What the Dog Understood
By Ruth Crocker
I remember waiting, staring at the dizzying pattern of the geometric pink and black wallpaper in my old room. My parents had chosen the paper for me when I was eleven. They said I needed my own room away from my brothers. I was, “…growing up.”
I returned to live in the same room as an adult to wait for my husband, Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., to return from Vietnam. We had been stationed in Germany for two years and returned to the U.S. in September, 1968, to stay with my parents just before Dave’s deployment.
After an intermission of three years of marriage, I was back in this familiar place at age twenty-two, surrounded by the fading wallpaper, back to the smell of coffee wafting upstairs at 6:00am, listening to the clink of my parents’ breakfast dishes. Outside my window, I spotted a black crow flying in a westerly direction, above the stand of pines, over the weathervane on the barn. I tapped softly on the windowpane. Isn’t Vietnam somewhere in that direction? Dave had left in the early hours of November 11, 1968.
Fast forward to Friday, May 17, 1969. Six months have passed as if I was in the backseat of a car on an endless ride. The waiting devoured most of my attention in my old room, surrounded by elements of our life in hibernation: wedding presents, china, glassware, camping equipment, his clothes, my clothes, books, German nutcrackers, candles and beer steins. Still peeking from the shelves were the slumping dolls and toys of my childhood. Nothing had been moved in my absence. There was little evidence that Vietnam existed except for the mountain of love letters and photographs that Dave has sent.
On this particular Friday, I was distracted with a final project for an art class; my last exam in the visual arts school I attended while I waited. In twelve days I would board a plane to meet Dave in Hawaii for R & R.
This monastic life, yearning for him, would be rewarded with a week in a hotel room next to Waikiki Beach.
I had fashioned a Japanese folding book of rice paper pages painted with images of the moon passing behind cloud after cloud, in shades of black, white and grey; opening like an accordion to reveal moon after moon; droning images to embody four thousand hours of waiting to see my love in the flesh.
At dusk, on that same Friday, the dog next door began to howl, long unceasing tones. He continued until Sunday.
I don’t remember the moon. Perhaps he saw it.
As I painted my moons all weekend, my older brother paced back and forth nearby, trying to speak above the relentless baying of the hound. He was home to finalize his divorce after a brief marriage – less than three months from wedding to separation. As I cut and pasted my moon book, we talked about the differences in our marital relationships.
Bob: Suzanne is critical and won’t take my word for anything.
Me: Dave is kind and considerate and always asks my opinion.
I felt so lucky, almost too conspicuous in my happiness. But, superstition kept the lid on my exuberance. Focused magical thinking – hope – will keep my beloved safe and bring him back to me.
In just two weeks I’ll step out of a plane and enter paradise. My mental movie played over and over.
Scene one. He has arrived from Saigon the day before. I’m wearing a blue silk dress with bare arms and shoulders. My long blonde hair flies in the wind as I walk down the steps onto the tarmac. He is running towards me, bobbing through throngs of people, smiling and lifts me off my feet. He places a Lei of tiny orchids around neck. We melt into each other right there, next to the plane.
Scene two. We’re driving to our hotel to spend the next twenty-four hours in bed – maybe longer. I sit as close as I can next to him in the car, my hand stoking his leg. I might not see Hawaii on this trip.
Scene three. We’re lounging together in a bubble bath. In his letters, he has said he really needs a long soak in soap and water – almost as much as he needs me. His skin is sun-browned, healthy and warm with no detectable scars. He seems okay, unchanged.
Tuesday, May 21, 1969; I drove to the school to deliver my moon project and speak with a professor about earlier work. His studio smells of chalk dust and linseed oil. He leans on the edge of a drawing table and cups his chin and small goatee in his hands. After a leaden silence, he waves his left hand toward the art work spread out before us – my artwork.
“It’s boring,” he said. “Why don’t you re-do it.”
No. Sorry. I can’t re-live anything of these previous months. How do I explain that I just want to move on? I want to get out of the backseat of this car.
“Make it more interesting,” he said. “It’s too controlled and calculated. There’s no life in it.”
On the hour-long drive back home with all the car windows open, no radio, and my hair flying out the window, I contemplated boredom in art and my difficulty to convey the experience of waiting. Perhaps I was too figurative. What if I’d just given him a blank canvas? Untranslatable suspense was my problem, not boredom. My life crackled with suspense. But there was also my superstition; that the wrong move, the wrong words could decay my waiting game and cause it to crumble. I had no words for the guy who sat next to me in art class and asked me, “What’s it like to be married to a trained killer? And, “Do you know what Napalm smells like?” I couldn’t explain who I was except that I was waiting. It was not a boring day.
My parents’ house had a long driveway which passed by the official front door and curved around to the back where we parked and entered the house through a side entrance. The front door opened into a parlor used on rare occasions; parties, bridal showers and funerals at which Uncle Albert invariably broke a Limoges teacup as he tried to hold the delicate china with his large, thick hands. He repaired cars and was more accustomed to handling carburetors and spark plugs.
Everyone who knew our house parked in the back, but as I entered the driveway, I saw a red Volkswagen bug parked in an odd spot – on the grass – near the never-used front door. It sat right next to the apple tree with the groping, spiny branches. Three years earlier, the tree had grabbed my long, Tulle bridal veil, whipped into its clutches by the wind, as I departed for my wedding.
About the red bug, I thought: Someone who doesn’t know us and our house.
It disturbed me. I didn’t want anything unusual to happen during this time when I felt the clock booming rather than ticking, as if the charm of normalcy, of sameness, could get both of us to Hawaii, unscathed. Perhaps avoiding risk was at the root of my perceived boring artwork. Don’t take any chances was my mantra. Don’t step on the cracks.
I passed the bug and drove around the house. Even outside near the Juniper tree there was a whiff of something and when I stepped in the side door, the atmosphere was thick and palpable. My brother stood with arms close to his body, hands in his pockets, head down like a marionette in repose. He looked up at me, put his hands to his face and started to heave with loud, violent sobs. My father entered from the front room with the never used door. He was silent, drenched with grey, his face slack and fallen. My mother came next, extending her arms as if to catch me. I was both drawn and repelled by the room from which they emerged and I thought, Dave’s been wounded. My grandmother, who usually sat all day in the living room near the door, was tucked away in her room –perhaps the most ominous sign of all.
The house was solid with the smother of something terrible. I entered the room reserved for special events and the dropping of delicate porcelain and I saw them – two men in dress greens- a Colonel and a Sergeant. They were sitting in our unused parlor drinking tea out of my grandmother’s Limoges china.
I understood at that moment they were waiting for me. As I entered, there was a brief tinkling clatter of cup against plate as they set down their refreshments and jumped up to find their official stances. There might have been a greeting, a “how are you,” an introduction, but I remember nothing except words like slim blades fell from their lips cutting me off from my life to that moment, excoriating my future. The Colonel held a piece of paper, a telegram, and began to read. The Sergeant stood stiffly with his arms slack at his sides. I wanted to back away – to widen the space between us. Don’t get too close, I thought. You haven’t heard anything yet. Perhaps it’s not too late. And then the speech began.
The words ignited a vision of Dave standing in a raging fire. He wore no shirt and the flames licked up at him from below. How could words do this? They had not yet described a scene.
“On behalf of the President of the United States and the Department of the Army we regret to inform…” The Colonel continued to recite the unfathomable text punctuated by “bravery, heroism, killed in action.” The Sergeant muttered condolences that fluttered down to the carpet between us like small amens. There was no comfort in anything they said. I suppose they didn’t know what to expect each time they delivered their message.
They had to be ready for anything, but there was nothing to do except try to stay upright as the room tilted down in their direction. The weight of their words sagged the floor. If I didn’t take care, I would be sucked down too close to where they stood and we would all fall down into the cellar, through the cement floor and whoosh down, down to the center of the earth to molten lava. They’re invaders who know nothing. This is impossible. These were my private thoughts. They finished their tea and left.
I held the arm of the banister as if it could ground me and keep me from floating up through the ceiling. The image of Dave in flames played continuously behind my eyes. He was not fighting the fire that engulfed him. He simply stood still and glistened in the heat. They’ve made a mistake, I thought. They came to the wrong house.
But, after they left there was still the telegram lying on the coffee table. Why did they have to leave that? A curtain fell in my mind as I tried to block out the truth, but then it flared into flames; the same flames engulfing Dave. My mind was a logjam. Mom approached me with a syringe of something. She was a nurse, but what an abhorrent idea. How could I think my way out of this if I was sedated? I escaped and went to my room.
Those who remained that day somehow survived the rest of the afternoon and the evening. Reality seeped in like water finding its way through any minuscule crack. According to the notifiers and their schedule of events, Dave had been dead since Friday. Or was it Thursday or Saturday in Vietnam? I never wanted to understand the time difference between us. I kept him in my time. But now exactitude became obsession. I wanted to know how long he had been dead without my knowledge.
Perhaps I did know something. Perhaps he died when the dog started to bark on Friday. How do animals know these things? Those long mourning howls in the background while Bob described the dissolution of his marriage and I thought: I’m so lucky. I asked my brother recently what he remembered of that day, long ago when the notifiers arrived.
“It was cold.” He said. “February.”
“No, no,” I said. “It was a warm, sunny day in May.”
“It was cold,” he repeated.
I thought I’d never sleep again, but that night of the day the news arrived I fell asleep as if I needed to be unconscious. At dawn, I was on the border between fiction and truth. The sooner I can believe this, the sooner I will find a solution.
What a difference a day makes. The furniture, books and clothes in my room had not moved in the night but their meaning was transformed. Yesterday they belonged to a young couple. Now they were the remnants of a marriage, the property of our former selves. Everything loved and useful was instantly useless, painful to behold. The closet bulged with orphaned uniforms, shoes, coats, shirts, and trousers still holding his scent.
I got out of bed and tried to think of what I used to do before yesterday. I used to brush my teeth, I thought, but now there’s no point because I have no need to eat. Every action, every reaction, had changed. I went to the post office and found a letter from him. The familiar loops and swags of his handwriting heartened and pained me. I imagined his tanned face and the heat of his skin as he wrote to me from the other side of the earth. Before. I tried to fantasize that this letter was evidence of a terrible mistake. The green men had notified the wrong family.
I could not open the letter. If he was really gone from the earth I had to stop imagining him alive now. I thought about Jacqueline Kennedy, sitting in the motorcade in Dallas, covered in her husband’s blood. She knew how to behave; how to manage a horrible situation. I had never imagined myself in the same boat with her. Now we were sisters joined by disasters.
What was normal now? I drove back to the school to pick up another final art project. It was easier alone in a car without the burden of other’s grief.
Driving fast towards the horizon was comforting. It made space for my pounding heart and surging thoughts. Food seemed unnecessary. The signals between body and brain were short-circuited by the ache in my sternum. I imagined entering the art building, pretending to be normal, avoiding conversation, taking my work.
The teacher whose office was my destination was famously colorless. He gave lectures and painting demonstrations in white shoes, white pants, white shirt and sometimes a white jacket. I remember him sitting at the far end of the office at a desk, relaxed in his chair, wearing his whites.
I entered, stood in the doorway and blurted out, “My husband’s been killed in Vietnam.” It was all improvisation. My intention was lost. I did not know what I needed. Perhaps an echo saying, “it’s not true.”
He said nothing. He appeared to change from white to translucent, shrinking even further into his seat. I crossed the blank space between us. He stared, stood and handed me my project without a single word. Perhaps he didn’t even know I had a husband in Vietnam. My words evaporated. I took my drawings and left.
Before the notifiers departed they said a survivor’s assistant would arrive by Friday to help me with paperwork and funeral planning. I had worn denial like a talisman as if this couldn’t happen. There was nothing left except to think. What would Dave want? The daydream of him in flames continued. Did he want cremation? What would I do with everything else? What would I do with his ashes?
Dave’s sister, Dottie, said that I woke up two days later and said: “This is what we have to do. Will you come with me?”
My brainstorm bubbled up from wherever one stores anger and righteous indignation in the body. I needed to do something – for both of us. Dave had been wrenched from his life at age twenty-five and I was obsessed with how to put things right for him – to extract him from a dubious war, free him. Nothing could give meaning to his death. Perhaps I wanted one last experience with him.
Dottie didn’t hesitate when I asked her to go with me to take his ashes to the North face of the Eiger in Switzerland. She knew the spot from a family holiday growing up with her brother. Dave and I had spent a vacation there, camping and hiking, just before his departure for the war. I knew he wanted to climb the North Face.
I also knew that he hated ceremony and I’d help him skip his elaborate funeral. The coffin would be buried with things I could no longer bear to look at: his uniforms, my wedding dress and – yes – perhaps all the letters. I thought I’d never be able to read them again and if for some reason I was no longer able to guard them, they must be safe, forever.
Now there was only the arrival of the body to see if this was really true, after all.
The mortician at the funeral home in town was Edward MacDougal, affectionately known as Mr. Ed. His son Eddy had been a quiet boy in my high school class. Mr. Ed was tall and thin with a long, serious face. He had the perfect look for the funeral profession: clean shaven, a tall slight frame and a dark suit. Smiles were rare. Hopefully he smiled at home. His clients were not always at their best but it was difficult to imagine him cavorting among the living. Calm, quiet, stillness was his specialty and I felt comfort under his steady, solemn expression.
We had met before under similar circumstances. He was a familiar sight with his hearse or black station wagon at the back door of the nursing home in front of our house. He came to our house to carry out my youngest brother.
In 1962, when Danny died at age seven after a long illness, Mr. Ed picked up the small body in his arms from my parents’ bed as if he had found a fragile, wounded bird, and carried him outside to the hearse. Even at fourteen, I recognized the professional consideration of this man who seemed to own only one suit. Now, eight years later, I knew I could tell him what I wanted to do. He didn’t blink an eye when I described my plan.
“Just remember you can’t dig up the box later,” he said. His words were stern but his manner kind. The bereaved need compassion; they also need the facts. There was never a moment when I felt patronized or treated like a child, even though I still looked like one.
“Don’t worry,” I said. Digging up the treasure was beyond my imagination. Sealed for eternity was the plan.
Soon, the most sensitive representations of my relationship with Dave would be safe and I wouldn’t have to worry about where they were or who might find them. They would reside in my memory. These symbols – especially the letters – would not make him more real to me. It pained me to look at his handwriting. I had to put them out of sight.
I could survive with Mr. Ed as my collaborator. He said the remains would arrive within two days. Dave was no longer a person. He was an envelope being mailed back, empty. The survivor’s assistant arrived; a young Captain, like Dave, and a great comfort, especially with his candor that his wife was the same age as me and she could be in my shoes. Such a thought made me feel less alone, that I was not the only one. My parents invited him to stay in our house, but he chose a local hotel. “Army regulations,” he said.
I looked forward to his arrival after breakfast each morning. I wanted to jump into his arms, just to be held again by Dave, by proxy, but I didn’t. He asked questions in a gentle, neutral way and listened intently. He explained what would happen from the military side: the choice of headstone, the funeral ceremony, the awarding of medals, widow’s benefits. As he sat next to me on the sofa, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together, I was tempted to share my secret plan but I was afraid that I could be breaking some obscure military rule or regulation. My scheme for Dave’s delivery to the Alps was my survival plan. I didn’t want any roadblocks.
On the following Sunday, May 26, Dave’s father and I went together to identify the body. I had to be sure. I climbed the steps to the front porch of the funeral home and entered the small anteroom where people line up to sign the guest book before the viewing area. I needed a breathing space before I could enter the door to the room holding the truth.
My legs wouldn’t continue for a moment, but Dave’s father kept walking and entered the room by himself. He disappeared into the space of flowery smells in which metal folding chairs stood in horizontal rows in front of the casket. I glimpsed around the corner to acclimate myself. I prayed that I would not recognize Dave and I could exclaim: they made a mistake!
Where would I find the courage to approach the coffin? Dead bodies frightened me. How could I see him like this? Inert, composed for eternity – if it was him. I had to know and with small steps I moved closer and closer. Beneath the open, grey metal lid of the casket I recognized the high forehead, the straight nose, the small dime-sized indentation on the right side of his chin where he had been hit by a Lacrosse stick at West Point. Yes. It was him against the white satin pillow; ghoulish, silent, petrified, unable to appreciate his plush surroundings. I stood as close as I could tolerate, near the shoulder of his father who had folded down onto the kneeling bench. My feet were glued to the floor. I thought of who might have touched him last and closed the lid in Vietnam. I didn’t see peace in his face. My beating heart banged in my ears but the air was too thick to breathe in this museum of death, even for the living.
He had been embalmed in the morgue in Vietnam, clothed in dress greens and made-up to look still living. An unimaginable occupation. The skin on his face was smooth and thickened with pancake makeup. Even the stubble of facial hair was obscured making him appear barely pubescent. The flesh looked hard like colored wax. On his neck, just above the collar, the skin appeared folded on itself, as if he had been repaired by a hurried seamstress or clothed by a busy dresser. I thought about the sketchy description on the telegram of the incident that killed him. The shrapnel of the booby trap had hit his neck, his chest and his right arm. I imagined the wounds hidden beneath his uniform. The hair was wrong. It was combed straight up like a crew cut rather than parted on the side and he was wearing the insignia of some unit other than his own. His preparer in Vietnam clearly didn’t know who he was and what he looked like in life.
But, it was him. Next to me I heard the sound of his father’s labored breathing as he touched his dead son, his namesake. He took a small comb from his pocket and combed Dave’s hair, parting it on the left. His hands trembled as he replaced the incorrect insignia with his own. He laid his hand where his son’s heart should have been beating.
These mistakes and inconsistencies, the bad hair and wrong insignia, conveyed a message that people were anonymous in this war and were falling in such numbers that even the morgue was making mistakes. Except for the information on his dog tags, they couldn’t know him in the place where corpses are gathered to be washed, shaved, dressed and sent home. It confirmed my decision that his body would not be desecrated any longer. He would not be buried in a hole with a military funeral conducting his send-off; he would go back to the Alps – with me.
The funeral ceremony took place on May 29, the day I was to leave to meet him in Hawaii for Rest and Recreation. The date wasn’t intentional – just a coincidence. I believe in rituals and their healing effects, but I would have preferred to miss this one. Fortunately, I had my secret and the thought of it protected me from the rushing torrent of distasteful but perfunctory events required during this time which only served to leave Dave further and further in the past. We still had a thread stretching between us. I could not have survived the funeral if I thought he was a participant; that his body was going into the ground in front of me. As I stood next to the coffin in the cemetery, I gazed down at myself from a branch in the Maple tree above. I saw a thin twenty-three year old girl/woman standing motionless in a dark blue A-line dress wearing sunglasses that hid her eyes from everyone as she accepted the ceremoniously folded American flag. She looked just like Jacqueline Kennedy, except for the hair.
When the coffin was buried in Elm Grove Cemetery during a service befitting an American hero, only a select few knew that his remains were not there. It was my little conspiracy. The coffin brimmed with the hundreds of letters spanning our brief four years together. They were packed in twenty, no. 10 letter boxes, and tucked underneath my wedding dress and his dress uniforms. Even his spit-shined shoes went in. I kept only two letters and his Commonplace book. I needed only those fragments to embody all the rest. The letters I held back say little of significance – no missives of love – they are merely samples of his handwriting and his syntax. I put them in a tiny basket with a lid and left them in my old room in my parents’ house.
By the time we stood under a baking sun at Elm Grove, I knew the cremation was complete even though the ashes would not return for another week from the crematorium. It was a bizarre comfort to think that somehow he was restored to himself with the contamination of war burned away; grains of sand and soil from Vietnam separated from his flesh and the thick make-up melted to oblivion. Perhaps it was this thought that enabled me to manage the endless funeral service on that blistering day in May with the thunder of rifle shot and the mourning sound of Taps from the bugle. The intense heat seemed appropriate; a record breaking 100 degrees. As the sun bore down on us, my great-uncle Ephriam fainted in his black suit and was quietly carried over to a shade tree and ministered to by our family doctor. When I was handed the folded flag that had covered the casket, I had a fleeting desire to open the lid and pop it in with all the rest. What would I do with this reminder, otherwise?
A week later the funeral home called to say that the ashes had returned. I went on my last visit to Mr. Ed’s establishment. We had not spoken about urns or other containers. I wanted the original receptacle into which he was poured after the burning. By chance, it was a small, cardboard box with thick sides, big enough to hold a large cantaloupe or a bowling ball; manageable for travel. My next challenge was to live with the box and its contents until I could deliver it to Switzerland.
I was afraid to open the box at first. I thought I might see something recognizable like a tooth or a fragment of bone. I did not want to know him in this form as fragments of himself. I wanted what was left to be unmolested and liberated in its entirety in a place he had loved. Now, I was simply a courier; connected to his body only through this last mission.
During the week that I received his ashes, more than one hundred U.S. combat deaths were reported and the drawdown of soldiers began. One week too late for Dave. American troop strength in Vietnam was reduced in 1969 by 60,000 from 540,000. Of the 58,195 killed during the war, approximately 15,000 were young husbands. The average age was twenty-two.
The box of ashes sat on a table near my bed waiting for our trip to the Alps. It was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last that I saw at night. It reminded me that this was true. This really happened. I now shared my room with a box that contained my beloved. The dream of our future was over except for my last hope – that I would take him far away from this room and this war.
Ruth W. Crocker is the widow of Army Capt David R. Crocker, Jr. who was killed in Vietnam in 1969 while Company Commander of Alpha Company, 2/22 Infantry. Although he received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, Ruth did not hear a first person report of the events surrounding his death until 2006, when she attended a reunion of David’s regiment. She hasn’t missed a reunion since, and went to the Vietnam Memorial Wall for the first time with surviving members of Alpha Co in 2008. Ruth has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and is writing a memoir about her life with David and her reunion with his comrades. She lives and writes in Mystic, CT. Contact her at http://www.ruthwcrocker.com http://www.Facebook.com/ruthwcrockerauthor and twitter@ruthwcrocker.