Below is a sample of this story about a boy, James Woolsey, who grows up with a passion for gardenias and other flowers. He joins the Navy to avoid combat in Vietnam, only to be made a medical corpsman and assigned to a Marine unit near Khe Sanh. Napalm and chemicals have damaged the flora of region; he cannot lose himself in the beauty of petals, blooms, and colors, but has to deal with danger and the loss of his first friend. He meets a Vietnamese girl named Huong, who works for the owners of a rubber plantation near Khe Sanh. They seek shelter from artillery rounds exploding all over the base, and then she goes away with the plantation owners to safety in France. After the war, James returns home and once again finds solace in his work for a florist. One day, years later, some rough looking Vietnamese come into the shop. They have news about Huong.
I remember my father tossing me a ball, a real baseball, with its dark red seams spinning toward my face. My father had been watching his hometown Yankees on our new Zenith TV, and they were again victorious in the faraway Bronx. Tight after a six-pack of Falstaff beer—the brand hawked by his favorite announcer, Dizzy Dean-- my father was determined to teach me, his only child, the ways of Mantle, Berra, and above all, Whitey Ford, heroes when baseball was truly the national game. Five years old at the time, I knew little about baseball, even the great names, and I tried to stay away from the TV when the games were on because my father seemed so different when he was watching them.
The ball was like a rock when it hit the palm of my small left hand, but I was too uncoordinated to bring both hands together and close them over the ball as it completed its arc. The ball dropped to the ground, with enough english on it to send it into a flower bed along the front porch. There my mother had planted some shrubbery and gardenias. I saw the ball roll into the bed, but my eyes did not follow the path of the ball. My father yelled, “Get the ball, son. Go on, get the ball!”
But I was set like a well-trained pointer, my nostrils absorbing the scent of gardenias. I must have smelled them before, but on that spring afternoon I was aware that I had smelled them. I don’t remember finding the ball.
We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, where my father had finished World War Two as a flight instructor at the Naval Air Station near the bay. The Navy sent him to Corpus after he had crash-landed his Grumman Hellcat in the Pacific. His squadron had flown off the carrier Lexington, and I once heard him tell my mother that he had shot down two Japanese Zeros in something called the Marianas Turkey Shoot before he was forced to crash-land because he couldn’t find an open carrier deck in the dark. He had found the Lexington, but her decks were fouled with tangled planes. The heavy Hellcat sank quickly; but miraculously (as my mother always said, in telling the story) the destroyer Terry rescued my father after a spotlight caught the reflection of his Mae West life jacket, keeping him afloat in the dark ocean. Fortunately, the fleet was on alert that pilots were being forced to ditch their planes, and the destroyer risked using her lights in spite of Japanese subs. My father had two broken ribs and a badly fractured arm, so the fighting war ended for him that night. He and my mother met at the USO in Corpus; they were married two weeks after V-J Day in 1945.
He ran a small grocery store, given to my mother by her Uncle Ray. A veteran like my father, Uncle Ray made it through the European war unhurt but ruined his back unloading a truck in the narrow alley behind his store. I think my mother passed along some of the earnings from the store to her uncle, because I remember my father complaining that Ray was “pissing the money away on booze and women, and we should just keep it all.” I knew Uncle Ray was a bachelor, but I always thought he smelled too bad to be appealing to women. The store—it was still called “Ray’s”-- was in a section along Corpus Christi Bay called North Beach. In those days, North Beach was a favorite among the families in Texas who couldn’t afford a fancy vacation but could load up their station wagons and chrome-heavy sedans and make the drive to Corpus, their kids yelling in the back seat or finally going off to sleep, lulled by the pitch and roll of those old big cars. Most of the children, the ones who had gone to sleep, were disappointed when they slept right through the exhilarating drive across the high bay bridge, with tugboats and real ships sailing more than a hundred feet below.
In the summer, my mother and I would go to the store, she to help my father with the rambunctious bare-footed boys, harried mothers, and distracted dads who came in and out of the little store, its battered screen door banging against the frame whenever a customer arrived or departed. The floor was made of old and creaky pine, and the store literally spoke and moved along with the noisy families when they came to North Beach. I used to watch them come and go, the boys of my age especially, curious about their energy and chatter but too shy to talk to them or to follow them out of the store and go with them down to the narrow beach. I became accustomed to their stares and almost able to ignore their whispers as they stood at the counter with candy, gum, or Nehi sodas in their hands and their small leathery feet restless from the waiting.
My place was in a corner about six feet from the ornate old register that rang up the purchases in the store. I sat in a folding chair at a card table my mother had brought for my use. On the table were two clay pots, and in the pots were my gardenias. Each pot rested in an old baking pan, so the water from the gardenias wouldn’t ruin the table. There was a big window near the table, and my mom, giving me an early lesson about gardenias, removed the hand-made ad signs taped to the window, opened it, and said, “The plants must have sunlight, natural light, or they can get sick or die.” So I sat there, feeling the bay breeze blowing through the window, watching the light as it caressed the petals, moving, if you watched it the way I did, from one petal to the other, light connected more to my plants than to anything else in the store.
At the end of those long and exhausting days, when my father reached for the twine holding the “OPEN” and “CLOSED” sign on the other front window of the store, my mom would carry the clay pots with my gardenias out to our blue Plymouth wagon and set them down gently in the back. On the way home, I turned to look at them or to steady them with my hand. “I just don’t understand,” my father said, so many times. As he looked at me in the rearview mirror, I could see the anger, pain, or sadness in his eyes, depending on the day at the store or on all the other things that regular people felt. That was my name for them: regular people. I did not have a name for myself but in my naming of them had defined myself nonetheless.