Andrew replied. "I was gung ho, too. Until I got there and saw the truth. The US government was lying to us. Then I became gung ho in only one way..........to get my men the hell out of there, home to their wives, mothers, kids."
When did you learn truths about the War?
I spoke. "Henry was so gung ho about the War. He was sure he could make a difference. I've wondered how the War might have affected him if he had lived to return home."
Do you personally have a story about someone deeply affected by the Viet Nam War? Are you willing to share it?
Andrew took my hands again. "As if Henry's death wasn't enough for a newly-married, very young woman to handle. His parents' behavior was horrible toward you." He looked down, then back up. "I am so sorry." When he saw my eyes were dry, he slid his hands away.
Why do you think my eyes are dry at this point?
Happy New Year to you and welcome back to the story of me and Andrew over a spontaneous lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. You may recall that the last event I posted was when he cleared the lunch table contents between us and took my hands in his. I had just told him about my young husband Henry's death in Viet Nam in 1968.
That's where I'll start.
After I recovered from Andrew's kind, tender holding of my hands as I wept, I said, "And maybe even worse. Henry's parents turned against me over an insurance policy. They were so angry I thought they might harm me. That's when my own PTSD began, fearing they might blow my brains out. I was not far off the mark when I learned his father was an alcoholic and owned an arsenal of guns.
Has fear ever gripped you to the point of illness? I hope not.
With the clear space between us Andrew slowly reached across the table and took my hands in his.
That's when the tears came.
• • •
Can you picture this scene in a KFC with two strangers deeply connecting across a table?
After my story Andrew did something unusual. He began pushing our lunch plates, used napkins and plastic ware aside, creating a clear space between us across the table.
• • •
What do you think is going to happen?
When I told Andrew about the Viet Cong woman and our similar reactions to our husbands' deaths I did not cry. I had relived my own scene so many times that I think I numbed myself to its horror in order to go on.
"I became that Viet Cong woman when I saw her collapse in front of me on the television screen. Nothing separated us but a stupid war. Women. Wives. Now widows."
Andrew closed his eyes. His expression remained solemn, even prayerful. I felt his compassion across the table.
• • •
Was I really numb?
I continued to tell my story. "What got me in the 1968 segment of the documentary was a Viet Cong woman discovering a dead man's body, presumably her husband's. She fell to her knees, doubled over and began rocking and wailing."
I stopped to look out the window again, then spoke. "I did the same thing when I saw the tall Marine Lt. holding a yellow sheet of paper in his hand in the doorway of my summer workplace. He began reading it, but I didn't hear a word he said above my own wailing. I was slumped over, rocking back and forth crying out 'no, no, no.' "
But it was true.
• • •
Can you see why I identified with this woman?
I pushed my fried chicken around on my plate, leaned over and took a few sips of my fountain drink, then spoke.
"I knew the 1968 episode of Ken Burns' documentary was going to be tough. But I've wanted to know more about what Henry faced during his short time in combat. I wanted to see the terrain, the conditions. But something quite remarkable happened to me during that episode."
Andrew cocked his head.
• • •
Any guesses what might have transpired for me during that Ken Burns 1968 episode?
The silence between us lengthened. Were Andrew and I thinking the same thing?
Then I dared speak. "Do you think you may have carried Henry's body off the Hill?"
I shuddered imagining the scene.
• • •
How is this story affecting you?
Andrew told me he was in Cam Lo, 25 miles from Khe Sanh at a firebase on the DMZ. "I was watching 16-inch shells from the USS New Jersey fly though the air on their way to visit the enemy. But in July of 1968 I was riding in helicopters with supplies and soldiers headed for the hills as well as evacuating injured and KIAs."
I struggled to take in a breath. "Henry was in Cam Lo at that very time before he was helicoptered to the Hill. Two days after his arrival he was killed by Viet Cong along with a group of his men attempting to get water from a spring."
Andrew hung his head. I looked out toward the parking lot through the large window by our booth.
• • •
"I watched every one of the Ken Burns Viet Nam episodes. The war within the war was only touched on in one episode," I said.
I sat up straight, looked Andrew in the eye and took a deep breath. "My first husband was killed in Viet Nam. July 5, 1968, Khe Sanh, Hill 689. Henry Ledford, a 2nd Lt. in the Marines."
Andrew's eyes narrowed and focused on mine. "I'm so sorry."
• • •
Do you know anyone who lost someone in Viet Nam?
"Did you watch the Ken Burns 'Viet Nam' series?" I said.
"Only a little of it. I didn't want to re-live those scenes. I've spent enough of my life trying to forget them."
• • •
Did you watch the Ken Burns "Viet Nam" documentary series? Why? Why not?
"Yeah, three wars," Andrew said. "War against the Viet Cong and against North Viet Nam." He became quiet for a few seconds, shifted in his seat. "And the unspoken war within our own ranks that reflected the Civil Rights movement and anti-war sentiment back in the States."
I stared at him. Cocked my head, wanting to know more about the third war.
• • •
Did you know about the war within the war?
Andrew began his story. "There were three wars going on in Viet Nam."
I raised my eyebrows.
• • •
Any thoughts about three wars going on in Viet Nam in 1968?
"You seem different. Very present, a good listener," Andrew told me.
"Thank you. I think allowing a person to be heard may be one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. I hope to do that."
• • •
Do you agree with me about the gift of allowing folks to truly be heard?
I kept quiet about my own Viet Nam story. Andrew seemed to want to tell me more of his.
"I've never been moved to tell anyone this story before, except fellow Viet Nam vets. Do you mind if I make an observation about you?" he said.
"No," I answered, wondering where this was going.
• • •
What on earth is Andrew going to observe? We've just met.
I told Andrew I went to Edison High School in Fairfax County, VA and was in the first graduating class, 1964. Then I added I went off to William and Mary as an English major. "I got my first job teaching English at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax." He knew exactly where both high schools were located.
"I was already in the Army headed for Viet Nam in 1968." He lowered his eyes and spoke softly. "Changed my life."
• • •
Where were you in 1968?
"I started at Texas A and M in architecture," Andrew responded. But the program was very cut and dry. I wanted to design in my own way. I switched to a business major."
There was more of a hint of rebellion in his voice this time.
• • •
Can freshman architecture majors actually design in their own way?
Andrew wore blue jeans, black tennis shoes, a black crew neck sweater with a navy blue polo shirt. One side of the shirt collar was still buried underneath the sweater.
He had fly away gray hair and a matching beard and mustache. I think he wore glasses, but I paid more attention to his clear blue eyes.
"Where'd you go to college?" I asked.
• • •
Is there any significance to Andrew's fly away hair and his shirt collar half buried under his sweater? What do you think?
We slid into opposite sides of our booth at KFC and eyed each other before we removed our food from our trays and pushed them to the side of the table.
As we shook hands across the table he spoke. "I'm Andrew Le Blanc. My mother was English but my father was from French stock. Thus, the odd pairing of the names."
"I'm Robin, and my mother was part English, part French. My father was Scotch-English. I've always liked my name even though kids used to cajole me that it was a boy's name. Probably from reading about Christopher Robin."
I don't recall how we discovered our first coincidences. There were so many. We found that we had lived in Northern Virginia nearly at the same time, had graduated from nearby high schools. Our fathers were both Colonels, his in the Air Force, mine in the Marines, both pilots whose careers had landed them (and our families) in NoVa after many moves.
"I worked in the hobby shop in Falls Church. That's all I did besides go to school." I detected something different in his voice. Perhaps a hint that he did not buy into the high school scene.
"That was the best hobby store around. My father and brothers bought all their model airplane kits there. I sometimes came along. I wonder if you might have been there?"
• • •
Have you ever had this many coincidences reveal themselves this fast when you connected with a stranger? Are these coincidences? Can you share your story?
After my invitation to eat together, the man stopped, hesitated, then turned to me. "Yeah," he said. "That would be okay. Where do you want to sit?"
"I like the booths over by the windows, in the sun," I said. "Will that work for you?"
He said that would be fine. I heard something flat in his voice.
We took different routes to our chosen booth. He stopped by the condiments table and then arrived carrying plastic ware and napkins for both of us. I already sensed a politeness, a gentle- ness I liked about him.
• • •
What might the "something flat" in a person's voice be about?
The man nodded after he heard my remark about our same lunch orders. Both our trays were slid cross the slick counter. I turned to him, not expecting to say what I did.
"I'm on my own for lunch today. Do you want to eat together?"
• • •
How would you respond to a stranger's invitation to eat lunch together?
I recalled asking Priscilla about her name. That may have been the first time I spoke to her in particular, more than just a customer placing a lunch order.
"I like your name. I had a friend named Priscilla in grade school and junior high. She had long brown braids."
"I guess my mother just liked the name. I'm after no one in my family," she said softly. I loved how her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
I fiddled with my wallet to hand her exact change, $5.35 to the penny. Maybe I enjoyed the regularity, the predictability of this lunch routine, right down to the set price for lunch. And this KFC played 60's music, my kind of music. I often began humming melodies the minute I entered the doors.
So not seeing Priscilla today disrupted my routine, unsettled me. I ordered my usual, paid my usual and then stepped to the side of the counter to await my tray.
A man entered through the side doors of KFC and walked up to the counter to order his lunch. I overheard his request. It was exactly the same as mine. And he seemed to know exactly how much it cost.
I looked over at him when he moved near me to wait on his tray.
"We ordered the same lunch," I said.
• • •
Am I too out-going?
I craned my neck to see if Priscilla was in the kitchen filling buffet containers or wiping trays since she was not at the counter to take my order.
"Is Priscilla here today?" I heard the worry in my voice as I asked the young woman who stood behind the register.
"No, she has the day off. She had errands to run."
"Is she okay, she's always here on Wednesdays."
"Yeah, she had to take her daughter to the doctor."
I knew her daughter had been quite ill; hospitalized for some sort of surgery. Priscilla was taking care of her along with working her shifts at KFC. One day I had noticed Priscilla's usual sparkly blue eyes, one narrowed to a near-wink, appeared more gray and bloodshot. Her shoulders were more hunched. I mentioned to her that she looked tired.
That's when Priscilla opened up to me, began sharing her story in tiny, quiet snippets.
• • •
What do you think made Priscilla open up to me?
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Open For Lunch
Award Finalist in the "Health: Alternative Medicine" category of the 2017 Best Book Awards