Harvey Huddleston

Looking For Donald

           Elliot was stationed at McChord Air Force Base, about ten miles south of Tacoma, Washington. On a call home earlier, his mom had told him she’d run into an old school friend’s mom at the grocery store and found out that Donald, on that very day, was in transit at Fort Lewis, his last stop before Viet Nam. Checking a map of the area, Elliot saw that Fort Lewis didn’t look any farther than five or six miles down the highway from McChord so he decided to go find him. He’d try to thumb there but if that didn’t work, it still looked close enough to walk.
           After working all day in the motorpool he decided to keep his fatigues on. For one thing there were still old guys around from back when being in the military wasn’t something to be ashamed of and one might pick him up on the highway. Another was that it would help with the guards at Fort Lewis. In his uniform and having a military ID, and especially after coming all that way to see an old friend on his last day in the states, they’d have to let him on base.
           Stopping at his barracks, Elliot grabbed a plastic parka. It might rain or maybe not but since it was always overcast there you never knew. He’d gotten in the habit of looking left whenever leaving his barracks. It was on the first clear day after having been there for a week that he’d glanced in that direction and seen something strange. White jagged lines against a brilliant blue sky. But these lines were slanting up at an angle and all going in the same direction. Then he’d seen more jagged lines slanting up from the opposite side and meeting the others at the top. He stared for at least a minute before realizing it was a mountain. What had thrown him was that the lower half was pure blue like the rest of the sky and the jagged lines didn’t start until high up in the sky above it.
           It turned out that Mt. Rainier was pretty famous so he’d gone to the base library to find out about it. It was the second highest mountain in the United States, only smaller than Mt. McKinley in Alaska. It was actually a volcano and still active. In fact, it was considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world in terms of the damage it would cause if it erupted. That made him wonder about living so close to it but, not having any choice in the matter, he figured he’d just have to take his chances like everyone else since 1854, the last time it blew up. Looking towards it today, there was only the dark overcast of late afternoon with a damp chill in the air. He hoped that any rain would hold off, at least until he got to Fort Lewis. Nobody wanted to pick up a wet hitchhiker.
           By the time he reached the main gate, the long walk after working all day had tired him out. That, along with the threatening rain, made him consider canning the trip. But then, after thinking about what Donald was getting ready to do, he figured he should at least make the attempt. He took off down the highway while at the same time turning around to flag down the cars roaring past. There were a lot of them as it was rush hour and this highway was a major corridor. He could tell by the grim faces behind the wheels that there was little chance anyone would pull over and the heavy traffic made it almost impossible to stop even if they wanted to. He’d been walking a ways and still turning to give it a try when a car up ahead pulled over.
           Once in the front seat, an old guy with a grumpy face turned to him.
           Yeah. I’m going down the road here to Fort Lewis.
           At that the old guy pulled out into traffic. Elliot figured him for a Korean War type or even WWII but then the old guy didn’t say anything else which was fine with Elliot. He wouldn’t have to hear any stories about the old days. There weren’t any businesses along this stretch of highway, the same as it always was near military bases where everything was government owned. Elliot knew it was only a few more miles but the ride seemed to go on forever in the silence. The old guy finally pulled over near Fort Lewis’s main gate. It was the only time Elliot could remember a driver not saying anything when he got out, not even to acknowledge his thank you.
           The front gate at Fort Lewis was impressive after the tiny guard house at McChord. Two big stone towers with wooden battlements on top and a bridge running between them. He approached some glass windows and one of them slid open.
           I’m from McChord and looking for a friend on his way to Vietnam. Here’s my ID.
           The Private, or whatever they called him in the Army, took his ID with a confused look on his face. He then turned and showed it to someone else. Elliot guessed it was his superior and both now looked at him through the plate glass. Finally the first guy came back and handed him his ID.
           Go on in.
           Is there an administrative office somewhere?
           Well, that would be closed after five. But this road leads right through the center of the post. You might find something there.
           Just take that road.
           I will, thanks.
           Knock yourself out.
           At that last comment, Elliot saw both of them snicker. He started into the base, thinking that the Army could use some less sarcastic gate guards. But it was only about fifty yards in when he saw why what he’d said to the guard seemed ridiculous. On both sides of the road were nothing but quonset huts, one after another for as far as he could see. No buildings with offices or parking lots with cars and people around. And no grass either. The ground outside of the quonset huts was all gravel with not a tree or bus stop or bench anywhere in sight.
           He was struck by how different this base — or post as the guard had called it — was from any Air Force base he’d ever been on. Most air bases, even the rundown ones, were like small towns. Back at McChord they had a library, movie theater, a ten lane bowling alley where you could drink beer until midnight even if you weren’t bowling, two swimming pools that were open all summer. This place in comparison looked like a wasteland.
           Each quonset hut was exactly the same as the one before it and the one after. The only difference was that every third or fourth hut had a placard out front proclaiming it to be the “Home of the Screaming Eagles” or whatever their nickname was with some warlike insignia emblazoned underneath. He noticed how different these insignias were from the gold and blue patch of the Military Airlift Command sewn onto his left front pocket.
           As the quonset huts stretched on Elliot spotted a group gathered up ahead. Finally some people. As he got closer he saw that it was a line of GIs backed up at some pay phones. He approached one of them in line.
           Maybe you could tell me, is there an administrative office or anything like that around?
           Whoah, what’s that? He pointed at Elliot’s chest.
           I’m from McChord.
           At that the Army guy called out to the others. Hey, we got us some Air Force here.
           Air Force? Air Force?! A few yelled. Who needs the fucking Air Force! Go find your own phone!
           I’m not here for the phone. I’m looking for a friend.
           Then a buzzsaw voice cut through the others. Get the fuck out of here, asshole!
           Backing away, Elliot said, alright, alright. I’m going.
           Jesus Christ, Elliot thought as he continued on when the guy he’d approached called out to him. There’s a Debark center down on the right.
           Elliot held up his hand and quickened his pace to put some distance between him and them. The blue strips over his top pockets with Air Force in white on one and his name on the other had stood out like a matador’s cape to these GIs with their olive drab strips and names in black. It felt like he had syphilis in a leper colony. Of course, he knew why they resented him. They were being shipped off to slog around in the jungle like sitting ducks while guys like him, even if they did go to Vietnam, would be on a relatively safe base. Elliot guessed he’d be pissed too if he was them. He began to wonder if this whole idea hadn’t been a big mistake and he should get back to McChord while still in one piece.
           But then he knew that debark was short for debarkation which meant a place where they had to have a list of those leaving. He continued on past the quonset huts thinking that, after coming this far, he had to at least give Debark a try; that is, if that guy in line was telling the truth and he could find it. He finally came to a real building with some GIs in front shouldering duffel bags. There were also a few MPs with their helmets on and batons in hand. So why not M-16s too? Maybe shoot a few people to show how serious they were. This Army shit was intense. He approached a door and prepared himself for the hostility inside.
           Going in he found himself on the side of a small auditorium with some folding tables in front. Seated at the tables were about ten admin types going through papers while GIs in a line on the other side approached them. There were about ten rows of folding chairs facing front with maybe half of them taken.
           Elliot made his way back behind the chairs to get in line on the other side when it occurred to him that his Air Force markings hadn’t made any impression on the GIs seated in the chairs as he’d passed. There’d been a blankness on their faces, not on just a few but every last one. He could’ve been wearing a Santa Claus outfit and it wouldn’t have mattered. None of the fifty or seventy five sitting there were talking and it was dead quiet except for the murmurs from up front.
           The line moved quickly. Elliot saw that when GIs were finished at the table they picked up their duffels from where they’d left them at their seats and then disappeared out another door in the back. When his turn came, Elliot ended up in front of an older GI with white hair and black hash marks on his sleeves. He was definitely a sergeant but Elliot didn’t know which kind.
           I’ve come from McChord to find a friend here on his way to Vietnam. His name is Donald Saller. I’m wondering if you can tell me where to find him.
           The Sergeant studied him for a second. Elliot was ready for him to call in those MPs from outside when the Sergeant spoke in a calm and concerned manner.
           I see. Well, this is a processing center and we don’t have time to check through all these lists. What’s that name again you’re looking for?
           At that the Sergeant flipped through his list. Hmmm, don’t see it...
           Guess it’s kind of a long shot, huh?
           Maybe, but these lists are incomplete. Everyone comes through differently. Tell you what. Why don’t you sit down and watch for him. This is the only processing point so if he’s leaving tonight he has to come through here sooner or later.
           Okay, that’s good. Thanks.
           No problem.
           Elliot found a seat near the front so he could get a good look at the faces in line. It felt good to sit down after humping it non-stop for the last three hours. It also felt good to finally be somewhere where he wouldn’t stick out.
           Elliot watched dozens of faces pass and then kept watching as they turned into hundreds. No Donald. He began to wonder why he was even there. Donald and he hadn’t really been that good of friends. In fact, in high school they’d hardly spoken at all except for maybe a hi now and then in the halls. It was back in grade school at St. Annes when Elliot felt like he’d known him.
           Donald had been a kind of leader back then and always seemed more in the know than anyone else. He’d been the first to show up in desert boots and then everyone had to have a pair. He also seemed to know about music. One time this guy was talking about a new song on the radio when Donald dismissed him with a remark that was brash and funny at the same time. “Oh sure, like Burl Ives!” Elliot knew that Burl Ives was an old fat guy who sang that corny song but Donald’s remark came off as especially well informed and the rest of them laughed. Donald was quick on his feet and with his words too. Everyone followed his lead.
           But then in high school Elliot could barely remember him. Except for that one time. Priests were stationed high up in the corners of the gym to hear confessions and, after supposedly examining their conscience, guys would climb up the steps to them. You didn’t have to go to confession but you were forced to sit there. Elliot was down on the gym floor getting ready to skip out when he saw Donald sitting high up in the stands by himself. Elliot realized he hadn’t heard Donald’s brash voice once since back at St. Annes. His face was different too. There wasn’t that same confidence in it he’d once seen. Elliot wondered if Donald had found out something about getting older that he’d missed. All Elliot cared about were cars and girls and what his crowd was doing that weekend and Donald definitely wasn’t in that crowd, or any crowd at all it seemed. But then Elliot had gone on, reminding himself that people were different. Different choices, different worlds.
           So Elliot wondered again why he was there looking for him. He’d just felt like coming, that’s all. Or maybe it was that he wanted something to do. He’d planned on taking Donald to the base exchange, or the PX as they call it. Buy him a beer or a hamburger maybe and see him off. No big deal but it would’ve been nice for Elliot to see someone from home for a change and he guessed maybe that was his real reason for coming all this way.
           The auditorium was hot and Elliot was having trouble staying focused on the faces. They’d all begun to look alike. He’d actually caught himself nodding off a few times which wasn’t good since he wasn’t even supposed to be there. He got up to take a break and decided to see what was out that door in the back through which so many had disappeared.
           The air outside woke him up but it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. Then the shapes of hundreds of guys came into focus. They were sitting on a huge lawn sloping down to a street where, under a single streetlight, a bus was waiting. It was one of those big blue military types that held about a hundred. The blue told Elliot it was from McChord. Then he realized that this would be the last bus ride in the states for these guys. It would be a short ride on back roads through some chain link fences, a route never seen by the public. Then onto the flight line at McChord and to the C-141s waiting. They’d pile into the bellies of those giants with the next stop being southeast Asia. These guys were spending their last minutes on solid ground in America.
           Elliot sat down to wait with them. Lighters flared in the dark and then flickered out. He knew that there had to be a few gung-ho types there who’d been waiting all their lives for this chance to go kill some slanty-eyed gooks. But he also knew those guys were the exception. Most of them on that slope were just like him and didn’t want to kill anybody. But here they were, on their way to the last place on earth they’d go if they had any choice and Elliot thought back to why he wasn’t one of them.
           Nixon was elected in November of ‘68 because he’d said he had a plan to end the war. Elliot had known he was lying but still couldn’t figure out why more than half the country didn’t. That month 50,000 more troops were sent over, bringing the total in Vietnam to half a million. That was also the same month that Elliot dropped out of college and only four days later got his One-A draft status in the mail. It was that new status coming so quickly that told Elliot he had to do something. Some were going to Canada to dodge the draft. Others just waited to let the pieces fall where they may but Elliot couldn’t do that either. He’d gone downtown the next morning and signed up for the Air Force. Anything to avoid that jungle.
           He didn’t know for sure if he was against the war. He just didn’t understand it. Things were changing so fast and everyone had an opinion. Those on the right said the war was necessary to keep Vietnam from going communist while the left was saying it was immoral and only being fought to keep the Vietnamese people from making their own choice. All the good musicians like Dylan and the Beatles were against it. So was Martin Luther King before he was assassinated. Still, what if they were wrong and the war was necessary. Elliot didn’t want to go but he also didn’t want to shirk his responsibility and do something he could never take back. So he’d joined the Air Force as a compromise. He’d be there if needed but he wouldn’t have to die in that jungle for something that was seeming more and more wrong each day.
           But at this Debark center over a year later, there was no longer any doubt, at least for Elliot. Nixon was now trying to bomb the North Vietnamese into submission by wiping out whole towns and villages. Many were calling on him to nuke the North and there was the real chance he might. Protests and riots were happening everywhere, even in the military, something the public knew nothing about. Morale was so bad on air bases that some guys were actually taking pot shots with rifles out of their barracks windows at their own planes. Tens of thousands Americans were already dead with tens of thousands more sure to come. Some of the guys on this slope would be among them. That’s why he sat there with them. And there was another reason.
           These guys weren’t the murderers and baby killers some on the left were making them out to be. Elliot hadn’t even gone to Seattle because he’d heard about the bars there with “NO MILITARY” signs in their windows and how guys with their buzz cuts had been spit on by civilians. No matter how wrong the war was, that was wrong too because it wasn’t true. These guys weren’t baby killers or any other kind. Not yet anyway. They were just ordinary guys trying to do the best they could with what they knew and got caught in a bad situation. And then once the military got them, no matter what they thought about the war, there was no way out except by going AWOL or crazy, both of which got you locked up or worse.
           The only difference between these guys and Elliot was that they’d been drafted before they knew what happened. Some had just blinked and were gone while others had enlisted to feel like they’d regained some control by bargaining for another week or two of freedom. He’d been through it himself and that’s why Elliot knew the one question running through all their minds. How did I ever end up here?
           For the next few hours Elliot watched the busses pull up empty and then drive away full. The lights inside stayed on while loading and he watched the benumbed faces find their seats and stare off into the void, first hundreds and then thousands. All their goodbyes had already been said to families and wives and girlfriends at other bases or at home on leave. Now it was time.
           Elliot remembered that book from high school, “The Red Badge of Courage.” How when the young soldier was marching into battle for the first time, he felt like it was happening too fast, that it was too late to break free from the machine he was trapped inside of. But the battle for these guys was still an ocean away. These were more like the ancient Romans or Greeks setting sail for a distant war they might not come back from. It was a scene that had played out over and over since the beginning of time, sometimes with pomp and drums and circumstance and, at others, hidden away in the darkness of shame and regret. Like tonight. No laurels or trumpets for these guys. Just a damp chilly night in the pacific northwest.
           Elliot waited there with the budding psychopaths, the innocent who had no business being there, the guys who had either enlisted or been drafted and those who would make it back changed forever and spend the rest of their lives wondering why. They were all of that age, of that same generation who’d made their choice or not made it in time and those who never had any choice at all. Elliot was one of them but then he wasn’t. He stayed until the busses stopped leaving and his name was never called.

* * *

           Elliot was stationed in Illinois about six months later when his mother told him over the phone that Donald had been killed. And it was many years after that when he found out that Donald was killed on his first day in Vietnam. Maybe it had happened by chance, that luck just hadn’t been with him that day but Elliot suspected otherwise. The unit that Donald was assigned to had to have known how dangerous the job was they’d given him.
           The story was that he’d been standing guard on the deck of a boat in the Mekong Delta when a sniper shot him. Just a pop and he was gone. Elliot hoped that it wasn’t because Donald was the new guy and wouldn’t be missed, that favors weren’t cashed in on that day that put the rookie out there in the place of a more experienced and valued team member. How else to explain why he was given a job on his first day that left him so vulnerable when he didn’t yet know any of the ways to protect himself. Elliot hoped that that wasn’t the case but it was just as likely that it was.
           When Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983, Elliot went to Washington to protest. Not only against America’s latest foray to prove again that might was always right but also because he still carried guilt for not having done more against the Vietnam War when he was younger. Some had. Like Jane Fonda. She’d made mistakes, like sitting for that photograph on an anti-aircraft gun that she later apologized for and for which the right had given her the name, Hanoi Jane. But even those who hated her couldn’t deny that she and others like her had saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese.
           After the protest, Elliot walked over to the recently completed Vietnam War Memorial. There was still a dispute over whether the long black walls with the names of dead soldiers inscribed on them were appropriate. More traditional types, of course, thought there should be a more traditional monument so Elliot wanted to see it for himself. There was also that other thing.
           It took a while to find Donald’s name. And then, as he thought it might be, it wasn’t right. That name in stone alongside the 50,000 others felt to Elliot like America trying to assuage its guilt. That, after causing their deaths in that useless war, it was a sop tossed out for the war-mongers and flag-wavers on the right to feel better about themselves. But then he knew that was only his bitterness and anger boiling up and that wasn’t why he’d come. He forced it back down and reminded himself that aside from Donald’s family and friends, that name on the wall was all that was left of a kid who’d once made a joke about Burl Ives. And then, no matter what Donald had thought about the war, he’d done what his country had asked and died for it. So Elliot would stand there and give his name respect. He’d stand there for as long as it took.
           He remembered Fort Lewis and watching those guys. It was a while before he left, until he felt that he’d done all he could and that, yes, in fact, he’d found Donald.

Harvey Huddleston is a playwright living in New York City. His fiction has been published in Otoliths, Literary Yard, The Eunoia Review, CC&D Magazine and Academy of the Heart and Mind.
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