My Life as Martin Kinney Jr.
The crowd pressed in from every side making me extremely self-conscious of my wallet, which was still in the back right pocket of my jeans. I stood in a sea of black haired people being the only red-head, and my Steelers cap did little to mask that fact. The smell of incense lingered everywhere and the non-syncopated drum beat seemed to push the smoke from the man-sized joss sticks in random directions. Everything looked random. Everything felt random. I could barely see my taxi driver, who was separated from me by nearly ten people, half of whom cut through the scene towards me and the other half who weaved beside and in front of me. Through the chaos there was continual movement but little progress. I continued stepping on toes and plowed through the congestion trying to catch up with my thin, short Vietnamese driver. I placed my hand firmly over my wallet in my back jeans pocket and waited for an opening slightly larger than my big frame that would enable me to remove my wallet so that I could slide it into my front pocket. Suddenly, a violent push from behind jerked me forward nearly knocking over the gaunt old woman wearing a conical hat in front of me. I immediately returned my hand over my back pocket, but it was empty. The wallet was gone. I frantically turned around looking at the crowd which cornered me from every angle, and I reached out and grabbed the arm of a young Vietnamese woman immediately on my right.
“Where’s my wallet? Give me my wallet,” I yelled at her.
She looked in horror at me; I had either frightened her to death, or the con was on. Her face looked so young, so smooth; so frail. I felt like a big white bully picking on a helpless girl. Maybe it was her beautiful guile that sucked me in as Vietnam always does with America. She was beautiful, with long black flowing hair just like dad said. People continued to whip around us in all directions as she stood staring at me pulling and straining as I firmly held her wrist. She was a slender deer meant for sprinting; I was the hunter who trapped her. I didn’t know if she was the thief. There was no way to tell. If she could only give me a smile, like the girl that smiled at my dad under the banana tree, then I might know something. I felt like I held her wrist forever, and she only stared back in terror, looking deep into me with those black innocent looking eyes. I had to let go, so I released her. Her white flowing clothes disappeared through the crowd like a vapor. I stood completely alone, moneyless, in the midst of a thousand people in this strange, exotic land. At least I had done what dad had asked. That was the only comfort I had.
A Father to Me
“Martin, close the door.”
I did. My dad was taciturn to the extreme. We never communicated about anything, except when he felt the need to bully his whims on my soul, which had been nearly every day of my life. I dreaded closed door conversations. They never turned out well.
“Come closer. Sit here.”
I pulled the wooden desk chair from the corner and sat flopping about uncomfortably shifting from one side to the other. My dad’s voice seemed stronger than usual, but he looked pale. He removed the oxygen tubes out of his nose and painfully tried to lift himself so he could sit up. I leaned forward to lend a hand.
“Just sit,” he barked angrily not letting me touch him.
I sat back down and the wooden chair rocked once to the left thudding on the wood floor.
My mom opened the door suddenly.
“What are you doing in there Martin? Get out of here. Your father needs his rest.”
“Woman, leave us alone. Martin, sit back down.”
I sat twisted between a hurricane and a tornado.
“Leave us!” my father yelled at my mother. She glared at me and slammed the door as she left. The silence reverberated for a second. The tension felt normal. Dad cleared his throat and leaned back on his pillow.
“Martin, I’m dying. Soon.”
We all knew it. I didn’t know what to feel. I wouldn’t miss his drunkenness, or his insults; I wouldn’t miss how he picked on every little thing my mother did; I wouldn’t miss how my mom would slap him silly when he came home drunk making him sleep it off on the living room floor. He was my father, but I wasn’t sure if there was anything I would miss about him.
“Martin, I haven’t been a very good father.”
I strained to recognize the words. They seemed foreign.
“Just don’t say anything. I should have been more of a father to you. I shouldn’t have been so hard on you.”
He placed his head back against his pillow and swore. I always hated his vulgar mouth.
“Martin will you do something for me? I don’t feel like I have a right to ask you this, but will you do something for me?”
“Of course, Dad. Whatever you want,” I eagerly edged forward. My eyes felt like they were swelling, but I twitched my hands back and forth determined not to rub them.
“Nam. I was nineteen in April 1969. I was in Tay Nguyen – central highlands. We hadn’t seen any action for a couple days. We were stationed outside Ban Me Thuot. I was out there with two of my buddies Johnson and Newbert. We were just pissing around trying to kill some time. There was this beautiful lake, kind of reminded me of Lake Arthur, except for the vast expanse of banana trees on the one side and peasants with their conical hats on the other. So Johnson and Newbert decide to take a swim. They strip down to nothing and jump in like a bunch of school boys. I told them I’d be right behind them after I go cut a bunch of bananas out of a tree. I walk down about hundred yards weaving through the trees, and these large leaves kept smacking me in the face. I found this nice bunch of bananas just slightly ripe, and I pull out my army knife and start slashing through the limb when sitting on this large rock which jutted out of the bank just ten feet from where I stood was this girl – the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my life. Long black hair down to her waist. She just sat there staring at me.”
My dad stopped the story, coughed twice, and took a sip of water from the bedside stand. I didn’t know what to make of his story. I had never heard him talk once about Vietnam except for all the BS drinking and war stories he would whoop up when his Vet brothers came around.
“She smiled at me and then motioned for me to come sit by her. I swear to God she motioned for me to come to her,” he said in a lazy, dreamy voice. “This was one of those ‘too good to be true’ moments – the kind that happen so infrequently during war that you just believe you’re dreaming. And so it was, I was dreaming, and she was waving at me to come and sit by her. I don’t know what she said to me in Vietnamese, but I just sat right down and talked right back.”
He stared off into the blank white wall for a while, and I could tell he felt a bit of relief. His mind glimpsed something far beyond the reach of lowly little Lyndora.
“She ah, well she kissed me, and then shied back a few feet. Well, I would have been a fool not to know what she wanted. Why she wanted it, I never knew to this day. But you didn’t question gifts back then – not in that hell hole. And so we did it, right there in the banana grove just out of earshot of my buddies.”
I had no idea why he was telling me this. I also had no idea if what he said was true. He always lied about everything, but it was the most he ever said to me in years. He spoke with an unfamiliar emotion almost bordering on happiness. I didn’t know what to say or how to react, so I sat quietly, eagerly waiting to see where this story was going. I could not imagine my dad as a nineteen year old; nor could I imagine him with a beautiful young woman.
“So you know, after a while we said our pleasantries, and I reached out to touch her face one last time. I had to make sure she was real. Her skin was so soft without any blemish. And I kissed her one last time. Then she stood up and ran up over the hill. She was in white – all white. And she disappeared like a ghost or maybe like an angel. I felt drunk and stumbled back down toward the lake. The guys were getting dressed and started asking me where I had been. When I told them, they got all over my case accusing me of lying to them. I pleaded with them that I told them the truth, but they continued to shake their heads and push me around trying to see or not if I had really been the luckiest guy in the world. They continued ranting and raging as we grabbed our gear and started trekking over towards the rice fields to meet up with the rest of our unit about a mile or so up the road.”
He stopped. His face turned grim and his eyes intense.
“A second later, a bullet rips right through Newbert’s head. It just exploded, and blood shot everywhere. We hit the ground right before Newbert’s lifeless body plopped between us. His eyes stared at me. Johnson yelled at me that we had to get out of there, that there wasn’t any cover from the sniper. He said we had to get over the ridge of the rice field. But I just laid there looking at Newbert staring at me. His eyes seemed to bulge out. He had a huge hole right behind his left ear. We didn’t know where the sniper was, but Johnson was right. We were sitting ducks. Johnson yelled non-stop at me, but I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying until I suddenly heard the word ‘now’. He got up and started running, and I was not two steps behind him. Another shot rang out as we headed toward the first rice paddy. If we could get over the first embankment we’d at least have some protection.”
He stopped again. I had for a moment forgotten where I was. It wasn’t my father I was listening to. Not the father I knew. It was someone magical, unbelievable. Someone I wanted to hear more from. Someone I didn’t want to die.
“And then,” his voice broke up and tears began streaming down his face – the face of a stranger. “Johnson jumped up over the embankment and into the rice field and,” he paused again. “He disappeared. The rice field swallowed him. He sank. The hell-hole of Vietnam swallowed him up.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. But he paused for a long time and wiped his face coughing a few times. He was severely agitated. His right hand shook up and down.
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“Dad, the doctor said…”
“I don’t care what the doctor said, I’m dying. Ah…” He leaned back again and took a deep breath. “You see, he had jumped right into a B52 shell hole. He was killed by his own army. Those B52s would rip a huge hole out of the ground. When it happened to be in a rice paddy, the flooded field would cover right over the damn hole. It was completely invisible. Then along comes some sorry sack like Johnson, and he hops right into the hole with a seventy pound pack on his back and sinks right to the bottom drowning in five seconds. I had jumped over too but hung onto the side of the embankment after I saw Johnson go under. I shimmied over about twenty yards and carefully slid down feeling with my legs to see if there was dirt under the paddy water or not. There was, and so I curled myself up in a ball and just laid there in the mud and water for hours. I thought about Newbert, and I vomited all over myself. Then I thought about Johnson laying just fifty feet away at the bottom of the shell hole. Get it. Shell hole. Hell hole. All the same. I wished I was in the hole with him. Then I thought of that girl – the angel. Her skin. Dark and soft. So smooth. It had to have been a dream. I longed for her to come to the paddy. I longed for her to be with me in the mud and water. I longed to stay with her forever. She was so beautiful. I have never forgotten her face.”
He looked so white, like he was living his last breath. I felt as if he was talking the life right out of him.
“After dark, I finally got up out of the mud, climbed up the embankment and weaved my way through the fields toward the flickering lights to the north. I don’t really remember walking back to my unit, but I remember getting there and telling my commander about Newbert and Johnson. He told me we’d need to go out in the morning to find their bodies. You know, before that night I never drank a lick of alcohol in my life. Your grandma went to the Methodist church over on Main. She would have whipped me if I ever tried the stuff here in Lyndora.”
Two images I couldn’t grasp – my dad going to church and my dad not drinking.
“But that night I had a whole lot of whiskey. A whole lot,” he faded out for a moment. “A whole lot. Martin, that was the last day of my life. There in the banana trees, that was the last time I ever lived. I’ve been dragging you and your mother through the muddy rice paddies of Vietnam for 40 years. I married, I had a child, and I’ve lived my whole life in this town, but I left everything in that hell-hole of Vietnam. My future wife, my future child, my religion – they all drowned with Johnson that day. They all sank with him and laid there on the bottom.”
Dad paused again, but he had barely any expression on his face at all.
“Martin, I’ve been a terrible father.”
“No, Dad,” I tried to say something encouraging to him, but he glared at me with venomous eyes as if he would not accept any more lies in this house. Not on his death bed. He would not be comforted; especially not from the one he hurt the most. I couldn’t hold the tears back anymore, and I wiped my eyes ferociously trying to hide them.
“Martin, will you do one thing for me?”
“Anything Dad. Anything.”
“I want to be cremated. I want you to take my ashes to Tay Nguyen. Find the little lake just southeast of Ban Me Thuot and pour my ashes between the banana trees. Will you do that for me son?”
“Your mother won’t allow it. She will try and…”
I stopped him before he could say another word. I knew what he would say, and I knew he was right. My mother would never allow me to go. Even though I have celebrated thirty six birthdays, I had hardly grown into a man. I knew it. There was never any time to grow up in this house. I was a thirty-six-year-old junk food eating child, who let his mother belittle him and his father make fun of him. I had never even been across the Pennsylvania border let alone in a foreign country. I worked in the stockroom of K-Mart for the last nine years. I spent Tuesday nights bowling and Sunday afternoons watching NASCAR. I hadn’t had a real talk with a girl in ten years. Hadn’t dated one in fifteen. I was 250 pounds with a scraggly red beard. I was convinced that besides Tuesdays and Sundays I had the most miserable existence in the world. I was the buffer between two people who hated each other for as long as I could remember. Now this stranger – this father I never knew – was leaving me by telling me stories that made it all somehow make sense. He had died in Vietnam. I was another consequence of the war – a by-product of a time period that nearly drowned a whole generation.
“Dad, don’t worry. I’ll do it. You can count on me.”
Then he looked at me and said something else so strange, so wonderful, so life giving that I couldn’t help but cry some more.
“Thank you, son.”