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... and a Hard Rain Fell
A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam
By John Ketwig
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2008 John Ketwig
All rights reserved.
The Draft, the Decisions, and The Nam
"I would like to see American students develop as much fanaticism about the U.S. political system as young Nazis did about their political system during the War." — Lyndon Johnson, 1965
Exactly twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam, I stopped worrying about dying. We were called out with a wrecker to haul in some trucks from a convoy that had been ambushed on the road to Dak To. As we neared the firefight, dump trucks loaded with bodies, or overloaded with bodies, swirled out of the dust, sailed past the windows, and retreated the way we had come. Perhaps it was the sight of the bodies in disarray. Obviously, no one had taken the time to stack them like firewood, and limbs hung over the sides at crazy angles. No, that was fitting for the circumstances, understandable. Perhaps it was the very attitude of the limbs; broken, interrupted, torn, and bloodied. Or the mud, like thick brown paste, clinging to rumpled fenders and ravaged jungle uniforms, all-encompassing sticky goo that deformed and defiled all it touched. In an instant they were gone, four or five truckloads of kids going home. A couple of escort vehicles, with flat sheets of armor plate and twin fifty-caliber machine guns, and naked torsos in flak jackets, and the calm, grim, matter-of-fact stares that said these guys had just been to hell and didn't have enough energy left to show emotion. And we were heading into what they had just left!
I was riding shotgun. At twenty-three days you let somebody else fight the fuckin' war. We must have been doing sixty when the shooting started. I simply opened the door and jumped for the ditch. Somehow, I got turned around in midair and landed on a canteen of Kool-Aid that I had riding on my right kidney. I knew, I just knew that I had been shot in the back, and I was going to lie there in that stinking ditch and bleed to death and never see the world again.
* * *
Sorry! Over two million Americans went to The Nam. Nearly fifty-eight thousand died there. Everyone dreamed about The World, talked about The World, cried about The World. There was nothing more important. The World wasn't a planet. It was your hometown, your tree-lined street in the suburbs, your tenement in the ghetto. It was your wife, or girlfriend, or mom, or just a female with round eyes and swelling bosom. The World was a 427 Chevelle with cheater slicks and tri-power carbs, parked way at the back of the drive-in, with footprints on the headliner and beer cans under the seat. It was fake-proof so you could see the bands, and the gas station where you could buy condoms from a machine on the restroom wall. The World was where your kid brother lived, and if he ever thought of leaving to come over to this cesspool, you'd chop his toes off with a hatchet, for his own good. The World was flush toilets and doorknobs and fishing streams. A mythical, magical place that had existed once, and would again, and had been interrupted by the Vietnam war as a TV show is interrupted by a commercial. Excuse me, I'll capitalize The World. If you were there, you'll know. If you weren't, you never will. And I don't plan to refer to the Vietnam "conflict." LBJ saw it as a "Conflict." To a pfc, nineteen years old, that many dead guys earned it the title of "war."
The World existed. All too often the fantasy became clouded over by the day's events. It seemed far away, intangible, even alien; but you couldn't let go of the fact that it existed, or you might never make it back. You might be lying in the mud listening to some guy beg because his intestines are spilling out of a hole in his belly, and some fool down the line starts singing some old Smothers Brothers thing about falling into a vat of chocolate. The World comes back to life, and everybody struggles just a little bit harder, and you make it.
Every single thing I had ever taken for granted in my life was a fantasy. The kitchen. My car. The folks. Clean sheets. Toilet paper. My arms, my legs, my face, even my brain ... might not exist ten seconds from now.
Survive. Make it to the next second, it could become a minute. Minutes became hours, and hours, days. A day was an accomplishment, a square on your calendar. One three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of a year. You remembered every story of survival you'd ever read, ever seen on TV, or at the movies. You became Ben Hur and Moses and anyone else Charlton Heston had ever played.
Someday medical science will discover how many brain cells a man can lose and continue to function. A strong man can learn to live without an arm or leg. A scared kid can learn, if he has to. But brain cells are different; microscopic particles in a group, sorting out life. A lot of brain cells are burned out in a war, overloaded and short-circuited and gone. They don't regenerate. You know they're gone, but the folks back home only see that you've brought all your arms and legs, and the inside hurts stay inside, and there's a void you can feel.
That's if you make it home before you eclipse that magic, terrible number. I came close, twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave Vietnam.
* * *
I felt the pain. My eyes watered, I couldn't see, and my ears couldn't stand much more of the noise. I ignored the hurt, concentrated on the fear, and on surviving. I pushed every muscle, every tissue, into the brown slime. I wanted to be invisible, to sink up to my nostrils, to buy some time 'til my eyes cleared and I could at least see it coming. God, I didn't want to die without even being able to focus! There was gunfire everywhere. I had to sort it all out, put it into some recognizable form. The M-60 machine guns cracked a snare drum's beat. The M-16s and M-14s rattled the intricate, high-pitched, driving tinkle of thin- ride cymbals. A fifty-caliber thump-thumped a bass beat. I began to get it together. My eyes were clearing. Four or five tiny men in black were moving toward us across the field. They were crouched, firing from the hip. At least a hundred guns were roaring at them, the percussion section of a great symphony orchestra, and they were in plain sight, and they just kept coming closer. Grinning. You could see the white of their teeth. Off to the left, one went down, then reappeared. The top of his head was completely blown away, but the crazy bastard got back on his feet, grinned, and just kept coming!
And then I realized it was over. It was quiet. And I was lying on my belly in the mud, tapping my foot to the abstract rhythm my head had found woven into the chaos of twentieth-century warfare. I had never even shouldered my rifle. I was lying in the dirt tapping my foot to a rhythm only I could hear, and a war happened, and I missed it. I got to my feet. It seemed no one had noticed that I hadn't been shooting. The field had been cleared, and the grass and rubble were only about knee-high. I could see the dead Cong a few yards away. A few of us wandered out to take a closer look. There could have been, should have been, booby traps hidden in the tangle at our knees; fascination made us oblivious. I had seen terrible auto crashes, broken bodies among fenders and chrome. I had never gawked. Twenty-three days before I was supposed to leave The Nam, I walked out into the stubble and looked down on torn men, desecrated flesh, and felt no emotion. It was like walking down the aisle of a supermarket. A couple of guys kicked the gooks. I knelt beside one and removed his belt, canteen, medical kit, and a few empty ammo belts. Another guy picked up his Chicom machine gun. "Go ahead," I said, "I've got one." A few moments before, I had been tapping my foot to the rhythm of death as though I was at a rock concert; now I was handing out the spoils of a war I had ignored! I was aware that I was confused, that somehow this wasn't the way it should be. But I kept that canteen for many years, and I don't have it now, and I don't remember getting rid of it.
The Nam was like that. The strangest things happened, and everybody just sort of shuffled by and accepted it, and you can't explain it to someone who wasn't there. It just happened, and you were a witness to something profound, momentous, but it didn't seem important at the time. You expected to die any minute or any second, and you wondered how you would do it. Tough, grittin' your teeth and pushing the hurt in with your hands; or small and damaged and vulnerable, crying and screaming for your mother, your panic sapping your strength, the very tension rolling out into a stain that darkened the mud. How would you do it? What would the guys say? What would they write to the folks back home? I mean, everybody hopes to die in bed, just go to sleep, but in The Nam, guys were dying and it wasn't like that, and you wondered how you would do at it.
The dead gook was torn up bad. He had been hit twenty, maybe thirty times, and in places there were big holes with bone and tissue sticking out at crazy angles, and most of him was painted with a dark brown stuff that had to be blood, but it was muddy and soaked into the dark pajamas and didn't really resemble the stuff that came out of you. Somebody rolled him over, and I lost the critical brain cell. The dude had the biggest hard-on you ever saw; and it shouldn't have fit the situation but it did. To my mind, his agony was over, and he felt the warm, comforting, electric surge of pleasure a woman brings, and he was happy! I wandered in a numb fog, gazed at gook after gook, torn, smashed, destroyed, but with the telltale bulge to say, "Fuck you, GI, I'm enjoying this!" and I've never looked at death the same since that day.
* * *
Don't get the wrong impression. I'm not John Wayne. I was nineteen when I arrived in The Nam, and scared to death. Six feet and a hundred and twenty-five pounds of skin and bones, glasses, silver fillings in my teeth. Scared to death; never a hero. I hadn't wanted to come to Vietnam. I was in the Central Highlands. If I'd been on the coast I might have tried to swim east 'til I drowned. The most heroic thing I'd ever done in my life was reassure my family before I left. I wasn't even sure they were real anymore. Nothing existed except right now; and right now was muddy and worn and torn and desolate and hopeless. Barren. The most wretched existence I had ever known; just stumbling through it; and if you survived the day it was an occasion. If you survived the year ... well, there wasn't much chance of that, and you wondered how you would die when your turn came. You were so damned, deep-inside-you glad you had made it through a day, you couldn't imagine the relief and joy of going home. It was so far away, so far beyond the imagination. You knew The World existed, but deep inside you knew it was spinning without you, and damned few people had even noticed you weren't there.
* * *
When I was about six, my family moved to an eighteen-acre farm near one of the Finger Lakes. I was brought up with room to run among fields of corn, alfalfa, and wheat. We had a large fruit orchard and about three acres of garden. My dad was a bus driver and rented the fields to area farmers. He left for work at 4:00 A.M. and returned about 6:00 P.M., so we never spent a lot of time together. Dad had been poor and forced to work at an early age, so he never knew the intricacies of football or basketball. The local school was athletic-oriented, and too far away to allow me to take part in afterschool activities. We played ball in the yard, but I was never an athlete. I have always read a lot, and somewhere I had discovered hot rod magazines. I smuggled them inside my textbooks. I devoured them when I was supposed to be studying my homework. My marks were high until about eighth grade, when I began to know what I wanted to do with my life: cars and drums, drums and cars. I bought a set of drumsticks and beat the paint off the windowsill. I built plastic model cars by the scores. I read the daring tales of the European racing drivers, scarves dancing merrily on the wind. I shoveled snow, mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, and spent my money on car magazines and rock' n' roll records. I think my parents expected my interest in automobiles to wane, and it just never did. I wanted to become an automotive engineer, but there was no money. I washed cars and pumped gas while the other guys practiced football; I tortured my parents with a set of drums while the other guys practiced lay-ups and fast breaks. My marks weren't bad, but I failed chemistry until the final exam. I was in a college-preparatory program, but my mind was on tune-ups and four-on-the-floor gearboxes. I fell in with some older guys who were building a '34 Ford into a dragster and felt more at home studying fuel injectors than algebra. I loved history and social studies, enjoyed literature but disliked grammar, and resented the demands homework made on my time. There were girls and pranks and camaraderie, but I felt school was keeping me from cars.
America had entered the Space Age, and it was taken for granted that a young man would go to college. I had earned a number of scholarships when I graduated with the class of '65, but my heart wasn't in the classroom. I was accepted by Syracuse, Cornell, and the universities of Buffalo and Rochester, but I couldn't justify borrowing money to do something I didn't want to do. Two weeks after graduation my dad fell ill, and I got a job jockeying cars at a Chevy dealership. My scholarships were extended a year. My classmates went off to college, and I found new friends among the mechanics at work. I bought a new set of drums, started playing regularly, and dreamed of being "discovered." The race car was running near national record times. I had money and girlfriends. My employer sent me to a GM school in auto body repair, signed me up as an apprentice, and got me a draft deferment. The news had begun to talk about a place called Vietnam, but I paid little attention. This was the freest, most exuberant period of my life.
The boss suggested a haircut. In 1966, no rock drummer got a haircut. I refused, he insisted, and I quit. I was working at another dealership when I was summoned for a pre-induction physical. I laughed. I didn't want to be a soldier, and I couldn't conceive of being forced to do something against my will. I had little to offer the military, and I knew some way out would emerge.
The physical was in Buffalo. We gathered for the bus trip; fellow classmates, total strangers, a mixed lot. As the bus moved closer to Buffalo, we laughed. I was nervous, rehearsing the proper answers, but the idea of forced servitude was beyond my comprehension. Everyone had prepared himself, carefully wording answers to offer no more help than necessary. Many had medical records to bear witness to medical problems. The inspectors were contemptuous, herding us like animals, poking, probing, laughing about "cannon fodder for Vietnam" and announcing that, "If you are walkin' and breathin', you're going!" They asked for voluntary enlistments, and no one stepped forward. On the way home the bus was quiet, with occasional outbursts of rage and frustration. I still didn't believe they could take me if I didn't want to go. I felt no sense of duty. If anyone did, he didn't mention it. Most of the whispered conversations concerned atrocities and indignities. "Did you see what they did to the kid with polio?" "They told Jackson he's One-A, and he's got a heart murmur." "Can you imagine two years of being treated like that?" "Shit, they couldn't do anything to us. We're civilians. My brother told me about boot camp. That's where they really get rough." Somebody in the back hollered, "Hey driver, do you do charters?"
"We would like to see Niagara Falls ... from the Canadian side!"
* * *
It was a strange time in American history, a time when many seemingly unrelated events were combining to shake the very foundations of our most cherished institutions. It was a time of the Beatles and sub-orbital flights, of civil rights marches in the deep South, and black-and-white TV. After the simple satisfaction of the fifties and the patriotic frenzy of the New Frontier, and after the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis, and that day in Dallas, we all felt some kind of ominous tension. Even our high school teachers had seemed somewhat bewildered. You couldn't watch police dogs attacking blacks on the evening news and believe the United States was the land of the free and the home of the brave. You used to think the Commies were far away, but then they showed up ninety miles from Florida. You used to think boys had short hair, but then the British invaded, and you looked at history books, and there really wasn't anything wrong with long hair. The grown-ups objected, then suggested you go to church, and Christ's hair was on his shoulders, and everything seemed suspect. They spoke of obligations to your country and whispered about tax breaks. They told you to defend freedom and used cattle prods on the Freedom Riders in Alabama. If you were young, it was an exciting world. You worked all week, and on the weekend you watched fuel dragsters or British rock bands or X-rated movies, and you believed you could change the world and make it a better place. Thirteen years of public school had created a generation of believers. "Do your own thing." "The times they are a-changing." "We shall overcome." Born in the late forties, we were the first generation to grow in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Hate wasn't the answer. Material goods weren't the answer. The church wasn't the answer. Get yourself a surfboard and a girl, ride a wave, do your thing, and don't hurt anybody. There was plenty of world to go around; everyone had his right to a piece of it. They told us so in school. This was a democracy. It didn't always work just right, they said, but your generation will have to get it all together because now there's a bomb that can eliminate the whole population of the planet. So we grew up believing we could do it, and that the answer was peace, or love, or the golden rule, or whatever you wanted to call it.
Excerpted from ... and a Hard Rain Fell by John Ketwig. Copyright © 2008 John Ketwig. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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