The wheels of Air Force One bounced and screeched on the runway awaking the President. He slid up the visor of the window and watched as the plane ran down the runway. He could see the jungle running along the perimeter of the airport. He was landing in a country he never thought he would have to visit, Vietnam. His was the generation that was called to fight that war, but when it came close for him to serve, his father paid a doctor for a medical note saying he couldn’t serve. Serving was for suckers, the stupid, and the poor. None of which he was. America had a long history of the rich paying the poor to serve in their place. Now he was in Vietnam but on much different terms, his terms. He would be feted, shake hands with dignitaries, catered to, visit a few sites of historic importance and act impressed. It didn’t matter, he didn’t have any ghosts here.
The door to the plane opened and he felt the humid air flood into the plane, he put on his suit jacket as he walked toward the open hatch of the plane. He would be hot in a dark suit and tie like he always wore, but appearances are what mattered. If you appear successful, you are. His imported model wife met him at the door. He was rich before he became President, everything was imported. He hadn’t wasted his life as a community organizer, or even strategically position himself as his predecessors had, he’d imposed himself into the process, every process. It was a classic submission technique, punch someone in the nose and most people will reflexively cry. In his case, if they cry you can use them if they don’t cry enlist them if they refuse punish them. He’d punched a lot of people in the nose, figuratively, but if that level of violence was needed there was always someone for such work. They stepped out onto the platform, he looked around his face frozen in a smug pose that made him look important, iconic even. The Marine guard awaited them at the bottom of the stairs. The military, just another kind of servant. His father had unfairly sent him away to a military school for a minor infraction when he was young because he thought he needed discipline. At the school he was singled out, yelled at, made to march to their tune, demerits for insignificant infractions, no misstep unforgiven, even unknowing transgressions resulted in a dressing down by the officers, complete character breakdowns in thirty second tirades, he learned to hate them. Some how he had thrived in that environment. He learned to like wearing the crisp uniforms, the fancy braids and medals. Now, officers, generals, “his generals” snapped to and saluted when he entered a room and feared the storms of his wrath. Beyond the guard the Vietnamese delegation of diplomats and military officials waited to receive him. They all were smaller than he was, little brown men in western suits and military garb, their faces carved by the hand of time. The officials of Vietnam, all children of the war. He grabbed his wife’s hand, not a tender intertwining but control. He bared his teeth, he knew from practice that at a distance it would appear a smile but up close a grimace. “Shall we?” He said, a command, not a gallant request or question, but a brusque order. They started down the stairway.
The air rippled with heat as they walked down the stairway, suddenly the air felt thicker, it pressed in around him, it was as if he‘d passed from a temperate zone into a tropical zone. His eyes became unfocused for a moment, he slipped a little and let go of his wife’s hand. He grabbed the railing for support and stopped on the stairway while regaining his composure. When his vision cleared his wife was gone, had she gone back to the plane? Did she not feel his moment of weakness? Had she continued on down the stairway? He looked down the stairs, she wasn’t there. The receiving party had seemed to change, the faces of those there to receive had changed and the uniforms were different, they were all American, young men from every branch of the services. When he reached the bottom of stairway he was greeted by a naval officer in dress whites and what seemed prematurely white hair for such a young man. He thought he recognized the officer. The officer saluted,
“Finally, you’re here sir,” the officer said, “we’ve been awaiting your arrival.”
“Good, good,” the President said, “do I know you? Were you assigned to the White House?”
“No, you don’t know me, I wasn’t a hero, I was captured.” Those words rang in the President’s ears. He looked around, the airport looked more primitive, as if it had been run down or neglected. He still didn’t see the Vietnamese delegates. He turned to the officer, looked into his eyes trying to remember where he knew the man from, he knew he didn’t know the young man, but his features were familiar.
“Don’t look to the past to remember me,” the officer said, “try the future, my future, your reality.”
The President’s eyes widened a bit, registering both recognition and shock, he recognized him now, not as a young man but as an older man, a senator. The officer smiled. The President looked down the line of men he recognized them all. They were all the younger selves of men he knew, of men who served in the war.
“Where am I?”
“Where you belong sir, Hanoi, a Hanoi that has long been awaiting you. It’s a Hanoi outside of time where you may have come to a lifetime ago.”
“I’m the President! Take me to the receiving delegation! Where are my secret service agents?”
“We are the receiving committee, the others are back in their own reality living it out.”
“How’re they living it out without me?!”
“They see a facsimile, but you, your true self is here.”
“My true self?”
“This is your essence, the core of what makes you, you.”
“What’s this all about? I’m an important person you can’t just hold me here.”
“We aren’t holding you, you’re free to go when you want.”
“Then let me go. You’re a naval officer, I’m your commander-in-chief.”
“In the world of man, not of here, something more is required.”
“What?” He demanded impatiently.
“We’ve been here a long time standing guard for those who died, for those who lived, but we can’t stand at guard forever. We’ve been told you’re our relief.”
“Stand at guard!” He snorted incredulously, “the war is long over, it wasn‘t my war.”
“It’s not over, it’s not over in our memories, in our dreams, in our bodies, it’s not over in the dreams of generations after. War belongs to all of us, even for the protesters. But what did you do? Nothing.”
“I was for the war.”
“What did you do besides voice support for it? What actions did you take to fight it? To end it? None.” The officer stared into him and the officer seemed to age a moment, to the man he knew, the man he would become, “you gave it lip-service while you sat back and let others fight it for you. While you grew rich.”
“I understand your sacrifice, I was shipped off to military school because my father ….”
“Don’t lie. You may tell yourself that, but we know the truth, a military school for rich kids, crisp uniforms, medals that were as ceremonial and symbolic as the uniform. You loved the pageantry and pomp of parade, carrying swords that were every bit as blunted as you, no rounds in rifles you drilled with. The dirtiest you ever got was working up a sweat. You always knew what was coming, there was no danger except getting VD from a girl on a weekend furlough. Should I take you to where they held me prisoner and beat me?”
“I want to go back now, you served the country, I’ve served the country, we’ve all served as we’ve seen fit.”
“What you fail to understand there is a greater service to life, serving your fellow man. You can do that by serving your country but you’ve failed and avoided serving your fellow man on all counts.”
“I’ve built industries and housing…”
“All for attaining personal wealth and self-glorification.”
“You dare to judge me!” The president bellowed, red-faced and puffed out. He noticed the jungle started to move, but there was no breeze, there weren’t any sound that animals would make, no cackle, caw, or growl that would randomly fill the air, not even the buzz of insects that he imagined should continuously permeate the atmosphere. The trees and vegetation were moving of their own accord, the movement was unnatural.
“We’re not here to judge, just to see you take your place in service.“ The officer morphed into his older self, the white hair thinned, the face puffed out of proportion because of his injuries toll over the years. He hunched slightly the years having pressed down on him. Now dressed in a dark suit much like his own it was the officer, older, he was as the President knew him, a senator. The jungle seemed to be closer, the motion more disconcerting.
“What’s out there?”
“All the men who….”
“More than the dead, the living, all that served, that continue to serve, their younger selves locked here, only when their replacements arrive will they be released.”
“I will replace only one?”
“No, all these men will be released if you surrender.”
“So, my life, my contribution is greater than theirs.”
“No, do not let your sense of self-importance fool you, it’s only because you’ve valued and placed your life above theirs. In fact, in disregard for their lives. They have served while you ridiculed them and lived your life in spite of them.”
“It was their choice to serve, I chose…”
“Choose,” the officer said, “charges have been drawn in the world of man. Now you must choose how to serve. Here standing at post or back to your reality to face the charges.”
“I’m innocent! The charges are fake!”
“Do you mean the charges of man or the greater responsibility?”
“What will happen if I go back?” The senator smiled enigmatically, “I think you know what will happen.”
“How long would I have to stand at post?”
“Until your replacement arrives.”
“There’s no relief in sight….we await your decision?”
You can find my books and stories at:
The Last Stage: Amazon
The Doors Examined: Amazon