BEYOND THE WAR
I can't go for one day without thinking about the Nam.
Memphis is hot, slow, crowded; much like most of the Old South, Tennessee is seeing its cherished plantation past sink beneath the weight of new political reforms anti-war, anti-sexist, anti-racist that force all us Confederates into the twentieth century with a vengeance. But that doesn't mean that we have to like it, we staunchly insist.
I live with my parents on the old Hockenbury estate, just like before the war. I put up with my father's ball-busting bombast and my mother's pinched, prodding asides, and I swallow my bitterness and I try to take it one day at a time even though every day is one long mess of arguements and tiredness and wide-awake nightmares.
The point is, I'm back home. The housepaint is peeling like skin, the once elaborate and stately eaves are swollen from decades of rain, and the acrid land under the front porch is crumbling, but we all ignore it.
My father tells me I should be thankful. That at least, at the very least I managed to avoid getting a dishonorable discharge because I could not honorably discharge my weapon. At least after they transferred my pacifist ass out of SOG and back into normal infantry I honorably acquitted myself as a medic for seven months without getting anybody else killed. At least I got my ticket on the Freedom Bird by honorably getting shot through the hip while crawling out to try and save some soldier who was already dead anyway.
And while I am thankful, in a way to be alive, to have made it home without taking a life I hate that I was forced to go through this whole desperate experience. That any of us were. That the stifling Memphis heat reminds me of the stuffy jungles, and that I keep remembering those jungles every time my mother has to help me out of the wheelchair and into bed, mindful of my shattered and useless hip.
The old Hockenbury estate. It's falling to pieces, but we never talk about that.
Well, there was no point staying in Vietnam after all my buddies got their papers, so I finally bit the bullet and became a short-timer.
"Man, I'm so short, yesterday I tripped over a shadow."
"I'm so short now I gotta climb a stepladder to take a piss."
"Dig it, I'm so short my earlobes hurt from scraping the ground."
And when I came home I decided, why should decorated soldier and all-round cool cat Marcus Taylor bother to go back to stupid ol' Detroit? Nothing there waiting for me. So I re-directed myself and ended up in the Windy City.
Man oh man, is Chicago the place for me! I found myself a job bartending at a pool hall (with a few rackets on the side, you know how it is, man) and best of all, I found the Party. The Black Panthers Party, to be exact.
It feels so good to be working for the rights of the Afrikans, man. After seeing what us brothers had to go through in Vietnam, how we fought alongside the whites and never got the respect we deserved, it feels good to be doing something about it and taking on the power. Sure, the cops come down and rattle our homes every now and again, but we're taking a stand. We're gonna show America that the black man ain't no Uncle Tom to be doing the white man's bidding; not at work, not on the street, not in his army.
I fought for my country halfway around the world. I'm sure as hell gonna fight for it here.
I guess you could say Percell and me are the only ones who stayed friends, probably because we kinda have the same kinda life, you know? I mean, he's way over in Montana and I'm here in the Bronx, but that don't mean we're not a lot alike. All us vets are a lot alike.
It still feels weird to call myself a "vet". It sounds so old, and the memories I have of myself and the guys in the Nam...well, none of us were old. I guess we are now, or at least we're getting older. I think the minute our planes touched down in Vietnam we all got old, in a way.
Danny works in a construction company, and I work for a warehouse. We work hard and we work long hours, and we both have homes and wives and kids. And every now and again, remembering something about being in-country kicks us in the gut and we stay up all night shivering and sweating and call each other in the dead of the night, when the phone line's all quiet and it's just our voices out there. So far as I can tell, it's small things that trigger the memories. The pattern of the sun through the leaves and the shadows it makes. Certain songs on somebody else's faraway radio. My wife making ham and eggs for breakfast one morning and me scaring the hell out of her when I knocked the pan onto the floor because the smell reminded me of heating C-rats over a C-4 fire.
I got a good life, and I love my family. My Magdalena is good and beautiful and I've talked to Danny's wife Paige and she's real nice, always polite and cheery and just the kind of girl Percell always wanted. Vet's wives are a lot alike, too. They put up with a lot. They hold us through the nightmares and try to figure out if we want to talk or if we want to be left alone, which is hard for them because even we don't know what we want.
But we're the only ones who really understand what it was like, no matter how much our wives try to understand. It's like parts of us got tangled up, with each other and with Vietnam, and those parts stayed when we got on that plane out of there. Some parts of us are still in Vietnam. And I guess we'll never get them back.
College was the best thing to ever happen to me. I wouldn't say Vietnam was the worst, despite everything, because after the Nam...hell, everything seemed like a breeze. After all, what was the worst that could happen? I could fail my classes. In the Nam, failure means a body bag and a "Regret to Inform" letter sent home to your folks.
So I graduated with honors, made my family proud, and got a job working for the Black Liberation Movement which, I've been told, "needs people like me". That means that it needs blacks from backwater places like Tupelo, Mississippi, who grew up believing in themselves despite the racism of the Southern states, served their tour of duty in Vietnam, and educated themselves when they came back to the World. We's good role-models for them po' colored chilluns, yessuh.
I don't mind so much. I know we've got a long way to go before blacks can be seen as intelligent, vibrant people who have as much to contribute to the United States as any other of its citizens. And I know that the open-hand policy of the BLM frustrates some of the other black activists out there, who prefer the closed-fist; it's Martin Luther King versus Malcom X, the Movement versus the Panthers. It's not a situation that can help any of us.
Maybe it's all the time I spent with the guys back in the bush, when we learned to move together, watch each other's sixes and respect each other, but I can't see the black cause advancing with all the division between us right now. A squad of soldiers who couldn't work together was never long for the field. I don't want my people's struggle to end up in a body bag, either.
But hey, that's why I joined up, right? To make a difference? Maybe the efforts of one Marvin Johnson will only be a drop in the bucket, but if there's anything Vietnam taught me, it's patience. I can wait. It may take longer than any of us could imagine, but I can wait.
It's so cold where I am.
That was one of the funny things about being in Vietnam and Lord knows I had enough time in all my tours to notice was that the weather was so unpredictable. You could spend a year getting sunburned clean through to your bones, and then one night in January everything would get so cold that you could hear frozen gooks toppling over in the bush.
Back in Idaho well, I won't bring that up now. Idaho was too dang long ago for me to really remember what the weather was like. I mean, I kind of have an idea of it in my head, in my memories, but I can't be positive that's what it was really like. Anyway, we're talking about the Nam here, ain't we?
You ask any soldier back from the war what Vietnam was like, and chances are the knee-jerk reaction is gonna be, "Motherfucking HOT!" And that about sums it up. If you're real lucky, the soldier's gonna go into detail about his jungle-rot, and how those boots slow-cooked his feet, and all the bugs that burrowed down under his skin and set up camp there. Lotsa things can start growing on a man when he has to lie in dirt day in and day out in that wet, heavy heat.
But it's not like that here, nossir. After four long years of putting up with the sun and the smell and the insects, I'm finally rid of them, for good.
But it's so goddamn cold.