— A Short Story by Andrew Harkless
I walked into my father’s office—a real man’s office built floor to ceiling of cherry plank and paneling—to find him sunken back in his high-back leather desk chair, deep in thought, and cupping a Winchester .22 with both hands. I had seen the small rifle many times before in its normal place, tucked inside the office closet alongside several other rifles. My father was not a hunter and it was extremely rare to see one of the guns anywhere other than propped up in the closet’s corner beside the small wine refrigerator. Curious, I sat down in the chair facing my father’s desk. We shared a blank but friendly enough motionless stare before I broke the silence.
“You ever fired that thing?” I chuckled.
Dad gently placed the Winchester across his desk before leaning back and resting his elbows on the walnut chair arms.
“No, it’s never been fired before,” he said with a sense of pride obvious in his inflections.
“Was that one of your father’s guns?”
“No,” he said, rubbing his chin. “The other rifles in the closet belonged to your grandfather, but this one I bought for myself when I was overseas.”
My father—now in his seventies, gray and leathered by time and hard work—was a marine, which is to say he is still a marine. A marine never ceases to be a marine. He joined the corps out of college to pursue his passion for flying. Unfortunately, after he graduated from helicopter flight school in Pensacola, there happened to be a skirmish happening, referred to simply as Nam.
Luckily, he made it through his tours in one piece, but there were many times when it could have gone the other way. Flying into Vietnam’s hot spots to drop off foot soldiers before collecting the wounded and dead was a tough way to log flight hours. I was reminded of that in the past when he would volunteer combat mission stories in a simple, matter-of-fact manner, void of the horror many vets carry as remorseful burdens.
During several trips to our nation’s capital to visit The Smithsonian as a child, and while my classmates anxiously ran off to gawk at The Hope Diamond or dinosaur bones, I spent much of my time in the Aerospace section. That is where the hulking mud green H-34D (aka Dog) sat with its side doors open for the world to climb aboard and stand where men rode to fight, often staining the floor with their blood. We knew that exact machine was one my father piloted based on the tail’s serial numbers corresponding with his old flight log. I had looked at that bird with profound deference with which most other children could not relate. Thank God that helicopter and—more importantly—my father both made it home.
“You don’t hunt,” I said. “Why did you buy yourself a rifle if you don’t hunt and weren’t ever going to fire it?”
Dad laughed. “Well…that’s kind of a funny story. As you well know, my father was a big hunter. When I was in Vietnam, I wanted to get ’im a new high-powered rifle. We were able to buy them and ship them home since we were out of the US. They were extremely inexpensive thru mail order out o’ Hong Kong, so I thought I’d get myself a .22 while I was at it.”
“Smart,” I said, crossing my leg and getting comfortable. “It’s probably worth some money now since it’s never been fired?”
“Maybe…I’ve never checked. Getting it back to the states turned out to be an ordeal, but that is another story,” he laughed. “I might not have gotten either one if it weren’t for the damn money order.”
“I don’t follow.”
Dad leaned back farther in his chair and interlocked all ten fingers. “Our squadron was aboard the USS Guam and we were flying combat missions every day from day break ’til after dark. Sometimes night missions too. Now,” dad grinned, “the navy was considered in combat, but they ran the ship on regular hours, including meals, movies, etcetera. We marine corps pilots couldn’t eat in the Ward Room (officers mess) unless we were in the uniform of the day, and because of said regular hours, if we weren’t on time we had to eat in a different area because The Ward Room was the designated area to show the movie of the day.”
Shaking my head. “Far be it for the squids to be inconvenienced by officers venturing into real combat every day, Jesus H.”
“Yeah, well, that’s just how it was. So, like I said, I had to buy these rifles via mail order and the only way to do that was to send a money order. We had no credit cards. The first time I tried was after flying all day. I got to the shipboard post office around five. This Petty Officer Second class was sorting something and just ignored me. Now, you have to remember, I was a captain and outranked this guy, so I got a little annoyed after several minutes and finally said, ‘Excuse me, I need some help.’ He replied, ‘I’m sorry, but we close at five and it is clearly five fifteen.’ ‘Fine,’ I conceded. ‘I’ll come back during your business hours.’”
“Wait,” my dad laughed, “it gets better. A week later, my helicopter took some hits and I was just able to get it back to the ship. Crazy as it seems, I was really happy because it was during normal post office hours, so I went again to get my money order. Same Petty Officer, same lack of service as he sorted away. I tell him I need a money order and he tells me, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I’m sorting the mail and mail is the most important thing to sailors. You’ll have to come back later.’”
“Now you were pissed!”
“Not yet, but getting there,” Dad said with a less jovial expression than he wore up until now. “I knew they were getting another aircraft up on deck for me and I could not wait. I told him so and he said, ‘Sorry, sir, the mail is my priority.’ So I proceed to ask him who his boss was and where could I find him. He said Warrant Officer so and so and told me his compartment number. So off I went before I had to get back to the war. Warrant Officer so and so, who I also outranked, answered his door and after hearing my dilemma responded by saying, ‘I’m sorry, Captain Douglas, but mail on an aircraft carrier is very important to sailors and it must take priority.’”
“Now you were pissed, right?”
Dad looked up and clenched his lips. “I like to refer to it as a slow burn. So I left, flew my mission, and when I got back that evening, I was dragging ass but determined to finally get my money order. I figured I might find satisfaction if I went higher up, so I went to see the admin officer, Lieutenant Commander Chisel—the first person to outrank me. He listened to my story and when I was through, he said, ‘I feel for you, Captain Douglas, but what you don’t seem to grasp is that the men on this ship are stuck here for months on end in this shit can. We all rely on news from home. It’s correspondence from our loved ones that helps get us through the day and helps maintain order and discipline. We cannot disrupt that order just because one marine corps pilot wants a fucking money order! The mail is the PO’s priority.’”
I uncrossed my legs and squeezed my head with both palms. “I don’t get it! Of all the people in our country supposed to be working together, helping each other, shouldn’t the branches of our military be at the top of that list?”
“Should’s got nothing to do with it. You of all people must have learned that by now, son.” My dad emphasized the word son on purpose, in a rhetorical, fatherly way.”
“Yeah,” I said, sitting back, “but you must have been really pissed after that?”
“No,” he grinned. “If you can’t reach the fruit on the tree…you find a ladder.”
“I went back to my compartment after speaking with Chisel—a navy man I felt aptly named. All of the marine pilots’ compartments were grouped together in the same area of the ship. When I got back, the boys could tell something was chafing me, so we had a little meeting. After explaining my story for the third time that day, Thumper, Omaha, Razor, Sideshow, and the rest of my fellow pilots told me they would take care of it, no problem…there would be joy.”
“What did they do?” I asked anxiously, feeling the camaraderie put my arm hairs at attention.
My dad’s eyes widened and his brow furrowed more than usual. “What all these navy guys didn’t understand was how their (and our) mail got to the ship. Once a day, a marine aircraft was designated to fly into Da Nang to pick-up certain things, which included: smokes, beer, other sundries, and…the mail!”
“Oh, that’s precious!” I said as we howled in unison.
“The next day,” dad continued with jubilation, “the helicopter flying into Da Nang had some ‘mechanical problems’ and had to turn back to the ship without mail. Coincidentally, same thing happened the following day.”
“Oh, they must have been pissed!”
“When I got back from flying on the second day, there was a message for me to see Lieutenant Commander Chisel in his office. ‘Enter!’ I heard immediately as I rapped twice on the steel door. Upon entering and closing the door, I stood at attention while Chisel sat scowling at me from behind his metal desk. After a dead silence which seemed to last for minutes versus five or ten seconds, Chisel said, in a condescending tone, ‘Captain Douglas…are you aware that the USS Guam, our fair home at sea, has not received her mail in two days?’ ‘No sir,’ I replied. ‘I have been flying combat missions the last two days, but I might add that I have also not received any mail.’ His mouth clenched and contorted between smile and toothy grimace. ‘No, of course you have not.’ His fists were poised parallel atop his desk and becoming white-knuckled. Suddenly, he pounded the desk while shooting his chair back against the bulkhead as he stood. ‘Follow me!’ he ordered.”
“Were you scared?”
My father pondered. “Nervous maybe, not scared. I had done nothing wrong. I followed closely behind him until we arrived back at the ship’s post office. Chisel unlocked the barred door leading into the small cubical work station. He rummaged through several drawers, slamming each one until he found what he was looking for. He placed a rectangular piece of paper into a small machine and shifted some levers before glaring up at me and said, ‘What is the amount you want on that money order?’”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Nope,” said my dad, straight-faced. “After he slid me the money order, he said, ‘If I could prove you had a hand in stopping the mail, I’d have you court marshaled, you son-of-a-bitch. Now get out of my sight, Captain!’”
My father and I laughed together like only a father and son can—pride-full and with similar traits in the timbre and ungraceful dance of the notes and sound. After a full minute, the sound subsided as we caught our breath and allowed our face and stomach muscles to relax. Silence came again, similar to when I had first sat down across from him.
Captain Douglas, my father, picked up the Winchester .22, placed the butt on one thigh, and very delicately pumped the rifle—a rifle that had never been chambered, never fired. While still looking over the pristine souvenir, he shared another useful platitude, of which there had been many over the years that would forever serve me well in life.
“You never bite the hand that feeds you, son…never bite the hand that feeds you.”
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