A Bridge Between Us
It’s a curious thing, the relationship between a father and son. The son relies on the father to show him how to be a man. The son looks up to the father for guidance and strength in times of trouble. The son views the father as nothing less than a rock because the father is, without fail, always there. On the other hand, the father doesn’t need the son for strength or guidance. He doesn’t need the son for anything, really—until something changes.
For my father and me, that something happened two years ago. I lost my mother, and my father lost his wife. Although he never asked, I could sense that he needed me after she died. I didn’t know what would be expected or what I was supposed to do, but I sensed on some level that I had to be there for him. Eventually, he would get around to telling me what he needed… in due time and in his own way.
It was raining as I pulled into his circular driveway. Dark clouds painted a dreary canvas on a chilly, cheerless winter day. Brown and yellow leaves covered most of the yard. My father had not been outside in at least a month to rake them. On the sidewalk, I spotted three newspapers collecting rainwater and a few grub worms in search of food. It had been raining for several days, but the fact that Dad hadn’t even bothered to pick up the newspapers made me pause.
I pulled up the hood of my raincoat and prepared to exit the Jeep. Studying the path to his front door, I made a mental note of which puddles to avoid. A movement in the front bay window caught my eye.
Through the rain and overhanging tree limbs, I saw my father. He was sitting in his favorite leather chair facing the front yard, giving no indication as to whether or not he saw me. There were no lights on inside, but I could still make out the old undershirt he had on. It was the type of undershirt mom would have thrown out years ago. Its straps were threadbare and faded, well past any usefulness. Mom would have discreetly disposed of the garment when it reached her laundry basket, certain that Dad would never notice its absence. She was good at stuff like that. A mom thing, I suppose. When I had lived here, I never once purchased any underwear, nor disposed of any. Mom just knew things in ways that only a mom can. She made them magically appear or disappear when the time was right.
But Mom wasn’t here to help us anymore. We were on our own.
Considering the evidence in the front yard, I started to feel uneasy about Dad’s condition. I was strongly aware that this might be one of those turning points in life, an inevitable rite of passage, when you look in the mirror and realize you aren’t a kid anymore. Or maybe when you notice your parents are beginning to show their age. My stomach knotted up as I closed the Jeep’s door and ran to his front door through the rain, avoiding the puddles, the soggy newspapers, and the scattered leaves.
Upon letting myself in with a key, Dad turned his head from the window and silently acknowledged my presence. I returned the gesture with a “Hi,” as I made my way to the kitchen to make a cup of hot tea. I asked Dad if he wanted anything and he voiced a depressed-sounding “No.”
As the water heated up, I peeked into the living room at Dad. He just sat there looking out the window, staring blankly into the pouring rain. He always did that when it rained. As a child, I remember him sitting engrossed, just staring out at the rain with that same blank look on his face. A few times, I asked Mom about it. She said just to leave him be.
There were days when he would sit there for hours, sometimes all day, just watching it rain. Growing up, I came to feel that rainy days were times when we were supposed to do nothing but sit and stare outside at the rain. It was only when I left home for college that I saw other people acting differently: folks bustling about, kids and adults playing, meeting inside with each other, and generally doing fun things when it was raining. That had given me a whole new perspective—one not of fear or depression, but of life. Seeing Dad like this jolted me back to those unpleasant childhood memories.
I put a tea bag into the steaming cup of water and went into the living room to join him. The dreary day’s fading light filtered in between the rain and the bare tree branches, illuminating very little save for the colors black and white. I thought about turning on some lights, but somehow, it just didn’t seem appropriate. So, I sat down in a chair next to Dad and started a conversation.
“How are you feeling today?” It was a safe opening question, one that would tell me how far I could go.
“Huh?” Dad turned, giving me a vacant look.
“Dad? Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he turned his head back to the window and resumed looking out at the rain, just staring. It wasn’t an absolute downpour, and it wasn’t the type of storm that blows through in an hour with high winds, lightning, and thunder. On the other hand, it wasn’t a simple mist or drizzle that lets up a bit so everyone can catch their breath. No, it was simply a steady, pouring rain, the kind that can last for days with no sign of relief. Enough to make you depressed if you were already halfway there.
And Dad was looking as if he was more than halfway there. He was 69 years old, but looked much older. As an industrial engineer, he had spent most of his adult life inside plants and office buildings. The sun and wind had rarely touched his face. He had lived a relatively healthy life, and there was no physical reason why he should look so old. It made me wonder if the end could be near.
I looked at Dad and decided to take a different tack.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” I spoke more forcefully than I had previously, which prompted an immediate reaction. He turned his head quickly.
“What do you mean?” he asked as he brought his right hand up to his jaw and scratched at a day’s growth of stubble. Dad normally shaved every day. I can remember him telling me as a kid, “Son, a shave in the morning puts a shine on the day!” He would say this with a bright, happy grin.
But tonight, he had a dark, worried shadow surrounding him. His other hand lay still on the leather armrest, worn and cracked from years of wear.
“Dad, whenever it rains like this, you always sit and stare at it, and that’s just not right! We need to get up and do something. Let’s go out to eat. Or maybe rent a movie.” This was a very bold move on my part, and I didn’t care if he liked it or not. He could either accept my offer and start living or turn it down and begin the process of dying.
“Don’t feel up to it, son. Just don’t feel like getting out, not when it rains.” His voice trailed off to a whisper and I had to strain to hear the last part.
“What is it about the rain? What is wrong with you?!” I demanded. I leaned forward in my chair, feeling like I should grab his hand, jerk him to his feet, and give him a brisk shake. Maybe I felt like slapping him just then; anything had to be an improvement on this. Then suddenly, the mood in the room changed. It just happened. It came out.
“We were clearing a village looking for snipers or wounded North Koreans to capture, maybe even kill.”
“What did you say?”
He was scarcely aware of me. He ignored my question and forged ahead.
“At that point in the war, they were mostly the PRC, the People’s Republic of China. China had joined the war by then, but we called them gooks since that was shorter than North Koreans. Anyway, we had been pushin’ for days. I was bone tired and so was my unit.”
Dad leaned back in his chair, putting his right hand down into its familiar hollow in the leather. He turned once more to face the bay window. I tensed up, apprehensive about what I may have started. My tea sat forgotten on the small table to my right, fragrant steam curling up from the cup. All was quiet, save for the rain pelting the roof and pounding the sidewalk outside. I thought maybe he was finished, but after a long silence, Dad began to speak again.
“Sarge told us to meet at the end of the village.” Dad spoke haltingly at first, in a monotone, his voice trancelike but growing stronger as he continued. “Me and my buddy Gary reached the meeting point first. The rain was hitting our helmets and packs. We should have been issued rain ponchos, but Supply had run out before our unit got there.
“I squatted down under the roof of a small shack. It barely gave me cover from the rain, but it was better than nothing. Gary opened up some C-rations—a can of ravioli, I think. He was always eating. If you needed food, you could count on Gary to trade for some. I liked him as a buddy, even though we came from different backgrounds. He had been raised on a farm and I was a city boy. His family had no education, where several of my family had gone to college. We talked all the time about his life on the farm. He told me how to bale hay and how he herded sheep and cattle. I also learned how to candle eggs, which is when a person holds up an egg in front of a candle’s flame to pick out the good ones from the bad. He was one of those fellows who knew a lot of practical things about everyday life.”
I leaned back in my chair and relaxed. Dad was talking and I took this to be a good sign. I wasn’t sure where this story was heading, but I could tell he needed to get this off his chest. I sipped some tea and watched him. I thought I detected an ever-so-faint smile cross his face when he talked about this friend named Gary. He continued.
“I wasn’t very good at all in boot camp. Should have paid more attention, but I didn’t. I couldn’t make my bunk right for one thing, and the drill sergeant was always screaming at me. Now that we were in the field, my rifle had been jamming for days, making me wish I had paid better attention to my lessons. But I hadn’t had to shoot it all that much, really, just now and again. Sometimes I would see some gooks running far away and shoot in their general direction. I never hit any of them as far as I could tell, and the few times I did shoot, my rifle jammed.
“The Army had issued us the new M1 Garand as our rifle. It replaced the old Springfield. This was way before the M-16’s, where you pulled the trigger and fired dozens of rounds automatically. With the M1, you had to pull the trigger each time you wanted to fire. Say you had twenty rounds in your clip. Each time you pulled the trigger a round was discharged out the barrel, and another was pushed up into the chamber from the clip. It would load another round so long as the clip wasn’t empty, but did not automatically fire.
“Anyway, my rifle had been sticking and I figured it was because of the rain and cold, which had combined to break down the grease and jam my gun. Gary, on the other hand, was constantly working on his rifle. He was a farmer and taking care of his equipment came naturally to him. It was his livelihood. He was on me all the time about my rifle, riding me and giving me a hard time, but always in his good-natured way.
“I decided to take apart my rifle apart to clean and grease it. We had been trailing a few gooks and suspected they might be heading for a bridge that was on our map. None of us were certain just how far our orders went, but personally, I hoped we would push a little farther and then camp for the night. It was about 2 p.m., but because of the steady rain and dark clouds, it seemed a lot later in the day. And being close to winter, I guessed we had only two more hours before it would be too dark to do anything. I quickly took my rifle apart and laid out the parts on a greasy rag we all carried for that purpose.
“Gary slurped up his ravioli and watched me work on the rifle. I inspected the clip closely, but could see no reason why it should be hanging up. If we ran into heavy fighting, I was a dead man if my rifle fired one shot then jammed. Gary saw my distress. ‘Why don’t you loosen the platform and check the spring? And while you’re at it, be sure to grease that op rod real good.’ I hadn’t thought about that. I guess mainly because it required me to take all the rounds out of the clip and check the spring, but sure enough, there was some dirt and grit clogged in the spring. I cleared it and washed it out in the rain dripping off the edge of the shack’s roof. As I reassembled the rifle, I liberally greased everything, especially the op rod like Gary had suggested. That should be enough to get me through the rest of what I hoped would be a short day.
“Soon after that, Jack and Roger showed up, letting their gear fall to the ground. Jack was the top card player in our unit. I think he even took some money off the Sarge. Gary wasn’t much of a card player, him being a farmer and all. He was into Jack for about five bucks, which was quite a lot back then. ‘Hey, ladies, what ’cha doin?’ Jack said. ‘Did the Sarge say to camp here?’
“I told him we had yet to see the Sarge, but that he was more than welcome to join us. Jack kneeled down and pulled out some gum. He was always chewing gum, I think because his mouth was always moving and the gum gave it cause to continue doing just that. We stayed there, just talking and shooting the bull. His buddy Roger was a quiet sort of fellow. He was from Wyoming and I think he grew up on a farm too. Gary and Roger sometimes talked, but only barely. Mostly, Roger just kept to himself.
“Anyway, Jack was chomping his gum, mouth going a mile a minute. I still had a few pieces of my gun left to put together when Sarge came stomping up. But this time, he was coming back from up ahead of us. I’d thought we were ahead of him.
“He said, ‘Boys, get your butts up here. We been waitin’ for ya’ll.’ Sarge was from the South somewhere. He was about ten years older than us and a pretty good Sarge, but you wanted to stay on his good side, not get him mad. I said, ‘What do ya’ mean? We’ve been here waiting for you. You said the edge of the village.’
“Sarge explained that the village continued around this last hut for another hundred yards or so, and we had stopped short. I felt bad and embarrassed, not wanting to look like I was a slacker—or even worse, afraid. Gary glanced at me and I could see at once that we were of the same mind. Jack and Roger hopped up and took off without a word, but the Sarge just stood there in the rain looking at us. He could see that I had a minute or so left to finish putting my rifle together and load up my pack, and Gary also needed a minute to stow his rations away. Instead of looking like we were ahead of everyone, my heart was pounding as I thought about how we were now holding everyone up. I felt bad about that.
“Sarge finally told us to hop-to and bring up the rear. He could tell we would only be a couple of minutes behind, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Gary finished stowing his gear then turned to help me. When we were done, we shouldered our packs and stepped back out in the rain. The ground was hard and compact, since this was a well-worn path in the village. As Gary and I hurried to catch up, the rain just kept on coming. Already wet, we both got completely soaked real quick. Nothing we could do about it right away, and if I had known then what was about to happen, being wet was a small thing to worry about.
“When we cleared the last hut, I could see where the village ended. Sure enough, we had stopped short. I looked up into a field leading away from the village and couldn’t see our unit. Still, I wasn’t worried. Gary grunted and pointed to the muddy tracks of Army boots heading in the same direction as we were.
“When we got to the field, the first thing I noticed was the deep mud. I felt my boots sink up to the laces. I was already completely covered in mud, but I couldn’t quite get used to how grimy that felt. Gary and I walked at a brisk pace through the field into a stand of trees. We slowed down to be sure we were going in the right direction.
“As we carefully made our way through the trees, I could see a bridge ahead. It was a small bridge spanning about thirty yards, with only one lane for traffic. At first I thought this was the Naktong River, but as we got closer, I realized that it was just a big stream that flooded in monsoon season. Gary pointed out our unit ahead. I looked and saw the guys huddled over near the entrance to the bridge and we hustled to catch up.
“As we were walking toward the guys, I heard a few shots ring out. Distant pops of gunfire, like it was from the other side of the bridge. Gary saw Sarge wave for us to get down, which we did, using a pile of trash as cover. We sat quietly, waiting to see what would happen next.
“Sarge formed the guys up into a ragged skirmish line. He pointed to Larry, one of the colored guys in our unit. Generally, we were an all-white unit. But Larry had carried over a message from an all-colored unit and was stuck with us until we linked back up with his unit. Larry got up and ran toward the bridge. Our unit was on the right side of the entrance to the bridge and he took an angle, crouching as he ran, finally reaching the edge of where the bridge started. From where Gary and I were, we could see onto the bridge itself, but could not make out any objects through the steady rain.
“The bridge was made of steel supports riveted to each other. Judging from the previous bridges we had encountered, this one would have a wooden plank surface bolted to the steel supports below. I looked at the stream. It was swollen and its banks were overflowing, what with all the rain. I could see at once that there was no way to reach the other side without going over this bridge. I turned to find Gary on his belly rooting around through the trash, and I asked him what he was doing. He said he was trying to see if one of us could crawl underneath the bridge supports to reach the other side, but the water was up so high that he couldn’t really make out the supports, so he gave up after a few minutes.
“Larry, the black guy, got to the edge of the bridge’s entrance and shouldered his rifle. He squeezed off a few shots across to the other side. Then, Tommy got up and ran to join him. Tommy was one of the guys in the unit with kids back home. Anyway, when Tommy reached that point, he hunkered down behind the entrance of the bridge, providing suppression cover for Larry. Larry then stepped onto the actual bridge surface and ran ahead about fifteen feet down the bridge.
“As soon as Larry did that, it seemed like all hell broke loose. Gunfire seemed to come from everywhere. There must have been twenty gooks on the other side firing. Larry was crouched down behind some debris and I couldn’t tell if he was hit or not. Several men rushed to join Tommy at the edge of the bridge; Sarge was one of them. They huddled near Tommy and yelled toward Larry to see if he was okay. I saw Sarge pointing this way and that way and talking rapid-fire, but I couldn’t make out any of what he was saying. I’ll always remember the way rain slung every which way off his helmet as he ordered the men around. His head kept turning in every direction like it was on a swivel. It looked like a lawn sprinkler it was flying so fast.
“Gary nudged me, said we should try to join the other men, and I agreed. We got up and ran through the muddy slop. We slipped a few times but made it. It was cold enough you could see your breath, and both of us were winded and a little bit scared. I could tell this would be the first time we had seen this many gooks so close, and it didn’t look good.”
At this point, Dad’s eyes were distant as he continued to stare out at the rain, his mind reliving that faraway place. I glanced at my now cold tea and didn’t care. I was scared because I had never heard this story before and had no idea where it was going. At this age, you don’t expect surprises from your parents. You should know everything about them. Apparently I didn’t. It was an uneasy feeling. What was he going to tell me?
“The men were still formed in a line so we joined at the rear. From that point, I had a better view of the bridge. There was little on the surface to take cover behind. In fact, except for the steel bridge supports on the sides that came up about chest high and some trash where Larry was hunkered down, there was nothing to hide behind. I wondered how in the hell we were going to cross.
“Gary asked a guy in front why Sarge didn’t call in an airstrike. He said Sarge had tried, but there were no planes in the area. We were on our own.
“Our unit was a recon unit, so we didn’t carry mortars or light artillery or anything to deal with a large amount of enemy fire. We had some grenades, but because the other side of the bridge was too far, those were useless. We would have to get across the bridge with only our rifles. Once I realized this, I knew we would not try to cross. It would be a suicide mission. I thought surely we would dig in and wait for reinforcements. But I was wrong.
“Sarge pushed Tommy forward onto the bridge and he ran toward where Larry was sitting. Just as Tommy got there, he clutched his chest and went down hard. More shots rang out. Larry was closest to where Tommy dropped and tried to reach him, but before he could, he was pinned down by more gunfire. At least I knew Larry was still alive. Sarge pushed another guy forward. He made it a little farther than Tommy before he got shot. It looked like his arm was blown clean off. I couldn’t tell. Two down. Surely Sarge would not let all of us die like this.
“Gary looked at me. We had gotten in line together, but when I turned around after the second guy got it, he had nudged in behind me. He was now last in line. I didn’t blame him and I didn’t say anything. I was numb and afraid.
“After the second guy got it, Sarge pushed another guy out. He made it to one of the bridge supports and started firing, which lifted our spirits. The next guy I recognized as Charlie. He had a wife and two kids back home. We had compared pictures occasionally. His wife was a real looker and wrote him real sweet letters and sprayed nice perfume on them. Sometimes he would read parts of his letters out loud and I would listen and dream that I had a girlfriend waiting for me back home. I hoped when I got back I could find someone like her.
“Charlie didn’t want to go. He looked back at us and I reluctantly made eye contact with him. I could see the pure terror in his eyes. He looked past us at the field where Gary and I had just come from, and I could read his mind. He was giving some serious thought to saying ‘the hell with this’ and just running for it. Some rounds grazed near him. Sparks flew from the bridge supports where they hit, and he and the Sarge both dove for cover. I could see Sarge yelling at Charlie. Apparently, they were okay, but Sarge was yelling for Charlie to get down the bridge and back-up the other guy who had made it past Larry to a third of the way down the bridge. I could see that guy firing and guessed it wouldn’t be long before he had to reload. He needed help now.
“Something Sarge said made Charlie get up and run. He zigzagged like a madman down that bridge, dodging bullets. Just as he passed Larry, he caught one. His momentum carried him and he slid a few feet farther before stopping. He didn’t move after that. The guy on the bridge looked down and thought about helping Charlie, but decided against it. Soon, another guy ran and slid to a stop where Larry was. We now had two guys on the bridge shooting, plus Larry. Sarge grabbed another guy and pushed him to the left side of the bridge. The guy shouldered his rifle and started firing at once. All the time, the rain just kept pouring down, so thick at times you could hardly catch a good breath. I had yet to see any muzzle flashes from the other side and even though I knew they were there, I couldn’t make out any gooks anywhere. The rain was that thick. I thought, ‘How the hell can we get across when we can’t even see who to shoot at?’
“The guys in front of me kept going, the line was moving, and I felt my heart race as the number of men ahead of me dwindled. I thought how glad I was I had cleaned my rifle. In fact, just stopping to do that had made Gary and me the last in line. I realized that if the gooks gained an advantage and killed most of our unit, they would come across the bridge. And they would hunt us down like dogs. They had bayonets just like we did and the word had come down that they loved to get close enough to use them. I shuddered as I looked down at the mud, thinking I was going to die in this dirty, wet, miserable hell while some North Korean snuck up and cut me from ear to ear in this very mud.
“Gary nudged me from behind. I had not been paying attention, but now I saw that two of our guys had made it halfway down the bridge. A few were bunching up behind them, firing in support, and the guy in front of me ran to join Sarge. There was still that guy and two other guys already next to Sarge in front of me. I realized that there was no way those few men would be able to take control of the bridge, allowing me to stroll across at my leisure. I was going to have to join them in fighting, and most likely die. For a second, I felt like puking.
“I looked over at the stream. Bits of tree limbs and hay from the carts that had crossed dangled from the bridge, cutting little ribbons in the water as it flowed by. I saw some debris floating down the stream at us, coming on pretty quickly, and it was surely headed to a better place than me. Gary pushed me again and I looked up. Sarge was motioning for me. There was no one left in front of me. My time had come.
“When I ran up to him, I told him we should turn back, that we were all sure to die. He told me to shut up. We had to take this bridge right now. I looked and saw our guys scattered all over the place. I turned to tell Sarge I just couldn’t do it and that I quit. He could court-marshal me and lock me up for life in Leavenworth or shoot me on the spot, but I was not going to follow his orders. Before I said that, he grabbed this little clip we had on our back for our packs and pulled me out into the line of fire. He pushed me forward and I ran. I ran as hard as I could. All of a sudden, it felt like someone had laid a burning hot knife along the side of my neck, and a second later, I realized that bullets were whizzing all around me.
“These gooks could not only see me, but they also wanted to kill me. One of them had nearly succeeded. Before, it had been shots aimed in my general direction and I always had time to get my head down before anything had any real chance of hitting me. But now, I was an actual target at the end of some North Korean’s gun. It was a sick feeling to know someone had you in their sights and was squeezing the trigger. It’s crazy, the thoughts that go through your mind in times of stress like that, but I wondered what they were thinking as I ran. I know it was stupid, but nevertheless, that’s what I thought.
“Then, the mud on my boots made me slip on the wet surface and I went down hard. As I came back to my senses, I noticed that I was facedown looking at some playing cards. I thought I had been hit, but I knew that I hadn’t been carrying any playing cards. I raised my head as more shots rang out. Looking right at me was Jack. His eyes were open, but there was blood coming from his mouth and forehead. A wad of chewing gum hung from his lips. Cards were spilled everywhere. I rolled to the left and crawled forward. The rain splashed in my face as it hit the bridge’s wooden planks.
“I could barely make out Larry up ahead of me, his skin was so dark. He was behind something so I moved toward him. When I reached Larry, he was facing me, his back to the gooks. I figured he was catching his breath, but he wasn’t. The rain hit his helmet and again splashed into my face. Larry’s head was slumped over at a strange angle. I lifted it and realized he was dead. As I had made my run down the bridge, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Now, as I rested next to Larry, life returned to normal speed. I heard Sarge shouting, but the rain made it hard to make out his words.
“While I was looking at him, I noticed Tommy laying a few feet back. He was gone too. It looked like his right hand was covering his heart. His wife just lost her husband. I knew she was probably shopping for groceries or washing clothes at that very moment, just going about her daily normal life while half a world away, I was sitting on this godforsaken bridge looking at her dead husband. What would she tell her children? They would grow up never knowing their father because some gook on the other side of this bridge had real good aim. As I thought about it, it really didn’t bother me too much because I knew I was about to join Tommy. I just hoped my parents wouldn’t cry too much.
“I heard more gunfire and that brought my mind back. Something in me, I don’t know what, made me want to get up and push on. I saw two hand grenades Larry had clipped to his chest and I grabbed them. He also had an extra clip out. He had been getting ready to reload. I took that too. Checking to make sure everything was in place, I crawled out from behind what I now could see was a damaged pushcart that must have belonged to one of the locals. I got up on my knees and hurried to the right support where I had seen the first guy make it. Our guys were littered all over the place. I’m not for certain, but I thought a round banged off my helmet as I ran.
“When I reached the chest-high support, I could tell it didn’t offer much protection. I took my rifle up and fired a few shots. I could see a gook hidden on the other side of the bridge in some brush. He wasn’t firing, but just seemed to be waiting, I guess for us to get near. Then he would ambush us with his bayonet if he could. I could just make out his head, so I aimed and fired. His legs lifted into the air as he fell back headfirst. In the instant before he went out of sight, I caught a view of the ragged pants he wore. These gooks were going on nothing but will and large numbers. What a waste. Instead of helping each other make some rice or work the fields or develop a factory, here we were killing each other in a senseless war.
“Anyway, the gook’s buddy must have panicked when I shot the guy because he ran over to help him. As he knelt, I shot him in the back, and he fell into his dead companion. When I did that, a guy ahead moved forward and all of a sudden, we had taken three-fourths of the bridge.
“I ran forward to the next support at the halfway point. When I got there, I looked down to see a guy crawling toward me, dragging himself face down. He had just been hit and needed help badly. I reached out into enemy fire and grabbed the same clip on his back that Sarge had used on mine. I pulled him closer to me. A can of tomato soup fell out of his pack, spilling its red contents onto the bridge. The steady, unending rain began to wash it away. I could still see the soup spilling out ever so slowly. As the guy got closer, I lifted his head to try and get him behind me, parallel to the bridge instead of sticking out like a big target for the gooks.
“It was Gary. Somehow in the confusion, he had passed me. He used his right arm to help scoot himself over. When I got him situated, I asked him if he was okay. He calmly said, ‘Man, I ain’t gonna make it. I’m hit bad. Here, take my rifle. It’s better than yours.’ He dropped his head and let out a deep breath. Another can of something fell and rolled across the bridge. When it got to the other side, it fell into the river. I don’t know why, but I looked to see it flow under the bridge below me, heading downstream. I looked back at the first can as it rolled over toward me. It had two bullet holes in it. It was not tomato soup, but a can of beans. The red was Gary’s blood, and it was everywhere. But the rain took care of it. It took care of everything. Light. Sound. Blood. Mud. Common sense.
“A shot bounced off the steel support. I dropped my rifle and grabbed up Gary’s. I ran forward, leaving Gary behind. Two of our guys were on the left and two on the right. I reached a point behind the two on the right and shouldered Gary’s rifle. It was an excellent weapon. Even though it was the same model as mine, it somehow felt lighter, better. It seemed like a well-oiled, finely tuned machine, and I sighted a gook and dropped him with the first shot. I fired several times in his direction and saw two gooks get up and run. A guy ahead of me dropped another gook.
“One guy on my left got hit and dropped to the wooden planks, clutching his neck and gasping for breath. No one could help him. He rolled around in obvious pain, but made very little noise.
I pulled the pin on a grenade and heaved it toward the edge of the bridge on the left side, trying for a small rock wall that some gooks were hiding behind. My toss was short. It hit the edge of a steel support, got a lucky bounce forward striking the flat part of the rock fence, and came to a stop. The grenade went off. The rock fence blew toward the bridge, raining bits of mortar and rock down on our guys on the left side. Whoever was hiding behind that fence had to be dead. The guy in front of me motioned for my other grenade and I gave it to him. It was Roger, the quiet guy. He was forward of me and had better arm strength. He lobbed it to the right side of the bridge and the grenade landed perfectly. It blew the rock fence up toward us. More pieces of rock and mortar, this time falling on me.
“As soon as that explosion died down Roger ran forward, hunkered over, and shot toward the left side of the bridge. I could tell he saw some gooks and had them in his sights. The guy in front of me and the other guy to my left ran forward to support Roger. Then Roger took one in the shoulder. He listed to the left as he continued down the bridge. He was almost at the end of the bridge when he turned and shot at the right side. By then, the two in front of me had made it near him and were firing at anything that moved. I crawled forward as well. There were a couple of guys behind me firing too. I saw a couple of gooks and fired, not knowing if I hit them or not.
“When we reached the end of the bridge, two of the guys made their way around, firing rounds into the body of every gook they could find. I don’t know if they were still alive, but if they were, they were dead now. Roger sat against the bridge support stuffing a rag into his wound. I reached him to try to help with his wound. I told him I would go back and find Sam, the medic in our unit. He told me, ‘Don’t bother. Sam’s bought it.’ He said to go back and help anyone left alive to this side of the bridge and do it fast before the enemy gathered themselves and tried to retake the bridge.
“I ran backward, checking everyone. The first eight or ten men I saw were dead. When I got to the halfway point, I saw Gary lying there. I rolled him over, confirming he was gone too. The gentle farm boy, my buddy, was dead. Out of obligation, I started dragging his body down the bridge when I saw Sarge farther back. I set Gary down and ran to help Sarge. He had two holes in him. He was dead. He had died just like the men he’d sent before him. In fact, everyone was dead behind me. No one was left to bring forward, so I grabbed a few extra clips, an extra tent roll, and some more grenades and headed back to Roger. I slipped a few times in the rain. Just like the enemy, it kept coming.
“There were seven of us left alive. Roger took command because he wanted to. No one objected. Roger decided we would dig in at this end of the bridge and wait for the enemy to return. It was getting dark now so we had to hurry. I dug in next to a guy I didn’t know. We made sure all the clips were full and had several grenades ready. I got down on my belly and aimed my rifle toward a tree stand where I had last seen the gooks run. The rain splashed off my gun sights, but I ignored it. I just lay there, getting wetter and colder, thinking that I was about to die. The light faded and total darkness came down. It got pitch black.
“All night long, it rained. The water filled up our hole. I was freezing, yet I stayed where I was. It seemed like forever. I was not thinking of dying anymore, but not exactly of living either. I looked through my sights and saw what looked like some bushes way off ahead, but I couldn’t really tell what the hell it was. After a few minutes, I realized that I could make out the trees around it. Dawn was upon us. Somehow, the time had passed and I had made it through the night. A miracle, to say the least.
“A few hours later, an APC and a tank arrived with reinforcements, came over the bridge, and replaced us. They had two medics who started treating the wounded. I helped Roger back to the medical tent. In the daylight, I could see that he was in bad shape. One of the medics said they needed to treat my wound. ‘I don’t have a wound,’ I said. He pointed at my neck, then my back, and pulled some of my uniform away for me to see. Apparently, a bullet had struck my helmet and ricocheted, digging a small trench down my back. They could not even find the bullet. Even though there was blood everywhere, I think it looked a lot worse than it really was. They stitched me up and I made my way to the rear, where there was a formal MASH unit. A mobile army surgical hospital, I think that’s what it stands for. Roger went too. He ended up making it home along with me. We both got the Purple Heart along with some other medals I packed away never to look at again.”
Dad leaned back in his chair at this point and released a deep, pent up breath. The concentration necessary to finally tell this story had sapped his strength. He needed rest.
After a few quiet moments, I finally had to ask, “Have you ever told anyone else about this?”
“No, I haven’t.”
He was back to looking out at the rain again. I persisted. “Not even Mom?”
“No, not even her. She knew I was wounded because she saw the scar across my back. But even from the beginning, somehow she knew not to ask about it.”
I was stunned. He had kept this secret balled up inside, eating away at him, ever since the war. I tried to imagine the pain and anguish it had taken to hold this in. I was at a loss for words.
My Dad and I had never really been touchy-feely close. I think he may have told me out loud that he loved me twice in my entire life, though I had always known he did. Something made me get up and walk over to him. I held out my hand and he took it, standing up as he did so. I put my arms around him and felt his body tremble as he began to cry.
I started to cry as well. We both stood there clutching each other. He grabbed at my shoulders, squeezing tight, and started crying with more force. At last, he was letting this terrible poison out. I heard him say, “Why?! Why me?! Why all those men, and not me? Why was I near the end of the line and not the front?”
He had just let out fifty years of stored up feelings. He wanted to fall back into his seat, but I held him up. Now, maybe for the first time ever, he needed me for support.
Dad cried a little longer and whispered, “Why the rain? Why the rain?” I didn’t know how to respond to this and couldn’t anyway, because I was still crying myself. I never did respond, because I think he just needed to talk. All he’d ever wanted was someone to talk to about this. He just didn’t know until it happened.
It was at that moment that I realized Dad and I had always had our own bridge between us, separating us.
After all these years, he just needed to hold someone’s hand as he went down that bridge one last time. I hugged him fiercely and said, “Dad, you’ll never have to walk down that bridge alone again.”
We stood there hugging each other, our crying beginning to taper off as the rain hitting the roof slowed to a drizzle, signaling an end to the downpour.
Written by Michael Gray and Jeff Spradlin. Copyright 2002