There’s nothing sweeter than the smell of damp leaves after a spring rain. Running my hand along the wooden porch rail I frown as the cracked white paint chips and flakes beneath my fingers. I look out across the yard and my mind takes me back to when I was just a boy. Many a night we spent out here on this old porch. Watching the stars, catching fireflies…I never thought that life would carry me so far from this old house and all the memories we made here. As a boy, I never dreamed that the world could be so wonderful, so amazing, and yet…so cruel. Boy’s never do…
I guess it’s like they say…you spend you’re whole life running away from home only to run back when you’re old. Not that I’m old. I’ve been around the block a time or two but I still have some of the Jazz in me. Ah, but now, well, I gave all that up.
Moving back here was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I left here at 19. I didn’t wait for the draft. I signed up, proud to defend the honor of my country and all that the red, white, and blue stood for. I was on my way to Korea almost before I had a chance to say goodbye.
Korea…What a long, cold war that was. There were many times I sat huddled in a foxhole or a tent somewhere and wished my way back to this place. I remember thinking, oh what I wouldn’t give to be sitting on that pristine white porch, watching the fireflies as they danced about the tall grass, a gentle wind whipping through the trees, stars shining bright above us…After that, Korea, I thought, ‘Ok, that’s it. I’ve done my duty and now I’ll be going home.’ Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner had we pulled out of that one then we’d gone and put ourselves in the middle of the first messiest, bloodiest war we could find.
Vietnam…If there ever was a Hell on Earth…And I was there, right in the middle of it. Of course this time I was the one in command. Korean War field promotions, just a better way of saying that everybody else who was higher ranking didn’t make it back from the field. Not that I wasn’t good at what I did. I was the best damned commander anyone could ask for. It’s just luck of the draw that I ended up with the only soldiers who didn’t ask. It took a while but I came to realize that they were the best at what they did too. And I guess somewhere along the line, although I really couldn’t tell you where, I proved myself in their eyes. And so it was, there we were, the best damned team in this man’s Army, the A-Team.
Yeah, that was the start of it all. We really were the best. We pulled off missions that nobody else would touch. Time and again we marched out there, into the sweltering heat of the jungle and to everyone else’s amazement we kept coming back. We came back. Every damn time. And even then I thought about this old place. Dreaming of home, of the smell of freshly washed clothes in cedar drawers and blackberry pies freshly baking, I came back here in my mind every chance I got.
Vietnam…Where it all went wrong…First we got shot down somewhere outside of Da’Nang. Captured, beaten, but never broken, we spent six months in an enemy POW camp. There’s no way to describe the horrors we endured. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Some things are just better left alone. That’s what I say anyway. A certain shrink keeps telling me different but I still believe that the past should stay in the past. Anyway, the next thing we knew we were all on medical leave in Hawaii. Everyone had made a full recovery, and by full I mean that we were released from the hospital, except for Face. The kid went though a lot of therapy back then, physical and mental. I should have signed his walking papers then. Maybe things would have been different. Well, after three months, we were sent back to hell, the war. That was when everything truly fell apart. We may have been the best but we weren’t good enough to know we were being set up. Here’s your orders…rob this bank…do it for your country…Uncle Sam needs you…
Yeah, and where was Uncle Sam when we needed him? We did it, we followed out orders. Of course everyone knows the rest of the story, now. After getting back to post we found that they had been bombed, Morrison, the man who signed the orders was dead and there weren’t any records of the mission anywhere. So we were put in handcuffs by our own government and sent back to the States for court marshal where we promptly escaped and lost ourselves in the LA underground. Once again I had served my country and was denied the privilege of going home.
On the run…That’s no way to live. It wasn’t how I had planned on spending my retirement years and it certainly wasn’t a place for the boys that were following me. God they were so young then. I don’t even think Face was legal yet. Twenty-one is so young to have gone through all he had…And Murdock, well, we didn’t even know where he was yet. It took us another year and a lot of scamming to find out that he was in the VA right there in LA. I think that’s what saved Face, finding Murdock. Even BA agrees that having him to take care of all these years is what kept Face sane. Maybe that’s why it happened…
I run my hand along the rail again, watching as the paint flakes fall to the ground. It’s been a long, cold winter and it’s good to see that the last of the snow has melted away. Later it will be warm enough to plant the flowers that we picked up on the last trip into town. I hear shuffling from inside the house so I look through a window to make sure everything is all right. I can see Face sitting at the table pouring himself a bowl of cereal. Lucky Charms, his favorite. Smiling I decide it’s time to go inside.
Face smiles at me as I step into the kitchen. Yeah, giving up the Jazz was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make but I look at him and I know it was the right one. I always wanted to settle down and have a family. This isn’t exactly what I pictured, but he needs me and I couldn’t just walk out on him.
He pauses in his search for clover shaped marshmallows and fixes me with a suspicious eye. I can tell that he wants to ask me a question but can’t think of the words. That happens a lot. It’s getting better all the time though. It’s hard to believe that just ten months ago he couldn’t form a coherent word much less a sentence or a question. I can see the frustration building on his face and decide to help him out a bit, “I’ve been thinking about when I was a boy here.”
Another smile, “You…were small. Chase…fire bugs…like me.”
Laughing I nod, “That’s right. I used to chase the fireflies too and do you know what we would do with them?”
Shaking his head, Face spooned another mouthful of marshmallows into his mouth.
“We used to put them in paper lanterns beside our beds as nightlights.” His eyes lit up. “Would you like to make a paper lantern?”
His head bobbed up and down, “Can…Murdock…make one too?”
“Uh…” Now I’m not sure it was such a good idea after all.
I was happy when Murdock called me up out of the blue and asked if it would be ok if he came for a visit. Of course it would! What was he thinking? He said he wanted to get away for a while, he and his girlfriend, Alison, had been having some problems. When Face and I met him at the airport, I was shocked at the sight of the man I had know, hell, raised, for the last twenty years. He was pale and gaunt, at first I thought he was ill but after that first night I realized that he had never forgiven himself and had made himself sick with guilt. It never seemed to matter how many times we told him it wasn’t his fault. Me, BA, the shrink…he still blames himself.
Turning at the sound, I watched as Murdock appeared in the doorframe before slowly making his way to the coffee pot.
Face was also watching him but with innocent eyes instead of suspicious ones, “Lanterns! For Fire…bugs!”
He smiles and nodded, “Fireflies.”
Murdock had his back to us. I’m not sure if he was disappointed or maybe distressed at the question. After a minute, I decided that he wasn’t going to answer. “Uh, Templeton, why don’t I help you?”
“No!” Murdock had spun around so fast he almost dropped the coffee mug he was holding, “No, Hannibal, I’ll help. Yeah, sure Face…I mean, Templeton…I’ll help you.”
Face didn’t seem to notice the uncertainty in Murdock’s voice. He bounded out of his seat and was hugging Murdock before I could get a handle on him. This time he did drop the mug. Face instantly backed away at the sound of shattering ceramic, startled.
I grabbed a broom from beside the fridge. “It’s ok, Templeton, it was just a Coffee mug. Why don’t you go upstairs and get ready while Murdock and I clean this up?”
“Ok.” And he was gone, leaving Murdock and I alone.
I started to sweep up the shattered pieces as he grabbed a dustpan, “I’m sorry, Hannibal.”
“It was just a mug.”
“No, I’m not talking about the mug…”
“Murdock, we’ve already been over this, it wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could have done.”
“I could have been there…”
I know it’s an argument that I can’t win but I will always keep trying. One day maybe he’ll accept it. “You were shot, Murdock, what could you have done?’
“I…I don’t know! But maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I had been there like I was supposed to! I was supposed to be watching his back!”
“It wasn’t your fault…”
Murdock held up his hand, “Look, I don’t want to get into this again. Let’s just leave it alone, ok? I’m just sorry, ok? And I’m sorry I ran out like that.”
I let out a long sigh. Like I said, it’s an old argument that no one ever wins. “We understood why you left.”
He let his head drop, staring at the floor sadly, “I know you did Hannibal, but he didn’t.”
“So, have you talked to BA? He keeps asking about you every time he calls.”
We were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch watching Face dig holes in a small flower bed beside a huge oak tree in the yard. It’s been a long day, but a good one. I watch as Murdock absently plays with the string from Face’s lantern. I’m even more glad now than I was when he called. I’m glad he came here. It’s been good for him. He looks a whole world better than he did when he stepped off that plane.
“You really should call him. At least let him know that you’re ok.”
Shaking his head, he continued to stare at Face, “I can’t. Not yet.”
“Just tell him…just tell him that I’m doing ok and that…I’ll call him soon.”
“Ok.” He steadily wraps the string around his finger and then pulls it off, over and over. “So, where have you been all this time?”
Now he’s looking down, at his hands, “I just had to get away. I’ve been thinking about things.”
“About the last mission?”
Letting the conversation drop we just sit quietly as the last streaks of sunlight rip across the sky. It’s a beautiful sunset, deep blues and reds streaked with gold.
“Doesn’t it ever get to you?”
I glance across at him. He’s still just sitting there playing with that string. “What?”
He nods toward the yard, “Him?…like that?”
“Oh.” I’m not sure what I should say. Should I tell the truth or only a part truth? I opt for the whole truth, it may cause him some grief but it may help him too, “Of course it does. But it’s happened, it’s done. There’s nothing either of us can do about it.” I shiver at the memory of finding them.
We were after a gang of drug dealers. Just kids really. Face was supposed to make the deal. BA was recording the whole thing and I was covering him while Murdock covered Face. As soon as we had the evidence we would get out of there. The plan was to turn it over to the cop who hired us and let them take down the gang itself. Somewhere, it all went horribly wrong. A gunshot alerted everyone to trouble, that was when the kid shot Murdock. BA deopped the camera and he and I ran down from our hiding place in the rafters. We could hear the gunshots all the way down. By the time we got there it was all over. Murdock was cradling Face as he rocked back and forth. Face was so still and there was so much blood, I knew he couldn’t have survived but I knelt down and gently pulled him out of Murdocks grasp.
I carefully checked him over but couldn’t find any wounds at first. It wasn’t until I brushed his blood matted hair away from his face that I realized he had been shot in the head. I lost it then. All I remember is grabbing him up into my arms and walking out of the warehouse. He hung so limply in my arms…I couldn’t hold back the sobs, they had taken my son away from me! I almost didn’t hear the rasping breath…I fell to my knees outside the warehouse and started to check him over again. That was when BA came out leading a nearly catatonic Murdock. “He’s alive!”
I can’t believe how arrogant I was then. I thought everything would be ok. We all did. It wasn’t until he finally woke up three days later that we realized that something was wrong. The doctors had tried to tell us but we wouldn’t let them destroy our hope. There wasn’t any recognition in his eyes. We had been a team for almost twenty years and he didn’t even know who we were…
Shaking away the memories I found myself face to face with a tearful Murdock, “He’s never going to be the ‘Faceman’ again, Murdock. He’s just Templeton now. I’ve accepted that. I’m just grateful that he’s still with us.”
“I know. I just…”
Tears were falling freely down his face and I reached over to grab him, pulling him into a tight hug, “It wasn’t your fault, son. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. You have to let it go…”
He nodded against my shoulder but didn’t loosen his grip on me, “I know…I just miss him so much…”
“I do too.”
A shuffling noise made us turn. Face was there holding his cupped hands out, “Murdock…Hannibal…look, firebu…oh…Fireflies!” He let his hands open and three fireflies floated out. Laughing, he smiled at us and then bounded off to catch some more.
Murdock and I were laughing now too as we watched him chase the little glowing bugs around the yard. He finally caught one and Murdock left the porch, lantern in hand. I watched then as they both chased the fireflies underneath a midnight sky full of stars.
Right after the last mission, our faces were plastered all over the media. Face had instantly become the latest tragic hero for the public to rally behind. It seems that these days public opinion means quite a good deal more to a dwindling military than it has in times past. Not a week after the gang leader and several of his followers had been arrested we were receiving official pardons signed by the president. I find it ironic that four men, once considered a disgrace to the uniform, were now the ideal patriotic icon associated with the very same military service who had hunted them for the last fifteen years.
We all gave numerous interview about our life on the run, except for Face that is. I once caught a reported who had sneaked into the hospital trying to interview him. I put my foot down right then and there. The A-Team was more than happy to be interviewed as long as Face was left out of it, he was in neither the physical or mental condition to deal with current events. It even worked for a while…
I could I checked Face out of the hospital as soon as I could. At first we tried staying in LA, so he could be close to Father Maghill and the orphanage where he grew up, but it eventually got to be too much and with the Father’s agreement, Face and I moved into my family home in the deep south.
As for the rest of the team, well…Murdock came everyday to help with Face but I think eventually he couldn’t handle the stress anymore. He blamed himself for not being able to keep Face from being shot and one day he just didn’t come back. BA stayed in LA even after Face and I had left. He searched for three months, trying to find Murdock, before he moved to Chicago to be near his mother. Amy Allen was pretty torn up over what had happened but she helped us one last time as she diverted the media away from the truth about what became of the four tragic Vietnam heroes as we all made our escapes.
It’s been a long, hard year. Full of pain and sorrow…worry…loss…but also hope…and even joy. Face’s recovery is still ongoing. The doctors say that he will probably always be like this, childlike, but there is always that small glimmer of hope that he will one day be the man we knew. And as long as there is hope we will survive one more day.
As for me…? After thirty-six years, two wars, and over a decade on the run I finally made it home. I guess you could say…I took the long way home.