Worser and Worser

worser and worser carousel  Discovery of the 40 year old box was unsettling.  The box had been forwarded from the APO address to his folks address in Dowajac.  His mother had died first and then earlier this year his father.  With his friend Alison’s help they’d had been closing the house, readying it for sale when they found the box in his dad’s gun cabinet.  Alison carefully lifted each item, inspecting it and passing it to him as she told him what it was:  “… a paperback God Bless You Mr. Rosewater,  here’s three cans of ‘Danske Bacon’ with blue and red labels, and there’s a whole bunch of packets of Fizzies. They’re all faded and colorless.  Here’s something called Shell No Pest Strip—ughh stinks yuk.  Hey Robert, this is a small dog collar. It.s gotta tag that reads Sea Rat.”  Through the half inch thick lens of his left eye Robert Merriman squinted at the box again at then at the letter dated 4 May 1970.  He picked it up, held it to his cheek, smelled it and had Alison read it not once but three times.  He could feel the thump of his heart and now that slight tremor returned to his left hand.  How could this be?

My Dearest Robert,

            This place has gone crazy!.  Hundreds of students have been demonstrating and last night they set fire to the ROTC building.  Jesus Christ, first the My Lai Massacre and now we find out Nixon’s sending missions into Cambodia. Tell Digger Boy he’s right, “This shit gets worser and worser.”  Fucking National Guard on campus, can you believe that? Jesus H. Christ.  After I mail this care package I’m going to take some pictures of the National Guard.  I’ll borrow another Digger Boy-ism “Fuck de National Guard!”Here are a few things to bring a little comfort.  I wish I could be there with you.  Is that silly?  I think fondly of you every day and hope for a time the worry will vanish.  The picture is last summer at the Lake.  That’s my dad next to me.  By early this summer you will be you next to me.  My love to you and to Sea Rat.  Aloha my dearest, Jeannie

 

My Eternal Jeannie.  Within this span of 40 plus years not many days have ended without loving thoughts of you.  Princess Nadia and her beloved Tchaikovsky–whose closest approach was to have passed one time in carriages, yet lovers for decades bonded only by letters and imagination.  Isn’t it ironic that words can scarcely do justice to the potency of such an abstract, ethereal love, conceived, nurtured, and sustained in the mind from a few thousand words written in letters a lifetime ago?…

 

He had to sit.  How can this be?  Someone, someone so crucially important, who disappeared from your life over 40 years ago suddenly comes crashing through the atmosphere like a meteor?  How can this be?  His memory extracted and replayed its earliest images of Jeannie.  1969 BinhBaIsland, Republic of Viet Nam.  Stanley Vincent’s snapshot of Jeannie, his sister at graduation from a CatholicHigh school. standing beside a jolly old nun in rimless glasses. The picture lay on the table in their hootch.  The girl’s slightly shaded face and her posture reminded Robert of Ingrid Bergman’s “Joan of Arc.” That snapshot; that was the beginning.

“Umm, what a fine lookin’ sister, Stan.”

“Yeah, that’s Jeannie – she’s a looker all right—and the smartest of all of us. She’s at sophomore in college now. Two days later he asked if he could write her.

Dear Miss Vincent – Jeannie – Stan’s sister,

                        Robert Merriman here, your brother Stan’s pard  (see enclosed photo)‘Dinky dau’ and ‘numbah ten’  are negative expressions so commonly applied to just about everything around us.  Not, however, that photo of you standing with Sister Flashy Eyewear.  So I asked Stan for your address. thinking you might like an occasional note from the front, I guess I could corroborate Stan’s lies but I’ll spin my own, The distance between Stane’s perspective and mine is  so w i d e  as to afford an opportunity for a parallel view, ergo depth. 

            A little about myself.  In my corner weighing in at 180 lbs is Me, 25 years old, 6’ tall from Dowagac, Michigan, graduate of U of Michigan (BS Biology), RO
TC and OCS, now Lieutenant junior grade, United States Naval Reserve currently Swift Boat officer in charge..  The enclosed snapshot is offered as proof.  As just about everyone else around me, I smoke, I drink, and I use despicable language.  But I like dogs (see photo) and kids (broiled with BBQ sauce) and generally strive for congeniality. 

            Viet Nam.  I’ve been in country four months, now. Most folks serving here see everything Vietnamese as ‘dinky dau’, or ‘numbah ten’; I don’t.  This is a beautiful country of sweet, tough, little people the majority of whom are frightened victims suffering in their own homes..  Then I could say just about the same for ourselves except that we’re big people and we’re not in our homes, we’re in theirs.  Still, I do not know why we are over here fighting.  If you know, please advise.

            Enough.  I would be very pleased to hear from you Jeannie Vincent.

Sincerely, Robert Merriman

 

 

            Dear Lt. Merriman,

            Yes, sir. Your invitation to parallel viewing is irresistible and your letters welcome.  First let me thank you, Lieutenant, for your service.  .  That said, now I’m going to think of you as Robert.  Okay? 

            Stan  says nice things about you.  We are grateful that he has a good friend over there – please keep each other safe.

            Here at the starting line, I ask myself who might you think I am – with only two sources, Stan and a snapshot?   Your mention of the h.s. graduation photo with Sister Francis, she of the ‘flashy eyewear’ gives cause to consider the inferences you may have drawn. Ummm…Good Catholic girl’s school = good Catholic girl?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Now regarding Stan –.  Yes I love him because he’s my brother; but pals? Never been.  I am the smarter, younger sister who never missed an opportunity to prove him wrong or to show him up and believe me, dumbass provided plenty of opportunities.  Stan the team  quarterback; I the class valedictorian.   You know how people do reverse anthropomorphisms – well Stan would be, in my opinion, one of those cape buffalos one sees in African documentaries – big, good looking,  strong, fearless and stupid.  No match for a swift, intelligent leopard. So– a wise lieutenant would discount any perceived intelligence from Stan.  Your mind’s eye, well, I might trust, Stan’s I do not.  Capite?  As to the nice Catholic girl image.  Well I’m a sophomore at co-ed school.  Here, as in Viet Nam, drink, smoke, and despicable language abound.  Other vices remain unmentioned.  This is where we nascent beings test our first freedom.  Some of my peers plunge head first into the deep end.  I’m still sitting on the edge, testing the water with my toes while enjoying the show at the other end of the pool.    

Robert, please give me some specifics.  Just what are those qualities that make the Vietnamese sweet?  Describe where you live and your routine –don’t leave out colors and smells.  How does fear manifest itself?  With you? Other Americans?  Vietnamese? I am very curious.  This war has me confused and as yet I am unable to justify U.S. involvement.  I do not believe that attack on those destroyers happened; no, and I think  the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is a sham, a fiction to gull Congress and the public.  But then there’s the specter of the Domino Theory.  I just don’t know. 

            Having you to write feels good.  I look forward to your next. Stay safe.

P.S. Puppy’s name, please.

                                                            Warm regards, Jeannie

            Robert, elated by the letter, read it any time he was alone.  He hastened to answer Jeannie but felt it wiser to wait a few days, first to organize thoughts, thoughts which would clarify and would hopefully impress her, and secondly to not appear rash.  When Stan probed for information, Robert politely demurred and tried to convey that the letter was ho hum.  Because he imagined a hint of passion in Jeannie’s letter he warned himself that the situation had all the elements to become a Greek tragedy.  He had once read a scholarly article in a psychology journal by a Harvard psychiatrist which evaluated the success of male-female relationships based on initial contacts.  The thrust of the piece concerned the effects geographic distance and the number of incidents of face-to-face contacts on male-female relationships.  The article was illustrated with a simple drawing of a plane across a fulcrum, a see-saw.  The ideal was shown as a level plane.  The closer the couple were geographically and the frequency they could encounter one another in person the greater the occurrences of binding relationships. To Robert his end of that see-saw touched the ground in far away Asia; Jeannie’s up in the antipodes of the United States.  He might not admit it to himself but he knew what he wanted was for this very pretty girl in America to love him.  Sure, it was only natural.  He was in Nam in a world that deprived men of the kind of companionship most desired.  Sure Madam Bang’s in the Ville could provide the quick mercy fuck, but that was hardly more than masturbation, and at least masturbation you didn’t get the clap.  His crew’s nemesis was the clap.  Digger Boy his Radarman, had scored the clap three times.  Robert told him if he didn’t start wearing a rubber the Navy could fuck him over.  “What dey gonna do, Lt.  Send my ass to Nam?  Fuck de Navy.”  Two sailors who would stay free of the clap were Benton and Hodges whom everyone called Benson and Hedges.  Gay.  Benton the squadron corpsman whom everyone depended on and universally liked and Hedges, gunner’s mate on Robert’s crew.  They were settled and probably the most proficient men in the squadron.   Hedges could place 50 cal. rounds or an 81 mm. mortar down an enemy’s shirt pocket.  Discreet but nonetheless queer.   And nobody gave a shit.  Combat has that way of liberalizing.  Nothing changes the rules and attitudes as sharply as being under fire, your survival dependant on your crew.  Robert thought that with Benson or Hedges  Jeannie’s letter would be different wouldn’t it? Her letter would be seen as an academic exercise.  Maybe they’d be right.  Maybe that’s the safest way, the way to protect the heart.  So though he was decided on not letting his emotions run free, the words  ‘feel good  and ‘warm regards’ reverberated.  He knew also that Stan was a braggadocio and given to spinning war stories.  The essence of combat was for Robert nearly impossible to convey.  He’d tried to keep a journal from his first patrol but after his second fire fight had abandoned trying to clarify. He could write the necessary military logs and action reports required, that was simple enough.  “At 0130, 12 June — at the mouth of the Ba Sac River (coordinates) encountered and sunk two sampans attempting to place submerged mines.  Four enemy dead. Mines detonated by 50 cal. fire.” Or “18 June — came under RPG fire from high rock formation on beach four meters n. TinhVahVillage. Returned fire with twin .50’s and two HE 40mm grenades. 2 dead VC . Russian 7.39 mm. rifle destroyed.”  No, he had not the will nor the ability to clearly capture those impingements on human limits.  And though the memories of actions remained clear there existed a sacred, arcane quality to them which rendered non participants .  Robert felt that anyone not engaged in a specific firefight incapable and undeserving in the sharing the of its sensory details.  The terrible essence of killing was, for him,  ineffable.

 

            Dear Jeannie,

                        Many thanks for a fine letter—your assessments of my take on the photo and Stan-Speak – impressive. My routine. We are a squadron of four boats.  Stan, as am I, is OinC of a Swift Boat. Maybe he’s already informed you of what we do which is to patrol coastal waters and some rivers searching out the enemy up and down the coast. Were you to poll the men in my crew for reactions to the war –boredom would be an almost universal response. No one talks about whether the war is right or wrong.  One just slips into automatic and does.   In a sense it’s feast and famine.  On patrol high octane adrenalin pumps in overdrive  The limbic system is boss.  Guys who appear smooth and calm are good actors.  We make three 300 400 mile patrols per month. When not underway we’re here at Binh Ba Island  doing upkeep on the boat, drinking, smoking, and blaspheming the tropical atmosphere. Our facility here on Binh Ba was originally a French Foreign Legion post, then a Japanese naval base and detention facility, then a French Foreign Legion post again and now it’s our turn.  two long piers are shared with Vietnamese Navy Junk Force Division Three (two Yabuta boats—junks with American diesel engines that the Vietnamese try very successfully to abuse) . With hot food and showers it’s reasonably comfortable here.  On patrol comfort is scarce.  Our squadron of four boats is supported here by a repair shop, galley,  sick bay,   barracks for the base types and four hootches for the boat crews, and of course, a club.  Each crew has it’s own hootch- Quonset hut.  Ah but this must be boring to you – it’s boring to me.  Time here is dull time.  Men here confront that boredom with beer and pot and movies.  Once a week a deuce and a half (truck) makes the run to an army post 17 miles away.  There the enlisted can visit  the nearby“Ville”for pleasures of the flesh.  The enclosed photo is my boat’s crew.  Next to me is Digger Boy Jones our Radarman, then Gunner’s Mate Hodges, Quartermaster McWhirr, Engineman Holly and Boatswain’s Mate Collins. There’s no better crew—anywhere.

            Part of my training for this assignment was a six weeks course at Defense Language Institute’s school in Coronado studying Vietnamese.  I arrived in country with a rudimentary working vocabulary which I’ve managed to build on. This has been invaluable.  I visit the little fishing village here on the island and have made two friends with whom I enjoy noi-chuyan or conversation. We squat on our haunches by the little carpenter shop and chat over beers and Orange Crush brought in to us from the Army PX at Cam Ranh Bay.  Than is the carpenter and the teacher at the tiny village school and Tach a fisherman.  It’s a clean place and I love its smell, a combination of wood smoke and Elephant soap.  Take away that good smelling soap and for tens of thousands of years this is the way all mankind has lived, in a functioning little group smelling of wood smoke.  And just to wax not too idyllic – probably with war or the threat of war always in the offing. For now this village, these people, the elegance of simplicity, these are the parts of Nam that I wish to remember.  But then I’ve been in country for only 124 days.

            Though I know so little of you, I feel a pleasant draw to our writing.   So what of your world, Jeannie?  The University.  Your routine, I suspect, has little boredom or frequent retreats to flight or fight situations.  Please tell me what you’re reading and something about your days, your pals, your classes. What’s unique there?  So very much looking forward to your letter,

                                                                         Affectionately, Robert

P.S.  Puppy’s name is C-Rat or as I prefer  Sea Rat.

 

Jeannie, like Robert, anticipated the reply checking her mailbox twice daily, then one day on her way to a chemistry lab she picked up Robert’s letter but delayed opening it. She wanted to be alone in a place where she could read it undisturbed.  The lab assignment that day was an easy procedure to collect three gasses from acids then analyze them in a gas chromatograph.  During the long wait for a turn at the chromatograph her thoughts concerned Robert.  What did he expect from exchanges of letter?  Given the situation, those boys over there no doubt fantasized and would be prone to jump to conclusions.  She would have to take care with her words and did not want to mislead Robert. Could she manage the enthusiasm she felt?  It was clear that he was intelligent.  And handsome too.  Actually she had seen him in two pictures that Stan had sent home.  Stan liked him.  Good.  But then Stan liked anyone who paid him any attention– his slutty girl friends and his stupid pal Eric.  For now her wish was simply that the correspondence would continue.  Wait and see.  Still, the unread letter in her purse quickened her pulse the same way coffee did in the morning. When at last she read his letter in her dorm room she felt a surge of warmth for him, or maybe for the soldier in him.  His candor led Jeannie to believe Robert.  She did not believe all of the things that her brother Stan wrote because he had always puffed up his image.  And Robert showed a concern for the men around him and for the Vietnamese.  Knowing one man whom she could perceive as honest was a boon and important.  Returning to the letter several times in the following days she found herself wanting more of him and when she sat down on Sunday afternoon the letter she wrote had already been written in her mind. It was easy.

Dear Robert,  

                        My routine?  Classes every day with labs twice a week.  I’m here on an academic scholarship and am a more serious student than many of my peers; I love learning.  I’m pre med, and will be a doctor eventually, what kind of doctor—to be determined. I consider myself equally right and left brained and love history and English as much as organic chemistry and biology. I spend much time in study and I don’t play as much as my friends though not to say I want for a little fun now and then. Just now  I am reading for pleasure Kurt Vonnegut’s  God Bless You Mr. Rosewater , I go to the free campus movie now and then,  and when I can get away I go sailing with a friend who has a 22’ Laser.  I get outdoors every chance I can and run two miles on the track here four times a week, usually in the cool of night.  My pals? I guess I’m pretty damned solitary but I am friends with an Icelandic girl. We usually eat together.  On long holidays it’s home to see the folks. You ask what’s unique here.  I like to think it’s that it’s a peculiar ambiance, hard to define – but friendly, free, and conducive to inquiry and experimentation.  What could be better when you’re 19years old?. 

            Last week about 200 students held an antiwar demonstration on campus.  Lots of hand made signs, posters, draft card burnings, and speeches from the steps of the Library’ (where I just about live).but not enough real action for TV coverage.  Down in Washington its different – larger, organized, demonstrations attracting big attention. 

            I like reading about the men, your crew so tell me more and I’m particularly interested in the Vietnamese in your nearby village.  Might not there be VC among them? What, besides beer and Orange Crush, do you have for them and what have they for you? How do your men relate to the civilians?  How does antiwar sentiment here and abroad, affect you?  Everything you’ve written is of much interest, please continue those wonderful descriptions and if we are to get to know one another we should share a few opinions.  Don’t waffle.  I won’t.  I’m against the fucking war.  You have a talent for writing.  And hey–are those pleasures of the flesh just for the enlisted men?  Officers are celibate? I don’t even believe that.

            Will  Sea Rat  get a visa to come home with you?  I know you have access to beer and Orange Crush – let me know if there’s anything I can send you in a care package.

A big hello to Stan and stay as safe as you can.  Fondest wishes,  Jeannie  

P.S.  The enclosed picture with the rain and wind was taken on the campus walkway the taller girl with me in Gretta, my Icelandic pal. 

            On the same morning Robert had mailed his letter Jeannie, his boat left to carry a small team of Army Rangers up the CanBocRiver.  The PCF lay at the mouth of the river until dark, then proceeded six kilometers upriver where the team disembarked on its ambush mission.  Robert’s orders were to wait for the team’s return then depart immediately for Binh Ba.  It was always dangerous to anchor upriver even with the boat at darken ship snugged in against the bank its stern line secured to protective foliage, bow headed downstream, ready for quick departure..  The team left the boat at midnight expecting to be back aboard by 2:00AM.   The crew wanted to be well underway before the 3AM moonrise and 3:45AM flood tide.  Not until 3:15 did the Rangers appear carrying one of their own who had been badly wounded.

“Hurry up, skipper, gotta di di mau outta here as fast as you can.  Those fuckers are bearin’ down.” Light machine gun fire from the shore peppered the water and hull as the twin diesels rumbled to life as the moon broke over the tree line.  The PCF throttled up to full speed in mid channel able to navigate by light of the full moon.  Collins  broke out compresses and bandages from the first aid box for the wounded ranger and now for McWhirr who had taken a hit to his shoulder and lay propped against the grenade launcher.   Hedges manned one of the .50s, Holley the other returning fire.  The wounded ranger lay on the afterdeck with one soldier cradling his head as another held a compress against a belly wound.  Digger Boy passed the PRC76’s handset to Robert who radioed the coordinates at the mouth of the river for helo evacuation.”Dustoff ‘ll be at the mouth of the river, Lieutenant. Helo should be the beach in ten.:”

Rounding a bend in the river with only half a click distance to mouth of the Can Boc the boat came under small arms fire from both banks.  Robert had been standing aft near the wounded sergeant when the bullet hit, spinning him around and knocking him hard him against the port gunwale with a bullet in the left cheek of his ass. McWhirr at the helm pushed the throttles to full speed as Hedges and Holly strafed the river banks.  On the radio Digger Boy advised the inbound Angel to that there would now be three wounded.

            Robert lay on his stomach in the officers’ ward at the Nha Trang field hospital holding the snapshot of Jeannie and the Icelandic girl.  Stan had sent Robert’s mail and a quart of Wild Turkey up to Nha Trang with one of his crew.  The Viet Cong bullet extracted from his left cheek rested at last in a plastic pill vial on the night stand by his hospital bed, it’s mission accomplished.  After a five day course of antibiotics and daily changes of dressings he’d be discharged and return to Binh Ba and his crew.  While he had the down time he planned to write Jeannie.  His emotions vacillated wildly: getting shot had ripped the fabric of conviviality and comradeship that sustains the military and the acid of war had seeped in; the wounded Ranger had died on the helo. McWhirr was heading Stateside with a completely fucked up shoulder.   Again his crew had faced death up close, and the crew had responded correctly, hadn’t panicked and had returned fire while piloting the boat and the embarked rangers to safety.  Too, Jeannie was a boost.  He loved the picture of her against the rain and he dwelt on the words she’d closed the letter with “Fondest wishes.”  Then again maybe “fondest wishes” meant no more than “Yours truly” or “Sincerely.” thought Robert  The pain killers, they’ve got my thinking suppressed. Fuck if I know” In Nha Trang he would buy Jeannie an  Au Dzai silk suit, a couple of bars of Elephant Soap and one of those conical bamboo hats peasants wear and mail to her.  After lights out he watched moths beat themselves against the soft lit exit sign.

When Jeannie learned from her brother Stan’s letter, that Robert had been wounded and was in hospital she felt an immediate heaviness from her shoulders down to her feet and sat heavily in the chair at her dorm desk.  Now she did not care to manage her feelings.  It was as though she too had, in part, been wounded, but then drew herself inward thinking it selfish and puerile to think so.  But her heart ached for him and at the utter realization that his situation no matter how cavalierly his words masked it was war: not a movie war but brutal, painful, deadly war.  Two days later she received Robert’s letter from the hospital in Nha Trang.

Dear Jeannie,

                        I hope this finds you well and happy.  I am up in Nha Trang for a few days and will return to Binh Ba on Friday.  This is a beautiful place with beaches of snow white sand.  It’d probably be the Riviera of the South China Sea were it not for minor impediments like war, poverty, and Communism. 

            Thanks for the offer to send a care package.  Yes – the following items would be ever so welcome – canned bacon, Fizzies, Shell No Pest Strips, a flea collar for Sea Rat, and maybe another picture or two of you.  If you’ve finished the Kurt Vonnegut book, throw that in too, and some cross word puzzles.  Any or all would be appreciated.  I have sent you a small package from Nha Trang – with no idea of when it might arrive.  Who doesn’t like a surprise? 

            Allow me to confess that I’ve been down for a while.  No it’s not all beer and skittles.  Sometimes the façade drops and then it isn’t sunshine that comes in, it’s shit.

Like you I am against the fucking war, all war, yes, I’m against all war so the stark reality of being an action figure on the politicians’ game board sometimes gets sickening.  So there are these brief intervals when truth comes a’ knockin’ and the crisp uniforms, stars, bars, and marching bands are swept aside for filth, and shit, blood, pus, burnt flesh and hair, and maggots, and vomit, and the entire distance to the offing is one stinking suppurating wound that nauseates until you open that third or fourth beer or take another hit or what the fuck.  Maybe it’ll be  something as innocuous as a good hot meal or a funny joke, you wait and hope for that magic button of the moment that’ll  come along to restore that ever untruthful lying sack of shit façade we crave like some stupefying pain killer.

            Aw shit – now look at what I’ve gone and done.  Well, Jeannie if you’ve got any pals in those demonstrations, ask ‘em to keep it up.  The rest of the world seems to know we’ve got no legitimate business here.  Even Canada – our best nation pal, Canada– has cargo ships in and out of Haiphong.  Enough negative, lemme look for that key to the sunshine locker, ah here it is, eureka.….         Happily, I’ll return to Binh Ba tomorrow, back with my crew and Sea Rat.

                                                                                                Very Warmest Regards, Robert

            Why no mention of his wound?  Stan’s letter had gone into such detail.  Jeannie reckoned that Robert’s grim blood and guts paragraph had been his strange way of conveying the event.  By the time she received this letter she had lain awake each night, sometimes under sway of her natural feelings of compassion and tenderness but also analyzing possible effects.  She imagined holding him, of his laying with his head in her lap, holding hands, kissing.  Robert’s wound had become a catalyst that bonded her feelings to him as surely as a covalent bonding of two elements in the chem lab.  Perhaps the Navy would send him home.  Maybe he’s slipped into a serious bout of depression, the letter made that seem likely.  Didn’t the stress of war sometimes turn men into jerks?  No, she thought, he’s too intelligent and self-controlled.  But, she thought, how would I know?….

On Thursday Robert was discharged from the Field Hospital with a fresh uniform, battle helmet, and a vial of pain killers.  At midnight an Army deuce and half headed south and carried Robert and a half dozen other men.  The benches down each side of the canvas covered truck sat up on the sand bags which covered the truck’s bed.  Two other passengers, like Robert, had been discharged from the Field Hospital and were in new helmets and carried olive drab ditty bags with their meds and files. In the dark the men  bounced up and down as they smoked and joked about the fat-assed Army major riding in the truck’s cab and their newly  issued utilities which smelled of moth balls. Three men sat on each side leaning forward so that sometimes their helmets touched.  But Robert’s helmet was higher than the others because he sat on the inflatable rubber doughnut the hospital had issued.  Just before sunrise as the truck passed through an old Michelin rubber plantation a sniper’s bullet tore through the canvas grazing Robert’s helmet.  He had not secured the chin strap so the force of the bullet spun the helmet around and for a moment Robert thought that he had been hit and was blinded.“Fuckin assholes,” someone shouted.  “Aw shit, another ‘one shot Charlie.’  Fucker’s half way back to his village by now.” “Anyway nice souvenir, huh dai wi?” When enough light came through the rear of the truck Robert passed the dented helmet around, smiling. But inside he was not smiling.  His ass throbbed, the temperature of his war had just risen another degree and he thought to himself that it was a good thing he’d taken a dump before boarding the deuce and half

because he just might have shit himself. “Digger Boy’s right,” he thought, “this shit gets worser and worser.”

Back with his crew his spirits lifted and he was busy.  The crew had done a good job with the repairs.   Seven bullet holes had been patched, and the hull repainted.  Holley had caught an R&R flight to Bankok.  Robert did the paperwork recommending Hodges, Holley McWhirr and Digger Boy for Bronze Stars.  At quarters the next day the Commander, Officer in Charge of the Squadron, pinned on Robert’s Bronze Star and Purple Heart.  Robert’s heartbeat raced at each mail call, anticipating Jeannie’s letter.  He assumed that Stan would have made a big deal out of this and with no small sense of guilt Robert hoped that Jeannie’s heart strings would have been tweeked.  When the letter came it was light, a single page.  “Oh shit, he thought, it’s over before it’s begun.” He walked to the shady spot at the rear of the armory, sat against a tree to read.

Dearest Robert,

                        I’m not a prayer, but all my wishes are being beamed to that sweet wounded ass of yours.  Stan wrote about the firefight.  PLEASE let me know that you’re okay.  I don’t know what to say until I know you’re fit.  Hurry.  I think of you constantly, with love, Jeannie

            As if a band of angels lifted him, his heart soared.  Eight words “I think of you constantly, with love.”

That afternoon he sent the crew into the village for beer and mercy fucks so he could have the solitude needed to compose his letter.

My dearest Jeannie,

Do not worry.  I am fine, no shit.  My wound is pretty well healed, there should be no lasting effects, save a little scar.  Thank you for your concern.  I’m sure Stan blew things out of proportion.  Would Stan do that?

            When I received your letter this morning I went into a quick downer because the envelope was so light.  I knew it was a single page and I thought, “This is the brush off.” Sigh.  Well like the song could have said ‘the goin’ down was worth the comin’ up.’  I have been thinking of you so much.  My head tells me, “slow down let things unfold naturally,” but my heart tells me, “things are happening naturally.   Face it, cowboy  You like Jeannie and she likes you.”  There I’ve said it.  Those few exchanges we’ve had seem so revelatory, honest, and warm and I am indeed drawn to you, Jeannie with the light brown hair.  If I am off base, you must let me know because I’m pretty sure I want to love you.”

                                                            With love aplenty, Robert

            Now Jeannie was compelled to write to Robert nearly every day.  Her brother Stan, his tour in Viet Nam finished, had been reassigned to Guam.  Only Robert represented Viet Nam now.  The high point of each day was the opening of her post box at the campus post office.  The presence or absence of a letter dictated how the day would unfold.  He too wrote to her at every opportunity.  She allowed her heart’s love to flow freely in kind words about him, descriptions of dreams she’d had, and even scenarios of a future together.  While she continued to diligently pursue her studies every other facet of her life at the university was subordinated by Robert.  Through his letters and thoughts she had fallen in love the swift boat lieutenant in Viet Nam.  As her friends relished the abundant sex, drugs, and activism her energies went only to her studies and to Robert.

My Dearest Jeannie,

                        Try this on for size, love.  When your spring semester concludes, you hop on a big silver bird and meet me in Hawaii where I’ll have arranged my R and R.  Your air fare will be no problem – there’s scarcely anywhere to spend money where I am.  I know this to be a delicate situation – particularly for your parents – so for their sake I am willing for us to marry – though I would prefer that to happen later when I’m over and done with the fucking war.  Be frank with your response to this.  I do so love you.

            .  Good news – our boats will now have only minimal missions up rivers now that the PBR’s (patrol boat riverine)are plentiful.  The general feeling has long been that further inland the unluckier.  The PBR’s are smaller and built for rivers – we’re now primarily coastal patrol. 

            We’ll have more frequent long patrols interdicting shipping along the coast as Nixon wants to apply pressure before the Paris Peace talks get rolling.  What a fuck story.  So I don’t know how that will affect the frequency of mail service.  God I love always getting a letter or two at every mail call.  I love you, beautiful one.  I’ll see you in my dreams.

Love, Robert.

    Their letters, now intense expressons of love, became an almost daily occurrence , the thrill each one evoked took the passionate couple to that high level plateau of ecstasy all lovers crave.  But with the extraordinary events of 4 May 1970 these blossoms would fall.

On the forth of May Robert’s boat hit a mine placed in the channel leading to a diving barge they’d intended to moor against  The explosion killed Digger Boy and Hodges.  Robert and the remaining crew were seriously wounded and evacuated to the Army hospital in Saigon.  In June Robert, still in a coma, was airlifted to TriplerNavalHospital in Hawaii for a series of surgeries which restored minimal vision to his left eye and saved an arm from amputation.  Legally blind and crippled he was discharged that summer.

Now 40 years later he closed the care package box and placing his tear stained face an inch away from the box gazed for a final time at the return address Jeannie Vincent, R7 Dorm, Kent State University, Ohio.

© Gary Ives

First published in March 2012, “Tales of Old”, Issue №40 (podcast)

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