Role Playing

by Nancy Wood

In 1967, when I was a senior in high school, I was cast in a school play. We had just moved to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, right next door to the Vietnam War. My father, an Air Force pilot and weatherman, was the commander in charge of briefing bomber pilots on weather conditions.

I wouldn’t have thought that high school in the Philippines had anything in common with high school in Georgia, but there was an odd similarity. In Georgia, I was in the junior class play—Our Town, by Thornton Wilder—and played Mrs. Gibbs, the mother. I suppose it was a combination of my height, large bosom, and serious manner (and perhaps the homemade clothes I wore) that had the casting teacher think “matron.” I wasn’t thrilled by that perception, nor could I argue with it. Especially since the following year, on the other side of the world with a completely different drama teacher, I was cast in The Skin of Our Teeth, also by Thornton Wilder, to play Mrs. Antrobus—the mother.

It’s supposed to be traumatic for a teenager to move just before senior year, what with loss of friends and all that, but I didn’t have much in the way of friends. This was partly my shyness (though perhaps “socially stunted” is more accurate), and partly the tendency of local kids to stick with friends they had known since kindergarten. Transient Air Force kids like me were likely to be ignored, at best. At least I’m not a boy, so I was not provoked into fistfights to prove my strength and worth. But I did learn the distinct survival advantage of cultivating invisibility. My strategy included coasting down hallways with my eyes firmly fixed on the floor, speaking to no one.

But at Clark, as I stewed in the tropical summer heat waiting for school to start, it slowly dawned on me that all the kids in the new school would be Air Force “brats” like me—we were all starting over, and our dads were limited to two-year assignments. There would be no long-established liaisons, no kings and queens of the playground. My persona in Georgia was one of the nerdy, repressed girl who rarely spoke and didn’t date. No one at Clark would know that. This would be a clean slate and a chance to start over.

It was easier to talk with girls. My plan was to make a point of approaching someone between classes (likely target venue: the girls’ bathroom) and say something complimentary. It would help if I could learn names ahead of time. “Oh, Sunny, those are really cute earrings.” This method worked well. The hallways between classrooms were outdoors, with an overhead roof for protection in monsoon season. I walked along them with my eyes up, connecting with girls I’d spoken to once or twice. I gradually started to thaw out, socially.

Being in the play opened further opportunities. There was a shortage of boys trying out for the play and we had no one for the part of Henry, Mrs. Antrobus’s son. Our drama teacher suggested we ask around and talk someone into giving it a shot. Now I had the perfect excuse to walk up to some of the boys and talk about the play. Since the Henry role is one of “bad boy,” I worked up my courage to speak with Dino, a tough guy who slouched at his desk with a James Dean scowl and was known to sneak out behind the gym for a smoke. He’d been in a couple of fights with local Filipino boys whose parents had enough cachet for their kids to attend our American-run school.

I was surprised to learn in English class that Dino wrote poetry, and I used that as an opening to talk to him. The “start with a compliment” approach was working well, plus I was sincerely impressed with his poetry, so I began there. He turned down the opportunity to be in the play, but continued to talk with me, and even later to flirt with me. Me, flirt! Imagine that; another role to learn—one of being someone’s girlfriend. Where was the script for that?

The next fellow I asked was Scott, a shy and gentle boy a couple of inches shorter than me. He was so flattered to be asked that he tried out for the Henry part and got it. Like me, he was ready to come out of his shell. He became a steady friend and another first: a boy I could talk with as freely as any girl.

As the school year ended and I became a graduate, there was yet another role to play before leaving for college. My friend Mary talked me into volunteering at the hospital as a candy striper, pushing a book cart through wards of Vietnam War casualties. One day, as Mary and I parted company for separate wards, I took a deep breath, braced myself, and resolutely pushed my cart into a large open room with about twenty men lying in beds. Padding in on silent rubber-soled sneakers, feeling stiff and unnatural in my pink-and-white seersucker uniform, I forced myself to call out in a voice I hoped was cheerful, “Book cart! Would anyone like a book?”

As usual, I was met with silence, excluding the suppressed moans of pain. Not even the aggressive smell of alcohol and antiseptic could disguise odors of dried blood and agonized sweat. One or two wounded men briefly glanced in my direction, then turned away. Most were not much older than I was, but they appeared battered and ancient. I tried not to look at the bandaged mounds where arms or legs were supposed to be, where—oh my god, that man doesn’t have a jaw! I looked away and pushed on. Whatever else these men might want, they did not want a book.

Standing in the hallway, I waited for an elevator to the next ward, waited for my racing heart to slow down, taking deep breaths. The elevator door opened, but was filled with a gurney and two orderlies. One of them quickly reached forward to push the “close door” button, but he couldn’t prevent me from seeing what was on the gurney. Only a glimpse, a few seconds—but more than enough. I couldn’t even tell it was a person—that charred, black mass—but why would they put burned trash on a gurney? It had to be a man. If he was dead, they would have covered him with a sheet, wouldn’t they? I stood in shock for a moment until I heard a ding signal the arrival of another elevator. Empty, thank goodness. Time to do what everyone else did in that horrible place—pretend that I didn’t see.

The next ward was a little easier. Most men there were farther along in their healing process, but still looked awful—worn out, hollow-eyed, bruised, and undone. Some asked for a book, but didn’t look directly at me, as if they were ashamed to be seen like that.

At the far end of the ward was a young man I’d seen before in my rounds. Sitting up in bed, he immediately greeted me by name. I wasn’t close enough yet for him to read my nametag, so I knew he had remembered me from last time. He asked how I was doing and asked me to pick out a book for him. I could tell that he didn’t care much about the books, he was just happy for company. He laughed a lot, like I was the most charming person in the world, even though everything I said felt stiff and awkward to me. He didn’t come off like he was flirting—that much I had learned from tough-boy Dino—he just wanted to talk.

In previous visits, he always kept me so engaged in conversation that I hadn’t noticed what his injury was. Only later, after walking away, would I wonder. But that day, instead of keeping my head down, the way I did in Georgia, I looked at him sitting there in his blue-striped pajama shirt, propped up in a sea of white sheets and pillows. I watched the way he threw his head back and laughed, his mouth open, teeth showing all the way back to his molars. He was an ordinary-looking fellow with the usual military buzz cut; not handsome. But his lightness and good cheer made him attractive. There was sadness there, too, but he seemed determined not to let it take over.

I selected a book, signed it out, and handed it to him. He thanked me, said he was sorry to see me go and hoped I would come back soon. As I turned to leave, I saw it. His left leg was gone, about mid-thigh. I pushed my cart out of the room and found a quiet hallway, where I could think for a moment. Here was a young man with a horrible injury, as bad as anyone else on the ward, but he had not lost his spirit, his joy for life. Could I manage the same if that were me? I doubted it. I felt ashamed for the way I complained about so many petty things.

He, too, had a new role to play, one I’m sure he never expected: war veteran and amputee. How he would play that role would be up to him. He was putting on a brave face from the start. Being in a play was easy by comparison. The part is set, the lines written, the ending a fait accompli. Not so with real life.

I was about to become a college student at the University of Hawaii, away from home for the first time, free to experiment out of my parents’ sight. Who would I be? Would I continue with the role of dutiful daughter and straight-A student? Maybe I would become a party girl instead, drinking and smoking, dating sailors. Would I join the students who protested the war, in defiance of my father’s career and my entire upbringing? What kind of spirit would I bring to my life, what determination?

Nancy D. Wood, a semiretired editor of nonfiction how-to books, is tiptoeing her way onto the other side of the editing pencil. She sees memoir writing as an opportunity to make some sense of her chaotic upbringing as an Air Force "brat."

About Role Playing—I wrote this essay in response to a "discovery" prompt. I'm fascinated by the process of weaving together random bits of memory into a coherent story.