Just Doing My Job

by Sue K


Saigon, 1966

The blast overhead almost threw Commander Harriman Nelson off his feet. A shower of plaster, confetti and other materials began raining down. He glanced up from where he was crouched and swore softly. That was where his room had been. His room, his personal belongings, his inner sanctum in this chaos was gone, but then it couldn’t have been a sanctum since the Cong seemed to have found a way to bomb it.

“Commander, I think you’d better get in a safer place than that. There’s no telling just what might fall on your head,” a deep, slightly Southern accented voice nearby told him.

Harriman turned and saw an Army officer motioning him over to his side. Harriman complied. This was now his only uniform until he could report to his boat. The officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, Harriman noted, was about five inches taller than he was, with a round face that appeared slightly English/Irish in background. He wore a flattop popular in the Army these days. What the barber had left was black as coal. The eyes taking him in were an almost golden hazel. He appeared to be in his late forties and what could kindly be called robust. This man was definitely a desk jockey.

“Your hotel, Commander….” The larger man squinted. “Nelson?”

“It was,” Harriman said sourly, gazing back up toward what used to be his room.

“It still is,” the colonel said with a bark of laughter. “I move, on average, about once a month. The Cong put a bomb on one floor and me and my roommates are moved to another floor, while they rebuild the rooms that were damaged.”

“But what about your belongings?”

“Most of the time the bombs aren’t that big. Some of my stuff gets banged around, but I’ve been lucky. My room hasn’t had a direct hit.”

“I guess it would be doubly lucky since you aren’t ever in it at the time.”

This time the Army officer laughed heartily. “Why don’t we stop into the café over there and get some breakfast. By the time we’re done eating and talking, it will be time for me to report to duty and for you to get back inside the “President Hotel” and see what you have left.”

“All right, Colonel….” Nelson prompted.

“Patterson,” the older man said, tapping his nametag.

Nelson hadn’t been able to see it before, but he nodded. “Colonel Patterson.”

“Hell, just call me Pat. Everyone except my sister and parents call me Pat.”

Nelson smiled, liking the officer immediately. “And I’m Harriman. Just call me Harry. Most of my close friends do.”

“What brings you to this wonderful paradise?” Pat asked as he steered Harry toward a small café.

“I am getting a new assignment.” He pointed to the harbor where a flotilla of ships, large and small lay bobbing. While it wasn’t any kind of big secret that submarines saw duty here, it also wasn’t general knowledge. But he wasn’t lying. He was a liaison from the U.S. Department of the Navy to the Australian Navy, out to show them a bit of U.S. know-how and learn a bit of Australian savvy underwater. The Aussies had a greater presence of submarines here, especially the smaller ones. It was good PR and Harry was glad to see what other countries were doing in the way of submarine technology. And WESTPAC was happy, so everyone was happy.

“Then I can call you Captain?” Patterson asked, as they sat down at a rickety table in the tiny restaurant. Other military officers were already eating breakfast, seemingly unconcerned about the recent blast.

Harry smiled. “You may, but only because I have my own boat already. I’m going to be working with the Australians for a short while.”

“Boat?” But if Pat was going to say anything else, he decided against it. “What do you want to eat?”

“You seem to know your way around, Pat. Why don’t you order.”

The colonel nodded and called out to the cook, a small, wizened man slightly shorter than Harry. “Scrambled eggs and toast.” The cook smiled and bowed and then hustled to the back room.

“Scrambled eggs? They cook that up here?”

“Just wait and see,” was all Pat would say.

Harry wasn’t as up on the Army’s service patches, so he couldn’t tell just what field Patterson was in. But apparently Pat was aware of the direction of Harry’s gaze. “I am one of the most popular men around here—once a month, that is. Comptroller’s office.”

Harry nodded and smiled. It was always wise to be on good terms with the paymaster. “How much time you have left?”

“Too much,” Pat said, his mood darkened in an instant. His eyes seemed to become more gold-flecked in their somberness.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to….”

“No, not your fault, Harry. Do you have a family?”

“No. I’m not married.”

Pat pulled out a couple of pictures. The woman was equally dark-haired, but the boy in her lap had light brown hair. And he was small. The girl looked to be almost a teen-ager. Both gazed happily from their photos. Then Pat pulled out what looked to be a graduation photo of another boy. “This will be the second time I have been away when one of my children was a baby. The second time.” He pointed at the older boy. “He wasn’t even crawling when I left for the Philippines at the end of WWII. He was walking and beginning to talk when I came home.” He put the pictures of his two oldest children away, keeping the picture of the youngest one out. “And the littlest one? He was born six weeks early. Great Lakes Naval Hospital. I was stationed at Ft. Sheridan then. It was a good post; for all that the old man was a bit crazy.” He laughed in his reminiscing. “The colonel had a fetish about the historic tower there. Had a replica made to sit in front of his office at HQ.” Then he softly caressed the picture, his finger stopping on the baby. “He was a month old before I could hold him in my arms without the gloves, protective clothing and all that hospital stuff. Got him home and the first thing he does is pee in my face while I’m changing him. He was so tiny.” Patterson sat quietly for a moment. There was the noise outside—honking horns, bells on bicycles, voices in a language that Harry had no knowledge of. It was all seemingly muted.

“He looks very healthy now,” Harry finally said. “Is this a recent picture? Your wife is very pretty, too.”

“Just small. The doctors said he would be for a while. Yeah, thank God, he’s healthy. But his daddy is here, across the Pacific. And thanks; she is pretty, isn’t she. Almost twenty-five years later and still beautiful. Prettiest legs at the Army Depot,” he said reflectively. “I wish I had just taken my retirement as a major and told them to go to hell when they gave me this assignment.” The cook laid two bowls of rice on the table and then a plate with egg foo yong in front of each man. A fork and spoon were placed next to the chopsticks for the benefit of the Americans.

“Egg foo yong?” Harry asked, incredulous.

“The Vietnamese version of scrambled eggs. You get rice with it, whether you ask for toast or biscuits,” Pat explained. “But even though it’s not sausage and gravy, it’s pretty good. Dig in and forget my ugly mood.”

“Don’t worry about it. I can imagine just how depressing it is to be away from family.”

“Yes, you can imagine, Harry, but until you actually have one….” He ate a few bites and then looked reflectively out the window. “We didn’t think it would be that tough. Just one year. Wife and kids being watched over by my parents. Just one year, then I would have a couple of cushy assignments, and then retire with over thirty years. Maybe even get another promotion. Nice nest egg, buy a place, enjoy the rest of my life and family.” He set his fork down and gazed meaningfully at Harry. “But was it worth it? Was this short year in this damned hell-hole worth it, looking at the laundry lady like I look at my wife, seeing the kids on their mother’s hips and wondering what new milestone mine has reached.” He shook his head.

Harry thought he saw something deep inside this military man in front of him; something he felt himself. “Was that the only reason you accepted this assignment, Colonel?” he asked softly, his own breakfast ignored for the moment. “Money and rank?”

Patterson drew in a deep breath and then shook his head. “No. I also accepted the assignment for the same reason I have accepted all of my assignments, good or bad.” He was silent for a long time. “I don’t quit because things are tough.”

“Duty, honor, commitment,” Harry murmured. “And you love the service.”

Patterson smiled softly at him. “I suppose I do.”

“Yeah, even when it’s not popular. We do it because it’s our job. It’s what we chose to do a long time ago, never thinking that sometimes our decision might have some painful consequences.”

Patterson gazed at him gratefully. “I guess I just have the Army in my blood.”

Nelson laughed softly. “And I have the sea in mine.” He took a bite of the ‘scrambled eggs.’ “You never did say when you’re going back home.”

“Two months.”

“Pat, I will be thinking of you in two months and envying you that pretty wife and those beautiful kids. What a wonderful thing to go home to.”

“I keep hearing that they are the reason that we do things like fight wars.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry said contemplatively. Patterson looked at him, puzzled. “I mean, not the wordy, patriotic things you always hear.” He took a deep breath. “Someday your kids are going to think about you and feel pride because their dad was handed something unpleasant and he didn’t flinch. He just did it and did it well. Congratulations, Colonel Patterson, that’s some legacy.”

The older man said nothing for a few minutes. Finally both men got up and went to the old cook. “My dime,” Patterson said, handing the cook some of the local currency. He turned to Harry as they walked out. “Thanks, Commander. I hope someday that you have kids. I know they’ll say the same thing about you.”

Harry nodded his thanks and the two men parted. There was something heroic about the colonel, even if he was what the front line men called a desk jockey. He was glad he had met Patterson.


Author’s Note:

Not everyone in a war is a frontline soldier, but all who have answered the call to serve, all who had made the decision to ‘do the job’ are heroes. My father, Lt. Col. Edwin F. (Pat) Patterson, was just such a hero. He will always be my hero.




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