The plane for home left from Cam Ranh airbase, just as filthy as I remembered it from a year earlier when I’d spent a couple days there in transit to Sherry. Back then I couldn’t get out fast enough, and the same held now.
As the plane rolled down the runway the cabin filled with happy chatter. When the plane left the ground a cheer went up and seemed to give the plane an extra little lift. Vietnam was only a few feet below us, but it felt like a thousand miles. I’d never felt that free. Maybe that is why every plane out of Vietnam was called The Freedom Bird. A very good name.
In civilian life the plane was a Pan American charter, with real civilian stewardesses. To my starved eyes they were goddesses. When the plane got to altitude, they deployed down the aisles. One stopped at my seat and said, “Can I get you anything?” Having not heard an American female voice for so long, it stunned me. The last time was when a Red Cross girl came into FDC, a significant enough event for me to write home about it.
September 16, 1970
I talked to a girl last week. An American! It’s only been five months. A couple of Red Cross chics came into our fire direction bunker, and I was in there all alone. I said something real intelligent, like, “Hi.”
Now six months later I was paralyzed again by the magic of a female voice. When I didn’t answer she said, “Well honey, when you decide you just push my button and I’ll come.” She smiled in a wicked way and went to the next row of seats. I followed her voice down the aisle. “Something to eat? Would you like a blanket?” I could have listened to it forever.
Halfway home over the dark Pacific I turned in my seat and looked to the back of the plane. I saw by the cabin’s half-light a boy asleep next to a stewardess, his head resting on her shoulder, like a Madonna and child, and I wished with all my heart to be on that shoulder.
A few weeks back from Vietnam, my skin fungus almost cured, I rushed into graduate school at the University of Missouri just in time for summer school. Like a long vomit, I just wanted the Army to be over so I could move on with my life. Gone were plans to bum around the country or take a boat to Bimini. I needed to get on with my life in a serious way. The main campus was in Columbia, a small town in the middle of the state. Downtown was right outside the campus gates and had one decent restaurant. The farms began a mile from downtown and did not stop until reaching Kansas City to the west and St. Louis to the east, 125 miles in either direction.
I had been dreaming for some time of living away from people and regaining my sense of personal privacy, and now I had the chance. For two years in the Army I ate, slept, showered, worked, played and sat on the latrine in public. Before that there were seven similar years in the seminary. In Vietnam I longed for the time when I could be alone.
August 15, 1970
I will need a few months by myself when I get home to work the regimented life out of my system. I think I am simply tired of people telling me what to do 24 hours a day. The desire for isolation is fairly common in the Army. Almost everyone I ask about their plans after the Army say they are going to live by themselves in the woods.
I rented a little place five miles east of town on a small lake and surrounded by pasture. The cows were perfect neighbors, they never gave orders and did not carry guns. I had no telephone, figuring that if someone wanted to see me they could catch me outside class or drive out and knock on my door. It was heaven.
Life on campus was far from heavenly. I had hardly gotten the sand from between my teeth when I found myself in the charged environment of the college campus of 1971. Students were in a white lather over the war, with more passion than understanding. Loud and mindless, they reminded me of the cows bellowing outside my bedroom window.
“An unjust and unwinnable war.”
“Post colonial imperialism,” whatever that meant.
And my personal favorite, “Make love not war.”
When a few of my fellow graduate students found out I was just back from Vietnam they used me as their bayonet dummy. Young people who had never lived outside the covers of a book told me how I needed to think about Vietnam. They were passionate in their convictions, unencumbered by any real knowledge of Vietnam, and without life experiences to soften the hard edges of their opinions.
I always asked them one question, hoping to find someone willing to be quiet for a second and listen, “Would you like to know what it was really like over there?” No one did, because the principles involved were more important than the people. Had they taken the time to listen, they would have learned that I was not so much in favor of the war in theory, but very keen on fighting it in reality. My feelings were clear in a letter home after just two weeks at LZ Sherry.
May 16, 1970
The violent clashes on our college campuses over the expansion of the war into Cambodia is sad but understandable. I too would rather see an end to the mess. However, we have allowed the enemy virtually unrestricted use of a “neutral” country for almost six years, while refusing our own troops the opportunity to cross the border. It’s been a badly one sided game. Infiltration routes run from Cambodia … right through our backyard. And we pay for it. When the mortars and rockets are coming in, and you know where they’re getting them and you can’t do a thing about it and a medevac flies out a wounded 19 year old – well you look at it differently than the well fed, scrubbed, secure college student.
The soldier in combat was simply not a topic of conversation on campus. His experiences did not have the sweep of ideology and produced no grand proclamation. The principles were more important than the people. That was the raw nub of it. The individual soldier was insignificant, and he was the only one to notice.
Fortunately I was still in the emotional dead zone guys who had spent any time in the field brought back from Vietnam. I said to myself, It don’t mean nothin, which in Vietnam was a way not to care. About anything. The anger and disappointment I came to feel about those early days on campus came later, the emotions waiting for their time.
The Hero’s Welcome
Bob was a fellow graduate student, older and focused on his studies. I liked him because he spoke in a soft and measured manner. We talked about classes and professors, neither one of us volunteering much personal information.
Bob walked with a limp and one day I asked him about it. He said, “I’ve got a prosthesis and I’m still adjusting to it.”
I said, “I never would have guessed. What happened if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Stepped on a mine.”
“Wow. You loose it above or below the knee?”
“Above. That’s why I’m having some problems.”
We both went quiet for a little while. I said, “I was in Vietnam too and just got back a couple months ago.”
“Where were you?”
“Two Corps, outside Phan Thiet, at a 105 firebase.”
He said, “Cushy artillery job, huh? I was up by the DMZ, around Quang Tri a lot. Nasty stuff up there.”
“Yeah, anything near the borders. I had a buddy at Kontum. Same thing.”
He said, “I been back over a year, in and out of VA hospitals. Pretty depressing, all those guys with parts missing. Soon as I could get around on my own I got myself out. Now some days are good. A lot of them suck. So you couldn’t tell, right?”
“No, all I noticed was the limp.”
He said, “Listen, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention the Vietnam thing to anybody. They just don’t understand.”
That’s how this hero was welcomed home. He was shouted down and bullied into silence, a finger poked in the chest that held a Purple Heart.
I had met Kathleen on a blind date nine months before Vietnam while on leave in St. Louis. I did not know why she agreed to go out with me. I had no hair, no money and no prospects. What was this good Catholic girl from south St. Louis thinking?
Her parents welcomed me into the living room and invited me to relax on the sofa, saying she’d be out in a minute. Soon a petite Irish beauty walked into the room wearing a pair of low hip huggers in brown plaid. I was instantly in love. But she had forgotten something. She turned her back, wiggling those hip huggers out of the room, and oh my, now I was in lust.
Whenever I got a weekend pass I’d make the nine hour drive from Ft. Sill to St. Louis. Sunday night I’d leave for Sill with just enough time to get into uniform and report for morning duty, unshaven and looking a mess. Then in Vietnam we wrote regularly to one another.
In Columbia Kathleen came to visit my country hideaway on weekends. She was working on a master’s degree in earth science, and turned our walks in the woods into rock hunting expeditions. My job was to carry the rocks and load them into my VW bug, which groaned under their weight. She called the rocks her 100 million year old antiques. When the weather was nice we took rides on my motorcycle, a little 175 Honda. I thought it a romantic gift when I got her a helmet. She still carries a burn scar on her leg from brushing against the muffler. Or we sat behind my little cottage contemplating the lake and watching the cows. Such was my welcome. I didn’t get thanks from a grateful nation or free drinks in bars. Instead I got what I needed: a dark Irish madonna upon whose shoulder I could rest my screwed up head.
I don’t know why she went out with me in the first place, or more a mystery why she gathered me up after Vietnam. I did not return a charming fellow. In Vietnam I had counted the days to being a civilian again, had marked off every day with a red X, but now at home I felt out of place. I had come back different somehow. I had lost the emotions that seemed to come so easily to others. I could only comment when others had tears in their eyes. When they laughed from the belly, I had to work to get up a smile. Most of all I could not feel compassion for the suffering of others; nothing surprised or disgusted me. I was a mere observer, standing on the edge of life and looking in.
Kathleen said, “Give it time.” And she was right. Over the months I traded my Vietnam neuroses for all my old ones, and probably a few extra. I returned to getting angry over stuff that did not matter and worrying about things that never came to pass. One day I asked Kathleen about the plaid hip huggers that had enflamed my imagination when we first met. She said, “Oh, I threw those old things out a long time ago.” I knew I had gotten over Vietnam because, upon hearing this, I cried like a baby.