The black hearse, carrying a large wooden casket, abruptly stopped at the narrow side street, causing three other cars following it to brake hard and halt bumper to bumper.
Three young men, formally dressed in black suits, quickly got off the front car and walked toward the hearse to help its driver remove the casket. Soon an older woman stepped out, followed by eight more individuals from two other cars. They were all African American, dressed in black, and looked sad. It was a small private funeral procession.
While the casket was being carried towards its final resting place, the door of an old golden brown chevy that was already parked there on the side of that narrow street not very far from the hearse, opened and a frail old white man, in full military dress, with a few medals hung on the left breast of his ceremonial uniform slowly disembarked. With the help of a cane, he struggled toward the group of mourners. When he arrived, the priest had already started his sermon. He stood in military attention, as good as his sore back and arthritic knees let him, next to the group of mourners.
After the priest finished his sermon, and when the casket began descending into the grave, he raised his right hand and gave the deceased a military salute.
The family was curious about this stranger. Who was this old man in a ceremonial military uniform who had come to pay respect to their deceased father? As soon as the ceremony finished, an old lady roughly around sixty-five years of age slowly walked toward the stranger. But before she could say a word, the man promptly said, ‘Mrs. Freeman, I presume? I am sorry for your loss.’
‘Do you know Denzel?’
‘Yes. Very well, ma’am.’
‘Denzel was my buddy. I had the honor of serving alongside him in the Vietnam war.’
She smiled and said, ‘I am Jenna, Denzel’s wife.’ The grief and sadness didn’t let her finish. After she regained her composure, she said, ‘friends and family are getting together at our home after the funeral. It’s a small gathering. Would you like to join us, Mr.?’
‘David Cameron. It’ll be a pleasure.’ He uttered politely.
‘David Cameron?’ She said pensively.
‘Yes, that’s my name.’
He followed them to their home, which was in a not well-to-do suburb with mostly black residents. Though a modest suburban house, and nothing especially fancy about it, with humble furniture and decoration, the house was immaculately clean and organized. It was a small gathering, and excluding David, everyone else was black. David sensed some guests looking at him with resentment as if he was an intruder. However, they were more curious to find who he was than having any grudge against him.
Finally, once all the guests had arrived, Mrs. Freeman introduced him to others, ‘this gentleman is Mr. David Cameron, and was in Vietnam with Denzel.’
Almost simultaneously, all greeted him with a nod.
‘Thank you.’ David responded.
‘We like to hear a story about my father from Vietnam. He talked very little about his time in Vietnam. And he had lost his memory in the last few years of his life to dementia.’ A young man said.
‘Sure. Can I have your name, son?’
‘My name is David.’
‘Oh, same as me, what a coincidence.’
‘And my name is Cameron.’ Announced another man who looked like Denzel, the young Denzel he knew.
With his eyes overcome with tears, David exclaimed, ‘So Denzel named you two after me!’ He dried his wet eyes with his handkerchief and emotionally started his story with a sad and shaky voice. ‘I was born in a white Christian family. We strongly believed in segregation and barely interacted with African Americans. All the African Americans I had met were laborers and farm workers. That’s until when I was drafted for Vietnam. I had just finished high school, barely eighteen years old, when I got the infamous Uncle Sam’s letter. My mother was sad and crying all week; my father was also devastated by the news, but held himself together and kept his composure.’ David stopped and took a sip from the wineglass he held in his hand.
‘Yes, I reported for duty, and two days later, I found myself in a military base, with a homicidal sergeant. We ran all day, carried heavy loads of shit. We trained and trained for a full month. I lost a good thirty pounds, though I wasn’t chubby at all. Finally, we boarded a navy ship and cramped for four weeks in smelly quarters. The place so reeked with sweat and body odors, a pig pen would resemble a five-star hotel, in comparison!’
His comment brought a light smile to the mourners. David was a good storyteller, a skill he had developed after his retirement when he didn’t have anything to do other than reviewing his past.
‘It was in that ship I first met Denzel. He was the ugliest nigger I had ever seen. My apologies! I was indoctrinated by a white Christian family, and it was natural for me to look down on African Americans. Denzel and I shared a bunk bed together. I selfishly took the lower bed. Having no other option, and not complaining, he took the top bed.’
David paused and stared at the wall and the framed picture on it. It was Denzel who posed in front of a burned North Vietnamese tank. He pointed at the photo and said, ‘I remember this photo well!’
‘How come?’ Jenna asked.
‘It was me who took this photo. I am behind the camera.’
Everyone’s face turned toward the black-and-white photo, now faded by the years of exposure to the light and atmospheric elements.
‘Yes, I was swearing at my luck to be paired with a black man. I was told blacks are bad and violent, so I was cautious to not say or do anything causing a problem. I was cold and distant toward Denzel. It was into our second week on the sea that a gastro bug caused severe sickness amongst us. I was one of those who fell severely ill. High fever, severe stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, you name it. I had never been so ill in my life. And as the number of infected soldiers was really high, we didn’t get the treatment we should’ve received. Denzel’s immune system clearly was stronger than mine, and he was spared from that horrible sickness. Denzel didn’t know me; a rude and selfish white boy who just shared a bunk bed with him, but he didn’t leave me alone in that bad condition. He literally sat next to me day and night and wiped my forehead with a wet towel to help my high fever. I was in no condition to eat. It was Denzel who spoon-fed me and cleaned me. He was my nurse and my guardian angel.’ The memory brought tears to David’s eyes and made them shine under the light hung from the ceiling.
His comment brought a satisfying smile to the family members’ faces.
David added, ‘three weeks later, when our ship docked at a port near Saigon, I still had not fully recovered. Denzel’s kindness shattered all the bullshit I was indoctrinated with. If it was not for him, I would die on that ship. When we together stepped on South Vietnam’s soil, he was not the ugly nigger I saw on the first day. He was my brother, my best friend in my entire life.’
His audience looked pleased by his last comment.
‘We stuck together. If I received an order, it didn’t matter how dangerous it was; Denzel was always ready to come with me, and vice versa. We were ready to follow each other even into hell. We even had a nickname, Black and White Brothers.’ David paused.
‘As you all may know, the Vietnamese soldiers dug extensive tunnel networks almost everywhere, and like rats, they were living there underground, under our feet. Using their tunnels, they were invisible to us and could show up from any place. We lost many good men by their sneaky tactics. So Army’s top brass decided to train a group of soldiers, those with a small built, to get into those dark and claustrophobic tunnels to hunt Viet Congs, install booby traps, and demolish their tunnels. Those soldiers were called Tunnel Rats. Denzel was selected as a Tunnel Rat. Though I was a size or two bigger than him and could stay clear of those scary burrows, I also volunteered.’ He stopped and stared at the black-and-white picture as if he was organizing his thoughts.
‘I lost counts, but well over a hundred times, we both went into those deep tunnels. I had never got used to being in those damn long, narrow, dark, and claustrophobic tunnels. I didn’t want to go down there alone. The only thing that gave me the courage was Denzel’s presence. I knew he was there with me, and he would do anything to save my life if I was in danger.’
‘Dad never talked about his time in Vietnam.’ Cameron said.
‘I don’t blame him. We saw things I don’t wish anyone to see. We did awful things that we’re not proud of. I also don’t like to talk about those horrible days. One-third of the soldiers on board that navy ship that took us to Vietnam lost their lives in the first year of our deployment. I guess Denzel and I were lucky ones to come back in one piece.’
Jenna brought an old photo album. ‘This is Denzel’s album from his service time.’
They looked at photos one by one, and soon David found his young self in some photos. It triggered memories, and he told a story on each photo he recognized. In one particular picture, he and Denzel stood side by side. ‘Can I take this photo out?’ David asked.
‘Sure, go for it!’ Jenna said while wondering why he wanted to take the photo out.
After he took the photo out, he looked at its back. It was written in a faded scribble- to brave Black and White brothers, our favorite Tunnel Rats, Patrick.
‘Who is Patrick?’ Jenna asked curiously.
‘Sergeant Patrick Hardstone was from Denver, a healthy, strong African American, a former boxer. He was a good guy. Unfortunately, he got killed a month after he gave us this photo.’ David said with a heaviness in his voice.
‘How did he die?’ David, Denzel’s son, asked.
‘A land mine explosion.’ David said sadly.
It was well into the night when they finished going through all the album’s pages and David’s reminiscing. Though they met David for the first time on that morning, after all those memories and stories he told, the family felt they had always known him.
‘How you two lost contact?’ Jenna asked.
‘Um… to be honest, Vietnam changed us greatly. When I returned home, I was a different person. I was just two years away, but I grew up over twenty years. I couldn’t bear people, my family, and friends, with their rubbish beliefs on my return. I couldn’t stand their criticism against African Americans and the way they looked down at them. Many good men, both whites and blacks, fought side by side, and many lost their lives. Why shouldn’t they get the credit for their bravery, their sacrifice? On my return, I was a different person, a stranger to my family and friends. To help stay away from them, I applied for a job in Japan, and I moved there. I lived in Japan for twenty years. We were still in contact for the first few years, but the life responsibilities and the sheer distance eventually separated us.’
‘How did you find about the funeral?’ David, Denzel’s son, asked.
‘When you get to my age, you will check the obituaries routinely. I found about Denzel’s death and funeral in the local paper. I didn’t know we lived in the same city.’ By saying that, his eyes filled with the tear, and his heart filled with regret, on why he did not keep in contact. He had lost a brother. But that night, he found a new family.
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