Monday – November 12, 2012
After six days without lights, heat, and water, and given that yesterday was Veteran’s Day but today we celebrate it as a holiday, I decided to cop out on a new blog and, instead, take an excerpt from an old short story that partially made its way into my novel, “No Commitments”. It reflects the personal struggles faced by some veterans during the era of the Vietnam War. If you are too young to remember, I hope it gives you a sense.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Clay Stoner wedged his 1962 maroon corvette convertible into a tighter than normal parking space just off Dupont Circle in Georgetown, climbed out and walked hurriedly through a bristling rain two blocks to the Junkanoo Lounge, a friendly place. The drive up from Virginia Beach in the Friday evening traffic had been slow and he was late, but it was going to be great to see the Chucker again. The guy had been his roommate for five years – four years at Annapolis and another year in the apartment they had shared in Pensacola. They had played ball, partied like hell, chased women and traveled home on leave together. But then they had been split up. Chuck received orders to a different squadron and shipped out almost immediately on a cruise to the Pacific. He had been off Vietnam when the bombing started. He and Clay had much catching up to do because Chuck had been gone almost a year.
Clay and Chuck met at the bar in the Junkanoo at nine o’clock. The first thing they did was order double scotches, toss them down, and quickly order refills. Hard drinking was part of a navy pilot ritual – one of their common bonds. They could often be seen at officers’ clubs, grouped around the bar laughing and drinking as if tomorrow would never come, communicating in a language all their own, a strange sign language that required frequent wild waving hand gestures as they talked about complicated aerobatic flying maneuvers – Immelmanns, half-Cuban eights – maneuvers that no one but them could understand. They had a saying: “you can’t trust a pilot flying on your wing until you’ve gotten drunk together.” So they got roaring drunk together often.
“What was it like in Nam?” Clay asked halfway through their second double.
“It was a real milk run for the first six months,” Chuck said, hunched over on the barstool, an eerie quietness in his voice. We were flying the South and no one shot back. But the last two months we moved the bombing up North. I’ve gotta tell you, Clay, it was bad. Real bad. Our targets had to be pre-approved all the way to Washington. We couldn’t bomb the MIG bases or the ships in Haiphong Harbor unloading ammo that was going to be shooting at us the next week. We lost sixteen out of the air group. Twelve in just the last month. Our C.O bought the farm. Smoky Jackson got it too.”
“God! Not Smoky!” Clay moaned. “You flew wing on each other, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I was with him when he got hit. He tried to make it out over open water, but his plane was on fire and he had to punch out. I saw his chute open and he landed just fine. I radioed for a chopper and flew cover overhead ‘til it got there. It only took twenty minutes. Smoky made it to the chopper and…and it was just lifting off when the dinks blasted it. It caught fire and blew up.” Chuck’s voice cracked and his eyes reddened. “Those…those fuckers knew Smoky was there all the time. They were just waitin’ to get the chopper.” Chuck shook his head. “And do you know,” he said then slowly, “the navy classified everyone on board as MIA. That’s because I saw one guy jump out and run into the woods before the chopper exploded. But it wasn’t Smoky. I’m positive of that. I made a pass at fifty feet and saw him plain as day. He was wearing a green flight suit. Smoky’s was orange. I told that to the navy, but it made no difference. When I came home the first thing I did was go see Smoky’s wife. I tried to tell her he’s not just missing…that he’s never coming back. I…I tried as gently as I knew how, Clay, but she won’t accept it.”
“God, that’s gotta be tough on her,” Clay said hollowly. “I’m sure deep down she knows you’re right.” They stared at their drinks for more than a minute until Clay broke the silence. “That goddamn Smoky! They would’ve had to shoot him down twice to get him. He was the toughest bastard I ever knew. Oklahoma. Remember when I boxed him at the Academy? He damn near knocked my head off.”
“Yeah,” Chuck said as he looked up with a dim smile. He stared at Clay. “I didn’t tell you, but I had to punch out over there myself.”
Clay slapped in on the shoulder and leaned back on the bar stool, laughing, Smoky suddenly forgotten until another time. “No kidding, you big oaf! What happened? Get lost and run out of gas like a dumb shit?”
“It wasn’t funny. I caught some shrapnel that knocked out my hydraulics. By the time I got back to the ship my controls were freezing up and I couldn’t get the gear down.”
“How did it go?”
“A piece of cake. I climbed up to five thousand just like they taught us in flight school, tilted the nose up ten degrees, set the autopilot and pulled the curtain. The chopper was there by the time I hit the water. I was on the carrier in ten minutes.”
“I guess flying the North was really an experience, huh?”
“You better believe it. My last six missions were way inland, near the China border. The goddamn flak and missiles were flying everywhere. I never even saw a target. I just rocked in following my flight leader, pulling five g’s the whole run, and when he said ‘pickle’ I dumped my load, reversed course with a half-cuban and hauled ass. I could have been blasting holes in the sand for all I knew. I’ll tell you one thing Stoner, my squadron has to go back in another six months and there ain’t none of us looking forward to it.”
“I’m going in February,” Clay said quietly.
“No kidding. I guess they’re gonna get us all sooner or later.” Chuck draped his beefy arm around Clay’s shoulder and gave him a warm, woozy look. They ordered another round of doubles and started getting soused.
“I don’t like the way we’re getting into this war, Chucker,” Clay said after a while. “Up until now we’ve only had about twelve thousand advisors in Nam. The president just announced his plan to send in a hundred and twenty-five thousand ground troops. We’re not calling up the reserves or the guard to go, so we’re going to be drafting kids off the streets who have never even been on a camping trip and sending them over there. It’s stupid.”
“It sure won’t be any picnic,” Chuck said, nodding. “But what would you have us do? Let the whole country go communist?”
“So what? They’ve been fighting each other for years. This is basically a civil war, you know. I don’t see why it should be any of our business.”
“You don’t mean that”
“Yes I do. Does it make any difference to us whether they’re communist or not?”
Chuck exploded. “Ít sure as hell made a difference to guys like Smoky, I can tell you that!” he raged. “You’re not going to tell me they were all killed for nothin! Try saying that in an Officer’s Club sometime, Stoner. I know guys who would punch your lights out.”
“Did you ever think that maybe those guys can’t face the truth – that maybe this is a no-win war?”
“Bullshit! We’ve lost too many guys to stop now. We have no choice except to go in there and win the war.”
“Win it for whom, Chucker? The South Vietnamese? Or Smoky? Let me ask you a question. Can you even define what you mean by ‘winning the war’?
“Sure. That’s easy. We whip their ass until they surrender. You know.”
“No, I don’t know,” Clay hammered at him. “How do you go about it?”
“How about leveling the North. Just blow it right off the fuckin’ map.”
“We can do that,” Clay said calmly. “But is it worth it? That doesn’t stop the Cong in the South, and they are South Vietnamese too. Does it make sense to level the country – to wipe out all its dumb innocent peasants; women and children? Our bombs don’t discriminate, you know. Did you ever dream you’d have to do something like that when you signed up to go to Pensacola?”
“No, of course not. I just thought flying jets would be fun,” Chuck muttered, starting to become confused now. “We’re obviously not going to do that. That’s why the president is sending in all those army troops. We’ll have to invade the North and occupy it. That’s how we’ll win the war. It should be over in a few months.”
“Hanoi is only thirty miles from the China border, Chucker. What happens when the army gets there if a million Chinese troops jump on them, just like in Korea? Do you want to take that risk? Then the only way to win the war is to H-bomb China. Nuke fifty million Chinese or so. Is Vietnam worth that?”
A drunken look of despair spread across Chuck’s face. “No,” he said, and he covered his face with his hands.
“That’s why we’re never going to win this war, Chucker. Mark my words. It’s going to be the first war in the history of America that we lose. And you know what else? All the kids we send over there – the ones who survive and make it back – they are going to come home feeling betrayed. It’s going to wreck us for years, Chucker. Mark my words.”
“You’re telling me Smoky was wasted?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
I would be very interested in knowing who you may have empathized with most; Clay or Chuck (or both, or neither). But more important, today as we celebrate our holiday, let us remember a Smoky…and his wife.
Thanks for stopping by.