I was a boy, during the Korean War, nineteen years old, as sophomoric in my college sophomore year as you can get. My team mate, Pete was a veteran of World War 2, a grown man who knew how lucky he was to be alive, to go to college and have a future. He played our violent sport with intensity and glee, and a tranquility seldom found on a football field. It was almost impossible to work as hard as he did in practice. I’m sure he studied with the same joyful ferocity. No one talked about living in the moment in those days, but that’s how Pete lived. He knew how valuable each minute was.
He was a tackle, I was an end, so our positions were side by side. When I was sent in to the game, he welcomed me. As we came out of the huddle, he’d give me hints and encouragement and build my confidence. It was like having an uncle playing right next to me. There were several other war veterans on that team. The rest of us learned what we were capable of learning from them. They and Pete graduated that spring and went out of our lives.
Early in that same year, a close friend and classmate, Dick (whose ambition, I remember, was to be a comedian) flunked out, and therefore lost his deferment. He was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea, going out of our lives just as Pete did a few months later when he graduated.
But Pete returned briefly my junior year. On a Saturday afternoon in October, he walked into our locker room to wish us luck just before we went out on the field to play a game. He was in an Army uniform. At first I didn’t recognize him. Then I thought Halloween costume. Then I realized he’d been called back into the Army.
I don’t remember one instant of the game we played that day, but the image of Pete in that dull khaki, exhorting us to play hard, and, as if it were incidental news, telling us he’d been redrafted, is clear in every detail. I can’t count the times I’ve watched that short movie in my head. I was overwhelmed by the unfairness of his situation. I was about to engage in an activity in which the rules were clear and there were three officials to make sure that fairness prevailed. Three! Even the field was marked precisely: you either made a first down or you didn’t. You either were out of bounds, or still in the field when you caught a pass. There was even an ambulance on the sidelines in case you got hurt. But Pete’s being redrafted, was mere randomness, his number called, again, because he’d been born at the time to make him eligible for World war Two, which made his experience necessary for the Korean War, while I was too young for World War 2, and was deferred from military service in the Korean War until after graduating.
By our senior year, Pete was out of our consciousness, and Dick, who’d left us months earlier, even further removed from our lives. We were happily ensconced in our college careers. The Korean War and its horrors were on some other planet.
Until Dick returned to us, out of the blue.
On a Friday evening, my roommate and I returned from dinner to find him waiting for us in our dorm. Here was an old friend, one of us, the same age. So of course we found a mattress and put it on the floor for him. We wanted to hear all about his experiences. First, we told him about the game we were to play tomorrow, against an undefeated team. How it meant the world to us to win. He seemed only mildly interested. That seemed uncharacteristic. He’d been an athlete too – a baseball player.
He told us his conscience forbad him to kill or wound another person, but he did not want to escape the trials of his fellow soldiers, so he had served as a medic, who didn’t carry a gun. Already tomorrow’s game had become less important to my roommate and me. I don’t know why he chose us to describe the horrors he’d experienced. Something about our past closeness and present distance that made it safe to unload to us, I guess.
He described how his platoon was ambushed. In the ensuing firefight, everyone retreated, except Dick and a wounded soldier, a Native American whom Dick stayed behind to help. Dick referred to the wounded man with affection, and the political incorrectness of the time, as Chief. He had a head wound, was partially paralyzed and couldn’t talk. They stayed there while the enemy seemed to be torturing them by shooting close, missing on purpose, until finally Dick was shot in the shoulder. He believed he didn’t bleed to death because it was it was cold, and they were lying prone in the snow. A few hours later, Chief died. Dick was alone with his friend’s body for a long time, until his platoon, reinforced, returned and recaptured the area, saving his life. He was able to visit us because his recovery had advanced sufficiently to leave the hospital for a weekend. It seemed important to Dick to tell us the official term for his degree of healing was “ambulatory,” a designation replete with incompleteness.
The next day, my roommate and I played very poorly in the game -one of the reasons we were badly defeated. We could not muster the necessary focus. It seemed irrelevant, a child’s pastime – which in some way, it was. I think the people in the stands cared more about the game than we did.
By the next weekend, though, with Dick back in the hospital, out of sight, my roommate and I had retrieved our focus. We were back on track. I’m sure that was the healthy reaction to Dick’s invasion of our world.
We graduated in June. The Korean War had ended just several months earlier. Randomness again – another reason not to be sure which world, Dick’s or ours, was the real one, and which the chimera. It was hard to believe they both could be.
Every day, when I read the paper, or listen to the news, the question returns.