I Was Just There Last Night
© James J. Alonzo
“Jim, do you still think about Viet Nam?’ asked Dr. Tallutto, My shrink at Veterans Hospital.
“How do you stop thinking about it.” I Laughed, “everyday for the last 30 plus years, I wake up with it, go to bed with it. Yeah, I think about it, I can’t quit thinking about it. I never will, but most of the time I have learned to live with it. I’m mostly comfortable with the memories, the flashbacks, I’ve learn to stop trying to forget, and I am trying to learn to embrace it. It just doesn’t scare me anymore.”
“Jim, if you weren’t being affected by the experience of war, combat, and death, that would be abnormal.”
When he told me that , it was like he’d have just given me a pardon,
“Go ahead and feel something for that place, Jim. It ain’t going nowhere. You’re going to wear it for the rest of your life, so you might as well get to know it.”
A lot of my “brothers’ haven’t been so lucky. For them the memories are too painful, their sense of loss to great for them to adjust.
One time I was speaking to my sister, and she said to me,
“Jim, I have a friend, and her husband was in Viet Nam.”
“Yeah.” I responded.
“I asked him when he was there? Do you know what he said?’
“He said to me, “Just last Night.”
I had to explain what he meant, but it took my sister some time to understand what he and I were talking about. “Just Last Night.” Yeah I was in Nam, when? “Just last night”. During sex with my wife, on my way to work this morning, during lunch, working in the office. “Yeah I was just there.”
My kid brother informed me, once, after I had gotten home from Nam,
“You’re not the same brother that went to Viet Nam. Dad says that when you went to Viet Nam, that the Jim we knew, died over there. That the Jim that came back, is not his son, or my brother.”
Another time, my wife and I were talking,
“You won’t let people get close to you, not even me.”
“You’re probably right.” I responded.
Ask a veteran about making friends in Nam, and you will find out it is risky. Why? Because were in the business of death, kill and be killed, death was with us at all times.
It wasn’t the death of, “If I die before I wake.” This was the real thing. The kind where young men scream for their mothers! The kind that lingers in your mind and becomes more real each time you luck out and cheat Mr. Death. You don’t want too many friends when there is the possibility of dying is real, that close. When you do friends become a liability.
While in Viet Nam, I feel in love with a Vietnamese woman. Her name was Kim, she was young, 22 years old, smart, educated, beautiful. She lived in ‘Cholon’ a neighborhood or district in Saigon. She worked for my commanding officer, but she was my love.
When the TET Offensive hit, many communists soldier and Viet Cong attacked many cities at the same time. When they hit Saigon, I was in bed with Kim, and I was AWOL, for I had misappropriated a vehicle, and drove 21 miles from my base camp to Kim’s home that night. We were awakened when the fighting started, gun fire, the explosions of RPG’s and chi com grenades went off.
“You have to go!” Kim demanded, “There are many VC in Saigon, they will kill you and my family, if they see you here!”
I told her I would stay but she insisted that it would be better if I was gone. After I escaped, and for the next 30 plus days, on missions, I heard nothing of Kim and her family. After TET, I would find out that she and her family were among the 10,000 south Vietnamese killed for associating or employed by the Americans.
DON”T GET CLOSE TO PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO DIE. Sometimes you can’t help it.
You hear Veterans use the term ”my buddy” when they refer to a guy they spent the war with. “Me and this buddy of mine…”
Friend sounds to intimate, doesn’t it. “Friend” calls up images of being close. If he is a friend, then you are going to be hurt if he dies, and war hurts enough without adding to the pain. Get close; get hurt, it’s as simple as that.
My wife knows a few people who can get into the soft spots inside me. My daughter Sherri, grandson, and her.
She’s put up with a lot from me. She’ll tell you that when she signed on for better or worse, she had no idea there was going to be so much of the latter. But with my daughter and her son Devin, it is different. They will be there in my life, and that is the good part of life.
I can still see the faces, though they all seem to have the same eyes, the thousand yard stare. When I think of us, back in Nam, I always see a line of “dirty soldiers” sitting in the running boards of the convoy trucks or the skids of the choppers. We are caught in the first grey sliver between darkness and light. That first moment when we know we’ve survived another night, and the business of staying alive for one more day is about to begin. There was so much hope in that brief space of time. It’s what we used to pray for, “One more day God. One more day.”
And I can still hear our conversations as if they had just been spoken. I can still hear the way we sounded, the hard cynical jokes, our morbid sense of humor. We were scared to death of dying or being maimed, and trying our best not to show it.
I still recall the smells, too. Like the way cordite hangs on the air after a fire-fight/ Or the pungent odor of rice paddies, and the mud. So different from the black dirt New York State of farm land. The mud of Viet Nam smells ancient, somehow, like it’s always been there. The smell of rotting jungle vegetation. It is hard to forget the way blood smells, like rusted metal, sticky and drying on my hands. I spent a long night that way once. That memory is not going anywhere.
I remember how the night jungle appears dream like as the pilot of a Cessna ‘forward observer’, at 1200 feet, buzzes over head, dropping parachute flares until morning. The artificial sun light would flicker and make shadows run through the jungle foliage. It was worse than not being able to see what was out there sometimes. I remember once looking at my buddy, J.J. Jackson next to me as a flare floated down from overhead. The shadows on his ebony face, and around his eyes were so deep, that it looked like his eyes were gone. I reached over and touched him on his arm; without looking at me, he touched my hand, “I know man.” And at that moment he did.
God, I loved those guys, my buddies. I hurt every time one of them died or was severely wounded. We all did, despite our posturing, despite our desire to stay connected, we couldn’t help ourselves. I know why some veterans write their stories, I know what gives other Veterans to create poems so honest, I cry at their horrible beauty. It’s love. Love for those people who shared the Viet Nam combat experience.
We did our jobs like good soldiers, and we tried our best not to become as hard as our surroundings. We touched each other and said,
“I know.” Like a mother would say, holding a child in the middle of a nightmare,
“It’s going to be alright.”
We tried not to loose touch with our humanity, we tried to walk the line. We tried to be the good men our parents had raised and not to give into that un-named thing we knew was inside us all.
You want to know what frightening is? It’s a nineteen year old boy-man who’s had a sip of that power over life and death that war gives you. Despite all the things he has been taught, he knows that he likes it. It’s a nineteen year old who’s lost a friend and is angry, scared, and yet determined that some, “.*&%#$ is going to pay!” To this day, the thought of that boy can wake me up from a sound sleep and leave me staring at the ceiling the rest of the night.
As I write this, I see an image in front of me of two young men, with writing tablets on their laps. One smoking a cigarette, both stare without expression at the camera. They’re writing letters to their loved ones back in the world, staying in touch with places they would rather be. Places and people they hope to see again.
My wife Nanci, doesn’t mind of the love I have for these men, or even of Kim. She knows she’s been included in special company. She knows I’ll always love those people who shared that part of my life, a part she never can. And yet she understands how I feel about the ones I know are out there yet. The one’s who still answer the question. “When were you in Viet Nam?”
“Hell, I was there just last night.”