Stepping Out

Private First Class Joseph Sommers tried to squat down as he waited for the helicopters that would shuttle him and the rest of his company into action.  He could have taken his pack off and sat on it, but he didn’t want to take a chance on delaying the process when the choppers finally arrived.  This was Joe’s first mission since arriving in Vietnam and he knew that he was going to screw something up; all of the veterans had made certain that he knew that.  Joe just didn’t want it to happen first thing.  Since he couldn’t squat without the risk of the weight of the pack pulling him over onto his backside, Joe just stood silently and smoked while he waited.

Joe tried to take his mind off of the action that lay before him by remembering his home in San Diego.  Home hadn’t been kind to Joe.  For reasons that he could never understand he had been picked out by the other kids in the neighborhood to be bullied.  Hardly a month would go by without him being beaten up at school or at the neighborhood park or just walking back from violin lessons,

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers,” someone would yell and soon his violin case would be in the bushes, his sheet music scattered to the wind, and Joe lying on the sidewalk with his mouth or nose bleeding.

This situation persisted throughout Joe’s school years, and in his heart and mind visions of revenge had wrestled with the message of forgiveness that he heard preached and taught at the East San Diego Christian Church every Sunday.  Joe’s head would pray for the strength to forgive the kids who made his life hell, while his heart prayed that God would send lightening or plague or any other catastrophe to blast his tormentors to a hell of their own.

In time Joe began to believe that for some reason that he would never know he deserved what he was given.  He would try to fight back, but it was as if he knew that he would be beaten once again before he even started and it would be better to get it over with quickly rather than prolong – and maybe worsen – the inevitable.

At last Joe graduated from high school.   “The world is open to you all” some speaker was saying.  “You only have to step out and take your place in it.”  “Take my place in it” Joe thought as he sat listening under the gray June sky.  “What the hell is my place in it?  A punching bag?  Maybe it IS a punching bag.  I never had the balls to really stand up and fight back, and I’m just as big as most of those kids are who slapped and hit and spit on me.  Maybe the world really is open to me, and then again maybe that speaker is full of shit and I have this coming to me and nothing’s going to change.”

Joe mulled these thoughts for two weeks after graduation.  He stayed at home, not wishing to face the kids that he might run into at the park or the beach or, well, just about anywhere.  All that time his mind seethed over the import of what he had heard at graduation.  Was the world truly open to Joe, or was he just a punching bag.  It couldn’t be both.

At last Joe’s eighteenth birthday came.  Joe’s parents asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and the answer to that question came to Joe like an epiphany.  “I want to join the Army.  Today.”

Joe’s mother stood in stunned silence.  “Are you crazy?” she blurted out at last.  “Have you noticed that there’s a war going on?”

“Yes Mom” Joe replied.  “Dad fought in a war and now it’s my turn to go too.”

“You’re darned right your father fought in a war, and I waited every day to see if two officers were going to walk up onto the porch and ring the doorbell and tell me that my husband was dead.  Now you want me to do it again with you.  What in the hell is the matter with you men?”

Joe’s mother sat down and began to cry.  His father tried to comfort her, but she seemed to be as mad at him as she was at Joe.  Joe was sorry to have hurt his mother.  She had been his greatest comfort during the awful times of his childhood and he felt the sting of having caused her this pain.  She would have been especially grieved if she knew that her outburst had confirmed Joe in his decision, and convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

“What in the hell is the matter with you men?” she had asked.  “Men.”  She had used the word “Men” and included him in that group.  Here was what he sought.  He would not be “Miss Sommers” or the human punching bag for one more day.  Joe would be a man, even if he got himself killed trying.

After Joe’s mother accepted that she could do nothing to prevent Joe’s departure his father asked if they could drive him to the recruiter’s office downtown.  “No Dad.  I want to take the bus.  I want to do this myself, from the beginning to the end.”  Joe remembered his father telling him of taking a train from a town in Missouri to a naval training center somewhere on the Great Lakes in the 1930’s.  Joe would only take the Number Seven bus down University Avenue and then down Park Boulevard into downtown San Diego, but he was going to do it on his own.

The Park lay in the direction opposite University Avenue, but Joe chose to walk through that park on the beginning of his journey.  Matt and Chad and Reuben and a couple of girls who would have never thought of letting Joe know their names were sitting on a picnic bench underneath a scruffy pine tree as he walked by.

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers” Joe heard for the thousandth time.  Among the catcalls and insults Joe heard the question “Where you going to, Missy?”

Joe stopped directly in front of them and said “I’m going to join the Army.  If any of you ladies want to go with me, step up.”

“They don’t let sissies join the Army” Matt replied with his usual idiotic sneer.

“Then why don’t you get up off of your ugly ass and come down with me and see for yourself?  Maybe you could even join too.  I’m sure that they have room in boot camp for two more.  Hell, all of you can come.  Come on!  Let’s see how brave you are when people are shooting at you.”

The laughter stopped for a minute.  “Perhaps that thought is sinking into their microscopic brains” Joe thought.  Before they could begin their derision again Joe continued speaking.  “I have more important things to do than piss away a morning with you.  Anyone with a set of balls on them can come and get on a bus with me.”  Joe then slowly, as impudently as he could manage, turned his back on them and walked away, leaving several very confused ex-tormentors sitting on their bench.

Joe thought about that day as he stood at the edge of the LZ (Landing Zone), but his daydream abruptly ended when he heard the Wop Wop Wop of the approaching helicopters.  “Saddle up, gentlemen” Corporal Zincker said with a calm voice.

Joe was anything but calm.  He had been assigned to his unit four months after finishing Advanced Infantry Training at a fort in Texas.  When he arrived at Camp Charlie, somewhere near Pleiku in central Vietnam, he was given the usual treatment dished out to FNG’s (pronounced F’nG’s, and meaning Fucking New Guys).  “Don’t get me killed, FNG.  I’m rotating home in two months.”  “Oh shit.  Are we getting another FNG?” and so on.

Joe knew that new guys were replacing buddies who had rotated home, been wounded or killed.  A veteran who had befriended him in Texas had told him what to expect and advised him to “not get yourself killed, and the guys will come around in time.”  That was a better deal than he had at home.  The guys never came around there.

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

The chopper had touched down and Joe’s squad moved quickly to take their places behind the door gunner who sat behind his M60 machine gun.  All kidding and FNG stuff was over now.  Soon this helicopter and a lot of others would come to within a foot or two of the ground and men would jump out into a world where bullets and bombs and other gadgets of war would define their lives for as long as they could hang onto them.

“I don’t have to be here” Joe thought as the helicopter lifted off and another took its place.  Joe remembered that when he first arrived in-country the previous company clerk had just been wounded by a sniper and had been shipped, or ‘medivaced’, to a hospital in Japan.  Joe knew how to type, so he was assigned to replace the clerk.

“But sir” Joe had argued with his Commanding Officer.  “I didn’t sign up to be a clerk.  Why do I have to do this?”

“Because you’re government property, Sommers, and you will do what the government tells you to do’ was the CO’s reply.  “I’m the government, and I’m telling you to put your ass in front of that typewriter and start clerking, and if you give me any more shit I can add latrine duty to your chores.”

Joe didn’t savor the idea of latrine duty,  and so he ground his teeth day after day as the men went out on missions while he stayed behind and typed morning reports.  At last, a replacement Admin Specialist arrived and Joe Sommers found his name on a list of men going out on the next mission.

Sitting in a row on that chopper, Joe was both exhilarated and terrified.  This journey was very nearly over.  For almost nineteen years, life had tried to beat him into submission and had failed.  Joe Sommers was not willing to be a punching bag.  He was not willing to be a company clerk.  Joe Sommers would be a man, even if it killed him.

They were below treetop level now and Joe knew that the call to “un-ass” would come in a moment.  “This is a hot LZ gentlemen.  We don’t want to linger” a chopper crewman hollered over the roar of the engines and blades.  The gunner cut loose with a burst from the 60, spraying the tall grass and brush in front of him with hot death for anyone who dared to poke their heads up.

Joe had been placed so that he would be the third person out of the chopper.  That way the squad leader and one veteran would lead him, and the ten guys behind him would kick him in the ass if he screwed anything up.  Joe knew that’s just the way that they did it, and he was glad that it was that way.  He would either survive this and then deal with the “World that is open to you all,” or he would die on his feet facing his enemy.  Either way was fine with him.

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

The Garden

Charlie Hamer pounded his fist into the dirt, which did nothing to assuage his frustration.  He had just pulled up the weed which had sprung up next to an onion that he had planted from seed.  The roots of the weed had become entangled with the roots of the onion, and both came up out of the damp, brown earth together.  To make matters worse, Charlie’s aim was off and instead of simply burying his knuckles in the dirt, he accidentally flattened an adjacent seedling which had committed no other crime than to be growing where Charlie’s fist came down.

“Damn it!” Charlie barked.  “Damn it!  Damn It!  Damn it!”   Charlie looked at the corpses of the two onions and then sat back in the dirt of the garden.  He put his head on his knees and quietly sobbed until tears and snot were running down his face and onto his hands and knees.

“Are you all right?” was the question that came from a voice nearby.  Charlie was reluctant to look up and acknowledge the voice.  He was not comfortable showing such emotion in public and had always striven to prevent crying where he could be seen.  Many times at weddings and funerals, or even watching a sappy movie on the television with his ex-wife Evie, Charlie would think about football games or Civil War campaigns or a complicated construction project that he had worked on in the past in order to deflect his mind from whatever was threatening to draw out his tears.  That stratagem had rarely worked, but he tried it anyway, so uncomfortable was he with showing emotion.  Now Charlie had no time to retrace in his mind the Battle of Chickamauga, so with barely repressed sobs he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come.

Standing at the edge of his 20’ X 20’ garden plot at the Muir Park Community Garden in Camas, Washington was the young woman who tended the plot just to the east of his own.  They had hardly spoken a dozen words in the two months that he had been working his plot that spring.  Charlie stared up at her with eyes blurred with tears.  He drew the sleeve of his loose, long-sleeved shirt across his nose, not caring two cents that he left a streak of glistening mucous that resembled a slug’s trail along that sleeve.

“No, I don’t suppose that I am all right.”  Charlie stated peevishly, already beginning to think about the landing of the Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal in August of 1942.  “This is not the way that I carry on when everything is just hunky-dory.”  Charlie saw the woman flinch, and her face turned a light shade of red.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to intrude” the woman said stiffly.  “I thought that you might be – – -, well, I’m just sorry.  That’s all.”

The woman turned away and walked across a four foot border path and back onto her own garden plot, her back ramrod straight and turned to Charlie.  Charlie sat, collecting himself, looking first at the onions that he had just murdered, and then at the back of the woman who had been stung by his pain-spawned outburst.  He then looked straight in front of him and saw the guy with the pot belly who tended the plot just to the north.

Pot-belly was a crusty geezer of at least sixty five years.  Charlie knew this because the old guy had spoken of receiving medicare benefits one day. His chatter had been bothering the hell out of Charlie as he tried to focus that day on building a trellis for the green beans that he hoped to grow.

“I’m going to get what I can out of the system before the goddam politicians bankrupt it” Pot Belly had declared with his usual absence of delicacy.  Charlie just nodded and continued with his trellis building.  The geezer didn’t really need a response; any breathing blob of protoplasm that could maintain homeostasis and wouldn’t turn its back on him was audience enough to keep the geezer going for far longer that Charlie would volunteer to listen.

“That’s a sweet little piece of ass that works the plot next to you” the geezer had said one day, and on this day the unending verbal wood rasp chaffed a little flesh off of Charlie.  The young woman was an adult; Charlie could see that clearly enough, but she didn’t look to be a lot of years older than his daughter would have now been.  The rasp that drew across the flesh over Charlie’s bruised and bleeding heart today drew a purulent wave of stinking emotional pus that oozed out of the wreckage that now rested there in his chest.

“I would prefer that you don’t speak of her, or any other woman within my hearing, in that manner to me” Charlie snapped.  Her ass is her business, and I’ll be content to look after my own.”  The geezer had looked surprised by Charlie’s outburst but was hardly chagrined.  He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to building frames around his tomato plants.  On this day, geezer just looked at Charlie, shook his head a little, and turned back to his bed of beets and carrots.

Charlie felt bad about his response to the woman’s act of compassion.  He rose up from his sitting position and as he did so he stirred up the dust, which settled on his sleeve and highlighted the shot that had now soaked into the fabric.  Charlie scowled at the brown streak but realized that it would be useless to try to wipe it off, so he ignored it.  He walked over to the edge of the garden plot to within a few feet of where the woman was bent over, wresting weeds and grass from between corn shoots which had just emerged from the ground.

“Excuse me, Miss”  Charlie said.  “I believe that I owe you an apology.”

The woman continued to work at her weeds for enough additional seconds to convey that she had little interest in Charlie’s apology.  At last she straightened and turned to face him.  She said nothing as she looked at Charlie with an expressionless face.  Charlie became confused at her silence and began to look at his fingers and snot-stained sleeve as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.  The woman at last broke the silence.

“I believe that you said you owe me an apology.  You’re right.  You do.  You don’t have to give me one, but if it will make you feel better I would be willing to hear it.”

Charlie looked at her for a moment longer, tongue-tied and embarrassed.  He realized that she was right; he had made the offer and it was time to follow through.

“Oh, yes.  You’re right.  You were trying to be nice to me and I snapped at you.  You didn’t deserve that and I apologize for my bad temper.  Thank you for the concern that you showed to me.  I’ve had a nasty couple of years and I’ve lost the knack for behaving well with other people.  I have no right to take it out on you though.  I’ve just gotten off track with the social graces.”

Charlie looked back down at his fingers, digging some dirt out from under this thumbnail.  When he looked back up the woman’s expression had softened.  She said “Apology accepted, and I hope that your day gets better.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied softly.  His day wasn’t the problem; it was the last two years that were a weight that he could hardly carry anymore.

“My name’s Rachael”  the woman said.  “I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. but if it’s alright to ask, what was it that set you off over there?”

“I was pulling up a weed that had its roots already wrapped around an onion sprout.  I tried to pull the weed and ended up pulling both of them out of the ground.  I had forgotten how much work went into this gardening thing and how intentional it has to be.”

“Yes,” Rachael said,  “gardening isn’t done by accident.  Well, welcome to our little world; it can be a blessing and, when you lose a crop to cucumber beetles or tomato blight, a damned curse.”  Rachael chuckled at her own statement, as if the memory of past gardening failures and frustrations came to her mind as a joke more than an annoyance.  “I am not the best gardener in the world” she stated to Charlie.  “But what I know I would be happy to share with you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “I hate to be a bother, but I don’t doubt that I need all of the help that I can get.  Oh, by the way, my name’s Charlie Hamer and I now formally agree to take you up on your kind offer.  But maybe some other day.”

Rachael thrust forward her hand in a grand manner and Charlie took it and gave it a grave shake.  They then separated to return to their own gardens.  Charlie resumed plucking the weeds out of the dirt between his onion plants, but now more judiciously.  He was absorbed in his work and didn’t notice that the geezer from the adjacent plot had walked over and was standing nearby until the old guy cleared his throat.  Charlie looked up and wasn’t concerned whether displeasure showed on his face or did not.

“Excuse me for butting in” he began, “but I heard that you had a problem with pulling some of your weeds.  If you would like I could share a little trick with you.”  Charlie wanted mostly to be left alone, but he had already been rude once today and didn’t feel like repeating that performance.  “Oh, it looks like I need all of the help that I can get today,” he replied.

“OK, so here’s how it is.  These weeds come up right in the middle of what you want to keep and it’s impossible to get some of them out without harming the good stuff.”

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

“So I keep these little snips,” the old guy pulled what looked like a pair of outdoor scissors with a short, sharp blade, “and just clip the tops of the weeds every other day or so.  You can’t get rid of some weeds, but you can sure manage the little bastards.”

“What good will that do?” Charlie asked.  “The weed is still there, and still competing for nutrients with my onion.  My father taught me to get the weed by the roots once and then you’ll not have to do it again.”

“Your Dad was mostly right.  Sometimes, though, it isn’t feasible.  Like in your case here, for instance.  What you have to do in these circumstances is keep the weed from thriving.  The leaves feed the weed plant, and so if you keep it clipped and let the onion grow. The strong survive and the weak gets pushed aside.  You really are new to this, aren’t you?”

     “I really don’t want to get chummy with this guy” Charlie thought.  “Maybe he’ll just impart some wisdom and go away.”

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

“Well, then welcome to our community.  My name’s Walt, and I would be happy to give you some tips if you would like to hear them.  It looks like you’ve had at least a little experience though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  My father made me help him in the garden when I was a kid.  I hated it and hated vegetables, which is why he did it I think.  Dad was pretty good at growing things and a little bit of that rubbed off on me.  Not very much though, it seems.”

“Well, the let me share with you the little bit that I know.”

Walt proceeded to show Charlie how to build proper beds for planting tomatoes and cucumbers, how to protect bean seedlings from slugs and a dozen other techniques designed to coax clean food out of the dirt.  By the end of an hour Charlie had a respectable looking garden and the beginning of a new opinion of Walt.  The old guy was crusty, to be sure, and his language as earthy as the soil into which Charlie had just deposited beet and carrot seeds, but Charlie could see that Walt cared about him and his garden.  That human connection had been missing in Charlie’s life for – how long had it been?  More than a year now.  Charlie didn’t feel the need for a confession, but a kind ear was not a bad thing to have.

“What brought you back to gardening?” Walt asked.  “My Dad used to make me play the violin and I haven’t touched one of the damned things since the day I turned 18.”

Charlie hesitated.  He hadn’t talked about his life with anybody for a long time, and while his usual reticence to be open with anyone was still strong, the need for human contact had begun to grow in him.  At last Charlie decided to pull the curtain back, a little at least, and see what would come of it.

“Well, I’ve had a pretty shitty last couple of years” Charlie began.  “My wife ran off with my pickup truck and took my dog too.”  Charlie tried to smile at his little attempt at humor, with scant effect.

“Yeah” Walt replied.  “I hate it when that happens.  I’ll bet she held the title on your single wide too.”

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

For another moment Charlie stared down at his feet.  Then, with a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders he looked up at Walt.  Tears were once again forming in his eyes and he had to clear his throat two or three times before he could speak clearly.  Finally he could begin.

“Well, my wife really has left me,” Charlie began.  He sniffed back a nose full of snot and coughed to clear his throat again.  “We didn’t have a dog, but we did have two kids; a girl and a boy.”  Charlie had to stop there once again and regain his control.  Thinking about some military action was just not going to draw his attention away from his grief, so he just studied the new bed that housed a tomato plant while he got his act back together.  Walt at last spoke to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“Yeah, I’ve heard from a friend that divorce is a bitch, especially when kids are involved.  I’ve never been in that situation, but I do believe that it’s tough.  Do you have visitation rights?  I know of some divorce lawyers who are really good at fighting for stuff like that.”

Charlie stared blankly at Walt for a moment, and then said “visitation is not a problem for me.  I can visit Stevie’s grave any time that I want.”

Walt stood in front of Charlie, still as a statue.  Charlie’s shoulders slumped forward and his head was down.  The sobs returned, but this time softly.  Charlie wasn’t trying to hold anything back, but he was simply exhausted from having carried this load for so long.  Walt put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder but said nothing, which was probably the best thing that he could have done.

 

The young woman, who had been listening to this while trying to not appear as if she was eavesdropping, now dropped all pretense.  She stood up, took off her gloves, and walked over to where the two men were standing.  Coming up to charlie she said “I’m sorry that I was listening to your story, but I’ve heard it anyway and I can see that you are hurting.  I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling.  Would you let me give you a hug?”

Charlie wished desperately that there was someplace where he could hide.  The grief that he carried was like an anchor of lead and he was just tired as hell of carrying it.  Charlie had lived a solitary life for over a year and now the idea of the enfolding arms of a compassionate stranger were a gift that he had not expected, and one that he readily accepted.  She placed her arms around his shoulders and gave him a gentle embrace, which she held silently for what might have been two or three minutes.  Charlie’s sobs continued and he tried, with mixed success, to keep tears and snot off of her shoulder.  At last Charlie regained control and the young woman released her embrace and stepped back.

“My name is Monica” she said, “and if you would like to take a break from the garden and tell your story I would be happy hear it.  Sometimes it is good to pick the scab and let some of that stuff ooze out.  I will understand if that is not something that you want to do, but if you think it will help I will be glad to do it.”

“I think that she’s right” Walt chimed in.  “I’m in a PTSD group, and letting out the bad air is usually a good thing to do.  If you’re up to it of course.  We could take ten and go sit under the canopy.”

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

“Oh, you kids” Walt smiled.  “Take a ten minute break.  In the Army, when we were marching from one place to another, every so often the company commander would say “Take ten, hope for five, get two.”  He was talking about taking a rest, and ‘ten’ could really mean just about anything.”

The three of them walked out of the garden plots and over to a covered area that they called the canopy.  There were several plastic chairs and a rickety wooden bench that had been exposed to too many winters there.  They found seats and waited quietly as Charlie tried to get his thoughts together.  It was obviously a struggle, and after a short while Walt decided that the pump needed to be primed, so he began to speak.

“I don’t know anything about you’re problem, man, and I don’t want to turn this into a pity party.  I told you that I’m in a PTSD group, that means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in case you aren’t familiar with it – and I have seen that it sometimes helps to know that you’re not alone in this world of hurt.  Can I tell you a story?”

Charlie nodded in the affirmative, and Charlie began to speak.  “I’m sixty nine years old.  I wasn’t three months out of high school before I was drafted.  Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder and six months later I was pounding ground in The Nam.  I was 11B.  A grunt.  My paid vacation in the tropics took me to Dak To, Pleiku, and a hundred hilltops and villages and valleys with names and numbers that I’ve either forgotten or am still trying to forget.  I just wanted to survive my year and go home, but it didn’t go quite that smoothly.  Somehow I would always find myself in the hottest shit that was going down in-country, and usually when I least expected it.  I made some friends early on, but when my first buddy’s head exploded right next to me like a melon with a cherry bomb inside of it, and then another got gutted like a fish by a bouncing betty land mine, I quit making friends.  Oh, we covered each other’s asses all right, but I wasn’t making any more friends ‘cause I didn’t like seeing them die on me.  We went from one engagement to another; some that made the news but most that didn’t; some that made sense but most that didn’t.  Big or small, smart or stupid, they had one thing in common:  men got torn open.  Men bled and men died.

When I was taken out of the jungle and assigned to an armored unit that mostly secured a road from Saigon to the highlands I thought that maybe I would make it out of there in one piece.  At least we weren’t walking around in the bush looking for trouble.  Now I got to spend some time in an APC – oh, sorry.  I mean and armored personnel carrier – and sometimes I rode shotgun on a jeep.  The best thing to me, as I saw it was that I didn’t have to walk so goddam much, and sometimes had something metal to hide in.  In fact, my new posting made me feel like I was the hunter instead of the hunted.

We were on the road to Cu Chi one day and it seemed quiet.  I was sitting in the back of a jeep, manning the machine gun.  I can still remember that I was thinking ‘I could like this country, if they weren’t fucking shooting at me that is,’ when some VC bastard opened up on me as we passed by.  The little son of a bitch must have come up from a tunnel, because nobody saw him come up or go down.  I felt like a quarterback who got tackled by a 300 pound dickdoo.  I got knocked forward and landed on top of the passenger up front.  I thought that I couldn’t get a good breath because the wind had been knocked out of me.  I later found out that it was because the little fucker had walked a couple or three rounds up my back and blew out my left lung.”

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

“Yeah.  One of those big linemen who’s bellies droop lower than their dicks do.”

“Oh”, Monica replied.  “Sorry I asked.”

Walt paid no attention to Monica, and at that point lifted the bottom of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head.  Fifty years after the fact the discolored, blotchy exit wounds still disfigured Walt’s belly and chest.  “Lucky for me he went from right to left.  The prick missed my right kidney and aorta, but he punctured my left lung and got my spleen.  Recovery was long and hard though, and I can’t be around kids because without a spleen, if anyone gets a cold I catch it.

The worst part for me was that when I got home I got shat on by just about everybody.  I grew up in Seattle, but Seattle wasn’t my home when I returned.  I still had to convalesce after they released me, first from the hospital and then from the Army.  Until my hair grew out and I was no longer identifiable as military, people spat at me and called me shit that you wouldn’t believe.  I was still so weak that I couldn’t murder the bed-wetting little sons of bitches with my bare hands, which I would have loved to do, so I dreamed of getting an M-16, putting it on full auto, and killing as many of the snot-nosed pukes as I could before the police took me out.

A smart doc at the VA hospital picked up on that and got me hooked up with a psychologist and a PTSD group; other guys who saw the same shit that I did and in some cases even worse.  I can’t tell you how much that helped.  I still have trouble with dreams and loud noises – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve aren’t my favorite days of the year – but mostly I can function OK now.”

Walt stopped speaking and looked at Charlie and Monica, who were standing in front of him speechless.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. ”You two never seen a bat-shit crazy Vietnam vet before?”

Charlie allowed a little chuckle a little at that, and Walt said “That’s better.  You’re not the only guy with a wood file up his ass, see?  So what’s your story?”

Charlie’s mind returned to his pain, but the knowledge that somebody was with him who knew what pain was made all the difference in the world.

“Well, two years ago my daughter died in a surfing accident.”  Charlie’s throat tightened up again, but after a moment or two it loosened back up.  “She was in cold water off of the Oregon coast.  It was good surf, and we think that she just stayed out in it too long, until the cold overwhelmed her suit.  Hell, we don’t really know to this day what happened.  They found her in a cove, pretty beat up by the waves bouncing her off of the rocks.  An autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a particular reason for her death.  It’s like the goddam ocean just rose up and took her.

After we buried Stevie – her name was Stephanie, after her grandmother – nothing could get back to right in our home.  Insignificant things became issues.  What was once just an annoyance became a crisis.  I can’t say that Maureen and I ever quit loving each other, but any return to normal seemed like a betrayal of Stevie.  Because it WASN’T normal.  It could never be normal again.  After a year we separated, and two months later Mo filed for divorce.  I didn’t fight the divorce.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t have the energy.  Hell, I didn’t care.  Jack, our son, was mad at the world but focused most of his anger at me, and I didn’t do much to help him out.  I couldn’t do much to help myself out.  Mo never tried to poison Jack’s relationship with me but she saw that it was over, for now anyway, so she took my son with her and moved out of state.

We settled the whole thing without a fight.  I liquidated my company, Hamer Properties & Construction – you might have seen some of our signs around the county. I gave her the whole damned enchilada.  The company went for a pretty penny; enough for her and Jack to be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they’re careful.  I do handyman work now and live in a studio downtown.  It’s all I need.  My family doesn’t live close to me, but they told me that I should get out of my cave, get some fresh air and meet people.  Well, this is out.  I guess this air is as fresh as any around here, and I decided to start with plants and work my way back up to people.”

The three gardeners sat silently after Charlie wrapped up his story.  It was warm, with hardly a breath of a breeze.  Charlie saw a snake slither between rows of a neighboring gardner’s spinach plants.  He pointed it out and Walt said “Ugh.  I hate snakes.”

“That’s a garter snake” Monica said.  “They eat slugs, among other things.  I’m glad he’s there.”

“Yeah?” said Walt.  “Well you didn’t have to put up with the fucking snakes that I did in Vietnam.  They called ‘em ‘step-and-a-half’s ‘cause that’s about as far as you would get after one of the sons of whores bit you before you were face-down in the jungle.”

“Well, if I see a step-and-a-half Walt, I’ll surely chop his damn head off” said Charlie with a chuckle, which, if the other two gardeners had known Charlie better, would have known that this chuckle was the first hint of a release from his pain that he had shown in many months.’’

Monica spoke up at this point and said “I have nothing like the stories you guys do.  My family is fine, and I’ve not had any major trauma.  I’m a Messianic Jew however, which is a Jew in all ways except that I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

“I don’t believe any of that hocus locus bullshit” said Walt.  “I never saw no God when young men were blowing each other to bloody goddam pieces in Vietnam.”

“I don’t care whether you believe it or not Walt.  I’m not trying to convert you.  I’m telling you what story I have to tell.  Will you allow me to do that?”

“OK, ok.  Fair enough” Walt replied.  “I guess I get a little cranky about all of that.  I’m sorry.  Go on.”

“Thank you Walt.  My family is Jewish but not religious.  It’s an ethnic thing.  I was raised Jewish with the understanding that I could decide for myself if I wanted to go fully into the faith or remain outside of it.  My parents never dreamed that I would choose to follow Jesus.  At first they were really pissed; I mean, Jews don’t do that.  I told them that I was exercising the freedom that they gave me, and they accepted that.  Eventually.  Sort of.

But it was hard.  Other Jews want nothing to do with me.  I am functionally cut off from the faith of my birth.  And Christians don’t really know what to do with me either.  I know that you don’t buy any of this Walt, and I don’t know what you believe or don’t believe Charlie, and that’s OK.  I’m not asking.  It’s none of my business and I don’t look to stick my nose in it.  But you guys were talking about being separated from friends or people you love, even society.  And traumatically too.  I’ve tasted that as well.  Not the seven course meal that you two have had to choke down, but I’ve tasted it.

Now I work for the City, providing counseling for abused and disturbed children.  I won’t share names or circumstances, but I’ve seen young lives that have been through meat grinders like you’ve described before they had tits or pimples.  That doesn’t make me an expert on experiencing pain, but I’m pretty familiar with trying to clean up after it, all the while knowing that I may not really do any lasting good at all.  My faith tells me that I have to try, and hope that Someone from outside the world that we see will do something that will bring a little healing to this screwed up place.”

All three sat in silence for a while longer, pondering what each had said.  At length Charlie stood up and said “Thank you both for listening to me, and for telling your stories too.  This pain has been killing my soul for a couple of years now, but maybe you two are the beginning of the fresh air that I was told that I needed.  I guess I should feed what is good in my life and pull as many weeds as I can.  The ones I can’t pull I’ll just have to manage.”

Monica stood and gave Charlie another hug.  “That sounds like a good plan.  And if you see a snake or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”  She gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder and then turned and walked back to her garden.

“I hate a fucking snake” growled Walt, but he had a ghost of a smile on his face as he turned and walked back to his own.

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.”

A Memorable Day With My Friend Clay

The year 1971 is a year that was nearly lost to me. I grew up in a very authoritarian family, and upon reaching eighteen years of age in 1966 joining the Army, even in the middle of a way, was like liberation to me. My father was raised in a strict rural Georgia family and spent twenty years in the Navy where he flourished in the military environment. It was natural then that Dad modeled that regimented style into his parenting.

Being in the Army was, as I said, like liberation. After basic and advanced training I found the Army to be a routine which left me more or less alone for a good piece of the day, with large amounts of free time of which I could dispose pretty much as I wished. I know that this will sound odd to a lot of people, especially those who have also served in the military, but that is the way it was. My first real duty station was a supply company in name only. We didn’t supply anyone with anything. After breakfast we were supposed to return to our barracks and wait for the First Sergeant to come and select us to perform menial labor around the fort where I was stationed. Most of us elected not to hang around the barracks, and our sergeant became very good at finding us in the snack bars, the PX, the post swimming pool and so on. I don’t think Sarge was much of a reader however. I mostly hid in a branch of the post library not two blocks from our company area and Sarge never looked for me there. He really hated me for hiding so efficiently from him.

When my name was called and orders arrived for Vietnam I was glad to go. I had had enough of Texas and needed some newer scenery. I arrived in country and soon was working twelve hours on, twelve hours off, with every fourteenth day a day of rest for me. I found a surprising amount of free time within that schedule as well and, in the absence of all of the spit and polish that is common to the military life outside of a combat zone, I actually felt free and mostly left alone except for the inevitable annoyance which comes with being in a place where people are trying to kill you.

When I left the Army after three years I was now free of my father’s close supervision, free of the regimentation under which I had lived in the Army, and free of any kind of good sense. All of this took place in the late 1960’s and as most people know the late 1960’s were a time when, for many people, moderation and restraint were ripped out of our lifestyles and thrown into the ash bin of history.

Being ungrounded in any spiritual or moral framework I embraced a lifestyle of radical personal freedom that was visceral and not philosophical. If I wanted to do something and it seemed like I could probably get away with it, I did it. I was neither nihilist nor anarchist; I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and mostly did it. All of which is to say that I was stoned a lot on recreational drugs in those days and don’t remember a lot, and that is why there are big parts of 1971 that I do not remember so well. On the other hand there are parts which I remember quite vividly, and this is a story of one such event which stands out clearly in my otherwise foggy memory.

I loved to travel then, even as I still love to travel now, and when one of the guys in the group of students and ex-military guys with whom I was hanging out returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to become involved in his father’s large construction company, this gave me all the excuse I needed to pay a visit to that magnificent part of the country. My main traveling partner in those days was Joe Medina. Joe had been in the Air Force with Clay Wistler, the recently moved friend, and we all met at college. Joe and I needed almost no excuse to drop whatever we were doing and go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California or just putt around the state visiting his friends and/or mine. Joe and I would throw a few items into his Volkswagon bus (yes, when you were stuck on a two lane road going uphill in a string of 200 cars behind a chugging VW bus, that very well might have been us) and roll down the roads and highways of California stoned and happy.

We would camp near Lake Tahoe, stop in for a few days in Sacramento to visit his friends Mike and Yoko, or drive over to Petaluma to see my friends Lara and Sherry, whom I met on a camping trip in my teens in the Laguna Mountains behind San Diego. A couple of times we stopped in Yosemite, parking in the public areas and then hiking way back up the east end of the valley where it begins to climb up into the Sierras. That was some of the most beautiful country that I have ever beheld.

On one trip however we went specifically to visit our friend Clay. Clay was now driving a cement truck for his father’s construction company when he worked at all, which was not very often. One can sometimes get away with a certain amount of laxity when one is the only son of a wealthy businessman. Most of the time Clay spent loafing on a twenty-six foot sloop which he tied up to a buoy thirty yards or so off the dock in Sausalito Harbor on the north side of the Bay. Clay had a six foot boat called a dinghy tied up to the back of his sloop, and when he wanted or needed to go ashore he would cast off in that little boat and putt into the dock. This guaranteed Clay a certain amount of privacy, a situation which Clay valued greatly.

Joe and I arrived at the dock and locked up his VW. We walked to the end of the dock and Joe took out of his pocket a little compressed air horn, such as people use at sporting events to make a loud, annoying noise. This horn was Clay’s doorbell. Joe pointed it at the sloop and gave it three short blasts. Shortly after that Clay’s head appeared over the side of the boat, or the gunnel, I think nautical types call it. Clay waved back to us, mounted his dinghy, and putt-putted his way to the dock to pick us up.

Clay’s boat was surprisingly comfortable for the three of us, with room for three sleeping bags, a galley, a head, and room to lounge on outside on the deck. We relaxed from our long drive, smoking a joint or two and sharing a six pack of Budweiser that we brought out to the sloop with us. At length however the sun began it’s descent in the sky above and we decided to go into Sausalito and eat rather than cook in the small galley. We climbed into Clay’s dinghy and he navigated it over to the dock, where we tied the dinghy’s rope to a piling and climbed up a ladder to the surface of the dock, and then walked a short distance to the No Name Bar.

That was not really the bar’s name. In fact, the bar had no name. There was no sign on the front identifying the establishment as a bar. Only a sign in the front door window alerting people under the age of twenty one that their presence was not welcome gave any indication whatsoever of what to expect upon entering that establishment. If you lived there however you knew exactly what you would find there; excellent mixed drinks if your preference ran to that (mine didn’t), great wines, cold beer, and pub grub that bordered upon gourmet.

We sat at a table, ordered our food and some beers, and spent quite a while at the No Name. I don’t really know how long because time was not something that I cared about all that much and so I usually chose to ignore it. However long we were there, it was quite dark when we exited the building and began to wobble back across the street and along the dock to where we had tied up earlier. When we returned to the dinghy we learned that time might be a concept of little consequence to us but tide was a much more substantial and pressing issue.

The tide may have been coming in when we tied up in the afternoon or it could have been at low tide, but one thing was abundantly clear; it was certainly coming in now. The point on the piling at which we had tied up the dinghy was several feet below the surface of the bay now and the rear of the dinghy was being raised out of the water as the bow of it was being pulled down by the taut rope. Clay cursed his stupidity and began to peel off his shirt and shoes. He extracted a knife from his pants pocket and slipped into the water, submerging near the piling and slicing through the rope as close to the piling as he could. The rear of the dinghy slapped back down as the rope gave way and Clay broke through the surface of the water, still fuming about his rope and unschedule dip in the water.

We climbed into the dinghy and made the short trip back to the sloop, where Clay toweled off and changed his clothes. His shower facilities were on land and so he would have to wait until the next morning to wash off the salt water from his swim in the Bay. We smoked another couple of joints and then turned in to sleep to the rocking and rolling rhythms of the swells on the Bay. It was a relaxing motion and I slept like a baby.

The next morning Clay got up early to shower and pick up some supplies at a store. By the time Joe and I awoke Clay was back with bacon and eggs cooking in the galley and a couple of six packs in the cooler. We had decided the evening before to cast off from the buoy and take a ride out on the Bay in Clay’s sloop, and although we had slept late it didn’t take us long to eat and clean up, and soon Clay was navigating his sloop out of the harbor and onto the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay.

If you have ever been there you know that the Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth, and this day was one of the finest and most clear that I had ever seen. The massive yet graceful span of the Golden Gate Bridge stood out in its red/orange glory against the indescribable blue of the sky over the Pacific Ocean. Alcatraz Island slipped past and behind us as we slid effortlessly across the slight chop of the untroubled surface of the Bay. Sipping our beers, sharing joints and gliding like a phantom over the waters I felt as free as I ever had. Out in the middle of the Bay there were no rules, no expectations, no timetables to be met. This was exactly where my radically individualistic, unmoored soul longed to be. Nothing could touch me here. Nothing could make me dance to its tune. Nothing except—.

AHHHWOOOOOO! The deep roar of a ship’s horn brought the three of us out of our stoned reveries. The Gate we had seen. Alcatraz we had seen too. But somehow the gigantic oil tanker that was now bearing down upon us had eluded our attention. “Holy Shit!” we bellowed in unison, and Clay instantly maneuvered the sail and tiller so that we would catch the maximum amount of wind to push his sloop out from in front of the black behemoth which was looming up over us already. Joe and I leaned far over the port (left) side of the boat as the starboard (right) edge dug deep into the water after Clay’s maneuver. From that position I could see the top of the ship’s bow which was pressing relentlessly straight towards us. Some Asian crewmen were looking down at us, probably certain that we would be run down and killed beneath the hull of their great ship.

Somehow, that didn’t happen. Clay’s quick action and a good breeze propelled us like a shot across the water and we looked back with relief as the tanker, with a huge “Phillips 66” emblem painted on the side, plowed irresistibly past us. Clay backed off on the sail and we slowed down to a more measured pace. For a minute we just looked at each other, too shaken to say anything. Joe had peed his pants, and I have no idea why I had not done so too. Then we began to laugh so hard that piloting the boat became impossible, We lay more or less dead in the water while we laughed away the terror which had so recently owned us. Joe peeled off his soiled pants and underwear and gave them a good wash in the Bay. He got some fresh clothes out of his pack which was stowed in the sleeping area below deck and we proceeded to continue our tour of the Bay.

On the way back we stopped in Tiburon to pick up a case of beer and then returned to the safety and calm of the buoy in Sausalito Harbor. After tying up the sails, I think that may be called “reefing” them but I am not sure, and immobilizing the tiller we climbed into the dinghy to go get showers and a meal somewhere that was a little less expensive than the No Name Bar. That night we slept the peaceful sleep that God grants to drunkards and fools before arising the next day and continuing with our journey to wherever we went next (I’ve forgotten that part), blissfully unconcerned with how close we came to a watery death the day before on the beautiful but sometimes dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay.

A Snake’s Tale

I have never in my life purposefully sought to have much in the way of dealings with snakes.  Surprise encounters did take place from time to time, and I have written elsewhere of spending an evening sitting on a pile of wood in Vietnam almost right next to a large king cobra, and being chased in Georgia by a water moccasin that was too stupid or too truculent to care that in addition to fishing gear I also carried in plain sight a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun.  I have had other encounters with snakes however and in one case the encounter was quite intentional.  I now propose to tell you that tale.

Vietnam forty years ago was a place where there were many ways that one could die.  When I was there in the middle of a war I made the acquaintance of the cobra mentioned above, but there were more snakes there than cobras!  The bamboo viper, which is green and blends wonderfully into its surrounding jungle, is so poisonous that the GI’s in the U.S. Army called it the ‘step-and-a-half snake’, since that was about all of the time that you had after being bitten before you did a face-plant onto the jungle floor.  I feared and hated those snakes, and would not hesitate to kill one.

But not all snakes in Vietnam were our enemies.  One snake, Leroy was his name, was in fact quite welcome in our company.  You see, we had a rodent problem in our living quarters.  Well, heck, we had a rodent problem throughout the entire country of Vietnam, but that is a different story.  At the docks where we worked unloading supplies from barges, LST’s and freighters of all kinds and sizes, the rats were huge and we needed terriers to keep them sort of under control.  The rats there were too big for a cat to handle.  At our base camp about twenty miles away from the docks, where we had assembled aluminum prefabricated bunkhouses called ‘hooches’, we were free of the river rodents but plagued by a much smaller variety which nonetheless had appetites as big as their gargantuan riverine relatives.  Any morsel of food, such as what might have arrived in a care package from the family back home, was fair game if it was left out by accident or the result of a drunken stupor.  Even worse was their sweet tooth for our marijuana.  We would stash our weed in paper-covered bundles in the insulation of our hooches on the off chance that we might have to endure a surprise inspection.  We didn’t fear inspections too much because, well, what were they going to do to us if they found something that they didn’t like, send us to Vietnam?  Still, it was an aggravation that we could live without so we hid the weed in the insulation.

But the mice found our weed.  One evening we parted the fiberglass batting to retrieve our stash and found the paper wrapping gnawed through and most of the weed eaten.  A few teaspoons of dope remained but it was sprinkled with mouse droppings, as if the dirty rats wanted to rub it in a little.  We decided that this meant war, and we retired to the enlisted men’s club to hatch our plans over a few dozen cans of beer.  The result of those deliberations was Leroy.

My friend Chief and I made a trip into Saigon the next day to replace our devoured marijuana, or ‘can sa’ in Vietnamese.  As we made our purchase we explained, with some translational difficulty, our problem to Papa San, our Vietnamese supplier.  Once Pop understood the problem he laughed a good belly laugh and said “No problem.  You come back tomorrow.  Con ran numbya one.  No more trouble with numbya hukin’ welve chuot.”  We figured out that a ‘chuot’ was a mouse, but had no idea what a ‘con ran’ was.  If it kept our con sa save however, it was fine with us whatever it was.

Chief and I arrived the next day and, as promised, Papa San was there with a large burlap bag tied off at the top.  The bag giggled and squirmed a bit when Pop moved it, but otherwise lay perfectly still.  “That con ran” we asked?  “Yah” replied Pop.  “No charge.  Onna house.”  “We take a look” we enquired?  “Soo-ah, I show”.  Papa San took a knife and and cut the string which bound the sack shut.  Chief and I peered into the open mouth of the sack and then jumped back about three feet at the same time, because staring up at us was what looked like a very large snake.  “No worry for GI” said Pop.  “Con ran numbya one for GI.  No care about GI.  Con ran eat chuot.  chuot numbya one for con ran.  Con ran numbya hukin’ welve for chuot.  I tell you before, con ran numbya one.”  We had never been given a bum steer by Papa San before, so we agreed to take the snake.  We offered Pop some money but he wouldn’t take it.  We were good customers and, as he said, the snake was on the house.

When we got back to our hooch that evening we hauled out our sack to show the guys the solution to our problem.  The reaction was mixed.  Ray Harris, an African American from West Memphis Arkansas, hated snakes and nearly put a turd in his underwear when he saw Leroy.  Chief (not the Chief with whom I went into Saigon, but a Native American from Oklahoma) was not especially pleased, but agreed that desperate times required desperate measures.  Phiz was one of those guys who actually liked snakes, so he offered to switch bunks with Ray so that he would be well off of the floor where Leroy would mostly be crawling.  It took lots of coaxing, but Ray finally gave in and Leroy was turned loose to become the newest member of our family.

Leroy, it turned out was only about four feet of some kind of constrictor.  He was a pretty snake, as shakes go, but we almost never saw him.  We tried to keep the doors of our hooch closed as much as possible to keep him inside, relying on keeping our screened windows open and fans ‘requisitioned’ from among the supplies which we off-loaded from the freighters at the docks to keep our hooch ventilated, and we noticed immediately that the rodent population began to decline.  Our weed was never again tampered with and even some foodstuffs were safe to leave out, as long as it wasn’t something that a snake would like.  One drawback was that when you returned to your hooch after an evening of sloshing down beers at the EM club and turned down your blanket you might find two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at you.  You just never quite get ready for that. I would lift Leroy gently out of my bunk and place him on the floor and he would slither away to curl up in somebody else’s bunk.  After making sure there were no snake turds in my bunk I would then crawl into the sack and not give Leroy another thought.

Ray never did get used to Leroy though, and one night it was Ray’s turn to stagger home late and find Leroy in his bed.  Out of the darkness we heard a decidedly un-manly shriek and then the voice of Ray shouting “Shit! Goddammit! Goddammit!  Somebody get that f___ing snake out of my f___ing bed!”  Larry Wiest, a logger from the Pacific Northwest, lifted Leroy out of Ray’s bunk while the rest of us tried to calm him down.  It was of no avail.  Ray grabbed his pillow and blanket and went to crash in the hooch of a friend in Headquarters Company.  Ray remained our friend and hung out with us but he never slept in our hooch again.  Ray left Vietnam three months before I did, glad to be going home and especially glad to be as far away from Leroy as he could get.

Leroy was still living with us when my turn to rotate back to the states came around.  The snake had grown to almost six feet in length and was getting quite fat on the ample food that was available.  That amiable reptile had become very much a part of our little family and we came to leave the doors of our hooch open once Leroy had established it as his home base.  We would hear reports of his midnight slitherings in other hooches but most of those guys didn’t mind a little rodent control, so they didn’t object too much.

None of the guys to whom I wrote after I left Vietnam ever mentioned Leroy, and I suppose that one day he just crawled off into the Mekong Delta and rejoined the natural world.  I hope so, and I hope that there are hundreds if not more little Leroys crawling around the marshes and jungles of southern Vietnam to this day, keeping the vermin under control and living the good snake life.

Road Trip, Part I

My family has always liked to travel, and every road trip was always viewed as an adventure.  Even the ‘vacations’ back to where my parents grew up in the South were at least in part an adventure, even if on the whole I would have preferred to have never gone on those adventures at all.  Being on the road and headed ‘somewhere’ always held the allure of a romance for me, and each city and town, desert and forrest, mountain and river and cow and cornfield all looked new to me, even if they looked like every one that I had seen before.  It was therefore with great eagerness that I agreed to accompany my brother and his wife on a road trip in June of 1969.

I had only just returned home from the Army; May 29 was my day of liberation to be exact, and after two years in Vietnam a trip across a thousand miles of open and friendly country sounded like heaven to me.  I was nearly scalped by the Army barbers who were intent on getting their last pound of flesh, thin as a stick because I ate only enough Army food to stay alive, and at twenty years and three hundred and thirty seven days old I was twenty eight days too young to have a beer in public.  Packing my bags and leaving everything behind me for a couple of weeks seemed like a dream come true.  Brad, my brother, would finish his spring semester in a week and a half and then we would all be away.

I chafed at the delay.  Being a Vietnam veteran in California, even a military-friendly town like San Diego, was not a sure road to popularity.  My old friends accepted me of course, but the experiences of my last three years, the things that I had seen and done, made it impossible to just pick up and move on as if none of us had changed.  I enjoyed going to the homes of friends and having a few beers, smoking a few bowels of weed and talking and laughing, but there were things that I did not feel able to talk about, that my friends did not want or, for that matter, need to hear.  These things were what I wanted to sort out, to see what I should hold onto and what I should let go of, and that sort of business could be better done alone in a 1963 Mercury rolling across the Southwest desert.  So the days crawled by until the eve of our journey

I would be driving my mother’s car.  Dad had a truck and Mom could live a week or two without wheels.  She didn’t tend to do much shopping or make social calls anyway, so it was of little inconvenience to her.  Brad and Ginny would be in their tiny Datsun pickup with an equally tiny camper on the back.  We loaded our vehicles the night before and planned to set out when we usually did on such trips, about two in the morning.  I loaded a cot and some blankets, food and minimal toiletries (I had little hair to brush), clothes and a few books that I knew I would not read.  I made sure that I had a cooler to hold the sandwiches that I would eat as we rolled down the highway and the beer that I was still too young to drink.  Brad and Ginny packed whatever it was they packed and a couple of cases of beer.  I knew that wouldn’t get us very far down the road, but it was at least a start.

We did not leave at two in the morning.  In fact, it was well after sunup and a good home cooked breakfast before we fired our vehicles up and nosed them into the traffic on Fairmont Avenue, which led to the onramp of Interstate 8.  Once we gained the Interstate we followed it for the five or six miles of it that had been completed, and which then fed us into the two lanes that comprised U.S. Highway 80, which we had always used before.  President Eisenhauer’s dream of a great, broad network of straight highways connecting all parts of the country was still in its early stages of development, and great stretches of the United States were still served only by the winding two lane roads which arose with the early age of the automobile.

U.S. 80 snaked across the El Cajon Valley, up and over the Laguna Mountains, and finally across the Imperial Valley towards the Colorado River and the border with Arizona.  El Cajon was warm and the mountains were cool and fresh, but the Imperial Valley was as hot as the very hinges of hell, and I loved every minute of it.  The mountains are beautiful, with live oak growing in the valleys and the slopes covered by chaparral and huge exposed boulders until one gets high enough to reach the pines.  The road only briefly gets that high and then returns to boulders and chaparral and then the descent into the desert.

The desert; how I love it.  There was little to look at but sand and rock, greasewood and sagebrush, cholla and ocotillo cacti, and a few other hardy plants struggling to earn an existence in such a forbidding environment.  Shallow, dry washes would appear and run through culverts under the highway to divert the rare rains which would come to this thirsty place.  Parallel to some stretches of the highway ran the tacks for the Yuma and San Diego Railroad which sometimes ran and sometimes did not, and at other places in the sand dunes one could still see segments of the old plank road which once connected Arizona with the port of San Diego.  I am certain that those old segments are completely gone now, but what do I know?  The desert is dry and does not give up its possessions lightly.

For many the desert holds no attraction.  When my grandfather traveled west from Georgia to stay with us for a while he crossed the desert in a Greyhound Bus.  Inside the bus was air conditioned comfort, while outside was a furnace which usually topped 110 degrees with a sun that would begin to redden unprepared flesh within a few minutes.  Accustomed to trees and streams and lakes, Grandfather was revolted by the empty, tortured wastes which stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction.  The inhabitants of the desert unsettled Grandfather most of all.  People of indeterminate age, skin wrinkled and turned to leather by the sun and wind, doing what was necessary but only just what was necessary to survive one more burning day, and yet without any idea of leaving to live anywhere else.  Grandfather shared those thoughts with me and I told him that in some small way I understood those old coyotes of the desert; there was something of them in me as well.

It was therefore with a sense of freedom and rest that I rolled along the concrete and asphalt ribbon behind the Datsun pickup, thinking of times that I had passed this way before and the lives going about their business that very day in the late spring heat of the valley.  We passed fields of lettuce and other crops, aqueducts, rows of eucalyptus and cottonwood providing shade and a windbreak, and finally we arrived at Yuma on the border of California and Arizona.  We were not stopping there but instead turned north and drove a few more miles intending to stop for the night at Martinez Lake, one of many reservoirs on the lower Colorado River.  Brad and Ginny and my parents had camped here a time or two before and sent pictures when I was in Vietnam.  I could hardly wait to see the place.

We pulled into the camping area and noticed right away that the temperature had not dropped one little bit; in fact the humidity was uncomfortably high due to the proximity of the lake.  Nevertheless Brad and I rigged up an awning on the east facing side of the camper which protected us from the sun until it descended below the western horizon.  At that point we intended to cook a meal and relax before resuming our journey the next day.  The sun went obligingly down, but there was to be no cooking that night.  With the fading of the sun and cooling of the evening breeze came the mosquitos.  First a few and then hordes of them.  We slapped at our tormentors until we sounded like Spanish dancers with castanets.  I don’t remember who spoke up first, but we quickly agreed that we didn’t sign up for this and stowed our gear back in our vehicles.  Soon we were pounding back down the road and heading east, unsure of where we would stop for the night but dead certain that it would be nowhere near Martinez Lake.

Nightfall overtook us as we travelled east across the farmlands of southern Arizona.  That was a time before cell phones, and as I followed the two red taillights of my brother’s truck I had only the AM radio and my own thoughts to keep me company.  Listening alternately to country and western, rock and roll, and the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack I thought again about the times I had travelled this road on the way to Georgia and Kentucky, and how I use to count the minutes until we would load up the car and point ourselves west again.  I also thought about the neighborhood kids who also went into the military, and about Frankie Mendoza and Marty Dempster who came home in boxes.  Why them and not me?  I think most veterans wonder about that every now and then.

I also thought about Carmen, Cathy and Greg.  I had known Cathy since elementary school and considered her a friend.  She was just a plain, ordinary kid in the first grade but grew up to be a beautiful young woman and our homecoming queen in my senior year.  Lovely as she was she never acted as if she was better than anyone else; in fact, it was almost as if she didn’t really know how stunningly beautiful she was.  Greg was on the high school diving team with me and we mostly played on the diving boards rather than honed our skills and truly competed.  Our coaches knew a little about swimming and nothing about diving, so we just did the best we could and considered it a great thing that we could play on the boards for high school credit.  Carmen I met while on leave between my two tours of duty in Vietnam.  By the time I returned home once again a civilian all three were dead.  Cathy died from some damned cancer, Greg was stabbed at a drug deal which went bad, and Carmen was at a stock car race with her husband when a car went out of control, flipped, and landed where she was sitting in the stands.  “Two in Vietnam but three here in San Diego” I thought as the mile markers slid past my windshield.  “I was safer in Vietnam!”

I remember that the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover of “God Bless the Child” was playing when I saw the red taillights pull to the right and into a roadside rest area.  Ginny must have had enough.  Several other cars and a row of long haul semis were already parked there and we found a space to set up at a little distance from the nearest other traveller.  We were in saguaro cactus country which boasts a plethora of its own bothersome bugs but was thankfully mosquito free.  We didn’t bother with cooking; sandwiches would do.  A couple of beers and a shared joint later, Brad and Ginny crawled into their camper and I onto my old military cot and slept the sleep which is reserved for the innocent and the forgiven.

I slept so well that next morning I did not even stir when the truckers fired up their diesels and the families loaded up their children to continue on their journeys.  My slumber was not impervious the the smell of Ginny cooking sausage and eggs on the camp stove we had brought along however, nor the aroma of the coffee which Brad was percolating over a small fire that he had made underneath a wire contraption which my dad had rigged for just this sort of occasion.  I lounged in the cot for as long as I felt it was safe and then emerged to get my fair share of the breakfast.  Although we were in no great hurry the breakfast was quickly consumed and I performed the clean-up  while Brad and Ginny straightened up their camper and stowed the coolers and the clean utensils once I was finished.  I merely had to fold my blankets and cot and replenish my small cooler with snacks and a few beers, and we were once again on our way.

The air was still cool from the night and the sunlight seemed to make everything sparkle.  The sun can have as many faces to the desert dweller as ice has to an Eskimo.  Sometimes it will beat down on you with what feels like physical force, and at other times it will tease you as it rises over a frigid winter scape, offering the hope of some warmth for your numb fingers or aching bones but then snatching that promise back when the next chill blast of Siberian air rolls over a land without any barrier to protect you from its malice.  On this morning it made the sand and rock seem warm and comfortable; as comfortable as rock and sand can be anyway, and the giant saguaro cacti and their lesser co-inhabitants of this dry land seem stately and not threatening, if not exactly friendly.

A short distance up the highway we deviated to the south and followed a long local road, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, into the Dragoon Mountains and up into Cochise Stronghold.  What is now a campground and recreational area was once the last refuge of a band of Native Americans who yet held out hope that they might retain their lands and way of life in the face of a White tsunami which had roared in from the east, crushing all in its path.  Eventually they, too, were overwhelmed and were removed from their beloved homeland in the mountains and high valleys of Arizona and removed first to Florida, then Oklahoma, and finally allowed to return to the less inspiring hills of their cousins the Mescalero Apaches in south central New Mexico.

And what a home the Apaches lost.  Up in the mountains at about the 5,000 foot level the evergreen forest begins and there is grass and softer brush than found among the more prickly growth closer to the desert floor.  We could walk among the trees without having to navigate the sort of dense undergrowth common in the South and the Pacific Northwest.  Sandy washes, called arroyos, spoke of mountain rains ancient and recent, all of which are greedily swallowed up by the soil to be preserved underground, safe from the evaporative power of the strong sun in the thin, dry mountain air.  Water is too precious a treasure to allow it to be snatched back into the sky from which it fell without imparting life at several levels along the way.

It was early but we made a snack and cleaned up, poked around for a short while longer, and then resumed our journey down the gravel road on the east side of the mountains.  We shortly passed into New Mexico and found paved road.  We had decided to make for Carlsbad Caverns and so we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks as we pushed the speed limit along the way through Lordsburg, Deming, las Cruces, and then across the Llano Estacado (a God-forsaken wasteland of desert, but beautiful in its own way) and finally arrived at our destination.  It was early afternoon and we wasted little time in purchasing our admission and entering the elevator which would take us 750 feet down to where our tour would begin.

There are many things which stand out about that tour, and the first one was that it was 750 feet underground.  I have never been claustrophobic, and even used to crawl into the large sewer pipes which once emptied into the canyons in San Diego to divert the infrequent rains.  Later on, being as I mentioned earlier skinny as a stick, I was considered for duty as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, tasked to enter the tunnels of the enemy to flush him out or kill him if possible and check for useful intelligence left behind.  Being underground would not have been a problem; the whole rest of the package would, and so I was gratefully relieved that my six feet of height made that duty for me mercifully impractical.  Even so, the thought of being 750 feet beneath solid rock was at least a little bit disconcerting.  I reasoned that it was hardly likely that I survived two years in Vietnam as well as being friends with Carmen, Cathy and Greg only to be smashed into a greasy stain by a cave-in at Carlsbad Caverns, and so pressed on with the tour.

The guide, a civilian working for the Park Service, gave us a vast amount of data about limestone, groundwater, erosion rates and so on.  I remember little of that, but I remember strongly the difficulty I had believing that what I was seeing was real.  I had been to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and other such places and seen re-creations of balancing rocks and stalagmites and stalactites, but they were all man made.  At those places stones would teeter back and forth as if ready to topple, all controlled by motors and gears and cogs and axels to mimic the real thing.  Here WAS the real thing.  I wanted desperately to touch it and reinforce its reality with tactile input but was admonished not to do so.  “The oils from your fingers, multiplied by all the fingers which pass through this place, would eventually change it, and change it for the worse” said the guide, and so I refrained.

When we emerged back into the daylight we saw that the sun was sinking rapidly towards where we had slept last night, off to the west.  The guide informed us that the bats which nested in the caverns would emerge at dusk to begin to feed on insects in and around the fields of New and Old Mexico.  We debated if a bunch of bats was worth seeing and decided, since the coming and going of the bats is how the caverns were discovered in the first place, we would take in the sight.  We grabbed dinner at the tourist center and then went with the guide and a few other fellow travelers to seat ourselves in a small stone bowl with a ragged gash in the earth opening up in the center.  We were seated on stone seats on the west side of the bowl and chatted together as the shadows crept down the seats, across the hole in the earth, and then up the rocky bank on the far side, away from us.

The sky began to shade into gray when we heard the first rustle, the first whirr, the first fluttering of thousands, no millions, of tiny leathery wings.  The first scouts emerged and flew a circular arc around the bowl in which we were seated.  Right on their heels were the rest of the colony.  Millions of bats followed the same spiral of the leader, creating what looked like a black coiled spring which rose up into the sky, bent southward, and then dispersed into the evening to begin their nightly gorge on the insects which would devastate the crops if they were not contained by the bats.  “They’ll be back at sunup” said the guide.  “Pretty much all of them at the same time.  They’ll get back to their same perch and after a while of bumping and jostling and perhaps making little bats they’ll go to sleep and rest so that they can do it all again tomorrow.”

We thought that sounded like a good plan for us too, so we took our leave of the Caverns and drove out onto the very flat plains of eastern New Mexico.  A few miles down the road we found a convenient turnout and pulled into it to make our evening camp.  Across the road was a sign that declared the presence of a potash mine somewhere in the distance.  Brad and I enjoyed making ‘momma jokes’ and found great amusement in finding occasions that evening to declare that “your momma is a potash miner.”  it was irrelevant that we enjoyed the same momma.  The entertainment was to be had in artfully crafting the joke, not about who’s momma was referenced or if, in fact, said momma had ever mined potash or even knew what potash was.  And if the subtleties of this form of entertainment is too complex for you, dear reader, It is highly likely to be because YOUR momma was a potash miner.

We did not stay up late that evening.  A beer and potato chips or some other snack and we went to our separate lodgings.  My cot at the edge of the turnout was soon swallowed up by the night but still faintly illumined by the billions of stars which poured their light down on this tiny patch of earth.  I thought about the bats, feeding in the fields to the south, and how there were a million stars for every bat I saw curl up and out of that crack in the ground.  My mind drifted back to a time when I was about 10, sitting in a bath tub and thinking about the universe.  It’s infinite, you know, which means that when you get to the end of it there’s more to go.  Always.  How does a 10 year old wrap his mind around infinity?  How does anyone wrap their mind around infinity?  The concept was overwhelming then and all I could do was cry.  As I lay on my cot I thought about the stars and universe and infinity, and concluded that it was not for me to wrap my mind around anyway.  It just was and it was beautiful to look at on this night in southeastern New Mexico, and that would have to be enough for me, at least for now.

KIA, MIA, EIA, SBIA, KIFO, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

There are a great many things that are bad about being a soldier in a war.  In most cases, if you are a soldier in the United States Army it means that you are far away from home.  It also means that you have left the familiar way of life in which you grew up and are now in a regimented society where the rules, the hierarchies and even the logic are completely different from anything that you ever knew before.  The training which you have to undergo, at least at the time when I experienced it, included being run and exercised beyond exhaustion, made to crawl in mud with live machine gun fire going over your head, gassed with something like tear gas on steroids and made to remove your gas mask just to prove to you that it works, and made to eat Army chow.  In two month’s time the sanity of civilian life is just a memory.  All of that is nothing however compared with the knowledge that somebody on the other side is trying to seriously injure or kill you.

Death is a fact of life (is that a logical absurdity?) in a war zone, and different people will deal with that fact in different ways.  For me, personally, I hated the thought that the bullet which would get me travels faster than sound, so I would have no warning of it’s approach.  I would be just walking along minding my own business, albeit in a uniform and possibly carrying a weapon in somebody else’s country, and BAM!  It’s lights out.  That very real possibility was extremely creepy to me so I exercised my best available option and refused to think about it.  I have always been good at avoiding unpleasant realities and this talent served me well for nearly two years in Vietnam.

Sadly though, in war unpleasant possibilities often become realities.  People die in wars, and efforts to glamorize wars gloss over the fact that death is an ugly thing which, in my Christian worldview, is not natural at all but is a corruption of what ought to be.  The ways that a soldier can die are many but the effect is the same:  KIA, or Killed In Action.  When that unhappy event takes place the soldier’s Commanding Officer, or C.O., must perform the unenviable task of writing the letter to the family of the deceased:  “Dear Mr. and Mrs Smith; I regret to inform you that your son, Clarence, was killed in action on June 26, 1968.”  The letter usually goes on to describe how their son was performing a brave or even heroic act when he met his end, in the hope that this message will somehow help the parents to deal with the fact that their son will never walk, roll, or even be carried alive into their home again.

Most of the time these letters are true.  A soldier performing his or her duties in battle is brave.  Period.  And many times heroic, almost superhuman, feats of courage are performed.  Many times, however, things are not exactly as the C.O. might describe.  I doubt that anyone ever received a letter saying “Your son Seymour was killed when a mortar round landed on the latrine that he was using”, or “Jeffrey died when he ran over a land mine while driving the jeep he had hot wired so that he could drive AWOL into a village and get laid”.  Trust me, this happened.  Also never mentioned is when the unfortunate demise came as a result of what is called ‘friendly fire’.  “I’m sorry to inform you that your son Gregory was killed by fire from Company B of Third Battalion.  We cannot determine who pulled the trigger, but the entire company will be given a month’s latrine duty (immortalized by the now-familiar description of ‘shit detail’)”.

All of these realities were the stuff of our daily lives, and like soldiers everywhere we made light of them to help us deal with them.  There were said to be tigers roaming in the jungles of Vietnam when I was there, although nobody I knew ever saw one, and so we came up with our own cause of death:  EIA, or Eaten In Action.  We often laughed about how a C.O. would go about explaining that one.  In my own experience I rarely came close to being a KIA, an MIA (Missing In Action), or and EIA.  On various occasions I learned to recognize the sound of steel jacketed lead flying over my head and the ‘crump’ of rockets, grenades and mortars going off nearby, but my closest encounters with being a bad day for my C.O. lay in another direction; the days that I almost became SBIA AND KIFO.

I spent a large part of my time in Vietnam working at a port on the Saigon River.  We would unload big ocean going vessels as well as Navy LST’s and barges, stash all of the goodies that they carried in warehouses and yards, and then backload those vessels with blown up equipment destined to be shipped to Japan to be returned to the United States as Toyotas and Datsuns.  When containers, either full or empty, were replaced in the holds of ships they would be lashed together with large pieces of wood between them to keep them from rolling around.  These large pieces of wood were called dunnage, and they were stacked, until used, in what was appropriately called the dunnage yard.

I worked the 7 PM TO 7 am shift in that yard towards the end of my tour, and it was a job well suited for me because I basically had nothing to do.  When ships would come into port and were unloaded the dunnage would be stacked in some convenient part of the yard, and when dunnage was needed to lash together containers for some outgoing cargo a gang of laborers would come and load what was needed onto a truck to carry it away.  My participation in this process was nearly zero, which neatly matched my inclinations and abilities.

My lack of input was not the only thing that I loved about duty in the dunnage yard.  Our port on the Saigon River was in a very flat part of the real estate of Vietnam.  The Mekong Delta is flat as a board, and the myriad streams, rivulets, canals, sloughs and such are like heaven for the mosquitos which make up about eighty five percent of the animal protein in that corner of the world.  That fact made the Delta hell for everything and everyone else.  The trick to finding some relief from that diabolical life form was to to gain some altitude to where there was some kind of breeze.  The mosquitos were usually bloated from feasting on anything that drew breath and could not fly well with their delicate wings.  A perch in the breeze was my best shot at escaping the persistent proboscises of that devilish hoard.  I found that perch up on the highest part of a pile of wood in the dunnage yard.

Of course, my open perch up on that stack of wood had the decided disadvantage of making me an excellent target for any bored Viet Cong who might think it worth his while to come close enough to take a pot shot at me, so I limited my use of the woodpile to late afternoon and evening.  Almost as welcome as the breeze was the fact that that I could see anyone coming from a good distance away, and if I happened to be smoking some of the almost hallucinogenic native flora I would be aware of an unwanted visitor in plenty of time to stash my bag in some crevasse in the pile and pretend that I was counting boards or something equally unlikely and unconvincing.

It was on my much loved pile of dunnage that one night I almost became SBIA.  Be patient, I will share the meaning of that collection of letters shortly.  This particular night stands out for two reasons.  The first is that it was the first time that I heard in-a-gadda-da-vida.  One evening each week the Armed Forces Radio would produce a half hour or hour, I can’t really remember which, of real rock and roll such as was being heard in the States.  We would read about bands such as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix in month-old copies of Newsweek, but the only chance to actually hear them was on the Sergeant Pepper Show.  On this evening I was perched on my pile, comfortably mellow from the effects of one or two ‘Saigon Bombers’ as we called the pre-rolled joints that we bought, and listening to the radio program.  That song by Iron Butterfly came on and I felt like I was transported far away from the steaming evening in that desperately unhappy place.  I sat there in the dark for quite a while after the song was finished, probably smoking another bomber (which we smoked like cigarettes) until the approaching lights of a work crew announced the need for some dunnage to be loaded up and removed to the dockside.

I quitted my post and returned to the shack where I would find the perfunctory paperwork which would need to be filled out.  While I was placing a few forms in a clipboard I heard some frantic shouts followed by a general commotion, and finally a couple of gunshots.  My first impulse was to hit the deck which I did.  The continued voices roused my curiosity however and I peeked around the doorframe to see that the men were milling about with flashlights while more men were running in our direction.  Always ready for diversion, I arose and proceeded to the gathering of men to see what was going on.

When I got there I slipped through the ring of excited men and saw at once what the commotion was about.  Lying at the food of my pile of wood was the freshly killed body of a king cobra that was nearly eight feet long.  When quizzed as to where the shake had been discovered, one of the men pointed to a place no more than a half dozen feet from where I had been sitting.  It was a very strange and disconcerting thing to look at the body of the snake that could have ended my life with a quick strike and a bite if I had reached my hand down to hide my stash of weed or even if I had placed my radio on my right side rather than my left and then reached for it when I got up to leave.  I sometimes remember that night and wonder what my C.O. would have said in his letter to my parents.  “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Durden; I regret to inform you that your son, while bravely performing heroic duty in the dunnage yard, was Snake Bitten In Action”.

I was given yet another opportunity to test the creative writing skills of my C.O. while working at the port.  One of the Viet Cong’s favorite amusements was to send a lone rocket propelled grenade or mortar round into the port’s perimeter, partly to see if they could cause a little damage but mostly to see us fall out with our weapons pointed into the darkness from which no assault would ever come.  Charlie, I am certain, would sit out there and laugh while we would lay there on concrete, in mud, or vermin infested bunkers for an hour or two before going back to the job of bringing in the river of supplies needed by the US. and allied forces fighting in Vietnam.

One particular night Charlie treated us to this form of entertainment and it had some unexpected results.  But first a little background about the rodents of Vietnam.  There are mice and rats in Vietnam in such profusion that they make up most of the remaining fifteen percent of animal protein in that part of the country that is not mosquito.  This fact led us to to try multiple means of pest control.  In the aluminum structures which we called ‘hooches’ and lived in at Long Binh we had mice.  We rarely saw them, but we could not afford to leave out any kind of food items, especially the delicacies which we received in care packages from our families back home, for fear of losing anything which could be accessed by gnawing, and I mean through paper, cardboard, or even wooden footlockers.  When they crawled up into the insulation in the roof where we hid our Saigon bombers and ate the whole stash, leaving random bits of weed infused with mouse droppings, we had had enough.  Chief, the leader of our gang of misfits, went to a Vietnamese woman who was a part of the day laborers whom the camp leadership would allow on the grounds during the daytime to the menial labor that we would otherwise have to perform.  “Mama-san” he said, “GI got numba 10 problem.  Beaucoup mice run all over, alla time eat GI’s food.  What we do?”  Mama-san said something that I didn’t follow.  Chief seemed satisfied however, and next day I found out why.  Mama-san handed Chief a sack that sort of moved and Chief passed Mama-san a wad of bills.  We went into the shade of the hooch and opened the sack.  Out slithered a boa constrictor, or something that looked just like one, and slid silently under a bunk.  A few guys jumped back but the Chief reassured us that the snake was the answer to our problem

It turned out that indeed it was.  The rodent population plunged in our hooch and seemed to increase in everyone else’s.  There were still apparently enough mice that didn’t get the message however, for that snake hung around our hooch for most of the rest of the time that I was in Vietnam.  The only negative thing was the occasional night when I would return to the hooch well lit up after a few hours at the enlisted men’s club and pull back my blanket, only to find our snake curled up and sleeping off a meal.  It takes a while to get used to a thing like that.  At such times I would carefully lift the snake out of my bunk and down to the concrete floor, inspect my bunk for any covert snake turds, and then crawl into bed to enjoy a rodent-free evening’s rest.

At the port we had a much bigger problem.  The rats that dwelled along the river and amongst our yards, warehouses, admin buildings and mess hall, were bigger than cats.  These beasts would not relish a direct engagement with a fully grown American soldier, but they were a frightening thing to come upon in the dark and could be quite fierce when cornered.  The answer to these creatures presented itself in the form of a terrier which some G.I. probably rescued from the kitchen of a Saigon restaurant.

That dog was a brutal, efficient killer; sort of the Great White Shark of ratdom.  It was a thing of beauty when Cujo (not his real name, but you get the picture) zeroed in on a victim.  With the silence and speed of a cobra he would close in on a rat, and then with an explosion of snarling and shaking the rat would fly into the air, twisting and tumbling end over end, only to land in the death-dealing jaws that awaited him on the ground.  I don’t recall that the rat population declined at all, but I will be eternally grateful for the hours of entertainment I received watching that mutt deal out vengence to our furry, flea-bitten, disease carrying, very large mutant rodents.

Which brings me to one particular night at the port.  We had received a few desultory rounds of small arms fire that evening which made everyone edgy, and then a rocket propelled grenade slammed into a sandbagged wall to the right of our main gate.  This resulted in our usual ballet of grabbing our weapons and taking up defensive positions.  My unit was assigned to a particularly wet and unsavory part of the port along the riverbank near the barge landing.  We knew the drill and waited in the dark for the all-clear to be given.  Going against rules, some of the guys lit cigarettes and cupped them in their hands the way that soldiers do to make as little light as possible.  All was calm, even boring, until a small flurry of squeaking brought pandemonium upon us.

I do not know what spooked that massive river rat.  I have trouble believing that anything smaller than a Sherman tank could do that job.  Something did, however, and we soon had a huge, beady-eyed, squeaking ratasaurus scrabbling across our legs as we lay in the wet dirt.  This was the last straw that broke Ted Ruczinko.  Ted was one of our group and we knew that he feared the rats like I fear spiders, or worse.  Ted loved the dog and the snake like two wives, but on this night neither were there to save him.  Perhaps it was the strain of the alert as well; I don’t know.  We only had one major assault on our port in my two years there, but the random shots and explosions, along with the occasional casualty, may have built up in Ted.  What I do know is that Ted well and truly lost it it when that rat scrambled across the backs of his legs right up by his jewels.

Ted bellowed out a curse and jumped to his feet, and then began to cut loose with his rifle at that rodent.  We wouldn’t have minded so much if the rat wasn’t still running across our own legs.  With howls and curses, those of us in the firing line jumped to our own feet to get out of the barrage.  Two guys behind Ted rose up and tackled him, holding him on the ground until his thrashing and swearing had died down to shaking and sobs.  We took stock and were amazed to find that nobody was hit by Ted, and we could not explain that then nor can I explain it now.  Ted poured out almost a full clip missing the rat and, more to the point, missing us.  We later forgave Ted, but thereafter he was instructed to retreat to a bunker the next time that any kind of alert was called.

I am once again forced to wonder how our C.O. would ‘splain that one to grieving parents.  “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Croy; I regret to inform you that your son, Leroy, was Killed In Freak Out while bravely defending a mudflat from an assault by rats”.