VNfightingtowerI’ve heard it said that every war fades from memory until a soldier is left with just a few highlights to recall, and those strangely happy.  I think, instead, it’s the souvenirs we lose that make a war vanish.  Until the only remaining physical marker of a war is you and me.  Then we die and take war’s memory with us, and what ought to be remembered and told to others vanishes with us.

We, you and I, ought to do better than that.

The first souvenir I lost after coming home from Vietnam was a 20 piastre piece.  You remember it – gunmetal gray, about the size of a quarter and no heft to it.  I had carried the coin in my pocket for a long while after the war.  Can’t say why.  One day in California I used it in a handful of change to buy an ice cone from a street vendor.

When I realized what I’d done, I went back to the vendor to buy it back for whatever price he wanted.  But it was gone, he said, when he made change for another ice cream eater.

I still have a 20-p coin somewhere around the house.  But it isn’t that coin.  It had gone on my last patrols with me and had some good luck attached to it.  All these years later, I still miss it.

Next, I lost my combat wristwatch.  Stolen in London.  Remember how you’d slide the watchband through the pencil loop on your jungle fatigue blouse and carry the watch upside down and face toward you so it wouldn’t flash in the sun and give you away but still be there, clean and safe, to read?

I’d bought that watch for $100 – big money in those days – at a PX in Binh Hoa the day before the Army shipped me into the Central Highlands.  I’d chosen that watch because it was water- and mud-proof and self-winding.  Reliable.  I also liked it because the face was perfectly square when war seemed to me to have no shape or perfection at all.

The watch and I survived the war together.  I bet there’s a thief in London who’s still wearing that watch.  Damn him.

The last souvenir I lost was a flechette.  That’s a miniature arrow about an inch long, in steel.  Artillery  fired thousands of those things as a last-ditch effort when the enemy was coming through the wire.  I stuck one in my jungle hat like fishermen stick hooks in their fishing hats.

I’d found it in the dirt outside a firebase after a fight.  It wasn’t my fight.  I just found the flechette there.  Your combat luck runs down the longer you stay in war and you’re never sure how much you have left to take the risks you have to take.  Finding a flechette you didn’t have to fire yourself to stay alive replenishes your supply of luck.  Just a little, sure, but any extra luck is extra luck.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened a box in the closet that I hadn’t opened in 10 years.  I pulled out that old jungle hat.  The flechette was gone.  Vanished.  As though old steel can dissolve into air.  Maybe it can.

What’s left after all these small losses?  Me.  I’m not much of a souvenir.  But I can remember my war.  If you weren’t there, I’ll tell you about it.  I want you to hear about it.  Because I don’t want you to have to do what I did.

I don’t want you, one day, to tot up all your vanished war souvenirs and say to yourself, Why didn’t I help us all find a better way than war?

Because that is what you will ask yourself.  Because the last souvenir will never vanish – your regret.

 

Image:  Fighting tower, LZ Action, Walker Area of Operations, Central Highlands, Vietnam, 1969.  (Author’s photo.)

(c) 2015 Steven Hardesty

http://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/VNfightingtower-947x1024.bmphttp://www.forgottenwarstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/VNfightingtower-150x150.bmpstevenhardestyOp-Edcoming home,veteran,vietnam warI've heard it said that every war fades from memory until a soldier is left with just a few highlights to recall, and those strangely happy.  I think, instead, it's the souvenirs we lose that make a war vanish.  Until the only remaining physical marker of a war is...Recovering forgotten and overlooked military history