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Soft Rain Falling

by Carole Bellacera

The World stretched out beneath the lumbering belly of the C-131.  His section of The World, anyway.  Captain Michael Ito peered out the tiny porthole of the cargo plane.  That was his island down there.  Oahu.  Soon, for the first time in sixteen months, he would step upon its familiar soil.

In a matter of moments, he would walk away from the Air Force plane with its cargo of coffins, away from Hickam Air Force Base, away from the military, and home to Waialua...if only for a few days.

His eyes squinted in the bright afternoon sun as he stepped out onto the steps that led to the tarmac.  Images passed through his mind.  Of the ones left behind at the base camp, their bodies torn and blackened and bloody.  He snapped his sunglasses on and slowly made his way down the steps.  The tradewinds brushed his face.  He turned toward the breeze for a moment and stood silently, his eyes closed.  But he wasn't praying.  That was beyond him now.

No one knew he was coming home.  The R & R leave hadn't been scheduled.  It had been ordered by Colonel Atwater after the incident.  Emotional breakdown, they called it.  Mike knew they were wrong.  It had nothing to do with emotions...not the way they meant, at least.  It was anger.  Pure and simple anger.  Vietnam had a way of doing it.  Making one angry, frustrated and finally, apathetic.  Mike knew he wasn't the only field doctor who felt that way.  But perhaps he was the only one who was going to do something about it.

At Hickam's passenger terminal he caught The Bus.  He'd have to make several transfers before he made it home to Waialua, but he didn't mind.  He needed time before he had to face his parents.  Somehow, between now and the time he got home, he would have to drop his army doctor persona and become their son again.  Thanks to Irene, he wouldn't have to pretend to be the loving husband.  After filing for divorce, she'd packed up her belongings and moved to the mainland.  San Francisco, his mother had written.

He didn't care anymore.  Somehow, Vietnam had deadened him to everything he used to care about.

It began to rain as the bus came to his stop.  He hoisted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and stepped off.  The rain was soft against his face.  It was the only thing about Hawaii that reminded him of Vietnam.  The soft rain.  He hated the rain of Vietnam because it should've been cleansing; instead, it reeked of blood.  But in his childhood, he'd loved Hawaii's rain.  The way it would arrive so unexpectedly.  The rain always came suddenly, a shower of fine mist that cooled and moistened the skin for a moment, and then moved away.

As he stood in the tropical rain shower, his duffel bag at his feet, Hawaii began to disappear and he was in the Southeast Asian jungle, surrounded by wet glistening fronds of greenery.  Suddenly he heard the sound he'd come to dread.  The beating whop-whop-whop of the choppers bringing in the wounded.  Every day, any hour of the day.  He saw the kid's face.  Black and grimy and smudged with blood.  The grunt's blue eyes blazed out at him in pain--and trust.

"It's not too bad, is it, Doc?  You're not gonna let me die, huh?"

Quickly, Mike hoisted his duffle bag onto his shoulder and began to walk home through the soft rains of Hawaii.

                                                *     *     *

His parents were overcome with joy to see their boy home again.  Even Dad had tears in his eyes when he hugged him tightly.  Mike wished it made a difference.  Their love for him.  But sixteen months in a war zone had taught him that love never made a difference.  Reality was a bullet or a mine or a shell, and they didn't care who was loved and who wasn't.

Inevitably, the subject of Irene came up at dinner.  Mike bowed his head over his plate and spoke in monosyllables.  But his mother didn't seem to notice his reticence; she just chattered on about Irene.

"I know she hurt you terribly, Michael, and I'm not excusing what she did, but I truly believe she gave it careful thought.  She was too young when you married her.  We tried to tell you that, and of course, Irene just wasn't cut out to be a military wife.  But she tried.  She gave it three years."  She paused to take a bite of chicken.  "I heard from her mother the other day.  She's doing well in San Francisco.  Working at a travel agency."

When Mike didn't respond, his father spoke up.  "Michael, you should see how improved the Rainbows are this year.  Last week, they beat Utah in the last seconds with a field goal.  They have a great quarterback.  Steve Kilhali.  Reminds me of Joe Namath."

"Is that right?"  Mike tried to sound interested.  At least if they talked about football, his mother might forget about Irene.  It worked.  He and his father discussed the sport all through dinner.  The conversation went from college to pro to the Super Bowl.  They discussed the games, the scores, and the individual needs of the teams.

As if it mattered.

Neither one of his parents brought up the war, the protesters, Kent State, Woodstock.  All the news from home he'd read in The Stars and Stripes.  The things that did matter.  But Mike was glad.  There was nothing he could say about any of it without shocking them.  They thought he was in Vietnam serving a noble cause.  A fine upstanding young doctor, saving the lives of wounded Americans, fighting for America.  How could he tell them he was accomplishing nothing in Vietnam?  Mending soldiers and sending them back out into the field to die.  Or, if they were lucky, back to the world to live out their lives in wheelchairs--minus arms or legs or worse.

Perhaps they weren't the lucky ones, after all.

As his mother cleared up the dinner dishes, Mike and his father settled down in the living room to watch TV.  "Rowen & Martin's Laugh In" was on.  His father sat in his favorite recliner and curled his lips around his pipe, only releasing it momentarily when Goldie Hawn bubbled like a popped champagne bottle, inducing a booming belly-laugh.  Then a side-long glance at Michael and a jab at the TV with his pipe.  "Isn't she something?"

Mike gave his father a tight grin and nodded.  When his father turned back to the TV, Mike's smile disappeared.  His eyes fastened on his father's stocking feet propped on the recliner.  One big toe peeped out of a tiny hole in the sock, and somehow, the sight of it made something catch in Mike's throat.  He looked away quickly, knowing he couldn't afford to feel pain--any kind of pain now.  Instead, he studied the top of his father's balding head.

Dad had been in Germany in '42 fighting for the Allies.  At the same time, his family had been in a relocation camp in northern California.  Mike had been just a baby then, but he'd heard the stories of what life had been like there, from Mother and his two older sisters, Barbara and Joyce.  Auntie Linda and Uncle Tommy had been there, too.  He'd heard about the barbed wire, the small drafty shacks, the unsanitary conditions.  Mike had often wondered how his father had done it.  How could he fight for America when America was imprisoning his family?  But Dad never talked about the war.  When he was little, Mike used to ask him about it.  He could never understand why Dad wouldn't answer.  He understood now.

The ten days of leave passed quickly.  Mike went to all his favorite places on the island.  Places where he could be alone.  One day, he drove to the windward side, and at low tide, he waded over to Mokuauia Island and fed the birds.  Although there were other people there, he felt alone.  He watched a young couple splash in the shallow water with their toddler.  They knew nothing of the horror that was going on just across the Pacific.  Only what they saw on the evening news.  Sure, they saw the thousands of body bags that held what used to be American youth.  But when they had had enough, they could turn it off and it would go away.  Not Mike.  His hands were stained with the reality of Vietnam.

Another day, he went into Waikiki.  Nothing had changed there.  Why had he thought it would?  War made no difference to a tourist industry, unless it was in their backyard.  Fat middle-aged men in aloha shirts still took their annual vacations; rich college students from the west coast still had a place to go on spring break.  There were more females on the beach than males, but Waikiki partied on.

Mike didn't stay long.

On his last day of leave, he dressed in his Army fatigues and drove to his favorite place: the ancient Japanese cemetery and sanctuary.  The Valley of the Temples was almost deserted when he pulled into the parking lot at six-thirty in the evening.  He opened the trunk of the car and drew out a small athletic bag.  For a few moments, he stood on the bridge at the Byodo-In Temple and waited for an Asian couple to leave.  For the first time since he'd arrived back home, he felt a sense of peace, as he always did here.

It was quiet.  Nothing but the rush of the stream through the gully below and the call of the evening birds in the nearby foliage.  The couple walked past him, got into their car and drove away.  Mike waited a moment, listening to the quiet.  Then he grabbed the athletic bag and crossed the arched bridge, heading toward the bell.  He paused to read the inscription:

An offering and ringing of the bell brings happiness, the blessings of Buddha and a long life to the ringer of the bell.

He'd been raised Catholic, but only here had he ever found the peace a church was supposed to offer.  Perhaps it was his ancestry calling out to him.

Slowly, he pulled his wallet out of his fatigue pants and opened it.  Two fifties and a twenty.  Crisp new bills that they'd counted out to him the day he'd left Nam.  After he pushed them into the donation box, he stood back and thought about what to wish for.  Peace?  Impossible.  Not in this world.  He pulled back the gong and let it go.  The sound echoed through the stillness.  Eerie and ancient.

Mike spoke aloud,  "My wish is for the other doctors.  That they'll be stronger than me."

He started to walk away, then hesitated.  One hundred and twenty dollars would surely be enough for one more wish.  He made one for his parents.

That they'd understand.

Mike turned and walked to the edge of a pool fed by a small waterfall.  Bright orange and black koi moved lazily toward him as if sensing he would have food.  With a splash, one jumped up out of the water, startling him.  He'd forgotten they did that.

They had been married here.  He and Irene.  In the temple.  For a while, they'd been happy, but it had all gone wrong after he was sent to Vietnam.  Irene couldn't handle the long absenses, and yes, the very real possibility he would never return from Vietnam.  So, she'd chosen to run instead.  To protect herself by cutting out.  And really, how could Mike blame her for that?  Wasn't that what he was doing right now?

Mike turned away from the pool and climbed the stone steps to the meditation house.  Dusk was falling.  He sat down on a wooden bench and listened to the life around him.  The birds, the waterfall, the tradewinds rustling through the trees.

It was an appropriate place to die.

For the first time since his return to Oahu, he allowed himself to remember.  Again, he saw the Nebraska boy's frantic blue eyes staring up at him.  "You won't let me die, huh, Doc?  I've got a wife back home, a baby girl I've never seen..."

Feverishly, Mike had worked over the kid, painstakingly pulling shards of shrapnel out of his ruined groin.  There would be no more babies for this boy.  The surgery had taken over six hours, and finally, he was patched up and stabilized.  All the other casualties had been cleared away, either to the ramshackle hospital or the morgue.  Exhausted, yet feeling something close to a sense of accomplishment, Mike fell into bed and slept dreamlessly until morning.  When he arrived at the hospital ward at seven, he found a nurse stripping the sheets from the Nebraska boy's bed.  He'd gone into cardiac arrest somewhere around three o'clock.

Mike was livid because they hadn't awakened him.  "I could have done something,"  he'd shouted, as the tears streamed down his face.

He'd gone into a rage, wrecking the medical supply room, breaking bottles of precious morphine and penicillin.  The M.P.s had to lock him up for a day and night.  His commander had been lenient, ordering him to take a mandatory R & R and a pay-cut to reimburse the Army for the drugs he'd destroyed .

Mike didn't understand why the Nebraska boy had been his breaking point.  There had been others.  New York boys, California boys, Georgia boys.  An unending supply of American boys from every state, even a few from Hawaii.  But there would be no more.

Mike wasn't going back.

Unzipping the athletic bag, he pulled out the .45 he'd bought in Chinatown the night before.  He held it gingerly in his hand.  A soft rain began to fall and he lifted his face to its coolness against his suddenly flushed skin.  Somehow, it seemed right that the rain had chosen this moment to return.  He looked down at his hands and saw they were trembling.  A sudden cramp twisted in his gut.  He knew he had to do it now or fear would make him give it up.

He stood.  Somehow, he thought it would be better if he were standing.  The best way was to put it in the mouth.  It would be quicker, with no chance of bungling.  But Mike couldn't stand the metallic taste.  It was gutless, he knew, but it would have to be at the temple.  His hand shook as he lifted the gun.  It was in position.  His finger touched the trigger.  Squeezed it gently.

Nothing happened.  Stunned, Mike pulled the .45 away from his head and examined it.  The safety was still on.  He wondered if it was a sign that he shouldn't go through with it.  Then his lips twisted in a humorless grin.  Yeah, a sign that he was an asshole.  Quickly, he removed the safety and once again positioned the muzzle of the gun against his temple.  He stared straight ahead at the waterfall growing dim in the failing light.

Then the gong whispered through the evening air.  Mike stiffened.  His hand dropped.  His heart raced now, where just seconds before, it had been thudding evenly, almost slowly.  Voices floated toward him.

A rush of anger swept through him.  He'd have to wait.  He sat down on the bench again.  He would have done it, but now, he felt his courage waning.  God, he wanted to hold onto his courage!  He wanted to die.

There was a movement on the steps.  A little Japanese boy stared up at him, wide-eyed.  Mike switched the safety back on and pushed the gun into the athletic bag.

"Hi,"  said the boy.

"Hi."

"Are you a soldier?"

"No..."  he mumbled.  He cleared his throat and spoke up.  "No.  A doctor."

The boy's eyes narrowed.  "You look like a soldier.  My daddy's a soldier.  He's in Vietnam.  Have you been there?"

"Yeah."

"Did you fix the soldiers who got hurt?"

Mike had to look away from the kid.  He felt his throat tightening.  Get the hell out of here, kid.  I don't need this now.

"Did you?"

"Yeah.  Some of them."

The boy came closer.  "If my daddy got hurt, would you fix him?"

Mike's eyes flashed to the boy.  "Look, I just want to be alone, you understand?"

The little boy didn't move.  He just stared with those soulful brown eyes.

"Kenny!"

The little boy looked over his shoulder.  With one last look at Mike, he turned to go.  His figure swam drunkenly before Mike's eyes.  He heard the other boy's voice.  Saw the blue eyes so trustfully gazing up at him.  "You're gonna fix me up, aren't you, doc?  I'll be okay, huh?"

The little boy was making his way down the steps.  "Hey, kid,"  Mike called out softly.

The boy stopped and looked back.  Mike rubbed his fingers over his tired eyes.  For a moment, he imagined what his own son would have looked like.  The one he and Irene would've had if things hadn't gone wrong.  He managed a smile. Hoped it looked like one.  "If your daddy gets hurt...I'll try and fix him."

The boy nodded, then turned and disappeared down the steps.  "Here I am, Mom!"

Their voices faded away.  Mike stayed on the wooden bench for a moment longer.  It was almost completely dark now.  He stood up and reached for his athletic bag.  Slowly, he made his way down the wet stone steps.  He stopped in front of the gong and stared at its dark shape for a moment before pulling back on the rope just a bit.  Its soft tone rippled around him, and echoed against the foot of the mist-shrouded Koolau Mountains behind the temple.

As he crossed the arched bridge leading back to the parking lot, he felt the cool soft rain against his face.


 


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