Lone Gunmen Headquarters
February 21, 1998
I do not feel well.
Maybe it's just the flu that everyone else seems to have gotten. Or
some stomach virus. I can feel that bile creeping up the back of my
throat, and the morning's coffee is not washing away that acrid taste.
And I've got a headache that just will not go away. Hell, I should
have some aspirin around here somewhere.
As I turn to open the bottom drawer of my desk, my eyes glance at my
desk calendar before focusing on the contents of the drawer. A full
minute passes as I rummage through old envelopes and folders before the
realization sets in. I sit back up, straight in my chair. What the
hell is wrong with me? How could I have forgotten?
But one never really forgets. It bundles itself up against the chill
of realization with a coat of neglect. It just lay dormant, waiting
for the nudge in the right direction.
x x x x x x x x
Byers looked around the empty office. 'Where had Frohike gotten to?'
he thought to himself. 'He was just here.'
Langly entered the office from the opposite direction, having just come
back from retrieving some spare parts from the trunk of his car.
"Hey, have you seen Frohike?" Byers asked.
"Yeah, he just passed me on the way out," Langly replied, nodding his
head in the direction of the front door. "Said something about going
Byers walked across the office and looked at Frohike's desk. He was
not as neat about the appearance of his desk as Byers was, but Byers
knew, without a doubt, that there was no way that Frohike would leave
for the day and not turn off his computer. 'Something else is going
on,' he said to himself, as he reached for the keyboard to exit the
system. At the same time, he glanced across the same desk calendar for
any appointments he may have had and set his mind into motion on its
own memory search. Until it hit upon a late-night conversation several
years ago and right-clicked the entry. He turned off the computer and
made his way to the front door, grabbing his coat along the way.
"You leaving, too?" Langly asked. Byers turned to look at him as he
straightened out the lapels of his coat. The worried look on his face
set alarms off in Langly's head. "What's wrong?"
"I'm just going to check up on him."
Langly was puzzled. "Why don't you just wait for a bit and call him at
Byers sighed. "Because he's not headed for his apartment."
The tone of the reply along with the fact that Byers was worried
enough to actually go after Frohike was enough of an answer for Langly.
"I'll set the machines and be out in three minutes."
x x x x x x x x
Thankfully, for a Saturday, traffic in the DC area was light. But I
still won't park in most places downtown. Too little space, too much
larceny. You learn things the hard way. Public transportation's good
here, so at least I don't have to concentrate on driving to my
destination. Not that I couldn't get there in my sleep anyway. It's
like a homing beacon - once it's switched on, I can make my way there
from any part of town.
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home
I can't get that line out of my head, and I can't for the life of me
remember any more of that song. I should know it by heart - I
distinctly remember screaming it at the top of my lungs with about
twenty other I-can't-believe-that-I-survived-the-last-365-days soldiers
being shipped back home. These are things that I should remember. It
should have been a good memory. Or maybe it's better that I forget.
I get out at my Metro stop, and the silent scream of that beacon
is drawing me nearer to my destination. A gray, cold, overcast
day. How perfect. Well, at least the wind hasn't kicked up yet. I
pass by the other, more famous landmarks on the National Mall, which
are as foreign to me as The Wall is to some of this generation.
And I finally zero in, like a moth to the flame, on the object that has
been trying to coax my memory for most of the morning. Panel 33 West,
Line 94. Robert Lance Hettinger. Sorry I'm so late, Bobby. I almost
completely forgot what today was.
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter
x x x x x x x x
Bobby Hettinger. We were both acolytes at St. Christopher's back home
in Baltimore. St. Christopher. Jesus - the patron saint of travelers.
How fitting. We didn't attend the same schools and kind of lost track
of the other when the teenage years seem to draw boys and their
hormones and their interests in different directions. How ironic that
it took thousands of miles and a special invitation from the Selective
Service to throw us together again. We could talk of home, of the
Colts and the Orioles, of Unitas and Weaver, and it would seem as if we
were both back there again.
And then, five weeks after you landed in Viet Nam, you're dead. Didn't
even make it to your twenty-first birthday.
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain't got time to take a fast train
You returned home, eleven months early. Hardly enough time for your
parents to really begin to miss you. But then, it had only started
for them. You returned home to tears, a family's embrace, a country's
sympathy. You came home wanted and loved. People stood as your casket
and family passed by. Strangers were actually saddened at the sight
and silently prayed for the safety of those that they knew in similar
far-off places. You came home in the full light of day. Not like some
I followed you home several weeks later, my tour of duty over. It may
even have been the same route. But there were no tears, no family
reunions to come home to. I hadn't told anyone that I was coming back.
And as for the strangers, well, let's just say that many were somewhat
polite. Some openly sneered. Civilians. What did they know. The
government drags your ass thousands of miles around the world, throws
a weapon in your hand, and says 'see ya in twelve months', and then
you have to come back to be spat upon by idiots who couldn't survive
one night of Girl Scout camping, let alone the monsoon season in such
a paradise as Nam.
I may still have that picture of you. Remember that one night right
after you got there? Manny and Trevino had somehow gotten hold of a
supply of beer and created a make-shift bar. You're sitting at a
table, cigarette in one hand, bottle in the other. With this shit-ass
grin on your face. What were you thinking? Did you know what
would happen? Or were you still naive enough to believe that it would
be like our dads' war? Someone gave me that picture just before I
left. It's probably somewhere in a file with my orders home, my
Well, she wrote me a letter
Said she couldn't live without me no more
Listen, mister, can't you see I got to get back
I was almost there, in a bus station in DC; the last leg that would
put me back in Baltimore. I couldn't wait to read news of home so I
bought a paper at one of those little newsstands and went over to the
benches at the far end of the waiting area and began to read. And as I
flipped through the sections, glancing at the headlines, I came across
the date at the top of the header page. February 21, 1969. I tell
you, Bobby, I stared at the page for the longest time. I remember
neatly folding up the paper and placing it on the seat beside me. And
then I sunk my head into my hands and began to weep.
For I was alive and almost home. And it was your twenty-first
x x x x x x x x
Byers spotted him first, sitting cross-legged in front of The Wall.
There were times, Byers thought, that Frohike could be so still that
he would blend into the crowd and the background. Nothing was
extraordinary or conspicuous about him; he drew little attention to
himself. Is that what he had learned over there? How to keep your
head down and be still and cautious and maybe, just maybe, you'll
survive long enough to get home?
Byers, with Langly several steps behind, cautiously approached him, not
wanting to intrude on thoughts he found unimaginable and memories he
was only too glad not to be able to share. "Hey," Byers said as
Frohike acknowledged their presence, "you left a bit early."
"I had to get out for a while," Frohike replied as he began to stand.
Byers reached out his hand to help him up. "There's something that I
need your help with back at the office."
Frohike eyed Byers for a moment. Liar. "You don't *need* my help with
anything." He knew that Byers was just trying to take his mind off of
present matters, but there were days when his need for everything to be
nice and cozy between them all irritated the shit out of Frohike. This
was one of those days. "There's a place that I go to, around here.
I'll be fine."
"No you won't; you'll be drunk," Byers cryptically added.
"A cab will take me home. We look after our own there."
"We're coming with you." In his next breath, Byers regretted the
remark, knowing that he had just volunteered to drag Langly into a bar.
Frohike was adamant as he began walking away. "No. You're not coming
with me. It's not that the two of you wouldn't be welcome . . . well,
you wouldn't really *be* welcome . . . but . . ." There was not much
that he could add. How does one tell people that you've worked closely
with for nearly nine years that there is another group that you're
associated with that thinks that you don't have a clue as to what is
going on in this world until you have seen it from the Earth's mud up.
"Don't go," Langly said.
To Frohike, it almost sounded too much like begging. He shot Langly a
look that would have thrown a chill into a sauna room. "I don't need to be
lectured, much less by you, about my habits."
Byers interrupted him. "Then why go at all? Why not have your
memories, make peace with them, and not keep clouding them up with
Wanna trade life stories and then see if you don't end up in the bottom of
a bottle, huh, Byers? "If it helps me deal with them, then why should it
matter to you?" Frohike was beginning to get annoyed with Byers' oh-so-
reasonable logic. "I'm not doing this for me." Then he nodded towards
The Wall. "Or for them." Frohike shrugged and began to walk away again,
shaking his head. "I don't know what I mean."
"Then do this for me. Don't go," Langly repeated.
Frohike stopped and turned towards Langly. 'Other than age and that
hair, is there really any difference between the two of us? Is my
drinking any less out of habit than his? Or have I just become so good
at handling it that no one else sees it as a problem?'
He looked back and forth between the other two, Byers and Langly, and
could not fault them for their inability to understand his past.
Unless someone has lived it, or tried to live through it, it would
remain unexplainable; he was reluctant to have to define the fear of
wondering if this is your last day on earth or detail the daily horrors
that confronted the careless or the unlucky. But they had tried, and
with the best of intentions, they only wanted to prevent him from
continuing with the torment. He forgave them the fortune of their youth
and accepted their concern for a colleague who should have known better.
"Let's head back for the office." Frohike started walking, with Byers
and Langly on either side. He glanced at the reflection they cast against
The Wall. 'We make the oddest group,' he thought. 'Hey, Bobby, did I
ever tell you about these guys?'
xx xx xx xx xx xx xx xx
Author's Notes: The song referred to in this story is "The Letter"
written by Wayne Carson Thompson and recorded by The Box Tops in 1967.
It was adopted as the theme song of a group of soldiers returning from
Viet Nam in 1968, which included my father (then a SSgt, USMC).