“I Still Got One Leg”

Devin Vaudreuil, writer

 

The earth erupted in a plume of dirt, rock, and blood. Some men screamed for their mothers while others simply stared into a vast space somewhere in front of them, many missing limbs and muttering names and places they wished to return to. Four weeks ago, all of them wanted to face the enemy in the jungles of Vietnam–the Viet Cong, Vietnamese communists bent on overtaking South Vietnam–but it was different when you couldn’t see the enemy, and death¬† rained from the trees and rice paddies. Now, not one wished to be entrenched in this God-forsaken jungle.

Jackie Reaves–Jack to his friends and relatives–sat huddled against a great tree, hiding from the unseen gunfire and death. The rattling of gunfire came from all sides as the Viet Cong poured lead into the platoon of American soldiers. The bark of the tree he huddled against was ripped away, and the cries of dying and wounded soldiers sliced the morning air.

Then there was silence. Save for the cries of the bloodied soldiers, the jungle was silent. The air grew thick, like the weight of the entire world was pressed upon the men.

A scream, then what seemed like a million screams, erupted from the brush as Vietnamese guerrilla fighters sprang from the jungle cover, seeming to rise out of the earth, closer than anyone had ever expected.

Panicking, Jack sprang up and sprinted away from the platoon, desperately trying to escape the blood bath. He moved erratically through the forest, dashing into an open rice paddy. He spun around, looking in all directions, checking for enemy fighters in pursuit. He made a mad dash through the rice toward a dirt road rising out of the paddy.

The last thing Jackie remembered was the feeling of floating, weightlessness, and a searing pain as his world turned dark.

* * *

Bright lights. Really bright. Jackie blinked once, then twice, and the dizziness went away. At least a little. A figure moved into Jack’s blurry vision. It was a battlefield nurse, though she looked unnaturally young to be in a war, especially the battlefield. Then again, Jackie himself was only nineteen.

Jackie had just graduated from high school in Maine before being sent over to Vietnam. He came from a middle-class family who was well-respected and well-known in the town of Belfast, situated on the coast of Maine. He helped his father fix boat engines, and when he turned sixteen his father had let him onto the boat to help trap crab with the rest of the men. Jackie was known for his short temper, and more often than not was the one to instigate a fight. Many a father refused to let his daughter date Jack, although he was arguably one of the most handsome young men in the village. That didn’t stop many of the girls from casting a sideways glance at him, or batting an eyelid or two. One can imagine what this does for the male ego.

“What happened? Why am I here?”

“You were injured, and lost quite a bit of blood, Mr. . . .” she glanced at her clipboard. “Reaves. Jackie, isn’t it? Well, you’ve been here for two weeks, in and out of consciousness, and the doctor has cleared you to be shipped back home. Aside from your injury from the land mine, you’re well physically.”

What injury is she referring to? Jackie moved in the bed to scratch an itch in his right leg, only to find his hand felt nothing but air below his knee. His leg had been blown.

* * *

Jackie hobbled out of the taxi cab, clutching to the wooden crutch the army had assigned to him. The taxi driver sympathetically unloaded the luggage, followed Jack up the sidewalk, and patiently helped him as he navigated the stairs. Jack had told his parents he was coming home, but he didn’t mention the leg. How would they take it? His sister? Yvonne? He knew that she would probably leave him. As far as he figured, she was dating him because he was an excellent athlete.

Jack heard footsteps in the foyer, and saw the face of his mother appear through the window. The door flung open, a wide grin on his mother’s face.

“Jackie! Welcome home! We were just wondering . . .” His mother stopped mid sentence as she saw his missing leg. A hand went over her mouth, tears pooling in her eyes.

“Hey kiddo! How have you been? I thought you’d . . .” his father came up behind his mother, and also stopped as he saw his wife’s expression, and then Jackie’s leg; rather the lack thereof.

Jackie looked back and forth at his parents. He felt a knot in his throat at his mother’s pained look and his father’s shocked face.

“Hi Mom, Dad. I made it home.”

* * *

 

He hated this: the feeling of the silence bearing upon his shoulders.

They stared at the floor, not speaking or looking at one another. On the radio back in the kitchen, a song from the Beatles’ album Abbey Road was just ending, and Miles Davis began to play. Jack’s sister hadn’t gotten home from school yet, and Yvonne, Jackie’s girlfriend of 4 years, was bringing her home.

Yvonne was Russian. She had come to the states as an early teenager, and was staying with her aunt and uncle while her parents saved money to move to the States themselves. Being Russian in this time wasn’t easy, and she had always been picked on early in grade school. It got better in high school, but even still, when boys or boys’ parents found out her nationality, they dumbed her or told their son to leave her, stating, “No communist will date my son.”

The door flung open, and the piping voice of Jack’s little sister and the rich accent of Yvonne reached their ears as they walked in, talking about Maribeth’s day at school. Jackie stood up, leaning on his crutch, keeping his back toward the entryway.

Mrs. Reaves cleared her throat, wiped a stray tear from her face, and called down the hall, having to try a second time as her voice caught.

” Maribeth, Yvonne? Come into the parlor a moment please? There’s someone here.”

Their conversation ceased, and their footsteps drew nearer. Jack turned to face the parlor entry, careful to keep the chair between him and it, hiding his leg.

“What, Mamma?” she asked, as she didn’t immediately see Jack.

But Yvonne saw him immediately. A gasp burst from her mouth, her eyes opened like pie-plates, and tears immediately sprung into her eyes. Without a word she rushed toward Jackie, her arms open.

Maribeth saw Jackie then, and also ran towards him. But since she came up to his waist, she saw his leg was gone before Yvonne did. Maribeth stopped and tugged on his pant leg.

“Jackie? What happened?” She looked up at his face with big, innocent eyes.

Yvonne pulled away and looked at his leg, or lack thereof. Her hand rose to cover her mouth as big tears threatened to spill over onto her soft cheeks. But instead of stepping back as if repulsed, Yvonne embraced Jack in the biggest hug he’d ever received.

Big tears fell onto his shoulders, her own shaking as she cried.

As Yvonne wept on his shoulder, Maribeth started to cry, and then his parents came in on the group and started crying as well.

* * *

They were watching history unfold. There were five minutes until Neil Armstrong set foot where no other man had set foot before. Jack kept looking from the television to the giant pale moon out his window. The whole world was holding its breath, eyes riveted to the screen. The climax came as they heard his voice over the radio, and watched him step down the ladder. A simple statement, one that at any other time would’ve been trivial; but in this moment it was like a speech: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (NASA).¬† Truly this day the world was changed forever. No longer would man be confined to this solitary planet among the billions of stars; no, there was no limit to where man could go.

* * *

“Mother, can Yvonne and I get some air? We need to talk for a minute,” Jackie said upon Yvonne’s whisper of a request.

It was several weeks later, and both Jackie and Yvonne were growing tired of the national news. Just this evening there was a trial going on for Daniel Ellsberg, “the most dangerous man in America” (Sheinki). The news grew too depressing, and Jack had enough to worry about as it was.

Jackie hobbled out of the house, putting his one shoe on and, with the help of Yvonne, went outside. Somehow, sitting behind the wheel of his Vauxhall Cresta , even if he wasn’t going anywhere, calmed him down and allowed him to think. His eyes wandered down the street and house lawns. He saw children running and playing, Mrs. Oldman watering her garden of vegetables. He choked up as he saw a young couple walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk. Why couldn’t he do that? It wasn’t fair to Yvonne, to always be a burden to her. He turned to her and looked at her, trying to formulate his thoughts.

“You can leave, you know.”

Yvonne looked at him, a slightly puzzled expression on her face.

“You are . . . how do you say it . . . tired? of me tonight? I can call my mother and ask her to pick me up if this pleases you,” she said, looking at him innocently.

“No, I mean me. You can leave me. I don’t want to hold you back. There are plenty of other . . .” He was hushed by her finger to his lips.

“I do not vant you to talk. Listen, vith your head. Not jus’ your ears.”

Jackie began to protest, but Yvonne’s finger remained on his lips and he eventually accepted it. Now he was curious as to what she had to say.

“You are a funny one, Jackie. You sink that I am . . . shallow? Is that how you Americans say it? You sink that because you have one less limb that your insides have changed. You sink that because you cannot run anymore that you cannot soar. I did not fall in love with your track shoes. There is a heart inside you that I fell in love with. There it is, I guess,” Yvonne stated, tears brimming on her eye lids. Jackie was still in shock. She . . . loved? Him?

“Yvonne, you love . . .” Jack was cut off again by her finger. She had a delightfully exasperating way of making Suave Jack stumble over himself.

“Yes Jack, I. Love. You. I do not love your track shoes, I do not love your ability to be fast. I love you. I am in love vith you, and I find myself blushing like a little uchenitsa when I am vith you. I am happy you are home alive Jack. A leg is a small price to pay for you life, no?

“After all, are not three legs better than two?”

* * *

Many times in later years, reporters and college kids had come and asked him what it was like without both legs and if he ever resented the Vietnamese for “taking” it. Every time he always reflected and responded with the same answer. “No, I don’t resent them. After all, I still got one leg, don’t I?”

 

Works Cited

NASA. Lunar Landing Log. Web. 28 Feb 2016.

Sheinki, Steve. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg And The Secret History Of The Vietnam War. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2015. Print.

Bibliography

Krever, Ted. Hooplaha. Eyewitness Account of Woodstock. 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Feb 2016.

“The Vietnam War.” History Channel 2016. Web. March 2016.

“Vietnam War.” Ronald Spector. Britannica Online. Web. March 2016.