Each of us has wondered whatever happened to someone who shared our time, if only for a brief spell before moving on.
After wearing the Air Force uniform for two decades I feel a kinship with anyone who proudly wore a military uniform, of any service, for whatever period.
And so, I sometimes wonder whatever happened to a young veteran, to whom I also made a promise.
A Fighting Machine Marked Surplus
Trouble became a young man’s passenger in his teens, and was his companion into the Army and Viet Nam, where he became a fighting machine. When the truce was, signed the Army declared him a fighting machine marked surplus, but his instincts to kill could not be so easily extinguished, and he continued to fight his way through California prisons. On the day we met he was travelling alone, trying to steer a new course without the aid of heroin, methadone, or anger.
In the earlier 1980’s, we sat and waited at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles for something to make us feel better. I felt uncomfortable because of the length of my hair and wanted to be the barber’s first customer. My seating companion’s discomfort had started in his mind, and on this day, it manifested itself as a painful hand, so intense that the pain radiated upward in a loop back to his head, and was now a migraine. His ache was the type that keeps a sufferer in motion when no fixed position offers relief. So he stood, hesitated, and paced the hallway as he waited for the pharmacist to rush a prescription to ease his agony. When our eyes sealed an unspoken understanding that I was assisting his watch for the medicine man, his attention and reflections turned to some things that brought him to this day.
He wore his blond hair long, as he might have two decades earlier in the 60’s when he was a teenager in Southern California. It was a turbulent past, caused by deviant behavior which he attributed to idleness and drugs. At age 16 he declared himself older and enlisted in the Army, an act intended to escape boredom, frustration, and trouble with the law. The Army gave him a job. “They sent me to Fort Benning for basic training, then they sent me to ranger school to learn how to fight dirty, then they sent me to ‘Nam’ to use what they taught me.” He knew my attention was equally concentrated on the pharmacy door and his words.
I did not share his Viet Nam battleground, even though I also served that era during 20 years of active service in the U. S. Air Force. Yet, I instinctively felt his account more revealing than other stories of how some men coped with the fear of that omnipresent silent fellow traveler — death. “I survived Nam because I adopted a certain attitude for protecting my ass. I was a good fighter, damn I was good. I was determined to kill, rather than be killed. I was a squad leader.” He was proud of that accomplishment, and he knew he deserved it.
“At first, I told my men it was foolish going to meet Charlie when they were stoned, because it lowered their chances of survival.” His face changed. I couldn’t distinguish the source of his torment, but his brow reflected a clear picture of something he couldn’t forget. He continued: “After a while the days got longer and everybody I knew headed home in a box, I started to think differently about my life.” He paused, that brief time that each of us takes when we try to validate what we saw when our lives changed. Then he said, “The next time I assembled my troops I heard what they’d been telling me. I finally realized the entire country was a battle zone, so I decided if I’m gonna go, I might as well be so high I won’t care. After that I snorted, smoked, shot up everything I could find just to keep my head together.” I sat and listened; my stomach tightening as I could only imagine such hopelessness and fear. He acknowledged the potency of Asian dope, his frequency and method of dosage.
Suddenly, I felt I knew why he did it. He did it because he was free, free, living the words of Bobbie Mc Ghee, “…freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose…” Who or what side won the war was no longer his concern. The only trophy he wanted was a ride home — alive, and for somebody to know where he’d been. He expressed it this way. “When I stepped off that plane in New York, I saw empty faces, not one of them knew my name or how much crap I’d gone through for them. They didn’t even say hello.” Then He rubbed his painful arm, as though trying to transfer the hurt from his head back to his wrist. He sat for a moment in silence. I checked the door.
He resumed. “I hated everything and everybody that day. I hated the Army, the South Vietnamese, American civilians,” and looking directly into my eyes, he added, “I even hated you.” Then he certified his scorn. “I also hated myself.” When he boarded the plane for Los Angeles he was stoned. I imagined it as using the other half of a round-trip ticket. His anger persisted for the next two years. One night it consumed him. He confessed: “I tried to kill a cop.” His act had been foretold more than two centuries ago by Charles Simmons: “Malice can always find a mark to shoot at, and a pretense to fire.”
My full attention was now on his face, looking for whatever reaction would accompany such a confession. It was the same as when he described combat in Vietnam. He was a fighter, and in his words, a damn good one too. When he shot the cop, only the target changed at the end of his barrel. “They gave me life. I spent 7 years.”
I had a question, but he anticipated it. “Wanna know which one was harder, Nam, or the joint? They were both bad. You could get taken out as easy in one as in the other.” I considered that a pitiful analogue, but he explained it. “It was survival time all over again. My head went back to the war. Survive, even if I have to kill somebody. I fought my way through San Quentin and Soledad. They finally sent me to `Gladiator School’ – Folsom. They got some dudes there that will kick your ass just to have something to do.”
His words took precedence in my mind. I was sitting next to him, proof that if he had a life-or-death struggle in prison, he won. Still, I asked him, “How many battles did you fight in that Folsom war?”
“None, hell I knew everybody there. Many of the older cons had been my classmates at the
Q' and theDad’. We fought our way up together. A lot of the guards moved up with us, so I knew where everybody was coming from. The same cons and the same guards fill the same prisons, and at Folsom, everybody is a bad ass.”
I suddenly realized he had resumed pacing, and had done so through most of his account of prison. The area of pacing was the same—about the size of a cell. He repeated the truth that, so many others know: “Prison crime is very organized and very well executed. After all, every man there has had some experience. Anything you want can be got, in prison, for the right price, including dope, women, a gun, anything.” He continued to get his heroin in prison.
Finally, he flopped his body into his seat and sighed, “All that is behind me now—I hope. I got out two years ago. Been working here at the VA and taking their methadone program.”
I had never talked so freely with anyone who had done many of the things he admitted, and I asked for a comparison of methadone and heroin.
“They’re both bad for your health. When you’re on heroin, if you miss a day without shooting, you think your body’s gonna tear apart. With methadone, you can sometimes miss a couple of days before you get sick. Both heroin and methadone do the same thing in the long run – they kick your butt and destroy your body. The only difference is, you have to buy or steal one; they give you the other one.”
Suddenly his eyes were brighter, and he smiled. “I cold turkeyed my way out of heroin in two years. I also cold turkeyed my way out of methadone four months ago. I sure hope I can hang on. Yeah, I’m gonna make it this time, `cause I ain’t angry no more.” And with the same forthrightness of his confessions, he offered, “You know, this is the first time I feel shame and sorrow for what I did to that cop.”
I sat and stared, convinced that he would do serious battle to survive his present challenge to stay drug free. I expressed confidence in him and hope that his tragic past would be a persuasive deterrent to repeat the anguish. I also suggested that he tell his story in a forum for the benefit of someone headed in his footsteps. Then I asked, “Would you mind if I write what you’ve told me? I won’t use your name, especially since we never introduced ourselves, but we’re certainly not strangers anymore.” He didn’t answer.
The pharmacist and the barber arrived about the same time, as though waiting in the wings for a cue to begin a new act of the morning. I took a seat and was draped for grooming. He went to hasten the medic. I turned to say good morning to the barber, but before he responded I heard a familiar voice. “Yeah, you can write what I said. You seem to be an alright dude. Yeah, I think you heard what I said.”
I had heard him. We said goodbye.