Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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I'd been in Vietnam more than a year, first at Tan Son Nhut for about nine months and then at Long Binh for four months. I'd already extended one month and thirteen days and was being heavily encouraged to re-up and extend for another one year tour of duty. The enticements were considerable: cash bonus, rank and of course, the chance to continue serving my country in a foreign war of liberation. To help liberate an oppressed people from the heavy heel of Chinese communism--that argument was pure bullshit to me. A better argument would have been--Do you want to stay in a situation where you have power totally out of proportion to your age, experience, training and rank? Or do you want to go home, take off your uniform and be a nobody in a job where you have no autonomy, no power, and are surrounded by people who have absolutely no interest in where you have been for the past two years or in what you have been doing?
I'd kept in touch with what was happening back home in Seattle by reading the daily papers so I was aware of the antiwar movement, and I was aware that nonmilitary types assumed that everyone in Vietnam wearing an army uniform spent their days and nights bayoneting babies and burning villages.
I did have a clue that folks back home would not believe me when I told them I spent my tour of duty typing letters and memos. They've never seen a movie or read a book which showed men at war doing activities of that sort, so why should they believe me?
I had about half talked myself into at least considering re-upping when one sunny day in September 1967 I found myself alone in my hooch with the mamasan who polished our boots and generally looked after the place, making beds, sweeping and so on.
I was trying to nap before I went back to the office to do evening duty. Mamasan had taken one pair of my several pairs of jungle boots and had been polishing the black leather parts of them to the usual obsidian shine. I'd been trying to doze. Her rhythmic slapping of the rags on my boots had lulled me almost to dreamland.
Thump! I woke up with a start. Mamasan had slammed my boots down under my cot. She stood by my cot looking down at me. I'd never had a conversation with her, although I'd seen my buddy Dead Head Ed spend hours conversing with her. He never told me what they discussed, but he was from California so I figured that whatever it was, it was his own business. I waited for her to say something. But nothing.
"Yes, Mamasan. May I help you?"
"Help yourself, G.I." she said cryptically.
"Willy. Call me Willy. What are you saying?" This was ridiculous--a dialogue with the mamasan. What could she and I have to say to each other? I looked down at my boots. They looked great as usual.
"These boots are made for walkin'" I commented, sticking to the only subject I felt we had in common.
"And walkin' is what you should do, Willy."
"Or what, Mamasan? These boots will walk all over me?"
"Fuck the boots, Willy. It's sandals that will be walking all over you. Uncle Ho's sandals."
"Fuck the boots? Fuck the boots." What's this shit, I thought. This was pretty weird shit. Mamasan goes dinky dau --the headline will read. I never heard her say the F word before.
"What are you driving at, Mamasan?" I asked, tired of beating around the bush. And then the really weird shit began.
"Go home, Willy. VC come and kill everybody."
"Everybody?" I asked with my usual cynical nonchalance.
"Everybody who doesn't run and hide will die!" She spoke with a steely tone which chilled my blood and expunged and extirpated what few thoughts of re-upping I'd harbored in my callow, power drunk brain. The source of her English didn't occur to me till much later.
"Electric typewriter and air-conditioning will not save your G.I. ass."
I looked the mamasan up and down. What could she know? What makes her so smart? What is this shit?
On the other hand, what the fuck do I know? And besides, it's her country. It may be an open cesspool without a decent T-bone steak or a baked potato in the whole shooting match. And their horses. I'd seen bigger jackrabbits back home in the hills around Yakima.
But it was her country and she's fond of it and she knows the place.
"Yes, Mamasan. To make you happy. I'll di di mau. I'll be home in October and I won't come back."
"Good, you watch Tet fireworks on TV. Think about me."
"Sure, I will. I'll think about you."
Sure I'll think about her. Fat fucking chance that Seattle TV will show Saigon Tet fireworks. But they did and I did think about mamasan. And I have thought about Vietnam plenty these last twenty-five years.
I had no idea I would. It never occurred to me as a possibility. I intended to do like my father's generations. Come home, go to school, get a degree, get a good job, buy a home, raise a family and own a piece of the American Dream. But it never worked out for me.
When I ask WWII vets why, they know. Chuck Yeager said it best. "You Vietnam vets were fucked up before the war. It wasn't the war that did it."
Other WWII vets knew, too. "You lost your war. If you'd stay'd away from drugs and rock and roll you coulda kicked them little gooks asses! Think we coulda beat the Krauts and Japs if we'd been stoned and had a transistor radio stuck in our ear?"
Or--the Depression prepared us for our war. You were all too soft. You had everything handed to you. You never had to work for anything.
Needless to say I steered clear of WWII vets after a few exchanges of this sort. Being called a crybaby Vietnam vet wasn't fun, especially by a paunchy half drunk WWII vet in a fez.
When Mamasan told me to go home it never occurred to me that the Vietnam War would fuck anybody up or that it had fucked me up. That, twenty years later I would be panhandled by Vietnam vets years younger than I, who were homeless, shit in alleys and slept and ate in Dempsey dumpsters.
It never occurred to me that I would join a Vietnam vets organization and that just attending meetings with all those vets would stress me out more than being in a war zone ever had.
Twenty five years after arriving home in Seattle from Vietnam, I was on my way to a Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program meeting at a veterans hall at the Seattle Center. A statue of a steel helmeted doughboy stands out front.
I parked my car near the Center, just across the street from a state liquor store and headed down hill toward my meeting.
"Hey, wanta help a fellow Vietnam vet?"
This came from a small disheveled stereotype of a street person about my age, bearded and a large pack on his back.
I turned and confronted him. I was tired and irritable after a long day as a reference librarian. I was in my work garb -a tweed sports jacket, a button down blue shirt and a rep necktie. I had short hair and this guy pissed me off.
"You still humpin' the boonies?" I asked. "Why the hell do you think I'm a Vietnam vet?" I asked in my angriest tone.
"Calm down, bro. Aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," I admitted. "I am. But you can't assume that of everyone our age."
"And I don't either. With you I took a lucky shot. I need money for a place to stay. I got into town too late for any of the missions. They're all full and I don't want to sleep in the street again tonight." He was matter of fact and didn't whine.
"So what do you claim you did in Vietnam? Besides killing babies and burning villages?"
"I don't claim. And I did kill babies and burn villages. I was a dog handler and a tunnel rat and did two and a half tours until I was wounded and sent to Japan."
"What's in it for me? I'm not information central. If I show you, will you give me $20.00? It won't kill you, you are doing well. Look at the fine Harris tweed."
He had a point, but I was still a hard ass. My years as a welfare caseworker had left some ice water in my veins.
"Yes, but I want picture I.D. and your DD 214."
"Done," he said.
He dug around in his clothes and came up with the picture I.D. It was him all right.
"Okay, now the DD 214."
He dug around more and he came up with a much folded DD 214 which he unfolded carefully and held up for my inspection. I reached for it and he pulled it back.
"No, no, that's not part of the deal. No touching, no touching."
His tone was different. I'd heard that tone before. He expected to be obeyed and he was. The DD 214 supported his story. It all matched. Much later I thought of fakes and forgeries, but at that moment I believed.
I plucked a twenty dollar bill from my shirt pocket and wished him a good night. He said, "Thanks," and that was the end of it. I'd noticed by his dates that he'd been in-country during the Tet offensive.
I went off to my meeting, nodding at the statue of the doughboy as I entered the hall. I sat on a hard chair and listened to loonies argue for three hours that there were still POW's in Russia from WWII, that North Korea still had POW's from the Korean War and that hundreds of American soldiers were slave laborers in Southeast Asia (and piss poor workers they'd be, I thought). But I never saw a shred of evidence, nor did I believe any of it for a second. But I didn't really believe mamasan about the Tet offensive and I didn't believe the panhandler about his being a tunnel rat either. What do I know?
I think about mamasan and wonder about her. Was she a serving colonel in the Viet Cong? A nice, middle-aged lady who gave good advice to a young American soldier? Or both? If I'd stuck around for another tour would she have done her commie duty and put a bullet in my worthless ass and render me incapable of typing another memo. Can't type standing up.
If, when the office complex had been overrun by VC and/or NVA, could I have gotten my.45 out of the office safe and put a bullet in Mamasan if she'd attempted to kill me or destroy my carefully maintained file system and my suspense file on congressional investigations?
I would never know, for I took her advice and went home and left the U.S. Army. I never returned to Vietnam, but I did watch the Tet offensive on TV. And did think of mamasan, and I did wonder what she and Dead Head Ed talked about in their endless conversations.
I never found out what happened to my file system or my suspense file or the large office filled with people who I had known well, who I'd worked closely with for months and who I'd been to countless office barbecues with.
I wondered, but, I never tried to find out. I didn't really want to know. I was afraid I'd find out that they'd died at their electric typewriters in the chill air-conditioned atmosphere of USARV HQ while I sat at home in Seattle watching it all on TV.
I thought I was all done with this piece but totally by accident I stumbled on a letter from my army buddy, Dead Head Ed, that I'd forgotten I'd ever received.
It's postmarked Dec. 26, 1967 from Santa Maria, California. Ed had left Vietnam before me, so he had no information about Long Binh that I didn't have. I didn't save my answer to his letter, but I did write on Ed's envelope that I mailed it 6 February 1968. I wonder if I mentioned the Tet offensive or asked Ed what he and mamasan talked about.
Hello there Willie. Thought I'd take this opportunity to see if we're both alive after a few months of this harrowing civilian experience.
I've been having some good times around here, but I'll have more and really feel better if I ever get my trust in girls regained. It's terrible but there's only one reason I see to take one out. No respect is my problem I guess.
I broke down and got some transportation, a Chevy station wagon of 57 vintage. I suppose you guys see a lot of demonstrators and sit ins up there, heh? We had a group that was going to demonstrate while the CIA was interviewing seniors, so the CIA didn't come and some bitterness followed, about the seniors not getting to apply for jobs. Who wants a job with the CIA anyway? What's wrong with jobs on Tu Do Street? Christ, school starts again in about a few more days and I don't have a place to live yet. We were going to get an unfurnished cottage but I guess not now. I might end up in the dorm this quarter. I think it might be though, for one quarter anyway.
Well keep in contact and let me know what you're doing now. Oh yeah tried #13 a few times. It is good, hope it's legalized. Happy New Year, Willy,
I'm tempted to call Santa Maria information to see if I can find Ed. One of these days maybe I will. I wonder how he's doing. I wonder if he remembers what he and the mamasan talked about.