Thailand! ประเทศไทย, Prathet Thai. Land of the Free. The only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized in the great colonial expansion of the European powers—although France tried mightily, and left its mark on the place.
And Thailand left its mark on me. A lovely, happy people, elaborately courteous. A melodic language, in which every syllable has a tone—high, middle, low, rising, or falling—as well as vowels and consonants. A king who is reverenced, and his image piously displayed in every home and every place of business. It did not take me long to fall in love with the place, so much so that after my return to the States, for several years, every time I saw an airliner taking off, I felt homesick and wished I were on a plane taking off for Thailand.
I spent a year in Thailand in my assignment to the headquarters of the Ninth Logistics Command, U.S. Army Support Thailand, based in Nakhon Ratchasima and having responsibility for maintenance of army motor vehicles and radio equipment in the country. Upon arrival in Thailand I moved into the headquarters company barracks. A few weeks later, when my wife arrived, we took up residence in town and I commuted to work each day by bus.
It was during those first weeks, living in the barracks, that I got to know Staff Sergeant Billie Carrol Elkins, U.S. Army Special Forces.
* * *
Most soldiers do not actually fight. It is commonly said that for every soldier who sees combat there are at least ten who do not, being in various supportive roles for those who do the actual fighting.
As for those who do fight—to say the least, it is a work that cannot be sustained day by day for months on end. Men who fight must have breaks to rest and recuperate.
The Special Forces, often called “Green Berets”, are no exception. They are an elite and legendary organization. But they still need their rest, and sometimes a long period of rest. For this reason arrangements are made to assign them for a time to non-combat units, far from combat zones.
Such was the case with Sergeant Elkins. He was assigned to my data processing shop, where we used a Univac 1005 and an IBM 407 to track maintenance on the equipment we were responsible for.
I do not know what Billie's official duty was. He did not spend a lot of time in the shop. When he was there he piddled around. I remember that one day he dressed down the lieutenant in charge. His emotions did not show—no anger or agitation, just smooth confidence, doing what he thought needed doing. He made it easy for the lieutenant to come around to where Billie wanted him.
At night I and several other boys would hang out in Billie's room in the barracks. Most of us were in our early twenties and new to the Army. Billie was thirty-four and was a seasoned fighter.
But it is not any combat story that I remember now. The only story I recall is about one of Billie's rest periods. He and some buddies went to a resort area and rented some motorcycles to ride on the beach. The vendor reminded them that they were due back in so many hours. Billie looked at him with a neutral face and said calmly, “I'll be back when I get strawberries all over me. Not before.”
Strawberries. Deep abrasions. A smooth, level, seemingly emotionless man who apparently regarded accepting personal, physical injury not only as a normal part of work, but also as a normal, even needed, part of play.
* * *
There he was, standing just outside the supermarket, tall but somewhat stooped, thin as a rail, wearing sunglasses. He held a cane, and he trembled. I was getting out of my car on the far side of the lot. We recognized each other instantly. Recognized? It was more like a flash of light that flew between us.s
Billie had told me in Thailand that if he lived long enough to retire, he would retire to El Paso. When I found myself living in Lordsburg, not far away, I looked for Billie's name in the El Paso telephone directory. It was there. I called. Was this the Billie I had known? It was, and he said Come on over, meet me at Albertson's at Mesa and Resler.
Why did my eyes fill with tears? I had not really known this man. Had not seen him for over thirty years. But I loved him, and my love deepened as he later filled me in. There was not much to say. After Thailand he had gone back into combat. Got his guts blown up. Spent two weeks unconscious, doctor waiting for him to die, lived anyway and woke up. Given a medical discharge. Moved to El Paso, like he said he would. Suffered constant malnutrition because he did not have enough digestive machinery left to support him.
And he raised his cane up high and waved at me with it, and started towards me as fast as he could hobble. And in his eyes, and even in the motion of his cane from afar, I saw love.
Billie loved me. He never showed it before, he never showed it after. Just this one time he opened his emotions, and he loved me.
We had day visits, and at least one overnight visit. His house was like him, emotionally flat. He never attempted to feed me there; we always went to Denny's or the Village Inn. I did not even see how he managed to feed himself at home. There were cases of canned goods stacked in the kitchen, but no place to sit down in there.
Billie did remember that I liked beer, so he had laid in a six pack for my first visit. I felt just terrible turning it down. I told him my body no longer tolerated alcohol. I did eventually drink one beer, and even that backfired. It made me tipsy, as a single beer will often do. When Billie asked me to drive us to supper, I told him I could not. So he drove. He later told me he was not allowed to drive after dark. But he did so this time, without a complaint.
* * *
We shared a lot of stories. Billie had done a lot of things after his discharge, notwithstanding his condition. His activities had run from flying crop dusters to smuggling truckloads of chile across the Rio Grande.
At this remove, I remember the content of just one story. It was short and simple. Billie and his brother were out after midnight. They pulled up in front of a 24-hour convenience store. They realized that they had stumbled upon a robbery in progress. There were two armed men in the store and a third in a car outside waiting for them.
Billie and his brother did not speak. They just looked at each other, nodded, and grasped the pistols that lay on the seat between them. They stepped out of their car and opened fire. The two thugs in the store died instantly. The getaway driver got away, and managed to get a block away before the bullet in his brain did its work, crashing him into a tree. Billie went into the store and called the police. He and his brother were taken downtown, questioned, thanked, given their pistols, and bade good night. Billie slept that night like any other, peacefully, without emotion.
It was this story that led me to understand that if it had somehow become Billie's duty to shoot me, he could have done it, with no emotion then or later. He loved me. He showed it in material ways, besides that one time at the store. But that would not have kept him from his duty if that duty had been to execute me, or you. And this knowledge did not disturb me in the least. Billie was Billie, and I loved him as he was.
* * *
There came a day that I called Billie and he did not answer, nor did he answer on subsequent days.
With a little research on the internet I found the telephone number of a neighbor. When I called, he said Billie was not there anymore. No, he did not know where he went.
At this point I made a general search for “Billie Elkins”. I found him. He had died on 03 March 2006. He was buried in the post cemetery at Ft Bliss.
In death as in life he remained a soldier. Staff Sergeant Billie Carrol Elkins. U.S. Army Special Forces.
Copyright © 2011 Joseph Mansfield. All rights
2011.07.09 First draft