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Incense & Peppermints

 PROLOGUE

Memphis, Tennessee, February 2011

With a beep, the instant message popped up on her Facebook page.

For 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.

And before she could switch to her calendar, the instant message appeared–from Ryan Paul Quinlan.

Her 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.

But it couldn’t be. How could it be?

Quin had died in Vietnam forty years ago.


SEPTEMBER 1970

 

Dear Cindy,

 

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’llbe 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 move out.

 

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?

 

Love, Joanie.

 

P.S. I love you, Cindy. I really do. And I’m sorry about all our fights.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

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.

She 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.

As 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 her tour?

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; she flinched.

“Sorry,” a gruff voice muttered.

She barely suppressed a shudder and looked to her left—right into the hungry eyes of a young marine.

But 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.

Her 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.

And 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 already there.

Her 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. 

A 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?”

By 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.

He gave her a blank look, and then said flatly, “You haven’t been in the Army long, have you, Lieutenant?”

Two 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.

You could count on nothing.

 


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