The Last Vietnam Veteran Remembers…
The last uniformed veteran of World War I, a British woman, died this month. The last combat veteran, a British sailor, died last year in Australia. The last American veteran, an ambulance driver, died last year as well. All three reached age 110. She worked in a Royal Air Force canteen in England and remembered her war as a “good time,” filled with handsome pilots and excitement. The sailor, whose Royal Navy battleship fought a zeppelin, recalled his war as “tough.” What will the last Vietnam veterans remember at age 110, with great-grandchildren bouncing on their knees and asking for stories about that war? Our war.
If those last Vietnam vets are anything like me, I suspect they won’t want to tell them anything about the war until they draw a bead on other things first. Like milk in glass bottles that must be shaken to mix in the cream. Tin cans to be washed before opening to clean off the radiation dust from nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Coonskin caps with long tails and Davy Crockett cap rifles. Being let loose from the house in the morning with a bicycle and not expected home until dinner, free – and safe – to be a kid all those wonderful hours.
Like saluting the flag each morning in elementary school with an arm and hand thrown out, palm up, in that antique salute Hitler stole. Neighbor parents with mysterious blue numbers tattooed on their forearms. Being taught to huddle under a school desk, bracing ourselves for incoming Russian atomic bombs. The family riding in the car just to ride in the car, and because there was no air conditioner at home. Carhops on roller skates. Ice cream cones dipped in chocolate. Drive-in movies and sometimes a girl to go with them, a girl in a poodle skirt with a circle pin on her sweater.
Jalopies on Main Street and one summer just enough money to race an old car on dirt tracks. And then, summer done and time to return to school, smash it up in a floodlit destruction derby. Hunting and fishing by a cold lake in the tang of tall pines. Surfing off a long, white beach.
They’ll remember it was a time of strange fears. The constant menace of nuclear war made us think of a day when the family might have to huddle in a bunker dug into the backyard. We shared a general unease that the world might end, much too soon for our young lives. But also a powerful clarity about the rightness and decency of America.
Then the long journey to war. Boot camp and too much of it. Advanced Infantry Training and, truthfully, too little of it. I’ll remember my first startled moment seeing a strange and beautiful but pock-marked land from the air – rice-green around the bomb craters, with sturdy farm children leading massive water buffalo along a dirt path. Streaks of yellow and red of bright birds zipping across the jungle canopy. A baby on a woven bamboo mat beside its mother’s feet as she sews camouflage patches on my fatigue jacket. A cold beer from the vendor outside the shop. And this brief moment in the shade away from a beating sun, this moment of peace.
Steaks sizzling on a grill made from a fifty gallon oil drum there on a knob of hill surrounded by artillery pieces, all facing out into the sweep of forest. A breeze bringing a blessed chill at sunset as the sky runs all over with oozing bronze. The grand feeling of standing in clean, dry clothes after a long, long hump through the boonies.
The smell of canvas and web gear, aluminum and jet fuel at a safe thousand feet up in the air in a whoop-whoop-whoopingHuey. Watching from up there the awful beauty of artillery rounds impacting the Earth, throwing up silent mushrooms of brown and white. Seeing the dust and smoke blow away in long streamers over a river glittering black.
Coming home! Coming home safe. Grateful to be alive. And grateful now to bounce great-grandchildren on our knees.
Yes! That’s what I suspect the 110-year old Vietnam vets will remember. We’ll tell great-grandchildren about some good times and some tough times. But, in the long line of men and women who stood up in defense of this country, those great-grandchildren will see us standing right there, among them. Proud. Unbroken. And there is nothing more about Vietnam, our war, we really need to say.
(c) 2012 Steven Hardestyhttp://www.forgottenwarstories.com/2014/03/01/the-last-vietnam-veteran-remembers/http://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/VietnamSMsmall3.jpghttp://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/VietnamSMsmall3.jpgOp-Edveteran,vietnam warThe last uniformed veteran of World War I, a British woman, died this month. The last combat veteran, a British sailor, died last year in Australia. The last American veteran, an ambulance driver, died last year as well. All three reached age 110. She worked in a Royal Air...stevenhardestySteven Hardestyforgottenwarstories@gmail.comAdministratorForgotten War Stories