Dead Letter Day
Third Platoon on Patrol Tay Ninh 1970
It happened in Cambodia in 1970. Twenty five years later after many false
starts, false leads, wayward correspondence, a sympathetic clerk in a small
Southern state sent me a letter. It contained two pages from the town’s
telephone book. “I hope this helps,” wrote the clerk. “Good luck.” Four names
out of five hundred were highlighted in yellow. It took time to calm down.
An older woman answered the phone. “Sorry, wrong number,” she said. But it being a friendly town she counseled, “You want to call this address here. That’s who you want to talk with. That’s Bill’s brother.”
When J picked up and I introduced myself he went quiet so I went right to the story. He cried a little but intently listened. Then J told me how it came as a thunder bolt to the family that Bill was dead. He’d written how he got a rear job after getting hit. He’d be safe for the rest of his tour, then home to Betty, back to teaching, back to college. He was twenty six. He didn’t smoke, drink or drug but was good with cars, people, animals and believed in himself. He was like that. Believed in himself. He never lied, cheated or undid a dare, or stepped back from what he thought was right. Never. He would never do that. J sobbed and sighed.
“The government stone walled us for twenty five years,” he said. “Mother went to her grave a bitter woman not knowing how Bill died. That’s what killed her. The Army saying one thing, then another, and another, never telling us the truth. Why was he back in the jungle? Why was he there? He was twenty six, married, had a rear job. He’d been hit. He was safe. He told us he was safe.”
J was angry and sorrowful.
I said, “Everyone liked Bill. He was older than most but he humped hard just like we did. Never complained. Used to read Shakespeare in the bush. Can you believe that? Kept the paperback in his helmet band. Sometimes we’d talk. I got to know him.” I paused. “He...told me what happened. Why they sent him out to us. He wasn’t bitter. Or if he was he didn’t show it.”
Bill was stocky but thin faced, had short brown hair, wore black rimmed glasses; when he spoke his Southern voice carried tall trees, rolling fields, the scent of flowers. A grenade blast ruptured his ear. He got a job in S-2 typing casualty reports. He was a college grad. He could type. They liked that.
But the Army told Bill he must fudge facts. "Our casualties down," they said. "Their casualties up. Make it look good, son. Make it look like we were winning this war." Bill said no. Bill said a Captain gave him a direct order which he refused. The higher ups said, “Son, we're in charge here. Not you. Just do the fuckin job or we’ll send your ass back to the bush.” Bill kept typing the truth, kept speaking out, did not back down. So they kicked him out to us.
“It was punishment,” I said to J . “That’s what they wouldn’t tell you. They punished him for telling the truth.”
“All this time,” said J . “All this time...It’s good to know what happened but...”
Neither of us could speak. Then J told me where Bill was buried.
“You can visit here any time, he said." Any time you like."
I said, “Sure.” Then asked about Betty.
J said they kept in touch, hold on a second, he’d find her address. We talked a bit more, then said good bye. That day or the next I started writing the hardest letter of my life.
“Dear Betty, Sorry it took so long to get back to you....”
I told her everything. Everything. Then mailed it. Not knowing what to expect.
Her reply came six weeks later. A long rambling letter telling how she loved him dearly, they’d grown up, gone to school together, got married, he’d been drafted. She’d had premonition, remarried three years later, the mystery of his death haunting her, over the years subsiding. Her second husband upset now that she’s upset because that’s the past why can’t she forget it? Bill’s at peace now, he’s at peace, she said, pouring her newly wed heart out. Then the last stunning lines, a quiver of arrows, a tangle of targets: “I’m so glad you wrote. Here’s my number. But don’t call. Please don’t call. I couldn’t bear it.”
And after a time, a long, long time, I put her letter away.
D 1/7 Cav '69-'70
(Click Letter Pages to Enlarge)
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