By Mike Powell

He laboured until 4:30 a.m. trying to go to sleep when it hit him like a bolt of lightning. He remembered a friend named Joe, whom he used to drink with down at the old Cadillac Club on the south side of town. Of course by now he had realized that his name was probably never Joe, but that really didn't matter. He just remembered the number tattooed on his arm and had asked him which camp he had been in, as the gunner had just finished reading a number of books about the Holocaust, some fiction, and some nonfiction.

He knew he didn't want to talk of his experience as a door gunner in the Vietnam War, but it eventually came out anyway. Kind of like he had to prove to Joe that he knew something about the suffering and deaths of innocents.

They usually would meet about every afternoon around 4 p.m. and would buy each other a beer, depending on who got there first, to cement their camaraderie. It was more of a convention than it was a couple of buddies meeting on purpose to discuss old times together. But the thought of him meeting a man who had survived Burgen Belsen and then Aushwitz, the most notorious of all the death camps, was to him extremely fascinating, never thinking that Joe probably didn't want it even brought up, much less discussed. Just as the topic of how many people he had killed always came up when someone found out he was a Vietnam Veteran.

Every inkling of information he more or less had to drag out of Joe; but, being a combat veteran, he knew when to stop pushing. Nevertheless, he always managed to drag some tidbit of information from Joe, no matter how he tried to elude the subject. He could remember Joe asking him, "What do you want to know about this for? You should not be thinking of such things. Why do you read these kinds of books?"

To that the gunner would say that atrocities like those done to man by man should never be forgotten, having no idea that the genocide in Cambodia was taking place as they were drinking their beers together. It was also before he knew about survivor guilt, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts, not that he had not experienced all of them; he just didn't know that they had names. He simply referred to them as snakes in his head.

He didn't think Joe had the same snakes, as he was older and wiser and probably was a much stronger man than himself. Deep down inside, he had always considered himself a coward since returning from the war...that "dirty little war," as it was known to most people at the time, especially to combat veterans. All he really wanted to do was forget about the dirty little war, never having the slightest idea that Joe wanted to forget about his, also.

But, they drank together; and, for some odd reason, enjoyed each other's company. Whenever Joe beat him to the bar, he would always greet him with a smile and a cold draft beer, freshly pulled from the tap. And now, twenty-five plus years later, it was all very clear to him why Joe didn't like to speak of the death camp or the number of family members he had lost to the gas chambers, starvation or being beaten to death in front of his own eyes.

It was the survivor guilt that they both had in common, neither knowing it had a name, but each knowing the pain of existing when they knew within their souls that they shouldn't be. They both knew that only the truly wicked survived such inhumanity, as good people would share their rations, knowing full well that they weren't given enough to survive on or take the dangerous flight when all else turned their backs.

They knew that good people wouldn't bury people in mass graves by either wheelbarrow nor helicopter. They knew that the good people had died, back where they had survived. And they were no longer part of the good but empty hulks with feelings for no one deeper than acquaintances. This is what took him so long to discover.

He so wanted to see Joe again, just to have a beer and see his smile, that kind of smile that they both knew so well. A forced, but natural smile. He wanted to apologize to Joe for making him bring up the past; but then again, he knew that Joe had done the same to him. They had made a feeble attempt to try and help each other exude some of the poison that existed in their memories. That was the basis of their shared friendship. Both knowing the other would never try and get too close.

So, on this sleepless night, he wondered if Joe was still alive; and if he was, where was he living; and if he had died, had he died alone. Silly sentimental thoughts for a man he knew only for a couple of years...maybe longer, maybe less...realizing that he either couldn't remember where Joe had lived or he'd never known in the first place. He thought he might check at the temple down on the corner to see if any of the rabbis knew him and possibly what had become of him.

It didn't really matter though, as they had attempted their healing so many years ago, one being just a fresh kid home from the war, the other probably around 45, the age of the kid today. They had conveyed as much as they could convey; but here he was, years past thinking of Joe and missing him. Maybe he was truly crazy or maybe he was just becoming sentimental in his waning years.

But, as daylight was breaking and songbirds had begun their territorial singing, he was sleepless and thinking of an old friend known only as Joe and how he would like to see him or just visit his grave. And he knew that neither would probably ever happen. He decided that he would just have to live with the memory of an old Jewish buddy and how lucky he had been to have known such a man.

copyright © 1996 by Mike Powell, all rights reserved