Brent R. Babcock, Vietnam veteran
Pahrump, Nevada, USA
Brent R. Babcock
(Formerly, Spc-5, U.S. 56398137, First Infantry Division , U.S. Army, Vietnam, 1967)
August 27, 1967, thirty-thousand feet above the Pacific:
Out the right window, shafts of white cumulus clouds cast shadows on the ocean far below. Massive swirls of flotsam define the surface of the ocean. I wonder if all the trash in the world ended up swirling in the mid Pacific. Maybe THIS is the Land of Trash, a place where all discarded things end-up. Seems appropriate to have one last mind-jostling image to stack on top of all the others that accumulated during the previous ten months. My fellow travelers are asleep or blankly staring. Sore achy muscles yearned to stretch, stretch out of this aircraft across the remaining distance to the Real World. Not to happen, not yet, not quite yet. Several more hoops to jump, more paper barriers to endure before Freedom in the Real World.
Air-breathing hissing vibrating engine pods urge the silver cigar onward with its cargo of broken minds and sorry souls heading towards the unknown; the Real World. Will it be as it was left? I nap between yawns and pangs of anxiety. A soul in the seat across the aisle is quietly sobbing...too much bottled-up for too long, spilling out of available orifices. Such displays would have embarrassed non-participants. It didn't seem out of place, here. Every tortured soul in that craft is chewing on his own hunk of anguish, not sure if to vomit or swallow. Sleep washes through the cabin. I look around at the gaunt sunburned faces of tired broken men. The last sound I hear is a gurgling whispering voice into a pillow held firmly between knees. Maybe a prayer of thanks or quiet cursing, both acts often coexisted.
The pilot's bored voice crackles through the cabin, awaking everyone as if a perimeter Claymore exploded. Dazed souls grasp for their weapons, not needed, not now, an extremity that was amputated at Headquarters along with the TA-50 gear. I heard that people that loose a limb feel that lost limb as a hot sensation where it used to be. My rifle is my missing limb. I dreamed of a time when it would not be needed and now the hour arrived, I yearn for it, for the security of being able to run a clip through it, hoping it would stop the chaos that pulled the trigger. Big Bird swung-up her wing, dropping her nose as the loudspeaker crackled instructions about seatbelts, seats and smoking. What did this have to do with anything? Big Bird lands anyway, even if the seats aren't upright, trays aren't stowed and cigarettes not extinguished. Tell me something that is SIGNIFICANT!
On the ground and ushered into a bus to travel to Oakland Army Base, place of Mustering-Out. Our "handlers'" voices are muted, somewhat kind in tone. Everyone "handling" this load of baggage seems to be very cautious with it. I want someone to scream. Maybe "Incoming!" or some damned insane mumble jumble. This is too quick of a letdown. Soft music plays on the bus's loudspeaker system. The bus engine is quiet, the traffic is quiet. All sound ceases, total silence. I find myself focused on the faces of drivers as they pull alongside the bus. Concentrated on driving or bobbing their heads to some jazzy music, all preoccupied with whatever task is at hand. Are their minds O.K.? I wonder. Have they slept in the last two weeks, really slept? The kind of sleep that leaves you yearning for the Sunday paper, a leisurely smoke, a cup of coffee on the patio of a hillside house overlooking the Pacific on a warm October morning. The smell of citrus blossoms..... back to the task at hand: Mustering Out.
Sleeping quarters were offered, not ordered. Why are these uniformed people so kind to us? They stare into my eyes, not in a threatening fashion, as if reading instruction of "How to Start." Maybe they are looking for the ANSWER. Sorry, you will definitely not find it here, just more questions. First a shower. Hands on the wall, head down, I watch the red-stained water run off my body and swirl into the drain between my feet. A twinge of delight surges through me... there it goes, Viet-fucking-NAM, down the drain, one little piece of laterite after another. It keeps oozing from the pores of my skin. Must be pounds of it hitchhiking along for its final burial, the sewers of Oakland. Ironic, isn't it?
A breakfast of steak and eggs! In the Army? Yes. This proves that this is not "for real." What if this is just a dream and any second I will awaken to the crack of a 105mm starting another fire mission and the whine of the drive-train for the whop-whopping of chopper blades? Guts twist and wretch with this kind of thinking. Minds go south what this kind of thinking... Get a grip!
Several disheveled medic-types with stethoscopes parade back-and-forth in front of our Formation talking loudly about those with dripping appendages to step out front, those with severe fevers to step-out-front, those with current wounds or other obvious ailments to step out front. The rest of us are treated to the obligatory left turn of head and cough while the catatonic orderlies grabs gonads to see if "something" is wrong. What was wrong with us was not going to be found by seeing if our testicles bounced up and down with each heaving of the chest. It would be found later in our DNA and how we did or did not fit in the Real World. A clerk without blood sat in front of me, staring at my paperwork and mumbled something about me not having a set of Dress Greens. No, you dumb ass! You took them from me a year ago when I processed-out to the 'NAM! Don't you remember, wool pants and jacket are not proper attire in the 'NAM! Son-of-a-bitch! See if I ever talk to him again!
Last paycheck: $185 US after deductions, pieces of paper in quadruplicate for mustering-out pay, uniform issue, health certification (yep, this here boy is as good as gold, you betcha!) And the customary DD214 form that certifies the holder as a real honest-to-goodness soldier with whatever history one accumulated during one's service obligation. Schools, medals, I.Q., personal statistics, discharge status and other information decorate this document. "Hold-on-to-this-document. You-will-need-it-when-you-return-to-the-Service." This implies that I will be too damned homesick for the 'NAM in several months, grab my DD214 and like a moth heading for the backdoor light shuffle down to the Induction Station for another go-around. Forever hopeful, these geniuses!
Sunlight hurts my eyes as I head for the front gate to grab a Taxi to the airport. A band of scruffy-looking folks near the gate were screaming epitaphs at whoever was walking nearby. I suppose these are the "war protesters" I heard about. Don't seem too threatening. Maybe a grenade would scatter 'em. Nah, just kids doing what they thought they should be doing. We were old men of twenty looking for a trip wire. Welcome to San Francisco and the Summer of Love.