Yesterday, Barbara wrote a guest contributor piece for us. Today and tomorrow, WCI brings you the first chapter of her story, in two parts.
For a live chat with the author, meet us at the Ink Well (see sidebar of WCI) on Monday at 8:00 p.m. EST.
“Thanks for coming," Debbie said, giving my arm an extra little squeeze of appreciation.
"Hey,” I said, “A promise is a promise.” She had called me earlier that day while I was at work, preoccupied with testing samples in my analytical lab at the Excelsior Chemical Company. When she’d asked me to round out the double date for a dinner party at her house that evening, she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so here I was.
I knew what Debbie was up to. Five months earlier, in February 1981, after I split up with a man who was a close friend of Debbie and her husband Ted, Debbie somehow saw me as her “perfect single woman” friend. Somehow she’d managed to extract a promise from me: that I would help her keep her dinner table evenly set.
The eternal optimist, I wasn’t opposed to meeting new men myself. When I asked about who my date for the night would be, she answered, “Older than you, but you don’t have to think of him as a date. The point is, I know you’ll find him interesting. His great-grandfather was Admiral Peary. Remember? Peary…North Pole? John works over at Vestico with Ted. You’ll like him.”
I wasn’t holding my breath that we’d be a love match, and I was exhausted from working long shifts, but Debbie had a way of talking me into social events, and so I found myself agreeing. Besides, what harm could it cause? It was only dinner.
By the time I’d arrived and she’d greeted me warmly at the door, I found myself relaxing.
“I knew I could count on you,” she said happily, leading me into her living room. “Well, I owe you, big time.” Debbie glanced towards the kitchen, then quickly leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Don’t be put off when you see John. He showed up in a foam neck brace and said he’ll tell us all what happened.” She pulled away, then quickly returned to my ear. “I forgot to mention that he wears a toupee, so don’t stare.” She smiled and, in her sweet normal voice, said, “I’ll be back in a minute.” This should be interesting, I thought, I’ve never met anyone who wears a toupee.
She hurried off to the kitchen where the men had already begun preparing drinks. I sat down on the sofa and looked around. The brass, ceramics, paintings and furniture that Debbie had collected during her time in Taiwan never ceased to impress me, and as usual reminded me of how long it had been since I’d gone off to somewhere exciting. I did a fair amount of traveling for Excelsior, but the places I was sent to could hardly be considered exotic.
“Well, hello there,” I heard a deep voice call. I turned to see John Perry emerging from the kitchen, carrying two drinks. Ted and Debbie followed. Debbie winked at me.
Despite the medical brace around his neck, John was a dashing figure . . . tall, light brown hair, good-looking with a ruddy complexion and mischievous blue eyes. He was well dressed, too, in his tweed jacket and designer silk tie. He strode confidently across the living room. “Rum-and-coke for the lady,” he said, offering me the drink with an impish grin. Debbie was right, I thought. This man was already interesting to me...neck brace, toupee, and all.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the drink. I felt my cheeks flush as he looked me over. I was glad I’d decided to wear my red knit dress tonight. Everyone said red was my best color, and suddenly that seemed important.
Meanwhile, Debbie had set a tray of appetizers on the glass coffee table. John, I noticed, had already fixed a plate and was holding it out for me to take. I thanked him again.
“Debbie,” he said, “you didn’t tell me your friend was such a looker.”
My cheeks burned once more. John settled into a nearby chair, never taking his eyes off me. This was not going the way I had expected. Trying to exert some control, I blurted out, “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” And he did. He started out with an apology for the blue-foam neck brace and explained that a baggage cart loaded with heavy equipment had recently plowed into his neck and back while he stood waiting for a taxi at the Mexico City airport. “But it can’t stop an old Navy man,” he said. He launched into his military career and told me that after his last Vietnam tour in 1969, he’d been denied field duty. Because he hadn’t relished the notion of a desk job, retirement was the better choice. He’d been a captain in the Navy, but at retirement received a tombstone promotion to rear admiral.
“Tombstone?” I asked.
“That’s when an officer, at retirement, is honored by a raise of one rank. It depends, of course, on the officer’s service record. Obviously, it provides higher retirement pay.” He raised his glass.
“Guess you got that promotion because of the Congressional Medal of Honor, huh, John?” Ted asked.
I leaned forward. “You received the Medal of Honor?”
We were off and running. John talked about how the VC had swarmed over his unit’s position. They’d been completely outnumbered, casualties incredibly high. He was nearly killed trying to save several of his men. John’s hand slid to the side of his chest and rested there as he continued. “A fifty millimeter machine gun opened me up good.” He patted the spot on his side. “Real good. Right here,” he sighed. “Lost a lung, you know. Still carry the scar.”
We were all silent for a moment while John leaned across the table to fix himself a plate of appetizers.
“No disrespect intended,” I heard myself say, “but war is always horrible. I believe we had no business being in Vietnam.”
John smiled and began to lay out the usual arguments about the importance of fighting communism, but eventually admitted the war had taken its toll on him. “I still have nightmares about the kids I wasn’t able to save,” he said solemnly. He told us he had to shoot one of his own men who fell into a camouflaged, bamboo-stake-filled pit. Debbie gasped and I shuddered. “He begged me to shoot him,” John explained. “When you’re in the service, you go where duty calls and you do what you have to do.”
I looked away, not caring to hear any more war stories. That didn’t faze John, who seemed to relish talking about it. If I had only known then what I know now . . . that most servicemen don’t like to talk about their war experiences. But I didn’t. So, despite my disinterest in the topic, I found myself listening.
He said he’d been in three wars. He’d lied about his age in order to enlist during World War II, and, at sixteen, joined one of the first Navy SEAL units for underwater demolition. “I was a naval aviator in the Korean War. Got shot down once but landed in the water.” He smiled, remembering. “After two tours in the Blue Angels, I went to Vietnam and was given command of the Black Boats, small and swift. They went up the river into North Vietnam. It was dangerous duty. Very dangerous.”
It was clear he loved to talk about the military, about his experiences. “It’s in the blood,” he commented. “I’m tenth generation Navy. Did you know that, Ted?”
Before Ted could answer, John was already into the topic of a film from the 1940s, starring John Wayne. It was the story of John’s father and how he had started the Seabees.
“Because Dad was story consultant on the set,” John said, “I got to meet John Wayne. Matter of fact, the Duke and I got to be real good friends.”
After offering some inside gossip about the Duke, he joined Ted back in the kitchen to rustle up another round of drinks. Debbie immediately pumped me for my reaction to her guest. I conceded the man was certainly interesting. “But,” I cautioned her, “if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, forget it. He’s almost as old as my mother.”
“Maybe he is too old for you.” Debbie stood, announced that she was going into the kitchen to put on the finishing touches, and started out of the room. Over her shoulder she added, “Or maybe he’s not.”
“Too old for you. Maybe he’s not.”
Read Part 2 of the first chapter tomorrow. . . . Tweet