Noted historian Stanley Karnow died this past week. An author of several best selling histories, he was most remembered for his seminal history of Vietnam. Ironically, I was re-reading Karnow's "Vietnam, A History", which I had first read in the early 80's, when I learned of Karnow's passing. Karnow's book was one of the few modern texts that took the reader all the way back hundreds of years, to include her conflicts with China over centuries.
However, much of the book concentrates on Vietnam's century long conflict with the western powers. While in Vietnam I had read perhaps twenty histories on Vietnam, to include Bernard Fall's master works about the French colonization of Vietnam. I can honestly say I don't believe I have ever studied a country's history more replete with conflict and national heartbreak.
This prelude is but a digression for what I really want to say. I've recently written of a wondrous flowering of early memories of my youth. They say this is a natural evolution as we get older and I've come to believe it's true. But this week it has been the re-reading of Karnow's book that has had my memory banks flowing in spectacular technicolor.
Perhaps that's not unusual since my three years in Vietnam represented a time when I felt most alive. Again, Karnow; he ran a survey of Vietnam vets back in the 90's and found that 71% of Vietnam vets reported their war time service in Vietnam as a positive experience. The reasons are complex; when one goes to war, when you awake each day realizing that the grim reaper may indeed pay a visit, then life becomes more precious and your waking hours more "electric". War is also a time when you form a real brotherhood with the guys in your unit. In the absence of family they become "family".
And as I write this I long to be a better writer. I want to be able to describe to my readers just what an amazing and frightening experience my time in Vietnam was like. From the moment I stepped off that Freedom bird and descended the steps from the plane my senses were assaulted with the alien smells that permeated the night air. Mingling with aviation gas emanating from the flight line were the loamy scents of rice paddies. From Saigon to the East came the exhaust belchings of taxi's and cyclo's and the smoke from ten thousand kitchens with the whiffs of fish and fish sauce rising through night air.
To my ears came the constant rumbling of war. Fighter planes revving their powerful engines in flight line revetments, C-130's ferrying personnel and supplies, bound for another air base in country, or hard landings on metal PSP runways carved out of the jungle. More Freedom Birds arriving behind us, full of fresh G.I.'s to keep the 550,000 man U.S. war machine humming. Our TWA stewardesses tearfully wishing us "God Speed", with promises to come back and take us home in a year. As I walk through the terminal I hear the thunder from the west, only to be told "not thunder", but the sound of B-52's carpet bombing North Vietnamese strongholds in neighboring Cambodia, not a hundred miles away.
In the coming days I will experience my first rocket attack, I will be dispatched with the other "jeeps" to a training area and ran through three weeks of combat training, training that was not possible in Lyndon Johnson's rush to beef up the force in anticipation of the next Tet Offensive only a month away.
And in the coming weeks I will learn to get by on three hours of sleep per day. The hundred degree jungle heat and oppressive tropical mugginess make sleep in our hootches unbearable without air conditioning, a luxury afforded only to the fighter and bomber pilots who must be fully rested for their missions.
And I will venture off the base and into Saigon where I will be accosted by both men and women offering me a polished and professionally produced pack of marijuana cigarettes for one dollar, or zippo lighters with my unit's logo and years of service, or the formaldehyde laden Bier 33, the country's premier beer. I will be solicited for sex from both sexes who range in age from 12 to 80. I will be jostled by a Saigon populace that swelled from less than a million to more than 5 million as last year's Tet Offensive drove the villagers to the safety of the capitol city.
And yet I will walk the streets of the old French colonial city and see majestic architectural beauty, remnants of a time when Saigon was known as the Paris of The Orient. I will see the colorful blaze of poinciana and fire trees gracing the streets of the old city, shading pedestrians from the hot tropical sun.
As I settle into the routine of breakfast powdered eggs, of carrying rifle and 180 rounds of ammo and wearing a thirty pound flak vest in the heat, I begin, like everyone else, to find like-minded groups, instant buddies, soon to be "brothers", and I'll hear of ancient childhoods in Detroit and Memphis and Sarasota and Duluth and Watertown, Iowa, and I'll share mine as well.
We'll eat our night time C-rations, many left over from an ancient Korean conflict, and as we down our ham and Lima beans, then light up our miniature packs of Lucky Strikes, we'll speak of home, of girls left behind, of the "America; The Land of The Big BX", or "America; The Land of Round Eyed Women". And through all of that we'll form a bond, a bond that says "I'll be there for you when the shit hits the fan". We'll all go home together or not at all.
Fortunately, in those first tender months of schooling for war, we will not have heard of peace marchers spitting in the face of those who returned before us. We will not yet know that we are "baby killers". Instead, we will speak in youthful dream of an America that will welcome us home and allow us to find a place to settle and make our way in life.
So I sit here today, the beginning of the winter of my life now settling in, and all those youthful memories come swarming into my head, occupying my dreams, when I am once again young and strong and looking ahead instead of looking back. Nearly every month I receive an email from my reunion buddies telling me another one of our "brothers" has passed on, never to dream again.
Nostalgia; both a beautiful and horrid thing.