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More Than Skin Deep
Rating: NC-17 for adult themes and language, some racist terms, graphic description of death. No actual sex, but some slashy overtones. You have been warned.
Summary: In the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination, BA. finds out something about his teammates, and more importantly, something about himself. Written in first person.
Author notes: I know that Dr. King's death occurred in 1968 and the A-Team wasn't in Vietnam until the early 70's but this is my story, so there. The village mention in this story doesn't exist. At least I don't think it does. I just made it up for this story. Written for the Feb. challenge and yes, I know it's late.
Disclaimer: I owe nothing so please don't sue. Suing me will only give you hives.
More Then Skin Deep
LZ jungle clearing, Vietnam - April 7, 1968
The hot sun beating down only made me sweat more. And, the more I sweated, the more the cuts I'd gotten from the razor-sharp elephant grass stung. I used to think it was hot in Chicago when the roof of our apartment building stuck to my tennis shoes, but that had nothing on Vietnam. Here, the heat just hung in the still air, hot and heavy. It was worse then sitting by the furnace in August, sneaking my first cigarette when I was twelve. Mama caught me and made me smoke an entire pack to teach me a lesson. Made me sick as a dog and to this day, I can't stand to look at somebody smoking.
The clearing at the LZ is quiet and if it weren't for the jungle noises, it would be too quiet. Makes me kinda antsy if you wanna know the truth. Not that humping the bush this past week hasn't made everyone wired. There was this--this feeling that something was wrong, or that something had changed in the World. Made my bones itch worse then watching a whole platoon of V.C. troops pass our hiding spots.
Still a little twitchy, I look around the clearing. So far so good. We'd managed to make good time; the absence of Charlie had seen that we got to the pick-up point early. And still, we didn't take any chances. Everyone was still on alert, still waiting for the Cong to pop up out of the ground. Nobody was going to relax until we planted our feet firmly on the ground of our Firebase.
I look over at Hannibal, lying in the grass to my right. He was checking and double-checking the map. Don't know why, this is the right clearing and almost the right time, but the Colonel's funny that way. He'll come up with a solid plan for a mission and halfway through, change it 'til we're doing a one-eighty. Most of the time without telling us what's up. But when it comes to dust-off and pick-ups, he is obsessive about being at the right place at the right time. He won't call ahead for a change of meeting places unless the place is overrun by the Cong, and he'll only listen to that fool Murdock. If Murdock says that a place is no good, then the place is no good and he won't budge on it. And if Murdock says to hump to another place, then we hump. Maybe Hannibal thinks it'll jinx us or something if we change pick-ups in the middle of a mission. I don't know, the man's hard to figure out most of the times.
Ray is to my left, writing another letter to his sweetheart, Trisha Neely. I know what the letter said. What they all say. How hot it is here and how much he misses a cold winter. He tells her about Hannibal's outrageous plans and about how often I play with the orphans in the nearby village of Bien Lo. He tells her about how many nurses Face can date at once, and about the crazy schemes he's pulled. He tells her about Murdock's craziness, and about how many times he gets the new guys with the ol' 'grenade thrown through the latrine door' routine. It's pretty funny to see those grunts tumble out of the latrines with their pants around their ankles, bare-assed and yelling for their mamas. It shouldn't be, but sometimes you have to laugh or go crazy. And he tells her about how much he loves and misses her. About how much he wants to return home and take over his father's farm.
And I know the things he doesn't tell her. Things that give us nightmares, never mind what it would do to a civilian. Things like how Tommy Westman, In-Country for only a few months, tripped a wire on his first patrol with us and was beheaded for his mistake. About how some ten year old baby walked into a G.I. bar with grenades strapped to her chest and killed five Marines. About the women and kids that are starving because their villages were destroyed by us or the V.C. About the bodies of our guys that are mutilated by the enemy, missing tongues, hands, feet, hearts. About how pissing-in-our-pants scared we get when we see a whole company of V.C. come over the hill and we're low on ammo, wounded all around us and no back-up in sight. About how sometimes we can't wash the blood from our hands, or get the smell of death out of our lungs no matter what we do. No, she knows nothing about what really goes on around here. Nobody not In-Country really does.
Face is next to Ray, looking at a small black notebook, his cheek bulging out because he always tucks his tongue in there whenever he's thinking. Sometimes it makes him look like a human-sized chipmunk. One hand is held up near his face, the long, slim fingers silently ticking off numbers in the air; no doubt he's up to something. Face is always up to something shady. No doubt that it's some sort of scam that could land him in the brig, most of them are. The L.T. is always working someone, always juggling documents and shipments around, constantly calling in markers or favors or promises to get what he wanted. I don't really care what he does as long as I get the weapons and tools that I need.
Cook, Evens, Muggs and Beason round out our little group. I don't know much about these last few dudes. They've only been on this one mission with us, but Hannibal wouldn't have picked them if they didn't know one end of an M-16 from another.
Evens is nursing a wounded shoulder, the blood soaked bandage already attracting the jungle flies. All we're doing is watching and waiting for the incoming chopper. Murdock, as usual, will be our pick-up pilot and I dread every second of the flight back. Even though we all looked relaxed, not one of us is totally out of it. At the slightest hint of danger, all of us can be alert and ready in a second's notice.
Speaking of which, I hear a rustling near me and I automatically tense up, gun at the ready. Then I spot the longer-than-regulation blonde hair of our lieutenant sliding through the tall grasses towards me. I relax again as he stretches out beside me. I instantly go back on alert when I see him wearing his 'trust-me' smile. Whenever Face looks at somebody like that, that somebody usually ends up with empty pockets and thanking Face for the privilege of relieving them of their heavy, burdensome loot.
"Hey, B.A., how many chocolate-chip cookies does your mother send you every month?"
I glare at him but it doesn't make a dent in his hundred-watt smile. Something is up and I have the sneaking suspicion that I was just about to thank Face for robbing me blind.
"Why ya' wanna know?"
"Two dozen, three?"
"Whatcha' up to now, Faceman?"
"Look, just answer the question. How many cookies does your mother send? It's a simple question. Nothing wrong with a simple question, is there?"
Somehow, against my will and better judgment, the answer pops out. Damn his stupid, sneaky smile. "Around two-two and a half dozen. Now tell me why you wanna know."
"Look, do you think you can send her a letter asking for more? Like, around a hundred?"
"Look, it's just a few dozen or more extra. Does the question of why really matter in the Grand Scheme of Life?"
"You tell me why right now and none of that double talk either."
As usual, Face decides to plow through. Once he starts a scam, he sure hates to stop even when he's caught. "Look, it's just a few extra cookies. You love your mother's cookies, right? Right. She loves baking for you, right? Right. And you like sharing your mother's cookies with us, right? Right. And we love your mother's cookies So, what's the harm in asking for a little extra, huh? No harm at all. So, what'd ya' say?"
I grab him with one hand by his shirt front and drag him over a few inches closer. Face is up to something shady and I'm not gonna be a part of it. Especially if it involved my mother.
"Tell me what you're up to now, sucker, before I wipe that grin off your face permanently!"
And as an added threat, I hold one fist up to his pretty little nose, which was about to become much bigger if I didn't like what he said.
The smile crumbled at the threat and he tries to pry my hand off, but I'm not gonna let go. We've just spent the past week dodging the V.C., trying not to get our asses shot off before we completed our mission, Evens had been shot by some kid who looked like his voice still cracked, it was hot as Hell, I feel like I'm covered in fire ants, I have to fly with that crazy fool Murdock, and this guy, for some unknown reason, wants to get his hands on my Mama's cookies. Enough is enough.
I must've growled because Face holds up his hands in surrender. I still wouldn't let go until I got the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"Ok, ok, B.A. No need to get physical about it. I just figured that if your mother sent a few extra dozen of her homemade cookies, and if you weren't gonna eat all of them, and if you're willing to share with your bosom friends, that I could take a few of them off your hands with no strings attached."
I sense that Face is still hiding something and I hold up my fist again.
"Ok, ok! I was gonna sell them to the other guys for fifty cents apiece. I was gonna cut you in for a fair share, I swear!"
I drop him in disgust. I always knew that Face would do just about anything for a buck, but to sell another man's mother's cookies was the lowest of the low.
"Forget it, sucker!" I angrily tell him. "My mama's cookies ain't for sale at any price."
"Look, BA. Homemade cookies are hard to come by. Guys'll give their right arms for something like that. The mess tent couldn't pray hard enough to make cookies half as good."
"I said no and I mean no! I ain't gonna change my mind."
"What if I told you that my half was gonna go to a good cause?"
"What good cause? Lining your pockets? I said no and I ain't gonna repeat myself again. Got that sucker?"
"It's for the orphanage in Bien Loa. They need a new roof before the rainy season starts. Whatever's left over will go towards enough rice for a few months."
I stare at him, speechless. Of all the things that could've come out of his mouth, I never would've guess that it would be that selfless. I look deep into those big blue eyes of his. He looks sincere. He sounds sincere. But that doesn't mean that everything is on the up and up. Face has pulled a lot of scams using the same face and voice that he was using now.
"You lying, man," I accused him. "That's a low down dirty trick to use kids like that. You oughtta be ashamed of yourself."
I see a look of deep hurt flash in his eyes. Too late, I remember about him being an orphan himself. I saw him clench his teeth before he answered me.
"I don't lie about orphans, B.A. I know what it's like to have a leaking roof and not enough food in your belly. I know what it's like to have absolutely nothing, to have a lot of kids competing for attention and care from understaffed, overworked nuns and priests. I know what it's like to wear patched scraps of clothes that other people threw away and to wear shoes two sizes too large and hope that they don't fall apart before you grow big enough for them to actually fit. The only difference between me and those kids is that I didn't live in the middle of a war zone. I didn't have to worry that if I went outside to play that someone was gonna take a potshot at me. I didn't have to worry that I might step on a landmine if I went to fetch water from a pond that had dead people floating in it, because that's the only water for miles. All I wanted to do was to make sure those kids have a solid roof over their heads and a little more hot food in their stomachs. And if you can't understand that, then screw you, B.A. I'll figure out another way to get the money fast."
He starts to move away and I grab his arm. He looks back at me and I see the anger on his face, anger that I caused. I do the best I can to apologize to him without saying the words, 'I'm sorry'.
"Charge a buck a cookie. No sense in having a new roof without solid walls to hold it up. Get 'em some meat too and a good milk cow. That way they'll at least have some milk every day. Don't worry about my share. Give it all to those kids."
The anger fades and he starts to slide away. But, something nags at me and so I ask him, "You gonna be able to raise enough money to get the workers and materials before the rainy season?"
A twinkle sparks in his eyes as Face proudly lays out his plan "I just need enough money for the supplies and other stuff. I got some guys from the Engineering Corp to do the work for free. Well, almost free. I've got to get them some week long passes for Saigon. They'll get 'em after the job is done."
He gives me a grin before he slides away on his belly to Hannibal, no doubt to scam some money off our C.O. Or, he could just be asking about Murdock's arrival.
Just thinking about the pilot makes my guts clench in dread. I hate planes and choppers and the fool knows it. He's always pulling stupid stunts in the air, flying crazy 'cause he knows how much I hate it. It's bad enough that I got people shooting at me on the ground, I really don't need the hassle in the air.
The sound of a chopper only makes my mood darker. It'll just be my luck that one of Murdock's rides would do me in just after I survived a week in Hell.
The whirling blades of the chopper whips the elephant grass into a frenzied dance. All the blades do is cause the hot, muggy air to become a hurricane of heat. Ray and I cover everybody's back as they run for our ride outta here. The last thing anybody needs is a bullet to the back just as we're almost home free.
Once the last guy is on, Ray and I beat it for the chopper. Although we both know that Murdock would never leave a man behind, no matter what shit-storm we're in, it still isn't a good idea to linger. The door gunners and our guys cover us as we moved fast through the tall grass.
One of the door gunners, Tucker I think, hauls me up but won't make eye contact. I really didn't think anything of it, door gunners are weird anyway. What fool wants to hang by a thin strap, miles in the air with nothing between them and a long hard drop to the ground, while they're being shot at? A crazy fool, that's who.
I closed my eyes when Murdock takes off. I hate to see the ground disappearing under my feet. It doesn't take me but a minute to figure out that something is wrong. Bad wrong.
My eyes pop open and I look around. Over the roar of the engine, the chopper crew is loudly silent. Murdock hadn't howled as usual when he took off. I can't ever remember not hearing that Rebel yell during take-off. There's also no singing, no music, no chatter with our group. Nobody would even look us in the eyes. What the fuck was going on?
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and it has nothing to do with Murdock's flying. It was the same feeling I got just before Peterson tripped that Bouncing Betty last month, taking most of his company with him.
I watch Face make his way to the front. I see him talking to Murdock and I see Murdock shake his head. Whatever's going on, he refused to tell Face. That's never happened before either.
Face settles down behind the pilot's seat, a puzzled expression on his face. If he is worried about Murdock's behavior, some serious shit must've hit the fan back on the Firebase. Because of the quiet of the chopper crew, the ride back in is a lot more tense then the ride out.
For some reason, I train my eyes on Murdock. He bends his head to quietly say something to Face. There had been no singing, no funny voices, no weirdness at all from Murdock and that was worrying me.
Face crawls over to me with that worried look still in his eyes. "Murdock said he needs to talk to you and Cook right after we land, so don't go anywhere. Murdock said it's very important."
"What about the debriefing?" asks Cook.
"Murdock said 'fuck the debriefing'. He needs to talk to you guys. It can't wait."
"What can't wait?" I ask. "What's going on, man?"
"I don't know, B.A. He won't tell me a thing. Looks like he's been in a fight too, but he won't say what happened. Now you know 'bout as much as I do."
Face moves back to his seat behind Murdock, and the feeling in my stomach just got worse. What could've gone down that caused Murdock to shut out Face? Those two were usually joined at the hips. If I didn't know any better, I'd think that . . . nahhh, they couldn't be. I drop that thought before I get disgusted.
But what could the problem be? Why does he need to see me right after we land? My heart nearly stops as I thought about Mama. Did something happen to her? Was that why Murdock was acting so funny?
I look at one of the door gunners and catch him staring at me. There is a look of pity and sympathy in his green eyes just before he breaks eye contact. He goes back to looking out the big open doors and my heart begins to pound faster Something had happened to my mother and they all knew it.
I looked out the doors too and watch the clouds fly by. I keep seeing her smiling face, hearing her voice as she sang in the church choir. My mother was gone and I never got to say good-bye to her.
A sharp pain in my hands shakes me out of my thoughts of Mama. Looking down, I realized that I was strangling my gun as if it was a real person. Stupid fucking war. If it wasn't for this war, I wouldn't be thousands of miles from my mother. If it wasn't for this war, I would've been home where I belonged, taking care of Mama. I should've been taking care of her instead of shooting people and getting shot at.
I don't even notice that the chopper is descending until the skids bounce off the ground. I wait until everybody is off before I move. I'm standing on the hard, sun baked dirt before I even know that I've actually got off the chopper.
Cook grabs my arm and nodded towards the rest of the base. Everybody is clumped up, whites with whites and blacks with blacks. The whites are smiling and laughing, the blacks shooting sullen glares at the whites Anybody not black or white just kinda wanders around, not attached to any one group. The base is divided, more so then usual.
Most of the time, you hang with your team members. Being out in the bush draws guys together, it doesn't divide them. You have to trust your life to another guy and he has to trust you. Color has no factor out there, it is kill or be killed Live or die, it doesn't matter if the man who saved your life is black or white. Live or die, it doesn't matter if one of your guys going home in a body bag is black or white. It only matters that it was a brother-in-arms that bought it.
The more I watch, the more sure I am that it had nothing to do with my mother. What the fuck is going on?
I see Murdock stumble a bit when he got out of his pilot's seat and Face was right there to steady him. As soon as he took off his flight helmet, I see what Face was talking about. The man's face is a mess. One eye is nearly swollen shut, he has bruises all over his face and his nose is nearly twice the size it should be. How the fuck could he have seen well enough to fly? Why the hell did they let him go up in the air like that?
The more I realize how easily he could've crashed and killed us all, the angrier I get. I hate flying and knowing that the fool was in no shape to go on any missions makes me want to pound him into the ground. He stops long enough to talk to Face and then he heads our way. By the time he makes his way to us, I almost reach out and blackened his other eye for putting us in danger.
That is, until I see the expression on his face. It's filled with deep sadness, something that I've never seen on his expressive face before. I've seen him sad over another guy who didn't make it before, but nothing like this He looks like his whole world has just ended. Murdock is always laughing, always joking around. You'd never think that the horrors of the war ever touched him. Until now, that is. Now, looking into Murdock's face is just like looking into my own after a mission that went into the crapper.
He and Face walk right up to me and Cook. Murdock opens his mouth and hesitates. That was something else that has never happened before. Murdock never went more then a few minutes without running his big mouth and driving everyone crazy.
Face, more for moral support then anything else, reaches out and squeezes Murdock's too thin shoulders. That was another weird thing about Murdock. He hardly ever ate if we were in the bush and Face wasn't there to nag food into him. He must've lost ten pounds since we'd been gone.
Murdock takes a deep breath and tries again. His voice, when he forces the words through his lips, sounds sad and lost. "Dr. King is dead, B.A. Somebody shot 'em."
The words meant nothing to me. Which medic had been King? We were always losing our field docs on missions because they didn't usually carry guns. A good medic was hard to find and keep safe. They were usually put in the middle, that way, they could be protected and not trip any mines. So usually, the only way medics died was if they were shot in a fire-fight trying to patch one of us up.
Murdock must've seen the blank looks on both our faces because he starts to talk again. His words are tripping over themselves. "It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., B.A. Somebody shot him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It happened on the fourth, but with the time differences between here and the World, we just got the news yesterday. He's gone, B.A. He's gone and I'm so sorry."
When it finally sinks in who Murdock is talking about, it feels like a grenade has blown up in front of me. I can't hear anything but the roaring in my ears and I can't breathe. It was like my whole body has turned to stone.
The words 'Dr. King is gone' echoes in my mind and then all I see is red. Red like spilled blood. Red like hate. Red like rage.
It wasn't true. It can't be true. Dr. King dead? Murdock had to be wrong about this. Either wrong or this was the cruelest practical joke anybody had ever played.
Grabbing Murdock by his flight cover-alls, I shake him. I'm gonna get the truth out of him if I have to snap every bone in his skinny body to do it.
"You're lying!" I yell. "Tell me the truth, man! Stop lying!"
Murdock's teeth rattle and his face has a faint hint of real fear. But I don't care. I want the truth and I want it now. I wrap my large hands around Murdock's throat. I'm gonna get the truth even if I have to squeeze it out of him.
I feel Face and Cook trying to pry my fingers free, can hear them pleading with me to let the pilot go. But I refuse until I have the whole truth
I don't care that Murdock is having trouble breathing. I don't care that his lips are turning blue. I don't care that I will surely land in the brig for assaulting an officer. I don't even care if I end up killing the man. All I care about was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
And then I see it, deep in his eyes. Or rather, the only eye that is open. The whole pure truth of what he said. He wasn't lying. He wasn't even struggling with me to let him go. He had that same expression on his face that I'd seen on countless guys who knew that they weren't gonna make it. Guys who'd been gut shot or missing half their bodies. They'd lie there with the medics frantically trying to stop the river of blood pouring outta them. They didn't scream in pain. They didn't call out for their mothers or for God. They didn't beg and plead for help.
They'd just lay there, with this almost peaceful look on their faces. Like they knew that they weren't gonna make it, and they were ok with it. They had accepted their deaths and knew that nothing was gonna stop their journey to the hereafter.
Murdock has that same calm, peaceful look on his face as I try my best to get the truth outta him. But I had the truth from him all along. Murdock was gonna let me kill him because he would rather die then to lie to make someone else feel better.
I let him go and he collapses in a heap, massaging his neck and wheezing. Face bends over him, shooting me death glares for what I did. I don't care. My whole world feels like it just ended, what do I care about some half-crazy pilot?
Cook is beside me, the same look of disbelief on his face that must've been on mine a few minutes ago. With a little help from Face, Murdock stands up and faces me again. There is no accusation, no hatred, no fear on his face. Just that same sad look as before.
"I'm sorry, B.A. I really am," says Murdock, his voice raspy from the near strangulation.
I'd just been told that I lost the second most important man that I'd looked up to, the first being my father, and all I got was some white boy telling me that he was sorry. I had admired Dr. King and all he stood for. I tried as best I could to live as he did, even in the middle of a war. Not even Dr. King would blame me for killing anyone out here. It was kill or be killed, live or die in the bush.
But, back on base, I tried hard to get along with everyone, to go with the flow as Murdock once said. I stood up for others who had no one to stand with them. I got in a lot of fights, but I never backed down.
And now I was told that Dr. King had been gunned down like a dog in the streets by some coward. A good man is dead just because he tried to make life a little bit better for people who had nothing.
Murdock was still staring at me with that hang-dog expression. What did he know about anything? He didn't know a damn thing about people hating you just because your skin was darker then theirs. He didn't know anything about people spitting on you for no reason when you passed them on the street. He didn't know anything about having a bus load of black people stop by the side of the road so that you could use the bushes because there weren't any colored restrooms in the next two towns. He didn't know anything about a ten year old boy feeling shame because he was forced to stand at the end of a long line as one white customer after another was served before he was. Didn't know the anger over a ten minute chore that turned into an hour, and that hour into three as white people who'd walked in long after him were served first. He'd never been called hateful, hurtful names because he'd only just barely bumped into some white dude.
Murdock is white, he doesn't know anything about what I'm feeling.
He's sorry? The more I thought of it, the angrier I get. I lash out at him. I
can't help it as the words flow out of me.
"What do you know 'bout anything? You don't know nothing! You just some white boy who'd never had anybody hate him just 'cause you different for them! You're sorry?! You ain't sorry for nothing! Dr. King is gone. He's just another dead nigger to you!"
I see a flash of deep hurt in his face, but I don't care. Dr. King is dead, nothing else matters now.
Still angry and reeling from shock, I leave with Cook right behind me. I look with new eyes at the base compound. The blacks are just as angry and upset as I am. The whites are standing around, laughing and talking as if a catastrophe hadn't just happened.
I feel like I'm walking outside my own body Nothing feels real, nothing sounds real. I want to be left alone. I want to just sit and remember Dr. King.
Cook wanders off to join another group and I find a hiding hole behind a couple of oil drums set near the back of one of the offices. Sitting against the wooden wall, the drums hiding me from view, I finally let the tears flow.
After Daddy died, I didn't seem to have many male role models to look up too. No one seemed to have much time to spend with a fatherless black boy. I kept getting into fights at school and in the streets. Mama tried to talk sense into me, my teachers and principal tried, even our minister had a crack at me. But nothing seemed to reach me.
Until I saw Dr. King give a speech on our old black and white t.v. right after the bus boycott in Alabama ended. He talked about civil disobedience and how people didn't need to use their fists to change the world. He talked about how everyone could live in peace with one another regardless of color. He talked about how everyone should love their neighbors as they loved their families. He talked about how everyone should treat even the poorest person with honor and respect and dignity.
It was that day that my life changed. Oh, I still got into fights, but I was now using my fists to protect the ones who were weaker then me. I was still angered easily, but I never started anything. I learned that if I had a bad-ass reputation, not many people would mess with me or anyone I considered a friend.
That reputation followed me into the Army. As long as I was left alone to do my job, I was fine. Push me though and I pushed back.
Thinking about the past, about all the times Mama and I spent in church praying for the souls of those innocents who had died just because of the color of their skin or for trying to do the right thing, I almost miss the fight a few feet away from me. It's Face's voice that catches my attention. The blonde's normally smooth patter is full of desperation and fear.
"Please, leave 'em alone! He's never did anything to you! You're gonna kill 'em!"
Standing up, I see something that makes my blood run cold. It's a large group of black soldiers surrounding two of my team mates. It took five of them to force Face to kneel in the dirt. They're holding his arms straight back, his shoulders look like they're gonna pop right outta their sockets. One of them clutches the blonde hair, forcing him to watch the others beat up Murdock.
Murdock is backed against a wall, offering no resistance as the rest of the men take turns hitting him in the stomach. Not only does he not do anything to protect himself, but he doesn't so much as whimper in pain. A passive, quiet Murdock is as unnatural as birds walking north for the winter.
It's like I'm watching some movie, it just doesn't seem real to me. I just stand and watch until I see a bight flash of light. It is a beam of sunlight bouncing off the side of a knife. Fighting is one thing, cold-blooded murder is another.
I catch the guy's hand just as he was about to stab Murdock. I don't even realize that I've moved until I have my fingers wrapped around the other guy's wrist. We struggle for a bit. This guy was strong, but I'm stronger. I feel his bones shift and grind against each other as my hand squeezes tighter. I keep it up until he drops the knife. I step on it to keep anybody else from getting any ideas.
I growl at the men holding Murdock until they let him go. The pilot just slides to the ground and for once, doesn't open his big mouth. There's the sound of scuffling behind me and then a blonde streak heads for Murdock.
I stand over my two team mates as Face checks Murdock out, fussing
over him like a mother hen. There was another nagging suspicion, but I ignore
it again. If Face hadn't been here, it would've been
me checking the pilot over. Instead, I'm facing down a gang of angry black men.
If they decided to rush me, it'll take all of them to take me down. And if they
do try, I'm gonna take a few of 'em down with me.
"What's goin' on guys?" I ask. I knew that one day, Murdock's mouth was gonna kill him. I just didn't think that I was gonna go with him.
The guy that had the knife answers me. Even though I don't know most of the guys here, apparently, he knows who I am. "King's dead, B.A."
"I know that. What's that got to do with this?"
He points at Face and Murdock. "They the ones that killed him."
Face had managed to get Murdock to half-way stand up. The pilot stays silent, but Face had to be the one to smart-off this time. "Hey, I got an alibi."
I hiss at him to shut up. If Murdock and his flying wasn't gonna do me in, it was gonna be Face and his mouth.
"You know what I'm talking about, B.A. It was a redneck cracker that killed King and Medger Evers. And it's men like these who are killing us right now. This is whitey's war and it's the brothers who are dying. They're sending the black men in first as cannon fodder while they sit on their fat white asses all safe and sound behind desks."
"We're all dying out here. Black or white," I tell them, "our blood is still red. We're suppose to be backing each other up, not tearing each other down. I've seen just as many white boys go home in body bags as blacks. As far as I'm concerned, we're all in this together. It's time to stop fighting with each other and time to start fighting the V.C. Dr. King preached about equality and peace between blacks and whites. He wouldn't have wanted to see us tear into each other like this. We're suppose to act together, start working together to make this world a better place for our children. But I don't see that here. All I see is a bunch of jackasses attacking somebody 'cause the color of his skin. That's something the Klan would do. And we're suppose to be better then that 'cause we know better. We're suppose to be above all this shit 'cause men like King and Evers gave their lives to show us the right way. You guys are a disgrace to everything they stood for. They'd be ashamed at all of us for fighting like this."
But I can tell that my little speech did nothing to change their attitudes. They want to walk the walk and talk the talk but they refuse to live the life. They want to act like men, but they refuse to see the light that King and others like him had shown us. There's more than one war being fought in Vietnam and I have a bad feeling that we're gonna lose the most important one of all.
"You gotta choice, B.A. You either stand with your brothers or keep being Uncle Tom for these crackers."
It's an old fashioned standoff as we stare each other down. Neither one of us is willing to back down and Murdock and Face don't dare try to leave when everyone is still angry.
We might've stood there all day if Hannibal and Ray hadn't started looking for us.
"What's going on, soldiers?" Hannibal's voice booms out.
Everybody parts and Hannibal strolls through the crowd. His face is a little hard to read, neither angry nor surprised to find a group of black guys surrounding two white boys, one clearly roughed up. I'll give him credit, though, not too many white officers would walk through a group like ours without any MP's with them. Not too many officers with his experience and high rank put themselves in the field either.
Murdock speaks for the first time, his voice raspy and tired. "I fell, Colonel. These guys were just helping me up."
Shocked, I turn to look at the fool. Murdock met my gaze head-on, looking as honest as the day was long. I'm not fooled one bit. Neither is Hannibal.
"Looks like you fell from your chopper, Captain. Now, tell me what really happened."
"I fell. I do that a lot on the ground. Gravity can be a bitch. Sir."
"That's the best you can come up with? You fell because of gravity?"
"I'm clumsy on the ground, sir."
"Captain, if someone 'helped' you to the ground, I want to know about it. As an officer, you can press charges and no one would blame you."
"I'm a klutz, sir. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
Hannibal gives a frustrated sigh and turns to his Second-in-Command. Surely, Face would tell him the truth when it came to Murdock's health or safety. "Face? Can you shed some light on this?"
Face looks at Murdock's determined face, opens his mouth and lies like a pro. "Murdock's right, Hannibal. He fell and these gentlemen were just helping him up. I saw the whole thing."
Hannibal's eyes travel down and I notice that he was staring at the still dirty knees of the lieutenant's pants. We both know that the first thing Face does after getting on our transport after a mission, is to dust himself off. The first time I saw him do it, it floored me. There Face was, covered in dirt and grass and leaves like the rest of us, meticulously brushing his clothes with his hands, knocking off as much as he could. He'd reminded me of an overly fussy maiden aunt afraid to track dirt indoors.
Which was proof that he was as crazy as Murdock. Vietnam may have a lot of green growing everywhere, but it was also one of the biggest dirt bowl country I'd ever seen. Dirt was everywhere. Dirt covered your feet, dirt covered the floor of your hooch, dirt in your gun, clothes, body. The dirt was everywhere. But still, the first thing he always does on the chopper or truck, is to brush his clothes off like he was on his way to a date. And considering the number of nurses circling him, I'm not too far off on the mark.
Still staring at Face's dirty knees, knowing that they had been
brushed off on the chopper, Hannibal asked, "Did the gravity make you fall
"No, sir. I tripped."
"Tripped? On what, pray tell?"
"A rock made you trip? Must've been a big one."
"Yes, sir. A real boulder. Somebody really should do something about the rocks around here. No telling who they'll trip up next."
Hannibal glares at Face and Murdock, who looked back pleasantly. He knew that they were lying, hell, everyone with two brain cells to rub together could tell that they were lying.
I know that Hannibal is gonna be the one to back down and I'm right. He wasn't gonna make a fuss over this if both Face and Murdock stood together. A rule of war is, pick your battle if you can. If you can't, retreat and regroup.
With a disapproving look and a deep sigh, Hannibal lets the matter drop and then tells us the reason he came looking for us. "I've arranged for a memorial for Dr. King. Everyone's welcomed and Father O'Brian also wants to say a mass for anyone who's interested in attending. Now that that's said, I strongly suggest that everyone find something else to do. Or I'll find you something to do. Have I made myself clear?"
There's a lot of grumbling, but the rest of the crowd leaves, more then a few of them shooting me pointed glares Me, Face, Murdock, Hannibal and Ray are the only ones left behind.
"You sure you're alright, Captain?" Hannibal asks.
"Right as rain, sir. Couldn't be peachier."
As if to prove it, Murdock steps away from Face and promptly falls flat on his face. Nobody needed to be psychic to see that coming.
"Fucking gravity," Murdock mumbles in the dirt. Hannibal merely cocks an eyebrow.
I help Face pick him up and together we manage to get him to our team hooch. Murdock verbally refuses to go to the med-tent. Nothing different about that. A visit to the med-tent usually means that the pilot would be grounded and the fool hates to be grounded. Face manages to whisper something to Ray and the man runs off at a fast pace. Murdock had been too distracted by trying to walk to pay attention and I'm on the other side, trying to support the stumbling fool.
Face and Murdock disappear into our hooch and I take up guard duty outside. I don't want to take a chance that one of those guys might slip around and try to finish the job they started. A few minutes later, Ray rushes up, a medical bag in one hand and an opened bottle of beer in the other. He ducks in long enough to drop them off and reappears.
"I told Hannibal that I'd help the priest set up the mess tent for the services. Is there anything you need?" Ray asks.
I just shake my head. What I need, no one would be able to give me. I need this war to be over. I need to be home. I need my father to be alive again. I need Dr. King's words to be heard.
I hear Face and Murdock moving around and I sit down, leaning against one of the support poles. Another rule of war is to never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down and never stay awake if you can sleep.
This position allows me to listen to Face and Murdock talking inside. They must be on one of the first few cots near the door. I don't normally eavesdrop, but it's hard to shut your ears when the conversation's right behind you and you're on guard duty.
"Those the guys who beat you up yesterday?" Face's voice is soft but demanding.
"Told ya', I fell." Murdock's voice is a thick Southern drawl. Must be in a lot of pain for it to be so pronounced.
"Don't lie to me, baby. We promised that we'd always tell the truth to each other. Now, did those guys jump you yesterday?"
It was the way Face had said the word 'baby' rather than the actual use of it, that shocks the hell outta me. It was said in the same way that Mama used to say it to Daddy. It held the same tone of love, devotion, and adoration as Face's use of it. Suddenly everything clicks into place.
All the seemingly casual touches, the looks that lingered just a touch too long, the overly concern about each other's health, the way they always seemed to know what was wrong with the other one long before any of us knew that something was up. Murdock and Face, two of my team mates, were homosexuals. All the little nagging feelings that I'd had were true.
I was so stunned by this revelation that I nearly missed Murdock's response.
"Listen, it was nothin'. They jus' don't like my accent right now. Who can blame 'em?"
"I can blame them. I can blame them a lot. Why didn't you say something before? Why didn't you go for the MP's when it first happen?"
"So . . . what? They can sit in the brig and get even more pissed off? No thanks. Puttin' 'em in the brigg'll only justify their hate even more. Trust me, I know what I'm talkin' 'bout."
There was a long silence broken by Murdock's hiss of pain.
"I think you have a few broken ribs this time. You really need to see a doc about those."
"No, no fuckin' way. I gotta fly tomorrow. Can't afford to be grounded, not now."
"Murdock, there are other pilots on the base. You don't always have to be the only one flying. You can take a day off."
"Nope. No way. Promised those guys that I'd pick 'em up. Look, just wrap my ribs up real tight and I'll be jus' fine. An', if ya' want, ya' can kiss 'em to make 'em feel better."
"Your ribs aren't exactly sexy right now. I saw more meat on the spare ribs the mess tent served last week. Didn't you eat when I was gone? You're skin and bones, again. You know I worry about you when we're apart."
"Ah, well, you know how it is."
"Yeah, yeah. Look, just drink this beer for me, ok? You won't get grounded for drinking one beer the day before a mission."
There's a small moment of silence, broken by Murdock's grunts as Face tapes his ribs. I think about what I heard and found out. I should be disgusted to learn that two men that I know are gay. But for some reason, I can't dredge up that emotion. As far as I know, they never tried any moves on any of the other guys and I never had any beef with their attitudes towards me. They always did their jobs well and never screwed up on a mission. Why blow the whistle on them now? All that'll do is either get them a dishonorable discharge or worse, fragged by one of our own guys. And I just can't be the cause of their deaths if it came down to that.
Murdock's voice floats out into the slight breeze. "Did I ever tell you 'bout my best friend Jeeter, Face? Bestest buddy in the world. I spent most of my time at his house. He had six brothers and sisters. His parents died in a car wreck and his grandparents raised them in the same little farmhouse that had been in their family for generations. His grandmother made the best peach preserves and the warmest quilts. She loved to sing, mostly gospel songs, but every now and again she belted out a Jazz number. Man, could she sing. When I was there, she treated me just like one of her grandkids. If I expected to eat dinner at her house, I was expected to help with the chores. Didn't matter to her that I was white and the rest of 'em were black. Didn't matter to the rest of 'em either. Didn't matter to me.
"Jeeter's granddaddy was a genuine Tuskegee airman. He used to tell me stories 'bout his missions in Germany. He used to tell me 'bout the dogfights over Normandy, Berlin, and 'bout how they never lost a transport, ever. Couldn't get enough of his stories. He's the one who encouraged me to dream 'bout flying. It's mainly 'cause of him that I'm a pilot now."
"You keep saying 'had'. What happened to them?"
I want to know that myself. And I have a sinking feeling that it wasn't anything good.
"Group of Freedom Riders from New York set up shop, started to talk 'bout registerin' blacks to vote. They meant well, but when the sheriff of the town is an Imperial Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, well, it never ends good. They found out that Jeeter's grandfather wanted to register 'cause it was his right. He earned that right riskin' his life in the deadly air over Germany. The Klan found out and decided to teach the Freedom Riders a lesson. If it'd been up to me, I'd let anybody vote who wanted to. But I was just some skinny white boy who didn't understand why people hated somebody else 'cause of the color of their skin.
"One night I went to bed, looking forward to goin' fishin' with Jeeter in the mornin'. Next thing I knew, the sun had come up way too early. Except it wasn't the sun shinin' that woke me up. It was a fire, a big fire at the next farm. Jeeter's farm. I ran outta the house, wearing nothin' but my p.j.'s. Didn't even bother to put on my shoes. Thought that maybe a lantern got turned over or somethin'. The only thing on my mind was tryin' to help my neighbors. What I found was Hell on earth.
"The whole house and barn was engulfed in fire. The flames must've reached six feet in the air and the heat was nothing that I'd ever experienced before. My lungs felt like they were gonna shrivel up from the hot air even before I got there. The yard was full of pick-up trucks and men. But instead of helpin', they were just standin' around, holdin' shot-guns and beers. If it wasn't for the white sheets they were wearing, you'd think they were at a picnic. The fuckin' Klan had set the house and barn on fire.
"I looked around, but I couldn't see Jeeter or his family. Then I noticed that the doors and windows had been boarded up. Those bastards had shut them up in the house and set it on fire with them inside. And then I heard a crash from upstairs. Somebody had managed to break one of the windows and tossed one of the younger girls out. I'm pretty sure it was one of the younger girls, she was wearin' a long nightgown. She rolled down the porch roof and she caught on fire. Her nightgown, her hair, her whole body lit up like a candle. The Klan must've poured somethin' on the whole house to make it easier to set on fire
"You ever seen somebody on fire, Face? It ain't somethin' you'll ever forget. And, God, the smell alone is enough to knock you to the ground. I can still hear her screams, hear them all screamin' in the middle of the night. You ever wondered why I never dropped napalm? That's why. I know what fire does to a human body. I know the terrifyin' sight of seeing someone you love being set ablaze. An' to put someone else through that is somethin' that I'd never, ever do
"She hit the ground hard, but somehow managed to stand up. I remember her holdin' out her arms, beggin' for help. But those bastards in the yard did nothin'. They only laughed as she screamed and pleaded. An' then they shot her just as she reached 'em. They didn't do it to spare her, they did it 'cause they could. And they laughed about it, Face. They fuckin' laughed like it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen.
"Before that, I couldn't move, couldn't speak, my brain had just shut down from the horror before that. But when I heard the laughter and the sick jokes, I attacked them. I wanted to hurt 'em like they hurt my family. Had nothin' with me but my fists. Didn't take them long to hold me down but it took six of 'em to do it. Six big men to hold down one skinny twelve year old. Did everythin' I could to cause 'em damage; bit, hit, kicked, scratched, screamed my head off at 'em. They thought that was funny, too. They held me down and I watched that house burn to the ground. They kept me there 'til dawn, 'til there was nothing left but smokin' ruins in the mornin' light. Nobody survived that fire. Nobody 'cept for Jeeter's grandpa. They hung him from the old pecan tree. The mornin' sun lit his body up like nothin' I'd ever seen before, like a light from heaven. The Klan hung him and killed his family 'cause an old man, someone who'd served his country and risked his life for liberty and freedom, wanted to vote. How fucked up is that?"
"Drink your beer, Murdock."
"It's my fault, ya' know. I killed 'em all."
"What? Their deaths are not your fault, Murdock. You said it yourself, the Klan set the farm on fire. You were only twelve years old. There was nothing you could've done to stop it."
"No, Face, that's where you're wrong If it hadn't been for me, Jeeter's grandpa wouldn't have gotten the idea to try to register to vote. I convinced him that it would be a good idea, not those boys from New York. I convinced him that as an American citizen it was his right to vote. I did it all. I killed 'em, it was all my fault."
"You're talking crazy. You're not thinking clearly. You're not to blame. I'm positive that if your friends were alive now, they wouldn't blame you. Now just shut up and drink your beer."
While Murdock drinks, Face starts to talk, filling in the silence. It's a distraction on Face's part, so I'm on instant alert. Face is gonna pull something, but Murdock completely misses it.
"Did I ever tell you about my junior prom? Well, it wasn't exactly my prom, I was dating a girl from an upper crust school. I worked every odd job I could find just to make enough money to rent a tux. Father Magill talked one of his regular orphanage donors into loaning me his car. Man, I was so proud when I picked her up and she was absolutely beautiful. The prom was held in some up-scaled country club, one of those real exclusive ones. I never made it past the lobby. One of the guys attending the prom recognized me from playing against him in football. I wasn't told to leave because I was a penniless orphan, but because I'm a Catholic. My date acted like she'd been told I was an ax murderer. She turned her back on me and left me flat. I didn't even get one dance with her before I was tossed out."
"Ssssstupid bitch. Sssshe don't deserve to lick your booties."
Murdock's voice is becoming more then a little slurred. One beer couldn't have affected him this quickly, could it? Murdock usually holds his liquor a lot better then this.
"I feel funny. You put somethin' in my beer?" asks Murdock in an accusing voice.
"I had Ray slip a sedative in there," Face informs him in a cheerful voice. "You'll wake up tomorrow afternoon. I'm terribly sorry, but you aren't gonna make that mission after all. Ray's also telling Morrison right about now that you're also gonna be out of commission for at least a week. We can get a doc to ground you for two weeks if you wanna make a fuss about that."
"You ssssneaky son of a bi . . ." That's the last I hear from Murdock before the pilot starts to snore.
"Nighty-night, sweetheart. Try to have pleasant dreams."
I hear Face moving around; no doubt he's fussing over Murdock's limp body. I see, in my mind's eye, the blonde lieutenant rearranging the long, lanky pilot; taking off his shoes, loosening his clothes, trying to make sure that he was in a comfortable position, all the while making sure that he's very careful of Murdock's injuries He spends a few extra minutes, so I imagine that he's tucking the fool in and maybe even kissing his forehead before leaving. For some reason, that image doesn't leave me sick to my stomach. Instead, I feel the same warm glow I used to get after catching Mama and Daddy smooching good-night. Their relationship just sortta fits them and I have no real reason to object to it. Or the right to rat them out.
There's a rustling behind me and then Face emerges from the hooch. The suddenly bright sunlight after the gloomy interior of the hooch causes him to blink, his eyes watering just a bit. At least, I'm gonna blame the sunlight 'cause I don't wanna know that one of my teammates has that kind of emotion. Being soft-hearted can get you killed in this country.
Face doesn't seem to be surprised to find me at the entrance; in fact, he doesn't even look concerned that his and Murdock's conversation might've been overheard by somebody else. Maybe he knows that I'll keep his secrets. Maybe he thinks that I just didn't hear them. Maybe he just doesn't give a damn anymore about the repercussions of being found out.
"Murdock's gonna be sleeping for awhile. Thought I'll go give Father O'Brian a hand with the mass," says Face.
"You know 'bout that stuff?"
"Former alter boy, here. I've sat through every mass that Father Magill gave when I was in the orphanage."
At my look of disbelief, he says, "Well, it's not like we had a choice in the matter. Being an alter boy was a form of punishment from the good Father. Serving as an alter boy also kept us awake during the long sermons."
I snort in laughter as he grins. I've slept through my fair share of sermons when I was little. Although, going to a black Baptist church where the preacher's voice could raise the rafters even without a microphone and everybody was usually shouting 'Amen!' and 'Halleluiah!', didn't allow many to sleep for long.
I sober up fast, though. "This mass thing that Father O'Brian wants to do, he does know that Dr. King wasn't a Catholic, don't he? Will it work for a Baptist?"
"B.A., a mass for the dead can be for anyone. It's to show respect for the deceased. You don't have to be Catholic in order to pray for someone's soul. God loves everyone, Catholic, Baptist, or otherwise."
"Is it gonna be in that weird language? I won't be able to understand it if it is."
"You mean Latin? I'll make sure that Father O'Brian does it all in English. Unless you went to an all Catholic school, Latin's not an easy subject that every school child wants to learn. That's the reason it's a dead language. It's not easy to find many non-Catholics to have a conversation in Latin with."
We both sortta smile at each other. Face takes one last, lingering look at the door of the hooch and leaves for the mess tent. I'm left alone with my thoughts and a gently snoring Murdock behind me.
I think about what I overheard. I've had people spit on me, call me names and seen plenty of violence against my people growing up. But I'd never watched someone die because they only wanted to exercise their right to vote. And when people turned on me, I knew that it was because of my skin color. I always knew why somebody hated me up front. I'd never lost a friend 'cause they suddenly discovered that I'm black. It seems like everybody's experienced some form of bigotry or another. No matter what color or religion, or sexual orientation, there's always somebody out there who hates them for no reason at all.
I had been given a choice earlier; join the brothers filled with hate and distrust or stay with the team that has always accepted me for who I was, not what I am. The world had lost a very important man a few days ago and it made me realize something.
The world lost a voice and I gained a family. I've made my choice.
Author's notes: The part about hearing King's speech after the Alabama bus boycott is mostly compiled out of all of his speeches. I mean no offense by combining those great words into one speech. The meaning is what I intended, that everyone could live in peace if they would just stop fighting with everyone and learn to love each other.
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