Return To The Real World, Part V

And so I was pulled back to consciousness by the bustle beginning to take place around me.  Commanders, captains and clerks were turning on lights, opening windows and hopefully arranging stacks of papers next to their typewriters; papers which would soon include my discharge orders.  I sat up with the other derelict soldiers who had been left deserted on the riser when the Oakland Army Terminal shut down at 2300 hours the evening before, and tried to rub the sleepiness out of my eyes.  As I regained full consciousness I became aware of the fact that my mouth tasted like an ashtray.  I had quit smoking cigarettes in Vietnam but still enjoyed an occasional cigar.  The events of the past 48 hours qualified as an occasion, so I had purchased a four pack of cigars the evening before, and reaching into my shirt pocket I found that the last one was still intact.  I extracted the tube of tobacco and bummed a light from one of the other awakening G.I.’s.

As I sat back to enjoy my smoke a new urn of coffee was brought out to replace the hog swill that I had used to extinguish the butt of my last cigar of the previous evening.  This urn undoubtedly contained a much better product and I arose and mosied over to get a cup.  I was pleased to find that my assumption was correct; the coffee was the same strong and flavorful stuff that I had drunk for nearly the last three years, and the aroma soon drove the other guys over to the urn to get cups of their own.

As we sat there waiting for the process to resume I took the opportunity to do what soldiers everywhere do; I told a story.  “You know, this Army coffee kept me out of a lot of lousy duty” I began in the time-honored manner of all yarn spinners.  “How’s that?” replied one of the other guys, playing his role to perfection.  “Well, I like working in the kitchen and cooking, and when I was in basic training at Ord I had KP (Kitchen Police, or kitchen duty) on the day that our company had to march ten or fifteen miles out into the country in full packs, set up tents, and do night and day maneuvers for two or three days.  I ended up helping to pack up the field kitchen and mess tent and rode in the back end of a deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton truck) to our bivouac area.  We set up the tent and assembled the kitchen long before the ‘cruits (recruits) got there, so Sarge made some coffee and we sat around for an hour or two until he got the word to start cooking dinner.  The Joe’s came into the area and had to pitch tents before they could eat, and they looked like shit when they came into our tent, but we were doing just fine.

After that I always volunteered for KP when there was a crappy detail to avoid, and sometimes I would take a guy’s KP in return for their weekend pass.  I tell you, sitting in a tent in the early morning with a cup of hot coffee and some of the best SOS (creamed beef on toast, or Shit on a Shingle) that the mess sergeant could cook while listening to his stories, some going back to World War II, were some of the best times I had in the Army.”  The guys all smiled and nodded.  Nobody appreciates a good scam that gets you out of boring or dangerous work nearly as much as a soldier does.  At ten minutes until seven a great commotion erupted behind us.  The doors to the building yawned open and a new batch of soldiers filed in, probably the next bunch of returnees, we assumed.

“Durden, Glenn!”  A new clerk bawled out my name and I jumped up, ready to make an end of this.  “Come in, Durden.  We’re almost done here.  When you leave this station you will get into your Class A dress uniform for the final station.  You’re almost done, soldier.”  I could hardly believe my ears but the clerk was as good as his word, and not twenty minutes later I had traded fatigues and combat boots for my rumpled green dress uniform with it’s shirt the color of baby puke and my “low quarter” dress shoes which had all been stuffed into my bag.  Emerging from a restroom so attired I proceeded to the last station.

“Here is your last payday soldier.  How would you like your money:  cash, check or travelers checks?” I had a little cash left in my pockets and so foolishly opted for travelers checks, which were duly issued and signed.  “OK.  Sign this paper here,”  the clerk pushed one more paper toward me that looked like the fifteen thousand other papers that I had already signed, “and we’ll be done.”  I signed as quickly as I could, scrawling my name across the bottom of the paper.  The clerk slid a folded sheaf of discharge orders to me and asked for my military ID card, which I cheerfully yielded up to him.  “That’s it.  Get out of here, man.”

I picked up my bag and walked out of the building, dazed and hardly daring to believe what I had just heard and witnessed.  Outside it was a glorious spring morning in the Bay Area and I felt like this must be what entering heaven would feel like.  Nearly three years earlier I climbed off of a bus near midnight in front of a mess hall at Ford Ord, and now I was walking towards a taxi with every step leading me farther away from all of that.  Two other guys were negotiating with the driver and I came up to make it three.  We agreed on a price and soon passed through the gates of Oakland Army Terminal.  I didn’t look back.

We chattered excitedly as the driver made his way towards San Francisco International Airport.  I don’t remember anybody’s name or where they were going to; this was my time and that’s all I was focused on.  We passed over the bridge and through The City, finally arriving at the front of the airport.  I saw none of the protesters who were reported to show up anywhere in the City where soldiers might appear in order to spit on them and call baby killers and so forth.  I can’t predict how I would have reacted in such an instance but nothing of the sort happened.  We paid the driver, shook hands and went our separate ways.

I headed straight to the Pacific Southwest Airlines ticket counter and took my place in line, and at length my turn came.  I approached the counter, gave my destination and waited for the ticket to be sold to me.  After a few minutes the agent pushed a ticket in my direction and said “That will be $78.69.”  I took out my travelers checks and prepared to countersign when she asked “can I see your ID?”  I had, of course, surrendered my military ID less than an hour earlier and told her this.  “I’m sorry sir, I can’t accept a travelers check without some sort of ID.”

“Ma’am, I don’t have any ID.  I have just been discharged from the Army.  I have a drivers license in my chest of drawers at home because I didn’t need it much in Vietnam where I’ve spent the last two goddam years.”  My frustration with the tragicomedy of snafus and delays on this odyssey was beginning to reach a boiling point, and my near exhaustion that a few hours of sleep had only barely begun to address only added to my irritability.  “Look, all I ask is that I be allowed to go home and take this green monkey suit off.  I have a name badge that says my name pinned to my chest.  I have orders that say Glenn L. Durden is a free man and can go home now.  What the hell do I have to do to buy a ticket from you that will get me there?”

“I’m sorry sir.  I don’t make the rules—.”  At this point a vein at my right temple was about to explode.  The customers lined up behind me came to my aid however, and averted a replay of the Tet Offensive right there at the ticket counter.  “Come on lady.  Sell the man a ticket!” said the customer behind me.  “Yeah” chimed in a lady behind him.  “What the hell’s wrong with you.  Does he have to bleed for you right here on the floor?”  A chorus of other voices began to rise up and the flustered agent, who’s fault it really wasn’t after all, held up her hands and said “OK.  Wait here and I’ll get a supervisor.”

She left the counter and in no time at all a guy in a natty little suit came out and asked the eternal, smarmy question:  “OK, what seems to be the problem here?”  I explained the problem to an accompanying chorus of muttered threats and imprecations from the other travelers.  “It doesn’t sound to me like we have a problem at all” he said, averting a small crisis.  “Here.  Sign these two checks and we’ll get you some change and a seat on flight 1079, leaving here in about—” he consulted his wristwatch in a sweeping and dramatic fashion —“fifty five minutes.  There’ll be a stopover in Long Beach and we”ll have you in San Diego at 1:44 this afternoon.”

1:44 PM this afternoon!”  Not 1344 hours, but 1:44 PM  “Is there anything else that we can do for you Mr. Durden?”  Once again, ‘Mr. Durden!’  Not Specialist Durden, not soldier, not ‘cruit, grunt, goldbrick, shitbird or anything else that I had been called the last three years.  Mister Durden responded with “No sir.  Thank you very much for your help.”  I took my ticket and carried my bag to the appropriate gate, and there awaited my flight which was right on time.  At last the gate opened and I queued up to board.  A flight attendant took one of my tickets – the one to Long beach – and I put the ticket for the second leg of my final journey into a crease in my peaked garrison cap.  Soldiers now wear cute little berets, but back then we wore garrison caps, and traveling soldiers always put their tickets in that crease.  It was like they were made for it.  I found my seat, stashed my bag in the overhead compartment, sat down and buckled up, and then fell fast asleep.

“Hey buddy, wake up.  Wake up soldier.”  An elbow was nudging me in the ribs as I regained consciousness.  I looked over at my traveling companion, a civilian in his middle years, as wakefulness slowly returned to me.  “Where are we?” I asked.  “Coming into Lindberg” he told me.  I looked with bleary eyes out the window and saw the brown layer of smog that hovered over the city.  “Humph” I thought.  “That’s different.”  We came down uneventfully and in fifteen minutes I was talking to my mother on a telephone in the terminal.  “I’m home Mom.  Can you come and pick me up?”

We lived a half hour from the airport, and it seemed like forever before Mom’s ’62 Mercury pulled up in front of me outside of the terminal doors.  I got an affectionate tongue lashing for not having bothered to call home once I was on this side of the Pacific Ocean, but I mostly ignored it as we passed by the North Bay area, then past the old Spanish Presidio buildings up the hill from the mouth of Mission Valley.  Now we drove past the new football stadium where the Chargers played.  I had not yet seen this building and it looked like the apex of modern sports to me. At last we drove up Fairmont hill and through the neighborhood that I had called home for the last seventeen years.

“Mom,” I asked when we got home.  “I’m too young now to buy a beer.  Would you go up to the store and get me a six pack while I shower?”  Mom agreed and soon I was alone, standing in the shower at the house that I had called home since I was four years old.  After the water had washed off nearly three days of dirt and sweat, some of which had first stuck to my body at Long Binh, Vietnam, I toweled off and dressed in shorts and a tee shirt and went out to enjoy my first beer as a civilian.

Mom had bought two six packs and I sipped one and talked with Mom until Dad got home from work.  He greeted me with a handshake and tears that he only barely held back.  Pop opened a beer of his own and then procured a shot of the rye whiskey that he kept on the back porch.  We then yakked while Mom bustled about in the kitchen.  At length my brother Brad returned from his classes at San Diego State.  He too opened one of the beers and we talked until Mom sang out “Dinner’s served.”  Then the four of us sat down at the table as civilians for the first time in three years.

After dinner, with hellos all well said and a stomach bursting with the best food that I had tasted in a very long time, I excused myself and strapped on the sandals that I had brought home from Vietnam.  Ray Matlock, one of my oldest neighborhood friends, had returned from the ‘Nam only two weeks earlier, and I wanted to go savor my freedom with somebody who could really relate.

At length I stepped out of the front door with a straw hat on to hide my extremely short hair.  My first sergeant in Vietnam had threatened to hold me back if my hair, which I had always cheated on, wasn’t Army length.  I doubted that he would really do it but didn’t want to incur unnecessary risk, so I had my head virtually shaved.  Now, with a smooth face and a cue ball for a head I walked down the two steps off of the front porch, down the walkway that Dad and I had framed up and poured years earlier, and over the sidewalk that I had grown up walking and running on.

So many of my brothers had trouble coming home from Vietnam.  Some you could say never quite made it home at all.  That was not my story.  As I walked along the sidewalk to Ray’s house, the three previous years were already beginning to recede into the past.  New experiences would replace the old ones and the worst of the old ones would in time be relegated to my dreams, and those increasingly far apart.  I, Glenn Durden, was home.

Return To The Real World, Part IV

I don’t know what exactly the flight crew could do to make my flight more comfortable than they were already doing.  Except for getting me to Travis Air Force Base sooner, that is.  Other than that I only needed my seat, and occasional cup of coffee to help me stay awake, and anything that I could dream up to occupy my mind.  Outside the window I could see a vast expanse of landscape carpeted with thick forest, jagged mountains protruding skyward above the treelike and lakes and rivers sparkling like jewels on a green velvet table.  I imagined myself fishing, trapping, and maybe panning for gold down there, although you could fit what I knew about fishing, trapping and panning for gold in one of the cups that the flight attendants brought my coffee in.  Or maybe half of that cup.

After an hour or two my new neighbor nudged me in the shoulder, breaking into my almost hypnotic trance just as I was about to shoot a moose and provide my wilderness cabin with meat and other necessary products for the next six months.  “Hey buddy” he began.  “Where you going to when we land?”  “I stared at him stupidly for a moment, and then pulled myself completely back into the here and now.  “I’m getting out at Oakland” I told him.  “I extended an extra eight months in ‘Nam so that I could get the three month early out.  How about you?”  “I’m going on to Fort Hood” he replied.  “I’ve got another ten months to go.”  “Fort Hood!” I grunted with a look of disdain.  “I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of Fort Hood” I told him, and he laughed.  “Yeah, I heard from some of the guys in the 11th Armored that it was an armpit.  I only have ten months to go though.  I can stand anything for that long.  Oh, my name’s Clayton Mildenburg.”  He stuck out his hand and I grasped it.  “I’m Glenn Durden.  I’m going home to San Diego the second that I get finished processing out at Oakland.”

“San Diego!” Clayton exclaimed.  “I want to go there!  ‘Two girls for ev–ry boy’ he began to sing the lyrics to Jan and Dean’s song ‘Surf City’.  Is it really like that?”  “Well” I began, “Yes and no.  We have great beaches and a lot of people surf—”  “Do you surf?” Clayton interjected.  “No, not with a surfboard.  I do a lot of body surfing but could never afford a surfboard.  Damned things are expensive!  And my father never let me work when I was a kid.  ‘When you get straight A’s I’ll know that you have enough spare time to work’ I growled in a gruff voice imitating my father.  “Well, I never got straight A’s, crooked A’s or any other type of A’s very much, so no work and no money.  I’m buying a board as soon as I get home though.  Gotta make up for lost time.”

Clayton seemed dazzled by the thought of bronzed bodies riding waves and partying on the beach all night long with that delicious two-to-one ratio that Jan and Dean had sung about, and the soldier and bullshit artist in me couldn’t resist playing along with it.  I filled his head with tales of my irresistible attractiveness among the surfer girls and how not two but three of them would be waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field in San Diego when I arrived, no matter what the time of day or night.  The truth, of course, was that an Anchorite monk living in a cave in the Egyptian desert would have more chance of three girls waiting to pick him up if he got lost and stumbled into an oasis somewhere than I had of three girls, or any for that matter, waiting to pick me up at Lindbergh Field or anywhere else in the world.  Clayton didn’t know that however, and it made a great story, so I shipped that and a whole lot of other bull his way.

“So what are you going to do when you get out?” I asked Clayton, finding talking with him more interesting than I thought that it would be.  Clayton didn’t take a moment to respond “I don’t have any idea.  My dad owns a radio and appliance business in Grand Junction, Colorado.  He was on the ground crew for the bombers that flew from England on bombing raids over Germany in World War II, and he was really good at fixing anything.  So, he started fixing things back home and then started selling them.  He’s done really good, I guess.  We have a pretty nice house in town, everybody likes him and my mom.  They’re members in good standing at Gethsemane Methodist Church and the Elks Club and blah, blah, blah.  And I’m not putting them down.  I love my folks.  I just don’t want to be my folks.

You see, Grand Junction is only one of the wider wide spots in the road.  There’s a little hospital and a nice downtown, and the trains come through and pick up stuff raised and grown around there and then take it somewhere else.  Well, I want to go to that somewhere else.  I volunteered for the Army and I volunteered for Vietnam too.  I just wanted to see other places and do more than fix television sets and sell washing machines.”

“I know what you mean” I said.  “When I got out of high school I had no idea what to do next.  I didn’t even know how you went about looking for a job and I just couldn’t see me doing anything in particular.  One of my best friends started going to school to become a cop, but I knew that I would never do anything like that.  A lot of other guys got jobs at the aircraft plant or shipyards, but I’m no good with tools and I couldn’t fix shit.  Thing is, I still really don’t know what I’m going to do.  My dad’s a teacher, and so I might go to school and learn how to do that.  I wasn’t great in school, but I can do pretty good in classes that I like and can survive the ones that I don’t, so maybe I’ll go to school and become a teacher.  Anyway, the G.I. Bill will cover me for four years, so I might as well give it a try.”

“Not me man” Clayton responded.  “I never did like school, and they didn’t like me much either.  I’ve never really done well with authority.  See this clean sleeve?”  Clayton pointed to a shoulder that was devoid of any stripes or patches denoting rank.  “Four months ago I was sitting at a base camp in the Central Highlands.  We were supporting the 173rd Airborne but there was nothing in particular going on then.  I was driving a jeep for our battalion commander but he choppered up to Kontum for some kind of meeting, which I knew meant that he was going to drink some good whiskey and get laid.  ‘Why should he have all the fun?’ I asked myself.  So I fired up his jeep and drove it to Pleiku, where I got drunk and laid too.  And that’s where the MP’s found me the next morning and drove me back to our base camp.  The Old Man was thoroughly pissed, and threatened to do all sorts of evil shit to me.  I just asked myself ‘What’re they going to do, send me to Vietnam?’  All I ended up with was two weeks on the shit detail and busted down to private.”  At this point I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.  “Was it worth it?” I asked.  Clayton laughed too.  “Every damned bit of it.”

We talked on for much of the rest of the flight, sharing stories and no doubt snowballing each other with equal amounts of bullshit tales and blatant lies.  It therefore came as something of a surprise when the pilot announced that we were beginning our approach to Travis, advised that we buckle our seatbelt, and then dropped the nose down toward that patch of concrete and asphalt midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, California.  We all felt the tension mount as the ground rushed up toward us, and we held our breath as the wheels touched the ground and then raced like a bullet along the runway, slowing down bit by bit until it taxied up to a parking area away from the terminal.

After an interminable wait the door cracked open and the warm spring air of Northern California flooded into the cabin.  We jostled and shoved like grade school kids in a fire drill, trying to get off of that plane as quickly as possible and touch the ground in what finally felt like home to many of us.  I came down the ramp and, at the bottom, got down on my hands and knees and kissed that dirty concrete surface, as did many other guys.

I felt like I was in an alternate universe.  Looking out across the airport I could see some guys driving fuel trucks and others baggage-haulers, while others were bringing up the buses that would take us the fifty miles or so to Oakland Army Terminal.  None of them seemed to be aware of how extraordinary these jobs of theirs were; how amazing it was that none of them would be shot at that day, and that no siren in the night would call them out of their beds to squat in a bunker or muddy ditch waiting for the mortars to stop falling and see if they would be followed by an attack.  Still feeling disconnected, I climbed onto one of the busses that had rolled up to us and stopped.  The driver was irritable and obviously in a hurry for us to get on his bus, probably so that he could get back to Oakland and then home to his full refrigerator and warm, soft bed.  I wondered if one of the other guys would punch him in the head, but we all just wanted to get on with it and ignored him with prejudice as best we could.

The bus was filled with excited chatter as the convoy started up and then rolled down the interstate towards Oakland.  Many of the guys on my bus were getting out of the Army, and the others were anticipating leaves of up to a month before they had to report to a new duty station.  The buses rolled first across the flat Central Valley terrain and then passed through low hills which opened at last onto the ring of communities which surrounded the San Francisco Bay.  The waters, when we could see them, glittered in the late afternoon sun, and lights were beginning to appear in some buildings.

But most of the time we couldn’t see the Bay.  Instead, the buildings of Richmond and Berkeley and Oakland filled our view, and that was all right with me.  This was very nearly home; just a few more hours to go.  We slowed down, exited the freeway, wound through a couple of streets and then entered the Oakland Army Terminal.

“All right you men, listen up.”  An NCO had appeared at the front of the bus and began to get us sorted out.  “All of you who will be discharged from this facility will report to Bay ‘C’ to the right of the main entrance within the building if front of you.  Those of you who are being reassigned will form up in that area to the right of the lead bus.  You will be marched to the mess hall and then shown to your quarters for the evening.  You will be told in the mess hall what to expect during your stay in Oakland, which will be brief.  You men who are to be discharged will be given access to the mess hall once your process is underway.  There will be time during the process for you to eat.  We will get you finished with the process as quickly as we can.  Now, let’s get moving smartly so that we can all go home.”

That worked for me.  I entered the big building that the NCO had indicated and checked in with a clerk with a clipboard who pointed out a set of risers where I was to go and wait to be called.  I ended up in a group of about fifty men and we all sat down to await the next step, and wait is exactly what we did.  Slowly; painfully slowly, our names began to be called, and when they were called we shuffled into another room, only to pick up our duffle bags, sign a form, and then return with the bags to our seats.

At length however, five guys were called and disappeared down a hallway, dragging their duffle bags behind them.  The “duffle bag drag” was a legendary maneuver in the Army when I was there.  Those guys went slowly from station to station where they would sign papers declaring their intention to leave active duty, their declaration that they had returned all government issue property, an acknowledgement of severance pay and acceptance of the amount, and so on.  The process was glacial, and it was at this time that we broke off in groups to get a quick meal of spaghetti with some sort of red sauce and garlic bread, with all of the black coffee that I could drink.  I wanted to stay awake for the last push to freedom.

I returned to my seat quickly after my meal, stopping to buy a four pack of cigars from a vendor in the main lobby of the building on the way back.  I lit one when I sat down and my neighbor on the risers bummed one from me.  I had just began to enjoy it when a Specialist came through a door and bawled out “Jenkins!  Carter!  Grafton!  Mingerton!  Durden!”

Hot damn!  I stubbed out the cigar on the riser and formed up with the other four guys.  We were led down the hall to a row of seats where four of us sat down.  Jenkins went through a door, and I never saw him again.  Twenty minutes later it was Carter’s turn, and so on.  It was past ten o’clock when my name was called and I began the process which I could not believe took so long.  Something would be ‘explained’ but I didn’t really hear it, and when they shoved a paper towards me I would sign that I understood and agreed to everything that was on it.  Then on to the next station.  “Crap” I thought.  “I’m not getting out of here until midnight.”

Wrong.  After the fifth station, where I felt like I was hearing the same bureaucratic bullshit and signing the same stinking papers over and over again, the clerk informed me “That’s it.  We’re closing down at 2300 (11:00 PM).  We will re-open at 0700 tomorrow.  “You. Have. Got. To. Be. Shitting. Me!” I shouted.  “You do!  You have to be!”  “I’m sorry man” the clerk replied.  “I don’t make the rules.”  I’d heard enough of that damned line for one day.  “So what am I supposed to do until 0700?” I asked.  “Well, if I was you I’d stay close to here, but what you do is your own business.”

I really did want to hit the bastard.  Hit him and choke him.  It had been a long eight hour day for him and he was tired, poor baby.  I had no idea how many hours I’d been up and I was a little bit tired too.  Fortunately however I was cautious enough to not do anything that would get me thrown into jail, and so with a heartfelt curse I dragged my duffle bag back to the risers where I began this final part of the journey.  I regained my old seat and threw the bag down next to me, determined to spend the rest of night right where I then sat.

I couldn’t find the stub of my first cigar so I lit up the third one.  All but a few lights went out while I sat on that riser, smoking my cigar and alternating my thoughts between what the guys might be doing back in Vietnam, what my family and friends might be doing in San Diego, and what I wanted to do to that snide-ass clerk.  I got another cup of coffee from a stainless steel urn on a table in the corner of the room but it tasted like shit, so I returned to my riser and smoked the cigar down to a nub.  I drowned the cigar butt in my undrunk cup of coffee and put it back on the table.

Eight hours of quiet and darkness.  There was no way that I would stay awake for that, so I dug an old set of fatigues out of my bag and used them as a pillow.  Then, stretching out on the step of the riser and yielding to the inevitable, I fell into a deep but not especially restful sleep.

Return To The Real World, Part III

The stay in our hanger lasted ten hours, the last five of which I spent buzzing on my cot or walking around the hanger.  The amphetamine that I had taken was slow-acting and long-lasting, so it took a while for my mind and body to ramp fully up, and by the time that I got there many of the other G.I.’s had fallen off to sleep on their cots.  There was a row of low windows on one side of the building and, on one of my walks around the inside perimeter, I pulled up a chair in front of those windows so that, by sitting on the back with my feet on the seat, I could look out and see aircraft arriving and departing.  I would amuse myself by wondering where each arriving plane had come from and where each departing one was going.  The quiet of the hanger and the pharmaceutical buzz of my brain made me go from places in my memory to places which I imagined to be in my future, and I practically moved into those fantasies and called them my home.

I thought of my last few weeks at the port, where I had announced to anybody who wanted to listen that I was through with the Army.  “Retired” is what I called it.  “You can’t retire” my First Sergeant told me.  “Well, I have” was my response.  I was moved around from one prospective job to another but I was adamant; I was through with the Army and they might as well get used to it.  One day Sarge took me out into the broiling sum and pointed to a pile of sandbags resting against one side of the port’s communications bunker.  “Move that pile to the other side of the bunker” I was told.

So that’s what I proceeded to do.  It was a mindless task but was pleasantly physical and helped me to pass the time.  The problem was that the sun was brutal, and after a while I was dizzy and drenched with sweat, and here is where the genius of the First Sergeant showed up.  Inside the bunker it was air conditioned, as electronics tend to work as better in a cool environment than they do in the heat.  The rules however were that NOBODY was authorized to be in that bunker except for a few people who monitored and operated the radio gear for official port purposes  My sad-sack ass was definitely not on the “Authorized” list of people who were allowed to enter the air conditioned paradise which lay only the thickness of a door from where I stood.  I began to duck inside anyway from time to time, and because the radioman was a friend he wouldn’t kick me out right away.  We would listen to Velvet Underground or the Doors for a while, but then he would urge me to leave, as he could get into serious trouble by allowing me to be caught there.  So out I would go and resume humping those by now damned sandbags.

Finally I completed my task and this time, instead of putting my friend at risk, I found a shady corner on the east side of the bunker and sat down in the dirt with my back against the sandbagged wall.  First Sergeant eventually became aware of this and came out to inspect my work.  “Well done Durden” he said.  “Now pick them up and put them back where you found them.”

I was thoroughly pissed, mostly because I had been so completely snookered by the First Sergeant.  Fuming, I indolently began to drag one bag at a time from where I had just placed them back to where they had originally rested.  I moved at a glacial pace, determined to take until the day I left Vietnam to finish that job, and smarting at having been outfoxed by the First Sergeant in the first place.  At one point I ducked back into the commo bunker to cool off but my friend shouted at me “Get out!  There’s a general and a congressman or two choppering in within the hour.  This place is going to be crawling with brass!”

I returned back to the furnace and resumed my task, and that’s when the epiphany struck me.  Galvanized into action, I began to select the greenest, fullest, most intact sandbags that I could find and set out to make a gigantic peace sigh in the red dirt where the helicopter was most likely to land.  I was afraid that I would be too late and worked like a dervish to complete my project, and I did complete it with time to spare.  The giant sign was all but unnoticeable from ground level, but from the air it stood out like a huge sore thumb.  I was once again resting in the deepening shade of the commo bunker when I heard the “Whop whop whop whop” of the helicopter rotor blades that announced the approach of all of that official dead weight who had come to inspect our humble operation.

I can only imagine the stir that my peace symbol caused, because Sarge never mentioned it to me.  That afternoon I climbed aboard the bus that would return me to Camp Camelot and I never again returned to the port.  I was two weeks shy of my ETS, or Expiration of Term of Service, and spent the first of those weeks lounging in my bunk, sitting in the warm morning sunshine on top of our water tower, and sneaking into the big concrete headquarters buildings a quarter of a mile behind my battalion area, where hamburgers and french fries, air conditioning and flush toilets could be found.

At the end of that week our detachment’s unit clerk came to me in the middle of the morning and said “Get your shit together Durden.  You’re going home.”  A week early was unheard of but I chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Two hours later my footlocker was empty, my mattress stripped down and folded in half on my bunk, and I was sitting in the shade at the 90th Replacement waiting for my name to be called.

These memories of the past, as well as other thoughts about my future, played in my head in that dimly lit hanger as I watched the activity outside the windows slow down.  Nearly all of the guys were asleep now, and a low melody of men snoring drifted to my ears.  A very few others lay on their cots and smoked.  I fell into a place where everything around me blended into an unreal sense of ‘Now’; where past and future were etherial and elusive of grip.  Did all of that shit at the port really happen?  Am I really going home?  Is this just a dream?  These and other questions ebbed and flowed through my mind as I sat on the thin back of that chair with my butt becoming numb, and all of them were taking me to places and times other than there and then in a hanger in Japan, still thousands of miles from home.

Well towards morning the hanger lights snapped on, bringing me back to the here and now in the blink of an eye.  “We’re sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep gentlemen, but we thought that you might want to go home.”  That announcement, delivered by an Air Force NCO, would have brought a cheer from us the day before.  Now, after all of our delays and discouragements, we did what most soldiers everywhere would do: grumbled about being awakened, and shuffled slowly into formation, dubious of the Air Force sergeant’s claim that we were going anywhere at all.  “When I see it I’ll believe it” growled one skeptic who stood in line behind me.  “I wonder where they’ll strand our asses next?” contributed another.

Still, when the word finally came to board the plane we stepped out with an optimism driven by the conviction that they couldn’t do any worse than they already had, and one by one we climbed back into our suspect aircraft and buckled in for the next leg of our journey.  Somehow my old neighbor ended up somewhere else on the plane and a younger guy plopped down in the middle seat next to me.  He said “Hi”, but my mind was zipping along a thousand miles an hour and I don’t believe that I responded.  In a short while we were snug in our seats and the pilot nosed the plane across the base to the end of the runway, and then goosed that old jalopy into gear.  Once again we lifted off, this time into the inky blackness of deep night, and began winging our way straight into the direction in which lay our homes.

The drug that I had taken had me vibrating in my seat, keeping me fully awake.  My new neighbor was quickly asleep again, his rhythmic breathing contributing to the sense of stillness and night that pervaded the darkened aircraft.  I had on my reading light and surprisingly found myself able to concentrate on my book.  Periodically I would turn off the light and peer out the window which lay at my shoulder, straining to see the first glow of the new day into which we were flying.  Every time there was nothing but black, and I would return to my book.

It is odd, now that I think back on it, how the hours were lengthened by my artificial wakefulness yet shortened by becoming part of a heterogeneous block of time, constructed of pages read, memories reflected upon, plans laid, searches out the window for the reluctant dawn, all stitched together by the sounds of slumber coming from a few score exhausted soldiers.  I know it was several hours that passed between lifting off of the runway in Japan and the arrival of the long sought dawn of the new day somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but they all blended together and seemed to form a warp in time and space that allowed me to slip, barely conscious of time itself, from the blackened sky of Japan to a point where the glow of tomorrow at last appeared in the eastern sky.

At first I could hardly believe my eyes, and I left my reading light off and stared out of the window for several minutes until I was sure.  At last I decided that my eyes did not deceive me; off to the east the dawn was coming at us as fast as we were racing towards it.  I wanted to leap out of my seat and cheer, but almost everyone else was asleep and I kept it down.  After a few minutes the exhilaration subsided and I resumed my reading, looking up every two or three pages to measure the increase in the light that was first glowing in the east, then spreading west across the sky, and now pouring in through the windows.

Guys were beginning to wake up, and none of them seemed to be as excited about the new day as I was.  Maybe it was the amphetamines, and maybe it’s because I had sat up all night searching for the glow that would announce the day that I expected to get home, but I felt this new day in a poetic sense.  It was  a new day in every way that I could imagine!  We would be home that day!  Don’t you guys get it?  Apparently they didn’t get it, and nothing more than a low murmur of conversation could be heard, and that only intermittently over the background muffled roar of the jet engines under the wings which lay outside our windows.

There is one thing that we did hear very clearly though.  Once the flight crew informed the pilot that we were all awake we were all called to attention by the familiar voice coming through the crackle and static of the overhead speakers.  “We’ve made a change in our flight plan while you were sleeping.”  A stunned silence gripped the cabin as the pilot continued with his report.  “Wind conditions were not as favorable as they usually are and so we could not proceed due east.  We will therefore be landing in Anchorage, Alaska, where we will refuel and you will get a chance to stretch your legs and get breakfast, if you would prefer that to the breakfast which we can provide you here on the plane.  We will be landing in three hours and should be on the ground for an hour and a half, two hours at the most.  We can assure you that this is all routine and we will once again be in the air and on our way to Travis soon enough.”

Well, that’s not so bad” I said to my new neighbor who had finally awakened.  “Anchorage?  Where’s that?”  “Alaska” I told him.  “We’re way north of Travis, but at least we’re on our own side of the ocean.”  I resumed looking out of my window and after about two and a half hours we began to drop lower in the sky.  At last we began to cross what seemed like an endless mud flat which finally firmed up and became the western end of the airport at Anchorage, Alaska.  The pilot taxied up to the terminal and soon the ramp was rolled out to the side of the plane and the door opened.

I couldn’t wait to get outside of the plane and place my feet on American soil!  I also couldn’t wait to get into the terminal and buy myself a beer.  We shuffled towards the door and when my turn came around I popped out of the plane, and it was then that I received a shock that I had not expected.

I had been in summer for the last two straight years.  From May of 1967 until May of 1969 I had been in Texas, San Diego, and Vietnam, and I had not seen the temperature below 70 degrees for all of that time.  Now, as I climbed down that ramp, I was dressed in thin jungle fatigues in temperatures somewhere in the low 40’s.  “Holy shit!” I cried, and made my dash with the other guys for the terminal before we all froze to death.  I made my way straight to the bar and asked for a beer.  “You have some I.D.?”  “Sure,” I said and fished out my wallet which contained my military I.D.  “Sorry kid.  You’re not 21”.  I looked at the bartender for a moment, dumbfounded by his announcement.  “But I’m just getting back from two years in Vietnam.  How the hell can I be too young to do anything?”  “Sorry kid” he said.  “I don’t make the rules.  I’d pour for you if it wouldn’t mean my ass, but I can’t do it.”

I fumed big time, but there was nothing that I could do, so I walked around the terminal stretching my legs, cursing the Army, cursing Alaska, cursing all of the people seated at the bar enjoying their drinks and cursing anything else that I could think of that might need a good tongue lashing.  A good breakfast could be had at the terminal though, and the amphetamines had worn off to the degree that a plate of sausage and eggs and potatoes and a cup of strong black coffee that weren’t dehydrated and poured out of a box in the back of a mess hall sounded like a good option.  I ordered and ate one of the most delicious meals that I have ever eaten in my life.  Finishing up, I paid the bill and was unaware of the glare that I received from the waitress as I pushed away from the table and left to line up back at our loading gate.  I was very young, and had no idea that one customarily left a little money under a dish as a tip for your server.  I hope that her next customer was extraordinarily generous.

At last, the refueling was completed and we raced back through the chilly air to regain our seats in the plane that we were coming to love a little bit more than we had earlier.  Once again we buckled in, the jet roared down the runway and climbed furiously in order to get over the mountain that was inconveniently placed at the end of that strip of concrete.  In a little while the pilot came on the overhead and announced “we have reached our cruising altitude and the winds are cooperating with us.  If we do not have to refuel in Washington State we hope to have you on the ground at Travis by 19 hundred hours.  You’re almost home gentlemen.”

Return To The Real World, Part II

“Welcome Home” said the pilot, and the plane erupted with cheers.  Guys were pounding each other on their backs and shoulders and the very small staff of flight attendants began to pass out cups of champagne.  We only got one cup each, since the crew had no interest in having a crowd of drunk and deliriously happy soldiers on board a plane flying over five hundred miles per hour some thirty five thousand feet up in the air. My neighbor said that he didn’t drink and I happily accepted his cup.  We all then settled back into our seats and began to do whatever each of us would do to pass the nineteen hours of flight time that stretched out between us and Travis Air Force Base in California.

Our first stop would be at Naha, Okinawa.  The fuel tanks on the plane would have to be nearly drained by the time we flew the six or seven hours that it took to get there and so I knew that we would have to wait a while for the plane to be refueled and checked out for the next leg of the flight, which would take us to Hawaii.  I had brought a book but it was hard to read it.  I think it was one of Bruce Catton’s Civil War books.  I would read a few pages and then put it down and let my mind wander.  Much of the time it wandered back to Camp Camelot where the night shift was sleeping while Chief and Straw and the guys were working on the day shift at the port.  I think that I almost felt a little guilty about being on my way home, and even a little bit sad.  Not too sad however.  I would look down at the blue ocean, with the low clouds so far below me that they looked like whitecaps on the waves.  I knew that waves with whitecaps really were down there, and I also knew that there was no way that I could possibly see them from that altitude.  “Damn, we are really high up” I thought, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that if we crashed into that blue ocean so far below at least I wouldn’t die in the ‘Nam.

My neighbor nudged me and asked if I had any cigarettes.  “No man, I quit smoking” I replied, and it was true; I did quit smoking, and just that year.  That happy decision came about on New Year’s Day of 1969, but it was hardly the result of any New Year’s resolution. People unsure of seeing the end of a year rarely make such things as resolutions.  On New Years Eve of 1968 the day shift was celebrating at Camp Camelot with a case of bourbon and a whole pallet of beer which we had “requisitioned” from the flood of supplies which passed through the port every day.  In addition some of us had our stash of “Saigon Bombers”, or joints of Cambodian marijuana that were pre-rolled to look like Camel cigarettes.  Our previous New Year celebration was followed shortly by the Tet Offensive, so our security forces this year were on high alert.  Our detachment and Headquarters Company, however, threw caution to the wind and put on a massive party that I am certain is still being talked about in some circles to this day.

At one point I remember sitting on the porch in front of my hooch, a metal pre-fab one story bunkhouse that we had put together ourselves, drinking a whiskey and Coke that was mostly whiskey and smoking a bomber.  The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” was playing and it felt like I was falling through a hole in the solid rock below me towards the center of the Earth, with the “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum” beat of the song holding the rock apart to allow my descent.  Other guys fell into ditches or off of the water tower, and one or two fights resulted in bruised faces and one broken arm.

The next morning I felt like the Tet Offensive had been fought all over again in my sick and ravaged body.  I was incapacitated, and remained on my bunk as the rest of my shattered unit crawled onto the buses in the morning.  My First Sergeant, who wasn’t looking so good himself, assessed the wreckage that was me and decided that they would get no useful work out of me that day and left me where I lay.

And indeed, I was a wreck.  I didn’t want to move, eat, drink, smoke, breathe, live or anything else that constituted existing.  If we would have been attacked at that time I would have continued to lay on my bunk until the Viet Cong got to me, and I would have viewed them as my friends and liberators as they eased my passage out of this present world of pain.  I can say with full confidence that January 1, 1969, was the most perfect hangover that I have ever constructed, and I’ve built some whoppers!  Over the next twenty four hours however the other faculties of existence resumed their place in my life.  Eating, breathing, living and all of the other things that I would be interested in continuing to do came back.  All except smoking.  I just never again felt like taking a big drag on a cigarette and sucking the smoke into my lungs.

And so the long hours passed slowly by.  I was much too excited to sleep, and in fact had no intention of sleeping.  I wanted to savor every minute of my journey home, imagining islands and atolls passing under my wings and falling behind me as I pushed resolutely northeastward.  To help me in this cause I had brought along a glass ampoule of some form of amphetamine that I had bought weeks earlier in a Saigon pharmacy.  I planned to use it when I began to doze, which I expected would be half-way across the Pacific.  The first leg of the trip was mostly north however and I was in no danger of napping as we flew ever farther from Vietnam and closer to Okinawa.

We arrived at last at Naha, Okinawa, and I exited the plane to find, to my considerable surprise, that it was hot and humid there too.  Okinawa lies fifteen degrees of latitude higher on the globe than Saigon, but still in a tropical zone.  Palm trees and rice paddies abounded, and so I entered the terminal as quickly as I could in order to find air conditioning and a beer.  With those needs addressed I found a chair and sat down to wait for our reboarding to begin.

And waited.  And waited.  After an hour or so we natives began to get restless, and the military authorities in charge of this point in our trip home came out to explain to us that there were certain mechanical problems being addressed on our plane, and that the bar was off limits to us.  We had to be ready to go as soon as they received the go-ahead to reboard, and they didn’t need to have to go looking for guys who had gotten drunk and wandered off to the further reaches of the airport.  I hadn’t brought my book with me so I sat down for a while, then wandered around our authorized space for another while, and then returned to my chair again.  “At least I’m not in Vietnam” I thought, and resigned myself to enduring the wait, however long it took.

Four hours.  That’s how long it took.  By the time an Air Force NCO of undetermined rank, but who nevertheless sported an impressive array of stripes on his sleeve, called out for our group to rise and prepare to board we were all very nervous and jumpy, just wanting to get this awful delay behind us and start going east, towards home.  Seated once again in my place by the window I watched Okinawa race by as the jet sped down the runway and lifted off into the sky.

By now the sun was beginning to drop towards the western horizon.  In that direction lay a seemingly endless vista of blue water with China somewhere over the curvature of the Earth.  We started out heading northeast again, towards Hawaii, but within thirty minutes the captain came on the overhead speakers again to give us some unpleasant news.  “Can I have your attention please”  It wasn’t in the form of a question.  The pilot was going to give us bad news.  He knew it and we knew it.  “We’re experiencing some mechanical difficulties and will be diverting to Japan.  It’s nothing to worry about.  We’ll make a few adjustments and then be on our way again soon.  We apologize for the delay and promise to be heading home as soon as possible.”

“Difficulties?” my neighbor expostulated.  “What the hell does he mean by difficulties?  Is this piece of shit going down into the drink?  Leave it to the fucking Army to kill us when the Viet Cong couldn’t do it.  “Cool it man” I said.  “If we were doing a dive he wouldn’t say anything.  He’d just plant the nose of this crate into the water and let anyone who lives swim.  We’ll be OK; we’re just not going home as fast as we would like.”

I wasn’t really as confident as I sounded but the guy next to me, who had seen a much harder time in the ‘Nam than I had, was really scared, and I tried to make him feel better.  Thinking back, I can’t really say why I wasn’t as scared as my neighbor was.  The idea of dropping thirty five thousand feet into the ocean didn’t sound like a walk in the park to me either, but for some reason which I can’t explain to this day I just didn’t believe that this would be our fate.  Not on this day.

They say that there are no atheists in foxholes and that may or may not be true.  I didn’t think much about God when I was in Vietnam whether I was huddling in a sandbag bunker during a mortar or rocket attack or sitting stoned on the porch of a hooch.  I was introduced to God from time to time during my childhood and thought that we had gotten to know each other pretty well when I was fifteen and sixteen years old.  That acquaintance soured after a while though, and after pressing for a fight with another teenager during a Wednesday night prayer service, and over a girl of course, I spun away from God and started down a road that led me as far away from Him (or Her, depending on how much you want to fight over something as insignificant as gender when you’re speaking of something as singular and beyond comprehension as God), as I could get.  I never actually crawled into a classical foxhole while I was in Vietnam, so I can’t say whether or not atheists occupied them or not.  Sitting in that airplane seat however I thought about God for the first time in years.  I didn’t pray, as far as I can remember, but I hoped that there was a God anyway, and that he was in a good mood that day.

Yokota Air Base is only 1,300 miles from Naha, which means that we were able to reach it in about three hours after being made aware that there was a problem.  The plane had flown smoothly north and we all had mostly lost the fear that had set in at the moment of the announcement.  It was into a deepening gloom over the dark waters of the ocean that when we approached the land of Japan, and soon we were flying over the ocean of light that was Tokyo.  In minutes the landing lights of Yokota appeared and we were soon on the runway of that air base.

An Air Force officer appeared in the front of the plane and began to give us instructions.  “You men will follow me to a hanger where we have prepared a place for you to relax while we make the necessary repairs.  You may be certain that this craft will safely carry you to the United States.  We have cots set up for you and will provide food and beverages for a couple of hours.  We will get you aloft as soon as it is possible to do so.  And now, please come off the plane in an orderly fashion and form up in lines of twenty at the base of the ramp.”

With the grumbling that is obligatory for soldiers everywhere we did as we were told, and soon we were housed in a hanger to await the continuation of our flight.  Having nothing more than my book and what was in my pockets I laid claim to a cot, but had no intention of sleeping on it.  After a few moments of lying there I place my book and hat on the cot to preserve my claim and began to wander around the hanger.  At one point, over in a corner of the hanger, some guys were gathered and I overheard their conversation.

“When I get home I’m going to start learning how to run a construction business.  My Dad is a contractor and I used to help him in the summers.  I want to get a license and start my own company and get rich by the time I’m twenty five.”  “Not me” said a second G.I.  “I’m using my savings to buy a Harley.  I want to grow my hair down to my ass and a beard to match and ride all over America.  I don’t know if I’ll be alive long enough to see twenty five.”  “I’m going to go to school when I get back home” said another.  “I’m using the G.I. Bill to go to college so that I can get a degree in veterinary medicine.  Then I’m moving to the country where things are slower and people get to know each other.  I’m tired of all of this high intensity bullshit and want to find a quiet life.”

My neighbor from the plane was in that group and was the last to speak while I was there.   “I want to get back to my wife and family.  I want to kiss her at the airport back home in Michigan.  I want to have a family and go to little league games and school plays.  I want to spend Thanksgiving with her family and Christmas with my own.  But right now I just want to get this nightmare trip over with, and get this piece of flying junk down on the other side of this big-ass ocean.”

I couldn’t really relate to what my neighbor had said, but in a rare moment of empathy I had felt the smallest part of what he was going through and placed a hand on his shoulder and said “Come on man.  The pilot and the crew want to get home just as much as we do.  They’re not going to take off in that flying hemorrhoid unless they are sure that they’re going to land on the other side.  You’re going to be home by this time tomorrow, so just hang tough.”  I don’t know if I truly believed that myself, but it seemed to make sense and it seemed to comfort my troubled neighbor.  He shook my hand and said “Thanks”, and then he turned and disappeared into the crowded hanger.

I also returned to the crowd, but only after I bought a soda and took it into the bathroom.  Reaching into my pocket I extracted the ampoule of amphetamine.  I didn’t want to sleep until I got home, but I could feel sleep sneaking up on me.  This stuff was good for half a day at least, and so I figured why not start now?  I snapped off one pointed end of the glass vial and placed my finger over the hole that it left there, then snapped off the other pointed end.  By lifting my finger from the top hole I allowed the liquid therein to flow out of the bottom into my cup of Coke, and then drank it down in two or three gulps.  Then I returned to my cot to await the completion of repairs on our plane and the resumption of our trip home; a trip which had become surreal and brought me to wonder if I would ever really get home or not.

 

Return To The Real World, Part I

The bustle beginning to take place around me roused me out of the nearly catatonic state into which I had fallen five or six hours earlier.  I was lying on a step in a low set of risers at the Oakland Army Terminal, and was frankly surprised at my consciousness once consciousness had fully returned to me.  Five or six hours earlier I was at the end of a ‘day’ which had began two full days earlier at Long Binh, Republic of South Vietnam.  The flight to America was a comedy, of sorts, of mechanical delays, poor wind conditions, and multiple unplanned stops which turned the normal nineteen hour trip into the marathon that I had just endured.  As I sat up on the riser and lit the last of a four-pack of cigars that I had purchased the evening before my mind drifted back to the start of my journey, which seemed like it began a lot more than two days ago.

“Durden, Glenn!”  I heard my name called out at the close of the morning formation at the 90th Replacement Battalion.  The 90th was the entry point for a vast majority of new replacements who flooded into the southern part of that tortured country every day, and the exit point for those who left under their own power  Twenty months earlier I sat in that cluster of barracks for three days with my friend Earl Carroll III, who came from Houston Texas.  We had been in the same unit at Fort Hood and shipped out at the same time.  That was the last time that I saw Earl.  I hope that he made it home.

“All of you men who’s names were called have thirty minutes to get your gear and get into formation in front of the mess hall.  Anyone who misses this formation will wait a good long while before they get their names called again.”  In retrospect I doubt that this was true.  They needed to keep moving us out in order to make room for the ones that they were moving in.  None of us wanted to test their statement however, and so in less than fifteen minutes we all had our “gear”, which mostly consisted of duffle bags with some clothes and a few personal items in them, and were standing in lines in the sticky humidity under the already warm Vietnamese sun.

The buses arrived on schedule and we shuffled aboard as our names were called once again.  There was no dallying and in less than another fifteen minutes the buses were chugging through the streets of Long Binh, out the gate onto Highway 1-A, and across the flat Mekong River Delta lowlands toward Bien Hoa Airbase.  On the way we passed through a rubber plantation, now untended and fallen into decay.  The Viet Cong had infiltrated that plantation and put fire on us when we convoyed to Bien Hoa and back during the Tet Offensive.  I had wondered then why anybody would take cover and shoot at us from behind a rubber tree.  An oak or a pine tree maybe, but rubber?  We never saw who shot at us and merely returned fire to make them keep their heads down until we passed by.  If we had actually hit anybody, they would have had to be the most unlucky person in the world. As I passed through on that last morning in Vietnam I wondered if there was one die hard Viet Cong soldier left in those burned and blasted trees who wanted to take one more pot shot at the passing Americans.  I kept my head pulled down as deeply as I could between my shoulders until we roared out of that plantation on the Bien Hoa side.

At Bien Hoa we exited the buses and were marched to a loading zone which had the welcome feature of a corrugated metal roof held aloft by a small forest of telephone poles.  The shade granted by that roof was a blessing which we didn’t expect from a military which seemed to derive positive delight from making us grunts as miserable as possible.  There was no concession available; you couldn’t buy a Coke or coffee or candy bar, which would have melted before you could have eaten it anyway.  There were no chairs or risers either.  We lay down our duffle bags and sat on them, if there was nothing breakable in them, and then began our wait for the airplane that would wisk us from this hot, foreign death trap back to what we all  called “The Real World.”

The wait lasted about two hours, but to us it felt like a week.  Very little moved in the gathering heat of the lowland Vietnamese day unless it absolutely had to.  We watched the damp air shimmer over the tarmac, and spoke of the large aircraft that lay broken at the far side of the runway.  “I heard that the Cong brought it down with a SAM” one soldier said.  “Not so” said another.  “It was small arms fire.  Took out an engine on the final approach.”  “You’re both wrong” chimed in a third guy.  “It was a maintenance problem.  The damned engine just fell off of that old piece of shit. I hope we’re flying out on better than that.”  “I hope were flying out at all” interjected the first soldier.  “I heard from a corporal in the mess hall at the 90th that sometimes the planes don’t make it, and they bus us back for a few more days.”  That last comment caused some serious anal flutter, and one by one we declared with the bravado of the soldier in full complaint mode that we weren’t moving an inch unless it was to get on a plane headed back home.

The conversation continued in that manner until, at long last, a dot appeared low on the horizon and began to slowly grow in size until it became clear that it was indeed a passenger plane.  “That’s it!” exclaimed one G.I.  “You don’t know shit” replied another.  “I’m getting on that damned plane no matter where it’s going” said a third.  At that point an officer and a sergeant walked to a place between us and the runway.  “On your feet!” bellowed the sergeant, and we unwound our stiff legs and stood in something that looked sort of like straight lines.

“This plane is coming in empty” the sergeant bawled out.  You will present your orders to the Captain as I call out your names, and you will step out smartly.  You will then proceed to board the plane.  I will remind you, gentlemen, that you make excellent targets, as does that airplane, and that the less time that you spend dogging it here on the ground the better that it is likely to be for all of you.  Gentlemen, try not to get yourselves killed on your last day in Vietnam.”

None of us needed much exhortation on that count, and we were wound tight, ready to spring across the tarmac and up the rolling stairway that would  raise us to the door by the cockpit at the front of the plane.  “You will drop your duffle bags at the ramp.  They will be stored underneath the plane and will be returned to you when you land at Travis.  Gentlemen,” the sergeant cracked a little smile at this point, “I wish you the best of luck with the rest of your lives.”

The officer and the sergeant walked a short distance away and began to talk about something that we couldn’t hear.  We all continued to stand and watch as the plane finally landed, taxied to a point perhaps fifty yards from where we stood, and came to a halt.  In what seemed to be the blink of an eye the rolling stairway was being pushed up to the side of the plane, secured in place, and then the door to freedom and, just as attractive at that moment, air conditioning, opened up.

“Adkins!  Albertson!  Apparicio!” The sergeant barked out our names, and the owners of those names lifted their bags and shuffled forward.  After showing their orders to the officer they proceeded at a pace just under a run to the stairs, where they laid down their bags on the tarmac, mounted the stairs and disappeared into the squared-off oval that was the doorway to freedom.  “Durden!”  I knew the drill.  I may have actually ran just a little, and I’m almost certain that I threw my duffle bag to the ground as I flew up the stairs and plunged into the interior of the plane.

Inside it was cool, at least as compared with the outside temperature.  Wet heat continued to flood in through the open door, and the open storage bay doors underneath the plane where our bags were being placed probably didn’t help much either, but the plane’s engines were running and the air conditioning was pouring cool air into the core of the big jet.  I plopped down into the first window seat that I could find and at last felt like perhaps it was really ending.  The soft airplane seat, narrow and compressed as it was, was an unaccustomed luxury, and it felt like I was in a theater seat at the old Crest Theater, where I had watched countless science fiction movies as a child.

Men, well, really mostly boys, continued to pour into the plane, propelled partly by the sergeant’s instructions but mostly by their desire to get the hell out of Vietnam.  Soon all of the seats were filled, the door was closed, and the plane began to taxi toward the runway from whence my journey home would begin in earnest.  The cabin began to truly cool down now and, more important to me, the wetness of the air began to be filtered out by the dehumidifiers in the system.  By the time that the pilot reached his starting point and received his clearance to take off, I was already beginning to reset my sense of reality from the acceptance of hot and miserable as the natural state of things to the possibility that one could once again be comfortable.

Somewhere in the front of the plane the pilot pushed a lever forward, or stepped on the gas pedal, or did whatever pilots do to make airplanes work, and the big machine began to crawl, then lumber, and then race down the runway.  Roaring down that strip of concrete we passed the broken carcass of the plane which rested along the side of the runway.  I wondered if anybody died in that plane, and if so were they coming in-country or leaving?  “Shit” I thought. “I don’t want to die now.  Not that way.”  The plane gave one final shudder as it reached its critical speed and then became smooth as the wheels left the ground and folded up into its belly.  We all let loose with a cheer as the beautifully green but tragically blood-soaked land of Vietnam fell further and further below us.

“How hight do you have to get before a missile can bring you down?” I wondered.  We quickly gained altitude and I rested a little easier as we passed through the first layer of patchy clouds which were formed from the wet air blowing in off of the South China Sea, somewhere to the east.  I wasn’t talking with the guy sitting next to me and he wasn’t talking with the guy sitting next to him.  In fact, after that first cheer none of us seemed to be talking much at all.  I was occupied with my own thoughts, which oddly enough were more focused on the guys I left back at my unit that the home toward which I was flying.  Chief, Strawberry, Big Plow, Chief (yes, there were two Chiefs.  We were not terribly creative with our nicknames) and the others would have boarded their armored buses that morning and convoyed across the Delta to work at a ship terminal that our unit help to operate on the Saigon River.  What were they doing?  Did they draw fire on the ride in?  Would Phiz get another magnificent “care package” of edible goodies from his family who lived in Pennsylvania Dutch country?  My friends Wes and Elizabeth and Benigo, and my family back in San Diego, somehow seemed less real than did those guys whom I had shared hell with, and the prospect of safely crossing thousands upon thousands of miles of water to reach them seemed like something other than a sure thing.  Death and thoughts of death can be a difficult companion to shake off when it’s been your constant companion for almost two years.

Those and similar thoughts were going through my head when I became aware of a line of blue on the horizon which was different than the blue of the sky.  As we continued to plow eastward that blue took on a greenish hue and I at last allowed myself to believe that it was what I had hoped it would be; the south China Sea.  A little murmur arose as, one by one, the other guys with window seats began to see it too.  “Hey, you want to see something sweet?” I asked my neighbor as I elbowed his arm.  He leaned over and gazed through the window and just stayed there for a minute or two.  After that he straightened up and I saw that tears were streaming down his face.  “I have a wife waiting for me back home” He explained.  “I’ve been over here longer than we’ve been married and together.”

My neighbor wiped his eyes with his sleeve as my own eyes returned to watch the approaching ocean.  Eventually I saw the white strip of sand which separated the green but deadly land of Vietnam from the clean and benign waters of the open sea.  That shoreline seemed to crawl toward us inch by inch but finally, at last, we had to look straight down in order to see it.  Men were straining to lean over each other to watch death fall behind us, and two and even sometimes three faces might be trying to squeeze into each window at the same time.  Then it was over.  It felt like there should be a band playing or champagne popping or a sound barrier broken though.  Instead, there was only the constant muffled roar of the jet engines as the big plane effortlessly passed over the beach, and then that beach too became no more than another part of the Vietnam that now lay completely behind us.

The pilot’s voice came on through the overhead speakers in that almost indecipherable crackle and static which continues to plague many such communications even today.  “Gentlemen, you have now left the air space of Vietnam.  Welcome home.”

Christian Communism

“And all who believed were together and had all things in Common.  And they were selling their possessions and  belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47).

There it is; the best expression of what I call Christian communism that I find in the Bible.  Of course, it is easy to take one or two verses of Scripture and build a theology around it.  I remember well that several years ago the ‘Prayer of Jabez’ was very popular with a set of Christian folk.  That prayer took place in ancient times, whether in Judah or Israel, during the unified kingdom or even before the kingdom founded by Saul I don’t know.  Suffice it to say that Jabez lived a long time ago.  Jabez is famous for the following prayer:  “Jabez called upon the Lord of Israel, saying ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”  (I Chron. 4:10).  “Name it and claim it” became a big player in Christian circles when that verse was found and, in my opinion, sold as a magical incantation used for the purpose of manipulating God into playing the role of celestial sugar daddy.  It is with that episode in mind that I venture into this topic with caution, stating up front that my thoughts are incomplete and I am open to considerable input from people better versed in the Bible than I am.

Acts 2 is a lot closer to Jesus than is I Chronicles, but regardless of that, Christians will by and large agree that the whole story told in both the Old Testament and the New point to Jesus as the apex and culmination of God’s plan to straighten out the unholy mess that humankind, God’s peak of creation, has made of things.  The people leading that band of early Christians (they weren’t called that yet) were eleven of the twelve who had spent three continuous years with Jesus, learning day and night by word and deed what Jesus was about, and while they still didn’t get all of it right, they certainly had more insight into the mind of God than I do, and they report the utopian situation in Acts 2 and the effect that it had on the greater community

OK, so Jabez was a long time before Jesus and Acts was after Jesus’ death and ascension into heaven.  What then did Jesus Himself have to say about this, if anything?  There are two things that stand out to me in the Gospels that address this topic; one is found in Luke 3:10-14, and the other is in three of the four gospels.  I will look at those two sources as they appear in the Gospel of Luke, one of which is actually a quote of John the Baptist, whom Jesus referred to as the greatest of all the prophets, and the other a teaching of Jesus Himself, and explore what these might mean to me.

In Luke 3:10-14 a bunch of the One Percenters in Jerusalem came to John, whom they distrusted in the first place, and asked him what they should do to live in accordance with God’s will.  I’ll let John answer in his own words.  “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him “Teacher, what shall we do?  And he said to them ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’”  “Soldiers also asked him ‘And we, what shall we do?’  And he said to them ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”

Now tax collectors made their living by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers, and they grew fat by using the might of Rome to scare citizens into paying whatever they demanded and keeping whatever was above the Roman requirement for themselves.  Most Jews in Palestine had no idea what the real tax for them was because they would rather be dead than caught speaking with a gentile; especially a Roman.  John told the tax collectors to do their job, be fair, and live on what they rightfully earned.

Soldiers were a different breed of cat.  Temple police were allowed to exist by the occupying force but the only real soldiers allowed in the Empire were Roman soldiers and Judah, like it or not, was in the Empire.  It is therefore interesting that soldiers were speaking to a Jewish prophet at all, and especially one wearing coarse clothes and eating grasshoppers in the desert.  Nevertheless, there they were, and they asked John what they should do.  John, with a truly Christian concern for all humanity, replied to these unclean, uncircumcised gentiles who had shields and Roman short swords and said “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”

The threat part is easy to figure out.  Roman soldiers had spread the borders of the Empire from the Atlantic to east of Mesopotamia and from the border with Pictland (Scotland) to the Sahara Desert.  These guys could threaten, and then carry out their threats!  God, through John, said “Stop it!”  “Do what is right and be content with your wage” is how I read it.

Finally, in Luke 18:18-30, a good Jewish boy who happened to be very rich came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be saved.  Jesus told him to obey all sorts of laws and the guy said “Yeah, I’ve done all of that,” or words to that effect.  Then Jesus dropped the hammer on him.  “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Shazzam!  That ain’t gonna happen.  The rich Jew couldn’t pull the trigger on that deal and even Jesus’ disciples were blown away by His statement.  Jesus was making a point – and again this is in my own opinion – that if you are tied more tightly to your ‘stuff’, your material things, than you are to God, you are not fully getting the picture.  And that leads me into the body of my thoughts on all of this.

Jesus does not seem to be very impressed with people’s stuff.  People in general He cares about; you know, dying for us and all of that.  But our stuff?  Not so much.  Jesus had no home (today this is called being homeless).  He gave most of what He had to the poor (that, today, is called being stupid).  His early followers did the same, selling off their possessions and giving the funds to “all that had need.  Jesus did not seem to be opposed to working and earning a living.  To tax collectors John said “Collect”, and to soldiers John said “Soldier”, and Jesus seemed to agree, since He went to John for his own baptism.

So what does all of this mean to me in the twenty-first century?  Well, I don’t really know.   That is why I am writing this and asking for input from any who read it and feel moved to share their opinions.  The upshot to me, however, is that Jesus would rather than I live in a small house, take short, local vacations, eat humble meals, wear clothes until they wear out rather than go out of style, and in general ‘live simply so that others might simply live.’

Let me state up front that this model does not describe me very well.  I have enjoyed two vacations in Europe and three in Hawaii.  My house is nearly 1,400 square feet, I love to eat out and do so often, and if I want a book, a bottle of wine, a new garden tool or a cup of coffee at the coffee shop where I sit at the moment of this writing I indulge myself, so I am a far cry from the Christian communist that I am speaking of in this essay.  At least my clothes are old!  I am therefore not throwing out judgements that do not equally apply to me.  In fact, I am not throwing out judgements at all.  I am asking questions.

Simply put, I am asking whether or not the role of a Christ follower in the twenty-first century is to radically share his or her money, or stuff, with those who have need, to the Church first and then to the world.  Instead of clawing to get and keep our share of the pie and then voting for somebody who promises to keep our nation a Christian country, if we Christians poured ourselves into the needs of the community, feeding all who are hungry and clothing all who are cold regardless of how they came to be in their condition, I believe that the surrounding culture would look at us first as if we’ve lost our minds, but in time as people who believe what they say and say something worth believing.  Soon, I suspect, the Lord would be adding to our number daily those who believe, and that is what I call a ‘church growth plan.’

In my community our local public utility runs what they call “Operation Warm Heart.”  This charity provides funds to keep on the water and electricity when a resident is not able to pay for it.  Imagine if the Church in my community lived simply and gave its surplus to the charity.  Put simply, no poor senior citizen would ever have to decide whether to be able to flush their toilet or keep their medications cold in the refrigerator.

At a high school nearby, where something like 60% or more of the student body is receiving free or reduced lunches, there is a Family Resource Center where food and clothing and bus passes and so forth are dispensed as such items are donated, and one paid staff member and volunteers will sit and talk with the kids and, more important, listen to them.  Imagine a frugal Church pouring material resources and, more important, their time and their lives into the lives of these kids!  What would this say about the Church and the God Whom we say that we worship?  Probably more than planning my next trip to Hawaii while I say “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” does.

Examples abound but I believe that I’ve made my point as well as I can.  The resources which have been given by God to His Church in my community are enough to make a tremendous dent in the mountain of pain and want that afflicts many people here, each one of them loved by God and created in His image no matter what they have done or how they have repaid God for His love.  A giving, serving Church would soon shed the negative image that it has earned in the minds of many and create an environment where the Church, as a messenger of God’s love and desire to reconcile heaven and earth, might once again be listened to and believed.

As I wrote earlier I am not a theologian, and do not know if the Bible supports this interpretation.  I certainly do know that the American economic structure and what our society calls “common sense” do not, and I confess that I am as attached to my stuff as is the next person.  It just seems to me that the Bible speaks of a greater concern with people than with things, and this essay is my poor and imperfect expression of that view.