Last trip to Woodstock by Tony Hall
Even though he wore an over-sized bamboo hat to cover his bald head for shade, the old man couldn't escape the sweltering heat of the marsh. Nor the clouds of mosquitoes. They constantly swarmed around him, eating him alive. The old man stooped painfully, using a small scythe to cut the stocks from the many rice plants surrounding the soggy field. He placed them by the handful into a large burlap bag hanging heavily from his shoulder. He was vaguely aware of fellow workers beside him performing the same chore, as they had done for decades past. The old man had worked in the fields for so long; he'd forgotten his real name.
One of the foremen barked an order at him in Vietnamese. Work stopped, and the old man obediently took three steps back. A gunshot echoed through the rice field as a bullet fired from the foreman's rifle instantly killed the 15-foot-long Burmese python that swam near the old man's feet. The workers immediately resumed their duties.
Several mama-sans arrived later, laughing as they struggled to drag the python with their steel-tipped sickles. They would prepare the snake for tonight's meal. The old man cared little for meals. His entire world consisted of only two things: he picked the rice stocks and shoved them into his bag. Focus on the next handful of rice. Shove it into the bag. More rice. The bag. Ricebagricebagricebag. Nothing else mattered.
A long-forgotten noise in the distance caught the old man's attention. "Incoming choppers," he muttered automatically to himself in English. Suddenly, he was plunged into a flashback of a long-forgotten memory.
He was here. Long ago, couldn't remember how long. He was young. Wore military fatigues. There was an explosion. Gunfire. He had been carrying a wounded soldier on his shoulders, desperately running through the jungle and marshes. Bullets flew around them. A medivac chopper sat on a distant hill. He ran on. He had deposited the soldier into the helicopter. Behind them, a squad of Viet Cong ran towards them from the marsh paddies below the hill. He had waved away the chopper. Returned enemy fire to ensure the chopper could escape safely. Ran out of ammo. They had captured him. Beaten him. Tortured him for years. The sweet memories of his wife, Sarah, and their eight-year-old daughter, Chloe. The loves of his life. They had eventually faded into oblivion.
Rapid gunfire and shouts pulled him out his reverie. Not a memory this time. This was happening now, the old man realized.
"The choppers have returned," the old man gasped, tears of joy streaming down his wrinkled face. The American raised a fist triumphantly into the air and repeated, "The choppers have returned!"
A US Marine suddenly ran into view and blew the foreman's head off with an M-16A2 rifle. No, not a foreman, the old man remembered. A prison guard! Special Forces were swarming the area, dispatching the Viet Cong guards while another detachment hastily evacuated the prisoners-of-war from the field.
The old man spied a Viet Cong rise from behind a nearby thicket of rice plants. Charly's rifle was aimed at the Marine's back. The American snatched one of the steel-tipped sickles embedded in the Burmese python and, in one swift motion, swung it through the brain of the V.C. before he could fire. A mama-san slashed him from behind with another sickle. She was gunned down as the Marine carried the old man to one of the helicopters.
The American faded in and out of consciousness as the medivac crew tried desperately to save him. He could hear the loud whir of the rotor blades, the pungent smell of gun powder and alcohol. The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," a song he had once dedicated to his wife, repeatedly played in his head. A strange calmness enveloped the old man as he slipped into a fitful sleep.
The American awoke in a hospital bed. He was in a large room filled with at least a dozen occupied beds. Machines monitoring his health status were at the head of his bedpost. A name he vaguely remembered as his own, "William Marsh," was labeled above the monitor's display screen. He felt as weak as a kitten. A middle-aged woman and an elderly soldier sat on either side of his bed.
The grey-haired man in uniform, seated in a wheelchair, rolled forward and said, "Good morning, sir. My name is Admiral Dan Hitch, retired. You are in sickbay aboard the U.S. Air Craft Carrier Poseidon. Back in 1969, you saved my life in 'Nam. We had walked into an ambush when a booby-trapped mine tore apart my legs. You carried me half a mile to the secondary landing zone, with a bunch of pissed-off Viet Cong right on our tail. Everyone on that chopper owes you their lives for staying behind, holding-off Charlie so we could escape."
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a medal. "You were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously in 1979. We had thought you dead, and this was the best way to honor your bravery and sacrifice." Solemnly, Admiral Hitch placed the award around William Marsh' neck.
The admiral's voice suddenly cracked. "I'm so sorry, sir. Fifty years had passed before we could even find you again. The ship's surgeons tell me they'd done all they could to treat your wounds. But there were just too many internal injuries. They couldn't stop the bleeding."
William Marsh weakly moved his hand in dismissal, then hoarsely whispered, "Thank you for coming back, Danny." The admiral stiffly rose from his wheelchair. His eyes were moist as he saluted the old man. William returned the salute with a slow nod of his head.
Before the admiral left the room, he turned in his wheelchair and said, "Sir, I also owe a lot to the Secretary of State here, Mrs. Chlorinda Sullivan. A N.I.S. surveillance drone spotted you and the other P.O.W.s' hidden location. When she got the intel, she aggressively lobbied for a rescue mission. Like a pit bull, she wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. She bullied the Congress and even strong-armed the president to make it happen. That's one tough gal, sir."
William looked gratefully at the Secretary of State. Tearfully, she reached down and gave him a warm hug. "Hello, Daddy. I've missed you so much."
"My Chloe? Could it really be you?" He looked closely at her and saw in her eyes the little eight-year-old girl he had left behind so long ago.
"I never gave up hope," wept Chloe.
They cried together, and she told him all that had happened during his fifty-year absence. It took too much effort for William to speak, so he just smiled up at Chloe and listened to her steady voice. She told him of the bad times - of her mother's passing fourteen years ago. But mostly she shared with him all the good times - of her happy marriage to a wonderful old-fashioned country doctor, of her father's seven beautiful grand-children, and the twenty-three great-grand-children who were so very, very proud of him.
At some point, Chloe noticed her father's smile slackening and his eyes becoming glazed and unfocused. She knew it was time.
Lt. William Marsh saw a bright light flash against the sickbay wall. He wasn't surprised to see his beloved wife, Sarah, enter the room. She looked exactly as young and beautiful as he remembered. A mischievous grin played across her red-haired pixie face, and a sparkle gleamed in her blue eyes. She said, "Hey, Big Bill. I've waited a long time for you, Babe. Remember our song?
‘You don't know what it's like
Baby, you don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you’
I think of you, Bill, whenever I hear that song. Speaking of songs, you promised to take me to the Woodstock Festival. Well, better late than never. I'm holding you to your promise, mister. You comin'?" Sarah reached out her hand to him.
Chloe slowly shut her father's eyelids and embraced him one last time.
A feeling of wild exhilaration surged through William. He suddenly realized he didn't need his old body anymore, so he left it laying on the hospital bed behind him. William smiled lovingly at his daughter, knowing they would someday meet again.
After giving a silent prayer, Chloe whispered in her father's ear, "You're home now, Daddy. You're home. You're free."
William clasped Sarah's hand, embraced her tight, and kissed her hard on the lips. They walked together, laughing, hand in hand, through the sickbay doors... and into the late afternoon drizzle of a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. They joined the vast crowd of 400,000 fans that roared their applause as the first Woodstock performer, Richie Havens, began to play.