When he was little, he spent hours in the basement, mining cardboard boxes for uniforms and artifacts, wondering what they all meant. Sometimes, when no one was in the house, he would tiptoe into his father’s room. He slid open the top drawer of the tall dresser and gingerly took out the weathered plastic bag. At that point, he did not yet know that such bags were meant to protect radio batteries then repurposed to waterproof all else in a world that was perpetually wet.
He opened the bag, which was folded over on itself in a very specific way, and took out a map and a green memo book. He laid the map flat on the bed, trying not to further disturb the dried out acetate where it was cracking at the folds. He stared at the browns and greens of the map and tried to decipher the lines stacked against each other like the whorls of a great fingerprint. The map sheet was labelled “Hiep Duc.” A strange name that meant nothing.
The memo book was equally foreign. It was filled only with strings of numbers – 9673 3856 - and cryptic shorthand like “H&I” or “8 EN” or “”3 VC.” The only thing recognizable was a jack-o-lantern drawn next to the date 31 Oct 69. James carefully folded the map the way he’d found it, placed it and the memo book back in the bag, wrapped the bag over on itself, and laid it back to rest in the top drawer, where it always stayed.
All the men in his family had been in the military. All had been in wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam. The stories they told were like the dress uniforms he found in the basement. They were tidy and comprehensible.
It was not until far later that James heard more. “More” wasn’t a matter of gore. The fragility of the human body is a known quantity and – while disturbing – is not the essence. The essence is how the living carry on.
James’ grandfather was a child of the Depression. He matriculated from tramping around the Midwest on trains to working in the Civilian Conservation Corps, to joining the Navy in ’39. He was off the coast of Panama when Pearl Harbor awoke to war and spent most of the next four years in the Pacific as an aviation metalsmith on aircraft carriers.
Late in his life, after his wife passed and his eyesight made reading a challenge, he started getting old videotapes of the war from the library. One day, James and his wife stopped by when he was watching a documentary about the Battle for Okinawa. As the screen filled with the anti-aircraft fire of the U.S. fleet, Penny asked the old man if he had been near this. He let out a dry chuckle and reached out a weathered finger toward the screen. “I was right here,” he said, pointing at an aircraft carrier just as a kamikaze blossomed into a cloud of white, gray, and black that careened down the long deck.
When they were leaving, Penny went ahead to get the kids in the car and James was saying his goodbyes. Out of the blue, his grandfather said, “Right before that kamikaze hit, I sent up one of my sailors to check on a plane for the next mission. It was just a routine thing. I sent him up there and a few minutes later he was dead.” The old man shook his head. No melodramatics. No outward emotion. Just a fact about something that happened long ago and never quite made sense. He knew that James, back from Afghanistan, would understand that there is no understanding.
Sometime later, James sent his father a link to Tim O’Brien’s “July ’69,” precipitating a series of short emails, spartan, yet meaningful, like haikus.
i have always been a loner
but VN forced me to mix and mingle
He addressed this topic obliquely.
in VN i saw one marine pull his weapon on another marine
because he had drank up the other marine’s water
it was over the top but everyone was strung out after we had been hit and my TBS classmate had been killed that day. Everyone just let it go
around the same time we were not getting resupplied because of the weather
and the gunny (he and i hated each other) and a lower rank enlisted had a fight (verbal and physical) over food that the enlisted had humped up the hill
the enlisted wanted it to go to his unit/guys and the gunny wanted it dropped at the CP
i do remember at one point sharing what we had for a few days with my group (snipers, mortar and air/naval gun)
so when i did eat a full meal of c-rats i felt dizzy afterwards
probably the only time i was really short on food
that is stress and that is what puts people at each others’ throat as you well know
What James’ father didn’t say in the email was that the weather also precluded a medevac, so his TBS classmate, a platoon leader in the company, was wrapped in a poncho and carried down away from the ridgeline where they had run up against an NVA bunker complex. His body cooled in the night as they set in a defensive perimeter on a finger that jutted out below. The next day, a chopper was able to carry the body away and they carried on with their exile in the wilderness.
James’ father ruminated some more on O’Brien’s piece and wrote another email a few days later.
his esquire article seems to be not mom’s apple pie
it is cynical with cause because “life is hard then we die”
btw i started in VN in August of ‘69
once in VN i did not feel i was fighting for my mother or the motherland
i felt brothership with fellow Marines (the snuffies especially, although i hugged Cookie from Georgia, a platoon leader from my TBS class, upon celebrating the Marine Corps B-day in 69 at the rock crusher south of Da Nang with help of a guy named Jack Daniels)
when i was an FO in the field with a company, an enlisted Hispanic and me used to have an exchange which he started
when one of us saw the other had something in short supply like a cigarette the one would say “is that right” and the other (with the cigarette) would say “don’t mean nothing but i owe it to myself”
when i left that company for the rear i thought i would be happy but i felt i was abandoning them
i felt like i was leaving the good guys
He must have read the essay one more time, because he sent James one last email on the subject.
i did like the story because it seemed real in its confusion
That is the essence. Brotherhood and confusion. There isn’t much more.
Maybe also cynicism. Cynicism with a cause.
all the civilians god bless me now when they hear i served
back in the day around VN when they had a draft it was f you you bum but that has changed now with no draft as you know