Which One?-Part 4 (Image:Jessica in a hooded coat)

Hi,” I continued. “I might have the wrong number—but—do you remember the name “Orion? Did you—when you were in high school—date a guy by that name?”

There was dead silence on the other end for a very, very long minute. During that time the 8 or 10 months we went together before I enlisted in the army, continued to play out in my thoughts. The long walks in the countryside. The long talks about our respective plans for the future.

“Yes,” came the apprehensive response.

“Well,” I said trying to find a balance between levity and politeness, “you’re talking to him.”

Again—a long, dead silent moment on the other end. While I waited I puzzled about why she just didn’t sound like my Joanie—I kept straining to hear Joanie in each word but just couldn’t. All I could hear was this upstate New York Mrs. Brown woman.

“Joanie,” I said in a more familiar tone, “this is Orion—this really is me.”

Another few seconds of silence.

“This is a joke—somebody’s playing a joke on me,” came the defensive response.

“It’s not a joke Joanie,” I said, “this is Orion—you’re talking to Orion—it’s me.”

“This is a joke,” she insisted, “did my sister put you up to this?”

I began relating details of our relationship—the color of the gown she wore to the senior prom, the other couple that went with us, how we used to spend our days together walking in the woods and fields of Bellamy County, my scouting background, her love of animals, our first kiss in the back seat of her father’s Studebaker Lark the evening he drove us back from visiting one of her relatives. She could not be convinced that it was really me.

“OK,” I said, “ask me something only Orion would know.”

She didn’t hesitate a second.

“What,” she almost hissed, “was your military service number?” I couldn’t believe it—42 years later—she apparently still remembered my service number from writing it on all those letters.

When I went into the service at 18 I had never been away from home more than a week and certainly had never been entirely on my own. Basic training was tough. I was assigned to an Airborne-Ranger preparatory unit. I didn’t enlist intending to go Airborne and Ranger. I found out much later they simply didn’t have enough guys who planned on entering those elite groups, to fill out a training cycle. A few dozen guys—including me—were randomly assigned to fill up the empty bunks.

We ran—a lot, did push-ups—a lot, marched all night with full packs and combat gear—a lot, spent time in hand-to-hand combat training and crawling under barbed wire and machine gun fire—a lot, got screamed at by the drill instructors—a lot. I got to where I could quite literally sleep standing up. I was so chronically exhausted I had a slight cold, headache and sore throat for the entire two months. A lot of guys washed out. I was constantly scared I’d be the next one.

The physical demands of the experience weren’t the hardest part—it was the emotional and psychological demands. The aloneness of the military world and the persistent sense of always being on the verge of failure made it everything I could do to get through each day. Each night as I went to sleep, the feeling tomorrow would be the day I could no longer hack it—haunted me like a black spirit. I just knew it was going to happen—I’d wash out—I’d be sent home—a disgrace, a no-balls-wimp and a failure.

Adjusting to adulthood and independence under those conditions bordered on overwhelming at times. I remember very clearly the moment I realized I really was on my own. A small group of us were sitting by the side of a road back in the boondocks somewhere waiting for a truck to pick us up. A career Staff Sergeant was telling us about his service in Korea. I’ll never forget the shiver that went down my back when he matter-of-factly said something like…

“Some of you kids—I know—are looking at me like I’m your daddy. Like I’ll be looking out for you if we go into combat. Forget that shit. If we get into a fight I’m looking out for my own ass. You’re on your own.”

I realized instantly he was right—I had been thinking of him as a father figure—that he or somebody like him—would look out for me if the situation got dicey. And I realized—fully—I wasn’t a kid anymore—nobody was going to protect me like my parents did growing up. I was utterly alone and on my own and like it or not—ready or not—I was a man. That was probably the scariest moment I had in those months of training.

Joanie’s letters to me while I was in basic, then later in Advanced Infantry Training, were the only thing that kept me hanging on. She wrote almost daily. The letters that came almost every day were like oxygen while I was under water. Several times she sent little perfumed handkerchiefs that I kept under my pillow. I’d often fall asleep in the dark World War Two era barracks with one of those handkerchiefs over my face, breathing in the love and caring and sanity and praying I’d somehow make it through the next day.

It was about a year after I’d enlisted—while I was stationed in Alaska—I got that last letter—the one where she told me she was getting married. I could not in any way fault her. Though I cared about her deeply—and for the rest of my life always thought of her as the perfect first girlfriend for me—I was never able to say to her, “I love you,” even though she professed her love for me many times. I cared about and respected her far too much to lie to her. I remember writing her back and wishing her well then silently crying myself to sleep that night.

The decades rolled by. After the army was years of college then a career in the mental health field—two marriages—but I never forgot Joanie. In my memory she was always the sweetest, prettiest girl I’d ever known. I never realized it until many years later but I think I measured every girl I ever dated against her.

Without any hesitation on my part—I rattled off my service number. That’s the sort of thing an ex-GI never forgets. I remember an uncle who was in World War Two—a few years before he died in his 80s—spiting out his service number like he was still a young soldier in uniform.

“RA one nine one zero eight six two one,” I replied confidently.

“That’s not right,” she snapped back at me, “I knew you were a fake—besides—you don’t sound anything like Orion.”

End part 4.

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