A decade after Mike came home from Vietnam; I hosted a Friday night party at my apartment just off-campus. He showed up as a friend of a friend. At a gathering where almost everyone was a stranger, Mike perused the walls while drinking beer after beer. 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 me as an initiate into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.”
He turned toward me and interrupting my conversation asked, “Are you a Shellback?”
As required by tradition, I answered, “You bet your sweet ass I am.” Then, “Are you?”
“I am but a Slimy Pollywog,” he said with a smile.
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 tried to lean casually against the rail.
He inquired about my duty stations, which included Vietnam. He visibly relaxed. I asked about his time in the service. He said that his first tour in Nam was as a Marine. Quang Tri. 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, 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 veteran. Looking at the prosthetic hook extending from his right sleeve, I said, “You can’t hide it like I do.”
“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 10 pm. Not much sleep on those nights, but most weren’t lethal. Over many months I experienced just a few minutes of danger. My unit would have faced almost no peril had we not shared a defensive ring along the western edge of Da Nang Air Base with an intelligence gathering squadron. VQ-1 was an important target.
Unfortunately, about 20% 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 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 Robert, drafted into the Army, earned his hook a few months into his tour. In high school, he was that handsome, popular athlete, excelling in football and track. He confessed that as a young black man, it was the only way he pictured success. Now he neared completion of 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.
Robert leaned close to me. “If you need to talk,” he whispered.
I surveyed the festivities, my bright, talented friends, and the signs of a nascent career. “I’m OK,” I replied.
The following Sunday afternoon I returned home to find my stressed party guest, 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 traced down his cheeks into blond stubble. As I approached, he looked down and away from me. I sat near him in silence. After a while he tried to speak, erupting in a single, explosive 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. I soon learned that he was a real-life version of Martin Sheen’s character in the movie Apocalypse Now. Freakishly, the movie’s trailers started appearing in theaters just a week or so after Mike’s breakdown on my stairs.
He told me about being dropped deep into enemy territory with a covert operations team. Fantastic odds always doubted their return. Then there was the time they didn’t. That was when Mike’s nightmare of nightmares began, an ordeal he had not spoken of since his debriefing in 1969. Not a word in ten years.
As he related his tragedy, I thought of all the words unspoken for so long. 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 armor, our carapaces, in a new kind of conflict.
In those days, most of my peers opposed the war, a stance in itself justifiable. However, an air of blanket condemnation kept vets that needed assistance under the radar of those that could help.
I couldn’t tell you who was more patriotic, or even more compassionate, those who chose to serve or those who did not. We who volunteered seemed to have a thirst for adventure and the need to test our mettle. However, beyond those teenage desires, I believe 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 political, economic and religious freedom for brave and decent people in a country suffering invasion. That country could be France in the 1940’s; it could be South Vietnam in the 1960’s.
Joining the Marines as an infantryman, Mike took this reasoning seriously, with a greater chance to lose life or limb, than I, as a Navy airman. I respected, even admired, that. My father was a Marine.
Mike’s story burst out 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.
As best I could, I pulled together this narrative:
A squad of North Vietnamese regulars captured Mike and two members of his unit. 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 fetid forest trash. The next night they trekked farther, forced again at dawn to hollow out small dungeons. One American, wounded during capture, was too weak to dig. The soldiers dragged him a few yards into the bush. Hearing the fatal shot, Mike and his companion knew they somehow had to make a run for it.
Before marching again that night, the North Vietnamese gave their captives a little rice. Maybe the food gave them the energy to act. The pair tried to escape at what they thought was an opportune moment. They were recaptured but, injuring one of their captors, angered them all. The next morning, Mike and his partner learned there would only be one pit.
Mike seemed to collapse inside. Almost becoming liquid, he slid down a few steps on the stairs. He then looked directly into my eyes, pleading. “They forced me!”
I moved to his side and put my arm around his shoulders in an attempt at solace. He murmured that the next day he was able to slip away and hide from his captors.
I flinched as he screamed: “Just a day!”
“It’s OK,” I said. “It’s all right, now.”
He hissed, “No! They made me kill Jimmy!”
All the air left my lungs.
I was horrified at what he had done, but more than that, I felt hot guilt at how small a price I paid in this war. Fighting my dismay, I noticed Robert’s Riviera parked next to my minibus.
“Mike,” I said, “There’s a guy here. Combat experience. He knows. He’s right here, and he can help.”
Mike blubbered something about the secrecy of his missions. I tried to assure him that Robert wasn’t the government; that he would know what to do. 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 a Marine with severe problems here,” I whispered.
“Where?” he asked.
We looked around and saw Mike at the bottom of the stairs slumping toward the corner of the fourplex.
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. By the time we got there, Mike had dropped to his hands and knees. Robert gave me a sign to stay back. 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. He mumbled something I couldn’t catch. Robert nodded and gently pulled him to his feet.
Having gained a grain of trust, he led Mike back up the stairs and into his apartment. I went into mine and sat in the dark for a long time trying to process Mike’s appalling tale.
Over the next couple of weeks, I checked on Mike through Robert. He’d only tell me: “He’ll be all right.” I understood his discretion but was worried.
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.
Not long after, 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.
“Were you in Vietnam? You could tell me how accurate it is!”
I resisted, but persuaded by Birdman’s natural joy and enthusiasm, I agreed to go.
The movie caught the craziness of a tropical war, I suppose, but its similarity to Mike’s horrific account left me feeling emotionally overwhelmed, on edge, and twitchy.
Back at my place, Birdman wanted to talk about the movie and my wartime experiences. At first, I rattled off the 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. That dramatic exchange only lasted a few minutes before he left on a mission and disappeared into the South China Sea.
Talking stirred my memory. I spoke of rocket attacks at Da Nang Airbase; about how close hits lit the barracks in an eerie, dust-filled, yellow glow, inviting us to scramble like roaches for the bunker.
Going into the general horror of the environment, I described the aluminum caskets stacked without ceremony outside the 15th Aerial Port terminal awaiting transport back to the States, and the stifling smell of the Marine morgue when the wind came off the bay. I recounted the many young Vietnamese men I saw with missing limbs trying to get around sandy streets on crutches and in wheelchairs. I recalled the heartache of helping orphans struggling to go on without their families. I remembered barbed wire was everywhere.
Somewhat more cryptic, I tried to impress on him that it wasn’t just war creating casualties; there were always capricious dangers to fragile human bodies working with and amid the giant machines of squadrons, harbors, and aircraft carriers.
Long after midnight, Birdman said goodbye, but I did not stop remembering. I put Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo and set the turntable to repeat.
Dawn passed, and then noon. I did not go to work.
When my neighbor Robert came home that evening, I met him at the top of the landing. “How’s it going?“ I asked.
He looked tired, but said, “Come on in.”
He grabbed us each a beer and sat in his favorite chair. I landed on his couch.
“Talk now?” he asked.
I felt a flush of embarrassment.
“OK, I’m kinda freaked out,” I said. “Nah, I’m fine. It’s just….”
Robert took a sip of his beer. Then he grinned. “Well, you look like hell.”
My mind raced through a thousand images and phrases.
As if he could see my scrambled thoughts, Robert said, “Tell me one thing. Tell me about just one thing that’s on your mind.”
My tongue and brain seemed knotted together.
Finally, I said, “When I look at you, and what you went through. And what Mike…. I’m such a wuss.”
“My little troubles, they’re so…. They don’t compare. I’m…. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
Robert leaned forward. “Talk about the thing that won’t let you go.”
Tears filled my eyes making me feel even more ashamed.
“What is it?” he asked.
I spilled it. I divulged to Robert what I hid from Birdman. I told him about Killer.
An aviation electrician in my division on the USS Ticonderoga, Killer was known for his knife-edged wit. After working the night shift, his life ended abruptly on an otherwise beautiful day afloat Subic Bay in the Philippines. A ten-ton hatch crushed him as he tried to close it in an attempt dampen the clamor of an aircraft carrier rapidly preparing to sail.
The effect was like stomping a red grape.
I was directing a crew taking aboard supplies on the hangar deck nearby when the hatch fell. For a strange, suspended moment, the massive steel against steel impact stopped all other noises and activity. I signaled the crane operator to wait and dropped down a similar hatch on my side of the ship. Followed by some of the work crew, I raced abeam, past our electronics shops, through the corridors toward the area served by the hatch.
Turning the last corner, I slid to a stop. Killer’s crumpled, almost headless body lay at the base of a ladder dripping with his blood. Like an honor guard, a few of the men that shared his sleeping quarters stood by his side.
His best friend, kneeling in the mess, looked up at us and cried out: “Only four days left in a six-year enlistment!”
I could hear his voice still, ringing in that steel corridor splattered with the remains of our shipmate.
I grew quiet as a fire that had consumed its fuel.
After a respectful pause, Robert nodded his head. “That’s some shit,“ he said.
He looked intently into my eyes, and I into his. Then we exploded into laughter because that was the only thing left to do. And as we laughed, we wept; crying and laughing as only people who have survived some shit are able.
What a gift! Robert gave me permission to grieve and, over time, the power to accept life with equanimity. He even commended me for being the portal of trust that delivered Mike into the professional care that could save his life.
I, in turn, thanked Robert for his good works, but I owed him more than the praise I conveyed to him before our lives parted. I owed him, and those like him, the gratitude that wrote this story.
It was the Roberts out there who helped veterans like Mike, and even me, find the courage to confront demons implanted in our souls by trials of steel and fire. By so doing, these healers, these blessed shamans, enabled us to emerge into fair winds and following seas as masters of our hard-earned and solemn mysteries.