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La Belle Rouge Poetess Of The Heart

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One Man's War
By La Belle Rouge Poetess Of The Heart
Thursday, July 05, 2007

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War Is A Personal Thing

One Man's War
La Belle Rouge

The distant boom of mortar fire shattered the stillness of the steamy night. Would this be his last night in Vietnam, or his last on Earth? As his slim, muscular body slid down into the dark, damp bunker, Sergeant Travis Blair wondered if he would live to see the dawn.

A soldier with his duty could expect to live only six months in Cu Chi. During the year since his arrival there had been some narrow escapes, like the night of the Tet Offensive. Viet Cong were expected to overrun the base and destroy the aircraft. He had been left alone with an M50 to guard the airstrip, his orders, kill as many of the enemy as you can, before they kill you. He could hear enemy fire all around, but Charley never showed up at the airstrip. If he had, Blair would have obeyed orders, and died. All night his fingers clenched the trigger. The next morning they had to pry his hands from the gun.

Tonight as always, the bunker smelled of sweaty bodies and freshly dug earth, reminding him of plowing gardens and working in tobacco fields half a world away. This was his 41st night in the bunker, not the most pleasant place, but without doubt the safest. Sleeping there might increase his chances of making it home alive.

This would be the last night. Tomorrow he would be going home. No more sleeping with insects and rodents. No more flying over the steamy jungle. No more loading the dead and dying on choppers to be flown back to the base. A wince of raw pain crossed his tanned face, a face with features too beautiful for a man. Only 20 years old, he was too young to buy a beer or vote for the politicians who sent him to fight this war, but he was old enough to risk his life every day. He had seen enough blood and death to last a long lifetime, and tonight he felt old.

Why was he here? It was still a mystery to him. He thought about the TV News and young men burning flags and draft cards. He couldn’t imagine running to Canada. In the rural South of the 60’s, everyone just seemed to do what was expected of them, even when it made no sense to die for a cause you neither embraced, nor understood.

Confusion was his daily companion, along with fear. These were the emotions of a man caught in a deadly storm of circumstances he was powerless to change or escape. They were familiar emotions, ones he felt at home with, the same ones he had felt as a child when a drunken father punished him for any reason, or no reason at all.

Travis tried not to think about his childhood. Much of it was just a blur in his memory. As he sat in the dark and thought of going home to see his parents again, snatches of memory haunted him like unwelcome ghosts in the night. He remembered the pain of the blows from his father’s fists. His face reddened with shame at the recording that played in his head.

“Can’t you do anything right? You’re so stupid. You’re not worth a damn and never will be. You should never have been born.”

He wanted to argue with the recording, to prove it wrong, but deep inside he agreed with it. His distinguished service record, the Air Medals, the Army Commendation Medal, and even the Bronze Stars were powerless to silence the words that cut into his soul.

Travis squared his broad shoulders and kicked at a large rat that brushed against his boot. He leaned his sore back against the damp, earthen wall, pulled his fatigue hat off and ran his fingers through his short, light-brown hair. He dragged the last of the heavy sandbags over his body and tried to relax.

Home, tomorrow! Julie. All the fried chicken and candied yams he could hold. His fatigues hung loosely on his once average-size frame, now 20 pounds thinner from poor food and no time to eat it. Eighteen hour days of hard work and danger had hardened him into pure muscle and willpower.

As heavy lids closed over pale, jade eyes that needed rest, he thought about the men who would never see home again, like his friend Rossman, shot down along with his crew chief and gunner. Travis had been flying medivac that night. There were 27 bullets in what was left of Rossman’s body. As Travis lifted the body on the chopper, by flashlight, he read the bloody dog tags. The reality of there not being enough left to recognize a friend he had dinner with four hours earlier, tore into his insides with such force that he ran into the brush and vomited until there was nothing left to vomit.

The mortar fire sounded again. Was it closer this time?

His thoughts turned to the 10 men who perished in the middle of the night when mortar fire crashed into the hooch where they were sleeping. He would have been among them had he not made the fear-driven decision to sleep in the bunker.

And then, there was Morelli. Travis had noticed him reading the letter just before dark that night. Morelli sat on his cot, reading the letter over and over, lifting the bottle to drink, time after time. Around ten, Morelli put the barrel of the automatic into his mouth. It fired nine rounds before his lifeless finger released the trigger. Travis watched, immobilized by repulsion, as the handsome face with the dark eyes exploded into a red mass accented by stark white fragments of skull.

Later, as they were cleaning the hooch, Travis found the letter from Morelli’s wife. The lavender stationery bordered with forget me not flowers was splattered with blood. Neatly written were the words that carried the power to drive a man over the edge. She was tired of waiting, she didn’t love him anymore, there was someone else.

The memory made him shiver. The Vietnam night was sticky hot, but such thoughts made a man’s blood run cold.

He thought about Julie. Lately her letters had been typed instead of in her ornate handwriting. They seemed less intimate. Did she still love him? Was she tired of waiting? His fingers clenched tightly, then stretched open. He could feel her smooth, ivory skin and the silkiness of her long, mahogany hair slipping through his hands. He could feel her slender fingers tracing the lines of his face, hear the sweet familiarity of her soft, Southern drawl, calling him her “Beautiful man.” He remembered how it sometimes took his breath away when he looked into her sea-green eyes and felt she knew him inside out. He ached with the need to see her, talk to her, touch her. His need of her shut out every other thought and sensation. He needed to sit with her at their breakfast table, to relax together by the fire on Christmas eve. His body ached to hold her close and smell her perfume in the middle of the night, to make love to her in the hammock on a warm night under the stars, like he had done the night before he left for the war. He could still hear her whispering his name, the chirping of the crickets and the faint drone of a small plane far above them.

The North Carolina summer night faded into a memory, leaving only the filthy, hot terror of Vietnam and the eerie whistle of the mortar as they crashed into the bunker.

There was no time or place to run, only time to scream, “Oh God, don’t let me die.”

In what seemed like slow motion, but must have lasted only a few seconds, he saw his mom, looking young again and holding out her arms to him. He saw his dad with the familiar scowl on his face that always made Travis want to run and hide. Scene after scene played before him. His little brothers playing tag in the yard, the no-hitter he pitched in junior high. The senior prom. Julie the first time he kissed her. Julie in her wedding dress. Julie with the firelight caressing her bare skin and causing the highlights to dance in her hair. Julie at the bus station, tears streaming down her face.

Then there was only darkness. The thick darkness surrounded him like a warm, heavy blanket and carried him like a placid river. He felt secure and free from care. There was no fear or pain, only peace. Was this death? Why had he feared it so much? His identity vanished and he became one with the darkness and the river.

His eyes fluttered open briefly, not long enough to focus. Oh, God, everything hurt. His head felt like it would explode with pain. He opened his eyes again but saw only darkness. The needle in the back of his hand made it ache as he lifted it to his head. His fingertips groped for his face. He realized it was covered with thick bandages. So, he was alive, but maybe death would be better.

A soft, cool hand grasped his feverish one and pushed it gently back down onto the bed.

“So, Sergeant, you decided to come back to us.”

The voice was cheerful and feminine. Julie? No, the pitch was too low and the accent decidedly New England.

“Where am I?”

“Relax Sergeant, you’re in the hospital at Saigon. You’ve been wounded, but you’re going to make it. I’m Lieutenant Carmichael and I’m taking good care of you.

“How long have I been here?”

“Almost three weeks. We’ve been waiting for you to come out of coma so you can be transferred back to the States, probably Walter Reed.

“How bad am I hurt?”

“Now Sergeant, stay calm. I’m going to give you an injection for the pain. You need to rest. We’ll talk later, when you’re stronger.

There was no prick of a needle so he figured she must have shot the narcotic into the iv shunt. He quickly drifted into a sleep so deep there were no disturbing thoughts or dreams, only a sweet release from pain that was over all too soon. He became conscious of water running into some kind of container.

“Sergeant Blair,”
It was Lieutenant Carmichael’s feminine, authoritative voice.

“We need to get you bathed and your bandages changed.”

Travis clutched determinedly at the wool blanket and the cotton sheet beneath. He was no prude, but would prefer to bathe himself!

“Don’t be embarrassed Blair. I’ve been bathing you every day for three weeks and I assure you I won’t see anything I haven’t seen 21 times before, so loosen that death grip on the covers.”

He knew by the tone of her voice it would be useless to resist or argue. This was a woman used to giving orders and having them obeyed. He relaxed back against the pillow like an obedient child.

The gentle touch of the wash cloth against his skin brought back a memory he had tried to forget, one more frightening than all his war experiences. The beating had been more severe than usual. His seven year old mind tried to comprehend why he was so bad he needed to be hurt this way. As he lay across the bed on his stomach, his mother tenderly applied warm, wet cloths against the welts and cuts the belt had left from his shoulders to his calves.

“Mama, will we ever be good enough for Daddy not to hurt us?”

His mother’s sobs were deep and anguished.

“I don’t know Baby. I’m so sorry. He has a lot of problems. Please don’t ever hate your daddy.”

“Sergeant Blair, I’m going to change your bandages now.”

Travis slipped thankfully back into the present. The pain in his head and the disfigurement he knew must lie beneath the bandages were preferable to the memory that had so wounded and disfigured his soul.

Teresa Carmichael was a skilled nurse. She removed the old bandage with a minimum of pain, applied the ointment smoothly and prepared to re-bandage his face.

“Give me the mirror.”

He might as well have his worst fears confirmed.

“Not yet. Give the healing process a little more time.”

Her voice was softer than usual. He could sense the pity.

“It’s my face and my life, give me the damn mirror.”

“OK Sergeant, but remember the scars may fade with time.”

She held a small hand mirror in front of his face with her right hand. Her left hand reached out to grasp his tightly. He cried out in shock and despair.

“My God, it would have been better to die!”

She didn’t say anything, didn’t try to make such a tragedy seem less tragic with empty words. She let him sob, and she held his hand. He looked up into her face. Tears ran down her high cheekbones. Her shiny, raven hair was pulled back into a bun and her vibrant, blue eyes looked back into his pale, green ones with a strange combination of sympathy and strength. He wondered how many other soldiers she had wept with.

She was older than him, and not beautiful by his usual standard. She was built like a goddess, standing tall with a strength that seemed to radiate from, and surround her. She was the kind of woman he could have loved, if only he possessed enough confidence to feel he was stronger than her. Her chest raised then lowered as she took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. Her eyes glanced away into the distance, then refocused on his.

“Travis Blair, don’t you ever think or say it would have been better to die. Two men were blown to pieces in the bunker that night and you’re still here. Life is a gift, and don’t you ever forget it.”

He sat in silence as she bandaged his face. The darkness was welcomed. He never wanted to see what was left of his face again.

“My wife, Julie, she thinks I’m good-looking, calls me her beautiful man. She probably won’t be able to even look at me. She’ll never be strong enough to face life with a man as messed up as me.”

“She may be more courageous than you think. It’s what’s inside of you Travis, that makes you attractive, your strength and gentleness. What makes you think your face can change her love? Inside you’re still the man she fell in love with, just with a few more scars.”

He silently prayed that Teresa was right.
The next few days passed in a haze of pain and drug induced sleep.

“Travis”, he felt Teresa’s hand close over his. “They’re flying you home today.”

“Lieutenant, thank you for everything.”

He pulled her hand to his face. They both laughed as he tried to kiss it through the small opening in the bandages, just big enough for a spoon. Impulsively, she cradled his hand in both of hers, lifted it and brushed her lips softly across the work-roughened palm.

“Goodbye Travis. Enjoy the gift.”

He had been settled at Walter Reed for several days when he recognized the click of her high heels in the hall. When she walked into his room the faint fragrance of her familiar gardenia perfume wafted through the breathing holes in the thick bandages.

“Travis, oh Travis!”

She threw her arms around him, laid her head on his chest and sobbed.

“How I’ve missed you. Thank God you’ve come home to me.”

Instinctively his arms enfolded her, his hands stroked her soft hair and the smoothness of her bare arms. The bandages hid her from view, but the soft femininity and vulnerability that had first attracted him to her, seemed stronger at this moment than ever before. Lord, how he loved her. She was the only one who had ever made him feel worthy of being loved. The pleasure of this reunion, the anticipation of which had kept him alive and desirous of life for over a year, was overshadowed now by sadness and fear.

“Julie, baby. I can’t kiss you, but it feels so good to hold you again.”

He wondered why life always seemed to be like this, the pleasurable emotions tempered by negative ones. He held her small hand with the long, slender fingers.

“Did you come alone? It’s a six-hour drive.”

“No, Carol drove her car. She’s resting at the motel. Oh Dearest, is the pain
really bad?”

“Naw, it’s OK. I’m glad your sister didn’t let you come alone.”

Julie twisted her delicate fingers back and forth between his callused ones.

“Travis, do you want to talk about, you know, things that happened in Vietnam?”

“Not yet, maybe sometime.”

She sat in the chair beside his bed and held tightly to his hand, as if she loosened her grip, he would be gone from her again. They talked about old friends, high school days, and plans for Christmas. He talked about some of his buddies in Vietnam, making it sound like they were boys together at scout camp, never hinting at the horror and fear he had lived with there, or the fear pulsating through him now. Her soft drawl went on about her job at the furniture store and the new recliner waiting for him at home.

“Julie, why did you stop handwriting letters and use the typewriter? The letters changed, they weren’t, well you know, personal like before.”

“Travis, I didn’t want to worry you. You were so far away and there was really nothing you could do. Three months ago I had an accident. The insurance company replaced the car and I’m doing OK. During my recovery, I dictated those letters to Carol.”

“Julie, are you all right? I would have come home somehow.”

“You’re home now Travis. We’re together and that’s all that matters.”

He had lost all sense of time. With bandages over his eyes it was always night. The nurse came in and announced,

“Bedtime Sergeant. Visiting hours are over Mrs. Blair.”

Her voice then dropped to a friendly whisper,

“But you may be interested to know that not a soul will be coming back into this room tonight.”

She left, closing the door quietly behind her. Travis felt Julie’s lithe body slide under the sheet. Her head rested on his shoulder as his arms wrapped around her.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this. You’ll do anything just to get me into bed won’t you soldier?”

It felt so good to laugh. Had it been a lifetime since they cuddled in bed giggling together? The bandages were coming off tomorrow. Would this be the last night she would want to share his bed? She had always told him that his handsome face and beautiful eyes had first attracted her. Well, at least he still had his eyes.

“Julie, I want you to know that no matter what happens tomorrow, I’ll always love you. You don’t have to feel obligated to stay with me. I know you may not be able to handle the way I look.”

He hoped she hadn’t noticed how he choked on the words. Inside he was screaming with pain. She couldn’t know. He was a man, and needed to be strong.

She laid his hand against her face and gently kissed it.

“Travis, what if it was me behind those bandages, different than the way you remembered me? Would you still love me?”

“Sweetheart, you know I would.”

“Then get some sleep.”

The next morning, Julie held his hand as the doctor carefully removed the bandages one layer at a time. Travis dreaded the repulsion he was soon to see in her eyes. He remembered the haunting beauty of those eyes and turned his face away from her as the last layer he could hide behind was stripped away.

Warm, soft fingertips traced the lines of his face with the same tenderness as always before.

“My Travis. My beautiful man.”

He turned to look into her eyes. They no longer penetrated into his soul. The light in them was gone and he realized she was blind.

Copyright 2000 La Belle Rouge  

       Web Site: La Belle Rouge At

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Reviewed by Regino Gonzales, Jr. 2/7/2008
I had tears on this one. It's painful yet so beautiful. Thank you for letting me discover you. GodBless!

Reviewed by Michael Guy 9/17/2007
When will you write another short story: you're pretty good at it, almost better than some of your poetry, except that I own "Cherished" and discovered you save the best for your books. Anyway this was great, and we could use some more from the "master of short" and concise impactful writing!
Reviewed by Mary Coe 7/25/2007
Heartfelt and touching story. Excellent write. I can relate to this story. Several members of my family served in Vietnam. Very well written. Thanks for sharing.
Reviewed by Ch'erie de Perrot 7/7/2007
A humbling account...quite a twist at the end here, ty
Reviewed by Nickolaus Pacione 7/6/2007
I honestly commend you about writing this story because I had family who served in 'Nam. One talks about it and one doesn't. It is well written and well delivered in the way its done. Good tribute to the Vets who were spit on in their homeland when they returned from 'Nam.
Reviewed by Georg Mateos 7/6/2007
Over 56000 of them are blessing you for remember to write one of their stories.
Maybe I am biased, but who cares? this short story move me to tears and I hope that brother Travis have no more of them but smiles in his life.
Done with brilliant excellence.
Reviewed by H Cruz 7/5/2007
Ah, so you can write too! A fitting tribute to our national day of pride, giving us a reality check en vogue.
Reviewed by Victor Buhagiar 7/5/2007
Belle, your art at story writing is superb. Characters, emotions, descriptions all meted out in exact dozes. Great write.
Reviewed by Lewis Findley 7/5/2007
An absolutely amazing and incredible story about Vietnam, Belle. Dont you DARE sell this to Oliver Stone and let him make a movie out of it.

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