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FICTION

Vietnam Stories
By Karl Lindholm

1. Sportswriter at Khe Sanh

He's alone in the tiny press box, plinking away at his story forty-five minutes after the game's end. He pauses and looks down at the young women, players' girls, lounging in the box seats along the third base line in the darkened old ballpark, chatting among themselves, waiting. When their showered and lacquered boys beckon from the exit ramp behind third, they rise like a flutter of tropical birds, these lithe girls with their high bums and thin legs. Their high heels clickety-clack on the cement runway a Morse code of sexual anticipation.

He finishes his game account, satisfied that he has not given in to the clichés of his trade. The stadium arc lights have been turned off and the field is illuminated now only by the exit lights and the glow from the press box behind home, his perch. A smokey haze hangs over the park, the residue of the postgame fireworks show.

He loves the ballpark in peace as much as in tumult. He comes early each day, in the late afternoon summer heat and declining light before the gates open to fans, and joins in the easy communion of the pregame rituals; he stays late with the few other pros and hangers-on in the spectral darkness of the park after a night game. He feels at times like the enthralled seaman in Moby Dick, who surveys the vast sea and succumbs to a fateful reverie.

Minor league ballplayers and their girls . . . they come and they go. Every season brings a new platoon of boys on their way up, optimistic, defiant of the percentages, restless, taut, faithful only to a dream. When they pull on the uniform, they take on some of the timeless opportunities for heroic self-destruction. Every night, a delightful form comes their way, a pretty face and compliant body, not bad girls, wonderful, bored girls. The postgame mating rituals are a democracy of youthful passions, if short-lived, and ultimately sad.

His own marriage was a casualty of baseball. She tired of his quiet baseball passion, his long absences on the road, his willingness to squander his talent on a game. If he loved her, she reasoned, he wouldn't love baseball so: he would travel with her and discuss books, grow up and shed this nutcake baseball fascination, so adolescent and banal. He had to admit their relationship did parody the old joke:

Wife: You love baseball more than you love me!

Husband: But I love you more than football.

He didn't know at the time baseball was all he could handle.

He did quit sports for a while, worked in another part of the newspaper, nine to five, no travel, lots more time at home, but they had not gone places together, conversed intimately, found the way. He lived inside himself—and it was a jungle in there. The change was beside the point. He missed baseball. She left and then remarried—to a better man, they agreed, for once.

Fireworks always give him away—the rockets' red glare, so authentic. The blood-freezing whistle, the heart-stopping boom, the phosphorescent trailings elicit no panic, no terror at the ballpark. Wide-eyed children find comfort in dad's arms and scream in delight. He just puts his head on his arm and waits for it to be over.

Twenty years after the war, he stopped in one day at the Vets Center. A few years later, he had some answers: too late perhaps for love, but not for peace.

2. Ward Nine, Cardiac Convalescence

Fort Knox (1972)

It's 7 a.m. and he's late. He hustles down the hall, in a half-run, half-walk, hurrying past the open doors on the ward: they're awake, even if he's not, waiting for breakfast. He waves and smiles; some call out his name. Despite the time, he goes first to the utility room for coffee. The day shift has arrived.

It's quiet at the nurse's station. The night nurse, bored and tired, stuck with the graveyard shift, reads the report: "Bed 14A, Sergeant Wiggins, M.I. his third, rested well, should ambulate." That's one of his jobs, walking old Sergeant Wiggins.

In 14, the Sarge is lying still on his bed, not watching the TV. "Hey Sarge," he announces as he enters, "time for our morning stroll."

Sergeant Wiggins props himself up in bed. With a smile, he chides his young friend. "Man, there you are," he says. "Been waitin' for you. Where you been? Out late last night? Chasin' the ladies?" He winks at 14B, who is opening the newspaper the young medic has dropped on his bed.

"Never misses a day, this one," the Sarge continues. "Have me running soon." The medic helps him out of bed.

"Where to today, Boss?" the Sarge asks, clasping the arm of his companion. They shuffle out of the white room into the corridor thoroughfare, the Sarge in his old plaid bathrobe and slippers, traveling clothes, and the corpsman in his starched whites. "Vegas? Miami? No, let's just go across town for a drink and a show."

Even stooped, Sergeant Wiggins is a big man, a big black man, taller than the corpsman, a Korean War veteran, Supply, retired. The medic is white, a Boston boy, Spc. 5, no guns, three years, too long. "I'm going back to college when I'm through," he tells the Sergeant. "Sixty-eight more days and I'm long gone."

They're moving slowly, the two of them, toward the sunlight streaming through the window at the end of the ward. Nurses and doctors hurry by on their appointed rounds, paying little attention to the corpsman and his patient. "You got college. That's good," Sarge pronounces. "I took the Army instead. Twenty-three years. Man, I wore that uniform with pride. Those boots did shine."

He stops, to rest and catch his breath. "I been all over. Georgia, when I was a boy. No race problem for us. We were too poor. White folks farmed right next to us. They were even worse off.

"Pittsburgh. I didn't like Pittsburgh," Sarge goes on, his story as deliberate as his gait. "That's where my family broke up. I was the youngest. Had to go to work too early. No, I don't like Pittsburgh."

They start up again, slowly, in step, talking now about baseball. "Jackie died yesterday. Heart attack. Fifty-three years old." He shakes his head.

"Man, he loved to run."

He tells the corpsman about baseball when he was a boy, in Georgia, and in Pittsburgh, and tells him about players whose names were new to him, black players with wonderful nicknames.

"And now Jackie's gone," he says, disbelieving.

They are finished ambulating and are back to the open door and the white room and bed 14A. The sergeant is worn out. The corpsman helps him back into bed.

They will do this again in the afternoon; it will be the last task of the corpsman's shift and the thing he enjoys most. Sergeant Wiggins will touch his arm then and say softly, "I appreciate it."

The corpsman will respond, "See you tomorrow."

And the Sarge will say, "I hope so."

—EFQ

KARL LINDHOLM teaches in the American Civilization program at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, where his courses include "Baseball, Literature, and American Culture" and "Segregation in America: Baseball's Negro Leagues." During the Vietnam War he was a medic in the Army Reserves, but never served overseas. He is currently at work on a biography of William Clarence Matthews, a black baseball pioneer and political figure.

© 2002 Karl Lindholm

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