"Why, Jason?" The question snapped him out of his brief daydream and brought him back to the harsh reality of the small office. He immediately avoided eye contact with the aging physician sitting across from him in the scantily furnished room.
Wait a minute. What? "I'm sorry, I was thinking of something else. I missed your question."
"Why would the mere thought of throwing up make you so afraid?" The question sounded innocent enough, but there was marshy ground here. He knew he would have to be careful how he answered. It could lead to other things.
"Oh, I guess it has something to do with other people watching. I really don't like other people to see me when I'm not at peak performance."
"Do you think that accounts for the intensity of the fears you feel?" Subtle leading question. That's what I like about these guys. But, God, I hate re-hashing this old shit.
"Yah, I guess so." Shit, here it comes. Call in the riot squad.
"Don't you think everybody has their moments of weakness? Don't you think everybody at some time does something they feel a little embarrassed about?"
"Well, yah, I'm sure they do. But that's their problem. I've just got to worry about me, and for me, that's not O.K. A lot of time and money went into training me to never make mistakes....to be stoic and not get rattled when weird things happen. I don't know, I just feel like I'm blowing it. Like I'm letting a lot of people down if I can't hack simple things like flying on airplanes." Like having to admit I failed the course. And that would mean letting down my Team.....putting them in danger. And letting down my instructors, and my family, and my country. Ah, shit, I've got to get away from this one.
"A fear of failure, then? A fear of revealing that you have weaknesses, just like everybody else?" God, he loves to summarize the obvious! This rotating doctor game is shit. Where the hell is Bondurant?
This latest round of therapy sessions was making Jason uneasy, especially when he was put on the spot about things he really wasn't supposed to talk about. And he didn't always get to talk to his favorite doctor, the guy that rescued him from the bottom of a pit called panic disorder. That was Dr. Bondurant. He had agreed to meet with some strangers from out of town for a series of therapy sessions and, after just a few meetings, had concluded that maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Besides, he had gone through most of this stuff with Bondurant already. Years ago. Thank God, this is the last of the five I signed up for!
"Look, this has been going on for a long time. I got sick on planes when I was a little kid. Like in grade school. I remember my Dad taking me and my brother to Kansas City to see a baseball game when I was about 8 or 10 years old. I got sick. Threw up all over the seat and over the top of the next seat into some business man's briefcase. It was pretty embarrassing. And it almost got my Dad into a big fight." I think he bought Frank and me chocolate milk shakes right before we took off just to see what would happen. Frank didn't get sick.*
"There was another time on a small plane where I threw up all over the control panel and the pilot got really mad at my Dad. I guess he was a friend who was just taking us for a ride." I remember he dive bombed the Platte River trying to see if we could spot any big fish. He and Dad were pretending they were in a Jap Zero. I really fucked up his instrument panel pretty good.
"Maybe somehow I'm repressing those memories or something." So what if I've got a hang-up about flying? It just isn't safe, that's all. But I doubt he would ever understand that.
Jason Orr had given up another perfectly good afternoon to be a guinea pig at the Denver VA Hospital's new program for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients. The Denver PTSD clinic had brought in a team of doctors from one of the main VA Centers back east for a series of intensive one-on-one workshops. They wanted to see if they could break down a few of the walls which still surrounded their more evasive cases - like Jason. His feelings about it were ambiguous.
On the one hand, he felt a bit honored to be chosen for this test therapy. What they came up with could help others like him. He supported that. On the other hand, he had been feeling more despondent and less responsive lately, and just right now was not a good time for him. In a way, all these types of sessions bordered on a consent for harassment and invasion of privacy. Besides, he had already decided how he would handle his own problems.
"There's an interesting pattern here, Jason. I wonder if you would help me flesh out more of the details. You've been talking about expectations on your behavior from your military experience, from more than 20 years ago, mixed in with memories from your childhood. Now, let's look at a few of the things you've brought up. You say you feel........"
"Look, I really think you're making something out of this that just isn't there. I think the whole thing is based in a feeling of being enclosed when I'm in a crowded space, like an airplane. As soon as I hear the door close, and feel the pressure change, then I start to panic. When we switch from shore power to on-board power, it's a sign that we're really isolated......cut off from the rest of the world. Like from that point on, there's no turning back. It would be embarrassing and a big hassle to everybody else if I freaked out then, or any time later, because the plane would lose time, get off schedule, if they had to stop and deal with just one passenger who was freaking out."
"Alright, let's look at these feelings of 'freaking out' and 'isolation' you brought up. I'd like you to think about those feelings for just a minute. I'd like you to try to identify exactly where those feelings come from. Let's look at some possibilities here."
As the doctor's monotonous voice drones on, Jason is distracted by memories knocking at his back door. There always seems to be something or other knocking at that door lately, and opening it just isn't the most prudent thing to do.
A murmuring chorus of OOOHs and AAHHHs rippled through the park as the Fourth of July aerial display got underway. The evening was warm, the sky was clear, just barely still light enough to see. The show was starting a little early this year.
The wind had taken the entire day off. Even the wind respects a day so carefree and traditional as this. This is heartland Nebraska, where nothing is more important than that swelling of pride as the flags wave on Independence Day. And no part of the day could ever be more memorable than the fireworks display following the community picnic at City Park. The park is really nothing more than the natural open land not yet claimed by the sprawling growth of civilization. It lay on the edge of town covering more than a square mile, bounded on the south by the Platte River. A river that knows how to spend its days being smooth and calm. A river that sets the pace for a warm and lazy summer day like this one.
Jason and his younger brother Frank lay back against the slight rise of a knoll, staring up at the breath-taking spectacle that marked the beginning of a well orchestrated fireworks show. "Wow. That one was a real beauty." Loud distant reports follow one another in rapid succession as the trailing fragments twirl and twist out from the main explosion of green and red. Then each tail abruptly ends its existence as a sudden shower of silver and gold sparkles, raining down over the distant river. "Goll! I really like those kind," exclaimed Frank.
"Yah," replied Jason, "Those are just about the neatest."
For an eternity of sensory bliss, the two boys let the spectacle of color and sound become their exclusive focus. The invigorating smell of cordite wafted through the air as one after another the fireworks lit up the evening sky with their splendor and violent beauty. Jason blocked everything else out of his vision as he framed in the center of the sky like a television screen, and let it fill with the brilliant explosions. Goll-leee! This is sure neat. This is the best 4th of July ever! Jason let the patterns of light carry him away, pulling him up into their flashing and twirling world.
"Hey, Jas! Want another piece of chicken?" It was Frank, calling to him from the grill where a few pieces of barbecued chicken remained, the last vestiges of the traditional banquet his family had shared with a group of neighbors.
"Yah. Throw me a drumstick, if there is one."
"Here. Catch." The small piece of chicken that Frank tossed came into view, turning in slow motion as it sailed through the air, the bursts and explosions of colorful fireworks now a surreal background. WOW. That's neat. That drumstick is just floating through the sky, weaving in and out of the reds and blues and greens and golds. Wow, here comes a wing. Goll, and another drumstick.
Damn. This is making me dizzy. Another piece of chicken sailed into view, but this one burnt to a crisp. A blackened wing moved across the screen, twisting and turning. Burnt and charred. Then a chicken head, trailing smoke from its scorched neck. Now a leg, still aflame, trailing its small fiery flicker barely visible against the bright lights of the display.
God! A leg. A human leg. And an arm! A whole burning body. Pieces of bodies!! Bodies falling from the sky out of the fireworks. Oh, God! No! No, Frank, stop! FRANK!! STOP!! The sky filled with the wonders of the fireworks show, and rained down burnt and charred body parts. With every new explosion, new pieces of meat and torn clothing littered the sky and fell to the ground. God! They're falling!! Stop! Somebody CATCH them. Oh, shit, CATCH them!
Jason's vision blurred into focus like he was rolling his thumb along the range finder on a pair of binoculars. In and out of focus until finally he fixed on the spectacular fireball in the sky that had blown him backwards against the corrugated steel Quonset. His head felt split from his forehead all the way across the top to the base of his neck. All around him, debris was dropping out of the sky. But through all the confusion and clutter, his attention seemed to follow each body part as it fell, twisting and tumbling, out of the burning wreckage. Everything moved in slow motion.
He had watched the giant Huey lift off with its fifteen or so passengers, mostly new arrivals to the Marine Air Base just outside Da Nang. He had come in on a smaller chopper a few minutes before and had just turned away from the blowing dirt of his own carrier in time to see the big, green monster of technology lift off.
He was on the ground less than 30 seconds before the mortar and rocket attack began. He had watched as the Huey lifted up and tilted forward, attempting to leave the sound of explosions and the splattering of dirt and shrapnel behind. The awesome green flying machine slowly inched toward him just above the perimeter fence, straining to rise upward. He had watched the silhouettes of the soldiers in the doorways, some just hanging on, some manning the .50-calibers hanging from their straps in the center of the openings. He had watched as the smoke trails of B-40 rockets had tried to catch it, all of them streaming past the huge mechanical insect. He had started to holler "Move! Get out of the way! Go faster. Get away!" and was pushing with all of his thought to help it speed skyward when one of the smoke trails slammed into the starboard panel of the aft compartment. He saw the huge fuselage blow apart, sending men and metal and fireballs in all directions. It slowly turned in a mid-air roll and began its fall to the hard-packed dirt.
Now he watched as the debris rained down. Metal and meat all twisted together, burning. Dropping to the ground in dull plops like smoking pieces of plastic toys....like barbecued chicken. Smoldering pieces of uniformed bodies landed in front of him, speckling the ground with lumps of pink and green and black and red. The air was suddenly heavy with the smell of diesel and aircraft fuel.
As the craft hit the ground less than 40 yards away, a second concussion pushed him back against the metal building and he lost consciousness, taking with him the vision of burning bodies falling from the sky. Falling from a metal contraption too big to move fast. Too full of people to get out of the way. The dull, aching throb that pressed against the inside of his skull pulsated like a gaudy, red neon sign on the back of his eyelids flashing WELCOME TO VIET NAM!
Huh! Oh, shit. Here I am, not paying attention again. "I'm sorry. My ears aren't so good anymore, Doc. I missed some of what you just said."
"You seem to have a lot of other thoughts on your mind today, Jason. I'd appreciate it if you would stay with me here and join in our discussion."
"Yes, I'm sorry. What was it you last said?"
"I was asking if you can remember anything else about flying that would shed some light on why it makes you feel such intense anxiety?"
"No. No, not really. I don't recall anything else in particular."
To be continued...
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