I tried to enlist in the Marines soon after my 16th birthday. My mother wouldn’t sign the papers. The 1968 Tet offensive had her doubting the final outcome of the Vietnam Conflict. Boys were coming back in coffins. I wanted a gun in my hands. Returning soldiers were portrayed as drug addicted monsters. Dennis Halley came back with nothing more than a thirst for beer.
Dennis Halley had seen action near the DMZ. The Boston Globe had mentioned his heroics during the Tet offensive. My hometown’s John Wayne was dating my next door neighbor. Addy Manzi was the prettiest girl on the South Shore. We had vandalized an abandoned missile base of top of Chickatawbut Hill. The police had arrested me and I never gave up his or Addy’s name. I considered him a god and said that I was thinking about joining the Marines, while we were sitting by the Manzi’s swimming pool."Why you want to go?" He stared at the stars."I want to get out of here." My hometown had three red lights, fifteen churches, and no bars. It was a suburban purgatory.“I wouldn’t do that.” Dennis had served with the Army Rangers. He had returned with medals and a puckered hole in his arm from shrapnel. He shook his head. His hair was over his ears.
“Marines are taking a lot of casualties. Officers are gungho for promotion. One West Point fuck ordered my friend to get some beer. A mine blew up his truck. My man died for warm beer. Viet-Nam is fucked and if you don’t have to go then don’t go. Only people there are dumb fucks like me and poor white trash and blacks who can’t afford to go to college.”
“What about serving my country?” I believed in the American Way; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“I done served this country enough for the both of us. I spent two tours humping around rice fields, burning villages, and shooting at an enemy I couldn’t see. But one of them saw me good enough to shoot me. If I hear you signing up for the jarheads, I’ll kick your ass.” Dennis Halley was 20. He had killed VC. His eyes squinted like he was a stand-in for Clint Eastwood in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. His harsh words ran against the Pentagon’s optimism."You want to leave this town, then join a carnival or circus."
“Okay.” I wasn’t arguing with my hero.
“Good, now give me some room.” He nodded to Addy. They wanted to be alone. I didn’t have to be told why and wandered across the lawn to my split-level house. It was painted pink.
The strength of his advice changed my life. I became a hippie instead of a Marine. I protested the war with conviction. My father considered me a ‘commie’, but he didn’t want me to go to Viet-Nam. Like Dennis said the war was someone else’s fight.I avoided the last years of the war by attending college.
By the time I graduated in 1974 our troop levels were down to 1950 numbers. More than 50,000 Americans died in SE Asia. Hundreds of thousands more were fucked up by grievous wounds to body and soul. Few of them talked about their experiences and those that had not gone wondered whether they missed the glory of war.
Dennis broke up with Addy and moved to California. She and I kissed after my older brother’s wedding. I was too drunk to attempt anything more in my family’s Oldsmobile. I quit my teaching job at South Boston High School in 1976 and relocated to New York. The punk movement was my universe. Manhattan was heaven for a young man in his 20s. I had friends. My girlfriend from West Virgina loved me and I worked at a rock disco on West 62nd Street. My days were free and I spent them going to the movies.
Double bills at the St. Mark’s movie house. 3-4 films a week. STAR WARS at the Whitestone Drive-in. ALIEN on May 25, 1979 at a Times Square theater. None was more important than the release of APOCALYPSE NOW on 15 August 1979 at the Ziegfield. I had seen CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A 3RD KIND IN THE BALCONY. The sound was state-of-the-art.
Everyone from the club showed up an hour before noon. The line was around the block. The Ziegfield was the only theater in New York showing the film. It had won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May. This was the first day, first screening. None of us had to be anywhere else in the world but here. Whenever someone asked why we were waiting, they disconnected with their day and bought a ticket. We had orchestra seats.
It was a sell-out and disappointed film buffs were begging for tickets at any price. No one was selling. The thousand-strong audience filed into the West 54th Street theater with pride. This was where we were meant to be. Other friends were in the crowd.
We bullied our way to the center of the seating. No one with a hat was allowed in front of us. No Afros too. At noon the lights dimmed to a semi-darkness. None of us were ready for what came next.
A jungle filled the screen and the repeating whoop of helicopters passing overhead strobed over the sound system.
Dust and fire.
The young boy next to me ducked, as if the rotor blade might slice off his head and then a byzantine strum of a guitar followed by chimes. The predominantly male audience gasped with recognition.
THE END by the Doors.
A man’s face upside down overlapped with carnage.
A hundred matches ignited throughout the theater. Marijuana smoke clouded the air. This was genius. 153 minutes later I walked into the steamy afternoon with a better understanding about why Dennis Halley was so vehement about my not enlisting. APOCALYPSE NOW was a time machine back ten years.
“Do you think it was really like that?” My friend asked after fending off the next sitting’s questions about the film.
“Yeah.” I really didn’t know, but none of my friends who had been in Vietnam had spoken about the war. Some people told stories, but I figured those that knew didn’t say and those that say don’t really know. Now I had an idea and once more wished that I could have served in Viet-Nam.
Not to serve my country or kill VC, but to witness the spectacle of power and glory humbled by determination. It must have been something and I would gladly have risked my life to have the distinction of being a Viet-Nam veteran. Many men of my age felt the same way. We had missed out on the Big Show.
Like Civil War re-enacters more than a few of them claim to have been overseas with various units and this past month two congressional candidates were caught in these lies by the Press. They7 had been telling war stories to their small town constituencies for years. Everyone believed them. They were no John Kerry. There weren’t even GW Bush. They were Dick Cheney. Neither had been out of the country and that goes for me too.
I fired no M-16. I never danced with hookers at a Saigon Bar. Only go-go dancers in Thailand. Thirty years after the Fall of Saigon. My hair had been shoulder-length on that date. I danced in the streets of Boston with hippie girls. Our side forced the peace on LBJ, Nixon, the silent majority, and the military. I never expected a reward for taking a beating from riot police,but I’m getting old. The Department of Defense has yet to answer my requests for a pacifist pension.
Several years ago I flew over Viet-Nam on a flight back to the States from Thailand.
The country had looked at peace from eight miles high and I stared down at the mountains thinking about grunts humping 100 pounds backpacks up and down the slopes. It was a long way from America.
Back at work in the diamond exchange I told the security guards about my trip. Andy had served one tour in 1968. Army, but out of the motor pool. He had had no wish to end up a dead hero.
“I’ve been writing the Pentagon for a pension.”
“For what?” Andy knew my stance of the war. He felt it was a waste too, but also that we had to stop the reds from taking over the world.
“For all the years I protested against the war. Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NVA is gonna win.” The chant had served as a slogan at demonstrations throughout the USA.
“Fuck that. You traitors will get nothing.” Andy spat out these words. The Brooklyn native was right-wing. His 2012 choice for president was the feisty Alaskan Sarah Palin. Like my father he considers me a commie.
“And you deserve nothing. I landed in Saigon at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Bullets were smacking into the charter jet and the sergeants yelled at us to take shelter. I spent the first three days in a trench praying for a truce. Mortar rounds landed ten feet from our shelter. I stayed one tour and got the fuck out. I don’t get a pension for it, so why should some long hair peace-nik.”
“Hey, the Feds give money to everyone. Why not me?”
“But you were never in Vietnam?”
“No, but I was in Cambodia.”
“You served in Cambodia?” Andy didn’t figure me for Army and he was right.
“No, I visited Phnom Penh and Laos too.” Both countries were next to Thailand. Thousands of farangs travel to the borders for a visa renewal. I thought about Dennis Halley’s dead friend. He was one of thousands that didn’t come back to the States.
“Have cold beer.”
“A luxury.” Andy wasn’t a drinker, but he liked cold beer. It goes good with ice in the jungle. 95 in the shade and sweat pouring from every pore.
“You got that right.” I saluted the retired cop as a fellow veteran although not of the war, but the times.
“Hippie scumbag.” He gave the finger.
“Baby-killer.” I didn’t mean nothing by it and neither did Andy.
My fingers split into a vee.
The gesture had many meanings.
Fuck the French to the English archers at Agincourt, since the frogs lopped off prisoners fingers to prevent their return to the killing ranks.
Churchill had transformed the vee into a sign for victory.
I remained true to the 60s.
“And love.” Andy returned the gesture, for war was a young man’s game made dead serious by the decisions of distant old men and like everyone else who lived through those times we were glad to be sucking air into our lungs.
Here there and everywhere.