"What’s dat stuff on your face, mistuh? What is it?"
Mark Cahill tried to pretend he was asleep. But the high-pitched young voice was penetrating, and persistent.
His day had been filled with an early departure and a long, rough connecting flight that included two even rougher landings. Now this. And LaGuardia was over an hour away. Still, he could recognize defeat.
With a sigh, Mark opened his eyes and looked towards the voice. A short, blurry figure was standing in the aisle next to his seat. Mark put on glasses with thick, milk-bottle lens, then looked back and inspected the figure. It was a redheaded kid, a boy, maybe three years old, wearing sneakers, overalls, and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. His ruddy, freckled face held an innocent, openly curious expression.
While this type of questioning didn't happen every day, it occurred so often, Mark had long since developed a stock response. Since he faced another hour on the cramped DC-9 before reaching New York, there was plenty of time to give this kid the full treatment.
“Well Hoss, let me tell you, it’s like this.” The kid gave him a big grin. "That stuff is powder burns. I got ‘em when this big firecracker went off near my face. Firecrackers can be a lot of fun, but they’re dangerous.”
He told about getting hurt when a big one went off by surprise, then finished with the usual morality lesson. "So don’t ever hold firecrackers when you light the fuse. If you do, you might get this kind of stuff in your face and have to wear thick glasses like I do."
"Andy. Andy Briggs, you get right over here and quit bothering that man.” The unexpected command came from a harried-looking woman who’d been talking to the young girl sitting beside her.
Mark watched without seeing as Andy cheerfully replaced his disgusted sister in the window seat. A new coloring book reconciled her to the aisle seat. With her children settled, the woman looked back over at Mark. "I'm sorry about Andy. He's always asking questions. I hope he didn't bother you."
Mark’s reply was flat and automatic. "No, ma'am. No bother at all. He's not the first to ask about my face and he probably won't be the last."
"Well, if you don't mind my asking, I overheard what you were telling him. Did that really happen? Maybe it’s just the suit and tie, but you look more like a businessman than someone who goes around playing with firecrackers."
"You’re right. It’s been awhile since I played with firecrackers. That story’s just a good one to tell kids."
Taking off his glasses, he pointed at the small, black marks below his eyes. "Like I told him, these things really are powder burns. But the firecracker was actually a booby-trap. The man in front of me stepped on it, in Vietnam.”
“I’m so sorry. Was he badly hurt?”
“He died before I could get to him.”
She nodded. “What about you?”
“I got pretty banged up; couldn’t see a thing for about a year. Now I’ve gotten some sight back, but the doctors had to remove a cataract. That’s why I wear these things.” He motioned with the heavy glasses while rubbing the red spots on the sides of his nose.
After taking a moment to clean the glasses, he put them back on and looked over towards Andy’s mother. She was staring at the floor, slowly shaking her head, and talking to herself. Her voice was low, but he had no trouble making out her words. "Oh, that damn war. Oh, that damn war."
Like most vets, he seldom spoke about his combat experience, especially to strangers. When kids asked questions, he relied on some variation of the firecracker yarn. But if an adult asked, more often than not, they got the real story. Since their taxes paid for his trip to Vietnam, he reasoned these curious citizens deserved the truth. But this woman’s reaction bothered him.
Of course, he didn’t mean to upset her. There were just too many emotions hitting him too quickly. The kid's question was no problem, although it reminded him of all he lost in Vietnam. Even when the kid turned out to be a freckle-face, redhead with a big grin, things were okay. But then his mother called him Andy. Hearing that name, the memories came flooding back.
The heat. The weariness. The terror. The boredom. It was all part of a grunt’s existence in “The ‘Nam”. So too the friends who might be around in the morning but gone by noon. And the explosion, felt more than heard, a body dancing in mid-air as a sheet of flames raced toward him, knocking him down, leaving him blind.
A pop in Mark’s ears brought him back to the present. The stewardess announced the plane’s initial approach into New York. He obediently returned his seat back and tray table to their original, upright, and locked position, and checked his seat belt. Looking out at the tops of the thick, cumulus clouds, he wondered if he was in for his third rough landing of the day.
It don't mean nothing, he thought, repeating the mantra of those who served in Vietnam. After all, nothing could be rougher than the past few years.
It hadn't been easy since being wounded, and it sure as hell hadn't been fun. Still, for the time being at least, he was one up on both the VC who blinded him and the Army doctors who said he’d never see again.
He couldn’t suppress a grim smile of triumph. A year after being wounded, he was still flying to hospitals and the outlook for keeping some sight in his one remaining eye was uncertain. No longer having to travel blind was a major, though tenuous, achievement.
Sometimes he wondered if the rest of his life would be spent flying to hospitals. Before Vietnam, he cared about people and about making a difference. Back then, he wanted to become a lawyer and go into politics to fight the good fight. Most of all, he wanted one special someone.
Now, nothing seemed to matter, nothing seemed good or important. Even sex, sports, and having a good time held little more than a casual appeal. His only real goal was to finish the seemingly unending medical work on his eye.
Not for the first time, he wondered if he was destined to become just another aimless, wounded war “hero” in an era when wars and heroes were no longer in fashion. It wasn’t an appealing prospect, but then, it don’t mean nothing. After all he’d been through, after all the friends he’d lost, nothing did.
Using his rebuilt, if still imperfect right eye, he watched the waters of Long Island Sound rushing up to meet his plane. Instead of a cot in an Army hospital tent in Da Nang, his destination today was New York City and a bed at the Manhattan VA. That wasn't what he wanted to be doing. But it was one hell of an improvement over last year.
A moment after the runway appeared, the plane touched down with an almost imperceptible bump. One good landing out of three's not that bad, he decided. Maybe things were finally starting to go his way. The last twelve months were proof anything might happen and, God knew, he was way past due for it to be something good.
“In other national news, a Defense Department spokesman says 18,000 of the 31,000 US troops ordered into Cambodia by President Nixon have been withdrawn.”
The news was background noise as Gwen Kaplan gave her bangs one last touch. She cared but had been hearing variations on the same theme since junior high and none of it had ever affected her personally. When you live in Flushing, little outside your neighborhood ever does.
“Investigations continue into the killing of protesters at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Authorities discount recent allegations that both incidents were started by sniper fire from student dorms.”
Her hair would do, she decided, and put the brush into her purse.
“In local sports, the Mets and Yankees both dropped double-headers--.”
She switched off the radio, then re-checked her make-up and uniform. As usual, Gwen didn’t like what she saw in the mirror. Despite visual evidence to the contrary, her self-image was still that of a pudgy schoolgirl with dull brown eyes, drab brown hair, and a sprinkling of freckles across an otherwise okay nose.
After dieting all winter, her figure was at the point where she could consider buying a bikini for trips to Rockaway Beach. Of course, she’d end up with a more modest two-piece. Even that would mark a vast improvement over the dowdy, one-piece swimsuits she always wore before. No matter how she might really look, what she saw in the mirror never seemed to improve. She shook her head in resignation, grabbed her purse and suitcase, and headed for the living room.
“So you’re going to skip your cousin Sammy’s birthday on Wednesday, am I right, and not come home until Friday?” The sound of her mother’s hectoring voice made Gwen cringe.
They had fought all weekend about her decision to skip the bar mitzvah of a particularly unappealing cousin. “That’s right, Mom. But I’ll call tonight from the dorm.” Not wanting to give her mother a chance to re-start the hostilities, she gave her a quick kiss and then hurried out the door.
It was a beautiful, almost balmy Monday morning in the borough of Queens. The other redbrick apartment buildings in the complex looked fresh and bright. Birds sang in leafy trees. Flowers bloomed in well-kept beds. Fluffy, white clouds floated in a clear blue sky. Gwen barely noticed these marvels of urban nature as she hurried out the front door of her own redbrick apartment building and crossed Jewel Avenue to the bus stop.
In Gwen’s opinion, climbing on a New York City bus, even in Queens, could be a form of hand-to-hand combat. People in front and back push and shove while you battle to hang onto the handrail, whatever you happen to be carrying, plus your tokens or change.
Doing all this with a suitcase in one hand and a purse on your shoulder, while trying to keep your white uniform clean and the hem of its short skirt in place, made the experience even more interesting. Sometimes it didn't all work.
Today, however, a lot of people must have decided to sleep-in. The big, orange Q65A bus wasn’t half-full and few others got on with her. She even spotted an unoccupied window seat near the front. Grabbing it, she deposited the suitcase on the floor, tugged at the hem of her skirt, strategically positioned her purse on her lap, and then pulled out a paperback edition of, The French Lieutenant's Woman.
A few stops later, the bus made a swerved hard before coming to an abrupt halt. The movement and sudden stop broke Gwen's concentration. Looking up from the middle of page 92, she glanced out the window. A stunning young woman with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fashion model's figure was standing nearby. She wore tight, designer jeans and a white, fitted blouse. Gwen was positive neither of them came off any bargain rack.
Mesmerized, she watched the blonde goddess tilt her head up to kiss a tall, dark handsome man in a three-piece business suit. Gwen noticed the stylish cut of his pin-stripped suit, the length of her golden hair, the color of his leather briefcase, and the size of the diamond on her engagement ring, and succumbed to a wave of intense envy.
Like many others from her background, she suffered from a deep "shiksa" complex. Forget about Elizabeth Taylor or Vivian Leigh. To her, true female beauty meant slender, elegant women with peaches and cream skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair.
The good-looking man got on and sat a few rows behind her. As the bus pulled away, the beautiful woman tossed her long, blonde hair, smiled and waved goodbye. The big diamond on her engagement ring sparkled in the morning sun.
Well, at least I’ve got a boyfriend, thought Gwen. And we’re going to get married, someday. As the crowded bus accelerated past cars parked inches apart, she continued to stare, unseeing, out the window, remembering the first time she met Johnny DeAngelo.
It had been four years ago, near the end of 10th grade, at a party in Shirley Horowitz’s rec room. Gwen had been depressed and didn't want to go.
"You've got to go," Mandy Finkelstein insisted, for the third time that week. "Shirley promised some cute guys are coming from her new school. Besides, I don't want to go by myself."
Gwen could sympathize with Mandy. Not having a boyfriend was tough on them both. The party would be a chance to meet new boys. Guilt-tripped by Mandy’s pleading, Gwen said she would go, except she didn’t have a decent party dress.
A few days later, her mother ended that excuse by letting her buy a new outfit. It was a light-blue print, gathered just below the bosom, empire style. Gwen hoped its having no waistline would help hide her tummy. It had a scooped neckline, and the short, puffy sleeves she preferred. The white go-go boots she already owned set off the mandatory short mini-skirt.
The day of the party, Gwen arranged a Beatles’ style slouch hat so it didn’t muss her long, brunette hair which, as usual, she wore in a flip with bangs. She carefully studied her image in the hallway mirror and had to approve. Despite misgivings about going, at least she looked ready for a party.
She glanced at her watch and shifted into a higher gear. Grabbing her purse and the box of 45-rpm records Shirley asked her to bring, she kissed her parents goodbye and headed out the door. While looking nice was important, so was not standing out in the crowd. Her goal was to arrive neither too early, nor too late. But thanks to the usual delaying tactics by Mandy’s mother, the party was well underway by the time they made their appearance.
They felt so very conspicuous and sought sanctuary next to the card table that held Shirley's record player. As Gwen added her collection to the modest stack already there, Shirley hurried over.
After a round of hugs and hellos, Shirley whispered to Gwen there was a guy who wanted to meet her. Well aware what type of boys attended Shirley’s school, Gwen said maybe later, picked up some records and began studying the familiar labels. But Shirley was a natural matchmaker and would not be denied. "He’s a super great guy," she said. "He asked me who you were the moment you walked in. So put down those old records and come with me."
Gwen sighed in submission and handed the records to Mandy. Moments later, she was being pulled through the crowd of flailing dancers. When Shirley stopped yanking on her arm, Gwen found herself standing in front of a slender stranger with a shy, nervous grin. For some reason, he was holding a pocket comb in his right hand.
He was very well dressed, maybe even overdressed, in a tan Nehru jacket, navy-blue turtleneck sweater and burgundy, polyester pants. Thanks to his shiny, black platform shoes, he might have been an inch or two taller than she was. And no doubt thanks to the comb he seemed uncertain what to do with, his dark, Beatles style hair-do was very neat.
After completing her quick wardrobe appraisal, Gwen looked up and found herself staring into a pair of the softest brown eyes she had ever seen. Over the din of the music, Shirley made the introductions. "Gwen, this is one of the coolest guys at my school, Johnny DeAngelo. Johnny, this is one of my best friends, Gwen Kaplan. Now you two get to know each other, I've got to split." With that, Shirley melted back into the crowd.
"Hi, Johnny," said Gwen, extending her right hand. On the record player, A Hard Day’s Night, was followed by Shelly Fabares telling of her unrequited love for, Johnny Angel. Out on the dance floor, individuals stopped gyrating in solo splendor, embraced their partners, and began moving to the slower and more intimate rhythm.
To Gwen's surprise, Johnny took her right hand with his left, put away the comb, and gestured toward the dance floor. "It's a nice song. Some of the guys kid around and say it's my theme song. You know, Johnny Angel and Johnny DeAngelo. Anyway, you, uh, wanna dance?"
Gwen nodded, and they moved out among the swaying couples. They turned to face one another and paused for a moment. Then Gwen entered Johnny DeAngelo's arms and he entered her life.
The bus made a sharp turn and braked to a stop at the Forest Hill subway station. Gwen dog-eared the still unread page 92 and put away the book. Suitcase in hand, she shuffled out with the other passengers.
As she hurried toward the gaping hole of the subway entrance, a jet flew overhead. Out of habit, she paused and looked up, searching the skies until she spotted the plane. Gwen lived between two of the world’s busiest airports, but had never flown. To her, the idea of flight and travel was fascinating.
Once again, she promised herself that someday she’d fly. Who knew, she thought with a smile, maybe it would be with Johnny when they left the city on their honeymoon. It was a happy thought to take down into the gloomy subway.
She knew better than to think her good luck would continue. Finding a vacant seat on the bus had been a big break. Getting one on the subway was too much to expect. Now she stood clutching a strap on the crowded F train into Manhattan, her body swaying with the motion of the noisy car.
An airline ad above the door reminded her of the plane she saw earlier. A look of resignation crossed her face as she recalled thinking about flying away with Johnny after their wedding. With her being two years away from graduation and Johnny still stuck in his job at a supermarket, if they got married now, they'd leave for their honeymoon on the subway instead of by plane.
If Johnny could ever keep a decent job, Mom might not hate him so much, thought Gwen. The moment her mother learned Gwen's new boyfriend was a Catholic, thinking about leaving school, and four years older, she went ballistic. “What do you see in that little schmuck?” was about the nicest thing she said.
Sarah Kaplan's opposition did nothing but harden Gwen's resolve to make a success of her new relationship. Whatever it took, she was determined to never let her mother have the chance to say those four dreaded words, "I told you so."
Of course, Johnny didn’t make the situation any better by dropping out of school a few weeks after they met. They were in love by then and going steady. But his decision worried Gwen and it made her home life even tougher.
Later that summer, Johnny said he was joining the Navy to get training in computers and finish his high school diploma. After he left, Gwen kept playing, Blue Navy Blue, on the small record player in her room, writing him multi-page letters and crying over his absence.
She didn't have long to cry. With men in the Army and Marines being killed every day in Vietnam, the Air Force and Navy could be choosey about who they took, and kept. The Navy soon realized Johnny DeAngelo was not a keeper. Two months after he joined, they declared him unfit for military duty and he came marching home.
Johnny job hunted for a couple weeks, then went to work bagging groceries at a local supermarket. Later that year, he started night school, once again stating his intention to get his high school diploma and take some computer training. He almost lasted a month before quitting, claiming his instructors were all jerks. To Gwen's dismay, it was back to the supermarket.
When he landed a job as a mail sorter at the post office, Gwen felt sure it was the turning point. The problem was, according to Johnny, sorters sat on a stool all day with one foot on a rung and the other flat on the floor. With disgust in his voice, he would complain about how supervisors kept walking behind the sorters chanting, "One foot up, one foot down, and sort."
Gwen tried to encourage him to tough it out, reminding him it was just an entry-level position and that there’d be promotions. But she wasn’t surprised when Johnny went out the post office door and back to the supermarket.
Despite his sporadic work record, Gwen was sure she still loved Johnny. He was kind and sweet and she never doubted how much he loved her. She might have once had a crush on someone else, but Johnny was the only man she ever truly loved. It felt good going to parties and out on dates with a steady boyfriend. While sitting in class, she sometimes felt a sudden wave of warm security. And why not? After all, she was in love with a special someone who was in love with her.
Everything would be perfect, if only Johnny could keep a good job. Then they wouldn't have to wait for her to become a nurse to get married. And maybe, just maybe, her mother would finally accept him.
After four years of maternal hostility, Gwen knew her strong-willed mother was becoming resigned to the idea of her equally strong-willed daughter marrying Johnny DeAngelo. Just last month, she overheard her mother telling a relative, "That daughter of mine seems determined to spite me and dishonor this entire family by throwing herself away on that lazy, good-for-nothing, no-account putz."
So Johnny's gone from a schmuck to a putz. It's not much of an improvement. Still, she decided it was progress.
At the 59th Street station under Bloomingdale's, she changed to the Lexington Avenue IRT and rode to the 26th Street stop. When the car doors opened, she allowed the surging crowd to sweep her out onto the platform.
After negotiating the long stairway to the surface, busy streets and crowded sidewalks burst into view. She was out of Flushing, out of Queens, and in Manhattan where anything might happen.
There was plenty of time, so she decided to walk instead of waiting for a crowded cross-town bus. It was a nice day, and she could use the bus fare to buy a hot dog for lunch. With that, she rearranged her load, then strode off toward 23rd Street and 1st Avenue and her summer job at the Manhattan VA hospital...