Jim sat in the waiting room just outside the surgery. His adult sons were there to support their father. “This is how he always told the story,” Jim began.
“This was Vietnam October 1972.” His sons had heard the story before.
“He was sitting beneath some broad leaf plant trying to keep the rain off his face. It was a black night and he was on watch. A sound alerted him. He watched the long tail of a flare do a slow arc. He says when that flare burst the fields around him lit up. I’ll never forget him telling me the flash of the muzzles looked like devil’s eyes. The men were up into firing position quickly. Then all at once four lightening strikes hit him, throwing him to the ground. He said he laid there bullets tearing pieces of leaves as they went by. The sounds were terrifying. Silhouettes of men rushed in every direction. One man stepped on him, but did not stop. He then adds, a beast grabbed him by the boot and started dragging him deep into the jungle. The beast was strong. He was on his back being dragged through the bush, through the mud, over root and rocks. The sound of the battle got dimmer. Then his head hit a rock and he was out. That is the night he said he got old. The next thing he remembers, he was in heaven.
He was naked. All the people around him were wearing white. That heaven notion did not last long. They were sticking tubes everywhere. After that, every few hours a woman in white came in, rolled him to his side and stuck him in the butt with a hypodermic. That seemed to play out over and over in some kind of sadistic loop.”
His sons leaned forward.
Jim said, “To me this is the most interesting part of the story. He said he arrived at this thick ornate door and knocked. A standing salamander with diamond eyes opened the door. It inquired as to what he wanted. Johnny answered, I have an engraved invitation. Johnny looked over the salamander’s shoulder. There was a long sweeping bar that went around a corner out of sight. The people lined up shoulder to shoulder along the bar. They were talking, ordering drinks; it was a never ending party. Many of the women wore red. There were blonds, redheads, and brunettes, all long and sleek. A chandelier with shimmering crystals hung above the tables. Every sort of liquor is available behind the bar. There were bottles of every description. Drugs were plentiful. Groups were taking drugs through their noses along the bar. The music blared, the heart pounding rhythm made the lady's hip shake. Polished stairs lead to rooms at the top. The tails of both men and women bounced as they made their way to the rooms above. There were stacks of thick silver coins here and there. Smoke from cigars drifted among the glittering crystals.
Johnny tried to step past the salamander, but was blocked. The salamander said, ‘this isn’t signed.’
A tall brunette came toward him. Johnny said the colors of her eyes changed until they perfectly matched his ideal. His eyes drifted over her. Her body shape changed from Twiggy to Dolly until his eyes registered his desires. He took her all in; as he measured her legs the illusion was cracked. The cloven feet made his heart spike. Johnny tells that it took a couple of minutes to realize, but there was no laughter. The eyes of those he could see were blank. This was a play put on so many times that the joy was wrung out. Or never allowed inside.
For the first time, he noticed the men. There were men, with long spindly horns, short stubby double horns. Some of their horns were twisted and yellowed. Their legs also ended with cloven hoofs. Their eyes coveted all newcomers.
The machine monitoring him sounded alarms. Staff arrived and he was stabilized. Six months later he was released from the hospital with a pat on the back and a ‘you are well – best wishes.’ It was true his body functioned near how it had when first issued. The shadows of the dark night lingered. He carried with him that jungle night that changed everything. The night left an unseen scar. Only those that shared such an experience could come close to understanding.
I met up with Johnny again about a year later at Ft. Bliss. I ran into him coming from a psychotherapy visit. We stayed close after that.”
Jim and his sons looked up when a doctor entered. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his coat. “He was a fighter. I never saw anyone fight like him. I am sorry to tell you your friend did not make it.”
The four men stood there in silence.
Captain Griffin Chaffey readied the carriage. It always saddened him and made him proud at the same time to pick up military personnel. He took the short brush and stroked Nuelle’s coat. When everything was ready they made their way to the hospital per their instruction.
Johnny was not a general, no brass on his shoulders. Though he still carried a small piece of lead the doctors could not reach.
Griffin climbed down and he and Nuelle shared an apple. It was their custom. Nuelle stood shoulders squared as Johnny approached. His shoulders were also squared. He looked this way and that, trying to locate the door that he had stepped through all those years ago.
As he approached, he called out to Griffin. Can you point me in the direction of the door that I passed through once before. Johnny looked around for his engraved invitation, but could not find it.
“Door,” Griffin echoed. Then he realized Johnny was confused. “Nuelle and I have been sent to pick you up. We will take you anywhere you want to go.” Griffin held out his hand, “All you have to do is step inside and we can begin the journey.”
Johnny leaned against the side of the carriage. “I haven’t given this any thought. I was expecting something else. Something I saw in a vision many years ago. Do I have time?”
“There is a castle where you can be delivered. There you can take all the time you need to plan out what the next part of the journey will be like. A place where you can sort things out.”
Johnny stepped up into the carriage. Nuelle pulled from the curb and walked proudly with her cargo.
The doctor, having delivered his message, turned and walked away. His hands still clinched in the pockets of his smock. Jim’s two sons put their hands on their father’s back. The oldest spoke first. “I cannot imagine losing a friendship that lasted for fifty some odd years. It is a tribute to the two of you and who you really are as men.”
“We were not in constant contact. When we would contact each other after some pause, it seemed like we picked up our conversations where we left off. So, yes, this will be tough for me.”
The two boys thought about what a tough man their father had been in their youth. So tough that neither of them felt they could muster that same kind of strength if called upon.
Jim’s youngest put his arm on his father’s shoulder, “Come on Beast, let’s go get some breakfast.”