Realized this morning for some odd reason or another that it had been roughly thirty-four years since I blew out of Nam after two tours, just about three months before Saigon went down, which all of us in-country knew was going to happen. That’s something like twelve thousand days ago, if my math is close. Not to mention the nights. Which is not to say I’m one of those guys who came out of the jungle and back to the real world fighting nightmares and night sweats and general heebie-jeebies. Not to imply I haven’t been caught unaware more than a few dark nights when some kind of strange shit came hurtling back to ravage my sleep. But I just try to treat it as a regular old bad dream and push it aside. There’s also something reassuring about having Francis still there next to me. Just her warmth, the soft purr of her breath usually is enough to drive away the demons.
And it’s funny how strange things, totally unrelated things, can trigger something in your head and snap you back. There was one time I recall vividly when I was down at the annual barbecue put on by the volunteer fire department to raise money. I was sipping a cold beer and hanging around the pit where the boys had two good-sized hogs smoking, when a little breeze kicked up and gave me a face full of smoke, with that pungent scent of hog flesh crisping up over those red-hot coals. And right then, without warning, I might as well have been back in that field near some little god-forsaken hamlet that Freaky Phil and Lawrence McKay and a couple of other guys had torched for no truly good reason except they were tired and hot and pissed off. There was a smell then, sharp and sickening that embedded itself in your nose, but I didn’t recognize until Freaky Phil laughed, kind of high and crazy, and said, “Damn, smells like a couple of mama-sans are cooking up crisp and crunchy.”
The lieutenant, a new guy and barely hanging on, acted pissed off, but was really just upset he’d lost control of the platoon and didn’t have the balls to stop Freaky Phil and the others. He hadn’t earned any respect yet, never did and went home in a bag.
But I think the main reason I came through it all in pretty good shape was due to the advice my daddy gave me on the evening before I left for boot camp. He was a tough old bird in his own right, having been in deep shit with the marines on Iwo Jima and some of those other godforsaken islands in the Pacific during WWII. When Nam heated up and I turned old enough to go, or be grabbed by the draft, he ordered me to sit tight, wait and see what transpired when the talking started—which, of course, never came to shit. So, finally, with greetings from the local draft board imminent, I followed in the old man’s footsteps and signed up with the marines, which I know made him proud even though he never really said much about it. But he did say if you were going into the shit, you might as well be with the biggest badasses in the bunch.
Anyway, we were sitting on the porch, sipping beers, the last line of sunset still backlighting the pines. He took a long pull, gave me kind of a half-sideways glance and said, “Listen, let me just tell you something straight. If you have to shoot a man’s shooting at you, or cut a man’s throat to keep him from cuttin’ yours, there ain’t no god in no universe ever gonna condemn you for it.”
He sat back, rolled his neck around and took another swig. “You just do what you have to do, and let the politicians and preachers worry about the rights and wrongs and wherefores of it,” he muttered. “We’re just good folks, do our jobs, live our lives and get along best we can. That’s pretty much all there is to it.”
And that’s pretty much how I treated my days in Nam—one at a time, do my job, try not to get my ticket punched while we were out in the boonies doing some wicked shit and sometimes getting it handed back to us. I lost the little toe on my right foot in a two-minute firefight somewhere out beyond a village I think was called My Khe. It was at that weird intersection of night and day, sort of half-light with that mist coming up out of the ground that made you feel like some ghost was fucking with you, just kind of sliding its finger across your bare skin, cold and clammy. Then, like it happened more times than not, a couple of AKs kicked up in front of us, left and right, spraying around, and I dropped on the path and rolled. And right when I rolled, right when my foot must’ve kicked up in the air, a bullet zinged right through the edge of my boot and took my toe with it. I didn’t even know it at the time. It wasn’t until everything calmed down and I stood up that I felt something kind of squishy, sensed more than saw the blood coming out of the hole in my boot. However, I didn’t go yelling for Crimson Chuck the medic because I could see him over in the bush leaning hard into the lower back of somebody—turned out to be Larry, an old boy from Roanoke, Virginia—who was definitely in a lot more pain than I was. I just sat down, braced up against a tree, pulled off my boot and sock, and kind of stared at where my toe used to be.
It was almost as clean as if someone had taken a razor and just sheared the damn thing off. At first, I was dumbly fascinated by the surreal quality of it, one of those holy shit moments that’s real and not. There was this little piece of bone sticking out, white and stark, that seemed like it was moving on its own, and not even much blood by that point. About that time, somebody came up, one of the brothers—I can’t recall who it was—and said a little too loud, “Holy shit, Birdman, you done got your baby toe blowed off.”
Bobby Blue joined us and said, “You lucky motherfucker, they’ll probably send your sorry ass home now. Shit, if you’d had the good sense and balls to do that ‘fore they drafted your ass, you’d still be sitting at home drinking beer and chasing pussy.”
Everybody, including me, had a good laugh, and I took a lot of ribbing before I got on the chopper for the trip back with Larry, who didn’t look good but survived, minus a chunk of kidney. As for me, the docs did a little trimming and sewing, I got to lay around for about ten days, and then it was back into the bush where Bobby Blue offered to shoot off a couple more toes to make damn sure I got a ticket out. After that, my nickname went from Birdman to Toe Jam, which I didn’t care for at all. But once you’re tagged, that’s it.
I finally did get a ticket home, but it was just about at the end of my second tour, right as the bottom was falling out. Like I said, we all knew the end was near. There was something hanging over the place like a dark cloud, voices chanting softly behind the wind, the distant whisper of thousands of feet scurrying toward us like rats in the dark. Bobby Blue was still around, and also Freaky Phil who had been deemed too fucking crazy to die and kept re-upping. Our platoon, mainly a bunch of fresh meat, was working along the flats on one side of a river so dark and muddy it looked like chocolate in the afternoon sun. As usual, somebody up top had decided there was info of some reasonably reliable sort, or puffed up to be, that required a bunch of dumb grunts to take a long hike to confirm what could never be confirmed, and try not to get zapped in the process.
There was a new kid, cocky as hell, walking point—in fact, he’d volunteered in a show of gung-ho stupidity that made Bobby Blue smirk over at me, shake his head. Bobby and I were maybe ten feet apart in the middle of the column, the old guys trying to herd along the young and fearful, keep everybody alive. With the river on our right flank, most of our attention was to the left and in front, and it had been quiet and maybe we’d relaxed a little. And then this is how it happened, or happens in my memory of it: I swear I heard the click when Bobby Blue tripped the Bouncing Betty and then time stood still.
Before the pounding of the blast and shock waves that flew me off my feet. Before I realized the gobs of red flesh on my face and arms were not mine. Before a young medic, scared shitless, finally moved and got a compress bandage on the jagged gash ripped in my hip and ass by a spiraling shard of shrapnel. Before I felt my head turning to try and find Bobby Blue, but knowing he was long gone. Before the morphine took hold after the medic hit me once, then again. Before it all went away for at least a while. Before I saw Freaky Phil for the last time when he stopped by the hospital for a quick visit, mainly I think to tell me I’d given him a whole new outlook on “getting a piece of ass.” Before he gave me that loony look of his and what he said I deserved, a “half-assed” salute. Before I got home just in time to lay in front of the television and watch crazed people scratching and clawing to get the hell out of Saigon. Which is when I told myself finally that I’d done my job like my daddy said, and, even if it ultimately was for nothing, I had to push it aside and get on with the business of living.
And that’s what I’ve done for these thousands of days and nights since, without any great fanfare. Found a calling I liked, married a good woman, raised three kids, buried my daddy—made damn sure he got all the honors he was entitled to as a veteran, including seven baby faces offering up a twenty-one gun salute over his flag-draped coffin.
All this living that had to be done, but never expecting the day that came when my own boy, just barely nineteen, walked in looking very serious to inform me he was thinking about joining up because we needed to go over to Iraq and clean out that nest of terrorists, thieves and thugs that had helped out with the attack on the twin towers and would just as soon nuke us as talk to us. He was wound up, caught up in the flag-waving and patriotic fever being whipped up by politicians who didn’t know squat about going to war, except from movies and briefings. I let him rant and rave, educate me how it was his duty to do his part, that college could wait.
I waited while he wound up and then down, all the while already knowing exactly what I was going to say. “You know what, son? I admire your fire and your belief in your country, and that you feel the need to go over there and take care of business.” I could tell that’s what he wanted to hear, and I believe he thought he was home-free. But I had more on my mind.
“Listen, Travis, I know there’s a lot of talk going on right now, a lot of folks all whipped into a frenzy,” I said, trying to stay even and firm. “But I’m here to tell you there’s a lot about all this we don’t know, and there’s a lot being preached and suggested that just isn’t so, and there are going to be a lot of people dying for right and wrong reasons.”
“Yeah, dad, but we’ve got the right reasons,” Travis said, the fever still in his voice.
I held up my hand to stop him. “Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “In every war, there’s always more than meets the eye, always things going on the people in power don’t want us to know about or understand. That’s one thing we sure learned from Vietnam.”
“But you went over there and did your duty,” he said, pointing at me. “You did your part.”
I took a moment, then said, “I did something over there, some of which was not good, and some of which was downright evil, and people died on both sides who believed they were doing the right thing. If I believed right now this thing in Iraq was really right and really going to do some good, I’d give you my blessing. But—”
“But it is right,” Travis said loudly. “They hit us, and we’ve got to hit them back.”
“Son, we honestly don’t even know who they is,” I said.
He shook his head, paced in front of me. “Come on, daddy, you know better than that.”
But I didn’t, and I didn’t know how to convince him, sensing in him the hot blood of youth, the invincibility that drives children to believe nothing can touch them. I probably had that once, but I know now that Nam whipped that out of me in short order. After the first long night on ambush, when it’s so black you can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. Or when you take a quick glance at the guts in the dirt of some kid still fresh from the world, but now staring at nothing, wrapped in his own poncho and waiting for the long ride out. Or the long, long moment between the click and the blast.
So the best I can do is ask Travis not to join up, not right now. Like my daddy advised, wait a while, see how things go. Then we can discuss it again. He shakes his head, almost violently, and asks why. And I say the only thing I can think of: “I did my duty, and your granddaddy did his, and that’s enough. I got shot, and it’s not like the movies. And seeing people die is horrible. I limp and hurt because I did my duty, and that should be enough to excuse you from having to go through anything.”
That’s the best I could do, because I couldn’t tell him how downright scared I was of something happening to him, how I honestly did feel I’d done enough to earn the right to keep him for me, to not let him fly away like Bobby Blue, to fly away for nothing. But I couldn’t tell him that, because he wouldn’t have believed me and wouldn’t have listened. He might even have thought old age had turned me scared. I could have begged, which I strongly considered. But that’s not what men in our family do, so I left that to his mom and sisters.
Not that I haven’t begged—forcing my face, my entire body deep into the muck and screaming inside the hollow explosion of mortar rounds marching closer to be free of this, whatever this was. And I could have explained to Travis that I figured out being brave was really about being afraid to be thought of as a coward. I know he would have listened, but he wouldn’t have heard.
At least he did hold off for three more months before coming in one afternoon to tell us he couldn’t sit by any longer, that he’d followed in my footsteps and my daddy’s, and joined the marines. His attitude was a bit defiant, as if I would challenge him when what he really wanted was my blessing. And I really did try to act pleased and proud, gave him a slap on the shoulder and then hugged him a little too hard, which embarrassed us both. I stayed quiet after that and, two weeks later, let him go, after he promised me he’d take care of himself and be home soon to stay, get back to his life. After he left for Iraq, I sat in the dark kitchen and cried while Francis laid silently upstairs in our bed, which, for the first time, did become for me a place of nightmares, thousands of days removed.
And Travis did come home last week, but not like he promised. And I became truly an old man with too many thousands of days behind and too many dark nights still ahead.
Gary Carter calls his novel, Eliot’s Tale, a reverse-coming-of-age-looking-toward-the-dirt-nap road trip and love story. A mystery novel, Snake Bit, will be released this fall. His short fiction and poetry have appeared recently in such eclectic journals as Real South Magazine, Dead Mule, Burnt Bridge, Dew on the Kudzu, Fried Chicken & Coffee, Muscadine Lines and Read Short Fiction. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes on a range of topics for print and online pubs. On his blog, Eliot’s Tales 4 Gen B, you can read about earworms, Otis Redding, Zombies, the meaning of life and other items of interest—at least to him.