John advanced in the army corps through three years and became a second lieutenant in an army guerrilla training unit in VietNam, until he was discharged in September of 1963. When John came back from the fighting he wasn’t quite right, his mother confided to her friends. He rarely talked, answering only when spoken to. There was a look in his eyes as cold as a bare prison cell.
He had gotten too used to sex with prostitutes, which served him well because the colostomy bag he now wore kept him from letting people accept him. He hid it under his coat and his skin and bones sagged with a dour lethargy. He lay on his bed in his room smoking at night, pulling his pecker and brooding. His mother walked in on him once with the pretense of getting his laundry. Sure enough, he was masturbating; with his head leaned back, cap over his eyes, banging his head on the headboard. Rita took a step and cleared her throat. John opened his eyes to see his mother grinning triumphantly at him.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?,” she demanded.
John looked at her cold as a salamander and kept stroking. “Get the hell outta here, mother!”he uttered through clenched teeth. Rita raged to the kitchen, leaving the door to John’s room open. Hiram was heard to say, “just close the damn door and leave him the hell alone, Rita!” She arrived to close the door just in time to witness John’s body jerking and spasming and spurting all over itself.
John kept the refrigerator in the garage filled with beer. And Hiram, though tempted, declined the occasional offer for a hit of John’s hash, even though it would be great to feel like a kid again; if for just a few hours.
Hiram was in his mid 60s, and arthritis in his neck prevented him from working more than a few hours a day. Rita kept after him to stop taking so much pain medicine and see a doctor, but he had been told by an army doctor that he had scoliosis and might have a little discomfort later in life. As an eighteen year old however, he was healthy enough to be in the infantry in WWI.
He cringed from the pain when he got up from bed and sat in his chair most of the day. But in the morning, about an hour after he’d gotten something to eat and taken his pain medication he would be laughing to himself and bouncing around the garage, taking an occasional slurp of coffee. Often, John would watch him from under the hood of a car as Hiram stood with his hands on the work bench, talking to himself and swinging his hips. Sometimes he would slide step and zig zag while bobbing his head like a dove, bringing a smile even to John’s face. Hiram’s doctor warned him about taking too many of the pills but the constant buzzing in his spine made them necessary. He would see Rita approaching him with her glower and say to himself, “arthritis,” but he loved her, no matter how much she nagged.
Rita never let anyone say anything bad about Hiram or John. She may’ve been low on the food chain with the Lutheran ladies but she would defend with mule kicks the names of her men being trodden upon by the likes of the Haskinses and the Van Innerns. When the Van Innerns ignored Rita, she was more concerned with not feeling a lack of dignity. She couldn’t care less what the Van Innerns thought and that bothered her. It should bother her because no matter what she thought, the Van Innerns held status in the little town. But she’d never had a desire to stay in Littlefield; that is why it didn’t matter. She had always wanted to return to her childhood home, where there would always be family to welcome her.
When Wanda Medendorfer asked her why Mrs. Van Innern ignored her in the church kitchen Rita responded, “I wasn’t aware I was talking to anyone.” She had more important things to worry about.
Hiram was having trouble sleeping and began to sleep on the recliner in the family room. Every night Rita would turn off the TV and put a blanket on him and give him a kiss on the forehead before going to bed. One morning, he was still sitting in the chair when Rita got up at 6AM. She knew immediately. All she could do was stand there with her head in her hand, her face blubbering and her body heaving. She wanted to blame God for taking him, but considered that Hiram was already suffering more than a man should. She had expected in a few years maybe, but not so soon.
The loss devastated John. He’d had his dad there to talk to whenever he wanted, and now he felt guilty for all the time he’d wasted. Hiram would tell him not to waste his time with regret; he would say that talking about things was a waste of time. People didn’t talk importantly at these things anyway; it’s all just gesture that amounts to petting each other and giving each other privacy so we can all get along together. Hiram had many times told John that humans were just another type of animal pursuing the same instincts and seeking out others of the same feather.
While John could always seek out his dad to feel human again, his mother’s ideal John would be ordered to duty, honor, and country through the symbols of MacArthur and Christ. The christian soldier and husband was a necessary role in being a man in a world where other people’s idea of God and entitlement were vastly different than yours.
“It would be absurd to follow a God who had no value for you,” thought John, as he wrote his mother of a woman in Thailand who was kicking a large Buddha in front of a pagoda and cursing it. Good fortune may have been offered by Mr. Ford, but only as an agent for Christ, according to the minister. And Christ was with the commanders of the battles that took Rita’s two brothers.
The death of the two brothers when they were younger had left Rita and her brother Ralph with the realization that “the war to end all wars” was but a war to begin the rest of all wars. Rita now laughed a slow and mocking scorn while her brother lectured to John, “when a man goes into the hospital he’s asked if he’s a veteran. That is something that takes age to appreciate.”
John took a drag from a cigarette and dropped it into the sandy parking lot of the tiny country cemetery. Uncle Ralph was a decorated veteran and had a shattered arm from a bullet. He was active in the local VFW and a Mason. After John came back from the war he had ignored uncle Ralph. He looked at him through a pair of shades, adjusted his colostomy bag, turned and walked to his car.
John was part of a tactical training unit in Laos when he was ambushed while working security for a joint military advisory group. Nineteen officers were killed, including seven Americans. John escaped with a sprained ankle when he tripped over a vine and the bullet intended for his neck knocked his helmet off instead. In falling forward he smashed his front teeth out on the ground.
In Vietnam, he was assigned to reconnaissance, and while on patrol in a low area between two hills, the brush became electrified with ricocheting bullets. There was a mortar explosion. John hit the ground and when he came to, the firing had stopped but he couldn’t move.
He had the sensation of floating in the air, and he could see the bobbing heads of the laughing Vietcong as they approached. John watched two South Vietnamese trainees leap from the bushes and try to flee, only to be intercepted by Vietcong bayonets. In the gully in front of him John could see Vietcong stabbing the bodies of American soldiers with their bayonets and stomping on their heads. When one came to John he kicked his body but John didn’t feel anything. The soldier then lifted his bayonet but was distracted by another soldier calling him. When the enemy turned back again he plunged his bayonet into the corpse next to John, skipping him.
After the Vietcong disappeared back over the hilly brush in the dark it was an interminable 30 minutes before John felt like he was one with his body again, enough to shift his weight onto his elbow. He listened for a few minutes. In the distance through foliage he heard a faint twittering like a bird. It was hard to tell the direction but he was sure it was the Vietcong soldiers communicating with each other. He was two miles from base and his weapon had been taken. He zig zagged his way from one thicket to another across open field and over hills back to base. He was the only one of the unit to survive.
John was assigned to a South Vietnamese commander who ordered patrols on a suspected enemy position that worried John. He wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to patrol so far away from base at night. A few nights into his assignment John’s unit drew gunfire and flanked away, returning fire and losing fifteen of thirty men. In the hills during his rounds he would see severed skulls, disemboweled men left to die, men who lost limbs from tripwire bombs.
Some of the South Vietnamese soldiers smoked opium and John joined them. Some of the Americans smoked hash and he joined them. The smoke made the nightmare into a daydream. With it, the sounds of bullets in thickets was just another sound that demanded attention. Serious attention. Time stood still. He was Joshua and time stood still for him. The moon stood still while the taunts of enemy soldiers teemed his brain. Then time exploded with the whistling of shrapnel and blasts from mortar rockets and grenades. Soldiers flew into the air against the back lighting of explosions.
His nostrils were often near the ground in pungent jungle thickets and rice paddies with snakes. He hadn’t forgotten the sweet scent of maples and lilacs in the yard back in Littlefield, he’d just given up thought of experiencing them again.
John was ordered to report to a subordinate unit under a South Vietnamese Commander. John and the others in his barracks were loaded into the back of a truck and taken to another barracks twenty miles away. Inside the barracks was a single dirty mattress on a dirt floor.
The men knew something was afoul but were undecided what to do. While they were discussing the matter the Vietcong entered with bayonets drawn and took the men to a row of small buildings about the size of an outhouse, each with a dirt floor and no windows. A dirty light bulb dangled from a wire above John as he was handcuffed and stripped, then sexually assaulted by a Vietcong soldier. He then was questioned. What was his mission? What type of weapons did the South Vietnamese have? Where were their units stationed and what was their objective?
When John refused to answer he was beaten and kicked, breaking all his ribs. He had a concussion and a broken nose but he wouldn’t answer any questions. He was returned to the barracks where only four of the other men were returned. One told the others of being made to watch his friend have his teeth extracted; and how the man was screaming and begging them to kill him. They tried one last time to get him to talk but he still refused, Tough son of a bitch. Then one of the Vietcong officers shot the man between the eyes.
The next morning the four men were again taken away. This time John was assaulted with the barrel of a rifle, his session cut short by profuse bleeding, and he was sent back to his barracks to use his clothes to sop up the blood. He had neither food or water for 36 hours and was faint. He could no longer stand up and crept into a corner to cover himself. None of the others returned.
He passed out and somehow awoke in a medical unit. His company had found out about his abduction. Four Americans along with a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers who had defied the orders of the South Vietnamese commander located and infiltrated the compound. The South Vietnamese soldiers knew the villages and knew who to talk to, it seemed. Since John was the only survivor of the abduction he was revered by some, and greeted with horror by others who had heard of his ordeal.
John earned three medals for bravery and had been through dozens of grueling ground battles. He had been attacked in trenches, fought with knives and in hand to hand combat. He punched and stabbed people defending themselves against colonialists; hardened soldiers who fought the French, trained by Japanese defectors after WWII. To the Vietminh and the Vietcong the Americans had simply taken the mantle of hegemony from the French. The natives sought self rule and employed all manner of cruelty against all foreigners. To them, John was the evil one. He had been knocked out, watched men die, watched himself die, only to be kept alive in a living hell. After four months of psychiatric evaluation he was released and he came home to Littlefield.
For John, his father was the bedrock of reason. He knew his father saw things in the Philippines not unlike what John had experienced in Indochina, efforts of the natives to demoralize the foreign soldiers, but Hiram was a member of a medical unit and when he saw the trauma and aftermath of destruction he was thankful that it had fallen to him to be the compassionate giver rather than the necessary taker. Many wounded soldiers sought out Hiram after he said something to them that made them feel human. It was more than his words but also his open, expansive body language and smile that brought a return smile from a man with a severed arm or leg. His was a smile that said, “you are going home again. You may not be the same, but you can make do.”
John pretty much stuck to yes or no assertions with his mother. She wanted to ask him about Vietnam and he knew it. Hiram didn’t want to know. “You can’t ask a soldier what he had to do for his country,” said Hiram. His mother looked at John, at first a little disappointed, then with a sunny voice said, “the important thing is he’s alive.” But when she saw John she saw a zombie.
Not that John talked much with Hiram either, but Hiram didn’t press it. He would watch John take a beer out of the refrigerator in the garage and then go back out to the yard to pull parts from cars. Rita protested that John was working too hard in the yard. Hiram wondered what could be wrong with that until Rita complained that John wasn’t going to find a wife working in the yard all day and going to bed drunk. He is going to have to snap out of it. Nothing good is going to come of him being like this.
Hiram agreed, but differed as to the method of steering John out of the place he was in. Rita’s answer always had been the savior, while Hiram tried to teach John that the savior was the self. Hiram was sure that the lord was far more reasonable than the one talking to Trenton, Calvin Dyme, or Deacon Haskins. Rita said that these men may have their faults but they were nonetheless godly men who were bound to duty, Christ and family. They did their duty and they didn’t whine about it. At least she couldn’t imagine them talking to their wives and children about how they doubted whether God was listening or cared about them.