Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Memorial Day Memory, and a Surprise at the End of a Dance

The work produced in Lary Bloom's and Suzanne Levine's Class in Memoir over the past three springs has been extraordinary, and members of the classes have been invited to post their work here. Today we post two pieces: "Long Time Coming," a short memoir by Jim Masso (of the Bloom-Levine Class of 2011) and "A Dance," the response to an assignment to provide a story in the form of dialogue, by Ann Keating (of the Class of 2012).

Long Time Coming

 By Jim Masso

 I stood in front of Gary’s headstone for the first time.  Forty-one years had past since his death. I knew the general location of the grave.  In fact, I’d seen the family marker from the road, yet I never went to visit.  Gary was my best friend.

  We met in high school.  I was a senior, he a junior.  We’d hang out all the time.  Girls, dating, music and the Yankees were our constant subjects.  On Sunday mornings I’d meet him in front of church, but instead of Mass, we’d go eat breakfast at a restaurant. With a grin, he’d flirt with our waitress.  After she left, he’d sing a few bars from his favorite song of the week: “A little bit o’ soul will see you through, yeah.”    

  In September of 1968, in order to sidestep the draft, I enlisted in the Army. After basic and advanced training in April of 1969, I shipped out for Vietnam as a 71N20, transportation movement specialist. Gary knew about my overseas orders. Mom and Dad didn’t. Mom would have cried all the time.  I told Dad in the morning before he drove me to the airport. He told Mom afterwards.   While I was home, Gary and I caroused as usual. The night before I left, we made plans to attend a ball game in New York when I returned.  It was the last time I saw or heard from Gary.  We weren’t letter writers.

  I spent my first six months in Vietnam in a hotel converted into a military barracks in downtown Saigon. Mama-sans cleaned the room and took care of the laundry.  I was attached to 3rd Transportation Unit, Movement Control Center (MCC). Our duty:  make sure the ships in dock had enough flatbed trailers to unload their cargo, make sure the paperwork was correct and the convoys loaded with supplies left on time. At night, we hung out in the bars near the waterfront and drank.  Young Asian girls worked in the bars. They sat in the booths with us as long as we continued to drink and buy them watered down drinks called Saigon Tea. I learned quickly it wasn’t good to think about war all the time.

  In mid-July, Gary developed lumps in his lymph glands.   The doctor diagnosed mononucleosis and prescribed bed rest, but the lumps multiplied and became larger.  The doctor performed a biopsy. This time the diagnosis was Hodgkins disease.  The doctor referred Gary to a specialist in Hartford who informed his parents the disease was only in his lymph glands and stoppable with radium treatments.  Gary started the treatments and later told he could start classes in September at the Morse Business School in Hartford.  

  After six months, I had orders to report about 25 miles north to Lai Khe. Three of us from MCC handled the daily supply convoys. We made sure the flatbed trailers were unloaded, reloaded, and headed back south to the large military complex at Long Binh before dark. The PX used many trailers. We kept them supplied with trailers. They kept us supplied with beer and steaks.  At night, we drank the beer, ate the steaks and watched outdoor movies.  Sometimes we got high. There weren’t any mortar or ground attacks during my 3-month stay.  

  Back in the world, Gary commuted every day to Hartford for school and then treatments.  The treatments hurt more than helped as the disease continued to spread.  In November, Gary dropped out of school and entered Hartford Hospital.  The Hodgkins spread into his bone marrow, but the doctor was confident he could stop it though not necessarily cure him.  His brother, Alan, brought him home for Thanksgiving.  The day was painful for Gary.  That night he was glad to be back in the hospital.

  The Bob Hope Christmas Show came to Lai Khe.  Thousands of troops descended on the base for the show.  We laughed at the jokes and applauded the songs. For a couple of hours we were part of a uniquely American tradition as the entertainers shared their Christmas spirit and helped us forget where we were for this family holiday.    
 By the middle of December, the end was in sight.  The disease spread to his liver.  Around 3 PM on New Year’s Eve Gary told his brother he had a pain in his stomach. Alan called a nurse who administered a sedative.  Gary fell asleep. His brother went home.  Later that night the family received the doctor’s call. They pronounced Gary dead at 10:20 PM.

  At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the guards fired their weapons in the air to celebrate.  I was almost a short timer:  less than 100 days left in-country.

    In mid-January, the letter from Gary’s brother arrived. Why was he writing to me?  I read the letter and was shocked, then angered.  In it were the events of the last 6 months. Why didn’t he let me know? What could I have done if I knew? Nothing, I was stuck in this goddamn war, 18,000 miles away and wasn’t there to help my best friend battle for his life. I was frustrated and felt useless.  That night I read the letter over and over.             
  Being home on furlough was difficult. I didn’t want the thirty days leave to end, yet I did. I was glad to see my parents and girlfriend, but I was anxious to get back to my buddies. For an early Army discharge, I had agreed to another 6 months in Vietnam. I didn’t contact Gary’s family or girlfriend. What could we say?

  The next year I finished active duty. Four years later, I received my BA and married my college sweetheart. Several months after the wedding, I met Gary’s mother in church. 
“He would have been your best man”, she said.

I nodded.

  For almost 4 decades, I never talked about Vietnam.  When asked about my military service I’d say, “Vietnam for 18 months”.  No other questions followed. They imagined the rest. Would they have believed the truth about drinking, eating, smoking and girls?

  I hadn’t been in firefights, patrolled the jungle, crawled through tunnels, or killed anyone.  My war was a day at the office, except it was Vietnam.  I moved paper instead of bullets.  Could I tell anyone I had an easy and sometimes fun tour in Vietnam?  There were thousands of war casualties, which in my universe included Gary.  There wasn’t a scratch on my body.  I never fired my weapon.  I felt guilty about my Vietnam service.
   Recently, through movies and books I’ve gotten a glimpse into the other side of the war. The part I missed. I’m one of the lucky soldiers.

   Memorial Day was in less than a week. I drove to my parent’s gravesite to bring the two flowerpots home for replanting. As I placed the second one in the car, a warm shiver ran through me.  I looked around the cemetery and knew it was time.  I knew the general vicinity of Gary’s grave. When I found it, tears rolled down my cheeks. I sighed.  It felt right. 

 ‘It’s been a long time,’ I said.
 We had a nice visit.

The Dance

by Ann M. Keating

     “My wife told me to ask you to dance, “ he said.

    “She did? How lovely,” I replied.

    “I guess she thought you might want to."

     “I’d be delighted.”

     Taking my hand, he said, “ It’s so nice to see you after all these years.”

     “Yes it is good to be back in the old home town. Many things are different and some are the same.”

    “Just how many has it been? You still look like you did at twenty one.”

    “You flatter me.”

     “Let me think,” he said.  “It was twenty years ago and we were all here at the club.”

    “Yes, it was at the end of the summer party.”

    “Well, here we are right back where we started,” he said as he twirled me around the floor.

    “You always did dance better than anyone else,” I sighed.

    “You’re more relaxed than you used to be. I was never sure if you’d follow.”

    “Sorry about that…I always wanted to but was never sure where you were going to lead.”

    “I remember the first time I saw you. You were standing in the sunlight in Betty’s dining room.”

    “I remember too. You said, ‘Not bad, not bad but you’ll have to do something with that hair.”

    “I said that?”

    “You said that.”

    “That’s not like me at all,” he laughed.

    “ Isn’t it?”

    “You know I’ve never been able to figure it out. You were never what I’d call sexy.”

    “Thanks a lot…not even in a black dress?”

    “Not even in a black dress…but you sure are now.”

    “You haven’t changed a bit…not a bit, “ I laughed.

    “About you…no I guess I haven’t.  What did we do on our first date?” he mused.

   “We went to dinner and a play. Then I seem to remember…"

   “Dancing”, he said. “ We always danced but we didn’t see the play. There were only two seats left and…"

    “That’s right and they were not together. You said, ‘I want to see you and not some old play.’”
     “And what did you say?”

     “It was a long while ago. I don’t remember.”

      He said, “You married fast, you know.”

     “I know.”


     “Because you didn’t ask me, and the music stopped.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Actually, right now the music has stopped. We’re the only ones on the dance floor.”

    “So we are. But I still don’t know what you mean…I didn’t ask you…"

    “We really should return to the table,” I said.

    “Will you dance the next dance?” he asked.


I came out onto the sunny Mark Twain Museum Center patio mid-day Saturday, April 21, when the First Annual Mark Twain House Writers’ Weekend was breaking for lunch, and saw a sight like something out of the Bible. A short, dark-haired, impassioned woman was standing at the head of a table, reading aloud, while eighteen or twenty crowded around her, rapt, like the crowd around a prophet on some dusty mountain. This was Bessy Reyna, a rare and eloquent poet from Bolton, who had let it be known that her seven morning poetry participants hadn’t wanted to stop at an hour – they wanted to work though lunch. As they did, others joined them; the blue polo shirts of our hardworking UConn interns could be seen in the growing multitude. “I didn’t even like poetry,” said Audrey Eckert of Thomaston, who came upon the group and stayed. “But I heard the most wonderful poet.”

I could see then that the miracle of the Writers’ Weekend had come off. There were loftier celebrities, from the eloquent editor Lewis Lapham and the powerful novelist Jon Clinch to the brilliant playwrights Alfred Uhry, A.R. Gurney, and Donald Margulies. All of them had generously given of their time to make this a success. So had fourteen other writers in sessions small and large on a range of subjects. There were dozens of moments of discovery like Audrey’s, all compressed in an evening and a good long day. When it was all over, the evaluations of the Weekend came in – 22 excellent, 19 good, plenty of praise. “Every moment was terrific!” wrote a woman who went on to lecture us gently on our food choices.  “Addressed issues and areas I needed resolved as a writer,” wrote another attendee. And more: “Well organized, balanced; great presenters and accessible.” “Respectful of the novice.” Some commented on the non-academic atmosphere as being a boon. There were suggestions: a two-day weekend with longer sessions and more breaks; children’s literature; a humor-writing session – and tea! tea! tea! in the morning, not just coffee.
We think we can find the tea for next year. Let me add my thanks to Julia’s more timely ones earlier this week to everybody who took part in this, in preparation and aftermath, as well as those who, on the days of,  gave so much to this effort. The Mark Twain Memorial said in 1955 it would do something like this. Things in Connecticut take a little while. Now it’s getting done. Thanks to you.
-- Steve Courtney