by G.D. Lorentzen
The year in Washington, D.C. went by too slowly. The more I looked forward to getting out of the military the more slowly the calendar seemed to change months. My last year in service left me anxious and too focused on the final goal of separation from the military, but I found some level of refuge and comfort in my friendship with Willie. We had spent the last four years stationed in the same places both stateside and in Vietnam, but it had only been since we were together in D.C. that our friendship became more substantial. The relationship was important to both of us and we both recognized that it was our previous experiences and mutual suffering that had created the strong bond between us.
We lived in an apartment together in suburban Northern Virginia, and worked and played together just as we had for nearly four years. This time, however, we were alone in our own place and not in a military barracks with seventy other guys. It made the relationship smoother and more natural. Willie, too, felt comfortable enough completely to be himself in my presence. I could tell that for Willie, as for me, it was like living with family. We accepted the arrangement not thinking much about our feelings for each other or the future. I was not much aware of my emotions and was not confronted with them until it was time to leave the military, and, of course, that meant separating from Willie, too.
Willie and I received our separation papers on the same day, January 21, 1972. We were to report to Fort Myers, Virginia, which was located just across the Potomac from Washington. We had a typical bureaucratic experience before us in order to be officially released: submitting paperwork, having a physical examination, and being stamped with the government seal of approval that we were at least in the same condition upon our separation as when we enlisted. Somehow it was appropriately symbolic for me that we should be released from the Army on the solar ingress into Aquarius. The so-called New Age was dawning, Vietnam was behind us, but not yet behind the Nation, and the future stretched in front of us as sure and as vast as the sky and the Great Plains would in the days that followed.
“Willie, let’s go. We’re going to be late!” I yelled down the hall where Willie was still grooming in the bathroom.
“Yeah, yeah! I’m done. I’m coming. What time is it?”
I looked at my watch and said, “We have twenty-five minutes.”
Willie emerged from the bathroom, freshly shaven, splashed with Jade East, a popular aftershave of the era, and dressed exactly like me in olive drab fatigues that were perfectly bloused at the top of highly polished boots. It was our last day in uniform. Obviously, we knew that, but we preferred not to mention it out of some unspoken superstition, that if we had, it would have dashed our dream of getting out.
“Hey, man, grab the paper work and let’s go!” Willie said with his mischievously ironic grin, as if I had been the one wasting time. But then the irony in his eyes softened and his grin turned into a smile as wide as Texas and I somehow didn’t feel so anxious anymore. We had both been feeling a little anxious about the future, although we were barely aware of it. We drove down Route 50 to the Washington Parkway and then past the Pentagon to Fort Myers without conversation, listening instead to the radio. I don’t remember any more what I was thinking. Maybe nothing. It was a day of wonder, really. The kind of day or time when words seem superfluous–when wide-eyed anticipation is one’s only thought or feeling. We turned into the driveway leading to the main gate, stopped and presented our papers to the guard. He waved us through without saying a single word. We parked in front of the large colonial administration building and followed the signs leading to the processing center.
I was twenty-one. Willie was twenty-two. As we stood there in line in the processing center, we began remembering out loud some of our experiences in Vietnam. I suddenly felt older than my years. The image of two young, still rather immature men in the war seemed suddenly incongruous, unreal or improbable. I became perplexed how the events of my life had led to this strange moment in time and began questioning where we had been and why we had been there. We started reminiscing about the previous four years and our time in Vietnam.
The conversation encapsulated our nearly two years there. As improbable and unromantic as the experiences had been, they were, in fact, the normal every day experiences of our lives in Vietnam: Mama-sans cleaning, TiTi the shitburner hauling human waste from the latrines, the ear-splitting roar of jet fighters taking off from an airbase, the rumble and thunder of B-52 raids, the psychedelic sounds of choppers crescendoing and decrescendoing in the distance, tense but often uneventful nights on guard duty, and the distinguishable whistles of in-coming and out-going mortars and rockets. These were the essential sights and sounds of Vietnam as we remembered them. And they gave me a small anxiety attack…or maybe an attack of conscience.
I looked at Willie and realized that we didn’t belong in this uniform. We didn’t believe in this war. We had gone to Vietnam and extended our tour there for our own personal reasons. Willie was the artistic type and I had fantasies of acting. We both leaned to the left in our political views. We had become inseparable as friends and we felt a deep love for each other, yet we were still too socially and religiously conditioned to feel comfortable expressing that affection without fearing potential implications. The contradictions were too difficult at that moment to sort out. It was for us an existential problem, not a political one. As we reminisced, I became acutely aware of the difficulty.
“God, Willie, why did we do it? I mean, look at us! What are we doing here? We’re standing here in this uniform waiting for them to let us out and we don’t fit in the picture. We both volunteered to go over there, remember?” I emphasized the word volunteered with a certain amount of amazement. “What were we thinking four years ago?”
Willie smiled at me, shrugged his shoulders and said in his usual, unperturbed, unflappable way, “Why do we do anything? It was the right thing at the right time, I guess.”
“But we both hate the war,” I said somewhat confrontationally. “We both hate Johnson and Nixon. So why did we ask to go? Have you thought about that?”
“Ah, I don’t know anymore,” Willie said almost absent-mindedly, and I couldn’t remember anymore either. After a few moments of silence, he looked up and gave me a kind of answer.
“Because maybe we’re addicted to the adrenaline rush and running away from the boredom,” Willie offered looking directly into my eyes. “Because maybe we have this ego problem that demanded we get involved in the historical significance of the whole thing. And because we were not aware enough of ourselves at the outset to take a moral stand.”
I knew Willie was at least partly right. I knew the military experience was an attempt to resolve some of my personal problems, and in many ways I had succeeded. Yet, I hadn’t resolved them all. But Willie made me realize that we were lucky enough to have a war to run away to–not a circus, but a real war to break us out of the cocoon of childhood–a war to escape the dreadful social conformity and family expectations we so deeply feared, yet still couldn’t quite escape–a war to find out what we were truly made of as men. It was an archetypal and primal male experience that connected us to the deepest levels of our being.
“I hate to admit it, Willie, but I miss it,” I said wistfully.
“I know, I miss it sometimes, too,” he added rather matter-of-factly.
“Sometimes I really hate the World,” I continued in a melancholic tone staring off at the beehive of activity around me in the processing center that so reminded me of the hectic hustle of life in America. The World was this normal place of human activity that paralleled our lives in Vietnam. While we were fighting, dying, being bored, crazy, frightened and self-indulgent, the people in the World were working nine-to-five, commuting, living standard, middle-class American lives, only vaguely aware of our reality over there. It was superficial, neon, glitzy, shiny, cellophane-wrapped and television-soaped. And I hated it. I wanted to shake it and shake it until it woke up and saw what was really happening.
“The World, huh?” repeated Willie with a half smile. “You mean the whole world or just the world outside of the Army?” He knew what I meant, but he was testing me in a way.
I thought it over and decided that, if I hated the whole world, self-hatred was included. That could be. If I hated just the world outside of the Army, I might as well re-enlist right away. I really didn’t hate myself that much and I couldn’t possibly re-enlist. Smiling and looking a bit sheepish, I said, “OK, guess I was being a bit overly dramatic. Sorry.”
“Aw, we’ll get used to the World again. It just takes time.” Willie was comforting me and his voice revealed the depth of his affection.
“I suppose,” I said unconvinced. “I guess I’m wondering if that’s what I want.”
“Just think,” said Willie changing the subject, “one minute we’re in uniform, saluting, putting up with inspections and all the bullshit and real soon now we’ll be free to think individually and not worry where our weapon is or whether the next person we see requires a salute. God, it’ll be a whole new life!”
I smiled at the thought, but felt a tinge of discomfort and anxiety, too. I looked up at Willie and he looked back, raising his fist in the air and looking down. It always made me smile when he struck that Black Power pose. Somehow we identified strongly with the oppressed and we adopted that symbol as our own statement of resilience and resistance to being absorbed into the military mind. We stood in line quietly through the rest of the bureaucratic process. Periodically we’d make eye contact, smile briefly, nod and raise a silent fist over our heads. After our medical exams we signed our final papers and then we were civilians.
We had everything packed. It wasn’t much. The total fit into the front trunk of Willie’s new, blue Volkswagen bug. We had plans. A rock concert was scheduled at William and Mary College in Williamsburg and we had bought tickets. Traffic was the headliner with J.J. Cale and Redbone. Redbone, in their native Indian garb of white and turquoise, stole the show in the smoky, frisbee-filled air. We climbed into Willie’s new, blue Volkswagen after the concert and headed west into the Appalachians.
It was just after midnight. We were high from the marijuana, rock music and the energy inside the concert hall. The world was starry bright and my mind was free and open. The vibration of the car pacified me as I curled up in the seat. Security and comfort spread through my limbs as anger and fear had done so often during the previous four years. I looked over at Willie’s face staring through the windshield into the night. The shadows of his nose, chin and gentle eyes contrasted sharply with the brightness of the headlights from the on-coming traffic. The stark black and white image etched itself in my feelings and a strong wave of emotion began to well up inside of me.
I wanted to tell Willie how much I cared about our friendship and our experiences together…how much I loved him. But such words wouldn’t form on my lips for fear they would be misunderstood, or maybe reciprocated. Either way, I wasn’t ready to deal with it. I controlled myself quietly for a few moments until Willie broke the stillness.
Reaching into his shirt pocket Willie said, “Here. Want one of these?”
“What is it?” I asked leaning slightly forward to get a better look.
“It’s a Christmas tree,” he answered with a chuckle. He smiled slyly, yet there was a spark of friendliness and nurturing in his expression.
I was a little puzzled. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s amphetamine,” announced Willie as if it were a piece of candy. “The medic at Fort Myers gave me a congratulatory short supply as a going away present when I got my physical. It’s green and white, so it’s called a Christmas tree.” Willie waited a moment to see how I would respond. I just stared at the little green and white pill for a brief moment, reached over and took it from between his finger and thumb. Willie just smiled.
It struck me as perfect. I didn’t want to sleep anyway. We were hurling through the night, speeding farther and farther away from a painful past and breaking through to a wide-open future. I didn’t want to miss a thing. We both wanted to explore this new sense of freedom, yet we were both also slightly unnerved by the sense of being cast adrift in the World. The sensation of being out of the Army was thick and tangible. We had grown accustomed to being completely enveloped by the military matrix, led here and there and told what to do. We were used to ourselves in a very ordered world. Now we had suddenly been released into a world where any order to life came from within and was not absolutely imposed from without. We wanted to escape from the constraints of the past few years in the military, but we both keenly felt the anxiety of this panoramic openness outside of the Army.
We sat quietly in our seats, each in our own separate space, trying to adjust to these new circumstances. The effects of the speed began to take hold and the speeding drug began to match the momentum of the speeding car, dissolving the barriers between us, at least for a while. I realized that Willie had been feeling as emotional and confused as I had, but like me could not communicate it. With the barriers gone the psychological atmosphere changed. We talked. We laughed. We explored the universe within each other and wrapped ribbons of highway around steel-belted radials.
We finally stopped for food and coffee at a truck stop somewhere in West Virginia. We ended up laughing at ourselves and at our discomfort eating breakfast alongside leather-faced truckers with southern accents cracking suggestive jokes at the waitresses–country-western women in crisp pastel with helmets of freshly sprayed hair piled high in swirls and engineered with bobby pins. Our speed-induced perceptions created a Marx Brothers’ dialogue in southern accent out of the many peripheral conversations. We couldn’t relate. With very wide grins and overly alert eyes, we walked back to the car and continued the journey westward. Willie wanted to visit his family in Amarillo, Texas. I had applied to college in Olympia, Washington and sooner or later needed to arrive there. For now, though, time didn’t exist. There was only impulsive movement with no thought of limitations or responsibility.
“Hey,” said Willie, “let’s go to Markham, Texas and visit Jim Polk.”
“Jim Polk? Ahh, sure, ok,” I agreed. “Why not? You know where it is?”
“Somewhere down outside of Houston near the coast,” he replied. “I have the address. I think Jim should be there. He got out…let’s see…just before Christmas, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, he did.” I stopped to think about Jim and chuckled. “He’s incredible, y’know? I’ve had some really interesting conversations with him.”
“Me, too.” added Willie. “I always thought he was one of the more intelligent guys I met in the Army.”
“Yup,” I agreed, “pretty smart guy. He got kinda crazy though towards the end. I think it finally got to him a little. He was doing too many drugs there for awhile, I think.”
“Well, yeah, he started feeling the pressure, I’m sure,” agreed Willie. “Crazy and intelligent go hand in hand for a lot of guys. I’d really like to see him again, though. But in his own space, y’know?”
“OK, let’s go,” I said. “I got time.” So we decided to head for the Southwest. Dawn broke through behind us and the rays of the sun seemed to energize Willie’s speeding, blue, German machine. West Virginia blended into Kentucky and Tennessee. Mississippi disappeared becoming Louisiana then East Texas, and Houston appeared sprawling across the flatness of the Coastal Plains. Next stop: Markham.
Markham was this quiet, musty little town outside of Bay City. Clearly, there wasn’t much prosperity there. Willie retrieved the address from his wallet and soon we pulled into a dirt driveway at the end of which was a small, green tarpapered house. It could’ve been a 1935 depression-era scene. Nothing had changed here in a long, long time. Jim emerged from behind the little house, noticed the car and walked toward us. His face clearly communicated the fact he had no idea who we were or why we were there. Once he recognized us, his expression changed, he smiled and picked up his pace across the overgrown yard.
Willie and I stayed seated in the car. We had anticipated spending some time with Jim, but we were stunned by his family’s apparent poverty. Jim leaned with his fore arms against the driver’s side.
“I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed in his coastal Texan drawl. “Y’all lost or what?”
Willie answered first. “Naw, headin’ home and thought we’d stop by and see you–just say hello.”
“Well, y’all sure surprised me,” Jim said with a smile. “So, what’s up? What’re y’all gonna do now that y’all are out?”
I shrugged my shoulders a bit and said, “Go back to school, I guess. Have to do something with my life. How about yourself?”
“Make a life here,” Jim answered gesturing with his head to indicate the house and town. “It ain’t much, I guess, but it’s home, y’know? I’ll find work in Bay City or something. You going back home, too, Willie?”
“Well, just to visit, I think.” Willie answered. “I’m not sure where I’ll end up. For sure not in Texas, but I don’t know yet.”
Jim nodded his head, turned and exhaled so we could hear it. The conversation came to an abrupt end. Jim looked back in the car window at us and said, “Why don’t y’all come in. I’ll gitcha a beer.”
Willie looked over at me and I saw no willingness in his face to get out of the car. I didn’t have the desire either to go in the house. Neither of us wanted to spend any more time there.
“Uh, thanks, but I think we gotta split. Still have to drive up to Amarillo. Haven’t seen the family in awhile…you know,” said Willie obviously creating excuses.
“Yeah,” Jim said, “it’s a stretch…well, ok, then, ah, look…” he continued struggling for words, slapped the door frame lightly and said, “It was good to see y’all…take care, huh?”
“Yea, sure,” Willie responded, “you, too. Sorry we can’t stay longer…it’s been awhile, y’know?” I sat completely silent. I didn’t know what to say. Jim had been our friend but he just wasn’t as I imagined he would be. Had he changed? Had we changed? Or was this some strange veil of illusion suddenly and ungracefully falling from our perceptions?
“Thanks for stoppin’ by,” said Jim stepping back away from the car. “I gotta go pick up my mom down at the post office, anyway. Good to see y’all. Y’all are some crazy sumbitches to drive all the way down here just to say hello!”
I just smiled and nodded my head in Jim’s direction. Jim turned around and disappeared into the little house. Willie turned on the ignition and pulled out of the dirt driveway. Neither of us spoke for some time as we headed down the highway out of town. We were both trying to sort out the experience. I felt as if we were intruding. Jim was so simple and uncomplicated in his own element–even sedate. Perhaps it was merely the austerity, but we had known him and experienced him as vibrant–a bonvivant really with remarkable humor and intelligence. Yet here he was telling us that was all the past and now he wanted to return to a simple, uncomplicated, church-on-Sunday life in a small Texas town.
Willie turned to me and said, “Y’know, he has ten brothers and sisters and a mother and father who all live in that little place.”
I felt a sadness come over me. I looked out at the local scenery and the geography was reminiscent of the Mekong Delta. As we passed by shanties and old, run down houses I felt the similarity of my early childhood in the rural Midwest, life in Vietnam and the local landscape. They were all fertile wastelands and it was life in the margins. I saw it all as an emblem of the moral poverty and injustice of the war and America with all of its contradictions. I realized I had always lived in the margins of society and so had Jim. I then began to understand why Jim wanted to stay there. It was for the same reason Willie and I had wanted to stay in Vietnam. It was existence on the edge of life. There was no real comfort and ease, but rather continual struggle to survive materially, emotionally and spiritually. Simply, I felt alive and independent. I felt my own person. I felt exhilarated and focused, not bored and conformed. There is no mainstream of society in the margins.
I looked over at Willie and saw in his face the same contemplation and perhaps sadness. A flood of memories filled me. I didn’t want to lose them or my friendship with Willie, like I felt I had lost whatever we had with Jim. I wanted to reach out and hold Willie. I had learned to hate so strongly in the military and whatever feelings of love and affection I had were pushing up, breaking through, threatening to destroy the last four years of conditioning. I had wanted this breakthrough, but now I was panicking. Willie looked over at me and I could see that he, too, was struggling with his own thoughts and perceptions. We never spoke. Neither of us could let it out, even to talk about. We were so bonded together, yet our relationship was so frightening to us that we couldn’t express our mutual respect and affection. Macho grew in the land. The Texas sky fell over us and we grew hard against the emerging desert.
I knew then that our separation was near and we couldn’t say to each other that it mattered or that we cared. We were friends but afraid of that emotion called love. We refused to risk exposing ourselves. We had sped through the sound barrier from Vietnam to the States and the concussion shattered our link. We lost each other somewhere in the wastelands of West Texas in an inertial plunge into old adolescent ways of being.
“I think I’ll go back to D.C.,” said Willie suddenly, cutting through the silence. “I kinda like it there…find a place in Virginia, get a job…”
“Wow,” I said without enthusiasm or energy. “I guess we need to make some decisions then about where we’re going next.”
“I need to see my parents,” said Willie. “You can come with me or whatever you wanna do.”
I thought it over a few seconds and realized I would be prolonging the inevitable by going on to Amarillo. I needed to make this separation a clean break–a simple, matter-of-fact, unemotional, everyday, see-ya-later. I took a deep breath, let it out and said, “Maybe I’ll just catch the bus home. I need to get there soon anyway and get my life squared away before I start college in March.”
Willie didn’t say anything for a while. I could see him thinking. He finally said, “I’ll drop you off at the bus station then in Amarillo.”
“Great,” I responded. “Works for me.” We then sat in the car in silence again. I became very depressed as we drove closer to Amarillo. Once we were in the city, I started gathering my things from the back seat. We still weren’t talking much. Willie had the radio on listening to music to avoid any real interaction.
We pulled into the bus station and crawled out of the little car. Willie pulled open the hood of the front trunk and I gathered my things from inside. “There,” I said, “got it all.”
Our good-bye was sufficiently cool: a stiff handshake, a protective guffaw, an expectedly unfulfilled promise to write, and a take-care. I felt miserable. I needed to tell Willie how I felt, how much I loved him, but I was scared and unwilling. After buying my ticket, we walked silently together up to the parked bus and stood there not looking at each other. Willie was fidgeting slightly with his hands in his front pockets. The driver began taking passengers’ tickets and helping them up the steps into the bus. We moved aside waiting until the last possible moment to say the final good-bye. I was trying so hard to control my emotions that I couldn’t speak. As the last person boarded, I looked away from Willie in an effort not to cry. Willie clenched his hands in his pockets and wouldn’t look up. But it was time.
I began walking slowly toward the door of the bus, hoping Willie would say something. Willie remained silent. I simply couldn’t separate from him so suddenly and so coldly. Knowing that I might never see him again gave me the courage to tell him how I felt. I stopped, turned around and walked back up to him. I put my things on the ground at his feet and placed my right hand on his chest, looking directly into his eyes. I could feel the warmth of his body through his shirt. I was regretting deeply that I hadn’t expressed to him how much his friendship meant to me.
“I’ll miss you. You know that,” I said quietly but firmly.
Willie’s eyes began to tear and his lower lip quivered slightly. He placed his hand over mine and nodded his head, but said nothing. He couldn’t say anything. The raw emotion was right at the surface and any words would have subverted his control. Realizing his emotional state, I looked at him with all the affection I felt and silently mouthed the words, “I love you.” His expression changed from grief to surprise then he smiled slightly and nodded his head. I dropped my hand, picked up my things and walked back to the bus. I looked briefly over my shoulder at Willie as I climbed up the steps. He was standing there, hands at his side and shoulders slightly slumped, just staring back at me. I nodded my head in his direction in a final goodbye and disappeared into the bus.
Finding a seat was easier than fighting back the grief I felt. I stuffed my things above me and below me then sat down. I looked out of the window as the bus lurched forward. I saw Willie through the dirty glass and aluminum frame of the Trailways bus. He was leaning in his typical Willie pose against his new, blue Volkswagen now covered in red Texas dirt. He raised a silent fist in the air and hung his head as the bus pulled away in slow motion. I closed my eyes to shut out the world and fell asleep from the emotional exhaustion.
Sometime later I awoke to the hum of the engine lulling passengers to an uncomfortable sleep. It was the middle of the night. I stared out the window but couldn’t make much out of the terrain in the dark. I leaned back, closed my eyes and recalled the image of Willie driving at night through West Virginia. I shook off the impending emotion and fell back asleep. I knew that when I awoke it would be a new day and time for both Willie and me–a new beginning. The army had been the backdrop for our friendship and without the war our choices had become polarized. Willie chose the East; I had chosen the West. Though intimately together for so long, our paths finally parted.
Two days later I stepped off of the bus into a cool Pacific Northwest drizzle. The wet pavement reflected the silver sky and the reflection served as a mirror. I saw Vietnam moving inside me and I was molded by it. I saw Willie inside me, and I was humanized. I slowly realized that Willie would always be a brother and friend, whether we saw each other again or not. I realized my part in the war was over and it would slowly lose its hold over me, but I doubted my memories and feelings for Willie would do the same. It was mid-February 1972, the sun was in Aquarius and, despite the feeling of emptiness being without Willie, I looked around me and smiled faintly. I had finally come home.