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“Flying in Formation”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Kenneth Roy

Gabe and his son, Johnny, wearing bibbed waders and billed caps pulled to their brows, walked side-by-side across the Louisiana rice field in the early chill of the morning.  They were done duck hunting and returning to the truck to go home.  Gabe, shotgun cradled in his arm, carried the day’s limit in a sack draped over his shoulder.  Johnny toted the decoys.  Rummy, a black Lab, trotted between them.  This would be their last hunt together for a long time. Johnny was returning the next day to Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California.  He would undergo a short period of training and then get on a plane that would deliver him to the Republic of Vietnam.  Gabe, as he walked and watched Johnny out of the corner of his eye, was already looking forward to that time when Johnny returned home from his tour, and they  could again hunt ducks in the cool, damp morning of a Louisiana rice field.

“You know, Johnny, I hated to see you drop out of college to join the Marines. If it was about money,” Gabe offered, “I could have helped you out more.”

“I know you would have, Dad, but I was tired of school.  Felt like my ass was turning to wood sitting in desks all day. Besides,” he added, “if it was about money, I could have gotten a job.”

Hoping to change the conversation, Johnny pointed to a flock of geese skimming the horizon.  He didn’t want to have to confess his guilt to Gabe that for some time he had been wasting the hard-earned money that paid for college by skipping classes and ignoring his studies.

“Okay,” Gabe said, resigned, “Your mother and I just worry about you being so far away and gone for so long. I watch too much TV news about that place, I guess.”

Gabe came of age during World War II, but he neither served in the military nor went to college. After the United States entered the war, Gabe and many of his buddies headed to the recruiter’s office to enlist upon graduation from high school. Gabe was turned away because he had a damaged kidney caused by a childhood accident. He made his way to New Orleans and learned to weld in a shipyard. He married, and after the war he and his wife, Martha, returned to their small Louisiana hometown at the border of the bayou country and the plains of southwest Louisiana. He started his own welding business. There was prosperity growing in the rice fields and pumping in the oil fields, and when farm equipment broke down or pipe was to be linked into a pipeline, Gabe set upon the job at hand. Johnny, the first of three children and the only son, was born. Gabe and Martha were building  a life of abundance, and they hoped to see their children flourish.

Some of the young men who went with Gabe to the recruiting office didn’t return home from the war  One who did not was his closest friend Joe Bordelon.  Joe served on a ship that engaged in a naval battle with the Japanese.  Japanese torpedoes blasted holes in the ship’s hull, and it went under within seconds. There were no survivors. Those who were not killed by the initial blasts of the torpedoes drowned, rocked to eternal sleep by the waves.

Gabe saw Joe’s mother from time-to-time, and when he did, it was usually on a Saturday afternoon as she shuffled along the sidewalk on her way to mass with her veil framing her aging face and arthritic fingers rolling rosary beads.  Occasionally they talked. Gabe would inquire about her health, and she about Gabe’s family.  In the last few months, however, her approach caused him to cross the street in the middle of the block.  Ashamedly, he had begun to deem her dark, silent grieving as ominous – contagious even – and infecting him with a malignant trepidation.  “You’re silly,” Martha said when he shared his thoughts with her.

The weather when Gabe and Johnny left home before the break of dawn was moderate, the wind blowing form the northwest. Later, sitting in a duck blind in a flooded field, they watched the dawn bleed through gray clouds smeared across the sky, and the sunlight blurred like a floodlight behind canvasDucks flying in formation harkened to the quacks of their duck callers. Gabe and Johnny fired their shotguns, and Rummy bounced through the water to retrieve the ducks.  Watching Johnny raise the shotgun to his shoulder and arc the sky as he led the flying ducks to take his shot, Gabe was impressed and prideful. The Marine Corps had matured the eager, enthusiastic teenager, and he now commanded the shotgun expertly.

In the blind they talked about Johnny’s military job, artillery forward observer. Johnny speculated where in Vietnam he might be sent. Gabe recalled that when he first heard on the evening news that the United States was sending troops to Vietnam he had to reach for an encyclopedia on the bookshelf to see where in the world this unheard of place was. Many nights he watched footage on the evening news that showed American soldiers sloshing single file through rice fields that the newsmen referred to as rice paddies. In the background, beyond the rice paddies, were thatched huts and trees, and those tree lines, reported the newsmen, were frequent sites for ambushes by the Viet Cong. The footage sometimes showed Vietnamese rice farmers walking behind water buffalo, or men and women standing ankle-deep in flooded rice paddies, bent low, tending to the rice. And, when they reaped the rice, they deftly, methodically swept sickles through the rice stems. Amused, Gabe contrasted those images with the tractor-powered plows and colossal combines that rolled mightily across Louisiana rice fields.  “This war will soon be over,” Gabe declared to Martha.

The rice field they walked across now, with its serpentine levees, was cushioned with black dirt and brown and ochre rice straw, stubble, and other dead plant debris.  Above, a flock of ducks winged its way south across the sky.  The yearly migration fascinated Gabe, and he speculated about the fate of the ducks. How many made it to the winter nesting grounds?  How many returned home?

The northwest wind began to blow more forcefully, and it blew the rice field stubble around like thousands of tiny fingers drumming the ground.  The clouds expanded filling the sky like over-inflated inner tubes, and soon rain drops pelted Gabe and Johnny like birdshot. Gabe buttoned the top button of his jacket and angled his face to the ground to block the wind and the rain.

“Are you going out tonight, Johnny, to celebrate on your last night home?”

“Not sure. I might go to a movie with Julie. Or, maybe meet a couple of my buddies for a few beers,” said Johnny evasively.

Gabe was surprised at the mention of Julie and realized that Johnny had not spoken about her once while he was home on leave. He started to ask about her but stopped, not wanting to pry. He also resisted the impulse to implore Johnny not to stay out too late. He’s a grown man, he reminded himself, and for too long now, no longer the little boy whom he took to the matinee almost every Saturday to watch the Westerns.  Johnny would sit with a bucket of popcorn between his legs and a red pop in one hand.  With the other hand he would tilt a box of Sugar Babies and pour the candy down his throat while he cheered the cowboys and booed the Indians. Now, in the evenings when he watched the news on TV, Gabe saw the new Indians, and they were called Viet Cong.  There was no cheering or booing, just the newsman reciting numbers and a new alphabet: KIA. WIA. MIA.

The growing puddles mirrored the massive clouds roiling above. In the billowing folds of the reflected clouds, Gabe saw a fuzzy image like that of an old black and white TV adorned with rabbit ears. It was an image of a man—could it be Johnny?—aiming a rifle with the intent to take human life. The vision chilled Gabe like a cold steel plate pressed onto his chest. He stepped through the puddle, and the image shattered like welding slag under the strikes of a chipping hammer.

A duck quacking above, a straggler, caught Gabe’s attention, and he watched it flapping in slow-motion across the sky. Gabe wondered about the straggler’s fate. Was it sick or injured? Would it die here in a strange rice field? He chuckled to himself when he thought about what Martha might say if he told her of his sentimental thoughts about the fate of a single duck—crazy old man.

Johnny’s quicker and lengthier strides were pulling him away from Gabe. At first Rummy ran ahead with Johnny, but then turned and ran back to Gabe’s side.

“Good boy, Rummy,” said Gabe, laughing. “You know I’m the one who feeds you.”

Gabe was content to let Johnny walk ahead of him because he wanted to fully measure the change he had observed in Johnny since he joined the Marine Corps. As a teenager, Johnny was slender with slack muscles, and he ricocheted with awkward energy. He was a little bashful, but had the spirit of a prankster.  He smiled sweetly when happy, and his cheeks flamed apple red when angry.  Boot camp had filled him out, though, maybe added a few pounds, and his muscles were strong and hard as oilfield wireline. He walked more confidently and alertly, but he was also quick to cuss now. This foreign impoliteness embarrassed his mother and caused Gabe to stiffen.

Johnny was in full stride now, stepping over the levees and eating up yardage as he went toward the truck that was parked near the irrigation canal beyond the tree line. Rummy suddenly darted ahead after a rabbit but was a step behind, and the rabbit disappeared into a hole.  Johnny looked back at Gabe as if to say “Did you see that?”, and they both laughed.  Gabe lingered still, and the distance between them lengthened.  As it did Johnny grew smaller.

When he neared the trees Johnny looked to Gabe like that little boy he once was who, armed with a BB rifle, roamed the neighborhood shooting at sparrows and pop cans.  Sometimes Johnny would stay out too late past supper time, and Gabe, from the back porch, would shout Johnny’s name. Most often Johnny would shout back, “Coming.” Other times Gabe grew irritated as he heard only Johnny’s name reverberating in the night. When that happened and Johnny finally did come home, Gabe would be stern and remind him that he and his mother expected him to be at the table when dinner was served.

Johnny stepped to the edge of the tree line, and alarm seared Gabe like the blue heat of a cutting torch.  He saw sculpted in the bare anatomy of the shedding trees a cadaverous figure, the color of ash and iron, bent over, grasping a bundle of bones in the left hand and slicing through them with a sickle wielded in the right. The wind gusted and shook the trees, and when Gabe looked again, he saw only masses of crooked and spindly branches whipping in the wind.  The alarm abated, but foreboding lingered, slow to flush in the heated blood washing through his veins.

The sack of duck carcasses draped across his shoulder and the cradled shotgun fatigued Gabe, and he pulled himself through the sucking mire only with much effort.   He shifted the weight of the sack, and that brought momentary relief, but he continued to struggle.  If he thought Johnny would not think him crazy, Gabe would have abandoned the sack of dead ducks right there in the field of mud.  In that moment Gabe resolved that when he returned home he would clean his shotgun one last time, place it in its leather case, zip it closed, and bury it deep in the corner of a closet.

Gabe shouted Johnny’s name, but Johnny, not hearing or not heeding, continued striding into the tree line.  Gabe strained to keep sight of Johnny as he dissolved into the mist that floated and foamed around the trunks, stumps, and fallen tree debris.  Gabe blinked a rain drop from his eye.  He blinked again, and Johnny was gone.

In memory of Big Al, a welder’s welder