I wasn’t going back to Vietnam! Neither was Sam. Chip and the Command Master Chief said we had been there long enough. Others who needed the time in-country would replace us. I hadn’t felt such relief in months. The news drained the tension from me like I was shedding a layer of skin.
Sam and I walked through the hangar bay like changed men, calling out greetings and shaking hands with shipmates we hadn’t seen in months. We walked to the bus stop but missed the bus by minutes and decided to walk to the chapel. Chip would follow later after a late-breaking meeting.
Chaplain Roland was working in the flowerbed when we arrived. I called out to him. Hey, Chaps, are you pulling weeds or planting them?
The Chaplain wiped his forehead. Why, hello, Frank. Hello, Sam. You know what they say: when weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to tug on it gently. If it comes out of the ground easily, it’s a valuable plant. He surveyed the chapel grounds with his hands on his hips.
It’s a challenge to keep the jungle at bay. Last week I found a python hiding in the shrubbery. Yesterday, a monitor lizard decided to sun itself next to the rectory. I draw the line at cobras for neighbors, though.
He looked from Sam to me. Welcome back, boys, welcome back. I’m happy to see you both safe and sound. He wiped his hands before shaking ours. I lit a candle and said a prayer for all of you when I heard about the firefight. I’m so sorry for the casualties.
Thank you for the prayers, Chaplain. It could have been much worse.
Yes, it usually is. Let’s pray this war ends sooner than later. I’ve presided over far too many memorial services and sent too many bodies home to loved ones.
I couldn’t agree more, Chaplain. We were silent for a moment before I changed the subject.
Do we have a truck for the supplies?
Why, yes we do. We’ll leave now if you’re ready. By the way, is Master Chief Franklin coming with us?
He said he’d meet us at the orphanage later.
Good. He’s always such a pleasure to have around, and the kids love him. They call him Goody-Goody, you know.
I wondered why the kids at the orphanage would call Chip Goody-Goody? Coincidence? That would be a stretch.
We loaded up and were underway with Sam at the wheel. My spirits lifted as we left the city behind and drove into the open country and away from the ubiquitous diesel fumes that hung over Olongapo like a shroud. On either side of the road, tall, graceful coconut palms lined National Highway like swaying sentinels. Carabao cooled themselves in mud-wallows along the roadside, and sari-sari stores offering cold drinks and snacks to travelers dotted the landscape. I leaned back in the seat as the truck, laden with paint and building material, lumbered along. The orphanage lay near Barrio Baretto, a small village midway between Olongapo and Subic City, favored by many guys from the base for its laid-back atmosphere.
Sam slowed the truck as we passed the hand-painted sign for the Zambales Orphanage. He strained to overcome the lack of power steering as he turned the truck onto a gravel road that nearly formed a U-turn. At the end of the long, rutted lane sat the low, unpainted cement-block buildings of the orphanage. The chapel’s steeple, topped with the cross, rode along the top of a green hedge separating the lane from the pasture. Goats and chickens scattered as we drove into the dusty, gravel parking lot. Sam brought the truck to a shuddering stop next to the dining hall. A sow pig, lying in her litter against the wall and feeding her young, peered with complacence at the truck from beneath her immense wrinkled forehead.
Sam leaned over the steering wheel to look around the grounds. Boy, not much has changed. The place looks the same as the last time we were here.
I shaded my eyes from the bright noontime sun. Doesn’t it, though? That building will look better once they slap a coat of paint over those bare walls. I slid over when the Chaplain opened the passenger door. Are we painting the exterior today, Chaplain?
Not today. Sister Arnalita would like to finish the inside of the new building first. The door of the long, narrow building at the near end of the parking lot opened, and a nun walked out, followed by several other nuns and a large group of children. Here are the Sisters and children.
Chaplain Roland stepped from the truck and looked around. You’ll find the chapel much improved. A former resident blessed the orphanage with a generous endowment that Sister Arnalita put to good use.
The Sisters and what looked like all the children in their care, about thirty kids from toddlers to teenagers, surrounded us. Sister Arnalita, a striking middle-aged woman with a round, friendly, open face, stepped from the group.
Greetings, Father Roland, and welcome.
Hello, Sister Arnalita. They shook hands as the chaplain made introductions. You remember Frank Bailey and Sam McBride. They assisted here several times during their last deployment.
Of course, I do, Father. Sister Arnalita, squinting against the sun until I moved to shade her, greeted us.
Hello, Frank. Hello, Sam. Welcome back to Zambales Orphanage. We are so pleased to see you again. Father Roland told us you would come today. She put her arms around the shoulders of a young boy and girl and gestured to the others. We have new faces since your last visit. Children, say hello…
Sammy, Sammy, you come back, you come back.
A small child rushed from the crowd and ran into Sam’s arms. She pressed her face against his neck and sobbed.
Little Lucy! Hello, darling. So, you missed me? I missed you too, sweetheart. I missed you too. Sam kissed her cheek.
Oh, Sammy. I am so happy you came. Did you like the letters I sent you, Sammy? She added in a whisper, Sister Mary Ann helped me write them. She is my best friend.
I loved your letters, Little Lucy. Tell Sister Mary Ann I said thank you for helping you write them.
Laughter rippled through the crowd as Little Lucy called out at the top of her lungs. Sister Mary Ann. Sammy says to say thank you for writing—I mean helping me write—my letters.
Oh, that is sweet, Lucy. You are quite welcome. Sister Mary Ann left the crowd and took Sam’s hand. Welcome back, Sam. It is good to see you. I read your letters to Lucy many times. They made her happy.
Thank you, Sister Mary Ann. You’ve been so kind.
Sister Arnalita, patting Little Lucy’s knee, smiled. She speaks of you constantly, Sam. We did not tell her that you would be here today; we did not want to get her hopes up only to disappoint if you could not come.
That’s okay. So much has happened. You know, we would have adopted Little Lucy, and she’d be in Spain with Susanna if… well, she’d be in Spain.
I understand, Sam. God bless dear Susanna.
I hoped the Sister wouldn’t ask about Sam’s son. Sam was already on the verge of breaking down; the orphanage held a lot of memories of Susanna, who had often helped with the children before returning to Spain to give birth. I hadn’t wanted Sam to come, but that would never have done; he had spoken with excitement about seeing Little Lucy again.
Little Lucy’s eyes widened as she fingered the silver chain around Sam’s neck. Sammy, can I hold the chain?
Yes, but be careful with it. He slipped the necklace off, removed a golden wedding band, and placed it around her neck.
Ohhhh, she murmured. Pretty. What is this? She held up the medallion, turning it so the ruby flashed in the sunlight.
That belonged to Susanna’s grandmother of many generations ago. It’s belonged to her family for a long, long time.
How long is a long, long time, Sammy?
Before you were born, sweetheart.
What was the other thing you had?
Sam fingered Susanna’s wedding ring in his pocket. Oh, only a ring.
Is Susanna coming back, Sammy?
No, Little Lucy.
Is she in Heaven?
Yes, she is. God needed another angel.
When I go to heaven, will I see her there, Sammy?
Yes, sweetheart. You’ll see her there.
Sister Arnalita cleared her throat. She turned to address the crowd of adults and giggling children.
Goodness, children, come now, behave and listen. Behave, I say, behave. Sisters, if you please. She stood with her hands on her hips and a half-hearted look of vexation while the Sisters rounded up the children. Thank you. Now, children, say hello to Frank and Sam. And you will never forget dear Father Roland.
A chorus of young voices called out greetings. I climbed into the truck bed while the chaplain asked Sister Arnalita where she wanted the building materials.
You may place the materials next to the new medical building. The lumber we will use next weekend when Chaplain Roland and his group of volunteers repair the roof. So, if you like, you may begin painting the treatment rooms. Shall we?
He turned to me and said, All right, Frank, hand down the material, and we’ll pass it along.
You got it, Chaplain. Here we go.
We stopped for a late lunch after unloading and distributing the material. Little Lucy clung to Sam’s side. The chaplain, Sister Arnalita, and I sat together at the head of the long dining table and chatted about the orphanage, future repairs, and our plans for our next tours of duty. Sister Arnalita said she would pray for us to receive orders keeping us in the Philippines so we would always be close to the orphanage. We had moved on to discussing plans for more renovations to the orphanage when a car drove up. A car door opened and closed, and footsteps crunched on the gravel. The door opened, and Marie entered the dining hall.