I was sitting in Starbucks writing poetry into Seamus O’Grady’s character, making him worthy of Ophelia Hawkins’ love. Brooklyn had just brewed a cup of tea; she knows I prefer a ceramic cup.
My friend Vic was there. “Dr. Joe, Veterans Day is coming; have a happy one,” he remarked.
“I don’t see how that’s possible considering what it took to become a veteran,” I said. “Although, there was the time a pilot of a 707 moved me from coach to first class for wearing the uniform. I sat right next to Ann-Margret. You don’t forget something like that.”
He pulled up a chair and said, “Tell me about Ann-Margret.”
There wasn’t much to tell, even though the singer/actress/dancer and I spoke incessantly during the flight. I was en route from New York to L.A., heading to Vietnam.
“What was it like to fly to Vietnam?” Vic asked.
From L.A. we took a bus to Norton Air Force Base. We drove into the gate; there were students protesting the war, urging us not to go. I read their signs. I felt queasy. As we crossed the tarmac toward the aircraft sitting on a dark runway, a nun handed each Marine a rosary. “God bless you and bring you home safely,” she said. What a remarkable woman she must have been to do that.
I was commanding the contingent of Marines going over and was the last to board. As our eyes met, it was clear she and I both knew that God would not return all safely. “God speed, Lieutenant!” She handed me the rosary and began to cry. That was the first time I knew fear.
Nonetheless, we left with high spirits to Vietnam. It was a purpose that gives credence to the old adage that war is only for young men.
I sat between two seasoned sergeants; opened a new journal, titled it 1970 and recorded my first thought, an aberration of the 23rd Psalm. “Jan. 10, 1970; …though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…and I am the meanest mother in the valley.” Regardless, I could not mitigate the fear.
As we reached altitude a chorus of song broke out, “Over there, over there, send the word to beware over there, the Yanks are coming…” Those who did not sing were veterans and had been there before. The veterans sat silently, collecting their thoughts. My fear was what they knew was laying in wait for us. I wrote, “Why do they hide their fears”? It was unsettling. The realization of going to war would soon surface and this time it wouldn’t be in a John Wayne movie.
The Marines continued to sing, “Over the seas, let’s go men, we’re shoving right off, again. Nobody knows where or when, we’ll ever return again…”
I wrote, “When would the realization of war hit these guys?” As we entered Vietnam airspace, it did. The pilot announced, “We are taking evasive action to avoid hostile fire.” All stretched for the windows, the countryside appeared black, dotted by periodic, distant red flashes.
As we landed I took a deep breath, clutched my rosary and said, “Sergeant, prepare the men.” We all looked to the veterans.
I was last to leave the plane. I remember the tears in the flight attendants’ eyes. Many of the boys they brought would not return.
“I’ll be seeing you,” I said. I stepped off the plane and went to war.
It’s a veteran’s story. Every vet has one. Talk to a vet on Veterans Day; it’s all you can really do.
“Dr. Joe, what’s your memory of Ann-Margret?” Vic asked.
I told him, “As I left that plane, she kissed me on the cheek.”
“No way,” he said.
I smiled and pointed to my cheek. “Right here.”
You don’t forget something like that.