Many off my generation were treated to an all expenses-paid trip to a lush tropical paradise. Sharing the picturesque rice paddies and the streams that fell from the karst topography of the Annamese Cordillera were millions of farmers, rubber plantation workers, Viet Minh soldiers, an abundance of venomous snakes, and countless intestinal parasites.
The accommodations were quite often world class in nature.
Only the finest building materials were used.
The travel and adventure were so highly in demand that only a portion of the men and women of my generation were invited to make the trip. Those unselected were forced to overcome their disappointment by attending universities, going to concerts and music festivals, and generally pretending that there was no great adventure taking place in the distant land of VietNam.
After our particular part in the adventure was over, we were encouraged to return to our families, friends, and lives as if nothing had happened. It was in attempting that return that I met one of the men I will never forget.
He is a Marine. I won’t say “former” Marine. They do something to them at Paris Island & San Diego that the other branches of service either stopped doing or were never allowed to do – the Geneva accords come to mind- that makes them believe that they are all still ready to put their uniform back on and line up to storm the beaches.
When I first met him, he was recently returned from VietNam to be handed divorce papers by his wife. He didn’t fare in that process despite his first wife having a Bachelor’s degree. He was handed a very raw deal that even took almost all of his clothing
That day was sub-freezing, damp, bone chilling. He was dressed in USMC fatigue pants, a Kroger’s’ sweatshirt of a decidedly urine-hued yellow, and black high-top tennis shoes held together by duct tape. A USMC field jacket pulled the whole thing together. He had a Harvard book bag slung over one shoulder, pulling him off balance as he pedaled a broken-down bicycle with both its tires flat. The air around him was blue with words not commonly used outside a recruit depot. We exchanged names and discovered we were going to be in the same biology lab. Alphabetically and academically, we were linked for the next three years. It was to be an interesting association.
Case in point: later that semester we were crossing a part of campus undergoing construction. There was a large pile of dirt to our immediate front. We exchanged a look and both of us tore up the dirt pile as if it was the last rampart of an enemy fortress. Those more “normal” (non-veteran) students who saw us either shook their heads at our behavior or pretended not to see us. We walked back down, lit cigarettes and shook hands. Tobacco was my drug of choice in those days and he used it as well. Where we had been, long-term health concerns were neither common nor realistic.
I’m trying to avoid naming someone who became one of my closest friends because he has not been consulted about appearing in this.
In the course of that 1st semester back on campus after our particular tours of duty we discovered how much change had taken place. The world of undergraduates had turned without our input and we were not part of the culture. Our participation in a war that was growing less and less popular left us unwelcome to a large portion of students who had avoided active duty in many manners. The larger and more disturbing changes had happened within us and to us. We discovered how little we had in common with most undergrads. We learned that the veterans of previous wars were rabid about prosecuting our war, with our bodies; but wanted no truck with us.
So a few of us gradually connected and established our own safety nets. We joked about digging in, putting out concertina and claymores. But it wasn’t all joking.
I regained contact with my old friend last night. The trust was still there after long years and many miles out of contact. He still operates at a rapid tempo, providing a high-speed mix of comments, puns, plays on words, and an ability to turn off impulse control. When he met me I was already spiraling into a tightly wound level of uneasy accommodation with a world I no longer belonged in. I lacked his ability to turn off that impulse control.
It was not a good time and place to be a veteran returning home.
There’s more to be told of this tale.