| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 46

“Mama Mumu once told me there’s a difference between searching and escaping,” Marjorie answered. “I’m not running away anymore”


September 1964

Marjorie scrambled up off the floor.

“Are you okay, Margie?” Sam Lefkowitz asked. His voice, roughened by years of chain smoking, was unusually mild.

Marjorie gave herself a shake and hastily grabbed a can of tuna. “Yeah, sure, all cool. Mr. Lefkowitz,” she added, speaking quickly and urgently, “can I take a few days off? Like two or three?”

A raised eyebrow. “You need a beach vacation already?”

“No. I want... I need to go to the mountains.”

Marjorie stood in the aisle, fingers nervously clutching the tuna can that she’d obviously forgotten about. The grocer sighed. “C’mon, Margie, let’s go to the back, have a cuppa Joe, and you’ll tell me what’s going on.”

Sipping the hot and bitter brew, Marjorie spoke about those few precious moments in Tijeras Canyon, watching dawn break and feeling emotions so rare she could hardly recognize them, let alone give them a name. Unexpectedly and completely crazy, she felt the experience was somehow connected to the vibes of the Freed Hotel, the Levine family, and their strange but also compelling way of life.

“I mean, take Shabbos, it’s so full of rules and don’t do this and don’t do that, but it’s freaky, I can’t figure out why, sometimes when I saw the candles or heard the singing, I felt a little like the way I did in the canyon. Mr. Lefkowitz, I want to get a handle on my life, can you dig that?”

“I dig holes, not life, but I think I understand what you’re trying to say. So how long will it take for you to get there, solve the world’s problems, and get back here to my tuna fish?”

“If they haven’t hurt my Mustang’s engine,” Marjorie said, her face darkening, “about twelve hours’ travel. I’ll camp out overnight and be back some time the next day.”

“Marjorie Burton, you will not sleep outside in the middle of nowhere by yourself, not if I have to chain you to the cash register. Here,” he said, opening his wallet and pulling out a 20-dollar bill. “This will pay for a motel room in Albuquerque, with some left over for gas.” He looked at her directly in the face. “It’s a long drive. You sure you can’t just figure yourself out on the beach? It’ll be a lot cheaper and a lot easier.”

“Mama Mumu once told me there’s a difference between searching and escaping,” Marjorie answered. “I’m not running away anymore. Just trying to tune in to my life and figure it out.”

When Sammy Lefkowitz smiled, his face became a mass of wrinkles. Those wrinkles appeared now, as he shook his head and grinned. “Margie, has anyone ever told you that you are an incredible person?”

She did not return the smile. “No, Mr. L.,” she said seriously. “No one has ever told me that.”


be lent Moe his Cadillac, so that Moe could drive his father to the airport. Artie carried his Zeide’s small suitcase to the car and, at the last minute, jumped into the back seat.

“I’ll just come along for the ride,” he said casually, though Moe suspected his move had been carefully planned.

This would be Yeruchum’s first trip on an airplane, but he didn’t seem nervous, just determined.

At the check-in counter, Moe handed him a dollar bill. “Shaliach mitzvah gelt,” he said.

Yeruchum smiled grimly. “I’ll try to find a needy Yid to give it to, there in California. But believe me, I don’t need it. I’m a shaliach mitzvah even without the money.”

“Zeide,” Artie broke in — and here, Moe realized, was the reason he’d come — “are you sure you don’t want me to go with you? I can help you with luggage and stuff and… I know Miss Burton better than anyone in the family.”

“And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t come, Artchik.” Yeruchum put a hand on Artie’s shoulder. “We don’t know what we’re going to find. I’m afraid you’ll be too emotional, and it will just confuse her more.”

Artie would not surrender. “But someone’s got to be there who won’t yell at her for running away. To protect her. You saw what the Burtons were like.”

“Artchik.” The word came out, a stern warning, and then his tone softened. “I will be spending many hours with Fred Burton. And I’ve learned a thing or two about communicating with children. Right, Moishe Baruch?”

Moe looked up, startled, and then grinned. “Yes, Papa, you have. Don’t worry, Art, Zeide has it all under control.”


his head, Mutty had already composed the first line he would write in the journal Dad had given him: “The place is a nuthouse.”

The soldiers, including PFC Mordechai Levine, disembarked into a chaotic tangle of sights, sounds and, especially, smells, which ranged from strange and pungent vegetation and fermented fish to burning fuel and gunpowder. Smells he’d never experienced before and, he suspected, he would remember forever. The searing heat seemed to lock him into its evil embrace, made all the worse by his heavy boots, stifling uniform, and the pounds and pounds he carried on his back.

A short and bumpy truck ride dumped the soldiers into a large base for in-processing. Mutty latched himself on to the seatmate who’d explained Victor Charlie to him, a six-footer from Kansas named Carl Swanson, who seemed to have the inside scoop on South Vietnam from his brother, a veteran of a one-year Nam posting.

“What happens next?” Mutty asked him as they were marched into a huge warehouse.

Men were everywhere. Exhausted privates sitting on kitbags, some of them catching a snooze by leaning against a burning hot steel wall. Officers wandering around holding clipboards and screaming out names, their voices echoing through the scorching hot and airless building.

“You’ll be given your orders from some undertrained and overworked lieutenant. They’ll send you out to some forsaken base in the middle of the jungle and forget about you. You’ll be the NG in your unit—”


“The New Guy. The other grunts are going to be watching you, waiting for you to make some rookie mistake that might kill them all.”

Mutty wasn’t put off by the tough talk. The more he knew, the better off he’d be. “What kind of rookie mistake?”

Swanson sighed. “Look here, Muddy, just keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, your rifle ready, and maybe you’ll be okay.”

Suddenly Mutty heard an officer bellowing, “Lee-Vine. Lee-Vine.”

“Hey, that’s me.” He nodded to Swanson, grabbed his gear, and tried unsuccessfully to execute a sharp salute to the lieutenant who’d called him.

The lieutenant looked at him, the scornful look of the schoolyard bully to the bumbling fourth-grade shrimp.


“Sir, yes, sir. That is, it’s Leh-veen, sir.”

“Fine. Lee-Vine.” The lieutenant scanned his clipboard, rifled through the sheaf of papers attached to it, and pulled out official army orders. “You’ll be heading to Tan Son Nhut for advanced artillery training.”

“Artillery training? Sir, I put in for corpsman training. I was supposed to start stateside, but—”

The lieutenant cut him off. “Lee-Vine, get yourself to Supply, show them the orders, and then Transport will tell you how to get there.”

“But, sir,” Mutty began, his voice pleading, “I signed up to be a corpsman.” He knew he shouldn’t, but the words seemed to just hurtle out of his mouth. “I want to save lives, sir, not take them.”

The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed, and his lips formed a thin line. “You don’t get to choose, Lee-Vine. Didn’t they teach you anything in Basic Training? This is a war zone, not a college classroom.”

“But, sir, I already have medical background. I can be more useful—”

The lieutenant’s voice dropped. “You listen to me, Lee-Vine. This isn’t a game. This is a war that’s getting bigger and messier by the minute. You’ll follow orders, or you’ll find yourself in deeper trouble than you are now. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

His shoulders sagging under the weight of his gear, and the even heavier weight of discouragement, Private First Class Levine walked through the room to get his supplies and arrange transport to his base in the nuthouse that was South Vietnam.


he first few hours were pretty cool, speeding down quiet country roads once she’d left the city behind, belting out her favorite rock songs and even some of the slower swing and pop songs from before the Beatles changed the world. But as the miles passed, the songs petered out. The sense of adventure was fading, transforming into something darker, more disturbing.

Funny, even when Mama Mumu was quiet, it was better when she was sitting next to me.

I guess… it’s lonely, being alone.

After ten hours on the road, just stopping for gas and to grab a sandwich (Danny, bless him, had given her a giant bag filled with chips, sandwiches, and cookies), she considered pulling over to the shoulder and sleeping in the Mustang, but she remembered Mr. Lefkowitz’s words, and the 20-dollar bill stuffed securely in her pocket. It was kind of nice, knowing someone worried about her. The warmth of the thought gave her renewed energy, and she hit the gas pedal and sped along.

Knowing that she could very well sleep the entire day, when she arrived at the motel she put away her aversion to alarm clocks and requested an early morning wake-up call. And that’s why, though still a little groggy, she managed to reach Tijeras Canyon just as the sunrise was painting the mountains with gentle shades of pink, purple, and gray.

Okay, Marge. Do what Danny told you to do. Balance sheet, babe. Think.

And she tried. Really. She thought about home, her parents and brother. About the Freed Hotel. About Danny and Mr. Lefkowitz, about Artie and Perele and Mrs. L. and Mama Mumu and Chrissie. She thought about Frisbees and merry-go-rounds and caged animals in the zoo and psychedelic cars and the Chai necklace that she still wore under her T-shirt.

The sun grew higher, the mist on the mountaintops faded away. Marjorie thought about peace. And love. And forgiveness. About the taste of chicken soup on Shabbos and hot and bitter espresso drunk at midnight in smoky coffee shops. About bongos and Beatles and Artie’s jingles.

She thought and she thought and she thought, until she could think no more.

“Margie,” she said, hardly realizing she was speaking out loud, “your balance sheet is one big fat zero.”

She looked up at the fingers of white clouds drifting aimlessly against the backdrop of the deep-blue sky. “Hey, G-d,” she said, again speaking out loud, “I could use a little help over here.”

She suddenly became aware of the sun burning down on her face. Time to go, Marge. Your freckles are going to get freckles.

And with that she walked back to the Mustang, revved the engine, and started the journey back home.


To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 890)

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