The Long Walk Back Home, Chapter Four

I less than two minutes Calvin Hall was walking into Chris’ room.  He had a big grin on his face, and when Chris extended his hand Clavin grabbed it an pulled Chris into a bear hug.  Calvin was a big person, a lot like his friend Sonny Rusinko.  He stood over six feet and weighed close to two hundred and thirty pounds, and had the muscles of a man who worked for his living.  Chris had forgotten how imposing a character Calvin was until he was enveloped by that hug.

“How’ve ya been?” Calvin asked.  “It’s good to see you.”

“I’ve been OK” Chris lied.  “A lot better than I was the last time I saw you.”

“Yeah, we’re both doing better here than we were over there.  So, you want to show me around?”

Chris stepped back and encompassed the room with a grand sweep of his hand.  “Here it is; the Hotel Jacumba in all of it’s glory.  Come on outside and have a beer.”

Calvin readily agreed with that suggestion and the two friends dropped into chairs in the shade on the balcony and started to catch up with the last few months of their lives.  Calvin had left Vietnam a month before Chris, and spoke of his return to civilian life.

“I got home and moved in with my uncle George.  My mother still lives in San Diego, but I wasn’t doing so well there before I enlisted.  In fact, it was just a matter of time before the police or somebody from a rival gang got me.  The Army gave me a chance to get it together, and I don’t want to go back into that environment again.  I feel a lot more whole living in the county and working mostly outside with my hands.”

Chris looked down at Charlie’s big hands and saw that they were already calloused from doing hard, physical work.  “So, where are you living?  Is it close to here?”

“Yeah” Calvin replied.  “Pretty close.  You go back up 80 toward Campo.  In a little ways it turns into 94, and then County Road 10 takes you onto the Rez.  I live there in a single wide that my uncle owns.  He spends some of his time there, but most of it on the Barona Rez.  He inherited a little place there from his grandmother.”

“I didn’t know that you actually lived on the reservation” Chris said.  “That’s pretty cool.”

“Well, it is and it isn’t.  I feel more at home being surrounded by my own people, but there’s a lot of poverty there.  When they gave us a place of our own back in the 1890’s they didn’t exactly give us the best of the land.  It’s not been easy making a go of it for my people.”

“I guess I don’t know much about it” Chris said.  “I probably should, but the subject just never came up.”

“Yeah, we Injuns noticed that” Calvin replied with a wry expression.  “Other people are marching and sitting in and getting all sorts of press coverage for their problems while we just sit on little corners of what once was ours, watching cattle being raised and crops growing for other people on good land with good water where we used to live, and we wonder when it’s going to be our turn.”

Chris didn’t know what to say to that, and simply sat mutely in his chair.  Calvin saw that this talk was making his friend uncomfortable and quickly apologized .  “Sorry man.  I didn’t mean to unload on you.  You’re a decent guy and a friend, too.  My people have suffered what I call the Long Hurt, and sometimes it’s hard to turn it off.  I promise.  I won’t go off on you again.”

“Hey, no sweat.” Chris replied.  “I don’t know anything about what your experiences have been like.  Outside of you, I don’t think I’ve ever known an Indian.  I guess that’s a blank spot in my education that I wouldn’t mind filling in a little bit.  You want to talk about it, you go ahead on.  I’ll listen.”

“Thanks Chris.  You’re a rare bird.  Hey, speaking of hurt, I got a letter this week from one of my bro’s back in the Nam.  He told me what happened to Tom”

Calvin continued to talk, but at the mention of Tom’s name Chris’ mind drifted back to his second day of being home.  After leaving his house Chris walked around the neighborhood for another hour or so; he wasn’t sure how long.  He passed the Fielding house twice and went once past where Jackie Olsen lived.  He assumed that she still lived there, although he had no idea why she should.  She was another loose end that he felt he had to clear up.

Chris stopped at a Winchell’s Donuts on University Avenue near 42nd Street, and had a couple of donuts and another cup of coffee.  Afterward he walked to a bus stop and rode the bus downtown.  He walked by the recruiting office and then aimlessly along the sidewalks of downtown San Diego.  His wanderings eventually brought him back to Horton Plaza in the center of town.  That place was crowded as usual with sailors and pigeons and homeless men sleeping on the grass. Chris thought about seeing a movie in one of the crummy little downtown theaters where he used to watch cheesy science fiction movies with his brother, but instead opted to return home.

The house was empty when he arrived, for which he was grateful.  He placed his first call to Calvin, but after ten rings he hung up and fixed a lunch.  He called two more times before his mother returned from her errands, but still no luck.  His mother spoke of Tom and tried to comfort her son, which Chris appreciated but also found it difficult to listen to.  Excusing himself, he exited the house and walked directly to that of Tom’s parents.

Chris’ heart was pounding as he mounted the steps and rang the doorbell.  He was pushing through with his plan in a mechanical fashion; not thinking too much for fear that doing so would cause him to back out altogether.  He heard footsteps and was barely breathing when the door opened.  Mrs. Fielding was standing in the doorway, looking at Chris with a blank expression.  “Perhaps she doesn’t recognize me” he thought.  “I was never very welcome in this house.”

Mrs. Fielding looked pale.  She was neatly dressed but there was a subtle haphazardness to it, as if she went through the motions but really didn’t care.  She stared at Chris silently, not inviting him in nor telling him to go away.  After a half a minute of this Chris wondered if she even knew that he was there.

Now a second set of footsteps became apparent, and a moment later Mr. Fielding appeared behind his wife.  He looked older than Chris remembered; a lot older than three years should account for.  he, too, stared at Chris as if not comprehending who he was, but that lasted for only a moment.

“Get off of my porch, you son of a bitch” the older man growled.  “Get off of my porch before I call the police.”

Chris had not expected a warm reception, but he was unprepared for the wave of hate that Tom’s father sent crashing over him.  He had come here to find out if Tom had truly died and, if so, to express his own sorrow.  He now knew that Tom was dead.  Nothing else could account for the rage and pain that contorted Mr. Fielding’s face into something that resembled one of the fiends that populated the cheap movies he had seen so long ago at Horton Plaza.  Still, he wanted to offer sympathy or, at least, an apology.

“Mr. Fielding, I am so sorry about Tom.  He was in a safe place there.  I don’t know how this could have possibly happened.  I – – -.”

“OK.  You won’t leave?  I’ll call the police.  No, forget the police.  You won’t leave so I’ll just shoot you where you stand, you white trash bastard!”

The enraged Mr. Fielding disappeared, and Chris knew that it was time for him to disappear too. He looked at Mrs. Fielding one more time and said “Tom was my best friend.  I wish it would have been me instead of him.  It should have, in fact.  I’m sorry.”

With that he turned and quickly left the Fielding house.  Chris doubted that Mr. Fielding had a gun, but decided that he had no further business with them.  He had learned what he needed to know.  The insults that he had just heard had stung him, but he knew that there might be more of the same in store for him before the day was over.  Two blocks away was the Olsen residence, and it was toward that house he was now headed.

As he mounted the steps of Jackie’s house Chris felt even more nervous than he had at the Fieldings.  Jackie had been a member of his circle of friends, even if she had not been especially warm to Chris.  This meeting might be a good deal more personal, and a sense of dread squirmed in the back of his brain and in the pit of his stomach.

Chris rang the bell and the door was opened by a young woman but not by Jackie.  “Hi Pam” he said.  “Is Jackie home?”

Pam Olsen, Jackie’s younger sister by three years, looked at Chris for a few moments before recognizing him.  At length she said “Oh, hello Chris.  No, Jackie isn’t home now, but she should be any minute.  Would you like to come in?”

Chris agreed to that and walked into the Olsen’s house.  “Have a seat anywhere” Pam offered, and then sat down herself.  Chris sat on a sofa opposite of where Pam was and fumbled for something to say.  “Uh, how have you been?  I, uh, don’t really remember you very well.”

“That’s because I never really hung out with your group.  Little sisters don’t get included much in the activities of older sisters and their friends.  I’m doing fine, thank you.  And you?”

“Oh, uh, OK I guess.  I made it home at least – – -,” and then he almost bit his tongue.  Yes, he made it home but Tom didn’t, which was the point of his visit.  “I’m sorry.  That didn’t come out the way I meant; I mean, I don’t want to imply – – -.”

Chris was hopelessly tongue-tied and his embarrassment and confusion continued to grow, and shortly Pam came to his rescue.  “It’s all right Chris.  You did come back.  I’m glad you did.  I’m sure your family and friends are all glad too.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Chris looked at his feet and drew a deep breath, then looked at Pam again and said “I know.  You’re right, and thank you for saying that.  It’s just that Tom didn’t come home, and I know that hurts a lot of people, including your sister.  Heck, it hurts me almost more than I can stand.  I saw a lot of dying over there, but Tom shouldn’t have.  He just shouldn’t have.  And now I don’t know what I want to say to your sister; I don’t know what to say to anyone else, for that matter, but I especially don’t know what to say to her.  I just don’t want to say anything as stupid as what I just said to you, that’s all.”

Pam smiled and said  “So, let’s try that again.  How have you been?”

Chris thought for a moment and then smiled.  “I’m doing pretty good, I suppose.  I’m happy to be back in the old town, eating home cooking and beginning to reconnect with family and friends.  I have to confess that it’s hard though.  Really hard.”

“I’m sure that it is” Pam replied.  “I can’t for a moment imagine how you must feel.  I’ve been watching Jackie deal with this and, as close as we are, I know that I imagine how much she hurts either.  It’s a lot though.  They were going to get married when he got home, you know.”

Chris was surprised by that.  “No, I didn’t know.  Tom never told me that.”

“They talked about it when he was here for a month before they sent him to Vietnam.  Jackie would be entering her senior year at San Diego State by the time that Tom finished his three years in the Army, and he would work until she graduated.  Then she would work and it would be his turn.  That way, while they were still in school and after they were finished they wouldn’t owe anything to anybody.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right” Chris said.  “Tom didn’t want to go to college on his Dad’s dime, ‘cause he didn’t want his father calling the shots.  That’s why he joined the Army in the first place.”

“Oh, now that’s something that I didn’t know” Pam said.  “He told us that he wanted to go on an adventure.  He would use it to his advantage when he returned, but that he just wanted to do something for no other reason than because he wanted to do it.”

Well, it was a little of that I guess.  And other things too.  The fact still remains that Tom’s dead and I feel like I have at least some responsibility for it.  I don’t know what I can possibly say to Jackie, but I feel like I have to say something.”

“I don’t know either” Pam replied.  “Jackie’s working at the college bookstore this summer and not taking any classes.  That’s probably a good thing, too.  She’s been really broken up about this.  I’ve got to be honest; I don’t know how she’s going to react when she sees you.”  Pam then stopped talking and sat still, listening to something.  After a moment she spoke again.  “Whatever you’re going to say to her, you’d better figure out quickly.  I hear her car in the driveway.”

Chris’ stomach tightened as he sat a little more erect on the sofa.  He was in a corner of the room furthest from the front door, and now he felt trapped.  He knew  however that he was not running away without accomplishing his mission.  Running away wasn’t a part of Chris’ character.  He sat upright on the sofa, rubbing sweating hands on the knees of his jeans and waiting for Jackie to enter.

The wait wasn’t long.  The screen door opened and Jackie stepped into the room.  Chris rose up from the sofa as her eyes met his and recognition registered on her face.  “Hello Jackie.  I, uh, I came over here to tell you how- – -.”

Chris didn’t finish his sentence.  Jackie dropped her purse, walked across the room and slapped his face as hard as she could.  “How dare you come into my house!” she hissed.  “You killed Tom, with your macho, wild child bullshit.  What do you mean by coming here?”

Chris didn’t flinch when Jackie unloaded on his face.  He didn’t expect that forceful a reaction but had known that it was a possibility.  In an odd way, the blow cleared his head.  The situation after all could not get worse. He wouldn’t allow himself to be struck again, but now the cards were all on the table.  “Jackie, let me talk” he said.  “I promise, I’ll leave in just a minute, but let me say one thing.”

Jackie stayed in front of Chris’ face, her anger causing her body to shake.  “Go ahead” she said at last through gritted teeth.

“Tom was my best friend.  I’m more sorry than I can express about what happened.  In fact I don’t even know what happened.  I was surprised that Tom ended up in Vietnam in the first place, and when I visited him there I saw that he was in as safe a place as it was possible to be in that country.  Whatever it was that happened, I would do anything – anything at all – to make it un-happen if I could.  So I’ll go now, and I won’t bother you again.  But I hope you’ll remember while you’re grieving that I’m grieving too.  I miss Tom too, and whether it does any good or not, I am now, and will always be, sorry for your loss.  Your loss and my loss too.”

As Chris finished speaking Jackie’s face changed only just a little.  He thought that she might launch another slap, and prepared to block the blow or dodge it, but she just stood silent.  He decided that there was nothing more to be said, and walked around Jackie and towards the door.  Pam, who was frozen by the sudden fury of her sister, had not left the room.  As Chris passed by she brushed his arm with her fingertips.  Chris looked at her and she silently mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to him, and then went over to comfort her sister.

Chris walked back to his house with mixed feelings.  Mr. Fielding had called him white trash and spoken of shooting him, and Jackie had slapped his face.  That was a lot of anger and insult to deal with in a short time.  But he had also completed two painful projects that he had appointed for himself to do.  Now he could turn his attention entirely towards healing his own hurt.

Chris avoided the park on his way home, and when he arrived there he opened a beer and sat down by the phone.  He decided to sit there and call Calvin’s number until he answered, if he had to call all night to do it.  On his second try Calvin’s uncle answered.  Chris said “Hello, my name is Chris.  I’m a friend of Calvin’s from Vietnam.  May I speak with him please?”  Without a word, the uncle hung up the phone.  A few moments later Calvin called him back.

And now here he sat in the warm air on a balcony with Calvin, aware that he had not heard a thing that had been said in the last few minutes.  “I’m sorry man” he said when Calvin paused in his monologue to take a sip from his beer.  “My mind just wandered away for a few minutes there.  It’s been doing that since I got back, and I’m trying to get my concentration straight.  Let’s back up to where you said that you found out how Tom died.”

 

 

THE LONG WALK BACK HOME, Chapter Three

CHAPTER THREE

Chris felt the need to drain some of the beer that he had already consumed out of his bladder.  He rose from his chair, walked out of his room and down the hallway, and into the common bathroom at the end.  The fixtures looked like something that came out of the 1940’s.  “They probably did come out of the 1940’s” he thought.  He finished his business, stepped back into the hall and walked to his room.

Upon entering the room Chris was startled by a dark projectile that streaked past his head.  He ducked instinctively, and the object flew to a mirror and banged against it.  The object was a small hawk that had flown in through the open door that led to the balcony.  The hawk flew across the room to an old writing desk which rested against the north wall and perched on the back of the chair for little more than an instant.  It then fluffed its wings and bolted through the open door and back out to freedom.

“Shit!” Chris said to himself.  “That doesn’t happen every day.”  He walked over to where the hawk had so recently perched on the back of the chair.  “I hope he didn’t take a dump on the chair” he thought, and then he laughed out loud and said to himself “I’m surprised that I didn’t take a dump myself!”

He returned to his balcony and sat in the chair once again.  He now began to pay more attention to the few passing cars and trucks.  It was getting on towards four in the afternoon and he was expecting Calvin Hall to be driving in soon.  “I might be driving my pick up truck or I might be driving my Chevy.  Depends on which one’s working” he had told him.  Chris had heard about Calvin’s red ’62 Ford pickup and blue 65 Chevy Malibu so many times at the EM Club that he was certain he could recognize either one when it rolled into the hotel parking lot.

Chris had called Calvin the day after he got home.  Actually, he called five times that day before he was finally answered.  “Hey Calvin, this is Chris” he said as he heard somebody pick up the phone.  There was no answer to his salutation though, and the phone then simply went dead.  Two minutes later Chris’ phone rang and it was Calvin.

“Hey, Chris.  Is that you?” Calvin asked.

“Yeah” Chris answered.  “What’s up?  You drop the phone?”

“Nah.  My uncle picked it up.  I told him that a White guy named Chris was going to call me sometime and to let me know if he did.  I guess I didn’t tell him to not hang up.  He doesn’t use the telephone much.  I asked him who called and he said “Chris.”

Chris chuckled at that.  “No, I guess he doesn’t.  Say, Calvin.  How long you been home?”

“‘Bout a month now.  Got out in April.  You?”

“I got home yesterday” Chris answered.  “So you don’t know nothing about Tom then?”

“Tom?  No.  Why?  Should I know something about Tom?”

“He didn’t make it, man.  I found out that he got wasted over there.”

“Shit, man.  Tell me you’re kidding!” Calvin said after a long pause.  “He didn’t do anything over there that would get a guy killed.  You know this for sure?”

“No” Chris said.  “Not for sure, but I got it from a guy I trust.  He heard it from – – – well, that’s a little bit tangled.  Let’s just say that I’m 99% sure.”

“Holy shit, that’s bad news, cousin.”

There was silence on the phone for maybe half a minute before Calvin spoke up again.  “I still got some friends over there.  You want I should write and find out what happened?”

“No, don’t bother.  I’m going to go to his folks’ place today.  I don’t want to, but I think that I should.”

“Aw, man.  They’re going to take out some Company Commander’s bullshit letter about how Tom was a hero who saved the whole damn battalion and read it to you.  I’ll write to my buds; it’s no bother.”

“Yeah, you may be right.  OK.  See what you can find out.  I guess I’ll still have to go over there anyway.  Hey, man.  I’m going to be staying at the Jacumba Hotel on the weekend of the 27th.  There any chance we could get together?”

“Yeah, I think so.  So you really got a room there, eh?  What’s the deal?  Why you so interested in that place?”

“Ah, I don’t know.  There’s just something about it that always attracted me.  Right now, I think of it as a place where all of the shit that I’ve put up with lately can’t get to me.”  Chris thought about the war, Tom’s death, the kids that he nearly exploded on the day before, and the anticipated visit with Tom’s parents, and then repeated himself saying “Yeah, I just need some time where the shit can’t find me.”

Calvin was quiet for a moment before he spoke again, and when he did speak he said “There ain’t nowhere that shit can’t find you, man.  Nowhere on this earth at least.”  Both men were silent until Calvin spoke again.  “But it’ll take shit longer to find you there than just about anywhere else, and that’s a fact.  I’ll give you a call when that weekend’s getting close.  I can’t guarantee that my uncle will tell me if you call here.  heck, I can’t guarantee he’ll even pick up the phone.”

“OK man.  I’m looking forward to seeing you again.”

“Yeah, sure.  Me too.  Talk to you later.”

Three weeks later Calvin was as good as his word and called, just as he said that he would.  Chris told him that the visit to the Hotel was still scheduled.  “I’m staying there Wednesday through Sunday” he told Calvin.  “I’m getting there in mid-week in order to avoid the rush.”

Calvin laughed out loud at this statement.  “Man, the only rush out there is by crows trying to get to a road kill.”

And Calvin had been right about that.  There were no other guests at the hotel when he checked in on Wednesday.  The only people there were the staff, and that seemed likely to be because they lived there.  Chris had found the solitude which he had dreamed about for years, but found it difficult to adjust to.

All of Chris’ life he had been a goer and a doer, and a time of silence was a novelty for him.  After the first hour he had felt bored and restless.  he tried to sit in the chair on the balcony and let his mind be still, but his mind stubbornly refused to cooperate.  Visions of combat, speculations on how Tom died, and the bitter memory of his first month of what was supposed to be a triumphal homecoming pulled his mind in several directions at once.

Wednesday afternoon and evening Chris sat in his hotel room and drank himself into a stupor, and most of Thursday he nursed the hangover that resulted from his folly.  On Thursday morning he walked to a small cafe that stood a block away for breakfast.  A greasy plate of eggs and bacon and hash brown potatoes washed down with several cups of strong but flavorful black coffee sat surprisingly well in his stomach.

After breakfast he walked throughout the little town, looking into the few businesses and passing over dusty streets along which were situated the few residents of the town.  At one point two large dogs charged off of a front porch to challenge Chris’ right to pass there.  A sharp command from somebody he couldn’t see called them back.  After that, his looked until he found a couple of rocks large enough to use as weapons if he should find himself in that situations again.

As the day wore on, Chris found that his internal motor was beginning to sync with the rhythm of this place.  He began to look at the buildings of Jacumba without wondering who lived or worked in them.  Between passing vehicles on Old Highway 80, silence descended on Chris; a silence punctuated by the calling of birds, the bark of a far-off dog, or perhaps the rustle of a lizard scuttling through the dust and dead leaves under the sagebrush.   As the hangover subsided he felt hints of the peace that he imagined he might find here, a peace that flowed from a place where nothing was expected of him.

Friday morning Chris arose and repeated his breakfast and wanderings of the day before, only this time walking farther up those dusty roads.  To the south he walked to the very border with Mexico, a border designated by a simple three-strand barbed wire fence.  He stared into Mexico, imagining sombreros and tacos and other symbols of that nation, and then turned and walked north into the sage-covered valley which hung just before the drop down Mountain Springs Grade to the furnace that was Imperial County in the summer.

By noon Chris had had enough of this and returned to Jacumba.  He had lunch at the diner, bought a couple of six-packs of beer and some ice at the small store, and then returned to his room to wait for Calvin to arrive  He sat in the chair on the balcony and drank one beer and opened another.  Here, in the warm stillness of that summer afternoon as he stared into the eastern distance, Chris’ mind once again wandered back to almost a month before, on the second day of his return home.  All night he had rolled and turned in his bed, wondering how Tom could have died in Vietnam.  On his first night home, he should have enjoyed the sleep of the reprieved.  Instead, he alternated between fitful periods of sleep in which he dreamed that it was all a big mistake, and hours of staring into the darkness and wrestling with the near certainty that it was no mistake at all.

Chris was awake when the doves began to coo outside his open bedroom window, signaling the imminent arrival of the new day.  He lay in his bed and watched as the sky began to brighten, and before the sun rose up above the eastern horizon he was up and dressed.  His father was an early riser, and Chris knew that in less than an hour he would also be up.  Chris decided to start some coffee and have it ready when his father came down the hallway to prepare his breakfast.

As expected, Cameron Paine came shuffling down the hall, his steps quieted to a soft, slipping sound by his thick socks.  Waking up to the smell of coffee was an unusual treat for Mr. Paine, and he came quickly out of his bedroom to enjoy it.  “Well done son” he said with a warm smile.  “You’re earning your room and board already.”

Chris smiled weakly at that and handed his father a full mug.  He poured one  for himself and walked over to the dining room table.  Mr. Paine followed his son to the table and could tell by the droop of his shoulders that something was amiss.  Chris Paine always seemed to walk on bubbles, especially when things were going right in the world for him.  The heaviness in Chris’ body that Mr. Paine perceived on this morning was not a normal state of affairs, and he decided to waste no time finding out the source of that heaviness.

“It looks like your homecoming isn’t all that you’ve hoped for.  Is there anything that I can help with?”

Chris sat down at the table and stared at his coffee.  He knew that his father was a very perceptive man; one from whom he could seldom keep secrets.  He wasted only a few moments before coming straight to the point.  “Dad, I heard yesterday that Tom Fielding died in Vietnam.”  He watched his father, trying to gauge his reaction to that statement.  He could tell by the shock on his father’s face that he hadn’t known about Tom.

“Oh my God” Mr. Paine replied.  “Are you sure?”

 

“No” Chris said.  “It’s probably true though.  Sonny told me about it yesterday.  He said that he heard it from a good source, but that he didn’t have any details.”

Mr. Paine sat quietly for several moments before looking up at his youngest son with compassion washing over his face.  At last he spoke again.  “We don’t know Tom’s parents really, and haven’t heard any news in the neighborhood grapevine.  In fact, we’re not connected to the neighborhood grapevine all that much.  We’re too busy minding our own business.  Are you going to go over to the Fielding’s place?”

Chris chuckled glumly at that thought.  “I probably am, but I don’t think I’ll get a warm welcome.  I expect that they’ll blame me for Tom being in Vietnam in the first place.”

“Why would they do that?” Mr. Paine asked.  “You didn’t march Tom down to the recruiter with you.”

“Well, they didn’t like me very much to begin with.  Tom’s dad had big plans for him thought that I was an unpleasant distraction.  Tom told me about it before we even signed up.  The truth is that Tom joined up with me to get away from his parents, or at least to get away from his dad’s control, but I don’t think that they will ever see it that way.”

“Hmmm” his father muttered softly as he thought about what Chris had just told him.  He took a sip of the coffee which had become cool enough to drink and then put the mug down.  “And do you think that you are responsible for Tom’s death?”

That is exactly the thought that Chris had been chewing on all night, and he was still looking for an answer.  “Well, he wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t invited him to join with me.”

“Oh?  How do you know that?”  Mr. Paine asked.  “Do you know what Tom would have done if you would have gone to the recruiter by yourself?  Are you certain that he wouldn’t have gone there himself the next day?  Shoot, do you know that he wouldn’t have gotten run over by a bus trying to get downtown so that he could sign up?  What I’m saying is that you and Tom are, or I guess were, independent actors.  Tom was a smart kid and could figure things out for himself.  You’re no more responsible for Tom dying in Vietnam than he was responsible for you making it back home.  If he’s really gone, don’t go making yourself another casualty of that war.”

Chris took a sip of his own coffee before answering his father.  “Yeah Dad, I suppose you’re probably right.  It’s just that I was always getting us into something, and he was usually the one to get us out of it.  It feels like he was doing it once again, but this time he couldn’t get himself out of it.”

Mr. Paine sipped his coffee and said nothing in response.  Chris knew that when his father did this he was silently telling Chris that he had to think a little more.  After a minute or two of silence Chris spoke again.  “OK, so I guess I wasn’t the one who put him in Vietnam and he wasn’t there to try to save me.  I still can’t make myself believe that my hands are clean.”

This time Mr. Paine responded right away.  “That’s natural, I suppose.  Tom was your best friend, and there’s no shame in hurting for him.  It’s going to take time to come to grips with it and you’ll likely feel a lot of things, rightly and wrongly, along the way.  I think that maybe you might give yourself some time and might even go easy on yourself.  Somebody once said “War is hell,” and he was right; war IS hell.  But you didn’t start it and you aren’t responsible for what happened in it. Now, I had better cobble together a breakfast and pack a lunch.  You hungry?”

“Thanks Dad, but I don’t think I’ll eat just yet.  I’m going to walk around some and try to get things sorted out.  I think I’ll go and see Tom’s parents today.  Might as well get it over with.  Would you mind letting Mom and Chuck know that I don’t mean to be running out on them?  I just have to get things straightened out.”

“Sure Son.  They’ll understand.  Did you mention this to them last night?”

Chris told his father that he had not, and the elder Paine said to him that he would take up that task.

“Thanks Dad.  Thanks a lot.  I

’ll see you this afternoon.”  Chris drank the rest of his coffee and walked out of the house, not sure where he was going or what he was going to do.