Origins

(© 2018 by Russ Lewis All rights reserved)

 

The walls were shedding curls of paint, and bits of plaster from the ceiling crunched under Terry's feet as he walked down the long high school corridor past windows dimmed by years of smog from the busy street. He’d come to say goodbye to a place that was an important part of his identity.

Climbing the littered stairs reminded him that his seventy-five-year-old legs needed more exercise. He walked down the disordered hall to Mrs. Williams's room, the room where he'd learned to write. The room was clean as it had been in the days when, under Mrs. Williams's demanding tutelage, he'd learned to put words together so they made sense. Even the windows were reasonably clean, and though he'd come into the building in a light drizzle, the sun was shining and the room was bright. Mrs. Williams wasn't there yet, but most of the class was in place. Pretty Shasta was in her seat in the back row, and they smiled at each other as he sat down.

His best friend, Don French was sitting next to Shasta. He smiled as he remembered a morning when, as usual, Don hadn't done his homework. They were to write a short critique of a story that was in their workbook. Mrs. Williams called on Don to read his critique. Don gave an impressive performance, pretending to read from his paper, composing on the fly. At least he’d read the story. Terry didn't think Mrs. Williams was fooled, but she'd nodded and moved on. He suspected she was as impressed as he by Don's ability to think on his feet, or in this case, on his rear, and of course the class was about English composition, in which Don had just shown remarkable fluency.

Mrs. Williams came in and sat down. She shuffled some papers on her desk before she looked up, ready to start the class. Terry looked back toward the windows and exchanged smiles with Jean Franz, the lovely blond girl who'd become his wife and who'd given him a beautiful daughter and two fine sons.

Today’s assignment was a short critique of Hemingway’s, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” looking for reasons why it was such an effective short story. Mrs. Williams asked Shasta to read her critique.

 

Listening to Shasta’s young voice Terry thought about the years when he, Shasta, and Jean were enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit. All three lived with their parents in the suburbs of Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge, several miles north of the school, and Terry sometimes drove the three of them to the campus in his dad’s car. Dark-eyed, dark-haired Shasta Benigo had a penetrating sense of humor. Her appraisals of their classmates during the ride sometimes had Jean and Terry in stitches. But Shasta could be cruel, and though blond, gentle Jean might laugh, later on alone with Terry she’d sometimes try to pull a little of the sting from Shasta’s satires. The two girls were as different as God could make them. Terry was in love with both of them.

He’d dated both girls. Shasta was beautiful and sexy and charged with a sometimes socially incorrect vitality. She smoked and on occasion drank a little too much, but her passions tended to jog Terry out of a sometimes too reflective frame of mind. Jean in many ways was the opposite: a conventionally pretty, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. Instead of attacking life, Jean caressed it. She was the thoughtful one who called for reflection while others rushed off before deciding on a destination.

Sometimes Don French would come up from University of Michigan for a weekend in Ferndale with his parents. Then the four of them would spend an evening together. Don and Shasta got on famously, and sometimes Terry was even a little jealous of Don’s easy way with her.

When they were in high school, Terry and Don’s favorite restaurant was a place called Tony’s Pizza. They’d discovered Tony’s on a crisp night in the fall when they were cruising in Don’s car, enjoying the sights and looking for girls. They got hungry and turned in when they saw Tony’s sign. There wasn’t another soul in the place, but the pepperoni pizza Tony cooked up for them was the best pizza, pizza-fancier Terry had tasted. On a bitterly cold night a month later they went back for more of Tony’s pizza. When they parked they noticed that the only other car in the lot had a flat tire. They went inside and there was Tony with a bound-up foot, limping on a crutch. They borrowed his keys, went back out, and changed his tire. From then on, Don and Terry were Tony’s boys. They’d sit in the empty restaurant’s kitchen and watch Tony sip Dago Red wine while he made magnificent pizzas just for them. Terry often wondered what Tony’s real business was. It certainly wasn’t running a successful restaurant.

Once, when the four of them were in college and Don came home for a weekend, they took the girls to Tony’s. Tony got a bit too enthusiastic with the Dago Red and began making suggestive remarks about the couples. Don and Shasta laughed but Jean sat with eyes narrowed while Terry tried to fake indifference. Terry ended up apologizing to Jean for Tony’s performance. They never took the girls to Tony’s again.

As they approached graduation, Terry and Don, both of whom were in ROTC, knew they’d soon be on their way to military service. Terry would go as an Air Force lieutenant, and Don as an army officer. As soon as they finished active duty training both probably would be on their way to Vietnam. Two days before their May graduation Don proposed to Shasta, but Shasta told him to wait. She’d lost her father in Korea, and she wanted Don home safely before she made a commitment.

Terry graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and Don with a bachelor of science. On a Saturday three days after graduation, Don picked up Terry and both girls, and the four spent a celebratory evening at Trattoria Da Luigi in the nearby city of Royal Oak. All four put away more liquor than was wise, and Shasta did some hilarious but too-loud parodies of graduation speakers until Jean stopped laughing long enough to shush her.

Don and Terry delivered the girls to their homes and made it to Terry’s place shortly after midnight without a DUI. Don pulled into Terry’s driveway and shut off the car. They were silent for a long time, knowing they wouldn’t see each other for more than a year.

“I asked Shasta to marry me,” Don said. “She turned me down.”

“Yeah, I know,” Terry replied. “Jean told me. But she told Jean it wasn’t a permanent turn down.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Maybe it means she wants to know you’re gonna stay alive before she marries you.”

Don looked away, focusing on the streetlight at the corner. Finally he said, “Where are you with Jean, Terry? Are you going to try to marry her before you head overseas?

“I love her. I think she’s beautiful and sexy and warm and I think our personalities sort of mesh. I think I’m gonna pop the question. But I’ve got to think about it some more. I don’t like the idea of rushing off to a war right after my wedding. I’m not sure that would be fair to Jean.”

“Maybe you ought to leave that up to her,” Don said. "Jean might like to make sure you belong to her before you rush off into the big world. You might meet a cute Asian girl out there.” He stopped and looked out the window again. “But I guess questions like that don’t matter a whole lot until we do what we gotta do and get home again.”

They talked for another half hour about the war and what their prospects would be in Southeast Asia. Finally, Terry got out and snapped Don a salute. “See ‘ya, grunt.”

Don returned the salute. “Bye, flyboy.” He started the car and backed out of the driveway. Two days later Terry got on an airplane for Tyndall AFB in Florida to learn to be an intercept controller and Don headed for Fort Benning, Georgia to become an infantry platoon leader.

During his first month at Tyndall, Terry called Jean and asked her to marry him. She said, “Oh yes, yes, yes,” and cried on the phone. A month later he came home with a three-week leave before he had to head for Travis Air Force Base for transfer to Vietnam. He and Jean were married in a small ceremony with his own and Jean’s parents. His brother, Bob, was best man. Terry had hoped Don might be home for the wedding, but Don was on his way to Fort Ord, to ship out for Vietnam. Shasta was Jean’s maid of honor. She planned to leave for the west coast the next day, hoping to see Don one last time before he left.

Two weeks later Terry left for Travis in a flood of tears from Jean and his parents, and secretly, from himself. Another three days and he landed at Tan Son Nhut airport, just outside Saigon. He and his baggage were hustled to 505th Tactical Control Group headquarters by a tough-looking airman in a beat-up jeep. He spent the following two nights in base officers’ quarters while the headquarters decided where they wanted him to go. Finally, he was put on an Air Force C119 and hauled to a small airfield outside Can Tho, in the Mekong delta. He was to be a controller at a radar site on the Can Tho airfield with the call sign “Paddy Control.”

In Can Tho Terry, along with six other officers, lived “on the economy.” They bunked upstairs in a two-story commercial apartment in a neighborhood called Ben Xi Mai. The detachment’s NCOs had a similar apartment next door, and the unit’s airmen bunked in a couple similar units on the other side of a wide street. The facilities were primitive, but they were a lot better than what Terry suspected Don was putting up with in the central highlands. A letter from Don arrived shortly after Terry settled in. Don couldn’t tell Terry much about what he was doing, but he was able to tell him roughly where he was.

Terry’s job involved vectoring fighter-bombers to army units under fire, getting the fighters to airborne tankers, and occasionally helping army choppers get to downed airmen. The operation wasn’t very hazardous for Terry, though at night the site sometimes caught ineffective rifle fire from far off. Once during his first month the site came under mortar attack, but the large special forces camp down the road fired back quickly and stopped the shooting.

In his first month at Can Tho Terry exchanged letters with Jean several times a week. Two of Jean’s letters that month were ones he’d remember for the rest of his life. In the first, she reported that Don’s parents had received notice he’d been killed and that his body was on its way home. A week later Jean reported she was pregnant.

Terry spent a lot of off-duty time reading books he ordered through the army’s library system. He also began to lay out material for a novel based on what he was seeing in this war. The thing that amazed him most was the cheerfulness of the Vietnamese people with whom he came in contact. In spite of the threat that hung over their heads he felt an optimism that defied circumstance.

Eight months after the letter that told him his child was on the way, Terry received a message through the army communication system telling him he was the father of a healthy girl named Sarah. He bummed a ride into the army exchange and bought cigars for everybody at Paddy Control.

Three months later Terry packed his things and got a chopper ride to Saigon with one of the army pilots who’d flown the helicopters he’d worked with for a year. A day later he was on a Northwest Orient 707 heading for Travis. Another day and a half and he was on his way home to Michigan, where he finally was able to hold his tiny, beautiful, dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter in his arms.

After his year-long combat tour Terry was able to return to reserve status. He also was eligible for the GI bill. He enrolled in postgraduate courses at University of Michigan. With financial help from his and Jean’s parents the three of them moved into an apartment in Ann Arbor. His first son, Jeff, was born a year later. Another year and a half and Bill was born. Finally, a year later, after crushingly hard work on a treatise on Chaucer, Terry received his PhD in English literature. The family moved to Lansing and Terry became a professor at Michigan State University.

 

Mrs. Williams finished explaining the assignment for Friday just as the bell rang. Desks scraped as people bumped their way out of the room. Mrs. Williams gathered her papers and hurried out. Shasta stood up to leave but Terry waved her back to her seat. The rest of the class rushed out the door and Terry was alone with Shasta and Jean. He went to the window and looked out at the tennis courts where Ben Blankenship and Barry Odely were knocking balls back and forth under a bright sun. Faintly, he could hear the sound of their racquets whacking the ball. He stood at the window for a long time.

“What are you thinking, Terry?” Jean asked him.

He turned away from the window and looked at her. “I’m thinking about Sarah.” He turned toward Shasta. “I’m thinking about Sarah’s dark hair and dark eyes. It’s something I’ve thought about for almost fifty years.”

“Why do you wonder about Sarah’s hair and eyes?”

“You have blond hair and blue eyes. I had brown hair and I have blue eyes. Jeff and Bill had brown hair, and they both have blue eyes.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Is Sarah really my daughter?”

Jean looked at Shasta, whose eyes were filling with tears. “She’s your daughter, Terry,” Jean was starting to cry too. “But she’s not my daughter.”

Shasta reached into her book bag and found a tissue. She wiped her eyes and looked at Jean for a minute before she began to speak. “I lied to you. I didn’t see Terry in California, and Terry and I never spent a night together, Jean. Sarah is Don’s daughter.” Shasta wiped her eyes a second time. “Don was already dead when I found out I was pregnant. I couldn’t take care of a child and I wasn’t going to abort Don’s baby. I told Jean the baby was yours, Terry, and she agreed to tell you she was pregnant and take the child. She said you both wanted children anyway. There was almost a full year ahead of us before you were due home. We thought you’d never know. And you didn’t.”

“Did my parents know about this?”

“No. But my parents knew and Shasta’s parents knew," Jean replied. They helped me keep up the illusion that I was pregnant. After Sarah was born we even put on a performance at my house with me in bed holding the baby, and Shasta sitting next to me…” She smiled. “Helping.”

Terry faced the windows again and watched the tennis match for a while. “I wish I’d known.” He turned back toward the girls. “But it wouldn't have mattered… Sarah’s been my daughter ever since I picked her up and held her in my arms that first time.”

He picked his way out of the empty room littered with debris. From the doorway he looked back at the smog-dimmed windows and the rain outside.

Downstairs, Jeb, who’d been in Terry’s high school physics class and who’d been hired to help guard the school until demolition began, asked him: “Did you find what you were looking for, professor?”

“Thanks, Jeb,” Terry answered. “Yes. I found it all.”

He walked out into the rain and headed for his car and for home, which had been empty and echoing since Jean's death. “I think I’ll see if Sarah and Tim can visit for a while,” he said to himself.