A Tribute to America's Veterans
THE CHURCH OF THE EPIPHANY
“In war there are no unwounded soldiers”
by John Bascom
excerpted from the collection of short fiction
y wife, she likes our family to call her “Mother,” was in the front passenger seat next to me, talking on her cell. Our son and my mother-in-law, Mawmaw, rode in the backseat.
“We certainly hope you can join us for Rory's welcome home celebration,” Mother spoke loudly into her phone. “It's at Epiphany. Yes. They have the loveliest churchyard with a big gazebo in case it rains. I’m having the food and refreshments brought in. And Rory is so excited to see everyone.” She turned her head to smile at him in back. “Oh my, yes. That church has been such a part of our lives since I was a little girl. We lived near there back when it was still a decent neighborhood. It's so nice being involved, they’re like family. I'm heading the ladies' auxiliary, and John is on the lay committee. Honestly, that church is the center of our lives.”
I merged onto Jefferson headed down toward Spalding, the way she liked me to take. That would intersect the ramp to I-74, then twenty minutes on the divided, walled, sterile freeway northwest, safely past the blight that is now downtown Peoria, and home to Charter Oaks.
“Yes, we just stopped by the church for a few last-minute arrangements on our way back from the airport,” she continued. “His flight got in from Baltimore only an hour ago. It’s wonderful to have him back with us. He had to be checked over at Walter Reed briefly before coming home, just as a formality. He saw a lot of action in Afghanistan.”
“It was the psych ward, not a physical exam.” Rory said it to me in a loud voice, but it was clear it was intended for Mother. “And I was treated, not checked.”
“It's The Church of the Epiphany,” Mother said into the phone. “One-one-five Alexander, the corner of Madison and Alexander. Peoria, Illinois. Right near downtown. We'll certainly look forward to seeing you there.” She disconnected the call and put the phone in her purse.
“You know Walter Reed was just so much bureaucratic procedure.” She had turned her head and was facing Rory in the back. “There's absolutely nothing wrong with you at all. I'm sure it's simply a precaution they take with just about everyone. We're so very proud and just glad to have you home.”
“ 'f you say so,” Rory mumbled.
“I'll bet you're glad to see your wonderful Mawmaw again,” Mother said to him, acknowledging my mother-in-law with a shift of her eyes and nod of her head. “You two were always so close. You'll have some catching up to do.”
“He never called me that,” Mawmaw said.
“Why, he most certainly did,” Mother said.
“It was you who gave me that name and wanted him to use it. But he didn't.”
“You know very well that isn't true,” Mother said. “He couldn't say 'grandma,' pronouncing it 'mawmaw' ever since he was a toddler. It was so cute. And it stuck.”
“Said it once about two and never used it again,” Mawmaw said. “It was you called me that whenever he was around.”
“I only said 'Grandma Leli,' “ Rory said to Mother. “I remember just you saying she was Mawmaw and nobody else.”
I could see Mother's face reddening as it did every time she was about to descend into one of her tizzies. It would be only seconds before she turned her pique on me. Ahead were orange traffic cones and backed-up cars at the construction where Jefferson and Spalding intersected. I made a quick, hard right onto Green to bypass the gridlock, into the bad area of boarded-up businesses and ramshackle tenements with their grassless, litter-strewn yards, shirtless black men sitting on porches beside their barely dressed women, and carefree kids playing in the street. I knew she wouldn't like it, but really it wasn't as much a shortcut as a way to distract her from the Mawmaw debate. A lesser evil.
“You know I don't like to go this way!” Mother was almost shouting.
“There was a backup at Jefferson and Spalding.”
“There's so much crime and ugliness in these neighborhoods now days,” Mother said. “It's so upsetting. I just don't like to see it.”
“Can we stop at a drugstore?” Rory said. “I need to get my zannies refilled, bad.”
Children were playing at the curb. I saw them, slowed, and edged toward the opposite side of the street to safely pass by them.
“Oh my God! You could have hit one of those children. Or they could have opened the door and jumped in. I told you not to go this way. God knows what would have happened…”
Mother was reddening again. I was no longer sure the detour had been such a good idea.
“Oh my Lord. Would you look at all the lil' picaninnies.” Mawmaw was looking at the black children. “Awn't they dawling.” She affected a southern drawl, smiling. She normally spoke plain Midwestern English the way we all did.
“We used to sing the loveliest little children's song to keep time while skipping rope,” Mawmaw said. She sang…
“Ah's a lil' picaninny
Work'n on a cotton-ginny
Bales-a cotton I ken score”
“That's horrible,” Mother said. “Reverend Jackson says those people deserve our respect no matter.”
“We sang it to count our jumps when I was a chile on the plantation in Alabama. And to see who could do the most of 'em.”
“You know very well you were born and always lived right here in Peoria. Except when you were away at college.”
“Up'n the hollars above the river, all we had when not chorin' was skippin' rope…
“Tall 'n skinny
Work fer a penny
Black as coal
Still got me a soul
Love is best 'stead-'a hate”
It was obvious Mawmaw was trying to needle Mother.
“Everyone knows you were an English teacher,” Mother said, “and taught young girls piano and elocution in your spare time. Your feigned accent and misplaced humor aren't amusing in the least, and it's as rude as it is odd.”
At least her scolding of Mawmaw took her displeasure from me and my detour.
I turned left on Glendale to intercept the entrance to the expressway. As we passed the dilapidated old St. Anne's Catholic Church, Mawmaw pointed to it.
“Oh my, there's John's church,” she said. “I haven't seen that for ages.”
“John goes to Epiphany now,” Mother said as if I weren't sitting right there next to her. “You know that. He hasn't gone to that horrible Catholic church for years. Since we were married.”
“I always liked the Catholics,” Mawmaw said. “Their services have so much more character, with the incense and Latin and fancy robes.”
“Why, they pray to statues. And charge money to light candles so prayers will reach up to heaven. They believe priests, not God, can forgive sins. It's little short of black magic or witchdoctory. John is so glad he saw the light and got out of that.” She looked over at me. I didn't react. No sense stirring up a hornets' nest.
“I've always wanted to confess to a priest,” Mawmaw said. “I believe I'll try it sometime. Maybe you should do it too, Daughter. Cleans the soul. Perhaps I'll convert to Catholicism. John, you can go with me on Sundays. Would you?”
I suppressed a smile. I always enjoyed Mawmaw. “I'm at Epiphany now.”
“And he loves everything about it,” Mother said, answering for me as she did on all important questions. “No more of the Catholic nonsense. He's completely devoted to Epiphany. Involved in every aspect. He even makes his own unscheduled visits to meditate or pray, like when he can't sleep at night. He's one of the most devout and active members of the church.”
“Are you, now?” Mawmaw said. She raised an eyebrow.
As usual, I didn't answer.
I saw the heavy steel sewer cover in the street off-center and tilted up above the manhole slightly at one edge too late to avoid it. The left front wheel must have caught the raised side because it banged suddenly and loudly as I drove over it.
Everyone jumped at the sharp clang, even me, although I had seen it coming an instant before.
“Jesus-crise!” Rory screamed from the backseat. I could see him punch the ceiling with a clenched fist in the rearview mirror. “Gah-dam summva-bitch!” His face was contorted in what looked like both rage and pain.
Mother turned to look at him. “Are you all right?” she said haltingly.
“It was just a manhole cover,” I said slowly and calmly. “I didn't see it in time. Everything's okay now.”
“I told you not to go this way,” Mother said.
“You have no idea,” Rory buried his face in his hands and began to sob. He cried softly for what seemed a long time but could only have been thirty seconds or so. “Please…stop so I can get my Xanax. Please.”
“There's nothing right here,” I said. “I'll find someplace when we get off near Charter Oaks. It'll only be a few more minutes now.”
“If you could, please.” Rory was calmer but still crying intermittently. “You just have no idea. The things that happened over there.”
“Are ya a cryin',” Mawmaw said again in her put-on accent, “about what they done ta you-all…?” She paused for a long time. “Or about what you done to them.”
I slowed for the exit ramp onto Charter Oaks Road. There had been an awkward silence for the past fifteen minutes. Mother broke it.
“You know, your father here saw and did things in Vietnam,” she said to Rory in a soothing voice. “Everything, the uncomfortable things, they all pass eventually. You just have to be patient.”
No one else spoke.
“He came home, adjusted, and has had a wonderful life. The two of us together. Your father working with Grandpa in the family business. Managing the second store and later all six of them after my father retired, before we sold out. It simply couldn't have been better.”
I knew there was a pharmacy in the corner strip mall ahead and just off Charter Oaks. I slowed and eased into the left lane.
“Your father saw lots of combat, too, like you. He even won decorations. But eventually he was able to put all the ugliness behind him.”
“Like you do the ugliness of turned neighborhoods in the city?” Mawmaw said. She was at it again.
“You will, too. In time,” Mother said to Rory, ignoring Mawmaw.
Rory seemed to have regained his composure. “What decorations, Dad? I never really knew.”
“Nothing much,” I said.
“The Air Commendation Medal,” Mother said. “And later, the Bronze Star. The point is, he got past it all and didn't let his service experience drag down his life. If he can do it, anyone can. You are certainly capable of the very same thing. Everything will be fine. I promise.”
Rory had taken his medicine and was much calmer after we arrived home. He put his things away in his old bedroom upstairs that Mother had insisted we keep for him unchanged and unused even after he had turned thirty. The master bedroom, the one Mother occupied, was across the hall from Rory's. Downstairs on the main level Mawmaw slept in the little guestroom by the short corridor before the garage. I now used the tiny former study as my bedroom, just off the living room, the study with its lone little window onto the backyard and a twin bed, more of a cot, pushed up against one wall.
Mawmaw sat dozing intermittently in the big, overstuffed living room chair, her walker parked next to it. Rory and I were in the smaller chairs while Mother paced while checking with the prospective guests she had not yet heard from.
“It's tomorrow, Sunday, after the morning service,” she spoke into the phone. She said the exact same thing to every invited friend, acquaintance, or family member who was not well familiar with our community: “At The Church of the Epiphany. One-one-five Alexander, the corner of Madison and Alexander. Peoria, Illinois. Right near downtown. We'll certainly look forward to seeing you there.”
“When you think about it, it's a funny name for a church,” Rory commented to Mawmaw and me, Mother distracted with her phone conversation. “Epiphany. I wonder why they call it that.”
“The Bible story of the epiphany,” Mawmaw said in her precise, eloquent way of speaking, with Mother temporarily not part of the conversation. In her beautiful manner of speaking, intelligent and perfectly crafted without sounding pretentious in the least. With her distinctive and thoughtful use of words, as I knew and remembered for the forty plus years I had known her.
“Story of the epiphany?” Rory said.
“When the three Magi visited the infant Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, and all at once realized he was more than a prince. That he was indeed divine. A realization of the true nature of a previously obscured reality. That's what an epiphany is.”
“They should call it The Church of Faith. It sounds more religious than epiphany.”
I didn't know whether it was the medicine or being home, but it was good to hear Rory making small talk, engaging the family in conversation again like the old days.
“Mark Twain said faith is an abiding belief in something we know is not true.” Mawmaw drew her lips in a playful little smile as she said it. “I think I like epiphany better. Don't you, John?” She looked over at me.
Mother had put down her phone at last. “I'm going to run up to the florist and pick up the flowers, then a few other things for Rory's party tomorrow.” She pulled her car keys from her purse. “I'll be back in an hour. I'll fix something special for dinner.” She smiled at Rory.
Mawmaw rose haltingly from the big chair and staggered behind her walker down the hall toward her bedroom. Rory and I remained alone in the living room.
“Honestly, Dad, it's good to be home.”
“We're glad to have you back. I'm really sorry it was rough.”
“I'll be fine. It's just an adjustment. You must know, with Vietnam and all.”
“It's so long ago.”
“I never knew much about you being over there. About your medals and all. What happened?”
I took his question as a positive sign. That he was ready to talk about things.
“The medals? Not much, really. The Commendation one was for some of the close support we flew for our grunts. There was a lot of rough terrain and ground fire. I guess someone thought it was a big deal.”
“And the Bronze Star?”
“That one…one of our units was being hit by the gooches. We had to maneuver our Phantoms in between some hills held by Charlie. After we dumped our two-hundred-fifty pounders on 'em and emptied our twenty-millimeters, they were still coming, so we flew into them at treetop, kicking in our burners right over them to disrupt things. Later the Marine ground commander claimed we kept his battalion from being overrun. Like I said, not much, really.”
Rory looked at me expectantly without saying anything. It seemed like he still wanted to talk.
“I made it back, but all shot up. One engine out, a fuel leak, and the hydraulics just about gone. No way I could make it all the way to the ship. Had to dead stick in and land on a foamed runway at Da Nang, gear stuck up. I guess they thought it was bronze-worthy.”
“Your wingman, too?”
“Yeah, but posthumously. He didn't make it all the way back. A good guy, my closest friend over there. He wanted me to be his best man when we got home.”
“And you served a full tour? The bronze one must have been the toughest.”
“Honestly, I only flew ninety-nine. A hundred missions was a tour. And that last one, the ninety-ninth, was the roughest in its own way.”
Rory had slumped back in his chair looking relaxed. Hearing me talk about what I experienced seemed somehow cathartic for him.
“How so, that last one being the worst after the others?”
“It was routine enough to start, like dozens of others before it. We were assigned to hit a Viet Cong concentration in a little village in the sector we were to cover that day, Binh Long Province. I still remember the name of the village, Tan Loi. The maps we carried had a number for each sector, and a series of left-right, up-down coordinates on a grid to guide us to a precise spot. For some odd reason, I can still remember the forward control guy's exact words over the radio: 'Sector 173, Binh Long, C-13 East, V-27 South, Tan Loi.'”
“Why was it the roughest?”
“It wasn't, at first. We rolled in on the village a few miles out, dropping down to five thousand like always. I picked it up at about a mile with a unit of Charlies around a little pagoda off a few dozen meters from the collection of hootches that was Tan Loi. But as I got ready to release, something looked odd. Familiar. Out of place. It made me hesitate. I dropped my ordnance, though, and pulled up. After my wingman unloaded, we came back around for damage assessment. The pagoda was wrecked and there were bodies all over the place. Like clockwork. Another day at the office, I thought. Then we headed back to the carrier for debrief and downtime. That was pretty much it.”
“It doesn't sound that bad. Compared to the others.”
“Not until that night. I had felt funny all evening but couldn't put my finger on anything. I stayed up late and had trouble falling asleep. I remember the dull, rumbling throb of the carrier's engines before I drifted off. And the rolling and pitching from the wave action of the sea.
“Then I dreamed about that mission, about coming in on Tan Loi, the people, and the pagoda. But it wasn't a pagoda in the dream. It was the gazebo in the Epiphany churchyard where your mother took me when we were dating. And the people were our friends and neighbors. I tried to pull up, stunned, but the Phantom just kept barreling in no matter how hard I hauled back on the stick. I was looking through the bombsite, which was backlit in a kind of weird green light in those days. The harder I pulled, the more the plane shook until chunks of metal began flying off. The vibration of the plane resisting my pull-up got harder and louder. It sounded in the dream for some reason like the crescendo of an acid rock drum solo, like Jimi Hendrix's drummer, Mitch Mitchell used to do. All banging and noise. The plane was controlling me, not me it, everything bathed in green bombsite light, shaking and pounding and drumming, barreling closer and closer to the gazebo and my neighbors. Until it was just a speeding, green-glowing metal skeleton of an airplane, shaking so hard and closing with the ground so fast, with the people, I could no longer make anything out at all.”
“Jesus Christ!” Rory said. “What the hell happened then?”
“I woke up suddenly and gasped in a big breath. I guess I realized I hadn't been breathing for a few seconds. I bolted upright in my bunk so fast and hard I banged my head on the steel frame above. I knew I couldn't sleep and just went out on deck, to the fantail where I looked at the black, churning sea beneath the moon-and-starless overcast. I stayed there for the rest of the night. I know it sounds odd. It's hard to explain. I had other missions that were far harder. But that dream really hit me for some reason.”
I felt upset all over again just telling it…and awkward having said it to Rory. I didn't want him to think less of me, I suppose, and was afraid it would drag him down. But he only wanted to hear more.
“How do you process, deal with something like that?” he remarked more than asked.
“We were scheduled to fly the next morning. It would have been the final mission of my tour. But I checked into sickbay complaining of dizziness. To this day I don't know if it was true or I made it up. My heart just wasn't in it anymore. But I was given an 'unfit to fly' medical report and sent home with my unit. I mustered out and came straight back to Peoria and your mother.”
“Did you ever talk to anyone about it, like one of the docs at Reed?”
“We didn't do that back then. I've never told anyone about it, ever. Not a doctor, my priest, your mother. No one. Until now.”
“Wow. And then you went to work for Grandpa in the shoe store? I thought you had an engineering degree or something. What was that all about?”
“Architectural engineering from U of I over in Champaign, just before going in the service. Everyone had to serve back then.”
“The engineering sounds way more interesting than running a shoe store.”
“Yeah. I was going to Chicago to build bridges and harbors, airports and skyscrapers. Monuments to my talent that would last centuries after I was gone,” I laughed. “But I guess 'Nam took the wind out of my sails. I told myself the store was temporary, only 'til I got my feet back under me. Then I married your mother. 'Temporary' just seemed to drag on and on. Mother was happy in Peoria and wanted nothing to do with the big city, but I can't blame it on her, really. I guess it was easier to go with the flow, to not rock our little boat for a while. Until it was too late.”
My story seemed to trigger something in Rory, opened a floodgate. He talked on and on about being in Afghanistan, his experiences, the friends he made and the ones who didn't come home. About nights in remote outposts not knowing when the mortars would begin to fall again. How they attacked little mud-walled, ramshackle compounds in the desert, places from which they had taken fire, only to find traumatized, wounded, and dead women, children, and elders when they finally stormed the place. About sleepless nights and his nightmares. By the time Mother pulled into the garage, our conversation had already begun to slow.
That evening after everyone else had gone to bed, I made a final check of the doors before turning in. As I passed the hallway to the guest room, Mawmaw called out to me.
“John, would you mind terribly bringing me a glass of water. I'm in bed and it's such a chore to get up again, with my aches and pains and unsteadiness.”
I brought the water to her bedside. “Here you are, Lelia, I'm glad to do it. I was just going back through the kitchen anyway.”
She took a long, careful drink. “I know where you go,” she said. “On your visits at night.”
“I know you do,” I said.
“I wish I could go with you.”
“You wouldn't like it.”
“It's better than this hellhole,” she said. “But I suppose you wouldn't want a crazy old lady along.”
“You're the sanest one in the family,” I said. “Sometimes I wish you wouldn't bait her like that, though.” I rested my hand on her scrawny arm, skin draped like discolored, blotched cellophane over brittle, protruding bones and raised, thick, blue-green veins.
“It's the only way to get noticed. To be part of the conversation. Lately she's been threatening to take me to the home.”
“She won't do it.”
“It would be better than here. Dying would be better. It can't come soon enough.”
“You're too tough to die,” I smiled. “Anyway, what would I do without you?”
“I do wish you'd take me.”
She began humming, then softly singing “Ah's a lil' picaninny, workin' at the cotton-ginny…”
“Don't let her hear you,” I looked back over my shoulder as I left the room. “She will ship you to the home…”
In my makeshift bedroom I undressed for bed. The doors into the living room were thin double wooden affairs with slots in the upper half of each side to allow air circulation and some light to pass through. Even with the house dark, I could see the glow of ambient light from outside through the louvered slits, the light from cars driving by or neighbors' porch lamps across the street filtering through the living room window, through the slotted doors of the study. And if she was standing outside, listening or peering through the slots, I could sometimes see her shadow, her form traced by the interrupted glow of the light.
“A 'lil picaninny…” I sang softly. I didn't give a damn if she heard or not. To hell with Mother, at least for tonight. Still, I glanced at the door slits just to check. “Working on a cotton-ginny—jes a 'lil color girl—ain't got blond curls—five, six, seven, eight—love is better instead of…”
I lay on the bed in the dark and checked the door one more time. I made the sign of the cross—In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—and began to pray. I believe in God the Father almighty—creatorem caeli et terrae—et in Iesum Christum, Filium eius unicum—I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.
I closed my eyes and began to feel drowsy. I knew it almost immediately. The first thing was the familiar dim, green glow behind my eyes, in my mind, that soft, enveloping green light from within.
I confess to almighty God—beatae Mariae semper virgini, beato Michaeli archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae—I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed—mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…
I knew that tonight I would be making a visit. I found the soft, low rumble of the engines soothing. And the pitching and rolling of the waves. I would sit alone, as I had so many nights before, in my pew at Epiphany. The green light grew in intensity. Soon I would be in the cockpit once more. Yet tonight I understood, for the first time, there would be another visitor in the church. Rory would be there, by himself in a different pew, in his own place. But with me in his church, in our church, just the same. Rory, my son. My only son. The issue of my seed, the fruit of my loins. My savaged, wounded, suffering son.
Yes, tonight I knew I would be going on another of my visits. To The Church of the Epiphany. Sector 173 Binh Long, the intersection of C-13 East and V-27 South, Tan Loi. The people's democratic republic.