Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"Look at an infantryman's eyes and you can tell how much war he has seen..."--William Henry

I spend most of my time travelling right now, but old habits die hard. Traditionally early morning would find me, diet soda in hand, and my desktop computer. After reviewing company-wide sales emails and any other business-related items I would traditionally move on to some favorite personal websites--mostly restaurant blogs like eater and waiterrant and one of my personal favorites, restaurantgal.

Well now I'm mostly in hotel rooms and working off of a laptop, and the business review is much shorter than the personal review, but the process has stayed the same. Usually there is some little bit of knowledge to be gleaned, but every once in a while I come across something that completely transports me to another place, and often that place resides in my past.

This morning my regular stop at restaurantgal led me on one of those unique trips. My relationship with my father did not sour until my mid-twenties, and while our schedules as adults precluded us having a very close relationship, we were pretty similar to a normal father and son under the circumstances. My father's very unique life allowed him to effortlessly cross a number of what, even in this country, would be considered class boundaries. A few times a year my family would find itself the only white faces in a sea of poor black ones at a Baptist church whose pastor had been a chaplain to one of my father's wartime units--they became good friends and my father relished the relationship. After the service was a Sunday lunch picnic next to the sanctuary that we stayed for, and that all of us [but my father especially] loved attending. The roof of the church and the air conditioning were paid for with his money, but no one was allowed to know that.

I saw him hop out of a chauffeur-driven Bentley in custom-made suit and shoes to help push a broken-down car up a hill, and he loved Nascar way before it became a huge hit--loved going to the races and hanging with the other fans.

Mainly though, my father loved the American Legion. Other veteran's organizations as well, but the American Legion was where he felt completely comfortable, completely himself. He twice served as a post commander, and regularly served on the executive committee of his home post. A guy who controlled two different Fortune 500 companies during the course of his life would routinely and without fail come to meetings that focused on paying electric bills, throwing picnics, and collecting hall rentals.

During his time at the Legion, the WWII vets like himself ruled the roost. For reasons I never really divined, Korean vets never really made an impact on the membership-maybe they flocked to another organization like the VFW, maybe the relatively short term of the Korean War allowed them to more effectively separate themselves from their service, maybe they thought the older guys were dicks, or maybe it was just that in our particular area they weren't representative. What I remember was when the Vietnam guys started to show up.

The expectation would be that warriors would welcome warriors, and that soldiers, even from different generations, would know one another right away. And maybe in most posts it was just like that, again I really can't say. At my father's beloved post, the old guys did not like the new guys, and did not want them around. They didn't like the long hair some of them had, didn't like the bikes some of them rode [mostly Japanese bikes, as Harleys were expensive and much less reliable back then than they are now], didn't like what they drank and didn't like what they talked about. Didn't like them in "their" place.

Except my father. My dad, again unlike many of his contemporaries, had remained in the reserves until 1969 when he was retired as a full colonel. He had known a number of the Vietnam-era military men during their service, and knew that they were good men who were, in many cases, put in terrible situations. He knew they often had a raw deal at war, and that the deal only got worse when they came home. Most old vets knew that ground fighting the Japanese on the pacific islands wasn't much different than ground fighting Viet Cong, and that being a prisoner of the Japanese would have been just as traumatic and scarring as being a Vietnamese prisoner, but what the didn't acknowledge were all the other differences that truly made coming home so much harder for the Vietnam guys. The guys from Vietnam weren't allowed to win, didn't come home to parades and adoration, and when they were "shell-shocked" [old school post-traumatic stress disorder] in many cases they didn't have the family support system available to them that was available to past generations. They also didn't come back to a booming economy and millions of open, decently-paying jobs. My father knew that they had been screwed, and wanted them to have a welcoming place to go.

I wasn't there every day, obviously. I knew all of this because one of these Vietnam guys eventually went to work for my father, and over time would tell me the stories. This fellow was himself a bit of an iconoclast--a Vietnam-era career soldier who spent the war, three tours worth, as a special forces sniper. He never had the long hair, the beard, the leather jacket, or the motorcycle. He also stayed in the reserves after active duty, and was a different fellow entirely. My father didn't travel with security per se, but it was often prudent for him to have someone with him who could work toward "securing well-being", as he used to say. This guy was perfect for the job, did it for a very long time, and was incredibly loyal to my father as my father was to him. He only told me one personal story about his time in Vietnam, and while it would be unfair to try to relate it here [in order to get the true impact of the words, you would have to watch him utter them], lets just say that this was one truly dangerous fellow.

I remember two stories he told me about the Legion, two instances together that were the dam breaker between the two groups of men.

One afternoon my father stopped by the post to see some friends, one of whom was a pretty famous WWII pilot. He's been on the History Channel several times, and is very well-known and rightfully very well respected. When my father arrived this famous pilot was mildly berating a very successful pilot of the Vietnam War, because of the disparity in their "kill" numbers. The WWII pilot was talking about how he had a slower plane with no missiles that was technologically over matched by the Japanese Zeros he fought against, yet his numbers dwarfed those of the other aviator. He went on to marvel that a fellow could have missiles and a jet engine and be flying a plane universally considered superior to his MIG adversaries and yet succeed on such a limited scale, comparatively. The older pilot was clearly buzzed, and didn't seem to be mean-spirited in his delivery, and while the younger aviator remained basically silent I am told he had a smile on his face. Apparently my father walked up to the small group, bought the seated Vietnam aviator a drink, and told his pilot friend to shut up before he made "even a bigger fool of himself". When the older man began to protest in a good-natured way and restate his stats, my father said, "Idiot! He flew the F-4 before it had a gun! He went up as a bomber with 8 missiles. Every one of his kills came on a stick [missile] and most of them came with a payload in the gut [carrying bombs]. How many B-24 pilots do you know with a bunch of dogfighting kills?"

To his credit, the older man immediately sat down next to the other pilot and asked him, "you didn't have machine guns?"

He answered, "They didn't add a cannon to the F-4 til 1968, and I was already rotating home by then."

"I'm an asshole, no doubt about that, and I apologize sir. Why didn't you stop my stupid ass, why didn't you tell me?"

"You're one of my idols. I was just honored to be speaking with you."

The respect the younger pilot showed the older one, especially considering the circumstances, became very well known at the post very quickly. Many of the older guys started to wonder if they really knew enough about what their younger associates had gone through. And, of course, as the two pilots started to spend more time together their respective groups of friends started to spend more time together as well.

About a month later a notice went up for a "roof party". One of the older members needed to reshingle his roof. He lived outside the city, and before the days of smothering bureaucracy things like this happened often. You put up a flyer, buy the materials, and a bunch of guys show up one Saturday morning. The roof gets reshingled quickly and cheaply, and then you throw a party afterward to thank everyone. Well, this fellow didn't hang out at the post very much because he didn't have much extra money, and while he knew many of the members his own age he wasn't really close with any of them because he couldn't afford to spend the time [even though it is incredibly cheap to eat and drink at an American Legion]. The morning of the party came and only a couple of this fellow's friends showed up...but there were still twenty men there The Vietnam-era guys had seen the flyer and asked about the guy and found out that he was on a short budget and that he really needed the help.

Restaurant Gal is clearly working as a bartender at a military lodge, a VFW or an American Legion or a VVA. Whichever, it doesn't really matter. Depending on which one it is, she may see veterans of Iraq [1991 Operation or 2003 Operation] and Afghanistan. If she has particularly hale souls in her neighborhood, and they do certainly still exist, she may even see a few Korean War or WWII veterans. But mostly, she serves the veterans of the Vietnam War.

These Vietnam War veterans may look rough. They may use a variety of crutches, literally and chemically. And, as she relates, some of them almost assuredly do not sleep well. They probably didn't want to go, but they went. Their time there was chaotic, traumatic, violent, and terrifying. They came back without anything being resolved, and were not welcomed home while still in uniform. Once out of uniform they had trouble becoming part of civilian society. They generally keep to themselves, individually and as a group. They share an incredible weight of memory, and some simply carry it better than others.

At the same time, they are normal people. They have heroes, even though few of them were honored for their own heroism. They are often the first ones willing to lend a hand, even though many of them have needs of their own. Many of them have a lifetime of memory, knowledge, and experience that is there for the asking, but kept out of sight of the casual observer.

These men had to prove themselves even to other soldiers when they first came to these organizations looking for solace. I hope now that they are the elders, that they have finally found their peace.


Blogger cd0103 said...

Well said, as always. Once again, your writing has brought tears to my eyes.

Glad you posted.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truly spot on. Heroes all, no matter what battle they fought in their service is to be rewarded. Your gift, sir, is in writing your memories in a manner which tugs at the heartstrings, and you do it exceedingly well...

Please post more frequently....

9:43 PM  
Blogger shaogo said...

I've now read each and every one of your posts to date. I look forward to reading more.

Thanks for some great insights.

5:31 AM  
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Anonymous Tag Friends said...

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