A schedule of Veteran's Day events can be found here.
September, 1970: I was finally home after 2½ years in Southeast Asia fighting a war our government had written off before I ever arrived in Vietnam. My skin still reeked of Southeast Asia, a musky scent no soap could lather off, but with enough time finally wore off. My mom and dad and a few relatives welcomed me home at Memphis International Airport and offered hugs and kisses and a few touchy-feely slights of hand to see if all my appendages were still intact. No Purple Hearts; didn’t want any.
The airport had changed; not in appearance but atmosphere. Unkind, if not totally rude, dagger glares were tossed at my uniform by ugly, long-haired young women wearing dirty blue jeans and dirtier T-shirts, but in reality the ragtag individuals turned out to be long-haired young men. I didn’t dodge spittle nor endure the hateful phrase of “baby killer” until future weeks and months, but one young man did offer me an obscene one finger salute which I ignored, but my father didn’t. Dad stopped to confront the semi-intellectual vagabond but I grabbed my father’s shirt tail and told him it wasn’t worth the effort, plus I was afraid dad would catch a bad case of cooties.
Memphis had changed; my country had changed; I felt as if I’d landed in a foreign nation. Military personnel (their neatly trimmed hair gave the boys away) dressed in civilian clothing scampered through the baggage areas and concourses as if to avoid the nasty eyes analyzing their short hair. The neat haircuts really didn’t matter since their civilian garments were PX merchandise with the flair of a K-Mart blandness, starched and ironed to a sharp crease, missing those ‘hip’ but ludicrous bell bottoms, plus smelling fresh and clean. We stuck out like sore thumbs, in uniform or not, and wondered if we’d have to defend ourselves in an American airport as we had just a day or so earlier in Vietnam.
I tried to readjust, but even buying civilian clothing was a challenge. It was obvious that jeans, clean or grubby, ruled the universe, yet being ‘cool’ in a trendy nightclub required a better looking dude. Therefore, my first purchase was a red and blue checkered shirt to compliment the red bell-bottomed denim pants I’d bought in an establishment called Tumbleweeds. A dazzling indigo belt highlighted my ensemble but the newly purchased Dingo Boots hurt my feet.
Thinking back I must have resembled a poorly constructed barber pole.
Dudes dressed like poorly constructed barber poles don’t stand much of a chance with trendy ladies in trendy bars. My pickup lines were in much need of transformation. Pitches like ‘you number one’ or ‘can I buy you a Saigon Tea’ generated fear more than interest, especially if the pickup artist resembles a barber pole. I felt out of place because I was out of place.
Returning to college helped my readjustment but the age difference did make, well, a difference. Too, fraternity monkeyshines held no interest so I hunkered down to study and made the Dean’s List. My only trouble came from a stringy-haired English professor who, in my opinion, was in desperate need of a straightjacket. We were reading a poem written in WWII called “Flight Line”, a simple but earnest sonnet about a B-29 on the tarmac on Tinian. Mr. Straightjacket didn’t know what a B-29 was so I informed the class about the bomber, including noting the Super Fortresses had delivered the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“No,” he responded. “Those bombs were dropped by B-52s.” Arguing with a college professor is always a tricky business if you’re in need of a worthy grade, but I debated the issue until things got personal. During the squabble I mentioned my Air Force background and Vietnam War experiences. Right there in an English class with about 30 students this straightjacketed buffoon calls me a Baby Killer.
I came out of my seat; he came out of his; males in the class intervened by holding us back from each other and most likely saved my expulsion from college. This was the only severe incident I experienced in college, but it did leave a profound stain on my English grade. Moreover, a cold beer after class helped cool me back down to normal.
A cold beer always helped. A cold beer was a friend, an obliging hand, a liquid crutch with consequences. Drugs never tempted me, never have and never will, but a cold beer was a macho way to forget, to adapt, to help readjust. I was one of the lucky ones; the obliging hand of alcohol wasn’t strong enough to drag me down into the gutter of despondency.
Too many Vietnam veterans were not so lucky; many of them wouldn’t and couldn’t make the transition back to so-called normal life. It didn’t help matters if the six o’clock news or Jane Fonda wannabes jumped on our backs since we had several invisible monkeys already on our backs. Young kids we were, fighting and dying and laughing and crying, 10,000 miles from our homes without the support of the home front.
That’s a tough pill to swallow, legal or not, but we weren’t the first and we will not be the last. The Greatest Generation came home as victors but without an official grasp of what war actually does to an individual. Korean War veterans just came home. Korea was pinched between the unconditional surrender mentality of WWII and the peace-at-any-price-tuck-tail-and-run partisan mindset of Vietnam, but the battle-hardened veterans of the “Forgotten War” in the frozen wastelands of Korea had real and imaginary scars just as deep and damaging as did the Greatest Generation. Future conflicts: Vietnam, Granada, Panama, the Gulf War, Bosnia, and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and International Terrorism, has tested and will continue to test the best of us on distant battlefields and eventually test all of us on the sidewalks of Hometown, USA. Terror is coming, in fact it’s already here; so be the Boy Scout and Be Prepared.
Yes, I do remember. I remember things my family will never know. All veterans remember; the good, the bad, the acceptance or the rejection. I am grateful the intrepid men and women in uniform today are shown the respect they so fittingly deserve. But make no mistake about it; if the political hacks require an imaginary bull's eye to incite the masses then the military may once again offer a tempting target. There is a big difference, you realize, between veterans and politicians: we took our oaths seriously.
Veteran’s Day. Remember the sacrifices. We still do.