Disclaimer: The Tour of Duty characters do not belong to me, I just enjoy playing in their sandbox.
Thanks- always, to Doc. You have no idea just how truly special you are to me- and just how supportive. Snowy, Witchbaby and Mel, who, along with Doc, suffered through this at its worst and waited patiently for me to make it better.
***Happy belated birthday Mel. I know it's not Myron- but I'm sure you can suffer a bit here with Johnny instead. And I hope you don't mind sharing with Doc as this is for her as well, as a thank you. ***
Johnny could always feel the Hueys in his head and through his body several moments before he could hear or see them as they came slipping over the tree line on their final approach to Tan Son Nhut. The big slicks were so much a part of what he felt he was. There just simply wasn't anything of himself he didn't feel was somehow defined in the helicopters he took such joy in piloting.
He felt them now before he heard the distinct sound of the rotors. The big ships came in over the trees in the early dusk, four of them heading for the camp. Johnny stood in the lengthening shadows, watching, absorbed in the movements as they settled down with a rush of wind and red dust.
He'd been told only a few hours earlier that he could go back to full status, his shoulder now completely healed. He'd been on light duty for the past couple of weeks, working on the flight line, pushing papers, updating maintenance logs and checks. He worked out the stiffness of the healing shoulder, telling himself it wouldn't be long before he was restored to full flight status.
Telling himself how much he wanted to be back in the air again.
How much he needed to be there.
There should have been that hunger though, that unquestionable restlessness that should have had him prowling and edgy, straining at the bit to get back in that seat.
McKay swallowed hard, watching the grunts climb wearily from the slicks. Watched as some pulled the dead and wounded off on ponchos. He spotted Goldman finally, rifle slung over his shoulder as he helped to haul a wounded man off, the same as any of his men did. Anderson had a hold of the other side of the poncho and the two stepped clear of the Hueys before carefully lowering the boy they carried to the hard ground.
That edgy restlessness was there, all right, McKay reasoned with himself as he continued to stand in the shadows and watch Goldman and Anderson. But it was not from the hunger or need to get back in the cockpit again. Instead it had him waking up in the middle of the night, gasping for air and drenched in sweat. This was an altogether new experience for him- and an unwelcome and bewildering one at that.
Goldman was now kneeling by the kid he had helped pull off the slick. Johnny watched as Myron nodded and patted the shoulder of the young man. He could see him speak but was too far away to hear the words over the rush of the rotors of the one Huey that had not cut its engine. Watched Myron glance up when the corpsmen arrived and took charge.
They'd been gone the better part of a week.
And it wasn't as if the two of them were friends, Johnny considered as he watched an exhausted Goldman stand wearily alone for several long moments. Not like what Goldman shared with Anderson. He wouldn't let himself believe he could have that type of friendship. He, John J. McKay- the friend of just about everyone around- but close to no one.
Pretty much everyone had left the flight line now except for those guys tying the rotors down and stripping the 60's from their mounts. Goldman pulled his helmet off and ran a hand through his filthy hair. Johnny caught that unguarded moment when the war seem to crowd Myron just a bit more than he seemed to be able to handle. Watched the guy let his weariness close in and hang his head, eyes closed. Then Anderson was there beside Myron, the two nodding and Myron seemed to gather himself. The two men then walked together back to the base, eventually disappearing into the gathering shadows.
* * *
Not sure what he was doing there, Johnny pushed his way into the crowded Base Club. The music from the jukebox spilled over him with the general noise of the crowd, the cigarette smoke lending a haze to the busy room. There was a moment of pure panic that reached up and grabbed him before he shook his head and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth.
Johnny had started to reconsider being there when several of his buddies saw him and waved him over to their table. Forcing a smile on his face, he nodded to them and headed to the bar to get a beer before joining them.
He spotted Anderson and Goldman sharing a drink and pushed up next to the Sergeant, signaling the bartender for a beer. As he waited, he turned and rested his elbows on the edge of the bar, pressing his back against the edge and scanned the crowded room. Several of Goldman's men were at a nearby table, laughing and sharing a joke that Johnny couldn't quite hear above the general noise level.
"Heard you're back on the flight line, McKay." Goldman was looking at him over Anderson's shoulders.
There must have been something in the tone of his voice as now Anderson glanced up, both men silently watching him. Johnny reached behind him, picked up his beer, and without a word to either man, left to join the other chopper jocks.
Sitting down with his buddies, he again found himself pushing back the edges of panic. The noise and the crush of men made him uncomfortable and he found himself confused by all of it and desperately trying not to pull away. There was a feeling at the edges of his mind, like he was being boxed and hemmed in and he found himself making a real effort to pay attention to his buddies and pretend to have a good time.
He listened distantly to the ribald jokes and tall tales, all the while the feeling of panic continuing to push at him, whispering at the back of his mind. He felt like he was all raw edges and sharp angles and unable to grab onto anything including himself. And the more he tried, the worse the feeling got. And he just knew Goldman was watching him from the bar.
Half an hour later he realized it had been a mistake to come in the first place. He had all he could do to keep himself under control when what he really wanted was to charge the door and get the hell out of the damn room. The noise and the crowd finally became too much and Johnny pushed himself back from the table, telling his buddies he was tired.
It was like a distant roaring in the back of his mind as he climbed to his feet, not realizing he still held a bottle in his hand. The crowd shifted a bit and Johnny found himself staring at Goldman who was still seated at the bar on the far side of Anderson. Goldman was leaning just far enough past his Sergeant to look at Johnny. For a brief moment, Johnny found himself captured in Myron's obvious concern.
There was something about Goldman that had puzzled Johnny since he met him. How he seemed to be so aware of everything around him, on a level Johnny knew he couldn't begin to understand. Still waters... Normally it intrigued Johnny, and Alex found it fascinating. But tonight something snapped inside of him and a sudden fury he couldn't understand or control reared up at the invasion.
WHO IN HELL ARE YOU TO JUDGE ME?
Anderson looked up when Myron slid off his seat and stood beside him. Goldman raised his head, blinking, his eyes darkening with his growing concern.
The last thing Johnny wanted was Myron Goldman's pity. The roar in the back of his mind seem to grow louder with the rage and confusion that seized him and left him shaking in its grip. Johnny slammed the bottle down hard on the table, his buddies all jumping and staring.
The entire room went silent but for the music blaring on the jukebox.
Embarrassed and furious at the same time, Johnny shoved the chair out of his way and pushed past the stunned crowd. Goldman started to follow him but Anderson placed a gentle hand on his Lieutenant's arm, silently shaking his head with a glance to the younger man.
Johnny shoved through the screen door without a word, slamming it back on its hinges against the wall of the building.
* * *
When had all this started?
Johnny sat on his bed, his back pressed up against the wall of his hootch as he stared out the screen door at the darkness of the camp. He was struggling to pull the confused rage under control, struggling so hard he was left trembling in the dim lighting of the single lamp he had left on. He balanced a glass half full of whiskey on one bent knee, his fingers wrapped so tightly around it they ached.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Johnny took a swallow of the bitter alcohol, listening to the voices of men he couldn't identify as they walked past his screen door.
What makes this different? It's not like I haven't been shot down before for Christ's sakes!
But he knew what made this time different. Knew the reason why.
He hadn't given it real thought until he'd finally called home. Wished his mother a belated birthday. A very belated birthday. He took another swallow of the whiskey.
He found out then what had never even occurred to him. Found out when he spoke to her that his very polite friend Lt. Myron Goldman had been there to reassure her that he was fine and just helping out on a mission. To reassure her gently that Johnny would call her when he got back. Had politely wished her a very happy birthday. A sweet young man she had added, he must be a real nice gentleman.
It had been like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over him.
This had always been fun for him, the flying, pushing the edge of safety because he loved to see what he could get away with. He told himself it was to get the men like Goldman and his platoon out, but the truth was- Johnny had loved the pure adrenaline thrill it always gave him. And so what if he got his ass shot down a few times? That was all part of the fun, gave it the honest thrill he thrived on. He'd just come back grinning and climb back in. Back in the air, let's do it again!
Myron on the phone, gentle and polite- reassuring.
No longer a game.
Johnny emptied the glass and rolled his head back, eyes squeezed shut as he pressed the back of his head against the hootch wall.
Goldman had never mentioned it to him.
Johnny realized his glass was empty and he didn't remember drinking the last of the whiskey in it. He shoved himself over to the edge of the bed, unfolding his legs and letting his feet hit the floor. He picked up the bottle he had set there earlier, staring at the amber colored liquid.
Goldman had been there.
McKay swallowed hard. He didnít realize he had climbed to his feet.
Goldman's been there before...
The image was crystal clear in his mind of his sisters, of his nieces and nephews laughing and crowding around the phone in the kitchen. Of his mother's beautiful smile slipping away... Myron's polite voice on the receiver...
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. McKay..."
The confused blinding anger swept up around him and Johnny flung the bottle in the direction of the screen door.
"Hey, McKay, just thought I'd stop by-" Myron picked that same moment to open the door and looked up just as Johnny threw the bottle in his direction. Myron jumped back, slamming the door and ducking behind an arm when the bottle exploded on the wall next to the frame. The glass shattered everywhere, the liquor spilling.
Myron was back through the door and glaring at Johnny.
Johnny simply stared back at him, trembling with shock and dismay.
"Get out!" He finally found his voice. "Get out now, Goldman."
"The hell I will!" Myron looked around him, at the broken glass and the darkening stain of the alcohol. "You idiot, donít you understand what's happening?"
"Like YOU know what you're talking about!" Johnny flushed, glaring at Myron who stood his ground.
Myron did know.
Don't you judge me! Don't you DARE judge me!
Myron shoved a hand through his shorn hair. "McKay, it's alright to be afraid!" He softened his tone, trying to reach the other man. "It's alright for you to be afraid."
"I said get out." Johnny wouldn't look at him, refusing to meet those dark eyes that seemed to be able to see clear to another's man soul. He didn't want Goldman's understanding. His pity...
"This can't have been the first time you got your backside shot out from under you!" Myron wasn't going to let him be.
"Not until I say what I came here to say."
That got Johnny's attention and before he realized it he was looking up and glaring at Goldman. And Myron pinned him there immediately with his own fury and confusion and refused to let him go.
"You're making yourself a prisoner of your own denial. Everyone is afraid at some time or another, McKay. I'm afraid, Anderson's afraid- WE are ALL afraid!"
Johnny stood trembling- hurting.
"We've all been there. We've all learned to live with it."
I've never been HERE!
But now you are.
* * *
In the minutes before night relinquished over to day, a light misting rain drizzled down on the four Hueys lined up silently on the flight line.
Pre-dawn light and the misting rain made everything seem gray. The air was thick and humid and Johnny felt it made everything seem somehow closer. It was a distinct feeling that he couldn't explain as he climbed into the seat and pulled the door closed behind him.
The only sounds on the flight line were the muted voices of the other pilots, co-pilots and the crews. Tan Son Nhut was waking up, but for now it seemed the early morning belonged to those here on the flight line. Johnny's co-pilot, Duffy, jumped into the other seat with a wide grin and mischief written all over him. McKay looked back over his shoulder at the crew chief, but couldn't see his gunner for the moment, even though he could hear the kid talking.
Goldman's platoon walked up. With few words spoken, the men started to divide and line up near the slicks as Anderson ordered. They were heavy with their gear, going back out on patrol for at least a week. Johnny, still holding his helmet in his hands, watched Third Squad as they walked over in the direction of his ship, Goldman following with his head down. He looked tired, Johnny thought.
Anderson's voice carried across the near quiet, calling out the L-T's orders and telling the new ones to stay close to the experienced guys, to keep their mouths shut and to listen sharp. The first chopper on the line cranked its engine over, the whine cutting through the damp quiet of the morning. He had already done his preflight check, Duffy still grinning next to him like a loon. That kid gunner was still yapping. McKay looked at his helmet.
"Taylor, what are you today, some damned tourist?!" Anderson's gentle sarcasm brought McKay's attention around. He saw the tall black kid come running, obviously a little late.
"Sorry, Sarge," Taylor grinned unabashedly, putting his helmet on. "I thought the war was gonna be called on account of rain!" There was some light laughter from his buddies.
"Don't give me your 'Sorry, Sarge' routine, Taylor!" Zeke glanced at Goldman who remained silent, watching the show. "Just get on over with the rest of your squad, ya hear me?" Anderson turned and walked up the flight line as the second Huey started up.
Taylor flashed Goldman one of his brilliant grins and shrugged his shoulders before he joined Johnson and Ruiz. Goldman simply shook his head, more than used to Taylor's antics, before he turned and stepped up next to Johnny's still silent ship.
McKay glanced away, not ready to meet with Myron's dark eyes. He shoved his helmet on when the third Huey's engine whined to life in the drizzle. He watched through the rain slicked Plexiglas as Goldman's men started to climb into the first two ships.
"Glad to see you here, McKay." Myron wasn't looking at him. Goldman was watching Anderson as he made his way back down the flight line toward them. The roar of the three ships' engines was starting to take over.
"It's what they pay me to do, Goldman," Johnny finally said. The next squad of men was starting to climb into the chopper in front of them.
Duffy was growing restless, glancing at McKay for the signal to crank up. Myron nodded and started to step back and away so Johnny could start the engine.
"Goldman-" Johnny hesitated, finally looking at Myron. Goldman had his helmet on, the rain gathering along the edge, dripping down onto his already wet shoulders.
"Yeah, McKay?" Myron's dark eyes met Johnny's. He waited quietly, giving Johnny the room he needed to maneuver.
"I just want to thank you- you know- for telling my mom what you did." He hesitated, captured in Myron's intensity. "Thank you for making it all right for her."
Myron's eyes darkened to almost black. "You gonna be okay, McKay?"
Johnny glanced away. "Don't worry, Goldman. It's just another day."
Myron nodded and without another word, stepped back to join Anderson and the rest of his men.
Johnny sighed, nodding to Duffy who almost leaped with the need to get the ship cranked up. "It's just another day in Vietnam," he muttered softly.