Walter woke to the sound of blood-curdling screams. It was still dark outside, so he fumbled until he found a light switch. He was in a hospital bed, but it wasn’t in a hospital ward. There was just one bed. Pictures of himself on the wall. Most were from Tan Son Nhut Air Base with the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron. Colonel Sweat looked down, awarding him the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the ass of Army Special Forces’s in Bu Dop. Underneath it, his medals, rank insignia and a Green Knight patch were displayed in a walnut case. A model of an F-100D sat on a table.
He was shaky, but he slowly climbed out of bed. When he tried the door, to his amazement it opened. He peered out. Two prison guards in nurse uniforms were tackling a prisoner. The prisoner screamed in protest and tried to defend himself, but he didn’t have a chance. One guard turned to him and said: “Do you need help getting back to bed, Mr. Schmidt?” Walter took that as his cue to retreat.
Back inside his cell, Walter pondered where he was as he inspected the figure of the airplane. Very nice. Great detail. It even looked like his old Hun down to the correct camouflage paint and green triangle on the tail. Then he carefully examined the rest of the photographs. Of course, he recognized his and Mary’s wedding picture at the Air Force Academy chapel. He noticed a portrait of his dad with Anne, Mary’s mother. By it was a framed snapshot of Dad and Anne. People of all ages he didn’t recognize surrounded them, everything from smiling men in their 50s to young women holding babies.
He paced his cell until morning, unable to sleep.
A little Oriental woman in a nurse’s uniform knocked as she stepped in. “Are we feeling better today, Mr. Schmidt,” she said with a pronounced accent.
Walter turned around, looking at her. Why would they allow a Vietnamese nurse in an American military hospital? “Who are you,” he replied in confusion. “Where am I?”
She pointed at her nametag. “I am Mei-Ling. This is Hollybrook Senior Living.”
No, she was Viet Cong or Red Chinese. He must have been captured. He could hear other prisoners. Many were screaming. “Name, rank and serial number,” he yelled. “That’s all you will get.”
“It’s OK, Mr. Schmidt,” Mei-Ling said, looking at him warily. “Today is Valentine’s Day. We want to help you clean up and dress. Your family is coming to visit you. Isn’t that nice?”
“Schmidt, Walter Helmut, Captain, United States Air Force, 73412,” he shouted.
“That’s alright.” She looked frightened. “I will be right back. Don’t leave.”
Walter hadn’t considered that. Could he escape?
Before he got a chance to explore, a burly man came in. “Mister Schmidt,” he said with a Cuban accent. “My name is Santiago. Let me help you this morning.”
Walter knew the VC used Cubans and rebel Puerto Ricans for interrogations. He backed away, holding his hands up in defense against the blows he was sure would come from his interrogator.
“Just relax,” Santiago said. “You don’t want to be all stinky for your grandbabies on Valentine’s Day. Do you need help to undress?”
He decided to choose his battles carefully. Maybe he could lure them into a false sense of security. He tried pulling his shirt off but was too weak. It must be the drugs they gave him to make him talk.
Showered and dressed, Santiago put him in a wheelchair and pushed him to a dining facility. Along the way, he saw frail ghosts of men and women being wheeled by the guards. How many other prisoners in the camp? Where was he?
The mess hall was festooned with pink and white streamers with red paper hearts on the walls. Walter had heard how the Korean War POWs had been starved. The chow here looked delicious. Scrambled eggs with bacon twisted into a heart shape, oatmeal with a candy heart, whole-wheat toast, and prune juice. They didn’t give him any silverware to eat his porridge. “Please, a food shovel,” he said, gesturing as he ransacked his brain for the right words but could not find them. He was so frustrated that tears came from his eyes.
After breakfast, they wheeled him back to his room and gave him what they said was “medicine,” pills and an injection they said was insulin. More mind control drugs. Walter struggled, but it was no use. Santiago and another big ape held him while Mei-Ling injected him. The truth serum left him feeling sad, and tired, and crawling out of his skin. When would they interrogate him? It had to be before their drugs wore off.
A darling little girl in a pink dress and blonde pigtails burst into the room and hugged him. “Granddad, Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.” She looked sweet, but he had no idea who she was.
Moments later, a couple entered his cell. “Dad,” the husband said. “How are you today?” He resembled Karl, Walter’s older brother. Not enough to fool anyone though. The junior version of the strange man walked beside him. They were a matched set down to how they combed his hair. “Hey, Granddad.”
“Who are you,” Walter asked, puzzled. He didn’t know any of them.
The man looked at him with sad eyes. “Dad, I'm Helmut, your son.”
“Happy Valentine's Day, Grandpa Schmidt,” said a woman cradling a baby.”
Walter smiled back suspiciously, looking at the framed picture. “Where’s Mary,” he asked.
“Mom died last year,” the man replied.
Walter glanced again at the wall. The boy and girl looked just like they did in the photograph. Something was very wrong with that, but what?
“We brought a gift for you,” the woman said as she took a wrapped package out of her diaper bag, and handed it to him. He knew from the round shape what it was. “Die Energie-Sartbitter-Shokokolade.” Sho-ka-kola dark, his favorite. German caffeinated chocolate in little tins. Giving many thanks, Walter opened the present and broke off a piece, savoring that rich, intense chocolate taste that melted into the perfect coffee flavor.
The little girl climbed up next to him, reaching for a piece, but the woman swept her hand away. “Annie, none of that or you won’t sleep for a week.”
“Tell us a story,” the boy said, climbing next to him.
“Yes,” the girl said. “Tell us one of your stories.”
“Tell us about the war,” the boy said. “We want to hear again about Operation Bolo when you fooled the gooks into thinking your F-4 Phantom fighters were Thunderchief bombers and mowed them all down.”
“Walt has been begging to hear your stories,” the man said, sitting down.
“They both love hearing your war stories,” the woman said. She checked the baby’s bottom. “Karl’s got a stinky.” She ducked into the bathroom with the baby and her diaper bag.
Walter sat back on the bed, savoring another piece of chocolate as he struggled to find words. Finally, he remembered a TV show he had seen. “First, the scientists came out and mounted the cloaking devices in our fighters. We were completely invisible. Charlie couldn’t see us or track us on their radar. So when they sent up their MiG 21 interceptors to nail the F-105 Thud bombers, we materialized out of thin air. We lined the blue bandits up, fired our cannons and blew them all out of the sky.”
The woman burst through the door of the bathroom, anger on her face. “Honey, there are no diapers in the diaper bag. I had to use a towel. Why didn’t you put more in?”
“You didn’t ask me to.”
“Yes Mom did,” said the boy. “We were eating breakfast.”
The girl nodded in agreement. “I was eating Cocoa Puffs, and she asked it. You said you would.”
“But you didn’t.”
“You’re getting as forgetful as your father,” the woman said.
Helmut bit his lip and made it out of the room before he began to cry. Memories of his Opa wandering the house at night dragging his bedsheet flooded Helmut’s mind. His Opa was 87 when his mind went. Dad was 73 and Uncle Karl was only 71. A wave of panic flooded over Helmut, thinking back to the little signs of forgetfulness he had seen in his dad for years but ignored. How long did he have until he didn‘t remember his own children? Would Karl and Annie even visit him on Valentine’s Day?
Mei-Ling walked by on her rounds. “Are you alright, Mr. Schmidt?”
“I’m fine. Just a little emotional.”
“Seeing your parents like this is hard.”
Helmut nodded, wiping his face with his handkerchief. “How is my dad doing?”
Mei-Ling shrugged. “He still has good days like today, Mr. Schmidt. But the bad ones come more often.”
Written by DrBobSmith