[Home on leave, December 24, 1971]
It’s good to be home. I think. After that encounter with the Colonel, I don’t know what to expect when I get to England. Back to England. Depressing. Don’t know why the fuck they think I should be willing to train people to do what I tried to tell them I didn’t even believe in doing myself. Probably mostly Veenies. Is that better? I think it’s probably worse. How’re you supposed to feel when you realize the enemy is probably right, that you’ve been fighting on the wrong side? So it doesn’t really matter that these guys will be Vietnamese, they’re still going back to fight on the wrong side. They’re truly the lackeys of the Americans, just like they were lackeys of the French colonialists.
How have we missed that all these years? Or did they really know it all along, and just lie to us? I feel so sick sometimes. Worthless. Disgusted with myself, disgusted with the government, disgusted with America, disgusted with our whole society.
It’s hard to talk to people. I just want to vomit. I am not going to be able to go down to Louisiana and drop right back into all that stuff. I need a plan for what I’m gonna do. Basically just tell them I haven’t changed my mind, I’m still convinced I shouldn’t be there. Let them figure out what to do.
Sure as shit hope Daddy doesn’t think I’m going to get up and go to church on Sunday morning like he’s always forced me to do whenever I was “under his roof.” Fuck that. Maybe I’ll just live out in the back yard.
But it is good to be back home, sleeping in my old bed, hanging out with the family, looking out the window and seeing pecan trees instead of palm trees.
I need to go somewhere. Hanging out around here is gonna drive me crazy. I guess I need something to do. Too much thinking. Thinking is definitely not good for you. Nothing to drink around here, nothing to smoke. Just sittin’ around, watchin’ TV, watchin’ the grass grow. It’s gonna be Christmas soon. That’s not going to be easy. Christmas in Danang was hard, tracer fire celebrations, listening for incoming, sitting in the room thinking about home. But this may be harder. Trying to be happy and cheerful and full of the Christmas spirit.
It’ll be weird. Probably be weird tonight, too. Betty and Paul are supposed to come for dinner. I guess I’m supposed to be the big war hero. Something like that. What a joke! Three Air Medals and a DFC and I feel like a slug. It really demeans the medals the WW Two guys like Daddy got. They actually had to do something to get an Air Medal. We log a hundred hours boring holes in the sky and they make up some phony thing to give us an Air Medal for. Three Air Medals and you get the “Distinguished Flying Cross!” What did those guys have to do for that? I don’t even know. Probably get shot down or something. Wonder what Daddy got for 15 months in POW camp. Probably a curt “thank you, son.” Maybe, “Your country appreciates your sacrifice.”
It will be good to see the Harwells, though. We had some great times back in the old days, waterskiing, camping, working at the old cabin at Junaluska. Seems like a long time ago. I haven’t seen Tap in years. Mom says he’s a great golfer. I wonder if Laurie and Bunny will come. Are they here? Must be. Will be nice to see them.
I’m sitting out in the back yard leaning against one of the old pecan trees, listening to blue-jays and mocking-birds quibble over imagined insults and trying to remember how long I’ve been back. Phoenix seems ages ago, Southeast Asia another era. It seems too warm for December, and the grass impossibly green under the wet black-brown of the fallen leaves.
I stretch out and study the pattern of the nearly bare limbs against the sky. I can’t remember being concerned about anything else in life. Sometimes I’m not sure any of it happened, and sometimes I’m not sure this is happening. I feel like that Chinese guy who dreamed he was a butterfly.
Then I remember that Mom told me the Harwells are coming over for dinner tonight and I should try to find something nice to wear. Nice. Hard to inhabit that word, and those clothes don’t seem to fit anymore. But I get up and go inside, take a bath, shuffle through my closet for appropriate clothing.
I’m combing wet hair that definitely needs cutting when I hear their voices. I warm up a little to the evening, hearing those sweet voices that bring back such happy memories, so I finish spiffing up my image and my attitude and cruise into the front room with a big smile and hugs all around. And it’s nice.
Dinner is a golden blur of food and conversation, tinkling ice in crystal glasses and clinking silverware, a haze of warm food and warmer smiles, and even the air around the table begins to glow. And it is nice.
I join in the conversation at first, but the buzzing in my head gets louder and louder ‘til I can hardly make out the words, so I concentrate on cutting my ham and spearing the small pieces with my fork and placing them carefully in my mouth, chewing slowly so I don’t have to say too much. In spite of Mother’s insistent offers of gravy and her incredulity that anyone could enjoy plain rice, I have several servings of plain rice because somehow it seems to make things seem more real. And the food is very good.
Dinner is finally over and we all move into the little den. I’m sitting in an armchair that’s squeezed between the big old mahogany TV and the door into my room, and Mr. Harwell sits in the cushioned rocker across the room. Daddy, as always, is in his recliner, the only decent chair in the room. Mom and Mrs. Betty are on the white vinyl couch that faces the TV.
The ladies are happily making plans for Christmas. Daddy and Mr. Harwell talk about how wet it’s been in the woods and how the pulpwooders can’t cut so Mr. Harwell’s chip business is slow right now and he’s not doing much timber cruising either.
I don’t have much to say. I can’t remember what Christmas is like, and I never had any interest in business. The buzzing fills my head now, and some black fog is hovering up above us all in the high-ceilinged room.
Mr. Harwell is saying something to Daddy about how grim the news is lately, and Daddy just grins. “We don’t make the news, Paul, we just report it,” he says.
We know he’s said that a thousand times, but Mr. Harwell responds anyway, laughing nervously. “I know, I know! Sometimes I’d just rather not know about it!”
I nod my head and smile. “No shit,” I want to say, but I don’t. “That’s the truth,” is what I say.
Mr. Harwell seizes on my sudden burst of conversation, turns to me and asks conversationally, “So what did you do in Vietnam, John?” He’s smiling encouragingly.
“Kill people mostly.”
I didn’t stop to think, I just opened my mouth and it came out. His face falls, he half coughs, half laughs, looks nervously at Daddy, then back at me. Daddy is making apologetic sounds and the two women are frozen, not knowing what was said, but sensing the cold tension.
“Well….” Mr. Harwell looks stricken for a second, then forces another laugh, hoping I’ll let him off the hook, hoping I’ll laugh with him and it will have just been a joke. I don’t feel very much like a fucking stand-up act, so I just look at him. The humming in my head grows, the black fog descending, filling the room just above our heads. I don’t say anything. I can’t even smile. I just feel sick.
“Well,” he says again, “that’s… that’s… I guess that was pretty hard…. I…”
“Yeah, it was,” I choke out. I want to go on, but my throat’s starting to tighten up and it’s hard to speak. I swallow and look down. “Yeah.”
Daddy’s saying something about flying every day and recon, trying to help me out, relieve the tension, and Mr. Harwell’s nodding and things are getting back to normal.
“Yeah,” I say again, trying to imagine saying something besides that. My head is swirly and I keep swallowing to loosen up my throat. I take a deep breath finally and dive in. “Yeah, we were recon. You know, flying around looking for the bad guys, rattin’ ‘em out to the boys in Saigon so they could blow ‘em up.”
“Ah, reconnaissance. I see. So how did you find them?” The conversation is on now, desperate, anything but that choking blackness.
“Ahhh… “ I was hoping this wouldn’t go on, but now I’m in too deep to back out. “We had nine RO’s – kids listening on the radio – just dialing through the frequencies seeing what they could pick up. When they heard somebody, they’d listen long enough to figure out if it was an interesting target – I think they had a list – and then we’d get a fix on the transmitter.” I was warming up to the subject. “Then the navigator would drive us around ‘til he had three fixes and where they crossed was where the bad guys were, supposedly. It was pretty sophisticated stuff, Doppler-stabilized nav gear that would read out exactly where we were at any time – a million dollars in electronics on those old gooney birds….”
Mr. Harwell and Daddy are both smiling now, nodding and exchanging comments occasionally, but I’m buzzing so I can’t even hear the words. I can feel my insides quivering, but it feels better than the blackness. So I go on. “Then they’d call it in. There were always these big AWACs circling way up high over the whole area, and we’d call it in to them and they’d relay it to Saigon. Some kind of central targeting thing in Saigon fragged missions, sent out fighters from somewhere, all over I guess, to bomb the points we identified. Half the time there was probably nobody still there by the time the F4s got there. They were backpack transmitters mostly.” I was breathing a little ragged now.
“But I never really understood the whole show. They didn’t explain anything to us. We were just the pilots, stupidest guys on the airplane, didn’t have a ‘need to know.’ Fly heading two seven zero and don’t ask questions. Only way I know anything about it is from talking to the ROs. They were mostly pretty cool guys, really sharp. They could understand Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Laotian, anything that came up, one of them could speak the language.
“They didn’t talk about it a lot, but everybody knew the idea was to find the bad guys so we could kill them. It wasn’t like pointing an M16 at somebody and pulling the trigger, but it was all about killing people. You just didn’t think about it too much.”
It gets real quiet for a moment. I’m remembering it all a little too clearly, feeling sick again.
“Did you ever get shot at?” Mr. Harwell asked.
“Not that much. Sometimes going in at Danang we’d get small arms fire from the refugee camps off the end of the runway. Tracer fire usually. Weird looking. Little orange balls coming up at you and curving away behind you, ‘cuz they didn’t lead the target right I guess. Nobody made a big deal about it. I had to ask to even know what it was.
“There were SAMs and stuff, but we knew where they were. That’s what the intell briefings were all about – where the guns are today. So we stayed away from them, at least as long as the nav was awake and on top of things.”
Daddy smiles at that, old WWII navigator that he is. Hangs his head, shaking it slowly, but smiling at the recollections.
“About the most dangerous thing was when MiGs came into the area. That was just when we were up north, over Laos, the Plain of Jars – too close to China. We’d just get out quick if there were reports of MiGs.” I was shaking my head and smiling now. “And occasionally we’d get lost and end up over a bomb run and watch the Fox fours zipping up on all sides of us. They liked to pop up off the target full burner and straight up – they were pretty hot coming off the run, so they’d come through 10,000 feet – that’s where we were – in a few seconds. Wasn’t much fun being in the seat when they were coming up on both sides of you. I flew with some old Major, passed over Major, usually drunk, he was always getting us into that kinda heat. He wasn’t very popular.”
They’re all enjoying the story now, smiling and oohing and ahhing. I stare at my feet. I’m really feeling sick, but I can’t shut up.
“Mostly we were just oblivious to the war going on around us, down on the ground. You could see napalm and stuff, incendiaries, flashing under the canopy sometimes. Or you’d hear emergency calls on the radio. So it was there, you just didn’t think about it that much.”
“I can see why.” Mr. Harwell shook his head and sighed. He looked over at Daddy. “What are we doing over there, Fred?”
“I don’t know, Paul, I don’t know,” Daddy said quietly. He looked at his hands.
I sit back and look up at the ceiling. My breath is ragged and my mouth is dry. Someone says something but I don’t understand. I’ve lost the track of the conversation. I can’t believe I said any of that. I think I’m gonna throw up. I close my eyes and I’m right back in it. I can feel the vibration of the R1830’s, see the green land and clouds below us, hear the suck of wind at the little gap where I’ve left the sliding side window open. I take a deep breath of the cool fresh air it pulls by me and drift off.
Dec. 26, 1971
God, I am such a shit!
It was good to see the Harwells. But I really blew it. I don’t know what made me do it. Just hit me wrong, I guess. It certainly wasn’t fair to Mr. Harwell. There we were, all sitting around the family room just making conversation. He was his old friendly smiling self, kinda ill at ease and awkward, as usual, but really kind and concerned. All I can think about now is how hurt he looked, after I said “kill people mostly”… and he was just trying to make conversation… how his face fell and he laughed that self-deprecating laugh that made his smile fall in on itself for a second and then come back in a strained unhappy way. Like maybe he thought I was kidding and I just sat there looking at him like he was to blame for me having to be there.
And how do I apologize for something like that? I mean, I guess I really meant it, but I’m sorry I said it in such a hard cold way that embarrassed him – and hurt his feelings I’m sure – and will probably always kinda make things strained between us.
I think I did go on to explain the mission. Top secret. Need to know basis only. But who cares. It’s really all over already, whether they’re admitting it to anybody or not, it’s over. Everybody in Vietnam knew we had lost the war and within a year of us pulling out, the North will take over the South ’cause the South doesn’t really care. Surely, if we know that, the generals and the politicians know it…
I guess I explained how I don’t pull the trigger, just drive the vehicle that carries the guy who points out the target for the gunmen to blast. Complicity. However you cut it. So that’s what I did in Vietnam. How about you? I guess everybody’s complicit in it one way or another. Like I told the Colonel, I kill for you, kill for your society. Just a disguised hit man. Disguised as a medal-winning war hero.
Too bad I didn’t just die, then they could all really be proud of me. Prove how patriotic they are.