by Tom Ray
Ken had never used a car dealer’s service department before, and was worried about what to do while he waited for his car to get fixed. He didn’t want his daughter, Christina, to pick him up at the Ford dealership. She’d offered to do it, of course, but since he’d been living with Christina and her husband Mark, he’d been careful not to impose.
He had thought he might walk to a restaurant near the dealership to wait. The nearest one was a Waffle House three blocks away, which would be a problem because of his weight. Walking a lot hurt his feet, knees, hips, and back. He’d worked in retail sales all of his life, and had to retire when he was sixty-six. That was earlier than he could afford, but it hurt too much to stand around selling furniture, appliances, or men’s clothing. He expected the Ford dealership would have him stand around the service bay, or maybe in the showroom, while he waited for the car to be fixed.
The Ford dealer’s “service advisor” was nice, and didn’t make Ken feel stupid describing the funny noise his old Ford Escort was making. He surprised Ken when he showed him to the waiting room, through a glass door off of the service bay. One of the waiting room’s walls was glass, giving a view of the showroom. The sunlight streaming into the showroom gave the waiting room a bright, airy appearance. There were fifteen or so well-cushioned chairs arranged against the remaining walls of the room, along with a small sofa. There was a coffee table in the middle of the room, and end tables beside each row of chairs, with magazines on all of the tables. Two TVs mounted on the walls at either end of the room were tuned to CNN. A counter in one corner held two coffee urns bearing little signs marked “Regular” and “Decaf,” flanked by columns of Styrofoam cups, a basket with packets of nondairy creamer, sugar and artificial sweetener, and a cup full of stirrers.
Half a dozen people were already there. After getting a cup of coffee, he decided on the younger man, probably in his thirties, sitting next to the wall with two vacant seats beside him. He took the second seat over from the young man, leaving a vacant chair between them. Ken figured it was the guy’s day off, since he was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals. He had close-cropped hair and a couple of days’ worth of stubble like the young guys wear these days. Unlike the other customers, the man wasn’t reading, but staring disinterestedly at the TV.
After Ken had been sitting there for a few minutes CNN began a report on the war in Iraq. To start the conversation he said, “That war’s bad stuff.”
The man glanced at Ken, not with a hostile look, but not with a friendly one either. “Yeah.”
“You use this place much? My son-in-law usually fixes my car, likes to fool with cars, kind of as a hobby. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it this time, though. It was making a noise. He’s pretty good with cars, but he said I’d better take it to the dealer. Used to, I’d go to somebody I knew, with their own garage, but all my buddies that work on cars are dead or retired. Mark, that’s my son-in-law, said I’d be better off coming to the dealer, rather than go to an independent. It might look like they charge more, but they’ll get it done right the first time he said. ‘Course, that’s not always true.”
“I’ve had pretty good luck with them here. They get it done, and I don’t feel like they make up stuff that has to be fixed.”
He was relieved that the man answered back. From his expression Ken hadn’t been able to tell if the guy was even listening to him, and he was afraid he might come back with a one-word answer, or no answer. “That’s good to know. I’m Ken Maples, by the way.” He stuck out his hand, and was pleased that the guy shook hands with him.
“Nice to meet you, Jason.”
Ken sat quietly sipping his coffee, until the TV news came on with more war coverage, this time in Afghanistan. “Man, that’s bad stuff. Reminds me of Vietnam.”
Jason didn’t say anything. Finally Ken went on, “Were you ever in the military?”
“No, I never was.”
“Good for you. I’m glad I went, but it was rough, buddy. The heat and humidity. Not like the desert, but humid.”
“Bad either way, I guess.”
“Oh, yeah. I don’t know which is worse, the desert or the jungle. I was a Green Beret. A lot of pride in that, but it was rough.”
“I imagine it was.”
“Have you ever heard of Tet of Sixty-eight?”
“I think I may have. Was that a big battle or something?”
“It was an offensive by the VC, or Charlie as we called him, and they attacked all over the country. I was in a base camp up in the highlands. The intel hadn’t given us any warning, just all of a sudden they started lobbing mortar rounds and rockets in on us. I was asleep in my hooch and the shooting woke me up. I grabbed my M-16 and ran out in my skivvies. We had a couple of M-60s in positions on either end of the compound, both blazing away at gooks in the wire. That’s the barbed wire, concertina wire we put around the perimeter to keep the gooks out.”
“What’s an M-60?”
Ken was glad Jason had asked the question. It not only meant he was listening, but also that he didn’t know much about the war.
“It’s a machine gun. Anyway, there were so many gooks in the wire at this point that the lieutenant set off the foo gas.”
“What’s foo gas?”
“Oh, sorry. It’s napalm and gasoline mixed together, and we’d store it in fifty-five gallon drums along the perimeter. When we detonated it, it’d blow up and spread fire all over whoever was close to it, and keep on burning. When the lieutenant set it off a whole bunch of them fried in the wire, but they kept on coming after the fire’d died down a little….” He went on, interrupted only occasionally by the younger man asking questions. He described calling in air support, and talked about the “prick 25” radio, and AK-47s.
“That must have been the worst day of your life.”
“One of the worst. The worst was when they sent my Special Forces team in to get our guys out of a POW camp. It was in a compound out in the jungle in North Vietnam. They dropped us five miles from the compound. The gooks would have seen us right away and wasted us if they’d dropped us any closer. So we rendezvoused after we were all on the ground, and marched to the prison. We got there in a little over an hour. We came up to the top of this hill, and there it was, a few hundred yards below us, with a barbed wire perimeter, little old one-story sheet metal buildings with two guard towers and search lights scanning the area….” He went on describing how his team breached the barbed wire, and took out the guard towers and finally found two American prisoners of war, the rest having been moved just prior to the raid. “I didn’t think we’d ever get out of there and meet up with our chopper, but we did. You won’t read about this anywhere. The mission is still classified top secret. I was proud of my team, but I wish we could have gotten there just one day earlier. We’d’ve gotten a bunch more guys out if we had.”
“Wow. You’ve led an interesting life, Ken.”
“Best time I ever had was when they dropped me into North Vietnam, just outside of Hanoi, just me without a team. There was a VC colonel they wanted taken out real bad. They gave me a map, and a picture of the guy, and instructions on how to find him. His battalion compound was kind of like one of ours, with concertina wire and so on. I had to–” A service advisor came in.
“Mr. Robertson? Your car is ready.”
“OK. Thanks.” Jason got up and offered his hand to Ken. “It’s been a pleasure to meet a great American like yourself, Ken. Thank you for your service. You’re a real hero.”
“Thank you, Jason. It’s been nice meeting you. Have a blessed day.”
He hated to see Jason leave. He was pumped up now, and wanted to keep on talking. The group had dwindled as service advisors had kept coming in to announce that customers’ cars were ready. There was a man about Ken’s age sitting across the room. It was hard to tell with him sitting down, but he looked to be about the same height as Ken, around six feet, but skinny. He had a gaunt face, the cheeks sunken in and the cheekbones prominent. His hair was white, in contrast to Ken’s gray hair, and he had the tan of a guy who spent a lot of time outdoors. A golfer or fisherman, Ken guessed. Like Ken he wore glasses and a baseball cap, but dress slacks, a polo, and loafers instead of the T-shirt, cargo pants, and athletic shoes Ken wore. He was reading a paperback book. Ken didn’t feel like talking to him, preferring younger people.
He decided on the only other remaining customer, a woman in her forties engrossed in some kind of puzzle book. She was a little overweight, but he thought, who isn’t in middle age? Her hair was auburn. Judging by the wrinkles starting to appear on her face, though, her hair probably would have had some gray if she hadn’t applied color to it. She wore nail polish and a little lipstick, and not much other makeup that he could tell. She was wearing pastel green slacks with a sleeveless blouse with a flower pattern that matched the color of her slacks and her small earrings. She wore open-toed sandal wedgies that exposed the red toenail polish matching her lipstick and fingernails. He thought about how if he were younger he might not have noticed her, but now he could appreciate her looks. After all, she was younger than him, young enough to be his daughter. He was about to stand up and move to a seat closer to her.
“When were you at Bragg?”
None of the customers had been talking except Ken and Jason, and it startled him to hear another voice now that Jason was gone. He looked at the old man, who had set his open book face down on his lap. The old man was looking at him.
“I said, when were you at Fort Bragg? I heard you telling your friend you were Army Special Forces. The school for that was at the JFK Center at Fort Bragg, wasn’t it?”
The guy must have heard the stories he told Jason, and apparently knew something about the military. He had to be careful. “Right. JFK.”
“I was there in the nineteen-sixties. At Bragg, not the JFK Center, and not for Special Forces training, just ROTC summer camp. What year were you there?”
“I was there in the summer of 1968. Did you go to jump school there, or at Fort Campbell? Or Benning?”
“Campbell. In 1964.”
“I thought they closed the jump school at Campbell earlier than that.”
“No. It was still open in sixty-four. I was in one of the last classes.”
“Really.” The guy said it in the tone that means, “I don’t believe you.” Then he said, “So when were you in Vietnam?”
“That would have been your first time. You said you were there in Tet of Sixty-eight.”
He had to calm down. The guy had him on the defensive, getting him to make stupid mistakes. “Yeah, I had two tours.”
“So you were in the mountains during Tet of Sixty-eight, in Four Corps?”
“Or was that Two Corps? Four Corps was the delta, wasn’t it?”
“What’d I say? I meant Two Corps. Yeah, Four Corps was the delta.” He was a real smartass, tripping Ken up like that.
“It must have been something to call in airstrikes on your own position. You say you called in both F-4s and Cobras? How would that work? I’d think there’d be a danger of the jets hitting the Cobras. The F-4s would have been from the Air Force, right? And the Cobras from some Army division’s aviation assets, or maybe corps assets. Boy, what a coordination nightmare.”
“I don’t know how they did that.” He knew that wasn’t a good answer, and added, “I was just glad they got there and did their thing.” That was better. He’d been slouching in his chair, and sat up straight now, imitating the erect posture of the old man.
“I bet. I was also interested in the story you were telling that young guy about being dropped into the North to assassinate some colonel. Too bad you didn’t have time to finish telling him about it.”
“Yeah. I really shouldn’t talk about stuff like that. It was classified top secret. Still hasn’t been declassified.”
“Everything is declassified after twenty-eight years, isn’t it?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“You said it was a Viet Cong colonel?”
“What was he doing in the North, I wonder? Viet Cong is what we called the National Liberation Front units in the South. Really part and parcel with the NVA as far as I’m concerned, but still distinct. Why would he have been in the North?”
“I don’t know. I was just told to take him out.”
“Hm.” There was that “I don’t believe you” tone again. Ken wouldn’t have minded if nobody else had been in the room, but the woman was still there. She might hear the guy and think Ken didn’t know what he was talking about. How could she not hear it? Ken and the guy were at opposite ends of the room, talking out loud.
“I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff. I’m a good Christian now, or I try to be. I’m trying to put all of that killing stuff behind me.”
“Where do you go to church, if I may ask?” He closed his book and placed his elbows on the armrests of his chair, apparently settling in for an extended interrogation.
Ken didn’t want to answer, but it would be suspicious if he didn’t. “Freeway Baptist.”
“A good church, is it?”
“I think so. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a bad church.” That was a good comeback. He could beat this guy if they talked about religion. The guy was probably an atheist or something.
“Does it bother you, what you did in Vietnam?”
“No. Why should it?”
“Well, the Bible says you should love your enemies, and turn the other cheek and all that. You killed all those people, that doesn’t sound very Christian.”
“I was fighting to protect my country, for freedom. The Jews fought against the Philistines. A lot of people in the Bible fought for God.”
“That was in the Old Testament. Jesus brought a new message, didn’t he?”
“I’m proud of what I did for my country.”
“I don’t blame you. I was just asking. Where’d you go to language school?”
“All the Special Ops guys got language training, I thought. Where’d you go?”
He’d never heard anybody say anything about language school, and couldn’t think of what to say.
The guy went on, “They had, what, Monterey, Fort Bragg, and Fort Bliss? That was for Vietnamese. I guess for the Montagnard languages they could only send you to Monterey. Which language did you learn?”
“Vietnamese, of course.”
He licked his lips and paused before answering, knowing that gave him away, but he had to pick carefully. “Yeah, at Bragg.” His palms were damp, and he could feel his armpits sweating.
“Was that the twenty-six week course? I didn’t think they taught that at Bragg.”
“No, it wasn’t the twenty-six week course.”
“Oh. The short one then, the twelve-week course? ‘Cause I thought the Green Berets took the twenty-six week course, or even the fifty-two week course. I guess they were so desperate to get bodies into theater that they took some shortcuts.” He was smiling as he said that, and Ken couldn’t decide whether he was trying to appear friendly, or was making fun of him.
“Yeah. I guess so.” He had to keep his answers short. What was the woman making of all of this?
“I took the language course at Fort Bliss. I wasn’t a fighter like you. I was an intelligence officer in Saigon. Tan Son Nhut, really. You probably hated guys like me.”
“Well, good. I did get to travel around some. I had TDY to most of the province capitals in the mountains. Ban Me Thuot, Kontum, Pleiku. Never in combat, though.”
He didn’t answer the guy. He could feel another trap coming.
“Which province were you in? In Two Corps, during Tet?”
“Pleiku.” He’d managed to remember the last Vietnamese name the guy had mentioned. He waited for the trap to spring.
“Interesting place. The air was so clean. Tough place to be stationed, though, I’d imagine.” He must have been tired of tormenting Ken, because he opened up his book and didn’t say any more.
Ken was silently praying for God to keep the guy from asking him more questions, to keep the woman from hearing all of this, to keep the guy from coming to his church. He didn’t want the guy disputing the war stories that he’d told his friends over the years.
A service advisor came in. “Mr. Crossley? Your car is ready. When the technician serviced your car last week he forgot to hit a reset button. The computer in the car thought you were overdue for service. The light won’t come on again, until you really are due.”
The old man walked over and offered his hand to Ken. “Nice talking to you, Ken was it? Always nice to talk to another Vietnam vet, Ken.” He had that smile again, which could have been friendly, or mocking. The guy’s eyes narrowed in a way that seemed threatening. “Freeway Baptist Church, was it? I may go by there. I need to start going to church again. Old guys like you and me had better get right with God, hadn’t we, Ken?”
Ken smiled and nodded as they shook hands. He felt weak, light-headed. He glanced at the woman, still engrossed in her Sudoku. As the guy walked out the service advisor said, “Sorry we’re taking so long, Mr. Maples. They’ve found the trouble. I need to talk to you about it.” Ken went outside the waiting room with the service advisor, who told him the cylinder cover needed to be replaced, and gave him an estimate. Ken agreed to have the work done, worrying about putting a big charge on his credit card.
Back in the waiting room he was bored and restless, but he didn’t want to talk to the woman now. If she’d heard the guy quizzing Ken she might start asking embarrassing questions of her own. Usually someone her age wouldn’t know about the Vietnam War, but he didn’t want to risk it. Maybe she was a nut who’d read up on it, or her dad was in the war and had told her stories. Maybe an Army brat. He pretended to be watching TV, then closed his eyes and again silently prayed that the man wouldn’t come to his church.
After a while a service advisor came back and said, “Mrs. Holt? Your car is ready.” She thanked him and put her book in her purse.
As she walked past Ken on the way out the door she stopped and said, “Sir? I couldn’t help eavesdrop a little bit while you and your friends were talking about what you did during the war. I just want to thank you for your service. I am so proud of you, and want you to know I appreciate what you did for us.”
“Thank you, ma’am. No thanks necessary. I was just doing my duty.”
“You’re too modest. I know better. You served when so many others didn’t. God bless you.”
“God bless you, ma’am.”
Then she bent down and hugged Ken. She wasn’t glamorous, but her plump arms felt pleasantly soft when he returned her embrace, and she smelled nice. He felt a lump in his throat, and his eyes teared up. After she left he relaxed for the first time since the old man had started harassing him.
That was on Thursday. Saturday night his dread of the guy coming to church had become a panic. He told Christina that he wasn’t feeling well, and might not be able to go to church the next day. He lay awake for a long time Saturday night. Even though he had laid the groundwork for not going to church, he began see that that would not solve the problem. If he wasn’t there tomorrow the guy might just come back the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, until he finally caught Ken there. And if Ken didn’t show up, the guy might talk to people in the church anyway, talk about somebody named Ken who went to their church and claimed to have been a Green Beret in the Vietnam War. He prayed that something would happen to keep the man from showing up at Freeway Baptist. He didn’t pray any harm coming to the guy, that would be wrong. He just hoped something would happen to keep him from showing up.
He slept fitfully through the night, and woke up at six o’clock having to pee. Returning from the bathroom, with daylight starting to appear in his bedroom window, he began feeling better. How could a stranger showing up at his church start telling people about Ken, a well-known church member? And if the guy did start talking, why would they believe him over Ken? There were very few Vietnam vets in the church. He could think of a couple of Navy vets, an Air Force vet, and an Army vet. None of them had been in combat, much less been Green Berets. They wouldn’t know that stuff about Fort Bragg, and jump school, and language school. If the guy started in on him he’d just come back at him, bluff his way through it. His friends would run that smartass out of the church. He was scared, and prayed again that the guy wouldn’t show up, but he resolved to fight.
He was dressed for church in a sports shirt, tie, and slacks, eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and drinking coffee, when Christina came down to make breakfast.
“I thought you weren’t feeling well. You look a little tired.”
“I prayed, and was healed.”
“Really? That’s a blessing.” He could tell from the offhand way she said it that she didn’t believe him. She could read him pretty well. That was OK. She didn’t tell his secrets to anybody.
The day started out good. Usually Mark drove the minivan to church on Sunday, with Ken sitting in the back with the two kids. This Sunday, though, Mark didn’t want to go to church, having had to work late Saturday night. Christina let Ken drive, which he liked better than being a passenger.
Freeway was a big church, with several hundred worshipers on a given Sunday. He kept looking for the guy before Sunday school, but with such a big building and so many people, he really couldn’t see whether there were any newcomers.
There were no strangers in his Sunday school class. Somebody kidded him about being so quiet that morning, so he made an effort to perk up. After Sunday school he joined the usual crowd of men who gathered on the church’s front porch in nice weather to await church service. With Sunday school out of the way, this was the only chance the guy would have to embarrass Ken. He had a thought that the guy might stand up during the service, and interrupt the preacher to make a speech. He quickly realized that was a crazy idea he didn’t need to worry about.
As he leaned with his backside against the porch railing to take some weight off of his feet, the men talked about what was wrong with Ken’s car, whether the dealer had charged a fair price, and whether Mark might have been able to fix it. They talked about a woman in the congregation who had cancer. Ken was the only one in the group who had visited her in the hospital, which made him feel good. They talked about the baseball season, and how the university football team would do in the fall. He felt confident among his friends. Nobody would listen to that smartass if he did show up.
As he entered the sanctuary for the service he glanced over the congregation. Sitting next to Christina and the kids, he continued surveying the crowd from time to time. He was still a little tense coming out of the sanctuary after the service and shaking hands with the minister. He relaxed gradually as they walked to the parking lot, greeting friends as they went. Once they were in the car headed back home he knew he had worried for nothing. He said a silent prayer of thanks.
He decided he’d go back to that same Ford dealer the next time he had trouble with the Escort. He’d read up on language school and all of that stuff, and be ready for that son of a bitch the next time.
Tom Ray is a retired civil servant, currently living in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. He worked in government in the Washington, DC, area for 40 years, following his service in Vietnam in the U.S. Army. His most recent story for us was “The Caseworker.”