October 1, 1983
Los Angeles, CA
It was quiet at the beach house. Face was off on another of his endless amorous pursuits. Murdock was at the VA, but due to be sprung in the morning, for a pass, providing Face remembered to pick him up on time. B. A. was out in the garage, tinkering with the van. Hannibal? Well, Hannibal was sitting on the deck, smoking a cigar and feeling...old. It wasn't that he really wanted anyone to remember his birthday...it wasn't something they generally did...celebrating, or anything.
Well, they did celebrate the major holidays, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but...birthdays...not so much. It was almost as if they all felt birthdays to be a sort of jinx or something. Acknowledging them very often meant admitting that you were getting older...and admitting that meant that you realized you were slowing down. So, they just ignored birthdays. At least, that's what Hannibal told himself. It could also have been the fact that three out of the four men on the team had rather interesting issues with their actual dates of birth.
B. A. was the only one who owned his original birth certificate. Momma Baracus kept it in a safety deposit box for him in his hometown of Chicago. Murdock claimed his birth certificate had been destroyed in a fire many years before, (which it actually had, but it was when the fire had happened that was the issue.) All the Army's attempts to find it had proved fruitless. He had signed an affidavit swearing to a random but serviceable birthdate and had it notarized.* Face had been found outside a Catholic orphanage in Los Angeles when he was very small, with no paperwork whatsoever. The nuns had named him and given him a birthdate.
Hannibal? Well, though he was ambivalent about the date he had chosen to celebrate, October 1, in previous years he had sometimes been known to get blind drunk when May 18 rolled around. And no one had ever been able to figure out the reason. Not even his men…and he was determined they never would. He leaned back in the chaise lounge and closed his eyes, wishing he hadn't gotten off on this particular train of thought. It wasn't often his memories took him back to his childhood, and usually he just shrugged off thoughts of home...he smirked. Home. His eyes narrowed as the dark chaos began to overwhelm him.
He was immeasurably grateful when B. A.'s soft voice broke into his thoughts. "Hannibal, you okay?"
He looked up at his sergeant. "Yeah, B. A. I'm fine."
B. A. scowled, obviously not buying it, but apparently deciding not to push the point. "I'm gonna take the van for a test run. We need more milk, anyway. You need anything?"
Hannibal shook his head. "Nah. Nothin'. Think I might take a nap."
B. A. frowned at this unusual declaration. "You sure you're feelin' okay, man?"
Hannibal stood up and stretched casually. He smiled, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Yeah. Now, go on."
And with that, Hannibal brushed past B. A. and headed into his bedroom without another word. He barely registered the sound of the van as it pulled out of the driveway.
Once inside he locked the door, sat down on the edge of the bed, and breathed deeply, willing away the kaleidoscope images. He lay back and surrendered himself to the inevitable, knowing that once it started, this particular waking nightmare wouldn't end until it had played itself out…
July 5, 1954
Johnny hated summertime. The hot muggy weather always made things worse. He was nearly 16, and bored silly. On top of which his step-father always got meaner when it was hot. No school meant no reliable place to send Larry when the old man got out of control, since he didn't want the kids leaving the apartment. (Not that what the old man wanted ever stopped Johnny, but Larry was only seven.) Johnny would have blown the joint long since, but no way would he abandon his mother and step-brother.
He sometimes wondered what it would have been like growing up with his real father. He had one photo of him...his mother had given him a picture of him in his uniform. He had been in an Army bomber crew, shot down in World War II over Germany. He was reported missing in action in 1943 and presumed dead. His mother had told him that he looked like his father with his reddish blond hair and bright blue eyes… and that he had his father's gift for blarney. Johnny didn't know about that...but he really wished he could remember Walt Fitzsimmons.*
Johnny sometimes used to pretend that he was still alive and would someday come walking back into his life...but he had given up on that dream a long time ago….especially when his mother remarried eight years ago and had Larry. It wasn't that he didn't love Larry, he did. And he really didn't blame his mother...but, she really had lousy taste in men. Because Alf Baderman was a grade-A number one asshole.
Johnny lay on his bed staring at the framed photo. Maybe it was a good thing it was summer. Ruefully he rubbed his bruised cheek. He heard a timid knocking on the door, and he knew from the location of the sound that it had to be Larry. "Yeah, Larry, come on in."
The little boy shuffled in quietly. It hurt Johnny to see him this way. Around his big brother he was normally cheerful and full of energy, but the events of the last 24 hours had scared him badly. Johnny picked him up and enveloped him a bear hug, despite the pain the move caused his bruised ribs. "Groooooowwwwlll!"
Larry squealed with delight and tried to scramble away. His unsuccessful attempt soon ended in a massive tickle fight which left both brothers breathless.
Once Johnny saw Larry was back to his normal cheerful self, he decided it was time to get down to business. He hated that things had to be this way, but he had no choice. "Listen, Larry, don't ever try to hide your dad's bottles again, okay? I know you were trying to help me, but that's not the way to do it."
Larry immediately stilled and looked at him solemnly. "Okay, Johnny. I promise." He was quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry he hit you."
Johnny nodded. "I know, kiddo. Me too." He gathered the little boy into his arms and Larry buried his face into his neck. Johnny felt the anger burning inside as he whispered again. "Me, too."
Johnny sat on the roof outside his bedroom window listening to his record player. He wasn't like most kids his age. He had his father's record collection. His mother had given it to him, on condition that he never played it when his step-father was home. Since Alf had been switched back to days at the steel mill, he was taking advantage of the afternoon's freedom. Most of his father's collection was big band and swing music and Johnny had grown quite fond of Glenn Miller. He liked to imagine his mother as a pretty young WAAC dancing with his dashing young pilot father in some Allied canteen in war-torn Germany, though she had never set foot out of Philadelphia…
Johnny had tried to talk to his mother again after Alf left for work that morning, but it was pointless. He had no idea what hold Baderman had on his mother, but it was obviously powerful. She would not consider leaving him. She was blinded to the fact that Alf was using Johnny as a punching bag to take out his frustrations with life. Johnny thought he was protecting his mother and brother by keeping his mouth shut. And Johnny had no clue that he was so wrong…
He had nearly fallen asleep when Larry leaned out the window. "Johnny, Momma wants you."
He opened his eyes and sighed. "Okay, kid. I'm coming."
Johnny looked at the clock on his nightstand as he turned off his stereo. He realized Alf would be home soon. He smelled the chicken his mother was baking for dinner. She didn't dare put dinner on the table late. It just wasn't worth it. He put the Glenn Miller record away, and closed the stereo, he turned to Larry, who was watching him from the doorway. "You wash your hands?"
Larry nodded, and Johnny smiled. "Okay, let's go make salad."
July 10, 1954
Johnny never knew what sparked the argument. It was well after midnight and he had finally gotten Larry to go back to his own bed. The boy often had trouble falling asleep, and he would come in and climb in with his big brother. Johnny would sometimes tell him stories, but mostly they would just lay in the dark, enjoying the quiet, happy when it actually lasted for more than an hour or two.
John had just adjusted his transistor radio to his favorite station and was listening to Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," and turned over to go to sleep. Alf had stayed home from work and been drinking all day, so he had tried to stay in his room as much as possible, keeping Larry with him. Finally, he had sent the little boy to bed, not wanting to give Alf reason for another fight.
Suddenly, the familiar shouting and breaking glass broke out in the other room. Johnny sighed. Just one damn night, God. Just one! He waited to see how bad this one would be. Sometimes Alf got over it pretty quickly, and things calmed down without much collateral damage. Running footsteps, a loud crash followed by his mother's shriek of terror and Larry's screams warned him this was not to be one of those times. And Johnny had suddenly had it with Alf Baderman. He stepped out into the hallway and faced the man he had grown to hate over the years. In that moment, Johnny Fitzsimmons' life changed forever.
Thinking about it later, sitting in the back of the police car, Johnny really couldn't remember exactly what had happened. He remembered stepping into the hall. He remembered looking down and seeing Larry lying broken at the end of the hall, blood all over his face. He had turned to stare at Alf. And then? Nothing. The next thing he remembered was being dragged out of the house by two cops as someone covered Larry and Alf's bodies with sheets.
To Johnny, the alternating red and blue glow in the dark night made the scene seem like a nightmare. He looked out the window at his mother staring at him and the fear and revulsion in her eyes made him realize he had lost more than his brother. He looked down at his hands, now cuffed in his lap. Apparently, they were stronger than they looked.
"Jennifer, you cannot be serious about this!" Katherine Fitzsimmons was furious. She had always known her former daughter-in-law was selfish, and perhaps a bit spoiled, but this? This was unthinkable! "That man was abusing you, and both those boys and you know it! Johnny was just trying to protect you!"
Jennifer Baderman turned broken eyes upon her former mother-in-law. "He killed my husband. Alf may not have been much, but he was mine. He loved me! And John killed him!"
"For God's sake, Jennifer, Alf killed Larry! What about that? He threw that little boy across the room! He was going after you next! How many times did he beat Johnny to a pulp? Huh? Why do you think I wanted Johnny to come and live with me? But he refused to leave YOUR son!"
Jennifer shook her head, sinking onto the chair. "No. It was getting better. Besides, Johnny used to fight Alf all the time. Argue with him."
Katherine had heard enough. "No, Jennifer. That was not the problem." She reached into her purse and pulled put a photograph. It was one of her dearest treasures. She turned the photo to face Jennifer. It was a picture taken just before her son had left for Germany. He was in uniform and holding two-year-old Johnny…the apple of his eye. "If you insist on pressing charges against my grandson, I swear I will fight you until my dying breath." And with that, Katherine Fitzsimmons stood and walked out of the lobby of the Philadelphia Central Jail.
October 16, 1954
Johnny smiled. His grandmother had been true to her word. She had fought. Hard. But his mother had insisted, and the case went forward. He was charged with second-degree murder, though the lawyers were still debating over whether he should be tried as an adult. His case had been helped when the main witness against him had committed suicide two weeks before he was to go to trial. His grandmother went into a huddle with the lawyers from both sides. He never knew what was said, but he would never forget the results, or the conversation that took place in the visitor's room the afternoon following that meeting.
Katherine stared at him across the table. She was worried, because Johnny had lost weight, and gained a hard edge to his eyes within the last fourteen weeks. She could only pray he was not lost to her forever. He sat very still and watched her noncommittally. Somewhere along the line, he had picked up a new habit, she noted with a frown. A cigarette dangled from one side of his mouth, though it wasn't lit.
"Smoking's a dirty habit, John," she said reproachfully, unable to help herself. She was still a grandma, after all.
Johnny grinned a little. "So's jail, Grandma."
She couldn't help but smile. "Touché. Now, I have to ask you something. Are you ready to come home?"
His brow furrowed, and his tone was bitter. "Home? I don't have a home."
Now it was Katherine's turn to frown. She rose to her feet and shook a finger at him. "Of course you do, John Michael Fitzsimmons! I don't ever want to hear you say that again. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you will always have a home with me."
John ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "I appreciate that. And when I get outta here, maybe I will stay with you awhile, but Philly? No, I don't think I can ever call this place home again."
The old lady smiled sadly. "I understand, Johnny. Truly, I understand. But there's something you don't understand. My question was, are you ready to go home? As in right now?"
Johnny stared at her in disbelief. She might as well have been asking him if he was ready to walk out of hell, because that was basically what she was doing. He hoped she had sense enough never to ask what it had been like, because he could never tell her. But he knew for sure it had been worth it—every second of it. No matter what his mother had thought. He shook his head clear of the dark thoughts. "Now?"
Katherine nodded and smiled just a little. "Well, in a few hours actually. They are processing the paperwork. After your mother—well, now that there are no witnesses—they decided that there is no case."
John thought about that for a minute. He had mixed feelings about his mother's suicide. He had cared about her, but her bad decisions all throughout his childhood, and her determination to punish him after his arrest had killed any regret he might have felt when the guard had delivered the message that his mother had swallowed a bottle of Valium.
His attention was brought back to the present when his grandmother held up the paper bag she had been holding. "I brought you some clothes. I hope they fit. The police wouldn't let me take anything from the apartment. I'm sorry, Johnny. The super kept them in lieu of damages."
Johnny stood up, anger distorting his features. He never noticed the guard keeping a close eye on him, as the man frowned and stared at John. "No! Not Dad's records! Not his picture! I don't care about anything else…just those things! I have to go get them back!"
Katherine held up her hand, watching the guard worriedly. "Calm down, John. Getting upset in here is not going to help. And you know better than that! You are not going to be allowed anywhere around that building, Johnny. I know it hurts. Look. We'll talk about it later. Maybe we can figure something out. Maybe I can find a way to talk to him. But for now, the important thing is getting you out of here. Now, they'll bring you these things, and I will see you in a little while."
Johnny barely heard her and nodded woodenly. He was trying to process yet another loss…
Though he never was able to retrieve his father's records, his grandmother gave him a copy of a photo she had of her son. This one was different, but even more special to John, because it was of both him and his father, taken when John was about two. His father was in uniform and holding him on his hip. They were both gazing solemnly at the camera, but there was no mistaking the pride and love in Walt Fitzsimmons' eyes. According to the date on the back, it was taken the day he left for Germany. Katherine had told him that it had been sent back to them after Walt was killed. There was also a letter from his commanding officer. She gave the letter to John as well, who carried them both with him like the treasures they were. The letter and the picture fueled the decisions he made over the next few weeks regarding his future.
First, he petitioned the court to become an emancipated adult. Second, he enlisted in the Army once the court granted his petition. Third, and most painful, he made one last change. His grandmother had never been able to convince him that his father would not be ashamed of him for failing to protect his brother. And so, he changed his name. John Michael Fitzsimmons became simply John Smith, and he got his driver's license under that name to prove it.
Katherine watched her grandson carefully. She knew he had changed...but that was inevitable. He was a good boy-a good man. She noticed three things that had changed since that horrible night. His smile came less often, and rarely reached his eyes. He smoked way too much...and somewhere along the line, he had started wearing a pair of tight black leather work gloves. He was almost never without them. Katherine wondered about that. It was as if he couldn't bear to look at his hands...
July 18, 1955
Johnny never forgot the last time he drove his grandmother's car. His sixteenth birthday had come and gone unnoticed, seeing as he had spent it in jail. This birthday was different. His grandmother insisted on taking him out for lunch at The Walnut Room, the famed restaurant on the seventh floor of Macy's Department Store. Johnny had their famous chicken pie, and his grandmother ordered the French onion soup…long one of her favorites. They lingered over the meal, knowing it might be the last they would spend together.
After lunch, they debated over where to go, since his train didn't leave for a few hours yet. Both of them couldn't help feeling a bit sad. It had been a hard year, to say the least.
Wanting to lighten the mood, Johnny cranked down the windows, turned up the radio, and took her for a cruise up and down Lakeshore Drive. He loved driving her two-toned green 1953 Pontiac Chieftain Special…which she affectionately called "Engine Joe" She found a big band station, and they drove around for a long time, talking and laughing. It was an afternoon neither of them would ever forget.
Finally, it was time for him to go, and he drove them both to Union Station in time to catch his train for Fort Benning, Georgia. John kissed his grandmother goodbye and left for boot camp. He and his grandmother exchanged letters as often as they could. He was sent to Vietnam in 1957 under the laughably euphemistic designation of "military advisor." What he was, was a soldier. Six months later he received a message that his grandmother had died peacefully in her sleep. She had left him everything she owned. He sent a message back to the lawyers and instructed them to sell it all and put the money into a trust account, which he promptly forgot about. The only thing he kept was Engine Joe. He had them put the car in storage for him with instructions to see to the fees till he got back to the States. And from that point on, he never looked back.
October 1, 1983
Los Angeles, CA
B. A. knocked on Hannibal's door. "You okay, Colonel?"
Hannibal roused himself. He looked over at the clock on his desk and realized he had fallen asleep. He stretched and called back, "Yeah, I'm fine. What's up?"
"Game'll be on in about 20 minutes. I called out for pizza."
"All right. I'm coming. Give me a minute."
Hannibal ran his hand through his hair and went into his bathroom to splash cold water in his face. He stared at his reflection for a long moment.
The memories had retreated, and he was feeling better, more in control. It was a good thing, because when he stepped out into the hallway, he realized he'd been had.
The guys were all there, and several pizzas were laid out on the table, along with a cake full of lit candles. As they launched into a loud and off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday," Hannibal realized he was likely one of the luckiest men on the planet. These guys all understood the darkness…even if they didn't know it's cause. As Face grinned and handed him a beer, and Murdock tried to pawn off a slice of anchovy pizza on him, Hannibal realized the truth. You have to experience the dark to appreciate the light.
A/Ns: *The issue with Murdock's birthdate is in reference to my story "I Always Meant to Tell You." Please read that story to understand the inference. *Sgt. Walt Fitzsimmons will be familiar to readers of my other stories as a canon-o/c character from Hogan's Heroes. He appeared as an unnamed background character in one or two episodes of the series and was given a larger part in my stories as Andrew Carter's back-up demolitions expert. His final appearance in my stories takes place in "Three Ring Circus." *Katherine Fitzsimmons is named for my granddaughter Katherine Octavia aka. "Tavi." *"Engine Joe" is a tribute to my late ex-husband, who had a '53 Chieftain as a project car. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that he was unable to fulfill his dream. And so in my small way, I have done it here, and "Engine Joe" lives after all...for Bill. RIP .