Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Literary Tuesday

It wouldn't be a full week here if I didn't hit you guys with at least one of the short stories I've jotted down over the last two years. This one doesn't have a title either.

UNTITLED - by Jonathan K. Lee

It began with a telephone call to my wife. He told her he was an old Army buddy and wanted my business number, which she gave him. I remember my secretary popping her head through my doorway to remind me she had someone on hold who would not leave his name. That was a few years ago, the Friday after Thanksgiving of oh-four or oh-five. His voice came over the telephone beginning with something like, "do not say my name," or, "do not speak my name aloud." I thought it was a prank. I remember the voice becoming familiar by increments and then recognizing it, and then realizing something was entirely wrong about hearing this voice. I was listening to a dead man. He wasn't exactly an Army buddy, but he was someone known to me since childhood. I suppose I still shouldn't use the name, even though he has a new one. I shall refer to him as SK for 'someone known'.

"You're not dead!" I said stupidly.

"That's right, I'm not," he reported cheerfully.

"But how -"

"Look, Jerry, I can't explain it now; I'm on the road. I'm begging you to keep my existence a secret. Absolutely no one must know."

"Are you in some kind of trouble?"

"You could get me into trouble, but it's just legal trouble. I assure you, I don't believe I've done anything immoral. There is no danger to anyone, except a threat to my liberty. But, Jerry, I really want to see you. I want to talk with you. I'll answer all your questions. I've got questions, too. My God, you're married! Who is she? Anyone I know?"

"You've never met her."

"Well, all that can wait. Can I see you?"

"Yes, yes,"" I exclaimed, "of course you can. I've got plenty of room -"

"No, it can't be that way. Here's how it is, Jerry, can you meet me in Hamburg on Sunday at seven p.m.? Do you know Hamburg?"

The conversation went something like that. He arranged a meeting at a restaurant on Route 5, a place called Hoak's, which he felt sure I could find.

What happened next? After that brief telephone conversation it was a matter of calming myself. I was breathing hard and my heart was beating up a storm. I could not concentrate on anything else. I think I went home early. Arriving home, my wife asked me about my Army buddy. I told her the truth, repeating the conversation I had with SK. My wife can be trusted with my secrets. Still, I refrained from giving his real name, or the details of our childhood together. I told her that I wanted to meet with SK first, that I would tell her more afterwards. She had no problem with this, and for her it was easy to sleep that night. I had difficulty sleeping that night and the next. My thoughts were knotted around SK.

Why had I even thought he was dead? How had I come by that information? I had been told and I had believed, but I had never read any mention of his death. Simply believing what I had been told, crying about it, and never bothering to investigate further, that was it.

My imagination toyed with highly fantastic plots. If I had sat down to write the story prior to our meeting, I might have had myself and him being caught up in a conspiracy of spies. Perhaps he was horribly disfigured and didn't want to be seen by anyone else but me. Another consideration was that I was being made the victim of a cruel hoax, but to what end? Or maybe I was really meeting a ghost, that SK had died in Afghanistan. Still, SK was the nicest guy. I could not, for all the stories I had concocted, imagine that he would be capable of doing me any harm. Not SK. Not even if he was returning from the dead. My fantastic plots were not needed. SK's story was more fantastic than I had imagined.

I left the house that Sunday afternoon, driving my wife's car, leaving her the SUV, which was scheduled Monday morning for a tune-up. I traced Route 5 south to Hamburg. As the highway bent along the bottom of Buffalo, I encountered the thick traffic of sports fans leaving Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills were playing the Jets that Sunday and I believe the Bills won. Distancing myself from Buffalo, the traffic became horrendous. I meshed with the traffic of people returning home at the end of the game. Traffic would clot, packed bumper to bumper for miles at every bridge, or the all too frequent construction sites that plugged the route. Then came the rain and fog. Sometimes it would rain hard, sometimes not at all. Mostly, it was sticky mist that would smear the windshield. Long after I should have arrived in Hamburg, at the hour of our arranged meeting, I was still wedged tightly into traffic miles from my destination.

SK's family moved into my corner of suburbia the Summer before third grade. It was in Miss O'Neil's third grade class that we became friends. So you see, SK and I had been friends for a long time. He had two stepfathers during the time I knew him. His real father died in Vietnam. His mother died while we were in the service. I didn't know, at the time I was driving, if her death occurred before, or after, SK's strange disappearance. I would know a good deal more before that day was over. Despite SK's claim that we were Army buddies, we never met during our service, and I had good reasons for believing he was dead in Afghanistan.

He enlisted soon after we graduated High School. I was in my first semester at college, and we had talked on the telephone the night before he was to board a bus for boot camp. That was the last contact I had with him until the weekend when he called me again.

After two years of college, I temporarily dropped out of school and enlisted. Who would understand my reasons if I tried to explain them now? I was confused. Reaganomics. My grades went to shit as I campaigned locally for the other guy. After the second Reagan Administration, I was seeing conspiracies everywhere. When I did the unthinkable and enlisted, no one who knew me could believe it. It was done; I was in the United States Army, Airborne, Ranger, and Special Forces trained, and assigned to ISAF in Kabul. I was there during SK's disappearance.

I had heard stories about a soldier who stripped naked and ran into enemy fire. Some said he had gone crazy, some said he had bummed out on drugs, and, at least once, I heard the story that he walked calmly into the enemy as a calculated suicide. I thought it was standard military mythology until I bumped into a mutual friend at a bar and learned that the soldier of legend was SK.

It was late when I finally reached Hamburg. There was very little traffic, so I could drive slowly along the portion of Route 5 that edged Lake Erie. The rain had temporarily stopped and it was quite warm, despite it being November. There were a number of people in the parking lot. I didn't recognize any of them as being SK, but then, would I have recognized him?

I parked the car and went inside.

I was two hours late and sure I had missed him. I turned around and looked right past him.

The figure approaching me was unfamiliar. This fellow had a beard that clawed high up his hollow cheeks. Still, he continued his approach wearing a big grin and glittering eyes that stared directly at me. Then I knew it was him. They were his eyes and his thick shock of unkempt hair. It was his jolly bounce and long strides. He wore a long raincoat, unbuttoned and flapping like a cape from his still slender body, his hands in his pants pockets. I never moved. He stepped right up to me and halted within reach. His smile broadened to show his teeth.

"Hello Jerry," he said.

"Hello SK," I said. Then I jumped at him and hugged him. I squeezed long, and tightly, and was aware of him squeezing me. When we pulled apart, I saw that he too was crying. How silly we must have seemed to each other, crying, and we both broke into a hearty laughter.

We fell into a babble, the nature of which began with me being married and having children, and he being without wife or kids; how he found me in the phone book and was grateful I still lived in the old neighborhood; and a general accounting of old friends, which quickly gave way to a recounting of shared memories. I joked about his beard, and he joked about the weight I have gained. Somewhere during this quick exchange, we had agreed we were hungry. We decided against Hoak's, as another drunken group of Bills fans arrived for an unnecessary post-game drink, and headed a little farther down Route 5 to a place called not coincdentally "Root Five".

SK was living in Canada with his new name. Over dinner he explained matters to me in a low tone. What is it the UCMJ says: after thirty days AWOL you are regarded a deserter. After 180 days a deserter you are dropped from the military rolls. During the war a caught deserter was sent by a civil court to prison. But SK was MIA; missing in action. Missing in action and presumed dead, yet sitting across the table from me.

When he set off on this pilgrimage, pilgrimage being his word for it, he wasn't sure if he was going to look me up.

As he tells it, although he enlisted, at heart he was a conscientious objector and had considered running to Canada, but he didn't. In the Army they tested him and he was pretty smart. They presented him with the opportunity to become a medic. This appealed to him. So SK became a medic, but he was obliged to enlist to acquire the extended training. Following his training he was sent to Afghanistan.

"Coming of age in Afghanistan," that is how he described it.

They were announcing withdrawals of British troops troops and Talian leaders were dead, but the war went on, and being a medic, he often witnessed the worst of it. His world grew uglier. He heard about the canal massacre in Iraq, and, while others made excuses, SK knew it could be true. He became oppressed by statistics, figuring, as each day added to the length of his stay, how his luck would not hold. He considered desertion, as most did at some point.

He thought about the stories of soldiers who had deserted while on R and R. But there were also stories that they didn't desert, that they had instead been caught naked in the bed of some cathouse in Bahrain, or Dubai, by locals friendly to Al-Qaeda. It was rumored that a few soldiers had gone native in Afghanistan. This had its appeal. SK had discovered he was adept at learning languages, and could converse, somewhat, in Pashto; more so in Arabic. He became caught up in the allure of Southwest Asia. Without the war, maybe he would have made his way there anyway. Still, the war was there, and he found himself posted to a fire-base near Kandahar.

He knew that I was in Kabul. He had learned of me from a letter received from back home. He tried getting a message to me, but, for some reason, I never got it. Perhaps everything would have gone differently if he could have just spoken to an old friend. Then news of his mother's death reached him.

I record all this here not knowing which particular played a part in his later behavior. So far I have described feelings that were experienced by many of us over there. Only, SK was probably more sensitive than most. I cannot imagine someone more out of place in a war zone.

He was called into his commanding officer's bunker and was told of his mother's death. He was offered the first Blackhawk out of camp in the morning. The curious thing is that SK did not want to go home. He explained to me that he knew his mother was dying even before he was drafted. She had breast cancer. He didn't want to be there to witness the progression of his mother's chronic illness. He didn't want to see her suffer. With a half-baked notion, he found it easier to be sent to Afghanistan and avoid seeing his mother die. He explained to me how he thought becoming a medic would accustom him to death, would teach him a way of dealing with suffering. And he thought the military, in general, would somehow prepare him for a life alone in the real world. He was not prepared for the deep immersion into universal pain and destruction. Now with his mother dead, he saw how cock-eyed was his idea of escaping into a war zone. He felt stupid, shameful, filled with self-hatred; too late he realized he should have been there with his mother. Now that she was dead, there was nothing; no plans, no preparations, and no desire to go on.

SK informed his commanding officer that he did not wish to be sent home. The captain assured him his services were not necessary, that they would have no difficulty replacing him. He told the captain that his services were not necessary stateside, either, and that he just didn't care to go. The captain found this attitude distasteful and instructed SK that he had better find himself aboard that Blackhawk in the morning, for he would not stand to see one of his men fail to do their duty. "Honor they mother," the captain pontificated.

"I was being sent no place from nowhere," SK remarked to me from the passenger seat, while staring blankly out the windshield.

Twelve men were thrown together for a night patrol. SK, who was originally to be included, was spared. The sergeant knew he was going home and dismissed him. Another medic was forced. The other medic thought the whole thing to be damn unfair. He had just been out. SK had little difficulty persuading this other medic to swap. When SK presented himself at the gate, the sergeant expressed his annoyance, but didn't want to delay and didn't want to be without a medic.

As SK was telling me this story, I thought I could see where it was going. He wanted to commit suicide. Why else would he give up the chance of returning to the safety of home? Why else would he, instead, maneuver so vigorously to go on patrol? I said this to my friend, and he said it was not quite suicide, at first. When they passed outside the protection of the wire, he felt absolutely fearless. He found himself empty, with "no goals, no plans, no desires; in other words, without a future." The idea of continuing to live seemed tiresome to him, and he viewed the possibility of dying as convenient.

I remember my own fear. I carried my .45 to the showers every day I was in Afghanistan. Paranoia was high and nowhere was safe. I lived, briefly, in the relative security of an air-base three miles wide. There would be rocket attacks and I lived in a flimsy Quonset hut. How much harder, then, it must have been for my friend. In High School, he was skinny and never went out for sports. I could not picture him on a fire-base, seventy-five yards wide, surrounded by hostile mountains.

Into those mountains a dozen men went to spend the night. SK had no recollection of how long, or how far, they traveled. He was thinking how, if he didn't die that night, he would let the Army send him home, and he would never come back to the war. He would go to Canada, or Mexico, as soon as he hit the States.

The dozen men took up positions along a narrow path in the mountains, before night became its darkest. The path was one possible approach to their base. If the Taliban should come that night, then they would be caught in an ambush. The men dug shallow holes behind fallen boulders, having to lie flat to be concealed. While most of them probably worried about the limited rounds of ammo they were able to carry, SK thought about how he had failed his mother, he thought about students recently dead at Virginia Tech University, and he thought about how unsuspecting the first Taliban fighter would be when picked off, should any be making their way down the trail. Nine out of ten times, at least, nothing would come of a night patrol; but to the disappointment of some, the satisfaction of others, shadows moved in a line along that trail.

The enemy came in single file and at a distance from one another. SK's patrol fired on the unsuspecting enemy. The M4 is like a toy, if you don't happen to be standing in front of it. On automatic, it spits fifteen rounds in an instant, and there is almost no kick. You can hold the rifle in one hand. They were two to a hole, and the fellow who shared the hole with SK was pressed flat to the ground, not aiming, not even looking. He held the rifle in one hand over his head and blasted blindly into the general direction of the enemy. With the magazine emptied, he would pull it out and turn it over - it was the very bad habit of some to tape two magazines together, inverted. When the second was emptied, he discarded it for the next two, and went on firing. SK never fired a shot. Medics were not suppose to carry arms, although in this war they frequently did. In the flashes of light from the ends of barrels the rocks became visible. SK watched his buddy endlessly shooting rounds off over his head at an unseen threat.

"And I thought to myself," he said, "that the guy just wanted to live. The guy didn't want to be there." At this point he stopped. I waited for the story to continue.

"You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to," I told him. I really wanted to know. He was at the very part of his story I was most curious about, but I thought it kinder not to press him.

"But I want to tell you," he said. He just wasn't sure, himself, why he did what he did. He went on with his story.

He had undressed. He took off every article of clothing, except for his boots. He even removed his dog tags. His partner in the hole never saw a thing.

"I'm not sure why I did it. I was sick of the war, and of myself, and, I think, I wanted to be rid of both." SK stood, and walked away from the enemy's fire. He expected to experience a bullet thudding into his back, but it didn't come. As he walked away, calmly, he slowly began to feel fear return. The time passing made him anxious. He began thinking he might be spared, and sensed that thinking was turning into hoping. Someone yelled his name. Then there were many of the voices of his patrol calling out for him. All the while the shooting continued.

"No one tried to stop you? No one went after you?" I asked. He said no. I guess that could make sense. What he did was insanity; why waste yourself for the insane. Also, considering the degree of drug use in that war, even while on patrol, one isn't always thinking of the right moral moves, so lots of times you'd just fend for yourself. How many of those guys might have been beyond dealing with their own situation? I did wonder if SK, who had already admitted that he couldn't cope, might have been high, although he denied it. Of course, he could have been lying to me. His entire story could be fabricated. He admitted to being confused at this part of his tale.

As he walked naked down the mountain his anxiety grew. He started to think he would pass out. With a taste of the possible, though wholly unplanned for, success at escaping, his courage began to return. Most of the shooting had stopped. There was no more yelling. He had reached a path and started up it. Then he heard others running up behind him. He didn't even bother to turn around and see who they were. They grabbed him by each arm and they rushed him forward. Taliban. He was not to be shot, after all. At least not then. They were taking him prisoner and he offered no resistance. All his plans had failed him. Having imagined a quick death, he now considered the prospects of torture.

It was some distance, and time, before they slowed their pace. The trio was stopped by an elder. In very bad English, the elder tried to question him. SK feigned to not understand, for he knew the enemy would try to learn the size of his patrol. For not answering, he received the butt of a rifle against his cheek and jaw. They pulled him off the ground, the inside of his mouth bleeding and his head dizzy, and the officer put the question to him again. The blow had made him indignant, proud, and courageous. Saying nothing, he presented his chin for the next blow, but it didn't come. Instead he heard them say, "he won't talk," and, "he's crazy." They laughed at his nakedness. He knew enough of their language to know he was safe, for the time being. The officer ordered no harm to come to him. They blindfolded him and lead him further from the protective confines of his base.

At a place where the terrain became difficult, he had trouble walking, falling at least twice. The blindfold was removed, only to be reinstated when the going was easy. Eventually, he became aware of the morning light leaking through his blindfold. He was also drinking the blood that was continually filling his mouth, and wondered if it would ever stop.

In telling the story to me, SK could not remember the number of days he was kept moving. Three or four, he thinks, moving mostly at night. Several times he heard helicopters, but he and his captors must have been hiding from view. They never came close. Perhaps they were looking for him.

They arrived at a village. He had acquired pants and shirt by this time, but he has no recollection how. He was tied to a post in the bright sun, though his eyes were still kept covered. The villagers came to taunt him, scorn him, and throw dirt and such at him. At the sound of distant aircraft they rushed him indoors.

It wasn't long before he was brought into a room for interrogation. The blindfold was removed. Three men sat behind a table. One man, an interpreter, stood between him and the three. Only one man at the table did the questioning. SK refused to answer, until they came to the subject of his earlier nakedness. He told them he had become sick and tired of the war, so he quit. This struck the three men as amusing. They discussed it among themselves. A chair was ordered for SK. Cigarettes were offered. The conversation turned to questioning him about his family. As far as SK was concerned, he no longer had a family, being an only son, his mother dead, a stepfather he cared nothing for, no uncles, a couple of aunts and cousins he hardly knew. The three men talked among themselves, not realizing how much their prisoner understood, and what the prisoner understood was that he was being held captive. What was SK thinking? He was thinking what a great story he would have to tell his grandchildren, if he lived to have them. Then one of the three men behind the table spoke to him in fine English, telling him that, maybe, he would be able to help end the war.

The blindfold was never put back on, and he was now moved as much by day as by night. The route they followed carried a lot of traffic, mostly people laden with supplies going East. He commented to me how clever this seemed. They could carry a great deal, and yet, traversed a very narrow path.

After a night in a village during this trek East, he learned a little of what it was like to be on the ground during a bombing. They had just awakened him and feed him, and were on their feet ready to commence the journey. He never saw or heard the bombers, but heard the bombs exploding. The ground violently quaked, and to the rear, the way they had just come the day before, the mountains went up in fire and smoke. He threw himself down behind a rock and covered his ears.

I suggested that maybe he wasn't in Afghanistan. Maybe he was being marched along one of the trails in Pakistan. This was certainly a possibility, he said.

"Not very discriminating bombing, Jerry," he said to me. What could I do but agree. It wasn't my doing. I would have never approved, but I didn't make any difference.

The bombing took place in the morning, moments after day break. The group SK had been traveling with was now split and sent in different directions, perhaps because of the bombing. Three soldiers were left to guard him and he did not continue the journey East that day. By afternoon the victims of the bombing began arriving, crying and wailing to his guards. He saw clearly the injuries done to them. They were not soldiers, at least not obviously so. They were children, mothers, the elderly, as well as young men and women. To the shock of his guards, SK shouted pleas in their tongue, begging to be untied, to help the injured, calling out that he was a medic. He was released and went to work without antibiotics, salves, painkillers, or bandages; all these things were left with his uniform in a foxhole in another life.

He was directing fires to be built and for water to be fetched. He covered burns in rags that were first boiled and then cooled. He set broken limbs with rags and sticks. He applied tourniquets and severed useless limbs with a bayonet. As time went on, more victims arrived into a now growing camp, many being carried. It seems word was spreading of his medical talent. As the first night came, SK was ordering shelters to be built. In time even some medicines and medical equipment arrived from somewhere, but the bottles and jars were not labeled in English. A team of volunteers formed around him. Deep into the night more and more victims arrived. It was necessary to practice a form of triage. Food from a nearby village also began arriving. He ordered others to clear the dead away and bury them. He sought opium for his burn victims and amputees. The numbers increased, and when the day returned, he was still at it. He had those with concussions resting, deeming it too risky to move them along mountainous trails. By the second night a doctor arrived, a Frenchman, or maybe Belgian. SK had no spare energy to wonder what the European doctor was doing there, and there was never an opportunity to ask. They worked side by side. SK had three years of French in High School that hardly proved serviceable. The doctor spoke English like SK spoke French, but they communicated to each other in both languages and Vietnamese.

According to SK, it was during these three days and two nights of attending to blast victims that he regained the desire to live. The war which had robbed him of hope, or care, now resurrected him with a purpose. By the third day many had died, but many had been saved. The few victims that were still arriving were being cared for by the doctor. SK was permitted to sleep without being bound, and he slept deep and peacefully, content with himself, despite the war still around him.

It was the doctor and one of the guards that woke him from his wonderful sleep. The guard spoke English and they had come to talk. Did he really strip naked and walk into their hands? They asked why? He repeated his story of how he was tired of the war. They asked if he wanted to go back to being a soldier? He told them he would never soldier again. The doctor gave him a cigarette, shook his hand, and smacked his shoulder with the flat of his free hand. The day was just breaking and the mountains were cloaked in clouds. The guard lead him into the open. At some distance from the village, this guard pointed one way, over the immediate mountain, and said, "that way is Afghanistan and the war." He turned SK in the opposite direction and pointed again. "You go that way." SK said he must have looked dumbfounded at his guard. "You have escaped," his guard said. The guard turned his back on SK and left him.

He spent nearly a year in the border area avoiding the Taliban, and U.S. patrols. He found refuge with the Hazaras... the indigenous people of Afghanistan. During the war the CIA secretly recruited the Hazaras to make assaults against the Taliban. SK had to resist being rescued by the Hazaras, who were also in the business of returning lost American soldiers. The war had reached Pakistan and, SK claims, there were even incursions by American soldiers. Nevertheless, the Hazaras were a most hospitable people, and during his stay, SK became a novice of Islam and Buddhism. By the time he entered India, to avoid the growing numbers of insurgents and bandits, my old friend was wearing a saffron robe and possessed a shaved head. Was he really a Buddhist? My friend said it was as much a means for survival as it was a keen interest, and at times a growing affinity.

All those years without getting caught, even with a visa I don't believe you can stay legally in India for more than a week. I questioned SK about this.

He said he didn't know about being a tourist, but he kept to the hills and the wilderness. He lived and studied as a monk, swapping what the Army had taught him for folk medicine. His reputation for healing spread. The civil authorities were willing to ignore his existence, while tribal chiefs and warlords offered him protection. Wherever he traveled in the forests of India, he was received as a welcomed guest. There were very few doctors in the countryside. He was happy and he accepted no pay for his services, beyond food or shelter. As an itinerant monk, the precepts of Theravada Buddhism hardly permitted him from excepting more. When his medical services were not needed, he turned his hands to carving. The mountains were filled with talented craftsmen who taught him.

Of course I asked him why, if he had been so happy, did he leave India? He explained how towards the end he became too well known. There was a French photographer and an Australian journalist, working as a team, who had learned of him and sought him out. The three became friends and they were willing to be convinced to not reveal him. He had become a useful informant and guide. He acquired books from them with which to keep notes and make sketches, for he had long become a student of the culture in which he was living. The end came when a combination of circumstances began to weigh heavily against him. This part of the story he was reluctant to share with me in any great detail. He said he didn't want to get some very important friends into trouble. He had become ill at the same time as there was a heightened awareness and growing disapproval among the civil authorities of the influence he had with the hill people. The Australian journalist had not been able to sit on his story. There were also people in high places who wanted certain favors of him that he refused to do. Fortunately, the Frenchman and the Australian put him into contact with a third party at an embassy. Arrangements were made and, for his safety, he was spirited out of the country to "someplace in Europe." He didn't tell me where. Nor do I know how he got from Europe, where he was briefly hospitalized and cured of whatever it was that had him sick, to Canada.

He came out of Canada to visit his mother's grave, the first half of his pilgrimage, but he didn't want to stay in the old neighborhood for any length of time, for fear he might be recognized. The visit with me was the second half of his pilgrimage. While still sitting in the parked car, he concluded his tale by asking me not to share it with anyone, at least not for a couple of years. After two years, he instructed me, he was sure that it would be okay and that I could blab. By that time he would be a legitimate citizen of Canada.

It was still raining off and on. The low hanging storm, lit by the city's lights, tumbled across the sky like a mad river. Leaving the warm car, I was stung by a cold wind and spray.

If we talked further, I do not recall what about.

We got drunk. We started at the restaurant bar. When that closed, we completed the job in some long-forgotten dive.

SK talked about our High School years twenty years before, and really the last time we knew each other. How much we've changed and how much we haven't. SK said something like, "kids are different today. Like them we were meaningless; but unlike them we sought meaning." I felt SK found meaning; I'm not so sure about myself. We talked, I don't know for how long, and I don't know when I fell asleep.

Monday morning I woke and he was gone. He left me a short message, which, if I had saved it, I could have recorded here. As I remember it, it informed me that he enjoyed his visit, that he was getting married, and that he would keep in touch. I never heard from him again. It has been more than two years, so it should be safe to write about him, now. Maybe he will read this and get in touch.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

See you tomorrow.

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