To Be a Trusty Shellback,
and To Trust

A decade after Mike came home from Vietnam; I hosted a party at my off-campus place. He showed up as a friend of a friend. At a gathering where almost everyone was a stranger, Mike perused the walls, just as I would. My post art school walls displayed an eccentric collection of drawings, cartoons, paintings, posters, and objects. Amid the hodgepodge, he found a strange, framed certificate displaying “IMPERIVM NEPTVNI REGIS” in a banner across the top. The calligraphy below revealed that I was an initiate into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.”

He turned to face me and, interrupting my conversation, asked: “Are you a Shellback?”

As required by tradition, I answered, “You bet your sweet ass I am.” Then, “You?”

“I am but a Slimy Pollywog.”

Delighted by this rendition of a venerable ritual, I excused myself from my friends and asked him to join me on the landing.

Mike was a wiry, mid-sized, white guy a few years my senior. His shaggy blond hair set off his dark, troubled eyes. As we walked to the porch, his body moved in an odd manner that evoked pain.

Tension played across his face as he leaned against the rail. He inquired about my duty stations. My list included Da Nang. He visibly relaxed.

I asked about his time in the service. He said that his first tour in Vietnam was as a Marine. No word about any other tour of duty. After about five minutes of where-have-you-been and other inconsequential topics, the woman who brought him joined us. She and I weren’t close, but we had shared several drawing and art history classes. Her behavior seemed to signal concern about Mike. As they left, I shook his hand, slightly squeezing his shoulder with my other.

“Welcome back,” I said.

His eyes reddened, and he gave me a strained smile. “Thanks, I guess.”

Later that evening, my next door neighbor and smoking buddy, Robert, came home with his fiancée and joined the party. As I poured them each a glass of red, I told him that a guy who was at the party earlier pegged me as a vet.

Robert said, “It’s interesting you see that as important.”

I looked at the hook extending from his right sleeve.

“You can’t hide it like I do,” I said.

“Don’t want to,” he replied.

As with most veterans of the Vietnam War or any war, I didn’t personally engage the enemy. My time in-country usually consisted of long days of doing my part to make a squadron function, sometimes followed by rocket attacks after 11 pm. Not much sleep on those nights, but most weren’t lethal. Over many months I experienced just a few minutes of serious danger. I don’t think my unit would have faced much peril at all had we not shared a cantonment with an intelligence gathering squadron. VQ-1 was an important target.

Unfortunately, about 20-percent of American forces went through real horror. The tip of the spear. These men plunged into a maelstrom of ambushes, booby traps, and their own lashing out with unspeakable violence amid a constant, shaking unknowing. Always within their heads was the aching memory of every member of their unit to take a hit. For the rest of their lives they would remember images and sounds befitting ghastly slasher movies, but lacking the cushion of make-believe.

My neighbor was maimed by a grenade a few months into his tour. In high school he had been a handsome, popular athlete, excelling in football and track. He confessed that as a young black man, it was the only way he had pictured success. Now he was completing his masters in psychology. He wanted to work with veterans, emulating those who helped him take the journey from anger and bitterness to a man on a mission to help others. Their compassion was a gift he felt compelled to return.

“You know, if you want to talk, you can come by anytime,” he said.

I surveyed the festivities, my bright, talented friends, and the signs of a nascent career. “I’m OK,” I replied.

The following Sunday I returned home to find Mike sitting at the top of the 25 steps leading up to the landing Robert and I shared. His face was so red I imagined his head as a cartoonish bundle of TNT, fuse burning. After taking a deep breath, I ascended the worn, wooden stairway and took a seat.

Tears trickled down his cheeks into blond stubble. He looked down and away from me. I just sat with him in silence. After a while, he tried to speak but instead erupted in a sob.

He gathered himself and began again, telling me the story of his second tour, not as a Marine, but working for the State Department. The real-life version of Martin Sheen’s character in the movie Apocalypse Now, whose trailers freakishly started appearing in theaters just a week or so after Mike’s breakdown on my stairs.

He told me of having to suppress fear while sneaking deep into enemy territory with a covert operations team. Fantastic odds doubted their return, and once he and his unit did not. That was when Mike’s nightmare started, an ordeal he had not spoken of since his debriefing in 1969. Not a word in ten years.

As he began to relate his tragedy, I thought of all the words unspoken. By then, I had been off active duty for almost eight years, honorably discharged for five. Even those I knew to be veterans—those I had served with, went to college with, and shared many conversations with—rarely spoke of their experiences. Silence had become our carapaces in a new kind of conflict.

In those days most of my peers opposed the war. A stance in itself justifiable, but sometimes their method of protest was to further torment already tormented GIs. To be so thoughtful and so thoughtless: my generation.

Since then I have wondered if those of us who volunteered to serve were more patriotic than those who did not. Or maybe, more, or less, compassionate. I still don’t know. We had a great thirst for adventure and the need to test our mettle. However, beyond those teenage desires, many of us felt, as had our fathers, that the most profound test of character might require taking on mortal risk for a just cause. Such a cause could be the often quixotic goal of political, economic and religious freedom for brave and decent people in a country suffering invasion. That country could be England, France or the Philippines in the 1940’s. It could be South Vietnam in the 1960’s.

Mike took this very seriously, but not without its taking a toll.

His story burst out at me chaotic as a lightning storm, disordered and punctuated with cries and angry justifications. Buffeted by the emotional assault, I tried to hold my own on the pitching deck of his terrible tale.

Somehow through it all, I pulled together a narrative.

Mike and the other two members of his unit were captured above the demilitarized zone separating the warring countries by a squad of North Vietnamese regulars. That night they marched through the forest with the Americans’ arms bound behind their backs. At dawn, the prisoners dug pits, their jail cells. After being coerced into these holes, they were kept folded up in them during the day, covered with forest trash. The next night they trekked farther, forced again at dawn to hollow out small dungeons. One of the members of his unit suffered a wound during capture and, by then, was too weak to dig. He was dragged a few yards into the bush and shot.

Before marching again that night, the North Vietnamese gave their captives a little rice. Maybe the food gave them too much energy. The pair tried to escape at what they thought was an opportune moment. With some difficulty, they were recaptured, angering their captors. The next morning, Mike and his partner learned there would only be one pit.

Mike collapsed and slid down a few steps on the stairs. He looked up, pleading: “They forced me!”

I moved to his side and put my arm around his shoulders in an attempt at solace. He said that just a day later he was able to slip away and hide from his captors.

“Just a day!”

“It’s OK,” I said. “It’s all right, now.”

He whispered weakly: “No. No. They made me kill Jimmy.”

All the air left my lungs.

There was no doubt that this situation was beyond me. Desperately looking around, I noticed Robert’s Riviera parked next to my minibus.

“Mike,” I said, “There’s a guy here. Combat experience. He knows. He can help.”

Mike blubbered something about the secrecy of his missions. I assured him that Robert wasn’t the government and that he could help him deal with this. He shook his head “no.”

For whatever reason, he had trusted me with his pain. He needed to do it one more time. I stood and eased toward my neighbor’s door.

Robert answered my knock shirtless, no prosthetic. For the first time, I saw his abdominal scars.

“Got an ex-Marine with severe problems here,” I whispered.

“Where?” he asked.

I turned and saw Mike at the bottom of the stairs slumping toward the corner of the fourplex.

“There,” I said.

Robert shouted, “Marine!” like a drill sergeant. Mike stopped, looked up at us, and immediately started to turn away.

“Marine!” Robert yelled again, pointing the stub of his forearm at him.

Mike stopped. He seemed stunned.

Robert and I bounded down the stairs.

“I, I, I,” Mike stammered. He dropped to his hands and knees.

As we approached, Robert gave me a sign to stay back. I did. He knelt in front of Mike.

Without looking up, Mike said: “I’m a mess.”

“Ain’t we all,” Robert replied, extending his arms.

Mike grabbed onto Robert, staring at the void where a hand used to be. “I guess I need a little help.”

Robert nodded. “Yeah, you do.”

With that, he led Mike back up the stairs and into his apartment. I went into mine and sat in the dark for a long time.

 Over the next couple of weeks, I checked on Mike through Robert, who would only tell me: “He’ll be all right.”

Then, one time I asked, Robert did not answer. He looked at me with concern. “You need to talk?”

“Me? No. I’m OK,” I replied.

 “Uh-huh,” Robert said.

Later that week, a musician friend known as Birdman showed up at my door. He wanted to see Francis Ford Coppola’s new release, Apocalypse Now. I told him I avoided movies like that.

He asked, “Why?”

“I don’t know. Vietnam,” I said.

He lit up. “You were in Vietnam? You could tell me how accurate it is!”

Birdman’s natural joy and enthusiasm were persuasive. Eventually, I agreed to go.

The movie caught the craziness of a tropical war, I suppose, but its similarity to Mike’s horrific account shook my bones. Afterward, Birdman wanted to talk about the movie and my wartime experiences. We went back to my place.

At first, I told him about funny stuff that happened, the sort of stories I told my family. Eventually, I related a very intense conversation I had with my new roommate when I arrived at my first duty station in Japan. It only lasted a few minutes before he left on a flight that disappeared into the South China Sea. I told him about volunteering to join a detachment at Da Nang Airbase. I described rocket attacks. About how close hits made the barracks light up in an eerie, dust-filled, yellow glow, inciting us to scramble like roaches for the bunker. How a bunker just like ours was hit less than 50 yards away, killing and injuring 19 Navy airmen.

Right there I stopped talking but did not stop remembering. Birdman said goodbye.

I put Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo, playing it over and over. Dawn passed, and then noon.

There was this guy I traded quips with every few days in the comm shack. Wacky sense of humor. To my shame, I could not pull up even his last name. Yet relentlessly, my mind replayed memories of the gritty smear of his blood across sandbags and the photo on his desk of a girl standing on a garden bridge.

That evening I knocked on Robert’s door. He opened it, saw it was me, and cracked a smile. It quickly faded.

“Talk now?” he asked.

This entry was posted in Memoir.