“I remember the bitter-sweet taste of my own blood.” I yelled aloud as the drugs began to evacuate my system. My mind and body were awakening, to heights I had never felt before. Unsure of where I was and why, the only thing I knew for sure was that I never wanted to taste my blood again.
I scrambled to my feet, pushing aside the pungent smelling puke stained comforter. I nearly fell back down to the raised stone slab that I had just risen from, as my feet slipped and slid trying to gain control over the blood that had pooled on the unforgiving concrete.
I took a hopeful look around the place, that prison of concrete and steel. A cracked mirror on the other side of the room beckoned me near. “Is this my blood on the floor or that of another?” I yelled as if anyone could hear me, much less give a damn. I reached the mirror and took a deep breath, then exhaled a sigh, followed by a cough.
Seeing myself for the first time in several months. I scratched my chin, and carefully inspected the coarse hairs that had invaded my face. I Hated every last one of them, especially that long grey one that outgrew the rest in the center of my goatee. I plucked it out with my thumb and forefinger and flicked it to the ground. “Show yourself, if you dare!” I screamed with all the energy I could muster. “You heard me, I said show yourself!” I struck the mirror with a palm strike. It shattered. There it was, the whole time. I still can’t believe it.
There was a void, a big beautiful dark corridor that stretched a couple hundred feet beyond the room I was standing in. A single light bulb hung precariously, illuminating a door that could lead me out of here. Until that moment I had no clue how they were doing it. How were they getting in and out of my prison, hell on earth? How did they know when to enter and give me another round of the crazy drug cocktail that had kept me feeling nearly insane. But now, I felt great, my day had finally arrived.
Or had it? As I stepped over the broken shards of mirror and began to walk toward the light. Something wasn’t right, it was too easy. This was a sick twisted game of Chess and I was a pawn. Any moment now a group of bearded wide eyed guerilla warriors would rush through that door and put a bullet in my brain and probably sink one into my toned buttocks too, just for good measure. “You won’t get away with this!” I yelled as I reached the door. Am I even alive, is this my spirit leaving my body behind? I turned quickly around and looked back at the stone slab to make sure my body wasn’t still laying there…
It moved, the wretched smelling puke stained comforter moved. I slapped myself across the face. After effects- the drugs hadn’t completely worn off yet. I reached out, slowly, carefully. The worn brass door knob turned. The door was not locked, the moment of truth. “Hello, Hello, is anyone there.” I pushed the door open.
The mix of plantains and beans I had eaten three days ago churned in my stomach. The smell of rotting corpses filled my nostrils. I doubled over and spewed that last bit
of nutrition onto the floor. I took a couple steps forward and nearly tripped over a body wrapped in a comforter. It was all starting to make sense. Several bodies, all wrapped in comforters were strewn all over the floor. I was supposed to be here, laying among them in this makeshift tomb. I walked forward scanning the room for a possible way out.
From a corner of the room I heard a familiar voice. “Goooood morning Vietnaaam!” I blinked quickly, shaking my head in disbelief. Hanging on one of the walls there was a Television screen playing a video on a loop. Robin Williams repeated that phrase over and over. Someone really had a sick sense of humor considering that just days before my Unit was captured and brought here Mr. Williams suicide had just been made public. I made my way to the TV with every intention of shutting it off, when someone sat up and grabbed my leg.
It was a female soldier, Sergeant Miller. She looked at the television and counted to ten with her fingers, tugged my leg then spoke softly. “Get down now.” I wasn’t sure why, but I did it without hesitation. She pulled a comforter off the body next to her and tossed it over me. She laid down flat and covered herself just as Robin finished the word “Vietnam”. Just as if it had been planned, a hatch door directly above the TV opened and a makeshift wood ladder slid down, it hit the concrete floor with a dull thud. A bearded man made his way down. He stopped, took a look at the TV which had now gone blank, then yelled something up into the hatch above. Immediately a remote control followed by a handgun flipped through the air in seemingly slow motion. He reached out and skillfully caught both of them.
My heart was nearly pounding out of my chest. Was this how it would end? The bearded man pushed a button on the remote, Robin Williams sprung to life again. The man looked directly at my comforter. I held my breath hoping he could not see my chest rise and fall with every nerve wrecking breath. He stood puzzled for a moment then stepped directly over me and stopped. He looked at the man that had moments before been covered by my comforter. His arm twitched, without a moment's hesitation the bearded man fired the handgun twice. One bullet into his chest, the second entered his head. He yelled again into the hatch above. This time a comforter came fluttering down. He covered the man he had just shot then climbed back up the ladder without a care in the world. Just before the door shut the remote and a half eaten plantain twisted through the air. The remote bounced off a body and landed somewhere near Miller. The plantain smacked my comforter where my forehead lay beneath it.
“Ok, we have just under thirty minutes now before someone comes back down.” The sergeant spoke, and I listened. She looked at the TV; “You can thank Robin, he saved your life.” She said matter of factly. She reached down and picked up the half eaten wanna be banana, broke it in half, and said “eat it we have some work to do.”
“How many survivors, Sergeant Miller?” I asked.
“Until you wandered in here it was just me Corporal Baker.” She answered. “Follow me. Now that you are here we may just have a chance.”
She led me to a corner of the room and promptly rolled the body of private B. Sacks toward her. (Yes You heard that right) I guess she didn’t find it funny because when I chuckled, just a bit, she pinned me straight to the wall. Her hands firmly wrapped around my throat. She looked me in the eyes and said “Respect isn’t only for the living, If you want to stay among us I suggest you get yourself under control now! Do I make myself clear, Corporal?”
My training and instinct kicked into high gear and I snapped to attention. “Yes Sergeant.” I saluted then spoke very carefully as she released her hands from my throat. “I’m sorry, now how do we get out of here?” She simply pointed down to the corner where Sacks had been. There was a hole in the wall, an air vent of some kind.
She looked back at the television where Mr. Williams was starting the “Good morning” phrase again. “Twenty eight minutes to go,” she said. She laid down on the floor and stuck her arm down in the vent. “I can’t reach it, get down here.” I pulled Sack’s body back a little further. The under ripened plantain dropped into my gut a bit. I fought off the urge to spew it onto Sacks body. She stood up, pointed to the vent. There was some kind of lever inside. “That switch will open the emergency hatch back in the room you came from. We should be able to climb into the room above.”
I laid down on the floor pressing my body against the wall. I stretched my arm as far as I could. Click… I reached it, I pulled it. “Shit! Stay down!” She yelled as a comforter covered my body, she dropped to the floor covering herself too.
I laid still under a foul smelling comforter for a third time, praying to God (any god) that could deliver me from this makeshift tomb. Heavy boots thudded on the pavement,they grew louder and louder as they came near. I focused on Robin who continued to repeat his phrase. I slowed my breathing and heart rate. Whoever was down here was searching for something. I could hear bodies being moved around. Someone was near me. Sack’s body was flipped over from his back to his stomach. His limp arm slapped across my chest. He lay, half on the floor, half over me.
I felt that something wasn’t quite right. Then I understood what, a voice other than Robin’s spoke. It was a young glorious prepubescent voice. He was speaking a broken form of English. Sergeant Miller sat up, I swallowed the lump in my throat and sat up too. Sacks’ body rolled back onto the floor with a dull thud. The boy, who was roughly nine years old, jumped back a bit.
“There is two Americans alive here.” His voice cracked as he spoke. He looked directly at Miller, then took a step closer to me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, he studied me, paying special attention to my face. He reached forward and touched my goatee. “Tell me Mr, Soldier why they let old men enter Army?”
Miller covered her mouth, holding back laughter. “What does blood taste like.” He asked matter of factly. Then I understood, this boy had been the one watching me, he was next to me in the room when I was coming off the drug cocktail.
“Sargeant?, what is going on here?” I stood up, she put her hand out and stood up too.
"He is helping us escape. His uncle has forced him to work in this camp. Long story short, one of our men stole drugs and cash from him. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time." She stated this matter of factly, as if our lives were not at stake.
"So what's the plan then?" I asked, belching a mouth full of plantain then quickly forcing it back down.
The boy spoke. “I will go to my uncle now. He is waiting for me. When you see the movie Patch Adams on T.V. you go to hatch in the other room and wait for instructions.”
“Why Patch Adams, what’s the obsession with Robin?” I asked.
“He taught me the English, my father was big fan, he had every video ever released. I watched many men die, Including my father. Robin gave me hope for better future.” As he replied, a tear ran down his face. “I love America because of him .” He finished speaking. Wiping his face with a tattered shirt sleeve, he slumped his head and walked toward the makeshift ladder.
Then I understood what it meant when Miller said Robin saved your life. I thought she was timing the video and somehow knew when they were doing rounds. It was more than that, it was so much more. This boy was risking his life to save Americans, because of an actor. Then something else hit me, it was an afterthought before that moment. I had the privilege to see Mr. Williams on stage, live at a USO event. He greeted, shook hands, and thanked many of us Vets for our service. It never really dawned on me that his presence was so far reaching. That reaching out and being vulnerable and real would impact a little boy, and that boy in a jungle on the other side of the world would in turn save my life.
A hand, tapped me on the shoulder. “It has started,” Miller said, “let's get to the room.”
“No! We must save him, he must come with us.”
“Are you crazy?” She exclaimed, “Let's just follow the plan.”
“With all due respect Sergeant, it is no longer an option, he is coming with us.” As I said this she took a deep sigh. She looked around the room at all the dead soldiers. They lay motionless, it was chilling, standing there amongst them. “Why me, Miller why.” I asked not really expecting an answer, half expecting her to slap me back to my senses. She didn’t, she just paused, her eyes still scanning the room.
We both stood for a moment listening to the opening scene of Patch Adams. Robin quotes poet Dante; In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in the dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place. He was right, Miller and I found our path in this most unlikely place.
“You are right, lets do this.” She stood up straight and proud. It was the first time in my life a woman ever said that to me. (I didn’t get out much ok) It was also the first time that I felt so committed to something or someone. “Since we must do this, I have a plan.” Her plan was swift and brilliant!
This is how it went down; I found the remote that had been tossed into our “tomb” I cranked the volume up to max, we both lay uncovered near the hatch door where the ladder would come down. The door opened and the ladder came down. The bearded man climbed down and looked at us laying there uncovered. Just as before he yelled something to the hatch above. Once again a handgun came flipping down. This time however as he reached for the weapon I scrambled to my feet and tackled him. The handgun bounced off another body and Miller scrambled for it.
The man was strong, but I gained the upper hand. Miller gained control of the gun. I regained my breath and my composure from the scuffle. "Where is the boy?" I asked in a demanding tone. He stood still, not saying a word. Miller pointed the gun at him.
"He asked you a question, where is the boy?" The man stood silent. After a few moments he pointed up at the hatch then stroked his beard.
"You make big mistake soldier. You will never get out alive.” He took a step toward me. Miller took a step closer too.
“We will see about that,” She looked at me, “climb the ladder Baker. We are leaving.” I climbed the ladder keeping an eye on the man. As I passed the television set hanging on the wall Robin was having a fit of on screen laughter, an epiphany if you will. It was odd that the climb seemed so long. My legs felt heavy, I shook them out one at a time then finished the remaining rungs. I pushed the floor hatch open slowly not fully knowing what to expect. I peaked my head into a small room with a small wooden table in its center. A couple of rickety chairs were pushed underneath it. Garbage was strewn throughout the room. What could only be described as urine filled milk jugs were scattered amongst the garbage. They decorated some of the unused floor space, some had lids and some did not. Climbing the rest of the way into the room almost made me miss the odor of my previous dwelling place. A floor safe with an outdated security monitor on top of it graced one of the room's corners. Just as I stepped fully inside I heard Miller scream something. It was hard to make out over a full blast Robin Williams on the screen.
A gunshot rang out loudly. I looked back down the hatch door which was now wide open. Miller was climbing up. She was closer now I could hear her yelling down into the room. “That was a warning shot the next one won’t miss I promise, stay back!” She pulled herself to the floor and stood up inside the room. “Wow such lovely accommodations. Have you seen Abdul?”
“Nope just this paradise here.” She managed a smile and a snarky chuckle.
“Lets find him and get out of here.” We closed the hatch door and slid the floor safe on the top of it so the bearded man could not push it open and join us. There were two doors in the jungle shack. One had light peering through the unsealed openings so I knew this would lead outside. The other to another room. Miller was already at the side of the room in cover position. I neared the door and opened it slowly. I looked inside. The door creaked loudly as I opened it further to get a better look. Abdul looked directly at me.
Gunshots rang out near the shack outside. Abdul ran toward Miller and hugged her. “That’s the Americans, here to rescue you. I called them the moment my Uncle went down that hatch. I’m so glad you live.” Just then the shack door burst open and American soldiers burst in. They pulled Abdul away from Miller.
“No, he is coming with us,” I yelled. “He saved us!”
Abdul looked at me. He smiled and Gently reminded me. “It was Mr. Williams who gave me hope. Is America good place?” He asked.
Fast forward eight years now, as I sit in my living room with My wife, Master sergeant, Laura Miller-Baker, and our now nineteen year old adopted Son Abdul Baker, watching Abdul’s favorite movie Mrs Doubtfire. Robin speaks and we all listen as he says “if there is love dear, those are the ties that bond.” Abdul looks at me and my wife and says. “ America is a good place, thank you both for giving me a chance, what do you say, Jumanji next!”
“Oh no not again!” We laugh as he embraces us in a hug.