Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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In those days I always carried a paperback around with me so that if I hurried up and waited, I'd have something to read. That week in Seattle I'd been carrying around Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed. I'd read Clockwork Orange, Enderby, and Tremor of Intent and liked them so I thought I'd probably enjoy The Wanting Seed. I'd been busy that week in Seattle saying my goodbyes, wrapping up loose ends and doing things I thought I might not get to do for at least the next year.
I went on a picnic to Carkeek Park with my family, went to a movie, ate hamburgers and walked around the streets of the University district, very much aware that I was on the brink of my life's Great Adventure, that I was about to participate in the Great Event of my generation. I knew that my part would be a small one, but I would be a witness at least.
After endless red tape and rigmarole I found myself safely aboard a large airplane bound for Saigon. I settled in with my book and began reading. The first hundred and seventy page flew by. It wasn't quite the usual stuff, but when I got to Part Five, Chapter One and read on page 172 Beatrice-Joanna's observation "Sex. War and sex. Babies and bullets." I started paying closer attention to the text. The cover blurb called the book a "terrifying novel of the population bomb." And so it had been. Now it appeared that the war was being offered as a population solution. I felt slightly queasy. I read on. On page 178 I learned that questions of who and why are not the business of soldiers. "The enemy is the enemy. The enemy is the people we're fighting. We must leave it to our rulers to decide which particular body of people that shall be."
Those words made my hackles rise. I realized I had no clear idea of why I and my several hundred comrades were being flown to Vietnam. Less than a year ago, I had never heard of Vietnam. I had collected stamps from French Indo-China, but Vietnam had meant nothing to me. Now it was about to mean everything to me.
I read on. "We shan't be alive to see it, but we're in now for an era of endless war--endless because the civilian population won't be involved, because war will be conveniently far away from civilization." (p. 184).
I thought, that makes this war perfect and this novel prophetic. When I was first told I'd be heading off to war, I'd assumed that Vietnam must be one of those little Caribbean countries. My brother-in-law had fought in the Dominican Republic and told me chilling stories of urban warfare in which the enemy had strung wire across streets to decapitate the American soldiers driving jeeps. Gordon told me that armorers had installed pipe on the front fenders of the jeep to foil these urban guerrillas. He'd also told me stories of the girls in all shades of brown who'd serviced the troops. With these thoughts whirling in my head I'd asked the sergeant if Vietnam was in the Caribbean. "No dummy, Vietnam has got gooks. It's in Asia. Like Korea, only hot." I later learned that the closest he'd ever been to Vietnam was Korea, which wasn't close enough.
I read on, "You will be fighting an evil and unscrupulous enemy in the defense of a noble cause." (p. 187). I'd heard that rhetoric before in the thirty minute movies I was shown at Fort Ben Harrison in between remedial typing and stenography classes. The sergeants called them counter-insurgency. The enemy had insurgency, but all we had was counter-insurgency. Didn't we have a plan of our own? Did we just wait for the enemy to act and then respond? That seemed lame. That reminded me of the film Rio Grande in which John Wayne was not allowed to pursue the Indians across the river into Mexico. John Wayne hated that policy and discussed it with J. Carrol Naish while they drank bad coffee. I remember their discussion better than I remembered anything from the counter-insurgency films. I'd gone to see Rio Grande with my friend Jon Westling at the Capitol Theater in Yakima in 1950. Jon was now a Rhodes scholar in England, and I was a private bound for Vietnam, reading a prophetic and depressing novel.
I read on. "'The enemy,' whispered Mr. Dollimore with awe, 'is only about a hundred yards away over there.' He pointed..." I read on. "There's no enemy over there. The whole thing's a fake. Very shortly this trench will blow up and the blowing up will be done by remote control, by some big bloody spider sitting at base." (p. 200). I quit reading. I put the book away. I was not going to read any more because I was too queasy. The image of the "big bloody spider" stuck in my brain. I could picture him clearly coming for me. Spiders had always scared me. Like rats bothered Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. I thought of the jungles in Vietnam and of the spiders in those jungles who might have my name on them and for the first time I became aware that it was possible I might die in Vietnam. I didn't want to die in Vietnam or anywhere. I had other books to read. I had brought some of them with me. I dug around in my stuff searching for a better book to read. I found it. Louis L'Amour's Hondo. I'd seen the movie starring John Wayne. I'd especially loved the scene where John Wayne had taught Geraldine Page's kid how to swim by throwing him into the creek. Jon and I had seen Hondo at the Capitol Theater. We thought that Geraldine Page was pretty stupid to try to live alone with her boy in Indian Country, until John Wayne came along. We'd especially like Wayne's dog and had hated the Indians for killing him.
I opened Hondo and started reading. "He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert." That was more like it! I soon lost myself in this take of white man's struggle against the Apaches and thought no more of Vietnam until I finished it a few hours later. John Wayne wouldn't be in Vietnam, but I would. I hoped that I wouldn't disappoint him.