okay. I’ll understand.
“Now, since today is a holiday we won’t be doing any work so I want you to get out of here for awhile. Oh, yea, I’ve got something else for you.”
Reaching into my shirt pocket I took out Five Dollars in Military Script and handed it to him. That Five Dollars represented a weeks pay to Tony. I knew that be would use it to put food on the table and not spent foolishly.
Turning and taking a few steps towards the door he stopped, spun back around and ran into my arms saying, “Tony love you Doc.”
“I love you too Tony and Merry Christmas. Now get out of here for awhile,” I choked out, trying to hold my own emotions in check.
After Tony had left I decided to write a letter home and share the good feelings I had on this so special Christmas morning in South Vietnam.
Ten minutes into writing my letter the Company Clerk came charging into the Aid Station yelling, “Doc! Doc, hurry. There’s been a shooting up by the front gate!”
Upon reaching the front gate I bad to push my way through a crowd of about twenty men who had gathered around the commotion. Barging my way past I scanned the scene before me. Two Vietnamese soldiers were restraining a third one and all of them were jabbering at once. To my right I saw two American soldiers, one of them the Company Commander, kneeling over an indistinguishable form sprawled out on the ground.
“Doc, hey Doc, over here. Hurry, it’s Tony!” the Commander yelled when he looked up and saw me.
“Oh no, noooo,” I uttered, more as a moan than as words, as I moved along side arid, knelt beside the boys crumpled body.
Tony was on his back, his legs and one arm twisted underneath of him. His other arm lay across his chest. Even though his eyes were closed I could see the twitching of eye movement and except for the trickle of blood that seeped out of the corner of his mouth and ran down his chin, he could have been asleep, instead of being shot.
While Captain Albright pulled the boys legs and arm out from under the child’s small frame I moved the boys arm that lay across his chest, Visible now were three small holes in. the youths new blue shirt. Each hole was now outlined by a growing circle of red.
“Oh Tony, hang in there buddy. I’m here to help you,” I said. The words barely came out and I was having trouble seeing. At some point in the few brief minutes that had passed I had started to cry. As I worked to cut away his shirt I guess I was also mumbling his name. When I glanced up at his face Tony opened his eyes and tried to speak. This caused him to start choking. Grabbing his shoulder I rolled him toward me to get him off his back. I realized by the labor in his breathing that his lungs were filling with blood. Again he tried speaking and the coughing it produced sprayed blood down the front of me. To help support him I slid my hand under his neck and down the center of his back. Doing this I felt the wet sticky liquid, that I knew was his blood oozing out of his back. The bullets had passed through his small torso. Unlike the entry wounds, small round holes where the skin seemed to close back over them, the exit wounds tore three gapping holes in his back. The boys back now was no more than splintered bone and jagged flesh.
Taking large dressings I tried to plug these massive holes in Tony’s back while the Captain readied dressings for the two wounds in the boy’s chest and the one in his stomach.
From the start I felt that what little we could do wasn’t going to help Tony. This small boy who had touched my heart was dying in my arms and I couldn’t do any more to stop it than what we were already doing.
Behind me I heard, in bits and pieces, the story being told of how the Vietnamese guard at the gate had tried to take the watch I had just given to Tony. The boy resisted. Drawing a hand gun the soldier shot the child and was taking the watch when others who heard the shot grabbed him.
Behind me someone yelled, “Doc! A Med-A-Vac chopper is on the way. It’s about ten minutes away.”
I didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. An answer wouldn’t have done any good, it would be too late. Whatever was said next I didn’t hear. I was listening to the voice inside my head that kept repeating “…because of the watch. The stupid watch. He’s going to die because you gave him that stupid watch.”
The self accusing stupor I was in was shaken when I looked down into Tony’s face and again his eyes were open. The sparkle that I had come to love which always generated from those eyes was now gone, replaced by a glazed over stare. The boys lips moved, and this time ever so slightly, as he made an effort to talk again.
“Tony. Please don’t try talking, please. I’m here with you and…Oh Tony I’m sorry…I’m so sorry,” I said into his ear as I pulled him closer.
Very slowly and I could see with great effort he lifted his tiny hand and placed it onto mind, that held a dressing in place on his chest. Taking his hand into mine I stared into his now ashen colored face.
When I again tried to tell him not to try talking I stopped in mid—sentence when I heard him weakly mutter, “Khong …su’ dau don..Tony…khong…world.”
“Oh…Tony. I…I love you,” I sobbed as the tears cascaded down my face.
Instantly I was reliving the day Tony had taught me those words. I saw again the way he laughed when I mispronounced them and then how he beamed when I finally said them right.
As he stirred slightly I was brought back to the present and to his words, no pain, no World.
I bent over and kissed him on the cheek and as I sat back up he smiled weakly, closed his eyes and was gone. Startled by someone touching me I jerked upright. As I looked around I rubbed the tears and sweat from my eyes. I knew at once what had happened. I was drenched in perspiration, I felt cold, lonely, and scared.
“Was it the dream about Tony again?” Mary asked from the seat she had taken next to me on the edge of the bed.
“Yea! Tony again,” I replied as I moved away when she attempted to pull me into her arms.
Reaching the other side of the bed I sat on the edge, buried my face into my hands while saying, “God Oh God, when is it going to stop. It’s been ten years and. it’s still haunting me.”
Moving around to the side of the bed where I now sat Mary sat down beside me. I didn’t resist when she took my hand into hers.
“Maybe, just maybe it will stop when you stop blaming yourself for his death,” she said. Leaning her head against my shoulder she continued, “You didn’t kill him. You loved him. You gave him a present out of caring and love, not to hurt him. Can’t you get that into that thick head of yours!”
“Look at me:” she ordered. While at the same time taking my face into her hands and turning my head towards her. “You just gave my son a chess set for Christmas. Now, was that done to hurt him or because you care about him and love him?”
Not waiting for an answer she said, “Tonight if David falls down and breaks his arm would that be your fault too, just because you gave him a present this morning?”
The only thing I could do was to shake my head no. I knew she was right but that didn’t change how I felt.
“Damn it! It’s the same thing with Tony. It…wasn’t…your…fault,” she said even louder now.
“But…,” I started to protest when we heard a knock at the closed bedroom door.
“Come in,” Mary yelled proceeded by a sigh and a leering look at me.
The door opened and David, Mary’s eleven year old son, walked into the room. Looking to each of us he said, “Hey, you two guys goin’ to open your gifts or what?”
Yea, honey,” Mary answered as a smile spread across her face. “We’ll be out in a minute.”
David knew nothing of the nightmares I always had about Tony and to try and hide the emotion this latest one had evoked I put on a semi cheerful grin.
David walked over to where I was sitting, leaned over, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thanks for the chess set. It’s really neat.”
Not waiting for an answer he turned arid headed for the door, but just before going out added, “You know, I knew you was gettin’ me that”
“Well, you’re welcome,” I replied. Then giving his mother an accusing look I said, “And may I ask how you knew what you were getting for Christmas?”
“Yea,” he said as he reached the bedroom door, “I had a really weird dream the other night.”
Mary and I watched as David paused in the hallway as if he were contemplating whether or not to tell us the rest. Turning around to face us, he put his hands on his hips and with a grin on his face said,
“Yea, it was weird. I was somewhere and there was a lot a people around and then I was talkin’ to some Chinese kid,” taking his fingers he pushed the corner of each eye up. Replacing his hands on his hips he continued, “Anyways, he tells me you are givin’ me this chess set. Then, like he says, he says he has to go ‘cause he found his Mom and Dad and they were waitin’ for him. Then I woke up. Ain’t that weird?”
Not waiting for an answer the boy turned and left with Mary and I staring at each other in disbelief. I guess we were both thinking the same thing, but I was feeling something. While David was relating his dream to us I felt a kind of warmth enter me. One of understanding, love and affection. I also had goose bumps all over. I stood there dazed. Mary brought me back to the present when she reached up and wiped away the tear that had formed in the corner of my eye.
Putting my arms around. her waist I said, “I don’t know what that was all about or even what it means, but you know, right now I feel…I feel as if the weight of the world has been lifted off of me.”
“I don’t know what happened either but I think I’m glad it did,” she said. We sat there silently staring into each others face, maybe each of us hoping that the other would come up with a reasonable explanation. Finally, without a word spoken we stood up.
Taking Mary into my arms I kissed her and then said, “Come on let’s go see what Santa brought you.”That was the first time in nine years, the first since that dreadful Christmas Day halfway around the world, that I felt at peace and at ease on a Christmas Day. I can’t explain the release that I felt, or David’s dream or how it all transpired that Christmas morning. Maybe it’s best that I can’t.
The memory of Tony, all of the good times we shared together, my love for him, will always be with me.
The nightmares I had, all of the guilt I felt about his death are, for some reason, gone.