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"I WAS THERE LAST NIGHT..."

By Robert Clark

A  couple of years ago someone asked me if I still thought about  Vietnam. I
nearly laughed in their face. How do you stop thinking about it? Every day
for  the last twenty-four years, I wake up with it, and go to bed with it.

But this  is what I said. "Yea, I think about it. I can't quit thinking about
it. I never  will. But, I've also learned to live with it. I'm comfortable with
the memories.  I've learned to stop trying to forget and learned instead to
embrace it. It just  doesn't scare me anymore."

A psychologist once told me that NOT being  affected by the experience over
there would be abnormal. When he told me that,  it was like he'd just given
me a pardon. It was as if he said, "Go ahead and  feel something about the
place, Bob. It ain't going  nowhere. You're gonna wear it  for the rest of  your
life. Might  as well get to know it."

A lot of my "brothers" haven't been so  lucky. For them the memories are too
painful, their sense of loss too great. My  sister told me of a friend she
has whose husband was in the  Nam. She asks  this guy when he was there.  Here's
what he said, "Just last night." It took my sister a while to figure out
what he  was talking about. JUST LAST NIGHT. Yeah I was in the  Nam.

When?  JUST LAST NIGHT. During sex with my  wife. And on my way to work
this morning.  Over my lunch hour. Yeah, I was there.
My sister  says I'm not the same brother that went to  Vietnam. My wife
says I won't let people get close to me, not even her. They are probably both right.

Ask a vet about making friends in  Nam. It was  risky. Why? Because we were
in the business of death, and death was with us all  the time. It wasn't the
death of, "If I die before I wake." This was the real  thing. The kind where
boys scream for their mothers.  The kind that lingers in your mind and
becomes more real each time you cheat it.  You don't want to make a lot of  friends
when the possibility of  dying is that real, that close. When you do, friends
become a  liability.

A guy named Bob Flannigan was my  friend. Bob Flannigan is dead. I put him in
a body bag  one sunny day, April 29,  1969. We'd been talking, only a few
minutes before he was shot, about  what we were going to do when we got back
in the world. Now, this was a guy who  had come in country the same time as myself.
A guy who was loveable and generous. He had blue eyes and  sandy blond hair.
When he talked, it was with a soft drawl. Flannigan was a hick and he knew
it. That was part of his  charm. He didn't care. Man, I loved this guy like the
brother I never had. But,  I screwed up. I got too close to him. Maybe I
didn't know any better. But I  broke one of the unwritten rules of war.

DON'T GET CLOSE TO PEOPLE  WHO ARE GOING TO DIE.

Sometimes you can't help it.

You hear vets use the  term "buddy" when they refer to a guy they spent the
war with. "Me and this  buddy a mine . . "

"Friend" sounds too intimate,  doesn't it. "Friend" calls up images of being
close. If  he's a friend, then you are going to be hurt if he dies, and war
hurts enough  without adding to the pain. Get close; get hurt. It's as simple as  that.

In war you learn to keep people at that distance my wife talks  about. You
become so good at it, that twenty years after the war, you still do  it without
thinking. You won't allow yourself to be vulnerable again.

My  wife knows two people who can get into the soft spots inside me. My
daughters. I know it probably bothers her that they can do  this. It's not
that I don't love my wife, I do. She's put up with a lot from me.  She'll tell you
that when she signed on for better or worse she had no idea  there was going
to be so much of the latter. But with my daughters it's  different.

My girls are mine. They'll always be my kids. Not marriage,  not distance,
not even death can change that. They are something on this earth  that can
never be taken away from me. I belong to them. Nothing can change  that.

I can have an ex-wife; but my girls can never have an ex-father.  There's
the difference.

I can still see the faces, though they all seem  to have the same eyes. When
I think of us I always see a line of "dirty grunts"  sitting on a paddy
dike. We're caught in the first gray silver between darkness  and light. That
first moment when we know we've survived another night, and the  business of
staying alive for one more day is about to begin. There was so much  hope in
that brief space of time. It's what we used to pray for. "One more day, God.
One more  day."

And I can hear our conversations  as if they'd only just been spoken. I
still hear the way we sounded, the hard  cynical jokes, our morbid senses of
humor. We were scared to death of dying, and  trying our best not to show it.

I recall the smells, too. Like the way  cordite hangs on the air after a
fire-fight. Or the pungent  odor of rice paddy mud. So different from the
black dirt of Iowa. The  mud of Nam  smells ancient, somehow. Like it's always
been there.  And I'll never forget the way blood smells, stick and drying on my
hands. I  spent a long night that way once. That memory isn't going
anywhere.

I  remember how the night jungle appears almost dream like as the pilot of a
Cessna  buzzes overhead, dropping parachute flares until morning. That
artifical sun would flicker and make shadows run through the  jungle. It was
worse than not being able to see what was out there sometimes. I  remember once
looking at the man next to me as a flare floated overhead. The  shadows
around his eyes were so deep that it looked like his eyes were gone. I  reached over
and touched him on the arm; without looking at me he touched my  hand. "I know
man. I know." That's what he said. It was a human moment. Two guys  a long way
from home and scared shitless.  "I know man." And at that moment he  did.

God I loved those guys. I hurt every time one of them died. We all  did.
Despite our posturing. Despite our desire to stay  disconnected, we couldn't
help ourselves. I know why Tim O'Brien writes his  stories. I know what gives
Bruce Weigle the words to  create poems so honest I cry at their horrible beauty.
It's love. Love for those  guys we shared the experience with.

We did our jobs like good soldiers,  and we tried our best not to become as
hard as our surroundings. We touched each  other and said, "I know." Like a
mother holding a child in the middle of a  nightmare, "It's going to be all
right." We tried not to lose touch with our  humanity. We tried to walk that  line.
To be the good boys our parents had raised  and not to give into
that unnamed thing we knew was inside us  all.

You want to know what frightening is? It's  a nineteen-year-old-boy who's had
a sip of that power over life and death that  war gives you. It's a boy who,
despite all the things he's been taught, knows  that he likes it. It's a
nineteen-year-old who's just lost a friend, and is  angry and scared and,
determined that, "Some asshole is gonna pay." To this day, the thought of
that boy can wake me  from a sound sleep and leave me staring at the ceiling.

As I write this,  I have a picture in front of me. It's of two young men. On
their laps are  tablets. One is smoking a cigarette. Both stare without
expression at the  camera. They're writing letters. Staying in touch with
places they would rather  be. Places and people they hope to see again.

The picture shares space in  a frame with one of my wife. She doesn't mind.
She knows she's been included in  special company. She knows I'll always
love those guys who shared that part of my life, a part she never can. And she
understands how I feel about the ones I know are out there yet.

The ones who still answer the question, "When were you in Vietnam?" with
"Hey, man. I was there just last night."