CALL UP A STORY: a writer makes them up and sets them down but it is what we all do to make shape of our days.
Some years ago I fell in love with Hawaii. I'd rent little houses on the beach on one of the islands, nothing fancy, a kitchen, a bed, an outdoor shower, and some ceiling fans. The water was warm and salutary. I would read and write, or try to write, and to think and decompress. It was funny to come six thousand miles to one ocean when I'd grown up on the edge of another, along Cape Cod Bay south of Duxbury but north of the two bridges, the Bourne and the Sagamore, in a part of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where my family still lived, at least some of them, some of the time.
In 1999 in Wailea Bay on the Big Island, a tiny, largely unpopulated and unknown beach tucked between two famous resorts, I found I hadn't brought any writing with me. For close to thirty years it is what I have done, write screenplays and books, and I had no idea what it meant or that in fact it wasn't an ending but a beginning, one that had been waiting for me--the pipe well laid--for decades.
While I was there a message passed from my mother through my wife, Jenny, whom I was separated from then, and through my office to me: my uncle George was ill. My uncle--BigGeorge, we often called him--was a tall, bald, smiling man, long and lanky, six foot six, and the head of the family, as much as there can be one in a big and sprawling family A tremendously competitive athlete under the guise of his great grin, even if age had slowed him--he had had both his hips replaced--he still was up before seven every day as a matter of pride and New England principle. He was an Old Yankee.
The message was puzzling, for I knew he was sick. Six weeks before doctors had unearthed a stomach tumor, but it hadn't seemed a life-threatening emergency He wasn't rushed into surgery; in fact the operation was postponed while the recommended doctor, an acquaintance, scooted away for a vacation. That was early May. Now, mid-June, the operation had been performed and declared a success. Recovery, naturally at George's age, eighty-nine, would be slow and arduous. Now this message.
Communication within a large family can often become comedy, waylaid by malfunction or misinformation, ending up feeding on itself erroneously. I got on the phone to sort out what it meant. It was too late to reach my mother on the East Coast, so I called Jenny, and to my surprise she answered.
"Oh, it's you," she said.
"I got this message--"
"Well, it's true."
"Wait a minute. I haven't even said--what's true?"
"Your mother called me."
"Nice of her to call me."
"Why would she?"
"She knew she could reach me."
"Don't call me that."
"Time out. Please."
I could hear her take a deep breath, and she did what she could do, wend inside herself through our torturous history,much of it my fault, and find her ample generosity. She told me then what she had heard was simple and declarative. George wasn't sick; rather, he'd been taken off life support and wasn't expected to live through the night.
Sunset was soon to be. I walked down to the beach as the sun broke free of the clouds in its slide into the sea. Maui etched itself into sight in the distance and the epic shape of Haleakala sat along a section of the horizon like a splayed pyramid. The water ran through deepening shades and ceased to roil. The sun bloated and flattened into the shape of a mushroom cloud as it lanced the Pacific. In less than three minutes it was gone. The water lost any burnish and was calm. A parade of clouds remained, long and low and loosely in the gray shapes of battleships. They offered up a reminder that Pearl Harbor was not so far away.
Suddenly the last upslants of light pulled bright handkerchiefs out of a hat. They turned upside down the color spectrum. In afterglow the clouds gathered up a fever of hues--pink, watermelon, blood orange, and carnelian. The migrant shades held an aching, transient beauty. Thousands of miles away where my uncle lay it was six hours later, well into the night he wasn't supposed to live through.
THIRTY YEARS BEFORE, the week before Christmas in 1969, I had answered another phone call. I had returned home for the holidays after moving to California. It was Big George on the other end of the line.
"George," I said. "Is that you?" In my family we had long since dropped the use of "uncle" or "aunt."
"John?" he asked. "What are you doing home?"
"Snuck in for Christmas."
"Well, is your dad around?"
"No, both Dad and Mom are at some party or other."
"Maybe I can help. You want me to give them a message?"
He didn't respond and I thought that perhaps I'd lost the connection. I said his name and when he made a sound I lifted my voice and my attitude to meet the man where I was so used to experiencing him: always positive, up, even if falsely so, powerfully so. I chimed into the phone: "George, how are you?"
"Not so good."
"What is it?"
He started to speak, broke off, an unsteadiness to his tone.
"It's Doug," my uncle said. "He's been killed in Vietnam."
After I got off the phone I looked up the number where my parents were and called them. I could hear the murmurs and laughter that surround cocktails and sound not unlike the sea as I waited for my mother or father to come to the phone.
Christmas was a time of such get-togethers in our town and maybe every town. This particular one had a special flavor, the first party hosted by a family that was recovering from a tragedy of their own. Somewhere over a year before one of their two sons left a note to a girl he barely knew. He had fixated on her, pursued her futilely, and somehow felt spurned by her when her family sequestered her and shipped her out of town. He locked himself in the garage and turned on the motor of the family's Buick Riviera. The parents were away in Florida on a boat they had just bought, and Stevie wasn't discovered for three days. His brother, checking the house, came upon him.
By 1969 the casualty list in many families wasn't small. The decade that had started with such promise and new frontiers had been hijacked by assassinations and an undeclared war and a loss of center that split generations and suddenly, wrenchingly, was pushing its way into radical behavior, avowedly political, that would often collapse upon itself in subsequent years.
It was my mother who came to the phone. My parents left the party immediately, and as soon as they arrived home they set to helping call other members of the family. My father andGeorge, two brothers born only fifteen months apart, were two of ten, and Doug, just over fifteen months younger than I am, was one of twenty-two first cousins we had on that side of the family.
George and Betty lived in West Hartford, Connecticut, then, and before the day was done my brother, Mason, and I flew down to be with them. Their oldest son, George Jr., had already arrived and their one daughter, Samantha, was living at home while her new husband, serving in Korea, waited to see whether he would go to Vietnam.
It was cold and getting colder by the time we reached the house. The forecast had changed from rain to snow, but the temperature was dropping faster than that. It was in the teens, and single digits were expected by morning; zero after that. We were there to wait. Doug was being shipped home. Da Nang to Dover, Delaware to West Hartford. The timetable of his arrival was not yet clear.
It had been a little after eleven o'clock that Sunday morning when the government sedan had pulled up in front of the house. George had already played a round of golf, knowing with the weather report it could be the last for the winter. He had shot a 77. For years he had been a scratch golfer and a local champion. His handicap had begun to rise, sneaking up to a six and now an eight, but it seemed to have found a solid resting place. After all, he was almost sixty.
Betty was talking on the new yellow wall phone in the kitchen that would still be there thirty years later. She was the one who answered the door. The officer asked for George and the three men went into the study and closed the door. Betty was left outside to wait. They didn't tell her. She didn't know what to do or where to go. She knew and yet had to wait to know. She sat in a straight-back chair in the hall and waited. The wait was terrible.
The two men had brought with them and left behind a telegram:
I MOST DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS THAT YOUR SON LANCE CORPORAL DOUGLAS W. YOUNG USMC WAS KILLED IN ACTION 20 DECEMBER. HE SUSTAINED A FATAL INJURY TO THE HEAD WHILE ON PATROL IN THE VICINITY OF DANANG REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. I WISH TO ASSURE YOU OF MY HEARTFELT SYMPATHY AND THAT OF YOUR SON'S FELLOW MARINES AT THIS TIME OF HEARTACHE AND LOSS.
LEONARD F. CHAPMAN, JR. GENERAL USMC COMMANDANT OF THE MARINE CORPS
Quite quickly a follow-up one was delivered. It told no more of how Doug had died. I found it sitting on the desk in the small study that sat opposite to the living room. A yellow Western Union envelope opened, read, refolded, and placed back. I took it out and this is what it said:
THIS CONCERNS YOUR SON LANCE CORPORAL DOUGLAS W. YOUNG.
THE MARINE CORPS WILL RETURN YOUR LOVED ONE TO A PORT IN THE UNITED STATES BY FIRST AVAILABLE AIRLIFT. AT THE PORT REMAINS WILL BE PLACED IN A METAL CASKET AND DELIVERED BY MOST EXPEDITIOUS MEANS TO ANY FUNERAL DIRECTOR DESIGNATED BY THE NEXT OF KIN OR TO ANY NATIONAL CEMETERY IN WHICH THERE IS AVAILABLE GRAVE SPACE. YOU WILL BE ADVISED BY THE UNITED STATES PORT CONCERNING THE MOVEMENT AND ARRIVAL TIME. AT DESTINATION, FORMS ON WHICH TO CLAIM AUTHORIZED INTERMENT ALLOWANCE WILL ACCOMPANY REMAINS.
THIS ALLOWANCE MAY NOT EXCEED $75 IF CONSIGNMENT IS MADE DIRECTLY TO THE SUPERINTENDENT OF A NATIONAL CEMETERY. WHEN CONSIGNMENT IS MADE TO A FUNERAL DIRECTOR PRIOR TO INTERMENT IN A NATIONAL CEMETERY, THE MAXIMUM ALLOWANCE IS $250. IF BURIALTAKES PLACE IN A CIVILIAN CEMETERY, THE MAXIMUM ALLOWANCE IS $500.
IT IS ALSO INCUMBENT UPON THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS TO MAKE CLEAR THAT ANY AND ALL EXPENSES IN EXCESS OF THESE AMOUNTS CANNOT AND WILL NOT BE COVERED.
DO NOT SET DATE OF FUNERAL UNTIL PORT AUTHORITIES NOTIFY YOU DATE AND SCHEDULED TIME OF ARRIVAL DESTINATION.
This telegram was not signed.
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