Home of the Brave

Francis opened his eyes and looked at the clock radio on the nightstand next to his bed. Two-forty-five A.M it read, glowing silently.

 ”Right on time,” he thought—“sort of”—chuckling silently to himself.

 He chuckled because it was at two-forty-five A.M. Saigon time—not Eastern Standard time in the U.S—when the Viet-Cong blew a hole in the embassy compound wall 42 years before.

“Ballsy move on Charlie’s part,” he thought, ”really caught those Marines with their pants down. They snapped back pretty good once they realized what was happening though. Killed almost every one of their officers within an hour.  Dumb move on their part—most of the officers piling in with the first group—shoulda spread ‘em out more. Probably a “Face” thing—didn’t want to look like they were hiding behind the rank and file guys I guess.”

He sat up on the edge of the bed, took a deep breath and glanced at the bedroom window—a street lamp glowing through the mini-blinds. He turned, glanced at his sleeping wife—listened to her steady breathing—and thought again how fortunate he was to have her in his life—and how fortunate he was to have a life.

 The nightmares had stopped—“the shrinks at the VA hospital did a pretty good job,” he thought. Even so the image of the VC sapper pointing that old Arisaka rifle right at him was just as clear as if it had happened 10 minutes before instead of 40-plus years ago.

 He could laugh about it now—the image of that kid with that old bolt-action rifle pulling the trigger and nothing happening, the rifle jamming—the kid trying to clear the jam while he, Francis, stood momentarily frozen with an empty M-14 in one hand, the loaded magazine in the other. He never did get a chance to thank the marine on the embassy wall who cut the VC kid in half with an M-60. “That Marine must have thought he was hot shit with that thing—full out automatic fire–20 or 30 rounds at a target not three feet from me. I guess he was—that day anyway,” he shrugged as he pulled on his robe.

He closed the bedroom door quietly so not to wake his wife, went into the living room and turned on the 24 hour news channel—with the sound muted.

He sat with a limp heaviness on the couch for several minutes watching the news anchor talking silently—then there were images of a flooded street somewhere followed by a stock market graph.

 He looked down at his hands—fingers spread.  A  full year in country and not a scratch. He thought again about “Kuk,” his buddy he used to go out drinking and whoring with in Saigon. Everybody called him that because he came from Keokuk, Iowa and was so proud of where he grew up—where his father owned and ran a Chevy dealership he was going to take over when he got back to “the world.”

 Five American GIs died when the embassy was hit that nigh—Kuk was one.  One other—Carter Morris—his name was—was a guy Francis knew superficially and thought was an ass-hole. Still he still wished he could have saved him.

 What was Kuk’s real name? He could remember that ass-hole’s name but not the name of his friend. It pissed him off. He felt ashamed he couldn’t remember the name of one of the nicest guys he ever knew—a kid who died for his country. Here he was—sitting on a comfortable couch in a comfortable, middle-class home—an old man with a pension, good health and a beautiful family—and couldn’t remember…

 “Andrews—William George Andrews,” the image of the name carved in black granite on “The Wall” suddenly appeared in his mind’s eye.

 Buried in Keokuk.  For 42 years he had been meaning to go to Iowa and pay his respects to the family—tell them some good stories (minus the drinking and whores) about Kuk and visit the grave.

 Kuk would have done that for him. Tears streamed down his face.

 The images on the silent TV screen turned to Iraq and Afghanistan—American troops trading fire with insurgents. His grandson was stationed in Afghanistan—he’d gotten a dozen or so emails from him since he left basic—great kid. Francis had hoped the boy would finish his degree program before enlisting but he dropped out of school and within a few weeks was in training. His mother said his enlisting was a product of doing poorly in college, uncertainty as to what he wanted to do with his life and a young man’s thirst for adventure. Patriotism wasn’t the reason for his decision, his mother said. While she believed he genuinely appreciated this nation—he wasn’t a flag-waver.

 Francis picked up the remote and flipped through channels. Suddenly he was looking at grainy old film from the last days of the war—the fall of Saigon. He looked carefully at the faces he could see—none were familiar. Then there were images of student protests in the U. S.—kids throwing tear-gas canisters back at National Guard troops—he recognized the debacle at Kent State—the four kids lying dead on the ground.

 He had just returned to the states—was discharged a few months before the Kent State shootings. At first he felt a smug satisfaction—“Well hell, they brought it on themselves—damn draft-dodging, spoiled-rotten kids.”

 But as time went by and he listened to various commentators, read and thought about it he had to admit he himself—even back when he was wading through rice paddies—he really didn’t know what the war was about other than vague political catch phrases about stopping the spread of Communism—“Gotta stop ‘em over there—don’t want ‘em here.”  He and virtually every guy he talked with about it back then had began to realize the U.S. had inserted itself into a civil war. Even some of the younger officers would admit it in private conversation.

 In the years following his return to the U.S. he eventually decided Kent State was an unfortunate combination of poorly trained and led “weekend warriors” and politicized/idealized adolescent rebellion.

 Francis sat there on his comfortable, American, middle-class couch—in his comfortable, American middle-class neighborhood, in the middle of the night, looking at that famous image of the dead student face down on the ground, the girl kneeling over him, her arms outstretched in astonished anguish. He could easily imagine his grandson lying on the ground or his grandson firing the bullet that killed the student. “Kuk” was somebody’s grandson. That VC kid shot to pieces in front of him on the embassy grounds was somebody’s grandson.

 Since he hit his sixties he’d been thinking a lot about what “it”—his life—was all about. The Vietnam War was the most intense experience of his life and it colored his thinking for all of the years since then. When he went into the military he never questioned the government’s agendas and decisions. That changed after Vietnam. He loved his country as much as he ever did—the land, the people, the history, American ideals and values. But he no longer accepted government policies—foreign and domestic, liberal or conservative, no matter what party was in office—without deliberate examination.

 The communists stayed in Vietnam—we lost the war—but they stayed there—they didn’t follow us back home. This country and its principle allies did not become any more communistic than they already were—at least not from external sources. The Soviet Union fell apart on its own. Iraq—where were the weapons of mass destruction we went in there after? Afghanistan? —that seemed fairly plausible—that’s where the people who pulled off 9-11 were.

 It’s what human beings—do—American human beings, Asian human beings—we make war.

 Sometimes for good reasons—but mostly it seems—for bad reasons. We make war and kids like Kuk and that VC kid, die. He, Francis, didn’t—not that time–but that was just luck—fate. It could just as easily have been Kuk sitting up late at night 42 years later—trying to sort it out—and him buried in his hometown.

 It’s just what we do—who we are.

 Francis had been flipping the channels while thinking about these things. An episode of “I Love Lucy” was on—a few channels further along—there was John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” a bit further—a game show—then a soft porn movie—an episode of Bonanza—a PBS documentary on the Depression.

 Kuk will never be back, Francis thought—looking at the remote control in his hand. That VC in the embassy compound, that student at Kent State and his grandson—if he died—would never be back. But I Love Lucy, Bonanza, John Wayne–and war—will go on forever.

 It’s just who we are.

FacebookTwitterDeliciousGoogle GmailGoogle ReaderDiggShare

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge