In Saigon, in 1967, the memory of Bob’s saying had served two functions.
First it had provided a light hearted rational for dealing with a deadly serious problem. Even with the whisper, even with the opening of the chrysalis, I had remained on the slippery precipice of the edge. I had slipped over the edge once. I was back above edge, but barely. Thrusting myself into the middle of the “wife” part of “anything I cared about, my wife, my two sons, my mother and father and two sisters and various old girl friends, fraternity brothers, teachers and friends”, and doing it in a place like Hawaii, and then needing to return to Captain Cochon’s reality struck me as a high risk proposition. Doing it, because it was the bidding of the whisper, seemed mandatory. Doing it, because it seemed sensible, seemed rational. Doing it, because it seemed fun, seemed inevitable. But I was overwhelmed with the implication of my equally mandatory, rational and inevitable return after seven days.
Bob’s saying, unquestionably funny, was also philosophical enough to be a potential touchstone for me to deal with the inevitable battle with depression after I had returned with six weeks still to go.
So I met Ruth in Hawaii. She had taken care of all the arrangements. All I had to do was show up. As I walked through the door of the lodging facility and saw her for the first time in eleven months I thought it was odd. She was so blond. She was so tall. I hadn’t realized how my template of what a woman looked like had changed after almost a year in Vietnam. And then she spoke. “Oh, you’re really here.” I had forgotten that women could speak American accented English. Yes, I was there. But apparently I was also elsewhere. As soon as I saw her, heard her and had my arms around her I began to have an overwhelming desire to not be there.
If I could have jumped on the next plane for Saigon I would have done it. I think I must have been experiencing what a horse that has been saved from a burning barn feels.
There was no reason to it, and it took a day to completely banish it.
But it was banished.
We spent the next seven days doing things barely on the something side of nothing. Time just passed. There was no schedule. We had never eaten mahi mahi. We ate mahi mahi. We had never had real fresh pineapple. We ate real fresh pineapple. We swam in the waves in front of the old beachfront hotels and drank in their bars. We drove around the island one day and discovered that there were almost no restaurants outside of Honolulu. We got up really late every morning after going to bed really late every night.
And then it was over.
Crying had passed from my emotionscape with the passing of early adolescence. Where tears had once been embarrassingly frequent there had become instead a naturally stoic replacement. The only exception to that had been at my grandmother’s funeral. She was my mother’s mother. She had lived with us for the last eleven years of her life after her husband, my grandfather “Bobby” had died. Grammy had been one of my best friends, and one of the best friends of most of my high school and college friends. She had died in her sleep one night while I was away at my first duty assignment in the Air Force. Ruth had lived with my parents while I was at Officer Training School and immediately after OTS because she was soon to have our first child. Grammy had lived long enough to see her first grandchild before she died. My mother felt that she had stayed around longer than she would have had it not been for that imminent birth. I had been able to get emergency leave to go home for the funeral. My friends and I had a wake for my grandmother the night before the funeral.
My friends had really loved Grammy, perhaps almost as much as I had.
The wake was an interminable celebration of the fact the she had existed. Quite a lot of Irish and Scotch whisky were consumed in that celebration.
The funeral was a requiem mass at Madeleine. At the end of the mass all of us in attendance filed past the coffin. It was the custom, apparently, to have coffins open for the payment of last respects at Catholic funerals, because Grammy’s was open. I was all right until Ruth and I got in the car and I started driving home. Suddenly from nowhere I was overwhelmed with great gut wrenching sobs that I couldn’t stop.
As I lay on the bed in Honolulu in October of 1967, knowing that in no time at all I was going to be back in Saigon, and at the point of that realization with my wife still in my arms I couldn’t help but remember that funeral as I tried to control the uncontrollable primal sobs that were overwhelming me.
As I lay there with my arms around Ruth - helplessly sunk in despair - I seriously thought about Canada. I had about twenty-four hours to make a break for it.
I had civilian clothes.
I could catch a plane for Vancouver from Honolulu and Ruth and Noel and Joe could catch up with me a few days later from Portland.
I could start a new life.
I had a college degree.
I could get a job.
Canadians were sympathetic, I had heard, to Americans who wanted to avoid or wanted out of the war.
t seemed very real to me as, not an option, but as a course of action.
I have always liked to think that honor had something to do with the fact that I got back on the plane to Saigon the next day instead. Honor has a burnishing effect on the patina of one’s self image. But, when I really faced the facts surrounding my return to duty rather than escaping to Canada I knew that the real reason for my return was the strength that something someone had once said to me in Quincy Washington had given to me.
So much for honor, I had thought.
Getting off the plane at Ton Son Nhut, squinting into the blinding glare of an early afternoon Saigon sun, which immediately turned my shirt to sweaty slime, I was nearly pitched back into the abyss. But as I walked to the hootch to return to work, to return to the “war effort”, with the smell of urine and raspberries wafting about me, I stayed on my side of sanity. I even had to laugh.
I clearly saw Bob saying to me across the miles and years,
“My God, Noel. I could pick fly shit out of pepper for five weeks.”