The Time You Weren’t in the Army
Heading toward 18 with the Vietnam War as background and the draft looming was like driving into a fog bank, beyond which there might or might not be a future. All plans were tentative. Although you hear about those who burned draft cards, or fled to Canada, or wheedled their way out of it through political connections, most of the boys I knew enlisted. And they were, for the most part, eighteen year olds with only a vague notion of what they would be required to do. They had an obligation to serve, and they needed to fulfill that obligation before starting their lives beyond school.
The “military” was not the separate society it has become, an amorphous entity we now refer to as “our troops.” It was people you grew up with; the goofy guy who cracked jokes in geometry class, the kid from 4H who raised a prize calf; your brother and his drunken buddies, who worked on their cars, and got into fistfights after football games.
There was virtually no one who didn’t have a personal connection to people who were going to Vietnam; and there was no one who didn’t know people who did not come home. Some came back as some recognizable version of themselves, but too many came back missing parts of their soul. We ran into that guy from geometry class after he had come back, at the local bar where young people went. We were glad to see him, bought him a drink to celebrate his discharge. He showed us Polaroids of himself and a few other soldiers standing over the body of a small Asian man who looked even younger than him, with half his skull blown off and its contents spilled onto the ground. It was the image he carried home from the war. If he is still alive, even if the Polaroids have faded, I’m sure he still carries that image, because I still do.
But before that, when the war was just black and white footage on TV, and maps of places we’d never heard of, my brother enlisted. I had confidence that he would be okay. He was in great physical shape, he was smart, he was a good shot, and he was pretty fearless. I hoped he would meet some interesting people, and get something out of the whole experience. I was so naive; I guess I imagined it would be like a Hemingway novel.
I missed him terribly. He would call once in awhile, and I would ask him about what he was doing, He seemed to want to talk more about how things were going with me. Our phone was in the living room, always dark, except for the TV, left on always, the sound turned down. I spoke softly; my dad was asleep on the couch. He did not leave the couch now; he slept now more than he was awake. I always pictured my brother in the dark, too, maybe standing in a phone booth.
“You know how it is here; nothing much changes,” I told him. “But how was basic? Everybody says it’s really hard.”
And he would tell me about lots of running, and the heat. “Now I know where that expression, ‘I’ve been through hell and half of Georgia’ came from. It’s all the same place,”
“How is the food?”
“It’s not that great, but there’s lots of it.”
The phone calls didn’t happen often, and the silence after they ended seemed infinite.
After he finished basic, he went to airborne school. In one of those rare phone calls, I asked him if he was learning anything.
“Do they have classes — -like, do they teach you tactics or something?”
“Well, they gave us a little manual to study; it’s small, looks like a little pamphlet. It’s just basically instructions on all the ways you can kill a man.”
Long pause. I fumbled for something else to say.
“Other than that, what’s army life like?”
‘Somebody telling you what to do every few minutes. You’re not supposed to think, or make any decisions.”
“Sounds awful. Geez, Jim, is there anything you like about being in the army?”
“I like the part between the airplane and the ground…” he said. “Because that’s the only time I’m not in the army.”
That was the last phone call I remember. I don’t even remember if he got to come home for our dad’s funeral. But he did get discharged as a sole surviving son a few months later. The events of that time are hopelessly shuffled in my memory. He was back home that summer, working construction, and I was working taking care of horses. We would come home and trade stories.
He asked me to teach him some songs on the guitar. I was not that great at it myself, but I showed him some chords, and we would practice after supper. He would sit on the big round orange vinyl ottoman, in front of the fireplace. I had written out the lyrics on sheets torn from my spiral notebook, with the names of chords above the words at the place where the changes were. They were propped on my old music stand from band, and kept sliding off. The couch that my dad had spent his last months on was gone, replaced by two matching swivel rockers covered in a bright floral fabric. The new couch was gold tweed, in a different spot, against the long wall opposite the fireplace. I realized that this was the first new furniture my mother had ever bought.
“How do you get your fingers to do that?”
“Ha! It’s hard at first; but it gets easier.”
But he was determined, and soon could play as well as I could; and in some ways, even better. One time when I was standing behind him, showing him the fingering for some chord, I noticed a scar across the top of his palm.
“What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing happened; it’s just hard to bend it into that weird shape.”
“No, I mean that scar — -did you get hurt at work?”
“Yeah, my hands are pretty beat up; that’s why I’m not such a great guitar player.”
“Come on — -that’s a nasty scar; what happened?”
He looked down, then looked at me. He put the guitar down.
“Okay; I’m going to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else.”
I frowned, and cocked my head.
“I just don’t want everyone to know, okay?”
“It happened on one of my jumps.”
“You mean when you were in the army?” I was surprised. That seemed like ages ago, and the scar didn’t look that old.
“I saw something hit the top of my chute, and saw a shape sliding down and over the edge, so I reached out and caught it. Then I woke up on the ground, sitting with my back against a tree. My hand hurt like hell. When I looked at it, there was just a line of mangled meat where my fingers should be, and I passed out.”
“Wait — -what was it you caught?”
“It was a man. His chute didn’t open.”
“Did he make it?”
“Yeah. I guess the impact knocked me out, but he managed to hang on.”
“Turns out the guy was a Seal — -a UDT guy. So they were pretty happy I caught him.”
At the time I had never heard of Seals, and my brother had to explain what they did.
“I was just glad they put my hand back together. They did a really good job.”
“Oh my God. Did it actually rip your fingers off?”
“Well that was my first thought when I saw it, But they were just all dislocated, and bent completely backward. There was still some skin holding them on.”
“So — -you had to be out of commision for a while — -what happened?”
“Well, some bird colonel took me on a tour of his horse farm. He showed up in the full regalia: riding boots, and a little crop, and all the fruit salad on his chest. But, he let me ride one of his horses. So that was good.”
“Why would you not want anyone to know about that? That’s a pretty amazing story!”
He brushed the air with his hand, as if moving something small out of the way. “
“Just don’t tell everyone.”
“And especially don’t tell Mom,” he added.
“I’m really glad you’re home,” I said.
He picked up the guitar. “Show me that B7 again.”