And to All a Good Night

by Sue K.

 

 

“And where is the Admiral?” Angie Seymour asked the two casually dressed men standing by the punch bowl.

“He told me last week he had something he wanted to do alone this Christmas,” Lee Crane replied. “Wouldn’t say what it was.”

“I hate it when he doesn’t tell us where he is going to be. Especially for this long a time,” Angie grumbled.

“To be honest, I do, too,” Chip Morton agreed.

“He’s a big boy, though,” Lee conceded. “And doesn’t have to answer to any of us.” But it was obvious he was as worried as the other two.

 

                *******

 

Rain pelted on the concrete overhead. Water dripped from the girders. In the space below one side of the overpass a sleeper cursed and moved farther under. The two men on the other side ignored the outburst. The rain and rumbling overhead made conversation difficult but not impossible.

“Hope you’re not wanting a permanent relationship,” the gray haired man said with a chuckle. The chuckle turned into a hacking cough.

His companion’s eyes widened as he reached into his inner coat pocket and handed him a cough drop.

“Thanks. I have to admit, though, I sure don’t mind the little extras you’ve managed to bring with you.”

“I know you’re a vet like me.” The visitor shrugged and rubbed the reddish stubble on his chin. “We understand where we’ve been and why we’re here.”

“Glad you know,” the first man grumbled. “Hell, I think I’m rooming with a philosopher.”

With a chuckle, the auburn haired man pulled out a pack of cigarettes and handed one to his friend. He pulled out a tarnished cigarette lighter. “You can find philosophy on a cereal box if you look hard enough.” He lit both cigarettes and took a long draw on his. He saw the other man staring at the lighter. “What happened out there, Michael?”

“We’ve been sharing the same concrete for almost two days and I’ve never told you my name,” Michael growled. He took the lighter from his companion’s hand and studied it. “You a cop? Where’d you get this?”

There was a shake of the head. “No, not a cop. You know that as well as the answer to the second question.”

Michael groaned and rubbed his eyes. A sheen of sweat on his forehead emphasized his sallow complexion.

“You okay?” the auburn-haired man asked.

“Quit asking me that! You a shrink?”

His friend laughed, took another drag on his cigarette and then flicked it out into the rain. “Quit denying what your brain is telling you. You know me, Michael. You know me more than you know them,” he said, pointing to the men on the other side of the overpass.

Michael stared. “That laugh is familiar. I, uh, who are you? I mean, what’s your name?”

“Michael, it’s me, Harry.”

Michael squinted his good eye, studying his companion even harder. “I told you to leave me alone.”

“You told an admiral to leave you alone. I am not here as an admiral. I’m here as your friend.” Harry pulled out another cigarette. It was slightly bent. He grumbled and shoved it back in.

“Leave me alone, Harry. I don’t want anyone….

“I know. Your friend over there told me that a couple days ago.”

“Should have listened to him.”

“And you should know I am not a fair weather friend. I may have lost touch with you over the years, but you have always been my friend and I am not going to abandon you.” They sat in silence for several minutes. Harry could hear the rattling of Michael’s breath, the soft moan with each intake of air. “You remember the time we set up the pyrotechnics display in the gym?” Harry asked in a soft voice.

Michael gave a wheezing laugh. “Half-time at the basketball game between East and Bainbridge. Yeah, I remember. They never did figure out who it was.”

“I think your father may have guessed, but he was kind enough to not say anything,” Harry said with a chuckle. “You remember the rowing competition?”

Again Michael laughed, holding his sides. “Cut it out, Harry.”

“No one ever figured out who made that tiny engine they found on the hull. We were too sneaky.  ‘Course we were disqualified.”

There were several more minutes of companionable silence.

“We were lucky,” Michael quipped.

“The only difference between us, my friend, is luck. I’ve been very lucky,” Harry mused.

Michael pitched his cigarette out into the rain where it hissed before dying. “Hell, Harry, the only difference between us is you’re smarter.”

Harry was glad Michael didn’t bring up the fact that they had been in entirely different social stratas. He shook his head. “In many ways you’re smarter than me. I have created things. You created relationships.”

Michael stiffened. “You see any relationships here? Where….?” His thought was lost in a spasm that left him doubled over.

Harry laid a hand on his friend’s back, steadying him. “I have my things,” Harry murmured. “You have a beautiful daughter and a strappin’ son who thinks his father walks on water.”

Michael snorted. “He hasn’t seen me lately.”

“Karen still loves you, Michael and wouldn’t let your children think any less of you.” Harry took a deep breath. “She doesn’t understand what happened.”

“What? Sure she loves me,” Michael said caustically. “Like always telling me to go to a shrink or counselor.”

Harry said nothing. He understood where Michael was coming from. He had balked when Jamie insisted he and Lee see someone after . . . Krueger.

“How the hell could some soft couch doctor be able to help me deal with everything I saw and did over there? Most of them never saw anything worse than a stopped up toilet.”

Another good point, Harry conceded.

Michael went through another coughing fit, this one almost blacking him out. The rain and Michael’s ragged breathing were the only sounds Harry could focus on for several heartbeats. He cringed at the frailty in his friend’s voice. The report from the VA doctor’s was correct. Michael was dying. Harry wanted desperately to take his friend to the nearest hospital for his own good. He couldn’t. In the end the only thing Harry could do was to be with him. The disguise had been part of that. If Michael hadn’t been so sick, he’d have seen through it immediately.

Something heavy rumbling overhead broke into his thoughts. He and Michael had been inseparable as boys, despite their disparate backgrounds. They had celebrated each other’s victories; Harry’s graduation from the academy and Michael’s graduation from OCS. It was only when Michael went to Vietnam that they drifted apart. By then Harriman was in command of his own submarine and dreams. Michael was slogging through jungles and trying to keep his men and himself alive.

 “Seen them lately?” Michael asked. “You know that was a pretty sorry trick—you coming down here to spy for them.”

Resentment flickered but was extinguished at the hurt look in his friend’s face. “They don’t know where you are, Michael. I thought I recognized you about two months ago and did some checking.” Harry pulled out the bent cigarette and tried to light it. It wouldn’t. He threw it away in disgust. “When I talked to Karen she told me how worried she was; how much she wanted to hear your voice. I didn’t tell her anything except I’d pass the word along if I saw you.”

Michael frowned and waved his hand dismissively. “So she doesn’t know about this?”

“I think she suspects but not from me. You know you could call her and she’d be none the wiser.”

Michael pondered a moment and then shook his head.

“You could tell her you were whooping it up at my place. You always did have a soft spot for my Scotch.”

Michael’s grin turned to a grimace. “I gave that up a year or so ago.” His voice grew softer. “Did she tell you I hit her when I got drunk?”

Harry shook his head.

“That was one of the reasons I left. I couldn’t stand the thought that I might do that to her again or worse, do it to the kids.”

“But you said you had given it up,” Harry said encouragingly.

“It wasn’t just the booze. It was everything—the nightmares, not being able to hold a job. The looks from people when they found out I had been in ‘Nam. We lived near a college in those days. That made it even worse.”

Harry had been spared most of that, but it still rankled knowing that the men who had fought over there were sometimes treated like lepers. “Those idiots have s… for brains. You don’t have to apologize to anyone.”

“You can tell Karen that I whooped it up after I’m gone, Harry. I don’t want anyone seeing me die.”

“I’m not just anyone. I’m your friend. Since we were boys,” he reminded his companion. He tapped out another cigarette in his nervousness. “And no one should die alone, especially at Christmastime.”

“Huh? It’s….?”

“Two days before, actually.”

“Jeez, Harry, you’ve got your family and friends.”

“Whom I work with everyday. I want to be here with you right now.”

Several people walked out of the foggy rain. They split up and two climbed up the embankment toward them.

“Salvation Army,” muttered Michael. “You’d better high-tail it out of here. The press would have a field day if they knew who you were.”

“You didn’t even recognize me for almost two days,” Harry reminded him. “There’s no one at my condo, Michael. Come on, let’s have a quiet evening. Talk about old times. If you don’t want to stay there, you can leave.”

Michael dug at some mud clinging to his pants. “I think I’d like that, but no hospitals.”

“No hospitals.”

“Even if I get sick.”

You’re already sick, Harry thought. “No hospital. I promise,” was all he said.

Michael gazed at the men on the other side of the overpass. One of them waved as he got up to leave with the Salvation Army workers.

“And when I’m gone, could you also come and check on Bill every once in a while? He’s been a good friend these past few months.”

Harry nodded, swallowing past the lump that seemed to be stuck in his throat. “Sure.”

The workers reached them. A middle-aged man and woman. “My friend here invited me to his house,” Michael said before either of them could say a word. They looked skeptical.

Harriman pulled out his keys and jingled them. “I promise. It’s a decent house with hot and cold water.”

“We just want everyone to be comfortable this time of year,” the woman said.

Harry nodded. “I appreciate that. We will be.”

The man looked ready to disagree, but changed his mind. They moved away to talk to others scattered under the overpass.

Harry got up and stretched like a satisfied cat. “Come on, Michael, let’s go get dry.”

“My leg’s gone all stiff, Har…. Hurts.”

“No problem. Just lean on me.” Harry helped his friend to his feet. Michael wavered and Harry wasn’t sure if he could stand, much less walk.

“Do you need a doctor?” one of the workers asked, turning back.

“No!” Michael shouted and then softened his tone. “No, I’ll be fine with my friend.” He stood up straight. “I just should’ve started before this rain came.”

Leaning heavily on Harry, Michael made it to the car. They were both soaked by the time they reached it. Harry cranked the heat on high. His friend was slumped in the seat, ashen from exertion.

The drive to his condo was uneventful. Michael visibly relaxed as the car warmed. The only glitch came at the Institute gate where the guard on duty looked ready to question Harry’s companion. “An old friend. Recovering from a bout of pneumonia.” It was the truth, just not all of it. His admiral’s glare curtailed any other questions.

When Harry pulled into the garage under his condo, Michael stirred. “Your place?”

“Yes. Told you I was bringing you to my house.”

“Old habits die hard. I just don’t want to die in a hospital.”

“No worse than dying out in the rain under an overpass.”

“Which is where I’ll be if you rag me, Harry,” Michael growled.

“Let’s go inside and get into dry clothes. I’ll fix something warm and we can relax in the living room.”

Harry led his friend to his bathroom and pulled out a jogging suit and clean underwear. Michael was slightly taller, and thinner, but not enough to make a difference. “I have a new razor, and a toothbrush in the first drawer if you want to use them,” Harry instructed. “Towels in the closet. Use whatever you want. I’m going to fix us some dinner.”

Michael just stood there looking at him for a moment. “You sure you want to do this, Harry? There’s so much you could be doing right now.”

Harry snorted. “I could be avoiding Jigg Starks’ eligible sister, too. That sound fun?”

Michael chuckled and then sobered. “Thanks, Harry. I, uh, I should’ve known you would be back.”

“Damn straight,” Harry growled. “Now what do you want for dinner?”

“What’ve you got?”

“I asked first,” Harry said in mock severity.

“Not all that hungry….”

“You sound like my captain when he’s stressed.” Lee and Michael were very much alike; strong and independent men who didn’t want coddling.

Michael gave a weak grin. “I kind of have a bit of hankering for meatloaf and mashed potatoes. If you have any.”

“Had my kitchen stocked while I was gone. Leave it to me. When you’re done in here, come on into the living room.” As he turned to leave, he added. “And if you’re too tired, just hit the rack for a bit until dinner.” Harry turned away before Michael’s look of gratitude became too much to take in. He wasn’t quite ready to deal with that yet.

As he dug through the refrigerator, Nelson thought about the first time they had met.  Back during the hard days of the depression. Harry’s family had done all right, but so many hadn’t. Michael’s father managed by doing odd work and selling firewood. One day, he brought Michael with him when he had been hired to do some work in the Nelson house. Harry was eager for someone his own age to play with and had dragged Michael off to the secret places Harry liked. They had played Buck Rogers as well as cowboys and Indians. Harry made sure to be in the attic among old trunks and boxes when he figured Michael’s dad was finished working and the search for the two boys had begun. That prolonged the fun. He was building Captain Nemo’s Nautilus when the housekeeper finally found them. Only the promise that Michael’s father had been hired to do more work reduced Harry’s disappointment when Michael was led away.

The friendship continued into the school year and beyond when Michael’s dad was permanently hired as a grounds keeper. Not only was Michael an avid follower in all of Harry’s schemes, but he was a phenomenal statistician and schemer in his own right. Harriman wouldn’t have had the experience of sneaking into the back of a circus tent or hopping a freight car if not for Michael.

Harry chuckled at the last. That had almost gotten Michael’s father fired. Bad influence, Father had stormed. Thankfully, Edith liked Michael, and Michael’s parents, too. So after a trip to the woodshed for the perpetrators, the grounds keeper stayed. There had been no more long distance excursions until they were old enough to do so legally.

Memories marched along as Harry pulled out ground beef, onions, seasonings and everything else to make a nice meal for the two of them. When he put the meat loaf in the oven and the potatoes on the stove to boil, he checked on his friend. Michael was sprawled across the bed, the extra blanket wrapped around him. For a moment Harry was alarmed that his friend wasn’t breathing, but the slow rise and fall of Michael’s chest reassured him.

It had taken Jamie’s influence, but Harry had finally gotten Michael’s medical report from the VA. It had confirmed his worst fears. Michael had cancer. Even if he hadn’t been indigent, it was too advanced to do anything, but to make the man comfortable. Harry had every intention of doing just that.

Seaview wasn’t due to head out until a week after New Year’s Day. While he hoped Michael lived longer than that, Harry wasn’t under any illusions. Michael was in his final days. He would make him feel at home, maybe help him make peace with his demons. Lord knew they all had them. It just seemed to him that some vets had many more than they deserved.

Michael began calling out orders, presumably to men he had led in ‘Nam. The orders became more frenetic and his voice louder. Harry moved closer to wake his friend when the cries became sobs. “No, not children. Not children!”

“Michael,” Harry said, laying a hand carefully on his friend’s shoulder.

Michael screamed and batted Harry’s hand away. He bolted upright and stared. It was obvious to the admiral that Michael wasn’t seeing him at first. Then the coughing started, the eyes focused and Michael recognized his friend.

“Michael?” Harry repeated, pulling up a chair. “What was it, Michael?”

The Army vet shivered and pulled the blanket closer around his body. “A village. A cong village. We knew how dangerous the mission was, but when the attack came, we didn’t know there’d be kids.”

“Bystanders? A lot of people use women and children as shields.”

Michael nodded. “Yeah, but some of them had guns. Kids about seven or eight were shooting at us. We didn’t have a choice.”

“You had to defend yourselves.”

“We had orders to sweep the village. Clear it. They wouldn’t surrender. None of them. One of the teens pulled out grenades, ordinance stolen from a depot. And the little kids and women. They wouldn’t run away or surrender either. We cleared the village. Oh, God forgive me, we cleared the village.” Michael buried his head into the blanket and sobbed until he was choking and gasping for breath.

Harry grabbed Michael’s shoulders and gripped tightly. The horror of Michael’s memories filled him with anguish. Harry remembered the gun in his hand as he followed Krueger’s orders. His heart twisted with grief. “Michael, you had to protect your men. You had to do whatever you needed to do to protect your men.” He gripped harder and softly shook the frail man until Michael looked up at him. “We have to protect our men. I know that sounds lame here—now, but it’s true.”

“Have you ever had….?”

Harry gulped and nodded. “Yes.”

“Women and children?”

“Not like you, but I probably have. I have had to leave men. I have had to destroy lives to save other lives. Michael, I had to make a choice.” Harry choked. He couldn’t say it; he couldn’t admit what he had done during the times he had been forced to make horrible decisions.

“No, Harry. No more. I . . . it’s enough to know that you understand and I understand.” He pulled one arm away and swiped his hand across his face. “For a while, I didn’t think anyone did. I know Karen didn’t. I couldn’t look at her and my kids and tell them what I had done.” He laid his free hand on Harry’s arm.  Friendship flowed through the fingers. Friendship bound the years. It bound mental scars that had separated the two men over the decades. “Let’s go into the living room and talk about that time we hopped the train to Pittsburgh.” He sniffed. “Besides, I think you’re burning something.”

Harry jerked around in alarm. The potatoes! He rushed into the kitchen and picked up the pot. The water had boiled out. He turned on the tap and ran water into the pot. Steam rose in a fog. When the hissing stopped, Harry put the pan on the counter and examined his neglect. By the time he had salvaged most of the potatoes and put them in a bowl to mash, Michael had joined him.

“Started them too soon, Karen would say.”

Harry grunted. “I should have known better. Believe it or not, I’m a better cook than that.”

“Don’t worry about it. We can have our meal in courses,” Michael suggested. “Besides, I want to hear how you got that sub of yours. I’ve always wanted to know how you swung that.”

So Harry talked during the meal, after the meal, and while Michael lay in bed, awake in pain. When he lagged, Michael reminded him of adventures or excursions during their childhood and Harry would talk some more. About the time Harry’s voice began giving out, Michael finally fell asleep. It was troubled, but the man continued sleeping long enough for Harry to nod off in an easy chair.

He woke hearing sounds of someone being sick in the bathroom. Harry looked at the clock, glanced at the window. It was Christmas Eve night; a couple of hours after midnight. He got up, intending to see if Michael needed help. He had reached the bedroom when his friend staggered out of the bathroom. Harry guided him to the bed.

“Jeez, Harry, I’m a mess. Can’t even keep that wonderful dinner down.”

“I can get you some soda to calm your stomach.”

“Stomach’s probably Swiss cheese. May be like those old cartoons. Soda coming out like a fountain,” Michael joked.

“If it tastes good, who cares?” Harry tried to return the joke. It was hard. Michael was going downhill fast.

“What day is it?”

“Christmas Eve.”

“When I’m gone, will you….?  Will you call the kids, Karen, my brother?”

“Would you like to call the kids now? Your son?”  He didn’t think Michael would be up to more than one call, even if he was willing.

First Michael shook his head, then he looked thoughtful. “If I decide to, would you help me make the call?”

“You know I would, my friend.”

“To Mike. Not Karen or Tiffany.”

Harry nodded.

“I don’t know what I would say to them.”

“I understand. Let me get that drink while you catch your breath. Then we can call whenever you’re ready.”

“It’s only five on the east coast.”

Harry shrugged. “You think your son would give a fig about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can make the call and hang up if he starts yelling,” Harry half joked. “Just like we did that time to Mr. Jackson.”

Michael chuckled. “He really was an ass, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was, but he had a mean aim with a BB gun.”

“You ever get that shot out of your butt?”

Harry remembered the excursion skinny-dipping in Jackson’s fish pond and laughed. “Yeah, it finally came out.” His mother had investigated why he hadn’t wanted to sit down to eat. A pen knife and mercurochrome . He rubbed his butt in remembrance and grimaced. “Let me get that drink,” he said to change the subject. Michael grinned like a Cheshire cat before lying down.

The day went like that. Michael would almost get the nerve to call his son and then back out. Finally an hour before dark, Michael made the call. Father and son talked for only a short time, as Michael didn’t have much breath. At the end, Harry was gratified to hear Michael’s choked off ‘I love you, too, son,’ before the phone click signaled the end of the conversation.

Michael didn’t say much else after that. Throughout the night, Harry sat by his friend’s bedside, occasionally giving him something to wet his mouth and wiping off the sweat. At Michael’s prompting, Harry would recount memories of their time together, mainly Christmases. Michael seemed to slip back in time to each of these years. Finally, the breathing slowed. Michael’s trembling hand reached for him and Harry held on to it. The fingers were cold.

“Thank you . . . Harry. Thank you for being . . . my . . . friend…. Not giving up . . . on me.”

“And you, me.”

An hour later, Michael breathed his last. Harry carefully laid his friend’s hand on his chest. He sat by Michael for several more moments, then picked up the phone. “Jamie? Sorry to bother you on Christmas Day, but….”

“We both knew, Admiral,” Jamison interrupted. “I’ll be right there.”

In the time it took the CMO to arrive, Harry had shaved his friend and combed his hair. He looked serene. Michael was finally at peace; the nightmares gone at last. Harry was content.

 

******

Some background—

I have not done the research, but do know from reading, seeing documentaries, etc. that many of today’s older homeless are veterans, mainly of the Vietnam War. While not all, or even most, vets became homeless, many carried and still carry scars of the campaigns they were part of. Vets have different ways of coping with their experiences. Some I know have spoken out, or written about their experiences, many have turned to God, or maybe it was God that sustained them during those times. Some turned to alcohol or drugs; or weren’t able to hold down jobs for any length of time. Marriages and other relationships often suffered.

It has only been since Desert Storm that the doctors and psychologists have really begun to see correlations between wartime activities and psychological problems occurring after the service is long ended.  There are now terms, therapies, and support, but former servicemen still fall through the cracks. It’s a long hard road and I would like to think there are real life equivalents of Harriman Nelson who would not only lend their support to the one needing their help, but to the cause of helping our veterans feeling cared for.

Vietnam vets were a forgotten and abused group of people. Hopefully that travesty will never happen again.

I would be remiss if I did not thank Helen H., a veteran herself, for her invaluable help. She gave so many suggestions to fine tune the story that added immensely to the continuity and impact of this tale. slk