2. All Go Down Together

And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write
And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together.

— Billy Joel, “Goodnight Saigon”

MacDill AFB, Florida, 1986

Dear Charlie,

If you’re reading this, I’m dead. So it feels kind of weird writing this. I have no idea when you’ll read it, if you’ll ever read it. Right now you’re barely a month old, and already I miss you so much it hurts. But the Air Force doesn’t necessarily allow a guy much time with his family.

There’s a part of me that still can’t believe you’re real. I have a son. I’m a father now. And I’m excited and a little scared. I don’t know if I have what it takes. It’s an awesome responsibility, being a parent, and even more so when you’re away in other countries as often as I am. I don’t know if I’ll get to hear you say your first words, or see you start to walk. I don’t know if I’ll see your school plays or your baseball games. No matter how desperately I want to. I don’t know how many of your special moments the Air Force will let me share with you and your mom.

I’m not the best at saying some things out loud, so I need to say them here. Make sure I cover all the bases, somehow, because there are things you need to understand.

 

 

“Frank.”

I looked up from polishing my boots — a sad joke considering exactly how long they’d stay polished during a hard week of training — when Jack came into the hangar with an unusually serious look on his face. “I need a favor,” he asked.

“Whatcha need?”

He dropped his hat and a couple papers on the floor next to me, sitting on a crate and leaning back against the wall. He didn’t say anything for a minute, just watched me as I banged one boot against the floor, trying to knock some of the dirt off.

“You’re wasting your time.”

I laughed, picking up the greasy rag and smearing more black polish on it. “No shit, Jack.” Giving up on getting the dirt off, I swiped the rag against the side of the boot, in the hopes I could at least cover it up. “Something tells me you didn’t come here to offer me your expert advice on cleaning my uniform.”

He folded his arms, staring across the hangar at nothing. Silence followed — not something I was used to, after seven years hanging around Jack O’Neill. Backed by the sound somewhere outside of somebody’s radio turned way up, the music drowned out briefly as a plane roared off the runway. The hangar was still and stifling, like it always was in summer in Florida — no air conditioning for us. We were Special Forces, we were supposed to be used to roughing it. The air smelled like sweat and boot polish and airplane fuel.

Living quarters at MacDill Air Force Base for the 58th Special Tactics team could be described as the “bare necessities”. There were several Spec Ops teams here now, all stationed here for training exercises in the absence of anything more interesting for us to do overseas. We were sore, exhausted, and bored as hell, on our first day off after a week of maneuvers.

Normally under these conditions, Jack would’ve been coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas to play practical jokes on our superiors, and getting me in trouble along with him. There is nothing more dangerous than Jack O’Neill with too much time on his hands. I’d learned that, the hard way, too many times over the last seven years, since I’d first met him in Special Ops training.

All this week, he’d been serious, thoughtful, withdrawn. Hardly strange, considering he’d been called away to Florida three days later after his first kid was born. Who wouldn’t be depressed? It wasn’t like this was some kind of threat to national security we were dealing with — you’d think a guy could take some time off training exercises to be with his wife and his newborn son. But the Air Force didn’t see it that way.

He hadn’t said anything to me about it. He didn’t have to. I knew him well enough now to know what he was thinking, and he knew I knew. By this time words weren’t necessary.

He held out the papers. “Read it.”

I picked up the first page, blinked as I scanned the first lines. “What is this?” I shook my head. “This has to be… bad luck, or something.”

“Frank, this is important.”

Sitting up on the edge of the bed, he was giving me that intense look, the one I hadn’t seen since the waiting room at the hospital in Colorado Springs, the night Charlie was born. Okay, he’s serious about this. The whole thing still made me nervous. All soldiers are superstitious to a certain extent, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It seemed like he was asking for something to happen.

But he was my friend, the best friend I’d ever had. If he said it was important…

“If it’s that important, I shouldn’t be touching it with this shit all over my hands.” I dropped the paper, looking at my hands covered with black grease, and my fingerprints already smudging the page. Too late. Wiping my hands on the dirty rag, I looked at him. “You all right?”

He didn’t answer me directly, but when did Jack ever give anyone a straight answer to that particular question? You’d think I’d have learned. “It’s for him, in case… ” He trailed off, and we exchanged a long look. “I don’t know how much I’m gonna be able to see him,” he said seriously. “Even if nothing happens, I’m not gonna retire anytime soon, and I’m gonna miss a lot.”

“Yeah.” What else could I say?

“I don’t know if he’ll understand why.” Looking down at his hands, he sounded sad, almost lost. “Hell, sometimes I don’t think Sara really understands. But there’s stuff he needs to know.”

“And you’ll tell him,” I said stubbornly. “Jesus, Jack, will you quit talking like this? You’re scaring me.”

“I want you to give it to him, if anything happens to me.”

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