Jerry Stadtmiller remembers the disembodied voices of North Vietnamese soldiers. He could hear them talking to each other as they worked their way up the hill.
  • Jerry Stadtmiller remembers the disembodied voices of North Vietnamese soldiers. He could hear them talking to each other as they worked their way up the hill.
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He was young and he was in Vietnam, and he took two sniper bullets in the head. The miracle was that he survived. However, his face was disfigured. He was blind, with much of his sense of taste and all of his sense of smell lost. He looked, he said, like a monster; yet today, more than a hundred operations later, he has acknowledged the wreckage of himself. This is how it happened.

Jerry Stadtmiller at Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial. Helen DeCrane, a navy nurse, later  explained: "There was no way, no time to ask for his name. I had to get a breathing tube in while he was awake, so he wouldn't swallow what was left of his tongue."

Jerry Stadtmiller at Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial. Helen DeCrane, a navy nurse, later explained: "There was no way, no time to ask for his name. I had to get a breathing tube in while he was awake, so he wouldn't swallow what was left of his tongue."

"I was asleep on the side of a hill somewhere in Vietnam. It was pitch black. And then I heard, 'Wake up, Jer, they're coming.' They — I knew who they were. It was why they were coming that terrified me. They were members of the North Vietnam Army, and I knew - and I mean down to the very marrow of every bone in my body — I knew this was going to be it.


"'It' was the reason I had come to Vietnam. 'It' was the reason I had dropped out of college and trained for the last nine months. And just as 'it' was proceeding, irreversible, and totally insane, I was going to perpetuate 'it'. I no longer had a choice. 'It' was the most real thing I had ever been a part of, and I couldn't run or hide or explain my way out. 'It' was war....



"I was a marine in Vietnam. This was going to be my first and only battle. And they were coming to kill me. That might sound a bit harsh, but that's how it felt, and, in fact, that's how it still feels."



Jerry Stadtmiller is beefy and generates about himself an air of crackling expectancy. He plays his voice like a poet. Booming loud, or as breathless as a starlet, his voice, as much as the incidents he describes, mesmerizes the listener.


"It was still dark, and I remember how cold the air was," he recalled of that moment on June 15, 1968. He remembers the disembodied voices of North Vietnamese soldiers. He could hear them talking to each other as they worked their way up the hill that he and four other Americans were holding "before we opened fire on each other, the morning I was shot."


Al, a buddy who had awakened him for duty and sent him on his way, was the first to find him still alive, his face blasted away. The other soldiers were dead. Stadtmiller was evacuated to the USS Sanctuary where Helen DeCrane, a navy nurse, was waiting. He came in without ID tags. "There was no way, no time to ask for his name, " she later explained. "I had to get a breathing tube in while he was awake, so he wouldn't swallow what was left of his tongue. We had to take out the pieces of his shattered jaw and try to keep some of the muscles together for some semblance of a face. The roof of the mouth supports the base of the brain - there was no way to assess if he even could survive."


The chief medical surgeon reported he'd never seen a man's face (at least one who lived) so badly damaged. Two sniper bullets tore away his lower face, so that one-third of his tongue had to be removed and all but four of his teeth. Plastic surgeons later sewed up the right socket of his eye, built him a nose from part of his hipbone, replaced a piece of his skull with a metal plate, and created a new tear duct for his left eye. Ninety-five percent blind, today Stadtmiller angles his reconstructed face, using the outer portion of his left eye to look out at a world of dark and blurred images.


I was the image he watched, as he waited for me at the door of the high-rise apartment he shares with his wife. As I made my way off the elevator, down the plushly carpeted corridor, he was saying something that I imagined was a greeting. But his speech was a little slurred, and because I'd not yet learned that he could only see an object when his face was all but turned away from it (appearing in this case to look at the door across the hall), I assumed he was speaking to a neighbor. He was wrapped in a robe, his longish hair damp. His handshake was, for so large a man, gentle. From his assortment of eye patches he wore a valentine-red soft leather one during our two days together. At the moment, however, he'd not as yet put it on. I saw the empty socket that was covered with skin. I followed him into his apartment adrift on a fragrant cloud, clean and woodsy, that wafted after him. He smelled wonderful, I asked and was told it was Caswell-Massey, an English cologne he used. "I put it on," he said, his speech still requiring some getting used to, "but I can't smell it."


Stadtmiller has no feeling in his lower face. Despite the years and the number of operations required to reconstruct his face, he still must go in for tune-ups and repairs. He can talk about the wounding but does not like recounting the subsequent years.

 "Putting a number on those surgeries somehow invites the feeling of 'oh poor me!'"


While he dressed, I took in the apartment. Pat, his wife, was already at work as librarian at the nearby All Saints' Episcopal School. They have two daughters. Ami has her own place. Mandy, home from Northwestern University, was asleep in one of the bedrooms off the hall. A longhaired cat dozed on the pale couch. Another cat, shorthaired and frisky, darted across the floor of the living room that seemed decorated more for function than aesthetics. Heavy wood furniture and items of domestic detail like an antique pitcher and bowl and a photograph on the wall were sunk in valleys of empty space. It was a space a blind man might easily negotiate.


Stadtmiller returned, dressed and in search of an instrument that he described as smaller than a breadbox. It was his Braille aid, and when he found it (about the size of a cigar box, with five gray plastic keys), he typed out my name, telephone number, and address while a Spock-like voice repeated what it had just taken into its memory bank. (His computers at home and at the office are voice synthesized.) He collected his cane that was set by the door. It was collapsible, red tipped. He threw open the door, extended the cane with quick, elaborated grace. Then out the door, he rushed pell-mell to the elevator, jabbed the button; talking nonstop, we dropped to the lobby and headed out the building. He moved with unexpected grace for a large man who is legally blind. We were on our way to his office. His performance said, "Hey, I'm still in charge. I'm just a guy going to work."


Stadtmiller's office at the Vet Center on Sixth Avenue was small and so spare (a couple of chairs, a computer and phone, and a single poster on the wall) that it recalled his apartment. He fell into a chair and started jamming the keys of his computer, calling up material he had written, journal entries that spanned years. He was printing them out for me when the phone rang. He picked up and listened a moment. "What do you want?" he said. The question was curt, maybe rude. At our second telephone conversation, when I called to confirm our appointment, he answered my greeting the same way. I had to remind myself that the man on the other end of the line was blind and scarred and that I should give him some slack. And I did, because I knew even then, and understood more now, that Stadtmiller was like a kid who enjoys the chance to cut across the back yard of formal relationships. He needed to get close, fast, and he didn't care (and didn't think you'd much mind either) if in the process you got a slight shock. He, in fact, likes to shock, like a prankster who wears a gadget that goes off when you shake his hand, sending an electric shock across the palm. If, for a moment, he played the bully, it was only for a moment and it was only play.


The poster was a framed, blue-toned reproduction entitled "Reflections," in it a middle-aged man stands at the gleaming Vietnam War Memorial wall. Superimposed against the wall with its rows and rows of names, a ghostly group of young soldiers stares back at the man. With his limited peripheral vision, could Stadtmiller make out the figures of the spectral soldiers reaching out, touching it? This was not Guernica, not Goya's visions of war. Here war was rendered as a sentimental affair. It had no rage, no expression of massive insult.


When Stadtmiller received his Purple Heart, the general who presented the medal explained that this was one medal few wanted. "I threw the thing away," Stadtmiller said. Nearly a quarter of a century later, however, Stadtmiller ordered another. By then, he said, in accepting his own history, his wounds, the life he'd helped to make with his family, and the work he was doing with other Vietnam War veterans, he felt he'd earned his Purple Heart.



"I had them transcribe on the back my name, the date of my injury, and just one word."

Stadtmiller knows that timing is everything. I looked at him, and while he appeared to be looking straight at me, by then I knew he was taking in the blurry far corner of his office. He said nothing until I - realizing that he was not going to tell me what that word was - asked, right on cue, "And what was that one word?"


"Ouch!"



Then he laughed.


We left the center and headed over to the Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial that stands beside the former church on the grounds of the old Navy Hospital. The site was dedicated on Memorial Day last year, but as we parked and made our way through the open gate, coming around to the spot where four inscribed bronze plaques rest atop sturdy white concrete slabs, the memorial looked (as memorials are meant to, I suppose) as if it had always been there. Stadtmiller, giving one of the speeches the dayof its unveiling, reminded the audience that this was not San Diego's first memorial to those who had died in Vietnam. There had been one in Old Town, at the corner of San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street. Dedicated in 1969, it was, according to Stadtmiller, the oldest memorial honoring Vietnam veterans in the United States.


For Stadtmiller, the dedication ceremony for the new memorial was one of mixed emotions. As it happened, Stadtmiller was seated to the right of General Gary Parks, a one-star marine general and Vietnam veteran who was there to read several stanzas from the poem "I Know He Goes To War" (I don't know if God goes to church/but I know He goes to war"). Not long before Stadtmiller spoke, somewhere in the midst of the posting of colors, pledge, national anthem, invocation, and the placing of wreaths, the First Marine Division Band played a medley of service songs. When they began the Marine Corps Hymn, both general Parks and Stadtmiller stood up.


"At that moment I was sucking in my gut, at least I was trying real hard, and doing my best to stand at attention. My heart was pounding, and I was so damn proud to have been a marine. After we sat down, I leaned over and said, 'You know, Gary, being able to stand up when they play that song makes it all worth while.'"


General Parks looked at him. "You got it," he said.


We climbed the grassy knoll overlooking the memorial. Stadtmiller, who headed the resiting project, recalls that in 1989, when San Diego's Chapter 472 of the Vietnam Veterans of America first met, their goal was to change San Diegans' opinion about the Vietnam veteran. Three years later, he said, the consensus was that the task was too difficult. America had made up its mind, said Stadtmiller. "To them, we were losers and takers."


With the memorial at our feet, the old Navy Hospital, that great rambling pinkish hacienda of a place, at our back, the city to our left, and beyond the Coronado Bridge rising in a lazy span against hazy blue sky - there was a palpable sense of the rightness of place.



 Tapping my shoulder, Stadtmiller pointed to a spot behind us. Twenty-eight years ago, he said, he was a patient in Building 2, since torn down. He was in residence for 18 months.


As he spoke, I reflected on how, over the course of the day, at various times, Stadtmiller had found an opportunity to touch me. He'd shaken my hand, brushed against me as we walked, patted my arm appreciatively; now he was tapping my shoulder. Was this, I wondered, what a blind man does?


"When I first arrived, my face was bloated up to twice its size. My teeth were wired shut. I'd had a tracheotomy and had to write out my responses. My eye was swimming in blood and I was down to 135 pounds." He made a sound that was meant to be laughter, but it had a crack in it like glass. Speaking low, he described how more than one visitor had come into the room and then quickly left. One or two fainted out in the hall.


"Looking at me now, you have no idea. I was a monster. An anemic monster."

He was allowed to come and go on the ward. (His plastic surgery did not begin right away.) He heard of a counseling program at the downtown Y for teenagers called Lifeline and went to volunteer his services. "Anyone who looked like you," later confessed the woman who took him on, "and wanted to help children, I was going to hire him." There was a woman in the program, tall, with a sparkling voice, a smart way about her, and (he later learned) an unusual sincerity. She was completing an internship for her master's in counseling. They spoke at first casually, then went out. A romance bloomed.


"We were married a little more than two years after the sniper attack. And can you imagine? Pat married me before I started my plastic surgery!"


I wondered idly what Father David, Stadtmiller's spiritual advisor, would have said at this moment. Stadtmiller is in a small group that meets regularly with the Benedictine monk for prayer and discussion. They call themselves "the Little Family" in honor of St. Therese, "the Little Flower." Earlier in the morning Stadtmiller had casually remarked that he thanked God for his sinfulness. "Because with my sinfulness I come back to him." His easygoing familiarity with things divine sounds more like what is heard among evangelical Protestants, born again Christians, rather than Catholics.


We stood and headed for the car, the mood of introspection holding. He ran his hand across my shoulder and then took my arm, led us across the walk, onto grass, then gravel, cement, and gravel again. Imagining myself blind, I took a sudden reckoning of the textures, of the uneven pavement, the spongy green lawn, the metal grate.


"You know, my injury reunites me with God." With his single green eye, he looked at me. "I would not be the man I am without it." We continued on our way to the car. Again he stopped, his eye on me.

"When you can't see or smell, people have no idea how isolated you are."

He took my arm again, leading me in the direction of the car, "I can't make eye contact, so I touch people."

But it was not only others that he touched. In the course of our time together he would pull at himself - running his fingers through his hair, biting his nails, tearing open his mouth and yanking out his dentures to show me the great disaster of that oral cavity.

My father was a proud military man, retired from the navy. Two of my brothers were on tours of duty in Vietnam. I, however, wrote Washington requesting registration as a conscientious objector. I told my father the war was a dishonorable one. But there were other reasons, less idealistic, more selfish, that bore on my decision not to join up. Who in their right mind wanted to spend precious years somewhere ducking bullets? My father, shaking his head, wonderingly stated that he never thought he'd live to see one of his sons refuse to fight for his country. I was black, I said, doling out a cliche perfectly made for that moment, and as far as I knew, no Vietcong had ever called me a nigger. But there was the dirty little secret I could not share. If most young people imagine themselves invulnerable, my head was filled with images of my body being blown apart, of myself being blown away. I worried about getting hurt, I worried about dying. I worried about coming back a Jerry Stadtmiller.


"When I joined the marines, damn, if I didn't think I was hot!" he said. "I was in great shape. I'd been an oarsman for a year at Santa Clara University, had two years of college behind me, and had already been through Officer Candidate School for the Marine Corps between my freshman and sophomore years. I was big, strong, intelligent, attractive, and at the same time, I had very little sense of identity." Stadtmiller recounted that when he left for Vietnam, he was too idealistic to be scared.


"That," he recalled ruefully, his mouth twisted into a wounded smile, "ended real quick."

"In Vietnam, I was serving in a unit where I didn't know anyone. There was this absolute anonymity. We went over as individuals. And when we fought, it was to stay alive and to save each other. That's all. We weren't fighting for democracy or the Vietnamese people. They'd fed us that line in the States, but once there, we knew better. We were there for one thing: to get our asses safely out and back stateside. The only problem was, once we got back, we were able to feel ashamed for having fought, ashamed for having lost the war. Nobody wanted to hear from us."



Stadtmiller recalls attending a concert last August in honor of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot's 75th anniversary. One of the selections the band performed was the 1812 Overture. Providing the cannon sounds were a couple of 105 howitzers. Knowing how he had reacted to the sound of gunshots in the past, he plugged his ears with his fingers for a majority of the overture. Unfortunately, he didn't keep his ears plugged long enough. He caught the last half-dozen rounds that were fired off.


"I could hear babies in the audience crying and I thought, "No shit!" If I were a baby, I'd be crying too. If I were a baby, I'd be wondering, "Mama, why did you bring me here?" The babies and I were terrified. They, I'm sure, because of the invasive, abrupt, and shatteringly loud noise. Me, because I was back in Vietnam.


"But I continued to sit there with the rest of the audience. While I felt myself terrorized, it seemed to me that all those other marines were enjoying this shit. They were just sitting there. I kept asking myself, "Am I the only one? Are they really enjoying the sound of those 105s?" Not being able to see the expressions on their faces, I surmised that I was the only one. And so, in addition to feeling frightened by the cannons, I also began feeling ashamed of myself and my reaction, as well as feeling real sorry for myself.


"I'm sure no one could tell that, on the inside, I wasn't at the concert. I was in Vietnam. And I was feeling as helpless and as terrified at this concert as I did that morning 29 years ago. I didn't want to acknowledge my own vulnerability to myself, I couldn't have. If I had, then that would have meant I still wasn't done with Vietnam. It would have meant that, in spite of being 49 years old, I was still not fully recovered from having been shot. It would have meant that I still don't feel safe."


In the mid-'80s Stadtmiller took a class at Mueller College of Massage called "Masking." Each student was given a plain brown paper bag, crayons, and a pair of scissors. The instructor said to make a mask that let people see who they really were. The seven students were arranged in a circle facing each other. For a half-hour they worked on their masks. Stadtmiller colored his mask and cut out the one eyehole. All the while he was growing increasingly agitated. He knew, he said, he was getting angrier and angrier.


"Then the instructor had us put our masks on. We all did, including me. Then I began to unravel. I yanked the brown paper bag off my head. I began screaming at the instructor and the other students. 'Now you know how I feel! I've been wearing this mask for 19 years! And I'll have to wear it for the rest of my life! I can never take it off! I never wanted to wear it! I hate it! It's not fair! You get to take off your stupid little masks when you want to! You can all go to hell!'"


The outburst, he said, affected everyone. The following week the instructor announced, "I've been teaching this class for over ten years. Nothing like what took place last week has ever occurred before. It was very powerful." The class spent the remaining 11 weeks of the term exploring what had happened.


The next morning, having agreed to pick Stadtmiller up for breakfast, I was at the apartment, and again I'd missed Pat. But Mandy, the younger daughter, was there. She was tall, lean, and preoccupied with a book on Washington politics. (She was about to take up an internship at the Washington Post.)


Outside the apartment, in the car, Stadtmiller's energy for life was much in evidence. Those influences that have helped him to find happiness include his wife and family, Father David and the religion they share, the Vietnam vets he counsels and works with on committees, and his therapist. "There are", he now explained, "two recent events that I want to tell you about that have been important to me."


"I'll tell you about Helen Roth first," he said, straining against the seat belt. As we headed for a cafe, he took me back three years, to his visit to the Women's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"After visiting the memorial, later that evening at this dance at one of the two big Omni Shoreham Hotel ballrooms, I was walking through the crowd when a woman approached me and asked if I'd been a patient on an army head-injury hospital. I said yes, that I'd been on the USS Sanctuary in June of '68. She said she had a friend who had been a nurse on the Sanctuary at that time, and a half-hour later she introduced me to her, to Helen Roth. Even without words we immediately and intensely hugged each other. Then we decided to find a quieter place to talk, so we're walking around and I asked her if she had known the two primary surgeons who had worked on me. "Yes, Jerry, she said, 'I know them.' We found seats on some steps. That was when she put her arm around me and said, 'Jerry, I was your surgical nurse.'"


Roth had come to Washington for the dedication of the Women's Vietnam Memorial. She had been a surgical nurse in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. For many marines, she was their first stop after field triage. There were two men she could not forget. One had lost most of his lower body, the other most of his face. Years later, in Knoxville, Tennessee, participating in a university program entitled "Legacies of the Vietnam War," she wrote a poem that addressed the feelings she'd held but had never been able to express.


When she realized that Stadtmiller was the man in the poem she'd written and that she'd read that same afternoon, she told him to wait a minute, then hurried over to a table and grabbed a copy of the poem. Some women, friends of Stadtmiller's, happened to pass by. He got one of them to read it.


  • My eyes are the only part of my face


  • which speak to you


  • in the confusion of our surroundings.

  • You are watching my eyes
  • 

for some sign to assure you
  • 

that perhaps the blood you taste


  • and swallow until it chokes you
  • 

is not your own.

  • You seek some assurance
  • 

that the burning pain of your seared flesh


  • will cease when you awake


  • from what you hope


  • is some demented joke or
  • 

diabolical dream.

  • There is an immediate bond
  • between us.

  • 
The lower half of my face is
  • 

concealed by a surgical mask.


  • The lower part of yours,


  • torn away by an act of war.

  • Your attempt to speak is futile,
  • 

terror strikes your eyes
  • 

as you begin to strangle.
  • Your hands gesture frantically
  • 

communicating your fear.
  • As you reach toward your face
  • 

my hands catch yours.
  • Our eyes lock.
  • 

I must decide if the reassurance


  • you seek
  • 

should be the truth

  • 
or empty platitudes.

  • Certainly, it would be easier to say,
  • 

"Lay quiet, everything will be


  • alright.
  • "

But my eyes would attest to the lie
  • 

and I feel you would live to hate
  • 

me for it.

  • The truth is,


  • I have never seen a man


  • with the lower half of his face torn


  • brutally apart.

  • There is little remaining to


  • identify you,
  • 

yet here you lie, awake and staring
  • 

at me.


  • Wanting an answer to the question:
  • 

"Please! How bad is it?"
  • My insides churn.

  • 
I'd like to turn and run,
  • 

bury my head in someone's shoulder,


  • scream, then cry.

  • Instead I swallow hard,


  • wipe the blood from your eyes
  • 

and tell you the truth, pausing


  • momentarily


  • to say we will try our best.

  • You reach up and take the mask
  • 

from my face.


  • A smile of encouragement and
  • 

tear-filled eyes greet you.
  • 

I am touched by the humanity
  • 

we share.

  • In the 13 hours that follow,


  • we try to reconstruct your face.


  • Are we playing God?

  • Later, your head is a mass of bandages
  • 

and drainage tubes,


  • your eyes say it all.


  • "I made it!"

  • In the hours that follow


  • as sleep eludes me,
  • 

I wonder.


  • Will you live to curse us
  • 

for your life
  • 

or will courage overcome
  • 

the obstacles ahead?

  • Years have passed


  • and I am seeing your eyes again.
  • 

I see the hope and courage I saw
  • then


  • and silently pray
  • 

that this is true
  • 

rather than to think


  • your life became so unbearable,


  • your emotional pain so intense,


  • you chose an abrupt and brutal

  • end.

  • 
I will take my mask off


  • if it will help

  • 
again.
  • 



But when I start to cry,
  • 

I am afraid
  • 

I won't be able to stop.

  • You see
  • 

I need to know that your wounds
  • healed,
  • 

that you can smile again

  • 
and laugh.


  • Then I, too, will be at peace.


(Helen DeCrane Roth, 1990)

I parked the car and turned off the motor. I looked at Stadtmiller. "With the poem, it was like some significant portion of my life had been returned to me."


We started to get out of the car, but his door was jammed. I told him to wait and I'd come around and open it for him. Instead, he pulled down his window, stuck his hand out, opened the car from the outside, and was out, locking his door behind him before I could get around to his side.


I reflected on Stadtmiller at 50. His auburn hair mixed with gray, his red leather patch in place, he carries his powerful build well. He admits to vanity. (The different-colored eye patches and the cologne hint as much.) He takes regular shots of progesterone, the female hormone, in his scalp, to keep from losing his hair. His vanity extends, he confesses, to acquiring the help of others. At first he would snap back with sarcasm when someone offered to lead him across a busy intersection. (Today he is more willing to accept the offer.) Refusing to admit that he was blind, he never learned Braille and for many years tried to do without the cane.


We made our way down the block. On the other side of the street, the Park Manor Suites had the posh look of an establishment on New York's Fifth Avenue. At the curb, we stopped for the traffic.


"There's one more person, or maybe it was an event. I don't know what you'd call it."

"What are you talking about?"

"The other person, event, that really changed my life." He pointed with his cane to the middle distance, somewhere in the center of the one way avenue. "It was just a couple of weeks ago. It happened so quick. Before I stepped off the curb, and even while I was crossing the first two-thirds of the street, I didn't hear anything. Then suddenly I heard a car coming closer and closer, and closer. I stopped, but the car kept coming."

A girl with a nose ring stepped around us, crossing the street. I stood in place, listening.

I didn't know what to do. It was coming on top of me so quickly that I didn't have any time to think about what was the best thing to do. My first impulse was to hurry forward and make the curb. But I worried that suppose I darted forward and he still didn't see me - I'd have met the car head-on. I mean, all this is going on inside my head so fast. And then I froze. I could hear the car almost on top of me, and I didn't know what to do. So I froze.


"And then the son of a bitch hit his brakes. He's in the intersection, maybe 30 feet from me. I heard this screaming sound of the brakes gripping as the car kept coming closer. I thought to myself, 'It's gonna hit! It's gonna hit!' and then I told myself not to think of anything. And the next thing I know, the car has come to a stop about three-quarters of a car length past me, and maybe a foot and a half at my rear.


"I yelled at the top of my lungs, 'Jesus God!' I was so incredibly grateful for still being alive. Or maybe it was not being dead. And yet, I was also so full of rage. I was hating the stupid bastard in that car so much. I mean, the only time I felt as helpless as that was when I was shot and then, of course, I was completely out of it. This time I'm awake and I mean, I was feeling frightened, grateful, hateful, and helpless, all at the same time. And then I had this feeling of, 'Did it really happen?'"

The motorist sped away. Dazed, Stadtmiller made it to the curb. A trucker yelled out, "That was close!"

As we crossed the street, I looked down Fifth, imagining the roar of the automobile hurtling toward me.

Jimmy Carter's was the name of the restaurant. It is a favorite of Stadtmiller's. The woman at the cash register, a waitress, and individuals who looked like regulars greeted him as we entered. He asked and was told, yes, his favorite spot was free. It was a table near the door and next to a window looking out onto the street. We sat, facing each other, waist-high in a puddle of morning sunlight. I squinted as the tabletop bounced back a clear rectangle of light. The cups and saucers were sudsy with sunlight, the rim of the salt and pepper shakers pulsed with a pinpoint of radiance. I imagined Stadtmiller, from the great distance his blindness has sent him, viewing the gleaming silverware like bright, faraway stars.


He ran his hands lightly over the objects in front of him: knife, fork, and spoon, cup and saucer, blazing white paper napkin. "I wanted someone to go out and look for the tire marks and to come back and tell me, and then I'd believe it."


Suddenly he changed the subject. "I was 21 when I went over to Vietnam. Sometimes I see vets who were just 18 or 19. I mean, real kids. And so, when I was shot, even when the physical violence that I suffered overshadowed everything else and any physical injury left no time to address either my spiritual or emotional injuries, at least I was not a kid, a teenager."

"People," he'd written Helen Roth after their meeting in Washington, "seem to think that my life has been more difficult than theirs. I doubt it. What they don't appreciate is how my injury brought out the best in others and that I have been the beneficiary of so much love."

Jim, the waiter, hovered, ready to take our orders. I was not sure Stadtmiller knew. "My life is a gift," he said, and coked his thumb, pointing out the window to Fifth Avenue. "That's what almost dying out there taught me. I mean, I don't own my life. It's not mine to keep. I have been given the gift of using it the way I want to, but I should never forget that it's not mine to keep. Anyway, that's what that stupid son of a bitch taught me who was driving the car. I'd like to meet him one day and tell him exactly how grateful I am for the lesson." Then he laughed his booming laugh.

"Okay, Jim," he said, his voice like an embrace, drawing the third man closer to our table, into our great blaze of sunlight. "I'm hungry! What's for breakfast?"


— Hawkins Mitchell


Hawkins Mitchell received a Wallace E. Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford.

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