CHAPTER Sixteen: A DEATH

    The early part of the week was quiet, with life on the refuge pretty routine. Done with trying to avoid each other for appearance’s sake, Greg and Vic spent time together whenever they could. Now that Greg has passed the “kissing test,” that action came easily and frequently. They didn’t overdo it (they still did worry a little bit about “appearance”), but both thought it was a nice addition to their communication skills.

   A phone call Thursday night changed a lot of things. Tim Johnson called Chuck to tell him that neither he nor Rusty would be at work the next day. They had just received word that their brother, Dave, had been killed in Viet Nam, apparently just days after he arrived there. They had no idea when there could be a real funeral, but they were going to have a memorial service at their sister’s home in town on Saturday.

   As soon as Vic was told, she rushed across to Greg’s house, barely waiting for him to open the door before she was in his arms, crying uncontrollably. Not knowing what was wrong, he moved them over to the armchair, and sat them down with her still holding on to him. He stroked her hair, and let her sob for awhile.

   “I’m sad for them,” she said, after finally telling him what was wrong, “But I also know this has to be especially hard for you, right now. I didn’t want you to find out first with a bunch of people. I thought you’d need some time.”

   He kissed her on the forehead. ‘Thank you for thinking about that. I picked the right girlfriend.”

   That made her smile. “You’re maybe a little confused about who picked who, but you’re welcome. I should get back, now. I sort of rushed out the door when I heard the news. They’ll be wondering what that was all about.” She didn’t move. Sitting on his lap in the overstuffed chair felt pretty good. She told him so. After an extended period of non-verbal communication, he walked her home.

 

   The memorial service on Saturday was low key, with people coming and going for several hours. When the house was mostly clear, they had a chance to talk to Tim. He had more news. “Rusty has decided to enlist, so he won’t be coming back to work.”

   That caught them all off guard. “Won’t that be awfully hard on your parents?” asked Alice.

   “It will be for Mom. Dad will take it differently, although he will have his heartaches and worries, too. He’ll keep them to himself.

   “Dad and Mom came to the United States from Norway only a few years before we kids were born, and Dad has a real immigrant-patriot outlook. Because the country granted us the right to come here, and be full-fledged citizens, we owe it to the country to be available whenever they need us. The Government says it needs us in Viet Nam, so we go, whatever the costs or the risks. I feel that way, too, and would go myself if Dad and Mom didn’t need me here. Don’t worry about the refuge work, though; I’ll continue as long as you need me.”

 

   Saturday-on-the-porch happened on Sunday. All the elements remained the same. Vic expressed concern about how all the Viet Nam business was affecting Greg.

   “As you anticipated, it’s been a little rough, mentally. My worries about dying or being seriously injured became suddenly glaringly real. But I don’t think I told you all that’s bothering me about Vietnam and the draft.”

   “So, tell me.”

   “Okay. First, I am definitely a peacenik. I don’t think I believe that there are any ‘just wars,’ or that anything has ever been really solved by going to war. I wonder about World War II, though. It has always been portrayed as a glorious event, in which the American population came together with much of Europe in a voluntary show of mass patriotism. We didn’t need a draft. The Nazis were a tangible  evil at work that needed us all to overcome them. We did. But I did a little research: In that war, over 400,000 Americans were killed, and maybe 700,000 more were wounded. In all – military and civilians, all countries included – some 75 million people died.

   “But then there’s the Korean War. We fought it for three years in the 1950s, and I’ve heard that maybe 40,000 American servicemen died and 100,000 more were wounded. They say that millions of Koreans – soldiers and civilians – died. What was the result? Pretty much nothing. The war never officially ended; we just came home!

   “And now Viet Nam. The French and the Vietnamese had been fighting pretty much forever. We got involved sometime in the early ‘50s, I guess, when we started sending military people to train the South Vietnamese how to fight. The French pulled out about that time, and it’s been our war ever since. I don’t know if anybody knows how many U. S. soldiers are over there – I’ve heard estimates of 15,000 – but we’re not training anymore; we’ve doing the actual fighting.

   “Why are we there? Like in Korea, we’re told that we’re there to stop the spread of Communism. I don’t know how we do that by killing and dying. I don’t even know what that means! If we can’t even define our objectives in tangible terms, is it really worth fighting for - worth dying for?

   “Even before the current war, my generation was required to register with Selective Service - and we knew philosophically that we might be drafted – but we had lived through many years of ‘peace.’ The likelihood of being called to service had always been extremely low, particularly if one was in college. Now, here we were just graduated, or on the verge of graduation - many of us newly married - ready to begin our real move into adulthood, and Uncle Sam was about to put our lives on hold (if not actively jeopardizing them) for a war in a country we had hardly heard of. ‘Just’ or ‘unjust’ war be damned; we're irate, worried, and scared for ourselves.”

   “Wow,” she said, as he paused.

   “Wow, indeed. But here’s what I really wanted to tell you. I know that I don’t want to fight anybody – I don’t think I could try to kill anybody, without a really strong reason - and I definitely don’t want to spend any time in the military for any reason. Everything I know about the armed services is that they want to de-individualize and then dehumanize recruits. They want people who will follow orders without question. That’s not me. Not only do I not want to be in that environment, I seriously doubt that I could survive in it. After many years of searching for who I really am, I have finally become comfortable with me, and I can’t see me buckling under to regimentation of the military sort.

   “I can see that.”

   “So, here’s what I’m thinking for me – and for us. I’m going to try not to worry – or to worry minimally – and just keep living. Maybe I’ll never be called. If I am, then hopefully you and I together can come up with the right decision – for us, together. How’s that sound?”

   “It sounds like probably the best we can do.”

***

   In the office Monday morning, Chuck and Greg discussed upcoming events.

   “Does not having Rusty here make any difference in your confidence to handle things while I’m gone?” asked Chuck.

   “I don’t see why it would. Most of the work we have to do doesn’t require more than two people, and a lot can safely be done by one. Tim will rag me mercilessly about my poor mechanical and maintenance skills, but I think we can both live with that. And I am getting better.”

   “Okay. Well, my plan is to leave next Saturday, and be back here before the Fourth of July weekend, probably July 1st or 2nd. I’ll leave you some phone numbers and addresses, in case you want to talk to me about anything. But I don’t know what I could do about anything that came up.”

   “I expect we’ll be okay.”

 

  Later that day, Greg talked to Alice in private about a plan he was formulating.

   “I’d love to do something special for Vic’s birthday. One day, we were talking about when she saw the movie version of ‘My Fair Lady’ in Boise. She was saying how much she’d love to see a real live stage play of it. ‘My Fair Lady’ doesn’t seem to be around anywhere close, but a week and a half after her birthday, there’s going to be an actual Broadway cast production of ‘Carousel’ in Salt Lake. ‘Carousel’ has a good story, and lots of good music. It’s only a couple hour’s drive down there. I could take her and Mandy to Salt Lake; stay in a hotel near the theater; have a nice dinner; see the play; have a nice breakfast; and be home the next afternoon.

   “Is that something you and Chuck would agree to?”

   Alice didn’t answer immediately. “The girls would have a room by themselves?”

   “Of course.”

   “And it’s a week and a half after Victoria’s birthday?”

  “Yes. That would mean it wouldn’t interfere with any family things you planned for her birthday, and it would extend the celebration.”

   “I think it would be okay,” Alice said, tentatively. “We’ve already started planning for a birthday party in town with her friends, but the party is on her actual birthday. I’ll talk to Chuck about Salt Lake.”

   “Thanks, Alice. Two things: one, I need an okay before you leave on vacation. I suspect I better get ticket reservations as soon as possible. It will probably be popular. Second, let’s not mention anything about it to either girl, just in case I can’t get reservations. I don’t want anybody disappointed. Also, it will save the surprise to the very last minute.”

   Greg got their okay later that week. Chuck had suggested that they could pay for Mandy’s. share of expenses. “That would be fine, if you want to,” Greg told them. “But it won’t cost that much more. I don’t know when Mandy’s birthday is, but I’d be happy for it to be my late or early present for her, as well.”

 

***

   They had their Saturday-on-the-steps on Thursday evening.

  “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Vic asked, after they chatted about this and that for a while.

  “Didn’t we have this conversation once before, and I told you that I couldn’t know that until you were actually gone?”

  “Yes, but then I pressed you for a real answer, and you said that you would be bereft – bereft! – without me. So, has that changed?”

   He pretended to ponder the question. “Yes, it has changed. Now, I feel that I will be even bereft-er than I previously thought.”

   “Oh. Okay, well that’s good. But to help you with your bereft-ness, I have a present for you.” She gave him a framed photo of her on prom night. She was by herself (no date to cut out of the picture), in a sleeveless, all-white floor-length gown, with a modest scoop neckline, and a white bow under the bust. Although an all-white ensemble, her dark hair flowing around her shoulders, and her radiant smile, made it seem like Technicolor to Greg.

   He gazed at the picture for some time. “Are you sure you want me to have this, now? Are you sure you want to leave me alone, fantasizing about this marvelous creature for two weeks?”

  She looked pleased. “I’ll risk it.”

  He continued to look at the photo. “We still haven’t had our dance.”

  “No, we haven’t. Can you dance?”

  “Just barely. With anyone else, my performance would be a disaster. With you, I’ll be gliding some distance above the floor, so it really won’t matter what my feet are doing.”

   She linked her arm with his, and giggled. “Talking like that, you could make a girl fall in love with you.”

***

   And then it was Saturday, again. Vic arrived at his door a little earlier than usual. She slipped inside for a long hug and a slow kiss before she had to join the rest of her family, as they climbed into the family car. They waved to him as the car pulled away, and disappeared up the hill.

   Greg felt the bereft-ness beginning.



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