Shades Of Darkness
Hell found me not once, but twice. The year was 1968 and there was a war raging in the foreign country of Vietnam, as well as here in America. Protests against the war were visible in sharp clear images in our living rooms, as gruesome and horrific sights of mangled bodies and death traps were broadcast on the nightly news. Ghastly scenes of young men in a far away jungle caught up in the whirlwinds of devilish change brought pain and suffering into the hearts of even the bravest of souls. Division of principles and ideals now made up the torn fabric of our society. Brother stood against brother, and father against son. Preachers were proclaiming it to be the end of days.
It was the events of this most turbulent time that gave proof to me that there is indeed a hell. For hell had found me as I lay face down in six inches of stagnated slime that gave nutrients to the rice patties that fed millions of Vietnamese people. Afraid to even move, I prayed aloud and worried little about what my comrades in arms might think of my weakness. I became oblivious to my surroundings and was unaware that “Hawkins” who lay only a few feet away from me had taken a hit and lay dead in the hot, unforgiving afternoon sun. An unending barrage of mortar fire echoed in this valley of death. The blast from small arms fire zipped overhead shattering the lush vegetation of the tall grass which had become my refuge. I had been in Vietnam for a total of six weeks to the day, and I now prayed to see the forty third day. I remember wishing that I was back home on the farm helping my dad in the orchards, when strangely, by some mental escape mechanism, I found myself reliving the day that I received notice of being drafted into the armed services for our country.
It was a hot muggy day in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the smell of peaches permeated the air as I placed the last bushel of our harvest for the day, on my old Ford pick-up, and headed back home where I knew Mom would have my favorite supper of fried okra and tomatoes on the table waiting for me to devour. As I hurriedly drove up the sandy dirt drive which led to our old clapboard house, I could see my dad sitting on the porch. His shoulders were bent and his head bowed as if in prayer. In his big weather worn hands, he clutched a large manila envelope. I could see, even from this distance the sadness that drew sound in his eyes. He looked up at me as I mounted the steps and I could see that he had been crying.
"Dad, what's wrong"? I asked.
He didn’t speak, but, rose from the rocker where he had been sitting and walked over to give me a hug. I really was worried at this point, for my dad was what most folks around here called the “toughest man in Spartanburg County”. Only once in all of my life had I seen him display emotion such as this, and that was when my brother Danny was shot and killed in a hunting accident. Dad, still blamed himself, and to this day he refuses to talk about it to anyone.
"Dad, what is it"? I repeated.
"Its time son, its time" is all he said as he handed me the envelope.
I took the envelope from his hand and noticed that it had been opened. Inside was an official looking document stating that my number had come up and I was to report to Fort Jackson,
South Carolina the 3rd of September. I knew what this meant, and I knew what I would do. I would do as my dad had done in Korea, and as his dad had done in WWII…
I would fight. There was no question about it. Though many draftees were fleeing to a harbor of shameful safety in Canada, my country had now called me, and I considered it an honor and a privilege to answer that call.
I tried not to show any emotion at all as I wrapped my arms around my father’s broad and sturdy shoulders. I muttered to him softly that all would be well, though inwardly I questioned the validity of that statement. I placed the envelope into the front of my bib overalls and turned to go into the house to wash up for supper. As I reached for the screen door, my dad called out and said,
“Jimmy, don’t say nothing to your mom just yet, ok”?
“Sure dad” I replied.
As soon as I stepped into the foyer, Mom’s love hit me square in the face. The smell of southern fried chicken and okra captured me in sweet rapture and drew me into the direction of the kitchen where I knew I would find her. She was standing next to the stove when I entered the room. She didn’t see me, and I just stood there silently taking it all in, savoring the moment and solidifying this time in my mind. I watched her as she turned the chicken in the big black skillet and stirred the beans that she had shelled last night. My mom was still a handsome woman for her age, but the years hung heavily upon her. The loss of my younger brother last year still caused sadness and grief to show from her once laughing eyes. Sharp lines were making indentations in the skin of her soft, beautiful face. Mom now seemed to always have a distant, searching look about her, as though she were trying to see into a realm that existed only for those that had gone on into the spirit world. I crept up behind her, not making a sound and cupped my hands over her eyes.
“Stop that Jimmy, she said, “you’re going to cause me to burn the chicken.”
“How did you know it was me mom” I said.
“Cause you smell like peaches she replied, now go wash up, supper will be ready soon.”
I gave mom a kiss on the cheek and sprinted up the stairs to my bedroom. Throwing myself onto the bed I rolled over and looked up at the ceiling. Hanging from it on thin strands of fishing line were the model planes that my brother Danny had built. Hanging in oblong circles of three were model bombers from World War Two and several support craft used in military recon missions. I lay there just starring at the ceiling and wondered why Danny, who despised war so much, would choose war planes to build as his hobby. I pulled the envelope from my coveralls, rolled over on my side, and opened the drawer to the nightstand to stash my orders. Reaching into the drawer, I began to move aside some of Danny’s things when I found a composition book that had the simple words, “Poems by Danny” scrawled on the front cover. I had never seen this before and my curiosity would not let me push it to the side. I opened to a page that had been dog-eared, and read the caption at the top, “Roses Of War”. It was dated June 1st, 1966. I read slowly across the meticulous lines of the ruled paper. I became engrossed by the depth of my brother’s spirit and soon found myself reading it out loud as if on cue….
Roses Of War;
Seeds of hate sown upon fertile minds,
Lending to myriads of faceless believers
Caught swift in the evil of these times.
Numbed by terror and blinded by fear,
Their numbers grow like black roses
Which unmercifully fill every hillside.
Vines of shame, with thorns of disdain,
They multiply, spreading their mistrust,
Even unto choking the essence of freedoms pain.
Oh how they crawl like angry serpents
From their rancid and shallow grave,
Blotting out the hope of peace,
Destroying life, and all that remains.
A lump grew thick in my throat as I finished the verse. Slowly I thumbed through the rest of the book, only to find blank pages staring back at me. I wondered why Danny had not written any more poetry after this one. I began to get lost in my thoughts of him as I mused on his sensitivity. I laughed a bit inwardly as I remembered Dad giving him his “how to be a man” speech. Danny had argued with Dad on how a gun and a license to kill, does not make a boy into a man. Dad won the dispute however and Danny, with much reservation in answering, agreed to go on the hunting expedition. It was his first and only hunting trip. We were no more than an hour into the foggy Carolina morning when we heard a shot ring out from the direction of Danny’s deer stand. I was elated that beginners luck had been with him, as I envisioned Danny bagging his first buck on his first trip. When he didn’t show up at the meeting place for lunch, Dad and I set out in the direction of Danny’s stand. We found him sitting at the base of the tree. As we drew closer, we could see a small trickle of dried blood on his temple. Black flies hovered angrily around his face. Dad dropped his gun and ran to where Danny sat, cold and still; his open eyes embracing some unseen entity in the tree lined sky above.
Dad grabbed Danny by the shoulders and gently began to shake him. Danny’s head lob- lolled and dropped from its heavenly gaze. Dad embraced his youngest child and let out a wail that sent me into a state of uncontrollable anger. My mind raced! It was Dad’s fault! Danny didn’t want to go hunting, but Dad had forced him into it, by belittling him. I screamed this newfound truth at dad, and ran from the scene of the crime. I ran so hard up the driveway to our house that I almost collapsed on the steps. I sat there sobbing openly until I had no more tears to cry. Almost an hour later, I saw dad carrying the limp, lifeless body of my brother in his huge arms. He stopped and looked up from his burden and saw me sitting on the porch. He then turned and walked like a broken old man in the direction of the barn, never once looking back. He opened the wide double hinged doors and disappeared inside the gaping black mouth of the barn. I closed my eyes and continued to weep.
A loud excruciating explosion tore me from my recollections of home and delivered me once more into the reality of this longest day. I choked back the thick smoke from the exploding mortar. Had the hit been closer, I would be joining “Hawkins” on the other side. Without any argument of pride, I quickly realized that my orders to “hold position” had taken on new meaning. As the artillery grew more ferocious, my options lessened.
I could stay as ordered or, I could pull back into a safer location. I spun around, still lying flat on my stomach, when I heard the whistling sound of another incoming round of fire. I buried my face in the mud, but not before seeing a flash of white, hot, light ignite the ground in front of me. I covered my head with my hands, and completely submerged my face into a quagmire of mud. I tasted of the bitter darkness as it bore down upon me.
When I awoke, I found myself in a field hospital surrounded by the screams of the wounded and dying. The smell of fear filled the air, as soft supplications of prayers danced lightly across the room. I raised my head slightly and noticed with sadness the gravity of my surroundings. It was obvious that many of these young men would not live to see their tomorrow, while others would be maimed for life. I surveyed my own injuries and considered myself lucky. My legs were bandaged just above both knees with blotches of red spreading in abstract shapes across the white cotton dressing. I lay there silently listening to the agony of these brave men. I turned my head slightly to the left and noticed a young Hispanic man with the name Lopez stitched above the pocket of his uniform. He was clutching a gold cross which hung from a chain around his neck. His lips moved as if in prayer, yet I heard nothing. I tried to speak to him, but he heard me not, for his ears and his heart were attuned to something greater than us all. I watched patiently, and in great sadness as Lopez loosened his grip on the cross. His hand fell softly by his side and he unblinkingly gave up the ghost. He was gone; gone to join the thousands that had went before him. I prayed for him and I thought of home and how I longed to return. I also thought of all the Lopez’s who never would return home. I wept bitterly, for it was then that I realized that hell had not only found me once, but twice.
After my wounds had healed, I was decorated, discharged and returned home.
When I got home, I noticed that little had changed in the year I had been gone. Yet, somehow, everything in an odd sort of way had changed. Mom still had that sad look in her eyes, which haunted me. The protest against the war had grown larger and more violent, but eventually, all this came to a conclusion. “Peace with honor” was proclaimed, and most Americans returned to the normality of their everyday life. Mom, passed away in 1975, two years after the war ended. Dad was never the same after that, and in 1982 he joined her and Danny on their eternal journey. Thirty six years have passed and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of those men in arms that made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and I pray for those today who have found their own hell, yet willingly give their all for freedoms call. Who ever it was who said “War is Hell”, surely had to be a soldier. For it is only through a soldier’s eyes, that the shades of darkness can so clearly be seen.
J. Allen Wilson © July 2006