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A World Apart
I pulled the old, knotted, pine door and peeped inside, squinting my eyes to see through the floating dust and clutter of the villa's main entranceway. Tiny rays of dawn filtered through the lacy Victorian curtains, throwing giant shadows of figurines and statues, on the gilded ornate wallpaper. The old and rundown appearance of my childhood summer getaway piqued my curiosity and guided me into the main reception area, where I remembered playing as a child.
The large hall widened, at the far end, into what appeared to be the dining area. White throw-cloths, carefully placed by the last owners, covered what was left of the more elaborate carved, oak furniture. Adorning the old, decorative ceiling, hung the multi-chrystalled chandelier, still hinting at the glamour and tasteful elegance, probably enjoyed by many of the well-to-do elite, living along the Camden/Rockport coast of Maine.
Through the large, bay-window, I watched the waves break powerfully against the irregularly-placed jetty stones, displaying the proud and dominant North Atlantic, in all its white foamed fury. It was high tide. Glancing back at the large dining-table, fully capable of seating at least 30 "politically correct" guests, I imagined what a magnificent view diners must have enjoyed, while feasting on lobsters and other seafood delicacies. Surely they were not adorned with the traditional tourist 'lobster bibs', I thought, unable to refrain from the image but, then again, perhaps they were. It was a thought I quite enjoyed having.
The house stood silent and hidden, atop the coastal ledges and rocks of Belfast, Maine. Although unpopular with the locals, the granite house was built in 1831 by the famous seafaring Captain Gordon Albright for his wife, Sarah, who undoubtedly, like many women of her day, watched the horizon from the widow's peak for her lover's return. Contained in the historic records are documents written by the Captain himself, describing the pain and torment of his return to Belfast, only to discover his family dead, victims of an outbreak of cholera among the coastal settlers. Stricken with grief and despair over the loss of his beloved Sarah, the proud Captain Albright hung himself from the old barn's rafters, and was buried by the ship's company, in the small family cemetery near his wife and their two young boys.
Continuing on my journey, I found myself mindlessly climbing, step-by-step, up the narrow passage to the widow's peak, overlooking the ocean. What a magnificent view of the majesty and partnership of water and land! The old, caned, high-back rocking chair still stood by the window, suggesting the wait might have been long and enduring. The view across the blue-green ocean crests quieted my spirit for a moment, as I reflected upon the significance of the room, and the dedicated love brought to it by Sarah Albright. Qualities such as patience and loyalty came to mind, as I saw her in my deepest imagination, sitting quietly, her shawl pulled tightly around her delicate shoulders; only a tiny flame of a whale-oil light to offer her husband, as a guide to a place of safety and home. In good while, the long awaited Captain Albright, searching the rocky coast with his binoculars, eventually found the tiny flickering light, in which he recognized the quiet beauty of his wife's face, and turned his ship's bow toward it.
As the evening sky turned red with cool sunset hues, and the ocean settled calmly for the night, I seated myself comfortably into the high-back rocker and lit the old kerosene light, still filled with oil: cedar, I think. The breaking waves grew peaceful now, gently rolling into shore, unaware of my guardian vigil. I placed my hands on the steel barrel of the pistol sitting idle on my lap, and reassuringly felt the coldness of the metal beneath my fingers. Closing my eyes, I thought about 1968, and, as the whirling sounds of helicopters grew louder and louder, I drifted further and further away, to memories of an unfamiliar land of war and death. Vietnam smells like no other country in the world! Odors of frying fish and rice, spices, and cow manure quickly reminded me that I was no longer in my safe home in Maine, but in a world very different from my own. It occurred to me, at the time, that people back in the world would probably describe Vietnam as beautiful, but I never thought so.
Tall green, wheat-like grasses bordered Tan Son Nhut airfield, first blowing forward in the humid air, then backward again, giving the illusion of subtle wave-like movement. Vietnamese workers, in the field, barely looked in our direction. It was a day like any other for them, I supposed, but for me, it wasn't the same at all. I was an Army nurse, sent to Vietnam in wartime and that made it significantly different. After landing, one of the young airmen kicked my duffel bag off the chopper, sending it flying just short of my feet.
"Hey, thanks, buddy!" I shouted upward, to no one in particular, engulfed for a moment by a whirlwind of dust, stirred up as the chopper took off again. I had not been in Vietnam for one hour and I hated it already!
"Are you Lieutenant Pennet?" A young private called from behind me, startling me for a moment with a quick, but lazy salute. I returned the gesture and nodded.
"This way Mam."
Although my orders originally assigned me to Saigon, the driver informed me that I had been reassigned to a medical triage unit in Da Nang, and handed me my new orders in a large manila envelope. There was no need to open it. What I really wanted, and needed, was rest, but the unexpected ride to Da Nang kept me alert, whether my body wanted to or not. The miles clicked away as one muddy rice-paddy after another passed, and still, not one human being, or beast of burden for that matter, turned in our direction. For a moment, I imagined I was looking at a picture, painted in oils of greens and bronze, a still-life on a canvas, casting surreal images to any passer-by. Elf-like figures wearing concave, grass hats appeared statuesque, and pasted into the scenery, not real-not human. You're being silly, I reminded myself, but around each bend in the road, the painted picture of my new world always seemed the same.
As the jeep, and my restless ride, came abruptly to an unexpected halt, I realized just how here-and-now my future really was.