Wayward Son, Chapter 10
I Wanna Take You Higher
The plane kept dropping into the darkness. I strained to see some sign of San Francisco. Runway lights, the bridge, any sign that we were landing safely instead of plunging into the Bay. Nothing but black. I looked around the cabin. Everyone was awake and trying to see out of the window. I wasn’t the only who was worried. After spending 365 days in Vietnam, no one wanted to die in a plane crash. Just when I was ready to brace for the crash, the wheels touched down and I saw runway lights flash by. A loud cheer erupted throughout the aircraft. We had made it. No one had warned us that our runway was built into the ocean. It wouldn’t be the only thing we weren’t cautioned about.
It was 03:00 by the time we got done with processing and were free to wander the San Francisco airport. I was so high on adrenaline I couldn’t sleep. Not that I had much of a choice. The airport was completely shut down. We couldn’t even get a cup of coffee at the USO. Except for the floor, any place that resembled a sleeping space was taken. I didn’t expect signs or a parade or anything. I was just glad to be safe at home, and I wanted someone to share my joy. But there was no one.
Ten hours and two connecting flights later, I was with my family. And while my mother’s enthusiasm at seeing her only child home from the war temporarily calmed my vague dissatisfaction, it didn’t last long. Florida, their new home, was not mine. Plus, they didn’t warn me about the skeet range behind their house. At least not until after I had already gotten dirty from diving behind the car when I heard multiple shotguns going off. It was my first clue that I was not as unscathed by Vietnam, as I had thought.
Things got a little better when I went back to Colorado and saw my fiancé. I lost myself in the soft warmth of her body for awhile. And she had taken up pot smoking as a hobby to distract herself from worrying about me. I wasn’t on the wagon anymore, so I joined in. By the time I arrived at my new unit at Ft. Riley, I was conducting my own personal war trying to determine if I was going to be a doper or a juicer.
I wasn’t in my new unit, an air defense artillery unit, long before my choice was forced. First of all, the battalion XO was the unit’s main drug supplier. He used training flights in the battalion chopper to pick up dope driven in from his native Georgia. The OH 58 Kiowa gave him the ability to ensure there were no cops around before he landed at the drop zone. After I was exhausted from pulling my third 24-hour CQ duty in five days, he introduced me to the restorative properties of white crosses. I never had trouble getting through my frequent double shifts again. Two months after getting home, dope won out over alcohol. It was cheaper, easier to obtain, and it got me up or put me to sleep as the Army required. It also kept the memories of brain tissue and blood at bay.
There was a price for this relief, however. I couldn’t take army training seriously. War games and field exercises were just that. Games and play. I knew how to react under live fire. I knew how to do my job when lives depended on me. I knew how little attention is paid to regulations when the bullets and shrapnel are real. A week-long field exercise in March was a frigid campout I would just as soon have avoided. On top of that, I was on the First Sergeant’s shit list, and by the third day of training, I made the BC’s as well.
Top wanted to send me to the NCO academy. But since I was already an E-5, I didn’t see the point. It was six weeks of PT and combat leadership classes. There was no promotion involved, just a change in patch that would cost me a day’s pay and come out of my pocket. I declined his offer. That angered him on a personal level. He needed hard stripers to lead the track crews. He also didn’t like me ruining his plans. I explained that fixing things was my talent, not leading troops. After a heated exchange, I determined that once I was reduced to an E-2 for refusing the academy, he would be unable to order me to go. I left his office, smoked a joint, and went back to work getting ready for the live fire field exercise. As an E-2, I wouldn’t have to pull so many duties. That would be worth the loss in pay.
At three A.M. on our third day in the field, the BC sent a runner to drag me out of my sleeping bag to fix a comm problem that I had already diagnosed and fixed earlier. It wasn’t losing sleep that drove my objection, it was much too cold for sleeping. It was just a hell of a lot colder outside the mummy bag than in it. I declined a cup of coffee as I stood in the freezing cold tent and reiterated to the BC that one of the tracks must have driven over the phone lines and antenna wires leading into the FDC, cutting them. My solution had been to pull a track along side of the FDC and use its antenna and radio.
“I want you to fix the comm wires,” the captain said.
“I can’t,” I explained again. “First of all, we are on blackout and I need light to find the breaks.”
“Then low crawl with a blackout light until you find them.”
Yeah, right, I thought to myself, I hadn’t done the low crawl since basic training.
“Secondly, sir. I am not a wireman. I am not allowed to fix broken phone wires.” Live by the reg, die by the reg.
“What about the antenna leads for the radios?”
“I can’t fix those either, sir. They have to go back to depot. I can only replace them, and I’d have to go back to the shop for spares to do that. The ones I have here aren’t long enough. That’s why I requested the track to park next to the FDC. But if you insist on repairing them now, I’ll need a vehicle.” I was hoping he’d say yes at that point. Driving in a warm truck and going back to my heated shop was very appealing.
“No, Specialist. See what you can do in daylight.”
I could tell by the way he dismissed me he was pissed. I didn’t care. In Vietnam, I would have crawled through the mud, rain, and darkness to restore comm. And there wasn’t a wire in the Army I couldn’t splice, regs or no regs. But here? I just didn’t care. I couldn’t force myself to play soldier after spending a year of actually being one. When daylight came, the wiremen and I located the problem and jury-rigged solutions. As I had suspected, a track had ripped up the wires. Tracks are incredibly fun to drive, and GIs take the opportunity to joy ride in them whenever possible. They had torn up my wires in Nam more than once. I knew the drill.
On Friday, the last day of the exercise, the captain put me in charge of overnight guard duty with a couple of other soldiers. It was his punishment for me not being gung ho about crawling through the snow. Everybody else got to go home for the night. He gave me his M151 jeep and a driver from Puerto Rico named Julio. We had to get our own chow back at HQ because the mess tent was packed up. I liked Julio; he was a wireman who had served in Laos as a tank driver. Which meant that his driving skills were better suited for mud than pavement. And better suited for a track than a vehicle that was notorious for flipping over. On the way back from HQ, Julio tried reaching under my seat for a bag of cookies. He had been a range guard all week and had the munchies from all of the pot he had smoked. I pushed his hand away and warned him to watch the road. He drifted to the right and then overcorrected to the left.
I saw the pavement rushing up at my face, and I tried to raise my right arm to protect myself. This is gonna hurt, I thought; and I was right.