Wayward Son: Chapter 1
They’re Coming to Take Me Away
Where does one start in trying to explain the definitive event of one’s life, as well as that of a nation and several generations? People, especially young people, don’t understand. They were raised on Black Hawk Down, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not that I blame them. By all rights, Vietnam was an insignificant war. It shouldn’t have any more meaning 100 years from now than the Spanish American War has for us. And yet, something about it won’t go away. But after Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Apocalypse Now, what do I have to say? That my story is untold? So what? That is the fate of almost every soldier. Something important remains to be said, and I have a mental itch about it that won’t go away. It’s like the hitchhiker seeds that stick to your socks after an autumn walk through a farmer’s field. Not that I am the equal of Yosarian, Milo Mindbender, Billy Pilgrim, or even the “pros from Dover.” I don’t know what the message is. So I write.
I never would have believed it at the time, but good things happened because of Vietnam. Our country learned the limits of power, decent Americans temporarily gained a healthy distrust of their government, and millions of college kids got something to think about besides frat parties and football. The military learned not to fight without first gaining the political will of the people, that nuclear arsenals don’t win wars, and that there really had to be an alternative to C-rations. And contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time, the world is a less dangerous place for most of humanity. Wars are smaller. Terrorist attacks are horrible, but in terms of numbers, they are minor damage. More people die in cars accidents than from car bombs. Even the Russians learned an important lesson. It didn’t take the Soviet army long to figure out that Afghanistan was as impossible to subdue as Vietnam in spite of prosecuting the war with vigor and ruthlessness. You have to admire someone who can turn a butterfly into a bomb and then realize how stupid that is. They got out of Kabul quicker than we have.
Personally, Vietnam changed my life for the better. I gave up materialism as a prime motivator in life and developed a real spiritual hunger that ordinary religious practice couldn’t satisfy. I took a major step in recovering from Vietnam when I read the Baghavad Gita. More importantly, I learned lessons about myself that only combat vets understand. I have a pretty good idea of my dark side as well as the good but tough side. I know that under the right circumstances, I will not hesitate to kill any man, woman, or child who poses a threat to me or those who are important to me. There is real power in that knowledge. But unlike the poor sons of bitches at My Lai, I also know that I have the power to leave the safety on and spare a life. There’s great power in that too.
What did any of this mean? Once, a soldier saw me writing poetry.
“I’ll bet you go back to the world and get rich writing this shit,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Nothing good will come out of this.” But I was wrong, and it wasn’t the first time. Where did it start? Playing with toy soldiers and building model combat weapons as a child? How about Mrs. Johnson’s fifth grade class? She was a fiery redhead, and I adored her. She read a novel about a boy, forced to fight for the VC, who then joined the French, only to end up at Dien Bien Phu. It made all of the boys angry and ready to enlist. Or was it being born in a military family ans always being reminded of my duty to God and country? Or was it seeing life in Mexico and Canada, or my literary journeys across time and space that made me hyper aware of my good fortune in being a U.S. citizen? Or was it the bad eyesight that prevented me from becoming a fighter pilot, which I wanted so desperately to become? Or did it start with the passionate embrace of a sex-starved 17-year-old who convinced me to propose marriage. I really did love her. She just didn’t return the feeling with the same conviction.
The plan was to surrender to the draft and let the G.I. Bill finance marriage and college. And it did. Only with a woman far more deserving than the girl I went off to war for. Certainly, the die was cast when I faced the ticket counter in Seattle. I could obey my draft notice and go to Vietnam or flee to Canada where I already had friends. There was no choice really. I had marched, protested, etc. But duty and love called for a sacrifice. Then, during the first day in boot camp, Nixon invaded Cambodia. Scuttlebutt said we’d all wind up in the infantry, which scared the shit out of most of us. The only one we knew would be exempt was Michael. He was a Buddhist, natural food-eating conscientious objector. After a week of training with nothing but tea to drink, he passed out. The army quickly gave him his organic food and a discharge. We thought he was crazy, but we admired his conviction.
Cambodia brought real fear. I remember an Air Force E-7 who told me how much he didn’t want to go to Vietnam in 1961. “They shoot real bullets there,” he said. He’d been to Korea, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. With my short stature, everyone was sure I’d end up being a tunnel rat crawling into booby trapped bunkers. Tunnel rats had the life expectancy of a Mercedes in Newark. So on April 1st, I enlisted for another year to get into radio repair school.
“Dumb ass,” laughed my drill sergeant when he heard my scheme. “You’ll be humping a radio; and they always get killed first in an ambush.” I had no reason not to believe him. He had served three tours and had been shot several times, once in the ass. That should have been a tip-off. That and the fact that he was always threatening the entire platoon over my prescription tinted glasses.
None of the draftees who refused the opportunity to serve an extra year ended up going to Nam. So much for footlocker wisdom. In radio school, another opportunity presented itself. The top five percent got to go to computer school. Terrific. My father worked on military computers in the Air Force. They filled rooms that had to be air-conditioned. Even if I went to Vietnam, I’d have it easy. Radio school was a cinch in spite of strong competition. I had to study, but what else is there to do in Oklahoma in August? I made computer school. None of the other graduates got orders for Vietnam. Most went to Germany where they discovered the rewards of being so close to Amsterdam.
The day I arrived for computer class, we all got orders to go to Nam. My computer turned out to be a portable (four strong men could carry it twenty yards to the truck) gunnery computer. The Army had not consulted the Air Force about the definition of or the air-conditioning needs of computers. I was on my way to a destiny that I had struggled so hard to avoid and yet played myself right into. I was going to Vietnam. I was sure I was going to die. It wouldn’t be long before I understood that there are worse things than dying.