| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 49

There were no tears running down her cheeks, but she felt a cloud of sadness blocking the radiant San Francisco sunshine.


October 1964

“Of course, Miss Burton, we would be proud and happy to host you in the hotel.” Yeruchum allowed himself a smile. “Mrs. Schwartz has missed you terribly.”

A flood of images and memories: Mrs. S. peeling potatoes. Mrs. L. surrounded by her children. Artie throwing a frisbee, singing a little song.

And then a piercing thought: Did they really care about me? Did they miss me? Have they changed?

Have I?

“Okay, that’s settled.” Fred Burton’s voice — confident, almost commanding — had returned; the tears had vanished. “We’ll catch the first flight out.”

“I’m sorry, Father, but I can’t go quite yet. I’ve got some goodbyes to say first. Some thank-yous.” She nodded toward Sam Lefkowitz, who’d been quietly observing the scene from a corner of the small room. “And,” she added, a touch of her former bravado edging her words, “I’m going to have to do something about the Mustang.”

“The Mustang? What have you done to my car?” her father demanded.

Once again, Yeruchum put a soothing hand on the man’s shoulder. Burton sighed but relented. His voice was calm, though edged with tension. “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can deal with it.”

Marjorie walked with them to where she’d parked. Fred Burton shuddered visibly when he saw the paint and the broken trunk.

“Well, well, well, you’ve certainly changed it,” he said, with false cheer.

Marjorie could defend herself, place the blame on Chrissie, where it belonged. Or she could argue that Father should accept her — and the car — the way she is. She did neither. Instead, she took his hands in hers. “I’m really sorry, Father. About the car. About everything.”

Another sigh, but when he spoke, the false cheer had vanished. “It’s your car now, Marjorie. We can give it a paint job and some body work, and I’ll find a college student to drive it back home. That is, if you want me to. It’s a little beaten and bent,” he added, running his finger over the dent, “but it will be fine.”

A little beaten and bent, but it will be fine.

Just like me.

IN the many times in her frenetic life that Marjorie had run away — from angry teachers, schoolyard bullies, and a home where she felt unloved — she’d felt no compunction, no melancholy at leaving people or places behind. Sad goodbyes were just not her thing.

That, as Mama Mumu would have said, was yesterday. But this was today.

The sun was glinting off the water where she’d taken that jump. Now, a lot calmer than she’d been then, she and Danny strolled through Golden Gate Park.

“So you’re leaving, huh? Not enough freedom here?” There was a touch of bitterness in his voice.

Marjorie felt a pang. “Danny, I’m done digging for freedom. It’s just not happening. What I’m after is something else.”


Marjorie bit her lip. “No. Not the kind of love like in the Haight, anyway, just words and pictures painted on my poor Mustang. But real love, maybe. And that means forgiving people. Like Mama Mumu said, hate is a stone that’s too heavy to hold. I want to lighten that load. And I’ve got this crazy feeling I might find what I’m looking for in that shabby old hotel.”

Danny came to a sudden stop and looked at Marjorie directly, his eye capturing hers. “I’m going to miss you, Margie. You’ll keep in touch?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I guess this is goodbye then.”

“Yup. Our flight leaves in a couple of hours. Gotta find poor Chrissie, try to convince her to let me tell her parents where she’s at, and also talk to your dad. But, Danny — thank you. For everything.”

Marjorie turned around and hurried away, leaving the park behind. There were no tears running down her cheeks, but she felt a cloud of sadness blocking the radiant San Francisco sunshine.

Because, she now learned, goodbyes were hard.

Dear All,

Well, here I am, on a brand-new fire base in the middle of nowhere. That’s a small base on top of a hill, surrounded by barbed wire. I’m sure learning a lot here….”

Yes, that was true. Private Levine was learning a lot. Not so much about the big guns he would be shooting. With more and more soldiers pouring into Vietnam every day, they were waiting to build up the platoon before beginning advanced training. In the meantime, he was learning how to walk through fields of elephant grass that sometimes reached his shoulders, avoiding punji sticks — those sharp bamboo sticks, often smeared with poisons, designed to impale any soldier careless enough to step on it. He learned to smear mosquito repellent onto exposed skin several times a day, since the endless sweating in the jungle’s hot and moist air would soon wash the repellent away. He pulled two-hour shifts on guard duty, his hands on his M16, his eyes alert for VC intruders. He washed endless dishes in KP, listened to the weird chanting of the Buddhists in a nearby village, and dived into a bunker when enemy mortars flew into the base. All routine, all boring.

Until it wasn’t.

Victor Charlie had been placing snipers on a nearby hilltop, disturbing the men’s sleep and threatening anyone who left the fire base. The CO had sent out a squad to engage the enemy and take care of the pests.

Together with four others marching in single file, Mutty carefully stepped onto the narrow trail. Sergeant Masters was walking point, behind him was Marty Davis, a blonde 18-year-old who was even newer in-country than Mutty. Johnny “Doc” Fielding, the platoon medic, came next, followed by George McDonald, their commo man, with Mutty bringing up the rear. The men walked slowly, avoiding the thick brush at the side of the trail.

A shout, and then Davis suddenly — had the boy gone crazy? — jumping off the trail into the grasping green arms of the jungle. He took a few steps, and the air was filled with smoke, metal shards, and a soul-piercing scream.

Like someone trapped in a nightmare, Mutty watched, frozen, as Doc Fielding followed Davis off the trail. Again, smoke and flying metal. Again, a scream.

“No one move,” Sergeant Master roared. “Stay on the trail! George, get us a dust-off NOW!”

The screams had grown silent, but Mutty could hear a moan coming from the dark and bloody vegetation, a moan that broke through his paralysis.

“Sir,” he yelled, “I have some medical training. Let me go help.”

“Negative. Too dangerous.”

Another moan.

“Sir, there’s no place for the chopper to land here. We’ll have to go off trail to hoist them into the Huey. So let me go now. Sir.” His voice took on even more urgency. “I can save Doc’s life.”

Now there was the sound of George calling for an emergency medevac, and another moan, this one quieter than the first.

A second of hesitation, then, “Okay, Levine, but keep your eyes down low.”

Fighting the instinct to race to the two bodies lying inert on the ground, Mutty stepped slowly, using his rifle to push away underbrush. He bent down over Davis and sucked in his breath: The boy everyone called “Babyface” was dead, the back of his head just… gone.

But Doc — there was breathing there, shallow and rapid and labored — but breath. Open up, open up, down to the T-shirt, assess the wound.

Oh my G-d, his leg, his leg, it’s gone. Gone.

Tourniquet. He needs a tourniquet.

He’s a corpsman, he’ll have the equipment.

Mutty looked around, found Doc’s medical bag where it had fallen, ripped it open. There was the green belt, neatly folded in a plastic package.

Wrap. Tighten. Pressure. Pressure. You can do it: They showed you how.

From afar, he could hear the whop-whop-whop of the Huey chopper. Doc’s breathing grew faster.

“Stay with me, Doc! Doc, stay with me!”

The Huey had arrived, squeezed between the two sides of the trail. And here was the hoist, lowering, lowering toward the ground. Sergeant Masters had cautiously made his way to Mutty, and the two raised Doc’s heavy body onto the stretcher, harnessing him in.

Minutes later the hoist was back down, and Mutty, drawing deep breaths, helped Masters load the torn-up body of what had been a nice young man.

The Huey took off into the sky, and the three remaining members of the squad wordlessly returned to the fire base.

Mutty was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at nothing, when a messenger walked into his hootch.

“Levine, CO wants you. Now.”

The commanding officer was holding a file in his hand. “I’ve just read Sergeant Master’s After Action Report. You’ll be glad to know that Doc will probably make it through. Davis, though….”

“Sir, do we know why Davis jumped off the trail?”

“We think one of those awful green vipers may have startled him. He wasn’t experienced.” A sigh, followed by a thin smile.

“But you saved Doc’s life. I’m putting you in for a commendation, and…” he stood up, walked around the desk and clapped Mutty on the shoulder, “I’ve just sent the necessary papers to HQ. I’ve recommended that you be approved for corpsman training.”

About a zillion years ago, she’d come to this airport to pick up some faceless rabbi. Now, as evening fell, it was that rabbi’s turn to meet her plane and bring her home.


Exhausted from the past few days, Marjorie had slept through most of the flight. Now, as she saw Moe Freed approach them in the Arrivals terminal, she felt refreshed. Excited. And a little bit (okay, more than a little bit) nervous.

“Welcome back, Miss Burton,” he said. Good. No awkward questions, no accusations or complaints. “Can I help you with your luggage?”

She handed him the backpack that held her few maxi dresses and T-shirts, and, of course, her bongos. “You travel light, I see,” he said, stowing it in the trunk of Abe’s Cadillac.

“Yeah, I guess I’m trying to do that with my whole life.”

“It’s a great way to live.”

She stared at the back of Rabbi Freed’s head as he weaved his way through the New York traffic, trying to divert her thoughts from the upcoming reunion.

What a nice guy. Too bad his wife died on him.

I can’t wait to see Mrs. S. Maybe she’ll let me help her cook dinner.

Hmmm. Rabbi Freed. Mrs. S. Wonder why I never thought of it before.

An internal grin. Marge, you’re getting as bad as those old ladies in the hotel.

And now the Caddy was pulling up in front of the hotel.


hey were all there, waiting for her. Ruchele, who came flying off the porch into her arms. Perele Schwartz, immaculate as always in her white apron. Artie, hovering at a corner of the wooden porch, his face unreadable. Dr. Levine and the twins, all smiling and waving.

And there was Annie Levine, looking like she’d swallowed a basketball. But who was that standing next to Mrs. L., her arm protectively around the woman’s shoulders?


In one breathless moment, a hundred thoughts, a thousand memories flew through her brain, a million throbbing emotions raced through her heart. They were followed by a firm, though newfound, resolution.

“Hello, Mother,” she said, gently putting down Ruchele and wrapping her arms around the woman — the flawed and imperfect woman who had given her life in a flawed and imperfect world.

Deep breath. Tough moment.

Just say it.

“Please forgive me.”

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 893)

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