One great thing about editing a manuscript is that when you cut stuff out, it may be useful later in another context. Tommy the Viet Nam vet/counselor is a great example. My editor Mary said she loved his presence, his dialogue and how he filled up the room, but she explained that including him would push the story in exactly the wrong direction. He was just too compelling. So I killed Tommy off, at least as far as “Sunrise” was concerned. He’s gone but not forgotten, waiting for his chance to reappear somewhere down the road and work his magic.
As I walked up the Park Blocks to Portland State the late morning was bright and warm with only a slight breeze. The campus was wall to wall skateboards, dogs, and halter tops. Unexpected shirtsleeves weather for January but sometimes Portland had roses blooming in winter, too. Give it twenty four hours and we’d be back to normal, but today everyone who could be outside, was.
Tommy’s office was in the Simon Benson House, a mansion built in the early 1900’s that used to sit uphill from the campus. Over the years the beautiful old family home had become a boarding house, then abandoned during the 60’s and tagged for demolition. Portland’s preservation craze of the 90’s got a non-profit interested in the building’s historical significance, and it was moved on campus and refurbished for Alumni Services. There wasn’t an inch left untouched by the restoration experts. New chimneys sprouted up, all the ornate gingerbread was replaced and the front entrance was flanked on either side by so-called Benson Bubblers, brass drinking fountains donated by Simon Benson to the thirsty citizens of the city.
I walked up onto the wide, sheltered porch, stepped through the heavily carved front doors, and navigated a narrow staircase that wound its way up to the third floor. At the top was a plain oak door with a card pinned to it. T. Morales, PhD. The card was smudged and curling at the edges. I knocked. There was a muffled “wait a sec,” a pause, then “C’mon in.” I opened the door and poked my head inside.
The office was one large room, sparsely furnished, with sunlight fighting its way through dusty, high dormer windows on either end. A vase of lilies sat on a small table, the only touch of color in the room. Overlaying the sweet smell of lilies was the stronger, bitter aroma of a recently extinguished cigar. Behind a cluttered oak desk, his head bent over a computer, sat a short, crew-cut man. He held his finger up, then without looking pointed to a well-worn leather chair in front of the desk. I took a seat and waited. He finished typing and closed the computer.
“I’m not going to get up; got a little trouble with my foot.” He smiled. We shook hands across the desk. “Jack said we should get to know each other. Understand you were over there about the same time as me. Let’s get a little background before we dig into things.”
We talked a little about Viet Nam. He and I had fought in the same war, but geography was about the only thing we had in common. He’d been on the ground, digging Viet Cong out of holes and getting blown up. I’d done my missions a couple miles above, jamming enemy radar and refueling our attack aircraft inflight. I’d gotten through the war without a scratch; he’d been wounded twice and came back home with the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, and most of his left foot. I told him briefly about my symptoms; nausea, pain, and recurring dreams. He said his own flashbacks were as important as his PhD in counseling other vets.
“Crack that dormer window, would you.”
I reached up and jimmied it loose. He rummaged in his desk and came up with a short, black cigar. He motioned to it. I waved no; he lit up and pushed back in his chair. My throat was dry from talking. I poured myself some water and took a closer look around.
“How’d you ever find this place?”
“Long story. Short version is I gave up my top floor corner office to one of the Administration types. We were talking one day; turned out he was in charge of the remodel here and Admin was going to turn this floor into storage. He wanted my view; I wanted someplace quiet for writing. What clinched the deal was when I explained how I’d been helping out Alumni Services for years. You know, satisfied students bring in their friends.” He took a long pull on the cigar and blew out a rank cloud. I could feel my eyes tear up. He contemplated the cigar fondly, then closed his eyes and did a quick recap of our conversation.
“Y’know, combat PTSD is pretty straightforward, most of the time. There’s usually a triggering event and then a reaction. I think of it like “Boom/Flinch”. Some event’s the Boom; like running over an IED, and then there’s a reaction; the Flinch, to put it simply. Years later the original triggering event is long past but you still get the Flinch for no discernible reason. One of my vets woke up one morning and found he’d killed his girlfriend’s yappy little shar pei during the night. Beat it to death with a bat; Louisville Slugger, I think. No memory of it. He was sorry, but his girlfriend was just plain hysterical. I talked to her; explained it might have been PTSD. I mean, he could have been startled by a village dog just when a bomb went off, huh? That helped her get over it.”
He took another long drag on the cigar and chuckled. “Me, I think he just hated that fucking dog.”
“Now you, you don’t seem to have any Boom to begin with, at least not coming out of Viet Nam. No jumpiness, no paranoia. You say that most of the problem is in your stomach and it comes out as nausea, cramps, pain. I’m not sure how that fits with combat PTSD. We’ll see.”
“Well, you know, there’s more…..”
He cut me off and ground out his cigar. “Yeah, there always is. Today was just to poke at each other a little, see what sticks its head up. I think we can work together. You wanna try, I’m game.” I nodded.
“Homework. Before you go to bed, go back over the most recent dream you’ve had. Try for detail. The next time you dream, as soon as you wake up, write shit down. Also, pay attention to waking events that seem to trigger these reactions. Keep a journal. Might help; can’t hurt. We’ll get back together in a couple weeks.”
Coming off the porch I stepped aside for an exceptionally good looking student who was wearing a down vest and short shorts. I said hi. She gave me the kind of smile you give an elderly uncle whose intentions aren’t entirely clear. I waited as her Chocolate Lab, straining to his full height, leaned over and buried his nose in one of the fountains, snorting water as his collar tag clanged against the brass.