by John Engelman

Copyright© 2018 by John Engelman

Romantic Story: A Vietnam veteran remembers an unforgettable woman. I am submitting this story to commemorate Veterans' Day. When music is mentioned, you can copy the web address of the video to the address bar to hear the music.

Tags: Ma/Fa   Heterosexual   Historical   Military   Tear Jerker   War  

Fog covered the top of the Washington Cathedral that Sunday afternoon in fall as I climbed the steps beneath the North Rose Window. I remember hearing the Cathedral bells, high above, lost in fog, announcing the beginning of the Evening Worship Service. I was also aware of the wound left by an AK-47 round when my platoon was nearly overrun in Vietnam. That sounds heroic. It felt differently. When I was in the field I was tired, uncomfortable, and afraid most of the time. I simply tried to survive. I also tried to remember why I had gone. What I went over to prove about myself did not matter when I came back. What I went over to escape from was waiting for me when I did.

As I reached the top of the stairs an elderly gentleman gave me a program for the day’s services. He wore a dark blue topcoat over what I somehow assumed to be a three-piece suit. He seemed to have lost weight as he got older, and what had once been craggy, aristocratic good looks now appeared tired.

I took the program and entered the Cathedral. The floor, which I remembered from childhood to be concrete, had been recently paved with brown and tan marble tiles. The Cathedral does not have pews, but wooden chairs. I reclined into one of them feeling an exhaustion that sleep could not cure. The Cathedral choir was singing “Bogoroditse Devo” from the Rachmaninov Vespers. I still have the program for the service. The ethereal strains rose to the ribbed ceiling of the Cathedral like souls of the dead rising above a cemetery.

Closing my eyes I remembered a time in Vietnam when I regained consciousness on a battlefield after the guns had gone silent. The sounds of birds, monkeys, and insects, which disappear when the shooting starts, merged with the scents of vegetation, both alive and dead. There was also the heat, always the heat, and my thirst.

I did not want to call out, because I did not know who had won the encounter, and who, as a result, owned the field. I was afraid that if I tried to move part of my body, that part would turn out to be no longer belong to me, or else be horribly damaged. Then I considered that the only pain I felt was an ache in my head. That made sense, because I had been knocked unconscious. When I tried to move my toes, I felt them move in my combat boots. I knew I had toes, feet, and legs. Doing that with my fingers, I learned the same about them, my hands, and arms.

Quietly sitting up, I drank from my canteen, and located my M-16. The magazine still had twenty rounds. I removed an extra magazine from my belt, so that I could get to it in a hurry. What I did not have was any enthusiasm for more fighting. Nevertheless, Charlie rarely took prisoners. I did not want to be killed without a fight. I turned the selector lever forward from the SEMI to the AUTO position. That way, I could be sure of getting one or two of them. Considering my circumstances, I did not need to save my ammunition.

For good measure, I fixed my bayonet to the end of my rifle.

It would last a minute. I would empty my magazine, and try to load the next one. If they gave me a chance to surrender, I would. If they did not, I would fight. If I fought, I would die. I could not shoot them all.

I thought of what they would do to my body. For me, there would be no funeral in the church where I grew up, no burial at Arlington National Cemetery, no taps, no rifle salute. Worse yet, there would be no closure for my parents. I would be missing in action. As long as they lived, they would hope against hope that I was still alive, that I would come home.

I lay on my back, cradling my rifle. It felt like hours. It might have only been thirty minutes. I heard men walking through the jungle. When I heard English in the accents of the American south, relief poured over me like the Potomac River at Great Falls. Corpsmen were looking for lives to save.

The only other man they found who was still alive was a Viet Cong. He was wounded more seriously than I was. Because the U.S. Marine Corps does take prisoners, the corpsmen patched him up, and put him in the medevac helicopter that took both of us to a field hospital.

All that I needed were a few stitches in my forehead. They kept me at the hospital three days for observation. The second day I was there I asked a nurse to get me a package of dried fruit. I walked over to see how the Viet Cong was doing. His doctor told me that he would recover, “except for a few picturesque scars to show the folks back home.”

I gave him the package of dried fruit. He took it with the hand that was not bandaged. Understanding what I was doing, he relaxed and said, “American. Thank you.”

That may have been all the English he knew. If I knew Vietnamese I would have told him that I lacked enthusiasm for the orders I was required to carry out. I would also have said that my presence in his country was the result of a number of mistakes, including my own.

I envied him. He would not be treated gently in a prisoner of war camp. He would not be killed. Unlike me, perhaps, he would live to return to his family. For him, the war was over.

For me, the war ended 153 days later, when a passenger jet took me to Washington National Airport. Out in the field, when I was counting down the number of days until my return to “the world,” which was what we called the United States, the bar at Washington National Airport attained mythic proportions. That was because I had stopped there before leaving for Vietnam. For me, that bar symbolized surviving the war. I kept trying to remember what it looked like. I imagined myself sitting there, drinking a glass of wine, telling people about my adventures.

Now that I was there, everything felt anti-climatic. Contrary to urban legend, no one spit at me, or called me a baby killer. I might have appreciated the attention. There I sat in my freshly laundered and ironed Marine uniform, with my lance corporal stripes. My shoes were so shiny you could see your reflection in them. I had my campaign ribbon from Vietnam, a marksmanship badge, a National Defense Service Medal, a Combat Action Ribbon, a good conduct ribbon given somewhat gratuitously, and a Purple Heart with a Gold Star. I earned that.

No one cared. When I got to the bar, a pretty girl was sitting by herself. Because she did not look back at me, I tried, with considerable effort, and less success, not to look at her. Her boy friend came for her. He was a civilian, wearing a modish business suit, with a broad, floral tie. They shared a drink, and a kiss, and left.

Another pretty girl walked by without stopping. Because she made a point of looking straight ahead, I did not try to talk to her.

A young man about my age sat down. He looked the way I thought a student radical would look, with longish hair, a mustache, a blue worker’s shirt, and worn, blue, bellbottom trousers. I smiled at him somewhat awkwardly, and said, “Hi.” I wanted to tell him that I more or less agreed with the opinions that I projected onto him, or was at least willing to consider agreement. He also avoided talking to me.

Finally, my father came to drive me home. Dad had fought in World War II. He was good at controlling his emotions. So was I. “Hi, Rodger,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Hi, Dad,” I replied, “How’s Mom?”

“She’s fine. Do you have everything?”

“It’s over there,” I said, pointing to my sea bag.

I tipped the bartender with a one dollar bill. The bartender tapped it on the counter twice, and said, “Welcome home, Marine.” He had short, blond hair, a white shirt, open at the neck, and looked the right age to have fought in Korea. He knew.

As the service began I became aware of a young lady about seven rows of chairs ahead of me. Her reddish-blond hair flowed gently over her shoulders. In an Episcopal service one frequently changes one’s position from sitting to standing, to kneeling, and back again. Thus I was able to observe that her skin was fair enough to seem translucent, and that her body was almost too thin, but well-proportioned. This was covered by a modest blue dress that turned her appearance into a tasteful advertisement.

While putting on her coat when the service was over, she unexpectedly turned around and looked at me. She even seemed to like what she saw. I was not sure why. I was wearing a white shirt and tie, but they obviously had not been purchased at Woodward and Lothrop. My Navy pea coat showed its age and origins in an Army surplus store. My story happens during the late 1970’s. Poverty, being less obviously a choice than it had been ten years earlier, was no longer fashionable.

Also, I was embarrassed by my behavior. I had been staring at her. Turning away I walked in the opposite direction. Sometime later I found myself in the Cathedral Museum Shop that is underneath the nave of the Cathedral.

Walking along the shelves of books, crosses, and icons I found Why I am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell. I had discovered Russell when trying to make sense of the War in Vietnam and my experiences in it. Because I admired his political writings I removed the book from the shelf and began to skim the contents.

“You might find it interesting.” I looked up and into the eyes of the woman I had admired upstairs. They were as grey as the fog outside. Her face was as beautiful as the Cathedral itself.

“Did you enjoy reading it?” I asked.

“I found it interesting.”

“Do you agree?”

“I have reason to hope he is wrong.”

“So do I,” I said.

“What is it?”

“I would like to see my parents again, and Steve Reed.”

“Was he a friend of yours?”

“My best friend in Vietnam. He risked his life to save mine. Several days later I was unable to do the same for him.”

“That must have been terrible,” she said. “Are you angry about the way the War ended?”

“I’m just glad that it ended. Let’s say, I fought in Vietnam and lost.”

“You don’t look like a loser.”

“No man you smile at can feel like one. It must be getting dark outside. May I walk to your car with you?”

“Yes.” When I put the book back on the shelf, she asked, “You aren’t going to buy it?”

“I might come back for it.”

“I have a copy.”

“Where are you parked?”

“Along 36th Street.”

Together we climbed the circular stairs to the South Transept, and crossed the main floor to the North Entrance. The congregation had greatly thinned out, but some people were still inspecting statues and stain glass windows. I wanted them to think we were a couple.

I opened the door beneath the North Rose Window for her and we stepped out. The sky was darker. The fog was thicker. The air was colder and smelled like the inside of a refrigerator.

We walked along 36th Street passing the stately, early twentieth century homes. “Are we getting far from your car?” she asked.

“Actually I don’t have one,” I answered. “I walked over from Adams Morgan where I live.”

“A car can be a nuisance in the District,” she said. “You can always take a bus. Metro will be open in a few years.”

“I work the graveyard shift at the Airport Motel in Arlington. Usually I can ride my bicycle. Sometimes I walk.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to walk that late?”

“Compared with what?”

“Yes, I guess you’ve faced greater dangers.”

“I am not thinking about them now. What I am thinking is that this is a tony neighborhood, but it is too dark and foggy for a woman as beautiful as you are to be walking alone.”

She looked down at the sidewalk. “Thank you.”

Finally we came to her car, a dark blue Volkswagen station wagon. “My name is Roger Bancroft,” I said.

“I am Laurel. Laurel Armington.”

“May I call you sometime?”

She opened her purse, retrieved a business card, and wrote on the back of it by the light of a street lamp. “This is my phone number at home. If a man answers he is my father. I will have told him about you.”

“When may I call, Laurel?”

“Anytime you wish, Roger.” After smiling at me she turned around, got into her car, started it, and drove away. I stood in the street and watched until she disappeared into the fog.

Soon later I was walking along Connecticut Avenue on my way home. I did not, and could not know the people in the cars who drove by. Nevertheless, they were suddenly dear to me. The fog had grown so thick that I could not see them distinctly. In my mind’s eye I saw a portrait of Laurel on the horizon in front of me. That I could see very distinctly.

I continued to walk south along Connecticut Avenue, crossing Taft Bridge over a stretch of Rock Creek Park, which meanders through Washington as an urban wilderness. Then I turned left to get to my apartment in the Adams Morgan district.

I lived in what had been during the nineteenth century a town house for an upper middle class family. Now it was a rooming house. I served as manager for reduced rent. Each of the tenants had one room. We shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, and a pay telephone.

One of the tenants was Ken Johnson. He was in late middle age, and had spent much of his life in reform school and prison. The passions of youth, which had burned destructively for him, were ashes. He worked at an all night diner, and tried to salvage what remained of his life.

Bill Donnelly was an Army veteran of the Korean War. Like me he had been wounded. Unlike me he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Combat affects men differently. Some enjoy it. Some are permanently scarred psychologically, even if they are not hurt physically.

In my case, I simply did not want to do it again. Also, I no longer enjoyed watching war movies. Finally, I did not want to have anything more to do with guns. It may have made sense for me to buy a twelve gauge pump action shot gun. The Adams Morgan district had not been gentrified yet. Sometimes criminals would kick down the door to a house or apartment, kill everyone inside, and loot the place.

There were three other men whose names and circumstances I have forgotten. All of us worked for minimum wage, or little more.

Thomas Van Someran was a graduate student at Georgetown University. His social understanding and social skills were more useful in an academic environment than in a rooming house full of low income men who did not have much give in their personalities. Sometimes I had to intervene in a situation that was becoming dangerous for him.

I liked Thomas. He seemed to like me. After all, I had taken courses at Maryland University. I read good books. I shared his love for classical music.

I never told them about Laurel. Thomas might have become a successful rival. The others might have said something coarse.

When I got into my room, I looked at the card Laurel had given me. It was a business card for the Episcopal Ministry to the Aging, which had an office in what had been the Bishop’s Mansion next to the Washington Cathedral. Laurel was a social worker there.

Several days later, when no one else was in the rooming house I called Laurel’s telephone number. Her father answered. He had been told about me, and said, “Laurel will be glad to hear from you.” She was. We agreed to have lunch together the next week.

I was a little nervous walking to the Bishop’s Mansion where Laurel worked. My wardrobe, you understand, was limited. I wore what I had worn to the National Cathedral. So did she. I guess I was presentable. The receptionist actually seemed to look enviously at Laurel.

We walked four blocks to an Italian restaurant I knew that was on Wisconsin Avenue, and which played arias from Italian operas. When we entered, the restaurant’s music system was playing “E lucevan le stelle E “ which I recognized from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. In this Cavaradossi, who has been unjustly sentenced to death, thinks of the woman he loves, and sings:

After we entered the restaurant the maitre d’ greeted me and said, “Well, hello Roger.”

“Hi Ben,” I said. “We would like a table for two.”

“Of course,” Ben said. “Come this way please.”

When we were seated, but before she looked at the menu Laurel looked around and said, “I love this restaurant. Everything is so tasteful and elegant. I had no idea this restaurant was so near my office. I am impressed.”

“Actually, the people who work here are impressed,” I said. If I may say so, they are impressed with you.”

“You may.”

“They know me, but in the past I have come alone.”

“Do you come often?” Laurel asked.

“Not really, only enough times for them to remember me.”

“That should have only taken one visit.”

“Tell me about your job.”

“The Episcopal Ministry to the Aging helps elderly church members who lack other support systems. I make home visits, and visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and senior citizens apartments. Sometimes I am the only visitor they have. I have held several while they died. I find it satisfying. I think I would enjoy growing old.”

“There have been times when I wanted to get one day older.”

“I can imagine. Tell me about your job.”

“There is not much to say. I work the graveyard shift at the Airport Motel in Arlington. When I get there I compute the daily transcript while listening to Johnny Carson. Then I read while listening to music on WETA or WGMS. Customers usually stop coming after about 2:00 AM. The owner lets me take a nap behind the counter until people begin to check out around 6:00.

“If I stay at the job I will try to take courses in hotel management.”

I did not tell her about the time two teenagers walked in and robbed me at gunpoint. They only had one pistol. If I thought the youth with the gun was going to use it I was going to try to grab the barrel, and bend it back against his finger, breaking the bone. I probably could have taken both of them. Fortunately, all they wanted was the money in the cash register.

After that happened, the owner of the motel fixed up things so that I could take money or credit cards from guests and give them keys without letting them into the motel office.

A week later I was asked to come to a police station and look at photos of possible suspects. There were several who looked similar to the robbers, but I was not sure.

I have also been mugged several times. Once, two police officers beat me up in South East Washington, near Capitol Hill. I never knew why they did it. I wore a beard back then, and my hair was longer than it has been since. Maybe they thought I was someone else. They left quickly after looking at my drivers’ license. I never reported the incident. There were no witnesses. They had taken off their badges, so I could not identify them. Low income people live dangerous lives.

When I walked back to the Bishop’s Mansion with Laurel I asked if I could see her again. She said I could.

Two weeks later I learned that Mitch Snyder of the Community for Creative Non Violence was going to speak at the Potter’s House. This was and is a coffee house on Columbia Road near Sixteenth Street. It was started in 1960, and served various kinds of coffee like cappuccino and café au lait. Before Starbucks there was the Potter’s House.

The Potter’s House used to have half hour talks by various people on various subjects. These would begin at 7:00 PM on Monday. They would be followed by a half hour question and answer period. The talks were recorded, and broadcast later on in the week on WETA.

I had learned about the Community for Creative Non Violence at an earlier talk at the Potter’s House. At that time the CCNV was, if you can imagine such a thing, a Roman Catholic urban commune engaged in anti war activism. They lived in a brownstone mansion off Washington Circle near George Washington University. Sometimes I would attend folk masses there on Sunday afternoon. More recently they had moved to 14th Street, NW.

When I asked Laurel if she would like to listen to Mitch’s talk she said it sounded interesting, and said she would like to introduce me to her father.

I could have borrowed Thomas’ car, but Laurel and her father drove to the Potter’s House by themselves. Mr. Armington had a lively face that projected intelligence. He was lean. Although he may have been about sixty years old, his body had an energy that seemed to emanate from his mind.

When we entered the Potter’s House the sound system was playing “In the Early Morning Rain,” with Peter, Paul, & Mary.

When we were seated Laurel told me that her father taught classical languages at Georgetown University.

“When I was at the University of Maryland,” I began, “we read Homer’s Iliad in a literature class. I liked the part where King Agamemnon said to the Greek soldiers, ‘Men we’re never going to take Troy. Our families fear for our lives. Too many of us have died. Let’s go home.’ That was the way a lot of us felt in Vietnam.”

“The soldiers started to run back to their ships. Of course, Agamemnon did not really mean that. He expected his men to demand to stay and fight. As they ran he ran with them and said, ‘Hey wait a minute’.”

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