A marine returns from Vietnam and ends up being forced onto an anti-war demonstration.
| A story of a marine coming back from the Vietnam war, and his reception here. Unlike modern wars, we did NOT get a good reception. Family and employers shunned us. There was no fanfare, parades, or even thanks for our efforts. Many thought us tainted with drugs, alcoholism, and a propensity for violence. In too many cases, they were correct.
"You ain't left yet, short-timer?" Joey Jefferson, a very large and very black guy in dirty jungle fatigues says, slapping me on the back. "Short," he shouts to a crowded EM club in Chu Lai, South Vietnam, "twelve days an a wake-up."
"Shut the fuck up," several guys yell back, good-naturedly. It's a standard ritual for all us guys when ending our tours in that country.
All of us in there, mostly marines and army in that club, have a set number of months in-country. Typically, we buy a calendar when arriving and start marking off the days. Tomorrow I leave for "The World" and discharge.
"Tomorrow morning," I tell Joey, "there ain't gonna be no wake-up, since I'm staying up all night to celebrate." I turn to the bartender, a pretty Vietnamese girl wearing a see-through blouse. "I can sleep on the freedom bird. Give this filthy Nigger a drink, okay?"
Joey and I go back a long way, over eight months in the same squad. In combat, eight months is a long time. During that period over half the squad has been wounded, transferred, or killed and had to be replaced. It's 1971 and the war supposedly winding down. Already, several companies on our base have packed up and gone home, en mass. Tomorrow I'll follow them.
"You ought'a reenlist," Joey tells me with a frown. "The duty should be good stateside, you bein' a sergeant an all. I think I will. The captain promised me sergeant if I do it. Imagine gettin' paid ta lay around a air-conditioned concrete barracks with your own room an nobody shootin' at ya."
"And all the chickenshit we don't have over here in this shithole? Na. I'll pass."
"Man, what else ya got goin'? Both parents dead, nothin' but a coal mine ta look foreword ta. Goin' ta church ta meet girls. Sheeit, man. You better stay in the crotch. The marines'll look out fer ya."
"I'll take my chances. I got a few thousand saved up, enough until I get a job."
"Sheeeit. Damned honky fool."
Well, I make it back to the World, severance pay in my pocket and free as that proverbial bird. The plane drops me in California. I even receive travel pay to West Virginia. With ten-grand in my pocket, free white and twenty-years old, I'm faced with planning my future.
After a few nervous hours of processing out, I eventually step outside a large white-painted Nissan hut on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base between L.A. and San Diego. Only one final perimeter fence is separating me from freedom.
I can't suppress a feeling of elation as I pass through a gate near a civilian bus stop. Although technically a civilian myself, I'm still thinking as a marine, not in the least prepared for my first taste of the war in the US. I've never realized how much the "crotch" in the form of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper and Armed Forces Radio has protected me from the current animosity of many normal Americans.
Since I had no civilian clothing in Vietnam, I'm wearing a dress uniform I've just been issued as part of processing out as a civilian. Doesn't make sense to give me those expensive duds, knowing I'll toss them as quickly as I find a clothing store, but it's the marine way.
My mind on other things, I pay scant attention to a crowd of scroungy-looking young people standing outside the gate. To me, they look like rejected movie extras, some sporting green or orange Mohawk hairdos while wearing brightly-colored mismatched clothing.
Immediately, a very cute and petite blonde girl runs over. A wide grin on her face, she shoves it up close and spits in mine, to cheers and jeers from her friends.
"Baby killer," she screams in my spittle-dripping face.
My first inclination is to flatten that pretty nose, but I see other angry faces glaring at me and change my mind. I'm in a quandary. Do I continue, through them, to wait for a bus? Or do I go back into the base and look for another exit?
Screw it, I think. After all, it isn't a bullet. I grin back.
"Thank you for your interest, ma'am," I tell her, shuffling aside and shoving my way through the group. Simmering, I sit my ass down on a bench, both feet planted firmly on the ground. I'm ready to defend myself but find them already waiting for their next victim. I'm now ignored as they concentrate on three more men in uniform, staring back from the other side of the fence. They must have seen my reception and be reconsidering that particular gateway.
When the next bus comes along, I stand to get on, not caring a bit as to its destination. One place is as good as another, as long as I get to town to find a hotel and make plans.
First, I figure, is a room. Next, to get drunk without fearing enemy mortars, exploding rockets, land mines, punji sticks, snipers or other minor distractions. One loaded weapon per man was the order in the Nam, and it stayed with you wherever you went, even to the shitter at three in the morning.
Tomorrow, I figure, is soon enough to make plans. Joey is right in one respect, I don't really want to go back to a small town in West Virginia and a truncated life underground in a coal mine.
I step onto a moderately-loaded city bus, lucky to find a window-seat near the middle. As the vehicle starts up, I see that same girl walking toward me down the aisle. Apparently she doesn't see me, because she plops her shapely butt down next to mine.
With my eyes still on her as we start up, I can see the woman jerk as she looks down at my uniformed legs. The shock is still on her face as her eyes swing up to mine. Face reddening, she tenses to get to her feet.
"Afraid of the big bad baby killer?" I ask.
"Fuck you," she mutters, continuing to rise.
Holding her arm tightly, I force her back down. I can't say if I'm really all that angry, want revenge, or to try to explain. It just seems to be the right thing to do at the moment.
"Let me go. You going to kill me, too?"
"No. I don't think so. If there were more room I might spank you, though. Are you always this immature?"
"Me? Immature? You're the one going around killing innocent people. How many you murder? Uh? Tell me that? How many innocent children?"
Again angry, she shakes my now-limp hand off her arm, turning to show me glaring blue eyes over a sneering mouth.
"I don't really know," I tell her, honestly, "since I never stood still, aimed my rifle, fired, and saw anyone fall."
"Oh, sure. You all say that. Not you, always someone else."
"No. I've killed people, even women, that were trying to kill me. Innocent? I didn't have time to ask." I look out the window as I try to explain something I'm not all that sure of myself to someone who doesn't really want to know. Someone with a closed mind that is not capable of understanding combat. "War is chaotic," I tell her, "in that everything is peaceful, then shots come from nowhere or from behind trees or bushes. For two or three minutes everyone's firing -- back and forth. Then, then it's peaceful again except for the moans and screaming of the wounded."
"I've heard all about it," she replies. "Then you go in there and shoot the wounded in the head with pistols. It was on television. I saw a general shoot an unarmed man in the head."
"Hardly. We treat their wounded just the same as our own."
"Is that before or after you throw them out of helicopters?"
She has me there. I've never been involved with those sorts of actions, but have heard them described often enough by those who were. I have no quick reply.
"See? I knew it. You've shoved living children out of helicopters, haven't you?"
"No. Damn it. I never threw anyone out of a helicopter."
"I don't beeelieeve you." She has a satisfied look on that pretty face. "Tell me. Do you reeeallly believe you're saving the world from the evils of Communism?"
Again with the difficult questions.
"I can't really say I do, miss. At first, there was no question. Later, though, when I saw what we're doing there, how the poorer people seem to hate us ... I just don't know what to say."
We argue back and forth for fifteen or twenty minutes, until we reach her bus stop.
"Well, I guess you, personally, aren't that bad. Have a nice day," she tells me, getting to her feet and flouncing out, shapely butt swinging.
I leave the bus in downtown San Diego, where I find a cheap hotel and a bottle of expensive whiskey. It isn't until I, pretty well inebriated, undress for bed that I find a slip of paper in a coat pocket.
"Sandra Jenkins," it says, giving a telephone number and a message. "Call me, baby killer."
It isn't until much later that I try to remember her writing anything during that brief bus trip, and fail. She must have had it written beforehand. Later the reason became clear.
After a few days of getting, and staying, drunk in my room, I still have no plans. Since San Diego seems as good a place as any to start over, I buy a ten-year-old Ford van and go job hunting. I forget all about that pretty but obnoxious girl on the bus.
Since I have no real skills outside ground-pounding, finding a job proves difficult. There are a lot of them, but few for a twenty-year-old with no prior experience or even a high-school diploma. I lied on my marine application and quit high school to join. Now, I'm sorry I did.
It isn't long before I notice a change of attitude when prospective employers see my combat-marine background. Several magazine articles specify how unstable us ex-military guys are, which certainly doesn't help my case. We're all supposed to be drunks or drug addicts. Either that or mentally damaged by the killing. Definitely NOT team players.
I can't, knowing the changes in myself, swear they're wrong. War changes a person. You might go in as kid, but you leave as a man. There are no kids in a war zone. No boys,civilian or military. They grow up fast, into men. It's common to see young children, five on up, selling pot or their sisters on the street.
See, in wartime you learn to both subdue your emotions, laughing at death while living in constant fear. If you can see off-base, you know you may be in a sniper's sights -- and that is a fact. You hear about it every day.
For instance, I remember one morning. I got up early to dress for a work detail. After turning a light on in the tent, a clay Buddha on a table next to my bunk exploded. Later, after the sun came up, I found a bullet hole in the screening. A sign of the time and place was that I didn't even bother reporting the incident, which was fairly common.
The same with the almost nightly mortar and rocket attacks. It got to the point where when hearing sirens I'd simply roll over and go back to sleep. If the ground started shaking, I'd wake again and take shelter in a ditch outside my tent. Eventually, I developed a "don't give a shit" attitude. It was either that or go crazy.
In any case, finding a job is difficult, forcing me into frying hamburgers at a McDonald's.
To save money, I give up the hotel room to live in my van. I park in the lot behind the restaurant.
A long extension cord lets me plug into an outside outlet when I need electricity, usually at night after the place closes so I can watch television in my vehicle.
The manager doesn't mind my staying there. Having a trained killer as a free security guard pleases her. Being there at night also leads to me working the last shift and closing up, which means I have the keys and can use the restroom inside.
It isn't until a month after our first meeting that I remember Sandra's note, finding it in an envelope with other saved papers, such as my discharge orders.
"Can I speak to Sandra?" I ask, calling from work. A grill filled with preshaped hamburgers simmers in front of me in various stages of rawness.
It has taken me hours to work up enough courage, not helped by the phone being answered by a man. Father, husband, or boyfriend? I wonder.
"Just a minute, buddy. I sent the kid to get her."
There's a thud as their telephone drops to a hard surface. About a minute later, I hear someone running on a wooden floor, then the receiver being picked up amid sounds of heavy breathing.
"Mommy's comin'. Hi. My name's Amy. Bring some candy, okay?" in a childish voice.
That information throws me. The girl I met didn't seem that old, at least not enough to have a child that can run and talk that well. The voice changes to that of an adult female.
"Yeah?" The sound of gum chewing. "Who is this, Tommy?"
"Uh, maybe you don't remember me. The mari ... ex-marine you talked to on the bus to San Diego? Last month?"
"Oh, one of Sandy's crazy friends. Should have figured. Na. I'm not Sandy. I'm her sister, Julie. Just a minute, I'll get her. She's asleep."
"Wait. You don't have to wake her. She probably doesn't remember me anyway. We only met once, on a bu--"
"No problem, buddy. I don't mind waking that booby-nut -- not at all."
Their telephone hits the surface again, with a louder thump than before. While waiting, I hold the phone against an ear with my shoulder. It takes two hands to flip burgers before the ones at one end burn. I have half of them on buns, the others turned and scooted over, and am busily putting raw discs at the other side before the phone is picked up again.
"Sandy. What you want? It you, Tommy?"
I have to explain again who I am.
"I remember. Say, can you meet me tomorrow, about noon? In the park at Jefferson and Elm? South side. Oh, and what's your name, anyway?"
That was quick, I think. Has she been thinking of me all this time? I wonder.
"Sure. I'll be there. Larry, Larry Jamis."
I'm in seventh heaven.
In my present lifestyle, I have no love life at all. Even the guys behind the serving line at McD's have cute asses to pinch. Working in the back and stinking from the grill, I don't even have that. My domain is a rank of french-fryers, a hot grill and a small window to pass finished product through via metal slots. The only time I see the girls is when they push past me to smoke out back.
After work, I wash up in the back sink and go out to my van to drink, watch tv, and sleep. A hermit's existence. I'm saving whatever I can, planning one day, when I reach that vital twenty-one years, to escape into a better job or maybe go back to school.
I lay in bed half the night, not being able to sleep while thinking of all the things that can go wrong on my first date as a civilian. After more than a year of subsisting on small slant-eyed hookers, I try to recall what to say to a "decent" American girl.
Rising early, I drive to a shopping center to buy a civilian suit and white shirt, then get a haircut -- the first store-boughten one since I've been back. I'm at the park by eleven-fifteen.
Seeing a group of men and women busily erecting some sort of stage over by a baseball diamond, I sit on a bench near the parking lot, idly watching them while waiting for Sandra. I'm early and should be able to see her when she gets here.
The lot fills with vehicles, but no Sandra. I'm beginning to think I've missed her. Maybe she walked in from another direction? Maybe ... maybe she changed her mind? The suspense is killing me.
"Larry? What you doing all the way over here? The party's about to start." her voice comes from behind me. "Come on. We've been waiting for you."
I get up and follow her. She's wearing a short green skirt and a white blouse. No greeting, and no smile at all.
"Yeah. Okay," I answer to her back, perplexed. I didn't expect her to jump my bones, but something at least a little more romantic. Even a hand-shake would do.
Oh, no! I find all the hoopla turns out to be some sort of peace demonstration. Obviously she doesn't want me for romantic reasons, only to use in some way.
Now, I'm no longer a "Hawk," believing in saving the world from evil Communism, but I'm certainly not the opposite, a "Dove," advocating peace at any cost. As far as I'm concerned, I want only to forget that war in Southeast Asia. Disillusioned, I'm out of it now and want to stay the hell out of it.
"You just hold on a minute, woman," I call out to this Sandra, stopping her in her tracks, "I'm not getting involved in this crap."
"Crap? It's crap to save lives? Crap to bring our troops home? Out of all peop--"
"Cut it out. Damned if I'm gonna turn on my buddies. We want to win this war, not come home with our tails between our legs."
We're at it again, though standing this time. Back and forth we go, standing face to angry face. At least she doesn't spit.
"Hey, guys, cut it out. You're disturbing the kids," a male voice interrupts.
I look around, seeing we've attracted a crowd. The ones directly around the two of us have stern faces, while the people on the periphery are grinning and laughing.
A half-dozen small children stand together among the first group. The kids are wearing various styles of black pajamas, one with little red bunny-rabbits superimposed on hers, and wide straw hats. That and playing with plastic AK-47 assault rifles.
Two of the adults are wearing military uniform blouses, minus patches, insignia and name-tags; one army and the other marine. Those two casually hold toy M16 rifles in their hands.
"Don't mean nothin'," I tell them, a term I learned in the Nam. "I'm on my way out'a here."
"Hey, come on, buddy. Join the fun," the marine says.
"You might like it," army, an older man, joins in.
Sandra comes closer, finally smiling. I can feel her breath on my face. Her sweet, ever so sweet, breath. "Please, Larry," is all she says, somehow implying promises of rosebuds, summer evenings and tangled sheets.
"You can shoot me if you want," a child's voice calls up from the vicinity of my leg. It's the kid wearing black pajamas with bunny-rabbits and a grinning freckled face with eyes hidden under a straw hat. "You bring any candy? I like Mars Bars."
I sigh. What the hey? I am already here.
"I'll stay a little while, but don't you dare ask me to give a speech. You hear me? No mother-fucking way."
"Don't you talk like that in front of kids, you ... you marine." Sandra chides me, and I've never heard the word, "marine," used with that tone in my life. It stirs my anger to another level.
"You don't have to respect me, woman, but you WILL respect the United States Marines," I fairly scream at her, bending my head to get in her face -- just like Drill Sergeant Evens used to get into mine. I hope my eyes are blazing like his. They must be, because she backs up three steps, pretty face whitening, mouth wide-open with nothing emerging. For the first time since I've known her, she's speechless.
In the background, I can hear the other marine laughing his head off. It must have brought back tender memories.
Sandra and the others turn to hurry back toward the podium, leaving me with the two partially-uniformed men.
"Tom Smith," army introduces himself, "and this here is John Jones. You must be Joe Blow?"
We all shake hands.
"You must be kidding, with names like that?"
"Na. We decided it's better not to use our own. Even though we're out right now, you never can tell about the FBI and the rest. The government is down on guys like us, guys that tell the truth about the war."
Come to think of it, I think that might be a good idea -- for them. Me, I'm not getting involved. All I want is to see if I have any chance at all with Sandra, or even it she's worth getting mixed-up with. Even her sister called her crazy ... twice. But then, what is that television commercial? "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't."
Tom, John, and Joe -- me -- go over to sit under a tree to watch the others attempt to get organized.
"Look at them idiots. No discipline at all?" John, the ex-marine, says.
"Don't look like there's not anybody in charge," Tom adds.
A double enten ... ontenddry or whatever? I think, trying to remember what seems like ancient English classes.
"What you guys doing here? You giving speeches for these idiots?" I ask.
"Yeah," John answers, looking away as though embarrassed.
"Yep," Tom answers, asking, "What turned you against the war, anyway, Joe?"
"I guess it was one night at the club. I asked this one bar-girl the age-old question about what a nice girl like her was doing working at a place like that. And she told me.
"She told about visiting her sister in a village near her own. When she walked home afterward, she had to hide as a bunch of Americans in civilian clothes filed down the trail, away from her own destination. Frightened, she hid while they passed, followed by Vietnamese in strange uniforms. When she, well ... when she got home, everyone was dead. She found a notice written on the mayor's hut. The girl said the message, in Vietnamese, said "This is what happens to people who help Imperialist bastards."
"It's what we did," John answers softly. "One reason I got out of the 'crotch' after one year there, and why I'm here now."
"After that, I opened my eyes, seeing how the average Vietnamese glared at me, turned their backs, and even spit in the dirt when we drove or walked by," I continue. "Not the ones on base, or the hookers, but the commoners. They were the ones not getting that good old US tax money. That's when I decided to live day-by-day, trying only to stay alive until I could get home and forget the fucking war."
We sit in silence for a few minutes, before the army guy, Tom, takes up where I left off.
"As for myself," he tells us, "I worked in the personnel office in Bien Hoa. A nice soft job in an air-conditioned office.
"I had a girlfriend there. She worked as a KP in the officer's mess hall and we'd meet in the evenings. Her name was Dau, and she'd have an hour or two between finishing work and having to leave the base at night. A sweet little thing, she was older than me. Which wasn't so bad, in that she was also a more experienced lover.
"We'd meet in my room, have sex, and talk. We were very close, telling each other our problems. Unlike most such girls, she never asked me for money.
"Well, I was there during that big Tet Offensive in January, 1968. Afterward, I.... Well, it turned out she was killed. I found out she was a North Vietnamese Army captain and was shot in uniform while attacking the base.
"I went nuts, was in a mental hospital in Da Nang for over six months. Finally, I received a medical discharge -- and here I am. How evil could those Communists be if a woman as sweet and gentle as Dau would join their party? Not only join, but care enough to die for it? Which was more than I can say I'd have been willing to do for my own cause."
I can see tears forming in his eyes. Embarrassed, we both look at John.
"Guess it's my turn, uh?" he says, grinning. "Funny you should mention the hospital at Da Nang. I was once a doctor there. Medical school was, and still is, very expensive. So I joined the university Officer Candidate School. In return for spending some of my spare time in training, they paid for a good deal of my schooling.
"When I started, there was no war nor any hint of one. Although part of the agreement was for me to spend time on active duty, it seemed a safe bet. Danger was the furthest thing from my mind. Spending a few years as an officer even sounded better than a long low-paid internship in a civilian hospital.
"Then, war became a reality and I was stuck, eventually ending up at Da Nang. It's a huge base, fairly safe as such places go. Although living conditions for junior officers were sort of primitive, it wasn't all that bad.
"As in civilian life as a beginner, I soon became specialized in trauma injuries and got in plenty of practice with gunshot and shrapnel wounds. The work was hard and the hours long. No big deal, since internship in the US would have been about the same.
"What happened was that I had this one patient, a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer that had been wounded during some campaign or other.
"He had been educated in the US and spoke perfect English. I took to spending many of my breaks and time-off periods talking to him. For reasons that will become apparent, I won't give names.
"After awhile he began trusting me and, apparently wanting to tell someone about it, explained a secret program the CIA had going in the highlands. One where they, him and CIA contacts, paid local Montagnards to wipe out entire villages, like Tom was saying. I guess the Yards didn't mind, having warred with the Vietnamese for centuries.
"They'd use unmarked helicopters to fly to specific areas. Dressed in North Vietnamese Army uniforms and carrying AK-47s, they'd surround a village and wipe out nearly all the residents. The killers would then leave a few villagers to spread the word, as well as a few items pointing to the NVA in order to make certain the message spread.
"When I left him, I'd go back to my quarters and write the information down from memory -- including the names, both South Vietnamese and American, he'd told me. I have a good memory and didn't miss much.
"One day, coming on duty, I heard the man had died during the night. Although not his doctor by then, I knew that was very unlikely. I went directly to the colonel in charge of the hospital, laying it all out to him.
"Appearing sympathetic, he told me he'd investigate. Life went on for several months, with no reply.
"One day, close to the end of my tour, a strange colonel stopped me in a hallway. Silently, he passed me a manila envelope, then continued walking. Getting to my desk, I opened it.
"Inside were a dozen five-by-seven photographs of my family. One showed them at a local beach, a newspaper headline conspicuous near the lower edge. It had a date of a week before. There was a sheet of paper at the bottom of the stack. It said, in large red block-letters, 'DON'T DO IT.'
"I didn't do it. I finished my active duty and got out of the whole damned mess."
We sit, lost in our own thoughts.
"Amy. Get your butt over here, and take that damned bush off your head." I see another woman, slightly older but just as pretty as Sandra. She storms past the three of us, to grab the girl in black bunny-rabbit pajamas by the arm.
Sandra rushes over and an argument ensues. In the resulting blast of abuse, I manage to make out that the woman is Sandra's sister, here for her kid.
"Damned crazies," she offers us, glaring as she storms back to the parking lot with the tyke.
I look at my companions.
"Screw this." I suggest, "Let's go get us a beer?"
Ignoring Sandra's cries behind us, we head for the nearest bar.
Sitting on stools in an air-conditioned barroom, we watch the demonstration on television. A fight starts in the back and the place swarms with uniformed police officers. Just before the station break, we see Sandra fighting with a cop.
"Cheers," John says, raising his glass. I follow suit as we watch her being dragged away.
No. I was never a marine, I was army. The marine part was poetic license.
Modern movies and tv specials tell a different story, but I assure you those little stories don't tell the entire story. And I'm certain the same sort of thing is going on right now ... today.
For one thing, I was in the 198th Infantry a year or so after the infamous My Lai incident hit the papers, and the same sort of atrocities were still going on occasionally. A "free-fire zone" meant just that. All non-combatants were assumed to be out of the area and anything moving could be shot. As we found out in the WWII Pacific war, women and kids can kill you just as dead as adult men.
On my first tour in Japan, my middle-aged landlady told me how when she was a small child in that war. She and other schoolgirls were taught to shoot rifles. When the Americans invaded Okinawa, she was given one and a handful of ammunition to kill Americans. She said smaller children had fake grenades taped to their chests and were trained to walk up to American soldiers and hand them the pin. That the soldier would give them candy.
War on the ground is NOT clean and neat as portrayed in the movies.
It's living in a constant state of fear, until that fear becomes dulled into something similar to the background ache of a bad tooth, always with you, ever present.
It's a building up of anger, doing anything you can to survive one day at a time. It's an occasional release of that pent-up emotion in a moment of extreme violence, soon changing to remorse.
At least in the case of Vietnam, where we had no American women around, it's the ultimate macho society. I've never been sports-minded but in two years there I don't recall EVER seeing a sports field of any type, much less a game.
Before my first tour in Nam, I'd already been stationed in several countries, giving me an advantage over culture shock - one most new recruits didn't have. They'd come over talking about their cars and girlfriends back home. That talk would change to killing and hardships. It's a living hell.
Another time, word came down that my unit, at the time I was in the 11th Armored Cav, was headed to Cambodia. Since I only had about a week before processing out of the country, I was choppered to the rear. At the time, using Sheridan tanks, we'd been hunting VC in the jungle southwest of Saigon.
Well, a few days later I woke to one hell of a lot of activity outside my hooch. It seems the convoy had been ambushed on the way. Word was that the convoy of trucks, armored personnel carriers and tanks had been directed down a side road by a VC in South Vietnamese uniform, right into an ambush. By the time I left for my freedom flight, I heard that most of the troop was wiped out, dead or wounded, including every officer and NCO in that convoy. If I'd have had maybe one more week on my tour, that might well have included myself.