Thursday, May 24, 2007

THE WALL


Written By: Franklin P. Smith

Al held an unlit cigarette while standing beneath a medium size oak
tree. A couple of yards in front of him the Wall stood. He had mixed
feelings of why he had come to this place, but he knew that he had to
be here at this particular time.

He moved slowly toward the walkway where the black marble monument
began to emerge from the manicured green lawn. Al could see the
glistening effect of the sun on the raindrops left on the shiny black
marble.

The young Korean woman had captured the essence of the dignity of the
names the memorial bore in the cold marble who had fallen during the
conflict his country had been involved in for over ten years. This
conflict had created a chasm that would never heal. The arising
intersecting slabs of cold black blue marble symbolized the rising of
the dead of the thousands of Americans’ who had followed their
leaders into a futile war. This wasn’t a conflict or a police action but a
political war. A political war fought in the jungles, where the
fighting was unlike anything a human had ever experienced before.
Along the declining walkway toward the intersecting black slabs on
both sides, Al could see numerous individuals kneeling and praying,
feeling the etched marble with their fingers. Others were standing in
a somber state focusing on nothing but probably a memory of the person
or the last place they had been with this person.

There was an emptiness inside Al, while he looked at these people who
walked by or stood along the Wall. His stomach was tight.
Instinctively, he wanted to leave. He knew, he couldn’t.

Why did I have to come to this place? Was it closure or to acknowledge
of what these men who were posted on the Wall did for him and gave him
in that year? Some he had only known causally and only for a couple of
days. The only thing he knew was that he had experience the reality of
what he had experienced in Vietnam like these men had.

Al stopped suddenly. The hot sun was bearing down on his body. His
forehead was sweating. Al felt the perspiration dripping underneath
his armpits and the wetness’ on his broad back. He remembered
sweating like this his first day in Vietnam. The place was the Danang Air
Force Base. The date was August 18, 1973. The place was chaos.
Everyone seemed to be going in every direction. The heat was
unbearable and this was compounded more by the humidity factor. He had
heard it stayed this hot nearly year round and the humidity was a fact
of life in this part of the world. He was amazed that there were no
accidents or anyone killed at this insane pace. He learned this was
false; at least two were killed each day because of someone’s
carelessness in Vietnam.

Al didn’t know as he stepped off the C-10 transport plane, he would
be changed for the rest of his life. He had been told that he had an
office job after he had graduated top of his class at Radio School.
He had been led into a false promise. The second day he found himself
on a chopper to some God-forsaken base camp for six months before he
went to R & R in Singapore. Singapore had the women and the drugs
that allowed a man to escape the hell; he had endured those months.
The women could send a man by their little tricks, they had been taught
by their madam.

He placed the unfiltered cigarette in the corner of his mouth
underneath the bushy mustache. Al had had this since his second week
a base camp. The guys had made fun of his attempting to grow hair
underneath his nose. He wondered if it was the drugs, the beer, the
women, or facing the uncertain death that had changed him. This was
not to mention being shot at from Charlie from the bush, just being
plain scared to hell that he would not live the day out. Whatever it
was, it was made his body develop into a solid lean masculine
structure.

Out of his platoon in the first two months, over half of its
members were either sent home in a body bag or wounded seriously enough to be
sent to Hawaii. Those guys were the lucky ones; the ones were alive,
he always thought. Down deep, he knew they would be the most messed up
when they returned to the States. Granted they would get a check
every month, but everyone in the States hated them because either they
didn’t like the war or did not want to be associated with the results
of the abyss inside America. Al’s eyes were focused on the wooden
matchbox he had pulled from his right front pocket.

While he lighted the cigarette, a smile formed on his lips and face.
This was where he had first smoked a joint. Drugs were his preference
to the beer, which flowed like water. Marijuana was used to escape
quickly the horrors that that was seen – done that day and the day
before or to face another day and night that exist for him. This was a
war, not a conflict or an assistance program to prevent communism from
spreading. Al now understood his father’s actions when he had asked
about Korea when he was a child. His father would always change the
subject or leave the room if he was confronted with conversation about
war. Al took a deep drag of the burning tobacco.

The fighting in Nam was like an office job. At an appointed time, his
squad would leave the base camp and in a couple hours to a couple days
they would be picked up by a couple of choppers. If someone was killed
or wounded in the field, a chopper would pick them up after the action.
He could remember at the base camp when they were waiting for orders
to go into the bush, a chopper would ferry pizzas in Danang or Saigon.
On numerous occasions the helicopter would bring in stewardesses from
one of the contract air-transports to camp. Each one had probably
earned a couple of thousand doing her tricks. Al figured they gave the
pilot a share of their earnings.

Al released the smoke he had accumulated in his lungs. The white
smoke rose up hiding his face. His smile disappeared. He could still
hear the wrapping of the chopper blades at night sometimes, if the
circumstances were right. For the most part he had adjusted to the
killing and hell he had experienced. He could still see at times the
two kids, a boy of around ten and a young teenage girl, he had killed.
There was no choice. It was either them or him. One had a hand
grenade and the other had a Russian AK- 47. He had heard other
stories of whole villages being wiped out; women, children and old
people that were killed because the villages were one of Charlie’s
bases of operations. Al lowered the smoking cigarette beside his side.
He had also heard the stories of the senseless random killing of
innocent civilians because some of psyched up Lt. was on a rampage to
get a higher body account.

He dropped the burning cigarette on the green grass, and crushed the
smoldering tobacco with the bottom of his right shoe. After the first
week, he had gotten his first kill. Al was ordered to check one of
those tunnels where Charlie had stored his rice, guns and ammunition.
Al learned later that this was part of the Ho Chi Mi Trail. He had been
chosen to go down into the tunnel, because he was smallest and newest
member of the squad. The tunnel was infested with snakes, rats, and
the walls were dripping a wet some slimy substance. He had killed his
first person on this journey. He killed was barely sixteen and
probably scared to death just like himself, when they faced each other.
He had been lucky that day. Both had let out numerous rounds from
each of their automatic guns at each other. After the squad had
blown-up the chase of ammunition, a chopper came and they went back to
base camp. The squad was given six cases of beer that night. Al
drank his share but threw-up all that night. He could still see the
young mans’ eyes when he closed his eyes that night.

He was cheered as the hero of the day. This act had brought him into
the fold of the squad. Now, he was one of them. The next day as he
was nursing his hangover, waiting for the squad’s next assignment, he
looked and examined each member of his squad. They were just like him
young and mostly misfits that had been drafted just like him, but they
were now seasoned veterans by the killing and the surviving of this
day.

Living; day by day in combat in the jungle, classified you
as a veteran or just being a plain survivor in this hot humid hellhole.
A smile formed on Al’s face again. Before Vietnam he couldn’t
stand Mo-town music, but Lee from Detroit had changed that. He kind of
understood, of sort, the meaning of this kind of music had for these
people. But Lee was dead; he had thrown himself on a grenade the VC
had thrown into a foxhole with two other people in it and they were
white. A man did strange things for the man next you.
A grin formed slightly on Al’s lips while he pulled a pack of open
cigarettes out of his front pocket. They had all been strangers thrown
together from all parts of the country. Each individual was counting
the days to leave base camp for either their flight home or R & R at
some government retreat. Pulling the single cigarette out of the pack,
Al laughed softly. They had all formed a bond between each other.
Each bond was different. There was a bond even with the “lifers”
as they called them. Most of the lifers were on their second or third
tour. They enjoyed the killing and could not wait to go out to hunt
Charlie. A person could see it in their eyes. Living on the edge
between life and death was their soul purpose in life. . There was
one unwritten bond between the men Al had fought with. The common bond
was survival and knowing each person had to go beyond himself to save
himself and the man next to him.

He lighted the cigarette and started to walk on the walkway next
the Wall to the intersection of the two pieces of black blue marble.
His soul and mind felt a longing to see the men that he knew who were
listed on this wall.

He could not believe the day; he had received his orders to catch the
chopper back to Saigon. On the flight back to Saigon, he thought of
how he had changed. He had gained over fifty pounds; most of the guys
had lost weight. Al was different. He spent most of his time in base
camp lifting weights with Lee and a Polish fellow named Ski. Al had
turned himself into a muscle bound human specimen. He knew that his
mind would never be the same with all the killing, the drugs, and the
realization of the lies the government were telling about the war.
He understood now what happen to people in war.

Al stood motionless in front of the marble slab. At least the
government had not screwed-up this tribute to his fellow comrades.
Each name was listed by the year, month, and date the person had died.
He thought taking the cigarette out of his mouth.

December 20.
HARRY F. STEPSON
FRED J. WATKINS
JOSEPH JONES

The list ran on at least twenty more. Here was Jones’ name in the
marble. Al put his fingers on the etched name. He had taken a bullet
meant for Ski. Both of them were in a foxhole together in the outer
perimeter. Joe had taken his place behind the 90mm. Ski had turned
to get a drink of water. Joe fell over dead with a single bullet in
the head. Joe was going back for Christmas and going to get married to
his high school sweet heart on the 31st of December. He was going to
work as a bookkeeper for his father while he went to college to become
an accountant. He always talked about making it big when he got his
CPA. Al could feel the dampness coming from his eyes. Ski had
suddenly disappeared into the bush after Joe had got it. We could hear
Ski firing his M-16 and people screaming when they had been hit. The
guys in the squad stayed away from Ski for a month after this incident
- he knew what the ‘kill’ was all about now.

It had been Skip that had come to him afterwards this incident. There
was a strange bond with him and AL. Skip was strange anyway. The
last Al had heard about Skip was that he had gone back to Nam one more
time and had gotten wounded. He either be retired by now or would be
getting a check for some reason from the Army. Afterwards Al had
heard that he had moved to a remote island off the coast of Georgia.
He was living the life of a semi-hermit. He would only go into town
for his monthly check, and would catch wild pigs for the tourists to
eat, using only a 12” knife to catch and kill the wild pig.
Al flicked the burning cigarette on the grass in front of the Wall.
He was still a mess inside. After he returned to the States, he
worked construction with his father, and married Julie. Things
weren’t the same with her. He had taken her virginity away a week
before he left for Nam. Sex, after Nam was different. Al’s outlook
was different about everything. Julie left him after a couple of
drunken weekends. Life had become meaningless and really not worth
living especially at night when nightmares would come back. A month
ago he figured to end it all with an over dose of sleeping pills the
doctor had prescribed. He had bought the pills and was going to do
the deed, when he received a phone call from Joe’s father. In the
phone call Joe’s father had told him that after six years, he had
finally gone through Joe’s personal papers. He apologized for the
time delay, but Al knew about the denial that Joe’s father was going
through. Al had been in denial since the first day he had stepped
into base camp and realized this place was going to be worse than hell
itself.

A grin appeared on Al’s lips. His fingers were still touching the
etched name of Joe. Al would always remember what Joe’s father had
told him that day. Joe had written his father telling him about how
Joe appreciate Al going beyond the orders the squad leader had given;
placing himself always in front of danger and placing him out of
danger, that is, going first into the tunnels and finding Charlie.
Everyone hated this job but this was now Al’s task on every patrol if
a tunnel was found.

Al turned around and saw the setting sun. One more day was
finished. He had lived another day. The night would probably be
rough, but he would live throughout the long night. There had to be a
reason for him to be living. Al thought wiping the moistness from
both his cheeks.

In turning he thought about going to college. He could meet some
women his age at night school. I could earn more money and maybe find
another career.

Al turned around so he could look squarely at the Wall again.
Sitting in the old 75 FORD, Al paused one more time before he cranked
the truck.

He wondered why he had survived and those died.

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