Sunday, May 30, 2004

My Memorial Day

Answer: The Swift Boat Skipper from the last vignette. Question:  Who's the guy in the picture?.

Mrs. Linklater is a member of the Viet Nam generation.  Not because she actually went there, although we sometimes forget that many women did serve in Southeast Asia.  But because of the men her age she knew who went or were sent there.  And how it affected them.

Memorial Day for her used to be about remembering those who gave their lives and died. More and more, she realizes it should celebrate the ones who gave their lives and still live among us with their memories. 

Here are some personal vignettes about the vets she has known.

Marine Special Ops, codenamed "Captain Midnight"  -- The first time Mrs. Linklater saw Pete at her health club, she wanted to meet him. A girl thing. It took awhile -- five years. He wasn't the world's most friendly sort. But when they finally met, she managed to forge a friendship with him that lasted two years. Think what it would be like to hang out with a cobra. And two years is a lifetime

Pete was in Viet Nam during 1963-64 when we supposedly weren't in Southeast Asia except as advisers.  If you ever want to cast someone to play a commando, he still looks like he stepped off a poster, tall, dark -- almost brooding -- handsome, muscular, and way too calm. He also hates bugs, snakes, and other creepy crawlers, from one too many nights out in the jungle, not being able to move, eat, drink, or make a sound for hours on end.

A few years ago, Mrs. Linklater was playing tennis with him, when he heard Russian being spoken on another court.  The man is fluent in Russian and Italian. He waved at her to meet him at the net. He then proceeded to demonstrate how he killed a Russian Major in Viet Nam, after spending five hours slowly and carefully crawling up on his hut. He grabbed her by the back of the neck with one hand, then almost broke her nose with his other hand.  He did this three times until Mrs. Linklater said, "Okay, I think I get it." 

Hm-m-m, having a flashback are we? Mrs. Linklater snapped him out of his trip down memory lane by asking if they could play their own game of "Commando" some evening. His eyes lost their blackness and that distant, far away look. Finally, he laughed. Phewf. 

Green Beret -- Just back from a tour of duty in Viet Nam, Mrs. Linklater met him at a neighborhood hangout. Someone she knew pointed him out, saying, that guy's been checking you out since you walked in. Oh goody. He was in civilian clothes and looked very GQ.  He wasn't just nice looking and tall, there was something about his bearing, the way he stood, that just oozed confidence.

He was also very easy going and friendly. At the same time, there was that eerie peacefulness about him. Is it the nature of men who have lived the demanding, often brutal, lives of commandos to be inordinately peaceful at other times? There is also something in their eyes  A mystery that runs silent and deep.. 

He had a fancy last name with a III at the end of it, which Mrs. Linklater thought was funny since his first name was Fred. "There's three of you named 'Fred?'" On purpose? Mrs. Linklater thought someone could have been more imaginative.

Over time he talked about Viet Nam. She heard detailed stories about the deaths of villagers, when they were looking for "Charlie.". When these assassinations were being explained to her, the slaughter actually seemed to make sense. A necessity of war. She was young, naive, and captivated. Okay, not thinking too clearly. The stories she heard were told to her way before any of the My Lai controversy hit the papers. Only then did what he said take on some perspective. Sometimes the terrible truths are tempered by personal feelings, when you talk with someone you care about who was there.

SEAL --When Mrs. Linklater met him, Bill looked like a carbon copy of Mac Wilkins, the Olympic discuss thrower or shot putter -- forget which. Most SEALS aren't that big. They tend to be six feet or so and lean muscle. Bill was 6'2" and bulked up like a football player. From the time he joined the Navy at 19 to the time he got out of the SEALs, he had grown a lot.  He gave Mrs. Linklater some of his old uniforms to show her -- from the early years, when he was a skinny 6'. She still has them.

When he first told her that he had been a SEAL, she said, "Oh, you were the guys that blew up the innocent women and children."   Mrs. Linklater is nothing if not charming. 

He bought some wooded property and built a two story, three bedroom house by himself.  One afternoon she took a walk with him through the brush and he suddenly began to crouch down and walk more carefully, looking from side to side. "This is how we used to walk through the jungle," he explained.  

He had a scar on one leg that looked like someone had taken a serving spoon and scooped part of it out leaving an indentation just like you see in ice cream.  "Is that from a bullet wound?" Mrs. Linklater asked more than once.  He never answered. He would only look at her.

He rarely talked about Viet Nam except when he was drunk. Which became more and more frequent over time. One story he repeated a lot.  That was watching one of the guys he was with cut the throats of two captives, after misunderstanding an order. Or pretending to misunderstand an order. Either way, it was senseless and disturbing. Bill figured he had killed 200 men himself in combat. Exaggeration?  Who knows? For the SEALs combat could be up close and personal. So maybe he was able to take a count. Most of his group received medals, but other people were designated to accept them, because, based on photos he showed her, they were a pretty scruffy looking bunch.

One of his SEAL buddiescame to visit for the weekend and you could see the bond they had.  His friend took Mrs. Linklater aside to say how important they had been to each other and what it meant to be part of the team. Clearly theirs would be a lifelong bond. Stronger than any woman.

Naval Supply Officer -- Mrs. Linklater's first boyfriend. In college, he told her he had been recruited by the CIA. So, did he join? He said he was going to Viet Nam as a Naval Supply Officer, but in his letters he talked about living in an big house with other guys in Saigon. Aren't Naval supply officers on ships? Mrs. Linklater tried to locate him recently.  She looked up his college alumni book and he wasn't listed.  So she called the alumni office and found out that no listing meant he was dead.  Wow. The school said they weren't supposed to reveal the information but Mrs. Linklater found out he died in 1982.  She has since found his sister, but still hasn't called to find out what she knows. Another entry. Another time.

Navy Fighter Pilot -- A high school classmate of Mrs. Linklater's who graduated from Annapolis and now flies for United. Mr. Straight Arrow.

At one time he was flying A-4's off carriers in Viet Nam. Later, he became the Commander of his reserve squadron at Miramar. By the time he re-connected with Mrs. L at their 20th H.S. reunion he was like the Tom Skerrit character in Top Gun. Only funnier and better looking. He was training the newbies how to be fighter jocks. And his hilarious letters would describe what the old jocks were doing to show the new jocks who was boss.

After they started seeing each other, he would fly in from California to the local Naval Air Station every few weeks, park his plane and they'd go out for dinner. 

When he flew, he wore a WWII bomber jacket with his nickname "Red" sewn on it, next to a bullet hole in the leather that he never planned to fix. He also had a turquoise and silver flecked helmet that made him look more like a biker than a pilot when he put it on.

They dated long distance on and off for three years, meeting in person when they could, until his wife called one morning. His third wife. Nine months pregnantwith their second child. Oh, really!  Was this a war thing or just a complete failure of character?

Navy Swift Boat Skipper -- A friend of Mrs. Linklater's for over thirty years. Through all the ups and downs of marriage, divorce, children, and careers. Early on, Mrs. Linklater went to visit him when he was a recent grad from OCS and about to ship out from San Diego to Viet Nam. 

Last month, thirty some years since their first meeting, they had dinner at the house he shares with his fiance. Nothing new, they've done it many times before. However, after a wonderful meal, he showed her a bunch of pictures she'd never seen. Most were black and white. All were from when he was In Country, riding up and down the Mekong Delta in his boat, like a sitting duck in a shooting gallery. He looked so young. 

He once told her about the time a bullet came whizzing by his right ear.  He moved his head slightly to the right and mused to himself, "Wow, an inch or two and that would have hit me." At that same moment, another bullet whizzed by his left ear. So he knows he was lucky to survive his tour.  And considers every day a gift. 

As Mrs. Linklater was leaving to go home, he brought out a number of Naval commendations he had received. Something she never knew about. After reading a couple for the first time, Mrs. Linklater came to a sudden realization: "Does this one mean that you won the Bronze Star?" "Yes."  "Why didn't you tell me."  "You didn't ask."

That's his picture.


No comments: