Look Into Our Shadows
Fiction. Any similarity to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.
Contains mature language and situations.
Chuck Fuller was hidden in the treeline on a moonless night. He was very good at positioning himself to see but not be seen. It never failed to bring a wry smile to his lips that here he was, an American soldier named “Charlie” hiding in the treeline. He could hear the echos of the war that was far behind him. Here to observe the troops amassed in columns at the bottom of the hill, he remained motionless in the trees.
As the first rays of sun began to lighten the sky, the purple hues of the coming dawn reflected off the polished black granite walls at the base of the hill. Chuck couldn’t read the names from where he stood, but he also could not bring himself to go closer. Drawn to this place, he almost always came at night when few others were there and he would stand hidden in the trees. As if his life had a soundtrack stuck in a continuous loop, he could hear the sounds of the war that was long over. The worst time for him was when a chopper flew overhead and for the briefest moment he didn’t know if it was real or a memory.
Chuck turned and walked out the other side of the trees and away from the Vietnam War Memorial. He had lost count of how many times he had come, but had never gotten any closer than the treeline. The memories always stopped him. He could smell the gunpowder and bodies, he could hear the gunfire and moans, he could see the ghosts of the fallen as they got shot or blown up again and again. It didn’t matter how many times he came, how often he heard the Wall was a place for healing, for him it was a portal back to the day he first landed in Hell and a testament of every fucking minute he fought to get back to the World.
The Wall was something further to Chuck. It was where the Jury of his Peers waited for the day his case would be tried. One day he was there when a pile driver fired up at a construction site nearby. He imagined it to be an enormous judges gavel. BANG, BANG, BANG! He could almost hear an official voice say “The Court will come to order. Before the Court is the case of The Valiant Souls verses Chuck Fuller.”
Today it was too early for pile drivers. No, today was yet another day that Chuck had to find importance in the store’s inventory, in Mrs. Carter’s special order, in hiring a temporary clerk while Carla was on maternity leave. It was another day back in the fun-filled World he had wanted to get home so badly to… only once he got here he realized he didn’t want to be here either.
Harold’s Diner was open by the time Chuck walked the 9 blocks there. He took his usual booth at the back where he could face the door and no one could walk up behind him. He learned quickly upon his return that he would never feel comfortable with anyone coming up behind him so he looked for the places where he could count on a setup like he wanted and no other hassles.
Connie brought him some coffee and he ordered his usual steak and eggs, toast and hash browns. He looked at the other diners and pegged the suit guy for a downtown job and the gal in the sweats as an early morning jogger. He could tell by the grapefruit juice and toast, no butter, that she watched that trim little figure of hers. He made a mental note to come by a bit earlier sometime to see if he could watch her jog up.
Connie was back with his breakfast and as he sliced into the steak the front door burst open. Instinctively Chuck tightened his grip on the knife as the rest of his muscles tightened too. He quickly scanned the room as the cook began hollering at a delivery guy who had thrown the door open too hard. “Deliveries are in the back! What the hell are you trying to do, break down the door? Where’s Frank – Frank knows the routine…” things settled back down in the restaurant faster than they settled down for Chuck. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins, his breath coming hard, his muscles hurting from the tension. He noticed the knuckles of the hand holding the knife were beginning to turn white and he made a conscious effort to loosen his grip. He closed his eyes, willed his pulse to slow down and when he opened them again he saw the cook was back, still agitated. “Fucking new guy!!! I hate when they send me the fucking new guys!”
At this Chuck smiled. He had been the FNG a lifetime ago. Thought he knew what he was doing, thought he knew what to expect, thought he would be kicking ass and taking names before the week was out. Yeah, he remembered…
The troop plane landed at Bien Hoa and as soon as the door opened he could feel the wave of heat push against him. Air was not supposed to be that hot, or feel thick, or smell like gunpowder. Sirens were blaring, people were running, someone was shouting, and all Chuck knew was that he was running too.
“Move it, move it, move it! God I hate it when they send me fucking new guys when I need soldiers!”
“Welcome to Vietnam!” Chuck thought. “What the hell have I got myself into?”
Chuck finished his coffee, left some coins on the table and paid Connie on his way out the door. It was still too early to open the store, but he decided to get started on the inventory while it was still quiet. He walked a few more blocks towards town, and as he walked past the shuttered bar on the way to his store he remembered the first time he and his pal Buddy had walked through its’ doors.
As Chuck and Buddy walked into Tony’s bar, the smokey darkness, the smell of beer and the sound of balls being racked at the pool table said “Welcome Home” to Chuck. He caught the bartenders eye, and ordered two beers as they settled in at the end of the bar. A waitress came out with a tray and gave Buddy a smile while clearing empty bottles off a table. She took great care to polish the table slowly, making sure Buddy got himself an eyeful before returning to the kitchen. The bartender brought their beers over and Chuck asked “You Tony?”
“Ain’t been no Tony here for 5 years. Sold the place and retired. The name’s Joe.”
“So who’s the chick Joe?” asked Buddy looking towards the kitchen.
‘That would be Martha. She came with the place. Good for business if you know what I mean” said Joe as Martha came out and leaned over the juke box. Buddy walked over to Martha and Chuck could hear her giggle at something Buddy said to her.
“You boys new in town?” asked Joe.
“Back from Nam, looking for work” said Chuck taking a swig of his beer. Suddenly he heard Martha’s voice cut through the noise of the bar.
“So tell me, did you really kill babies over…” the rest was cut off as Buddy grabbed her. Chuck spit out his beer and knocked over his stool while running towards Buddy who by now had Martha’s hands pinned behind her back with one hand, her chest shoved against the wall, his other hand over her mouth pulling her head back with his mouth up against her ear as he talked really low and deliberately, a look of rage covering his face. Joe grabbed a baseball bat and was coming over the bar as Chuck threw a bar stool in his way to slow him down. Chuck got to Buddy first and pulled him off the girl, throwing him to the ground and pushing her at Joe before he had a chance to swing the bat.
“He’s crazy!” Martha shrieked. “He’s fucking crazy!”
“Get the hell out of here!” hollered Joe as Chuck shoved Buddy out the door and down the street.
“Fuck man, what the hell was that all about? You could have snapped her neck!” said Chuck, adrenaline racing through him.
“And that’s one of the ways I told her I could kill her if I ran out of babies to kill” said Buddy, rage still flashing in his eyes.
“God Damn, you didn’t say that you stupid son of a bitch. Tell me that is not what you told her!” said Chuck throwing Buddy up against a building. “Sluts like that ain’t worth it man. God damn I want to take out one of those mother-fuckers every time I hear that crap but it just makes it real to them. Shit Buddy.”
“I didn’t say it… but I should have” Buddy said disgustedly. “How the hell are we supposed to respond? What I want is someone to tell me why they gave me a god damn card to tell me how to act in Nam and then changed all the fucking rules over here while I was gone and didn’t give me a god damn card to tell me how to act when I got home. That bitch asked if I killed babies like I was some kind of freak. Strangers spit at me. What the fuck is that all about? I didn’t start the god damn war! It wasn’t MY idea to take a year out of my life so I could slog through a fucking rice paddy and get my ass shot at – I fucking hate rice! I saw so many guys get blown up so many times it became just another day. Just another god damn day in hell and all I wanted was to hold on til I could get back to the World, only the jokes on me – someone fucked with the World while I was in Hell” hollered Buddy kicking over a garbage can.
Chuck knew Buddy was heading for a dark, dark hole, and hell, he wasn’t sure he wasn’t headed there himself. He tried to think of what his C/O would say and he had to do it quickly. He grabbed Buddy by the shoulder and looked him straight in the eyes..
“We went over there with the idea that we were going to make a difference – it wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t going to be quick. We worked our asses off to do what we did. Problem is the rules kept changing and now the war has changed too. We got back to the World, but Hell crept back here first. We ain’t done fighting, only this time we need to remember who we are fighting for – every god damn bastard for who the World ended while they were over there in Hell – that’s who. This was their country too and they died fighting for what it stands for. They died so people could have freedom to speak their minds, but that also means they are free to be ignorant, selfish, and uncaring. That’s the ugly side of freedom, but it’s a damn sight better than the ugly side of Hell and these assholes have no idea how ugly Hell can get. We have to remember who we are – god damn US soldiers. We didn’t lose the war – we fought it and now that fight is to remember why we love our country” said Chuck trying hard to believe it himself.
Buddy angrily pulled out a pack of cigarettes, took one and tossed the pack to Chuck. They stood on the street silently, smoke circling their heads as the war and the world merged into a dark foreboding kaleidoscope in their minds. The adrenaline was gone and a bone weary heaviness settled on them.
“Fuck this shit.” said Buddy suddenly. He tossed his cigarette butt into the street, climbed on his motorcycle, and looked over at Chuck.
“Where the hell are you going?” Chuck asked uneasily.
“Gonna get some god damn freedom of my own” said Buddy with a grim determination.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” demanded Chuck.
“Well…” Buddy said slowly, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and drove off down the road. He slowed down as he got to the corner and stopped to wave at Chuck who was still standing where he left him. Chuck raised his hand and watched Buddy disappear, wondering if he had reached him. A week later and several states away, they found what was left of Buddy and his motorcycle wrapped around a bridge support. The local Sheriff said he thought it was weather related, but Chuck knew different. Nam had reached out of the shadows and drug another soul back through the gates of Hell. Chuck heard about it on his 22nd birthday. Happy Fucking Birthday. He stayed drunk for 3 days, only sobering up when he woke up in jail.
“What a fucking waste” Chuck thought. Buddy wasn’t the only friend he lost to the war, but his was the most senseless. In Nam the enemy wasn’t always easy to spot – the gal cleaning your Hootch during the day could be carrying ammo for the VC at night. Chuck could see a logic in that. When they got back to the World they found the enemy could have been a kid you grew up with or a total stranger armed with nothing more than words. According to that stupid childhood song “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The day Buddy pasted himself onto that bridge support Chuck added that song to the list of childhood lies that included Santa, the Easter Bunny, and Boys don’t cry.
After Buddy died, Chuck ended up in jail. His Dad bailed him out and then chewed him out. Of all the things he lost in Nam he was relieved to find he still respected his old man enough to pull it together… if by together you meant staying out of jail… barely. There was a progression of jobs and at least that many girls. Somewhere along the way Chuck figured out how to do the World almost like he figured out how to do Nam – only this time there was no counting down the days to get back to… what?
Chuck entered the store and made his way to the back. After a few hours of inventorying the back room, other employees started showing up. Chuck went to make some coffee and sent Byron into the back room to pick up where he left off. It wasn’t long before he heard a yell and a thud.
“Incoming!” Chuck hit the dirt as the mortar sailed past him and landed next to Jenkins. The impact blew off his helmet and Chuck knew the bastard never stood a chance. There’s something to be said for checking out quick when your number is up thought Chuck without shedding a tear.
As Chuck reached the backroom he saw Byron laying on the floor, blood spilling from his head. Grabbing the first aid kit by the door he scrambled to staunch the flow while hollering for someone to call an ambulance.
Chuck crumpled to the floor as the siren from the ambulance transporting Byron to the hospital faded into the distance. For just a moment it seemed the siren took on the same rhythm as helicopter blades.
Chuck directed Janice to open the store and told her he had some important paperwork to complete and should not be disturbed. He went into his office, locked the door, pulled the shades, took out the bottle from the bottom drawer and started drinking. Times past he would have kept drinking until the bottle was empty, but after all this time he had learned there wasn’t enough liquor in the world to stop him from seeing the war in everything around him. It was always there, like a shadow. A dog barking or a baby’s cry was enough to send him back to a village somewhere in Nam. A jackhammer up the street became a machine gun, a car backfiring was an exploding mine. And the blood, always the blood…
“They said head wounds always bled the most, but maybe they never saw someone blown apart like Riley or Franklin” thought Chuck as they gathered the dead. Riley was married, Franklin had 2 weeks left. 2 fucking weeks. Chuck kicked a helmet lying on the ground and watched part of some VC’s head come flying out of it.
“If they could look into our shadows” thought Chuck grimly. He called the hospital to check on Byron and found that he would be stitched up and sent home. He put the bottle back in the bottom drawer, opened the blinds and unlocked his door just as Mrs. Carter arrived for her special order.
“Good morning Mrs. Carter! How are you this fine day?” asked Chuck with the smile he wore everyday for the customers. “I’ve got your order right here. How is your husband doing? Is he home from the hospital?”
“Oh yes thank-you. Tom is doing so much better. I thought we were going to lose him with the infection this time, but he said he was too tough to kill. I sure hope these new silver alloy catheters keep him from getting the infections like he gets. I’m glad that someone is working to make better medical equipment for people like Tom.” Sally Carter paid Janice and with a cheery wave left the store.
Chuck was always in awe of her strength and resilience. Her husband Tom came home from Nam with a spinal injury and the will of a lion to survive. God blessed Tom the day he married Sally – she never complained. Chuck wished his wife had stuck around – hell he had use of both legs AND some other equipment and his wife couldn’t handle it – said he was a different man. Fuck.
The worst thing for Chuck was knowing his wife was right – he was a different man. He still loved a good tale and a laugh, but it took a long time before he could commit to a job, a lifestyle, a relationship. Hell, he still had problems committing. He had been manager of the store for 5 years and every day was a new employment record for him.
After the store closed, Chuck sat in his office for a while. He didn’t have much to hurry home to on a Wednesday evening. He poured another drink, raised a glass to the sons and daughters who never grew old and swallowed it down in one gulp. Every night just before he locked up he looked around the store and said the last thing Buddy ever said to him. “Fuck this shit.” Every morning he found himself opening the door and turning on the lights anyway. It didn’t matter that Buddy found his freedom and Chuck had not – just by saying it every night he knew it was there, waiting if he ever wanted it.
The night was warm and the walk home felt good. Chuck stopped outside the little Church on Elm street to smoke a cigarette. He often stopped there on a Wednesday night, especially in the warmer weather when they might have the windows open. He could hear the Preacher warming up the fire and brimstone. He loved it when he started hollering about the gates of Hell. Chuck may not believe there was a God, but he sure knew where Hell was. He listened for a while, just in case there was a God, and just in case God was looking for Chuck. About the most religious thing Chuck could quote was about being the meanest SOB in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and he figured that counted about as much as knowing God’s last name was Damn.
“For now I see through a glass darkly, but then I shall see face to face” declared the Preacher. “Paul was explaining the difference of this world and Heaven to the Corinthians. We can not see into Heaven – it is like seeing through a dark glass. We think we know what we see, but nothing is clear. Paul promises us though that we will one day see without the glass for we will be face to face. Those that have gone before, they see face to face and they know. They are the cloud of witnesses that watch, encouraging us forward and interceding on our behalf in prayer…”
Chuck finished his cigarette and with a quick glance and nod to the sky he headed home. He had heard that God worked in mysterious ways and that He made the whole world in a week. If God wanted Chuck surely He could find him while he stood outside a church smoking a cigarette.
That night Chuck woke up in a cold sweat, his sheets drenched. The blankets were tossed on the floor and Chuck was half kneeling in the bed. Looking around he recognized where he was and more importantly where he was not. The dreams were always so damn real. Tonight he had been back in the bush, just about to kill a VC with his ka-bar. He could practically feel the jungle floor as he crept forward.
He seldom had women stay over with him – he was afraid that he would hurt them in the night if he had one of these episodes. He barely missed punching his wife one night and instead hit the headboard of the bed before waking up. It made for some uncomfortable times – not counting the bloody knuckles. If he drank heavily it helped him to keep from tossing and turning, but not always, besides she didn’t like the drinking either. As he lay there he remembered that not all women were like that…
Chuck had barely finished his beer when a girl came up and called him a “number 1 GI” and offered him “boom boom” for the equivalent of $2 u.s. “Oh hell, yeah” Chuck said following her to a back room. A few minutes later he was back having another beer. His wallet was fat enough for as much beer and boom boom as he wanted.
The sex, the rotgut alcohol, hell, it was rotgut sex, but it was the best rotgut sex he ever had after being shot at. There were some things that helped you get through the day and of course there was the grass – more than he had ever seen back home at one time. God damn there were even some bastards shipping the shit home. He wondered how much of that ever made it back to the World.
Chuck went back to an uneasy sleep and for Chuck the days turned into weeks and then months and he kept showing up to turn on the lights at work every morning. There were times it took an extra effort not to follow Buddy, but as far as veterans go, he was a successful contributing member of society – as long as you didn’t get inside his head. He continued to visit the Wall and stand at the treeline on nights that sleep was the enemy.
One morning just as he was about to leave the Wall and head for Harold’s Diner, he noticed a familiar figure standing at the Wall. He watched her place a single rose at the base of one of the panels, but instead of reaching out and touching a name as so many do, she stood there with her head bowed for a long time. Finally, wiping a tear from her face she headed towards the Lincoln Memorial. Chuck slipped through the trees and walked around to catch up with her.
“Mrs. Carter! I thought that was you. What are you doing here alone this time of day?” Chuck asked. “Is everything o.k. with Tom?” Sally tried to answer, but her chin started to quiver and silent tears fell down her cheeks. Chuck reached into his pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief for her and lead her to a bench nearby.
“Is it Tom? Is he in the hospital again?” Chuck asked with genuine concern. Tom was one of the heroes – one of the guys who didn’t deserve what he had been dealt.
Sally quickly reassured him that Tom was fine and added “Today is the 20th anniversary of the day Tom was injured in Vietnam. When I got word that he had been injured I was relieved that he was alive, devastated for what had happened knowing the life we had planned was gone forever and totally unprepared to know what to do next. When he was strong enough they shipped him home and he went through months of serious rehabilitation. That man never once complained to me. He worked so very hard to regain what he lost and when it was apparent even to him that it was indeed lost, he still never complained.”
“When they built the Vietnam Memorial I began to lay a rose on the anniversary of his injury. It is how I acknowledge the shame I felt wanting the life we had hoped for, it is the reason for the death of that life that I come here to honor. I have cried and poured my heart out when things have been hard, when life is not fair, and each time I am able to leave those mixed up feelings here because the duty to serve his country is the reason Tom is the way he is now. He gave so much to fight for a cause he believed in and a way of life he wanted to share with the world. It didn’t turn out the way we planned, but what we have is enough.”
Chuck felt he had just been allowed to stand on hallowed ground. Before him sat a woman who had blamed herself for wanting her husband whole, who felt the need to atone, who 20 years after the fact still considered the cause that her husband fought and almost lost his life for justified, and who opened her heart for judgment to another soul. “Mrs. Carter, I would like to say that I have always admired the strength that you have presented in the years that I have known you and I am honored that you have shared such a private circumstance with me” Chuck said. “If there is ever anything I could do for you or your husband, please know that I am always at your service.”
Sally smiled and stood up. “I must get going. Tom will be up soon and I still need to stop at the bakery to get him his favorite Apple Fritter. I always tell him it will kill him and he reminds me that he is too tough to die. After 20 years I dare say he is right!” Sally placed her hand on Chucks shoulder and gave him a quick hug.
Chuck skipped Harold’s Diner that morning, instead walking the long way around the park to work. He had so much to think about. He opened the store and finished some paperwork that he had left from the night before. As he locked up for the night he looked at the store and said “See you tomorrow” and walked home. As he passed the church on Elm he gave a nod to the sky, bypassed his house and walked towards the Wall.
Chuck wasn’t even sure what he was going to do until he was actually at the Memorial. He stood in his usual place in the treeline. He thought of everything that Sally Carter had shared with him that morning. Emotions ran freely through him and he felt like some kind of a blender was whirring together her story, Tom’s injury, his own tour in Vietnam, her shame, his blame for surviving, guilt for those he could not save, and his own shame that he counted the days when he could return to a meaningless life when those like Tom were destined to never have that opportunity themselves.
As if on cue, Chuck heard a loud banging from a construction site nearby. He stepped out of the treeline as the official sounding voice in his head announced “The Court shall now hear the case of The Valiant Souls verses Chuck Fuller. You may present your evidence.”
Chuck took a few steps closer, looked at the Wall, saluted, and said “My name is Charles Fuller, Private, 34729045. I was sent to Vietnam to serve my country. I spent 365 days in Vietnam. During that time I saw many men injured or killed. I did not die. I was left whole. I wanted to leave that Hell and return to the World. I wanted to forget that Vietnam ever happened. May God have mercy on my soul.”
As Chuck stood staring at the Wall it struck him for the first time how he was seeing the reflection of his surrounding, not as a mirror, but rather as through a glass darkly. He remembered hearing the preacher talk about the difference between Heaven and earth as the difference between seeing face to face and through a glass darkly. Cautiously he moved forward, watching the reflection, seeing the clouds of names become clearer. When he stood in the treeline Chuck had always thought of them as Sentinels, watching, ready to report what they saw. As he stood here today, he thought of the rest of what that preacher said, about witnesses who encourage us.
Chuck stood trying to grasp a coherent thought from the whirring blender in his head. He closed his eyes and saw Sally Carter sitting on the bench that morning. Sally who he could not judge, yet knew she judged herself. Sally who was able to shed her judgments at the Wall to go forward with the life she had to lead instead of trying to lead a life whose time was past.
Chuck stood closer to the wall and started reading names. He found Jenkins, Riley, & Jackson. He ran his fingers across their names and felt the tears run down his face. He could see clearer, but not clearly, the reflection in the granite and he knew that one day he would see face to face and understand more fully what had happened and why today he could finally make it to the Wall and why it was o.k. to have come home from Vietnam whole in body, if not in mind. He felt a change come over him as he stood there, remembering the sons and daughters who never grew old, who he will never forget, who will continue to encourage him from beyond the glass darkly.
Finally he thought of Buddy, whose name was not on the Wall, but who may have still been alive had the Wall been built earlier, but would the lesson to society have been the same? Would the healing of the Wall have been necessary? The World will never know, but the soldiers know. They know that they fought against an enemy, for a just society, in the name of fallen comrades, for the safety of the ones they loved. They know the evil side of Hell and know that it takes the blood of young men and women to keep it from encroaching on the path of Liberty.
God willing, Hell will never again seek to overtake Liberty, but Chuck knew that one day, young men and women would again be called to place their lives on the line for Liberty and Justice. He knew that when that day came, the memory of what he and the others of the Vietnam War had done would not and could not be ignored, not with the Memorial cutting a deep scar into the earth, reflecting the beautiful safe setting around it in the highly polished granite that is not a perfect mirror because it is etched with the blood of over 58,000 patriots who gave their lives to keep Hell at bay.
Chuck felt like he had aged 10 years in one day, but lost a tremendous weight from his shoulders at the same time. As he turned to salute Jenkins, Riley, & Jackson, he briefly saw a bright reflection in the Wall. He turned to see what it was, but could only see the treeline from where he stood. Had it been a bit darker he would have seen the glowing end of a freshly lit cigarette held by a Veteran whose journey that day to the Vietnam Memorial would bring him no closer than the treeline.
When I asked a friend to help me with a writing project, I had no idea where this would take me. I had seen the phrase “Look into our shadows” online and asked him to come up with a scenario that I would need to research in an area that I had no expertise so that I could practice writing from an unknown perspective. What he gave me was to write about the Vietnam Vets who returned with PTSD and chronicle their time after the war and work towards closure.
I was a toddler when the war started and not yet 15 when Saigon fell. Even though I was alive during this time, I was insulated from what these brave men and women experienced. The research has given me the beginning of understanding that an outsider can have, which in no way puts me in the same category of one who was actually there. I wrote this with the utmost respect for our soldiers and the families that supported them. My friend, himself a Vietnam Vet, thought my efforts were worth sharing. I offer it here as my thank-you to the Vietnam Veterans for their service to our country.