Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Twelve: The Edge of the Abyss

There is a chapter eleven but, after re-reading it I have decided that the, at the time of the story, highly classified information in it may still be classified and sensitive.  Putting this memoir up for consumption for free makes me risk averse.


I had arrived in Saigon around Thanksgiving of 1966. Fairly soon after reaching anything one could call a normal routine I had begun to slip unknowingly into a psychological morass. More accurately, “I” was slipping into an abyss, and as weeks went by, it got worse. “I” went to work. “I” did what seemed to need to be done to keep people from yelling at me. “I” walked. “I” talked. “I” ate. “I” drank. “I” slept. “I” even seemed to make some new friends. But “I” wasn’t really there. The “I” doing all those apparently necessary and normal things was an exoskeleton. The real “I” was inside that exoskeleton and was receding into it rapidly. The activities, events and friends were like nearly-seen shadows with some substance, but shadows nevertheless.

I was going to read enough in later years to figure out that I had been in the depths of a classic and profound depression. But at the point of its happening, that reading hadn’t happened yet. Therefore didn’t know what the problem was, or if there even was a problem. I just felt dislocated and strange and semi-present. I kept going but it was as if the part that was going was a different entity. That entity was not only a different person. That entity was a completely different sort of thing. That different sort of thing seemed a mere one click on the dial away from profound and total unconsciousness. One or two clicks more and everything would cease to be conscious reality at all. And “nothing” was the only “thing” that seemed to be worthwhile. “Everything else” was just too overwhelmingly worthless.

Somewhere deep within that exoskeleton my real being might still have existed; I didn’t know; but if it did still exist it was gradually receding. And that being – that “me” that might have still been there - would periodically point out that if “I” didn’t do something, the result was going to be oblivion. That being constantly barraged me with “this is not good” statements uttered with a sort of disapproving clucking of its tongue. And I would say “Fine. It’s not good. Don’t think I’m doing this for fun. What do you suggest that I/we do?” Then it would say, “I don’t know. Just do something - maybe anything.” Then I would say, “What does that mean?” Then it would say, “I just don’t know.”

So I worked at pretending to be an intelligence officer. I pretended to live on Toy Ngoc Hau. In early pre-dawn mornings I walked to the Officers’ Club. On the way I walked beside the open ditches that smelled like a mixture of raspberries and urine. I sat in the dark, closed bar and played the jukebox before going to breakfast. I listened to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “If You’re Going to San Francisco”. I bought food from the steam table that served breakfast. One morning, I even laughed at a request made by the flight suited Major in front of me in line, who ordered corn beef hash by saying “I’d like a couple scoops of that Pard with a couple of eggs.”

The “Pard” was corn beef hash.

I may have appeared all right. But I was close to the edge. More accurately, I was close to a lot of edges.

Finally I did something. I spent some of the money I had been not spending. I bought a Sansui stereo amplifier. I bought a Gerard turntable. I bought a Sony reel to reel stereo tape recorder. I bought some 33-RPM records. The evening that I got all those components assembled was the beginning of my return from the edge. The first song on the first album that I put on the turntable was “Do You Believe in Magic”. When the music started, something lifted from me and departed. The effect of that song was as magical as the effect coca cola always had on my legendary hangovers.

The exoskeleton was turning out to be more like a chrysalis. After the “something” had departed, the rest of me began to re-emerge.

But it had been a close call.

How close a call can be illustrated by my near loss of believing that I had ever been anywhere else or had ever been in any other circumstances.

As I had begun to sink into the morass, I had found it necessary to withdraw from having feelings and had needed to deal with vestiges of feelings from which I had not been able to withdraw very carefully. The thought process that had flashed forth during the captain Cochon incident, (I was thousands of miles away from 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) had become a major influence on me. It had become the portal to the abyss. I had needed to keep it out of my conscious thoughts as much as possible. I had needed to pretend that it didn’t affect me. I had needed to ignore the calendar. I had needed to be, as much as I could possibly make it be, only in existence “here”. I had needed, as much as possible not to have had another existence “there”. I had needed not to think about ever going anywhere else. These needs had been the only “something” that I had been able to figure out to do when that vestige of me would say, “Just do something - maybe anything”. As the chrysalis began to open, I began to hear a whisper. It pointed out that I had the right to think of a life after Saigon. It pointed out that I had the need to think of other places and times. It pointed out that happiness could come from planning a future. It pointed out that the future could start soon, because I had been in Vietnam long enough to sign up for a rest and recreation trip. The acceptance of that possibility made the process back from the edge, which had started with the songs of the Lovin’ Spoonful, accelerate. I realized that I could meet Ruth in Hawaii. I realized that I could immediately begin banishing the nightmare that I had allowed Captain Cochon to foist on me. I realized that I could be proactive. I realized that I could actually live, and breathe, and think, and act, normally. I realized that the circumstances I was in were transitory.

As obvious as all of that would have sounded to anyone to whom I might have confided it, if I had had anyone to whom I could have confided it, and as easy as that obviousness would have made those realizations seem to have been, they were heart wrenchingly difficult.

In downtown Saigon, at the USO there was a telephone from which it was possible to call the United States. It wasn’t cheap. A reservation was needed several weeks in advance. But that phone could be a brief transport to another world.

Several weeks had passed since I had made my phone call reservation. I was at the USO. I had made an appointment with my family – Ruth and Noel, and Joe were living with my parents – via letter. I wrote that letter immediately after I had realized what it was that the whisper was saying to me.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.

Someone answered.

It was my mother.

I had expected Ruth, but my mother was the one who answered.

Talking on that phone was like talking with a siren. It was almost possible to see a sine curve in front of your face as the person on the other end spoke to you. Their voice started out as a low rumble and increased in pitch until, at the apparent peak of the sine curve, the person was talking in a normal voice. Then it tailed off to the rumble on the other end.

Those peaks of the sine curve were like talking to someone.

The rest was like trying to interpret the words of a retarded robot.

After my mother, Ruth came on.

I told her what I wanted to do.

I wanted to meet her in Honolulu during the first week in October.

The week after that, the week I would return to Saigon after being with her in Hawaii, would mark the point at which I would have less than six weeks to go.

I would be less than six weeks from my DEROS.

I could occupy most of my time with out- processing.

I could return to living at the Officers’ Club.

I could visualize actually getting through those less than six weeks.

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