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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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(Not Much of a) War Story

By Norman Lanquist

At least most who were there, and some who watched us go, have enough sense to know we sure weren't all heroes that, God forbid, least of all. What's more, a lot of the real in-country boonie rats who came back still can't get their own personal horrors out of their waking dreams, least of all recall much of what anyone else was doing outside of the Recon That Changed Their Life twenty years ago. And a lot of Saigon Commandos and fellows who almost went, and wannabes who wish they'd gone, well, by the time they'd made their ETS, and retold the stories a few times they'd heard others tell... Sure, of course, it didn't take too many years before they'd started to believe their own lies. It happens; a man can disappear in his own smoke screen. Some said that it was the ones who never told anyone anything, who'd seen too much, maybe done too much. Some little brothers realized that when the changed man who'd swaggered off to Asia two years before, took 'em aside that first week home and told 'em real quiet just what it wasthat was what to believe, not the self-made legends or the easy talk it all turned into in the months after that.

No, we weren't all walkin' the point on every patrol in the Highlands; nor was every man a Huey door gunner a few clicks over Laos; not every one was scanning the shore on riverine duty on the Delta either. Most went when they were called and went where they were sent, and some were cooks and some were clerks. And a bunch of us, damned if we didn't wake up and find we'd gone and signed up on purpose when that'd been the furthest from our minds. And as a matter of fact, no, we weren't all high school dropouts or young and dumb patriots who went to Vietnam on the Senior Trip. They didn't just need grunts. So they got as many college boys as they could; but the best man at my wedding somewhere in the middle of it all, just sort of wasn't there one day, and word was that when he'd been up to Vancouver the summer before he'd made some contacts... But be glad you weren't in the training cadre; imagine, sergeant, not only trying to make soldiers of these boys, but officers, and God forbid, leaders: from the frat house to the barracks in how many weeks? But war is hell, in goofy ways no one could've guessed who wasn't there. And best laid plans half the time don't turn out worth a shit and things took a funny turn. We were in Alabama and sweltered in the Southern summer in the greenest place I'd ever been and next thing I knew we were on the fast track with a secret clearance and every kind of round there was, looking Puff the Magic Dragon in the mouth. And it was adjustable headspace at Edgewood and Aberdeen when they bussed in nurses for us to dance with and fuck and flew our girlfriends in.

Then we took the Vietnam Village in the snow with blanks one cold and clammy day under cover of fog off Puget Sound that winter. I carried the M-60 not-very-damn-light machine gun and an Eleven Bravo MOS then, and weeks later passed a written test for the MPs in which I wasn't and made rank to work in a mail room, Sixth Army Command, Pacific Area, to support a wife and half a child. That year I must've sent a thousand mothers' sons to RVN; I handled your orders, see, from the Colonel's office next door and as fast as these two very nice civilian ladies could type 'em up before they went home for the day, I got 'em from the kids in the print shop and sent 'em out to where you were if you hadn't been where you were going yet, and off you went: Eye Corps, most likely. Next thing I knew I'd got on this very special roster, and it wasn't HQ Co KP for once, and I was riding shotgun Courier Escort for secret stuff on the longest and blackest night I'd ever seen, chasing the sun across the sea to Da Nang. And it was swaggering with a loaded side arm and Dodge City everywhere we went, drinking "33" with half-cracked LRRPs at the Plaza with a grease gun and an AK under the bed.

We'd stayed in town off an alley by the banana tree a mile from Ton Son Nhut; someone was stabling their red race horse in the vacant lot across from the Conex shed. We'd been leafing through old Playboys the last guy'd left, and I added the current one from the States for the next tenants. We'd turned in for the night when the shooting broke out; semi-auto fire exchange outside. I guess that was the night we'd been smokin' up on the roof, but we grabbed the forty-fives, slipped the safeties off and hit the floor, figuring it was us they were after. But it all blew over. Next day nothing. That fine little shiny pony was still cropping grass and weeds under the same green tree, and the little temple by the pond in the backyard garden looked the same. "What was that all about?" we asked. "Oh, just the local gangs" as far as we could find out. "No, no! No VC here!" Did we want to ride along for a drive up to Hue? No, we guessed we didn't. But we grabbed flight for Bangkok, and staggering home, damn near woke up in the Philippines. Yeah, sure we met a girl or two, and paid for a lot of Saigon Tea at a roof-top bar and made promises while we watched the flares till the money ran out.

Before dawn the morning after we left for the States, Second Tet began and the airport was mortared. I returned to paranoia and hysteria in San Francisco of the '60s, my apartment a block from the Pacific in shambles, my wife half -crazy. She'd been at work; we'd been robbedeverything. Was it the druggies down the hall? The gang from the corner Seagull Bar? We'd never know. I still had the pistol, but no ammo, but there was no one to shoot anyhow. That week, too, they'd found a body just down the beach as the sun set somewhere West of Guam where I'd just been.

The plane to 'Nam had seats for two of us behind the crew, the under cargo bay filled with coffins full of ammo. That's why we never saw an airport on that longest night. We parked miles away on the runway's end at Midway and everywhere we fueled. They flew those coffins back home full.

I wasn't at My Lai, and my old grunt unit was at Ben Cat, they said, and I never torched a hooch, but I wish I'd seen Nha Trang.

My last duty was a funeral escort from Oakland where I'd left from, some weeks before, where I'd return to leave the green suit behind a few weeks from then. I took one downed bro I'd never met home for the last time and gave his mom the flag, "from a grateful nation" I was told to say. They told his family not to open the coffin, but before the mass, God forbid, they did. The head was bandaged; that at least but they said his brass was wrong. He wasn't Infantry. The priest wore red that day to raise the cup as the sun streamed in the window.

"Were you in Vietnam?" No one asks much any more. "Yeah," I say, when they do. "Were you in the war?" My Vietnam wasn't Full Metal Jacket or Platoon or Hamburger Hill; that was someone else's Vietnama lot of people's. And those are movies anyhow. "Were you in the war?" We all were.

When I saw my dad, he said, "I'm glad you got back okay."

Of course.

"I'm glad you didn't have to kill anyone," he said.

I spend my days now, a long-haired greybeard in black clothes, with crowds of kids born in those last days, like my children were. It took some years of holding down a steady job before I got into the Harley life. I'm on my second big one now, a stretch-frame long-fork shovelhead, a lot of chrome, a lot of black. I do what I need to, and ride when I can, and shoot the forty-five with friends for fun. My kids, the ones I spend time with, they don't know about anybody's Vietnam. They were playing war or clutching toys or watching Sesame Street while we watched the choppers take our people off the roof of the American Embassy that day. They can't know. Maybe we should tell 'emor maybe we shouldn't. Maybe we owe 'em. Those girls we met in bars, teenage widows then? "Reeducation Centers" if they were lucky. It's not even Saigon anymore.

"Were you in Vietnam?" We all were.

Norman Lanquist is a college teacher of writing in Southeast Arizona. Lanquists' publications include three chapbooks as well as poems, prose and photography in the biker press, in academic journals across the country. He was an editor of the Gila Review and has read from his work at colleges, conferences, cafes, bookstores and prisons from San Francisco to Montreal to New Orleans and San Antonio. He is a Harley rider and a member of the Easyriders magazine Biker Hall o'Fame. A Vietnam veteran (US Army), he carried an Eleven Bravo MOS and pulled courier escort duty from Sixth Army Command, Presidio, San Francisco. A novel, Long Roads, is in progress. "(Not much of a) War Story" first appeared in Outlaw Biker.

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