THE PHONE RANG once and then again and then more and more, ringing like a phone that would never be answered until, finally, it was. A man picked it up and said hello and then she came on the phone and she sounded just like you thought she would-the voice stingy with inflection and flat like the countryside that shaped it. She said a few things and then suddenly and without warning she plunged right into the question of what really happened the night her son Michael was killed in Vietnam. Peg Mullen does not quit.
She asked about the television film "Friendly Fire," which she had not yet seen. She asked about the colonel who was in command the night Michael died, asking if the film had shown him doing some things she mentioned. She asked lots of questions, about the Army and about the colonel and about some other things and the answer was always no-no, they didn't show that.
You could see her head nodding yes. You could picture her in the mobile home in which she and her husband now live, nodding up and down at each no, indicating no surprise, saying all the things Carol Burnett said in the movie, looking in your mind like Carol Burnett and wondering how this could be happening. Something's wrong. Doesn't she know the program is over? The movie is over and she doesn't know it.
The Iowa winters have pushed the Mullens south to Texas. They live part of the year there and part of it in Iowa. Eugene Mullen had a heart attack three years ago and retired. The farm back in La Porte City, Iowa, has been leased to a tenant-a fifty-fifty deal. The Mullens' son has an agriculture business down the road, grain bins and that sort of thing, and the Mullen girls, well, the girls are girls no more. They are both married and a grandchild has come to the Mullen family. Knock on wood, they all prosper.
I had called on business-a request to watch the television movie about their son's death with them. I would watch them watch the show and then I would write what I saw. I would watch them watch their son die from a short round of our own artillery, killed as he slept. A shred of shrapnel entered his back and lodged in his heart and he died without even waking up. It was 1970 and he was 25 years old.
Peg Mullen said no to that. She said she and her husband would not be watching the slow. She said that they couldn't bear to watch. They would read books, she said, or play cards, she said, or maybe she would do her needlework. In any case, they would not be watching. It would be too hard on them, she said, and besides, it was not the correct story. She asked me because I had seen an advance screening about the Army and the colonel and the things she has always thought were wrong about, first, the book "Friendly Fire" and now the movie. Her son's death was no mere accident. It was something else.
She went on like that, talking about her dispute with the author of the book, how she and her husband blamed the Army for what had happened and how the author blamed no one. It was an accident that killed Michael, the writer. No, the Mullens Said. It was the Army, men, colonels-a conspiracy of sorts. The writer, she said, had used her information, taken her story, and wrenched it out of shape-changed the meaning of things. He had taken her material and used it the way he-not she-had seen fit. She should have written the book herself, she said.
"It's my story. I should have told it myself."
It was as if the television film had not ended. It was as if the show was not over and the credits had not rolled and Gene Mullen and Peg Mullen and the writer, C. D. B. Bryan, had not sort of made their peace at the graveside-agreed to disagree. On television, the screen had gone to dark and they had rolled the credits and then some commercial came on and Americans either went to bed or watched the late news. What you wanted to say was, "It's over-My God, don't you know it's over?"
But it's not. It's something she lives with, something that cannot be turned off, something that followed the news and the late show and runs in living color on the bedroom ceiling on nights when there is no sleep. It would be comforting to think of her as somewhat excessive, of trying too hard to put some meaning into a meaningless death, but it's not so simple. To say that no one is responsible for the death of Michael Mullen is tantamount to saying that no one is responsible for the war-that like his death, it was nothing but a mistake, no one's fault, just something that happened, something that could happen again. This is something Peg Mullen believes.
Maybe this is why she never quits.