PETER M. BOURRET

 

WAR

 

 

Strands of barbed wire encircled the sandbag bunker I had built around my heart. I would be safe: zero margin for error. I’d survive. But twenty-two years after the terror of incoming mortars and rockets, I would remain on the emotional casualty list as wounded in action.

 

When I write

I let you peek behind killing’s curtain.

For me,

each word I write

is a foot print on the long road home

as I search for the beauty of this world

that never ventured into the free-fire zone.

 

These are memories of yesterday, flashing through the gashes in a twenty-year-old altar boy’s heart, made safe for survival yet dead to life. No one would break through the perimeter. The position would hold. Desperately, I’d fire on John Donne each time he would teach me that ‘no man is an island.’ 

 

Stars everywhere

Cricket chatter

Cold beads of sweat

meet my hand

as it roams the geography of my face

The thought is back

Someone in the darkness

wants to kill me

 

The price of victory was not sweet. The pain still overran my wounded heart, which had been made secure so that a twenty-year-old Marine could survive the madness of a place called the Nam. Twenty-two Junes after I had left a chunk of my innocent heart in the paddies of yesterday, I finally screamed, “Corpsman, up, I’ve been hit!” I’m getting short. I’m coming home. And the sound of the medevac chopper sounds sweet in the heat of a Tucson June day twenty-two years after the bunker had been built. And I’m getting short. I’m coming home.

 

Things the Marine Corps manual forgot to tell me

when you bleed, it hurts 

when you kill, you die a little

not seeing the people I killed, makes it easier

maybe I can forget about it

when you get killed, it's forever 

out on Mameluke Thrust

shitty operation

Ho Chi Minh's birthday 

great day to make some news for Walter Cronkite 

folks back in the World sitting down to 5:30 family dinner 

tripping out watching TV

saying grace, chowing down 

checking out the news from the war zone 

excuse me

police action 

don’t think so 

mommy's little girl can't wait until she's in high school with the big kids

very politely

please pass the butter 

on the boob tube some unlucky S.O.B.

has his guts rolling out for the folks back home

it’s show time and he gargles his red ooze

thank you, the salt please 

and he gags his last breath 

some perfect Donna-Reed-clone is thrilled 

how nice

only fifty dead this week

and some grunt is no more 

his birthday party cancelled 

one year

ten years 

twenty years later 

the grunt who just wanted to be lucky is still nineteen 

the king of fathers day replying to his wife

yes, how nice

but not so for that dude wasted on Ho Chi Minh's birthday 

thrown on the side of a dead tank

no room for the KIAs on the medevac choppers 

too many wounded 

sorry about that shit

you have to wait in one more line

your final Marine Corps line 

damn it, dead dude 

wish you'd go away 

that bullet hole in your side 

your clammy cream-colored flesh staring at me

one color my fifth-grade art teacher forgot to tell us about

what will your wife and the baby you never met say?

it's not fair

you only had a week left in the Nam

getting short was a bummer for you 

why did LBJ let the NVA blow out all your birthday candles?

forever is too damn long when you're only nineteen

why did that dude from Up North have to fire his message at you 

your tired eyes knowing

one minute, a short-timer

the next, his target  

finally becoming a gut catcher 

tomorrow with its good times and its bummers

rolling off your shaking hands

slipping away through your desperate fingers 

silent red hands 

no more pain for you 

but your old lady and your kid have to live in Bummer City

and your wife will be lonely on your birthday made useless

she will ache for her man 

but he was stolen from a wife 

and his son will never discover that Santa Claus is really dad

I wanted to hate the bastard who blew you away 

it's so easy to hate when you’re beat on your ass 

and if it makes you feel better 

we had integration of the races on your death day

it finally worked 

a white boy a black boy a brown boy a yellow boy all got together 

equality day

the boys all lay on the battlefield drained of their red blood

free at last 

rainbow armies spilling red blood under blue skies 

heroes fertilizing green fields for the next army the next flag the next blood 

but always 

the clouds looking down, laughing at us

and when they sent your dead ass back to the World

they called you hero and said, thanks

draping your casket with the red white and blue

all your neighbors paying their respects at your funeral

you were the main attraction

magic Latin words bouncing around that sacred place  

zombies surrounding you 

their ebony costumes proof of their grief 

stares of the sorrowful shrouding you

bouquets of their guilt drowning you

twenty years from now your baby son will see graveyards

with flowers dotting the green blanket pulled over loved ones 

bouquets that show we care or flowers of our guilt 

do these cut flowers really matter?

maybe so 

why not a flower when it mattered

when love could be shared?

and forever is too damn long

for a baby-san who never knew his dad.

 

Like the Viêt Cong’s subterranean tunnel systems, my subconscious was an endless maze of deep-seated and unresolved emotional issues from the war.  The well-entrenched forces of grief resisted as I pretended that there was truly light at the end of that proverbial tunnel. Unfortunately, my tunnel was jam-packed with battalions of un-cried tears; before I would even taste a glimpse of that light, I would almost drown in a flash flood of sorrow and pain. May of 1990 would be a Tet-Offensive month, a Purple-Heart festival; I would feel overwhelmed; I would sing the body-bag blues; I would walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but this time I wouldn’t be the baddest motherfucker in the valley: in 1990 I would be the saddest.

 

In the heat of battle

you instantly become a cold hero

a mannequin Marine

waiting patiently for the maggots

and your Purple Heart

and of course

they will hand your mom a star-spangled flag

to wrap around her memories

 the rust colored road is an ink pad

soaking up your red blood

soaking up your shot-dead dreams

and your useless and empty blue eyes stare

into a cloudless sky

into that neighborhood where the streets are guarded by U.S. Marines

and now

you are one of them

the few

the proud

the Marines

the going-home-in-a-green-plastic-bag kind

but in your mother’s slide show

she sees her little boy

and that missing-tooth smile

that sparkle in those bright blue eyes

made useless by someone else’s son

who once upon a time

           wore a child’s smile.

 

The papa-san hadn’t shown up yet; I had neatly buried him in the catacombs of my consciousness; he was hidden in my double-pad-locked ‘guilt’ file. He was like an old book, collecting dust; I never took him off the bookshelf of my past. He remained there but was unexamined. With time he began to fade away, eventually becoming only a bookmark, tucked between the pages of the chapter that was my Nam experience.

 

In the binary black and white world of the Nam

red was an honorary color on the pallet

replacing gray

an inconvenient war-zone color

always hanging around and causing trouble

too many strings attached to guilt

nothing more than a hangman’s noose

and all those ethical pop quizzes

and the anguish of existential angst

so

who has time for a catechism

when thou shalt not kill

hangs out with an asterisk

and Alice won’t even venture out of the rabbit hole

because

in the Nam

they shoot anything

in a free-fire zone

including Lewis Carroll characters

and Alice knows

that if you’re dead

you’re a Viet Cong

but she never hung out with Ho Chi Minh

was too busy doing the existential dance with the Cheshire Cat

and being ambushed by the Mad Hatter’s riddles

but there’s one thing for certain,

Alice knows the answer to the free-fire zone riddle:

how many bullets does it take to riddle a body?

so the Mad Hatter asks:

how long does it take to get your soul back?

and Alice replies:

I didn’t know I had lost it

and the Mad Hatter says:

then stay in the rabbit hole

so you don’t get your head blown off

since it wouldn’t be good

for either body or soul.

 

The flag of resolution flew proudly in the country that was my mind. Having written about the papa-san incident, I fooled myself into believing that I had put the issue to rest, but my intellectualizing about the incident only kept my feelings about it buried. The papa-san, a witness to my sin of omission, finally escaped from the burial vault and tenaciously struggled to reach the surface to inform me with the subtlety of an Old Testament prophet that I was in crisis: a time mixed with both danger and opportunity.

 

Agent Orange

a smart bomb you are not

owner of a monosyllabic mentality

a single word lexicon

death

and of course

no one issued you a conscience

how inconvenient

an unnecessary part of a potent pesticide’s DNA

and you were the perfect soldier

incapable of disobeying orders

you only obeyed Newton’s Laws

falling to the earth below

indiscriminate

only focused on your mission:

steal the enemy’s camouflage

their hiding place

making them vulnerable

a word that will get a man killed

most definitely

and kudos for a job well done

 

and you were the poet laureate of death

killing with a slow and silent rhythm

and tenacious was your favorite word

in your defiant dictionary

 

and as calendars are tossed away

a new phrase appears in my lexicon

collateral damage

 

Agent Orange

you’re no CIA operative

but you’re inside the wire

reeking havoc

like one of those silent sappers of yesterday.

 

Because of my visceral nature, I needed the sledge-hammer-approach. In the late afternoon, just before I was caught between the hammer and the anvil, my forty-two-year old body was ambushed by a sense of foreboding, an overwhelming anxiety that I couldn’t explain.

 

War is deceptively simple

when the bullets are whizzing by

and shrapnel is racing for its finish line

war isn’t complicated until you get home.

 

Four years earlier, having viewed the movie Platoon for the first time, I had become completely disoriented and unable to find my car in the parking lot; the long arm of the past had reached out into the audience and yanked me into the events of the movie, back to the Nam. Like a zombie, a grunt with the thousand-yard stare, my body sat there frozen in my theater seat, but I was really in the Nam; time and space didn’t matter.

 

A rifle toting monsoon sponge  

slogging through the rice paddies

just call me grunt

and when the sun escapes

and the cicadas come out to sing

and Charlie’s on the move

it’s hunting season all around

and my eye lids are heavy

but I never roam in the basement of dreamland

‘cause war’s a grave business

and I don’t want to wake up dead

and I fight to remember a smile

and a laugh from the belly

but those are past tense memories

and yesterday was strolling through a bad neighborhood

and was shot through the heart

so I wear a watch stuck on now

and the Buddha smiles at my new time piece

but a tear rolls down his cheek

when he looks at my map of the Nam

with only two roads leading back to the world

one with a mother’s tears at a hole dug for a hero

and

one with a grunt’s tears buried way too long.

 

As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, I wanted to jump up and scream my anger at the audience because they had the luxury of strictly experiencing Platoon as a movie, and nothing more. The harsh reality of the film had been the catalyst of my behavior in 1986, but as the Arizona sun was sneaking across the final stretch of a cloudless afternoon sky, I was unable to detect a cause-and-effect relationship for my angst, which was feeling remarkably similar to the anxiety that I had felt immediately before the NVA rocket attack of Hill 10 during the Tet Offensive. My Saturday night would come and go; there’d be no date, no romance; but there was the smell of an ambush. Sitting at my dining table, I began to fidget, thumping my fingers on the table top; then, I began to sigh and nervously look around the room, my head jerking randomly as I searched for something unknown. I slouched in the chair, and then I abruptly sat at attention, closing my eyes while I expelled a sigh that was larger than the previous one. My legs bounced up and down to a frenetic cadence as I began mumbling a mantra: “This is too weird... this is too weird.”

 

A Marine was walking down a road painted rusty red

where he met a stop sign

and two pensive poets

pondering potential

to be or not to be

that was the question

a not so subtle soliloquy

but for the other poet

metaphors were his method

as he asked about a road less travelled

but responses would have to wait for a slide show

 

a nineteen year-old girl’s passionate kiss

long-awaited

wet and wild

 

an anxious mother’s tender hug

a proud father’s firm handshake

 

a beer with his buddies

tasting better than he could ever imagine

 

a first day at college

taking notes

not a hill

 

a part-time job delivering pizzas

not a full-time job killing the Cong

 

a first vote in the coolness of November

not a first Purple Heart in the heat of battle

 

a night with an ambush

but only from a dream

no tracer rounds, a 3-D light show

 

a cherry-red ’57 Chevy for a Saturday night date

not a medevac chopper to pick up the wounded

 

a sunset making Monet magic

not the coal black blanket of a Nam night

 

but in the Nam

a bullet and a stop sign are synonymous

and the answers to poets’ questions drop in to say hello 

when death does its duty on a dead-end road

and decades of dreams will die

tomorrows flowing away like the blood

soaking his bleak and dreary death bed

the red clay stage

Lady Macbeth territory

the land of the indelible stain and its crimson color

the killing proof

impossible for even the monsoons to wash away

 

and the bullet fired by fate so long ago

doing its duty

finding its final resting place in a dreamer’s head

and a body bag becoming his uniform of the day

and with a last simple single breath

birthday candle flames flicker for a moment

one last time and are gone

all becoming ancient memories

made useless

when the laws of physics stroll with the politics of war

under a burning afternoon sun

playing Buddhist observer

in the crazy house called the Nam

and John Donne’s bell tolls

in the heartland

but a forever sad sound

the solemn ringing

in the heart of a brother

in the heart of a sister

in the heart of a father

in the soul of a mother.

 

I pushed the chair back and shot up, escaping toward the kitchen. I needed to shake off the eerie feelings that were overrunning me. I had never had difficulty being alone; in fact, I had grown to relish it, but I was beginning to feel like a solitary Marine on a listening post, alone and afraid, waiting for the enemy to come to slice my young throat. It was too quiet, and there was no place to go, no place to hide. The dining room was draped in fear; maybe I would feel more relaxed looking out the kitchen window, but I was mistaken.  

 

I’ve got those PTSD blues

they make me crazy

and crave the booze

to help the past be hazy

 

been on the road way too long

stumbling and falling down

wonderin’ what went wrong

and why I wear this frown

 

I ache to finally come home

from this endless journey

but seems I just roam

and search to be free

oh, I’ve got those PTSD blues

they make me crazy

but coming home is what I choose

the choice is clear not hazy

         oh, I’ve got those PTSD blues

         but coming home is what I choose.

 

Although the ancient mesquite tree that shaded much of the backyard was a serene sight, I was startled as my eyes panned the area from left to right. About ten feet to the right of the tree, a papa-san was standing, staring at me. My mouth dropped open in disbelief, “Oh...my...God.” As I leaned forward on the kitchen counter, my eyes were agape and powerless to evade the papa-san’s face, which wore a gentle, non-threatening demeanor.

 

My tears are older than my children

and I am a grandfather

and somewhere in the universe

there is a ledger with a number

one I ache to know

the number of unshed tears

one or a million and counting

and someday

the debt will be paid

and the best number in the world

will be zero

 

and the smiling Buddha opens the elevator door

inviting in the cool afternoon air 

for a slow ride to the ground floor

and my diaphragm is smiling

 

and zero is only a number

and life isn’t a math class

and watches and calendars are charlatans

just tricks

keeping me hooked on my temporal heroin

called yesterday and tomorrow

but in my head I know it’s a lie

that’s kept me strung out on the illusion

that the past and the future exist

 

but my not-so-subtle anguish

from a thousand yesterdays ago

was born in the womb called my heart

and so

I inhale the fresh aroma of this singular moment

and the blue skies above me

tip-toe through the canyons of my lungs

caressing and kissing me

with the now of the present moment

and for this instant

the ledger with the secret number of my unshed tears

floats away

as I breathe

and feel the breath

and not yesterday’s pain

and the rhythm of my breath

caresses a child’s heart

hungry for a mother’s gentle hug

and I breathe in God’s penicillin.

 

Squinting my eyes, I pushed my bewildered face closer to the window in a feeble attempt at making sense of the papa-san, a sixty-year-old Viêt Cong brutally assaulted twenty-two years earlier. The chance that he had become one of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary martyrs was excellent, so his being in my backyard made no sense.

 

He shoots you like you’re a deer in hunting season

no embers of hate burning in his eyes

the Vietnamese word for target

streaming through his mind

and he just squeezes the trigger

and his AK 47

sends a burst of bullets

nothing more

no speeches about the proletariat

Karl Marx or Ho Chi Minh

just

bullets obeying physics

that law about inertia

proven once again

but you get no extra credit points

for your part

you just get to go home early

with a laid-back plane ride

and the active and passive voice are alive and well in the Nam

and the trigger squeezer from up north

will switch roles

in a day or two or in a month

and he’ll be dead where he stands

no plane ride home

for the boys from up north

just food for the worms.

 

It seemed that the Nam had finally caught up with me; this vision from my guilt-ridden past was ample proof that I was a certifiable Section 8 case. I had gone mad. Because I was a control junkie, this intrusion terrified me. The more I gawked at the papa-san, the more baffled I became. He stood there calmly as he gazed back. Shaking my head wildly back and forth, I pleaded with him, “You aren’t supposed to be here...this isn’t the Nam. Leave me alone! Please leave me alone!” Begging God for His intercession seemed like the only solution with what appeared to be a losing bout with insanity.

 

Anguish is your speech writer

and subtlety was executed

drawn and quartered in the public square

a gruesome sight

and your pulse pounds like Zulu war drums

as yesterday’s torment swims through your veins

like hungry piranha

devouring smiles, hugs and gentle touches

all proof of the yesterday you

in that time

before some of the laws of physics changed

but those laws about velocity and gravity

remained true

screaming to be noticed like a spoiled two-year-old

starving for attention

 

and tucked away

there is a faded photo

of the forgotten serenity

of clouds gliding across an azure afternoon sky

but then

in the time of loud noises

when the clouds were pushed out of the picture

replaced by artillery and mortar explosions

all giving birth to billowing plumes of angry smoke

now commonplace impostors

but the light shows of your childhood

no more twinkle, twinkle little star

nor the August magic of fireflies

these wondrous light shows

abruptly shoved aside

by the night spectacle

of firefights painted in Christmas colors

streaking green and red tracer rounds

staking a quick claim to the coal black night

and if physics and light weren’t enough

the Nam seduced you with a high worse than heroin

and the tracks of your sweet drug

were tattooed across your angry and terrified heart

and you surrendered

seduced by the adrenaline rush

and you bathed in the sacred incense of the church of death

sucking in the Mary Jane

in between rounds with the new reality

that casually sliced the throat of yesterday

those days of innocence

before the bullets and the bombs

and the gnawing ache of PTSD.

         

When God failed to work His magic for me, I scolded Him because I felt betrayed; back in the Nam He had listened when I begged Him to let me survive the rocket attack during Tet, so why was He ignoring me now?  I began trembling as I realized that I had broken the promise I had made to Him on that night: I would become a priest if He let me survive. Then, in a flash I thought that He hadn’t really taken me seriously. He had heard such desperate promises a billion times before.  And still, the papa-san remained motionless as a marble statue, a monument to my sense of guilt for having not interceded on his behalf when the grunt broke his jaw with the butt of his rifle. I sensed that his plane back to 1968 wouldn’t be leaving soon, so I screamed my anger at him one more time, “Goddamn it...get the hell out of my backyard!” Just as God had, he also ignored my temper tantrum, so I ran from the window, through the dining room and down a hallway. I stood there momentarily, then cautiously edged my way back to the kitchen; the nightmare would be gone, and I’d be sane once again.

 

It makes you feel good

to parrot patriotic phrases that flow out of one side of your mouth

you thank the troops

but you don’t see the thousand-yard stare in their vacant teenage-eyes

nor do you see the tears that flow from those sometimes silent eyes

and admonitions roll out of the other side of your mouth

reminding me to not be so angry 

and to just get over it

but my dream landscape is laden with land mines

and my road is fraught with ancient booby traps

and ambushes lurk at every turn

even when the sun blesses me with a soothing smile

and yes, I want to believe in magic again

but it is more than monosyllabic

more than a convenient and casual pronoun

it was an all-expenses-paid trip to Dante’s seventh circle of hell

where I was keelhauled through a river of boiling blood and fire 

better known on your map as Vietnam

and I’ve read The Myth of Sisyphus

and shared a few beers with Hamlet

the smartest dumb prince in the land

and he’s my hero

because he isn’t one

and I guess I’m still married to my tragic flaw

with no divorce in sight

because there always seems to be an ambush in the wings

waiting patiently

to send its shrapnel to my heart

but never able to kill it

because when I bleed

there’s no blood

only coming-home tears

 

the National Anthem makes you cheer

when you hear it at a basketball game

but when the words about the rockets’ red glare explode in my ears

my Medicare heart is twenty again as the ground shakes

and the crowd melts away

and in the black night

a ball of fire and a deafening forever noise

sets my heart racing

I’ve got those jack-hammer blues

so I beg my Catholic God

to light the candles on my twenty-first birthday cake

and make them stop their rockets

from trying to send me home early

but then a volley of three more rockets crashes into our hill

and I want to jump on the first chopper out of town

with a direct flight to section seventeen,

row twenty-seven,

seat five,

McKale Center,

Tucson,

Arizona,

USA

where the National Anthem is nothing more than feel-good words

the starting gun for a basketball game

but these star-spangled words overrun my heart

this time

every time

and I feel each letter in the rockets’ red glare

just words for the fortunate fans

who only hear those feel-good lyrics

but the letters in these words are like tenacious shards of shrapnel

and I’m the magnet

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light?

and the tears welling up in my eyes

always answering yes.

 

But I was wrong; the papa-san remained in the identical location near the mesquite tree. Dusk was subtly pushing out the day as it pulled down its haunting shade, masking my backyard in a surreal air. The ghost of yesteryear’s sin only stood and stared, his countenance never changing. My rage exploded as my fists banged wildly on the kitchen counter top. “Get the fuck out of here, you son of a bitch!” He ignored me, and I shook my head slowly back and forth as I mumbled my surrender to him, “You win, papa-san. I fucked up, goddamn it.”

 

Please be patient while I step off the plane

that has circled overhead way too long

and I rip down the calendar on the wall

stuck on nineteen-sixty-eight

 

with no helmet or flak jacket to be found

and my feet, sans my jungle boots,

timidly edging toward alien tarmac

as tears buried much too long

rush to taste this place some call home

and I bid my adieu to the empty plane

my prison where I knew all the words of healing

but never let the water of my sadness

nurture these seedlings

coaxing them out of the safety of the dictionary

that sits safely on the shelf inside my head

 

and I stand naked with the knowledge

born of the mother of time,

too much time I sometimes think,

but on the watch upon my wrist

the dial shouts back at me

that the only time is now

 

and so I walk away from the plane

hoping they have lost my baggage

and my feet move with trepidation

but they aren’t on the empty plane any longer

the isolation evaporating in the summer heat

the fear floating away on a June breeze

the guilt falling to the tarmac

the anger melting like an ice cube

the loneliness made useless by each step

away from the plane, toward the unknown

and Yesterday is only a title for a Beatles’ song

 

and from the other side of the universe

the gestalt light bulb is switched on

for the passenger whose heart

was shot through and through

where shrapnel ricocheted endlessly

forgetting about the laws of physics

but taking the marriage vow 

until death do us part

way too seriously

and the morning headline flashes:

self-surgery has its downside

and with each uncertain step

the answer jumps up and down

like a four-year-old

hungry for mommy to notice

 

and then with laser precision

your words hit their mark

and the pieces in my healing puzzle

drop like a ton of bricks

but all the edges are smooth

because your heart is gentle

and the answer is clear

even for someone who needs reading glasses

 

the rules for dancing on the moon

just don’t work well on planet earth

and so the tarmac becomes my dance floor

and I leave moon dust to yesterday’s astronauts

because I just want to dance with today

holding but not clutching you

because I’ve been so hungry

to finally come home to my childhood,

to that time of naive innocence

that was murdered so casually

and with callous disregard

 

but the famine that swept through my soul

has made me bad company in the restaurant

where they serve intimacy for the daily special

and trust is the soup of the day

and I eat with my hands and lick my fingers

slurping my soup as you sit across from me

and I just hope you will stay long enough

to know that I’m fumbling as I learn

the art of using a knife and fork

and the art of being French

slowly relishing the meal

slowing sipping the soup

slowly savoring the wine

slowly absorbing your words

slowly saying thank you for not walking away

when I was slowly

ever so slowly

getting off the plane

where I was the sole passenger

where I only danced with my loneliness

where I had forgotten that

dancing on the moon just doesn’t work

where I had forgotten that

the French know how to dine

 

and in the night air

a gentle breeze carries away my amnesia

and the face of my watch stares back

reminding me what time it is

now.

 

My will to fight melted away, and I crumpled to the kitchen floor. Resting on my hands and knees, I broke into unrestrained sobbing. I pounded the floor with fists gone berserk; my fists were sledgehammers, made red by the intensity with which I slammed the concrete floor. Having screamed and pounded for the next hour, I lay there exhausted, muttering, “Okay, God, I failed you...I’m so sorry that I did nothing to help the papa-san. Please forgive me. Please, I’m so...” I lay there for  several hours, a casualty of my guilt. I finally fell asleep on the kitchen floor. When I awoke in the morning, the papa-san had left.

 

The flag unfurled

the sound of bagpipes

the cadence of the drum beat

the blare of the bugle

sights unseen

sounds never heard

 

your parade would be a little late

the time machine is in the shop

and sci-fi is just Santa Claus in outer space

and I stopped being six way back when

so forget the should-have-been mantra

and the martini mixed with guilt

scrape the wax out of your ears

let your listening

be my welcome home parade

I’m easy to please

keep your medals

and open up your ears

the on-ramp to your heart

because

my words about war aren’t stories

some Homeric sagas

to set your patriotic heart pounding

nor are they horror stories

on a channel you want to change

they are just my footsteps

on my road home.

 

Sunday morning dragged by and eventually became the afternoon.  The idea of taking a warm bath to help me relax sounded tempting. Having filled the tub with hot soothing water, I slid into my escape. It had been a perfect idea, but when I closed my eyes, I was ambushed by an unstoppable slide show of my Nam experiences. The rapid-fire collage raced up from every corner of my memory. It was a human wave assault that I was powerless to defend against. My eyes, squinted shut, twitched as each event rushed painfully by. When my memory was tired, I opened my eyes to see the peach colored walls of the bathroom. The bath water was cool, and I felt drained by my Technicolor nightmare. The Nam had invaded me and I was terrified. As I dried off, I mumbled, “What happens if somethin’ like this happens at school. They’ll take me away to the nut house...can’t let that happen. Get help, fast.”

 

And how will my life’s landscape lay

once I cut that final strand of barbed wire

and dismantle the final sandbag

that have encased my heart?

 

The next day I called a therapist and told him I was having some problems; being ambiguous seemed to be the best approach at the time. Because I was dealing with an HMO, I’d have to wait for three weeks for an initial visit. When asked if my problem was urgent, I replied, “No.” This was the only time I lied to my therapist. After several sessions, he told me to seek help from the local Vet Center, which offered support and counseling for members of the military who suffered from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Although I was uncertain if such a program would meet my psychological needs, I met with one of their counselors in the early summer of 1990. Fifteen minutes into our first meeting, I burst into to tears. Upon his suggestion, I joined their weekly support group, which became a crucial component to my healing the emotional wounds that had festered for twenty-two years too long.                                                                                                               

He sent home a dead letter

and of course they were shocked

when the official visit beat it

to their door step

and offered his mom and dad

three letters from the Nam

KIA.

 

During the next eleven months, I attended the PTSD support group on a weekly basis. Many of the members of the group had served in the Marine Corps. I slowly began to realize that a strong bond existed between Marines who had done time in the Nam. We could relate to each other because of our common experiences and similar emotional responses to the war. Anger and guilt seemed to be the common threads in the tapestry of our lives. For many years my long hair had been a metaphor for my anger; my hair was my billboard that shouted to the members of the establishment: “Fuck you!”

 

For years I’ve painted the story of the Nam with words

now I dip my paint brush in my patient tears

waiting for permission

to roll down the canvas of my face

a landscape lost in time.

         

Like the others in the group, I felt a deep sense of alienation from society, and  although I wore the mask of normalcy as a high school English teacher, the Viêt Cong had taught me well about the art of deception. I earned a Ph. D in coping, yet I was illiterate in the art of dealing with the emotional issues that had lurked below the surface for over two decades. Although my coping skills had enabled me to survive, they had failed me miserably in the arena of relationships, which required vulnerability and trust, two luxuries that made life in the Nam precarious. Our siege mentality ruled us; being in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance kept us alive, but many of us brought these weapons of war back to the World. Not unlike Lady Macbeth, many of us agonized over our blood-red hands that had become indelibly stained. There were those in the group who had remained slaves to sex, drugs, alcohol and violence for many years after their return to the World.

 

He’ll be fortunate

when he finds the forgiveness formula

that elusive genie in the bottle

but there is a stench permeating the torn threads

of his Nam tapestry

soaked so long ago with yesterday’s sadistic evil

done so casually

so the magic wand that he must wave across his memory

sits in the midst of the clutter of a drawer

with faded photographs

some of anguished reminders 

and others of that time

when he knew how to smile

before

he failed to answer their questions

day after agonizing day

until his well of information was bone dry

and he was toothless

and wondering if he would every have a reason to smile again.

 

No one had told us that the rules had changed; we were informed that we should just get on with our lives, but the smells, the images and the sounds of the Nam resisted being exorcised with the same furious tenacity that the NVA exhibited during the battle for Hue in February of 1968. Upon my return to the World, the Marine Corps helped me to adapt to civilian life by having me construct metal wall lockers and fold hundreds of sheets for a week. No one bothered to ask me if I needed to talk about my Nam experience, but rather I was threatened with arrest by an MP because my shirt wasn’t tucked in as I exited El Toro Marine Base on the day of my discharge from the Marine Corps. No one said, ‘thank you’ or ‘good luck’ as I left, and so I began my journey on a long and angry road; once I was outside the gate and outside the Marine Corps’ jurisdiction, I flipped the MP my middle finger, a final ‘fuck you’.

 

For the members of the support group, our response to the World varied only in the degree to which we floundered. Being back hadn’t turned out the way we had expected; the Nam, like jungle rot, lingered and festered, and was always lurking. The beauty of being a member of the support group was that it provided a safe place to talk, a place where the listeners actually understood what they were hearing. Then, during the first months of 1991, the Gulf War erupted half-a-world away, and for many in our group, it ignited long buried feelings and memories.

 

You babble your euphemisms

like they’re the truth

and for you

war was inconvenient

 

let’s get a few things straight:

I didn’t make war

while

you made love

 

I killed people

while I was exhausted    

and you fucked girls

while you were stoned

 

I learned the trigonometry of death

dropping mortar rounds

on the boys from up north

and you learned the math of marijuana

dropping a ten spot

for a bag of sweet Mary Jane

 

I yelled incoming!

and you screamed hell no, we won’t go!

 

I couldn’t have spotted the Viet Cong in a line up

and you couldn’t have spotted Cupid on Valentines’ Day

 

I used my skills to kill

hated the lifers

and felt death’s cold stare

and you used girls for your pleasure

hated GIs

and felt groovy about the whole thing

 

I tripped out on the adrenalin rush of tracer rounds slicing up the black night

and you tripped out on LSD and when you landed, your world was still a wasteland

 

I just knew that I was alive until I was dead

and you knew all the answers because you lived in your head

 

now your hair is gray

and you joke that you have no memories of the sixties

because you were stoned

and everyone laughs

but now I own ancient pain

because I have a myriad of memories of the sixties

because I put my plans on hold

and rarely laughed in the land of loud noises and vacant stares.

 

Although this major historical event impacted my life, I discovered that even mundane and seemingly insignificant occurrences would trigger a fade-back-to-the-Nam response. Because I lived within several blocks of a hospital that was equipped with a helipad, I frequently was reminded that the Nam was just a sound away. Always hearing that sound, returning to that place, seeing those yesterdays, always remembering in Technicolor—always being sucked dry of my today. All those choppers from the Nam, we called them friends, and I hate it all because I’ve learned that friends remain with you forever.

 

If you don’t want to hear about war

don’t send the young to it

quite simply

some will come home

all will be changed forever

some will sit in silence

some will write about it

their ticket on the plane home

once upon a time

a Marine wanted to be a man.

 

 

 
MEMOIR
WAR