The setting is the Mensa Annual Gathering of June, 1984, in Washington D.C.
"Hey, a bunch of us are going over to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You were in Nam? Weren't you? Why don't you come along?"
"I'm sorry; I can't."
"Why, there is nothing else going on for the next three hours. They built this thing for people like you and me. Come on, you ought to see it."
"You don't understand. It's not that I don't want to see it. I've tried three times. Its that I'm not physically able to see it. I start over to it and when I get near I start crying and I just can't go any further."
"Do you know why this is happening?"
"Yes, but its a long story and you have someplace to go right now."
"We have been friends too long for me not to want to hear this. I can see the the memorial tomorrow."
"OK but you may not want to see it after this one."
***It was just another typical morning in Limbo. Some of the guys called it Hell but I figured Limbo was more accurate, as the pain we felt came most often from waiting for something bad to happen (a not unreasonable expectation under the prevailing situation), not from the occurrence itself. We also had to contend with a mixture of longing and a boredom that was almost physical in nature, this brought on by being forced to spend part of our lives 7000 miles from "The World" as we knew it.
But I still had to go to work, Limbo or not. Today would start a job that would have me fly from Saigon to Hong Kong, pick up two AWOL sailors and return them to their command in the Mekong delta. Not a bad deal in that it would get me a day in "near" civilization if not "The World" and best of all I wouldn't be "here" for a while. Another nice touch was I could get out of that "gawd-awful green" Armed Forces Police uniform and wear my own Navy uniform for the duration of the trip.
You see, a Navy uniform has style and tradition and you can tell a lot about the sailor by it. You can tell his rank, his job, his years in service. If he has been in long enough you can even tell if he stayed out of trouble or at least whether he got caught. The A.F.P. uniform, on the other hand, was olive drab and just said "Armed Forces Police."
It could be worn by a man with 6 months to 25 years in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force, holding any rank from E-1 to 0-4. It also got about as much love and respect as a dog catcher gets from the owner of an unlicensed pooch.
But as usual I stray a bit from the story. Back to Hong Kong. I found my two errant swabbies at Shore Patrol Headquarters and after a few minutes conversation felt secure in the assumption that they were more misguided/frightened teenagers than felons trying to shirk their duty to the "Fatherland." We caught the first available plane back to Saigon and on the way I made one of the hardest mistakes of my life. I sat between them while these two new friends, who had met the night before in a cell in Hong Kong, told each other their life stories. They went from being my charges to being two young men who had never done anything really wrong in their lives.
When we got back to Saigon we caught a PT boat heading down the river toward their command, which took us as far as a barracks barge called the "Bin Wa." At this point we caught a ride with a group of five "PBR's" (very fast 20 foot fiberglass boats used to patrol small rivers) that were heading for our destination. Having some experience with the river, I asked to ride in the last boat as it seemed least likely to be attacked. We headed out on what looked like a nice afternoon ride on the river.
After a while I went forward to the bow of the boat to watch the scenery, as the information we had received at the "Bin Wa" was that the area we would pass through was secure. My two charges weren't as confident of the situation and choose to stay as close as they could to the coxswain, who was in the pilot house at the back of the boat, the pilot house being the only armored area on the boat and that had armor only on the front and both sides.
Suddenly I heard the sound made famous in war movies and TV of a mortar round being fired and coming down in my vicinity. I wish I could say I reacted perfectly, but the truth is I stood there and did nothing at all. The shell hit, the boat blew up and I was thrown several meters forward into the river. I don't think I blacked out from the impact but if I did the water revived me instantly and I started swimming under water toward what I thought was the "safe" side of the river. Bad guess, I surfaced near the shore about 12 meters from a mortar crew that was frantically trying to re-aim and fire another round. I took a deep breath and started back across the river under water. When I came up for air I was spotted and fished out of the river by one of the other PBR's that had come back to see what had happened. They also spotted the mortar crew and opened up on them with a 50 caliber machine gun, killing some and scaring off the rest. It was obviously not a regular VC unit. It was probably staged by some locals recruited to keep our lives from getting too sedentary.
Against all odds and contrary to what my fearless leaders had taught me, the shell had landed in the back of the last boat in the line, not the first boat as we would expect. Apparently the VC didn't read the same book or possibly they were not very good at their job, which would lend credence to the idea that they were not regular troops.
The point here is that the coxswain and my two prisoners were blown to bits when the shell landed. The armor they were depending on had actually saved my life as the shell had fallen on their side of it, not mine. I received a small shrapnel cut in my left leg and went back to work the next day.
The part that is hardest when I recall it is the future awaiting those two young men back in "The World" — college, girl friends, the family business, a house, a car, a dog, really good pizza — and the fact that they were victims of a world that they would not have the time to change.
I never saw any part of those two men after the mortar round fell. The next day I had to fill out some paperwork for the Navy, but that was done on autopilot and I've tried for a lot of years to not think about them.
If I go to that memorial, there on a certain section of wall that relates to a date in 1972, a date I can't forget, will be the names of two men whose only real crime was fear of a meaningless death. Two men that I delivered to their executions. If I go and see those names, they will be truly dead. I will have to accept it and I don't know if I can live with that pain.
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