M A S H Fan Fiction ❯ Theatre of War ❯ Significance of Merit ( Chapter 2 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Daytime finally drew to a close as we gathered together at the Officer's Club, escaping the horrors of war to unravel over gin and beer. And what a long day it was, too; wounded boys pouring in one after another, bellies full of shrapnel and bullets, blood-stained uniforms tattered and torn about their broken bodies. I was glad it was over, if only for the night. Even though, truth be told, my part in the battle was insignificant compared to the others, I was always glad to lend a hand.
I seated myself beside the worn piano and adjusted my hat, waiting for a request that never came. Settling on a favorite ragtime tune of mine, I picked up the pace as confidence returned and doubt dissolved into a smile. I hadn't seen Lena since lunch so I was quite relaxed by this time, forgoing alcohol for good-natured merriment. Hawkeye, noticing my insecurity earlier, promised the judgment-clouding magic of Scotch would have the same result, but I didn't take him up on his offer. I was no stranger to alcohol mind you, but the sound of laughter locked in mutual accord with awkward ragtime was enough for me tonight. Now was the time to unwind.
Majors Burns and Houlihan were busy ignoring us at their table, while Nurse Kelley glided Radar around the makeshift dance floor in large, curious steps. I think they were almost waltzing but I couldn't be sure.
“You are getting better at that, Radar.” Hawkeye praised from his spot at the bar. He had himself some whiskey and was slumped down on one side where elbow met table. Looking pretty relaxed, he slowly inhaled and grinned at the man sitting next to him. “Beej, what do you say we have one more and call it a night? I have a date tomorrow with Nurse Reynolds and I need my beauty sleep.”
“Haha, Nurse Reynolds? I thought you had your eye on that young Lieutenant who just shipped in.”
Hawkeye slowly sipped his drink. “Well I did, but I haven't seen her since after that last batch of wounded. She left the OR pretty quickly. I would have loved to give her a run, though. She looked like someone best appreciated on a cramped army cot.”
Hearing mention of Lena, I stumbled on the keys and stopped playing. My heart had jumped for a moment, quick to forget itself. Recovering swiftly as not to alert anyone, I kept my pace slow and steady, eavesdropping in on the conversation to catch what I could. Lena. When opportunity snuck up and tapped me on the shoulder like this, curiosity always got the best of me. A quality I wasn't proud of might I add.
“I saw her getting sick behind Post OP earlier. She hasn't even unpacked her bags yet, they are just sitting in my quarters, taking up space. I can't believe Colonel Potter, making me share my bunk with a Lieutenant.” Houlihan looked over for a second to chime in her disapproval. When caught staring she and Frank hastily returned to ignoring us.
“Well, she's young. She just needs time to adjust and get used to things around here. We all had to, she'll come around eventually.” BJ was pretty level headed for the amount of alcohol he had consumed. He stretched back and yawned. “Didn't seem like a bad surgeon to me, just a little young.”
“Too young.” Major Houlihan hastened to add. Shaking her head, she set down the bottle she was working on and folded her arms. “She can't be more than twenty six. Where did she serve her residency, Coney Island?”
I desperately wanted to say something, to inquire more about Lena's whereabouts. But I didn't. I had already made a fool out of myself earlier in the OR, why repeat that mistake at the Officer's Club? Allowing my fingers to tremble and cease movement, I felt a familiar shame creep back into my mind. I had to somehow overcome this if Lena was to help me at the orphanage. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice my silence.
“Of course, Margaret; that's where all great doctors hail from nowadays. I, myself, took my Hippocratic Oath in the bathroom of a Dairy Queen. And right after that, I performed a tonsillectomy on a young flight attendant with my tongue.” Hawkeye smiled at the memory and slowly spun his glass between his fingers. “My first patient might I add.”
BJ laughed as if he had heard the story before. My face felt hot though. “Oh...perhaps I'd better be going.”
“Nonsense, Father. Stay, enjoy your break. We'll keep the conversation clean for you; we are only staying for another drink or two anyways. Right, Beej?”
Shaking his head slowly, BJ stood up and gathered his friend. “I think we should just turn in now. Come on, back to the Swamp old buddy.” He held onto Hawkeye to keep from falling over. “You should be fresh for Nurse Reynolds tomorrow, anyways.”
“One more drink never killed anyone. Except for those who die of alcohol poisoning.” Hawkeye pivoted around to face the bar, eyes filled with anticipation. “Come on, I'll cover it. My treat.”
“I'd say you are drunk enough. Breath sure does smell like it anyways.”
Hawkeye's face melted into a smile as he was guided from his stool. “Don't tell me this is where you take advantage. Come on Beej, why stand between me and maxing out my tab? I happen to be on a one-man mission to sober up Korea.”
“Oh, would you two stop messing around already. Can't you ever act like army men?” Frank's disgust rang out and stopped the two men in their tracks. “Acting like a bunch of wishy-washy lowlifes. Disgraceful. Why, if General MacArthur were here—he'd tie you up by your boot strings.”
“And he'd tie you up by your G-string, Frank.” Hawkeye laughed a bit too loud at his joke, causing Major Burn's face to deepen a few shades of red.
Giving a disapproving look, Major Houlihan stood and shook her head angrily. “Always joking, don't you do anything else around here besides ridicule others?”
“Come on, Margaret, we were only trying to work off some steam. Give Hawk a break, he meant no harm.” BJ held up his friend, arm over shoulder.
“Yeah, everyone knows Frank sticks exclusively to jockstraps.”
Major Houlihan's face twisted into anger. “He should respect a commanding officer regardless. This camp's conduct is laughable.”
I turned around and expressed my concern, which in the heat of the moment, went greatly ignored. “Oh my, what seems to be the trouble here? Anything I can do to help? Perhaps a light hymn might calm the situation a bit--”
“It's alright Padre, we were just leaving. Come on Hawk.”
“No,” Repelling Hunnicutt's assistance with a hand, Hawkeye staggered the rest of the way to the door and paused. “Margaret, I've spent the last fourteen hours digging out shrapnel from boys not even old enough to shave yet. Joking is the only way I can speak without screaming. Talk about conduct, how are some of those young soldiers going to salute their commanding officers without arms? How are they going to accept their Purple Heart if they have no chest to pin the metal to? Do you think conduct is the most important things on their minds right now?” Rubbing the back of his head unenthusiastically, he gestured toward the door. “I've been up way too long. Come on, Beej, Ol' Ferret Face and Hot Lips just made the war unbearable for me. Let's go home and continue this at our private still.”
When I finally left the Officer's Club, I couldn't help but notice the stars peeking down at me from their dark mantle above. It had been forever since I actually stopped to appreciate them, as I often associated thoughts best left behind me with their faint glow. So beautiful; I almost forgot how much they reminded me of home. I traced constellations vaguely committed to memory as my mind drifted back to a time years ago, to a memory repressed out of fear of being discovered by my peers.
It was cold back then too, but the stars instead mocked me from where they hung low in the night sky. Walking alone beneath rows of blackened windows, their expressionless faces screaming silently down at me, I slowly stumbled back to my home in darkness. My first and only love, Linda, had just broken my heart--throwing away our engagement to be with another man whom she hardly knew at all. I was scared, numb beyond all recognition of my former jovial self as I approached the steps of 1301 Millbourne Street, my head pounding with thoughts so heinous I could hardly believe they were my own.
Fumbling around trying to locate the correct key, I stood there clinging onto my last bit of strength before breaking down, surrendering to agony in waves of frustrating tears. Even weeping didn't help ease the pain. Pressing my stinging forehead against the cold wood door, I cried out to God for an answer I knew would not come. I couldn't understand why this had happened; why only yesterday we were happy in love, yet now everything I knew to be truth was lie. How could I have been so blind?
Nineteen years old and I felt my life was over. At last I let myself in, careful not to disturb my parents who would be asleep in the next room. Finding my way down the hall, I collapsed onto the soft quilt covering my bed and buried my face into a pillow. I screamed, releasing an unfamiliar rage, cursing Linda's name into the night. My sister Katherine had overheard me and knocked on the door, asking through the wall if I was alright. She meant well but couldn't help me now. Swallowing my pride and wiping hot tears from my face, I quelled her worry and set aside my pillow. Listening for her to walk away, I sat there determined not to make another sound until she had gone.
When opportunity at last came, I instinctively dug through the drawers of my nightstand, pulling them out and spilling their contents to the floor without second thought. My vision had blurred, desperate to locate the one object that would alleviate my sorrow; my old trusty Tom Mix pocket knife. A present from Linda ironically, I now longed to hear the swish of its blade against my skin.
I clawed my way through the last drawer, throwing out papers and odd items in my wake. It had to be in this one, I just knew it. My pulse hastened as I stretched to reach the back of the only compartment not removable like the others. It had to be there. After what seemed an eternity, my fingers brushed against something oddly familiar and I hesitated, frightened by what I held.
Next to my knife I had instead grabbed a small silver cross mother had given me years ago, the cold metal comforting my nervous hand. I had forgotten about it completely. Sitting back to study this tiny object resting against my palm, I slowly outlined its shape with a finger. How odd. A strange calm washed over me while I stared at my reflection on its surface, the stars outside my window bouncing light off the smooth finish and onto my face.
Could this be the answer I searched for; could God, hearing my prayers, be offering me a new path to take? I had the suspicion I shouldn't take this at face value. Although it would require a lot of time and commitment, and several sacrifices along the way, I felt this was my calling. I just felt it. I had nothing to lose after all; Linda was gone and I had almost made the biggest mistake of my life because of it. If God had a purpose for me despite my intention, I knew I had to try and fulfill it. I guess it's presumptuous to say I was saved that night, but still I wonder: What would have happened if I'd grabbed the knife instead?
It wasn't until later on after I entered seminary that I met Father Marty “Boom Boom” Gallagher, the famous World War II chaplain who delivered his sermons so close to the front that they were drowned out by the tyranny of war. As the priest overseeing my preparations, he was a great inspiration to me during obscure days of fear and doubt. It wasn't until we really got to know one another that my transition into priesthood became somewhat justifiable in my mind.
While I always wanted to help others just as God had helped me, I couldn't avoid questioning my potential as a priest. To live a lie claiming unconditional celibacy after being engaged made me feel rotten inside. Had Linda not left me, I'd be married and probably a father by now. To falsify my calling, saying I was inspired by Katherine's decision to become a nun instead of the actual reason, my heart felt overwhelmed by guilt. I never told anyone about Linda, or about the suicide I almost committed that night in my room. I instead focused on the positive. I would be able to help people in this position--which was important to me. But I certainly didn't feel proper during my Ordination, as I lay prostrate with the other young men awaiting consecration into priesthood. I was shaking underneath my robes to be honest.
Such a thing was of course forever binding, lest I suffer unspeakable consequences. To go against a sacrament I shuddered to think what would become of me. To build a life based on lie, I knew I'd be spending a few weeks in Purgatory. No amount of repent could erase my sins. But this was the path I took and despite the trouble I faced earlier, I was fairly content in my choices. I got to help people once and a while after all, and to me, that trumped my rights as a man any day.
Colonel Potter's brightly illuminated tent snapped me out of my abstraction as I got closer, the candlelight from his lamp flickering dangerously as a figure moved around inside. How odd that he would be up at this hour. I stood outside my tent and waited, watching a silhouette cross the length of his quarters and stop near the door. Their muffled voices piqued my interest, even though I couldn't make out the words being said. Pausing just in time to catch Lena quickly exiting the Colonel's tent, I stood in the darkness and watched her walk away. She looked quite upset about something but I didn't pursue it. I couldn't pursue it, not at this hour. Quickly closing the door and walking over to my bed, a feeling of guilt forced me to reconsider and turn around.
Lena wasn't at Houlihan's tent when I searched for her. I thought perhaps she had gone to the latrine, though certainly I couldn't bother her in there. I shouldn't have been bothering her at all at this hour might I add, especially without proper chaperon. Giving up the pursuance of my duties with a sigh I hiked back to my quarters, seizing the drab olive flannelette shirt covering my black turtleneck as the wind picked up. Quite nippy out tonight, I should have worn something heavier. The thought of a nice warm bed enticed these tired bones as I neared my quarters, my legs sluggish and drained. Sleep would be a blessing right now.
I found my door in the darkness just as large white flakes began to flutter down around me. Snowing again. Although it was beautiful, I was much too tired to acknowledge it right now. Sleep first; tomorrow I could enjoy its white blanket upon my doorway. Rubbing half-closed eyes underneath my glasses, I yawned for a minute then reached for the door handle.
“Father?” A nervous voice startled me from behind. I knew who it was before I turned and my heart jumped in anticipation.
I remained as formal as possible, for sleep beckoned and I was steadily losing the battle. “Lieutenant Trepp, what I surprise to see you up at this hour. I thought Margaret would have set a bedtime for you by now.” My joke was poorly executed and I could see the disappointment in her eyes. I meant to clear up the misunderstanding but Lena couldn't wait.
“Father, I was wondering,” She dropped her sad gaze from me and brushed some hair behind her ear, “I know that it is late and most unusual but...I was wondering if I could talk to you about something. I tried to talk to Colonel Potter, but he couldn't help me. He meant well, but--”
She looked so alone standing there. Something was bothering her greatly and my need to help cast away all other thoughts at that moment. Sacrificing sleep, I escorted her into my quarters where we could sit and talk away from the cold.
She sat silently at my desk, never looking up at me once. Twiddling her fingers nervously, Lena's face twisted from confusion to terror, until finally I sat down on my bed and called out her name. The fright in her eyes overwhelmed me when she snapped from her trance.
“...Will you keep this to yourself, Father?”
"Oh, yes of course. As confessor, I'm always very confidential. Your secret is safe with me.” I gave a tired smile which seemed to put her at ease.
Eventually she relaxed enough in my company to recite the proper beginning of confession even though we were without confessional. When ready, she began with reluctance. “Do you ever...wish you could do something differently? Go back and fix an error in judgment on your behalf, before it was too late?”
I didn't know where this was heading so I tried my best not to influence the subject. “Why, yes, we all have regrets that we'd like to remedy.”
“I don't think I belong here, Father. I've only been here a day and yet I feel like a horrible weight has been placed on my shoulders. Earlier in the OR I couldn't stomach all the blood I saw around me --” She cut off to look down at her shaking hands, “I couldn't wash the blood off, as much as I tried. I couldn't wash it off.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks as Lena's voice began to crack and break. In a swift motion of black and olive drab I was at her side, kneeling down to comfort despite my reservations. She had covered her face with her palms so she couldn't see my concern as I gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Lena, I know how hard this is for you. I went through the same thing. It is scary right now, but think of all the people you are helping by being here. It's important to...focus on how you are making their lives better, instead of the horror around you. You saved many lives today; it's because of your efforts that those men will live to see another day.”
“...another day of war.” Her eyes, once filled with hope, now hung unfocused and sad, looking at some distant unknown place in time. Poor thing, I didn't know what to say. “I want to go home. I just...want to go home so badly, Father.”
Home, of course! That was the answer. Regaining my confidence I plotted a new course to take, one I hoped would get through to her. “Lena,” My hand couldn't help but stroke her back, “tell me about home. I meant to ask earlier, but I didn't get an opportunity.” I smiled even though she wasn't looking.
“Home,” she repeated slowly. “We'd be preparing for Christmas right now, decorating a tree...buying each other presents.” She hesitantly focused her eyes on me. “Father would be putting the lights up while I baked cookies.” The hint of a smile lingered on her face, making mine double in size.
That was it, come on child. “What else? Would you be singing hymns and holiday carols, too?”
She nodded, the color returning to her cheeks. “I'd be at the piano, and Andrew—my brother, he'd be playing his recorder. He loves the recorder.” She smiled at something I couldn't see, probably a fond memory. She looked so happy now. A part of what she said stuck in my mind and I couldn't help but inquire about it.
“You play the piano? What sort of things do you know how to play?”
Her eyes lit up at this question, energy returning to them as they danced over mine. “Mostly classical pieces, my father thought a lady should learn. He is very conservative when it comes to certain things.”
She smiled warmly now, focusing on me as I knelt by her side. I suddenly became very aware of what time it was, and the fact my hand still rubbed her shoulder. Blushing a bit I stood, careful not to alarm her. “You should get some rest now, Lena. Sleep will do you some good. Tomorrow we can visit the orphanage if you'd like, I'm sure the children would be happy to meet you.”
Agreeing with a nod, Lena rose from her seat and smiled up at me. “Thank you, Father. I'd like that very much. I'm glad I got to talk to you, even though it's so late.”
Walking her to the door, we exchanged goodbyes and with a wistful smile I watched Lena disappear into the night. Perhaps her coming here turned out to be a good thing after all.