Chuck bought another round of beers. He had returned from Afghanistan a few months earlier. We talked about his experiences for a while and then the war talk settled on Vietnam.
He said, “The difference between Vietnam vets and other vets is the Vietnam vet didn’t have a support system or transition period”. The words landed, settled, and night turned to day. My mind relived the heroes welcome and then flashed back to respond. I spoke slowly, “I never thought about that before, but it is so true.”
I remember receiving the letter that August. Report to the Induction Center at White Hall Street in October, 1966. A shoulder injury might have kept me out of the draft but I want to get away from him, her, New York. I want to return with wounds, hearts, medals and manhood. I want him to know I can kill too. I stand in line behind the nodding junkie. The doctor stamps his papers and says, “The army will do you good young man”. He stamps my papers and a few weeks later I am on my way. I remember shoveling coal to heat the barracks at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Fort Carson, Colorado is where my arm falls asleep under the weight of the M14 rifle. The surgery for a fractured clavicle hasn’t totally healed. I keep it secret.
In Vietnam at An Khe, the 1st Air Calvary climb Hong Kong Mountain and return, sometimes. At Bien Khe, after my first sexual experience, the woman pats my back and tells the other men I’m “number one”, even though I couldn’t get it up. She had said to me, “GI no worry. You beaucoup dinky dow.”
I remember firing the 50 caliber while riding shotgun on ammo convoys from Qui Nhon. I ride shotgun on trips to the dump where kids and women wade and poke through piles of burned poop to find food. While on guard duty at Bien Khe, I imagine the VC slithering into my bunker. I am hyper-vigilant when cans rattle on the wire in the pitch-black night. I fire the anti tank LAW at two gleaming green eyes halfway up the hill. We never see those eyes again. I remember screams and explosions and tanks bearing 4th Infantry remains. First Sergeant Connors doesn’t like Blacks, Puerto Ricans, or New Yorkers. Someone throws a grenade in his hooch and blows him up. The CID flies in and asks lots of questions. No one knows anything. His replacement is First Sergeant Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He’s always sticking his Bowie knife in someone’s face. So far, we like him.
The ARVN’s (Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers) take showers with their underwear on and leave shit on the outhouse seats. We don’t trust them.
At Ban Me Thuot we line up outside while they name the men being transferred to the jinxed 6th/84th field artillery unit. One of them, my friend Stan, is involved in some freak accident weeks later and has his legs amputated.
Days before my departure Sergeant Johnson and I sit on a sandbag wall and discuss men we both knew. Jets streak across the afternoon sky. A curtain of napalm blackens the horizon.
I remember walking through the airport hours before leaving. There is a contingent of newly arrived faces, Marines, sitting around waiting for their rides to land. Some of them are buried in comic books. One young man has pressed fatigues and spit shined boots. He is reading a G.I. Joe comic. I feel sad.
I remember dreaming about that last steak dinner the army would give us for a job well done. I remember thinking, ‘How will we act? Will we know how to eat with spoons? Will they forget to give us knives and forks?’ As my dinner date draws near I envision medium rare steak with baked potatoes smothered in sour cream. There is roasted asparagus with garlic and the biscuits fresh from the oven beg to be buttered, honeyed and inhaled before eaten. The waiters in white jackets balance silver trays laden with food, while refilling our plates and glasses. We joke, clink crystal and make merry as the other patrons stand and praise God for bringing us home in one piece. I save my salad for last. It’s a colorful treat of crispy green leaves, crunchy diced carrots, pitted Kalamata olives, and sliced ripe tomatoes with bits of aged cheddar mixed in. A passing waiter grinds a light blanket of fresh peppercorns over the top.
In fact, I remember getting on the plane, Pan Am, and stepping off into dark cold drizzle, Fort Lewis. I remember being asked, “Do you want an overcoat?” It’s late October. I say yes. I remember putting on the uniform, signing papers and rushing through the mess hall with my metal plate bearing the weight of steak, mashed potatoes, corn, apple pie and gravy on top. I remember gulping down the milk.
I remember stepping out of the taxi with my duffel bag. There is an early morning quiet in New York City. The housing project appears much smaller than when I left. I straddle the puddle of pee in the elevator, and press 13. I remember ringing the doorbell and waiting. The peephole opens and closes. The door unlocks and chains are unfastened. The door opens. Ma steps back behind it. I enter and lay down the bag. We look at each other. Uncomfortable. She secures the door and heads back to their room. “Come on back and tell me about it.” The place seems much smaller. Confining. She gets back in bed, pulls the cover up to her chin and waits. “It’s nothin’ to tell, really. Where’s dad?”
“He’s down in North Carolina with your sister. They’ll be back on Sunday. Do you want something to eat?” “No, I think I’ll change my clothes and take a walk.”
“OK. But try to be quiet. Your other sisters are still sleeping.”
I change my clothes in the living room, hang the uniform in dad’s closet and never wear it again. I remember riding the F train to Queens and then back to the city.
Women wear tight skirts and high heels. Young people sport jungle fatigues and wear purple hearts and military medals as decorative jewelry.
I remember the deafening noise the train made.
I remember my thoughts being even louder.
I remember. I remember. I remember.
“Hey man. Hey man, where are you?”
“Sorry Chuck. I spaced out. Wow!”
“No worries. I got to go. Good talking with you.”
“Same here. You take care.”
We shake hands and he leaves. I take a swig of beer and sink back into my memories.