The POWs

Jim Lamb in the bush getting ready for patrol. Song Be, 1969The last time I had seen Jim he was humping the gun in our platoon.  After so many years it wouldn’t be easy, seeing him, and I imagined he might feel the same. Even so, I didn’t know what to expect.

At the first knock I rushed to the door. Without love beads, or his grimy boonie hat, or Cav patch on the shoulder, still, it was Jim.

The day we met I hadn’t been in country more than a week. On a hot, dusty fire base, Wilson pointed to a handsome soldier walking toward us.

“That’s Jim Lamb,” he said. “You see the scar? He used to carry the gun, but no more, on account he got hit. But he’s good people. Know what I mean?”

The three of us found an empty bunker, lit a candle, shared an opium laced joint. Exhaling a thick white plume, Jim spoke of his home town, the women he’d slept with, the day he was shot.

“In and out, Doc,” he said, patting his bicep. “In and out. Just like sex.”

We laughed loud that night. On New Year’s Day, after Wilson tossed grenades, Jim fired the machine gun until the barrel glowed red. The enemy were cut to pieces. In April, the lieutenant killed the wounded woman as she swung her AK at me. In June, after nervous door gunners shot Johnny B, Jim and I dragged him away.

These things raced through my mind as we embraced. Then we stepped back, breathed easy, shook our heads, and roared with laughter.

“Honey,” said Jim, turning to his wife, “this is Doc. He was the medic.”

A slender woman, with long dark hair, large brown eyes, a loving smile, when Kate stepped forward I felt myself surrender to the arc of her arms. What was it about her? Jim’s wife was a hundred times more beautiful than any woman I had known, and I had loved so many women and known so little love.

“Come in, come in,” I managed to say.

The three of us sat in my living room, the walls of which were bare, except for a large framed photo. I drew the blinds and opened the windows and turned up the lights.  Jim and Kate sat on the sofa; I sat on the wood bench.

“Cozy place you got here, Doc,” said Jim.

Kate’s eyes wandered across the empty walls. Whatever she felt, she did not say.

“Which one are you, honey?” she asked, pointing to the platoon just back from patrol.

Our eyes are vacant. We are tired and thirsty and still shocked out. Red the FNG had just been shot.

“Third from the left,” said Jim. “Doc took the picture.”

Kate knew of the rats that crawled over us in the bunkers at night. Knew that Jim and I shared food and ammo, that I tended his cuts and scratches, though I did that for all the men. But there were things Jim and I never talked about.

“You look so young,” said Kate. “And so handsome!”

Jim forced a smile, then shook his head, as if it were yesterday.
How long was the drive?” I asked.

“Six hours,” said Jim. Taking the cue, he asked, “Doc, you lived here long?”

Bird market stall, Yogyakarta, JavaIt began when I first saw NVA on the streets of Hanoi. It began at the haunting hush of the rubber plantation near the town of An Loc. It happened in Sumatra while walking a rain forest trail. It started with the visible cries of a thousand caged birds in a hundred market places. I want to tell him after eight months I didn’t know who or when or where I was and once home moved twelve times in two years before settling down.

“After travels in Asia I moved here in 2002.”

“You went back?!” asked Jim, as if the country was still a poisoned thing.

“Yes, it was a good, long, trip, but…what about you guys? How did you meet?”

Kate looked at Jim, squeezed his hand, then told the story. In nursing school he was a rascal, she said. He drank and partied and slept around.

“None of the female students trusted him,” she said.

Kate liked Jim but did not tell him; she ignored his advances. Jim persisted; after six months they dated. That was twenty-five years ago.

“We both work in ER, ” said Jim. “I like it. Always moving. Never standing still or sitting down.”

Gently, Kate put her hand on Jim’s shoulder. “We’re so lucky,” she said. “We love our work. We have everything we need.” She tugged Jim’s good arm. “Don’t we honey?!”

An hour went by. We made plans for the day.

Getting up, Jim said, “ Alright, brother. Time to move out.”

We drove to town, walked the cobblestone streets, peered in the windows of rustic shops, visited the Gloucester fisherman’s statue overlooking the harbor. While Kate read the namManagua Harbor after it was mined by the CIA in the 1980s. Managua, Nicaragua 1989es of men lost at sea, Jim took photographs of gulls trailing outbound fishing boats. The wind gusted the waves choppy and white-tipped.

“Get closer,” he said.

“Like this, honey?” asked Kate.”

She blew him a kiss, then tenderly put her arm around my waist.

“Smile, Doc,” said Jim. And I tried, and couldn’t, and he peered and stepped, and took the photograph. Jim saw it. I know he did. That sad, mournful, heated look which I have never defeated.

At the shipyard, the scent of fuel and creosote hung thick in the air. A half dozen trawlers, held aloft on a web of stilts, looked like fish out-of-water. Beneath the boats, helmeted men with acetylene torches blistered old paint off hulls; captains and deckhands mended torn plastic nets.

Thirty minutes later we drove to a pier side restaurant. Inside, weather-beaten buoys and lobster traps adorned the timbered walls. Kate and Jim were beguiled by the varied shapes and colors.

“We don’t have anything like this where we live,” said Kate. She gestured toward the settling ocean. “It’s so beautiful here.”

We ate and talked loudly, but each of us knew things were not right.

Surfer at sunset. Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, MA 2010At the beach, we doffed our shoes and walked the shore line; Jim and Kate held hands. Nervous sandpipers and gulls scurried between the retreating waves. Excited, growling dogs raced after well thrown frisbees. Behind us, hidden in the grassy dunes, I swore that thin young men with jet black hair lay in wait.

Kate shivered. The wind off the water made the fall air sting. Jim held her close. We headed back to the car.

In my cramped kitchen, we looked at Jim’s photos spread out on the table. One by one, looking at the fading portraits, I recalled the names of the wounded and dead. My voice quivering, I spoke of the night sappers overran the base.

Kate said, “Whenever Jim looks at the photos you sent him, he cries too.”

Jim looked at me, then turned away.

“You all right?” I asked.

In a sharp tone, he said not to worry. He said I always worried too much.  Jim began to pace.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” I asked.TWO-MEN

“Nothing, Doc. It’s nothing.”

What I said next just spilled out. “Wilson lives near Detroit. He keeps a pistol in every room in the house. He says he knows that’s fucked up. He says…” I looked at Kate. “Sorry about that.”

“Oh, Jim has guns and he talks that way too,” she said.

“One in the car. Three in the house. Permit to carry. Got to protect yourself at all times, Doc. Know what I mean?” said Jim. “But that has nothing to do with Vietnam.”

 I cannot forget the look in her eyes. She’d been claymored, machine gunned, had hung on all night. The men near her were dead. Water. She wanted water. Should I? Shouldn’t I? What were the grunts thinking? What to do? What?

Jim quickened his pace. It was my fault, pushing that hidden lever inside him, and he and Kate knew it. How could I make things right?

“You might like this,” I said, adjusting the CD player. “It’s called Gymnopedie.”

Jim asked what that meant. I said I didn’t know. No one did. I said, “This song calms me when nothing else works.”

A minute into the melody, Jim settled into Kate’s arms as they sat on the couch. I turned the lights low. It was dark out when Kate roused him.

“We ought to be going, honey,” she said, “It’s a long way home.”

They gathered their things and put on their coats.

In the doorway, after a long hug, Jim whispered, “I love you, Doc.”

“I love you too, Jim,” I said, and held him one last time.

I stood in the darkness, listening to the soft crump of car doors being opened and shut, to the muted roar of the engine, the receding zoom as the car pulled away.

That was six months ago. I’ve not heard from them since.