I remember the day Senior Drill Sergeant Rose lined us up in squads of eight. It was the first week of Basic Training.
“Every single one of you is going to The Nam. Consider yourselves officially dipped in shit. Now look up and down your squad. There’s eight of you. This time next year, one of you will be dead. So pay attention to your drill sergeants, and you may be one of the lucky seven who comes home only wounded or crazy. That’s your first lesson. Now here’s Drill Sergeant Thomas, who’s got a war story.”
Sgt. Thomas was mean. But at first his look wasn’t so much mean as blank.
From beside Sgt. Rose’s rostrum, Sgt. Thomas smartly steps out as if he’s on parade. He stands before us at attention. He does an about face. He takes off his drill sergeant’s hat, his fatigue shirt, pulls down his pants then his boxer shorts. The skin, from his knees to his shoulders, is streaked with half-a-dozen long diagonal scars, and bunches of little ones. Then he puts his clothes back on, does another about face. And grins. He never says a word. Just that demented grin. The story was made entirely of keloids.
In the years immediately after the war, every day I used to dwell on the war. And I don’t mean I’d think of it now and again. I mean I’d dwell at length. I remember one week when I wondered if I could recall each day I’d been in Nam. Each night for about a week, just after I turned out the light, just before I went to sleep – I could recall every day of the war.
Some time later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of The Nam in twenty-four hours. I’d been home for over three years.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”, was constructed, for the first time I saw a complete list of the American dead. I pulled out this yearbook sort of thing I have from Basic Training, and compared it to the list. I wanted to see if Senior Drill Sergeant Rose was right about that one in eight thing. I saw Thornton’s name. I saw my bunk mate, Lewis. And I stopped. It is enough to know some of us died. Beyond that, I just don’t want to think of them that way. 10,000 miles from home. Crying for mother. The chaplain leaning in and saying, “Private, I’m going to give you your Last Rites now. Are you ready?”
When I first got home, I used to dwell on the war. Now, it’s like it creeps up on me every few weeks, like some Mephistopheles stalking a soul he already owns.
Like today. The ROTC folks at my school are making a display of veterans on the faculty. They ask me for a medal. I bring them my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry.
Last night, I taped the movie “Tigerland”, largely because that’s where I trained, Fort Polk. The movie was waiting for me when I got home from work.
As was the novel All Quite On The Western Front. I set it on my desk this morning. My wife never read it. I promised to read to Phoebe my favorite passage, the last chapter.
Later, on “The Five O’clock News”, there’s the story of a boy killed in Vietnam. They were bringing home, after all these years, his remains. Bone fragments.
And I wept. It all just sort of crept up on me.