The door opened, and the Officer’s Club fell silent.
Well, if it had happened in a movie, it would have happened like that.
The door did open, which Radar heard but couldn’t see, mostly on account of the Marine private who had one ham-fisted hand holding him up by the collar against the wall and another rearing back for a punch at his face. He’d already hit him once in the stomach, and Radar’s head was swimming from the impact against the wall.
It had all started when one of the Marines had said something that Radar didn’t quite understand but caught the meaning of all too clearly, and he guessed Klinger did too, because he had turned as red as the dress he had on, clamped down on the cigar in his mouth, and thrown what remained of his drink in the Marine’s face. He had had to throw the drink up, because while Klinger was strong from all that stretcher carrying, even standing in two-inch heels, the Marine had four inches and fifty pounds on him.
Then the fight had broken out.
Fight was one word for it—thrashing was another. He’d seen the first guy throw a punch, then two more join in, and he’d been sitting next to Klinger at the table, and had just gotten caught up in it, blocked from leaving the room by a wall of Marine muscle. The Marines only took mountains.
Now, Radar thought Klinger was a swell guy, and counted him as a friend, but he’d been thrashed a time or two in high school by the boys on the football team, and he wasn’t much interested in repeating the experience. And they had been sitting at the same tiny table in the corner, enjoying peanuts together and the comradery of sitting still after fourteen hours of non-stop action. Maybe they’d reached for the peanuts together, maybe Radar had finished one of Klinger’s sentences, maybe Klinger had kicked off his size 11 pumps, in black, because he was nothing if not a lady.
Maybe that was what made one of the other Marines come at him and get all up in his face, spitting out a long string of filthy words, the kind that would have made his Ma wash his mouth out with lye soap, twice. That was bad enough to hear that it hurt, but the words weren’t anything he hasn’t heard before, if in less unflattering ways. But then he heard as loud as day—though it isn’t said out loud—it’s never said out loud:
a freak like that
his mother should’ve drowned
And he’d meant him, just a kid, wearing the same green Army uniform, fighting in the same war, drinking in the same bar. White and shaky and hot all over, Radar had turned his hand into a fist, when really all he’d meant to do the minute before was duck under the other man's arm and scoot out the door as fast as he could. It was a good punch. Henry and Hawkeye had made sure of that.
It didn’t make a lick of difference. The Marine had simply picked him up by the collar with one hand, driving his back up against the wall, and driven one huge fist into his gut and then he couldn’t breathe. Half-choking for breath, the other half terrified out of his mind, Radar hung as limp as a newborn kitten in its mother’s mouth.
I guess this is my fault, he thought, for not being strong enough.
He’d never been very brave, or very clever. All he could really do was listen well, and that wasn’t much use, except here in the Army, as a clerk.
But what he’d heard then was the door swing open, then shut. And amidst the sound of Klinger’s yelling and the Marines’ grunting and the chairs snapping and glasses breaking, there was the record in the jukebox wailing Cole Porter in an endless echo, spiraling in on itself in a frenzy: youyouyou.
Cocking his head to see the door opening was the only thing that saved him from a skull fracture, or so Hawkeye had told him a week later, gravely, half in his cups, after he’d rubbed the depth of the divots in the wall of the Officer’s Club. As it was, the blow skittered along his cheek and hit the wall behind him with a meaty thump.
For a second, nothing happened. The pain must have hit quick, because then the Marine yelled, like a cat whose tail had just been stepped on, and reared back his hand for another blow, eyes bright with anger and hurt.
But the door had already opened.
“ATTENHUT!” Colonel Potter bellowed, and every noise in the Officer’s Club stopped. Radar held his breath, instinctively, the way you did at attention on the parade ground when an angry general was prowling in front of your nose, and the only thing he could hear was his heartbeat and the sound of beer dripping off the table next to him.
Then the Marine dropped him, and he hit the floor like a sack of meal. He was not going to be able to sit down today. Tomorrow. His head felt fuzzy. Dimly, he watched the frown appear on Captain Hunnicutt’s face, the gimlet stare that Captain Pierce was giving the room over Potter’s shoulder. Major Houlihan was definitely in Major Major mode.
“What in the name of George S Patton is going on here?” Potter barked, and the room positively echoed. Not so loud, Radar thought, he could feel the red-hot rush of anger steeled to a single sentence from here. The colonel seemed positively enormous from this angle.
“Difference of opinion, sir,” One of the Marines said stiffly, from over by the jukebox.
“Would someone care to explain,” Potter said quietly, looking straight through his glasses, taking in the whole room, a hard look to his jaw and the steel of a patient anger in his voice, “why this difference of opinion seems to involve six Marines on two?”
“Oh, that’s easy, Colonel—” BJ offered, taking a half step forward, next to Potter. There was blood on the front of his scrubs, a long dark streak of red against the white. He had flexed his hands into fists by his side, and he smiled, with the kind of perfect teeth that hadn’t seen a fight they hadn’t won. BJ was like that.
“—it takes six marines to come up with an opinion,” Hawkeye finished, loudly, too loudly, making a joke which is not a joke but a spur, a deliberate slap to the face of the Marines. He leaned over the colonel’s other shoulder, and there was the darkness of a deliberate honesty in his eyes. The cruelty was all in the voice, the way he said it, smooth, easy, as if he didn’t even have to think about an answer. At least one of them got it, the one who spoke, maybe, because he stiffened, noisily.
Words, words, words, why was there always so much to hear, even when his head felt like nothing much.
“Get the MPs, Major,” Potter said, and Major Houlihan marched off to do just that. At his side, Hawkeye and BJ took that as a command to do their stuff, and came around the knocked over tables nimbly, with the agility of men who were frequently inebriated in this particular place. Their boots made the glass crack in tiny pieces against the floor.
Tiny, fragile little pieces breaking with sharp, quick cracks.
“Sit, Marines,” Potter commanded, looking up nonchalantly, shoulders deliberately easy, the way he did when he got real mad.
“I said, sit.” It wasn’t even bellowed, it sounded positively quiet, but it rang in Radar’s head like there was a huge weight behind it. Like it was backed with rings of growth, the reverberations of three wars-suffering-certainty-death-command.
They sat, just like dogs, the half dozen Marines of them, just sliding to their butts on the floor. Even sitting, they weren’t on eye level with him, because even on an equal level he’d always be shortest, littlest, the kid.
“Hey, Radar,” He heard BJ asking him, feeling the light touches of BJ’s doctor hands on his shoulder and head as if they were just bits of wood moving over him. BJ pulled off his glasses, unloosening the one leg from where it had gotten trapped in his hat, the other still tucked behind his ear.
“They aren’t broken,” Radar said, distantly, feeling an undercurrent of curiosity that they weren’t, putting his hands out to take them. BJ set them down carefully in Radar’s open palms, rocking forward on his knees to get closer and cupping Radar’s chin in his large hands, bringing his head up.
“No, they aren’t,” BJ responded, and Radar could feel the waves of protect and anger and heal and comfort coming off BJ like heat. BJ looked at his eyes directly for a minute, pulling the skin down under his left eye. It hurt, sending a stab of pain right back through his head. He flinched back.
“Tell me what day is today.”
“Wednesday?” Radar guessed, feeling the pressing anxiety of whatever essential paperwork he'd forgotten. “It was Tuesday yesterday, I think. Paperwork’s not gone out.”
“Ok, ok.” BJ soothed, moving Radar’s head until he found the angle of light he wanted. “Follow my finger?” It was a silly thing, but Radar did it.
“What’s the name of my daughter,” he asked casually, seemingly satisfied with his finger.
“Erin.” Radar answered promptly. “Everybody knows that.” Every GI within five miles of the 4077th knew that, and most of the Koreans. He knew all the kids of all the men in this outfit.
“Good. It’s just a little test for concussion. They’re all the rage in this part of Korea.”
Hawkeye’s mop of shaggy black hair appeared over BJ’s shoulder. A hand came up, raked it back over his forehead, then reached out.
“How are you feeling, Radar?” Hawkeye asked, bright blue eyes gleaming with genuine concern, and he put a steady hand on his arm.
“Okay.” Radar lied. He wanted to say he felt lousy, felt like laying down and not getting up again, but he had work to do and he was the only one that could do it, Colonel Potter and the doctors and the 4077th depended on him. Besides, it was what real men did, they didn’t say they were hurt. Hawkeye’s hand squeezed his bicep, and Radar didn’t know if that meant he’d fooled him or not. He didn’t even know if he wanted to fool him or not.
“Look, BJ, you bring Radar over to Post-OP. I’m going to round up some corpsmen and a litter, then we’ll need to take care of Klinger. Let’s get these two taken care of. The Colonel and Major Houlihan can take care of the rest of this mess,” Hawkeye said, looking down at BJ mostly, but with side-glances to Radar, and then slid back entirely from view
All this time they’d been talking, BJ had been carefully shielding him from seeing Klinger in the corner. All he could see was one leg, from the nylon-clad knee down, in the hole under BJ’s arm, and it didn’t look like much was wrong. But Radar wasn’t a doctor.
All he knew was that suddenly they’d be alive one minute and dead the next.
“Hawkeye?” He asked, trying to fight to sit up straight. It felt lousy, like there was water draining down the back of his head but there was no water and it was all just a feeling like he had come loose from himself.
“Radar, BJ’s going to take care of you, okay?” Radar just nodded and felt BJ’s hands under his elbows, helping him up.
The next thing he knew, he was standing under the x-ray machine. At some point they’d given him a cold, wet compress for his eye, which was getting his pocket all wet because he couldn’t hold it to his eye and take the x-rays at the same time.
Hawkeye had already taken the x-rays of his head when he stopped talking to the air above Radar’s head and said something to him instead. It’s soothing in a way, that Hawkeye could keep up his patter, even though he’d been scared straight through when he’d seen Radar lying on the ground in the Officer’s Club.
Radar had known that the minute he’d seen Hawkeye’s smile fix, then open his mouth to be cruel. Someday, he thought, he’d learn how to turn that scared anger into kindness, instead.
“How are you doing, Radar?” He’d already asked him that, twice. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard the answers either. He was tempted to turn the question right around, ask Hawkeye how he’s doing, but they were still on shaky ground, the two of them, after they’d laid into each other when Radar had gotten injured before, and Radar wasn’t one to poke a sleeping bull. He’d learned that lesson at six.
“Would we be like those guys, Hawkeye, if we weren’t here, you know, the 4077?” He asked, voice high, earnestly wanting to know but clumsy, feeling deliberately clumsy, knowing he meant to ask if he would have been like those guys, if he hadn’t had Hawkeye or Henry or Trapper or the nurses or any of the other guys at the 4077. What would war do to a kid like him?
Hawkeye had turned to get something, and for a brief second, Radar saw him freeze, then continue moving as smoothly as if he hadn’t heard at all.
“Well, the food has to be better at the 8063rd, and I’ve heard all about the nurses at 8055th, but you know what they say, Radar?”
“There’s no place like home,” Hawkeye said, and there was a real smile on his face, a smile that touched his eyes. And Radar knew, in that minute, that the ground beneath them would be as solid as the earth, eventually. It’d just take time.
“Now, take off your shirt, before Major Houlihan gets in here.”
They let him go, eventually, with instructions to go to sleep and ice his eye and take the day off and not to worry about the 4077. He heard the doctor speech in stereo, Hawkeye on his left and BJ on his right as they escorted him to his bunk. They even took off his boots and helped him into his pajamas.
The curtains were closed around Klinger in the corner of the ward. He wanted to ask, but didn’t. That made him yellow, he supposed. The doctors didn’t say anything, and that stung, a little.
But their whispers were so loud from the edge of the ward, that he couldn’t help but hear them discussing Klinger even with his hands over his ears, laying on his bunk. He couldn’t quite hear the details but what he knew was that it wasn’t good.
He got it, he did, that they all thought of him as theirs and they needed to make he was alright, and they wanted to protect him like a kid brother. He appreciated that, but he was his own Radar, not theirs. He just needed to figure out how to be.
“Sit up a minute, Radar,” Potter said, pushing open the office door in a sweep of scrub and khaki, and wasn’t he sick of orders, and doctors but there wasn’t much he could do about it.
“Hawkeye said nothing’s broken. He made me take x-rays,” Radar murmured, sitting upright and pulling off his glasses with a resigned sigh. The Colonel just nodded with a humoring air, as he pulled out a penlight, rested one hand on his shoulder, and flashed his eyes with a bright light. It burst into white pinpricks in his vision and Radar shook his head to clear it. His eye ached harder.
“Zygomatic arch doesn’t seem displaced. I’ll peek later at the x-ray. You must have strong bones, son. Whichever marine hit you must have hit you with a haymaker. Turn your head—up, that’s right,” Potter rumbled, angling Radar’s chin up toward the light, one hand cupping his jaw, the fingers of the right touching gently next to and around his eye, pulling the skin only slightly.
“Ma always said I had a hard head,” Radar said, and then laughed because he had to laugh, since any number of other people in Ottumwa had said the same thing, and it wasn’t meant kindly.
“Well, she was right. And be glad, Radar, if he’d hit you an inch higher and to the left, you need a new pair of glasses,” Potter concluded, patting Radar’s cheek lightly before he dropped his hands.
And you’d be out an eye—Radar shied away, flinching from Potter’s touch. He felt, rather than saw, the older man sit beside him on his bunk. He felt tired, a little trembly, but the solidness of the colonel sitting next to him steadied him.
If he were home, he’d be sitting in the barn, back to his favorite pillar in Daisy’s stall, watching the rhythmic chewing of the cow’s jaws, the soft bellows and murmurings of the other cows in their nighttime conversations, the sweet smell of fresh straw and the peace of the gathering darkness around him.
He had his pets here, of course, but they didn’t have stalls or barns or places for him to run to when the chaos and the demands of the others got to be too much. Sometimes he went to visit Sophie, when his bed was far too public a place for him to curl up and pull his face into his knees and to just be.
He never wanted to be able to hear the way he could, but he can, and he bears it, but sometimes it was just too much.
“—Radar,” Colonel Potter repeated, patiently.
“Sir?” He’d gotten caught up in his own head again
“Does anything else hurt?”
“No sir.” Well, his stomach did, but it was nothing he hasn’t gotten before.
“You’ve got a mild concussion, Radar. Nothing that time and rest won’t put right. Just so long as you stay out of barroom brawls,” Potter concluded, chuckling a little darkly, sitting back into himself on the bunk as if this was one more weight off his shoulders.
Radar didn’t feel much like laughing, not when he felt awful all over. There was Klinger lying in a cot next door and he didn’t know how hurt he was, and his head felt like it was going to fall off and his belly ached and his eyes were prickling with the beginnings of tears. He must have made a sound, or fidgeted, or something, because the colonel straightened up, leaned over, and put his hand just on the nape of Radar’s neck.
“It’s alright, son,” He said, mildly and directly, as if aware that Radar was all in a jumble, more likely to run than he was to stay, shaky like a newborn colt, and he squeezed, gently, just a reminder that he was there, too.
“Colonel Potter, sir, how’s Klinger?”
The hand didn’t squeeze.
“He’ll live. They gave him a good beating—and I’ll gladly testify to that at the court martial. His face’ll look like hamburger tomorrow, and he’s got a couple of cracked ribs and a bruised kidney—but he’ll be fine, Radar. In a couple of weeks, you won’t even know it happened,” Potter replied, his tone running the gamut from relieved to angry to tempered all in the span of three sentences, but the hand stayed put.
Klinger’s back, dimpled plum with bruises
“It’s hard to forget what they said, Colonel. Or—” Radar faltered, or what they hadn’t said but he’d heard, all on account of being Radar.
“Or what, Radar?” Potter’s voice, so gruff and stern three hours earlier, sounded impossibly gentle.
“Or how they said it. Mean—the way a stray dog’d bite you as much as look at you,” Radar said, trying to find the words to say what it was he didn’t know how to say.
“Dogs.” The Colonel scoffed, lightly, like the way he laughed when the darkness pressed too hard at them all. “Now, horses—have you ever known a horse that wasn’t a good judge of character?” Radar laughed a little, knowing it wasn’t very funny, and Potter’s answering small smile knew that.
“Some men can’t stand to see something different. It makes them afraid. And then they use their fists,” Potter said it easily, like it was a lesson that had ceased to hurt him, but only after a long time.
“But people are different, sir,” Radar protested, feeling this truth from the very depth of his bones, from old Mrs. Hackett, who counted her sheep three times before breakfast and four times after dinner, to Mavis the church organist who only went outside with an umbrella but had the most beautiful voice Radar had ever heard, to Johnny the milkman’s son who still didn’t talk at ten.
He’d lived with different his whole life, and there was no shame in it. That was what his Ma had told him, and she was always right. The Good Lord, she said, made us different because He’s glorious in many different ways.
“Some men are too small to see that, Radar.” Potter was looking at him as if he’d never quite seen him before, or as if he’d suddenly seen him in the light of a new spring morning after a deep winter, as if something in him was worth looking at after a long deprivation.
“No, I know that, sir.” Radar’s voice came out small, and almost boyish. Somedays he just wanted to be that boy again, home on the farm in Iowa. It’s too late, he thought fiercely, it’s too late to undo what’s already been done. You can’t unspill the milk, and there’s no use crying over it.
“It’s just hard to see that, isn’t it? Watching the ones we love get beat up by the world and not being able to do a thing about it.”
“Yeah.” Radar breathed.
“Course, you did the best you could, Radar. No man can tell you otherwise, not with that shiner on your face, and that’s what counts.”
Sometimes that’s all that counts, Radar heard, and there’s a sudden stab of regret in the man next to him, the image, too quick to fully catch, of blood running over a man’s face, and the man was dead. All that he was, but he wasn’t white, and that’s what killed him.
“Radar, if anything—” Colonel Potter started strongly, then his voice huffed up like the words he wanted to say were too big for his throat, but the hand on the back of Radar’s neck squeezed as if to make up for the voice that broke off.
Course, sir, he wanted to say, but found his own voice was all choked.
“If anyone says otherwise,” Potter continued throatily, voice low and serious, “one single word otherwise, son—”
To me, Radar thought, and that’s a comfort.
He ducked his head, reaching up to wipe the tears away from his face, then stopped, raising it instead. He didn’t need to try to hide the tears trickling down his face—Colonel Potter had shiny eyes too. Perhaps he was braver than Radar was, or more honest, or he’d been at war too long to hide them.
Somehow, in the next motion, Potter’s hand rose from the nape of his neck to brush his hair, while he pulled back his blanket, eased him down into bed, and he found himself taking off his glasses and giving them up dazedly. He leaned over and shut off the light, then sat back down on the edge of Radar’s bunk.
“Did I ever tell you about the first horse I ever had, Radar?” Potter’s voice came resonant and soft in the darkness of the office, the story he was telling for Radar alone, and that warmed a place he had never known was hollow.
“It was in 1915, not counting old Drake, our plow horse. I have a lot of fond memories of Drake, hanging on a plow behind his hind end. But that first horse you get is something special: his name was Dancer’s Jack-In-the-Box, but that was no good, so I just called him Jack. Now, Jack was dark all over except for a white star on his forehead and the two white stockings on his hind feet, and keeping those stockings white for parades was the devil’s own trouble, let me tell you…”
Long after he had stopped hearing words, Radar heard the low, mellow sounds of Colonel Potter’s bass moving through his head, almost as if he were asleep in his bedroom at home, and the sound of the night wind was humming around the house, brushing down the shutters and patting on the windows. He never feared the darkness at home, because there was always room for it to turn into light.
It’d been a long time since his Ma had last tucked him in, and she’d never worn a striped bathrobe before, but she pulled the diamond stitched counterpane up over him, pressing a firm, but tender hand to his cheek, and he turned his head into the touch.
Your boy will come home again, Ma, one day.
It stayed with him a long time, that touch, in the darkness that pressed around him from all sides. The night turned, cracking, and there were these pinpricks of light breaking the edges, burning slowly into day.