A lawless invincibility permeated the atmosphere. It was like being out in a Wild West town like Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880. That’s the feeling I got. But it was a Tombstone that was stoned and fully armed. We were the cowboys in town, where even a medical lab technician like myself was locked and loaded. Only thing was, we had M-14’s and M-16’s instead of Colt 45’s and Winchester 30-30’s.
And many of us relished the freedom at first. Most of us were a year or so out of high school, thrown out of those rigid classrooms taught by Victorian spinsters, their long hair severely pulled into a bun. We were extracted from high schools and homes that thoroughly supported corporal punishment. “You get swats at school, you get swats from me,” said most every father to their sons.
The discipline was demanding and yielded an artificially quiet classroom, despite the internal rumblings in the groins of those red-blooded American teenagers. Teens who yearned for freedom to explore, teens who could not “get no satisfaction” from the plastic play they were asked to audition for by their teachers, parents, sheriffs, and mayors.
They wanted freedom. In thousands of classrooms across America, they were demanding freedom. But they were just too young and inexperienced to know this truth: Better be careful what you ask for.
Because your Uncle Sam has just the answer. You want freedom? Okay. How about I send you to a place where you can do just about anything you want to do. No fathers leaning on you to be someone you don’t want to be. No sheriffs poking a flashlight into your car, breaking up a nice session with your girlfriend. No society dictating how you should look, walk, or talk. Yes, you’ll miss your mom, but you’ll get over it in a little while because you’ll be free.
I mean total liberty to drink all the beer and whiskey you want to drink without fear of getting caught; all the marijuana you want to smoke. What? Never seen a joint before? That’ll come soon enough. And you will have all the human beings you want to kill. And you’ll have all the girls you want to copulate with. What if I send you to a place where no one in authority will correct you about your morals, about what is right or wrong for you.
You just do a good job, and then you will have a license to do just about anything you desire. You want to run naked through a house of ill repute at two in the afternoon, chasing oriental girls clothed only in sheer pink lingerie? That can be arranged. You want to be able to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes, seemingly straight out of the carton, shipped directly from the States, except after pulling the red cellophane ribbon and opening the pack, you realize that they have a funny texture to them and instead of being clipped straight across at the end you light, they are tapered, twisted at the end. The filter end is intact. You light it up, and then you will smile because for two dollars, you have just purchased twenty filtered marijuana cigarettes.
Never fear. As your Uncle Sam, I’ll make it that you will never run out of these sophisticated joints because I will pay you $240 a month, enough to buy 120 packs of them. How is that for freedom? Nobody is going to bust you here because nobody really gives a damn about you here. Just as long as you do your job.
And don’t worry about the sex. You’ll get plenty where I am sending you. You see, these wars take a toll economically on people. To eat and get by they will sell their daughters. They will work in bars and clubs, which are fronts for whorehouses, and they will be waiting for young men with money, and they will lie in wait for you young bucks panting after the scent of easy virtue–young bucks who think that they are now finally free. I’ll make it real easy for all who want to be free from the constraints of society’s codes of conduct.
How easy will I make it? How about this little dream. They let you and your buddy out on the corner, and you light up a “Kent,” and you saunter down to the middle of the block, and you go into this large, smoke filled dance hall. Scores of pretty Vietnamese girls are all over the place. And when I say “girls,” I mean girls–not women. Don’t worry. They’ll get prettier each month you stay in country. It’s amazing how that happens. In fact, the girls will actually begin to morph into Anglo-Asian beauties by the time your year is up. Their eyes will begin to look sympathetically upon your angst. In fact they will begin to look like the girls from your very own home town. Don’t worry about it; it’s just a little trick that a lonely brain plays on you the longer you stay here. Very magical, indeed.
And so, you slide over to the bar and get a beer. Three girls approach you, smiling demurely at you. You think you hear one ask, “Dance?” as she reaches, yes, she reaches out to you. You don’t even have to speak first and come up with some stupid pick up line, as if you really knew what you were doing. Is that easy enough for you? You like this kind of freedom? And then you follow her to the dance floor. “Chain of Fools” is screaming and rumbling out the corners of the building, the bass and Aretha trading primordial moans.
Then you notice that the girl has a name tag pinned to her blouse. “Suzy,” it says. Right. And then you notice a curious stamp confirming that she has actually been inspected by a physician and is cleared to work there. You think, Grade A, and at first you’ll think it’s pretty cool, except it’s not very romantic and you can’t really communicate with her as you begin to realize that sex is a great goal, but romance and companionship and someone to kid and laugh with–that’s what really meets your need.
And so it kind of turns you off, but it’s too late now. You are going through with it. The song ends, and I’m sorry to say, so does your little secret dream of having, shall we say, a more substantial romantic tete a tete, as sentimental as that sounds (for you are very old fashioned still). For she now, with a whisper of her porcelain fingers, leads you, much like a calf to the killing floor, to what you have longed for, when you sat there in those boring biology and chemistry classes as you stared at the virgins back home who would not let you be–well, free! Free to do with them whatever you wanted, when you wanted it.
But this oriental princess (I hope I’m not making this too easy; I thought that this was what you wanted), this little Asian girl of leisure, now leads you past the lines of vertical beads and out of the dance hall, down a hall way and into her nest, a windowless room, a bit bigger than the bed, and proceeds easily without moral ambiguity to disrobe. Oh, yes. I know. Too easy. But this is what you wanted. Freedom. Freedom from morals, from laws, from the chains of protocol. You want more freedom? I got more for you here in the land of freedom, Vietnam. After all–isn’t freedom what we are fighting for?
Freedom. Yes, how about those anger issues that have been seething in your heart that you could not express in the States, where you could not actually strike out and smite your fellow man, like those bastards in school that picked on you, that treated you with so much disrespect that you yearned to wreak vengeance on them but couldn’t. Well, just wait, my little nephew, you will get your chance, yes, even you lab techs pull guard duty during Tet, where you’ll be overrun. You won’t be in one of those candy-striped hospitals at Da Nang or Cam Rahn Bay. No, no, no. That would be too sheltered from the fruit of anger, too cloistered by protective squadrons of Air Force jets and semi-permanent installations that would shield and prevent you from the ravishes of war and the revenge that seeps up in your craw as you tend to the fresh, wild wounds of once angry young men. Now sedated, defeated, resigned to their fate, staring off into the distance, vacant-eyed, cold and shivering now, looking into your eyes, wanting you to comfort them, knowing that you probably can’t save them, but maybe you could just…well, love them in the hour of their call to the other side.
Death, the fruit of anger, you’ll see plenty of it. But you will be still too young to realize that the root of murder is hate and its cousin anger. You’ll find out all about it this year though.
During your twelve month baptism of fire, you’ll have plenty of time to freely “run the gamut” and “plumb the depths,” as they say, the depths of the dark emotions of the heart. You’ll be able to see revenge creep up into the upper chest of a medic, making him crazy with hate for the NVA soldier, lying peacefully there with three holes in his chest. You’ll get to see this medic look around and then start pounding that NVA soldier’s face with his fist. Before you judge him, though, keep in mind that the medic lost three patients this morning. In his mind, he’s reeking a justified vengeful justice upon his enemy. Sometimes un-corralled liberty does that to you. Don’t be concerned. You’ll be okay.
Yes, we wanted freedom from the mundane. We got it in a place where all that mattered is surviving one more day. Funny how raw freedom negates civility. And it’s funny how mortars make agnostics cry out to God. And it’s funny how war seldom makes a saint. Well, except that handful who died saving others.
But for most of us who made it back home, we are left with memories that only we can share. Some memories are scenes from a macabre comedy, despite our uncle’s dark sarcasm. But they are for another day, even though you probably wouldn’t believe me if I shared them with you.
Kenneth Wayne Hancock
[The above is a my portrait of the young man in Proverbs 7.]