It took him over thirty years, but on his return tour he would not be carrying thirty pounds of U.S. Army gear, an M-16 and twenty plus pound lead flak vest. He was just twenty year old when he came on his first tour. He was over fifty years old as he flew into Ho Chi Minh City. It was Saigon the first time he came, but there had been a lot of changes since that time.
He had also been through three painful divorces since he returned home as it seemed the dragon of his past was always raising its ugly head. After over two decades of psychological treatment at the Veterans Administration, he felt a strong need to return and face down the demons that had haunted over those thirty years.
The stewardess was a young Asian woman who spoke fluent English, but would switch to Vietnamese mid-sentence. He remembered a lot of the street lingo from his first tour, but she was obviously college educated. She was friendly and attentive to him as he sat staring out the window.
Endless blue ocean was all that was beneath him at thirty thousand feet. When he came the first time he came with a hundred other Army recruits all gung ho and ready to push the VC back across the Ho Chi Minh Trail where they had come from. By the end of the month one quarter of those recruits were in body bags in flag draped caskets headed home.
“Can I get you something?” The stewardess flashed him a smile.
“No thank you.” He shook his head.
“Private Godfrey!” The company commander called out after looking at his clipboard.
“Here, sir!” He yelled as he was taught in basic training.
It was hot and humid at oh-eight hundred hours and the base smelled like feet in an overwhelming stench that he would get used to on his first tour.
Sergeant Hollis, the company first sergeant, walked over and stuck his nose close to Private Godfrey’s person, “Private Godfrey, I would personally like to welcome you to the shit.”
“Thank you, sir.” He responded.
“Do you see these stripes on my sleeve?” He snarled.
“Yes sir!” He acknowledged.
“I am a Non-Commissioned Officer in this man’s army, you will address me as First Sergeant, is that understood?” He shouted into Godfrey’s ear.
“Yes sir.” He answered.
“Drop and give me fifty push ups for being deaf or stupid, I hadn’t made up my mind which you are yet.” He walked away as Private Godfrey did his penance.
“Have you ever been to Vietnam?” He heard his neighbor in the next seat ask him.
“Once.” He answered.
“My name is Keith Ransom. It’s my first time. My dad passed away last year and I promised to drop these dog tags in the river.” Keith was a talker with two more hours before they were scheduled to land he probably wouldn’t shut up.
“Rodney Godfrey.” He shook the sweaty palm of Keith Ransom.
“When were you here the last time?” Keith sipped on his straw of the cocktail the pretty stewardess had given him.
“Long before you were born, Keith.” He coughed into his hand.
“Were you here for the war?” He was too eager for Rodney, reminding him of some of the teenagers who returned in body bags.
“Yup.” Rodney nodded.
“My dad said his buddy was never found.” Keith jangled the dog tags in his hands. “He was in the river one minute and gone the next. He never did tell me much about his time in ‘Nam.”
Oh how he hated people who were never in-country using ‘Nam to talk about Vietnam, but he just smiled at Keith and nodded. He leaned against the window and pretended to be asleep. In his fake sleep, he could hear Keith chatting with the other passengers.
“Doc, when I dream, I dream about the mission when our platoon walked into an ambush. Christ, there were seven or eight wounded guys screaming their lungs out as some of them watched their guts slide into the mud.” He paused like he always had to when he was talking about Da Nang in June, 1968. He lay in the rice paddy, put his M-16 on automatic and let loose on the dirt road ahead. He moved through the mud until he got to Gavin Rothchild who was holding his stomach so it would slide out of the gaping hole in his belly. Gavin was crying for his mother. Gavin had just graduated from high school as the star quarterback. Galvin began to shiver. Rodney knew it was a death shiver. The chopper would not make it in time to save Gavin. Four other members of his platoon wouldn’t make it either. The butter bar was just out of officer training school and he led them right into the trap. Good old Lieutenant Frobek. “I hated what that son-of-a-bitch did that day.”
“I don’t blame you, Rodney.” Dr. Schueller said as he wrote on his yellow pad.
“Sam walked out on me.” Rodney said without any emotion.
“Samantha Rigsby. Wife number two.” He held up two fingers. “We lasted two years before my sickness got the better of her.”
“I am so sorry, Rodney.”
“I’m not. Nothing a bottle of hooch won’t cure.” Rodney laughed. Dr. Schueller hated this laugh, because it was a clear signal he wasn’t getting any better.
“So now what are you going to do?” He asked Rodney.
“Find a bottle of hooch and have my own private party.” He laughed again.
Know thyself is what the chaplin told him, but it did not stop the voices from raging in his head and now he had Keith to contend with for a couple more hours. He had a bunch of pictures his father had taken in-country with a Polaroid camera. The PX on the base in Saigon sold a bunch of them to GIs headed to the shit. He bought one, but lost it while wading through a rice paddy under fire. He did not miss it, because any memory of this place he wanted no part of.
“You are so stubborn.” Lacy, his third wife told him as she had her bags packed ready to go back to live with her mom. “You have to find a way to move past all of this. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Please stay.” He urged her. She was a cute waitress he met who was half his age.
“Rodney, I have tried, but you have pushed me away. My dad went to Vietnam and it ended up killing him.” She was in tears. Her dad could have been in-country with him, oh boy, that hurt.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, this is your pilot.” He had an accent, “We are getting ready to land in Ho Chi Minh City. Today the temperature is around ninety degrees with about eighty percent humidity.”
That much hadn’t changed, hot and muggy just like when he stepped off the plane the first time.
“We do have some banks in the terminal where you can exchange your money for Vietnamese Dong. They will fill you in on the rates.”
Rodney opened one eye and Keith was still chatting with anyone who would listen. Slowly the plane began to descend. Looking out the window, Rodney saw the shoreline of Vietnam come into view.
“Father forgive me for I have sinned…” He said as he made his first confession in church. He had not been back inside a church since he got back from his first tour. He was surprised to find out that a lot of the Vietnamese were Catholic thanks to the French colonizers who they ousted a decade before the Americans decided to give it a go with the Domino Theory ringing in everyone’s ears.
“You cheated on me.” Dorothy was waiting for him at the door when he got home. Dorothy was wife number one.
“I cannot tell a lie…I did.” He fell face first to the floor, drunk.
When she left him, he fell into a deep depression and was placed in a psychiatric hospital when the police arrested him for indecent exposure as he ran down the street stark naked again extremely drunk.
The landing was easy. Nothing remarkable, but there was something inside his head telling him to make things right this time. He stepped out into the brave new world of Ho Chi Minh City with modern skyscrapers and clean streets minus the open sewers he experienced in his first tour. With his bag slung over his shoulder, Rodney stepped onto the sidewalk and called for a cab using what he remembered of his Vietnamese slang.
A cab pulled up to the curb where he was standing, “Don’t speak that crappy slang.” The cab driver spoke in perfect English, shaking his head.
“Well, I didn’t expect that.” Rodney put his bag in the open trunk.
“Haven’t heard that since I was a boy when the Americans were here.” He laughed as he closed the trunk. “My name is Bihn Huynh.”
“Rodney Godfrey.” Rodney tipped his California Angels cap.
“Huh, please to meet you. Hotel?” He closed Rodney’s door.
“Ambassador, please.” Rodney handed Bihn more dong than his cab fare would cost.
“Right away.” He put the folding cash into his shirt pocket and pulled away from the curb at a rather rapid speed.
He had forgotten how clogged the streets of one of the largest cities in the country could be since most drivers drove with reckless abandon. With a mixture of pedestrian, bicycle and motor vehicle traffic, the flow could get a little dicey and close calls were all too common. The Ambassador Hotel was right in the middle of the city. In the morning, Rodney would get on a bus and head north toward Da Nang.
“Here you go.” Bihn stopped in front of the large multi-story hotel where a white gloved porter was waiting for Rodney to exit the cab. “You have wonderful day, sir.” Bihn tipped his hat as Rodney grabbed his bag from the trunk and handed it to the porter.
Once to his room, Rodney turned on the television and watched some of the local television in Vietnamese with a closed caption scrolling along the bottom. Before the show got to a commercial break, Rodney was fast asleep, heavy with jet lag.
In the morning, Rodney had a helping of Pho, a common Vietnamese breakfast with rice noodles, broth and beef or chicken. Rodney preferred beef as chicken sometimes left a funny aftertaste. He ate quickly, because the bus would be out front soon and if he missed it there would not be another one for a few days.
The bus arrived right on schedule which was another big change from his first tour. He looked out the window as they passed some of the city sights such as the old men in the park playing mahjong or chess that the French brought with them. What was missing were the long line of brothels in the Red Light District that had attracted so many GIs during his last tour.
“Oh hey, how are you doing?” It was Keith and he plopped himself in the seat next to Rodney.
“Great.” Rodney said through gritted teeth.
“Where are you going?” Keith asked with a big smile.
“Da Nang.” Rodney returned the smile.
“Oh, that’s an all day trip.” His smile turned into a grimace.
“I am well aware.” He nodded since on his first tour he marched through fifty miles of jungle from an army firebase.
“I am going to Buon Ma Thuot. There is a river there my dad told me to put these dog tags.” He jingled them in his Khaki pockets.
The clinging of the metal made Rodney break out in a sweat.
“C’mon grunts, let's move out.” First Sergeant Pillar ordered.
The platoon waded through a rice paddy. There was a metallic clang.
“Rocket attack!” First Sergeant Pillar yelled about the time some of the rockets hit. First Sergeant Pillar disappeared in a cloud of smoke mixed with human and animal manure. Later a detail would find pieces of the good first sergeant over a wide radius in the rice paddy. The rest of the platoon gathered at an earthen hill hoping the rockets would not find their positions. For almost the entire night, Rodney listened to the chorus of the explosions around the area.
Keith waved goodbye when the bus pulled up at Buon and while he was glad to see him depart, he knew he would miss Keith’s chatter on the long ride up north. Some of the passengers had chickens and other small livestock that gave the bus a certain earthy ambience that Rodney had forgotten.
While the roads were in better condition than his first tour, there were still rough patches that the bus would bounce over sending many passengers airborne at times. Sometimes the bus would come to a crawl as farmers with carts driven by oxen would take up more than their share of the road. The odor of sewage could also be a bit strong at times, but once upon a time, Rodney hadn’t taken notice or was too busy to do so.
Rodney had also become aware he was the only round eyes on the bus after Keith departed. Few round eyes would ever come this far north, so many of the passengers were staring at him. He put in his ear buds and tried not to notice.
At sundown, the bus pulled into Da Nang that used to be in the Demilitarized Zone.
“You keep saying the same thing in your sleep.” Lacy told him after he had sweated through the sheets.
“What did I say?” He asked.
“Something about keeping your head down and rocket attack.” She shook her head. “It freaks me out.”
“Freaks you out?” He thought, “What do you think it does to me…my skull?”
Lacy never understood the whole war/combat thing. She had no concept how certain stimuli could trigger certain responses. He would continually freak her out.
Rodney walked out into a landscape he never could imagine during his first tour with modern bridges and buildings that added an appealing skyline to once one of the most dreaded places he had ever been to. My Khe Beach was once a marine landing area, but now it offers a scenic beach for tourists. He was booked into the Hilton Da Nang. The irony was not lost on him as on his first tour he bunked in a firebase not far from the beach.
He checked in and had dinner. Cao Lau which wasn’t much different from the Pho he had for breakfast.
“I know English.” His waiter bowed, “First time here?”
“I wish I could say yes to that.” He answered knowing that the irony would be lost in translation.
“I bring you beer?” His waiter asked.
“Yes, that would be great.” He nodded.
“Beach if wonderful.” He took the menu from Rodney.
“Can’t wait to see it.” He smiled as the waiter went to get him a bottle of beer. Life had returned to normal it seemed. Whatever that was. He finished his dinner and beer and walked off to his room.
“You have to go and let go of all that baggage you brought back with you, Rodney.” Dr. Schueller advised, “You have a lot of things you need to get rid of or else you will always be burdened with guilt.”
He made it sound so simple, but it wasn’t.
The next morning the sun beat into the sand and water. He walked along the shore and then onto a pier where fishermen were sorting through their catch of the days. When Rodney glanced into the nets, he saw a lot of strange squirmy creatures taking their last gasps on the dock.
“You American?” One of the fishermen asked. Rodney nodded, “I was with the V. C. in 1967 and 1968 before I got wounded.”
“You?” Rodney could not believe he had come face to face with his former enemy, but back then the enemy was faceless for the most part.
This time he nodded.
“My name Ahn Dai.” He said.
“My name is Rodney Godfrey.” He nodded. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“And you.” He smiled and bowed his head. They both looked at each other for a moment before simultaneously embracing each other as tears flowed from both their eyes. “I am so glad to meet you, Rodney.”
“And I you, Ahn.” Rodney felt something deep inside him being released. He knew that all of the bad memories and guilt had been washed away. He would leave it all behind him on this tour.
“I will go home in a few days.” Rodney said as Ahn nodded.
“If you see something you want…take it.” He held out his arms to show Rodney what his nets had caught.
“This looks interesting.” Rodney picked up fish who was still wiggling. It was ugly and did not look very appetizing.
“A monkfish? A good cook will be able to cook the ugliest fish in the ocean and make it tasty.” Ahn laughed and patted Rodney on the back.
Ahn Dai was quite right as the chef at the Da Nang Hilton cooked up the fish, placing it on a bed of rice for one of the best meals he had ever tasted.
On his flight home a few days later, the same stewardess was on board. “Can I get you anything?”
“No thank you, I have everything I need.” He leaned back and within a few minutes was fast asleep no longer burdened by the nightmares of his guilt from his first tour.