Out comes the shoebox of Instamatic snapshots. Unceremoniously, the warrior's paper trophies are dumped on the middle cushion on the couch.
Machinery is a favorite subject. Tanks with muddy treads as tall as a full-grown man were photographed with the reverence little boys reserve for fire engines. A line of helicopters with their blades still and drooping look like giant, prehistoric flies, special effects created for some sci-fi movie.
The warrior flips through the stack for pictures of his comrades-in-arms. Boys with plastic guns strike silly poses, caricatures of men. A bunch of rowdy punks, drunk on their first six-pack, try to make poker faces, gambling with government-issued play money. Chubby grins flash from under a wisp of mustache that might have come from gulping milk out of a wide-mouthed glass.
"Hey, look at this one. This guy here in the middle is my buddy, Geezer," he says as though he were leafing through a high school year book. "Boy, he was a pisser." The next instant his face clouds as his memory clears. "He's dead. He got wasted up on some hill."
He reaches for another photo. "That's me on the left. Geezer took it for me right after we got there. I weighed 145 pounds." It is difficult to recognize the 34-year-old man beside me in the baby face smiling from the picture in my hand. There's no beer gut; in fact the boy seems to ripple with hard muscle, like a teenage football star. Only the face is soft and unlined, doe eyes twinkling like the eyes of the two little girls who answered the door when I first arrived for this evening's interview.
The children are asleep upstairs now. His wife put out popcorn and beer and left for her Wednesday night ladies' bowling league. He has shown me around the house, has talked about his job with the public utility, the company softball team, the television show flashing silently across the screen in the corner of the room. Now the warrior has to talk about Vietnam.
He reels off his service number and the designation of his unit in a flurry of digits and military jargon. His story immediately stumbles over half-remembered dates and training camps.
Once the narrative catches up to his first day in-country, the story wings through the loose details of his war in the mumbled monotone of a jaded tour guide. After 10 minutes, he's finished. "I don't know what else to tell you."
But the mental pictures had been brought down from the shelf and he can't resist taking a look. The story begins to trickle out, gaining momentum, a jumble of disconnected anecdotes and incidents.
"This is me up at the DMZ after I'd been there about six months," he says of the photo in the file he's holding. It's the same boy as before, squatting in red mud that seeps over the tops of his boots. His pants legs are rolled to the knee, fatigue green barely visible under the coating of clay. The only other piece of clothing he's wearing is a flak jacket -- an armored vest with the words "DIE HIGH" printed on it. The grin is gone, replaced by the stony glare of an old man.
Strangely, his tone of voice hasn't changed throughout his visitation. Although he seems surprised as each distant bit of memory jumps into consciousness like a snapshot he forgot he took, he remains almost too composed. We wander back to where Geezer died.
Without much warning, his voice squeezes one note higher and stops with a choke. A tear rolls down his cheek before he has the presence of mind to catch it. He apologizes right away -- man to man. Eyes averted, he begins distractedly to put the photos back in the shoebox.
As he does, he talks about a routine patrol he was on with his platoon when Geezer triggered a land mine rated afterwards at 150 pounds of explosives. The resulting crater was the size of the average bedroom in a suburban home. Six other men were killed with him. It was a common way to die in Vietnam.
His was among the thousands of closed caskets that were delivered to quiet graves all over this country during the war in Southeast Asia. As the story of how and why those boys died has unfolded in recent years, something has been missing -- something personal and palpable; rarely has anyone bothered to talk to the men and women who know firsthand about the statistics and history of Vietnam, about the evil and the heroism and the rock'n'roll madness. It is veterans like the man in whose home I am sitting who are most qualified to look inside those closed caskets and identify the bodies for what they are -- dead boys killed in a war, boys who had names, personalities, stories of their own.
When I set out after those stories, what I heard were personal recollections -- what are commonly called war stories. It must be assumed that they include generalizations, braggadocio and, very likely, outright lies. But if the stories that follow had been told within a religious framework, the telling would have been called bearing witness. The human imperfections simply authenticate the sincerity of the whole. The apocryphal aspects have more to do with metaphor than with deceit. SIGN MY LIFE AWAY
I got into the Marines because the Army wouldn't take me. I was 17, hanging out in the neighborhood in Brooklyn with nothing to do. I knew I had to go to court sooner or later for some s--- I was into. The Army recruiter didn't even want to look at me since they didn't get involved with court problems or 17-year-olds. Forget the Navy and the Air Force. They had intelligence tests, and I didn't have any.
One of the Big Boys who remembered me as a kid on the streets found out I was having a hard time getting into the service. He put his arm around my shoulder and took me down to talk to the Marine recruiter.
This big Marine takes one look at me and says, "This guy's a pussy. We don't want you. Get out of here." So I stand on a chair and get in his face and say, "Tell me about your big, bad Marine Corps."
"How old are you?"
"I'm only 17."
"Will your mother sign for you?"
"She ain't around."
The recruiter gave me $10 and said, "See that lady standing over there? Go give her the money, and I'm sure she'll sign for you." I was in this big courthouse in Queens, huge, with columns and the whole bit. She was standing next to a candy counter where they sold newspapers and stuff. So I go over and say, "Hey, I'm trying to get into the Marines. Will you sign for me?" No problem. She must have been doing this for a living.
That weekend I was in the Marines. I had to leave a note for my mother: "Mom, I went to Parris Island. I'll be back in a couple of months." I had no idea what I was getting into. SMOKEY AND THE CUBS
The bus pulls into the receiving area. There's a guy with a Smokey Bear hat out there really looking lean and mean. He gets on the bus and starts reeling this s--- off, "All right, you'll grab your bag. You'll get off the bus. You'll fall into the yellow footprints painted on the pavement . . ."
It was really funny, a takeoff from Gomer Pyle. The guy within arm's reach of the Marine was laughing just like everybody else. Smokey Bear whipped around and smacked him right in the face, knocked him halfway through the window. His head bounced off the luggage rack and he reeled back out in the aisle.
Smiles froze on faces. My heart stopped. We realized, "Hey, this guy isn't fooling around. He's going to come through this bus and kick all our asses." People started flying out of the door.
I came down with a couple of guys who were Puerto Rican street gang material from the big city and they thought they were bad news. They fell down the steps on top of me. We all stumble into the right footprints on the ground and Smokey marches us into some barracks and stands us at attention. He's yelling and screaming, really intimidating. You dumped all of your stuff out on a table and he went by and just threw everything away. We were too scared to say anything to him.
I was next to this big Puerto Rican dude. Smokey catches the dude looking at him out of the corner of his eye. He says, "Are you eye f---ing me, boy? I don't want your scuzzy eyes looking at me. You think this is funny? I hope you f--- up. I hate you Puerto Rican c---s-----s."
Eyes in the back of his head, Smokey sees a guy's eyes flick and he's there to punch him in the chest, five feet to the wall and back again. My knees were shaking. What the f--- have I gotten myself into?
Then they march us into some barracks. Bare mattresses and springs. It's like a concentration camp. They turn the lights on and leave us there. My stomach is in a knot. I'm lying there thinking, "What happened to my world?" WHO, ME? INFANTRY?
I foolishly went into the Army thinking, "Hey, with a few years of college under my belt, they're not going to put me in the infantry." I didn't see anything wrong with going to Vietnam. The only part I thought was wrong was my fear of being killed. I felt that somehow or other that shouldn't have been part of it. And I couldn't really picture myself killing people.
In boot camp I didn't meet very many patriots. They were guys that a judge had told, "Either you go in the Army, or it's two years for grand theft auto." Or they were schmucks like me who managed to lose their deferments. Or they were people who really had decided that the Army would be good for them in the long run.
To discourage us from going AWOL and deserting, all the new draftees were told that only 17 percent of us were going to Vietnam. And of that small percentage, only 11 percent would actually be combat troops. That eased my mind a great deal. Hey, there's still a chance that I won't have to go and get my guts blown out. Terrific.
At the end of our training, with only three exceptions -- one fool who had gone Airborne, one guy who kept fainting and another kid who had a perforated eardrum -- ever single one of us went to Vietnam -- 200 guys. WIRE MESH WINDOWS
I arrived in-country at Cam Ranh Bay. It's hot. The kind of hot that Texas is hot. It takes your breath away as you step out of the airplane. We were loaded on an olive drab school bus for the short ride from the airstrip over to the compound. There was wire mesh over the windows. I said to somebody, "What the hell is the wire for?"
"It's the gook, man, the gooks," they say. "The gooks will throw grenades through the windows. See those gooks out there?" I look out and I see shriveled, little men squatting beside the road filling sandbags. They looked up at me with real contempt on their faces.
Here we are at one of the largest military installations in the world and we have to cover the windows to protect ourselves from little old men. I didn't put it all together at the time, but I knew something was wrong. WHERE'S THE NEW GUY?
I arrived in 'Nam on an Easter Sunday. I flew into Bien Hoa early in the morning and got on an air-conditioned bus and was driven to the 90th Replacement Battalion, somewhere between Bien Hoa and Long Binh. I did whatever processing was necessary. Then in a formation after lunch I received orders to go to Long Binh and process into a transportation unti there. I was greatly relieved.
I thought, "Jesus, Long Binh. That's huge. That's like L.A. That's safe. Long Binh hasn't been hit in who knows how long. There's 25,000 people there. What a great way to go through the war."
At the same time, I was disappointed. I wanted to go to War. It was a test that I wanted to pass. It was a manhood test, no question about it. I did not know then the way I know now how safe my life had been. But some part of me knew that Vietnam was the event of my generation. Some other part also knew that I had led a pretty unchallenged life. I didn't know where I was going, so I might as well detour for a while and come up against something that was really hard.
I was at Long Binh for three days when the top sergeant said, "We're sending you forward." I had already written home and said, "You won't believe where I am. They have air conditioning!" He was really evil telling me with a smirk, "You thought you were going to have it easy, but you're not. You're going to one of the least desirable places anybody in this unit can be sent to." I wasn't singled out. It was just the draw. I was new.
For a day, I couldn't even remember the name of the place I was going to. I'd heard it once and I couldn't remember it. A few of the guys who had been there told me stories about how often the place was hit. I got very scared. I had not been issued a weapon yet, and I was going to a place called Phuoc Vinh on a convoy.
Phouc Vinh was a little bit like being at summer camp that first night. People were playing guitars, getting stoned. People were drinking and sitting under the stars. There was a barbecue. Then there was incoming.
It wasn't very close, but it was close enough. i didn't know what it was. Somebody just yelled, "Incoming." There had been some quick exchanges of useful information.
Give the new guy what he needs to know fast. Part of that was as simple as where the nearest bunker was located. I went to it and somehow managed to get in there in the midst of everybody else.
It was pitch black in the bunker and nobody was saying anything for a while. Out of the silence and the darkness, somebody said, "Where's the new guy?"
"I'm here," I said.
That was that, but there was something about that little exchange in the dark that I will never forget as long as I live. That question in the dark was authentically -- I don't know what the word is -- generous? Caring is too big a word somehow. Generous is enough. That's a lot. That somebody even bothered to think about me. Who the hell was I? This rather quiet, slightly older FNG in clean fatigues, whose boots weren't even red yet. I was amazed. BOOM! JUST LIKE THAT!
You'd hump you goddam brains out, up hills, over rocks, through water. Sometimes it was hand over hand through the roots of trees.
Ninety percent of the time, nothing happened, just boring, a walk in the sun, like sightseeing. But you're always aware that you could get blown away. You always protect yourself tactically to make sure your ass is covered.
You're hunting the smartest animal there is, and that's a human being. You can't believe how f------ smart a man is. If you get one, it's blind luck. In the entire time I was over there, we got one confirmed kill on a day patrol out of battalion. It's their show; you're in their backyard.
I was constantly fatigued. The killing part is easy, but you're just so f------ tired all the f------ time. Your strength is zapped out of your body by the heat. Waiting in a column going down a hill, you go to sleep leaning against a tree. Every day you're out on patrol. Intelligence says they're out there, so here you go walking around in little geometric triangles. Go to this check point, go to that check point, go here, go there. Day in, day out, day in, day out. You get into a mind-numbing routine.
Humans are out there watching you. They know where you're going before you even get there. You see them running very far away in their straw hats and black outfits.
We had a constant attrition from boobytraps. Seven out of 10 casualties a month were traumatic amputees. On a sweep you all get in a long line and walk in. You're watching every place you step wondering who's going to hit it. You know someone is going to. Sweep and sweep and sweep, halfway through the day and nothing's happened. Are we going to hit a boobytrap today? Who will it be? It was mentally draining.
Boom! Just like that and a guy is missing a leg, somebody is missing a foot. Everything stops for a second, and there's a lot of action on the radio. A chopper comes down to pick him up. Zoom, he's gone. Then you're back at it again, hunting humans. ONLY WORRY ABOUT DYING
Seeing guys get blown away, it didn't freak me out. You feel bad -- "Aw, they got Zamallo" or "They wasted Baird," but what mostly goes through your mind is, "Jesus, I hope I don't have a big chunk of metal rip my head like that."
Watching guys die is a drag, but there's a weird educational side to war, too. The whole world gets absurd after a while. You do things that seem not right now, but which seemed right at the time. I used to love to go over to guys who would catch rounds in the chest or the guts and pretend I was a doctor. You had the license to do what ever you wanted. I would sort of experiment. You know, I couldn't do nothing to hurt these guys; they were dead. But there was something about sticking my hands in warm blood that I used to love, especially during the monsoon seasons.
Here you are with bodies going up all around you, so if you're going to do something absurd, do it and don't worry about it. That's something that I think everybody was doing there. I can actually say I never felt bad about anything I did in 'Nam, except for doing something like that once in a while. Or getting the pleasure out of it.
It's hard to believe, but I didn't have a care in the world while I was in 'Nam. I'd get up in the morning all covered with mud, look up in the sky with the rain splashing in my face and just smile. "I'm alive." The only worry you had was dying, and if that happened you wouldn't know it anyway. So what the f---.
You know what scared me in 'Nam? We had a guy die from an act of God. He was swimming on vacation and he drowned. I had forgotten that you still had to contend with God too. I didn't have it figured in the plot. That scared the s--- out of me. METAMORPHOSIS
Every time you came back to battalion from being on an operation, you get the day off, all the steak, hot dogs and hamburgers you can eat, all the beer and soda you can drink. You just eat and get f---ed up. You're relieved of all responsibility.
You hang out, bullshit, talk about women. Look for something cold, which was nonexistent. Go by the PX. Watch AFVN television. I'd see if I could commandeer a jeep and go up on Freedom Hill where they had a huge PX and a beer hall. You could talk to the Red Cross nurses.
I'd been out in the bush for 54 days straight one time. After all the beer and steaks, I went back to my hooch to have a conversation with my platoon sergeant. Just hanging out was incredible, the feelng of life. You were so aware of time over there you could taste it.
We were talking, and I happened to look over my shoulder. There's another person in the room. I was really surprised, because i hadn't heard anybody come in. Then I realized I was looking in a mirror and hadn't recognized by own reflection. Was that me? I had to smile to make sure. I was looking at a stranger. I'd changed. I'd never seen myself before. I'd become one of those guys that I'd seen when I first arrived in-country. Now I had that look in my eyes. A TURKEY SHOOT
Somewhere along the line in the early stages of the war, some observation chopper pilot got tired of being shot at all the time. The guy rigged up three rocket tubes to the side of his helicopter, tied them into his electrical system and it worked.
So they started arming helicopters very heavily. Basic American ingenuity. These helicopters were never intended to carry troops or supplies or letters. They were just these big pieces of death machine that flew around.
In training films, a helicopter with one Minigun mounted in the nose would make a pass over a football field -- 50 yards wide and a hundred yards long. They'd turn a rabbit loose on the field and let him run around. Consistently, the ship would make one pass and kill the rabbit. Every time. The noise that they made was not like a gun. It was a long, deep, very loud belch.
Most of the time, we would just hang out in the standby shack close to the airfield and wait to get a call. There was a lot of bullshitting. But one night we were flying pretty far south and got a call in flight. A whole area was involved in a firefight, on the ground, in the air. It was really something. This night you could see the gunships firing, but even more fire was coming back up, .50 calibers.
"Whoa, let's think this over, man. I am serious. This doesn't look good. Not good at all." A .50 caliber machine gun is nothing to be f---ed with. Movies have done a disservice to that weapon. What they fail to convey is that a .50 caliber machine gun is big and bad enough that if you look around a city block, you will see almost no structure standing that you can hide safely behind if somebody is firing one
I guess we flew six sorties. Go out, expend all of our ammunition, fly back and load up. Go out again. Finally, dawn came. The battle broke off.
There were literally hundreds and hundreds of Vietnamese fleeing the area, any way they could. Panic. The sun was up and that was it. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. This wasn't a village. It was a big swampy area. They were leaving in boats, slogging on foot, anything. I don't know if they ran out of ammunition or what, but we were taking very little fire at that point and we were just killing everybody.
It turned into a turkey shoot. They were defenseless. There were three or four light fire teams working the area. We were just killing everybody. Hundreds of people were being mowed down. Bodies were floating in the water. Insane.
I was in there with the best of them. Blowing people off the boats, out of the paddies, down from the trees, for chrissake. Blood lust. I can't think of a better way to describe it. Caught up in the moment. I BELONGED IN VIETNAM
I'd been living in the boonies for six months and flew right back to the States. So I was very disoriented. At El Toro Air Force Base a guy says to me, "Where you want to get stationed?"
"Marine Barracks, Brooklyn," I says, f---ing around with him.
"We got one in New London, Connecticut."
"That's close engough."
Bang, bang, bang, he stamps everything on may papers. I had no idea what Marine barracks was. I just wanted to be near the neighborhood, hang out. I was a hot 19 years old and been to Vietnam.
I went to the Marine barracks in Connecticut and I found out -- uh-oh, it's all embassy Marines. They're all covered in blue with red stripes down their pants, spitshined boots, orders. None of them has been to Vietnam and this ain't grunt stuff.
These guys may be the finest in discipline, but they don't look out for each other. In 'Nam the grunts learned to look out for each other. You look out for your boys, you f--- over the officers. Here, it's just the opposite. Everybody is doing everything they can to nail you. The Marine Game -- you will go to the brig. I didn't want to hear that, I just came back from a war.
I signed in wearing my civilian clothes. I'm all alone and I was feeling all discombobulated. It was just too much, too quick for me. I said to myself, "No man, I don't want no part of this." There was only one thing in my mind: get back to Vietnam where I felt at home.
I was there two hours and I flipped out. I started walking down the corridor knocking all the frames full of rules and regulations off the walls, throwing down all their little trophies and commendations. No words. Nothing.
There were about 10 guys there coming toward me, and I started going at blows with them. They beat the s--- out of me, cuffed me and threw me in the brig. They gave me a shot of dope which f---ed me up, too.
After I got out of the hospital, i went over to see the major. He looked at my records and said, "You're a grunt. What are you doing here?"
"I don't know."
"Do you want to leave this unit?"
"Do you want to go back to West Pac?"
"Yes sir, I just want to get back to Vietnam, where I belong." i really felt that I belonged there.
No problem. I was out of that barracks in record time.
My second year in 'Nam I got into the Air Wing. All I did was smoke pot and ride gunner on helicopters.
I was going to stay a third year, but they gave me a year early-out and made me go back home. Some guys they had to lock up because they wouldn't leave Vietnam. A lot of guys wanted to die there. i mean, I wanted to die there. All my f---ing friends died there. SOMETIMES, I MISS IT
I miss the sounds of the nights in Vietnam, with the choppers landing and outgoing -- not the incoming -- fire. Although, even the incoming was exciting. The sounds are particularly vivid. The force after a large gun fires or a round lands, the feel of the gas from it on your face. Thinking about Vietnam once in a while, in a crazy kind of way, I wish that for just an hour I could be there. And then be transported back. Maybe just to be there so I'd wish I was back here again. DEAR MR. US5276471
When I got my honorable discharge, I thought it would be really nice. It comes in the mail and it's a computer printout with my Social Security number on a piece of cardboard, so I just threw it away. I was really disappointed. oI thought I'd at least get a little plaque or something.