This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
Millions of people have photographed kids playing on the beach or riverside. A pretty ordinary scene, isn’t it? Not so to me. This photograph is very special, because ……… oh, I will come to it presently.
The one on the left is Cynthia, my neighbour, and the one on the right is yours truly, Amy. My Dad shot this as Cynthia and I sat on the sands of Malibu beach, washing carefully the shells that we had gathered.
I had protested then, “Aw, Dad, why didn’t you ask us to look at you and say ‘Cheese’?”
Dad had merely smiled and said “You kids are cute this way too!”
Cynthia asked my Dad, “Mr. Connors, when you print it, may I have a copy too, please?”
“Sure, sweetheart”, promised Dad.
Cynthia and I went back to cleaning our shells.
That was in April 1968. Both Cynthia and I were around six years old then and though kids usually do not remember well the events that took place when they were so young, that day is vivid in my memory – for, a week later my Dad left home on a mission I did not comprehend. Fifteen long years now.
On the day of his departure my mother had bid an emotional farewell to Dad as the Army car came to pick him up. Unlike the usual peck on her lips on his earlier trips, Dad lingered in a very long, tight embrace with Mom, both whispering something to each other. When they disengaged at last, Dad picked me up and held me high over his head and said
“This pretty young lady will look after her Mom well, won’t she?”
“Yes, Dad, I will”, I had replied.
He put me down and said, “Amy, your Mom has been busy as a bee all week, helping me prepare for this trip, yet doesn’t she look fresh as a flower this morning?!”
My mother laughed and said, “Amy, haven’t I been married to a Sergeant of the US Army all these years, to be any different?”
My Mom told me later that this time she expected Dad to be away for a longer period than on earlier occasions. She said Dad might not return for a year or more. He was on a very important mission of helping my country establish peace in some far-off place called Vietnam. She said a group of people called communists were trying to dominate over other peace-loving people of that country, leading to a war-like situation. The Americans were trying to prevent a war and teach the Vietnamese to live in mutual respect, like brothers. I felt very proud of my Dad. I had asked Mom if Dad would fight with swords (as I had seen in some old paintings) or with guns, and Mom corrected me immediately,
“Oh no! Dad isn’t going to fight; he will try to stop others from fighting.”
I was confused. Why did Dad take his gun then?
“It is for self defence, you silly!” she said.
I nodded, though I did not understand this one either.
Some days later I asked my teacher, Mr. Evans, if he knew of the Vietnamese war. He pulled out an atlas and showed me where Vietnam was in relation to America, and more specifically to California.
“Yes, of course, Amy, it is another of those wars America habitually gets entangled in, with no gain whatsoever. We love to poke our nose in every other country’s affairs. I think it is a big mistake for us to have become involved in Vietnam. We have been in it some years already and lost a lot of our people. God only knows when we will get out of the mess. Why do you ask?”
“Mr. Evans, my dad went to Vietnam a few days back” I replied.
Mr. Evans looked embarrassed. He said, rather apologetically, “Amy, I should not have said what I said. I am sorry. I am sure your dad will come home soon.”
For almost 18 months after Dad landed at Da Nang air base we got reports from him through the garrison commander at the Army base in San Luis Obispo, Col. Gustaf Schroeder, about how he was doing in Vietnam. He wrote of the beauty of the land, the food habits of the locals, some minor stomach ailments and so on. He would always end every letter with how much he loved Mom and me and how much he missed us. I do not know what else Mom expected, but she would always say,
“Something is missing from your dad’s letters; he doesn’t say much, maybe he is not allowed to write anything more.”
“Who isn’t allowing him, Mommy? What should Dad be writing about?” I asked once.
“There is so much happening out in Vietnam, Amelia, and Dad is right in the thick of things. I listen to the radio, watch TV reports and browse the newspapers. I know that America isn’t quite succeeding in its mission. Our men are getting injured, they are getting a bad name for cruel behaviour towards the locals, and our planes are going down. Dad does not write anything about such things, maybe the Army bosses would not let him, for security reasons.”
“Mommy, why is all this happening?”
“Politics, Amy, politics. And to politicians, people are just so much cannon fodder.”
“Cannon fodder? What does it mean, Mommy?” was my next question.
“Never mind. You are too young to understand all this, baby.”
Indeed I did not understand what Mom said then, but as months went by and I paid TV reports a little more attention, I began to comprehend the events of the war, but not the politics. I did, however, understand that Mom’s primary reason for hating the war was Dad’s safety.
Dad’s letters stopped altogether after about two years and Col. Schroeder was unable to help with any meaningful information, despite trying in earnest. He said the last place to which Dad was deputed was a village called Da Lat which lay some 150 miles north of Saigon and he felt that Dad could not communicate with his unit because he might just be out of range. As always, he asked Mom not to worry. Mom got tired of answering friends and relatives whose well-meaning inquiries only made her feel more frustrated. I think she soon realized that allowing herself to go into depression would be unfair to me and she took up a job at Wal-Mart and pursued other activities like gardening and poetry club readings. She helped me a lot with my studies.
Col. Schroeder came by one day and greeted us as usual with “Hello Mrs. Connors and hello Princess Amelia, how are you folks doin’?”
He made small talk about my school. Finally he came to the serious part of his visit. He had brought new information from Jacob Irwin, an American soldier who had been repatriated following a severe bomb injury. According to Mr. Irwin, Dad had been captured about a month earlier by a group of Viet Cong soldiers and held captive at Quang Ngai. They had moved him soon after from to Sun La, then to Dac To and so on until the trail was lost. All these places lay in deep mountainous region and locating any hide-out was near impossible due to the maze of forests, valleys, paddy fields and rivulets. The Viet Cong group was trying to use Dad as a pawn in negotiating some outrageous demands; the local commander would have none of it. Col. Schroeder said,
“Not great news, Mrs. Connors, but it is still comforting to know that no harm has been done to Sgt. Connors.”
Mom did not reply immediately, but responded eventually, “Colonel, when you do not know where Bob is, how do you know he is okay or not? Nevertheless, I think the field commander in Vietnam is right, despite the victim being my husband.”
The next visit from Col. Schroeder did not bring any cheer either. He said there was infighting in the Viet Cong ranks and Dad was captured by a new group and moved away from the earlier location. He did not know the name of the new place.
“Great. We know nothing much about the strange-sounding locations where Bob was held captive and not even the name of the last place. Colonel, is this all that our great country, the mighty America every nation fears, can come up with?” fumed Mom, and then apologized, “Sorry, Sir. I did not mean to be rude. I know you are concerned for my husband, but Bob means so much more to me and my girl than to anyone else. I shudder to think of life without him, if I should lose him forever, and Amy is so young.”
Schroeder patted Mom’s shoulders gently and said, “I am sorry, Mrs. Connors. I quite understand the pain you are going through. I know I have never brought you good tidings, but we should have faith in God, shouldn’t we?”
I must admit to being puzzled by a senior military officer reposing faith in God, though Dad himself was very pious. I thought to myself: Why on earth was our President not taking steps to get my Dad back?
Cynthia’s family was a great source of comfort in those days, but they moved from Malibu to Vancouver almost concurrently with the cessation of Dad’s letters. I never heard from Cynthia after her family left for Canada, but I suppose she still has the photo of the two of us Dad shot – his last shot. I am now at Cornell university, and the photo adorns my table, along with another of Dad and Mom holding me aloft.
The Vietnam War ended in1975, that is, 8 years back, after Americans failed in their intervention and the whole world criticized them for the trail of destruction and misery they left behind in Vietnam. I remembered the words of Mr. Evans, my school-teacher, whenever I read reports of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Since Dad’s name has not figured in any list of US personnel killed in action, I still fancy he will come home some day, and I say a prayer every day for his return. I try to imagine how he may look now – withered, maimed or sprightly? Cheerful as before or defeated in spirit? Would he have become bald? How will we greet each other? Will he break down on seeing Mom, now a frail lady after long years of privation? Will he remember that day on Malibu beach when ‘the last shot’ was taken?
I smile to myself. Will these remain a mystery, like so many other questions in life?