“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.