Picture a cave, warmed by a fire, the smoke curling up through a crevice in the rock, drawn out by the natural draft of a cold winter’s night, a stone teepee, safe and secure. That’s Angelo’s Steak House on a January night in Omaha, wind chill at zero.
The cavernous room is half full, typical for a Tuesday. Despite the current economic uncertainties, Tuesday is the only slow time, every other night of the week it’s jam packed. Long before native son Warren Buffett proclaimed it his favorite restaurant, steak lovers had flocked to its doors.
The waitresses–there are no male servers–wear black skirts with a button- down, black blouse ringed with a white collar. This is the closest these women, all of them Italian and all of them Catholic, will ever get to wearing a clerical collar. Many of them have been at Angelo’s for over twenty years, two of them over forty. Instead of still life paintings or portraits of faux Italian nobility or photographs of Tuscany, the walls are covered with paintings of race horses, a testament to the good old days of pari-mutuel betting at Omaha’s Ak-Sar-Ben race track, now long gone, replaced by various college and commercial buildings, apartments and retail businesses, the public’s gambling dollars now going to pickle cards, lotteries and the carnival atmosphere of the Council Bluffs casinos across the river in Iowa.
Joe Amari never cared much for the horse races but the absence of the track bothers him–one more example of the transience of life.
Joe and his grandson Billy are at their usual table. They’ve been coming for five years, ever since Billy turned six, always on Tuesday when it’s not so crowded and they can get the table they want. Mavis—that’s really her name—waits on them, though she tells them, “I don’t wait on you gentlemen, I cater to you.”
There was a time, right after he first started taking Billy to dinner every week, when Joe had a feeling that Mavis was hitting on him. But after he prominently positioned his hand palm down on the table, left ring finger adorned with a wedding band, Mavis seemed to get the hint. Even at his most desperate stage in that first year after Peg’s battle with cancer had finally ended, his ring still on his finger, Mavis wouldn’t have tempted him. But she has become one of those situational friends who subtlety accent a life.
Joe never had a son and when Billy was born he was determined to bond with the boy. He wanted to be part of his life. He wanted to be remembered.
For all intents and purposes he’s lost one child, his daughter from his first marriage. After he came back the last time from Vietnam, it all fell apart with his first wife and she swore their two-year-old daughter Amy would never know of his existence. The second time around, with Peg, had been as good as the first marriage had been bad, and he’d gotten his chance to be a real father with their daughter, Mary, Billy’s mother.
“Tell me about when you got shot down in the war Granddad,” Billy says as he passes the bread sticks to his grandfather. The bread sticks are soft as a pillow and slit down the middle like a hot dog bun. The idea is to spread the butter down the center while they’re still piping hot.
Joe has been surprised at Billy’s interest in the Vietnam War and broader U.S. and world history. It pleases him that the boy seems to be a news junkie, like his grandfather. He hopes Billy’s politics will be conservative, like his, rather than the liberal democratic bent of Billy’s parents. But if he turns out to be a communist, he’ll still love him.
“That was my second tour Billy, when I almost got killed.”
Billy sits up straight. “Uh huh” he says.
“I had qualified for flight training after my first tour and I was back in Vietnam on a reconnaissance flight in this Viet Cong controlled area when I got hit. I was coming in fast, losing altitude, knowing I was going to crash in this farmer’s field with a bunch of cows.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“Not really, I was too busy trying to gain some degree of control and I was thinking ‘for God’s sake, don’t let me die running into a cow.’” Joe leans forward, looks squarely at Billy, and smiles: “If I was going to go, I wanted something a little more glorious than that.”
“Did you miss the cows, Granddad?”
“Oh sure, I did, Billy, although I was still banged up, but I was able to get out of the immediate area and hide out overnight and the next morning I radioed for help and got lifted out very quickly. They operated back at the base and I was back in action in six weeks.” Joe leans forward, takes a sip of his coffee. “And there’s kind of an interesting end to the story.”
“Well in that area, the farmer had to have been working with the Viet Cong so I made darn sure I paid him back. What I did was I got in touch with some of our pilots. You see, our jet fighter pilots would go on missions and when they got through with their bomb runs they would dump unused bombs into the ocean but first they would ask troops on the ground if they had any targets they wanted hit. So, what I did is I gave them the coordinates of the farm where I was shot down.” Joe chuckles. “They probably dropped ten million dollars or so of taxpayer money on that farm.”
“Wow, did they get the guy who shot you?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure who that was, Billy, but I don’t think so. The reason I say that is because I flew my helicopter back over that area a couple months later and I saw this sign about a hundred yards or so from the farm with some Vietnamese word I didn’t know. And so I got this Vietnamese guy to translate it and he said it meant … well, let’s just say it was F-you.”
“I think I’ve heard the word.”
“Well, sure you have, Billy, but your mother doesn’t like it when you hear words like that from me. But anyway, when I saw that, well, I kind of admired the spunk of whoever put that sign up–I imagine the farmer–and I told our pilots not to drop anymore bombs there.”
“Is that where you got that long scar on your leg?”
“That’s right, Billy, but it looks worse than it was. It was important to be in good shape. Like I mentioned, I was back in action in six weeks.
“Do you think the farmer Viet Cong guy is still alive?”
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is. He was tough.
“Like you were—right, Granddad?”
Joe leans forward, puts his elbows on the table. “Still am, Billy.”
“Mom says I should ask you about the duck story.”
“There are actually a couple of duck stories, Billy. Probably the one your mom was talking about is when we were on patrol, a couple of weeks before Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in 1968, a long time ago.” He pauses. “The funny thing is I can remember it clear as a bell. It was mid-January and the weather hadn’t gotten bad yet, rainy and cold, like it does in February and March.” Joe stops; the boy has such a look of anticipation. “Really, Billy, it isn’t much of a story.”
‘That’s okay, I’d still like to hear it,” Billy says.
“Well, we were in an area we knew was full of Viet Cong. We’d taken some casualties a few days before we went out, but we didn’t think they’d expect us back so soon. We were near the edge of a village we knew was hostile, sympathetic to the enemy. Several South Vietnamese soldiers were integrated into our unit and I was following one of them, he was just ahead of me. We were hardly breathing, trying hard to be quiet, and that’s when I saw it.”
“Saw what, Granddad?” Billy says, sitting up straight, bread sticks temporarily forgotten.
“The duck,” Joe chuckles softly, looking out at the room, an actor looking at the third wall, seeing a scene created in his head that no one else can see. “Yes, a damn duck, tail feathers sticking up in the air, was jammed down the back pocket of the Vietnamese Lieutenant in front of me. And the duck was alive, for a few more hours anyway, until this lunatic wrung its neck and ate it for lunch. Meantime, it was a living, breathing alarm clock that could go off, quack, quack, quack and wake up every Viet Cong in the area who could make sure we never lived to have lunch, duck or otherwise. I couldn’t frigging believe it.”
Billy smiles at his grandfather. “I bet you didn’t say ‘frigging,’ did you, Granddad?”
“No comment,” Joe says with a laugh.
“What’s the other duck story, Granddad?” Billy asks, as he spears a piece of his filet.
“It’s a little gross, Billy, I’m not sure you should hear it.”
“I can handle it, Granddad.”
“Hmm, well, I guess you probably can. There’s not much to it, but it was something that struck you if you saw it. We called it ‘smash duck.’ What it meant was that once the duck was killed the Vietnamese soldiers would begin smashing it over and over until all the bones were broken, pulverized and it could be eaten for the calcium in the bones.” Joe shakes his head. “It seemed pretty primitive.”
“Oh.” Billy says quietly.
The second duck story is anticlimactic, Joe can see it in his grandson’s expression, though Billy would never voice his disappointment. Billy is a courteous boy, a nice boy, passive, bookish, a YMCA-level-every-kid-gets-to-play-average-sized-boy, not the kind of boy Joe Amari had been, a boy that played football like a madman and grew up to be a 6’2, 225-pound eighteen-year-old intent on making it through Army Ranger school and going to war. Joe has never completely understood why he had to prove himself tough and brave, but he did. Still does. Maybe it was because his dad was a hard-ass, working on the kill floor at Swifts packing plant for thirty-five years until he dropped dead of a heart attack and joined Joe’s mother who had died of cancer when Joe was ten. Or maybe it was pretty much raising himself, an only child, no older brother, or cousin or anyone else to help fight your schoolyard fights or at least tell somebody to lay off. Billy would never understand that. He had a stay-at-home sweetheart of a mom and a turn-the-cheek dad, an actuary who couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag, but as smart as they come and a good man to boot. Billy had it easy.
It made Joe ashamed of himself when he had these seeds of envy for his grandson.
Billy puts his fork down, looks up like a baby bird waiting to be fed. “So that was pretty lucky then, wasn’t it—that the duck didn’t quack?”
“Oh, maybe a little Billy. But in war it’s mostly about making your own luck. Afterwards I realized those Vietnamese soldiers knew how to stuff a duck headfirst into their pocket so it wouldn’t be able to make any noise. So, mostly, you make your own luck and you stay mentally tough and in good physical condition.”
Joe could hear a hint of condescension, the tone kids use with adults when they’ve heard something the umpteenth time and still don’t buy into it. It’s irritating, but it makes him think.
“Coffee?” Mavis asks as she sashays by their table.
“Sounds good, the regular,” Joe answers.
After dinner, driving home from Angelo’s, the snow is coming down harder, giant heavy flakes attacking the windshield like bugs on a summer day, the fan turned on full blast and the temperature set to maximum warmth. Billy is quieter than usual. Joe looks at his watch, it’s only eight fifteen. He wouldn’t think Billy was particularly tired. Hell, when he was that age, he’d had a part-time job at Amato’s butcher shop. Still, it was a different era. If he didn’t remember that, Billy’s mother would damn sure remind him.
Joe sits alone in the study he and wife Lori share. Lori is at her book club this evening. He doesn’t want her here when he places the call. It isn’t the privacy; all he’d have to do is shut the door, but no, it’s a feeling of vulnerability, an emotion he resists, that comes over him when he thinks of making this phone call. They’ve only been married a year now, but Lori can read him like a book. “What’s wrong?” She’d ask, if she were here now. He wouldn’t know how to answer her.
The clock on the desk reads seven o’clock. It will be an hour earlier in Billings, Montana. He takes in a big breath of air, picks up his cell phone and dials the number information gave him. He’s probably making too big a deal of this.
“Hello,” a man’s voice says.
“My name is Joe Amari and I’m calling for Doctor Donald Barnett.”
“I’m Don Barnett. What did you day your name is?”
“Joe Amari. I’m calling from Omaha.”
“Were you in the Vietnam War?”
“Yes,” Joe says, not sure what to make of the question.
“I remember you,” Doctor Barnett says.
Joe stiffens. “How could you remember me?” The hairs on his neck feel electric.
“I suspect you’re the man I operated on in Vietnam, at least that man’s name was the same as yours.”
“I am, but I’m shocked that you recognize my name. I only learned yours recently when I had someone look it up in my medical files at the VA hospital.”
“I see.” Doctor Barnett said.
Joe can hear a question in the man’s voice. “You might wonder why I’m calling forty-plus years later.” He says.
“Well …” the man hesitates.
“Huh.” Joe grunts. Suddenly the call seems ridiculous. What the hell was he thinking? “Frankly Doctor, I’m not really sure myself why I’ve called, except that I was having dinner with my eleven-year-old grandson the other night and we got to talking about the war years.”
“Call me Don.”
“Sure, Don.” Then: “Those years, I don’t think about them all that much.”
Don Barnett clears his throat. “I don’t either, but they’re all in there, in our heads, waiting.”
“Apparently they’re in yours, Don, for sure. Like I said, it amazes me that you’ve remembered my name.”
“There’s a very good reason for that, Mr. Amari.”
“Call me Joe.”
“Sure. The reason, Joe, is that you were my first surgery. Although there were a lot more that came after you.”
In his mind’s eye, Joe can picture the so-called operating room, a hut with spider webs, bugs, a nurse in her bare feet? “Well, you did a great job on my leg.”
“Thanks. Actually, it was after I operated on you that I decided to become a surgeon.”
“You weren’t a surgeon?” Joe keeps his voice even, trying to make his question a flat statement. For some reason he doesn’t want Dr. Barnett to hear how shocked he is.
“Nope, I was a general practitioner. I’d assisted once but like I said, you were the first surgery I ever did. Actually it was lucky for you that I wasn’t a surgeon.”
Barnett laughs. “Yeah, sounds weird I know, but if I’d been a surgeon, you wouldn’t have your leg. I assume you still have it, don’t you?”
“Yes, sure do.”
“Does it give you much trouble?” Doctor Barnett asks, his tone suddenly professional, as if he were still practicing, making rounds, looking at charts, in and out of hospital rooms, more patients to see.
“No, not really, if I get tired, it gets a little more tired than the rest of me and then it’ll ache until I get a good nights sleep.” That was the truth of the matter, but if it ached 24/7, Joe wouldn’t have told that to this man.
“Well, like I said,” Doctor Barnett continued, a hint of wry humor in his voice, “you’re damn lucky I wasn’t a surgeon. If I had been I wouldn’t have done what I did. I’d have amputated because the wound was so close to a nerve the odds were that I’d hit it and then you’d have had dropsy and you’d never have been able to use the leg anyway. Of course I didn’t know that at the time.”
“Well,” Joe doesn’t know what to say.
“Yes sir,” Barnett says, seeming to relish the memory, “and by doing the surgery there was also about a hundred percent chance you’d get an infection. Those weren’t what I’d call optimum surgery room facilities.”
“No, I do remember that.” As high as he had been–on nitrous oxide or something like that–Joe recalls the doctor being irritated, telling the nurse, “Hasn’t anybody told you before to wear shoes in here?” And then she came back wearing sandals, her feet still filthy.
“But you never did.”
“Never did? Joe asks, puzzled.
“Never did get an infection.”
“Thanks to you, doctor.”
“Oh no, chalk it up to God if you’re a believer, Joe, or providence, or maybe just good fortune. Me, I was just an unwitting instrument.”
They talked for another half hour, sharing their experiences in Viet Nam before Joe hangs up the phone and sits back in his chair. Using his forefinger and thumb, he slowly manipulates his wedding band back and forth over his knuckle. He lost weight after he and Lori got married and the joke was that his ring finger was the only place on his body that bore evidence of it.
He feels overwhelmed with gratitude for the past forty years, for the gift he’s been given. It isn’t the first time he’s appreciated the joys of his life but those times seem shallow compared to this, to the realization of what he could have missed, of Peg, of the lives that would never have been, of their daughter Mary, of Billy and now of Lori.
When he looks at the clock again it is nearly nine o’clock. He opens the desk drawer, pulls out a yellow pad and a pen and begins to write. This is something to be hand written. He’ll start it tonight—he has the general idea of what he wants to say–but it will take time to get it just right.
August 17, 2012
To Billy on his 18th birthday:
I am writing this letter to you so that in case I’m not around to tell you this story, you’ll be able to read about it on your eighteenth birthday. I think you’ll gain more by reading this story as a young man rather than as a boy.
A few nights ago we talked about some of my experiences in the Vietnam War. At one point you suggested that I’d been pretty lucky and I said, “maybe a little.” Well, I was wrong about that. I was very lucky and I want to tell you a part of the story that I never knew until this very night, and that has given me a sense of humility that I have sadly lacked.
Earlier this evening I spoke with a man named Donald Barnett. He is a doctor, and he saved my life.