“A Port in a Storm”

by Steven Miller

 

It was August 1972. I drove my red 1967 Mustang coupe along the section of Route 45 that snaked its way along the wooded ridgeline from Bloomington into Brown County. It was the waning months of the Vietnam War and I had just returned home after two years in the Army.

I spent my college years as an ROTC cadet at Indiana University, which was not the most popular route during the turbulent sixties. But, like many young men who came of age in that era, my goal was to somehow find an honorable way to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam. As an ROTC cadet, I was technically in the Army Reserves, and could not be drafted. I felt confident the war would be over by the time I graduated and I could spend my active duty obligation in a peacetime Army. I was wrong. For four years, the war was always there, waiting for me.

Upon graduation, I commissioned an artillery second lieutenant. I drove to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, moved into a room in the bachelor officer quarters, and began four months of artillery training. Training consisted of classroom instruction combined with many hours on the firing range learning how to direct fire in support of infantry, as well as potentially command a firing battery. Near the end of the course, we went through a week of Vietnam orientation, where we were given a realistic and frightening picture of what to expect when we were in the jungle. To scare us into taking the training seriously, we were told that artillery second lieutenants deployed as forward observers and had one of the highest mortality rates in Vietnam. For me, as well as the other young lieutenants, there was no future beyond the war. Every day I checked the mailbox for orders that would send me on my way. Finally, a few weeks before the end of the school, I received my orders. I was assigned to permanent duty at Fort Sill. I was relieved that I would not have to go overseas. However, a part of me felt guilty that others were still being sent over there. This was a feeling that I would carry with me the rest of my life.

Now, my military experience was safely behind me, and like so many others, I found myself spending a great deal of time reflecting on my life and contemplating what to do with the rest of it. For lack of a better plan, I had enrolled in a master’s degree program at Indiana. Classes were less than a week away, and I still hadn’t found an apartment near campus that would fit into my skimpy budget. I was temporarily living in my parents’ trailer in a park next to Lake Lemon, about fifteen miles from campus.

My dad had always wanted a weekend getaway in the country. Shortly before I entered the army, he had bought a small mobile home from the estate of a World War I veteran he had known through his job at the post office. He had it towed to a mobile home park adjacent to the lake, situated in the rolling hills of Brown County in southern Indiana. It had a bedroom, a sleeping alcove off the corridor, an eat-in kitchen and living room. It also had a screened porch, which effectively doubled the living space. Every weekend in the summer months mom and dad would leave the house in Indianapolis and spend the weekend at the lake. During the week, however, the park was deserted, and since it was only a short drive from Bloomington, my dad suggested that I stay there until I found permanent quarters in town. The solitude of the lake in mid-week was the perfect place for quiet reflection.

As I drove the twisting road toward the lake, the sky darkened and heavy thunderheads gathered in the west. I have always felt that the thunder was louder, the wind stronger and the rain harder in the woods of southern Indiana than anywhere else on earth. The storm was reaching Lake Lemon as I drove into the gravel drive of the park. Despite the approaching weather, it was a typically warm afternoon. I grabbed a cold can of beer from the refrigerator and sat down in a lawn chair on the screened porch, sheltered from the wind by the trailer, to enjoy the spectacle of wind, rain, thunder and lightening before me. The rain came down in torrents, creating a racket on the fiberglass roof of the porch and cascading like a waterfall from the roof to the ground on three sides all around me. After two years of dry, dusty Oklahoma, I found the rain refreshing.

The trailer park was arranged around the outer perimeter of a circular gravel road, with a small grassy field in the center. As I stared across the open space, I saw a dog wander from between two trailers on the other side and trot slowly across the field in my direction, head and tail down as he made his way through the downpour. As he wandered through the grass, he saw me sitting in the porch, came straight to the door and stood outside looking at me through the screen. I got out of the chair and opened the screen door to let him in. He entered, made his way politely to the other end of the porch, where he was out of range, and shook, leaving a sizable pool of water on the green indoor/outdoor carpeting. Then he came and sat quietly beside me and watched the storm through the screen.

He was an ordinary-looking dog, some sort of spaniel mix, I imagine. He had medium-long hair, black with patches of white. With his shaggy fur, I couldn’t tell if he was wearing a collar, though he didn’t look like a lost dog looking for a meal. It’s not at all uncommon in that part of the country for local folks to own several dogs at one time or another, and to let them have free run of the countryside. Yet for the time being, he seemed perfectly content to sit there with me and wait out the rain.

The storm was intense, but within twenty minutes or so it had moved on, leaving the trees dripping in its wake. The dog rose from my side, went to the door and looked back at me expectantly. When I pushed open the screen, he walked out the door and hesitated on the gravel road for a moment, almost like he was trying to decide which direction to go. Then he headed back across the field, splashing through the wet grass without once looking back. As the thunder rumbled off to the east, he disappeared between the trailers on the other side.

As I watched my companion leave, it occurred to me that I was not so unlike him. Just as he had sought protection from the storm, I had survived the tempest that was the Vietnam War, and was now seeking temporary shelter in graduate school. The fact was, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, or what path I would eventually follow.  Yet I was optimistic. Though I had no definitive destination in mind, I thought maybe I’d just follow my nose, and walk through doors as they opened.