St. Paul, MN, U.S.A.
Vietnam Revisited: Dispatches from the "Cone of Silence"
Vignette #1 / 16A Non-Flashback
I was on the 16A bus headed for downtown St. Paul on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in June of 1997, when I had a flashback to a war that I was too young to have fought in. We were riding through the Hmong and Vietnamese residential and commercial enclave somewhere between the 800th and 1000th block of University Avenue as a Hmong family in brightly colored clothing stood on the dividing island separating eastbound and westbound traffic. As I looked out the partially opened window, another sound began to cut in above the automotive din, around the way-to-loud CD-player two seats away. It was a sinister and familiar droning pulsation which made me certain that this could not possibly be happening. I shifted my gaze from the immigrants from the other side of the planet, to the expanse of blue sky above and behind them. A lone Huey was on final approach into Holman Field.
Vignette #2 / No...I Was Just A Kid
I was eight years old in 1965. At the time, between building model airplanes and trading baseball cards, I was consuming a steady diet of post-WWII tele-Americana, exemplified by programs like Combat, 12-O'clock High, and McHale's Navy, and Cold War nouveau such as I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart. Even as an 8-year-old however, part of my evening ritual was to watch either The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite or The Huntley/Brinkley Report (later to become NBC Nightly News) with the late Chet Huntley and the venerable but still vibrant David Brinkley. It was also my job to pry the Sunday edition of the New York Times out of the mailbox, regardless of weather.
As a result of my viewing habits, and the fact that I often got to Section-A and The Week In Review before Mom or Dad, I had already heard of Vietnam. However, beyond being able to find it on a map, knowing that it used to be called French Indochina and that The Communists were somehow involved (my Dad had fought The Communists in Korea after all), I can't say that I knew very much about Vietnam. In 1965, I started to learn a lot more about Vietnam. At that time, and in years following, the evening news took on a different character. Correspondents with names like Safer, Rather, Valeriani, Bradley, and Kalb, and many others, dressed in unmarked fatigues and safari jackets, started reporting with increasing frequency from this place called Vietnam. They always seemed to be kneeling or crouching, which of course made sense, given that their reports were often interrupted by some combination of sporadic small-arms fire, helicopter downwash, artillery crews sending "rounds-out", or probing mortar rounds exploding dangerously close by.
The social dynamic within both my immediate and extended families also changed significantly between 1965 and 1975. My father worked for an aerospace electronics firm that developed guidance systems for NASA and DoD. My mother was a registered nurse at the huge FDR VA Hospital about 30 miles north of New York City. With the increased American troop committment, she seemed to always by working either the swing shift (3PM-11PM) or graveyard shift (11PM-7AM). My father began a routine of overtime, arriving home around 9PM at least twice per week. My parents became increasingly distant from each other between 1965 and 1975. They tried to hide it from me in particular, since I was the oldest of the three children. In 1965, my little brother was only three, born just a week after the Cuban Missile Crisis. My baby sister was born 1968 during Tet, and less than a week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The polarization, cynicism and distrust which characterized the war had infected my family. Vietnam had taught my parents how to lie to their children. Vietnam taught everone how to lie...about something. My parents separated in the summer of 1975.
By 1965, my Uncle Jimmy was serving on a destroyer in the South China Sea. Uncle Percy, who was already in the Army, was sent to Da Nang in 1965. Not having had enough, he went back for more...in 1969 I think. Uncle Ronnie was sent to Vietnam in 1967 and served with the 1st Cav. He came back in one piece, physically at least. He lived recklessly until he flipped his Triumph TR-6 in 1985. Uncle Henry also went in 1967 with the 1st Marine Division. He was killed in action in 1968 during the Tet Offensive...near some place called Hué I think.
Vignette #3 / ELT Inventory, AASF-MN, 26th April 2000
Walking out on the tarmac,
in my BOOTS,
not much longer authorized,
and grudgingly tolerated,
painfully comfortable canvas reminders,
of the good old days,
when far too many guys,
ten years my senior,
had to keep telling themselves,
that they were the meanest M16-M203-M60-M79-LAW-toting sons of bitches,
in the valley,
and when Thai-stick crossed the Big Lake,
in body bags,
from Ubon and Udorn and Takhli and Korat,
to Tonsonhut and Da Nang,
to your dorm room at Stanford.
Clipboard in hand,
taking an inventory,
on Cobra attack helicopters,
Huey's more lethal sisters,
still bearing faded images of skulls in cavalry Stetsons,
and crossed sabers,
recording aircraft serial numbers,
and filtering in,
between the crackling of air-tools,
through the turbinic whine of 3M's Gulfstream-5 waiting for clearance,
above the cross-wind,
kicking up dust-devils in the grass next to the trim-pad,
the boom-box in the hangar,
plays "Who'll Stop The Rain?".