An Act Of Bravery, An Act Of Love
Droplets of cold water blew backwards from the nozzle of A.J.'s garden hose. The blond didn't even flinch as the icy spray pelted his bare arms and legs. The July sun was hot. The cool water against his skin made for a refreshing contrast.
A.J. circled the Camaro, hosing off the remaining soapsuds. When he noticed a few spots of dirt he had missed on the car's frame, he released the handle on the pressure nozzle and let the hose fall at his feet. He picked up a bucket of warm, soapy water. He swirled his hand around inside the suds until he encountered the oversized sponge. He crouched down next to the car, scrubbing vigorously until no signs of dirt remained.
Setting the bucket aside, the blond retrieved the hose once again and resumed rinsing the car. He adjusted his sunglasses, perching them more firmly on the bridge of his nose. It was almost noon. Probably not the smartest time of the day to be standing out on his blacktop driveway in the direct summer sunlight wearing nothing more than a pair of faded denim shorts, a pale blue Hanes T-shirt, and Nike running shoes. Nonetheless, there was little A.J. found more relaxing on a bright summer Saturday than washing his sports car. And unbeknownst to the blond man, very little his neighbor ladies found more relaxing than discreetly watching the handsome private investigator wash his car in the tight-fitting, sleeveless shirt that nicely showcased his well toned biceps and pectorals.
As A.J. made his final pass around the car he saw a maroon Ford Taurus slowly driving down the street. He didn't think anything of it one way or another when he saw the car pass by again headed in the opposite direction. A.J. gave the car a good deal more attention when it traveled his street for a third time. It was then that he noticed the rental license plate, and assumed some neighbor's out-of-town relative was trying to locate the correct house number.
A.J. was rolling up the hose when the same maroon car pulled up to the curb in front of his home. The detective didn't stop what he was doing, but from behind his sunglasses watched a man exit from the driver's side and walk toward him.
A.J. immediately guessed the man to be somewhere between forty and forty-five. He was five foot nine and was thirty pounds overweight. The extra weight he carried didn't diminish his broad barrel chest, thick neck, or beefy forearms. His curly hair was a dusty gray. It receded several inches off his forehead, and was brushed backwards until it came to rest in a wavy mass on his shoulders. Its muted hue was further emphasized by two deep blue eyes. The man's moustache and beard matched the color and texture of his hair. The curly gray beard had been allowed to grow down over his chin several inches, making A.J. think the guy could play a heck of a realistic Santa Claus come Christmas.
The heels of the man's boots clopped against the pavement of A.J.'s driveway as he approached the blond.
"I'm sorry to bother you," came the baritone apology. "I'm looking for an old friend of mine, and this was the address I was given by a mutual buddy of ours. Or at least I think this is the address."
A.J. secured his garden hose and reached for the scrap of rumpled paper the man held out to him. With a puzzled frown the blond nodded.
yes...this is 2604 Grand Canal. Who is
it you're looking for?"
"A guy by the name of Rick Simon."
"Oh. Rick Simon," A.J. deadpanned. "Sure, I know him. He used to live on a boat in my back yard."
The man cocked his head as though he had trouble with his hearing. "Did you say what I think you said? He lived on a boat in your back yard?"
"As unorthodox as it sounds, yes, he did. However, I was forced to evict him when yet another month went by without a rent check."
A.J.'s visitor had no idea as to whether to take the blond seriously or not. He thought he could detect a hint of humor behind A.J.'s solemn tone, but he wasn't sure. He stood there filled with indecisiveness, not knowing if he should ask any more questions or simply leave.
A.J. took pity on the confused man, but wasn't going to give information out regarding his brother's whereabouts without having some idea as to what the man wanted. In their line of work, such indiscretion could prove fatal.
is it you're trying to locate Simon?"
"He's an old buddy of mine from the Marine Corps. We served together in Vietnam. I haven't seen him since I was shipped home in August of '71. Almost sixteen years ago now. I live in Indiana. My wife and I are out here on vacation. Our first one without the kids. All three of them are away at 4-H camp, so we're treating ourselves to a second honeymoon."
"Good for you. I hope you and your wife are enjoying our famous California sunshine."
"We are," the man confirmed. "I was also hoping to see Rick while I was here. Of course, maybe he doesn't even live in the area anymore. I know he was born and raised here in San Diego. And I know his mother was a widow, and he had a younger brother named...T.J., or R.J., or C.J., or something like that. Heck if I can remember what the kid's initials stood for, though I probably knew at one time. But I guess none of that's very much to go on, when it comes to tracking someone down in a city of this size. I'm sorry to have bothered you. Thanks for your ti--"
"Just a minute." A.J. halted the man's progress to his car. "I can tell you where Rick's at. Better yet, I can give you directions to his place, and I'll even throw in his phone number to boot."
"But I thought you said you evicted him for--"
A.J. grinned at his own joke. "I was kidding...sort of. Rick did, in fact, live in my back yard on his boat at one time. But he moved to a slip at a local marina two years ago." A.J. stuck out his hand in greeting. "I'm his brother A.J."
"Damn! That's it. A.J.!" The man grabbed A.J.'s hand, giving it a series of hard, enthusiastic pumps. "That's been driving me nuts ever since I got here! I knew it had a J in it."
A.J. chuckled as the exuberant man slapped him on the back. "I'm really pleased to meet you, A.J. At one time I knew all about you. Your grades, your girlfriends, what was going on in the neighborhood..." the veteran abruptly broke off his monologue. Self-consciously he stammered, "I uh...I hope Rick told you that he shared your letters with everyone. We all did. Shared our families letters, that is. At least the parts that weren't too personal. Mail from home was such a precious commodity, that it would have been selfish not to share whatever news we could."
A.J. smiled gently with understanding. "I know. And yes, Rick told me long ago that he shared my letters with his friends. And speaking of Rick's friends, I don't believe I caught your name."
The man shook his head at his oversight. "I'm sorry. Bruce Gibbens."
Although the man's last name didn't mean anything to A.J., he did recall Rick mentioning a Bruce somebody-or-the-other having been a close friend of his while he was in Nam.
"Come on in the house," A.J. invited. "I'll write down Rick's address and phone number for you. I can also give you directions to his place, though he won't be home until late tomorrow afternoon. He's at a tournament with his bowling league up in L.A."
Bruce followed A.J. into the kitchen. "Thanks a lot. I really appreciate all the trouble you're going through for me."
A.J. removed his sunglasses and laid them on the counter top. He pulled a pen and clean piece of paper out of a kitchen drawer. "It's no trouble." In his neat, crisp penmanship, A.J. wrote out Rick's address and phone number as promised. With a wave of his hand he invited Bruce to sit down at the table.
"Have a seat and I'll go over the directions with you. I can write them down if you'd like. It's not too difficult. He only lives about a fifteen minute drive from here."
"Thanks. I'd appreciate that. I'm not used to navigating my way around a big city. I live in the town I was born and raised in. Covington. The population is around five thousand. I've gotten lost more since we came to California than I've gotten lost in my entire life. If you'll pardon me saying so, you people really do drive like maniacs out here."
A.J. laughed. "Yes, we do. Or at least some people do." A.J. opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of imported German beer. "Can I offer you a beer?"
Bruce's eyes lit up as he caught sight of the label. Rick's kid brother knew how to treat a visitor right. "Sure. Thank you."
A.J. opened a bottle for himself and Bruce, then joined the man at the kitchen table. As they slowly savored the dark, rich brew, A.J. wrote down directions to the marina and carefully went over them with Bruce.
When the man was reasonably certain he could find Rick's place without too much trouble, he folded the paper in fourths and put it in his shirt pocket. "If you talk to Rick before I get a chance to drop by his place, don't tell him I'm in town. I'd like to surprise him."
"Your secret's safe with me," A.J. assured. "I know he's going to be thrilled to see you."
Bruce took another swallow of beer. "I'm really looking forward to seeing him, as well. A person shouldn't let sixteen years go by without seeing someone who was once one of his closest friends. I just don't know what happened to the time. It seems like I was always meaning to contact Rick. I've had this address, your address, for at least five years. I always meant to drop Rick a letter, or a card at Christmas time but, I don't know, every day life tends to intervene somehow. My wife and I have been busy raising our family, taking care of my elderly mother, then I started my own business...it just seems like there's no time leftover for much of anything else.
"When Arlene, that's my wife, when Arlene and I decided to come to Southern California for our vacation, I told her, 'Arlene, one of the first things I'm gonna do when we get to San Diego is look up Rick Simon.' So here I am."
"I'm sure he'll be pleasantly surprised. And I can assure you that he hasn't forgotten any of the men he served with in Nam. He talks about each one of you every now and then."
Bruce's hands cupped his now empty beer bottle. His face took on an odd expression, as though he was remembering a time that was both pleasant, and full of sorrow. An expression A.J. might not have understood had he not seen it on Rick's face each time he reminisced about Vietnam.
"Your brother's a good guy, A.J.," Bruce stated solemnly. "One of the best."
A.J. was quick to acknowledge in a quiet voice, "Yes, he is."
"It's a damn shame about that medal. Rick deserved it. He should have gotten it."
"Medal? What medal?"
"The Silver Star. He was promised it. I'm fairly certain our commanding officer sent the papers in. But I heard from Greg - our mutual buddy who gave me this address - that Rick never got it. The Star, that is. Is that true?"
"Well...yes...yes, it is. He was awarded a Purple Heart, but nothing else." With the same amount of gentle subtlety he used in his everyday work, A.J. probed, "What exactly was Rick supposed to have gotten this medal for? What did he do?"
Bruce let his mind drift back seventeen years. It was day he'd never forget. It was a day that still haunted his dreams.
"Saved the whole damn platoon, that's what he did. And those bastards in Washington never even gave him proper recognition for it. Hell, Rick shoulda' been awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor for what he did that day. God knows the guys in charge - the officers - woulda' let us die out there. They didn't have the balls to come to our aid. We were expendable. We were nothing more than grunts. Enlisted boys. Some of us hadn’t even graduated from high school." Bruce rolled the beer bottle back and forth in his palms. He looked across the table at A.J. "If it wasn't for your brother...well, if it wasn't for your brother, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today, A.J. I wouldn't have come home to my fiancé. I wouldn't have gone on to father three of the best kids this world has ever seen. And there's ten other guys who can say the same thing. There’s ten other guys who wouldn't have made it home alive if it hadn't been for Rick Simon."
A.J. swallowed hard, knowing he was about to ask a lot of this man.
"Would you tell me about it? About what Rick did that day?"
"He's never told you." Bruce's words weren't in the form of a question or a guess. They were a statement of fact.
"No," A.J. shook his head. "He's never told me."
"That doesn't surprise me. I've never told anyone about it either. It's not something that's...easy to remember."
A.J. didn't say any more to his visitor. He wouldn't pressure him to talk. He respected the man's right to decide whether or not the incident was too painful to discuss.
Bruce sat a long time in silence collecting his thoughts. He didn't even notice when A.J. rose to retrieve two more beers. He looked up and smiled his thanks when a cold bottle was placed in front of him. He took a long, slow pull, then sat the bottle aside.
"It was a long time ago, A.J. A long time ago." The man absently stroked his beard. "It'll be seventeen years this September. Yet, in some ways, it seems like it was just yesterday. It was hell. Hell on earth. Yet even at his worst, Satan couldn't have made things as bad as they were. I think the real Hell...if there is such a place, will be a proverbial Sunday school picnic compared to what we went through that day."
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It had started out as a routine patrol. But nothing ever stayed routine for long in Vietnam. Or so Sergeant Richard Simon had discovered during his two tours of duty.
They were treading through a dried-up marsh, fighting jungle grass so thick it was like wadding through four feet of heavy snow. The long grass wrapped around their ankles and tangled in their bootlaces, forcing the men to continuously wrench themselves free of its grasp. It grew as high as Rick's shoulders in places. The shorter men, those under five foot ten, were almost obscured from view. The Marines had to carry their machine guns above their heads to keep the grass from becoming entangled around them as well. It wasn’t exactly the most productive way to carry a firearm you were supposed to shoot the enemy with, or so Rick thought.
Rick turned around and gauged his men's progress by the movements of the upraised guns. His radioman, Lance Corporal Bruce Gibbens, was eight paces back to Rick's right. Bruce's progress was further hampered by the two-way radio he carried in a pack around his waist.
In a voice just above a whisper Bruce joked, "Hell of a way to get somewhere, Sarge."
"No shit," was all Rick said in return.
Rick scanned the area in front of them. It looked like they were about three quarters of the way across the vast marsh. He could see the back of his point man, an eighteen-year-old private who'd only been in-country three months. Kevin Patrick McElroy looked as Irish as his name implied. He had bright red hair and eyelashes, complete with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose. The guys had taken to calling him Howdy, after the popular television puppet of their childhood, Howdy Doody, whose painted-on coloring matched Kevin's. The boy took the teasing in stride and tried his best to give as good as he got. He knew eventually someone would come along who was younger than him, and take his place as the butt of the practical jokes and pranks. He just had to live long enough to see it happen.
Rick hated putting a kid that green up front, but he had no choice. They rotated the men on a daily basis. It was the only fair way to do it. If they came upon Charlie without warning, it was the man on point who generally bought the farm first.
Rick stopped for a moment and looked all around him. Aside from himself, Bruce, and Kevin, ten other men were flanked out behind him. But it wasn't the men that had his attention. It was the stillness. An uncanny quiet that made Rick shiver for a moment, despite the oppressive heat. No birds could be heard calling in the nearby trees, and the familiar whine of the ever-present insects was absent as well.
Man, I don't like the feel of this, were Rick's last thoughts before all hell broke loose. The eerie silence from moments earlier was shattered by the violent ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of ear splitting machine gun fire. Bullets strafed them from the front. McElroy's body was tossed in the air like a child's discarded rag doll by the force of the lead slugs that split his chest wide open, before the rest of the platoon even knew what was happening.
"Get down!" Rick yelled. "Get down!"
Rick could hear Bruce on the radio, frantically calling in their position. The rest of his men pushed forward, the razor sharp grass slicing their faces as they scrambled through it on their hands and knees. Rick fired a continuous round of his own machine gun as he crouched down and ran for McElroy's body. Just has he had already guessed, the private was dead. Blood streamed out his mouth and nose, and his open blue eyes stared up at Rick as if, even in death, he was pleading for his sergeant's help.
Rick had no time to grieve for the boy. Any sorrow and guilt he felt over the youth's violent death was shoved deep inside himself, to join an abundance of sorrow and guilt already buried there for every young man he had seen die in Vietnam.
The machine gun fire kept them pinned down in the front, and was soon joined by more coming from the left, and then from the right. Rick and his men returned fire as best they could at an enemy they were unable to see, but it became quickly apparent they were hopelessly outnumbered.
Rick turned to Bruce. "Are they sending a chopper?"
"When they can!"
Rick tossed a grenade in the general direction of the heaviest gunfire. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means the assholes are gonna let us sit here!"
"Well, get back on that thing and tell 'em ‘when they can,’ ain't good enough!" Rick commanded.
Machine guns continued to spray fire back and forth from both sides, until Rick knew he had no choice but to signal his men to retreat. Bruce was still on the radio, but only getting empty promises of assistance. Rick was hoping the long grass would conceal his men's movements and hamper Charlie both at the same time.
With a wave of his hand Rick signaled, "Come on! Let's get the hell outta here!"
Bruce grabbed his arm. "Sarge, the only thing behind us is a minefield."
"Then we're gonna cross it."
Rick jerked his arm free. "Bruce, we've got no choice! Charlie's comin' at us from every direction but that one. It's our only way out."
Crouching low so as not to make themselves an easy target, Rick and his men retreated as fast as the unstable footing of the marsh would allow. They continuously turned and lobbed grenades blindly behind them. If nothing else, the explosions kept Charlie on his toes.
Just as Rick had hoped, the thick reed-like grass hid their movements. The gunfire from behind slowly died out, until it seemed Charlie was only making a half-hearted attempt at pursuing them. Rick hadn't been playing war with the Vietcong for this long, however, as to be so easily fooled. They were just waiting for one of his men to reveal their position by returning fire.
"Unless you see one of those sons-of-a-bitches up close and personal, hold your fire. No more grenades either."
"But, Sarge--" one of the men started to protest.
Rick turned and commanded sternly, "I mean it. If any one of you so much as shoots a water pistol at 'em, I'll wrap this machine gun right around your neck. Now come on. Follow me. Stay quiet and stay low."
The men followed Rick, copying his posture by walking in a position so crouched they were practically crawling. They were five feet from where the marsh met an open field when Rick stopped.
"I don't think they're behind us anymore," a nineteen-year-old Alabama boy whispered.
"Oh, they're back there all right," Rick assured in a hushed tone. "They know they have us trapped on three sides. They think we've got no choice but to turn around and walk right back to 'em."
"But we don't, Sarge," Bruce reminded. "That's a minefield in front of us."
"I know it is. But we're goin' across."
Rick shook his head at Bruce. He gathered his men around him in a tight circle. "I don't know about you guys, but I have every intention of gettin' out of this mess alive today. A box of cookies arrived from my mother yesterday that I haven't had a chance to eat yet. Every man that makes it outta here with me gets to share in the spoils."
Despite the horrifying situation they found themselves in, Rick's words made the men chuckle.
"Crawfield, give me your rifle."
The black man looked at Rick with puzzlement, but did as he was told. Aside from his Marine-issue machine gun, he was also carrying a rifle with a three foot long bayonet he'd picked up off a dead Vietcong soldier.
Rick made eye contact with each and every man who looked to him for leadership. "I'm gonna be the first to cross."
Bruce attempted to protest one last time. "Sarge--"
Rick held up a hand to silence the man. "I'm gonna be the first to cross. If we're lucky, Charlie's doin' just what I think he is and waitin' at our rear for us to return. This marsh is so thick, and the grass so tall, he won't be able to see what we're up to. We shouldn't have to worry about him.
"Using Crawfield's handy bayonet here, I'm gonna mark every step I take. The ground looks to be soft enough over there that the bayonet should make a pretty good slice. You guys walk right on top of my marks and nowhere else. When you get to the other side, bury yourselves in the grass again and provide cover for everyone else if need be. Otherwise, my orders are the same as before. Keep your mouths shut, and hold your fire. Don't give away our position. Once we're all over there, we're gonna hightail it back to camp."
Rick turned to his radioman. "And you keep tryin' to get help sent our way. Tell 'em we'll take whatever they can give us. Right now I don't much care if it's nothin' but Santa Claus and his eight tiny reindeer. If nothin' else, he'd distract Charlie for a while."
Bruce gave a tight smile and nodded.
Rick scanned the sweat-beaded faces of his men. Though some did a better job of hiding it than others, there was no mistaking the terror in their eyes.
Men, Rick thought with sarcasm. Most of them are nothing more than boys. Boys who somehow think I can make this all better. Boys who think I can get them out of this hellhole alive.
Rick chased away his negative thoughts. "If I don't make it across, someone else is going to have to try."
Rick didn't intend to pick anyone for that job, he guessed overall that if he were blown to bits by a mine, it wouldn't make too much difference to him who tried next. He just didn't want them to give up.
"I'll go," Bruce volunteered. "Crawfield knows how to work the radio."
Rick nodded. "Good enough." He turned away to step out into the open field.
"Good luck, Sarge," someone whispered from behind.
Rick gave a little wave of his hand in acknowledgment.
Even seventeen years later, every man who was present that day would remember holding his breath as he watched Rick Simon walk through that field that was armed with Vietcong mines. Rick would remember offering up a brief prayer right before he started his journey, though the prayer wasn't for himself. It was for the safety and well-being of the men he was responsible for. The last part of his prayer asked the Lord to watch over his mother and A.J. should anything happen to him, and to give them both the strength they'd need to deal with his passing.
And, Lord, please help A.J. understand why I had to do this, was how Rick's prayer ended that day.
Because the ground was soft beneath Rick's feet, he was able to detect some suspicious indentations that he surmised were mines. That was about as easy as it got. He couldn't do more than take his chances, walk lightly, and stagger his steps. There was little one learned in Marine combat training in regards to crossing a minefield. Basically one was advised not to. However, if one had no choice, you were told to keep in mind that the perimeter of the field is most certainly always mined, so taking a large step over it is advisable. From there, the old joke was, you walk softly and pray.
Every safe step Rick took he marked by ramming the point of the bayonet into the ground, marking both his right footstep and his left.
It seemed like an eternity before Rick crossed over into the unmined long grass on the other side. In reality, his trip had taken him four minutes. Rick's men didn't make a sound, but he could hear their silent cheers. He crouched down in the grass to watch the next man cross, Rick’s machine gun poised and ready in the crook of his elbow.
Rick wiped at the sweat running freely down his face, and swallowed hard in the hopes of bringing some saliva back to his parched throat. He looked down with surprise at the trembling hand that rested atop his gun, and willed it to stop shaking. He took just a moment to admit to himself how absolutely terrified he'd been while crossing that field, then brushed his fear aside. By the time his Alabama private had arrived safely, Rick was once again the picture of hardened combat veteran.
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"Eleven men made it across that minefield that day, for no other reason than your brother was foolish enough...and brave enough, to cross it first. We were sitting ducks, A.J. We had nowhere to go. Rick was right. Charlie never gave it a thought that we'd be dumb enough to travel the only route open to us. A route they thought would surely blow us to bits if we tried. We no more than had completed our crossing when two helicopters arrived. The napalm they dropped took care of Charlie for us. We walked back into camp an hour later singing Rick's praises. I marched right up to our commanding officer and gave him a full report on what Rick had done. When he verified it with the other men, he called Rick into his tent. He told Rick he was going to submit his name for a Silver Star. You know what your brother told him?"
A.J. shook his head.
"He said he was just doin' what Uncle Sam paid him to do. He said McElroy had died out there. Rick said that if the mission had really been successful, no one would have lost his life.
"That's just the kind of sergeant your brother was, A.J. He cared so much about the men who answered to him, and he tried so hard not to show it...or to take credit for it."
A.J. gave Bruce a gentle smile that afternoon. Softly he said, "Yes. That's just the kind of guy my brother is."
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It didn't surprise A.J. in the least when his telephone rang early Monday morning, and it was his brother's voice he heard on the other end.
"Hey, A.J. I didn't wake you, did I?"
A.J. had picked up the phone in the garage. "No. I just finished lifting weights. Another minute and you'd have caught me in the shower."
"Oh, good. I mean, it's good that I didn't wake you...or catch you in the shower. Listen, I'm gonna play hooky today if we don't have anything urgent going on."
Even though Rick couldn't see the gesture, A.J. shook his head. "No. Nothing urgent that I can think of."
"Bruce - he said he met you Saturday when he came by your place lookin' for me - and his wife showed up on my doorstep at seven o'clock last night. They stayed until midnight, but Bruce and I didn't really get a chance to finish catchin' up with each other."
A.J. smiled. "No. I'm sure you didn't."
"So anyway, he and I wanna spend the day together. Arlene's going to be visiting a cousin of hers that doesn't live too far from here, so I thought Bruce might enjoy fishin' from the deck of my boat. I'm gonna take the two of 'em out to supper tonight, as well."
"That's fine. You take all the time you need."
"Thanks, A.J. I appreciate it on such short notice and all."
A.J. laughed. "Like you ever give me any kind of a notice when Carlos entices you to run off somewhere and play hooky. This is actually a rare treat."
don't get used to it, little brother.
I'm not plannin' on changing my ways anytime soon."
"I'm sure you're not," came A.J.'s playful sarcasm. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Oh yeah. Bruce and Arlene are headed up the coast tomorrow morning on the last leg of their journey. I'll probably see if they'll let me treat 'em to breakfast before they go, but I should still be at the office by nine. Ten at the latest."
"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow then. Have a good time today."
"I will. See ya' tomorrow, A.J."
A.J. hung up the phone and exited the garage. Despite the light tone of the conversation he'd just had with his brother, A.J.'s thoughts grew solemn. He recalled the harrowing story Bruce, with much difficulty, had relayed to him on Saturday afternoon.
Without even having to think about it, A.J. understood perfectly why Rick had never pursued the medal he had been promised. Rick Simon's actions had never been motivated by rewards or recognition. Rick's motivation came from within. From nothing more than loyalty and friendship, and a sense of responsibility toward those he loved and held close to his heart. The majority of the time the two people on the receiving end of that undying devotion were Cecilia and A.J. But many times that same devotion, a devotion that would cause Rick to sacrifice his own life for the life of another without thinking twice about it, extended to friends as well. Friends, and those young men in that platoon Rick felt responsible for.
The hot water from the shower sloshed over A.J.'s head. He reached blindly for the shampoo as he made a decision. He didn't know exactly how he'd go about it, but one way or another he was going to see Rick was given the recognition he was due for the act of bravery performed so long ago. He'd get Rick that Silver Star, or die trying. Maybe it wasn't important to Rick, but it was important to A.J. And it would be important to their mother, as well.
As he stood there with soap running down his face and back, A.J. decided that today was as good a day as any to get started. He had a lot of research to do, and a lot of phone calls to make. With Rick out of the office for the day, the blond detective figured he could at least make a dent in some of the above.
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Eleven months after Bruce Gibbens' visit, A.J. had to chuckle at his own naiveté. He had foolishly thought a few well-placed phone calls to his congressman, and the Department Of Veteran's Affairs, would easily rectify the problem of the overlooked Silver Star. How A.J. wished it had been that easy.
A.J. had been on the phone the entire day that Monday back in July that Rick was out of the office, and hadn't even managed to talk to the right person in either the congressman's office, or at Veteran's Affairs. From there, A.J.'s progress slowed drastically. He didn't want Rick to know what he was doing, so each and every phone call and letter was done covertly either from home, or at those times Rick was out of the office for a few hours, or away on vacation. A.J. even spent the better part of a week of his own vacation pursuing his quest.
A multitude of the blond's private investigation skills came into play as he was forced to track down the commanding officer who had supposedly sent the papers in for Rick's citation. It took him six weeks, but A.J. finally located the guy in South Carolina, where he had retired after serving thirty-five years in the Marine Corps. From there, A.J. was forced to get written testimony as to the events of that day from no less than five men in Rick's unit. Of course, Bruce willingly came through for A.J., and also supplied him with a list of names of the men who had been on patrol with Rick that day. What few addresses and phone numbers Bruce had, however, were long outdated, meaning A.J. once again had to use his skills as an investigator to track down four more men. Considering he was working on the project on a very sporadic basis, that took the better part of four months.
But finally, in March of 1988, A.J. had everything together his congressman had said he needed. It was with great satisfaction that he put all the information he had gathered into a manila envelope and addressed it to the head of the Department Of Veteran's Affairs in Washington D.C. Everything from hand written accounts from the men who had served with Rick, to a neatly typed two page letter from Rick's former commanding officer, were placed in the envelope. Not to mention A.J.'s cover letter that outlined his intent, and quite prominently listed the name of his congressman in four different places. A.J. made two copies of everything, keeping one set for himself, and sending one set to Congressman Trenton, as the man had requested the detective do.
And through all those months, Rick never had the slightest idea as to what his brother was up to. A.J. didn't want Rick to be disappointed if all his hard work proved futile, and the medal was denied. If, on the other hand, Rick was ultimately recognized for his bravery, A.J. didn't want to take any of the credit for that reward. He preferred that his efforts remain anonymous, and had stressed this point to the congressman on more than one occasion.
And, if it had been up to A.J., their mother wouldn't have known of his efforts either. As luck would have it, however, she stopped by A.J.'s house one Saturday morning when he was hard at work on the project and had papers spread all over his dining room table. When his mother innocently inquired as to what he was up to, A.J. reluctantly told her, but then made her promise that, regardless of the outcome, she wouldn't tell Rick what he had done.
It was early in June that Rick received a letter from Congressman Trenton. He almost threw it in the garbage without opening it, thinking it was a solicitation for campaign funds. But he knew the congressman was a Vietnam vet who often campaigned for the causes of veterans, so on that note went ahead and opened the official looking envelope. Rick had to read the letter through three times before he fully understood the impact of it.
He sat alone on his boat that night with the letter laying open in his lap, thinking back to that September day in 1970. He didn't know if he should be rewarded for what he'd done or not. Any good sergeant who took serious responsibility for his men would have done the same thing. Or so Rick humbly thought. Still...it was nice to recognized with an honor like the Silver Star, even after all these years.
A month after that, on a Friday evening in July, and almost a year to the day when A.J. had first met Bruce Gibbens, Rick was awarded his Silver Star. The ceremony took place at Camp Pendleton with Rick's former commanding officer, retired Lieutenant General Leroy Larson, doing the honors of pinning the medal to Rick's chest. Congressman Trenton was present and gave a speech detailing what had happened that day. He read parts of each of the letters that were written by Rick's former subordinates. He also read the short letter of congratulations President Regan had written to Rick, and sent in care of the congressman.
The small hall where the honor was bestowed was packed with Rick's family and friends. Bruce had flown in from Indiana. As well, the other four men who had written letters on Rick's behalf came for the ceremony. Men Rick hadn't seen in almost two decades.
A small contingent of press people was also there. Rick's picture and a write up about the event appeared on the second page of the following day's edition of the San Diego Chronicle, and on the third page of the San Diego Times. A cameraman and reporter from Channel 3 were present, as well. The story was featured on the six o'clock news, and then again on the eleven o’clock news.
Rick stood ramrod straight between the flag of the United States of America and the Marine Corps. Flag, as his former commanding officer awarded him the long awaited medal. Cecilia thought her oldest looked especially handsome and dignified that night in his new navy blue suit and tie. She had to dab her damp eyes with a hanky when Lieutenant General Larson pinned the medal on Rick's lapel. A.J. held her hand in his, squeezing lightly as the tears overflowed her lace handkerchief and ran without shame down her cheeks.
In a tearful voice she whispered to her youngest, "I wish your father was alive to see this."
“I know, Mom,” A.J. smiled softly. "I know. I wish he was, too."
Cecilia had reserved a banquet room at Rick's favorite eatery, The Steak Pit. All the guests, including the congressman and lieutenant general, were invited there after the ceremony.
The celebration went on late into the evening. When The Steak Pit closed at two a.m., the party continued at Rick's boat. The majority of guests that were still present declined Rick's invitation to board the houseboat in favor of going home to bed. In the end, it was just the men from Rick's old unit that returned to his boat to continue their reminiscing.
A.J. saw Cecilia safely to her car in The Steak Pit's parking lot, then headed for the Camaro. From across the lot Rick called, "Hey, A.J.! Come on back to my place for a while!"
"No thanks! I'm going home to bed."
Rick, with the top button of his shirt open, his tie loosened and askew, and his suit coat long since stowed on the front seat of his pickup, trotted over to his brother so he wouldn't have to shout. "Aw, come on, A.J. The party's just gettin' started."
"That's what I'm afraid of," A.J. stated dryly, then smiled. "No, you go ahead. Your friends are waiting for you. Besides, you guys will want to talk over old times tonight."
sure you don't want to come?"
"I'm sure," A.J. nodded. "Just keep it down to a dull roar. I don't want Abbey calling me to come bail you out of the slammer before the sun comes up."
"Naw, no danger of that, A.J. I'm gettin' too old to party that hard."
A.J.'s disbelief was evident in his teasing, sarcastic tone. "Yeah, right."
Rick chuckled before turning to join his friends. "I'll see ya' then."
"Bye. Oh, and, Rick?"
Rick turned around. "Yeah?
A.J. walked the four steps it took him to reach his brother. He pulled the older man into a hard hug. "Congratulations on the medal. It was long overdue."
The very surprised Rick could do no more than hug his brother in return. "Thanks, A.J. It means a lot to me that you and Mom were there tonight when Larson pinned it on me."
"I know it does," Rick heard softly in his right ear.
A.J. gave his brother a final clap on the back before releasing him. "Take care. Have fun with your friends."
"Oh, I plan to, little brother. I plan to. Now exactly what would be a good time for Abbey to call you?"
"Go on," A.J. ordered, while laughing at the teasing. "Get your butt out of here."
A.J. was nestled comfortably in bed an hour later. As his sleepy brain reviewed the evening, he knew without a doubt all the work he'd gone to in the last year had been worth it. Though he'd tried hard to hide it, Rick had been so pleased. And their mother had been so proud. And, it had been an added bonus to share the moment with fifty of their closest friends and family members, and fifty more later on at The Steak Pit.
Cecilia was going to have the letter from President Regan framed for Rick. He had promised her he'd hang it right next to the small glass display case A.J. had given him as a gift that evening that would hold both his Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
A.J. smiled as he drifted off to sleep early on that Saturday morning. He was immensely proud of the man he called big brother. It gave the blond detective a warm feeling inside to know he was the one who was instrumental in Rick having been honored that evening, even though that last fact would forever remain a secret.
It was a secret A.J. had every intention of taking to his grave.
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
The party on Rick's boat lasted the entire weekend. The actual party angle of the affair ended as the sun came up on Saturday morning. The remainder of the weekend was filled with fishing, boisterous talk, teasing, laughter, poker games, and quiet reminiscing. By Monday afternoon Bruce was the only man left. The others had all boarded planes bound for their home states on either Sunday evening or Monday morning. Rick drove Bruce to the airport at four o'clock that afternoon so he could catch his five o'clock flight back to Indiana.
The two old wartime buddies hugged goodbye at the boarding gate.
When they parted, Bruce hiked his carry-on bag more firmly onto his shoulder.
"And don't forget your promise to come out and see me and Arlene next summer. I'm gonna hold you to that, Sarge."
"You can count on it,” Rick smiled. “I'll be there."
"Tell your mother and A.J. I said goodbye."
"It's just like you told me all those years ago in Nam, Rick. You're a lucky man. You've got yourself one hell of a brother."
Rick was a little surprised at the intensity behind Bruce's remark, but didn't hesitate to agree with it. "Well, yeah...I do."
put in a heck of a lot of time, and endured a heck of a lot of headaches,
working his way through governmental red tape this past year."
Rick's eyebrows rose into the brim of his hat. "Whatta' ya' mean?"
know. In seeing that you got your
"What did you say?"
"In seeing that you got your Silver...you didn't know?"
Dumbstruck, Rick shook his head. "No...no, I didn't. He's never said a word about it. No one did. I thought...well, I thought that after all these years that old paperwork Larson submitted finally showed up somewhere. I never thought to ask how all this came about, and no one offered."
"I wonder why A.J. didn't tell you?" Bruce asked more to himself than to Rick. "Well, he put in a lot of time on it, I can tell you that. He tracked down Larson and all the other guys, too. I--"
Bruce was interrupted by the announcement that his flight was boarding. He gave Rick one last, quick hug. "I'd better get going. See you next summer, Sarge. Take care of yourself."
Rick's distracted words were lost on Bruce as the man turned for the boarding gate.
"Yeah...yeah, I'll do that."
S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S S&S
Rick stopped by his mother's house on the way home from the airport. Cecilia was just sitting down to a dinner of broiled halibut and a baked potato, when the front doorbell rang. Before she could rise to answer it she heard a key turning in the lock. Knowing her visitor had to be one of her sons, she remained where she was.
"I'm in the kitchen!"
She heard Rick's, "Hi, Mom!" as he walked through the living room.
Cecilia greeted her eldest with a smile. "Hi, sweetheart."
Rick bent and kissed his mother on her upturned cheek. "Hi. Sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner."
Cecilia started to rise. "It's not an interruption. Let me fix you a plate."
Rick waved his mother back to her seat. "No thanks. I'm not hungry. Bruce and I grabbed a sandwich on our way to the airport."
"At least get something to drink and join me here at the table."
Rick did as he was instructed, retrieving a can of Pepsi from his mother's refrigerator. He sat down next to her, keeping her company while she ate.
Cecilia squeezed a half a lemon over her fish. "I take it everyone has headed home?"
"Yeah. Everyone's gone. Bruce was the last to leave."
Cecilia smiled. "By the look on your face, I don't have to ask if you had a good time."
Rick smiled in return. "We had a great time. It was really good to see those guys again. As a matter of fact, we're gonna try to get together again some time next year."
"I think that's a wonderful idea," Cecilia agreed, while eating her fish and baked potato. "They all seemed like nice men."
Rick nodded. "They're a good buncha’ guys, Mom. They were eighteen years ago, and they still are today."
Cecilia reached over and laid a hand atop Rick's. "I'm glad they were able to come, Rick. It was a special weekend. I'm so proud of you."
Rick lifted one shoulder in a humble shrug of nonchalance. "I just did what I had to do."
There was no mistaking the love behind the soft smile Cecilia gave her oldest son. "You always do, Rick. You always do."
Rick squeezed his mother's hand a long moment, then released it. He lightly drummed his fingers against his half empty soda can.
"I never thought that what I did was worth making a fuss over. There were a lot of guys over there...in Nam, who did things that were a hell of a lot braver than what I did. And a lot of them paid the price for their actions. A lot of them came home in body bags."
"I know, sweetheart."
"Even back then...when Larson told me he was putting a citation in for me for the Silver Star...well, it didn’t mattered much to me that I never got it. I guess that's why I never followed up on it. What mattered to me was that every man who followed me across that minefield that day...every man I was in charge of, came back alive. Every man except Kevin McElroy, that is." Rick swallowed hard as he looked into his mother's eyes. "It didn't always turn out that way, Mom. Sometimes the casualties were a lot higher."
Cecilia blinked away her sudden tears. She couldn't do more than nod in understanding as she reached up to lay a tender hand on the side of Rick's face.
Rick brought his own hand up and rested it on his mother's for a moment. When he released her he teased lightly, "You'd better get back to the business of eating. If you don't clean your plate there’ll be no dessert for you tonight."
Cecilia chuckled. "Why is it that a mother's words from the past always come back to haunt her?"
"Because she said them so many times her sons have them memorized, and constantly look for an opportunity to use them on her."
Cecilia nodded her agreement. "You and A.J. certainly seem to relish doing that to me whenever the right moment comes along."
Rick smiled. "Yeah, Mom. I guess we do. Uh, listen...speaking of A.J., did you know he was the one who started the ball rolling in regards to me getting the medal?"
Cecilia became very absorbed in adding more butter to her baked potato.
Two innocent blue eyes gazed up at Rick. "What?"
"I can tell you know something you don't want me to know you know."
"And just how can you tell that, young man?"
same way you used to know when I was pulling that trick on you. Now come on. Answer my question. Was
it A.J. who started all this in motion?"
"Rick, he asked me never to tell you. He didn't even want me to know. I just happened to find out by accident."
The expression on Rick's face clearly broadcast his confusion. "But why? I mean, why would he do this? Why would he go to all that work for me? And why didn't he ever tell me?"
"A.J. went through all that work, Rick, because he thought you more than deserved that medal, and that you were long overdue the recognition."
"Yeah...but still. Bruce told me A.J. worked on this for a year. That he went through a lotta red tape just to make this happen."
"He did," Cecilia confirmed. "He even spent one of his vacation weeks working on it. Not to mention many a night after he got home from the office, and a number of weekends, too. But he never complained, Rick. He wanted to do it."
shouldn't have put in all that time.
His free time. I mean, it wasn't
that big of a deal," Rick down played.
"It was to A.J., son. And it was to me, as well. And I think, if you'd be honest with yourself, you'd acknowledge that it is, in fact, a big deal."
Rick gave a self-conscious shrug. "Yeah...maybe. But still, A.J. didn't have to do it."
Cecilia reached out and clasped Rick's left hand.
"Rick...A.J. loves you very much. Just like you love him. And just like you have a hard time telling him that, he has a hard time telling you the same thing. I think all the time and effort he put into obtaining that medal for you, was his way of telling you how much you mean to him - even if he never had any intention of you finding out that it was him who was behind the effort to begin with."
Rick gazed thoughtfully at the far wall. After a moment he agreed.
"Yeah, Mom. I suppose you're right. I suppose those were his reasons."
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Rick Simon returned to the office the next day. He hadn't been there since the previous Thursday, and arrived fifteen minutes ahead of his younger brother.
A.J. could see Rick's silhouette as he walked up to the office door that morning. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted out into the hallway.
The blond man stepped inside to see Rick already seated behind his desk. "You're early."
A bag of doughnuts sat on one corner of A.J.'s desk, as did the morning paper.
walked over and filled his coffee mug.
"If I didn't know better, I'd guess you were apologizing for something. But you haven't been here since last
Thursday, and right now it escapes me as to what you might have screwed up
prior to that."
"Ha. Ha. You're real funny this morning, A.J. Can't a guy just come into the office a few minutes early to get a jump on the morning routine."
A.J. sat down behind his desk. "Yes, a guy can. But usually, that guy is me."
"Well, I was up early, so I thought I'd give you a break."
"Whatta ya' mean, you think?"
I have a feeling I'm going to pay for this.
That you're going to ask me for a favor, or borrow money from me, or
tell me you've used one of my credit cards again, or--"
no. None of that," Rick dismissed
the teasing. "I just told
you. I was up early."
A.J. finally accepted. The blond
reached for the paper and the bag of doughnuts. "Want one?"
"I already had two. The rest are yours."
"Thanks." A.J. ate a glazed crawler while scanning the headlines. "Did you have a good time with your friends this weekend?"
"Oh, yeah. It was great."
The blond wiped his hands and mouth with a napkin before depositing the doughnut bag, with one doughnut left in it, on top of the refrigerator. "I take it you guys didn't get into too much trouble. I never got a phone call from Abbey."
"No," Rick shook his head. "We didn't get in any trouble. Just fished, talked, played poker, went out to eat a few times, went bowling, showed 'em some of the sights San Diego has to offer. All in all, it was a real good time."
"Glad to hear it," were A.J.'s words of sincerity. "You guys deserved to have a good time together."
A.J. went back to perusing the front page of the paper.
Rick spent a long moment studying his brother's bent head.
"You know...I suppose someone went to an awful lot of work on my behalf in order to see me finally get that Silver Star."
A.J.'s eyes briefly met Rick's. before returning to focus on the paper. "I suppose."
"I sure wish I knew who it was. I'd really like to say thank you. I mean, it's not every day somebody does somethin' like that for me."
A.J. continued to diligently study the front page. "Maybe the person doesn't want to be thanked. Maybe he...or she, prefers to remain anonymous."
"Mmmmm," Rick mused. "I wonder why he...or she, would prefer that?"
"I don't know." A.J. sat his paper aside and leaned back in his chair. He studiously avoided making eye contact with his brother. "Possibly the person just wanted you to finally have the recognition that was rightfully yours. Maybe the person doesn't want their name brought into the spotlight. Maybe they're afraid it would somehow diminish your well-deserved moment of glory. You know how the press can make a big
whoop-to-do over things that are insignificant."
Rick gave a contemplative nod. "I suppose you could be right on all accounts. Still...I'd like to say thank you. I'd really feel bad if this anonymous person doesn't know how much what he or she did means to me."
waited in silence until A.J. had no choice but to look at him. “Do you think you could convey such a
message for me?"
A.J.'s blue eyes were wide with innocence. "What makes you think I know who this person is?"
Rick shrugged. "Just a feelin' I have. And if I'm wrong...well, so be it. But if I'm not, I'd like you to say thank you for me. I'd like you to tell the person that what
he...or she, did on my behalf, means a heckuva lot to me."
A.J. couldn't hide the twinkle in his eyes as he nodded his head. The same twinkle that was mirrored in Rick's eyes. "Okay. If I ever run across the person I'll tell him—“
As one, the brothers finished with, "Or her."
Rick rose from his desk. "And there's one more thing I want you to do for me."
Rick came to a halt in front of his brother. "Stand up."
With a wave of his upturned hand Rick repeated, "Stand up."
A.J. shook his head in puzzlement, but did as he was told. "Why the heck do I need to stand up?"
"It has somethin' to do with that one more thing I need you to do for me."
A.J. tried to sound exasperated at his brother's foolishness. "And just what is that?"
"The next time you run across this anonymous person we've been talkin' so much about this morning?"
Rick enfolded his younger brother into his arms. "I want you to give him one of these for me. And make sure you tell him Rick Simon says thanks."
A.J. chuckled into the shoulder of Rick's field jacket. He brought his arms up and wholeheartedly reciprocated Rick's show of appreciation, and show of affection.
"I will, big brother. Even though I can guarantee you he'll tell me no thanks was necessary."
Rick pulled his brother even closer and reached up to cup the back of A.J.'s blond head with his hand. "It's necessary to me, A.J.," he whispered. "It's necessary to me."
"I know," A.J. softly agreed as he patted his brother’s back. "Because that's just the kind of guy Rick Simon is."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
~ With A Brother There Is Warmth That Is Seldom Ever Spoken ~