A short story by Liam Durcan

Honorable Discharge
a short story by David DeKrey

On October 24, 1964, Richard Phillip Kahn was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps. The day was clear. The leaves along Catlin Avenue had been raked into symmetrical mounds resembling Monet haystacks in the fading afternoon light.

At the corner of Catlin and Russell, the body of a pigeon, well insulated by feathers yet surprisingly conductive, completed a circuit between two overhead power lines. The resultant transformer explosion emitted the scent of blackened squab and PCBs. The smell was bittersweet and matched his mood.

As he left the Naval Medical Clinic, Richard could still feel the three missing fingers of each hand. They felt solid and real, as though they could still type 95 words a minute, could still tie flies with alarming speed, could still palm a basketball, even if slick with sweat. Instead, 37.5% of his non-standard military issue gloves hung slack and unused.

In the developing embryo, the hands begin as undifferentiated buds at the ends of the growing limbs. As development proceeds, the fingers lengthen and apoptosis removes the intervening webbing. In approximately one out of every one thousand fetuses something in this process goes awry, resulting in supernumerary digits.

The appearance of extra appendages is most often caused by genetic factors and occurs in concert with other abnormalities. Those with Rubenstein-Taybi syndrome not only have more than the usual complement of phalanges but also suffer from short stature, low set ears, and undescended testicles. The old order Amish have a high incidence of Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, resulting in dwarfism combined with extra fingers and toes. Likewise, sufferers of Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome exhibit congenital abnormalities of the hands and feet as well as multiple “port wine stains,” while those with Patau’s syndrome suffer spare digits, cleft lips, cleft palates, deafness, apnea, and hernias.

In some cases, there appears to be no underlying genetic cause for the defect, which instead results from the influence of toxins or intrauterine pressure or injury. Regardless of the cause, the extra digits tend to jut out at weird and disconcerting angles, giving the afflicted a freak-show appearance and a decidedly memorable handshake.

When friends asked Marge Kahn if she wanted a girl or boy as her first-born child, her standard response was always “I don’t care as long as it has 10 perfect little fingers and 10 perfect little toes.” Marge was about to get more than she bargained for.

It was the sixth week of her pregnancy and Marge was the front seat passenger in a Chevrolet sedan, driven by her husband Phil. As they followed a truck delivering building materials to their new home-site, a binder strap snapped and an oak newel post passed through their windshield striking her in the abdomen. At the moment of impact, Richard was extending his pre-natal limbs against the wall of his mother’s womb, weightlessly pushing off, like a cosmonaut propelling himself across the MIR lab module to, yet again, fetch the duct tape.

Following the accident there was considerable concern for Marge’s pregnancy. But after a week had passed, the bruises were mostly healed, Marge had stopped worrying for her un-born child, and Richard Phillip Kahn was well on his way to developing extraordinary polydactylism.

Marge would never forget the look the pediatrician gave her when she opened her eyes and his face appeared between her splayed knees. It was an expression of horrified bemusement like one gets when former presidential candidates discuss erectile dysfunction.

“It’s a boy,” the doctor announced, and handed Marge her son. The baby’s hands, unsupported by amniotic fluid, were opening and closing, grasping the air. Unlike most born with polydactyly, Richard Phillip Kahn’s fingers, all sixteen of them, two full octaves, were perfectly formed. His hands, while obviously large, were symmetrical. The seven fingers and one thumb were attached to wide palms and every finger was fully articulated. Each as capable as the other of probing a nostril, grasping a baseball bat, or shaking the water out of an ear after a Sunday afternoon swim.

For the next 22 years Richard Phillip Kahn would consistently win best costume contests on Halloween; every other day of the year repeating the phrase “No, they’re not fake,” to the inquisitive like a mantra. Throughout his childhood Richard was forced to wear only mittens during cold weather and had to endure constant requests from his playmates to “gimme eight.” Beyond the typical playground indignities suffered by those perceived as different, Richard faced other more esoteric problems. When he got married, where would he put the ring? What finger was best suited to express his displeasure with offending motorists? He had an index finger and a pinky finger, but how was he to refer to the remaining digits?

Regardless of their drawbacks his extra fingers carried with them distinct advantages. He rested them lightly across the home row of a typewriter keyboard with fingers to spare, opting to cover the “e” and “r” on the left and the comma and period on the right. This gave him blazing keyboarding speed, honed through a self devised system he perfected after his supernumerary digits thoroughly confounded Miss Sharpton, the typing teacher, with her conventional texts propped like a-frames next to the rows of Smith-Coronas.

His typing skills, along with his knot tying, hair braiding, and extraordinary piano playing talents, while impressive, paled in comparison to his ultimate gift. Richard Phillip Kahn was eight when he first witnessed what would become his obsession. Once per month the small rural school Richard attended had a lyceum. These state sponsored educational/entertainment programs brought dancers, singers, motivational speakers, puppeteers, and their ilk into the schools to entertain the student body and anyone from the community who cared to attend. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, the featured performer was a magician. A tired looking middle-aged man, his top hat and tail coat visibly frayed, performed the typical litany of canned tricks: pulling a rabbit from the hat, a lackluster linking ring routine, red foam balls that seemingly multiplied in the hand of an audience volunteer. It was when the lights went out for the finale of the performance that Richard Phillip Kahn sat in thrall. The magician turned on a bright light in front of a white screen, and on that screen, using only his hands, projected shadow images of dogs, a giraffe, an elephant, a swan.

That day, after school, Richard grabbed the old metal gooseneck lamp from the roll top desk and in a windowless closet in the basement of the Kahn family bungalow, began to hone his routine. Richard soon advanced beyond the simple animals he had seen the magician perform and was entertaining his friends with figures of sensuous nudes, the bald headed bulbous face of Nikita Khrushchev, Stonehenge.

Richard first performed only for friends and family but after building up a sufficient repertoire advanced to talent shows and community festivals. He was always last on the bill when surrounding towns held their Fourth of July celebrations and Oktoberfests. None of the other local talent would follow him. It’s difficult to really hold the audience with an accordion medley of Strauss tunes when they’ve just witnessed the entire passion play, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the skeptical Thomasian examination of the risen Lord and Savior’s wound’s, performed on a bed sheet in front of a jury rigged spot light.

Richard’s talents were in high demand. Each time the mildewed portable screen was laboriously erected in front of the driver’s ed class for another showing of “Blood on the Highway,” Richard would be called from class for an impromptu performance. Some of the teachers grumbled about his frequent absences, but it freed Mr. Fratelli from developing a lesson plan on the etiquette of a four-way stop. In the light cast by the movie projector the usual pathetic bunny rabbits hopping stiffly across the screen were replaced by depictions of Don Quixote assailing windmills, their blades slowly rotating in the Spanish breeze.

When he was seventeen, Richard Phillip Kahn discovered another gift afforded by his nimble fingers. He and Janice Stewart had been casually dating for several months when, one night after a movie, her bra strap gave him no trouble at all.

The movie had featured a scene where a breathless starlet slapped a rugged iconoclast who then grabbed her elbows and kissed her madly, causing her to melt into his arms. Richard’s kisses didn’t do that much for Janice, she found they involved a bit more tongue than was really necessary. But when her bra came off and Richard’s fingers brushed her nipples, she performed an admirable homage to the melting starlet. Janice was unclear on the precise anatomy at play, but there seemed to be a nerve directly connecting her breasts to other, more sensitive, areas. Richard’s fingers seemed to be rather intimately acquainted with that nerve. It was a skill he employed to its full advantage. Finding dates was never a particular problem for Richard Phillip Kahn.

During Richard’s senior year, a recruiter visited his high school to administer the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The ASVAB was a series of tests, ostensibly designed to gauge a student’s abilities and their propensity for a given career. In reality, the ASVAB singled out students to target for more aggressive recruiting actions. Included in the battery were several timed tests of physical skill and dexterity. These tests involved threading nuts and washers onto bolts, placing pegs into holes, and dropping rings over dowels set in a board.

Richard’s classmates, having spent twelve years in the shadow of his unusual talents, had grown a bit blasé about his abilities. The only time his digits rated even a passing comment from one of his friends was when a new girl happened into the group and they could point out his hands to appear vicariously interesting.

“See that guy over there,” she’d later whisper to the other cheerleaders, “His best friend is the kid with the fingers.”

The recruiter, recently transferred to the area from Biloxi, was not so jaded. During the exam he wandered around the science room, his hands clasped behind his back. He was thinking about his crappy little apartment with its Murphy bed and temperamental shower and the black girl in Mississippi he’d been transferred away from in order to avoid a scandal, when the blur of Richard’s hands snapped him to attention. While Richard’s right threaded wing nuts and spun them home his left was dropping rings onto wooden pegs with a hand speed Cassius Clay would have envied. The recruiter had found one of his few good men.

By 1964, American advisors in Vietnam numbered 16,000 and the Saigon government was faring rather badly in its struggle to hold the country despite the 32,000 cents worth of free advice it was receiving. Richard Phillip Kahn was stationed aboard the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Maddox was charged with electronic surveillance and reconnaissance, launching aircraft of the light photographic squadron to gather information on the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. They were joined by the aircraft carrier Constellation and additional surveillance craft from the Bon Homme Richard, the Hancock, and the Ranger. Positioning these ships, aircraft, US advisors, and South Vietnamese forces presented something of a logistical challenge. In late July 1964, the United States was preparing for a major secret air offensive into the north that, aided by south Vietnamese ground troops, would cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the major route used to ferry arms and supplies to the Viet Cong, and cripple the north’s ability to continue the war.

In the late 1950s defense contractors had begun work on an Electronic Tactical Operations Module. The ETOM was to receive radar data from ships and aircraft as well as radio signals from commanders on the ground. Information on enemy forces obtained via intercepted communications and from surveillance aircraft was also to be entered and then integrated into a comprehensive strategic battle plan that would be constantly updated as conditions changed. Due to the rapidly shifting nature of war and the lag time involved in communication, even between two people seated in the same room, the ETOM was designed to be operated by a single technician. By 1962 Martin Marietta had a working model. At just over 6000 pounds, the ETOM was a cumbersome tangle of vacuum tubes, circuit breakers, capacitors, and multicolored monofilament copper wires. Its control panel, the size of a picnic table, contained 267 toggle switches, 48 rheostats, three screens, two keyboards, and until Richard Phillip Kahn completed boot camp, was physically impossible to operate.

On August 2, 1964, Richard was in his private control room in the superstructure of the Maddox. The ETOM had been installed earlier that year and Richard had been polishing his skills. Over the last several days, a South Vietnamese boat unit under the direct command of US forces had been shelling two islands, Hon Me and Hon Nieu, in the gulf of Tonkin. Officially, the bombardment was conducted as a show of force but in reality had been planned as a training mission to test the abilities of the ETOM and its one of a kind operator. Both had performed well.

Richard’s unique position afforded him certain unofficial privileges not enjoyed by the other enlisted men. On this particular afternoon, he was entertaining a young Vietnamese English-language student he had met while on shore leave in Seoul. As they chatted, the sound of several high-speed ships could be heard coming from over the horizon and distant shelling punctuated her halting conversation.

The console of the ETOM took up one entire wall of the small control room. A narrow ledge jutted out from the front of the console at approximately desk height. Between the two keyboards affixed to the ledge was a panel that provided access to a bank of fuses, a panel that was coincidentally the same width as the English-language student’s behind. The noise of approaching ships grew to a roar as Richard’s extraordinary hands began a serious exploration down the back of her emphatically civilian underwear. Understandably distracted, Richard didn’t register the frantic scurrying noises of his fellow troops being placed on high alert until a piece of shrapnel, sheared off the ETOM housing unit by a single North Vietnamese 14.5 mm shell, removed fingers six, seven, and eight from his left hand, perforated the English-language student’s buttocks, irreparably mangled two ring fingers and the pinky of his right hand, and made it forever impossible for Richard Phillip Kahn to give anyone eight.

The North Vietnamese, angry over the bombing of Hon Me and Hon Neiu, had dispatched three PT boats against the Maddox. As soon as they were within range, the PT boats launched four torpedoes and opened fire with their deck guns. The only hit sustained by the Maddox was the shell that mutilated Richard Phillip Kahn’s hands into normality and caused the English-language student to sleep on her stomach for six months. As the medics carefully carried her down the iron stairs on a stretcher and bandaged Richard’s hands to stop the blood, sunlight shone through the hole made by the cannon round. The irregular edge of the hole cast a shadow on the opposite wall of the control room. In that shadow, Richard saw the perfect likeness of Nikita Khrushchev, his shoe raised to pound the conference table. Richard couldn’t take his eyes off that silhouette as they led him from the room.

The retaliatory action by the North, along with erroneous reports of a second attack on the Maddox two days later, led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and eleven more years of US military involvement in Vietnam.

Richard removed his gloves and picked up a flat stone on the bank of Chopawamsic Creek. The naval surgeons had done a remarkable job. To the uninitiated, his hands looked perfectly natural, their only irregularity a long scar running from the last finger to the wrist of each. He cocked his arm and skimmed the stone across the smooth surface of the water. It skipped a merely average three times. He watched the concentric ripples merge and expand toward the startled ducks swimming near the opposite shore. Richard dropped his gloves and walked back to his car parked on the street. As he tried to merge onto US Highway 1 heading north toward Alexandria, a taxi refused to let him on. For the first time in his life, Richard Phillip Kahn didn’t delay his actions in order to consider which finger was most appropriate for the situation.

  

©2001 David DeKrey

Click here to leave a comment on this story