Memphis, Tennessee, February 2011
With a beep, the instant message popped up on her Facebook page.
a moment, 62-year-old Cindy Sweet stared at the name, and her heart did a slow
somersault. Ryan Paul Quinlan.
No, it can’t be.
Maybe her bleary eyes were deceiving her. She’d arrived home after getting off
the 11-7 shift at St. Jude’s, and driving home in a cold, near-freezing rain.
Her only thought had been of falling into her king-sized bed fitted with soft
Egyptian cotton sheets, and snuggling under the fluffy down comforter. On her
way upstairs, on impulse, she’d stopped off in the office to double-check the
time of a dental appointment that afternoon, and Facebook had popped up when
she’d moved the mouse.
before she could switch to her calendar, the instant message appeared–from Ryan
heart began to pound, her hand hovering over the mouse. She couldn’t bring
herself to click on the link. To see if it was really him.
it couldn’t be. How could it be?
Quin had died in Vietnam forty years ago.
This is really hard for me to admit, but I miss you. I thought it’d be really
cool to have the room to myself, and it is—no lie! I have to confess, I couldn’t
wait until you left for nursing school, but I do miss having you in the house. I
know we fought a lot but everybody fights with their big sister, don’t
they? You remember my friend, Sherry, don’t you? She’s the one whose birthday is
the day after mine. Can you believe I’ll…we’ll…be turning 14 next month? I’m so bummed you
won’t be here for my party. Anyway, Sherry
and her big sister, Chris, have
knock-down-drag-outs all the time. And she’d give anything if Chris would
Last night I was watching the Miss America contest, and it just wasn’t the same
without you. Remember how we’d always hope that one of those ditzy chicks would
fall on their butts? Ha! Didn’t happen last night either. Miss Texas won…as
usual. I don’t get why Miss Indiana never wins. It’s not like she was a skag or
anything! Oh, well…
Hey, I gotta go. Homework to do…as usual! You know Mom…gotta get homework done
before I can go out and play Kick-the-Can before it gets dark. (Can’t do
homework after supper because I want to watch ‘The Brady Bunch.’ Geez, I bet you
miss TV, don’t you?) By the way, Mom says hi—and to be careful! (She just popped
her head in my room to remind me about homework. Geez!!!) I hate school!
Did I mention that?
P.S. I love you, Cindy. I really do. And I’m sorry about all our fights.
From high in the air, it looked beautiful below, a lush green oasis. Like a photo
out of the travel magazines Aunt Terri kept on the coffee table so she’d look
like the sophisticated traveler she’d always wanted to be. But a few minutes
later, when Cindy saw the defoliated gouges of earth and pitted, dusty roads—by
rocket blasts?─she realized what she’d been gazing at before must’ve been the
last of Thailand, not Vietnam at all.
It was closing on two in the
afternoon, and after twenty-five hours of flight, dressed in her rumpled,
sweat-stained Class-A uniform, complete with clammy nylons and high-heeled
pumps, Cindy felt about as rank as a dirty sock in the bottom of a gym bag. Her
cinnamon-brown hair had long since escaped from what used to be a tidy French
roll, and now hung in damp tendrils on her neck. She’d have to do something
about that before they landed. After all, she
was in the military, and God knew what kind of officers would be there to greet her
at Bien Hoa Air Force Base. There’d probably be some gung-ho types, just
watching for serious “infractions” like─God forbid!─a nurse having her hair touching the collar of her Class-A.
Something like that would surely make us
lose the war!
Cindy didn’t know where such
bitter thoughts were coming from. When she’d left home for Travis Air Force
Base, she’d felt proud and excited to be going to Vietnam—to make a difference
there. To save some lives, or at the very least, to give comfort to those who
couldn’t be saved.
Her heart panged, and a wave of
sadness settled over her as she thought of Gary. So many years ago. She tried to
shake off the melancholy, tried to remember she’d
wanted to come to Vietnam. She’d
volunteered for it. And now, the moment of truth was about to arrive.
The engine of the 727 decelerated
and Cindy felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. The captain’s voice crackled
over the muted roar of the engines, “Stewardesses, please prepare for landing.”
Around her, the atmosphere changed
as soldiers began to wake up and rustle about, studiously avoiding each other’s
eyes. The four other nurses aboard exchanged nervous glances, and Cindy
recognized various emotions emanating from them—excitement, wariness, outright
fear─and she wondered how she looked to them. Like the self-assured 21-year-old
nursing grad who’d finished at the top of her class at Niagara University? Like
the confident young woman who’d gone through basic training at Fort Sam Houston,
learning to shoot an M-16–and doing it pretty accurately–before serving ten
months at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington DC? Or did she look the way
she felt—a terrified girl not quite sure of her medical skills, thrust into a
world she was absolutely positive she wasn’t at all prepared for?
The whining of the landing gear as
it locked into place alerted her to reality–she was here in ‘Nam, and down
there, a war was going on. Within moments, it would be her new world—a world
that hadn’t existed for her until that hot summer night in 1965 when a young
soldier bound for Vietnam had so briefly entered her life.
The stench hit her as she stepped off the plane. It was like a fetid oven—a furnace
blast filled with the stomach-churning odors of animal feces, rotting vegetation
and molding garbage overlaid with exhaust fumes from trucks, jeeps and
airplanes. As Cindy descended the roll-away steps placed against the 727, the
heat curled around her, wilting her already-damp hair, pooling inside her
panty-hose and turning her bra into a wet, constricting bandage. During the
flight, her feet had swollen, and as she hobbled across the tarmac toward the
terminal at Bien Hoa, weighed down by the over-stuffed duffle bag she’d slung
over her shoulder, the two-inch heels of her pumps felt like stilettos.
heard a roar, like an enthusiastic crowd at a football game, and startled,
looked to her left. The noise had erupted from waving and cheering soldiers
outside the terminal. That’s when it hit her. They were going home. Probably on
the very plane from which she’d just disembarked─their “freedom bird” home. It
would be one long year before there’d be one for her.
she drew closer to the homebound soldiers, she saw they were mostly all young,
like her, in their early twenties. Their eyes weren’t young at all, though; they
were ancient. Eyes that had seen way too many horrors. The “thousand yard
stare.” She’d heard about it from one of the GI’s on the plane, returning for
his second tour of duty. How long did it take to develop a thousand yard stare?
Would she have one, too, at the end of
Chaos reigned inside the terminal. Male bodies pressed together like magnets,
most of them incoming soldiers, inching their way toward the counter manned by
three uniformed soldiers. Cindy got in what she hoped was a line, the only woman
in sight. The tangible scent of maleness surrounded her, arousing a primal
feeling of excitement mixed with fear. Perspiration trickled down the back of
her neck under hair escaping its French roll. She felt vulnerable, almost
hunted. Where were the other four nurses from the plane? Craning her sore neck,
she caught a glimpse of one of them, a redhead with freckles, big blue eyes and
a wide friendly mouth. Probably right off a Minnesota farm. They exchanged a
glance that spoke more than words ever could.
What the hell are we doing here? No
doubt, like her, she was wishing she was back home, milking a cow, and wondering
why she’d ever joined the Army.
Overhead, a gigantic fan moved lazily, doing nothing to cool the air, but
creating an odd, flickering shadow in the dust-molted room that reminded Cindy
of the dark atmosphere in an old Hollywood B-movie. The earthy smell of stale
male sweat wafted over her, and something--a
hand?--brushed against her buttock;
“Sorry,” a gruff voice muttered.
barely suppressed a shudder and looked to her left—right into the hungry eyes of
a young marine.
he wasn’t the only one looking at her, she realized. She felt the stares—from
everywhere, men ogling her. That
wasn’t something she was used to. Men usually shied away from her because of her
height, five-foot-eight…well, closer to five-foot-nine. She’d always been the
tallest girl in school, even nursing school. She’d loomed over every boy she’d
ever dated, which wasn’t many.
Only Gary had been taller.
cheeks burned. Jesus, why are they staring?
Surely it hadn’t been that long since they’d seen a female. It wasn’t as if
these guys had been out in the jungle for months; they were fresh off the plane
from The World. She ran a cautious hand down the back of her skirt to make sure
she hadn’t managed to get it tucked into her panty-hose during her last visit to
the toilet on the plane. No, everything seemed to be in order.
speaking of toilet, she would soon have to go. She glanced around the terminal,
hoping to see a restroom. But, apparently, that was another American luxury
unavailable at the moment. She sighed.
After a twenty-minute wait, she finally made it to the counter. A bored private
stamped her paperwork and gestured to another line forming at the end of the
room. Toes pinching from the torture devices the US Army referred to as “dress
pumps,” Cindy made her way over to it, relieved to see the red-haired nurse
blue eyes lit up when she saw Cindy. She waved, and suddenly Cindy felt better
about everything. The girl was just so apple-pie American, so
comforting, like she was a little bit
of home. Cindy had a gut feeling they’d be the best of friends as they helped
each other get through this year in Vietnam.
After a briefing—and a bathroom break in the less-than-luxurious one-holer in the
building--Cindy followed the others to a row of green Army buses for the short
ride to the 90th Replacement Battalion, a holding facility for
soldiers and nurses until their individual unit assignments came through. The
bus, its windows covered with wire mesh, rumbled through narrow streets,
protected by jeeps mounted with M60 machine guns in front and behind the convoy.
Heat pulsated inside the bus like something alive—an entity bent on sapping
every ounce of energy out of the bedraggled human cargo.
hard-bitten soldier caught Cindy’s eye and nodded toward the screens. “That’s to
protect us from grenades thrown by our friendly South Vietnamese gooks.”
Cindy wiped the sweat from her brow and tried to summon a grin, even though she
didn’t think that was something he should be joking about. He stared back,
iron-jawed, and with a sudden queasiness, she realized he wasn’t joking. Trying
to dispel her dread, she turned away from him and looked out the window.
Vietnam looked pretty much like it did on TV. Bare-footed peasants trudged along
the road, carrying baskets filled with unidentifiable items. Others dressed in
black pajama-like clothes and conical hats toiled in rice paddies. A scrawny
water buffalo lumbered through one of those paddies, an old man following with a
switch that for the glimpse Cindy caught, he seemed to be using quite liberally.
An ancient-looking woman squatted at the roadside, appearing to be selling
something. Clearly, this country, beyond the war, was mired in poverty.
“So, where are you from?” the redhead next to her asked.
Cindy turned and smiled. “Plainfield, Indiana. You?”
the time the buses pulled through the gates of the 90th, she felt as
if she’d known Shelley forever. She wasn’t, in fact, from Minnesota, but from
New Hampshire, but she had had
experience milking a cow. Her father owned a dairy farm.
“Who can we talk to about seeing if we can be sent to the same hospital?” Cindy
asked the sergeant who appeared to be in charge inside the Quonset hut to which
they were led.
gave her a blank look, and then said flatly, “You haven’t been in the Army long,
have you, Lieutenant?”
days later, Cindy found herself assigned to the 24th Evacuation
Hospital in Long Binh. Shelley went to the 71st Evacuation Hospital
in Pleiku, hundreds of miles up-country. And that’s when Cindy learned her first
harsh lesson in Vietnam.
could count on nothing.