A sharply dressed, older man is waiting for her on the steps to the gallery. He’s wearing dark slacks and a baby blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show off his tanned forearms. As soon as he spots her, a warm smile appears on his handsome face.
“Claire! How good to see you. How was your trip?” He hugs her and pecks her cheek, making her giggle.
“Come on, dad.” She playfully swats his arm. “It’s not like you actually wanted to go.” He looks at her with glittering blue eyes and hugs her again. Claire looks around searchingly while he opens the glass door for her.
“Murdock’s already inside. You know his knees aren’t what they used to be.” He offers the girl his arm before gallantly escorting her inside.
“I’ll have you know dear chap, that despite popular belief, my knees are still absolutely fine.” A deep voice rings out in a perfect British accent, before he dramatically steps from the shadows. “And so is my hearing.” His hair is more silver than brown, but his eyes are still as youthful as they ever were. The leather jacket has been replaced by something more age appropriate, but a pair of sneakers peek out from underneath the slacks.
“Uncle Murdock!” Claire exclaims before running to hug the pilot.
“Howdy darlin’.” Murdock twirls her around before hugging her again. Claire can see Face making some vague gestures over the pilot’s shoulder. She narrows her eyes, ‘something about Murdock losing his marbles?’ “Face, ya know I can see yer reflection in the glass, don’t ya?”
Face stops mid gesture and runs his hand over the back of his head, pretending to yawn.
“I think you’re getting senile in your old age, Murdock.”
The pilot smirks. “You’re two years older than me, old man.”
“Ah well, Murdock…” Face winks at two young women walking past him, earning him a giggle and a blush. “you know age is just a number.”
Claire watches the two men bicker all the way to the exhibit. 35 years of friendship and they still try to one up each other. She smiles and follows them, noticing the way Murdock’s left knee does seem to be a bit stiff.
“So Chiquita, what’s so special about this huh? They’re jus’ some pictures.”
Claire whirls on the pilot, her face aghast. “Just some pictures?! These are Pulitzer Prize winners… They are granted for achievements in music, literature, news…”
“…and journalism in the United States.” Face finishes for her, rolling his eyes. “I do listen to you; you know…” he gripes before entering the first room.
Face and Murdock move from photograph to photograph. Expertly gushing at just the right times, while simultaneously trying to push in front of the other, Murdock using his height to his advantage. Sighing deeply and shaking her head before entering the next exhibit makes the men stop and smile. Face looks at the girl as she sashays into the next room, like she owns the place. So like her mother… Murdock steps aside and bows slightly to his friend.
Face nods politely. “Mr. Murdock…”
Grinning widely at each other, they step through the door. The smiles on their faces slowly become forced and disappear all-together when they enter the Vietnam exhibit.
Surrounded by hauntingly beautiful and familiar images, they slowly move forward. Murdock looks at his friend with worry. The pilot had years of therapy to get over it all, even if he’s occasionally still haunted by the past. Face had to get through it on his own. Murdock moves closer to his longtime friend and murmurs in his ear.
“We can skip this part.”
Face swallows and shakes his head. “Nah, I'm okay… We saw all of this in full technicolor didn’t we…” Murdock frowns, but doesn’t speak. They both know that's a lie.
They move through the room trying their best not to look too deeply at the pictures around them. Face spots Claire standing near three photographs and studying them intently. He considers telling her that they were going to move onto the next exhibit when he notices what’s on them. The face of a young medic is looking up at him from the paper. His face telling the heart wrenching story of that black day. Murdock watches the blood drain from his friends face and he knows that Face isn’t in LA anymore.
Face walks around the Tan Son Nhut air base in search of one of his contacts. Hannibal had sent him and B.A. for some ‘grocery shopping’, as he put it. Face glares at the big black sergeant from the corner of his eye. Hannibal may be encouraging him to use his god given talents to give the team it’s edge, but B.A. isn’t that happy with the way he procures his stuff and he has no problem letting him know that. It had already come to blows between the two sergeants and Ray had to break up the fights more than once. ‘Ungrateful son of a…’ “Hey Bambi! Just the man I’m looking for!” Face pastes a wide smile on his face. He wraps his arm around the other man’s shoulder and starts to work his magic. B.A. watches the exchange with disdain. Everything about the blond sergeant screams deceitfulness and he doesn’t like it. Special Forces or not, the Faceman has no honor. B.A. growls at the spindly looking man and Face sends him a warning glare, before turning the guy around. The big sergeant cracks his fists in warning at the blond, before leaving him to go to the mess. He’s in dire need of a drink, time be damned.
Face is feeling giddy. Getting what he needed was easier than expected and he takes the time to skulk around headquarters. He knows there is this very pretty looking blonde working as a clerk. Seeing as that he finished his chores on time, he thought it might be time to enjoy some of his… extracurricular activities. He dusts himself off and checks his appearance in one of the jeep’s side mirrors, before entering the building. The desks are bustling with activity, but by the looks on the faces of the men and women working here things aren’t going well. Calls are made and orders frantically given. Face listens to the reports coming in. Two infantry companies walked into a VC ambush. Without any dug in positions and they are scrambling for their lives. It’s carnage… Catching the name of the companies involved Face feels his heart constrict. He has friends in them from his infantry days, before he joined Special Forces.
Face moves forward in a daze, his fingers ghosting over the protective glass cover. Murdock spots a caretaker from the gallery hurrying in their direction to stop the lieutenant from touching the glass. The pilot fluidly moves to intercept her. Soundlessly pointing to his friend and then to the picture, trying to get his point across. The woman’s eyes widen in understanding and then something akin to pity flashes across her face before nodding at the older man and stepping away. Murdock clenches a fist, but doesn’t say a word. She wouldn’t understand anyway…
“Dad?” Claire looks at her father with worry shining in her blue eyes. She steps forward, her hand stretched out to touch his shoulder, but the closed off look on his face keeps her from actually touching him. “Dad?” She tries again, gaining no reaction. She glances toward Murdock, who seems to be shooing away the caretaker. Claire subconsciously fingers the ball chain around her neck, making the dog tags rattle. PECK, TEMPLETON A., U.S. ARMY
‘What have I done…?’
Face immediately tries to get some information about the ambush. The men are pinned down by sniper fire, 50 miles north of Saigon. The medics have been trying to get a chopper crew to take them to the battlefield, but no pilot is willing to touch down in such a hot LZ. ‘Where’s Murdock when you need him…!’ he thinks to himself, but reigns in his inappropriate anger at the pilot. He will be back in a few months. Face runs outside to the area where the helicopters are, to get a hold of an AC. He considers getting B.A. from the mess hall, but decides against it. He’s not feeling up to clashing with the burly man right now. Hearing raised voices, he spots the medics trying to persuade several crews to take them to the scene. Face takes a few seconds to read the pilots’ body language before joining the effort.
Finally, up in the air, after he convinced one of the pilots to lift off he stares outside at the jungle canopy. Nearing the LZ he sees the pilot glance back at him. Checking his borrowed gear again, Face gives him a tense thumbs up and prepares himself for what’s to come. Hovering over the clearing they spot a line of VC soldiers hidden within the tree line, shooting at the men on the ground. The US soldiers are spread out in the clearing, but there seems to be very little movement as far the blond can see. While the chopper turns around for a landing, the side door gunner starts ripping through the enemy lines with rounds of automatic gunfire. As soon as the skids touch the ground, Face jumps out and starts laying cover fire for the medics. Moving between the dead and injured soldiers, he keeps an eye out for anyone he might know. Bullets whizz past his head and he returns fire whenever he can. He spots an incredibly young medic ripping open the fatigues of an even younger infantry man before pinching his nose with blood stained hands and starting his first round of mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Face clamps his hand over his mouth to stifle a gasp. He clearly remembers the look of pure desolation and anguish on the boy’s face when he came up, looked at him and shook his head. They’d lost him… He’d kept to the medic’s side throughout the battle right until the reinforcements were choppered in, losing soldier after soldier. Face never knew these pictures were shot. Never knew his own face had been captured by the photographer too. He was too busy keeping himself and the young man alive to notice. B.A. had come along with the reinforcements and from that day on, his view of Face had changed.
Claire looks at her father in shock. When she found his face on one of the pictures, she couldn’t wait to show him. She never thought about, what was on these photographs or the effect it would have on Face. She looks at Murdock, her fist holding the dog tags pressed against her lips. It takes a few tries for her to gain back her voice. “I didn’t…” The pilot’s expression is one of understanding and he moves to wrap her securely in his arms. He closes his deep brown eyes in sorrow when he feels her sob into his chest.
“I know sweetheart.” He murmurs into her hair, his accent thick with sadness. “I know…”
Claire sniffles, steps back from the embrace and turns toward her father, wiping her eyes. Face has his hands braced against the wall next to the photograph of the boy looking up at them. His shoulders drawn up as if carrying the world and his head hanging down. She walks toward him and puts her hands on his shoulders, turning him around slowly.
“I’m sorry dad.” He looks up at his daughter with watery blue eyes and he envelops her in a tight hug. People around them are giving them a wide berth, obviously respecting the deep emotions running through the veteran. Murdock is standing a few feet away. His hands shoved deeply into his pockets. Alert, standing guard.
After a few minutes they break apart. “Dad…” she whispers to him. Face smiles wistfully at her and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. His hand moves towards the ball chain hanging from her neck, fingering the stainless steel dog tags.
“You kept these…” Claire looks down at the hands playing with the tags. Strong and tanned, just how she remembers them. Face had never been around much throughout her childhood, but he came around as much as the situation allowed for. He had given her the tags for luck and she’d kept them ever since. They’d really connected after she moved to LA for college and they grew closer over the years. Face presses a kiss to her cheek and hugs her again, this time his heart a little lighter.
He turns around to look at the photograph and his own face on the right. It has been a long time ago… Face had received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant and never saw the medic again after that day. He wonders what happened to the man, did he make it out of the war alive? Face glances at the sad look on Murdock’s face and smiles. A real smile, before going up to his best friend and enveloping him in a bear hug. Murdock returns the hug, a tear escaping his eye unchecked before starting to laugh. Face soon joins him in his laughter. They hold each other at arm’s length and look into each other’s eyes. They survived hell and came back stronger. They don’t need words to understand each other. Swatting the pilot’s arm Face quickly retreats to a safe distance and offers his daughter his arm, turning his back on the wall. The past is gone, the future not yet here, but the now is within his grasp.
They move from the Vietnam exhibit into the light, never looking back.