One Worth Remembering
The Blue Parrot hadn't seen this much action in many nights as the men of Bravo company descended on the small honky-tonk bar in Saigon. Taylor and Johnson had already made their choice of 'company' and were sitting over in the corner, chatting the night away with a lovely 'lady of the evening' when Lieutenant Goldman arrived with Alex Devlin, his friend from the wire service. They chose a spot at the bar as far away as possible from Taylor, having seen enough of him-and all the guys for that matter-over the last few days. This was everyone's first night out in a long time and he wasn't going to spend it within earshot of Taylor's voice. Looking around the room, Myron noted that most all of his guys were here, even Zeke, who had planted himself firmly at the other end of the bar. Alex noticed that he wasn't hanging with the guys—playing poker, or just throwing back a few cold ones. She looked over at Goldman, who was staring at her.
"Happy birthday to me" Myron said as he toasted himself with his beer.
"So, exactly how old are you today?" Alex asked, her attention drawn back to her handsome date.
"Somewhere between the age of consent and senility, Miss Devlin," he replied, drawing her closer to himself.
"Consent would be appropriate, considering the present I was intending…"
The Lieutenant's eyebrows rose with anticipation as he considered her offer. This might just be my best birthday yet, he thought.
During the course of the evening, Alex's eyes kept wandering to the sergeant, still drinking alone, slouched on the bar stool, his head bent against one fist.
"Hey—it's my birthday—I'm supposed to be the object of your attention," Myron joked as he noticed her pre-occupation with Zeke tonight.
"He's not drinking with the guys—did something happen out there today?" she asked, concerned for the lonely sergeant. Myron looked over his shoulder at his NCO.
"Yeah, he shot a sniper who happened to be carrying a baby on her back. The baby was fine, but Zeke's got this thing with kids—he just has to save them all." He downed the rest of his drink and got up to get a refill. Taking her glass, he headed for the bar.
Zeke had seen his CO come in with Miss Devlin, but was already on his fourth round and too deep into his own thoughts to want to be with anyone else this night. The alcohol had worked its magic, and he was just enjoying not feeling anything at all for the moment.
"You drinking alone tonight, Sergeant?" Myron asked, ordering another whiskey.
"Hey, LT. Happy birthday," he said, raising his beer bottle to his CO.
"Yeah, everybody's gotta have one. This is my first one with a brunette…" he said sheepishly, glancing over at Alex.
"Well, Sir, I'm glad you've got someone to spend it with," Zeke observed, taking another swallow of his beer.
"How 'bout you, Sergeant, when was your last birthday?" he asked, settling in on the stool beside him.
Zeke smiled and looked away. "Well, now, I don't remember, really. I have this problem with dates." He took another swig of his beer and balanced his forehead back on his fist. "Birthdays are only worth rememberin' when you have someone to remember them with—and your someone is waiting for you." He motioned with his eyebrows to Alex sitting at the table.
"Enjoy your present, LT," Zeke said, mischief flashing in his eyes.
Myron saw the evasion tactic and grinned.
"I'll talk to YOU later," he replied, squinting his eyes knowingly. Myron went back to his date, leaving the sergeant alone with is beer.
When WAS my birthday? Zeke thought to himself. He took another long swig of his beer and closed his eyes, breathing deep the smells of the bar. His mind wandered back to when he was a kid, in the home where he grew up. The nuns did their best to give the children love and attention, but there was no way they could celebrate each child's birthday like a real family would. Zeke smiled as he remembered the only birthday that was celebrated in his honor. It was his 10th. Or was it 11th? He didn't remember the exact one, but what he DID remember was the feeling he had when he came out the big front doors of the home and saw his friend Judd Cyebaugh standing there, waiting for him. Judd had come to take the young boy fishing but today was different. Not only was Judd taking him fishing, but he was holding a large parcel. Zeke remembered stopping in his tracks when he saw the package. It was long and skinny, all wrapped in paper. The young boy slowly approached the tall man, not exactly knowing what to think. Judd handed the mysterious offering to him and said those magic words, "Happy birthday, son."
"Are you with me, Sergeant?" the voice asked for the second time. Startled, Zeke gave his head a little shake and turned toward the lieutenant.
"Sir?" he asked, the effects of the alcohol apparently clouding his senses.
"I assume from the grin on your face that it was a good fantasy," Myron said, ordering another drink.
"Oh, no, LT. I was just thinking of my last birthday. The last one I remember, that is. I went fishing with this social worker, Judd, who used to come by the home every now and again." Zeke sat up and stretched his back as he continued.
"He'd take some of us boys out and about fishing or to a baseball game. Ya know, do stuff regular kids got to do. But this particular time he brought me a present. Wrapped up, ya know, like a surprise. Nobody had ever given me a real birthday present before. Heck, I didn't even know it was my birthday—and I opened it up and it was a brand new fishing pole—my very own—oh, man, LT. I thought I died and went to heaven! And we fished all afternoon then he took me to the diner and I could order whatever I wanted and for dessert there was this little cake with candles all lit up. And the waitresses all sang 'Happy Birthday' to me…" He looked away and smiled, shaking his head slowly.
Myron grinned, seeing the satisfaction written all over his sergeant's face.
"Sounds like a great day. How old were you?"
Zeke looked back at his friend.
"Oh, maybe 10 or 11. But I'll tell ya, LT, that's the only birthday I remember that someone else celebrated with me-I mean, really celebrated."
Myron unconsciously shook his head, trying to understand how it could be that Zeke rarely celebrated a birthday.
"What about Carol? Didn't you guys celebrate each other's birthdays?" Myron asked, a confused look on his face. Zeke shifted on his bar stool and watched the smoke from the lieutenant's cigarette float to the ceiling.
"Carol and I only went out for a few months before we were married. And then Katie was born 9 months later. A week after that I shipped out for 'Nam. I guess it just never came up."
Myron groped his pocket for his stash of cigarettes and deftly lit another one up, watching the sergeant out of the corner of his eye. Zeke resumed his position, loosing himself again to his thoughts. Getting up, Myron stuffed his smokes back in his pocket and grabbed the drink he had come over to get for Alex.
"So what was your worst birthday?" He asked, removing the cigarette from his lips.
"Every one after that," Zeke said, with a sad smile, eyes giving away the heartbreak of a life as an orphan. "You enjoy yourself tonight, LT. You deserve it."
Myron looked on helplessly as the sergeant downed the last of his beer, not knowing what to say. "If anyone deserves a good birthday, it's you, Zeke—he thought to himself, as he walked back to the table.
"Everything alright?" Alex asked, slowly sipping the beverage Myron brought from the bar.
Myron looked back at his sergeant and took a long, soothing drag from the rapidly shortening cigarette.
"Yeah, he's fine. We've been out in the field more than usual lately. I think all the guys just need to have a night to relax, myself included…" He reached out and took Alex's hand in his, gently caressing it.
"Well, Lieutenant, shall we di-di back to my place, then?" she asked, letting him kiss her outstretched appendages.
"Is that where my present is? You know how I love presents..."
Alex grinned and stood up pulling him up with her. "We'll see about that…"
The two were on their way out when a fight broke out in the far corner of the bar. Seeing that it involved Cassidy and Taylor, the Lieutenant quickly intervened. Zeke heard the ruckus and started for the squabble, but was waved off by his CO. Zeke knew Myron's 'I'll handle this' look and sat back down on the stool. He watched as the lieutenant broke it up, and soon things went back to their calm, albeit noisy state.
For a brief moment Zeke wondered to himself why his CO was cutting this new kid Cassidy so much slack. It just wasn't like him to give out second chances so liberally. He let the thought slide away as he downed beer #5, and replacing his hat, slowly removed his large frame from the bar stool and headed on home.
It was just before curfew when the lieutenant returned to his hootch. It had been a long day, but a good one he thought, as he finally climbed into his rack. Sleep didn't come easily, as he found himself thinking about birthdays past—and his mother. She always made his birthday quite the celebration. He smiled as he remembered family and friend, all gathered in his honor. Holding tight to those happy memories, he closed his eyes, hoping that sleep would finally carry his tired body to that place far away, but he found himself instead reminded of his sergeant. Zeke had no one to make his birthday memorable. And the fact that the only birthday he did remember happened over 20 years ago—that was something Myron just couldn't understand.
He sat up and rubbed his weary eyes. Thinking a smoke would help him relax, he got up and blindly felt around the top of his desk for his lighter. Not having any luck he turned on the desk light and sat down. I wonder when Zeke's birthday really is? He thought, pulling open his file drawer and extracting Anderson's 201 file.
Staff Sergeant Clayton Ezekiel Anderson
Place of Birth: Boise, Idaho
Myron tried to think of where they might have been back in May, but the days all melded together in the "Nam. And the date—the young lieutenant had grown to hate dates. The only time Myron ever knew the date was if he had to write an After Action report or a letter home to the parents of one of his men who was killed. He knew whenever he wrote a letter, that particular date would be forged forever in the life of that family.
Myron closed Zeke's file ad carefully put it away. May 10th. May 10th.
He found his cigarettes and took them and his lighter outside and sat on his stoop. Lighting up, he breathed deeply of the noxious fumes. The camp was all but asleep around him, the sounds of the ever-present night bugs and creatures loud in his ears. His eyes drifted to the dispensary, the only building within eyeshot with windows emitting a soft glowing light. He took another drag and was about to give sleep another try when he saw Zeke come out of the dispensary door.
He waited for a long minute as his sergeant stood outside, contemplating something. For a moment he thought the older man might be sick—he was a bit more subdued this evening than usual.
Zeke took one last look up at the infirmary and headed down the path to his hootch. As was his custom, he glanced back toward the lieutenant's quarters, more out of habit than anything else. He stopped and did a double take when he saw Myron sitting outside. For a long second the sergeant considered just moving on, but concluded that the lieutenant must be thinking about something that was keeping from sleeping. Since he couldn't sleep either, he decided to see if he could be of some help to his CO.
Myron waved at the dark form coming towards him, as a concerned smile spread across his face.
"You okay, Sergeant?" he asked his friend, curious to know what was keeping him up so late.
"Yeah, LT. I was just checking in on the baby. How 'bout you? Ya have a nice evening with Miss Devlin?" He asked, cocking his head and raising his eyebrows.
Myron smiled sheepishly and threw his cigarette butt on the ground. "Yeah, we had a good time. Thanks."
Zeke crushed the smoldering butt out with his booted foot and watched as his CO lit up another one.
"What's keeping you up, LT?" Zee asked, noticing that the lieutenant didn't seem to have any intention of leaving his stoop any time soon.
Myron looked away, not at all surprised at Zeke's ability to cut to the chase.
"Ah. Just couldn't sleep. Kept thinking about birthdays." He said finally, taking another draw from his rapidly shortening cigarette.
"Well, LT, you certainly haven't had enough of them to make you feel down about getting older…"he laughed.
"No it's not that." He smiled and looked up at the blanket of stars shining above their heads. "My mom had this thing about birthdays. She thought they were the high point of the year, for anyone who happened to be having one. She had a big family and every year for my birthday my mom would throw the party to end all parties." He laughed, remembering back to life in New York. He took another long, soothing draw and exhaled slowly, savoring the comforting buzz. "I'm sorry you missed out on that kind of stuff." He scooted over on the step and made room for Zeke to sit down.
Zeke sat down next to his friend and folded and re-folded his hat in his hands.
"Well, LT, it wasn't all bad. I mean, I know I missed out on having a family of my own, twice actually, 'cause I really blew it with Carol and all, but when I remember back to the home, I remember more good things than bad. I mean, this guy Judd Cyebaugh, the social worker? He made time for us—and when he did, you felt like you were the only kid on earth. A lot of kids who have dads never get to feel that special. And he didn't come all that often, but when he did, he made such an impression that it held you until he came to pick you up again." He shook his head to the side, grinning, remember the man who made such a difference in his life so long ago.
Myron looked over at his sergeant. The same grin that was present in the bar that evening was now sitting comfortably on the sergeant's face once again. "I'm glad you had someone to fill in the gaps" he said as he crushed out his cigarette and fumbled for his pack.
"So, the baby from the ville—he's gonna be okay?" Myron asked, seeing the grin disappear from the sergeant's face. Zeke shook his head and replaced his hat.
"Yeah, if you call living in an orphanage okay. I think that's what's eatin' me up, LT. I wouldn't wish growin' up as an orphan on anybody—and here, today, I sentenced this kid to being an orphan the rest of his life. I just don't know what to do with that—"he confided, standing up to go.
"Zeke, it's a war. Stuff like this happens. He'll probably be better off in the orphanage than in that ville anyway. And maybe there will be someone like your Judd to help him along." The lieutenant saw the pain in his sergeant's eyes and felt helpless to relieve his friend of this burden.
Zeke looked down at the ground and sighed a weighted sigh. "I keep thinking that if I had the chance, I would have much rather grown up in a neighborhood where people who knew my parents could raise me—then I could have a history. I would have belonged somewhere. This kid doesn't belong to anyone now." A silence fell between the two men as they both contemplated the result of today's mission.
"Zeke, you know you did what you had to do. You saved two other soldiers and yourself. You did the right thing." Myron replied, his voice devoid of emotion.
"Yeah, LT, I know. But over here, it always seems that the right thing for us somehow always turns out to be the wrong thing for someone else. And in this case it was a kid."
He caught that look in Zeke's eye. It was only there for a second, but it spoke volumes. Zeke grew up an orphan. And maybe once an orphan, always an orphan, Myron thought to himself. And the fact that the good sergeant had something—everything—to do with the fact that this baby was alone in the world was tearing him up inside. But Mryon was at a total loss as to how to help him. His instincts told him to tell Zeke to suck it up—move on. It's a war. People die. But this was his friend, and Myron knew that if Zeke could suck it up, he would. He'd seen him do it a hundred times before.
"After you left the home, did Judd keep up with the visits?" Myron ventured, trying to change the subject. Zeke nervously looked around at the desolate camp.
"I don't know, LT. I left when I was 18 to look for my dad and ended up joining the Army. I never went back to the home. I wonder about it sometimes, though. I wonder if Judd ever had a family of his own, and if he ever knew what a difference he made. I don't know. I was just never good at writing..."
"Well, for an orphan, you turned out pretty good." Myron offered, looking up at his sergeant. Zeke automatically ducked his head and smiled, not knowing what to do with this unexpected compliment. And in typical Zeke fashion, he brushed it off.
"Yeah, well, I was lucky. I don't know where I would have ended up if Judd hadn't taken an interest in me. And I guess in some way, someday I'd like to repay the favor. He was a good man, LT."
Myron stood and stretched his legs. "I think you repay him every time you save an American life. Or a Vietnamese child…." He looked down at his sergeant, willing him to really hear the words he just said.
The closeness of the humid night air was broken only by an occasional wisp of breeze that found its way down the long dark pathway that led back to the sergeant's hootch. Zeke looked in that direction for a moment, as if someone had called his name. "I never thought of it that way, LT. Thanks," he said in a low voice, almost a whisper.
"We have a mission tomorrow, Sergeant," Myron said, climbing the stairs to his sleeping quarters.
"Yessir, we do. I'll see ya in the morning," Zeke replied, watching as his CO pulled open his screen door. Myron looked back as Zeke turned and walked away, and he smiled to himself. It wasn't often that he said or did something that helped his sergeant cope. Zeke was always strong, could always bounce back from the setbacks of this terrible war. But this time, Myron really felt that he was able to help. Just then an idea popped into head—he made a mental note to talk to Alex Devlin in the morning…..
Three weeks later:
Sergeant Anderson sat on a pile of sandbags, just inside the gate of the base in Tan Son Nhut. He held his canteen loosely in one very dirty hand, watching the men of Bravo Company re-string the wire on the perimeter. It had been a long day of basic chores, but it beat the heck out of humping the boonies. At least there was less of a chance of being shot at working here, he thought. As he eyed the men working down the line, he noticed that all of a sudden, they all started working harder—as if they were all given a shot of adrenaline at the same time. Zeke smiled as he realized that phenomena he called 'officer panic'. He turned in time to see Lieutenant Goldman making his way towards him.
"Hey, LT. I just love how havin' an officer around jump-starts the troops…" he chuckled as they both watched their men work.
"They givin' you trouble, Sergeant?" Myron asked facetiously, holding a pile of mail in his hands.
"Nossir. They're just hot, tired, hungry, and ready for quittin' time. They've put in a long day, like always" he said, standing up and stashing his canteen.
"I found the mail—it was at the 91st Evac hospital. Go figure. You can give it out when they're done. Oh, this was in with the letters…." He handed Zeke an envelope. "Happy Birthday, Sergeant" he said with a huge grin.
The good sergeant looked at him quizzically and shaking his head, took the letter in his beefy hands.
"It's not my birthday, LT. I think that's in May," he said, eyeing the letter.
"Well, Sergeant, I checked and it's your half birthday. Go ahead—read it,'"he said, walking away. He casually watched over his shoulder, enjoying his sergeant's surprise.
Zeke looked over the letter. It had a Boise address but none that he recognized. He gently tore open the envelope being careful not to damage the precious note inside.
When I received the letter from your Commanding Officer, I was thrilled to hear that you are alive and well and serving our country in Vietnam. Thank you for this sacrifice you are making to uphold freedom in our world. Your Lieutenant says that you are the best soldier he has ever worked with—of this you should be proud! I always knew that someday you would find your niche in this world. Even when you were a boy, I saw that you had a tremendous gift for dealing with people. I'm sure this has helped in your job as a sergeant.
Lieutenant Goldman also tells me that it is your birthday—Happy Birthday, son. I remember well the many days we spent together, fishing down at the creek or just watching a ball game. But my best memory is of your 11th birthday—the look on your face when I gave you that silly fishing pole! You'd have thought I had given you the world! I enjoyed watching you grow up, Clayton. I carry those memories with me always.
As for me, I am now retired. I lived for many years near the Home, visiting many of the children on the weekends, much like I did when you were there. I was married for many years, but recently my beloved wife passed away. I now find myself going back to the Home, just sitting in the big parlor, reading stories to the young children to fill my vacant hours. The need for love is still there—I see it in their faces and feel it in their goodbye hugs.
I have to say that I was touched by the comments your CO made in his letter, about how you speak of me as a man who made a difference in your life. I saw great potential in you, Clayton. And I am as proud of you as any father would be of his own son. Keep that thought with you as you continue to give your very best to the country I know you love.
Happy Birthday, son. Take care of yourself and come home safe.
All my best,
Zeke carefully folded the letter. A broad grin spread from one side of his face to the other, stopping only when it reached his clear blue eyes. As he replaced the precious gift back in its envelope, he noticed a small snapshot waiting inside. Reaching in, he pulled it out, studying it carefully. It was a picture of a young boy, head thrown back laughing, sheer joy spread across his round face. He was holding a fishing pole, its wrapping caught on the reel and dangling sloppily down to the ground.
The big sergeant's moist eyes threatened to overflow as he slowly shook his head from side to side, remembering that moment like it was yesterday. He looked out into the empty jungle, lost in the feeling that only a great memory can bring. A familiar voice brought him back to the here and now, and he looked over to see his lieutenant watching, grinning from ear to ear.
Myron looked down the line of soldiers, all busy attending to the task at hand. "Drinks are on me tonight at the EM club. In honor of Sergeant Anderson's birthday."
A loud "Hurray!" echoed down the line, as all the men of Bravo Company congratulated Sarge and thanked their lieutenant. Zeke looked back at his friend and nodded his thanks. Words weren't needed. Myron knew that this would be the sergeant's second best birthday ever.