Friday, August 19, 2011

A Familiar Burden of War Veterans

We’re enjoying being in Seattle again. I am more familiar with and more comfortable in Seattle than any other large city. I’ve only actually lived here a few times. The first time was in 1975. I had graduated from the University of Oregon the year before with a BA in General Social Science. This was a wonderful program that allowed me to take a wide variety of courses, but provided me with absolutely no specific skills or knowledge directly applicable to the job market. So after graduating, I accepted a job in a factory that produced irrigation systems. I did a variety of bone weary menial tasks, but after about 6 months, I wanted out. I quit and moved from Eugene to Seattle. By this time I had been out of the Army for 5 years. College had provided a sanctuary away from the everyday world that I was having trouble relating to. Vietnam had changed me. I was confused, angry and traumatized by what I had experienced there. But this side was hidden way down deep under a “normal, nice guy” persona. In Seattle I got a job as a taxi driver for Yellow Cab on the evening shift. Through map reading and much trial and error, I learned my way around the city. I enjoyed driving a cab most of the time and fell right into the roll. My hair was long and my uniform was a tee-shirt, jeans and leather jacket. I worked off the “extra-board”. I’d go in well before the shift started, sign my name on the board and wait my turn for the next available taxi. This allowed me to work when I needed money and take time off whenever I wanted. I bought a 500cc Honda and rode it into work. On days off, and when the weather permitted, I took long rides up into the mountains. As a cabbie I became familiar with the underbelly of Seattle. In the dark of night, I transported well dressed, middle aged men to seedy hotels and apartment buildings where they found drugs and prostitutes. Sometimes they paid me to wait outside. I felt more comfortable in this world than the daylight social world of relationships and commerce. I needed an element of danger in my life to feel alive. I was part of the city and drove my cab fast and with aggression. I picked up a fare in White Center, south of Seattle. I took the young man to an address on Capital Hill. He said he didn’t have any money and quickly got out of the cab. I got out too, went around the big car and stood in his way. “You knew you didn’t have any money and still let me drive you all this way?” “That’s right man, now get the fuck out of my way.” I grabbed his coat and slammed him up against the cab. I didn’t say anything. Looking into his eyes, I saw fear. He could tell I wanted to kill him and he was getting ready to die. With adrenalin strength, I held him this way for what seemed like a long time, but finally backed away. “Get the hell out of here.” And he shuffled off. This was the first time I’d experienced a part of me that I now call “the angry vet”. I would have many opportunities to get familiar with this part over the next 40 years. I got a second job at The Fish & Chip Company in Leschi on the western shore of Lake Washington. One day as I was starting my cab shift, I drove to the restaurant to pick up my first pay check. While walking back to the cab, a car slowed down and a guy thrust a pistol out the passenger side window and yelled, “Hey asshole” and fired directly at me. I hit the ground. I wasn’t hit. Before taking the time to think, I jumped up, slid into the cab and took out after the car. They realized I was after them and tried to lose me. It was a high speed chase along the lake and then back into the residential area. My cab was a huge Plymouth Fury. It drove and handled like a barge. In pursuit, I side swiped a parked car. They were in a black Mercedes, much quicker and more agile. They ditched me in the maze of suburban streets, so I pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I sat there for the longest time until finally breaking down into tears, huge guttural sobs. What was I going to do if I caught up with them? I didn’t have a weapon. The “angry vet” doesn’t think very clearly before acting. I would have charged right at them, even if their guns were blazing away. Many of the Vietnam veterans I worked with as a counselor avoided a variety of everyday social situations. They would tell me that these situations made them uncomfortable. A big part  of that  uncomfortable  feeling  was their fear that the hidden “angry vet” would be triggered by someone and if it was, they were afraid of what it might do. It’s a familiar and disabling burden of war veterans. Being in Seattle this time is about visiting with friends and relatives, enjoying the August weather and taking in the beauty of the surrounding water and mountains. Some of those seedy areas I used to be familiar with, like Belltown, have been transformed into upscale condos and shops. I’ve noticed  cab drivers around town and wonder what their lives are like.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Mike!!! I'm happy to be friends with you and Katie. Love, Pamela