(Revised Jan. 9, 2002)
Even as I grasped at the tree branches on either side of the steep trail, I knew I was not going to be able to stop my fall.
Rain had been falling almost constantly for four days. Sometimes it was a hard, driving downpour and we had to fight to keep our camp from flooding. Sometimes it lightened to a mist that would seep through our supposedly waterproof clothes and enter our bones. I'd never felt so cold in all my life.
The combination of mud and wet leaves made the trails around the campsite treacherous and slippery. I was climbing down the trail towards our camp as fast as I could. In my haste, I stepped on a patch of mud that was just dying to go for a ride down the hill. Naturally, my foot decided to go with it.
Thump. I landed flat on my back. Whack. My head hit a lump of rock lurking below the mud. Distracted by the stars before my eyes, I didn't notice the rest of my short slide down the trail.
The stars cleared, leaving me lying in the mud with rain gently pattering on my face. I realized then just how good it felt to lie down. Five days ago, Hannibal announced we were going on a week long training exercise. We hadn't had any work for a while and he felt it was time to hone our skills. After a day of packing and travelling, we set up a camp in a remote wooded area in the hills. Our fearless leader then began to drill us in as many grueling exercises as he could think up, and Hannibal has never lacked imagination.
Normally, I'm pretty good on these exercises. In a weird sort of way, I kind of like them. They present a challenge without danger, and I've always liked challenges. It's the danger thing I don't like. This time, though, I wasn't enjoying it at all. For some reason, I was really struggling. The worst part was the fatigue. I felt tired constantly. So tired that, after four days, I was grateful for any excuse to lie down even with cold mud seeping into my clothes. I was even debating whether I should take the opportunity for a quick catnap to shake off the growing headache when a tall, gangly figure came back up the trail.
Murdock was wearing the khaki army surplus clothing that Hannibal insisted we wear for this session. Without his trademark blue baseball cap, beat up brown leather flying jacket, and black and white high top sneakers, Murdock looked very different, very military. At that moment, he also looked exasperated.
"C'mon, Faceman! Stop dilly-dallying! You know we're already behind..."
He stopped abruptly as he saw me lying in the mud. His expression immediately changed to concern. I tried to flash him a smile and make some quip about lying down on the job, but for some reason my mouth wouldn't co-operate.
"Face! Face, are you okay?"
He reached my side and knelt down carefully. I could feel his hands moving gently over my arms and legs searching for damage. Once more, I tried to tell him I was okay, but I only managed to open my mouth. He turned his attention to my head. He slid one under my neck to support it. Then, he reached under my head and encountered the spot where my head had kissed the rock.
At last, my tongue woke up and I yelped, "Ouch!"
"I was beginning to think you'd lost your tongue," he grinned at me. Relief brightened his face considerably. "What happened?"
"I fell," I replied somewhat indistinctly. My tongue was still not responding properly.
"And here I thought you'd decided to try sliding down the trail on your butt," he joked as he helped me to a sitting position. "Are you hurt anywhere?" I shook my head gently, not wanting to aggravate the headache that had appeared with Murdock's ministrations. "Well, let's get you back to camp. Hannibal will be wondering where we are."
Hannibal. Oh shit.
I knew how disappointed he was with my less than stellar performance during the past four days. I could feel his irritation radiating my way in almost palpable waves. For the past two days, I've been doing my damnedest to stay out of his way and avoid the "you're endangering the team with you lax attitude and poor performance" speech.
Great. Just great. I knew this latest escapade was not going to endear me to him. At the very least, I was going to get double night watch duty - just when I most desperately craved sleep! I cursed myself for my clumsiness and groaned involuntarily.
Murdock's brown eyes opened in alarm. He made as if to lay me down again.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," I said hastily. Fortunately, I had regained full use of my tongue. Murdock paused, but his forehead was still wrinkled in concern. "Honest, Murdock. I was just groaning at my own stupidity." He didn't look entirely convinced, but instead of pushing me down, he helped me get to my feet.
Together we continued down the trail, although I admit I had to rely on his help more than I wished. In the end, we did make it to the bottom without further mishap. There the trail was much easier and we moved more quickly. As we neared the camp, I found myself slowing down, formulating various scenarios and approaches I could take to explain my fall without adding further fuel to Hannibal's ire.
Murdock, the ever-astute, noticed my reluctance and diagnosed it correctly. With a knowing smile, he turned to me and said, "It's okay, muchacho. BA also took a header down the trail."
Surprised, I stared at Murdock. Despite his bulk, BA is normally the most sure-footed of the team. That's just another surprising feature of an all around unique individual. He's built like a truck - solid, dark, unmovable. He's so muscular that he gives the impression that he's short and slow. And yet, even wearing 40 pounds of gold chains, he can still run rings around most people.
If BA had fallen, then that means my own slip wouldn't seem so bad. Cheered by this, I gave Murdock what I believed was my first real smile of the day. He smiled back. I put my arm around his shoulders and he put his around my waist. I wasn't feeling that dizzy, but I knew this position would make me look more pathetic. Appearances are everything.
As Murdock helped me into camp, Hannibal was standing beside the campfire, looking at his watch and smoking a cigar. The cigar was jutting out of his mouth in a particularly aggressive angle. Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith had always been a career soldier. Even our past six years on the run had not diminished his military bearing and commanding presence. When he's annoyed, one glare from his incredibly blue eyes will have you snapping to attention. I fought down the urge to do just that.
BA was sitting across the fire from him, sporting a new, white bandage on his left elbow - contrasting sharply with his dark skin. He looked up briefly in my direction before returning his scowl to the fire. At least, I assumed he was sporting his usual scowl since all I could see was the gleam of firelight off the shaven areas of his skull and the glitter of his gold.
Hannibal turned away from the fire to look at me while Murdock urged me forward. In contrast to the bright flames, the colonel was a dark shadow topped by silver hair, but I recognized irritation in his body language. Inwardly, I cringed and thought, "Oh no, here we go."
I put on one of my best pathetic puppy-dog looks and said, "I'm really sorry, Colonel. My foot just slipped and ..." I let my voice trail off as I put my free hand to my head and winced.
By this time, Murdock and I had reached the fire. As I finished, I sat down carefully on a campstool. I was starting to feel the overwhelming fatigue again. If I was going to get a lecture, I'd rather be sitting.
I looked up at Hannibal. From this angle, the light fell on his face and I could see his features twitch with different emotions: irritation, concern, amusement. I knew that he would not buy my pathetic pose, he never has. I also knew that he gets a kick out of being able to see through my cons when he's seen so many people fall for them. I was gambling that the amusement and possibly the concern would win the war of emotions.
From the other side of the fire, BA growled, "Don't be sorry, Faceman. It's Hannibal's fault for sending us down the damn fool path in the rain. He's lucky no-one broke their damn fool neck." Obviously, BA's pride had been hurt in the fall, and he was going to make Hannibal pay for it. As Hannibal rolled his eyes, I leaned forward to hide my smile.
Abruptly, Hannibal crouched down and put his hands on my shoulders. I could feel the strength in his grip as he sat me back and held me steady. Despite being more than a decade older than I am, he is easily a much stronger man. In fact, I clearly remember the day he challenged BA to a boxing match and won! Mind you, he couldn't move for nearly a week afterwards, but then again, neither could BA.
Startled, I looked directly into his eyes.
"Did you hit your head?" he asked. I nodded my head carefully, wincing involuntarily this time.
He grasped my chin firmly and turned it slightly so he could look at my pupils. He tested their reaction to light while he asked his next question, "Did you lose consciousness?"
"No. I'm fine. I just have a headache," I replied carefully.
Murdock piped up, "He couldn't move or speak when I found him."
I scowled at him. Now, that Hannibal wasn't likely to blow up at me, I wanted everyone to forget the whole embarrassing incident. They wouldn't do that if they thought I was really hurt. "I was a bit stunned for a while, but I'm fine now. I just ..."
Hannibal gave me that assessing look. Damn. I dredged up a broad, reassuring smile and started to stand up. Hannibal reached out, grabbed the front of my jacket, and pulled me down on the stool.
He wasn't buying it. Double damn.
All of a sudden, I found myself at a loss for what to do next. I desperately did not want another confrontation with Hannibal, but I was just too cold and weary to figure out how to avoid it. I could feel the smile fade from my face, but I didn't have anything else with which to replace it. My mask was slipping and I felt naked. I turned away from my friends so I could regain my composure.
I could feel Hannibal's grip on my jacket front loosen and then his hand was on my shoulder, gently squeezing it.
"Hey, Kid, what's wrong?" His voice was equally gentle.
I couldn't look at him. I still felt too exposed. I just needed another minute to restore my self-control, but, oh man, I was so tired.
My time ran out as his other hand gripped my chin and forced me to look at him. His face held nothing but worry and compassion. "Talk to me, Face. Tell me what's wrong."
I hate it when he does this. I can take on drug lords, biker gangs, marriage-minded widows, and motherly nuns without losing control. But as soon as Hannibal gives me that compassionate look, I turn to jelly and I'm terrified I'll do something excruciatingly embarrassing like bursting into tears.
This time, I nearly lost it. I felt the heat rush up to my face and the prickle behind my eyes. I knew I had to respond somehow so that he would stop looking at me that way. Desperately, I said the first thing that came to mind.
"I'm just so tired and cold," I blurted out. Then, I was furious at myself. A bit of rain and some brisk exercise is a pretty poor excuse for being such a wimp. I began to feel that maybe Hannibal was right and I was in bad condition. Maybe I was endangering the team. I sagged, looked downward, and tried to figure out what to do next.
Unexpectedly, he let go of my chin and held his palm to my forehead. Startled, I pulled away. He stood up and announced, "Murdock, BA, let's break up the camp. Face is sick."
Nodding in assent, the other two started the tasks involved in packing up the camp. Hannibal turned back to me and said, "Get changed into some dry clothes and then go wait in the van." Then he marched off to help pack up the van.
I don't know quite how I felt. Part of me was astonished that I could be sick and not know it. In hindsight it was an obvious explanation for my chills and fatigue. The rest of me was a turmoil of relief that I had a legitimate excuse for feeling so bad, thankfulness that I could just go and curl up in the van, and anxiety that somehow I had failed the team.
Obediently, I changed my clothes and sat in the van. Initially, the relief and thankfulness outweighed the anxiety, but then the feeling of failure began to eat at me. I was pretty miserable when an hour later, the campsite was dismantled and all our equipment was packed in the van.
BA got in the driver's seat as usual with Hannibal beside him. Murdock jumped into the back of the van with me. Then we headed for home. It was very quiet with everyone feeling a bit subdued after what was basically a washout exercise. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one of the three junior members of the outfit who was a little uncertain about our leader's mood.
Personally, I was also starting to feel the full effect of the flu. I wondered if I had just been denying all the symptoms or if my fall and subsequent wallow in the mud had aggravated them. All I knew was that I was feeling much worse than I had been that morning. I closed my eyes and hoped the journey would end soon.
Beside me, Murdock twitched and fidgeted and started to talk to his invisible dog, Billy. This is always a sure sign that Murdock is upset. I opened my eyes and looked at him. His long thin face looked very solemn beneath the thinning brown hair that whisped about his head like some demented halo. He twisted his baseball cap in his long-fingered hands as he whispered to Billy who was apparently sitting between our two seats. Just as I was about to say something to him, he came to a decision.
He leaned forward and cleared his throat, attracting Hannibal's attention. Hannibal turned in his seat to look at the pilot.
"Umm, Colonel, me and Billy want to know if this means we gotta go back to the VA," he asked in a hesitant voice. Captain HM Murdock lives in the psychiatric wing of the Veteran's Administration Hospital. We break him out of the hospital whenever we can because he's a surprisingly reliable team member and he's still one of the best pilots I have ever seen. There are days, though, when it is very clear that Murdock is not entirely normal.
Hannibal sucked on his unlit cigar as he looked at Murdock. Finally, he asked, "Do you want to go back, Captain?" Murdock shook his head.
"Well then, I guess you're staying with us." He paused briefly and then glanced at BA, "BA, pull in at the Captain Bellybuster's off Main. We'll grab some burgers and then go back to my place."
Murdock's face lit up like a beacon. If there's one thing that makes Murdock happy, it's going to Captain Bellybusters and singing the jingles to the poor guy dressed up as Captain Bellybuster. Hannibal broke into a wide grin at Murdock's delight. I smiled, too, relieved that the tension in the vehicle had been broken. Even BA refrained from making disparaging remarks as he directed the van to the nearest location of the hamburger chain.
A short while later, we were on our way to Hannibal's apartment with a bag of hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks. Murdock was playing with the Captain Bellybuster Toy-of-the-week. It was something pink and plastic. I felt too unwell to go through the no-doubt-complicated task of finding out what it was and what it was supposed to do. Sometimes it's just better not to ask.
Finally, we arrived at Hannibal's place. While the others unpacked the van, I climbed the stairs to the apartment. It was a plain two-storey complex with a balcony circumnavigating the second floor. All the second-floor apartments had a door leading onto the balcony. Hannibal's was on the end. Waiting for a key just seemed too much effort so I picked the lock and opened the door.
Once inside, I headed straight for the shower. I stayed in just long enough to wash the mud off, then I staggered out of the bathroom in search of a bed, or a couch, or any horizontal surface that wasn't covered in camping equipment. I vaguely remember someone talking to me and then leading me by the arm to an actual bed.
When I woke up, I saw a pair of big, brown eyes staring at me.
I had slept so soundly that I hadn't even been aware that Murdock had been there. It didn't surprise me, though. In general, I don't like to sleep alone. I had spent most of my life sleeping in dormitories or barracks. The sound of other people sleeping makes me feel not so alone in the world. Even though I have never told anyone that, somehow the guys never object when I contrive to make sure at least one of them is in the same room as me during our missions. Usually, it's Murdock, who just loves to cuddle up to anyone like a great, big teddy bear.
"Gee, Face, you sure are cute when you sleep," Murdock commented thoughtfully. He was lying beside me on the bed dressed in his usual night attire of T-shirt and shorts.
Not knowing exactly how one is supposed to respond to such a statement from one's best friend, I just blinked my eyes. I wondered what time it was. It couldn't be too late or Murdock would have given up on me in favour of the early morning cartoons. It couldn't be too early or else he would still be asleep. Just as I was beginning to look for a clock, he answered the question for me.
"Do you wanna watch Woody Woodpecker with me?" he asked eagerly.
Ah, it had to be 6:30am. Woody Woodpecker time. That meant we had already missed Bugs Bunny, thank goodness. Bugs is great, but not at 6am. Come to think of it, Woody is not so hot at 6:30am, but I couldn't say no. It would upset him, and I had already caused enough grief already.
"Sure, Woody would be great," I rasped. My throat was just killing me. Great. It wasn't 24 hour flu, after all. Just terrific. A sick Team member is a definite liability. The last time someone was sick, it was BA and we had a terrible time trying to shake Decker. We took off for the countryside to find a safe place. Unfortunately, we had to stop every hour so the poor guy could throw up. And every time we did, someone would spot us and report it to the Military Police. It was awful. It took us a week to find somewhere safe and BA lost about twenty pounds in the process.
I guess my lack of mellifluous voice must have tipped off Murdock that all was still not right with the Faceman. He looked at me carefully and felt my forehead. I pushed his hand away and growled out a request for coffee. He hesitated for just a minute before scampering from the room.
For the first time, I looked around to figure out where I was. I was very surprised to see it was Hannibal's own room. That meant that the great man himself must either be in the spare room or sleeping on the couch. Either way, it had to be an inconvenience. Rats, rats, rats. Just when I was just trying to get on his good side. I wondered how on earth I had gotten here? I can remember sleeping here only once before and that was when I had had a concussion and Hannibal wanted to keep his eye on me. But this time, it was Murdock who was watching me. I hoped that didn't mean that Hannibal was still mad at me.
I groaned in frustration at yet another unresolved issue with the man for whom I would go to hell and rolled over on my stomach. A hand rested on my back and a second hand felt my forehead.
"Murdock, I'm okay. Really. I'm just not awake, yet."
"It feels to me like you still have a fever, Lieutenant, and that means you're not okay. It's bed rest and chicken soup for you," Hannibal's voice answered me. I groaned again and buried my face in my arms. There are times when I feel the world is conspiring against me and that was one of them. Hannibal patted my back and said in a soothing manner, "C'mon, Face, cheer up. At least it means you're off the hook for Woody Woodpecker. I'll tell Murdock."
I know I always give the impression of someone who loves nothing more than to live the life of ease, but in actual fact, I really hate inaction. I like to be always doing something, even if it is planning the next scam. Enforced bed rest and Hannibal's diabolically awful chicken soup were starting to make BA's terrible flu ordeal look much more appealing.
With one more final shoulder squeeze, my fearless leader left me. I contemplated my choices: I could lie there and count the ceiling tiles; I could try reading any one of the many books on military history piled on top of the bedside tables; I could fret about how much of a burden I've become; or I could sleep. I picked option number four and closed my eyes.
I felt I couldn't breathe. Everyone was shouting at me to stop being such a wimp and get up. Furious faces accused me of letting everyone down. Hannibal, Murdock, BA, Father Magill, Sister Maria, Ray Brenner, Leslie Becktal, Sister Benedicta, ...
"Wake up, man. You're dreaming." I snapped my eyes open and saw a still scowling face staring at me. But this time, it wasn't a furious face. It was BA's usual expression. Some part of my brain found it very ironic that I was actually relieved to see a scowl after the horrible dream I had just had.
I reached up a trembling hand and rubbed my face.
"Thanks, BA," I whispered. He grunted and then sat down on the bed beside me and reached for a mug of something that was on the bedside table.
I was curled up into a tight ball in the middle of the bed with all the covers piled on top of me. I was still freezing cold. I think that's when I realized for the first time that I was completely naked. Now, my nudity did not bother me in the sense that I was embarrassed to be unclothed in front of my friends. You don't go through what we've gone through during and after Vietnam and not know exactly what we all look like without clothes on. What bothered me was that I was so cold. I really wanted a pair of warm, flannel pajamas like I use to have at the orphanage.
"BA, are there any flannel pajamas around?" I whispered again. Whispering seemed to hurt less.
"Flannel? Face, you crazy fool. This is California. You don't need no flannel pajamas. " BA, that refugee from chilly Chicago, did not understand how Californians could ever require sweaters and jackets. I guess flannel pajamas also belonged in the same category.
He handed me the mug, "Here, drink this."
Sighing, I sat up and draped as many covers as I could on top of me before reaching for the mug. I had assumed it was coffee, which would have been very welcome. As I brought it to my lips, I saw that it was chicken soup.
"Chicken soup? Yuck! I hate Hannibal's chicken soup," I growled in what I knew was a sulky manner. I just couldn't help myself. I felt miserable enough as it was without being forced to swallow vile soup. Guiltily I glanced at the door to make sure that Hannibal hadn't heard. Fortunately, this time, he wasn't there hanging around ready to misinterpret my every move.
"Well, it ain't Hannibal's chicken soup. It's my Mama's. She gave me the recipe. Now, drink it." The last command was delivered in such a way that I had no option but to obey. Naturally, I did. Oh, it was good. I sighed in pleasure and I told him so.
BA smiled. It's always an amazing sight to see BA smiling. His whole face changes and he looks almost lovable. He nodded and said, "I told Hannibal I'm tired of his crappy soup." I laughed a raspy laugh, which brought BA's scowl back. "Man, you sound bad."
"If you keep giving me that soup, I'll get better a whole lot faster." I whispered. BA nearly smiled again.
He took the mug back off me and set it on the bedside table. Then he turned to look at me really hard. I started to get worried again. What had I done this time?
"What's bothering you, Face? That didn't sound like no 'Nam dream."
I opened my eyes wide in assumed innocence and said, "What do you mean?"
He lightly punched my arm. Even a light punch from BA can leave a bruise so naturally I protested.
"Quiet, you fool!" he hissed at me, "You deserve that for trying to pull that innocent shit with me. Who do you think you're fooling? Talk to me or I talk to Hannibal."
I sat up straight at that threat. He narrowed his eyes at me and then nodded.
"So that's it. You're afraid Hannibal's sore at you for screwing up the training."
Sometimes, BA's perceptiveness amazes me. I don't know how he guessed so quickly. All I could do was nod in agreement.
"Hey man, don't sweat it. If anything, it was our fault. We shoulda known something was up. You just weren't yourself. Usually these things are a breeze for you."
"The point is, BA, that I screwed up. I should've... I could've put you guys in danger if it had been a mission." Finally, my biggest fear was out in the open.
"BA, could I have a word with Face." Hannibal's voice came from the doorway. In the wrong place again! I buried my head in my hands and wished for a fairy godmother to turn me into a pumpkin. BA patted my shoulder before he left. I felt the bed give under Hannibal's weight as he sat down.
"Face," he began and then paused, "Face, I don't know what else to say but sorry. I'm sorry that I am such a poor leader that I don't even notice when one of my men is sick." He paused again, and I looked at him. "Most of all I'm sorry that you felt you had to keep going instead of telling me that you were too tired."
I was flabbergasted. Hannibal was apologizing to me? I was the one who should be apologizing! I put out my hand and gripped his arm. I wanted him to stop. It wasn't right for him to do this.
"No, no, no. It was my fault. I screwed up." I croaked.
He gave me a disbelieving look. "Listen to yourself, Face. You're sick. You were sick for four days. How can that be your fault?"
"It is," I insisted, "I could have put you all in danger."
"No, Face, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't question it. I've been kicking myself ever since you cracked your head and I knew you were sick. I wouldn't blame you at all if you were mad."
I shook my head.
"Oh for Pete's sake! You two are so stubborn," Murdock exclaimed. "Worse than a coupla donkeys. Look, here's how it is. Face, you shoulda told Hannibal that you were having a problem. Hannibal, you shoulda stopped to wonder why Face wasn't doing too well on any of the exercises. There, you're both to blame. Are you happy, now?"
Murdock stood in the doorway arms akimbo. It is very difficult to look stern and commanding when you are dressed in shorts, T-shirt, baseball cap, and obscene apron with a pink Captain Bellybuster toy hanging around your neck.
I couldn't stop myself from laughing despite the strain on my poor throat. Hannibal had no such inhibitions; he flopped over on his side and howled with laughter. The offended look on Murdock's face only added to our mirth. It was a long time before either Hannibal or I could speak. It was even longer before Murdock completely forgave us.
On the other hand, Hannibal and I had managed to reach a new kind of understanding. Sometimes, there's more than one point of view, and sometimes both can be right.