The mess hall was expanded by pushing back the accordion-folded wall separating the Officers mess from the Enlisted and Patients mess halls. Kitchen staff were all wearing short white coats with red and white-fringed Santa’s elf hats. There seemed to be equal numbers of men and women tending to the luncheon visitors. All kitchen staff were civilians. About a dozen Marines with MP armbands were circulating under the watchful eye of their leader–Major Montague Grungel. Curly Norton had assigned him to the mess hall to make sure there were no civilian activist infiltrators and to quell any disturbances. All MPs had walkie-talkies as did Norton now wearing his Santa suit.
“Navy Leader this is Marine Leader, do you read me? Over.” Grungel looked around the huge crowd. The collective talking in the hall produced a baseline din that precluded even a loud shout to be heard. He was looking for Norton.
“I read you and see you. Is everything pacific? Over.”
“Everything is pacific. Where are you? Over.”
“Look on your right beneath the center of the stage. I’m waving my hand at you now. Over.”
“Santa Claus? Great disguise. Magnificent. Over”
“Good response. You just saved your ass from going back to Nam. Just keep me updated. Over.”
“Will do. Over-and-out.”
Ensign Priscilla Pulp and Sergeant Vincent Vilth sat side-by-side and across from Mr. and Mrs. Francis and Dilly Pulp. Most of the tables were for four people. Some larger families with several children had pushed two tables together. Against the right and left walls, identical buffets continued to be replenished. The aromas of turkey and roast rounds of beef were mixed with a sweet cinnamon fruit punch to be self-ladled by any indulger.
Priscilla’s father leaned across the table toward Vilth, who in turn, stretched his head close to the midline of the tablecloth.
“When are you leaving Queen’s Naval Hospital Sergeant?”
“I don’t know. They have to clear up my wound infections first, Mr. Pulp. Please call me Vinnie.”
“Where will you be transferred after Queen’s, Vinnie? Please call me Frank.”
“One of the two VA Hospitals in Long Island. They’re both close to Queens Naval.” Vilth looked sideways to Priscilla and smiled. She blushed and smiled back.
“What do you do in the Army Vinnie?” Dilly Pulp had dirty blond hair pulled back in a French twist. Her voice was soft and velvety like her daughter’s. Her manner was dippy and Vilth thought of stereotype blond stories.
“I’m a soldier, Mrs. Pulp. I’m in the Green Beret’s,” Vilth replied.
“Oh, yes. Those are really cute hats. I mean what was your job in the Army? Please call me Dilly.”
Vilth suppressed a laugh and looked at Priscilla who looked away clearly embarrassed.
“The Green Beret’s are soldiers Dilly. I do what soldiers do.”
“Like John Wayne. He made a movie about Green Beret’s. You’re big like John Wayne. Do you like John Wayne?”
“Excuse us mother. We’re going to get some more punch for everyone.” Priscilla tugged on Vilth’s hand and led him to the punch bowl.
“Pris, I didn’t know how far I should go with your mother’s conversation.”
“Well mother is sort of an airhead about some things. She defines life by the movie version of things. At least you didn’t tell her your job was killing people.” She squeezed his hand.
“What about your father? What’s he leading up to?”
“His next question is going to be, ‘What are you going to do after the Army?’ She looked into his eyes.
“Well I won’t tell him that it’s going to be ‘killing people’.”
“He’s concerned about us. About me.”
“So I’ll tell him what I want to do. It’s no big deal.” He squeezed her hand and held it to his side.
“Well, what are going to say? I’m getting nervous. I want my parents to like you.”
“I’m going to say, if he asks, that I’m going to marry his daughter and go to law school. Sometime during our marriage we’ll have three children, one girl and two boys.”
“Sergeant Vincent Vilth, did you just propose?” She put her free hand up to her mouth.
“Well, I said it just in case Frank doesn’t ask.”
“Oh Vinnie what? Is that a yes or a no?”
“Are you going to use the punch bowl or just stand around lookin’ at each other? I have a short lunch break?” Huxley elbowed his way around Vilth.
“Huxley, you push me or shove me or touch me one more time and you’ll be a patient on a Stryker frame.” Vilth grabbed Huxley’s left arm and squeezed so tight Huxley’s face turned purple trying to suppress yelling out in pain. He released his hold and moved with Priscilla back toward their table. He stopped about 10-feet way from their seats and faced her holding both her hands. He just stared at her.
Tears began to well up in her eyes. She sniffed them away before they streaked her face. “It’s a ‘yes’.”
“You two were gone a few long minutes. Where’s the punch?”
“Oh, it was too crowded. We’ll get some later, unless you really want some now.” Vilth still held Priscilla’s left hand.
“Well, Vinnie you didn’t answer my question.” Dilly continued on as if time had stood still. “Do you like John Wayne?”
Priscilla rolled her eyes.
“I identify with his patriotism Dilly.”
“Wonderful. Oh and Frank has something he wants to ask you.”
“Vinnie, ours is a close family unit and there are no secrets. We freely discuss personal situations. I don’t know whether Pris has told you, but I need to ask you something very personal. What are your intentions with Pris and how will it affect your plans after your military service?”
Vilth took a deep breath. He held Priscilla’s hand. He delivered the same dialogue as at the punch bowl. During the silence of the longest minute of the day he had only one additional thought. As your future son-in-law I may or may not continue my career as the Phantom Shitter.
Huxley looked at Vilth and the family scene. The older couple, probably her parents, looked stunned. He murmured to no-one, “Vilth probably told her he was boffing their daughter.” He laughed out loud.
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