Little Girl Lost
(Tokoni 05/17/2009)

It was the worst thing that can happen to a military family. No – not mine. But the lightening struck terrifyingly close, opening all of us kid’s eyes to the harsh, cruel, heartless nature of where our fathers were – and what could happen to us.

This was in the late sixties, and all us kids were in one of those ‘temporary’ classrooms that always seem to become temporarily permanent – you know, those quonset huts or trailer like structures that the Army always used to expand their ‘storage’ when storage – or classrooms (same thing as storage to the Army) – are becoming overly packed and crowded. It sat back off a metal awning covering a sidewalk, raised up above ground level, with a plank ‘sidewalk’ extending from the real thing to the metal room’s entrance. I remember the inside of the quonset hut – walls squared off and cluttered with bulletin boards, kid’s art, cutouts and gaudy posters; the desks those simple metal and wood affairs that we adults can never squeeze in (but which are always there for us during those “teacher-parent” conferences or open houses that the schools have). This was a military school for dependents, not that it was that much different than the civilian school I’d been attending, and I must have been in fifth grade, for that was when we first moved there.

I was ‘sweet’ on the girl sitting next to me; she, as I recall, always wore a short cotton dress that dropped not much further than her knees, and I think she was sweet on me as well, for she’d often cut glances my way when we’d be doing our school work – and I know I spent a lot of time sorta gazing dreamily at her. But I was too chicken to let my fondness to be known; when recess time would roll around I would go out to the hill with the other boys to ride my sleigh down the long snowy slope while she – well, I guess she did what all the other girls did: skip rope, play house, or sit around and giggle all the time. Not the sports of boys, and definitely not a rough and tumble kid like me, who was foolish enough to do anything that appealed to my daring nature. Just like any other boy, I reckon. I would soon change, but not so much from this. That comes later, in another story.

We were sitting there one morning – I know it was morning, I remember the day so well, like it was yesterday, or the week before. The German sky was overcast, gray with clouds; snow had fallen, promising some slippery rides on the slope beyond the expansive (and amazingly empty) playground outside. We had no swings or slides; just an open field to play in, with that great white slope behind. We are sitting there working on our schoolwork; I can almost see the papers on my desk, fanned with curling edges, the thick pencil between nubby fingers, casting sidelong glances at my female partner. The classroom is quiet, but not too quiet – I can almost hear the teacher’s voice droning in my mind. I don’t know what we were doing, or what we were supposed to do, when suddenly there is a knock on the door; a firm “rap-rap-rapping”. Someone wants to come in.

Us kids do what us kids always did; we pause in our work to look up while the teacher, encouraging us to get back to work, goes to the door.

Three Army officers walk in – or at least I suppose they were officers. They were in their dress greens – sharp looking uniforms with emblems and epithets, little badges across their chests (I was to learn later there are campaign ribbons.) They talk to the teacher for a moment; she points in my direction, and then leads them down MY aisle; she passes my desk a little ways, perhaps a few feet, and the Army officers stand beside me – just a child’s arm’s breadth away. They are looking at the little girl. Their eyes are . . . hard? Firm? Understanding? I don’t know, but there was a strange locked expression in their faces – as though they didn’t want to do what they were going to do, but were going to do it anyway. I was froze (remembering here, now, being frozen in my seat, staring at them, pencil clutched painfully between my fingers and papers beneath the heel of my hand.)

“Come with us,” one of them says, holding his hand out to the little girl who is eyeing them in bewilderment. “Your father has been killed. In Vietnam.”

“He was shot in the head. On a riverboat, headed back up the Mekong.” (A river.) “While on the way home.”

Now I don’t remember where this came from – I’d hate to think they were this cruel – but perhaps in their own way, they were simply explaining. Or maybe we heard it soon after. I really don’t know. I was in SHOCK – as all of us kids were. The officer takes my (why do I think “my”?) little girl’s hand – the girl I’ve been falling in love with – and she rises – also in wide eyed shock – and they lead her away, on out the classroom – and we never see her again. NEVER.

I don’t know if that bit about her father getting shot in the head while on the way home was said right then, right there in the classroom, but I swear I heard them say it. Apparently he was on a boat on the river, heading towards home – his time was up “in-country” – and I guess in other ways as well. Forever. But the story went around the school like wildfire, and by noon we were all in fear and shock. All of us kids. Every last one.

Because we realized it could happen to our dads.

For the first time, the truth really hit home. That little girl could be us. At any time, any place – we could get the news – and we knew how it would come. In the form of three Army officers, come to take you away – and then . . . you would be gone forever.

Nowadays they have counseling for those kids, and the kids in the classrooms around them. They have therapy sessions and talks; gatherings and reassurances. The dependents are taken care of, very well. But back then? There was no such thing. We were on our own to deal with it as best we could – every kid unto himself, by him (or her) self. No such help from the counselors – there were none – nothing.

Even the teacher was in shock. I remember that muted silence that went on and on and on in that classroom. And it never seemed to end – not ever, not until we moved away from there.

And I had lost my best little friend, the one I had never known.

I just wish now I knew what her name was, how she fared, and what they did to her. Because we never did find out. All I know is she disappeared – never to be seen again.