The POWs

Jim Lamb in the bush getting ready for patrol. Song Be, 1969The last time I saw Glenn 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 Glenn.

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

“That’s Sgt. Green,” 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, Glenn 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 Skinner tossed grenades, Glenn fired the machine gun until the barrel glowed red. The enemy were cut to pieces. In April, Glenn killed the wounded woman as she swung her AK at me. In June, after nervous door gunners shot Johnny D, Glenn 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.

“Kate,” said Glenn, 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 into the arc of her arms. What was it about her? Kate 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, except for a large framed photo, were bare. I drew the blinds and opened the windows and turned up the lights. Glenn and Kate sat on the sofa; I sat on the wood bench.

“Cozy place you got here,” said Glenn.

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 Glenn. “Doc took the picture.”

Kate knew of the rats that crawled over us in the bunkers at night. Knew that Glenn 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 Glenn and I never discussed.

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

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

“Six hours,” said Glenn. 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 Glenn, 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 Glenn, 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 Glenn but did not tell him; she ignored his advances. Glenn persisted; after six months they dated. That was twenty-five years ago.

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

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

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

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

We drove to town, walked the cobblestone streets, peered in the windows of rustic shops, visited the 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, Glenn 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 Glenn. And I tried, and couldn’t, and he peered and stepped, and took the photograph. Glenn 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 Glenn 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; Glenn 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. Glenn held her close. We headed back to the car.

In my cramped kitchen, we looked at Glenn’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 Glenn looks at the photos you sent him, he cries too.”

Glenn 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. Then Glenn began to pace.

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

“Nothing, Doc,” he said. It’s nothing.”

What I said next just spilled out. “Skinner lives in Vermont. 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, Glenn 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 Glenn. “But that has nothing to do with Vietnam.”

When the other woman, who we thought was dead, jumped up and ran, we shot and missed, but Skinner lobbed a grenade. She was still breathing when we found her. I cannot forget the look in her eyes. That hurtful, pleading, hateful, look. What we did to her I cannot tell.

Glenn quickened his pace. It was my fault, pushing some 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.”

Glenn 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, Glenn 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, Glenn whispered, “I love you, Doc.”

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

I stood in the darkness, listening to the soft crump of car doors being open and shut, 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.