Saturday, April 16, 2011

Among the Neighborhood (A Vietnam War Vignette, 1968)

Among the Neighborhood

(A Vietnam War Vignette, 1968)

The neighborhood guys and gals used to come into my room and talk and lie, drink and smoke, and well, did just about everything imaginable. It was a garage I rented out from Larry Lund, one summer in the late ‘60s; it was a barn-like room —parallel to Acker Street, on the North End side of the city, St. Paul (Minnesota). There was lots of noise, a trucking outfit across the street, and down the embankment in his backyard out a short way, a railroad ran alongside that edge that shook his garage, and the foundation of his house next to the garage. Often, perhaps too often in that garage our conversations were interrupted by those trains, freight engines jumbling up cars, whistles blowing, screeching iron on iron; freight cars banging against one another; cars racing up and down Acker Street. The garage we sat in, that I lived in for that summer was of a dirt floor, the old frame structure, the foundation somewhat sagged when a heavy freight train came by, the walls shuddered. In the evening a dozen guys and gals showed up with cases of beer, and bottles of wine, brought in from around the neighborhood; some had left the two bars up the block to see what was happening down at the garage. We drank all that beer up, and smoked one cigarette after another, and just talked, and talked. We had our music: Rock and Roll, and Country Western. Our Elvis Presley, and Rick Nelson, and Brenda Lee, and Johnny Cash, and Jack Scott—and our tough guys, but Larry was the toughest, and we had our guitar player, and our chess champion, and of course, our race car drivers, Mouse and Gunner. We were talking one time about being drafted into the Army and going over to the war in South East Asia, killing Vietcong, they called them gooks: What do you feel at the moment of shooting one of those military rifles and killing someone; suppose you get killed yourself? As we talked we sent Big Ace out for beer, or Rick—sometimes we just pulled out a bunch of dollars and said “I’ll buy if you fly!” meaning I’ll pay for it, if someone will go get the next case of beer, and there was always someone available. The girls were habitually silent during most of these talks. Big Ace was the tall fellow who could drink down a bottle of wine in three gulps, he was always willing to go get the booze, but never had a license, so we had to find someone, with a car too. Everyone had left and Jack was left, he had just come back from the War in Vietnam, he was drunk. His face was a little haggard. There was something strange going on inside his mind. When I looked at him sitting in the chair to the far left of me, he stood up, he went and sat on the sofa with me. He began to tell me something: whether it was the truth or not, I do not know. Anyway, he talked. “Everyone was talking about killing or being killed in here a while ago,” he said. “I killed some gooks over there, in Vietnam. I didn’t aim to do it” he said quickly. I didn’t make any kind of expression on my face. I figured if he wanted to tell me about it, about killing some of those Vietcong, well, that was up to him, it was okay with me, I wasn’t as drunk as he, actually I had drank very lightly up to this point. “It was very easy,” he went on to say. “You meet all sorts of Vietnamese folk alongside of roads, walking down dirt roads, in the rice paddies alongside of roads. At one time I had been driving down this road—one I had went down a dozen times before, and a group of Vietnamese tried to stop my truck, Charlie, the VC, he uses them to do this and then wham! They are mostly farmers, desperate at times, you don’t know what to do or believe.” He was taking his time, unsure how I would respond to his story, then he must had taken it for granted I would hear him out and understand. I knew something about him; he and I hung out a lot at one time. I figured by now, he had a good start on the story and was bound to finish it, and he drank down two more beers, as I sat there to listen of course, just waiting. “It was rainy weather that day. I was on my way back after delivering some supplies to a campsite, I was on my way back to my base, and this group of Vietnamese were coming down the muddy road, rice paddies on each side of the road, it was near dusk, they were waving for me to stop…” he now looked at me, smiled a drunken and sickly smile, what he thought was humorous about it I don’t know. He was hesitating, but wanting to get at something. Why he kept fending off telling me, I wanted to know. “I hit the whole bunch of them, farmers or not, with the front of the truck, I ran right over them, they flew everywhichway, gone to pieces, I had to pick their flesh off my bumper when I got back to base,” he said unexpectedly. “I did it because I thought I had to do it,” he said. And now he was looking directly at me, he seemed to be uncomfortable, I turned my eyes away.

No: 796 (4-15/2011)