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Title: Between You, Me, and the Stove
Rating: PG
Fandom: M*A*S*H
Characters: Father Francis Mulcahy, Charles Emerson Winchester III (for this chapter)
Historian's Note: Takes place after 'The Life You Save'
Summary: Father Mulcahy hears eight confessions and tries to remember that God moves in mysterious ways. Father Pierce hears one and concludes that God might be drunk.

Chapter 7: Evidence of Things We Cannot Yet See

oOo  oOo  8: As Though We had Never Been Here  oOo  oOo

Dear Sis,

A slightly reluctant stove-side confession tonight, I’m afraid.  Reluctant because it wasn’t a great day, and I would have loved to write you a genuine letter, rather than one destined for incineration, and because the entire situation has such a feeling of the surreal I wish I could believe it was a dream of the soul-weary. 

I’ve pulled garbage duty, Sis.  I don’t know how the last person managed to handle this.  I’m up to my elbows in liquefying lettuce and empty boxes.  There were no garbage trucks available, or at least none functional.  Colonel Potter has assured me that they’ll be up and running by tomorrow or the next day, but until that happens I’ll stand outside the mess tent with a broom, prodding at a mountain of refuse and hoping the whole thing doesn’t come down around my ears.

After such a day, it was a genuine pleasure to take a lukewarm shower that did very little to mitigate the smell of lettuce and eggs in my hair, and then stumble off to my tent.  I was hoping to get some shut-eye before the next day, or at least lie there long enough to relax my aching arms.  I wasn’t feeling particularly priestly, or even particularly charitable, so when I turned on my light to find Charles Emerson Winchester sitting in the dark it was all I could do not to tell him to get out and come back in the morning.

It was his look that froze me.  Major Winchester is supremely confident—some might even say arrogant.  He is an excellent doctor, and no one knows it better than he does.  I don’t want to say he’s annoying, but I do have difficulty not belting him upon occasion.

But he didn’t look confident, or really anything.  He’d been sitting in the dark in my tent, his elbows on his knees, staring at nothing.  He was wearing an apron covered in blood stains.

He was so blank, Kathy.  I knew I must have missed something during garbage detail, although I was certainly aware Major Winchester’s recent behavior had been strange.  He’d had the entire motor pool disassembled, leading to my problem with the garbage trucks.

He didn’t look up when he said, “You smell vile, Father.  Did you bathe in the mess tent?”

“Why you—”  I bit off the anger and the image of the mountain of garbage that conjured up.  The man was in some deep sort of pain.  He wasn’t thinking straight.  He probably didn’t even realize what he’d done.  As I said, Major Winchester was a proud man.  To come to me meant he had a crisis of faith so deep he could see no alternative.  I couldn’t make this about me and my problems.  “What’s wrong, Major?”

His laughter was as hollow as his expression.  “Whatever makes you think something’s wrong, Father?” he asked.  “I’m right as rain.”

“You’re sitting in my tent, in the dark, covered in blood.  Tell me what happened.”

He chuckled again, and I really was getting worried.  “You have a more forceful personality than people credit you with.  Really, you do.”

I crouched down in front of him.  “Charles,” I said.  The name seemed strange even as I said it, but I needed to get through to him somehow.  “What happened?”

He reached for his head, then lowered his hand again.  “One inch,” he said.


“Yes, I suppose you are,” he said.  Before I could take offense, he went on.  “One inch: a bullet went through my cap but missed my head, and the distance between them was approximately one inch.  And in that inch lay the difference between life and death.  There but for the grace of olive drab went I.”

“You nearly died.”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Is that why—”  I decided it might be best not to ask him if that was why he’d been acting insane.  Somehow, that didn’t seem as compassionate as I wanted to be.  “Was this during the sniper attack?”

He didn’t say anything, and he had yet to actually look at me.  I didn’t know why he’d come to me when he could have just as easily done this in his own tent.  Maybe he thought I would make less noise than Hawkeye and BJ.  Maybe he picked a door, and my tent just happened to be the one he stumbled into.

Whatever his reasons, I couldn’t sit idly by.  Even if he had thought me to be a passive participant, the man had been very close to dying.  That put his problem, if not firmly in my job description, close enough for the Army.

And then he did look at me, and it wasn’t the look of someone seeking aid.  Contempt is something that causes me to respond in funny ways, Sis.  “I can see what you’re thinking, but I don’t want your fatuous attempts at comfort, Father,” he said.  “I just watched a boy die, and there was nothing holy in the experience.  Save any mention of Heaven for the credulous young men in post-op.” 

If there has ever been a good indicator of how poor a priest I really am, it was my reaction to that.  Grief and terror make idiots of us all.  I’ve been shouted at, cursed and railed against as much as any man of the cloth in a warzone.  I know that my particular brand of reassurance doesn’t help everyone, and by and large I accept what’s thrown at me.  They’re children, those boys sent off to die at the front, and they’ve been put in an untenable position.  I can’t blame them for what seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable response to the situation.

Major Winchester wasn’t angry, though.  He didn’t shout, or rail.  He looked at me and dismissed me and everything I stood for, as though all my attempts to do good around the camp were the ineffectual nuisances I sometimes worried they might be.

The anger hurts, Kathy, but it’s expected and that softens the blow.  I didn’t see Major Winchester coming, and he hit deeper than simple hurt.  All of a sudden I wasn’t Father Mulcahy, mild-mannered chaplain to the local population of desperate hedonists.  I was ten years old, my temper snapping after Eddie Connelly made fun of me one too many times.  You remember that, don’t you?  I can still feel the nuns dragging us apart.  I hate to admit how much pride I felt seeing his black eye for the rest of the week.

I managed not to flatten Major Winchester, but all that fury redirected itself with the relentlessness of a massive garbage pile.  I sprang to my feet and towered over him as much as I could.  “Now, look here, Major.  You came into my tent without my knowledge while I was busy playing David to the garbage Goliath, so please don’t act like I’m imposing on you!”

We both stared at one another for several seconds, stunned into silence.  Then I turned away and collapsed onto my bunk.  I scrubbed a hand across my face and tried to compose myself.

Through my fingers I said, “Major, I have to apologize.  That was inexcusable.  I just … I don’t know what I can do for you.”

“There’s nothing you can do, Father.  I’ve thought long and hard about it, and that is the simple conclusion to which I have come.”  He stood up.  “Deepest apologies for disturbing you.”

“Major, wait!”  I caught his sleeve.  He looked at me, but he didn’t seem terribly confident in my abilities.  That stiffened something in my spine.  I was going to do this.  I was going to help Charles Emerson Winchester whether he wanted me to or not.  “Major, we’ve all asked ourselves what comes after this life.  We can’t help it, so close to so much death.  And you got closer than most of us.”

Major Winchester looked down at my hand, and his smile was almost pitying, but I couldn’t be certain who was being pitied.  “Father, I’ve spent days going over it: in the operating room, in post op.  I even went to battalion aid.”

The bloody apron made sudden, terrible sense, Kathy.  He must have come back from there and ducked into my tent before anyone could see him.  “Major,” I whispered.

“I saw a young man die.  Did you know that?  Of course you didn’t.  I watched the whole thing.  Do you know what I realized, seeing him go out piece by piece?”  He looked at me, and I couldn’t move.  Have you ever been struck by something so profoundly wrong that there is nothing you can think of to fix it?  “I know what comes after death: nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  We just die at any time for any reason, with no white light and no angelic chorus.”  He closed his eyes.  “Not a bang, but a whimper.”

“You can’t know that,” I said.  “No one can.”

“Ah, so you admit you don’t either.  No revelations in the priesthood, Father?  Conversations with God?” he asked.  Then he answered himself, “No, you’re just as ignorant as anyone else.  You just hide it behind your collar.”

“Some chaplains,” I said, measuring each word, “claim to have spoken to God.  I never have.  Maybe that makes me a poor priest, but I’ve never based my beliefs in proof.  It’s not faith without a leap.”

“You expect me to believe just because you do?”

“No, I don’t.”  It got his attention, at least.  “I have met so many good people in my life, and the majority of them didn’t believe as I did.  I can’t believe, after meeting them, that I have the market cornered on answers.  What I believe is what rings true to me: what gives me hope in this hopeless situation.  I won’t tell you to believe as I do, but I will tell you to believe in something.  Anything.  It doesn’t have to be Catholicism or Presbyterianism.  You don’t even—” I nearly choked on the words, “—you don’t even have to believe in God.  Hawkeye … I think he just believes in people, and for him it’s enough.  The human spirit brings him the comfort and the security that God brings me.”

“Ah, but a belief in people does not guarantee any sort of, ahem, afterlife, Father.”

I really wished he didn’t treat this discussion as an academic debate.  I could see him shutting down his emotional investment in this, treating it as just another exercise.  “You’d have to ask Hawkeye about the particulars of his faith, or lack thereof, but I would have to imagine that a life lived in the uncertainty of agnosticism would have to be a life that minimizes regret.  Buddhists have reincarnation: a second chance, if you will.  We have Heaven, and the forgiveness of a loving God.  Agnosticism has those possibilities, but also allows for the possibility of nothing at all, and with that sort of oblivion looming over you, could you help but make certain you did everything you were hoping to do in life as soon as possible, and as fully as you’re able?  It takes a very particular sort of man to live his life in such a way.  Hawkeye manages, but I don’t think I could do it.  Do you?”

Major Winchester lowered his gaze, and his confrontational stance eased up.  “You didn’t, by chance, fence when you were younger?”

“Boxing only.”

“A shame.  You certainly have an admirable riposte hidden beneath your stole.”

“Major, this wasn’t about winning.”  I let him go and stepped back, my confidence waning as quickly as it had waxed.  “This was my attempt to help you somehow, even if it isn’t the sort of help I would usually recommend.  Maybe I should stick to my usual and let other people handle the more secular advice.”

“If it comforts you, and really it should, my current dilemma is too great for any five-minute conversation to assuage over-much,” Winchester said.  He sounded disinterested, even condescending, but he was looking at me in such an earnest manner I had to think his tone was instinctive rather than intentional.  “The fact that you gave me anything at all to think about does you credit.”

I mustered a smile, but it didn’t feel like a victory.  In my misguided confidence, I fear I somehow advised him not so much to seek the comfort of the Church, but rather to ascribe to secular humanism.  I admitted to him that I couldn’t be entirely certain there was an afterlife.  I had, in the space of those moments, cut my own beliefs—my vocation—down to nothing in an attempt to reach Major Winchester, and it was likely a wasted gesture.

My only consolation was that he didn’t know how badly I’d fumbled, how far I’d stepped outside of what a good priest would have done.  I’m supposed to guide these people, Sis.  I’m supposed to be the shining example of all they could be.  Instead, I beg them to believe in anything at all, and I question dogma whenever the situation gets bad, rather than questioning the situation through the lens of dogma.  What I may be doing to these poor people’s souls aside, what will I do when I return stateside?  My excuse has always been that in war extraordinary understanding and acceptance must take place, or we’ll never get anywhere.  But back in America I’ll need to believe everything I’ve been questioning.  I’ll need to be as steadfast in my faith, not only in God but in the Church, as I was before Korea. 

And if I do somehow gain some confidence, I fear what I might say in it.  I just advocated secular humanism thanks to confidence!  If I was back in America and said something like that to a bishop, he would be well within his rights to investigate me, if not move for laicization.  But I think about how my opinions have changed, being here.  My attitudes about divorce are so hazy they could be blown over by a stiff breeze.  I still believe in Heaven, but I worry about who gets to go there.  The notion that only Catholics—or even broadening the category to Christians—get to go there flies in the face of my deep belief in a loving God.  If there is any one thing I still believe, in spite of all the horror I’ve seen, it is that God loves us.  But that core belief has made me question almost everything else: how can there be war if he loves us?  The answer seems to be that he loves us enough to grant us free will; that he’s more like a parent who recognizes the need to allow His children to make mistakes.  Which contradicts Church teachings about predestination.  And in this war I see so many little children, most of whom are Buddhists, and the notion that if they died tomorrow they would go to Hell thanks to Original Sin is anathema to me.  And again, it contradicts the notion of a loving God. 

All my trappings have been stripped away here, Sis.  All my doctrine has been shaken up and in some cases broken beyond repair.  What do I do when I get home and have to face other priests who still believe everything they were taught in Seminary?  I think I can still do good works in the priesthood.  I still see it as a force for good, often for people who see no other good in their lives.  I still feel my vocation.  If I’m honest, I feel it now more strongly than ever.  It’s just that my vision of being a priest and the Church’s vision are, at times, at odds.

I was drowning in these realizations last night, Kathy.  I was so far down in despair I couldn’t see a way out.  But then Major Winchester asked, “When is your ecumenical service, Father?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  “I’m sorry?”

“Your non-denominational service next Sunday.  When is it?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  “Eleven thirty.”

He nodded and said, “I must inform you that you’ve convinced me of nothing.”  Then his voice dropped to something quiet and confidential.  “But a good debater always hears all sides of the argument.”

“Of course.”  He made his way to the tent door.  Before he could leave, I called out, “See you Sunday, Major.”

He only spared me a quick glance over his shoulder, but it was a serious glance.  With Major Winchester, we must count our victories where we can.  “Father,” he said, and then slipped through the door.

You know, Kathy, I don’t think I handled this situation well, but I can’t come up with any other way to have gone about it.  I’ve convinced Major Winchester to come to services, which is a miracle I never thought I’d see in Korea, but I can’t believe his zeal will last.  Inside a week, I predict I’ll be back down to my three current regulars, and Colonel Potter falling asleep on the third pew. 

One thing did become very clear to me during my silent crisis: I love everyone in camp, and everyone who comes through.  My strange, wayward flock is so scattered some of them wound up on the moon.  There are Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists all around me, and I love them.  I pray for their souls, yes, but even more than that, I go out into camp and I don’t care what they believe.  They as people deserve Heaven, regardless of what they believe, and if God really is as loving as I have to believe he is, we will all, each and every soul in the 4077th, end up there.

Love to you too,


Chapter 9: There but for the Grace of Someone