By the Memorial

By Cap

An AU Tale in response to a PPMB Iron Chef challenge


            It was a typical August day in Washington D.C., hot, hazy, and unbelievably humid. The air was as thick as syrup. A sheen of perspiration glistened on each of the throng of tourists that packed The Mall. Hats and sunscreen were as essential as water but to Helen Morgendorffer the weather seemed appropriate. She gazed spellbound at the Vietnam Women's Memorial as her mind drifted back to another hot, humid land. Daria stood quietly behind her allowing Helen to lose herself in her own thoughts.


            Helen sighed. The years had sped by. Mirrors told her that a middle-aged woman took the place of the willowy teen that had broken convention by joining the army. As if she needed more evidence, a daughter of her own, all of eighteen as she was at the time, offered silent testimony to the passage of the days. Yet, if the days were beginning to stretch behind her like a train, Helen was grateful for each of them. She knew how fragile life was. It was more precious then gems and as precarious as gossamer. 


            In the private corners of her mind, Helen would admit that she never expected to end up in Vietnam. When she enlisted, she thought that the only women that the army sent over there was nurses and she was a clerk/typist, army vernacular for a secretary. A foreign posting meant Germany, or maybe Belgium where she could spend her off-time playing tourist. She would see the sights; pick up a few collectibles and have photographs taken of her standing with some cute guys before the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican to send to Rita who was struggling at her all-female college. Instead, shortly after Helen finished her AIT training, a surprised Staff Sergeant read her orders to her, MACV Headquarters, Saigon, RVN.


            When she first arrived there, she moved about in a constant state of fear. It was a strange land fraught with danger. She could not read the faces in the crowd, who was giving her a friendly smile and what smile meant a knife in the back in the near future. There was no front line so attacks could come from anywhere at any time. More then once mortar fire landing near her compound awakened her and occasionally the VC would detonate a bomb during the day. Sniper fire could send everyone scurrying for cover at any moment.


            Gradually, however, she settled into a routine. Alertness replaced apprehension. Acceptance of the daily dangers shoved anxiety aside. As the panic subsided, Saigon became, in some ways, a good posting. The camaraderie was the best that Helen experienced in the army. There were few American women there so they formed a tight sisterhood; a unified sorority supporting one another in the face of war and the daily indignities and insults that each suffered. The women that she met there she still counted as her closest friends even if she rarely saw some of them.


            An angry shudder ran through Helen as her eyes drifted to the woman cradling the wounded soldier. Decades later, it still infuriated her. She had no business being in that convoy that day. The major only wanted Helen around to give the others at the meeting the impression that he was sleeping with her. Because some officer wanted to play the strutting peacock, she nearly lost her life.


            She pulled the crucifix that hung around her neck from her blouse. She kissed it softly while saying a prayer for the soul of the major and the others that died in that ill-fated day. It was senseless to be angry with a dead man. He was beyond the reach of the living and had been for a very long time. Furthermore, whatever the reasons that brought her to that point, two men who would have died, lived because she was there. Helen remained amazed that she stayed clearheaded enough in the midst of a firefight to remember the first aid basics that they taught her in boot camp especially considering her own pain. Flying glass from the shattered windows cut her badly and one bullet burned her ribs as another one tore through her abdomen as she rolled from her vehicle but when she saw the bright arterial blood gushing from the leg of the first unconscious soldier she moved quickly and decisively.   


            "Excuse me."


            Washington abruptly replaced Saigon as Helen returned to her body. When she glanced over, a hamper's worth of wrinkles, a white bob, and deep, blue eyes registered first. The woman was tall, easily six feet, but severely slender. She had been standing before the memorial when she and Daria arrived.


            "You look familiar to me," she said.


            Helen searched her memory. "I'm sorry."


            The woman shrugged. "If you knew me in Vietnam, you certainly would not recognize me now," she laughed. "Somewhere along the line I grew old."


            Helen chuckled politely. "I know what you mean. I'm Helen Morgendorffer although when I was over there, I was still Barksdale."


            "Brigadier General Paula Danner, retired," The woman introduced herself before shaking her head. "Names sometimes escape me but never the faces and you do look familiar to me. I don't think you were assigned to my hospital, though. I'm sure that I would know you if you had been."


            "No, I wasn't a medic," Helen answered. "I was down in Saigon, MACV HQ."


            "I was with the 35th Evac," the woman replied. She caught the sudden flash on Helen's face. "You knew it?"


            Helen nodded slowly. "I was sent there when I was wounded."


            "Yes, I remember you now," the woman exclaimed. "May, 1970. We didn't get very many American women as causalities."


            "I could have done with you having one less," Helen replied. 


            General Danner laughed gently. "Yes, I'm sure you could have. I had a chuck of shrapnel removed from my backside a few months later. Not quite on the scale of a wax peel but close."


            Helen laughed in return. "At least it got me sent home early."


            "Always a silver lining if you look for it," General Danner said. "Yours?"


"Oh, please forgive my manners," Helen said suddenly remembering she was not alone. "This is my eldest daughter, Daria."


"Fine looking young woman," General Danner said.


            "Yes," Helen replied. "I'm quite proud of her."


            "I hope you're proud of your mother, as well," General Danner said looking intently into Daria's eyes. "She is a genuine hero."


            "I'm proud of both of my parents for many reasons," Daria said. "Not just because they went to Vietnam."


            General Danner raised an eyebrow. "Your father's a veteran also."


            "Air Force," Daria replied. "He was over there during the Tet Offensive."   


            "Lively time," she said sardonically before sighing deeply. "Have you been to the wall?"


            Helen nodded. "We came down shortly after it was dedicated."


            "Yes, I guess most of us have been," the general sadly said. "Too many names. It's like walking through Arlington. Just row after row after row."


            "Yes," Helen agreed soberly.


            General Danner tossed one last look at the statue before returning her attention to Helen. "It was a pleasure to meet you again, Mrs. Morgendorffer."  


            "The pleasure was mine, General," Helen replied. "And I want to thank you and all of the staff there for keeping me alive that day."


            "It's what we did," the older woman said before turning her attention back to Daria adding. "I pray that when you're my age, you aren't standing before a memorial remembering long lost comrades."


            "Amen," Helen said.


            Daria ran her eyes over the bronze statue before looking at her mother and the General. "I hope not but you two deserve this one."


            "Deserve?" Helen mused skeptically. "I don't know. I didn't want to go into a war zone. I didn't join the army in a fit of patriotism. I was just rebelling against my straight-laced upbringing, tweaking my parents."


            "Perhaps but you served nevertheless," Daria said. "Something like this is a reminder that 'hey, we were there, too.' That's important, especially to women my age who have so many more opportunities because of women like the two of you."   


            General Danner smiled as she patted Daria's shoulder. "In that light a far better memorial to us would be for you to take advantage of those opportunities. As the army is fond of saying, 'be all that you can be.' Become that ripple that is a bit further from the center then the previous one."


            "I plan to, ma'am," Daria replied.


            General Danner nodded once before ambling away. Daria and Helen watched her for a few moments before they smiled at one another.


            "Are you ready," Helen said.


            "If you are," Daria replied.


            Helen glanced at the three bronze women. "Yes, I am. The past is to be remembered but not lived in."


            "But you're still going to make a few phone calls tonight, aren't you?" Daria teased.


            Helen laughed as she linked arms with her daughter. "Yes," she admitted as they walked away.