“The Last Letter”

by Robert Shipley

Sitting down in his kitchen, Peter took his time opening the envelope. He was just back from the walk to the corner where the Canada-Post communal mailbox stood like a little bunker guarding the entrance to his tree-lined street. It wasn’t far. The rich, earthy smell still wafting up from his favorite coffee mug was the celebration of morning for him.

 A two-page, hand-written letter was a novelty, a flashback to another time. There was also another, smaller envelope enclosed. It was sealed. He set it aside while he read the two-pager.

Dear Peter, it was very nice to receive your Christmas card and note addressed to Hal. Of course, there was no way of you knowing he would not get it…

He glanced at the bottom of the page. Jeanie was his old friend Hal Burrow’s wife. It struck him as odd that the letter was from her and that sent a tremor of speculation up his back. He had met Jeanie when he visited Hal in Maryland but she had never communicated with him on her own.

The story of Peter and Hal’s unique friendship went back many years. Venice, of all places, was where it began. Peter was travelling around Europe in those halcyon days in the late 1960s when the Canadian dollar was worth the same or more than the Yankee greenback. Four of those dollars would land you a good meal and six, a comfortable hotel. Europe on $10 a day was the title and promise of a popular travel book. The author advised that entrance fees to art galleries and concerts were extra. His copy was in the outside pocket of his rucksack. He’d sewn a miniature Canadian flag on the flap. Peter had worked the first part of the summer and this trip was his fling before university.

The fellow in the next hotel room was an American, Hal. In the late afternoon, they sat outside a café on the Piazza San Marco. The Cathedral dominated the far end of the square, the shadows deep under its round arches and the magnificent horse sculptures just visible. The Campanile loomed above, and the resident flock of pigeons swooped and banked. The two men listened to the small palm court orchestras duel; they drank Cinzano & lemon from tall, sweating glasses and talked.

Hal was on leave from the US Navy. He had come to Europe on his way home to the States from Southeast Asia, Vietnam to be exact. At the time, Peter didn’t know much about what was happening in that corner of the world. This was before draft-dodgers began to flood across the border into Canada, before they showed up in his university classes and before they founded communes, led protests, and set up law practices. There were just the nightly news flashes on US TV stations that leaked across the border.

Canada had respectfully declined invitations to join the war and since there was no compulsory military service in Canada, talk of Vietnam wasn’t the tinderbox it was in America. Peter and Hal hit it off immediately, Peter young, keen, and well read, Hal experienced, older and reflective. Hal was a naval officer, and a helicopter pilot. Between operational postings, he was teaching history at the Annapolis Naval Academy. They both enjoyed poetry.

Over the next years, they met at a couple of conferences and Peter visited Hal in the States. They sustained a written correspondence and their friendship influenced Peter’s choice of career. The study of history seduced and then consumed him. For reasons that Peter never understood until the end, there came a time when their letter writing stopped.

That late summer evening in Piazza San Marco, Peter asked Hal a natural question.

“Were you in the war?”

“Was I in the war?” Hal repeated looking away. He took a long pull on his drink. “I think the answer has to be yes.” Peter waited for Hal to continue but his shifting in the chair, and fidgeting with the serviette were coded messages that Peter’s query raised a difficult topic.

“There was a pretty high likelihood that I would be drafted,” Hal eventually continued, “so I volunteered for the Navy figuring that I’d avoid the war since it was mostly an Army gig. Then, when I qualified as a chopper pilot, they shipped me off to the Mekong Delta. Turned out everybody in the military wanted a piece of the action and the Navy had staked their claim on the Delta. They had gunboats on the water and guys like me flying gunships up above. The best laid plans of mice and men…”

“…Gang aft a-gley.” Peter said, finishing the line of poetry.

“What?” Hal chuckled, welcoming the relief from his unhappy story.

“The best laid plans of mice and men / Gang aft a-gley” Peter recited. “Robbie Burns writing in Scots dialect.”

“Of course” said Hal, “but what’s the translation?”.

“Go often wrong or better still, go for shit,” was Peter’s answer and they both smiled.

During the next three years of university, Peter took all the military history courses available. At first it was the details that fascinated him. Which army units moved where in which battle, and what became of them. He created an hour-by-hour set of diagram tracing the ship movements at the 1916 Battle of Jutland. As his obsession with campaign minutia wore off, it was ‘conflict studies,’ the modern, academic euphemism for the investigation of war, that attracted him. The kind of questions he now asked were, “how do people remember their war experience” and “how do those memories affect them”

In Peter’s fourth year, there was an international conference at the Canadian Military College in Kingston. Hal wasn’t there but Peter met another American, Dan Rosario, with whom he shared similar, scholarly interests. At the bar in the officers’ mess, away from the formal presentations and jocular socialising, they talked. Peter raised the same question he had asked Hal years before, “Were you in the war?”

Dan twisted in his chair and was as uncomfortable with the question as Hal had been. He had a long drink before answering.

“The answer is yes and no.” Peter waited for Dan to continue.

“I was too old for the draft.”

“But you went anyway?” Peter asked.

“I wanted to do something,” Dan went on. “I volunteered as a teacher, math, in a small college.”

“Sounds worthwhile,” Peter affirmed. There was another pause. When he thought enough silence had been observed, he continued, “So why’d you leave?”

Still looking away, Dan said, “The college was… closed… no actually the college was eliminated.”

The details came out over the next couple of days. The college was in a town in the Mekong Delta where the tangled streams of the River reach the sea. Dan said he couldn’t remember the name of the town, which struck Peter as strange.

 Dan said the military brass told the college staff the place was pacified. Dan repeated the word, ‘pacified,’ as though there was irony in the very pronunciation. Then, Dan had said, came Vietnamese New Year, Tet it’s called, and all hell broke loose.

The Viet Cong, Dan remembered, the guerilla fighters, showed up in every town and village and occupied buildings. Two guerillas came to the college. They got up to the top floor where they could shoot at the police station down on the street. There were a few shots, then for a while nothing, silence. He said he had wanted to get from his apartment to the college but he was afraid to go into the street. Then, Dan said, he heard them coming, helicopters, the dull repetitious whop, whop sound got louder and louder. There were four. They passed overhead once then turned and on the second go, they fired their rockets into the college building, one after another. Then they flew off, leaving the building a twisted wreck of broken concrete, rebar, and flames.

Peter asked Dan if he could have stayed on and held classes somewhere else. It wasn’t just that the college building was gone, Dan explained while clenching his ice-cold glass, the students had all gathered in the basement thinking that was the safest place. Dan had his own recollection of that day in the middle of a war and now he was gathering other people’s stories and trying, like Peter, to understand the process of memory. Intending to help Dan cycle back up from his uncomfortable thoughts Peter posed another question.

“So what about the ‘enemy,’ what happened to them?”

Dan responded, “There were only two VC on the roof. Two teenagers and they didn’t even have Kalashnikovs. They just had old French, bolt-action Lebels. I don’t know if they got away. I’m thinking of going back to try to find out.”

Peter considered Dan’s version of what had happened with the college long and hard. He carefully thought about what he would talk to Hal about when they next met. Hal Burrow’s Vietnam experience did not come up in previous conversations. It was not until Peter’s second visit to Washington and Annapolis that the topic emerged. They were enjoying a meal of oysters and good white wine on the patio of a waterfront restaurant after a day’s sailing on Chesapeake Bay. Jennie, Hal’s wife, had stayed at home.

“You’ve never talked about the war,” Peter ventured part way into the second bottle.

“No,” Hal answered, “I haven’t.” After a pause he said, “But you’re getting to be this historian type guy so I suppose I’m research.”

“Something like that,” Peter responded. “I’m thinking about grad school and I’m tending toward ‘conflict studies’ as a research area.”

Hal took another swig of the Chablis and settled in his chair. Gulls shrieked, sails flapped and every clasp, stay ,and halyard in the marina knocked up against its metallic neighbour creating a symphonic cacophony of tiny bell sounds.

“Mine was just a six-month deployment,” Hal continued, “but right in the middle of my tour they had what the history books now call the ‘Tet Offensive.’ The Vietcong, or VC, or Victor Charlie, whatever we called the enemy, showed up every place where they weren’t supposed to be. It seemed like my squadron was in the air almost all the time for days. Fighting the good fight I suppose, making the world safe for democracy.”

Peter felt some unease that he was not able to put his finger on. Hal had spoken in a mater-of-fact and detached tone as he answered but Peter’s inkling persisted. That proved to be their last face-to-face meeting. It was in a subsequent letter that Peter probed a bit deeper into Hal’s memory.

What kinds of missions did you fly in the Tet? Peter wrote.

Hal responded: We would get reports that Charlie was here or there and when they were in numbers and in a strong position, we would go off and hit the place and neutralize them. That was the term, neutralize. That’s what I did. There was a sense of supressed emotion in Hal’s writing.

In his next letter, Peter prompted: did Hal remember any specific places?

There was a school or college, something like that, Hal wrote. We got the fire mission. It said a dozen or so VC had taken over the building and they were shooting everyone in town from the roof. We went in, made a couple of passes and took them out. Hal wrote that he didn’t recall the name of the place – Trong or Tran something.

Peter had a phone call one day from Dan. “My Trang,” he reported, “the place where my college was, it is called My Trang. Maybe I didn’t remember because I was trying to forget,” Dan mused before he hung up.

A couple of days later Peter called Hal. In those days, long distance calls were not cheap and Hal was surprised at first to hear from his Canadian friend. Peter got to the point. “The school you told me about that you hit during the Tet Offensive, was the place called My Trang?”

Peter couldn’t see it but sitting in his kitchen, Hal went pale. “I’ve met someone who was there,” Peter said and he related Dan’s version of the story.

They continued to exchange letters for another year. After that, it was just Christmas cards. When Peter emailed that he’d finished his degree Hal’s response was a simple, “congratulations.”

Then, nothing. Peter’s Christmas card had been the first communication in several years.

Jennie’s letter responding to Peter’s card continued:

Of course, there was no way of you knowing he would not get it…  Six years ago, Hal was killed when his helicopter crashed on the deck of his ship in the Atlantic. The helicopter went over the side. The other crewmen were rescued but Hal’s body was never recovered. We had been divorced two years before the accident.

There was a postscript to Jeanie’s letter:

I found the enclosed envelope among Hal’s things and I am glad now that I finally have your address.

There was a handwritten line on the envelope:

In the event of my death, please forward to my friend Peter MacHamish in Canada.

The small envelope wavered in his hand. Peter realized he was trembling. The news that his old friend was gone, lost at sea, dead… was a shock unfamiliar to a person his age who lived in a peaceful, sheltered society. It was not his parents’ time, when a world war made news of death a daily envoy. The reality Peter had just been presented was difficult for him to grasp.

The thin, folded, paper envelope with its unconventional address was an even heavier weight on his emotional shoulders.  What had Hal been thinking about that he wanted only to communicate to Peter, the outsider. Hal had predicted that Peter would become “a historian type guy.” Peter had finished a degree and was now a professor.

He closed his eyes and pictured Hal’s helicopter, its rotor blades twisted and bent from hitting the salt water at speed. When, or indeed, if Peter opened the envelope, what would he find? Would it be insight about what happened in Vietnam or something universal? Would the message contain contrition, regret, apology or defiance, validation, justification? Peter pictured Hal’s mortally wounded helicopter rolling over in the waves, water rushing in the open side-door.

Peter saw in his mind the broken Sea King descending through the zone of blue where the sun’s rays penetrate those few meters down from the surface. He wondered if Hal’s message, this echo from the deep, would change his understanding of the things he studied? He wondered if it would change the book he was working on?

Peter saw the helicopter begin to plunge deeper into that darkness that is the sea. He saw Hal still in the pilot’s seat, holding the controls that no longer respond.

He held the envelope in his trembling hand. To him Hal had always been more than research. Peter could not bring himself to open the envelope. At least not now.