PETE DZIEDZIC’S TEETH lay buried a half-mile south of the Da Nang Air Base. There the lance corporal had quarreled with a private over who’d recorded “Sea of Love.” Guys in the outfit were singing along to Armed Forces Radio when Pete said, “That singer’s from the northern U.S.”
“He’s from my hometown,” replied the private.
“No, he ain’t,” Pete said.
“Everybody’s proud of him in Lake Charles. His name is John Phillip Baptiste, though on the record he changed it to Phil Phillips with the Twilights.”
“You’re wrong,” said Private Abadee, hitting Pete so hard he swallowed one tooth and felt another dangling by a bloody thread.
“Give it back to him,” yelled the guys, but instead the lance corporal asked for a towel to spit blood into. He was on Fifth Street, Queer Street. Rocked by a punch, prizefighters dwell here when they hang on the ring ropes trying to remember who they are. Staring at his flak jacket and M-14 on the wooden floor of the strongback tent, he took a laminated holy card with the Virgin’s picture from his wallet. “Hail Mary,” he prayed through his bloody lips as the guys sang, “I want to show you, h-o-o-w much I love you.”
The next morning, Lieutenant Sardelli assigned a jeep driver to take Pete to the medical unit on the other side of Division Ridge. The driver wouldn’t talk to a guy with no fight in him. Besides, the beauty of the limestone cliffs left them speechless, especially where tatters of silky mist hung from the quiet slopes. This was Vietnam: mists, black-pajamaed peasants planting rice, red laterite roads, monsoons, dry spells.
At the medical unit, helicopters swept in from a combat mission near An Ho. Men hollered, lifted stretchers, held IV bottles over wounded marines. Nurses ran out to help them. It was no place for a person without courage.
In a part of the compound far from the landing zone, the navy dentist looked up. Today’s helicopter wounded weren’t worried about plaque buildup, so Lance Corporal Dziedzic had saved the dentist from a boring day. Seating him in a chair, the dentist worked the tooth out of the lance corporal’s mouth, packing the area with gauze to stop the bleeding. Eventually, the gums healed. Three weeks later, Pete, who’d prayed over and over to the holy card, opened the screen door and took a seat to have a clay impression made of his upper gums.
In a few weeks, he had his teeth. They were bonded to a pink plastic form. The partial plate hooked to the back of his real teeth by means of curves in the bottom ridge of the plastic. The two false teeth fit into the slots left by the original teeth. Because the partial could be flipped in and out with the tongue, it was called a flipper.
“Bite carefully. When you take it out, put it in a cup of water,” said the dentist.
Because of the newness of the partial, for a week Pete was nervous about it. His hands shook when he put it in. His hands had also shaken two months earlier. That time, with everyone anticipating El Cid, the first movie during Pete’s tour of duty, a jittery marine, thinking he’d heard movement on the camp perimeter, shot up the darkness with a machine gun. This was the big one, Pete had thought as guys scrambled for helmets, flak jackets, rifles. As it turned out, the company wasn’t being overrun by VC. Ending up on Queer Street and losing two teeth was as bad as it got for the young man who would rise to the rank of corporal before coming home, honorably discharged, to argue with his father in the middle of December.
What had happened to his teeth puzzled him when he finally made it home from the war zone. The lieutenant had wrapped one in tissue paper and, putting up a hook shot, tossed it into the waste basket. Pete remembered a tooth resembling a lover’s teardrop. Because he’d swallowed the other tooth when Private Abadee hit him, that one must have been voided into the outhouse, the four-holer at the compound. Periodically, lime was poured over the contents and the outhouse returned to use. Seven or eight months later, the slanted roof, weathered boards, crude screen door, and plywood seat were doused with kerosene, burned, then covered with dirt and a sign put up: Head Closed.
One discarded in the garbage, the other buried in the dirt beneath the outhouse, the teeth were a part of the history of war. If buried teeth do not decompose, they are resting in the tropical earth beside a scrap of screen and a metal bracket from a charred outhouse door. Someone who had all his teeth and who’d not been to war might have wondered about other things during those days—who, for example, ended up with his Joan Baez albums or what time his fellow protesters were meeting for a drink at the Ramble Inn. In addition to the piastres Pete had spent drinking at the Da Nang Hotel on the afternoons he’d had liberty during that war year, he’d left two teeth in a country 65,948 square miles large.
In the friendly territory of the East End neighborhood of Superior, Wisconsin (approximately two square miles), he’d lost even more. First, his girlfriend, Cynthia, had slipped away from him. Then his father began leaving without Pete’s discussing important matters with him. The girlfriend’s departure was tough, but his being on active duty for four years had gotten to her. One night, she’d met a guy at the Purple Onion. “He looks like you, Petey,” she’d told him when they bumped into each other outside of the East End Drugstore. Pete thought she was as pretty as ever. He wished they were back in time four years.
“I’m home. Now what am I supposed to do with my life?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you in a year.”
“Dale works at Water, Light, and Power. Have you learned to drive? Have you got hair on your chest yet? You were twenty-one the last time we met.”
“I bought a car. I parked it in the snow beside the garage. I take the driver’s test tomorrow. It’s my second try. No wonder my old man calls me głupiec, blockhead.”
“Good luck. Sometimes you fail the driving test. You’ll make it this time.”
“I better be able to drive. Dad is sick. He can’t go anywhere. I have to do things for Ma.”
“Your poor father.”
“I’m back in my old bed. My sister teaches grade school in Shawano, doesn’t get home much. I see the guys for a beer. What else is new?”
“Don’t blame me for marrying. You were gone, Pete. It was too long to wait.”
“You’re hitched. That’s what I hear. I was gone in Vietnam. I like your parents.”
“I like yours. Never blame your dad for anything in life, Pete. Say hi to your mother for me, and to him.”
“He’s next to go. It’s funny. He was always on me. ‘Cut your hair. Help with the dishes. Do this! Do that!’ I feel terrible for fighting with him. Why’d we always argue?”
“Can’t you ask him?”
“It’s too late. The doc says he’s dying.”
Fortunately, Al stayed alive long enough for his son to talk about shadows. After Al drank a small cupful of morphine, when the old man was woozy but free of pain, Pete would begin the game. Morning sunshine on beige wallpaper is perfect for making silhouettes with your hands and fingers. “What do you see, Pa?”
“A camel’s head,” Al responded.
“No, a serpent. Try this.”
“Good one. And this?”
“I want to rest now,” Al would say after a moment and turn his head from the wall. Seeing two days’ growth of whiskers on his father’s thin face, observing Al’s fingers twitching from the morphine as though practicing the silhouettes he’d later stump his son with, Pete would get up from his chair. “I’m going out,” he’d tell his mother, who busied herself in the kitchen.
Where they lived, February is the sunniest winter month. At eleven in the morning if you want to clear your head of the shadows your father has made for you, you can walk down Fourth, Fifth, or other East End streets that parallel the bay in Superior, Wisconsin. Confine the walk to between Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Sixth Avenues, and you’ll see elms, cottonwoods, willows, red osier dogwood, and alder brush casting shadows along the snowy hillside above the creek. The interweaving shadows of the cloudless days appear to long for someone. For what reason do the shadows of Superior, Wisconsin—or the mists of the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam—exist except to remind a marine and his Vietnamese counterpart that the shadows and the mists were there when they were boys?
In Al’s shadowy room, the February light grew dim when the sun passed west beyond the window. Except during the shadow game, Al didn’t talk. “Check his wristwatch, Pete. See is it keeping time for him.” “Yes, Ma. We’re still okay on the time,” Pete said. Wanda brought her husband a can of protein drink for supper, solid food being difficult for him to swallow. One day a priest brought Al supper. Stomping his overshoes on the back porch before entering the kitchen, he said, “Peace to this house.” “And to all who dwell therein,” Wanda replied as Father sprinkled her with holy water and caught Pete with a sprinkle as he walked in.
Wanda had covered a TV tray with a lace doily. Next to the can of protein drink Al would have for supper, Pete had placed, in the form of a cross, two sticks of red osier dogwood. This scarlet bush grows all over the fields and woods around Superior. He thought his dad might be receiving what is called the viaticum (the holy Eucharist given to a dying person) in the form of the protein drink—which explains the wood cross: Pete hoped the cross sanctified his father’s supper. In addition to evergreens and the moss that grows dark green in winter, the branches of the red osier dogwood give color to a snowy country.
If a dying person, whose pale skin resembles snow, is not up to it, the church allows someone to say the Confiteor in his name. This Wanda did for Al, whispering, “I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary, ever virgin, to blessed Michael the archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul….” Then Al drank the can of Ensure the priest handed him.
Father Mike enjoyed a can once he had ministered to the retired mill hand. “Refreshing,” he said. Having praised God for his plentiful gifts, including protein drinks, the youthful priest promised to return in a day.
When he left, Al reached for his teeth. As if uncertain whether he was still on earth, perhaps in Vietnam where his boy had been, he moved one hand tentatively, dreamily, over the blanket, then over the tray, looking for the teeth, but Al’s uppers rested in a cup of water in the top drawer of the bedside table.
“You put them in for him, Pete.”
“No, you put them in, Ma.”
“Please, son, you have teeth missing. You know how to do it,” she said. Wanda was crying.
Though Al lay in shadow, his son, wanting him to look good in heaven and realizing there’d be no talking about the past now, no apologizing for anything Pete had said or done to him, gently opened his father’s mouth and put in the teeth. The mind is funny. Though this was no place for it, Pete found himself thinking about his own lost teeth.
There is an icon that is holy to Polish people. In Buffalo, New York, and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, in Cleveland, Hamtramck, Chicago, Superior, the Poles keep her image in their homes. They do this in Kraków, Łomza, Warsaw, Katowice. The Madonna in the icon wears a golden crown. Angels hover about it as they do on either side of the bejeweled crown of the Christ-child the Madonna holds in her arms. Two scars disfigure her right cheek. The scars, wounds that have saved the Polish nation over and over, were the work of seventeenth-century Swedish invaders who, after slashing her beautiful face in a monastery, witnessed the icon’s face bleeding and crying. Falling to their knees stunned, the Swedes retreated from the monastery at Jasna Góra, and Poland was saved. The Madonna’s picture at Al and Wanda’s had been reproduced on wood a quarter-inch thick, seven inches wide, ten long. A paper label on the back read Made in Poland.
“Are you in pain again, dear Al?” Wanda asked her husband. “Drink this.”
When he saw his father disoriented from the medicine, Pete lit the holy candles by the bed. He would practice his silhouette-making against the holy candles’ light.
His face washed, teeth in, Al, having drunk the morphine, said, “Let me play for real tonight. That’s a dog in the shadows on the wall.”
“Yes, it’s a dog,” Pete said. “Does this look like an alligator?”
“Alley-gator,” the old man said. “I hear someone crying.”
Pete reshaped his fingers.
“A house, Father? A house like ours?”
“What’s that on the ceiling?” asked Al.
“It’s just evening,” said Wanda. “The morphine makes you imagine things. You thought it was a butterfly. No one’s crying.”
This time Pete went out on a limb to trick him. He formed his hands and fingers this way and that. A crown in a flicker of candlelight is not easy to make. Nor is the Christ-child. Nor are a mother’s scars. The morphine easing Al’s pain, he lay watching. The room was silent as it should be when Jesus and Mary enter.
“What are you trying for now?” asked Wanda. Outside, the early rising moon had brought shadows back to the hillside. “What is so hard for you tonight, Pete, like you are a craftsman in the old country?”
“I’m trying to solve shadow problems.”
In the basement the furnace came on. The warm air blowing through the vent shifted the holy candles’ light so that Pete had had to readjust his hands and fingers. “It’s the draft doing this,” he said. Try as he might, it was impossible in the shifting light to show them what he wanted—the Polish flags, the white eagle symbolizing that nation, the words Pod twoją obronę uciekamy się that translated meant, “To your protection we flee.” All of these things are on the icon of blessed Mary and her son.
“I think Dad knows what I’m trying to make,” Pete said. “How do you know it though, Dad? Tell us, when it’s the first time I’ve tried forming this outline on the wall. Do you see it too, Ma?”
“Is it Saint Adalbert? Is it Saint Jadwiga?”
“No. Try someone else.”
“Is it the dome of the Basilica of Saint Josaphat in Milwaukee?”
“Is it a glider airplane? Is it a Polish soldier charging a tank?”
“Try harder. Look at the wall. Can’t you see it in the outline?”
Making the sign of the cross, she knelt by Al’s side, whispering the Polish words Pete was trying to read from the icon: “To Your Protection We Flee.”
Given the seriousness of his condition, Al Dziedzic had not been restricted as to how much pain killer he could have. His hands rose into the air as if he were holding a chalice of wine, a wafer, a cup of morphine. In the half light, his hands ran gently over something only he saw. Maybe a veil. Maybe a scar.
Trying to steady them, Pete took his father’s rough hands.
“Why are you crying?” Al asked his wife and son. “Is it for me?”
“Who is? Who do you see? Is she in here crying?” Wanda asked.
“He’s okay. He’s doped up, Ma.”
Pete ran his fingers over hands that had swung sledge hammers, hefted railroad ties, run conduit beneath a flourmill floor, accepted the Eucharist at mass. The son’s hands weren’t tough from work. In the past months, he’d done little more than make outlines on a wall. He was nothing like his father.
He guided Al’s hands down, knelt beside him. With his own hands calming his father’s, Pete couldn’t make the Virgin Mary’s silhouette. He hadn’t practiced enough. But this was only a silhouette, after all, and insubstantial. It didn’t matter that Pete couldn’t make it. Because when Al said something in Polish that sounded like “Holy Mother,” Pete knew, as did Mrs. Dziedzic, who had entered the shadows of the bedroom to match his father’s suffering with her own.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.