I once saw a classmate of mine from Hilltop High School on the flight from Bien Hoa air base to Sydney, Australia, where we were going for R&R. I knew that it was he, although it took some time for me to accept the coincidence of the thing. In the meantime, I walked right by him, pretending not to recognize him. For all I knew, he was pretending the same. I found a pair of seats a row or two behind his, where Kolley, a buddy of mine from the Ninth Division, and I could sit together.
At first I told myself that the reason I had not acknowledged my former schoolmate was because I wasn’t really sure that it was he. The last time I saw him was two years earlier, in 1966, when we were wearing caps and gowns instead of summer khakis. Besides, you run into a lot of people in the army, and they sometimes look like someone else. After a while I realized I didn’t want to find out. I was afraid that if it turned out to be he, my R&R would be ruined, because I would have to sacrifice some of my time with Kolley, and Kolley would have to spend some of his time alone or as the outsider tagging along with the two of us.
It had nothing to do with my classmate’s acceptability as a person; it was simply that I owed my loyalty to Kolley, who had been through the war so far with me, and to whom I now felt closer than I did to any of the friends from my civilian past, from another life which had been left behind. Also, I would not have felt as free to enjoy myself or do what I wanted to. In my mind, whether it was voluntary or not, I felt it necessary to maintain a definite dividing line between the friends that I had over there and the one I had had “back in the world.”
In any case, I pretended not to know him. We had seven days in Sydney, during which I never ran into him in any of the bars, hotels, or nightclubs. I remember how luxuriously odd it felt, after seven months, to go to sleep without having to worry about incoming rounds in the middle of the night. On the final morning, when we were all assembled again and taken by bus out to the airport for our return to Vietnam, I found my former classmate on the plane and sat down in the seat beside him. I asked my classmate if he was who I thought he was.
“I thought that was you,” he said, “but I wasn’t sure.”
I told him that it had been the same for me, and then I had lost track of him. “I was going to ask you, if I ran into you again,” I said.
I realized that he had probably intended to ignore me altogether, and wondered whether he had felt the same things I had or not. This hurt me a little. It was one thing for me not to have wanted to recognize him, but for him not to have wanted to recognize me, well, that was different. But we passed over it, we didn’t talk about it anymore, and instead went immediately to what we had been doing in the war, what units we belonged to, and who else from Hilltop we had seen or had come across over there. I was relieved to discover that he was not in the infantry, and therefore we would not have to worry about feeling superior to or alienated from each other. I was a member of an infantry division, but I wasn’t in the infantry proper. I was proud, of course, to be able to tell that I had been wounded, but that’s another story, and anyway I didn’t think of it as sufficient reason to feel more experienced than he was and didn’t act that way. It merely made me feel equal. I was always afraid that I had not experienced enough, and I’m the sort of person who has to have an advantage of some kind in order to feel equal.
Yet it was difficult to talk to him after the obvious subjects had been used up. I don’t know why this was. He didn’t seem to want to open up. He gave off a feeling of remoteness, detachment, as if he were preoccupied with something else. It could be that something had happened to him which he didn’t want to talk about — that was always a definite possibility over there — or that, to him, the fact that I was from Hilltop meant nothing anymore, as it had meant comparatively little to me when I had first noticed him a week before. Certainly we were both headed back to the war, to the incoming rounds, to the very real possibility of getting killed, and there was no way out of it. It wasn’t like when we had first arrived in Vietnam and had had no way of knowing what we were getting into; now we knew and we were going back. Maybe he was thinking about that, just as a I was, even though I kept blabbering on about other things. Or maybe he no longer liked me, since he knew that I had ignored him.
I will never know, because when we landed at Bien Hoa and checked back into the war, we said goodbye and I haven’t seen him since. It doesn’t make any difference. I feel toward him now the same sense of a connection to the special past that I feel toward my other friends from Vietnam, friends who have long since dispersed to all the towns and cities and villages of the country that they come from originally, or to new ones where they started over. These days, the fact that he went to Hilltop High School with me is of less significance than the fact that we were both in Vietnam.
It doesn’t mean that we would be civilian friends or could see each other socially. All the rules of personality and compatibility still hold true. But there is an abstract bond by which I know that if I saw him in trouble, I would unhesitatingly go to his defense. I would not necessarily do that for someone who had merely been my classmate in high school. In the latter case, I would have to determine who they were in relationship to me, what the nature of the trouble was, and whether they were right or wrong according to my own standards, before I could act. On the other hand, I cannot think of anyone I knew in Vietnam, including those I didn’t like, on whose behalf I would not immediately and unquestioningly take action of some kind.
When I was there in Vietnam, toward the end, I wanted only to get home again alive. I prayed to God and promised him that I would believe in him and tell everyone about him if only he would allow me to get back home alive. I didn’t want to die there in a strange place on strange ground so far away from home where no one from my past would ever know what had happened to me. There was even something particular about the dirt that I didn’t like, having studied so closely in moments of terror. I prayed to God and said that he could kill me at the airport in San Diego if wanted, but please, please, not to let me die in Vietnam.
The war for each of us was personal. Sooner or later, you realized that things were going to be about the same when each man left as they had been when he arrived. You weren’t going to get anything out of it collectively. Whatever you won, you were going to win it on your own, for your own reasons, which included getting killed or glory or experience or a novel or whatever it was you wanted from it. There wasn’t going to be anything else. You did your time, you made your friends, and that was that. You survived.
Well, ten years have gone by now since the technical ending of the thing, but for the majority of the men who went there during the time when the war was at its peak, which would have been in the last three years of the 1960s, it has been closer to twenty years since they came back.
It doesn’t seem like it, because the war went on and on for so long after that that we were never really emotionally free of it. I think we knew in some way even then that we had lost it, that everything we had done had been for nothing, at least in terms of there being no possibility of military victory for the side that we had fought on. We weren’t’ ready to admit it, though. We were not psychologically able to let go of it in the way that you let go of an obsessive love affair only when the other person has actually married someone else — we couldn’t let go, that is, until the day when the final helicopter lifted off for the final time from the roof of the abandoned American embassy building in what would thereafter be referred to as Ho Chi Minh City.
It was night over here when we first heard that it was truly and finally all over. I remember driving through Imperial Beach on my way to meet a friend from Los Angeles, a former navy photographer who had been to Vietnam ahead of me, now down for the weekend and staying in a motel in Coronado. Going up Palm Avenue toward the ocean, I had the radio on in my car and there was nothing on it but what was happening in Saigon. I stopped and went into a liquor store across the street from the Palm Theater to buy some beer and half a pint of whiskey. I had known since about five o’clock when I first saw the evening news on television that it was going to be that kind of night, although I was not sure yet exactly how I was going to feel. That was what I would need the beer and the whiskey for: I wanted to feel whatever I was going to feel as soon as possible and get it over with as quickly as I could, with something both to release it and then to numb it.
It turned out that the clerk in the liquor store, a man a little older than I was, had also been to Vietnam. A portable radio on the shelf behind him was tuned to the news. I asked him how he felt about it. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. What was there to say? “Ho Chi Minh City instead of Saigon”, I said. Who would have believed it? It was like some kind of bad joke. He nodded and looked away.
I went out and got in my car and drove to the motel in Coronado. With my friend looking on, I proceeded to down the whiskey and chase it with the beer. My friend did not seem in any way as upset as I was. I figured that this was because he had not been in Vietnam for as long as I had, and had been there much earlier, before the thing became the monster that it did, so that he had had more time and space to make his separate peace about it; either that, or it was because he wasn’t drinking. Having an audience, I began to act out my emotions. It was all for nothing. I was saying, it was all for nothing, they all got killed or had pieces blown off of them for nothing, and in the end they beat us, a bunch of little fuckers wearing sandals made out of tire treads. Using bicycles, without any air force, they beat us.
“No,” he said, “it wasn’t for nothing. We still got to rip and tear ass. America got to show everybody that we can still rip and tear ass, and that was what it was all about.”
It was his cynical way of looking at it, but it struck me as being at least partly true. I understood then that he had been less idealistic, had probably been the victim of fewer illusions than I had going in, and so had lost less in the end. Some of the people who had been hurt the worst (not counting physically) and were the angriest were the ones who had been the most idealistic, the most innocent without believing that they were innocent, in the beginning. I felt a sudden powerful kinship and sympathy for all those whom I knew and whom I did not know who had lost what I imagined I had lost, and how lonely they must be. I could not have put this into words at the time. What I felt specifically was a terrible need to talk to the clerk at the liquor store again, to let him know I cared, to reaffirm the bond which I felt I shared with him; I did not want him to feel alone that night.
I found the number for the liquor store In the telephone book (I’m not sure how I remembered the name of the store — perhaps I had been thinking of this even as I left) and I called him and said that I was the guy from Vietnam who had bought some beer and a certain kind of whiskey earlier that night. He said that he remembered me.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t know exactly why I’m doing this and maybe it’s stupid, but I’m sitting here and I just wanted to call and tell you that I don’t know what it was for and maybe it was for nothing, but I wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone.”
Well,” he said, “I understand what you’re saying and I appreciate the call. But you don’t need to worry about it. It’s not really bothering me.”
“We were all over there together,” I said, “and I just thought you might be feeling like you were alone.”
“No, I don’t feel alone. To tell you the truth, I guess I don’t feel much of anything."
“Well, okay,” I said, “that’s cool, too. I just felt like I had to call. It was bugging me."
“Don’t let it get to you,” he said, “It was just one those things.”
“I just wanted to say hi, man.”
“I appreciate you calling.”
I said good luck to him; he said the same to me. Probably he thought that I was drunk, and probably I was. As usual, there were as many ways to feel about the war as there were people who had been in it. But I don’t think it made any difference. He understood why I had called him.