Gone and Almost Forgotten

As first light filters through the slats surrounding the simple little lean-to the old man stirs.  After a hasty yawn he slides off of the wooden bed onto the earthen floor.  He hobbles across the room toward a wooden bench.  Easing himself onto the bench he pulls on a loose fitting pair of gray pajamas.  They hang like drapes around his frail body.  He picks up a stainless steel spoon, turns it over and stares at himself for a few moments.  His mind is finally beginning to function as he slips his feet into a dirty pair of sandals.  He wonders what today will bring or will it be much like yesterday and the day before.

He shuffles toward the door pausing to pick up a small wooden bowl.  He still has his spoon.  His prized spoon that was given to him by a fellow warrior years ago.  As he shuffles onto the courtyard he wondered how many others have risen before him and will have made it into the hut at the end of the courtyard.  As he moves slowly along he focuses on a bird seated on a branch high above the courtyard.  He tries to listen for a sound from the bird but hears only the quiet rush of a breeze that moves the branches.  He knows most of his hearing has gone but he is thankful that he can still see the beauty of the bird.  He stops for a moment to watch the bird and as the bird starts to take flight he looks away.  His eyes return downward to the pebble strewn clay before his feet and he continues toward the hut.

As he slowly opens the door a small smirk crossed his face.  "Only three before me," he thought to himself.  It was a game that the old men played.  They all knew that there would be enough food.  There had been enough food each day for the last ten years.  But this was a game held over from when the food was not so plentiful.  Years before, the first men through the line would only get a portion of the food because they knew that the stragglers would get none.  Some men preferred sleep to food.  But they all needed food.  So the training they had received years before kept them alive.  No one would starve unless they all starved. 

Most had made it through those early years.  Slowly their number had dwindled.  Influenza had taken a couple and dysentery a couple more.  Now those that remained were growing old together.  From the outside it looked like a casual little clutch of an old men's village.  From the inside, however, there was a strict code of behavior.  There were things that were done each day and there were other things that were never discussed.  Each of the men worked to maintain their health and cleanliness.  Everyone was an individual but they worked together to help each along.  What one person could not do another could.  No one ever got angry or raised their voice toward another.  There was time to be together and there was time to be alone but the main thing is there was lots of time.  For these men it had been a lifetime of lots of time. 

Communication between the men had slowly evolved into mostly gestures or occasional tapping.  Sometimes they would sit in a circle and each take turns tapping on a board.  It was a strange sight as these frail time humans appeared almost monkey like in their movement.  Their faces were expressionless as they focused on the tapping.  Sometimes it was only for a few minutes and other days it would go on for hours and hours. 

As the frail little man stepped into the dark hut his paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  There was a fire burning in the old stove.  One the stove was a large pot of rice and several pieces of salted fish.  As each person took a portion this calculated the number of people still to eat and that this food would be both breakfast and the early afternoon supper.  For years now they had survived on two meals a day.  These two foods and a small cup of tea had sustained these men for years.  The old man took his portion and slowly moved to a table.  The table was flat planks that had been sawed out of trees years before and placed upon two steel drums on their sides.  The old man joined the three others that were already seated at the table.  They were motionless with eyes closed and did not speak as he took his place as a fourth.  He closed his eyes for a few moments and then said softly, "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Have mercy on us."  In unison the four men opened their eyes and slowly began to eat.  One of the rules was that four men must be at the table before eating began and that the fourth to arrive always offered a word.  When a fifth man arrived he would wait until there were three others to join him.

They continued to eat very slowly, savoring each morsel of rice and fish.  The others used chop sticks but the old man used his spoon.  Occasionally one of the others would look up and study the old man.  When he noticed them he would look at them with a slight smile.  When the four had cleaned their bowls except for a few fish bones they each walked to the stove and threw the bones into the fire.  Turning silently they departed the hut to return to their little rooms.

The old man would return to his little room and put his bowl and spoon away.  Then he would lie back down on the wooden bed for about thirty minutes.  Sometimes he would doze off but usually he would just stare at the thatched ceiling.  As he stared at the ceiling he would focus on individual branches and leaves.  Occasionally an insect would crawl among the leaves and he would watch the insect until it disappeared back into the maze of dried growth.

It was moments like this that he had to fight the hardest.  His mind would wander back to another time and another world.  It might be the tiniest thing as a bug and then he'd recall.  He'd think about the drinking game they used to play in the bar.  A game where someone would yell, "dead bug" and everyone would tumble to the floor.  The last person standing bought drinks for everyone else.  These memories had become only flickers.  Quickly he would return to watch the bug disappear.  Perhaps a dried leaf would remind him of a flower and he would think of the bouquet of flowers he bought his sweetheart before departing for this far off land.  Then he would think of his sweetheart and start to wonder what ever happened to her -- Was she married?  Was she happy?  Was anyone still looking for him?

He sees the image of the young blonde-haired woman waving goodbye at the airport.  Years ago he thought about the woman almost every waking moment.  In those days he could recall much more about her.  The color of her eyes, her smile, the cute little walk and the wonderful rear.  As the years had gone on each memory had become more and more faded.  Now all that he remembered was that she was blonde-haired.

There he'd done it.  Those faint memories had come back again.  He'd tried to put them away; keep them in the drawer.  But they'd come back to raise questions.  Questions that he could not answer.  Finally the old man would rise from the bed and shuffle back into the courtyard.  Today a small group of the men squatted on their heels under a tree.  One toyed with a cricket on the ground.  The cricket was his prized possession.  He had found it almost six months ago and kept and nurtured it daily.

The old man walked slowly toward the opposite end of the courtyard from the hut toward a small stream that flowed across the corner of a clearing.  Often he would go to the stream and spend several hours listening to the peaceful sound of the quiet water.  Sometimes he would squat for hours on his heals at the edge of the water.  Over the years he had come to recognize every pebble strewn along the bottom of the stream.  About ten years ago he had named each of the pebbles after someone that he had known in his life.  Pebbles were named after the classmates he went to grade school, high school and college.  Pebbles named after his teachers.  When he couldn't remember their name he gave them numbers.  There were pebbles named after the women he had met in bars.  There were pebbles named after the people who had pumped his gas.  There were pebbles named after guards that had watched over him.  There were special pebbles named after the warriors that had been with him here in this land.  Each of these pebbles represented someone who had crossed his life. 

He had studied the pebbles so long that sometimes he would reach into the stream and return a pebble to its position.  Today as he studied the pebbles he realized that over the years he had forgotten many of the names.  He tried to think back to the largest number he remembered, "Was it over a hundred or over a thousand?"  The stream was the only place he allowed his memory to control events.  Here he could think of happiness and sadness.  He could think of his feelings of invulnerability and his feelings of defeat.  Yet each time he visited the stream fewer and fewer memories returned.  He thought of the time soon to come when he would just sit at the stream.  A tiny tear slowly eased down his cheek.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away it’s Saturday night and the Officers Club is alive in anticipation of the evening’s activities.  Guests are arriving and the Honor Guard salutes as they depart from their cars.  Soon all the attendees at the formal affair are seated and toasts are being proposed.  There is a toast to the President of the United States and other toasts to several heads of state.  There is a toast to the Secretary of Defense and other toasts to the Secretaries of the Services.  Finally, an officer stands up and says, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast to the warriors left behind in Southeast Asia.  May they all someday be accounted for?"

The crowd responds, "To the POW's and MIA's."

From the back of the crowded room comes a soft whisper, "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Have mercy on us."