She awoke in a panic, her heart pounding. “SIS, SIS, TELL THEM I’M NOT DEAD!” Again and again, the message could not have been clearer. It was the middle of the night. She shook her husband awake and sobbed to him, “Grady’s in trouble. I think he’s hurt. He wants me to tell someone he’s not dead.”
“You worry too much, Cherie. He’s not just your little brother anymore. He’s a Marine. He’ll be ok. Now settle down and go back to sleep.” He tried to calm her, but prayer replaced sleep that night.
Half-way around the world, the 1st Recon of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade was tearing down their compound, about 10 clicks outside of Da Nang. Many of the guys were going home. Corporal William Grady Baker was one of them. He had spent ten months as point man running recon patrols, slogging through rice patties and snaking through jungles. As kick-off man on this specialized ambush team, he was always prepared for attack by the ‘black pajamas’, with his Remington pump action 12 gauge in hand, his 45 automatic at his side, and 30 pounds of equipment on his back. Every day in country was a test of nerves, guts, and will, and now he couldn’t be more ready to catch a Freedom Bird back to the states. His buddies, Sgt. Max and Sgt. Dell, were finishing their second and third tours in 'Nam. They called him ‘Baby San,’ because he was the youngest of the three, and was just finishing his first tour. The men had spent the day preparing to stand down. The sea bags were packed. The equipment all accounted for.
After a final chow-down for the evening, the three buddies climbed up onto the top of the bunker, their temporary home of sandbags and plywood, to wind down and have a few beers. ‘Green beer’ they called it…because the can, like everything else they used, or ate, or carried, was wrapped in khaki green or ‘OD’, olive drab. They settled down on the makeshift roof and gazed up at the stars. The sky was clear and millions of tiny sparkles put on a heavenly show. “Wow, this is almost like being home,” Grady said as he gazed upwards. “Anyone cold? I’m gonna get my flak jacket.” The guys laughed. “You won’t wear it against Charlie, but you'll wear it now against a little chill?” taunted Max. “What a wuss! Why don’t you have momma san knit you a cute little sweater for this jungle ‘chill’?” He was used to their ribbing. Grady descended into the bunker to grab the jacket. The guys were supposed to wear them all the time, but they were bulky and uncomfortable in the muggy heat of the day, so mostly they were relegated to use as pillows on the bunks. Grady put the jacket on for the first time in forever, and immediately felt the unusual chill of the night subside.
The conversation started in the familiar way. Sgt. Max was going to kiss the ground as soon as he hit the states. His wife would be waiting for him at Norton AFB in California. He "guessed" he'd have to kiss her, too. Dell was thinking about going back to school, maybe getting a ‘64 Mustang. Grady was just grateful to be going back in one piece. “Do you reckon there really is a God up there?” asked Dell as he slid his arms under his head and looked towards the stars. Grady thought about it for a few moments. “I think I believe in God now,” he said, “Somebody got me out of 'Nam without a scratch, and that took some damn doing.” Dell seemed to be buying in to that thought when Sgt. Max, in his usual gruff manner, interrupted. “Nobody got you out of this hellhole but yourself and your Marine training.” Grady could hear the unspoken “Hoo Rah.” Then he heard something else; the scream of mortars flying overhead towards Da Nang. The men watched with some detachment for a moment, as this was not the first time the Cong had put on a fireworks show for them. But this time…was different.
A low, distinct, “Whoosh” alerted the men that there was trouble. About 30 yards behind them the world exploded. The force of the blast sent Grady flying forward, slamming his face into the plywood edge of the bunker roof. He felt his nose shatter as he flipped to the ground, landing on his back. Blacking out, he saw stars again, only this time they were in his head.
A vague sense of movement broke through the shadowy blur of his mind. A corpsman rolled him over onto his side, then back again. “He’s dead,” said the corpsman matter-of-factly. “That confirms it…. I’m dead,” he thought. “And I’m talking to myself…” The shadows were trying to take over again, but he willed them away. “If I can think, am I really all that dead?” He tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn’t obey. Nothing would obey. He couldn’t move. Panic took over. “Oh God,” he cried to himself, “Help me!” His mind raced as he frantically sought out any possible options. Faces of his family floated up through the fog. There was his mom washing dishes at the kitchen sink. She was crying. “That won’t work,” he reasoned. The younger Baker Boys, his brothers, jostled their way into his mind. They were wrestling and chasing each other around the backyard, the way kids do. He tried willing them to pay attention to him. As usual, they did not. Finally Cherie, his bossy big sister, butted her way into view. She was always on his case…getting into his business. Even now, she stared at him with that what-do-you-want-now-twerp look that he was so familiar with. “Sis…SIS! Tell them I’m not dead…TELL THEM I’M NOT DEAD!” He felt a sharp pain in his arm, and then he passed out.
Back at home, Cherie spent the next two days trying to get word about Grady through the Red Cross, to no avail. Her family thought she must have lost her mind, until, on the third day, the phone rang. It was an officer from the DOD calling. “Your son was blown from a bunker three days ago, and is in serious condition with shrapnel in his neck and lower back. His nose is broken as well. The doctors say his prognosis is good, as the shrapnel did not hit any vital nerves or arteries. His flak jacket protected his vital organs. He will have some reconstructive surgery, and should be back in the states within three weeks. He’s a very lucky Marine, Ma’am. The others Marines who were with him…well…they didn’t make it.” Mom thanked the Officer for giving them the news. They all cried, even the youngest Baker Boys.
Two weeks later, Cherie called the family to tell them that Grady would be coming home that night. They weren’t expecting him to fly into Dover until the following week, but somehow she just knew he was going to show up early and surprise them. This time, the family believed her. They dressed the house for a Welcome Home Party, complete with banners over the door and balloons atop the bushes. Inside, they stacked the dining room table with his favorite foods. Friends arrived early to sign a giant card, and then planned their hiding places for the big Hello.
Grady, thinking he would surprise them a week early, had the cabby drop him off a block behind the house, so he could sneak through the back yard and make his unexpected appearance at the kitchen door. He couldn’t wait to see the Baker Boys’ faces after he stepped quietly into the kitchen and stood, casual-like, by the refrigerator, as if the last two years never happened.
But, as usual, Sis wouldn’t have it. She was there, leaning against the open door, waiting for him, with an annoying Cheshire grin on her face. For a nanosecond he was ticked, really ticked at her for what? Knowing? But after countless tears and hugs exchanged between family and friends, the two of them had a moment together. He told her how the Medics had found him, temporarily paralyzed by the blast concussion, and how his buddies, now gone, were laid out next to him. “I was so scared, Sis. No one could hear me.”
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong.” She laughed. “God heard you, and He told me!”
Born in New York City, Joe Guderian is now retired in St. Marys, GA, after a career in advertising and public relations.