Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Farewell Drink

Vietnam Service Ribbon I didn’t expect a call from Rich. I assumed he was back in Tennessee glad to be out of the Army like I was. I was staying at my parents’ place in Louisville at the time and Rich said he was out at the airport and would like to see me before he caught his plane. I asked him where he was going and he said “Back to Vietnam.” I couldn’t believe it and he probably could tell by my long silence. He said, “I’ll tell you all about it when you get out here. I’m in the airport bar.”
I saw him sitting in the corner at a table for two with a mixed drink in front of him. He didn’t notice me until I was standing right beside his chair. He looked up at me and seemed a little startled by my presence. “Hey man, how’s it going?” He motioned for me to sit down. He was in his dress greens which I thought we had both turned in months ago. The waitress came over and I ordered a beer. We didn’t waste time on pleasantries, that’s not the kind of relationship we had, so I asked him straight out, “Rich, why in the hell are you going back?” He was smoking one of those unfiltered cigarettes that turned his fingers yellow. He took a puff and blew it out of the side of his mouth.
“I can’t relate to anybody here. If I’m around people very long, I just get pissed off about something.” He took a sip of his drink; his eyes got a faraway look in them. “I don’t know, things just don’t make sense for me here anymore.”
I was still in shock, “And you think it makes more sense over in Nam.”
“Well yeah, I know the war can be pretty harsh, but life did make more sense there for me.” The waitress brought over my beer. It was a little early in the day for me to be drinking, but that’s what Rich and I did when we were together.
We first met in Army Intelligence School in Baltimore. He was sort of a loner but we hit it off right from the beginning. He was a serious guy, preoccupied by his thoughts. He thought I was funny and he had this explosive laugh that sounded goofy. When the rest of the guys went down to the “Block” to a nudie bar, Rich and I would go over to the EM club for a few beers and talk. After our intelligence training was over, we were the only two from our class sent to Fort Hood Texas.
I remember the night we got our orders. The Enlisted Men’s club was packed. We were all celebrating passing the program. One of the Sergeants came in and someone pulled the plug on the juke box. It got deathly quiet. The Sergeant said he had our orders and began reading them in alphabetical order. Rich and I were last. There must have been 30 of us in there. A couple of guys were gong to Germany, and one to Korea, everyone else was headed straight to Vietnam. When he called out our names and said “Fort Hood, Texas”, for an instant I thought I was home free. But then he added,”… to be deployed with the 198th Brigade to Vietnam”. The entire Brigade was going by ship to Southeast Asia, sailing from San Francisco. When the Sergeant left and the juke box was plugged back in, the song that began to play and had been interrupted was, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” We laughed about making sure to get some flowers. We had to laugh.
Rich was sipping his drink, again staring into the open room. “So what happened at home?” I knew his mom had passed away shortly after he entered the Army.
“My dad’s still at the house, but he really didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“What about the job at the electronics store?” He’d worked at this store since he was 15. The owner, Herb, had taken him in after his dad kicked him out of the house.
“Herb hired a new guy. He said he would try to find work for me, but he really doesn’t need any more help.” He then added, “The Army told me I would make E-6 within the year and they’re giving me my old job back.”
Rich and I worked together for the first few months in Vietnam at the Headquarters base camp. Then he was transferred to Quang Ngai City. I only visited him once down there, but could see his lifestyle was much different from mine. He lived in a small walled compound in the heart of the city. He had his own small apartment. When he showed it to me, I could tell a female had helped him put it together. He said he had a hooch girl that came in and kept things straight. I suspected she was more than just his maid. We went out that day and had a beer in the city. It was the first and only time I was ever in a Vietnamese city. It actually felt civilized. He did his intelligence work under Lieutenant Wilcox and they were the only Americans working there. At the time of my visit, Lieutenant Wilcox and my lieutenant went off to play handball, then they were going to sauna before returning to work. Like I said, this was not at all like my Vietnam experience. They told Rich and me to go out and have a beer, so that’s what we did.
We sat in a café smoking and drinking warm Ba muoi Ba (Vietnamese beer). The waiter brought us a couple chunks of ice, but Rich waved him off and told me not to use it unless I wanted to spend the next few days and nights on the shitter. For a short while sitting there in the café with Rich, it didn’t seem like there was a war going on. The streets were full of bicycles, motor bikes and those 3-wheeled vehicles that were like tiny buses. I had trouble relaxing. I kept thinking how easy it would be for the VC to lob a grenade or satchel charge into the café.
Being together again at the airport bar, I thought this was probably the last time I’d see him, and it was. As he inhaled cigarette smoke, I noticed in this time of long hair and radical granny glasses, he still wore those grey plastic army issue ones. We shook hands and briefly looked into each others’ eyes. “Hang in there, bro’,” was all I could think to say. He nodded, “I will”, and he left the bar to catch his plane. I’ve looked for his name on the wall. There are several guys with the same name as his, but I don’t think it’s him.

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