At the crack of baseball against bat, Billy Simmons was already in motion,
Running full speed across the left infield as he gracefully bent at the waist
Lowered his glove, scooped the bouncing baseball,
Then, pirouetting in mid-air, he hurled the ball to first base
Where the first baseman tagged out the base runner.
Billy pumped his fist and ran toward the bleachers
As he waved at his parents and kissed his girlfriend,
Staring deep into the eyes of the woman he would marry,
When he returned from a four year tour in the Marines.
Life was good, thought Billy, as he gazed at small town America,
Enjoying a baseball game under summer lights
And all was right with his world.
Years later, when I met Billy, he huddled in the corner of a psychiatric ward,
In a fetal position, hugging himself, looking like a rumpled blue ball.
Billy was my first case on the ward, assigned by a psychiatrist
Whose basic instructions were, “Have him stand, walk and talk,
He’s being this way for two months now, we’re running out of time.”
Simple task, thought I, in my dazzling dance
With ignorance and arrogance.
Four weeks later, Billy sat on a chair,
Two weeks later, he looked at me
With a blankness that scared me.
Two weeks later, he stood and walked
The length of the ward.
For hours on end, I spoke with him,
Of my life, my experiences, my hopes, my fears,
No response until one day when I confessed
That I sucked at baseball.
A smile appeared and he looked at me,
Billy Simmons, locked in his private hell,
Looked me in the eye and said,
“I’m a pretty good pitcher.”
Erupting from my chair, I grabbed him,
Stood him up and hugged him
As I cried and sobbed, “Welcome back, Billy.”
He smiled shyly, moving gingerly side to side,
As he looked at the ward that had been his home
For four months now.
“Can I walk outside?” he asked meekly.
I raced to Dr. Smith’s office and reported the event.
He smiled and said, “Whatever he asks for,
You get it, on my orders.”
Then, with a serious demeanor,
He leaned toward me and whispered,
“One more week or he goes into permanent loony bin stateside..
That piece of info is between you and me.”
I walked back to Billy and escorted him to the ward doors,
Watching his face as the orderly placed his key
In the padlock coupling the thick chain links.
We walked down the stairs, four flights down,
I held his elbow, as his legs carefully lowered him
Step by step to the first floor.
Outside, the sun shone on the bright green grass
In front of the 130th General Hospital in Nuremburg, Germany.
Billy began to scamper, skipping on the grass, taking leaps in air,
Pirouetting as he threw imaginary balls.
He stopped and meekly walked over.
“Billy, we have to talk.
You need to come all the way back.
The army has crazy rules and you’re in them.
We’ve got one week, Billy, to kill your demons
Drown your fears and glue on your wings.
Billy, if you want to see your parents and girlfriend again,
You need to go to hell again.
Then, come back.”
Billy closed his eyes and began to vibrate,
His whole body trembling
Increasing in intensity
Until he collapsed and lay there
Arms out, legs together
A damaged child entering his apocalypse.
His story would be recounted to me many times over
During my tour in a psychiatric ward,
Young men, idealistic and naïve
In the ways of war and trauma.
In Quang Tri province, Billy was a tank gunner on patrol
With two platoons, the tank hit a landmine, lost a tread,
The explosion pointed the tank skyward.
Incoming mortar fire, NVA and Viet Cong
In waves of firing screaming assault.
Billy’s machine gun aimed uselessly at the sky,
While he watched platoon members fall
Like rag dolls in blood red clouds,
Viet Cong fired into the tank’s view ports,
Bullets ricocheting off metal in metered pings
Until a solid thunk was followed by a groan,
And his tank crew died beneath him.
He jumped off the tank, ran into the jungle,
Now quiet and serene, unlike the carnage
Of an eternity ago.
Billy sat, then bolted upright and began to sprint
As air cover jets swooped down like avenging angels
Dropping their bomb loads
Of explosives and napalm
Into the surrounding jungle infiltrated by attackers.
Billy’s world erupted in flames,
A bright burning orange hell, ear-splitting chaos,
His apocalypse began, the journey into hell.
Postscript: Billy Simmons kept making progress every day. On Major Smith’s orders, I was given the honor to escort Sergeant Billy Simmons to Frankfurt, Germany where he boarded a flight stateside to a rehabilitation hospital near his home. Months later, I received a letter with a photo of Billy and his wife Abby and a note – “Semper Fi.”.