Friday, April 29, 2011

When I Went to Vietnam

(In 1993 I took a class called "Vietnam and Its Influence on American Film, Literature and Music." One afternon before class, another student asked me, "What did you feel when you went to Vietnam?" Usually when someone asks a "How did you feel ..." question, I answer with not-good manners. The confusion of "think" with "feel" is a rather stupid thing. That day, though, I answered the qustion truthfully. I said, "I don't know." I went home that night and I wrote When I Went to Vietnam.)

What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?
-- Osbert Sitwell, The Next War

When I went to Vietnam

Kim and I said good-bye in the parking lot across the street from my barracks. We were in Kim’s white Ford Falcon. The Falcon was six years old.

There were lights on tall metal poles in the parking lot, but the lights gave off only enough illumination to make the parking lot spooky at night when it was full of cars and you walked through it. In the parking lot the night I left there were only Kim’s Falcon and six or so other cars. The other cars belonged to wives or girlfriends who had driven from home and to Fort Meade to say good-bye to their men.

Soldiers walked from the barracks and into buses or got off the buses and stood around and smoked cigarettes. There were three buses and a three-quarter-ton truck parked beneath a street light near the barracks. The buses were dark green and shiny and had big white letters on the front and back and sides and reading “U.S. Army.” The buses would take us to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., where we would get on a C-130 transport plane. Sixty of us would get on two of the buses. The third bus was loaded with duffel bags. The three-quarter-ton truck was painted a dull greenish brown; olive drab; OD the color was called. Some soldiers said OD meant Over Dirt. The truck carried rifle racks with our M-16 rifles, and boxes with M-60 machine guns and M-79 grenade launchers. The troop orderly room was packed on the truck, too -- OD three-drawer metal filing cabinets; wooden OD boxes with typewriters and typing paper; three field desks; several folding chairs and a Tent, General Purpose Small, that would be the orderly room when we arrived in Vietnam.

Kim and I had said good-bye the night before, but that good-bye was longer than this one would be. Now, we held hands and touched and made soft kisses in the dark. We said, “I’m going to miss you,” and “I’ll miss you too,” and “It won’t be the same,” and “No, it won’t.” Kim said, “I will write to you every day.” I should have said, “No, don’t tell me that, because you might not be able to, and then what would I think?” But I didn’t say that. I said, “Okay.”

Later on, I did not get a letter every day, but I didn’t worry. Kim wrote at least twice a week, sometimes three times, and the paper was scented. She wrote about things we had done and about her job and how she sometimes cried. She wrote about things we would do when I got back -- places we would go and restaurants where we would eat. Kim knew all the good restaurants around Laurel and in Baltimore. Kim didn’t mention the other things we would do. She was shy and would never talk of those.

Later on, I wrote when I could. I wrote that it was hot and dry or hot and wet. I wrote about the songs we had listened to and sometimes those songs were on Armed Forces Radio and I thought about her when I heard the songs. After a lot of later on, I stopped writing. I don’t know why. Kim wrote and asked why I didn’t write any more. After a time, she stopped asking. (We did get back together, but it was more than a year later. It wasn’t the same, though, and then we weren’t together.)

Kim had left and had been left before, but that did not mean she was accustomed to it. In the summer of 1950, Kim and her family left their village north of Seoul and ran from the North Korean army. Kim and her family ran south, through Seoul and farther south and stopped in Tageu, because they were tired and could run no farther. There wasn’t much food, and sometimes they went three or four days with nothing to eat. Grass, sure, but everybody who ran ate grass, and the grass was soon gone. Kim was eight years old the summer she and her family ran from the North Koreans, and she remembered eating grass. She remembered, too, a funny thing, that for more than a year she didn’t have any candy. I guess that’s something you remember when you are eight years old and then nine before you eat candy again.

I was 20 years old that autumn. Kim was 24. She was a lovely woman. Her face was shaped like a heart and her hair black and always fixed just so. Her teeth were white and even. She smiled every time she saw me, and her eyes crinkled. Kim’s manners were impeccable. She dressed modestly; red was her best color. She embarrassed easily.

One September day we were in a large department store in Laurel, in the lingerie section. I held up several things for Kim to look at, and the flimsiest and most transparent, I held against her. She blushed every time I did that, saying, “Bob! Someone might see!”

I found a thing that was not transparent; a lounging suit, one-piece and with long sleeves. It was burgundy colored and had a scoop neck and a zipper that went all the way down. The zipper had a big metal circle at the top that you could put your finger through and find easily in the dark. I took the suit from the rack and said, “This is pretty.”

“Yes, it is,” Kim said. She touched the materiel. “It is very pretty. Should I try it on? It is my size.”

“Yes,” I said. “I think you should try it on.”

Kim carried the suit to a dressing room, and I stood in the lingerie section, surrounded by things that were transparent and things that were not.

A saleswoman approached. “May I help you?”

I said, “Ah, . . I’m with my ... She’s trying something on.”

The saleswoman nodded and smiled, and then Kim said: “Bob?”

I turned. Kim was just outside the dressing room door. The suit was much more pretty on Kim than on a hanger in the rack. Kim stood with her arms at her sides and a look that asked very much for approval.

She said, “Do you like it?”

“Yes,” I said. “I like it very much.” The saleswoman smiled and looked away.

I don’t remember what Kim and I finally said to each other in the Falcon, other than “I love you” and “I love you too.” I know we kissed a final kiss and it was good. Then, I got out of the car and walked to the first bus. I got on the bus and sat next to Jim MacMillan. (Jim would call in the summer of 1992 from Shamrock in the Texas Panhandle. He said he did a second tour with the Regiment. I asked, although I didn’t want to, but it was something I had to ask, “Did you make it okay?” I closed my eyes and almost cried when I asked, because somehow I knew the answer. Jim said, “No, I didn’t. I got shot in the face.” I remember how I thought the conversation strange from the beginning, that when I asked a question, Jim paused longer than is normal before he answered.) I took the seat next to Jim and I sighed and lit a cigarette.

Kim didn’t leave, not right away. I looked out the bus window. The Falcon was still there. I could see the car, but not Kim. The parking lot was dark. I wished she would go.

Then the headlights came on and the Falcon backed up and left the parking lot. Kim drove north. Brake lights flashed when she stopped at an intersection at the top of the hill. Then, the car was gone.

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