I STOOD OFF to the side out of the jumble of people. Dangling from my hand on the Government Issue breakaway chains they gave us, my dog tags jingled flatly. Cheap metal, I thought. I stared at the train.
It stopped to let me off with a few other people and now began to move again, its job done. Now I had to do mine. I had to get a place and find a job. How would I do that? I knew how to kill, but that’s not very useful in civilian life, on the right side of the law, anyway.
Though the only soldier who got off, my GI drabs failed to call me to the attention of others on the platform. People, probably family, greeted those others, threw their arms about them and lead them happily away.
I’d taken my long coat off in the train for comfort and didn’t need it now. It draped from the crook of my left arm. Pretty warm day for two days before Christmas. My duffle bag sat by my feet. I looked down at the hand that held a nine by twelve manila envelope. In it fourteen pages of material, my DD Form 214, discharge papers, voucher stubs for transportation and the familiar “Misc.” reflected the sum total of the past eight years of my life, courtesy of the U. S. Government. The few other papers in the miscellaneous category, all military, all-important to them but not to me had mustered me out of the Army. The doctor told me to forget about “Nam.” Oh, sure.
Eight years getting shot at, saving lives, saving my own on numerous “fronts” distilled down to fourteen pages. Didn’t seem like much. A few hours ago some freshly shaved company clerk who still had a job said “Good luck,” but it sounded like “Sayonara, baby!” Twenty-six years old, back in the city of my birth, and for what?
A feeling of dread, the sense of choking on something I couldn’t dislodge lived in me for most of the day. They’d made me into a killing machine. They’d made me very efficient. I had physical scars and more in my head. Four months ago I caught a little shrapnel from a land mine my best buddy took. Superficial for me, killed him.
Charlie, a good man, sharp-eyed and careful…except this time. All it took. Now he’s in Heaven or wherever, in the ground anyway. They pieced him back together and shipped him home so his relatives could cry over him. I cried when it happened, but not for long. Not in a fire fight. No time.
I remember the lieutenant yelling, “Medic!”
After that, a blur. Suddenly someone hit me hard on the shoulder and pushed me to the ground, “Matt, what the hell…?”
I came to my senses and the blur cleared. “I just saw Charlie go up.”
“Yeah,” he said, “We all did. Pull it together!”
I made a conscious effort. After a few moments of lying in the dirt, it came back. Charlie’s gone, gotta go on. Made killing those bastards out ahead of the platoon personal.
I refocused back to the train station, but I couldn’t get the vivid images out of my mind. My release said “CCD. Chronic Clinical Depression.” I knew every word. Medical discharge. What the hell! No use to the government and no use to myself, no use to anybody. I tried to smile but it failed before it reached my lips.
What would I do, now that Uncle Sammy didn’t want his trained killer anymore? I’d gone in right out of high school to avoid the Draft. Thought it would make a difference. It didn’t. I’d make some rank…whoopee! Didn’t help.
If I’d learned anything in high school I’d forgotten it. What would I do? Security guard? Work in a bowling alley? Bet I could wash cars. Only not many places around used people to wash cars anymore. Spray tires, maybe. The thought made me want to retch. I’d tried that a couple of weeks during the summer before I enlisted. The mindless work matched the people around me. No thanks.
Getting a job with the problems I’d brought home would be hard. Mom used to say, “It’ll all work out, Matt. Just put your best face forward.”
Mom died three years ago in the car accident with Dad. No sisters or brothers. Yeah, right, things’ll work out. Sorry, Mom…can’t see it. I hadn’t seen any evidence since I got back in the States that anybody cared about anybody. Couldn’t even figure why I’d come back to my hometown. Any city would do. Got no relatives, no in-laws, no friends, got nothing.
The train station cleared out. A porter loaded his cart with the last of the bags left on the platform, chatting amiably with a young woman dressed in business attire. I saw her glance in my direction. I could have thought her beautiful; certain I would except for my black mood. That took the color out of everything.
I couldn’t seem to move from my spot. I didn’t feel comfortable standing there, but moving seemed a less comfortable alternative. What would I do? I couldn’t stay on the platform. Pretty soon someone would come out of the terminal and ask me to move along or ask me why I stood alone, unmoving. How would I answer?
Finally I dragged my duffle bag to one of those wrought iron and plank chairs that seem to be a permanent fixture in train stations. I sat down, not exhausted, but dejected, done, the end of my road and no clue what next. My brain turned off.
Lost in blackness, I started when a voice spoke softly near my ear.
I looked up. The woman who’d glanced at me peered as if trying to read me. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t, but I said, “Yes, ma’am?”
“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you waiting for someone?”
She looked at me astutely. “You have no place to go.”
After a few moments of deliberation, she said, “It’s going to get cold again tonight. You could use a good meal and some pleasant conversation.”
I left the ball in her court.
Undeterred, she said, “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I’ll find a rooming house somewhere in town.”
“And you have no job waiting, either.” The woman read my thoughts.
“My name is Pat Birch. I am part-time pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in town. What’s yours?”
Some of the past began to return. “I remember it. Matt Billingsly.”
“Hello, Matt. This evening the congregation is having a potluck sit-down dinner at the church. Would you like to come as my guest? I can’t think of a better way to reintroduce one of America’s soldiers back into society. You might be able to network a little while you’re there, too.”
Who said hope springs eternal. My black mood melted and I began to hope for the first time in so long I couldn’t remember.
“I’d be honored, ma’am. I’d love to,” I said.
Pat hesitated, looked me over again as if seeing me for the first time, and maybe it was like that. Evidently she decided that she liked what she saw, because she said, “There is a rooming house not far from the church. I know that it has at least one room available. Can I offer you a ride there?”
Finally I could smile. Weight came off my shoulders. “Yes, you can. And thank you, more than you can imagine.”
“Follow me, Matt. Merry Christmas, soldier.”