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I wrote this in 11th grade, during the height of the Vietnam film craze of the mid-late 1980s.

I'm proud that I received a special commendation from the Vietnam Veterans of Ohio for this prize-winning story.

Once A Hero

Robert and Betty Murphy paused outside their son’s hospital room before going inside. They were standing in a beam of dirty sunlight from a large window behind them. Outside the sky was mostly overcast and filled with slate gray clouds, and they could look across the rooftops of the buildings beside the hospital and see the Hudson River in the distance. Thick smoke was lazily curling out of a large factory across the river.

Mr. Murphy reached up and took off his tattered cap to reveal a nearly bald head with several brownish hairs still clinging above his ears. He puts his hand on the door and looked down at his wife, who was nervously trying to apply lipstick without a mirror. She had a slightly scared look on her face.

“Hey, everything will be okay. You look fine,” Robert said as he smiled down at his wife. Putting a strong arm around her shoulders, he opened the door and they quietly walked in.

Room 5483 was very small and starkly furnished. The walls were painted a dingy white, and the drawn curtains bathed the whole room in sort of a greenish-gray light. A tiny black-and-white television set was perched on a shelf above the beds. The screen was filled with soft white static, which added a feeble glow to the room’s atmosphere. Besides the two beds, which were both occupied, the only other items of interest were an open door that led to a small bathroom cubicle, a couple of worn plastic chairs, and a small night table with an assortment of objects on top.

The Murphys looked down at the bed closest to them and saw the eyes of their only son staring back at them from beneath a wad of bandages wrapped around his head.

“Hey Mom. Dad. Good to see you guys.” The figure was dressed in a pair of starched plaid hospital pyjamas. In addition to his bandaged head, he had a heavy plaster cast on his right arm. His other arm lay limply at his side, and the rest of his body was hidden under the covers. Mrs. Murphy rushed over and threw her arms around her son and began to cry. Her husband silently lowered himself into a chair at the foot of the bed and stared at them.

“Hey man. Don’t cry. I’m okay now. A-number-one. I’m a little busted up, but I’ll be fine.” Mike fumbled in his shirt pocked for a tissue for his mother. She stood up to blow her nose, and then sat down on the bed next to him, holding his hand tightly.

“So, how’s life in the old neighborhood? Have you seen Jimmy around lately? Is he helping his old man in the shop this fall?” Mike adjusted his pillows so he could sit up and listen to his mother’s response.

“Jimmy was drafted four months ago. His father closed the shop and moved to Atlantic City,” Mrs. Murphy whispered, glancing quickly back at her husband.

“No kiddin’?” Mike laughed. “I just can’t picture little Jimmy humpin’ out in the Bush. What about the Angelinos? How’s that son who was always over at our apartment fixing the kitchen sink? What’s his name – uh, Joey?”

“KIA last month. He got drafted three days after you, Mrs. Murphy said. “The other son volunteered. Mrs. Angelino has been staying with us for a while. She’s almost 62, you know, and she doesn’t like staying in an empty apartment without her big strong boys to protect her.”

“Oh,” Mike said. He slowly turned his gaze to the night table beside him. An opened pack of cigarettes, a couple of packs of matches, and a bent Polaroid photo were among the objects on the smooth polished surface.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Mike,” Mr. Murphy whispered incredulously. He watched in horror as Mike shakingly reached over and pulled one cigarette from the pack with his left hand. Holding it in his mouth, he managed to light a match and light the cigarette. “I picked it up over in the Bush. Everybody smokes something over there. If you don’t, you get left out and left behind.” He reached down to finger the lone string of beads that was hanging around his neck. “And if you don’t like it, man, well, that’s tough. I’m sick and tired of your ‘my little boy’ crap. I don’t need you bossing me around anymore. I’m a man now!” he yelled angrily.

“You’re looking very good, honey,” Mrs. Murphy said quickly. “I guess that wound wasn’t as serious as you wrote us it was.”

“Yeah, I just caught some shrap all through here—“ Mike gestured on the left side of his face from his chin to his temple. “And up through here—“ He made a wide circle on the top of his head. “And up and down my arm. That’s basically it.”

“Well, I think you’re looking very good. And…” Mrs. Murphy trailed off, unsure of what to say next. Mike took another long drag on his cigarette and stared back at her.

“May I look at your picture, honey?” Mrs. Murphy asked as she reached over to pick up the photograph from the night table. It was a picture of five soldiers standing in front of a wall of muddy sandbags. The soldiers held their rifles in one hand and flashed the peace sign with the other. The men were covered with brownish-green shiny mud from the waist down, and one man was holding a muddy shovel. The ground below them was full of deep muddy puddles and trampled underbrush. All the soldiers had grins plastered on their faces, but their eyes seemed to stare vacantly off into space.

“Who are these people, Mike?” Mrs. Murphy asked curiously, glancing up at her son.

“That’s us. Charlie Company. That’s me with the shovel.” He smiled for the first time since his parents came in. Mrs. Murphy turned the picture over and read the back which was written in smeared blue ink:

Remember us back in The World!
King, Sammy, Doc and Manhattan
LZ MELINDA- January 9, 1968

“We’re happy that you had some friends, son,” Mr. Murphy said, reaching over to pat Mike on the leg. “Buddies are important things to have.”

Mike jerked his leg away and turned to face his father. “They weren’t my buddies, Dad!” he exclaimed angrily. “You can’t understand, man. The guys in your company are part of you. They’re your soul. It’s so important to have someone who knows you, who understands you. In a place like that, when you’re so alone, so frightened, you need someone who…you need...” Mike turned away from his parents and began to weep silently. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy sat and stared at each other, unsure of what to say or do. Finally, Mr. Murphy stood up.

“So. Well, I guess we should be going.” He walked over to kiss his son on the back of the head. “We’re, uh, we’re sure glad you’re home, son. Welcome home.”

“Yes, honey. We sure missed you. When you’re well enough to come home, I’ll fix you a nice pot roast and baked potatoes. Remember how you used to love that? It’ll be good for you to have a nice hot meal for a change.” Mrs. Murphy reached over to take the cigarette from Mike’s quivering hand and put it out in a small glass ashtray on the night table.

“We’ll be back tomorrow to see you. Just get plenty of rest, and you’ll be out of this awful place in no time at all,” Mr. Murphy said as they got up to leave.

The only sound was the sound of Mike’s quiet sobbing.

After taking one last lingering glace at their son, Mr. Murphy again put his arm around his wife and closed the door behind them.

Once A Hero
November 19, 2020