Long Time Coming
By Jim Masso
I stood in front of
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
as a 71N20, transportation movement specialist. Vietnam 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 Gary
when I returned. It was the last time I
saw or heard from New York . We weren’t letter writers. Gary
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.
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 Gary to a specialist in who informed his
parents the disease was only in his lymph glands and stoppable with radium
treatments. Hartford Gary
started the treatments and later told he could start classes in September at
the Morse Business
School in .
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,
commuted every day to
for school and then treatments. The
treatments hurt more than helped as the disease continued to spread. In November, Hartford Gary
dropped out of school and entered . 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 Hartford
Hospital . That night he was glad to be back in the hospital. Gary
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
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. Gary
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
’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. Gary
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
didn’t contact Gary’s family or girlfriend. What could we say? Vietnam
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
mother in church. Gary
“He would have been your best man”, she said.
For almost 4 decades, I never talked about
. When asked about my military service I’d say,
for 18 months”. No other questions
followed. They imagined the rest. Would they have believed the truth about drinking,
eating, smoking and girls? Vietnam
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
. 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 Vietnam . There wasn’t a scratch on my body. I never fired my weapon. I felt guilty about my Gary
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
’s grave. When I
found it, tears rolled down my cheeks. I sighed. It felt right. Gary
‘It’s been a long time,’ I said.
We had a nice visit.
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.”
“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.