January is a month when Khe Sanh veterans sleep less, wrestle monsters in their dreams, and battle with recollections of death, maiming, and savage fright that slashes like a wolf’s bite. Combat’s aftermath.
One of today’s memories: Arizona in 1968, me home from Vietnam, stunned and weak, yet elated to be out of Khe Sanh.
At night on my 21-day respite from the USMC, I hung with my old hometown buddies and struggled to understand what had come between us. During those thirteen months of being gone, I’d wanted as much as anything to be with my friends, but now they weren’t like they were before and it wasn’t their fault.
And besides raising hell with my old mates, I wanted to do something wild. I’d learned some things over in Nam—wild and inane things that warriors trapped in a world between being boys and men discover.
I recall one of the nights on leave, with a friend’s girlfriend.
She wanted to be tough and to let her prove it, I lit an unfiltered Camel and we put our arms together, her hand at my elbow and my hand at hers so that the lower biceps were in tandem, and then I placed the Camel where our flesh met, and we let it burn. First one to say “ouch” lost.
For years the burn scars crawled across my skin like centipede tracks. I’d done it more than once, although not with her.
I’d done it in Nam with Marines I do not remember and I’d done it on Okinawa waiting to go home, with Marines I do not remember and here I was, doing it at home. And why did I do it? Why did other Marines do it with me?
Betty told me it was like “cutting,” self mutilation. Was it a cry for help? Was I trying to feel something real, sensual beyond the numbing fear that had, over a two-and-one-half month period of time at Khe Sanh, rendered me incapable of feeling? I think I still exhibit some elements of that—not feeling—and I don’t mean in my fingers and toes, but in the den of the soul where the important things we learn and know hide.
And that wasn’t the only wild behavior I exhibited.
After those riotous nights on my 21-day leave I’d surrender and crawl beneath sheets after my parents were abed. I didn’t want them to witness me drunk on my butt. Then, long before they got up, I arose and drank bad black coffee and took my mother’s blue Buick and drove, seeking beer and morning-long sojourns across the country looking for…I don’t know what I was looking for.
When I left the house the liquor stores were closed so I worked out a solution: buy a case of Coors the night before and leave it with one of my buddies, RA, who lived in a cinder-block-walled apartment behind the old mortuary.
I’d show up there at 5:30 or 6 AM, wake him, and if he refused to ride along, I’d corral a six-pack or maybe two out of the fridge and start driving the back roads between the alfalfa and cotton fields.
Hitting seventy or eighty miles an hour, I’d crash through the muddy puddles where the irrigation ditch banks had busted and water surged across the road. I’d whiz past farm worker hovels, scaring the hell out of the jackrabbits and the cottontails. And woe be to any errant hound that sauntered into the road to contest my passing.
If RA rode with me, he leaned back in the seat like that might help if I rolled the car or smashed into one of the gigantic cottonwood trees that grew along the sides of the roads.
Once he said, “What’s the matter with you; are you crazy?”
I remember that really well, but not my answer. Maybe I didn’t have one. And why did I do it? Was I trying to emulate that endorphin high I’d become addicted to in the death and chaos of Khe Sanh?
One morning I came upon a band of sheep crossing from one alfalfa field to another. One of my old herding buddies with whom I’d worked back in ‘64-‘65-‘66 stood in the middle of the road waving a red jacket to make me halt until the sheep finished their short journey.
Music blared from the Buick’s radio—Jim Morrison and Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and Linda Ronstadt and the Spencer Davis Group. I sipped a cold Coors and praised its saintly buzz.
I watched the hooves of the sheep leave imprints in the dust, blue and black and white Australian shepherds circling them, circling.
After the sheep crossed the road, bleating and skipping, I pulled up to my old mate, JR, and rolled down the window. The smell of sheep, lanolin, and their droppings invaded my nose.
I said, “Hey, man, how you doing?”
He stared at me for a long time. Then he mumbled, “Shit, man, I thought you were dead.”
He turned and walked behind the sheep, his jacket slung over his right shoulder.
As I watched him, I wanted to jump out of the car and shout, “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. I ain’t the same kid you knew back then, but I’m alive.”
But I didn’t. I drove on, caroming from mudpuddle to mudpuddle, watching the trees fly by, the tractors cultivating the cotton fields.
I spent nearly every morning putting miles and miles on my mother’s car, and at night I drank more, often finding someone to put a forearm next to mine so I could light a Camel and lay it on the juncture of skin on skin and watch the red glow of the end as it sizzled—the scent of burnt flesh.
Waiting to go back to the Marines, back to war and the unknown, to my fright.