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Frontline Angel

Before you pick up this story, I want to warn you that this isn’t a heroic tale of compassion, bravery, and loyalty in the heart of war. This is a story of how I went from bad to worse then back again. I’m no frontline angel—just a guy who saw a little too much, heard some stuff he wasn’t supposed to. But I won’t depress myself by recounting to you how I got here. This, reader, if you choose to pursue it, is the story of how I survived being a Prisoner of War.

The year was 1971, the place was Vietnam. I was barely 20 years old. I’d watched disease, insanity, and death cascade around me, sweeping up other prisoners in a torrent I knew would take me eventually, too. In fact, it was already creeping up on me. I knew it was there, I knew it was nearing—but I didn’t fight it. I’d been tortured and starved, and my country hardly cared any more. What point was there in living? This was the message painted across our imprisonment, casting the shadow of despair our captors seemed to thrive on.

“Hey,” a nudge in my side drew me momentarily out of my nightmares. I looked over to see a boy who couldn’t be older than 17 sitting beside me. His hair was so dirty and matted I couldn’t even tell what color it used to be, and his ashen skin was laced with gashes and bruises. But his round, unusually copper eyes were bright and sane, and unlike anything I’d seen here. It took me a moment to realize he was holding out a dirty canteen. “Have some water,” he instructed in a slightly accented voice that dripped like warm butter.

“It’s yours,” I rasped. “Don’t waste it on me.” The boy shook his head.

“You need it more than I do. Take it.” I hesitated only a moment before taking the canteen from him and taking a long gulp. I held it out for him, but he made no move to take it. “How’s your arm?” he inquired. I automatically flexed my arm, crushed when I was taken prisoner. The pain was beginning to go away, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

“’S OK,” I muttered.

He was silent for a moment.

“Do you have anyone waiting for you to come home?” I was taken aback, not so much by the question—I’d had it asked to me often enough—but by the wording.

“I—I guess so,” I answered. “My mom. I have three younger sisters. Some friends from school.” I felt a pang as I realized, once again, I would never see them again. “And what about you?”

The boy smiled sadly. “There is no one.”

“No family? Friends?” The boy shook his head once more.

“None.” I felt sadness and anger blossom inside me. The universe and everything in it that was just had turned against us.

“I don’t understand something, though.” He said. “You and everyone else in this cell have something worth fighting for. So why have you all given up?”

I opened my mouth to protest, then cast my eyes around the room. Most men were sitting against the wall, empty-eyed. Some were huddled in a pool of blood, breathing quick, shallow breaths. And some, still, were lying on their sides with their faces to the wall, sleeping or dead. I closed my mouth.

I looked back into the boy’s bright copper eyes. There were truth in his words, and hope in his eyes—and I began to realize where this was going.

“I know how to get out of here,” he said in a low voice. “But you have to trust yourself.” He paused thoughtfully for a moment. “It wouldn’t hurt if you trusted me, too.”

I was silent. Some of the men in this room had attempted escape. Coincidentally, they were the ones who were now cowering in a river of blood in a corner.

“The ventilation holes are the only way out.” I murmured. There were two holes in the ceiling for ventilation, a two feet in diameter each, and were strung with barbed wire—but were an easy way to escape.

“Precisely,” the boy said.

“But those who go out the holes always come back. If we’re lucky, we’ll get a mile, maybe two. I don’t believe it’s worth it.”

“Just a moment, hear me out,” the boy said. “The men who have attempted a run for freedom thought only of how they would get out of the room. Their fatal error was that they didn’t consider what lay beyond these walls.” I continued staring ahead. “John,” he said quietly. “Don’t give up. If you don’t try, how will you ever accomplish anything?” I started at the disrespectful use of my first name. Somehow, though, it energized me.

“What about the others?” I asked softly, still not looking at him. “Will they come?” I received only silence from the boy.

“No,” he said after about ten seconds. “They have given into death. They have become animals—they will just slow us down.” I felt my stomach twist at the brutal honesty of the words.

“When?” I asked. The boy needed no further explanation.

“Tonight.”

“So soon?”

The boy smiled.

It rained that night. It rained hard. Even behind the thick cement walls we were encased in, we could here it outside. The copper-eyed boy and I lifted some of the beds beneath the vent, then on top of each other. They were surprisingly heavy, and the work only became harder as we worked. I felt a dozen pairs of eyes on us as we worked, but I didn’t let myself look around.

Finally, we climbed silently up to the ceiling together. While the boy pulled the wire off, I glanced down. Some of the men had risen and were staring up at us.

“Come on, we don’t have much time,” the boy hissed from above me. I hastened to follow him into the hole. I looked at the men one more time. Some of them were climbing up the beds. The boy was wrong—they did want to escape! But even as I watched, the two who reached the top bunk first lifted it and passed it down to the two below, and they pushed the bed slowly back to its place. They were covering for us. I felt a lump rise in my throat.

“With all due respect, Private Coffey—“ the boy started.

“I’m coming,” I growled, hauling myself the rest of the way up. The moment I was through the hole, though, the boy shoved me into a shadow.

“Stay here,” he muttered. Then he turned and took off down the hallway.

“What?” I said shrilly. But he had already disappeared around a corner. I slowly eased myself into a more comfortable position and waited for him to come back. How long had he been gone? Five minutes? Ten? And at any moment, a guard could round that corner. Minutes seemed to be passing in hours, and beads of sweat were beginning to form on my brow.

Then a figure loomed up in front of me, bearing the forest-green khaki of the Vietnamese soldiers. Before I could react, the soldier pulled off his cap, revealing round copper eyes…

“What do you think?” the boy asked. “Convincing?”

“Where did you get that?” I stammered.

“I attacked an unsuspecting guard doing patrols, and stole his clothes.”

“You what?”

The boy grinned. “Kidding.” How did this kid end up in the army? He tossed me my own uniform. “I found a supply closet with a few extra uniforms. They were all too small for you, though, so then I did have to attack a guard.” I decided not to ask, so instead I began pulling the uniform on.

“You look good,” the boy decided. “Just don’t let anyone look to close at you.” I pulled the cap low over my eyes and the boy did the same.

“Step where I step, do exactly as I do. Let’s go.” He shuffled quickly back the way he came, and followed. He didn’t make a sound, and every time my shoe scraped the ground, I winced—each footfall sounded like a reign of gunfire.

He led me up a flight of stairs that clanged with every movement. The boy no longer bothered with silence, instead, it seemed, he made as much noise as he could. He ran up the stairs and burst through the door noisily, and we found ourselves outside—on the roof. The heavy rain shielded us from view, but it also kept any soldiers hidden from us. The boy took off confidently in one direction, and I hastened to keep up.

He gestured to me as we came to the edge of our prison, and we slid down a slick ladder. He led me to a particularly shadowy part of the building. I clutched my arm painfully as he pulled out a bulky radio. The boy pressed the button and began speaking rapidly in what I realized was the harsh tongue of our captors. I didn’t know much Vietnamese, but I recognized the words ‘escaping’, and ‘east’. There was a burst of replies from the radio, but the boy quickly turned it off and shoved it back into his suit.

We shrank against the wall as a group of soldiers passed quickly by. We waited a moment, then the boy took off in a dead sprint towards the forest. I followed; silently relieved it was my arm that had been wounded and not my legs.
We reached the edge of the woods, but the boy didn’t slow.

We wove through the trees blindly. My lungs were burning, my legs were screaming, and my heart were working overtime—all scars from my last three months of imprisonment and the little physical use that went with it.

The copper-eyed boy, though obviously in better condition than I was, was tiring too. Finally, we slowed to a brisk jog.

“What did you say into the radio?” I asked.

“I told them the prisoners were escaping, heading for the forest on the east side. We were on the west.” Well, it wasn’t exactly the work of a Rocket Scientist, but right then and there, I could care less. For the moment, we were in a blind spot.

The next few days were uneventful. We were out of immediate danger, we weren’t starving, and the boy seemed to know where we were going, so I was feeling pretty good.

Who knows how he did it, but after leading me through forests, over mountains, and around cities, the boy brought us back onto American turf. We had come to an American base, and we were given a hero’s welcome.

“Bonnecaze!” the Major had said when he caught sight of the copper-eyed boy. “And—and Private Coffey! Dear God, we thought you were dead!” I shook my head.

“For a while, sir,” I said hoarsely, “I thought I was, too.”


18 MONTHS LATER


Rebecca, Pam, and Joy came out of the card shop with bright eyes. My mother and I rose from the bench where we had been sitting to greet them. I was a free man who had had a taste of imprisonment, and now the simplest things—going to the mall with your family on a Saturday afternoon, for example—meant the world to me. Joy, the youngest at 14 years old, skipped up beside me to show me the brightly colored paper she had bought. I smiled and draped my arm around her, enjoying the way my muscles stretched and relaxed at my will. I had finally gotten the brace off, and what was more, I had made a full recovery—it seemed the final score had been settled. The war was a thing of the past, and I never had to go back.

We pushed past the crowded shops, talking and laughing.

“Can we get ice cream, Mother?” Joy asked. Pam and Rebecca eagerly agreed, but I didn’t here the rest of the conversation. Something else had caught my eye. There was a tall, slender young man lounging quietly on a nearby bench. He was wearing an impeccable cotton shirt with long khaki pants. He had neatly parted golden-brown hair, and unusually bright copper eyes…

Our gazes locked for the briefest moment, and a tiny smile brushed his lips. Then a gaggle of noisy teenagers passed through my field of vision, blocking the boy from view. When they had passed, the copper-eyed boy was gone.





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kielymarie said...
Jul. 31, 2010 at 9:08 am
Great job! This is awesome
 
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