Chapter 1: Enter the Mail
The parcel at the bottom of the mail bag was the most hopeful thing that anyone had seen in weeks. The only other things to emerge out of the bag had been letters, with their news, jokes, or stories from home, but while they were good, they were thin, insubstantial, not something enough to live on.
It was a medium-sized parcel, about the size of a shoebox, and it was heavy, heavy enough that Radar leaned off balance when he pulled it out of the bottom of the bag. It didn’t look like much. There was the ubiquitous brown paper covering it, tied with butcher’s twine, the once-crisp creases crumpled and shapeless at the corners and end. It had come a long way, with Army stamps and streaks of black grease or dirt on its surfaces. It had probably started out as a rectangular box but had been rendered vaguely lumpish by the smashing of any number of Army trucks, boats and planes, and the crushing weight of other, heavier packages.
Radar squinted at it for a minute, then turned it over. He brushed at the paper of the package with the flat of his hand, then poked at it with a short finger. The ring of olive-drab figures watched him, motionless, with a kind of eerie, insatiable hunger, like a ring of hunting, winter-lean wolves.
“Cut it out, you guys.” Radar groused, then looked up from intently studying the package, pushing his glasses up his nose. If anyone knew, then Radar knew, knew the kind of desperation that the mail brought—particularly packages—boxed, sealed, addressed and sent with love. There was nothing quite like a package, the home that you could feel, weigh, hold onto.
“Anyone expecting a package from home?” He said, weakly, with half a question in the pitch of his voice, holding the package firmly to himself. A roar went up from the crowd circling him and his mail bag in the compound. Hawkeye started pushing his way into the center, near to Radar. He caught Radar’s eye and said, with rising volume,
“What the revolting rabble would like to know, Radar, is what is that supposed to mean?”
“It has an address, doesn’t it?” BJ chimed in, he could practically smell Mill Valley. “Someone must have sent it to someone.”
“Well, that’s just it.” Radar responded, more than a little defensive, “there isn’t one, see?”
He turned the package towards them. Hawkeye felt BJ come up behind his shoulder. They both squinted at the package.
“That says MASH 4077th, right there.” Hawkeye concluded, reaching out to trace the letters on the package. The return address, if there had been one, was a smear of black with a few assorted letters, because that part of the package had gotten wet, and there was a darkish stain that covered the whole left-hand corner and reached several inches around.
“Return address has an A, two M’s—no, an M and an N, one O—maybe an H?” BJ hazarded a guess, leaning more heavily over Hawkeye’s shoulder. Hawkeye leaned back, and pointed at the address label, which had been addressed in thick, soft, smearing pencil, and had been obscured into a haze of thick, grey cloud by the constant motion against other packages. The MASH 4077th was still readable, but barely, as if whoever had addressed it had re-sharpened their pencil into a sharper point. It was easer to feel the indentations of the 4077th pressed into the paper than it was to read it.
“Anyone here spell their name with no letters?” Hawkeye asked, then took the package from Radar’s hands. “Good! I guess that means it’s up for grabs.”
“You, you can’t do that, Hawkeye! Geez, the mail’s my responsibility.” Radar said, flustered voice rising into a squeak.
“Look,” BJ said reasonably, “you did deliver it, you just delivered it to us.”
“But your names aren’t on it!” Radar retorted, quickly, blowing all up, the way he did when he was agitated, and knew he was right and going to get in trouble.
“Radar, nobody’s name is on it.” Hawkeye snapped back, raising the package above Radar’s head, to show it to the crowd.
“And we’re nobody, just like anybody else.” BJ agreed, trying to reach over Hawkeye’s arm to grab the package. Hawkeye elbowed him in the gut, and BJ staggered back a step. “Why what long arms you have, Goldilocks.” He growled, trying to push Hawkeye aside with his shoulder.
Hawkeye half-fell forward, catching himself on Radar, who tried to catch the package, but dropped it, then fell himself. Hawkeye pushed himself off his knees from his crouch and leaned down to pick up the package.
“Hawk.” BJ said, his voice calm and remonstrative and paternal, and Hawkeye stopped, going to look up, but caught sight of Radar in the corner of his eye. And he saw Radar looking at him, sprawled on his backside in the frozen Korean mud, with the deer in the headlights look that he sometimes got, but mostly with Frank, powerless in the face of an officer pushing his weight around.
Hawkeye picked up the package with his left hand, and then offered Radar his right, to pull him up. Then he offered him the package. Radar took it, with a sort of furtive look, brushing it off busily, as if to give himself the appearance of having legitimate work to do. Hawkeye smiled, a bit sadly at himself, recognizing the protective strategy that Radar often donned with the Majors of the 4077th.
“Maybe you ought to ask the Colonel, Radar.” BJ said, stepping forward next to Hawkeye. “He’ll have some idea what to do.” They both kept an arm’s length from Radar, looking down at him, the way they did sometimes when they weren’t certain what to do but proceed with caution.
“I’ll do that.” Radar said, clutching the package and the mail-bag to himself. If he put an emphasis on that “I’ll,’ both Hawkeye and BJ read the intent to do it all alone as what it was, a defensive self-reliance.
“Time to go commit suicide at lunch, folks.” Hawkeye projected over the heads of the crowd. “A free martini from me if anyone survives it.”
“If anyone survives it, who’d risk a martini with you?” Someone called out, and the crowd laughed, and then began to disperse.
“We’ll go with you, Radar.” BJ offered, coming to stand next to Radar, raising his arm to brush the dirt off Radar’s back. Hawkeye stepped next to him, brushing off his own knees and then leaning over to help brush the dirt off Radar.
“Yeah, okay, thanks BJ, Hawkeye.” Radar said, turning on his heel, pulling the mail bag strap over his shoulder, and straightening his glasses.
“Thank us in the next war.” Hawkeye replied, his arm slinging around Radar with an easy nonchalance. The fact that Hawkeye was doing it on purpose was something that that BJ kept hidden in the corner of his mouth, a small smile hidden behind his moustache.
Chapter 2: Enter the Mess
In which Hawkeye, BJ, and Radar bring their problem to the Colonel, the Mysterious Package becomes even More Mysterious (and slightly annoying), and every one shows up to banter in the Mess Tent.
Potter listened to them with the solemn gravity of a judge, fountain pen poised over the next stack of DD form 443s. No one mentioned Hawkeye and Radar’s scuffle over the mail. The Colonel wasn’t their principal, and they weren’t a group of schoolchildren. It had been done, finished. Somehow, it paled in importance compared to the mail that couldn’t be sorted.
“Well, Radar, I’m not sure I’ll be much help.” Potter said, mildly, putting down his fountain pen. “Can I see it, please?”
Radar handed the package to the Colonel. Potter took it and turned it over in his hands, looking it all over. He traced the stains with his fingers, smoothed the paper under the string where it had bunched up, and peered through his glasses at the address. Then he sat back and shook his head.
“I’ve been in this man’s army longer than you three have been alive, but this is a first. Well, there was that package Mildred sent me on Guam, but we never did figure out how that monitor lizard got inside—” he glanced up from the package and caught the clear incredulity. Radar’s mouth was hanging slightly opened, BJ had raised one eyebrow and Hawkeye had a clear this-is-such-bull expression on his face.
“Just once,” Potter said, grumpily, raising one finger and stabbing it down on his blotter with emphasis, “once, I would like someone to actually believe my stories are true.”
“I hardly believe—"
“Look, Colonel, if we bought that story—,” BJ interjected, trying to keep Hawkeye and his comments behind him with his elbow, and failing. Hawkeye took a quick side-stop to the left of the chair in front of Potter’s desk, threw himself forward and planted his hands on the edge of the desk. BJ just shrugged, as if to say I tried.
“I hardly believe what I’m saying, but if you told true stories, then maybe we’d believe them. But until I get to see a portable latrine with my own two eyes, I call bull.” Hawkeye retorted, looking down his nose at the older man, with a look of superiority on his face. Radar’s mouth dropped open a little wider and he looked positively shocked, then he shut his mouth with a click and looked mulish.
“I believe your stories, sir.” Radar announced quietly to the room at large.
“Thank you, Radar. Now, why don’t you make announcement to the whole camp and see if anyone was expecting a parcel from home.” He clearly caught the slightly panicked expression that slipped over Radar’s face. “Leave it with me, Radar.” Potter advised, sagely. “That’ll keep certain folks from pressing their luck.”
“The Commanding Officer: good for barking at mailmen, guarding the house, playing with the children, walking the wife and a long cozy snooze in front of the fire.” Hawkeye narrated the action, pretending to walk up to BJ with a microphone in hand. He bowed, BJ bowed back and then they commenced to hand-shaking.
“Have you any in the French cut?” BJ asked, putting on as affected an accent as he dared, in the presence of Radar.
“Have you considered, sir—"
“Blow you two.” Potter said, but without any real heat. The laughter was all in the twinkle in his eyes. “Radar, you done with the mail, son?”
“Sure, except for you and the patients in Post-OP, sir.”
“After that, and after the announcement, see if you can’t get the Army Postmaster on the horn. Somebody must have a record of this package.”
He looked again at the plethora of different Army stamps in different colors stuck all over the package like a strange pattern of multi-colored spots. He turned the package towards them, pointing at the address label.
“Whoever sent it doesn’t know how to spell Uijeongbu.” It was crossed out and scrawled in at least four different scripts, going further and further down the package. Every spelling was different, and at least one attempt had been crossed out with a heavy line several times over and restarted with a Ui instead of a We.
“Oh no, sir.” Radar demurred, shaking his head. “That’s just the Army—they don’t how to spell it. Err, well, nobody can spell it. They all spell it different ways, but it gets here, honest!”
“Radar,” the Colonel said, threateningly.
It turned out that nobody and everybody had a record of the package. The 4077th moved, the Army supply lines moved, and the package had been crisscrossing the Korean peninsula for the better part of three months at least until it had finally caught up with them. In the process it had been in-processed and out-processed by the Army Postmaster the better part of a half-dozen times, and they had no interest in ever seeing the package again.
They told Radar so but used a lot more four-letter words than his Ma allowed him to use. He told the Colonel that, with blatant bluster, but he had just laughed. He had needed a good laugh. Frank had come in and out of his office all afternoon trying to claim “his” package.
Hawkeye sipped a long martini throughout the afternoon, watching Frank scurry in-an-out like an old terrier with a bladder problem.
It was just like the old days of the MASH 4077th, except Trapper was gone and BJ was here, and Potter was here and Henry was dead. The only thing the same was the gin, strained through 1942's best olive drab Army wool socks, and Frank, winding up into spirals of further and further idiocy, and Hawkeye. Hawkeye was still here, and not home. Even the momentary excitement of one mystery package couldn't distract him from that for long.
BJ sighed his way through a minute reading of Peg’s latest letter.
“Erin’s talking to her bunny again.” He related, not lifting his nose from the paper. He had read and smelled the letter a dozen times already, but that was not going to stop him. If he pressed close enough, real close, he would be teleported home, if only in his mind.
“Yeah.” Hawkeye responded, lazily, raising his martini to his lips, tilting it, and lowering it again without drinking. He was practicing for the next time they played drinking games with Sidney. Pick-Your-Neuroses (as it was colloquially called), was devilishly fun for diagnosing each other with Freudian terms, but the misdiagnoses were killer.
The last time they had played, he had wound up tied to his cot with his own bathrobe tie, and BJ had refused to say what he had done or why. Margaret had laughed so uproariously in his face that she had started coughing, and Potter had blushed (Potter! Blushed!) and left his breakfast unfinished. When he had gone to Sidney to demand an answer, Sidney had offered to let him play anytime, just so long as there were no Generals handy.
“Look, Beej, if you’re done digesting that letter, do you want to go to dinner?” Hawkeye called, flipping over on his bunk. He’d finished short-sheeting Frank’s bed an hour ago and was getting to the state of antsy that meant he needed to get up and do something. Either that, or he needed the latrine.
“I thought today would be a good day to die.”
“It is meatloaf day.” BJ deadpanned, but set down his letter, carefully sliding it back into its envelope and placing it flat on top of the novel he was reading.
The box greeted them at the table. Everyone else was busy. Potter was explaining to Margaret how the box had gotten there, and Frank was looking at it with greedy eyes, and Father Mulcahy was doing his thrice-daily blessing of the food, ignoring the box entirely.
“Has it worked yet, Father?” Hawkeye asked, setting down his tray with a clang and stepping over bench.
“Oh hello, Hawkeye.” Mulcahy replied, absentmindedly, eying the slop on Hawkeye’s tray with the enthusiasm of a man facing a firing squad. “Well, no one’s died yet.”
“There’s always a first time.” BJ voiced his medical opinion, taking the bench next to Hawkeye.
“They said that about the Resurrection too.” Father Mulcahy might have spoken softly, but he carried a big stick.
“Colonel,” Hawkeye called down to the end of the bench, “Stop kicking me, Frank. Has anyone claimed the box yet?”
Frank opened his mouth, and there was the resounding sound of three thuds under the table. He moaned, and sort of slipped under the table like a wet noodle. Potter glared at them.
“He kicked twice.” BJ explained, looking at his fork and knife as if he didn’t know what to do with them and pointing at Hawkeye with his right thumb.
“Boys.” Potter remonstrated, setting down his own silverware with a clang. Margaret looked intent at his elbow. “No one has presented a legitimate claim to the box.” He raised his voice a little, ducked to the table’s level and called under it, “That includes you, Major Burns. And no—pretending to fake your mother’s handwriting is inexcusable.”
“Fink.” It was an almost inaudible word drifting from the end of the table.
Potter glared again. BJ and Hawkeye pointed their fork and knife respectively at Father Mulcahy. He blushed and looked apologetic. Potter sighed.
“This box isn’t becoming a problem, it is a problem. Now, anybody have any bright ideas?” Potter asked, looking around the table. There was another thud. He shut his eyes and rubbed at his temple with his hand.
“We could always give it to Frank.” Hawkeye suggested suggestively.
“We could give it to the North Koreans too.” BJ suggested, not to be outdone in the suggestive suggestions department.
There was another thud. This time Margaret looked determinedly innocent.
“What about a raffle?” Margaret said brightly, setting down her own knife and fork. “We could raffle off tickets for a worthy cause.”
“For the Orphanage?” Father Mulcahy said, certainly last but not to be outdone.
“Fine idea. You arrange it.” Potter agreed, picking up his fork. He swished it around in the mashed potatoes, and looked vaguely sickened, if resigned. “Not one word, Pierce,” He pointed his fork in a vaguely threatening semi-circle, and Hawkeye slowly pulled his nose away from his meatloaf-laden fork. “Now just be good little boys and girls and eat your dinner, children.”
It *is* really quite difficult to spell Uijeongbu without looking it up.
The DD 443 was a real Army Form, circa WW2/Korea, which was the "Bed and Patients Report" for a hospital.
Expect a Raffle.
Chapter 3: Enter the Winner
In which Margaret organizes a Raffle, a winner is drawn, and the Mysterious Box is opened.
The tension in the Officer’s Club was so thick you could have cut it with a piece of Mess Toast, surplus circa 1942. (It was a truth universally acknowledged that the toast was both stronger and sharper than the knives. Private Jones’ finger had found that out, to the tune of three stitches.)
For two days, Radar had been selling raffle tickets to be the proud owner of one U.S. Army delivered Mystery Box from Home, entries a dollar a piece, all proceeds going to the Orphanage. Now, the half of the unit that wasn’t on duty, and some who were, were pushing as one olive-drab collective, an over-excited mass of people wanting to hear the announcement of the lucky winner. Half of the excitement was simply seeing what was inside the box, much less winning.
Someone clever (Hawkeye denied it strenuously) had posted a memo with possible contents on the bulletin board, which included but was not limited to the banal and stretched all the way to the obscene.
“We should have gone for the cheap seats.” Hawkeye jostled against BJ, trying to claim more than one-half of the bar stool he was sitting on.
“Speak for yourself—Klinger’s in the cheap seats.”
“Look lively, folks, Major Houlihan, as co-co-or-di-nat-or of this little soiree, is going to pull the winning name.” Potter announced in his booming voice, holding the box in his hands and parting a way through the crowd. Major Houlihan followed after him, holding a bed-pan aloft.
The crowd fell silent in a single second. Someone giggled, then someone coughed, and a muffled yell was heard:
“Hey, hands off the Klinger collection, bub.”
“The degeneracy of this unit never fails to surprise me.” Frank pontificated sadly, speaking loudly to make himself heard. He had decided to attend after all, even if he hadn’t bought a ticket, mainly because everyone else was.
“Why?” BJ wanted to know, stirring his drink with a pretzel. “After all, you’re in this unit.”
“I resent that remark.”
“You resemble that remark, Frank.” Margaret said, coolly. “Now if everyone’ll shut up, we can draw a ticket.”
Now, Margaret was not big on gambling (she said) and she didn’t have Pierce’s over-the-top style (she knew) but she knew how to throw a good punch, and like any woman in touch with her passions, knew how to knock them out.
She raised the bedpan above her head and gave it a little shake. The folded pieces of paper rustled, jostling against each other. Then she gave a smile to the whole Officer’s Club, turning on her heel. It was a public beaming smile but there was a little hint of something, the way her lip softened at the edge, that said it was a very private smile, wouldn’t you like to know. Then she turned and the whole crowd sighed as she offered the bedpan to Father Mulcahy, who had abandoned the piano bench for scrunching up on the last bar stool, between BJ and Kellye.
He reached in, plucked out a piece of paper and opened it, reading. Then he looked up, and every pair of eyes in the room didn’t blink, watching him give a bemused smile.
“Well, I guess I won.” He murmured, lifting the sheet up and showing it to the crowd. “The luck of the Irish, you know, always good for raffles.” Fr. Mulcahy explained bemusedly, an embarrassed if good-natured smile lighting up his face.
The Officer’s Club was dead-silent, as if no one could believe what had just happened.
“Well, cheers to the Father!” Hawkeye called out, raising his glass. “Two birds with one stone: funds for the orphanage and a Mystery Box for yourself.” He leaned over, across BJ, and clapped him on the shoulder. “I never knew you had it in you.”
A roar of applause and laughter shook the aluminum siding, and at least one mouse was dislodged from its nest.
“Well, Padre, this is yours.” Potter announced, handing him the box, then turned to accept a glass of bourbon from Hawkeye. He settled against the bar and made a get-on-with-it gesture, as if he’d taken a front row seat at a birthday party. Behind him, Hawkeye and BJ’s blue eyes were gleaming over the Colonel’s head, and Radar edged around Potter’s elbow, clutching a bottle of purple grape Nehi with both hands.
Father Mulcahy took the box from Potter with both hands. The string slipped over the edges easily, and the brown paper, so long abused, didn’t even crumple when he unwrapped the end flaps and slid the box out.
He looked up into a sea of faces staring back at him, more faces than he had ever seen at a Mass or a non-denominational service, and understood, instinctively, that these people were yearning for something. They were hungry, hungry to taste the light and fluffy fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven, to smell the crisp scent of sheets, freshly washed and dried in the sun, to feel the soft brush of fresh-mown, wind-blown grass on bare feet, to have clean faces, clean hands, clean hearts—
Peace surpasseth all understanding.
The box was coarse under his fingers, limited, momentary; it was a crude comfort to be hungry for, but it was a part of home.
He shifted, pulling his Tom Mix pocketknife out of his left pocket. He flipped the blade out, and balanced the point on the taped seam of the box. He caught Radar watching him out of the corner of his eye. He’d let the straw for his Grape Nehi slip out of his mouth because he was so entranced.
It was just a box, and yet, as he slit the cellophane tape with a long shhh sound, and yet, in the motion of opening the box, Mulcahy had, unwittingly, held up a tarnished mirror to what it might be like to finally go home.
Home. He could see the glow of it softening each face, the light shining in each eye, as if the hope of home had kindled and settled, firmly, into the burnt out logs of each heart, in the chimney of each chest, and the rising flames had set up a rosy, warm radiance.
“Go on, Padre.” Potter whispered, urgently, as if he, too, were caught up in the mysterious spell of the box just as everyone else was. “Open it.”
“I feel rather like Pandora, opening her box.” Mulcahy admitted, in a soft voice, and the layers of newspaper in the box crinkled as he laid his hand on them, as if in blessing.
“Who’s Pandora?” Radar asked in a whisper, with an inquisitive tone in his voice.
“—Father, just be sure and leave hope inside—.”
“We’ll tell you later,” BJ supplied kindly, looking down at the shorter corporal.
The whole crowd was holding its breath, and when he pulled back the thick wad of newspaper, he could feel the palpable disappointment as the front rows sighed. Lying there, tucked into place but horribly battered, were four Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup cans, a box of Ritz crackers and a package of Fig Newtons. It was a positive disappointment.
“Wait, what’s happening?”
“It’s just tinned soup, and a battered old package of crackers. Nothing exciting there.”
It was, in fact, nothing particularly exciting. As the crowd melted away, Potter leaned over and picked up one of the cans, looking it over. The paper label was yellowed and had scrunched up from the bottom.
“Well, it’s had a long pilgrimage.” Potter exclaimed, running his finger over a large, oblong dent in the side of the can.
“Who knows how long it’s been kicking around in Army mail bags?” BJ added, taking the Ritz box and shaking it. There was a sound like a waterfall, as if a ponderance of crumbs had just rattled their way from one end of the box to the other.
“Do they deliver WW2 surplus mail?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Pierce.” Margaret said, having finally gotten her whiskey, neat.
“It’s all yours, Father. Don’t spend it in one place.” BJ said, putting the Ritz crackers back in their place and leaning back on his barstool.
“Thanks.” Mulcahy replied, feeling somewhat grumpy. It was his box, now, after all. Potter settled the can back into the box. He folded the flaps back in, with something of a proprietary feeling. He had just gathered it into his arms, when Radar went stiff.
“Choppers.” He said quietly, and intently.
“Let’s go, boys and girl.” Potter said, settling his mostly full bourbon glass back on the bar with everyone else’s. Hawkeye and BJ got off their stools, and there was a fatigue in their movements that had nothing to do with being tired.
“ATTENTION ALL PERSONNEL. INCOMING WOUNDED—THESE ARE NOT MYSTERY BOXES!”
In less than a minute, Father Mulcahy stood alone in the Officer’s Club, holding the box, and feeling it turn colder and stiffer in his arms by the minute. In that moment, he felt perpetually lonely, as if he had been there before he had even existed and would be there long after he left, a person outside his place, with nowhere to lay down or sit or to rest that simply belonged to him. Where is the comfort of home, he thought, in all this?
This includes two complimentary references to Pride & Prejudice and the Three Stooges.
Expect the last chapter sometime soon.
Chapter 4: Enter the Gift
In which there is much Meatball Surgery, Sickness, Soup, and Father Mulcahy ponders a deep mystery.
BJ rested his forehead under Hawkeye’s hand.
“How bad is he?” Potter said more than asked, leaning against the doorframe.
“Bad. But not bad enough to get him out of this. Give him a four-hour breather, some IV fluids and aspirin, and he’ll be okay enough to go back in the OR.”
“You don’t look too hot yourself, Pierce.” Potter opined, stepping closer and reaching out a hand. Hawkeye dodged it by the expedient of sitting down. The hair under his surgical cap was lank, and there were dark circles under the red eyes in his pale face. Potter harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Frank’s down for the count already. You need me.” Hawkeye replied, pulling BJ up by his shoulders, the sudden strain making his biceps flex, and it was obvious that Hawkeye was holding most of BJ’s weight up.
“If you’re sure.” Potter replied, doubtfully, taking a towel and wiping his face.
“Look, Father Mulcahy’s a good priest but he’s not a surgeon— and I’ll admit to being sick when you do, Colonel.” Hawkeye said, fatuously, bending to try and take the strain off his arms onto his shoulders and back. BJ was no lightweight, and Hawkeye was tall and not well-built.
“I can’t afford to be sick.”
“Well, then, Colonel, neither can I.”
They, in fact, couldn’t afford to be sick. Not with Frank, who had crumpled down in the OR in a pile of bloody scrubs and sweat, or not with BJ, who had struggled on, in-and-out of a cot and IV to take part in the mad scramble in the OR for the better part of three days.
It had been a day-long week at the MASH 4077th. Casualties had come, fast and bad and heavy, and the flu had returned to plague them once again, with the cold and sleet of the Korean winter. If there had been help, it had never come. They had staggered from cot to OR to Post-OP to OR to Post-Op to cot, sometimes with food, sometimes with sleep, but mostly without.
No one had been unaffected, but everyone had to work on regardless. There was nowhere else for them to turn. The relief of collapsing under sickness was poisoned by the realization that there were men dying for them to finish sleeping, eating, feeling better. What help they had was within themselves, and they gave it all.
And it had taken its toll: Hawkeye, hollow-eyed and hollow-cheeked, moving with the absent gait of the perpetually exhausted; BJ, wearing every single piece of clothing he owned and shivering underneath it all; Potter, who stopped limping only when he stopped moving and looked worn, haggard, drained of strength; Margaret and Mulcahy and Radar, walking only because the rote motions of routine and the discipline of care drew them on; even Frank, who had started complaining only when his frequent bouts of vomiting had stopped, the day before.
“We all feel lousy, Burns, that’s no reason to take it out on the nurses.” Potter remarked in the particularly growly tone that meant annoyance, exasperation or irascibility, sometimes all the above. Frank’s face held still, then his mouth twitched, as if he meant to defend himself. But BJ loomed in, having come out of the double doors behind them into the artificial light of the compound with a shrug and a sneeze.
“Particularly not Nurse Kellye, Frank, she had a fever of over a hundred degrees. And she gave you the instrument you asked for.”
“She should’ve given me the one I wanted, not the one I asked for.” Frank whined back, stuffing his hands into his pockets and shaking his head. “I was suffering from a fever too, you know.”
“You just suffer from the incurable malady of being a jackass.” Hawkeye retorted, having emerged quietly and stumbled into the motionless group, remaining standing only because he leaned heavily against BJ.
“Whoa there, partner.” BJ said, wrapping his arm around Hawkeye’s shoulders to steady him.
“Wrestle him into the Swamp, BJ, and take yourself with him.” Potter had turned back around at the outburst. Hawkeye just shrugged off BJ, as much as he could. They’d been leaning on each other for the better part of a week and the habit was hard to shake. Frank stood awkwardly by and watched them, a quizzical look on his face, almost as if he couldn’t understand what he was seeing. Then he shook his head, and announced,
“Well, I’m going to bed.” And then, when no one seemed at all surprised or alarmed by this, he said louder and with more of a whine to his voice, “And if you had sense, you’d go there too.”
“We’ll get there, Frank.”
“Just as soon as you leave.”
“And I get some coffee.” Potter added, spinning on his heel.
“—How can he sleep after drinking that stuff?” Radar asked, sotto voce, coming out of the Post-OP doors.
“Ask me again, next war.” Hawkeye retorted, then he patted BJ on the arm. “Carry me to the saloon, partner. I’m parched.”
“To the watering hole, and don’t spare the horses.”
“They are nuts, aren’t they?” Radar said wonderingly, trotting up to Potter’s side.
“Finest kind.” Potter replied, taking his elbow and turning him ninety degrees to the mess tent, then giving him a little push.
Finest kind, as any man in this man’s army knew, did not, could not, and never did describe either the coffee, the definition of Army coffee or the actual, stunningly tar-like reality of it. It had viscosity. It permanently stained anything it touched. It was also good for cleaning brass, removing the mold from canvas and cleaning blood from cement floors. It smelled like gasoline, with the odd hint of rancidity. And it was not a smell, drifting through the open Mess tent door, that should make BJ’s nose twitch and Hawkeye stand up and take notice.
“That isn’t the stench of coffee.” He breathed, with an opening expression on his face, as if he were a flower that had just seen the first dawn of spring, and he leaned into the Mess Tent and took a long, drawn-in smell. “That smells like, like—”
“—home.” Radar finished, face bright with the wonder of it.
“Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.” Fr. Mulcahy said, stepping away from the table near the coffeepot, an empty metal tray swinging from his right hand. “This is the last of it,” Father Mulcahy explained, seeing their gazes come to rest on the four mugs sitting, steaming on the mess tabletop. “I gave the rest to the nurses, and Major Houlihan.” He clasped his hands together and looked tired. There were bags under his cheerful blue eyes. “After all,” he continued and the blue twinkled with his inner joy, “the proceeds from the raffle are going to the orphanage.”
“No need to explain yourself, Padre, you won it fair and square.” Potter announced, taking a seat at the table with a low-slung breath, and Radar, perpetual shadow, sat next to him. Hawkeye and BJ, who were, even now, leaning on each other, took their seats without breaking apart. Mulcahy leaned over the table and pushed a mug to each person.
“But he’s giving it all away.” Radar said from his place at Potter’s elbow. Potter looked at him with that very eloquent, paternal authority on the edge of annoyance, which said plainly: hush, Radar.
“This may be the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me,” Hawkeye said, looking at the mug sitting in front of him with a kind of reverent awe that he reserved for few things. It was different from the reverent awe he reserved for tall, willowy, beautiful nurses, or the glass of good scotch at the end of the day. It was more like the way he looked at BJ when no one was watching, or Radar when he did something kind, or Potter when he put up with one too many of his antics, or even Margaret, when she’d behaved with less the decorum of an officer and more the grace of a compassionate nurse.
“We may never know who sent it,” Potter said, looking straight at Mulcahy, the kindness of it easing away his tiredness. “But I think they would be very pleased with who got it, and what he used it for.” Then he smiled, that tired, half-smile that was half-fond and half-indulgent.
At this Mulcahy smiled back, kindly, even beatifically, and said nothing, accepting their praise without comment. If his smile was a little fixed or a little sad, no one seemed to notice.
“There was a note in the box.” Mulcahy countered, quietly, watching them each take a mug of soup from the table.
“Was it really Frank’s mother?”
On the other side of the table, Potter looked down as Radar, who had been sagging and gradually leaning further and further into his side, stiffened and sat up all of a sudden. His blue eyes were bright behind his glasses. His fist clenched white around the mug, as if it were a lifeline between here and somewhere else.
“I have the note here,” Mulcahy said pointedly, repeating himself. In the sudden quiet, he could hear the page rustling as he pulled it out of his breast pocket. The note was little, folded in half, little more than a scrap of paper. “I’d like to read it to you.” He said, not so much asking for permission as declaring his intent. He cleared his throat and pushed his glasses back up, holding the sheet in front of his eyes carefully, as if afraid he might miss any word of it, or lose it in between seeing and reading it.
“It’s dated October 13, 1950.” He said and paused.
“—that’s five months ago—” Radar exclaimed, his face going whiter and his mouth going into a round little ‘o’ of surprise.
“Sure, son. The Army was aging it for delivery. Read on, Padre.”
Mulcahy looked around at the familiar faces around him. They were all watching him, and he felt distinctly uneasy. He cleared his throat and gathered his nerves.
“Dearest Henry—” he breathed aloud, then Hawkeye’s mug skidded on the table, and crashed down with a final thunk. He could see Potter’s face turning towards Radar, and Radar’s face turning down to the table, BJ’s hands rising up to catch Hawkeye’s shoulders as he lifted, or tried to lift one leg across the bench, in a frenzy of motion, as if to seize the note himself and so catch hold of some part of Henry Blake.
“Dearest Henry,” he repeated, “I thought you might enjoy a little taste of home. Hope they came through in mostly one piece. The kids miss you and ask about you nearly every minute, and Andrew’s baby blues have stayed blue, just like yours. He misses his Daddy, too. Come home safe, and soon. With all my love, Lorraine.”
“She calls the baby, ‘Henry,’ now.” Radar remarked to the air, softly, but with the force of truth behind it. No one asked him how he knew.
Hawkeye’s hand was white-knuckled as he reached across the table to Radar, and his eyes were glassy and bloodshot, tired and sad. Radar sniffed, once, twice, and pushed his glasses up to his forehead as he rubbed one eye with the back of a knuckle. It was a childish action, and Potter responded to it, the hand that rested on Radar’s shoulder pulling him close.
If there hadn’t been a table between them, they would be a circle of bodies clutching at each other in grief. BJ’s hand had slipped over to grasp the back of Hawkeye’s neck, and he looked at Radar the way a man on shore looked at a man drowning, calculating the distance to swim, how long he had, the time it took to drown.
“Well, I didn’t know Henry Blake.” Potter declared, looking across the table at Hawkeye and at Mulcahy to his left, who was carefully folding the slip of paper back up to slip in his pocket. “But I know Radar here was awfully fond of him, and that says enough for me.”
“You’d have liked Henry, Colonel.” Hawkeye’s voice was mild and meditative. The look in his face was the bittersweet release of grief. “You too, BJ.” Hawkeye coughed, cleared his throat, and breathed in the steam of chicken noodle soup from his mug. “He loved a good laugh, and he was often the butt of them. He was a good surgeon, a good man, and a good friend. You’d have liked him, if you met him.” He shut his eyes, and something of the deep-set tension in his face fell away.
“To Henry Blake,” Hawkeye said, at last, through a thick throat, and he looked around the forlorn group, and raised his mug of chicken noodle soup.
“To Henry Blake,” they all chorused together, the harmony of it coming together as if there were a fifth chord hovering in their voices, not altogether missing but made up of all of them together. The mugs clinked, clinked again, and the clinks grew heavier, as if with each touch, each man touched together more strongly or found it more difficult to pull apart, and they all drank together, their soup suspiciously salty.
“May the LORD bless you and keep you,” Mulcahy interjected, adding to the toast, speaking softly, but intently, letting his eyes come to rest on each face in turn, slowly, one by one.
All of you
Hawkeye, who had been here so long already, BJ, who had been torn away from everything he knew, Potter, who had been brought back to what he knew too well already, Radar, who had been here so long already and was so young, barely more than a boy.
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.
The note in the box was perhaps the most and least mysterious thing about it. It had been a tiny slip of paper, a quick dashed off note, the kind that wives wrote to husbands in between making lunch for the children and doing the laundry, the kind that meant sacrifice, perhaps unknown, perhaps unnoticed, but it was all there in that tiny slip of paper, from the Dearest Henry to the with all my love, Lorraine.
No, the great mystery of it was that it should arrive here, so long after Henry was already gone. There had been a wife and a mother in Bloomington, Illinois who had wrapped the box up with care, sent in the hopes of reaching her husband with something of the comforts of home. By the time it had been delivered, she was a widow.
There was no way to write and thank her, not without causing more confusion and pain than there was already. But he would know. He would keep the secret that her effort had not gone to waste, that her love had done some good. Someday he would write and tell her the truth, that they had opened the box.
That her box had meant something, even after Henry’s plane had crashed into the blue-black loneliness of the sea, meant something to someone that was more than simply a can of soup, or the mysterious interest of a box.
The inexplicable, wonderful generosity of it, and the wordless gratitude welled up within him, grace upon grace, pooled up and overflowing, and Mulcahy felt the tiny but strong wings of faith fluttering in his breast, like a tiny hatchling’s first flight into daylight, that should never succeed but did, that flew though it should fall, that love, even dying, lived.
We come to the end of this story, which was longer than I expected, and turned from a silly little ficlet about a missing package into a funeral of sorts for a character that we dearly love and miss, Henry Blake.
Much thanks to PrairieDawn for suggesting the Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup tag.
justalittlegreen , I hope you enjoy your gift.