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Finding Mañana - Page 2

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Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

Mike had always felt he lived in a hurry, as if someone had pushed the fast-forward button of his life story and walked away, leaving him to the mercy of the rushed, blurred images.

He was born Michael Foley in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1947, but before Mike was two, his father had left home. Sometime around Mike’s third birthday, his mother, Jean, married James Howell, an abusive alcoholic but wealthy man who owned thirty-six first-run theaters on the eastern seaboard. The family moved to New Orleans and bought a five-bedroom house with a pool in Lake Vista, a neighborhood where a boy could spend hours riding his bicycle along curving cul-de-sacs that fanned out into the shape of giant flower petals. The Howells went on to have five more children, and Mike was given his stepfather’s surname.

When he was eight years old, Mike made an adult decision: He resolved to become a practicing Catholic, the religion of his birth father. Mike saw his new faith as a way to reclaim a part of who he used to be, the son of another man. Church was important to him also because, for a few hours a week, it took him away from his chaotic family.

In a home burdened by the antics of a drunken, violent stepfather, Mike had no escape, no shelter but the church and the life of his imagination. He became an altar boy, memorized the Latin mass, and began to seek refuge in books about solitary young men who confronted adversity and triumphed. He read all the books of Jules Verne and memorized lines from Kon-Tiki, the real-life tale of a man who’d sailed across the Pacific Ocean on a raft.

When he was ten, the family spent a summer in a vacation home they owned near Daytona Beach, in Florida. The last tenants of the house had left behind their books. On the bottom shelf, in a pile of old magazines and newspapers, Mike found an album of pictures of World War II. He was fascinated by the machinery of war and the glory attained by surviving against the odds. Some nights, after the grown-ups had gone to bed, he would sneak into the library and study the pictures by the light of the moon streaming through the windows.

Mariel Harbor in Cuba

About that time, his stepfather gave him a twelve-by-four-foot rowboat with an outboard motor. Mike was thrilled with the boat. He would steer it out to Lake Pontchartrain and spend hours alone on the water. That was the only act of kindness Mike remembers from his stepfather.

The senior Howell had his own ideas about male bonding. When he wanted to make peace with Mike, a square-shouldered teenager with thick arms and a Greek profile, his stepfather would rouse him from his deep sleep at two in the morning and challenge him to fight. Mike would do it, in part because he wanted to hurt the man he’d been instructed to call his father, but also because multiple beatings through the years had convinced him that there was no sense in opposing the will of an adult who reeked of alcohol. It was easier to oblige.

Mike attended Catholic schools until the end of high school. He dreamed of playing football and was good at it, but when the time came for college, he deferred a Louisiana State University football scholarship to join the army in October 1964, a more definitive form of escape than the church had been. He was seventeen. To pass the physical exam, he lied to recruiters about his chronic asthma attacks. When he turned eighteen, he volunteered for Vietnam.

Private Michael S. Howell arrived in Vietnam in December 1965, at a time when Americans were just beginning to comprehend that the war would be a long and costly one. Earlier estimates predicted that only 300,000 American troops would be needed to win the war; now those numbers ballooned to as high as 750,000. Mike had no sense of what Americans were doing in the region and didn’t particularly care about the Vietnamese. He thought he was going to war to defend the United States, to somehow protect his country’s way of life, and also to act out his childhood fantasies: He would finally wear a uniform, engage in combat, and, he was sure, earn the medals that would help him restore a little of the dignity his stepfather had robbed him of during his childhood.

Because he admired pilots almost as much as he revered sailors, Mike asked to be assigned to the 334th Armed Helicopter Company, which had served in Vietnam continuously since July 1962. Mike’s main job was to fly at night in a three-helicopter unit called the Fire Fly Team. He was often the man in the middle helicopter, the one hovering at about five hundred feet above the ground, illuminating the targets for the soldiers in the other helicopters. Often he would be the man behind the machine gun, aiming .50-caliber bullets, at a speed of 550 rounds a minute, toward the Vietcong below. Some days he would go on one or two missions, some days five. He would do the same thing for eight days straight, then rest for two.

On April 13, 1967, when he had flown more than four hundred missions and won an assortment of medals, Mike’s luck ran out. That day he had volunteered to train a new crew. Searching for a target, the armed helicopter team flew into Cambodia, a place where the war had not yet officially encroached. But the enemy, Mike and the others knew, was down there, within their reach. Why limit a war to the constrictions of parallels and latitudes?

Below them a great mass of equipment and men was moving about, readying anti-aircraft guns and mounted artillery. Thinking that the troops were too well armed to be Vietcong, Mike, who was operating as a door gunner that day, reasoned they must be U.S.-supported Cambodians. But as the helicopters got closer, within shooting range of the men, Mike realized they had discovered North Vietnamese troops, more highly trained and better equipped than the peasants with rifles that he was used to facing from his perch behind the machine gun.

The pilot ordered the copilot to call for air support, but the copilot, young and inexperienced, radioed in the real coordinates, which guaranteed they would get no help because American helicopters weren’t supposed to have flown into Cambodian airspace. Mike’s team decided to fire their rockets anyway, to force the enemy to take cover. The Vietnamese fired back. Mike saw a puff of hot air and then heard a big explosion. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon, but he was drowning in darkness. His left arm was shattered, a bullet had pierced his left leg, and shrapnel had hit several other parts of his body. Mike was bleeding to death.

He held his arm and leaned back, keeping his eyes open. His crew chief, though wounded himself, pressed his hand against Mike’s gushing arm wound during the fifteen-minute flight back to the closest base. In the cockpit the gauge for the engine exhaust gas was in the red, and the helicopter’s right side had been blown away. The pilot came over the intercom and, voice crackling with fear and emotion, yelled, Mike, we’re gonna get you back! And Mike believed him.

The helicopter hovered above ground on the tri-border area of Vietnam near an aid station where the soldiers knew that blood was stacked in refrigerated bags. Medics loaded Mike onto a stretcher and had started to run with him when the violent wind from the rotor blades startled them. They dropped the stretcher and Mike on the dirt, facedown. Still alert, Mike thought, Damn, I got dirty. And then he stopped breathing.

Quickly, the soldiers put him back on the stretcher and ran toward the medical unit. They got Mike on a stainless-steel table and stripped him of his uniform. The sudden coldness of the metal restarted his heart with a jolt. He realized he was alive because he felt broken and incomplete. As a Catholic, he was certain that there was no imperfection in death. Had he been dead, he wouldn’t be hurting so much. He was aware of where he was and what was going on in the room, because he could still hear and see peripherally but he could neither move nor talk. He began to panic when he heard a male voice give up on him. Don’t waste the blood on him! the man ordered. Mike’s mind was screaming, Yes, please, waste the blood, waste the blood, please! But he had no way to convey his fears or his will. Then Mike heard the voice of a woman, a doctor or a nurse, yelling to the others, Bullshit! Cut him down! I’ll take his legs. You do his arms. 

When veins collapse, as Mike’s had, doctors are trained to cut into ankles and arms searching for usable veins into which they can directly pump whole units of blood. When he felt the incisions, the warm rush of blood, and the soothing voice of the woman, Mike knew he would live, and he began to relax. He felt as if a dark veil had gently descended over his face.

The army sent Mike’s mother a telegram telling her that her son was gravely wounded and expected to die. Contrary to this dire prediction, Mike survived, but his arm stubbornly refused to heal. Ten days after he’d been shot down, he was transferred to a hospital in Saigon, where doctors amputated his left arm. He was nineteen years old, and his first thought after waking up from the operation was that he would never again be able to hug a woman.

No longer useful for combat, in pain, disillusioned and traumatized by the ordeal of war, Mike was sent home. In his luggage he carried two Purple Hearts.

Before his arm had properly healed, and sometimes still in excruciating pain, he started to attend classes at Louisiana State University. What was left of his arm, a scarred chunk of meat at his elbow, was still shedding flakes of skin and pieces of bone. For a while he thought he would be a doctor. Like many other veterans he felt an urge to heal mankind, but having to take trigonometry classes soon dissuaded him of that dream. He enjoyed school, though, and found a particularly sweet irony in the fact that because he was a severely wounded veteran, the government not only paid for his education but also provided a monthly stipend for his expenses through a vocational-rehabilitation program.

It was a conflicted time for a Vietnam veteran to be in college. The very same day that Mike was shot, in April 1967, the Beatles finished recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that ushered in the so-called Summer of Love, unleashing the hippie culture onto the Western world. Mike, too, got caught up in the spirit of the times, but he kept a low profile. There was an increasing backlash against the war everywhere in the country, but especially on college campuses.

Veterans like Mike were called baby killers and thought to be psychotic. They were routinely confronted at demonstrations and attacked in student newspapers. Mike never talked about his experience in Vietnam, but everyone knew he was a veteran; his wounds were in plain sight. He let his hair grow long, smoked marijuana, and, in endless conversations with his peers, tried to understand their anti-war sentiments. Though he never joined an anti-Vietnam protest, in time he, too, came to believe that the war was wrong.

He married the first girl he dated, and they had a daughter, but, in a repeat of his own early childhood, he divorced his wife before his daughter reached the age of two. Mike quit school six credits short of graduation and tried to figure out what to do next. A regular job was out of the question. He could never sit in an office all day or even work for someone else. No patience. Instead of searching for an office job, buying a house, and spending life longing for the excitement he thought only the sea could deliver, Mike decided to bring together work, home, and passion: He would buy a boat to live on and become a sea captain.

To find his boat, he first bought a camper and, together with a new girlfriend and another couple, traveled throughout the United States for two years, stopping at every marina from the Florida Keys to Nova Scotia. He returned to Louisiana empty-handed in 1973. Shortly thereafter, less than two miles from his house, he found a fifty-five-foot motoryacht, roomy and sturdy but dilapidated.

He used up all his savings, $1,200, to buy it. The U.S. government had built the Mañana in 1946 to put it to work in the conservation of wildlife and fisheries. A man named John Santos had bought it from the government, and he in turn had donated it to a group that taught boating to teenagers. When Mike found it, it was a rusted shell of its former self rotting away in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. But Mike thought the Mañana had potential.

It didn’t occur to Mike that boating might be a difficult job for a man with only one arm. Ever since Vietnam he’d worn a rubber prosthesis that helped to keep him balanced and, from a distance, gave him an almost normal appearance. An exact copy of his right arm, the prosthesis even had freckles and small bulges where the veins of his formerly muscled arm would have been. The arm allowed him to hold a rope when he was throwing a line to and from the Mañana, but he couldn’t grasp anything with the fingers. In his dreams he always had two arms. Awake, he felt the sensation of his lost limb. He did not think of himself as handicapped.

After seven years of exhausting work refurbishing the thirty-four-year-old Mañana, Mike thought she was ready to sail, and he ordered his new business cards. Mañana Charters, the cards read in big, bold, black letters. And, underneath: Capt. Mike Howell. No more drifting and traveling for Mike. At thirty-two, he felt it was time to settle down to a business he enjoyed, ferrying passengers along Lake Pontchartrain, towing boats in trouble, and rescuing people at sea, if needed.

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Finding Mañana © 2005 by Mirta Ojito Used by Permission. All rights reserved.