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Between You, Me, and the Stove

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Dear Sis,

I find myself writing you every day, it seems, just to have someone to talk to. It’s not that I don’t like the people here; it’s just that I don’t want to burden them with my problems. Everyone is burdened enough as it is. We talk about the food in the mess tent, the state of the latrines, or any number of other trivial subjects. Anything to avoid our current harsh reality.

Something changed, I think, when Colonel Blake’s plane was shot down. It’s strange to think we were innocent before his death: certainly not the innocence of children, considering the staggering amount of alcohol consumed per week. But I suppose, in a way, we were children. We saw only our sheltered view of this war, the bodies on the table ephemeral no matter how we tried to care about each of them, and to engage with them as people as well as patients. We see death every day, all around us. Wounds that I would have never believed anyone could survive have become routine. But for all that, the war didn’t touch us out here. The soldiers came to us, but rarely the battle.

That changed when Colonel Blake died. I think it reminded us that death can come for any of us at any time, with no predictability. That brutal reminder of our own mortality scared us all, an added layer to our grief. I know I should look to death as a transition rather than an end. Those who die are with God, it was their time to join Him, and those are good things. Such beliefs should comfort all people of faith.

I tell myself that every time I say the Last Rites over the dying or dead, and every time I see a nurse or a doctor lift a sheet in the bus only to drop it again. I tell myself that death is just another part of our spiritual lives. Most of the time I believe it, and I can go about my life with less fear than those around me because I believe. But there have been moments when the North Koreans have shelled the camp, or snipers picked at our tents through the night, that my faith shakes in the face of my own mortality. It only hits me when I’m alone, thank the Lord. When there are patients to see to I don’t have time to indulge in my own doubts and fears. Maybe that’s why I’m so desperate to keep busy: I’m worried that if I stop for too long I’ll look at the foundations of my faith and I will find them rotting. Oh, Kathy, how did I come to this?

With such a foundation, is it any wonder that I worry I’m just not a very good priest? God knows I try to act in all ways as His representative in accordance with Church doctrine, but some days it’s barely possible to make it through a surgery session without being sick. When the nurses aren’t available, how can I not come to the aid of those in need? But it’s very hard to feel like anyone’s representative when a doctor uses your hand to clamp off an artery and all you can think about is how the blood is creeping up your sleeve.

I confess as regularly as I’m able, but that service isn’t very available around here. There are plenty of priests at ICOR in Seoul, but I rarely get leave to go and see them. Some of the chaplains tour nearer to the front lines, but more often than not they aren’t priests. That’s why I’m writing you, I suppose. I need to get this off my chest, and in lieu of a priest you’re it. I hope you don’t mind.

I’ve expanded my hours since Colonel Blake’s death in case some of the people here are looking for spiritual guidance, or even just an ear to bend. I thought I should post my hours of availability on the bulletin board, but I didn’t want to seem pushy. After several hours with no takers I decided to go for a walk to the mess tent in hopes some fresh air would clear my mind. If my presence also reminded people I was there and ready to listen, all the better. I suppose it was just something to do, some way of feeling useful.

There were lights on in some tents, but most were dark by that time of night. I passed close to the office on my way, and I heard Radar crying. Oh, Kathy, Henry Blake was like a father to that boy. We all knew losing Colonel Blake was harder for him than any of us, but I had thought that other people—Hawkeye or Trapper or even Corporal Klinger—were seeing to him. I didn’t step in because I don’t like to intrude. I know that some other chaplains think I’m not assertive enough, and I once heard two of them whispering something about weak faith as I passed them at a conference. I’m not really in a position to stand up to that until I’ve reconciled the issue with myself, but my own faith has very little to do with the reason why I prefer to let my flock choose when and if they want to talk to me. I just don’t like to push, Sis. The drive to evangelize seems at odds with my vow of humility. And besides, proselytizing doesn’t really seem helpful over here; it just makes people feel guilty. Who am I to say I have the only ticket to Heaven? That all these delightful people I’ve met—there are quite a lot of Buddhists in Korea, you know—are damned? I’m crossing myself as I write this because it’s not for me to question doctrine, but that doesn’t seem fair. If God loves us doesn’t He love all of us?

Maybe I should scratch that entire paragraph out before I send this to you. I really shouldn’t burden you with my crisis of faith any more than I should burden the people here with my petty problems.

Back to Radar. I stopped outside the office, my natural inclination not to barge in fighting the urge to comfort the grieving. I needed to do something.

I opened the door to the office, but I didn’t see Radar on his cot or at his desk. A single light was shining from the inner office. I peered through the window and I saw Radar, his teddy bear clutched in one hand, sorting through paperwork and placing some of it in a box. He looked so miserable, Kathy, working through the night with his bear.

I closed my eyes. It wouldn’t help anyone if I went to pieces too.

Once I was convinced I’d mustered the wherewithal to continue with some sort of equanimity I knocked on the door. Radar shouted and dropped to the floor behind the desk. Terrified I’d given the poor boy an aneurism, I pushed my way into the office. Radar appeared over the edge of the desk, his bear clutched to his chest and his eyes round behind his glasses.

“Geez, Father!” he said when he saw me. “You nearly scared me out of my skin.”

“I’m sorry, my son. It wasn’t my intention. I was passing by and, well, I heard you.”

“Oh boy. You heard me? You think other people did too?” He scrubbed at his face with the back of his hand.

“Even if they did, I think they’d understand,” I said.

Radar doesn’t often seem genuinely resentful of anything, despite the shocking amount of work he’s given as the company clerk. For such a young man he has a remarkable capacity to take responsibility in stride. But he did look resentful then, and tired. “You haven’t been talking to Major Burns much, huh? He said he wanted the desk cleared out by tomorrow, Father! All the stuff Colonel Blake left for him—it was supposed to help keep the camp running. And he just wants to start from scratch, even though half these forms are regulation, and he’s going to make me dig them back out when he realizes he needs them. I know he’s in charge now and we gotta do what he wants, but every time I try to pack it all up I start crying all over the place, and then my glasses fog up, and then I can’t see, and how can I see what I’m packing up then, huh? I could lose something important or something, and then where would we be?” He lifted a framed photograph from the box and held it out to me. The glass plate showed a spider-web crack. “Look. Colonel Blake forgot this. I was sort of thinking of sending it to him once he got back to the States.”

I took it from him. Henry Blake smiled at me, captured in black and white holding a large fish while he stood on a dock. The cracks stated in the corner and obscured his body and most of the fish. “Oh,” I whispered, “oh my.”

“I didn’t mean to!” Radar said. “It just slipped! I tried to catch it and everything, but it fell on the ground and it just broke. And now I can’t send it to Mrs. Colonel because she’ll think I dropped it on account of me not liking him, even though I thought he was the best!”

“She won’t think that, my son,” I said.

Radar didn’t look at me. I don’t think he heard a word I said.

“My son?” I tried again. “Radar?”

He stood there, shaking and staring at the photograph in my hands as though he, and not the North Koreans, had killed Colonel Blake.

“Radar,” I tried again. I touched his arm.

Radar jerked, and the photo was jostled from my hands. For a moment it hung between us in the air. We both fumbled for it. I didn’t want it to fall any more than he did, but it slipped through both our fingers and hit the floor. The glass of the frame gave way and scattered across the concrete.

“Oh, God,” I said.

For a moment we both stared at the glass on the ground. Then Radar really let me have it. “What did you do that for, huh?” he shouted at me, shrill and furious. “Now I really can’t send it! Oh boy, you shouldn’t have even come in here. What am I supposed to tell Mrs. Colonel? All his stuff went down with his plane, you know that, and all I had was this dumb photo, and now it’s broke and I know it’s not really your fault, but gee, Father! You really loused this one up!”

Sis, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the position to get shouted down by a teenage boy and absolutely deserve it, but it’s a horrible experience. I dropped to my knees, hoping to put the pieces back together enough that it wouldn’t be such a loss, but in my heart I knew I’d broken something that couldn’t be mended.

I swept at the glass with my bare hands. I shouldn’t have, but I just wanted to set things right, and I’d failed miserably enough I was ready to try anything that might ease Radar’s burden.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but I couldn’t bring myself to look up at him. “I’m so sorry, Radar. Oh, good God, I am so very sorry!”

And then, as you might have guessed, a piece of glass slipped in my hand and sliced into my palm. I pulled my hand to my chest, blood dripping onto the floor with the glass.

I heard a strangled noise. When I looked up I saw Radar, also crouched down, staring at my bleeding hand. His face was white and his expression stricken. We see blood every day here, Kathy: in bottles and bodies. The operating room sometimes has it spattered on the ceiling, it gets so thick, but it’s somehow worse out of that context. In isolation, particularly in Colonel Blake’s office, the blood dripping between my fingers onto the broken glass took on a dreadful significance.

“Radar?” I asked.

He launched himself at me and bowled me over. I sat down hard, and before I could react at all he was hugging the stuffing out of me.

I patted him on the back and wondered what more I could do to make the situation worse. I couldn’t think of a thing until I realized I was using the back of his uniform as a blotter. I snatched my pocket handkerchief out of my pants and gripped it tightly. The bloodstains weren’t very noticeable, and the local laundresses are very good at getting blood out of things by this point, but I knew it was just one more mess I’d made.


“I’m sorry, Father. Oh boy! Oh geez, I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. It’s not your fault. I mean, yeah you broke the picture, but I shouldn’t have let you have it like that. You didn’t mean to; I know that.”

“Radar, it’s all right,” I said around his shoulder. “I don’t mind.”

I realized he wasn’t even listening to me, and that he wasn’t loosening his grip. I fell quiet and focused on being as supportive a presence as I could possibly be. If Radar needed to cry out the pain, I could be the shoulder he did it on. What’s that motto all the doctors around here have? Oh, yes: first, do no harm. I can’t seem to help doing harm, particularly when I want to prevent it. But I believe God knows all, and He forgives us all our stupid mistakes. But we have to meet Him in the middle, Kathy. We have to keep trying to do the right thing. If I had done harm in my efforts to help, then I needed to stay until the harm had faded.

I sat with Radar sobbing into my shoulder, soaking it with snot and tears, for almost fifteen minutes. I wasn’t foolish enough to utter the phrases ‘everything will be all right’ (I have a hard time believing that over here) or ‘God has a plan’ (which is very comforting when I believe it, but, well, no need to go over that again).

After a while Radar stopped crying and he sat back. The glass crunched as he shifted, and he turned away from me. I really thought I’d managed to make a bad hash worse until he turned back with the broken frame in his hands.

He pulled off the back of the frame and freed the photo. He was looking at the image, but I could see something written on the back: ‘Henry and His Only Friend, June ‘48’. It was probably meant as a joke, but it didn’t strike me as terribly funny. I closed my eyes and prayed that Colonel Blake now understood exactly how wrong that sentiment was.

“It’s not true at all,” I whispered.

Radar looked at me, and I gestured at the words. He flipped the photo over and read the back. His eyes brimmed, but he rubbed the tears away with his bear’s paw before they could fall and said, “No, it sure isn’t.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m sometimes not the most confident man. I looked up at Radar over the rims of my glasses. It makes things easier when I can’t actually see the people I disappoint. I thank God every day for my poor eyesight. Maybe it was my insecurity talking, Kathy, but I had to ask, “Did I help at all, Radar? Or should I have just stayed away?”

“No!” Radar said.  I’m not certain he wasn’t just trying to make me feel better. “No, Father, I didn’t mean what I said before. Honest. I was just mad, see? You’re good at this whole priest deal. I mean, you’re the best priest I ever met!”

“How many priests have you met?”

“Well, I think there was one on the other side of Ottumwa, but Mom didn’t want me going to that part of town. She’s not crazy about Catholics. Sorry.”

Radar couldn’t know how often I’ve heard just that. It loses its sting after a lifetime. He did seem genuinely apologetic though, so I didn’t take offense. “It’s quite all right, Radar.”

He looked down at the photo, and then stood up. I stood as well, brushing glass off myself. The cut had already stopped bleeding.

“We should finish getting this stuff into boxes, Father,” Radar said. “I hear they’re making a push tomorrow, and we’ll need all the forms in the right boxes for when Major Burns changes his mind and wants them again.”

“Of course,” I said. I cast about, and then put a stack of half-filled Section 8 forms for Klinger in the box labeled ‘Klinger’. In the corner of one of them, written in Colonel Blake’s handwriting, were the words ‘NOT CRAZY – JUST DRIVING ME NUTS’. I smiled.

“What?” Radar asked.

I showed him the form.

He smiled too. Is it terrible that that’s become my measuring stick of success over here, Kathy? I no longer expect to save anyone, or even lead many of them closer to God. I just hope to make their lives here easier, if only for a moment.

We put the rest of the forms in the boxes, and made certain each was labeled according to its contents. Radar was so tired by the time we were done that I had to help him stumble to his cot where he lay down in his uniform and fell asleep. I tucked a blanket around him and made my way back to my own tent.

Today, sure enough, Major Burns decided he did need the forms after all. I saw Radar and Klinger unpacking, and perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part, or even willful arrogance, but I think Radar seemed a bit calmer. I can’t say that was my doing, because it could have been anything really, but maybe I helped. I’d like to think I did.

Your brother,