At the Breakfast
Life is absurd. We all have to come to grips with that.
The jungle of Vietnam is a hauntingly beautiful place. All the same, it is not a place I wanted to die. The memory of that day comes back to me—right now, vividly—as if I was back there again.
The voice of the Lieutenant came over the radio, sharp and definitive (those West Point graduates were used to giving orders): “Move forward with your squad. Get as close as you can to the bunkers. See if you can spot enemy activity. Let me know, and remain in place there. Over.”
My heart sank as I listened to him, back with the rest of the platoon. We had come upon a bunker complex earlier and backed off. Approaching bunkers is a risky undertaking in any circumstances, but we had been in contact with the enemy for three days. They knew we were here. A sniper waits, hidden… Ready for the kill…
“Roger,” I said into the handset. “I’ll let you know what I see… Out.”
“Stay here,” I told Duane, my RTO (radio operator) and the other guys in the squad. “I’ll check it out.”
I moved through the brush till I was safely out of sight but not near the bunkers, then sat down, leaning back against a large tree. I glanced at my watch.
Fear consumes the brain, so that every other emotion is barred from expression. One is stuck, immobilized, confounded and consumed by fear. The nerves are alight, the muscles taut, the voice thin and raspy, sweat cascades from the body.
After 20 minutes had passed, I got up and returned to the squad. “I didn’t see anything,” I told them. The expression on Duane’s face was knowing—and sickening. I called the Lieutenant: “This is Whiskey Tango 12. Over.” “Alpha 6. Go ahead.” “We checked the bunker complex. There’s nothing there. Over.” “No Charlie in sight?” “No.” “Okay. Remain in place, we’re going in. Over.” “Roger. Out.”
We sat down and waited. Waiting for combat is worse than combat itself, especially now, as I dreaded the upshot. My dread was so heavy, I thought the sound of gunfire, alone, would stop my heart. But none came. After half an hour—like hours—the Lieutenant came on the radio: “Alpha 6 here. We’ve secured the complex. As you said, it’s empty. Come up. Over.” “Be right there. Out.” No relief came—relief would never come—just numbness.
After that, for the rest of the tour (four months), I never could look at Duane without some inner squirm. I remember the date of the incident—January 26th, 1970—my date of infamy. Every year, when the date rolls around again, I dwell on the events of that day, telling myself, “Forget it. What doesn’t happen doesn’t count.”
Time does not matter. As soon, as I picked up the phone and heard, “Hey, Tom, this is Dave, your old buddy from Recon,” I was right back there again—in Vietnam, with the Recon Platoon, even standing in the jungle mud. My heart sank. We chatted for some time—I don’t know how long—and ended with an understanding to meet for breakfast with Duane, that other member of the Platoon, and their wives (I’m single). Dave, ever the leader and guy who gets things done—also the luckiest guy in Vietnam for the risks he ran walking point for many months—set up the date, time and place. I hung up with more of Vietnam in me that I had felt since I was there.
The old dread had resurfaced. In a word, I was afraid, afraid that my cowardice would come up in the inevitable give-and-take among us about the war and afraid that someone would mention the only thing I had accomplished in my tour in Vietnam, which was not to have killed an enemy soldier—to the best of my knowledge, I did not—but, rather, not to have killed one of our own guys—Dave, in a later incident (more about this later). The horror comes in the discovery of what one can live with. I tried to imagine I could not live if I had shot Dave. But, I came to see, if I had done so, I could go on living. So that’s the kind of human being I am.
So, the two guys I was meeting for breakfast (with their wives, no less) were the very people in all this world I would have wanted to meet least of all. Because the one was with me when I proved to be a complete coward, and the other was the guy I almost killed. But skipping this event was impossible while I lived. Should I be a coward again? So I fretted for a week until the morning of the breakfast came. To complicate matters, some years ago, I wrote a memoir of my Vietnam experiences (called Vietnam Revisited). The book got some attention among a limited audience—Army guys and Vietnam vets. The question was, since the book had served as a kind of confessional—everything was in it—had Dave, Duane and perhaps their wives, too, read it?
I waited for them in the foyer of the restaurant. When they came in the door, both couples together, and we men greeted each other, across all those years—let’s just say, over 40—we went right back to Vietnam again. Old now, but much the same—Dave, sober and cerebral; Duane, something of a character. We returned to a time when we were young, wild and caught in the iron grip of War. The wives alone were new to me.
The conversation was high-spirited and loud. People at other tables glanced at us from time to time, smiling, as if they knew something special was going on here. I was glad to observe that Paula, Dave’s wife, and Dianne, Duane’s wife, were as much a part of the give-and-take as the vets. The war seemed to have impacted their lives no less than ours.
“The stand-down parties were a great time,” Dave said.
“I bet they were,” Paula said.
“Can you still dance like that,” I asked Duane.
“Dare I say, you danced with one of the strippers once,” Dave said.
“I can believe it,” Dianne said.
“Do you still have the photos?” I asked.
“What photos?” Dianne asked.
“Remember the time you scrounged three dozen eggs?” I put in, to save Duane. “You were the greatest scrounger in the company. You could secure anything in ‘Nam—poncho liners, beer, steaks, just anything. Then you had to boil the eggs and ended up starting a fire in the bunker. I bailed out, but you stayed behind and secured the area… Brave man…” And so it went.
“Remember Lt. Col. Leavitt, Mr. Gung-ho,” Dave asked. “The one who pursued the enemy with a passion?”
“Yeah, a guy like that could have gotten me killed,” Duane said. We hashed over our leadership, thoroughly.
“Early in my tour, I was assigned a garbage burning detail…” I said.
“I remember that…” Dave said.
“I got burned by the gas—stomach, chest, hands and face. That hurt.”
“Remember that Jamie Winslow called you ‘Toast’ every time he saw you?” Dave said. “I’d be more inclined to call you ‘Stupid.’ The Lieutenant was mad.”
“A painful three weeks was all…” I said, sheepishly. Dave and Duane recalled their own injuries.
“We lost our commanding officer that time we ran into a large enemy unit,” Dave said.
“He was looking for a fight,” Duane said.
“Artillery hammered them,” Dave said.
“Yeah,” I said, “they lost 33 guys. We had only 17 left. Do you ever wonder why they didn’t rush us?”
“It would have been the Lost Platoon, if they had,” Duane said. Several fire fights were discussed.
Finally, I could wait no longer. I had to bring up my cowardice. “Remember the bunker complex?” I asked Duane.
“What bunker complex?” he said. “There were lots of them.”
“The one the Lieutenant told us to check out… I went ahead… Alone… I didn’t go far… Too scared…”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “So what? Nothing happened…”
I almost broke down… “Yeah,” I said. “I was just remembering it…” He shrugged. I felt so relieved and happy I could have cried.
Dianne said, pointing at Duane, “He wrote to me all the time. He’s never written to me so much or so well before or since Vietnam. Really, they were the most beautiful love letters… How much he missed me and wanted to be with me… He never writes me letters like that now…”
“No need to…” Duane said.
“Then he extended his tour by two months,” Dianne went on, “so he could get out of the Army when he got home. Two more months of getting shot at… He’s lucky I didn’t shoot him myself when he came off the plane.”
“When Dave taught third graders,” Paula said—“his first job when he came home—he always had two parents in the room—to be sure he wasn’t some war-crazed guy apt to hurt the kids. They were knuckleheads. Get to know him. Take him to lunch, if you can’t tell just by looking at him that he’s harmless as a Teddy Bear. I thought they were knuckleheads then, and I still think they are knuckleheads now.” The women continued to hold the floor…
“I never prayed so hard or so often in all my life,” Dianne said. “Scared as I was, I just couldn’t believe that he’d be killed…”
“His letters were maddening,” Paula said. “Once, he told me about coming down a jungle trail face-to-face with an enemy soldier. As if he was telling me about meeting an old friend at the local park. It guess it just got to be a matter of who saw the other first and shot first. I could have shot him myself, too. All the nights I couldn’t sleep…”
Silence fell over the table. Finally, Paula said to me, pointing to Dave, “Didn’t you almost shoot him once?” His expression became inward and heavy. “The book!” I thought. I regarded Paula and Dave, alternately. “Yes, it happened,” I finally said. “We had just had a fire fight and were checking out the area, a scary undertaking. One thinks, ‘There’s a wounded enemy soldier out there, just waiting to kill me.’ Our line of advance got scrambled. I’ll never forget it…”
I caught sight of a khaki-clad figure coming at me through the brush… The flickering was unmistakably a soldier. ‘An enemy’ was my only thought. Carefully, but shaky, I lifted my M-16 and got a sight-picture of the target. I took up the slack on the trigger… An ounce more of pressure would do…
‘Wait, wait, wait,’ my fear-addled brain blurted. Suddenly, the figure became clear—it was Dave! The blood drained from my face. Somehow I managed to remain on my feet. I veered off in another direction.
“War puts one in dicey situations,” I said. “Eighteen percent of the names on the Wall in DC are accidents or friendly-fire. But here’s the bottom line and end of the discussion: I didn’t shoot him. I believe he’s sitting right there, across from me. What does not happen does not count.”
“Yes, it does,” Paula said. I looked at her. “It certainly does,” she repeated. “But it’s okay now.” She patted me on the shoulder, saying, “It’s okay. Forget about it.”
When we left, Paula hugged me back, as if she owed me for something consequential I had done for her many years before.