A couple weeks ago, I was surprised how worked up I got when Rev. Hannah Petrie, the associate pastor at our church, asked if I would share my thoughts on the things I had carried as a foot soldier during the Vietnam War and afterwards.
To honor Memorial Day, she had suggested that John Blue, another member of the flock, and I review Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, and then share our own thoughts along the same lines with our congregation.
As you can imagine, I do a ton of email around the magazines – LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive — Sharon and I publish. I guarantee I don’t get teary-eyed about much of it. Sharon does, but I don’t.
But there I was, the emotions washing over me as I read Hannah’s kind invitation, thinking, “Oh man, I don’t know about this.”
Now, if it had been the decade right after I mustered out, all through my twenties and into my early thirties, no way I would get up in front of a group to say anything about anything I had seen, done, or felt in combat. No way. Not a chance.
But after I got sober at 33, I began talking my fool head off about Vietnam — telling you anything you wanted to know and a lot you didn’t. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but in the right setting, with the right small group of conversants, I would crack open the lid on those memories.
A part of getting sober the way I was shown to do it involves writing down, in a loose format, the things that have bothered you and then sharing them with one other person — and with God, who may or may not be in the room with you.
So, to get the ball rolling, I put down a couple things I knew were heavy on my heart. I was surprised then, too, at how many other memories began tumbling out.
Following that experience, dozens of times over the next several decades, I would pile in a car with some older buddies from previous wars – among them Jerry Guild, who had flown off aircraft carriers in both World War II and Korea, and Frank Priest, a bomber navigator from World War II whose burning bomber had crashed into the White Cliffs of Dover, leaving him badly injured, the sole survivor.
Together, we’d head out to someplace like the alcoholism unit at the Veterans Hospital in Brentwood, where we would share our experience, strength, and hope with the residents.
The older guys always wanted me along because I was a Vietnam vet, as were most of the patients in the facilities we visited. And a sober Vietnam vet, at least in some circles, was fairly rare then.
When my turn came, I would tell the residents a little bit about my wartime experiences — what I had seen, what I had done, but mostly how I felt about it, how angry I became at times at my country, at God, at myself, and how my drinking had helped me keep that anger and confusion bottled up inside.
I would tell them how I felt proud of my conduct in combat, how I felt I carried myself with dignity and even, at times, with courage. But I would also say that — at least at times — I felt betrayed by my country, which I felt had sent me and so many others into war under what I came to see as false pretenses.
I would say as well how I had joined the army in small part out of a 19-year-old’s sense of patriotism, in larger part to honor my father, who had seen combat in World War II, but particularly — I saw later — as one of a long series of efforts to deal with my raging drinking problem without, you know, actually dealing with my drinking problem.
I told them how, for some reason, I was good at pushing my emotions down and focusing on what’s next when something bad happened – when John Houston, the black kid from East Saint Louis, his nose always buried in his Bible, got blown to bits not 20 feet in front of me. Times like that. I hope I mentioned that I was much less good at ever pulling those emotions back up, at least until I got sober.
If I did it right, the patients — some of whom clearly had not made it all the way back from Vietnam, some still wearing old jungle boots or ragged fatigue jackets 20 years down the road — could see that I knew at least some of what they knew about Vietnam. And about drinking, too.
Then I would describe my life currently, with 5 years or 15 years or, now, 31 years of sobriety. How I had a wife or girlfriend, a regular job, later a daughter, my family’s love or at least their acceptance. How prayer and meditation had swept away the dark dreams that used to make sleep so hard. How the thought of taking a drink never occurred to me anymore.
The punchline would always come afterwards, if it came at all, when I might find myself alone with one or two of the patients. Maybe, after a little private conversation, I would tap one of them on the arm and say, “And you can do it, too, Big Stick.” Occasionally, far too infrequently, one of them might listen.
So, that’s really what I carried afterwards — stories, memories, tools I could use as to help another vet get sober.
“In country,” as we called it, I carried only one thing of note, other than a dog-eared copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — a story for another time.
I’m a practical guy, and not very sentimental, so I didn’t have a lot of keepsakes or pictures or good luck charms or letters with me. I hadn’t left a girlfriend at home, so I didn’t have that weight tugging me down.
I would write to my family regularly — they’d say occasionally, or maybe just rarely — writing my three younger brothers and my mom and dad, who had gotten divorced while I was in Vietnam.
I wouldn’t write about the war so much. That was as hard to think about, then and now, as it was to put down on paper. Instead, I would often focus on the countryside.
Both my parents come from farm families and my brothers and I spent a lot of time on my uncle’s dairy farm outside Moose Lake, in Northern Minnesota, growing up. So I would write about the farmers working in their rice paddies or describe the rubber plantations further inland.
I remember relating how my favorite treat was to come upon coconut trees with ripe or nearly ripe coconuts, how I would shinny up the trees to bring down the fruit so we could cut them open to drink down the fizzy, cool juice.
We had a Tongan guy from Hawaii in our squad who could take a machete and cut open a coconut in no time flat.
I must have mentioned how hard it was to slice open a coconut with my bayonet, which really wasn’t suited for the task.
Not long after, a box came from my Mom. Skinny as she was, she loved making desserts. Every so often, no matter where I was — attending college in New York City, tending bar on Capitol Hill, someplace else pretending to get my life together — a box of her famous fudge would arrive. Really good fudge, thick and creamy, peppered with walnuts.
But in the Mekong Delta, where we operated, the temperature and humidity were both so high her fudge had a certain flow to it, the cuts the knife had made in separating the pieces melted shut.
The guys and I didn’t mind. We would just dig it out of the box with our fingers and slurp it into our mouths — fudge dripping from our fingers, into our mustaches (we all wore mustaches), dripping down our chins onto our bare chests. A real mess — but if you’re going to spend the night camped out in a muddy rice paddy with the rats and the water buffalo dung, what’s a little mess?
Then came my Dad’s package. A practical guy like me, he sent me a Boy Scout compass — he always thought I could use more direction — and a big hunting knife. I mean a honking, big knife, surely the biggest the sporting goods store had to sell. For hunting grizzlies or maybe mastodons.
It was perfect for chopping open coconuts, too; I kept the big blade so sharp I could shave the hair on my forearm.
I still have it, too, really my only souvenir other than the scar on my leg. I came home on a stretcher, ferried from hospital to hospital across the Pacific, with only a little bag carrying the piece of shrapnel the doctor had tugged from my fibula — stolen by some jackass at the hospital in Tokyo.
The knife — dull now, with wire and tape holding the handle and sheath together — sits in a drawer next to the bed. It’s our second line of home defense. Our first line, I’m told, is my snoring, so loud and deep Sharon thinks only a fool would come up our back steps.
The moral? Well, as Tim O’Brien says in his book, war has no moral — except, I would say, don’t do it unless you really know that it matters and only if you’re willing to go first or send your own kids first, not someone else’s kids in your place who will spend the next quarter century filling up treatment centers, homeless shelters, psych wards, and graves after the war has ended.
Editor, LA Progressive
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Posted: Saturday, 26 May 2012