Copyright by Morgan McFinn
“Fourteen, fifteen . . . who knows? Hard to tell their ages, but he was only a kid. That I’m sure of. Put two rounds in his stomach. Blood and guts all over the place. Died with his eyes open. That I’ll remember for as long as I live—that look of utter shock and disbelief in his eyes. Wish I’d bent down and closed ‘em. Still have nightmares. Not so often, but . . . you know.”
Another night in Nana Plaza—Voodoo bar—and I’m sitting with Jack Chalmers, a wiry, six-foot, bald yank from New Jersey who’s been in Thailand for many years. Weary blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, an Errol Flynn mustache, and a subtle Buddha-like smile. (If you can imagine Buddha with a mustache, that is.) We were drinking Black sodas.
“Lyndon Johnson gave me a free ride out this way in 1967,” he said. “Been here pretty much ever since. I was working for IBM when I got drafted. It was their policy to maintain the same wage level for any employees who temporarily entered government service, whether you became a member of the president’s cabinet or were drafted as a private in the army. So, I spent my tour collecting two thousand bucks a month while the other grunts were making three hundred or so. Had a pretty good time, for the most part.”
A girl wearing high-heeled shoes and a G-string was making love to a silver pole in the middle of the stage above us. It looked like she was having a pretty good time, for the most part, too.
I had asked Jack if he’d ever seen any combat and he said, “Yeah, well . . . that was the bad part. Twice a week we went out into the bush, picked a spot, set up claymores, and waited to ambush VC patrols. Sometimes we waited all night. Usually they came.”
“Ever kill anybody? Anybody you actually saw die . . . dead?”
“That’s combat,” he said. “That’s all it’s about; killing. We killed. They killed. I killed. Combat changes a person. You’re never the same again. Walk into a room, a bar, any place where there are guys my age, look around. It doesn’t take much . . . doesn’t take long. I can always tell if any of those guys have ever been in combat. Always.”
“They’re haunted. I can sense it. I can see it in their eyes.”
“Haunted by the killing?”
“The killing and all that goes with it. The blood, the agonizing screams, the stark terror of it. You see buddies of yours blown to bits. Maybe they’re still alive and all you can do is hold what’s left of ‘em while they bleed to death.”
We ordered two more Black sodas and took turns stuffing twenty-baht notes into the girl’s G-string.
Then he told me about the kid.
“We’d just left base . . . going out to set up and wait about four or five klicks away. It was a little past sunset on the Mekong Delta and the sky looked like a great big bottle of scotch. We had to walk along a dirt road before we entered the bush, and I spotted this kid coming towards us. He was carrying a bamboo basket over his shoulder. Never had seen the kid before. Nobody in the patrol recognized him. We stopped. The kid was maybe a hundred yards away. I told our local guide to tell the kid to halt. The kid started talking. Guide said he was selling pineapples. He kept coming at us, so I told him again to stop. He heard and he understood but he kept coming.”
“And you were thinking…?”
“VC used to plant bombs on these kids. Buddy of mine once . . . well, guy seen too many John Wayne movies I guess. He knelt down to give a kid a stick of gum, and . . . Ka-Boom! The blast blew half his head off.”
“And so . . . the kid on the road with the basket . . .”
“And so, like I said—I put two rounds into his stomach.”
I took a sip of my Mekong Delta sunset mixed with soda.
Vietnam veterans, especially combat veterans, seem to excite a very curious reaction from American men of the same generation who, for one reason or another, never served time in that war. On the one hand, the Vietnam War is generally considered to have been a major US foreign policy fiasco, and during the conflict, many of those who were college students exhibited a good deal of rancor towards the US government and the US military. From the mid-sixties through the early seventies, a man in uniform was often the focus of many theatrical protest demonstrations and ostentatious tirades.
On the other hand, as the years have passed, many of the student protesters, now in their middle forties, frequently tend to manifest a definite fascination with the combat soldiers of Vietnam. The sheer horror and violence that those boys experienced have roused a peculiar sense of envy and awe in those of us who were privileged, or lucky enough, to be watching from the bleachers back home.
There was a so-called cult of experience that appealed to many of the sixties generation in America. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll; free love; backpack hitchhikers…. We’d try anything at least once. If it didn’t please us . . . well, never mind, we’d had an experience.
Experiences were the scalps on our belt, notches on the barrel of a gun; they were the trophies on the mantelpiece above the hearth of our flaming egos. The more profound the experience, the better. And yet we scoffed at, ridiculed, and even spat upon those of our generation who had endured and survived perhaps the most profound of all human experiences save those of love and birth. American boy soldiers had experienced loathing and death—often on a daily basis.
Following a period of quiet shame and whispered mea culpas, there began to appear a series of books and movies about the war. Despite the fact that nearly all of these artful productions were meant to be critical, they nevertheless managed to romanticize, and set aside for empathy, the common foot soldier. He became a symbol of man’s heroic capability to not only endure, but to prevail in the midst of an incredibly shocking ordeal.
Thus the sense of envy and awe others feel towards him. There are even characters who have gone so far as to pretend they served in the war. It’s a masquerade designed to impress.
I mentioned some of these brilliant insights to Jack.
He didn’t seem to think enough of them to take his eyes off the lesbian show on stage.
I told him that a lot of characters probably envy his combat experience.
“Vicariously you mean? Via books and movies?”
“I’ve met some of those guys.”
“Some of ‘em have pretty good imaginations, but I think most of ‘em are just plain bored.”
“They’re jerk-offs. When they feel like having sex, they jerk off instead. When they want to feel some depth of emotion, they go to a movie. War movies, action films . . . a distraction from the inaction of their own lives. So they sit in an air-conditioned theatre and stuff themselves with popcorn and chocolate milk duds for two hours and think they’ve really had an experience of what that war was all about.”
“So what was it all about?”
“I just told you a part of it. Otherwise, unless you were there, in country, in combat, up to your eyeballs in sweat and filth and bug bites and constant fatigue and indescribable terror, then you’ll never know what it was all about.”
“Should I want to know?”
“Know what you can know and never mind the rest.”
“Well, I know I want another scotch and soda. How ‘bout you?”
“Damn good idea, pardner.”
“‘Pardner’? I thought you vet’s called each other ‘Buddy’.”
“Well, first of all, you ain’t a vet’, and second of all, you probably seen too many war movies.”
“Right . . . Miss, two more Black sodas please.”
“‘Miss’? I thought you tourists called these gals ‘Darling’.”
“Well, first of all I ain’t a tourist, and second of all . . . second of all . . . wait a minute, I’ll think of something….”
Well, I couldn’t think of anything, so we sat and drank and watched the swaying bodies for a few moments.
“You know, I was sort of in a . . . sort of firefight myself about two weeks ago,” I said.
“You’ve said that three times now.”
“Where was this sort of firefight?”
“Samui? You take a trip down there?”
“No, I live there.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, you know, Samui used to have annual outbreaks of malaria.”
“Didn’t know that. I thought Samui used to have a lot of coconuts.”
“Yeah, but most of them are tourists, I guess.”
“Still got a lot of regular coconuts too, and that’s the connection to malaria.”
“Well, they never could figure out the problem until someone finally realized that the mosquitoes were breeding in the coconut husks. The farmers used to just throw the husks away. When it rained the husks filled with water that settled for weeks. Primary breeding ground for mosquitoes.”
“Hence the malaria.”
“Hence indeed. Then they made it a law to burn all discarded coconut husks. Shortly afterwards, no more malaria. Or, not much anyway. But . . . well, like all laws here, most people ignore them unless there’s money to be made. In the main tourist areas they follow the law—don’t want tourists dying of malaria before they’ve paid their bills—but where I live there aren’t many tourists, so the locals don’t really care about burning the husks.”
“So you’re afraid of the mosquitoes?”
“I’m afraid of getting malaria. So I bought a hand-held electric zapper.”
“Ah. Hence, the sort of firefight.”
“Hence again. Looks like a small tennis racket with steel wires across the face of it. Press a button on the handle and the wires are charged with electricity. Mosquitoes and other little buggers flame up and drop dead.”
“So, a couple of weeks ago there was a particularly humid night. Rained most of the day. I went to bed round midnight with my zapper beside me.”
“First mosquito buzzed along five minutes later. Hard to see ‘em in the dark.”
“I pressed the charge button, waved the racket toward the buzz, and Zap! Flash! One fried mosquito.”
“But there were others, of course. First one just a scout, no doubt.”
“Exactly my suspicion. Soon there was a whole platoon of ‘em buzzing about the bed. Zap! Flash! Got a few gnats as well.”
“Hate gnats. Annoying little fuckers!”
“Absolutely. Really hate gnats. Kept waving the zapper. The space over my bed was lit up like the fourth of July. Zap-flash everywhere.”
“You probably sweatin’ it by then.”
“Up to my eyeballs in sweat. Bug bites too.”
“Right. Finally I lit a mosquito coil. Sort of like a claymore mine….”
“Well, sort of.”
“Then . . . then I reckon I must have just passed out from exhaustion. Up to my eyeballs in fatigue—not to mention terror.”
“Yeah, better not to.”
“Stretching it a tad…?”
“I think so.”
“Next morning the sun comes up.”
“It’ll do that.”
“Dead bodies littered all over the bed sheet.”
“Hard to tell. They’ve got very tiny eyes.”
Jack had a good laugh out of that. He bought another Black soda and we talked baseball. He was at Yankee stadium in ’61, the night Maris hit his sixty-first.
It was getting near closing time and most of the girls had gone. Those few that were still around were looking pretty bored. Jack and I had a nightcap at Lucky Luke’s, then we shook hands and went our separate ways.
“Sleep well,” he called back.
“Sleep well yourself, Jack.”
I never asked. None of my business what was (or wasn’t) in it. Jack knows and I don’t reckon he drinks Pina Coladas.