Sorry I've been away so long; I promise to try not to make a habit of that. I finally managed to blow the dust off my writing, something I really wasn't able to do during the prolonged remodeling work on my house. (It's hard to write when you can't sit in your own house, spread out your research materials, and dive in ...) Now that the remodeling is done, I get to work at home at last! Here is my much-delayed ninth entry in the sequence of stories I began this past summer, intending to write one story for each year of the Impala's existence, linking the Impala and her owners with real-world history. I still intend to keep the story going; it's just going to take a lot longer ... *wry grin*
Title: April 30, 1975: Shelter From The Storm (Chapter 9/4? of The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years in a Life)
Spoilers: None beyond aired episodes. References events from 4.3, In The Beginning.
The Impala Chronicles (Forty-some Years In A Life), Chapter Nine
April 30, 1975: Shelter From The Storm
John never talked about Vietnam.
He was like a lot of vets that way. Mary knew there had to be nightmare memories in his collection, but he never talked about them. On the rare occasions when he mentioned ‘Nam at all, it was always just a funny anecdote about one of his friends or the hot and humid weather, or an acknowledgment that he’d missed something in Lawrence while he’d been in country. They were the same kinds of amusing, innocuous things he’d mentioned in his short letters home. When he came back, he’d slotted right back into his life as if he’d never left it, working in the garage his dad half-owned, as sunny, polite, cheerful, and ordinary as he’d ever been.
She knew façades better than most, though. And sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – she saw shadows lurking in his eyes when they heard stories on the evening news, or when certain songs came on the radio. He always put the darkness aside in short order, returning to normal life with a conscious, visible effort and a determined smile, shutting the box on his wartime memories and turning aside her concern with a hug and a kiss.
She’d tried to break through that wall, wanting to share everything about him, but that was the one and only thing he flatly refused to give her. Once and only once, he’d told her why: If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand. You couldn’t understand. I can’t talk about it. I won’t. It’s not something you should ever have to know. Don’t ask. Please don’t ever ask.
The irony, of course, was that she had been there and she could understand, if only she’d been willing to share her own nightmares. She thought back to angry ghosts, haunted farms and forests, nightmare things out of stories and legends that she’d seen walking in the real world – a demon with yellow eyes wearing her father’s dead body and taunting her with being alone. Oh, she understood ugliness and evil and fear and anger and uncertainty and loss and guilt just as well as any soldier survivor, because she was one. And even though she’d left it, the battlefield was never further than her memories.
But she couldn’t admit it any more than he could, and she hid her darkness just as adamantly as he did his. She realized somewhere along the way that he needed her to be untouched by the horror of his memories just as desperately and in the same way that she needed him not to be a hunter, to be innocent of the horror of the knowledge of the evil things that lurked just out of sight. He drew strength and purpose from protecting her from the evils he knew, and she did the same.
The news had been building for months, but what showed on the screen was a shock nonetheless: the fall of Saigon. According to the reports, the last helicopters out from the roof of the U.S. embassy were packed to their load limits, and still there were desperate Vietnamese people screaming on the ground, climbing the fences and begging to be taken along. Listening to the evening news after dinner, John’s jaw locked, and when he got up in coiled silence and left the room, she knew from other fights that it was because he was too angry to sit still, too furious to trust himself not to explode. She gave him thirty minutes before she turned off the television and went after him. She found him where she knew she would: in the garage under the hood of the Impala, Led Zeppelin’s In The Light playing on the cheap radio plugged into the wall, the volume a lot lower than usual. She perched on the corner of the crate supporting his toolbox and just watched his hands, and when they stilled as he eventually spoke without even looking at her, his voice ground out like gravel.
“They helped us. A lot of them helped us. And when the Vietcong find them out, they’re all going to die.” He shook his head. “Maybe we should never have been there in the first place, but the way we left? That was wrong. You don’t leave a man behind, not ever – but in ‘Nam, we left thousands. Men, women, children – they were Vietnamese, but they were our allies, our responsibility. And we left them. We were supposed to save them. What happens to them is our fault.”
Greatly daring, she laid a gentle hand on the corded muscles of his rigid arm.
“You did what you could. You couldn’t have done more.”
He pulled away from her touch, folding in on himself.
“You don’t know that. Hell – I don’t know that.” He fell silent again, and when he started speaking, she knew he wasn’t seeing her or the car’s engine or the cold spring rain falling in the twilight outside the open garage door.
“We never knew friend from foe. They all looked alike. North or south – they were the same people. They were all poor. They were all scared. They were all angry. They all wore the same clothes, spoke the same language. We killed men in the jungle who tried to kill us, and gave food and candy to village kids – and then a kid would walk up with a hand grenade and blow up your buddy, and an old man would save your squad with a warning about an ambush. None of it made any damn sense.” He finally looked at her, and his eyes were dark. “We never talked about what we were doing there. We talked about home and training and girls and what we’d do when we got out. We never thought about what they’d do when we left. They weren’t – real. Not to us, not when we weren’t right there.” He hefted the wrench in his hand, and then flung it sideways into the toolbox with an abrupt violence that made her jump. “Well, they’re real now. When it’s too late.” His voice dripped bitterness.
She wanted to give him comfort and knew she would fail; she couldn’t grant him absolution for his fault any more than he could have done for her, if he’d known about her guilt. How many nameless, faceless people had she failed, when she walked away from hunting? How many had she doomed with the choice she’d made? She’d never know if there were people she might have saved. All she could cling to was the one she knew she had.
Moving slowly, careful not to trigger the combat reflexes she knew he would have, she came up behind him and gently touched his shoulders, then slid her arms around his waist and rested her cheek against his back, feeling the steel-hard tension there.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, inadequate words but all she could offer. “I’m sorry.”
After a while, she felt his shoulders slump, and then he turned in her arms and hugged her back, fierce and possessive and drowning. From the radio, acoustic guitar backed Bob Dylan’s gravel voice of anger, grief, and loss. But nothing really matters much, it's doom alone that counts / And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn. / “Come in,” she said, / “I'll give you shelter from the storm.”
She felt the chill rain in her heart, and clung to him with all her strength.
Author's Note: The fall of Saigon was inevitable, but still appalling. That loss was more distant to me than another headline from 1975, though: Nov. 10 brought the wreck of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, later made famous in a song by Gordon Lightfoot. The Fitz used to winter in my hometown of Milwaukee; she was a familiar sight, and her sinking was a shock. My high point for the year was the first Apollo/Soyuz mission in July: the first time that the U.S. and Russia docked spacecraft in orbit. That made me hope we humans might yet learn to cooperate ...