HOME FROM THE LAND OF OZ
by Randy Ford
On his way back to the United States, Jack thought about his father and could see him working himself to death. If he’d still been in Laos, he would’ve been too busy to think of his old man. In Vientiane he hadn’t kept up with events in Richmond. Now he was going home, a place he’d hardly recognize.
He knew he had changed and knew his perspective had changed too. He’d been thinking about his hometown since he heard about the explosion and fire that destroyed practically all of it. And he knew about the bypass and the Interstate … which is to say he expected changes. Dead, his father had died of a heart attack, and Jack didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to him.
Since he’d been gone so long, he was surprised by his reaction to the news. Now the gas station would have to be sold. He knew his mother couldn’t/wouldn’t run it. About the changes along I-70 his father could’ve said plenty. He had lived those changes. But now he was dead, and life goes on.
It was something he thought he could always count on. Richmond, blown off the map! A good place to raise a family, or so his father thought. Jack could feel the boy inside him, and from this perspective he had judged and misjudged his father. He now had that to fall back on. He knew that his father earned a good living. Was respected. Reliable. Religious. Righteous. Made mistakes. His father had made mistakes with him. Who didn’t make mistakes? He assumed that his father regretted his mistakes, but how could he know for sure?
Yes, he loved his father, if conditional love counted, but his father’s countless customers knew him better than Jack did. It was his mother’s contention that if he hadn’t put his heart and soul into the station, he wouldn’t have stayed in business. Especially after the Interstate, the bypass, and the fire. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t make mistakes.
How like his dad was Jack? Perhaps he was more like him than he liked to admit. Jack’s taste these days included Hank Williams, and he knew that his father liked Hank Williams. He pictured him dying singing “Arkansas Traveler”. Later his mother asked him, “Would you consider me a traitor if I told that I don’t care for Hank Williams?”
It was all coming back to him now … you need a place to call home, but first you have to go away to realize it, he thought, as he sat on the plane. He was on an indirect flight to Indianapolis, during the final approach of the flight. Normally he wouldn’t be looking out the window. Indiana; the entire state, absorbing the landscape, basically flat. Farm land, farms. US 40 linking Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute. Hurrah, hurrah, yuck! Why Richmond Indiana? Jack didn’t know why his parents chose to live there.
Most of the destruction of the town came from the fire after the explosion. Fourteen blocks leveled, and Jack viewed the devastation differently than the rest of his family did. He had seen more of the world than they had. He had seen war, the devastation of war, and viewed the devastation of Richmond from that perspective. They’d soon be landing, and where had he come from? Oz. All the way home from the Land of Oz. From the Land of Oz to Richmond Indiana. And what could he tell them? Nothing. Luckily he wouldn’t be expected to say much. The timing was wrong, and perhaps it always would be wrong. And officially, he wasn’t working in Laos.
Subterfuge has its virtue. He’d have to make up some things. A man with a talent for subterfuge was valuable in his line of work, and he was considered one of the best. He looked for ways to explain what he did for living without giving away too much. As far as they knew he worked for an import/export firm and lived and worked in Bangkok. There was logic to this. It gave him cover and a place to come and go from.
Jack didn’t understand why he hurried home. He caught the first flight he could after hearing about his father’s death. Was it so that he could see his father’s lifeless body, someone he hadn’t seen grow old? He normally wouldn’t have responded with such haste. Normally he would’ve taken his time and done things right. There was no time this time. There was no thinking involved. He just had to let his boss know and buy his tickets. He forgot his toothbrush.
Should he rush some more or relax while he could? He’d have to rent a car and decided to take old U.S. 40 instead of Interstate 70. He knew everyone was waiting for him. He felt testy, impatient, and soon gave up on U.S. 40.
When was it ever worse? When you’re heading somewhere you don’t want to go to but you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice, don’t you? It was not the loss of his father that bothered him; it was the lack of communication with him while he was alive that hurt the most. Would people have nice things to say about him, as nice as the things he was sure they’d say about his father? He hoped he’d be remembered. He hoped to see a few old friends.
Oh, dear, bitterness was to heighten the family’s grief. Somebody was responsible. Heart attacks have causes. “Dear friends, the main dangers we face lurk in our hearts. Pray, where has this man’s soul gone? Do we know? Was he as much a churchgoer as his wife was? The Holy Ghost anoints men of God and doesn’t speak at all to others. Let us think about that.” Did it really matter? Not all of them found the minister’s sermon appropriate.
Now out of the blue Jack’s father died from a massive heart attack. The few moments that Jack stood in front of the fancy draped casket certainly didn’t add up to much when he considered how long it took him to get there. He was glad he came though because of his mother.
Against this backdrop the minister praised the man who dedicated his life to a gas station, namely how he bucked a trend and pumped gas, checked oil, fixed flats, and did mechanical work. Yes. As if it had been God’s work. Supposedly you couldn’t find a more under-appreciated man. Luckily he had a heart attack, and the day never came when Jack’s father couldn’t work. Who could ask for more?
The more time Jack spent with his mother the more awkward it became. And while he was in Richmond, he made the rounds and saw a few old friends. To see how they hadn’t changed was as devastating as anything else. He was careful not to say anything that would upset them. He had learned to be careful. But he could see that they weren’t interested in where he’d been or what he had done. No, it was if they had never heard of Laos … and shouldn’t he have considered it a good thing considering? Yes, he had to be careful even when people didn’t seem to give a damn about what he was doing. A grasp of what was going on was more than he should’ve expected. He’d learned to lower his expectations and had also learned to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t say that he was working in Laos, when Vientiane was a cheap tourist destination, on the Mekong right across from Thailand. He couldn’t talk about the great French food or the massive US Embassy.
God knows why it mattered when they didn’t know what was going on in Laos and when they were preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. They were either for or against the war. Maybe they would have heard of the Plain of Jars but putting it all together would’ve been a stretch for them.
Too often when he thought about his job, Jack brooded upon whether he was doing any good or not. He was beginning to think that much of his work hadn’t amounted to much. Flying planes through the night to remote places would’ve offered some excitement if it hadn’t become so routine. Aspects of it were dangerous. Missions failed like engines did. He’d lost friends. That was the reality he faced … the cost … and it was the great secret of a world that relished secrets.
Was it fair to ask who made up the rules? “Made up” … made-up rules seemed like an apt way to put it. Most of the isolated villages could only be reached by air or on foot. To end up in the wrong camp was often disastrous. There was no protocol. People were often confused … confused by design …and error and treachery were the norm. The beauty of the operation was that it hadn’t cost much … comparatively. In proportion to the number of Americans working in the Land of Oz, the number of American causalities hadn’t been great. It was important to stress that there was never a full accounting. President Kennedy was dead, and LBJ’s photo was now hanging in the U.S Embassy. People who thought policies would change were sadly disappointed. If anything, activity had increased. For instance, the clasped-hand symbol of the U.S. Aid Mission to Laos found its way on everything from ceiling fans to gasoline cans.
The chore fell to his airline. Dressed in blue jeans and frequently armed with only a plastic badge, Jack had to use his wits to get himself out of trouble. It was well known that the imperialists were a heroic bunch.
Out of necessity information about Jack’s missions had to remain sketchy. He accepted that. He believed it. They weren’t supposed to be in Laos. But, then he wondered how big a secret it really was. Secrets couldn’t be compromised. The one thing that could be said was that we weren’t talking about child’s play. Concerning the children, he regretted the stories of massacres and the squalor of refugee camps. For a man who later stood helplessly by, there were personal reasons for signing on.
The money was good. He could say he chose the work for the money. He never in his wildest dreams could’ve imagined making so much money, and for that kind of money he would’ve gone to bed with almost anybody. So he took the job. Then instead of the money, he became addicted to adrenal, and it became his drug of choice. It was what kept him going back for more. By every conceivable measure, he was hooked.
He had worked for the last year and half, therefore, flying over invisible lines, landing on mountaintops and in jungle clearings … in the most dangerous places imaginable … to save the world from communism. That was what the brass wanted him to believe. Extracting a reliable explanation was difficult, but there had to be one or why else was he involved? Forget the money.
Now, after the Americans came, killing had become necessary in The Land of Oz. Yet it was impossible to dislike the place or it’s people. Jack would never forget the friends he made there and would later feel guilty for abandoning them. These feelings would become part of his makeup.
When he saw his old high school buddies, he heard the worst about the war in Vietnam. It was all over the news and divided the country. Yet he couldn’t tell anyone that he was part of it. He had a long talk with his mother. She said what he expected her to say. She said she hoped he wasn’t involved in drugs. He reassured her that he wasn’t. He wasn’t sure she believed him. He saw that in the way she looked at him. As far as she knew he lived and worked in Bangkok. He couldn’t tell her that his worse crime was transporting refugees. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if he did because everyone knew there were refugees in Thailand. But he didn’t work in Thailand.
His sister Margo asked him more questions than anyone else in the family. She wanted to know if he had a girlfriend. Let’s say he disappointed her. He wasn’t into LSD, and her long absent brother couldn’t risk having a long-distance relationship. Why would he want to risk it? And his sister didn’t really want to hear about his sexual escapades in Bangkok. It just wasn’t something you talked about with your sister. The whole time Jack wished that he were back in Vientiane, where over a good French meal he could complain to his buddies about absolutely nothing. They were forbidden to talk about their missions. But they loved to complain, so they complained about nothing. Absolutely nothing. And in their line of work they knew to avoid strangers and to avoid wearing their hearts on their sleeves. In the Land of Oz, it varied how long someone stayed in country. Those who wore Rolex and Secko watches and gold heavy chains usually stayed longer than military personal.
Jack couldn’t believe that there were still a few battered souls like him left … that they all hadn’t been replaced by twenty-one year old recruits … or why he stuck it out. There seemed to be a likely connection between that and why he ran away from Richmond when he was boy. Or why whatever it was transcended ideology. Margo couldn’t have understood this. So he avoided certain topics with her.
His mother was just happy to have both of her kids home and didn’t say anything to spoil it. Result: a lot of silence. Yet she saw the wrinkles in her son’s brow and asked him why he frowned all the time. He wasn’t aware that he frowned and tried to smile. But he didn’t quite pull it off.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the Indiana he preferred was the Indiana before the interstate and realized that he’d been away too long to appreciate it in any other way. You see, he wasn’t like his father, who had a place where he belonged a place no one could take away from him. It didn’t matter to him that the interstate bypassed the town and hurt his business. He needed to slow down anyway, as he grew older. Then he was stopped in his tracks by a heart attack and the worst of it was that Jack had been deprived of an opportunity to set it right with him. No good for understanding why he ran away in the first place.
Tears didn’t come easily for him. He was like his father in that way. So he didn’t cry. So. So he didn’t listen to his old man. He wasn’t at liberty to say what he did for a living … that he’d learned how fly … that he now flew … and worked with refugees. If he allowed himself he’d be in a world of hurt over feelings he wasn’t supposed to have because he was like his dad and never learned how to cry. There was something there, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He swore that he wasn’t into drugs, but he wasn’t sure if his mother believed him. Not into drugs, and home from the Land of Oz. Where?
They placed his father in the finest hardwood casket. Nothing else would’ve satisfied him. Friends and neighbors brought food to the home, casseroles and pies, etc. Now the question arose what to do with all that food.