By Reg Doty
Going to war is a solitary experience, not unlike crashing into a cluster of prickly pear cactus, while trying to evade the wrath of a rampaging Gila monster, which I have also done. With war though, you have to leave your old self behind while undergoing an existential transformation into a more primitive version of yourself where fight or flight regains the status of main concern. It’s no stretch to discover that war still remains cloaked in the same mysteries that warriors confronted from the very beginning of time when they first marched out of caves to throw sticks and stones at each other.
But for now, I sit quietly gazing out our jet’s window and, like John Magee, slip the surly bonds of earth to dance the sky on laughter-silvered wings while trying to see past the boundaries of my imagination. And what I’m seeing is a stark horizon, contrasted between the perils of uncertainty and my untested life with war teasing my sensibilities as I move warily towards a great reckoning.
Yet still, I search for clarity about where my journey is headed, and for all of us who are making this momentous trip. I know it’s foolish to predict an outcome so early in my narrative and I also know, as with most of life, conclusions remain ambiguous until reality intersects with destiny, or more ominously with fate.
But today isn’t just any Tuesday in March, and all the pages for 1968 have yet to be written. One thing for sure though is that this year won’t be just another one for tearing off the magnetic calendar affixed to mom’s refrigerator. And, as with the unending passage of time, I won’t be surprised at how things can change in a heart-beat, and probably in ways that I could never have imagined.
Our jet is westbound from Travis Air Force Base on an indirect heading to Ton Son Nhut AFB in the Republic of South Vietnam. The flight is a chartered Flying Tiger DC- 8 and filled with brown water sailors, known as Special Warfare Combat Crewmen: Most of us are on our way to PBR units, while others are rotating SEALS. We are all brothers in arms though, assigned to the river sections of Task Force 116, where we believe our final destination is to be the Mekong Delta. But, in truth, it may be much further still, to an even more distant shore.
With stops in Honolulu and then Yakota AFB, outside Tokyo, the flight will take 24 hours before we reach our objective. Most of us have been awake longer than that though, and are now as tired as we were anxious to find some spiritual armor for eluding a disagreeable fate, yet more substantial than the sweet optimism of immortal youth. You might have thought it to be a tedious flight, but far from it; I spend much of it reflecting on the twenty years it has taken me to getting here.
My seat companion is Dave, whom I’ve known since BUDS. He always has a smile on his face and reminds me of joy in the moment. Dave is big, well above my six feet, two inches and with broad swimmers’ shoulders. He also fits the stereotype of a leading man, except that he is so easy going you think he might be asleep. But don’t let that fool you because he knows exactly what is going on, like a lion dozing in the tall savanna of the Serengeti while not watching a herd of zebra drinking in the low depression of a water hole.
Uncharacteristically, unlike many of our era, he had been accepted to attend the University of North Carolina, on full scholarship, with plans on becoming a physician, like his father and brother. But, since the war, he opted to enlist in the navy instead. I was curious about why and he told me to forget about patriotism, rather that he would have been unable to sit in a classroom while somebody else carried his weight. I always stood a little taller around him because that was just the kind of guy he was. He made me laugh too, like when he was at leisure, he was probably sleeping, but with a shit-eating grin on his face that kept us all wondering.
I also made a connection with one of the flight attendants; you know how you hit it off with someone. Her name is Patti and she is stunningly attractive, with hazel-green eyes and thick auburn hair accented by slivers of golden highlights, probably from the sun. She stands maybe five feet, four inches tall and probably weighs in at a graceful 110. I suppose part of the attraction was that we lived only about 7 miles from each other growing up and had some common interests, like wanting to travel.
She told me she had applied to Pan American Airlines, but hadn’t made the cut, so decided to bide her time with Flying Tigers, a Vietnam military shuttle service, until she could get on with a scheduled carrier. Me, I applied to Uncle Sam’s Navy because I thought it was the right thing to do, made the cut, and was headed to do some specialized site-seeing in southeast Asia.
While Dave was out of his seat jaw-boning with our favorite lieutenant, Patti took a break and sat down next to me. She asked what it was like going to war. I told her that I remember updating my next-of-kin form so my personal effects could be sent to them if need be. And since I was only 20, and didn’t own anything except my good name, I didn’t need a will. But one of the perks of the great Asian vacation was that we all got a to sign up for a $10,000 survivor benefit, which, of course I did, and I left it to my folks. But then, tongue-in-cheek, remarked that I was on the verge of reassigning it to her instead. She frowned and gave me a very dismissive glance telling me to be serious.
So, after being soundly chastened, I got to it by saying that I think about things from a spiritual perspective and someone who was raised in a military family that put a high value on personal honor and integrity. I then said that I believed there were several ordeals someone would have to confront. One was the kind of loneliness that is imposed by distance, both literally and metaphorically. Another is how transformative war is, but that the conversion will be as unforeseeable as war itself. I say that I already feel like I’m outside myself, but in a way that is more like being reincarnated into a different me. Further, I add that what used to be predictable is now a place where confusion reigns. I go on saying that what you may think you know about reality will be as meaningful as flipping a coin. But, that no matter how you flip it, you will lose, either by forfeiture of your well-being, life or limb, or by smothering the flame that sparks your soul.
Mostly, you need to set aside the romanticism that comes from watching movies and television. The truth is that war is hell on earth and no matter how you slice it the idea about winners and losers is complete fiction because everyone pays dearly from the consequences of it.
After a moment I consider irony, like how fear doesn’t dominate my thoughts so much as regret for lives that will go unfulfilled. Then I supposed that in considering the circumstance, war can bring out both the best and worst in all of us. But regardless, for survivors the price will be steep. And if you are lucky enough to make it back you will realize that Thomas Mann was right in that you can never go home again.
Finally, after I didn’t have any more to say she just stared at me with tears in her eyes. I thought she was going to start crying and lamely started looking around the cabin hoping that people wouldn’t get the wrong idea that I said something to piss her off, or make her unhappy. But instead, she just said that my words were too sad for her and she got up and removed herself. I returned to gazing out the window. When will I ever learn not to fall into the trap of sharing opinions?
Before I knew it, I was jolted from my reverie as the intercom came to life. It was the captain reporting that we were about 50 minutes from wheels down. I noticed his voice had the typical nonchalance of a seasoned pilot. Actually, I was reminded of recordings I heard of Chuck Yeager, with his slow drawl, reporting that he had just broke the sound barrier.
Then, possibly for dramatic effect, the captain continued saying that the VC sometimes take potshots at aircraft on final approach so we’ll be coming in fast and steep to lessen the chances that our flight crosses paths with the notorious “Golden BB,” which, he said, could really mess up our day. Then, chuckling, told us not to worry though because after Tet those little bastards, in their black pajamas, had pretty much shot their wad and all we would be doing is mopping up.
I just looked at Dave, with as much dismay I could muster. Then I asked him how much credibility someone had who would be home tomorrow night, last night our time, asleep in his own bed, and dreaming about who knows what. None-the-less everybody loves a glass half-filled kind of a guy.
Then without missing a beat he became maudlin and said that it was his, and the crew’s, highest honor and sincerest privilege to have us on board and that he hoped to be our pilot when we would all be returning back to the world, in a year’s time, safe and sound. With that my life began to pass before my eyes as I lapsed back to staring out the window and contemplated that most eternal question: What the hell does any of this mean?
Just then Patti reached over and tapped my shoulder and brought me back to the present. She told me that if I ever needed someone to write to, I could write to her and she handed me a note with her name and address. She then gave me a luminous megawatt smile and continued on her way down the aisle.
Dave passed me the queerest look and whispered something about us being in some really deep shit. I’m sure she just felt sorry for me after the captain’s little speech and my insipid interpretation for what it’s like going to war and she just wanted to give my morale a boost, especially knowing the part I would soon be playing in the great drama. Back to the window.
Shortly, the captain announced that we nearly on final. The seat-belt light came on and he reminded us to replace our trays and make sure our seatbelts were snug. He thanked us for choosing Flying Tiger. Ha-ha. Finally, he said that this would be his last announcement because things were getting pretty busy up-front.
After our wheels finally touched down, I didn’t notice any bullet holes in the fuselage and Dave and I weren’t bleeding. He then just looked at me with his special “say what” expression.
After the plane came to rest, an airport ramp truck pulled up to the forward port side hatch and the door opened. When I got to the door it was like I ran into a solid wall of heat. The outside temperature was about 130 degrees on the tarmac and the humidity must have been somewhere near 1,000%. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairway, my clothes were soaked. Something else that I recollect with absolute clarity, was the aroma, which became the smell of Southeast Asia for me: Lamp oil, fish, Nuoc Mam, a Vietnamese dipping sauce, and anise seed. To this day elements of that aroma takes me right back. Welcome to Vietnam, number 1 GI.
Post script – I never wrote to Patti, I guess war is like that. And yes, going to war turned out to be pretty much just like I told Patti. Sadly though, the worst part of the adventure for me turned out to be when I learned that Dave would never be attending medical school.