“I get a lot of my angels from the military.…”
Thomas Calabrese–American forces got hit hard in Vietnam in February of 1968 in what became known as the Tet Offensive. Captain Mark Torrey was flying his U-H1 D Huey on three missions a day, doing medivac and combat resupply runs for Marines during the battle for Huế.
Twenty days after graduating flight school he arrived in Vietnam and six weeks after that he made aircraft commander. Captain Torrey requested to be assigned to a small Huey detachment up north by the DMZ where the action was. They worked autonomously without direction from a higher headquarters. Marines would tell them what they needed, and the pilots would do their best to accommodate their life and death requests. The leathernecks were being encircled by the enemy and most the other pilots in Torrey’s small aviation detachment near the demilitarized zone had been killed, wounded, or were shot down during the battle.
After five days of straight combat missions, Captain Torrey was so physically and mentally exhausted that he could barely keep his eyes open. His hands were shaking from sleep deprivation and he had to face the reality of the situation, he needed rest, even a few hours would be welcomed. He had only been on his cot for two hours when Sergeant Aaron Buckman awakened him from his almost catatonic state. The exhausted pilot jumped up, tripped backward over his gear and finally found steady footing.
“I’m sorry Captain, but they need you,” Sergeant Buckman said.
“Yeah, give me a minute.” Captain Torrey put on his boots and stumbled outside.
Sergeant Buckman asked, “Are you alright to fly?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” Captain Torrey headed toward his Huey helicopter and was intercepted by Lt. Bart Marshall, an easy-going Texan who was as casual and cavalier about deadly combat as a cowboy on a moonlit ride down through north forty. He drawled, “Looking for a good co-pilot?”
Captain Torrey asked. “Know where I can find one?”
“Don’t know where a good one is, but I’m available.”
As they approached the aircraft, machine gunner and former infantryman Sergeant Jeff Fratello flashed a toothy grin and called out. “I’m locked, loaded and ready to go.”
“You always are,” Lt. Marshall replied then whispered to Captain Torrey. “That guy has been in country too long. There’s few cards missing from his deck.”
“Look who’s talking, you’ve been playing solitaire with a deck of 51 longer than anybody I know…present company excluded.” Captain Torrey shrugged and added. “You know what they say?”
“War makes the sane crazy and the crazy insane. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Fratello on the M- 60 than some scared kid.” Captain Torrey said.
The LZ (Landing Zone) was smoking hot as Marines struggled to hold their positions against the North Vietnamese while evacuating their more seriously wounded. Sergeant Fratello saw the muzzle flashes in the deep undergrowth and sprayed the area with deadly machine gun fire. The Huey began taking hits and Captain Torrey went in quickly. A Corpsman and several Marines loaded two badly injured leathernecks on board and the helicopter took off.
Over the next 13 days, Captain Torrey flew 94 missions and did receive enemy fire on only two of them. He medevac’d more lieutenants than junior enlisted personnel because they were the ones leading the fight. Ground troops were pushed to their limits and being killed and wounded at all hours of the day and night during the enemy offensive. Sometimes the only hope a wounded Marine had was a helicopter angel flying through the fires of hell to bring him to a small piece of heaven called a field hospital.
By the time Mark Torrey left the Vietnam War, he had flown over 2,000 missions, was shot down three times, wounded four times and spent six days in the jungle eluding the enemy after his Huey crashed near the DMZ. Not one of the pilots or crewmen that Torrey started with at the beginning of his final tour of duty were there at the end. A few were lucky enough to make it home, the others were either wounded or killed while on missions.
There is a default memory that every combat veteran embraces and treasures during the most difficult and terrifying times of war. It was a place that even the strongest and bravest warrior can go for sanctuary. It is an impenetrable fortress of solitude and a place where the blood, mud, chaos and mayhem cannot penetrate. Maybe it is a car, a favorite meal, a loving mother, a devoted wife or a girlfriend. For a few brief and precious moments, a battle weary veteran’s mind travels to a place where his fantasies dwell and he can re-live a happier time in his existence. It doesn’t have to be logical, reasonable or make any sense to anyone but him. The veteran carefully embellishes this alternate reality until it is perfect in every way and then he escapes into it.
The memory for Captain Mark Torrey was a Memorial Day picnic in Vista, California in the year 1965. Mark was enrolled in Mira Costa Junior College and was attending the festivities with his cousin, Joe who was home on leave from the Army and his high school sweetheart, Linda. Before the end of June came, Joe was listed as missing in action while serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in South Vietnam after being in country for only three weeks. Soon afterward Linda broke up with him and Mark’s father passed away from a massive heart attack while doing yardwork. Memorial Day, 1965 would forever be etched into Mark’s memory as the last holiday in his life as a free spirited and carefree youth. After that, he became a man and things changed forever for him. Over the years every moment of that day had been categorized and neatly filed away for easy access.
After returning home to California, Mark’s Uncle Claude and the father of his deceased cousin, Joe, offered him a job working for his small construction company. Mark politely declined, “I appreciate it, I really do, but I don’t know diddly squat about construction. You can do a lot better than me.”
“There’s nobody better than you. I can find all the journeymen I want, but what I need is someone I can trust. I need a man of integrity.”
Mark responded, “Can I think about it?”
Claude responded. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mark knew that his uncle was only offering him a job because he was still grieving for his son and needed someone who knew Joe that he could share stories with. Being the kind of man that he was, Mark did not have the heart to say no.
It didn’t take long to find out that Claude was an excellent craftsman, but a terrible businessman. His filing and billing system was disorganized and he often made simple clerical or organizational mistakes that cost his company money. Mark did not think it was his place to make any changes to a business that he just came into. To him that would be arrogant and unappreciative so he decided to tell his Uncle that he was time for him to move on on.
Claude sensed what was coming and surmised. “You’re frustrated by how things around here.” It’s not your style…right?”
“That pretty much covers it.” Mark replied honestly.
Claude choked on his emotions, cleared his throat and said, “How do they say it in the Marines…permission to speak freely?”
“I was hoping I’d have the opportunity to work this business with my son, then as the years passed, I’d slowly fade into retirement and he’d take over. Those plans died when he went missing in action. I lost my primary motivation for working and went from living to merely existing. I still try to give clients a fair return for their money because why should they be punished for my problems. There was actually a time when I took great pride in my skills and accomplishments. I thought those days were gone, but since you’ve been here, I’m actually enjoying work again.”
“Now I really feel guilty about wanting to go,” Mark admitted.
Claude responded. “I’ll make a deal with you, change anything that you want because the stone cold truth is this simple, without you here, I’m shutting down the business.”
“Be careful what you wish for…I could send us both crashing to earth in flames.” Mark warned, “You know that’s a distinct possibility?”
“I know that, but regardless of how our partnership turns out, I’m going to enjoy it.”
Claude kept his word and let Mark do what he thought was best. The business grew by leaps and bounds because Claude had the technical expertise and Mark was a born leader with keen insights and a clear vision of where to take the company.
Torrey Construction began getting major federal, state, city and county projects. What put them over the top was being awarded a five-year multi-million dollar construction project on Camp Pendleton to build irrigation canals and a massive water treatment plant.
Mark reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Linda and they dated for a year before getting married and began raising a family. They had four children, three sons and a daughter. As the years passed, the children grew up and had families of their own. Greg, the oldest son became a lawyer and handled all the contracts for the corporation, Bill went into a different direction and became a firefighter and eventually made Captain for the Carlsbad Fire Department. Bob was a construction superintendent and supervised many of the company’s larger projects. Emily, the youngest of the children married a heart surgeon and lived in Fort Walton, Florida.
There are some men in this world who always put the welfare of others above their own. Mark was one such man. Whether it was in the heat of combat, working with his uncle or raising his family, there was never doubt about that fact. The Torrey Company was a vital part of the Vista business community and provided a lot of tax revenue to the city and was a major donor to many local charities. Mark vehemently refused to be acknowledged for his generosity and when some grateful organization wanted to show their appreciation, he made his position emphatically clear. “If you want to put it in the company’s name, I’ll send someone to receive it. I don’t attend award ceremonies.”
The Torrey children learned very early in their lives to never put their father in the limelight either by choice or error. Mark seldom got angry, but this transgression really aggravated him so they respected his wishes. This was not to say he was not a loving and supportive father, but he avoided fame and notoriety like it was the plague. He was the first to give praise to his children for a job well done or an honest effort. It was the same at the company where his employees were extremely loyal to him and grateful to be able to work in a positive environment.
The Torrey family usually got together for holidays and birthdays at Mark and Linda’s large ranch style home in the Vista Hills. The only birthday that was not celebrated was Mark’s, who did want to be the center of attention even for one evening.
It had been years since Mark served in the Vietnam War and he still never spoke about his experiences in combat. When his children were young and they asked him about it, he replied simply and never elaborated, “I was honored to serve with some very good men.” After a while, it became a non-topic and nobody mentioned it anymore. Mark and Linda had six grandchildren. While Mark loved them all, he had a special relationship with Ava, the eldest daughter of his son, Bill. She was more like a friend than a granddaughter and they really enjoyed each other’s company. She was also the only descendant of Mark that chose to serve in the military. Ava was currently a pilot in the Air Force Reserves and her unit, 4th Air Force Wing was located at March Air Force Base. When she wasn’t flying for the Air Force, she worked as a pilot for Federal Express. It was 1:00 pm and March 14th, 2022 and Ava landed in San Diego after completing a flight from Dallas, Texas. She made a phone call and waited for an answer.
Mark was in his office, looked at his phone and recognized the number. “Ava! How are you?”
“Good, I just touched down in San Diego. I’ve got a five day layover and was getting ready to head home. I thought maybe I’d pick up something to eat at Casa de Bandini on the way. What are you and Grandma doing for dinner?”
“We’ve got no plans.” Mark replied.
Ava volunteered. “Why don’t I pick up something for all of us?”
“Best offer I’ve had all day.”
“I know you like to eat early so I can pick it up by 4:30 and we can eat at 5:30. How does that sound?”
“I don’t know what you and Grandma want. If you don’t mind making the call, I’d appreciate it. I’d like the Chile relleno dinner with a side order of shrimp enchiladas. Why don’t you also order some chips and guacamole?”
“Roger that, Captain.” Mark responded.
Ava added, “One more thing…this is my treat so don’t put it on your credit card?”
“If it means seeing you then I reluctantly agree to that stipulation.”
After an enjoyable dinner and some pleasant conversation, Mark, Linda and Ava went into the living room to sit down. Ava noticed a photo album sitting on the end table, “What’s this?”
Linda smiled. “That is one of your grandfather’s prized possessions. It has photos of a Memorial Day celebration that we went to when we were young. He likes to look at it every now and then.”
“I didn’t know that you were that sentimental, I’m touched.” Ava smiled as she looked at the photos.
Mark shrugged. “It was a perfect day and it remains a perfect memory. That day is indelibly etched into my memory. I know that you probably have one too.”
Ava thought for a moment. “Mine would have to be when I was 9 years-old and you gave me a horse for my birthday.” Ava got up and hugged her grandfather.
Six weeks later, family members were called to Mark and Linda’s home on a Saturday evening. Those who couldn’t make it were connected by Zoom. Nobody knew what it was about so they sat quietly in the living room until Mark entered. “Thanks for coming, I wanted you to hear this directly from me.”
Linda sat off to the side and tried to keep her composure. Greg asked, “What’s going on, Dad?”
Mark explained. “I’ve been having some headaches so your mother suggested I see a doctor.”
Ava had a feeling that bad news was on the way because people don’t usually call meetings to give good news. She patiently waited for her grandfather to continue. “The doctor recommended a head computed tomography (CT) scan. It uses many x-rays to create picture of the skull, brain, eye sockets, and sinuses. When he got the results he informed me that I had a brain tumor…an inoperable, not-treatable and fast growing intracranial mass.”
The air was immediately sucked out of the room and Linda began to sob softly. Ava was angry and upset and unwilling to accept the facts. “How can something be inoperable and not treatable? What about chemo and radiation?”
“I would never do chemo or radiation even if it would work. In this particular case, it won’t. The tumor is imbedded between highly sensitive cranial and spinal nerves. I did my due diligence and have come up with the best course of action. I will begin getting my affairs in order and start delegating more authority at work. When the time comes, I will make a smooth transition to the other world. My final directives are clearly written and my wife will ensure that they are carried out.”
Ava was upset that her grandfather was so unemotional about his impending death. “It won’t be a smooth transition for the rest of us!” and stormed out of the room.
A week later, Ava met with her grandmother at the Yellow Deli in downtown Vista for lunch. Linda pleaded with her grand-daughter. “Please accept how your grandfather wants to do this. You are too important to him to alienate yourself when he has so little time left.”
“I’m sorry but he caught me off guard and my emotions got the best of me. I won’t make that mistake again, but I can’t imagine my life without him in it,” Ava said.
“Imagine how I feel,” Linda said, “Don’t focus your energy on what you can’t control, but instead, make each day count. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Ava smiled, “That’s my plan too. I want to do something special for grandfather, give him a gift that I know he wants and believes is impossible to have.”
Linda was totally puzzled. “What would that be?”
“Memorial Day 1965!”
“Please elaborate,” Linda said.
Ava explained. “With your help, I want to re-create as much of that day as I can and take grandfather back to it. What do you think?”
“I love it!” Linda replied, “How do we do it?”
“What do you mean we…you want to help?” Ava said.
Linda smiled knowingly. “You didn’t think I was going to let you do this alone…did you?”
“I need you to write down everything about that day that you remember, no matter how insignificant it might seem. When grandfather is at work, take the album to FedEx Kinkos and make two copies of every photo that pertains to the celebration. I need to make a lot of phone calls and get things moving,” Ava stated.
Ava was an unstoppable force. First step, she contacted an event planning company and told them of the theme of the celebration and retained their services. They began preparations immediately. After that, Ava called several local car clubs and offered them large contributions for bringing their vintage autos to the event. She emphasized, “Nothing newer than 1965.”
A caterer was hired and given a list of foods to prepare for the day. Actors and actresses from the Moonlight Theatre were hired to provide realistic background at the picnic. The next part was going to be significantly harder.
Linda met with David Minoso, one of the company’s senior job superintendent to discuss the construction of the site. “Do you think that you can do it in time?”
“You’ve got my word, Mrs. Torrey.” David promised. “I’ll get everything exactly like the photos.”
Everything was going according to plan, the only thing that Ava and Linda could not foresee was Mark’s deteriorating medical condition. He was getting weaker with each passing day and there was still a week to go before the big day. Would he make it …that was the question?
The entire family was in town for the Memorial Day weekend .On Saturday they did a walk-through of the site, located between Bonsall and Vista. Linda led the way and looked at the tables, banners, stage and storefronts. Ava was right behind her and when Linda turned around, she looked at her family and made the eagerly awaited announcement. “It’s perfect! We did it!”
It was Memorial Day, 2022 and Mark struggled to get out of bed. His wife was nowhere to be seen so he assumed that she had an errand to take care of. He made his way to the patio and sat down in the morning sun. His thoughts were all over the place, his youth, the war and most important of all, his family.
“Hey Grandfather!” came the familiar voice.
Mark answered. “Out here!”
Ava walked out. “Happy Memorial Day, how are you feeling?”
“Great.” Mark lied.
“I need to ask you a favor.”
Mark said. “Sure, go ahead.”
“Would you take a ride with me?” Ava asked.
Ava replied. “That’s part of the favor, I need you to not ask any questions.”
“Is it important to you?” Mark asked.
Mark got up, “I’ll be ready in five minutes.”
It was a short drive and when Mark looked out the window of the car, he saw the banner, Memorial Day 1965. He also saw cars from the 1950’s and 1960’s driving past him. Ava parked next to a hot rod in a dirt lot. Mark didn’t know if he was hallucinating so he didn’t say anything. He got out of the car and slowly looked around and was mesmerized by what he saw. Ava was gone so he must be dreaming. Mark was beckoned by the sounds of laughter and music and moved through the jubilant crowd.
Hidden from view, Ava was standing with her family. They watched intently as Mark moved slowly through the area as memories overwhelmed him. He sat down at a table where a young boy who looked a lot like his cousin Joe was sitting. Another boy came up and said, “Hey Joe…lets go get us a hot dog.”
“Sure thing, Mark.”
The two boys rushed off. Mark was sure he was having a hallucination so he sat there quietly and soaked in the ambiance of the situation. Ten minutes later, Ava went on stage to address the crowd. “This is a day to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of liberty, freedom and America. Let us never forget those who went into harm’s way and came back to us. They deserve our gratitude as well. There is one man in particular who has never expected to be acknowledged for doing his patriotic duty. In fact he has made a conscious effort to avoid all gestures of appreciation. Hopefully, today will show him that the greatest gift that he can give to his family and friends is to let them show how special he is to them.”
The crowd burst into applause. Ava continued. “He flew over two thousand missions, was wounded five times, almost captured and received numerous decorations and commendations for his valor and courage under fire. That is only a small part of his story. Hundreds of our fighting men made it home to their families because this helicopter pilot routinely put his life on the line to save theirs. When the war was over and he came home, he never mentioned his exploits to his family or friends. He was too modest to do so, still choosing to focus on the welfare of others. This man is Mark Torrey, my grandfather and my hero. We are lucky enough to have two men who served with Captain Torrey in the Vietnam War.”
Former Sergeant Aaron Buckman made his way on stage. “I never saw him hesitate to go into a firefight or a hot LZ. If you were a Marine in trouble, you wanted Mark Torrey coming for you. When you are in combat, you see the worst and best of humanity. I was honored to serve with the best.”
Jeff Fratello was next to speak. “I was a gunner on some of Captain Torrey’s missions. I had a reputation as being a crazy guy who loved combat. To tell you the truth, it was a façade so that people wouldn’t know I was scared to death most of the time. Whenever I flew with Captain Torrey, I knew that I always would rise to any challenge and do my duty. I watched how he handled himself in the most difficult and dangerous situations and it gave me the strength to keep going when the world was exploding all around me. Captain Torrey made me a better Marine in the war and a better man afterwards. I’m, not the only one, everybody who ever flew with Captain Torrey feels the same way. To this day I would still would fly anywhere against any odds if Captain Torrey was at the controls, I’m grateful that I was contacted to come here and tell him so. Thank you for then, thank you for now, Semper fi, Marine.”
Mark humbly acknowledged his former crewman with a wave of his hand. Right about this time his family walked over and sat down at the table as a sign of their love and support.
The day was a unique and perfect combination of the past and present, a rare occasions that may only occur once in a hundred lifetimes. The weather cooperated by providing a crystal clear day with warm temperatures in the mid 70’s and a gentle breeze. The caterers did an excellent job of providing an extensive and tasty menu from the foods of the 1960’s. The individual in charge of the music put the top 100 songs of 1964 and 1965 on a continuous loop and strategically situated 50 high tech speakers around the area to provide a nostalgic ambiance.
When the day came to a close, Mark stood up to tell his family and friends about how he felt. “Memorial Day 1965 was my favorite Memorial Day until today. I am making an official announcement that Memorial Day 2022 has now taken over that top spot.”
Two weeks later, Mark was at Doctor John Cronin’s office to check on how fast his tumor was growing. Surprisingly, he felt great, shouldn’t he be getting worse by now, he thought.
Doctor Cronin stared at the CT Scan results while Mark patiently waited to hear his latest prognosis. Finally he said, “I am confused, baffled and amazed. Last month you had a massive intracranial tumor and today it is gone, vanished, disappeared. Let me re-emphasize this point, it has not shrunk or reduced in size, it is as if it was never there in the first place. How can that be? I don’t have an answer…do you?”
Mark smiled. “Sometimes when you are given a special gift, rather than question why, just say, thank you very much and enjoy it.”
Linda and Ava were in the waiting room when Mark came out. The look of apprehension was evident upon their faces. Linda reluctantly asked. “What did he say?”
Mark put his arm around his wife’s and grand-daughter’s shoulders and replied, “I’ll tell you on the way home.”
Saint Peter looked down from heaven above and commented on the fortuitous turn of events, “I’ve been working for you for a long time and your happy endings still get to me.”
God smiled and said, “Pete…”
“A miracle was warranted for a man like Mark Torrey, besides Memorial Day is a special day for me too. I get a lot of my angels from the military.”
Happy Memorial Day to all veterans and readers. May your Memorial Day be as happy and memorable as the one that Mark Torrey had.
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org