Chapter 11 - The Letter
Hawkeye woke to see that BJ was sitting next to him on the bunk. He sat up, rubbing his eyes with trembling hands. He could feel rivulets of cold sweat running down his back.
"Beej, I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" he asked, still reeling from his nightmare.
"You probably woke the entire camp!" moaned Charles from his bunk.
BJ gave Charles a sidelong glance. "Go back to sleep, Chuckles."
"If you two will keep it quiet I will be more than happy to oblige, Hunnicuttt. I have to be up early because I have the dubious honor of being Officer of the Day this morning. So if you don't mind...good night!" snarled Charles, putting the pillow over his bald head.
"I keep seeing his face," said Hawkeye. "Beej, when does it end?"
"I wish I had an answer for you."
"I wish you did, too," said Hawkeye. He sat up, put his robe and boots on and then stood, preparing to leave the tent. "I can't sleep now. I'm going for a walk."
"Hawk its two thirty in the morning, "BJ tried to reason with him. "Why don't you just have another nightcap and go back to bed?"
"Good idea," said Hawkeye with a smile. He filled a martini glass from the still and left.
BJ shook his head, rolled his eyes and said, "Glad I could help."
Hawkeye walked the perimeter of the sleeping camp, sipping from his glass as he went. He had cut back considerably on his alcohol intake since the night he'd tried to destroy the officer's club. He was comforted to know that the club had been put back in order. For Klinger it was a matter of a few calls, a little wheeling and dealing and he'd replaced the furniture, the glasses and the liquor. For a week or two, though, they were drinking scotch out of tin cups from army mess kits.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Rizzo, you can knock off the soldier, routine," said Hawkeye.
"Hi there, Cap'n Pierce, nice night ain't it? Why, if ah was back in Looziyanna I'd be out fishin' on a night like this. That's a fact."
"Rumor has it you might be home fishing by fall."
"So I hear, Cap'n. Think there's any truth to them rumors about the peace talks and all?"
"I hope so."
"How long has it been since you was home, Cap'n?"
"Almost three years," said Hawkeye sadly.
"Hey, was you plannin' to go to that picnic next week?"
"Yes, I am. I wouldn't miss a trip to a beach for anything. Of course I'd prefer it to be a beach on the coast of Maine. Are you going?"
"Me? I wouldn't miss it for all the frogs in the Mississippi! I can't wait to see some of them nurses in bathing suits. Know what I mean?" he nudged Hawkeye in the ribs. "I'm bettin' that Major Houlihan is somethin' sweet in a bathin' suit." He winked at Hawkeye 'knowingly.'
"Uh huh...yeah," Hawkeye began to feel uncomfortable. "I'm sure you're right. I'm on my way to other corners of the camp. Carry on, Sergeant."
Rizzo saluted Hawkeye. Hawkeye gave Rizzo a small wave and a grin in return and resumed his walk.
Colonel Potter had been awakened by Hawkeye's outcry. He now sat quietly pondering whether or not there was anything he should do. He didn't know if he should go over to the swamp and check things out or leave it be. It had gotten pretty quiet so he figured that Hunnicuttt had it under control.
He hated to see his chief surgeon going through this ordeal. He knew that it was something that could follow him for years, possibly haunting him the rest of his life. Hopefully, he thought, time would ease the pain for Hawkeye.
"Buffalo Bagels!" He muttered. "I'm wide awake now." He turned on the light and picked up the Zane Grey novel he was currently reading.
"If you're headed for the latrine, your going in the wrong direction."
Hawkeye turned around with a start to find Margaret standing outside the door of her tent.
"Um..no," he said. "I was just out for a midnight stroll."
"So I see," she said, eyeing his martini glass.
"Care of a sip?" he asked with a grin.
"No thanks. My liver has a limited warranty."
"Cute, Margaret, very cute."
"Another bad dream, Hawkeye?"
"You heard me," he said, wondering how many others' sleep he'd managed to disturb.
"Yes," she whispered. "Is there anything I can do?"
He shook his head, tears in his eyes. With his spare hand he took her hand. He unconsciously began to massage her fingers.
He said, "I keep dreaming about him...Owens. I see his face...it's always the same, he can't breathe and then he..." Hawkeye stopped. He sighed and looked up at the sky as if he were searching for solace in the clouds.
Margaret hated to see Hawkeye having such a difficult time. He'd always been the camp morale booster, with his practical jokes and sharp wit. It seemed he could almost always come up with something to make this place bearable.
She shuddered. At that moment she felt cold and alone.
Hawkeye turned back to took at her and said, "I'm sorry I woke you. I know you have to be in Post Op in just a few hours." He put his arm around her shoulder and gulped the remaining contents of his glass, coughing slightly. "Good batch!"
Margaret leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes.
BJ opened his eyes slowly, taking in the mid morning light. He saw Hawkeye sleeping soundly on his cot.
BJ's throbbing head begged for coffee so he got up as quietly as he could. He was dressed and opened the door to head for the mess tent when Hawkeye stirred and opened one eye.
"Beej? What time is it?"
"Why? Do you have to be somewhere? Why don't you roll over and go back to sleep?"
"No, that's okay. I'm awake. Wait I'll go with you...you headed for the mess tent?"
"Good morning, Pierce. Did you finally get some sleep," asked the colonel. He knew the answer by looking at Hawkeye's appearance. His hair was uncombed and his face looked like he hadn't shaved for a couple of days. His eyes looked like it had been even longer since he'd had a decent night's sleep.
"I'm just fine, Colonel. Can't you tell I'm bright eyed and bushy tailed...or is that bushy eyed and bright tailed...or something..." Hawkeye took a sip of coffee and laid his head on the table.
BJ came to the table with two trays of food. "Here, Hawk, you might feel better if you had a good breakfast."
"Yeah I would. Let me call my dad and have him send me one." He pushed the tray aside and put his head back on the table.
"Mail Call!" Sergeant Klinger came through the door of the mess tent wearing a big smile. Soon-Lee was close beside him. He flipped through a pile of letters.
"Colonel Potter, a letter from Hannibal, MO. Feels like a thick one, Sir."
"Hmm... I wonder what the missus is sending me now. I think I'd better open this one in my tent," said the colonel with a wink.
"Here's two from Mill Valley, Californ-eye-aye. Unless I miss my guess, they would be for Captain Hunnicuttt. And here's a package for the Captain as well."
"Mmmm," BJ sniffed the package. "Smells like Peg's 80 proof rum balls. I think we should save these for the picnic."
Hawkeye grinned and said, "Ah yes, the cookies with a buzz in every bite."
"Father John Francis Patrick Mulcahy, a letter from one Sister Angelica."
"My sister the sister," smiled the priest. "How I miss her."
"I guess it's been a long time since she kicked sand in your face, huh Father," said BJ. Father Mulcahy smiled and nodded.
"I haven't had to take the gloves to her for many years. And if I tried that now she might just slam dunk me. She's quite the basketball player you know."
"And here's a letter for Captain BF Pierce from Muskogee, Oklahoma. I think that does it for this group. Shall we make our appointed rounds, my dear, Soon Lee." He beamed at the pretty Korean girl by his side.
"Oh, Max you are funny man. You make me laugh," she giggled.
Hawkeye looked at the return address on his letter. Who did he know in Muskogee? He'd never been there in his life. He turned the letter over to see if there were any clues on the back flap. A gold label read : "Mr. and Mrs. Howard C. Owens." His face paled as he read the name.
"Is something wrong, son?" asked the colonel.
"I don't know. This is a letter from a Mr. and Mrs. Howard C. Owens. My guess is that it's from Corporal Owens' parents. His name was 'Howard W'."
"Well, don't just sit there. Read it," urged the CO.
"If it's trouble, you've got us here for moral support, Hawkeye," said Father Mulcahy.
Hawkeye smiled across the table at the priest. He was grateful for his kind words. Hawkeye's hands trembled somewhat as he opened the letter. BJ gave his shoulder a squeeze. He unfolded the letter and read:
"Dear Captain Pierce,
It has been a month now since the death of our son, Howard. As you can well imagine, his loss was a shock and our grief is immense.
We received a very sweet letter from your chaplain, Father Mulcahy. Although we, ourselves aren't Catholic, we appreciated that he took the time to write to us. He sounds like a very nice man.
Howard wrote as often as he could. He was a good boy. We are very proud of him. He fought bravely for his country."
BJ lowered his eyes and wiped away a tear. He remembered Howard confiding in him about how afraid he was and that he didn't want to go back to the front. BJ had told him that he was "coming down with mental health."
"He didn't really tell us very much about the war. I think he didn't want us to be worried. I worried about him all the time, anyway. That's what mothers do, you know.
The reason that I'm writing is because, in his letter, Father Mulcahy told us that you blamed yourself for our son's death. He told us that you had operated on Howard twice before his final injury and felt bad that you had sent him back to the front. He told us what a fine surgeon you are and how you grieve the loss of each boy that you can't save. According to him, you save a lot more boys than you lose.
The father said he was there at the end and that Howard went very quickly and that there wasn't much that anyone could have done for him.
We will always miss our little boy.
Captain Pierce, we don't hold you responsible. Boys die in wars, it's a fact of life. It's hard for us to accept that, but I know it's true. Howard's uncle, my baby brother, James, died during WWII.
My husband and I are praying that you will find peace within yourself. You have our undying gratitude for everything that you did.
Mrs. Myrna Jean Owens"