Trip of a Lifetime
Everything Was Wonderful
Tamia Nelson and
A Note to the Reader
Jack's unsettling discovery in the back room last week launched him
on an unscheduled trip to "A
Foreign Country." It also left him wondering if the Ed he thought
he knew is gone for good. Happily, though things aren't always what
February 27, 2001
Jack's eyes never left the knife, now
balanced in Ed's right hand. Ed placed the sheath back on the table.
His fingers curled around the grip, thumb resting lightly on the ridge
of the double-edged blade, just below the cross-guard. The greased
steel shone in the light of the naked bulb.
With practiced ease and startling speed, Ed spun the knife around
his middle finger, reversing it. Now he held it by the blade. The grip
extended toward Jack. "Want to take a closer look?" Ed asked, his eyes
in shadow, his face expressionless.
Jack took the knife. Without his being aware of it, a long,
whistling sigh escaped from his lips. He held the knife at arm's
length, examining it more carefully. The blade and grip had once been
black, but the finish on both was now well-worn. Jack saw where Ed's
fingers and thumb had rubbed through to the dull bronze of the knurled
brass grip. He touched one blade edge lightly with his thumb nail. It
caught immediately, peeling away a thin sliver of nail. No surprise
there. The edges showed evidence of much careful sharpening. And that
wasn't all. The entire seven-inch length of the blade was clean and
free from any trace of rust or pitting.
"It's a fine knife," Jack said, meeting Ed's eyes again. "You took
mighty good care of it."
"And it took care of me," Ed replied, sounding a bit more like his
old self. Jack thought he heard a hint of a chuckle in Ed's voice. He
hoped he wasn't wrong. Carefully, Jack took the blade in his left hand
and gave the knife back to Ed.
"I'm sorry, Jack," Ed said by way of acknowledgement, returning the
blade to its sheath. "You weren't meant to see what was in that file
box. I showed the stuff to Brenna once
when was it? Almost thirty
years ago. I thought she ought to know. But that was the last time I
had it out. It wasn't something I wanted to advertise. It's like they
say: the past is a foreign country. People do things differently
there. I read that
somewhere." He paused. "Wish I could remember
Jack nodded, reminded of things in his own life that he'd be happy
to put away in a box on a shelf. Not that he wanted to forget them,
exactly. No point in trying to cut pieces out of your past, after all.
Just put them someplace dark and privatesomeplace where you
wouldn't stumble over them every day.
"Still," Ed continued, looking Jack square in the eye, "there's no
undoing what's done, is there? If you'd rather not stay on in the
Jack laughed for the first time in what seemed like a very long
while. "You don't think I'm going to give up the best home I've had in
years, do ya? And what makes ya think you're the only man who's done
things he ain't proud of, anyway? It's
whaddaya call it?
human condition, right?" And then he stopped short, a little
surprised at his own eloquence.
"You've got a point, there, Jack," said Ed, grinning. His glance
swept over the table. Then he caught sight of the book that Jack had
come into the back room to find. "I think you're going to like
Slaughterhouse Five," he continued. "Heroes like me"here
he rolled his eyes up toward the ceiling, as if inviting divine
contradiction"heroes like me, we're just small-time operators,
if you know what I mean. Now the boys who dreamed that one up"he
gestured toward Slaughterhouse Five"they were big-time
heroes. The real thing. World-class."
He noticed Jack's puzzled expression. "Sorry," Ed said for the
second time in as many minutes. "You haven't read the book yet, have
you? It's a novel about the bombing of Dresden. By the Brits and the
Americans. World War II. A comic novel." Jack looked even more puzzled
now, so Ed added, "That's right. A comic novel. Sort of. What
literary types call 'black comedy.' Of course, the bombing was real
enough. It was no joke. And Vonnegut was there. He was an American
POW, and he'd just been evacuated to Dresden. When the bombers came
over, he was ordered into a shelter in an underground meat-locker.
That's where "slaughterhouse five" comes in. Anyway, Vonnegut was a
lucky man. He lived through the bombingand the firestorm that
followed. 150,000 didn't, including thousands of Allied POWs and
Here Ed paused for a second, shaking his head in a sort of
quizzical bewilderment, like a fighter who'd just taken a hard right
to the head that he hadn't seen coming. Then he continued: "When
Vonnegut wrote the book, he gave his hero the name Billy Pilgrim.
Billy's also an Allied POW in Dresden, see? He lives through the
bombing, too. And when he comes out of his slaughterhouse shelter, the
Germans make him help with the job of burning the bodies of the dead.
Later, whenever anyone asks him what it was like, Billy Pilgrim
answers, 'Everything was wonderful and nothing hurt.'" Ed hesitated
for a long minute. "I don't think there's a better answer."
After that, a long silence enfolded the two men as they stood on
either side of the table in the crowded, dusty, book-filled storeroom,
in the harsh light of a single naked bulb.
Ed was the first to speak. He sounded surprisingly cheerful. He
sounded like a man who'd just found a way out of a long, dark tunnel
into daylight, and who was damned glad of it. "Look, Jack," he said,
"I can't leave this stuff lying around here, and I'm getting a little
tired of finding out-of-the-way places to store it. It's time for me
to burn my dead, I think. You want to give me a hand?" And,
without waiting for a reply, he scooped everything off the
tableknife, t-shirt, pictures, medals, even the big envelope
full of papersand stuffed them all back into the cardboard file
box. "Come on!" he said. "It's getting late. Brenna's going to be
wondering what's happened to me." And he pushed out through the door
onto the back porch, with Jack following close behind him.
Ed grabbed the lid of the big steel trash can and carried it out to
the flagstone patio. Then he squatted down beside it and dumped the
contents of the file box on the ground. Handing the large envelope to
Jack, Ed told him to open it, crumple the papers one by one, and place
them on the inverted trash-can lid. Jack did as he was told. Soon, a
growing mound of wadded paper filled the lid. Only occasional,
isolated words and phrases were visible. "Citation"
for his personal"
"accounted for many." Jack
wanted to look at what he was crumpling up, but Ed hurried him along,
emphasizing his haste by starting to tear up the three photos. Only
once did Jack stop.
He'd found a plain sheet of typewriter paper. A long time ago it
had been white, but now it was yellowed and damp-stained. Rather than
bearing the boilerplate of official correspondence, it bore a simple,
well-executed pencil sketch. The drawing showed a weasel popping out
of a hole in the ground. The creature had a Vietnamese youth in its
jaws, transfixed by two enormous canine teeth. Jack held the sketch
out at arm's length and squinted in an attempt to see more clearly in
the fading evening light. The weasel's "teeth" weren't teeth at all.
They were knife blades, identical to the blade of the knife that now
lay on the ground at Ed's side. And the weasel wore wire-rimmed
The sketch was labeled and signed. The label said "North American
Flat-Footed Ferret." The artist's signature was a single improbable
Jack handed the sketch to Ed, who glanced at it and handed it back.
"Add it to the pile," he said, in a voice that made no allowance for
But Jack thought he'd try again. It was a good sketch. "This
Cock-burn fellahe somebody you knew?"
"He pronounced it COE-burn. And he was very particular about it,
too. A medic. A volunteer. Right out of a little Quaker college in
Pennsylvania. And a conscientious objector, no less. I thought he was
crazy. He was, too, but he wasn't just crazy in the way I thought."
"Meanin'?" Jack asked, still waving the sketch in the air.
"Meaning he was always complaining about the food." When Jack
looked as if this wasn't enough, Ed continued: "Cockburn's folks came
from Iowa, and he always said he couldn't get good bacon in 'Nam. He
wouldn't eat the crap we got. Then he started getting his own.
Fine-tasting stuff, too. Every man in the company had some, one time
or another. Cockburn cooked it himselfcooked it nice and crispy.
We all thought he'd done a deal. You know, found a local source. He
had. Turned out he was butchering bodies. When they weren't fresh
enough, he started 'making meat' on the side. That's what he called it
anyway. And he wasn't too fussy where he got it. He ate most of the
ass off a brand-new second lieutenant, for one thing. About all the
lieutenant was good for, in fact. But, hell, somebody had to do
something. Can't have medics eating the dead. It doesn't play well on
the evening news. And it's not good for morale, either. So we drew
straws and the loser took care of things. It was either that or watch
Cockburn get sent off to Leavenworth. None of us wanted him doing that
kind of hard time. Most of us owed him a favor or three. It was a hell
of a shame, though. He was a good medic. And a mighty fine
cartoonist. He must have done dozens of those sketches." Ed looked at
the sheet of paper in Jack's hand and shook his head from side to
side. "Now put the damn thing on the pile."
This time Jack didn't argue.
When all the papers were crumpled and the photos had been reduced
to tiny squares, Ed tore the t-shirt into strips and added these to
the growing mound before him. Then he tossed the medals on the top and
stood up, holding the knife in his hands.
"Can't burn that," Jack said.
"Nope. Don't think I could," Ed replied. "Don't think I want to.
Think I'll hang on to it a while longer."
"Right," said Jack. "There's never any call to throw away good
tools. Never know when you might need 'em." And he winked at Ed.
Ed grinned back. "Got a match?" he asked.
"Think so," said Jack, reaching into his pocket.
A minute later, the two men stood watching the multi-colored
ribbons shrivel and burn in the small, smelly fire. "Go on, now. Go
in," said Ed. "And tell Brenna that I'll be right along, OK? Have to
get up early. We're looking at a canoe in the morning. Might be just
the boat we need for the trip. Don't want to miss our chance at it."
"OK," said Jack, starting to walk toward the house. Suddenly he
turned around and said, "Everythin' was wonderful
"And nothing hurt," finished Ed. Then the two men's laughter echoed
in the night.
To be continued
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights