The Fog of Courage
It seems we search for small joys in peacetime, but need them more desperately in wartime. Surely the first spring flowers that end the gray days of winter will lighten many hearts. For others, fiery red and tawny gold leaves that paint the amber hills of fall give pleasure. But Mary found that in any season, above all, she loved the fog; it was her small joy. When marshmallow clouds caressed rooftops and spread over the entire area as though transported on angel wings, she felt energized and content.
Somehow, today there was an underlying edginess, something that made her uneasy. This anxiety was born out of a response to the possibility her steeliness would be tested once the fog lifted. Maybe Mary relished the thickening mist because it dimmed the light on her sad reality and hid the coward she truly was. Its soft texture was a pillow she could rest her head on to replenish strength. In a recurring dream she was blindfolded at the top of a steep roller coaster hill. Her tummy did flips as the coaster sped downhill and she awoke thinking she might vomit. Now standing at their bay’s shoreline she wondered, “Was it the dream or her pregnancy that caused her stomach to revolt?” Mary breathed in deep the salty air and smiled; today in her favorite setting she would strive not to allow anything to spoil her pleasant reverie.
But there was no escape; she felt too guilty for drifting in the mist and being lulled into a happy, peaceful and transfixed state of mind. Thoughts of her husband, John, caught in a different kind of fog – the fog of war, came crashing in with the waves. Not as lucky as she, there the insidious snaky fog curled its way like the pot smoke filling Nam’s countryside. It gripped and strangled the bedraggled tired men who smoked away their sins of war to try and forget. Her man was off fighting in a steamy jungle filled with foul moldy vegetation; it blocked his memory of sweet smelling roses outside their front yard door. He would have to struggle to recall the perfume aroma he loved to inhale on the nape of her neck.
John wrote that snipers peaked out of the steamy insect infested jungle until they actually became a part of the Vietnam landscape. He admitted that the only way to identify “Charlie” is if the ammo is coming in your direction.” His nightmares were the real thing!
Young healthy men in his unit, who arrived from farms and cities, seemed after only months of war to have lost all vestiges of youth. Their naive eyes watched planes dropping bombs, army units destroy villages, rapes, and death to the enemy. They had seen buddies have body parts blasted away, and finally go down for the count.
John’s act of heroism had brought him home for several months. In an effort to take out an enemy submachine gun, amid grenades exploding all around, he crawled up a steep hill. He achieved his goal, but not before an enemy bullet found its mark; ligaments in his left leg were torn and residual pain would be a lasting reminder. He remained in the hospital for weeks recovering from his injury, but by eliminating that lethal weapon he had saved many soldier lives. How handsome he looked in his uniform and how proud Mary felt as he was awarded his new medal. After healing he never wavered about duty to return and fight on, not even when he thought he smelled Napalm seeping from the pores on his body.
There were others in John’s unit whose injuries were worse; theirs never seemed to heal. Depression flattened the light in eyes, weighted shoulders down and became a part their total being. For those men suffering from this malaise there was a “fix” other than hospital bed rest. Soldiers in the field found their own way to deal with pain.
Drugs were good, and drugs were everywhere. “Weed” made trading food for sex seem OK. Heroin blurred the pleading eyes of the young Viet Cong soldiers killed in hand to hand battle. Back home American soldiers continued to “use” to try and forget. But the war movie played and replayed turning their daytime into a nightmare!
Soldiers lived their battles on and off the field as relentless songs of war reminded daily what all prayed to forget. Their women became a part of a club they had no say in: they had no guns, just shared the pain without the medals. Some warded off aggressive men who preyed on lonely women. Rebuffing their aggression was easier than silencing the rhetoric of politicians who made them lose hope. They raised children on their own, and worked to make ends meet above their soldier’s pay. Many would say they were the true heroes of this saga! Mary felt a part of a sisterhood that smothered unthinkable thoughts and unspoken fears. These women propped each other up: they shared stories, wept, and fiercely searched for a reason to laugh!
But today, Mary just needed to be alone. She left newspapers at home with blaring headlines that spoke of student protests. “What was all the fuss,” she thought? The inky words just fell on aging ears blocked with the gray hairs meant to silence the screaming message from those sent away to die. The ugly war spelled out unfairness; the college bound escaped while the factory worker just out of high school was mandated to serve. Get married, have a baby and you too might draw a lucky straw. The baby Mary would bring into the world in months to come was not well planned; it was a bit too late to avoid the war draft. She caressed her bulging belly and crooned loving words to the unborn baby she knew in her heart would be a son; in her mind John Jr. had already arrived.
“Get over yourself, Mary” she thought; “You are not the only one to suffer.” How John’s parents cried when he boarded his plane to return, and they all clung to each other as their hero left his void. Why hadn’t her husband agreed to run away to Canada? Maybe it took more courage to say “No” than comply and fight an unjust war! It made her so mad to think of John’s self-righteousness to serve his country’s call and leave his family to fend alone. Even when the news came that he would be shipped out again to Viet Nam he didn’t’ flinch, instead he said, “If you’re going to be on the team, Mary, you don’t want to sit it out on the bench!” She was so tired of his wimpy letters complaining of his dark days, of the lost limbs and the dead buddies! She was exhausted from fear, and her selfishness made her feel guilty and wearier, for she loved him to her deepest core.
The clouds darkened. The light mist quickly turned to rain and began to chill her bones, so she headed home. The heavy downpour turned her backyard stream into a rapid torrent. Soaking wet, she waded to her front door where she was greeted by the menace she had felt all day. There stood two military men and her priest. She knew; she fell and her knees became obscure as she sunk into the muddy quicksand. Her tears and sobs came in heaves as she repeated, “Oh, John, Oh, John, Oh John!!!”
The army did its best with proper pomp to ease a nation’s shame. But no medal or military burial with its flag draped casket, taps and salutes could salve her pain. The ritual itself didn’t feel quite right on such a bright sunny day.
She drove to the bay that evening to clear her head and cry alone where tears are best allowed. There was no gravestone to touch, no way to reach out and connect to her lost love. But she felt him with the internal kicks of the happy baby in her womb. Her friend the fog rolled in to mark the end of a most imperfect day. It might never make her happy again, but its graceful grayness moving high into nothingness somehow felt right, and strangely, that evening it brought her some peace. She would bring John, Jr. to this spot someday!