Colden, NY January 1970
I came home in the dead of winter. I didn't tell my folks when I'd be back, just that I was out of the hospital and would be back in a week.
For all of the damage I took, none of it was really permanent. Hellacious scars to add to the other ones I'd picked up, but the flesh healed, eventually.
The spirit, though. I was numb. I was almost at the end of my contract with the Army. I could get out, but I couldn't make up my mind.
Maybe I'd spent too much time in the Nam. I'd been there 40 months of the 48 months that I'd been in the Army so far. I'd seen a lot of life and death in those days, and I was tired, tired far beyond my years.
I only spent two days at home that trip. I know I hurt some folks feelings, but I couldn't stand it.
Dad had been in the Army in WWII, but had been what I'd now call a REMF. I still loved him as my father, but now…
We talked a little, late that first night. I had gone up early. My brothers had both wanted to hear war stories, but I didn't want to tell any. I had lost a lot of weight this trip, too, especially after not eating solid food for almost two months, letting my punctured intestines heal. Mom kept trying to get me to eat more, but I only picked at her fine cooking.
My sister was in her rebellious stage, was on her way to becoming a anti-war protester. She didn't say much, but kept muttering "babykiller" under her breath and glaring at me when she thought nobody was looking. She thought my injuries were what I deserved for serving an unjust régime.
I excused myself early, claiming fatigue from the healing process. It was only half a lie.
I was laying in my old bed, in my old bedroom. They'd left it the same as I'd left it when I went off to boot camp. I was staring at the wall when my dad knocked and asked to come in.
He sat on my bed, the way he always did when I was a kid.
"Rough, wasn't it." He said.
"You got the stare." He said, "we called it the "thousand yard stare" when I was in."
I nodded. I knew what that was. When I closed my eyes, and even when they were open, I kept seeing Phan Rang again. I kept seeing Kim, and burying her burned body. I kept seeing all the bodies that day.
"I was an artilleryman." He said. "155, big guys, so we could usually stay well back and shell the shit out of whatever the infantry and armor ran into." He looked at me "We lived in nasty conditions, but it was better than what the infantry had to endure." He said.
"And…I dunno what to think about your wife. I wasn't sure about you marrying a Viet girl, but I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt." He said. "But her getting killed like that." He shook his head. "I don't like to think of losing your mother, but I know I gotta think about, just a part of getting old. But I can't even imagine losing her in a war zone like that…I'd like to say I understand what you're going through, son, but I can't. I don't even want to imagine what kind of hell you went through, boy, and just trying to imagine it scares the crap out of me." He said gruffly.
The next morning, I got the Mustang out of the barn. Dad had kept it under a tarp for me. He'd gone out and idled it for 30 minutes every two weeks. He'd kept the keys locked up, and had most definitely not allowed my brothers to drive it. My little brother had wheedled for months, because he wanted to drive it to the Prom, but Dad had not relented.
It started right up, and I pulled it up to the house.
"It's terrible that the Army is making you go right back like this." Said my mom. "You've hardly been back a day."
"Needs of the Army." I lied to her. "They want me back at Fort Riley to train up some more kids for the war."
"But you were injured so badly." She said, wringing her hands. "You need some time to recover."
"I'm fine, Ma, really I am." I said, "tell Sue, Jim and Mike that I'm sorry I had to leave before they got back from school."
"I swear, I ought to write a letter to our congressman." She said. "This is not right."
"Mom, Mom," I said, "Leave it alone, I'll be fine."
"You make too many waves, Hon, it'll be even tougher for him." Said my dad. "Leave it alone, dear."
I hugged them and headed down Route 20, out to the New York thruway, interstate 90, and Fort Riley.
"Why'd you check in so early?" said the CQ. "Says here, you got another three weeks. Convalescent leave. " He was a pimple-faced Spec 4, and he had an Expert Infantry badge, but no combat ribbons.
"Staff Sergeant Sherman wants to check in early, that's his business, Kaman, not yours." Said a burly SFC from behind him.
"Damn, First Sergeant!" said Specialist Kaman. "I wish you'd quit sneaking up on me like that."
"Kamn, if you'd get your head out of your ass a little farther, you'd know what was going on, and I wouldn't be able to sneak up on you."
First Sergeant Morris stuck his hand out, "Pleased to meet you Staff Sergeant Sherman, come on in to my office."
Buffalo NY Feb 2009
I came home to find Samantha shoving a suitcase into her car and crying.
"What's the matter?"
"It's my dad, Joe, he's really sick"
"What happened?" I asked. Joe had seemed in the bloom of health when I met him in October.
"He had an infection last month. They gave him something to treat it, and he had a bad reaction, almost died."
"OK, let me drive you to the airport." I said, "No need to pay parking fees, and you can call me when you get back."
"Can't afford a ticket" she smiled sadly, "and my mom was too shook up, I figured I'd just drive."
I'm one of those old guys that watches the Weather Channel the way some people watch MTV. "There's some nasty storms along that route." I said.
"I can make it" she said.
"Here, let me get you a ticket, and we can work it out later, kid." I said. We went inside and I got a flight on Delta direct to Atlanta. I dropped her off at the airport half an hour later.
She kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks a whole bunch, Joe." She said.
"Get on the plane, see your dad, call me later." I said, and she headed into the airport.
She called me the next evening. "Hi, Joe."
"You sound good," I said, "How's your dad?"
"He's stable." She said. "He donated a kidney to my cousin, something like ten years ago, and now his remaining one is going bad due to the drug reaction."
"That sucks." I said. "Any chance of a transplant?" I said.
"Well, for some reason, my mom and I are incompatible for him." Said Samantha. "We're trying for a random donor now."
"Look," I said, "I'm on the organ donor transplant list," I said, pulling a card out of my wallet, copy down this number and have your doc check if I'll work."
"But Joe," she said,
"Look, check it, and see if it's compatible." I said. "We can talk about the rest later."
She copied the number of my transplant file, then we chatted about some other things before she hung up.
The next day, the world flipped upside down for me.
I got a call from an Atlanta number I didn't recognize. "Mr Sherman, I'm Dr. Wilhelm, I'm Mr Hong's Nephrologist."
"Hi, I'm Joe Sherman, how's Joe doing?"
"Well, he's doing OK, Mr Sherman, although we'll need to take his necrotic kidney out soon."
"That's good. I like Joe, he's a good guy. So what's up, doc?" I said.
There was a pained silence for a second, then Dr Wilhelm continued. "Mr Sherman, I have to admit, I see a lot of things in my profession, but this is somewhat strange."
"Cut to the chase, Doc, and spit it out?" I said. "I'm not one for mysteries."
"OK, Mr Sherman. Yes, you are a tissue match for Mr. Hong." He said.
"Cool. So when do you want to do the transplant?" I said. "I'm no Doctor, but the sooner the better, isn't it? I can free up my schedule easy."
"Mr Sherman, the emotional well-being of my patients is important to me."
"So?" I asked. "And what does that have to do with the price of rice in China?"
"Mr. Sherman, I notice that Mr Hong and you do not share the same last name. Are you aware that he is your son?"
There was a roaring in my ears and I felt faint. How?
"Doc, I'll be on the next flight to Atlanta. Let's talk about this when I get there."
Fort Riley, February, 1970
I was teaching at the Scout/Sniper School. Somebody up at the Army Headquarters Level had finally got their head out of their butt far enough to see daylight, and had realized that snipers were highly effective in Viet Nam.
I mean, getting good shooters was not too bad. Lot of kids grew up hunting in those days, so marksmanship was mostly unlearning bad habits. It was teaching them to hide, teaching the patience to scout and locate the targets. Tracking was a skill that these kids didn't know and had never learned. I was good at that, and decent at teaching it.
My problem was, I felt was walking in a cloud, like the world was ten feet away. They called me the Iceman, because I showed no emotion, never talked to anybody, any more than was absolutely necessary. I only went to the NCO club when I had to, most of the time, I just went to the package store and drank it in my room.
I went to the gym and worked out for hours every night, ran miles and miles of the Kansas Prairie, rarely went off post. I really had only one thing I needed to go off post for.
There weren't any whorehouses in Kansas, but there were some hookers. I'd find'em, but I started to pay them extra just to shut up. I didn't want any conversation, just needed to get my ashes hauled. A lot of the girls started ducking out of the way when they saw my Mustang coming. Didn't matter, I could usually find a girl that wanted money more than conversation.
And so, it got to be June, and I needed to decide if I wanted to re-up or get out.
I knew if I re-upped, I'd be going back to 'Nam. Wasn't sure if I really wanted a third tour. We were starting the draw down, but the Army was short of NCOs. I'd be going back, probably as a Master Sergeant in a Leg Infantry unit. All the awards and decorations in my file was going to make me a prime candidate for that shit. The extra cachet of the "data masked" crap for my SOG tour, and the Silver Star with the "classified location" crap for the Battle of Phan Rang was making me a candidate as a young Master Sergeant.
I just didn't know if I wanted it.
And then, I got another option.
His name was, he said, Mr. Smith. I never got a first name. He was like a cliché from a movie – well, hell. Ever see that Science Fiction movie that was out a few years back – yeah, "The Matrix"? Remember the guys in the grey business suits with the dark glasses? That was him.
Atlanta, GA Feb 2010
Two hours later, I was on a Delta Flight to Hartsfield. My mind was a chaotic jumble of emotions and thoughts. How?
The only thing I could think of, was that, well, I banged a lot of hookers when I was in 'Nam. I didn't always use a condom, and there sure as hell weren't many boom-boom girls, if any, on the Pill. Lot of Amerasian babies were left behind when we left. A lot of them had died in the Communist takeover. Well, hell, a lot of PEOPLE died in the takeover. But the Amerasian kids, innocent of anything but the sins of their fathers had taken a lot of willful neglect.
And Joe's story? That his father had died on that raft? Who knows? Many a single mother has become a "widow". Sounds better than abandonment. He didn't look Amerasian – the story, that his father was Chinese, appeared plausible, at least to look at him.
The thought that I got a woman pregnant, and I abandoned her, made me sick. I mean, the self-centered little prick I was back then – well hell, in many ways, still am – might have walked away and laughed.
But, maybe God or Fate or whatever was giving me a second chance.
If I had been a cruel and thoughtless bastard back then, at least I could try and make something up to Joe and his family now.
Langley, VA July 1970
They call it "The Farm". You work for the CIA, everything is code words and euphemisms. Nothing is real, nothing is written, it's all call signs and "Need-to-know". SCI – Special Compartmented Information – and if you ain't in that Compartment, forget it, you don't need to know.
It was a strange life, but it fit where my head was at then. I was a messed-up man, making my way in a messed up world.
Those first few years, I was mostly doing working for the paramilitary side of the CIA. Mostly in Indochina at first, Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, then, as the US forces pulled out, more stuff in South Vietnam.
I honed my Russian skills to go with my Vietnamese and French, and started pulling operations as a with the cover of a Russian officer working with the Viets. As the US stopped being interested in Southeast Asia, I started branching out. Trips into Afghanistan, Iran, that sort of thing.
I was on an emotional roller coaster. On a job, I was the Iceman, mostly a cold, unemotional mission oriented bastard. We'd be out for a year or so, then we'd come back and have two or three months off. I met Ron's mom like that in '76, was going to quit and settle down, but…didn't work out. I tried it twice more, then gave up.
I had a Titanium card at The Mustang Ranch, later, at the The Bunny Ranch. Lot cheaper than getting married and divorced, I found out.
Finally left the Agency, Got out for good in '91. My body was telling me I wasn't a young man anymore. The money was good, so that, even with three divorces, I still had enough to buy this house, and the one next to it, and put Ron through college. Hell, I went through college at the same time, got myself an Engineering Degree. I still do the occasional consulting job for them, but no more operations.
I figured I'd settle down, be the crotchety old eccentric grandfather/uncle and live out my life that way.
And now I was in the University of Georgia Medical Center, getting ready to open the door and talk to a son I'd unknowingly abandoned forty years ago.
Atlanta, GA Feb 2010
Joe was sitting up in the bed, talking to Joy. Samantha was sitting in the chair next to her mother. They all looked at me, their faces frozen.
I suppose mine was the same. I had spent the last six hours trying to figure out what to say. I still hadn't found anything that seemed right.
I opted for simple. "Hello, Joe." I put out my hand. "This is awkward." I said. He took my hand, probably just as numb as I was. Joy and Sam remained silent. "I don't know how this happened, what happened, but I want to try…"
Joe laughed. It was a harsh laugh, more like a snort, but there was a little bit of humor crinkling his eyes. "Shit, I dunno if it's the drugs or what, but I can't figure out if I should be mad at you for not being there, or mad at my mom for telling me a lie." He shrugged. "It's like everything I know about who I am is a fake." He said. "Even my name is a fake." He shrugged, "At least know I have a better idea of why my mom didn't mind me putting "Joe Hong" on my business cards, instead of "Cho Hong"."
He shrugged again, and gripped my hand. "I dunno what to think, either, but I'm damn glad you're here."
And then Joy and Sam came around the bed, and hugged me, and it was mostly incoherent babbling and happy tears.
Doctor Wilhelm came in, and Dr. Nutall, the Transplant Surgeon, and the discussion turned to matters medical for a bit. They wanted to get Joe stabilized and in better physical condition. They needed to run some tests on me, to make sure my kidneys were in good shape, worth transplanting, and if I could function on one kidney.
"You are a bit older than our usual donor." Observed Dr. Nuttall. He was a classic Scotsman, his MD was University of Edinburgh, and I trusted him the first time I laid eyes on him. "Even if all goes well, it could shorten your life by a few years."
"No sweat, Doc," I replied. "Everything seems to be working so far, but I got, what, maybe 20 years left before something major fails on me?" I shrugged. "If Joe can get thirty-forty years out of my spare kidney, more power to him." I put my hands up, palms out. "Doc, I been living on borrowed time for the last forty-some years. What's a few years, give or take? Give Joe a few more years with his kids and grandkids."
They went out. Joe put his hand on my arm. "A few less years with YOUR kids and grandkids." He said. "I didn't find you after all these years just to lose you again real soon."
And then the door opened, and a ghost walked in.
I had my back to the door, so I didn't see her at first, but I heard the voice. I'd never heard her speaking English, but I stood frozen, remembering a waterfall and a voice that still reminded me of little silver bells.
"Joe, what is happening? I come as soon as I can get a flight back to US. Kim-buh-ly calls and leaves message at hotel that you are very sick, maybe dying, but she can't explain why, that you need kidney transplant or something…."
I turned, and saw her for the first time in forty years. We were all silent for a second. Then I said, "Chao Ba, Bao Be." – Good morning, my beloved. The same greeting I had used when I woke up to next to her every morning.
She was frozen in shock. She reached out a hand to touch my face. "Joe?" she said. "But…I saw you die. I saw them put you in a body bag and put you in the helicopter. Bac si said you lose too much blood. You dead."
I touched her face. It was still a beautiful face, though wrinkled and worn by forty years of living. An old scar ran from her ear and disappeared into her collar. "You were burned to a crisp. You were dead. I buried you." I said. "How?"
She laughed. It was a bitter laugh. "Van. You buried Van. She liked to dress up and pretend to be me. She was wearing my pajamas, and my ring, on the night the attack happened."
"What happened to you?" I said.
"Van was killed right away. They threw grenades in. I had wounds, but not deadly. Uncle Nguyen takes carbine, goes out front and dies fighting. I go out back with Hien and Vao and we hide in jungle. Village burning, trees falling, I get hit by –something-" she pointed to her skull, I am unconscious for many hours." She shrugged. "I wake up, I see you burying somebody – later I find out, is Van, and old Mai-lee stabs you, kills you."
"But why didn't you go to the Americans?"
"All Americans injured, leave on helicopter." She said. "New Americans come in, don't know me. All documents burned in house. Church burned, priest dead. New Americans say, no documents, we don't know who you are. Think I am lying. Say "no records of Staff Sergeant Sherman being married to Viet." So sorry."
I winced. There were always Viet woman claiming they were married to GIs, claiming that that some GI was a father, especially a dead GI. I wondered if that bastard Kowalski had conveniently misplaced my marrage paperwork. I thought –briefly- about tracking down the bastard and killing him, if he was still alive.
"So I go to Saigon. Father laughs at me, tells me, "you love Americans so much, go find another one." I am in street, with just rags. Hong Fat, Nung leader, finds, me, finds me job with his cousin, Chinese druggist in Cholon. Then I find out I am pregnant." And she put her hand on Joe. "Hong Chen, he is good man." Her eyes were full of tears. "Family is all dead in war. Wife, children, all dead. So he marries me, raises Joe as his own. He knew Joe was your son, but he loved him – in the time we had together."
She smiled, but it was a hard smile, with no humor. "Then Saigon falls. Life under communists is bad, and Hong Chen is afraid, if anybody finds out Joe is American, life gets even worse. So, we sell everything, get on raft. Hong Chen lasted almost to end. He died day before US Navy picks us up, might have lived, but he gave last bit of water to Joe."
I was not ashamed to cry. This man I had never met, had raised and protected my son with his own life. And I had been in Vietnam at the time, but never knew Kim was alive, never knew Joe even existed.
And so we came to the present. Joe is doing fine with my transplant, Samantha is still attending law school at UB, and Kim still runs her restaurant in Marietta.
I suppose if this was one of those sappy love stories, we'd ride off into the sunset together, and live happily ever after. But…
We had three months together, in sixty years of life. Most of our lives, we've lived apart, and it isn't like we have a need to be together. And we're sixty years old – hot sex is just not as exciting as it once was…although, I gotta tell you, it is still good.
And so, I'm getting so that the cabin crew on the Atlanta-Buffalo run is starting to recognize us as frequent travelers. I'm not sure where life is going from here. But it's good, and I guess that's close enough to "happily ever after."
Comments are always welcome.
As I said…this all pretty much happened to somebody, including the war orphan that ran into his father through a tissue-match in a donor program…but, as I said, don't ask me question unless I've already talked to you about it…because I'm not answering, unless you've got a court order, OK? It's more of a compilation of about twenty people's stories I've heard over the years of working Veteran's Outreach Programs and just sitting in the VFW and DAV, and other Service clubs.