Chip’s iron grip dug into my shoulder while his other hand crushed mine in a handshake.
Hey, Frank. Great to see you, buddy. Come on in and join the party.
I lingered for a moment as I considered returning to Marie, but Chip was having none of it.
Come on, he said, tugging my arm. Don’t be shy. You know everyone here, don’t you?
His southern Georgia accent reminded me of home as he led me into a sea of Chief Petty Officers. I waded through the crowd, shaking hands, and exchanging greetings, and took a seat next to Chip at the head table.
It’s so good to see you, he said. How you been? We’ve missed you something fierce. Hey, someone get Frank a San Miguel, will you? Stan, be a good fella for once and sound the bell. Thank you, shipmate.
Stan tugged a line dangling from the ceiling, and the ship’s bell at the bar clanged four times. A few moments later, the door opened, and Marie entered carrying a tray and a beer. The room fell silent as Marie set the beer in front of me. Our eyes met.
A slight smile danced across her lips. I thought the beer might be for you.
I reached for the beer, but jerked my hand back at the touch of Marie’s fingers.
She set the beer on the table. Jumpy, Frank?
Yes. The touch of her fingers reawakened a longing I had suppressed in Vietnam.
Maybe you should go to bed. You look tired.
Yes. Maybe I should, I said, not taking my eyes off hers. Thank you for the beer.
You are welcome. She gave me a smile, her eyes holding mine until she turned and walked out, closing the door behind her. She wasn’t shy, that’s for sure.
Jesus Christ, a voice murmured. Marie never serves anyone.
Someone else said, Yeah, what’d you do to her, Frank?
I leaned back in my chair and hooked my thumbs in imaginary suspenders. Well, boys, some men have it, others don’t. Try not to be too jealous.
Something bothered me after I spoke, though. It was cheap to speak of Marie that way. Maybe I had been in Vietnam too long, exposed to the crudeness of men who knew they might die at any moment. But that wasn’t it. Marie was different. She was too mature, too cultured, too sophisticated. She wasn’t a poor girl from the provinces seeing the big city for the first time. No, that wasn’t it either. It was cheap to speak of anyone that way.
Another guy, Senior Chief Kelly, sneered. Well, you must have done something. She’s always so arrogant.
She was pretty nice to me.
You don’t get out much, do you, boy?
That got my hackles up, but I didn’t say anything.
The loudmouth continued. She’ll sit all night and let Sailors buy her watered-down drinks, but she never goes home with anyone.
Yeah, said Chief O’Brien. She’s as pure as they come.
There was an oily quality about the Senior Chief, a cheap vulgarity in his manner that screamed creep.
Didn’t you ever see a drop-dead gorgeous woman you wanted to take out, buy her drinks all night, and get nowhere? God knows, I have.
I can’t say I have, Senior Chief. I generally treat women as companions, not conquests. But then, what do I know? I’ve been in ‘Nam since we left Hawaii, so maybe you’ve pushed the bar a little lower. Now that I’m back in PI, I want to make the best of the time I have left. I’d rather get out into the provinces than spend all my time drunk or hungover or buying a piece of action.
Well, war hero, you’ll hit the bars in the provinces, won’t you? Or do you plan to present yourself as the All-American Hero and impress the Flips with your boyish charm. Maybe you’ll take photos with the pretty little Filipinas just waiting to grow up so they can move to Olongapo where they can shanghai Sailors into taking them home to their mommies. She’ll probably tell him she’s pregnant, so he does the honorable thing like any hick from the sticks.
You make me sick, Senior Chief. I’ve been in and out of PI for twenty years and have never been treated with anything but kindness and respect. Do you look at all people the same way, or just the women who turn your drunk ass down?
My nerves, still on edge from Vietnam, made my voice quiver with anger. I wasn’t afraid of the prick, he was a scrawny bastard, but I didn’t want to lose my cool and do something I’d regret.
No, Senior Chief, I won’t hit the bars in the provinces. The people I meet welcome me into their homes. In fact, when I volunteer to help at the Catholic orphanage in the Barrio tomorrow, a bunch of Flips as you call them, will be there working alongside other Sailors too stupid to realize they could be in town getting drunk. Wait, I can read their letters home now: Dear Mom and Dad, I could have helped repair an orphanage in Barrio Baretto today, but I thought it would be better to hang out in a bar and get drunk. Heck, I may never have another chance to travel overseas again, so I’d better make the most of it. Love, Chucky.
Well, ain’t you cute, the Senior Chief said. Looks like I struck a nerve. What, you don’t like it when I call ’em Flips? Are you a Flip lover, boy?
All right, Senior, that’s enough. Chip glared at the Senior Chief. How you talk in private is your own business. I expect your conversation to be civil and respectful in the Chiefs’ Mess, wherever it happens to be. He looked around the room, his hands on his hips.
Chip was a big man, crew cut, steely-eyed, and imposing. Thirty-five years of service backed him up. That goes for all of you. We’re Chief Petty Officers, not thugs. Is that understood?
No one said a word.
All right then, meeting adjourned. Fall out. The smoking lamp is lit. Where’s my cigar?
O’Brien smiled and ran his finger across his temple. In your mouth, Chip.
Oh. Yeah. Someone ring the bell for more beer. My mouth is dry. And if Marie brings the beers to Frank instead of me, we’ll have to have a long talk. Who’s the President of this Mess, anyway?
The meeting broke up. Most of the chiefs left for the base or other bars. A few gathered around a table to play cards. Senior Chief Kelly, red-faced and drunk, dominated a table of Chiefs who appeared annoyed by his presence. Ignored by the others, he eventually left.
Chip and I were the only ones left at our table. I downed the rest of my beer as I watched the door close behind the Senior Chief. What’s the deal with him? Is he always that way?
Paul? Not always. He quit flying last year after his helicopter crashed at sea. He was the only one to make it out. It was ugly. An engine caught fire and spread to the cockpit before they could do anything. The helo spun out of control and dropped like a rock. The pilot was on fire when they hit the water. It’s the last thing Paul remembers.
Poor guy. That’s awful. I might not have said what I did had I known.
Yeah. I knew the pilot. Taught him the ropes during his first tour of duty. He was a fine man, a hell of an officer. Family man, too. He brought the beer to his lips and took a long drink.
Paul’s working with us until he receives orders. I’ve tried to get him transferred early, but Washington tells me the only available billets are in Vietnam. That’s no place for a man in his shape.
Why is he such an ass?
Whatever goodwill people felt for him after the crash evaporated soon after he came here. He was different before the crash: easygoing, cheerful, happy. Not now. He’s arrogant and cocky, talks too much, drinks too much, and resents authority. I sympathize with him, of course, but you can only do so much for someone in Paul’s state. We’ve got him working in Operations, a job he’s familiar with, but the Ops yeoman wants to kill him. If he doesn’t get orders soon….
I’m glad you told me. I wanted to punch him after what he said.
A server entered the room and brought fresh beers and peanuts.
Well, hello there, young lady, said Chip. Now, why is a pretty girl like you working in a place like this?
Oh, Master Chief, said Amy, a pretty young woman of about eighteen. You know I only work here so I see you.
Well, it’s nice of you to say that, sweetheart. Thank you for the beer.
Do you want some food? Mama-san asked me to tell you she bought adobo and pancit.
No, I have to get home soon. I have a busy day tomorrow.
Ok. Bye-bye, Goody-Goody.
Chip puffed his cigar, blowing smoke rings toward the ceiling. Nice girl, Amy. Too bad she has to work in a place like this. But where else can she hope to find the answer to her dreams? She’s well-paid, supports her family back home, and looks for her hero in every Sailor who walks in the door.
Amy walked from table to table serving the remaining beers, the edge of the serving tray between her hip and arm. As she walked through the doorway, she swung her hips around in a smooth dancing move to make room for the tray. Conversation slowed as the Sailors stared, her white short-shorts holding their attention like boys watching cheerleaders practicing.
I cleared my throat and answered. The same thing happens in countries all over the world, Chip.
But it’s so in-your-face here. Poor third-world people looking for a first-world ticket out.
The grass isn’t always greener in the promised land.
No, but the options are plentiful; she just has to get there. I just hope Amy does okay. I hope her Sailor is good to her. He chuckled. If she’s lucky, her Sailor will work for me.
That would scare any Sailor.
Darn straight it would, Frank. Someone’s got to look out for those young knuckleheads. Hey, speaking of knuckleheads, what did you mean when you said you want to make the best of the time you have left? That sounded ominous. Is there something going on with you I should know about?
I hadn’t expected the question. It brought Vietnam back all too vividly in my mind. I rolled the beer bottle between my palms while I took a moment to figure out how to answer.
Chip, you don’t know how relieved I was to leave Vietnam. I don’t mean the normal kind of relief where you get excited to go back to PI and sleep in a normal bed in a normal barracks. No. I mean the kind of relief…. Chip, I cried. I cried like a baby. I sat on the edge of my rack and cried into my arms. I walked around for months with a target on my back. When I got your message, a ton of worry and fear lifted from my shoulders. I feel safe here. But if I go back to Vietnam, I won’t make it out alive. I won’t, Chip. I won’t.
He looked at me for a long moment without blinking. Then he stood, and I stood with him. He took my hand and gripped it. I know it was bad, Frank, and I know what you felt. I had that target on my back just as you did. But it took a bullet to get me out.
He raised my hand to his chest, just below his left shoulder.
That’s where the bullet came out. Feel the other side.
I pressed my fingers to his back.
He stuck his cigar in his mouth and puffed until it glowed.
That’s why some men behave the way they do when they go home, or to Olongapo, or the Gut, Subic, Wan Chai, Phuket, BC Street, Whisper Alley, wherever they go to recover. To get the target off their backs. That’s why the Senior Chief is an ass. Me? I don’t know why I was the lucky one. I went home to Barbara. She was what I needed. Most men go home and live what appear to be normal lives, but under the surface, in the back of the mind, where the heart is missing a piece, is where the faces live. The faces of all the buddies who didn’t make it out, and the faces of all the ones who came out wounded inside. You’ll always see their faces. I guess in a way, that’s how we honor them. But some men can’t deal with the faces. They need someone to help them, but they look in the wrong places. Marie is interested in you. That much was obvious to the entire Mess. I needed Barbara and went home to her. She saved me.
He stubbed his cigar into the ashtray. That’s why I pulled you out, Chief. I didn’t want to see your face the way I see the others. You need someone to save you. Maybe Marie. Maybe Marie will save you.
I had nothing to say in the silence that followed.
The Master Chief let go of my hand and strode toward the door like a wedge-shaped giant.
Now, go talk to Marie. That’s an order.