By Zach Sanzone
David pulled his jacket off and threw it on the floor as Hugh hanged his jacket on the back of his bedroom door.
“Tell me why you volunteered us for this project again?” Hugh said.
David belly flopped onto the bed as Hugh looked around his room for the Roku remote.
“Because I need the A, and since you’re the brains in this relationship, it’s your duty to make sure your boyfriend graduates on time.”
Hugh smirked. “Yeah? If I’m the brains then what are you?”
David flipped himself onto his back, grabbed the fluffy pillow he always managed to wrestle away from Hugh, and placed it behind his head.
“That’s easy. I have the looks,” replied David, winking at Hugh.
It wasn’t anything Hugh hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t annoy him like it had when they’d first started dating sophomore year.
Hugh flopped down on the bed next to David, who rested his head on Hugh’s chest. “It’s not like it’s hard anyway.”
“Yea but it’s still work. Hey, don’t fall asleep,” Hugh said as he nudged his boyfriend. “You have to do some too!”
“Hugh Lawrence Glenn Fitzgerald, have I ever blown off work for sleep?” David asked as he yawned and dug his head of blonde hair into Hugh’s ribs before he found a comfortable position.
“Yes! Just about all—”
A sharp knock startled David making him sit up while Hugh continued to lay still. David had grown use to seeing Hugh’s grandfather duck down so he wouldn’t bang his head on the doorframe, but Big’s size still startled him every time.
“Hello, boys! What’s up?” Grandpa Big shouted as he walked in. Hugh smiled as he got up off the bed and hugged his grandfather.
“How was school?” he asked Hugh as he returned the hug.
“Hey David, what’s up?” Big asked as Hugh sat back down on the bed next to David.
“Hey Mr. Fitzgerald, uh we’re just doing a project.”
“I keep telling ya to call me Big!” Grandpa Big kept grinning before asking, “Is my grandson the project?” and cracked up laughing.
“Big!” Hugh said trying to mask his own laughter with feigned annoyance while David buried his face in a pillow. “What’d I tell you about saying shit like that?”
Grandpa Big kept laughing. “I just love seeing both your faces turn beet red!”
Hugh rolled his eyes. “We have to watch a documentary for class and present on it later, so if you don’t mind, Big?”
Grandpa Big stopped laughing but kept smiling. “Okay I’ll leave you to your work. Want any snacks, David, other than my grands—”
Hugh yelled wide-eyed trying to suppress a smile. “Big! Seriously!” David blushed even more and looked down.
Grandpa chuckled again. “I couldn’t help it, c’mon! What are you watching anyway?”
“Nothing, just something for history.”
David noticed Big’s smile drop from his face when he looked at the screen and saw the Ken Burns Vietnam War credits on Hugh’s TV screen.
“Dinner’s at 6 as always,” Big said in a quieter tone. “Your mother’s making spaghetti. David, you staying for dinner?”
“If that’s all right?”
“It is,” Hugh said. “Thanks, Big.”
Grandpa Big left the room without saying another word, shutting the door behind him.
“He got quiet all of a sudden.”
“Yeah. Don’t fall asleep, David.”
“I won’t! Jeez, don’t spaz out.”
“We hated going there…we were terrified of the place…”
“Terrified of what place?” David asked through a shrouded yawn as he opened his eyes. Hugh kept watching author Tim O’Brien on the screen talk about Vietnam.
“I told you not to fall asleep,” Hugh said as he nudged David.
“What place?” David asked again as he sat up.
“This place called Pinkville in Vietnam. They’re talking about this place that American soldiers—are you listening? We have to talk about this later this week—and how the soldiers had lost 28 of their own to snipers and booby traps in the area so finally one day in March 1968 a hundred troops went into this village called My Lai and killed something like 567 civilians, like men, women, and children in—”
“—Kids?” David asked cutting Hugh off as he sat up wide-awake now. “Why?”
“They thought they were bad guys and helping the enemy.”
“But kids? You mean like babies?”
“Sounds like it.”
“Why would they kill kids? Are you sure?”
“That’s what it said.”
David looked at Hugh with his mouth hanging open before turning back to the TV as images of the dead from My Lai streamed across the screen.
“Dinner!” Hugh’s mother yelled from downstairs.
“Let’s finish this later,” Hugh said turning off the TV as he and David went downstairs.
Mom sat at the head of the table with Big to her right. David and Hugh took the other two sides of the table. Big forced a smile at the boys as they took their seats but didn’t say anything.
“What are you boys watching?” Mom asked as she scooped out some spaghetti onto David’s plate.
“Just something for class,” Hugh said as he sprinkled Parmesan cheese over his noodles.
“We watched this thing about a place called My Lai in Vietnam and—”
Hugh’s mother suddenly started stuttering and cut David off.
“—David, do you have enough? Let me give you some more,” Mom said as she took David’s plate. Big’s head dropped and he stopped chewing.
“Mom, David’s fine. Don’t force feed him.”
“It’s fine, really!” David said. “It’s—”
“Hugh, I thought we’d go to Target this weekend and get your things for college,” Mom continued in a louder tone. “What do you say?”
“I’m not leaving for another four months, Mom,” Hugh replied.
“Oh, Hugh,” Big said quietly, almost in a whisper, before looking up. “Let your mother take you,” he said before he smiled again.
Hugh stopped chewing.
“Ok, Big. Will you come too?”
“Of course,” Big said as his smile grew wider.
“Want to finish the documentary?” Hugh asked.
David grabbed his jacket off the floor. “I’m going to go home, I’m tired. We can finish later.”
Hugh almost reminded David of the deadline for their project but decided to let it go.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, babe,” David said before kissing Hugh and walked out the door. Before Hugh started on his other homework, he went downstairs to grab a cookie. His mother was standing in the kitchen at the sink finishing the dishes when he walked in. She looked up at her son and smiled.
“Yes, honey?” she said looking back up.
Hugh pulled an Oreo out of the sleeve sitting on the counter. “What did Big do in Vietnam?”
Mom turned the faucet off and grabbed a towel to dry her hands off. She took a deep breath.
“Hugh, your grandfather’s a very good man. And I’m not talking about how he took us in after—”
“—I know, Mom. But why doesn’t he talk about it?”
“Why do you want to know, Hugh?”
“Well, we’re doing this project on Vietnam and I thought maybe he’d know—”
Mom put the towel down on the counter and took his hand in hers.
“—Hugh, I honestly don’t know. He never talks about it. It was a terrible war, and those who fought in it didn’t always come home the same person they were when they first went. Big was your age when he went over there. But promise me that you’ll just leave it alone for now, okay? Please listen to me when I tell you that your grandfather’s a good man, and that he loves you very, very much.”
Confused, Hugh nodded as she kissed him on the cheek.
“I’m going to finish some homework.”
Before Hugh went upstairs, he stopped at the foot of the staircase and looked into the den where Big was watching TV. He looked at his grandfather laughing at his shows and thought about how someone so kind and loving could have been in Vietnam.
Hugh finished some of his other homework over the next few hours and was about to get undressed for bed when he got a text from David.
David: I went home and read up about My Lai. That was some seriously fucked up shit that happened.
David didn’t reply again until Hugh got into bed.
David: Look at this pic.
An image of three soldiers popped up next on Hugh’s phone screen. Two of them were standing there with their rifles aimed down at the ground. The third one, who looked about a foot taller than the other two, rested a bigger machine gun on his shoulders and smiled at the camera.
David texted again. These guys were at My Lai. Look at the tall one.
Hugh took a good look at the picture, not quite sure what he should be looking at.
Hugh: What are you getting at?
David: Your grandpa was in Vietnam, right?
Hugh got up, swung his feet around onto the floor, and called David.
“Why’d you send me that pic? And what’s Big got to do with anything?”
“What? I was just showing you some pics we could use for the project.”
“Well it’s not funny, David.”
“I didn’t say it was funny! I wasn’t trying to be funny! I just thought you’d want to see some pictures since you were all pissy earlier because you didn’t think I was going to do any work!”
Hugh put the phone down and sighed. He hated it when David did half-assed work like this. He put the phone back to his ear.
“Ok. I’ll add them to our project. But just—nevermind. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow,” David said in an annoyed tone.
Hugh threw his phone onto his desk from the bed and tried to go to sleep, but he couldn’t get the image of the smiling soldier out of his head until finally falling asleep well past midnight.
Hugh recognized that smile.
Hugh woke up to his alarm, and a text from David. All it said was “Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division.” He was a little surprised that David was getting into this project as much as he was; David usually didn’t get into much of anything school wise. Hugh was even more surprised when he saw David at study hall in the library working.
“You’re really focused on this project all of a sudden,” Hugh said to David, who was too focused to respond. Hugh shrugged and started his online research. The sight of blood and carnage had never really bothered Hugh, but the photos of the dead bodies at My Lai he saw online bothered him. As Hugh continued to review the details of the massacre on PBS.org, his eye caught a detail he recognized.
Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment…
Hugh went back to the beginning of the paragraph and started reading.
“…a group of soldiers known as Charlie Company, departs for Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province. Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division is comprised of five platoons (three rifle and one weapons and one headquarters.) Leading the group, the well-known and well-respected Captain Ernest L. Medina had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ from his high expectations and his quick temper when these expectations were not met.”
Hugh read about how women were raped before they were shot in the head. How could anyone do that? he thought as he read about how these soldiers, American soldiers, casually carried out orders to kill men, women, and children like they were taking out the garbage or watering a plant.
“Soldiers begin killing the civilians without pretext. Men are stabbed with bayonets or shot in the head. One GI pushes a man down a well and throws an M26 grenade in after him. Over a dozen women and children praying by a temple are shot in the head by passing soldiers. As they move into My Lai the men shoot many fleeing Vietnamese and bayonet others. They throw hand grenades into houses and bunkers and destroy livestock and crops. Sergeant Willie ‘Big’ Fitzgerald, his nickname given his 6’7 tall frame, leads the first squad…”
Hugh thought he was going to throw up.
He mentally closed the window to the information and logged out before quickly getting up. His forehead broke out in a sweat as shivers ran throughout his body. He felt like he was hyperventilating.
Sergeant Willie Fitzgerald…
He felt like he could barely walk. Hugh stood still for a few seconds looking around the library at his classmates who were busy working on algebra and English. They weren’t reading about how their grandfather probably held a rifle to the head of a baby before blowing its brains out.
“Hugh?” David asked looking up from the screen. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Hugh responded before turning to leave.
Hugh remained in a daze for the rest of the day, barely able to focus on much of anything at all. When the final bell rang, Hugh went back to the library, pulled up the PBS website he’d been reading, and printed out a single picture. He took the picture, placed it in a folder, put it in his book bag, and walked home.
Mom wasn’t home from work yet, but Big was in the den reading the paper.
“Hugh! How was school?” Big called out.
Hugh didn’t answer him and he placed his book bag down on the kitchen table and took out the folder.
“Hugh?” Big called out again.
He slowly walked into the den where Big sat in his favorite leather chair.
“You okay? What’s the matter?”
Hugh opened the folder and pulled out the photo of Big and the other two soldiers that David had texted him earlier.
With tears welling up in his eyes, Hugh held up the picture for a few seconds before letting it fall to the floor. Big’s face turned to stone. Hugh fought back tears.
“Big? That’s not you, right?”
Tears were now forming in Big’s eyes and he stared at his grandson quietly.
“Answer me, please. Tell me that the Sergeant David Fitzgerald who led a group of men into My Lai and killed innocent people isn’t you! Tell me it’s not you!”
“Hugh,” Big said sobbing. “I can’t—”
“Big, just tell me it’s not you”—his voice began to crack—“and it’ll be the end of it. Just tell me it’s not you.”
Big looked down, tears dripping onto the newspaper.
Hugh pulled his phone out and pulled up the photo David had sent him the night before as he stepped closer to Big.
“Tell me that’s not you, Big! Tell me it’s some other tall guy who smiles like you that was there. Please! Just say it’s not you!”
Big’s voice cracked as he spoke.
“I can’t tell you what you want to hear. But plea—”
Hugh stormed out of the den and ran upstairs.
“You should be in hell for what you did!” Hugh screamed at Big as he ran up the staircase to his room where he slammed the door shut. He could barely see anything through the tears that wouldn’t stop as he paced back and forth in his room trying to catch his breath before he threw himself down on his bed and pulled his pillow over his head. After a while, he fell asleep.
Hugh woke up in a ditch outside. The air was humid and the smell of something rotting filled his nostrils. He tried to sit up, but he felt a searing pain in his waist. He looked down and lifted his shirt to find blood flowing out of a bullet wound.
“Hey Sarge! There’s still one alive!” he heard someone yell in a southern accent. He looked around and saw a soldier in green fatigues walk toward him. His helmet was covering his eyes and he was chewing something. When he reached the edge of the ditch, he pulled his helmet up to reveal his eyes.
It was Big, but he looked much younger.
“Big! It’s Hugh!”
“Shut up with that fuckin’ gook talk!” he said before lifting his rifle and taking aim at Hugh.
“Big! No!” he screamed.
Hugh snapped awake so hard he almost fell out of bed. It wasn’t a gunshot, but rather the sound of the garbage man banging one of the metal trashcans against the back of the truck that had woke him up. He was still wearing the clothes he’d worn the day before. Looking at his watch he saw he still had a few hours before school, but he couldn’t fall back asleep.
He went downstairs where he saw Big sitting at the kitchen table with his morning tea sitting in front of him. He wanted to go back upstairs but Big caught sight of him.
“Hugh. Please sit down,” Big said softly.
Hugh hesitated at first but then walked over to the table and sat down a few chairs away from Big.
“Hugh, I can’t expect you to understand what happened at My Lai. Hell, I don’t even know if I understand it myself.”
Hugh looked down at his hands resting on the table.
“So many of my friends had been killed by that point, that I—we—were all angry. We wanted blood. We wanted to get revenge.”
“So you killed babies,” Hugh said as more of a statement than a question.
“Our commander, Lieutenant Callaway, he was this real asshole who was always getting picked on by everyone, they called him ‘Sweetheart’ because he was such a terrible leader. He was the one who told us to open fire on those people because he wanted to prove how tough he was. Though rumor was the orders came from officers hovering above us in choppers. He started shooting, and his—me—we did what he ordered. We weren’t trained to think, Hugh, we were trained to follow orders. We were told they were Viet Cong, that they were aiding the enemy, so we needed to kill them all if we didn’t want them coming back to bite us in the ass again. We shot and killed. After a while, it became like a game to us. How many could we shoot in a certain time.”
Hugh listened to Big but didn’t say anything else. They sat there in silence for a long time after Big stopped talking. Beams of sunlight began to shoot through the windows as the sprinklers outside kicked on. Hugh looked down at the table.
“You didn’t see them as people?”
“Not at first. I saw them as what Callaway described them: the enemy. At one point we were chasing this group of old men, women, and children across this field near the village, taking pop shots at them with our M-16s. We’d laugh anytime they screamed. Then—”
Hugh looked out the window towards the morning sky.
“I didn’t hear the chopper at first. Before I knew it this helicopter landed right in between us and the villagers who were running away. The pilot got out and approached Callaway. They got to screaming at each other. That’s when I noticed the chopper’s gunner had his machine gun aimed at us. It was hard to hear what the pilot and Callaway were screaming about with the chopper blades still spinning but they both looked angry. Then Callaway told us to stand down while the pilot ran after the villagers. When I saw the pilot bring all those villagers back to the chopper and put them in and fly away is when I realized what we’d been doing was a sin, a travesty.”
Big broke down sobbing. Hugh fought back tears himself.
“And you were right about Hell, Hugh.”
Hugh looked at Big.
“I am in Hell.”
“What do you mean?” Hugh asked.
“Years went by after I got back, and during that time I didn’t think much about what I’d done over there. Then that day when the state troopers came to my door and told me a drunk driver had killed your father was when it hit me. And when I went down to the morgue to identify his body…”
Big looked out the window at the sunlight again.
“…was when I realized I’d be in Hell for the rest of my life. I killed people that day in My Lai, Hugh. Women, children, babies. People who would never get to enjoy another day on Earth ever again. People who pleaded with me in Vietnamese not to kill them as their children looked at me in curiosity.”
Big wiped his face.
“And when I saw your father’s body was when I realized that God was punishing me for what I did that day. I took those people’s lives, and as my penance, God took my only child, my son, away from me.”
Hugh sat still.
“That’s when I took your mother in to live here. She was eight months pregnant with you, and I was scared that the stress of your father’s death would make her miscarry. I sat with her every day until you came into the world a month later. You came out of your mother, and when I got to hold you, you smiled at me. Your mother even insisted that I name you for taking you in. God took my son for what I did but gave me a responsibility.”
Big looked up at Hugh.
“It was to take care of you and your mother. And all I’ve ever done since you’ve lived here was do the best I could.”
Big looked back down at his tea while Hugh sat there looking down too. They both sat there for a long time in the silence of the morning before Big spoke again.
“You’d better get ready for school, Hugh.”
Hugh got up and walked toward the stairs without saying anything. He paused at the bottom of the stairs and turned back around. Big sat at the table sipping his tea looking out the window. Hugh wanted to go back into the kitchen, sit down, and talk to the man who’d raised him since birth, but for the first time in his life he didn’t have any words for his grandfather. He went upstairs, showered, got ready for school, and went back downstairs to leave. He didn’t say anything as he walked out the door in the kitchen where Big still sat looking out the window.
Later that day at school, Hugh sat down at a computer in the library to work on the Vietnam War project again. Part of him wanted to go to his teacher and ask if he could get an extension, or present on something else, but he knew it wouldn’t change the truth he’d learned about his grandfather. As he Googled for more information, Hugh came across a YouTube video called Four Hours in My Lai. Hugh pulled out his headphones and plugged them into the computer to listen and watch.
The documentary focused on an interview with a man named Varnado Simpson, another soldier who had also killed at My Lai.
“My mind just went…and I just started killing. Old men, women, children, water buffaloes, everything… I just killed… That day in My Lai, I was personally responsible for killing about 25 people. Personally. Men, women.”
This isn’t real, Hugh thought.
Hugh thought about where Simpson was today, and whether he still felt what he thought was remorse for what he had done. Hugh found a Wikipedia page about him. Toward the bottom he saw a subheading entitled “Suicide.” It read, “After three unsuccessful attempts, Simpson took his own life in his home on Sunday, May 4, 1997, at the age of 48, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.” Right above the subheading, the following caught Hugh’s attention, “For years, Simpson had lived with all his doors and windows locked and shuttered.”
Hugh sat back in his chair and looked down. He thought about Big, thought about what he’d said to him that morning about having a responsibility to take care of him after his father had died. He thought about the Paxil prescriptions he’d picked up for Big for years, never thinking twice about what they were for, until now.
Hugh spent the rest of the day completely revising the project. After David took a quick glance at it and added a few more details, it was ready for presentation.
On the day the presentation was due, Hugh and David spent about fifteen minutes in class describing the My Lai Massacre in detail, giving their classmates the facts about the event. What year it took place, who was involved, how Lieutenant Callaway was the only solider charged for murder, and how President Nixon commuted his life sentence to house arrest, which he only served three years of before going free.
“But that doesn’t mean they weren’t punished,” Hugh told the class. “While the Army charged only one soldier—who was convicted but only served a few years in jail—many of them have had to live with the guilt of what they did that day.”
David looked at Hugh, who continued to talk.
“Men like Varnado Simpson spent the rest of their lives in agony over what they did in My Lai. Simpson killed over 25 people that day. It was as if something’d snapped inside him and he went into kill mode. He did what the Army had trained him to do.”
Some of his classmates rolled their eyes, while others looked disgusted.
“Simpson killed innocent people, and then spent the rest of his life wondering why he’d been ordered to do so. It got so bad for him he was eventually diagnosed with chronic and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He killed himself in 1997 because he couldn’t stand the guilt anymore.”
Some of the students in class who hadn’t been paying attention suddenly looked up at Hugh as he continued.
“Veterans like Simpson have had to live with what they did that day. They suffer from post-traumatic stress day in and day out. They take meds like Zoloft…and Paxil to deal with the anguish.
“People like Simpson never escaped the guilt of what they did that day. They were guilty of what they’d done but they spent a lifetime paying for it. That’s what I meant when I said many of them have had to live with the guilt of what they did that day.”
The class was quiet for a while before the teacher asked, “Hugh, I’d have forgotten if it wasn’t for your own name, but did you learn about the three American soldiers in a helicopter who saved some villagers from getting killed?”
Hugh had meant to look that up, but David already had and chimed in.
“An army chopper pilot saw what was happening and he landed his chopper in between fleeing villagers and pursuing soldiers. He got out and told the soldiers that if they hurt the villagers he and his two crewmen would open fire on them. He and his crew saved the lives of a dozen villagers that day. He got them to come with him, got them on his chopper, and flew them to safety.”
“What’s Hugh’s name got to do with anything?” a student asked.
“The chopper pilot’s name was Hugh Thompson Jr.,” the teacher said. “His two crewmen were Lawrence Colburn, and Glenn Andreotta.”
Hugh recognized the names and stood there astonished. He could barely speak.
Some of Hugh’s classmates’ eyes welled up, while others continued to look angry and disgusted.
“David, Hugh, thank you for that,” their teacher said. “You can have a seat.”
“That was good, Hugh,” David said as they sat down.
Hugh nodded and wiped his face.
Later that day when Hugh got home from school, he found Big in the den watching TV. He went in and sat down on the couch while he and Big watched the end of The Price is Right in silence. They didn’t say anything to each other for a long time.
“You promised to come with me and Mom to shop for college stuff this weekend.”
Big smiled gently. “I did promise, and I will.”
Hugh and Big settled into their chairs as they watched plinko on The Price is Right.
“Hugh Lawrence Glenn?” Hugh asked out loud without taking his eyes off the TV.
Big didn’t take his eyes off the TV either.
“I needed to remind myself that there’s good people in the world. I wanted that idea to live on in you.”
Hugh and Big sat there watching TV for a little while longer without speaking.
“No David?” Big asked quietly, not taking his eyes off the TV.
“He’ll be coming over later.”
“He staying for dinner again?”
“What?” Hugh asked. “Nothing about me being his dessert after dinner or anything?”
Big looked over at Hugh and smiled.
“Not tonight. I just want to enjoy a night with my family,” Big said.
Hugh looked over at Big. “Our family.”
Zach Sanzone has been a writer his whole life. In addition to writing baseball articles and book reviews, Sanzone has published academic articles in the fields of history, literature, and law. Sanzone lives in Boston, MA and teaches middle school history and literature. In his spare time he enjoys reading, writing, and collecting baseball cards and vintage war medals.
Featured Image: “Cedar Falls” by Min Guen (via Artstation)