2016 EDITOR’S CHOICE for FICTION
The Camo Jacket
Copyright © Claudia Hirt Foster
She knew it had been a big part of her husband’s life, and she knew she would never be able to comprehend it. “If you weren’t there,” the middle-aged soldier at the podium was saying, “no one would be able to describe what it was like. If you were, there’d be no need to.”
The black polished granite with 58,325 names etched deeply into it stood as a stark backdrop to the stranger at the podium. And it stood black, cold, stark, and all-seeing. She noted how the polished granite reflected her own image, incongruously, she thought – a bright yellow and orange sun dress and sandals, a little straw hat her mother had just given her – and she knew she couldn’t escape that ever-so-vague sense of…just what, exactly? Shame? Awe? Indebtedness? And the undeniable sense that she was on the outside-looking-in at something larger than she was, something she could never be a part of.
Her husband and she had come here separately, each in one’s own car because earlier they had read that the traveling replica of the Vietnam War Memorial was coming to a town thirty miles from their own. As she stood listening to the speeches, she wasn’t at all surprised when she saw him walking nearby within an ocean of others. He was wearing his camouflage jacket from Nam, which a local girl had made for him from a government-issue poncho liner. She hadn’t seen him wear it in the nearly thirty-two years they’d been together.
They had met just a year after he’d “gotten out,” and he always sat at the rear of the college classroom, wearing a buckskin jacket and sporting a strawberry-blond ponytail, looking like anything but a Marine. But he also wore an aura, she thought, of someone who knows something, who’d seen things she couldn’t imagine.
All these years later, he still “sported that aura.” Tentatively, respectfully, she approached him. “I want to show you something,” she said. Earlier, she had located Dong Ho on the map, a map which the organizers of the traveling memorial had posted to the side of a trailer. “I didn’t know you were so close to Hamburger Hill.”
They had seen the movie together. Quang Tri and Dong Ho sat perilously close to the DMZ.
“Neither did I,” he said. Then he added, “We could see the Viet Cong flag from our location, where we delivered supplies to Rock Pile.” His words were studied, automatic…his voice vacant, thousands of miles and seemingly thousands of years away.
His voice trailed off, and again she had that sense of feeling like an intruder. “I bet you’d like to be by yourself,” she said simply. “I’ll leave you alone.” There may have been times when his distant response to that – his simple “thanks” – might have left her feeling oddly dismissed. But she knew now that he would welcome her in, if only he could.
Several years ago he had opened up such a window in a rare moment as he lay on their couch slightly primed with beer. “The sniper opened fire,” he said then. “They were just out of boot camp, their first day in Nam. They had just landed. My job was to drive them from the airstrip to the base.” He took a long deep breath, as if he were taking a long reflective drag from a government-issued cigarette, then continued. “There were a few clean shots to the back of our truck, and one of them hit one of the kids. His buddy was yelling for me to stop, that the kid was dying. God. I swear. I just hauled ass.” He didn’t have to tell her that he could not have stopped. “That valley was a death trap. When we got to base, the kid was gone. ‘You killed him,’ his buddy told me.”
He had rarely talked about “Nam” and when he did, it was only the funny things…the crazy buddy stories that peppered his year there. But now he was sobbing. She had heard him cry only a couple times in their thirty-two years – when his dad died, when his mom died – and now he was lying on the couch sobbing, the images of a few dozen years earlier still fresh.
Of course, it startled her a bit at the time to hear it, to enter into that pain he’d so tightly held, but she had always been grateful for it. She cherished that window and guarded it; in her eyes, her strong man had only become stronger for it. But that would be the first and last time it would ever be mentioned.
Now, at the traveling war memorial, she thought of it again. She walked among the military vehicles neatly arranged for the benefit of the public and couldn’t help but notice how the row of relics had become chalky with neglect and oxidation. Then, towards the end of the row, she came upon the one solitary personnel transport. She paused, her step and breath imperceptibly suspended. With reverence, and perhaps with awe and a little respectful fear, she entered another time and space.
It was a long step up before she found herself sitting behind the wheel, running her hand over the heat-roughened steering wheel. She wondered where under the seats the troops had placed sandbags in hopes of some added protection against land mines. It was some time before she climbed back down. It was some time too before she approached him in the crowd and resumed her place beside him. And it was a very long time before she asked him if he’d seen the military trucks, which he hadn’t.
As they walked among the convoy of various trucks, she took his hand. She said it again as she had said it so many times before – to the person everyone called upon when they needed any help of any kind – to the good husband, the self-assured, independent thinker she had had the wisdom to marry: “I am so proud of you.” And the feeling welled up in her as her wrist brushed against the cuff of his camouflage jacket.
They had arrived separately, and they would leave in their separate cars. But as she walked back to her car, she turned to look at him.
He was sitting in the back of a personnel transport, under the olive green tarp canopy on a bare wooden seat. Not in the front where she had sat in a longing effort to crawl into her husband’s unreachable life, but in the back, where a number of fresh troops had sat thirty-three years earlier. And in her mind, as she turned to go, she briefly brushed up against his cuff once again.