Friday, November 12, 1999
Bloody Charon Comes Home: Another Veteran's View
Reading about Ralph Metivier and David McAllister's tour in Vietnam in last week's Mosquito brought back quite a few memories. A year before they did, I too had gone through Fort Jackson, Travis Air Force Base, and wound up in III Corps in Vietnam. I was a medic in a helicopter air ambulance unit and did frequent field standbys in Lai Kai, Ralph and David's basecamp. My company of 24 medical helicopters was the medivac unit for the 1st Infantry Division as well as the 25th and the 101st airborne, all operating in that corps. After reading about Ralph and David's experience and with Veterans Day just celebrated, I thought I'd contribute a piece about my homecoming, an event that may have been similar to theirs.
Most Vietnam veterans are now in their 50s or close to it. We have taken our various experiences and moved on in lives as different as one could imagine. But there are some experiences, some flavors that bind us together because we all experienced them in one way or another. Such an experience was coming home in a way American soldiers never had before. We were sent over as individuals, rather than as intact units that had trained and then traveled together. We were piped into functioning units to replace men and women whose 365- day tour was up. Then, when our tour ended, we were wrenched out of the war zone, suddenly and individually, and flown into a modern clean US airport. We were suddenly back in the world. And it was a world that was confusing and hostile to us. Here is a story of one such homecoming.
* * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * *
Last port of embarkation
Grand Central Station was my last port of embarkation before I finally got home from Vietnam. Once inside the cavernous hall I descended two steps toward the information kiosk. A well- dressed middle-aged woman was bustling in my direction. In a second she was upon me, shaking her finger in my face, her features scrunched. "You ought to be ashamed!" She wagged her finger under my nose and shook her head. Then she was gone.
I blinked. Thoughts just stopped for few seconds. Then, "Boy! What did I do lady?" What did she think I'd done ? Here I am trying to save lives every day and she's treating me like a war criminal.
I had been a "dust-off medic," an army medic in an independent helicopter medivac unit serving III and IV corps in South Vietnam in 1967 and 68. I'd gone because I felt it was my duty and I'd wound up being a bloody Charon, ferrying broken bodies across the river Styx to God-knows-what distant shore. Sometimes I held life in and sometimes it ran through my fingers no matter what I did.
Now here was a woman of New York telling me I should be ashamed. To her I was invisible except as a symbol she abhorred.
A day before, it had been Mister Rogers who welcomed me home.
Through the night I had flown across the ocean and arrived at Travis Air Force Base, walked through a machine-like processing of papers at different stations in the pre-dawn hours, and gotten a shuttle to San Francisco. I was to fly from there to my East coast home, a day later.
I arrived in the SF airport in the wee hours of the morning and was awed by the bright lights and the cleanliness. I sat down along a long wall of the terminal with my oversize duffels and just watched. The people were so clean and well-dressed. For hours I just sat there watching, trying to comprehend this world I was reentering, dazzled and also somehow stunned by it all.
I was in uniformdress khakiswith all this stuff at my feet. But I was invisible to those bustling by. I felt like an observer without presence.
At some point I must have decided to stay in town till my flight home. Yes, a top flight super-duper real American old world luxury hotel. Why not?
I guess I must have called to reserve a room and finally the taxi ride to that gorgeous hotel that I had heard of; but I remember little of those events. I believe I stayed in the room and ate room service food. But I do remember Mr. Rogers and everything about the moment he welcomed me home.
Cross legged on the floor, I sat in my luxurious room on the eleventh floor of the Top of the Mark Hotel in San Francisco and watched the television. The rug was woolly, white, clean, warm, and soft, and Mister Rogers came on and said, "I like you just the way you are." I sat mesmerized for the whole show and watched his gentle ways; and he assured me again and again that it would be all rightthat I was all right.
The flight to New York next day was almost empty. I remember lying down across three seats and napping, in- between sessions of watching the country roll by underneath like a flowing geography book, beautiful and vivid.
Through all this second day, that feeling of invisibility remained, passing strangers who neither saw nor heard me. Those old bullet shaped Carey buses they still had going from Kennedy Airport to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on the West side in those days, had narrow high-backed chairs, two abreast. My bags piled in the aisle chair made it a cave from which to watch dense Queens and finally Manhattan speed by.
I took a cab to Grand Central and looked around for a dry cleaner. 4 o'clock in the afternoon, only hours till I'm home. My uniform was all dusty, crumpled; I wanted to get it pressed so I could arrive looking neat, greet my folks looking sharp, together, not like I'd been through some wringer. I walked into a shop about 4:30 just blocks from the train station. " Hi! Could you press my uniform while I wait." "Nope, the presses are shut down for the day." I could hear them hissing in the back. The store didn't close till 5.
"Please, I've been away for a long time and I'd like to greet my folks looking good. Couldn't you just run it through quickly?"
"Nope. Sorry. We're closing." He didn't look at me, just went on making markings in his book.
I didn't have time to look for another store and still make my train, so I headed for Grand Central.
The main station room was even more awe-inspiring than the airport. I was impressed anew, as I had always been as a child, by the huge vaulted ceilings, the marble walls, the noble wrought iron gates at the head of every ramp down to the tracks, the announcements echoing officially around the chamber, the immense Kodak color picture of a family at play, maybe two stories high and a hundred feet long.
I made my way slowly to the train, the 5:15. It was packed, by the time I got on. Looking down the aisle for a seat, Isaw only a wall of newspapers, no faces, no seats. Commuter guys going home. My father had been one for many years, but tonight he'd be at the other end waiting for me.
The wall of newspapers didn't budge as I stumbled down the aisle dragging my heavy duffels. Finally I found a seat. I was down to 130 lbs by then, thin as a rail, and struggled to get the bags in the overhead rack. I remembered a night when I struggled to get a guy in a litter up into the top rack in our helicopter. Lou is on one side of the chopper, I'm on the other, and we're trying to get this 290-pound guy into the top rack in the dead of night with mortars shells falling. And I don't think I can press him up those last two inches.
Lou died the next week on a rescue mission when his helicopter flew into the side of Tay Ninh Mountain in bad weather.
I finally got the duffels onto the rack. No newspaper budged.
Wouldn't you know it, Dad was at the far end of the platform at the Stamford station from where I got off with all my gear. But I was finally home then. There was Dad, looking around for me, standing alone, and then grinning broadly when he caught site of me and the pile of canvas. He was big, grinning, and alone at the far end of the platform.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito