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History Repeats Itself
August 19, 1967
I was ready to pull the trigger.
If I had to kill, I could do it. I was trained, and I knew if it came to that, I would commit myself to the chilling prospect. After all, I had grown up hunting small game in south Georgia, my grandfather had presented me with a shotgun at fourteen, and I bought my first pistol at sixteen. I followed the buildup of hostilities in Southeast Asia for two years in high school, four years in military school, and another year in the U.S. Army. The military had steeled my spine and conditioned my mind and body for the trials I was to face. I was proficient in an array of destructive tools, a soldier anxious to take my place on the battlefield.
I tasted the salty sweat on my upper lip. My khaki shirt clung to my back from the tortuous non-air-conditioned car ride. I welcomed a flight to the other side of the world, to a place I had studied from afar. The worst part of it was this, the very beginning. I waited with the two most significant people in my life, my mother and father. We stood in awkward silence, not knowing what to say to one another.
I was a trained professional, prepared for every hardship man or nature could throw at me—petrified by what I had to endure. Passengers moved about us in the busy airport in Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the cooled air in the terminal, I was very hot and uncomfortable. My father was dressed in a jacket, tie, and hat; my mother was in a Sunday-best dress. I felt we were at a funeral—mine.
My mother broke the awkward silence. "What will you be doing in Vietnam, son?"
Oh, I wished she had not asked that question. I knew I was going to be an advisor to the South Vietnamese army. But I had been in the army for only a little over a year myself. I knew that I would respond to my personal challenges, but I didn't really think I had much advice to offer people who were already fighting their war.
"I'll work with the South Vietnamese, Mom. I won't know my job until I get there." I tried to sound confident and in control. "I'll write as soon as I can." A trickle of sweat crept down my leg. For a moment, I thought I had wet my pants. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, just in case. Using paper towels, I dried my chest, waist, and legs beneath my uniform. The image of a pale soldier in the mirror startled me, since I believed I was alone. Then I recognized my own reflection. No wonder my mother looked at me as if I were a dead man—I looked like one!
Returning to the passenger area near the gate, I noticed that my parents had taken a seat on a bench. I wished they hadn't done that because I felt better standing. My mother had tears in her eyes, and my father's chin quivered as he asked, "You'll be going to San Francisco?"
It was a question I knew had already been answered. "Actually, I'll fly to Atlanta and take a connecting flight to San Francisco. There, I'll take a helicopter to Oakland, and then a taxi the army depot." I reviewed the itinerary again for the third or fourth time.
My father had served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater in World War II. I remembered sitting on the floor with my mother when I was two years old, listening to a seventy-eight rpm record of his voice talking to us from Hawaii. We listened to it over and over. Despite that, I didn't think he knew how I felt. He had gone in a general mobilization to save the nation from attacking forces of Japan. No one was sure why I was going to this little guerilla war. But even without clear definition this was my grand adventure. The purpose would evolve later, along with the outcome. I was going to war in Vietnam; my country wanted me to go, and I was a volunteer. That was good enough for me.
My flight was announced. I shook my father's hand and hugged my mother. "I'll write," I promised. I was not afraid of the war, but I was terrified of losing control of my own emotions at that moment.
"Goodbye." It sounded so final as my father said it.
"Write when you can, and take care of yourself," my mother added.
"Bye," I managed as I turned to walk up the gangway to board the plane. No further discussion was possible just then, although our feeling's were about to burst out all over. No utterance could be allowed that might trigger that eruption.
Some things never change: young, idealistic men going off to war, breaking the hearts of their mothers and fathers, fiancées, and children; fearful of the undertaking ahead, but more afraid of showing anxiety or breaking down at a defining moment of manhood.
I had already spent a year in the stateside army after being commissioned a Regular Army second lieutenant through the ROTC program at North Georgia College. In the 101st Airborne Division, I had taken my responsibilities as a platoon leader and company executive officer seriously; I had also taken every possible opportunity to attend training, and I mastered basic airborne, jumpmaster, pathfinder, and the infantry officer's basic training before receiving my orders to the dreaded Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, known as MACV. I aspired to go overseas with my own beloved 101st Airborne Division, not as an advisor to the Vietnamese but as a fighting man in a U.S. combat unit, so I had been disappointed at the advisor's role assigned to me.
Nevertheless, I had trained at the Military Assistance Training and Advisors Course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, learned about Vietnamese culture, geography, organizations, and a little of the language, and after all this preparation accepted my assignment as a start, not an end, to my campaign as an American soldier. I had very little understanding then of what could really be changed by one person, much less an army or even a great nation. I'm not sure I really cared—I just wanted to break away and ride the waves of time and history.
As I found my seat on the plane, I could envision my parents swallowing their emotional strain all the way home. Their stoic natures had not allowed for a public expression of their emotions any more than mine had. For myself, I was shaking inside so badly that it must have been written on my face. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I hoped drinks would be served soon, but I would have to change planes in Atlanta before taking the long flight to San Francisco.
I found myself sitting next to a beautiful girl about my age, who was anxious to make small talk. Just my luck that this was the only time in my life that I was sitting next to an attractive stranger who wanted to get acquainted, and my heart pounded so fast that I couldn't catch my breath. My windpipe was so constricted from holding back a groan that I might never talk again. I spent the rest of the flight trying to master my swirling emotions. After a couple of beers in Atlanta and on the flight to San Francisco, I finally felt that I was in control again, at least of the present situation if not the future. I was almost grateful to have lost the beautiful stranger in the airport; I couldn't have carried on that charade any longer.
Oakland and San Francisco were a blur of in-processing and out-processing. The army had, of course, long before mastered the art of processing people. You started by standing in line, and after that, just followed the leader. Oakland Army Depot seemed sleazy, but it was nicer than the surrounding neighborhood. I met another officer at the processing center and we decided to make the most of our last night in civilization. I don't remember his name or much of the evening except for singing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" at a little bar in Jack London Square.
The journey had finally begun. I was on my way to make my own personal history, and discover whether I would blink in the face of it. My father had gone to war and returned, and our ancestors had done the same. History repeats itself. This wasn't anything new. But it was incredibly new to me, and that's what counted.CHAPTER 2
The Long Journey
August 21–22, 1967
The bus ride from Oakland Army Depot to the Norton Air Force Base departure field was long and lonely, until we arrived at the gate. There the bus was greeted by a group of protesting hippies and flower children opposing the war. Decked out in sack dresses, ponytails, and beads, and carrying posters and flowers, they were the peaceful personification of news clips I had often scoffed at. Now faced with their presence, I wondered what they were thinking about the men in khaki uniforms. I already knew what they thought about our country's involvement in the war. We passed without incident: we outnumbered the hippies, and the air police were nearby.
The convoy of buses parked, and we unloaded through the diesel fumes of their idling engines to then hang around the terminal. "Terminal" seemed to me a very appropriate word. For an hour and a half rosters were checked and people counted. I took my time boarding, since officers were instructed to board last, and found myself in a first-row seat on the aisle, across from the galley. We were on a Braniff Airways Military Airlift Command flight, a no-frills commercial flight chartered by the military to ferry troops overseas.
The flight from California to Hawaii was long but uneventful; everyone was settling in for the longer trip from Hawaii to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine. When we deplaned in Hawaii, we were instructed to leave on the plane anything we had carried aboard, since we would be reboarding by row number and returning to the same seats. I headed with others to the bar to have a refreshing 10 a.m. beer.
Once the new aircrew was ready we were called to reboard. By this time I was over the jitters, but I must have resembled a lost puppy. I reclaimed my prized first-row aisle seat. The flight attendants, who had been busy with preflight checks during takeoff, sat in the folding jumpseats directly in front of the first row. I made eye contact with an attractive young woman with short brown hair who was seated directly across from me. Fortunately, this encounter progressed much better than the one on the flight from Jacksonville to Atlanta, when my voice had frozen in my throat.
I could not take my eyes off her during takeoff—except when she said, "You'll have a nice view of Diamond Head from the window right after takeoff." I wondered if she could be trying to make me stop staring at her.
I glanced out the porthole. "You make this trip often?"
"Too often, I think. All of us are volunteers. No one is assigned to a Vietnam flight that doesn't want to go."
"This is my first trip," I said, aware that the army captain sitting next to me in the middle seat was wearing two rows of medals from a previous combat tour, and the lieutenant colonel by the window wore a virtual salad of color on his chest from this and other wars. The lieutenant colonel was designated flight commander, which meant that he was responsible for the discipline of the troops on board. It dawned on me that the officers were seated in the first few rows in the front of the airplane, while the enlisted men were occupying most of the other seats. I didn't have any medals except for the badges from army training. I felt naked and as green as I actually was; I hoped the cute flight attendant wouldn't notice.
When the seatbelt sign was turned off, the stewardesses excused themselves to serve drinks, nonalcoholic only, and prepare an in-flight meal. The nice woman I had been talking to quickly offered the officers a drink first, directly from the galley. I wasn't sure if it was because we were officers or sitting in front, but I sensed something more than just that. When she handed me a glass of Coke our hands brushed, and my heart leaped to my throat. I had felt a stirring the moment we sat facing one another; her touch ignited a spark inside me.
My stewardess served from the galley. I watched her every move as unobtrusively as possible, trying to be nonchalant but not succeeding. She was either interested or aware of my interest, because our eyes met often, but it was difficult to talk while she worked. I stood beside the galley door, ostensibly to stretch my legs, and we were able to talk at eye level while she worked.
Finally the food and drinks were finished and cleared away. Someone announced that the movie would be Don't Drink the Water, and the lights were turned down.
My stewardess came over to the front row of officers.
"There are a few empty seats if anyone wants to move back and watch the movie. You won't be able to see the screen from up here." Two of the girls pulled the jumpseat down to sit across from us again.
"Or we could talk and play cards," my girl suggested.
The lieutenant colonel stood. "I think I'll walk around and visit the troops, then find an empty seat and get some sleep."
I stayed firmly planted where I was. "Cards are fine by me."
"My name's Jill," announced the other stewardess.
"And I'm Peggy," followed my girl, strumming my heartstrings with the sound of her name.
The captain and I respectively introduced ourselves as Tom and Richard—Dick to my friends.
Peggy and Jill broke out two new decks of cards and shuffled them on the serving trays in front of the seats. I had played hearts before, but never with two decks. I was assured that this made it more interesting, but I was already completely interested. It had everything to do with playing hearts, but not cards.
By the time the second movie started playing cards had grown old. Peggy put the serving trays away and brought back pillows and blankets. Tom moved over into the empty seat next to the window and settled back for some rest.
Peggy sat down, again facing me, and we talked for a few minutes. Jill excused herself without explanation for parts unknown.
After a few minutes, Peggy asked, "Do you mind if I sit in that empty middle seat? These pull-down seats aren't very comfortable."
With the jump seat down, we could stretch our legs out, ensuring that no one sat there. The seats went back, and with pillows and short blankets we were quite cozy.
"What do you think about the war?" Peggy asked.
"I don't know about the politics, but if our country is involved, then I think it's my duty to go. Besides, this is the biggest thing in the world, and I wouldn't miss it." I looked into her warm, brown eyes for my answer. "What do you think?"
Peggy held my gaze. "I support our troops—that's why I volunteer for these flights—but I always wonder about all the protests and demonstrations. Doesn't that bother you?"
"Yeah," I said, "but I don't focus on that. They have the right to protest. You make these flights often. What do other soldiers think about it?"
"I think they feel like you do—a little confused about why we're there, but determined to go because we are. Of course, some are against it, and others are just nervous." Peggy placed her hand lightly on my arm. "How about you? Are you okay?"
My God, could she read my mind? "Yeah, I'm okay. I'm a little jittery," I confessed. "This is all new to me, but I'm confident in myself and my training. I'll be all right.... I think."
Her fingers interlaced with mine under the blanket. "We aren't supposed to do this. Do you mind?"
"I won't tell anyone if you don't." We both drifted for a while. I felt warm and secure for the first time in days.
The second movie ended too soon. People stirred in the cabin again. The lieutenant colonel returned to his seat, Tom moved back to the center, and Peggy folded blankets and fluffed pillows like a normal stewardess. Only I could see she was an angel looking after me.
"I'll talk to you later." She returned to the galley to prepare breakfast.
I felt empty. Releasing her hand had broken something inside me; I was vulnerable again. I pretended to sleep, but I peeked through heavy lids to catch glimpses of this beautiful person who had somehow touched me deeply in only a few minutes. I saw her glancing back while she went about her business. I knew she was grateful to have something to do with her hands. Mine felt like they were strapped to an electric chair for the final countdown.
Excerpted from Prodigals by Richard Taylor. Copyright © 2003 Richard Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Posted June 28, 2011
A great and very well written read for those who served in Vietnam. It contains some very accurate imagary that brings back a lot of very vivid memories, good and bad. Some of the passages may seem too extreme to have been real but they were...very real. The emotions about the politics of the war closely align with mine. The feeling among the guys during the first tour was to get our hats and go to Hanoi and win the thing. The second tour was an exercise in counting down the days until home, even among the brass who made no secret of their short timer calendars.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 11, 2011
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