The cost of war
is usually measured in body bag
s or amputated limbs. The more subtle expense of shattered minds and shortened life spans are less direct and more easily overlooked. Many thousands of Vietnam veteran
s will expire within the next ten years or so, twenty years before they're due, as a result of the hidden price of that war. If you know a veteran of the conflict in Southeast Asia who has reached the age of fifty-six, shake his hand. He has defied the odds and the actuarial
Of the dozen or so Vietnam vets I have known, about half were what riverrun refers to as "Rear Echelon Mother F**kers," while the remainder were engaged in daily bullet avoidance. The Veteran's Administration makes no distinction between the REMFs and the boys on the front lines when they peg the average life expectancy of a Vietnam veteran at fifty-five. The horror of war is visual as well as visceral so I suppose that anyone "in country" is picking up part of the tab for the life-shortening stress festival. Go ahead and buy riverrun a thank you beer before his fifty-fifth birthday, just to be on the safe side.
Without the accounting of the REMFs we would know little or nothing about the scene because most of the combat veterans who lived to tell about it don't want to. Chances are they are still trying to make sense of it themselves or more likely, trying in vain to forget that it ever happened.
It's just as well that they don't hit us with all of the gory details. We don't really want to know.
Jim still slept with one eye open and a .32 Beretta
under his pillow at night, five years after the last NVA
regular or Vietcong
guerilla took a shot at him. A clinical term like "post-traumatic stress
" is a horribly misleading euphemism for the weight that he carried. You will not likely hear a combat veteran describe his lingering menace in such antiseptic terms. You probably won't hear him describe it at all.
Many nights he'd awake screaming a tardy warning to a long dead brother in arms, gushing jungle sweat in the cool bedroom of his Minnesota home. On more than one occasion his wife found herself staring down the barrel of that semi-automatic pistol when she startled him from a rare deep sleep. She learned not to make any sudden movements if he leveled the Beretta and unlatched the safety. You can add the worst kind of insomnia to the hidden cost of war. That poor man didn't get more than a few hours of decent shuteye per night, since the summer of '67.
Jim wasn't drafted, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was shipped off to Asia before any widespread protest of the war began. By the time he found out he was engaged in an unpopular fight, he had already served two tours in the jungle and caught enough lead to kill more than one man. The most prominent of his scars were both caused by the same bullet, the entrance wound in the geographic center of his chest and the exit wound in about the same place on his upper back. A large caliber bullet tore right through the middle of his body and he miraculously survived but golf ball sized lumps of scarred flesh made him relive it every time he took off his shirt. How disorienting it must have been to return home and find the people he was fighting for more eager to shame than honor him.
He didn't know anything at all about hippies or yippies or "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" He was too damned busy, up to his neck in the blood of a Marine platoon with only a handful of survivors and none of them completely intact. Jim knew all about Audie Murphy and John Wayne and The Green Berets; about honor and country and the fight for democratic principals. His government asked for volunteers to fight the good fight and by God he stepped forward. I can only hope that he turned a deaf ear to the "baby killer" nonsense from the people on whose behalf he thought he was bleeding.
We all have epochal periods in our lives, those character defining stretches that may have been stark at the time but with age become romanticized in the retelling. We should all be so lucky to bounce a grandchild on our knee in our 80s and recount the life changing experiences that made us who we are. Jim lived long enough to meet his grandchildren but didn't have much that he wanted to share with them about his pivotal period.
I knew Jim for thirty years and never once heard him utter the word Vietnam.
As if the terror of the jungle
and the lack of ticker tape weren’t enough, shortly after his return to the States he began courting a woman with five children. She was recently divorce
d with little monsters ranging in age from nine to seventeen and he was barely twenty-five himself when they were wed. I was the youngest of the five, as undisciplined as he was gung ho
, incapable of letting the sun go down without doing something obnoxious, illegal or downright evil
. I think I caused that poor dude more consternation than the Vietcong and I'm afraid I acted in league with them to shorten his life through stress.
The very first night I came to live with them, my bags weren't even unpacked yet and Jim had to field a phone call from the police in the town where I used to live. They needed to ask him some questions about his juvenile delinquent step-son and they needed him to pay fourteen dollars in damages or he could be arrested himself. The incredulous expression on his face was priceless as the cop explained to him that I had stolen the fire extinguishers out of a place called "The Lord's Barn." Jim was raised a strict Catholic and the question was etched in his face.
What kind of unholy bad seed would take the fire suppression equipment from The Lord's Barn?
It was all a big misunderstanding, man. The Lord's Barn was a hangout for hoodlums, operated in a rehabilitated barn, adjacent to a church parking lot. It was run by a couple of volunteers with money from the church collection plate. The administrators were a lady cop and the wife of a Federal Marshal and they sought to give street urchins a safe home away from home. The place had pool tables, foosball tables and vending machines and nary a whiff of religious guidance. The respectable name and the soft hearts who ran the joint made it the perfect cover for all of our delinquent enterprises so we made the Lord's Barn our base of operations.
The barn was decrepit, with loose clapboard panels everywhere so we had access to the premises at all hours. After they fixed the gaping holes we were still able to get inside by scaling the silo and shimmying through the feed tunnel like farm rats. It was our scene so we never messed with it or stole anything, ever. It would have been child's play to empty the vending machines and game tables but it was never even discussed. We were hooligans and ne'er-do-wells but even we wouldn't rip off The Lord's Barn. The place was held in such reverence that when Mark started shooting us with the fire extinguisher, I didn't just grab one and shoot back. I said that we should take it outside.
There were four of us that night, with both Marks and Terrible Ted and we each grabbed a fire extinguisher for full-scale war in the open air. The jets of high-pressure fine white powder were far more impressive under the spotlights of the church parking lot so we waged our battle there, without giving a thought to our visibility or the consequences. Those suckers have incredible thrust and when they're not aimed directly at your buddy's head they can achieve amazing range. Under spotlights on a windless, pitch black night the effect of the billowing clouds of fire retardant is damn near magical when you're baked.
Until the cops show up.
They showed us a great deal of mercy since we could have been nailed with a breaking and entering rap and a variety of goofier offenses. Rain would soon wash the parking lot clean and there was no real damage done so they promised to let us off the hook if we paid to recharge the fire extinguishers.
I was just getting ready to go live with my mother in an entirely different city and I doubted that these local yokels would go through the trouble of tracking me down for such a minor sum as fourteen dollars. I actually had the dough but that was my gambling money.
With that phone call from the police on the night that he first welcomed me into his home, Jim became
one of my father
s. I had a perfectly good father already but I've never seen the rule that you're only allowed to have one. Jim isn't
my step-anything. To his credit he resisted the natural urge to kick my skinny little ass right then and there and although he never quite managed to make a Marine
out of me, it wasn't through negligence on his part.
When I so much as voiced disagreement with my mom's choice of television channels, he'd throw me one of those death looks that only combat vets possess and hiss, "Don't get lippy with your mother." Thanks to Jim, such a thing never occurred to me. He was an adoring husband to my mum and a great father to me and fifty-five is too damned young for such a decent man to die.
I haven’t cried much for Jim yet because I can’t help but be a little relieved for him. He suffered numerous ill effects throughout his life from the wounds he sustained in the war and at least I know that he’s getting some well-deserved rest. I suppose that the water works will flow when I face my prematurely widowed mother.
He'll receive a twenty-one gun salute from a grateful nation tomorrow morning at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul. Jim was born on Pearl Harbor Day so it is poetically fitting and to me heartrending that he died on Memorial Day. I used to tease him about his birthday being so easy to remember because it was "A Date Which Will Live in Infamy." I can almost hear his posthumous retort.
"Just try and forget Memorial Day, pal."