I'm currently teaching a reflective writing class and I wrote these two stories to illustrate how current experiences and the way we react to them are intimately related to past experiences. I didn't know these two incidences were related, however, until I wrote them.
I was recently invited to a motorcycle club Christmas party by my friend, Ron. It's a BMW club and most of the members ride BMWs even though Ron rides a Yamaha touring bike and I ride a Honda cruiser. I've never belonged to a riding club and have only ridden with a group one time previously. I prefer to ride alone or with a friend.
The club party was held in Sierra Vista, and there were four of us who rode down there together from Green Valley. I didn't have a chance to talk much with the two other men, but after the party was over and as we were congregating around our bikes getting ready for the return trip, I noticed one of them had a Vietnam veteran sticker on his windshield. Years ago I decided that if I identify another Vietnam veteran and if it seems appropriate to do so, I will identify myself as a veteran and say a few words to them, sort of a welcome home brother thing. So I went up to the guy and told him I noticed that he too was a Vietnam vet. I asked him where he served in Vietnam. He responded, “I was all over the country” and then silence. I told him I was in the Chu Lai area in I Corps and that I was in Army Intelligence. Silence. “What was your MOS(job)?” I asked. He said he was in communications and added “Whenever any Intelligence guys came out to the field where we were, they didn't know what the hell they were doing and had to be shown all the basics, like how to set up camp...” and I forget what else he said. I quickly responded that we were never trained in many of the combat activities and that when I went out with the infantry, I relied heavily on their direction and guidance. So I guess I was agreeing with him, which later felt like I was admitting, I didn't know shit about staying alive in the field and was a general pain in the ass to the others. I definitely don't feel that way, but that was the end of our Welcome home brother conversation.
On the ride back home I couldn't get this conversation out of my mind. The emotion was creating a big pressure in my chest. It was a combination of hurt and anger. I kept glancing at the guy who was riding up ahead and having thoughts like, why did you say that to me? And I don't need to go to any more of these stupid motorcycle clubs. And He doesn't have any idea what I did in Vietnam, where does he get off putting down Army Intelligence? And some thoughts that were more judgmental and hostile and probably not appropriate for my blog. When my friend and I peeled off to go home, I made sure not to wave goodbye to the guy. As if he cared.
I've written about this phenomenon before. I could write numerous other stories that are almost identical. This is probably the main reason I don't join veterans' clubs. There's usually somebody who will say something to me and trigger this powerful, unpleasant emotion. When I shared the experience with Katie, she asked me why I didn't come back with something in my defense or keep it light and tease the guy a little.
Thinking about her question, I remembered an earlier experience that felt closely related.
When I entered high school I was short, thin and weighed only 89 pounds. The wrestling coach came up to me one day and asked if I was interested in joining the team. He needed a boy in the 95lb. and under weight class. I didn't want to do it, but he convinced me that it would be helping out the school and the wrestling team, so I agreed. I was a terrible wrestler. I made the varsity team only because there was no one else to oppose me. Being small and not very popular, I admired the guys who were athletic and confidant, especially with the girls. They wore their letter jackets proudly and always congregated together. The girls were either flirting with them or glancing over and talking about them. This to me was an exclusive club.
My first year of wrestling was a disaster. I lost every match but one and usually by being pinned. Throughout the season, I desperately wanted to quit, but the coach kept encouraging me and so I kept on. This was a private school in St. Louis county. The majority of students were from out of state and boarded. I was a local student and we were referred to as “day-pups” short for day pupils. We were bussed to school and back home again. Most day-pups were not part of the “in-crowd”. There were exceptions, but I wasn't one of them. The faculty encouraged students to attend all athletic events, so the wrestling matches usually had a big crowd of supporters. Week after week, match after match nearly the entire school watched the painful process as I started off each match and promptly got pinned by a more skilled wrestler. I could hear the individual voices in the crowd “Come on Mike, you can do it! Come on, come on! Awwww.” And it was over that fast. Students would talk about the various interesting holds that pinned me. “That last one looked sort of like a pretzel hold.” The very last match of the season, I managed to tie my opponent, whoopee.
When the season was over, to my surprise, I had earned a letter in wrestling. By wrestling in every varsity match, I had accumulated just barely enough points. I didn't feel I deserved it and had no plans of wearing a letter jacket or sweater, but my mom convinced me otherwise. Her argument was that I had earned it by persevering all those weeks of humiliation and not quitting. She had a point and then I thought about wearing it around school, Maybe the girls would be attracted to me like they are to the other guys. So I allowed her to sew the big gold P on a sweater and wore it to school one day.
I felt extremely self-conscious wearing it. When I entered one of my classes, a boy, who wasn't a hotshot either, said to me something like, “Look at the big letter-man. What did you do win one match all season?” I don't remember what I said in my defense, but I thought, I didn't even win one match. After class ended, I stashed the sweater in my locker and never wore it again.
I hadn't worn anything to identify myself as a Vietnam veteran until recently. I'm not proud of having been involved in the war, but I feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow veterans and also want to honor those who didn't return or were wounded. In 2009 I put a sticker on my motorcycle and a pin on my hat. It hadn't been a popular thing to identify oneself as a Vietnam veteran until after the first Gulf war. Vietnam was the worst, most challenging, most exhilarating and most frightening year of my life. When that other veteran put down Intelligence personnel, I took it personally. I felt my war experience was being discounted by association. For a brief moment, I again became that little nerdy guy who didn't feel worthy of being in the exclusive club. Well I am in this club and very quickly the unworthy part was superseded by an “angry vet” part, which leads to other stories yet to be written.