Doing My Job
by Sue K
The blast overhead almost threw Commander Harriman Nelson off
his feet. A shower of plaster, confetti and other materials began
raining down. He glanced up from where he was crouched and swore softly.
That was where his room had been. His room, his personal belongings, his
inner sanctum in this chaos was gone, but then it couldn’t have been a
sanctum since the Cong seemed to have found a way to bomb it.
“Commander, I think you’d better get in a safer place than
that. There’s no telling just what might fall on your head,” a deep,
slightly Southern accented voice nearby told him.
Harriman turned and saw an Army officer motioning him over to
his side. Harriman complied. This was now his only uniform until he
could report to his boat. The officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, Harriman
noted, was about five inches taller than he was, with a round face that
appeared slightly English/Irish in background. He wore a flattop popular
in the Army these days. What the barber had left was black as coal. The
eyes taking him in were an almost golden hazel. He appeared to be in his
late forties and what could kindly be called robust. This man was
definitely a desk jockey.
“Your hotel, Commander….” The larger man squinted.
“It was,” Harriman said sourly, gazing back up toward what
used to be his room.
“It still is,” the colonel said with a bark of laughter.
“I move, on average, about once a month. The Cong put a bomb on one
floor and me and my roommates are moved to another floor, while they
rebuild the rooms that were damaged.”
“But what about your belongings?”
“Most of the time the bombs aren’t that big. Some of my
stuff gets banged around, but I’ve been lucky. My room hasn’t had a
“I guess it would be doubly lucky since you aren’t ever in
it at the time.”
This time the Army officer laughed heartily. “Why don’t we
stop into the café over there and get some breakfast. By the time
we’re done eating and talking, it will be time for me to report to
duty and for you to get back inside the “President Hotel” and see
what you have left.”
“All right, Colonel….” Nelson prompted.
“Patterson,” the older man said, tapping his nametag.
Nelson hadn’t been able to see it before, but he nodded.
“Hell, just call me Pat. Everyone except my sister and parents
call me Pat.”
Nelson smiled, liking the officer immediately. “And I’m
Harriman. Just call me Harry. Most of my close friends do.”
“What brings you to this wonderful paradise?” Pat asked as
he steered Harry toward a small café.
“I am getting a new assignment.” He pointed to the harbor
where a flotilla of ships, large and small lay bobbing. While it
wasn’t any kind of big secret that submarines saw duty here, it also
wasn’t general knowledge. But he wasn’t lying. He was a liaison from
the U.S. Department of the Navy to the Australian Navy, out to show them
a bit of U.S. know-how and learn a bit of Australian savvy underwater.
The Aussies had a greater presence of submarines here, especially the
smaller ones. It was good PR and Harry was glad to see what other
countries were doing in the way of submarine technology. And WESTPAC was
happy, so everyone was happy.
“Then I can call you Captain?” Patterson asked, as they sat
down at a rickety table in the tiny restaurant. Other military officers
were already eating breakfast, seemingly unconcerned about the recent
Harry smiled. “You may, but only because I have my own boat
already. I’m going to be working with the Australians for a short
“Boat?” But if Pat was going to say anything else, he
decided against it. “What do you want to eat?”
“You seem to know your way around, Pat. Why don’t you
The colonel nodded and called out to the cook, a small, wizened
man slightly shorter than Harry. “Scrambled eggs and toast.” The
cook smiled and bowed and then hustled to the back room.
“Scrambled eggs? They cook that up here?”
“Just wait and see,” was all Pat would say.
Harry wasn’t as up on the Army’s service patches, so he
couldn’t tell just what field Patterson was in. But apparently Pat was
aware of the direction of Harry’s gaze. “I am one of the most
popular men around here—once a month, that is. Comptroller’s
Harry nodded and smiled. It was always wise to be on good terms
with the paymaster. “How much time you have left?”
“Too much,” Pat said, his mood darkened in an instant. His
eyes seemed to become more gold-flecked in their somberness.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to….”
“No, not your fault, Harry. Do you have a family?”
“No. I’m not married.”
Pat pulled out a couple of pictures. The woman was equally
dark-haired, but the boy in her lap had light brown hair. And he was
small. The girl looked to be almost a teen-ager. Both gazed happily from
their photos. Then Pat pulled out what looked to be a graduation photo
of another boy. “This will be the second time I have been away when
one of my children was a baby. The second time.” He pointed at the
older boy. “He wasn’t even crawling when I left for the Philippines
at the end of WWII. He was walking and beginning to talk when I came
home.” He put the pictures of his two oldest children away, keeping
the picture of the youngest one out. “And the littlest one? He was
born six weeks early. Great Lakes Naval Hospital. I was stationed at Ft.
Sheridan then. It was a good post; for all that the old man was a bit
crazy.” He laughed in his reminiscing. “The colonel had a fetish
about the historic tower there. Had a replica made to sit in front of
his office at HQ.” Then he softly caressed the picture, his finger
stopping on the baby. “He was a month old before I could hold him in
my arms without the gloves, protective clothing and all that hospital
stuff. Got him home and the first thing he does is pee in my face while
I’m changing him. He was so tiny.” Patterson sat quietly for a
moment. There was the noise outside—honking horns, bells on bicycles,
voices in a language that Harry had no knowledge of. It was all
“He looks very healthy now,” Harry finally said. “Is this
a recent picture? Your wife is very pretty, too.”
“Just small. The doctors said he would be for a while. Yeah,
thank God, he’s healthy. But his daddy is here, across the Pacific.
And thanks; she is pretty, isn’t she. Almost twenty-five years later
and still beautiful. Prettiest legs at the Army Depot,” he said
reflectively. “I wish I had just taken my retirement as a major and
told them to go to hell when they gave me this assignment.” The cook
laid two bowls of rice on the table and then a plate with egg foo yong
in front of each man. A fork and spoon were placed next to the
chopsticks for the benefit of the Americans.
“Egg foo yong?” Harry asked, incredulous.
“The Vietnamese version of scrambled eggs. You get rice with
it, whether you ask for toast or biscuits,” Pat explained. “But even
though it’s not sausage and gravy, it’s pretty good. Dig in and
forget my ugly mood.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can imagine just how depressing it
is to be away from family.”
“Yes, you can imagine, Harry, but until you actually have
one….” He ate a few bites and then looked reflectively out the
window. “We didn’t think it would be that tough. Just one year. Wife
and kids being watched over by my parents. Just one year, then I would
have a couple of cushy assignments, and then retire with over thirty
years. Maybe even get another promotion. Nice nest egg, buy a place,
enjoy the rest of my life and family.” He set his fork down and gazed
meaningfully at Harry. “But was it worth it? Was this short year in
this damned hell-hole worth it, looking at the laundry lady like I look
at my wife, seeing the kids on their mother’s hips and wondering what
new milestone mine has reached.” He shook his head.
Harry thought he saw something deep inside this military man in
front of him; something he felt himself. “Was that the only reason you
accepted this assignment, Colonel?” he asked softly, his own breakfast
ignored for the moment. “Money and rank?”
Patterson drew in a deep breath and then shook his head. “No.
I also accepted the assignment for the same reason I have accepted all
of my assignments, good or bad.” He was silent for a long time. “I
don’t quit because things are tough.”
“Duty, honor, commitment,” Harry murmured. “And you love
Patterson smiled softly at him. “I suppose I do.”
“Yeah, even when it’s not popular. We do it because it’s
our job. It’s what we chose to do a long time ago, never thinking that
sometimes our decision might have some painful consequences.”
Patterson gazed at him gratefully. “I guess I just have the
Army in my blood.”
Nelson laughed softly. “And I have the sea in mine.” He took
a bite of the ‘scrambled eggs.’ “You never did say when you’re
going back home.”
“Pat, I will be thinking of you in two months and envying you
that pretty wife and those beautiful kids. What a wonderful thing to go
“I keep hearing that they are the reason that we do things
like fight wars.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry said contemplatively. Patterson
looked at him, puzzled. “I mean, not the wordy, patriotic things you
always hear.” He took a deep breath. “Someday your kids are going to
think about you and feel pride because their dad was handed something
unpleasant and he didn’t flinch. He just did it and did it well.
Congratulations, Colonel Patterson, that’s some legacy.”
The older man said nothing for a few minutes. Finally both men
got up and went to the old cook. “My dime,” Patterson said, handing
the cook some of the local currency. He turned to Harry as they walked
out. “Thanks, Commander. I hope someday that you have kids. I know
they’ll say the same thing about you.”
Harry nodded his thanks and the two men parted. There was
something heroic about the colonel, even if he was what the front line
men called a desk jockey. He was glad he had met Patterson.
Not everyone in a war is a frontline soldier, but all who have
answered the call to serve, all who had made the decision to ‘do the
job’ are heroes. My father, Lt. Col. Edwin F. (Pat) Patterson, was
just such a hero. He will always be my hero.