Pay Attention Mother F*ckers

Tonight was one of those nights. I had friends over, and some of them came from the experience that is seared into my mind. No shit. We have so many lessons to teach and no one is listening. I am talking about Vietnam and no one really understands it. One comments about what they saw on the news. Another reported that she was asked to volunteer, about what she had no clue what she was volunteering for. She found herself at Travis AFB climbing on C-141 to be assigned a baby to hold until they could be taken to San Francisco where a foster family would pick them up. It is probably one of the most important stories not told about the Vietnam war and its aftermath (this was the fall of Saigon in 1975). Those of us who fought it and experienced it are getting old and tired.

The things I know about that war could fill many many books and yet, it is a story that the young think is dated and ancient history. It is not. It is the lessons that make us human and is the most important time in many of our lives. One guest at our dinner party asked why people don’t talked more about their war experiences, I tried to explain that those of us who have been there know there is no way to explain it in way someone not there could understand. You only relate to others who have been there. I live in a little community where the Vietnam War is an minor hiccup in history. But we are a tight little community, and one guest said one of our friends, Larry Lighty, was having a hard time adjusting in his old age, and dementia was setting in. Larry was one of those guys that people thought was a wonderful guy, but they had no idea where he had been. I know where Larry Lighty had been.

Larry was a Thud driver, and a wild weasel. Look it up. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war for us flyers and about half did not come home. They did the job. Nobody knows that around here but me. One time a friend said he listened to a conversation Larry and I had and it sounded like a foreign language. Yep, they will never, never understand. It was a different world and it did really have a different language. It was a reality and place I simply cannot take you to. You had to be there. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans know what I mean. So as Larry goes off into the fog of old age and death, I will be there to give him a hug and say, “Larry, I know where you have been, and you are my hero.” Somebody has to remember where we went way back then and what it cost us. We have to remember it because we need to understand what we may ask of the next generation.

I retold the story of my bringing home a POW and the many emotions that were ricocheting around the war, even for POWs. I told the human story of the amazing love for them, my own awe because they faced my nightmare of being held captive and staying true to their oath when many knew the war was wrong. I know this: I have an insight into the humane experience that I wish I could communicate, but I know it is a fool’s errand. You simply won’t get it. You simply won’t understand, yet I know something about human suffering, about war, about lulling ourselves into a false reality, that somehow has to be transmitted, except it isn’t. I was with friends who had lived through that time and appreciated what all of us brought to the table. Sadly it is a dying wisdom that few either appreciate or recognize for its utility today.

I wrote a blog way back when about Fleet Week in San Fransisco, and a couple of Navy enlisted men I ran into in a bar. They knew instinctively. I had been there. It is a common experience from those who meet those who know. One was guilty about being labeled a hero because he had never seen combat. He knew I had. It was visceral. It is a common feeling out there these days where those who don’t know thank you for your service. Fuck you. Serve and figure it out. It cost us so much more than you will ever know (or that we knew then) whether we saw combat or not.

For this young man the guilt at being labeled a hero, although he never saw combat, was too much. He tore off his medals and handed them to me. I handed them right back and got right in his face. HE WAS SERVING, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT TOMORROW WILL BRING, HE WAS THERE FOR THE REST OF US. AND THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS. AND YOU PAY A PRICE FOR THAT. Firemen and policemen know exactly what I am talking about. There is a wisdom in that service, that just does not get through to the rest of the human race who have not stepped up.

That is the hero part that nobody gets. It is not whether you were shot at or not, but that you are there if called on. You have no clue how you will measure up, but you showed up. It is not about whether you got killed heroically or in a minor accident. Of course none of us knows if we will stand up to the hero’s we admire, but that is not the point. We are still standing point anyway. We will be there if need be. If it comes our way, well at least we showed up. That is the real hero thing, that we understood that it was important to be on the wall and there is a cost to that that few understand.

This blog is about the cost and what we who bear that cost learned. That is the lesson that Vietnam should be for the whole nation, and yet we ignore it. Old news. Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with PTSD may remind us, but the nation looks the other way. It is a lesson seared into my soul, and there are few people I can talk to that understand it. It is the one my friend talked about being a high school student and asking to volunteer, and ending up holding a baby given up as Saigon was falling, to a world they did not know, and maybe never to be reunited with their family. It is such a profound moment in human experience, and we cannot put a label on it. It says something so profound about the human experience and the incredible suffering in war.

I am not much longer for this world. I learned and experienced some amazing things when this country went through its Vietnam experience. If we had learned those lessons, about human sacrifice, the cost of human suffering, torture, POWs, death and destruction, love, and the human experience, then we would have had a glimpse into the human soul that should unite all of us in this struggle we call the human experience. Instead, I sit on a bar stool in the middle of nowhere, and somebody looks at me and knows I know. That’s it. And sooner rather than later I will no longer be on this planet and for the most part most people don’t give a shit what I learned and know. But for a moment, on that bar stool, or with a friend suffering the fog of dementia, I know, they know, and they know I know. And I weep that what we know is being lost. Just a couple of old guys/gals, sipping whatever, passing in the night. It’s your loss.

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